Friday, December 19, 2008

Taking stock... good and bad

Today, thanks to a snow day, is the first day of winter break. I won't return to the classroom again until Jan. 5. I've been anticipating the respite since returning from Thanksgiving break, and now that it is here a wave of sadness overcomes me. I feel empty free of the rigors of work.

Taking stock...

I'm a single dad and only have custody of my son every other weekend. I miss the boy every day and once recently broke out in tears brushing my teeth one morning when I heard the electronic laughter of one of this toys in his always empty bedroom.

Without going into details, my best efforts to get back with my ex were for naught. At least we get along great, which, while confusing at times, is more a blessing than a curse.

I love my job! I love that I have a job. My colleagues are very supportive and I feel a welcome member of a vibrant learning community. I only wish most of my students shared the same enthusiasm. My greatest challenge is to create lessons that engage them and encourage their creativity. There's magic in the classroom when that happens. And it happens often enough to keep me going.

I'm as healthy as I've ever been. A cold bug hit me in October, but I have been cough and il,lness free since then. I recently had a comprehensive physical and checked out healthy all across the board. Surprisingly, despite my weakness for chicken wings, I have a low cholesterol count. I did not inherit arteriosclerosis. While I am heavier than I want to be, I am within 20 pounds of my target weight (200 pounds). I use good lotions, Lubriderm and Bag Balm, so my skin is healthier than ever. I still have all my hair, no hair on my back, and no grays. People tell me I look younger than my years. Its been more than 10 years since I last smoked a cigarette. I've got 11.5 sick days (of 12) available.

I'm renting a three-bedroom house. It's a great place. Wooded lot. Riverfront access. But I can't afford it. It is ironic to make more than I ever have and not have enough money to visit friends or even eat out at a fast food restaurant once a week. I'm not saving anything, but at least I'm not digging any deeper in debt.

Every month is a struggle to stay afloat. I'm tired of sitting down with a calculator each month and hoping I have enough money to pay my bills. Newspaper headlines tell me I'm not alone. This time next year I'll probably be in a rooming house. $1,200 a month for rent, in addition to child support, is crippling me. I think of how much I could sock away each month if I cut my rent in half or paid the same rent I paid ($450 a month) when I lived in DeKalb.

But this is just money, which is meaningless in the end...

What I need is not more money or things, but love, companionship, and understanding.

I feel so alone, sometimes, so misunderstood. We all live in bubbles of egotistical conceit. Enlightenment comes when that bubble breaks and a glimpse of our place in the fabric of eternity is revealed. Do you know why video phones (like The Jetsons) will never be popular? Because when people talk on the phone they fiddle around with other things or engage in pantomime side conversations while pretending to listen to the person on the other end of the line. So rarely do we connect fully to the moment.

But I believe in karma. I must pay for the bad things I've done. I will continue to try and do good, and know the right person (or people) will come along when the time is right. I'll be understood if I try to understand others.

I'm so thankful. Most of my days are filled with joy, purpose, and discovery. The days grow ever shorter, but we'll cross the axis soon. There are too many blessings to count, too many daily moments of grace and beauty. Lamenting over failures only directs my attentions away from these miracles.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What's in a name?

I recently checked out two of my favorite rock concept albums from the public library that I currently only have on LP (that's long-playing records for you young'uns): Tommy by The Who and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis. After reading the liner notes, I noticed a connection between these two albums that I'd never noticed before.
One of the early titles for Tommy was going to be Rael, a longer song that appeared on the previous album The Who Sell Out.
From Wikipedia: "Rael" is an excerpt from one of Pete Townshend's early attempts at rock opera. The plot is not clear from the excerpt, but it apparently involves a heroic "Captain" who is betrayed by his crew during a clandestine attempt to save Rael from a looming invasion by the Red Chins. The dramatic instrumental section in the second half of the song shows up as a dreamy sequence in both "Sparks" and "Underture" of the later rock opera Tommy.

Here's a link to the lyrics of "Rael"

Years later (1974), when the British progressive rock group Genesis made its own attempt at rock opera, the hero of their rambling, nonsensical tale is a Puerto Rican New York gutter punk named, you guessed it, Rael.

I've done some cursory Internet research and found nothing that connects Tommy and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway via this name, Rael, which is a play on "real." Was Peter Gabriel inspired by The Who when he chose that name for Lamb's main character? Although I found an exhaustively researched site about that album, The Annotated Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I still have not found anything more about the Tommy/Lamb Rael connection.
Here's what that site says about the name:
"In some ways it was quite a traditional concept album - it was a type of Pilgrim's Progress but with this street character in leather jacket and jeans. Rael would have been called a punk at that time without all the post-'76 connotations

Rael was [Peter] Gabriel's made-up name. It was similar enough to the popular Spanish name Raoul to fit in with the character, but English enough to suggest both reality and fantasy.

And what of the significance of "Rael"? Transpose the "a" and the "e" and you get "real", which is referred to in the end of "It": "it is Real, it is Rael".

The juxtaposition of "is" and "Rael" is interesting, since it forms the word "Israel" at the climactic point of the album. Since this album is full of metaphors and references to everything under the sun, it is not out of order to assume that this was intentional. If we go along with this, then we're talking about the children of Israel. According to the dictionary, the Hebrew word "yisrael" means to struggle against God. Judeo-Christian references played a major role in the music of Gabriel-era Genesis, starting with the band's very name. The Lamb's songs might be considered within the context of the New Testament. Some things may begin to fall into place. Carrying the metaphor further, we can assume Real is a Christ figure. "The lamb lies down on Broadway" would then mean "Jesus Christ dies in New York." At the end of the story, Rael sacrifices his life for his brother John, in spite of the numerous times John had forsaken him, and he loves him anyway. This is a very Christian attitude. On an unrelated note, "Rael" spelled backwards is "Lear", which may be an intentional reference to the mad king of Shakespear. "

Let's not bring in the weird clone cult, the Raelians, who have no connection to concept albums except for the incomprehensibility of their beliefs. As any fan knows, rock opera plots are equally as difficult to make sense of. Maybe I could start a cult devoted to deciphering the lyrics...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Memento Mori

There's been a lot of connecting threads between the things I've read and seen. Some have been planned, like the back-to-back viewings of 300 and Troy. It was clunky-dialogue over-the-top violent ancient history drama week on my Netflix queu. But here's a couple wild coincidental connections that bear notice.

I read the following quotation two nights ago. From Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck, in the chapter entitled “There’s a Hole in Reality Through Which We Can Look If We Wish.”

The seer looked downward at an angle into Doc’s face. “I live alone,” he said simply. “I live in the open. I hear the waves at night and see the black patterns of the pine boughs against the sky. With sound and silence and color and solitude, of course I see visions. Anyone would.”
“But you don’t believe in them?” Doc asked hopefully.
“I don’t find it a matter of belief or disbelief,” the seer said. “You’ve seen the sun flatten and take strange shapes just before it sinks in the ocean. Do you have to tell yourself every time that it’s an illusion caused by atmospheric dust and light distorted by the sea, or do you simply enjoy the beauty of it? Don’t you see visions?”
“No,” said Doc.
“From music, don’t forms of wishes and forms of memory take shape?”
“That’s different,” said Doc.
“I don’t see any difference,” said the seer. “Come along -- dinner’s ready.” (59)

Which segues nicely into another favorite author, Jack Kerouac, and visions he had by the sea. I lucked onto this passage last night. It’s from Dharma Bums, but I quote it from The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters. The Pacific Ocean dominates, as do visions and the bliss of moments, music in the head, etc.

" I bade farewell to the little bum of Saint Teresa at the crossing, where we jumped off, and went to sleep the night in the sand in my blankets, far down the beach at the foot of a cliff where cops wouldn’t see me and drive me away. I cooked hotdogs on freshly cut and sharpened sticks over the coals of a big wood fire, and heated a can of beans and a can of cheese macaroni in the redhot hollows, and drank my newly bought wine, and exulted in one of the most pleasant nights of my life. I waded in the water and dunked a little and stood looking up at the splendorous night sky, Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds. “Well, Ray,” sez I, glad. “Only a few miles to go. You’ve done it again.” Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running -- that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the beach out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters."

Considering the Steinbeck quote, I saw an episode called "Sounds and Silences," about an annoying, loud man who goes over the edge and gets poetic justice. Click on the link above for a synopsis.

And while we're on The Twilight Zone...

Last Friday I woke up at the ungodly hour of 3:45 a.m., so popped in a The Twilight Zone DVD and watched an episode entitled "Long Live Walter Jameson." It is from the first season of the series and is a simple, Dorian Gray-like story about a man who is immortal and is planning on marrying a new bride, but is gunned down by an old lady, the previous wife, and turns to dust. The DVD liner notes talk about how the aging process was achieved, a very simple change of lights.

From a Wikipedia article about the episode:

The scenes of Walter Jameson's aging was performed by using an old movie-making trick. Age lines were drawn on actor Kevin McCarthy's face in red make-up. During the beginning of the scene, red lighting was used, bathing the scene in red and hiding the age lines. As the scene progressed, the red lights were turned down and green lights were brought up. Under the green lights, the red age lines were prominent. The lighting changes were unseen by the audience because it was filmed in black-and-white. The ultimate result is the appearance of a complete make-up change with no cuts to the scene.

Pretty clever...

So, after seeing that episode, I was feeling a sense of my own mortality. I read the liner notes to the DVD and learned that the episode's writer, Charles Beaumont, died of a mysterious Alzheimer's -like disease that rapidly aged him.

From Wikipedia (again?!): When Beaumont was 34 and overwhelmed by numerous writing commitments, he began to suffer the effects of a mysterious brain disease. His speech began to get slower, he seemed to age much faster than normal and his ability to concentrate and be creative quickly disappeared.[1]. While perhaps Alzheimer's disease or Pick's disease, as commonly assumed, the disease may have been related to the meningitis he'd suffered as a child.

I then went on to read Of Mice and Men later that morning with my freshmen, the very heart-wrenching part of the book where Carlson shoots Candy's dog. That section of the book showcases how Candy's dog was once useful -- "he was the best sheep herder" -- but now that he's useless there's no room for him in the world of work and he is quickly dispatched, a fate Candy fears deeply because he is old and disabled.

Interesting how this basic theme of mortality came up twice in two different mediums with no prior planning. Throw in the death of Charles Beaumont for extra emphasis.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Recent pictures

The first batch of pictures are from Oct. 19, 2008 at the Fabyan Forest Preserve just south of Geneva, IL, on the Fox River. The preserve contains a functioning windmill, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (you can hardly turn around in Chicagoland without running into one), and a Japanese garden.

The one picture of my family is from a barbecue at my house Sept. 28, 2008.

Following that picture are some pictures from the Day Out With Thomas event in August at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL.

Another group of pictures were taken about a month ago at the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin.

The last picture is of Jonny at my place.

NOTE: I tried to put captions next to each picture, but after multiple attempts to space things so the captions did not appear as single letters down the side of each photo, I gave up. STUPID BLOGGER! (AHH. STUPID ME, TOO, PROBABLY.)

This picture is at my place. Jonny wore this t-shirt as nightwear and liked chasing me around, yelling "Boo!"

Monday, November 03, 2008

10 minutes of mayhem

Yeah, 10 minutes. That's all I'm giving myself to post this blog entry. Just keep the fingers moving. That's what I tell my students in free writes. Keep the fingers moving and let the magic flow. Sometimes, it does. It pays to ignore your inner editor.

Favorite Halloween moments....

Just going door to door with Jonny. He was a stop sign. "I stop" on one side. "For candy," on the other. His idea. He painted the red. Mom took care of the words.

I kid you not, walking by Elmwood Cemetery in Sycamore, shortly after dusk, a line of old grave stones, some eerily lit in memorium, a line of pine trees in silhouette, and rising above it, large and slightly in mist, a crescent moon. I told my dad, who was along for the walk, that the only thing missing was a witch riding by. He said willow trees blowing in the wind would be a good creepy touch.

Halloween is for kids. Having a kid allows me to enjoy the innocent fun of trick-or-treating. And this was the first year Jonny was really into it. Afterwards, back at Esther's place, going through the loot, Jonny put his arm around all the candy. "My candy," he said covetously. And as he continued to sort through it I noticed the package of gummy Lifesavers. Ooh, I really like those, I said. Later, just before I left, he reached into his pile for them and gave them to me.

Yeah, Halloween was a lot of fun.

When I was a kid I used to rent creepy movies and watch them all night. One of my all-time favorites is still the 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead. Only years later did I realize why. The movie is claustrophobic, taking place almost entirely in a house. And then, when morning comes, the zombies are still about, but the hero, a black man, a revolutionary concept in its day, is shot down by white hillbillies and unceremoniously added to a fire.

"They're coming to get you, Barbara!!!"

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Funny kid, this toddler son of mine.

He's potty training these days. Went on his own twice last week. These are the waning days of diaperdom.

He's got this book he loves called "The Potty Train." "Chugga chugga pooo- poooo!" He loves that line.
He loves word play and making these silly rhymes. His favorite is Go Away.
"Go Away!" he yells.
"But I want to stay," I reply.
"Go Away!"
And his favorite reply, "Should I go see the Mets at Shea?" I can say this 10 times in a row and he'll chuckle every time.
"Go Away!"
"What, and leave you to play?"
One time I said, "Okay," and walked away. He chased after me, almost instantly babbling in tears. The boy's got separation anxiety issues, which is very strange to me. When I was a baby, apparently, according to my mother, I was very independent and had a legendary habit of wandering off on my own. Jonny is very clingy. He cries when I shut the bathroom door for privacy. Esther says she was a very clingy child. Jonny must get that trait from her.
What's impressive about Jonny is I can say "Go Away" and he will come up with a rhyming response.
Other things about Jonny, in random order as they come to me:
-- He loves jazz music and dances to it whenever I put it on.
-- Like most children, he loves playing hide and seek games.
-- His mother tells me he's using a computer now and can manuever the mouse to play matching games.
-- He loves to sing and does so with good tone and articulation.
-- I'm ever amazed at his verbal skills. So are his teachers at day care.
-- He loves books.
-- He absolutely loves Thomas the Tank Engine and can identify even the most minor characters in the vast Thomas universe. (I've been rather lax posting Jonny pictures online, but have some great shots of him at the Day out with Thomas this past August at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union) I imagine he will be one of those rail fans that have been spotlighted lately in the news.
-- He likes to help out with chores, but does not like help doing them. He likes to figure out how to do things on his own and will often cry in frustration if he can't figure it out.
-- He seems to me to be quite accident-prone. In a 15-minute period last Sunday, he fell and bruised his chin, banged his forehead on a railing, and stubbed his toe, each time producing a wailing crying jag.
-- He often wakes up from naps very cranky and is inconsolable in these moods. These are very trying times as a parent.
-- Outside of a couple biting incidents, Jonny is well-behaved at day care and has as many friends who are girls as boys.
-- He is kind of skinny and his physique is just like mine when I was a little boy. While he's not a picky eater (he'll try just about anything), he is very cautious about temperature. Any cooked food must wait about 10 minutes after presentation and then be tested by his mother or I before he'll eat it.
-- He loves anything associated with Cars or Finding Nemo.
-- He loves to watch sports, at least for a few minutes. I'm ever amazed at his ability to focus. I took him to an Elgin High School football game and he sat on my lap and watched the game for a good 10-15 minutes.
-- Another one of his favorite books is Drummer Hoff. He also likes the Good Dog, Carl series (featuring a realistically-drawn Rottweiler), the Clifford series, and, of course, Curious George.
-- He loves going down to the beach at my place, but is a bit of an aquaphobe (like his mother).
-- He has this nasty, dangerous habit of running away in parking lots and near busy streets. His mother and I have probably lost a year of life in panic the many times he's done this. And despite our stern rebukes, he laughs in evil glee every time.
-- In spite of his mischievousness (who knows where he got that?), Jonny is a great kid, truly the light of my life and reason for being. I love being his dad.
-- He has not had a haircut yet and the top of his head is a sea of blonde curls. His hair is also a good barometer and goes very flat in dry air.
Entries like this are as much for my sake as for his. I wish my parents had collected periodic memories of me over the years. I imagine Jonny will cherish these impressions when he is older. I will too because little memories like these get lost over time. They are more valuable than all the pictures and video clips combined.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Postcard from the edge

For years now, whenever I want a vicarious trail fix I go to . Journals from my hikes on the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Superior Hiking, and Arizona Trails can be found there. Use the sidebar to this blog or go the site and type "raru" in the search box.

But today I want to highlight a journal that is a little different from the others. A couple years ago this guy hiked the Appalachian Trail and instead of doing journal entries, he did drawings. A whole bunch of them. These he later published in a book.
Check out his trail journal for free at:

Also check out his own personal web site, where you can buy some if his art, at:

When (and if) funds permit, I will buy a few of his prints to give to friends and family.

I've also followed The Lion King (a fellow AT 2000 hiker) on You Tube. He's posted 42 videos during his year-long hike on the American Discovery Trail. His videos remind me of the boundless generosity most people give out to travelling souls. Links to his videos can be found at:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

world traveler

No traveling for me in the near future. Certainly nothing international.

Now is the time to hunker down a bit and work my tail off to pay off debts and advance my career. The wandering Taoist in me recoils at the stupidity of that statement. Money is so transitory, as the credit debacle reveals. Things are too. Greed will never motivate me. Possessions are illusions.

But there is that ledger sheet. And I do love my work and want to succeed. And the trails I've walked, people I've met along the way, and things I've seen, give me an awesome perspective.

I checked out the sitemeter link on this blog and found out people from all over the world read this thing. They are interested in a wide variety of subjects, from psychedelic cartoons to horse farm abuses. No other work I did as a journalist has had more lasting "play," so to speak, than the ones I wrote in 2001 after discovering dead horses in a pit on a country farm. Someone right now has a Craigslist post link to it and a post I wrote on this blog years later.

My 2005 bibliography of Charles Bukowski after his death has caused more people to personally e-mail me with help on their papers, as if I somehow, because I did that assignment and have read 10+ of his books, am some kind of expert on the asshole alcoholic from LA. Gotta love Buk, though. He knew the score.

It's almost November. Cold spell here. Going to have my boy this weekend. We always do a ton of fun things together, like go to the library and trolley museums. The leaves are falling, and now that I have a yard, that means raking. Now that I have a fireplace, I also need to gather up and chop some wood for the winter.

I'm very happy. Work is well. Students are underperforming, but I'm seeing improvements in their writing. The powers that be like what I'm doing so far. And I've been busy, working many 12+ hour days. I'm not overwhelmed. Grades are caught up and I've got nothing to do tonight but read for pleasure and listen to the World Series.

By the way, I'm rooting for the worst to first dream team from Tampa Bay, the (former Devil) Rays.

Back to the travel thing. I decided back in August that I would take a year off from any big trips. In the past couple years I've gone to Arizona a couple times and did an epic trek through Boundary Waters. Although teaching gives me more time off, I am sticking to a frugal budget and doing as much extra work as I can in the time allowed.

If anybody's looking for someone to copy edit their work or to do any freelance reporting, send me a post.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Of Mice and Men

I start teaching Steinbeck's book tomorrow. It will always remind me of my canoe trip this summer in Boundary Waters, because GT and I read it together and discussed it endlessly. I benefited so much from her foreign perspective as she challenged me to explain some the 1930s colloquialisms and misspelled words. Her perspective, while more learned and intellectual (and more militantly feminist) than my students, did give me some clues to words, concepts, and historical background my students may struggle with.

Teaching literature is not as second nature to me as teaching writing, so in this respect teaching Of Mice and Men will be more of a challenge. But in another, more practical perspective, it will be easier because I have a ton of resources at school to help me. The book is required reading for all ninth graders. I pledge, though, not to devolve to teaching literature the way I was taught --read the book, memorize terms and events, take a multiple choice and short answer test, and do related vocabulary definition and spelling terms. While these things are validating, I don't necessarily know their pedagogical value.

In related news, I have been struggling with mice at home. I noticed their droppings on my kitchen counter, and a couple items in my cabinets, including a box of cereal, were chewed into. On Sunday I bought a couple mousetraps and some poison. While the traps have not been sprung, the mice have taken to the poison. The block on the counter is well-chewed and the one on the floor disappeared the first night. I imagine a surviving mouse quoting a movie villain. "Of course, your poisons have no effect on me. I've been slowly acclimating myself to it for years. Thus we can both drink the poison, but you will die!! Mwuh ha ha!"

I hope the rodent problem is solved, but worry the mice will die in my walls and leave a stench behind stronger than the poison.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Check out what I'm up to at work

If you're ever bored or a teacher looking for new ideas, check out my teaching blog at:

For each day I teach, I write a short summary of the lesson and provide links to documents and handouts. I created this site to help students who are absent or behind on their work. They can access it from any location and print out the materials they need. It's pretty neat, and pretty simple, but you'd be surprised how few teachers actually do stuff like this.


Congratulations to me (ooh, it hurts these days to pat my own back) for making it through my first month as a public school teacher. The 10-12 hour days are not dragging me down too much, though I've learned the value of going to bed early.

Some days I come home stressed out and at wit's end. Most days, I'm glad to report, are full of joy and exaltation. I'm one of those lucky few Americans who loves their job and looks forward to going to work each day. Truth is, I don't have much of a life outside of teaching, but that's okay. My colleagues and family provide enough companionship. If I had a pet, it would be lonely. My plants are barely making it.

Here's a short, funny story that shows how learning expectations have changed over time. One of my biggest discoveries has been that freshman students DO NOT DO HOMEWORK!

I had them do an art project in class last Thursday, a Concrete Poem, culling together supplies from various personal supplies, and borrowing more from others. And despite my constant haranguing and imperious mingling, many students chose to use the in-class work time to fart around. This was a mistake on my part because I capitulated and said they could turn in their finished work the next day.

But I made a prediction. I said, considering recent trends, that less than 2/3 of the class will turn in their homework on time. I told them, if I am wrong, I will give everyone in the class candy. Friday, first hour, I asked for the concrete poems first thing. As they were taking a grammar test, I checked off names on a list. After the test, I made an announcement that they were three short of making the 2/3 necessary to get the candy. Suddenly, four of my more dilatory students, severe sufferers of HUA syndrome (say this like Al Pacino's character in Scent of a Woman), turned in their work. They made the 2/3 completion goal by one student.

Unfortunately, my other two classes weren't even close. But that's okay. Fewer papers to grade and more candy for me.

Quote of the month: "You can lead a HUA to water, but you can't make him or her think."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More pics from my new home

Looking uphill. The windows on the left look in my living room, the windows on the right the master bedroom.
Looking downhill on the west side of the house.
My living room with the one thing that clinched my decision to rent here -- the fireplace! There's also a fire pit out back.
From my property, I have to cross the bike path, but I have access to a beach and acres of wooded riverfront. My landlord's a nature freak and spends a lot of time down there, but I'm always welcome. Jonny loves exploring all the trails and playing in the sand.
This is a view of the rest of the yard. The lawn is small, but the woods plentiful. I live at the end of a long dead-end street and the woods adjoining my property extend all the way back up the street. Surprisingly, few of the neighbors have trails that connect to it. I've already picked a couple old "leaning" trees and hang out in these woods for hours at a time.

I love my place. It's a nature retreat in the suburbs, ironically the wildest place I've ever lived. Rent is too much and I can barely afford it, but this gem is worth it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Whatever I can conjure in 10 minutes

Ten minutes. That's all I have. Ten minutes to write. Ten minutes to live a life. Ten minutes to impress strangers around me with the speed of my keystrokes. Ten minutes.

I've instituted 10 minute free writes in my class. It loosens up creativity, washing some gems clean in the slipstream of timed writing. One student wrote about a beautiful fall day, golden sunshine, the birds singing in the trees. Out of all the crap writing I endure reading and patiently (yes, me, patient, whodathunk? not too patient, mind you) making suggestions for improvement, this one paragraph stood out as a gem, as a representation of inspired prose.

Such is so rare, even in my own writing.

About life. About time. It's fall. A time of fresh starts and new beginnings. I put this ad on Craigslist. It's working. Just e-mail contacts. But I'm in no hurry for action. I haven't dated since the divorce. Its been almost a year and a half. I've managed. I have no itching desire for long-term commitment or the intimacy of a new relationship. If the right one comes along, so be it. Maybe the right one's been there all along? Time will tell, but career and parenthood remain in the forefront. But at least I'm making an effort to get my name out there. And that's kind of exciting.

I realized, reading my last post, how just plain ol' down in the tooth lonely I've been lately. But I also realize that this loneliness will only last as long as I let it last. It's like that old axiom: "If you're looking for love, love others first." Same thing with friends and companions. Time to get off my duffer, expand my horizons a little bit, and get to know my new suburban world a little better. I'll keep my faithful 10 readers pleased with updates on how that goes.

Whew hew! Almost up. In other news, I'm proud of the Chicago Cubs for clinching a postseason berth. My verdict is still out on Aaron Rodgers. I can't get used to seeing Favre in a Jets uniform, but I'm officially a Jets fan as long as he's with them.

10 minutes up. Gone. Outta here. See ya next time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I don't know what to call this post

Casting stones into pond
ripples out negative space
wasted energy

Teaching poetry the next couple weeks. I gleaned about 30 books from the Gail Borden Library for my students to look through. They've got to pick a poem and read it before the class Thursday and Friday. I gave them short tutorials on how to present certain poems. Orality is a huge part of my teaching technique. I tell my students, instead of memorizing a bunch of grammar rules, read their writing aloud and place the punctuation where there are natural pauses in the speech. This works for grammar and poetry and just about anything else.

Just... listen....

The freaky freshmen like e.e. cummings and Tupac Shakur. They can sense the rebel ethos mixed with childlike wonder in both men.

Teaching is going great. My greatest gift is fostering a sense of community and wonder in the students. I don't know if I could teach my techniques to others because success depends on intangibles, like facial expressions and picking up on visual clues like folder doodles and hair styles. It also means making leaders out of the class clowns and trouble makers, giving respectful space to the sullen and withdrawn, respecting boundaries, but stretching imaginations. And most of all, loving the material and infecting them with my enthusiasm.

My personal life is in shambles. My son hardly acknowledges me and clings to his mother. I treat him the same way I treat cats -- hands off -- and let him come around to me. But I don't exist to him. That's harsh and not really true, but I feel that way sometimes. Yes, I know it's just the old Oedipal drama playing itself out, but it's tough to deal with rejection from a toddler. It's so utter and pure.

I don't know anybody in Elgin. Sure, I live in a wonderful house in the woods, but I dread the quiet sometimes, especially in stark contrast to the tumult of my day. Most of the time I'm fine with the solitude. Back in DeKalb, if I ever got a hankering for company, I just needed to walk around campus or visit the old drunks at the rooming house -- there was ALWAYS somebody to talk to. But in Elgin, if I get lonely I guess I'll have to go to a bar. Except I've been broke since I plunked down everything I had (and then some) to pay first month's rent and security deposit on my place. And I'm not much of a drinker. And bar talk is boring.

Time will secure connections. I plan to join a choir, band, or environmental group. I may take a dancing class or, egads, start going to church again. These are all the conventional means of making new connections, and I've done it before. I'm just feeling a little jaded and cynical lately, not a recipe for social success.

Maybe I should just get used to this solitude and become a hermit.

Isn't that the fate of most high school English teachers? Don't they just disappear to caves at the end of the day?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Immersed in the flow


It's Friday afternoon, about a half an hour before my middle school students show up, and this is the first time all week my mind has been in some semblance of repose.

No bones about it, being a teacher is mentally hard work. Early on, I've been inundated with forms to fill out, protocols to follow, for everything from assemblies to medical emergencies, new teacher meetings, departmental meetings, training seminars, software uploads, materials to order... ugh. Thank goodness for some internal survival mechanism that keeps me afloat through all this flurry. I reach a certain apogee of stress, and then it's as if a dam is released and I am calm, yet alert through the storm. This trait makes me the go-to guy in the clutch.

My first day was surprisingly relaxed. I could hardly sleep the night before, stomach butterflies and racing thoughts. I got to sleep around 1 a.m. and woke at 5. My classes at the high school went off well. My first hour class I've got two students with the same first and last names. That's a first! And my third hour class has 32 students. Luckily, I've got 33 desks.

These first two weeks are about building a sense of community/class/family pride and rapport. Rules and routines are being established now. I try to be nice and not-too-demanding, stricter than normal, but not going off half-cocked. So far, discipline has not been an issue at all. I've got a few squirrelly sorts at the middle school, but they got in line with just a little encouragement.

It's hard to believe that all the hard work and financial and personal sacrifices the past three years have reached a culmination. I'm a public school teacher now! Of course, I was this spring, too, on a part-time basis (and was surprised to still receive paychecks all summer). And I don't have my own classroom yet at the high school. But this sense of arrival, of reaching a long-sought goal, has me both pleased and perplexed.

This always happens. Once a goal is attained there's a letdown. For me, the journey is always more enjoyable than the destination. And knowing that I've arrived, that what I'm doing now is what I'll most likely be doing in 10 years, leaves me a little sad and confused. But I'm here, teaching, improving lives, doing good and loving it. There's so much work ahead. The job is the journey. No two days are the same.

Week One of the 2008-09 school year is almost in the books. First assignments have been turned in and graded. Unit plans are being refined and honed. The posters are up. The pencils sharpened. Gradebooks (both paper and electronic) are filled with names. Boxes of chalk are in drawers, waiting to be used. Books are on the shelves. A din of voices echoes down the hallways. The school year is underway and 111 trusting young souls depend on me to guide them successfully through the world of words.

Wish us all the best of luck. We'll need it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The REAL simple life

Quotes from Akira Kurosawa’s movie, Dreams, in the segment called “Village of the Watermills”

A tourist with a camera is visiting the village, which is beautiful, adorned with blooming flowers and a series of watermill wheels spinning in a fast-rushing braided shallow streams. Narrow footbridges cross the streams, connecting to narrow islands with craggy trees claiming footholds. An old man works on a wheel. He is wearing a straw hat and his white beard is scraggly. A young man, a tourist, approaches…

Tourist: There’s no electricity here?

Old man: Don’t need it. People get too used to convenience. They think convenience is better. They throw out what’s truly good.

Tourist: But what about lights?

Old man: We’ve got candles and linseed oil.

Tourist: But night’s so dark.

Old man: Yes. That’s what night is supposed to be. Why should night be as bright as day? I wouldn’t like nights so bright you couldn’t see the stars.

Tourist: You have paddies. But no tractors to cultivate them?

Old man: Don’t need them. We’ve got cows, and horses.

Tourist: What do you use for fuel?

Old man: Firewood mostly. We don’t feel right, chopping down trees, but enough fall down by themselves. We cut them up and use them as firewood. And if you make charcoal from the wood, just a few trees can give you as much heat as a whole forest. Yes, and cow dung make good fuel, too.

Tourist looks over to see mill turning. Looks up to see tall tree branches swaying in the wind.

Old man: We try to live the way man used to. That’s the natural way of life. People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature. Yet, they destroy the nature on which our lives depend. They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists. They may be smart, but most don’t understand the heart of nature. They only invent things that in the end make people unhappy. Yet they’re so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are, too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. They don’t know it, but they’re losing nature. They don’t see that they’re going to perish. The most important things for human beings are clean air and clean water, and the trees and grass that produce them. Everything is being dirtied, polluted forever. Dirty air, dirty water, dirtying the hearts of men.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Jonny loves trains!

I remember once telling Esther, "Wouldn't it be funny if our child loves trains?" during her pregnancy as we tried to talk over the screech of the train sirens in downtown DeKalb. Here it is three years later and our son is totally infatuated with Thomas the Train Engine.

Good thing Jonny can't read and burst the surprise. My next weekend with the boy (Aug. 15-17) we're going to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL, to see the Great Discovery Tour Day Out With Thomas.

Check out this link for a short video about the event:

Jonny absolutely loves Thomas, and has memorized all of the characters on the island of Sodor. I like Thomas too. The style of these programs is more relaxing than most video fare geared towards kids. And I was surprised to hear the familiar voices of (recently-deceased) George Carlin and (still kicking) Alec Baldwin.

I can't wait to see the look in his eyes when Jonny sees a real-life Thomas the Train Engine. And since he is on the cusp of the age of cognizance, he may remember this event later in life too. I sure hope so.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The extended version of disc golf video

Here is the complete 5 minute video of "Rex and Ru's" disc golf round at Sunny Hill Disc Golf Course, Streamwood, IL, on July 11, 2008. Enjoy the music and narration.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Officially moved

I write this from the Gail Borden library in Elgin, my first session on the computers here. My laptop got a virus (or something) in March and screwed up my modem. That's one problem on a long list of things that need to be taken care of before the school year begins in... 3 weeks!

So far, I love my new place. I've never had such a big bedroom, and when I turn out the lights at night, it gets dark in there. No street lights or other house lights can be seen from its 8 windows. I've never known this luxury. All my permanent addresses have been well-lit at night.

But I can tell previous inhabitants felt threatened by this darkness. All the doors have multiple locks on them, and bright floodlights are at the corners of the house. I'm not used to locking so many doors.

Esther and Jonny stayed the weekend. My parents came for dinner Saturday night and Todd, who was visiting another friend in Elgin, joined me for disc golf and Tennis Sunday morning. Jonny loves his room and running around the relative spaciousness of the house.

Funny moment: He wanted to go down in the basement and led me down the dark steps. I told him when I was his age I was scared of the basement because I thought monsters lived down there. He stopped on the steps, refusing to go further. "Don't worry," I told him. "Basement monsters are like the nice monsters in Monsters, Inc." He calmed down, but still didn't venture down the stairs.

He also got a kick out of hiding in his closet, which has two doors that close in together, and then bursting out to surprise me.

I still have to finish my paper on Portnoy's Complaint. Its completion was delayed by the move and procrastination. But at least I've got all my sources together and organized, and an outline ready. All I need to do is write the darn thing.

The trip out west with my dad is canceled. We both haven't the time or resources. This is a bummer, but at least I can spend the next three weeks in relative calm preparing lessons and getting to know my new environs.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Word of the day

It's not often I encounter a word I've never read before in my word of the day, but today's is brand new to me. The first thing I thought when I read it: This sounds like a The Decemberists lyric. Uh, the?

Word of the Day for Friday, July 18, 2008
tatterdemalion \tat-uhr-dih-MAYL-yuhn; -MAY-lee-uhn\, noun:

1. A person dressed in tattered or ragged clothing; a ragamuffin.
2. Tattered; ragged.

Last time peasant blouses surfaced, in the 1960s and '70s, they were part of an epidemic of Indian bedspread dresses, homemade blue-jean skirts, Army surplus jackets, Greek bookbag purses and love beads, the whole eclectic tatterdemalion mix meant to express egalitarian sentiments and countercultural solidarity with underdogs everywhere.
-- Patricia McLaughlin, "The peasant look", Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, April 25, 1999

I was expecting a wild hair, clanking jewelry, a tatterdemalion velvet cape from whose folds wafted the scent of incense, a house full of candles, dream catchers, cats, and bad art.
-- David Rakoff, Fraud

To my ear, though, the prose has the tatterdemalion feel of something hooked together by commas, tacked together by periods.
-- Brad Leithauser, "Capturer of Hearts", New York Times, April 7, 1996

Tatterdemalion derives from tatter + -demalion, of unknown origin, though perhaps from Old French maillon, "long clothes, swadding clothes" or Italian maglia, "undershirt." Entry and Pronunciation for tatterdemalion

From Wikipedia:

Tatterdemalion is a fictional character and supervillain in the Marvel Comics universe, who wore gloves either coated with or secreting a chemical agent which dissolved any material composed of paper, such as dollar bills. His appearance (and, indeed, his name, which roughly means "ragged tramps") suggested that he was homeless, and he was apparently insane, which presumably explains why he would want to destroy currency.
A tattered or ragged person.
This is a lively, rattling, machine-gun word, one chosen by many writers as suitable accompaniment to invective or disparagement. Here’s Lady Wishfort, in William Congreve’s play The Way of the World: “Frippery? Superannuated frippery? I’ll frippery the villain; I’ll reduce him to frippery and rags, a tatterdemalion!”. Or James Joyce, in full flow in Ulysses: “Florry Talbot, a blond feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdemalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spreadeagle in the sofa corner, her limp forearm pendent over the bolster, listening”.
But where it comes from is open to argument. The first part seems pretty certain to be our English tatter. Some writers trace the second bit to the French maillon, swaddling clothes. Others say it comes from the Italian maglia for undershirt or (British English) vest. Support for this comes from the very earliest use, by Ben Jonson in 1611, which he spelt as tatter-de-mallian, reportedly said as though it were Italian.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2008. All rights reserved.
And check out this link, an interesting and well-written blog entry about the word.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Last throw best throw

Last Friday, my friend Todd, a.k.a. Rex Lex, met me at Shady Oaks Forest Preserve, Streamwood, IL, where we played 18 "holes" of disc golf. We later played nine at Sunny Hill, also in Streamwood, where on the last throw of the day, I made my best shot, a carom off a tree into the basket from 50 feet.

For the unitiated, disc golf is just like regular golf, but with platters thicker and heavier than the standard Frisbee (tm) you'd play catch with. And you use different size and shaped discs. The three basic kinds are drivers (for teeing off), mid-range, and putters. Aficionados carry around cumbersome square bags full of 20 or more discs. Some are designed for sidearm throw, others for backhand spins or to tail left or right. There's a vast cosmology of discs I am not yet privy to because all the discs I own are found. All the ones I've seen have signatures from disc golf professionals. Who are these people? Can they make a living playing this sport? And the discs have bold, trailing names like Valkyrie and Banshee, with raised relief drawings of dragons and hellfire.

New discs cost between $12-15. Used are usually $5 or above. I've never bought one. Todd plays often and takes extra time to hunt around in the brush for lost discs, so he has a lot of discs. Six of my eight discs, Todd found. I found the other two. A couple weeks ago I played at Anna Page Park, Rockford, and lost a newly found disc high in the boughs of a conifer. Two holes later I found another glancing through deep brush on an errant throw. Throw poorly, find discs seems to be the lesson.

A few weeks earlier, at West Park, Joliet (Illinois' oldest disc golf course, built in 1979), Todd and I were hunting for a lost disc in an open, sunny glade with medium tall grasses, tramped already, unfortunately, by previous disc seekers, and couldn't seem to find the disc. We decided to let the group behind us play through, and the first guy nailed a hole-in-one. As his friends took their shots, he helped us look for our disc and spotted it, practically hidden from sight underneath a wood footbridge. He later asked us to sign his disc for posterity (an accepted form of grafitti is to write your name and date with a Sharpie marker on the tee sign or the basket if you make an ace). Two of his buddies wrote their DOC numbers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Video tour of my new home

I move in two weeks!

Songs: "Sittin' on a Tree Stump" -- Crash Test Dummies
"Rat Soup" -- Hunt the Wumpus

Monday, July 14, 2008

Soon, a new home

The ad in the Daily Herald caught my interest:

ELGIN NE 3br ¾ acre/wds fp, bsmt w/d, deck,porch, ac No pets.

Hmm. Three bedrooms! 3/4 acre woods! Fireplace!

I called and made an appointment to see the place today. It's on the end of a dead-end street in an older neighborhood of estate properties, surrounded by woods and bordering a bike path on the Fox river. A path from my yard leads to a small private beachfront, with winding trails laid down by the landlord.

There is indeed a fireplace in the wood-paneled living room. The kitchen is small, but the master bedroom huge, with windows on three sides, woodsy views, and no neighbors in sight! This is like a vacation retreat in the city. And while I'm close to the river, the house is uphill and shows no signs of flood damage. It's close enough to both schools I'll be teaching at that I can bike to work.

This is my first house rental and only the second place I checked out. My search criteria ruled out townhomes or any places in new suburban build, what I not-so-affectionately call "Yupville." I know my soul would die coming home to tract housing every night. I don't know how the vast majority of American homeowners do it. Ruling out Yupville housing in Elgin/Streamwood/Bartlett/South Elgin narrowed my search considerably. I was first going to look in downtown Elgin, the historic district nearby, drive around the neighborhoods on the perimeters of forest preserves looking for 'for rent' signs, and in Happy Valley, a blue collar enclave between St. Charles and South Elgin off of Highway 25. Former Geneva resident Arbo told me cheap rents could be had there. But the above ad caught my eye before I could enact that plan.

I've opted to pay a higher rent to have a house, but I want a safe place for my son to run and play, and room for me to stretch out after living lo these long years in cramped apartments listening to my neighbors plumbing.

This place is going to be awesome. I can't wait to have guests over so I can show off my cool new digs. Hey, I can have guests over now! What a concept. I won't have to bang into my bike every time I open the front door. And the front door won't open into the bedroom. I won't have to store boxes underneath the kitchen table or angle the couch away from the wall to create more storage space for Jonny's toys and other miscellaneous crap. I may actually have extra shelf space in a closet soon. The monsters can come back under my bed. All the stuff stored there can go elsewhere. I can be reunited with all my books for the first time since 2000, including the thousands of comic books from my admittedly nerdy youth.

Notably absent in my new digs will be a video game system or flat screen television. No new furniture either. The 21st century will be present -- a laptop, stereo radio, and a 13-inch TV/DVD combo -- but unobtrusively out of the living room.

Okay, I'm done bragging on the new place. But I'm so elated to find it. I've had my doubts about moving out here. I'm a Midwestern mountain man who's never lived in Chicagoland. For the past couple weeks, living at my brother's place in Hoffman Estates, I've noticed how "ALL THE SAME!" bland it is. Heavy traffic. High population density. A maze of strip malls and neighborhoods. What am I doing here? Making a living, doing what I love. I'm an adaptable creature. I'll make do. Better than that. I've found a place that suits my personality.

Can't wait to post pictures. I sign the lease Wednesday.

On another note, I will post excerpts from my Boundary Waters journals soon.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Boundary Waters photos

I am currently mired in lesson planning for summer school. I've got to keep prospective sophomores who flunked one or both sections of freshman English happy for 315 minutes a day for 12 classes. Yeowtch!

But I'll take a break to post my best-of pics from two weeks in Boundary Waters. The skinny on the trip: It was often wet and cold, but I enjoyed two weeks away from cars, roads, houses, etc., and have a few good adventure yarns (no exaggerations!) to add to the pile. More on that later...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

December 2007 Arizona Trail Journal (sort of)

Here are excerpts from the journal I took from Dec. 12-24, 2007, mostly on the Arizona Trail. They have been edited and expanded because I took brief notes. It was too cold to spend a lot of time writing. Plus, I'm trying to break away from straightforward narrative in favor of trying to give "impressions" of certain moments. I read these segments May 9, 2008, at the last NIU English Department First Friday gathering of the spring semester.


Maybe emotions can take root in places, like little unseen spores, spiky shells of thought, left behind by the frantic electrical energy of trauma. Christianity, a religion borne out of the desert, portrays evil as a flying, airborne, external force. Jesus drove evil spirits out of a man into a herd of pigs. The man was wandering amongst tomb stones and could not be bound. When Jesus asked the demon, it replied, “We are Legion.” The pigs were feeding high up a mountainside. Their herders were probably not too pleased with this transfer of evil.

Then there’s the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The desert again. In this case, the evil spirits are rooted in an object, the Ark of the Covenant, but once conjured fly out in deadly pursuit of anyone with their eyes open. The spirits are heralded by a beautiful woman, swirling, curling, transformed in a lilting twist to a screaming banshee. Eden was so quickly snatched away. The Nazis jiggled, exploded, and melted away in layers.

I camped beneath the honeysuckle tree, cow chips thrown to clear a spot, listening to old-time country radio, lulled to slumber later by the patter of doll stuffing light snowflake pellets. There I had a dream about a Mexican woman dying. She was curled in on herself, laying on the ground, shivering. Dying of cold. Hunger. Exposure. Did some woman really die here, imbuing this spot with her presence. Do the cows who normally slumber in shade beneath these trees ever feel the same beacon of despair?

Blowing stones
along the road on Mount Asama,
the autumn wind.

Matsuo Basho


Lost luggage. Tucson. Long wait. The graceful curve of the drop-off area in front of the airport. A line of palm trees and fat-stemmed agave. Hours to sit and look at the mountains that await, the Santa Catalinas, so white as to imprint on the retina with eyes closed. They are covered in fresh snow. Major precipitation the past two days, but sunny days ahead.

On a crosstown city bus, past industrial parks and lego block apartment complexes, everyone’s tired, the bus 2/3 full. No one’s standing. Two Hispanic women gently talk, plastic bags crumpled at their feet like supplicants. Both have long, coarse, thick, peppery hair in pony tails, ends trimmed neat, no flyaways. Ample bosoms and laps, content and glowing, the comforts of home and domesticity. Their ropy forearms are the only hint of hard labor.

The bus talker, the one who knows most the passengers by name, looks like a classic desert rat, the dust jacket photo of Edward Abbey -- long, frill-sleeved white, button down collarless shirt, grey vest, long, rangy gray beard, cheeks sharply contoured and beveled. He’s skinny, sinuous, glowing with the evangelical fervor of a preacher or prospector. He’s a mad genius, a raving mind spinning vigorous eddies, ravenous for company, contact, finding order in bus stops and transit schedules.

I too feed off these last sights and sounds of people before disappearing into the scrub. Company will be sparse the next couple weeks.

The last stop at a turnaround at Sabino Canyon and Tanque Verde Roads, strip malls and sidewalks, uncharacteristically foggy and damp. Finally, I’m walking, striding with purpose after a long day of transit, train, plane, sitting, waiting, echoed announcements, pleasant mechanical voices, a day encased in modernity, the greeny inner soul of thick glass. I breathe frosty plumes, steam with exertion. Desert smells are especially strong in the moist air. Mesquite, fuzzy-budded creosote, and an undercurrent of dust and rot.

Past horse farms and patches of suburban neighborhoods. A stoplight in the middle of nowhere, on a rise, a gibbous moon illuminates a line of highway cut straight to a distant glow. But to the east all is darkness, the shadows of giant saguaros and boulders, blinking constellations of homes in the Santa Catalina foothills. The sidewalk ends. The road narrows to two lanes, and continues its gradual ascent. A couple miles later. A welcome sign. “13 acres for sale.” Blessed camp. Coyote yips and dog barks announce my arrival. I’m never alone.

The Unheard Song

Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a 'song.' The land, the planet itself, is also a living being - at another pace. Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions - African, Asian or European. – Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

The allure of backpacking is partly in its escape, its utter sense of other, both in place and senses, from life in civilization. There is a momentary sense of panic when the bus rolls away, a slight pang of regret disconnecting from the grid. Leaving behind the roads, homes, and power lines also means leaving behind basic comforts like bathrooms and drinkable running water. Society and all its constructions are at a concrete remove from a wildness that constantly tries to eat its way to the surface. Collectively, we beat back the beast, few of us knowing how closely it lurks on the periphery.

Backpacking is more meditative than exciting. Those seeking an adrenaline rush should look elsewhere to bungee jumping or mountaineering. Blessed fatigue attends backpacking, endorphins healing soreness and slowing the mind. Life is reduced to essentials – food, air, water, warmth – and overlooked details, like bird calls and wind patterns, magically appear on this cleared palette.

Most of us are fools and limit awareness to what we create. Tiny dramas like ant caravans and the feathery bluster of bird territorial disputes, happen in urban environments too. But they are only noticed by children and the insane.


Steve and John picked me up on Freeman Road. Steve is in his mid-50’s, skinny, frayed shirt and pants, the ashen, wrinkled face of a chain smoker. I later marveled at his ability to roll a cigarette as he drove. John was younger, late 20s, with Ray Ban prescription glasses that reminded me of last few pages of brat pack author Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. John’s glasses didn’t jibe with his shabby attire, frayed and dirty overalls and work boots. He later told me he found the frames and had prescription lenses fitted using the last check he’d gotten from some waiter gig in Portland, Ore.

Steve and John were looking for Troy, an overweight guy with a black dog who’d gone out the day before to gather wood and hadn’t returned. They passed me going east and stopped to ask if I’d seen him. I said I hadn’t seen anybody or even off-road tracks for the last five miles. But there were sandy washes every quarter mile or so big enough for a car to drive down. It’s not hard to get lost in this maze of drainages.

They said they’d give me a ride when they turned around. I’d been on this road four hours this morning, and they were the third vehicle I saw. They were also the first people I’d talked to since the gas station clerk who sold me food back in Oracle, about 30 miles ago.

After picking me up, they took me back to Steve’s ranch, a 10-acre spread on the end of a dirt road off Hwy. 79 north of Tucson. Troy later returned on his own, sunburnt and thirsty as hell, but ecstatically happy. He’d had an adventure and couldn’t wait to share it. My arrival earlier and Troy’s late, exultant return, much to everyone’s relief, made for a festive atmosphere on the ranch.

I told them about my journey so far, hiking up and over Mt. Lemmon in deep snow, pointing out my route through the window at the mountains in the distance. Steve gave me a short history of his ranch, an open retreat for hippies, seekers, and free thinkers since the mid-70s. In the corner of the main room was a shrine to some unnamed Indian swami. Tibetan prayer flags and a dream catcher hung from tacks in the ceiling.

Steve said hundreds of people come here each summer to meditate and partake of the sacred Sonoran Alvarius Toad. He said the Toad derives its shamanic powers because it is the best meditative creature in nature. Some remain in silent, still, hibernation for five years or more.

Steve offered to take me out to the wash that runs through his yard and dig one up for me. “They look like cow turds,” he said. “But pour a little water on them and they’ll be hopping around in a few hours.”

Steve said I could stay as long as I wanted, as long as I helped out. I washed dishes each day, took their herd of goats for a walk in the desert one day, where I saw how delicate goats can be, picking bits of fruit from the center of barrel cactuses and avoiding countless other spines en route. The five or six dogs that hung around followed me on these walks and every one of them whelped and stopped to chew thorns out of their pads. But these goats were hardy, bony-backed desert goats. They had a knack for avoiding harm.

I never planned to end up at a hippie commune and sleep in an old bus. But I found company and camaraderie in the middle of desert, just when I was getting lonely.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I don't do downtime that well. My restlessness gets the best of me. And it is such a contrast from the busyness I surround myself with. But I know this about myself and can talk my way out of a funk quicker than you can say, "Where's my pimiento?"

This is my last full week at Huntley. I've been on staff (with an orange-colored ID and attendance at staff meetings and institutes to prove it) since March, but tutoring and teaching two life skills classes is not enough to fill my day. Luckily, I have a paper to research and write for my literature class. Dr. Gomez-Vega offered an incomplete, so I took it. Even though there's no rush, I want to finish it so I can get the grade and diploma in hand. I find out tomorrow whether or not I passed my semantics class, but I have a strong feeling I did.

But just what does this slam bang, action-packed Tuesday hold in store for me?


get oil changed in truck

water plants

do research

Read more of There Are No Children Here

go for a long walk

I may cram in a trip to Loves Park to assemble the canoe rack on my truck, but there's no big hurry. I just want to finish it by the end of the week. A week from tomorrow trail friend Christine and I head north to Boundary Waters. I haven't seen her in four years, since the PCT. She had to cut short a trans-European bike trip because of numbness in her hands, but says she's rarin' to hit the water. As am I. Woke up this gray morning to a dream or memory of a northern lake shore, loon cry across the water, morning mist, still and quiet.

Last week I got the McKenzie maps for all of Boundary Waters. They are very detailed (2 inches = 1 mile, 1:31,680), large and cumbersome. The reason I chose McKenzie Maps over the more infamous Fisher maps (1 1/2 inches = 1 mile) is the slightly greater detail and shading in the elevation profiles. From what I've read in journals of other Boundary Waters travelers and know from experience, portages can be difficult to see from the water. Between good maps, compass, GPS, and, most important, horse sense, portages shouldn't be so hard to find this trip.

This trip, like all wilderness travel, will be rugged and no doubt filled with challenges. But I've been into camping and backpacking for 10 years now and can say without the tiniest bit of braggadocio that I'm pretty darn good at it. Many people look at what I do with a sense of awe and wonder, memories of failed expeditions framing their incredulity. Most people's idea of an outdoors vacation involves RVs, campgrounds, and waiting in line at theme parks.

I will bridge those two worlds later this summer when my dad and I travel out west together to see Mt. Rushmore, the badlands, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. We plan to sleep outside each night and will save money by camping for free on National Forest land outside National Parks. This also helps us avoid crowds. And it's still car camping. So, this is my little word to the wise for summer travelling on the cheap:

Camp at undesignated spots in National Forest lands.

The official rule is that you can't stay in one spot for more than two weeks. Our federal lands are woefully understaffed and underfunded. I haven't met a ranger in National Forest land since camping, for FREE!!!!, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Mining and timber interests do far more harm to our public lands than car campers, despite the occasional doofus who can't control his or her fire.

Forget RV campgrounds and Jellystone corporate third world tenements that charge up to $30 a night for the privilege of listening to drunken yahoos, crying children, and teeming hordes of raccoons, robber jays, and bears all night long.

1. Get a DeLorme or other atlas that shows public lands.
2. Drive to public lands.
3. Look for obscure side roads and take one.
4. Drive slowly and look for a cool camp spot.

How come nobody does this? IT'S FREE!!!!!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I've decided, at the last minute, to have a graduation party Saturday. Here are the details. Anyone who reads this can print out the entry and bring it to the party. Bruno, the doorman, will verify the print out, stamp your hand, and give you a cup to write your name on.

Or... just show up. It's casual. Bruno' s wearing shorts.

WHERE: The backyard lawn at 318 S. First St., DeKalb, IL 60115 (look for the balloons and street parking directions)

WHEN: Noon to ???, Saturday, May 17. Visit a minute, an hour, or stay to the bitter end

WHY: To celebrate my getting a master's degree and a teaching position for the fall

WHO: You, me, Bruno, and anyone else who wants to come

WHAT: There will be lots of good food. Plenty of good drinks, but bring more if you like. Please DO NOT bring presents.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Another beautiful day

It's time to bear down for the home stretch, but before I do I afforded myself a relatively lazy weekend.

Did some reading: Chicago Tribune, research paper rough drafts, and a novel, Cleveland Anonymous, by NIU English professor Keith Gandal. Watched mindless entertainment: South Park Season 9 on DVD. Played some guitar. Had a wild, wild time watching my son Saturday night. He's a toddler and thinks it's funny to wallop me in the face when I least suspect it, and he laughs when I get upset. I remember a time, not so long ago, when Saturday nights were a little more festive than playing trucks and reading Dr. Seuss.

Cleaned the apartment. I should take pictures, it looks so good. I had printed and framed an old family photo of my maternal great-grandparents (Fiorello), including my grandmother Josephine as a baby. Also had printed and put in a frame pictures from both of Jonny's birthday parties. My photo wall is looking quite homey.

Today attended English department awards at Adams Hall at NIU and accepted the Jeannie A. Hainds Award for Excellence in Student Teaching. Whoo hoo. It was nice to see some of the bigwigs in the department who've helped me along the way -- Drs. Baker, Callahan, Day, and MacDonald -- give me congratulations. It was strange to have my parents, Esther and Jonny cross the divide into my academic life, but I was glad they could be there for me.

Roasted a whole chicken, corn on the cob, and red potatoes for dinner. Jonny was a crab cake until he got fed. Damn. Now that I recount my weekend, it no longer retains the air of repose I originally assigned to it.

One more paper.

One more test.

One more ceremony.

And then... wilderness....

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pics from Pecatonica River F.P. and Lowden S.P

Last weekend I went camping at Pecatonica River Forest Preserve and stopped for a two-hour hike at Lowden State Park en route. Here are some pictures I took at both.

Chief Blackhawk statue sculpted by Loredo Taft.

Dutchman's Breeches near the banks of the Rock River in Lowden State Park.

Bloodwort? I'm guessing.

The road to the camping area is lined with beautiful old pines.

My campsite on the edge of honeysuckle-choked forest.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lotsa news!

Times have been especially hectic lately. Good, but hectic.

Instead of going into a long, drawn-out narrative, I'll opt for one sentence bullet points:

  • I was hired this week to teach in Elgin this fall.
  • I was also hired by the DeKalb School District to a .4 full-time equivalent job teaching the Life Skills class at Huntley MS I've been teaching for the past five weeks as a substitute.
  • I'll also make some extra dough tutoring at Huntley.
  • I find out next week whether I passed my master's exam and if I won the Exemplary Student Teacher Award.
  • I think the master's exam went well too and will be surprised if I fail.
  • I didn't win the Arnold Fox Award (for excellence in graduate papers). Congratulations to the winners, Elizabeth Bowman and Kathleen Turner.
  • My parent's 50th anniversary party went off marvelously and mom and dad appreciated the hourlong photo DVD I made for them.
  • I'm editing the DVD to add a few more photos and brother Mike is designing a label. If anyone wants a copy, send me an e-mail at
  • The herbs I planted a few weeks ago -- dill, cilantro, basil, sage, lemon balm, chives, and mint -- are all growing nicely.
  • Starter plants for tomatoes and peppers are also coming up.
  • The mothballs I laid out have not kept the squirrels at bay. One put its paws on my living room picture window, smack dab in the middle of the established NSZ (no squirrel zone).
  • My next option is to mark the NSZ daily with urine.
  • Everyone I've told about this thinks I'm crazy.
  • Jonny is well. His favorite words are "No!" and "Mine!"
  • He's grown two inches since December.
  • I took him to "our" first baseball game Sunday. He lasted two innings before getting antsy. That is insanely focused for a two-year-old.
  • Mark your calendars for Saturday, May 17 -- Graduation Party! More details soon.
  • The last two hurdles in this phase of my academic career are a 15-page paper for ENGL 507 and a sure-to-be-tougher-than-blazes ENGL 520 (semantics) final.
  • Life is slowly coming down to normal.
  • This manic wave will ebb soon.
  • Or not.
  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, May 28-June 13.
  • I will not see any roads or other overt signs of civilization the entire time!
  • Sweet...
  • And now that employment is secured, and I will soon know training schedules, deadlines, etc. for the new job, summer trip planning may commence.
  • Dad and I are definitely going to Yellowstone National Park in July. Most likely we'll visit Grand Teton NP and and stop off at Mt. Rushmore en route.
  • My goal is to sleep outside 100 nights this year.
  • So far, I've slept outside once, last Saturday night, in my friend Andy's backyard, and was awakened by a poodle barking at my feet.
  • Another goal is to finish my Rock River odyssey and write a series of articles about the trip.
  • That's all for now.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Busy day

Up at 5. Grading essays from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m., continuing where I left off at 11 last night.

Off to Reavis at 7:35. I usually go through Prairie Park on Tuesdays, walk along the Kishwaukee River and cross it at a footbridge. But after crossing frozen pond fields and running meltwater temporary streams, it came as no surprise to see the bridge flowing over. I had to backtrack and run for long stretches to get to Reavis by 8, but I made it.

Individual conferences went well. I'm an old hand at this, considering this is the sixth time I've done conferences. A few of the students even have interesting topics. I've steered them clear of tired topics (like capital punishment, abortion, etc.) and require them to talk to a local expert for a source.

My mandibles are tender from all that jawing today.

Conferences from 8-10 p.m.

Visit with Dr. Callahan from 11-11:40 a.m.

11:40 - 12:30 -- Walk home, change, eat, drive to Huntley MS

12:30 - 2:30 -- Teach 6th grade Life Skills class -- easy, fun

2:30 - 3 -- Park close to campus, walk to Reavis

3 - 4:30 -- Individual conferences

4:30 - 6 -- Spend entire time reading Neil Simon's "Prisoner of Second Avenue." Almost finish it. More depressing white guy angst.

6 - 8:30 -- For the first time ever, class goes close to its actual release time (8:40 a.m.)

Home by nine. Still wound up at 11. More papers to grade in the morning.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Lost time

I once tried to keep busy to avoid the emptiness of solitude. I found quietude uncomfortable and dreaded the end of day.

I forged another life of all the busy-ness, and even though it is compartmentalized as other, as somehow not the part of my real life, or the relaxed, unedited me, activity triumphs. It's no longer separate.

I got used to the loneliness and boredom, even as it carried me to the edge of madness.

Just as I once, in manic avoidance, stayed frazzled and busy with social activity.

A little older now. Still twitchy. Still bite my thumb and tap fingers. Mom's almost 70. So does she. But I've found a happy balance with all the busyness. I've learned not to overcommit. Seek peace and re-energy in solitude. Participating in a community validates my humanity and gives me a sense of worth and belonging. I can control my body language, take on a character of repose, even as I'm roiling mentally, and eventually mind conforms to body.

But energy is undaunted.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The dangers of anti-depressants

After my divorce, I considered going on anti-depressants because my depressive funk lasted for months. But after some cursory net research and conversations with those who have been on anti-depressants, I decided against it. The risk was too great. I think it's silly that the potential side effects of anti-depressants include suicidal thoughts and depression.

And now, in the light of the NIU shootings, comes a video from 18 years ago on the dangers of Prozac, which Kazmierczak stopped taking just before taking his own and many other lives.