Sunday, February 18, 2018

Feared More Than Death

Yesterday I celebrated the launch of my latest book, The Portland House. It was a long awaited celebration after the online release of the book on January 23rd. (The publisher wanted lag time to insure that the books made it to me before the launch.)

Now, I've done a ton of these presentations with Dirty Shirt over the past 3.5 years, but I still go into them a bit of a nervous wreck. I've never liked giving speeches or presentations, but as I've been forced into doing them for Dirty Shirt, I've become much better at it. I didn't say more comfortable, but better.

Plus, I'd done the Dirty Shirt spiel a dozen times or more, so could almost recite it in my sleep. But this was a new book and new stories, so I wasn't sure how I'd do.

Before the signing I was tired and nervous. I tried to take a brief nap but it was mostly futile. I did a little yoga (now, there's a picture) and it seemed to help take some of the tension out of my body - always good.

I always use the first 15 minutes of a signing to do a meet and greet. It gets my conversational tone going and sort of serves to warm me up.

So, when I started with my introduction, I was nervous. I thanked a few folks and then gave an intro into the first story. When I started reading, my tempo was choppy and shaky. Within the first minute though, I got my first laugh from the audience.

And everything changed.

There is something about that first laugh, or that first gasp, or that first audience reaction that reminds me that I am okay. It is a reminder that they are listening and genuinely hoping to be entertained. That they are rooting for me. Then, when I get the second and third laughs, I settle in. I'm in the zone and back to breathing natural and reading like I hope to read.

At the end of the last reading, I kind of didn't want it to end - which is totally weird, given my feelings 15 minutes earlier. I do get a bit of a rush by people responding positively to my work. It is humbling and makes me grateful I get to do what I am doing.

To write is a gift, to read and get audience feedback is privilege.

And I am glad I get to do it.

Thank you to each and every one of you who showed up to help me celebrate my work. It meant the world to me.

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Amongst The Shell Casings

With all the pain and hurt of yesterday's high school Valentine's Day massacre, I thought that rather than feed into the rage and sadness that plenty of others are taking care of, I'd share some beauty.

Because, there's nothing beautiful about assault rifles. Mental illness aside, I've never seen an unarmed mentally ill person kill 17 people in a matter of minutes. Maybe I'm missing something, though.

So beauty it is.

Beauty is the 18 month old girl that sits behind us with her mother every Saturday at coffee. She smile melts my heart. Whenever I see such innocence, it restores my faith in humanity - at least momentarily. 

Beauty is serving dinner alongside a few others to 40 adults and children in poverty at a local church. The program is called Coming Together to Get Ahead or CTGA. It is designed to give people opportunities to get training, education, counseling and a hot meal.

Beauty is my wife asking if people could step up and help cover a meal for the Guest House of Milwaukee and getting an immediate response of enough to cover 3 meals. I am convinced that people want to help and are just looking for a conduit to do it through. Changing lives, one meal at a time.

Beauty is a local family I know who have 5 foster kids (8 total kids) and are currently working on adopting 3 of them. Pulling kids out of hopeless situations to help them experience love and safety.

Beauty is my daughter texting me yesterday asking (in her 5 year old voice) "Will you be my balentine?"  Yank my heart out and stomp on it, already.

Beauty is a friend sharing her poetry cards with the world on Random Acts of Poetry and Art (RAPA) on February 20th. She does this on her own dime of her own volition. Solely because she believes in the power of words, art and positivity.

Beauty is a winter sky.

Beauty is hearing my son on WUWM radio every Thursday with his friend Ethan, talking about silly news stories, giving advice to strange questions, etc. Students getting their 60 minutes of fame every week in the name of fun.

Beauty is a number of my author friends donating books to my WLIA Annual Conference silent auction. The money raised from this auction goes to fund student scholarships. With tuitions being off the charts expensive, every little bit helps these kids get through college.

Beauty is hearing an encouraging word about my writing - almost always when I am at a serious point of self-doubt.

Beauty is reading a book like Confessions of a Funeral Director. This author uses his experiences with death to change his perspective on life, living and the "death negative narrative." This book should be required reading for anyone who has dealt with a lot of loss. 

So I would challenge you to find some beautiful moments in every day. A smile from a kid, an encouraging word, a sunset or a great song.

Because we could all use a lot more of it lately.

Blogging off...

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Writing Roundup

A rundown on all things writing related.

Portland House Giveaway

As part of my Portland House book release, I am running a giveaway contest. I ask people to take a photo of them with the book in a unique place, or even just around the house somewhere. Then, on March 17th, I plan to draw two winners from the entries and send them a signed copy of the book.

I ran the contest with Dirty Shirt and had a lot of fun with it. I look at it as a unique way to engage people with the celebration of launching a book as well as getting a chance at a free book. In this day and age, people are all about selfies and pictures from their phones, so it seems like a good match.

To date, I've had 11 entries and suspect I will get a bunch more after the formal launch parties/book signings I'm having in the coming weeks. (Feb. 17th in Waukesha and March 10th in St. Paul, MN.)

Some of the entries have been from sunny beaches, including Florida and California. Others were taken with pet cats and even a goat. I can't wait to see what else comes in as more people get the book.

On a Road Chapbook

In an interesting and unexpected development, my chapbook On a Road was recently accepted for publication by Unsolicited Press. For those who don't know, and it appears more don't know than do, a chapbook is a collection of less than 25 poems.

This one is a series of poems about a road trip to California that I took with a couple of friends in 1984 when I was just 22 years old. It is styled after, and in homage to, Kerouac's novel, On The Road. I don't know much more than the contract that I signed is being reviewed, but it is certainly exciting news on the heels of The Portland House book release.

Reviews

There is a good chance I will have a review from The Shepherd Express newspaper this week. They typically come out on Thursdays, so look for it wherever you find the Express!

There is also a good chance Mary Ann Grossman from the St. Paul Pioneer Press will be reviewing The Portland House in the next couple of weeks. This is huge visibility for me. I also have inquiries out for a couple of radio interviews, but no word yet. Fingers crossed.

More good news

There is another very exciting development brewing. I can't say much about it until it actually happens, but I will certainly make it known if it does.

A Plea

I am always looking for Amazon reviews. If you've read the book and enjoyed it, I'd love to get a few words on the Amazon site for the book. I am up to four, but for a little perspective, Dirty Shirt has 41 reviews. They help me as an Author and don't take too much effort from readers. It is appreciated!

So, it is all coming together. I am blessed to be where I am with my writing right now. Lots of work, but all good.

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Winter's Lemon

It seems full-on winter has finally arrived. We had a lot of that cold with no snow crap for the first two months, but last weekend we finally got enough of a snowfall to enable a little skiing.

I have been cross country skiing since I was 18 years old. In Minnesota is almost a mandatory skill - or should be, in my opinion.

So this past Sunday, before the Super Bowl, I took a little jaunt on my new skis that I got last year. It was a cold affair, but a beautiful windless day, so I had a blast. I am a fool for speed, so I even blazed the trail on the big sledding hill. I've long purported that I have a zeal for speed that regularly exceeds my ability to control the whole hurtling humanity element.

Well, after such a successful day on the slopes, I was determined to do a little night skiing tonight. I'd done some night skiing probably 15 years ago and enjoyed the quiet and darkness so much I thought I'd recreate it.

A few days ago when I mentioned that I was thinking about going out after work tonight, my wife said, "In the dark?"

"Yep. It's great."

"Do you have a headlamp?"

"Nope, but there's enough light. I've done this before." (The only thing missing was, "Trust me, I'm a professional.")

"Well, don't fall and break a hip or something."

Well, tonight was fun, but there were some moments of clarity and revelation, let me tell you.

For starters either my eyes are getting worse, or it's darker in the winter than it was 15 years ago. Or, maybe both. The hardest thing was keeping in the tracks. My eyes played tricks on me as I drifted in and out once the darkness hit.

It was almost like I could have used a headlamp or something.

Then, on my first challenging downhill I sensed the tracks were a ticket to too much speed, so chose to kind of snowplow it in the middle lane where the skate ski showoffs ski. Well, the middle was fast too. I had it all under complete control until I didn't. I fell in hip breaking fashion and managed to come out unscathed.

It was wicked fun.

I continued on, huffing and puffing to the next challenging downhill. Determined to master the center lane snowplow technique, I opted to go that route again. And 3/4 of the way into it I wiped out hard. This time I fell to my right side and as I was getting up I thought to myself:

Oh, please don't let my phone be crushed. (In case you're wondering, I carry it so I can call 911 when I break a hip.)

It wasn't which made this fall as wickedly fun as the last.

So, I have to do something about this need for speed. I aim to work on my technique of course, but if you're thinking I'd be better off staying home, I can only say it's not happening.

I would rather die from a broken hip from a skiing accident than sit on the sidelines worrying about the inherent dangers of a little bunny hill type XC skiing. I'm not dumb enough to get on downhill skis, maybe ever again, because that would be giving a flamethrower to a pyro. I know my limits.

Plus, for a few minutes, when I stopped among the trees in the darkness the quiet was soul soothing. I'm out there trying to make lemonade out of this lemon called winter.

Blogging off...


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Not So Super Bowly

Super Bowl Sunday is a local day of mourning around this house. With a combined 9 Super Bowl losses between the Vikings, (4) the Bills (4) and the Packers (1) this day has ended badly more than well. 8 of the losses were redeemed in 1997 when the Packers crushed the New England Patriots in SB 31. It was a great day, Brett Favre on his game, Desmond Howard showing up for special teams like he had all year, and even the outcast Andre Bad Moon Rison catching his big TD. We both finally felt what it was like to win it all.

And it was very good.

That glory was short lived when they lost next year by going into Denver over confident and were outplayed by veteran Elway, loser of 3 Super Bowls himself, determined to get his own redemption. I always liked Elway and couldn't help but feel a little happy for him despite the sting of the loss.

Then in Super Bowl 40 when the Packers went from squeaking their way into the playoffs to Super Bowl Cinderellas, We again got to experience the feeling of total victory. For me is was especially redemptive because I've hated the Steelers since they beat the Vikes in the Super Bowl of 75. (I know, I need to get over it.)

So as my various teams were eliminated from the playoffs, (Vikings, Bills) i was left to root for anyone who played the Evil Empire New England Patriots. And I was pulling for Philadelphia until their fan base showed, AGAIN, who they really are. Namely, the worst fans in all of American sports. They treated the Vikings fans like a bunch of hoods and my allegiances shifted on Monday Morning.

I normally root for the underdogs, but the events of that Sunday have changed all that. If anyone knows me, they know that while I like to win, winning with sportsmanship and class will take precedence over the final score every time. I think back to the Vikings playoff loss where a fan threw a whiskey bottle at a ref and cut his head, It made me cringe. I was ashamed to be a part of that fan group. Losers who lose with grace and poise have my allegiance.

So, today I will cross country ski. I will probably watch the game, maybe with the sound turned down. And I will reluctantly root for Tom Brady to win his 15th Super Bowl, based entirely on the actions of a fan base. Plus, I have always thought he's the greatest of all time, and today, regardless of the outcome, he will retain that title.

So, go Patriots. If you have to. I guess...

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Nested

My wife and I are what might be called seasonal empty nesters. We have two kids in college (can you say money drain?) and so for 9 months of the year we are us. Her and I. Me and her.

And our two cats and our dog.

But for the most part, our nest is empty.

We've gotten quite used to it already. Nothing against our kids of course, we love them to death. But sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. I've noticed a few things that I am kind of getting used to. Things like:


  • I own a car that I'd forgotten I owned. It's a 2004 Hyundai and it's kind of nice being able to take it when I want it and not have to schedule it a week out or sign a rental agreement to drive it. 
  • Along those lines, when I get in this same car, my seat is exactly where I left it. And there are no water bottles left in the cup holders. It's weird, but I like it this way.
  • My phone charger has not been stolen, borrowed or forgotten at a friend's house. 
  • I am sleeping better not worrying what time my kids will come home. Even past 18, as adults, I worried until I heard their door close every night.
  • My internet speed doesn't really suck. I have absolutely no issue with it. Of course I'm not multi-player online gaming on my PC while my phone streams Netflix. The complaints are frequent and editorial during the summer months. 
  • Our weekly trash is about 1/3 of what it used to be. 
  • If the house is cold, we put on more clothes. There are no complaints between us two.
These things said, there are things I genuinely miss.

  • Dinner around the table with my kids was always a time of catch up. How was your day? What's going on in school? What's your week look like?
  • Believe it or not, I kind of miss my son jumping out from behind closed doors or when I open the bathroom door. It's a mean thing to do, but we both always get a laugh from it.
  • I miss their hugs.
  • I really miss their smiles and laughter. Even if it is while they're playing a video game, it is music to me to hear them laugh.
  • I miss their calling me out on things. Sometimes my age shows and they are quick to point it out. I know they mean no harm and it kind of keeps me honest.
  • I miss their wicked senses of humor.
So, there are upsides and downsides to kids in school. Talk to me mid-summer, but there are moments I miss them greatly and moments I want them to be doing exactly what they are doing. 

Living their own lives. 
Making their way in the world.
Adulting. 

Because they are doing great at all three, and I love that about them.

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sub-Atomic Micro Fame Revisited

A little less than a week ago The Portland House was released.

My second memoir and my fourth book.

If you'd have told me as little as eight years ago that I would be saying that I would have laughed my head off at you. Yeah, right. A writing fool. 

But here I am. And, whenever I get all puffy chested, I always bring myself back to earth by referring to my success as just a glimmer of "Sub-atomic micro fame."

No best sellers
No Pushcart Prizes
No early retirement
Not selling out Wembley
No national book tours
And certainly no movie rights

The only way to go is up from here. That's a good philosophy for all of life, not just writing.
https://www.amazon.com/Portland-House-70s-Memoir/dp/1632134667/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517076024&sr=1-1&keywords=the+portland+house

At the same time, my writing journey has helped me in so many intangible ways.


  • It has given me a community of writer friends both locally and nationally. Friends that feel like family, these people encourage me, bolster my confidence when I'm doubting my work and cheering me when I hit a win. It is two way though, as I do the same for them and celebrate their victories as well.
  • My book, Dirty Shirt had quite a long road show that went with it. It usually meant a 45-50 minute presentation and reading in front of big and small groups. Initially the thought of doing this caused me great distress. As I started doing it more and more, I got better and better at it and have to admit, almost kind of enjoy it at times. Again, eight years ago, if you'd have told me I'd be getting up in front of people and not mind it, I'd still be laughing. 
  • My writing studio's director has helped me by recommending me for panel discussions and, more recently, an all-morning Meet the Author session at the local high school. There is also talk of getting some of our books into the County Jail for a book study among those inmates interested. These events have elevated my confidence and presentation savvy. These skills carry over then into my work environment as well. A win-win.
  • Overall well being and happiness. There are days where just knowing that I have two books out in the world makes life so much richer. Sure it's sub-atomic micro fame, but it makes a difference in my mental health and happiness. 
So, because I can never say thank you enough, I want to again thank everyone out there who has read my work, bought my books, supported the magazines I'm in, left a review, shouted me out on Facebook, sent an encouraging inbox, cheered me on, or believed in me when I myself did not. I've always been my own worst critic, and it helps having folks out there reminding me to shut that crap down. 

Thank you Donna, thank you AllWriters, thank you family, thank you friends, thank you Electio Publishing, and thank you Lord. 

This is about as cool as it gets right now and I didn't do it alone.

Blogging off...

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Next Chapter

If you follow this blog, you know that I don't write about work a lot. For the most part, I have chosen  to keep work separate from my writing pursuits. The events of the last week however call for a post dedicated to work for a bit, so please indulge me.

I work in a small division housed inside a large Parks and Land Use department. The Land Information Systems Division is four people in size. We are small but mighty mappers.

Well, last week, my boss and friend of 21 years retired. This guy hired me literally 6 months after he started at the County. He and I worked together - but separate - at SEWRPC before that and barely knew each other. Based on what he'd heard from others, when I applied at the County, it was my job to lose. I interviewed, he hired me and well, the rest is history.

There are too many funny stories to recount of our days together at the County. One of the more memorable ones though was when we were gathering a bunch of software together to send back to the vendor. We were essentially trading it in for an upgrade to the brand new product. For some reason, the vendor wanted the old stuff back.

So in the middle of inventorying the stack of boxes of old software I alluded to how absurd it was that we were sending outdated boxes of software back to Huntsville, AL. Don chided in that if I think that's absurd, think about the lackey on the receiving end who's going to have to put it back on the shelf!
ESRI GIS Award Presentation - 2004

For some reason the two of us cracked up laughing so hard we both had tears in our eyes. It was one of the funniest moments in those 21 years together.

Another funny story that Don loved to tell was about my first day on the job. He showed me my cubicle and my computer and phone. When I moved the mouse I saw that the screen had an error that read "Fatal Exception". When I said, "What's with this?"

Don said, "That right there would be your first job." Then he ambled away laughing his rolling laugh that was his trademark.

Turns out the machine booted up fine, but it was one of those "What have I gotten myself into?" moments for a second or two.

I guess it's become a little more rare to work with someone for 21 years, but I was privileged to work with Don. He had expectations for where he wanted the division to go, but he also let us prioritize what we thought we needed to work on from project to project. I always respected his ability to grant us autonomy. We're all adults here, no need to micro manage.

Over the years we suffered through the death of his mother and father as well as my brother and stepfather. We saw our kids through grade school, high school and college, and accomplished so much for the advancement of the County's Land Information System. Twenty one years breeds a lot of shared stories. He was a good leader and a good friend.

So, this past Monday, when he didn't walk into the office, it was a little weird. We've all agreed that we will make our own way and continue in the legacy of excellence he left us, but it's still going to take a while before it feels normal again.

I wish him well in his retirement. With 21 years at the county and 17 at SEWRPC, he has certainly earned it. I only hope I can exit with the same level of dignity and sense of accomplishment that he has.

Happy retirement, Don!

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Portland Perimeter

The big day is almost here. The Portland House comes out and will be available via eLectio Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble Online this Tuesday, 1/23.

As part of the lead in to the release, I have been showcasing a few of the characters in the book. Today rather than focusing on one specific character, I'd like to focus on the neighborhood as a whole. We had such a great neighborhood back then, and I think the days of sending kids out the door to "come home when the streetlights come on" are gone forever, and that's too bad.
A big pile of neighborhood

Of course, what makes a neighborhood are the people. I can still go down our block from end to end and name almost every family that lived on our block. Fifteen years in a place will do that for you. A few of the memorable ones that may or may not be mentioned in the book include:

  • My friend Michael from across the street. We grew up together through our high school and college years. He was a gifted athlete and guitarist. I found out a few years ago that he was a session player with both Prince and Morris Day, Robert Palmer and a handful of other famous musicians. None of that mattered to me or him at the time we were growing up though. We were just buddies who liked hanging out and kicking the soccer ball around. 
  • My sister was girlfriends with Judy Molitor, Paul Molitor's sister. They lived a block away and while we all knew Paul was a good ball player, no one ever knew he would be a Hall of Famer. Growing up a block away from him is just one of those seven-levels-from-Kevin-Bacon factoids, I guess. 
  • My buddy from high school lived a few blocks away on Summit Avenue, a street lined with large houses and a number of mansions. His father was a successful attorney, so the fact that they lived on the "rich street" made sense. I felt like an "insider" hanging around Pete in his family's mansion. It was a few steps above our humble house and just being there made me feel richer. It's funny because years later when I was dating a woman, her brother brother referred to our house on Portland as "a mansion," compared to their own. Housing is all a matter of perspective it seems.
  • Another family across the street had five kids and three of them ended up as good friends to three of us. Their parents had a "no friends in the house" policy, so it was a shock when after Christmas one year I was allowed to go down their basement and play a bit of electric football with my friend Pat for a bit. On another occasion, when his parents were "gone" he showed me his Quadraphonic stereo. He cranked it up and before long his mother surprisingly showed up at the bedroom door and put a quick end to the unannounced tour. 
  • A block away lived a huge family of 8 or so kids who all had first names starting with M. There was one in every one of my sister and brothers' grades, so we kind of grew up together. You just don't see a ton of huge families living in such close proximity to each other. It was a unique time. What is sort of cool is that we are still Facebook friends with a few of them. 
So there are more specifics about these friends and more in the book, but you'll just have to read it. It is my hope that it will take you back to a simpler time of families building neighborhoods and neighborhoods building a city. 

http://www.electiopublishing.com/index.php/bookstore

Blogging off...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Making Of A Trailer


Writing a book is a whole lot of work. It takes hundreds of hours of writing followed by more hundreds of hours revising. Then, on the chance that you get published, it's a whole lot more work of promotion, platform building, selling, etc.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love every step and every stage of it. I am blessed to be where I am - no doubt about that.

But at the same time, one of the funnest parts of the publishing/promotion process, for me at least, is putting together a book trailer. For this book, two of the guys, Nick and Bill, who helped with the last trailer, agreed to get the band back together and do another. They are good friends who make the process a lot of fun.

It started with Nick putting together a skeleton music track. As you'll hear in the video, it's dramatically different than the one for Dirty Shirt. We were shooting for a 70's vibe to match the book, and I think the electric organ does that well - a sort of Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog sort of sound.


A week ago today, the three of us convened for the voiceover recording. Nick has a studio and lots of sound gadgetry to make a professional level recording. It was clear from the start that I was just there to coach and encourage, while the two guys worked through the script.

I discovered that doing a vocal recording using a script is pretty close to trying to record a song. There are nuances and inflections that I wanted to impose on the transcription of the text to make it interesting and dramatic. I am not sure, but would guess that it took close to 30 takes to get the whole script sounding how we wanted it. It's funny how many different ways you can inflect and or, in some cases, murder a word. At times this led to giggling and the resulting outtake. But these guys are patient and professional, like none other. So we pushed on.

So the whole evening was just cool watching all the talent in the room work together. I hate my voice, so that is why I asked Bill to fill in again. He has a radio voice that I do not. And I can't say enough about Nick and his multitude of acoustic and technical talents. When I thanked Bill for a fun night, we both agreed that we are not the strength of the group.

Like Bill said, "You have to be sure to stay friends with Nick forever if you want to keep doing these." Well, it's my goal not to piss him off anytime soon. Book number 3 is in the works.

I hope you enjoy the trailer. It sure was fun putting it together!

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Map For The Story

It has been a great weekend of old friends, writing friends, and work friends. One event after another for the past four days. And that Viking game. Whoa. It's all good and I'm not even totally drained yet, so I'm not sure what's up with that.

But I wanted to post anyway with something I think is about the coolest thing going. I put together something called a Story Map. It is a geeky GIS thing, but I am so happy with the way it's turned out.

What it does is combines my writing with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and puts both into a fun little application called a Story Map. It is essentially that - a map with a story to it. Or, in this case, a story with a map to it. I plan to put it on my website and, more importantly, enter it into a contest at the statewide GIS conference coming up in a couple of months.

Note: I built this with a free ESRI account totally on my own personal time. These things can be made for parks and any other number of things at work, but I thought it would be cool to do it for something personal.

It is my hope that it builds some interest for the book (as well as maybe an award at the conference, but I digress) but more importantly, it gives readers some context for the story of The Portland House. I have a friend who did a similar thing using Google Maps for her book Paddle for a Purpose. It is very cool too!

So, here is the link. Please take a look and let me know what you think either via Facebook, Blog comments or in person.

https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=652230a49bbf43de8e5545d8ed196cce

Blogging off...

https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=652230a49bbf43de8e5545d8ed196cce

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Our Minnesota Twins

In continuing my character peeks for The Portland House: a 70's memoir, which releases on 1/23/18, I would like to introduce a couple of my step siblings that make an appearance in the book. Their appearance is brief, but as stepsisters, they were a fun part of my life growing up.

My mom (Mary Lou) dated Jack for nearly 10 years before they married in 1979. Jack had 8 kids by his first marriage, ironically enough to another Mary (Ann) who also lived, ironically enough, on Portland Avenue. So we were corporately, over a dozen strong as a step-family on Portland.
Theresa (front) Maggie (in grey.)

His youngest girls were identical twins named, Maggie and Theresa. And I mean identical. They were more often referred to as "Hey, Twinnie" by their blood family because they were that hard to tell apart.

These two were the ones that came to most of the joint family events Jack and Mom arranged, like trips to the beach, the cabin, and a few camping trips. They were both very athletic, cute and wicked funny. I'm probably tipping my hand, but there were more than a couple of undisclosed step sibling crushes in our family between the fourteen of us. One even resulted in a marriage. (Pat and Kevin).

The twins were a couple of years younger than me, their older sister Maureen was my age. All three of them went to Derham Hall, the all-girls Catholic high school across the field from Cretin, where I attended. They both worked for Northwest Airlines for a significant time.

Anyways, I'd fallen out of touch with them for the most part until about 5 years ago. Facebook put Maggie and I back into contact, especially with regards to my book, Dirty Shirt. She was nice enough to take it overseas and publicize it along the way. She took pictures of herself with the book in front of several famous landmarks. It was her Flat Stanley of sorts.
Maggie (red rugby), Theresa (yellow rugby)

The two of us will periodically spar back and forth on Messenger and keep pledging to get together, but for one reason or another, we can't seem to coordinate it. We will someday, I'm sure. Until then, she keeps me appraised of how the rest of the family is doing.

So, if you want to know how her Portland House cameo happens, well, you'll just have to get the book.

It's Available January 23rd, 2018 on:

www.electiopublishing.com

www.Amazon.com

www.barnesandnoble.com



Blogging off...

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Black Hole Years

In continuing to give a quick expose' on some of the characters in The Portland House: a 70's memoir, today I will talk about a character who plays a much bigger role in the book, namely my mom.

Obviously, Mom is a central character in the book , after all she is the one who got us to the house and the one running it. But that doesn't mean she is always present in every story. Many of the stories involve interactions with siblings that ultimately ended up at mom.
Mom turns 40. April, '73.

Mom worked full time during our years on Portland Avenue and as a result, she had to rule remotely. Sometimes this was done over the phone, She says she used to hate it when my sister Jane and my brother Rob would call her from separate extensions in the middle of a fight they were having. To add to this scenario, Rob was hearing impaired so had trouble hearing mom's responses on the phone. She shouted, "You two figure it out and I will deal with you when I get home!"

To which Rob replied, "Huh?"

At which point, Mom would repeat the threat again in a slightly louder register. All of this done within earshot of the clerical staff she was in charge of.

I can only imagine her rage.

When I was trying to decide on a title for this book, my wife recommended, "Black hole years." This may sound like an odd title, but it refers to what Mom used to say when we told her a story that she had no recollection of.

"That must have happened during the black hole years," she'd say.

I imagine that having six kids would require a certain amount of memory loss or blackouts. Memory suppression may be the secret behind her making it to the age of eighty four.

None of this is to say that Mom wasn't there for any of us. She was. I remember once she brought home a new desk for my room. I forget whether it was given to her or was one of those unpainted things that was cheaply made, but mom was determined it would work. Anyhow, as I was working on it it seemed rickety and had a few popped nails. I complained to her that it was falling apart and that I wasn't happy with it. As an ungrateful kid, I wanted a new one.

The next thing I knew she was holding nails in her lips and was pounding away, fixing the desk. When she was done, the thing was rock solid, as good as new. And she said to me, "I bet you didn't know your mom was a carpenter, too."

Indeed, I did not.

But that is my mom's role in the book in a nutshell. She was keeper of the piece, writer of the checks, and maker of the pork chops. She taught us that family came first, that we could be whatever we wanted if we put our minds to it, and that a house is made into a home by the love therein.

Blogging off...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Other Portland House

Yesterday marked three weeks until the release of The Portland House: a 70's memoir. On January 23rd, it becomes available on the eLectio Publishing website as well as Amazon, Barnes and Noble online and iTunes. As a prelude, over the next few blog posts, I'd like to introduce you to a few random characters in the book. Some will be more significant characters than others, but all played a part in my childhood, whatever their role.

Today I'd like to introduce my grade school friend Pat S. I have three friends named Pat in the book as well as my sister Pat, so I try and use last names in the book to keep them straight.

Pat (Red), Me (Yellow)
This Pat was one of my better friends through the grade school and middle school years. He lived almost exactly one block away, on the 1200 block of Portland.

As I allude to in the book, I met him more out of a sense of curiosity than anything. He had a crew cut haircut, and would occasionally stop his bike across the street from our house and stare. Because his haircut and menacing stare unnerved us as new kids in the neighborhood, I think it was my brother Rob who called him "Flathead."

It's funny how kids think.

Anyway, it turns out he went to my school and over time we met and got to be pretty good friends. I wasn't one much for going over to friends' houses and such, but at school at least, we pretty good friends.

I think it was seventh grade or so when Pat's father died suddenly and unexpectedly. As one would expect, Pat was pretty devastated. At the same time, because of my own situation, we suddenly held a bond that we hadn't planned on. We were both fatherless. It is nothing to aspire building a friendship around, but there were some times he confided in me and, well, I did and said what I could, I guess. I had been without a dad for so long, in some ways, I could hardly relate with the emotional shock he was feeling. But, I was there inasmuch as I could be.

Pat and I were also on the eighth grade football team together. We were both second stringers and both had the same style of cleats purchased at Montgomery Wards. Don't know why I remember a detail like that. He was as tough as nails on the team and played all-out every down. It's how he rolled in sports and in life.

Somewhere along the way in grade school, Pat picked up the nickname, Scummy. Some guys just have all the luck with nicknames, I guess. It kind of stuck and became him and his persona.

I lost touch with Pat after we both went to different high schools. I did hear that he worked a lot as a sort of roadie/sound/light guy for a few Twin Cities bands over the years which I always thought was kind of a cool gig. But, for the most part we lost touch until a few years ago when we reconnected on Facebook. It is refreshing how the social media world can connect two people who had lost touch for nearly forty years.

Anyways, he mentioned he'd read Dirty Shirt and became a fan, which was great news.

Little did he know he'd be a character in The Portland House.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Long Live Rock

As part of our Christmas vacation trip back and forth to upstate New York, we built in a two and a half hour visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I've been wanting to get to this place for a number of years, so when my wife mentioned it as a possibility a few months back, I thought it was a great idea.

And, frankly, it was a side trip that almost didn't happen. After all the battles with snowy road conditions and the busy-ness of the holidays, we were all feeling the pull of home strongly by the time the end of our stay rolled around. At the last minute, we decided to stick with our original plan and go see the museum.

I am so glad we did.

For those of you considering it, I would say that you should allow at least 2.5 - 3 hours to see it all, more if possible. There is so much to see, especially if you are a rock aficionado.

We started at the top floor where there was an exhibit recognizing the 50 years of Rolling Stone magazine. While I realize that this magazine is much more corporately slick than it was when it started, there were some cool exhibits.
Life's Been Good original lyrics

As a writer, I can appreciate all that goes into the making of a magazine like this, especially the interviews. Because of this, some of the things that stood out for me were writing related. Three in particular were letters to Rolling Stone, one by Paul McCartney, one by Hunter S. Thompson who used to write a column for RS, and one from Charles Manson. The one from Manson was questioning some of the points that the interview with him emphasized. It was creepy weird, but cool that things like this are preserved.

Of course there were lots of famous guitars and other instruments too. Everything from the acoustics of the old blues masters, to the square electric of Bo Diddley, to the ornate piece of artwork that Jerry Garcia had custom made for his years with the Grateful Dead.  It is almost a bit tragic knowing that these instruments that brought such beauty to the world are now silent. At the same time they evoke great memories from everyone that sees them. There were even a couple of smashed guitars that didn't make it past the moment of rock rage.

A few other cool things I saw:
Peter Criss' makeup kit.


  • Peter Criss' makeup kit. He was the drummer for KISS a band whose music built around their garish makeup and costuming. I was never a fan of them, but I can appreciate this piece of history. 
  • Pre-concert contract agreement for the Replacements including the venue providing 2 cases of Heineken beer backstage before the show.
  • The lyrics to Joe Walsh's song, Life's Been Good, in his own handwriting. Same for Warren Zevon (Play It All Night Long) and The Clash (London Calling).
  • Michael Jackson's sequined glove. 
  • One of the dresses worn by Deborah Harry of  Blondie.
The list goes on and on. 

And after spending 2017 chasing the aging rock stars like Stevie Nicks, The Church and Roger Waters, this cruise through the Hall meant a lot to me. And with two of the 2018 inductees, (The Cars and Dire Straits) being among groups I count among my favorite of all time, the trip seemed even more like a pilgrimage. 
Jerry Garcia's guitar

Now, I realize the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a touristy, kitschy, pop culture wasteland to most people. And there are many that will claim that the HOF is a sham because of who ISN'T in it. (For me that band is the J Geils Band).

But for me, it was a walk down memory lane. I am a music lover and could spend all day there, if given the chance. Like it or hate it, Rock and Roll has brought a lot to the world. And this gives you a glimpse into much of it.

Blogging off...


Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Walton-esque Christmas - 1991

It is December 23rd, 1991 and my bride and I screaming across the Ohio Turnpike in our '87 Honda Accord, a ride of relative luxury given our Escort/Chevette roots. We are headed to Gorham a tiny burg in Upstate New York. It is a town of the size one would see on Walton's Mountain, with a historic downtown including a diner, a gas station and Gorham Grocery, an essentials-only small grocer.

As the newest member of this family, I am unsure what to expect this Christmas. The family has a tradition of doing a "Round Robin Dinner" on Christmas Eve. It involves having cocktails and appetizers at an aunt's house, dinner and a few piano accompanied carols at my mother and father in-laws, and desert and a one-gift exchange at my wife's grandma's place.

Being a guy who was steeped in tradition who usually celebrated Christmas Eve at one location (mom's place) every year, this arrangement actually sounded intriguing.

Pennsylvania Welcomes You! the sign reads as the Accord hurtled eastward.

***
I stand drinking a Heineken at my Aunt Alice's place talking to Donna's uncle Dave, a friendly guy who carries the conversation. This is a good thing, considering I am really just getting to know this family and feel like a displaced Midwestern boy in an East Coast Christmas Soiree. This Christmas Eve began by greeting each of her aunts and her grandmother with welcoming pecks on the lips(!) - something again that I neither expected nor initiated, but which made me feel like one of the brood, right out of the gate. It is weird how such a simple gesture brings a level of comfort to a nervous introvert like me.

The house is noisy with laughter, conversation and an undertone of Christmas carols lilting from the stereo in the corner. I make the rounds with the newest members of my suddenly increasing extended family. As I get to know each person from three-minute conversations, I realize that these folks are just like my own family. Some struggle with job changes, relationships or money issues, but all of them fundamentally love one another and ultimately, me, the new tallest member in the family.

So I have another piece of cheese and sausage on a cracker and mingle away.

***

With the last of the dinner dishes washed, the entire extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother sit around my mother in-law's upright piano singing the twelve days of Christmas. Each day of the twelve is assigned to a different person who repeats their part when the song reaches them. 

Everyone has a hearty laugh when, at every refrain, my aunt Alice belts our her line in her Pennsylvanian accent, "Five goden rings." The first time she sang it without pronouncing the "L" at a Christmas prior, she was assigned the part every year after. Every family develops their own quirky  traditions, and the Neufang/Phelps clan was no different.

It turns out I am assigned the "Eight Swans-a-Swimming" creating a moment of focus on me that I am not comfortable with, but roll with anyways, because I don't want to not fit in with my new family. I am accompanied by my two young cousins Kathy and Connie on either side of me. As grade school students, it seems they are smitten with "the new guy" and while at first their level of openness and acceptance of me is uncomfortable, after the whole kissing introduction to the aunts, I begin to wonder if maybe this family is just full of big love. Maybe it wouldn't be so awkward as an "outlaw in-law" after all. Maybe it was God's way of saying welcome to the family.

After the Nine Ladies Dancing, the girls and I belt out "Eight swans a swimming!"

***
On the final leg of the round-robin dinner, we are gathered in the living room of my grandmother in-law, if that's what you call them. There is a pile of $10 gifts under the tree. Everyone is given a number and the number determines the order of choosing a gift. People are careful to choose, because no one wants the dreaded "Turd Bird." The bird is a dried up cow-pie that is decorated with feathers and a head to look like a bird. It is another New York tradition that I have become a part of by marriage. 

After everyone has a present, the tradition allows one gift pass per person. The greediest among us go for the larger/heavier gift, or perhaps the more ornately wrapped one in hopes of upgrading from the one we have. Everyone surveys the gifts closely, as the Turd Bird winner from last year could have disguised the gift this year by using a bigger, heavier box, or perhaps wrapping it in especially flashy foil wrapping paper.

It is a form of Christmas gift Russian Roulette.

People take turns opening their gift, one by one around the circle. Eventually the victim is revealed and everyone laughs and taunts the 1991 winner of the Turd Bird. Pictures are taken and everyone begins to wander to the dessert table for cookies and a bit of grandma's percolated coffee, which bites with tannins but soothes our soul. 

***
At evening's end, we hug one another and I face another barrage of kisses on the lips from people I've only met a couple of times. I feel I have crossed over into a family of acceptance and love. I am grateful to God above for each and every one of them. One can never have a big enough network in this world, and my East Coast network was pretty amazing, if I didn't say so myself.

I put on my coat, thank grandma one more time and head out the door with my wife. As I look up into the dark sky I am amazed by the magnitude of stars I see, something we don't get back in the cities. 

And my heart is filled to bursting on this cold Christmas Eve in a small New York burg. God above has blessed me with a family I never expected - a gift of another sort. And it didn't come from a store, wasn't wrapped in a box, and it fit like a comfortable sweater. Yes, I was blessed this Christmas, that much is sure. 

So, my wish to all of you is that you look around you this Christmas and recognize the multitude of human gifts you are surrounded by. They are the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Randomized

I'm sure you all have good and probably some bad memories from Christmas. It is really one of my favorite times of the year. Because we're approaching the big day, I've assembled a series of my own memories.

Completely Random Christmas Memories
  1. Going to pick out a Christmas tree with mom at the YMCA Y's Men (Get it?) lot on University Avenue a few years. Because we always had a sedan, it meant tying it on top of the ol' Chevy Impala or, worse, the Plymouth Volare'. 
  2. Shopping for my siblings gifts at Kmart trying to get the biggest bang for my buck. Mostly what I got was cheap junk. But at least the good side of my heart was in it before I discovered it was junk. LOL. 
  3. My sister Pat letting me come down and arrange the gifts under the tree because I couldn't sleep on December 23rd, the night before we typically opened gifts. (We were always a family that opened all our gifts on Christmas Eve. In fact, we still do, to some extent.)
  4. The first Christmas my brother Rob came home from college. Mom was so excited to pick him up from the airport and bring him into our house all decorated with Christmas decorations. When he walked in, the Christmas tree lay on the floor like a drunken bagpiper. It was the victim of a cat climbing. I thought Mom was going to cry. Oh, you can reassemble the tree, but it never really looks the same once it's fallen.
  5. The first Midnight Mass we attended with Rob's new girlfriend, Jane. When I got up from the initial kneeling and prayer, she goosed me! It was a shock to this good Catholic boy. She, Rob and I laughed under our breath so hard. It was when I knew he had a keeper!
  6. Of all Mom's Christmas LP's that we played on the stereo, Nat King Cole was (and still is) a favorite. It takes me back to the living room of Portland Avenue every time I hear it.
  7. With Donna's side of the family, we used to do a round-robin Christmas dinner. Dinner was at her mom's house, dessert was at her aunt's and drinks and presents at her Grandmother's. (Or some variation thereof.) I felt as loved by her family as I did my own. The tradition eventually fell away for some reason, but I still miss it.
  8. Working at the Montgomery Wards Catalog dock during the Christmas rush and dreading the week before when people would be lined up at the pickup counter taking home garbage bags full of Christmas toys. 
  9. Working the same job at the return desk in the post Christmas crush of people returning or exchanging gifts. It was a return clerk's nightmare for a couple full weeks after Christmas.
  10. Watching our kids as well as our nieces and nephews decorate grandma and papa's Christmas tree and never putting an ornament above their reach. My mother in-law left the tree that way to remind her of her grandchildren. Sweet.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Dark Thirty

We are four days from the winter solstice, a time where the days turn the corner from being the shortest back on their march toward June when they are their longest. It is a time of darkness and sleep and rest and recharging. I never really looked forward to the December 21st deadline until a few years ago. The date is insignificant - just another day in December - but as someone who isn't a huge fan of winter, December 21st has taken on a new meaning, given me a new hope.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I fall into depression in winter, but it is a more difficult time for me. Knowing that I have these feelings, I'm trying to be more cognizant of what is going on internally and make adjustments to try and stay ahead of the curve-of-whatever-it-is-I'm-feeling.

My goal is to try and appreciate the nuances of winter for what they are. If that means going to bed to read at 9:00 PM only to fall asleep by 9:45, well so be it. If it means keeping Christmas lights up well into January, as my wife and I have talked about, then so be that.

The other day as I walked to work, it was snowing lightly as I left home. By the 3/4 mark it was coming down in big fluffy flakes and despite the fact that I loathe big snowfalls, I had to admit it was kind of beautiful. (These kinds of observations will no doubt change in late January, but last week it was beautiful.)

And I am determined to make the best of whatever this season throws at me. If it snows, I plan on Cross Country skiing more. If it's brutally cold, I will hunker down at home and drive to work instead of walk. If it is sunny, I will relish in the sunshine. If it rains, well, it will melt some of the cursed snow.

At the same time, I will focus on connecting with my friends from church and I will know that it's okay to recharge, rest and restore. Naps will be my new gospel. I'll connect with my kids via texting and phone calls. I'll take my vitamin D and try and keep in shape.

All of this becomes a priority because I realize our time here is short. We can choose to dread winter and be crabby and downtrodden about the darkness and cold, or we can try and make the best of it and live life as if it was a gift. And on the down days, I am committed to fake it till I make it.

With Christmas coming in a short week, I cannot wait for my kids to come home. They bring their light and a new energy to the house that will carry us to mid January and I am grateful for that.

So, in this season of darkness and quiet, I wish the same for you and your families. I encourage you to find what it is that carries you through the next 90 days and latch on to it. Like Keith Richards said, "I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to be anywhere."

Exactly.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cover Me

When you are writing a book, you have several landmark days.


  • There is the day you decide to write it. As authors we sometimes joke about how this day must have been one of a momentary lapse of reason. Anyone crazy enough to undertake the hours, days, weeks and years that it takes to write a book can't be quite right in the head.

  • There is the day you finish writing it. "Eureka! I wrote a fricken book!" Oh, wait, you mean I have to edit it like five times? (See previous bullet point)

  • There is the day you finish your first edit of it. "Eureka! My first edit is done. Maybe this is good enough" I got news for you. It's not.

  • There is the day you submit it to 1 (or 20) publishers. This is followed by months of waiting, soul searching, praying, mojo working, self loathing, inside crying, anxiety, sacrificing goats, checking to see if your email is still working and questioning bullet point #1.

  • There is the day you get your first rejection. This is followed by ten, eleven or seventeen more rejections and a fair amount of creeping self doubt.

  • There is the day you get your book accepted. Hallelujah! I might just be legit! Quickly followed by, "Oh my Lord, what have I gone and done?"
And then there is the day you get your cover art. That is the day that it gets real. Yesterday was that day for my new book, The Portland House: a 70's memoir. 

I went through four revisions of the cover with my publisher before they nailed it. When I saw the final product I knew it was done. This cover was chosen to give it a 70's feel and has the font to help do just that. 

The house on the cover is a photo of the Portland house I grew up in with an arted-up filter put to it. Every time I look at it, it tells a story - as I suspect a picture of anyone's childhood home would. It is the house from Leave it to Beaver, The Christmas Story, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. It is a blue collar house of the working class. 

And it is my hope that my story resonates with you as much as the picture does.

Blogging off...


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sisters By Another Mother

This past weekend we had the opportunity to host our Sister in-law Jill at our house for two nights. She travelled here from upstate New York to spend time with her sister and brother an to attend my wife's 50th birthday party. She has a busy schedule as a teacher and swim/dive coach for her local high school. 

Sister in-law Jill (Center)
What I came away with after spending two days with her in my house is how much I appreciate my sisters-in-law. I have four of them, Jill, Jane, Patty and Deb, and they are all unique in their own ways. We've had the privilege of staying for long weekends at a couple of their houses over holidays in Minnesota and at Jill and John's in New York. They treat us like royalty and, by staying in their homes all those years when the kids were young, our kids have grown up together and have come to love their cousins.

When we woke up yesterday morning, we had a casual breakfast and then the three of us, Jill, Donna and I, sat around and talked for nearly three and a half hours. None of us had to be anywhere and at the time the most important thing was just catching up. We talked about our extended family, our kids, our jobs, our futures and our pasts. And on several occasions we laughed HARD.

Leading up to my sister in-law coming to visit we worked hard to get the house in shape and deep cleaned. So, when she was here we concentrated on just being present with her and not distracted by the other duties of life. We all realized that we had less than 72 hours together, so we all made it a point to be present and just enjoy each others' company. 

When the party finally rolled around, my sister in-law seemed to have a great time meeting many of our friends that she'd heard so much about. It was so great seeing her interact and laugh with people she barely knew and despite their only common connection being Donna. And when the night was done, her and I got to laughing so hard on the way to the car that I could barely breathe. 

Now some people have less than stellar relationships with their in-laws. I am fortunate to say that I truly love all of them. And while there is no blood between us, they are as much sisters as my real ones. I would stand up for them and treat them with the same respect I would my own. I invite them into my home, I love them and their kids and I am glad they are part of my life. 

Blogging off... 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Nifty Fifty

Today my bride turns fifty. It is a milestone in everyone's life, one I will have passed exactly six years ago this coming Monday. Our six year age difference has never been an issue and in fact, she keeps me young. We have been together 27 and a half years, and have known each other for another three years on top of that. It has been quite a ride filled with lots of great memories. Here's just a few:


  • When we were still dating we took a road trip to Niagara Falls and from there onto Toronto. I was already smitten with her, but this trip with all its car time and adventure sealed the deal. We were in love and the fact that we lived 750 miles apart only made it clearer that we needed to be together for good.

  • Once we had a severe ice storm in Milwaukee. Donna tried to open the drivers side window and it shattered into a million pieces. She turned and looked at me with a look of panic. I'll never forget the look of shock on her face. It was our first disaster together. A real Kodak moment.

  • When I first brought Donna home to meet my family, she was met with quite the greeting party. My niece started by greeting her at the door with "Who are you and what are you doing in my house?" Then, my nephew proceeded to go and hide in his room. When we went to get him we told him his new aunt was here to which he said, "She's not my aunt!" It's great to be loved.

  • During the birth of our daughter, I vividly remember Donna holding onto the "scream bar" and breathing through contractions in my little Honda Civic. Two days later I remember putting the baby carrier in the back seat of that same car thinking, "We're gonna need a bigger car..."

  • When we went on our first camping trip along the North Shore of Lake Superior, we ran into a rainy stretch of weather. Then, when the rain stopped, the fog rolled in. At one point in my two man tent, Donna turned on the flashlight and there was a mist inside the tent. There was no place to get dry and warm. She eventually found her way to the car and spent the night. I was a stubborn (and wet) die hard camper and toughed it out in the tent. We went to town the next morning, dried our sleeping bags at the laundromat and finished out the trip. 

  • On our tenth anniversary we went up to Door County for a two night stay. Over dinner I gave her a small box with a gold wedding band. Again, I will never forget the look on her face. She never suspected it and it was a great surprise.
So, our life together has been one of ups and downs, but mostly ups. She keeps me laughing, sane and out of trouble. She keeps the ship on course and keeps the creditors at bay. On top of that she is a loving mother, a has a huge heart for people. I hope to spend the next 50 years with her.

Happy Birthday Donna!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Tree For Two

Well, the Christmas crush has descended. It was not even a factor until December 1st hit. Then, the realization came that it is just a few short weeks away - not to mention a couple of birthdays thrown in for good measure. And so we kick it to red line and start marching to the drumbeat of the holiday of all holidays.

In our family, I have always been in charge of getting a Christmas tree. I'd like to say we have a longstanding family tradition of loading up the car with kids and going out to cut our own tree.

Well, it ain't so.

Before kids, Donna and I always went together and picked a tree. After kids came, she came along for a few years and then relegated me to taking one or both of the kids to pick one out. Well, even that tradition was short lived. Once the kids figured out there was nothing but cold and indecision involved with tree shopping, they stopped wanting to go. So, it became a solitary process with Donna giving me free reign to choose a tree using a jury of one. My only stipulation is that no one complain about the one I bring home, because that's not fair. And so, yesterday I picked one out and had it home all within a one hour span. It was kind of sad to think that I wouldn't really even have a kid back home to help me decorate it. Life rolls on, I guess.

Frasier Fir Adoption
Today my job was to get the lights on it. Of course one major string was fried, so I tried a dozen replacement bulbs before I gave up and said I'd pick some up at WalMart. (My least favorite store, but it's close.) I hit pay dirt when I found strings of 100 lights for $2.68. Remind me to not mess around with trying replacement bulbs next year. At that price they are almost disposable.

I also got the Christmas Village set up today, which was a bonus.

Sitting in Church today, the first Sunday of Advent, I had the chance to shut my eyes, pray for some people I probably wouldn't have prayed for had I not gone to church and meditate a bit. It was a pleasant reminder that we need to stop in the madness sometimes and remember why we do all this crazy stuff in the first place.

Christmas lights are great. Trees, sure thing. Presents, awesome. But the best part of the last two days for me was none of that. It was connecting with people at a birthday celebration yesterday and at church today. Taking time away from the things we think we need to do to talk to friends is what it should really be all about.

And I am making it a priority to do more of that this season.

Blogging off...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dead Letter Office

Dear Dad,

I was scrounging through some old papers and stuff the other day and came across this card I evidently gave to you when I was just barely 5 years old. It looks like a Father's Day card, but it may have been for your birthday or some other occasion. I'm not sure how it got saved. I got it from Mom a few years back and have kept it around, because it's the only trace of anything I might have given you. I guess it shows that it's possible to love someone who means a lot to you at such a young age. I seemed to have a thing for butterflies, but I hope you liked it at the time.

This summer marked 50 years since that fateful night you were killed. I suspect each of us kids remembered that fact at some point this year and it gave us pause to think what life would have been like if you had been around to be a part of it all. But, we all know you can't change fate nor live in the past, so we have all just kept plugging along, making our lives and missing you along the way.

While Mom did an amazing job raising us, there are some things I wish you could have been a part of. Moments like watching my grade school football team win the Twin City championship or seeing me off to my first prom or helping me train to get my driver's license. (Lord knows I needed help with that.) I had a stepfather who loved me and filled in for some of that, but it wasn't the same.

But it's the much bigger things in life that I wish you could have experienced. Things like meeting my wife, being there on my wedding day or holding your grandkids Sarah and Ben. Every so often my kids ask about you and what I know or remember about you. So I tell them what I know or what I've heard. I show them pictures of you and tell them how you loved the outdoors and you loved us kids. I also tell them the truth that you were not perfect by any means and went through a rough patch in your life near the end. But I add that losing our sister to cancer played a big part in that. I can't imagine what that kind of pain and loss feels like. At the same time, I am sure to reiterate to them that despite all your struggles, you loved your kids unconditionally. Mom has made that abundantly clear, and I believe it.

And you know, it's silly, but the thing I miss the most is that my kids never got the chance to fish with their grandpa. They both love fishing and the outdoors and both of these things trace back to you. When I think of the pride you would have for Sarah and Ben it about kills me. They are fortunate as a family to have uncles and cousins who they can share this love of nature with and again that gets traced back to you. So, thank you for that.

I guess there's so much more I could say, but it seems kind of pointless to write a letter that will never be read. I do know that whatever the afterlife might bring, we have a whole lot of catching up to do. I want to start with what happened that night and go on from there. Because no adult should be left with a single crayoned card from which to draw memories of his dad.

I love you, Dad.

Jim

Blogging off...

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Blathering All Gratefully

It was a weekend of great dividends.

I know I beat the Thanksgiving drum on my last post and you are probably sick of hearing people's blathering words of gratitude, but based on the weekend I had, it is difficult to keep them to myself.

We went north to Minnesota to visit my family for the holiday and I came away filled with gratefulness for what we have built together. Much of this is the sap that I've become for connecting with people on a personal level lately. With all the crap going on in this country and the world lately, I find these moments with loved ones as little beacons of light in a sometimes dark world. They replenish me and, more importantly, restores my hope.

There were several connecting points with the family en-masse and in more intimate gatherings. The Thanksgiving feast is always good, a raucous affair with lots of food, laughter and memories. This one even featured a new baby - my niece's month-old son. But in some senses, the smaller gatherings was where we were able to really find out what's going on in peoples' lives.

In our family, we have a kind of weird tradition that goes back quite a ways. Me and my brothers Tom, Rob and Paul used to go down to the Spot Bar in St. Paul on the day after Thanksgiving. It was a time of brothers catching up, back slapping and revelry. The Spot is one of the older bars in Saint Paul and was always kind of dumpy. It was a blue collar bar where the only food were chips or a pizza ordered from a nearby pizza place. Over the years they've fixed it up a bit but it retains much of what I call "old timey charm," but what a health inspector might call a violation. It lacks swank, but I love the place.

Well, over the past few years, my some of the sisters and sisters in-laws and even a couple cousins have been joining the celebration. This year even my eighty four year old mom joined the fray. We all toast my brother Rob who would love nothing more than knowing his family was at one of his old haunts keeping the tradition alive. He loved that kind of thing and I know he was there in spirit.

Anyway, at the Spot I had the best conversation with my brothers and my godson/nephew Nick. I jokingly call it solving world problems because while we do a little talking of world affairs, we are well aware that none of what we say can change anything. At the same time it was positively therapeutic to hear from them that my feelings of dread with the direction of the country and the world right now are not just my own. Sometimes that helps to talk them out and try and keep doing what we are doing to make the world a better place.

When I mentioned to my nephew that someday (hopefully long from now) when my mom passes away, things will probably change with regards to our families getting together, he looked at me and said, "Why would ANYTHING have to change?" He went on to point out all that we've built as a family - everyone gets along, we help one another and it's kind of amazing. The weird thing is that is EXACTLY what Rob would have said. Both of these guys are gushing extroverts who love family more than anything.

And frankly, I had a hard time justifying why things would change. I stammered and backpedaled and waffled. I said "It'll become a space issue," or "Mom is the glue that holds us together," but Nick wasn't having it. It reminded me so much of my brother Rob that it was eerie.

So I guess I can't say enough about my family. It saddens me to know there are people who don't have what I have. I wish I could clone it and sell it.

Anyway, the whole weekend was an investment in a fund that is paying serious dividends right now and it's all because we've got a whole lot of investors.

And I am a rich, rich man.

Blogging off...