Saturday, December 31, 2011

Needles and pins

This post comes from the sleeper berth of my truck in Needles, CA. It's just Elvira (my truck) and I, the desert and, somewhere not too far away, the Colorado River. I am parked in a lonely gravel lot across from a gas station on the edge of town.

I've never been one to celebrate much on New Year's Eve, though I did get married on this date in 1994. One of my favorite short-lived traditions was attending First Night, either in Rockford, Il, or elsewhere. One particularly cold New Year's countdown, we made the nightly news.

I remember being sick and not even being awake to see in Y2K. Other years was just a movie and a shared bottle of wine. I've never gotten drunk on New Year's. Been to a few parties, out to eat at fancy restaurants, but that's about it. So... sitting alone in my truck on the edge of a desert town seems okay with me.

It was a good day to end 2011. I drove to Colton, CA, in the early morning and saw the San Bernardino mountains in the pinkish light of early dawn. I passed by the Pacific Crest Trail and recognized the railroad tracks and Mormon Rocks, remembering the hot, windy conditions endured when hiking this section of trail. Later, passing it going the other way, I caught sight of actual trail and saw a backpacker. That brought a smile to my face.

2011 will be remembered as a good year. It is one of those rare years where I set specific resolutions and actually managed to keep them. I lost 20 pounds to reach my target weight of 200 pounds. And I got a job. Other resolutions met I'd rather keep private, but I know what has been achieved. My life improved for the better this year. I'm better off in many ways, than I was on this date a year ago. I'm worse off in one regard, but gave my all to try and make it work.

In 2012...

I'd like to finish the novel I've started and get it published.

Want to spend as much free time as possible with my son. He's old enough to be interesting, and I realize he's only a kid for a few years. This time is precious.

I'm going to continue to look for a teaching position. While long haul trucking has its allures, I want to be closer to home and closer to my son.

I want to run at least every other day and complete a 10k race in under 50 minutes. That's an unmet resolution from last year.

I don't want any big changes in 2012. In fact, I'm sick of change, shellshocked by surprise. I'm a restless soul, willing, even, to change jobs, but that's about it. May 2012 be a year ofl normalcy, family, and simplicity.

Earlier today, walking the perimeter of my trucking company's terminal, I saw a desert willow tree. It was a smaller tree, but its drooping canopy hid a flat, shady spot. It seemed such a peaceful place, Buddha and his Bodhisattva tree.

For just a few moments, lingering at this spot, I felt peace, transcending my petty concerns, in stark contrast to my previous dark mood. It inspired me to call an old friend and we had a fun, laughter-filled conversation. Later, still walking, I became acutely aware of my senses, the smell of creosote and desert flowers assailed my senses. I thought, how nice it is here in southern California. What a treat to enjoy the sun-baked scents of vegetation on the last day of the year.

But at that time, in those moments, my senses were keenly aware and those previous troubles completely forgotten. I wad living in the moment.

I wish I had the secret ability to conjure that peace and clarity, but unfortunately it is a rare treat. In 2012 I'd like to have more living unself-consciously in the moment moments like that and will work on making those moments happen rather than being a grateful recipient.

In any case, Happy New Year!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Springfield

Tonight I write from the Springfield, Minnesota, public library. This is the first day of a two week tour. I'm very tired starting this trip because I hardly slept last night and started driving at 2 a.m.

When I got to Interstate 39 in Rochelle, IL, and weighed my load on the scale, I noticed one of the trailer tires was flat. This is not a good start to a trip. I guess I was due, enduring no mishaps on the 23-day tour I completed before Thanksgiving.

It was a good holiday spent with family. I wasn't scheduled to have home time over Thanksgiving. I'd asked for the days off, but was turned down, instead opting to take off November 20th and 21st. But a scheduling mix-up kept me on the road until the day before Thanksgiving, which worked out wonderfully for me. It takes patience to be a trucker. This time being patient paid off with a holiday meal and a couple extra days off.

Since I am only home about 4-5 days a month, time spent with family is of primary importance. It doesn't leave me much room for socializing with non-relative friends, most of whom I haven't seen since I started trucking. But I relish my duties as father and partner, and am so thankful to have support and daily encouragement from the people who matter to me most. Time spent with them is precious and golden. The toughest part of my job is being away. Knowing that loved ones are waiting, and the daily phone calls, texts, and photos, mitigates the loneliness.

Thanksgiving was spent at my cousin's house in Janesville. Although the gathering was small, the feast was large. I feel guilty for not socializing more, but the rich food and it being my first day off meant I spent most of the day in a recliner watching football. It was great to catch up with relatives and hear mostly good news about their lives.

Friday morning and early afternoon we were at my parent's house in Loves Park. I got to visit with my brother and helped prepare, with my son's assistance, a soup and sandwich lunch for the family. After that, we left and went on a hike at Rock Cut State Park, ending the day back home in Sycamore with homemade pizza and a truly awful kids movie involving a fugitive seal.

Saturday I had a dentist appointment - my first scheduled in over two years. I was not surprised to learn I need a lot of work done, including replacing a crown and a root canal. I spent over four hours at the dentist and left nauseated and in a great deal of pain from the root canal work. I had a hard time following the plot of HAPPY FEET TWO, a movie Jonny picked out to see at the theater. He earned the trip as a reward for continued good behavior marks at school. I enjoyed the 3-D effects.

Yesterday, we went to church and went out for brunch afterwards. Later, in the afternoon, I said goodbye to my family and was dropped off at my studio in DeKalb, where I tried to sleep, but couldn't. Hence, the uninspired chronology of events set forth here. I'm going to sleep well tonight and have the luxury of an easy deadline for tomorrow's load.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Show Me State fun

I've just spent over an hour hiking around hilly Perryville, MO, to find the public library. My phone gave me the correct address, but the navigation took me to the wrong place. I called the library and was given directions, but took a wrong turn and ended up in the town square. An inquiry into a local business got me going in the right direction, and here I am.

I am on the 16th day of a 19 day tour, which means I'm literally in the home stretch. My company has me doing midwest runs to keep me close to home. I woke up in freezing Green Bay, WI, this morning and am headed to Indianapolis tomorrow. This has been the smoothest tour so far. I haven't gotten lost or had any mishaps of any sort. All my loads have been delivered on time. I feel like I'm getting the hang of this truck driving gig.

But two days ago, at maximum weight with a 22 ton load, I coasted through a light just as it turned red and breezed past an Indiana state trooper. He pulled me over. I explained my heavy load situation, that I was a new driver, but know I was in the wrong. He gave me a stern lecture about safety and preparation, and then let me off with a warning. Whew!

Last Saturday I delivered a load to Northampton, MA, and because I was early on my delivery, my dispatcher didn't have another load lined up for me yet. I parked the rig nearby, in a parking lot of a business closed for the weekend, and went for a walk. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny, mid-afternoon, mild temperatures. The industrial park was in a seedier part of town. I walked past a decrepit, run down millinery, rows of broken windows, exposed beams, a hole in the roof.

And then I found a rail trail. I love to find trails on my daily walks because they are safer and take me away from, or at least diminish, the sounds of traffic. They are also safer. I wear a reflective vest and, at night, my headlamp, and walk towards oncoming traffic, but I prefer sidewalks and, better yet, trails, so I was happy at this discovery. This trail took me behind a bunch of businesses and past an old neighborhood. And then I saw the taller brick structures of the downtown main street.

A stairway took me down to street level. Crowds of people ambled leisurely on the sidewalks, the usual array of galleries, restaurants, boutiques, and book stores, most with colorful display windows. But I enjoyed the people watching. There were college kids, homeless beggars, stylish yuppies, and long-haired hippies. The street vendors and musicians wore permits on lanyards. One man, vying for my dollar, complimented my hat and tried to sell me incense. One cool thing is when the street lights change to allow pedestrian crossing, both sides are open, so people cross diagonally in the middle of the intersection.

I was overcome with a feeling of serendipity and goodwill, and returned to my truck via the rail trail and a short bushwack through some birch barrens. My navigational skills were good enough that I emerged from the forest right at my truck. And to my great joy and surprise, my next load information was waiting for me. It took me to the only state I'd never been to east of the Mississippi River, Rhode Island, and eventually back to the midwest.

This visit to the east was pleasant and brief.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rainy day in Romulus

I gotta love my smart phone. I'm parked in an industrial park and it let me know about this library only .2 miles away. I am in Romulus, Michigan, a south suburb of Detroit. And it is a cold, rainy, miserable October day. Two days ago I was in North Carolina sunshine and 80 degrees, an entire season's remove from today.

I'm 24 days into a 30 day tour, and its been the roughest so far. I spent 5 days in the New York City area recently. A whole host of problems assailed me: awful traffic, shipping locations in difficult-to-get-to locales, tough, tight docking situations, the sewer stench of New Jersey, having to do a U-turn in Waterbury, CT, during Friday rush hour, because my computer navigation tried to lead me under a low bridge, and navigating through an India festival/market on a busy Saturday morning. Those five days left me feeling anxious and each day began with nervousness and a tight stomach. I felt so foolish, having faced so many other daunting challenges. Why does driving a semi truck through the largest metropolitan area in the country seem to be too much? One part of me hopes I never go back. Another wants to go back, to face and vanquish my fears. But if I never see New Jersey or New York City again, I won't mind.

Truck driving has a high turnover rate for a reason. It is tough, all-involving work. Every day I wake up to the job. I can only drive 11 hours a day, but am often on duty up to 14 hours. And I feel as if my true talents are being wasted. I'm a writer, a researcher, a learner. What am I doing hauling stuff around the country? Whatever happened to following my bliss?

Nearly two years of unemployment has crippled some of those dreams. I need to get back on my feet financially. And even though this job often sucks, and being away from my family wrenches at my heart each day, it is a necessity right now, and it is doing what it is intended to do -- pay the bills.

I have to find soul satisfaction elsewhere. I'm still playing my guitar and writing creatively a little bit each day. I have more time to read and am enjoying slowly reading the works of George Eliot (in preparation, perhaps, for PhD studies in Victorian literature?). I climbed an Appalachian mountain in Virginia the other day and took a run in a beautiful stretch of rural Indiana another day. Seeing different public libraries is nice.

This job has its perks. I'm just feeling a little burned out right now. My fantasy is to go home, pack a bedroll, some food, and a couple books, and go camp in the woods somewhere with my family. I've got five days off coming up soon. The only thing planned is a Halloween Party. The rest will be spent in total relaxation.

And no driving!!!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Home time

Greetings from home base, the DeKalb Public Library. I keep meaning to get my laptop modem fixed so I can have full-sized keyboard Internet access on the road, but it slips my mind until it's too late.

I had a great time during this home visit. I attended my 20th high school reunion Saturday, a picnic in the afternoon and drinks, etc. at a bar in the evening. It feels strange for a guy who was such a dork in high school to enjoy lively and interesting conversations with many classmates at the reunion. Time has made us all more approachable, I guess. And more than one person told me they remembered me as being a quiet person. Really? That is so far removed from how people might describe me today, though I still have that fly on the wall mentality and am more comfortable observing than being right in the thick of things.

A loved one in my extended family is dying right now, and this knowledge hung over the weekend's activities, that and the reunion being fateful reminders of one's mortality. This after a summer where two classmates, a respected instructor (and former drum major) from drum and bugle corps died, and I found out about the death of a guy I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with in 2004. He left behind a wife and young child. 2011 is the "Year of Mortality," where, in spite of having no personal death scares of my own, immediate family has, and more than ever I've been reminded of my short time here on this planet.

Which is why I felt it important to make the time to attend my high school reunion. The people I saw are mostly Facebook friends and not a part of my everyday existence. But... they are a part of my history, a reminder of who I was and who I am. I could never be one of those people who completely abandons his past. I'm too much of a sentimental spirit. Most of my good friends I've had for 10 years or more and they are friends for life. So, if we've ever been friends, sooner or later I'll be back in touch, just to catch up, see how you're doing. You're forever a part of me.

And speaking of time, it's about up here at the library. Gotta go. Keep on trucking'!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A study in contrasts: Revisiting Tucson

Greetings from the downtown Tucson public library. This place reminds me of recent comments by Jimmy Kimmel about the Republican candidate presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. Kimmel said, and I'm paraphrasing, that it was nice to see a library used for something other than homeless people on the Internet and using the bathroom sink to wash their feet.

This is the Tucson library, where there is a palpable funk in the air here at the Internet stations. It seems every grunged out meth head and desert rat has shown up to get online. I am not a germ freak, but am conscientiously refraining from touching my face while typing and am heading straight for the Purel station or washroom when this session is over with.

I am enjoying my time in Tucson. My truck broke down right outside of town Thursday afternoon. It wouldn't go faster than 45 MPH. I was at least able to drive it to a Freightliner mechanic about 10 miles away. I'm not making much money (about $50 a day breakdown pay), but my company is putting me up in a hotel and I should be rolling again Monday.

In the meantime, I get to poke around Tucson, a place I've visited twice before, in 2006 and 2007. I spent the morning walking the Presidio Trail, along the way stopping to see the opening of a rock photography exhibit at the Etherton Gallery and the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. After de-grunging myself, I am heading to the University of Arizona to visit the Center for Creative Photography and the ars Bohemia of the 4th Avenue district. Around dusk I will hike out of downtown to the top of Sentinel Peak, the "A" mountain, just off of downtown.

Why this itinerary? Because everything is free. The only money I've spent today is on a $3.50 day pass for the bus system, which means I can ride any route anywhere in the city until midnight.

This visit to Tucson reminds of how different a state of mind I am in now than the first time I visited here. It makes me feel good to recognize all the positive improvements in my life from now to then, but also reminds me of what a low place I was when I first came here. The last time I was here, December 2006, I was hiking the Arizona Trail, on a winter break from graduate studies at Northern Illinois University. I was going through a divorce and feeling stressed out from the pressures of my studies. It was winter. And I was depressed. Very depressed. I came to the desert to try and escape this depression, but the black cloud followed me out here and only intensified in isolation.

Now there is still a loneliness. It would be nice to have someone to share the day with. But I'm not depressed. Tucson is a tough town. I've never seen so many derelicts. And it's a typical spread out strip mall megalopolis, made worse by the knowledge that this desert environment could never naturally support such a population. It's an unsustainable situation seemingly filled with lost souls unable to sustain themselves. It was a perfect place for me to come in my depression.

This visit I see it in a different light, focusing on the pinnacles of beauty it has to offer, its art and culture. I won't end up in a lesbian dive bar pouring my woes out to a kind couple who listened to me and gave me a hug when I needed it most. That's a story for another time. Heck, I may go back in there for nostalgia's sake when I'm back on 4th Ave. But there will be no tears this time.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Richness

Greetings from the Rio Rico, AZ public library. This small town is just a few minutes north of Nogales, AZ, off of I-19. This is border country and most people speak Spanish or are bilingual.

Today is my day off from truck driving. I am only allowed, by federal law, to be on duty 70 hours in an eight day period. My onboard computer in the truck keeps track of all this, and when I near that 70-hour threshold, I need to take a 34-hour break where I don't drive the truck. Right now Mary (Short for Maraschino. Get it? My truck is red.) is parked at a Pilot truck stop about four miles from here.

It has been a good week for me. I went back on duty a week ago, Aug. 30, after a wonderful three day visit home, where I spent as much time with family as I could, renewed my teaching certificate, and saw other friends. The only thing I didn't do was see any live music at Cornfest. But I did run a 10K race, driving the truck to the race site near the old DeKalb High School, right when I got back into town.

During this past week on the road, I carried a load of auto parts to Chester, NY, and then got the longest trip so far, a wdelivery of 18,000 pounds of perfume from New Jersey all the way to Nogales, over 2,400 miles. This is the type of delivery truckers salivate over. The longer the trip, the more miles, the more money. This load is also the first hazardous materials load I've ever carried. And en route, I went through and passed my first Department of Transportation inspection. The inspector checked everything, including my logs, medical card, bill of lading, truck registration, lights, emergency air warning system, etc. It took about 45 minutes, but I wasn't too nervous. It helps that I did a pre-trip inspection, as I do every morning, to keep the inspection jitters at bay.

And it was a fun drive. Some highlights include driving down I-81 the length of Virginia and passing by Appalachian Trail towns and other landmarks along the way. It is fitting that it rained most of that day, as most of my memories hiking that trail involved rain. But it was strange to cover terrain in a day that it took over six weeks to hike. The previous day I crossed under the AT on I-87 in New York as it traversed the highway on Arden Valley Road. And the day before that, I passed by a segment of the North Country Trail on US20 in Ohio. I must have a real eye for trail signs because this section of trail passed through cornfields and I noticed the small NCT marker on a carsonite post as I drove by at 55 mph. I guess it is hard to travel too far in this country without passing some long-distance trail that I've either hiked or want to hike.

Other highlights of the Nogales trip include: discovering a bald cypress swamp on an after dinner hike near Little Rock, Arkansas; seeing multiple herds of wild pigs grazing on the roadside in Texas; walking around desolate, and seemingly abandoned Lordsburg, NM, at dusk, the only signs of life at a Dollar General and a liquor store across the street; seeing the sky island mountains of Arizona at dawn, while driving through the rain, seeing rainbows and spackles of sunlight on the mountains all around; and here, now, on my break here in Nogales, and the hike I'm technically still in the midst of (as I have 5K to go to get back to the truck stop).

I set out too late this morning, 9 a.m. on a hike towards some nearby mountains. After 2 1/2 hours, the heat was withering me, and when I noticed a rapid heart beat and started feeling dizzy sensations, I found the first shady spot, a tree at the end of someone's driveway, and took a break. In my fatigue I was overcome by reverie -- oh, the silence, no truck engines, no whizzing traffic; and the scenery, blessed desert mountains, huge vultures soaring overhead, riding the thermals, wishing for my demise. And the orange I brought with me was exquisite sustenance. The relish I felt for it reminded me of that scene in the movie, "Into The Wild," when Chris McCandless eats an apple and says, "You are the world's best apple!" I felt that joy, that similar feeling of near-euphoria over something so simple as a piece of fruit. And then a wave of nostalgia hit me. The silence, fatigue, the smell of salt and sweat mixed with sunscreen, little lizards running and chirping afoot -- this is just like a thru-hike experience. This is why I loved that life.

And this is why I love the trucking life so far. It has many of the same elements of thru-hiking, albeit with many marked differences, the least of which is constantly seeing the industrial underbelly of America as opposed to the scant few areas left relatively unmarred by the March of Progress. But the similarities include waking up in a new place every day, yet with the same immediate surroundings (hiking: a tent, trucking: sleeper berth), never really knowing where you'll end up, constantly seeing new and varied terrain, and having time each day to be in your own mind. Most people can't handle that. They need to clutter their existence with external stimuli. And I'm not too different. I read books and listen to music and watch videos on my phone. But I have the wonderful gift of having hours each day where, yes, my mind is engaged keeping safe while driving, but my imagination and thought life gets to wander to wherever it wants to go. This is a luxury so rarely afforded in the other distracted life.

And to top it off, I get paid to be a vagabond. There is no social stigma attached to what I do. I have wonderful support from home. Everybody is encouraging what I do. And it's a responsible activity. The lingering doubts I had while long-distance hiking about shirking necessary duties are absent here. I have a job. A J-O-B job. Unless you've been out of work at the edge of destitution for two years, as I have, then you have no idea the blessed relief I have at having a job. Who cares that it's not teaching? Heck, it pays more than teaching. I have no doubt I'll be instructing young minds again in the not-too-distant future. But right now I have a job, and it's kind of a cool job, the kind of job that lets me go on wandering hikes on off days and see parts of the country that I've never seen before.

It's almost as good as that orange. Almost.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

40 minutes of flash fiction

I've got 40 minutes left at the Shippensburg, PA public library. It's a Saturday. Shortly after noon. The day is nice and sunny, temps warm, but not hot, an idyllic summer day. I'm waiting for my truck to be repaired... still... and probably will be until Monday or Tuesday. In the meantime I'm taking long walks, reading, and fighting off a looming depression brought on by restlessness and being somewhere where no one knows my name. And since I have nothing else to write about, I will do a little extemporaneous fiction. We'll see where it goes...

They called him the Colonel, though during his 4 years in the Army back in the Vietnam era, he'd never risen above Sergeant. They called him the Colonel because he wore a Civil War era Cavalry style hat with a yellow bolo. He wore it low and hit its cap with the edge of his beer can when he took a deep swallow.

They, the other drunks and users at the Augusta Inn, called him the Colonel because he liked it, and he bought 30 packs of Busch, sometimes two or three times a day, and shared freely with everybody because he was lonely and needed company of and the numbness of beer and weed to fight off the wraith-like insistence of the sorry reality of his existence.

And he liked how the party ended when the beer ran out, dismissing the notion that anyone stayed just for the beer and not to be in his august presence. He bragged about confirmed kills in Vietnam and showed the photograph of his younger self to anyone who hadn't seen it, the photo so smudged and dirty from showing and his current appearance only bearing a passing resemblance to the young punk in the photo holding the skull. But the proud smirk was a tell. He hadn't lost that over the years. This illusion of greatness sustained him even then.

Tolly hung out with the Colonel in his room, but felt self conscious about all the pictures of the Colonel's son hanging on the wall, amidst cutouts of curvaceous women from magazines and flyers for shows the Colonel had seen at local bars. The photos of his sons were color on paper, printed off a friend's computer.

"Where's your son now?" Tolly asked.

"He's on a naval submarine keeping our country safe," the Colonel said. "I can't even write him, the stuff he does is so top secret."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

The Colonel puffed on his Meerschaum and looked thoughtfully, self-consciously wistful, away from Tolly, and said, "I can't fairly remember."

Tolly was going to ask why, but thought better of it. Although it was early in the day, the Colonel was known to go on an angry rant, usually by the third 30 pack. No one ever got hurt, but the cops had been called a few times. He'd done community service for drunk and disorderly. The cops knew him by name, George Broosten. They never called him The Colonel.

Tolly excused himself. The day was young, he'd a slight buzz, but there were some errands to be run before he could forget his name. The Colonel dismissed Tolly with an, "All right, young man. Don't let 'em bite you in the ass," and searched through a pile of video tapes for one he hadn't seen in awhile. The TV was always on, tuned to the lone crackly channel it received, and only showed clean when it played a tape.

And so it was how the Colonel passed his days, nodding, slowly slurring, sustained on beer, potato sticks, and cans of sardines. When the beer ran out he'd get on his bike and ride a few blocks to the liquor store, pick up a copy of the Argot Weekly on Wednesdays, do the crossword puzzle, smoke his Meerschaum.

In good weather, he'd hang out on the back porch, a coffee can tied to the railing to collect the cigarette butts of guests. He'd tap out his pipe with the coals still hot, and the can would smolder the sweet cherrywood scent of his tobacco. He always wore the cowboy hat, low, and often a short-sleeved flannel shirt, unbuttoned, showing off his still-lean old man belly with only the slightest paunch, a scar running a semi-circle across his abdomen. The Colonel explained the scar: "I got a viral infection once and they had to remove this much [arms spread wide] of my small intestine." And then adding, with an upraised brow, "I only shit pebbles to this day. Haven't had a good rope shit since that operation." He loved to tell that one when ladies were present.

The Colonel loved to gross out the ladies.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lonely at the library

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I have been away from home since July 18 except for 8 hours with Esther and Jonny when I had a delivery in Hampshire, IL my first week of training. And today, waiting in Shippensburg, PA, for my truck to get fixed, I am feeling the pangs of homesickness. I saw a grandmother walking a little boy Jonny's age around, and he said, like Jonny says, that some cartoon character was "the best. Ever!" I don't know, it just hit me. I got a little misty missing my boy.

I have been a solo driver for a week, and it seems as if nothing is going my way. I've been sent to the wrong delivery location, waited for hours outside a pet food factory, enduring the stench of Yahweh-knows-what, only to be told the delivery wasn't until the next night. I've waited for hours at another delivery yard waiting for a new order, and when I finally got it, the trailer I needed to pick up was right there in the yard. My computer navigation went down (corrected, I later found out, by turning the computer off and back on again), but I had to back up and turn around on a single lane road at the top of a hill, not an easy feat with a 53-foot trailer, when I got lost.

And yesterday, as I was turning around to back an empty trailer into an open stall at a shipper, the trailer knocked off a metal rack attached to the back of my tractor. Luckily, I was only 20 miles away from a terminal and the shop is just going to remove the rack. I have not seen this rack on any other company truck, but when I talked to a mechanic, he told me the rack is used to hold a dolly for those who have routes where they unload the freight. They are just going to remove it permanently. And I, finally, after two months of truck driving, learned how to adjust the fifth wheel. I may be here a couple days waiting for the repair, and time is money in this business. But at least I'm not in any trouble for my rookie error. Damage was minimal to both tractor and trailer.

I can see why there is such a high turnover rate in the trucking industry. Shippers and receivers are surly and unkind to truckers, and even other drivers don't look out for each other. And it can be a very lonely life, never seeing familiar faces. Don't worry. I'm going to tough it out. I still like driving the big rig, enjoy seeing the country roll by, giddy at seeing the Rockies and Appalachia within a week, sunset thunderstorms rage over Kansas wheat fields, listening to Blind Melon's "No Rain" while driving by endless fields of sunflowers, the St. Louis Arch reflecting the sunset along I-70, taking a morning jog through the Ohio countryside, and writing a blog in a small Pennsylvania town at a library in a historic 1830mansion, the Stewart House (see photo above).

Yes, it's almost worth the ugliness of industrial parks, the constant motor whine and stench of diesel fumes, and being away from home for weeks at a time. It will get better. I'll stop making rookie mistakes, figure out all the computer glitches, get better at backing up, and not get so nervous about driving in towns. I'll rarely be away from home this long.

Yes, it will get better. It can only get better. A job is a job. I'm off unemployment. I've got my dignity and self-worth back. Every job has its issues. I'll take the good with the bad, count my blessings and take the bad moments in stride.

Oh, I forgot to mention. I'm only about 10 miles from the Appalachian Trail. Wish I had my bike with me. When I go home, I am taking my bike and guitar back out on the road with me. It will make this life all the easier.

The four pillars of my non-trucking existence -- EXERCISE, READING, WRITING, and MUSIC. Okay. Enough rambling. My time is up here. It's a sunny summer day. No driving for me. I'm off to explore on foot.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Of Cubs, Killers, and trucks

I write this post from the Markham, IL public library, which is just up the street from the trucking terminal I'm at today, near 167th St. and Kedzie. Now I know what it feels like to be a minority, a momentary sense of self-consciousness, but that's about it.



WUZZAT SPEL?: I just finished writing a letter to my mother, and I wonder, "Who writes letters anymore?" I'm glad Mom and I have an exchange of letters. I like their permanence and that, while writing them, you can devote all of your attention to the task. Whereas online one is distracted by so many other things. Also, handwriting is tactile. I wrote three pages and my wrist hurt. Yes, typing is tactile too, but not nearly as labor-intensive. It makes me sad to think that cursive is on its way out and may no longer being taught in public schools. I noticed this trend when I taught in Elgin. When I wrote in cursive on the board, many students couldn't understand it, so I had to resort to printing everything.



DO RE ME: Speaking of Elgin High School, a right fielder for the woeful Chicago Cubs, Kosuke Fukudome, was dealt to the Cleveland Indians this morning for two minor league prospects. While I was a teacher at this equally woeful high school, it made national news when an uber-Nazi hall monitor made a student remove her Fukudome jersey. The incident made national news headlines and the back pages of Sports Illustrated. He sure "did" the Cubs. While he was not a horrible player, he never really earned the high salary he was paid. Good riddance.



GRISLY COLD CASE: My son's hometown has been in the national news lately. In 1957, a 7-year-old girl was abducted from Sycamore and her body found the next April in Jo Daviess County. A suspect in the case, John Tessier (now Jack Daniel McCullough), had an alibi, that he was on a train from Rockford to Chicago for an Army physical. But in 2008 one of his former girlfriends found an unused train ticket from the date Ridulph was abducted, and turned it over to authorities. In 1983, McCullough was fired from a police department for allegedly sexually assaulting a teenage girl. He was arrested a month ago and extradited this week back to Sycamore. Ridulph's body was exhumed from Elmwood Cemetery to gather DNA evidence. There are many odd and grisly twists in this story, and it hits so close to home. Ridulph was abducted just a couple blocks away from where my son and his mother used to live, and her body was exhumed from a cemetery where we have gone on countless walks.



TRUCKIN' UPDATE: I try to post daily updates from the road on Twitter, and use the hashtag #cdlnewbie to mark those posts.

So far, everything is going well. I feel confident about all aspects of the job, except for backing up. I've driven in Chicago rush hour traffic, had a crop duster fly low right over me, seen lightning hit a street sign, so close I saw sparks fly from the impact, and been as far east as Zanesville, Ohio.

My trainer, Tolly, is from Texas, and we're getting along great. He's very patient and easygoing, plus he's really good at what he does. He said he wonders why us northerners don't speak proper English. "None of y'all say 'y'all' or 'fixin'." I'm learning a wealth of trucking wisdom from this 18-year veteran of the industry. So far, I've driven 42 hours. When I reach 75 hours, we can drive as a team and hope to get a long haul or two out west so I can get some mountain experience before I go solo. Going downhill with 65,000-plus pounds pushing on you can be a little tricky. Book knowledge is one okay, but you've really got to experience to know what it's like and how to handle it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

State of transition

Here I am, at another public library in a strange town, Tinley Park, IL, where folks don't seem to believe in sidewalks. The library is about a mile walk from the hotel I've been staying at the past three days. I sought out the library because I seek something familiar and rooted to the routine of the life I left behind.

I often seek out libraries when I travel, maybe for the familiar connection to a public institution I hold dear. This time of transition is tough enough. I'm tired of waiting and want to be doing, to be driving, putting miles under my wheels and getting to work.

I was officially hired yesterday and got my fuel card, employee handbook, training manual, and a slew of paperwork. Today I called a training coordinator, who is trying to find a driver to train me for the next 3-4 weeks. I called at 8 a.m., and again at 10:30 a.m., at my orientation coordinator's insistence. The training coordinator called me at 1:15 p.m. and asked whether I wanted to be with a smoker or non-smoker. She said smoking drivers tend to smoke two packs a day, but, yes, it would be more of a challenge to find a non-smoking trainer. Call me a wussy, but I don't want to train with a chain smoker. She told me to call back at 4 p.m. I did, but once again got an answering machine. At 5, I got another hotel voucher and took the shuttle back. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slow, especially when the extra challenge of finding a non-smoking trainer presents itself.

Hanging out at the terminal has given me the chance to observe truckers. I'm already sick of trucker talk: loads, routes, the weather, food, trucks, other drivers, dispatchers, field managers, etc. A simple pattern develops, which is not surprising amongst strangers. Safe topics are referred to often. Also, most of the drivers are smokers and overweight. The profession is unhealthy enough, with its inherent dangers and exposure to diesel fumes. I guess truck drivers get bored and need to do something to occupy themselves. So they eat and smoke. In the lack of other vices, this other gluttony holds sway. Sure, there are fit, non-smoking drivers, but they are the exception.

I'm sick of this state of transition, this limbo. I was elated at the surety of my hiring. It is the first well-paying job I've had in two years, and promises to be the highest paying job I've ever had. I've been able to occupy my time reading, watching TV, surfing the Internet on my phone (and getting eyestrain headaches as a result), and taking evening walks, but... LET'S GET THE SHOW ON THE ROAD. I know this job requires patience and an unhurried attitude will save my life, but, come on, I've been at this over a week now, not counting the weekend I went home.

I hope tomorrow is the day I get with a trainer and get on the road, but I must go into it with no expectation or else I will be sorely disappointed if it doesn't happen. This state of transition is fleeting, but I upended a good life, a life full and complete, with its own rhythms and habits, and shoot, I guess I'm showing my age in missing the regularity and patterns of that life and wishing to establish a pattern and regularity in this new life.

I remember once, younger, when I thought a life of habit was a rote existence, the life of a robot, and I shunned pattern and regularity. In some ways this viewpoint has guided my choices of professions. No two work days are the same for a journalist, teacher, or truck driver. I don't know how people do jobs that follow a regular pattern. The cubicle rat paper pushers of the world, the same bureaucrats slowing my progress, I just don't know how they do it. But I can now relate to the comfort and security they must feel going to their jobs knowing full well the duties before them. It's not too different, I guess, from the same sense of comfort I got in the daily routines of my old life.

The things I love and miss from the old life will be replaced by new familiarities, as the routes I travel leave signposts in my brain that conjur memories of other passings. So many places in this great country already do that. I will no doubt shed a tear of recognition when I see the Appalachians again or enjoy a sunset over pointy northwoods pines. These evoke other patterns, other lives, that I left behind at some point to embrace a new existence. Transitions don't erase the old life. It's kind of like an etch a sketch. You scratch a pattern and even though you shake it blank again, a ghost pattern remains of the past etching and all other etchings before that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Truck driver orientation

I made it through orientation with the trucking company that wants to hire me, but have not been officially hired because they still need some more paperwork, in particular my W-2s to confirm I worked for an employer they cannot get ahold of over the phone. I do not want to reveal my future employer's name on the Internet because I'm sure there's some kind of company policy against that, but it is one of the largest trucking companies in the United States.

So far, I am impressed with the company, it's policies, the trucks, the routes, and notice that most of the truckers who came into the terminal seemed happy. I hung out at the terminal most of the afternoon Friday after orientation ended. It is like any way station, a constant flow of human traffic, baggage left near the wall, conversations creating a din in the open atmosphere. A television blares rap videos from BET, two truckers laugh over some crazy warehouse guy at a shipping location, a skinny guy all covered in tattoos comes in and scans documents to finish off his trip. I read a Louis L'Amour book, waiting for a ride to a Metra station so I could ride two trains and get home to my family for the weekend.

The first day of orientation was the busiest. They shuttled us off to a clinic for a physical and drug test. Blood pressure, vision, hearing checked, ears, nose, throat, and testicles examined, and I had to crouch and then stand up. Later, back at the terminal, I had to carry a box weighing 70 pounds the length of a truck and back three times, each time having my heart rate checked. I had to do a tug and push test, step on and off a ladder, and walk like like a duck under a piece of string. These tests are to prove you can do everything necessary to get in and out of a truck, unload it, and be able to check underneath it.

After that was a road test. One challenge was hooking up to a trailer. It's not complicated, but I only did it three times in my training. And the trailer I hooked onto was recessed between two other trailers. But I did fine and had no problems. Another challenge was doing a 45-degree backup into a dock. I had to do a similar backup as part of my CDL yard test, and for this one I only needed three pullups to straighten out my angle. The company tester also walked me through a pre-trip to ensure I knew what to do. I passed with flying colors.

The next couple days of orientation were not nearly as active. The second day we watched videos about company policies and safety regulations, health insurance, lease options, pay scales, etc. And the third day we learned how to use the onboard computer on the truck and do electronic logging. Federal law requires all interstate truck drivers to keep a record of their activities behind the wheel. Drivers are only allowed 14 hours on duty each day and 11 hours behind the wheel, with a couple rare exceptions. The company I will work for does all of this logging electronically, which makes it really easy to do and also means the company won't ever ask me to break the law and fudge my log books, as some more unscrupulous employers will do to expedite a load.

The guy who trained us on e-logs moved quickly through the training and then chatted with us for about 90 minutes about trucking in general. Truckers sure love to tell stories. But I learned some valuable tips about eating on the road, not trusting GPS navigation systems, and keeping good records of your logs and paperwork. Truckers tend to seem like simpleton good ol' boys, and for the most part they are, but they also have to keep a lot of paperwork straight and make decisions that could cost thousands of dollars and save lives. It's not a job to be taken lightly. Every day truckers die out on the road.

Tomorrow I go back to the terminal. I most likely will wait around for a trainer to be available. If they don't find one tomorrow I'll probably get another night's stay at a La Quinta hotel, which is a lot nicer than my normal travel accomodations (a tent). Once with a trainer, I'll have 150 hours on the road experience, including 10 hours of backing up, before I'm given my own truck.

When I got home Friday night, my old drum corps buddy Andy called, happy he made it through training and he has his own truck. He said it's got half a million miles on it, but he's solo and that's all that matters. I won't be making any real money until I go solo, but the dream of full employment inches ever closer to reality.

Keep on truckin'.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On the Road Again


I leave tomorrow for orientation with a major trucking company. Once I pass a series of tests (physical, driving test, background check, drug screen, etc.), I will go on the road for three weeks with a trainer. And once training is finished, I will be given my own company truck.

This entire process began months ago, as I faced the dreaded prospect of a very poor job market for public school teachers. I mulled getting a job as an adjunct professor at a community college, but that is often part-time work with no benefits. In January, I drove my parents to Houston to see my sister's family. I enjoyed driving so much that truck driving became a feasible idea to me. It took awhile, though, to give up on the dream of being a teacher. I sank $40K in student loans and three years of my life to earn my master's degree. And while my first teaching assignment was at times a horrible experience, I persevered and did a good enough job that I still wanted to do it. And still do.

But I have to face reality. Nearly two years of unemployment have sapped my finances to the breaking point. While I have not dug deeper in debt, I am constantly living paycheck to paycheck, frequently, in the past few months, down to my last dime. Call me crazy, but I've found it exhilarating at times to be so destitute. Because it is then that I am reminded of a lesson I've learned from years of backpacking: All this stuff, all this worry about money and prestige and place is for naught. I've been down to nothing, and been there with a smile on my face.

Why? Because I have a woman and son, parents and siblings, and friends who love and care for me. I am healthy, sane, intelligent and willful. I have never known hunger. I've never been desperate. Desperation is a state of mind. This is the United States of America, not Uganda. There is a safety net of social services available to the downtrodden. I laugh at those who fret over their stock portfolios or worry that they're IRA is not up to where it should be for their age. Financial security is false security. All the planning and forethought in the world isn't going to save the average middle class citizen in the face of a long-term disability or major catastrophe. Crickets and ants are all in the same boat.

But this doesn't mean I condone foolishness or dependence on the system. Rather, I believe in putting my best foot forward, planning for emergencies as best I can, and doing everything and anything I can to get by and provide for my family. But I'm not going to sacrifice 1/3 of my life in a career I hate just so I can collect enough tokens to be called a "winner" in the false game of acquisition. That's not how I'm wired. But I am gun shy after this most recent destitution. I will never quit a job without another one lined up. No thru hikes are planned for the near future.

Back in May I stayed at my brother's place in Chicago. He's done well for himself as an architect and owns three properties, including an apartment in Paris. But for all of his success and wealth, he has very few possessions to show for it. He shares an apartment with a roommate, drives a used car, owns very little furniture, has no stereo system or nice bicycle. But he's seen a lot more of the world than I have. We both have the same wanderlust. We don't shun possessions as an act of discipline. The American Dream is just not something we've pursued. We don't want things. Things get old quick. They break down. Memories last forever. Experience trumps acquisition every time.

So, yeah, I leave tomorrow for another adventure. And I hope this leads to steady employment, interesting experiences, financial stability, and a rebuilding of my portfolio. I still have dreams of being a teacher, writing a novel and screenplay, publishing a chapbook of poetry, hiking the Continental Divide Trail, going on tour and performing with a band. All in good time. Right now it's time to work.

Keep on Truckin'!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Health scare



I'll never forget that moment a few weeks ago. The love of my life (at her request, she shall remain nameless) called and said she was at the emergency room with our son. She sounded drunk, her voice slurry and words coming slowly, but she explained that she was having vision problems and didn't quite feel right. And then, as I asked her more, she said, "uhh... uhh..." And then the line went dead.

I didn't know what had happened, but I feared the worst as I put on a pair of slippers and banged on my neighbor's door to ask for a ride to the hospital. It's funny, but my brain seems to function well in times of crisis. I remained calm through the whole time of transit, even though I went through every potential scenario, including the prospect of death and having to raise our son alone. I didn't know her condition.

When I arrived at the emergency room, I identified myself to the attendant and asked, "Is she conscious?" When he told me she was, a great wave of relief passed over me. After checking on our son, who was being watched by his neighbors in the waiting area, we both went back to visit his mother.

She was hooked up to an IV and a monitor displayed all of her vital signs. The first thing I noticed was her blood pressure, which was 168/90, and even I, with my scant medical knowledge, knew that was very high. She was still out of it, seemed half asleep, and her skin was pale, even by Scandinavian standards.

The first thing I thought was, "She had a stroke." So I asked her to smile. She did, and it was even. Another wave of relief. Turns out I was partly right.

She had stroke-like symptoms, but not a full-blown stroke. She had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), also known as a mini-stroke. The good news is there is no lasting damage from a TIA. The bad news is she is 20 times more likely to have a stroke in the future.

Blood clots and high blood pressure run in her family, and a previous trip to the emergency room a couple years ago with chest pains, meant the TIA wasn't a major surprise. But it still scared us both. We're too young to be dealing with such serious health problems. We need to be strong to take care of our children and parents. These are the productive years, full-on adulthood. Not a time for convalescence.

She was admitted to the hospital overnight and even stayed the next night for further tests. The cause of the TIA was never determined. Recent appointments with a neurologist and cardiologist revealed nothing. She was not put on any medicine, but told to take an aspirin each day, give up caffeine, and begin a regular exercise regimen. I'd tell to worry less, but know that's impossible. Certain personality traits are ingrained.

It's been such a strange summer so far. Distant friends and associates the same age as me have died. I just found out a guy I hiked with on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004 died in a tragic bike accident a year ago. He left behind a widow and four-year-old daughter. Even though I've had a few health scares of my own, I am still young and healthy and ostensibly have many more years ahead of me. But you never know when your time is due. That's why the Latin dictum Carpe Diem rings so true.

Live. LIVE! Each moment is precious. Far too soon all of it will be taken away. It eventually happens to us all. We hang on to this existence by the thinnest of threads.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dr. Bronner's controversy


I first discovered Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap over 10 years ago, when it was only available in health food stores and organic co-ops. It has since gone mainstream and I just bought a quart bottle of 18-in-1 Hemp Lavender Pure-Castile Soap at Walgreen's. In addition to being a great read (nearly every bit of space on bottle delineates in repetitive detail Dr. Bronner's All-One philosophy), the soap is one of the most ecological and dermatologically friendly products out there. While it is true the original Dr. Bronner escaped from a mental hospital and is a counterculture hero/nutball, he comes from a long family tradition of soapmakers. And since his death, the company he brought to America has kept its leftist edge and unique label.

As I showcased in a previous blog post , there is a documentary about the man, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox, and apparently Dr. Bronner, who died in 1997, sounds as nutty as the text on his soap.



It is rare to see such wackiness attached to a popular consumer good. I can think of no other mainstream product that is as "out there" as Dr. Bronner's soap. It goes against everything that consumer culture says should work in advertising. Most products take a bland middle road and are not involved in politics or activism of any sort. Or, if they are, they do half-assed "fundraising" efforts for popular charities.

It gets even weirder. In 2007 a drummer in a punk rock band was arrested in California because his Dr. Bronner's soap tested positive for an illegal date rape drug, GHB, using a the NarcoPouch® 928 field drug tests. But as the following video shows, all natural soaps, as opposed to detergent-based soaps, will test positive using the Narcopouch kit.



Check out the Dr. Bronner web site . In addition to having all the products for sale, there are links and articles related to the lax rules about organic labeling in the cosmetics industry. It's nice to buy a product that is not only the best of its kind, has a bona-fide crazy behind its creation, but is also good for the environment and socially conscious as well.

Still, I wouldn't recommend brushing your teeth with the stuff.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Happy Naked Hiking Day!

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and the first day of summer. Right now it 8:13 p.m. and pretty dark, but only because a major thunderstorm is brewing outdoors. In long-distance hiking circles, the first day of summer is also Naked Hiking Day. And as the drops fall and the sky turns a sickly yellow, punctuated by bolts of lightning and thunder roar, I can't help getting nostalgic about my past participation in Naked Hiking Day.

I wrote about Naked Hiking Day exactly five years ago, so instead of regurgitating my own two experiences as a participant, here are the links to my trail journals for those days.

Appalachian Trail
Pacific Crest Trail

There is also a discussion thread about naked hiking, although a cursory examination shows it caters to the nudist crowd. I've got nothing against nudists and may embrace their minimalist philosophies, but am not a nudist myself. There's a seedy underbelly to the movement that's a bit too kinky for my tastes. But all the power to them. Let it all hang out!

Here's a short, funny video. Don't worry, it only shows some middle-aged dude's hairy butt!

Monday, June 20, 2011

RIP Dusty

Ever done something long, long, ago that still makes you flush crimson with embarrassment when you think of it?

Unfortunately, I've got a few of those memories. I guess it means I've lived an unabashed, unafraid existence, and that most of my youth and young adulthood I acted frequently on impulse. But I've been lucky. There's no arrest record to answer to and nobody has a bounty on my head. At least as far as I know. And as age 40 creeps closer on the near horizon, the number of embarrassing mistakes has diminished significantly.

But news of the death of someone I marched in drum and bugle corps and attended junior high and high school with reminded me of an embarrassment that later helped change my views about homosexuals and homosexuality. Dusty was gay and when I was in high school I called him a "faggot." As far as gay-bashing goes, that's quite tame, especially in light of the treatment that many small-town gays suffer. But taken in the context of who Dusty was and what he did for me, my calling him a "faggot" was one of the worst things I've ever done.

Many people know that I was never really that popular in high school. I didn't feel any sense of belonging until my senior year. Once, in junior high, a group of bigger kids were picking on me, shoving me around in a circle. Dusty stood up for me. He broke up the group and interrupted them long enough to let me escape. Time has erased most of the details from my memory, but I do remember him standing up for me. He probably knew what it felt like to be picked on, though I remember him being popular and well-liked in high school. He certainly must have known what it was like to be misunderstood. I don't know what his motivation was for standing up for me, but he did, and I never forgot, even though I never became his friend.

Nor do I remember much about the actual incident of the slur I said against him. I just remember hearing a rumor that he was involved in a relationship with another man, a drum corps instructor. And at the time I attended church regularly and was caught up in the silly Old Testament doctrines against homosexuality. I just remember that when I said it, I instantly regretted it because I knew he had stood up for me once, and that I'd repaid his kindness with scorn.

But as the years have gone on, and I've grown tolerant and accepting of gays and support gay rights, I am less embarrassed about what I said. After all, teenagers are malleable creatures and can adhere to some silly viewpoints that are only seen as such in retrospect.

No. What hurts most is that I never said, "I'm sorry." I've gone to drum corps shows over the years and have looked for Dusty, just so I could say that. No doubt he doesn't remember the incident. I needed to say it, not for his sake, but mine. But now I'll never get the chance.

And what's even stranger is I know no details of his life since high school, or his death. All I know is he had no Internet presence to speak of. No Facebook or Twitter, no photos, nothing but generic people search web sites. The guy had a non-existent web presence. I found out about his death from a mutual classmate and Facebook friend.

The mystery of his life and death is almost as galling as knowing that I'll never be able to apologize for a 21-year-old slur.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Running narrative, Unlimited Performance 5K

On June 4, after spending the previous night at Kishwaukee Community Hospital, with my significant other's permission to leave her side, I wearily made my way down the road from the hospital to the starting line for the Unlimited Performance 5K race. Obviously, with a loved one in the hospital, my mind was elsewhere, and I didn't have the best night's sleep on a cot in a hospital room, with nurses coming in every couple hours to take blood or other bodily fluids.

Plus, the morning was hot and steamy. Daytime temps would eventually get up in the mid 90s F. But this was only a 5K race. I could run 3.11 miles at the drop of a hat. But with all that was on my mind, I went into the race with no clear strategy. I just wanted to finish, get a shower, and get back to my honey in the hospital.

The first mile went by fast, as I clocked in at 7:34, but then the heat started to get to me and I faded the rest of the race. The finish line was exciting, as three of us raced in a dead heat down the final stretch. Unfortunately, I came in last out of us three. Still, it was neat to hear the cheers of those standing by at the finish line. My goal was to finish in under 25 minutes. Even though I didn't achieve it at 26:12.5, I certainly didn't do too bad, finishing in the top third of all finishers (56th out of 184) and in the top half of my age group (7th out of 20).

Overall and age group results are below. My next race is June 25, a 10K starting at Sycamore Speedway and with a route along the Great Western Trail. It should be fun!

Here are the overall results: http://www.unlimitedperformance.org/5K/2011/UP5K11overall.html

Here are the results by age group: http://www.unlimitedperformance.org/5K/2011/UP5K11age.html# 5

Nature is everywhere

I haven't had the chance to go on a backpacking trip yet in 2011, and if I don't get one in before I get a job, this year may be the first in a very long time that I don't get back to nature for at least a week-long outing. No worries, though, because my finely-honed senses find the beauty of nature everywhere. Even though no advertising campaigns herald its wonders, and it goes unnoticed by the vast and ignorant population unconsciously bent on destroying it, nature is manifest and wonderful.

Here are a couple videos I took in the city of DeKalb, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago. One is of barn swallows diving into a chimney, just outside the back door fire escape of my room above the defunct Fargo Theatre. The swallows are a common scene at dusk in the city. I love to listen to their chittering, and their flight rivals the most daring feats of aviation man has ever achieved. They are fast, precise, and social creatures.

The second video was taken during a lunch break at the truck yard for Kishwaukee Community College, which is surrounded by an industrial park. Hundreds of thousands of tadpoles give life and vibrancy to a wasteland. I hope the frogs they become are not deformed. They're destined to make a lovely chorus in late summer.



Thursday, June 02, 2011

Why get fit?



I read an article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune about the unrealistic portrayal of manly fitness in summer blockbuster movies. It featured various actors, including Eric Bana and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, detailing some of the workout and diet regimens they went through to get ready for a particularly beefy role.

But what stood out from this article was a quote by author and Harvard University instructor Emily Fox-Kales, who wrote Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders.

"As men have lost more economic power, more social power, they've wanted to look more pumped up," Fox-Kales said. "Muscles have become an accessory, like pickup trucks."

The article says that the latest trend in the summer Hollywood blockbuster season is beefy men, such as the movie depictions of comic book heroes like Thor and Captain America. This is a change from an interest in smaller heroes, such as those portrayed by slight actors like Tobey Maguire and Orlando Bloom.

As an unemployed ex-English teacher transitioning from an emasculated profession to the more manly job of truck driver, I didn't realize my recent weightlifting was part of a Hollywood trend, or that maybe my decision to beef up could be due to my economic condition. But when I think more deeply into the thought processes that went into my decision to lift weights again, a desire to go from helpless to empowered is a huge factor behind it.

I left teaching feeling like a pawn thrust about by a great machine, unappreciated, undesirable, and left to a cruel and indifferent marketplace. I also came to realize that, hey, I'm not getting any younger, and I've never seen myself really fit before. Sure, I've been thin and maintained a healthy body weight most of my adult life, but I'd never incorporated a regular exercise routine into my daily habits. I knew I needed to start now before I got any fatter than the alarming 240 pounds I reached, or I wouldn't be able to do the same activities, such as tennis, disc golf, and backpacking, that I've enjoyed throughout my 20s and 30s.

Plus, unlike the cruel machinations of the employment market, my body is something I have control over. Working out gives me discipline and a sense of accomplishment. Achieving fitness goals gives me the self confidence to ace that next interview and the energy to be a better partner, dad, and, yeah, employee.

I may never be as ripped as Sylvester Stallone or Ah-nold, but I feel good about exercising and gain confidence each time I step out of the weight room feeling twitchy and tired. And, hey, it's trendy. I'm growing my hair out too. Maybe I am destined to be the next Thor! By Mjölnir!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Time changes everything

Yesterday I watched a half hour long documentary about DeKalb, "Our Town," filmed by Clark C. Cryor. It was filmed in 1967, or a little more than 44 years ago. Many of the places shown in building, including parts of the Northern Illinois University campus and downtown, look the same now as they did in 1967. This is limited to the buildings, because trees, cars, street lights, and signs all look different now.

In addition to the obvious differences in fashion and social standards (for example, the mayor and the city council were showcased and all referred to as "men of vision," a statement that would be politically incorrect today), I was surprised to see how many wires cluttered the skyline. One shot in a neighborhood in the north side of town looked to be a sea of wires and poles. Added to the mix were the television antennas. I'd forgotten how much of our utilities have moved underground since then.

Other places, even though they were identified in the documentary, looked completely unfamiliar. One shot on North First Street showed two lanes of traffic and children walking on a dirt path along the road. I must have watched this scene five or six times to try and place its location, and couldn't. The narrator said the city was looking into putting sidewalks in, which they eventually did.

And even though downtown DeKalb looked familiar, especially the buildings and train tracks, none of the business names remained. I looked up one prominent restaurant name, the Sea Breeze, and learned that the owner of this restaurant eventually moved to Galena, IL, and bought another restaurant, The Log Cabin, in the 1970s, which is still open to this day. But every other downtown business that existed in 1967 is gone today.

The documentary also showed footage of a group of men from DeKalb visiting Kalamazoo, Michigan, and seeing how this city closed down its main downtown street and opened a pedestrian mall. I guess DeKalb considered doing the same thing, possibly re-routing Lincoln Highway traffic south of the main drag. But this never happened.

As I walked around town today, I wondered what the city will look like 40 years in the future, and even how much it has changed in the 15 years that I've been associated with DeKalb. And as I looked at the footage of skinny ties, crew cuts, men wearing suits to casual functions, and smoking indoors, I wonder what contemporary habits will make people of the future shake their in wonder at the naivete and stupidity of those people of 2011.

Here are a few predictions. In light of recent findings, people of the future will marvel that the people of 2011 used cell phones that caused brain cancer, and that such clunky devices only transmitted sound and images. In the future, telecommunications will be more like telepathy. There will be no visible interface devices. Implants or the tiniest of microchips will fulfill all of our communication needs.

Also, people of the future will laugh at our dietary habits. They will not believe that we allowed corporations to dupe us into eating such unhealthy, processed, and chemically-laden food. They will note how inefficient our agricultural practices were and how out-of-tune we were with our environment. They will also not believe how much we were duped by the pharmaceutical industry into spending so many billions of dollars on medicines that only masked major problems and caused awful side effects.

Of course, people of the future will scoff at our use of fossil fuels to power our automobiles and provide electricity. Forty years from now they may still be used, but not by industrialized Western nations. Our energy usage will need to become more environmentally sustainable to avoid economic collapse and further ecological degradation. Our current practices are cannot continue for 40 more years.

NOTE: Click on the link above for a list of films created by Clark C. Cryor from the 1950s to the 70s. He died in 1977. Most of these films are available on DVD at the DeKalb Public Library.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Missing kitty



I was gone all afternoon on Tuesday, May 24, but before I left I was sure my cat, Springer, was in my room. When I returned later, after a thunderstorm, she was gone. I was baffled as to how she disappeared, but when I talked to a neighbor, he said she was scratching at the screen when he was out on the back deck with friends. A check of the screen showed that it was loose and could be pushed out far enough to free Springer.

She is an outdoor cat and often meows at the door to be let out. Because I live in an urban environment, I was concerned for her safety, but she continually demonstrated a healthy fear of cars and never wandered away from the back lot. Whenever she wanted back in she would come to the window and meow. It was a nice arrangement, and I hadn't the heart to keep her indoors permanently, even though it was safer.

I also chose to not get her spayed. When the previous cat I had, Gato, was fixed, her personality changed and her belly got soft and flabby and swayed when she walked. Although I did no clinical research, anecdotal evidence from talking with others suggested that this was a common phenomena. Female cats get fat and lazy when they're fixed. I didn't want that to happen to Springer. I also didn't mind if she gave birth to a litter. Yes, cat overpopulation is a problem, but I thought it would be neat for my son to see the birthing process and help find new homes for the kittens.

Its been a week and Springer has not returned. Maybe she is on an adventure. Maybe she got picked up by a stranger. I have alerted the local Humane Society (TAILS), Animal Control, and the DeKalb County Animal Shelter. I didn't know there were so many places to take strays. Jonny and I also posted flyers around the neighborhood with contact information.

Springer is a very resourceful cat. I'm not surprised she escaped. She is a real gamer. I don't worry about her ability to survive in the world. I just miss her and her absence makes my studio a lot less homey. I feel silly for being so sentimental about a cat, but I am. The only upside is I don't have to deal with logistics for her care when I am on the road truck driving. But I would gladly deal with them for the safe return of my cat.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The trucking life

Last week I officially registered for a CDL training class through Kishwaukee Community College. Class starts June 6. I've thought about trucking since finishing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004. One of my best friends from childhood went through truck driver training and drove a rig for awhile. Also, while on that hike, I rode in a the cab of a 18-wheeler to Ashland, Ore. (click here to link to the journal entry from that day)

I have grown continually disheartened at the grim prospects for public school teaching. And when I learned that truck drivers earn an average wage commensurate with what I would earn as a teacher, I jumped at the idea. I've got a good driving record and a long time ago had a CDL to drive a school bus. Strange thing: In 1997 I got three traffic violations within months of beginning work as a school bus driver, and I lost my job. I haven't had so much as a parking ticket since then. I also do not have any felonies and am not addicted to drugs or alcohol. Hey, that makes me a good candidate for being a truck driver.

I hope long haul trucking is a good source of income until the economy improves and public school teaching jobs become more widely available to one with limited experience (one year) like me. I still dream of teaching a middle school language arts program, and think I have a lot to offer students. In the meantime, I am pursuing many writing goals and thankful, at least, that teaching isn't diverting my creative energies elsewhere. I thought about teaching community college part-time, but the travel involved and lack of benefits negates that option. Plus, even after I get back into teaching, having a CDL could provide me with a source of income during summer breaks and holidays. I am determined to make good on this training investment.

I love to travel and see the country. The only downside is being away from friends and family for extended periods of time. Being a good truck driver involves not only good driving skills, but time management, navigational skills, the ability to manage and organize paperwork, and a temperament suited to long days. The only thing I'm worried about is staying in shape. I've made so many improvements to my diet and overall health, and I don't want to backslide into eating junk food and not exercising. It will take discipline to avoid the fattening temptation of truck stop fare.

I love the nomadic aspects of truck driving, the idea of waking up each day in a different place. While seeing the USA from the interstate is a lot less interesting than seeing it from a trail, I am resourceful with pack and map, and will no doubt figure out some way to integrate adventure into my travels.

But first things first. I've got four weeks of training ahead, then the homework of finding a good company to work for that will hire a newbie driver.

I've already done a fair amount of Internet research, but as any prospective driver knows, there is a glut of information out there. The only thing I'm sure of is that there are many, many jobs available for qualified drivers. This seems to be a recession-proof occupation.

One of my favorite sites so far is: www.lifeasatrucker.com While the multiple typographical errors are annoying, this site, created by a long-haul trucker, has a wealth of information and gives a realistic portrayal of the trucking life.

The best video series I've found so far on YouTube is Trucker's Life. Driver Vince puts the viewer in the cab, on the loading dock, and at the truck stop, and along the way touches on every aspect of the truck driving life. Here's the first of about 20 videos he created. I've watched them all, and while some of my romantic notions of the trucking life have been dispelled (it seems as if truckers have no free time), I also came away from viewing them confident that I can do and enjoy this job.

Another running narrative



For the second time in six days, I ran a competitive race. After running a the Magellan Development 10K race in Chicago on a cold, rainy, blustery May 15, I ran the Sunrise Rotary 8K race, starting at Potawatomi Woods Forest Preserve near Kirkland, IL, on a warm, rainy, blustery May 21.

In the Chicago race, I had more "in the tank" at the end, and chided myself for holding back too long. Although running is a simple sport, a race can involve a lot of strategy, most of it personal to the runner. I went into the Magellan Development race with the game plan of taking it easy the first three miles and then building up speed all the way to the end. In retrospect, given how good I felt at the end, I should have started my big push sooner. So, the strategy for the Sunrise Rotary 8K was to start out strong and then try to hold on until the end.

This strategy improved my average pace per mile by almost a minute, from a 9:09 average to 8:14. My goal was to finish in under 40 minutes. I fell just short, finishing in 40:57. Considering that I felt under the weather, fighting mild flu symptoms, I am very happy with the results of Saturday's race. The only downside is I did not get the psychological pleasure of passing scores of runners like I did in the Chicago race.

In addition to being shorter, the Sunrise Rotary race had a much smaller field, 82 runners, compared to the 700 runners in Chicago. This meant that registering was a lot easier and I didn't need to adjust my pace at all to avoid running into other runners. I also didn't have a chip on my bib and there were no digital timers every mile. Instead, volunteers called out the time as runners passed. The Sunrise Rotary race took place on country roads and passed through the town of Kirkland, passing by a disc golf course I've frequented countless times with my friend Todd.

I finished the first mile in 7:45 and eventually slowed from that best time. I didn't pass anybody after the second mile and nobody passed me after mile 3. I put on the afterburners at the 4-mile mark, but was not fast enough to catch the next runner in front of me. I closed the gap, but she finished 10 seconds ahead of me. I could hear the labored breathing and footsteps of the runner behind me as we approached mile 4, but then he faded out of earshot.

My next race is a 10K at Sycamore Speedway June 25. I may race a 5K in DeKalb June 4. It's only $20 and would help me reach my goal of running at least 12 races in 2011. It's also a different distance, involving a different strategy. My goal is to improve on my average per mile. The bar is set at 8:14. Not bad, considering that when I resumed running last November and 25 pounds ago, my initial goal was to run a mile on a treadmill in less than 11 minutes.

I talked with my mom Sunday and she asked me if running these races is my latest "thing." I guess it is, though I can't say I'm obsessive about running yet. I just like to do it and the races give me mini-goals to shoot for and keep me on task.

Click HERE for the overall results of the 2011 Sunrise Rotary 8K. I finished 27th out of 82 runners and 6th out of 12 in my age group (35-44). It is humbling to note that the top three finishers in the men's 55-64 age group all finished ahead of me. Of course, they've probably been running a lot longer than I have.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Homeless Mustard

I've found a new hero and his name is Homeless Mustard.

Few who know me know that I've been homeless a couple times, both on purpose and not due to usual ills of destitution or drug abuse. The last time was in August 2009 when I moved back to DeKalb. I roamed the streets and slept in city parks for 22 days because I didn't want to commit to a lease unless I got a job or the prospect of another teaching job dried up. I put all of my stuff in storage, took showers Anderson Hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University, hung out at the library a lot, and partied with a lot of townies. During that time, I did a lot of reading about the vagabond life, Hobos, and the homeless. This was the time I also began dumpster diving, a practice I engage in to this day. (albeit only at Aldi's, where I never fail to get all the fruits and vegetables I need).

Also, since then, I have read a lot about stealth camping and homelessness. After my son becomes an adult I plan to roam this land again and live the vagabond life. The wandering is in my blood and I will answer it again someday.

Somebody on Facebook posted a link to a video by Daniel "Homeless" Mustard, a street performer discovered by a Sirius satellite radio show, the Andy and Opie show. I've never heard the show, but the YouTube videos of "Homeless" are amazing. He's got a great, gravelly voice, and does some soulful covers and original music. He gives hope to all of musicians striving to be heard or just singing out our hearts to anyone who will listen.

Here's Homeless Mustard's most famous video. His web site is: www.thehomelessmustard.comThis is the true essence of music. No glamour or record sales. Just heart and soul, bar chords and worn out guitar. Homeless Mustard shows how it's done. I hope he finds a roof over his head someday, but continues to perform. Go to his web site and give the guy a few bucks.

WARNING: HE SWEARS IN THIS VIDEO. VIRGIN EARS BEWARE!!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some new music

My friend Jim Nerstheimer and I got together Wednesday night and played at the church where he is employed as a pipe organist, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran in DeKalb, IL.

The acoustics are great. I brought my electric guitar, as past performances with my acoustic were drowned out by the mighty pipe organ. The balance between the instruments tilted too far in my favor this time. We'll get it right soon. We recorded 80 minutes of our jam session. We used no sheet music or had ever played any of the riffs before. It was pure improvisation. I sat near Jim's console. I've learned visual cues are important in improvisation. Seeing his fingers move gives me a sense of rhythm and where they are located on the keyboard lets me know the notes. His console has three ranks of keys, so it was an interesting lesson in following along.

I culled the best moments from our jam session. While no great virtuosity is on display, there are some nice little moments. And this music is different from the stuff I usually record. Symphonic instead of poppy, with a very open structure. I may take some of these ideas and flesh songs out of them, but they are fairly enjoyable as they are. Below are the Soundcloud files of the songs. As you will see, I had fun making up titles.

Pointillism by stoom

Apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber by stoom

Say what? by stoom

Bertha's Sandwich by stoom

Shamwow by stoom

My Italian heritage


Tonight is pizza night. At least once a week for the past year I've made homemade pizza from scratch. At first I followed a recipe, but like anything done repeatedly, the process has gotten more byzantine over time. My sister gave me a pizza stone in January, which dramatically improved the quality of the crust and made preparation all the easier. Now I don't have to cook the crust separately before putting on the toppings.

In addition to making pizza, I also make really good meatballs. For these, I follow my mother's recipe. She's not Italian. These feats of culinary greatness are about as Italian as I get. Unlike my father, who grew up with Italian-speaking parents in a largely Italian neighborhood, as a third-generation American, most of my Italian heritage and folkways have been lost. Sure, my father has done extensive geneaology work. I know where I come from, Piana Degli Albanese, a village in the mountains above Palermo, Sicily, but I cannot point to any specific family tradition that hails from the old country. My mother's side of the family has been in the United States since the 1850s, so any trace of ethnicity is lost there as well.

Italian-Americans get a bad rap. The first three entries in a Google search of my last name reveals a pizza joint and two New York area mobsters. My father, Frank, shares the same name as the Gambino Family consigliere, Frank "Franky Loc" Locascio. Most other Locascio surnames are spelled LoCascio or Lo Cascio. The name has many meanings. It could mean "Of the Cascio." Cascio is a type of cheese. In southern Italy, Locascio is a derivation of Lo Castro, which means of the walled city. A Castro is a Roman walled fortification.



Apparently, the village in Sicily, Piana Degli Albanese, where my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from in the early 1900s is largely populated by the Arbëreshë, an Albanian minority community living in southern Italy since as early as the 15th century. I guess I am more Albanian than Italian. I like to embrace this idea because being Albanian would explain my love of mountains. Italy is mountainous too, but more in the north. My roots are far more southern.

I'd like to embrace my ethnic roots a little more closely, but since I wasn't raised within any specific traditions, it would be affected, an approximation, with no legitimate family claims. Or, I could seek out extended family on my father's side -- most of whom I haven't seen in years, and appropriate their uniquely Italian traditions. That's an idea. I'd better do it soon, as my father's generation is passing away and so few of them, my father included, have maintained many of the old ways.

At least I've learned to make a really good pizza from scratch. It's a start.

Flash fiction: The Spinner (part 1)

Ever had a recurring dream that came true? I have, a few times. One was mundane, involving a unique kind of light, but when it came true it was a profound moment of recognition, and I never had the dream again. The other recurring dream that came true changed the very nature of reality, not just for me, but for everybody. It is a challenge to the laws of physics. This is super hero stuff we're talking about here, the stuff of fantasy, and like anything crazy that happens to a normal guy like myself, my puny mind is still grasping at the implications, even though, as super powers go, it is fairly useless.

But before I get into all that... here's the other dream that came true and never came back. Somehow, it connects to my unique power, but I'm still trying to figure all that out.

Ever since I was a child, I had this dream of an aquarium with white rocks, crushed limestone, I believe, and potted plants inside it. In my dream I walk up to this aquarium and just look inside. Nothing else happens. It is lit from within by a fluorescent light, or so I thought, and surrounding me is the gray glow of pre-dawn, but just a little brighter, unlike any kind of natural light I've known. For some reason, I can't figure out, light is important to all this.

I had this dream from age 7 or 8 until I was 19, about 11 years. And each time I remembered it I was filled with peace and thought it was a memory of my grandparent's basement. Grandma raised orchids and kept them in aquariums, lit up with a fluorescent light. I don't remember any white rocks. Close enough. But I was wrong.

It was the first time I'd drank Carlsburg beer. I was in Denmark in June of 1992. I was visiting Braun-wen, an exchange student from high school who I'd been pen pals with ever since. I had a Eurail pass and had been bumming around Europe for most of a month. I'd looked forward to seeing Braun-Wen. I admit to romantic desires, but I never pursued them. Maybe it was a language barrier, or that I was too regular of a guy (she criticized my brown leather jacket right when I got off the train). Although we connected in letters, in person we got along awkwardly. I was left to the company of her two older brothers and extended family of cousins. Danes are easygoing.

They let me stay in the attic, which was my home for five nights. It had a skylight and, I noted almost immediately, an aquarium with a potted hosta plant and white rocks. It looked immediately familiar. My last night there, Braun-Wen once again abandoned me to party with her friends. I could hear a cheesy live band playing out of tune and out of time renditions of Nirvana songs. Feeling sad, rejected, and missing family back in the states, I went for a long walk and stumbled upon a hedgehog. It curled up into a ball. I moved it with my foot. It left quills in my shoe. I went to sleep around 11, but it was still light out, the sun hanging like a gray ball on the edge of the horizon.

I woke a few hours later, maybe at 3, and looked over from my bed to the aquarium. It was then that the overwhelming sense of deja vu hit me. This was the recurring dream. I looked up out of the skylight and saw the strange permanent dusk of sunlight, a light I'd never seen before because I'd never been this far north on the summer solstice. While profound, I noted the connection to the dream and went back to sleep. I wonder even now if that wasn't a dream. But I never had the dream again. The aquarium with the white rocks lives on only in living memory.

Years later, I began having this dream of spinning. In the dream, I am startled by something, and it's always something different, a barking dog, a car suddenly appearing from around a corner, or a piano falling from an upper story window. And like dreams, other fantastical elements come into play. There's a return of that alpen glow light, except I only see it when I jump away. It is as if a filter is suddenly put over my vision and everything pales in this other light. And as I leap away, I spin, and keep on spinning, suspended in the air, more revolutions than I can count, and it feels like I'm on a merry-go-round, except I look down and I'm off the ground. Sometimes I stay in one place. Other times I move back and forth in a low, swooping sway, all the while spinning, spinning. Also, I never feel dizzy. And when I wake up I'm perfectly fine, lying in the same place as I went to sleep. No external motion causes me to feel this spinning sensation in my dream. I've had this dream at least 10 times.

Now here's where it gets weird, and I hesitate to even mention it because I don't want to be found out and probed and explored by scientists, or put in prison as a dangerous element. Yeah, I've read too many comic books and listened to too much alarmist AM radio, but I wouldn't put it past the federal government to take away my freedoms and lock me up for good. Never forget that the purpose of our government is to maintain the common good. Anything odd or unexplainable has a way of disappearing.

About two months ago, I was stepping out of the shower and the towel I stepped on slipped out from under me. I spun to regain my balance, but as soon as I did the strange light came over me, again, as if someone slipped special glasses over me, and I turned, suspended in mid-air at a 45-degree angle. I panicked and reached out for the shower curtain. It tore off the bar, violently, the hooks snapping as the curtain ripped away from them. And there I was, enshrouded in my own shower curtain, spinning.

How did I stop myself? At first, I stuck my hands out, but I just banged my knuckles on the edge of the tub. This changed the angle of my body a little, but did nothing to slow the rate of spinning. It's a little hard to explain, but as I spun, I became aware of a lack of vertigo, and I didn't need to focus on one spot to avoid motion sickness. Something inside of me, I realized, and I imagined it in my upper gut, just below the solar plexus, the very center of my body, seemed to be the source of motion. And, although I didn't know what I was doing, I just thought, and told myself, concentrating on that spot, "Stop spinning." As I kept thinking this, the alpen glow faded, fading in waves in tune with my heartbeat, and the spinning slowed, then stopped, and, as normal light returned, I fell with a thud, bruising my ribs on the side of the tub.

Did this really happen? I wondered this all day at work. And when I got home I took my shirt off, pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, though I'm not sure why this classic test of dream versus reality is very effective. This entire experience has me questioning all reality, not just my own. The metaphysical questions this raises, even to an average, boring admissions officer like myself who took only one philosophy course in community college, are many and profound. I took off my shirt and looked in the mirror. There it was, the dark bruise on my ribs. But that could have happened any way. Not just from spinning. I could have dreamed I was in the shower, was spinning, and fell out of bed instead. There was only one way to test whether or not the spinning was real. I had to try and do it again... (To be continued)