Sunday, April 17, 2011

Jobless Journal Part II: Break on Through (To the Other Side)

I am the Lizard King - I can do anything! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

It takes a while to get used to the fact that you don’t have to go to work. Apart from the occasional long weekend or a week off here or there, working is all I’ve ever known for the better part of 31-years.

So I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised that I still found myself getting up early every morning (had to get the kids ready for school anyhow) and I still found myself wondering what it was I had to go and shoot that day. Routine, I found, was harder to break than I thought.

With no real plans and nothing to photograph, I tried to keep my camera skills somewhat sharp by shooting my kid’s Rec & Ed basketball games. I must admit it was a bit strange taking pictures of little kids playing ball instead of Division I college players, but it was kind of fun and definitely long overdue (I should take more pictures of my kid’s activities, maybe now I will.)

By the end of my second full week of unemployment, I was feeling a little more relaxed about my situation and I actually began enjoying my newfound freedom. I felt confident that the uncertainty I’d been feeling was only a blip on the radar, and I would be much better served to embrace this time in my life rather than fear it. At least that was the mindset I took into last Saturday – a day that morphed from fairly normal to anything but, before the clock struck 12.

It all started with me feeling pretty crappy. Not emotionally, but physically. All the stress and lack of sleep associated with my mid-life upheaval had left me battling a horrible cold. Saturday was day three of the cold and by then I was well past the worst of it – the sore throat, watering eyes and runny nose part - now I was on to the thick-congested-yellow-snot phase.

This part of a cold is actually my favorite part of being sick. Not so much because I love blowing huge gobs of snot out of my nose (which I do) but more because of what the cold does to my voice. I’m not what you’d call a good singer, in fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I pretty much suck (my own mother used to tell me I couldn’t carry a tune even if I had a bucket) but for whatever reason, when I’m in the throes of a head cold, usually day three, something wonderful happens to my vocal chords, and not only does my speaking voice become much deeper (think James Earl Jones or Barry White) but suddenly, I can sing too.

Notes I can only dream of hitting when I’m feeling healthy, suddenly become routine when I’m all stuffy and I can’t breathe - high notes, low notes, and everything in between - nothing is out of range when I’m reaching for a Kleenex! It’s the one highlight of every cold I’ve ever suffered – sure I feel like crap, but man can I sing.

This phenomena, coupled with my newfound outlook on life, came into play in a strange way by night’s end, but first came a day filled with Rec & Ed basketball and the year-end team party that followed.

My son’s team crushed their opponent to finish the season in second place with a 7-3 record, so everyone was happy as we headed to the party hosted by the team’s coach. The party was an interesting mix of kids and adults mingling in the same space, but in different realities – a theme that would continue throughout the rest of the day and most of the night. Before long, the adults soon became the kids, and the kids became the adults.

This point was hammered home when I overheard one of the moms talking about the team party from last year where one of the dads was showing off his head-standing prowess. Without thinking I blurted out, “Hey, I can stand on my head too.”

The moms all laughed.

“No, I’m serious,” I said, “I really can.”

Before I knew what had happened, I found myself in a head-standing competition against another dad as all the kids at the party became petrified with embarrassment.

It had been a while since I last stood on my head, maybe a few years, maybe more, but head stands are sort of like riding a bicycle, once you’ve got it down you never really forgot how to do it, and unlike singing, head stands were something I was pretty good at.

I learned how to do them at a fairly young age, probably 8 or 9. My mom taught me when she was taking yoga classes in the early 1970’s. (That sort of thing was really taking off among the hippie set back then, and my mom was definitely a hippie.) I got the hang of it fairly quickly, and before long I was adding my own signature moves to the standard head stand, including scissor kicks, torso twists and my favorite – slowly dropping my legs down until they were parallel to the ground, turning my body into a perfect “L” and then slowly raising them back up until I was bone-straight once again.

I didn’t do headstands all that long, maybe a few months, but that was all it took before the skill was ingrained into me, apparently forever (I keep waiting for the day when I can no longer do them, but so far they seem just as easy at age 45 as they did when I was a kid).

Staying in balance - even at 45! (Photo by Eamon Horwedel)

The season-ending party was no different. Once the gauntlet had been thrown down, I quickly took off my jacket and my hooded sweatshirt. I emptied my pockets of loose change, car keys and anything else that might tumble out once I was inverted, and then I looked for a spot in the middle of the basement floor where I had enough room to perform my routine.

After I found a section of floor to my liking, I got down on all fours. The carpet was nice and plush and really soft. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The one thing I hadn’t taken into account was my cold, but once I planted my head into the carpet, put my knees on my elbows and then slowly raised my feet skyward, the congestion in my head magically disappeared. (Standing on one’s head, it seems, is much more effective than Vick’s Vapo Rub when it comes to nasal decongestion.)

Once I was in a perfect headstand, a smattering of applause broke out among the parents, but I was far from done. After 15 or 20 seconds, I began my routine of more intricate positions. First came my scissors move, which was followed by more applause, then came the torso twist, and even more applause, and then came the real show-stopper, my parallel leg drop, which left everyone speechless. Finally, after several minutes, I lowered my legs back into their starting position, slowly raised my head off the floor and then suspended my body off the ground in a triangle formation using nothing but my hands. The place went nuts.

The other dad tried his best to match my upside-down prowess, but he crashed and burned in less than 10-seconds, drawing roars of laughter. It was all in good fun, and just what I needed to pick up my spirits. After that, the rest of the party was fairly normal – the kids ran around the house and played as the adults either chatted by the bar or watched Butler beat Florida in the NCAA Basketball Tournament on the large screen TV in the host’s basement.

As the evening wore on and the party began to fade, my wife informed me that I needed to take our middle daughter Ella to yet another party at her friend’s house on the other side of town – a karaoke party.

This was like dying and going to Heaven for Ella, who just so happens to be a good singer – maybe too good, because she never stops singing from the minute she wakes up until the minute she goes to bed. (I can’t say for sure if she continually sings while she’s in school, but I wouldn’t doubt it). She was giddy with excitement when I dropped her off, and the party’s hostess was just as giddy.

“When you stop back to pick up Ella, make sure you come in and have a beer," She said, "and maybe you could sing something too!"

I graciously nodded and said. “We’ll see – maybe.” But in my mind I was thinking, “No frickin’ way.”

I promised my wife I’d pick Ella up at 10 o’clock, but the phone rang at 9:30 and there was my daughter on the other line, begging with all her might to stay until 10:30.

“Dad, this party is sooooo much fun!” She said. “Can’t I stay until 11?”

This time it was my wife who was saying “No frickin’ way!”

Eventually we all compromised on 10:45.

So there I was, at quarter till 11, standing on the same porch I’d stood four hours earlier dropping off my daughter, only now I was picking her up and when the party’s hostess opened the door she was even giddier.

GREG!” She squealed with delight. I looked over my shoulder to see if someone named Greg was standing behind me. No one was there.

“Come on in.” She said. “Take off your coat, grab a beer, you can’t leave until you sing – pharrtty rrhules.” She slurred happily.

“Yeah, well, I wish I could, but I really just came to pick up Ella.” I replied.

“Oh Greg!” She laughed. “You’re succhh a khhidder!”

The hostess was obviously a little tipsy, but she was a happy drunk, and one who apparently wouldn’t take no for an answer. Before I could decline the offer a second time, she had me by the arm and was leading me to the basement, where once again, for the second time that day, there was a strange mix of children and adults co-mingling in the very same space, but in a much different way.

“Hey everyone, Greg is here!” She announced as we walked into the party that definitely was in full swing.

Those who didn’t know me waved and nodded, those who did know me looked over my shoulder to see if some guy named Greg was standing behind me. He wasn’t.

“You guyzzz rrreeemember Grrreggg, rrrright?" She said. "He's susshhh a ghhoood shingggerrr! Heee’ssh goinggg to sshhinggg again tooonighhht!”

A cheer went up from the drunken crowd. My daughter Ella walked up to me and said, “Dad, who the hell is Greg?”

“I guess I am.” I said.

I’ve never been a big believer in reincarnation, but apparently everyone at the party who didn’t know me seemed to remember me from a previous occasion. So, near as I could figure, I’d either lived a previous life as some guy named Greg, or some guy named Greg, who looked a helluva a lot like me, had been at one of their previous karaoke parties and had really lit the joint up. Either way, it didn't look like I was going to get out of there without giving some kind of vocal performance.

“Dad, you’re not really going to sing are you?” Ella asked, somewhat horrified at the thought.

“Hell no, I’m not gonna sing!” I said.

Ella breathed a sigh of relief.

But then I winked at her and said. “But I think Greg just might.”

“Dad, don’t do it,” she pleaded, “it’s going to be soooo embarrassing.”

“Relax.” I said, “Take a look around Ella - everyone here is so plowed they’re not going to remember any of this anyway, and I’ve already embarrassed you in front of every one of your friends, so what have you got to lose?”

Ella knew it was a fight she couldn’t win, so she tried to limit the damage by looking through the karaoke songbook for me to try and find something I might actually be able to sing. That’s when I remembered my good luck – I was in day three of my head cold! Of all the nights to stumble unarmed into a karaoke party, this may have been the best.

“Don’t worry Ella.” I said confidently. “As long as they have some Doors tunes in that book, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I knew if there was any singer whose vocal range wouldn’t present a problem for me, it was Jim Morrison’s, and with my cold, any song by The Doors was fair game. I really wanted to sing “Love Me Two Times” but the book had only three songs by The Doors: “Break on Through,” “Hello, I Love You,” and “Light My Fire.”

Of the three, “Light My Fire” seemed the easiest, so I told the karaoke master to cue me up. He did, but he told me I was 15th in the cue line.

"Fifteeeenthhhh!!!" The hostess said, somewhat shocked at the potential lengthy wait, " Thhisss is Grrreggg!!! You bedderrrrr mooove' emmm up, dammittt!!"

Apparently that did the trick because the next thing I knew I was on-deck.

Most of the songs I’d heard from my brief time in the basement were sappy, modern, top 40-Justin Bieber-type tunes sung by groups of pre-teen girls who stood a good five-feet behind the microphone rendering them barely audible, so the thought of unleashing some classic Jim Morrison on the unsuspecting crowd was a pleasant one.

I had a few minutes to think about the song I was about to sing and sort of get into the Jim Morrison mode. This was a bit of a problem since I was nearly twice Morrison’s age when he originally sang “Light My Fire” and let's face it, not only was I way older than Morrison, but I was nowhere near as Adonis-like. Heck, I’d never even seen a real life pair of leather pants let alone worn any. The last thing I wanted to do was bring shame to one of my favorite singers, (or my daughter) but I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing, even without leather pants, and I was willing to give it a try.

Before I knew it, the karaoke master was announcing my name … sort of.

“And now, ladies and gentleman, please welcome Greg to the stage as he sings “Light My Fire” by The Doors.

Without really trying, I’d somehow become the center of attention, but for some reason I didn’t mind. I took off my coat and handed it to Ella, and then I walked calmly to the makeshift stage in the middle of the basement where for maybe the first time that night, I removed the microphone from its stand and actually used it as it was meant to be used - namely somewhere closer to the singer's mouth than five feet away.

“Check one – check two.” I blurted into the mike, and for the first time since I’d arrived at the party, a healthy dose of volume bounced off the basement walls, startling everyone into attention - even the seventh grade crowd who'd never even heard of Jim Morrison, or The Doors.

“All right,” I said, “let’s do this!”

The karaoke master cued the music and immediately the song’s lyrics flashed on a projection screen hung on the far wall of the basement. I didn’t need the lyrics. I already knew the song by heart, so I ignored the projection screen and began to roam freely about the basement as the familiar opening organ riff to the classic tune filled the air. Without missing a beat, I began to smoothly croon the opening lines of the song:

You know that it would be untrue

You know that I would be a liar

If I was to say to you

Girl we couldn’t get much higher

I don’t know if it was any good or not, but it seemed pretty effortless, and I was having fun doing it.

Come on baby light my fire

Come on baby light my fire

Try to set the night on fire

Try to set the night on … Figh - uuurrrrrr!!!

I was really feeling it now, and the sheer volume of my deliverance pulled everyone in – even those at the bar in the far corner of the basement. The seventh grade crowd looked on in confusion, but I knew it was about to get even better after the song’s instrumental break.

The time to hesitate is through

No time to wallow in the mire

Try now we can only lose

And our love become a funeral pyre

I felt like I was in fine form. The notes were easy to hit, my voice felt rested and strong, it was if the "Lizard King" himself was channeling through me. I cruised through the next few stanzas gathering momentum along the way, making sure to amp up the volume and the intensity of my voice with each line. Finally, as the song drew closer to the end, it was time to really cut loose. I’d been waiting for this moment all along, and now it was here:

Come on baby light my fire

Come on baby light my fire

Try to set the night on fire

Try to set the night on fire

Try to set the night on fire


The last line brought down the house. Even Ella seemed surprised that her old man could pull it off. I think she may even have been proud of me. The party hostess came over and congratulated me.

GRRREGG!!!" She screamed, "Thhhat was awweshomme!!!

My ode to the past must have sparked something in the crowd, because the very next selection was Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”, but I was done singing for the evening. I’d had enough excitement for one day - from head-stand contests with basketball player's dads, to emulating Jim Morrison in front of adulating, drunken adults and shell-shocked, sober seventh graders, I was pretty sure there wasn’t much more I could expect, or want, from a 24-hour period, so I gathered up my daughter, said goodbye to everyone at the party, and went back to being Lon.

I think Greg would have been proud.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jobless Journal - Trying hard to look up in a down world

Life is funny that way - bad for the squirrel, good for the vulture. It's all in how you look at it. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I never considered myself to be a negative thinker. In my mind, at least, I always thought I was fairly positive. But the way you perceive yourself and the way you actually are don’t always jive – sort of like seeing yourself in a full length mirror at a hotel room right after you get out of the shower and you realize that no matter how svelte you thought you were, the truth is you’re packing on 10-extra pounds.

And that’s how it is with my outlook on life. In my mind things are just rosy, but when I stop and actually listen to the crap that comes out of my mouth, I can’t help but realize I’m really one cynical son-of-a-bitch.

This, I think, may be a problem as I try and plow forward on my own as a freelance photographer. Mainly because another huge personality flaw I possess is my uncanny ability to speak whatever is on my mind, no matter how proper the time or the place. Some folks find this trait refreshing, I guess because they always know where I stand. Others maybe not so much, especially when what I’m spewing forth is laced with a healthy dose of “that sucks” or “what a bunch of shits!”

Fortunately, these past three weeks of being unemployed have left me with plenty of time to not only do some job searching, but also some soul searching, which hopefully will give me the opportunity to improve not only myself, but my outlook on life as well.

I’m no shrink, but it seemed logical that the first step in trying to change my negativity and cynicism might be to find out why the hell I’m that way in the first place.

It was time to ask myself some hard questions. To peer into my past and find out why I’m like this. Could I simply be a creature of heredity? After all, my old man certainly isn’t the most positive guy on the planet. In fact, he can be such a downer I’m surprised he hasn’t put in a job application to take over for the Grim Reaper if or when the time comes.

Could it be that I’m simply turning into my old man?

As I thought about that harder, I remembered that my dad, the Grand Poobah of Doom himself, once told me that I was too “peptimistic.” (I wasn’t really sure where he came up with that one, but my old man’s vocabulary consists of hundreds of almost, but not quite actual words he tosses around with such clarity and assurance it makes him sort of a redneck version of Confucius.) It was a slap, to be sure. My own father, the most negative man on the planet, was telling me that I had a ruddy outlook on life - and that was when I was still in high school!

Since there’s nothing I can do about heredity, I tried to put those questions out of my head and focus on other factors contributing to my doomsday attitude. For example, does geography play a part? More specifically, does being a Cleveland sports fan have anything to do with my overall malaise?

It may sound stupid, but I’ve never known anything in my life but losing and being let down. I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs in that way. As soon as a Cleveland Browns or Indians game starts, immediately I start to cower with fear waiting for the next way they'll figure out how to lose. It’s how I’ve been conditioned for 45-years. I don’t even know how to react if they win.

Maybe that’s why I felt such a sense of relief last March when my mother died, or this March when I was laid off. It was the worst-case scenario, but it’s also what I expected so it felt comfortable to me in a perverse way. Sadly, over the years, I’ve become used to gray skies and shitty weather ... of coming in second and expecting less.

And yet …

Well, that’s the funny part. I always thought of myself as being a positive thinker, of being able to do whatever I put my mind to, despite my cynicism. I have confidence in my abilities. I love to compete and I love to win - but I don’t mind getting beat either. I don’t take myself too seriously and I love to laugh. Plus, I think I have a pretty good perspective on what’s really important in life.

It’s a strange dichotomy being a cynic with a positive outlook. Like I told my dad back in high school, “Yeah, well, maybe you’re right – maybe I am peptimistic, but I like to think I’m optimistic too - let’s just say I’m an optimistic pessimist!”

This confused my father quite a bit until I explained it to him like this: “Life sucks Dad… but it could be worse!”

And that’s the mantra I’ve carried with me my whole life. Certainly, I’ve been dealt a great deal of heartache and hardship these past few years, and certainly I’ve done my fair share of complaining about life in general, but I’m proud to say that I don’t think I’ve complained all that much about the hand I’ve been dealt or the fairness of events that have taken place. I know there are no guarantees in life and I know things aren’t necessarily going to get any better, and, in fact, may even get worse. (If the Cleveland Browns have taught me anything, it is that.)

I always tell my kids that no matter how good you are at something, chances are there is someone else who is even better. But the good news, I tell them, is the same can be said in reverse – no matter how bad you are at something, there’s always someone who sucks even more!

For their sake, and my own, I’m going to try my damnedest to try and think more positively about the future. To that end I’ve vowed to stop watching the evening news and instead read a book. I also will no longer willingly root for the Cleveland Browns (or any other professional Cleveland sports team for that matter). In addition, I will only talk about the weather when it is sunny and warm with a gentle breeze and I will always drive safely with both hands on the wheel, without uttering so much as a whisper if someone cuts me off, tailgates me, or passes me on the right shoulder.

From this point forth, I also promise not to honk my horn or call someone a "selfish bastard" as I wait patiently behind them at a drive through ATM machine while they fuddle around in their purse and/or wallet for a good five minutes after they’ve finished their transaction before pulling up.

It won’t be easy. It’s hard not to be at least a little cynical from time to time, and to be honest, people who exude that smiley, positive, cheery “everything is so great” attitude tend to irritate the crap out of me and immediately make me think they’re completely full of shit. But from now on, I really, truly am going to try and be more positive, because let’s face it, things haven’t been going all that great lately. In fact, you might say things really suck right now.

The good news, I suppose, is that it could be worse!