Sunday, October 28, 2012

Faking It With Zeal

My wife and I have been a part of the Middle School Ministry at church for the past three years. Prior to that, I worked with my son's Boy's Club group at church for four years from grades 2 through 5. The tasks have changed a little over time, but the goals are essentially the same. Provide a safe, fun, encouraging environment for our kids to establish their young faith while helping teach them the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

How am I qualified to this task, you ask? I frequently ask myself the same question. The answer is I'm not. I have no theological training to speak of. While my faith is strong, I would not say that I have any firmer grasp of the Bible than the guy sitting in the pew next to me. One might think that I should be good at teaching kids to be able to do the job. Well, wrong again. Nothing special there either. Just average in my dealings with young teens.

What I do have is a willing heart. Couple that with a bit of old Catholic guilt and deep-felt need to be a part of  my kids' spiritual upbringing, and there you have it.

Seven years of making it up as I go along.

Seven years of doubting myself and my abilities, but trusting the God that put me there.

If you know me at all, you know I'm an introvert. I know this about myself and so, in some respects, the Middle School Ministry forces me outside of my comfort zone. I know it would be easier to let someone else, some extrovert, teach my kid while I cloistered myself up at home. Something inside me told me that's the easy, safe way out, and so here I am, seven years later.

Seven years of  winging it.

Seven years of giving my best, but constantly second guessing myself.

About the only thing I've had going for me over the years is, I do love kids. I remember those years well when all I wanted to do was fit in. Through working with them though, the single most revealing thing I've discovered is that these kids just want to be listened to. While teaching them is important, perhaps the more important thing is letting them know that they are valued, they are good, and that God loves them. Sure they screw around, kids are kids. But I found that if you respect them enough to listen to their struggles and fears, they respond much better to correction.

Today at church I went in with the same trepidation as 7 years ago. What if our small group is quiet/awkward/screwing around/etc? What if they ask a question I can't answer? As it turned out, it was one of the best small groups this year. It's situations like these that convince me that God has a sense of humor.

It's also situations like these that make it glaringly clear that this is exactly where I should be.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obsession Defined

It's that time of year, mid fall, when I take my trip up north in pursuit of one of the greatest fish in the freshwater ecosystem. I'm speaking of Esox masquinongy, aka the Musky. I always look forward to this trip for a couple of reasons. For one, it's the last blast of fishing for the year. While I probably could get out once or twice more now that I have a kayak, I always look at it as my last chance on the water. 

Secondly, fishing Musky has become my newest passion. It is so uniquely different from fishing for other fish, that I want to learn all I can about it; become better at it; catch a bigger one. As I describe in my account of my first experience, it is not so much like fishing for them as it is "hunting" for them. They are few and far between, these creatures, so you have to be crafty, incredibly patient, and a little johnny on the spot to get them.

They are called the fish of 10,000 casts for a reason. They're finicky and smart. It takes serious work to catch even one. The  lures are big and heavy. After a day of casting baits for them, I have pain/cramps between my shoulder blades. It's a working vacation in every sense of the word, but I love every minute of it. 

Casting is usually fruitless, as we catch most of our fish by trolling with suckers, bait fish that are between 9-14" long themselves. Some people would be content to catch our baits. The fact that it is usually fruitless does not mean that I won't do it. As I see it, the more lines in the waters, the greater the chances of a fish. I actually caught small one on a lure two years ago, so that is part of the reason I keep at it. I'm obsessed.

This past weekend I met a woman (friend of a friend) who is more obsessed than me. It is her goal to catch 50 muskies in her fifties. She's 52 and has 24 to her credit, so she should make it. It was so cool to see a woman, especially one in her fifties that was as gung-ho as any man on catching a fish. She actually took her paddle boat out to re-position our suckers on their bobbers in the bay by her house. Now that's obsession. 

The picture above is of the 41" fish I landed on Saturday 10/20 about 12:15. It fought like nothing I've ever experienced in my life. With the help and guidance of my buddies Steve and John, I got him into the net. It was exhilarating and a complete rush. 

I can't wait to do it again.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shouting Down A Hole

I was hoping I could leave the ATT post as a single ranting post and be done with it. Their corporate arrogance and ineptitude make that impossible however. Bear with me for one more post as I try and put this problem to rest forever.

I called back today to tell them I hadn't received the forms to declare my employment/discount eligibility via email like I was promised on Friday. Well, of course the first guy couldn't handle it because only customer service can do that. So, I was promptly transferred to someone cleverly disguised as a friendly customer service clerk. She was pleasantly patient and seemed to be eager to help. Well after repeating my name, address, and my wife's last 4 social security digits another time, she assured me that if I were to take down the 14 digit account number and give it to the representative at the first number I called, it would all be done.

Seems easy enough, right?

Wanting to finish the procedure (and being 20 minutes into the process at this point) I called the guy right away. After taking my name, address, and my wife's last 4 social security numbers, he informed me that my eligibility proof of employment period expired on the 12th of October and that I'd have to reapply.

Are you feeling the rage?

Again, I am a patient person, right? I started to boil and politely told the gentleman that he was going to make me lose patience. It was the friendliest way I could think of to not curse his entire ancestral line. After listening to my plea and typing something into his computer, he told me that he was sorry, but all he could do was send me the forms for me to fill out so I could reapply. So I told him to do just that.

It's been 8 hours and I'm still waiting for the forms to show up in my email box...

Remind me next time to start every support call to ANYWHERE computer or phone related by asking the support technician's name before we start talking. This will allow me to begin to compile the documentation for the pending BBB complaint.

I'm a David in a Goliath world here.

Blogging off...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

...And I'm Not Gonna Take It Anymore!

I got the chance to deal with ATT again this week. This company might have the most confusing and ill conceived upgrade/data/transfer phone plan that has ever existed. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

About a month ago I got a new smart phone. As part of the move to the new phone, we wanted to begin a Family data sharing plan. We were originally set up with Donna and Sarah both having a 2 GB plan and Ben and I with nothing. So when we got my phone, we opted to upgrade to a single 10 GB plan. Part of the incentive to go with a 10 GB plan was that we were supposed to receive a 15% discount that I get from work.

The following Monday I get a text that the discount had not been applied and will require proof of employment. Two seconds later I get a text saying the discount WAS applied. So, which is it?

Well, because of the way billing cycles work, we had to wait a couple of weeks to find out if all of this shifting around really took effect. Guess what? 

It didn't. 

It turns out they had me on the shared data plan and Sarah and Donna were still on their 2 GB plans. Oy! Furthermore, there was no discount applied anywhere. 

After she cooled down, my dear wife paid a visit to the fine, staff at the ATT store in our area. They were extremely apologetic and after about 45 minutes of billing gyrations, they had it "all straightened out." 

Later in the week, Sarah's phone stopped working and she needed an upgrade. We took it in and she got a new phone. It only took two trips to get the new phone, but that is a different story altogether.

The next day, Friday of last week, I get a text saying that the discount was not applied because I failed to show my proof of employment within the 14 day period. I called back the representatives and lost my cool. Now if you know me it takes a lot to get me riled up. I began to get a tad belligerent, but basically said "Don't make me go back to the ATT store." 

The kind clerk said she would email me the forms right away.

I'm still waiting.

Blogging off...

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Story Behind The Stories

I went to another writing event last Friday night. It's an event called the Friday Night Free For All and it takes place at the AllWriters' writing studio in downtown Waukesha. It features readings from four genres including poetry, memoir, fiction and novel excerpt. Usually a guest speaker is also featured, but this particular event used a panel of students who submitted their work to the Ampersand Review. These poems were supposed to be "Found Poems" which are poems compiled of other snippets. These could be literature quotes, movie titles, or in this case, email subject lines.

I realize that these events are not for everyone. You have to appreciate books, stories and storytelling. It also helps to be familiar with the writing process, though that's not requirement. Many of my friends would not be caught dead at something like this, and I really don't hold that against them. As I said, it's not for everyone.

The fact of the matter is that I really do enjoy them. I enjoy the diversity of the writing styles as well as the shift between genres. I like the fact that poets sometimes just do poetry and nothing else. Or that nonfiction folks sometimes just write nonfiction. But most of all, I think I just enjoy the escape of the stories and the poetry. Like a movie in the theater, it takes me away from this current world and to another place.

To me though, this method is even better than movies or, maybe more rewarding is a better way to put it. The reason is, the listener is forced to make it all up; to see it in his or her head. I'm guessing this taxes different parts of the brain than the direct visual stimuli, of a movie. We draw our own two story house, picture our own serial killer, or paint that far away fantasy world in our own heads. The funny thing is, it is almost always better than what we would find if it were also shown in a visual medium. The old saying that "The book was way better than the movie," is proof of this.

This ability to not only read a story, but tell one without reading it, is another gift altogether. One of the writers in our group competed in a showing of the Moth in Chicago. It is typically an open event where people have 5 minutes to tell a story and they are scored based on how they did. She won first place and came in second place in the next round. She told an expanded version of her story at the Free For All and it was captivating. Some people have a real knack for storytelling. (Of course there are others who think they do and are usually the bores you swing a wide swath around at parties.) ;-)

In any case there is a version of the Moth coming on Nov. 1st to the Miramar Theater in Milwaukee. I plan on attending and if you're looking to do something wildly different than seeing a movie or going out to dinner, I encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Relative Alter-Ego

I am about halfway through my deceased uncle's (Jack) second manuscript. Recall from an earlier post that I was given both of his books by my brother to read at my leisure. It turns out that he had acquired them from Jack directly in an attempt to get some publishing interest. My brother has had a couple of books published and so Jack figured Tom might be able to help him out. From what I understand, Tom tried to market them to a few places, but none bit.

The second book is titled LUM'S and it is about two brothers who own a grocery store in North Central Minnesota. The plot is a tad slow and is centered around their attempt at expansion of the business. With both books I am learning a lot about my uncle, but also using some of the skills I've learned in my writing workshop to see why maybe these books didn't catch any interest.

None of it is meant to detract from my admiration for his effort and all of the work that went into each. As a fledgling writer myself, I hardly feel qualified to judge anothers writing. At the same time, I've learned a few things along the way, things that I would love to have been able to tell Jack in a writing group or through personal correspondence.

For instance, in LUMS, the two brothers are named Elmer and Elroy. While I get that families sometimes do that, as a reader, I am forever getting the two mixed up. My writing coach would bust my kneecaps for doing that. Even if it was Elmer and Edward, it's better than two El-names in the same story. Again, it might only be me, but I would think I'm not alone.

Here are a few things that I've learned in the couple of years I've been in AllWriters' workshop.

1. Make something big happen. Nothing is worse than a series of facts, descriptions, and situations. People already live that out in day-to-day life. If there's not some "kapow" in your story why would they want to read it?

2. Watch your Point of View (POV). As a narrator you can't switch POV's without some sort of transitory break in the story.

3. Too much description is almost as bad as not enough. Don't assume your readers are blind, but don't leave them trying to guess the scene either.

4. Good humor is hard to write. Bad humor comes much easier.

5. Do not be repetitious. Do not. Don't.

6. Reading your story aloud before you read it to others will expose errors you'll never hear when reading it silently.

7. Have a beginning, middle and end. Basic stuff, but it holds true for chapters as well as novels.

8. A good title makes a good story/poem/novel that much better.

9. Most people who criticize your work mean well; some are just better at relaying the criticism (or do it constructively).

10. In the words of my writing instructor, "Don't out write the headlights." In other words, don't start a work with the end in mind. Just start writing and write as far as you can see at that moment. The end will come, but if you know it now, you'll miss what should have been. Good advice.

Again, reading his works have been enlightening to me in many ways. It has certainly helped me to understand my father's side of the family a little better, especially Jack. At the same time, I sincerely feel it has made me into a little better writer myself. And thinking it through, that may have been the true purpose for why it landed in my lap all along.

Blogging off...