Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Four More Years

I went to my son's high school incoming freshman open house tonight at Waukesha South High School. It was my second time at such an event, because I had gone through the whole spiel with Sarah 3 years ago.  (It seems hard to believe that it was 3 years ago already.) It was the usual informational/logistical meeting followed up by 3000 people cramming into too-small of a hallway to sign up for sports, clubs and activities. It is a necessary evil, but one I don't typically look forward to very much.

Sitting there in the auditorium and walking the halls gave me flashbacks to my own high school experience. I remember being that age and all the fears, insecurities and apprehensions that came with it. I remember walking into the hallways of Cretin that first summer to sign up for freshman football. I knew no one, or so it seemed. Very few of my fellow 8th grade football teammates played freshman year, so it was me and a bunch of new kids. It seemed like they all had at least one good friend on the team too. While I felt alone, I loved the sport enough to not care.

I remember the first day of uniform issue at Cretin as well. Sargent Stewart was the staff member in charge of keeping people in line and keeping order. He did it well. He was the screamer. "Pants?!? Men don't wear pants! They're trousers, son!"

Good to know.

That whole uniform issue thing was kinda traumatic, actually. We were herded, by class, through a dark equipment storage are where, after handing our measurements to the various stations, were handed:

2 Pair of Army Green Trousers
2 Tan pocketed cotton shirts
1 Dress Coat (Blouse)

All of this was done while the military staff shouted commands to the students and each other. Talking while in line was discouraged and if you bent the rules, Sargent Stewart was right there screaming and spitting in your face. It wasn't nearly boot camp, but was close enough to scare the urge to enlist right out of me.

Overall, my high school experience was OK. It seems like kids today maybe have higher expectations put on them, but I'm not sure. My school was considered "college prep" (like what high school shouldn't be considered that?) so we were pushed as hard as anywhere else at the time. It just seems like parents today are a bit more helicoptering with what their kids need to take, the grades they need to get, etc. Because I grew up in a 6 kid single-parent household, I wasn't hawked over by my mom at all. She was happy to see me consistently get a B average, and even happier to see me stay out of trouble.

Our kids are both radically different from each other, in regards to school and sports. It will take some getting used to having two very different high schoolers haunting my house next year. At the same time, I want to relish the time we have them, because before you know it, I'll be at a College open house, waxing nostalgic about my college days.

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Edits Make The Good Better

As part of my 2013 New Year's resolutions, I've decided to put a serious push on finishing my BWCA memoir. Part of doing that required switching from my Wednesday Night writing workshop at AllWriters' Workplace and Workshop to a Thursday Night Book Writing class. Because I've grown to love my Wednesday Night colleagues, this will be a difficult transition. The upside to it all is that two or three former Wednesday-nighters will be in the Thursday night class, so I won't be among total strangers.

What's the difference between the two classes? The Wednesday class is a setting where students read and then get critiqued by their peers. Because the reading takes place in class, not everyone gets a chance to be read every week. The Thursday reading takes place on your own time and you just bring your critique to class. It's like Wednesday, just more concentrated, or compressed.

So, in preparation for the Thursday transition, I have been going through my manuscript from the beginning in an effort to make it better. I'm focusing on adding detail, richness, depth and dialogue. As I go through it, I am struck by how little attention I gave to some of this the first time through. I think this is attributable to a couple of things.

First of all, I was writing each of these stories as a story unto itself, in part to fulfill my page requirement for the week on Wednesday. When you write a story as a sub-story and don't really look at it in the context of the rest of the story, the continuity gets messed up.

Well, as I go through it now, slowly and start to finish, I have to say it looks like I wrote this when I was either: A. Drunk or, B. Stupid. I am probably being a bit harsh on myself, but that's what writers do, I guess. Part of it was that these particular sections were written as far back as two years ago. It's funny how much you learn in two years about point of view, dialogue and scene setting. I am convinced that I have enriched the manuscript a ton already, and I am only getting started.

The other thing that I am doing is giving a critical eye to the event details, time frames and places. A good example of something I found was that I called my mom's boyfriend (at the time) my "stepfather," when in fact they weren't married yet. It seemed perfectly fine at the time I wrote it, and thank goodness I went through it again, because details and specifics like this are important, and getting them wrong is almost unethical.

Editing is a big part of writing; a huge part. I would go so far as to say it is more important than the initial writing itself. When we write memoir from memory and from the heart, we sometimes get things wrong. It is all part of being human and being a flawed writer. That is why we have our peers to help us, and that is why we take the time to go over the story again, and again, and again. We owe it to our readers, or we shouldn't be doing it at all.

Back at it for me.

Blogging off...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hitchhiking To The Dance With My Gun

Last time, I talked a bit about my high school and how different I thought it was than the "average" high school experience people of my age. There's a few more things that are unique about my experience that I think are kind of interesting.

For instance, there's probably not too many people that hitchhiked to high school. Yeah, well I got that privilege. There were a number of us who hitchhiked up Hamline Avenue to get to school. Most often, there was a parent of another Cretin student who would pick kids up one at a time, like dropped change. It wasn't always the same parent, but we had our regulars. Mine was Mrs. Martin, who took her son Bob and I to school almost daily. If she didn't make it though, some other kind soul did.

I look back on it as kind of a weird occurrence, actually. I guess it was a different (read: safer) time, but there was still a lot of potential for things to go wrong. (This fear I have of getting in a vehicle only to find that there's no door handle and the window can't be rolled down.) Back then hitchhiking was taken for granted, and far more commonplace than it is today. We were always told by teachers that if people saw Cretin cadets htichhiking in their uniform they were more likely to pick them up, because they were good kids. (We had them fooled.) I don't know if this helped or not, but I guess I would be more inclined to pick up a teen dressed in a military uniform than one with jeans and long hair.

The minutes spent in those cars with strangers were sometimes good, sometimes awkward, and never terrible. Usually you spent time talking about the weather or sports, just small talk for 10 minutes and then you'd get dropped off. It's telling that I can't remember a one of them to this day. Well, strike that. I do remember being picked up by a couple of older students who were smoking pot on their way in. I was a good kid, so declined their offer and frankly was a bit shell-shocked by the whole ordeal. I feared that I'd smell like it for the rest of the day. I couldn't imagine starting off a day of high school being high like that, but these guys had it down, somehow. To each his own. Thanks for the ride, dudes.

Another unique thing about our school was because we were all-boy and just across the field from the all-girl, we had a few "arranged dances." What those were were basically a lottery where you got set up with a girl from either Regina High School in Minneapolis, or Derham Hall. It was a total craps hoot based strictly on height, as I recall. I went to a couple of dances that way and, well, let's just say one worked out good, and the other was a disaster. (Just like real life blind dates!). I'm not sure who thought that height is a great indicator of compatibility, but it would have been nice to have a few more criteria. I think I can back up my cynicism by saying that my wife of 22 years is 5'2".

Another weird thing was we had to take rifle range in military class. Shooting WWII vintage .22 gauge rifles that weighed in at what seemed like 50 lbs. It's a wonder I didn't shoot my foot off. I was a lousy shot. I flinched at the sound of my own and other rifles going off around me. It was not my sport of choice. Unlike my brother who was a Marksman and had a few medals to prove it, I was told that I would probably have a desk job if we were to go to war. (And I'm OK with that.)

Overall my high school years were okay. I have many fond memories and made a few lifelong friends there. It was a good school academically and spiritually. I do feel like it could have been better in a co-ed setting, but as I said before, it seems like they figured that out. I imagine it's a pretty good school now. (Likely at the cost of a University.) I'm just glad to not have to go through it all again.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Four-Year Deployment

A little known fact is that I went to an all-male, military, Catholic high school. At the time I went there it was called Cretin High School. I don't think about it much until people mention their high school experience. Then when I mention mine, it strikes me how unique that experience truly was. I would like to say that it was a uniquely perfect experience, but I'd be lying. It was both good and bad, as most people's high school experience probably was. If I had to do it over however, I would likely change some things. (I'll talk about these later.)

The school is in St. Paul, Minnesota and just across "the field," as it was called, was Derham Hall, the all-female, Catholic high school. Cretin ran a Junior ROTC program using a combination of active and retired military instructors, Christian Brothers, and lay teachers. As you can see from the picture, we wore military uniforms; green slacks, tan shirt, black tie, black socks, black shoes, name tag and pocket protector (really?). 

On inspection day (Monday) we wore our "blouses" they were called, (really?) but what they were was the dress coats. These coats held our rank (shoulder) name tag, medals, ribbons, cords and sabers. Our hair could not touch our ears (very cool in the 70's, as you can imagine...), our shirt collars or our eyebrows. If your shoes and brass were not polished to the liking of the inspecting officer (usually a student officer, but sometimes a military faculty), you got a demerit, also known as a "gig". Gigs added up to affect your grade. They could also be worked off doing grunt work on the school grounds after hours for either the military faculty or the Brothers. 

All of this inspection hassle was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it taught me preparation and discipline. Every Sunday night, a little bit of my time was spent spit-shining my shoes or polishing my brass belt buckle and collar brass. Shirts and pants had to be pressed and dry cleaned. It was not unlike a teen boot camp in many respects. 

On the other hand, I HATED it. What a drag to have to do that on top of homework, etc. I finally wised up junior year and spent $80 on a pair of chloroform shoes that I wore only for inspection day. These shoes had a toe that was like a mirror. They were a lifesaver for me because it meant never having to shine my shoes. Needless to say, I became very popular and loaned them out repeatedly. I should have charged. Ha! (I wonder what ever happened to those?)

Perhaps for me bigger than the military drag thing was the lack of being around girls during those four years. I think it is such a formative period, especially socially, for kids, that to be around the other sex is important. I think boys mature faster (or at least act more mature, maybe) when they are around girls, than not, but that's only a guess. Again, we had a girls school across the way, but there was no day-to-day interaction. We had "mixers" which were just school dances where both schools were invited, but again, nothing day to day. 

I don't mean to dwell on all that the school wasn't; it was a good school. In fact, they have made it better by merging with the girl's school to become Cretin-Derham Hall. I believe the military element is now optional as well. So had I to do it again, it would probably be at the top of my list. The problem is, I could likely never afford it at today's tuition. I payed for most of my junior and senior year, with a little help from my Mom at times. Nowadays you practically need a student loan to attend. Its a sad commentary on all levels of education, but that's a story for a different time. 

Looking back is a trip. I'll revisit this topic in future blogs.

Blogging off...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Write Way

I've been doing a lot of messing around with pictures on Facebook lately. Part of it is just January boredom, and part of it has been a study in family history. Most of the pictures are black and white of me and my family and were taken in the 60's. It has been a lot of fun watching the comments and feedback from friends and family. 

One of the coolest things to come out of the exercise has been to hear the background behind the picture from my sisters and mom. In most of them, I am quite young and I don't remember the circumstances around the photos. My sisters are a few years older and they have a much better recall of those days. When I posted a couple, I thought they were taken at one of our old houses. Both of my sisters corrected my assumption by telling me that it was actually a different house. They did this for several pictures and circumstances around the pictures.

I say this because as a writer of memoir I realize a couple of things. 

First of all it is important that you get your facts straight. It doesn't always make much difference to your audience if it's spot-on correct, but it should to you. You're telling your story from memory and as a matter of ethics, you should try to write truth. You owe it to your readers. If you can't recall the details, figure them out. Another option would be to change the story to fiction. You can still base it loosely on truth, but then the details don't matter. 

The other thing I realize is that while I think I have a good understanding of some events and details, I am completely capable of making things up as the way things happened. They can become so real to me that I actually I believe they happened. The thing is, after talking to other sources, I am corrected and glad to be so. 

I want it right as much as the next guy. 

Blogging off...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Googling To Distraction

As I was working on my book yesterday, I came upon the need to find out what a welder's helmet was called. I was trying to use a reference to it in a chapter, and wanted to find out if there were other, perhaps better or more eloquent terms for it. In so doing, I wandered into an article that told about retinal flash burn. Evidently this is the condition you get if you look at the flame of the welder without the protection of said helmet.

Well that's great, but that's not something I wanted to know. I stumbled upon it in doing a Google search for welder's helmet. So now I know more about welding than I did yesterday. Go figure.

I tell this story because it illustrates how easily we get distracted in this day and age of technology. Google (and the web) have made us easily distracted. Fifteen years ago, I would have had to look something like that up in the dictionary or, more likely, I would have just left the description at "welder's helmet" rather than going to the extra work in the name of a better word.

Which raises the question, does the web, or rather, having access to the web, make us smarter? I'm not sure I have the right answer, but what I do know is I can find answers to just about anything in a matter of seconds by doing a Google search. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm smarter, in fact if I was really smart, I wouldn't have to look it up in the first place. It may make me slightly more knowledgeable if I want to become a welder someday, but I digress.

Another instance of this was my cell phone dying rapidly on two consecutive days. In trying to figure out what was causing it I googled again. I found a number of suggestions that I can now share among my family and friends to help them with the same problem. Does that make me smarter (or smarter than them?), probably not. It makes me more informed on one thing perhaps, but that one thing probably has a shelf life of about 6 months before it becomes obsolete, or I forget it.

What's my point? I'm not sure, really. I do know I could function without Google, but it would be a lot more work to get answers to some of life's most mundane questions. On the other hand, I always say google takes me places I want to go and want not to go, sometimes in the same click.

Blogging off...

Saturday, January 5, 2013


The NFL playoffs are upon us. I love this time of year for many reasons. One of the main reasons is it allows us to extend the holiday gatherings by joining friends to watch the Packers. While I love to watch football with Donna, the kids or even alone, its ALWAYS more fun to watch the playoffs with friends. Games mean more in the playoffs, so it's nice to have someone to high five, talk strategy with or, in worst cases, someone to lament with.

Having said that I have compiled a list of things that I like and hate about the game of professional football today.

  1. Instant Replay - Bad for football. I abhor it. It slows the game down and we have created a generation of officials that cannot make routine calls without a "conference" for fear of being shown up by the camera. Now we have booth reviews of every score? Really? Why not booth reviews of every play? Seriously.
  2. New overtime rules - Good for football. Initially I wasn't keen on this system of giving both teams a possession, but have grown to love it. It makes total sense. I think the college system is a complete joke. Three and four overtimes, really? C'mon man.
  3. Blow to the head calls. - Bad for football. Lets see, you can't hit at the head and neck, and you can't hit at the knees, well, let's just not hit at all. They've reduced tackling to a strike zone. Ref's flag everything now.
  4. Outside the tackle box QB throwaways. - Good for football. This protects quarterbacks from getting pounded. It's no fun to watch but makes sense. One of the best things Fran Tarkenton did was effectively throw the ball away to avoid a sack. He was masterful at that and scrambling.
  5. Domes. - Bad for football. Antiseptic, sterile, boring.
  6. Two point conversions. - Good for football. Initially I hated this idea because I was old school. It has made the game much more exciting. It gives games that might have been out of reach, a new element of excitement.
  7. Coaches challenges. Bad for football. Hate it. It slows the game down. See # 1 above for more reasons.
  8. Penalizing excessive celebrations. Good for football. I don't mind Tony Gonzalez slam dunking the goal post, but I positively hate Victor Cruz' salsa dance, hated the dirty bird team dance (really?) and in my opinion, the Lambeau Leap can go away. Score. Jump in the stands. I get it already.
  9. Retro Uniforms. Bad for football. There's a reason they changed them in the first place.
  10. Aerial cameras. Good for football. These cameras give some great views of plays and make the game way more real and enjoyable.
So, there you have it. All opinion, but hey, I only say it because I love the game.

Blogging off (to watch the playoffs)...