Thursday, August 25, 2016

Carpe Diem

Golf has been going well.  If you have golfed much at all you know that as a game golf presents great challenges.  You can play really well Tuesday, hitting the ball a long way, more or less where you intended, connecting solidly on nearly all your swings, chaining together three or four good shots in a row, putts included, to score well.  Try as you might, knowing it’s not true but unable to stop yourself, you begin to secretly believe that golf, at least for you, after all these years, has at long last become a fairly easy game.  There’s a bounce to your step.  You feel skilled and accomplished.  If life was an ocean you would be skimming over it like a surfer, ahead of the wave, triumphant.

And so you seek out more opportunities to play.  In fact, you can hardly wait to get out there again.  The next time you venture onto the links you get off to a bad start, hooking your drive on the first hole, hitting your approach shot fat, misreading the green and putting the ball wide of the hole.  Uncharacteristic of me, you think to yourself.  The internal dialogue goes like this: I just need to settle down, concentrate on making better swings, and play within myself, like Tuesday.  Play the course and don’t let the course play me.  It will get better. 

By the eighth hole you want to sneak off to the parking lot and go home.  You haven’t hit a good shot all day.  Clubs that used to be reliable fail you.  You can’t hit your driver, your utility clubs are wildly off the mark, your iron shots dribble down the fairway or worse disappear out of bounds or into the hazard.  Close to the green you muff chip shots.  You haven’t made a putt all day.  You’ve missed every opportunity, no matter how slim, at par.  You’ve blown up on several holes though you can’t bring yourself to mark double digits on your score card.  You hate golf.  You may never play golf again. You find yourself thinking “I could probably get good money for these clubs on e bay.  There are better things I could be doing. Lots better.”

Golf is like that.  It can be hugely rewarding, and then without notice it can make you feel like a bottom feeding fish, a big fat carp with sucker lips that can do nothing but scour the river bottom for the flotsam and jetsam nature leaves behind, available to you only after it sinks to the river’s mud floor and begins to smell.  You feel wretched but you keep slogging, swimming against the current, the pressure of the entire river on top of you, desperate for any glimpse of hope the game may grudgingly allow you.   Golf can do that to you, defeat you wholly and without mercy.  It can gut you.

Fortunately Tuesday, August 23, 2016 at Tanna Farms in Geneva was one of those wonderful golf days I first described.  Like many days this summer the weather was iffy and hard to predict but at tee time, 9:48, the sun was shining.  The sky was bright blue save for those high wispy white clouds.  Lower and in front of the wisps hung giant soft cotton ball clouds. There was a nice breeze.  My group teed off, the weather held, the course (aside from the bunkers) was in good shape, and we played well.  We had 15 par equivalents.  A number of birdies contributed to that total.  It was three guys, each playing 18 holes for a group total 54 holes, notching 15 pars.  For us the day was almost other worldly.  That combination of numbers, pars scored divided by holes played, is 27.8%.

If our group was organized enough to keep records, Tuesday’s score could our group’s all time best.  Screw record keeping.  I’m declaring it our best.  On top of it all we ended our day in the restaurant/bar enjoying lively conversation over cold beer and great Reuben sandwiches.  We had a convivial two beer lunch and headed back home.  Lovely day.  As our local LaSalle County Democratic Party chairman Rocky Raikes is wont to say “It don’t get no better than this.”  I haven’t golfed since.  Why screw up a good thing?

I’m getting out of here on that high golf note, leaving the country, heading to Canada.  I’ll drive with six other guys to Red Lake Ontario and take a seaplane from there which will land on a remote lake with one cabin and a dock.  We will unload our stuff and the plane will take off.  Once he is out of sight we will be the only human beings there.  They take us in on Sunday and pick us up the next Saturday. We will have no connection to the rest of the world except for a satellite phone used only for emergency.  Up there in the woods and water there are no cell phone towers.  Solar panels will provide a little electricity in the cabin, but outside that structure there will be no artificial light, no roads, nothing else man made.  An occasional plane flying overhead will be the only reminder of the modern world.  The quiet is breath taking.  The only artificial noise we will hear is the sound of the small gas motors on our four fishing boats.  I’m very anxious to get there.

I obviously won’t be posting my blog from there, but I’ll be thinking of one to write when I get back.  Chances are both you and I will get to the wilderness less and less in our future.  It’s an experience that should be shared, I think, when possible.  I like to fish, and I like the experience of being away, but most of all I appreciate the beauty of the natural world.  Up there you get to soak in it, roll around in it as it were, every day and night.  It becomes part of your daily rhythm.  You notice every part of nature more; the sun, the clouds, the water, the trees.  We could do that at home each day but the world we know so well takes over.  Familiar streets, leading to often traveled roads invite us to speed past the beauty around us.  We look at screens now to experience each other and the world: TV screens, computer screens, phone screens.  We hear other sounds, react to other voices, think of other things.  Up there it’s different, and the difference is wonderful.

It’s my third year of taking this trip over Labor Day weekend.  I know from experience I’ll miss out on things that happen back home; Cub games for one.  Last year when I got back to Wi Fi and reconnected to the world of information I learned Jake Arrietta had pitched a no hitter.  On the other hand I will also miss a full week of presidential campaign news, which will subtract seven full days of media bullshit from my life which I will never again experience.  I might make it till election day after all.  My fear though is that it will be like watching a soap opera.  One day of viewing will probably catch me up on everything I missed.
And so I’m off, lead head jigs, spoons, and steel leaders packed along with a rain suit, a wool sweater, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and carefully packaged garden tomatoes.  I take a survival kit of sorts with me in my tackle box in case I get lost out there on the lake.  It consists of wooden strike anywhere matches in a waterproof container, four tins of sardines, a compass, a compact emergency silver tinfoil shelter that’s supposed to keep in your body heat (never used), and a flask of whiskey.  I don’t expect to use any of it, except for the flask.  We will live rustically for a week but we’ll eat well.

In addition to the walleye we eat most every night we buy this wonderful Canadian Rye bread across the border.  Toast it and layer some lettuce and that thick Canadian bacon (more like ham) with mayo and salted home grown Illinois tomatoes between the slices, wash it down with a LaBatt’s Blue, and you will have enjoyed right there a simple internationally sourced lunch that is nearly impossible to top.

Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine up there.  Take care of things while I’m gone and I’ll make a full report upon my return.  Golf if you get the chance.  Try not to be a carp.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Paper Route

My son Dean, out of nowhere, told us long ago at the dinner table he wanted a paper route.  He was maybe 11.  My kids amaze me.  Just when I think I know them, they change.

“It’s a hard job Dean.  Why do you want to do it?”

“I want the money.  And I think it will be fun.”

He envisioned himself riding his bike briskly down the middle of the pavement, tossing papers skillfully, landing them perfectly on doorways on either side of the street.  It wasn’t that easy.  He found out it was easier to walk his route, primarily made up of three dead end streets just north of our house, toting a canvas bag stuffed with papers slung over his shoulder.  Only rarely, in extreme temperature or stormy weather, did his mother or I help him.  Aside from one hot afternoon when I observed him losing his cool at a stack of heavy papers and angrily throwing the ad inserts in our garbage can, Dean was a really good paper boy.  He was dependable and made friends with customers on his route, especially the old ladies. One woman gave him a can of pop every day.  He cleaned up at Christmas with bonus money.

Dean was frugal with the money he earned.  When he neared high school and quit his route Dean bought a desktop computer better than the one we had at the time.  I was proud of him.  I still am.  He’s the staff accountant at a Chicago not for profit on the West Side that provides housing for the homeless.  I think that paper route served him well in many ways.

This past week I helped another person with his paper route, a guy at church whose 99 Taurus blew a head gasket.  It was a high mileage car and he didn’t pay much for it, however it may have lasted longer had it not been pressed into service on a rural motor route for our local paper.  It’s a tough business, being a driver for a motor route.  Tough mainly on vehicles.   I was able to see that firsthand when I drove for him Monday.  He was in the process of putting that problem, and that car, behind him.  To do so he needed a little help.  He asked I pick him up so we could be at the local paper at 7:30 a.m..
“I need to get to my parking spot.  If the papers aren’t there we may sit in the park for a while.”

Being early is neither my strength nor my preference.  Actually, I hate being early.  This smacked of a deliberate and planned early arrival.  I have yet to find that either desirable or useful.  But I bit my tongue, arrived in plenty of time, and as we got to the big delivery door in a downtown alley behind the newspaper building he instructed me to back in, rear bumper by the building, not too far but not too close to the van parked next to it.  I backed in.

“That’s a little too close,” he said.  I pulled out and backed in again.

“Just right.”

We sat there.  He asked if I wanted to go to the park but I declined, preferring to stay and watch what developed.  There was nothing to do.  Earliness was setting in. I worked on the Monday Tribune crossword puzzle with a yellow pencil.  I had a cup of coffee from my thermos.  We chatted.  More cars came and parked beside us.  A van parked directly in front of us, perpendicular to my headlights, hemming us in.

“How will we get out?”

“You’ll see after we’re loaded.”

“Does the truck from Kankakee with the papers come on time?”

“Not always.”

The drivers of the vehicles were milling around us, talking. Then a big honking truck with an equally large bearded driver arrived.  Pallets of papers were transferred to the building, and the process that brings a paper to your door began.
Bundles of papers bound with a yellow plastic band and covered with a “top sheet” were tossed into piles near the doorway and the drivers began to take them back to the cars.  I saw then why being early was an advantage.  Closer to the door means you carry your papers less distance.  A stack of newspapers can be heavy.

“Open the rear door on your side,” he said, after opening the rear door on the driver’s side.

“Will we need the trunk?” I’d removed my golf trunks in case.

“I don’t think so.  If it was Wednesday we would.  But the paper is pretty skinny on Monday.” 

He quietly shuttled back and forth from the loading door to the car, looking carefully at the top sheets, arranging bundles of newspapers on the hood, roof, and trunk of the Buick.  Then the flow of bundles seemed to stop.

“Any more bundles for truck seven?” he said to the guy in charge.

“I don’t see any.”

“Should we count them?” I said.  I was standing by the trunk.

“We’ll count them after we get them in the car.  OK, get on the other side I’ll begin handing you bundles.”

Glancing at the top sheets, he handed me bound stacks of papers.
“This one goes on the floor behind your seat.” Next. “On the seat by the door.” Next.  “On the seat in the middle.”  He was similarly placing papers on his side of the Buick.  “Between us in the front.”
When the car was fully loaded we counted the bundles in each stack, how many on the driver’s side floor, back seat left, back seat middle, and so on.  Satisfied we had what we needed in the right places, he announced we were ready to go.

"What's with that 'truck seven' deal?"

"I have no idea where that terminology comes from.  Maybe they once had their own truck doing this route."

“How many papers do we have in here?”

“Well, there's always stops and starts.  But I'd say right around 800.”


I looked up through the windshield and like clockwork the car parked in front of us pulled away, which allowed us to turn south down the alley.  We were underway.  Almost immediately we stopped.  Our first stop was the machine in front of the newspaper building itself. 

“Now I could use the trunk.  I’ll throw the returns in there.”  I popped it open remotely.

With a long plastic knife like key he opened the machine, transferred Saturday’s papers to the trunk, put in a bundle of Monday papers, and we were quickly on our way.  We repeated that same operation at various machines around town.  Some of them got surprisingly few newspapers.  We delivered bundles to housing units, dropped off bundles on various corners for foot routes, and in doing so met some of the delivery people.  Some twenty years later they seemed unlike my son Dean.  Most were adults.  It was a bright sunny day so we didn’t bother to put the bundles in plastic.  Soon we were making our way across the river and west on Route 71 out of town.

Once underway, we spent about an hour in town, filling paper machines, dropping papers off to carriers, talking to them.  The talk ranged from Trump to the Cubs.  They too were waiting for our arrival, well most of them.  Some bundles we drove away from, alone and forlorn on the street.  In concept the paper we were distributing is an evening paper, or was.  The fact that it arrives in Ottawa at 8:30 after it is printed in Kankakee blurs that distinction quite a lot.  Let’s just say you get it later in the day.  In truth, the freshness of its news is the same as the morning Chicago Tribune, which I also get.  What I don’t get in the Tribune of course is local news.  I’m a two paper, actual newsprint kind of guy with another on line.  I hope I can stay that way.
We dropped papers at various homes: in tubes, at the ends of driveways, and close to doorsteps.  I was surprised at how few houses received a paper.  When I did help Dean with his route a house that didn’t get a paper was an exception.  Now it’s the rule.  Many of the homes that did receive a paper were modest.  I tried to figure what that might mean.  No internet?  No computer?  Seniors not into technology?  It’s almost impossible to generalize.  You’d need real data.  Who knows?  I don’t know how print editions sales now compare with on line sales but my guess is that they’re down considerably.  As we headed out of town most of the papers were gone.

“What’s with all the tubes we don’t put papers in?” 

Most every mailbox or group of mailboxes had plastic tubes for receiving papers but we were putting papers into only a fraction of them.  As we went farther west some tubes of the neighboring rival paper began to appear.

“You have to request a tube from the paper.  But when you stop subscribing no one takes them down.” 

It was a sad sight, those faded plastic tubes, once with a purpose, now empty and useless.

“They make great birdhouses you know.  I have two or three tubes I put papers in with nests in the back that hatched out baby birds.  I imagine the unused ones have even more nests.”

A subtle reminder for me that everything has a purpose if you look hard enough.

If you are going to have a motor route delivering newspapers few would be more beautiful.  We followed 71 west as it paralleled the Illinois River past the entrance to Starved Rock State Park, past Point shelter, up the hill and into the woods.  We wound through the curves and canyons, delivering papers occasionally to the homes that border the park.  Are there prettier views in the Midwest?  Maybe.  I don’t know where.  At some point we turned around and headed back.  Near Catlin Park we headed south out of the river valley and into the beauty of Deer Park Township.
You don’t have to be a farm kid to appreciate Deer Park but it may help.  To a city person it might look empty.  To me it is chocked full.  Above us was uninterrupted blue sky dotted with clouds.  The road wound between fenced pastures, bean fields, corn taller than I’ve ever seen, farm ponds.  You’ll still find working farms, barns, and shed mixed in with those no longer in use, even an occasional corn crib.  There are beautiful farmsteads in Deer Park, with unimagined views.  It’s a rural paradise and we were in it, winding our way over blacktop and gravel roads, turning this way and that, dropping off papers but mostly soaking up the quiet stillness of the day.

Rangy red and white Hereford cattle and compact black Angus switched flies with their tails in the shade.  Hawks stood watch on utility poles.  Ground squirrels scurried across the road.  When we stopped to push papers into plastic tubes on flimsy posts dragonflies hovered near the windshield.  Farm families and wannabe farm folks plant day lilies and holly hocks by their mailboxes.  Bees buzzed near the blooms.  My friend pointed out one of his favorite places, a mud puddle where, when it rains, a cloud of yellow butterflies congregate, stirring and filling the air when he pulls in the drive.  He takes it slow there, trying to be gentle on his struts he says.  I bounced the Buick through roughly.

“I try to be good to my car out here.  The more gentle I can be the longer it will last.”

How long your vehicle lasts on the rural delivery route is the wild card of the independent business person who delivers your newspaper in the country.  Supplying the vehicle, replacing brakes and tires, making the repairs are, along with the price of gas, the wild cards hard to factor in to what your delivery person makes in the way of profit.  They pay their own social security and tax withholding, receive no benefits, and share little risk with the newspaper.  Once the paper puts the bundles out to be picked up, their job ends and the carrier’s task begins.
“How many miles do you drive a day again?” I said.

“About 90.”

“Well then heck, I bet eighty of those miles are driven out here in the country.”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”

“And you said out of 800 papers we delivered 720 of them in town.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So that makes a print edition of the paper delivered way out here damn expensive.  That’s one paper every mile.”

“Well, only if you want to look at it that way.  That sounds bleak.”

“I don’t know how else to look at it.”
A for profit business maintains buildings, pays a staff of journalists and support staff, buys newsprint and ink, maintains a printing press, a fleet of trucks and then pays drivers to drive anywhere a subscriber lives to deliver an actual product to their home every day but Sunday.  Every day.  That same content, like the content you are reading right now, can be sent in a digital file to your computer, tablet, or smart phone virtually free.  Do you pay to receive Dave in the Shack?  Does Dave in the Shack cost me anything to distribute?  That’s a definite NO to both.  By that standard a printed newspaper delivered to your home is wildly expensive.  How much longer can and will that expense be maintained?  How many fewer subscribers, wanting and willing to pay for the cost of a paper version of the newspaper, will it take before rural home delivery ends?
My friend loves his job.  He’s done a lot of different things in his life, but being a rural mail carrier is just right for now.  He’s come home to this area after being away for a long time.  He’s starting over.  Being independent to a large degree, spending time by himself, having time to think and put his life in order is perfect for him.  I saw firsthand how nice it might be, until I imagined my car breaking down, until the snowstorms hit, until the price of gas goes up and the pay doesn’t.  But that’s all in the future.  For now my friend is out there, every day, taking in the summer solitude like a Zen master in an old Pontiac Bonneville (with the good V-6 engine) enjoying work every day.  Working, for you perhaps, and happy to serve you.
Enjoy the feel of your newspaper in your hands.  Have a tomato and a slice of muskmelon.  Like summer everything comes to an end, but we don’t have to ponder that unless we choose.  Worry only if you want, but the smart move is to give your newspaper delivery person a nice tip.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

August Shack Report

August is the best month of summer. Things most anticipated come to fruition; tomatoes, BLT’s,  peppers, melons, vacations.  August is an ending of sorts but a good ending.  August is when summers are reflected upon as promise realized. This one, the summer of 2016, was particularly good.   I’m turning 65 Saturday, entering the safe harbor of socialized medicine called Medicare, and finally reaching the age in which I’m old enough to be officially retired.  I quit working three years ago which some consider early.  It’s been almost perfect, except that at 65 I am still an unpublished writer.  I shouldn’t complain.  The world has been kind to me.

In my three years since retiring I’ve learned a lot about writing and what it takes to be a writer.  I think I’ve improved.  I can see mistakes and edit faster.  I express myself with fewer words.  I’ve learned to rewrite effectively.  But I’ve discovered weaknesses.  I discovered I’m weak in areas of writing I didn’t know were there.


Here in the shack I quickly found a significant aspect of writing that exists in addition to creating stories.  There is the actual writing I am doing right now, putting characters together to form words, words to form sentences, sentences to paragraphs and so on.  And then there is working on writing, which I am loath to do.  Working on writing is what you need to do to go to the next level, find a wider audience, get published. I can barely stand thinking about it.  I think I have a block.  It’s not writer’s block.  I’m writing all the time.  It’s something else.  It’s packaging and promoting.  It’s figuring out how to break into that big vault of new readers.  Really, to be successful as a writer, to publish and gain a wider audience, need I both write and work on writing at the same time?  I think so, but so far I haven’t been able to do the latter.   

You read my blog, which I’m very grateful for, and you give me great feedback.  Without readers I’m not sure I could or would be doing this still.  Thank you.  By today’s count I had 646 reads, or at least opens, on my mid July blog post “Out of Selfishness.”  That’s the most I’ve ever had.  Though I can’t determine who clicks on the link via e mail and who accesses the blog through social media I’m pretty sure the growth is attributable to Face Book.  I had a lot of shares on that particular post.  The e mail list only gets smaller.  As my peers in social work retire or worse their agency e mail addresses turn up undeliverable.  Meanwhile on Face Book people I don’t know are reading my posts.   

Twitter is a bust so far.  To be honest I don’t know how to use it.  The only people who seem to respond to my twitter feed are Russian women seeking boyfriends or other equally weird messages.  Consider this message I got last week.

***شرکت نوين گيت***
با سالها سابقه در طراحي ،اجرا و خدمات سيستمهاي درب اتوماتيک و راهبند فروش،نصب و راه اندازي و خدمات انواع درب اتوماتيک (درب سکشنال - کرکره اتوماتيک - کرکره پنجره - درب ريلي اتوماتيک - جک پارکينگي - کرکره شفاف - رول گيتر - انواع راهبند و درب اتوماتيک شيشه اي... ) خدمات 24 ساعته و شبانه روزي حتي در تعطيلات رسمي مشاوره رايگان در تمامي مراحل

I was excited.  A foreign reader?  I immediately replied “I wish I knew what you were saying, but sorry I don’t read Arabic.”  No response.  Then I remembered the Google translate feature.  Here’s what my so called foreign reader was telling me.

The New Company Gate

With years of experience in the design, implementation and service of automatic door systems and barrier sales, installation and service of automatic doors (sectional doors - Automatic shutters - Shutters - Doors rail automatic - Jack parking - transparent shutters -  all kinds of barriers and doors made of glass. Service 24 hours a day, even on holidays.  Free advice at all stages.

I need a Twitter lesson.  It’s not working out.  I don’t understand hash tags.  There’s a lot of work I can do there but I don’t know if it’s worth it.  Twitter is nearly as foreign as that right to left Arabic alphabet. 

I’ve tried other avenues on the working on writing journey with little success.  I bought books about writing, friends have lent me and sent me books about writing, and though I’ve read some of them I can’t honestly tell you what they said.  I have subscribed to writer advice e mails.  There are a lot of them, but most want you to purchase training packages, or pay to listen to mass digital seminars organized by supposedly famous authors who mainly boast of their platforms, followers, and sales.  I couldn’t seem to find anything they actually wrote except for the briefest stuff.  I concluded they were famous for their sales not their sentences.  I asked to be taken off their lists.  I feel like I’m drowning in information about writing.  Writing about writing is also writing, but it’s not what I’m after.

I did remain subscribed at The Write Practice and NarrativeThe Write Practice is a brief and direct communication offering various bits of advice from a number of writers, all short and to the point.  I don’t read them all, but often they answer questions to which I don’t know the answer.  Narrative was recommended to me by a friend.  It’s an online not for profit publication founded in 2003 that is dedicated to advancing literary arts in the digital age by supporting the finest writing talent and encouraging readership across generations, in schools, and around the globe.  Quite a mission.  It also sponsors writing contests.  I just missed a July 31 deadline for their last one. 

That’s a core problem.  Although I’ve been writing off and on all my life I’ve never submitted anything for publication.  Nada.  Zip.  I’m beginning to think that’s a problem.  At the suggestion of a writer I met at Lit Fest in Chicago I subscribed to DuoTrope, a web site that lists and gives weekly updates on every known magazine, ezine, journal, publishing house, you name it that accepts writers’ material.  It’s gigantic, the number of publishing opportunities, paid and non paid.  Absolutely enormous.  The lists seem endless.  I’m put off by its enormity.  DuoTrope provides a program for tracking submissions, makes on line submissions possible, does everything it seems but scan your hard drive, find something suitable for one of the thousand of content displayers, and sends it in for you.  Sadly I have yet to pull that trigger.

I have a hard drive full of blog posts, short stories, and the beginnings of books.  On paper I have journals from trips, college papers, stories never digitized, potential material in my head coming out my ears.   Let me give you an example. 

I found a paper I wrote in an American Lit class at ISU, the one that covers Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman.  In response to a simple and specific assignment to write about images used by Thoreau in his book of  Walden essays I turned in a rambling 4,000 word autobiographical narrative about myself on the farm.  It was a very personal lonely boy sort of confessional tale.  I don’t know what I was thinking when I turned it in.  It was perhaps the first time I had ever shared such personal thoughts on paper with anyone. Don’t ask me why I did it because I still don’t know.  The professor was Elsa Greene whom I now can’t find. 

She gave me an A.  She said this in her comments. 

What to say?  This is a piece of writing rather than a paper for a course-and it’s good.  There are problems with it but I don’t feel like going through them one, two, three, four, five.   If you want to talk about it come in.

I didn’t go in to see her.  She caught me in the hall weeks later after class and insisted I make an appointment.  Would not take no for an answer.  When I went into her office she had made a copy of the paper and had red lined it with additional comments. She said something to this effect.

“You have strings, or very small themes, that run through this piece which pull the reader along and then you tie them together.  That’s hard to do.  I didn’t know where you were going but I was intrigued and then you made it clear.  You have something here.  You know, there are student publications, maybe periodicals, that would print something like this.  It needs work, and I could help you, or someone else could if you prefer.  But I think you should pursue this.  What you show that you are able to do in this paper is not easily accomplished.”

I didn’t know what to say.  The thought of others reading what I was thinking, finding out who I really was and what I had revealed in that paper was daunting.  I didn’t think I was ready for that.  I said nothing in return. After a period of silence she spoke again.

“I’m not going to embarrass you further but why don’t you think it over?  It would not have to be this piece.  You could work up something else.  But I encourage you to keep working at this.  I think something could come of it.”

Again I said nothing. Finally I mumbled a thank you and got out of there

I never told anyone but my wife and a friend about that conversation till now.  I had forgotten about the paper.  And then I found it in a buried folder of old stuff and re read it.  It was clumsy and sloppy.  I rewrote it.  I remember exactly what I was trying to say 45 years ago because it was my life.  It was me speaking.  It was that internal dialogue I’ve lived with for all these years put on paper.  It’s that thing I try to get across to you but cannot express in a sustained book like way.

I have plans for a book of farm stories.  Is it a book of stories or is it a single story?  At one point I cast about trying to find an answer to this question.  Is each chapter of a book its own story?  Or is the whole book one story?  I think it is one story.  That concerns me.  What if I don’t think that big?  My stuff is short, it begins and ends.  How do I chain it together?  Exactly how do I write these books anyway?

I made a vow never to lock myself into a memoir but everything I want to say can be found somewhere in my life and the lives of those around me.  What if family or friends are offended?  The farm stories may read well for men and women now old who never lost the feeling of being on the farm and want to go back, for those who secretly know a part of them never moved to town.  But everything I learn tells me books of short stories are notoriously hard to publish, except for accomplished novelists.  I have to think farm book, but in my mind it's farm stories.

There’s the book about marriage and parenting.  There’s the tale of a college kid trying to sell stories in a grocery store.  There’s the book about building the shack and why it had to be built.  There are travel stories, the cryptic book about the man from the mountains who comes to live by the sea.  If my books were ships on that sea they would be unmoving and still, becalmed, no wind in their sails.  My books are just not what I want them to be.  It feels like they go nowhere.  For a more Midwest closer to home metaphor if my stories were railroad cars they would be that long line of sand cars sidetracked near Grand Ridge waiting for the price of oil to go up, fracking to resume, and Illinois Valley sand to once again in demand, along with the now idle freight cars that carry it. 

Thank God for the blog and the feedback you provide.  I’ve gotten used to exposing my thoughts and feelings there.  Why can’t I let you in on the books?  Imagine how much worse it would be if I had no readers?  I started the blog at work you know and quit work because the blog became the only thing I wanted to do.  And so I stick with it, and you as readers, even though I sometimes think I should plow all my effort into a novel.  Try as I might I cannot make the blogs posts into a book.  A book is a different animal, and I haven’t captured that animal yet.  But the blog gives me much.  I hope it gives you something as well.

So here in August 2016, three years into retirement at age 65, I am not discouraged.  Retirement and my writing in the shack continue to change and grow.  After three years of not officially working I find myself relaxing more, confronting my shortcomings, and rising to new challenges.  I have not produced a book, but I’ve not given up.  I’m optimistic.  I’ll let you know next August what the new year brings.

 I’m open to suggestions.  Thanks for reading all the way to the end.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Makers and Takers

A week ago Monday, after returning rented bikes to a bicycle shop early on a sunny morning, my wife and I were sitting outside a kosher donut store in Madison, Wisconsin having mediocre coffee and cold donuts.  We were wrapping up four nice days in that town, which as a state capitol is about as unlike Illinois’ as you can imagine.  Had I been forced to make overnight stays and countless trips to Madison rather than Springfield during my career as an agency exec I may not have retired.

In any case there we were, minding our own business, wondering what has to occur in order for a donut to be deemed kosher, when a giant red SUV with Wisconsin plates that read “Donut Man” pulled in the parking place, scaring away a tiny sparrow pecking at a bit of blueberry cake donut Colleen had just thrown there.
Emerging from the SUV was a big guy in an American flag tee shirt, shorts, and bright yellow green tennis shoes.  A cap, complete with the gold scrambled eggs embroidered (or glued) on the bill, told the world he was a Navy vet.  Before he closed the vehicle door he immediately posed a question.
“How do you like those donuts?”

I’m not sure he waited for our answer before launching into his life story.  He had cornered the market on kosher donuts, the one and only provider of such in Southern Wisconsin, hell the whole state for that matter.  Starting on a shoestring, now employing I forget how many people, paying their health insurance, everyone earning over $12 bucks an hour, creating a new donut store on the north side of town, all take out, no seating, because that’s what donut buyers want.  He doesn’t know the first thing about donuts, he admitted, leaving that to the bakers, but he DOES by God know everything about the donut business.  As he talked the hungry sparrow returned and peered tentatively under the vehicle before disappearing beneath the bumper to retrieve the abandoned crumbs.
The Donut Man was the kind of guy that talked a lot about money.  He told us what everything cost; the store we were sitting in front of in 1989, the property taxes then and now, the custom made bench we were sitting on, the neon signs hanging in the windows, also custom made.

“You know why you hardly see neon signs anymore?”

As my wife began to say no he talked over her, providing his own answer

“Because they’re damned expensive that’s why.  But I don’t care.  I love the damn things.  I designed these myself.  $600 a pop.  See that neon coffee cup?”

We turned to look, being polite I guess, and in doing so became captive participants in both his display and discussion of the art of gas and glass.

“The outfit I bought these from, local place, had made plenty of neon coffee cup signs before and showed them to me as examples.  But none of them really caught my eye.  I had something else in mind. And when I told them my idea they just looked at each other.  They never had considered making one with a donut being dunked in it.  They loved it.  Original as hell they told me.”

I looked hard at that mysterious neon creation, finally able to make out the donut half submerged in a coffee cup.   At first glance it appeared to be a UFO landing in an above ground swimming pool.
He smiled proudly.  We smiled back.  What else you gonna do really?  There you are on vacation with little else to do listen to a small business man brag about his accomplishments.  He went on and on.  These are only the highlights believe me.

“See that neon pineapple?  You know what the pineapple represents?”

“The international sign of welcome?”  I managed to get it out quickly before he could provide the answer.

“Nope, the international sign for accommodation. Sailors from all over the world, you know they didn’t know the languages in all those ports, they would see a pineapple painted on a business or home and know they would be accommodated there.  Had to have a neon pineapple for my business.”

He was wearing down a little a bit and surprisingly asked us a question for a change.
“You folks from here?”

“No, we’re here on a long weekend from Illinois.”

“What do you do?”

“We’re retired,” I said.

“From what?”

“I ran a private not for profit agency for kids and families.  We did counseling, foster care, day care, worked with immigrants, lot of things.”

Colleen answered for herself. “I was a public high school teacher for 34 years.  Special Ed math.”

“Oh yeah?  Is that right?”  I could see disapproval in his face.  We don’t usually get that response when we talk about our work.  I was surprised.

He turned and shut his big red SUV door. The sparrow flew out from under his truck.  He turned back and took a few steps toward us.

“Well let me tell you something.  I’m a maker not a taker.  Been running this place since 1989.  Started with nothing. Raised my family selling donuts.  Never took a dime from the government.  Not one dime.  Never will.”  He was getting loud.

I was stunned at the implication. He said it as if my wife and I identified as takers.  What does that mean?  That we’re a problem? That we’re greedy?  Does he assume we concede that private businessmen like him are somehow superior to us?  My wife and I stood as one and quickly said goodbye.  Perhaps he was looking for an argument, hoping to engage in some kind of economic debate.  Or God help us maybe he wanted to spout off about the presidential election.  He kept talking and was saying something I couldn’t make out as we continued to put distance between him and us.  We were on vacation for Christ’s sake.  We didn’t need to listen to that.  But I’ve been thinking of it ever since; amazed at how damn rude strangers can be these days, and also wondering where that kind of thinking comes from.  Makers and takers.
The Donut Man boiled him and us down into a tightly confined phrase with two nouns separated by a conjunction, the kind Americans like so much.  Makers and takers.  Win or lose. One or the other.  Love or hate. This or that.  Republican or Democrat.  Black and white.  It’s not helpful.  It’s too simple, and always false I think. 

I’m not sure how others view the work my wife and I have done but we have never felt like takers.  If you had to reduce our contributions to the world in a word that ends in r I would call us givers.  My wife has a sort of gift.  She can engage kids who hate math, who have never been successful in math, who panic when they see an equation and show them that they are indeed smart enough to get it.  She’s still sharing that gift with kids part time, now with the help of a computer and self paced software instead of the pencils, erasers, and calculators she began with in the 70’s.  She has touched a lot of kids’ lives not only in regards to math but about getting along in school, finding help, calming down, looking beyond the moment, any number of things.  I think she gave a lot of herself.  She’s 5’2” and used to break up fistfights in her behavior disorder classrooms.  She worked hard.  I think she made a difference for the young people in our community.  Did the Donut Man intend to paint her as someone who simply took from society rather than contributing to it?  What was he getting at?  What exactly was she taking?  Is it that she was paid from tax dollars? That she receives a public pension rather than social security?

Of course a lot of people don’t make the distinction between private and public agencies.  The child welfare agency I worked for, like virtually all child welfare agencies, receives government contracts along with privately raised dollars to work with the families who need their help.  I don’t get a public pension because I was not a state employee but that was a choice I made.  I knew what I was doing.  I saved money for retirement and am using that as well as social security to get by from now until I no longer need money.  Does that make me a taker?  As the head of a not for profit I put together all the resources I possibly could and fulfilled the intent of every government contract  we were fortunate enough to obtain so that the community I served got maximum benefit from them.  My job was to bring resources to kids and families so they could be whole and healthy, escape poverty, and live independently.  So in this limited little two category version of the Donut Man’s world, am I a taker because I was associated with government?  How about the jobs I created, the programs we started, the people to whom we provided therapy, the families for whom we provided child care?  Not enough still to be a maker?  Even though my wife and I worked our whole life to give people the tools they needed to get jobs in their community, perhaps work in an agency, teach school themselves, or even start donut shops?  Do we still get labeled as takers?
We do each other harm when we generalize to category.  I’m may be doing the same to the Donut Man.  Had I argued with him he might have seen my point of view or yes possibly I would have appreciated his more.  I didn’t engage him further because because he pissed me off.   Instead I wrote this, because I write better than I think up angry retorts on the spot.  And also when you write after the fact  you usually get the last word.

Why write about it at all?  Because it was a teachable moment.  There is something here to learn.  Let’s be civil to one another folks.  We all contribute to our community, we all have value, and we should treat each other accordingly. That includes teachers, social workers, and everyone else, including the blowhard makers of shitty donuts.