Volcanic Kick

I think I have an obsession with volcanoes. One of my favorite (and hardest) runs I’ve ever done was around Mt. St. Helens (it took over eight hours). Two years ago, we went on vacation to Yellowstone and learned about the volcanic activity there in a wonderful guided tour, and just this month we went on a cruise in the Mediterranean that included not one, not two, but three volcanoes. I’m not even mentioning the fact that my current writing project centers around an ill-fated hike up the side of Mt. St. Helens. Some may think I’m a little obsessed. I’m not sure how this happened, but I have to admit, I’m amazed by the sheer power and earth-changing force of volcanoes. I find them infinitely interesting.

Seeing volcanoes, per se, wasn’t the purpose of our cruise, which was more focused on being in the Mediterranean during the summer than any single landmark, but one can barely think about the beauty of the southern coast of Europe without acknowledging the impact of volcanic activity.

We started our cruise from Piraeus, a port city outside Athens, Greece. From there we sailed to Santorini, an island in the Aegean Sea that is a remnant of the great Minoan Eruption over 3,600 years. Historians theorize that the eruption eliminated the Minoan civilization and gave birth to the legend of Atlantis, the lost city under the sea. What is left almost four millennia later are the stunning cliffside towns of Oia and Fira and a vast, deep lagoon as picturesque as any I’ve seen.

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Oia as seen from Nea Kameni

The lagoon fills the caldera of the once-great volcano and measures 400 meters deep, which gives an idea of how massive the eruption must have been. I can only imagine the destructive power of the eruption given the size of the rock that had to be expelled to create this beautiful chain of islands in the Aegean Sea. All that remains today are the islands at the edge of the caldera and the emerging cone in the middle (the islands of Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni).

We took a small boat to Nea Kameni and hiked to the top for views of Oia and Fira from across the lagoon. From this amazing vista I snapped many photos of the whitewashed walls of the buildings that looked like they were carved into the top of the ragged coastline. Nea Kameni is uninhabited, but it has a treasure trove of volcanic information. Volcanologists have installed sensors at the top to keep tabs on the volcano, and even the layman can see evidence of its grumbling with fumeroles that emit a warm stream and sulfur-stained rocks that look like someone had spilled their banana milkshake on them.

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The view atop Nea Kameni (also called New Burnt)

After a fun-filled day in Santorini and a brief stop in Kotor, Montenegro, we set sail for Sicily and a visit to Europe’s most-active volcano, Mt. Etna. Etna erupted for the first time over 500,000 years ago and has remained active since including very recently in March 2017.

We anchored in the port of Messina (near the point where Italy’s boot meets Sicily) and took a two-hour bus ride to Mt. Etna. We made it to about 2,000 meters up the 3,300-meter mountain before we pulled off at an obvious tourist stop and hiked around the Silvestri crater. The land and climate on Etna stood in sharp contrast to the crowded, hot streets of Messina. As far as the eyes could see were layers of black and burnt brown soil and a landscape broken up by swirls of ragged volcanic rock and verdant streaks. The temperature dropped about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) as well. The desolate and lonely landscape simmered atop the fierce power beneath our feet, which was both awe-inspiring and thrilling, if not a little scary.

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Silvestri Crater on Mt. Etna

After enduring the bus ride back to Messina with a gaggle of loud pre-teens, we hopped back on the boat and headed to Naples. While Naples itself is exciting (they invented pizza here!), we took another bus ride (this one much shorter) to Pompeii to visit the city buried under volcanic ash. Mt. Vesuvius loomed overhead as we approached the ancient city giving its best Cheshire Cat grin in the gleaming sunlight. It had been almost 2,000 years since it unleashed its fury on the unsuspecting residents of Pompeii.

With summer sun bearing down on us, we followed our guide through the gates to the ancient city. What we found was much more than an archaeological dig, although there is plenty of that going on. The sprawling complex covers more than 170 acres and the uncovered portion reveals an amazing artifact of life back around 79 A.D. complete with a theater, bath houses, store fronts, and homes. We walked on the original cobblestone streets and ogled the intricate artwork on ceilings and floor tiles all within the shadow of Vesuvius.

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The ruins of Pompeii (the museum in the top right was built on top of the ruins before the excavation, which gives an idea of how much has been excavated).

After Pompeii we bid farewell to the European volcanoes and boarded our ship to our final port in Barcelona. We were able to learn more details about a history that was vaguely familiar to us, but most importantly, we were able to see firsthand the awesome earth-changing power of volcanoes. Now, I just have to finish my novel that features a certain North American volcano. Someday. Hopefully before it erupts again…

Restless

Where else but in the banality of laundry does the mind rise above and consider those things that burrow deep in our souls and twitch like an uncanny beetle trying to claw its way to the surface. We recently took a cruise across the European edge of the Mediterranean spending seven days meandering from Greece to Spain. Vacation or not, some household chores won’t go away, and in need of a refresh of clothes, we found a tiny laundry room nestled in a bland room in the middle of one of the high decks aboard our ship. The interior beige room held two washers and two dryers wedged against a wall and two lonely seats stashed at the end. When we entered, two elderly passengers occupied the seats.

They were friendly, those two, with Southern drawls that matched the long summer days ahead of us. They began talking to us immediately as if they had been waiting for us to meet them. We quickly learned that they were from Fort Worth, Texas and that they were cruise ship aficionados. The gentleman, stately with his deep voice and steely blue eyes, quickly ran down his ranking of cruise operators. Holland America and Celebrity were the best. This cruise line, Princess, was decent but the food was bland. He liked spicy food, being from Texas and all. He took picante sauce with most of his food, or at least that’s the way he made it sound.

Later, as we switched our wash loads to the dryers, the conversation continued. We learned that he would be 90 years old in a few weeks. For an elderly man, he looked sturdy, determined, but a sadness filled his eyes. We commented that he didn’t look 90, but as I looked closer, I could see the wear and tear of age, the relentless debasing of his image of himself that had overcome him. He told us this was his last cruise. “There comes a time when a man has to admit his age,” he said. His solemn baritone lingered in the room until only the sound of the humming dryers remained.

During our conversation, we learned he had grandkids and that his wife wasn’t his long-time love, but his relatively new wife of three years. I don’t know if he had divorced late in life or if the mother of his children had passed before him, but in 90 years so many things can happen, so much can change. He had traveled widely for he mentioned several places that I hadn’t thought of as destinations as much as locations on this wonderful planet of ours. He spoke in a wistful tone, one that a parent often uses when reminiscing about their children when they were young. He seemed resigned to the end of a journey or at least content with a very different one.

I studied his face as he spoke, the lines deep and ragged. His eyes sat above dark circles, his lips strained across his yellowed teeth. He sat slightly hunched over with skinny, wrinkled arms protruding from an over-sized shirt, or maybe he had shrunk inside that shirt as if he were already leaving a shell of himself behind. We bid the couple farewell as we left our clothes to dry, but our conversation lingered in my mind.

I wondered what would become of him; although, I already knew. I wondered what I will think when I reach that point in my life. Will I be able to handle it with aplomb like this gentleman, or will I refuse to accept it, fight it, and spit in its face. Middle age has given me no answers only discontent, restlessness. We all have that clock ticking behind us, but we only become aware of it when youth fades away, when the faculties that we always took for granted in our youth slip away one by one and leave us encumbered with a sense of surprise, unbelieving.

Over 40 years separate me from this gentleman, but I feel a sense of urgency, a need to take as much in as I can before I too must admit my age.

Episode 2: Donna Quixote

A creaking sound woke her, one like that of someone stepping on a squeaky floor board. Her eyes opened wide absorbing only the soft glow from the faint night light that she kept plugged into the wall opposite her bed. She kept still except to pivot her head toward her bedroom door. The slight glint of the meager night light shining onto the door knob winked at her. Her heart, the drum beat of her fears, pounded in her chest. She slowly placed her right hand on her heart as if to soothe it. Her ears remained on alert, but no other dissonant sounds greeted her.

She panned around her room. All of the shadows looked familiar. The chest of drawers stood as dark as tar in her sparsely-furnished room. In the opposite corner of her room, the cushions on her comfy chair, the one where she’d nap on occasion reflected an unseemly yellow in the exasperated night light. The block numbers on the tiny clock on her night stand glowed a blood red. She sat up and reached for her glasses on the night stand. Once she put them on, she could read the blurry red digits on the clock – 4:45.

Her heart beat had settled down, but she felt light-headed from sitting up. She was tempted to lie back down, but she knew she had to check her blood pressure. She couldn’t miss any signs that may put her in peril. She kicked her feet into her worn house shoes and padded across the room to the door. She slowly opened it as if she expected someone to be on the other side, but she was greeted with nothing but more darkness and more familiar shadows. She shuffled down the short hallway to her kitchen.

She kept the light above her stove on all of the time. It comforted her to descend into her kitchen at night to see the soft dome of light coming from her stove. She didn’t need any other light to see what she wanted. The blood pressure cup sat on her kitchen counter near the edge of the light. She picked it up and wrapped it around her left arm. Going through the usual motions revealed that her blood pressure had not changed since her last reading. She viewed the display skeptically and considered taking it again until she realized that the package that her neighbor had left at her door still sat outside. She hadn’t opened her door to retrieve it yesterday because she didn’t want her neighbor to see her.

It had almost become a game for her, one in which she tried to avoid seeing her neighbors. She didn’t really know any of them because the neighborhood had changed so much. Many of the people she had known had either died or moved away. Even some of the houses that she had known so well had been torn down and replaced by unfamiliar structures often much larger than the small homes that had been the setting for much of her life. It felt as if the neighborhood had changed around her without her consent, so she avoided these new people that she didn’t know by only venturing out during the day on weekdays when most of them weren’t home and couldn’t spy her.

She walked to the front door and opened it peering out onto the dark street. The county had never installed street lights in her neighborhood, so she could only see the ambient light from the houses across the street including the Anderson’s house. They had installed a series of small lamps leading from their driveway to their front door. Theirs was one of the houses that had replaced a much smaller home that had been there since she was a little girl. She remembered the old couple that had lived there once. The wife had died first, and then, the husband had died a few years later. The old house sat vacant for a few more years before it had been unceremoniously razed to make room for the Anderson’s big, new house. She missed the old couple.

The package, a small box wrapped in plain brown paper with a single, white label attached, sat at her feet on the worn welcome mat she had at her front door. She quickly grabbed the box and shut the door behind her. The label showed her name and address, but the return address had no name, just a street she didn’t recognize. The weight of the package suggested something substantial within it. She shook it slightly, but the sound did not betray what might be inside. She hadn’t been expecting anything, and she wondered why her neighbor had had her package in the first place. Was it delivered to her by mistake? Or did one of her children take it and she had returned it?

Donna placed the package on her kitchen counter next to the blood pressure cup and walked into her living room just beyond the reach of the stove light and sat in her recliner. She felt a chill in the stale air, so she pulled the blanket from her chair and covered her arms as she lay back and closed her eyes. Her ears remained on alert, but no sounds greeted her other than that from the cranky refrigerator. She drifted off to sleep.

A knock at the door startled her awake. She sat up quickly, the blanket fell into her lap as she rubbed her eyes. Light pushed against her tightly closed blinds, but the sun had yet to descend into her backyard, so it was still before Noon. Another knock. She stood up to a chorus of her years with pain blaring in her hips and her shoulders causing her to stoop and shuffle to the door slowly. By the time she made it to the window to peer onto her porch, the man at her door had already turned and walked back to the street. She only caught a glance of the back of his light blue shirt as he disappeared from view. She angled the blinds to look down onto her porch, and there sat another package. She sighed and closed the blinds tightly.

The pain in her shoulder radiated through her back. She couldn’t lift up her arms up because it hurt too much, so she dropped them to her side and shuffled back to her kitchen as if her head were an unbearable weight. Leaning on the counter, she began her morning ritual of taking her medicine. She had three pill boxes stacked upon one another, each with 14 compartments for AM and PM and the day of the week. She took the first pill box and flipped open the lid labeled “W-AM”. She popped the pills in her mouth one at a time and swallowed with a sip of water. After she had downed the contents from the third pill box, she took her blood pressure again. The static reading concerned her. She wondered if the electronic panel had broken and was giving false readings.

She took one step back and her leg gave way. She grabbed the counter to steady herself, but she could not grip anything before she fell to the floor. She came down hard on her shoulder and the pain reverberated through her like a shock wave. She felt dizzy and maybe she blacked out for a moment. As she lay there, she looked up at the single dome light in her kitchen, stained from years of use such that the outline of the bulbs could be seen through the opaque plastic of the dome. She wondered when she had last changed the bulbs and if the light would burn out before she was able to get up.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at her phone on the wall. The long cord curled and twisted up the wall to the yellow plastic case. The end of the cord dangled just above the floor in her line of sight. She summoned the energy to crawl toward the wall, and after much effort, she reached the end of the cord. She tugged on it. At first, it just rattled in place, but after she gave it another, more forceful tug, she pulled the receiver on top of her. The receiver struck her stomach as it fell to the floor. She pulled it to her face and punched 9-1-1 on the key pad and waited for the voice to respond on the other end of the line. The female voice sounded familiar, or maybe she just imagined it so. When she hung up, she hoped that the EMTs that were dispatched were different from the two men who had come last time. She didn’t like the way they talked to her. They didn’t understand. Few people did.

The World We Must See

I’m just back from vacation with my soon-to-be 12-year-old son. I took him on a trip to New York City to catch the sights and sounds of one of the most dynamic cities in the world. We visited many of the usual tourist spots in the city including the 9/11 Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, and, of course, the iconic Empire State Building. As much as this trip was about fun, it was also about giving my son some experiences outside the norm of his everyday life. It’s too easy for all of us to become cloistered in our own little space in the world and fail to see all the wonderful things that surround us. Too many adults I know have very limited experience outside their immediate area and view the world through the myopic lens of TV and internet news, which do nothing but promote fear and ignorance.

If my kids learn nothing from me (that’s possible given how well they listen to what I say), I hope they at least are able to see past all of the negativity and make their own, informed decisions about the world around them. The beauty of it lies in its variety, and the differences that sometimes separate us shouldn’t be feared but embraced. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York City where the concept of the American melting pot is on full display. You can practically travel around the world just by walking its streets. This is the world I want my kids to see. It’s exciting, vibrant, and full of life.

I didn’t have an opportunity to travel until I was 25 years old, and once I did, I began to realize a lot of my preconceived notions about the world were wrong. Even at the height of my youthful enthusiasm back then, I held many ignorant beliefs that were clearly unfounded once I gained some experience outside of my own little world. At that time, I thought my education was over since I had recently finished college, but the truth was that it was just beginning. By the time I reached 30 years of age, my entire world view had changed. I had a much greater appreciation for the differences that sometimes divide us but mostly make the world much more interesting and exciting. I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned. Now, I just hope that my kids can catch on a little earlier in their lives than I did.

Their young lives have certainly been different from mine when I was a kid. They’ve lived in a foreign country and visited several more. My son has been on four different continents already. Of course, my kids are too young to appreciate any of this at the moment, but years later, when they look back at their lives, I hope they see that these experiences gave them a foundation to look beyond the noise around them and challenge preconceived notions and unfounded fears to see the world for what it really is. That’s my hope at least.

Who Is Buster McElroy?

In The Things We Cannot Keep, three brothers reconnect when the oldest one is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction that happened two decades ago. At the insistence of the youngest brother, they go on a camping trip hoping to recapture the magic of the camping excursions from their youth, but things quickly go awry when the weight of their tattered family proves too much. Buster McElroy is the middle brother, a somewhat unreliable narrator who is opinionated, confrontational, and more than mildly provocative.

Now in his 40s, Buster came of age in the chaos leading up to his brother’s conviction and hardened into the cynical critic that he is in the aftermath of his brother’s incarceration. He lacks the empathy that often betrays his younger brother and leaves no kind words in his wake. In the story, he’s the one that changes the most after the unfortunate events unfold following his brother’s release, but he’d refuse to admit it.

To a writer, characters are real people, maybe not in the flesh-and-blood sense, but they are very real in every other way. My characters tend to emerge, not as fully-formed persons in their own right, but as ones that evolve over time. It’s much like when you first meet someone and they introduce themselves in an often-superficial sense, but as you talk to them and learn more, you get a better idea of who they are. As you spend more and more time with them, you learn more about them, and the picture of their personalities develops like old-fashioned film coming to life under the sheen of chemicals in a dark room.

Buster is no different. When I first came up with the idea for this novel (it’s only a concept at this point), he was more defined by his birth order than any singular character trait he possessed because at that point he had none. Slowly, as the story idea turned over in my mind, he became the narrator. Then, he became the skeptical voice that resonated throughout the story. Then, I started thinking “What would Buster say?” whenever I thought of a new twist in the tale. Before I knew it, I had a fully-formed novel outline bustling around in my brain and Buster was the driving force.

For my main characters, I like to write the story of their lives before I write the novel that surrounds them. This gives me reference material as the actual novel unfolds and helps me keep them in character during the inevitable gyrations of novel development. It’s too easy to introduce inconsistencies over the months-long process of developing the first draft, and even later, during rewrites, characters can fall off the wagon if you don’t have a strong idea of who they are.

So who is Buster McElroy? He’s the narrator of The Things We Cannot Keep. He’s a provocative, somewhat unreliable narrator who cajoles the other characters in ways that exploit their weaknesses. He’s an unrepentant critic of everyone whose steadfast opinions color the world around him in ways that blind him. He’s also still evolving as a character, but one thing is certain. The events that unfold over the course of the novel will change him. For better or for worse has yet to be determined.

A Labor of Love

I recently finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which is another excellent book from the author featuring eccentric, young characters facing a challenge that ultimately plays out over the course of the story. Green’s books are reliably good, and although I’m not the demographic he targets, I enjoy a well-told story. Green thoroughly develops his characters such that they come alive for the reader, and then, he surrounds them with an intriguing plot. There’s a lot to admire in his writing.

After I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgments, as I always do when I finish a novel, and read through what the author had to say to those who helped him through the writing of this book. I was surprised to learn that he spent six years writing the book. While Green isn’t as prolific as Stephen King, he has released six books in the last 13 years starting with Looking for Alaska to this most recent book. He’s averaged about a book every three years since his first release. Given the time it takes to write a good book, every three years is about right.

But six years. That struck me as a long time for an established author who writes reliably good novels. I’d love to chat with him about why it took so long, not because I’m being critical, but because I want to understand the creative process he went through. Quite frankly, it’s comforting in some way that even big-name authors plod through their work. It’s proof that the creative process is not a nice walk down a breezy lane on a cool, spring day. Sometimes, it’s a slog through a rainstorm in knee-deep mud.

If anything I can sympathize. I’ve been working on my current novel for almost two years (it will be two years in July), and I don’t feel I’m close to finishing. I’m on my third full re-write. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to throw it in the virtual trash bin and work on something else. Some mornings, I look at my manuscript and just write a blog post or a short story instead. My motivation waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. There are moments of pure inspiration that drive me to write two thousand words in a single sitting, and then there are moments, where I’m lucky if I can get two hundred coherent words to fit on the page. I’d change the title of the book to The Neverending Story if it didn’t sound like a flashback to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, I keep plodding along. This book may never go anywhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. I have to see if it works. It may not, but I want to give it a chance even if it takes another two years. Then, I will work on something else.

Some Kind of Nothing

Sometime in the middle of the night on Saturday, I woke up. It took a moment for me to realize that it wasn’t near sunrise. The full moon outside shined impossibly bright giving the illusion, at least to the half asleep, that a dawn was imminent. It wasn’t. Even summer mornings in Seattle don’t begin that early. I closed my eyes, but my mind wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Something festered in crawl of my brain, a half-finished dream of some sort that fizzled slowly like the mist on a spring morning. I tried to shake it loose, but once my mind latches onto something it doesn’t let go.

I normally sleep very well. I believe I do so because I follow a very regular routine. Sleep, like brushing your teeth is a habit. At least it is to me. I also immortalize anything that could potentially worry me by writing it down before I go to bed. It relaxes me to write the things down that I must do. The act itself gives my mind permission to forget, at least for the purpose of a good night’s rest. I have a pretty comprehensive to-do list that precludes me from worrying about things, so it’s very rare for me to lie awake worrying about what needs to get done.

Likewise, once my mind groks a story idea, it will run like a hamster on a wheel until every conceivable facet of the story is exhausted. On this particular morning, that’s why I found myself involuntarily awake. I’m not exactly sure where this story idea will go, but when I finally wiped the sleep from my eyes and listened to what my brain was telling me, I had a title and a general story concept floating in front of me. I’m not sure if this story idea came from a dream I was having or if it had been brewing in my mind based on something I had read or thought about earlier in the day or the week.

I think the idea requires some background to make any sense. Again, I’m not sure where this is going, but the title that reverberated in my head is Some Kind of Nothing. The story is a first-person narrative that follows a man through a series of strange events that leave him wondering what is happening to him. It’s a primordial tale of existentialism. It borders on the paranormal, which makes the whole concept odd for me since I don’t read or write in the fantasy genre.

The “Nothing” in the title refers to death. While I often explore mortality and the philosophical musings it engenders, most of my writing focuses on more uplifting topics. I like my characters to change for the better or at least impact the fictional world around them for the better. I don’t think this story will be any different should I choose to continue to develop it, especially since its base topic is morbid and there needs to be some counterbalance to make it palatable to readers.

Like most of my other stories, there is something personal in the idea. I don’t subscribe to any religious beliefs. I believe death is simply a step into the dark abyss where nothing exists. It’s the end of all ends. That doesn’t cause me so much consternation or discomfort that I seek another explanation. Some things we can never know, and I’m okay with that. Instead, I focus on living the life I have to the fullest. Life is a gift, something to be cherished and fulfilled in the way that I feel satisfies me. Living life in misery, real or imagined, is pointless. Quite frankly, were that my primary disposition, I would gladly step into the abyss voluntarily. My comfort in my own skin doesn’t prevent me from exploring other ideas. I’m confident enough to disagree with myself, to challenge myself and my thoughts in ways that I hope make me grow and, I hope, help my readers grow, too. That’s what this story is about. Nothing isn’t one thing. It could be many things, some we choose to see and some we don’t. What would happen if some core belief you hold isn’t true? That’s the engine that drives this concept.