Tuesday, December 22, 2009

For the past year and a half I have been working on a Middle Grade Novel called, KNOCKOUT. It is the story of a 12 year old girl named Alexandra "Knockout" Walkowitz, and her desire to play in game reserved only for boys. Knockout is filled with passion and she understands what she wants and won't stop until she gets it. Through it all, Alex discovers that playing well isn't about winning and that the true measure of a person is how they live by their own values.

Over the next few weeks I would like to share bits and pieces...



Rinishski's Barber Shop stinks.
The windows reek of burnt sunshine and the chairs of sweat. And old man Renishski tries to camouflage the smell with a home-made potion he calls cologne. The scent is worse than something you'd find under your kitchen sink—and it makes me want to puke.
Grandpa and I used to come to the barber shop once a month, then every other week. Now, whenever he stares into the mirror Grandpa moans, “Gotta go to Renishki's.”
“We just went to Renishki's on Thursday night,” I said. “What's left to cut?”
And there's nothing I can say to change Grandpa's mind, like no sense is left in his head. And once out the door, there's no coming back. Down the street and across the boulevard, “Gotta go to Renishski's,” is fixed on his lips like an old skipped record.
“I don't need another trim,” I said, swinging open the door.
“Not another day off, Coach?” quipped Mr. Renishski.
Another day off from living, I thought, heading for the worn-out, pea green vinyl chairs. Once again I end up in the one that sinks half way to the floor.
“I need the works,” Grandpa ordered. “And Alexandra will take the usual.”
I've had it with the usual, riding up and down in the barber chair, and spinning until all the pictures become one giant mural. Grandpa doesn't mind the waiting, cause Coach loves to talk sports. I bury my head in all the magazines squeezed into the shoe rack. Not that there's anything worth reading, Hot Wheels has cars with big fat tires on the back and real flames shooting out of the sides.
“Tell me when your ready, Alexandra.” Mr. Renishski winks.
Just then, a new customer to the barber shop began tearing a page from a magazine right beside me. The man was dressed in a suit, with tiny chalk lines running down its sides, and a pink shirt matted to his frame—like paint. The stranger looked out the window and acted like it was going to rain. Grandpa didn't notice him, nor did he pay no mind, as he fidgeted back and forth in his seat.
“Looks like the clouds are moving in,” the man said, as he inched his way down the page, while one arm muffled the sound of crumbling paper.
“Can I have a POP!” Mr. Renishski chirped, glaring into the mirror and raising his eyebrows.
I kept my head in the magazine.
“I'll take a cold one,” Mr. Renishski said, his tongue pushed deep into his left cheek, like a fireball sticking out the side of his face. That was our signal for busted. Busted for taking something that wasn't yours. And taking something that wasn't yours
happened everyday up and down the boulevard, but not in Renishski's Barber Shop.
Mr. Renishski peered into the mirror, like he had eyes behind his head.
“That's some article about Arnold Palmer,” I snapped, trying to burn a hole with my two eyes fixed on his forehead.
“Yeah, right, Palmer...sure,” I could tell the man was caught red-handed, in one motion he slivered the magazine into the case and readjusted his tie. Glancing at his watch he said, “I didn't realize the time,” then scooted out the door without a single hair on his head reaching the floor.
Mr. Renishski spun Grandpa around and I was waiting for him to say something, but the sound of the scissors put Grandpa in a trance.
“How's the team looking this year, Coach?” Mr. Renishski asked, breaking the silence.
Grandpa could talk basketball with his eyes closed, “Oh, I think this is gonna be the year,” he said. Mr. Renishski lathered his face with shaving cream, giving him a glow stuck to his face, but even the halo couldn't stop me from letting Grandpa know how I felt.
“Gonna be the year alright,” I said. “The year your gonna see the first girl play on a team!”
And I did mean play—and Coach knew it, whether his eyes were open or closed.
But he acted like it went in one ear and out the other.
“Coach knows I'm the best shooter in the whole school—but doesn't want to admit it.”
“Is that right, Coach?” Mr. Renishski said, his worn knuckles moving up and down the leather strap, as the blade began to sing its own song.
“It's not that easy, Alexandra,” Coach said. “We don't have a girl's team.”
I knew we didn't have a girl's team and hated every time Grandpa reminded me of it. But I knew that if we didn't start winning a game soon, we wouldn't have a boy's team either. And if we didn't have a boy's team, you wouldn't be hearing anyone calling Grandpa, “Coach.”
“Now that you're a sixth grader,” Grandpa said.
I wasn't in the mood for talking.

“Gotta start thinking about being a young lady-”

“I ain't doing nothing of the kind,” I said, reaching down and pulling my socks up over my knees.
“How about a little more off the top?” Mr. Renishski suggested. “Then Alex can have her usual,” he added, with a wrinkled smile.
I sunk all the way to the floor in that pea green chair and took one more breath of that awful cologne. As my lungs exhaled, I waited for my Grandpa to be finished, and for the first time in my life—I didn't want to go back home.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I never get tired of reading or watching Chris Van Allsburg's, THE POLAR EXPRESS. Can you hear the bell and do you still believe? I do. I have fond memories of my brother Keith, sister Cindy, and I slithering down the staircase to see if Santa had arrived. Then quickly scattering back up when we heard our parents, still awake in the kitchen. And of all the presents that I have torn open over the years, I'll never forget my battery operated dump truck, capable of carrying at least one whole set of Lincoln Logs, as one of my favorites. I'd do anything to still have it. Up and down, back and forth, I think I wore it out in one month. Or was it my Charlie MaCarthy dummy, that had me talking out of the side of my mouth for the better part of my childhood. As a teenager I was mad at my mother for giving it to one of my cousins, thinking I had outgrown the man dressed in a tuxedo. I'd do anything to have old Charlie back.

Years later, I still enjoy laying on my back, under our Christmas tree, staring at all the lights and ornaments from years past. Granted it takes a little longer to get up off the floor, but I can still spot some of my favorites, even the one I made in Mrs. Hayes' third grade class, red satin with gold glitter, "Mark". Overlooking our family room, high atop our tree, you will find our Christmas Angel...the lone survivor of my Noni and Nono's tree from years past. One of our favorite holiday traditions is to have one of our daughters climb high atop my shoulders to put the angel on the tree. This year, in haste, I put her up all by myself, thinking we would never have all the girls in the house at the same time before our early December Fire-Truck Parade. I think that will be on our "to-do" list for Christmas Eve... In a few more days, our family will gather once again to share and celebrate Christmas. Our Polish wafer will be broken and shared amongst family, with love and best wishes for good health for the New Year. It is a wonderful tradition, which began many years ago in our home on Christmas Eve, as Polish Christmas carols play in the background.

Over the weekend I read Jeannette Walls New York Times Bestseller, THE GLASS CASTLE. And one vivid image remained in my mind long after I was finished. Believe me, I'm no Rex Walls, but I admired Jennette's recollection of her dad's love, "I could not imagine what my life would be like--without him in it. As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else had ever had." We're fortunate to still have my dad with us, although my wife lost her rock just over a year ago.

During this holiday season, reach out to your family and friends; and let them know you love them in a way no one else ever had. Listen for the bell...and believe in the magic of this holiday season.