Warning: Reader Crossing

Originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, September 13, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

reader crossing

I bought this post card about 11 years ago at a bookstore in Paris (jealous?!).  Speaking no French at all–and really only surviving that leg of my trip with the help of my dear friend Erwan–I looked for things that were either in English or had no words at all.  This little piece of art work speaks many-a-word in all languages. The road itself, the urban street-scape of varying opportunities for bustle, the little indie bookstore. The red and white triangular crossing sign.  We know it.

And I am totally that guy in the street sign.  I am a street reader.  I even often dress like him–especially come this time of year. Brimmed snap hat, a blazer or flannel jacket. All that.

I moved to Chicago in 1998, away from the car culture of various Michigan cities and towns.  And I discovered this brilliant thing: Commute Reading!  A valuable resource of time in my increasingly adult world–and increasing computer staring habits.  In addition to home, Caribou Coffee, and the Golden Apple diner, I could read on the El platform, at the bus stop, in the public transport vehicle of choice.  And even, the walking portions of journeys connecting my various apartments with my office and restaurant jobs! I was totally that guy with his head down in his book, walking the side walk and cross streets, looking up occasionally from Wicked, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I Know This Much is True, or my Joe Orton plays anthology to make sure I didn’t smack into fire hydrants, sign posts, and other non-reading pedestrians.  Once, shortly after emerging from the Grand Avenue Red Line station, a gaggle of tween girls passed me on the opposite sidewalk.  I looked up just as one snapped my photo with her disposable Kodak–the single muted flash of the throw-away Paparazzi made me wonder who she thought I was.  A reader in the wild.

wonderful.copenhagen.poster

Viggo Vagnby’s Wonderful Copenhagen (1958)

Since buying this card two years after my move, it has been a constant companion, taped up for easy inspiration in every bedroom or home office since. It evokes a world of possibility in which we readers are just as municipally protected as deer and children in our quest to get to the other side!  Where cars and pedestrians alike brake for us, where children laugh with us instead of at us.  Imagine a world where the ducks of the iconic Wonderful Copenhagen poster are replaced by a  line of readers of various shapes, sizes, and ages crossing the road with a police officer holding back a happy crowd of onlookers (and a palace guard?) cheering for them, turning the person next to them saying. “Look, they’re reading! We can do that too!  We can be that important and revered!” We don’t have to be ashamed or make excuses or feel like we’re getting in the way.

When my partner Ernie and I moved to South Bend, Indiana in 2006, we had to buy our first car together as we had returned to urban-suburban-rural car culture.  No more Commute Reading for us (we would see South Bend buses rumble down our little street but were never quite sure where they came from or where they were going.)  Even the four and a half minute walk from our house to my restaurant job wasn’t substantial enough for street reading, and I drove to the area IU campuses for class (both teaching and as a student). I felt the loss of my valuable resource right away and had to readjust my reading  habits–or else.

Back in Chicago since 2009, I found another restaurant job right away whose commute is a 15 minute tops bike ride–and barring a major blizzard, I pretty much exclusively take advantage of not having to wait for late night buses.  So my Commute Reading didn’t return to its full glory.  Now that I’m at Open Books regularly for these late summer and fall months–and now that I have class in DePaul’s Loop campus–I am once again able to enjoy my train reading.  Sure, I’ll text Ernie that I’m on my way home, or if I’m feeling a little brain dead I’ll try to beat that level of Angry Birds I just cannot get past, but more likely my time will be spent with whatever real life paper book (or classwork…) I have in the queue.  And I’ll keeping going on the walks between by day- or street-light.  And in a world where people think it’s okay to text and drive, maybe folks will give me–a fading relic slipping into the nostalgia of a golden age–safe passage.

It’s a Book! It’s a Miniseries! It’s…History!

The following was originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 23, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

One of our getting-to-know you questions we sometimes answer around the room during Open Books writing field trips is “What’s your favorite kind of book.” Depending on the age of the students, we’ll get an array of genres, titles, series, authors, etc.  “Scary books” and “funny books” are popular amongst the younger ones.  Harry Potter, Junie B. Jones, fiction, non-fiction, and adventure books are all cited.  When I’m feeling a little sassy and want to get a reaction, I’ll stray from the more conventional “literary fiction” and answer “World War II Memoirs.” Yeah, that’s my field trip trump card.

I blame Stephen Ambrose.  In 2006, I finally got around to watching the HBO-Spielberg-Hanks-produced 2001 Miniseries Band of Brothers based on Ambrose’s book, when I borrowed the DVDs from my brother.  A long time history fan, particularly that era that’s still (barely) within our grasp, I hunkered down in my and my partner Ernie’s house in South Bend, Indiana and followed the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. And sobbed. And became a little obsessed. And found fan sites and official sites.  Looked up all the actors on IMDd, found photos of the real guys, found out who was still alive and who wasn’t. Wanted more, more, MORE. I bought my own DVDs in 2009, and have re-watched it in its entirety every summer since. And I’m still a sobbing mess at the end of each episode.

The Real Band of Brothers

The Real Band of Brothers

Of course, it started the book. Actually, it started with Hitler and that whole reality of WWII thing. But it started with the book.  Which I finally read (my brother’s copy again) last year (and since picked up my own at the Open Books store) and retraced the story, getting a different perspective and more behind the scenes.  I’ve also read (SPOILER ALERT) books by Easy Company vets, Easy Company Soldier by Donald Malarkey and Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (published posthumously and a major source for Ambrose and the screenwriters). Again, different and deeper perspectives.

When Hanks and company produced last year’s follow up series, The Pacific (also very good, though I don’t yet have the DVDs), I rushed out to pick up its source books, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow (with an eye out for their other books, both fairly prolific writers).  I recently picked up a book by Gene Garrison, a veteran of Patton’s Third Army, entitled Unless Victory Comes, which will give me another in to the Battle of the Bulge.  Band of Brothers as a whole has served as a sort of gate-way drug to further reading, just as Harry Potter and the Twilight series (or Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary depending on one’s age…) have gotten even more books into young readers’ hands.  And all that’s a good thing.

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

There are more books by and about other veterans of both series, which I’d like to eventually pick up. Band of Brothers has really launched an entire niche industry of publications, artwork, lectures, and official tours to Normandy and other sites. It’s inspired a whole legion of fans from history and military die-hards to younger fan girls and boys (not that these groups are exclusive…) who post animated photos on Tumblr.com, write fan fiction portraying the “characters” in less than chaste situations, and edit film clips to rock and pop songs on YouTube. There is also an ongoing series of actor interviews that’s been celebrating the series’ 10 year anniversary since June of last year.  Their Jumping For Heroes event to raise money for a memorial in Normandy took place on August 21 of this year.

Thinking about this fandom is fascinating–there is a sort of falling in love with these guys—the real guys, their personas and relationships as filtered through art, the actors who played them, what they did.  There is borderline fetish, hero worship, pride, and gratitude.  There is a trying to make sense of our own lives through them.  It is a connection to our own family histories. With that, I feel in some ways I know more about these guys than I do either of my own grandfathers.  I didn’t have all the conversations about these things that grandfathers and grandsons should have before it’s too late. I’ve since been going through my dad’s dad’s Army photos and learning more through my grandmother, and just working with what I have.

 

My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

During Ernie and my recent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the Band of Brothers actors was in attendance at the play his fiancé directed.  I happened to know he was going to be there because of his recent interview.  I saw him come in and sit in his seat. My heart pounded and I squealed inside like the fan boy that I am. But I was cool, yo.  And I didn’t end up talking to him, which I’m totally (I think ) at peace with.  But it’s like–You’re here, and despite all the other work you’ve done you are still Webster—Webster whose book I’ve read!  What would I say?  Maybe just a Thank you.  That would’ve been good.  But I remained calm….

In an essay of mine entitled Playing Guns where I tackle my youthful war games with brothers and friends, my family’s own military past, and my interest in war stories, I write: “Give me one soldier’s memoir over a dry shot-by-shot account.  While the places and triumphs and losses in each tug at me, I ultimately prefer legends over maps.”

(Mostly) Literacy Related Flashes (Mostly) From Kindergarten

This post was originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 11, 2011. Reposted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

Me, 1979

Me, 1979

I attended Christ the King elementary school in Detroit from K-6th grade.

My teacher’s name was Ms. Beasley, like the doll on Family Affair, though she looked nothing like her.

On an orientation day of sorts with parents, I wrote my name on the blackboard.  I was more of a “Mike” then.  I capitalized the E. This was eventually (figuratively) shaken out of me.

I think seeing my last name-Van Kerckhove–in all its 12 letter glory–printed out in perfectly formed letters on my desk’s name tag kind of freaked me out.

For a long time, I thought of different, more accessible, stage names. But my real name is way cooler than anything else I came up with.

That fall, thanks to our classroom calendar, I remember distinctly knowing the year (1979) for the first time.

From there it was all about following the adventures in my dad’s Lord of the Rings calendars.

I did a series of plot re-telling book reports on The Hobbit in 4th grade.

I also did one on the novel adaptation of E.T.

I didn’t read the rest of LOTR until my early twenties.

One day, Ms. Beasley sat me down at her desk in the corner of our classroom. 

Bilbo writes his memoirs.

Bilbo writes his memoirs.

She asked me, “Do you want to learn to read?”

I said, “Yes.”

That she trusted us to decide on our own is actually pretty cool.

I’m glad I didn’t say, “No.” I mean, I would’ve learned eventually, right? Or maybe I would’ve been ignored. Or put in some sort of “special” class with all the other kids who said “No.”

I’m glad I didn’t say “No.”

One day, Ms. Beasley fell backwards off her desk chair.  My class totally lost it! Ms. Beasley informed us that it wasn’t funny.

The classroom rug we all sat on to do class reading was gold.  Of course it was gold–it was 1979!

Those were some big fat words!

And by big I mean “cat” taking up half a gorgeous page.

Okay, maybe not half.

I had that same classroom (Room 101)  for 2nd grade with Mrs. Nixon.  I felt a sense of warmth and comfort–nostalgia for my olden days.

Mortified, Memoirs, and More

This is not me. But you’ll be able to see and hear Mortifying things about me December 10 at Schubas.

Firstly, MichaelVanKerckhove.wordpress.com is now MichaelVanKerckhove.com.  Yeah, I went ahead and bought myself my own domain name, snatching it up from the two other guys on earth I know of with my name–they live in Belgium.  All things still point to WordPress.  Thought I’d take a moment to celebrate.  Take your own moment if inspired.

Secondly, I have a show coming up!  I’ll be returning to MORTIFIED on December 10, 2011.  I’m way excited!  This time around, we’ll be at Schubas.  I’ve seen concerts there, and now I get to do my own thing on that stage. Awesome.  I’ll be reliving the piece I did in March–hear me share excerpts from my 9th grade journals.  GET YOUR TICKETS as it will sell out.  Can’t wait to see you there.

Memoirsofaguncle.wordpress.com

Thirdly, my first quarter at DePaul University is officially over.  I am currently enrolled in the MA Writing & Publishing program.  My grad school re-boot is in full effect and going well.  My fiction workshop–Time & Place in Fiction–got my fiction brain back in gear.  I had the opportunity to workshop two first drafts.  One newish and one really new.  (More on the stories themselves to come, perhaps.) We read inspiring and relevant published stories, and got to know my classmates through their work.  My Digital Publishing class has pushed me to  get this site a good dusting.  I also launched a new site as part of my class work: Memoirs of a Guncle-adventures in gay unclehood.  The site is inspired by mine and Ernie’s new(ish) unclehood and my essay on my evolving attitude toward kids and fatherhood, An Ernie Yes or No.  I also want to add more Chicago focused posts on cool things to do with the young ones in our lives.  Please check it out and follow on the Twitter and Facebook and all that good stuff.  I want to get a new post up soon and keep it going beyond just the class. Wish me luck.  And to all my classmates and profs: Have an awesome break and see you soon!

Finally, I wrapped up my Marketing & Events internship at Open Books, the brilliant Chicago literacy non-profit.  All our work on Revelry 2011 paid off.  With this opportunity, I was able to get a cool look at the inner workings of a non-profit, broadened my awareness of the city (even from my desk), and picked up some experience points in event planning.  I also had the chance to experience an amazing Chicago event space–the Catalyst Ranch.   Check out the site!  In the weeks ahead, I’m going to re-post some of the more personal writings I contributed to the Open Books blog.  Now, I get time back to work with the kids–I’ll be doing another field trip on the 30th.  Looking forward to it!

More to come.  Cheers.

Story Lab Chicago Launches & Other Updates!

Hello Friends! So, like Happy New Year!  Boy, is this site due for an update.  October seems so far away now.  And I’ve finally posted all my photos on Flickr of my amazing California trip. To follow up on the previous post, Story Club was an awesome time, if a little mellow due to the cold November rain that evening–which has beauty in itself of course.  Hoping to get back next month to maybe snag an open mic slot.  I have a Valentines Day themed piece that could be good….

In the mean time, I have a storytelling gig coming up on Wednesday January 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm at the Black Rock Pub on Damen and Addison in Chicago. Story Lab Chicago is a new venture by the fine folks at This Much Is True.  SLC features new and new-ish writers/storytellers.  Check us out!  And visit the web site and become a fan on the Facebook.  I’ll be debuting a new story, which is still coming together, but getting there. 🙂  If you see me in Caribou this week, you’ll know what I’m doing.

Other writerly goings on these days….

~ Coffee Boy, the movie, wrapped production at the end of August and was officially released on October 15, 2010.  World wide distribution and domination is pending film festival slots and other goings on.  In the meantime, check out the film’s page on direct0r-adapter-friend Erwan Ripoll’s site HERE.  Also with this project, I have my own IMDb page. I want to think that makes me cooler than before, but I guess not really. 🙂  Still, exciting.  There isn’t much on it, though I submitted the link to this site to be included.  So, visit it and up my “Star Meter”!  (Though I think I’d have to pay for that first….)

~ Battles With Boys took another step closer to reality thanks to a handful of friends and a class room at DePaul University where I was able to share an official first draft of the show as a full length entity comprising of various short pieces.  A discussion proceeded and there is much to think about.  The next step will hopefully reach a wider audience.  More to come….

~ Mining My Life: This past year has been in part focused on organizing all that I Have. Loose pages of high school and college poetry, 7th & 8th grade assignments, ETC, are all in one handy folder in order which works for the chaos of it all.  My 19 handwritten journals plus my private cyber journal are getting the personal indexing treatment (getting there….) so that I can quickly look up things instead of spending hours trying to find it.  My journals have been particularly helpful for my CNF work–and along the way I’ve gotten inspiration for my fiction as well.  Journal #1 will come in handy for an upcoming project landing this Spring (TBA…!)  This all helps my brain process the fact that I’ve reached the age where the past is just as overwhelming as the future.

~ NewTown Writers: Leg work to be done soonly on Solo Homo 9.  Stay tuned….

~ Open Books:  One of my goals for the end of 2010 and into the new year was to do a little volunteer work.  Thanks to the fine folks at Open Books (Chicago’s leading literacy non-profit), I’ve been able to work a couple sessions of the Adventures in Creative Writing Field trip program.  So far, I’ve worked with high school girls on prose, and 3rd graders on poetry.  The little ones were more into it.  I have a couple more sessions this month as well.  If you’re so inclined, you should check out all the volunteer section at the site.  Shown below is a cool photo someone snapped of me and my 3rd graders who make you fall in love with them, then they leave and break your heart just a little.

Well, that does it for now. If I’ve forgotten anything (it happens), I’ll shoot another post.  Cool things abound in 2011.  Can’t wait!  Cheers.