Closing Out the Year

On Saturday, I ran my eighth marathon of 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. With that race I’ve run a marathon in 44 of the 50 U.S. states leaving only six states to finish my 50 States Challenge. If all goes well, I will cross the finish line of the Manchester City Marathon on November 8, 2020 in New Hampshire next year to wrap up the 50 states. After two years of running eight marathons per year, I look forward to a year with only six marathons.

Back in 2010 when I decided to tackle this challenge, I laid out a plan to accomplish it in ten years before my 50th birthday. That plan had me running only five marathons per year, which, when spaced out properly, isn’t that difficult, but a disastrous year in 2014 where I only ran one marathon because of injury derailed that plan. It took a while to get back up to marathon shape, and I knew that if I was going to finish before my 50th birthday I’d have to increase the number of races I ran in the remaining years.

Running so many marathons in a year is not impossible. Many marathoners run much more, especially enthusiastic 50-staters, but inevitably, you sacrifice time when running so many marathons because your body cannot fully recover. I’ve seen this first hand the past two years as I’ve logged eight per year. My times have steadily declined, but it was a trade-off I was willing to accept when I decided to attempt to complete the 50 states in ten years like I had originally planned. Had I not ramped up the number of races, I would not have a chance of finishing in ten years. Now, that prospect seems likely assuming I don’t suffer an injury like I did in 2014.

Now that I’ve finished the 2019 race schedule, I’m going to take some time off. Well, not exactly. I’m going to take it easy or easier. I’ll still be out there running in the pre-dawn cold of late fall and early winter, but my runs will be short. I’m closing out the year in a steady but relaxed pace. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when the year began. Now, it’s time to get psyched for the year to come, but before I do, I’m going to relax.

Where Do I Go From Here?

I’m off and writing another story now. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and get very excited about it and just start writing without any clue about where I’m going. I just let the characters tell me where they want to go. To people who may not write or care about writing, this sounds weird, as if I’m admitting to being possessed by a ghost of some kind. Rest assured, I have no belief in the supernatural (I don’t even enjoy reading or writing about such things), but there’s something almost otherworldly about the process.

One of the things that I enjoy about writing is the opportunity to step into a character’s shoes and try them on for many miles. It is an enlightening process. I have to ask myself how a character would behave in a certain situation and then put that on the page in a way that is engaging and sensible. In a story, it’s all connected, so not only do I have to make sure the main character behaves in a believable way, but I have to ensure that secondary characters respond believably. While it’s bad to head hop in prose (I’ve done it; I know), a writer has to head hop to create a believable and engaging scene.

Oftentimes, a character will inspire several chapters almost without thinking, but then, inevitably, I come to a point where the obvious path is a little less clear, and I find myself leaning on my fictional character. Where do I go from here? Depending on where I am with the story in the development of the character, I may get an answer, or maybe not. When I get an answer, I just keep on writing. Some mornings, I keep writing well past my allotted hour because it’s just too good to stop. On other mornings, I barely get a thousand words because my character has decided to give me the silent treatment. In that case, I go do something else until she works things out.

It’s a notoriously finicky process. It’s also funny because in real life I absolutely hate depending on anyone for anything, but in writing, I’m forced to depend on these characters (fictional ones!) to finish my story. I’ll leave that irony on this page. Time for me to go do something else.

 

Them

Doris Hale paused to look at herself in the mirror in the narrow hallway of her home. She didn’t like what she saw. She wondered when she became so old. Her hair, once dark and silky like a luxurious coat, curled atop her head, short, gray, and brittle. She could see her scalp in places as if her hair strained to cover all of her head. Wrinkles grew from the corners of her eyes and her mouth. Her upper lip looked almost perforated by columns of wrinkles as if her teeth were about to break through her skin. Everything sagged, her eyes, her nose, and her lips. Even her preternaturally bright green eyes looked dull and muted. She sighed and turned away. She had to replace the light bulb above the mirror. The new bulb cast a harsh light that magnified her time-worn flaws. She was 65, not dead.

She trundled down the short hallway to her living room and dropped into the recliner in the cramped, square space around her TV, which hung on the opposite wall. Its dark screen captured a gray reflection of her among the furniture, and Doris stared at it for a moment. No wrinkles there, but her outline seemed implausible, lumpy like an overstuffed chair that had been beaten out of shape after years of use. She struggled to see where her body ended and the plump recliner began in the reflection. She grimaced and grabbed the remote to delete the dour picture.

The screen flickered to life but remained black for a moment before the channel beamed in all of its brightness. The face of an older, elegant gentleman filled the screen. He looked solemn, chagrined, and he spoke in a booming baritone that pressed against the tiny speakers on the TV. Her familiarity with him relaxed her and she settled more comfortably into the recliner. She kicked her shoes off her feet and pulled the lever on the chair to put her feet up. She eyed her swollen ankles. The ache in her feet swam up her legs. She sighed heavily as she turned her attention back to the TV.

The man, a reverend, paced across the stage, determined. Like Doris, time had been unkind to him. He hunched over slightly and walked with a gimp that suggested either his knees or his hips were rebelling against him. She knew what that felt like. He stopped and looked over the audience that Doris could not see beyond the spotlight that glared upon him.

God told me that we are near the end of times. Man has sinned. He has sinned beyond what even God thought was possible, and now, he must pay for these sins.

Doris subconsciously nodded as he spoke. She had just returned from her church after spending the morning helping prepare for the upcoming revival. She’d had lunch at the church with several of the women who helped out including the preacher’s wife. The preacher was a younger man in his early forties, tall and classically handsome, and his wife was even younger, maybe mid-thirties. She was a beautiful thing, so young, with her whole life ahead of her. Doris felt a tinge of jealousy. She had once been young with more years ahead of her than behind her. Now, the opposite was true.

She’d also once been married to a tall, handsome man. They’d been married for over forty years. Looking back she always thought those were the happiest days of her life, almost like a fairytale, but the truth wasn’t quite so simple. She’d loved Bill and he’d loved her, but there were moments, many moments actually, when she’d considered her life without him, almost willed herself to make it happen, but that wasn’t God’s way, and she’d never acted upon it. Instead, she stood firm by her husband and endured. That was what it was. Endurance. Perseverance.

She certainly needed that stamina to stand by his side as the cancer slowly took him away. Three years that felt like thirty dripped by as Bill lost everything that made him human, the last of which was his dignity. She remembered bathing him after he had messed himself for the third time in one of the last days of his life. She recalled his constant moaning as he withered in pain in the hospital bed that the hospice company had set up in the tiny dining room just on the other side of her sofa. His ghost still lay there, sometimes giving her a vacant stare. She glanced that way but quickly turned back to the TV.

A choir emerged on the stage behind the reverend and began to sing a hymnal. Doris turned up the sound and sat back in the chair. She closed her eyes and let the beautiful voices, full and melodic, engulf her. The sweet sound rose and fell upon her chest, and as the song reached its climatic ending, she opened her eyes to the reverend, face pressed against the screen, nodding as if the choir had done as he had directed. He didn’t smile despite the beauty of the voices; he didn’t even seem to really enjoy it. Instead, he pulled his lips back in a pained expression and chastised the audience about its sins and God’s imminent retribution, and Doris gave him her rapt attention.

Before the sermon ended, a toll-free number punched the bottom of the screen as the reverend stood on the stage and insisted that everyone contribute in the name of God. He admonished those who prized earthly possessions over the spiritual wealth God offered, and then he paused, as if he were an actor in a dramatic play, and put his hand to his chin, slightly stroking it in a gesture that conveyed thoughtfulness. His diamond cuff-link sparkled in the spotlight, outshining the gaudy rings that pinched his beefy fingers.

I know you will give all that you can today because you are a child of God. You don’t want your soul to perish with the wicked and wretched.

He nodded slowly, seemingly satisfied. The camera pulled back revealing the width of the stage. The music started again, and the choir, now visible, began to sing, low and soft. The hymnal continued until the show ended. A commercial blasted onto the screen with shrieking sound that startled Doris. She fumbled with the remote to mute the TV, and then, she sat back in the recliner again, lost in the stark silence of her living room.

She felt like she needed a nap. Her morning had been unusually active, and the exertion had left her feeling tired and worn down despite the fact that she had done very little all week. Her days were like that now, slow, lethargic, and mind-numbingly dull. The TV provided her only escape when she wasn’t busy at her church. She was thankful for the summer revival because there was more to do than usual. She didn’t feel so lonely.

After Bill died and the rush of sympathy petered out to only an occasional phone call or visit from the friends they had shared as a married couple, Doris wilted under the weight of loneliness. On many days, her only interaction was with the TV reverend. She’d have lunch with a girlfriend here and there, but all of her closest friends still had their husbands, who they had to care for, and many of them had children and grandchildren that consumed their time. The sliver of attention that remained available for Doris grew smaller as the memories of Bill faded from everyone’s consciousness except hers.

She nodded off in the recliner, her head lilting to one side as she gave into the desire to sleep. She began to snore, the rise and fall of her breath rattled across the otherwise silent room.

A picture of her and Bill hung on the wall next to the recliner, one taken before the cancer made its presence known. Bill draped his arm across her shoulder and leaned into her, smiling as the picture was taken. He seemed jovial and genuinely happy, but Doris didn’t quite smile as if her dour mood had temporarily been put on hold to take the picture.

While Doris slept, the sun pressed against the closed blinds in her living room as it crawled across the sky toward dusk. She startled, turned, and quickly resumed snoring. She slept until the light dimmed, until the TV became the brightest thing in the room.

When she woke up, the ambient light from the muted TV blinded her. She raised her arm to shield her eyes, but her shoulder screamed. Her stiff neck ached all the way down her back. She turned her head to the side instead until her eyes adjusted. She blinked at the dimming daylight outside her window. She wondered what day it was, how long she had slept. She fumbled with her cell phone that sat on the end table near the recliner. Her fingers felt swollen and immovable, but she managed to grip the phone and flip it open to see the day and time on the monochrome screen. Saturday had slipped away from her.

She maneuvered the lever of the chair and it helped her sit up despite her body’s protest. When she placed her feet on the floor, her ankles still felt swollen and stiff. Her knees didn’t feel capable of holding her up when she leaned onto her legs to get up. After two attempts, she stood up and shuffled toward the kitchen for a drink of water. She drank greedily as if she had just crossed a desert without an ounce of water. Some water dribbled down her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. The cool tap water felt good to her parched throat. After she finished she leaned over the sink, arms levered against the counter as if she would fall over otherwise. The silence made her ache more.

Before she could make her way back to the recliner to unmute the TV, her doorbell rang. Its soft chime punctured the silence like breaking glass, startling her. She rarely had visitors, much less at 7:30 at night. Even the solicitors that canvassed the neighborhood called it quits before dinner time. A feeling of grave concern rose in her chest. She mumbled something to herself as she considered what to do.

The doorbell rang again, impatient and insistent. Doris took one step toward the hallway and looked at the solid front door. A tinny knock followed as if the doorbell weren’t enough to get her attention. She ambled down the hallway to the door and pressed her eye to the peep hole. She couldn’t see much in the faint glow of the street light near her house, but she could she the outline of the person ringing her bell. The figure was slight with short hair like a young boy.

She flipped on the porch light and the person flinched in its glare. She didn’t recognize her right away. A lot had changed since she had last seen her, but the vague familiarity prompted her to open the door.

“Ashley?” Doris said as she pulled the door open.

The girl nodded and burst into tears as she flung her arms around her. Doris, frozen in place, slowly put her arms around her granddaughter. The last time she had seen her granddaughter, she had been a little girl, eight or nine years old. How old was she now? Doris thought for a moment – 13 or 14?

“Ashley, what’s wrong? Where are your parents?”

The girl continued to cry, wet, heaving sobs that almost toppled Doris as she stood in the doorway. She flicked the door shut with one hand and returned her hand to the girl’s back, patting her as if to assure her everything was going to be okay, something she had done many years ago when a much smaller version of the girl had fallen on her steps and skinned her knee. They stood in the foyer under the harsh hallway light with nothing but the girl’s sobs and Doris’ soft words of comfort filling the air around them.

The sobs slowly subsided. “Ashley, what’s happened?”

Her granddaughter pulled back from her embrace and wiped her eyes with her fingertips, but the tears still streamed down her face.

“It’s Ash.”

“What?”

“I don’t go by Ashley anymore.”

Doris nodded, confused. “What’s wrong, honey? Where are your parents?”

“Can I stay with you?” Her eyes darted around the confined space of the hallway. She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. The hallway light gave her wet, swollen cheeks a sticky sheen.

Doris paused, taken aback by the sudden question. “Of course…but can you tell me what’s going on?”

Another sob overcame Ash, and she hugged Doris again. Doris stood there teetering in her own hallway as her granddaughter cried on her shoulder. She inhaled a scent like a musty basement, and when Ash stood back again trying to control her tears, Doris noticed that her clothes were filthy. Her fingernails were dirty, and she could tell that her granddaughter had probably not bathed in a while. She waited for her to calm down.

“Honey, where is your mom?”

Ash shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Is she okay?”

More tears trickled down Ash’s face. “I don’t know. She kicked me out.”

“What?”

“Nancy kicked me out. She and Doug both did.”

“Why would your mom do that?”

“Because she’s a bitch.”

Startled by the harsh word, Doris tried to understand, tried to catch up to the drama that had apparently unfolded between her daughter and her granddaughter. It’d been several years since they’d last spoke, and she had no inkling of what had happened. She barely recognized the young girl in front of her, only her eyes had given her away, and right then, they were pleading and full of tears despite the fury that burned within them.

“Can I have some water?”

Doris shook away her confusion. “Sure, honey. Have a seat and I’ll get you some.”

Ash walked into her living room and took a seat in the recliner like it was the spot she always sat when she visited. Doris watched her from the kitchen as she held a glass under the tap. Ash used the bottom of her shirt to wipe her face. She sniffed and looked around the living room as if she were just taking it in for the first time. She only paused briefly at the muted TV before she turned back to Doris.

Doris returned to the living room and handed Ash the glass of water. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

Ash took a long swig of the water. “Nancy and Doug kicked me out last week.”

“Last week? Where have you been staying?”

She almost drained the glass. “Here and there.”

Doris couldn’t hide her shock. She held her hand up to her mouth. “Why did they kick you out?”

Ash stared at her feet. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She took a final gulp of the water and held the glass toward Doris. “Can I have some more water?”

Doris obliged, ambling back into the kitchen and back out into the living room with a full glass. Ash thanked her and kept the glass to her face until she had completely drained it. Doris didn’t know what to say. She thought about calling her daughter, but she didn’t know if her daughter would answer her phone or if she even had the same number that Doris had for her.

“Can I take a shower?” Ash handed Doris the glass, her eyes once again pleading with her grandmother.

Confusion swirled in Doris’ mind. The nap had dulled her senses, made her feel lethargic. The last few minutes had made her dizzy. She wanted to sit down and think for a moment, decide what to do. She needed some time alone to think.

“Of course, the towels are in the closet just outside the bathroom down the hall.” She watched as her granddaughter disappeared down the hallway toward the only bathroom in the house.

Doris sat back down in her recliner and rubbed her face. She waited until she heard the shower come on before she picked up her phone and searched for her daughter’s number. She hoped Nancy would answer her call. If there was ever a time to put the past behind them, it was now.

The Call of the Wild

This past weekend my two brothers and I took one of our infrequent brothers’ trips, a weekend getaway just for the boys for old time’s sake. We grew up together in rural north Georgia during the 1980s, which is as boring as you’d expect by today’s standards. Our parents rarely went anywhere or did anything, so the three of us were left to our own devices in terms of entertainment. That’s why I openly laugh at my kids today when they proclaim that they’re bored. How can you possibly be bored with infinite on-demand choices in terms of TV shows, movies, or games? But I digress.

Anyway, we spent most of our childhood in a tiny four-room rental house, which meant that we were always on top of each other and always trying to get our own space. Luckily, that dumpy rental house sat in the middle of a vast wooded area with seemingly endless avenues for exploration. Looking back, it wasn’t that big in reality, but to a kid, it seemed endless. We spent countless hours traipsing through the woods exploring and teetering on the edge of trouble, but we also camped out a good bit, if only to escape the confines of that tiny house.

We had a pup tent that practically had permanent placement in our backyard, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to sleep out there under the stars during the long summer. We’d play games in the moonlight, try to scare each other with ridiculous horror stories, or just listen to the latest music on our dad’s bulky portable radio, which had a slot in the side for an 8-track tape  (Google it, yes, downloads are a recent thing). Those nights spent outside away from the ever-watchful eye of our fretful mother were some of the best of our childhood, at least that’s my perspective.

Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for camping. As I’ve gotten older, I have admittedly romanticized it a bit. It’s my way of holding on to the parts of me that were young once, but most importantly, camping, to me, has always been a means of escape, even if only for a little while, because of what it meant to me as a kid.

Now that we’re older, we have the means to camp out beyond our own backyards. For this trip, we decided to camp in Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Zion is one of the premier national parks in the United States known for its colorful canyons and stunning sandstone cut deep by the seemingly innocuous Virgin River. It’s a popular destination for campers and hikers the world over.

We flew into Las Vegas, which was the site of our last brothers’ trip eight years ago, and drove the three hours to Zion. Once we left the carnival atmosphere of the Vegas strip outside the airport, the drive was nothing more than a vast expanse of desert interrupted by the occasional small town wedged against Interstate 15. The temperature outside the SUV we rented hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe August wasn’t a good time to camp at Zion.

After grabbing dinner in the town of Springdale just outside the park, we arrived at Zion in the early evening excited about all of the things we planned to do during our visit – hike to the precarious Angels landing, explore the depths of the Narrows, and drive out to spy the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. The canyon walls exploded in bright colors in the evening sun as we set up our camp.

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The view from our campsite on the evening of our arrival

Once we had everything set up, we started a campfire in the fire pit only because of the ambiance it provided. The desert does cool off at night, but in August, it doesn’t cool off enough to require a campfire. Nevertheless, we sat around the fire chatting and joking with each other. The beauty of brotherhood is that you always have someone who knows you almost from the beginning and you can pick up wherever you left off even if you haven’t seen each other for a while. There’s always an inside joke to exploit even if it’s been overdone for the last three decades. I’m sure my youngest brother is more than tired of us laughing at his idiosyncrasies from his childhood, but what kind of brothers would we be if we just let that slide? There’s no dead horse that can’t be beaten yet again.

The next morning we awoke bright and early. The stars were still in the sky when we fired up the camp stove and cooked breakfast. We never had a camp stove when we camped as kids. Oftentimes, we just had a single small pan and a weak campfire, if that, but adulthood does have its advantages in that you can buy your own equipment. After a hearty breakfast, we took the Zion shuttle to The Grotto stop in the heart of the park and began the four-hour hike to Angels Landing.

On the surface, Angels Landing may not seem like a tough hike. In total it takes about four hours round trip and the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet, but just looking at the stats is misleading because the second half of the hike is a harrowing climb across the spine of a fin-shaped mountain with heart-stopping drops on either side. Luckily, some brave souls have installed a chain along the route so that you can hold on for dear life as you make your way to the top. Just googling “Angels Landing” will bring up stories of hikers falling to their deaths while attempting to reach the top (watch the first-person videos if you want to see how daunting it can be).

To make the hike more precarious, it’s a very popular hike. When we made it to the point where the chain became necessary, a stream of people flowed up and down the trail, some maneuvering around each other while keeping at least one hand on the sweat-drenched chain at all times. To let go would have risked plummeting to a certain death. The number of people made me very nervous, especially those who were nonchalant or careless. I feared being pulled over the edge by some clueless hiker who slipped and grabbed the nearest person to join them in their gruesome death. My wife would kill me if I died on the mountain and left her alone with two kids (don’t ask how she would kill me after I died; she’d find a way).

My brothers plowed ahead as a surge of people pushed us along. I stepped back and sat at the top of this long slide of sandstone and let the crowd pass. I watched as some hapless teenager just galloped across the ledge and slipped foolishly as he made his way between the gap in the chains. He was exactly the type of hiker I was afraid of – clueless and fearless. After a long wait, the crowd thinned considerably, and I began the rest of the hike. I tip-toed along one ledge and wrangled my way around hikers returning from the top. I don’t think I’ve ever loved how a chain felt in my hand as I did during this hike.

I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but I have a love-hate relationship with dizzying heights. You’ll never see a video of me scaling a building and jumping between two incredibly high points without ropes or other safety support. My idea of a good thrill is within the confines of the over-engineered rides at theme parks. I’d rather not end up as a stain on the ground somewhere.

I made my way steadily across the mountain stopping occasionally to take pictures of the beautiful expanse of canyon beneath my feet. Below I could see the tidy black ribbon of the scenic road that wound its way through the valley, and intermittently, I’d spot one of the shuttle buses inching its way along the road. People were all around me, some above me trekking toward the top while others labored along the path beneath me. I didn’t see my brothers again until a crowd of people descended from the plateau at the top. I made the final climb as they waited for me.

The precarious hike was certainly worth it. Standing atop Angels Landing on a beautiful, clear day, I had an unobstructed view across the canyon. The vista isn’t the highest point in Zion, but it does afford a nice view of the valley cut by the Virgin River. Personally, I felt relieved to have made it without being pulled off the cliff by some hapless hiker. On the way down, I came across a woman and her teenage children making the final climb to the top. She fretted over her careless children for getting too close to the edge and not holding onto the chain, and I smiled as she and her brood passed because I didn’t have my kids with me. That’d be way too stressful for me.

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The view from the top of Angels Landing

I reunited with my brothers on a small ledge beneath the top and we made our way down the mountain. The trek down was easier even if it stressed our quadriceps more. By the time we made it back to The Grotto shuttle stop, we were spent. Originally, I had thought we’d do a couple of big hikes on our first day, but the intense heat combined with the exertion of Angels Landing pretty much ensured we’d take it easy the rest of the day. In fact, I took a nap when we returned to camp. We did do a couple of short hikes later that evening, but nothing more.

The next morning, we got up early again and drove two hours to Bryce Canyon. While Zion itself was enough to keep us busy for days, I didn’t want to travel all the way out to southwest Utah and not see Bryce Canyon. Bryce had been on my “must see” list for a long time, and I simply wasn’t going to pass it up when I was so close to it. It did not disappoint.

Driving out of Zion on the eastern side of the park is interesting as Highway 89 takes you through more stunning views of the canyon. There’s a long tunnel leading out of the park that takes you through the sandstone cliffs. At one point in the tunnel there’s a cut-out where you can look out over the canyon, but unfortunately, you can’t stop and take it all in. Once you get through the tunnel and into Mt. Carmel on the other side, the drive turns rather dull until you get to Red Canyon just outside Bryce. After driving through the drab scrub brush along Highway 89 for so long, Red Canyon is a beautiful surprise with brilliant rock formations that simply materialize in the desert out of nowhere, or so it seems.

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One of the first rock formations we encountered in Red Canyon

In terms of sheer beauty, I think Bryce Canyon beats Zion. Zion is larger and more interesting in terms of exploration opportunities, but I absolutely loved the hoodoos in Bryce. We hiked around the rim and I must have taken a hundred photos of the canyon and its famous spires.

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The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

My brothers dragged my camera and me away from the edge of Bryce and we drove back to Zion to hike the Narrows. The Narrows is a section tucked away in the upper reaches of the park where the Virgin River flows between a, you guessed it, very narrow and deep section of the canyon walls. The only way to hike the Narrows is to hike in the river. Luckily, the river is fairly tame this time of the year, but the current was surprisingly strong during our hike. Each of us had trekking poles, so we were able to maintain our balance as we maneuvered across the slippery river rocks in the chilly water.

Like Angels Landing, there were lots of people around us, but unlike that precarious hike, the risk of immediate death wasn’t present. Given that the air temperature was in the low 100s, the Narrows provided some much-needed relief from the heat and the angry sun that bore down overhead. For most of the hike, the sun didn’t even reach the canyon floor as the rock wall towered over us. Under less favorable weather conditions, the Narrows is actually quite dangerous, especially if there’s a risk of flash flooding because there is nowhere to go if the water starts to surge. You’re dead, plain and simple.

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Hiking the Virgin River in the Narrows

Hiking in ankle to knee-deep water is rather strenuous, but it was worth the effort when we reached a popular point in the river valley that offers splendid views of the beautiful canyon. It’s possible to hike eight miles or more up the river, but we turned around near the two-mile point and headed back to camp to relax and get ready to pack up. The Narrows was a great way to end our trip.

But that wasn’t all of the excitement in store for us. On the way down the canyon in the shuttle bus, we noticed a fog-like cloud rushing through the valley. At first, I thought it was a forest fire given the lack of rain and intense heat, but the fog didn’t behave like smoke. The bus rattled to a stop on the side of the mountain and other buses soon joined us. They finally told us that a rock slide had occurred down the road and that all buses were stopped until further notice. We waited a while, but after we realized that the shuttle buses weren’t moving anytime soon, we decided to walk down the canyon and catch a bus on the other side of the rock slide.

As we walked past the slide area, we could tell where a whole section of a mountain had collapsed, but the damage seemed mostly superficial. No one was seriously hurt from what we know, but it did provide for some excitement for an hour or so as we waited to hear what had happened. After a long walk on tired legs, we caught another bus and headed back to camp to put a cap on this brothers’ trip.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, this trip gave us a chance to reconnect as brothers, to relive a part of our collective childhood under different circumstances. Who knows how many more chances we’ll have to do that, which reminds me of the lyrics to the Baz Luhrmann song from the late 1990s, “Everybody’s Free”:

Be nice to your siblings
they are the best link to your past
and the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle
because the older you get
the more you need the people you knew when you were young

Catch the Wind

One of my favorite memories of my dad occurred in the late 1970s. He was young then, only in his mid-thirties. It’s how I like to remember him, slim, sinewy, arms amply filling the sleeves of the t-shirts he favored. Back then, he still had that air of carelessness that had pockmarked his youth. He had yet to be worn down by life.

He had taken me with him into town for a reason I cannot remember. We ended up at the Western Auto in downtown Canton, and on a whim he bought me a kite. Dad was impulsive like that. The kite was almost bigger than me with a giant eagle imprinted on the cheap plastic. Dad bought extra string and a fancy u-shaped handle that allowed the string to be unwound with just a flick of the wrist.

As we drove home, the kite rattled in the wind from the back seat. Outside, a beautiful March day had unfolded with the deepest blue sky I had ever remembered seeing and a stern breeze that served as a precursor for the inevitable storms that would come as the South transitioned from spring to summer. Growing up, I loved days like this before the dreaded heat and humidity stamped out the will to live until the first chill of October.

When we returned home, we slipped out the door and walked to a wide-open field near our house where Dad explained how to launch and fly a kite. At first, he pantomimed it, but then, he started at the bottom of the hill and ran with the kite above his head until it slowly glided skyward. He flicked his wrist to release more string, and the strong breeze buffeted the kite until it ascended further and further into the sky. I watched in amazement as the ball of string shrunk. I imagined that the kite was as high as an airplane, at least a small airplane flying very low.

Eventually, he reeled in the kite and gave it to me to fly. I tried to mimic his movements, but the kite only flew up a few yards before it nose-dived into the ground. Each crack of the plastic frame into the ground made me wince. I thought I had broken the kite. Finally, I was able to catch a strong current, and the kite lifted into the air and sailed higher as I haphazardly unwound the string. The pull of the kite almost lifted me off my feet as it reached the end of the line. I held on tightly with both hands hoping that I didn’t lose my kite or get swept away by the wind.

We stood there, side by side, watching the kite jerk and flutter in the stiff breeze against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. Dad didn’t say much other than comment about how great a day it was to fly a kite. I could have stood there for a long time soaking in the warm sun as the wind lapped my face, enjoying time with my dad.

I didn’t understand it then, what it meant to be with him in those most mundane of moments. It would be decades before I could appreciate where he was in life, what was about to happen. Some lessons in life can’t be taught. They have to be experienced, hard-earned. Looking back, it’s easy to pick the moments that really mattered, to belabor them with the benefit of experience that didn’t exist then. Perspectives shift as we get older and alter the memories we have in subtle ways. Perhaps these memories become something they really weren’t. Perhaps we need them more than ever when those we loved are no longer with us.

Episode 15 – Standard Ink

NOTE: This is the final episode in this series. Thank you for reading.

“Hey Potter, you want to grab some coffee?” Alex asked. He had walked up behind me without me noticing it. His scratchy voice startled me. I wheeled around at my workstation and looked at him. He was dressed in a nice suit with crisp cuffs and platinum cuff links. His wavy hair was slicked back. He looked like a mafioso. His shoes were impossibly shiny, so much so that the overhead lights gleamed in them. His smile belied an undercurrent of neediness.

“Sure.”

“Okay, let’s walk down the street. I don’t any of that crap they’re serving downstairs.”

I locked my computer and followed him to the elevators. The tenth floor was quiet. I glanced at Julie’s dark office and wondered if I’d see her before she left for good. Chad’s office sat completely empty. He had wasted no time moving upstairs. I imagined him and his bare desk sitting in the middle of a giant office surrounded by fawning executives and an eager assistant.

Alex and I stood on opposite ends of the empty elevator. I didn’t really feel comfortable standing too close to him. He didn’t say a word. He just stared straight ahead like we were at the urinals in the men’s room. The elevator came to a stop at the fifth floor.

An older gentleman stepped onto the elevator with a familiar box suspended between his arms. I recognized him because he had been featured in the company newsletter not long after I had started at the company. His name was Ronnie Gilmore. He was the longest serving Standard employee. He had been with the company for his entire career, more than 40 years.

Ronnie looked defeated and worried. The bags under his eyes were pronounced, and his jowls sagged as if he had weights hanging from them, but he was dressed nicely in a classic suit that fit him well, and he stood up straight like a Marine. He wore the same close-cropped gray hair that he had sported in the newsletter photo. He gave us a wan smile as he stepped into the elevator. Alex looked askew at him as if he were disgusted. I wanted to say something, ask him how he was doing, but I didn’t know him other than what I had learned in the newsletter. It didn’t feel right to pry, but it was clear what was happening.

Alex and I followed him out the door, and I watched him put his box in the backseat of a old, compact car parked in front of the building. We continued down the street into the bright sunlight.

“Do you know who that was?” I asked. I pointed my thumb behind us.

“Who? The old man?”

I nodded. “That was Ronnie Gilmore.”

“Who’s that?”

“You didn’t see him in the company newsletter a while back?”

Alex shook his head no. I knew the moment I asked that he’d be unlikely to take any interest in anyone other than himself.

“He is or was Standard’s longest serving employee.”

“Guess that’s no longer the case.” Alex smiled as if he made a joke.

“You think he got fired?”

“Probably. Good riddance. We need to get rid of all of the dead weight at Standard. It’s a new company now. How do you think these tech companies are so successful?” He paused a moment as if he wanted an answer, but then he continued. “They don’t hire old people and when their employees get old, they give them the boot. Just walk down the street to the MainTech building. I guarantee you won’t find a person over 40 there except for maybe the security guards. Standard needs youth. That’s why you and I are here.”

Alex smirked at me as he opened the door to The Cup and I coffee shop. It felt wrong, cutting someone like Ronnie loose just because he was old. He’d spent his entire career at Standard and had remained loyal to the end. Where did that get him? Maybe he had a nice pension check coming, but his career ended in a whimper. He didn’t deserve that. Surely, we could have used his experience even if the company was headed into the future. We’d never know because Ronnie was now part of its sordid history.

Alex ordered an incredibly complicated and customized cup of coffee. He talked to the cashier as if she were an idiot. By the time he was finished tallying his demands, I think she wanted to spit in his cup. He paid with his app and walked away without saying thank you. I was extra nice to the young woman as I ordered. I thanked her profusely, attempting to compensate for Alex’s asinine behavior. She smiled as if she were relieved.

When I walked up to Alex at the end of the coffee bar, he said, “I hope these idiots get my order right. They can’t seem to follow simple instructions.” A look of disdain befell his face. I wondered if Alex had any friends or a girlfriend. No one at work liked him as far as I knew. He was always complaining and criticizing. I wondered why I had agreed to have coffee with him.

We stood silently, waiting for our coffees. After the barista put our drinks on the bar, we left the coffee shop and headed back to Standard Tower.

“Just look at Chad’s Exec team. Not a single one of our leaders is over 40 now,” he said, continuing our conversation as if there hadn’t been a large gaping silence since he last spoke. “I think Sabrina is the oldest executive, and she’s 38.”

I looked at him as I took a sip. I had thought that conversation was over.

“Look at you. A young guy in his twenties who’s already a manager of a big group.”

“That’s not official yet.”

“It will be. You won’t pass up the opportunity.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The money is too good. You’re trapped.”

“I’m not trapped.”

“Once you start making good money, you can’t say no. You become stuck. You can’t walk away from it. Do you think I really like working at Standard?” He paused again.

“You’ve been here four years, right?”

He gave me a pained expression. “I have but it’s not because I like it. It’s because the money’s too good. I’d go work for MainTech if I had my druthers.”

“Don’t they pay well?”

“They do, but not as much as I make as a director at Standard. They don’t value my Standard experience as much as Standard does. They’re arrogant. They want people with tech experience, like it’s all that different from any other business.”

I found it ironic that Alex would call someone else arrogant.

“Before you know it, you’ll be here 40 years and they’ll be showing you the door.” I chuckled at my comment, but Alex just smirked.

“Doubtful. I’m not spending 40 years anywhere. Besides, by then, I will be retired to a beach somewhere.”

We were back at Standard Tower. The elevator dinged, and we stepped on without another word between us. I thought about the offer to manage the online team. I hadn’t signed any of the paperwork yet, but Alex was right. The pay was good. I would get almost a 50 percent raise. The bonus was potentially 20 percent of my salary, and the stock awards were icing on the cake. Standard’s stock had soared since the reorganization was announced. I hadn’t heard back from the tech company yet despite the fact that the recruiter had promised a quick response. I was torn. Did I want to stay at Standard? Without Julie? I longed to talk to her. I had sent her an email, but she just replied that we’d talk soon. That was a week ago.

When the elevator opened onto the tenth floor, Alex walked away without even acknowledging that I’d joined him for coffee. He was awkward like that.

The morning passed in a blur with all of the issues I had to address. It seemed we let too many people go as there weren’t enough to get the work done. The vendors on my team struggled to keep up. A text message interrupted my exasperation.

I have the offer in hand. Can we talk?

I looked around the tenth floor like everyone could see the text from the recruiter. A few people sat at their workstations, but no one looked at me. I replied.

I’ll call you in a few. 

I found one of the tiny private rooms with the glass doors and stepped inside. The door clicked shut giving the illusion of total privacy. I dialed the recruiter.

“Travis. I have great news!” she said after I said hello. I had never met the recruiter because she lived in another city, but I imagined a tiny, excitable woman hopped up on coffee or energy drinks. She was a lot to take in a phone conversation because she talked so fast. I wondered if she breathed during conversations.

The company wanted to hire me. The recruiter went through the details. The salary was less than what I’d make if I took the manager role at Standard, but the benefits were better including the stock options, which offered the promise of immense growth if the company continued to do well. I wanted to say yes right there, but I hesitated. I told the recruiter I wanted to think about it. She seemed disappointed. She went into full sales mode telling me all of the great benefits and opportunities I’d have, but I still resisted the urge to say yes immediately. She told me that they’d only wait a couple of days at most, and I promised to give her an answer before then.

I could barely squeeze my ego out of the door of the tiny room. I felt unusually good about myself, better than I had felt when I beat that snotty teenager in that online game a few weeks back. That had felt good. This felt better in an adult sort of way. I thought my dad would be proud. Maybe.

I floated through the rest of the day. I had a hard time focusing on my work. I kept running through the scenarios in my head. I tried to predict my future with each of the options I had before me. I kept coming back to the money. The only reason I’d stay at Standard was because of the salary. Everything else pointed to the tech company. I couldn’t decide if the salary was worth it.

As the office emptied, I sat at my workstation, pretending to work, but I really was just moving things around on a spreadsheet while I thought about my next step.

“I hear congratulations are in order.”

I wheeled around toward her voice and smiled before I could see her face. Julie stood a few feet behind me. She was dressed in her usual impeccable business suit. She exuded confidence and authority despite the fact that her time at Standard was coming to an end.

“Julie, how are you?” I know I sounded fan-boyish, but I didn’t care. I was just so glad to see her.

“I’m fantastic. How’s the new online manager?”

“I haven’t officially taken the role yet, but I’m fine. I haven’t seen you in a while.”

She stepped closer and took a seat in the chair at the workstation next to mine. “It’s been crazy since the announcement. Mr. Rich and I have been working to put all of the pieces in place before we leave.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That you don’t have a job here.”

“Don’t be. It was my decision. Mr. Rich is joining a VC firm downtown, and he asked me if I wanted to stay here or join him, and I opted to join him.”

“Why?”

“I like the excitement of building or changing a company. I’m not cut out for running one long-term. This VC thing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and Mr. Rich and I have worked together for a while. I like working with him. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

She smiled at me and I wanted to lean in and kiss her.

“Look at you, though. You have a great opportunity here. I can’t think of a better person to lead this group.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You don’t like it?”

“I do. I just thought…”

“What?”

“I thought I’d get the chance to work with you.”

She smiled again. “We’ve had a good run here. You’ve learned a lot, and that’s all that matters.”

That wasn’t all that mattered. I looked away, trying to hide my disappointment.

She stood up from the chair and stretched. “I have to get going. I’m meeting Mr. Rich and some of the VC partners for a dinner tonight. I need to grab a few remaining things from my office.”

When I stood up to say goodbye, she stepped toward me and hugged me. I inhaled her, the familiar perfume settling on me like a warm blanket. I wanted to pull back and look into her eyes and kiss her like some scene from a movie, but I knew that wouldn’t be appropriate. We separated like two good friends instead.

“Tomorrow is my last day here. I’m taking a week off before I join the new firm. Maybe we could meet for dinner again this weekend. Nothing fancy like last time.” She smiled at me.

“I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll text you once I know my plans.”

I nodded and she gave me another quick hug before she walked away to her office. I didn’t say anything as she walked out toward the elevators a short time later, but I watched her until she disappeared behind the door to the lobby. My heart sank in the quiet, solitude of the empty office.

I sat there for a moment before I pulled up my email and clicked on the official offer letter for the manager role. I read it a couple of times. The “click here to accept” link glared at the bottom of the email. I clicked it and followed the steps to officially accept the role. Alex was right. I was trapped.

I texted the recruiter. I’m going to stay put for now. Please tell them thank you for the offer. I waited a few minutes for a reply, but nothing came.

On my way out to the elevators, I could still smell Julie’s perfume as if she had left a trail for me to follow. The scent thrilled me, left me wanting more. I didn’t think about my future at Standard or the one I passed up on the way down to the lobby. I just thought of her. I didn’t know where we’d end up, but I had to find out. I hoped I had made the right decision. I hoped for a lot of things.

Episode 14 – Standard Ink

NOTE: Only one more episode left after this one. I hope you have enjoyed reading the series.

When I came back to my workstation after lunch, I had an invite to meet with Chad sitting in my inbox. I clicked accept. Meeting with Chad had become a regular occurrence after I successfully guided the software vendor for the order management system across the finish line. Chad had been so pleased that he made a rare acknowledgment during the weekly team meeting calling me out for helping the project meet a major milestone. I could see why Chad rarely did such things. He wasn’t good at it.

The truth of it all was that I had done very little to help the software vendor. He had hated working for Alex so much that when I took over he was just happy that he didn’t have to deal with Alex anymore. He promptly did more work and did it more quickly than he had ever done it for Alex. Of course, Alex was too self-absorbed to see this. He just assumed that I had had more time to dedicate to the vendor, which helped the project along. Alex really was an ass.

Many of the workstations on the tenth floor sat empty. After the layoffs ended and the company began to settle into its new routines, members of the project team began to move on. Some moved onto other roles at Standard, while others simply left the company. The Path Forward project had been anointed as a roaring success by Mr. Rich. He had proclaimed as much in a video released within the company a few weeks ago. The video had even made it to YouTube where it spawned several parody versions, likely the product of disgruntled former employees.

My phone beeped. A text from a recruiter appeared on my screen: They want you in for a final interview.

I felt a surge of adrenaline course through my veins. I had interviewed for another job at a large tech company across town, and I had made it to the final round. I was so close to landing that job that I could taste it, and I was thrilled at the prospect of walking into Chad’s office and telling him that I was leaving, that I was finished with Standard and its fruitless attempts to join the future. Only the thought of leaving Julie behind dampened my enthusiasm.

I texted back: Thank you! When?

I had connected with the recruiter purely by coincidence. She had accidentally dialed my workstation phone and I had answered. Once she realized I wasn’t who she wanted to talk to, she tried to hang up, but I kept talking, intrigued by her clandestine tone. She asked a few questions, and then, she offered to help me find another job. I didn’t imagine it would turn into anything, but it did, and I had an interview within a few weeks at a forward-thinking company that knew how to treat its employees well. The company had a sterling reputation and its employees were highly sought after by other companies in the city. If I got the job, it would certainly launch my career in the right direction, whatever that was.

Her text pinged on my phone. Can you make it Thursday at 9 AM? Two hours.

I looked at my schedule. I could tell Chad that I had to come in late because of a doctor’s appointment. He’d think nothing of it. I hated lying, but I didn’t know what else to say. I felt awkward, but I confirmed my availability to the recruiter.

I stared at Julie’s empty office. She had made a brief appearance earlier in the morning, but she had left almost as soon as she arrived. Her office sat dark and lonely like it did most of the time. I wondered what she’d say if I got the job at the tech company. Would she try to persuade me to stay? Would I stay for her? I couldn’t answer that question with any confidence.

With all of the things going through my head, the meeting with Chad crept up on me quickly. The notification interrupted my train of thought as I worked on the new procedures for the order management system. I dismissed it three times before I saved my work and trudged to Chad’s office.

He sat ramrod straight at his desk typing on his laptop, which was the only item on his minimalist desk. He glanced up at me. “Travis, have a seat.” His eyes darted to the chairs in front of his desk. He kept typing after I sat down. “Let me finish this thought.” I waited.

“How’s it going?” he asked after he finished typing.

“Good.” I wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. My thoughts wandered back to my work and to the interview coming up in two days. He seemed disappointed in my answer as if he wanted me to say more. He stood up and shut the door to his office. I could feel his eyes on me as he returned to his chair.

“I’ll cut right to the chase. Mr. Rich will be making some announcements today. There will be a big reorganization – lots of changes coming. The project team is being disbanded and absorbed back into the company.”

“What? But we’re not finished.” I felt like the floor to the office had been pulled away from me. Somehow, I hadn’t seen this coming. I knew the project team was only temporary, but I had thought it’d stay in place a while longer.

“We’re mostly there. He wants the new organization to take ownership of the pertinent areas and drive them to completion. He thinks it’s important for the company to congeal around the future rather than have one central team driving it.”

As usual, Chad’s gobbledygook speak made little sense. I brushed his explanation away. “What am I going to do now?”

“That’s the good news.”

“Really? How?”

“I want you to lead our new online group.”

I tried to understand what he was saying, but for some reason my mind drew a blank. I must have given him a confused look because he let out a little laugh and explained it further.

“I need someone who can manage the website and the order management system. You’ve done a great job in both of those areas, and Benji and I agree that you’d be the best person to take on this role.”

I absorbed what he said still trying to overcome my surprise. I wondered why he said he needed someone. He and Benji were consultants. I wondered how much longer they would be around now that the project was being disbanded.

“What exactly does this mean?”

“Well, it means you’d work with the product leads across the company to help them with online sales and inventory management. It’d be a big promotion for you. You’d get a chance to manage people. They’d be vendors, but still it’s management. It’d look good on your resume.”

“Like the software vendor?”

He nodded. “What do you think?”

I thought about the interview I had coming up. “It’s interesting.” I tried to sound upbeat, but my words came out flat.

“You’re a young guy, but you are a digital native, and I think Standard needs someone like you to lead this. It would be a substantial pay increase plus you’d be eligible for a bonus.”

“How much?”

“We can discuss the details after the announcement this afternoon. Is this something you want to do?”

I thought for a moment, wondering if I should wait to agree to this after my interview, but I didn’t want to raise any suspicions. “Sure.”

Chad slumped back in his chair. His enthusiasm escaped him like a balloon losing air. “I was hoping for a little more excitement.” He smiled wanly.

“Sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.”

“I understand. It’s been crazy around here. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” That was his way of dismissing me. I sat in the comfy chair for a bit longer.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday morning, so I will be coming in a bit late.”

“No problem. Thanks for letting me know.” His eyes lingered on me for a moment just enough to make me begin to perspire. He returned his focus to the laptop on his desk and began typing. I stood up and left his office, relieved that I had put my excuse in place for Thursday.

Almost an hour later, an email from Mr. Rich popped into my inbox with a little exclamation point next to it declaring its importance as if Mr. Rich needed to highlight the importance of his emails. He rarely sent company-wide emails. The subject read, “The Path Forward Continues”. I rolled my eyes as I clicked it open.

I had expected more trite rah-rah encouragement from Mr. Rich before he got to the meat of the message that Chad mentioned in our meeting, but Mr. Rich uncharacteristically opened with a bang announcing that he was leaving the company because he had accomplished what he had come to do. He said that the Path Forward team had been a huge success and he thanked all of us for leading the company forward.

I stopped reading for a moment to absorb what he said. The company suddenly felt rudderless with Mr. Rich leaving. I had no personal connection with him; I’d only met him once, and I certainly didn’t feel any sadness about his impending absence, but it felt like the floor beneath me had suddenly become very shaky. Who would fill the void left by Mr. Rich and hold this organization together? Julie?

I continued reading. I tried to skim ahead to get the answer, but the jumble of words made no sense, so I paused to gather myself and start again, reading slowly to absorb the message. I think I audibly gasped as I read it. Chad would become the new CEO of Standard, the Executive team would be reorganized around products, and many of the existing executives were leaving the company, including Julie.

I sat back in my chair, stunned. I glanced at Julie’s dark office. I wanted to talk to her, understand why this was happening. She’d given me no warning this was coming. I couldn’t separate her from Standard, yet she was leaving the company, leaving me.

I finished the email where Mr. Rich mostly thanked a bunch of people I didn’t know. He didn’t say where he was going, and most importantly, he didn’t give any clues about what Julie was going to do now that she was leaving Standard. I deleted the email.

I had some more work to do for the software vendor, but I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I looked at the last email I received from Julie. Her signature line included her cell phone number. I considered calling her cell phone. I even picked up the phone at my workstation and dialed the first three numbers of her line, but I changed my mind and hung up the phone. She didn’t owe me anything, not even an explanation. I desperately wanted one, but she didn’t owe it to me.

I thought about Chad’s offer to lead the online group. I wondered how much the pay increase would be, but I also wondered if it’d be worth it to work here without Julie. She was the only reason I came here and the only reason I stayed. The interview on Thursday represented a fork in the road for me. That would help me decide. Part of me wanted to leave now and put all of it behind me, but I thought of that night at Stratosphere, and I couldn’t let it go. I logged out of my computer and gathered my things to leave. I had to get out of the office. Maybe a few hours of Xbox would clear my mind.