Sunday, December 31, 2017

Long Live Rock

As part of our Christmas vacation trip back and forth to upstate New York, we built in a two and a half hour visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I've been wanting to get to this place for a number of years, so when my wife mentioned it as a possibility a few months back, I thought it was a great idea.

And, frankly, it was a side trip that almost didn't happen. After all the battles with snowy road conditions and the busy-ness of the holidays, we were all feeling the pull of home strongly by the time the end of our stay rolled around. At the last minute, we decided to stick with our original plan and go see the museum.

I am so glad we did.

For those of you considering it, I would say that you should allow at least 2.5 - 3 hours to see it all, more if possible. There is so much to see, especially if you are a rock aficionado.

We started at the top floor where there was an exhibit recognizing the 50 years of Rolling Stone magazine. While I realize that this magazine is much more corporately slick than it was when it started, there were some cool exhibits.
Life's Been Good original lyrics

As a writer, I can appreciate all that goes into the making of a magazine like this, especially the interviews. Because of this, some of the things that stood out for me were writing related. Three in particular were letters to Rolling Stone, one by Paul McCartney, one by Hunter S. Thompson who used to write a column for RS, and one from Charles Manson. The one from Manson was questioning some of the points that the interview with him emphasized. It was creepy weird, but cool that things like this are preserved.

Of course there were lots of famous guitars and other instruments too. Everything from the acoustics of the old blues masters, to the square electric of Bo Diddley, to the ornate piece of artwork that Jerry Garcia had custom made for his years with the Grateful Dead.  It is almost a bit tragic knowing that these instruments that brought such beauty to the world are now silent. At the same time they evoke great memories from everyone that sees them. There were even a couple of smashed guitars that didn't make it past the moment of rock rage.

A few other cool things I saw:
Peter Criss' makeup kit.

  • Peter Criss' makeup kit. He was the drummer for KISS a band whose music built around their garish makeup and costuming. I was never a fan of them, but I can appreciate this piece of history. 
  • Pre-concert contract agreement for the Replacements including the venue providing 2 cases of Heineken beer backstage before the show.
  • The lyrics to Joe Walsh's song, Life's Been Good, in his own handwriting. Same for Warren Zevon (Play It All Night Long) and The Clash (London Calling).
  • Michael Jackson's sequined glove. 
  • One of the dresses worn by Deborah Harry of  Blondie.
The list goes on and on. 

And after spending 2017 chasing the aging rock stars like Stevie Nicks, The Church and Roger Waters, this cruise through the Hall meant a lot to me. And with two of the 2018 inductees, (The Cars and Dire Straits) being among groups I count among my favorite of all time, the trip seemed even more like a pilgrimage. 
Jerry Garcia's guitar

Now, I realize the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a touristy, kitschy, pop culture wasteland to most people. And there are many that will claim that the HOF is a sham because of who ISN'T in it. (For me that band is the J Geils Band).

But for me, it was a walk down memory lane. I am a music lover and could spend all day there, if given the chance. Like it or hate it, Rock and Roll has brought a lot to the world. And this gives you a glimpse into much of it.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Walton-esque Christmas - 1991

It is December 23rd, 1991 and my bride and I screaming across the Ohio Turnpike in our '87 Honda Accord, a ride of relative luxury given our Escort/Chevette roots. We are headed to Gorham a tiny burg in Upstate New York. It is a town of the size one would see on Walton's Mountain, with a historic downtown including a diner, a gas station and Gorham Grocery, an essentials-only small grocer.

As the newest member of this family, I am unsure what to expect this Christmas. The family has a tradition of doing a "Round Robin Dinner" on Christmas Eve. It involves having cocktails and appetizers at an aunt's house, dinner and a few piano accompanied carols at my mother and father in-laws, and desert and a one-gift exchange at my wife's grandma's place.

Being a guy who was steeped in tradition who usually celebrated Christmas Eve at one location (mom's place) every year, this arrangement actually sounded intriguing.

Pennsylvania Welcomes You! the sign reads as the Accord hurtled eastward.

I stand drinking a Heineken at my Aunt Alice's place talking to Donna's uncle Dave, a friendly guy who carries the conversation. This is a good thing, considering I am really just getting to know this family and feel like a displaced Midwestern boy in an East Coast Christmas Soiree. This Christmas Eve began by greeting each of her aunts and her grandmother with welcoming pecks on the lips(!) - something again that I neither expected nor initiated, but which made me feel like one of the brood, right out of the gate. It is weird how such a simple gesture brings a level of comfort to a nervous introvert like me.

The house is noisy with laughter, conversation and an undertone of Christmas carols lilting from the stereo in the corner. I make the rounds with the newest members of my suddenly increasing extended family. As I get to know each person from three-minute conversations, I realize that these folks are just like my own family. Some struggle with job changes, relationships or money issues, but all of them fundamentally love one another and ultimately, me, the new tallest member in the family.

So I have another piece of cheese and sausage on a cracker and mingle away.


With the last of the dinner dishes washed, the entire extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother sit around my mother in-law's upright piano singing the twelve days of Christmas. Each day of the twelve is assigned to a different person who repeats their part when the song reaches them. 

Everyone has a hearty laugh when, at every refrain, my aunt Alice belts our her line in her Pennsylvanian accent, "Five goden rings." The first time she sang it without pronouncing the "L" at a Christmas prior, she was assigned the part every year after. Every family develops their own quirky  traditions, and the Neufang/Phelps clan was no different.

It turns out I am assigned the "Eight Swans-a-Swimming" creating a moment of focus on me that I am not comfortable with, but roll with anyways, because I don't want to not fit in with my new family. I am accompanied by my two young cousins Kathy and Connie on either side of me. As grade school students, it seems they are smitten with "the new guy" and while at first their level of openness and acceptance of me is uncomfortable, after the whole kissing introduction to the aunts, I begin to wonder if maybe this family is just full of big love. Maybe it wouldn't be so awkward as an "outlaw in-law" after all. Maybe it was God's way of saying welcome to the family.

After the Nine Ladies Dancing, the girls and I belt out "Eight swans a swimming!"

On the final leg of the round-robin dinner, we are gathered in the living room of my grandmother in-law, if that's what you call them. There is a pile of $10 gifts under the tree. Everyone is given a number and the number determines the order of choosing a gift. People are careful to choose, because no one wants the dreaded "Turd Bird." The bird is a dried up cow-pie that is decorated with feathers and a head to look like a bird. It is another New York tradition that I have become a part of by marriage. 

After everyone has a present, the tradition allows one gift pass per person. The greediest among us go for the larger/heavier gift, or perhaps the more ornately wrapped one in hopes of upgrading from the one we have. Everyone surveys the gifts closely, as the Turd Bird winner from last year could have disguised the gift this year by using a bigger, heavier box, or perhaps wrapping it in especially flashy foil wrapping paper.

It is a form of Christmas gift Russian Roulette.

People take turns opening their gift, one by one around the circle. Eventually the victim is revealed and everyone laughs and taunts the 1991 winner of the Turd Bird. Pictures are taken and everyone begins to wander to the dessert table for cookies and a bit of grandma's percolated coffee, which bites with tannins but soothes our soul. 

At evening's end, we hug one another and I face another barrage of kisses on the lips from people I've only met a couple of times. I feel I have crossed over into a family of acceptance and love. I am grateful to God above for each and every one of them. One can never have a big enough network in this world, and my East Coast network was pretty amazing, if I didn't say so myself.

I put on my coat, thank grandma one more time and head out the door with my wife. As I look up into the dark sky I am amazed by the magnitude of stars I see, something we don't get back in the cities. 

And my heart is filled to bursting on this cold Christmas Eve in a small New York burg. God above has blessed me with a family I never expected - a gift of another sort. And it didn't come from a store, wasn't wrapped in a box, and it fit like a comfortable sweater. Yes, I was blessed this Christmas, that much is sure. 

So, my wish to all of you is that you look around you this Christmas and recognize the multitude of human gifts you are surrounded by. They are the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Randomized

I'm sure you all have good and probably some bad memories from Christmas. It is really one of my favorite times of the year. Because we're approaching the big day, I've assembled a series of my own memories.

Completely Random Christmas Memories
  1. Going to pick out a Christmas tree with mom at the YMCA Y's Men (Get it?) lot on University Avenue a few years. Because we always had a sedan, it meant tying it on top of the ol' Chevy Impala or, worse, the Plymouth Volare'. 
  2. Shopping for my siblings gifts at Kmart trying to get the biggest bang for my buck. Mostly what I got was cheap junk. But at least the good side of my heart was in it before I discovered it was junk. LOL. 
  3. My sister Pat letting me come down and arrange the gifts under the tree because I couldn't sleep on December 23rd, the night before we typically opened gifts. (We were always a family that opened all our gifts on Christmas Eve. In fact, we still do, to some extent.)
  4. The first Christmas my brother Rob came home from college. Mom was so excited to pick him up from the airport and bring him into our house all decorated with Christmas decorations. When he walked in, the Christmas tree lay on the floor like a drunken bagpiper. It was the victim of a cat climbing. I thought Mom was going to cry. Oh, you can reassemble the tree, but it never really looks the same once it's fallen.
  5. The first Midnight Mass we attended with Rob's new girlfriend, Jane. When I got up from the initial kneeling and prayer, she goosed me! It was a shock to this good Catholic boy. She, Rob and I laughed under our breath so hard. It was when I knew he had a keeper!
  6. Of all Mom's Christmas LP's that we played on the stereo, Nat King Cole was (and still is) a favorite. It takes me back to the living room of Portland Avenue every time I hear it.
  7. With Donna's side of the family, we used to do a round-robin Christmas dinner. Dinner was at her mom's house, dessert was at her aunt's and drinks and presents at her Grandmother's. (Or some variation thereof.) I felt as loved by her family as I did my own. The tradition eventually fell away for some reason, but I still miss it.
  8. Working at the Montgomery Wards Catalog dock during the Christmas rush and dreading the week before when people would be lined up at the pickup counter taking home garbage bags full of Christmas toys. 
  9. Working the same job at the return desk in the post Christmas crush of people returning or exchanging gifts. It was a return clerk's nightmare for a couple full weeks after Christmas.
  10. Watching our kids as well as our nieces and nephews decorate grandma and papa's Christmas tree and never putting an ornament above their reach. My mother in-law left the tree that way to remind her of her grandchildren. Sweet.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Dark Thirty

We are four days from the winter solstice, a time where the days turn the corner from being the shortest back on their march toward June when they are their longest. It is a time of darkness and sleep and rest and recharging. I never really looked forward to the December 21st deadline until a few years ago. The date is insignificant - just another day in December - but as someone who isn't a huge fan of winter, December 21st has taken on a new meaning, given me a new hope.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I fall into depression in winter, but it is a more difficult time for me. Knowing that I have these feelings, I'm trying to be more cognizant of what is going on internally and make adjustments to try and stay ahead of the curve-of-whatever-it-is-I'm-feeling.

My goal is to try and appreciate the nuances of winter for what they are. If that means going to bed to read at 9:00 PM only to fall asleep by 9:45, well so be it. If it means keeping Christmas lights up well into January, as my wife and I have talked about, then so be that.

The other day as I walked to work, it was snowing lightly as I left home. By the 3/4 mark it was coming down in big fluffy flakes and despite the fact that I loathe big snowfalls, I had to admit it was kind of beautiful. (These kinds of observations will no doubt change in late January, but last week it was beautiful.)

And I am determined to make the best of whatever this season throws at me. If it snows, I plan on Cross Country skiing more. If it's brutally cold, I will hunker down at home and drive to work instead of walk. If it is sunny, I will relish in the sunshine. If it rains, well, it will melt some of the cursed snow.

At the same time, I will focus on connecting with my friends from church and I will know that it's okay to recharge, rest and restore. Naps will be my new gospel. I'll connect with my kids via texting and phone calls. I'll take my vitamin D and try and keep in shape.

All of this becomes a priority because I realize our time here is short. We can choose to dread winter and be crabby and downtrodden about the darkness and cold, or we can try and make the best of it and live life as if it was a gift. And on the down days, I am committed to fake it till I make it.

With Christmas coming in a short week, I cannot wait for my kids to come home. They bring their light and a new energy to the house that will carry us to mid January and I am grateful for that.

So, in this season of darkness and quiet, I wish the same for you and your families. I encourage you to find what it is that carries you through the next 90 days and latch on to it. Like Keith Richards said, "I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to be anywhere."


Blogging off...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cover Me

When you are writing a book, you have several landmark days.

  • There is the day you decide to write it. As authors we sometimes joke about how this day must have been one of a momentary lapse of reason. Anyone crazy enough to undertake the hours, days, weeks and years that it takes to write a book can't be quite right in the head.

  • There is the day you finish writing it. "Eureka! I wrote a fricken book!" Oh, wait, you mean I have to edit it like five times? (See previous bullet point)

  • There is the day you finish your first edit of it. "Eureka! My first edit is done. Maybe this is good enough" I got news for you. It's not.

  • There is the day you submit it to 1 (or 20) publishers. This is followed by months of waiting, soul searching, praying, mojo working, self loathing, inside crying, anxiety, sacrificing goats, checking to see if your email is still working and questioning bullet point #1.

  • There is the day you get your first rejection. This is followed by ten, eleven or seventeen more rejections and a fair amount of creeping self doubt.

  • There is the day you get your book accepted. Hallelujah! I might just be legit! Quickly followed by, "Oh my Lord, what have I gone and done?"
And then there is the day you get your cover art. That is the day that it gets real. Yesterday was that day for my new book, The Portland House: a 70's memoir. 

I went through four revisions of the cover with my publisher before they nailed it. When I saw the final product I knew it was done. This cover was chosen to give it a 70's feel and has the font to help do just that. 

The house on the cover is a photo of the Portland house I grew up in with an arted-up filter put to it. Every time I look at it, it tells a story - as I suspect a picture of anyone's childhood home would. It is the house from Leave it to Beaver, The Christmas Story, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. It is a blue collar house of the working class. 

And it is my hope that my story resonates with you as much as the picture does.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sisters By Another Mother

This past weekend we had the opportunity to host our Sister in-law Jill at our house for two nights. She travelled here from upstate New York to spend time with her sister and brother an to attend my wife's 50th birthday party. She has a busy schedule as a teacher and swim/dive coach for her local high school. 

Sister in-law Jill (Center)
What I came away with after spending two days with her in my house is how much I appreciate my sisters-in-law. I have four of them, Jill, Jane, Patty and Deb, and they are all unique in their own ways. We've had the privilege of staying for long weekends at a couple of their houses over holidays in Minnesota and at Jill and John's in New York. They treat us like royalty and, by staying in their homes all those years when the kids were young, our kids have grown up together and have come to love their cousins.

When we woke up yesterday morning, we had a casual breakfast and then the three of us, Jill, Donna and I, sat around and talked for nearly three and a half hours. None of us had to be anywhere and at the time the most important thing was just catching up. We talked about our extended family, our kids, our jobs, our futures and our pasts. And on several occasions we laughed HARD.

Leading up to my sister in-law coming to visit we worked hard to get the house in shape and deep cleaned. So, when she was here we concentrated on just being present with her and not distracted by the other duties of life. We all realized that we had less than 72 hours together, so we all made it a point to be present and just enjoy each others' company. 

When the party finally rolled around, my sister in-law seemed to have a great time meeting many of our friends that she'd heard so much about. It was so great seeing her interact and laugh with people she barely knew and despite their only common connection being Donna. And when the night was done, her and I got to laughing so hard on the way to the car that I could barely breathe. 

Now some people have less than stellar relationships with their in-laws. I am fortunate to say that I truly love all of them. And while there is no blood between us, they are as much sisters as my real ones. I would stand up for them and treat them with the same respect I would my own. I invite them into my home, I love them and their kids and I am glad they are part of my life. 

Blogging off... 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Nifty Fifty

Today my bride turns fifty. It is a milestone in everyone's life, one I will have passed exactly six years ago this coming Monday. Our six year age difference has never been an issue and in fact, she keeps me young. We have been together 27 and a half years, and have known each other for another three years on top of that. It has been quite a ride filled with lots of great memories. Here's just a few:

  • When we were still dating we took a road trip to Niagara Falls and from there onto Toronto. I was already smitten with her, but this trip with all its car time and adventure sealed the deal. We were in love and the fact that we lived 750 miles apart only made it clearer that we needed to be together for good.

  • Once we had a severe ice storm in Milwaukee. Donna tried to open the drivers side window and it shattered into a million pieces. She turned and looked at me with a look of panic. I'll never forget the look of shock on her face. It was our first disaster together. A real Kodak moment.

  • When I first brought Donna home to meet my family, she was met with quite the greeting party. My niece started by greeting her at the door with "Who are you and what are you doing in my house?" Then, my nephew proceeded to go and hide in his room. When we went to get him we told him his new aunt was here to which he said, "She's not my aunt!" It's great to be loved.

  • During the birth of our daughter, I vividly remember Donna holding onto the "scream bar" and breathing through contractions in my little Honda Civic. Two days later I remember putting the baby carrier in the back seat of that same car thinking, "We're gonna need a bigger car..."

  • When we went on our first camping trip along the North Shore of Lake Superior, we ran into a rainy stretch of weather. Then, when the rain stopped, the fog rolled in. At one point in my two man tent, Donna turned on the flashlight and there was a mist inside the tent. There was no place to get dry and warm. She eventually found her way to the car and spent the night. I was a stubborn (and wet) die hard camper and toughed it out in the tent. We went to town the next morning, dried our sleeping bags at the laundromat and finished out the trip. 

  • On our tenth anniversary we went up to Door County for a two night stay. Over dinner I gave her a small box with a gold wedding band. Again, I will never forget the look on her face. She never suspected it and it was a great surprise.
So, our life together has been one of ups and downs, but mostly ups. She keeps me laughing, sane and out of trouble. She keeps the ship on course and keeps the creditors at bay. On top of that she is a loving mother, a has a huge heart for people. I hope to spend the next 50 years with her.

Happy Birthday Donna!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Tree For Two

Well, the Christmas crush has descended. It was not even a factor until December 1st hit. Then, the realization came that it is just a few short weeks away - not to mention a couple of birthdays thrown in for good measure. And so we kick it to red line and start marching to the drumbeat of the holiday of all holidays.

In our family, I have always been in charge of getting a Christmas tree. I'd like to say we have a longstanding family tradition of loading up the car with kids and going out to cut our own tree.

Well, it ain't so.

Before kids, Donna and I always went together and picked a tree. After kids came, she came along for a few years and then relegated me to taking one or both of the kids to pick one out. Well, even that tradition was short lived. Once the kids figured out there was nothing but cold and indecision involved with tree shopping, they stopped wanting to go. So, it became a solitary process with Donna giving me free reign to choose a tree using a jury of one. My only stipulation is that no one complain about the one I bring home, because that's not fair. And so, yesterday I picked one out and had it home all within a one hour span. It was kind of sad to think that I wouldn't really even have a kid back home to help me decorate it. Life rolls on, I guess.

Frasier Fir Adoption
Today my job was to get the lights on it. Of course one major string was fried, so I tried a dozen replacement bulbs before I gave up and said I'd pick some up at WalMart. (My least favorite store, but it's close.) I hit pay dirt when I found strings of 100 lights for $2.68. Remind me to not mess around with trying replacement bulbs next year. At that price they are almost disposable.

I also got the Christmas Village set up today, which was a bonus.

Sitting in Church today, the first Sunday of Advent, I had the chance to shut my eyes, pray for some people I probably wouldn't have prayed for had I not gone to church and meditate a bit. It was a pleasant reminder that we need to stop in the madness sometimes and remember why we do all this crazy stuff in the first place.

Christmas lights are great. Trees, sure thing. Presents, awesome. But the best part of the last two days for me was none of that. It was connecting with people at a birthday celebration yesterday and at church today. Taking time away from the things we think we need to do to talk to friends is what it should really be all about.

And I am making it a priority to do more of that this season.

Blogging off...