Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Still Eating My Heart Out





 

There comes a point where you say, “I’ve got enough stuff.”  So you go about getting rid of years worth of collected stuff, which was something you definitely had to have until, well, you didn’t.  Maybe sell some, give some away, throws some in the trash.  And then, that next gift-giving occasion comes around and guess what?  YOU GOT MORE STUFF!

It took a while, but we convinced most of the people in the extended family that, for any celebration, a gift should ONLY be given if you saw it somewhere and instantly thought, “Such and such just HAS to have that!”  If you don’t have that perfect gift in mind, give that money to charity.  Any charity, yours, mine, everybody has needs these days.  My only problem was, our giving was scattershot.  We were sending small amounts to all of these charities, but not enough dough to make any sort of difference.

That changed for me late in 2018.  I read about food insecurity, a term I’d never seen or heard before.  An article featuring Swoop’s Food Pantry discussed how close some college students are to homelessness.  Some DO live in their cars and many do not know where there next meal will come from.  Or if there will be one.  The pantry is located on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, my alma mater, so I decided I wanted to help out.  At Christmas, I asked a couple of people for grocery gift cards and they came through, to the tune of about $250.

Lucy came in for a family visit early in 2019, so I selected her to go buy the groceries with me.  She inherited her Yankee thrift from her mother, undoubtedly able to pinch a penny and make old Abe SCREAM.  I knew she would find the good deals when I didn’t and I was not wrong.  Even stretching it out with pro-grade frugality, boxes and bags full of groceries…it barely filled the back seat of my truck. 

A friendly staff helped us bring in the food at Swoop’s.  It was only a couple of loads, stacked up on a heavy-duty cart, but it was a nice moment anyway.  Lucy had been pressing me to get more involved and privately I knew I wasn’t doing all I could to practice what I preach.  On her advice I had made a simple plan and followed through.  Mission accomplished!

“Would you like to come inside and look around?”  We looked at each other and shrugged.  We didn’t know they offered entertainment.  We decided to take the nickel tour.  They don’t have much more than a glorified walk-in closet, but they are very proud of their operation.  I got a background on their mission, filled out some paperwork for deductions that are no longer allowed and prepared to leave.  The room was, as I stated, small.  There was a line of students waiting to get in as we found the exit.

I had my hand on the door but hadn’t yet pushed the bar.  I took one more look behind me and saw one of the volunteers shelving the food we had just brought in on carts.  It was going back out, onesie-twosie, as fast as they could shelve it, to these hungry kids.  I quickly became sad and then very angry.  The richest damned country in the world and kids are going hungry in college.  Do you remember being excited about Corn Flakes?  Ever?  I’ve seen it.

Then COVID hit.  I knew many of the college students would lose their jobs and that some wouldn’t be able to go home because of a quarantine.  You might say I was radicalized, in an old man sort of way.

As soon as I heard that there were stimulus checks going out, I pounced. My wife and I both kept our jobs during the pandemic and many of our friends, having similar seniority at work had remained financially safe.  So I decided to ask everybody for a hundred bucks.  You got twelve hundred?  Gimme a hundred.  For the kids.  Where did I get the ass to do that?  Who did I think I was?  At that moment, I wasn’t sure.  Two weeks later, I was the guy walking into Swoop’s with more than $1,000 in my hand, that’s who I was. That is something I learned from Dan...sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

Kath headed up an effort to have box lunches for people who work on the COVID floors at St Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.  She raised the money through the same network of friends and family and supplied a meal for nursing and maintenance workers on two different shifts, their meals delivered hot by DiBella’s. Later in the year, we raised a bit more to bridge Swoop’s to Christmas, when they tend to be remembered more for holiday giving.

Going forward, I have a plan to put up a show on youtube as a fundraiser.  The opening night is what you publicize and when you solicit the donations, but the video would remain online in perpetuity as a fundraiser for Swoop’s.  I will need a lot of help with that.  The board at Swoop’s is on board with us and I have enlisted Brian Cox to direct. 

But until then, I am asking you one more time to help Swoop’s.  The stuff from Christmas is gone now and the check the kids got in the mail from Grandma has already be spent.  Stimulus is out there again so I am AGAIN going to ask for one hundred dollars.  For those of us that are trying to decide between beef and chicken for dinner…there are kids out there deciding between a heat bill and a sack of groceries.

Hey, I get it. Everybody’s got their hand out and if you’ve got your own cause, God love ya.  What I have learned is most everybody wants to help, if only they could figure out a way.  Here’s my way…put my dough together with other folks.  Make it count.  Make a major difference.  Let me walk into the Swoop’s office with $1,000 again.  Send me a check.  Let's support the kids until this damned pandemic is over.

Gimme a hundred.  You won’t believe how good it makes your next meal taste.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Her Name is Miranda

 

Her name is Miranda.

I didn’t know that, the first time I saw her.  I’d just come from the grocery store and had absently stuck some singles into my breast pocket when I cashed out.  I don’t know why.  Anyway, she was standing beside the road, holding the flap of a cardboard box that had one word written on it in black marker.

STRUGGLING

My place in line put me just a few feet from her when the light turned red.  I put down my side window and waved to her.  I gave her the singles.  I don’t know why.  I never do that.  She wished me a blessing and ran back to the curb.

I told Kath about it when she got home.  I couldn’t figure out why it was still on my mind.  Was it that sign?  Was I just tired of the old tried and true?

HOMELESS AND HUNGRY

ANYTHING HELPS

GOD BLESS

I guess something about it touched Kath too.  The next time she went by the intersection I spoke of, she saw the girl and gave her some cash.  After that, I resolved to talk to the girl if I saw her again.  My shifts were switching back and forth at work, so my routes were erratic.  I kept an eye out for her but hoped perhaps that her prospects had improved. 

It was maybe ten days later.  I’d started keeping a bottle of water and a high-protein snack in my glove compartment in case I saw her.  I parked nearby and approached slowly.  She closed the gap when I said hello.  She was tiny, coltish, not a day past twenty. I gave her the items and a few singles while asking if she needed anything. 

“I just need things to keep warm.  I’m living in a tent in the woods.”  What in the hell do you say, when living in the woods in a tent is better than whatever you ran away from?  “I’m trying to get into shelters, I’m working with S.O.S., but I need to have I.D.” I told her I would see what I could do about some warm items.

When I told my wife I had spoken to the girl on the corner, she asked me, “What is her name?”

Well, shit.  I knew I forgot something.

Kath was equal to the task of finding warm stuff, though.  She put together some sweatshirts, a sleeping bag and a credit union giveaway meant for outdoor concerts and picnics, a blanket that rolls up and straps easily for carrying. Of course, once engaged, she thought of that winter coat somebody abandoned years ago.  Then she picked up some feminine products in a last second burst of inspiration. 

When I saw the girl again, I gave her the parcel asking, “What’s your name?”

“Miranda.”

“Miranda, here’s some warm things for you.”

I watched her closely, looking for signs that she wasn’t who she seemed to be.  Would she roll her eyes at a used sweatshirt?  Would she see me as a carnival side show sucker because I had come back more than once?  I asked again if she needed anything.  She looked me in the eye and said, “I just need my I.D. to come.  But I guess there’s a problem at the post office.”  She assured me that she had a secure address to receive correspondence.  I will admit that I drove by later to see if our parcel had been dumped among the trees where I met her.  But it wasn’t.  She had taken it with her.

A while has passed since then.  I pass that corner and look for her.  If she is there, I fret about the slow grind of bureaucracy and the toll it must be taking on her.  If she is not there, I worry she’s become a victim.  The last time I saw her, she was

STRUGGLING

Her name is Miranda.  She lives in a tent in the woods.  And I don’t know why.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How I Became An Overnight Success (In Just 35 Years)


Mom-
They’ve started throwing curveballs.  Be home soon.
Ted
A telegram supposedly sent by Ted Williams in his rookie camp with the Boston Red Sox.


I remember thinking I wanted to write a book when I was in fifth grade.  I had just completed a ten-page (Ten!  Count ‘em, ten!) Geology report and I was so proud to have filled those pages with facts I had cribbed from encyclopedias.  I tried my first novel at twelve.  I wrote my first play when I was nineteen.  I published three plays (all co-written with Mike Davis) in my first three attempts before I was thirty.  Fate had chosen the theatre for me.

I had no complaints!  Thirty-two years old and six years married with two babies, life was a dizzying array of commitments and daily chores.  We moved into Ann Arbor in part because of the vibrant arts community.  In the meantime, I would get a check twice a year from my publisher, maybe enough to cover the gas bill for a winter month, which would remind me that I used to be a writer.  I hoped one day I would be again, but it would have to wait…quite a while, in fact.  

It was ten years later that I looked in the mirror and saw that almost all of my hair was gray.  My children, though not yet grown, no longer needed as much help with their homework and were self-sufficient human beings.  They were also a teen and a pre-teen, who scarcely noticed the old man pulling the levers. I asked my wife, “Do you think it might be time for me to go back to the theatre?” 

Going back to acting was key to starting the creative juices flowing again.  Because I had a very good experience with that first show back, I stuck with it.  In seven years, I appeared in five plays, published six and directed one.  I wrote songs, I wrote limericks, even my grocery lists seemed to have a strong narrative.

And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Now I know what it is like when a singer opens up their mouth and nothing comes out.  I would stare at my computer screen and…nothing came out.  I have been a writer for too long to accept that such a state is permanent.  But life had thrown me a curveball.  I was going to have to adapt like Teddy Ballgame did, or take my glove and go home.

There are some projects that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  I had written a novel a number of years earlier, three in fact.  The characters were sharp but my prose was, overall, unfocused.  When you are used to only writing the dialogue and leaving most of the details to a theatrical director, in my opinion you get to go the pay window earlier.

Yet I loved the novels so much.  In creating my detective character, Ted Winkle, I had dreamed up his back story and saw him through eighty years of his life and adventures.  I teared up when he lost loved ones.  I laughed when he laughed.  Ted and I had many drinks together and he was good company.  I decided it was worth another try to see if anyone else might enjoy knowing him as I did.  I had struck out with my preferred publisher(s) and at one time had a contract for all three books that just wasn’t the right fit.  I was depressed when I turned the offer down but it was for the best.
I sent the first novel to Fifth Avenue Press, an imprint begun right here in my hometown of Ann Arbor.  When an editor got back with me, signaling their interest, I was asked “I notice that the title says ‘Witness to Mystery # 1’…is this a series?”  I told her it was.  There were three books, a total of five adventures, taking place in 1932, 1942, 1950, 1962 and 1973.  “Send me all of them,” she said, certainly five of the sweetest words I had ever heard.

As of yesterday, with a contract signed, it was official.  All three novels will be published this November and a lifetime ambition is realized, the culmination of thirteen years I spent writing and revising the novels.  When I received the offer, I staggered into the living room glassy-eyed and told my wife, as Geppetto might, “Ted Winkle is going to be a real boy.”

So I close by reminding you that it is never too late to begin a new chapter in your life.  I am nearly fifty-six and a student again, learning at the knee of my editor, Lara Zielen, a tremendous writer in her own right.  You can go home when they start throwing curveballs or you can try to learn how to hit them.  Still, I won’t compare myself to Ted Williams.

After all, to make the Hall of Fame, he only had to have a hit once every three tries.