Saturday, August 29, 2009

Musical interlude for a road trip

Kristin and I are heading to Colorado in about seven hours. I should be sleeping so I'm rested for the long drive ahead.

Instead I'm staying up trying to figure out what road trip songs I want to listen to in the car. One thing I know for sure, this song by Son Volt will be on the playlist.

I'd write more but I really need to get some sleep. See you on the road.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Work, work, work

I may not have much in common with Michael Corleone -- or Al Pacino for that matter -- but I certainly can relate to his most memorable line in an otherwise forgettable Godfather, Part III.

It seems I'm not completely done with being a sports writer. When I walked away from the Sun in April, I did so with the belief I was turning a page in my career. Sports writing was going to be in my past.

Then I spent some time away from it. I went to a few events—even a high school girls soccer match or two—just to remember what it was like to be a fan again. Not to cheer for a particular team. Just to be a fan of sports again.

It happens to a lot of us in this profession. We’re so immersed in sports on a daily basis we start despising the games. They become boring. Kristin still laughs when she remembers seeing me covering a minor league baseball game when we were living in Texas.

We were at the Dell Diamond, home to the Round Rock Express. She had come with me, but was sitting in the stands while I was in the press box working. At some point she looked up to see what I was doing. She hadn’t expected to see what she saw.

I was leaning my left elbow on the press table with my chin in my hand. It looked like I might have been asleep. At the time I think I told her I was deep in concentration, trying to come up with my lead. She wasn't buying it.

“You looked like a bored third grader in his desk,” she just told me when I asked if she remembered that night.

Sure, many people find baseball boring. But I was never in that camp. I love baseball. Covering it on a regular basis was a wonderful experience. I envisioned becoming a baseball writer.

This was only a year or two into my full-time sports writing career, yet there I was already bored with the games. I might not have realized it that night, but soon after I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to be a beat writer anymore. I wanted to write about sports, but not about the games.

For the most part, I was able to do that at The Sun. But there were always games needing to be covered. It eventually got to the point I’d rather be unemployed than drag my butt to another field, stadium or gym.

And for four months I didn’t cover a single game. I still haven’t. But I am writing about sports again. Thanks to my friend, Todd, who was the assistant sports editor at the Sun before moving on to bigger and better things, I got connected to the new high school sports editor at the Chicago Tribune.

I just completed my first assignment and have another one to finish this week. I’m excited to have the work and to have it appearing in the Tribune, a paper I once dreamed of working. I doubt I’ll ever be a full-time writer there, so this will have to do.

It’s actually been a very busy month for me as my freelance assignments are starting to pile up. The good thing is several of them are steady gigs. Having reliable, consistent sources of income is comforting and an important cog in the move to being a full-time freelancer.

I’ve had so much work lately that today I was able to put my unemployment on hold. I’m making too much money to claim my weekly benefits. If my earnings should dip below that benefit level again, I can reopen my claim. So I still have a safety net.

I’m a long ways from having stable income. And I’m still not making enough for retirement savings. But I’m taking positive steps toward my new career, one that doesn’t involve time cards or cubicles or commuting.

I admit I'm surprised it involves sports writing again so soon. Consider me the Michael Corleone of sports journalism. Just when I thought I was out …

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Musical interlude

A couple of years ago, Bloodshot Records released the kind of tribute album I had never seen before. It was not for a musician, but an author -- Larry Brown.

It just so happens Larry Brown is one of my favorite modern authors. His death in 2004 at age 53 was a shock to me, and a major blow to the literary world, particularly the American South scene cultivated by Faulkner.

Among the many gems on the tribute album is a song by Brent Best called "Robert Cole." Best, a Texas singer/songwriter, became one of my favorites when he was in Slobberbone. That band broke up, but has recently reunited and is playing tonight at the Abbey Pub.

I'll be there with Kristin, hoping they squeeze "Robert Cole" into the set. I hope you enjoy the video clip here of Best singing it at the Allgood Cafe in Dallas earlier this year. It's a long song/video, but I think it's worth it.

Oh, and do me a favor and check out Larry Brown some time. Start with his short story collection, "Facing the Music." Anyway, on with the song.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One day at a time

When I first learned about Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon I cringed. When I saw the pictures posted on Deadspin of his backslide last January I felt sick to my stomach.

Hamilton, the All-Star outfielder for Texas and former No. 1 overall draft choice, nearly threw his career away in a sea of drugs and alcohol before his career had even really started. His much-publicized recovery gave him a second chance.

Then came Saturday’s news and the pictures. As this all surfaced, one thought popped into my head and wouldn’t let go: Hamilton is going to get skewered in blogs and comments all across cyberspace.

Much of the criticism Hamilton has received relates to his outspoken beliefs in Christianity. While that is an interesting topic, it's not one I want to tackle here.

But because of his beliefs, I figured many people would call him a hypocrite or say he’s just another spoiled professional athlete making excuses for his transgressions. I guessed some lower forms of life found on the Internet would say much worse.

Or they'd say just plain stupid things such as what “sjthn” wrote following a heartfelt column by Tim Cowlishaw posted on the Dallas Morning News Web site Monday night.

Cowlishaw wrote about his own battle with alcohol. After it, “sjthn” had this to say:

“I’m sorry but life is not hard to live without drinking. The only reason people drink is to escape, escape the life they have made for themselves. Addictive personality, blah blah. Grow up, life isn’t all about drinking.”
No, it’s not. It’s not about being judgmental either. At least I hope not.

The incident hits home for me, thus my reaction. The demons chasing me are certainly different than the ones hounding Josh Hamilton. But I know something about recovery.

I worry almost every day I’m going to relapse and have a drink again. Sometimes I’ll think I can have just one or two beers now and I’ll be fine. But nostalgia distorts reality.

It never was having only one or two beers. One or two always led to three or four. Three or four led to five or 12. And that led to me waking up in a spot I didn’t remember going to sleep in—even if it was my own bed.

I had my last drink Oct. 5, 1998. That night I drank four beers while at my brother’s house in the Twin Cities watching a Monday Night Football game between the Vikings and Packers. Actually I had three at the house. And then one more with our friend after I gave him a ride back to his hotel.

This was soon after I made a deal with Kristin. I was going to cut back on my drinking. I would limit myself to only three beers when I went out. I broke that deal the first chance I had, though I hadn’t intended to. It showed me I can’t trust myself when it comes to drinking.

So I was done completely. No more “deals.” I didn’t go to AA. I didn’t go to counseling. I was seeing a therapist, but it wasn’t to treat my alcoholism. My abstinence became a by-product of that therapy.

Still, almost 11 years later I wonder if I’m actually done with alcohol. I know enough about AA to know I’m not “cured,” that I will always be an alcoholic. Thankfully, I’m an alcoholic with almost 11 years of sobriety to my credit.

Josh Hamilton had to restart his sobriety streak in January. He says he's been clean since then. When the news leaked of his relapse, Hamilton didn’t hide. He held a news conference to address it. He admitted he embarrassed his wife and his children. He said the incident reinforces he can’t touch alcohol, the same lesson I learned.

So I believe him when he says that. I know there are a lot of people out there who lack empathy, who will take this opportunity to denigrate Hamilton. They will be like “sjthn.”

But I also know about addiction. I know how hard it is to overcome. And I know that when you make a mistake, when you are sincere in your response as Hamilton was, you don’t need to be judged. You just need to get back on that road to recovery.

Where one or two days can become three or four days. And three or four days can become three or four months. And those months can turn into years. And you remember that life isn’t about drinking. It’s about surviving.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Musical interlude

This one goes in tandem with my earlier post today about King Stretch, the hobo I met last fall in Chicago. This weekend Stretch passed his crown to a new Hobo King during the annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa.

So in honor of my friend, Stretch, I give you Woody Guthrie singing, 'Hobo's Lullaby.' I hope you enjoy.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The King and I

The first time I met the King I was eating spaghetti at the Gladstone Church in Pullman. He walked in with no fanfare.

He had no entourage. No flowing robes. Instead of a crown he wore a dirty black baseball cap, his curly brown hair poking out the sides and back. Patches of gray sprouted from his beard around his cheeks. His round belly jutted forth beneath a black T-shirt.

To me, he looked just like many of the others in the dining hall attached to the church. We were there enjoying a kick-off meal to the Pullman Hobofest, an event I wrote about for the Sun-Times last September.

As the King entered the room, someone called out to notify everyone the King had arrived. People stopped eating to applaud. It was believed he would be in town for the event, but with hobos you never know for sure until they are standing in front of you. The King smiled and waved, clearly enjoying the moment.

That was Stretch, who a month earlier had been named the 2008 Hobo King at the national convention in Britt, Iowa. Today, Stretch will hand off his crown to the new king and will go back to being simply Stretch.

I wanted to be there this weekend for that event. Up until about a month ago I thought I would be. But it didn’t work out and I instead am left to write about my first experience with Stretch and his hobo brethren (and sisteren, if that was a word).

When I met Stretch he was just starting his reign as king. He was living in Cleveland, but really he lived on the rails with his dog, Burlington. He had lost his job of nine years and didn’t want to impose on his friend, who offered him a rent-free room until he could find work again.

But Stretch isn’t a freeloader. And he’s not a bum. Hobos take great pride in pointing out they are not bums. They aren’t tramps either. Hobos travel the country looking for work. Tramps travel the country searching for something else. Meanwhile, bums don’t travel or look for work.

At the time, Stretch was philosophical about being out of work.

“Maybe it was meant to be,” he told me. “Right after I got laid off, I became hobo king. I don’t have time to work now. I’ve got gatherings to go to all over the United States.”

He’s been busy, too. I’ve followed his experiences all over the country via his Facebook updates. Yes, hobos have Facebook accounts. And MySpace pages. And e-mail addresses. And cell phones. They might not always have access to the Internet, or the money to keep their phone accounts active. But they do have the technology.

The more I’ve read about hobos, the more interested I became in the lifestyle. I enjoyed the taste of it I got in Pullman. But at the end of the day, Kristin and I left the jungle and drove home to our comfortable bed in the suburbs. The hobos stayed right there and camped out.

There is something tempting in the romantic notion of hopping a freight train headed somewhere—anywhere—and disappearing. My notion includes forsaking technology. Of putting down my cell phone, of leaving my laptop behind, of forgetting the clutter of modern life.

At least for a while. For now, though, I’ll settle for living vicariously through Stretch with his Facebook updates.

See you down the road, Stretch.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get me down from here!

Several friends have commented recently about my Facebook profile picture, which I also posted here. That's me standing on The Ledge at the Skydeck of the Sears Tower a couple of weeks ago when my nieces were visiting.

The Ledge’s glass boxes extend 4.3 feet from the Skydeck on the 103rd floor, according to this. From 1,353 feet up, you can look straight down onto Wacker Drive and due west to Oregon, I believe.

I managed to inch my way onto the Ledge after several attempts and took that picture as proof. Notice how my left foot is well behind my right? That’s because the left is just barely standing on the Ledge. The only way I could get out there was to do it sideways, snap two quick pictures, and hurry back to the safety of the Skydeck’s regular floor.

Later in the day we rode the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. While they enjoyed the vistas, I sat glued to my corner of the basket, both hands squeezing the metal railings.
That’s the picture of me I had my niece take when we were near the top. Flattering, isn’t it?

Like my aversion to bees, I also suffer from fear of heights. My rational mind knows nothing was going to happen to me standing on the Ledge. I wasn’t going to fall through and plummet to my death. And I wasn’t going to be jettisoned from the basket in the Ferris wheel, either. I know that. Really, I do.

Yet my fear prevented me from enjoying myself. Fear is like that. There are other kinds of fear at work inside me, too, ones related to my writing.

As I was going through my bookcases the other night I came across “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I began flipping through the pages and was immediately struck by how many of the topics applied to me.

I have suffered from many of the nine doubts they mention on page 13. I’m not an artist—I’m a phony. I have nothing worth saying. I’m not sure what I’m doing. Other people are better than I am.

Now, I hesitate to call my fiction writing “art.” That sounds so pretentious. But I’m not writing for fun and I’m not expecting to make a living from it. So what else should I name it? I’ve considered calling it a stupid waste of time, but I’m trying to stay positive.

Those doubts – the fear – keep me from finishing a lot of pieces. I probably have five or six stories I’m working on right now. None of them is close to completion. It’s the same scenario each time.

I come upon an idea and, feeling inspired, begin to write until I reach a point where the flow stops. For however long that takes, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the greatest story I have ever written. It's sort of like this guy when he turns in his essay to Miss Shields.

But when I stop writing and set it aside, that feeling fades. I return to the piece and think it is awful. And then I am hit with the fear that maybe I’m just not good enough to consider myself a fiction writer.

It’s an irrational thought similar to thinking I was going to fall out of the Ferris wheel basket or crash through the Ledge’s floor. But the fear is very real. Enough so that I can put a particular piece aside for weeks without looking at it.

On other days I let my rational mind take over. I tell myself, don't worry what others think of the story. Write it for yourself. Or I remember reading a writer should expect only one out of 10 stories to be good. You have to keep working through the other nine to find the one that matters.

In that way, I talk myself off the Ledge. The fear fades and I can write.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Musical Interlude

I guess I can't keep calling these "Weekly" musical interludes when I'm not posting them once a week. Part of the reason is because July was just so hectic I never got around to doing much with my blog.

I spent a few days back in Duluth a couple weeks ago. On my first night there I went to a venue called Pizza Luce to see the Meat Puppets and Retribution Gospel Choir, a three-man band fronted by Duluthian Alan Sparhawk of Low.

While there I marveled at how much my hometown had changed since I moved 10 years ago. I don't remember there being a particularly strong live music scene outside of blues bands and the occasional bar band from Minneapolis that would make its way north. And here was the Meat Puppets cranking through a two-hour set that absolutely destroyed everything in its wake.

When we finally spilled out of Luce at 2 in the morning -- drunk, exhausted concertgoers littering the sidewalk on Superior Street as we walked past -- my friend deadpanned, "Just a typical Wednesday night in Duluth."

Maybe so. But I don't remember many Wednesday nights like that when I lived there. (That could be because Wednesdays were import nights at the Sports Garden and back then beer usually won out over music for me.)

This afternoon I was tooling around the Interwebs and came across another Duluth band, Trampled by Turtles. It's a bluegrass band with five releases to its credit since 2004, including a live EP recorded at Pizza Luce.

This song is the title track from its latest release, 2008's Duluth. I hope you enjoy!