A Life Unlived

It’s nearing that time of the year where I think about what I accomplished in the past 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the new year. We’ll begin a new decade in just a little over a month, which has me thinking about the big picture. One thing I’ve realized is that, despite being on this planet for almost half a century, I haven’t really lived because I’ve missed out on some things that are the hallmark of a well-lived life.

For instance, I’ve never engaged in a fight over a chicken sandwich. Popeye’s has been in the news lately just as much for its customers getting physical as it has for the taste of its revamped chicken sandwich. I’ve never even stepped foot in a Popeye’s much less popped a fellow fast-food customer because they landed the last of the sandwiches available. I feel like I’m missing something, and I’m not talking about the indigestion likely to be had from a greasy fast-food sandwich. Maybe I’ll swing by Popeye’s today and look for an opportunity to join in the fisticuffs. That will surely make me feel like I’ve truly lived.

I’ve never spent the better part of my day arguing online with someone or something (in the case of the many bots that populate the online world). I’ve always taken the perspective that I have better things to do, but do I really? Have I truly lived if I haven’t tasted the victory of overcoming a half-baked argument from an ill-informed or ill-advised person/bot? I can’t say that I have. How much of a man am I if I haven’t verbally bludgeoned a 12-year-old boy who spouted off a few trigger words on Twitter? I have my doubts.

I’ve never breathlessly followed every move of reality TV stars. The problem is that I wouldn’t recognize most of them if they walked through my front door right now. Recognition aside, think of all of the drama I’ve missed from not knowing that so-and-so is on her fourth boyfriend after she caught the last one cheating with her best friend’s mother’s dog’s veterinarian? I’d get dizzy just trying to figure that out. I’m not sure what reality these people represent but I’m in full FOMO mode here. I’m headed over to Instagram right now to add these people (who are they again?) to my feed.

It’s disappointing to look back on my life and realize I’ve missed out on the things that make a life worthwhile. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I fell asleep in school when the teachers talked about the need to resort to physical violence when you don’t get what you want. It’s not too late. I can make up for lost time. See you at Popeye’s.

The Curious Case of the Headless Snowman

Years ago, when my daughter was still a little girl, I took her into a Starbucks so that I could grab a coffee. As kids are wont to do, she lingered by the bakery case eyeing the sweets that lined the lower shelf. The countdown to Thanksgiving and Christmas had already begun, so Starbucks had reintroduced their snowman sugar cookies, and she wanted one. I caved and bought her one, which made her positively giddy. The sugar high will do that to a kid.

A few weeks later, I was in the drive-through at Starbucks (I’m sensing a pattern here) ordering a coffee (go figure) when my daughter chimed in from the back seat that she wanted another snowman cookie. Apparently, she’d found her favorite thing at Starbucks. I obliged and pulled around to the pickup window. After the cashier handed me my coffee and the cookie, I looked back at my daughter who eagerly extended her arms toward me indicating she wanted her cookie. I looked at her and smiled, and then, I bit the head off of the cookie.

I meant it as a joke, but my daughter gave me that mixed look of aggravation and disgust that I may or may not have received from her mother once before (okay, maybe a few times). She was mostly stunned. I had taken a presumptuous bite of her glorious treat, and she wasn’t happy. She didn’t cry, but when I handed her the headless snowman, she looked like I had put a lump of coal in her stocking. She stared into the paper wrapper, and then, she took the maimed cookie out and looked at it like she couldn’t eat it now that it had been disfigured. I laughed and made a comment about the “Daddy tax,” that overwrought go-to dad example meant to teach our kids about paying taxes. My daughter wasn’t too upset to eat the rest of the cookie. In fact, she recovered enough to laugh it off. She dismissed me as her silly daddy.

A few weeks later when she asked for another snowman cookie, she eagerly anticipated my response. I bit the head off again and she laughed heartily as if I had told a hilarious joke. My son even got into it because I did the same thing to him. He followed her lead and giggled about it as well. It became our thing during the holiday season. They’d ask for snowman cookies, and I’d bite the heads off before I gave them to them.

The snowman cookies returned to Starbucks recently, so I swung by and picked up a couple of them after work one night for my now teenage kids. I handed each of them the familiar Starbucks paper wrapper when I got home. They were smiling even before they looked inside the wrapper because they knew what I had done. My daughter plucked the headless snowman from the package and laughed. She knows she can always depend on me for a bad dad joke and a headless snowman cookie. I don’t get many smiles from my teenagers nowadays, but sometimes, an old bit does the trick.

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Two Frames

Years ago, my wife bought me two 5″x7″ picture frames so that I could put pictures of the kids on my desk at work. I’ve carried these frames everywhere I’ve been over the years from Seattle to Beijing, back to Seattle, and now to Atlanta. They’ve been the two constants in my decidedly minimalist offices through the years.

Since the kids started school, I’ve used these frames to hold their annual school pictures, so each fall when the kids bring their official photos home, I cut my copy from the stiff photo sheet and take it to work to replace last year’s photo in the frame. Since I can’t bear to part with pictures of the kids, I usually flip over the last photo and put the new photo on top squishing all of the past photos into the frame. While everyone else sees just the most recent photo, I know there are several years’ worth of photos lurking behind the glass.

The majority of the pictures I have of the kids are in digital form. I have tens of thousands of digital photos saved and backed up in multiple places so that nothing short of the apocalypse could destroy my treasure trove of pictures. These kids have just about every angle of their childhoods covered in photographic evidence. As they have become teenagers, the accumulation of pictures of them has slowed dramatically. If I can get my son to appear in a photo, it’s unlikely he will smile for it. He’s perfected the resting bitch face that’s indicative of being photographed by his dorky dad.

If I’m feeling sentimental, which happens quite frequently as I’ve gotten older, I’ll click on one of my photo folders and flip back in time. Some pictures make me wonder where all of the time has gone. Surely it hasn’t been that long ago since my now teenage daughter used to run from any corner of the house when she heard the theme to Dora the Explorer play on the TV. Maybe it has been a while. Somewhere in my aging mind time has been compressed or truncated so that two points separated by a vast number of days appear seemingly close together. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

Last week, my son finally remembered to bring his school pictures home so that I could have a physical copy of the true marker of time. For this picture he managed something that resembled a smile or a smirk. I’m not sure which it was, but at this point I don’t care as long as I have my picture. I dutifully cut it from the photo sheet and took it to work for the ceremonial flip of the photo in the frame on my desk.

When I cracked open the back of the picture frame, the photos from prior years spilled out onto my desk. One of them from several years ago landed right side up on my desk, and I was struck by the little boy staring back at me. Unlike his current photos, he had a big, jovial smile in this one. His face still had the round fleshiness of childhood. I shuffled through all of the photos and laid them out in chronological order. I could see the transformation from little boy to young man. For some reason, I felt like I had lost something. I had lost track of time. I had blinked and something happened that I didn’t want to happen.

I stared at the pictures for a moment before I gathered them up and put them back in the frame with only the mirthless teenager staring back at me through the shiny glass. Somewhere back in the annals of time is a baby who took ten hours to arrive, a toddler who used to do a funky little dance while he sang “Elephants Have Wrinkles,” a little boy who once jumped into my arms with joy when I returned from a long business trip, and a little boy who’d get so upset when he got water in his eyes during a bath or swim lessons that he spawned a phrase that his mother and I still use to this day. Those memories make me happy. I’m still undecided about the smirking teenager.

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.

 

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.