The Red-Headed Stranger…

Jenny didn’t shit just anywhere when she had a statement to make…she was very selective. She wouldn’t shit in Craig and Robin’s room. On those rare occasions she actually came to visit them, she didn’t bother to shit upstairs in Fred and Dan’s room. In Larry’s and Gary’s room? My room? She never shit in any of those places. In fact she was a perfect guest to most of us at the WAFU House. It was more than a little surprising that a visitor who oozed great looks and obvious breeding like Jenny’s would find it acceptable to shit anywhere except where she was supposed to.


The WAFU (We’re All Fine Undergraduates???) House was a three-story behemoth that was a cross between two great movie sets…Animal House and Psycho. Ten of us called this place home at the same time. Eight dudes and two ladies…three, once Jenny moved in. The only rules revolved around Top Raman Noodles and toilet paper. Otherwise, it was everybody for themselves. We were a living, breathing television script way before the advent of reality TV. We were drunk and disorderly at the dawning of the MTV age. And all was peaches and cream, until Rod brought Jenny home one late winter evening with barely a story other than she needed a place to stay for a while. For her entire stay, she remained an enigma to us.


It was only Chris with whom Jenny seemed to have serious issues. We never knew why this was the case. Chris certainly didn’t ask and Jenny wasn’t talking. Still, on more than one occasion, Chris came home from a long day on campus to find very un-ladylike calling card plopped right in the middle of his area rug. Maybe it was just some kind of evil chemistry between them, but tension was palpable.


Maybe the problem was that Rod, her liberator, paid way more attention to his girlfriend Pam than Jenny was willing to put up with. After all it was Rod who had taken it upon himself to save her from her “situation” with that last guy. He had bonded with Jenny. He had brought her to stay with us…until arrangements could be made. Pam was unusually silent about all of this, but that’s how we rolled in the early 80’s. Jenny’s a bitch… Hunziker and Furman are assholes and sometimes you have to put up with Fred and BK.


Clearly, Rod was a sucker for redheads and Jenny was a long, lean one. The deep-set hazel that glittered in her eyes barely masked the anger and resentment she had for her last guy. I suspect this is what she really loathed the most about Chris…his physical similarity to some guy none of us had ever seen, but who had become painfully imprinted on Jenny’s psyche. We never quite learned how Rod came to befriend Jenny and that had to grate on Pam’s already delicately stretched heartstrings. If Jenny noticed this resentment from Pam, she kept it to herself. Jenny seemed to have a lot on her mind. She was quiet and kept to herself. She slept almost constantly, only waking to stroll into the kitchen and eat whatever food Rod was willing to give her, and then back to the couch for another round of shuteye. As it turned out, she was carrying more than deep, dark concerns about her living situation.


It took very little to entertain our little household of misfit toys. We’d survived on beer and Fred’ sense of humor for so long that when MTV premiered earlier that fall, we felt like we had been lifted to a higher cultural plane. Most of us viewed MTV as a way to become more informed on the social and political renderings of our various musical heroes. Dan, on the other hand, viewed MTV as a gateway drug to better sleep. One unusually cold, still snowy March night, Dan outlasted the rest of us, who had sauntered off to our own beds, and passed out on the couch while Martha Quinn, on the screen across the room, introduced each video with a back-story lost on this audience. The furnace, when it ran correctly at the WAFU House, did little if any good, so before fading completely to black, Dan had at least grabbed the afghan lying on the floor by the couch. He didn’t remember that the afghan belonged to Chris and as such, was considered a target.


Dan was wakened to the tune of a whimpering chorus. Four soft, wet, newly born puppies were crawling around on his chest and legs trying to determine if he was their new mother or if it was indeed, our temporary house guest, Jenny, the Irish Setter with a grudge to even. Jenny had crawled up onto Dan and the afghan and littered, while Dan twitched and snored his way through it all. Chris’s afghan took the brunt of the birthing process, but Dan, who shortly after this episode traded his pre-vet major for forestry, had not gone unscathed. He quickly freed himself from the mess he found himself in and woke the house with his colorful expressions. Jenny was a new mommy and Dan, at least in the eyes of the puppies and his roommates was the de facto new daddy.


After the cuteness of the puppies wore off, that is to say in about a week. Jenny and her offspring were farmed out to a place much more capable of handling the day-to-day demands of parenthood. Rod took them back to his parents place and the rest of us, especially Chris, started living a mostly normal life again. We had all been included, if ever so briefly, in the “circle of life.” Spring brought the customary thaw and our windows opened to warmer southerly breezes. The songbirds began to fill the trees in our yard and the nasty insects that find every hole in the window screens started to join our daily adventures. But the flies this spring seemed to be thicker than usual…even for the WAFU House.


Finally, one day, while Fred and I sat on the “puppy couch” as it had been dubbed, eating our tuna fish sandwiches, we could stand it no longer. There were too many flies and as the warm weather had brought a pungent odor to our television room. Fred and I were convinced that there was a dead mouse in the vicinity. We slid the couch away from the wall. There was nothing to be seen there. We flipped the couch over and were horrified to find a jelly-like mass stuck to the inside of the underskirt of the couch. Cream-colored maggots crawled over most of the underside of the couch. Oh well… we were familiar with gross. This was just another chapter. But then we both saw it at the same time…the petrified, but unmistakable paw of a long-dead puppy poking through the skirt. The sickness forming in the back of my mouth chased me out the door and into the yard, with Fred close on my heels. Larry who had been watching the search with an egg-salad sandwich in his hand, didn’t make it three steps before his lunch resurfaced. A full month after she had left our lives, Jenny, or at least one of her offspring, had struck again. The puppy had obviously fallen through the back of the couch and died shortly thereafter. It’s a testament to our lifestyle that we didn’t notice it for several weeks.


Being the soulless wretches that we already were, Fred and I tore off the skirt of the couch and tossed it in the yard for the elements to destroy. Eventually the couch was restored, thanks to a can or two of Easy Bake Oven Cleaner. In the end, the WAFUs may have lost whatever we once had of our dignity, but we had our couch back… and you can’t watch MTV sitting on your dignity.



Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier

“Reblogged” from a site by Guy Bergstrom.

Want to write a novel…this makes more sense than anything I learned as an English major.

The Red Pen of Doom


Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.

This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).

HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.

With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.

When logic and math fail, I’ll resort…

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So You Wanna Be A Rock n’ Roll Star…


Quite an auspicious beginning, to be sure. My mom might understand how it got to this point, but she would certainly not be happy with my choice. As if it really were my choice. I didn’t poke the cigar in my own mouth. I didn’t light the cigar. I didn’t even ask for the cigar.

But here I sat; my fifteen-year-old ass wedged between an upper class high school dude and a car door that looked very flimsy, just puffing away by order of Bill, the keyboard player. The moon kept poking through the ghostlike clouds as the night crept toward the haunting hour.

The ’68 Chrysler Town En Country wagon that hauled most of the gear and pulled the overburdened U-Haul trailer behind us was unusually cramped for a car of this size. Rex, the drummer, had been entertaining himself in the back seat with a rapid succession of horrific farts that sounded more like exploding water balloons than anything at all human. As a result, Bruce, the singer/bass player (for tonight’s gig…Tom, the regular bassist, had been put on a short geographical leash by his mom) was trying to get as far away from him as possible, which put him mostly on my lap, head hanging out the open window. The farts, as pungent as they were artistic, almost created enough of a screen to kill the smell of the skunk that Mike, driver and guitarist, had hit about five miles back. It was the combination of all of these toxic potions that convinced Bill somebody was going to smoke the cigar. Such was the start to my brief stint as a local rock n’ roll star.

It was late October and still warm enough that having the windows down late at night on our trip back home wasn’t lethal or even foolish. Do away with the skunk’s odor, Rex’s air biscuits, and that cheap assed cigar I was smoking, and windows down would have been a fine choice anyway. It was just another night on the road for The Heavy Experience…local rock heroes. Our band…and I use the term OUR very loosely, had just entertained what must have been tens of, dozens of kids just waiting for us to stop playing so they could grab their dates and go in search of warm beer and cold stabs at teen romance on the dusty back roads of rural Iowa.

But, for me, the night was magical. I had been invited to climb that stairway to the heaven of stardom. I had become the personification of all things righteous in the deviant world of rock n’ roll. I had lived out the dream of being on stage and performing in a real rock band…one that got actually got paid in cash, not just all-you-can eat chili at the local legion hall. Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, The Monkees…we all now shared a common bond. Rock Gods! As such, the temptations of this kind of power can be overwhelming. So, truth be told, it was with little, if any protest, that I accepted the cigar that Bill demanded we light up to combat the stench that had now nearly asphyxiated us all. Really, I didn’t care. I was a rock n’ roll star.

The Heavy Experience was a pretty typical little band for our little patch of the world. A little Hendrix, Spirit, Cream, some Free, toss in the occasional Guess Who and you had half of the set list. In it’s usual configuration, it was a five piece band with an under aged roadie. Mike played a pretty good rhythm guitar with enough chops to slap together the occasional solo that sounded as authentic as he needed to fool the locals. Bill played keyboards with a restrained darkness that should have signaled to us what would later play out to be a tragic ending in a troubled life. Rex, the left-handed drummer, kept a good beat and was all-in on being the best version of Keith Moon that he could muster. He was the jester in a court already too full of goofballs. Tom, the Boy Scout of the group (with a sneaky penchant for streaking) was a steady hand on the faux-McCartney bass that he prized so much. Bruce, the lead singer (by virtue of the fact that he was the only one that knew all the words) was the front man. He was the one closest to me in age. Two years older than me, I more or less put him on a pedestal that he never asked for. Bruce was the devil in blue suede Adidas. He became the architect for most of my bad choices. Drinking that…smoking this…don’t even get me started on the he took me to the only Grateful Dead concert that I would get to see…or more like, hear…or mostly neither. Who knew Boone’s Farm and Panama Red were not on friendly terms?

But on this trip, Tom couldn’t go and the contract called for a five-piece band. I had been travelling with the group all summer as the roadie / lighting dude and was preparing to be same for the stop that night in Seymour. When the boys pulled up to get me at my home, I was sent back in to grab a dress shirt and a tie. It seems the closer we got to Missouri on our road trips the more the school administrators expected in terms of formal wear. I just figured that applied to the light dude as well as the boys in the band. It was, however, explained to me, in short order, that on this night, I was going to be on stage, and that under no circumstances should I do anything stupid. Too late for them…they’d already given me a license to kill.

Once we arrived and got set up, it didn’t take long to slide into the part of tambourine playing, background singing, acne-faced rock god. I had already been playing drums and percussion since sixth grade so I was no threat to screwing up their rhythm section. However, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a reason I’d been asked to stop attending mixed chorus in eighth grade. I had always assumed it was because I was an incurable smart ass. Turns out I couldn’t hold a note to save my life. Problem? Maybe… Too bad for the boys that I knew how to turn my microphone back up every time they tried to turn it down. I knew the words as well as Bruce did and by god, I was going to be a genuine back up singer…so sing I did. Loud and loose!

It was nirvana, before Kurt Cobain had even heard of the word. There I was, on stage with a button down collar and a shitty tie and a flippin’ tambourine in my hand wailing like the day I was born. All of those years of standing on the floor of the gym looking up at those cool guys on the stage playing their instruments…The Soul Purpose…Sound Alliance…and now, I was one of them. I was in The Heavy Experience. I was Mr. Tambourine Man playing songs for my own fans on the floor. So what if they wanted to be out getting drunk? It was my fantasy, not theirs.

And before I could soak it all in, it was over and I was getting sick from not knowing that cigars don’t necessarily have to be inhaled fully to be enjoyed. But for that moment…for that one golden, fleeting moment, I was a rock n’ roll star. And damn…it was good!


I Lift Mine Eyes…

…unto the hills, whence cometh my strength.

Some version of this Psalm hangs in the non-denominational chapel at Cheley Colorado Camps, snuggled secretly away in the foothills on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was here way back in the early 1980’s that I felt the touch of a stronger presence which opened my eyes, my ears, my heart to the possibilities and choices of life. It is to these same hills that I constantly turn when the GPS of my soul needs to recalculate before I can continue the journey I am on.

Over the years the path of that journey has curved left…or right…or in some instances, stopped and rolled backwards. Bruce Springsteen tells me that it isn’t unusual to take, “One Step Up, Two Steps Back.” But at those moments, I am able to fix my spiritual compass on the mountains I have visited so many times and find my path again. The mountains are the source nearly all of my true spirituality. Of course, there are family and very close friends to help steady me, but for that feeling that we all need to feel, deep down inside, we need a source.

Many people would probably visit their church dejoure for a serving of spirituality. I can’t do that. Oh sure, I still go to church with my wife and kids. I have for over twenty years. I’m Methodist and they’re Catholic. When my friends ask why I do this, I paraphrase W.C. Fields, a well-known agnostic, who when found thumbing through a Bible shortly before his death was asked, “What are you doing,” Fields replied, “Looking for Loopholes.” The real reason I go is because of Father Vince…a radical priest with the hidden agenda of lifting the veil on the conservatism of the Catholic canon. He’s a tremendous story-teller who knows how to work a crowd.

So to me, there is a vast difference between faith and religion. I have faith. I’ve been on mountain tops and seen what’s below me. That vision surely reflects eons of scientific rendering, but it all had to start somewhere by something. Even if the Big Bang is the result of a hot, dense point of matter that expanded quite rapidly, that hot, dense matter must have come from somewhere. I’m not a scientific thinker, but I think there is room for the argument of a greater power here. So as I sit on a mountain peak and soak in the scene before me, I am inclined to believe. I am less cynical. I am at peace.

Can’t say the same for sitting in a church. Some of the most glorious structures on this earth are churches. As far as I can understand, the basic purpose of a church is to throw up walls that make you focus on one person’s (too often a man’s) interpretation of the written scriptures of any of a number of different religions. What churches really excel at is hiding nature when we most need it. That one hour or so we dedicate to looking inside ourselves and try to understand our journey to this point and where to move next, should be sacred. It should be personal. It should be unique to each of us. It should NOT be interrupted by the clanging of a “sacred” gong to which we are all meant to be called. If God wants me, he or she knows how to find me.

And if it’s any help to you God…just lift your eyes unto the hills. In one manner or another that’s where you’ll find my spirit.

If Not Now…

If I don’t start now, when in the hell will this thing ever get going? So with much tipping of the proverbial cap to my beautiful wife, my inspirational kids, an encouraging old Texan, and an unselfish writing mentor from The Sunshine State, here goes.

My life has changed. That much I’m beginning to comprehend. About this time a year ago, I was given the option to retire early with some rather appealing carrots being less dangled before me, than smacked up against the side of my head. In reality, it was serendipitous in that the job I had held for the past five years was being eliminated in a massive numbers crunch by the school district. Oh yeah…details. I was a teacher. Well…at least a facilitator. Things get a bit murky when one slides toward the end of a career. Over the span of thirty years, I had earned a living as an educator. And for the greatest part of that time, I was a pretty decent teacher…”decent” being a relative, but in this case accurate term. As a secondary English teacher, I had years when I knew I was serving a purpose and I felt myself making an impact. Kids were better off as a result of skills I had helped them discover within themselves. It was hard, but it was fun.

Changes came and things gradually matriculated into my becoming an instructor of technology at the elementary level. From day one, I knew I was in over my head. For the love of Pete, I’m a Baby-Freakin’-Boomer! I could fool the third graders (at least for awhile) but the fifth graders had me figured out from the git-go. Which is not to say I wasn’t useful. I was just overmatched. These kids knew more than me about technology by the time mom and pop brought them home from the hospital. Natives. That’s what we in business would soon learn to call these learners. Technology Natives. Being a “Technology Neanderthal” I set to sharpening my spears and headed into the fray.

It didn’t take long for me to understand that to survive, I simply needed to be somewhere close to honest with them and let them teach me as I facilitated their learning experiences. So every day, I found myself the smartest kid in the class and started to learn. It was a blast and to some degree, I got better, which helped them become better. Things were looking good. However, it was at this point that I chose to jump away from the safety net of the slower elementary grind to the spasmodic world of the middle school enigma. After twenty-four years as a professional educator, I felt like a first year rookie all over again. Except…I knew what was happening to me when things started to fall apart. That first year, the seventh graders grabbed a handful of me and squashed me on the floor like a red grape on “Fruit is Your Friend Day” in the cafeteria. I was coming apart at the seams and little, if anything I could do was going to stop it. These kids were articulate in about a dozen different technologies that I had never even heard of. Learning curve? More like a learning fastball…just on the outside corner where my bat couldn’t even reach. Days seemed dark and not surprisingly, my nights seemed darker. I was stuck trying to teach an outdated technology curriculum to a very much “updated” clientele. Before I knew it, that year and another had passed and the concept of a technology class had become obsolete. The educational world turned to mainstreaming technology via integration into the classroom curriculum. Great idea. Tough sell.

So as I limped to the end of my teaching career, it wasn’t with my head held particularly high. I still get some great notes from former students that help me feel wholesome, but being out of the game isn’t a horrible crime against humanity and the education of our kids. I am going to be fine…but indeed, my life has changed and it’s time to move on. If not now…when?

With a little luck, I’ll find what I’m looking for as a travel this path…down to the river