My Big Brother Mike

Mike at work in his studio

Mike at work in his studio

I always knew my oldest brother Mike was an artist, but I never imagined him as a soldier. Going to war seemed to conflict with his gentle nature.

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

Growing up in Michigan near the lakes 1955

The three of us grew up living in lake towns outside of Detroit. Dad worked as an auto engineer. Any time my brothers and I weren’t in school, we’d be in or near the water, swimming out to the raft, boating to the best fishing spot, skating with friends in winter or crammed into a tiny shack with three lines dropped through a hole in the ice.

We all had a flair for the dramatic, with Mike leading the way. He raced cars, even built a three-window coup and a dune buggy out of parts that looked like junk.  He played the drums in a boy-band in 1960 with hair like Ricky Nelson wearing a tailored gray silk suit and a smile that could melt any girls heart.

 

Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

Mike & Sherry at Lake Mead 1961

When we lived in Kingman, Arizona Mike purchased his first car, a powder blue clunker with a white rag top. When summer came, he would sometimes take me and our brother Chuck to Lake Mead for a day in the sun. As soon as we arrived, he’d drop us at the beach and disappear into a surge of adoring teenage girls.  Mike was tall, 6’3″ with blue eyes as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That summer, he started collecting a series of girlfriends named Sherry, charming them by calling each his Sherry Baby, singing Frankie Valli’s song to them like they were the one and only love of his life.

Ready to race!

Ready to race!

We moved back to Michigan during Mike’s senior year of high school. On weekends and during the summers, Mike worked at the local Chevy plant where both our parents worked. His job allowed Mike to take out a loan for his first, brand new car, a metallic red Riviera. Mom’s white Riviera and the matching silver blue one Dad brought home as a company car made our driveway look like a patriotic commercial for Chevy.

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike heading to Army Reserve Basic Training 1964

Mike graduated from high school in 1964 in Flushing, Michigan. The draft was still active and the war was heating up. Unwilling to go to college to avoid being drafted, he joined the Army Reserves and headed to Ft. Hood. After he completed his basic training, he came home to study art, playing soldier on weekends. He spent a year in LA, then came to Peoria, Illinois in 1967 where Dad was working for Caterpillar and I was finishing high school. Ready to settle down, Mike married a girl he’d only known a month.

"My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun"

“My Flac vest and M-60 machine gun”

Soon he learned his wife was cheating on him. Unable to face it, he ran away, signing on with the regular Army, volunteering to fight in Vietnam.  It was the first of three tours he would choose when his life became unbearable.

Mike never talked much about his time overseas but I know he built a strong bond with his fellow soldiers while terrible things were happening all around them. I could see it in the photos he sent home. Despite the sniper fire and napalm being dropped from helicopters, the boys had time to dance to the Beach Boys and surf at the beach, packing into his short life the best and worst experiences a young man could never imagine.

Our parents getting divorced in 1968 angered Mike, sending him back to Vietnam because it shattered a core belief. He finished his second tour in Fort Hood in the Military Police.  Determined to stay out of Vietnam, he became a civilian cop in Austin, married again and had two kids, a son and a few years later, a daughter. We lost touch with each other as our lives pulled us in different directions. So I have no idea what happened to send him back to Vietnam in 1974, first in the Air Force. In 1975 he joined the Marines, where he spent his last two years in the service.

My big brother and I reconnected in 1980 when I returned to LA after my divorce. Mike had found the love of his life, marrying for the third and final time. After living in the Valley for almost a decade, he and Judy adopted two babies from Honduras and moved to Tehachapi, CA. Although he worked during the day as an engineer building bombs for the war, he pursued his art on weekends, building an art studio. He spent hours in that attic above the garage throwing paint onto large canvases in homage to Jackson Pollock, showing his work in local galleries and museums.

What he went through in Vietnam would haunt my brother for the rest of his life. He survived the battle with those demons through his love of art and his love for his wife and four children–until he died in 2001 from cancer due to Agent Orange exposure overseas.

From the day my big brother first taught me how to draw a face when I was twelve, I wanted to be an artist like him. I followed in his footsteps, taking up a paint brush and going to art school. Eventually I moved into sculpting clay and working with fabric and threads. I ended up with more art education than Mike ever thought about getting–all because I wanted to be as good as he was, so he would be proud of me. I think in the end, I accomplished that goal, though I have many more I have yet to achieve for myself.

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike, Chuck and I in 1990

Mike also shared with me his joy of being a parent. I never had children of my own. Just before he died, he gave me his two twelve-year-old children to finish raising. They’d lost their mom only eight months before. I became a first time mom at the age of 51. Mike died when he was 56.

The kids interrupted my career in art, but changed me in ways I can’t yet measure, moving me into a life of writing, working to fulfill my need to get it down and figure it out. Now, with the kids off making their own lives, I work to merge my art, my horses and my writing. Some days I feel like I’m twenty-something, still trying to figure my life out.

Of the three things that most shaped my life, two came to me from my big brother Mike–art and kids. My love of horses is the one I claim as my own.

Mike’s been gone almost twelve years, but whenever I pick up a brush or see a painting, I feel his presence. I miss his jokes, his teasing and his laughter, and give thanks for all that my artist/soldier brother gave me.

Remembering my glamorous Mom on Mother’s Day

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom

I wanted to be beautiful like Mom. Even in a kiddie pool, she was glamourous.

In response to Maria Shriver’s question, “What gift did your mom give you?” I must answer, INTUITION and EMPATHY.

I lost my mom six years ago, but since I’ve been working on my memoir over the last four years, we’ve had daily conversations with her (no, I’m not crazy. I talk with the mom who lives in my head, along with all my other characters, real or imagined).

In my everyday life, I find myself saying words in ways she had said them, her voice coming from my lips.  She’s an integral part of my life, existing in my head and my heart, as well as in all the things around me that once belonged to her. I especially feel her radiance when I do things that would have made her proud, like becoming a writer in order to share my family’s adventures.

In addition to empathy, she taught me grace under fire and a confidence to respond to change and tragedy.  We had plenty of both, first with moving, (20 times that I remember by the time I graduated from high school) and then when we lost both my brothers (at ages 49 and 56).  Mom was the last to leave this world, lingering for years after a massive bleeding brain hemorrhage.  Even in her disabled state, with difficulty walking and talking, she made sure the kitchen was clean and the laundry was done.  She was a perfectionist when it came to having a beautiful home and stayed in her home until her last breath.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18.  This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.

Mom and I looked more like sisters when I was 18. This was taken on the day I graduated from Richwoods High School in Peoria, IL.


My mom exuded beauty. She was often asked to walk the runway for charity fashion events.  Heads would turn in any room she entered, not only from her looks, but from her zest for life, an enthusiasm that she radiated.

Mom loved people. She loved to hear their stories.  Strangers would reveal their deepest secrets and be healed by her empathy and compassion.  She never judged nor said an ill word about anyone in all of her days.

Mom knew how to laugh and when she laughed, we all laughed with her.  She’d be goofy, not worrying about how she appeared as long as it made people happy.  I learned late in life that she was smarter than she let on. She once explained that it helped the men in her life feel important. She never needed to compete, always turning any spotlight on her toward their talents and ideas.

“I don’t have to express my opinion,” she would say. “I know what I believe and that’s all I need.  I don’t need anyone to agree with me.  They can have their opinion and I have mine.”

Scan 12

Mom didn’t age. She just grew more vibrant. We were mistaken for sisters even after she turned fifty.

Her courage surprised me. Mom was in her late fifties when she managed a large apartment complex in LA. At the request of  the police, she helped capture drug dealers, nonchalantly handing over packages that had arrived in the mail and landed on her desk with detectives waiting in the next room to make the arrest. Mom was thrilled to help put away anyone who might involve her college-student residents in their illicit drug business.  She was telling me the story of her latest caper while the two of us were having dinner out one night. Afterward, she and I were walking from my car toward the elevator in the secure garage under her apartment building when she saw a shadow of a man lurking in the back.  Without a thought for her own safety, she pushed me behind her and charged forward, yelling, “You’d better get out of here before I call the police.  This is MY PLACE and I won’t let you harm anyone.” My mouth dropped open as I saw the figure disappear out a back exit. I’d never seen my mother so fierce.  She became a mother bear protecting her cub.

She was the ultimate mother, willing to help any needy person she came across. But she always put her children first, especially her only daughter–me.  I was her pride and joy, she would say. I was glad she was able to attend both my college graduations, first in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I received my BA when I was thirty-seven, then again at UCLA for my MFA three years later.  A college education was something she was never given the opportunity to earn, working from the day she graduated high school.

She’d wanted to be an actress, but having children kept her from having the chance to appear on Broadway.  She did garnish a leading role in several amateur productions, but for me, Mom was aways playing the role of a lifetime. Life was her stage, and she was always at her best, dressed to the nines, perfect hair and makeup, full of humor and wisdom.

I feel her with me everyday, especially when I toss back my head in laughter, like she used to do. When I’m unsure of where life might be leading me, I trust in myself and in all the wisdom she bestowed on me, confident that everything will work out somehow, just like she always said it would.

 

Attending Writers’ Conferences

The ultimate metamorphosis

The ultimate metamorphosis

Attending a Writers’ Conference is fun, educational, and overwhelming. Writing is difficult enough, managing characters, places, descriptions and dialogue, words and ideas all onto pages, then editing, editing editing.  If you’re still in the first draft process, editing or ready for an agent, a conference can help.

Whether you have questions about the process or the business, if you need some enthusiasm to push you to the next level or you’re  in need of  some fellow writers, people who understand the challenges, refusals and rewards of writing to hang out with, then it’s time for you to attend a Writers’ Conference.

They seem to be in every city these days, put on by Writing Programs  associated with Universities (UW Madison, Wisconsin or Ball State in Muncie, Indiana), Literary Magazines (The Sun Magazine) or by enthusiastic members of local writing groups who are just crazy enough to take on such a difficult project and are successful despite the many challenges (Evanston Writer’s Workshop near Chicago).

Conferences offer opportunities to learn from people who have accomplished what we hope to one day.  When I’m at a conference it seems I can never get enough.  Sometimes all the walking and stairs can be too much for my aging muscles. All the new information and faces can be enough to collapse my brain synapses.  Still, I do three conferences a year and would love to do more.

The presentations at the Writers’ Institute (April 11-14, 2013) in Madison were so wonderful, I often wanted to be in two places at once for most of the three days.  How do you choose between Taking Your Writing to the Next Level and Writing for YA?  I ran around like a crazy person, squeezing in as much as I could into every minute, refusing to take a break for fear that I would miss some essential key to unlocking my publishing dream, drinking coffee and snacking on sugary pastries that were free and easily accessible (sweets I usually avoid), taking notes and asking questions, then running down the hall to the next group session or agent presentation, sneaking out (they all expect this) to make one of my six-minute pitch sessions to an agent or an editor.

After three days at the conference, I came home and collapsed for at least that long while all the input simmered, settled and gelled into a form I could put into action. At that point, my work is only beginning. I have promises of pages to fulfill, books to read, edits to make, and blogs to create.

I’ll never forget Judith Engracia saying on the first day of the Writers’ Institute in Madison that she had NO Pet Peeves.  I saw a doubter’s eyebrow crunch on the faces of  the other agents on the panel and heard a muffled gasp from the writers in the room, followed by a silent “Wheee” and a “Yahoo!”  I know, I know. Give her time.  But maybe she is one of those extraordinary individuals who can forgive us our human and writerly foibles. From the six minutes I had with her, I thought she was FABULOUS!

Then, there was Julie Matysik, the amazing editor from Skyhorse Publishing, who talked about all the challenges of working with a first time author.  Tanya Chernov shared amazing details of her journey to write a memoir about her dying father. Her Agent, Gordon Warnock talked about how he first found Tanya, and after 150 queries to publishers, found Julie Matysik and put the two of them together (that detail even surprised Julie!).  After talking about an arduous editing process and problems with a retailer refusing to accept the cover art they’d worked so hard to perfect, Julie Matysik declared in no uncertain terms, that she still loves memoir and is looking forward to finding the next manuscript that moves her to tears like Tanya’s did (that’s not a quote, but the gist of her enthusiastic response).

Right there and then, I crossed my fingers and toes, kissed my four-leaf clover, and made a wish on a falling star that I would be her next project.  From my lips to…you know what I’m saying.  (Sorry for using so many cliches.)

I don’t want to forget to mention the wonderful presentations by agents.  It began with an intense Agents Panel where sometimes they agreed and sometimes they totally disagreed (but always with a pleasant tone).

I was lucky to get into a session (most were packed, with even standing room filled up) by Bree OgdenResearching and Querying Agents.  Bree said it was okay for writers to stalk agents in order to find the right one (agency website, agent’s blog and twitter) and to have the ammunition to convince them we’re the author they’ve been looking for.  But don’t do anything ugly or scary, she cautioned.

For me that means every time I want to query, I need to read blogs, follow on twitter, check out all the helpful how-to articles on the Agency’s website, and read a book or two that Agent has represented or stated it’s what she’s looking for right now.  (Overwhelmed yet?  You ain’t a kidding! But that’s the Biz. Do you still want to be published? Sure you do!)

Also, a note to agents and writers alike. You know how no one wants attachments anymore.  “Put the first twenty pages after the one page query in the body of the email–and be sure it’s double-spaced, to make it easy on our eyes.  We get hundreds a day and we will read the ones that are easier to read and formatted as we have laid out on our website.” (Again, not a direct quote.)

Well, if you own a Mac Computer, you probably know that MAIL application won’t let you double-space, unless you go into the document and do a double return after each line.  If you cut and past a double-spaced document into MAIL, it will reduce it to single-spaced.  I’ve talked to several of the Apple Programmers and they didn’t even notice it.  I’ve requested that they fix it, but who knows how long that will take.  I’m just sayin’, all you agents out there, please take note.  We’re not doing it because we’re lazy or want to make you mad. It’s just that it’s near impossible to accomplish.

April Eberhardt’s presentation with self-pub author, Mary Driver-Thiel regarding her self-published novel THE WORLD UNDONE was packed full of details regarding the new trend in self-publishing by authors.  They talked about HOW TO DO IT RIGHT.  Talk about overwhelm!  It’s hard enough completing a full-length manuscript and then editing it numerous times to have it ready to send out.  Authors need to keep up with all the changes in the industry, research agents, editors (Big Six vs. Midsize vs. Small Publishers) and then weight it against the pros and cons of Self-Publishing.  You’ve got to be kidding me.

Once home, I  needed to make essential changes to my YA manuscript before sending it off, based on what I learned about my story from hearing others talk about theirs.  What to do.  What not to do.  This year, it was adding a pearl I’d forgotten and showing a diamond a bit more often so it can shine throughout, weaving a thread to tie it all together.

Next, I needed to check all the agents’ and editors’ websites to make sure the query and pages I was sending them was formatted correctly. I proofread the query four times to be sure I hadn’t misspelled their name or committed some other grieves “pet peeve.”

The biggest thing that I learned at the Madison Conference (Learned again, I should say, but on a whole new level) is that this is a difficult business.  It takes tons of work, years of time, with no guarantee you’ll ever get published and if you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever make a dime.  No matter which way you chose to publish, you’ll still have to do most of your own promotion and maybe even hire a publicist. That could mean big bucks. If you self-pub, you need to pay for editing, line editing, cover art, interior layout, and maybe some help getting it all formatted for the various E-pub distributors as well as the printer.

To be a published author today, you’ve got to love it!  The writing, the community, the business, the marketing, the readers.  And I do.  All of it.  Really.  Even after all that.  I think I love it even more.

So thanks Laurie Scheer for a great conference.  I’m looking forward to next year’s.

imageThe first edition of the Midwest Prairie Review published by UW Madison Continuing Studies Writing Department is gorgeous!  And I’m not just saying that because three of my photographs were selected to be published within its pages.  I’m hoping next year to have an essay or short story included.  Fingers crossed.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Writers' Institute with me behind the camera.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Institute with me behind the camera.

Did I mention? The conference Judges gave me a FIRST PAGE Award.  First Prize for Non-Fiction for my memoir DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS.

It’s the best feeling, short of getting an agent, an editor, and launch day, that is.  Stay posted.  Maybe I’ll get there yet.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers' Institute.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers’ Institute.

About the overwhelm, what I do to manage it is: I do one thing at a time.  I focus until it’s done and then I figure out what’s next.  One baby step at a time.  It’s a journey.

image