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. 


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…


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.


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


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


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.