Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Future of Moments

It was four years ago today that my brother Rob passed away. It's brutally apparent that while it gets more distant with each year, it will NEVER be something that I ever totally get over. At a wedding we were attending last night, I was talking to my son Ben and he mentioned he'd only been to three weddings. I asked him how many funerals he'd been to (and don't ask me why I asked him such a downer question) and he said only one, uncle Rob's. He then went on to say how it was the hardest thing he's had to go through, essentially an emotional roller coaster. I thought this was interesting because, while you think your kids have it together, you never really know what's going on inside at all times.

I see "moments from heaven" every day as I move about my world. More often than not, as I'm walking to work, a song will come on my iPod that reminds me of Rob, and almost every time it happens, I sight a cardinal - a bird Rob used to listen to and watch from his back porch when he was sick. I can't say for sure those are God moments but it sure makes a guy wonder. Other times, I'll see Facebook posts from his wife or daughters with their big smiles and I see his smile reflected back. If there's one thing Rob did well, it was smile. He lit up the room.

And when I don't have the God moments, I have a lifetime of memories to draw from. Many of the best ones involve a boat, a lake, some fish and a few beers, but many are just the everyday clowning around we used to do. He was always jumping out from places and scaring me - as many other people will attest I'm very reactionary at the receiving end of those things. He was also good with the old "you got a spot on your shirt" trick where he'd hit me in the face when I looked down on it.

I remember one of the proudest moments I've ever had of Rob was when he was with the Highland Park Theater for the Deaf. They put on a production and while I can't remember all the details, (I think he had a big role or even a solo for signing the song The Gambler, by Kenny Rogers, but am not sure) but when the production was done, I remember tearing up. I was so stinking proud of him, that I got choked up.  Growing up deaf in a hearing family must have been incredibly difficult and he never appeared to let it keep him from doing anything. And this production was proof of that. (It also connected him to a great group of friends, many of who he kept in touch with for many years.)

While I am still incredibly sad that Rob is not here to see moments like his two daughters paddling a canoe with their cousin, or heading off to college, or playing instruments in the high school drum line, I rest in the fact that he is reunited with the spirits of my dad and sister in heaven. I have no idea what heaven's like, but if you believe in God, you'd have to believe he'll grant us all at least this much in heaven someday - to see and know our loved ones again. It gives me great comfort knowing that while I'm sure he'd rather be here, he's watching and laughing and crying for each of us while he's fishing with Dad and Linda.

And I can't wait to cross his line. :-)

Blogging off...

P.S. On a somewhat related note, I saw this 101 Word story the other day and was startled at the names and circumstances of it. It could have been written by me. Check it out.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Labor Unrest

It is a twitchy time of year for me for a number of reasons. There is a restlessness that comes with the approach of Labor Day and, while I can't pin it to one thing, I can pin it to many.

  1.  Summer's End. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with summer, but it's largely love. I live for wearing shorts, a T-Shirt and sandals every day. It is comfortable, and I milk wearing this combination as long as I can. Sometimes it devolves into strange combinations like shorts and a sweatshirt, a combination my wife reminds me is less than stylish. It's just that I dislike wearing long pants. On the other hand, the "hate" part of summer is the long, hot humid days where your energy is just sapped. That never happens in the other 3 seasons. But, like I said, for the most part I am in love with summer.
  2. Back to School. I haven't been in school for many years, but with my kids going back to high school and college again, I always get a little nostalgic for the experience. Furthermore, we live across the street from Carroll University and with the increase in student traffic, sports events and activities, it's hard not to get caught up in wishing I could go back. Part of that will be satisfied this fall when I am lead a poetry workshop for AllWriters Workplace and Workshop. It's school on a micro scale. It starts on September 24th and like Rod Stewart says, "It's late September and I really should be back at school." So I will.
  3. Boundary Waters. Back in the late 80's and early 90's this was the time of year that my brothers and I took our trip to the BWCA. It was the best time of year because there were few bugs, less people and no blistering heat. If I had my choice, I'd go back up during this time any day. The downside is the fishing isn't great. 
  4. Waning Daylight. The sun starts setting closer to 7:30 than 8:45 like it does at Summer's peak. Short days can only mean one thing. Winter's coming! I know fall is in between there, and I LOVE fall, but I don't like the inevitable aftermath of fall.
  5. The Cabin. Another Labor Day weekend tradition that causes me to wax nostalgic. Unfortunately, with Labor Day falling so late this year and our need to move Sarah into college, we won't be able to get up to Mercer, Wisconsin this year like we usually do. This is perhaps the biggest bummer of the summer. We ALL look forward to that weekend at Pine Forest Lodge because of the many memories and the quality family and friend time we have there. I understand my brother Paul may make it up there this year, in which case he'll have to represent for us. 
So these are the reasons for my restlessness. It's not unbearable, just a kind of unrest that will pass halfway through September. 

Until then, you'll find me in my shorts, a t-shirt and sandals at every available opportunity.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Caught and Released

I had the chance to get out in a boat fishing with my daughter and my good friend (Uncle) Steve yesterday. Sarah bought herself a fishing license a couple of months ago and has only used it once this season, so was antsy to get out at least once more before she went away to Minnesota. All it took was one conversation with Steve and I knew it would happen.

We went out to our favorite lake (Hey, I ain't no fool) and got to the launch at 6:00 AM. After about 20 minutes I had a Northern Pike on the line. It turned out to be small, but as always, it's nice to get that first one out of the way. Over then next hour and a half, Steve and I managed to get a half dozen fish in the boat. Sarah had only one and it shook the hook well before the boat and got away.

Now, I know my daughter. She is fairly competitive and LOVES to catch fish, and I knew she was starting to get frustrated. Eventually she stopped trying and just sat and smoldered. After a few minutes and a bit of encouragement from Steve and I, she started trying again. Within a few casts, she had a Northern Pike on the line. It was a nice one too. (Turns out it was the biggest one of the day at 23" and tied her personal best). Her whole demeanor changed for the better. Within 5 minutes of that fish, she caught another smaller Pike. Then another one shook the hook and got off.

She was on a roll.

Well, she finished out the day with catching a 15" Largemouth Bass that completed her catch. A day that could have been a big disappointment turned into one of the better fishing days in her recent past. Not to mention that I got to spend some serious quality time laughing with her and talking about her coming school year, etc. I realized how lucky I am to have a daughter that loves the outdoors. She even talked a bit about how she'd like to have a "getaway wedding" someday at a resort up near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I can't say I have any arguments against that plan. A wedding with a fish fry!

Anyway, I got to looking back on my fishing experiences this past summer and I realized it's been quite a summer. Here are a few other highlights.

In the BWCA, I got to watch my niece Alison catch a fish that turned out to be her personal best, a 28" Northern. It's always cool to see my nieces catch fish, but a personal best is a real treat.

On that same trip, my son Ben caught his largest northern, as well. I didn't get to see it, as he was with his cousin in a separate canoe, which is cool in it's own right. Fun to know that my brother and I have raised them capably enough to manuever a canoe and catch fish at the age of 16 and, more importantly, that they WANT to do it.

I got to take my friend Brandon's son (6) and daughter (4) out fishing at a local park. They had a blast and I seem to have succeeded in passing my fear of Bullheads into them fairly clearly. I love teaching kids that age how to fish.

A few weeks ago, I got to help my great-nephew Brey learn how to fish for the first time. He was hooked (so to speak) from the first fish. It seems we've started bringing up the next generation. Like the other two kids I mentioned, it was so fun teaching him the basics. (On a related note, my friend Steve and his wife were meeting with a financial planner at one point this spring. When the guy asked Steve what he wanted to do in his retirement, Steve said, he'd like to get a boat or two that would enablet him to get inner city kids out fishing. The financial planner said. "Well, there's no money in that." Steve's wife wanted to smack the guy. He was clearly missing the point.)

I got out kayak fishing once with another old friend who just bought a kayak in an effort to do more fishing. We had a good time and caught a dozen fish or so.

My look back on the summer leaves some great memories for me. Fishing is the great equalizer in life. Everyone has the same opportunity at most points during an outing. A lot comes down to dumb luck. But what it does for me is it allows quality time to talk with people I love while doing something I love. Of course, lighthearted bragging and smack talk goes with the territory, but that's what makes it fun.

So, like Steve, I plan to help as many people learn to fish in my retirement, as well. I may be the poorest retiree out there in my financial planner's eyes, but in my own eyes, I will be a rich man.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Long Winding Roads

A little known fact to many who know me is that I actually have a degree in Anthropology, (What?). Well, actually, I double majored in Anth and Geography at the University of Minnesota. It was a long winding journey through college, one that took 5 2/3 years (the last year was part time) because of all the winding. Back then, college didn't cost your first born son and a small home mortgage. In fact, with help from my mom, I managed to get through school without one dollar in loans.

It was a different time. A time when education cost what it should.

Anyway, the winding I speak of started with a poorly defined major. I started out in Computer Science. When I was assured that that major was A LOT of math - not my strength, to say the least - I quickly changed to an undeclared major.

I flopped around with undeclared as long as they would let me, so when pressed, I declared Anthropology, mostly because it was the I really liked the couple of classes I had taken in it. I'll be honest, I had no clue what I was going to do with a degree in it, nor what I wanted to do in life. Who does at 19 years old?

Three years in, I added Geography as a second major, because, as we all know, combined with Anthropology that was a much sought after skill set in the mid-80's. Ha! I picked it for much the same reasons. I had taken a few classes and really enjoyed them. Then, later in my third year I took an Introduction to Cartography class that was amazing. As I spent many, many hours in the Cart lab, I thought to myself, if I could do this for a living, I would be a happy man.

Well, some stories have a happy ending. I've been blessed to work in mapping and GIS for thirty years this past June and I've never regretted it for one minute. I started back in 1985 doing manual mapping, scribing contours onto maps of a Middle Eastern country, which I think was probably Iran who at the time we were squabbling with. I did it for a laughable $5.00/hour out of college. Many of my friends were in disbelief. It was actually two dollars less than I was making at Montgomery Wards. But I saw it as invaluable experience, so made it work.

After a 10 month stint there, we had a wave of layoffs and I surfed my way on that first wave. Or, rather, I was surfed, so to speak. My little bit of experience there got me in the door for the "Computer Mapping" job in some little city outside of Milwaukee known as Waukesha. (What? Again.) I didn't know where it was, but I did know I was jobless, so I packed up and moved.

It was a move that changed the trajectory of my life. At the time it seemed to be the desperate thing to do. I wasn't really looking 30 years out, but needless to say, here I am. And again, I've had a fulfilling career in Wisconsin doing something I absolutely love.

I guess the moral of the story is, chase your passion(s) and good things will follow. I think if you work hard, show up for work every day, and give your best, the rest falls into place. It seemed to work for me, anyway.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Not So Main Event

Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest and, for the most part, today was. There was a couple of hours however where I was performing computer support triage. ("I'm a mapper, Jim, not a Doctor!") Here's a little of how it went. 

For reasons only I understand, I decided to update my son's Dell laptop that has sat idle for over eight months. When he finally gave up using it at that time, I wiped the hard drive and reinstalled Windows, thinking it would be a good "backup" laptop, which it is. But ever since I installed Windows 10 (which I've come to love) on my own Dell laptop, I've been thinking I should put it on his old one too.

Because I am a helpless geek and it must be done. Tweet this

Well, as it turns out, you must get all of your Windows 7 updates onto a computer before it becomes upgradable to Windows 10. Since the laptop had been out of the loop for so long, it meant at least six or seven "groups of updates". Why not one big group of updates, I'll never know. So I chipped away at the clumps as they appeared.

As this was happening, I began troubleshooting Ben's desktop computer, which has been giving him problems for six months. He's replaced his RAM and power supply and had a couple hundred dollars worth of diagnostics run on it. He is frustrated with it and ready to give up and start building a new one. Being the worst kind of support tech - a geek who's cheap - I feel we should try and fix it ourselves.
So I dive into the Event Viewer, a troubleshooting/log file kind of thing for showing what happened
at the time of a crash. It's a collection of mumbo jumbo that means not much to the average Joe. (Most people don't know they have one. Those mere mortals!) But to me it's a window into the soul of Windows. For the most part, it's mumbo jumbo, but can at least give you a clue as to what's happening. Look for the Red Exclamation Points and start there. 

Anyhow he was getting an OHub.exe error. So I did what all good techs do. I Googled it. Ironically enough, the only apparent answer was to uninstall an "Upgrade Office Now" program that appeared with Windows 10. 

Office crashing Windows? Absurd, you say! 

To which I reply, "Are you new to Microsoft and Windows?"

Ben hasn't tried playing the games since I applied my expertise, so we'll see if it magically fixes it. I'm not holding my breath. There's a reason I'm a mapper and not in Microsoft tech support. 

My PC support triage was completed when Sarah said that she installed her DVD Writer (by herself, mind you, makes a daddy proud!) but said that it wasn't reading the disk. I helped her by trying to find out if the drivers were installed. After some fiddling in the BIOS (the guts and heart of a PC), we rebooted and sure enough, it worked! We concluded that while she had "shutdown" and powered up once, what really needed to happen was a simple restart in order for it to show up in Device Manager. 

Evidently there's a difference between those two in how a device becomes visible. Thanks again, Microsoft.

And so, as I see it, it's a win/loss situation. I've lost two hours of my Sunday that I will never have back. But I've gained at least two out of three computers out of the deal. More importantly, I had some laughs with Sarah in the process and learned a bit along the way.

Now, I have to go, as it looks from the screenshot above, that I have some "Bonjour" errors to worry about in my own Event Viewer. 

Evidently, my laptop speaks French.

Blogging off and Bonjour...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Finding All The Good

Last night I gave a Dirty Shirt presentation at the Oconomowoc Public Library. It was a sparsely attended affair, but it didn't prevent me from doing my full hour-long spiel. Those that were there were very engaged and seemed genuinely interested. I could have let the small group bother me, but as per my last blog post I chose to look at the upside and make the best of it. To beat a dead horse, the event was mostly good.

And in the process of it all I came to some conclusions.

  • I realized how lucky I am to be able to talk about not only my book, but all of my writing. This includes the process of how I got started. People are as much interested in how I got started as in what I've written. 
  • My wife came along to help with sales time and I forgot how nice it is to have her in the room. We maintain a decent banter throughout, and because this audience was largely women, they related to her nicely after I had finished. She's a good sport, helping me schlep books around Southeastern Wisconsin, and I love her for it.
  • I've found that women usually have different questions than men. Men want to know where I went, for how long, how the fishing was, etc. Women want to know what drove the love of wilderness into me, and how I feel about writing about such personal stuff. Neither are bad, just an observation.
  • Donna was telling me that I need to switch up my presentation. As it is now, I do two readings, a slide show, the video trailer and an closing reading. She mentioned that it might help to do the slides as I go, which will provide some context for the reading. Makes sense to me.
  • All of the librarians I've met are such nice people. Of course they all love to read, but they also can appreciate what it takes to be an author/writer. I've never met a crabby one yet, and most bend over backwards to help. 
  • As much as I'd love to say schlepping books is all about making money, that is only part of it. I enjoy meeting people and getting feedback (and telling my story) as much as selling a ton of books. Does that make me a bad business man? Probably. But it sure is a whole lot of fun.
My next event will be at the Oshkosh Public Library on September 2nd. Hoping for a bigger crowd, but am sure I will have a blast with whatever I'm giving. Living the dream...

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Philosophy Unleashed

As I was walking the dog yesterday morning, I got to thinking about my life. Frequently my walks with Toby are when I deal with the anxieties of daily life. I work things out, think things through and sometimes kick ideas around. Getting outdoors always helps me broaden my outlook and put things in perspective.

So yesterday, I thought about how rich my life is and how lucky and blessed I am. And as cliche' as that may sound, it wasn't all roses. This is the way my inner-critic tainted head works.

I thought of my house and how much I love being in it. It's a poor man's castle, built in 1922, and needs a zillion things fixed - chimney tuckpointing, a noisy furnace, and front steps with a good lean to them. But I also realize it has more living space and convenience than 85% of what the rest world has, so I'm not complaining. It's mostly good.

And I thought about my teenage kids, and how it drives me crazy that they sleep until noon in the summer and that the car and their rooms are filled with cans, wrappers and dirty dishes. And that the car sometimes shows up in my driveway running on fumes or with a new scratch or dent. But they are great kids. They stay out of trouble, know right from wrong, have good jobs and are both hard workers. And I need to remember these things and be grateful. I am incredibly blessed by their presence in my life. My kids are mostly good.

Then I thought about my wife and how I had just shared coffee and this week's agenda with her; a weekly event that we've built into our lives. I realized that I know of so many people that envy that or wish their spouse would do that. And while she sometimes drives me crazy (and I, her, I'm no innocent here) I know that at the end of the day, she loves me to my core (and I, her.) Our marriage is mostly good.

As Toby and I rounded the corner, I thought about my writing. I thought of all the things that my books is not or had not become. Never a Top 100 seller on Amazon, no great notable mentions in the newspaper. The same goes for my poetry and short stories - how they never get into the "big publications." Then my mind is quickly reminded of all the joy and goodness and satisfaction that my writing has brought me, including all the beautiful, talented writers I've come to know. Oh, and then there's the two books, two anthologies and multiple magazines I've been able to be a part of. And I think, what are you, nuts? And after further review, I realize my writing life is mostly good.

As Toby sniff's his twenty third tree on our walk, I think about my extended family and all of their peronality tics, emotional warts and behavioral shortcomings, including myself among them, of course. Last weekend I had the chance to spend some quality time with most of them. When I was riding home however, the things that kept running through my brain were how much fun we had, rather than all the ways we don't measure up to one another's expectations. We laughed like we were sitting around the dinner table in 1973. And I realized that my family is mostly good.

And, finally, I thought about my dog and how he needs professional grooming and how his need to
sniff every shrub, tree and hydrant we pass is really annoying. But all of this is overshadowed by his undying devotion to me and my wife and kids and that he is a committed companion that loves me unconditionally. Yep, my dog is mostly good.

And my walk brought me to the realization that maybe "mostly good" is the best we can ever hope for. We spend so much of our lives pushing for "perfect" or "better," and it seems that every time we do that, the best we can achieve is "mostly good."

So that's my new frame of reference. I'm going to look for the good in everything and examine it and appreciate it hard enough until it outweighs the bad.

Because mostly good is the best anyone can hope for.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Concurrent Reunions

This past weekend I went back to Minnesota to celebrate our family reunion near St. Cloud. The event was held in a cottage/cabin built by my grandfather in the 1930's. It is a dazzlingly unique structure in that the logs used to build it were set vertically, not horizontally like most cabins. I heard this weekend that Adolph (my grandfather) said that was because "that's the way trees grow." It's hard to argue with that logic and a mighty unique structure came out of his thinking, so there's that.

A word about my travels to and from Minnesota are in order first. I took the Megabus from Milwaukee to St. Paul, in order to free up cars for my wife and two kids who all had to work. Now, I've been on worse trips, but I did make a few observations. Things like, how about everybody switches their cell phone to vibrate for the duration of the 5 hour trip? It was like the Southern Bell and Telephone switchboard for a while there for crying out loud.

One ringy dingy, two ringy dingys.

Only they weren't rings at all. One was like a woodpecker sound. Another was a rap intro. There was too many to count. For those of us who were trying to sleep it was "Alarm Fest." It made me long for the days before cell phones when all you did when you rode the bus was ride the bus.

Of course there were other annoyances, like a poorly located AC vent that blew on me the whole trip. And then there was the guy next to me who put his arms and head in his shirt and went to sleep like a turtle in a T-Shirt. And finally there was the woman talking on her cell phone for 40 minutes like she was in her living room. Actually, it was like thirty of us were in her living room, all helping her make the call.

Ride aside, the rest of the weekend was really, really good. For starters, I got to spend a couple of nights at my brother's condo with him. This gave us a great chance to catch up and talk about a lot of things. It was funny, but at one point he admitted that Rob's death, as hard as it was, changed his relationship with me. I've been thinking that a lot myself lately. It's changed how ALL of us relate to one another.

The actual reunion started on Saturday afternoon. I hadn't been to a reunion for ten years (they hold them every 5 years), so from the moment I arrived until about six o'clock at night I was talking to one cousin or another - many of whom I haven't really talked to much over our lives. People were incredibly gracious with their words about Dirty Shirt. It was nothing short of moving to hear their comments. It made all of the work I put into it even more worth it.

One of the cooler things that happened was I got the chance to sit in my Grandfather's rocker. My
cousin brought it in his truck. The interesting story is there are several cigar burns in the arm of the chair. I actually wrote a fictional short story about the chair that I'm looking to get published somewhere. Sitting in it was a fun memory.

Other than the warmth and love I couldn't help but feel, the biggest takeaway from the day was that I found out a few more details about my father's character and even more about the night of his death from various people. I'd like to say it helped clear up what really went on, but in some ways it only made it more confusing. I won't go into details here, as much of this is quite personal, but suffice it to say that the injustice of it still stings almost 50 years later. Much like I wrote in Dirty Shirt, many of the details will likely have to wait until he and I are sitting around that fire pit in heaven someday.

Once the party dispersed, my immediate family (Mom, my two sisters and brother Paul) set up camp on the beach for a sunset cocktail and some laughs. There were clear skies and a warm breeze from Grand Lake, perfect for sitting lakeside and talking with family, something that's been going on at "the cottage" for a couple of generations now.

It was a lot of goofing around, reminiscing and storytelling. And I have to say I laughed harder than I have in a long, long time. It was our own little mini-reunion. We spent it enjoying each others' company and just soaking in the moment. I think part of it was because we all know that in five years it could be a much different group. Rob's passing has made each of us brutally aware of our own mortality and in some respects has helped us see past our differences a bit more easily. We've all got our quirks, hangups, vices and idiosyncrasies, but at the end of the day, we're all we've got for each other. It was a great night, one I'll never forget.

Sunday brought fishing and relaxation. I had the privilege with my brother Paul to help teach our six year-old grand-nephew how to fish. Once he learned the ropes, he was hooked (so to speak). He was obsessed and before the day was done, he had twenty sunfish to his credit. He even offered to give me one of his so my "count" of five would be better. My sister said we were training up the next generation of Landwehr fisherman, which is pretty cool when I think about it. I really love the excitement of young kids when they catch their first fish, so this was a great ending to a quality weekend.

And I know the whole weekend we were being watched from above by Dad, Rob and Linda, not to mention all the granparents and uncles and cousins who went before us, who were having a reunion of their own in the skies of eternity.

And I miss them all.

Blogging off...