Thursday, September 24, 2009


Go to a party in America and meet a stranger. Most likely you’ll be asked or ask the question, “What do you do for a living?” as if a job is a person’s most defining feature. Go to a party in Europe or Canada or just about anywhere else in the world and the inevitable question asked will most likely be, “What do you do for fun?” See the difference in priorities?

I got angry at my mother this morning because one of the first things she asked me was about work. I have been unemployed since the school year ended in June. And I’ve already asked my parents to not ask me about work. They don’t have any job to offer me or any leads in teaching, and I’ve assured them they’ll be the first to know when my employment situation changes. So don’t ask.

Their curiosity is understandable. Jobs are common fodder for discussion. But how many of us know what our loved ones really do for a living, the hour to hour tasks that make up their work day? I think it interesting that my parents are so interested in my employment situation, but when I had a full-time public school teaching job, the kind of job that begets a slew of interesting stories, they rarely asked, “What have you been teaching lately?”

Want to know what I’ve been up to lately? In the last week or so I’ve played open stage three times, six different songs. I’ve also read a bunch of books, seen a bunch of movies on DVD, visited a chiropractor, took my son to his first movie theater experience, a free showing at the Egyptian Theatre, gone camping, collected cans, played many rounds of disc golf, cleaned my place and organized my books, written some poetry and an outline for a novel. I’ve written about these activities here and at Why not ask follow-up questions to something I’ve written? Then, do something revolutionary: Actually listen.

More than 10 years ago, shortly after I graduated from college and moved to northern Wisconsin, I wrote each of my siblings and parents long letters, pouring my heart out to them, letting them know how they’ve affected and influenced me, in an effort to foster closer relationships with them. Did even one of them respond to these letters? No. We’re just not a very close family. It’s just the way things are. There’s love and acceptance, but not intimacy. Two out of three ain’t bad. Honestly, I now would probably back off if my siblings or parents tried to be closer.

A good symbol for my family is a model of the solar system. We are in our own orbits. Every once in awhile the planets align -- holidays, etc. -- but for the most part we live in our own worlds, oblivious to the activities on the other planets until their shadow falls across us. Our tides are pulled, but anything closer would be cataclysmic.

There’s this little game I play now and again. In interactions with a family member I will make a point not to reveal any details about my life unless asked. And I will only ask questions if genuinely interest. Otherwise, I remain silent but for the occasional uh-huh or nod of the head. Yesterday I did this talking with a sibling on the phone. I looked at the time on my phone when I went into quiet mode. 25 minutes later I had to interrupt the monologue to get supper ready. Did I feel slighted or ignored in this one-sided conversation? No. This is normal.

Family gatherings are, from my perspective, great listening experiences. And this manner of being has affected my life in far-reaching and positive ways. It feels very liberating to let go of the notion that I’ll be understood by loved ones. There are other benefits: An independent spirit; freedom from pressure to conform to family values; a journalism and, later, teaching career (both professions depend on good listening/decoding skills). Even the closeness I share with my son stems, I believe, from a hunger for intimacy and understanding.

But there are still rare occasions, like this morning, when it bugs the hell out of me how ignorant my family is of my life, despite my frequent postings and other writings.

This post was written at the request of my mother. She said I should air my complaints on the blog and just let it all out. And, as usual, I’ve done a half-ass job of it. Every time I try to let loose vitriol unfettered, in writing at least, an internal editor jumps in with a sense of perspective.




















Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review of 60 Hikes within 60 miles of Chicago

Ted Villaire's book is one of those guidebooks that will have to be replaced now and again because it gets lost under the seat of the car or is damaged by water, wind, sun, or animals. It is a worthy companion for daytrip adventures around Chicagoland.

My only complaints about the book are minor. As a veteran Appalachian Trail hiker who relied on elevation profiles to determine the difficulty of a day's hike, I found the elevation profiles for most Chicagoland hikes unnecessary. Maybe in the next edition just put up elevation profiles for particularly hilly hikes. There is also a near absence of hikes in Kane County, which has, by my estimation, some of the best hiking and well-managed forest preserve systems of any county in the state.

Some nice features include the hiking recommendations, which lists hikes and page numbers by mileage and other features, including good hikes for young children, urban hikes, solitudinous hikes, and hikes near public transportation routes. Most of the recommended hikes are loop hikes and of long enough duration to merit a special trip to them. Hikes are also listed by geographic regions, which makes for easier planning of multi-hike trips. And Villaire's route descriptions provide a good mix of landmark descriptions and tidbits about the natural and human history of the area.

While most of the information in this book can be culled from county forest preserve web sites, it is nice to have it in one easy-to-read, accessible place. I look forward to many happy miles with this book in my pack.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why do emergency vehicles ALWAYS get put into action when it's stormy? Anybody else notice this phenomenon?
Sent by a Cricket mobile device
I w/ send longer posts w/ pics bcuz the character limit is 1,000 instead of 150. Scintillating, right?
Sent by a Cricket mobile device
I'm testing out my new e-mail posting address so I can use my phone to send abbreviated blog posts. We'll see how it looks.
Sent by a Cricket mobile device

The Augusta Inn, a.k.a. The Bad Boy House

Today is a day where I feel as if my mind is moving in 1,000 directions at once, pulled like taffy, or a computer rendering of neurons and prions. But I’ll try to stay focused. Today’s task: write about the Augusta Inn, a.k.a. The Bad Boy House.

Last Friday I went on a walk around town and saw a family moving into the former Augusta Inn. It is no longer a rooming house. A family was moving in. I’m sad. The porch is no longer a welcome refuge for every rascal and roustabout in town. Of course, there are other rooming houses for them, but no other porch with a view to the river and the foot and other traffic moving down Augusta Ave.

I first became aware of the Bad Boy House in the fall of 2005 when I moved next door to the inaccurate, but quaintly-named Country Acres rooming house. Back then, the Augusta Inn was a party house. Every night I heard drunken, guttural yells coming from there and a sundry tattooed characters stumbling about pissing and throwing up. Smashing cans and clanking bottles were as a common a sound as the train whistle.

Back in 2005, the de facto king of the Bad Boy House was Michael, a burly ex-con with swastika tattoos on each bicep and another of the grim reaper, scepter in one hand, beckoning with the fleshless bones of another hand, first finger curled in a come on gesture, covering his entire back. He never wore a shirt and had the taut muscularity of a bulldog. Michael had a notorious temper and at least once a night tried to pick a fight with somebody. He had the biggest room, on the first floor, and a rotating array of women at his beck and call, along with the consequential dirty-nosed kids running around with sagging diapers.

At the time, I had really long hair and a beard, but no tattoos. And everybody knew I was a student. For some reason, Michael took a liking to me and called me over to the porch one evening to hang out, handing me a plastic cup and pointing the way to a keg. I felt out of place. Everyone else -- without exception -- was covered with tattoos. I had none. I had a hard time being comfortable because I’d already heard about Michael’s notorious temper.

I soon met other characters, many of whom I plan to loosely fictionalize for a Cannery Row style novel. There was Tom B., a huge black guy who drank vodka prodigiously and once stumbled over to pick a fight with me one night when my dad was dropping me off at the end of a weekend. “I’m a gonna kick your ass, college boy. Put up your dukes.” Instead, I handed him a sack of laundry, which he dutifully carried to the door for me. We’ve become friends and I always stop to talk with him a few minutes when I see him around town.

Crazy Lisa slathered in lipstick, eye-shadow, long, bleach-blonde hair tossed in disparate directions like sheaves of wheat, no doubt held in place by half a bottle of hairspray, wearing a tank top and mini-skirt. Rolls of fat hung over her imitation leather belt. They reminded me of that novelty toy that falls through your fingers when you try to squeeze it. She was nice, but it was easy to figure out how she got her name. It was difficult to have a conversation with her. In between moments of lucidity -- where I got glimpses of a real caring personality -- she spoke gibberish or drifted off into her own world, tilting her head sideways and staring up to the gray stucco ceiling of the porch. She had a squeaky/breathy voice that reminded me of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.

Every townie in DeKalb knows Crazy Lisa. Rumor has it she used to be skinny and “normal,” but was harmed by some unspoken trauma shortly after graduating from high school and hasn’t been the same since.

Steve T. looked like a large leprechaun. He was bald on top, red hair on the sides, and Irish. One night he fell off the back porch and gashed his head open. Michael turned on the garden hose and sprayed Steve with it, commanding him to stay put. Eventually, Steve got his senses together and stumbled through the spray. Despite, or maybe because of the dilution, the next day the gravel in the back lot was streaked with red.

I later saw Steve at a city park during Cornfest and noticed the deep scar above his eye from that night. He was homeless then, a couple years ago, and I haven’t seen him around since I’ve been back. I wonder what he’s up to these days. He told me that he slept in the lobby at the police station on cold nights. The cops would sometimes let him crash out in a holding cell.

The longest-lived resident at the Bad Boy House was also its most unobtrusive. Mackey suffered from horrible acne and some sort of rash that covered his arms with red welts and boils. I thought of Job when I saw his dermatological condition. He was very quiet, but always present at the parties, and liked by everybody. He once played lead guitar in a local death metal band, something I thought odd considering his gentle nature. He also collected horror action figures and covered the walls of his room in horror movie posters. In fact, he was still there as recently as three weeks ago. I helped him move out. He was the last one to leave and the only person in good enough graces with the landlord not to get an eviction notice. He told me he lived at the Bad Boy House for five years.

There’s more characters… I haven’t even described Andy and The Colonel, who I hung out with on the porch most recently. The Colonel used to be my house mate at Country Acres. He was eventually kicked out of that place after a second arrest for assaulting a fellow resident. After a bout of homelessness himself, he found a room next door. Then his father died and he came into a sizable inheritance. He’s currently in an apartment partying and pissing that away. We’re no longer friends, but that’s another story… No doubt The Colonel will play a prominent role in my novel.

The Bad Boy House was always a place I could go and be offered a beer. I enjoyed hanging out there because the porch had a good view to the Kishwaukee River and its weeping willow-lined banks near NIU’s music building. And there was always an atmosphere of revelry and danger. You never knew what would happen or who would show up. Anything could happen and often did. Like Mackey, I enjoyed witnessing, but staying in the background during moments of alcohol-fueled drama.

Monday, September 14, 2009

[My father requested I write more about my recent homeless experiences. Since yesterday afternoon I have been brainstorming what to write about. I still have no outline or plan of action, so will do what I’ve made countless students do over the past couple years -- write a free write about the experience and see what winnows through the flurry of words…]


We were sitting on the back deck facing the old depot in DeKalb and Mom reminded me that when I was a teenager I had a fascination with hoboes and living the vagabond life. She reminded me that I threatened/fantasized taking an epic journey by rail and hitchhiking out west. “You still haven’t done that,” she reminded me. “But don’t you dare do it now!”

For good and ill, I have a fierce restless streak, something I have to constantly fight because I want to be involved in my son’s life and provide him the same protection and security that my parent’s did me. But that doesn’t stop me from reading National Geographic, Outside, and Backpacker magazines, studying maps, reading travelogues and planning potential trips. There’s no harm in that, other than the frustration of unfulfilled ambitions.

In the month before I moved out of the house I was renting in Elgin, I knew that I would be homeless for at least most of August because I did not want to commit to a lease in DeKalb and then get a full-time teaching job elsewhere. I debated going on a long hike on the Ice Age Trail or North Country Trail in Wisconsin, but finances and a need to be close to the area for a potential job interview kept me around.

I approached homelessness with an air of adventure. This would be fun, I figured, the vagabond lifestyle that fits so well with my tramp sensibilities. In many ways it was. But I was in for a few surprises as well.


The biggest and most frustrating surprise was the difficulty I had keeping track of my stuff. I rented a 5 x 8 foot storage unit and had my truck. I loaded the unit so that things that I deemed in need of easy access -- toiletries, clothes, outdoor equipment, etc. -- would be near the front. But as the days went on, I found myself having to move things around a lot to find things. By the time I moved into my current residence, the storage unit was in shambles and stuff flew out, eager to escape, whenever I rolled up the door. A domestic existence cannot be lived out of a backpack. This is why the stereotypical vision of a homeless person includes a shopping cart.

Another difficult aspect of the homeless experience is staying clean. I managed to avoid looking like a bum by showering at least every other day at the Anderson Hall pool locker room on campus at NIU. I also had access to a shower and free laundry at the Augusta Inn, a.k.a. the Bad Boy House, where I even squatted a couple nights. More on that place later. I was very conscientious about not looking like a bum because I know a lot of people in DeKalb and did not want them to know what I was doing, not because I was ashamed of my condition, but because I didn’t want to go through the complicated dance of refusing generous offers of housing.

I met a few homeless people during this time and all of them slept in their vehicles. I’ve always looked at motor vehicles as an opportunity for law enforcement to infringe on my rights, so while I used my truck as a base of operations, I never slept in it and always parked it in public lots downtown.

During the day, I carried stuff using a fanny pack or small backpack. After dark, I rode out to the storage unit and grabbed my GoLite Breeze rucksack loaded with tent, sleeping bag, rain jacket, etc., and rode my bike or walked out to my home for the night under cover of darkness. I NEVER set up camp in daylight, practicing tried and true stealth camping techniques (see an earlier post about these). The rucksack is smaller than a full-size expedition pack, but not nearly as inconspicuous as a daypack.

I camped in a variety of woodsy settings in and around DeKalb, eventually settling on two spots that were secluded enough for me to sleep without worry. One spot was in Prairie Park, nestled beneath the boughs of a grove of chokecherry trees. In daylight, I could walk 10 paces, look around, and not notice the tent. The other spot was in Eco Park, just north of NIU’s campus. This one was easier to get to -- about 20 paces off a trail -- but felt just as excluded. The Prairie Park spot required me to walk a long ways through tall grasses and other itchy brambles.

The worst spot was in a graveyard near the high school. I picked this place because a port-a-pottie and water was nearby, fully intending to camp in the woods that surrounds the graveyard. But when I tried to scout out a spot, I discovered the ground to be all hummocky and/or root covered, so I had to camp in a grassy area on the edge of the woods. During the night, people walked by and I heard a car door slam nearby. I think the graveyard is a popular hang out place for teenagers. It was a very fitful night of sleep.


I’ve seen DeKalb from so many different perspectives over the years. My first exposure was as a teenager, competing in drum and bugle corps at Huskie Stadium. I’ll never forget Larry E. and I hanging out with the girls traveling softball team in their hotel room, and being chased out and threatened with arrest when discovered by their chaperone. During these annual visits, I only knew the west side of town and NIU’s campus.

When I returned in 1994 to pursue my bachelor’s degree at the university, I lived in the dorms and eventually downtown, exploring campus even more and enjoying the bar scene. I also knew places along the bus routes and the shopping areas along DeKalb/Sycamore Road. Later, returning in 2005 to pursue a master’s degree, and with a couple long distance hikes behind me, I once again lived near downtown, but then discovered all of the parks, trails, and public lands. I realized, upon comparison with my former experiences with the town, how much my perceptions had been changed by trail life.

This is my third time back in DeKalb, and homelessness helped me discover the tasty, cold, clean, and functioning water fountains at nearly every city park. I also figured out which porta-a-johns were the least nasty and when the campus buildings are opened (7 a.m.). And now, living on the east side in a bohemian atelier, I have come full circle and see the city through musical notes, color and creative possibility.

Until now, I’ve always seen DeKalb as a wayside between points of greater interest, primarily because I came here as a student, a temporary condition. But now seems different. My son was born here and lives the next town over. I’m not enrolled at NIU and have no plans to do so. DeKalb has always been good to me. I’ve touched the Kishwaukee River, so why fight fate? I’m happy and accepted here. It feels like home.


The characters of the Bad Boy House and a description of my new home will have to wait for another post. Check out my twitter page --

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Zen mind, Abecedarian mind

Yesterday my son and I worked on spelling the long form of his name, Jonathan. He's been able to spell J-O-N for awhile and now the goal is to get him to spell his first and last name and know his mother's phone number in case he ever gets lost. It's funny, but he really struggles to remember the H. He's called it a U or W and even once a Q. We verbally go over it and I have him trace his finger over the letter as he pronounces it. But until we made a sing-song joke out of it, he really struggled to remember it. But why? I think it is because the H sound is so elusive, just a slightly forced exhalation is all it is. That's my theory, at least, and I'm sticking to it. Anyone with more than one graduate course in linguists or semantics out there want to explain the trouble with H?

Today's word of the day is Abecederian. That's what Jonny is, and I guess I am too for teaching him the alphabet.

H-H-H-Have a H-H-H-Happy Day!