Long Trips

I’ve been asked to write about myself in several different contexts lately, and I’m posting my responses on this blog. Here’s one that I did for a church I recently jointed, with much of the identifying information removed.

In March 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a tour of Israel. The tour was co-hosted by this church and a synagogue where my family are members. My wife and children are Jewish, while I am… well, it’s complicated.

Here’s the short version: I was raised in rural Maine, where my family attended a Congregational church in which I was baptized. Never placing much emphasis on religion, my family stopped active participation in that church around the time I started school. I considered myself a proud atheist until I attended college, at Northwestern. I was a small-town boy in Chicago, half a continent away from home, and in that era before mobile phones and social media, completely isolated from family and friends. That is the best explanation I can give for joining a fundamentalist evangelical student organization at the start of my sophomore year.

I will most likely marvel at my five years as an evangelical Christian the rest of my life. My intellect was never comfortable with the movement – many people I met at that time believed Earth was 3000 years old, for crying out loud – and I now recognize much of the spiritual comfort I believed I felt from the group was actually little more than companionship. I don’t regret my time as an evangelical, and have started to use my experience from that time in my fiction. But when I finally did muster the courage to leave, I felt a relief that has lasted to this day.

Years after making that break, and still living in Chicago, I met the woman whom I would eventually marry. She had been raised in a conservative temple in Cleveland Heights, and since were were from very different religious backgrounds, we talked at length on this topic as our relationship advanced. She was committed to Judaism, and while I was still a believer at heart, I had grown too cynical about institutional Christianity to impose my belief on anyone. By the time we were engaged, we had reached a mutual decision: our wedding would be officiated by both a rabbi and a minister, and were we to have children, we would raise them Jewish.

When the youngest of our two children was still a toddler, we moved to Cleveland to be closer to Debbie’s family. After a brief membership at a large temple in the area, we became one of the founding families at a small synagogue in our town. When they folded after a decade, we joined the synagogue where where our children knew many of the temple youth. And when we heard about the interfaith trip to Israel last year, we signed up with enthusiasm.

I still had no interest in joining any church, and my motivation for visiting the nation of Israel was more historical than spiritual. Yet when you spend nine days on a bus with a small group of people in a foreign land, you almost have no choice but to get to know your fellow travelers pretty well. And while I was hardly surprised that the church members I met were not anything like the evangelicals I had known in college, I found it reassuring to know there were Christians who believed in science, intellectual honesty and curiosity, and a productive engagement with society that included the belief that people were born perfect the first time.

Upon returning from Israel, I began attending services and social gatherings at this church, which I found to be very similar to the Congregational church my parents had been loosely associated with in my youth. Unlike my earlier experience with evangelicalism, I asked a lot of questions, and only after arriving at some very good answers did I choose to become a member, a decision wholeheartedly supported by my wife, who by the way has just been hired as the interim musical director at another temple. I had to travel half-way around the world to find this church, but now that I’m here, I feel like I could stay a while.

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The Last Night

PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

My manager did well, booking me here. Unlike most joints where I’ve done my routine, the marquee here looks professional — bold letters against a white background free of holes and dead lights. Many stand-ups would consider performing at a place like this a sign of their arrival.

But for me, this is the end. After too many years pursuing what had been a dream, I’ve woken up into a nightmare of disappointment. Working at my cousin’s insurance agency may not be fulfilling, but it will pay the bills.

One last performance, then on to a world without punch lines.

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings

June 6 may no longer resonate with Americans in the way that July 4 always has, or September 11 will for some time, but among events taking place outside our borders, the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy is arguably the most significant event in our nation’s history. D-Day has justifiably become a well-documented event, and the challenge of a book like Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune is to shed light on an overlooked aspect of the operation, or recount the well-known tale in a captivating manner.

Symonds is an unassuming writer, never indulging in overwrought prose while also never taking any chances. His writing gets the job done, but is hardly memorable; the reader will never have to consult a thesaurus. Yet he makes up for his plainclothes rhetoric in his choice of subject matter. The book focuses on the years-long naval operations (code named Neptune) required to prepare the Allies for D-Day, and the author does an admirable job of demonstrating the daunting tasks faced in 1942, the impressive buildup of resources in 1943, and the triumph of logistical planning required to make the invasion successful.

A secondary focus of the book is just as fascinating: the tension between Britons and Americans, both militarily and politically, throughout the operation. Eisenhower and Roosevelt wanted to charge into Europe as early as 1942 while Montgomery and Churchill urged the patient buildup of resources, and if that sounds like a clash between impetuous Americans and British reserve, the cultural stereotypes seem to have rung true on this occasion.

While most of the book is more impressive when viewed as a whole, it does have some individual moments. One particular tale relates of a proposal to construct large landing strips made of pykrete, a frozen composite of water and wood pulp. To demonstrate the substance’s durability, a slab of pykrete was brought into a war planning meeting, and one British admiral decided to see how it would hold up under a gunshot. Quite well, in fact; the bullet bounced off the pykrete slab and ricocheted across the room, sending military leaders of two nations scrambling for cover.

The audiobook is also distinctive for being performed by the author, who actually does quite well — precise diction, clear voice, tone varying when appropriate. Overall, this book provided an interesting study of an event that should never lose its place in the history books.

A Picture Can Tell a Thousand Stories (at least 10, anyway)

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Not being inspired by my latest entry for Friday Fictioneers, I decided to share some more worthy stories from the same prompt. These were chosen pretty much at random:

 

  • neeltheauthor provides a tale of a man with a good reason to conceal his identity
  • In Fellow Passengers, Anita shows a chance encounter that may be more than a coincidence
  • A different random encounter leads to an uncomfortable scene in Rowena’s Not Tonight, Josephine
  • Rachel Bjerke’s narrator is on a mission in Upward Mobility
  • Flight To Freedom from James McEwan shows the desperation of a traveler who has good reason to be anxious for her flight to depart
  • M. Phyllis Moore provides a mythological twist in Traveling
  • I’m not quite sure I understand The Hireling, but I enjoyed this story from Sugar on the Bee
  • gahlearner describes a tense scene in Gesundheit!
  • venkyninja1976 gets lyrical in Soaring Memories, Starry Hopes 
  • And to complete this list, a sonnet from Ladyleemanila

Pre-Boarding Decision

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Twenty minutes from boarding, and there’s no adjacent pair of unoccupied seats at Gate 24. Turbulent landing from the last flight has pushed my introversion over into misanthropy. Can’t bear sitting next to a stranger.

Already went to the bathroom, stomach’s too upset for food, and the newsstand holds no interest. There’s fewer people in Gate 26; I can probably find a seat there, and pay close attention to the announcements.

“Excuse me?” The woman looks like she came from my grandmother’s bridge game. She waves to the seat next to hers.

I shrug, and sit, realizing how introverts make poor martyrs.

 

Showing Another Me

A little over a year ago, I literally walked away from a good career, to pursue a life-long ambition of making a living as a writer. Since that time, I’ve published articles on transportation technology, pursued opportunities that didn’t work out well, made significant progress on my novel, and made a commitment to my short fiction.

I have a long way to go to reach my ambition, mostly because I’m still figuring out what I should be doing. But while there’s been a great deal of uncertainty so far in this journey, I have not for one second regretted my decision to take that first step. I wasn’t happy being the person I’d been the first three decades of my professional career, and everything I’ve done since walking away a year ago, even the mistakes, has been positive.

The person I used to be knew exactly where he was, and where he was headed, while the person I’ve been the past year makes things up as he goes along. This other me isn’t content, but he’s happier than the person he replaced.

Heat in the Kitchen

PHOTO PROMPT © Valerie J. Barrett

“Will you two knock it off?” protested Spoon. “Let me lie in peace.”

“Hey, I’m just doing my job,” deadpanned Iron. “Our neighbor’s the one dribbling like a nervous basketball player.”

“Then get off the stove, Flat-Face!” whistled Kettle.

“Settle down — ”

“You’re a tea pot, not a lawn sprinkler.”

“Go play Monopoly!”

The heat on the stove top was turned down, and Kettle cooled to a low simmer, as the water on Iron’s handle evaporated.

“Peace, at last,” sighed Spoon.

“Just hope spigot-breath gets turned towards the wall before I have to warm up again.”

“Go press a shirt!”

Sometimes I just wanna have a little fun with Friday Fictioneers.

Two Lessons

In my latest writing workshop, I was assigned to write the story of my writing life. Ten minutes later, I came up with this.

Towards the end of my junior year of high school, my English instructor told me I was not a strong enough student for our school’s senior Honors English class. This was devastating news, as every student in my small rural Maine school knew that Honors English was the key course for getting accepted to any school outside of the state. It was only when the instructor of that class, who had taken a liking to me in her freshman class, overruled my junior class instructor, in her typically brusque manner: “That dumbass is taking my class.”

Three years later, a college composition instructor told me I wrote like a pinball machine, my prose bouncing among topics wildly, propelled by force and gravity rather than logic. This evaluation was equally devastating, as I had decided to abandon my original college major, journalism, and hoped to apply for the school’s program in nonfiction writing. I applied anyway, defying the advice of my instructor, and, in a decision that today seems not at all surprising, was rejected.

These experiences taught me two things: first, never become satisfied with the quality of my prose. Second, and more important, writing was the only thing that really mattered to me. This wasn’t like being bad at sports, or lacking any mechanical ability, or having no clue how to talk to girls — all skills that interested me, but not enough to make me want to overcome my shortcomings in those areas. Having my writing dismissed made me feel like lying down and not getting up again, like a horse with a broken leg. Failing to overcome the problems of my writing would be the death of my spirit.

A year after being rejected to the nonfiction program at my school, I applied again. Taking to heart advice I received from more conscientious instructors, I submitted a more polished piece. And this time, I was accepted.

Planning Sheets

When you’re working a “real” job, you never run out of things to do. Those things may lack any inherent interest, you may have to do things which are self-evidently counter-productive to the larger mission, and all the effort you put into getting all your tasks done may lead you nowhere — but you’ll always be busy.

One challenge I’ve faced since leaving that world behind has been organizing my time. With the only person telling me what to do being myself, I soon found a need to have some planning tool, a way to record goals for my days and weeks, and review accomplishments as well as missed opportunities. I used my journal for a while, but never got comfortable using it for both my writing and planning. I tried several planning journals, but found their format too restrictive and overly focused on corporate work.

Then one day a few months ago, I was tossing out clutter from my basement when I found a roll of dry erase graph sheets, 24″ x 32″, that cling to walls like giant Post-It notes. Having no idea how this roll wound up in the pleistocene strata of our family’s belongings (though I strongly suspect my wife took it home from her own corporate job), I was about to shove it into the big black trash bag — then decided it was time for an experiment.

I went up to my home office, tore off a sheet, grabbed a few dry-erase markers and began writing dates. After several weeks of trial and error, I developed a system that’s been working pretty well for me.

The Planning Sheet at the Start of the Week

To the right is the Planning Sheet (I guess that’s what I’m calling them, now that I’ve blogged about their existence) drawn up on my office door at the start of the previous week. I put everything on there — work schedules, appointments, household tasks, recreation, and perhaps most significant of all, writing goals, which gets their own section on the lower right. Every Sunday night, Monday afternoon at the latest, I put my plans for week on the board, and due to its high visibility — there isn’t a day I’m not in my office at home, and the door is just to the left of my desk — I always know where I need to be, what I need to do, and when everything has to happen.

I leave five lines between each day, and when creating my plan at the start of the week try to list three or four activities for each day. Having less than three activities in a day inspires me to move activities from other busier days; more than four is a sign I need to offload some activities to another day. I add tasks as needs arise during the week, but try not to delete any tasks, so that at the end of the week I can see which activities were either missed or deferred.

The Planning Sheet at the End of the Week

On the left is the same Planning Sheet at the end of last week. It shows the color scheme I’ve settled on — black for days, blue for activities, green checks for completed activities, and a red X for a miss. Activities were added on some days, and I even identified an extra writing goal early in the week. When I completed an activity on its scheduled day, I gave it a green check; if I completed it on another day, or only partially completed it, I wrote a note in green. I avoided any red X until Sunday, when I got a little giddy at having reached all of my writing goals the previous day and decided to add some extra tasks on what should have been an off day. But this is how we learn, right?

Having a plan is good, but seeing it every time I sit down to my new job as a freelance writer has helped me succeed at executing that plan.

Prognathous

While one of the district’s most accomplished saber fencers, Hector Santiago would often lean his head forward while attacking, as if he were searching for an opening like a man searching for nocturnal slugs by flashlight. His opponents, at least the few in the region who weren’t intimidated by his aggression, learned to wait for this technical flaw, and would score points against his mask when he leaned in too far, using his prognathous tactics against him.

Starting a new tradition today. On weeks when I’m not inspired by Friday Fictioneers, I’m going to write a 100-word story based on a word I’ve discovered in my reading.