14 Remain

On Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to beautiful Burlington, Vermont to run the Vermont City Marathon. Despite the warm temperatures, I enjoyed the race and finished within the time I expect nowadays. Vermont marked my 40th state in the quest to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turn 50 years old in December 2020. I started this quest around my 40th birthday, so I’ve been running marathons regularly for almost nine years. It’s been equal parts thrilling and frustrating because just when I think I’ve cracked the code on running these things time and gravity conspire to do a number on me.

There was a time in early 2014 after I suffered an ankle injury when I feared I’d never make it this far. It took a long time to recover from that injury, and I didn’t run a marathon for over a year after that. Truthfully, I haven’t been the same since. My right ankle still gives me fits nowadays, but we’re like an old married couple in that we bicker and ignore each other hoping that the issue just goes away. I still don’t fully trust the bastard because he’s always looking for an excuse not to run.

Despite my love-hate relationship with my right ankle, I’m still running and I’m on track to finish my goal before I turn 50 unless the right ankle reads this and reacts in a pure fit of spite. Stranger things have happened.

Friends ask me what’s next after I finish the 50 states. Well, I won’t be quite done with marathons at that point. I’d like to run a marathon on every continent as well. I’ve already run one on four continents, so what’s three more, right? Also, there’s the small matter of Washington, D.C. It’s not a state, but it seems weird to leave it out if you’re going to claim you’ve run marathons all over the U.S. By my count, that means I have ten marathons left for the remaining states plus another one in D.C. I need to race in Australia, South America, and Antarctica to finish off the continents. That leaves 14 marathons to go. That’d put me at 62 for my career, and that’s just enough for me.

After that I’ll hang up my marathon running shoes and retire to running 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Those distances accrue less abuse to the body, and let’s face it, if I’ve learned anything from this marathon challenge, it’s that I’m not getting any younger.

 

My Favorite Thing

I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past 25 years. I’ve been all over the world and have visited most of the states in the United States (only New Hampshire and Maine remain untouched by my feet). One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in a new place is to walk around and see what there is to be seen. In some cases, it’s nothing much, but in others, I usually discover some interesting sights and learn more about the local area than I otherwise would if I just drove around.

What I consider walkable is probably a bit wider radius than most people would entertain. If it’s within a three-mile radius, I’m walking it. Of course, I could rent a car or take an Uber, but it’s hard to see things when you’re driving or speeding by in an Uber. You can’t really see a place until you slow down enough to actually look at it. Although my walking pace is brisk, I never miss an opportunity to stop and explore. I have hundreds of pictures on my phone to prove it.

I’ve done this just about everywhere I’ve been. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I do remember traveling with a former coworker back at the start of my career. We worked together at a paper products company and it seemed that every location we traveled to was as dull as a butter knife, but she wanted to go out and explore it nonetheless. I remember a trip to Phillips, Wisconsin, which is barely a dust speck on the map, where we discovered a park full of sculptures made from cement and broken glass. It was odd and seemingly puerile but interesting much like many oddball roadside attractions scattered across the U.S.

We drove to a lot of places, but we also walked a lot too, and since then, I’ve always enjoyed a walking tour no matter where I am. I learn so much about a city or town when I walk it. I can almost form the map of the town in my head. I can drop down into the middle of anywhere and get a good feel for the streets just by walking around. It’s fun to see how everything is connected and then expand my reach from there.

This weekend I’m in Burlington, Vermont, which is a place I’ve never been to before. I arrived late last night, so I didn’t get to see much then, but after breakfast this morning, I walked a few miles snaking through the town center and meandering through the myriad shops. Afterwards, I walked down to Lake Champlain and strolled across the bike path at the waterfront. Later, I took a walk up the hill from the lake and visited the University of Vermont’s beautiful campus, which was erected in 1791 when the U.S. wasn’t even 20 years old. The campus architecture is phenomenal and particularly picturesque on a gorgeous spring day.

I’m only here for a couple of days, but after walking through so much of the town, I feel like I know it or at least I have learned enough about it to keep it in my memory. That’s why walking a town is one of my favorite things to do.

Legacy

This past weekend I, along with my family and brother, moved my mom to a new place. It’s much smaller than the old place, but plenty big enough for one person. Most importantly, the place is on a single level, which removes the danger presented by the steep staircase in her old place. When my kids were babies, I worried about their ability to maneuver stairs safely, but I had thought little about stairs since. Now that my mom is old, I can see how they present a serious obstacle for her. You really do come full circle in life.

My mom, who has had little change in her life or little that she has acknowledged, does not deal with change well at all. Her life-long battle with anxiety has become more pronounced in her later years. The smallest disruption to her daily routine can cause a tsunami of anxiety, so moving from one place, even if it’s one she’s only lived in for five years, to another just a few miles down the road provokes all sorts of hand-wringing. In the weeks since I told her she was moving, I’ve worked to quell her anxiety and assure her that my brother and I would take care of everything. That didn’t stop the worrying or the countless phone calls fretting over the impending move.

By the time moving day arrived, the tension was as thick as the fog rolling off the Golden Gate bridge on a chilly morning except not as peaceful nor as pleasant. In the weeks prior to the move, my brother and I had worked with my mom to winnow down her belongings. She’s something of a pack rat. She rarely throws anything away or donates things she doesn’t use even if they haven’t been used in years. Surprisingly, she seemed willing to turn a new leaf and had committed to sorting through her stuff to relieve the load quite a bit. We threw stuff away and made multiple trips to Goodwill, but come moving day, the amount of stuff still seemed overwhelming.

We had packed up most of her things the night before, but even the few things that remained unpacked seemed endless. A closet that didn’t seem so big the night before became an endless pile of stuff that stretched over the decades. Cabinets and drawers that seemed fairly innocuous in their contents felt like one of those circus clown cars where clowns keep coming out one after another. What seemed liked one more load became two or three more loads. By the end of the day, we were all tired down to our bones.

The hardest part of the move wasn’t even the physical labor or the jockeying about what to do with yet another unused kitchen item among the endless sea of unused kitchen items. It was the small things that reminded me of Dad. His watch, the one he received for working 30 years at Ford, almost reduced me to tears. The jacket he wore forever, tucked away in a closet, no longer had that familiar aftershave smell that rekindled memories from my childhood. I couldn’t even bear to open the garment bag that held his National Guard uniform. His presence and his legacy had been reduced to these inanimate things. Moving them or considering what to do with them felt like desecrating his memory.

A day that was physically exhausting quickly became one that was emotionally exhausting as well. As I lay in bed that night, before I quickly succumbed to sleep, I thought about how we will all be reduced to the things we leave behind. Our legacy will persist in those few things that only matter to a very few, and those few will hold in their hearts the memories of us that matter most to them. My dad’s legacy lives on within us. Sometimes, I fear it has faded too much, but then, I’m reminded he’s still there.

Back at It

The holidays were a little more than disruptive to my writing. While I continued to write as much as I could, there was just too much going on to be fully immersed as I had been for much of the year. Now that the new year has turned and we’re getting back to our regular routines, I’m hoping to return my focus to the stories that I’ve been working on for the past few months.

My writing goals this year are very simple in terms of concept. I want to finish The Things We Cannot Keep and I want to attend the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Given everything else going on, I can’t imagine doing much more than that without spreading myself hopelessly thin. In between all of this, I’ll continue posting to this blog including the remaining episodes of the serials I started last year – Donna Quixote and Standard Ink.

Toward the end of last year, I reduced the noise and distractions that constantly begged for my attention by eliminating many of my social media accounts except Instagram and Twitter. I reduced the frequency of my posting and checking on these accounts. I did this to reclaim so much time I had lost to pointless frittering online. This has tightened up my routine and re-routed a lot more of my time in the morning to actually writing and/or reading, which are far more important than the latest viral videos.

Speaking of reading, I’ve done a lot more of that since I reduced my social media activities. I read 14 books last year including a new all-time favorite in Where the Crawdads Sing. I had a great reading year thanks to many wonderful authors who continue to release excellent work. I’m looking forward to releases from some of my favorite authors this year including Robert Dugoni’s latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and I’m glad to be back at it. Here’s to a happy, healthy 2019! Let’s get this year started!

My New Favorite Book

Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about¬†Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.

A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’¬†Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.

The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.

I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.

The Long Game

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As a writer I can appreciate the importance of patience and perseverance. I can think of no other field where these traits are needed more than in writing. I joke that you don’t become a writer to boost your confidence unless you’re a masochist because writing is the field where confidence comes to die. Let’s face it, the arts are subjective no matter how you slice it. One person’s masterpiece is another’s worthless junk. That’s just the way it is. The only thing that separates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one is the ability to stay in the game long enough to get read by an audience larger than your beta readers.

While I’m still working toward that goal myself, I’m no stranger to the long game. Over eight years ago, I set a goal to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turned 50 years old. On my 48th birthday on Saturday, I finished my 36th state when I crossed the finish line at the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware. It’s been a long and challenging journey to this point, but I can almost see the big finish line now that I’m within 14 states of completing my goal.

This journey has not been without its challenges. Training for and running a marathon is no small feat when you’re just an average Joe runner with a family and a day job who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Luckily, writing and running are somewhat symbiotic since I find myself with hours of time to think about something other than the fact that my feet are pounding the trail. I’ve worked through many a plot twist while running, and creative lightning has struck more than a few times in mid-run. Thankfully.

Nevertheless, this journey across the 50 states has required copious amounts of patience and perseverance just like my writing journey has. I’ve improved, regressed, and improved again. I’ve had good times in races (hello, Georgia Marathon) and bad ones (yikes, Route 66 Marathon) just like I’ve had good and bad times in my writing. There have been times when I thought I’d have to quit these journeys. In 2014, I suffered an Achilles injury that luckily did not require surgery but has hampered me since. I didn’t know if I would make it back to the marathon level, but I did. I kept going, and now, I’m at 36 states. Here at the end of 2018, I’m no further along in my writing journey than I was in 2012 when this all began, but I’m going to keep moving forward. I feel compelled to do so because just like that elusive 2:55 marathon time, I think I can be a writer.

The good thing about my running goals is that I have concrete race finish times to track my progress. Finishing is the goal. I have a medal board with a map of the U.S. (pictured above) that lets me see my progress at any point. I like having this physical reminder of where I’m at and where I want to be. I wish there were something similar for my writing goals, but often, there’s nothing more than silence. I won’t let this deter me. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I certainly won’t stop now.

Awakening

The ambient light filtered through my bedroom windows in the dark of the early morning. A street light and a lone outdoor light fought the darkness not far from the corner of my house. To my gaping irises, the light seemed impossibly bright, enough to give shape to the furniture in the bedroom.

I raised my wrist toward my face and my watch brightened displaying the time: 3:10 A.M. Normally, I’d be in deep sleep at this time, but my brain had things to say and it wanted an audience. I tried to shush it, but it kept insisting that these words could not wait. I turned one way and then another as if the position of my body would lull my brain to some semblance of sleep, but it remained adamant that I listen. A few more tosses and turns made me wonder if I should get up and start my day, but my body pleaded with me to stay put.

I rolled over on my back and stared up at the subtle glow on my ceiling. Shadows played across its screen rippling like the tiny waves from a pebble thrown into a calm lake. My brain had my attention. The words flowed. I don’t know if my slumber made them more than what they were, but as I listened, they sounded elegant and enthralling. The first stanza in a song or the first chapter in a book. I held the words in my hands. They felt soft and warm, comforting. My brain continued to chatter until the first pages became very clear.

I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed debating whether to go downstairs to my office and type the words I saw in my head. Instead, I trudged to the bathroom. Maybe I did drink too much coffee before bed, or maybe this was my body’s way of interrupting my brain. No doubt the rest of me is passive-aggressive.

I dragged my feet across the carpet toward my bed and returned to the warmth of its heavy covers. My brain still screamed for an audience. I promised that I’d do something in the proper morning, not at this ungodly hour. We argued. I won, and eventually I fell back asleep.

When I awoke again, the words still pressed against my skull begging to be released. My brain stood, hands on hips, eyes rolling at me as if to say “I told you so.” First, I started the coffee. Then, I put the words on the page. They flowed like water from a faucet, smooth and even. The page filled up, and my brain exhaled relief. The words needed to be freed from the confines of my head. Now, they have a life of their own unencumbered my sleep preferences.