Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Young Woundup's rap about the last job he had before his current one. I'll probably go into this gig a little more someday. The store had a great history and attracted a lot of famous underground musicians. But the police were always lurking, and they did eventually catch my old boss. The operation lives on out of his apartment because Long Island businessmen need their Brian Wilson bootlegs. 

2003-01-13 - 12:06 p.m.

a few weeks before sept. 11, the f.b.i. busted two shops in the village for making and selling bootleg cd's. midnight records (where i worked*) carried many of the same titles. the feds shut down those other stores for a time, but the shit-hammer had yet to fall on midnight. my boss, j.d. (a paranoid frenchman), readied my friend and co-worker b.j. and me for any questions we might get from undercover fuzz. "eef anyone ask you about bootlegz," j.d. said. "just start talkeen about 'ow 'ard eet ees to be a young man and leev een new york seetee."

i thought j.d. had picked up some subconscious vibes from b.j. and me. both of us were having a hard time as young men living in new york city. we made meager hourly wages. we worked on saturdays. we worked for a sour, middle-aged garage rocker. we would have a lot to say to any undercover spook poking around midnight.

the day after the bust in the village, a grizzled, 40ish guy with stringy blonde hair showed up and started pumping j.d. for his thoughts about bootlegs. our boss was characteristically guarded. the guy said the feds had also zapped some record stores in cleveland. j.d. shrugged, "zat's too bad, man."

a week later a beefy guy with a mustache came into the store looking for bootlegs. normally, i would've shown him where they were in our display racks, but this guy seemed inexperienced or nervous. he was a new york everyman type: dark complected; short haircut; quick, toothy smile -- he could've been a super's handyman, a subway driver, or a cop. he asked for U2 bootlegs. he was definitely a cop. no one ever asked for U2 bootlegs at midnight records, even though we had a few. i stuttered, "no, uh... no we don't sell any." he smiled the quick, toothy smile and left.

a week after that, the world trade center collapsed, and the f.b.i. had more important people to chase after than j.d. martignon at midnight records.

that wasn't the only run-in midnight had had with cops. but, at least in the other cases we weren't the ones being scrutinized.

my post at midnight was that of shipper. i boxed up all the hundreds of mail orders and took them to the old chelsea station post office every saturday. i sat to the right of the store's entrance on a small platform. it gave me a vantage point from which i could see anyone entering the store -- including cops -- before they saw me.

every once in a while -- maybe once every couple of months -- the police would conduct an undercover bust of someone out on 23rd street. midnight was on 23rd off the corner of 8th ave., down the block from the chelsea hotel. the cops liked to duck into our dimly lit shop to sychronize their watches or check their walkie-talkies. midnight also has a recessed entrance, so you can stand right outside the door and not be seen easily.

the cop would leave the store, and a few minutes later the blue and white nypd cars would swarm the suspect -- usually in a car, himself. yes, they were always male, and often wearing big, gold chains. i would wonder what they had done to command such an orchestrated arrest: drug kingpin? child porn pusher? n.y. islanders ticket scalper?

after all those busts, i got good at identifying undercover new york cops. they all looked the same: burly, mustachioed, usually with a mets hat or jersey, and headphones -- little speakers that went up thru the shirt and fit right in the ears. those were for the walkie-talkies. i could spot them at the subway platform at bedford ave. where they would ticket young people for smoking or riding their bikes off the train.

now that terror hysteria has cooled a bit, i wonder if the feds will go looking again for j.d. at midnight. in a way, he would deserve getting pinched for the overpriced bootlegs he pushes (Mott the Hoople-Wild Side Of Life-(Ltd.Jap.CD'70 Fillmore W.+Bonus)27.99 ). but i'm sure he would tell you that's how he survives. it's hard to be a middle-aged, french garage rocker and live in new york city.

* I was more than a little tickled when we got that 2001 Best Of nod in the Village Voice and it mentioned the "supernice staff." BJ and I always took customer service very seriously.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Young Man Blues

In many ways I’m not a nice guy. Ask Erika. She’s probably seen all the unpleasant facets by now. … … … Well, not all. I have been hiding one not-so-nice trait, though in my defense it’s only manifested very recently. See, I enjoy scaring people with my children. Particularly younger people.

We’ve lived in Logan Square for about five years now. Logan Square: the new whitebread baby-making center of Chicago. Frankly I get sick of the family vibe around here, and I have two kids.

I’m at least heartened by the fact that Ella and Archer — the Tomax and Xamot of the North Side — do a lot to shatter the lib-yuppie dream of sharing, caring, not swearing 21st century child rearing. My kids are high energy and often require a hardline response. I hear my dad’s South Side bark at times emanating from my lips. When I raise my voice at Palmer Park, the other whitebread parents stop and look at me. Whatever.

It's still a nice neighborhood. Saturday night we went to the latest installment of the local concert series — a beautiful sunset evening that mellowed into the high 70s. I do love seeing bands play in front of the Federal Column, or whatever it’s called, in the grassy turnaround island — the streets lined up perfectly at the south and north points, harkening to some great period of city planning now abandoned. I also dread, more than a little, that I have to spend the entire time keeping my charges from running into traffic.

If you’ve ever been to one of these things, you know that it’s about 70 percent people in their 30s — most with little kids — 20 percent single and coupled people in their 20s, and 10 percent all other ages. Saturday night there were even more small children than usual. They all weaved in and out among the parents and hipsters, laughing and screaming and resisting arrest. A free-range human chicken coop.

By the final band — an all-female indie pop act — I was pretty gassed. Archer, red faced and sweating, still didn’t stop. He climbed the stairs in front of the stage, slid down the stone ramps, pulled up weeds and chirped his loud chirps. I sat on the grass in front of one bank of PA speakers, the entire audience facing me. I wasn’t the only parent doing this, but I was maybe doing it with the most exasperation.

As Archer made continuous loops on the ramp, I became aware I was in the line of sight of a sizeable bloc of 20-something young men, lounging and drinking beer to the left of the stage. I knew exactly who they were looking at: the chick in the mini-skirt playing guitar right behind me. But in my perverse, not nice way I hoped that their eyes also drifted in one-millisecond shutter snaps to me: the older guy in a striped Linus shirt, a shell-shocked look in his eyes. The smile then came to my face. Yes, my young friends. Get a gander. Because this will be you someday.

Perhaps to someone looking in from the outside, they see me — running, yelling, disjointed, burying my face in my hands — as unhappy. I’m not. I’m fucking stressed out at times, but I’m not unhappy. Yet it’s this stressed-out aspect of parenthood that I like to accentuate in public settings, coupled with a screaming kid in my arms, to gently, sadistically frighten the young dudes out there. (My kids by themselves do a good job of frightening older people, just to cover that demographic.)

I was a 20-something dude once. I found the thought of having kids repugnant. Back then I would look at guys in my current position — some poor slob with half-shut eyes toting his papoose in a Baby Bjorn— and sneer. Idiot. Sucker. Drone. What’s this guy’s problem. He might as well be dead. Not me. No way. Never.

Then I met someone who took more of an interest in kids than all the other young people I'd ever known. My girlfriend, Erika, would talk to any baby or toddler in any restaurant, grocery line, post office or oil change place we went. At first I found this irritating. I’d roll my eyes, wait for her to finish, then go back to explaining why Michael Karoli never really got his due.

To make a long story short, I came around to Team Baby, and I eventually transformed from a critic to a believer in the great adventure — you know, Commitment — and all that it brings. It's not always easy, but it’s light years ahead of anything I’ve ever experienced before. All the records I bought in my 20s, shows I saw, beers I drank can never compare. Even that time I met Bob Bert.

This trip can definitely scare a man at a certain point in his life. And if he matures and it still isn’t for him, hey, I understand. It’s a deep biological imperative that secretly and powerfully guides all the phases of our lives, but humans have always had the ability to say no: to reproduction, to gender roles based on this, to wedding showers. I support anyone’s choice if it makes them happy.

But I know a lot of those guys at the show on Saturday will eventually feel the call and make the choice — pretty simple statistics. And like I did way back when, they’re already secretly grinding away in the back of their heads strange, unsettling new questions: Can I still get drunk on the weekend? Do I have to buy a minivan? Will my partner make a good parent? I once thought about all this too, only I was lucky enough to live with the biggest no-brainer mother-to-be in Chicago, so that was never an issue. It was more about the timing of the whole thing.

So why would I, now at 35, try to muddle some young man’s mind over this, perhaps the greatest decision he'll ever face? I told you. I’m not really a nice guy. Like all members of a “club,” I feel, falsely, a certain right to haze pledges. Do you have what it takes. Are you ready for this. Do you realize you’ll have to handle human shit, with your bare hands, more than once. I've felt the burn, and I guess I want people to know. Particularly guys in striped tank tops and boat shoes.

I don’t fault a young man for blanching in hesitation, much in the same way Tommies did when ordered to leave their trenches and fight. But if those dudes had peeled their eyes off that lady drummer for one second, they would’ve seen Archer James, finally tired, rest his little head on Dad’s shoulder in loving resignation.

In that sense, I know I'm actually trying to sell the whole trip, once you get past my dime-store sadism. I won’t pretend anything that happened to me Saturday night gave anyone any kind of hope for their own future. But I pray it at least made it apparent I wasn’t in hell.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Support Your Local Cell

I wrote the story below 10 years ago and submitted it to a prominent music zine that had a fiction section. Some of you undoubtedly know the one I'm talking about. It was never published, and I've never shown it to anyone till now.

Having gone through the whole 9/11 experience in New York, it was impossible for all conversations there, even those of the young art crowd, not to be shot through with details of the aftermath: the memorial lights, the unannounced anthrax searches of the subway, the seemingly permanent street closures downtown. One time on a bus, a guy I knew — the singer for a popular band — handed me literature detailing how I should build my case as a conscientious objector ahead of the re-institution of the draft. "Prepare yourself, man," he told me while fixing his hair.

I was relieved to find the echoes of all this very distant when I moved to Chicago. Nothing had happened here. There were no soldiers with assault rifles walking around. No mailmen wearing rubber gloves. And the young people were more relaxed. Their dance parties were carefree, not underscored with the knowledge that a lot of people had very recently died nearby.

Despite this, the local TV media seemed to desperately want "something" to happen that it could heroically cover. Throughout 2002 there were a lot of cut-ins during daytime programming for fires in the Loop. Was it a bomb? A dirty bomb? I felt bad for the real journalists and photographers I worked with who had to be sent on these wild goose chases, just in case.

On the national scale, the infamous color-coded terror level was raised ahead of all major holidays, and Tom Ridge became a familiar face in most American homes. The fear — manipulated for a few years by the Bush administration — was that the other shoe had not yet dropped on a domestic attack.

And what was more frightening, we were told, than the splinter cell? The deeply embedded terrorist group that would be activated on some historically significant date to wreak havoc. The way Homeland Security spun it, this fanatic cadre could be anywhere, even in a place like Orland Park, where I lived in July 2002. 

I had a hard time believing this. Orland Park: home of Fox's Restaurant, Rainbow Cone and the under-21 dance club, Energy. What could terrorists possibly be doing there — renting movies at the Blockbuster on Wolf Road? And so went the inspiration for my story. For such a long windup, I can't promise it'll be any good, but here it is anyway. ...

Support Your Local Cell

Dear Brother Maxime,

Hail to the glorious and perpetual revolution of the common fellow! Death to all opponents of our most justifiable cause: those chain-gang bosses of the hydra-headed corpora-jailhouses! And, a special greeting to you, Brother, on this the second anniversary of Operation Dustbuster, of which I am overjoyed to be a humble part.

In accordance with Directive 339r-87, I have replaced the Chicago White Sox flag with the new Winnie the Pooh flag to signal cell liaisons from the Committee on Persuasive Intelligence.

If I may be frank, Brother, my reason for this communiqué goes beyond my immesurable zeal on this, the dawn of another year of our most righteous penetration into the enemy’s flabby stomach region. I am at a great impasse regarding my cell-comrade, Brother Willoughby.

I remained silent as long as I could on the subject of Brother Willoughby, wishing to preserve the unity that kept us operating during last month’s police sweeps.

Let me begin with Brother Willoughby’s behavior during the above-mentioned police reprisals. I first overheard him discussing his involvement in a “super-secret organization” with a female non-operative civilian in a local pub. When I took him aside to remind him of the delicate nature of our mission, he told me to “Relax. She’s just an exotic dancer. Have another drink.”

The next incident occurred as I walked back to my base of operations one evening after checking the cell’s P.O. box. A white “stretch” Lincoln Navigator drove up with Brother Willoughby in the back. He pulled me inside and introduced me to three of his female “friends” from McGee’s Sports Bar. Brother Willoughby and his guests then took turns spitting tequila into each other’s mouths.

I cite Directive 484k-44 regarding the management of “human longing.” Personally, I follow the Committee’s orders and “relieve urges manually.” Sadly, I cannot say the same of Brother Willoughby.

The incident that finally prompted this report happened last Tuesday. Brother Willoughby came to my base of operations at 4 a.m. with two suitcases. He claimed his landlord evicted him for not paying his rent. When I inquired about his Committee income disbursement, he told me he had “lost it all at the dog track.” Brother Willoughby then asked if he could “crash here for awhile.”

The next day, I returned from making my anonymous morning bomb threats, and found Brother Willoughby in my living room with three “old frat brothers,” one of whom was using my binoculars to watch a step-aerobics class across the street at the YWCA.

My anger got the best of me. I called Brother Willoughby a “fifth columnist boob.” He told me to “have a drag off this reefer and cool out.”

I would’ve written sooner had not Brother Willoughby thrown a party that evening. I came back after cutting the cords on some pay phones to find my living room full of strangers. These included Chicago police officers whom Brother Willoughby introduced as his “poker buddies.” Someone had filled my VCR with vanilla pudding and used my computer as a urinal.

Again, I called out Brother Willoughby on his gross disregard for Committee-dictated operational policy. I told him to take his uninvited guests and leave immediately. He replied that he was tired of me “riding his ass” and “bumming everybody out.” I said he should stop dragging our cause through the dirt. He told me to “stop being such a prick.” I threatened to report him to the Disciplinary Council.

Brother Willoughby then physically escorted me through a second-floor window to the rose bushes below. When I returned from the hospital, he had changed all of my locks.

I am writing you now, most honorable Brother, from the Orland Park public library. Brother Willoughby refuses to return my calls. I have spent the last four nights in our glorious Aerostar. I understand that we must sometimes suffer for our great cause, but I will not believe that you promoted Brother Willoughby to Director of Regional Operations.

Long live the glorious conspiracy against the soulless drones of the death contraption! May my way down the shining path be forever lined with the flowers of righteousness!

                                                                                                Yours in Struggle,
                                                                                                Brother Bill Kippy

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Voice of the Gods

I stumbled across this old post recently and promptly forgot about it till I started reading "The Slave" by Isaac Bashevis Singer. There's a lot of contemplation of the creator going on in that book.

Also, I'm heading into the vaults very soon to release a never-before-seen piece of post-9/11 humorous fiction. Stay tuned. Till then, enjoy a flashback from America's favorite disillusioned office worker, Young Woundup.

Get your ow
n diary at DiaryLand.com! contact me older entries newest entry
May. 27, 2003 - 2:10 p.m.
according to psychologist Julian Jaynes , man, at one point in his evolution, did not comprehend his own consciousness, but rather, believed that his internal thoughts were the voices of the gods.

cultures like the Aztecs were at a disadvantage, as most of their gods were stoners

god1: tom-- tom this is axletoplexl. get me some ice cream.
god2: ask him for a pizza... get a pizza.
1: shut up, man--
2: tom, this is pixlxltxol. get me a pizza.
1: shut up! (laughing)
tom: yes, master.

man's experience increased his sense of autonomy. he had lost interest in the rambling whims of his pantheon. the world began switching to the one-god system.

jehovah: honor your mother, tom.
tom: right...
jehovah: tom, you're not listening to me, again.
tom: yeah, i am.
jehovah: what did i just say?
tom: you said, 'honor the sabbath."
jehovah: no i didn't. tom, you really disappoint me when you don't pay attention like this.
tom: fine, i promise to honor the sabbath.

by the Enlightenment, man had tired of the nagging. Renee Descartes was the first person to replace the voice of god with light classical music (he preferred Handel)
the personified internal voice lives on today, recast by Freud as Id and Superego. these inspired some of the greatest filmstrips in entry-level psychology class

tania: tom, i had a wonderful time tonight.
tom: i did, too...
id: kiss her.
superego: don't.
id: yes.
superego: no.
tom: listen you two, shut up, okay! you're going to ruin everything!
tania: tom, do you also hear voices?
tom: yes. they are called id and superego and they never leave me alone.
tania: mine is called pixlxltxol. he tells me to cut the hearts out of people.
tom: (pause) would you like to see my hot tub?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


We went to a wedding reception last fall for one of my second cousins — a particular branch of the family I hadn't seen since 1991. It was a very nice spread in a nice hotel hall, with food and a bar and dancing. They did all the traditional white wedding stuff: goofy bridesmaid introductions, cake cutting, frat guy buddies giving speeches. And then the father of the groom got to say his piece.

The father of the groom in this case was a large man with a lot of money and the main reason we were all sitting there. He was entitled to his airtime so he gave his rap — the usual stuff I'd heard before from men in this position on the nuances of getting along: say I love you every day, don't go to bed angry, if the other person cooks do it yourself once in a while, etc. I started to roll my eyes because I'm a wiseass, but I stopped. A sign of maturity. This guy should have his say because he's done the full trip, I thought. He didn't give up and neither did his wife. That should mean something.

After this, we watched my second cousin dancing with her own father — a good man I've always liked. It was impossible not to flash forward and think of me in this same position with my daughter. I'll never demand my kids get married, but I'm not going to lie and say it wouldn't please me, if just to experience this symbolic passage and have a few moments to contemplate all the years that lead up to it in a relaxed setting, a glass of wine in hand.

What would I say to my son or daughter and his/her significant other on such a day? I guess I've still got time to develop my thoughts, but I know what the gist will be:

Fight for it.

Things are very nice here at the wedding right now, and we're all feeling good about love —about yours and about love in general. But there will come a time, more than once, when it will all seem the opposite, when some great hand will pull a string and all the spats, hard words, hurt feelings, insecurities, botched responsibilities, personal weaknesses and bad personality traits align in a row, giving the appearance of a negative sum for the whole enterprise.

That's when you have to fight for it. It requires you to each look at yourselves and for the both of you to look at your situation, talk about it and see a way forward. If you sit next to your significant other on the couch and both do the most boring individual things possible and still believe there's nothing you'd rather be doing with anyone else in the world at that moment, then you are in love. Real love. And you fight for that.

Last night I drove up to Sauganash — a pretty, whitebread neighborhood that with much guilt we have some designs on moving to, depending on certain factors. Erika takes the kids there for tumbling lessons in a gymnasium on the grounds of an old TB sanitarium converted to a forest preserve, so that's where I went. The only place I knew. As I turned off Pulaski I spotted a female deer standing very calmly in the grass past the empty guardhouse — I hadn't seen one in years. I pulled up and extinguished my lights. I thought she would run but she didn't — just ate some grass and looked at me. In no hurry, she walked around behind my car and then into the woods, so very fluid and relaxed.

I wondered then if deer mate for life. It seems like they would, the male and female are so lithe and look so beautiful together. But then again herd-type animals generally don't. Do they? Maybe I was mistaken. I tried to think of other creatures that paired this way but could only come up with some kinds of aquatic birds.

The car was now parked and I stood with the door open drinking a very warm diet ginger ale taken from the trunk. The sky was moving quickly in thatched clouds, a precursor to a great storm. I felt the wind and closed my eyes. I had done the right thing for the peace of the house, but it was also melodramatic. The kids were asleep and my mother-in-law was undoubtedly speaking with my wife. I was at least glad they were there together.

Such a natural scene in the big city washed over and cooled me, but questions still persisted: Why is life often so hard?  Why do I feel so weak at times and at others invincible? At what point does the "we" become the "I" and self-survival takes over? Also: Do my new tenants think I'm absolutely insane? I sometimes sound like it.

Instinctively I knew my internal reverie should end. Be sensible and go home, said the voice. I got in the car and headed back to the Edens. A bit of a romantic, I secretly wished for a Hollywood touch though reality is often a miser with these. I looked at my dark, silent phone and frowned — the power was off, naturally. Switching it on, I saw four texts sitting there from my wife. I knew she was trying her hardest to stay awake for me. I hit the gas and did 90 at the junction, up and over the highway hill.

I hope that when I'm sitting there someday in a hotel hall, I'll remember last night and other nights like it. I'd like to be able to laugh and turn it into a not-maudlin epigram about marriage and fatherhood when I'm asked to stand and speak. Or at least say it to the young couple in a less theatrical moment. Something like: Fight for it and you too will remember. The moments when you took it on the chin from nature itself and kept swinging.

Friday, July 20, 2012


I've been taking a lot of trips down memory lately, which can get tiresome for the people around me (my poor wife). I'm very nostalgic, I admit, and have since I was a boy tried to cling to the slim straws of my experience as I was shuffled off to another new hometown in some other part of the Rust Belt. It's an old habit of spiritual survival.  

For whatever reason — personal milestones, my upcoming birthday — this has happened a lot more in the past two months, but I must say in my defense that I literally walk a memory lane each work day. It's called State Street, and I see at least one co-worker from my past two jobs every morning.

Today it was the nice saleslady who worked one door down from me at Penton, always so dutiful sitting there at 8:45 in her cube. Oftentimes it's my old swing supe from the AP, who greets me in much the same way she did 10 years ago — almost like we're still working a shift together. My old boss, the secret smoker, who saved my magazine job so many times in the dark days of 2009. My favorite grizzled editor, who watches video of '60s baseball games in the dead of winter to prepare himself for the new season.

And there are others. If I can, I like to stop and say hello. In one sense I feel we're both trying to heal something while we chat there on the gray street under the hot sky. Maybe the wounds of work.

The office, with its unrealistic demands and cruel hierarchies, can make people behave in ways they don't want, myself included. If you're reading this and I worked with you, I liked you. It was an honor to serve with you. If I ever said anything sharp or acted strangely, I'm sorry. I want to think the job put words in my mouth (or removed them), but really it was me. My reaction to my situation. 

I've been doing this Chicago office tour of duty for a decade. When I started, I felt so uncool at my news job, though it was greatly exciting and actually interested a lot of the hip people I hung about with when I told them the details. I've since made peace with my livelihood and now wear my Rat Race badge with pride, my CTA Rider badge with pride.

I hope to someday give my kids a different view of how to work to pair with my wife's (the Road Warrior thing). I hope they might even be proud I willfully did this: pack into a glass, steel, concrete megolith with thousands of others to talk on the phone and stare at a computer screen five days a week. The Franz Kafka thing.

But as fun as it's been — layoffs and blizzards and bike messenger curses — I know I won't stay at this forever. I don't feel it's my destiny to be a 40-Year Man like my dad, 25-65 (actually, longer for him). I'm fortunate that my profession potentially offers the chance to freelance, to work from home, to set my own hours. It's now my mission to move toward this sooner than later and be with my kids. Work outside in the yard like Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence. The Logan Square version.

It would be a dream, really, though I know it's hard and requires a different kind of mind-set. Not the clock-punching, sleep-walking one I'm used to. I admire the people who do it. Really, I admire all the editorial warriors, the publishing warriors, the news warriors, wherever they may do their battle. And I wish that their battle is not perpetual. That they may find some respite.

When I see my old comrades, I'm heartened we are at peace in that moment — the burden of the office not yet upon us for the day. We are just people on the street. Regular people. Chicagoland people. People who were born and will die. Trying to remind ourselves we're human. Even if it's just a smile and a hello across the bridge at Wabash.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Saturday is Archer's second birthday, and I can't believe it. I mean, I can because I've been with him every day since he joined us here in life, save a weekend at grandma's. I understand, like all human beings, the bittersweet march of time.

But that doesn't mean it's still not a little jarring. I've tried to temper my shock by marveling at how Arch has become more mature lately, engaging with us and the world. That makes me feel good and brings me back into the present moment.

From the very beginning, Archer has made us stop and take notice. He's the greatest surprise of my life. Nothing that's surprised me in the past — or will in the future  — can match the day we found out he was with us and the day we found out he was, in fact, a little boy.

The whole experience of having our first child, Ella, in February 2009 was incredible. Erika's long pregnancy gave us time to revel in the journey, and the birth was something I will never forget. The first few months after that were a tilt-a-whirl of emotion: At times I felt I was as close to insanity as I'd ever been, and at others I felt the deepest connection to my wife, my parents and brothers, even the hard-faced people on the 82 bus.

We wanted more little ones, sure — at some point in the sort-of-near/sort-of-far future. There was no rush. We we're going to give our little lady all the love and attention we possibly could, stroll her around in her stroller, take her to swim classes and art classes and the whole trip. I loved being a dad, though I needed to work on pulling my weight around the house. Little did I know someone was about to give me a big assist in this department.

In late January 2010, Erika approached me with that time-honored reality check men generally don't enjoy receiving. I shrugged it off and went back to concentrating on the exciting run the Saints were making to the Super Bowl. Then one day she bought a pregnancy test. I was beginning to get nervous but still believed it was a false alarm as she went in the bathroom and closed the door.

Some minutes passed and she came out, a stunned look on her face. Not good.

"It's positive."


"I'm pregnant."


I am not proud to say I reacted this way, but I know I am not the first man in human history who's done it. After she got another blue cross from the second tester, I went into our little office. I sat down on the futon and put my head in my hands. Things just got real, as they say.

It took me a day or so, but I collected myself and declared I was all in. We wanted two anyway, right? We're kicking butt with Ella, right? We're strong, dedicated, responsible people and we can do this. Right?

Erika had already steeled herself to the task. Our kids would be born 17 months apart — much like her and her brother. I felt tremendous guilt for what she was about to go through. But if anyone could do it, she was the one. She was the healthiest person I knew and worked out at the gym within a week of Ella's birth. Still, it was going to be a hard damn slog.

Her pregnancy with Archer was more a sprint of survival than a long, wonderful learning experience. It was messy at times, with work and one child already in the mix, and we couldn't have done it without Grandma Angel, that's for sure.

Erika grew, and it was apparent something bigger was in her this time. Where Ella swum about in the womb like a fish, this baby moved less occasionally but more powerfully. It sat heavily on Erika's sciatic nerve, sending her to physical therapy for the pain.

Like Ella, we wanted to know the gender of our fetus. All the old moms and grandmas said it would be another girl. The tendency of Erika's side, with its many ladies, would win out. I actually wished for this, too. I'd been steeped in the Male Trip growing up with two brothers. I wanted something new. I wanted to be the father doling out dollars to my teenage daughters before they went to the mall.

We sat in the X-ray room awaiting word, and the ultrasound tech did the requisite dramatic pause when she'd determined the gender. I looked at my watch. Another girl, sure. Let's get this over with.

"You're going to have a little boy."

I was floored. The smile on my face grew. I don't know if Erika noticed. My pre-rehearsed happy resignation at being the only guy in the house for the rest of my life melted away. A boy. A son. My son. Wow.

I didn't have a lot of time to contemplate what this meant — the complex, much-maligned question of How a Boy Becomes a Man. Thankfully I was able to shut that out of my mind because it seemed like before we knew it, the water had broken and we were off to the hospital. But I did feel the inkling of that special call: father and son. Baseball at dusk, guitar lessons, advice about girls. It was my turn to help another dude out in this big, confusing world.

Archer's birth was small and intimate — just Erika and me. It was also exciting and more than a little intense, he was so large. Erika performed heroically, and I even guessed the correct birth weight: nine pounds. By the evening of July 21, 2010, he was in his little plastic bassinette at the hospital and Erika was sleeping. It seemed like just yesterday we'd been there for Ella.

What a whirlwind two years — more than anything we could've predicted. I felt like I'd won some kind of strongman contest. I'd never lost my cool (well, almost never): in the delivery room, during the breastfeeding problems, the layoff scares, kid sicknesses, inlaw crises. I was steady, strong and solid — a million miles away from the younger version of myself, so self-indulgent and listless. I felt I had attained the highest possible calling, biologically and spiritually. I had become, truly, Dad. Capital D.

I want to describe the difference between having one child and having two or more, but I can't really do it justice. It's more work, more stress, more everything. It tests you in ways you cannot anticipate, as an individual and as a couple. Dad — Capital D — now has to lend much more of a hand around the house and not watch sports at night. With our jobs, childcare juggling and just the minimum necessities of food and cleaning, the schedule has permanently filled out for years to come.

For long stretches it feels like a grinding, featureless repetition that provides no respite and constantly reveals your failings. But in the other moments, it's the most amazing thing: to have two beautiful children with my beautiful wife and embrace this fundamental human experience, bringing new existences into the one and only thing we know, life, and sharing all it has to offer.

So what about that new existence — maybe not as new as some in our extended family but still so very much at the beginning of it all?

I can only think of Archer as he is now: big, really big. In height and weight. And beautiful. His handsome little face and incredibly large hazel eyes with large black pupils. He has the best hair of anyone I've ever seen, a shimmering, thick head of reddish-brown. And his smile is wide and toothy, stretching from fat cheek to cheek. He's truly a specimen. Sometimes Erika and I look at him in wonder of his energy and strength. He simply couldn't be contained. He had to join us.

We like to joke he'll be playing for the Bears in 20 years, but Arch isn't all toughness. He has a wonderfully sweet nature and likes to cuddle and sit on our laps more than Ella did at the same age. He loves music and sounds in general and will sit for a long time playing on the toy instruments and talking books we have in our living room. He also loves to run around naked and air-dry after his baths and climb on (fall from) everything.

He's a handful, for sure, but he's our handful — a gift from nature, as is Ella. People ask us if they are twins, with their brown hair and fair complexion. I sometimes think we should stop, they're so perfect as a pair, friends for life. To have more would somehow throw off an invisible balance. I don't know. For now, I like this. The four of us.

I frankly might pass out if you start talking about five.

Monday, July 16, 2012

George and Wilt

Having kids is hard. If you already have them, you know this. And for men who are committed to it, being a dad poses its own specific pitfalls. Lately I've been snagged on some of these, and I've tried to figure out why. I think many of you dads (and moms) could relate.

Earlier this year my job began to ask more of me than I could take. After a few years of Recession-related chaos and overwork, I said "Enough." The new job I landed was like a dream: I was doing the work of a single person — something I hadn't experienced in a long time. The pace was more relaxed; there was no skeleton crew death march to the next issue, no mad crush to beat the better-staffed Web site. It was almost like a vacation.

A couple of months went by and I began to feel something strange. I began to feel, well, unused. The last gig had turned me into a high-performance machine. I was strong. I was dependable. I never broke down and cried. I never complained. My wife could lean against me when she felt the heat and frustration of her own gig. I was steady and fireproof.

Most importantly, I was pulling my weight at home. I worked two days with the kids, sometimes more. I was so proud when Erika would return after 8 on a Thursday, and I had been with Ella and Archer for more than 12 hours, including a busy work day, and there they were: fed, bathed, hair combed and brushed.

Sometimes in selfish moments, I even thought the kids had grown to prefer me more than mom, who was so saddled for months with work and grad school. Wishful thinking, I know. But it did enter my mind more than once. Spattered with dirty bath water, apple sauce down the front of my shirt, I at least felt heroic.

It was my chance to shine and become a stronger partner in a concern that had already seen my wife shoulder countless late-night breast-feeding sessions and trips to the pediatrician, among many other glamour-less duties. I wanted to show I could hang as the kids got bigger and demanded more of our attention.
There is competition inherent in any serious relationship. It's natural, human and healthy, as long as it doesn't get out of control. I definitely felt it at this time when I was taking care of our kids. It motivated me, even if it only existed in my mind and not my wife's. The kids were the ultimate winners. Dad was a big part of their lives.

If you'll permit me to use one of my favorite metaphor sources — professional basketball — please consider George Mikan — a slow, lumbering goon who couldn't jump but ruled the '50s NBA simply because he was always the tallest guy on the court — versus Wilt Chamberlain — one of the most dominant forces in basketball history, who was exponentially bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than all the clods trying to guard him. George wisely retired before Wilt entered the league, but if they had matched up it would've been no contest. Wilt would've blocked all George's shots and dunked on him again and again and again.

I am George Mikan. Erika is Wilt Chamberlain. Head to head, I will never, ever beat her. She simply has too much power and skill, for reasons of her upbringing and just who she is naturally. I've tried, believe me. She's dominant. Sometimes it's a hard fact to face.

But I did feel in those 10-some months when I was working at home that old George was at least able to stay in the game. Maybe Wilt had hurt his knee or his mind was somewhere else on some looming paternity suit. George kept grinding away, lumbering up and down the court, driving to the basket and taking elbows to the face, getting his minutes the ugly way. The numbers on that 1950s scoreboard began to maybe get a little closer together. Maybe George could get a win on Wilt's one off-night of the season. Maybe he could prove he was for real.

The goal, of course, was not to upstage my wife. The goal was to be the new kind of dad all the guys of my generation want to be — not Working Overtime Dad, or Newspaper Dad, or At the Bar Dad, or Shut Up Terry Bradshaw is About to Pass It Dad. I could maybe, just maybe, be 60/40 Dad. And sometimes, in a hushed moment of hubris, I thought I might even be 50/50 Dad. The pinnacle. A man who, sadly, only seems to exist in third wave feminist textbooks. Or Germany.

I know I'm starting to mix metaphors here, so let me bring it back to basketball. Bear with me. An unused player starts to feel bad, focuses too much on himself, pities himself, is lead astray by distractions, feels insecure about his skills. Being relieved of so much work in my new capacity, a great weight was lifted but also a great purpose.

When duties are taken away from you, it's natural for a human being to begin to relax. You have nothing to do, and we all ultimately want to rest. I was suddenly given shitloads of rest time after years of the opposite, at work and at home. I started to luxuriate. Take plays off I used to be a part of. Disconnect from my team and focus on my individual experience. My needs and mine only.

That might sound sad — that parents aren't allowed to be individuals. Maybe that's not what I mean. We can't stop being individuals. It's forever part of the mix. But when we become parents, it's truly no longer about us, and we have to find that balance between the one and many. It often comes at the sacrifice of the one, but that's what a team is. Many parts working together for one goal: stability, progress, happiness. We all get our personal stats, sure, but those alone can't help us win.

Okay, I'm overdoing it with the sports. I guess all I can really say is change is hard. When you first become a parent it's a tremendous change. As your kids hit each new milestone it's a change you feel too. As you attempt to interface your personal goals and ambitions with the rhythm of your family life, it can lead to changes you never anticipated. It's something you have to work through, but if you have the right support, they can help keep you steady while you find your balance again. You do it because you love each another.

Right now Wilt is in there, cleaning the glass night after night and, frankly, having an MVP season at home and at the office. George gets some minutes toward the end of the game, but there may come a time when he's asked to be a starter again. He just has to stay in shape for now and be effective when he's put in. Help the team no matter what and remember he's a pro-caliber player in his own right. They put George in the Hall of Fame, after all. He could take an elbow to the face like nobody's business.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Chance/Fate … and Richard Linklater

Erika has always been slightly amazed that I was able to quit smoking so quickly. I did it almost as an afterthought when I moved back to Chicagoland 10 years ago.

We were musing about this Wednesday night, at least feeling good we were both tobacco free. But then she asked me a heavy question — not the heaviest she’s ever uttered, but it was up there. Something historically counterintuitive (in the Niall Ferguson sense). I had to pause.

Those of you hip to the Woundup franchise already know I’m “celebrating” a decade of residence here in northeastern Illinois. I use those quote marks because I was not in a celebrating mood when I showed up at my parents’ house in Orland Park in April 2002.  I was on the skids and needed a place to crash. I eventually regained my footing, got my confidence back and found a way once again to life as a self-sufficient young adult in a big city.

My parents were only in OP for a year before they headed back to Buffalo, continuing a string of 10 years in that area — really just a stopover. So Erika asked me this the other night: If my parents had lived in Buffalo the whole time and had never moved to Orland, would I have gone Upstate and simply formulated a plan to quickly move back to New York City once I was ready.

I frowned. I furrowed my brow. I knew the answer. 

Of course. All my friends lived in New York. I loved New York more than any place I’d ever lived. I would’ve gone back in a half-second, living in Buffalo. I told her, with much guilt, that not in my wildest dreams did I ever have any intention for the rest of my life of returning within a hundred miles of Chicagoland, the place of large, awkward parts of my early days. Never. 

I said this as my own children played at my feet. I looked at them, so beautiful, so electrically alive. Unless Erika somehow came to New York and we somehow met, say at Enid's, and she was somehow single and was somehow into me (and I wasn't wearing that fishing hat), these beautiful children would very much not be. Not without my dad — life's eternal job searcher — sending his resume to Moraine Valley Community College in beautiful Palos Hills, Ill.

Enid's? Christ, how did that get in there, I wondered. Those are long damn odds. I felt terrible to even contemplate it.

I don’t believe in alternate universes. The movie “Slacker” really impacted my thoughts on this subject. The film begins with the director, Richard Linklater, playing the part of some poor schmuck business traveler who gets in a cab and strikes up a conversation with the driver about a beautiful woman he saw at the airport just minutes earlier. I forget if she talked to him or merely looked his way, but Linklater regrets he didn’t approach her and, maybe, get in a cab with her going somewhere else. He seems to find consolation by saying that there exists an alternate universe in which some other version of himself did go with the woman to her hotel room. In some other dimension he was dashing and not a coward.

At the time I was probably 19 years old and thought it was a pretty cool concept. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve since dismissed the whole alternate dimension thing on the grounds that A.) to truly accept it would make my head explode and B.) nothing in the reality we live in right now has ever lead me to believe there is another reality somewhere else. We’ll just leave it at that.

Of course, your Philosophy 201 Epistemology professor would tell you that there is no absolute truth that springs forth from human lips. So, yes, there might in fact be alternate realities. I just have faith — a particular kind of faith — that there are none. I really have no proof either way. It’s just what I believe. So, no sad sack Mark working on a Barium concern in Utah in some other dimension because he forgot to get Erika flowers on July 13, 2003. Sorry. Not real.

Okay, you say. But do you believe in Fate? I don’t. Okay. Then are you telling me that the circumstances that lead you back to Chicago and lead you to meet your wife, get married, have kids and be so happy are merely, what. Random? Are you telling me you’ve created a narration out of nothing, out of chaos, to make yourself feel better and give meaning to the disjointed circumstances of your life?

I really can't explain it, but that answer to that is also "No." It's in between. When I'm feeling truly romantic, I like to think some kind of powerful magnetism brought me here. When I'm feeling, I don't know, like wearing my "Existentialists Do It on the Left Bank" T-shirt, I think that … well …

I think that I believe in the former. But. BUT. That somehow my own free agency, as an individual being, was needed to make it all happen. Yeah, but isn't that still Fate, smart guy? No. Fate Lite? No. Predestination? Please, don't use the P Word. Well, what is it?

What it is, is making my head hurt. Listen, there are huge elements of chance that have led all of us to sit where we're sitting at this very second. (Thanks for reading, btw.) Nevermind the resume to MVCC: If my dad never wrote my mom that letter after they were matched up by the computer dating service in 1974, I wouldn't be sitting anywhere. 

Chance, sure. But chance without purpose? No. I have no explanation for it beyond this term I just coined. My life has been chance with purpose.

After all this crap flitted through my head Wednesday night, I snapped out of it and looked at my kids again.

I couldn't imagine them not being here. They are so willful, so very much in the present, so very much a fact. Ella is three and a half and Archer will be two July 21. They are the central focus of our lives. They are what I dreamed about going back maybe six years. I would lie on the couch at our Walton Street apartment and think about holding a baby in my arms. Our baby, yet to be realized.

All the anti-anxiety therapy I've had over the years has tried hard to teach me to ignore the great What If questions, such a well-spring of human angst. You could also use the same strategy for considering the choices you've made in your own life to get you where you're at right now. And that's what I did Wednesday night — my way to not feel like a monster.

There is no What If, only Is. My kids Are. My actions were the primary reason they Are. I decisively made choices and the outcome was final. I survived. I even smile.

There is no What If. What If never happened. 

And there's no version of me hanging out with Richard Linklater at Enid's, as fun as that kind of sounds ... ... ... Well, maybe I'll permit that one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Company Man

I'm currently embroiled in a competition and it's kind of consuming me. Well, not consuming but at least adding an odd undercurrent to my days here in the new, new Cracker Factory. First, a little background.
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I was raised by two extremely neat and organized people, my parents. From the immaculate house my mom kept to my dad seemingly being in front of the mirror shaving at the exact same time each morning before work, I was shown that organization and punctuality are the foundations of success. I've taken this with me into my adult life, and though it does lead to inflexibility at times, on the whole I'd say the approach has worked well.

Outside the house, living in so many different places as a kid, I also had to learn how to survive among changing groups of peers. As an introvert, I found that being obliging and non-combative was the best strategy for me. I became more of a listener than a talker, and it all kind of gelled into an M.O. by the time I left college: nice, dependable, hard-working.

This produced some strange reactions in my contemporaries. When I got my first office job, I was surrounded by a great many non-traditional workers (and non-workers). They were amused I shaved every day, punched a clock and liked to talk about where they were from. I was some kind of Company Man who never could quite stop being well mannered, looking at his watch in the middle of a screaming hipster hothouse to contemplate bedtime. They adopted me anyway, with more than a little winking behind my back.

Being so inclined, I seemed to invite tests of my "act." Even my wife the first night I met her gave me a hard time about something my employer had printed — like I would write it on a notecard for corporate communications. I remember thinking, "Take a number, sister," because that's what I got from flaks all week in the office. But I didn't say it because I was a nice guy. And when she introduced me to the people she knew, they all had that look I'd seen before from so many ne'er-do-well Leftists: What's this guy's deal. I wasn't the dissolute rock and roll version of John Gardner they maybe thought she should be with. I was Clark Kent.

I took all of that in stride and more — from in-laws, barflies, even winos on the street. I've never minded. I'm a good sport and, more importantly, I'm proud to be me. It's not an act. And after my role as a dependable father and spouse, I'm most proud to be the real me in the office. Which brings us back to that competition.
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I felt very confident cruising into my new gig that I would, naturally, be the most organized and punctual person there. The congenial guy who shows up early, takes a half-hour lunch at exactly the same time every day, and waits till the tick of 5 p.m. to leave. I would set the pace for sticking to a schedule, always getting my work done on time and in good quality. Little did I know what was in store.

My very first day I thought I'd do right by arriving way ahead of time to show how excited I was about my job -- you know, sitting there smiling at my desk when the boss showed up. But when I tried the door to our suite, I found it already open. In the cubicle next to mine, working at that early hour, was a young man. I'll call him Company Man 2, or C2. This shook me up a bit. When my boss introduced me, C2 couldn't have been more congenial and professional. He said he was happy we would be working together. Huh.

The weeks peeled on and my wonder grew. No matter how early I arrived, C2 was always already there. And when I left at the crack of 5, he remained at his post. I stayed late a couple of days when the Web site launched and saw that he did indeed go home. As much as I kind of wanted him to be a Bartleby type who slept under his desk, he seemed to have some kind of outside life.

Of course I didn't know where his home was, if he lived alone, if he had a significant other — all of it was a mystery. I just knew he was probably around my age and took his lunch each day at 2:15. It was unnerving. A part of me felt like punching my desk. There was nothing to justifiably hate him about. Except being — well — nice, dependable and hard-working. But you can't hate someone for that, right? It would be like hating myself.

I began to feel beaten. My clockwork schedule slipped, perhaps in despair. I only showed up 10 minutes early for work. I took the longer, allowed lunchtime to do my personal writing. I even contemplated leaving five minutes before 5 p.m. C2 was in my head. He was the better Company Man. He made little jokes in our team meetings that I didn't. I felt like John Gardner or something. I might as well have gotten on a motorcycle holding a bottle of Chivas Regal.

That is until last Friday. Our manager gave the two of us the task of creating individual profile pages in the CMS for each of the university's faculty — a good, old-fashioned data entry slog. Eighty profs a piece. My spirits perked up. Few people I know are as good as me at repetitive, monotonous tasks. Maybe, just maybe, I could finally upstage C2.

Friday wore on, and other things kept popping up, but I plugged away at my list, listening for the tell-tale clicks of CMS entry from the next cubicle. C2 was oddly quiet. A Web planning meeting cut into both of our days, and by 4:45, I was staring at 20 more names to go. I did a dead sprint to the finish line, nearly leaping up from my chair in triumph — HA! YES! I WON! — when I entered Zyblonski, Walter.

I peered around C2's cubicle entrance and let him know I was done.

"Wow, you're quick," he said with a chuckle.

I stared at the back of his head a moment. He was quietly clicking away at his list, much more relaxed than me. ... ... ... So. Yeah. That's right, C2, I thought. You know who's the boss now. Don't you forget it. And I've got some new jokes for the next design meeting. You better watch out. I am the Company Man. I AM THE COMPANY MAN.

All of this shouting was only in my head, and I soon quieted. I picked up my messenger bag, ready to return home to my wife and kids but paused. I didn't know where C2 was going that night. I imagined he might take up to an hour to finish his list. Maybe because I'd done mine so quickly. I hoped he wasn't going to do that. Please, C2, I thought. Please just go home.
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Yesterday the staff went out to eat at a Loop restaurant. It was a nice meal full of lively conversation. C2 sat across and to the right of me. I ordered an unhealthy cheese omelet for lunch, and he had the very sensible baked chicken breast.

He told his jokes, and the staff generally treated him like one of the rest of us, maybe even doting on him a little more because he's so formal. You know, trying to get him to drop his act. I knew this treatment very well.

As lunch went on, and the conversation turned to more personal talk of new apartments, new dogs and baseball, C2 grew quieter. I was nearly done with my omelet and, as such a slow eater, expected to be the last one chewing in a kind of self-satisfied mock embarrassment. But I looked across and saw C2 only halfway through his chicken breast, staring at it more than a little dolefully. I put the knife and fork on my plate and did not take my final bite.

On the walk back to the office, C2 suddenly asked me about my work history. It seemed like he was trying to be an open, engaged co-worker, like he'd read in a book that this is something one should do. He told me his opinion of the direction of the university. It was thoughtful and detailed. I had absolutely no opinion about the direction of the university. Being a ne'er-do-well Leftist, my head is full of a lot of warm air.

We got to the side entrance of the building and, after very politely letting everyone in our party go in ahead of us, we both reached for the door. It was an awkward moment of who would be the nicer guy and let the other one in first. I eventually chose to go ahead of C2.

We walked back down the corridor to the elevators. And at some point I wanted to, I don't know, give him a pat on the shoulder. Say something — maybe "good job" or "hang in there." Or maybe that I understand.

I know what it's like to be a Company Man.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Ballad of My Hair

I'm a vain person. Very vain. I've never been deluded enough to think I'm move-star handsome, but I'd like to believe I've hung in there over the years. And while my face is up for debate, I've at least felt my hair has looked good. If I may be totally honest, I think my hair is one of my best features. It hasn't always performed as I've liked, but I'm very thankful for such rich raw material. Maybe a little too thankful.   

My hair and I have been together a long time. Like my two kids, I was born with a lot it, and looking at old pictures, it was always thick and healthy — brown with a tinge of red in the sunlight (much like my son's). It was cut for me by many different barbers in many different places throughout the Midwest, with the part on the left, as I have it now. I was just another late '70s/'80s white American Catholic middle-class suburban boy.

It was a happy hair childhood, but all that changed in junior high. Junior high, when new rules are instituted overnight that no one tells you about. An aristocracy moves in to take power and set the pace while everyone else scrambles to keep up or (like me) fall behind.

I started junior high in 1988, the era of the spiked mullet (for future frat bros), the surfer wave cut (for sneering skaters) and the Lars Ulrich long look (for glue sniffers). I wasn't cool enough for any of these. With my big brown glasses, little-kid part and habit of reading books about, say, the Battle of Berlin, I began my new life as a nerd at age 12. And much like the Battle of Berlin, it sucked.

Eventually I headed to a private high school in Northwest Indiana. I stopped wearing my glasses to at least spare me that pain, but as I looked at the other guys in the halls, with their cuffed pants and gelled dos, I still felt very much on the outs. I tried gelling my hair for a year in a weak attempt to fit in, but when my acne sprouted at 15, I had to spare my face any excess grease.

I moved to Buffalo after that, got into metal and grunge, and alternated between ugly mullet-y cuts and having all my hair buzzed off, which made me, thin as I was then, look like a Red Army POW. I didn't have much luck with girls in high school for a lot of other reasons, but my hair probably wasn't helping.

College was indie rock and thrift store clothes — a new beginning. The prevailing retroism of the day made the natural '70s tendencies of my hair suddenly cool. I saw guys on album covers who looked like they paid a lot of money to get what came to me without even trying. I was feeling more confident. My acne cleared up, I started wearing my glasses again and girls wanted to talk to me. A late bloomer, I had finally fully assembled, after fits and starts, by age 20.

By the time I returned to Chicago, this earnest bravura had turned into big-city cockiness. My "look" was firmly in place: somewhat bushy, no product, combed nicely on the left, no sideburns. When I went out, I would wear a sweater and some trim corduroy pants. Maybe I looked like a nice guy who read books, I don't know. I thought I looked all right, and my vanity swelled.

Now that was all years ago. I've been a happily married father of two with a steady job for quite some time. More and more lately, as I look in the bathroom mirror, I wonder if I should change something about my hair to reflect this.

I don't think I'll ever be one of these guys who keeps his hair so short you don't even notice it — really, most American white dudes. I also don't think I'm going to be the super-cool rocker dad with long hair because I wasn't even that when I was 24. I've always been in the middle, and lately my middle path has looked uncoolly unkempt, weedy, even a few shades off from Meathead on "All in the Family."

It's a bit depressing to contemplate, as it means aging and the end of youth, in a certain sense. But I like to believe there's a sensible, even handsome way forward. I still have a good hairline and no gray hair that I know of — frankly that's a blessing. I just don't want to look like I've given up. If I look square, it'll be the good kind of square, as I once cultivated. Except older now. Sheesh.

Well, at least I know that on Thursday I'm going to see Kim, my hair-cutter of more than a year, at the State of Illinois Center. I'm hoping she can give me some advice. The fact that I'm even contemplating this doesn't fill me with great self-confidence, but I'm out of ideas. Oh, I know she'll give me much the same cut I always get. It's just a matter of what happens once it starts to grow out — the question that, I suppose, faces most of us. The answer will have to come from me, really. It always must. I just hope my vanity is cool with it.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Novel Question. Again.

Writing a novel. It's something Americans are supposed to try once in their lives so they can feel more truly American. For folks not inclined to write, it's usually a passing fancy — maybe a few pages before quitting. But for many actual writers it's a seductive, haunting dream that can lead to feelings of inadequacy, even self-torture. (I'd say that's pretty American, too.)

Now there are many kinds of writers who don't need to have their inclination and livelihood justified by some big, dumb fiction task: journalists, memoirists, historians, scientific researchers. I guess who I'm really talking about is your good old-fashioned creative scribbler.

These come in many flavors, too. There's your short story writer, your poet, your screenwriter and your playwright (like me). Of course it's not so set in stone. Most writers stretch out across these lines and try their hand at more than one form. That includes the greats: William Faulkner was a Hollywood screenwriter, Samuel Beckett wrote abstract fiction and James Joyce once had a play produced.

However, one thing you should notice about those names — I apologize for being male-heavy — is that they're all in the Writing Hall of Fame primarily for their novels. These giants have set some kind of magic bar in our minds that we must try to high jump. Forget the Eugene O'Neills and Seamus Heaneys on that hallowed Nobel roll call, there's just something about a novel that says Legit.

But, you say, isn't reproducing a moment in time with so many well-chosen words in a poem the hardest thing a writer can do? Well, this is America, and we like size and volume. There's all that sitting and typing and sighing when you write a novel. And it's BIG. That must mean it's the pinnacle achievement, right?

It does seem to at least be a lot of work, grinding out 500-plus words a day. For those of us looking in the mouth of the cave before entering such a project, a secret, insecure voice may begin to ask, "Do I really have what it takes for this Ultimate Test?"

Case in point: Erika and I had some "us time" yesterday and used it for a very sweet couples writing session. We don't get to do this often, so I was excited. Erika is working on a novel this summer. I'm finishing up my sixth play. Sounds like an accomplishment, sure. But side by side at the dining room table, I began to feel the insecurity bubble up. There was Erika, plugging away, writing so much. And so many of my own keystrokes were, well, for manual formatting in script style, not actual text. Gee whiz.

Despite all the work I've put into my writing since I "got serious" in late 2003, I've always had a bit of an inferiority complex — firstly, when I'm around fiction writers, and secondly, when these people have studied creative writing in college.

Aside from a few classes taken and a few how-to books read, I'm a self-taught playwright. People with creative writing degrees — my wife included — kind of intimidate me, at least until the chip on my shoulder speaks up. There's that nagging belief that these Chosen Few were selected by the Academy because they have the Talent, and they were given the Tools in an intensive setting, becoming holy vessels who transmute the human experience into deep, well-ordered, moving prose. Unlike me, a writer of stage directions, single-word answers, pauses and loud swear words.

For many years, we hosted a friends' writing group. And at some point in each evening, all the college-trained people, cigarettes and glasses of wine in hand, would slip into the classic Creative Writing School Group Feedback formation and riff for long minutes on plot mechanics and believability. I usually just stared into my can of Old Style and wondered if I should specify there's blood in my main character's vomit when I write that particular stage direction. These folks seemed to have something I didn't.

"Now, don't beat yourself up, Woundup," you might be saying right now, if you're nice. "You're probably not as bad as you think. If you can write plays, I bet you can write fiction, too." Well, as it turns out, I've written quite a lot of short fiction since I was a kid. I've even had some published. Just yesterday I was combing through the Word files on my first laptop and was shocked at the amount of unfinished prose. And you know, it wasn't all bad. Even the maudlin novel fragment written by 22-year-old me. Maybe I'm not a lost cause after all.

Erika is always telling me my chances of getting published/seen are better anyway as a fiction writer. And sadly, after five years of submitting my plays to theaters and contests, I see her point. Granted, I've had some unexpected success for an unproduced playwright just by doing mass mailing campaigns, but I can see now that I won't be produced unless I do it myself. And with two little kids, that's just not going to happen anytime soon.

So I feel conflicted. On the one hand I'm wrapping up work on what I believe is my best play yet and could do even better on the next one. I'm approaching the 10-year mark at my craft — a pretty important milestone as far as mastery and dedication go. On the other hand I want to challenge myself and try something demanding and new, have deeper conversations with my wife about writing and sip from that $4 wine once I'm admitted into the "real" writers circle. Kidding aside, a novel would indeed be a personal achievement, as a writer. And an American.

I know many people in the world are starving right now. I don't pretend my dilemma is an important one. I'm just thankful I can find the time to write. That said, I have a new idea for a story about four young people. By September I'll know if it involves long blocks of descriptive text or blood-tinged stage vomit. Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

I shall return

Has it really been that long, Woundup fans? I see that the last true post I made here was when my daughter was four months old -- and my son wasn't yet even a twinkle in his parents' eyes after that Dr. Wayne Dyer seminar at the Oakbrook Marriott later that November ("Loving People, Vulnerable People, People People" ... it was half price with the hotel room).

Having a family -- and my increased workload at my last job -- necessitated a retirement that summer from blogging (and fantasy sports). Lately, mercifully, I've found some time and desire to return to the arena I so enjoyed from 2002-09. I'll spare you more nostalgia, which for some reason has been sweating out of me like gin from the pores of an East India Company bookkeeper, and simply invite you to read once again.

If you ever liked this blog, thank you for being a fan. If you are new, thank you for visiting. I've always just wanted to make people laugh and maybe learn to love again.

Remember: "Loving people are vulnerable people are people people. If you love yourself first, you have no time to love someone else. So ... love someone else and they will love you back. And then you should be covered ... Yeah, you should be all good then."