Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Elevator Speech

I need to do some serious work on my elevator speech for Dave in the Shack, namely writing one.  The realization that I have no coherent description of what I’m doing here came about this way.

I was at a fundraiser for a local candidate and was introduced to one of the women that urged the candidate to run.  My friend introduced me as “a writer.  Dave writes a blog.  He’s going to write about (the aspiring and emerging politician.)”
“Oh really?  What’s the name of your blog?”

Apparently sometimes the name of the blog gives one a clue as to what it’s about.  Food blogs, political blogs, travel blogs, all descriptively and discreetly named.
Dave in the Shack.”

“So what do you write about?”

“Whatever I want.”
She looked puzzled.

“Fiction or non-fiction?”

“Well it’s typically based on things that happen. But I take license.  And sometimes I write straight fiction.  Creative non-fiction might describe it.”
Not a single spark of understanding appeared on her face.

“Do you write about politics?”
“From time to time.  I spent some time in Springfield directly working to increase funding for kids and families.  So I’ve been involved in the process.  But I write about a lot of other things.”

She looked at me blankly.
“Yeah.  Well I’ll have to check it out.”

My guess is she hasn’t.  Nothing I said would have made her want to.  My elevator speech, a succinct one minute summary, never materialized.
So what is Dave in the Shack about?  Good question.

It’s written in the first person and that person is me.  The opinions expressed in Dave in the Shack are mine.  I think you all know that.  A friend once asked if I have a long list of things I want to write about and check them off one by one.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I generally write about moments I recently live which seem meaningful.  I try to explain them to you, hoping they may also be meaningful to you. I admit that once in a while I do things deliberately so I can write about the experience.  I describe people I meet, conversations that happen, things I end up thinking about.  Still pretty non specific isn’t it?  Let me try again.

I started this blog while I was the director of a youth service/child welfare agency.  At that time it was named YSB update.  I had a pretty clear purpose then.  I wanted to write in a way that would create empathy and understanding, perhaps support, for the children we served and their parents.  Along the way I wanted to illustrate how hard my staff worked, what good members of my volunteer board did to help our cause, how much public policy on the state and federal level affected people in the communities we served.  I tried not to swerve too far out of that lane, although I admit I got personal at times.
When I retired I began writing Dave in the Shack.  It was liberating.  I was not longer the spokesperson for an organization, I was a guy writing from a shack about anything he wanted.  On the blog page I say “writing from a small place in a changing world.”  I suppose I try to note change, convey the struggles of working to keep up with a flood of news and information, in a world which we know so much more about but understand less.  But there’s more to it than that.

Although I’m retired and work, for money that is, barely at all (as an election judge I am paid each time there is a local election.)  I’m still doing things.  I volunteer, directly and as a board member, attend church, live in a community.  I have time now to think about what’s going on around me and observe life and its interactions in, sometimes in detail.  It’s a good thing to do.  I recommend it.
And as I live that life I encounter people, events, experiences, that are so touching, or important, I think they should be recorded and shared.  Not forgotten.  Things that can be used to inform others, you, my readers.

And so that is mostly what I write about.  Noteworthy aspects of everyday life.
I remember overhearing staff in the kitchen at YSB in the 90’s talking about TV shows.  I rarely watched TV then, or since.  They were talking about “Seinfeld” which I had heard of but never seen.  Naively I asked a question

“What’s that show about?”

They all started laughing.  Apparently, there had been an episode that revolved around just  that.  One of them managed to say

and then they laughed again.  “Seinfeld” was a comedy that centered around  the everyday lives of a group of people living in New York apartments.  The episodes could be and were, about seemingly everything and in turn nothing in particular. 
I hesitate to say Dave in the Shack is about nothing.  But then again, it can be about anything.  “Seinfeld” was at least always funny.  This blog has been about music, food, social work, making peanut brittle, road trips, politics, farm life, animals, whiskey, you name it.  Sometimes it makes readers laugh and sometimes cry.

Sometimes I write a blog and from your comments, I find my readers react to something else.  Last week I wrote about a tender moment between siblings.  I was cooking eggs to order in the local homeless shelter and in the course of interacting with two kids, who could well have woken up to their first morning in a public shelter, one of those moments happened.  As I talked to them, coaxing an egg order from them, the younger, a little girl with shy eyes, pulled on her brother’s sleeve, cupped her small hand around his ear, whispered into it, and settling back to watch me.  Her brother reluctantly but dutifully did her talking for her, asking me if his little sister could have orange juice. 
It reminded me of the orphan in Oliver Twist who asked for more porridge.  It was the look in her eyes, her quiet but determined way of getting what she wanted under tough circumstances., that touched me.  I wanted to capture that moment and share it with you, with as many people as possible.

Instead, you thought I was the hero.  The comments praised me for being there in the first place and helping  the homeless people.  I was just the cook.  It wasn’t supposed to be about me, but them,  homeless people and their humanity.  But you can’t win them all. 
On the other hand, I asked for egg and orange juice donations and a guy reported that earlier this week he donated a gross of eggs (a dozen dozen) and a case of frozen OJ.  So in that sense, it worked just fine.

In conclusion I don’t know what Dave in the Shack is about.  Ernest Hemingway among others, and I find no one gives more advice to writers than writers, said this:
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

I try to do that in a way.  I would change it though to read
“Write hard and clear about what’s true.”

It’s therapeutic to write about what hurts, but readers don’t always share that pain.  However, I think you have a great appreciation for what’s true.  Some things, written well, hit home and resonate.  That’s what I try to write.  Maybe you know what I’m doing better than me.  Let me know if you can.  Thanks for reading all the way to the end.

P.S. - If you receive a link to Dave in the Shack via e mail you may be getting it from a new e mail address.  My only e mail contact is now  You may want to put it in your address book.  And as always, to comment on a blog received via e mail, just go to the e mail message and hit reply.  I’ll get it every time.   

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Eggs and Orange Juice

I cooked breakfast at the homeless shelter again this morning.  I’m happy to report there were a lot of eggs in the fridge.  33 people woke up in the shelter, but as you might guess, not everyone wakes up hungry.  Most all want coffee, but some aren’t ready for food.  Some just want to be left alone. 

I arrived at 6:30, got organized, and by 6:45 was ready to start feeding people.  My friend Steve, the night guy who volunteers from 3:00 -7:00, found pork chops in the fridge, cut them up, seared them then baked them, and had them warming in the oven along with some leftover ham and potatoes.  He found some pre made rolls of biscuits and had them on a baking sheet in the oven on a timer.  On the kitchen work table were two flats of eggs, one not quite full.  I counted them.  44. 
I had two skillets hot on the stove, a bottle of oil, salt and pepper, and a spatula.  On the counter next to the stove I set up a bowl for cracking eggs into, a big bowl for the shells, and a half a glass of milk.  I quietly interrupted the early morning reverie of a guy hunched over his coffee cup in the semi dark.  I had the kitchen lights on but no one had turned on the overheads in the dining room.

“You ready for breakfast?”

He looked up like I startled him, hesitated, then said

“I’m cooking eggs.  How do you like ‘em?”
“Sunny side up.”

I cracked two eggs into the bowl, one in each hand, and poured a little oil in the skillet.  When I emptied the bowl into the skillet, the whites puffed up and popped a little.  I turned the heat down and seasoned them with salt and black pepper.
“You want some porch chop with these eggs?”

Sunny side eggs don’t take long.  I had a circle of egg whites with two yellow suns slid onto a square white plastic plate in short order.  I opened the oven door and spooned on three or four hunks of pork next to them.  The timer had just gone off for the biscuits so I took them out and slid them into a big bowl, covered it with a plate.  They looked a little flat.  I don’t think that tube dough is ever as good as the stuff you mix up yourself.

“Toast or biscuits?”

I had put four slices of whole wheat in the toaster.  I pushed the lever down on two and rummaged around in the fridge for butter.  Nothing but margarine.  I brought it out with a jar of red raspberry jelly.
“Here you go.”

I slid him the plate. 

“Why don’t you turn the lights on out there?”
He did.  More people began to show up. 

The next guy wanted a plate just like the first guy had.  A woman came up to the counter and wanted her eggs scrambled.  I cracked them, two at a time, into the bowl.  As I added milk and began to beat them with a fork I looked at her, tall and thin, looked at all the eggs I had, and added one more.  She wanted the pork chop too.  When I asked her if she preferred biscuits or toast she said.
“Oh my.  You have hot biscuits here?”

She said that in up talk fashion, her voice ending on a high note.
“Yes I do ma’am.  Just like downtown.”

“Then yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Give me the biscuits please.”
Soon a line formed and that process repeated itself over and over.  For the record the most popular egg order is over easy.  But I heard a new one.  A young guy in a hockey jersey ordered his like this:

“Over.  Kill the yolks.”
I took that to mean over hard.  I messed up his yolks with my fork in the skillet.

Two kids came out before their Dad and got a bowl of cold cereal each.  They were quiet.  Could have been their first morning in the shelter.  I saw them alone, went out to where they were sitting. and asked them if they would also like some eggs.  The girl looked at her big brother, who nodded at her, and she responded quietly.

I addressed the brother.
“How about you?”

“How do you like them?”

I pointed at the girl.  She looked at her brother.  They both looked at me dumbly.  Finally the brother answered tentatively.

“Eggs don’t come regular.  All ways are equal.  You like them scrambled?”
They looked at each other again.  Again the brother answered.

“So you want the whites around the yolks.”

“And how do you like those yolks?  Runny?  Sorta runny?  Not runny at all?”

The brother answered for himself.
“Sorta runny.”

I pointed to the girl.  She looked at her brother, then me.
“Sorta runny.”

“Sounds like you both want your eggs over easy.  Try to remember that next time someone asks you.  That is, if you like the eggs I bring you.  I have biscuits or toast.  Which will it be?”
The boy opted for biscuits.  His little sister asked for toast.  I was about to walk back to the kitchen when the girl began tugging on her brother’s shirt.  A little annoyed, he bent towards her.  She cupped her hand around his ear and whispered something.  He looked a little disgusted, then looked up at me with a bored face.  Embarrassed I think.

“Do you have any orange juice?”
“Sorry.  Not today.  Lemonade or milk.”

He looked at his sister.  She shook her head.
“OK.  Thanks anyway.”

Their Dad came out and after conferring with his kids ordered his eggs over easy too.  I fixed three plates, kept everything warm, and served them all at once.  Dad was reading the want ads in the local paper.  Later I looked out and the little girl had her toast all cut down the middle and carefully slathered with raspberry jelly.  They were all talking together, the three of them. 
The little girl came up with their plates when they were finished, putting them in the plastic bin under the counter. 

“How did you like those eggs?”

“OK. That means you, your brother, and your Dad all like your eggs over easy.  Remember that.”
“Over easy,” she said, as if she was practicing.

And thus I served 43 eggs to a bunch of people on Monday morning, January 15, 2018 in Ottawa, Illinois at the PADS shelter.  May they all have homes, and their own eggs, very soon.
For all of you who have brought eggs to the shelter, and it appears there are many, thank you.  Keep them coming.  They make for good mornings.  Don’t forget the orange juice