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.

 

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 tapeĀ  (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.

The Ups and Downs

Since I’m a runner, it probably comes as no surprise that I see running as analogous to life itself. I’ve been a runner for over 27 years, which is practically all of my adult life. I’ve seen some really good highs and disappointing lows in that time, much like I have in my life in general. The funny thing is that running has a symbiotic relationship to my broader life, an enhancer when things are going well and an antidote when they’re not.

When someone asks why I run, I tell them it’s like a habit similar to brushing your teeth. Once you get into the habit, it feels odd when you don’t do it. There have been a few extended periods in my running life when I couldn’t run as a result of injury, and not only did it feel weird to me, but I also felt like an animal in a cage, which made me irritable and semi-depressed. When I saw someone running during these interludes, I felt a strong surge of envy. Essentially, running is an addiction, a natural drug you’re not sure you should be on, and if you see someone else doing it, you want to do it too.

Needless to say, those moments when I couldn’t run were definite downers, but there have been other moments where I felt like I was headed for a trough. Getting older hasn’t helped. I’ve had to retrain myself to be thankful that I’m still running and hope to be able to run until the final curtain call rather than focus on beating my last personal best. I likely won’t beat my best mile time ever again, and many of my other personal bests seem to be slipping further from possibility.

In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced something of a running roller coaster. I ran a decent 5K time on one weekend and promptly ran my worst marathon time in nine years the following weekend. A few days later I managed to run my second best time ever in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, a race I’ve run 16 times. Talk about ups and downs.

No matter how my running life proceeds it has often inoculated me from the other ups in downs in my life, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m not sure how I would weather those storms otherwise. As a case in point, my career has been on a sideways trajectory for several years now, which has been an irritating and major disappointment for me. I’m just not where I want to be at this stage in my life. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Every runner knows there’s always the next race, and as a marathoner, I know you can’t let the middle distract you from the finish. I’m glad I have running to keep me grounded.

It’s Been a While

I’m back in Seattle this week for the first time in over two years. The kids and I are rediscovering some of our favorite spots in the area and meeting up with some of the good friends we left behind two years ago. It’s been too long to be away from the place I consider home. My kids were born here, and my wife and I have some of our favorite memories here – more than half of our life together has been spent in Seattle.

There are many reasons that Seattle is my favorite place to be. The temperate climate and the unsurpassed natural beauty of the region are a couple of the my most cited reasons. I can’t say I’m missing the dreadful heat and humidity I left behind in Atlanta. I’ve run some of my favorite trails and taken some long evening walks without feeling like I have been dragged through a swamp.

It’s not just the natural beauty that makes me pine for Seattle. It gets a lot grief for the Seattle freeze from outsiders with misplaced opinions, but I find the area to be congenial and welcoming. I feel at home here. I’d much rather have that perceived coolness than fake friendliness and myopic judgment often found in far less appealing places. The zeitgeist here suits me just fine, too. I suffer less from cognitive dissonance in Seattle. I can’t say the same for many other places.

Seattle, it’s been a while. I’m going to enjoy my week here, and I promise not so much time will pass until the next time I come back to see you again.

I Think I Understand

Another Father’s Day has come and gone, the fifth one without my dad. The first year without him was really tough, and each successive year has been a stark reminder that I can’t call him and wish him a happy Father’s Day.

We’d have a lot to talk about right now. The Braves are playing great, but both of us know that getting too high on June baseball standings is like celebrating a win in the fourth inning of a game. You just don’t do it. We’d both agree we’d get more excited come September because the inevitable August swoon has killed many playoff hopes, especially for Braves fans. There aren’t many people who want to hear me drone on about the Braves, but Dad did. Our relationship was like that.

As the years have passed, I’ve tried to put my dad into the context of our lives together, to understand him on a level that I wasn’t necessarily capable of when he was alive. Looking back, the ending seemed so abrupt, like walking out in the middle of a conversation, but the truth is that I had the enviable luxury of saying goodbye. Most people don’t get that with their parents. Despite that luxury, it’s not any easier.

Dad was from a generation on the other side of the Baby Boomers. He went to work, came home to a meal that he expected my mom to cook, and often went to bed shortly afterwards. He was never a conversationalist. He didn’t spend much time with his sons outside of weekend errands and family visits. I have faint memories of him throwing the baseball with me and shooting baskets in our driveway on a few occasions, but once my brothers were old enough to do these things, Dad never joined us. He expected us to be quiet during his many naps on the weekend. I swear the man slept for half of my childhood.

I can remember being disappointed when Dad went to take a nap. I felt like he didn’t want to be around us. I didn’t understand it then, and maybe I don’t really understand it now, but I think Dad suffered from depression, and his way of dealing with it was to sleep it away. His life wasn’t exactly easy. He worked a dreary job for over 30 years, a job he hated but kept out of necessity to support his family. Even with the job, he was under constant financial duress, which is enough to drive anyone over the edge. The recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s left him unemployed for four years, and he never recovered from that. He had few choices in his life, nor did he have the drive to make the changes to get himself to a better place. He just curled up in his bed and hoped in vain that things would change or at least that his problems would magically go away.

After logging three decades as an adult myself, I can understand. Life likes to sucker punch you every once in a while. Disappointments outnumber wonderful surprises. It’s rare for things to turn out exactly how you envision them. It’s enough to make anyone want to crawl into bed and ignore the realities raining down on them. I personally prefer to punch back, and it bothers me that Dad never did. I can understand being down for the moment, but spending your entire adult life that way makes no sense unless you suffer from chronic depression.

Dad never discussed such things. He rarely let go of any emotion or opened up about how he felt or why he behaved the way he did. He never offered any explanation. To be fair, I never asked either. Those questions were too painful to speak out loud. There were times when I wanted to scream aloud my frustrations with him, but I bit my tongue. He was my father. I loved him dearly, and some lines you just don’t cross. Instead, I just try to understand and be thankful for what we had. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

 

 

The Time That We Lose

Yesterday, my wife and I dropped our son, our youngest, off at a week-long overnight camp on a local college campus. As we were walking back to our car, we had a flash forward moment. In five very short (and I’m sure very fast) years, we’ll be doing this for real. The realization was unsettling. In adult land, five years is not very long.

Every parent wants his children to grow up into healthy, independent adults. It’s what we work so hard on as parents. Everything we do is geared toward that goal. It’s a bumpy and treacherous road because few things go as planned, and quite frankly, some days you wonder if you’ve failed miserably at the one job you have as a parent, but there are so many wonderful, beautiful moments that wipe away any fear of failure you have. In those moments, time seems to stand still briefly, and you know it’s all worth it because if this isn’t, nothing is.

It’s those moments that we treasure so much. Over the years, I’ve taken pictures of some of those moments, and others just reside in my treasure chest of memories. I remember the first time my infant daughter (my oldest) grabbed my finger and looked at me like she really saw me for the first time. My heart melted in that moment and I knew then that I’d do anything for that little girl. She will always have that hold on me. I remember when I came home from my first long business trip when the kids were toddlers. I had arrived in the middle of the night. The next morning, I woke up before the kids and when my son finally came down the stairs and saw me he jumped from the last few stairs into my arms because he was so happy to see me. You don’t get those moments back, but they fill your heart with such joy that it runs over.

Before you know it, those sweet, little kids that once followed you every step of the way outgrow you. They no longer need (or want) you around. It’s a perverse thing in that you want them to grow up, but you don’t. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze time in those joyous moments with the kids and keep things as they are because I know that the next moment will come too soon. It’s all that time we lose that bothers me. In our hectic daily lives, time just slips away. The moments pass like the slightest murmur in the night.

I like to think I’m ready for the time when my kids pass into adulthood, but the truth is that I probably won’t be. I’ll be happy and sad at the same time, but I will always have those memories.