Thursday, August 30, 2018

Inspiration I Never Asked For

So, seven years ago today I lost a brother after a long battle with cancer. He left behind a wife and two beautiful daughters as well as friends and a family that loved him. His legacy for me was to live life with a sense of urgency.

Our time is short.

Love hard.

Forgive often.

Don't waste your days.

Things don't matter, people do.

His death also inspired much reflection and, as a result, some poetry. Here are a few that I've written about him and his life.

The Closer Side of Heaven*

You’re on the closer side of heaven
a lower stratosphere place
for the young ones
the strong ones
who can still climb.

I wonder what it’s like
on that closer side of heaven
near to God
but still near to us
left down here to wait it out.

Is it beautiful and stunning
this closer side of heaven?
Better than any earthly day
on the farther side
of our earth?

I await your reply.

One Cast*                                                                               

My daughter wanted to catch a Musky
With her dad
Our family has a long fishing tradition
Her uncles Tom, Rob, and Paul all had a Musky
But only one
And she wanted to be part of it -
The Musky part

Now, Rob was in heaven
God called him there to help scout Smallmouth
Because He was having trouble Himself
Rob knew he could be a big help
But when he heard about Sarah,
He said to God, “Here’s the deal…
I’ll help you, if you help her.”

Then Rob said, “One cast.”

God dropped his jaw.
“But you know that just doesn’t happen.”
Rob wouldn’t budge
“One cast.”
“They’re the fish of 10,000 casts,” God argued.
“I caught a seven smallmouth yesterday…” Rob said.
“But she’s using the wrong line and no leader!”
“One cast.”

On the first cast
The wrong lure
Thrown with the wrong rod
Using the wrong line
And no leader (wrong again)
Hit the water with a splash
And immediately erupted
With heavenly Musky thunder.

Rob turned to God and winked.

What’s Happening?*

The passion of people
The color of fall
The love of a dog
The artist in the art
The smell of the rain
The hug of a child
The majesty of a sunset
The joy in the music
The smile of a wife
The death of a brother
The brevity of life
The power of God

This is my midlife

Spider Lake*

The memory replays over and over
as I desperately attempt to relive it or
reanimate it in some way.
A night at the cabin up north
fishing with my brother
small boat, minnows, a cooler with beers.
Fishing what we termed the “Dead Sea”
we cast, talk, laugh like schoolboys
until we can’t anymore – only one fish.
We bait our hooks with hope, tip our beers
and share stories of life back home, work,
the joys and struggles of young fatherhood.
He takes a moment to point out
the beauty of the water’s mirrored surface
and says quietly, “Life is good.”
We bare our souls to one another
and smoke cheap covert cigars
to the soundtrack wail of the loons.
Fishbone clouds, scarlet sunset, his laughter
these are what I recall – what I must remember –
about that night – fishing with my brother.

-because he’s gone.
*From Reciting From Memory

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 26, 2018

St. Mary Of Portland Avenue

In my second book, The Portland House: a '70's memoir, I delve into a bit of history about our family ties to my step family, the McKasys. My mom, Mary Lou, dated Jack McKasy for nearly ten years before they finally married in 1979. Jack had divorced his first wife, Mary Ann, a few years earlier leaving her to raise eight, (count 'em, eight!) children on her own.

Now, coming from a kid from a family of six kids who was raised by a single parent for many years, I recognize that what Mary Ann did as a single parent was nothing less than a feat. To take what my mother had done and add two kids to it leaves me with nothing but admiration for Mary Ann.

What I don't know is what the day-to-day was like for her. I've kept in touch with many of my step siblings over the years, mostly via Facebook and in particular, my stepsister, Maggie. In our exchanges she has told me some shocking stories about the struggles they had as a family. Because we were mired in our own struggles as a family, I never knew much about the struggles of our step-family literally two blocks away.

There were stories like the electricity being shut off because they had no money for the electric bill at times. Stories of living check to check and ongoing financial burdens. Stories of the pain of suffering through the death of her son at a young age. Stories that would make most people bend and break.

And yet, like my own mother, Mary Ann persevered. She raised the whole family through the Catholic school system and they all came out to be beautiful, healthy kids with families of their own. Like my own mother, she could have given up, checked out and left her kids to figure it out. But she didn't. She steeled up, pushed on and did the best she could. Maggie told me recently that her mother loved to write poetry and nonfiction and, after reading some of her work, I gained a new appreciation for who she became after the kids moved out.
The 3 Mary's of Portland. L-R. Mary Pat, Mary Lou, Mary Ann

When my mother was dating Jack, Mary Ann was not too keen on the McKasy kids hanging with "the other team," namely us Landwehrs. I can remember Timmy saying once that if she asked who I was, he'd tell her a false name, which I thought was hilarious. Over time, she softened her stance and eventually, after Mom divorced Jack, Mary Ann and my mother became friends. They shared war stories of some of what it was like raising kids both with and without Jack around.

The pinnacle of the blending of the two families though came to the fore when my sister Pat married my stepbrother Kevin, making him my stepbrother in-law, if there is such a thing. There were a few other crushes between the families, but none that ever manifest themselves in anything more than puppy love.

In my book, I mention that at one point there were two Mary McKasys living on Portland Avenue, both with 6+ kids to their name. I also mention that both should have been referred to as Saint Marys, because nothing short of sainthood would be a worthy descriptor of who they were as women and mothers and people.

Mary Ann passed away quietly this week after fighting some health and Alzheimer's issues over the past few years. Up until a few weeks ago, her son Patrick was still taking her out to the casino every couple weeks to gamble a little. That pretty much sums up her character. Loving, fun and in the moment.

She will be missed by many people, including her family, our family and her friends. Her kids all inherited her wicked sense of humor and I think they would all agree that after a life of 88 years, many of it raising kids, she can finally get some peace and quiet.

I thought I'd publish one of her poems that was written as she reinvented herself. It speaks for everything she became in life.

No Guarantees    by Mary Ann McKasy

Excuse me please
I'm coming through
A new model
Long overdue

I'm scratched and dented
Here and there
I lean to the left
Drive with no spare

I made some changes
Reclaimed what was mine
Smoothed out the dents
Put on a new shine

I unloaded the trunk
Threw out the debris
When I finally finished
Voila' a new me

I come as you see me
Open and free
Laughing and loving
With no guarantees.

God bless you, Mary Ann.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Words About Words

It has been a while, so here goes an update on all things writing related.

  • I will be appearing with fellow AllWriters' author, Julie Beekman and Constance Malloy at Books and Company in Oconomowoc on September 12th at 7:00. This will be a panel event featuring a book overview, interviews, Q & A and a signing to follow. Julie is coming all the way from Colorado and her book, Two Trees, is worth checking out! Click here for more details.
  • I have been soliciting signed poetry books as part of my outreach as Poet Laureate for the Village of Wales for a few months now. I am getting books in at a good pace lately and am approaching forty books from nearly twenty different authors. My goal is to raise 50 books and donate them to Kettle Moraine High School's library. It will get local poets into the hands of young people and that's a win-win.
  • I am about 60,000 words into my Work In Progress (WIP), a memoir about my high school experience at an all-male, Christian, military academy in the '70s. It will be a book about the school but also about what it was like growing up as a teenager in the late '70s. There will be lots of humor, as usual, but some great moments of teen stupidity as well. My goal would be to have it done by next year's 40th high school reunion, but that might be a bit ambitious. (I'm writing as fast as I can, here!)
  • The Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books will see me in three different roles.
    • I will be co presenting with author Colleen Glatzel at Waukesha South High School on Friday, November 2nd. This should be a panel like discussion featuring a brief overview of out writing experiences followed by a Q&A session. I really enjoyed doing this venue last year.
    • Author Bob Goswitz who just released his first book, Dragon Soldier's Good Fortune, loosely based on his Vietnam war experience will be interviewed by me. Bob's book was a great read and I look forward to hearing more about his writing experience.
    • I will be giving a 45 minute workshop titled "I never intended to write a book!" I will be talking about how I went from writing stories about my family to publishing my first memoir, Dirty Shirt. This should be a lot of fun and it is followed by a book signing immediately following.
  • My completed chapbook of poems about my father is currently out to about 12 publishers. I am extremely hopeful about this collection and am keeping my fingers crossed. 
  • My forthcoming chapbook, On a Road, is in the galley review stage. We are waiting for a publishing date from the printer, but the planned release date is October 21st, the anniversary of Jack Kerouac's death. The book documents a trip I took to California with 2 friends in 1984 and is styled after the Kerouac novel On The Road. The cover reveal will be happening sometime in late September. I love how it turned out. 
  • My poem, "Talking Around The Problem" was recently accepted for publication in Rising Phoenix Press' Disarm publication themed around the recent upsurge in mass shootings.
  • I continue to be a part of the Mama D's monthly poetry night. The event has a featured poet and is followed by an open mic for anyone who might want to read.
  • Am looking to get into the Untitled Town Book Festival in Green Bay with a panel of two other authors. That happens in April. We will see what happens with our pitch. 
  • I have a dozen other poems and/or short memoir pieces out there right now awaiting review. These are the things that keep me going.
So, I've got a few plates spinning and am working on getting a few more going as well. I think I do best when I've got a lot going on, so I plan on keeping at it. It's all good and I am lucky to be able to be a part of it all.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Setting The Hook

Every summer, I take a friend's three kids fishing to a nearby park. I offered again this year with the kids being 9, 7 and 5.

One thing I love to do is help people catch fish, especially kids. I love seeing their reactions and excitement as they reel in bluegills. I always hope that it plants the seed for a lifelong love of fishing, but am happy if they simply come away having had a good time.

Years ago, when our kids were small, my brothers and I would help our young kids on the dock at the cabin. It was both the best and most stressful hour at the cabin. Between the crossed lines, the need for hook baiting, the near miss lip-hooks due to inattentive casting and the fish releases, there is always a need to be met. All of this assumes there are no personality clashes among the cousins during the fracas.

Well, yesterday was all of that. But as I said, part of me thrives on it. The other part needs a nap.

It started with me opening the night crawlers I'd bought from Walmart and finding them all rotten and dead. I now remember why I don't shop at Walmart.

Anyways, plan B had me borrowing some worms from a guy the next spot over. He saved the day and the fishing began.

So I start baiting hooks and helping them cast them out. No sooner do the bobbers hit the water than they start bobbing up and down. Running triage at this point, I can only do verbal coaching for the kids as I bait someone else's hook.

As the day progresses, the eldest manages to get his line in a nearby tree. It hangs perilously over the water and requires cutting my losses and a redo of his line. All the while, his sister has taken to saying "My worm is toast!" which makes me laugh every time which pleases her, no end. The more I laugh at it, the more she says it. I joke about it with her and it becomes a term of endearment between us. These kids remind me of my own. Well behaved, happy and respectful.

Well, not to be outdone, the youngest gets his line in such a rats nest that it requires a total redo. While I do that he takes the opportunity to play with the worms. Meanwhile, the girl tells me her worm is toast and the eldest cracks up when he manages to get his line snagged in a nearby bush.

Everybody has their cross that I must bear on this hot day in August. I tie, I bait, I unstick the stuck. In between all of this chaos an occasional fish is even caught.

All of it is work and I love that everyone is laughing and having fun.

After two hours of this, we finish out the day with the eldest catching a nice largemouth bass. It is the cap on top of a fun day and a great chance to leave on a high note.
In all seriousness.

We celebrate it all with ice cream at Dairy Queen, which poses its own form of triage and damage control.

But as I said, it is all a labor of love for me. I miss having kids this young sometimes. An outing like yesterday reminds me of how fast they grow up, and how important it is to have fun with them while you have the chance.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Born To Run

It has become a tradition of sorts that my son and I attend the Waukesha Classic Car Show every August in Frame Park. I got him hooked on old cars a few years back and now we look forward to it every year. We made it again this year and it didn't disappoint.

Cars are the universal American conversation piece. (Most) everyone had a first car, and most everyone had a car that was sketchy, one bad muffler away from the junk yard. I wrote about cars a fair amount in my memoirs, only because in the '70s and '80's they didn't make them to last like they do now.

Furthermore, back then cars were made so the common person could work on them. Nowadays when I pop the hood I stand there looking at a hulking black engine block cover that stares back daring me to touch it. I am able to check the oil and other major fluids, but when it comes to say, changing an alternator, well, I have two tools; a phone and a checkbook.

In my book in progress, I lament and describe my first car, a '68 Oldsmobile Cutlass with over 110,000 miles on it. Got it for a "deal," only $400.00. This served as essentially a down payment for the next $2000.00 I put into it trying to keep it running for the next 8 months. It was a piece of junk that taught me a good lesson.

Not to let on too much about the forthcoming book, but there are a couple of car stories there that will make my mom's hair stand on end. I'll save them for the book, but suffice it to say that the car show brought those memories back to life.

Almost every car at the show held a memory for me, which I am certain wore on my son. He was just there to ogle the cars, but at times he seemed to enjoy my stories about a particular model.

So, here's a few shots from the show and what memory the car triggered.

My brother in-law Steve restored one of these. A favorite from '57

This was my first car, albeit a different year. Picture this in vomit green with no hub caps, lots of rust and snow tires, and you'll have my first car.

My buddy Ross had an '80s version of this Cutlass that he pulled out of storage with expired tabs when we drove out to South Dakota. (Our friend Ron's car was leaking gas, so we had to resort to pulling Ross' car out of storage. A little strategically placed mud over the expired tabs and we were good-to-go!

My girlfriend in college had a Chevy Nova. Nice car.

My sister had a '68 Impala with a 327 engine in it. Mom one-upped her with a 72 Impala with a 350 in it. Those engines were the best.

Wood siding. Why was that ever a good idea? 
{{{Wipes away drool}}}

Still on my bucket list to get one of these before death. Charger R/T or Super Bee.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Third Happiest Day Of My Life

Well, my son turns 20 today, which I think officially makes me old. I tell people that there are days where I barely feel twenty, but they are usually followed by days where I feel 65. So, I guess that's a trade off.

Myrtle Beach, 2001
Having just met my nephew's first son, Roy James a day after his birth, I was reminded of my own son's birth. A hot, hot day in August of  '98 we went to the hospital early in the morning. His birth was fairly routine - no complications to speak of with one small exception. When he was delivered, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. As a result, he was whisked away to neo-natal ICU immediately after I cut the cord.

This made for some very anxious moments. I remember talking to my mom on the phone right before it happened and when they said they were taking him to ICU, I sort of freaked out. It was a precautionary measure for sure, but one that made me very uneasy. The thought of losing a child was frightening and unsettling.

It turned out okay and within a couple of hours we could see him again.

Over the years I've watched him grow from a 3 year old with a buzz cut to an awkward middle schooler to a mature high schooler. The past couple days he's been camping with some of his high school buddies at Devil's Lake. I'd like to think that all the times we took him camping might have had a role in helping him to enjoy the great outdoors. I also hope it is the start of a lifetime love with being in the woods and enjoying the get away experience it brings.

This past weekend we moved my daughter into her first real post-school apartment. Just today I was thinking how real it is getting that she will likely never live with us again. It was a seamless transition out of the house, with nary a blip on the difficulty scale. Like my own mother's policy, she is welcome to come back and live with us if she needs to...once. That was a credo that mom honored and we all took advantage of, for the most part, with the exception of my sister Jane.

Next week he will move back to Madison into a new apartment that has a year round lease. There is a slight possibility that he may never move back in again, which is even weirder yet. I am not sure I am ready to say goodbye just yet.

But I realize kids grow up, and now he's 20. I can safely say my 20's were some of the best years of my life. He's making his own life with his friends and I am confident that there will be lots more great moments with him and my daughter in our future.

Like a sign with a Dr. Seuss quote reads in my step-sister's house, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."

And I guess that will have to do.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Changing Face Of Home

I am just back from a weekend in the Twin Cities where my wife and I helped move my daughter into her new apartment. As always there was just a whole lot, I would even go so far as to call it a crap-ton, of driving involved. For starters we took the "scenic route via LaCrosse. Every few years or so, we do this to shake the trip up a bit. It adds an hour to the total trip, but the scenic bluffs and vistas help make it enjoyable.

But it wasn't the driving that stood out to me this trip.

It has been over thirty years since I moved to Wisconsin from St. Paul. Now, when I drive around the Twin Cities I cannot help but be amazed by the diversity of the population. It is wildly different than when I was a kid. My daughter lives in a cool part of Minneapolis about a mile from the Viking's stadium, and it is a community immersed in diverse.

The Twin Cities have always been a haven for refugees and immigrants, first with the Hmong population when I lived there and lately with a large Somali influx. And looking from the outside in, it is kind of amazing what thirty years can do. All of it good - at least from a returning former resident's perspective. It sure looks a whole lot more melting-pot-like and cosmopolitan than when I was growing up and I think that's a good thing. It is great to see people of every color and language almost anywhere you go.

The other thing that struck me happened during a trip to Ikea yesterday to get my daughter some furniture. When we got there, the store was packed. People were lined up waiting for flat carts to buy furniture. The place is huge and I couldn't get over how many people were spending hundreds of dollars on furniture and furnishings.

Even more however, I thought this is probably an EVERY WEEK thing. How can so many people need so much furniture, EVERY WEEK? I might be crazy, but it just struck me as weird. I'm sure if I owned stock in Ikea, I would feel differently, but as a person who hates malls, I just thought it was amazing.

After a great weekend with my daughter, her boyfriend and much of my family, I have to say I do miss the cities. It will always be home for me. At the same time, as I headed east on the drive home, I reflected on the fact that I have a whole life back here that much of my family back home doesn't know about. And I don't know where we'll be in 10 years, but wherever it it, it will be home too.

Blogging off...


Thursday, August 2, 2018

That First Place

We are heading north soon to visit our daughter and her boyfriend in Minneapolis. They are moving into a new apartment near the Vikings stadium and we will be helping them move some of the larger items with our van. I miss her dearly, so it should be a chance to reconnect and see her new digs.

She sent a few pictures of her place and it looks spectacular. It made me think of my first apartment and that incredible feeling of pride and excitement with having my own place - even if I was sharing it with a roommate.

That first apartment is a feeling of "having arrived." School is finished, you have a decent job - or at least decent enough to afford a place to live - and your obligations are few. I can remember that first Christmas in my first dumpy apartment. My roommate was gone and I had the place to myself. I shut off the lights and just sat there in the dark with the single string of twinkling lights thinking, "It ain't much, but man, it's all mine." After that first full time job, this was my first real taste of adulting.
Living Room Ballroom

The place was a cookie cutter 2 bedroom apartment in New Hope, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. It was on a busy street and was a drafty old place. Because it only had one thermostat and I preferred to sleep with my door closed, my room got downright frosty in those cold Minnesota winters. My roommate was a guy I worked with and I think rent was $400/month each.

Now, the fact that it was nothing special, didn't mean we didn't entertain people. At the time, I worked second shift, so we sometimes had some of the second shifters over after work. We'd have a few beers and listen to music. It is hard to recall a time when I felt more free.

But like all good things, it went south when my roommate got a job out in California. Before we moved out, we had a party to say goodbye to our little rat-hole. We packed the place and spun records and had some beers. There was dancing, and spilling and shenanigans. It was all very bohemian, but I wouldn't trade a second of it.
My roommate shakes a leg without spilling.

So while I am sure my daughter's place will be a much more respectable abode, I DO know the feeling she and her boyfriend are feeling. They are picking up some used furniture and filling in the gaps where they can. Their landlord is a eco-conscious guy who sounds super cool.

Everyone has a story about moving out on their own. It is where we begin carving our way.

And it is fun to be helping my kids do it now too.

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