Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Being Tested, or, “Fire and Rain”

It’s been an interesting several months. In January, while I was sitting at my desk in the renovated attic of our Victorian house that serves as both my office and my wife and my Master Bedroom I heard a loud, grumbling, rumbling sound followed by a crash. I immediately ran downstairs, out the front door, and into the alley that is directly south of our home. There I saw our fifty-six foot gutter crumpled and bent in the alley, along with the remnants of our DirectTV satellite dish, which the gutter took out. Apparently a large expanse of ice and snow started to melt off of the roof and slid down into the alley taking our gutter and the satellite dish along with it. That was a little more than six months ago.

Ten days ago Chicago “enjoyed” Noah-like Biblical rains. The gutter on the north side of our house was pouring water down onto our side porch in sheets. What was strange is that we’d just had the gutters cleaned not five weeks earlier and here this water was pouring down – water-fall like – onto our side porch, flooding it in the process. As the water worked its way downstairs it began to flood, and, when I say “flood,” I really mean “flood” our outdoor basement stairwell.

The water was rising against the basement door, foot after foot. Rising and rising. Two feet up the door. Three feet now. Imagine the progression.

My wife and I did not speak, we acted. We found buckets and brooms and any other water displacement device you can imagine. For nearly three hours we diverted water. That was our job. Our calling. Our reason for existing: to keep the water from entering our basement. We must have moved in excess of five hundred gallons of water from the back of our house to the front (where there is an incline that leads to the road) that day. How can I be sure of this huge number? I’ll tell you: at one point we brought out a 55-gallon rain barrel to help catch some of the water. It was full in less than ten minutes.

Tonight? Fire.

After having done some "old tenant leaving"/"new tenant about to move in" cleaning on our studio apartment downstairs, we decided we would settle for a bit on our lovely side porch. Have a drink, a bit of relaxation, you understand. We lit the Tiki Lamps. It was a windy night tonight, and at one point, Gloria asked, “Does that look a little strange to you?” referring to a Tiki Lamp behind me. It was smoking. A lot.

I said, “Um, yeah, something’s wrong.”

We went into overdrive scrambling for water, for anything that could put out the quickly growing conflagration. I poured water on it. No luck. I refilled my container and procured a towel. I wet the towel as I was filling my water container. Went to the fire and threw the water on it and then tried to tamp the fire down with the wet towel. Gloria was behind me yelling, “Careful, it might blow up.” She asked, “Where’s the fire extinguisher?”

We both thought it was in the front room, the guest room, so I ran there to look for it. I’ve never really known how to operate the light switch in that room (believe me, if you were here you would understand, it’s not just a toggle switch, it’s some sort of weird imbedded knob I don’t know what-the-hell-it-really-is) so I had no light there, but I was frantically searching for the fire extinguisher in the corner near the dresser when I realized, “I think the fire extinguisher is upstairs, in our bedroom.” At just about that moment, Gloria said, “I think the fire extinguisher is upstairs.” I said, “I’m on my way.”

I run upstairs, I get the fire extinguisher, and just after I’ve lifted it into my arms, I realize, I don’t really know how to use this thing. So as I’m running across the upstairs floor toward the staircase to go back down to where the fire is, I am reading and learning: 1) Pull pin and hold unit upright, 2) Free hose. Aim at base of fire. Stand back 8 feet. (my porch is only 6 feet wide, so I don’t have 8 feet), and, 3) Squeeze lever and sweep side to side.

So I learn all of this as I’m running across the floor and heading downstairs to extinguish the fire and save the day (night, really), only by the time I get downstairs, Gloria has already put the fire out with water. Which is good. Really!

So the fire is out. The house is safe. No one has been hurt. This is good. Gloria says, “You think we are being tested? We’ve had flooding, fire, ants (that’s a story for another day), etc?” I say: Maybe so. She says, “Well, I think we’re passing the test.”

And that’s why I’m writing this blog tonight. We’re passing the test(s). And that is a joyful thing.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father’s Day 2009

This time four years ago, my natural father Robert “Jay” Jaycox had been dead for nearly five weeks. He was sixty-six years old and his death was completely unexpected and a terrible shock. I was looking forward to seeing him at my June 25 wedding that year, but he departed this world on May 18, 2005.

For the past year or so I’ve been working on a memoir that is largely about his absence and what it meant to me as a boy, and as a maturing boy struggling to become a man. You see, he was absent when I was a boy – he left the family shortly before I turned three – and, he is (of course) absent now. Taken from us as we will all eventually be taken from our loved ones.

We were in touch to one degree or another for twenty-seven years, from the time I tracked him down in Puerto Rico at the age of fourteen to his untimely death when I was forty-one. I last saw him in 1998 when I took a wonderful cross-country trip to see him in Oklahoma City, a dear friend in Los Angeles, and to celebrate my grandfather’s eightieth birthday in San Jose. He’s gone now, too.

I spent far too many years of my life identifying myself as a “fatherless child.” I had been abandoned. Left. I searched for surrogates, replacements, men who could provide what I felt I got neither from my natural father nor from my adoptive father. You never really find it. It finds you. If you’re lucky. And, I was. I am.

Both of my fathers gave me more than I’ve ever given them credit for I suppose.

From my adoptive father, the Rev. John A. Russell, I learned much about theatricality and storytelling, even if it was never his intention to pass those lessons along. But watching him (and serving alongside him) conducting church services provided lessons in theater and storytelling. Listening to his sermons taught me the power of words, of ideas to move people and to inspire change.

As for Jay, he taught me about loving people. Jay was a “people person” big-time. When I first “met” him, he was a sales manager for the Icee drink franchise in Puerto Rico. One summer he took my brother Scott and me on his customer calls and I will never forget how people greeted him when he walked into a store. Jay knew everybody’s names, and the names of their spouses and children. He remembered if someone had been ill or if a kid had broken his arm a few weeks earlier and he would ask how the boy was doing.

So to Jay, to Dad, to Grandpa, and to Paul Donnelley, Richard Pearlman, Mike Degnan, Paul Hauser, John Wulp, Bob Moss, and all the other surrogates who have “fathered” me over the years, Happy Father’s Day, and many, many thanks.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mad Men: They’re mad all right, as in Insane!

So I know I might be committing heresy with this posting by suggesting this, but my wife and I watched the first three episodes of “Mad Men” last night and – despite all of the rave reviews I’ve heard about this series – I am not terribly impressed. Sure it’s moody and smart and the writers know how to construct a cliffhanger, but really! These people are miserable. They are lying, cheating, two-faced bastards. Almost all of them. It should be called “Miserable Men” or something like that.

And the smoking? Now, I am a smoker. At times I have been a heavy smoker. But on this series there is never a time that is inappropriate for a smoke – including a gynecologist lighting up as he’s commencing to examine his patient. Puullease! (I don’t know that the commonly accepted spelling is of the word “please” rendered so as to rhyme with “valise.”)

What happened to the idea that we should care about a main character? This guy is a scumbag. He’s a louse. He’s a jerk. How do I really feel, you might ask…

Anyway, I’m not spending any more time with these unlikable folks. After all, I’ll never get last night’s 2 ½ hours back.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009


So as I find myself in the early stages of my third semester in Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program, it seems an appropriate time to take a cue from a fellow Spalding student and friend Colleen Harris and share with you readers my cumulative bibliography to date. It is copied below, and I ask you to feel free to make suggestions about things I have not yet read that perhaps I should – especially in the genre of creative nonfiction, which is what I’m finishing my degree in. This includes memoir, essays, and the like.

To be clear, these are only books I’ve read and absorbed since beginning the MFA program a little more than a year ago, so it is certainly conceivable that you might suggest something I’ve already read, but I welcome any suggestion anyone has. Really. I mean it.

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work at my extended critical essay, or ECE in Spalding parlance, and am actually enjoying composing it quite a bit. It’s about how yearning compels empathy and action in memoir. I’ll let you know when I’m done.

Here’s the list:

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003.
---. Supreme Courtship: A Novel. New York: Twelve, 2008.
Butler, Robert Olen. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. Ed. Janet Burroway. New York: Grove, 2005.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Cathedral: Stories. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1984. 209-228.
Conroy, Frank. Body & Soul: A Novel. New York: Delta-Random House, 1993.
---. Stop-Time: A Memoir. New York: Penguin, 1997.
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2007.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Driskell, Kathleen. Seed Across Snow: A Collection of Poems. Los Angeles: Red Hen, 2009.
Ellroy, James. My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1997.
Emerson, Claudia. Late Wife: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005.
Finch, Robert. The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes from an Unknown Shore. New York: Counterpoint, 2007.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Quill-HarperCollins, 2003.
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2003.
Goodman, Richard. French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2002.
---. The Soul of Creative Writing. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2008.
Gorman, Jacquelin. The Seeing Glass: A Memoir. New York: Riverhead, 1998.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Vintage International-Random House, 1991.
Holloway, Monica. Driving With Dead People: A Memoir. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Iyer, Pico. Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign. New York: Vintage-Random House, 2004.
Jones, Edward P. Lost in the City: Stories. New York: Amistad-HarperCollins, 2003.
Katz, Jon. A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me. New York: Random House, 2003.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1995.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: Eight Mountain, 1998.
Lisberger, Jody. Remember Love: Stories. Louisville: Fleur-de-Lis, 2008.
McClure, Tori Murden. A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. New York: Collins, 2009.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: ReganBooks-HarperCollins, 1997.
Moehringer, J.R. The Tender Bar: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
Moffett, James and Kenneth R. McElheny, eds. Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. New York: Mentor, 1995.
Monsoon Wedding. Screenplay by Sabrina Dhawan. Dir. Mira Nair. Mirabai Films, 2001.
Oates, Joyce Carol, ed. The Best American Essays of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Rev. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2004.
O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1995.
---. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto: A Novel. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2005.
---. The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2007.
---. Run: A Novel. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2008.
---. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2005.
Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume-Penguin, 2006.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2006.
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life: A Memoir. New York: Grove, 1989.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, 2008.

I can't seem to figure out how to get things underlined in this blog, alas... please understand that all titles are underlined in my official cumulative biography. Same goes for the hanging indentation that doesn't translate when I copy here. LOL...


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reclaiming the House Part 2

So reclaiming the house turned out to be more difficult, or perhaps a better word is strenuous, than I initially thought it would be. We had to move furniture back in place, of course, and return art to walls – but there was also a good deal of painting and cleaning and rearranging that is pretty much de rigueur when one’s house has been upended.

Simultaneous to reclaiming our house from the renovations I have re-signed up on Facebook. A lot of old friends and some new have materialized. It’s cool. No one has yet tried to get me to engage in any vampire or bat or what-have-you games and for that I am grateful. But there are many folks from my MFA in Writing program at Spalding who are online and it’s great to “see” them. Also, many folks from my past life (sometimes current life) in theater and it’s wonderful to see them as well.

So… reclaiming the house? Reclaiming one’s identity? They aren’t too different if you think about it. We get comfortable with what we know, with what feels familiar. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is at it is. But I guess I also think it’s valuable to understand that we are comfortable with the familiar, that we are comfortable with what is, with what we know. Sometimes we need to face the unknown. All of us. Regardless of our socio-economic status, our race, ethnicity, creed, religion, you name it – whether we are prepared or not, we will be forced to confront the unknown. And, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to get ready for it. We can’t quite “prepare” for it, because we don’t know what “it” will be, but we can be ready to expect the unexpected. We can be okay with the unknown, ready to face the unknown, the heretofore not known. Soon it might become more comfortable than we can imagine.

For now, I am working on reclaiming our house, reaching out to friends and loved ones and carrying on.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reclaiming the House

So yesterday was the last of the workmen… for a while. And what a day it was. Not only did we have four guys here replacing half of our windows but we also had two guys by in the middle of the day to install our custom glass shower door. Now the bathrooms are officially done. And we have replaced all of the windows in our home – half were done 2 years ago, the other half were done yesterday.

Gloria (my wife) put it very well yesterday evening: She said, “I feel like we’ve been given two big presents and we aren’t allowed to open them for two or three days.” The reason? The shower door has to sit there – don’t even look at it, let alone touch it – for 48 hours, and the new windows must remain locked and closed for 72 hours. Given the weather today here in Chicago it was no big thing not to open the windows. Brrrr… Are we going to get summer soon? I sure hope so!

But what’s important it this: We’ve had terrific contractors/workmen in our lives recently and we are deeply grateful. They’ve done their work beautifully and (for the most part) have also cleaned up behind themselves thoroughly. We are blessed people living in a beautiful land (to paraphrase my friend Aaron Freeman).

Went back on Facebook today; connected with a bunch of folks, which is good. But if any of you Facebook amigos are reading this, no pokes, no mob wars, no vampire bites please – I’m there to connect and network only. No Scrabulous or anything else. It’s too distracting.

Gloria and I are reclaiming the house. Moving furniture back, or in some cases, to new positions; doing some post-renovation painting and the like, getting it to the new Almada/Russell household, which is a good thing. I’m trying to write and making some slow progress. Home renovations do take a toll after all. But life is good. In a very real way.


Friday, June 5, 2009

A Diverse Community

Last night my wife Gloria and I got together with some friends and colleagues, most of whom I’ve known for ten years or more. Some I’d seen a number of times in recent months and some I hadn’t seen for years. It was a lively gathering with lots of laughter, vibrant conversation, and several bottles of wine. We talked about current events, past shared experiences, current passions that are driving us along in our professional and personal endeavors, the usual “cocktail party” fare.

But thinking about the gathering this morning a few notable things struck me. This group of ten people included two breast-cancer survivors. Six of the ten present will be spending all or most of this coming weekend performing a marathon walk to raise money for breast cancer research. Indeed, they were sporting custom-made hats celebrating the walk complete with the logo of the sponsoring company, my single biggest client for the past several years.

Another notable aspect to the group was their accomplishments: Among us were a CEO, two college professors, a retired creative director, and a two-time national Emmy Award winning video editor. I mention this not because we are defined by what we do or what level of “success” we have achieved – no, I mention it because our gathering was one of the most down-to-earth and least pretentious gatherings I’ve enjoyed in some time. There was no grandstanding or braggadocio or anything of that sort. We were just people enjoying community, fellowship, and a sense of our shared humanity. Among us there are several not insignificant differences, in religion, politics, socio-economic status, marital and familial status, race, and sexual orientation. And yet, none of those differences mattered a whit – if anything, these differences enriched our conversations and broadened our sense of community and fellowship.

It is easy, sometimes, for us to get cynical or dismissive when we hear a politician talking about how our nation’s diversity is a strength, not a weakness. We might roll our eyes at hearing the same old hackneyed phrase again and again. And yet. And yet! It’s true. When Christian and Jew and Agnostic and Atheist can sit around the same table and share hearty conversation and respectful humor, this is something to celebrate. When republicans and democrats and independents can discuss the historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States with no one engaging in useless and unfruitful hyperbole or ad hominum attacks, this is something to celebrate. (And, for the record, all gathered agreed that Rush Limbaugh has become absolutely certifiable lately – asserting that Sotomayor and Obama are anti-constitutionalists who want to shred the U.S. Constitution? Please, give me a break. But I digress.)

Our differences, when embraced, do strengthen us. They open us up to other perspectives, other ways of looking at the world, and that is a very good thing. We all can disagree without being disagreeable. We can disagree and continue to love and support and encourage one another. We can agree to disagree and then move forward to those things around which we find common ground. One of my friends at the gathering last night wisely noted that our entire system is built on the idea of compromise and yet too much of the rhetoric we hear shouted on the cable news programs – from the right and from the left – is black and white, night and day, extreme, extreme, extreme. It’s enough, already. As Tori Murden McClure notes in her magnificent new book, A Pearl in the Storm, “Good and evil are creations of mankind; in our image, we created them.”


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Post MFA Residency

All right, so I had an initial goal of blogging each day during my recent MFA residency at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. I made it to Day Two.

They keep you busy there and exhilarated and excited and challenged and inspired. It was a wonderful residency and terrific to reconnect with students and faculty I’ve known from earlier residencies and to meet some of the newbies – fresh-faced, with big plans, I’m delighted to welcome them into our fold.

Being among a community of writers is a wonderful thing if you are a writer. It makes you feel less alone. Less odd. Less solitary.

Upon returning home to Chicago last Sunday afternoon, I was hit with the reality that the contractors were still not done with our bathrooms – you know, the ones that were supposed to be completed before I left for my ten-day residency? On one hand, the work they’ve done is top notch and looks great (and, I’m very grateful for that) yet on the other hand, God supposedly made the world in six days and these guys have taken nearly thirty (more than twice what they thought it would take) to do two bathrooms!! It’s endlessly distracting to have people banging and pounding on walls and floors and whatever else they can decide to bang and pound on. Not the most conducive environment for writing.

But, I do not wish to complain.

Residency was great. It’s wonderful to be back home with my lovely wife Gloria and our two adorable dogs. And, the bathrooms are almost done.