Be Better

I’ve used this analogy before, but some days, I feel like the hapless steel ball in a pinball machine – shot from the chute only to bounce around from bumper to flap for a while until I plop down the drain. I eschew the idea of predetermination or any other preconceived plan because I believe we control our own destiny, yet when all of the moving parts of our lives come together, it can feel rather chaotic like the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

But like Shibuya, the beauty of life lies in its chaos, the interconnectedness that draws us apart and together at the same time. If you focus too much on the messiness of the crowd and not on the feat of engineering that moves the trains in and out of the station in an orchestrated manner, you’ll freeze up and never get where you’re going. Likewise, if you focus on being hurtled from bumper to flap and back again, you’ll get nowhere. Staying focused on the things that matter despite the inherent noise is the only way to move forward.

In my almost five decades on this planet, I’ve tried multiple approaches to rein myself in and stay focused on those most important things. I’ve succeeded some, and I’ve failed a lot. I’m convinced that if your failures don’t outnumber your successes, you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re too risk adverse. Failures are painful, like burning your hand on a hot pan, but I’ll be damned if you don’t learn so much from them. Some lessons are obvious (e.g., this pan gets hot!), while others are far more subtle. Early in my life, I’d get so twisted around the axle of my failures that I’d literally shut down. Now, I’m much more sanguine about them. They still hurt, but I focus on what I’ve learned and move on.

In all of this chaos, it’s hard to boil things down to a simple mantra, but we need simple. It’s like a pinprick of light in a inky black room that preoccupies our attention. Mine is trite, pedestrian – “Be better”. Be a better husband, father, brother, son, coworker, runner, writer, human being, etc. This is not a competition with you or anyone else. It’s a competition with myself if you want to frame it in those terms. I aim to be better than I was yesterday and the day before that.

Of course, there will be setbacks. Of course, I will fail sometimes, but I will come back stronger, and I will, in fact, be better. Eventually. It keeps me moving forward.

A Look Back

I can’t believe that 2019 is nearing its end, nor can I believe we’ve almost finished the 2010s, a decade I’ll remember as much for my kids coming of age as I will for the multitude of changes I’ve experienced. We moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of this decade after living in China for three years, our kids started school, I changed jobs five times (two of them with the same company), I got serious about writing, I lost my dad halfway through the decade, and we moved to the other side of the country. Despite all that happened before this year, 2019 was a capstone for the decade.

I unwillingly inched closer to the half century mark. Aging gracefully is probably not going to be my thing. It’s not going to be pretty, so you may want to look away. When the years ahead of you are appreciably fewer than those behind you, it shifts your mindset. For me, there’s a sense of urgency, a need to get things done before it’s too late. And I’ll never know when it’s too late. In that vein, my wife and I solidified plans this year to make major life changes when our youngest goes away to college. We’ll cast off the shackles of routine and trade in our dress shoes for the decidedly more casual look of an intrepid explorer. I have a list of places I want to see that is longer than the number of years I have left.

Other than travel, I want to read and write more. I only read 16 books this year, but my “to read” list grows longer every day. I’ll definitely be reading much more in the years to come. My favorite book remains Where the Crawdads Sing, which I ready in 2018. I did get to see the author, Delia Owens, in person this year when she was on tour, and she was delightful. I admire her ability to create such a beautiful story. As for 2019, my favorite fiction book was Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, which weaves a fictional tale of a young Italian man who secretly helped Jews escape Nazi terror. Apparently, there’s some controversy around this novel as I unwittingly found out on Twitter, but it’s fiction, and I’m okay with literary liberties. The other big title I read this year was Sapiens. It’s not often I get passionate about nonfiction, but this book changed the way I think about things on a fundamental level. I highly recommend it.

It’s been almost eight years since I really got serious about writing and started writing novels. I don’t have much to show for it. I’m no closer to being published today than I was in 2012 when I started this journey. Quite frankly, querying has taken the fun out of writing, so I’m putting that on hold indefinitely, maybe permanently. I enjoy writing for the sake of creating the story. It’s enough for me to just put it on the screen and breathe life into it. The reality is that people read less given all of the media consumption choices out there, and people read much less literary fiction, so my odds of getting published are infinitesimal. The fact that the Fifty Shades books were the top-selling titles of the last decade proves to me that my preferred genre is nearing extinction, and that’s too bad because I love the slow burn of a good literary novel. I guess that’s yet another thing that proves I’m out of touch with reality. That happens when you get old.

While this year comes to an end, I still be here rambling and writing, mostly rambling. Come on back when you have the time and hopefully you’ll find something interesting. I’m still working on my latest novel, Them, which I hope to finish in 2020, but I may occasionally post excerpts or short stories as I find time. Until then, happy New Year. See you in 2020.

 

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.┬áMy 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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Closing Out the Year

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

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

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

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

Where Do I Go From Here?

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

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

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

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

 

Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Ash.”

“What?”

“I don’t go by Ashley anymore.”

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

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

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

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

“Honey, where is your mom?”

Ash shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Is she okay?”

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

“What?”

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

“Why would your mom do that?”

“Because she’s a bitch.”

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

“Can I have some water?”

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

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

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

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

“Last week? Where have you been staying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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