Sunday, May 06, 2007

More Interviewmania: Skyler's Dad Interviews Me

I've been enjoying the latest blog thing going around, bloggers interviewing one another-- you bloggers are a pretty interesting bunch, and I've enjoyed getting to know a little more about you. And I enjoyed being interviewed by Daniela and interviewing Flannery Aiden, Natalie and Skyler's Dad.

Skyler's Dad returned the favor recently, interviewing me.

1. I am in awe of your writing talent. You have a way of telling a story that really sucks the reader in. What is the first story that you can remember writing?

First off, thank you—that’s very kind of you to say.

I remember the first story I actually sat down and set out to write. I was in third grade. I was trying to write a gothic horror tale that included the characters in the horror movies I loved staying up late and watching on WGN, Frankenstein and the Wolfman. It began:

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

Years later, I found out that there’s a contest, the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad fiction writers. It's often referred to as the "It was a dark and stormy night" contest. It’s named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who first penned that phrase in 1830.

Fortunately, my senior year of high school, I had two of the greatest teachers ever, English teachers Holly Haberle and Bill Lally. They decided that I had talent as a writer, and kept making me rewrite my papers for them. Holly in particular—I discovered that she was making me revise papers more than any of the other students. I was angry at the time, but am grateful now now.

A few years ago, I was able to contact Dr. Lally through and thank him. He and Holly are still good friends-- they're both retired now-- and I was able to convey my thanks to her through him.

It’s funny to think that the same high school, Lyons Township High School, produced both me and David Hasselhoff. I'm not making that up.

2. When you dream of your son in the future, where do you see him, and what do you see him doing?

A few months ago, I blogged about the various career plans my son has had over the years.

Like any parent, I would like to see him living out his dreams. Right now, he wants to be a pilot. I suspect, though, that his interest in architecture, particularly Art Deco, may lead him toward that field.

The funny thing about his interest in architecture is that it started while playing the Spiderman game on Playstation 2-- swinging through the streets of Manhattan-- he loves the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and other examples of Art Deco. He's amazing in his determination in finding information about something he's interested in-- he's constantly looking for more information on architecture. We're fortunate to be living in one of the greatest architecture cities in the world-- we're going to do the Chicago architecture tour soon.

He’s born and raised in Chicago, and loves Chicago, but I suspect that when he visits other places, he may fall in love with another city. I think he’d love San Francisco, Seattle, and maybe even Raleigh, North Carolina or Madison, Wisconsin— anywhere where there’s interesting people and progressive politics.

He’s already planning his financial future—he asked me to get him a book on investing. He’s been reading the book, and he wants to start putting away for his retirement—a 403(b), specifically. He wants to take the money he's saved from allowance, Christmas and birthday money and his paper route and invest it.

In my dream, I see him employed in a job he loves, doing the things that interest him, with someone he loves, living somewhere where he feels vital.

3. You are going on a survival trip to a remote location for an extended period of time. You can bring 10 songs on your player. What are you going to load?

1. Don’t Go Back To Rockville- REM
2. White Man In Hammersmith Palais- The Clash
3. Hollywood Bed- The Blasters
4. Rocks Off- Rolling Stones
5. Dreams- The Allman Brothers Band
6. The Warmest Room- Billy Bragg
7. Tangled Up In Blue- Bob Dylan
8. All Across the Watchtower- Jimi Hendrix Experience
9. Sheena Is a Punk Rocker- The Ramones
10. Refuge of the Roads- Joni Mitchell

4. NASA has finally wised up and seen the talent that you have and decided to make you an astronaut! Would you volunteer for the first manned mission to Mars?


I think that Kim and my kids might object at first—I would be gone nearly 3 years, minimum-- but I think I’d be able to talk them into it.

I've been fascinated by space and space travel since I was a kid. Space travel began right around the time I was born-- the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, went into space on April 12, 1961, and Alan Shepard, the first American to do so went on May 5, 1961, just 6 days before I was born. I've been hooked since I was little. As a kid, I kept a scrapbook of the Skylab program, and still read anything I can get my hands on about space.

I'm old enough to remember the sense of purpose that the space program, particularly the Apollo program that brought us to the moon, gave Americans. Some people say that we need to solve our problems here on earth first. I disagree. We have the resources to feed, clothe, educate and heal everyone-- it just takes the will and the cooperation to do that. I think that an international space program, and a mission to Mars would be a terrific opportunity to begin that process of bringing people together for a shared purpose. I would love being part of that process.

5. I have to reciprocate on your question to me of special children. Do you have a story that you would like to share with everyone?

First, let me preface this with something Kim and I talked about early in our relationship—that the only way it was going to work was if we accepted each others’ kids as our own. She has a daughter from her previous marriage, and I have a son from a previous relationship. I have two special kids, so I’ll tell about both of them.

A couple of months ago, my stepdaughter came to my wife about something she was upset about. One day at school, she’d seen something curious; her best friend was working on a project, but was doing something odd—she was doing two of everything. My stepdaughter asked her about it, and her friend said that it was so she didn’t have to pay $12. My stepdaughter pressed her about it, and discovered that another girl, who was a notorious bully at the school, was making her do work for her—telling her that she needed to do the work or come up with the money or she’d beat her up. My stepdaughter’s friend begged her not to tell anyone, but my stepdaughter decided that even though she herself was afraid of this girl, this couldn’t go on. She came to my wife and I about it, and we talked to her friend’s parents, who of course talked to the principal.

The bully in question had been a problem at the school for a long time. She was suspended, then ultimately expelled from the school—this incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was really, really proud of my stepdaughter, for stepping up for her friend and for doing what was right, even though she herself was afraid of this bully.

I have to tell two stories that give the key to my son’s character:

A couple of years ago, when I’d first started dating Kim, I had a party. Adam, who’s quite sociable and quite political, decided that he was going to give everyone at the party name tags. Of course, they weren’t going to have their own names—he decided that everyone needed to have a political name, so he started writing and taping nametags with politicians’ names on them. I think that the one that got everyone was when he gave someone the name of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich—that he could spell “Blagojevich” (even I just had to look up the spelling just now). That little episode showed how smart, gregarious, funny— and political— he is.

The other one is something that happened a couple of years ago, again right around when I met Kim. An old friend and I had gotten back in touch after having lost track of one another for ten years. We now both had kids and had a lot to catch up on. She came by one evening, and we hung out and talked while our boys got acquainted.

It was a cold autumn night, and the boys were sitting on the back porch. For a little warmth, I had lit one of the big citronella candles left over from the summer—the kind that are in the metal pail. At some point, they started playing with those little things that you throw on the ground and they explode (snap-pops?). And at some point, being a couple of boys, they decided to see what would happen if you threw a bunch of them into the fire.

What happened was that they exploded and flaming hot wax was sprayed across the porch.

My friend’s son was understandably scared and ran away from the fire. My son, fearing the fire would spread, stayed on the porch, yelling for me. I finally heard him, and looked out the back door, and had one of the most frightening experiences of my life; from where I was, in my kitchen, it looked like he was on fire.

I ran out and quickly realized that he was okay. I shoved him inside and got the fire out.

We live in a 100 year old building that’s nearly entirely made of wood. In another minute or so, that fire would have been completely uncontrollable.

My son had known that he’d screwed up and that he’d be in a lot of trouble when it was all done. But he'd also known that the consequences of not getting me back there immediately would have been disasterous. I was simultaneously angry with him (and myself—leaving two young boys alone with a fire, even if I was only 20 feet away, wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done) and proud of him. He’d made the right choice, even when it wasn’t the easy one-- staying there and calling for me. He had to have been scared to death-- the fire was large by the time I got there. As I stood there shaking and crying, I held him and told him that he had done the right thing, and that he was the most important thing in the world to me. And told him never, ever do anything like that (throwing the snap-pops into the fire) again.

A few years back, I met an amazing man-- Lincoln Brigade veteran and political activist named Abe Osheroff. He talked about choices—that we come to these moments in our lives, these forks in the road, where we have the choice to do either the easy thing or the right thing. Heroism, he said, is doing the right thing rather than the easy thing. Both of my kids, when faced with that choice, did the right thing. I couldn't be prouder of them.

Thanks for the great questions! I really enjoyed this!

Anyone who'd like to be interviewed, email me at


Toccata said...

These interviews have been a real eye opener. I second the compliment about being in awe of your writing. Always a pleasure to stop by your place.

Skylers Dad said...

That was wonderful Johnny, thanks again for sharing a bit of your life with us.

Bubs said...

Great interview. I love your last stories about your kids, and the advice from the Lincoln Brigade vet. That is, in my opinion, the best advice to give a kid on doing the right thing.

Once again, it's always good to read your work, but it's great when you talk about your kids and your bride.

Chris said...

Great stuff, you two!

Mob said...

Great stuff, my friend, it's always an interesting read.

Sounds like you have some great kids.

Grant Miller said...

David Hassellhoff? No way.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I have one of those "Dark and Stormy Night" books - full of entries to the contest. Are you in there?

Johnny Yen said...

Coming from you, that's high compliment.

Skyler's Dad-
Thanks, and thanks again for the great questions.

And I love telling about them.

In our respective jobs, we see the results of bad parenting. Isn't it great to look at how unique, interesting and principled our kids are, and just think-- hey, I must have done something right?


I do have great kids, thank you!

Grant Miller-

My mother told me a couple of years ago that he'd gone to LTHS, but I wasn't sure if it was true or not. Both Wikipedia and the IMDB confirmed it.

Eastern Illinois University, my college, produced a couple more respected actors-- John Malkovich (before he transferred to Illinois State University) and Joan Allen.