Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Burying Fish

As a writer I’m always getting edited. Sometimes as a person I feel like people are trying to edit me. Life can be challenging—much like writing a short story.

Last week I received an e-mail via this blog about an essay I wrote over two years ago about Lake Erie called Wild Waves Motel. Tim wanted to catch me up on some of the facts my piece left out or entirely screwed up. My memory was definitely terrible. Mainly he and I connected over the emotional touchpoints.

What I loved most about his taking issue with my memoir flash was his take or perspective. As a kid when I got up early to wander down to the water—can you imagine today’s helicopter parents letting their kid wander down to the beach alone?!—I’d occasionally notice one or two dead fish washed up. He also remembered the dead fish, for his own reasons.

Lake Erie back then was a little better than a cesspool. It would be a few more years of concentrated effort and a decided shift away from manufacturing and industries that polluted before the lake could begin to recover. Fish kills occurred with regular frequency—so much so that Tim was given the chore by his grandfather to hustle down before the guests awoke and bury the disgusting evidence. Mostly what I saw was a little strip of beach washed clean except for a few water logged sticks and shards of wave-washed porcelain mixed in with the smooth pebbles lining the shore. The fact that I mentioned seeing dead fish meant he hadn’t done his job or missed some.

It was a long time ago. No need to feel bad about it.

The image, though, of a young boy burying fish has stayed with me. It is a poignant reminder of our own mortality. We try to deny it or the fact that it happens. So many of the people mentioned in the piece and my other entries under the tag Lake Erie or Wild Waves, they’re gone or almost. Tim’s parents and, of course, the grandparents who hired my Mom and Dad have all passed away.  

If only it were as simple to keep the things we love, to keep it all perfect, the memories polished and untarnished. But there are those damn fish smelling things up. We bury them, but one or two are always popping up to remind us.

The lake is still here, the cliffs beneath our feet, even the old Wild Waves. We look out onto the lake, the slate blue water receding into a pale blue sky and wonder—how long?

Friday, July 25, 2014

What I Saw on my Walk Last Night

What I Saw on my Walk Last Night

I stepped outside and saw someone in front of the halfway house jiggy dancing
and down the street a league of African nations play soccer on an empty lot,
with overturned trashcans and PCV tubing for makeshift goals.
After passing them, even from a block away I can still hear them cheer and roar, Score!
I walk past Margate Field House where a man wearing a bra on the outside of his shirt sits with his shopping cart. He also sports a fabulous hat, we nod at each other.
Next I meet a father walking with his son on a bicycle. He rides a bit crooked, tipping back and forth between the training wheels.
Then there is a family of women, a grandma, mom and a smattering of children. Grandma wears a white linen veil and a sari of white. If I were to guess I’d day they were from Eritrea. St. Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church hosts Eritrean Coptic services. The old woman stops and speaks to me, what looks to be a burnt match clutched between her teeth. I smile and steeple my hands as if in prayer. She folds her wrinkled hands over mine and continues to say something. Her daughter says she is happy. I know, so am I. The little girl wants to tell me her name and when I bend down she touches my hair.
That’s it, we part.
But not before I pass a young couple on a park bench, her head in his lap. He gazes down at her, their eyes meeting.

And that is what I saw on my walk last night.

 from the archives of Calumet 412

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What To Do About the Homeless

I subscribe to a number of blogs, one of which is Setting Prisoners Free by Jeremy Nicholls where he writes and photojournals about the homeless in Chicago. Check it out! I will frequently re-post or share snippets from his blog.

Jeremy is a case manager with Cornerstone Community Outreach (CCO) here in Uptown, Chicago. CCO recently has had a number of successful housing victories. The social work field is very statistic oriented. Numbers play a large part in who gets money—and outcomes—that's the lingo for what we sometimes refer to as miracles. Men and women who have been chronically without an address, living on the streets, homeless. Jeremy has tried to breakdown what’s behind this phenomena of housing some of the hardest of the hard-to-place. Though there are a number of factors he has cited one thing in particular: iPads.

This from his post “Making Housing Happen”:
I believe 2 tools have helped create many stories of successful movement. Firstly, carrying around and using a portable device allows me to access and submit information in a timely manner. Instead of insisting people set appointments and come into my office, an iPad (or smartphone) creates opportunities on the streets, in a church or under a viaduct that would otherwise be missed. Secondly, there's a quick and accessible citywide database called the "Centralized Referral System". By simply placing chronically homeless people on the CRS, many agencies see the need and provide them with support and permanent housing! As you see; the combination of these 2 tools help to create countless opportunities. Many doors have opened for some of society's most vulnerable citizens, simply by using an iPad and enrolling people on the CRS.

Jeremy will stop and see someone he knows by the MacDonald’s or as he mentions under the viaduct. He could see someone sleeping on the loading dock or between Dumpsters in the alley. Take time, chat with them, and then log their name into the CRS—simply by carrying an iPad.

It is my hope that someone reading either his post or mine will pick up on this story. I believe anyone on the front lines of dealing with the homeless here in Chicago should be provided with a FREE iPad just for this purpose—so that wherever the opportunity arises or a situation occurs, they can react in real-time.

There has recently been a big push here in Chicago for “Housing First” which means that as quickly as possible city and social networks try to come together to get a client housed. The longer a person or family remains on the streets or in a shelter—then this life disruption causes irreparable damage and ends up costing society more not only in monetary terms but also from a human stand point. Here is what Jeremy writes:
After working on the front lines for well over a decade and seeing many successes, (but also observing failures), I've come to embrace and cling onto 2 catchphrases; "Housing First" and "Harm Reduction"! I wholeheartedly agree with what these 2 terms stand for. These catchphrases respect each individual's dignity, personality, struggles and dreams, while working hard to provide them with a permanent home. The "Housing First" model reverses the usual trend of making sure someone's "right" before they get an apartment, by taking vulnerable people off the street and putting them into their own homes. The "Harm Reduction" model does not call for instant perfection or complete abstinence, but helps individuals reduce the harm they are doing to themselves, others and society. When these 2 models work hand-in-hand, everyone benefits! The following points reveal how we have put legs on the "harm reduction" and "housing first" models in Uptown, and we're happy to say, we have seen some wonderful success stories!

Please go on-line and check out Jeremy’s blog and also the work at CCO—an organization that is making a difference. Also if you are registered to run the 2014 Chicago Marathon and would like to run for charity, please consider TEAM CCO.

Monday, July 21, 2014

They Are All My Children

Right now I have 3 visitors staying with me from Baghdad. I know, Baghdad. the only place less safe right now might be Gaza. And, safe, it's just a relative term. I asked the girls how their families were faring. Without trying to be coy or evasive, Rand looked at me and said, "Growing up, during nearly two decades of war, if I only heard 3 bombs go off during the day--that was good."

The girls were here for a vacation, so on the second day when one of them lost or had her wallet stolen, it was a real downer. She wasted a lot of time running around to the consulate and filing a police report (not sure why since the report contained little information about the incident--not even an official stamp).

Anyway, the mishap reminded me of when my daughter was traveling and had her cell phone stolen. Kids--we're so worried for them when they travel. There are a multitude of things that can go wrong--and something usually does. And, because they are our kids, even a thousand miles away, we try to help them out. My visitor said that her parents were concerned and called all night long (day for them) trying to to get information, checking things out on their end, and discussions about how best to replace identity cards--and money. Apparently she lost a couple hundred bucks.

I felt an emotional connection. I understood exactly how her parents must feel. First you're disgusted with the thieves, angry with your child (hello! not a child, a young adult) for being irresponsible. Then, maybe not so much irresponsible as mad at fate for throwing a wrench into well-laid holiday plans. And, praying, praying that things turn out all right. This is every parent's prayer, no matter if you live in Baghdad or Chicago.

Thankfully my daughter was in a good place with good people. Her friend's parents whom she was staying with loaned her a cheapy phone, actually just gave it to her. This is Spain. I know, Spain where the wheels on the world's economy came off. They were so generous and kind and allayed my fears a hundredfold. She got by, got going, and had a wonderful trip.

I hope the same can be said of these kids, my visitors from Baghdad. And their parents at home, facing a great unknown. I'm just glad I could look out for them while they were staying with me.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Upon these Elysian Fields . . . we lose our innocence

I can’t stop watching this video. I woke up this morning thinking about it. And I’ve tried to parse my emotions or rationalize them. Would I like this video, this song even if I didn’t know the story behind them? Would the images alone have stayed with me? Probably not.

But what are images without story, and what is story without some kind of picture in your head to go with it? Isn’t this the power, the driving nexus of being human—what art is all about, really.

The images are uncannily raw—real people, real college . . . one that sounded familiar when I first started watching. Hadn’t I heard something recently about Seattle Pacific University? Oh, the hi-jinks, the stupidity of being 21, 22 years old. The utter recklessness. The surface emotions, the underlying passion, the fire in the belly. Then—

It’s what happened next that could be described as a videographer’s good luck or someone else’s nightmare. But, filmmaker James Marcus Haney keeps the camera rolling when the kids get the news that a shooter has come onto their campus. He captures the disbelief, the processing of fear, and that sinking knowing in the pit of the stomach. The group does a head count, are they all there? There is one friend missing. The rest is from James Marcus Haney’s blog:

"Soon after I arrived in Seattle to begin filming, an armed man walked onto Turner's college campus and shot four students. One of them died. I was staying on my brother's couch in his campus dorm room, living amongst sixty or so sophomore boys. The name of the slain student was not released, and no one knew when it would be. As hours passed by into night time, one student was still left unaccounted on my brother's floor, four rooms down from us. One of the dorm-mates decided to sleep in the hallway just outside the elevator to wait for the missing student, so that he would wake up when the missing student came home. Others followed suit until the entire dorm floor hallway was filled with mattresses and students unable to sleep, all waiting for the elevator door to open.

"When the victim's name was released the next day, the fears were confirmed. Turner's friend and dorm-mate, Paul Lee, was dead.”

Elysium or Elysian Fields is a classical reference similar to Arcadia or paradise. It is one way to describe death or where people go after they have died. A euphemism, though when it comes to dying or tragedy there really is no sugar-coating it. These kids got it.

"That weekend, my brother and his friends wanted to finish the video, in honor of Paul. The end result is a video that depicts real friends, real teenagers, experiencing something far too real."

Brother do you believe in an afterlife
Our souls'll both collide
In some great Elysium
Way up in the sky
Free from our shackles, our chains, our mouths, our brains
We'll open all the gates
We will walk careless, straight into the light

The song “Elysium” will be on a new record from Bear’s Den coming in the fall. "Just hold out against the night / And guard your hope with your life."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

At times we can feel blocked. I know July is an especially hard time for me when it comes to posting blogs. Before I know it another week has gone by and I won’t have posted. According to my stats I only average about 8 posts in July. So when I get to Friday often I’m left wondering—where to start?

As I mentioned earlier I just read a VERY GOOD biography by Deborah Solomon about Norman Rockwell. Here was a guy who had deadlines. While he was at the POST he made a total of 356 covers. That’s 356 paintings—many the size that goes over the mantel or above the couch. (In case one thought they were the actual size of a magazine.)

Here was a bit of advice I gleaned from the book. Two nights a week Rockwell would go into a spare room devoid of distractions and stay there from eight to eleven, when, more often than not, he’d leave discouraged—not having gotten any new ideas—remember he worked on a frantic deadline, a new painting every 2 weeks

“The second night, after a few minutes, the thoughts began to present themselves. He had a trick to help him focus hid mind, to access the storehouse of his imagination.”

He’d draw a lamppost and then ask himself what else is there, what is it illuminating? “He did this all the time, envisioning the lamppost and waiting for a scene to emerge, a boy or two, a certain facial expression, a story. He sketched a bit with pencil and paper, but no real drawing was begun on the thinking nights.”

Once he knew his scene he’d delete the lamppost, erase it out.

Couple this with listmaking. At : I read about Ray Bradbury and g=how when he felt stuck, he’d make a list.

He’d start with nouns and then maybe move to adjectives. One word would trigger another. This is how our mind works: not necessarily rationally or in chronological order. Sometimes there is no order.
His lists ran something like this:


“I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

So he went on making lists:


“Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.”

Listmaking mines the subconscious. We have no idea what will come of it until we let it play out.

“I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.
Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.”

Sit down this week in your thinking chair and give these exercises a try—as you can see Ray Bradbury and Norman Rockwell were no slouches. They must’ve hit upon something that worked for them!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

An American Mirror

I’m a in a summertime non-fiction stage. Losing myself into pages upon pages. That’s the nice thing about non-fiction—you can read as fast as you want and not have to worry about the thread of a story or the outcome of certain characters. We already know what happened to them, we only care about how they got there.

Right now I’m immersed in the life of artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell. American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon is a highly readable and enjoyable biography that doesn’t seem to gloss or get lost in the controversy of whether Rockwell was a true artist or the definitions that separate an artist from an illustrator. The high attendance that accompanies exhibitions of his work have taken care of that. He is popular, so was Jackson Pollack. He was the stuff of headlines, so was Mapplethorpe. Warhol bought several of Rockwell’s paintings. Perhaps he shared an affinity with Rockwell as Warhol started off his career as a commercial artist, designing newspaper ads for shoes. His little books and self-illustrated feline Christmas cards often come upon the market and are much sought after.

It occurred to me while reading the biography that Rockwell was a sort of flash artist. He was able to capsulate a moment in one’s life: the returning soldier, the young girl growing up—looking into a mirror almost afraid of what she is seeing, the little boy running away from home—obviously because of the hobo-type stick with his belongings bandanna-ed to the end, discarded by a stool at a diner, where a cop sits next to him, possibly engaging him in conversation, possibly even buying the young runaway a soda and slice of pie. You see, Rockwell wove narratives into his work just like a graphic or cartoon artist designs panels to tell a story. And, just like flash, they are short, recognizable at a glance, but there are MANY possibilities, a number of outcomes or reasons why. Of how the characters got to where they are—frozen in oil.

Some have described Rockwell as a master storyteller. Yet, the story, which began with him, is really the observers to unwind, to interpret. They bring to the viewing their own perspective and life experience, rendering—as with most good art—a collaboration.

What is your favorite Rockwell? Use one from a list of many as a prompt to remember, to write a flash.
he Problem We All Live With is a 1964 painting by Norman Rockwell. An iconic image of the civil rights movement in the United States, depicting Ruby Bridges

Monday, July 7, 2014


Where Foster Beach becomes Omaha Beach, where the shock and awe of Baghdad rocks Lakeshore Drive, where everyone in the city not only owns a gun but an arsenal of fireworks. Where the sky lights up and the buildings reverberate the chest-thumping KABOOM, where all night long m80s punctuate the city soundscape, and the pop-pop-pop of Blackcats compete with infrequent gunfire. Where Roman candles sizzle and burst setting off car alarms and where children chase falling sparks as if they’re fireflies. Where screamin’ meemies spin and whistle while overhead pinwheels of color blossom and dissolve into a shower of stars, once alive but now extinguished, leaving behind contrails of vapor. We shake the numbness from our ears. Where even the moon smolders behind a haze of red, green, and yellow and sulfur clouds hang suspended, making the apparitions below seem as if they are moving in slow motion. Where each concussive blast answers with yet another explosion, louder than the last. Where all too soon it’s over.

Except for the pretty girl in short shorts dancing, her face aglow.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Concession Stand is Now Open

I grew up solidly middleclass. My family had a membership to the Four Seasons Pool Club in Washington Township in Ohio. From Memorial Day until Labor Day we could walk right in and show our card. There were summers of lessons, of pool birthday parties, of hanging out with friends. The pool also had non-swimming activities like a night where they showed old movies. I still remember how big the June bugs looked amplified as they passed between the lens of the projector and the screen, and how the dust motes caught in that bright shaft of light danced and twinkled like little stars.

I’m embarrassed to admit it though, but my favorite thing was the snack bar. The different names of the novelty ice creams conjured up whole stories inside my head. There were the Rocket Pops in red, white, and blue and the orange push-ups, glorified sherbet but with a creamy goodness, also called Dreamsicles. There was the Drum Stick and I think something called a Fred Flintstone bar. The ice cream sandwich was 25¢ and the cookie part stuck to my fingers like chocolate fur. A little pricier was the Klondike bar or if on a stick I liked the kind studded with crunchy chopped peanuts. Freezie Pops were perhaps a nickel and the fudge bar was pretty cheap too—maybe a dime more.

Of course there was heartier fare such as French fries, hamburgers, and hot dogs, but I don’t recall having that much to spend. I’m sure my mother just tossed my sister and I change from the bottom of her handbag before we went out the door to ride our bikes over to the swim club. I’d stay all day, and each time the lifeguard blew the whistle for break time, I’d line up at the concession stand, reading the menu, and dreaming of what the coins burning in my hand might buy.