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Storytelling

Death By Mixing Bowl

In Cleveland there are two main highways that lead into the city, and both of them stay high above the Cuyahoga River. That area, the Cuyahoga Valley just south of downtown, is an industrial wasteland where steel mills and chemical plants operate — not like they used to, of course, but they belch smoke into the sky, and burn off noxious fumes from their chimney stacks sending red, orange, and blue flames into the night. Riding on those highways, Interstates 71 and 77, is the closest thing Cleveland has to offer that compares to the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World. In the span of five miles, you see the tops of buildings that once were the pinnacle of American industrial society, creating wealth for a few lucky ones, providing jobs for tens of thousands, and creating deadly pollution that damn near killed the entire region. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers found work in those industrial mills, started families that thrived in Cleveland, and ultimately created me and my brothers.

I lived with my brother for eighteen months while I was going to graduate school at Cleveland State. He had a house in Parma, and I commuted from there to CSU, which was downtown. I took I-77 and never grew tired of the surreal view of the vestiges of Cleveland’s glory. Being a city college, CSU only offered evening classes for graduate courses, and so I also had the advantage of commuting into town when most drivers were fighting to escape. My brother was also getting his law degree at CSU’s Marshall College of Law, so he was there most evenings as well.

One day, my brother and I had reason to commute downtown together late in the afternoon. It was between four and five P.M., and traffic was heavy but not thick. We found ourselves pinned in behind a truck pulling a flatbed trailer, and on the trailer was a large industrial machine we couldn’t quite identify. We were behind it for a couple of miles on I-77. Because traffic was slow, we had quite a few minutes to wonder what that machine might possibly be.

The machine was made mostly of stainless steel and absolutely filled the flatbed behind the truck. It had a large arm that hung over a massive round body. It was oddly familiar, but neither of us could quite place it.

That particular stretch of highway is rough and abused. The speed limits are not really necessary because the potholes and half-assed repairs keep only the most insane from going over 50. As we approached downtown, we noticed that the shaking from the bad road had caused the massive round body on the strange machine being transported ahead of us to spin on its axis.

As the Terminal Tower and BP Oil building came into view, we recognized what was before us: an industrial sized mixer, and the massive round body was its enormous mixing bowl. The spinning gave it away. Here was a machine capable of making enough dough to bake a loaf of bread the size of a Buick. Of course such things had to exist, for how else did ten thousand loaves of Wonder Bread appear on the shelves of A & P and Krogers each morning if some huge machine did not spit out ten thousand balls of dough? If you saw a leprechaun or a unicorn in the morning mist, you would believe; so it is with industrial sized mixers being dragged above the smelly wasteland of Cleveland: once you see it, you believe.

As we neared our exit, East 9th Street, the mixing bowl spun faster. It warbled and rocked, and before our disbelieving eyes, that mixing bowl spun off of its trailer just one hundred feet in front of our car. It bounced a good six feet off of the pavement, and bounced again still spinning.

My brother eased off of the accelerator, but because of the traffic we didn’t dare slam on the brakes. For a brief moment I know we both thought that the stupid giant mixing bowl was going to bounce onto our car and crush us. It was a funny feeling that did not induce fear. We were going to die, but in such a bizarre way that it wouldn’t seem like dying, but merely suffering the ultimate prank — the bucket propped on the door, filled with paint, but that also chops off your head, or the electric buzzer in your palm intended to shock you but which instead stops your heart — and so the story explaining what happened would obscure the fact that you were dead and never coming back to this world.

When it hit the pavement the second time, now less than fifty feet before our car, the spin of the bowl took it out of our lane. My brother hit the gas and we surged forward. The bowl bounced again in the next lane, and then slammed off of the cement barrier dividing the highway. We tore ahead and took the exit.

I did turn back and saw the huge mixing bowl bounce back across the highway, and somehow, as if guided by the practical joking hand of God, it missed all the other cars as well. We spun down the ramp, down to the level of the city, and began making our way past the abandoned storefronts, the condemned apartment buildings, and the empty warehouses, and we said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving. Then we began to laugh.

Storytelling

Being Hadick

I have had two interesting encounters with folks named Hadick this past week, which reminded me of another, more interesting encounter.

I joined a social networking site and within one day was contacted by someone else with the same last name. It turned out to be my cousin’s son whom I had never met before. I had not seen that cousin in over a decade, since our Grandfather’s funeral.

The other encounter was via e-mail in which someone had stumbled on one of my web site endeavors and was curious if we were related. I don’t believe we are, but it was a reasonable guess on his part because there just aren’t that many with this surname.

The third encounter was one that I stumbled upon while Googling “Hadick”. There is a tech-job recruiting firm based in Dayton, and they dominate the results of any Google search, but one other link came up. It turns out the mayor of the village of Albion, NY, is also a Hadick (or he was mayor at one time) and some of his exploits have been posted on the internet, to the point where a site has been established to track some of those exploits. Now I’ve done a couple of dumb things on the internet, and some even dumber things in my life. I’m not trying to pass judgment, and I urge everyone to use compassion, patience and forbearance when reading about someone else’s misadventures.

I did want to point out that I am not the infamous mayor, neither am I the recruiter, or the Chicago-based filmmaker. I invite all Hadicks to get in touch, either directly, or through Facebook or LinkedIn. At least we all have one thing in common.

Storytelling

Basement Blues

I spent the better part of a long weekend cleaning my basement last month. There were boxes stacked on top of boxes, partially spilled boxes on top of the spillage from other boxes, and the debris left over from some fun game my son played with his friends. That is just the beginning of the mess.

We have a specially constructed set of shelves for the boxes that hold the Christmas decorations, and those shelves were bare but surrounded by the partially packed boxes waiting to be stored on those shelves. We also have the rejected and forgotten furniture from the early part of our marriage shoved along the walls. Sofas, chairs, and dressers, once useful and necessary in our life, now waiting for some second chance that will never, ever come. As they wait, the cats have used them to sharpen claws, and to deposit the occasional hair ball. Coated with shed hair, they reek of mildew and bile.

Beneath the stairs, there is an impossibly packed collection of old toys, Easter decorations, craft supplies, Halloween decorations, more toys, and dress-up clothes. In the event of a tornado, that space will be the safest place in the house, and perhaps our only chance for survival, but there is no way in hell we’ll be able to make room for all of us. Even if we could unpack it, there is no place to put those things, and we’d be forced to carry them back upstairs, back into the path of danger. We are doomed if a tornado strikes.

A basement is like a reflection of the dark recesses of your soul. In our case, it reveals our profound laziness, and how we lack the fortitude to dispose of the things in our life we no longer need. Rather than offer these things, many of them serviceable, to the poor or needy, we pack them away for some undefined future need. I suppose children’s play clothes may come back in style, but no one who lives here will be able to fit into them.

If Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” were made into a movie these days, it would be Dorian’s basement in suburban America that revealed his flaws of character and sinful misgivings. Instead of the deep wrinkles, sunken eyes, and hateful expression on a portrait, it would be the cluttered, smelly, and filthy basement that Dorian would hide from public view.

My wife is horrified to know that I allowed our friends into our basement during its worst state of being. I was not deluded into thinking it was no big deal; I am a man, and sometimes clutter and filth mean little to a man, especially when it is shown to another man. Nevertheless, I was not impervious to the shame.

At its nadir, we had four cats and two dogs. The cats’ litter box was in the basement, and the dogs, perhaps drawn by the various smells, were wont to sneak downstairs to relieve themselves. Two of the cats became intolerant of the others, backed themselves into a cluttered corner, and turned several of our boxes into litter trays. I became afraid that cholera or typhus might be lurking amongst the feces or urine that was starting to accumulate.

Over the span of three days, I spent over twenty hours cleaning the mess. Each day I worked myself into a sweat, and reached a point of despair not quite knowing what to do with certain things. I filled numerous trash bags, and rearranged vast swaths of basement territory.

The operation itself was not unlike solving a Chinese puzzle. I needed to clear a certain area in order to use it for swap space when, later on, I’d clear another. What made it possible, ultimately, was my wife’s absence. She was gone for the long weekend visiting a sick friend, and I was able to spend long stretches below ground level, tearing through the vestiges of our former, happy life. Old pictures, old books, old magazines; what, exactly, possessed us to save so very much garbage?

When I was finished, there was still a great deal of unneeded things in the basement, but I had arranged them to create space and the illusion that we knew what we were doing. While I was working, I had secretly thought that I might stumble upon something — a toy, a hat, an old album — that would cheer me up and make me believe it was all worth the effort. I found no such thing.

I did discover that tidying up my life gives me a warmth and happiness inside, like I might just know what I’m doing with my future after all, if only I can clean up my past.

Storytelling

Bricks in a Box – The Lies We Tell Ourself

A few years after I finished college, after having held down a very conventional, suit and tie job for over three years, I decided to get a Master’s degree in my field, Computer Science. I pursued this with a mixed agenda, something that has been a problem for me all of my life. On one hand, I wanted to give up corporate life, and pursue teaching at the community college level, and I figured I just needed a master’s to do this. On the other hand, I figured the degree would refresh my knowledge, and help me get the specific job I wanted back in the corporate world in case the teaching thing was not what I hoped it would be. If I had a third hand (well, really, wouldn’t that be awkward, and lead to some very unfunny jokes) it would have held the secret idea that I wanted to be a writer, and I was going to spend my time at graduate school writing something wonderful that would save me from having to deal with either of my first two hands. I was completely, totally wrong about all of my agenda items.

That third hand held my life dream firmly. I have always loved reading, especially fiction, and at some point in high school, while working on stories for our required journal writing in a very bad English class, it clicked in my head that writing stories for people to enjoy the way that I enjoyed what others had written must be the greatest thing in the world to do, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to write.

I kept that dream a not-so-secret secret even as I got an Engineering degree and started my corporate job. I read as much as possible during that time, figuring I could learn how it’s done just by reading. I accumulated dozens of books. Hundreds in fact. I bought most of them used, in the Dawn Treader book shop in Ann Arbor, but plenty of them new, and I kept them in the best possible shape that I could. I spent evenings studying a very thick dictionary to improve my vocabulary. I read books on the art and craft of writing. I was more boring than death.

The ultimate downside of caring about the books that you read is that you are loathe to leave them behind when you move from one place to another. When I decided to go to graduate school, I moved back into my parents’ house near Cleveland, and my parents helped with the move. Thank God I had made a couple of friends while working, as they helped me move out of my Michigan apartment. (Actually, I should just thank Brian.) My father complained the entire time because of the amount of stuff, but it all fit into a smallish trailer we pulled behind his van.

The stuff all went into my father’s garage, and I slept in the bed I had grown up in, and I had effectively reversed and returned eight years of adulthood. I am a child at heart, but nothing underscores it quite like moving back home.

I was in good company as my older brother was back at the house for somewhat similar reasons. Luckily, he had had enough, and bought a house shortly after graduate school began, and he invited me to live with him. I accepted, but our moving company, Dad With a Van, would have nothing to do with it. If we wanted to move, we had his blessing, but not his strong back.

We enlisted a number of friends from childhood for the move. It was a relatively easy move, but the numerous boxes with my name scribbled on the side in black marker stood out. They were small but heavy, surprisingly heavy, in fact, and made little noise when shaken. If they were dropped, I didn’t complain. Finally, Jay, caring his twelfth small, heavy box into the attic where I would sleep, broke down
in the middle of the stairs.

“What the hell is inside these boxes,” he asked. “Bricks?”

“Books,” I said.

“Books? What kind of books? Books about bricks?”

I had encoded the boxes on the outside so as to know their contents and make unpacking a little simpler, so I studied the box for a moment to find the answer. “Those are telephone books,” I said.

Jay was understandably confused, and so I took a moment to explain. It all got back to my secret desire to be a writer. At some point, as I was studying words in a very thick dictionary, it occurred to me to also study the names in the phone book to get a feel for the type of names one finds in an area. This got a little out of hand because of my corporate job, which caused me to travel to a different place every week for nearly a year. I took the phone book out of every hotel where I stayed, and quickly amassed a huge collection of phone books from across this great country of ours. I had eight boxes packed with phone books.

I truly believe Jay would have been happier if I had told him those boxes were filled with bricks. But, then, if I had had a large amount of bricks to move, we would have used a hod rather than cardboard boxes.

I still haven’t figured out how to be a writer, and so I’ve chickened out and stuck with the corporate jobs all these 22 years. I don’t study the dictionary anymore, and I’ve never had reason to look at the phone books for a name to use in a story. Jay is no longer with us, having passed away at a very early age from cancer. So when I look at those phone books on the bottom shelf in my basement, surrounded by my scores of books, I can’t help but picture the look on his face as he glared up at me from the middle of the staircase, the small, dense, cardboard box at his feet, as I told him it was filled with telephone books.

“You prick,” Jay said. “You have got to be shitting me.” But, as is so often the case in life, I was not shitting him.

Storytelling

Why I Love NPR and My Brush With Fame

I started listening to National Public Radio when I was at the University in Ann Arbor, and I got a job in Detroit forcing a 40 mile commute, each way, everyday. I feasted on the substantial content to keep my mind occupied, and I appreciated the thoughtful turn of phrase offered. They seemed to care about their subjects, and committed a decent amount of time to stories.

The habit of listening to NPR has continued for more than twenty years. I’ve learned the cadence and humor of all the newscasters, and grown fond of all of them. It’s just a bit like sitting in a room with people I like, so comfortable am I with the sound of their voices.

In the year 2000, they played a story in honor of the 60th anniversary of Bugs Bunny. I was tickled because, being a child at heart, I love Bugs Bunny cartoons (well, to be exact, I love those created by Robert McKimson during the 1950s). There was something I didn’t quite like about their filmography of Bugs. And for the first time in my life, I was moved to take action.

If you have two minutes to spare, and a Real Media player installed, you can listen to the filmography here.

Then, if you have three more minutes, you can listen to my response to their story.

And that, ladies and gentleman, may be the closest I ever get to fame and fortune.