Sunday, September 27, 2015

Simpler Sundays

As I mentioned in a previous post  in February, my family is actively involved on the launch team of a new church called Collective MKE. The journey has been an interesting one in many ways. We're still in the throes of launch and while things are starting to take shape, there's still much work to be done.

We have been gathering as a launch team three out of four Sundays a month in the house of a friend on the team. The fourth Sunday we gather as a larger body in a building in Waukesha that we rent for that worship service. At the home gatherings we talk a little about where things are going as a church, but lately we've been having a full service-like session. It features a couple of readings, lots of stimulating theological discussion and a simple communion. It is very much a house church that we are trying to grow into a bigger entity, eventually. How that manifests itself remains to be seen.
Collective MKE

At the moment, we are working on finding a meeting place so that we can have the larger corporate meetings weekly, instead of monthly. We're looking at renting a school or some local vacant spaces for a Sunday AM or PM service. It's been a challenge, but we're confident something appealing will come along.

But more about the experience. While I'm sure a "home church" sounds weird, cultish and uncomfortable to most people, it's something I've come to embrace. In our small setting, we've gotten to know and become fairly tight with about 7 families. This includes over a dozen kids. We share struggles and accomplishments, joys and concerns. And in the process, we've come to look forward to "church" in a new way. It meets all of us where we're at. We help each other through stuff, we learn from one another and we  laugh a whole lot too. It gives me everything I ever got from a large church, plus a whole lot more.

So as I sat there at the post church potluck this morning, with the rattle and hum of kids playing and eating and the adults laughing and conversing, I realized how lucky I was to have them all as new friends. I am one of those people who thought that church should be a place you go to for an hour and a half every Sunday, and anything less was not really church. I'm finding that it's not about a building, at all. The tag line for Collective MKE is "Because, together is better."

I have to agree with that.

Blogging off...

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Discipline of Self

It seems my wife and a friend were talking about me the in the car the other day on their way to yoga. My wife asked me if my ears were burning because they were discussing how disciplined I was. They weren't saying it in an admirable light, but rather a jealous or disdainful way. It made me wonder why some people use "discipline" to develop habits (which occasionally morph into what I like to call a rut,) and some people don't.

I think it comes from a mix of DNA and upbringing.

I feel that part of my discipline background can be linked to coming from a big family. While there's lots of chaos in a big family, maybe my way of dealing with it was to build routines via discipline that restored a sense of order for me. For example, if the rest of the house couldn't be clean and organized, at least my room could be. (Though it had it's moments, to be sure.) It was my space, they were my things and it was my sanctuary (read: sanity).

I can't help but feel that some of my self discipline comes from attending a Catholic, military, all male high school. At my school, every Monday we had "inspection." At inspection, we were lined up in our squads (Order level 1), that were put into platoons (Order level 2), that were part of battalions (more order), which were part of a brigade (large scale order.) Each student had a rank (order again) and when the inspecting officer came around, they checked for shined brass, shined shoes, name tag, tie, pocket protector (geeks!), pressed shirt, pressed trousers, and hair not touching the ears or collar.

It was every bit like being in the Army as a teenager.

So my Sunday nights always involved a routine of shining shoes and brass, and making sure my uniform was pressed and ready to go. Over the years I learned a few tricks that made this easier, like buying a pair of Chloroform shoes. These are super shiny, expensive black dress shoes that I wore only for inspection. $70 at the time seemed steep, but it eliminated the need to shine shoes every week. Worth every penny!

I think all of these things, plus a lot more developed in me as time went on and to paraphrase the Doobie Brothers album, "What were once disciplines, are now habits." But I also feel that some of it is in a person's makeup too. It's as much a part of their personality as is being studious, artistic or a free spirit. My daughter has a fair amount of self discipline, for example. 

The important thing to keep in mind is to remember to keep it in check. As I get older, I realize that I don't need to become a slave to my habits/routines and discipline. Life is too short to be too regimented. Sometimes though, it takes a conscious effort to do that though; to let go.

That's all I have time for right now. I've got to go iron my shirt for work tomorrow.

Don't judge.

Blogging off...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lifetime Friendships

I'm not one who likes to label someone a "best friend." It has always seemed like an exclusionary term to me and could be taken wrongly by other good friends. (Can't we all just be friends?) That's not to say that we can't have friends we feel closer to or that we get along better with, because of course we all have those.

Having said that, a close childhood friend of mine turns 54 tomorrow. If I had to pigeonhole someone as a best friend growing up, it would be Pat. He was one of a core of 5 of us high school buddies that hung out a lot. Pat and I have so many good stories, most of which took place during our college years. If you've read Dirty Shirt, he's a main character in the first section on friends.

I think  I got to know Pat best when we were both bench warmers for the 8th grade football team at St. Luke's. There's something unifying about not playing much. Well, when we went to high school, we hung out together with all the other "straight" kids. We never got into trouble much and our senses of humor kind of meshed.

Later when we went to the University of Minnesota together, we both struggled right out of the gate with what we wanted to be when we grew up. I'm not sure he ever declared a major at the University, but he used to get a kick out of telling girls that he was majoring in Mortuary Science. It was his somewhat twisted sense of humor that drew me to him as a friend.

For all of his struggles at the U of M, Pat eventually found his calling in ministry. He enrolled in a Bible training center in Tulsa, Oklahoma after a couple of years of floundering in Minnesota. It was a perfect fit for Pat and eventually he graduated from there with a ministerial degree.

It was during his years there that I credit Pat with shaping my own faith. He frequently shared books with me, helped me answer the tough questions and, more than anything, walked the walk. He knew what "living it out" meant and showed it in all he did. One of his biggest weaknesses was people with car troubles. He was always stopping to help, often meaning he was late to wherever he was headed. He was kind, gentle, respectful and, as one of my other friends put it, almost "friendly to a fault" if that is possible.

One of the more memorable events in our friendship has an ironic twist to it. During one of his visits back to Minnesota during college, we went Christmas shopping at a local mall. We went into a bookstore and Pat bought me The Complete Book of Writing Nonfiction. At the time, he knew I liked to write, so he gave me the book. I think he may have even said something like maybe I'd write a book someday. I remember thinking that he obviously had more faith in my ability than I did. I can't say I ever cracked the book, but I do think it planted a deep seed in me that made me think, hmmmm.

I've gotten together with Pat a few times over the past five years and we've picked up right where we left off. He has a wife and three beautiful kids, in fact, his daughter attends the U of M, as does my daughter Sarah. We were joking about how our ghosts are haunting the U of M again, via out children.

Fortunately for the University, they are way better students than we ever were.

Happy Birthday to my old friend Pat!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ruler Of The Roost

We had our pictures taken as a family a few weeks ago. We wanted to get a shoot in before Sarah went back to the University of Minnesota, so we managed to squeeze in an hour and a half shoot after the rain and before the sunset.

The pictures were taken by a friend of ours, Brandon Brown of Roost Photography. We met Brandon about nine years ago and through a weird chain of events have become good friends with him and his family. He used to be the pastor at a local mega church and was almost exclusively responsible for shaping our kids' faith during those early years. His connection with not just our kids, but kids of all ages, was remarkable. One of the other gifts he had while at this church was photography. He did it in part for the ministry and partly just for the love of the craft.

Along the way, he left that church and along with starting a new church, Collective MKE, he started his own photography business. His intent all along was to become bi-vocational, in part to release the church from having to completely fund his salary. In just a few months time, his photography endeavor has taken off. He is shooting weddings, families, senior high school pictures, and more.

I attribute his success to one thing.

He is really good at what he does.

Now, Brandon had done Sarah's senior pictures and did an amazing job. We thought we'd let him do our family pictures too.

During the photo shoot, he made our whole family feel comfortable. When we felt awkward, he made a joke that would lighten our mood and make us laugh. During that natural laughter, he'd shoot away. Also throughout, he would encourage us with words like "I love it!" or "Perfect!" As a result, few of our pictures felt forced or unnatural.

If you know us as a family, you know that we are built around humor, wittiness and sarcasm. We can be serious, but more often the mood around the house is lighthearted with a fair amount of poking fun at one another. What Brandon managed to capture in most of those pictures is the essence of our family. In many of the pictures you can see the joy, happiness and love exuding from them. I look at them and I wonder how he did that.

I used to be into photography a bit myself when I was in college. I got a nice 35 mm camera and learned about film speed, F-Stop, aperture and all the rest. And while I enjoyed it as a hobby, I never quite got to the next level. I seriously believe that people with artistic minds can "see" things better than others. When I look at some of these pictures, I think back to how I would have shot it. And it would have been with everything centered, staged, and less than interesting. Kind of how I take pictures now, with my phone. My only criteria is don't cut off the subjects' heads.

My daughter is also very gifted with a camera, seeing things I don't see. My friend Ellen is also great at it. I am a firm believer when I say we all have gifts, each of them different and waiting to be tapped. After that, all it takes is hard work and critical feedback.

When I got the note last night saying the pictures were online to be viewed, I quickly took a look. I'd seen enough of Brandon's work to know they would be fantastic. And when I looked at them, a couple of times I started to tear up a bit. That often happens when I'm enjoying really good art, music, cinema, or reading, so I thought it was a good gauge of Roost Photography. I'm not saying this because he's a friend. I'm saying it because he's good.

Check him out sometime.

Blogging off...

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Friends For A Day

I had another book signing yesterday, this time at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. It was another lightly attended affair, but I managed to sell enough books to make it worth my while. As much as these library presentations take a fair amount of work, I've grown to really enjoy doing them. I get a little more comfortable with each one I do. 

Over time, I've learned what works, what doesn't work, and with the helpful feedback of my wife, I've changed the format to be even better than it once was. In the old format, I did all my readings, then photos, and then the video trailer. She thought it might be better if I worked the photos across the whole presentation, which gives people a way to relate to the story.

She also gets jolted every time I mention in my talk to the group that my father was murdered in 1967. "Just say he was killed," she says. I see her point, but part of the whole thing is to shock people a little bit. Not to mention that murder is what it was. No watering that down. One thing's for sure, it always grabs their attention. 

It's always interesting to see where each talk takes me. I've had a number of people share stories with me after my presentations. Most of them are somehow related to the BWCA, but not always. People will tell me their tragic stories in part because they can relate to me telling mine. In that way it's a bit therapeutic for both of us. 

The West Bend gig was the last one on the immediate docket. I am currently working with seven different libraries from all over Wisconsin on future dates. The only set date thus far is December 9th when I'll be at the Waterford Public Library.

The other interesting part of yesterday was my second interaction with the group known as Waukesha Open Poetry. This is a group of people that gets together on the second Saturday of the month to share and talk about poetry. During the summer months they meet in a local park, so they refer to those gatherings as Poetry in the Park. 

It is a small group, yesterday there were only five of us, and the first time I met with them, there were only about 8 of us. The thing I like about this group is they are total free spirits. Most of them simply hand write poems in journals and bring them to read. I sense that there is no pressure or urgency to submit or get anything published by the members. They are writing just for writing sake. Just for fun and joy. In fact yesterday made me feel like a big blowhard because I kept referring to "getting published" or getting into a workshop, etc. It seems that everyone is quite content just having fun with it.

It also made me a bit envious too. There was a day when I first started writing the stories that ultimately turned into Dirty Shirt where I was just writing for the joy of reading it in class - or the joy of just writing it at all. Now it seems, whenever I write something, I always have a publishing agenda behind it. While that's not a bad aspiration to have, it kind of supplants that initial joy. And while I get the fact that if you're not publishing stuff, then no one's reading your work, I also think there's a place for not caring. 

A couple of the women in the group said that their mother had a couple of books worth of material in a garbage bag. This was work the mother had put her heart and soul into. For whatever reason, she chose not to do anything with it. My question is, who am I to judge whether that is wrong? Maybe she got enough joy from writing that it was sufficient unto itself? Or maybe she had an inner critic that kicked her but and made her feel like her work sucked? I have one of those that I constantly have to beat down. 

So, to finish my rambling, my point is this group is a relatively undisciplined bunch. (No offense to any of you who might be reading this, of course.) Some of them brought only one work to read to group. Others talked about how they should write more, but just don't. Most of them fit the mold of "anguished artists" than most writers I usually hang around. And as I said, there's something attractive in their lackadaisical mentality. I think writing needs a healthy balance of both this and the more structured habits I've fallen into. 

And I aim to incorporate some of these laissez faire attitudes into my writing life soon enough.

Blogging off...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Reading What Others Have Written

Both my wife and I are big bedtime readers. We both have a stack of books and magazines on our nightstands at any given time. Sometimes they get so tall they fall over - a good sign that we should purge the pile and relegate the good ones to the "keeper" bookcase, and the average or bad ones to the basement Tupperware tote for later donation to goodwill or Literacy Services of Wisconsin.

At the moment I have four books going in varying stages of completeness. On top of that, I have a Sun Magazine going at work. I read that magazine cover to cover every month. Its stories are fantastic and there are zero ads. All memoir - most of it moving.

The four books include the genres of fiction, young adult fiction, Christian, and self-help. Here's a rundown of what's in them and where I'm at.

Jesus Cow, by Michael Perry

Arguably my favorite contemporary author, this is his second recent stab at fiction and I'm liking it a lot. The story is about a Wisconsin farmer that discovers a calf born to one of his cows has a likeness of Jesus on its side. To make matters worse, it was born on Christmas Eve. I'm not too far into it, but I like the developing plot very much. Small town fun.

Write Within Yourself, by William Kenower

I am only about 30 pages into this This book is referred to as an authors companion, which is a good way to refer to it. It has some incredible insights into the life of a writer. It's not a how-to book, but maybe more of a how-come book. How come we keep writing when it sometimes seems such a drudgery, or like we're faking it. It is one book I am taking in small bits - in a way to motivate me when I need it. Again, it will probably linger around my nightstand for a while like "The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron, did for so long.

Throne of Whelia, by Summer Hanford

I am about 100 pages into book three of the Thrice Born series. I stalled out there when I had to pick up Scavengers, by Michael Perry, and haven't really gotten back to it yet. It is a great read thus far, and I need to get back to it soon. The nice thing about that whole series is it takes me a zillion miles away into a complete fantasy land. The book follows the life of Ari, a prince in-training under the tutelage of Sir Cadwell. It takes you back in time and throws in magical elements that make for a great escape.

Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr

This is a great book, destined for the keeper bookcase. It describes the concept that, fundamentally. we have two phases of life. The first phase is built around the "self" and includes making our way and our mark in the world in a sort of self glorification mode. It includes the importance of institutions and education in the process. It is about the accumulation of things, skills and notoriety in the name of making ourselves.

Phase two is more about the revelation that we are part of a much bigger system and results in a shift in thinking. It's about not sweating the small stuff. It's not tied so much to age, but rather can be triggered by a significant event, tragedy or loss. It goes on to say that some people never get past the first phase of life (and I know a few) but if you're growing and maturing, you'll end up in that second phase by design. I've already finished it, but it is one of those books that I need to read again because each chapter is so packed with good information.

On top of all of these, I have a stack of books by other colleagues that I need to get to as well. I think I need a quiet beach home for a couple weeks.


Blogging off...

Monday, September 7, 2015

Laborious Pleasure

Just settling in after a long, busy, fun filled weekend in Minnesota. It was a million mile whirlwind tour, but between seeing family and getting Sarah moved into college, it was a great close out to summer. Here's a few highlights.

Sister in-law's new house
We spent the weekend with our sister in-law and her daughter. Jane just moved into a new home in June, and it is beautiful. We always enjoy our time with her and her girls and their dog, Chai. They make us feel completely welcome and comfortable, and we are so blessed to be part of their lives. We stayed up late on Friday laughing and catching up with Jane. Quality time with beautiful people.

Move In Day
Saturday was spent getting Sarah moved in to the University dorm at the U of M. It was eventful from the start when I got pulled over by a U of M cop for driving in a bus-only zone. She was nice enough to let me off with a warning ticket. Of course, I explained to her that when I was a student we were allowed to drive the entire length of University/Washington Ave. Needless to say, she was not impressed with my historical knowledge, but the fact that I was an alumni (with Wisconsin plates, no less) might have had a bearing on the verbal warning.

The rest of the move went off without a hitch. Her new dorm/apartment is really nice and she seems very happy. Great roommate too. When we said goodbye for the last time on Sunday afternoon, there were the usual tears, but not as bad as last year. She has a solid friend base on campus and is plugged into a couple of groups, so she will be fine. Can't really compare her experience to mine at any level, but I am very proud of all she's becoming.

Post Move Shopping
Before this trip, I'd never been to Ikea. Now I have. Meatballs and madness. Don't much want to return.

Portland Drive By
On the way to go out to dinner on Grand Avenue, we did a drive by to check on my old house. Needless to say, I was shocked to see that our front porch is gone. To me it was the focal point of the outside of the house and gave it so much character. My only hope is that the current owner is planning on rebuilding a new one. It looked like they have started something deck-like, so it is possible. In any case, it almost made me sick. 

Dinner in the old neighborhood. 
We had dinner at Punch Pizza on Grand Avenue, about a mile from where I grew up. Grand Avenue has changed dramatically as well, but it felt good to be back in the area. After dinner we had ice cream at the Grand Old Creamery. Once I gained control over the melting mass of ice cream on my cone, it was as good as I remember. I miss that old neighborhood.

The State Fair
Ye Old Mill - MN State Fair
Went to the Minnesota State Fair on Sunday afternoon. It was a sea of humanity as always, and absolutely perfect. I convinced Donna and Sarah to ride the "Ye Old Mill" (aka the tunnel of love) with me because, well, because it's a must-do state fair thing! They were both a little creeped out by how dark it got, and we all got a chuckle out of the brightly lit "Exit" signs that point the way out. (Like anyone is going to get out and walk their way to the exit.) They were good sports in humoring me about going on it and now Donna said she can check it off her list. And, though Donna and I kissed once, we managed not to "make out" in front of our daughter. Great restraint we have. 
The rest of the fair was a series of gorging and walking. Pronto pups, Tom Thumb donuts, Cheese Curds, beer, soda, pretzel, and a twist cone at the Dairy building. While I was there, I dropped a card and mentioned Dirty Shirt at the Save the BWCA booth. Always the Dirty Shirt ambassador, ya know. Yup.

We finished out the day on Sunday with our family at my brother's house. He was recently in Europe and had a slide show of pictures. He also managed to bring back mugs with Landwehr-Brau inscribe on each. The Landwehr Brewery was in Reichelshofen, and he had the chance to tour it.

Another New House
On our way out of town, we stopped at my nephew's house in River Falls, WI. He and his wife just bought a beautiful new house and are happy new homeowners. It may end up as my "bed and breakfast" on my upcoming western Wisconsin book tour.

So, a great Labor Day weekend. Quiet and normalcy are back at home and I miss my daughter already. In looking back at the weekend, I realize again how privileged I am to have the kids and extended family that I do. They make my life rich, happy and blessed. I hope your Labor Day was as enjoyable as mine. 

Blogging off...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Road Warriors

I had my reading/signing at the Oshkosh Public Library last night. Donna was kind enough to come along and keep me company for the trip and to help me schlep books. She's been a real trooper when it's come to these events and I appreciate her for it. She's my rock.

The event itself was kind of a bust. There were only about five people in the audience and I only ended up selling a couple of books. This comes on the heels of my past couple library events that were equally poorly attended. I was pretty down about it and the inner critic was starting to rear his ugly head again until I talked to a few people, and here's what I've learned.

1. My wife reminded me that every event is different and that you do what you can do, and there is no controlling who shows up. She also mentioned the good connections I made with the librarian and the writing group and that it was good practice for the future. I do love her for her support.

2. The librarian reminded me that Michael Perry, a bestselling author from Wisconsin, gave a keynote address at their Lakefly Writers Conference last year. In that talk, he mentioned that he's been through those tough times when you show up to a bookstore and 3 people show up. His advice was "Keep plugging away." That was refreshing to hear from someone whose made it in the business. (He also told the story of his reading in a Barnes and Noble where two people were sitting in the area where he was going to present. When they announced over the PA that Michael Perry's talk was about to begin, the two people got up and left. So, if it can happen to him, it can happen to me.)

3. My friend Brandon who I have coffee with every Thursday, reminded me that as an author, I am in the one percent of people in the world. And given that fact and the fact that I am living the dream, even when it only sells two books, I need to remember that I wrote a book. And I need to ride that reality for all of the joy it has brought me and realize that there's ups and downs.

4. I also reminded myself that it has been over a year since Dirty Shirt came out, and I am still pushing it. Many others stopped doing presentations/signings early on, but I have continued to pursue new venues. I need to cut myself a little slack.

My takeaway from the whole ordeal was that I still had a great evening with my wife (we had dinner before and quality time on the road,) and got to spread my book to one more community in the process.

It also jogged my memory to the time I got Michael Perry to sign a book after he taught a course at AllWriters one weekend. I walked out to his car, he opened the door and between his luggage, his band equipment and his books, stuff was practically falling out of his car. He looked at me and said,

"Life on the road..."

Yep. Now I get it.

Blogging off...