Ring, Part One

Millie Farquar watched the lone truck buzz along the dusty road, its engine roaring and tires kicking up dirt as it sped to the intersection near her house. She could already taste the dust, gritty and scratchy as it settled in her throat. She wanted to jump off her front porch and run toward the intersection to give the driver a piece of her mind, but she knew it’d do no good. No one ever slowed down on Pit Road.

The truck spun its tires as it grabbed the asphalt on the paved road that cut in front of her house. The black ribbon of road cut through the bland plain like a tear in a dull photo. Dust still trailed behind the truck as it passed by her house. Its windows were tinted, so Millie couldn’t see the driver, but she assumed he worked at the mine. Everyone out here did, and everyone was a he except for her.

Musk was barely a dot on the map. Back at Princeton, she had pulled it up on Google Maps when she received the generous job offer from Boulder Mining, and somehow, it seemed exotic in her mind, a faraway place where adventure awaited. Now, the stark reality slapped her in the face after a few months on the job, but the paycheck and her seemingly insurmountable student loans kept her here in an old, isolated house with drafty windows and leaky faucets.

She folded her book shut and stood up from the porch swing, her boots thumping on the old boards as she went back inside. She had to leave for work soon. Another day and another dollar closer to paying off her student loans. When she had been working her way toward her Ph.D. in geology, she had imagined her life being much different when she graduated. Being one of the few women in the program had taught her how to deal with being alone, but working at the mine among a throng of grubby men took isolation and loneliness to a whole new level.

She gathered her bag for work and walked through the house to the back door to check that it was locked. She twisted the old door knob, and it refused to turn giving her assurance that it was secure. She had a routine that she followed every morning before she left for work. It made her feel safe and in control.

As she walked by the window peering out onto her back porch, she glanced at the camera she had installed as an extra security measure. Her landlord, an elderly man with a gravelly voice and a stooping posture, had chuckled when she asked if she could install a security system. He claimed he never even locked his doors when he lived in the house. Millie didn’t feel that safe, and she doubt she ever would.

The Ring doorbell camera stared back at her as she locked her front door and bounded down the steps to her truck that was parked in the bare spot of dirt next to the house. As the engine roared to life and she twisted the wheel around to leave, she glanced at the old house one last time. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually kind of cozy with its old, but sturdy bones. She felt a growing attachment to it like a reliable, old dog that never leaves her side.

Before she turned left onto the dusty road leading to the mine, she pulled her phone from her bag and checked it one last time. She had two bars of service, which was normal for her phone, but she knew that once she traveled a few miles down the road, she’d have no service again until she returned home. No notifications appeared on her home screen. She wondered why her mom hadn’t texted her back yet, but it’d have to wait until after work.

The roar of the tires on the dirt road filled the cabin of her truck. The morning sun gleamed through the dusty windshield almost blinding her as she peered just beneath her sun visor. The company truck kicked up so much dust it felt like she was driving into some apocalyptic future. She heard a shrill ping that pierced the otherworldly roar that engulfed her. She reached into her bag and grabbed her phone, poking its glass surface with her thumb to view the home screen. She saw the familiar blue logo of the Ring app in the corner of the notification, but before she could open up the app, she lost her last bar of service.

A truck honked at her. She looked up into the face of an oncoming hauling truck and swerved to the right to avoid it. Her tires rumbled at the edges of the dirt road, but she didn’t lose purchase and kept moving forward. She’d be at the office soon, but the Ring notification concerned her. Who would be at her front door this morning? She wasn’t expecting any deliveries, and even if she was, the deliveries always happened in the late afternoon in this area.

She pulled up to the office trailer and nudged the truck into the spot reserved for the geologist. She stared at her phone, but she knew it was hopeless to think she’d somehow regain service. The mine was more than a gaping hole in the earth; it was also a black hole of sorts for cell service. She tossed her phone into her bag and let out an exasperated sigh.

She could feel the heat of the morning sun building as she sat there considering whether or not she should drive back toward her house until she had cell service just so she could check who or what had triggered her camera. In the months since she had installed the camera, she’d only received notifications for delivery drivers and the occasional Mormon missionary. It bothered her that it happened so soon after she left the house, as if someone were waiting for her to leave so that they could invade her privacy.

She looked around the dirt parking lot. The mine manager’s spot sat empty, which Millie thought was odd. Carl reliably arrived early every morning. She couldn’t remember ever arriving before he did. She brushed away these thoughts and decided it wasn’t worth the time to drive back toward her house, but she’d check it as soon as she got within service range before she went home after work. The days were still long enough that it’d be daylight when she left for home, and if there was a problem, she could clearly see it before she pulled into her driveway.

She opened the door into the cacophony of the mine, and the chaos of another typical day swallowed her the moment she sat down at her desk in the ratty trailer that served as the mine’s main office. In the sea of work and requests that demanded her attention, the bothersome notification drifted further and further from her mind.

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.