Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Coffee Affair

As I write this I am drinking my second cup of coffee from my favorite mug while sitting in my favorite chair. Coffee is part of my day, everyday. Typically I keep it to one cup, usually around 9:30 at work. I try and keep it to one, as I know it causes disruptive sleep, It is also one of the things my doctor always asks: "How much alcohol and how much caffeine?" I know it doesn't help blood pressure and is full of tannins which can be hard on the stomach lining. There's probably a lot more bad that I'm not even listing here, not the least of which is the whole fair trade issue.

And frankly I don't care.

You can't take away my coffee. We go way back, she and I. We met at my mom's kitchen table where mom taught us the delicate art of dunking our peanut butter toast in a cup of Taster's Choice instant coffee. I say this was a delicate art because you had to make sure the soggy toast did not break off and fall into the cup. It was a wonderful combination of peanut butter and bitter that, really, shouldn't be knocked until it's been tried. Of course, now the thought of doing that kind of turns my stomach. Toast should not be soggy and coffee should not have a sheen of peanut fat on the top of it. While I probably could do it again, I just wouldn't enjoy it like I once did.

Coffee and I have taken a number of trips together. One of our best memories is sitting around the campfire enjoying the coolness of an August morning while applying a jolt to my brain after a restless night in a tent in the BWCA. I rarely sleep more than 5 hours in any tent. Trust me, I don't camp for the joy of sleeping in. Needless to say I need something when I wake, and Folgers coffee cooked in a steel pot with a holed strainer complete with grounds strained through your teeth is just the trick. It's far from the Barista-served $2.00 cup you get at Starbucks, but it comes without pretense or snobbery and has the same net effect if you drink enough of it. It was the driving force behind the day's planning on many a camping trip and put a little back-home sanity into the insanity that was the BWCA.

Oh yeah, she and I have travelled. We've enjoyed each other's company in New Orleans in chicory fashion at Cafe DuMonde with a helping of beignets, on a balcony in San Diego overlooking the bay, in the mountains of Tennessee and Colorado and the shores of Myrtle Beach and Mexico. She's pumped me up for Northern fishing in Canada, Musky fishing in Wisconsin, and Walleye fishing in Minnesota.

While she's been there with me all through the years, like any good marriage, her physique has changed. What started as instant, grew to percolated with a plug in pot, morphed into coffee maker blend, and in her finest form she comes from a french press pot.

Her and I have a large company of friends. She's around when I'm in deep theological discussions with guys from church. I would even go as far to say she's helped with enlightenment at times. She is best enjoyed around a big table with family after a holiday breakfast. She is the great social equalizer. I find the best part of my vacations to Mercer were coffee on Mom's porch at Pine Forest Lodge. It gave me time to catch up with her and my sisters and nieces before we shot into our day.

She is the fuel of my newly discovered writing passion. Countless cups at Le Caffe Bistro, Steaming Cup and Starbucks have jittered me into taking a work that was a pile of crap and transforming it into one good enough for publication.

I've enjoyed her from mom's dainty Correlle ware cups, plastic campware cups, stainless steel mugs, festive holiday santa mugs, paper, styrofoam, ceramic, and steel cups. My favorite of late is the Courage North mug I got for volunteering at cleanup weekend last spring. It holds just the right amount. More than dainty, but less than the oversized mugs that threaten to get cold before finishing.

She's bad for my blood pressure, she keeps me up at night and her acids are destroying my stomach and other internal organs.

But I love her just the same.

Blogging off...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mail Order Bride

I moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin in September of 1986. I had been laid off since the previous May from Markhurd Corporation, my first job out of college. After a softball game one night in Minneapolis, I ran into a friend who had been laid off in the same wave of cutbacks as me. He said he had just been offered a job doing computer (CADD) mapping, by a company in Waukesha called Intelligraphics. He said they were doing a lot of hiring and would I be interested? I was so desperate for a job in my field at the moment I was ready to move anywhere.

Intelligraphics offered me a job that summer and so, after saying a teary goodbye to my mom, I got in my Ford Escort with a U Haul and every possession I owned in-tow and headed east on I-94 for Milwaukee. It was a long drive filled with hope, fear, joy and uncertainty. I moved in with my roommates Ken and Paul and started my new life.

Within a few months of moving, my brother Rob and I began sending letters back and forth. He was enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York. It was nice getting letters from him and, because he was displaced as well, we had a fair amount in common to write about. In one of his letters, he included letters from 3 of his girl "friend" floor mates from his dorm. The were Jeryll, Jackie, and a girl named Donna. He told me that he had mentioned to them that I was new in Waukesha and didn't really know anybody, so would they write him a letter and say hi?

I don't remember exactly what each of the three had to say. Most of the letters were introductory in nature and seemed like honest attempts to be nice and cure me of my homesick loneliness. They were all away from their families as well, and we were all close in age, so had music, books and college life in common to talk about.

I was, of course, flattered that 3 women would take the time to write, so I wrote each of them individual letters back. Only one wrote back.

For a year and a half.

Donna Marie Neufang and I became 20th century pen pals of sorts. This was before the age of e-mail, faxes, texting and Skype. Long distance was expensive. Postage for letters was about a quarter.

So we wrote, and we wrote, and we wrote. Short letters, long letters, letters about the trials of college and a new job, and roommates, and philosophy and religion, family, music, and books. We shared joys, concerns, doubts, beliefs and bad jokes. One of the things I recall her liking was my "Random Observations" which  covered most subjects under the sun. Near the end of of our writing things got a little spicier and flirtatious, neither of us knowing what the other would think, but daring to "go there" nonetheless.

I sent her letters on the back of scrap maps from work, letters on notebook paper, and even a letter on toilet paper as a joke. She always sent cards on holidays and birthdays, and on one occasion, she sent a scarf as a birthday present, which touched me deeply. It was nothing special, and she may not even remember sending it, but to know that someone that far away cared, meant a lot to me.

Then one day she called. She said she was thinking about paying a visit and wondered what I'd think? I of course said I would love to see her. Both of us knew it would likely change our relationship forever.

And, man, did it ever.

I greeted her at the airport with a single red rose. We went to dinner at the Chancery and out to see the movie "Light Years" at the coolest theatre in Milwaukee, the Oriental. On the way home, "our song" came on the radio in the car, oddly enough, because it wasn't a big top 40 hit. When we got home we stayed up late and talked, and talked.

The next day we went to the lakefront where we fed the ducks, walked Brady Street, went to the Domes, stopped at Leon's Custard Stand, and that night she cooked me dinner, Chicken Parmesan.

It was a weekend I'll never forget and somewhere along the way, we fell deeply in love.

Some say that we put into writing things that are too hard to say in person. They say that we reveal parts of ourselves that we might hold back in conversation, I know I did. To this day she says that my words were what attracted her to me. Well, there must have been something in hers that drew me to her, as well.

We met 25 years ago this weekend. I am eternally indebted to my brother Rob for giving me the second half of my life by writing a simple letter.

And I'm forever grateful to Donna for writing me back.

I Love You, Donna.

Blogging off...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Ear Of The Beholder

I am a music junkie. I love music, always have. For me, it is the great equalizer across the generations. Parents and grandparents all loved the people and bands of their era, and so it goes with me. Literally, every song takes me back to a spot, geographically and chronologically. A song can trigger an emotion of sadness one minute, reflection during the refrain, and joy at the climax, all in a single three and a half minute segment.

This is what I love about music, I think. I'm an internalizer; I tend to stuff, ruminate and reflect. The voices inside my head while listening to music keep me sane. They allow me to stop, check out, and leave the insane pace we live for a few moments. I don't want to cheapen my faith, but it is almost a spiritual experience at times. Perhaps God is even working in there in some way, I dunno.

Most of the time, the songs have two or three significant meanings or tie-ins for me. Anyhow, as an example of how music can take me to places and times of my life, almost like an audible timeline or calendar here are some songs I heard while walking today and where they took me:

  • Jackson Browne: Call it a Loan: Instantly made me think of one of my best friends Pat, who was a Jackson Browne fanatic in college. His music tells a story, and you cannot help but reflect. It also took me back to an old girlfriend, only because it was popular during the time we dated. Weird.
  • Eric Clapton: My Father's Eyes: This made me think first of my own father, whom I never really knew. Every time I hear it I always think of what I look like through his eyes, from heaven. Am I making him proud? Then it switches to my other Father in heaven and I ask the same questions. Finally, it makes me look down the line and wonder if Ben and Sarah think the same thing about how they look from their father's eyes. A strange trilogy of thoughts.
  • Bruce Springsteen: Erie Canal: Oddly enough this song always makes me think of my in-laws and my ties to New York State. Donna's family lives near Rochester and I remember when I visited Rob in Rochester I saw part of the canal and was fascinated. By the end of the song, my thoughts had shifted to Springsteen the performer and the first time I saw him in concert. A 3 hour transcendent experience in itself.
  • Killing Joke: Darkness Before Dawn: First thoughts are of my brother Paul, who always had a taste for cutting edge music. Some of his stuff was "dark" and I put this song Killing Joke among these. It was a time in my life where I was seeking my own identity. I was in my own dark place, thinking myself a non-conformist or counter culturist. In fact, I was just a kid trying to find his place thinking the music he listened to made him different from everyone else. It really doesn't, but it was fun to think that.
  • The B52's: Private Idaho: Again Paul is first in my thoughts with this song. He used to listen to the B52's on Portland Ave., when we lived there in the 70's and early 80's. I used to hear it and think, what kind of alien music is he listening to? It sounded like something out of the Jetsons. That crazy organ/harpsichord thing, the beehive hairdo's and that crazy lead singer. It turns out I fell in love with the zaniness of it all. 
  • The Church: Hotel Womb: Favorite band ever. The version that came on was live, took me to First Avenue in Minneapolis, where I first saw them live with my brother Paul, in 1986. The song means a lot to me, as my wife and I consider the LP it came from to be "our album," one we shared together at the height of our courtship. 
The list could go on and on. Music transports me; elevates me; moves me and in some cases, helps me mourn. It's a brain/ear thing and a pretty cool physiologic response. I sometimes wonder if it's a healthy thing to escape, or to need this escape? 

It probably isn't, but you know what? It sure is fun.

Blogging off...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Facing Up To It

Facebook has been around for a few years now and I still have mixed emotions about it. Like many, I struggle with how much time and attention it deserves and how I choose to act on that perception. A bit of history on my use of might paint a better picture of this struggle.

When it first came out, I was cynical and hesitant to get on board with it. My wife was an early adopter and I thought I would see what it became. Eventually, it looked harmless enough so I created an account and got sucked into the hype. The early days were reckless and fun. People didn't understand the etiquette, in part because there really was none. It was a bit of a free for all, and people only stepped over the lines of decency because they didn't know there was one. 

I rolled with it for a while and quickly realized after about 6 months that it had become a time-suck for me. I was spending too much time on it and couldn't seem to manage it very well. On top of that I think enough people had offended me with their posts that I bailed. I closed my account and got off of it. 

As I started to have some success with my writing, I realized that without Facebook, I was missing out on a decent forum for building an audience of followers. While I don't claim to have a big following, I think it is important to take advantage of tools and venues at your disposal in order to be successful. As bad as I maybe felt about it, Facebook needed to be a part of my platform.

So I recreated my account about a month or two after having deleted it. I even went so far as to create a "Fan Page". (Search for Writer Jim Landwehr on facebook). The fan page is where I focus announcements about my writing projects, publication successes, events, training opportunities, etc. As I refer to it, it is my writing chum bucket. 

The rest of facebook is a mixture of good and bad. It gives me a glimpse into many friends and families' lives that I normally would not have. This is not always a good thing, mind you, but usually is pretty benign. It has kept me in touch with the writing (and other professional) successes of some of my friends in and out of my writing circle. At the same time, I know when people have sniffles, hacking coughs, gout, kidney stones, bad attitudes and drinking problems. Frankly it's usually more than I want to know, but it comes rolled together with all the good stuff. In a perfect world there will be a Facebook filter by subject to weed out these kinds of things.

There's political rants and inappropriate jokes, offensive religious slams - regardless of the denomination or faith, stupid videos, hilarious videos, sad videos, inspiring videos and videos that make you go "Huh?" 

The saving grace is that while I still spend entirely too much time monitoring Facebook, I've learned a few key things. 

1. Hiding people who offend, bore or upset me is a beautiful alternative to defriending them. I use hiding with great regularity.

2. My phone has allowed me to use what would normally be "downtime" to catch up on checking in with FB.

3. I've learned to whiz by anything that looks like it should be whizzed by. For every good post, there are 7 posts that I have no time for.

4. My personal mantra is: If you don't have anything to say, that's OK. Really. It's fine. Don't say anything. People like you more if you're silent on the sidelines than forcing the issue and looking dumb.

That's my two cents on Facebook. It's a necessary evil. It's great fun at times and has allowed me to reconnect with friends and family in ways I'd never dreamed of. At the same time, I (and you) need to keep it in check, as it will take as much of your time as you're willing to give it, and always a little bit more.

Blogging off to (check my status)...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Increasing My Return On Investment

If you recall, I repaired my dryer about a week and a half ago. See Post. Well, I thought I should follow up the story with the rest of what happened.

The dryer worked for exactly two loads of laundry, then it stopped heating again. It was heartbreaking. Here I thought I'd been a hero and had fixed it for good. When it stopped working, I figured it must be something more than the three parts I replaced. I was ready to give up and just start saving toward a new one.

After reading online a bit more though, everything I read pointed to the Thermal Fuse being blown; in essence a $5.00 part. I also got to wondering if when I had fixed it last time if I had put an old part back in instead of the new one. I looked closer at the photo I had taken before I started the job, and sure enough, the piece I had taken out to replace, I had actually reinstalled. (Luckily I didn't throw out the new part).

So, first things first, I put the new (right) part in and tried the dryer. No joy.

Then I thought it might be worth one more shot at the $5.00 part, so I ordered one from Amazon. It came in the mail on Monday. I installed it on Tuesday and crossed my fingers. I also vacuumed out the vents extra clean because I heard that could be the cause for overheating and resulting in the Thermal Fuse shorting out.

I plugged the dryer back in (Yeah, I learned my lesson last time) and voila! Heat!

I joked with my wife after the last try that at a total of $90 for parts, divided by two loads, I was looking at about $45/load.

Well, she did 2 more loads today so I'm down to $22.50 a load. Every load from here on out brings that price down. When she gets to 90 loads, I figure the rest is gravy.

Until then I'll keep my fingers crossed and my electric screwdriver charged.

Blogging off...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

From the BWCA to The Void

I am two weeks into a new writing group at AllWriters' Workplace and Workshop. I went from a writing workshop focus to a book writing group. The differences are subtle, yet I am in the group with two others (and a 3rd, the instructor) who were in the Wednesday night group previously. This makes it more familiar and comfortable for me, yet the changes on what I am focusing on from a writer's perspective are significant.

The Wednesday group is structured so that students bring up to 10 pages of their work or 3 poems every week. The work is read in front of the group and then the group critiques it for 10 minutes or so. Depending on attendance and because of time limitations, from week to week, half the class gets to read. The group is supportive and helpful on what works and what doesn't.

The Thursday group is different in that up to 14 pages are submitted ahead of time via email to everyone in the group every week. The students then read each others' work and critique it on their own time. Critiques are brought to class and the time is divided up so that everyone gets the same amount of critique time every class.

Thursdays are built around people trying to plow through their manuscript in the name of getting a book finished. Wednesdays can serve the same purpose, but because the focus is different, it may take a bit longer.

Anyhow, in the new class, I am the lone nonfiction writer in the group. I am also the only man in the group (except the instructor). I share the class with four women, all of whom are writing Young Adult (YA) Fantasy. Needless to say, it has been an interesting couple of weeks.

As someone who focuses on memoir and creative nonfiction, I find these colleagues and their work fascinating. This is because there's a part of me that cannot (or maybe hasn't tried) think in the fantasy dimension. Fiction is hard enough, and then you throw in witchcraft, magic, and the like, and, well, writing from memory seems pretty simple. (It's not).

Since I've been in my writing group Young Adult fantasy writers have introduced me to (My interpretations in parentheses):

Selkies (Seal people)
Slips (Places used to escape)
Green Witches (They come in colors?)
Voids (Dark places)
Immortals (People who never die, or regenerate on demand)
Shape shifters (Animals/people capable of changing into other things)
Vampire Surveyors (Don't ask)
Warlocks (He-witches)
Loch Nessie type things (Forgot their real names)
Unicorns (That can also turn to human)
Portals (Like slips, only bigger?)
Orbs (Things used to guide or as crystal balls)
Covens (Flocks of witches, LOL)
Zombie Lovers (With falling off body parts)
Merfairies (Mermaid/Fairies)
Monochromatic boys (vs. colored)
Tethers (That link immortals to their master)

There are many more that I can't even remember. It has been educational and fascinating at the same time. As I have often said, I cannot even think in this dimension. Wild stuff. Crazy, fun, bizarre and unbelievably complex stuff. Most of it well thought out in the name of becoming the next J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer.

And so, as I continue on from week to week, it's going to be great fun to leave my nine-to-five life once a week and enter the land of the immortals, the unicorns, the selkies, and the monochrome boy. Because, as readers (and writers), that's what it's all about; escapism. Leaving the safety of my predictable, sometimes dull urban life and fighting the evil forces in the name of righteous justice. It's like a two hour movie with four subplots every week, and instead of popcorn and snowcaps, we get cheese balls and M&M's.

It's crazy, it's fantastic, exhausting and exhilarating. But most of all, it's exciting to be a part of what one day may end up on a bookshelf or in an Amazon shopping cart.

Blogging off...

{{{Exits through a portal into the void}}}

Monday, March 4, 2013

Zip and the Art of Maytag Maintenance

It finally happened on Friday. Our 15+ year old Maytag dryer just stopped heating. Oh, it'll work without heat, it just takes five times as long to dry anything. Heat is good.

So again, we're at the crossroads of fix or replace? Any appliance that is this old is approaching it's end of life and we know this. (Although we had a dryer that was from the 60's that we gave to my brother in law and the thing just died 5 years ago. They truly don't make 'em like that anymore.) Having replaced the belt on the dryer a couple of years ago, I thought I'd look up how to replace a heating element on it. It didn't look too daunting, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

All of the videos showed people just taking off the back of the dryer to get to the element. Half a dozen screws, new heat element, Zip, Zip, Zip, Done!

Well, we have the dryer equivalent to a uni body. The three sides and bottom are all one. Luckily, after I popped the bottom panel off, I saw that, with a little work, I would be able to reach the heating element without having to take off the front door, drum and belt. This made me think it might not be bad. Zip, Zip, Zip, Done!

I then called our handy appliance parts supplier Johnstone Supply in Waukesha to see if they had the parts. They informed me that they do "wholesale only" now to businesses with an account. They said I could call the Milwaukee store and see if they had the parts because they sell to helpless folk like me. So I called and  it turns out they did have the parts. The problem is that store is about 30 minutes away.

So much for Zip, Zip, Zip, Done!

I zip up to Appleton Ave. and Silver Spring to get the part. Of course the clerk couldn't locate the part. He said the guy who had taken my call had just left and hadn't done a "physical" (i.e. verified the part actually existed within the confines of their store.) and that they had no part.

The good news was, guess what? The Waukesha shop did! And he would make an exception and sell me the part from there.

Hooray for the Waukesha branch and high gas prices! Yay!

So I zip over to the Waukesha store and pick up the $50.00 (gas not included) heating element.

With the help of my father in law and my ability to dislocate my shoulder to reach the screws, I manage to install it in 15 minutes (Zip). I plug it in. (Zip). I turn it on. (Zip) and after 2 minutes I open the door to see if it's hot.

Feel with hand: Room temperature (Not done).

Surmising that it might be the other two pieces to the puzzle, I decide to go to the Waukesha location and see if they'll sell me those parts even though I'm still not a wholesaler. (I'm banking on goodwill here.)

Before I leave, I thought I'd check one connection, so I grabbed the wire lead and after it touched the side of the dryer, ZAP POP! Sparks flew and my heart arrhythmia was instantly corrected.

Hey DA. Don't forget to unplug the dryer. Oops.

I zip over to the Waukesha location and luckily, the guy remembered me and was gracious enough to sell me the parts. (Another $40).

I Zip back home and in twenty minutes I have the new parts installed. (Zip). I plug it back in (Zip), and turn it on (Zip) and miraculously we have heat! We did it!

Hallelujah, where's the Tylenol?

The moral of the story is, I learned a little bit about electricity today. And perseverance. And dryer repair.

And that's all.

Blogging off...