Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Meteor


At our house, Christmas strikes like a meteor.  Not one of those sneak-up-on-you-out-of-left-field, wake-up-one-day-and-discover-a-meteor’s-coming-for-lunch kind; no, this is one of those you can always see coming, the kind whose progress you can follow as it tracks its way towards you.  But it looks so distant and so tiny for so long that it fails to register any alarm (in fact, I can already see next year’s meteor way out there in space, twinkling innocuously).  By the time you’re ready to start taking it seriously, of course, it’s too late.  That accelerating ball of rock is looming over you in the sky, trailing fire and smoke, dropping its advance shadow on your house, and you look up knowing there is nothing that can deflect its weighty mass from smashing into you. 

At our house, the moment of impact is the same every year.  6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  We have a tradition of hosting a Christmas Eve party every year, a tradition that goes back to Elizabeth’s parents, both of whom have since passed away.  The party, however, lives on, in the same house (now our house) where it’s been happening since about 1982 or so. 

Anyway, six o’clock is it.  That’s when all preparations must cease.  In years past, we have sometimes had a few moments to spare, when we would huddle together as a family in the eerie quiet, looking around in nervous anticipation, waiting for that meteor to explode all over us.  The past few years, however, we’ve been attending Christmas Eve service at our church, and so miss out on that fleeting, weird tranquility, which is no big loss.    

The meteor’s arrival is marked by the muted thud of car doors closing.  Within seconds of that, the first of many shockwaves comes blowing through our doors.  Within mere minutes, we are swept away by a surge of friends and family, pulled apart and lost amongst a roiling sea of merry-makers, often losing visual contact with each other for half-hours stretches at a time, even though we are all contained in three connected rooms within the same, modest ranch-style house.  There may be fifty or more of us on any given Christmas Eve, bumping and ricocheting and pardoning each other, and a fair number of children, who, with an art long forgotten by us adults, weave nimbly through a dense forest of moving grown-up legs. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A brief history of lemons and lemonade


If the internet is to be trusted, it was Dale Carnegie (famous lecturer and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) who first coined the phrase, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Today, Mr. Carnegie would be called a motivational expert or a self-improvement guru, but he was born ahead of his time, and so is simply referred to as a writer and lecturer.  Mr. Carnegie was one of the first people to realize that the essentially American combination of constitutionally protected freedom plus disposable income equaled one hell of an opportunity to profit from our long-standing obsession with self-improvement.  His book How to Win Friends and Influence People has sold 15 million copies since it was first published in 1936.  Lord only knows how many more copies have been pilfered from public libraries over the years.  He was a pioneer of sorts, paving the way for the modern self-improvement industry, which took in 11 billion dollars in 2008, according to Forbes.  Compared to the home-improvement industry, which had revenues estimated at 250 billion during the same year, this may not seem like much; but remember, people are generally much smaller than houses, and need to be reroofed far less frequently. 

Many people don’t really understand the important role lemons have played throughout human history.  Sure, most of us probably recall learning in elementary school about how lemons were used by sailors to prevent scurvy.  Interestingly, they never said how they used them.  Maybe they kept the lemons in their pockets, or rubbed them on their bodies, or hung them around their necks, like garlic was used to ward off vampires.  Personally, I have a hard time believing that they or anybody else would just eat raw lemons.  Scurvy can’t really be that bad, can it?  Still, it’s fun to imagine a bunch of pirates as they come swinging over the side of a captured frigate with their eye patches and their bandannas and their parrots, raising their swords aloft and then suddenly exposing bright yellow lemon smiles, the way kids like to do with orange wedges.  After all, if there was anything pirates were known for more than their lack of vitamin C deficiencies, it was a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye to a Good Man




For those of you who met Kent Yoder through the guest post I published here back in June, I have the difficult task of informing you that Kent died on October 27th, 2012.

He battled prostate cancer for more than a year before the disease vanquished his body, and in doing so, freed him from his body’s terrible confinement.

Kent was 49.  He had been married to Janelle for eleven years, and in that time fathered a son and a daughter.  As I trust in God’s grace, they will all live on and do amazing things.

I last saw Kent the weekend before he passed.  I went along with our friend Rick to see him in a hospice facility.  We spent some time with Kent, and Janelle, and a few others who came through to see him.  He looked nothing like the Kent of just a few short months before, which was nothing like the Kent of a short year before that.  His body looked like that of a concentration camp victim.  He had that same ageless, ancient look that I remember from photos I would show my sophomores each year when we read Elie Weisel’s Night together.  As with them, it appeared that it was only the spirit of the man inside that prolonged the life of his body, and prevented it from crumbling to dust on the spot.

I took a copy of the Bible, and a collection of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons with me when we went to visit him.  If that seems like a strange combination to bring to a dying man, well it just felt right, knowing Kent to the extent I do.  Inside the Far Side book I tucked a copy of the lyrics to Bridge Over Troubled Waters.  I don’t know why.  I guess I was just thinking about what might comfort me, if it were me instead of him. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cadillac Lady


For the folks out there thinking that all is lost, that America has reached the end of the line, and that secession should no longer be thought of as a dirty word, I’d like to relate a little incident that happened to me a few days ago.  It may not change your mind about the imminent demise of the republic, but you might feel like at least it doesn’t have to happen today.   

So it’s Thursday, and Thursdays are my favorite day.  After dropping Jessica off at school, I drive Maria out to my mom and dad’s house, and they watch her while I come home and write, alone, uninterrupted, for five or six hours in a row.  Alone.  Uninterrupted.  In a row.  It’s the closest thing to a realization of my dream working life I’ve got.  It hasn’t actually gone that way the last three weeks or so, but today was going to be different.  I could feel it. 

We had already taken daughter number one to school and were driving west on Cactus Road, following the usual route for getting daughter number two to Grandma and Grandpa’s place in Sun City.  We are stopped by the light at 51st Ave and wait there, first in line when the light turns green.  Maria is in her car seat in the back, pestering me to imitate Toby, the snobby, spectacle-wearing, robot-obsessed villain from the PBS show WordGirl.  Toby is her latest crush (I believe I’ve mentioned before about her unsettling tendency to crush on bad guys), and I’ve managed to work up a passable impersonation of the nerdy lad’s voice.  Plus I already have the glasses.  She likes my Toby so much that she is constantly after me to be him.  This time I try to put her off by professing my love for the song on the radio, singing really loudly along with it, effectively drowning out her pleas.  While I’m singing, I’m also thinking about what I’m going to do with my writing time once I get back home.   I can do these two things simultaneously, unlike trying to think and channel Toby, which is mainly why I’m putting her off. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Use the Mouse, Luke - Things You Didn't Know About the Disney-Star Wars Deal




In the aftermath of last week’s movie industry bombshell in which Disney announced it had reached an agreement to purchase Lucasfilm, George Lucas was asked why he decided to sell the company he founded over 40 years ago, the company which is the home base for all things Star Wars.  “I felt that it was my responsibility to make a decision that would be in the best interest of the shareholders of Lucasfilm,” he replied.  When questioned further, specifically about the fact that Lucasfilm has exactly one shareholder – who happens to be George Lucas – Mr. Lucas stated, “That’s what made it so easy to figure out what our best interest was.” 

Asked if he felt the 4.05 billion selling price was fair, Mr. Lucas is said to have removed his solid-gold loafers to shake out a small nugget, adjusted his top hat, squinted through his monocle, and said, “Look, Disney just acquired an entire universe.  On a square-footage basis alone, any real estate agent in the world would tell you that Disney got a steal.” 

During another interview, he was asked when he first began to seriously consider the idea of selling Lucasfilm.  Mr. Lucas replied, “I can tell you exactly when it was.  Bobby [Robert Iger, President of Disney] and I had just sat down to lunch, and he started using the ‘b’ word.  As in ‘billions.’  Before that, I wasn’t thinking about it at all.  In fact, I was thinking about whether to order the manicotti, or the veal scallopini.  I went with the veal.  It was okay.”

In a thunderstrokes exclusive, we found a source close to the Lucas-Disney negotiations who was able to corroborate Lucas’ version of events.  Matt Gary is a waiter, Star Wars fanatic and aspiring screenwriter who traded tables with another server in the hopes of pitching a concept for a web-based Star Wars series to the movie mogul.  He recounts for us exactly what happened on that fateful day.  “He did.  He absolutely did.  He had the veal, even though I told him that the manicotti was the specialty of the house.  But when a man like George Lucas says he wants the veal, you bring him the veal, you know?” 

On the subject of the blockbuster deal, Mr. Gary said, “Well, Mr. Iger said something like, ‘We want to buy Lucasfilm from you, George.  What’s it going to take?’ and George said, ‘hrmf falrefa,’ or something like that; it was hard to tell because he had just taken a hefty bite of his walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette – a salad I recommended, by the way – and then he held his finger up, and then he finished chewing, and then he swallowed, and then he took a drink of water, and then he cleared his throat, and then he dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and then he said, ‘I’m not selling Lucasfilm, Bob, but thanks for the interest.’ I remember that part very distinctly because he still had a little dressing in his beard, and it was kind of glinting in the light.  Anyway, then Bob – I mean Mr. Iger – says, ‘How’s four billion sound to you, George?’ and George kind of chokes on his focaccia – not eyes bugging out, falling backwards, clutching his throat kind of choking; it was just your regular kind, a lot of coughing and huffing and wheezing – and then he spits the bread out.  I was ready though, man, I was ready.  It would have been a pleasure to perform the Heimlich on that man.  Anyways, George gets his voice back and says, ‘Four billion?  For four billion, I’d sell my company, my name, and my private parking space at the Denver mint.  For four billion, you can have my body when I die.  You can take all the brain tissue samples you want, and dump the rest of me in the freezer with Walt.  I’ll even throw in my dogs and all my Linda Ronstadt records. That was billion with a ‘b,’ right?’”

Friday, October 19, 2012

Flipping the Big Bird


It’s October, and the weather has started to finally cool off here in the desert Southwest.  The evenings are pleasant again, and the mornings are cool and dry and perfectly luscious.  With the start of each day, we get to savor the decline and fall of another endless summer.   It is a time of great rejoicing, and a general sense of giddy relief floods over the land… 

I have been very busy working outside this last week or so.  Every year around this time, I get very enthused about the idea of starting a winter garden, and so I have set about my annual ritual of clearing our garden space of all the dead branches and discarded junk that tends to collect there over the summer.  Unfortunately, this has caused me to fall woefully behind on my writing schedule.  So, to keep things moving along here at thunderstrokes, I have invited a prominent writer acquaintance of mine to contribute a post.

Mr. Clive Cumberbun is the executive director of the Center of American Values for America’s Americans, a conservative think-tank based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  While he was unwilling to provide me with an original piece of content (only because of an absolutely brutal polo schedule, according to his email), he did give me exclusive permission to post an item he recently wrote for the Center’s official newsletter, "The Rabid Pachyderm."  Gee, I hope they aren’t riding rabid pachyderms while they play polo…

Enjoy.  I’m going back outside.     

Reprinted with the author’s permission from The Rabid Pachyderm, originally published 10.08.12 
By Clive Cumberbun

In the aftermath of the first presidential debate, Mr. Romney has taken a great deal of undeserved political flak for daring to suggest that PBS and shows like Sesame Street be kicked off the public coffers.  While his position seemed to surprise much of the viewing audience, those of us who have been following this election cycle know that Mr. Romney has been quite vocal on this issue since the primaries began.  For example, in March Mr. Romney appeared on Sean Hannity’s show, trying to alert the American people to the critical problem represented by public television: 



For nearly a year, Mr. Romney has been remarkably consistent when it comes to cutting funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding for both NPR radio as well as PBS.  Thus it earns the distinction of being one of his most enduring, if not endearing, political beliefs (his other, ‘I believe in baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, but not Chevrolet,’ goes all the way back to 2009).

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Zen of Doggy-Doo, Part 2


In Part 1, I introduced you to the crappy problem we’ve been dealing with:  people from a nearby apartment complex letting their dogs to take a dump in the alley behind our house and leaving it for someone else to clean up, and how that someone, under threat of being fined by the City of Phoenix, turned out to be me.  Part 1 ended with me in the alley, shovel and pail in hand, considering how I was going to get out of the fecal-fest I found myself in.

There’s a certain social contract that has always existed among men.  It’s one that’s so fundamental to the free and agreeable interactions of people that it’s rarely mentioned, but always assumed.  It’s been a deeply embedded part of civil society for countless generations.  It was so self-evident that Thomas Jefferson felt no need to even mention it in the Declaration of Independence, and so obvious that God Himself felt it would have been redundant to put it in the Ten Commandments.  But if He had, it might have gone something like this:  Thou shalt not alloweth thy dog to shitteth upon another man’s home, or even the alley behind his home. 

Okay, I might have added that part about the alley. 

The fact that so little has been committed to writing on the topic only added to my frustration as I contemplated how to respond to the small group of dog-owning apartment people who were using our alley as their own private pet poopery.  I searched everywhere for some written shred of support I could wave in the face of the next person I caught back there, walking a dog that even gave the subtlest sniff that it was thinking about cranking one out.  I was hoping Shakespeare might have addressed the issue, maybe in one of his minor historical works, or perhaps Dante had met someone who was guilty of breaking this sacred injunction in one of hell’s lowest circles; but no luck.  All I found to show those reprehensible apartment people the error of their ways was one brief passage in the biblical book of Deuteronomy*, which says:  “The man who permits his dog to unburden itself in a public place and stoops not to clean it while yet warm has defiled both himself and his dog.  This man shall be unclean for three days, and must purify himself in the following manner, by bathing both himself and dog before even each day, and sprinkle with hyssop both himself and dog before even each day.  On the third day, this man must also wash his dog with the ashes of a heifer, and make a sacrifice of one fourth of a ram, and a tenth part of an epaph of flour mingled with a hin of oil, so that both dog and man will be purified.” 

*God bless Deuteronomy; they have a rule for everything, including one about not plowing with ox and ass together (Deut 22:10).  Aside from revealing clear micromanagement issues, who among the ancient Israelites would’ve wanted to do such a thing?  It seems obvious that if you yoke an ox and ass together you’ll end up plowing in a circle, either because of the ox’s superior strength, or the ass’s superior stubbornness.
   
While I think this passage clearly shows the seriousness with which the ancient Israelites viewed this kind of transgression, I had no idea what an epaph and hin were, let alone hyssop.  I elected not to use it on the basis that it would require too much explanation to be effective in any conceivable alley situation.  
Just how are you supposed to handle those who refuse to acknowledge one of the basic courtesies by which most of us live?  I had already decided I wasn’t just going to roll over and accept being the neighborhood’s manure man, its feces facilitator, its poop patsy.  But I also couldn’t just hold my nose and let nature take its course either, not with the constant threat of a fine from the city squatting over our heads. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Zen of Doggy-Doo, Part 1


We’ve been dealing with a crappy problem for quite some time at our house.  Actually, crap is the problem.  And of all the crappy problems one could possible have, actual crap may be the worst. 

Oh, by the way, I should warn you; if you’re already getting put off by the multiple uses of the word ‘crap,’ you may want to stop reading now.  It’s only going to get worse. 

My mom’s kind of squeamish that way.  Strangely, not when it comes to dealing with the real thing (she raised six kids after all); no, it’s the vocabulary words that get to her.  Whenever my mom hears someone say a word as mild as ‘crap,’ ‘poop,’ or ‘ca-ca,’ her eyes start to flutter; anything stronger and she appears to be coming down with a case of the vapors, which I didn’t realize even still existed.  The term she prefers to use when referring to the biological process of eliminating solid waste is the cryptic letter combination ‘B.M.’  It wasn’t always that way, though.  When we were kids it was simply ‘potty,’ or if she needed to be more specific, ‘number 1’ and ‘number 2.’  Those two numbers were in such common usage in my house that when I got to first grade, I would argue with my teacher whenever she tried to tell us that 1 + 1 = 2.  Even from what little I understood about the digestive process, there was just no way that could be true. 

But now it’s ‘B.M.’  For the longest time, I didn’t even know what ‘B.M.’ referred to.  Mom, who would sometimes take care of our oldest daughter when she was little, first sprung that one on me when I stopped by after work one day to pick her up.  She was casually debriefing me on the day’s activities when her voice suddenly dropped almost to a conspiratorial hush, and she said, “Jessica had a ‘B.M.’ today.”  She paused, presumably for dramatic effect, before adding, “It was fine.”  Then she went right back to her normal conversational tone, telling me how Jessica had given the cat quite a scare by dropping a block on its head while it slept.  I went the better part of a year thinking a ‘B.M.’ was some kind of beverage, like a V-8.  I figured the reason for the low voice was that it somehow involved granddad, who had probably invoked his grandparent’s prerogative again, and disregarded our strident plea to limit drinks to either milk or watered-down apple juice. 

I thought nothing more of my mom’s sporadic ‘B.M.’ references until the day she sidled up to me while Jessica was in the corner, preoccupied with trying to put her shoes on.  She leaned in close, looking serious and slightly worried, and whispered, “Jessica had a ‘B.M.’ today, but it was a little off.” The word ‘off’ was accompanied by a contortion of her face into a brief, but intensely pained, expression.  She then peered around me, to make sure Jessica wasn’t listening before she continued.  “It was a little on the runny side.  You may want to keep an eye on that.”  Well that threw me, because it no longer sounded like we were talking about drinks at all.  Maybe ‘B.M.’ referred to a certain way of making eggs.  For some reason, I wanted to associate ‘B.M.’ with food, which, in a roundabout way, I guess it does, kind of.  Anyway, not wanting to embarrass my mom further by belaboring what was obviously such a delicate issue for her, I nodded gravely in response, and said something like, “Well, we’ll see to it she doesn’t have any more of those today.”  It was my wife who finally clued me in that ‘B.M.’ stands for ‘Bowel Movement.’

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fountain Hubris, Arizona



As a kid, my folks stopped to see the Fountain Hills fountain once on a trip to Payson. It was the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of summer.  The first time I saw the fountain go off, shooting water so high into the sky I couldn’t look all the way up to the top without sneezing, I thought they had discovered an ingenious new way to keep cool.  Maybe it was some great new form of evaporative cooler, one that worked by chilling the air around an entire town with one giant column of water.  It was exciting.  I dreamed that I was seeing the future, and that someday every town would have a giant fountain like this, and kids would finally be able to play outside all summer long.  But then, after a few minutes spent on the sizzling concrete at the edge of the man-made lake, and still feeling every single one of the 113 degrees it must have been that day, I realized that, as far as providing relief was concerned, the fountain was an abject failure.  My short-lived dream was dashed.  I returned to the car, which my mom had never left, and watched the fountain finish in air-conditioned comfort. 

Yes, I was disillusioned at an early age by the Fountain Hills fountain, and my animosity has only grown with the years. 

People have tried to tell me that the Fountain Hills fountain is a landmark.  People see that fountain from miles away, they contend, and so they know exactly where they are.  To which I say: Really? What good is a landmark that only appears for five or ten minutes every hour?  Is this the sort of thing we should trust our navigation to?  I’m fairly sure that commercial airliners don’t rely on a once-in-a-while plume of water to find their way safely home.   I did have to agree on one thing, though.  The fountain does tell you exactly where you are; when you see that fountain you know with absolute certainty that you’re thirty minutes away from Phoenix.  Aside from that, though, I can’t see their point. 

The business leaders in Fountain Hills like the fountain.  They say it boosts business.  I say, if it’s so good for business, why are the city’s residents being asked to shoulder the two million dollars needed for essential repairs, and pay almost $150,000 a year for the electricity to operate the thing for a few minutes every hour?  If the fountain really packs in the tourists like they say, why don’t those businesses come together and provide the necessary money?  Then they could run it as much as they want, maybe even all the time, and it really could be a landmark. 

What’s that?  Oh, I see, it’s not that good for business…

Perhaps they’re somewhat overstating the economic impact of the fountain.  Look, I’ve been living here since 1979, and in all that time I’ve been to the fountain exactly twice.  And the only time we have ever spent money in Fountain Hills has been at the McDonalds on Shea, right there by the Beeline highway.  Now that was a smart business decision. 

Let’s face it:  only in Arizona would we think that people will come from far and wide to see water spew into up into the sky and then watch it come down again.  There’s a reason why competitive fountain-building is such a lonely sport.  It’s because no one else cares.  It’s water.  For most places, water is as common as clouds, or wet sidewalks.  Trust me, nobody’s sitting in a cafĂ© in Boston, Chicago, or Seattle, talking with a friend about how they just have to get out to Arizona to see the most excessive display of needless water propulsion in the country.   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Night of the Laughing Stars



One night, not so long ago, I went outside to the backyard, just trying to distance myself from a particularly irritating set of mundane household frustrations. 

Seeking relief, I looked up at the stars. 

These were the same stars I used to look at with wonder as a child, when I would spend hours imagining all the possible worlds that orbited distant suns out there, all the strange variations of life, and the fantastic civilizations that might exist.  When I was a teenager, I used to stand under the stars and beg for something to happen, for an alien spaceship to come out from amongst those stars and get me, take me away from the small, boring, insignificant life I had, break the chains I could already feel binding me to an ordinary, tedious future, and show me all the wonders of the universe.  Then, once I was out and on my own, I stopped looking up much at all (far too busy making a paycheck for that), and the stars receded into a beautiful, but flat, backdrop.  Years passed, and I finally reached the point where I would look up at the stars, and found that I resented them.  They represented the universe, after all, and the universe was no friend of mine.  Not a universe that kept me trapped and feeling miserable, not a universe that did nothing while I struggled so pathetically, not a universe that I had actually come to believe was conspiring against me.  It felt like the stars were only there to mock me, make fun of my pain, and taunt me with the reminder that I was stuck down here, hopeless and alone, while they were up there, far beyond my reach, living it up. 

But this night was different for some reason.  Oh, I was still frustrated and feeling empty inside and at a loss for what to do, where to go.  I had exhausted my ideas, and exhausted myself.  I looked up at those stars and felt the same old remorseless laughter in response to my puny human problems.  But I remembered how I used to see the stars so differently, how they had once been filled with so much hope and wonder, and it made me ask a question I had not yet dared to ask myself:  So, who was wrong?  The me I used to be, or the me I am now?  The stars themselves hadn’t changed; they were almost the exact same stars in every measurable way that I had been looking at all my life.  Clearly I was the one that had changed.  But had I changed for the better, or for the worse?   After all these years, had I grown wiser, or had I only grown more foolish?

Of course I knew the answer, even without admitting it.  And that led to more questions.  Was it possible that my whole way of looking at the world was fundamentally flawed?  Could it be that the pervasive sense of lack I was experiencing in my life was merely a perception, and didn’t represent the actual working reality of the universe?  Was it possible that I was wrong, and all those things that I felt I lacked:  work I loved, the opportunity to do the things I wanted to do, money, and most of all, the time to do anything about it, were really the result of a terribly misbegotten focus, a choice I had somehow unknowingly made, instead of the natural order of things? 

And if I was wrong, what did it mean to be wrong?  If the universe wasn’t my enemy, if it wasn’t actively seeking out chances to thwart me at every turn, or to punish me for continuing to cling to my ratty old dreams, if it wasn’t responsible for the helpless sense I had of things never going my way, then what kind of universe did I live in?  A neutral universe, empty?  The kind that doesn’t pay attention to you, and conversely doesn’t require that you pay attention to it?  In other words, the universe of my twenties, when I believed that I made myself, and that my will, my mind, and my hands were responsible for everything good that happened to me?  The stars as simple stage scenery?  Or was it possible that I had it right as a kid, when I saw something more out there: hope and wonder and beauty beyond my ability to encompass?   Was it possible that I lived in a universe that was not forlorn or expressionless, not antagonistic or cruel, but seething with boundless life?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Damn Passion



Walter Isaacson, the biographer whose book on Steve Jobs was such a sensation last year, made an interesting comment the other day that got me really cranked up at first.  He was recalling a conversation he once had with Jobs about passion.  “We talked about the fact that it isn’t just about your damn passion,” Isaacson reportedly said, “it’s about doing something larger than yourself.  It’s about serving this world, helping others.  So if you have a whole generation of people [who’ve been] told, ‘Oh, just follow your passion,’ they’re going to forget that there’s some purpose in life.”  

Of course, when the story was released, it went out under the somewhat misleading and certainly manipulative headline, “Isaacson:  It’s not just about your damn passion.”  When I first saw that headline, I was instantly incensed and had to know more.  Which goes a long way towards explaining why the media likes to be somewhat misleading and certainly manipulative. 

I haven’t read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs yet, although Elizabeth bought me a copy for Christmas last year (curse you, Dark Tower!), but I did read an earlier biography he wrote about Benjamin Franklin, which I thought was absolutely terrific.  In fact, based on that biography, I wrote an essay in which I compared Franklin to the game of baseball.  I know that probably sounds weird, especially seeing how Franklin predated the game by fifty or sixty years, but trust me, it was a good essay, and it made a valid point somehow about the balance between individual and community.  If anyone’s interested, I’ll clean it up and post it sometime.  I should do it anyway, if only because I find the visual image of Franklin in a Phillies uniform holding a bat irresistibly entertaining. 

Anyway, for the record, I agree completely with Isaacson when he basically equates serving others as being a person’s highest purpose in life.  I actually believe that.  But I also believe that passion has a place, an absolutely necessary and integral place, in how to best serve others.  Let me give you an example from my own experience.  I spent four years as a teacher.  I changed careers at thirty-eight because I thought I was finally ready to respond to my highest calling, which I believed was to teach teenagers how to improve their reading and writing.  For those four years, I served those high school students as best I could.  I loved and cared about the students that I taught, and I loved and cared about the people that I worked with.

Yet, by the end of those four years, I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.   It took a lot of soul-searching, but I finally figured out that, without passion, serving others can still lead to unhappiness – profound, existential unhappiness.  Even though I loved almost everyone I was around, I was miserable being a teacher.  I had no passion for teaching.  Not in a classroom.  Not that way.

My passion lay elsewhere.

Now, maybe there’s just something wrong with me.  Trust me, I’ve considered that possibility often.  But from that experience I learned that you can’t force yourself to serve a higher purpose; it has to be done willingly.  In fact, pure passion is about the only thing that will get me to willingly do more than I absolutely have to. 

During an interview I did with Dorina Groves a few months back, she showed me a tattoo on her arm which says, “Purpose produces passion.”  I think many of us, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Isaacson included, would agree with that basic premise, if not perhaps the idea of stitching it into your skin for all eternity.  But I also think the opposite is just as true, that passion produces purpose.  I think the two are inextricable.  I think that passion exists to lead us to our purpose, to lead us to a greater awareness of our unique reason for being here, and to lead us to discover the work that is ours to do.  Whether you start with passion or start with purpose isn’t anywhere near as important as just starting. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don Bluth and The Front Row Theatre


The man met us on the porch in front of his house.  He was lanky, compact; his thin silver hair skimming far above a vast expanse of forehead, a matching silver moustache lying pencil-straight across his upper lip, and clear blue eyes that regarded us warmly as we advanced up the gravel driveway.  His face broke into a broad, embracing smile.  Somehow, it was the smile that convinced me that I knew who he was, for we had never met before.  As Elizabeth and I reached the landing, I leaned forward eagerly and extended my hand.  “You must be Don Bluth,” I said, smiling myself.  We shook hands.  “Yes, that’s me,” he said, nodding as if sheepishly admitting his culpability in doing a good deed.  Then he ushered us into his house. 

Just like that, I had met one of the great artists and most respected names in the history of animated movies. 

Two weeks before, I had no idea he even lived in the Valley, let alone was opening his home on a regular basis to complete strangers.  What an act of faith, I thought as we stood in the entry hall, next to a temporarily abandoned table.  After welcoming us, Mr. Bluth asked us to wait in the foyer while he attended to some last-minute details.  A woman soon stepped out from behind a curtained archway, and pleasantly welcomed us again.  She asked us for our names, checking them against a list, while a tall man who appeared at almost the same time affably accepted our $40 donation, and handed us two folded pieces of paper in return.  The pleasant woman then guided us through the hall to the living room, and delivered us to our seats.

We had arrived at The Front Row Theatre. 

The Front Row Theatre is an aptly named place.  The seating consists of one full row of chairs which corrals, on three sides, a very modest, two-tiered stage in the center of the room.  There is a partial second row of chairs, except on one side of the room where a wet bar has been converted into an audio/visual control booth.  There are about forty seats altogether.  We were sitting in the front row, seats 4 and 5, just to the left of center.  The edge of the stage was not three feet away. 

The show that night was “Barefoot in the Park,” the Neil Simon comedy about two young newlyweds, Paul and Corie, who move into their first place together in NYC, only to discover that the differences between them are underscored and exacerbated by the challenging conditions of the apartment they find themselves in.  Much conflict and comedy ensue before a happy ending.  The 1967 movie, with Robert Redford as Paul and Jane Fonda as Corie, has long been one of Elizabeth’s favorites.  It’s a movie she introduced me to when we were dating twenty-however-many years ago. 

Primarily for this reason, I wanted our destination to be a surprise for Elizabeth.  Leaving the house, all she had known about the night ahead of her was that I was taking her “to a show.”  When we pulled into a residential neighborhood off of Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale filled with capacious, stately homes on large, professionally landscaped lots, she was instantly suspicious.  “Where are you going?” she kept repeating.  “We don’t know anyone who lives in this area.”  When we pulled up in front of Mr. Bluth’s house, she was tilting dangerously toward ill-humor.  “Who lives here?  I thought you said you were taking me to a show.”  Then she noticed the cars parked along the street and in the driveway, and gave me a barely restrained glare.  “Who’s house is this?  Are we crashing someone’s party?” I feigned as much stupidity as I dared for as long as I dared, but was finally forced to confess that ‘the show’ we had to come to see was going to take place inside this particular house.  It was the only way I could get her to leave the car.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Bug's Death


It’s Wednesday morning, and we’re running late.  I’ve got about five minutes to get Maria dressed, brush her hair, and get her to preschool.  Luckily, the school is only four blocks away, and it is preschool after all, not a job interview; but still, I don’t want her to be late. 

By the time we rush out the door, I have one minute to get her to school.  With an automatic expertise born of endless repetition, I click her into her car seat, close the door, and hustle around the back of the car.  As I whip by the plants that line the side of the carport, I happen to notice a strange, dark spot on one of the white lily blossoms.  By the time the blot has registered in my mind, I have already opened my door and lifted one leg to step in.  I stop in mid-motion.  

What was that black thing on the lilies?  To ask a question like that, in a situation like that, is one of the things that makes me me.  Another is my inability to ignore the question. 

In spite of the pressure to get Maria to school, I step back, leaving the car door open while I take a look.  It was probably just a bit of trash that the wind lodged there, or a piece of foliage burnt to a crisp by the wicked sun.  But I have to verify; my innate curiosity has been aroused.    

I back up until I can clearly see the stunted white flowers of the lilies, which have sprung up unexpectedly because of all the recent rain.  The blossoms are anemic and tightly bunched; they look like small groups of geese being throttled, bills open, heads lolling.  On one of these flowers is a bug.  It’s a pretty big bug, easily the size of a thumbnail. Its body is elongated and flat, its head small and black.  Legs jutted up and away from the body before angling acutely down at the joint, reminiscent of a spider.  They are streaked with bright yellow and red.  The colors are striking, and for some reason the yellow, red and black pattern has a streamlined quality to it that reminds me of a football uniform.  And not a bad-looking one at that. 

I have never seen a bug like this before, and I’m the kind of person who keeps track of these things.  I get excited.  I immediately come to grips with the fact that Maria will be late to school; nothing matters more at that moment but getting a picture of this exotic-looking insect.  I hurry back into the house, where Elizabeth is in the kitchen, watching me quizzically as I pass through the dining room.  “What’s wrong?” she asks, but I don’t stop to explain.  I just say, “Need a camera,” and then grab one from the desk and rush straight back out the door.  I snap a few quick pictures of the bug, which hasn’t moved, then hop in the car and zoom off to school with Maria.  I’m hoping the creature will still be there when I get back, so I can take more carefully composed pictures.

Yes, I am one of those people who takes pictures of weird-looking bugs.  Now you know this about me.  It was bound to come out sooner or later.  I’ve been taking pictures of unusual insects for a while now.  So far, I’ve contented myself with photographing the ones I see around our house, in the front or back yard.  Some of insects I find are alive and well, like the one on the lily blossom Wednesday morning, but oftentimes I discover them only after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Kev's Really Gnarly Meat Sauce Recipe

Generic picture of spaghetti
with meat sauce

Last Thursday I made spaghetti for dinner.  It turned out to be an inspired decision, but at the time I was just trying to do something with the two pounds of cooked hamburger meat that had been sitting in the fridge for several days.  Exactly how many days I can’t say, but I’m using the word several in its highly elastic sense.  It was long enough, at least, that I was close to losing my nerve and throwing away $7.32 worth of 80/20. 

I also had a veritable heap of pasta left over from dinner the night before, which is why spaghetti was the obvious choice.  I don’t do all my menu planning this way, but when you can kill two birds with one stone, you should do it, right?  Anyway, I thought if I made a meat sauce from scratch to put over the noodles, maybe no one would notice that we were eating old hamburger mixed with old pasta. 

So I found a recipe online for a homemade spaghetti sauce whose ingredient list matched what I was fairly confident we already had in the house.  Many times I will come up against a recipe I would love to try, but then discover we’re missing a key ingredient or two.  In these situations, there are a few things I can do:  make forced substitutions, or order pizza.  This is why, in our house, when we’re not eating pizza, chicken parmesan is sometimes made with canned tuna. 

Another generic picture of
spaghetti w/meat sauce
The option that is unequivocally not on the table is to make a special trip to the grocery store for that one missing ingredient.  Oh, no, not on my watch.  I’m a man, dammit, and we can make do with what we’ve got on hand.  As with most men, I pride myself on my resourcefulness.  In fact, resourceful is my middle name.  Well, actually it’s Jon, but that just shows how resourceful my dad was:  he found a way to give me that name using only 75% of the necessary letters. 

After several minutes spent trying to memorize the recipe off the computer screen, I concluded that it would be easier, and quicker, to just run back and forth between the kitchen and my desk as many times as necessary.  I focused only on the first step, which was to cut up one medium-sized onion, and four cloves of garlic.  For some reason it’s always the little ambiguities that get me when I cook.   I know what an onion is.  But do I really know exactly what constitutes a medium-sized onion?  How big, exactly, is medium?  I lined up my three suspects on the counter, and pondered each carefully.  Yes, they were definitely onions.  And they were all almost identical in size.  But were they all medium, or were they all something else?  I was already at a definite disadvantage working with old hamburger and pasta; I didn’t want to compound my problems by over-onioning or under-onioning the sauce.  I stared them down, hoping one of them would crack and spill the scallions.  After several long moments, I realized that my youngest daughter was watching me, so I pretended to be examining the onions very carefully for blemishes.  After the kid wandered off, I selected the most average-looking one, and then, so I wouldn’t be tempted to second-guess myself, hid the other two in a nearby cookie jar. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Forward Path - 28 August 2012


It’s been about eight months now since I’ve posted an update on The Forward Path.  The goal I set in January was to do one every month.  And that tells you everything you need to know about me and New Year’s resolutions.

So, where do things stand, one year and one month after starting my writing career?

Well, I am now back at work on the Hercules revisited novel. I posted one brief chunk of my rough draft under the name Let the Adventure Begin!, and then abruptly took a four-month hiatus from working on the book over the summer.   Our schedules since May just haven’t allowed me the time to continue writing for the blog and work on the book.   But I’ve resumed work on it now that school’s back in session (more on that in a bit).  You may remember I set a goal to have a rough draft done by the end of this year, and that’s still my goal, so it’s time to get cracking on that.  Should I be worried that my track record with goals is no better than my track record with New Year’s resolutions?

The blog remains the overwhelming focus of my writing output.  This is as it should be, because remember, the purpose of the blog is to force me to get used to the feeling of writing publicly, and to create some accountability in the sense of continuing to produce new writing, and writing to somewhat of a schedule (even if it is completely of my own making).  Plus, I am starting to see patterns in what I choose to write about that have me thinking that eventually some of the posts could be combined into a themed collection of essays.  In short, the blog is an absolute key to my development as a writer, and I love doing it.

Statistically, as of August 28th, 2012, thunderstrokes has seen 13,283 pageviews since it began in July of 2011.   Thanks to everyone, my great friend Rick and my sister Kari especially, but including any and all lurkers, who have taken time to read my writing.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: as someone who has been plagued by self-doubt about his abilities for most of his life, I can’t tell you how important, and how gratifying it is, to know that you’re out there, and that roughly 1,000 times a month, somebody is clicking on a page of thunderstrokes (and hopefully reading a little of it). 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Few Choice Words for Lance Armstrong




Just a heads-up before we begin.  What you are about to read probably isn’t going to sound a whole lot like me, at least not the me you’re used to.  I try very hard to keep a positive attitude when I write, and focus on the good in things.  I don’t want to give in to the easy temptation of using the blog to vent, or conduct personal attacks of any sort.  I try not to write angry. 

This post violates all of these self-imposed restrictions. 

In this case, I’m just going to let it all hang out.  After all, my blog is all about documenting where I am in life, and right now I’m angry.  Hurt and angry.  So I’m just going to write this and then let it go, and hopefully release at least some of my anger and disappointment along with it.  

To some, it might sound a little like a break-up letter, at least as close to one as a forty-four-year-old man who’s been happily married for twenty-three years is capable of producing.  If you’re here looking for entertainment, I suppose you might get something out of that idea…   


Dear Lance-

Champion.  It’s such an interesting word, isn’t it?

To some people, a champion is someone who wins a lot, someone who does whatever it takes to beat everyone else and claim the prize.  To those people, you are probably considered a champion and will always be one.

Most people agree on the qualities embodied by a champion:  determination, commitment to excellence, strength, courage, focus, passion.  Again, by that definition no one could deny that you are a champion among champions. 

But, to people like me, a champion requires one more thing, one more essential ingredient to truly elevate a person to that level, and allow the rare human being to transcend sport and serve as an example to all people of what is finest in us.  That ingredient is honor. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

'Stroke of Genius: Brittany Wenger



Brittany Wenger is seventeen.  She lives in Florida where she’s a senior in high school. 

Remember senior year in high school?  That’s the year you worked really hard to do just enough to graduate while sneaking out with your friends as much as possible.  Your parents and teachers had a name for this, remember?  They called it ‘senioritis,’ and usually the only effective way to treat the symptoms was with the repeated threat of yet another year in high school.

For all I know, Brittany Wenger is just like any other high school senior in that regard.  But I do know at least one thing that distinguishes her from everyone else in high school, and I’m talking the history of high school.  Ms. Wenger has invented a neural network that allows breast cancer tissue samples to be analyzed with more than 99% accuracy.  She taught herself artificial intelligence programming so she could create her own neural network, and then learned everything she needed to know about how breast cancer is diagnosed from tissue samples so she could then ‘teach’ the computer program to sort through all the data and reach an accurate conclusion more than 99 times out of 100. 

Hey-ha-huh??!

And I thought I was a genius when I figured out how to replace the rubber flush-flapper thingy in our toilet last week.

It’s true, though.  She did just that.  The seventeen-year-old found a way to make the most minimally invasive breast cancer detection procedure, called fine needle aspirate, almost 100% effective, where it had traditionally been among the least.

I may not be a genius (see above), but to me this is Nobel Prize-caliber stuff.  Whether or not the folks in Stockholm agree and are currently engraving anything with her name on it I have no idea; but she did recently win the grand prize, including a $50,000 college scholarship, an internship opportunity, and an award made entirely of Legos in the 2nd annual Google Science Fair.  

Even though the contest was held last month, I only discovered Ms. Wenger’s achievement by accident earlier this week.  And that, in itself, raises a point.  How is it that this story isn’t plastered across newspapers, blared from TV sets, and heralded on credible news websites all over the country?  Fer cryin’ out loud, Google is one of the icons of the information age, and on top of that, they sponsored the contest, yet I still had to google ‘google science fair’ to find the actual site.  Seems to me they could have at least created one of those cute, customized Google logos they like to do to publicize the event. 

I feel like we should be giving this kid a parade.  Seriously, is there anybody here who hasn’t lost someone or know someone who has had to battle for their life with breast cancer?    Shouldn’t we be showering this brilliant young woman with public appreciation for her accomplishment?  Shouldn’t she be in a commercial where they show her being hoisted into the air by a legion of ecstatic fans while an announcer says, “Brittany Wenger, you just invented a neural network that diagnoses breast cancer with more than 99 percent accuracy, which could help save thousands of women’s lives every year.  What are you going to do now?” And she responds excitedly:  “I’m going to the Galapagos Islands!”  Which she is (it was another one of the prizes for winning the Google Science Fair). 

What is wrong with us that a seventeen-year-old girl can do something like this, and it gets no reaction?  Aren’t we the least bit worried we might be sending the wrong message here?  Have we really reached the point where, unless you’re an impossibly cute Disney channel star, a boob-jobbed and belly-shirted reality show sensation, or former teenage celebrity engaging in bad behavior, you don’t even make the cultural radar?  Do we really want to teach our girls that to receive attention they have to rely solely on the laws of physical attraction?

As the father of two daughters, I can only hope that’s not the case.  I want them to live in a world where girls and women are recognized for the fullness of who they are, for their amazing intelligence, and all of their gifts and beauty, and not just the disproportionately large, shiny parts you see on some lonely trucker’s mudflaps. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mystic Monologue


Follow me…follow me…follow me…

Hello?

Follow me…follow me…follow me…

Hello?  Who is this?

Do you hear me?  Are you listening?

Yes, I can hear, although it sounds like we have a bad connection… I can barely hear you.

There’s nothing wrong with the connection; you’re just learning how to listen.

Who are you?

I am your soul.

My soul?

Yes.  Do you hear me?

Yes, I guess so.

Follow me.

Where?

If you believed that I am real, you would not need to ask where.  Do you not believe that I am?

I…I don’t know.  I mean, I think I’ve always believed in the idea of having a soul…

You think.  Ideas.  Yes, you have many ideas, don’t you?  But not many beliefs.  Isn’t that so?

I suppose that’s true… Is that a bad thing?

That depends on the beliefs.  

Well, doesn’t the very fact that we’re having this conversation tell you that, on some level, I must believe that I have a soul? 

That is a very smart answer, which is not the same as a good one.  I don’t know, does it tell you that?

I guess so. 

Follow me.

But why now?  After all these years, why, all of a sudden, are you speaking to me now?

Well, that seems rather self-evident, doesn’t it?  Because you are listening, of course.

So, I had to start listening before you would speak to me?  Isn’t that kind of backwards?  Wouldn’t it have been better for you to speak first, so that I knew there was something to listen to?

I was speaking; you weren’t listening.

So you’ve been speaking to me all along?

Always and forever.

And I just wasn’t hearing it?

Or listening.

So what happened?  What changed that now I can suddenly hear you, or listen to you, or whatever it is that I’m doing?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Haboobed!




Every summer residents of the Valley experience a signature feature of life in the desert in the form of massive dust storms.  For those who don’t live here, you might have seen video of them on the national news.  Those giant brown clouds you’ve seen consuming an entire metropolitan area of four million people?  That’s us.  For some reason, we’ve had a few doozies in the last year or so that have even made the old-old-timers sit up and say, “Now that one there reminds me of Oklahoma.  1932, I think it was, or was it ’33?  Either way, it was that one where we lost half our roof, Davy Crockett our Basset hound, and our front yard.” 

So where do these enormous rolling walls of dirt and sand come from?  Well, I’m no scientist, but being a child of the 70’s, I like to use the analogy of thermonuclear war whenever I can.   You know how, when an atomic bomb goes off, it makes a mushroom cloud in the sky?  Well, imagine a reverse atomic bomb, one that starts in the sky and goes down.  A dust storm is basically a mushroom cloud created by a 10 megaton thunderstorm after it collapses out in the desert.  The nice part is, instead of radiation poisoning, we just get Valley Fever. 

Until recently, these living signs of the biblical apocalypse never really had a name of their own. We just called them dust storms; and frankly, that term just doesn’t capture the peculiar grandeur and immensity of a good, 500-foot high, solid wall of blowing dirt and sand.   Other flexings of nature’s prodigious muscles, such as hurricanes and tornados, have been assigned names that seem to epitomize their strength and terrible power.   A dust storm just kind of sounds like something that happens when your grandmother cleans.  It makes it kind of hard to be taken seriously by someone from Kansas, let’s say, when you attempt to communicate the ferocity of a dust storm. 

Arizonan:  Man, you should have seen the dust storm I got caught in on my way home the other day!  It was unbelievable.  It was like driving into a wall.  Couldn’t see a thing…     

Kansan:  Sounds scary.  Did this ‘dust storm’ pick your car up in the air, twirl it around like a hyperactive schoolgirl’s baton, and then drop you upside-down in an oak tree three miles away?

Arizonan:  Well, no.  But I had to pull over and wait for it to stop.

Kansan:  And you lived to tell about it?  Amazing.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dark Tower: Roland Lives!


The following is dedicated to Roland Deschain.  May your quest bring you peace, gunslinger.

A number of strange things have been happening to me over the last several weeks, all of them connected in some way to the Dark Tower series of books by Stephen King.  This happens sometimes when I immerse myself too long into someone else’s world; I tend to fall under the influence of its gravitational pull until I am orbiting around it like a trapped satellite.  And this is such a long series of books, many thousands of pages.  It has taken me the better part of a year to read them, which has both prolonged the effect, and made it more pronounced.

At least this is the reason I am giving myself for the strange recent occurrences.   I have been tarrying too long in sai King’s world, I explain to myself; that’s all it is.  All I need to do is finish the last book, and then allow time and distance to break the magic spell of gravity, and free me from its hold.    

But, for the time being anyway, the character of Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, has besieged my mind and infiltrated my imagination.  These things I’m about to relate have more to do with him than anything, I suspect.  The character whose quest for the Dark Tower is documented in these books is so vividly drawn, so profoundly flawed and yet so powerful, that I have found it hard not to believe in him.  This, of course, is reason enough to finish the last book as quickly as possible, and then wait patiently to try and reclaim my rightful place in reality.   

Before I can do that, though, there is some painting and some tiling that must get done; yes there is...but now I’m putting the cart in front of the horse.

The first notably odd incident was last month.  It was a sleep-in day for me, so it was seven by the time I rolled out of bed.  I was the last one to wake up, and I could hear the television in the back room as I slumped down the hallway.  For once, our black lab Chubby was not creating a one-dog obstacle course in front of me as I walked, which could only mean they must have fed her already, and let her out.  Thankee-sai for small miracles, I muttered, not noticing my unusual choice of words, or recognizing that it was unusual, until later.      

Elizabeth was standing at the stove, making breakfast for the kids. 

“Mornin’,” I said, rusty-voiced.

“Good morning,” she said, turning and smiling.  “Would you like some eggs?”

“No, thanks.” I leaned drowsily against the counter.

“The coffee’s fresh,” she said over her shoulder, having returned her attention to the eggs.

“Thankee-sai,” I said reflexively, pushing leadenly off the counter and crossing the kitchen to where we kept the cups, and the coffee.  “What time did the girls get up?” I asked, pouring myself a cup, and carefully lifting it to the table. 

“Maria wandered out here about a half-hour ago; and you’d have to ask Jess, because she was up watching TV when I got back from the gym.”

“At six o’clock?” I asked, sinking slowly into one of the kitchen chairs. 

“Uh-huh.”  There was disapproval in her tone.

“Well, I guess at least she won’t have trouble adjusting to her schedule when school starts up again.”  It was less than two weeks away from the start of the school year; I was tracking it very closely.

“I guess.”  She sounded doubtful.  “Would you like creamer?”

“Sure.”  When Elizabeth said ‘creamer,’ she was talking about the condensed, exotically-flavored liquid stuff in the fridge.  Normally, I would just mix two teaspoons of sugar and some plain powdered cream in my cup, but that would require getting up again since I had forgotten to do it while I was standing by the coffee maker.  “How’s Maria?  Still sneezing?”  Maria had caught a head cold, with congestion and a runny nose, except that instead of coughing, she would go into these extended sneezing fits.  Then each of us began to have them, although whether it was catching or just the power of suggestion was impossible to say.

“Haven’t heard a thing this morning,” she said, handing me the cold plastic bottle of cinnamon-caramel-vanilla macchiato.

“Thankee-sai,” I said, reaching for it, but she pulled it back quickly.

“Alright, what is that?” 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jump



There he was, measuring the distance from the top of the big rock to the water below.  Twenty feet?  Twenty-five?  Whatever it was, it was far.  More concerning to him than the drop, though, was the depth of the water.  Ten feet maybe?  Twelve?  He stood there looking down, knowing there was no real way to gauge from above.  How much water do you need?  He wasn’t sure. 

You should just go.  You just saw Angel do it.  His anxiety level, which had been a low persistent buzzing in his body since stepping out of the forested canyon and onto the rocky promontory, jumped a notch in response to this thought.   He was filled with a nervous uncertainty, but he noticed that it lacked a sharp edge of fear, which surprised him. 

Little Mikey explores the swimming hole in 2007.
He’d seen this cliff many times before, but never from the top.  After all, this was his favorite swimming hole in all of Oak Creek, large enough and deep enough to swim in, with a wide, shallow area for the kids to play in.  And then there were the rocks on the far side, the deep side, that seemed like they were designed for jumping into the water.  There were three of them, in perfectly ascending order.  He thought of them as the Three Bears rocks, because one was too little, one was too big, and one was just right.  He’d jumped from the little one and the just right one many times in years past, but never big bear rock.  He’d never even considered jumping from that rock, even on the few occasions he’d seen others do it.  But he was there now, and he thought he might just do it.  He even felt, in some strange way that he knew was unconnected to any sense of masculine pride, an urging, like he was supposed to jump. 

His being there at all was really an accident.  The others set out from camp to go swimming a half-hour before, and so to save time, he took a side path through the forest, guessing it might turn out to be a short cut.  And it was just that, except the near-constant upward tilt of the trail brought him not to the water’s edge, but to the rocky outcropping overlooking the swimming hole.  Right to the top of big bear rock. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Helpful Hints from the Annual Camper


Although I don’t like to admit it, I am an annual camper.  That means I am one of those people who take their families camping no more often than once each calendar year.  Being an annual camper isn’t the best kind of camper to be.  For one thing, you still have to acquire and maintain all the gear of a regular camper, and find a place to store it, only to drag it out for a few days of use every July. 

Worse, though, is how much the useful knowledge and expertise you gain from one year’s camping trip naturally decomposes over the course of the following eleven months, three weeks, and a couple of days.  For me, the arrival of each trip is met by a disturbing lack of recall.  When I was preparing for our trip this year, for example, I found a short-handled pry bar at the bottom of the box.  I held it up, wondering why last year’s me thought it was such a good idea to have a Wonder Bar (as they are sometimes called; there's a picture of one up top) dedicated just for camping.  It’s a strange feeling, to look at a box full of stuff and know that you’ve seen it all before, but not have a clue why some of it is in there.  Fortunately for this year’s me, I erred on the side of caution and threw it back in.  Turns out that a Wonder Bar is a very useful thing to have around a campsite, for prying wood apart, or pulling nails, and it makes an excellent tool for managing a campfire, which I then remembered was the real reason I had included it.   

Then there’s the disquieting sense of having to rediscover and relearn things you already knew.  Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to stare at a piece of rope and know, I mean absolutely know, that last year you knew how to tie a decent knot, but now, no matter what you try, it always ends up looking like you’ve just tied your shoelaces?    

Starting now, this annual camper is going to begin rectifying this problem by writing down some of the things I tend to forget from year to year.  This way, instead of watching the nylon canopy we put over our picnic table disintegrate in one big burst of flame and then think, “Oh, that’s right.  I’m not supposed to leave the propane on while I go off looking for a lighter,” all I have to do is read over this list next year and be reminded to TURN THE @#$%! PROPANE OFF!!!

Those who camp as infrequently as we do might find some of the following hints useful.  Everyone else, I assume, is reading for laughs.