When I went home for my Mom’s wake and funeral, the last thing on my mind was all the things left in the house where I grew up, on Winnemac. We stayed there, with my Dad, and there were far more important things to focus upon.
But, on the last day, I noticed that the old Royal Typewriter was in the back room off the kitchen. It hadn’t changed since I first started typing on it. I took an interest in typing at age 9, which I suppose isn’t that unusual these days. It seems a kid learns a QWERTY keyboard before they are out of diapers now!
But, back then, even in high school, the majority of people that took typing class were female, and unfortunately stereotypically, in anticipation of needing office skills.
Even when I was working in the early 1990s, the office had a receptionist who typed ALL of the manager’s letters. Except mine. Which made me a freak. Or young punk.
But, when I was 9, I remembered my Mom pulling out the old Royal to type up all sorts of things: Letters, forms, recipes, and even labels. There was this whap whap as each key struck the paper, and you could hear it in the next room. When she was flowing, it would be a rhythm with ebbs and flows, and the eventual ding and slide of the carriage back to the preset indent.
It was a fancy Royal Typewriter, and could handle both red and black ink with a white-out correction setting too. And, like everything old, it was a pukey colored green. At least from a 9-year-old perspective. Avocado might be a more gentile color description.
Like any geeky child, I wanted to learn how to operate this contraption. I was still working on my handwriting at that age, and I was pretty good. Not as good as my Mom, by any means. She had perfect handwriting that was literally beautiful. I’ve kept every card and note I can remember, and are just as precious for what they said as how she wrote it.
So, she had a typing instruction manual that dated back to the 1940s, and I started to learn how to type as a hobby. I typed mostly nonsense at first, paying most attention to the sounds. And, then, of course, there was the excitement of typing in red. But, we didn’t always have that ribbon, and so it was mostly black.
Of course, they had just advanced the cause of fixing your typing errors with little sheets that you had to hold in place over the letter you mis-typed. And, you had to get the carriage to move back over the exact right spot – tricky if you had moved down a few lines. Then, you had to strike the same letter, and it would knock the white material from the little sheet, leaving a clear plastic window of the letter, and hopefully covering your mistake. Sometimes, it would take a few extra stabs at it.
Eventually, I started copying other things that were written. Books, the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica that settled all dinner debates, and even the newspaper. My brother Tommy was in High School, and I noticed every now and then he’d have to type a paper for school. It was kind of a big deal. The whap whaps were much slower, and he mostly pecked with 1 or two fingers. It wasn’t really rhythmic at all.
It was in the 4th Grade, with Ms. Morrow, that I finally got up the courage to suggest that instead of handwriting a paper that I typed it. While there was initially some pushback because my handwriting was perhaps also being graded, I did have a rebuttal: Eventually, in High School, I would no longer be allowed to handwrite papers. I would be required to type them. So, obviously, I wasn’t escaping my handwriting skills – I was just making it an “advanced” class, just like taking algebra in 5th grade.
She bought it.
And, it began the process of me developing my typing rhythm. And, avoiding a key tangle. Which is when you try to go too fast, and multiple keys would literally get physically locked up. It could slow production for a few minutes, and in extreme cases might even be akin to untying a knot. More than once, my Mom had to bail me out. I felt bad, sometimes, like I was ruining the typewriter, but she never once made me feel guilty.
In the 6th Grade, I started to get more creative with my stories. And, sometimes, we would have to read our stories to the rest of the class. I had a friend, Karl, who was extremely creative. And, he could draw. We’d sometimes collaborate on our drawings, which might be of this space world, with spikey mountains. We’d connect many sheets of paper to create a world or universe, with bases, battles, and amazing vistas. Total dorks.
He wrote this story about King Eggbert, who was King of the Egg People, or something like that. And, of course, on the day it was read to the class, he had everyone rolling in the aisles. It was arguably early intro stand-up. But, super-creative.
The next assignment, I made one of the biggest transgressions in writing – I plagiarized. Well, not anything but the character and concept of Eggbert. In a way, it was collaborative, in my mind, like the drawings we shared. I “enhanced” Eggbert’s universe, and, of course, on the day we read them to class, brought in my own Eggbert dressed up in a little king costume.
It was well-received and my classmates laughed, maybe not as hard as at Karl’s original story, but my teacher, Mrs. Slupik, had to help me grow up a bit. I needed to find my own creative means of self-expression. And, that, was a bit intimidating. I mean, I could make up things, but I thought of all the stories I liked, and they were SO creative.
Mrs. Slupik was at my Mom’s wake. And, as I felt the pressure of having to speak the next day, my mind was filled with so many thoughts – too many to filter into something cohesive. Mrs. Slupik had been following me on Facebook, and while we talked about so many things about my Mom, she said one thing to me that melted me. She told me that when I wrote from the heart, it was when I was at my best.
After the wake, some of us gathered at Cardinal Wine and Spirits, the bar at the end of the block I grew up on. The bar my family has worked at, gathered at, and, in this case, mourned at. One of my oldest friends in my life, who I met in the alley at age 5, was Allen, and he came to the bar too. Along with Steve the Meat Guy. This guy who sells a full menu of meat, I think from his truck. Pretty much every meat you could imagine.
We couldn’t resist.
So, over some local neighborhood meat treats and an Old Style, I reminisced about the old days in the old neighborhood. I asked Allen what his favorite memory of us was, and he brought up the night he and I stayed up all night drinking Jolt Cola so that I could say goodbye the next morning to a girl I had a crush on, Sheri.
We had a boombox in his basement, and we were listening to the Loop on FM radio. They were playing stuff we had heard way too much, so we put on a new tape I got all the way out at Rolling Stone Records on Irving: Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I knew all the words, and felt, right from the first time I heard Side 3, that I could actually feel what Roger Waters was trying to say. I knew he was an adult, but he sang about being a child in a way that was emotionally open.
I had a spiral notebook, and I wrote line after line about what I’d say to Sheri. And, Allen did his best, as he was 3 years older, to teach me how to talk to girls. I was not a natural. I was nervous already, and with each cup of our 2-liters of Jolt, my panic increased logarithmically.
I knew what I wanted to say. She was cute, had the prettiest smile, and the one time she hugged me, when we were at the St. Matthais Carnival a week before, I absolutely loved her softness. She was older than me, and the meaner kids in the neighborhood had a nickname for her: Thunderthighs. But, that didn’t bother me. In fact, I liked it.
But, I had to lie. It was social suicide for a white boy in that era.
And, so, I tried to find every other thing to say and write it down. Because, saying what I felt out loud to someone, not to mention looking them in the eye – it would make my heart explode. Or, maybe it was just the Jolt.
As the sun rose, Allen and I walked down Ainsle over to Sheri’s apartment building on Hamilton. Allen offered last minute advice to his now-twitchy younger friend, knowing his brain was mush. Sheri’s family was doing like any good Chicago family going on a Midwestern driving vacation, and leaving at the crack of dawn.
We were on the sidewalk, across the street, and all the lines from the notebook were now jumbling with Side 3 of the Wall as we were blinded by the sun shining down the gangway. I thought to say this, no that’s dumb, no that. All the while avoiding the one thing I really wanted to say: You’re cute and I like hugging you.
I froze up and watched Sheri and her family pack the last of their things in the car. They didn’t see us. And, I never said a word. Or even waved. It was like one of those dreams where you are frozen and can’t speak. They drove off, and my heart was racing like a mad typist. I simply could not express myself. My keys got all tangled in the worst jamb ever – like every key. My brain would simply not let my heart speak.
Now, a 13 and 16-year-old pair of boys were totally wired at 7am on a Saturday morning just standing on the sidewalk. Allen realized I probably wouldn’t sleep for days. So, we went over a few blocks to the Amundsen High School Track. And, he told me we had to run until we got tired. I’m not sure how many miles we ran. Probably a couple, maybe a few. He said he thought my heart might actually explode, but I don’t even think he knew it kind of already did.
Back in the bar, as Allen was telling me this, I realized that this was literally the story of my life. It was his favorite story, but it was also one of the big turning points in my life.
And, here, my friend of a lifetime, was here on one of the most important days of my life giving me this gift of a memory. It all came flooding back. I hadn’t really thought it through till then, but I changed from that kid who couldn’t express himself into a kid who became very outgoing. I spent hours on the phone almost every school night, and I would call up just about anybody in school. I absolutely loved talking to people, getting in their heads, and letting them get into mine.
And, I kept typing and typing and typing. Faster and faster, and eventually I got to the point where I could think with my fingers. I could type, sometimes, quicker than I could say something out loud.
As personal computers entered our lives, the whap whap of the old Royal got replaced by all sorts of other rhythms. Mostly plastic, but sometimes nicer. And, eventually, the nearly silent, but with just enough noise, Apple keyboard, which I’ve preferred for the past decade or so.
With Mrs. Slupik’s encouragement and inspiration, and with Allen’s reminder of how far I had come, I went back to my parent’s house, the one I grew up in, and I wrote the eulogy for my Mom on my Macbook in nearly the spot where she passed. Things like that don’t spook me, as I left superstition by the roadside a few cities ago.
I could tell when it was flowing right, because I’d feel the emotions flowing through me. And, yes, sometimes there were tears, but there were also laughs too. That’s the thing about emotions, they are actually all equal, in a sense. It’s the fact you can feel them that confirms you are still alive. Maybe even why we are alive.
I printed out what I wrote, and had the honor of speaking along with three of the greatest orators I’ve ever known in my life: My Dad, Pastor Rickman, and my Brother-in-Law, Mike. I cannot count how many times I’ve watched them speak improvisationally, but I can remember so many of them since I was just barely able to walk. In fact, I realized, this was always the example I was trying to follow, and that their ability to speak from the heart created the scenes in many many people’s lives that would win Academy Awards many times over.
I made it through my reading without losing it. I had handwritten in “this little light” in the margin, but my thunder was stolen by Ms. Huelskoetter’s kid’s choir who sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” It was one of my Mom’s favorite songs.
As I sat down, on the lectern in front of me, there were some hand made artworks for Pentecost, which is a Christian and Jewish Holiday. One thing that most people really don’t know much about, but it’s when the Holy Spirit visits with Jesus’ disciples and then these little flames come shooting out of the tops of their heads, among other things. But, it’s when they all start out on their mission in life: to spread the good word about their time walking with Jesus.
After the Funeral, my wife, Debbie, and I went to visit my Mom’s sister, my Godmother and Aunt, Elaine. She was doing much better in the assisted living facility, but had still not gone outside on the deck that overlooked Ashland and Belmont. We bought a bottle of sweet German white wine, and had a toast to my Mom in paper cups. My aunt said she hadn’t had any wine in maybe 15-20 years.
While sitting with her on the deck, she told me about my Mom as a child. I had heard some stories before, but not many. As a Depression baby, times were hard, and her stories and my Dad’s were similar in how they portrayed not the struggles and lack of things (and food), but all of the great values that came out of that era. How you helped strangers. How everyone supported one another.
But, while looking at a picture of my Mom when she was about 5 or 6 years old, my Aunt Elaine told me about how my Mom knew she was going to be a teacher at that age. All kids are asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, but most find themselves in someplace far different than their childhood visions of the future. It was initially surprising, but then it made sense. My Mom never seemed to have any doubt as to her purpose in life, and it’s exactly what she dedicated her life to.
Her light shined, brightly.
When we got back to my parent’s house, I found the old Royal typewriter in the back room, and brought it to my Dad and said I would really appreciate him shipping it to me, which he did a few weeks later. And, so it’s sat here in our living room for several months.
Every time I’d see it, I’d think about all the things I typed up, many of which I still have. I finally pulled it out of it’s case a couple months ago, and noted the aging and wear. But, because things like this were built to last a lifetime, it still tapped out that whap whap whap, even though the ribbon was completely dry of ink leaving nothing on the paper. It was exactly like I remembered it. And, the feel of the recoil on the keys was just like I remembered, and the little extra strength you needed for all the pinkie keys was still there. And the ding and carriage slide was perky and just like I remembered – smooth and so natural to the feel.
Every time I’d sit in the living room, I kept thinking about what my purpose here is. I’ve not been as fortunate as my Mom. I didn’t know what I wanted, and then set my sights straight for it without a waver. My journey is, well, crazy. It takes turns that makes some think I’m just really creative, but I’m fortunate enough to have many many witnesses.
And, for some reason, I have this memory. Not only of my waking life, but also my dreams. They intertwine in surprising ways, and carry themes in and out of consciousness, sometimes foreshadowing, and sometimes forewarning. Looking forward, it seems I can’t tell where I’m going. And, I’ve been told by a wise man, every road is the right road when you have no destination in mind.
One of those dreams was when I was 16 years old. Actually, it was two dreams. In the first, I was told I was supposed to write a book. And, the book was supposed to “change the world”. The second was more opaque, and I really can’t remember the plot, but it was related to the first, and the only thing that stuck in my memory was that I saw all of the people in the world, from the sky, and they were singing about love.
The change the world thing kind of got in my head. It felt like something I had to do. One problem: I had no clue how to do this. I was raised a Lutheran, but didn’t feel like I had any special take that would make me a preacher. I was in the choir, but that didn’t seem to be an agent or vehicle for societal change.
After a few years, as this thought bounced around in my teenage head, it started to feel overwhelming to the point of panic attacks. Like I was missing my life purpose because I either forgot the super important part of the dream where I was told what or how I would change the world with a book. It felt, at times, more like a curse.
Of course, I’d have flashes I’d decide were brilliant. And, then it would fade. I’d get lost in the concept. Or, just fail to write down what I was thinking while I thought it. Not to mention all these middle-of-the-night times when I’d get up and think I finally had it.
I began writing on the Internet in 1995. Just email, but I found two things that kept me interested – I could email to my favorite authors, and sometimes they’d write back, and this thing called Spreadnet, which was an email group for fans of the band Widespread Panic. The people there were funny, irreverent, and had loads of inside info on songs and where the band was going to play in the future.
I started to express myself to the other fans, particularly about the songs I was quickly letting become the songtrack to my life. A few years later, it led to Deb and I traveling to Paris and Amsterdam to go see Panic play. Which we paid for with the macrame jewelry art I was making as a hobby.
A few years later, we found ourselves become eCommerce Entrepreneurs, but we didn’t call ourselves that. eBay Sellers was probably a more honest expression. But, there were these message boards where people helped one another figure it all out. And, from there, relationships turned into business relationships and associations. It was there that I started to write on a daily basis, discussing everything under the sun.
Eventually, I got into a group called Voices of the Community, where not only did we help eBay figure out it’s design and strategic path, but we started to find ourselves being advocates to management for the entire community. Because many of us were enjoying economic freedom and success, but felt some decisions put our aspirations under threat, it felt in many ways like petitioning a government.
Then Facebook came along. And, with that, the ability to illustrate stories with pictures. The possibilities were endless, and sometimes so were my posts.
I felt that I could now express myself in ways that I never could before. And, my Mom, while appreciating the ability to keep up on my adventures from their computer at home, always said to me that she could not understand how I could be so open about my mind – and feelings. She was very private, and couldn’t imagine sharing the types of things I was sharing. Deep, personal thoughts on, as it turns out, nearly everything it’s possible to write about.
Daily. Which, I’ve heard, is how you practice enough at something to be good. Or maybe even very good.
But, this writing, which didn’t get lost with each passing email address, or in stored boxes of old papers about characters like Eggbert. This writing was out there, and you could go back to it. Which doesn’t mean much next week, but maybe next year, and for certain 9 years later. Because over that arc of time, when you put out enough material, you can see how you change. And, how you don’t change. Or fail to change.
I started writing a book in 2012 about, among other things, the story of me moving to Colorado while Deb lived in Atlanta, and somehow we end up getting engaged and she moves there to live with me. But, it’s about far more than that. It’s about the entirety of my life, from a non-linear perspective. And how that all came together in strange and unexpected ways.
After getting 6 chapters in, I thought that I was writing the book for, and maybe even to, my Mom. And, then I went to India to finish the book. But, my friend Jay wouldn’t have that. I had to use my time more wisely, and it was true and he was right.
Later, when my Mom started getting sicker, I started to think that maybe she could help me edit the book. And, so, I wrote a chapter that she didn’t like. She felt I had mischaracterized her Dad, and was actually upset about it. It stopped me in my tracks. I just didn’t know how to tell my truth, or at least my perceptions, without the potential of hurting those I love. Sometimes, it’s about more than simply the ability to express yourself, even from the heart.
But, meanwhile, I found that what I was writing on Facebook was changing too. Not just my style, but even my views. As I started to get to know more and more people, from many different places, with different ages, histories, careers, and hopes for the future, I found that my perspective was changing too.
And that damned dream just kept haunting me. What in the world, seriously, was I supposed to say that was to be so damned important? And, how would that ever change anything?
Then, one day, while riding my bike last summer, a few months after my Mom had passed, I had this weird thought. Let’s say my teenage dream was some type of prophetic vision of the future, but, like so many times in my stories I got it jumbled up. What if the book I was writing was perpetual, and it wasn’t about changing the world, but about changing myself.
Which reminded me of one of my favorite song lyrics:
If you can’t change the world, change yourself
If you can’t change the world, change yourself
If you can’t change the world, change yourself
And if you can’t change yourself, then change the world
And, there it was, once again. That feeling in my throat, and the pressure behind my eyes, and the welling up from my heart.
My journey is taking me down a path that I can only say feels like the future is calling me towards it. Sometimes I can’t see the road, but I can hear the sound drawing me nearer, and I can’t turn back or look away. But, I have to keep sharing, and the way I know best is with this QWERTY keyboard I originally got from my Mom’s Royal Typewriter.
That brings me to India, where I was supposed to be finishing this world-changing book. But, instead, I did a Tonsure at Tirumala, and then went into a temple that few people who are not Hindu ever get to see. Outside the temple, there’s a stone with a square depression carved into the stone. You get to wish for one thing, and you have to write it with your finger on the stone.
I wrote: 1
I see one world, sometimes from above, looking down like an astronaut. I see no dotted lines, with eyes that are all the same variety no matter the skin, but each with a unique iris. The one thing that divides us is our languages, and even when they are the same, sometimes we can barely understand one another at all.
And, then I saw this movie, Arrival. It’s a movie about language, and how the world, on the brink of dividing and self-destructing, had 7-armed angels arrive from the heavens with a gift. A perfect language introducing a reality known to our scientists, but impossible to fathom – non-linear time. Your future affects your past, and sometimes you can hear it call drawing you towards it. You can ignore it, if you like. But, given the paradox of knowing what you may face before you make a choice, sometimes choosing the harder road anyways – because you already know it leads to a place you need to be. And maybe even the world needs you to be.
I feel this now, more than ever. And, it’s why, in the face of a world that seems to be unraveling by the day, and sometimes by the hour, I feel a calling to take all this ability to express myself and apply it towards that one world I once saw from the sky where everyone was singing up to the heavens.
I only have one question: Have I changed enough yet or is it time to change the world?
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine,
All the time,
Let it shine.