Friday, September 27, 2013

The Fourth Quarter Belongs to Us

(This is the first entry in a weekly short story project called "The Spohn Challenge.")

Ohhhh ...oh man. Wow. I don't feel so good. Did anybody get the license plate on that truck? Gotta turn over.

Oh hey, look at all the people. What did they say ... 50,000? 60,000? How can so many people be so quiet? And look! It's me! Bigger than life on the Jumbotron at the Apex Financial Dome. How about that?

Oh, hey guys. How's it going? How many fingers? That would be ... three. No, wait. Four. Can I stand up? Sure, no problem. Let's get back in the huddle and ...

Oh, no.  Gonna puke. Ugh. Take a knee. C'mon, Woodley, pull yourself together. You can do this. National TV audience ... contract year.  Get it together, buddy.  Let's try this again.

Ok, I'm standing. Standing is good.  Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.  Wow. Haven't heard that song in forever. Didn't he marry Gwen Stefani? Lucky bastard.

Time to go?  Ok, let's head for the sideline. One foot in front of the other. Nothing to it. What? I'm heading to the wrong sideline? Ok -- that's embarrassing. Turn around. Got it. Good. Let's go.

Gatorade? Great. Oxygen? Great. I'm all right. I'm good, guys. Don't worry. We got this.  The fourth quarter is ours.  The fourth quarter is ours.

"'The fourth quarter is ours'?"

"Yeah, he keeps saying that over and over. Must have something to do with the papers he was looking at. Presentation notes or something."

"Presentation. What kind of presentation?"

"Evidently, Mr. Donald Woodley here is some kind of big shot at Apex Financial."

"Apex? Aw man, he was just a block away for work. What an unlucky bastard. Did anybody get the license plate of the truck that hit him?"

"Cody's checking around now. With 50,000 people in a four-block radius, surely somebody was paying attention."

"I wouldn't count on it. Everybody's wrapped up in their own little dramas ... Ok, here's the bus.  Let's make a path for the EMTs."

"You see the game yesterday?"

"Yeah. How about that hit? Geez ... talk about being hit by a truck..."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Watch this space

Well, hello there.  My it's been a long, long time.

Yes, my blog is rising from the ashes, and I'm excited.  Author and editor extraordinaire Steven Spohn has issued what he's calling, without a hint of megalomania, The Spohn Challenge. You can find details at the link, but the gist is this: writers are challenged to write a short story a week for the next year. It can be on any topic and of any length.

If nothing else, this is a great impetus to get me writing for fun again.  And I hope it's fun for you as well.

The first story drops Sept. 27.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A tall tale of Wisconsin Dells

The gentlemen to the left there is the great American mythical figure Paul Bunyan. This gigantic likeness of the legendary logger appears outside his namesake restaurant, Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty, in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc. I was in The Dells last weekend to witness the joyous nuptials of my nephew and his bride.

I should let you know at this point that I had never been to Wisconsin Dells before. I found myself simultaneously enthralled and horrified at the homespun, yet epic tackiness. I would have for all the world guessed that The Dells was a product of an all night bender at the end of which Branson, Mo., and Niagara Falls found themselves in bed together.

From the not-quite-canonical mythology on display at the Mt. Olympus Resort and Water Park to the Ho-Chunk family of casinos, Wisconsin Dells is a loud, splashy, explosion of kitsch for the whole family.

And at the center of it all is the aforementioned Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty, a restaurant cum gift shop with a lumberjack camp theme. And I do mean camp.

Upon pulling into Paul Bunyan's parking lot, visitors are greeted by the larger-tha
n-life logger. The awning leading up to the front door proclaims "Welcome to my cook shanty." But Paul himself remains silent. That's because he leaves the talking to his pal, Babe the blue ox.

For those of you not up on the fable, Paul's constant companion was an equally giant domesticated, blue ox. He resides in the foyer of the cook shanty, and for 25 cents, you can hear him talk and watch him move. This would be cool if Babe looked like you're picturing him, which is something like this:

Unfortunately, what greets visitors ready to plunk down their sawbuck for a hearty meal is this:

And yes, for a quarter, you hear a speaker within this ox head drone on about Paul and Babe's adventures, like when Babe blew an oppressive fog clean out of the valley, or Paul used a redwood as a toothpick, or that time Paul and Babe discovered forbidden love in the mountains of Calgary.

If you can get over this trauma, you will be treated to a true breakfast bacchanalia. I could describe it to you, but why don't I just show you the commercial.

As Mrs. Z. and I waddled away from our second Paul Bunyan breakfast in as many days, I remarked that it was a good thing a joint like just wouldn't play the same way in Springfield, Ill. I mean, the capital doesn't scream "lumberjack hangout," and there are no ... famous ... loggers ... in our ... history ...

"Wait a minute," I said. "Can't you just picture it? The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Cook Shanty."

Of course, to truly carry it off, you'd need the disembodied animatronic head of Mary Todd Lincoln chirping away at visitors in the gift shop:

"Hello, dears, and welcome to Abe Lincoln's Cook Shanty! I'm Mary Todd, and I'm batshit crazy! You know, my husband may have been known for his Emancipation Proclamation, but I proclaim my flapjacks to be the best in all the land!"

On second thought ... maybe not.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On cripple rage and euthanasia

I am blessed. I am loved. I am happy.

But there are times in my mostly charmed life when a succession of events brought on by my paraplegia annoy me, then frustrate me, then anger me, then send me to the brink of despair. Maybe it's my feet swelling to the point I can barely tie my shoes. Maybe it's throwing myself from my bed to my wheelchair ... and missing. Maybe it's sending my chair to the shop for repairs for the third time in a year and wondering what in the world I'm doing wrong.

Whatever the causes, I'm lowered into something I've come to call "cripple rage." I despise it, because it involves my alternating between feeling sorry for myself and lashing out at those I love most and who love me unconditionally. Fortunately, these episodes never last long, and those who know me best understand if I tell them it's just cripple rage, that it wasn't me -- at least not the real me. And then, I'll have a moment like this, and I'll remember how blessed I truly am.

Here's the thing: as I grow older, I find my cripple rage striking a bit more frequently. I can sense that, even though it's happening at a glacial pace, I'm losing my fiercely held independence. It slips no more than a nanometer every day, to be sure. And not every day, at that. But it's happening. And every once in a while, I fear the time when my disability and my age combine to truly debilitate me. Will I still have the happy-go-lucky glint in my eyes that has forever defined me? Will I be a burden on those who have loved me and stood by me?

And then, abruptly, I am brought to face to face with my feelings on euthanasia. I have always been strongly opposed to it. As someone who has fought all my life to suck every bit of the marrow out of life , I could not fathom voluntarily ending it. I have viewed "death with dignity" as a cop-out. I have felt that if one had the right to end one's life because of physical suffering, why not have the freedom to end it because of emotional pain? In short, I thought suicide was suicide and tantamount to throwing the gift of life back into the face of the Creator.

("Oh crap," you're thinking. "Why doesn't he say something funny? This is awkward.")

So now, maybe you see where I'm going with this. Maybe my own encroaching mortality and the unique difficulties it could eventually pose have caused me to "review the situation," as Fagin sang. At the very least, I am admonished anew to have compassion toward those who feel differently than I on touchstones such as this.

Above all, my dear, dear ones, I want you not to worry. Even if it does happen a little more often than it once did, my cripple rage still only represents a tiny fraction of what is a beautiful life. And being able to talk about it openly, knowing my friends who read this will smile and nod sympathetically, only makes my blessed life even richer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I had a dream. I had an awesome dream.

It is perhaps fitting that the night I renewed my commitment to writing, I had a fabulously detailed dream. In it, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, TV’s “Mythbusters,” approached with the news they had developed a part-hovercraft, part-airboat specially designed to be wheelchair accessible. They added they wanted to film me and a group of my friends taking a water caravan of sorts down a river.

I assembled a group comprised of a great many “dream friends” – plus two actual friends (Ralph Shank and Emilie Pearl) to make the journey with me. I couldn’t tell you what the river was, but I know it was muddy and contained several stretches of rapids.

Though my craft was wheelchair accessible, my next memory is of sitting in it without my wheelchair … feeling an extraordinary sense of freedom as I drifted, then surged, down the river – always with my friends, and Adam and Jamie, beaming nearby. Then, it started to rain.

By this time, I was a drenched, muddy mess already, so the onset of showers didn’t dampen my mood. Quite the contrary: I opened my mouth and started to belt out Phil Collins’s “I Wish It Would Rain Down.” And my sailing companions sang the choral parts alongside me. And in that instant, I knew that, as the entire trip was being filmed, a video of my performance placed over the original instrumental track would soon appear on YouTube.

As I mentioned, the prevailing emotion I felt through the course of the dream was liberation. It was the perfect antidote for the funk I had been feeling for the day or so before (which I’ll write about soon). And is the case with all good dreams, it takes on an even more epic quality when remembered and shared.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Whatever happened to blogging?

Once upon a time, there was this thing called a blog.

Although still practiced by some of the more dedicated and better paid citizen journalists, blogging is, for many, a discarded literary form that could be spoken of in the same breath as the Smith Corona. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the medium, but at just about the time the popularity of the blog peaked, a new form of expression came along which even more perfectly captured the zeitgeist of self-expression.

The microblog.

With the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, millions learned that they could say everything they wanted to say in 140 characters or less, In fact, fashioning a pithy turn of phrase that was so much cyber snack food became an art form in itself. And it is still skillfully practiced by many today (and not so skillfully by millions more).

I, too, fell under the spell of the hipness that was Twitter and Facebook. And so it was that, about three years ago, my blogstream dried up into a trickle, and then silence. That is a piteous fate which, thankfully, I can reverse. So I’m taking my blog, Graduate Level Sykesology, out of mothballs and putting it back on the road (to horribly mash up two dusty metaphors). Why?

I miss long-form writing. Or at least longer than 140 characters. I have found that, even though I enjoy writing immensely, I am less and less inclined to do it when I’m off the clock. But a blog can be of some assistance here, by installing a layer of accountability. There is a sense that “I owe it to my readers to write faithfully!”

Now, I’m not kidding myself. There are a handful of human beings who have ever read Graduate Level Sykesology. The only person I have currently listed as a follower passed away six months ago, God rest her soul. There is not exactly a clamor for the continued essays of Stephen Sykes.

However, the chance that rebooting this blog brings with it the possibility of renewed and greater readership carries with it a responsibility, and a darn good reason to write again with regularity. And if I satisfy myself alone by filling a screen with more than insurance-speak, well that is one more person satisfied than if I left well enough alone.

I hope you, whoever you may be, enjoy this blog. I will post links to it on Twitter and Facebook. And if you crave more bite-sized musings, you may also follow me at

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What I didn't do this summer

Gather ‘round, children, and I will share with you a cautionary tale of the dangers of pride, unbounded optimism and an overdeveloped sense of ethics.

As those of you who have stuck with the blog from the beginning know, March is the traditional time I and other Springfield theater types typically engage in the ritual of The Muni Audition. Earlier this year, I had pretty much made up my mind to audition for a season of shows which included plenty of good, wheelchair-accessible roles.

As March approached, however, I felt an odd complacency creeping in. I couldn’t get excited about a Muni audition; in fact, I couldn’t get excited about auditioning at all. I mention this because the other audition opportunity that had appeared on the horizon was a cattle call in Chicago for “America’s Got Talent.”

Ever since this reality show debuted two summers ago, Mrs. Z has urged me to audition. And it did seem to offer a unique opportunity to someone like me who has a decent amount of singing talent but some marketability challenges (to wit, my age and my disability). But, as I have mentioned, I really wasn’t feeling like auditioning at all when the calendar flipped. Nevertheless, I took the first step toward an “America’s Got Talent” audition by filling out an online form.

Fast forward to two weekends ago, when I received an e-mail invitation to the 3-6 p.m. March 17 audition session. For some reason, getting this invite brought back a measure of audition excitement. But now, I had (I thought) a dilemma. In order to make the A.G.T. audition, I would have to leave Springfield for Chicago on March 16, thus missing Muni’s callback day. Furthermore, there was the possibility that if I were cast in a Muni show and chosen for A.G.T., I might have to drop the Muni show – something I really didn’t want to do, as I try to avoid dropping show at all costs.

For those of you slapping your heads and saying, “Man, did you outthink yourself,” you are most definitely right. And for those saying, “My don’t we have a high opinion of ourself,” you are correct as well. For me to assume both the Muni and A.G.T. would be clamoring for my services was, at best, ridiculously optimistic and, at worst, laughably egotistical. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself I had to make a choice, and I did.

So it was with wide eyes and an eager heart I loaded into the car with Mrs. Z and Mama Z bound for the A.G.T. cattle call at Navy Pier in Chicago.

First, the cool stuff. We stayed at the fabulous Hard Rock Hotel Chicago. This is a shot of its lobby.

This is the view getting out of the elevator on our floor.

This is one side of a hallway in our room.

And this is the other.

These cell phone pictures do it no justice, but it was the most spectacular hotel room in which I have ever stayed. And the bed … my, my, my … such luxurious comfort.

Between the hotel, a couple of wonderful meals and the enjoyable company (!) of my mother, the trip was already a success. And it’s a good thing, because the audition was not to be.

We arrived at Navy Pier at approximately 1 p.m. After running all through the audition site and being redirected several times by some not-so-helpful audition staff, we finally found the initial registration line, in which we waited for about a half hour before I was photographed and processed. Then, it was into a giant holding area (the Lakeview Terrace, for anyone who’s ever been to Navy Pier) with what I reckon were about 200 other auditioners. Keep in mind this was for one three-hour block, and the auditions ran from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. for two days.

Audition numbers (I was #731999) were called in groups of 10 for an initial screening. Once my group was called, I were led into a hallway that housed about six audition rooms, which all had auditions running in concurrent 15-minute blocks. Once auditioners entered the room, they introduced themselves one at a time, sang 90 seconds of a song a capella and fell back into line.

Considering we were surrounded by noisy auditions on either side, grabbing a pitch was a challenge, but when my turn came, I belted out the highlights of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in what I thought was a decent fashion. Once our group was finished, the two twentysomething staff members had us wait outside, where we would presently find out whether we had made it to the next step – an actual videotaped audition for the senior production staff. (Those who passed this step would advance to a recording of the actual first televised round of auditions.)

Within about 30 seconds, the audition herder came out and told the first auditioner (who had driven to Chicago from Arkansas to perform a serviceable rendition of Travis Tritt’s “I Smell T-R-O-U-B-L-E” ) to go back inside. She informed the rest of us that the two twentysomethings were passing on the rest of us. We barely had time to absorb this news before the Travis Tritt wannabe emerged – also a reject.

We subsequently found out that the rate of people making it past this initial screening was roughly 12 in 800. Long odds, indeed.

Immediately, Mrs. And Mama Z went into damage control, but truthfully, I wasn’t close to crushed. I had survived my first (and last?) true cattle call audition, and it had been a fascinating experience. If anything, I was ruing my folly at throwing all my proverbial eggs in one proverbial basket. There would have been absolutely nothing wrong with my auditioning for both the Muni and A.G.T., and who knows what the results may have been.

That said, it was a wonderful trip. I’ve found a new favorite hotel, and we enjoyed some fantastic food (including this charming little Midwestern chain we’d never been to before).

Perhaps nicest of all, I’ve ensured a spring and summer of free nights. And with Mrs. Z having been on the road so much this winter and with two more heavy months of toil on the road in store, that time together will be priceless.