Sunday, April 30, 2017

Among The Fellowship

Yesterday I attended the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Spring Conference at the Park East Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. This is a statewide group of writers and poets who come together twice a year at various locations around the state. Because I've only been a member for a couple of years, and I'm busy with other writing pursuits, conferences and, well, to be honest, life, I haven't had the chance to attend a conference. But when I heard they were meeting in Milwaukee, I decided to make it a point to go.
Featured Poet: Mark Doty

I'm glad I did.

There were about 110 people there, a turnout much higher than I expected, frankly. Their agenda featured everything from a business meeting, to "Roll Call" open mic poems by people in the audience to featured poet Mark Doty. 

While the group was heavily tilted on the over 50, white female crowd, there was a decent cross section of age and race as well. I noted a lot of grey hair, to which my wife reminded me of my own grey - what is left of it anyway.

Demographics aside, there were lots of moving words and powerful voices despite a mic system that was more annoying than helpful most of the time. (From my perspective, The Park East Hotel is in need of some significant updating, but I digress.)

Some of the highlights of the day were:


  • Finally getting to hear Marilyn Taylor (ex. Poet Laureate for Wisconsin) read in person. I now understand why my writing instructor worships her. She was fantastic.
  • Ex Milwaukee Poet Laureate Matt Cook had the crowd in stitches with his brilliant work. He takes the benign of daily living and makes it absurdly hysterical.
  • Hearing a couple of "Milwaukee Voice" poets recite great poems about racial unity and division. A teen did a memorized prose poem about the murder of 15 year old Emmitt Till by Klansmen in 1955 that brought the house down.
  • Talking with fellow poets I'd met on Facebook, but never in person. Facebook is the great uniter for building community and because of it, you see someone at a conference like this and suddenly, you have an instant friend.
  • Reading one of my own poems titled Wednesday's Child in front of 100 of my peers. 


Poetry is such a niche genre. People who read fiction and non fiction often times have no time for poetry. They "don't get it" and I get that. Some of it I don't get, either. But in a setting like this with all the talent and diversity, if you sit long enough, there is something for everyone. 

Of course, poetry, like any other artistic endeavor, has a few crackpots and eccentrics. That's part of the reason I go to things like this. It broadens my vanilla-white-middle class-male perspective on the world. It's the eccentrics and the crackpots that keep it interesting, colorful and beautiful.

And when they can write phenomenal stuff like some of these folks it makes the world a better place.


Blogging off...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Time Warp

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm having a hard time here.

It's this whole kids growing up thing and the looming inevitability of an empty house in less than six months.

I'm not a fan.

I know this sounds crazy from someone who should look forward to those quiet nights without having to worry where he or she is, or waiting to hear the car come into the driveway. After all we work hard to raise good, responsible, equipped children, so when they start showing signs that they're ready to leave, we should rejoice and push them gently out of the nest.

Well, I'm not ready, just yet.

Last night was yet another reminder that our time together under one roof is short. We attended Ben's Scholar/Athlete Banquet at Waukesha South High School to see him accept his award along with 260 other students. This award is given to any student who participated in at least one sport and maintained at least a 3.5 GPA for their first semester.

Now I'm the proudest father around, that much is true. I always say I don't know what we did to get such a smart couple of kids - way more academically adept and engaged at that age than I was. So this event nearly brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Hearing some of the stories about kids overcoming adversity, or excelling in their upperclass years after joining a sport late, was nothing short of inspiring. To see my kid up there with the top achievers both athletically and academically meant the world to me.

But I don't want it to end.

And then, last weekend we had to watch him prepare and set off for his last prom. We were reliving our own prom experiences in a conversation with some friends and were commenting about how nervous we remember being. Now, he was likely feeling the same. And while I think he was more than happy to have it come and go, I didn't want it to be the last prom I'd have to take pictures for for my kids.

No.

Part of me wants the little kids dancing in the living room at ages 2 and 5 again. I want trips to Frame Park where I push them on the swing. I miss watching Sarah screech and squeak her way through a 5th grade. I want to cheer Ben on at the soccer field again. I want picky eating, and tiny, little Velcro sneakers and cute little sweatshirts.

As strange as it sounds part of me will miss the chaos of mornings where the bulk of the action is getting one or both of them up out of bed and off to school. I'll miss Christmas concerts and "Family Fun Nights at the grade school where we sugar them up with Pixie Sticks, play some games and hang out eating bad hot dogs in the sweaty gym with the music blaring.

I know these feelings will probably pass, and may even do so much quicker than I think. But I think the only thing I can do is appreciate the days I have left with Ben hanging around. The other day, he left me a cinnamon crunch bagel in a bag from Panera where he works now. They give the bakery away at the end of the night and he was thoughtful enough to set one aside just for me.

Now you might think it a strange thing for a 55 year old grown man to do, but I kinda got choked up. Part of the cause was knowing that this kind of thing is soon to stop as well.

But it also means we did something right.

Blogging off...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Boat Time

A few weeks back, I wrote about a friend of mine from back when I was in high school. His name is Pat and he and I have been friends ever since. My point was that there are certain friends in your life that impact the person you are, what you think and believe. Pat is one of those guys, especially in regards to helping me form my faith.

So in keeping with the spirit of writing about close friends, I have to mention another of those guys, my friend, Steve. He and I met through our wives over 25 years ago. Our wives worked together at the Southeastern Wisconsin Center for Independent Living (SEWCIL). I still remember the first time we met, the four of us went out to a movie (in 1991 or so) and then went back to their apartment where we grilled out and talked.

Over the years, our wives grew to be best friends. We attended Brewer games, bowled together, helped each other with house projects, attended the same church for a while and much, much more. While Steve and I were friends, we were still sort of the fallout of our wives friendship. The two of them were what kept the two of us together.

I guess if I had to pinpoint what changed our friendship, it would be a fly-in trip to Canada that we took in 2006. Steve's wife gave him the trip as a Grad-school graduation gift. Donna arranged to have me go with as part of it, and it didn't take a lot of arm twisting to get me to say yes.

The trip brought 5 days of driving, fishing, laughing and talking. When you're thrown together for extended time periods like this, you're kind of forced to get to know each other at a deeper level. While we talked about life, our spouses and our faith, the biggest revelation might have been that we both share a love of fishing that runs deep. I still say the night we found a great walleye hole was one of the best nights of fishing of my life.

Well, the rest is history. We had such a great time fishing Canada that we went back two other times, both of which were even better than the first. We also fish locally when we can and he even helped me learn the ropes of Musky fishing and was part of helping me catch several fish of lifetime.

All of this time in a boat together has forged a friendship that will last the rest of our lives, of that I am confident. I refer to him as the brother from another mother and the passing of our brothers from cancer, literally within 12 months of each other made that statement strikingly real and relevant. Our losses only served as another commonality between us. When you lose someone as close as a brother, it brings everyone a little closer, especially a good friend.

And for that I am thankful.

Blogging off...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Using Caffeine to Find Heaven

I have mentioned in past posts that my Thursday mornings are spent drinking coffee with anywhere from one to four other friends at Café De Arts in Waukesha. We typically try and work our way through a book, often times by an edgy Christian author like Brian Zahnd, Peter Rollins or Rob Bell.

While I don’t always align 100% with the teaching or proclamations of each of these books, I cannot deny that they all challenge me to think outside the box. They often show me that I am comfortable putting my faith or my God in my own little box. I won’t go into specifics of each, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if I am not questioning what I’ve always believed, then how will I ever grow in my faith.

Anyways, a bit of a tangent there.

Our discussion today turned toward heaven and hell, but mostly heaven. We started by postulating what heaven was like. It made for some interesting and, as often with this group, some far-out ideas. Those far-out ideas would take turns and devolve into humorous abominations of the original idea. In other words, we sometimes stoop to laughing about it because it is such an incomprehensible subject that we don’t know how else to deal with it.

Some of the ideas were:

Working 24/7 – Someone had the crazy thought that what if when you got to heaven, you got a shovel and a wheelbarrow and were set to work to make Earth a better place? That maybe if your time on earth was well spent (Well done, good and faithful servant) that God put you on the fix earth team. And that for eternity, heaven wouldn't be lounging around on clouds, but work - enjoyable, rewarding work, unlike any here on earth, but work nonetheless. I guess I never thought of it that way. It lead to one of the guys asking if there would be break times. Because. that's important.

Singing 24/7 - Or maybe we will spend our eternity singing as a form of worshipping God. One friend admitted singing wasn't his gift, but his grandmother would be ecstatic. The guy went on to say that it might get to be a little much after about the first 1000 years of singing. "Okay now, verse 3,446,410. Sounds a lot like the last one."  Of course someone asked if there would be breaks.

Hobbies 24/7 - Maybe heaven is nothing but things you enjoy the whole time. Or maybe you're limited to One Thing. (What would yours be? Mine would be fishing.) The consensus was that even something you really love would get old after the first 1000 years. This led someone to ask if we could maybe take breaks from our hobbies to work a bit on some emails for work or something? Never thought of having a hobby become old and tiresome before.

Sunsets/Sunrises/Natural Beauty 24/7 - Maybe it is that stunning waterfall or rock formation or Redwood tree or maybe all of them in a constant loop. 

Father/Son or Parent/Child Moments 24/7 - This would actually be one of the more appealing ones. If you were on a constant loop of moments between Mother and Daughter, or Father/Son, but maybe you saw it for everyone that's ever lived. Kind of a cool thought, With breaks of course.

Not every Thursday goes this deep or this philosophical, but it's always a great way to jump start my day. We don't pretend to know all the answers to any of it, but it's great fun poking at ideas and seeing what seeps out. This week we didn't touch upon Hell much, but maybe that will come up next week.

What would your ideal Heaven be? 

Blogging off,,,

Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Alleyway Reality Check

I helped a friend with his patio yesterday. He is a longtime friend and over the years we've taken to helping each other out with home improvement projects. It is what good friends do for one another - like family without the blood relations.


While the day was good, spent with a friend, followed by a drink on their deck afterward, it was not what stood out to me on the day. No, that was something much more sobering.

As we were driving out to pick up the gas powered compactor, we came across his neighbor, Bob who was puttering in the alley. Bob was probably in his early sixties and was hobbling around like he was in pain. When Steve stopped and said hi, he asked Bob how he was doing. Bob told us he was in a lot of pain. He'd had a couple of cortisone shots in his back a couple of days prior, but it hadn't touched the pain he was having. He went on a bit about his options coming up and after a couple of minutes we told him to take it easy and went on our way.

Then, after we had compacted Steve's patio, we were driving down the alley and came across another neighbor down the block. His name was Mike.

Steve said, "Hey Mike, I see you grew all your hair back. How's it going?"

"Well, the Doctor said I'm 'stable,' whatever that means."

We talked a good while with him. Turns out he has brain cancer. He showed us a 7 inch scar on his scalp and said that there was much of the tumor that they couldn't safely remove.

After some more questions from us, he revealed that he was terminal. Doctors say they don't know how long it could be, but likely 3 years or less. Mike is about my age - mid 50's.

Now, before yesterday, I did not know Mike from anyone. I still barely know him. But his news and his circumstances were positively sobering. Steve and I both shared our stories of losing our own brothers to cancer in the same year. Cancer was our common thread - our connection point.

And it shook me up.

It made me realize once again that what matters most is hearing from other people that they are thinking of you, that you are praying for them, and that they care. It made me reaffirm how I need to keep looking at my life and living it with a sense of urgency. There are important things to be done, and hoarding material possessions or envying someone else's house, or dwelling on petty grievances, building wealth, worrying about having enough for retirement and other such things is a monumental waste of precious time.

Help someone, tell your kids you love them, spend time with friends, feed the poor, pick up litter (and tomorrow, pick up more), mind your diet and health, love your spouse or significant other or niece or nephew or parents.

I don't mean to preach, but life is short. Do it well.

Blogging off...

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Climbing The Ladder

Today at work we were talking about our kids and how we want them to be successful in their careers and that as much as we would like to, we can't live that part of their life out for them. They will have to make the choices, one at a time, that take them through their working life. They will question their choices, weigh the benefits, and probably take a fall or two in the process.

My son has already had a couple of jobs and is currently embarking on his third one at Panera Bread. Of the first two, one was a pretty positive experience (groundskeeper at a church) and the other was not so good (checker/cart boy/bagger at Woodmans). The not so good experience gave him a taste of how bad management and policies can make a job not-so-fun. He was finally let go when he was sick with pneumonia - including a doctors note - and was unable to cover his shifts. He bid good riddance and is a better person for it. I've heard from many people that Woodmans' management policies are pretty laughable.

Anyway, my coworkers and I were talking about how we got to where we are today. In my case, I took a job right out of college doing manual map drafting for a Minneapolis mapping firm, Markhurd Aerial Surveys.)  The job was pointed to me by my girlfriend at the time. This was a woman I dated for only a few months - one of those connections that I'm certain was put in my life to get me a job.

The interesting part of this job was that it only paid $5.50/hour.

With a college degree.

My friends pretty much laughed at the fact that I would even consider it. My point was that I was doing a job I loved, in my field of study, and gaining valuable experience in the process.

Well, it led to a layoff. Then, a job offer in a place called, Waukesha, Wisconsin to do "CADD mapping". It was a significant pay increase to...$7.50/hr! Now, most people thought this was hardly worth moving out of state for a $7.50/hr job. But this time my rationale was similar:

Take a job that I would love, in my field of study, gaining even more valuable experience, for a little more money!

That was the leap of faith I would tell my kids to take today if they were doing the same thing. I would question it, no doubt, as my own mother did when I moved. But I think it is these leaps that give us the most growth. I was scared to death driving across the state of Wisconsin, but I am glad I followed my instincts, because it lead me to a career that I have been blessed to have.

So this summer my Sarah will be taking an internship in Vilas County, Wisconsin. It will give her valuable experience, for a little pay and give her a sense on whether environmental science is what she wants to pursue.

And we will be right there with her, cheering her on.

Blogging off...

Sunday, April 9, 2017

From The Podium

Ever since the release of Dirty Shirt, I have been forced to do a fair amount of public speaking and presentations. It is one thing to write in a bubble, as I am doing right now in my living room with headphones in, but quite another to take your work into the world. It is also absolutely essential for any author to get out there and push their book once it is published. In many cases this requires writers to go WAY outside their comfort zone and do fun things like readings, signings and schmoozing with the public.

Now, I'll admit that the idea of this requirement was one of my biggest fears when I first heard that Dirty Shirt had been accepted. I don't much like the spotlight and other than a few work presentations, I really haven't done much public speaking since college. It's not my favorite thing to do. I'm a bundle of nerves and it typically shows.

However, now that I have been at this for coming up on three years, I have become much more comfortable at public appearances. In fact, in a couple of days I have another poetry reading in New Berlin at the library for an hour. Unlike my Dirty Shirt presentation, this one is just reading some of my work and talking a little about the inspiration behind some of them. My Dirty Shirt schtick is much more involved with slides, mixed with readings and other things.

So tonight I was able to book another Dirty Shirt book signing for September 1st, 2017. This time it is in Minnesota at The Paperbacks Plus Book Store and represents only my second signing in my home state. On top of these two appearances, one is in the works for Tribeca Gallery and Books in Watertown, Wisconsin sometime in May (or, worst case, July).

The kicker is, I never thought I would be doing book signings and appearances as long as three years after a book comes out. I figured a good year and things would dry up. While I understand you are never really DONE selling your book, I figured the opportunities for selling it would become much less frequent than they have. Not a bad thing, mind you, just surprising.

Even more funny is the fact that just about the time the signings slow to a snails pace, my next book will come out. (I am hoping for a year end acceptance and a spring or early summer 2018 release.) So if I think that soon enough I'll have time to breathe and relax for a bit, I am dead wrong.

At that time, it will all ramp up again. All the peripheral stuff that goes with promotion, including lots of soliciting of bookstores, libraries and the like, will become my "other full-time job" as I like to refer to it.

And you know what? I'm really okay with the thought of that. It's what it's all about.

For more about my coming events, visit: http://sites.writerjimlandwehr.com/events

Blogging off...

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Little Tree Hugging

I have written this post in advance because tomorrow (Wednesday) I am headed to northern Wisconsin for a retreat for a statewide board that I sit on. The event is in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin which is about twenty minutes from where I musky fish every fall and about forty minutes from the cabin we stay at every fall.

I frequently refer to this area as "God's Country." It is the place of tall pines and birch trees and lots and lots of lakes. In Minnesota, anywhere north of Duluth is very much the same. These areas are soul restoring for me. To hear the wind in the trees and to see eagles soaring overhead lowers my blood pressure about ten points.

Today on Facebook, I came across an article reporting that some thieves have been pillaging stands of birch trees in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. They are using the logs to sell to people for decorative fireplace pieces. 

This was both sad and shocking to me. It seems like there is no decency in some people anymore. It's not quite as bad as say, wiping out a whole rain forest, but it's the start of a North American equivalent. Greed does strange things to the hearts of men.

At the same time, there are mining companies trying to push through building a sulfide mine on the edge of the BWCA. In addition to the devastation to the landscape that this would cause, it threatens large portions of the BWCA watershed in the event of a disaster. That alone to me seems to be enough not to allow it, but money drives business, so it's a thing. Hopefully a thing that will be squelched, but a thing nonetheless.

The same holds true for the Porcupine Mountains. There are copper mining prospects being sought out these sensitive areas as well. We hiked that area last summer and the thought of any kind of mining makes my skin crawl.

I can only hope level heads will prevail when push comes to shove on these areas of God's Country. If we don't remember how lucky we are to have them, how are we going to pass them on to our children to enjoy. 

Write your congress person. Visit these areas. Speak out. Educate. Protest. Protect.

Blogging off...

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Eyes Wide Open

This was one of those weekends where every time I turned around I saw the triumph of the human spirit. I saw people living their lives to the fullest, pushing themselves and making the world a more beautiful, enjoyable place to live. And I'm not sure if it is my age or just an awakening of some sort, but when I see things like I witnessed I take hold of them and it restores my faith in the world and in humanity. With all the darkness and despair in the world today, when I see points of light from anywhere, or in the case of this weekend, everywhere, I regain hope for my kids and their kids.

It started on Friday night when we went to see a couple of blues bands at Anodyne Coffee Roastery. The warm-up band was named Big Al Dorn and the Blues Howlers, and they blew the doors off the place. And I am a sap for live music anyways, but to see these talented young musicians playing their hearts out and playing the blues like they were meant to be played, just made my heart soar. The lead singer also played harmonica and guitar on a few numbers and was a testament to the gifts and abilities artists are capable of with commitment, practice and applying themselves. They were followed by The Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys a band of older guys who were phenomenal too.

Musicians pushing themselves as proof of the creative triumph of human spirit.

The other part of the Friday night thing was the dance floor. It was filled with people, most of them over 55 years of age I would guess. And while my friend said that it was like being in a Cialis commercial, it was also so cool to see people of that age out there enjoying life and not giving a damn what people thought.

Evidently there are clubs for these kinds of folks and while it's not for everyone, I give credit to people who are not letting age slow them down. It's much easier to live life in a barcolounger, but these people were a lot cooler than that. I'm not quite ready to join that club yet. Talk to me after 60 when I really don't care what people think. Ha!

Old people pushing themselves as proof of the triumph of human spirit.

Then on Saturday I had a local author fair at the New Berlin Public Library where I and several other authors were hawking our books. And while the sales were slow, I still met some of the coolest people. One guy I was talking to was sharing some of his story and while he was very humble, when I went online and looked at his website, I saw that he'd written professional articles for NASA, taught English in Korea and a ton of other fascinating history.

And I met a couple of teen writers who were telling me how much they enjoyed writing fantasy stories. I urged them to keep writing - keep following their passion - and that it will carry them far. It was refreshing to see kids engaged in something that didn't involve a phone or a screen.

Young people pushing themselves as proof of the triumph of human spirit.

After the event when I got home, I was walking to our local library to write a bit and saw a track meet going on at Carroll University. I stopped and watched for a couple of minutes and was transfixed. Again, I don't know if it was the beautiful weather or my age or what, but to see high schoolers chucking Javelins, running distances, long jumping and pole vaulting just made me glad to be alive. It's weird. I can't explain it. It's and old guy thing, I think - because that used to be me. It's called living life to the fullest and it starts in high school I think - maybe even before.
High School artistic amazement.

Athletes pushing themselves as proof of the triumph of human spirit.

Once I arrived at the library, I found they were featuring an artist exhibition from local high school and technical college. As I gawked at the works before me I tried to get into the mind of the high school artist. This stuff was beautiful, and bizarre, and creative and wonderful. Some of the same people that were out chucking javelins were drawing some of these charcoal drawings, these oil paintings, these sculptures. It was humbling.

Artists pushing themselves as proof of the triumph of human spirit.

And it finished out today as I attended a fellow author's book launch party. This is a woman who was in my class 7+ years ago at AllWriters Workplace. On several occasions she has cheered me on saying "I remember when you first started writing your Boundary Waters stories so long ago. Now you have a book." And now SHE has a book, because she stuck with it and persevered.

Writers pushing themselves as proof of the triumph of human spirit.

So, tonight my heart is full. My faith in humanity is restored and overflowing. There is so much goodness and beauty and passion in the world. And with that we all need the reminder that to experience that we need to get out of our safe little bubbles and experience it, be it, and do it.

We need to live, dance, sing, paint, write, run, jump, draw, interact, engage and open our eyes to the beautiful world and its people around us.

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