Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summer's Launch

Memorial Day is always a reminder that Summer is officially underway. The three day weekend usually means picnics and vacation trips and hikes and yard work. We hit three of the four this weekend and it's not even Monday yet. We've had glorious weather that has allowed us to get some much needed projects done as well as relax a little in between.

And while I cannot say enough about how grateful I am for the sacrifice of lives that got us to and keep us in a free country, it is also the time of year that:

  • The grass grows at a rate that exceeds my ability to keep it neatly manicured. As a result it goes from golf green short to abandoned house long between cuts. I once heard that keeping your grass long keeps the weeds down. That is a dang lie.
  • I can change clothes three times on a Saturday and never think twice about it. It's always shorts and a t-shirt, but when you perspire like I do, well. this is a good practice, trust me.
  • The constant up-down-up of the windows kind of gives way to up-all-the-time. It is my favorite thing in the world to have fresh air blowing around my house. We don't have central air. Our air is un-centrally located. It blows with the wind. I may be spending the night at your centrally aired house this July. We're good that way, right?
  • Our whole family dreams of that August vacation up north where we take the laziness of summer to new levels.
  • Ten mile bike rides are as much a part of my daily routine as taking a shower. Donna likens me to a dog. I'm no good unless I'm given a chance to get out an run (or bike) a little. It keeps up my girlish figure too. 
  • My evening walks with my dog sometimes go that extra few blocks. I love being outside at 7:30 at night without the need for a jacket or sweatshirt. This is because 270 other days of the year, this is not possible.
  • Saturdays start with coffee and end with beer. In between is a flurry of twenty seven things that all seem to lead to the eventual beer. My favorite day of the week begins with coffee with my favorite person. 
  • The dog barks at every dog, stranger, loud truck, mailman or Harley that goes up our street. We threaten him with the shaky can (a soda can with coins in it), but that only changes his bark into a growl and a more annoying howl. The other 270 days a year the porch is too uncomfortable to leave the door open so he can see these things. He is not a smart dog.
  • That after a long day of busting her tail, my wife falls into a book for hours on end. This is a lost art in our society and she has rediscovered how satisfying it is. I need to do more of this too.
  • Picnic foods begin showing up everywhere. Nothing better than watermelon, fresh strawberries, brats, hamburgers and all the good that goes with it.
  • It stays sunny until 8:30 sometimes. Oh, thank ya Lawd!
So as we kick off Summer 2016, don't forget to appreciate even the hot, hot days. Because right around the corner is something called the Polar Friggen' Vortex.

Happy Summer Everyone!

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Pomp and Circumstance

It is that time of year when graduations are happening at high schools and universities nationwide. Our son graduates next year at this time and Sarah graduated 2 years ago this June.

Graduation is such an exciting time whatever the level. When you're leaving high school, it usually is a sort of good riddance kind of thing. (At least it was for most of the folks I know.) The teen years in school are hard and while I have some great memories from high school, there were only a handful of people I cared about after I left. As a result, class reunions are not terribly my thing. I'd rather get together with four high school friends than go back and relive half the graduating class. Ugh.
Me and my cousin Joanie

The beauty of high school graduation is that you are leaving the environment of "have to" and entering the college environment of "want to." The difference is huge. My freshman year of college, I can remember thinking "You mean, I only have to take three classes? Sweet!" Plus, I went to a university of about 30,000 people, which meant I could become essentially invisible. New environment, new friends, new freedoms, what's not to like?

When it comes to college graduation, that is an exciting time as well. You come out at 22 years old (give or take) and have your whole life ahead of you. Because I finished my college career in the middle of the year (after winter quarter), I opted to not go through with my ceremony. I had my diploma mailed to me. That is one of my few regrets in my life - not walking across the stage. (I know, it's totally dumb, selfish, insignificant, etc., but hey...) Had I to do it over, I would take the 5 minutes of recognition for my almost six years of effort.
Sister Pat, Jack, Mom

College/Vocational school graduation is the start of everything else in your life. Many of us met our significant others in college. Others found their passion - I know I did, the minute I took my first Cartography 101 class, I was hooked. Our schooling teaches us how to learn and launches us into our careers.

And so as you watch your kids walk across the stage - at whatever level  in the coming weeks think back to how excited and, frankly, how frightened you were at this next phase of life. They call it commencement for a reason, and next year it will hit our family again.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ruinous Power

Over the past few months I've been exposed to a number of new power tools. For example, last fall I had the chance to work a welder for the first time ever. (How many men can even say that?)  Because my friend Claude has one and is fairly proficient at using it, he let a bunch of his friends come over one night and try it out. Then, a few weeks later, the same guy gathered a few of us to help him cut down some trees. This exposed me to my first use of a chainsaw. (Many more men can probably say they've done that.) Both of those experiences were frighteningly rewarding.
Stump Grinder

Then, yesterday I rented a stump grinder from Home Dept. A few weeks ago, I removed our front bushes using a reciprocating saw, (an electric power tool providing it's own satisfactory feeling of power) which left four large stumps behind. After looking at my options, I heard that Home Depot rented these machines.

It was a big, cumbersome machine somewhere in the 8 HP range. Like all of these other machines, I'm convinced these kinds of tools are the product of some demented genius. Some guy said "How about we put a gas operated engine in front of a blade with wheels or a chain and see if we can't make this job easier?" Never mind that if used incorrectly these things are capable of amputation, electrocution, maiming or even death.

Because these things are capable of bodily mutilation, there comes a healthy fearful respect of the user. (At least with this user.) This particular machine was no different. It had a 9 inch whirring blade in front that is useful for grinding stumps, but also practical for creating stumps. Arm stumps, leg stumps and finger stumps.

So I set about the job with that joyous dread that comes with any power tool that I feel is stronger than me. I worked the machine hard, causing it to blow blue smoke at times when I got impatient with how fast it was cutting and tried to cut too much/too fast. I had ear and eye protection and was deep into the exhaust fumes, sweating in the sun. It took about 20 minutes per stump and actually went off without a hitch.

The whole deal reminded me of another awesome tool I once used with my brother and a friend, the gas powered post-hole digger/auger. We used it in a driving rainstorm one weekend when we put up our fence. Three guys, noise, gasoline and a monstrous corkscrew. What could be better? It was an exhausting rush, and we all learned something that day; namely, never bury the auger too deep that you can't extract it.

It's hard to describe the adrenaline rush that I experience when I'm dancing on the edge of losing a limb or digit in the name of a noisy power tool for a time-saving task. All cases of them were life skills that I can check off the bucket list and add to my resume.

It almost makes a guy wonder what he should rent next?

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Monday Nighters

Every Monday night I have my writing workshop at AllWriters Workplace and Workshop. Now, most people would wonder why anyone would take a class on a Monday night. Monday's are typically the hardest day of the week to get through and to tack on a two hour class at the end of it would seem like a form of torture. (And because it's a writing class, it would probably be a special kind of torture for some people.)

But it's actually the best part of my Mondays.

I'm in with a great group of people, and we've built quite a rapport between us. We've even developed a nickname of the Mighty Monday Nighters. Part of what makes our group so cool is the unique style, subject and genres of everyone in the group. Listening to their stories from week to week is great fun. In some ways we get to know their story characters as much as we get to know the writer writing them. The group is made up of: (using Aliases)

  • Alice -  is currently writing a story about a woman who gets lost in the rain and ends up at the cottage of a suspicious, kind of creepy guy. Alice's first book is finished and is very good, but like I did with Dirty Shirt, she is taking a break from it. She sent it to its room. 
  • Diane - is jumping between two projects. Her first project involved writing a cookbook and now she is working on a memoir about her dad who was a cop. She frequently brings food to class, as she's a foodie at heart. She also keeps things light with her humorous interjections.
  • Bill - is writing a fascinatingly complex science fiction book about time travel and espionage. He actually left the group for a session to try an online class, but came back because he missed the interaction and feedback of real human beings. His book will grace the shelves of bookstores one day, of that I am sure. 
  • Karly - has finished and is marketing a wonderful children's book about a magic tree. I cannot even think in the dimensions she is writing in and her writing is tight and easy to follow. She's just started her second book that involves parallel stories about a tragic event.
  • Zoe -  is working on a couple of projects as well. One is a clinical blog dealing with heroine abuse and how to prevent it. The other is a fictional novel that is developing nicely. I love the way she catches her own errors during her reading and laughs at them - as do we. All good writers can laugh at their own mistakes. I know I do!
  • Phillip - is working on a couple of love stories gone bad. Its funny because we recognize his character Lydia as being a whacko, but the main character Robert is too, so it makes for a great story. It is great watching his writing get better with every week.
  • Jane - recently celebrated her first couple of publications since joining AllWriters. She is writing a variety of things ranging from memoir about her college days to a fictional piece she started after getting inspired by a hunchbacked woman she sees every day at the same time on the street. It's cool to see what inspires different people within the group. 
  • Erin - is working on a memoir book from a unique point of view. She has also played around with a story of a boy with cancer that has some interesting twists to it. She has a great "voice" to her writing and even works on poetry here and there. 
  • Vickie - is new to the group, but has started a memoir piece about coming over to the US from Italy on a boat as a small girl. Shy at first, we encouraged her to read, and her work was quite good. Can't wait to hear more of her story.
  • Danielle - is in near the end of her psychological thriller about a stolen art network.
  • Miquel - teaches the course and I can't say enough about his critiques and feedback from week to week. He runs a good class, lets the students critique, corrects when needed, and builds writers up when they need it. 
We are an imperfect bunch, but we're working toward perfection - one comma and point of view slip at a time. We get to laughing so hard sometimes that it's hard to contain. These people tell me what I'm doing wrong, what is good, and what to work on. I'm glad we're together, and on any given week when one of us is not there, the whole group suffers a little. 

They're good people working on becoming great writers. 

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Never Going Back To My Old School

This past weekend I had to make the trip up to Minnesota to pick up my daughter from the University of Minnesota. I went up alone because Donna had to work. I sort of like these trips alone to get her for a couple of reasons. First, I get five hours of time alone to think, listen to music and ponder life. The other benefit is that it provides me with quality one-on-one time with Sarah both during the packing and on the drive back home. I miss having her around, so this is a great way to get us back on the same page after months apart.

But there were a couple of other benefits this time. The first one was taking a side trip into downtown to drop off a copy of Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir at  Subtext Books. They not only purchased a copy, but the owner mentioned that if it sold, she would order more copies through Ingram, a large distributor. Furthermore, it turns out she lived in Milwaukee for a time, so we had a bit in common outside of books. She told me she might be interested in having me do a reading there in the fall of 2016. So, in all it was a side trip I was glad I took.

The other benefit was I had a few hours to kill before Sarah was done with her test. I took advantage of it to drive into the old neighborhood where I grew up, then park and walk around a bit. I am such a nostalgic geek, but part of the reason I was doing this was in the name of book research for my next memoir.

I started by taking a roundabout way there which included going past the Selby-Dale intersection. This is the area where my father was killed. I cruised it for nothing more than morbid curiosity. It's weird the effect a place can have on a person's psyche. Of course it is wildly different than how it was in 1967 or even in the seventies when I passed through it several times. Wikipedia even says that in the sixties and seventies had some of the worst housing and crime in St. Paul. It was good to see the area in a state of healthy recovery.
McKasy Homestead

Then I went past my step family's house on Portland. This was after I discovered that that block of Portland Avenue is one way. That's new. For all I know it's been that way for 20 years.

Anyway my step family grew up in this house and after they all moved out, the eldest daughter bought it and kept it in the family. A great old house.
St. Luke's as seen from Lex-Portland

On the way to my house I drove down Summit Avenue, past the mansion of my high school friend Peter, which holds a ton of memories for me - mostly of just "hanging out" shooting hoops and killing time as a teenager. When Ben says he's going to "hang out at his friend Van's house," I totally get that. That was Pete's house.

After passing my old grade school, St. Lukes, I passed the Greek Orthodox church, the focus of an entire chapter in the forthcoming memoir. I parked near my old house on Portland. The new owners are in the midst of a major renovation of the porch and front yard, so I barely recognized the place. If I was looking for inspiration, it was clear I had to look to the second story, because the porch I grew up on is long gone. It was an unpleasant reminder that you can't go back.
1121 Portland then and now.

Then I strolled up the block and just waxed nostalgic. The sidewalk I walked on was the same on which I was pulled in a wagon behind a bike in a stunt that ended badly. Past the Naughton's house whose walk I used to shove. Ms. Naughton was so old it took her 5 minutes to get to the door every time I rang. She was sweet as could be and paid me richly.

On past the Koenig's and Wrens' houses both families had eight kids I believe. Among many other kids, one or two of them would attend of our backyard Muscular Dystrophy Association carnivals.

On the next block, I snapped a photo of my friend Pat's old house. His father died when we were in eighth grade, I believe, and suddenly I had a friend who I could relate to on a whole different level.
My friend Pat's place

I finished out the day with a trip up Summit Avenue and down Grand Avenue, both streets that get a good chunk of attention in the book.

So it was a really meditative, reflective walk for me. Therapeutic and yet unsettling.

The whole experience fueled my interest in finishing the memoir. Hopefully it'll be roughed out by year end. Looking farther than that is just messing with my hopes.

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An All Ages Show

It appears that spring is finally here. The temp seems to ebb and flow, but the warmer days seem to outnumber the cooler ones.

For some reason, the Fall colors always seem to remind me of my age. I can't get enough of the trees turning yellows, browns, reds and all colors in between.

But now it seems to be affecting me in the spring as well. I can't help but notice the flowers every year, but these past few years I have been stopped in my tracks a few times by the flowering trees (crab and some others.) Not only are these things stunningly beautiful, but their aroma carries me away.

So, I am officially old. I'm the scary old guy taking pictures of crab trees.

But enough of that.

It's been a really interesting week from a writing standpoint. On Monday I signed the contract for the Reciting from Memory collection. The eBook is coming out at the end of May and features 40 poems. I can't wait to see how it comes out, especially the cover. I am busy putting the final touches on the dedication, acknowledgements and back cover reviews. I am also kicking the idea around of making a book trailer for it. Time to get the band back together - The Book Trailer Boys.

Then on Tuesday I got some really cool news. Electio publishing is putting together an anthology about the presence of God and Spirituality and my story, Mayo Days, and poem, You Took, were accepted for inclusion in it. The Mayo Days story is about my brother Rob's sickness, and for some reason, I think it's one of the best stories I've ever written. It jumps between past and present tense and just reads well. (Sure, I say this, and then no one will agree. Ha!)

Wednesday brought it's own little success when two of my "skinny" poems were accepted by The Skinny Poetry Journal. These are fun little poems that have to adhere to a certain formula. (See the link here for more on that format.)

Today I got an invitation to the debut of the Memory House Magazine in Chicago on 5/20. I had a couple of poems in that publication. I can't go, but it's nice to get an invite. Also, when I got home, my contributor copy of Steam Ticket came in the mail.

So the hits just keep on coming. I can't explain why things are going so well, but I'm okay with it. I'm doing something I love, sending it off and seeing what happens. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Monday Night AllWriters gang who critique my work every week as well as my wife who puts up with my weekly Saturday writing binges. It takes a village.

When I wake up lately, I take stock of my life and where I am at this point. I take a couple of minutes to inventory the things I have to be thankful for and I always come up well into the black. I've got my share of problems - an aging house, a couple of old vehicles and some mounting college debt, but those things are small compared to the things that are important. That's my story anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Mother Of '72

She met us at the Red Owl grocery store that night in 1972 like every Tuesday night after work for her weekly food shopping venture. She never showed it, but she must have had just a little dread seeing two or three of us boys waiting there for her to ride on the front of her cart, annoyingly so, or to beg her to get the expensive sugared cereals because they had the best prizes inside. She smiles and says, "Hello Jimmers, Pauly Wally, and Reuben," her nicknames for each of us boys.

Paul rides on the front of the cart facing Mom while Rob and I tag along and give advice when Mom asks what kind of cookies to get. "Get the Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Pinwheels, please?" we plead.

"No, those are always gone on the first day, then you have nothing. Pick out two other kinds," she says.

Mom is on a tight budget and more often she shops for bulk rather than taste. With six kids, many of them teenagers, trips to the store mean a cart piled high and, on some occasions a second partially filled cart. This brings dirty looks from some of the holier than thous who think big families are a travesty.

While she picks and chooses her items according to her extensive coupon library held in a billfold type case, we nag her about getting advances on our allowance, or how the dog vomited on the carpet, again. She seems distracted as she says "Oh yeah? Hmmm..." to most of our constant badgering. The rigors of a single parent life are hard to look straight in the eye when you're trying to determine whether your budget will allow you to get ground chuck instead of ground beef, because it's a better cut. Usually it fell to ground beef.

As self-absorbed boys, for the most part we are clueless to how this litany of nags, demands and home headlines must be slowly sucking the life out of Mom after an eight hour day at the Medical Center. She just keeps pushing the cart, pinching the pennies and grinding it out.

After we checkout, she pulls the forest green Chevy Impala around to the grocery pickup lane. The bag boys put the groceries in the trunk and it spills around us boys in the back seat. Mom thanks him and we drive the four blocks home. She puts us all to work running groceries to the house. Before she can unload them, we seek out the Quisp and Captain Crunch. We open them greedily, bow them out, shake them and dig up to our forearms to get the nineteen cent prize at the bottom.

"Oh, I wish you guys wouldn't do that," Mom pleads. It falls on deaf ears, as we do it week after week.

When she is done putting the groceries away, she changes into her nightgown, even though it's only seven o'clock at night. Then she wraps her beehive hairdo in toilet paper and covers it with a hair net thing - because everyone knows that that combination is magic and keeps the beehive hived. After a television show or two, she and the rest of us head up to bed.

Tomorrow she wakes up to grind it out again. Car troubles, pet woes, sick kids, bounced checks, appliances on the fritz, a kid struggling with grades, and all of the angst and emotional turmoil that comes with teenagers and grade school children.

This was our life. And to a certain extent, parts of it probably were (or are) your life. We were fortunate to have a mother who loved us, cared for our wounds - both physical and emotional, and met the demands of six kids. I am also fortunate to have a wife who did the same for our kids. She, in turn had a mother who did the same for her.

As a kid, moms kinda make the world go round. I know I am blessed to know a ton of good moms and have heard enough about a few bad ones to know how lucky I am.

So on this Mother's Day, I want to give a shout out to the mother of 1972 who continues to be a role model to me and my own kids. I also want to recognize those who are in the throes of motherhood and give you accolades and tell you to keep grinding it out. It is so worth it down the road. And finally, I want to let those that aren't mothers either by choice or fate that I love them for the women they are, be it aunties, sisters, mentors, teachers, girlfriends and pet moms.

Happy Mothers Day to my mom, my wife, and my Mother in Law. I love you all!

Blogging off...

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Chap And A Wrap

Lots going on in the world of writing these days. I try and post all of my publications on my Author Website publications page, but I realize most people don't visit the site unless it is a link somewhere. 

I'll focus on the biggest news and pay lip service to the rest of the items. In case you haven't heard, I have a chapbook that was just accepted for publication as an ebook by Underground Voices

Now, even most of the people in my writing class didn't know what a chapbook was, so let me explain. It is a collection of poems, usually forty or less, that are sometimes focused around a theme (though that is not required). Mine are not theme specific, and as it stands now, there are forty in this publication.

This is a group of poems I am extremely proud of. I put them out for publication because the timing was right. I had accumulated a bunch of them and rather than trying to submit them individually to various magazines, I thought a grouping would be nice. I sent it to about five publishers, and Underground Voices came back and said they said it was "strong writing," and that they'd love to publish it. I can tell you feedback from a publisher doesn't get much better than that.

The chapbook will only be available as an ebook (Kindle, Nook, iTunes) as far as I know. Sometimes if a book sells enough as an ebook, some publishers will offer it as a paperback, but I'm not sure about this one. I am just ecstatic to have a third book on the way! That makes three years running, albeit a chapbook. I had a guy in my writing class who claims he doesn't care much for poetry refer to my work as "very approachable." A good compliment from a colleague. I'm pretty confident that I've found my both my poetic and nonfiction voices though, and some days that's the best I can hope for.

As of now, the work is untitled. I've proposed a couple of titles to the publisher, so we'll see what comes of them. They are currently working on a contract which is about as cool as it gets for this old scribbler.

Other items in the hopper and recent successes:

  • I have a poem, Shevel Knievel that will be forthcoming in Silver Birch Press after May 15th. 
  • My nonfiction story Snowball Effect will be featured in Issue 19 of Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review. This is a funny story about a grade school rollerskating incident gone bad. It was so fun to write. Purchase copies Here.
  • The Love of a Cat is a story that was recently accepted for publication in the Sundown Press anthology about pets and pet rescues. The anthology will be titled, "Pawprints on my Heart and will be a great book for animal lovers. It will be released in July.
  • I am still waiting to hear about the release of the anthology titled "The Other" about the different ways people experience God. My story was about my brother Rob during his cancer illness. It is scheduled to be shipped to the publisher, eLectio Publishing, this month. This should be a really good anthology and I'm looking forward to it.
  • Am waiting to her on another anthology about blindness. I have a poem that will be included in it.
  • The David Bowie Anthology is due out any day, which includes my poem, "Not So Major Tom."
  • I have probably half a dozen submittals I am waiting to hear from. I love looking forward to hearing back from publishers. It keeps me moving ahead.
So there you have it. This summary was actually a good exercise for me, as I forgot I had a couple of these things out there yet. My mom wonders how I keep it all straight sometimes. Spreadsheets and email folders help. It's still a challenge to stay ahead of it all, but it's all good.

Blogging off...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Points For Effort

This past Wednesday, I attended the Waukesha South High School Scholar/Athlete awards banquet. It is a function to honor all the student athletes that were able to maintain a 3.5 GPA or better for the first semester of the 2016 school year.

While I don't want to turn this into a gushing post about my kid, I do want to talk a little about what I saw and experienced at the event.

For starters it was noteworthy that there were over 200+ students school-wide that were recognized. An interesting statistic noted by the soon-to-be-retired Athletic Director, Dan Domach, was that that number represented 61% of the student athlete population. So, sixty one percent of the athletes at South were able to keep up their studies and achieve a 3.5 GPA. This was a number that he was pretty proud of, rightfully so.

In order by grade, the scholar/athletes were awarded certificates, medals, T-Shirts and plaques from Freshman to Senior. Multi-sport scholars were also recognized as were some special award winners and leaders.

I sat with some long-time friends who had a daughter being recognized. My son sat with his swimming buddies, as did groups of many of the other athletes. It seems teens still don't want to be seen with their parents, much like in my day.

Which brings me back to my days in High School. My experience was so different than Ben's or Sarah's. I was at a private, military all-male high school. I was also a single parent child. With the exception of my brother Paul who played on the golf team, I was the only kid in the family that played in a high school sport. And even that was just my first two years in high school. Add to that the fact that I was a solid B student - a consistent B Honor Roll kid, but a B student just the same.

Back then, with six of us around the house, Mom was just trying to keep the lid on. The whole family was kind of all over the map with regards to grades from class to class. Mom always pushed us to try our best, but when the day was done, as long as we got B's or better she was happy. (This was a requirement to get the good student driver discount on insurance, which when you have as many teens driving at once, well, it adds up.)

Her perspective was a healthy one given her situation, in my opinion. In this day and age of competitive scholastics nothing less than an A or any class less than Advanced Placement is good enough. The fact that a B is still considered "above average" is lost on people stuck on the AP track.

So, when I can honor my kid for doing better than I did, for doing something that we never pushed him to do, well it is one of my proudest moments. The same goes for my daughter who excelled as well, albeit outside of the athletic circles. I've said it before a thousand times, I don't know what we did to get such smart, driven kids, but it sure stuck.

And the chance to see him there amongst his friends and hundreds of other "good kids" that will go on to make the world a better place, was incredibly motivating. With all the negativity in the world, it is refreshingly good to recognize the good, the honorable and the high achieving.
Ben and the Swimming Scholars. 

At the same time, it was frightening and sad to know that in a little over a year from now, he will move on to new places, new friends and new experiences. They grow up fast. It's good to know they grew up right.

Blogging off...