Abandoned World


aw spooky car

(Inspired by the Facebook page “Abandoned Wisconsin” that I stumbled upon earlier tonight. The photos I’ve attached are from that page and are so hauntingly beautiful that I had to share – they were taken by a number of gifted photographers (none of them me) – there are plenty more if  you go there.­­)

Back then, they didn’t tear things down. They’d let them stand until they couldn’t anymore, until they’d collapse broken-backed from under their own weight. These days, as soon as a building goes empty, there’s somebody there to tear down the “eyesore,” the safety hazard, the unsightly blemish to the antiseptic fantasy world we try to convince ourselves we live in. It’s a world where only the present exists. It’s a world where things don’t die and decay, and we strive to remove all traces of the past in the acknowledgement of the fear that time really exists, that what once was and what is to be matters. It’s the inability to see the beauty in decay. It’s the denial that others proceeded us and lived lives here, of the work they did, of the things they built with their hands, with their sweat, the work that kept their hearts pumping, that kept them alive.  And then one day, when the last of their flesh was loaded into an ambulance never to return, there was still a place for them to come back to, a place of heartbreaking beauty, a place as empty and silent as a grave. There they’d be visited by frightened children, ancestral descendants, historians and poets. They’d speak to these visitors in the clues they chose to leave behind, and if the visitors were willing and ready to listen, they’d hear everything they could ever want to know about not just their lives and times, but about everything.  All you could ever want to know about life, about death, about love, about the entire flipping universe, is within the reach of the sagging floor boards and peeling paint of an abandoned farm house or in the dry dust of a collapsing barn. Listen closely and you will hear the answers to questions you were unaware you’d asked, whispered in the cold midday breeze that flutters the torn and tattered shreds of curtains hung against pane-less windows.

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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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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.

 

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.

 

Aging Sunlight


This morning, at our up north cabin, I woke up late and alone, but that was only for a moment. The sun was shining brightly and as I got out of bed, I saw, on the wall, briefly projected by the scattered sunlight that shone through the leafy trees and the window, the image of your face, and I felt you with me. Even after the sun rose higher and the image was gone, you were still with me, in my heart, in my soul. But that’s nothing new – you’ve been occupying that same real estate for thirty six years now.

Then I thought for a while about the sunbeam that originated from the center of our universe, from about 93 million miles away, and how it was still strong enough to show your face on my wall, and I thought about how it burns so hot it can melt objects into their gooey sub matter from even that great distance.  It occurred to me that the only force stronger and brighter than the sun is your smile and the light that emanates from it.  It’s my favorite thing in all of creation, and its light has been melting my heart every day for the past thirty six years now.

Scientists say that it takes only eight minutes and twenty seconds for a beam of sunlight to traverse the 93 million miles to earth. That may be, but I know that it took the entire almost fifty nine years of the life I’ve lived so far for that specific beam of sunlight to project your face on our cabin wall this morning, and it’s taken a lifetime of loving you to illuminate the uncharted and unexplored dark wildernesses of even the most remote regions of my soul.

The Possum-bilities are Endless


 

(Tomorrow night I will be the emcee for the next session of our local oral storytelling group.  I was considering reading this as a bit, but thankfully, my wife and children convinced me not to.)

A couple of years ago, I found the skeletal remains of a dead possum in my back yard.  There was no hair or fur, and no internal organs, just a skull and some bones. It actually looked pretty cool.

But then I started thinking – how did I know? This was a possum, after all.  And what do possums do?  They play possum, they pretend they’re dead to fool predators.  They’re like the actors, the little thespians of the animal world. So how did I know that this possum was really dead?

He certainly seemed, with no flesh or internal organs, to be dead, but how could I be certain he wasn’t just giving the greatest performance ever by a possum? I thought of Robert DeNiro, and how for Raging Bull he put on sixty or seventy pounds. How could I know that this possum wasn’t a method acting possum, Robert DePossum, and was so dedicated to his craft that he shed all of his flesh and internal organs to heighten the realism of his performance?

All I could come up with was to find when the possum Oscars are scheduled and where they are broadcast. If Robert DePossum is nominated for best actor, I’ll have my answer.

June, 1978


I was standing on the back porch of the little yellow house, waiting for who only 30 seconds earlier had become my ex-girlfriend  to get  off the phone and come back to  the porch and finish dumping me. It was a beautiful late spring day and as I stood there, I became aware of the sound of songbirds and the warm late afternoon breeze that lightly brushed my face.

Sherilynn was still on the phone. I became aware of a decision I could make right then and there. I could stand there and wait for her to get off the phone and finish telling me why we aren’t right for each other, or I could accept the invitation made by the songbirds and the breeze.

It didn’t take me long to make my decision.  As I pulled out into the street, her little yellow house and the small factory town appeared and faded in my rear view mirror.  I felt alone but not lonely, and as I drove west on highway eight, I began to feel strong.  I was nineteen years old, and you don’t get much stronger than that.

Fore!


Yesterday, as I turned on the U.S. Open (only because it was being played in Wisconsin – for some unexplained reason I needed to see what Wisconsin looks like on national television.), I was reminded why I don’t watch golf on television.  No, it wasn’t because the pace moves slower than most glaciers.  It wasn’t because of the sleep inducing hushed tones of the announcers.  It wasn’t because of the silence from the crowd that is demanded by the middle-aged millionaire “athletes” while they line up their shots and wiggle their butts, not the righteous indignation  that is suffered should an unfortunate soul in the gallery so much as sniffle, while 18 year old boys in the NCAA basketball tournament, with  the national title and billions of dollars to the school on the line, have to stand at the foul line and make free throws with an entire student body screaming and waving flags straight in their faces. It’s not the ugly slacks and shirts and general lack of understanding of seemingly simple fashion concepts like color coordination or basic good taste.  It’s not even the fact that Rosie O’Donnell was correct when she summarized golf as “men in bad pants walking.”

All of these transgressions would be forgivable, especially when one considers that after fifty some mind numbing years of watching television, my attention span has shortened to the height of a leg-less midget and I’ll stop and watch anything that has a shiny object, let alone a little white ball that’s being swept on a green carpet by men in orange pants, rolling across the screen in hypnotic rhythms until it drops into a cup. That, my friend, is compelling television. So there must be a reason I won’t watch televised golf.

Is it the big corporation sponsorship and the commercials for the Wall Street banks that drone on and on about such foreign subjects as “wealth management” and maximizing one’s “investment portfolio?” Is it the ads for luxury S.U.V.s and sports cars that cost more than my house?  No, it’s not even these things, or the fact that most Republicans love the sport almost as much as they love discriminating against minorities or making money off of and then screwing over poor people.  Compared to how they usually get their kicks, watching golf on television is pretty benign.

So if it’s none of these things that make watching golf on television an intolerable torture, then what is it?  Well,  I’ll tell you what it is …

It’s the guy in the audience, who, as soon as the ball is struck, yells out, “Get in the hole!”

Can there be a bigger moron in the world than this? On every shot, be it the tee off of a 600 yard plus par five or a two inch tap in, some idiot is compelled to yell this out.  Whether they believe that their shouts have the power to override the laws of time and physics and will the universe to act in accordance with their shouted words isn’t clear; the only assumption I can make is that somewhere sometime long ago, someone shouted these words and the ball actually did get in the hole.   Once.  Many years ago. Hasn’t happened since. Yet still the yellers persist.

These yellers somehow strictly embrace the code of silence and the polite “golf-clapping” etiquette that is expected of them otherwise, yet once the ball is struck, something inside demands that they scream out their four word mantra at the top of their lungs.  It’s as if they are saying, I paid my thousand dollars to watch this agonizingly slow spectacle unfold, I have to do something to keep myself awake.  Maybe screaming unsuccessfully at a little white ball to “get in the hole” reminds them of their sex life (note:  it is always male voices you hear shouting this, and there is always a hint of frustrated inadequacy in them that would be consistent with the Republican male that completes the profile of the typical golf enthusiast.)

And it’s only a Republican male that would be shallow and self-confident enough to so brazenly advertise their stupidity. Believing in “get in the hole” with no record of success would be consistent with believing in things like “trickle-down economics” or that climate change is a hoax.

So, golf fanatic, please carry on and enjoy your lunatic ranting and raving. Just do it without me.  I’ll be searching the airwaves for the next televised bowling match.

Welcome Home


(This is a short introduction I wrote tonight for the Kenosha Writers Guild anthology project.)

On a warm summer night in 2008, I attended a meeting of a local writers’ group in Kenosha for the first time. I’d brought with me a short piece, one of several little fragments of memoirs that I’d found myself recently writing. I found the group by doing a Google search on local writers groups. I had no idea what to expect as I entered the downtown ice cream store that was the location for the meeting. I’d brought along my little two page piece and nervously clutched it as I entered the store. The girl behind the counter pointed me to the table in the back where I joined the handful of others who were already there.

With about a dozen participants on hand, the meeting began, and after short introductions, the group got down to business. It turned out the old group was dissolving, and as I sat there, confused and unaware, I witnessed the birth of the Kenosha Writers Guild. After about an hour of establishing baseline rules, electing a president and board of directors and frankly boring me to death, they finally got around to sharing some writing.

There were poems, novel excerpts, short stories, and essays. Some were rough and unfinished, others were more polished, and the subject matter varied widely, but there was something I couldn’t put my finger on right away that they all shared in common.

Then it was my turn to read, and as I was (and still am) mortified by the thought of public speaking, another guy was nice enough to volunteer his voice.  He read my piece aloud for me, and as I sat there and listened to my words spoken by this stranger’s voice, it occurred to me that I knew what the common thread was that all the pieces, including mine, shared. It was the fact that everybody at that table, at the end of a long day working and raising families and living the life they had to live, found time to sit down and put pen to page, or fingers to keyboard, and put down whatever it was they ended up putting down.  But that was only part of it.  The other part was that they felt compelled to take what they’d written and share it with others.  I knew that was the case for me, that the need to have my work heard by others was what drove me there in the first place.

The meeting ended sometime around ten o’clock, and as I walked the couple of blocks to my car, I was joined by an older guy from the group who complimented me on my piece and said, “welcome home.”

That was nine years and two novels (one self-published, one just finished) and three or four published short works and a personal web page with over 200 pieces posted ago. I am now one of the senior members of the guild, and one of the three members of the steering committee that headed this project.  Many writers of wildly varying skill sets, young and old, have come and gone, writing in all kinds of genres and forms. In terms of skill and sophistication, our writers have covered the spectrum.  The one thing they’ve shared, though, is that something drove them to not only write but to share what they’ve written with others. The Guild not only provides a mechanism to fill this need but also an audience who is also driven by the same fever. It remains a place where writing and reading are celebrated, a place where we speak the same language, where we look out for one another, where we help each other grow and develop.  It is in the truest sense of the word a family.

So to all my fellow Guildies, past, present and future, enjoy this collection as a representation of where the Guild is at this point in time. And whether you’re a nine year veteran or a future member, let me extend a simple but sincere:

Welcome home.