reflections

I’ve been thinking about ‘digging through the stacks’ recently, pulling favorite stories of mine written years ago. This is the first of that. Enjoy.

Karin

Sisters are strange, you either hate them or get along with them, or both intermittently. Sisters can make your day easy or hell; some are bitchy and some are quiet. Sisters are hard to work with, and I worked with mine for two years.

Before she got hired at my Grandparent’s bakery, I had already worked there for nearly a year, and I knew I finally had one up on her. I knew the in and outs of working there and I finally felt I had the upper hand against my older sister.

Her and I worked mostly after school, closing. My grandmother had the strangest way of ‘evening’ out the register, a nice round $105, but each denomination had enough, or close enough. This boggled my mind for the first few weeks but I eventually got it. My sister picked this up much faster and seemingly understood why my grandmother choose $105 as the cut off. This left me out in the storefront most nights, dumping  the old baked goods, cleaning the wide array of glass that encircled the retail side of the store, and sweeping.

A moment should be taken to say something about my grandmother’s pleasantries with the woman who work at the store versus the men. The woman could do as they please and the men were a lazy group of do-nothings. As a for instance, I’d been “caught” reading a book, all while my sister was sitting reading a magazine; I’d be scolded and Karin would get a friendly “hello.” This was not single instance, but occurred with every other female employee, I was the whipping boy. It would go as far as my sister would receiving unsolicited gifts from my grandmother and I would get told to get more boxes.

My sister and I worked the long dog days of summer together for two full summers. Our days ran cleaner than the old clock in the office. We both would come in at around 12pm in the summer, relieve the person working, usually an old clown woman or a giggly flamboyant fellow. They were usually grateful to have someone there, as they were left working alone for a few hours between shifts, and in some cases refused themselves a bathroom break. Karin and I would then check everything: boxes, the cleanliness of the floor, trays that need to be pulled or condensed and ran in the pan washer, and check the phone for voice messages; a combined total of a half an hour at ‘teenage’ speed. After we had cleaned up after the morning shift we would walk around, maybe talk about our friends for a bit then get lunch. Lunch was always a sandwich for each of us from a new sub shop down the street. We would eat, maybe have a snack after lunch of cookies or a French pastry. We’d get tired from sheer boredom, and then eventually I’d end up in the office.

The bakery office was a dark room with one doorway, two chairs and a desk in it. I would sit in the far chair, my grandfather’s, would keep the lights off and put my head down and just fall asleep. Sometimes she’s sit in the chair at the other end of the room and glide into sleep or simply steep in my snoring – unknown to me which.

We would take turns on who should get up when someone came in and help them, our wake up call was a distance and distinct door bell and sometimes jingle bells. Then there were times when I would fall deep asleep, unbeknownst to me that she had gotten three or more people in a row. I’d roll into my drool and make some noises. And the uncountable times she’d knock on the glass thin mirror glass that faced the storefront because more people were funneling in and they were waiting. She would look at my face and stretch an embarrassed smile and I’d turn and look at the mirror window to see sleep lines running across my face. I’d call out for the next person in line with a scratched and groggy voice, eyes bloodshot and half-stuck together. The customers that I helped never looked at me sideways nor addressed the issue, things are better left unsaid, or unasked.

After our, more of my, nap we would go our separate ways doing our tasks which lead to closing up shop. We would trade off either cleaning the horrendous pan washer and helping customers. If there were any days she didn’t feel up to cleaning the pan washer, I was obliged to do it for her – she’d watch out for me enough to pay her back.

The pan washer was about seven feet tall and had buttons on the front that looked like they belonged on a 1970’s imagined panel of the future. Most pan washers are self-cleaning, at Carney’s we had to clean it. It may not sound too bad, to clean a pan washer, but imagine what all goes in: flour, oil, fats, sprinkles, sugar, egg residue, crumbs, and so so much more. You tried not to think about it as you washed, the thought of it all is just a bit too much. First it had to be drained which took enough time to turn on the radio and separate yourself further from the horrible retail end of working at the bakery. Then the four grates inside had to be taken out, banged inside a garbage can, then rinsed – these stopped the chunks from moving lower, hunks of nuts or maraschino cherries. Then the cleaner had to reach inside with the hose that seemed more like a small inter-tube and spray under the metal guards that held up the grates; this was easily the worst part, the things that were thin enough to go though the grates or were water-soluble would stick to underside. So when washed it all plopped on your hand and caked your wrists. It was the color of light dog vomit and the consistency of warm pudding mixed with oatmeal.  All of which made sparing the goop off their hands off inside the machine strangely satisfying. A heavy dousing of bleach cleaner and a massive scrub brush and a rinse finished it up. The grates would go back into the machine, and then the filling would begin. This took the longest, and at which point  I would usually practice my Kung fu with the floor scraper. Swinging a giant blade connected to a heavy broomstick, like I was battling off the evil ninjas – swishing and clanging and gaining power-ups to fuel my superpower – all under the rising and falling of commercial free classic rock.

From there, we’d continue through our routine; her counting the old doughnuts while I would swept. I had no problem counting, it was my writing and the ridicule from Peter, the baker, that I didn’t enjoy. The message would get passed through my grandmother in the mornings and she would nice it up in the way only a cranky old woman could. So I left that job to my sister who had an even hand. Around this time my grandmother would come in and we would lock the doors. Then Karin would count the drawer, and I would clean the glass – usually with the lights off and passers-by looking in, watching while I sprayed the empty cases and wiped off the vinegar/Windex mixture.

My grandmother would chatter to my sister while I would toss out all the old stuff – sometimes I’d eat half of one, or more, of the different types of doughnuts or bismarks. Grabbing one off the tray and ravishing it while the rest of its friends fell into the big gray can. I’d mostly go for a laugh as Karin would get a kick out of it because by the time I was done tossing all the old stuff out, my face would be covered with smears of jelly and sugar and frosting. I’d wipe up stick the old danishes in the freezer, where we kept them until we gave them to an old folks home on Thursdays. The two garbage cans got pulled out to the dumpster in the back of the store; one bag wet, near the pan washer, while the other would be heavy with discarded doughnuts.

I’d get back to the long metal table around the same time my sister had counted all the money and we were ready to leave.  At some point my grandmother knew she didn’t need to come in anymore and we had gotten so used to this routine that we were left to close the store ourselves. It was nice because we could close at our own pace (quickly), and she didn’t have to come dragging herself into the store either.

It was almost always nice to work with Karin.

In high school I rarely went to parties. I remember clearly once, my group of friends were asked to come because they thought I would have weed to give/sell – I didn’t, I never did; common misconception. Then there was a painfully lame, “mom’s away” party pulled by three or four girls in an apartment where friend Kent was asked to show up. I cannot fully remember who exactly was all there save for the slack lanky girl with that long hair whose name I couldn’t remember even at the time – whose house it likely was, Devin, Kent and I. There must have been more but those were the key players. I’ve learned charm and flirting over time, through anguish and embarrassment, but I assure those reading that I did not have either at the time. Did we hit it off? I cannot remember, we started dating though, pretty regularly and quickly.

She was below my social rung, smarter than me, more accomplished in life, and honestly cooler than I could ever be. Somehow she took me in – maybe it was because I was always willing to learn.

I can only remember glimpses of our relationship even though it was one of the longest relationships – likely 6 months or possibly more.  Glimpse: We were driving in my car listening to “Le soleil est pres de moi” by Air, and she translated it – annoyed by the question – on a ride back to her house; she ended it saying something like ‘it makes no sense.’ Glimpse: I’m laughing so obnoxiously she stops me and I know I took it too far; we drove in silence. Glimpse: We’re dancing like two awkward children in the corner during the homecoming dance, making out and humping to the point of self-aware absurdity. Glimpse: Trick or treating, or maybe simply wandering her neighborhood with the slack lanky girl talking about smart things and and I’m the child who can’t keep on task and sings classic rock hits.

The worst and most painful glimpse: I start to ignore her.

My friends made it clear I could do better, date in my social circle, someone less strange and an outsider. See, I’m a horrible worthless worm of a human being. When I wanted out I just stopped talking to her. What made this all the more painful for her was our lockers were literally 4 away from each other – which while together was fantastic – but during and shortly after splitting became a reminder to me (and likely her) of my inability to stand up and simply say I wasn’t interested anymore. Worse yet, I liked her still. I knew I wasn’t likely to do better, but I had to end it to keep ‘my boys’ happy. High school.

Finally three days into my cold shoulder she confronts me, wondering – justly – just what the fuck my problem was. She was more mad at me for being weak than not being with her. To leave her hanging and wondering. The confrontation plays through my head like a broken record coated in dust, obscuring the words and sound but the message remains the same: you suck.

I suck.

Let’s get the simple idea out-of-the-way: Stop bringing the God damn toys to the playground.

With that done let me go into detail on the ‘why.’ See, we have children, lovely little people who are learning all the time, and sure it would be nice for all kids to know how to share when they were born. Truth being, my kid (at the time of writing) is not even two yet and does comprehend why he cannot edge his way into your kid’s space until your nervous five year old hands over the tractor in his sticky hands. This doesn’t teach him anything, sure my son will repeat “please” in his cutest voice knowing you – the parent (or nanny) – will hand it over. Then comes the grip. He’s young still, I know – and some concepts he grasps better than others, and sharing is not his power suit. Your kid wants to bring a toy? I understand more than you know – I’ve had to pry an ambulance from my son’s shocking capable grip – because: I don’t want to bring toys to the park. Because there might be younger kids there that haven’t learned to ask or share or *gasp* bullies who snatch up wind-up trucks for fun.

Just leave the toys at home and let the kids run around, find sticks, play on the swings on their own. Please.

(one caveat: if you child can handle the patience it takes, a ball is okay.)

I’ve three points to my life – three top-tier focuses. My kid, my wife, and my job. Everything else is secondary, my family, brewing, personal happiness, etc. A lot of the time I feel as if it’s that long time running joke: crazy, dumb, cute – pick two. Usually I have a hard time focusing on one thing at a time with my lifetime long bout with ADHD. But seriously, keeping my son happy and being a good father pretty much means ignoring my always-on work life, or being a good husband sometimes means taking the hour to spotlessly clean the house, or focusing on work can make the other two fall flat. Sometimes I don’t get any right and just play a game for an afternoon because I just want some time outside of myself and my head and my responsibilities.

It feels like I’m juggling is slow motion and I can watch the pins drop but I’ve really got to keep this heavier weight up.

The worst times are when I feel like I can’t make anything stay propped up. My kid brings me to that teeth grinding, low shouting, I swear to god do that one more time place and my wife refuses to speak to me and I forgot to post a blog or facebook post today for work and well… fuck.

Sure, there are times where I’m firing on all cylinders being an awesome dad, killing it at work, and being a good husband – but those are islands in a foaming angry sea.

I’m not sure what the point of saying all of this is, but I feel it necessary to say so. Life is tough, and if you see me being a good dad know that one piece is taking a backseat. Sure I write nice letters to my wife, but I always forget to vacuum before my mother-in-law visits because I’m focused on the other two. If I crush a blog it’s like a weight off my shoulders knowing I can then spend the rest of the evening hanging out with my son not worrying about looming deadlines. If you see me yelling at my son – just know I’m trying to be a good dad.

I’m trying.

Spending four years explaining myself never got old, trust me. My trapezius muscles grew thick and bulky from the repeated shrugging. I was gifted a new creak in my neck from staring off  into the distance.

The hell was I going to do?

One thing I’ve learned: do what you love and people take notice; or, put simply: Embrace your nerddom.

I’ve always, in one way or another, been keen on electronics.  From taking apart my Sega in Elementary school, to building my clunky beige PCs in High School.  I built them with picked-parts, while friends ordered Alienware behemoths, which used to be coveted.  I poured over data, reading blogs, Cnet and Tom’s Hardware.  I was constantly plowing through reviews on NewEgg and TigerDirect, searching for the best buy my non-existent allowance, and later a menial bakery staff wage, could afford. So what the hells does all this have to do with Literature?

I’m a nerd. You’re a nerd. Simple as that. You wouldn’t be in an English Degree program had you not been born a nerd.  Your seemingly-cool professors have argued over the ‘legitimacy’ of THAC0 in versions of D&D – and that is likely the less ‘nerdy’ conversation they’ve had. I’ve poured over books to find the word ‘red’ to support my argument that an author was pushing ‘virgin imagery.’ You likely picked up ‘Dracula’ and never looked at it the same way after spending a week with it, peeling metaphors apart like a banana/onion hybrid.

Don’t run away from your nerd-self.

I left my undergrad program with an idea: one where I’d go to grad school, write a book, and … who knows anymore. I went to grad school; it wasn’t for me. It might be for you, and hell – I may go back, but if I didn’t leave, I wouldn’t have landed what I do now: getting paid to write. Circling back up two paragraphs, I’m a nerd. I’ve got this Jack -of-all-Trades thing down: computer hardware, english, programming, a burgeoning love for food, and an obsessive homebrewing hobby. I landed a job waiting tables out of college at a tiny gourmet grocery store and café that recently was called a ‘taste maker’ by some fancy ice cream people two states over. I waited tables, wrote in my journal, read books, went to school at a fancy downtown private college, and got tired. I was ready to enter the workforce, get a career, and “move on.” To me, that meant losing my dream of writing a book was about to disappear, but I was ready. I had a few interviews, sweated through a handful of dress shirts in Chicago summer heat, and became downtrodden.

I loved the place I worked for, but the pay was stagnant and there was zero mobility – or so I thought. One day my manager called me upstairs and sat me down.  The owner offered me a job as their marketing guy. I’d do it all. A weight lifted off me and I found a new direction. Just like that.

I got to nerd out on a computer all day. I nerded out about food to those starving for more foodie information. I got to explore and define the world of social media for a place I cared about.  It didn’t just open the door to new opportunities, such as Fancy Food Show, working from home, and so much more, but it also tore down the walls of what I could “do with my English Degree.” Marketing, or really advertising, isn’t dirty work if you aren’t a scumbag.  It’s not as sexy as Mad Men, as any author of any caliber can attest – but pimping other nerds nerding out, while you nerd out to other nerds who love the same nerdy shit you do is pretty fucking magical.

Find your way.  You’ll get discouraged and that’s fine, but rethink the ‘lines’ of your degree and embrace your nerdery.

[edit 9.16] Links, notes for CBD: Where I work and said blog and the respective facebook & twitter.

Working. Figuring it all out. Trying to do too many things at once.

I’m an actual employee at Southport Grocery (again) so my lovely wife won’t have to fill out the 1099s quarterly anymore. I’ve dropped the other two clients, sadly. I haven’t done much work for them anyway, and the anguish of my doing my tax returns was slaying my wife’s happiness. So here we are; back on a payroll.

We’re also all settled into Chicago. Finn is learning his body party (besides his penis), I’ve kicked back up WienerWednesday so I’ve got a little project on the side, beer brewing stuff is getting moved to Gary’s garage,  and I’m here.

More soon.

A good long month of being between things, brewing a couple beers, having Lis hanging out and watching Finn, basically being on vacation for a month and we’re off to the races. We’re here, in Chicago, doing it all again.

Lis got a job across the highway from her old job, which – in part (I feel) – drove us East in the first place. Had an opening in the loop but took this one because it was more her ‘speed.’ Time will tell.

Finn is being sat by his grandmother (who has followed us to this great Midwest city) Mondays and Thursdays. This all started today, so time will tell in how things shake loose. So that means I’m back at SPG. Life in the job lane.

What is next has me worried. I feel immense pressure to have a real career. Teaching maybe. Research needed.

More soon.

EDIT: I should have included a picture.

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Moving is tough enough. Moving cross-country is pretty rough. Moving halfway across the US to your mother’s place with baby, the breadwinner (ie not me) looking for new work and a new place? The reason why I haven’t posted in a while. We are back in IL. At the time I write this, we’ve found a place between Ravenswood and Lincoln Square in Chicago. We’re moving there soon, next week or the week after.

I’ve brewed twice, once with my father-in-law: the first attempt at a ‘House’ beer. I’m pretty big into Belgian sour-farmhousey things, so that was the first stab. It’s got Rye, Wheat (unmalted and malted), pilsner, and two pounds of Michigan born honey. I pitched the first runs of what could be my ‘house’ yeast – the alluring White Labs Farmhouse Blend. From first samples, it’s nice. Second beer was with brother-in-law (sister’s husband), who will likely be my brew-bud from now on. My efficiency was garbage both times, so the tinkering shall begin.

Finn is growing up so fast. He’s been a crazy good kid, safe for the instantly-throwing-something-when-done-with-it phase that has plagued us for the past month and a half now. Playing at the park well, being really independent, and always keeping us laughing.

We’ve fixed my mother’s place; replacing overhead lights, painting two rooms (soon a third), putting up ceiling fans, (as a boss/prof used to say) opening a can of whoop-ass in the garage, donating used items, throwing away unneeded items. I’ve worked as much as I can, pushing sleep back, pitching to a new client, and generally kicking butts.

I’ve got more, but I’ve got to get back to cleaning and dry hop the house beer. Expanded posts on each subject soon.

You start at zero, basically. For those old enough to either have children or really appreciate what it’s like to have them you understand. No one really knows what the hell they are doing, and if they say they do – they are lying. I’ve felt like running down a too-steep hill – that clomping almost-falling barely catching yourself kind of way – for the first year. Just when you feel like you have a remote semblance of understanding, a new milestone is reached and the proverbial wrench comes wading in.
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Thing is, I’m not a terribly spectacular dad. We don’t do flash cards, or spend an hour here or there hammering lessons on what color a horse is versus a zebra. I don’t push him to speak to me, and usually find myself mumbling whatever nonsense back to him. We speak in fart noises and “mab mab mab”s. Fun cut with the danger of bodily harm is routine.

But I do care for my son. I watch what he eats. I make sure he’s as safe as possible while still being adventitious. We go on walks, and allow him to find his own fun at the park. We learn how to pick up after ourselves, and how to treat animals. I like to have fun and play, but also drive a hard-line when it comes to doing things he shouldn’t (stay out of the GD cat water). So while I’m not force feeding him lessons on the growth patterns of butterflies, or hung up on his inability to speak, we find and work out other ways to progress. He’s walking and running and playing on his own, puts things away when he’s done, likes to read (so much as he can), in a class with kids twice his age, and loves to watch out the windows.

And look, I’m an okay person. Not super great, but I don’t want him to think my slouching mediocrity is a life goal. Maybe I’m too hard on myself, but I’d rather instill some kind appetite for success. It’s never interested me, and I’ve been horribly lucky on not becoming a slug – but I’m more of a remora. Gliding along not causing too much a stir and living off the hard work of others. Those who I attach myself to don’t mind me, so I skirt along. Maybe that is why I feel like I’m so hard on him, or why I want him to so independent. Because when you couple that I feel like I’ve not done anything to stake my claim and my daily fear of passing on my flooded pessimism, ADHD, mild depression – it’s hard not worry. I want him to be better.

Maybe I’m a ‘Bad Father.’ I always go to sleep wondering how I can do better. I’m bad at it sure, but as with everything – it takes time to get good. If you’re a dad reading this, know that you are bad too, everyone is – just learn from your mistakes and lament on your pitfalls. Make things right, be honest.

Maybe by the time he’s tucking me into bed I will master it.

It may not come as a big surprise to many. I’m an asshole. Well, I can be. For some reason a previous co-worker and growing dear friend of mine brings it out in horrible, crude ways. The flood gates open in my brain where I keep my brash thoughts locked away. Normally it splashes the shoes, but neither of us end up hating each other. A verbal push and shove, who can go farther.

I ended up a massive, cavernous billowy anus one afternoon.

“When do you give up Travis?”

“What man?” His smile broke at its edges. His eyes lock mine the way a brother locks on when it’s grown-up time.

“Ya know, like when you give up the dream being an actor.” A desperate scoff floats out.

I know he was boiling, a ‘huh’ puffed out – he couldn’t process it. He walked away, saying how I was a dick or such an asshole over his shoulder.

Why was I suddenly so cruel? I had seen him in a show that was well done. He was active and always doing work. Going back now, I wanted to know for myself. When was it okay for me to give up my dream. When do I know I didn’t make it. I needed to know where someone else’s unbroken finish line was strung.

We’ve only gotten better friends, but that question digs at me. A slow screwing into my subconscious, I’m reminded every time I see my accordion binder full of old college work,when I was in love with a dream. Now it’s a cloud, looming that I’m no closer than before and I’m nearly this close to thirty. Travis is happy as a clam working on Million Dollar Quartet as a relief to some of the headliners. I write about food, and get paid to do so.

I guess we both answered that question.