Carried on the Voices of Angels

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Last week, appropriately enough, I was reminded that I have a lot to be thankful for.  As a starting point, I was thankful to have a few days away from the craziness of a workplace undergoing organizational sea change.  I went largely off the professional grid over the four day weekend, though I admit to checking my work phone once or twice to see if any provocative emails had arrived.  I was pleased to find that my colleagues had also gone radio silent in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday.  It was reassuring to know that bureaucratic insanity can go dormant from time to time.  

I also gave thanks for my body.  Not only was I able to consume large quantities of avian protein and complementary carbohydrates without any ill effects, I managed to go for an eighteen-mile run on Saturday morning.  For some reason, I am training for a marathon that takes place at the end of December.  I have told many people in no uncertain terms that I am retired from running marathons, and I’ve stuck to that declaration for almost three years, but I have a friend who somehow convinced me that running 26.2 miles in the Seattle winter would a great idea.  She’s like a long distance running drug dealer whispering, “C’mon, it will be fun.” I don’t remember saying yes, but I have spent the last few weekends running increasingly long distances.  After each long run, I spend the rest of the day sitting on the couch, nursing my tired body and wondering what happened, like, I imagine, how it feels to wake up from a three-day drug fueled bender.  

On Saturday, I spent more than three hours running the streets of Olympia, Washington.  Instead of being annoyed that I had yet again succumbed to my long distance addiction, I marveled at my body’s ability to travel that far without the aid of a motorized vehicle.  As a recovering asthmatic kid who, I kid you not, grew up with an exercise allergy, I am grateful for the ability to remain upright and moving forward for such long stretches.  I chafed, and my right ankle started to lose structural integrity towards the end, but I kept going, running through it all.  What a wonderful machine the human body is. 

Of course, the real test will be the marathon itself.  I’m not sure I will go on any training runs longer than eighteen miles before the event, which is not my typical training regimen, but my drug dealer thinks it’s enough.  On one hand, it seems crazy to me that on race day I will have to tack on another eight miles after the first eighteen to finish the race.  On the other, my body has been there before, five times, and I know that I can go 26.2.  Yes, it will hurt, and it may involve a lot of walking, but I know I am capable of it.  I know this, in part, because I won’t be alone.  

I’m at a point in my life where I have no interest in running these absurd distances by myself.  When I first started training for a marathon, I did it solo.  It was a personal test of will.  As I approach my 50th birthday, I have much less interest in personal tests of will.  I’ll take all the help I can get, and, on Saturday, I ran with my dealer and another friend who also suffers from the long distance affliction.  I wouldn’t have made it without them, and that reminded me of something else I am thankful for: the human voice.    

When Sally, Amanda, and I met up one mile into our trek, I took position behind them on the sidewalk and listened to their lively banter as we ran.  Mile after mile, they talked about family and friends, about races they have run, about aches and pains, and about nothing much at all.  I occasionally offered a comment or question, but they did most of the talking, and it kept me going.  Instead of succumbing to my own inner dialog of misery about how much my ankle hurt and whether I really needed to pee, I listened to them.  They kept talking, and we kept running.  It sustained me through three hours of forward motion, and, for that, I am thankful.  

Theirs weren’t the only voices I was grateful for last week.  On Wednesday night, as I lay in bed, I also heard voices that moved me.  My wife and I had retreated to our upstairs bedroom, which is situated directly above our living room.  That feature of our house’s floor plan has been  problematic over the years, as the big screen TV is in the living room, and when our children stay up later than we do, the sound of whatever show they are watching carries into our bedroom.  We developed a simple method for quelling the noise, which involves stomping on the floor, sending a clear signal to turn down the damn volume.  

Wednesday night, as my wife and I were cozying up under the covers, we heard muffled voices rising up through the floor.  However, these weren’t the usual voices from the cast of The Big Bang Theory.  Rather, these were the voices of our kids talking to each other.  My son had returned home from college for the holiday, and this was his first chance to hang out with his sister and talk.  The thought of stomping on the floor occurred to me, but I decided to listen for a little while.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell that it was a happy conversation.  They were enjoying each other, even laughing.  The beautiful voices of my full-grown adult babies lulled me into a peaceful sleep, and for that, I am thankful.  

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Japanese Girl Making Chinese Food

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Since the rains have returned to the Pacific Northwest, I have packed away the grilling gear and returned to cooking in the kitchen.  On the menu last Sunday night was Yu-shiang Pork, a stir-fry recipe consisting of, obviously, pork, bamboo shoots, green onions, dried chile peppers, garlic, and ginger.  Despite the fact that I’ve been making this dish for more than twenty-five years, my first step was to retrieve a cookbook from a shelf in the kitchen.  This is one reason I will never be a great chef: I am dependent on recipes.  I know the basic ingredients, but I am unable to remember the specific measured amounts of each.  For Yu-shiang Pork, I need the recipe to remind me how to make the marinade for the meat and the cooking sauce.  I know I need combinations of corn starch, sugar, soy sauce, sherry, vinegar, white pepper, and water to make the slurries that flavor the food, I just don’t remember how much of each, and it seems critically important that I get it right.  It’s a belief impressed upon me by my mom who taught me how to bake.  When baking cookies and cakes, it tends to matter whether the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a tablespoon of baking powder.   Such details are somewhat less important for Yu-shiang Pork, but I am compelled to review the instructions.  

I took the simply named Chinese Cook Book from the shelf and held it for a moment.  It was produced by the editors of Sunset magazine, and it shares shelf space with several other cookbooks in the Sunset series, including Fish and Shellfish, Mexican, and Italian.  We also have the Scandinavian Cook Book, which includes a recipe for Krumkake, a dessert treat we make at Christmas time.  There is a little else of interest in that tome, as we have no desire to try Pickled Herring and Egg Yolk or Creamy Liver Loaf.  

The Chinese Cook Book has an orange cover with a photo of two savory plates of food along with a dish of mandarin oranges.  The spine is cracked and worn from years of being laid open on counter tops, and the cover has several small tears and bent corners.  Like many of the cookbooks in my kitchen, there are only a few recipes in this one that we make on a regular basis, and when I flipped through the pages, it naturally fell open to the one on which the Yu-shiang Pork recipe is printed.  The paper is sepia-colored and wrinkled from decades of handling with soy sauce-stained fingers and errant drops of cooking sauce that escaped from a nearby bowl while being vigorously stirred.  It’s in rough shape, and my wife says we should transcribe the recipe before it becomes illegible.  

As much as I depend on the recipe to remind me how many teaspoons of sherry are required in the marinade, the truth is that the Yu-shiang Pork I make these days bears little resemblance to the recipe proffered by the editors of Sunset magazine.  In addition to the ingredients they recommend, I add a variety of items, depending on what’s available in the refrigerator, including carrots, broccoli, peppers, and peanuts.  I have even recently started adding tablespoons of hoisin, chili garlic, and chili black bean sauces to the requisite cooking sauce ingredients, just to make it a bit more interesting.  Those are ingredients I have discovered in the intervening decades since I first acquired Sunset’s Chinese Cook Book, and I try to expand my flavor palate from time to time.  

While Sunset magazine may not be the ultimate authority on all of the world’s cuisines, they provide helpful and inexpensive overviews for a young couple learning how to cook for two.  My girlfriend, now wife, and I bought several of the Sunset cookbooks when we first started living together twenty-nine years ago, and we inherited others from our respective families.  Going back to the cookbook provides consistency and comfort.  The recipes remind me of the basics and provide the basis for expanding and trying out new flavors.  

A long time ago, fresh out of college when I fancied myself a budding poet, I wrote a poem that began with this line:

Japanese girl making Chinese food

I’ve always loved that line, with its witty incongruity (if I do say so myself).  I don’t remember the rest of the poem, except that I know it was an expression of love inspired by watching my half-Japanese girlfriend cook something from the Sunset Chinese Cook Book.  This last week, we celebrated thirty years together.  We’ve only been married for twenty-six, but we’ve been a couple since we went on our second date.  After the first date, she gave me the “Let’s Be Friends” speech, but I persisted, and within a year she had relented.  We’ve been cooking Chinese food and other cuisines together ever since.  The recipes have changed a bit, but the basics are the same.  When I look at our tattered copy of Sunset’s Chinese Cook Book, I am reminded of the last thirty years together.  We’ve got a few wrinkles, too, but the food still tastes good, and we are always willing to try a new recipe.  As long as it’s not Creamy Liver Loaf.  

By the way, that first date, the one that could have been the end if I hadn’t been so smitten, was at a Chinese restaurant.  First loves.  

There Goes My Hero

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I think I need to lock myself in a room and watch heavy metal concert videos.  It’s been three months since I’ve been to a metal show, and I’m starting to get edgy.  I love to see metal bands in their natural habitat — playing live — and I try to see a few shows every year to satisfy my passion for the music.  The biggest challenge I’m having lately is the bands I want to see tend to play in Seattle, an hour or more away from my home, and they usually play on a week night.  The older I get, the less I want to drag myself into work the next morning after being out until the witching hour.  As much as I love live metal music, I value a good night’s sleep even more.  It’s hell getting old.  

I did see the Foo Fighters play in September, but they are not a metal band.  On the plus side, I like the Foos, I went with my wife, who is also a big fan, and they played on a Saturday night.  We even got a hotel room near the stadium, so we could get to bed at a decent hour.  It was a great night.  

In contrast to most of the shows I go to, which take place in small clubs where I can get up close to the band, the Foo Fighters’ concert was a “Big Rock Show” held at Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners, and our seats were in the upper deck of the ball park, far from the madding crowd at the front of the stage.  If it weren’t for the giant video monitors, we wouldn’t have been certain that it was, in fact, Dave Grohl playing and singing the Foo Fighters’ big hits.  

Dave is one of the reasons I became addicted to attending live metal shows.  Some day, I hope to meet Dave, and, if my plan comes to fruition, we will become best friends.  Let me explain.

I can make a case that I’ve been following Dave’s career since before he was in Nirvana.  In 1987, when I was a freshman in college, I was being mentored by a Southern Californian classmate named Tom who took me to my first punk rock shows at a club in Tacoma.  My live music experience was limited at that time, comprised mostly of high school musicals and talent shows, and I was enthralled by the punk experience.  The first show we saw together was a band called Dag Nasty, and I fell in love with their music and the scene.  It was unlike anything I had experienced before: a little dangerous and a little rough around the edges.  It was the first time I ever moshed, though we called it slam dancing in that punk setting.  Simultaneously terrified and exhilarated,  I danced my way around the eye of the punk hurricane, skipping and stomping my feet and waving my arms in a crazily exaggerated march, propelled by the fast, raw music.  From that first taste, I was hooked. 

Another night, Tom took me to see yet another punk band I had never heard of called Scream.  I don’t remember much about their music, as I was focused on slam dancing in the pit.  The pits at these shows were mild in comparison to the metal mosh pits I would experience a bit later, partly due to the sparsely attended shows, but it was a good training ground for my career as a metal head.  After those first punk experiences, I started attending Big Rock Shows in large venues with bands like Motley Crue, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, and Metallica.  In the late 80’s metal was the most popular music around, and I was all in.  I soon graduated to more extreme metal performed in smaller venues, but I loved those Big Rock Shows, full of elaborate production values, including smoke machines, fireworks, and enormous stage sets. 

In 1991, when Nirvana became the biggest band Seattle ever produced, I learned that their drummer, Dave Grohl, had previously been the drummer for Scream, and he was there that night in 1987 playing the drums that set the tempo for my slam dancing.  I still have the flyer from that show, and some day, I hope to meet Dave and present him with it.  I would like to get his autograph, of course, but I would be happy to give him the flyer if he wants it for his personal collection.  And that’s when we will become besties.  That’s the plan, anyway.  It needs a little work, including figuring out where I will meet him.  Standing in the upper deck of Safeco Field didn’t give me that opportunity.

The Foo Fighters show was the first Big Rock Show I had been to in more than twenty years.  In comparison to the shows in the 80s, the production values were minimal.  It was just the band, a good lighting rig, and big screen monitors to broadcast what was happening on the tiny stage to those of us in the upper reaches of the stadium.  The only part that made my stomach turn was the television advertisement for credit cards that played on the big video monitors between the opening bands’ sets.  That doesn’t happen when I see Death Angel play at a 500-seat club.   Aside from the commercial breaks, the Foo Fighters show was all music, performance, and raw energy.  I loved every minute, singing along, badly, to each song.  I even shed a tear, thinking about my dad, when the band played “My Hero.”  Thanks, Dave, and the rest of the Foos, for putting on a great show.  I can’t wait to meet you.  Until then, I’ll be upstairs in the bonus room watching Kreator and Amon Amarth concert videos.  

Keep it Simple

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On a recent trip to visit my son at college and participate in a half marathon in the same city, I confronted one of my fears.  It wasn’t the fact that my youngest child is old enough to be in college, which is a bit of an existential crisis, nor was it the fact I would be running 13.1 miles the next morning.  I’ve done that many times and it doesn’t scare me.  The thing that triggered my anxiety was the toilet in our hotel room.  We had stayed in this facility several times over the last year, and  I was aware they were undergoing remodeling.  During the previous trip, for example, they were upgrading their reservation system.  Between that visit and this one, they had made some changes in the rooms.  Specifically, they had affixed electronic bidets on the toilets.  My name is Todd, and I am afraid of bidets.  

For the unaware, a bidet is a plumbing fixture intended to wash your butt.  It’s my understanding that a jet of water squirts up while you’re seated, cleaning out your nooks and crannies.  I can’t say for sure how it works, because I’ve never used one.  After making a deposit, I’ve never had a desire to hose off.  Toilet paper has always served my needs adequately.  

We checked into our room after a long drive, and I took the opportunity to relieve the pressure on my bladder.  When I entered the lavatory, I saw the new addition perched atop the toilet bowl.  The lid was slightly larger than the average seat cover, providing some space for the washing mechanism, and featured a control panel on the right side of the seat.  I sighed at the sight.  My in-laws have had this type of bidet attachment affixed to their toilet for years, but I have never made use of it.   To me, a toilet is a one-way trip, and the idea of it expelling its contents is a bad thing.  I have, over twenty-five years of home ownership, cleaned up many overflow messes.  In my defense, I was not the cause of all of the mishaps, but I am typically appointed as janitor to swab the decks.  I prefer the water to stay below the rim.

It’s not just the idea of water squirting up that bothers me.  The electronic bidets I have encountered have complicated control mechanisms that I find intimidating.  It’s like the panel of buttons on the arm of Captain Kirk’s chair in Star Trek.  If a seat is going to have that many control options, I want them to be for important stuff, like raising shields or calling down to engineering to get a status report about the warp drive.  I don’t want to be equipped to fend off an attack by Klingon warbirds when I’m in such a vulnerable position, pants down.  This bidet even came with a laminated 8.5” by 11” instruction card that outlined all the features and options, featuring terms like: rear, soft rear, cleansing, drying, oscillating, temperature, and pressure.  This could be the instruction manual for a clothes washer/dryer unit.  It’s just too much to process.  The toilet is a place of evacuation and, occasionally, quiet contemplation.  I don’t want to have to read a user manual when I’m taking care of business.   

My basic fear is that if I did engage the washing mechanism, I would instinctively leap from the seat, either from my own nervous anxiety or because I accidentally hit the oscillating high pressure button, crash into the bathroom door, and fall to the floor while the stream of water cascades down onto my back.  I can’t stand the thought of calling for help because I was spooked by a bidet.  

Maybe some day I will give it a try, but it’s not a high priority.  Instead, I will make sure there is a roll of toilet paper available while I sit quietly and contemplate things like my advancing age or my next race (Rock’n’Roll 10K in Vegas!).  There’s no need to overcomplicate things.  

Meet the Author

'Me signing it doesn't make it a better read.'

I’ve never done a book signing.  The closest I’ve come is when I attended a party at a friend’s house to sign a couple copies of my first book, Ten Year Run, for runner friends.  I relished the opportunity to inscribe my work for people who were excited to receive it.  As much as I appreciated that moment of personal glory, I have always wanted to be set up at a table in a bookstore, so my adoring fans – of which I’m certain there are at least four – could line up with looks of anticipation as they waited their turn to tell me how their name is spelled.  Alas, that writer’s rite of passage hasn’t come to pass.  

In fact, my books have never been on sale in a bookstore.  I took modest steps toward achieving that goal by taking a copy of my book to two different local shops in hopes that the proprietors would find it a delightful read and choose to stock a few copies on their shelves and, perhaps, invite me to do a public reading and then have me take my place behind a small table in an uncomfortable folding metal chair with a Sharpie in hand.  Unfortunately, I never got the call.  Life goes on, and I keep writing, though not much lately.  Ugh.

On Wednesday at the office, I was on my way to a meeting when a friend saw me coming down the hall.  He asked if I had a minute, which I did, and he told me to wait right there.  I was puzzled, as he hustled away towards the elevator lobby.  I watched as he reached into a cardboard box on the floor in the lobby and retrieved a book.  The box was designated for donations to an upcoming book sale.  Employees had been encouraged to drop off old books that could be sold at a steep discount to raise money for various charities.  I recognized the book my friend picked up right away, as it was a copy of Ten Year Run.  Specifically, it was the copy of Ten Year Run my friend had purchased online last year.  He had read it and sent me a lovely email complimenting my writer’s voice.  I had taken it as high praise, as he is a writer by trade, working in our communications department.  He handed the familiar paperback to me and asked me to sign it.  I found this request odd, as he had obviously dropped it in the donation box some time earlier.  I looked at him quizzically, and he again encouraged me to autograph the book.  I took his pen, scrawled my name on the inside cover, and handed it back to him.  I was confused, as it didn’t make sense to me that he wanted my autograph in a book that he was giving away.   He explained that a signed copy would be more marketable and fetch a higher price at the book sale.  I was happy to do my part for charity, but I felt the need to express my disappointment that he wasn’t keeping my book for himself.  I told him I enjoyed the mental image of it resting on the mantle in his living room along with his copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and first edition Moby Dick.  A boy can dream.  We laughed and he promised he would give the now signed copy of Ten Year Run to the book sale organizers to do with as they would.  

The next day, I saw him in the locker room.  In addition to being a writer, he is a runner, and we occasionally cross paths in the locker room or on the road.  I asked him if the book was a featured item at the sale that took place that morning.  He confirmed it was, and he believed it had sold quickly.  It was then I realized I missed a chance to sit at a little table in a conference room filled with books and await an adoring fan to come purchase my book.  While it’s true there was only one copy for sale that day, it may have been a satisfying facsimile of the book store book signing experience I have always hoped for.  I could have even done a public reading.  

Perhaps at next year’s book sale I will make more of an effort to be the featured author.  I probably won’t, but it’s fun to think about.  In the meantime, I should get back to work on my current project.  With a little luck, it will be done in the next couple months.  It would make a great Christmas gift, so I’ll keep you posted.  By the way, if you own a bookstore, I am available most weekends.  

Too Close for Comfort

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I’m not sure how near it has to be to qualify as a “near-death experience,” but on Friday, I got as close as I want to come.  I was enjoying my last run of the summer—as the autumnal equinox was due to arrive the next afternoon—when I was almost hit by a car.  I’ve been running for more than twenty years, but I have never been this close to being a casualty in a head on collision.  I hope I make it another twenty years without incident.    

I was running along a busy street near my office building, and it was a lovely day.  The late summer sun was shining, taking the edge off the cool air, and I was listening to some metal music on my MP3 player.  I had recently decided to take a break from distraction-free “mindful running,” as I was falling behind in my daily metal intake, and I wanted to use the two-mile run to re-charge my metallic battery.  Lamb of God’s debut album was punishing my ears, and, while I was enjoying it, I decided to skip ahead to my favorite track.  I pulled the player from my pocket and tried to read the song titles on the tiny screen while maintaining my running stride.  I clicked ahead a track or two on the interface when my attention was suddenly drawn to the vehicle moving towards me.  I run against oncoming traffic all the time, but, normally, the cars are in the street.  This one was on the sidewalk, and, as far as I could tell, it was moving at full speed.  The speed limit on this street was 35 mph, but I don’t think that applies to the sidewalk.  I was traveling about six miles per hour, which means our closing speed was probably forty-one miles per hour.  The math and science, specifically Newton’s laws of motion, were working against my survival.  

As the vehicle got closer, my life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I did think to myself that I was about to get hit by a car.  I felt a cold flush of panic and stopped running, and I had not yet formulated an escape plan by the time the car veered a bit further to my left and smashed into a utility pole.  I was less than ten feet from the now totaled car.  I remained in my frozen stance for another moment, letting it sink in that I was not, in fact, going to be hit by a car.  When I regained the ability to move, I decided to see if there was something I could do to be helpful.  After all, I wasn’t the only person involved in this crash.  The car was sitting at a forty-five degree angle to the sidewalk, with the back end of the vehicle sitting in the street blocking any traffic.  I approached the driver side door that was opening and found a man who seemed eager to get out of the car.  He appeared to be in his 70s and was having a bit of trouble extricating himself from the wreckage.  In addition to the seatbelt, he was partially entrapped by the airbag that had deployed.  I remember the smell of smoke that I presumed was related to the airbag’s explosive discharge.  

I encouraged the driver not to rush, but he was not interested in remaining seated.  I told him to move slowly, and I kept my hands close to his body to help support him if needed.  He appeared uninjured, but he moved slowly as I guided him to the sidewalk.  I talked him into sitting down in some grass near the utility pole he had smashed into.  I told him my name and asked his.  He responded quickly that his name was Frank, and I was relieved that he seemed okay.  I suppose I should have been more upset that he had almost killed me, but I was more focused on ensuring he was unhurt.  Considering the amount of damage to his vehicle, I think the airbag performed admirably.  

Moments after I had learned his name, two people approached.  The first was a man was carrying a first aid kit and the other was a woman on her phone speaking to the 911 dispatcher.  A minute later, a police officer arrived and took control of the situation.  I gave my name and address and told the officer what happened from my perspective.  Fifteen minutes after I had almost been run over, I was finishing up my two-mile Friday noon last-day-of-summer run.  When I got back to the locker room, I found a fellow runner who had just finished his post-run shower.  I shared my story, and he provided the appropriate amount of sympathy to make me realize I was a bit shaken by the experience.  He also told me he would wait a couple days before making jokes about my not-quite-near-death experience.  Thanks, Patrick.  

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly.  I didn’t feel especially different, but my head was busy processing.  Sometimes, when the emotions run the risk of being too much for me to process, I focus on thinking, and my thoughts included gratitude that neither I nor the driver was hurt.  He needs a new car, which is a shame because the car appeared brand new, but he can return home to his wife.  I was glad I would be able to see my wife, too, and I left work a little early to do so.  While my near death experience may not have been near enough to have my life flash before my eyes, I figure it was close enough to take a couple hours off work to go hug my wife and kids.   

Stay safe, friends, and be generous with hugs.  

The Vulnerability Challenge

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I dare you take the Vulnerability Challenge.  It goes like this: 

  1. Spend a lot of time pursuing a creative endeavor.  It may be writing a book, painting a picture, building a guitar, or singing a song, as long as it’s some form of creative expression that requires you to stretch yourself to the limit of your abilities.  
  2. Find someone you admire for their skill and accomplishment in that field and ask them to give you feedback.  
  3. Insist they be honest. 
  4. Listen carefully.

I recently finished the draft of my manuscript and, as I have done before, I turned it over to my writing sensei, Kurt.  Kurt is someone I greatly admire.  He is a skilled writer and a good friend.  When I was first dabbling with the notion of publishing my writing, I asked him if he would read my writing and offer feedback.  He said he would, happily, with one condition: he would be honest.  It was an intimidating proposition, but I took the deal, and the Vulnerability Challenge was born.  He has always been candid, even brutally so, but his appraisal has been vital to my development as a writer.  

 Kurt is a writer of fiction, which means he makes it all up.  His success depends on his ability to manufacture a good story, and that’s not something I feel confident doing.  I have two children, and they can both attest to the fact I’m not the kind of dad who spins yarns of imaginary characters to keep them entertained at bed time.  I relied on Dr. Seuss and Stan and Jan Bearenstain to tell tales that would enthrall my kids.  I can be witty in short bursts, but I can’t weave an entire story out of my imagination.  I just don’t have it in me, which is why I write memoirs.  All I have to do is remember what happened to me and put a wry twist on it.  I’ve accepted the fact that, while I am a decent writer,  I am not necessarily a great story teller.  When Kurt reads my writing, he does so as a storyteller and an admirer of fiction.  While I focus on stringing together complete sentences that have an inherent logic and syntax, he looks at structure and imagery.  His perspective is invaluable to me, but it can hurt a bit.

His notes recently arrived in the mail, and I retreated to my writing desk to survey the damage.  It wasn’t quite a Kubler-Ross “stages of grief” experience, but it was a moment of vulnerability.  The emotional hightlights included the following:

  • I was embarrassed.  While I was largely unfazed by the punctuation errors he found, he pointed out some literary laziness of which I was ashamed.  “Petit dejuener” doesn’t translate as “small breakfast” as I had assumed.  While it refers to breakfast, it translates as “small lunch,” but I hadn’t bothered to check.   Damnit.  Even worse was my reference to William and Kate as the Prince and Princess of Wales.  Of course, they are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but, again, I hadn’t bothered to check.  Ugh.  I wanted to pick up the phone and apologize for the stupid errors, but I resisted the temptation.  After all, that was the easy stuff.    
  • I was confused.  I learned that I misunderstood advice he had given in his reviews of my earlier works.  In those drafts, he encouraged me to avoid being a slave to chronological time.  If the best part happened in the middle, figure out how to put it at the end because it makes for a better story arc.  In my latest manuscript, I had missed the point, and committed the sin of causing onfusion by jumping around the timeline without properly grounding the reader.  It hurt my brain to rethink what I had taken for granted.
  • I was defensive.  I wanted to explain why I had written the way I had and passionately defend my choices.  I wanted to justify myself, but I had to accept the fact that my choices didn’t matter if the finished product isn’t good enough. 
  • I was sad.  He recommended scrapping half the material (it was written as an anthology).  His logic was sound, but it still hurt.  It was like being asked to discard one of my children.  I like them both, so it’s not easy.  
  • I was exhausted.  After I had reviewed all of his feedback, I realized how much more work I had to do.  I thought I was days away from publishing, but it turns out I’ve got a few weeks of work ahead of me.   While it wasn’t easy to accept, it was strangely energizing.  He had given me a path to something better.  

It wasn’t all “negative” emotion.  He did offer reassurance that the writing itself was good.  It’s nice to know I’m not completely incompetent.  He said there was much to like, but there was much to make better.  In addition, I reminded myself that he’s not always right.  For example, his favorite parts of Metal Fatigue were the parts specifically called out by other reviewers of the published work as the most boring bits, the parts they wished I hadn’t bothered to write.  Kurt’s not always right, but he mostly is, and it all makes me better.  

Once I got over the emotional reaction to his critique, I sat back and took an objective look at what he had given me, and I was deeply moved.   On my writing desk I saw a complete edited manuscript.  The hundred plus marked up pages were accompanied by seven pages of handwritten annotations of the edits.  Further, he wrote, again in long hand, a four page letter outlining the good, bad, and ugly of the text.  He had given me the gift of his talent, time, and attention, not to mention paper and ink.  It occurred to me that if he didn’t care, he wouldn’t have spent so much time with it.  In his criticism, I found love: a love for words, and a love for those who dare to put fingers to a keyboard.  His critique over dozens of pages reminded me that if you’re going to write, or paint, or build, or sing, it’s worth doing well.   

The Vulnerability Challenge may not go viral, but it is safer than eating a Tide pod.  Well, at least it’s physiologically safer.  Emotionally it stings a bit, but it won’t kill you.  If you take the challenge, avoid the urge to defend yourself.  Open yourself to it, and learn.  I dare you to try it.  

And if you do take the challenge, you should know there is a fifth step:

5. Say “Thank you.”  

Kurt, 

Thank you for your honesty.  You have made a difference in my creative abilities, which is to say, you’ve made a difference in my life.  I am better because of the gift of your time and attention.  Let me know what I owe you for the paper and ink.  Cheers!    

Well, I should get back to work. 

Saturday Morning

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The first few strides of a morning run are always the hardest.  My body is slow to wake, and shifting from a walking gait to a running pace feels unnatural; a shock to the system.  My legs work as well as a newborn deer trying to stand and follow its mother.  That’s how it felt when I left the house last Saturday morning, stepping out into the cool air of a cloudless day to run twelve miles.  I’m training for a half marathon, and Saturday morning long runs are my homework for the big event.  

I ran alone, as my usual partner was on a mountain somewhere participating in a team relay event that involved camping and trail runs.  I don’t like camping or trail running, so I headed out onto the concrete streets of Olympia by myself.  By the time I left my neighborhood and turned on to the highway, I had found my stride and was moving comfortably along the busy road.  The perfume of car exhaust hung in the air as I ran beneath maple trees with leaves hanging low, brushing my unkempt bed head hair.  Running is not a beauty pageant, so I don’t worry that my untamed gray coiffure makes me look like an aging anime character.  

I passed by other morning runners; my mobile tribe.  We nodded or waved to each other to acknowledge our shared passion for putting one foot in front of the other at an accelerated pace.  We run for different reasons and have different goals.  Some are training for a race, and some are trying to find a level of fitness.  I was running so I could stop thinking.  Within the first mile, my busy brain began to slow it’s fretful meandering and focus on the intake of air to feed my muscles.  Don’t think, just breathe.  Just breathe.  

Four miles in, I was running along the lake and saw the Capitol building floating above the far shore among trees that billowed like green clouds.  The lake itself was calm and flat, and it was easy to see the invasive milfoil and toxic algae that fouls the water.  As I passed my fifth mile, I ran by the skeleton of the Capitol Center Building, known by locals as “the mistake on the lake”, a nine-story monolith that has loomed over town since 1966, sixty feet higher than the buildings around it.  It is being rebuilt into a mix a retail and residential, much to the chagrin of many who believe it should be razed to the ground.  Now it stands as an iron framework, waiting to be dressed and filled.  

Running further into town, I passed people sitting outside cafes drinking coffee and reading a newspaper.  I imagine they see me go by and privately chastise themselves for not exercising more, while I just wish I was the kind of person who gets up in the morning and decides to sip coffee outside a cafe.  There are different approaches to following your bliss.  

The Farmer’s Market on the Budd Bay waterfront was a hive of activity, the vendors unloading their vehicles to stock their stalls.  They waved and called out “g’mornin’” to each other.  I could smell the farmers’ fruit cutting through the briny sea air.  Soon, the market would be filled with people looking for treasures and snacks, like the sticky buns from the San Francisco Street Bakery.  I love those sticky buns, but I had six miles left to go.  

I ran along the edge of Budd Inlet on a gravel path, and the uneven surface put a new stress on my legs.  Instead of being focused on simple forward motion, I was pitching and yawing slightly and had to make adjustments to my stride.  My pace slowed as I fought with the rocks beneath my feet.  My relief at returning to pavement as I turned on to 4th Avenue was short-lived.  When driving on it, 4th Ave seems relatively flat, but running on it provides a different perspective.  The avenue climbs steadily to the east, almost mountain-like.  The seventh mile was a grind, as I tried to imagine a rope I could use to help pull my body up the slope.  Finally, the street leveled off and I returned to an easy stride.  

Three miles to go, and I was the embodiment of exertion.  I was breath and sinew striving to return home, to finish.  Two miles to go, and I began to think again, considering my breakfast options, including the possibility of a sticky bun.  I also thought about sitting on the couch, watching television without shame, and the joys of compression socks to soothe legs awash in lactic acid.  One mile to go, and I thought about walking the rest of the way.  The first few strides of a morning run are the hardest, and the last few are about making a decision: do I walk or do I push harder to finish faster.  I pushed.   

I finished my twelve mile training run at my desired pace, and I spent the rest of the day reveling in my accomplishment.  It was a quiet, solitary revelry, occurring on the couch where I binged “Somebody Feed Phil” on Netflix and tried to stay awake.  I drank Pepsi, with real sugar and ate whatever I wanted.  Such are the simple spoils of my running victory.  Maybe some day I’ll try that coffee at a cafe thing, but, for now, I like the path I’m on.    

Reoriented

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“Back to school” for my family isn’t about fresh boxes of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and college rule notebooks any longer; it’s about furniture and small appliances.  My baby boy is preparing for his freshman year of college, and, over the last many weeks, we have been acquiring the de rigueur accoutrements for a young adult getting ready to move into a dorm.  We have a growing pile of  bedding, storage containers, flatware, bathroom supplies, a small refrigerator, a desk lamp, and, as my son is partial to wearing Aloha shirts, a travel iron and ironing pad.  No longer will all his school supplies fit into a backpack and locker.  School life is getting complicated.    

Just as the necessary equipment list is more extensive, the orientation process for college is more complex than it was for elementary, middle, or high school.  Last weekend my son, wife, and I headed 150 miles north to attend his chosen university’s freshman orientation program.  To be clear, it wasn’t move-in day, which will happen in a few weeks.  Rather, this was an opportunity for all of us to spend two days sampling campus life, attending workshops to learn about the college experience, and get him registered for classes.  

The first true taste of college life came in the large cafeteria where we had lunch.  The venue offered a range of options including international fare, comfort food, a deli station, salad bar, and a grill.  I recognized that my caloric downfall, if I were the new freshman, would be unsupervised access to pizza.  There is a separate area where two or three types of pizza are available by the self-serve slice, and I am not one to miss an opportunity to eat pizza.  When I was a freshman, our cafeteria didn’t offer pizza.  We had a deli and salad bar along with a few hot food options, but I bypassed all of that and headed straight to the grill, where I could get double cheeseburgers, one of which I ate every day until my meal points ran out.  I fed my pizza habit on the weekends, when my roommate and I would order from a local delivery service that offered two medium pizzas for a good price.  A pizza for each of us meant no awkward arguing over the last slice.  It also meant my clothes got tighter over the course of the year.  I didn’t stop at the “Freshman Fifteen” pounds of extra weight gain; I put on forty.  I hope my son finds more self-restraint than I did.  

As he has a sweet tooth, he may be most tempted by the self-service soft serve ice cream dispenser.  I’m not a big fan of soft serve, but, since the access to it was unfettered, I happily gave it a try.  While I was filling my cone, I noticed another dispenser nearby with a sign that included the word “organic.”  The cafeteria made a point of meeting various dietary needs, including gluten-free and vegetarian, so I presumed this dispenser was for organic ice cream, and I told my family that I might sample its wares after I finished my cone.  While I ate my vanilla chocolate swirl, my son reconnoitered the area and returned to inform me that it wasn’t an ice cream dispenser.  Rather, it was a milk dispenser.  I almost wish I had taken a wafer cone over to that machine and turned on the tap.  It would have been a good story.  

In addition to sampling the culinary delights, orientation was an opportunity to spend the night in a dorm room.  My son would be paired up with another incoming freshman in a residential hall, while my wife and I would share a room in another.  When she told me about the accommodations, I balked.  I was happy to leave dorm life behind thirty years ago and felt no sentimental tug to revisit the cramped quarters of freshman life.  On the up side, I would be spending the night with a cute girl in my dorm room, which is something that didn’t happen during my freshman year.    

While my wife attended one of the workshops, I retrieved our baggage from the car and checked into our room.  It was austere, like a nice prison cell, with bare walls, two unmade single beds and two wooden desks and chairs.  We shared the bathroom with an adjoining room, which made for an awkward moment later that evening when our neighbors walked in while I was clad in boxers.  It could have been much worse, and the rest of our stay involved a lot of knocking before entering the bathroom.  

The room’s windows opened, which was helpful since it was a warm day and the room did not have air conditioning.  There were no screens on the windows, though, which meant bugs had complete access to the room.  It also meant there was nothing to deter one from throwing oneself out the window, which was mildly disconcerting.  While I am confident my son is unlikely to intentionally hurl himself from a great height, I would feel better if there was at least a screen in the window to prevent any inadvertent leaning and accidental falling.  Since he shares my distaste for heights, I’m guessing he will stay away from open windows.  Then again, the school is in Western Washington, where it is cold and wet for most of the year, so the windows will likely be closed the majority of the time.  

When we weren’t in our dorm room or eating in the cafeteria, we were walking around campus getting familiar with the environs and attending workshops meant to put us at ease about sending our child away to school.  We learned about the wide array of support resources available to ensure his success in college, and it was reassuring.  If he can resist the temptations of pizza and soft serve, he will be fine, but I’m not sure about me.  I don’t know if I’m ready for a school year without our morning “goodbye” ritual, as he heads out the door to get on a school bus as he’s done for the last twelve years.  Where did the time go?  I think I need to drown my sorrows in some pizza.  

For Want of a Splitter…

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My efforts to further evolve my slothful nature are being thwarted.  I already spend an inordinate amount of time watching television, but I have become desirous of doing it more expertly.  I have a big flat-screen smart TV, but it’s connected to an old cable box that is starting to show its age.  Specifically, it grunts.  My son says it sounds like a big dead rat tumbling on spin cycle in a washing machine, but I think the rat may be alive and moaning.  It is a most unpleasant sound and surely is a harbinger of impending cable failure.  I am also jealous of the cool features my father-in-law’s cable package offers.  He can talk to his remote, demanding that it spare him the tedious chore of pressing buttons to change channels.  He can also record more shows simultaneously than me.  These are features I need to finally experience true happiness.  

Even my wife agreed, and she ordered the new cable box and voice-command remote.  When it arrived, she and my son, who are both more willing to wrestle with electronic components and wiring diagrams than I am, got to work hooking it up.  Despite their best efforts, we weren’t able to achieve TV nirvana, and a few days later, the cable guy came to the house to help with the installation.  He guessed that we needed a new splitter.  A splitter is a device that allows the cable to be “split” and run to different rooms and TVs.  Since ours is about seventeen years old, the same age as the house, he surmised it may be the source of our troubles.  He looked around for the access panel — which looks like a light switch panel without a light switch — but couldn’t find one.  Being a resourceful cable guy, he asked if he could cut into the drywall in our garage, near where the cable enters the house, to see if he could find it.  We agreed, and he cut a few holes but came up empty.  He was stumped and told us he couldn’t do anything without knowing where the splitter was.  So began our search.  Over the next few weeks, we scoured our walls looking for an access panel.  We moved furniture, cleared out the pantry, and used the camera on my phone to get views into some of the darker corners of our home.  Bupkes.  

My son is clever and has an even cleverer friend with some expertise in electronic engineering.  Together, they hatched a plan to acquire a wire sniffer and attempt to track the cable through the walls.  The sniffer emits an audio signal when it is close to electrical wiring, something like the Geiger counters searching for radioactivity in old movies.  The closer you get to a wire, the louder the tone.  The idea was that the splitter would be a particularly noisy aroma for the sniffer.  

I came home from work one day and found my bedroom in disarray.  The contents of our overly stuffed closet had been strewn about the bedroom so that my wife and son could gain access to the attic space.  They had spent the day tracing wires throughout the house and they had some evidence, via the sniffer, that the splitter may be in the attic.  The attic is accessed through the ceiling of the bedroom closet and requires a ladder.  That meant the closet had to be cleared of some of its contents.  They were awaiting my arrival, as they had decided I was the right person to get into the attic.  I think it had something to do with a fear of spiders and cobwebs.  Given the amount of work they had done to get to this point, I agreed and poked my head into the insulated darkness of the tiny attic space.  There were no cobwebs.  Our attic is not a storage space for old steamer trunks filled with romance and sentiment.  Rather, it’s the underside of the peak of the roof, with sharp angles filled up with fiberglass insulation.  It’s not intended for human occupancy, and, from my perch on the ladder, I was unable to locate anything resembling a cable wire or splitter.  I told my wife that someone would have to climb into the attic to do any further archeological work.  After borrowing a taller ladder from a neighbor, my wife — being the smallest member of our party — climbed into the rafters.  She did find the cable, but no splitter.  

The ladder has been returned, the closet re-stuffed, and the sniffer sits idly on the counter.  I am sitting idly on the couch watching TV through my old cable box, listening to the rat tumble quietly in the background, and wondering whether and how to go about cutting into the drywall so that I can finally tell my remote that I want to watch another episode of “Somebody Feed Phil” on Netflix.  The irony of engaging in a significant amount of physical labor in an effort to become more sloth-like is not lost on me.  I’m going to lie still for the rest of the afternoon and contemplate my situation.