Saturday, February 4, 2012

Looking back, moving ahead

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
They were the dog days of summer, when the Midwest heat and humidity wring the sweat out of you with nary a move.

We lived several miles west of Elgin at the time in a small subdivision called Wildwood Valley. It was the early 1970s, and this little tract just off Coombs Road and a little north of Highland Avenue still was considered “the country.”

That meant we got to see deer and sometimes fox roaming the hills to the east, occasionally a badger or coyote. Toads of varying sizes were ubiquitous, ready to urinate all over whoever picked them up. Black tiger salamanders with their bold yellow stripes, or another black variety of the amphibian with yellow polka-dots were a common a common find in window wells. Emerald green leopard frogs and a similar speckled frog in bronze that we called pickerel frogs were abundant; in the spring, the joyful chorus of their randy multitudes was enough to drown out nearly all other sound during evening walks or nights spent sitting out on the back deck of our home.

There also was the “country air” that permeated our neighborhood each spring with the manure-like stench of fertilizer applications on freshly plowed corn and soybean fields to our west.

In late July or early August, the atmosphere often is still and muggy — so much so that even a dip in an algae-covered, 2-acre pond with a slippery mud-and-clay bottom becomes a sought-after reprieve from the stifling heat.

Over the past year, we had become teenagers, full of the vigor and mischief of youth. During this summer, we had started to notice that the girls our age had become kind of cute, that some of the older girls in the neighborhood were downright hot. We were awkward and gangly, imagining we were cool yet apparently ignorant that, after our swim, we smelled a bit like dead fish or rotting algae. We wanted to impress but had an “air” about us that repelled.

We also still were boys, so when we failed to charm the young ladies, belly flops, underwater handstands and swimming across Basswood Lake became the order of the day. The swims across the lake were carefree — an informal rite of passage by which we demonstrated stamina, perseverance. Drowning largely was a laughable thought, and it was still two years shy of the release of Jaws, which would change our perception of that swim from daunting to haunting.

Wading into shore, our toes greased by the slimy mud, we sometimes would lunge sideways, trying to catch the huge bullfrogs that inhabited the shoreline, where they waited to dine on bugs, smaller frogs and even snakes.

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The loud, booming calls of those green and bronze behemoths — a deep, throaty “home, home, home” — inspired one sleep-deprived lakeside resident to offer a bounty: 50 cents a head for each big one we would take out and release in one of the ponds in the cow pasture east of the subdivision. That pasture eventually would become a portion of Burnidge Forest Preserve.

At least a couple of times, his son Kevin and I would collect on that bounty, then haul our catch back a couple of hundred yards to release the plate-sized amphibians into ponds that often dried up by late summer. More than likely, however, those frogs simply returned to the lake before then. No matter how many big ones we hauled away each summer, there always seemed to be an even greater abundance of them in the lake by summer’s end.

These were the carefree, generally fun-filled days of our waning youth, but they were drawing to an end. Somewhere inside, I believe each of us held a growing awareness that we were upon our last days as a merry band and were on the verge of drifting apart as we drifted toward adulthood.

We would be high school freshmen soon.

Boasts of unending friendship and loyalty aside, some would head off to Larkin High School, a couple of us would attend St. Edward Central Catholic, one or two more would go to Fox Valley Lutheran. No longer would we share rides to and from school on the same bus. There would be greater demands on our time for homework, sports, school plays, hanging out with new buddies, swearing allegiance to new best friends. For some it would be a lonely road.

Certainly, we were filled with excitement even as we tried to understand just what high school would require of us. In our youth, we were eager to grow up, to drive cars, to chase after gorgeous young ladies and to be cool like some of the older kids in our neighborhood, the ones who were heading off to college about now. Just as likely, these older ones were running through same gamut of emotions we were, although likely with a greater grasp of what this change really represented.

Change meant venturing into uncharted waters. Some of us were used to being in just one classroom with the same teacher all day long. High school meant leaving a classroom at the end of the hour, racing to a locker in an obscure part of the building, where we would switch books slam it shut and click the lock, all before sprinting back frantically to another classroom that seemed impossibly distant.

Probably the greater source of apprehension, however, was what seemed to be the universal idea that high school was a big deal. It would set the course for the rest of our lives … Every class was important, every test difficult.

This past week I’ve been reliving some of those mixed emptions — excitement and yet apprehension. Since mid-January, I’ve had a small sampling of the regimen of training I begin in earnest next week. In the coming four months, I will be spending six hours in a classroom two or three days a week, receiving the training I need for certification as an Adobe expert. Adobe offers a suite of software — Dreamweaver, Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Flash — used in both print and digital platforms. I am receiving other training as well, but the Adobe products are the core.

I am conflicted between the excitement about learning new, powerful skills, and yet daunted by the fear of failure. I believe these new skills will make me more marketable, preferably in journalism, because in many ways they dovetail with my skills as a writer, editor, former photographer. If this certification does not lead me back into journalism, then my hope is that it will land me in something that will provide full-time work that pays well enough to support my family better.

But there is a test. I cannot gain this certification simply by numbly occupying a seat in a classroom. I must learn these skills and know them and practice them.

Through it all, I’ll be juggling the demands of the classroom time, the practice time I will need at home, and the time I must commit to the part-time jobs I have.

I will be spinning a lot of plates, juggling a lot of balls.

Come Monday, I step out with uncertainty of the outcome but knowing the reward is potentially great. Failure is not an option, yet there it stands, waiting in the shadows.

But I intend to walk past fear. I intend to succeed.