Living, Not Existing

My daughter and I had a great discussion this weekend, one of many that we’ve had over the years. I sometimes forget she’s only 13 until I put her and her brother in the same room. It started with an article about the 76-year-old who recently completed the Western States 100 trail race in under 30 hours becoming the oldest finisher of the grueling race. It’s a feat when a young person completes the race, but for a septuagenarian it’s downright miraculous. I can only admire the man and his determination, but mostly, I respect that he’s living life vs. simply existing.

This gets the crux of the conversation that I had with my budding philosophic teenager. One of the my favorite aphorisms that I’m constantly repeating to the kids is that if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not growing. There’s a corollary to this that I don’t share, and that’s if you’re not growing, you might as well be dead. I save that morose offshoot for myself because, let’s face it, I don’t want to depress the kids; I just want them to make the most of their talents (and move out and get off the parental dole), but there’s a whole lot of truth to that corollary.

I see it all the time – people who are just there floating in space like a jellyfish waiting for something to happen to them rather than making things happen for themselves. They’re quick to bemoan the perception that they’re a victim of some unseen force and slow (if ever) to see how their lives are a collection of their own decisions. This gets to another aphorism that I push onto my kids: you are the result of your own decisions. Don’t blame anyone or anything else; it just makes you look dumb. It’s safe to say I don’t adopt the jellyfish persona.

During our conversation about the oldest finisher in Western States history, my daughter said, “that sounds like something you’ll be doing when you’re that age in a few years.” I forgave her for conflating 30 years into such a short time frame. While I don’t know if I’ll ever want to attempt the Western States, I do know that I will never get to the point of sitting around and waiting to die, and that’s really all simply existing is. I don’t understand that mentality. As long as I wake up each morning, I’m going to make the most of it. I’m certainly not going to waste time doing pointless things, staring into space without a meaningful thought in my head, or imagining all of the terrible things that could happen should I try to live my life.

If my kids are clear on anything, it’s that my wife and I intend to make the most of the the years ahead. They’ll be lucky if they can keep up with us. We’ll become a veritable game of Where’s Waldo once they move out. I have no intention of allowing the moss to grow under us. Life must be lived. Simply existing isn’t an option for me. Now, about that Western States race…

 

Mr. Big Nose

Several years ago, my family and I lived in China for a while. A job opportunity landed us in Beijing as I had taken an expatriate assignment with my employer at the time. There’s nothing more challenging from a personal and professional perspective than plopping yourself in the middle of a very different culture, especially if you don’t speak the language. The trials and tribulations of everyday life felt overwhelming at first, but gradually, we adjusted. You can’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself, so it’s safe to say, we grew a lot those three years. I learned a lot about myself, the most of important of which is that I have a big nose.

I’d never really regarded my nose as particularly large. Growing up, when I looked around me, everyone had similar-sized noses, so I never ascribed much stature to my nose. Sure, I saw some people who were considered to have rather large noses that were described as hawk-like, maybe in an admirable way, or elephantine, in an unkind way, but these folks were the exceptions rather than the rule. My nose was rather pedestrian. I could easily see around it, and in fact, I had to angle my eyes inward quite a bit to even see it without looking in a mirror. When I did use a mirror, I often looked straight on into it rather than at a profile, so I didn’t pay particular attention to my out-sized snout.

Just as it’s hard to see crutch words (can you find them in this post?) in your writing, it’s difficult to see aberrant personal features when you’re surrounded by similar people. Drop yourself into a different culture and suddenly those features stand out like a black sheep in a flock of white ones. In China, my prodigious beak looked like I could audition for the main role in Pinocchio. It became readily apparent, oddly enough, when my time there was nearly finished. As a goodbye gift, I received a caricature statue of my family from my coworkers. As is common with caricatures, they exaggerate the most prominent features of their subjects. The tiny statues of my wife and kids looked pretty normal, but when I saw mine, I was struck by how it looked like a tiny person attached to a giant nose.

It’s easy to laugh at the statue as an overwrought exaggeration of a heretofore unknown physical abnormality, but it also drives home the importance of perspective, which is something that makes writing (and reading for that matter) so interesting and enjoyable. As a writer, I get to step into someone else’s perspective and try it on for size. I attempt to see the world through his or her eyes. It doesn’t mean I get it right, but for once, I step outside my own view of the world and look at it in a different way, and much like the challenge of adapting to a very different culture, it helps me grow, and hopefully, it helps my readers grow. That’s the true value in a good story. It expands the mind beyond what is merely possible by being who and where you are. That’s the kind of growth I like, the kind unrelated to my snout.

Postscript: Only my wife can call me Big Nose. To everyone else, it’s Mr. Big Nose.  

For the Thrill of It

The summer vacation season has come to an end, and I wrapped it up with my daughter as we spent a few days at Cedar Point, an amusement park jam-packed with thrilling roller coasters. Not only was this a chance to relive a few moments from my own childhood when I traipsed through an amusement park with my cousins, it was also an opportunity to have some valuable one-on-one time with my oldest child, who isn’t really a child anymore. In between the rides and bites of what amounts to nothing more than carnival-style food, we chatted about anything and everything from TV shows to books to life in general.

As the kids get older, I can feel time slipping away. Their orbit around my wife and me is expanding and the gravitational pull that once held us tightly together has weakened. They are finding their own path, slowly but surely, and it no longer depends on us. In many ways, this is rewarding, but in other ways, it’s sad, an end of a phase of our lives that we never thought would end. When you have kids, you throw your whole being into it. You give yourself up entirely. The love you feel for them is all-consuming. It’s like running a long race that you can never finish.

So, I try to find ways to reconnect, to relate, knowing that it will fall short because the relationship between parents and teenagers is meant to be angst-filled, a dramatic, slow-motion removal of a sticky bandage. My kids are very different from each other and relating to them requires different approaches. My son is testing out his masculinity, expressed through mindless video games that I no longer get, but I listen to him prattle on about them even if it doesn’t resonate just to hear the sound of his voice. My daughter, cerebral and wise well beyond her years, requires a different approach. We bond over books, writing, running and solving the injustices in the world. Her thoughts and conversations can be very deep, but sometimes, I get a glimpse of the little girl I once knew when I see her watching Moana on her phone.

Many years ago when my daughter was much younger, we were at Disney World, and she had just passed the height requirement to ride Space Mountain. That ride happens to be the first ride I ever rode at Disney World, and while it’s not particularly strenuous by today’s thrill ride standards, it’s aggressive for a young kid. I was worried about how she would handle the ride, but she was so gung-ho about it and so excited to ride a big kid roller coaster that I couldn’t say no, so we rode it together. She sat behind me in the ride, and the whole time I kept my hand on her leg both to comfort her and me. At the end of the ride, she practically giggled with delight. She enjoyed it so much, and I enjoyed it, too, more so because of the sheer joy it brought to her. I bought the in-ride picture they took of us on the coaster to commemorate the event. In the picture we’re both smiling from ear-to-ear and her wild hair flutters in her wake. It’s how I always picture her as a little girl, my little daredevil.

A few years later, I took her to Six Flags outside Los Angeles on a daddy-daughter trip, and we spent the whole day riding some serious roller coasters including Goliath. She was fearless, tackling each ride with the gusto that made me proud. Hearing her squeal with excitement and react in amazement at what she just did made my day. I’ll never forget the look on her face as we careened around corners on Goliath, an expression of youthful fearlessness and hesitant excitement. With each return to a coaster terminal, she expressed her desire to do it again. Daredevil indeed.

As such, it seemed only fitting that we’d return to our shared love of thrill rides one more time this past week. We descended upon Cedar Point late Saturday afternoon expecting a packed house, but we happened upon a lull in the crowds because the weather had been suspect. We managed to ride almost all of the coasters in a five-hour span starting with Wicked Twister and ending with The Raptor. As we walked out of the park that first night, the adrenaline still pumping from all of the rides, we talked about what we’d ride the next day. I caught a glimpse of that little girl I remember so well from Space Mountain. She’s changed a lot since then, but some things never change.

Volcanic Kick

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

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

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

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Oia as seen from Nea Kameni

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

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

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The view atop Nea Kameni (also called New Burnt)

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

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

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Silvestri Crater on Mt. Etna

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

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

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

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

Restless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World We Must See

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

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

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

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

Who Is Buster McElroy?

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

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

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

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

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

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