Friday, November 28, 2014

Evanston Flying Turkey 5K - November 27, 2014

Yesterday they held the third annual Evanston Flying Turkey 5K.  It was a great day for a race, sunnyish and the temperature, according to my Garmin was 25 degrees. 

It was a fun race because most of the folks I run with all year round were there:  Lois Moeller (who finished 2nd in her age group), Clarissa Lau, Noah Jaffe, Lisa and Matt  Bowker, Mary Dolan and even our coach Heather Collins (who finished 1st in the 40 to 44 age group, but unfortunately is in the 45-49 age group and there she finished 4th.) 

Two years ago I finished in 23:45 and was 3rd in my age group.  Last year I improved to 2nd place with a time of 23:15 and this year I took first in my age group with a time of 22:30 - a 7:15 pace. Maybe I should retire.

The whole family is home for Thanksgiving. We don't have what could ever be described as an early-rising family (except for me.)  So generally I don't expect to see a gaggle of family members cheering for me at the finish line.  But yesterday Christie (home from London and working on her jewelry creations from our home - see earlier posts) got up and rode her bike over to the race and made in time to see me finish. That was a nice surprise.  And it was easy for me to spot her because she has pink hair.  (she's an artist). 

Christie, Nicole, Elaine Wong, Joanne Tanaka, Art & Stephanie

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cemetery Memories

My family does not have a well-established tradition when it comes to cemeteries. This differs from my wife’s side of the family – Japanese are really into the honoring of ancestors – they have traditions squared when it comes to the departed. 

I have two family-related cemetery memories. Years ago my sister Carol shared with me a shocking photograph of our Grandmother Burr (my mom’s mother).  My memory of my grandmother was of a very proper ancient woman whose hair was permanently configured into a grey bun.  She was grandmother-friendly, but she had been a schoolteacher for about seventy years and even as a little boy I knew she was a serious person.

The photograph my sister showed me was of a teenage girl, with flowing dark hair smiling provocatively as she leaned against the Burr family gravestone. Carol claimed that was our grandmother at sixteen.  I had my doubts, but it was a really cool photo.

My other memory is from when I attended the funeral of my Aunt Beulah a few years ago.  When they had buried her husband Walter in 1956 in the family plot, they must have decided they could save some money by adding Beulah’s name to the gravestone, giving her birth date and then her death as 19_ _.   But Beulah lived well into the 21st century and we all had a good laugh at that cost saving measure.

I am in Skaneateles for the week – we flew out here to attend my 45th high school reunion and to visit my mom. The bed and breakfast where we are staying on this trip is just a couple blocks from the cemetery where my dad is buried.  I had not been to the gravesite since the funeral, but with typical male confidence I was certain  I could find his grave. 

The cemetery was larger than I remembered and it turns out that a lot of gravestones look alike. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t even sure what year my dad died. Some days it feels like he has been gone just a year or two and other times it seems much longer. My guess was five years and I started walking through a section where most of the deaths were in the 2006 to 2008 range.

I finally decided this was one of those situations where it was okay to ask for directions so I called my sister Kendra who lives in town. She didn’t answer. I hung up the phone and started to walk down the hill and out of the cemetery when I spotted Dad’s monument.

My dad had a good life – grew up on a farm, serve his country as a pilot in World War II, had a good marriage, raised four remarkable children. He always told me he wanted to live his three score and ten so he exceeded his own goal by twenty one years.

According to his gravestone Dad died on October 5, 2008 – six years and one day ago. If I had visited yesterday it would have made for a better story. But I’m glad I visited today.  This was a perfect fall day:  bright blue sky, the air cool, but the sun warm, the leaves still on the trees, and just starting to turn orange and red and yellow. 
It was the kind of day that makes you glad to be alive.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

North Shore Triathlon - September 14, 2014

When I had my surgery on August 13, my secret goal was to recover in time to participate in the North Shore Triathlon.  This triathlon, which began last year, was brought to life by Craig Strong and his team at Precision Multisport, where I train.

Last year my daughters joined me for the race. It was their first tri experience so of course it rained the entire time.  They said that didn’t discourage them, but this year Christie was safely back in London and when I asked Nicole if she would like to do it again, she gave me a funny look. 

When I went to see my surgeon for my first post op checkup he was not enthusiastic about my triathlon plan. Actually he said “No biking!”  I wasn’t really going to argue with him as I had already tried biking (just a few miles) and it wasn’t super comfortable.  I came up with a backup plan. My friend Zeev Saffir volunteered to do the bike segment for me.  Zeev is 30 and I have to confess he might be slightly faster than me on my best days on the bike so he was an excellent choice.

The air temp was only about 45 degrees as we prepared to enter the water. But that was actually a good thing as it made the 54 degree water feel warm. Well at least not unbearably cold. I had predicted to my coach (Heather Collins) that I would do the swim in 8:30 and I finished in 8:28 which is probably the first time I actually did better than I predicted.  Heather has worked on my swimming form a lot this year.  Last year in this same tri I took 10 minutes to complete the course. 

Another great thing about having Zeev waiting to do the bike segment was I could hand off the racing chip to him before I took off my wetsuit.  That definitely helped our transition time as I was shaking so much it took me about five minutes to get the wetsuit off. 

I finally warmed up and was ready when Zeev finished the bike segment. He zipped around the course in 36 minutes, averaging just over 20 mph.   

I had predicted for my run a 5K time of 24 minutes but it took me 25:23 to finish.  I blame the cold.

Zeev and I  finished with a time of 1:13:49. I had predicted a time of 1:14.  We would have finished second in the relay competition but we weren’t consider a true relay so we finished first in our own special two man division. 

It’s a great race. Beautiful location and Craig Strong and J.P. Bordeleau and a ton of volunteers really made it a rewarding experience. Lots of first time triathletes had a chance to compete.

Zeev Saffir and Nikki Kopelson

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Writing Process - a conversation with Andrew Stancek

Gay Degani, a great writer and good friend, asked Andrew Stancek and me to join a literary blog tour about the writing process, and we agreed, even though we are not really touring kind of guys. Since Andrew doesn’t have a blog we’re going on tour together – basically having a long range conversation (Andrew was born in Bratislava and now lives in a small southwestern Ontario town close to Lake Erie and I live in Evanston, Illinois in close proximity to the 2017 World Championship Chicago Cubs.)

But first meet Gay Degani and Susan Tepper as they converse on their writing process on Gay’s blog “Words in Place”

And now the discussion between Andrew Stancek and me.

1). What are you working on?

Andrew StancekToo many projects, too little time.  After devoting about two years to mostly flash, in the last year, in addition to dealing with cancer recovery, I’ve been wrestling with two very different novels.  One is a historical piece, set in 1944 in the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia, and the intended readers are in the 12-16 age group.  The other is a post-apocalyptic one for the Hunger Games fans.  I have completed a twelve-part magic realist novel-in-stories for Pure Slush and am hoping to compile into a collection my Mirko pieces about a teenage hoodlum in sixties Bratislava.  I have about thirty of those pieces done and when time allows I will fill in missing gaps with about twenty more and then set about getting them together as a collection.  I do still occasionally write flash.  I also….(laughter)  Yes, I AM crazy.  Just too, too many stories come pouring out of me.  And since I retired about a month ago I’ve been wondering whether I should do something other than writing.  But probably not.

Len Joy – I totally agree with you. You are crazy.  I would never be able to keep all of the characters and plots straight. I had enough trouble with one story.  But let’s back up. You mention your cancer recovery and you’ve been helpful to me in sharing your story (by the time this blog posts I will have undergone the same kind of prostate surgery that you have already had). 
I know that for me, being told that I have cancer (mine is very early stage) has not exactly been a wakeup call, but it has been a reminder that I am probably not going to live forever.  It took me almost nine years to write “American Past Time,” which was published in April. 

If I was thirty or maybe even forty I might be satisfied that I had the important first novel finally published and I would have started on the second novel, not caring quite so much that hardly anybody has discovered my masterpiece.  I am working on the sequel to “American  Past Time” titled “American Jukebox”.

It takes place thirty years later so I’m not sure if that truly qualifies as a sequel, but it is going to have many of the surviving characters.  The big challenge for me is that where “American Past Time,” takes place over twenty years, “American Jukebox,” takes place on a single day in 2003. 

As I said, I “should” be plowing full speed ahead on that novel, especially since I don’t know that I have the luxury of spending another nine years to write the book.  While I am working on it, I’m also spending a fair amount of time and money to promote “American Past Time.” 

That probably doesn’t make good business sense – with so many good books out there a book written by an unknown writer published by a small unknown publisher has lottery ticket chances of being discovered.  But people enjoy playing the lottery and I enjoy my Sisyphean effort to gain attention for my novel.  I’ve learned a lot about promotion, publishing and people. (going for that alliterative thing).
“American Past Time” has had a gratifying number of good reviews (33 on Amazon right now) from readers of all ages. The story is especially appealing to folks who grew up in America in the 60s and 70s. It might not resonate quite so much if you grew up in Bratislava.  

But enough about me, Andrew.  How has the cancer-thing affected your writing process?

Andrew: Oh, my.  Terrific question, Len, and I have an enormously long answer which would bore you and everyone else to tears, so I’ll cut it to bare bones. 
The main difference is focus.  I was faced with the real possibility of imminent death.  I had to accept, even embrace it.  Then I spent eight weeks recovering, wrestling with where I’ve been and where I hope to be, what I’ve accomplished and what I hope to accomplish in the future.  That particular kick in the gut has been transformational.  I have decided I needed to become a different human being and not return to what I was.  I still have that determination. 

Although I returned to my day job, I was changed.  Now, eighteen months later, I have retired from it, earlier than I would have otherwise.  Issues which seemed important before no longer are.  I am questioning every aspect of my life.  I am continuing a discerning process.  I may turn to totally different career options.  I may leave writing altogether.  Probably not, but it is a very real possibility. 

With that in mind, I believe the writing I have done since the surgery is weightier, deals with larger issues.  While I love flash, and owe much to it, it is not exactly read by a large audience.  If I am going to continue as a writer, I have to find a larger audience and share something significant with that audience.  I have a finite amount of time left and I have to make it count, and I have to value the time of my readers as well.  Early in my recovery I was reading John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, a book dealing with cancer.  He has masterfully shared something real.  I am unlikely to ever write about cancer, but I also cannot write any more about lighter issues.

Len – I think according to the script were now supposed to talk about genre. But those discussions always annoy me.  I think we’re allowed to skip the questions we don’t like or understand.  So let’s move on to the next question, which is:

“Why do you write what you do?” 

Len – I’ll go first.
When I was winding down my business career ten years ago, I had a vague notion that I would try to be a writer again.  That’s what I had planned to be when I went to college (well that was my stated plan; my secret plan was to become an NFL wide receiver in the mold of Fred Biletnikoff, but that didn’t pan out.) I abandoned my nascent writing career after my paper on Thoreau was harshly criticized by my freshmen English professor.

I changed my major to Economics and became a business guy.  For me, at that time in my life, it was the right decision. 

But after thirty years of building up life experiences, I had more confidence and more resilience to criticism and I started taking writing classes. I naturally chose to write about stuff where I had experience: factories, sports, work life dynamics.  

I don’t think you only have to write what you know, but I think you have to sort of know it.  For example, I worked in a foundry for a few months.  Long enough to know that I really didn’t want work there the rest of my life. It was hot, dangerous, but worst of all it was mind-numbingly tedious to stand in one place for eight hours.

I certainly don’t “know” that job.  Not like someone who had been showing up at the foundry every day for years.  But I had enough of the experience to convey convincingly (I hope) what that life was like.

You mentioned career possibilities and even the possibility that you might give up writing.  I find even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.  Most of my contact with the world is online so I probably write thousands of words a week, just communicating or perhaps bloviating on topics that of interest.

One of those is fitness.  I compete in triathlons. Hope to continue doing so after my surgery, but can never tell. Maybe I’ll not be able to return to levels I was at before.  Nevertheless I expect to keep physically active and I’m thinking be an opportunity to write about the subjects of aging and health and staying fit. 

Okay, your turn. 

Andrew: Why do I write what I write? An unanswerable question, so of course I’ll go on to answer it.  (Still more laughter.)

 The first and most obvious answer is “because I have to.”  Very much like “why climb Mt. Everest?” Because it’s there.  At a certain point all these words started bubbling to the surface and I had little choice but to put them on paper.  There is a Slovak fairy tale (I am extremely indebted to fairy tales, and of course to my Slovak background) in which the porridge pot goes into overdrive and the porridge keeps pouring out, out of the pot, all over the stove, fills the kitchen, the house, the village and on and on.  Sometimes I have that sensation with my stories.  Words rush out, more and more and more.  That is probably why no matter what I end up doing with my life, I’ll have to keep on writing, simply because the words won’t stop pouring out. 

I wrote a large number of stories based in Slovakia, usually with young protagonists, or older men returning to Slovakia.  After a lot of judicious pruning I started thinking maybe I have something there, maybe these are not just for my own amusement.  Eventually I took a writing workshop with one of my idols, Alistair MacLeod, and at the end asked him point blank whether he saw hope in my work, and he not only unequivocally said yes, but asked me to revise a story he’d seen, and he published it in The Windsor Review where he was fiction editor.  He died recently and I truly miss him.  He was one of the great writers of the 20th century and an enormously kind and supportive human being.  But since Alistair’s encouragement, I’ve been sharing my outpourings.  Mirko, one of my continuing protagonists, now has about thirty stories published and he’ll have a collection at some point.  I’d like to finish a short story collection.  I have those two novels on the go.  But why, why I cannot answer.  I have to.

Len – That seems like a good reason.  It reminds me that as writers, we all need feedback but maybe more important, we need encouragement.  It’s amazing how beneficial a sincere compliment can be.  I think the last question to tackle is

How does your writing process work?
Len -  I have a broad definition of what constitutes writing time. I include the time I spend reading and reviewing because all of that helps me to be a better writing.  I also spend a significant amount of time thinking about a story or chapter or scene that I am working on while I’m running or on my bike or swimming. Or in the shower. Sometimes I take really long showers.

For the writing part of writing – I usually try to write a scene at a time. I have an idea how I want the scene to work, but I don’t have a lot of specifics until I start writing it. When I’m done with the scene, I print it out and lie down on my couch and read it and mark it up. I like revising and I will revise it for a few days usually and then go on to the next scene.

I guess that process reflects the kind of writing I do. Most of my stories are dialogue and action. There is not a lot of interior.  I tend to show what is going in my characters heads through their actions and words.  That is probably because I’m not good at making lengthy narrative ruminations interesting. It is an area I’m trying to improve.  In the sequel to “American Past Time” the main character is starting to lose his memory and I think I’m going to have him alone in most of his scenes  as he struggles to hold on to his memories.   

So what about you, Andrew?  What does your writing process look like?

Andrew – Another impossible question.  I’d like to say that there is a routine, and that A is followed by B and then C.  But no such luck.

 Until a month ago I was working full-time so all my writing time was stolen in snatches from various parts of the day.  Often I hoped to write at night, but found I was too exhausted from the day itself, work, family.  Weekends, sometimes, always piecemeal.

And as I mentioned earlier, I usually have a large number of projects on the go, and don’t necessarily return to the one I was working on the previous day.  Usually I work on the computer, sometimes long-hand. 
It is quite amazing I got as much done as I did.  Now I may have more time.  I am discerning and perhaps I’ll throw myself into some other career, lion-taming, juggling, levitating, or perhaps just exploring other parts of the universe.  Bringing about world peace may be an option, or finding a cure for the common cold. Not sure yet.  Or perhaps the stories will continue pouring out and I’ll try to put them on paper before they get too soiled.  I’d like to put closure to the large projects before trying something totally new, but who knows?

 Here are links to two recent works: 
Len:  I think we can end there.  Andrew, it’s been a pleasure, as always. 
 Len Joy's first novel “American Past Time” was released April 19, 2014 with Hark! New Era Publishing.
He is the author of two short fiction collections, “Casualties” and “Survivors.” His work has appeared in FWRICTION: Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Johnny America, Specter Magazine, Washington Pastime, Hobart, Annalemma and Pindeldyboz.

He is a competitive age-group triathlete. In June 2012 he completed his first (and probably only) Ironman at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

 Andrew Stancek grew up in Bratislava and saw tanks rolling through its streets. He now writes, dreams and entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario.  His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Necessary Fiction, Pure Slush, Prime Number Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Camroc Press Review and Blue Five Notebook, among many other publications.  He’s been a winner  in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The novels and short story collections are nearing completion.


Next up on the Writing Process Blog tour: Bonnie Zobell,  Sequoia Nagamatsu, and Michelle Elvy.

Bonnie ZoBell's new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories , is centered on the site PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park, San Diego, in 1978 and features the imaginary characters who live there now. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She received an MFA from Columbia University on fellowship, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College and is working on a novel. Visit her at

Sequoia Nagamatsu's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as ZYZZYVA, Redivider, The Bellevue Literary Review, Puerto Del Sol, The Fairy Tale Review, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. He is a visiting professor at The College of Idaho.

Michelle Elvy lives and works as a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand and currently sailing in Southeast Asia. She edits at Blue Five NotebookFlash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, and Awkword Paper Cut, where she also curates the Writers on Writing column. She is an Associate Editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015), and has guest edited at Smokelong Quarterly and lent her reading eye to a number of competitions. Her poetry, prose, nonfiction and reviews can be found in a variety of journals and anthologies, most recently in JMWWWord RiotThe Linnet’s Wings, TakahÄ“, IkaHtml GiantPANKEastbourne: An Anthology and 2014: A Year in Stories. She has been interviewed about her somewhat unorthodox lifestyle in The New York Times, The Review Review and the Family Adventure podcast series. More at (editing), Glow Worm (poetry & prose) and Momo (sailing).




Monday, August 11, 2014

Wednesday is the First Day of the Rest of My Life

             In March, after my annual physical flagged an increase in my PSA level, I had a biopsy done, which revealed I had early stage prostate cancer.  I want to say “VERY early stage,” but as writers we learn to avoid the use of meaningless adjectives. 

            My doctor outlined the treatment options.  The first option was “watchful waiting,” but that seemed most appropriate if it looked like there was something else on your health horizon that would kill you before the cancer did.  The second choice was radiation.  That would require going to the hospital every morning for six months at six a.m.  It would clearly interfere with my 5 a.m. workouts.  The third option was surgery, either standard incision or robotic. The robots took four hours and the surgeon only took one, so I opted for the old-school approach.

            The doctor then outlined all the possible side effects. None of them were appealing. I’m planning on “None of the above.” 

            Then it was just a matter of scheduling. I told the doctor I had a book launch scheduled for early April.  He said that wouldn’t be a problem because his calendar was full until May.  Then I told him I had qualified for the USAT Nationals in August and had been training all winter. I really didn’t want to miss that race. He looked like a runner so I think he understood. He said he had no problem with me waiting until after the race.

            Then I remembered that I’d signed up to run in the Wisconsin Marathon with my coach in early October. The doctor gave me a funny look and told me to forget about the marathon.

            Before I competed in the Ironman at Coeur d’Alene they told us that the only thing we could control during the race was our attitude. In every race since then I’ve been sticking an Ironman tattoo on my shoulder (the kind that wash off) to remind me of that.  Tomorrow I’m going to use one of those tattoos as part of the pre-op prep.  Then on Wednesday I will have the surgery.

I am expecting a good outcome. 

Prayers welcomed.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Argument for Unrealistic Goals

USAT Nationals - Milwaukee - The day before the race

 The Argument for Unrealistic Goals

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?”


                I began my blog on July 28, 2009.  I explained that the purpose of the blog was to chronicle my development as a writer and as a triathlete. I wisely didn’t come up with any specific goals for writing, but for my triathlon career I was clear:   

   “My goal is to finish in the top ten at the USAT National Age Group Championship for the 60-64 year old age group. I will turn 60 in 2011 so at least I’ll have youth going for me.”

            It turned out that youth was not enough.  I first competed in the Nationals in 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  It was hot and humid and we swam in a river against the current and the water temperature was 84 degrees.  I became dehydrated and my legs cramped so bad I had to withdraw after the first mile of the race. So I finished last.

            In 2011 I made it back to the Nationals, which was held in mountainous but cool Vermont.  During that race my new front-mounted water bottle fell off and I wasted five minutes getting it reassembled.  Managed to finish in 2 hours 59 minutes and 41 seconds. So at least I was under three hours and I finished 43rd out of 48, so I moved up from last to the top 90% (or for the glass half empty folks: bottom 10%).

            I took a break from the Nationals in 2012 to try the Ironman at Coeur d’Alene.  For that race, time didn’t matter as long as I finished before they all went home. When I crossed the finish line I heard the announcement:  “Len Joy, age 61 in his first Ironman…Age 61! Len Joy you are an Ironman.”  That was cool and for a few weeks after that I thought seriously about entering another Ironman, but I got over it. 

            The USAT Nationals moved to Milwaukee in 2012. I really wanted to race there and I entered five races trying to qualify. Finally, a month before the race I qualified at the Regional championship in Ann Arbor. 

Race day in Milwaukee was perfect. Cool and sunny and the water was calm. I swam okay, but got a little off course when my goggles fogged up. I hit it hard on the bike course, averaging over 20 mph, but then I didn’t have much left for the run. And when my hamstring tweaked at the end of mile two I had to slow to a jog. I finished in 2 hours fifty minutes, but with that nine minute improvement I had climbed all the way to the 82nd  percentile. 

            Yesterday I raced in my fourth USAT National event. It was in Milwaukee again, so I had the advantage of knowing the course. Knew what to expect. I had learned through these years of training that I wasn’t going to show up on race day and all of sudden be thirty minutes faster –which is what I would have to be in order to make the top ten in the age group. 

            I just wanted to have a solid race that reflected all the training I had done. Wanted to execute the plan I had worked out with my coach (Heather Collins). I wanted to finish strong.

            And that’s what I did. I stayed on course in the swim, ran through the transitions, controlled my effort on the bike so that my legs would be fresh for the run. On the run, my hamstrings cramped up on mile one and two, but this year I knew how to work through that and while it hurt my time, I still managed a pace of 8:11. Not great, but not bad either.  I crossed the finish line in 2 hours 42 minutes – which put me in the 62nd percentile.

            I was 21 minutes behind the 10th place finisher – a huge amount and not something I’m going to be able to overcome next year – my last year in the 60-64 age group.  But the 10th place finisher in the 65-69 age group had a time of ONLY 2 hours 28 minutes. 

So I have a new goal:

            Top 10 finisher in 2016 when I will be 65. I just need to pare fourteen minutes from my time. 

I’m sure I can do that.






Sunday, August 3, 2014

"The Birdhouse Builder"

Today's story is fictionalized non-fiction.  Faction?  It originally appeared in FWRICTION: REVIEW so I guess it's fiction. But true. Not true events, just true feelings.  How about "inspired by true events?"  The picture below was taken in August 2008 a few weeks before my dad died. It was his last good week. The ladies in the picture are my mom and three sisters, Christine, Carol and Kendra.


We’re in the seasonal interregnum. The last winter snow hangs on in the shadows of my parents’ two-story colonial, while the first wave of migratory birds circle the neighborhood, checking out the accommodations. Dad wants to reconstruct the birdhouse. The son of a farmer, he can fix broken things. Build stuff. Use tools the right way. I have none of those skills. As a boy I was his unhappy assistant. “Hand me the needle-nose,” he would say, his arm reaching back, head buried in the bowels of the cranky Maytag washing machine. I would stare at the battlefield of tools surrounding him and try to pick one that resembled a needle nose. I usually guessed wrong.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Happy Hour"

This story was originally published by Hobart Literary Journal in February 2008.  It was inspired by a true incident, but the characters (other than Missy) are fictional, even though I use real names.  So don't get upset if you see your name in the story. It's not really you.

After work on Fridays we'd usually go over to The Holly on 27th for a beer.

One night I'm working late so I don't get there till seven. Quigley is sitting at the bar in his usual place. I take the stool next to him.

You missed all the action, he says.

I look around. The Holly's mismatched chairs and table don't look any more broke than last week and there's no glass or blood on the floor. What action? I ask.

Missy got run over by her truck, he says.

Missy tests valve springs. Nice bod, cute little-girl face. Good worker, too.

What happened? I ask, not sure I want to know.

Quig lights his cigarette, tugs on his golf shirt, which is stretched tight across his belly, gets into a comfortable storytelling position.

She was sitting over there, he says, nodding his head towards the empty table in the middle of the barroom. Doing shots with Hector and Luis and that gal from small parts.

Leticia? I say.

Yeah. They probably did four or five and then Missy leaves and gets run over.
How could she get run over by her own truck? I ask.

Well, it was more like sideswiped. These kids today don't know how to drink and drive.

Quigley's had three DUIs but I don't say anything.

He takes a deep drag on his cigarette and continues. She started up WITHOUT fastening her seat belt OR closing her door, he says. Had that steering-wheel cranked hard left. Lost her grip, fell plumb out of her pickup.

He shook his head. She's sitting on her ass trying to figure out what the fuck happened. The truck keeps going - makes a big circle and, before she can move, it rolls by and the door smacks her in the face. Damned thing was coming back for another shot but Billy Flohr rammed it with his Merc. Probably saved her life.

But she's okay? I ask.

He gives me a look. Well if your idea of okay is having a broke nose and two black eyes and a busted truck, then yeah, she's okay, he says.

Missy didn't go back to the Holly for a month. And after that she didn't do shots any more. Just beer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Jury Duty"

***Originally published in r.kv.ry quarterly literary journal****

The last time I served on a jury was in 1977. I was an alternate. For two weeks I drove to felony court in Harvey, Illinois and listened to testimony in the case of the State of Illinois v. Melvin Thigpen. Mr. Thigpen was charged with abducting a high school girl from cheerleading practice, driving her out into the country, where she was raped, thrown into a ditch and shot three times.

The state laid out their evidence. For two days we heard testimony from police, evidence technicians, and medical professionals. Some of the witnesses were clear and precise, others fumbling and inarticulate. The evidence was delivered without emotion or drama. On the third day we heard from Carly Simmons. She was the victim.

Carly was poised and soft-spoken, but her voice carried, perhaps because it was so quiet in the courtroom. She had given the police artist a detailed description of her assailant. The sketch that the artist created bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Thigpen.

Carly described how she had been grabbed in her high school’s parking lot, held at gunpoint, and driven off into the country. She described the nubby texture of the car’s upholstery and the paisley pattern of her assailant’s nylon shirt. She explained in extreme detail how she was raped and then dragged from the car and thrown into a ten-foot drainage ditch. As she lay in the muddy ditch, she heard a gunshot and felt a burning sensation in her side. Then two more shots. One bullet hit her in the thigh and one grazed her neck. She played dead, and after several seconds she heard the car door slam and the sound of spitting gravel as her attacker drove off.

When she had finished testifying, the State’s Attorney asked if the assailant was in the courtroom. Carly looked at the defense table, raised her arm, and pointed to Mr. Thigpen. Her face betrayed neither anger, nor hate. She was not afraid. She was serene, triumphant. She had survived and now she had her day in court. That was thirty-five years ago.

The next five days of the trial were taken up with procedural arguments and we spent much of the time in the jury room, not discussing the case. The defense took one day to present their case and we listened to impassioned closing arguments by both sides before the judge gave us his instructions. The jury was escorted back to the jury room and I, as an alternate, was sent home, like one of those Survivor contestants who don’t make the grade.

The next day I called Ron, the foreman of the jury and an insurance adjustor for Allstate who I had lunched with on several occasions during procedurals. He told me it had taken them three hours to find Melvin Thigpen guilty on all charges. There had been no dissent among the jurors, except towards Ron who insisted they go through all the evidence before they voted.

For weeks I checked out the local news to see if there was a report on Thigpen’s sentence, but there was none. I figured I would never learn what happen to Melvin Thigpen.

Ten years later I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal on career-development in prison. In their lead they featured an inmate in the Joliet Correctional Facility named Melvin Thigpen, who was serving fifteen to twenty years for rape. The Journal writer reported that Mr. Thigpen had become an accomplished watercolor artist.

Jury Duty – The Notice
Last month I received a notice from the court that I had been selected for jury duty again. In the intervening years I had been called several times, but was never needed. Just as well. I had bought an engine remanufacturing business in Arizona, which consumed all my time. It would have been difficult to be stuck on a jury for two weeks.

But my work schedule these days is more flexible and I wouldn’t mind serving on a jury in Skokie or even in the Loop. The notice indicates I’ve been drafted for criminal court on the southwest side, thirty miles from home. When I call in the day before, a recording tells me that if my last name starts with the letter D through M, then they want me. So I cancel my Friday activities – spin class and a personal training workout – and figure out when I need to leave the house to make it to the courtroom by 9:30 a.m.

The Questionnaire
Jury notice includes a questionnaire, which we are to fill out and bring with us. They want to know such things as age, occupation, marital status, age of children, whether we have ever been convicted of a crime, or been a party to a lawsuit, or whether we have any family in law enforcement. And the last question is whether we or any member of our family has been a victim of a crime. I have to think about that.

When I had the business in Phoenix, we were the victims of crime every week. Our plant was in a rough industrial neighborhood. Scavengers would scale the razor-wire fence and dump our valuable engine cores so they could steal the wood pallets. Most of our employees were honest, but like any business, a small percentage was not. Our trusted core buyer embezzled $50,000 and one of our financial managers falsified borrowing certificates.

Those weren’t trivial offenses, but they are nearly forgotten. What I remember from those fifteen years is the murder of Alma Hernandez.

Alma was eighteen years old. She had just started working for us as a piston installer. One day in August her ex-boyfriend came by during the morning break and asked to see her. When she met him in the parking lot in front of our office he shot her in the head and then made an insincere effort to shoot himself, but missed. One of the customer service reps rushed to Alma’s aid, but she died before the paramedics arrived. There were over a hundred employees at Alma’s funeral.

I know it was Alma and her family who were the victims of that crime, but her murder touched everyone in the company. Even so, I decide it doesn’t qualify as a crime against me or my family so I check the “No” box.

The Commute
There are six million people between me and the Criminal Court building. Half of them are on Interstate 94. It’s a one-hour drive if I leave at 6 am, but then I’d get there before the building opens. I roll out of my driveway at 7:30. It takes ninety minutes, but I’m sitting in the Jury room by 9:10.

I’m the third juror to arrive. The lady at the front table takes my questionnaire and hands me a sheet of paper identifying me as part of Panel 3. I take a seat in the back behind the vending machines, next to the window.

The Vending Machine Challenge
I’m ten feet from the coffee machine. I know the coffee will suck, but it smells really good. The machine is complicated. There are different sizes and the usual choice of sugar or cream-like substance or decaffeination. There are a bunch of options for flavoring the coffee with hazelnut or maple or chocolate so it won’t taste so bad. I just want black. The coffee is hot.

A few minutes later, a stout black woman, who has squeezed into jeans several sizes too small, approaches the snack machine. She stares at the selection of chips and cookies and candy and looks very confused. Finally she turns and mumbles something at the professional-dressed young lady who is tapping on her laptop at the table next to me. The woman stops tapping, but doesn’t look up. “I don’t know,” she says. She sounds unnecessarily harsh, and maybe she realizes that because then she adds, “Sorry,” but the other woman has already turned back to the machine.

I look for someplace to perch my coffee so I can help her, but then I hear the sound of Doritos falling from their hook into the bottom of the machine. Vending success achieved, the woman ambles back to her seat.

The New Yorker
I have two dozen unread novels on my Kindle and I’ve brought five magazines, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. I could be sequestered for a year and not run out of stuff to read. All I really need is The New Yorker. It has everything. I always check out the short story first. As I’m thumbing through to the story, I see an article about a convicted hit man serving a sixty-year sentence.

It’s a typical New Yorker feature. About twice as long as it needs to be, but fascinating. The hit man is candid with the reporter. He describes his crimes in great detail. He worked for drug dealers who hired him to kill other drug dealers. He just walks up and shoots them. Several times. Other than the fact that he has committed, by his count, a dozen murders, he seems like a nice guy. Good family man. Doesn’t do drugs or alcohol. Loyal to his wife. Devoted to his five-year-old daughter.

The Call
At 11 a.m., a young man in a wrinkled suit stands at the front of the room. He delivers a speech that sounds memorized. He thanks us for showing up and plays a video about what to expect if we are called for a trial. My panel is called. They line us up in two rows, like a kindergarten class, but instead of marching us to our courtroom we are told to go to lunch and report back at 12:45.

Act of Kindness #1
I opt for the cafeteria on the second floor, grab a roast beef sandwich, chips, and a lemonade. The woman from the vending machine is two ahead of me in line. She has eight dollars’ worth of food and hands the cashier four crumbled one-dollar bills. The cashier, a pleasant-faced white-haired lady tells her she needs more money, but the woman just frowns, confused. The cashier hesitates, then smiles and waves her on through. She tells her she will take care of it, but the woman doesn’t hear her.

Act of Kindness #2
The lady in front of me gives the cashier an extra dollar. “For that woman’s bill. That was a very nice thing you did,” she says. The cashier thanks her.

The Courtroom
After lunch we’re escorted to Courtroom 206. It looks like a small chapel, with stone walls and windows on the west side. It’s bright and cold and the acoustics are bad. The judge tells us we have been called to serve as jurors in the trial of William Bancroft and Ronnie Washington. The two men have been charged with first-degree murder. The judge explains that Mr. Washington will have his own jury, but for some of the testimony both juries will be present.

The judge introduces the bailiff, the court clerk, the stenographer and the three state’s attorneys – two men and a woman. The judge introduces Mr. Bancroft and his two attorneys. The defendant, when introduced, turns to the jurors (we’re seated in the gallery) and says, “Good afternoon.” He’s a young black man. Good looking and fit. He wears a dark suit with a white shirt and tie. He looks more professional than the two male state’s attorneys, who both have a stubby, rumpled Chicago-pol look. Actually, he looks a little bit like the hit man in The New Yorker article.

Bancroft’s lead attorney looks like Linda Hunt, the diminutive actress who plays the boss on NCIS: Los Angeles. Hunt always plays smart characters and I find myself thinking that Bancroft has a good lawyer.

The Judge
The judge is affable and also sort of rumpled, but robed, which helps. He acknowledges the room’s poor acoustics, then does nothing to help us hear him better. He talks fast and has an unusual cadence so it’s hard to realize he’s asking us a question until he finishes and says, “Anybody have a problem with that? Okay, no hands, no questions. Moving on.”

He asks us to stand to be sworn in. A juror raises his hand. Glasses, salt and pepper short-cropped hair. Earnest. Sort of a bookkeeper look. “Your honor, no disrespect, but I can’t take an oath.”
The judge sighs. “Can you affirm?”

The man repeats that he can’t take an oath.

“Whatever,” the judge says. He is clearly annoyed, but moves on to his next order of business, which is the pep talk.

The Two Brians
The judge tells us a story about two Brians. One, we’ve heard of, Brian Urlacher, and one we’ve never heard of, Brian Anderson. Long story short, one day the judge is watching television and sees Brian Anderson get off a plane returning from Iraq. He’s a triple amputee and his message is, “Life is good.” The judge tells us if Brian Anderson, with all he has endured, can have that kind of attitude, then we jurors have no reason to complain about the inconvenience of spending a week on jury duty.
It’s a good point. Perhaps he might try to slant it a little more positively. After all, none of us have complained or raised any problems (other than the guy who can’t take an oath). It takes the judge ten minutes to tell us the story. When he finishes I’m still waiting to learn what happened to Brian Urlacher. I decide not to ask.

The Lottery
There are sixty jurors in the two panels. The judge shuffles the questionnaires and picks fourteen. I’m the third juror called. There are eleven women and three men. When the recording asked only for jurors with last names from D to M, I wondered how that might affect the jury pool. None of those great Chicago names that start with Z or W or X are in our pool. But the fourteen of us called are a cross-section of Chicagoland. We are Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Black, East Indian, Hispanic; employed, unemployed, retired; a tattooed biker, a white suburban dude (that would be me), a PTA lady, an insurance adjuster, and a legitimate blonde babe wearing tight-fitting jeans with lots of holes in the thighs.

The judge interviews each candidate. If we are married, he wants to know our spouse’s occupation. If we have married children he wants to know what their spouses do. He asks what we watch on television, how we get our news and what we read. No one has been the victim of a serious crime, although the biker had a cousin murdered twenty years ago.

The judge asks me what kind of work I do. I tell him I’m a writer. I figure this is not the time to share my angst over whether I should call myself a writer or say that I’m TRYING to be a writer. He asks me what I write and I tell him I’ve written a novel about a minor league baseball player. He asks me who it is, and then he says, “Wait, you said it was fiction. Never mind.” So I miss the opportunity to plug my book. Then he asks me what I’ve been reading. I suppose technically I should reveal that I’ve been reading about the hit man from Detroit who looks like the defendant. But I don’t. I just say fiction and the judge moves on.

The woman who had trouble at the vending machine is one of the fourteen selected. He asks her if she has ever been on a jury. She huffs something that sounds like it might be yes. He asks her if she reached a verdict. She doesn’t say anything. He frowns at her for upsetting his timetable. “Did you listen to testimony and decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent?” She still doesn’t say anything. Finally he concludes she was just in the panel but had not been selected. I think he’s probably right, because I can’t imagine anyone accepting her as a juror.

We are given a ten-minute break while the judge and the attorneys go into his chambers to discuss us.
Thirty minutes later we’re back in the jury box waiting for the judge and lawyers to emerge from the judge’s chambers. The judge instructs us to follow the clerk to the jury room and says the clerk will read a list of those who will be given a check and dismissed. Those not called should report back to the courtroom at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to begin the trial of Mr. Bancroft.

My guess is they will keep everyone except the biker, vending machine lady, the black woman who said she read the bible every night, and maybe the Indian woman who ran the mini-mart with her husband.

Biker dude is the first name called. He smiles and wishes us all a happy week as he takes his check. The next name called is the blonde with the nice jeans. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed—she could make a good character if I write a story about this experience. The bible-reader goes next. And then the clerk calls my name. She hands me a check for $17.20. I feel like I’ve been fired. Vending machine lady makes the cut.

I am disappointed, but after two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-94, I start to feel a vague sense of relief. Someone – from the defense or the prosecution – decided I wasn’t a good choice to sit in judgment of William Bancroft.

I think they’re right.

**Note: All the names were changed, except for Melvin Thigpen’s.
Read an interview with Len here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


The following story was originally published by The Legendary ezine on October 25, 2011. 

            Frank Summers wandered into his garage in search of a project. After thirty years as an emergency room surgeon at Phoenix General, he’d been forced to retire when PG was gobbled up by one of those hospital corporations run by accountants.

            In his first month of retirement he’d swum a thousand laps in his pool, mastered thirty new iPhone apps, read five forgettable novels and played one round of golf with his wife, Lucy.

            Car keys in hand, Lucy entered the garage. “What are you doing out here, Frank?” Her blondish hair was ponytailed and she was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. Her animal shelter uniform.

Lucy, who’d retired ten years ago, had been no more excited about Frank’s retirement than Frank. She played golf three days a week, volunteered at the shelter on weekends, and took writing classes at the college. She was busier than when the kids were at home. And happier. Frank didn’t want to interfere with her life.

“I thought I’d clean the garage.”

She wrinkled her nose. “In this heat? Do something fun.” She pointed to the mountain bikes hanging from the ceiling. “Take Frank Jr.’s bike. You can ride along the canal all the way to 75th Avenue.”

            “Good idea. I haven’t been on those mountain preserve trails in years.”

            “Not the trails, Frank. The bike path. Leave the saguaros for the kids.”



            Frank cruised through the mountain preserve on the novice trail that circumnavigated the mountains. Not as exciting as the ER, but it beat the hell out of golf. Two girls passed him and took the intermediate trail that branched off to the right. Frank followed them. He missed his nurses. The close quarters of the operating room. The camaraderie. The not-so-innocent touches.

            The trail got rougher – pebbled with chunks of white granite and guarded by bottle cacti and some distant saguaros. It was high noon, blistering hot and eerily quiet. Everyone had gone home – even the birds. He rounded a large outcropping and headed downhill, with mountainside to his left and steep valley to his right. He tugged on his helmet strap, then squeezed the brakes.

            It was a rush. His heart beat wildly as the bike careened down the rocky pathway. And then the image of Inez in her hot tub – her bronze breasts and brown nipples luminous in the foamy water – popped into his head, uninvited. She’d been his last ER nurse.

A bowling-ball chunk of granite loomed in the center of the trail. Frank steered hard to his left, but the bike fishtailed into the wall, shot back across the path, hit another rock and went airborne.

Frank lost his grip and hurtled into space.

His son’s twenty-year old helmet smashed into the mountainside and split like a walnut, but when Frank stopped bouncing fifty feet below the edge of the trail he was still conscious. The helmet had done its job. Frank wouldn’t die from a head injury. However, as he assessed his situation, he found little reason for optimism. His palms had been filleted, his right ankle severely sprained and he had at least four broken ribs, one of which had punctured his lung. With the stifling heat and the oozing wounds he figured he had three hours, tops.

 The bike with his iPhone and water were a hundred feet farther down the mountainside. The trail ledge was closer, but with his hands nearly useless, he couldn’t climb. He rolled over. The broken rib stabbed his lung. He took shallow breaths and when his heart stopped racing he rolled over again.

It took him two hours to reach his bike. His water bottle was missing. He unsnapped the seatbag with his teeth and coaxed the iPhone out of its pocket.

No bars.

Fucking retirement really sucked.

He closed his eyes, then remembered the pictures. He pressed his bloody fingertip on the photo app and opened the Nurses folder.

Crazy Kelly on her boat.

Bonita flashing her snake tats.

Wendy giving him the finger.




Inez in all her hot-tub glory.

One last look, then he deleted the folder.

He opened the family album and thumbed to the photo of Lucy and him on the beach at Malibu.

So young. So happy. So in love.

He kissed the screen and propped the phone on a rock so he could see it as he lay on the mountainside.