Monday, October 29, 2012

A Life in Pictures

Digital Fairy Dust

There are times in ones life when experiences transcend the ordinary and leave a permanent deposit in your memory bank. A simple picture can capture those long since forgotten memories and ‘oh, yeah’ moments in one small smudge of bites and bytes and color hues.

They don’t replace or supplement the other zillion memory capsules flowing around inside your head. They just seem to rise to the surface more often than others.

They don’t define a person, just a micro-second ‘in the life of…’ A gentle jog to pin-
prick a memory bubble that is holding warm reflections void of harsh reality. A happy occurrence spilling out gentle remembrances without conditions or judgment.


I came across this picture of my father not long ago. It was in my office, buried behind books, treatments, scripts and other sundry tools of my emerging trade. It’s the only one I have of him and it comes without a caption or location. My mother kept that a secret like she did most everything else about him. His parents came from French Canada. I think he was raised in or around Detroit. He married my mother after another marriage failed. There were two kids right away. He left after two years and died four years later in some old unnamed hotel in Missoula, Montana at the age of forty-six. That’s about it. I know nothing more about him.

And at about the time I started to care, my mother had lapsed into old stories and frag-mented memories mostly made up so I wouldn’t question her any more about him. So I left it at that and never looked back. Until now.

Funny how you can look at a picture and still have a thousand questions that you know can’t be answered. You can study the eyes and facial features and still can’t get a true picture of who this man is that you’re looking at. Then for the first time, you realize that he had a mustache. Who knew? I’ve had one since my twenties and never knew why.

My sister and I were raised as two individuals, living totally separate lives, under the same roof. Now after forty or so years of estrangement, we’re having lunch often and caring about each other. Too bad it took so long to become brother and sister. Lots to make up for.

First time out of the country while I was still in the service. Experienced a minor earthquake in Mexico City, riding it out in an old hotel made of abode and brick. Hung out with students at the University, talking smack about Vietnam. Got sick from the ice in my warm Pepsi in Acapulco and had this great story idea while hiking these Mayan Ruins. (“Follow the Cobbler”) anyone.

First time living out of the country. Had a friend’s moped for buzzing around town on weekends, a library card at a branch library and a steady job. But a basement apartment that even the rodents wouldn’t live in.
She probably knew it was over long before I had a clue. I expect now that my trip to Boston was ‘fait accompli.’ But we spent time on Beacon Hill, New York City and points in-between attempting to patch up a fragmented lack of communication. It was ultimately a lost cause. Think “America” by Simon and Garfunkel or “Galway Girl” by Steve Earle.

Susan was able to see past my urban ghetto near the University, the dust-mites under my bed, the red and yellow walls in my kitchen and other vestiges of a man-boy living on his own. We were both chasing our own elusive goals in that vast confusing maze called adulthood. Ultimately we found it within ourselves and not with one another. She was a very nice person.

It started out with phone calls every night, seven nights a week for months on end. Just chatting about anything and everything. The long phone calls have ended and now we spend a lot of time apart under the same roof. Communication is more routine now but still completes the circle of understanding between us. I feel her presence and she feels mine. We communicate in subtle ways that only forty plus years of living together can produce. It’s all good.

Stranger in a strange land. Chattanooga, Tennessee. A Northern Yankee in public television trying to figure out southern culture where none existed. At least I had my Amsterdam pictures on the walls to remind me of more accepting countries. After eleven months, we escaped to Maryland and one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and some of the nicest folks I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Some are still our friends to this day.           

By mile sixteen I was as good as dead. In more pain than I’d ever experienced before in my life. Injuries during my training sessions had robbed me of critical time ‘on the road’ needed to prepare me for the torture ahead. It was not an exaggeration to say that every fiber in my body was screaming out to end the misery.

Melanie patiently stuck with me, losing any chance of her own PB. Then at mile sixteen she quietly said that if I dropped out she would continue on to finish the marathon by herself. The thought of meeting my daughter at the finish line with her a true marathoner and myself a dropout was enough to spur me on. She carried me for the next ten agonizing miles.

I had no choice. If I had quit, I knew I’d be back training the very next day and I would be on the starting line the following October. Better to die slowly now, I thought, rather than live with failure for another twelve months until the next marathon.

 We spent six days, pounding out 50-75 miles each day, as we rode our bikes across the state of Minnesota in an event called the TRAM; the ride across Minnesota. At night we slept in a stifling heat that caused sweat beads to run tickling lines across our skin, keeping us up half the night. We ate like pigs and chugged beers with wild abandon. And lived a vagabond life for six wonderful days on the road. It didn’t match our vision quest in the Amazon jungle but it sure came close.

They are the next generation, facing challenges and wonderful opportunities at one in the same time.

They’ve got more frequent flyer miles than a lot of adults and have tasted both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They’ve skied black diamonds in Colorado and hiked the deserts of Southern California. They’ve sailed quiet lakes in the Midwest and began the ritual of gymnastics, soccer, t-ball, art class, music class, ECFE, pre-school and first grade. Each has a library in their own room and of course at Nana and Papa’s homes. They’re read to every night and are just beginning to understand the power of literature. Even if it’s Ella the elephant or Lama Lama for that nights reading.

Much will be expected of them. I know they’re up to the challenge.

Part of it is the luck of the draw. Or good genes. Or that lucky intersection of like-minded individuals deciding to give it a go. Then the kids come along and a whole new set of challenges arises. And at about the time that battle has been won and the troops are safely home, it begins all over again and a new generation begins demanding your time and attention and love and affection. It’s actually easier the second time around, I guess, because some of the parameters have been moved back a bit and there’s usually a little more breathing space.

Of course, we gave them advice for twenty plus years so now they feel it’s their turn to give us advice. For another twenty or so years.

Isn’t it grand?

I Gave Birth Today

She’s as beautiful as any parent could ever imagine.

Coming into this world at six by nine inches, weighing in at just under three ounces.

I’m a parent for the third time and it feels wonderful. Again.

The gestation period began as rambling discourse inside my head. It was a jumble of disconnected thoughts about women’s equality, class differences, poverty, education, the sexual revolution of the sixties, the war in Vietnam and a dozen other disjointed sometimes fleeting bumps against my brain that somehow stuck there. And wouldn’t fade away.

She began life as an embryo, germinated by fifty-six pages of dialogue, scene descriptions, historical facts, character analysis and reflections on my own experiences during that turbulent period in my life.

Originally, the genesis began as a story that followed a group of college freshmen through four years of school in the Midwest. I wanted to place the time frame in the sixties because that was such a colorful period of social conflict and change. Within its storyline, relevant themes would include Vietnam, class in America, the hippie culture, drugs and alcohol, women’s new-found sexual freedom, the old guard vs.young revolutionaries and finally, the impact of Vietnam on a soldier’s life (even though I never served in the Nam.)

But by the time those disjointed thoughts, ideas, concepts and mental ruminations were scratched across fifty-six pages, those concurrent themes had evolved into a story of just two college freshmen. A man and a woman who were radically different in their upbringing, education, family structure and social mores. It took six rewrites before I figured out that the one common denominator between the two of them was their ambition. He was born hungry. Her desire for success was genetically implanted from her father.

After the fetus had taken shape, I began an arduous journey back in time and memory to a period I had long since forgotten; what I would eventually call my “Lost Years.” There were historical books to peruse, documentaries and movies to watch, yearbooks to browse, letters and pictures to study. All in an effort to build an organic storyline that was true to that time and those characters. And even though the storyline kept straying off course when something noteworthy was found and absorbed, it stayed true to its original intent.

The vernacular journey surprised me at times as it became a cathartic experience that unearthed a plethora of emotions from my past; many of which I was able to transpose on to my characters even as it evoked an emotional chain-reaction within me.

Then began the long and difficult task of editing, rewriting and more painful editing from a first round of 471 pages to a more trim but still eventful 381 Pages.

Some of my characters began life with one name but ended up with a different name. Those name changes began one pleasant evening when I was out to dinner with another couple and my wife. It ended that same evening with a series of verbal fisticuffs that left me bruised, battered and enlightened. Beginning with appetizers through the main entree and into desert, this trio of friends, editors and critics counter-punched every argument I could muster not to change some of the names in the story. They finally wore me down with their logic and reason. And in the end, I had to agree that the core essence of the story wouldn’t change with different names to some of the characters. It was a humbling but necessary exercise to protect my avatars from possible future scrutiny.

Only real friends would rake a novice writer over the logical coals like that, ripping away at the soft warm comfort I felt in my creation, all under the guise of making my baby better and me into a tougher-skinned writer. It hurt like hell but I have a better story for it. I’m grateful for friends like that.

Her original name, through seven rewrites, was “Love and Ashes.” But after numerous Google searches, I found that name had already been taken as a religious book written in the mid-seventies. “Love in the A Shau” became her name shortly afterwards. Now that I own the domain name “Love in the A,” I finally feel like a real parent.

Michelle was my mid-wife, helping shepherd the PDF files into electronic bites and bytes. One form took shape under the clan names of Kindle, Nook, Sony e-reader, Kobo, etc. The other was born in POD (print on demand) embodiment.

The deed is done. The book is published.

And all those wonderful characters I cherished and cared so much about are now permanently encapsulated in print or bites and bytes.

So now it’s time to move on and let the real nurturing begin. I have the challenging task of promoting and marketing “Love in the A Shau” as well as branding myself as a writer.

Of course, in addition to shepherding “A Shau” into the real world, there will always be new lives and loves to create, embellish, edit and capture in a new storyline. Creating “A Shau” was great while it lasted but I’m anxious for the next maturation of my imagination to begin.

I want to become a parent all over again.

Dying as an Exercise in Futility

My friend is thinking about death and dying. Not in a fatalistic or pejorative way but rather as an objective and reflective exercise in self-examination and future planning.

He’s going on a retreat this weekend. He’s been doing it for over 30 years. It provides him the perfect environment to help cleanse his brain of sundry matters and just focus for a long weekend on those issues in his life that really matter.

He’s been very successful in business, has been married to a wonderful woman for over forty years, great kids and grandchildren. He mentioned just casually he is also thinking about his life; taking a personal inventory and recognizing that there are less years left than when he was younger. He isn’t being fatalistic or a downer, just being realistic about his life as it is.

We agreed that we’re both at that stage in our lives where we don’t have much if anything left to prove. We’ve either done it or we haven’t. I wish I had done a few more things in my life but I didn’t. I wish some things had turned out differently but they didn’t. So be it. No apologies are necessary.

We agreed that we’re both old enough to see some things cycling around, coming full circle back into our lives. It’s really true that over time what goes around comes right back again. I guess it’s all part of that circle of life.

There is a movement in some of my city neighborhoods to bring back chickens. And chicken coops are sprouting up in a number of backyards. My friend has a picture of his father in his old neighborhood back in the 30’s standing around a backyard of chickens.

We talked about streetcars coming back and new-fangled contraptions called streetlights to brighten our downtown streets at night. A new University open-air stadium was built on campus last year. It replaced the domed stadium which only 17 years before had replaced an open-air stadium at the same University

I was raised in the city and couldn’t wait to get out of it. Now young couples are flocking back to the very neighborhood I fled forty years ago.

It got me to thinking. Does that mean that my circle of life is almost complete? Is my thirst for….just an excuse in futility because who cares anyway? I hope not. There’s still so much to do and who knows how much time to do it.

I’ve talked about meeting my old high school classmates in my blog “In the Company of Old Men.” I mentioned how shocked I was to see that a number of them had passed on. It feels very strange to look at an alumni picture book, spot an old high school chum and then read the caption: Deceased. It leaves an unsettled feeling in your stomach. And you don’t know if you should be looking over your shoulder for that shadowy figure in the black shawl anyplace close.

There are so many inconsequential ways to spend the rest of one’s life. I don’t want to spend countless hours shopping for groceries just because I’ve got the time to do it. Or sit with other old men in the coffee shop, bitching about anything and everything. I don’t want to travel just to keep moving or get a job just for something to do.

Role models are hard to find. I only know of a couple of older folks who are still active and alert and pleasant to be around. But the few I know are an inspiration for someone anxious to ‘do what I’ve always wanted to do’ and then some.

There are thirty plus books in my office that I haven’t read yet and if I count those books in my library that I’d like to revisit again or just review, I’d be page-locked for the rest of my life.

I will continue to seek out and welcome past acquaintances who want to share the good and sometimes not so good memories of a time since pasted. I’ve done it with several high school friends and it’s brought laughs and sighs and subtle nods.

Both my kids have promised to tell me when I’m acting like an old person. The trouble rests with their definition of getting old. Melanie thinks that my blog ‘Growing old with out underwear’ was simply TMI (Too much information). I guess I’ve failed to make my case to her. She says the first thing to go are the social graces.

So either my assumptions are correct and I just haven’t yet been able to communicate my thoughts and ideas in that area. Or my kids are right and I am getting old without even realizing it. In either case, as I ponder my predicament, I found the following quote that pretty much says it all for me.

To reach out is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas, your dreams before the crowd is to
risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life
is to risk nothing
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing
is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow but he simply cannot
learn, feel, change, grow, love, live…
Chained to his certitudes, he is a slave
He has forfeited freedom
Only a person who risks is free


Monday, October 1, 2012

Constant Charlotte

I have a long and storied history with Irish women. It goes all the way back to my college years. I wasn’t really cognizant of my Celtic connections until a travel documentary I had produced for my daughter’s study abroad program in Ireland resurfaced recently. It got me thinking about the Irish women in my life, real and imaginary.

There have been a host of fascinating women who have populated my life and my writings. Without a conscious effort to do so, I’ve managed to infuse a lot of my fictional female characters with Irish connections. And on some strange, almost organic level, that legendary Irish wit, charm, beauty and mystery has added greatly to the dimension and depth of those characters.  For the real ones in my past life, that aurora just came naturally, I guess.

For example, the name Charlotte and its Irish connotations have been tracking me for quite a while now. In Celtic, Charlotte is translated Searlait. It’s now become an indelible part of my life.

My second relationship, after college, was with another beautiful and vivacious Irish woman named Charlotte. She was in her early twenties and her strong personality was as radiant as her flowing auburn hair. Charlotte’s parents had passed away back in Philadelphia and she’d moved west when I met her for the first time. My wife, Sharon, knew about Charlotte and was accepting of our relationship. More on that later.

My Irish connections run deep even though my own heritage is German and French-Canadian.

 My son, Brian, married a Krayer. My daughter, Melanie, married a McMahon. One way or another, most of my immediate family are either alumni or subway-alumni of the Blue and Gold. All of them are radical members of the Clan of the Golden Dome.

Then the connections just continue on. My mother-in-law is named Charlotte. My eldest granddaughter is Maya Charlotte. And, of course, my youngest granddaughter, SweetPea, is also named Charlotte.

“Follow the Cobbler,” my suspense thriller now in its second rewrite, features a woman named Katherine as one of its protagonists. Katherine’s background remains a cauldron of fact and fiction (even to me at this point) but she can definitely trace her roots back to Celtic times. Irish folklore and legend figure prominently into her mysterious past. I’m still trying to sort out her quizzical history which goes all the way back to medieval times.
"Follow the Cobbler" book cover

My most recent novel, “Love in the A Shau” features an Irish college student named Colleen (some names in the novel have been changed to protect the uninitiated). She’s smart, ambitious and of course, beautiful. Colleen’s challenge in the novel is to remain true to her family’s heritage while struggling with her deep feelings for someone radically different from herself.

Irish Music

The folk music I love so much can trace its roots back to the Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh music of the 18th century. Those musical styles, themes, rhythms and vocal arrangements have been a part of our musical heritage for centuries. It’s a long and grand history that resurfaced for me in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s and the most recently with the resurgence with groups such as The Lumineers and Elephant Revival.


Temple Bar

The (now defunct) Triangle Bar on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota figures prominently in my novel “Love in the A Shau.” Dublin, Ireland, doesn’t have just one Triangle Bar. It’s got dozens. All located in the Temple Bar area near Trinity College.

Unlike the areas surrounding it, Temple Bar has preserved its medieval street pattern of many narrow and winding streets. It’s promoted as “Dublin’s cultural quarter” and has attracted a large number of bars, restaurants, museums and other artistic destinations.

Many of the bars and taverns there have the same vibe as the Triangle Bar did back in the sixties. Even with exorbitant prices and creeping gentrification, the area still beckons artists and musicians every day.


Avatars Deflecting Reality

Understanding women in real life is tough enough for the average guy. For a male writer to create fictional female characters out of real friends and acquaintances is even tougher. Then add subtle changes to hide their identity and the task becomes even more daunting.

In the same sense, relationships are hard enough to understand and maintain in real life. Creating them in a fictional world can be even more intimidating. Often times, the line between reality and fiction can blur, become focused momentarily and then fade back into vapor trails smeared across the computer screen. Which woman is an avatar and which is a real person? Where does the line between imagination and reality end and where does it pick up again?

Sharon and Melanie, Amy and Maya, Samantha and Charlotte are real enough. I care deeply for all of them and I think that has helped my writing. But the line can blur bet-ween fact and fiction, truth and exaggeration. It’s a constant challenge to start with a fictional character and not let a real one sneak in to take her place. Or visa-versa.

Is it really Colleen or Sheila, Medbh or Marti, Snow White or Susan? Some were born in a keystroke…others weren’t. Katherine, Miranda, Brooke and all my other fictional women are real in my imagination and the fictional world I’ve created for them. I can see them in my minds-eye. I feel for them. I care for them. I hope the best for them. And I want to keep it that way.

So my goal is to strike a balance between the real and imagined. I’ll try to keep my head in the clouds but my feet planted firmly on the ground. I’ll recognize reality but coat it liberally and affectionately with all the subtle enounces of a good story. I will continue to care deeply for those women as if they were real. Because in my mind, they are.

Charlotte Moves On

After a while, the second Charlotte in my life moved on, although it took her thirty eight more years to do so. And as much as I found her to be a fascinating person that I wanted to know in greater depth, it just wasn’t meant to be. In the end, she developed strong feelings for a gunslinger and drifter named Jeb Burns. I thought our relationship was over at the end of my first novel “Apache Death Wind.”

But upon the advice of my editor, I’m changing the ending of that story and leaving it open-ended for a sequel. As outlined thus far, the second story will have Charlotte returning to the west with two love interests in addition to facing the dangers of marauding Apache war parties. Who knows, she may come back into my life once again.

And if “Follow the Cobbler” works out, there are two more sequels waiting in the wings for that storyline. I might get to follow Katherine through more harrowing adventures and life-changing events. And I might come to better understand that mysterious woman who can trace her roots back to Maeve, the Irish warrior queen, and other legendary Irish folk heroes.

Three for Three

And even if Katherine, Colleen and Charlotte all fade away, there are still three strong women to steal my heart and cash in on my affections. And the youngest may be the most audacious of them all.

Maya Papaya
Sami Jam
Sweet Pea

My granddaughters have already assimilated their Irish heritage of strong convictions, fearless drive and feminist Zen.

Watch out young men, they’re coming.

And it might not be pretty.