Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Tennessee Waltz

One more Tennessee post before I return to my regular programming.

After we saw Graceland and Sun Studios, we drove the three hour ride to Nashville. It was where we spent the last five days of our vacation and I can only say I can't wait to go back.

We stayed at a "cottage" which is actually more like a carriage house behind the main residence. It was in a suburb of Nashville called Sylvan Park and it was quaint and accommodating. It really had just a bed a kitchenette, a bath/shower and a couch. It was really all we needed though, especially given that we weren't there much. These "Air B & B's" are really a nice change from a hotel. We had use of the outdoor patio with umbrella table and chairs as well, which made for a nice hideaway.

But most of our time was spent in downtown Nashville. Now, if you know me, you know I'm not a country music fan. I am a rock/indie/alternative fan primarily and if there's one kind of music I never really "got," it was country. Now I've always liked Johnny Cash and can appreciate a little Willie Nelson on occasion, but for the most part, I never intentionally turned on a country station.

So it was a little like the time I went to Disneyland with Donna and the kids. At the time, I was the ultimate Disney cynic, thinking it was "just for kids" and was just a big money suck. As Donna will attest, by the end of the trip, I was a Disney convert. I was more concerned with getting all the character autographs than the kids were and couldn't get enough of the rides. To be cliche, it is a magical place and it won me over and turned me into the tallest kid in the park.

I went into Nashville with this same kind of attitude and came out a country and western music convert. Not a convert in the sense that I'll dial it up intentionally on the radio, but as I've told people, I can now APPRECIATE it as a musical style. One of the bands that we saw on a couple of different occasions were The Silver Threads. I really came to enjoy this band. They helped me appreciate several things about the C&W genre.

1. The storytelling of Country/Western music is really captivating. The more I appreciate poetry, the more I listen closely to song lyrics. Songs like Working Man, Coal Miners Daughter, Crazy, Jolene and all the rest. I'd never heard Working Man before, but when I did, it almost brought me to tears.

2. Musical arrangements. Because most bands are stripped down to the essentials, acoustic guitars, drums, stand up bass and the occasional steel guitar, it makes it easy to appreciate all the play back and forth between them. I definitely have a new appreciation for stand up "slap" bass players like Slick Joe Fick. Tough work.

3. The voice of Eileen Rose, the female lead singer of Silver Threads made the storytelling lyrics even more beautiful. It's true that if you're playing in downtown Nashville you're probably pretty good. She was phenomenal!

4. Like a friend of mine said, "It's all just blues, anyway." He's right, and I love the blues, so this was a natural fit.

And I have to give a nod to a phenomenal guitarist I saw. His stage name the Legendary Rich Gilbert, lead guitarist for the Silver Threads. He TORE IT UP. For a guy playing in honky tonks, he sure showed he's ready for the big time. Every time he started a solo, I stopped what I was doing and watched. (I've always aspired to play guitar, so tend to appreciate those that actually can.) He played Ghost Riders in the Sky and it was heart stopping. If you ever get the chance to hear him, do it. Here's a link to a sample.

Roberts Western World
I also have to admit that I like OLD country, not contemporary. I like twang, twang, and old school. Nothing from the past 25 years or so. Just me, no offense to those that do.

When it comes down to it, I loved everything about Nashville. The people are friendly and fun loving, the music is amazing and the food delicious. I can't wait to go back. Until then, I'll have to keep my newly discovered appreciation for country and western confined to my iPod.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Full Circle of the King

As I continue to talk about my trip to the middle-south, I move from the Civil Rights Museum to Sun Studios. As you probably know, this was the place where history was made for the likes of Elvis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin' Wolf and many, many others. The actual recording studio is very much in the state it was when they recorded, right down to the ceiling acoustic tiles with water stains.

The place is sacred ground to any music aficionado, me among them. While it was not much of a tour and not much to look at, I couldn't help but appreciate just being there. There is even a picture floating around of me mugging with the famous "Elvis microphone," but I'll save that for a later date.

It was actually a great segue into the next day when we toured Graceland. We are both brutally aware that Graceland is a big tourist trap, but much like Sun Studios, it's just a place you need to go. Sacred ground again for all music lovers. 

Now, the trip started out with the throngs being lined up like cattle. Then, everyone was given (burdened with) an iPad to hold around their neck. The iPad was synchronized to "help" you traverse the tour. It did nothing that a plain audio tour couldn't have done, but hey, who am I to complain?  (As I think I am at the moment.)

Graceland was everything I imagined it would be. Excess and splendor from wall to wall, room to room. It was cool just trying to imagine the dignitaries, rock stars and movie stars that might have been there. There were rooms with his gold records, his jumpsuits, and lots of recreational rooms. 

At the end of it, we were led past the grave sites of he, his parents and his twin brother who died at birth. (Something I never knew.) Then we were taken back across the street to see his automobile collection, which was equally impressive. The man had too much money.

Which leads to the real story. At the end of the tour, we were able to watch a 12 minute video of his greatest performances. They were moving and all of them featured a young, healthy Elvis. We left with a certain nostalgia for the old King.

But we commented on how little was mentioned of his tough years when he was heavy and sadly addicted to prescription meds. We looked online for the story about his life and were shocked and saddened about much of it. Part of the sadness was how little we knew or remembered about his story. I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say, he had a rough go of it for much of his life. He was the poster child for Rock Star burnout and it's too bad, because he had so much talent. 

The trip through Graceland brought the whole tour of Sun Studios back around full-circle. I'm glad I went to both.

I forgot to mention that the night before we went to see a funk/soul/fusion band in Memphis called Free World. They rocked the place, but the coolest part of the night for myself, was meeting the sax player the Dr. Herman Green who was 85 years old. He played sax with BB King for a number of years. I got to talk to him for a couple of minutes and it was nothing short of  a privilege. I can only hope to be alive at 85, let alone clubbing it playing sax.

It's something to shoot for, though.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Civil Rights and Wrongs

We are back from vacation and, wow, what a trip! We did a cameo visit to St. Louis followed by a much more rigorous tour of Memphis and Nashville. This trip was to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and, in some respects, was the honeymoon we never had as newlyweds. When we were married in June of 1990, we spent a couple of days at a bed and breakfast in Ithaca, near Taughannock Falls. While it was nice, we were still in Donna's home state, and because we were young, in-love and trying to economize, we called it our honeymoon, while promising ourselves we would do something bigger one day.

I kind of alluded to our drive by of St. Louis the other day, so I won't expand on it much. We got a late start, so got there at the beginning of a Cardinals game which made travel nearly impossible. Got a couple of pictures, saw the arch, saw the stadium, done-finished, get me out of here. Will see it more on a separate trip someday.

Off to Memphis we went. Our first stop was the Civil Rights Museum. It is actually housed in the old Lorraine Motel where MLK II was assassinated. The museum impacted me in ways I'd never anticipated. I guess one of the more surprising things to me was that African slaves were not just shipped to America, but to South America and Asia and India as well. 

What impacted me the most was seeing a display of a slave ship where the captives were kept under decks. That and the fact that they were ripped from their homes, bound, sold as property and then worked like dogs. Man's inhumanity to man at it's worst. How could anyone ever have thought this was right? 

As if that was not enough, from there we rolled right into the era of civil rights 1950-1970's. Gut wrenching, tear jerking injustice. Jim Crow laws, persecution, KKK, and more. In talking to my wife, I wondered how differently our country would look if slavery never happened and our two cultures were assimilated naturally. People can boast that we wouldn't be one of the most powerful countries in the world had we not experienced the economic growth that slavery provided. My response to that is, at what cost? 

Again, the educational exhibits throughout the museum were moving and enlightening for me. Events like the Selma march, things that I should know more about, were well documented. All of it made me want to research and learn more about those years. In many ways the tension of those times were the direct cause of my father's murder in 1967. I even got the timing wrong, as Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination occurred almost a year after my dad's death. I always thought it was before. This showed me I need to brush up on my history. 

Of course, the most impactful part of the whole museum was walking through the doors and seeing the bedroom where MLK slept and the balcony where he was shot. It was a step back in time. I remember vividly the news that day, showing the balcony repeatedly. Being only six years old at the time I didn't know the full implications of his assassination. After my sister explained the significance of the killing of a black leader, I do recall wondering why blacks and whites hated each other enough to kill one another. It was beginning to look like a pattern, and it scared me as a kid. What a tough thing for a kid to process during their formative years.
From there, we went across the street to the rooming house where James Earl Ray stayed the night before the shooting. While we weren't allowed into the actual bathroom that he shot from, it was still extremely eerie being in that place. It had a sickening feel to it, at least from my perspective. 

The rest of the story was educational as well. I may have heard, but
long ago forgotten, that James Earl was captured in London as he tried to flee the country about 6 weeks later. Again, I need to brush up on my history.

So, suffice it to say, that it was a tough museum to go through, but I am so glad I did. It opened my eyes in ways that reading about Civil Rights never could. 

More about the rest of the trip in future posts.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

I forgot to mention...forgot to mention Memphis.

Another brief blog post because I'm still on vacation. I'll post a more complete rundown of my thoughts on St. Louis, Memphis, and Nashville when I get home.

Until then, here's five things that have impacted me during these past 4 days.

1. I've been told there are beautiful stretches of Missouri and Arkansas. These, I did not see. Saw a whole lot of this>>>

2. Visiting the Lorraine Motel was like stepping back in time. Seeing the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot brought back a flood of memories. As a 6 year old, I still remember it from the news.

3. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was an unpleasant reminder of some of our country's past injustices including slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation.

4. They sure know how to do food in the south.

5. Met up with some Facebook friends for dinner a couple of nights ago. Nathan is the youngest of 9 children and his sister went to school with Donna. The two hooked up through Facebook and eventually his wife, who is a writer, friended me. Since following each other we've come to know them and vice verse. When we met, it was like getting together with old friends.

That's it for now, because, well I'm on vacation.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A St. Louis Drive By

A brief blog post because I'm on vacation.

Top 5 things that happened today, Day 1 of our St. Louis/Memphis/Nashville vacation.

1. We rented a Ford Focus and got stuck with a car with much more personality. A 2014 VW Beetle. Always wanted to drive one. Check it off the bucket list. And yes, I would buy one.

2. We tried to see the St. Louis arch. Actually passed it and doubled back cuz my wife is a good sport and knows my love for landmarks and squeezing it all in. Didn't get to go in it. Barely got a picture. Couldn't get left. Hey, there's Big Ben kids. Hey, there's the arch again. Let's go to the hotel."

3. Part of why we couldn't see the arch was there was a Cardinals game getting underway. "Little bit of traffic, Clark. Hey look, more traffic. Oops, one way street. Can't get left, honey. There's Busch Stadium again. Get a picture. Let's go to the hotel."

4. Got to the Drury Inn. Fine place. Free snacks till 9. Three free drinks till 7:00 unless you're like us and get there at 6:56 where they'll pour you a single and a double in a fine plastic cup and call it done. Nice place and really good cheap gin poured from a fountain gun. Oh, and we think the Hotel receptionist may be a meth head, or on some meds. Or skipped her meds and shouldn't have. Nice place though.

5. Had BBQ at the Kettlehut smokehouse. Good food, but we think the waitress might have been a meth head. Or on some meds. Good food though.

So that's all I got. Back to vacation.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Looking Ahead Requires A Rear View Mirror

It's just a little over 5 weeks before I return to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with my kids, my brother and nieces and nephews. There will be seven of us going this year and for most of us, it will be our first trip back to the area since the trip in 2012. The kids are much bigger and more mature now, so it will be a different trip yet again. I was talking to a new friend about his trip to the BW a few years back and he experienced things I haven't yet, including a large buck deer, a nocturnal beaver and a knee high swamp portage. I told him every trip is different, different challenges, different joys, different wildlife.

Iron Lake Swan Dive
All of this talk about the coming trip makes me nostalgic for everything that went into the making of Dirty Shirt. So, I thought I'd build some momentum and post a few pictures from past trips along with the story behind them. A sort of Dirty Shirt Addendum.

This comes from the trip to Iron Lake in the mid-seventies. The picture is a clear demonstration of what happens when a grown man sees a snake. My stepfather Jack and my two stepbrothers Patrick and Timmy are there with him and one of them saw a garter snake nearby. When Jack heard that, he freaked out and dove in - with great form I might add. Timmy was kind enough to throw the snake in after Jack. which added to the already chaotic scene in the water. Great juvenile fun in God's country.

This was taken either just before or right after the infamous proper way to fillet a Northern dispute. (It's in the book). The exchange betwen Rob and Paul created a bit of awkward discomfort around camp for a bit. As I said, too many experts do not a fish fillet make. If any of us had known better we would have filleted it the way you should fillet a Northern. Get a good cutting board, then cut off the fish head. Next cut off the tail, then throw the whole thing in the trash and eat the board. Northern's not my favorite fish because it's nearly impossible to get all the Y bones out, which was Paul's corrective advice to Rob that spurred the whole dispute. Luckily they got over it and we had a nice, albeit bony fish dinner to celebrate.

This was taken in 2012. After cooking in the rain for half an hour, we went to drain the spaghetti using just the pot lid. Well, things went awry and half of the spaghetti ended up on the ground. Nick was so hungry he offered to rinse it off. We assured him that we'd have enough, or that we'd just have a second piece of bread. That right there's a new dish called Spaghetti ala pine.

These two pictures summarize our run-ins with Snapping Turtles. The first was taken in 1989 when Keith landed a giant turtle on a sucker minnow. Since we'd left our turtle soup recipe back home we cut the line. (You can see its mouth at the end of the line.) The photo on the right was a baby snapper we came across in 2012. A much cuter amphibian than it's great grandfather from 25 years prior.

As I mentioned, every trip is different. I can't wait to see what 2015 brings. And neither can my kids.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mothers Inc.

Over the past couple of Mother's Days I've blogged about my Mom and all that she's done for me. She is the single most important reason behind the strong, successful, mostly well-adjusted family we have, (myself fully included there among the maladjusted). Over the years she has cheered us all on, been there for us, our kids, and our kids' kids. She's helped us grow and graduate. She's seen us through job losses and housing changes. She's traveled with us and cried with us. She's given us advice when we asked, and backed off when she felt she needed to. She's encouraged and equipped. Most of all though, she's taught all of us to never give up, never quit and that despite life's hardships, family makes it all worthwhile.

So while Mom has always been there for me, there's a few other mom's in my life that deserve a nod on this day as well.

First and foremost is the mother of my children, Donna. I always said that during our kids' first dozen years or so, I had the easy job of going to work - my cubicle, email, phone, and real live grown-ups - while she had the hard job - diapers, formula, ear infections, and endless "bending at the waist," as we called it. Often times during those years, I'd come home from work and she would leave to sell Pampered Chef or waitress at Matteos. It gave me a 4 hour taste of what she dealt with for 8 hours. Those were precious times for both of us, and I'm sure she'd do it the same way if she could - staying home with her kids - but they gave me a new appreciation for the burdens of a mother.

On a related funny note, at my recent poetry launch, I was trying to describe the differences between our two kids, and how there are days where I wondered how it was possible we could have produced such different kids. Somewhat awkwardly I said "There are days I wonder how these two came to be. I don't know who birthed these children."

At this point Donna piped up and said "I do! I did. I birthed those children."

Oh yeah, that.

It was a funny moment/exchange between us that reminded me of what a comedian once said. "The bond between mother and child is so intimate. This thing, this being was inside of them growing. The dad, well, he's just some guy she met in a bar."

A bit extreme, but gets the point across nicely.

Carol and Dick
Another key mother in my life is my mother in-law, Carol. The saying goes that when you marry someone you marry their family too. I couldn't have asked to marry into a better family. Carol has always been supportive of us and a wonderful grandma to our kids. She was instrumental in helping to shape my faith and is always quick with a laugh. As a writer, she's helped edit my work and has always been one of my biggest encouragers.

Yet another woman that has been instrumental in my life from a role model standpoint is the mother of my step-family, Mary Ann McKasy. I call her my mother by another brother. She and my
step-father Jack had 8 kids before their divorce, and she managed to raise all 8 of them essentially by herself after he was gone. It was a situation similar to my own and while Jack was part of both families, it was these two women (Mary L and Mary A) that did the heavy lifting in raising these families. I refer to both of them as St. Marys, because that's exactly what they are.

Magdalena (third from right)
And finally, there were my grandmothers, Helen, Magdalena and Dagny, who my grandfather Oscar re-married. I never really knew Helen (referred to as Nanny) and only have a handful of memories of Mag, but can appreciate what they each did as mothers as well. Maggie had 8 of her own kids and was made of tough old German stock. Dagny, the only one I really knew was funny and always took us kids to a baseball game every year because she knew family was important and she was a huge Twins fan to boot.

And so on this day, take a minute to think of those mothers or motherly figures in your life and all that they've sacrificed to make your life what it is. They kind of keep the world turning in a way. I know I'm thankful for the way they've impacted mine.

Aunt Helen, Dagny, Mom.

Happy Mother's Day.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 7, 2015

It's In Where You Look

There have been several things recently happening in the world today that, if I focus enough on them, I'll fall into complete despair and depression.

  • Riots in Baltimore
  • ISIS threats, both real and contrived
  • The shooting of innocents in Menasha
  • Multiple gun-related homicides in Milwaukee
  • Oil rail disasters
  • Climate change
  • Corrupt politicians
  • And on and on...  

While all of this deserves attention and awareness, I choose to focus on good news, or good things happening in my life. If not for that I'd become a sociopath and start arming myself and digging an apocalypse shelter. 

So I focus on glimpses of redemption like the Guest House, where we serve meals to homeless guys once a month. Little points of light in an increasingly dark world. This agency and those like it are working to change lives. I don't do much, but feel like I'm part of a greater good.

Or places like the Literacy Center of Wisconsin. This agency tutors adults on reading, writing and other educational skills. It helps people achieve their GED. What a gift to give a person; the ability to read a book, the newspaper or magazines. NO ONE should be denied that opportunity. I was fortunate to be able to donate a portion of my Written Life proceeds to this agency. 

Or the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. I used to tutor kids at the Mission years ago. They had an after school program where they would bus kids in for a three part evening of,  
1. A quick meal and gospel message, 
2. Tutoring for an hour 
3. Gym time. 

There was great satisfaction in helping these kids. In doing it I realized how blessed I was as a kid growing up in the home I grew up in. 

And then there's the church we're currently trying to kick start, CollectiveMKE. One of our members mentioned that a neighbor's house is being foreclosed on and would any of us be willing to donate a meal or something unbeknownst to the family? One person took it upon herself to notice a situation and try and change it. Why? Because it's what we're called to do because of our faith. 

While not everyone helps with these kinds of services and agencies because of their faith, I think it is almost exclusively why I do it. I don't necessarily do it with an "agenda" or to convert anyone. I do it because I would want it done for me. I do it because my heart breaks to think of people not given a leg-up. I don't do it expecting anything in return; its a gift of time for me. And more often than not I go to bless and end up coming away more blessed. Often times, we take our kids because we think it's important for them to be part of something bigger than them. Paying the compassion forward to the next generation in a sense.

But I also do it because I'm a big old softie. In all of my personality assessments compassion always comes to the top.
So the next time you get overwhelmed by the crud and the crap and the tragedy that is the six o'clock news, I challenge you to do something other than shaking your head.

Write a check
Volunteer somewhere
Check on a neighbor
Call someone who's lonely
Pay for the next guy's coffee

But most of all, do something positive. We get enough negative from everywhere else. 

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sparks and Steel

While we were at our friends' house for a church breakfast event a while back we noticed that one of his metal stools was broken at one of its cross supports. The stools were old and used more as auxiliary seating, but when another friend saw it he said, "you know, I could help you fix that." It turns out the guy has a welder and is fairly accomplished with working it. When the mention of a "men's ministry welding event" was brought up, we all kind of agreed that it would be fun, educational and kind of cool.

Welding, like many trades, is a specialty skill that you just don't see a lot of people doing. Welders are expensive and I'm guessing, fairly pricy to maintain and operate. Any time you're using Argon gas, steel that is stored in a coil, and electricity that requires its own circuit, well, there's a reason not everyone has one in their garage.

Claude is the king of tools. He either has every one-use tool a person ever needs, or "knows a guy" who can get it for you. For example. when I mentioned that I had a couple of combination Master Locks that we'd forgotten the combination on, he said he knew a guy who he could get a bolt cutter from. He brought it one Sunday and, well, snip, snip and they were done. He's no nonsense and would give me the shirt off his back if I needed it.

The four of us got to his house on Thursday evening and after a few minutes of catching up, he started to explain some facts about welding that I never knew. One of them was that an Arc Welder actually creates an electrical arc that generates the heat to melt the steel. When I asked what the temperature was at the weld point, I was told it was about 2800 degrees Fahrenheit, which was fairly mind blowing. Add to this the fact that I've never heard of an electrical arc that was a good thing and well, the uneasiness factor ratcheted up a bit.

He passed out 5" X 5" darkened glass panels so we could watch him demonstrate how to weld a straight line without going blind. He mentioned the light generated at the weld point is on par with staring at the sun. Again, no comfort in that statement. I was beginning to think that this had all sorts of ways to go bad. Fortunately, we were under the guidance of someone who not only knew what he was doing, but was also very safety conscious.

Eventually, Claude fired up the welder and welded a line, then another and another.  After a few different techniques were described, he said "Okay, who's next?"

At this point I was just a little freaked out. The combination of the sound, the sparks, the apparent heat and the fact that we were messing around with "arcing" electricity was, I'll admit, a bit unnerving. I liken it to the time when I had Ben and Sarah watching me drill something with my high-speed drill. They were freaked by the loudness and ended up covering their ears and running from the basement. I kind of felt the same way. At the same time, the combination of fire and steel and electricity and smoke had my interest piqued. The pyromaniac in me came to my rescue.

After some shrugs, Brad said he'd take the first whack at it. He adjusted the welding helmet and dove right in. Neither his, nor any of us other first-timers' lines were quite as straight as our friend teaching us, but none of them went to waste. Brad admitted it was hard to see where you were going and was told to get closer to the fire.

When my turn came I took the electrode, said a quick prayer that I wouldn't become a bad part of the arcing electricity, and then put the helmet on. After a few initial rough lines, I started to get the hang of it. True to Claude's advice, I could see much better when I got my (helmeted) face right close to the fire (or arc). The more I did it, the more comfortable and less fearful I became. After we were done, I felt I had gained a basic understanding of something I knew little about. Not a life skill perhaps, but a skill nonetheless.

And so it is with so many things in life that I'm finding as I get older. There's three stages to anything that is outside my comfort zone or anything "new" to me.

The first is patent rejection. It is the "I can't do that" or the I'm not comfortable with that new thing, skill or routine change, mentality.

Once I've committed to doing it, the second reaction is fear. "I'm not doing this right," or "What if I do something badly or wrong?" This is the most debilitating one because if the experience does go badly, even once, some people just quit. The old adage that anything worth doing is worth doing badly applies here.

The third stage is comfort and satisfaction. Looking not on what we've done wrong, but what a little patience, effort and practice will get us. Plus along the way, you usually meet some new people and have a life experience to look back on.

As I get older, I need to keep the first point in check so I don't miss out in getting to the third point.

Because part of life is the fire, the sparks and the smoke. And sometimes, to see where you're going, you just gotta get closer to the fire.

Blogging off...

P.S. After an hour or so, we had fixed Brad's stool up as good as new.