A Reminder

In July of 1977, just a couple of months shy of my nineteenth birthday, I left my home in southeastern Wisconsin and took a job in the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin.  On my first day, I wore my Emerson, Lake and Palmer t-shirt.  At the time, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a progressive rock band famous for their twenty minute songs fusing classical music with rock and for Carl Palmer’s rotating drum set, was all the rage with teenage middle class boys living in the suburbia of the Milwaukee to Chicago corridor.  As I was shown to the department I’d be working in, I was disappointed to find that all of my new co-workers were middle to near retirement aged men to whom “Karn Evil 9” would surely be nothing but unpleasant noise.   Finally, I was relieved when I was introduced to George, a guy my own age.  He looked at my shirt and said, “Emerson, Lake and Palmer – who are they, a country band?”   It was my reverse “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Back then, going on 36 years ago now, before the internet and the information revolution, northern Wisconsin was truly an isolated place, with limited and delayed access to mass culture.   It would make it there, eventually, long after it’d been consumed and watered down by the coasts and the metropolises in between.   In this age before DVDs and even VCRs, movies would show up in the small town theatres about six to nine months after they finished their run in the cities.  Unless you ventured down to the college town of Eau Claire, the only music available was in the small album or eight track bins of the local Holiday gas station, with room only for the biggest country and top 40 acts.  Television was whatever fuzzy network feeds you could get through rabbit eared antennas.  Radio was mainly A.M. and country and Casey Kasem and top 40.  There was no way of knowing that the punk rock revolution was even occurring –we’d never heard of the Sex Pistols.   The closest thing was “Roxanne” by the Police, which was dismissed as this weird song on the juke box in the 211 Club.  When the disco craze erupted, a backwoods version of Studio 54 finally opened in I think 1979, and its dance floor was soon filled with farm boys and factory girls stomping to the pulsating rhythms of Donna Summer and the Bee Gees.  John Travolta it was not.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Now days, technology has opened up access to the culture to everyone.  That’s a good thing.  You can stream radio stations from New York City over a cell phone (for the first year and a half I worked at Norco, my apartment didn’t even have a phone).   Movies and books and music are available over the internet, only a download away.  The barriers of time and distance have been broken down.

But there’s been a price to pay for all this progress.  As mass culture explodes, local culture becomes a casualty, collateral damage.  You see it along the interstate off-ramps, in the proliferation of the same fast food restaurants.  You see it on the main streets of small towns, where Wal Mart super stores have replaced the local ma and pa hardware stores and the local co-ops or grocery stores.  You see it in the aging eyes of the farmers, the few who are hanging on to family farms that have been abandoned by their children, and in the many who now work for corporate mega farms.  You see it even in the shrinking numbers in the rural and the neighborhood taverns and bars, once the places where people connected with one another.  It’s as if in the process of opening up the world, we’ve closed off our neighbors.

It’s no wonder we’ve become more politically divided.  Why get to know that guy next door, he’s probably a redneck tea partier, when I can find all the liberal friends I want on social media.  There’s plenty of information to support whatever politics we subscribe to, left or right, and we assume it’s accurate if it reinforces how we view the world.

Then something like the Boston bombings occur, and we remember that we are connected.   The one consistent thing about these acts of terror is the way that individuals and communities react.  When the bombs went off, people ran in, towards the chaos and the debris, in an almost instinctive and primal reaction to the naked face of evil.  For a moment, there weren’t any tea partiers or 99 percenters, there were just innocent people.  And it didn’t take long to add up the numbers and come to the conclusion that there were a whole lot more good people than evil.   It’s the same reaction we saw in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hooks shootings, and in the first days after 9/11.

I’m sure that it won’t take long for the cynical and disingenuous from both sides to twist and manipulate Boston to shape their own agenda, and in time we’ll come to view the events of last week through our usual ideological lenses.    But as we sit here tweeting on our blogs and liking this post and disliking that post, we need to remember that computers don’t bleed and that social media doesn’t heal.  Neighbors, real flesh and blood and breathing people, still matter.

Dead End Street

There are the late nights, after long days or nights working or returning exhausted from a long trip, when the street light marking the turn off onto my dead end road comes into view, and it’s always the warmest light in the world.   Beneath its glow I turn onto my street, and in a minute I’m home.

I’ve lived in the same house on the same dead end street since November 1, 1984.  That’s going on 29 years now.  In that time, among other things, I’ve completed a career in I.T., raised my children, gained about 40 pounds, and lost most of my hair.   I’ve done the math, and just driving to and home from the various jobs I’ve had over that time, I’ve driven down that same dead end street to my driveway over 14,000 times.   Add in another 30,000 to 40,000 times running to town to get groceries or running kids to softball or basketball practice or whatever, and I’ve pounded the same narrow half mile or so of pavement in excess of 50,000 times.   I know the road’s imperfections, its nooks and crannies, its bumps and manhole covers, so well that I could probably drive it with my eyes closed.  I know where the little valleys in the pavement are, and where, after a rain, the deepest puddles form.  For years, if I had one or more of my kids with me, I’d always accelerate through them, making as big a splash as I could.

I had endless routines I’d use to entertain my kids with when driving them down the street.   One of my favorites was, years before talking GPS devices or Suri or whatever her name is, I had Hank the engine man.  Hank was a small man who lived in the engine of my 1989 Ford F150 pickup truck, and whenever we embarked on a trip, as we pulled out of the driveway, I’d ask Hank for a systems report.  I’d say, “Hank, how’s the oil pressure,” and Hank, forever loyal and faithful, would answer, in his high pitched voice “Oil pressure is fine and steady.”    I remember one time, I hurt Hank’s feelings when I yelled at him for failing to report that there was a puddle just past our driveway, and normally cheerful, Hank turned sad and depressed when I asked him, “Hank, what’s the fuel level?”

He answered glumly, “um, it’s not bad, I guess.”

“Do we have enough gas to get to Milwaukee?”

“What do I know?” he replied.  “Apparently I don’t know what a puddle is.”

My kids thought it was funny when I had to apologize to Hank for hurting his feelings.

The years passed and my kids grew up and the laughs my routines used to draw turned into impatient sighs and rolling eyes, and I realized that I performed them as much for my own entertainment as theirs’.   Whatever, they were fun while they lasted, and they were part of the universe that a family creates.  The center of that universe is the house the family calls home, and for the past 29 years, the pathway to home has been our little dead end street.

Now, when the kids come back to visit, they approach that same streetlight, and I hope it is just as warm a sight for them as it’s been for me all these years.  I hope they breathe the same sigh of contented relief and, no matter what stresses or worries occupy their minds, for the stretch of that dead end street to our driveway, they melt away.

They’re home.


Pitch Count

Next weekend I’ll be attending the annual Writer’s Institute conference in Madison.  I’m looking forward to going, to meeting new people and learning more about the craft and trade of being a writer.  It will also serve as the occasion to launch the first edition of the new annual literary journal, “The Midwest Prairie Review,” which is going to include a short story I submitted, “A Leg Up.”  I am looking forward to seeing the finished publication, and, of course, seeing my work in print.

The most highly anticipated part of the conference promises to be the live pitch sessions with literary agents.  I have signed up for sessions with two agents to try and get representation for my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  The sessions are eight minute one on ones where the author pitches his or her work.  It’s a rare opportunity to have face to face contact with the people whose job it is to wade through thousands of anonymous query letters.

I’m very proud of Ojibway Valley, but I’m also realistic.   I know the odds are stacked against me.  While I think it’s a good book, when I look at it now, I tend to only see the things that I could have done better, and I assume that’s what the agents will see.  Still, I’m preparing what I’ll say, and trying to summarize the book into short and concise statements that reflect what it’s about and why it’d sell enough copies for a big publishing house to take it in.

I’m nervous about these scheduled sessions.  I really want to go the traditional route, have an agent who hooks me up with an editor and finds a publishing house and gets the book out.  I have no illusions about it ever being a best seller or making millions of dollars off of it.  I’d be thrilled if it was just published and looked professional and if a handful or readers got a hold of it and found something worthwhile inside.    I suppose the self publish or e-publishing paths are options worth pursuing, and something I may look into eventually, but first I’d like to give the traditional route a try.

I’m nervous for a number of reasons, chief among them being that I hope to have my work validated and see my dream of having a published novel come true.  Adding to the pressure and the stress is my instance of Parkinson’s Disease, which, among other things, impacts my speech and my handwriting.    With only eight minutes to make my case, it’s going to be imperative that I communicate efficiently, that I am clear and concise, and I want to make a good impression.   Typically, the more stress I am under, the worse my speech is, and I stutter and stammer and slur my words.  So I have to decide, do I tell the agent up front about my condition, and waste valuable time discussing my condition, or do I just start my pitch, and risk sounding like a babbling moron?  Hopefully, stress won’t initiate the tremors it sometimes does, and I won’t be shaking or jerking about too much.

It’s awkward enough going to these conferences anyway, because one of the things Parkinson’s has taken from me is my handwriting.  I never had good handwriting, but now it is completely illegible.  If I don’t have my laptop with me (my phone has texting capabilities, but with my unsteady fingers, I do not) I can’t jot down a phone number or add an item to a grocery list.  This means while at a conference, I have to lug my laptop with me to take notes or engage in writing exercises.  It can become clumsy at times, and another thing I have to think about when I am in my pitch sessions – do I bring my laptop with me?  It seems rather impersonal in a one on one meeting to open up a computer and start typing.

Parkinson’s is the elephant on the table.  It’s the reason I’m home all day, the reason I left my job as a manager in I.T. two years ago.  It’s the reason I’m writing now – it’s how I fill my time, and as long as my fingers can work a keyboard and a mouse, it’s how I’ll spend my remaining time.  Writing’s been my attempt to make the best of a bad situation, to fill my time with purpose and meaning.  The thing is, I don’t know how much time I still have left.   I’ve read stories of other authors taking as long as twelve years to get their prize winning novels published – I don’t know if I can wait that long.  So it adds an element of desperation to my work.

I don’t have a bucket list.  I just don’t see the point.  I’m happy as long as I have my family and my writing.  When I started writing Ojibway Valley, I was just beginning to transition from memoir writing to fiction writing.  Now, I’m addicted to writing fiction.  I’m about 40% through my second novel, and everyday I’m learning more about how to create fictional characters and situations, the different ways  to tell a story.

I dream of having my work, particularly my novels, published some day.  I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen.  In the meantime, while I wait for someone to publish my first novel, I’ll finish my second novel.  When that’s done, I’ll start my third, and I’ll continue until, to paraphrase the National Rifle Association, they have to pry my keyboard from my stiff and rigid fingers.