Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Year In The Books

This time of year tends to be both reflective and telescopic for me. As I prepare for what the new year promises, I also take stock of what last year brought to my life. When I look at 2013 from a writing perspective, it was a really, really good year. I had eight pieces published over the year, three of them paying. This was my most successful year from a publication standpoint, but as all writers know, "success" is not all about the publishing.

For instance, I feel successful when I get four pages written in a sitting. I feel successful when I do a reading and people come up to me afterward and say, "I really loved your story/poems." I feel successful when I take a piece I've written already and find a new twist to it or I enrich it by adding layers to it. My success is not always about what others see or say, but what my words do for me. Writing is baring one's soul, and when we do it well, it feels so much more satisfying than when we do it half-heartedly. And if we don't do it regularly, we feel badly. It's like a runner who has to run to feel better, to feel normal. I love that that's how I now feel about writing.

Along those lines, in addition to the published stuff, I've managed to blog 96 entries this year. I assumed that this was my best year ever, as I strive to blog twice a week (Sundays and Wednesdays.) I was surprised to see that 2010 I had 100 entries. Given the struggles of that year, a year that changed my life and outlook forever, I guess I see why I needed to write. It was/is my therapy.

A quick rundown of the 2013 publications and what they meant to me:

  • 2013 WI Fellowship of Poets Calendar: Angels With Dirty Faces poem. This was a poem inspired by my volunteering to help my son's Middle School Ministry. I took a single night's experience and made it into a humorous, heartfelt poem. Any poem that involves dodge ball and prayer is a good one in my book.
  • MidWest Outdoors - February: One and Done nonfiction story. This story describes a day with my daughter that I will always remember. It was a fishing trip where Sarah managed to catch a muskie on her first cast. I'll never forget the look on her face and the special moments between father and daughter.
  • Torrid Literature Journal - Volume VI: Can't Be Beat poem. A poem inspired while I was in a local coffee shop. I have always admired the beat generation writers including Brautigan, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the likes. It occurred to me that people (myself included) can get so sucked into the past, in some cases making it out to be way better than it was, to the point of missing the present and how wonderful it is. This poem is a manifestation of me working out the difference between past and present.
  • MidWest Outdoors - May: Passing It On nonfiction story. The story of our 2012 trip to the BWCA. The focus of the story was how my brother Tom and I try to expose our children to the wonders of the great outdoors by taking them to the BWCA, one of our nations last "untouched" wilderness areas. The story culminates in our sprinkling of Rob's ashes over the waters before we leave on Father's Day, 2012.
  • Torrid Literature Journal - Volume VII: Going Back poem. This is a sing-songy rhymey poem that's not really my style. What made an okay poem into a good poem was the way it was formatted. At the recommendation of a friend, this one was formatted to look like a winding river which is fitting because the poem is about going back to the BWCA and canoeing in rivers and lakes. I think that one change made it appealing enough to the publishers.
  • MidWest Outdoors - August: Brothers through Thick and Fin nonfiction story. A piece about the history of muskie fishing in our family among the four Landwehr brothers. The story included pictures of each of us with our fish, but also a small picture of the tattoo commemorating the fish I caught on Rob's birthday on the October after he passed away. (10/14/11)
  • Verse Wisconsin - October Of Ice and Minn poem. A poem about winters in my home state of Minnesota, inspired by a stay there over Christmas in 2012.
  • Off The Coast - Fall Winter Kite poem. A poem about flying a kite in my living room in winter, inspired by my somewhat drafty living room. Especially fitting given the winter we are experiencing in 2013.
So that's it. I can only hope to have this kind of success in the coming years. Of course all of it would be eclipsed by the publishing of my BWCA book, which I am currently marketing. I look at these as stepping stones.

I want to take time to thank you who have supported me and maybe even bought a book or magazine that I've been published in. It means a lot to have you there cheering me on. Without you I'm just another guy typing words.

And finally, I have to thank the staff and students at AllWriters' Workshop and Workplace for all they've done to help me succeed. Their feedback and tutelage have helped me turn my writing into something more real. You guys rock. (A special shout-out to my Mother in-law too, for her editing prowess. Thanks Mom!)

Going into 2014, I urge you to pursue something you love. Life is too short not to.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Voices of Christmas

Over the past few years leading up to Christmas I've done something on Facebook that I call the "Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts of Years Past." I post a picture of a gift I've received or gave when I was a kid back in the 70's, with a brief description of what it meant to me. Often times it sparks memories or responses from people who remember the item or associate it with a particular memory of theirs. Its fun for me to pore over the Christmas catalogs of the past and remember some of the crazy and eclectic gifts of the past.

Of course, as much as the gifts change over the years, what really makes Christmas "Christmas" are the people around me. Over the years, the faces grow older, and the places change, but the undercurrent of love, laughter and support stands true. Everyone gathered around the dinner table every Christmas would go to war for one another and the gift exchanges are just an extension of this appreciation for each other.

Some of the more memorable gatherings of years past included people like:

Cousins, Aunts and Uncles: Back in the years before we were teens, we used to get together with my Mom's sister's family. This meant lots of cousins and a whole lotta noise and chaos. Throw into the mix lots of smoking, cocktails, and laughter and enough presents to raise the national GNP, and you get a holiday blowout that outgrows itself. The first couple years without them was traumatic, but eventually our own families grew to create the same chaos level today.

When I married into another family, their tradition was much the same. Theirs was different in that they conducted a progressive dinner from house to house in the quaint little burg of Gorham, NY. It was appetizers and drinks at one house, dinner at another and dessert at a third. I really liked this tradition, but eventually it outgrew itself too.

My Brother Rob: As much as I miss having him around for dinner and the gift opening, one of the things I always go back to is how we would go to Midnight Mass together at St. Lukes Church every Christmas Eve. Back then, we were hit-and-miss church attendees, with more missin' than hittin', but we always made it a point to make it to Midnight Mass. The mass was always beautiful in the magnificent cathedral that was St. Lukes. Every year on the walk home he managed to catch me off-guard and hip-check me into a snow bank. I think by the fourth year I was onto him and we both ended up in the snowbank as I fought back.

Grandparents: My grandmother Dagny once brought stewed oysters to Christmas. It was an ungodly awful dish - no disrespect - but my stepfather made the point of having some and then raving about them, so as to not be rude. Well, she took that and ran with it and we had the oysters for the next 5 years. It was great having her around every year and she always made it a point to get gifts for all of us grand kids. She was known and feared for her inordinately wet lips when Christmas kisses were given out. She was love and she was loved.

Mom: Throughout the years she has been the steadying force of Christmas. She used to be in charge of the Christmas turkey, then it became the Christmas prime rib roast (roast beast), and still plays a major part in some element of the food coordination and preparation. She rallies the troops on where Christmas is this year, what time we're meeting and other specifics. I can't imagine Christmas without her, we are blessed to have her healthy and happy again this year.

Brothers, Sisters, In Laws, and Steps: There aren't words for everything these bring to the holidays. These are my equals who care about what my kids are up to, how I'm doing at work and in health. They give me their own updates and make sure we are taken care of when we come home, whatever the occasion. God bless them all.

Stepfather: My step dad always had to split the holidays between his natural children and ours, but always made it a point to be there for Christmas. He was a happy spirit.

Nieces and Nephews; They're all approaching teen-hood (or in it), so it's a whole different vibe, but it is so great to see these kids get along so well when they are plopped into each others' environments. The rattle and hum of kids from another room is both disturbing and comforting. Like my own cousins, there will come a day when they don't get together as much, but the foundation that is being laid today will carry through and keep them close for life.

Friends: We were paid a spontaneous visit by our longstanding friends on December 21st. They came over for other reasons, and ended up staying for an hour and catching up. Between them and our other close friends, we always have our "surrogate family" as I'm sure most everyone does. Those folks help pull the coasts closer for those of us who can't travel every year. I thank God for them and all the richness they bring to my own introverted life.

And so I encourage you to take a look around at your Christmas/New Year tables this year and realize that while this scenario may seem "typical" for you, it may be something much more meaningful to your kids, your brother or your niece. Enjoy it for what it is. These people are all on different tracks, but the common thread that weaves you all together is love. And if you can't see that Christmas gift for what it is, then you need to take a long inward look. Because as dysfunctional as it seemingly is sometimes, it is still beautiful, and you're lucky to have it.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Post Solstice Post

Well I just dug out of a beautiful 6-7" snowfall and then took my daughter to work. Soon enough I will be going to Milwaukee to pick up my father and mother in-law to bring them here for Christmas. Earlier this morning I was wrapping Christmas presents with my son Ben in his bedroom while listening to Pandora's Christmas Channel on his PC. Later today I will be hunkering down to watch the Packers try to continue to weasel their way into the playoffs by beating a Pittsburgh team that is laughably bad this year. Then I will gather with the whole family to eat a delicious meal prepared by my better half and then settle in for a movie or just some laughter and discussion.

This is the lead-in to my 2013 Wisconsin Christmas, and I love it. May the spirit of the season be as good for you and your families this Christmas.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Angel Of Christmas Past

Dec. 23rd, 1973

I lay in my bed anxiously awaiting the coming of Christmas Eve. Our family always celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve and the days leading up to it are always full of anticipation for me. I've just turned 12 years old and can't help thinking about the pile of presents sitting under the tree downstairs in the spacious living room of our house in St. Paul, Minnesota. My stomach is actually churning and shuddering likely in part from the twelve year-old Christmas diet of cookies, ribbon candy and egg nog.

I get up and start downstairs in my fleece pajamas where my sister Pat is sitting alone. It is past ten o'clock and my other siblings were all in bed, as was my mother, exhausted from the preparations for tomorrows celebration and cheer. When I get downstairs, Pat says "What are you doing up?"

"I can't sleep because I want tomorrow to be here. It's making my stomach hurt." I say.

"Well, come here and help me straighten up the presents under the tree."

I walk over and the two of us start mixing, straightening, and putting order to the mound of gifts under our big Norway Pine. She asks me what I got mom and then proceeds to tell me some of the major gifts that Mom got for the rest of the siblings. It is an unusually comforting time with my sister whose usual role is as the fill-in Matriarch when Mom's at work. Her demeanor when she's in charge is stern and purposeful. This is a pleasant change. It seems that Christmas softens everyone.

We finish the present organizing and I march up the stairs back to bed. The time with my sister calms my anxious stomach and I fall back to sleep, but not before filing the moment with my eldest sister into the deep recesses of my memory.

Dec. 24th, 1973

There are two rules on Christmas Eve at the Landwehr house. Number one is "no presents until the dishes are done." Number two is "Kids do dishes." Every year we gripe a little and then start quibbling about who's going to wash or dry. This year is no different. I help dry the last of the silverware and the large pots from the Christmas Turkey dinner.

While we slave over oily dishwater, the adults are out relaxing with cocktails and cigarettes in the dining and living rooms. It hardly seems fair that we should be burdened with what seems like 67 plates and related silverware and glasses, but the price is fair given the booty that lay beneath the tree; booty that would only become ours when the pearl diving was finished.

We finish up and crowd around the tree for the annual passing out of gifts. My mom's boyfriend Jack reads the gifts this year, one at a time. The task seems painfully slow, hurried only by the assistant "elves" - kids under ten years old. Like other years, this year I asked for several things, but really only one that mattered. I wanted more than anything an electric football game. The game where you spend 5 minutes lining up your players for 30 seconds of "action". It is not unlike the real game that way, except time is stretched out considerably more in the small version.

As the present passing comes to an end, I have a stack of 5 presents in front of me, one of which is obviously socks. While I sense there are some "toys" in the stack, there is nothing the size or shape of my football game which is about the size of the hood of a small car.

I try not to look dejected as I start opening the stack. The excitement around me is electric, but I'll have none of it. It could be a good Christmas, but it really won't be a great Christmas, that's for sure.

Oh, look, black socks.

I tear through the rest of the gifts, most of which would have made any other child ecstatic and while they're good, and I like them all, they all fall short.

I begin to feel bad for feeling bad. What a selfish boy. There's kids in China...

Then, when all the presents are opened, my brother Tom pulls a large wrapped box from the dining room.

A box as big as the hood of a small car.

What was your favorite Christmas present ever?

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Eyes To See

My wife and I went to church this morning at Transformation City Church. As I mentioned we've been going there, checking it out and seeing if it's where we should be. It's a church in the heart of Milwaukee and their message and mission seem to mesh pretty well where we are as a family. I'll admit the first couple times I went, I was skeptical and somewhat resistant. It's a bit of a drive, and it's not really "my neighborhood" or "local" as they say. At the same time, their focus on the central city, the homeless, the poor and hurting is right where we're at. I approached today differently thinking let's just see where God can use me in this church and see what happens.

The message this morning was convicting and real. It spoke about how as a culture we've built a "system" of education to job to wealth accumulation to retirement to passing on an inheritance for our kids to perpetuate this system. The point wasn't that the system is wrong, but rather that it was not Jesus' system, but rather ours. It went on to say that we need to reach out to the hurting and oppressed so that they can get out of the broken system they're in.

Afterwards we were asked to help clear chairs for the church's Christmas potluck. As I cleared them I was still kind of reeling from the message. When I was done, I started to make my way to the door and noticed my friend Steve was talking to a guy who I assumed he knew, so I joined him. As I stepped into the conversation he said he was in a tough spot right now.

We both listened as this guy who I'll call Clarence (not his real name) poured out his story to us. He told us how he'd just been released from prison 3 weeks ago and that his was his first time coming to church. With a little pride, he showed us a state ID that he'd just received because the church helped him pay for and acquire it. He said he was fortunate to have found a job recently, but just a couple of weeks ago he was going door-to-door to see if people would pay him to shovel their walk. Eventually someone called the cops because they thought he was a scammer. He felt insulted and shamed.

Shamed for trying to earn a living.

Clarence then went on to tell us of his terribly abusive childhood and the horrendous, unspeakable things that happened to him at the hand of his mother and father who were into alcohol and drugs. He spoke of running away and how he lived on the streets for years, sometimes stealing bundles of papers and trying to sell them illegally to earn money.

He went on to say how he'd spent the last 12 years in prison and when he was released one of the jailers said he and people like him were their "bread and butter" and that he'd be back in someday to insure that. Clarence has vowed to never let that happen. He wants to do better. He even said he'd like to get to a place where he can help others that are either in a situation like his, or better yet, to avoid getting into one like he was.

This man said he never had a Christmas tree, and that he was going to ask the guy across the street with a tree lot if he could have one.

Never had a Christmas tree. 56 years old. Broken. Healing. Reaching out.

While he had a job, he said that he was worried about getting a bus pass so he could get around. They cost $17.50 and he needed 5 of them. About this time, my friend Steve pulled out a $20 and gave it to him. I have a "private stash" of money I keep in my wallet that, when it reaches a certain point, I put it into my personal account. I use it for stuff I want or, occasionally, gifts for others. I immediately reached for it and gave Clarence $40. If I'd had $60, I may have given that to him.

I tell this story not to elevate myself, to brag or instill guilt. I tell it because it sure seems like God put this guy in Steve's and my life - at this moment - to test and see if we were listening to what we'd just heard. It was so real and so raw. My only wish is that I wish some of you could have been there with me. This guy was living proof of a hurting, healing world out there.

Sometimes these hurting people come into our midst directly, like Clarence did today, but more often, we have to seek them out, go to them. That's what experiences like our Guest House endeavors have taught me. You don't have to go far to help, but for God's sake, please help somewhere.

I told my wife I think I just gave her stocking stuffers to a recovering felon in the name of Jesus, and oddly enough she was ecstatic. It brought tears to her eyes much like Clarence's story brought to mine.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Egg Nog And Birthday Blog

Today was my birthday, or as a friend of mine calls it my "Begin Day". They seem to come and go so quickly lately. For me, my December birthday is always a nice momentary diversion from the rush, hustle, cold and snow of the holiday season. Because my wife's is on December 7th, we typically just go out to dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Merenda. We rarely exchange birthday gifts, as its such a taxing financial time of year anyway. We agreed that except on the major birthdays (the 10's) we'll just consider our night out as our gift to each other. It has become one of my favorite meals of the year.

While all birthdays are good, when I think back to some of the more memorable ones there were some really good ones.

  • 11th (Golden Birthday) I got special treatment this day and got to go across the border to a tavern with my Mom and my Stepdad (to be) in Hudson, WI to watch the Viking-Packer game. Back then, home games that weren't sold out in advance were blacked out in the Twin Cities. It was great being treated even though the game was on a fairly fuzzy screen and the Vikes got whacked 23-7. Looking back, it was as cold then as it is this year, unfortunately. Since then, I've switched allegiances, but still pull for each of them when they're not playing each other. 

  • 30th -- We went back to the Twin Cities for this birthday. Mom fronted a surprise party by saying that she wanted to take me out for my 30th birthday. While we were out for dinner, friends and relatives filled Mom's house much to my surprise. I had suspicions throughout the day that day, because the phone seemed to be ringing excessively and mom was kind of sneaking around. It was still a great surprise though. Turning 30 for me was much harder than 20 or 40. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the realization that you're not "young" anymore -even though you are. If thirty is old, I don't want to think what 50 is. Ha!

  • 40th -- This was a much less celebrated birthday, but the cool thing about it was my wife solicited people to write me a card, or letter, or send me pictures of me. It was great fun seeing what people remembered about me, some of it good, some of it crazy. It was a great reminder that you don't have to have a big party to realize how blessed you are with so many friends and family.

  • 50th -- Donna was given strict instructions that there was to be no surprise party. In fact, I told her I preferred to have a really small gathering, which we did. It was great being with my immediate family and a few close good friends. The gifts were funny and Donna surprised me with a fishing Kayak. Best gift ever.

One birthday tradition that has been carried through from when I was a kid was my cake of choice is still an angel food cake with chocolate frosting. My wife delivered again this year and it was as good as ever. 

I think 52 is going to be a good year.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thursday Jump Starts

Most of my weekday mornings are pretty typical, full of routine and fairly predictable. The exception to this are my Thursdays. On Thursdays I meet at a local coffee shop for an hour with a few friends for a sort of theologic discussion/book study/random thought session. It has become my favorite day of the week.

We always have a book we're working through, usually an edgy Christian book of one sort or another. We've studied a book by Newbigin that is out of print, then a book by Peter Rollins called Insurrection and are now working through Letters from a Skeptic by Gregory and Edward Boyd. We are taking on the "hard books" that challenge modern Christianity and challenge us to look at our faith and even our perceptions of what a Christian life is supposed to look like.

This group is kind of the antithesis of a group I was part of about 7 or 8 years ago. That group began with good intentions, namely challenging us to be men of faith and conviction. After a few years together however, it became a bit of a political hot-mess. It seemed that there was an understanding that somewhere in the bylaws of the Christian faith, you had to become a card carrying Republican.

I never got the memo on that.

I was a lone-wolf independent with Democratic leanings and because it was an election year, the Obama slamming was in full swing in this group. While I wasn't a big fan of his, I didn't think a "Bible Study" (because that's what we were at the time) was the place or platform for political discourse. I voiced my displeasure a couple of times when it came up and finally left the group because I didn't like what we had become. The group was Us vs. Them, Insiders vs. Outsiders.

So the new group is not that. We're quite the opposite. We realize that Church and State are separate for a reason. We realize both political parties have problems, and neither one is especially good at trying to regulate morality. We laugh at the people who think that Christian=Republican. Right now we're going through a study that is taking a close look at the Bible and challenging us to look at it more critically and realistically than maybe I've ever done in the past. I come away from these one hour gatherings energized and with my mind reeling.

I remember when one of the guys asked me to be part of the group one summer day. I told him I'd had kind of a bad experience in my previous group and left it at that. When I saw another guy from the group a couple of weeks later and he invited me, I took it as a sign that I should join them and see what the group is all about.

I'm glad I did.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beneath The Surface

We returned from St. Paul on Sunday after spending another Thanksgiving holiday in Minnesota with my family. It was an extraordinarily good 4 days. The holidays are always a bit stressful going in, but I've found that once they're upon me, I have no problem putting all of my effort into enjoying the time I have with family and friends. This past weekend was a good chance for catching up and getting under the surface of how my family members are really doing. Because of the extended time we spent together, we have a chance to talk about more than the weather, the Vikings and the Packers - (and, this year, I really thank God for that.)

We stayed with my sister in-law at her spacious new apartment in New Brighton. Our kids hung with her kids and her place was very conducive to relaxing and serious down time. I cherish time with her because of all of our shared past memories, but also out of love for her and her girls. She has the formidable task of raising two teenage girls and through talking to her over this break it's clear she's working on doing the best she can. She's focused on being there for them and moving forward after the loss of her husband, my brother. I am amazed by how healthy she looks, of her positive outlook, and am grateful our family has their family to support, love and encourage.

Thanksgiving dinner was at my sister in-laws parents' house. My favorite part of family get-togethers is floating from conversation to conversation. When you tire from one, you excuse yourself and go to another. I covered everything from dinner conversation about a book on Writing Diction, to discussing how the annual thanksgiving football game was really the Dallas Corporation versus the Oakland Corporation, to pictures of harvested deer and bear and a couple dozen other subjects in-between. It is like watching a combination of the evening news, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Big Brother, America's Got Talent and a dash of Jerry Springer all rolled into one.

Because my son has only one male cousin in the area, I managed to see my oldest brother for a good spell on Friday. We took the boys out for some archery practice in the back yard and I managed to definitively kill his fence with three arrows, completely missing the target. It was a blatant reminder as to why I don't hunt. I shoot like a cross-eyed pirate. We had some good laughs, but after the third one I think my archery ineptitude was wearing on Tom, so we quit.

He and I also had time to stop for a beer at the HammerHeart Taproom in Lino Lakes. It was a strange experience in some ways, mostly due to the foreboding music. (Picture Nordic-Goth-Rock). The beer was outstanding, but I told Tom that if I stayed and listened to the music for more than 20 minutes I'd likely shoot myself. He countered with if "If you stayed for two hours, you'd want to shoot everyone." That is what I like most about being around him, his sense of humor is wicked-funny. I'm always glad when I take some time to visit with him and his wife and kids.

Saturday brought the bridal shower for my niece. I dropped the ladies off in Inver Grove Heights and from what I heard later, the event was a great success. I am so fortunate to have such a tight family - including the spouses of us boys, labeled the "outlaws". My wife, Mom, Sisters in-law and nieces made such an effort to make Stephanie's day special that it warmed my heart.

After the shower, we all met up at a local tavern in St. Paul, the Spot Bar, touted as the first bar in Minnesota. It's a tradition of the brothers to go there on the day after Thanksgiving to watch the high school championship - often times it's my alma mater Cretin Derham Hall - but this year they bowed out early. When the ladies heard about it they wanted to join us. I got to sit and have pizza and talk with my brother and nephew for a couple of hours. You can't put a price on that kind of face time - especially given the distance we are from my family.

When he arrived, my nephew/godson surprised me with a Reggie White authentic NFL Packers jersey, "just because". It wasn't really a birthday present, he just wanted to thank me for all I've done for him over the years. I was touched.

Later that night I had great conversations with my sister and nephew. It was clear that there was a deep appreciation and respect for me, one only matched by my respect for them. Feelings came to the surface that don't usually in the short-time family gatherings. I felt loved by all the family and friends there and it was clear the feelings were mutual. I wish every weekend gave us the appreciation for one another that a holiday brings out.

The weekend was finished out with breakfast with Mom. We stopped on Sunday for breakfast, conversation and a bit of computer repair. Again, quality one-on-one time that I'm glad we took the time to do. She appreciated the computer help, but I saw it more as a chance to catch up on life. Because that's what the holidays are made for.

Blogging off...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Have It My Way

My 15 year old son has hit the teenage years where it seems that all he does is eat, sleep and go to school. Our food bill with two teenagers in the house has risen significantly now that we have two teenagers around. They've graduated from being fairly picky eaters to eating just about anything that they can find in the cupboards. You know they're growing up when they'll  not only try new things, but will actually cook something on the stove or the oven. Sarah has been known to cook a pizza after she gets home from work at 10:00 PM. I remember those days and did the same thing as a teenager. The other night Ben left one in the oven for about 50 minutes and something like this was the result. >>>

One of Ben's new favorite foods is hamburgers, another phase that I remember going through as a teenager. We grilled out one time and as we were eating, Ben said "Ya know, this burger is really good. I really like hamburgers." I knew we had hit a turning point right then.

Now I know red meat is evil and carnivores are evil, and I know beef is bad for you and I know hamburger is the bottom of the beef food chain. I know. And Ben knows too. I told him it's not something you want to eat a lot of. It should be like a luxury item, or a treat. If you don't know this and keep it in check, it will eventually kill you with artery clogging swiftness.

At the same time, I know that a good burger is just a teeny taste of heaven on earth. I know the PETA folks will hate me for saying it, but it's true.

Lately, Ben and I have been on a "burger tour." Our area of Southeastern Wisconsin has its share of frozen custard restaurants and most of them serve burgers too. Here's a rundown/restaurant review and ranking based on what we've found so far.

  1. Kopps. So far, this is his favorite. These burgers are huge and greasy and delicious. I like them best with fried onions, but Ben's a purist; cheese and ketchup only. The ambiance of this place is like stepping back in time. Lots of stainless steel, humming custard machines and the cooks and cashiers all wear the white hats from the 50's. It's a must-see destination for all visitors to our house.
  2. White Castle. We went here yesterday while visiting family in Minnesota. I miss not having these down in Milwaukee. They're horrible for you, probably a low quality meat, yada, yada, yada, but they are amzingly good. Best enjoyed way after dark, preferably while you're sitting in the car. They were as good as I remember, but there were just more selections, including a Jalapeno Cheese slider and a bacon cheeseburger slider. I said this restaurant almost should be classified in a different class than the rest, because sliders are different. (And so are their after effects.) ;-0
  3. Murfs. Another custard stand favorite. These are also grilled and their stand is local only to Waukesha. They are not quite as big as Kopps, but they come hot off the grill and can be chased by a scoop of the flavor of the day.
  4. Oscars. This burger is actually my "fast food" favorite, not Ben's. I like them best because they're flame broiled and not as greasy as Kopps or Murfs. It has a decent ambiance to as well. Not as big as Kopps, but the white hats and custard machines churning away. It's still on Ben's as a place to try.
  5. Harry's. These are the best ever. They are not fast-food burgers, but are simply the best in Milwaukee, in my opinion. Top quality beef, done to perfection. 
  6. Flameburger. I forgot about this place until we passed it yesterday after lunch at White Castle. It was a favorite of mine through college. Greasy spoon goodness that I've added to our list for when we return to Minnesota.
If you noticed I don't include any of the corporate heavyweights like McDonalds or Burger King. I can't eat those any more. They would be a last resort.  

There are likely a ton more that are "must have's" as it's tough to make a bad burger.Like I said though, I have to keep it to a minimum or my doctor will hate me. I'm sure the PETA people already do, and I'm okay with that.

Blogging off..

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Taking Stock

With the approaching Thanksgiving holiday I want to take a minute to spell out what I'm thankful for. So much of life is rushing to and from the next thing that, to me, to take a minute to reflect is almost therapeutic. Everyone has reason for thanks and tomorrow is meant to remind us of how lucky we are to have what we have.

I am thankful for:

My Wife Donna. She has stuck by me through some tough times and I feel like our marriage is richer because of all of it. We still laugh together daily and she "gets me" and I "get her". She has taught me that love and marriage are forever. I cannot imagine someone more compatible with me. 23 years and counting. Thankful.

My Daughter Sarah. I hate gushing about kids, but Sarah makes it hard not to. She has a strong will, an incredible work ethic and a huge heart. She is an amazing student, way better than I ever was, through no doing of her parents. Why is that? I don't know, but I am thankful.

My Son Ben. Ben has a huge heart too. He never balks when we ask him to "serve" for church or the homeless shelter. He is more of a "B" student, like I was, and there's nothing wrong with that. He has taught me that while friends are important, everyone needs alone time too. Even the socialites. Thankful for him.

My In-Laws. They say when you marry someone you marry their family. I lucked out in that respect. I don't see them but a few times a year, but I love having in-laws that are healthy, well adjusted and accepting of me and my kids. They love me unconditionally and that is a great comfort.

My Mom. She raised seven of us kids and through it all she always managed to stay level headed, active in the community and "there" for our kids and the rest of her grandchildren. She taught me to plow through adversity and to love and respect family as the treasure it is.

My Dad. He gave me this life and through his influences on Tom, he instilled a love of all things outdoors. I'm told he loved his kids more than anything and I believe it. He taught me the importance of being there for my kids and paying forward the love of all things outdoors. He also taught me that life can deal the unexpected and we need to appreciate the now, because tomorrow is just a chance.

My Brother Tom. He taught me the love of fishing, camping, canoeing and all things outdoors. (Hunting, not so much, but that's a story for later.) He shaped my sense of humor more than anyone, I think. He taught me what it means to be a man in my dad's absence.

My Sister Pat. She was the in-situ "mom" when our mom was at work. In some respects she was forced to grow up faster than she should have been because of this. She taught me that everyone needs to help in a family. I remember he "training" me how to properly do dishes and wipe counters down amongst the other household chores. Life skills.

My Sister Linda. Though I never knew her, I am thankful she was a part of my mom and older siblings' lives for the short time she was. I often wonder if I'd be the same person I am if she was still around. I wonder about her personality, what her family would have been like.

My Sister Jane. She is the one who shaped my view of the importance of keeping the family together through thick and thin. I remember when I moved to Milwaukee and she asked "So, when are you moving back to Minnesota, Jim?" I said it may never happen. I think her reply was something like "Well, that sucks." That's how important family was to her. She still hosts many holidays and though she's often in the background, it's apparent that nothing makes her happier than seeing family together.

My Brother Rob. Rob taught me the importance of living in the moment. He taught me that friends are sometimes as important as family. He was the one I was most comfortable being around for extended periods, in part because he loved to laugh. He taught me to not take myself too seriously. I miss him more than anything.

My Brother Paul. Paul taught me the importance of just a little bit of recklessness in my life. His perspective is that life is too short to stay between the lines for the duration. Live on the edge, enough to get your blood going, but not enough to get in trouble. He gave me the love of rock and roll and life as something to be lived with vigor.

My Friends. You know who you are. I'm the world's toughest friend to keep. I don't solicit get-togethers, I don't answer phone calls, and much prefer texts or emails. NONE of that means I don't appreciate you and that you're stubborn enough to stick by me. I'm happiest alone, but as my wife will attest, when I'm around my friends, I enjoy EVERY moment of it. Thank you for all you are to me.

And so, that's it. I'm thankful for friends, family and people that glide into and out of my life. You are beautiful and I can't imagine life without you in it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Blogging off...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Awash In Joy

I'll start by using my old tag line "I'm not handy". This is my opinion, but I really think I don't give myself enough credit. History has shown that in most projects I take on, I do okay.

Today was "install the dishwasher" day. We bought a Bosch Ascenta about a week ago and rather than spend the $150 to have it installed, we thought we'd save a little money and do it ourselves. I had no less than four people tell me that it was "easy" and 3 of those promised me they would be on retainer if needed. Based on those assessments I thought I'd give it a go.

I started by watching a YouTube video where a Canadian guy installed one. It looked fairly straightforward, and the video was only 21 minutes long, so I figured how hard can it be?

Bear in mind that the Canadian guy didn't live in a house that was 91 years old. His was new or new-ish.

So I get started by plugging in my work light that is halogen and, I kid you not, two minutes into being on it blew. Seriously? C'mon man. I take this as a bad omen.

I get flashlights from the basement and set to work. Trip the breakers off, turn the water off and detach the water inlet. Well, I assumed the water would drain from the lines after a minute or two. 10 minutes later, the water's still flowing at a good rate. It's my guess that the shutoff valve under the sink is corroded open or something. I go downstairs to the the water main and it doesn't budge. (Gotta get that looked at REAL SOON.)

So the fear and loathing sets in. What am I going to do? Eventually, I had Donna open it slightly and re-close the valve and the water slowed down to a workable trickle. (That valve should also be looked at REAL SOON, by a REAL plumber.) Bear in mind that at this point we've soaked 3 towels and emptied 14+ cereal bowls of water. "Contain the water" is my mantra.

I pull the unit out and look at what I have to work with. Of course it's copper from 1962, nothing like the "convenient flexible hose" in the stupid Canadian video. So I deem that at a junction, I can put an adapter to go from copper to "convenient flexible hose". I take off the piece and run to the hardware store for the first time. A very helpful, but way, way to conversational young man named John helped me get the right fittings.
It was clear he was getting paid by the hour and I was getting paid by the job as it took 20 minutes longer than it should have. But I digress.

I go to the register and realize I have no wallet. Seriously? C'mon man! Back home I go and when I return, the guy who helped me was much older. I told him what I was doing and that I was going to use the old copper nut, etc,. and he said "Oh, no. You need to cut the copper and replace the ferrule, or else you'll spring a leak and have trouble." When I questioned the process he so quickly described, he treated me like I had never done this before...maybe because I never have, dude! Nevertheless, he demonstrated how to use a copper pipe cutter and, well, $17 later, I left the store with the fittings and a new copper pipe cutter.

I had my doubts about cutting copper, but dang if I didn't cut it like a pro the first time. I put on the fitting, attached the "convenient flexible hose" - ala Canadian Joe - and was ready to finish the install. I move the machine into place and hook the outlet hose into place. Then I hook the still dribbling inlet hose into the brass fitting going into the dishwasher. I turn the water back on and as I go to level the legs, I see there's a leak at the fitting. Understand that I put plumber's Teflon tape on the fitting before I screwed it in and didn't "overtighten" it as the instructions warned. Why then, pray tell, was it leaking. Seriously? C'mon man!

The problem with detaching the inlet hose is that it's now full of water and a little bit of pressure. When I loosen the fitting, of course it's like a garden hose with someone's thumb over the outlet.

"Honey, I could use some towel's and bowls here!" Same story with the cruddy shutoff valve. Turning it off required turning it on again briefly and then off again.

I started the job at 10:00 AM, it's now 5:00 PM.

The fitting comes off after some choice words and a few knuckle scrapes. I retape it and replace it, cross my fingers, turn on the water and voila! No leaks. My confidence is restored momentarily and I finish up with hooking up the electric, levelling the legs, and securing it to the counter top. We switch it on and I check for leaks. I'm doing this by laying on my stomach with a flashlight and peering into the dark nether lands of the dishwasher slot. As the washer runs and I see no leaks, I am awash with a stupid kind of self-help joy. It was like finishing a marathon or something. I could have laid there for hours.

It was friggin' beautiful, man.

So I learned a few things today.

  1. I am handier than I give myself credit for. This stuff isn't easy and I do okay. 
  2. Never reuse copper fixtures. 
  3. Copper cannot be cut with a hacksaw. (I thought the guy at the hardware store was going to flip when I suggested this.) 
  4. Always check your mains and valves.
  5. Whatever wrenches you have, you need a size bigger (or smaller).
  6. Hardware stores don't sell stuff on the honor system. This ain't Mayberry.
  7. Don't be afraid to ask your wife to hand you towels, bowls, life preservers, or snorkels.
  8. Don't be afraid to text your "handy" friends (complete with pictures) if you're not sure.
  9. Always have a second halogen light for backup or a big, honkin' flashlight.
  10. Whatever time frame you have for the job, double it, or maybe even triple it if your house is 91 years old.
  11. Flexible hoses are convenient and put copper to shame.
  12. Plumbers earn every cent they make.
  13. Always buy your beer before you start the job. You'll likely need it at the end.
That's it for now. I'm going to go lay on the floor and listen to my dishwasher run.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Spare A Little Change

My wife and I have a friend, who we actually met through another friend. This gentleman works for The Guest House, a homeless shelter/re-housing program in the city center of Milwaukee. The agency is, like many non-profit, humanitarian social services, wildly underfunded considering their case load (or, perhaps more correctly, their potential case load). As a result, they rely heavily on internal fund raising and a large community of volunteers to help fill the gaps. There are 86 beds at the shelter, and the men are typically hooked up with counselling staff to help them with job searches, educational opportunities, substance abuse and  mental health issues. Our friend took us on a tour one day and I have to say, it is one of the more humbling places I've ever toured or had the privilege to serve.

A while back, my wife Donna felt compelled to set a goal of trying to pull together enough volunteer donations to be able to serve a meal at the shelter. She set up a sign up list using sign up genius which enables people to easily offer to donate as much or as little food as they like. Her first meal was so successful she decided to try and make it a monthly goal - one meal a month - people donate, we serve.

Now all I can claim is to be in a "support" role. I fully embrace the idea and am wild about the serving end of it. It is the best part of my month every time I do it. But she does most of the hard work, coordinating the meal planning, food drop offs, dates, etc. I'm just there to lift boxes, take donations when she's not around, contribute our part of the food and when the time comes, to help serve the meal. Like most of the fulfilling causes I help with, I never feel like I'm doing enough, and feel bad I'm not doing more.

What I've found most fascinating though, and what this post is really about, is how a little idea can snowball and become infectious. 

Infectious good.

You see, shortly after we had been doing this a while, another friend of ours asked how she could help. She, her husband and her two daughters were so impacted by the homeless people they encountered on a trip to California, that her daughters actually wanted to change what they saw. 

They wanted to change the world. 

Donna told her about the opportunity to make sandwiches for lunches for the residents of Guest House, which again, is a volunteer-based meal. If they don't get someone to volunteer for sandwiches one day, the guys don't get lunch. It's that simple. So this woman's daughters organized their Girl Scout troop to make sandwiches. The girls loved it, and got a great sense of accomplishment out of it, never mind the terrific foundation their parents were setting for them. 

It was so successful, that one of their friends' 4H group wanted to do a sandwich session. It seemed it was catching on. 

Infectious good.

Now these girls thought they were changing the world. Of course, world changes only come about by big politics, big religion, and big government programs, right? Who could possibly change it by helping with a homeless shelter or making sandwiches? What impact can it make? 

Let me illustrate with a paraphrased story. 

A man was walking down a beach that was littered with starfish that had washed up onto the shore. As he walked he picked up the starfish and threw them back into the sea. Despite his intentions, it looked like an impossible task to get them all. 

Another man saw him and said, "Excuse me sir, with all of these starfish on the beach, how do you think you can make a difference by throwing a few back?"

The starfish thrower picked up another one threw it into the ocean and replied, "I just made a difference for that one."

Every sandwich is changing a man's life. Granted it's a small change, but don't doubt for one second the gratefulness of each man that gets one. I've served them. Trust me, they are grateful. So, say you helped with 10 of the sandwiches, you've impacted 10 men's lives. Sounds crazy? I say, ask the men.

World change starts at home, next door, downtown, at work.

But that's not all. Another of Donna's friends has taken the "Sandwich-Prep of the Month" challenge now too. Same deal, one commitment of 150+ sandwiches per month. All donated, all assembled by volunteers. 

More infectious good.

What blows me away is the thought of what a better place the City of Milwaukee would be if more people took up a cause like this. This is 3 organizational/foundational families with maybe 100 supporting donors supplying the food. Imagine what we could do with 30 families or 300 families with 300 or 3000 supporting donors? It's the way it should be. 

And so, I want to say to those of you who have donated with guest house or any other humanitarian agency on a regular basis, Thank You! You're changing the world and if that doesn't give you a sense of purpose, you might want to check your pulse. To those who haven't or aren't helping where you can, I challenge you to start this holiday season. It is a great family project that will train up the next generation. (More world changing there). 

I for one can vouch for the fact that it will change your entire outlook on life. 

It'll change your world.

Blogging off...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Well, the waiting game continues. I'm speaking of my attempt to get my manuscript published. I finished it in mid-September and began my publishing pursuits in earnest shortly thereafter. There are many ways to go about getting your book published, and so I consulted a friend of mine who is in the publishing business and asked him what my options were. He said there were essentially three routes you could take, or at least three that he recommends to people that he works with. I describe them below in the suggested order of pursuit. The first is the most desirable, the last being the least.

The first route was what he referred to as the agented route. That route involves soliciting the services of an agent, preferably a New York agent. The agent then works for you and pushes your book to various publishing houses in an attempt to get them to publish it. While you still have to write your query letter, synopsis and marketing plan, they do the "hard work" of convincing publishers that your work is worth a look. This is the "traditional" route that all the big, successful writers (though not all of them) end up taking.

The second route would be to try and market or agent the book yourself. This means that you would approach the small presses and publishing houses on your own. It requires that you have a decent marketing plan, synopsis, query letter and are confident that you can sell them on the idea of your book. Many publishers don't take unagented queries or solicitations, so it narrows down your options a little, but in the case where you can't seem to land an agent, it's a good fall-back plan.

The third route involves self publishing. It is where you take your manuscript to one of the many self-publishing services and get it published. Then, they allow you to put it up to Amazon for purchase and you are left to market and promote the book entirely on your own. I have no shame in saying this is what one would call a last resort solution. I've heard from enough people that if you aren't willing to take your lumps the hard way through traditional channels, you might cut your nose off to spite your face, for any future publishing you might want to do.

I don't want to dis self publishing entirely. I think there are some great stories of people who have had long successful careers after a self publishing start, but I think they are, by far, the minority. The mantra I've heard is that anyone can self-pub, and oftentimes the writing shows it.

The other route, that is an offshoot of the self publishing scenario is what is called a vanity publisher. This is self publishing on steroids. For significant fees, the vanity publishing house helps you get your book published. The name implicates it for what it is. Again, IMHO, it's not recommended, but perhaps you get a bit more respectability because there is a "house" name attached to the book. It's up to you however to try and sell enough of your books to recoup your own (not the "house's") investment.

So I wait. I've currently got book queries in to about eighteen agents and twenty publishing houses. About once a week I get a rejection, some nice, some brief and cold. When I do, I try and match it with a new query to take its place. I know a writer who said she got close to 70 rejections before her book was accepted. 70! It seems I'll need to develop a thick skin and grind this out for a while. I'm confident that it will happen. I don't know when, but when it does, it'll be EPIC!

Blogging off...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Coliseums and Gladiators

I just returned from a two day conference in Green Bay. It was the ESRI WI Users Group (EWUG) annual meeting and for the second time in 3 years it was held at Lambeau Field. The stadium has meeting rooms and banquet facilities in its atrium and it really worked out nicely for this conference. I've been to a few games at the stadium, so it was not a totally new experience for me. Every time I visit it though, I am more blown away by the behemoth that it has become.

Lambeau leaves all other football stadiums in the dust with regards to fan experience. You just cant touch it. It's second to none. At the same time, during the renovations, they took a football field with history and made it into a destination. All of this was done in the interest of revenue generation, but most of it is done in good taste and with class. It reminds me of Miller Park in some respects, as it's as much an indoor mall as it is a sports venue. Not a bad thing, just not your daddy's ballpark.

My visit brought to mind some of the other parks I've been to for football over the years. When I first moved to Milwaukee, I was shocked when I learned that the Packers actually played 2 or 3 of their regular season "home" games in Milwaukee at County Stadium. I went to a few of those games back in the 80's when the Packers were pathetic. While it was great to be able to see the Packers play (because a ticket to Lambeau is hard to get),  that's where the nostalgia ended. County stadium was nice for baseball, but brutal for watching football. The sight lines were horrible, parts of the field were dirt because of the infield, and the players from both teams had to stand on the same sideline.

The time I took my wife Donna to see the Packers play Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills was quite memorable. We sat down low so in some cases had to look over players heads to see the action. Donna had a good time except for the bloke next to us puffing on a cigar, back when that was socially acceptable. We've come a long way to the smokeless stadiums we now have. (This is a good thing.)

As bad as it was, watching football at a baseball venue was how I experienced my first NFL game. My step-father brought me and my step-brother to a Viking preseason game in the early 70's at Metropolitan Stadiun (aka the Met). I knew then I was hooked on the sport and have loved it ever since. The met was where the Vikings had all of their home games until the Dome was built. Playing outdoors in MN in winter was as tough as it sounds.

I've also seen the Packers play at Camp Randall Stadium which was pretty cool too. They used to play one preseason game at Camp Randall, and I saw them play the New Orleans Saints in the early 90's. A better venue for football than County Stadium for sure. Someday I'd like to get up there to see an actual Badger football game. Bucket list.

I've been to Soldier field once too, but it wasn't for football. There was a Christian men's rally there one year and they almost filled the place. It was a hot, July day, but a good day nonetheless. I'm not familiar with all of the renovations of Soldier field, but I'm not crazy about how it looks. It's a little space-shippy for me. Just my opinion.

Now I see the Vikings are going to be building a new domed football stadium to the tune of several jagillion dollars. It's a sensitive topic up that way, but you have to do those things if you want to keep a team these days. Like I said, this isn't your daddy's (or my step-daddy's) football franchise. I'm sure it will be built with great professionalism and be a spectacle to see, just like Lambeau. It'll be on my bucket list too, and I might even leave my coat in the car.

Blogging off...

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Reading from the Book of Sarah

Tomorrow my eldest, fairest, and only daughter turns 18. As my boss put it so disturbingly, she could technically get married now and not have to ask permission. Yikes! Thanks for that shot to the cranium. I'm well aware there are a host of other things she'll be eligible for too, including tattoos, credit lines, and probably some once-illicit-now-legal activities in Colorado and Washington. She's a smart kid though and we raised her right, so I trust she'll make only good decisions, like waiting until you're 51 to get a tattoo, if ever.

Sarah began to make her entrance into the world in the middle of the night in November of 1995. Donna woke me up at 3:00 AM saying something like "I think this is it!" I jumped out of bed and we both clicked into hyper drive. We let her brother know (he was living with us at the time), called the doctor and hit the road for West Allis Memorial Hospital. After almost 8 hours of labor, she was born at 10:53 AM that day. She was beautiful, the experience was humbling and it was one of the three most amazing days of my life, the other two being Ben's birth and my wedding day.

When Sarah was born, Donna's friend Jacqui gave the us a blank journal book as a gift. I started journalling key events and, being a writerly-type, have faithfully journaled through both of my kids' lives. It's nothing special, simply a page or a paragraph entered for life events, special days, holidays, or, just because.

I did it in part because I love to write, but another reason was I wanted them to have something to remember me by in case something tragic should happen. Having lost my dad when I was just 5 years old, other than pictures, I really have nothing to remember him by. I'm not dissing him or anyone else for not writing about their experience (God knows he had enough on his plate with 7 kids!) I'm just saying that knowing my love for words, and the chance to leave a bit of a written legacy for my own kids, it seemed like the thing to do.

None of my family, including my wife has seen any of these entries, except me. That is intentional on my part, as I'm one of those who doesn't really like people seeing my work until it is finished, (and preferably when I'm out of the room. I know I'm weird that way...). Most of it is fairly personal, probably kinda gushy and syrupy, so I'll leave that for both of the kids and their mother to read when the time comes. I always thought I'd give it to them when they turned 18, but that seems kind of early all of the sudden, so maybe I'll wait until they go to college, or get married. Hopefully it will be something they cherish, not like that box of special school projects that we have stashed in the basement.

In recognition of her eighteenth birthday, I'm posting the first entry from that journal. It's actually spread over three entries on two different days because, well, that's what happens to new parents. If you've been there, you'll understand.

12-8-1995 - 8:03 PM

I finally found a moment to pause and reflect on that special day that was almost 4 weeks ago now. Unfortunately your (sic) starting to fuss in your bassinet at the moment and so I'll have to put this aside for a short time. When you're old enough to read this, we can both laugh about it, but for now you're not so happy.

12-8-1995 - 8:35 PM

Well, the feeding is done and you're down in the middle of the living room floor kicking and grunting. You do not like that bassinet. Oh well, whatever works. Mom's out in the kitchen making Christmas cookies and I'm trying to relax, care for you and listen to a little Bruce Springsteen.

Back to that special day. Mom woke me about 3:15 with a shot to the ribs. "Jim, I think something's going on," she said. From there it was off to the races. After struggling with the clinic staff over the phone about Donna's "phantom Doctor," we loaded the car, Donna grabbed the scream bar and away we went down I-94.

We got to the hospital in good time and settled in our room for the long haul. After 4+ hours of heavy, steady contractions and then 3 hours of hard, focused pushing, there you were. You were kicking and screaming much like you are now. (Gotta go for the moment. You need a diaper or something.)


Back to your birth. I'll never forget your Mom's first words when she saw you for the first time. She said, with tears in her eyes, "Isn't she beautiful, Jim?" I had to agree that you were the prettiest baby I had ever seen. You had what looked like my lips and mouth, and Mom's eyes and cheeks. All of this was topped by a full head of thick, brown hair, also a "mom trait."

After what seemed like a day and a half, (actually about an hour and a half) they brought you back. You had your little mittened outfit on and of course had your hands up by your ears as you did through much of your infancy. We nicknamed you "Kilroy" for the Kilroy was here figure that's so well known.

You slept most of the day those first few days, so Donna and I spent most of our time admiring your beauty.


So there it is. Nothing great, no great literary genius going on, for sure. Just a heartfelt account of what was going on in our lives during this happy time. There's probably a hundred pages of entries like this in the journal, and while it is far from my finest work, I'm certain it and Ben's journal are my most important. I've always said that if I never get that book I've always wanted published, I've already written two epic books - Bestsellers of one copy each - and I'll defend that claim until I'm dead and gone.

Happy birthday to the sweetest daughter a father could wish for.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

All Things Churchy

Our family went to a new church on Sunday. We were feeling compelled to try something new, so thought we would try Transformation City Church in Milwaukee. We've heard good things about their mission of outreach and service, so we thought we'd give it a look. The church itself is built in what used to be an archery range. They've remodeled it, so it is modern and spacious. Like many churches in this day and age, the worship was contemporary, complete with amps, drums and electric guitars. The message was good as well, now we just need to determine if we want to commit to the commute to get there every Sunday which takes 25 minutes.

We've been at our current church Elmbrook for twenty years or so. I won't go into why we're looking to change, because this post isn't about that. Instead I'd like to run down some of the churches I've been to over the years. Each of them has their strengths and weaknesses, and all of them played a role in shaping my beliefs and faith.

I grew up in the Catholic church. My first real church experience was at St. Agnes, in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was where I made my first communion and was also where I was confirmed. It is a beautiful old church. I can remember the nuns telling us not to put our butts on the pews behind us as when we knelt on the kneelers. It was where I learned reverence for the holiness of God. Talking (by students) was done in hushed whispers during service, and preferably not at all. I also remember the confessionals and making up some fictitious numbers/events about my sins of the week, just to not appear as perfect. (Which I wasn't anyway.)

After a couple of years at St. Agnes, we moved and switched to St. Lukes which has since become St. Thomas More Catholic Church, though nobody consulted me. :-) It was another mammoth sized church, similar in style to St Agnes, complete with vaulted ceilings and poured concrete design. I attribute the foundation of my faith to St. Lukes church and school. Through five years of schooling and 10+ years of church, it was all I knew. It was where my sister was married, where my step brother and step father's funerals were held, and several other key events.

One of my fondest memories was their Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve every year. Rob and I would go every year and every year on the way home (across the street) he would shove me into a snowbank when I least expected it. What are brothers for if not a good hip check into a snowbank, right?

When I moved out on my own, I fell into a church in Crystal Minnesota called St. Raphael's. It was memorable for the youth group that I came to know. Some really great college aged friends that gave me people who I knew in a neighborhood that I was new to. The church services were forgettable, but the people were not, and sometimes that's how God uses the church.

When I moved to Waukesha I tried St. Mary's because that's where my roommate went. It was a paradigm shift to me because it was so "new". I was used to big, drafty, dark Catholic churches of my youth. St. Mary's was modern, new, light and airy. I didn't go every week, I'll admit, but it did provide a connection for me in yet another new place - a new city in a new state for that matter.

When I later moved to Milwaukee, I floundered about, churchless for the most part. I tried St. Peter and Paul a few times, but mainly on holidays. I don't remember too much about it really. I was a faceless attender, looking to fulfill my obligation to attend rather than any kind of spiritual void.

After I married my wife and I tried a couple of Methodist churches in the Waukesha area, but both of them seemed like they were a bit desperate or smothering when we were greeted at the door.

Eventually we tried Elmbrook when it was still in its "small sanctuary. We loved the message and the pastor, Stuart Briscoe. His sermons were challenging, convicting and always interesting. He and that church took my faith to the next level. It made the Bible real, understandable, and relevant to me for the first time in my life. We raised our kids through their great kids/middle school/high school program and were active in many men's and women's ministries over the years.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that without even realizing it, I've built quite a history of churches throughout the course of my faith journey. While I realize, none of it is tied up in any of the buildings anyways, I can't help but think that each of them had a role in shaping who I am and what I believe. I don't know whether we'll keep going to this new church or not. I loathe the term "church shopping" and I don't think that's what we're doing. We're just restless and looking for a better fit. We may find that there's nothing better out there, and I'm okay with that. It's evident though in looking back through where I've been, it's a whole lot easier not to be afraid of where I'm going.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Hero Treatment

I have a date that comes up annually on my Microsoft Outlook calendar every November 1st. It is set to remind me of my nephew's sobriety anniversary. I think this is his 4th or 5th year of being clean and sober and I have the calendar set because, in my mind, this is a significant date that needs to be recognized. It needs to be recognized annually. This guy knows how ugly he was as a drinker. He could be mean, nasty and a completely different person when he was on a bender. He was great to talk to and really funny to be around when he was sober, but if he had a few, look out. I wanted no part of being around him. Now that he's recovered, it's like he's a different person.

I say its important to recognize these people for their achievement on an annual basis. However, in their own lives, every day is a day that needs to be recognized, at least for them, unto themselves. One of the foundations of AA and other programs is "one day at a time". While no one wants a label, the old adage of once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, is more true than not. They have helped themselves up, but realize that they could fall back into self destructive ways with the downing of one drink or the popping of one pill. They live with themselves and their temptations every day.

I want to make one thing very clear. They are all heroes to me. They had the guts to see what they were doing to themselves, their families and friends and take control of it. They had the guts to say NO. They continue to say no in a society where drinking (and drug use) is everywhere. I cannot fathom the pressure they must deal with to say no to cultural norms to "fit in" by having a "social" drink.

I've have a few people in my life who I look up to for these reasons of admission, abstinence, and resolve. I have a relative who went through drug treatment after struggling with stimulants for a number of years. She has been clean for quite some time, went back to college, is raising a daughter and has a good job in the social work field. She has a good network beneath her of people that support her. People struggling with addiction addicts are each others' best friends. She also has our entire family supporting her with encouraging words and love. She doesn't know how much I look up to her. She is a hero and she doesn't even know it.

I have a close friend who went through treatment almost thirty years ago after wrecking a car. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was a blessing in disguise, the accident, as it brought him to the realization that he had a problem. I remember things were always different when we were out at a party or whatever. He never quite knew when to say when. He always wanted to go a little farther with it. It was almost like it took over him. In the end, it caught up to him. He was fortunate to have a deep faith and it carried him through as he went through treatment and he's been clean and sober ever since. He's a hero to me and he doesn't even know it.

Then there is another grade school friend that I have reconnected with through facebook. I found out through facebook that he went through treatment with the female relative I talked about above. He has been clean and sober for quite a while and just recently quit smoking. He still loves rock n roll and rides a Harley but he does it all clean. I haven't seen this guy for 35+ years but in all the same ways as above, I look up to him.

So if you know someone who's been through treatment, I encourage you to acknowledge them for the good they've done for themselves. Your encouragement might be exactly what they need to hear at that moment.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ghosts of Halloween Past

Tomorrow is Halloween Night. This is one of the few holidays we don't spend much time on every year. It used to be a much bigger deal when the kids were younger, but now that they don't trick or treat, we really don't do much at all. We were never into the decorating thing, other than a few pumpkins that we'd carve up. I think this year we may even turn out the lights and pretend we're not home. I'm much more okay with Halloween than Donna, who has never been a big fan. I had my bag stolen at the end of a long night of trick or treating when I was a middle schooler, so I can certainly see how it might not be someone's favorite night. I'm just vanilla about it, I guess. As I say, it was a little more fun when the kids were able to dress up.

There was a day when we used to dress up and go to Halloween parties, but that was way back when I had hair. We haven't dressed up or gone to a party for at least 18 years, I'm guessing. When we did, I went as a pirate with a pigeon on my shoulder as a parrot. People kept pointing out that it was a pigeon, but hey, Goodwill was out of parrots, evidently. I can't even remember what Donna went as at that party it was so long ago.

There were other parties, back when I was single and costumes parties were all the thing. I went to the State Street madhouse in Madison on a couple of occasions. At one I went as a man covered with maps. I also had "You are Here" and a line drawn down to my nose. Because of my pointy hat, I had one person mistake me for the Tin Man from Oz, and another for a Ku Klux Klansman. Evidently the fact that I was covered in road maps was lost on these students of higher education. As the evening got rowdier, I had people trying to find their streets on me as we walked along the crowded street. Like any costume, it was a real treat to drive in as well.

A costume I wore a couple of times was some Lycra snakeskin pants with a sleeveless Lycra top. They were skin tight and as frightening as they sound. My friend bought them as a joke and they were used for occasions just like this. I was going as a rocker ala George Thorogood, who wore them with much more dignity. I can't believe I wore them (twice to two different Halloween gigs, years apart), but I actually fit right in in Madison.

One year when I was working at Intelligraphics I went to a house party dressed as the HHH Metrodome. I'll admit this idea was stolen from my brother Paul who actually went out as the same thing the year prior when he came down from the Twin Cities to visit. How do you dress as a building, you ask? Think umbrella painted silver and a piece of green indoor outdoor carpeting with a hole cut in it and a football field lined on it. It was ingenious, but again, I had to explain it to people.

My wife and I went as a couple to an Intelligraphics halloween party as the Jolly Green Giant and Little Green Sprout. This was a hit, mostly because of our height difference. Credit goes to Donna for doing all the costume design and leaf attachment.

And then there was the year when I was in college and dressed up as a woman. I recently saw a picture of that costume and I thought, if I didn't know who it was, I'd actually be attracted to myself. (The fact that at the party I was groped the whole night is a different story.)

So, we weren't always Halloween scrooges. Nowadays, if we had to we might give it a go again. It's just not that big of a thing anymore. I don't hold anything against anyone who does, whatever lights your candle, but it's not something I want to spend a lot of time on.

In any case, Happy Halloween everyone!

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Working Mother

Throughout our parenting years, my wife has never really worked a 9-5 job. She tried it for a few months when Sarah was just a baby, but daycare was not only expensive, but just didn't feel right to her (or me.) As a result, over the last 17 years she has held a number of part time and self-employed jobs in order to contribute to the household bottom line and to keep the creditors at bay.

I'll be the first to admit that when she mentioned she wanted to quit her 9-5 job because she hated the daycare thing, I was terrified. Losing an income, or in this case, dramatically decreasing it -scared the heck out of me. When we did the math on what daycare was costing however, as well as the thought that making her available to the kids during those critical first years held value too, it was an easier decision than I thought.

And so over the years she has tried many things. The one steady job has been waitressing at a local Italian restaurant. It's not great money, but the work is steady and the money somewhat predictable from week to week. She's quit a time or two but gone back and they always welcome her. She's good at her job, dependable, and the customers like her. She's a low maintenance employee. It's not her favorite work, but she grinds it out.

She's also tried various self employment ventures. For many years she was a Pampered Chef representative and, much like her waitressing job she took it seriously and was very successful at it. She not only sold her share of cookware, but was able to recruit and mentor new reps under her, thereby increasing her income through their income. She was good enough at it that she won incentive trips for us almost every year. One year the whole family got to go to Walt Disney World almost all expenses paid. Another year, the two of us got to go to San Francisco because of her sales. These were unaccounted for perks that you tend to forget add to the family bottom line. 

Another steady self-employment venture has been her Personal Chef job. She cooks for a few clients anywhere from once a week to once a month and then freezes the meals for them to reheat during the week. She has always had a love (and gift) for cooking and baking and this seemed like the perfect outlet for it. When she mentioned she wanted to start up Donna's Delectables as a personal chef business, I was supportive of the idea. There was relatively little start up costs, some food licensing things, a website and some other small things, so it seemed like a no brainer. She has been at that for I would guess 8 or 9 years now and still enjoys it. Again, not a 9-5er, but helping the family (ours and others) put food on the table.

Her latest enterprise is as an Events Coordinator for Purple Door Ice Cream of Milwaukee. She sets appointments for clients of theirs to do tastings, weddings, promotions and other events. It's food, so it's right up her alley again and she seems to love working for the couple that started the business. It's part time, only 10-20 hours a week, but could become more as they grow.

The reason I give this rundown of her work over the years is because it's become clear to me that as difficult and unnerving as some of those early decisions were, I'm glad we decided to let her follow her gut and pursue what she loves. On those days I struggle with the fact that I work a consistent 40 hour 8-4:30 job, I have to remind myself that she is juggling three jobs, Personal Chef, waitressing, and Purple Door. Each of those requires planning, coordination and time. Furthermore it's a lot of shifting gears. Working with the public one minute, working for a single client the next and all the computer and paperwork when she can fit it in. She is as busy or busier than me, just different hours, that's all.

Part of what woke me up to the fact that we're doing okay with this arrangement is our kids. Both of them are doing well in school, have a good group of friends, and have a moral compass that never ceases to amaze me. Would that have happened if Donna worked outside the home when they were little? Maybe. And I'm not dissing those that make that decision. To each his own. My own mother worked a 40 hour week because she had to. Everyone has a different situation, but we're all doing what we think is best, right? We're all trying to make it work. 

But there's also a part of me that will defend anyone who questions what she does all day if she's not working a "full time job". She's like a teacher in that, when she's not working she's still working. Clipping coupons to save a few bucks, getting groceries, housework and keeping on top of all the kids' school stuff to mention a few. I think people like her don't get enough credit sometimes and I'm as guilty as the next guy at forgetting to recognize it. I love her for the family she's helped me raise, and I am blessed to be able to help her achieve her dreams and goals. 

I love you Donna.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Writing From My Life

I've been actively writing since about the fourth grade. Of course, it has been an on again/off again affair over my lifetime, but if I had to pin down when I first realized my love for writing, it would have to be in fourth grade. It was then that I wrote some stories that were not even required for class. I did them just because I enjoyed creating them. Each of the stories were written on 1/2 sheets of paper which were then cut in 2 and put together like a short book. I still have the stories, Mom saved them over the years, and there are some common themes to them, namely disaster, some sort of resolution to the disaster and a moral to the story. I remember a nun teacher of mine asked if she could put one or more of the stories in a special box for the class and I really wasn't keen on the idea. (Author's rights at a young age, I guess.) She got the drift and backed off, but it was really kind of cool to be acknowledged for something I just thought was fun.

Through high school I didn't really do much in the way of writing, but during my college years I took it a little more seriously. I never minded long papers and some of my English classes were my favorite. One thing I did do during my college years was started writing letters. I wrote to my brother, my friend in Ireland and a host of others. I knew the thrill of getting something in the mail and I knew that it took sending a letter to get one.

Shortly after college, I moved to Wisconsin and the letter writing took on a much bigger role. I wrote home, I wrote to my brother in NY, and eventually I started writing to Donna who would later become my wife. It was during this time that I started hearing from people fairly consistently who said "I love your letters" or "Your letters make me laugh." This kind of feedback meant more to me than anything. Although I was not tapping my talent in a "productive" way through publishing or formalized classwork, I was still putting pen to paper and maybe becoming a better writer along the way.

For the next, oh, twenty years or so, I floundered around not taking it seriously or knowing how to go about doing so. I gave some thought to getting a Masters degree in Journalism for a bit, but after talking to a writer who used to work for the Waukesha Freeman who asked "Do you like long hours and little pay?" I decided that might not be the career path for me. I'm not sure I would like the parameters of writing news and expose' articles anyway. My preference is for humor and memoir.

Then in 2006, I finally took action and enrolled in a short course offered through the City of Waukesha titled "Writing from your life." It sounded like exactly what I was looking for. Non-credit, non threatening, and memoir based. The instructor Shannon Jackson Arnold was nothing short of inspiring and encouraging. One of the goals of the class was to have a 10 page paper written by the end of the session. I did mine on stories from the Boundary Waters and as it later turned out, it was the flash point for my work on my BWCA Manuscript.

After the class finished I floundered for a couple more years until I finally emailed Shannon and asked her what I should do. She was forthright with getting me to set some goals and stick to them. I started by checking out a class at AllWriters' Workplace and Workshop. I audited a class before I signed up and realized within the first half hour that it was exactly where I needed to be. Under the direction and instruction of Kathie Giorgio (and, later, Michael Giorgio,) I discovered I was among other mere mortal writers who were struggling with the same things I was.

I continued in that Workshop for three years and then took a couple of the book writing classes through the same studio. I began getting my poetry published within a year of enrolling, and within a year and a half I had my first paying nonfiction piece published. My goal all along was to get published, getting paid for it at times has been a bonus.

My writing has given me great joy over the years. (Don't get me wrong, it has given me a fair amount of angst as well.) In some ways I think it even gave me my wife and, as a result my life. Donna has always said that my writing won her heart first. (Before my good looks. LOL). I'm glad I finally found the road I should be on. I'm glad I finally took the steps I needed to take. Now, I'm writing for my life.

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