Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Burn, Baby, Burn

A Higher Power wants me to go to Burning Man.

That’s the only logical conclusion I can draw from the events of the past two weeks. I certainly didn’t plan to take my first step toward attending a counterculture art rave in the Nevada desert when I woke up Aug. 18. It was Benny’s first day of school, and my main concern was getting a spot to take his picture before the bell. Which I did, of course.

But my friends Andrea and Michael were there, and we fell to talking. Michael’s an artist who takes his amazing lighted sculptures all over the U.S. (including Grand Rapids, Mich. of all places) and Andrea does sound editing for motion pictures. Just standing near them made me cooler, so it was no surprise to hear them talking about Burning Man. They go every year as a family and their son Milo is one of Benny’s closest friends.

“You should go, too, you and Ron and Benny,” Andrea said.

“We don’t have tickets,” I said.

“You could get them on Craigslist.”

“Uh huh,” I said. I could just see myself getting mugged in the Castro by a drug-crazed lunatic pretending to be a drug-crazed lunatic with a Burning Man ticket.

It was intriguing, though. So I went home and scanned Craigslist, and yes, there were plenty of tickets, but the face-value ones were like day lilies, blooming and dying in minutes. So I gave up on my dreams of practicing radical self-expression on a dried-up lakebed and reorganized my kitchen cupboards.

Andrea, however, didn’t let it lie. She started emailing me tips for snagging a hot ticket, and when it became obvious I was ignoring them, she started casting for one herself. (By now Ron had made his total – and sensible – lack of interest known and I was looking for only one ticket. Benny was free.) I found myself time-stealing at work, reading articles about the event and staring agog at the pictures and vehicles. On Thursday, Aug. 21, I received the text – she found one, and bought it for me. The first and biggest hurdle was overcome. Benny and I were going to Burning Man in a week!

But I needed a vehicle pass. I quickly connected on Craigslist with a guy who lived just 15 minutes away. I picked Benny up from school and swung by and we met up at the corner by his apartment. Hurdle number two cleared!

By now Benny was catching on to the whole thing. “You need a bike, Mom,” he said.

Oh, crud. I didn’t have a bike. I didn’t want to ruin Ron’s nice bike in an alkaline desert, and anyway it was a road bike. I needed fat tires for the playa. So I emailed a bicycle shop in North Beach. The next morning Ron and I turned up before work, and there was the perfect mountain bike, a “burner bike,” for $120. Then we needed a bike rack, so the next day we went to REI, which of course was having a sale, and picked up one of those crazy racks you stick on the back of the car.

So obviously a Higher Power Has Spoken: “And thus shall ye attend the bacchanalia and spend thy days wiping desert dust off ye child.”

That’s not to say the course to this reckless enterprise has run entirely smooth. I haven’t slept well in days. The bike rack turned out to be an enormous pain to install. (The instructions said it wouldn’t fit a Honda Fit, but the Internet said no, it won’t fit a Honda Fit Sport, and then we had to figure out the measurement between the rivets, and so on …) The list of provisions I needed to pack grew longer and longer and longer, and Andrea just wanted to know what costumes I was bringing.

Costumes? I’m over here pricing ski goggles and getting Benny’s sleeping bag repaired and she wants to know about my kick-ass wig and sequined halter top. My wardrobe tends toward the Boring Mom About Town side of style, and I was simply going to have to radically participate in the community wearing my khakis. Anyway, I needed provisions. I printed out a list and took it to Target, brought it all home and took everything out of its original packaging (“Leave No Trace!”). Then I wrote down everything I forgot and snuck out of work yesterday to finish my shopping at the hardware store (mask, propane tank) and Walgreens. I also talked to my brother Greg, who recently returned from his Army deployment in Kuwait. He thinks I’m crazy, but gave me good advice about surviving desert environments.

Now almost everything is tucked into baggies and stuffed inside plastic boxes. Ron has put the tent and other camping equipment in the car. The ticket and vehicle pass are displayed in the mirror by the front door. Benny and I leave Thursday at noon, where the plan is to spend the night in Reno and arrive at Black Rock City Friday morning.

So why am I doing this, might you ask? I’m not entirely sure. Does anybody really know why they do anything? As far as I can tell, people go to Burning Man for their own reasons, reasons they themselves may not understand. For some it’s the drugs, for some it’s the sex, for some it’s the art, for some it’s the feeling of belonging in a world that feels less than welcoming. For some it’s the friends they bring. For some it’s an escape. My guess I won’t know why I’m going to Burning Man until after I’ve returned. In the meantime, I’ve got this black and silver dress from a past Halloween, perfect for dancing at the Burn. It’s a sign.

Monday, August 18, 2014

First Day of 5th Grade

First day of 5th grade.
First day of kindergarten.


Benny's last year of elementary school starts today, and I want to enjoy it -- volunteer more, attend more events, bake more cupcakes and generally milk this year for all it's worth. I've even changed my work schedule so I no longer work Mondays. Who knows how much longer he'll want me around?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Our Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Lake Michigan is a big lake. It covers 22,300 square miles and is the 5th-largest lake in the world. (If you count the Caspian Sea as the world's largest lake. Geologist say it's actually a tiny ocean.)

Two years ago Benny and I crossed the lake by ferry; this year the whole family drove around it, from Chicago to Milwaukee and then to Post Lake, Wisc. From there we entered Michigan through the back door: Tahquamenon Falls, Whitefish Point, Copemish and South Haven. Then we dashed south to Indianapolis and back, and Benny and I spent another week in Michigan before driving back to Chicago.

 Here's a map of the trip.

Thank you so much to the relatives who provided free room and board: Mike and Diane, Marlene and Ron, Mom and Paul, and especially Cindy and Scott, who hosted us for two weeks. Benny loves the Midwest ("It's so open here!")

I covered our trip extensively on Facebook (perhaps over-extensively) with phone pictures. Here are some shots from my camera, which I just downloaded to my laptop last night.

Our first tourist attraction was Tahquamenon Falls, mentioned in Longfellow's poem Hiawatha. I never could read that poem all the way through, but I do remember the part about the wind god falling in love with a dandelion* and who can forget the lovely Minnehaha?

We drove south over the Mackinac Bridge (pronounced Mack-in-aw) into Mackinac City, where we gorged on fudge, ice cream and popcorn. As we drove over the bridge, I couldn't help thinking of the poor Yugo driver who was blown off the bridge years ago in high winds. Weird. I drive over the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge all the time and never worry about that.

In South Haven we saw my college roommate Jackie, her husband Doug, and Caitlin, Josh, Kyle and Alyssa. Jackie hasn't changed a bit since college, which frankly, is hard to forgive.

Mom and Paul took us to the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, which had eight priceless Chinese terracotta warriors on display.

Oh no! A dinosaur is chasing Benny!

Back in South Haven, we attended Harbor Fest and watched the dragon boat races.

Then it was back to the beach with college roommates Kris and Jackie and their families at Oval Beach in Saugatuck.

After nearly a month away, it was strange to be in San Francisco again, but the city gave us a warm welcome with one more beach day.

Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach.

We plan to return to the Midwest next summer to celebrate three high school graduations. We can't wait!


* The word "dandelion," I happened to learn today, comes from late Middle English: from French dent-de-lion, translation of medieval Latin dens leonis‘lion's tooth’ (because of the jagged shape of the leaves). This factoid comes courtesy of my newspaper coworker who puts little quotes on the bottom of his emails.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Meet Mr. Economy

So when I was in Seattle pitching my memoir to agents, I made all kinds of blithe promises, including “I use the economy as a character in my story.” Now that I’m preparing materials for agents, I’m all “Holy crap, I have to use the economy as a character in my story. Who the hell does that?”

That meant I actually had to think about what kind of character the economy — specifically the economy of March 2007-March 2008) would be. Would Lord Economy be like Sauron, a dark, malevolent shadow over the landscape, occasionally sending out the Nazgul of Foreclosure or the Witch-King of Mortgage Derivatives? Or would we have Miss Economy, like the Queen in Narnia, who cast a spell over our happy land, forcing up oil prices and credit card rates? I was tempted to create an Economy God, a reckless, vengeful Poseidon whipping up economic storms to prevent our hero from reaching a safe harbor. But not even I was paranoid enough to consider myself an Odysseus, unjustly persecuted with hidden bank fees.

In the end, I settled on Mr. Economy, a mighty, well-meaning, but none-too-bright giant. In March 2007, our Mr. Economy was strong and confident, almost too confident. He was reckless, shrugging off any restraint, running faster and faster. He was a gambler, hopped up on easy money, greedily gobbling up debt instruments. The sun is warm, the grass is soft and it never enters his pea-brained mind that things could ever change.

He looked so strong then, but of course that strength was illusory. Real strength comes through discipline and training and experience. Truly strong characters develop sound judgment and act purposefully, willing to practice moderation and prepared for setbacks.

In March 2007, Mr. Economy was a happy camper, with corporate earnings growing big.  He notices a small pain in the housing market (foreclosures up, home sales down) but pays it no mind.

In June, he notices another pain, the investment banks, who suddenly are worried about their sketchy, risky investments.

But in July, he still feels great. Everything’s fine, the Dow hits 14,000 for the first time.

In August, Mr. Economy starts feeling sick to his stomach. He’s been gobbling up all this shifty debt and he’s having trouble digesting it. He behaves erratically, up one day and down the next.

In September, he’s getting some headaches from housing, retail and financial industries. But he won’t listen to the Federal Reserve asking him to pretty please be responsible with the foreclosures. He’s starting to bleed jobs.

October brings a high fever, and of course, hallucinations. Everything’s rosy! Dow hits record high of 14,087! The worst is over! But infection has set in.

In November, our Mr. Economy is feeling really bad. Banks are hammered, everyone says recession is coming.

By December, Mr. Economy is breaking down before our very eyes. One million U.S. homes are in foreclosure. Our giant falls to his knees — he’s tapped out and can’t run any more.

In January 2008 he’s crawling along. Oil is at $100 a barrel, the Dow is weakening. The Fed slashes interest rates, but even with mass transfusions of money, Mr. Economy hasn’t felt this bad since 1974.

By February the vultures are circling. Credit card lenders jack up rates and fees on consumers and inflation rises.

In March, Mr. Economy is hardly moving, crushing consumers beneath him. He now has a choice: will he take his nasty-tasting medicine and get stronger faster, or will be just lie there, still crushing consumers and hoping he’ll slowly get stronger?

The answer, of course, is that the Fed doesn’t administer strong medicine, like allowing big financial institutions to fail and imposing new regulation. Instead, the Fed and the government administered massive transfusions of taxpayer dollars and a few weak restraints and called it a day. 

Which is likely why, although officially this recession ended in 2009, the recovery has been weak and why a wounded Mr. Economy continues to limp along, no matter what the stock market says. 

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Better Living Through Dorkiness

So apparently Benny needs to know all the U.S. states and capitols by Sept. 13. Actually, the entire fourth grade needs to know their states and capitols. The school's really serious about this; we parents had to sign a little form saying we would help our children learn this lesson and not allow them to sink into state-and-capitol-less despair.

The form even had fine print, which I didn't really read but might say that if Benny fails, Social Services will turn up and place him with a new family that knows the capitol of Connecticut is Dover. I mean Frankfort. Hartford?

I realized tonight, as Benny and I were eating dinner, that I had a captive audience here and could address this topic in my own dorky way. So I started reading off states in alphabetical order: if Benny guessed the capitol, great. If not, then I would tell him not only the name of the capitol, but how the city got that name, on the theory that knowing the history behind the name would help him remember it. Well, I don't know if it works, but it was a fun way to learn new facts while listening to Benny moan every time I said, "Okay, let's look it up!"

After a while I didn't want to stop and that's how I learned about the following state capitols:

A piece of the Little Rock at the Arkansas capitol.
Little Rock, Arkansas
named after a little rock on the river that was a navigation aid for boats.

Hartford, Connecticut
named after Hertford, England, but pronounced Hartford.

Tallahassee, Florida
Indian name for "old fields" because earlier Indians had cleared a bunch of land already.

Atlanta, Georgia
I thought it was after the woman with the golden apples in Greek mythology. Actually, it was named by a railroad guy who called it Atlantica-Pacifica and it was shortened to Atlanta.

Des Moines, Iowa
Named after the Riviera Des Moines or "River of the Monks" in French, but I don't know what the monks had to do with anything.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana
French for red staff or stick, maybe after the big cypress tree on the site

I end with Lansing, Michigan, our home state.
Lansing was originally some lame little settlement named after some guys' hometown in New York State. But in 1847 the state leaders wanted to move the capital further into the interior away from hostile British Canada, which had taken Detroit in the War of 1812. Michigan's other big cities vied for the honor, but they chose some flyspeck village with 20 people.

Stay tuned for more dorkiness tomorrow!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How I Started Chapter Five by Freaking Out

I need to write Chapter 5: Recessions I Have Known, but I'm scared. I’ve done everything but write in the last 40 minutes. I’ve posted on Facebook, changed my Apple password, bought a Seal album, helped Benny create a birthday card. And now I'm at my desk again. It's scary.

Who does stuff like this? Who sets their lives against the economy, who strings together the major events of their lives using recessions like fat beads on a string that winds and knots? I’m going to tangle this up.

I’m feeling some pressure. I want to send this out in September. Chapter Five was supposed to be a light revision and now it's a whole new chapter, possibly one of the most important chapters in the book.

The god Pan.
 I’m trying to remember everything; the events, the memories, the history, the personalities. I’m having trouble focusing. I'm hyperventilating. It’s 10:52 and I’ve done nothing. I can’t stop thinking about the other things I need to do. I’m in a panic. How do I start a chapter about recessions? I'm in a panic. 

I'm in a panic.

Panic: a a sudden sensation of fear so strong as to dominate or prevent reason, replacing it with anxiety. A Greek word from the shepherd god Pan, who liked to frighten goats and sheep.
The frying Pan.

It’s also an old-fashioned word for a financial crisis, like the panics of 1857, 1873 and 1907. All triggered by worries over gold, silver or copper. Panic. All the goats and sheep scattered.

I'm trying to write about the 1973-75 recession. But it wasn't a recession, it was a Panic. 

Yay! I'm on my way! An hour later, I'm still typing madly.

There's got to be an easier way to do this.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Puzzle Pieces

We never really know anybody's life, do we? Even the nearest and dearest, we only know a piece of what's going on. We reveal little snippets here and there in conversation and on Facebook and in our blogs. We don't really know anybody's day but ours, the whole picture, the shape of the day, how we feel in the morning, how we feel about the day or the life.

We ask "How did you sleep?" "How was your commute?" "How was your weekend?"

Then later, "How was your day?"

What do we answer? We say what we think they want to hear, what we're willing to share, the highlights, but we don't truly answer. We all have secrets. Some of us have big secrets. Some of us have a secret so big that we carry it around all day, touching it lightly with our fingertips to remind ourselves that it's really there.

My own secrets are becoming a little problematic because I'm writing about my life. I'm writing a memoir about a year in my life and I'm skimming over some sticky parts. This is fundamentally dishonest. It may weaken the writing. So when I finish the first 75 pages and they are all polished and prettified and sent out and I can start writing rough again, I will tell all my secrets, get them out on the page. I don't have to show them to anybody.

Right now I'm telling myself that many personal details don't matter in this memoir, that this memoir is about the financial life and this might be true. Or it might be a cop out. The only way to find out is to let all the secrets out. Maybe I'll have to include some and hurt people. There's only one way to find out.

At any rate, I can't keep censoring myself. If I keep doing that, than the final picture of my life will be alike a puzzle with missing pieces, gaping holes where meaning is missing.

I am all the puzzle pieces. My life is all the puzzle pieces. Write every puzzle piece, no matter how ugly or awkward the shape. If you don't, then you won't have a prettier picture. You'll just have a picture with an awkward, ugly hole.