Saturday, January 24, 2015

Clark Street Bridge Bride & Groom

Wedding party crossing Clark St. Bridge, Chicago
This photo was taken a few years ago in the early evening of early fall in downtown Chicago. It's of a very small wedding party leaving Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River. The party was having pictures taken on the bridge with some of Chicago's skyline in the background. I had tried to get a picture of the group when they were still posing in the middle of the bridge, but I wasn't fast enough. So I got them walking away.

I like this picture because of a little details that were caught, like the bride taking care to keep the train of her dress off the sidewalk of the bridge and the fact that the bride is the central person in the frame and the most identifiable. The others in the photo are a bit of a guess. I'm guessing one of the men on the bride's right is her groom...but which one? Is the other the best man? Of the two people on the bride's left, either could be the photographer. The man in the gray jacket seems to be providing direction, pointing out the spot where the group should stop and pose next. So maybe he's the photographer. But it's the other woman in the photo, the blonde with a ponytail and wearing a suit, who appears to be holding the professional camera. So maybe the blonde with the ponytail is the photographer...or could she be an unconventionally attired maid of honor?

I also like that some of the walkway of the bridge can be seen--maybe too much to make it a good photo by most standards. But you can see the steel grid that underlies the faux-concrete walkway, which adds a bit of grit to the scene, a bit of the toughness and distinctiveness of Chicago. This is not a fairy-tale wedding scene. Chicago is not a city that harbors fairy tales. And a wedding party as small and straightforward as the one in this photo appears to be doesn't seem to have time or interest for complicated fairy-tale photo set-ups anyway.

Clark Street Bridge is a bascule bridge, or a drawbridge. It goes up from time to time. Even bridges sometimes feel the need for a break and a stretch. Along with other bridges on the Chicago River downtown, such as the Lasalle Street Bridge, it is known for its dark red curving trusses. Glimpses of these bridges can be seen in many movies, from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to The Untouchables, Road to Perdition, The Fugitive, and Transformers. The poet Carl Sandburg also was inspired by Clark Street Bridge, as he was by many places in Chicago--he titled one of his poems after the bridge, and you can read it here. "Dust of the feet/ And dust of the wheels..." And once a bride tried to keep her dress out of the mess of dust and feet and wheels...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Spider Poem

This is another poem from the reject pile. I posted two others in recent weeks. Some notes follow the poem.


The Spider

The spider selects
the misfit places of a house
to make her web.

Corners out of reach,
crevices out of sight,
under the cabinet and right above
where the pie crusts get rolled out,
between the crosshatch on a flimsy outdoor fence
that rattles with every lake-driven wind.

She has her own reasons for such
insensible
eccentric
choices.

It has nothing to do with you,
human.

This second she squats blot-like
in the corner where the walls meet
a deuce of inches down from the ceiling,
the low one,   
right above where the cat always lies.
She will not be moved from this spot
no matter how many hours
the cat waits
watches
whimpers
for her to fall and
sacrifice herself
into a snack.

The human has not come home yet,
has not fed her feline friend.
This second the human squats
on a stool in a shady corner
of the city
between the crosstalk of a man
who waits and watches
and another who whimpers
for her to fall and
sacrifice herself
for a snack.

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Notes: There's no deeper meaning to this poem or anything. None of the creatures in the poem stand for anything else. A few years ago I tried writing a poem about a spider. I left off after a few lines and only came back to them last year. Somehow I turned it into a poem about my former, unsatisfactory, and socially inept attempts at participating in Chicago's nightlife because, really, I couldn't think of much to write about a spider after a few lines. 

This is the 3rd of three rejected poems I promised to post beginning a few weeks ago. And the post before this one, American Off-Season, is another piece that was rejected. Expect to see a lot of my rejected stuff on my blog this year. I suppose some writers take rejection of a piece to mean that your work isn't ready to be read yet. I'm sure this is true for a lot of my poems and stories. But as nice as recognition and acceptance of something I wrote can be, my main reason for writing is to reckon with particular emotions and experiences of mine, as well as with images and scenarios that I find especially interesting or inspiring or haunting, and after a certain amount of effort putting all these feelings and images down on paper (or onscreen), I always feel I just need to set the whole effort free and put it out there somewhere. Send it to a friend, or to an editor or journal. Read it out to my counselor, or to a group of strangers at an open mic. Or post it up on my blog. For better or for worse. Just let it go. Consider this 2015 to be The Year of Release.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

American Off-Season


Florida Gulf Coast beach in November, year unknown

There’s a place I used to visit at Thanksgiving some years ago, back before I had seen much of the world. I had been across the Atlantic a few times, and I had been around the U.S., but I hadn’t yet been around so much to have built up any resistance to the charm of elsewhere. I still believed in the magic of other places. Or more truly, I didn’t believe in the magic of home. In those days so, anywhere beyond my hometown of Chicago seemed a place of high potential. Anywhere elsewhere was different, enviably different. And this particular place where our Thanksgivings happened, it just seemed nicer, even if by appearances it was not an especially extraordinary place. Just a beach town in the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida Panhandle, the kind popular with college kids at spring break. I was a college student myself in the years I used to go there, though I never knew the place outside of autumn.
 
I spent Thanksgiving there twice or three times, maybe four, with my parents and sometimes my eldest brother and his two daughters. We were each at a very different life stage back then—my parents already elderly and retired, my brother divorced and middle-aged (a good 15 years older than me), my nieces still in the first few years of grade school, and me in my mid-20s, a late-comer to college, in truth to most adult experiences. Yet somehow we were all at a stage to enjoy a vacation beside the sea together. Maybe it was the relief of the warm southern air, or maybe it was the rhythm of the Gulf of Mexico waves we could hear all day and night hitting the shore. Whatever it was, the place definitely had something to it that could relax a person into forgiving even the most insufferable family annoyances, and maybe even the most stubborn personal failings. 

The main reason we went to the Panhandle at Thanksgiving though was because it was cheaper that time of year. It only had half of itself to offer after all. Most of its stores and restaurants and attractions closed up for the winter, and wouldn’t reopen until March when the college kids came. Nearly all that stayed open was the kind of places locals patronized—big-box superstores, shopping malls, dollar shops, fast food chains, little bars and burger and pizza joints that almost looked leftover from the Ponce de Leon days, and a surplus of family buffets. This town was mad for buffets. The only businesses that outnumbered them were the beachfront hotels. And in the off-season, the hotels were the only evidence of the town’s tourist pull. Without them you could just as well pass through town on your way to better parts and write this place off as another seedy seaside suburb. There were certainly locals who would have wished you would, who would have liked the beaches and sea views left to themselves and themselves alone for some part of the year. 

Empty white sands beach in Florida, during the off-season
But for the beachfront property owners, ceding the beaches to locals would’ve meant ceding their bank accounts to the off-season as well. The property men were too shrewd for that, or perhaps too desperate. They stayed solvent through the off-season by striking a deal with winter wayfarers like us: Stay a whole week, stay two weeks, stay an entire month even, and we’ll give you a room for half-cost. It was a powerful bargain, as much for the solitary as for the thrifty. The town and roads were quiet, the beaches nearly empty. All the peace and lonesomeness you could want. Which we did want, or didn’t mind. The ghost-town feel made for a kind of adventure whenever we went looking for some place open to eat dinner or shop for plastic seashell sets, postcards, and other souvenirs. It was like we’d been invited here by secret. Like we were explorers or pioneers—not tourists, not just run-of-the-mill sun-seekers.

I suppose some travelers might have felt gypped by the off-season desolation. But we told ourselves the town didn’t have much more to offer in full swing anyway, not by the looks of it. It was little more than a long strip that ran for a dozen miles or so along the beach, with a few streets running inland in all kinds of directions—straight, circular, diagonal—as if the town had been planned with all the precision of a scattering of sand. One end of the strip suffered from a Miami-wannabe complex. High-rise hotels and big blocks of timeshares had taken over the beach there, so much so that as you drove down the strip you couldn’t see the sand and sea for all the steel and stucco in the way.

Looking towards the high-rises at one end of Panama City Beach, Florida

But at the strip’s other end it was still quite like paradise. There were no new high-rises—just small, older motels painted in taffy colors like peach and lemon and lavender, with big bedrooms and little kitchenettes, windows that faced the Gulf, and doors that opened right onto the beach. That was luxury—to open your door and step right onto sand instead of a concrete stoop or a chemically treated lawn. That was well worth our two-day drive down. Especially since the sand was truly special here. It was white as sugar and soft as flour, easy to walk on with bare feet even in the hot midday sun, and at night as black and cool as ashes. It may have been a better boast, a better tourist magnet, than the Gulf itself. The Gulf waters weren’t altogether safe in this area. There were sharks that came up close to shore. One year a shark even snatched the right arm off a young boy wading in the water only up to his knees. It was wiser to just stay on the beach, and you couldn’t mind it much when the sand was so soft and soothing, so surely safe.

My family was the kind to benefit most from a safe shore. We were inlanders, suburbanites, Midwesterners. We knew nothing about oceans, seas, gulfs, tides, or sharks. All we saw when looking out at the Gulf was an invitation. The Gulf is a forever temperate place, even in November, and we wanted to make the most of its wonderful nearness, its being right there, just outside the door and windows. Our motel had a heated pool and a hot tub—but after coming all this way, swimming or sitting in those would have felt like a cop-out, like a surrender to convenience and practicality.

Panama City Beach motel, Florida, early winter

Besides, our first Florida Thanksgiving we had something of a caper planned for ourselves, and it required going in the water. On the drive down from Chicago, my brother kept telling us about a road trip south he had gone on decades ago with a friend when he was about 18. Somewhere in Mississippi he and his buddy had camped on a beach and met a family who taught them how to fish for crabs using an old net and a flashlight. We were intrigued, but not sure whether to believe him. My brother had always been one to enchant the past. In recent years his divorce had scarred him, brought him more pain than he deserved, more uncertainty than he could face, and left him indulging even more in memories of when life was yet unblemished by hard luck and heartbreak. He had insisted though that the crab fishing story was true, and insisted we try it ourselves if we got a calm night.

We had two weeks here, there was no rush. And as it was, the first few days were spent acquainting ourselves with the town, driving past the stretches of shuttered tattoo parlors and shark attack-themed go-kart parks along the strip, trying out buffets, stocking up on supplies for the kitchenette. We hadn’t decided whether we’d eat out on Thanksgiving or try to make our own turkey dinner. We figured we’d check out what the buffets had going first, find out which ones were even open that day and which ones had more than just the usual Southern spread of every fryable food in America.

Florida’s a funny state, in that it’s hard to pin down culturally. Some of it feels Southern, some of it feels Latino. In some parts everyone you meet is Jewish, in other parts everyone is born again. Some parts are still wild, and then there’s what Disney has done. During the off-season the Panhandle definitely felt like the South. I don’t think it was always that way. But it’s what all the Southerners who headed here for their getaways had made of the place. They drove over from Alabama and Georgia or down from Arkansas and Tennessee. They’d been coming here for decades. They were so much a part of the local landscape now, they lent the area its nickname: the Redneck Riviera.

My family never used that nickname. It made the area sound much trashier than it really was, even if it also helped keep the place something of a secret from the mass tourism that plagued other parts of Florida. But if we were to tell people back home we had vacationed at the Redneck Riviera, that wouldn’t had been much of a win for us. And truthfully, you couldn’t even call the kind of Southerners who came here rednecks. Remarkably laid-back when it came to things like fashion and personal grooming, yes. Impressively unconcerned about most anything. But you could say the same about most off-season tourists anywhere. You could say the same about me and my family, in our own collectively unlucky, late-blooming way.

Bird, surf, sand, and dark clouds, Florida at the off-season
 We didn’t connect with the Southern off-seasoners though. They were set apart from us by a kind of self-reliance and confidence that I think came from the lesser distance traveled to get here, the fact that they were on or very close to their own cultural home turf.  For example, they didn’t need to eat at the buffets in town because they brought all the necessary supplies with them. Like their own fryers. We’d see the things, these big-bucket propane turkey fryers, set outside motel room doors or in the parking lots on Thanksgiving Day, rings of grease darkening the pavement from when the cooking oil had overflowed after the turkeys had gotten their Southern-style baptisms. And when the Southerners weren’t frying, they were fishing with their own poles and bait. Sometimes from noon on, if the ocean was calm enough, there’d be a few Georgia folks sitting out on the beach fishing for hours on end. I don’t think it was legal to fish there. But I don’t think the Georgia guys really cared. The closest to a conversation I ever had with any of them was when two of them were sitting in a couple of fold-out chairs by the water—shirtless, baseball-capped, skinny, tanned, and toothy—and told me to watch out for their fishing line as I passed them while walking along the shore. They had their line propped up at an angle in the sand just like the flag at Iwo Jima. When I mumbled an apology before walking around them, the skinnier and toothier of the two shook his head and waved his hand-rolled cigarette in the air. “Oh you did nothin,’ just didn’t wanna see you go trippin’ in the water is all.” When I came back, nearly an hour later, they were still there—no catches from what I could tell, just a wide carpet of empty beer cans at their feet.

Later that same day I remember we joined a small crowd on the beach at sunset. Someone had spotted manta rays out in the water. The Gulf sky was closing the day with its usual blush of purple layered with yellow and orange. And beneath all the colors the rays were leaping the waves, quick and black and eerie, like big bats of the sea. The woman who spotted them thought they were shark fins at first. As the crowd of us watched them, she laughed a sort of warm, loud, cackling, bar-room laugh and talked with my brother. I thought maybe she liked him. It wasn’t far-fetched. My brother is not like me. He’s the kind who can talk to anybody. The woman wore a sun visor and held a half-empty plastic tumbler in her hand. Later my brother told us she said she was relieved people had come out and confirmed her sighting of the rays. She was afraid she’d got drunk faster than she planned.

            I remember also a mother and son from Alabama, a raggedy-looking, well-browned, stoutly built little duo with the same long, brown, sea-scraggled hair, the mother’s pulled back in a high ponytail, the son’s in a low one. They stayed at a motel a couple down from ours. I’d usually see the mother on the beach in the morning, wearing a modest black bikini, wading in the shallow water, and searching for shells. She went about it happily, holding up whatever prize she’d just found and showing it off to her son as he sat on a beach blanket with his legs splayed in front of him and looked out dreamily at the water, like a young American buddha. Later she’d join him and sift through her collection, sorting out what she had and what she needed like a boy with his baseball cards. They were friendly people. The son always had a half-toothless smile and a “Hi” ready for you. The mother gave us a big wave from up the beach on the day before they were going back to Alabama. “I just wanted to say goodbye to y’all. We sure appreciated your company,” she called out to us, as if we’d spent every night of the week having drinks and laughs together on the beach or in our motels.

There was another family we saw that first Thanksgiving that we’d run into year after year. They were Amish, or Mennonite—people with bonnets anyway. We first saw them in the grocery store stocking up for their vacation same as us, cruising the frozen-food section just like a regular family, the mother and daughter leaning over the freezer cases, their bonnets holding their hair back as they sorted out their favorite TV dinners. “Are they allowed to eat that stuff?” I whispered to my mom. She shrugged as if to tell me that people gotta eat something, even people with bonnets.

Once I met them strolling down the beach on a late morning. I’d been walking to get dry after a swim. I was dressed in my one-piece swimsuit and swimming shorts, with a towel wrapped around my waist like a sarong and a t-shirt draped over my arm. As modest as I was dressed, I felt bold passing the Amish family. Bare feet were as much as they would dare. Even their heads stayed covered. They were headed in the direction of a Christian retreat motel farther down the beach, a place that looked more like a barracks than a holiday residence. We assumed this is where they stayed while they were here, though we had no evidence. How they got down here from the usual pockets of Amish country (a plane from Pennsylvania? a horse and buggy all the way from Indiana?) was another guess. So was what they did with themselves down here. In this half-boarded-up town in the final weeks of the year, I suppose there was little worry that they’d stumble across a bikini contest or run off and get a tattoo like the college kids at spring break. Temptation at this time of year was a grocery store full of TV dinners and a motel kitchenette with a microwave.

But what did any of us do down here at this time of year anyway? Look for food, look for shells, look for brilliant sunsets and animals playing in the sea, look for something to do, to see, to be, some way to justify coming here when practically everything worthwhile was closed and the rest of the country was in their houses celebrating the national holiday of harvest and home. The off-season had a way of equalizing all of us away from home, whether home was the Deep South or suburbia, Amish country or Chicagoland. We all came here for a change of scene, for the difference—then we all did the same old stuff with the change and difference we’d come to find.

I tried for that difference though, for an experience out of the ordinary. Almost to the peril of me and my young nieces. When I first went swimming in the Florida Gulf, I was misled by the warmth of the water as much as by my own fantasies of adventure. I had swam in the sea before, but in the Atlantic, and way on the other side in Ireland, where the water was cold and wild and made my heart pound so fast and hard I could barely stand to go in up to my waist, much less any deeper. It’s in such ways that cold water keeps your courage in check. But warm water invites a person into deeper waters than she can handle.

That first year in the Gulf, I swam far out, farther and farther until my hand hit something solid on a downstroke. For one heavy moment I thought I’d run into a shark. But then my knee ran into whatever it was, and then my toes, and suddenly I was lying on a sand bar. The water was suddenly so shallow again, I could sit upright on the sand bar with the water just lapping around my waist. I looked back at the shore. No one was on the beach, and it looked a lonely and pathetic place from this distant, magic sand bar. I sat there awhile, long enough to feel as if I had absorbed some power from the distance and the adventure, and then swam back to shore to tell the family what I had discovered. A half hour later I watched my father go for a swim and make it out to the sand bar. I delighted to see his confused reaction, the way he waved his arms around in surprise and looked back at me looking at him, as he walked around on the bar with the water up to his lower shins, just about where it drowned his old man’s farmer’s tan. 

My parents on the beach, motel behind them, Panama City Beach, Florida
 I decided I had to bring my two nieces out to the sand bar with me. I was always making decisions like that when they were young. I’d wanted to be the aunt that showed them new and amazing things, the aunt they’d remember most when they were older. The younger one rode along on my back, her arms around my neck. The older one dog-paddled alongside me. We reached a point where I knew the water had become too deep for them, and I knew they were scared and worried, though only the younger one showed it. I realized then the mistake I was making and the risk I was taking. But I wouldn’t go back.

We made it to the sand bar, where all felt well again. We stood on the bar and waved to the few people back on shore now and laughed about how tall we must look to them in such distant water. “They think we’re giants,” my older niece said, giggling. They think we’re fools, or that I am, was more likely. From that sand bar we were just a fool’s distance from a steep drop-off into true ocean.

When I brought the girls back, I did it quickly, as if a faster return made up for a foolish endeavor. Back near the shore, where the water was calm and clear, I showed them tiny holes in the sand visible through the water. Crab holes. They were like underwater ant hills. “That’s where they live, I guess,” I told the girls. “Is that where we’ll catch ‘em?” they asked. I told them I wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know. There was no point making something up. I knew I’d already bluffed enough for the day.

We finally went out for the crab experiment near the end of our stay. The first time we tried it the surf was surly and uncooperative. It tumbled up onto the beach in tall rolls, nearly knocking over my brother and me when we tried wading in, as if it were the sea’s security detail sent to tell us tonight the Gulf wasn’t in the mood. We came back the next night so, when it looked calmer.

We had just one flashlight between the five of us. My mother, brother, nieces, and I. Dad stayed behind in the motel room, watching a new game show with Regis Philbin. He had never been one for experiments or running around in the dark. Even his swim as far as the sand bar had been an accident. Maybe he would have come along if our first try had gone better, but as far as he knew there would be less to see out on the beach than inside on the TV.

The air was cool down by the water, but the Gulf was still warm enough. I had my bathing suit on, my swimming shorts, and a cheap windbreaker. We were scattered about, standing shin-deep in the Gulf or pacing and hopping on the sand. My brother and I took turns shining the flashlight into the water, testing the effect. The flashlight illuminated far better than we expected, almost like a decoy moonbeam shrunken down to fit a human’s hand.

My brother gave us the instructions. Wade in a few feet and shine the light into the water. Look through the water to the bottom. You might see something moving a little that could be a crab or maybe just the shadow of the wave. Don’t wait too long to find out. Just bring down the net and scoop up what you see.

It was my brother, my older niece, and me who each gave it a try. The chill in the night air had already gotten to my little niece, who sat on my mother’s lap on a bench on the beach. They both had the hoods of their windbreakers up and tied tight below their chins, looking a bit like beach elves. Mom hugged and rocked my niece and rubbed her bare little legs the same way she had with me after bathtime when I was little. I never wanted to leave my mom’s lap on those occasions. Not until I was ready. It would take nothing less than a caught crab to make my niece leave my mother’s lap now.

At first, we were like blind people trying to play baseball out in that water. We trapped a couple rocks, a couple seashells, and a clot of seaweed, and my brother nearly stepped on one manta ray resting beneath the water. But gradually we began to get wiser in reading the floor of the shore, in telling rocks from ripples of sand, shells from gentle swirls of surf, and the crabs themselves from mere mirage, from the shadows of the waves. What you had to look for was a kind of small, sandy, ghostly thing, half-floating, half-bobbing, like a cube of ice in a glass of pale, watered-down whiskey. Soon as you took a swipe at it with the net, you knew you had it—not just by the weight, but by the immediate twisting of the mesh.

Carrying a net with a live crab in it is not as simple as it might sound. There’s something breath-holding about it, like carrying a pot of boiling water across a bed of hot coals. Our net had a long handle, but my brother would hold it away from him with outstretched arms whenever he caught a crab, as if wanting to disavow what he had just done. But there was nothing shameful about what we were doing. We even let them all go. We’d turn the net over and drop the crab onto the sand and shine the light on it to watch what it did. Every time it would run right back to the sea and vanish into the sand. Burrow in and then be gone, leaving nothing but one of those tiny holes. It was curious to see, almost like a flame dissolving back into its match—not going out, but going back to its beginning, as if the spark had never been disturbed, never summoned to begin with. 

Seabird on deserted beach, Novembertime, Panama City Beach, Florida
 My brother said the family in Mississippi had cooked up the crabs after showing them how to catch them. We didn’t do that, simply because we had no clue how. Were we supposed to just throw them into a pot of boiling water alive? Or kill them first? How would we get the bodies separated from the claws? And did we really want to eat these things anyway? It wasn’t like we were hungry. This whole thing was just an experiment. Something different to try, something to say we went out and did here that we couldn’t do back home. It was this or Regis.

So we quit after catching and releasing five crabs, one for each of us out on the beach. That’s what we told Dad after getting back to our rooms. “How do you know?” he said. “What do you mean, how do we know?” we asked him. He was sitting on the couch, his eyes on Regis, whose eyes were on a perspiring contestant. “How do you know you caught five? How do you know you weren’t just tormenting the same crab over and over again?”

We laughed. It was certainly possible. Nightmarish for the poor crab of course, but not impossible. But we wouldn’t stay up much later recounting the adventure. The contestant on TV lost. And we didn’t know all the rules yet, so we weren’t sure if he’d be back. Dad turned off the TV. Our excitement turned quickly to exhaustion, and we all went about getting ready to turn in, quiet and solitary amongst ourselves, as if each of us was the only one in the rooms. We’d come back from the beach empty-handed after all, with nothing to show for our time and experiment. There was a question in the air: Now what? Night supplied a neat and convenient answer: Bed. If we had done our crabbing during the day, how dull would the hours ahead of us had been, how aimless?

The next day was our last full day before the drive home to Illinois. Then we’d spend another night somewhere in Tennessee maybe, if we could get that far. I would be dropped off at school in southern Illinois on the second day of driving, and the others would have another five or six hours ahead of them until home. Other folks, by which I mean peak-season folks, would’ve flown this distance, even if it meant making three connections. But for off-season people the only way is the longest way, from start to finish.

Magic is a tall order for a two-week vacation. So are such notions as escape and elsewhere. The fascination with difference—mine, yours, or anyone and anywhere else’s—doesn’t last long either. I’ve been around enough now to have finally figured that out. The best satisfaction I’ve gotten from time away and time off is the completion: this place seen, that thing done, that notion confirmed, this dream discarded…and then home. Changed or unaffected, different or undifferent, matured, relaxed, reconciled—it matters little, as long as you make it back sound and intact, whether you’re a worried crab or a wised-up swimmer. There are no pure or enchanted places in the world, no pure times or enchanted seasons—only the enchantment of life.

The Florida Gulf, Panama City Beach, at Thanksgiving
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Author's Note: This is a story I wrote awhile ago. It started out as a poem before morphing into a non-fiction piece that went through several more revisions before I began submitting it to some journals in December 2013. Since then it's been rejected at least 10 times. The last rejection I just got this past week. I'd decided upon submission that if this one last journal rejected it too then I'd finally go ahead and post it here. I would have liked to have posted this around Thanksgiving last year, when the post would seem more timely, but no deal. Anyway, I think it was time to cut this story loose and just release it into the cybersphere--a bit like the crab in the story. I hope it gets read eventually, even if just by two or three people, and I hope whomever gives it a chance likes it. Thanks for your time.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Post Of Intent II: The Grand Canyon

This post is just to announce some travel plans I have. They are plans I've had for a few years now, but today I got one step closer to making them a reality, so I thought I'd put up this post as one more step.

My intent is to go to the Grand Canyon, hike down into the canyon and spend a couple nights at the bottom, and then hike back out. Not a big deal compared to other travel possibilities, but to me it is. I've been to the Grand Canyon once before, while visiting one of my sisters who was living in Sedona. I went with a small group from Flagstaff on a day trip during which we hiked a short ways down into the canyon. I disappointed myself that day by not going down very far at all into the canyon because the drop-offs along the edge of the trail unnerved me. I also worried about my fitness for hiking back up out, even though the leader of our group wasn't going all the way down to the bottom. I decided not long after that I would go back someday and actually go all the way down and spend some time at the bottom, exploring the floor of the canyon and the Colorado River while I'm there.

As of today I will be going to the Grand Canyon and spending the nights of January 30th and 31st, 2016, at the bottom, at the Phantom Ranch. Note the year. This was a big hurdle for me as far as realizing this particular travel dream of mine--lodging at the Grand Canyon, especially at the Phantom Ranch, frequently books out over a year in advance. The last couple years, every time I called to make a reservation I found the ranch was already completely filled up for whenever time I wanted to go. I learned you have to call on the first day of a month to successfully book for anytime in that month the following year. So if I wanted to go in, say, October 2015, I would have to call on October 1st, 2014, to secure a bed. Even then, there's no guarantee you'll still get a place, as the ranch can book out within the first hour of the phones being open on the 1st day of a month. It's those damn mule riders. Booking a mule ride down into the canyon usually gets you a night's stay at the ranch automatically. If a couple big groups come along within the first hour or two of calls on the 1st day of a month, wanting to book a group mule ride, then all your beds are taken, just like that. At least this was my experience on the several times I tried to make a booking just for me. I had no idea it would be so hard to get a bed for one person for two consecutive nights in the canyon.

Grand Canyon on New Year's Day, 2015. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park Service
 Anyway, today I finally found success. I got two consecutive nights at the bottom of the canyon. (Yes, you can always camp instead of stay at the ranch, as long as you get a permit, but this would involve me carrying more equipment than I know I'm capable of handling. Know and respect your limitations--that's the first rule of everything.) I finally had to give up getting a booking during the more desirable months (spring or fall, when it's not too hot and crowded). January is the least popular month at the canyon. It can be snowy. It is often very icy. It is cold and unpredictable. Great! Just like Chicago!

Hopefully, the weather in January 2016 will cooperate with my plans, and I won't have to deal with any sudden snow or ice storms right before my trip. The idea of ice on the trail scares me very much. The heights and drop-offs are already enough to deal with for me. But the truth is, people hike into the canyon every day, all times throughout the year. All kinds of people--old people, children, inexperienced hikers, even people with disabilities. If they can do it, so can I.

In the meantime, I actually need this year's head start to prepare myself physically for the hike. In the past year, I haven't felt too well physically. I work at a job where I'm on my feet all day and often lifting and carrying heavy objects, bending over, pushing and pulling heavy carts, etc. I've suffered pains in my knees and back throughout the past year, put on some weight, noticed a slowing down of my metabolism, been quick to pick up other people's colds and flu bugs but not so quick to recover, and taken some blows to my confidence and self-esteem. I think of the fact that only 3 years ago I walked 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. That was definitely a big physical challenge for me then, especially at the start of the Camino. In the past few months, though, I've had to admit that in the condition I'm in now I probably wouldn't be able to do the Camino today--at the very least, it would definitely be even harder. And that was only 3 years ago. There shouldn't be that much sense of a decline in that short amount of time.

I have been through periods like this before. There have been other times in my life when I've noticed I'm getting sick too frequently, suffering physical problems too often, and I've learned to take clusters of problems like these as a sign that some changes need to be made. A travel booking is not necessarily a solution to anyone's problems, but it's motivation. I intend to use this Grand Canyon trip as motivation to start making some of the changes in my life that need to be made. Then when I'm actually there, at the canyon, I've got nothing left to do but just enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Year In Brief Review

Hi. As has become custom on this blog, I'm spending the last day of the year writing a post that sums up my year in writing and wayfaring. Usually I do the top 10 or top 5 blog posts of the year, going by number of hits on each post. But this year I've decided to re-share the links to 4 pieces I had published in 2014 along with the most popular post on my blog for the year. Here's the list:

5. I had two poems published in the Spring 2014 issue of Wilderness House Literary Review. The poems are "Australia" and "The Fading of the Heart." The first one I wrote for a workshop at the Poetry Center in Chicago. At the time, I was a fairly frequent visitor to the poetry slams at the Green Mill in Uptown, and so I think the poem shows that influence in its length and use of alliteration. I had returned from Australia, where I spent about a month in the Outback, less than a couple months before writing this poem. The second poem was written more recently. It's about Ireland, a place where I used to spend a lot of time and loved but also experienced a fair share of heartbreak, frustration, and disappointment. I'll probably return there of course, but it may be a long while.

4. On Easter Sunday in 2014, Literary Orphans released its Irish-themed issue, guest edited by James Claffey. My non-fiction piece "All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet" was included. It's a longer piece. I hope people will read it if they haven't already. Looking back, I'm surprised this got accepted, as it's rather local and much of it is about a medieval Irish saint that most people outside of Ireland have never even heard of. I'm glad Literary Orphans took a chance on this anyway, and I hope readers like it.

3. In August another poem of mine was published at Eunoia Review. The poem is called "Transference (Middle West)." It's about my maternal grandfather and the transition he made as a young man moving from the farm in Iowa where he grew up to the south side of Chicago where he raised a family. A lot of people seemed to like this one.

2. In the fall, Literary Orphans accepted another piece of mine, a short poem for its Ingrid Bergman issue. The poem is called "Golden Day." Some lovely photography by Marta Beveacqua was chosen by the editors to go along with this one. The photo below, meanwhile, best illustrates how I felt about getting something accepted by Literary Orphans twice in one year.

Pinky Tuscadero.

1. And finally, the most viewed post on this blog for 2014, by a mile, was my post about Second City, the famous improv school and theater here in Chicago: You Can Fail Here. What was the big attraction with this post? Why did it get more than double the hits compared to most of the my other posts in 2014? Beats the hell out of me. Second City is a popular and revered place. So is Chicago in general. And failure is always a winning topic--so many of us can relate. I know I certainly could in 2014, between a truckload of rejections I got for other poems and stories I wrote and a fellowship I applied for as well as a huge fire that nearly wiped out my workplace and displaced me and all my co-workers for more than half the year. On the other hand, I think I had a pretty successful year in terms of getting a few things published--this was my first year of submitting regularly after all. I also got a chance to contribute to a couple new great projects: Rockwell's Camera Phone and Booma: The Bookmapping Project.

Still, I really hope 2015 is a better year. I'll have some thoughts on writing goals for the upcoming year in a post within the next couple weeks, and tomorrow I'll hopefully have a post up that reveals some travel plans. Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read my writing. I appreciate and am helped by any support and encouragement more than you might know.

Chicago in January 2014. Good motto for 2015 too.