Friday, May 4, 2018

Blowin' Out to the Windy City

"Why do they call it the Boston Marathon? Only the last two miles are actually in Boston!"

As we headed from our home in Newton to Logan Airport, our cab driver raised a good question. I didn't have a good answer. Would people still flock to the Hub of the Universe, I wondered, if the 26.2-mile race were called the Race That Starts in Hopkinton, Progresses Through Several Towns and Ends in Boston?

Still, his gruff yet comical personality was a comfort as we made our way to our American Airlines flight to Chicago. He was the same cabbie we'd had during 2017's April vacation, when we flew to Florida. Those several days at Universal Orlando were a blast, so I figured this guy's presence was a good omen for our trip to the Windy City.

Things went smoothly through security, with the exception of a TSA agent yelling at Beth for leaving the iPad in her backpack. Owen was excited to be flying -- he loves planes, trains and, well that's it. Flight 1240 to Chicago took off promptly. We were aboard a 737, Owen informed me, with CFM engines. I don't know what those are but I'm glad that he does.

Before boarding our noon flight I scarfed down a chicken pesto panini from UFood Grill. It tasted like the best sandwich in the best dream, which is to say it tasted like nothing, because your taste buds sleep while you're dreaming. They work hard during daylight hours sampling donette gems, Thin Mints-flavored iced mocha latte cappucino espressos, McDLT's, fruit roll-ups, Nutter Butters and tapioca pudding. Oh, and Cheez Doodles (come on, taste buds don't lie).

During the flight Beth was reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. I wondered why, after reading two of his books (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zeitoun) had I never realized that this acclaimed author's high-school nickname must have been Keggers?

I dozed off a bit during the flight, and for some reason the names and faces of Red Sox down through history swam through my head. Danny Cater, who played for the Sox for just two seasons, and not exactly All-Star seasons, somehow stuck with me.

I woke up and looked down the aisle -- a long view from where I was sitting -- and saw that it was "hot towel time" in first class. The flight crew was distributing them with tongs off a tray. They looked like large white egg rolls. "Big deal," I thought. "When I go to Supercuts they wipe my head and neck with a warm towel. I don't even have to actually TOUCH the towel!"

1:03 was snack time. Biscoff, Europe's Favorite Cookie with Coffee.

After my delicious snack I watched a show on the TV hanging above the row of seats in front of me. It was called "How I Met Rosie Perez," I think.

One of the flight attendants gave the kid sitting in front of me an American Airlines wings pin. It looked metal, and pretty nice. A few years ago on a flight an attendant gave me a small bag of plastic ones for Owen. On my first flight, when I was 12, the fight attendant (they were actually stewardesses back then) asked me if I wanted a pin. I didn't hear her -- I guess I had airline headphones on -- so she had to ask me a second time. She sounded a bit annoyed by then. I took them. Wish I still had them.

From O'Hare we rode a CTA train 17 stops. I wondered why the Chicago Transit Authority's Blue line has two stops named Harlem? OK, I just looked it up: one is on the O'Hare branch, the other on the Forest Park branch, and both are on Harlem Avenue. For part of the trip, the train travels in the median area of highway Interstate 90, which in the Bay State we call the Mass Pike.

There were a LOT of ghost signs and cool old buildings along our route into the city. I took this as another good omen, and took advantage of these photo ops during our stay.

We arrived at our hotel around 3:30. The Alise Chicago is located in a former office building where Al Capone's dentist plied his trade. We were on the 9th floor, giving us a great view out the window of this amazing Muddy Waters mural:

The weather was cold, but we warmed up our first night with a deep dish pie from Pizano's Pizza & Pasta. We figured we couldn't go wrong with a place run by the son of the founder of Pizzeria Uno. The pizza and cheesy garlic bread were delicious, but didn't set well with my digestive tract the next day.

After dinner we rode the Pink line train to the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). We cruised quickly up to the 103rd floor and soaked up the amazing 360-degree views of the city at night. We even ventured out on to the Ledge, a clear glass overhang 1,353 feet above the streets of Chicago.

While I look relatively composed in this photo, I was more freaked out by the Ledge than I thought I would be. Something about being able to look down a quarter of a mile and see where I would splat brought out my primal survival instinct. My son, Owen, wasn't too thrilled with this attraction, but my daughter, Amelia, and my wife, Beth, thought it was great. I felt a bit dizzy and disoriented for 15-20 minutes afterward.

The next morning, my equilibrium restored, we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Realizing that the thick cheese from the previous night's deep dish pizza was wreaking havoc in my gut, I opted for the Greek yogurt, granola and fruit. I like regular yogurt, so I figured the Greek variety would be good for me. After a few spoonfuls, however, I realized that Greek yogurt is glorified sour cream, and not good for my sour tummy.

Lesson learned.

Our big outing for our first full day in Chicago was the Shedd Aquarium. We saw beluga whales, penguins, small sharks, sea turtles, otters and much more. Nothing, however, freaked me out more than the Japanese Giant Spider Crab.

Before heading back to our hotel, we checked out what we, and I'm guessing most people, call The Bean. Located in Millennium Park, just two blocks from our hotel, the stainless steel sculpture is officially known as Cloud Gate. It's the ultimate selfie destination for visitors and residents alike. It's hard not to get caught up in looking at yourself, taking pictures and checking out the city's reflection.

After returning to the hotel, I hung out for a bit, then set out on a walkabout to shoot photos for my other blog. Check out "Toddling Around Chicago" for photos and descriptions from that jaunt, as well as other elements of the backside of Chicago I shot during our vacation.

Back in the hotel lobby, I chatted with a woman who, along with three guys who'd just gone up in the elevator, was lugging lots of electronic equipment. I asked her what their deal was. She said they were in town shooting follow-ups for "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," a Food Network show that I watch pretty regularly. I asked her if the host, Guy Fieri, was in the hotel. She said nope. Oh well.

That night we ate at a restaurant I'd first heard of on Food Network: Little Goat Diner. Owned and run by Stephanie Izard (a winner of Bravo's "Top Chef"), the restaurant is, as Beth said, a super-duper hipster joint. Old-timey photo booth by the front door. Bearded waiter with fingernail polish. Retro-chic wallpaper. Modern versions of classic comfort food. I had the Smoked Fried 1/2 chicken with tangy slaw and the most heavenly biscuit I've ever had in my life. We all loved our food.

As we walked from the train to the restaurant I felt like I was in NYC's Meatpacking District. Turns out that feeling wasn't far from off the mark. "Fulton Market, that sketchy old smelly neighborhood that (along with the Union Stockyards to the south) gave Chicago its big shoulders, that Near West Side meatpacking district that backed Carl Sandburg's claim to Chicago as 'hog butcher for the world,' that food-processing antiquity that outlasted the Stockyards themselves by 45 years, is a ghost town. That Fulton Market is dead. Or about to be." So says Christopher Borrelli in this April 2017 Chicago Tribune article. And what has filled the void left by the meatpacking companies and butcheries of old? You know the answer.

"What flourishes among its weeds and dark windows is Fulton Market the Foodie Wonderland, an overpopulated place cohabitating with Fulton Market the Tech Metropolis. Restaurants, however, led the invasion: Paul Kahan's Publican in 2008, then Grant Achatz's Next in 2011 opened on Fulton Market, the street. Two blocks away, Randolph Street was already a draw with Blackbird and Avec. When first-generation restaurants like Marche and Red Light closed, Stephanie Izard stepped in with Girl & the Goat, launching a second wave."

I love being right.

The next day we took a cab to the amazing Museum of Science and Industry, where I learned a LOT about farming combines, from headers to the feeder house, threshing to separation, cleaning to grain handling. That was enough for me!

Kidding. The most amazing part for me was the U-505 German submarine, which the U.S. Navy sunk off the west coast of Africa during WWII. After being transferred to Chicago the sub sat on the museum's grounds for 50 years before it was cleaned up, dropped in a gigantic hole, and a museum addition was built around it.

I wanted to go in, but we had to buy tickets for a specific time later on in the day, and nobody else wanted to do that. Among the items confiscated from the sub were 87 record albums. Wonder if there were any Wagner albums?

The museum also featured an amazing model train set-up, a full-size 727 airplane hanging from the ceiling and a mirror maze, among many other great exhibits.

For lunch I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We ate dinner that night at the Exchequer Pub, a standard-issue restaurant with a great back story: "226 South Wabash Avenue has historically been occupied by restaurants," per the restaurant's web site. "The first restaurant was established at the location during the roaring ’20s. It was called the 226 Club. Rumor has it that the restaurant was a 'speak-easy' in those days, patronized by none other than Al Capone. After all, Big Al lived just a few blocks south."

Everything in this town comes back to Scarface.

The next day, our "warm" day at 45 degrees, we took a 90-minute river cruise operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I plan to post a complete write-up of this tour on my Backside of America blog, but I'll share a few details and photos here.

This is the Jewelers Building, which was built in 1926 with, get this, high-rise parking! Yes, there were car elevators that allowed tenants to "bring their cars right up to their floor and park in front of their suite," according to one of the articles available at this link. I've never heard of such a feature. I find it absolutely fascinating. Of course there's a Scarface connection: this is "a landmarked riverfront tower where Al Capone was once said to run a speakeasy in the building's rooftop dome," according to the main article at that link.

The building in the center of this shot is the headquarters of Joseph Cacciatore & Co. Real Estate. The mural caught my eye first. It was painted by French duo Ella & Pitr, according to the realty company's Facebook page. Known as "The Native American Lost in Chicago...Dreamin'," the mural is one of two the artists have completed in Chicago.

My daughter, with her young eyes, was able to tell me that the classic water tank on the roof read "Cacciatore." If not for her, I probably wouldn't have been able to determine much about this site.

Check my blog, The Backside of America, in the near future for more photos and words about our river tour.

After the cruise we ate lunch at Chicago's outpost of Elephant & Castle, a British-style pub and restaurant. I had the bangers and mash, natch, along with a Fuller's London Pride, all of which was quite tasty.

After getting the kids settled into our hotel room again, Beth and I set out for The Rookery, a very cool building with a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed atrium. I mentioned this building and featured photos at my above-mentioned Backside post.

We had dinner that night at one of Lou Malnati's 52 locations. The restaurant, where you order your pizza when you walk in the door and then wait for a table, was nothing fancy, but it had great pictures of local celebs on the walls: Bears coach Mike Ditka, Bears players Mike Singletary and Walter Payton (R.I.P.), Jane Byrne (R.I.P.), the first female mayor of Chicago, and Jerry Krause (R.I.P.), the general manager during the Bulls' mid-1980's heyday.

Our Jim Breuer-esque waiter took a shine to Amelia, asking her, in a loud, VERY expressive voice, whether she wanted pizza in addition to the pasta she'd ordered. He also brought her an Arnold Palmer, for no particular reason, and proceeded to insist that she would LOVE it! She didn't.

We wrapped up that night at The Bean.

The next morning, for the second day in a row, we had muffins from the sole Chicago outlet of Magnolia Bakery, then packed our things and headed to the train. We rode on a mostly empty Blue line train back to the airport. We had a smooth transition to the plane, where I sat by myself in a window seat, while Beth and the kids filled a row on the other side of the aisle. We arrived home around 3:30 that afternoon, content in an entertaining and fulfilling vacation.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Making a ConnecTion

Below is an essay I submitted to the Boston Globe magazine almost six months ago. I wrote it for the Connections column on the publication's back page, but since I haven't heard back I figured I'd publish it here.

I self-published a children’s book about students traveling through Boston on Green Line trolleys. A Wicked Good Trip! is selling modestly around Greater Boston, but it was recently translated into another language right before my eyes.

The book is inspired by my son’s, ahem, love for the MBTA. Through Owen I’ve learned the ins and outs of trolleys and seen parts of Boston that were new to me.

We’ve ridden on every subway line but lately we focus on the Green Line. We used to spend most of our time underground, but Owen now appreciates fresh air and my desire to shoot photos of old buildings.

I relied on Owen when writing A Wicked Good Trip! On one illustration, he corrected the four-digit number of a trolley. “That one’s out of service,” he said.

In the book, the students travel through numerous subway stations, and go above ground to see Fenway Park, the Boston Common and other landmarks.

I’m happy my book is available locally. But I also wanted to share the book with families who don’t have time to shop. I mailed the book to three non-profits helping sick children. I recently read my book at one.

I didn’t know what to expect with busy families who have a lot on their minds. I would have been happy if just one kid showed.

A family of four entered the room. The father said that his kids didn’t understand English. I felt my visit might be cut short. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The couple was eager to hear my book. “We can translate what you say to them,” the husband said happily.

I pulled my chair closer. Rather than a straight reading, I held an informal conversation about the T, tourist destinations and the differences between Boston and Poland, the family’s country.

The kids’ eyes lit up when they saw the Museum of Science dinosaur. After I read about how squeaky the trolleys can be, the mother said her son asked why didn’t somebody make them quieter. Exactly!

They asked about Faneuil Hall. I said the building was important, but stressed the vibrancy of Quincy Market. They were intrigued by the shops and restaurants. The children sat patiently as their parents explained about the 360-degree views from Prudential Skywalk.

The kids giggled at the monsters that one of the students in the book speculated might live in an abandoned tunnel. Goofy characters don’t need translation.

The family visited Fenway Park, which is depicted in the book. “We don’t understand the rules, so we left early. Is that OK?” the father asked. “My kids know the game, and they don’t stay for an entire game,” I said.

Their daughter left to play with some toys. Their son zoomed around with my toy Green Line trolley.

He had successful surgery, so the family was excited to explore more of Boston.

About the illustration of students at the Museum of Fine Arts, the father asked, “Is this a good place?” I nodded.

“Even for children?”

“You won’t see as much as you would if you were alone,” I answered. “But it’s great. Check out the instrument room.” They liked that idea.

The mother said she and her daughter were learning violin together. They brightened at the idea of walking to the Boston Symphony’s home, which I mention in the book.

I learned there are no subways in their town, but there are in Warsaw.

Pointing at the last page of my book, I asked, “Do you understand this Boston word: wicked?” I asked.

“It doesn’t mean ‘evil,’” I said. “It means ‘very,’ as in ‘wicked awesome.’” They laughed, happy to learn local slang.

We shook hands and I explained that my son fell in love with the MBTA when he was five. “He’s almost 15,” I said. “We might go for a ride tomorrow.”

“Maybe we’ll see you on the subway!” the father said.

You can buy my book at the Sidetrack Products web site.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Home Run Derby Final Result

I lost.

Now go read this.

Autumn Suite

Today I'm sharing a short fiction suite I wrote 20 years ago for a publication I put out sporadically for a handful of years. SLANK featured short stories, essays, editorials, cartoons, poetry and other art by yours truly as well as friends and family. It was the successor to another 'zine I'd done called frog spit, and a precursor, I suppose, to this blog and my other one, The Backside of America.

So, without further ado, I give you....

AUTUMN SUITE

1) Let Me Leave

I slept outside last night. I fluffed up the dirt, pulled back the blanket of crispy, crackly leaves and wandered off to sleep, dreaming of supernovas, rocks from Mars and creatures from "The X-Files." During the night, smoke from my neighbor's wood stove curled across my yard, into my nostrils, filled my head with warmth and sanity. A dog sniffed his way across the tree line before venturing over to pee at the foot of my resting place. I thanked him.

Bugs wound their way around the stems, up the veins and chewed their way across my leafy blanket. I did not move but to bat an eyelash at them. They didn't care; I was one of them, part of them. I welcomed them.

Around 2 a.m., I woke to a tickling on my chin. Perhaps, I thought, my whiskers are growing more quickly in the fresh, autumn air. But no, it was an inchworm, late for work and hoping to gather some speed by tumbling down my cheek. I laughed at him.

Precisely at 4 a.m., as I'd suspected, the awe-wielding maniac skulked across the yard, scaring the squirrels and crickets into silence. He was surprised to see a pair of beady eyes checking him out from inside this cozy outdoor bunk. He attempted to menace me from twenty paces, but I simply told him to bug off. I waved at him.

At 6, the cock crowed, and this scared the hell out of me, for I have no rooster. I sat upright, and what did I see, but a bright red rooster with a yellow comb on top of his clucky head. He winked at me.

Rising slowly, I took the time to see what the place looked like in the daylight, as I hadn't really done so in a long, long time. I'd forgotten where I lived, you see, what wonders existed in my own backyard, what creatures lived outside my imagination. Things were not so pretty in the daylight as they were under the stars.

There was Johnson's tree house, falling apart and pretending to be the Honeycomb Hideout; Washington's swimming pool, glowing aqua and shimmering with steam; Bailey's broken-down jalopy with windows for doors; Sing's crumbling woodshed mocking Mother Nature; and my own foolish lawnmower, strong enough to propel itself into the next county, if only it were smart enough.

Damn!

Why did reality have to rise with the sun? Why did man have to create so much junk? Why did the axe-wielding maniac leave a trail of blood across my limestone patio?

2) Pumpkinstein

I fear the Great Pumpkin, for he is a mammoth, orange Disciple of Gaia. Born in the musty soil of Concord, hard by Route 2; raised on the vine -- the twisting, gnarly umbilical cord through which Mother Nature's nutrients flow; now, fat with maturity, rolled with great effort and farmer's sweat into the market, to be sold to an unsuspecting victim.

"Three-hundred-seventy-one pounds of pure evil is sitting over there," I tell this kid. "Almost four hundred pounds of grotesquely round menace, colored by the Flames of Hell," I say to him. He runs, screaming his fool head off, back to his mommy and the promise of a caramel apple. I say a quiet prayer for him.

Surrounded by hundreds of squashes of all sizes, shapes, colors, smells and temperaments, only I know where the truly diabolical one sits. Sure, here and there I spy a Hubbard squash or bottle gourd that may send a chill up my spine. But I am not really worried by this. They are merely supporting characters in the Game of Evil being played by the G.P., who sits over there, like Jabba the Hut, next to the rusty tractor, waiting to be thumped just the wrong way, so he can wreak havoc on the world.

My sworn duty -- my reason for being placed ever-so-softly on this Earth -- is to save mankind from the G.P.

Boldly I stride across the open field of the market, brushing aside women and children, making a plumb line for the tractor.

"How much?" I ask the crusty salesman in his John Deere hat.

"Ain't for sale," he tells me in his bad, nasally grammar. "Just for show," he adds, wiping caramel from his hands onto his Big Smiths.

This is not acceptable," I say to him.

"Ain't for sale," he repeats, drone-like.

"Fair enough," I say, smiling.

I stroll nice and easy to my truck. The door creaks as I open it; I slide behind the wheel, thinking about oiling that door, but putting it second on my list, just behind "rescuing mankind." I cruise slowly, past the yuppie parents and their Radio Flyer children with rosy cheeks and tainted minds, to the end of the dirt lot closest to the tractor. Jamming the shifter into "P," I leave the motor running and hustle over behind the tractor. Then I dash for the G.P., using the Lord's adrenaline to help me lift it onto my back and rush over to the truck, where I carefully roll it into the bed, and throw up the gate. As I pull out, I look upon a sea of astonished faces. No one can believe what they've seen. They do not know they've been saved.

Fools.

AS I haul out of the parking lot, an unwitting Tool of Satan veers her stupid Geo in front of me. I swerve to miss her (only out of instinct, not compassion) and the damn G.P. goes flying over the tailgate, bounces off the stupid little car's roof and smashes into pieces on the asphalt.

My foe has multiplied. I cannot hope to thwart him now. Each splinter of pulpy fruit is a harbinger of evil to come. I drive on into the uncertain gloom of the Harvest Moon.

3) Family Portrait

I can smell their shoes.

Walking overhead, their floor = my ceiling. Old boards creek like arthritic joints -- the same ones again and again. It's a shame no one has fallen through. Lately.

Each time they drive away, I scurry up to see what they've left behind. A half-empty Snapple bottle (mmmm....Kiwi-Strawberry) once; a pamphlet about the Worcester Outlets another time; a small footprint preserved in horse manure; the scent of Grey Flannel.

Every year they come when the shadows lengthen, the temperature drops and the trees shed. They stay for an hour or so, until Mr. has made plans to change his life, simplify his goals and move out to the country. I have followed the growth of their children, the rift in the marriage, the patterns of life.

When Boy was a young crawler, he almost fell through a weak board and into my waiting grasp. His little Weebok foot (smelling of new Lexus leather seats) dangled there for a few precious seconds before Mrs. scooped him back to safety. Tantalizing.

Girl = getting to the difficult age, probably 12 or 13 now. She doesn't like to listen to her parents, only to the headphones clamped permanently to her ears. She scuffs her Penny Loafers up (to cover the smell of freshly mown grass) and wears ripped jeans and tight t-shirts. Rebellious, despite the shoes.

I remember Mr. when he was a little older than Boy = now, would come here with Old Mr. -- just the two of them -- and throw rocks into my river and drop pipe tobacco onto their floor = my ceiling.

And I remember when Mr. first brought Mrs. here. She didn't feel right about it, she said. Something eerie about the place. She had ESP, or something, she said. She is still the last to arrive, and always the first to leave. She sniffs the air, looks through the cracks in their floor = my ceiling.

She has never caught on to me. She never will. If Mrs. fell through a weak board, I would throw her in the river. But I would keep her Espadrilles, because they smell of salt water and beachfront property.

This time she seems more guarded than usual, keeping her distance from the family. Girl doesn't notice, nor does Mr., but Boy keeps asking her to hurry along and see the fishes swimming in the river, the bright orange leaves floating along the top. But she is preoccupied.

Finally they all leave, with Mrs. stepping off the bridge last -- something that's never happened. After they drive off, I scramble up top to see what they've left. At first I don't see anything. There are no candy wrappers, baseball cards or cigar butts. Nothing. That's not right.

As I shuffle along close to the wall, I come across a scrap of paper stuck in a crack. It simply says, "OPEN." So I do.

"Dear Troll:" it begins.

"Thank you for keeping watch over my family when we come to visit. I've always known you were there, and have always felt safe, if a little weird. After all these years, I think you should know that I am leaving my husband. I hope to bring the children with me to Florida, so we shall never be here again. My husband will no doubt wish to forget this place after we leave him, so I doubt he will return. Goodbye."

On the back of the paper she had drawn a crude map, which included the bridge, the nearby grove of maple trees and a cluster of large stones that used to be part of a gate leading into an old farm. With an arrow she indicated that under this pile of stones I would find a pleasant surprise.

After nightfall I limped out of my quarters and made my way over to the old wall. Making sure no one had seen me, I lit my kerosene lantern and unstacked the stones.

At the bottom, nestled in the cool, moist dirt was a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. Nervous with anticipation, I opened the bag, ran my hand along the heavy cardboard box inside and closed my eyes, ecstatic. Inside, hidden beneath fragrant tissue paper, was a pair of my very own leather boots, "for the coming winter," her note said.

I always liked her.

THE END

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bookin' It

I love to read but I'm not good at reviewing books. In junior high school I considered reading book reports to my classmates to be a fate worse than eating tofu-covered lima beans. Shrinking in my seat like an ashamed Rottweiler who's afraid to chase the mailman, I would agonize as student after student volunteered, hoping that somehow the teacher would exempt me. Of course she never did, and I never learned the lesson that going first means you get to kick back and enjoy as other kids stammer and turn red and tremble so badly their reports nearly tear in half.

In my adult years the fear of reading my work out loud has been replaced by the realization that I'm just not that good at critical analysis. I've always had difficulty plumbing the depths of long works of fiction, teasing out the symbolism, deciphering characters' ulterior motives or simply even remembering at the end of the book just what the hell happened in the first few chapters. These reasons attest to why I've never written a novel. I've diagnosed myself with executive function disorder.

Nevertheless, to coin a phrase, I've persisted. I've reviewed plenty of books here over the years, many of them non-fiction. Below you'll find links to three attempts. If you're so inclined, search the site for others.

April 4, 2013, Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

January 20, 2012, Myles J. Connor, Jr.'s The Art of the Heist

July 24, 2012, Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole

I've come to you today with a somewhat different approach than the longer-form reviews I've done previously. I'm going with a quick-hit approach, offering up basic reviews and also a look at what's on my nightstand right now.

Also, there will be nepotism. Well-earned nepotism.

Earlier this summer I read Andrew Forsthoefel's Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story At a Time. The author of this memoir is young and freshly graduated from Awesome College or some such institution. He doesn't know what to do with his life, so he sets out from his mother's house in Pennsylvania on foot, a rucksack across his back, with the goal of simply talking to people along his route. He figures that he can learn from his fellow citizens how they make their lives work best, and apply those lessons to himself.

I really enjoyed Walking to Listen. Forsthoefel has an easy writing style and doesn't shy away from examining his own warts. The tales of kindness and generosity offered by his fellow Americans that he shares will make you think that in these polarizing political times there is hope for our nation.

Reading Forsthoefel's book was a dangerous thing for me to do, perhaps even brave. As regular readers know, I've been working, on and off, for several years on a road-trip memoir. So reading a really good book from a major publisher about trekking across the US of A is the sort of activity that could drop me into writer's depression. But instead I decided to take inspiration from Forsthoefel's book, go back and look at my work-in-progress and make it even better.

While I was the first member of my family to publish a book -- well, since you asked: (C)rock Stories: Million-Dollar Tales of Music, Mayhem and Immaturity -- I will not be the first to publish a memoir. That honor goes to my mother, Joan Bogert Brigham.

Published earlier this summer, her book, Invitation to Inner Light: To Love and Wisdom...an Essential Step for Personal and Planetary Peace, is part memoir, part travel guide to Peru and part revelation. The revelations for many readers will come in learning about my mother's spiritual path and how perhaps to follow their own, similar route to "opening to the sacred seed within." The book is about following your inner voice, which my mother tunes in via meditation, to realize who you are and how to realize your dreams and fulfill your destiny. She places great weight on love and learning how to discover the light that's inside each of us. This is my clumsy attempt to translate the message of Invitation to Light, as a person who is not at all spiritual and can't relate to many of the experiences my mother has had in her 85 years.

For me, the revelations in my mother's book were more personal. I had no idea that she'd yearned since she was a teenager for a meaningful spiritual experience. I never knew what motivated her to make not one, but two, trips to Peru in the 1990's. And I certainly didn't recall all that she'd told me about her transformative experience at Peru's Machu Pichu, the sacred and breathtaking ancient Inca city in the Andes mountains.

Additionally, I wasn't aware of just how important meditation, sounding and dream interpretation were, and still are, to my mother. Sure, I've heard her talk about all of these things all of my adult life, but reading it just makes it all the more evident and powerful. The message of my mother's book -- we as humans need to look inside ourselves to find the strength and courage to love ourselves and one another -- isn't unique. But given the tenor of our times, it certainly is a message that needs repeating. I can't express how proud of my mother for putting her heart, soul and, yes, LIGHT, into her book!

A few years back, I gave my mother a copy of Mark Adams's Turn Right at Machu Pichu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time. I'm not sure whether she read it. More recently, I purchased a copy for myself, after reading and thoroughly enjoying Adams's Meet Me in Atlantis: Across Three Continents in Search of the Legendary Sunken City.

Now seemed like a perfect time to take Turn Right at Machu Pichu off my growing stack of books to read. And just as with his Atlantis book, I am getting tremendous enjoyment out of this one. Adams has a self-deprecating writing style that I both enjoy and employ myself. The basis of his book is retracing the route the Hiram Bingham III took in 1911 to expose Machu Pichu to the wider world. Adams ties his own trials and tribulations along the rigorous adventure to Bingham's pursuit, as well as to the history of the Inca people.

So far I'm loving it, and I expect that will continue.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Happy Old Years

A new year has arrived, but I've been taking some time to look back -- way back.

While at my mother's house after Christmas, my sister, brother and I spent some time rummaging through the basement. I do this every once in a while to look at old photos and other mementos. This time, my sister found a shoe box with a treasure trove of old stuff that belonged to our grandfather, who died long before any of the three of us were born.

There are documents related to his time as a Mason in Vermont:

There are also documents related to the international travel he undertook as a salesman for the Jones & Lamson Machine Co., which made automatic lathes (the company, founded in 1869, lives on as J&L Metrology in Springfield, VT). My grandfather, George Hazen Brigham, Sr., was traveling on business in Russia when the revolution began in 1917.

"During my second trip to Moscow we began to hear of riots in Petrograd; and as the situation grew worse, exaggerated reports of the number killed were circulated," he wrote in an article titled, "A Jones & Lamson Man in Russia During the Revolution," in an industrial machinery publication. "It was only after the second or third day of the revolution in Petrograd that we saw anything of it in Moscow. First the electric cars stopped, then the cabs, and then all public and private conveyances disappeared....About noon on the second day of the revolution the red flag appeared in Moscow, and then all but the active manifestants disappeared as if by magic and were not seen again until it had become evident that there would be no resistance."

After traveling across Russia for 10 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway, he went to Japan, which he found much more pleasant compared to the chaotic Russia.

"Japan was a wonderful contrast to Russia, the officers were...courteous and the baggage was soon examined," he wrote in the article. "Everywhere we saw evidence of organization (and) energy, and could readily understand the reason for the outcome of the Russo-Japanese war." My grandfather was an engineer, so he took special notice of the transportation infrastructure in Japan. "Their train service is excellent, their roadbeds are rock-ballasted and dustless, most of the locomotives are American, and their express trains compare favorably with ours."

Here is a document that allowed him into (and, perhaps more importantly, out of) Japan. I had to split the scan into two photos:

As amazing as these documents are, I've gotten just as much enjoyment out of reading his yearly diaries.

Picking one at random (1926), I learned from one of the 365 very short entries that my grandfather took my grandmother, Josephine (he called her "Jo"), to a Broadway production of "Naughty Cinderella." A farce starring Irene Bordoni, the show ran for 121 performances between November 1925 and February 1926, according to the Internet Broadway Database.

In the 1925 diary, I learned of the silent film, "Charley's Aunt." A farce that was first performed on a London stage in 1892, "Charley's Aunt" was revived many times in numerous countries in the ensuing decades, the last being in 1970.

The Internet being the awesome tool that it is, I was able to find a 10-minute clip of the 1925 film:

Pretty cool to be able to watch the same movie that my grandfather watched more than 90 years ago!

As I said, my grandfather died long before my siblings and I were born. He passed away from lung cancer in 1953 at age 64. I gathered from talking to my father over the years, that his dad was somewhat strict and distant with his three sons. After traveling the world in the 1910's, he settled down in the U.S., where he continued to travel on a more local basis (from his diary: "Thursday, October 22, 1925: "In Newark, Bloomfield, NYC and Brooklyn today."). By 1929, the year my father (the second son) was born, he had a real estate business with a partner, but lost everything when his partner took off with the money.

I'm so happy that years ago my brother spearheaded a project to record my parents' respective biographies. I tapped my mother for information about the subject of my father's father, and she forwarded me some great passages from the biography.

"My Dad (was) originally an engineering salesman for Jones and Lamson Co. which was a tool machine company in Springfield, Vermont," my father told us. "At some point they moved to Philadelphia, where my brother George was born. At some point he left Jones and Lamson because he didn't get along with the sales manager and so they were living in Philly. Eventually they moved to New Jersey and my Dad went into the real estate business (with another person). I don't know how he met him or anything about him. I don't know how long they were in business, but eventually his partner turned out to be a crook and wiped out all of the company money and left town."

Wow.

"My father never talked about it," my dad continued in the biography. "Dad went into bankruptcy I guess. I don't know if that happened before or after the crash - October 1929 - but eventually they lost the house (they owned it) and lost the car and moved to Orange, NJ in a flat in a 3 or 4 family house."

Man, that is a serious blow. The last bit my mom forwarded says a lot: "Then my Dad was working for the Golden Key Coffee Co. where he drove a small pickup truck and I don't know how long he did that."

My grandfather must have felt like a real dude, traveling to Europe and Japan in his finest clothes, making sales of large equipment, writing diaries in French. Oh, did I not mention that some of his diaries are written in the "langue de Moliere"?

He did alright for himself, considering he was an orphan at age 3. I'd forgotten until I went back to my Ancestry.com account that my grandfather's father died when he was 3; his mother when he was 1. He and his siblings -- two brothers, John and Alfred, and a sister, Eunice -- were raised by relatives. My grandfather was raised by an older cousin about whom my father knew little. This guardian sent my grandfather to private school in Montpelier and the University of Vermont, from which he graduated with an engineering degree, I think (his education was a sore spot with his brother John, who went by Wes, according to my father. None of the other siblings went to college.) He married my grandmother in 1920, I believe, and did fairly well career-wise as far as I can tell.

While I'm finding it difficult in reading the diaries to get a real picture of my grandfather, some everyday details come through. In 1925 he bought a Nash, although he doesn't say what model or whether it was new or used. My dad used to talk about Nashes, and I believe he owned at least one in his life.

My grandfather spent A LOT of time traveling around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for work, but I'm not sure what company he was selling equipment for at this point. He mentions working on his car with some frequency, and also going for pleasure drives."Went for a nice long drive this eve" was a regular notation. I can relate to that.

As befits a father in the early decades of the 20th century, he didn't spend a lot of time with his kids, at least so far as I can tell in the diaries. His first son, my uncle George, was born in 1924. My grandfather rarely mentions his oldest son in the diaries, other than to indicate when my grandmother took the boy to the doctor.

He mentions needing a "Palm Beach suit" in one diary entry, which seems like a pretty fancy outfit. From the Ask Andy About Clothes blog, I learned that such a suit was "made from Palm Beach cloth, a warm weather blend of mohair and cotton" that was popular many years ago.

Another cool little thing of note: my grandfather, probably like most people of the time, referred to the morning as "forenoon."

He also makes note of the weather on just about every day of the year, and mentions with regularity having dinner with friends. "Sunday, August 9, 1925: Mr & Mrs (illegible) were in for dinner & the eve. Went for a ride. Rained very hard just after we got back."

So imagine going from this life -- maybe he was a bit sentimental about his bachelor days traveling the world and keeping diaries in a foreign language, but things seemed pretty good stateside with a wife, a son (George Jr.), a nice car, close friends and a decent job -- to losing everything you had and working as a coffee salesman and moving, during the Depression, from one relative's house to another in Vermont and New Hampshire. A man who never really knew his parents, and who was separated from his siblings, finds success, only to end up broken and seeking shelter in the homes of others again.

My dad always said that his father didn't talk much about his past life, and it's no wonder why. I'm thankful that I have many of my grandfather's papers and old photo albums, so I can gain some sort of connection. I've been told I look a little bit like George Hazen Brigham, Sr., which feels good to hear.

Maybe someday I'll hire somebody to translate his French diaries. Perhaps that's where all the secrets are....

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Long, Strange, Wicked Good Trip....

I share the relief of Chicago Cubs fans. No, not because after more than a century their goat-cursed baseball team finally won the World Series. But rather because after telling people over and over during the last few years, "I'm writing my first children's book," I can finally finish that sentence with, "and here's where you can buy it."

I refuse to look back over my emails, documents and copy shop paperwork to see how long ago I started working on this book. Suffice it to say, it's been a wicked long time since I began work on "A Wicked Good Trip!"

I had a draft of a rhyming alphabet book that involved a generic subway system, inspired by my son, Owen, who has loved Boston's subways since he was in kindergarten -- 9 years ago. But once my wife's brother-in-law asked me if I wanted to produce a book about Boston's underground transit system, for his company, Sidetrack Products, I scrapped that idea and got to work on a new concept.

Fairly quickly I arrived at the idea that you'll see in "A Wicked Good Trip!" The book is about a group of elementary school students on a field trip, riding Boston's Green Line subway through the city. The kids learn about the trains and stations, and go above ground to visit landmarks including Faneuil Hall, the Boston Common, Fenway Park and the Museum of Fine Arts.

Once I had the basic story down, I began working with an artist who I knew casually through a friend of my wife's. We met several times to discuss my story and her approach, but after a while we came to a mutual realization that she wasn't right for the book (she had a hard time drawing kids' faces, which is a crucial element of the book). She suggested I post a job on two art college web sites, which I did. I then reviewed a handful of portfolios and found the right person, Martina.

I was very taken by the bold colors she uses in her illustrations. I also liked the fact that she had done art for another children's book, albeit one that never got published. She longed to work on picture books, and I had the basic story for one about riding Boston's Green Line subway, so we set to work.

Honestly, I don't remember all of the steps we took early on, but we had to meet on occasion and email frequently to hash out some wording and ideas for how each page should be illustrated. I had ideas and passed them along, knowing full well that she would have better ideas most of the time. Because my book would be part of the Sidetrack Products line of MBTA-themed toys and apparel, during each stage of the process I needed to meet with the licensing agent for the MBTA, which runs Boston's subway system.

The agent, a really nice and interesting guy named Steven, had ideas about the book, and edits both for content as well as grammar.

The entire process took longer than I thought or hoped it would. Sometimes Martina held things up because she has a full-time job and couldn't get to the illustrations as quickly as I'd like, or she was in Europe for a few weeks during the summer. Other times Steven was the hold-up, as he had to put reviewing the latest draft of the book on the back burner because he has at least one full-time job and is working on a book of his own. Most often, though, I was the reason things got gummed up. I would work on other writing projects -- this blog, my other blog (The Backside of America; check it out!), my road trip memoir -- or was too stressed out with the job of raising two kids or simply forgot about the book, hard as that may be to believe.

There were plenty of times when I was sure the book was done, or nearly so, only to learn that the MBTA wanted some little thing changed, or I had made an editing error or Martina had forgotten or misunderstood some suggestion I had made about an illustration. Once Martina and I had a decent working draft, I printed copies and mailed them to two publishers I had targeted, once because it was a new company starting out in Massachusetts, the other because several years ago the company published a book about riding an MBTA bus.

Both publishers rejected the book. I realized that the best idea was to self-publish "A Wicked Good Trip!" and hope that if the book did well perhaps a traditional publisher might then be interested.

Through Steven, the MBTA's licensing agent, I learned of a printing company that works quite a bit with self-publishing authors. King Printing is based in Lowell, Mass., and they have been wonderful to work with. Helpful at every step, for sure. Once I was sure the book was ready, I had a proof copy made. I expected to give it a once-over and then give them the thumbs-up to publish.

But no. I had to reject it because I had neglected to include a blank page in a crucial spot, and hadn't noticed that some of the kids' faces looked green or gray when they should have been brown or black. So Martina had to go back to her computer and fix that stuff and then I had to review that draft with a microscope to make sure nothing was missing or looked weird.

But persistence has paid off...although there was one last snag. I ordered 500 copies from King Printing and eagerly awaited their delivery. Ten days ago, 492 copies were placed on my porch in small, but heavy, boxes (somehow the print job came up 8 books short; I wasn't charged for them). But I noticed that the books didn't have an ISBN barcode on them. I had discussed buying an ISBN -- the International Standard Book Number that you need in order to sell books to retailers and libraries -- with the printing company early on, and assumed that discussion would follow the print job. But somehow, it didn't.

So after ordering an ISBN and attendant barcodes online, I had to visit Staples to get them printed, and then I slapped them on my books. This week Sidetrack Products has started placing the book with local retailers. Additionally, the book is available through the company's web site.

So that's the long, strange tale of "A Wicked Good Trip!"