Monday, May 26, 2014

Dirty Shirt Character Peek - Issue 9 - Ben

In looking at another character in my coming book, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir, today I will write about my son Ben. At the moment, Ben is fifteen years old, but at the time of the two trips we took to the BWCA together, he was thirteen and ten.

Ben loves to camp. For his birthday last year, he asked if he could take a friend up to Kohler-Andrea for a day at the beach and then go camping somewhere. We ended up going to Long Lake in the Northern Kettle Moraine and had a really good "guy trip" together. This summer he keeps talking about a backpacking trip that he's scheduled to take to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan with some friends and a father of one of the boys. He's actually saving up his money to be able to buy a backpack for the occasion.

What's even more interesting is that he has mentioned once or twice that the summer after he graduates from High School, he wants to take a trip to the BWCA with three of his friends. Now, if you don't already know, my book starts with that very scenario - me and my high school buddies going on a trip after graduation. It was a trip that went about as badly as anyone could expect. Beginning with our travel plans, Train-Bus-Hitchhike and including such things as bad equipment and poor food choices, it was doomed from the start.

I hope to help him with making his trip more successful, if it happens. (Though we all learned a lot from that trip, trial by fire is never pleasant.)

Ben is a lot like me in some ways. In his grade school and middle school years he was always average height and thin. Because of this, like me, he was relegated to third-string on the football team. I give him credit for sticking it out for three years despite being overlooked by the coaching staff. He loved being part of the team though and many of the guys are still his friends today.

In the years prior to that he tried most other sports including soccer, basketball and T-Ball, and never really developed a passion for any particular one. Again, I can't slight him for trying. Some people are more physically competitive than others. Now he enjoys lifting weights, biking and other individual sports as opposed to team sports, much like me.

Ben is taking guitar lessons and recently got an electric guitar to complement his acoustic equivalent. Next up is an amp to go with it.

One of Ben's goals is to catch a musky sometime. We tried to get him one last year, to no avail. We'll give it another shot this year at the cabin in Mercer and with a little luck he'll get one. It only took me 46 years to get my first. One of the cooler fish pictures we have of Ben was in 2009 when Tom hooked into a smallmouth from shore and let Ben reel it in. It's a beauty and was the beginning to a great BWCA experience. I hope to get the whole gang back up there in 2015.

This fall when I go up to Piragis Bookstore for a signing in August, Ben will accompany me and we'll spend some good guy time in the great outdoors again.

To hear more about Ben and his BWCA experiences, you'll just have to read Dirty Shirt. Release Date is June 17th, 2014!

Blogging off...


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dr. Google And His Associate Web MD

With the increasing cost of health care, many people, myself and my wife included, have turned to a cheaper health care provider. His name is Dr. Google. He's a close associate of our backup Dr. (aka Doctor on call) who goes by the name of Web MD. He has no last name, which I think is odd, but if it works for Cher and Bono, why not a doctor.

The other day when our dog Toby started limping around the house, holding his back leg up at times and favoring it, we did what any modern day pet owner would do first.

We called Dr. Google.

A few key strokes and a couple of mouse clicks and the good Doctor had a diagnosis for me as well as a cost estimate. He was pretty certain it was a torn ACL on Toby's leg with nothing short of a $2500 surgery to fix it. This was not good news as a pet owner. Bad Dr. Google!

As we paid more attention to Toby for the next day or so, we noticed he had gunk in his ears. Not sure what to think of it, we dialed up Doctor Google again and once again, he was quick to give us a diagnosis. He was convinced it was ear mites which are contagious between pets. Having two other cats, we feared the worst. After checking both of them, we saw they were clean, so we were relieved.

At this point we sought professional help. A real vet. We did with great apprehension because vet bills can get out of hand in a hurry. (Yes, I'm aware that is part of pet ownership, I get that.) But in part because we weren't getting the answers we wanted from Dr. Google, we thought we had nothing to lose.

The first thing the real doctor (Dr. Kevin) did was prescribe Toby a sedative so that he'd be calmer when we took him in.

Needless to say the sedation didn't work. Well, actually it did, but not until 3 hours after we got home. Toby looked like he wanted some Doritos and a little Pink Floyd. There were times he stood up and it seemed like he forgot he had back legs. He was kind of doing handstands across the living room floor. He didn't realize he'd been "roofied" three hours earlier.

The doctor proved our Google diagnoses were wrong on all accounts. He thought the leg was just a strain and so prescribed anti inflammatories.

Then, when he checked the ear gunk under the microscope he didn't find any sign of mites. Just bacteria and yeast. (Yuck!)  Wrong again, Dr. Google.

And finally when he checked out a lump that we had felt in Toby's side, he said it was just a fatty tumor. Not a cancerous growth that I had self diagnosed without the help of Dr. Google.

Both my wife and I have done similar online diagnosing using Web MD and quite often, after we see a real doctor, those diagnoses are also proven wrong. So what doesn't work for pets, carries over to humans as well. There are cases where given the symptoms you have will get you clued in to what the problem MIGHT be. But many times, it also gives you 2 million hits of what it might not be, which if taken the wrong way can create all kinds of false anxiety.

In short, the lesson here is, if you want to fix your dishwasher or learn how to do a brake job, Google and YouTube are great things. If you're trying to splint up a fracture or stitch up a bad cut using fishing line and a latch hook, you might want to dial 911 before Googling.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dirty Shirt Character Peek: Issue 8 - Dad

Well, we've surpassed the one month date from the release of my book Dirty Shirt. I've been doing sneak peeks for many of the books central characters over the past eight weeks. This week I focus on my father who is a background character throughout the whole book. 

When I began writing the last thing I expected was that he would make an appearance, let alone become an undercurrent character for the duration. That's one of the cool things about writing, you never really know where it's going to take you. Sometimes you just start typing and go along for the ride.

My dad was an avid outdoorsman. He loved to hunt, fish, canoe and ski. Of course, I have no memory of this, but from pictures I've seen and stories I've heard, it was how he relaxed. He instilled this love in my oldest brother Tom, who later instilled it in Rob, Paul and me. I think this, along with his love for his family will go down as his greatest legacies. 

Some of you may not know the full story behind my dad and I'll leave that for now as it is explained in the book and I don't want to be a spoiler. (Am I becoming a smart marketer now, too?) I'll leave it at telling you that he died when I was 5, so I don't have much memory of him.

The few memories I do have of him are fairly vivid. For example I remember him letting me steer our car in the parking lot at a strip mall. I want to say it was near Lake McCaron on the east side of St. Paul, but am not sure. It was a thrill for me as a kid, and I've done the same for my kids on a couple of occasions. Passing the thrill on, I guess.

Another memory was the time he took me (and I think it was just he and I) to what was then the Silver Coaches. It was a bar that has since become the North End Depot. I don't know if it was a Saturday stop or a night after work, but he only stayed for one beer. I remember having beer nuts and a soda and thinking how cool it was to have one on one time with him, even for a short time. 

In a cool sidelight story, one night in the early 80's I remember sitting in a booth at the North End Depot with my brother Rob and telling him that story of me and Dad. I said, for all I knew we were sitting in the same booth that Dad and I had sat in. Rob, being a big fan of family history, was intrigued by the story and the possibility. For the few memories I have of my dad, Rob had fewer. He said he kind of remembers a couple of things, but even those details were hazy. I always felt bad for him and Paul, as they never really knew him and really had no memories to pull from. It's my guess that Rob's having one big catch-up session in heaven right now and part of me is jealous of what he's finding out. I guess my turn will come.

I guess if Dad had one epic outdoor moment that will live on, it would have to be his second place finish in the Aquatennial Canoe Derby in the 1950's. He and his brother Dan raced from Bemidji to Minneapolis and despite nearly disowning each other by race end, managed to take second place. It was a grueling 456 mile race over almost 3 days. There is still some controversy over the alleged winners having taken a shortcut, but second place is still pretty impressive in my eyes. I guess I'll be getting the full details on that adventure someday too.

So, that's a little bit about another Dirty Shirt character. One of my favorite pictures of him has him holding a nice walleye in a canoe in the BWCA sometime in the 60's. He looks happy, healthy and handsome, much like my brothers and I back in the 80's. We went there seeking fishing and fun and in some weird way, we came to know him better through our time in the wilderness. It was time well spent. 


If you want to find out more about our encounters with our father from the past, well, you'll just have to read the book. You won't be disappointed. I know that writing about him certainly helped me understand him a lot better, as well.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

From Where Art Comes

I went to my daughter's senior high art show last night at Waukesha South. This is an annual celebration where the seniors who have been in the program for at least 3 years, get to display their artwork. There was every kind of art there from pencil sketchings, to pastels, oils, multi-media, jewelry, ceramics, and even some video.

As we walked around looking at the art after the long awards ceremony, I was amazed at the quality of some of the art that was displayed. (Granted, my daughter's was the best of all, but hey, who's keeping track?) Some of the pencil and charcoal drawings were so good they looked like photographs. There was a picture of a large parrot that must have taken hundreds of hours. It was beautiful. One student received a $75,000 scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute for her portfolio of work. Amazing talent. Given that I cannot begin to conceptualize a piece of art that I'd want to make, let alone the fact that I couldn't make it, well, this exhibit was humbling.

I don't know where artists get their talent - it must be God given, because I am sure I don't have it. While I joke about this, I think even if I "practiced" art, I would never be as good as someone with natural talent. I think it's like a musical instrument a bit, although I think that is a more attainable skill than becoming a good artist. I would think that if I practiced guitar for 10,000 hours, I would be able to play something halfway decent. If I were to practice drawing for 10,000 hours my sketches would still come out with a head that looks too big, and arms that look like they belonged to someone else.

When I looked at my daughters display, like everyone else's, there were some pieces that jumped out at me as fantastic. Then, there were a couple that were just okay and a couple that I just label as "not her best". These are three categories that I think any artist would agree that everyone has. Not everyone can be dazzling all the time. It's a fact of life and is
all part of the artistic bell-curve.

This is true in music as well. Pick any band you know and I'm sure you'll have 3 songs that you love, 7 songs you kind of like, and 3 that "aren't their best". It doesn't make you like them any less, it's just a matter of preference. For me, U2's album "Boy" was their best album. Songs like "Another Time, Another Place" are once in a lifetime epics. The same goes for Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many others by them. But like any band they have their clunkers too. The album Discotheque was one of them. I like a couple of songs on it a lot. but many kind of sucked. That's music for you.

As I thought about it, the same goes for writing. While I have over 100 poems in a folder on my laptop, I feel really good about maybe 25 of them. Then there's 50 that are just okay and another 25 that are "not my best". The thing I've found fairly consistently is, that if I feel it's not my best, more often than not, that feeling is correct.

The more important thing that I try to remember is the feeling when I finish one of those good 25. There's nothing like the feeling when I'm writing it and cracking myself up. When I do that, I know it's probably pretty good, and more often than not, that is the case.

The thing to remember then, is to keep at what you love. If you're good at it, there will be moments of brilliance, and satiscation and reward. Mixed in with these however, will be many more moments of underwhelming average work and some you'd be embarassed to say you ever did ("not your best"). It's all part of the process, and every artist, craftsman, cook, teacher, writer, musician or fill-in-the-blank has them.

The best motivational (and perhaps most overused) piece of writing advice comes from Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird where she talks about the process. I've included it below and you can swap out writing for art, music, or whatever.

"People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts… For me and most other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


Well said, Anne.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dirty Shirt Character Peek: Issue 7 - Mom

In recognition of Mother's Day, this week's Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir character peek is my mom. She plays a very small part in the book, mainly in the prologue, but will play a much bigger role in my next book about the house I grew up in (tentatively titled Keeping Portland Weird).

While her role may be small in this book, it doesn't mean she did not play an influential role behind the writing of it. Perhaps the biggest impact was her love of camping, namely tent camping. She and my stepfather always made it a point to take us camping every year. This was no small feat. My step-family consisted of 8 kids, three or four of which would come along on the trips. My family would usually add three or four to that number to make for one big camping mob.

Typically we'd drive to a distant State Park, set up two ginormous fabric sided tents and divide the kids out between the two of them. When we came across others in RV's or even pop-up trailers, Mom always said "That's not real camping." She was right, of course, and all of us kids have kept true to the "tent only" philosophy our whole lives. Ice in the coolers, cooking on the Coleman, and smores around a real campfire was the only way to go. (This is not a slam on the RV brethren, but rather a matter of preference. To each his own. For us it was just a lifestyle choice, you might say.)

Of course, tent camping brings an added sense of adventure to trips whenever you get things like heavy weather and nocturnal critters, but those are the stories you remember. Is it inconvenient at the time? Why yes, it probably is, but I'll never forget the time I had to run around our tent staking it down at 3:00 AM when a storm blew in at Devil's Lake. In a trailer, it would have been just another forgettable storm.

Believe it or not, my mom still camps at 81 years old, and still insists on it being in a tent. Now, she's taken to using a cot instead of sleeping on an air mattress, but otherwise, she still toughs it out for 3-4 nights a year. Her latest trips have been to a County reserve, very close to home so that if things go south weather-wise, she can bail and head home with little effort. Again, she's 81 so cut her some slack.

The thing about my mom and the outdoors is that she'll try pretty much anything. This past winter she swam with the stingrays while on a Caribbean cruise. There's talk of another campout this summer. Heck, I wouldn't rule out a BWCA trip if most of the family was going. Portaging the cot might be a bit of a hassle, but I wouldn't put it past her. She likes doing the outdoors with family, and hates to miss out. It's a value she's instilled in her kids as well.

She even tried hunting with my dad once. The story goes that while they were tucked in the duck blind, she made a motion with her shotgun once where the barrel of the gun crossed my dads field of vision. All he said was "Mary, slowly point the gun straight up, then set it on the ground." He then proceeded to tell her why and her hunting days came to a quick and rightful close. But hey, she tried, so you have to give her that.

So to hear more about Mom's outdoor adventures, you'll have to read Dirty Shirt. But to hear more about Mom's influence growing up, you'll have to wait for book number two. Coming to a store near you in 2016-ish.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

All Things Written

Because it's been a while since I gave an update on what's going on in my writing life, I thought I'd give a synopsis of where I'm at. Granted I've been doing sneak peeks into the characters in Dirty Shirt, but that's not really anything about where I'm at in my writing life. I consider those and the other things I've been posting to Facebook to be "promotional things," not really a status of what's new for me as a writer.

First and foremost, my book comes out in 39 days. This is both exciting and a tad overwhelming at the same time. If you think back to January when I first found out they were going to publish, recall that I could hardly sleep for the first few days because of all I had to do. Well, I am sleeping better, but there's still a boat-load of things to do. I'm knocking a few off each day, but it seems like every thing I check off, results in another thing added.

The good news is I now have 5 book signings scheduled and a few more in the works. That's actually one of the bigger things I was worried about. The bad news is, I don't yet have one scheduled for the Twin Cities. I'm working on that as well as getting air time on the local TV show "Morning Blend."  I am also pushing to get a slot on Lake Effect, a radio show broadcast out of WUWM in Milwaukee. So far the mass media outlets have been extremely difficult to contact. Don't make me pick up my phone.

News from the publisher is that edits are in progress. They have remarked that my manuscript is very tight, thanks in very large part to a good friend, Summer Hanford who did what I would argue was close to a professional level edit of it, just because she wanted me to help me. I cannot thank her for assistance with that and many other things about first-time publishing. I gave her the book to read so she could write a back cover blurb, and in her reading she couldn't help herself from editing.

It's a case of, "You know you're a writer, when..."

Cover art is slated for about May 27th, or so. I can hardly wait to see what it comes out to be, though I recently read a great article about whether cover art can make or break a book. The article had several authors critiquing their covers and sometimes they were brutally honest about hating their covers, and their publishers not bending. Hopefully I'll be happy with what they come up with and, more importantly, that they'll listen to my feedback.

The whole book deal is all-friggin' consuming, and although it doesn't sound like it, I say that with a heart full of gratitude. It's all good stuff, just more details than I ever imagined would be part of selling a book. Good problems to have, no doubt, but I want to get back into books #2 (poetry collection) and #3 (Portland Ave. House book).

I think of bones in Star Trek, "I'm a writer Jim, not a business man!"

Meanwhile I continue to work on poetry. I've had acceptances every month this year and am continuing to churn out new stuff and submit faithfully. Those acceptances keep me thirsty for more. Plus, poetry collections tend to only get looks when a fair amount of them have been previously accepted.

I made an appearance at a group reading for the AllWriters' Workplace and Workshop Friday Night Free For All Event last Friday. Despite the usual pre-reading jitters, I think I did okay. People seemed to enjoy the stories from Dirty Shirt that I read. It was really cool to see friends in the audience and to be among so many other talented writers as well.

I also continue to poke at book #3 periodically, when time permits. I feel like it's the last child in a family of seven and only gets attention when it falls and skins its knees.

I'm probably a bad book parent.

And finally again, I've been guest blogging for a friend who has a book series on a deaf child and a deaf dog. This is a good way to give both of us cross-exposure to each others' readers. I will typically be posting on Tuesday nights. These are stories about growing up with my deaf brother. Check it out HERE.

So, that's where I'm at with my writing alter-ego. It's a happy place, that's become a busy place, but...

I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dirty Shirt Character Peek: Episode VI - Sarah

Another character in Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir is my daughter, Sarah. As I've mentioned, the book is structured in three parts. Parts one and two are about trips with friends and my brothers. The third part is about more recent trips we took with our children. These trips were meant, first and foremost, as family adventures, but also to instill in the kids a respect and appreciation for the BWCA.

In 2009, we took our kids up for a short trip, three days and two nights. We wanted them to have a good experience, so kept it to one short portage and lots of fishing and cousin time.

Sarah came along on that trip as well as the one in 2012. She has always loved to camp and that is only outdone by her love of fishing. I've said it many times, but I remember her vividly as a four year-old sitting at the end of the dock fishing for hours, catching bluegills as fast as I could take them off.

This made her a natural fit for fishing in the BWCA. While we caught a few walleyes during the trip of 2009, the 2012 trip brought much better fishing with it. It was such fun to watch her catch her fish on the days we had together in the canoe. She's got the fishing bug for sure.

Sarah also does quite well in the BWCA because she knows how to "rough it" to live simply in sometimes rough conditions. When she was a freshman in High School she took a short-term mission trip to the Dominican Republic. There she saw how people lived simply and yet how happy they were, in some ways happier than those of us with much more. This exposure to poverty taught her much, I feel. It shaped her. She has a huge heart for people as it is, and this trip only made it bigger.

Since then, she has been helping us serve at the Guest House homeless shelter in Milwaukee and in other places. She understands how blessed we are as a country and a culture.

While Sarah has never been athletic, she more than makes up for that in academics. She's always been an overachiever in school and thankfully it has paid off. She was recently accepted at the University of Minnesota where she'll be studying as a Freshman in the Fall. She'll be studying Economics to start out with and will likely pursue International Relations or Foreign Languages at some level as well. She is fascinated with France and French culture, so my guess is that's in her near future as well. She'll go to far away places, I'm sure. I'll likely be travelling to Borneo to visit my grandchildren someday. She's not long for this country, I'm afraid.

After being away for a couple of years now, Sarah has started to ask when we will get up to the BW again. While it won't happen this year, I think we need to get up there soon. The walleye are waiting.

For more about Sarah's adventures in the Boundary Waters, you'll just have to read Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir.

43 days and counting.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Vagrant Pets

Today my short memoir Fat Cat came online at the Neutrons Protons online magazine site. It is a story about a stray cat we took into our home when I was just a kid. Like many of our pets, Fat Cat wasn't sure what he was getting into when he came into in our house of 6 kids. Most of the cats we had were tom cats, left to roam the city streets at night at will, to fight, chase females and return home only when they needed rest, food or medical attention.

I am not proud of this heritage. Unfortunately, it is a done deal and, as I allude to in one of my pet stories, since many of our pets came to us as strays, we were providing them with a better life than they were leaving. Besides, it was a bit like trying to tame a stallion. Once a stray, it was in their nature to roam. They had a travellin' bone and you couldn't break them of it. It was like they agreed to live with us, but it was on their terms.

"Okay, I'll give you love and affection, but I want 3 squares a day and no curfew. Oh, and none of that dry food crap either. I prefer canned food, but at a minimum Tender Vittles."

So we caved to their demands and it worked out pretty good. (Except for Fat Cat, obviously). Some of the strays ended up being very good, long term pets. Some others stayed only a short time and moved on. I shouldn't say all of our pets were strays. We bought a few cats over the years too. They were not much better though, still left to roam, and tom and cavort.

We were a little choosier about dogs. Most of our dogs were rescued from the humane society or purchased from friends. Lance was the German Shepherd evil incarnate. (I just had a poem about him and his chewing habits accepted for publication.) He chewed shoes, carpet, furniture, anything. He was a big, strong dog. I once took him out for a walk and he started running and pulling me along. I don't recall what I was looking at, but he ran me straight into a light pole. I dropped the leash and he took off running. We chased him around the neighborhood for the next hour until he was corralled.

Evil incarnate.

He met his demise when, one day, someone let him out the front door and he took off running and never came back. When they did this, I was never quite sure if it was because it was in their nature, or they just compared life on the road to life with six kids and said "Nah, I'll chance it on the road."

Can't say I blame them for that.

Lots more pet stories have come to light in my writings for the Portland Avenue book. Stories about the best dog we ever had (Pumpkin) and the worst dog (Baby, doomed from the start with a bad name) and everything in-between. Stories of a bird let out of their cage to fend for themselves against our cat (a neighbor did this, we think) snake escapes, pregnant mice and more. Again, you'll have to wait for that book to hear the gory details. That one may be a couple of years out though. Unless I come into a windfall of money and am afforded the luxury of writing full time. If you'd like to sponsor me, gimme a call.

Until then, I'll keep my day job and make sure the cats and dog stay indoors.

Blogging off...