Sunday, April 28, 2013

College Revisited

As I mentioned in my previous post, the U of M tour sparked a ton of memories for me of my days there. Most of them were positive, good memories. My wife and I were talking and agreed that our college days were some of the best of our lives. You're on your own, (even though I was living at home), you don't have the burden of a mortgage (again, living at home) and you are past the awkward high school years. Life is good.

When we toured Coffman Memorial Union, I told Sarah that when I was there, one of the bigger perks was the Music Listening Center. You could choose an LP you wanted to hear, and depending on the backlog, the DJ would tell you a channel to tune to and you would hear your record. Or, if you preferred, you could listen to one of the other 9 LP's being played. They gave you a nice set of Koss headphones and you got a small desk to sit at and work on homework or just relax. In light of today's iPod craze, it seems a little bit bizarre, but you have to realize that this was before the days of the Sony Walkman. Portable music just wasn't. It was a cool lounge and I used it frequently my first couple years.

I pointed Ford Hall out to Sarah and told her that was where all of my Anthropology classes were. (Yes I actually double majored in it, along with Geography.) Because I was in the Anthropology Club, I have a bunch of great memories from that building too. (In fact, in 1985 I was president of the club, a real resume builder there!)

I remember the basement of Ford Hall held a fair amount of archaeological artifacts, including some pre-contact Native American remains. At the time I graduated, there was a legal battle to see that the remains were returned to the native tribes so they could be returned to sacred ground. As an anthropology student who saw the value in studying the remains I had a problem with the thought of reburying them. As a humanitarian, I had a BIGGER problem with someone's ancestors sitting in the basement of a University. I think justice was served and the tribes eventually won the legal dispute.

The student mall reminded me of the times Brother Jed and Sister Cindy would preach fire and brimstone in front of Northrup Auditorium. They would get jeered and debated by the cynical students. It was good entertainment albeit maybe a big disservice to the Christian cause.

The other memorable Mall moment happened on the lawn in front of Coffman when I was crossing the bridge, at precisely 1:00 one day a large crowd that was gathered all dropped to the ground when someone sounded a siren. It was meant to depict a nuclear accident, as I recall. This was during the time of the 3 Mile Island nuclear accident, and the activists gathered were trying to make a statement. I will not dispute that it made me stop and wonder for a second. It was really quite eerie. Point taken. Unfortunately, I think it did little to reduce the pursuit of better alternatives for producing power. We're still looking for answers on that one.

There were lots and lots of other memories that were stirred up; too many to list. It seems like yesterday I was there as a student. Now, it's about to be my daughter's turn. It's my hope that she'll like it as much as I did.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Halls Of Time

Last weekend, among other things, we took a trip up to Minnesota for a University of Minnesota tour for my daughter Sarah. It's hard to believe she's looking into such things, as it seems like just last month I attended her preschool graduation ceremony. They grow up fast, to be sure.

Minnesota stands to be her college experience. She really liked everything she read on it before she left. It has a great foreign studies program, including a wonderful study abroad program. A somewhat bigger determinant might be that she'd be close to a lot of family. I graduated from "the U" in 1985, so would like nothing better than to see her close to family, attending the school that I did. It would make me incredibly proud.

We arrived on campus plenty early for the tour. I was shocked and awed by all the changes on campus. The first thing that caught my eye was the new TCF Bank Stadium. It was beautiful. It sits in a different spot than the old Memorial Stadium that I knew and love, which was in the middle campus, essentially. Hopefully they can get their football program turned around in my lifetime and make it pay off. (As an aside, I was there a couple of years after Tony Dungy was the quarterback at the U. This gives you a frame of reference for how long it's been.)

Incidentally to add an interesting twist to the tour, it snowed 8 inches the night before, April 18th. I thought to myself, if Sarah can like this campus in this climate, then she'll be fine. At one point on the tour, she said to me through chattering teeth, "This is cool. I really like it."

A true Midwesterner, she is.

Before the tour started I had some time, so I asked a passerby if Williamson Hall was still the bookstore. He told me no, that the bookstore was now in Coffman Memorial Union. Well, they never got my permission to do that now, did they?

Another big change was the addition of light rail lines cutting through campus. Because it's not full operational yet, it's causing just a whole lot of dead space and logistical workarounds. It is a phenomenal idea and I think it will be great when it's running, it's just jumbling things up a bit right now.

After a quick presentation in Jones hall, our tour guide took us around. Now, understand that I never really got a tour of the campus until Freshman welcome week. Nor did I tour other colleges. It was pretty clear from the outset that my brother had gone to the U, and I would go to the U. (And Paul would too.) It is a different time here in 2013.

Our first stop with the guide was Cook Hall and the brand new adjoining Recreation Center. Lots of treadmills and aerobic machines and a nice Olympic pool to round things out. All of it is included in student fees, so that is a nice perk. With tuition costs what they are, you have to look for the small victories, so I'll take this as one.

Stop two was a residence hall. Nothing earth shattering there. Small rooms, lots of students, ping pong, food service, computer lab and a laundry area. I lived at home, so I had much the same for free. (Thanks Mom!)

There's much more to cover, so I'll save it for another blog post.

Suffice it to say that my daughter's experience will be MUCH different than mine.

Ski U Mah!

Blogging off...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On Dancing

Last night we celebrated the marriage of my nephew at his wedding reception in Maplewood, MN. It was a great time with lots of food, laughter, words and music.

They hired a DJ and, like most weddings, the dance floor ebbed and flowed with people throughout the course of the evening. As was always the case, the young kids (ages 6-12) were first out on the floor because they are the least inhibited. After a couple of songs, the adults started trickling on, and after that it becomes a ripple effect. Those that like to dance tend to take the chance at weddings to release some inhibitions and cut a rug.

I am one of those. Truth be told, I love to dance.

This is not a good thing.

Those who have seen me dance can attest to my undeveloped sense of rhythm and style. If dancing has rules, I'm a felon. I'm a freestyler from way back and I intend to keep it that way. This never translates to a thing of beauty on the dance floor, especially given my height, but I'm OK with that.

Way back in the 80's I had a friend who was a dance instructor for Arthur Murray's in Minneapolis. He got me a free introductory lesson deal that I thought I'd try out. I went in and they took an hour or so to try and teach the basics for about 5 different styles of dance. Cha cha, ma rumba, swing, etc. Well, I think I failed. The reason I failed was because I have a problem with any dance that has rules to it. This includes line dancing, electric slide, etc. You can't tell me how to dance. Like Frank Sinatra, I'll do it my way.

I did it in the 80's with my Chuck Berry duck-walk imitation and even a little break dancing. Last night I polkaed with my daughter for the first time, and, yes I stepped on her toes too. My wedding video is testament to t the fact that I can be smooth on my feet, and completely free on the dance floor. The DJ even referred to Donna and I as Fred and Ginger. It was hilariously fun and I'll never forget it. I did the same with friends at my sister's wedding a few years before. It's almost like I can't help myself when the music starts. I need a 12 step program for dance. Or maybe a familial intervention.

If you think about it it's a weird thing anyway. People jumping, twitching, shaking, twisting and writhing all to a bunch of sounds strung together in the name of music. What possesses people to have their feet take over the rest of their body and suddenly drop all their worries and shake like a chicken? I'm not sure, but I'm a victim too, and when it's over and done with and I'm a sweaty mess, its a great feeling.

At the same time, I think it's a great outlet for anyone. If you can't let your hair down a little bit then you're too uptight for me. Worried about what people think? So are most of the people on the floor. So get over it and get out there, and watch out for me.

I'll be the one doing the sprinkler.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Treading Lightly

Well, it's been another week of putting out fires around home and work. I took the car in for a simple oil change hoping they'd try and not hard sell me an overpriced air filter, flush job or blinker bulb. No worries there, except that he said our battery needed replacing. Oddly enough they "had a special" running and could get me one for $100.00. Needless to say, I didn't bite. I will cross that bridge soon enough, but I wanted to do a little homework myself before I pulled the trigger.

Then, on Monday morning, my wife tells me the dryer had stopped spinning. I "fixed" that problem a couple of years ago when I replaced the belt under the advisement of a friend who said it was fairly straightforward. So when I got home from work, I popped the hood on it and it looked like the belt was OK. I spun the drum a few times, and shimmied (a technical term) the belt to make sure it was moving and then put it back together.

Turn it on and no joy. Actually it turned about 3/4 turn and then stopped.

Back to disassembling it again. I futzed (another technical term) with the belt and the felt lining around the drum some more and reassembled.

Turn it on and success! If I could tell you what I did to fix it the second time, I would. I think I scared it into working, actually. Coarse language will do that to appliances. In the meantime, I've ordered a new belt, because the one that's on there is looking old.

Tonight I did an upgrade at work that went about as badly as expected. I was there for 2+ hours trying to figure out what went awry. It was a stupid software thing. Maddening software I deal with.

These are just the unexpected things that come across our lives once and a while. It's the self-inflicted pain and agony that I need to stop doing.

For instance, the other day, my daughter said that she upgraded her phone's operating system to "Ice Cream Sandwich." She has the same model as mine, so of course I needed to get that too. (Shiny!). Well, when I conducted the upgrade it said something about deleting or overwriting my contacts. For reasons unbeknownst to me I said Yes. (I was thinking, well, I don't know what I was thinking, actually.) At a minimum though I thought I would have them backed up somewhere.

Not so much.

Bye bye contacts. Hello clean new phone.

I added a few contacts back in, maybe 10 important ones.

The story gets better because Ice Cream Sandwich seemed to be draining my battery super fast. After looking online someone said you needed to do a "Factory Restore" to make ICS run like it supposed to. So after I do a factory restore, my 10 new contacts are gone. Grrrrr....

Needless to say when I added the 10 back in, I researched how to back them up online. I'm beginning to think walky talkies and rotary phones weren't so bad. At least I didn't have to remember a password to use them.

And so I'm going to hope tomorrow is a quiet day. Quiet is good.

Blogging off...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Three To Get Ready

I'm about 8 weeks into my Thursday Night book writing class and I've learned a number of things about the whole writing process as a result. I look at this as my third run-through of the book I've been working on for the past 3 1/2 years or so. Each of the edits has revealed different things and it is interesting to see how I've matured as a writer through the process. It's far from a "finished" process, but I feel like I've got a much better understanding of how to take a story and, depending on the day either pound it or mold it into submission. Below is a description of what each edit was like.

Edit #1. (3 years ago)
This first run through of all of my stories that make up the book was more an public airing of my writing shortcomings than an actual edit. True, you have to start somewhere, but when I look back on some of my first pieces, they were pretty rough. My instructor said they were like me telling her the story from a bar stool. That is, they didn't have much in the way of description, dialog, character sketching, etc. In short, they got the story across, but they weren't much fun from a reader's perspective. What I thought was "pretty good" was just OK.

At the same time, the class critiques all said that the storyline and the humor and the voice were really pretty good. This was incredibly encouraging because I knew that I could work on those other things, (although they're not always easy). If they had told me my voice or style sucked, well, that's a tougher thing to correct. Sometimes even a bad singing voice can't be helped, and I think the same goes for writing.

The important thing about that first time through the stories was that I got the stories down. Again, my writing instructor said, don't focus on chapters or chronology or even topics, just get the story down on paper. Write like a maniac. Get the rough draft down then bring it in so it can be beaten into submission by your peers. In an encouraging way, they'll point out your story's zits, moles, warts and wandering eye. Sometimes they'll laugh at some of it's inconsistencies or shortcomings, but it's only because you laugh at theirs at times as well. It's like any messed up family, you pick on one another, but only because you care about them and want them to be better.

Edit #2 (1.5 years ago to Feb. 2013)
The second edit was a bit like the teenage years in a person's life. You're finding your way, making some of the same mistakes of your youth, yet you're gaining confidence and feeling like a real-live adult. It was here that I focused on chapter structure, chronology and story line a little more. I also worked on adding character development, setting depth and more dialogue to the book. I tried to turn it from a bar stool story into one worthy of immersing the reader into a world outside of their own. It was in working through my dialogue that I learned that dialogue in memoir needn't be word for word of what was said, but rather a reflection or recollection of approximately what was said.

A few of my peers had heard the stories once before, so were helpful and supportive in telling what was better about the revisions. At the same time, they began to grow more comfortable with me (and vice verse) and so we could be even more honest and critical with our comments. I think this second edit is perhaps the most critical (and difficult) of all of them. This is because Edit #1 was kind of an "I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I'm just doing it" run through of my stories. Edit # 3 is the fine tuning, which wouldn't be happening if I had cashed it in after Edit #1 and said I can't do this. So whatever you do, be sure you do a hearty second edit.

Edit #3 (Feb. to present)
The biggest change in the editing process has been my move to the "book writing class" as opposed to the "writing workshop class". This shift has been to an environment where everyone is focusing on the same thing; finishing their book. This is not a knock at all on the other classes I was in (writing workshops), but really this group is geared to a different audience of students. Because the class is smaller, we can bite off bigger chunks of writing and everyone gets feedback every week. That was not a the case before.

This final edit of my manuscript has been unique in a number of good ways. It has shown me things I never saw in the first two. This includes some timing/chronology things. When you're looking at the "whole story" for the third time, the little stories within the story are given individualized focused treatment. Edits #1 and #2 were like hacking at things with a chainsaw and a hatchet. Edit 3 is using a scalpel and, oh, I don't know, a box cutter.

One of the more interesting things it has enabled is to see where I repeat myself. In the other class, I usually worked in 5-7 page increments, so I could say something in one story and then, without realizing it, reiterate it in another different story. When you're looking down from 10,000 feet, the story is a whole lot different than from ground level.

The other cool thing that it has done is allowed me to make some really, really good edits to things that sounded funny or good when I wrote them, but didn't now. Using my scalpel, I either cut them out altogether, or reworked them to a much better version. (IMHO). In some cases, my colleagues pointed out some things that were missed the first two times, or gave me a concept to run with to make the story much better.

As one who has always looked at second and third edits as a pain, I now know why it is essential. It gives the story layering, and depth, and feeling. I can see where authors might get caught in edit-addiction, where they never feel things are quite right. At the same time I see where they could do 5 or 6 edits and come out with a masterpiece, as I'm guessing the greats do.

Mine may never be great, but it's a whole lot better than it was.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Racing Toward 100

I was talking to my wife the other day and mentioned a book I wanted to read. She then countered with the fact that there's really not enough time in either of our lives to read all the good books we want to read. We're both so busy with living life, paying bills, raising kids, and the rest of it that reading fits into the last 45 minutes of our day, if we're lucky. It's hard to get through a book, 45 minutes at a time, but we still make an effort because we both love to read.

Fast forward to today. It was another one of those days. No, not a bad day, just a day of recognizing the urgency with which I feel I need to live my life. I watched a video on Donald Miller's site  that was just people from 1 to 100 years old saying their age. It was interesting to see the change in people's faces as the video went along. More importantly, it reminded me how short life is.

I've got a friend in the GIS field who just lost his vision. It's coming back slowly, but it was a blindsiding scare for him and his family. I've got another writing friend who is a breast cancer survivor who dodged a serious bullet and now wears the scars of cancer as reminders of what could have been. I have a third friend who just had a difficult surgery done near her brain. It was successful, but it could have gone awry just as easily. I have two other friends who are under breast cancer "watches." Nothing like throwing the "unknown possibilities" into an already bad deal.

Throw into that the public figures that have passed in the last week or so. Roger Ebert, Margaret Thatcher and Annete Funicello all within a week. These are some of my childhood heroes. The list goes on and on. And while I know all of this is spurred on by the loss of my brother, that doesn't take away the sense that I am running in quicksand. Turning 50 sure didn't help either.

I've much to do, and the damn clock is ticking so loud I can hear it over my tinnitus.

I feel like I can't even type this blog fast enough to get it done so I can get to the next important thing I need to do. I know I'm young, (relatively) and in good shape (for 51), but you never know, do you? If I keel over walking to work tomorrow, I'm going to be pissed. If I have an aneurysm in bed tonight because I mixed licorice herbal tea with a disgustingly rich chocolate mint cupcake, well, someone please feed the dog. Oh, and if I should keel over at my keyboard at work, please log me off.

And for God's sake, if I'm struck by lightning, someone please finish editing my book and see that it gets published posthumously. Donate the proceeds to charity.

There's fish to be caught, kids to graduate and marry off, grand kids to spoil, careers to be closed out, books to be written, poems to be read, movies to be cried over, dogs to love-bury-miss, music to be danced to, friends to laugh with, a wife to grow old with, classes to be taken, people to serve, people to love and laugh with, and God in heaven to thank and praise for it all every day.

So, with a little luck, this feeling will subside a bit and I won't feel as manic from day to day as I do at the moment. I need to remember that there is a time for stopping and sitting too. I need to understand that "productivity" can mean just sitting here admiring my daughter on the love seat across from me texting in her winter coat in April because the house is drafty mostly because its old and leaky. I need to understand that if all goes well, I won't die tomorrow, or this week or this year, and that I'll be fine if I just make the most out of each day.

And if I live to be 100, well, the friggin' joke's on me.

Blogging off...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Guest In The Guest House

On Easter Sunday this year our whole family served breakfast to over 80 homeless men at the Guest House in downtown Milwaukee. A couple of months ago, a friend of ours who works at the shelter mentioned that they are always looking for volunteers. Donna thought it would be a good way to spend our Easter Sunday. Get outside our comfort zone a bit, and have an Easter "outside the box." I was hip on the idea the minute she mentioned it. I love service projects and am always keen on getting my family out there with me/us for a number of reasons. This particular one did not disappoint in that respect.

One of the differences between this agency and say, just serving a meal in a soup kitchen, is that a group leader is assigned to raise donations for all of the food and materials for the meal. It's sort of an all encompassing project in that you solicit, buy, bake and serve the entire meal. We were both shocked and awed by the way people rose to the challenge and pitched in to cover all the meal ingredients. It shows the beauty of our local and in a few cases, distant, community. One woman sent granola bars all the way from New York State. Others from out of state contributed financially. That people care this much and are willing to give selflessly was humbling.

We woke the kids at 5:15 on Easter morning and piled in the van to drive to Milwaukee. We picked up a couple of our friends' kids and met a couple of our friends at the center. When we arrived, there were a few men hanging around outside smoking. When it was clear who we were, a couple of them offered to help unload the van. It was a case of the needy seeing need and reacting. Again, humbling.

Despite the small kitchen the whole family crowded in to get the food warmed up. Sarah and I poured cups of juice and milk in preparation for the line. The men hung around tables and hallways drinking coffee, watching TV or chatting. All of them were courteous and respectful. I got more pleases, thank yous and God Bless Yous than I could handle. Totally humbling.

The way the center works, the men sleep there at night, and get fed one hot meal a day. They also have career, mental health, and substance abuse counseling. In trying to set up the tables, I had to check behind a door and got to see one of the sleeping areas. It was a large room with a series of bunk beds. Each resident gets a small box for personal items and a bed. It wasn't much, but each man was grateful to have a place to sleep.

At one point after all the men had been served, I sent Sarah around to offer more juice to the various tables. To her credit she never balked at the mention of it. I thought for sure she would stiff arm my suggestion, but she never did. She treated these men like they were customers at a restaurant. No fear, no judgement, no pity. When I heard a couple of them joking with her and making her laugh, it made my heart sing. Sending her to the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago on a mission trip changed her in ways I'm only starting to see now. To Ben's credit, he served in the kitchen without a grumble too.

With these kinds of service projects, I always have to keep in mind where my heart is. I always have to question whether it is for my personal edification, or because I truly care. I keep coming back to the fact that I do it out of love for my brothers. Brothers of all colors, ages, and faiths. I do it because I would want someone to do it for me. In the past, if I have ever told any of you about my service, be it in the Big Brothers program or something through church, it was only because I was excited about it. It was never intended to be about me.

I love what I see when I serve. I love how I feel. I love to see how people receive it. And the reason I tell people about it is because I want them to feel the same way. It's not about me, it's about them, whoever them is at the time. It's about having a good story as Donald Miller always says. One story is another average, forgettable Easter morning service and meal with the family (both of which we had after serving.)

Another story is the Easter breakfast that our family will never forget. And that is a story I would want to read.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lamentations In Lieu of Lithium

Winter hasn't quite given up on this part of the state yet. Today was a brisk 37 degrees for a high. Thirty seven! If we had had rain, well, it would have been snow. Throw on top of that the raging gale wind and it felt like about 25 degrees out there.

One would say, this is April in Wisconsin, deal with it. To that I say, Poop.

It has been a long grueling winter around here, no matter how you slice it. I remember in December, we had very little snow, and I thought, "Hey, this ain't bad. December's already over and we barely have any snow. I can do this!"

Well, January rolled around and suddenly time stood still, the sun stopped rising, dog walks dropped to one a day and that was usually a short one, snow started falling and never stopped, the furnace clicked on and stayed on, the sky turned grey, the wind is always blowing hard out of the northeastsouthwest, the walk is always iced over, the dog can't find a place to poop without dragging his butt in a snowbank, the cars were in need of perpetual scraping, door de-icing, windshield defrosting and heater warm-upping, the birds flew south - even the ones we put food out for, food stopped smelling good, beer became a food group, exercise became a distant, long lost friend, I've forgotten how to fish and ride a bike, my pants don't fit, my wife speaks of divorce every time I put my favorite warm fleece on, my skin is like an iguana pelt and flakes off every time I change my clothes, I count down the seconds before the furnace kicks on from the moment it shuts off, sports have come to mean everything and nothing, God is still in my life - but most days he's hanging out upstairs cuz it's warmer up there, Toby the dog needs a haircut so bad he looks like a cross between a raccoon, a porcupine and a rasta dude, the cats have checked out and resorted to 22 hours of sleep a day, Christmas seems like it never happened or maybe it did but it was 3 years ago, money means nothing and everything, people are rude and beautiful and depressing and moody and generous and I love/hate most of them at any given time - depending on whether I got my 30 friggen minutes of sunshine that day (probably didn't cuz it was cloudy), Easter seems like it happened three months ago and the candy isn't helping my pants fit any better, I think I'm writing a book but can't remember what it's about because I'm too busy DVRing fishing shows that I never used to watch but now find fascinating because sometimes they fish on lakes with no ice, the country's going down the tubes but I haven't had the time to notice or really care because I was cold and tired, my NCAA bracket was busted before the ink could dry and that serves me right for gambling anyway, daylight savings came and went, and I missed the Presidential inauguration and the new Pope election on TV probably because I was too busy blowing snow.

Is it too much to ask then for, say, fifty two sunny and no wind? It might help my disposition, a tad.

For now though, I'm going to bed because I'm cold, tired, and it's dark out. Oh, and if you think I'm crazy because it's only 8:00, tell God about it. He's been up there since 7:30.

Blogging off...