Scout’s Honor


It’s been a while since I’ve been around kids. The youngest of my three children, my daughter Hannah, graduated college a couple of years ago, and has started a career while seeking out her Master’s degree in Public Health.  My middle child, Nick, started a year-long contract to teach English in South Korea about three or four weeks ago.  My oldest, Jon, recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, and is working in the corporate world and living in downtown Chicago. I am immensely proud of each of them.

My wife and I have settled comfortably in to the roles of empty nesters. My daughter began college in 2012, so we are coming up on six years since any of our kids have lived at home. However long it has or hasn’t been, it’s been long enough for us to get used to the open spaces that now occupy so much of our house and the blissful peace and quiet that’s replaced the chaos and the sound and fury that once accompanied the presence of three teenagers living under the same roof at the same time. While many times we look back with fondness and affection to our days as younger parents, more common are the times we blissfully go about our lives as a late middle-aged couple (or is it as an early senior-aged couple?)

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kathy Whiteside, who was looking for a local writer to help her Girl Scouts troop achieve a “screenwriting” badge. Looking through the materials, it was clear that the intent was to introduce the girls to story-telling concepts and fundamentals than screenwriting specifically, so I was confident that I could help facilitate the session, even though I know nothing about screenwriting.

I was less confident in my ability to get across to kids concepts like character development, rising action, conflict, and protagonists and antagonists. It’d been so long since I coached Nick’s softball and basketball teams, so long since I’d been around kids in any capacity, that I wasn’t sure if I could reach them.  It didn’t help that some professional teacher acquaintances had painted a pretty bleak picture of today’s youth. Short attention spans, feelings of entitlement, and the lacking of rudimentary skills were more the norm than the exception.

So it was that I took my seat in the middle of nine 6th to 8th grade girls with a bit of apprehension. I started by telling them that I am a writer, and the thing I love most about writing is that there are no rules you have to obey; that when I write, I’m free to write whatever I  want to write about. At first, I wasn’t sure they were listening, but when I asked them questions about what their favorite books or movies were, about the difference between books and movies, they all had opinions and were thoughtful and engaged. They’d all read most if not all of the Harry Potter books.

Kathy and I took them through several exercises, with the goal of having a collaborative, group written outline of a story by the end of our two hours together.  We started out with each girl creating a character and assigning attributes like favorite foods (tacos are apparently very popular these days in this demographic), colors, etc. I was surprised when three of the girls wanted their characters to be animals (a couple of cats and a pig, although the girl who wanted her character to be a pig later changed her mind).

Then we had to create a villain, and they quickly decided upon a mean bully need Nate. Whether Nate is based on a real person or someone on television or in a popular movie I can only guess as I am so far out of touch with the mass culture of the pre-teen girl demographic.  They showed a surprising level of sophisticated thinking when they not only described the inciting moment that would kick the plot into gear, but they also came up with a reason for Nate to push poor Romeo into a locker after school. I was surprised that they weren’t just satisfied with Nate being bad; that they felt the need to explain why he was. They also set up a scene for the climax of the story, where the group of “good friends” would meet Nate and his ”bad” friends the following night after school. But that was only the beginning – after that, things got real interesting.

The girls had to explain why there were two cats among the friends who went to school together. It turns out, that, unknown to one another, they discover that night that they are “shape shifters,” and all have the ability to transform into animals.  They agree to arrive at the fight the next night all in their animal forms.

Imagine their surprise when they all show up the next night as animals only to be met by Nate and his friends, who have all also shape-shifted into animals. Stunned by the knowledge that the two groups have more things in common than they don’t, the fight is averted, and new friendships are forged.

It’s a pretty slick little story, if you ask me. Beyond that, for me, it was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Watching the different personalities and how they interacted brought back memories of my children at those ages, and of the softball and basketball teams I coached. The girls had all of the same pent up winter energy that my basketball teams used to have, and they laughed at the same in-jokes that only friendship can provide.

I was delighted to see that kids haven’t changed. We live in terrifying times, with ugly mean-spiritedness dominating our politics, and with a President that seems hell-bent on starting another war, whether in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula.  It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed with cynicism.  Being around these kids for just two hours was the antidote to what was ailing me, and restored my faith in humanity.  These kids were smart and well behaved. After only a few minutes, I could see them focusing, getting into the story and feeling the rush that only creativity can bring. They collaborated beautifully, they were respectful and considerate with each other. It was obvious to me that they came from good homes.

The night also shone a light on the fact that storytelling is at the core of being human. It’s what separates us and makes us the dominant species on earth. It’s how we make sense out of the cold randomness of existence, and in these times of divisiveness and fear, it’s our only hope for bridging the gaps between us. Like in the story the girls invented, at the end, all of the shape shifters discovered that the things they had in common were greater than the differences.  It’s a moral that their parents’ generation would do well to recognize.

As I drove home, it occurred to me that if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this world, it’ll be by the grace of children and the art of storytelling.  And there, on a cold Wednesday night in a Girl Scout meeting room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I witnessed the intersection of these two forces of nature, and I was humbled by the profundity of the truth it revealed.

 

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Jack’s Homecoming


(I’ve been working with a professional editor on polishing up the manuscript for my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why.”  One of the things she’s pointed out is opportunities to fill in some gaps in the narrative. I wrote this scene to describe what the main character, Jack, felt upon returning home from seven months in the psych ward)

Dad steered the boat-like Matador through the cold and unending sea of darkness that flooded the flat farm fields and wooded lanes of the countryside east of Orchard Depot. Our conversation had quickly faded into a familiar silence, all of the easy small talk having already been consumed. I sat alone in the back seat, peering over the dashboard through the front window at the narrow beams of headlights that illuminated the thin white and yellow lines painted on the fading gray asphalt. Then the big S curve that always announced the impending exit onto Vicksburg Avenue came into view. The sudden familiarity of where I found myself and the knowledge of, even in the darkness, the presence of the landmarks, both seen and unseen, that we passed, was jarring. I felt my chest tighten and I wondered if I was ready for what was to come in the next few minutes, when we’d pull into the driveway and I’d walk through the front door into our house for the first time since I was carried out if it on a stretcher more than six months before. This was the risk, the downside to keeping me at the Hanover for an extra four months after Kelly’s death. I finally understood what Dr. Rudolph and Gladys meant when they told me that the longer I was away, the more difficult coming home would be.

We pulled into the driveway. The outside light by the front door was on and cast a yellowish glow on the cement porch. I held the screen door open while Dad unlocked the door and he and Mom passed through, turning on living room lights as I closed the door behind me. The tightness in my chest gave way to a pounding sensation, and I thought my heart was going to explode as the sights and smells and the sounds of being back home overwhelmed me. Mom was talking, saying something about having to heat supper up, when I saw, on the dining room table, the cake she’d baked for me, with candles in the shape of the numbers two and one sticking out of its white frosting.

I walked down the hall to my bedroom. A new door had been installed, and I opened it and flicked on the light switch. The room was spotless, the bed was neatly made, and all of my things were put away. I stood in the center of the room, taking it all in, when I heard, from the doorway behind me, my mom say, “Good to be home, Jack?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”  It was all I could do to stop myself from bawling like a baby.

The evening wore on, the three of us eating dinner and then, for dessert, cutting in to my birthday cake.  We talked, and laughed, sticking to safe topics, old stories and gossip about distant aunts and uncles and cousins. There was more we didn’t talk about than we did, avoiding topics like depression, suicide, Sam Richter, and Tom Musgrove. They remained unmentioned, the air heavy with their invisible and weighty presence. But for that evening, at least, none of that mattered. There’d be time for all of that later, and as I realized how much I was enjoying the company of my mom and dad and the familiarity of my surroundings, I felt the pounding in my chest subside, and I felt good, glad to be home.

 

First Snowfall


Last Saturday I completed my 59th year on this planet. Now, about a week into my 60th year, I know that I am no spring chicken. I’ve been an adult, chronologically at least, for forty or so ears now. So I really ought to know better.

I ought to know that the season’s first snowfall is nothing to get excited about. I ought to know better than to marvel at the sight of snowflakes parachuting down and invading streets and sidewalks. I ought to know that the thin white blanket that now covers the ground is just the beginning of back aching shoveling and scraping that will soon become tedious and tiring, and the white streaks on the roads will only become slippery and hazardous in the weeks and months to follow.  More than anything, the cold that I so enthusiastically bundle up for today is here to stay for what will soon feel like an eternity, and  daylight will diminish and fade as the days grow shorter and the cold bleak blackness of winter tightens its grip on the landscape. To quote William Butler Yeats and Cormac McCarthy (both out of context), winter is “No country for old men.”

Yet, here I am, in my office, looking out my window and watching the snow fall, feeling none of the cynicism that time and experience have informed my life with. Instead I watch the snow through the wide eyed lenses of my youth, and I see once again the full scope of infinite wonder that a young child views the world through. It’s hope and possibility. It all comes back to me, like warm air being pushed through furnace vents.

There will be plenty of time for the oppressive forces of winter to exert their gloom. Today I am content, for at least the eternity that exists in the time it takes for a snowflake to melt after hitting a city sidewalk, to rediscover just one of the unexplored worlds that were revealed every day when I was very young.

Twelve Confused Men


(Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty for the first time. Last night, I dreamed the following dream in black and white …) 

Scene:  an empty meeting room with a long table in the center with chairs around it.  12 men of different ages and nationalities file in and take a seat in chairs around the table.  One man, in a white dress shirt with a black tie, the foreman, remains standing.

Foreman:  Okay, that seemed pretty cut and dry.  I’d like to suggest we vote on a verdict right away. I’ll poll each of you. Jurist number one, how do you vote?

Me (raising my hand) I’m sorry, Mr. Foreman, but shouldn’t we vote by private ballot?

Foreman:  I don’t think that’ll be necessary.   We all saw what happened in there.

Me:  Still, I think, just in case, we should make sure we do this right, to the letter of the law.  So there’s no chance of reprisal, or getting the defendant off on a technicality.

Foreman: Of course, you’re correct, thank you, jurist number twelve. Please cast your vote on one of these little folded up pieces of paper.

(Everybody writes their vote down.)

Foreman:  Jurist number three, would you mind collecting the votes?

(Jurist three, a small, nerdy looking man, rises from his chair.

Jurist Number Three:  Not at all.  (He picks up a small wicker basket from the table and goes around the table.  One by one, the jurists all put their votes in the basket, I am the last to do so.  Jurist Number Three hands the basket to the foreman.

Foreman:  Thank you.  Jurist Two, would you mind keeping a tally of the number of guilty and not guilty votes as I read them off?

Jurist Two:  Got it.

Foreman (reaching his hand into the basket) Okay, here we go …

Me (raising my hand and interrupting): Excuse me, Mister Foreman, excuse me …

Foreman;  Yes, juror number twelve?

Me:  Don’t you think you should, you know, shake the basket up a little bit?

Foreman:  What? What do you mean, shake the basket?

Me:  You know, mix the votes up …

Foreman:  Huh?

Me:  Well, it’s just that I was the last to put my vote in …

Foreman:  So?

Me:  So my vote is on top.  If you don’t shake the basket, everybody will know that the first vote is mine. And the whole purpose of using the paper ballots are to protect the anonymity of each vote cast.

Foreman:  Okay, okay, I gotcha.  (With great exaggeration, he puts his hand in the basket and mixes up the contents.) Is that good enough?

Me: Yes, thank you.

Foreman (taking out and unfolding each piece of paper) Guilty …. Guilty … guilty … not guilty?  (He and all of the other jurors look at me)

Me:  What?

Foreman: (going through the remaining votes) Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.  That’s all the votes. Jurist Two, please read the final tally.

Jurist Two:  That’s eleven guilty, one not guilty.

Jurist Four:  Okay, Twelve, joke’s over.

Me:  Joke? What joke?

Jurist Four: Look, we get it, very funny.  Now can we get on with issuing a verdict and get the Hell out of here?

Me:  Why are you looking at me? You don’t know that I was the not guilty vote. In fact, I’ll bet that if you look closer at the not guilty ballot, you might find a clue as to who really cast it.

Foreman:  (holding up the vote) You mean, where it says here, “Voted by Jurist Number Nine, not Number Twelve.”

Jurist Nine: (jerking awake from nodding off) Hey!  What’s the big idea?

Foreman:  Okay, Twelve, would you like to explain your Not Guilty vote?

Me: But you don’t know that I …

Jurist Six (A large and muscular and intimidating man) Knock it off, Twelve, before I knock you off!

Foreman:  Do you really vote Not Guilty?

Me:  I do. (The entire room erupts in unison at me)

Foreman (gaining control of the room) Okay, okay, everybody calm down. That’s better.  Now, Twelve, could you please explain your vote?  I mean, the defendant admitted to being at the scene of the crime.  And we have the bank transactions that prove he was laundering money.

Me:  That’s just it!  Where’s the detergent?

Foreman:   Huh? What detergent?

Me:  My point exactly! If he was laundering that much money, there had to be some detergent somewhere! But the prosecution never produced a single sud!

Jurist Eight:  He makes a good point.

Jurist Seven:  You’re an idiot, Eight.

Foreman: But he was caught at the scene of the crime with the weapon in his hand.  How do you explain that?

Me:  By the Handyman’s testimony.

Foreman:  What’s that got to do with anything?

Me: Remember when he described the contents of the refrigerator? When he got to listing the condiments?

Foreman: Yeah?

Me:  Remember he said, “Mayonnaise?”

Foreman: Yeah.  So?

Me:  So when we examined exhibit B-1, there was no mayonnaise, just …

Jurist Eight:  Miracle Whip!

Foreman: So?

Me:  Miracle Whip is not mayonnaise! (Pulling a packet of Miracle Whip out of my back pocket) See, it says right here, Miracle Whip is salad dressing.

Juror Seven:  Why did you have a packet in your pocket?

Me: Never mind that! If you want to find the real criminal, I suggest you look no further than right here! (I move over by juror eleven and dramatically lift the mask off his head, revealing JIM PAYNE.) You’ll find a trail of victims that lead to his doorstep. He is none other than ….

Foreman: You mean …

Me: That’s right. He’s the notorious Mayonnaise Madman that’s been terrorizing our community for years! Once he found out there was no mayonnaise in the fridge, he went mad!

Jim Payne: How does that make you feel?

Foreman: And I thought you were a complete idiot, Twelve! Now I know the real idiot is whoever wrote this drivel!

Me: Guilty as charged!

 

Numbers Game


I made the mistake tonight of reading some Facebook comments on the Las Vegas shooting. They all kind of bleed together, so I can’t remember the name of the one troll whose comments stuck with me or the article he was reacting to (I’m pretty sure it was a Washington Post article, but damned if I could find it again). The general gist of his arguments is that the 59 dead and more than 500 injured, let alone the 948 total victims of mass shootings over the past fifty years, represents a “statistically insignificant” percentage of the total population and therefore is not deserving of legislative attention.

So to Mr. Troll, whoever you are, from a fellow numbers guy, here are my immediate reactions:

  • 948 is equal to or greater than the population of thousands of U.S. towns.  I gave up trying to get  a number, but look at this list from Wisconsin to get an idea of how many towns this small there are just in my home state   http://www.city-data.com/city/Wisconsin3.html  Ask any resident of any of these towns if their entire population was murdered or injured if they’d consider that to be ”insignificant.”
  • The number of dead and injured in Las Vegas is greater than the total number of players in the NBA. Imagine if the entire National Basketball Association was wiped out in one event.  It’d be quite an impact on local economies – stadiums and restaurants and television. I’m sure its economic impact would rise into the statistically relevant range. But economics isn’t even the most important impact ….
  • Looking at the wrong numbers. To me, the most heart breaking of all mass shootings remains the twenty first graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one, let alone the horrible treatment of the victims’ families by those sub-human “conspiracy” morons. But let’s play Mr. Troll’s numbers game for a moment – the number of victims, twenty children (not to mention the seven teachers who were also murdered), is microscopically low against any national number.  But when we count the years lost, by subtracting the victim’s average age of six years from the average lifetime (75), you end up with 69 years lost for each of the twenty victims, and you get a total of 1,380 years lost, and about 20 spouses and 40 children and 80 grandchildren and 160 great grandchildren and so on.  In just three generations, that comes to 21,000 years of life lost. And who knows what contributions those unborn children with their unrealized potential may have made to our society.  We may have lost a cure for cancer, or the next Einstein or Martin Luther King, or who knows who.

 I think it’s time we look at all shootings in this context. How many years of life are we losing, how much potential is being lost, and how much damage is being done to our psyche? How many concert or dinner or movie dates are being cancelled from the fear these incidents plant in us, how deadly is the distrust they instill in our hearts and minds? How many family members and friends are waking up every day for the rest of their lives without someone they loved? How do we calculate the damage to our souls, the value of the innocence lost?

I don’t profess to have any answers or solutions.  I have no idea where to even start. Maybe a good place to start would be to reject terms like “statistically insignificant” and agree that not everything needs to be politicized, and condemn the horror we all recognize the loss of innocent lives to be.

Proof Through the Night


I still remember a dream I had when I was about five years old. In the dream, I was floating in the sky, and I came upon a cloud, white and fluffy, with an American Flag somehow planted in it.  Seeing the flag confirmed in my mind that I was in fact in Heaven.

That was about fifty five years ago now and I’m struck by how powerful, even at that early age, the image of the stars and stripes was.  These days the flag and its meaning are being debated, as links between sports and politics have blurred, and the right to protest the flag is being questioned.

To those who say politics don’t have any place on a football or baseball field or basketball court, answer this one question:  why does every sporting event, from high school on up, start with saluting the flag and singing the anthem, if politics have no place there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to these things. It’s just that the flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol that evokes strong, politically charged responses in everyone in attendance. But why are they even a part of the event?  We don’t play the anthem and salute the flag in a movie theatre, for example.

Inserting the flag into an event instantly politicizes that event. Taking a knee or clenching arms or raising a fist to the flag does not disrespect the flag, rather, it strengthens what the flag really stands for.

One of the things that always set us apart from extremists in other cultures was that in America, we hold principals in higher regard than symbols. No one is supposed to suffer punishment in America for drawing a cartoon, for example.  Or for, no matter how repellent the sight might be, burning an American flag.  It’s our constitutional right to free speech that we obey, as well as it’s the right of others to decry such activities. But we don’t have the right to discriminate against those we disagree with.

In America, we are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves.  So when we see our flag, it’s only natural, and downright patriotic, for different people to think different things. Imagine if we were all forced to think the same way –imagine the ramifications of that.  Who would decide what we have to conform to? Or what the punishment would be if our thoughts strayed?

There’s no denying the strength of the flag as a symbol. I understand the power of the meaning it has, especially to our military.  But to truly appreciate the complexity as well as the power of the symbol is a bit more difficult. If you want an idea of how, even among the military, the flag can have different symbolic meanings, all you need do is google Ira Hayes.

Hayes’ experiences after returning home from World War II, where he was one of the marines who famously rose the flag at Iwo Jima, add a level of complexity to the simplistic symbol of the flag. This is inevitable with symbols – the more they are universally embraced, the simpler their meaning becomes, despite the fact that symbols are by nature inherently complex.

What makes the flag such a complex thing is part of the very foundation our country was built upon: liberty, freedom and justice for all. It’s the great American experiment, and it’s what sets us apart from every other country in history:  that we are guaranteed the right to say what we want, think what we want, worship whatever god we choose. All men are created equal and self-evident truths and inalienable rights. It was all incredibly audacious and radical and idealistic, and the flag came to symbolize every bit of it – all of the purity and sincerity of those ideals, as well as all the times we fell short – because only if we recognize battles lost and not just celebrate those won will we ever rise up to the lofty heights our founding fathers envisioned us one day approaching.  I think they probably knew we’d never reach them all, that that would be impossible, but hoped that we’d fight with every breath in our resolve to at least try.

That’s the fight and the struggle that the flag is symbolic of.  It flies as high as the surface of the moon, but we still have a way to go before we reach the unreachable, until we plant it in the fluffy clouds of a child’s dream of Heaven.

The Green Blood of Death


(From a dream I had after eating a bag of pistachios after nine o’clock …)

My wife and I still live, alone and happy, in the same big two story house we raised our three children in. It’s really too big for just the two of us, and at some point, when we’re further into our later years, we’ll downsize and move into something smaller. People shrink as they age, as they diminish, making things like houses and cars seem even bigger and more imposing. But for now, our home is the same house we’ve occupied for the past 34 years.

The two of us were asleep in our bed in the master bedroom on the far side of the upper level, when I was awakened by our dog, a Gordon setter named Max, thirteen years old but still fit and vital. It was just a single distant yelp, probably directed at a squirrel or one of the great horned owls that have taken up residency in the hollowed-out cedar tree in our side yard. I was surprised I could even hear Max, given that it was just a single yelp from the other end of the lower level of the house. But then I could smell the presence of another, my long-time nemesis, through the furnace vents, and I knew it was him, that he’d transformed himself into a vapor and that within a minute or so he’d be in our room, standing over our bed, ready to take us.

I quickly shook my wife by her shoulders.  “Deb,” I said, low enough so only she could hear me. “Wake up.”

“Arfglub,” she murmured, still sleeping.

“Deb,” I said, “he’s here.”

“Oh, shit,” she said, ripping the blankets off of her and getting out of bed on her side at the same time I got out on mine. We both kicked into gear and quickly and quietly executed what we’d been practicing for the past four weeks, since the last time.   We both grabbed the stuffed pillows we kept stashed under the bed and used them to replace us in bed, pulling the blankets over them. Then we ducked into the bathroom that was attached to the master bedroom.  I turned off the overhead light we always used as a night light so I could find my way without stumbling over anything on my way to one of my several nightly trips to relieve myself, and we hid in the walk-in shower stall, behind the tiled walls, still in our night clothes, me in my boxer briefs and a t-shirt, Deb in her panties and t-shirt.

Sure enough, about only thirty seconds after getting in the shower, we heard the door of our bedroom creak open, and we could hear the soft shuffle of his feet across our hardwood floor. Then we could hear him, from the side of our bed, reciting some poem, I couldn’t understand it because it was all in Latin, over what he thought was the form of our sleeping beings. Then, the poem apparently over, he started laughing that diabolical laugh of his. I wanted to see this so I crept behind the half-opened bathroom door and through the crack between the hinges, I watched as his torch ignited.  In the light from the torch, I could see him clearly, his face wrinkled and green, with dark cavities where his eyes were supposed to be, his black robe over his head and falling to the floor.  A long and wrinkled arm reached out from under his robe, and I could see his bony fingers reach down and grab the corner of the blankets.  Grinning that maniacal grin of his, he pulled back the blankets to reveal nothing but the inert and lifeless pillows.

He gasped, making an audible hissing sound, and clenched his bony fingers into a green fist.  “Curse you, Gourdoux!” he said, shaking his fist down towards the pillows.

I couldn’t help but laugh from my vantage point behind the bathroom wall.  He spun and turned towards me, hissing loudly.

“So, Gourdoux,” he said, “you have outwitted me again. I must pay you my dues.”

“Never mind that,” I said, unable to control the laughter erupting from deep down inside of me. “For something as scary as Death is supposed to be, you are just ridiculous.  Oh, and by the way, just a friendly fashion tip:  lose the robe. They haven’t worn those since the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Ah, enjoy yourself, Gourdoux.  For well you know, you may have won this round, but I most certainly will triumph when the match is over.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, adding as I reached into my boxer briefs and pulled out my Smith and Wesson. “It seems that you’re forgetting, Wisconsin is now a Castle state.”

“A gun!” he gasped. “I thought you were just happy to see me.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m happy to see you dead. Now I lay you down to sleep.” I raised the sites of my .45 and fired three times.

There, by my bedside, Death lay in a pool of green blood.

I cracked open a pistachio as I dialed the police on my cell phone.

 

Review of “And These Are the Good Times”


In my Amazon review of Patricia Ann McNair’s collection of connected short stories, The Temple of Air, one of the things I think I got right was the following:

“ McNair has a knack for bringing to life details that are achingly familiar – the slamming screen doors, the headlights illuminating the dotted line asphalt of the highways on the outskirts, the high school gymnasiums, the murmur and glow of distant televisions, the late afternoon shadows of an empty house – but her real gift is the creation of the deceptively familiar and complex characters who inhabit this fever dream of a landscape.”

What I think rings even truer in her second book, a collection of essays, And These Are the Good Tand these are the good timesimes, is the “fever dream” bit. What struck me reading this collection, which is mostly memoir, is the intimacy she establishes with the reader. She has a way of breaking down the distance between herself and the reader. It’s as if she’s whispering her fever dream into our ear as it’s occurring.  It is intimacy and immediacy, it has the urgency of gossip and the musicality of art. On first reading, you get the sense that she is discovering the truths she reveals at the same time you are; it’s only on subsequent readings when you realize and appreciate how well the pieces are crafted and structured.  McNair teaches writing at the university level, and while it’s clear that she practices what she teaches, it’s also clear that she has a gift that cannot be taught, that transcends craft.

I hold The Temple of Air in such high esteem that a part of me was reluctant to dive into And These Are the Good Times.  There was no way I thought her non-fiction could approach her fiction. Boy, did I get that wrong! Turns out that the same things that make her fiction so compelling also apply to her non-fiction. Things like just the right and right amount of detail, her sense of place and time, and awareness of the connective tissue that tethers us to one another, and what happens when that tissue is severed, the free-fall we all tumble into at different times in our lives. This is the goal of any storyteller, fiction or non, to share something personal and remarkable, and ignite a flash of recognition in the reader’s awareness. In doing so, the storyteller is bestowing upon the reader the greatest gift of all:  the awareness that, at least for that moment, he or she is not alone. The depths and the frequency of the truths McNair shares in And These Are the Good Times are evidence of more than artistry, it’s testament to a generosity of soul.

August


Today, while mowing my lawn, I kept looking at the house, specifically, at the kitchen and dining room windows that face the backyard.  It seemed like every time I looked I saw, staring out of the black of the window, a face. They were different faces every time I looked, the faces of children, the faces of my children as they used to be, when they were small, when they still called our house their home.

They were vivid and clear, yet I knew they weren’t real. I understood that it was just August, that August will play tricks on your mind and eyes, and that for brief moments in the waning sunlight of an August late afternoon, your entire past is laid out in front of you like the inviting surface of a sun splashed lake. Should you choose to dive in to August, though, you have to be weary of the current, because it can be strong enough to pull you under and drown you. August is full of the ghosts that never returned from its bottomless depths.

August is the last full month of summer, and while it’s still warm out, there are just enough days where the wind shifts and blows cool and crisp air from the north. The autumn breeze reminds children that even the endless days and nights of summer vacation are mortal. It’s the month where you first notice that the days are getting shorter, that the dark of night is arriving sooner and sooner.

In the forests of August, the underbrush is still lush and thick, but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s already thinner than it was in July. Only a handful of unharvested and withered wild raspberries and blackberries remain on the bushes that are already tired and aching and longing for the deep sleeps of autumn and winter. Pollen gathers and settles on the August grass, giving it a distinct and evocative aroma while also causing my eyes to itch. Everything August gives comes with a price.

august

Every night in August, while we sleep, we die, and every morning when we wake, we are reborn, given birth and nurtured by forgotten dreams, and fathered by pale moonlight.

Home is Where the Artist


Some of you, maybe even one of you, may have noticed a dearth of drivel adding up to a paltry and pitiful product of posts made to this site in recent months. You may have wondered why (although you most probably didn’t) the drop-off in both quantity and quality. Despite some answers and rationalizations I had on the ready, if I ever were to be honest with myself, I know that I, for one, was certainly wondering why.

It occurred to me that when I gave my stock answer, that I’d just finished writing my second novel (coincidentally titled I Don’t Know Why) and needed to take some time away from writing after spending so much time on it, it didn’t ring true.  The truth is that I had no new ideas and that, for the first time, writing had become an unpleasant chore for me.  Even worse, I felt that I hadn’t grown, hadn’t improved over the stuff I was writing nine or ten years ago. I felt, after finally finishing what was a fairly ambitious work in I Don’t Know Why, the short stuff I wrote for this site and others seemed tedious and repetitive, and I was showing no growth as an artist.

That’s right, I said it, the “a” word. I’ll admit it – I aspire to be recognized as an artist. Pretentious, yes. Overly ambitious – you bet.  Out of my league – most probably.

But to me, whether I’m capable of artistry or not, it makes no sense to aspire to mediocrity. Better to aim too high than shoot too low.

It’s certainly how I approached both of my novels.  In both Ojibway Valley and I Don’ Know Why, I wanted to write about what I feel are important topics.  In Ojibway Valley, I wanted to write about how the past shapes the present, and loss, how the decisions we make when dealing with it change the world in ways we are not even aware of.  In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write about how trauma and isolation can drive an individual to their breaking point, and how love and truth can bring one back. I wanted to write about things like life and death, truth and betrayal. You know, serious stuff.

Additionally, I had specific “technical” themes I challenged myself with.  In Ojibway Valley, these included conveying my own romantic relationship with a real place and trying to make the reader feel the same way about my fictional landscape, and I wanted to tell the stories (because there are more than one) in a non-linear format and tie them together in the end. In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write a stronger narrative that unfolds in a shorter period of time than the 120 years or so Ojibway Valley covered (I succeeded in that I Don’t Know Why covers roughly ten years – I’d like someday to write a novel that takes place in a single afternoon or over a single night, but I’m not there yet). I also wanted to play with telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator

Whether and to what degree I succeeded or failed at all this is up to the readers to decide (I know how I feel). And I know that for Ojibway Valley, readers has been a low number. I also know that nobody believes me when I say that I’m okay with that.  Given my diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Ojibway Valley was the book I had to write, that I had to complete and publish, if for no other reason than for my children to better know me, to know what laid in my heart and mind and soul. At this stage of my life, money isn’t the motivator – I spent an entire career chasing that, now it’s time to chase other, more elusive things.

Not that more money and readers would be a bad thing.  I did spend a year kind of half-assed trying to sell Ojibway Valley, but my heart really wasn’t in it – I just wanted to write the next one and move on.  During that year I started the first draft of I Don’t Know Why, and settled probably too easily on self-publishing Ojibway Valley.

So what is it that left such a sour taste in my mouth that I found myself first putting off writing and then avoiding it all together?

Could it be my health?  A reoccurrence of the heart problems I had a couple of years ago, or the advancement of Parkinson’s?  Well, let’s take a look at that:

How am I doing?

Overall, I’m doing exceptionally well.

First, my heart – it’s been over two years since I had triple bypass surgery, and I’m doing so well that most days I forget it ever happened.  I recently saw my weight dip below 200 pounds (199.6 for one time only, since then I’ve been stuck between 202 and 203!) for the first time in at least twenty five years. I still work out at the hospital every day, and I’m confident that as long as I continue to exercise and watch what I eat and take my prescribed dosage of Lipitor every day, my cholesterol levels should remain where they’ve been at for over a year now, which is about half of what they were before the surgery.

Now, P.D. –  It’s been twelve years since my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and I’m doing better and taking less carbidopa / levodopa, the primary medications used in fighting Parkinson’s’, than I have in years. Thanks to the right mixture of pills and exercise and deep-brain stimulation, the balance issues I suffered last summer are pretty much non-existent.

Every day, I wake up prepared for a fight with P.D.  Lately, I feel so good that it feels like I’m landing almost all of my punches, and that I’m kicking Parkinson’s ass. But while I might be connecting with right uppercuts and haymaker left hooks to Parkinson’s head, almost undetected are the subtle but powerful body shots PD is still hitting me in the ribs with, and when I look at things honestly, I realize the scorecard still has PD. in the lead. PD is a plodder, a bulldozer, able to bob and weave his way in and take the most vicious blows to the head without so much as a stagger, while working tirelessly on my rib cage and abdomen, knocking breath after breath out of me. There will be no quick T.K.O. of Parkinson’s, but at least I’m still in the ring.

I still get exhausted after taking my meds, and take an afternoon nap every day, and sometimes an additional late morning nap, too.  My salivary glands have kicked into a permanent setting of hyper overdrive, resulting in a wet and thick mouth that makes speaking coherently more often than not difficult in the day time and for a flood of drool on my pillow at night time.

My sense of balance is much better than a year ago, but I still have the occasional stumble if not out and out fall. It’s certainly manageable. What is becoming increasingly frustrating is the erosion of my hand to eye coordination.  While I have to admit that when it comes to physical grace, nobody has ever compared me to a Nureyev or Baryshnikov, at least I used to be able to do simple tasks at a normal speed. Now, for example, when checking out at the grocery store, it takes me so long to put my bank card back in my wallet that the high school kid doing the bagging has started his graduate studies. It can be frustrating as hell to try and tie a fishing hook or to simply untangle the wires of my headphones. The worst is trying to open the clear plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. I know, everybody occasionally struggles with the two sides of clear plastic that are so thin and bound so tightly together as to make it easier to break into Fort Knox than separate, but most people don’t spend fifteen hapless minutes trying to open one bag until finally some good Samaritan steps in and quickly snaps the bags open for me. I may not be a fading southern belle, but I find myself like Blanche Dubois depending more and more upon the kindness of strangers.

I’m also prone to frequent and sudden drowsiness. This has led to my wife doing most of the driving, and as a rule, I don’t drive if the trip is longer than a half hour. This makes getting up to my cabin in northwest Wisconsin, more than 300 miles from home, an exercise in logistics and planning if I want to spend some alone time up there.  This week, for example, I took the bus from Kenosha to O’Hare and flew the short (the bus ride to the airport took longer than the time we were in the air) and cheap one-way ticket flight to Eau Claire, where my son Nicholas lives.  Nick then drove me the hour (made two hours by unexpected road closings) trip north to our cabin, where he dropped me off.  Today, my sister, who has a cabin of her own a couple of hundred yards or so away from mine, arrived from her home in Oshkosh, where she will take me next Thursday, so my wife has a shorter trip to pick me up and  take me back home to Pleasant Prairie (south of Kenosha).  So in a week and half, I will have traveled by bus, airplane, and three different cars into Illinois and all around the State of Wisconsin, just to get a few days use out of our property.  It truly takes a village.

But these are still, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor complaints. The big thing to take away from this is that with the weight loss and exercise, overall, I feel really good.

So what was it that put myself into such a funk about writing?

Well, I think one thing was sheer boredom and laziness. I think I’d become bored with writing because I’ve been doing it for long enough now that I wasn’t pushing myself anymore. I’d developed a lot of bad habits, and instead of trying to break them, I found myself leaning on them, using these same old tricks to whip through whatever I was working on.  The result was an increasing mediocrity and repetitiveness in my writing, especially the essays I wrote for the site 2ndfirstlook.com. Anytime I contributed one of my lists (“Favorite one hit wonders,” for example) I was clearly just going through the motions and repeating a formula that was already tired the first time I trotted it out a couple of years ago.

Whatever it was, it had to stop.  Paradoxically, I think the fact that I was feeling so well worked against me as a writer. It seems that denial isn’t just a one-time thing you go through with Parkinson’s, and while it might be better than its twin sister obsession, denying the truth can be just as dangerous as obsessing over it all the time. Writing had become, with the constant typos and misinterpretations of the signals my brain was sending to my fingers, an annoying reminder that I hadn’t knocked out PD yet. I didn’t want to think about these things, they didn’t fit with the narrative I was trying to sell myself on, that I was losing weight and regaining strength and rolling the clock back decades. I chose to ignore things like the fatigue I still suffered from and avoid things that would remind me of my condition and deny those things I couldn’t avoid.  For example, if I was really turning the clock back, I wouldn’t require a nap every day.

Eventually, though, and only recently, the need to express myself has seemingly returned, and I’ve found myself returning to writing and rediscovering my love for it.

Since Nick dropped me off up here almost a week ago, I’ve been at my north woods cabin, not quite alone as my sister is up at her neighboring cabin. A tornado came through in mid-May, right between our two cabins, amazingly not touching either one but knocking down an extraordinary number of trees on my 47 acre property, many over the trails we use to get around the woods on.  So about a week after the storm I bought a new chain saw and have been, when up here, trying to clear the trails. I’d been making good progress when Friday afternoon, as I neared the far edge of the property, I found two immense trees that had fallen smack dab over the trail. I started cutting the first one, when during a momentary lapse of attention I badly buried the blade of my new saw deep in the center of the tree, unable to move it in either direction. I should have known better, that both sides were supporting weight and that  I couldn’t cut straight thru without it binding on me, but hey, it happens. I could absolve myself of that sin. What was more neglectful was how unprepared I was for the situation.  Sure, I had a mallet and a couple of small wedges, but it quickly became obvious that they were woefully not up to this job. Then I remembered that back at my cabin I had my old chainsaw that I hadn’t started in months.  So I hopped on my ATV and went back and got my old saw, with the intent of using it to cut out my new saw. Just in case I couldn’t get the old one started, I looked for more wedges, but the closest I could find was an old wood chisel. Grabbing it and my old saw I returned to the scene of the crime. First, I tried the old saw. Much to my surprise, she started right off, but the chain was worn so bad that it got about halfway through the log before I finally gave up on it. I then sat myself down and went to work with the mallet and the chisel.

The sunny afternoon sky was soon consumed by gray clouds, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before it started raining.  I continued chiseling, and listened to the soft symphony of the rain in the woods, a sound I’ve loved since I was a kid.  It occurred to me as I sat there, chiseling away, how much I was enjoying myself.  You’d think that with the saw stuck and the rain falling down I’d be miserable, but I wasn’t. I knew that eventually I’d get my new saw out of that tree, and in the meantime I’d just celebrate how good I felt, and how blessed I was  to have my hands occupied by the work I was doing, giving a reason to be out there, in the middle of the woods in the soft summer rain.

After working on it for about an hour, I was finally able to yank the new saw out. Figuring that in the process of yanking it out I’d undoubtedly flooded my saw, I packed everything up. I was soaking wet from the combination of sweat and rain, and dirty, my hands and shirt and jeans covered in wet sawdust that clung to skin and clothing. I stood there for a second before starting the ATV.  The rain had stopped and bright summer sunlight streamed through the leaves and onto my face. The woods were lush and green and alive, and I felt good, I felt like for a moment at least I was part of it all.

I strapped all of my gear to the ATV and drove out of the woods.  Somewhere along the trail back, a familiar refrain that I hadn’t heard for a while popped into my head:

I have to write about this.