Sunday, February 26, 2017

Maps And The People Who Love Them

I have been in mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for 32 years. For the past 20 of those years, I have been involved in a statewide organization known as the Wisconsin Land Information Association (WLIA). In layman's terms this is a statewide group of people who are employed in some sector of the geospatial industry.

These are map geeks. 

These are computer geeks. 

These are my people. 

As part of this organization's mission, they host an annual conference every year at a different location around the state of Wisconsin. This year was at Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. These conferences are the usual fare of educational workshops, user presentations, special interest groups, networking and social activities.

The past year I have been part of the Board of Directors for WLIA which is charged with a number of duties including putting together this conference. While I have been a member of the group for 20 years, I've learned more in the past year about all that goes into a conference. Here is a little of what we see and do at the conference.

Frosted brownie map of WI land cover
Every good GIS conference has a map gallery and WLIA is no different. Our conference actually hosts a map and poster contest where they have several categories of maps, small format, black and white, aerial and more. This year one entry was even an edible map - a frosted brownie with a map of land cover on it!

A beatuifully done historic atlas
Hillary/Trump cartogram displaying the same data 2 ways.
 Good Friends/Networking
Over 300 people attend this conference every year, and while I claim to be an introvert, nothing brings out the closet extrovert in me like getting together with old friends to talk shop, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. My boss' wife came to one of these conferences one year and, when she was done with a late evening of socializing with the GIS crowd, she said to him, "Do you
guys ever stop talking shop? Does anyone ever talk about their family?" And while she was being sarcastic, she wasn't too far off the mark. Sure we talk about family - a little - we are really here to solve problems, share successes and troubleshoot issues. There is a a level of passion in GIS that I am sure is present in other trades/industries, but we take it to the next level.

Cool Gadgets
Because we deal with technology and trying to make flat maps fit in a round world, we get to play
Stereo Pair Viewer
with some of the coolest gadgets and technology out there. (Well, it's cool to us, anyway.) Things like GPS receivers, Drones, and 3D printer/plotters. This year we had a 30 year celebration which we chose to use to display some of out "historic tools and maps" on a table in the exhibit hall. One of the cooler things I saw was a Stereo Aerial Pair viewer. You put two overlapping photos together under these and you get the illusion of 3D. The other was a Leroy lettering set that was used to add lettering to maps so it looked uniform, All of it's great stuff and we need to see these items of the past to see how far we've come.
Silent Auction
Every year we hold a silent auction to benefit students pursuing degrees in GIS. This requires a fair amount of grovelling and pandering to get donations - much of which is my task as coordinator. This year we raised over $3500 on the auction and between that and the raffles we hold, we raised enough for four $1000.00 scholarships. Having two kids in college (soon enough) I know the importance of every dollar in scholarships. 
AllWriters Basket O' Books for Silent Auction

On top of all of this, there were lots of people behind the scenes who, although they look calm on the exterior, are barely holding it together. They are the ones running between session rooms, their vehicles and the registration desk making sure their tasks are done. Without them, there is no conference. With them, the attendees have a better experience. 

Furthermore there is one woman who makes sure that everything runs smoothly and while she doesn't do it all, she is the go-to for so much of it. I have nothing but admiration for her calm demeanor and her authoritarian approach to things. When she gets on the phone to the hotel staff, SHIT HAPPENS. (Pardon my profanity.) I think every conference has one, but we have the best.

So as I spend the next couple of days recovering from "social overload," I want to remember how much I do enjoy and learn at these events. It's all good stuff, even for a closet extrovert.

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 23, 2017

February Bugs

You have to admit if you're a Midwesterner, this has been a bizarre couple of weeks in February. It actually is toward the tail end of a strange winter. When I got a pair of Cross Country skis for Christmas this year, I actually said, you can officially put your snow blowers away, as I'm sure it will not snow again, now that I have new skis. Well, it has literally only snowed an inch or two since New Years. I was only joking about the snow, but I am actually okay with it.

Throw on top of that the last couple of weeks where the temps have been between the high thirties all the way up to sixty eight forecast for tomorrow, and well, it gets stranger by the day. Knowing this, I've compiled a list celebrating this weather.

The top 10 things I like about sixty degrees in February.

  1. When the wind blows it doesn't hurt your face. Those below zero days when there is a twenty mile per hour wind are killers. 
  2. There are no wicked patches of ice to make me flail about when I hit them while walking to work. Nothing but dry pavement. 
  3. Hope. Having this warm stretch go for so long gives me hope that we're going to make it through the dark days of cold weather. Once we hit March, I know it's still not spring, but at least it's not December. Spring is right around the corner.
  4. Bugs. I actually saw a ladybug flying around outdoors the other day. Others have said they've seen mosquitoes. In February. Go figure.
  5. No heavy coat. I had to bust out my Fall/Spring coat because my winter coat was too warm. This is a good problem to have.
  6. Daylight/Sunlight. We've not only had warm weather, but the sun has been shining a lot lately. It is refreshing and helps my mood.
  7. Heating bills. I love our new furnace, but I love it more when it's not running because it doesn't need to. An unexpected perk of the warm temps.
  8. No shoveling/snow blowing. Usually in February there is some stubborn snow lingering, but I've been hard pressed to find any snow anywhere. Again, I'm okay with this. I'll use the skis (and the snow blower) next winter. Really.
  9. No hats required in the house. When the February winds get blowing, you could fly a kite in our house. My head gets cold and the only way to keep it warm is to wear a baseball cap around the house. It's Donna's temperature barometer of sorts.
  10. Walking to work involves biking to work. I took my bike to work on Monday this week. It was so nice that I thought why am I walking, when I can bike in half the time?
So, it's been a weird February, but frankly, I'm loving it. Friday it cools back down to 33, but hey, we're almost there now. I think we're going to make it.

Blogging off...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Shifting Sands Of Parenthood

I've been thinking about kids a lot lately. No, not having more kids, those days are certainly behind us, but more about the "kid years." As Ben approaches the end of his senior year of high school, the prospect of an empty nest is staring Donna and I in the face. Within the next seven months, we will have two empty bedrooms (a sad thing), no one to wake up for school every morning (a weird thing) and two cars that we can reclaim as our own (a good thing).

But I'm not sure I'm 100% ready for it yet.

If you had talked to me 15 years ago, when they were 6 and 3, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I'd be saying that today. There were weeks where the prospect of having even ONE child IN high school seemed an eternity away. Those days where it seemed all I did was work, go to the park with the kids, eat dinner, read bedtime stories, fall into bed and then repeat it in the morning.

And while I was plenty engaged at the moment, especially since, thank God, cell phones weren't a thing yet, I still wish I'd paid more attention. By that I mean I wish I''d realized how fleeting those moments were - those moments of tiny bodies, precious moments, dinners-with-daddy, living room dance parties, bath times, and all the rest. Sometimes you are so in the moment that you can't see the forest for the trees. All you see is what is next on the to do list.

  • Do the dishes.
  • Change the diaper
  • Get their jammies on
  • Pick up toys
And, as I said, I was fully engaged in my kids' lives - as much as any full time working parent can be,  I guess. Yet, I have second thoughts about
  • Did I spend enough time playing with them? 
  • Did I encourage them enough in sports and school?
  • Did I listen when they needed me to the most?
  • Did I savor those moments where they fell asleep in my arms?
I'm guessing I did, but I don't think you ever stop second guessing yourself as a parent. There are no rule books about how to do it right, we're left to the freestyle dance of parenthood when all we really want are the specific dance steps. 

These past two years when we've had just Ben around have been bittersweet. They've allowed us to focus our attention and energy on making sure he is launched into college with all the tools and support he needs. And to his credit, he has matured ten fold since the start of his junior year - swimming and having a job had a lot to do with that - so I think he's as ready as he needs to be. 

But it's also been tough because not only do I miss having Sarah around, I realize how deafeningly quiet it's going to be around here in a few months. It will be an interesting transition for Donna and I as well. We've been re-discovering our own relationship these past two years, but the rattle and hum that comes with getting our last child into adulthood and out on his own is about to cease. 

And I'm not sure how I feel about that. 

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Party Of The First Part

One of the little known facts about me is my love for old Marx Brothers movies. This goes back to the early '70's when on Friday Night at 10:30 they would sometimes show their movies as part of the Friday Night Late, Late Movie. (Another good show was Horror Incorporated  which showed spine tingling horror films on Friday.) On those nights I was too young to go out on Friday, these were the extent of my entertainment. This is back in the day when we had 4 channels (count 'em!) and one of those was a static filled PBS channel.

I remember always hoping they would do a Marx Brothers film or even a Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges. My brother Tom was the one who introduced me to Harpo, Chico, Groucho and Zeppo and I can remember both of us howling at their antics. 

Then for years they kind of fell off my radar. This was until the early early 90's when occasionally they would show one of their films at the renovated historic Paradise Theater in West Allis, Wisconsin. Donna and I used to haunt that theater often and see all the classic movies like Rear Window, African Queen, Hair, The Maltese Falcon, and many more. It was such a treat to see these great old films on the big screen and was usually only $5.00. But anyways, over time, they had a Marx Brothers film or two, which was cool.

So now, I've gotten my son hooked on their films. We've seen all of their films and most we've seen multiple times. We both have our favorite scenes, including:

  • The Tootsie/Frootsie ice cream horse racing digest scene
  • The peanut vendor hat burning 
  • The Doctor Hackenbush medical assessment scene
  • The "Thank ya" wallpaper scene
  • The Ice Man in the apartment scene. 
There are too many good ones to recall. 

Much of what I missed in my days of watching it as a youth was Groucho's hurling of insults and one-liners. Sometimes when he says something excessively outlandish, I just look at Ben with raised eyebrows and we just howl. Groucho Marx makes Michael Scott from the Office look politically correct. 

I think I am pretty lucky that I've got an 18 year-old who can appreciate the old classics enough to actually ask me, "Hey dad, you want to watch a Marx Brothers movie?" when he's feeling the need to laugh and connect. He has sent me animated GIF's on my phone with certain scene snippets of the boys and their hijinks. He also bought me a six DVD movie collection for Christmas that we've watched together a couple of times. We also occasionally quote lines from it or make references like "That looks like something out of a Marx Brothers movie."

I realize many people don't have the same appreciation for the old classics of the Black and White days, but I am glad I have someone to watch them with. Tonight we're watching their movie "Duck Soup," and we're doing it because we both just need a good belly laugh. And no one provides those like the three buffoons and their straight man (Zeppo).

Blogging off... 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Mind Games

In my ongoing edits for my next book, I am increasingly called upon to recall events that happened forty years ago, or more in some cases. Looking back on my childhood, I forgot to carry a notepad around and write down every major event or milestone as they happened. Because of this, I am left to recall all everything by memory alone. It worked this way with the writing of Dirty Shirt as well. It was during that process that I discovered that sometimes we remember things wildly different than how they happened. 

For instance, I point to the story where, after tipping our canoe, we were left to try and find a campsite near our entry point. I originally had written that we camped on an undesignated campsite on a nearby island after paddling out of the stream system we were in. When I passed the story to my brothers to fact check, they both reminded me that we indeed did not camp at the island. They both agreed that we had tried to camp on the island but it was already occupied on its a designated site, so we were forced to camp on the mainland at an undesignated site. 

So much the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Of course, when they reminded me of it, I remembered that they were exactly right. Over time though, my memory had made up, or maybe pieced together, its own version of the story. The principles of the story were right, namely:

  1. We had tipped.
  2. We struggled to find a site.
  3. We camped at an undesignated site.
But somewhere along the line I made up the part about the island and convinced myself that it was where we stayed.

Just the other day I had a guy from work who had just read Dirty Shirt ask me if I had journalled durign those trips, or did I write strictly from memory. I told him it was all from memory and that even today I don't really journal on trips. My first purpose on any trip is to enjoy the moment, and I don't want to ruin that by having to take notes. 

However, I do think that I have a knack for remembering occasions and details maybe better than some people, which may be why I'm good at creative nonfiction. I think part of being an introspective person means I don't always say a lot, but am always taking it all in - sometimes down to the minutiae, like what song was playing or what a person was wearing. Being able to recall that and put it to words is what makes writing fun for me. 

With my current work in progress, just yesterday I was writing about how our house was burglarized three times in the early 80's. I had my own vivid recollection of each incident - or at least what items were taken. Because I wanted to be sure my facts were straight, I asked my mom and sisters what their recollection was. Of course it was different than mine, and because it had a more direct impact on my mom, I tend to believe her over my own story. We both had all the same items accounted for, it was just the order of which burglary involved which items. that was different.

(Yeah, I guess after looking back, we lived in a tough neighborhood. LOL)

Writing memoir is a constant reminder that our memories fail. As we deal with my mother in-law's dementia, I fear that such a devastating disease like dementia or Alzheimer's may some day strike me and take away my ability to keep doing what I love doing - namely writing about the past. At the same time, I always hear that things like reading and writing are the exact things we need to keep doing in order to stay sharp and in part to combat Alzheimer's.

And so, as long as I can, I aim to keep doing it. Remind me that I said that next time you see me.

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rattle And Hum

My next book is centered around the house I grew up in in the 70's in St. Paul, Minnesota. Of course the bulk of the story is built on what life was like growing up with five siblings in a single parent home. As I've written the stories and presented them at writing workshop, people have assured me that the stories are applicable to anyone who's grown up with multiple siblings, a single parent family or both. There are enough humorous stories mixed in with moments of near-tragedy to keep the reader interested - at least I feel there are. My classmates reaffirm these hunches.

Tonight we had dinner with some friends who we've come to know who are pretty cool. We were introduced by another friend and have sort of latched onto them, in part because of their story, but mostly because they are fun to be around.

I mention this in relation to my book because, as I was telling Donna, the energy of their household reminded me of my own home growing up. They have eight children right now. Two are biological, one is adopted and five are fosters. Oh, and they have two dogs. So on every given day the energy level is significantly higher than around our own almost empty nest. 

Their kids are respectful and well behaved, but like when I was growing up, there is sort of an ever constant rattle and hum to the house. It is one I last experienced as a young father on those nights Donna was at her Pampered Chef parties, selling cookware. Those nights where I was not only responsible for getting dinner on the table, but also for post dinner PJ's and entertainment and bedtime stories. These paled in comparison to growing up when there were enough moods, attitudes and hormones circulating around the house that it was spectator sport to just sit around and watch ourselves get on each others' nerves.

There's a part of me that misses the loving chaos of a big family and these nights with our friends reminds me of how difficult it can sometimes be one minute, and how joyful and beautiful it can be the next. At one point, after dinner one of the children came up and just said "I love you, momma." A touching moment as the days energy level wound down.

While I'm not sure I could go back to having that many little bodies around, I have nothing but admiration and respect for these friends that have chosen to take these kids in, love them completely and raise them as their own. I'm sure their story is one of many like it, but I'm glad to be a small part of sharing in their lives, albeit sporadically at dinners when invited or in social situations when they manage to get a rare night out.

Because as cliche as it might be, sometimes it takes a village. And if we can be there to love their kids and share some laughs with the adults, well, that's a pretty cool village.

Blogging off...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Super Bowl Of Sorts

Today we celebrate the biggest day in professional football, the Super Bowl. Many will gather with friends or family to watch the two most deserving teams square off in a quest for the Lombardi Trophy. There will be food, drink and lots of really, really costly commercials - some of which will make us laugh, others that will make us go Hmmm...and maybe one or two that will shock us.

And while it is a nice diversion from all that is going on in our country, it pales in comparison to what we experienced as a family yesterday.

Those of you on Facebook know that my son Ben swam his final meet as a senior at Waukesha South High School yesterday. It was the Junior Varsity Conference meet which is a playoff amongst all the teams in the Classic 8 conference.

Going into the meet, his goal was to simply "break 30," or in layman's terms, to better his time in the 50 Freestyle and come in at less than 30 seconds. Ben joined the swim team last year as a junior and to his credit has had nothing but a positive experience with it. He loves being on a team, especially in a sport where you are striving for personal bests in the name of helping the team do better overall.

To further complicate achieving this thirty second goal, Ben has been sick for nearly a month and his battles with a sinus infection have made his quest a season long struggle. So as we sat up in the stands, I said a little prayer that he not only break 30 seconds, but that he break it by a couple of seconds.

His first event was the 50 backstroke as part of a relay, a race he wasn't on the program for, but swam anyway. He did a great job, but it was just a warmup for things to come.

When he came up for the 50 Freestyle, I was a bundle of nerves. As they took off, he was neck and neck for the first 25 yards. He seemed to be thrashing and kicking with a bit more vigor than I've ever seen. After the turn, he inched ahead and ended up touching the wall at a time of 28.27 seconds. Ben looked up at the clock and fist pumped. A personal best by almost two seconds! I was filming the whole thing and if you watch, the audio portion tells the story.

The whole race - even though it was heat #7 of 11 heats in a JV race - nearly brought me to tears with pride. I was so stinking proud of him as well as super happy for him achieving something he'd set out to do.

Well, later in the day he went on to better his 100 yard freestyle by 11 seconds. Then he swam a 50 freestyle as part of a relay and bettered his time again, this time swimming a 27.85. It seemed that by achieving his first goal, his confidence boosted so much that the others came more easily. Sports are like that sometimes.

I mention this event not to boast about my son. Yes I am proud of him, this day spoke more to me about the good things that a sport can do for a person. One of the things Ben missed during his Freshman and Sophomore years was not being part of a team. He'd played football up till then and, despite not playing much, he loved being part of a team. So when he joined swimming, he was back with his tribe, so to speak.

I know that feeling and can speak to it from my own high school experience. I played football, soccer and ran track during my freshman and sophomore years, but dropped all sports after that. I loved being on a team, but because I was small, I didn't get enough playing time to keep my interest as a junior.

Cretin B-Squad Soccer Team - 1977
Looking back now, I really wish I had tried swimming. My sister in-law and her three girls were all swimmers, as was my wife and my brother in-law. They all got so much out of their experience - teamwork, preparation and sportsmanship, not to mention discipline and the health benefits. It is one of my few regrets about high school. (But I loved the sports I did play too.)

In a sense, this was Ben's Super Bowl of swimming. And while I'll enjoy the game today, it doesn't hold a candle to watching my son swim his heart out. These are the moments we latch onto and hold close to our hearts.

In my eyes, right up there with Desmond Howard returning a kickoff for a touchdown, you have Ben Landwehr swimming hard to the wall.

Blogging off...

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Beer And A Sandwich

My Tuesday night evolved in the strangest way into an odd, albeit rewarding evening.

Last week after my weekly coffee with the the boys at Cafe De Arts, I got a text message from my friend Claude who asked if I wanted to get together next Tuesday. I mentioned it to Donna, and she said it was probably because she was hosting 10 women at our house to assemble sandwiches for the Guest House of Milwaukee. Claude knew I would probably want to get out of the house, so felt it would be a good chance to get together for a beer.

So we set a time and a place (Bernies Taproom a local bar) and I mentioned he should invite the other guys from coffee and some others from CollectiveMKE, our church. Then he said, "Maybe we could even make sandwiches while we're there.

Now, to be honest, I thought this was a little crazy at first. I am one of those people that worries entirely too much what people think. (Though as I get older, I seem to be caring less.) So, to propose a bunch of guys assembling sandwiches at a bar just seemed like a stretch. Nevertheless, I told him to see if they would mind, figuring they would say no, and that would be that.

He texted me later that day and said that "Karen said we're more than welcome to."

So much for my great intuition.

We met at seven o'clock and each ordered a beer. Bernies has a fantastic selection of beers, so it has become our favorite local place on occasional night we get out together. We each carried in our bag of bread, meat and cheese and gathered around a table. They have picnic style tables that are perfect for this kind of thing.

And we started putting sandwiches together. We drew some stares for sure, but after a couple of minutes people kind of forgot what we were doing.

As we put them together, we talked smart and solved huge world problems. One of my friends even went so far as to say, "Wouldn't it be cool if everyone in the world made sandwiches for like three hours? World hunger solved!"

We talked about all that is going on in our country today a bit too. It was cathartic to have a couple of beers and laugh hard with one another while doing something positive for the world (albeit a local men's shelter) at the same time. I'll be frank with you and say that these past two weeks have been extremely difficult for me - lots of different emotions - so to put them aside for a couple of hours and blow off some steam felt really good.

When I got home, the last of the ladies were saying their goodbyes. Donna mentioned that collectively they had made 450 sandwiches. If you throw in the 50 my buddies had assembled, it totaled over 500 sandwiches. Plus Donna's friend Jill Krey hosted her own sandwich night in Bay View and they made another 300.

These are significant numbers, and I don't write this to get a pat on the back. I only write it to show how an ordinary night with the guys can turn into a super positive night if someone gets an idea in their head. I write it to encourage anyone who is all ragey about the political goings-on at the present time to take action to make the world a little better place. And I write it to thank all those guys and women who took time out of their lives last night - and in the past - to step into the lives of others and lend a hand.

Because while there's not much we can do about Washington, there's something we can do closer to home.

Blogging off...