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The Moments and the Miles

As milestone birthdays go, turning 38 scarcely qualifies. And yet, as I found myself approaching that signpost a few weeks ago, I began to find more significance than I had anticipated. Turning 38 means two decades since the spring I graduated high school, and the fall I started college. I was 18 all those years ago, when Chumbawumba and Sugar Ray were on the radio, boy bands were still (mercifully) a few years off, and I looked at the future much like the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” which F. Scott Fitzgerald called it.

Now, with the eyes of a not-so-young man, I look upon the intervening years with more than a measure of perspective. It seems so simple in retrospect to pick out the the paths which I have hewn through the dense vegetation of the years, to measure that distance in miles and discern meaning in the big picture.

But what about the moments I spent in the midst of that forest, hacking my way through all that underbrush, machete in hand, sweat beading my forehead? Nothing seemed simple then. How can one find perspective when surrounded by the thick vegetation which comprises the daily stuff of life? I ponder this question, not just as a man looking back at where he has been, but as one looking around, looking forward, at the path ahead.

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The Other Side

where-the-red-fern-grows-2-600x250As I recall her in my mind’s eye, Mrs. Thompson (first name lost to time) was a pleasantly plump, nurturing fifth grade teacher, clad in the sort of festive, seasonally-appropriate sweaters favored by seasoned elementary school veterans. During my first year at that small Christian school in Winter Park, Florida, she led my class through math and science, handwriting and Bible. And, she also had the distinction of bringing me face to face with death for the first meaningful time, through story.

My childhood, while not idyllic, was nonetheless, relatively free of loss. My dog Mac had died in the night on Valentine’s Day earlier in my grade school years, but to that point, I had never lost a close friend or relative. I suppose the greatest sense of loss I routinely experienced as a child was leaving behind friendships due to nearly a half-dozen moves before third grade.

So Mrs. Thompson reached the final chapter of Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows after weeks of reading aloud to our little class community, and first Old Dan, then Little Ann, left Billy behind after that run-in with the mountain lion. And something inside of me which I hadn’t even known existed, broke. The bond I had formed with these two brave hounds, tirelessly loyal to the very end, was stretched until it snapped. At the time, I probably couldn’t form my feelings into words. So I wandered through days poring over the ending of that story, trading anger for grief, until the emotions subsided, and I passed through a door into a new room, face-to-face with the reality of loss.

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Home is a Mercy

With our boys spending a week at a summer day camp, my wife and I recently dove into a substantial (for us) home project – installing a new laminate wood floor in our kitchen. Like the true DIY go-getters we are, we did every bit ourselves. And, like the absent-minded handyman that I am, the project proceeded in fits and starts over the better part of four days as I measured, cut, laid the planks, re-measured, re-cut, tossed ill-fitting boards out, and rubbed my sore knees and my wife’s sore back, all in the hope of a fresh, clean kitchen for our family to enjoy.

It’s a task I’m not sure I envisioned eight years ago when we bought this house, our first as a married couple after several years of the renting life. When we moved in, we insisted to anyone who would listen that this house was a “starter home.” Though it was a perfectly lovely three-bedroom with good bones in a quiet village here in Western New York, positioned on a modest half-acre with a mature maple shading a bricked back patio, we felt the itch common to our generation, I’m told, to keep moving, stay for a few years, then move on out, onward and upward.

But something happened along the way, as the years went on and we moved further into the role of homeowners.

We got planted.

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Ride the Movies

The news out of last week’s all-things-Disney D23 Expo that the venerable The Great Movie ride attraction would be closing soon at Disney’s Hollywood Studios hit me with a wave of sadness more powerful than I would have expected. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the news. Disney’s been closing down and revamping rides for years in the name of progress, and tapping into its new properties and brands for maximum attendance It’s part of their DNA.

Attractions like the troll-themed boat ride Maelstrom in EPCOT Center, which gave way recently to a ride themed around the movie Frozen, or a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride, which was demolished and replaced by a Finding Nemo undersea ride, are part of Disney legend. These and other closures make me sad, but I know time moves on, and these things happen.

A view from above of the Nautilus.

Of course, I’m drawn to news like this because I grew up in Orlando and visited the park dozens of times in my youth. So these were never just rides to me. My fertile imagination transformed the sights and sounds of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus and the knobby-nosed trolls lurking in the mists of Norway into actual voyages to far-off lands, deep in the Pacific Ocean, or far out in the North Sea.

It was transformative in a way I’ll probably never begin to appreciate.

And I think I’m finally old enough to understand the utter gut-punch that the loss of a beacon from childhood is. Things get bulldozed and they don’t come back.

In one of my favorite novels, the title character Jay Gatsby screams crazily at his friend Nick Carraway, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” And I get it, this urge to rebuild a bastion from our youth, to make things the way they were. But that’s not what this is really about, I think.

As I’ve been musing on this, I’ve come upon another conclusion about rides like The Great Movie Ride, and another ride which will be closing soon in the name of progress, what I grew up knowing as the Universe of Energy, in which park patrons ride slowly past stories-tall robotic dinosaurs as they move through the ferns and mists of the Jurassic period. These and other rides – Catastrophe Canyon, MuppetVision 4D to name a few – shaped me by thrusting me directly into the stories I loved. I grew up living inside the stories I loved.

If you’ve never ridden The Great Movie Ride, there’s no way to adequately explain what it felt like as a 12-year old to glide slowly in a car designed to feel like a movie theater seat from room to room inside the worlds of movies. They didn’t feel like sets; they felt like worlds. There was a seedy New York back alley alongside gangsters, Gene Kelly singing in the rain, Mary Poppins and Bert on the rooftops of London, the jungles with Tarzan, and a giant room of Oz, munchkins everywhere, Glinda, Dorothy and friends, and the arrival in a cloud of smoke, of a green-skinned life size Wicked Witch. You knew she was a robot, but in that moment, it didn’t matter.

Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?

The only thing that topped the Oz scene was the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene inside Well of Souls alongside Indy, Sallah, and of course, those snakes. After that, one final test awaited – could I ride through the Alien scene aboard the Spaceship Nostromo, staring at the crevice in the wall where I knew the alien would emerge, and not flinch or look away when it appeared in all its slathering glory? (Side note – It’s probably why I named the creature in my monster-hunting novel Nostromo).

Rides like this one and so many more from the Disney portion of my childhood planted a foundational truth in me:

Stories are meant to be entered.

They’re not something we hold at arm’s length, exploring intellectually, considering brain-first and gut-second. Plunge in, walk around, see, smell, taste. I’m being figurative to a certain extent, of course, but there’s a point to be made here.

What’s needed are stories so vivid, with settings so lush and rich, characters so authentic, and conflicts so truthful, that they yank us from our comfortable chair and demand we live there. It’s not escapist, I don’t think. Stories are waking dreams which return us to our chair, our house, our neighborhood, with a sharper ability to see. I think that’s why it’s perfectly understandable to finish a riveting action scene or a breathless romance scene, close the book or walk out of the theater, and wonder if there are monsters lurking behind a bush, or to straighten one’s hair in the mirror on the possibility of a chance encounter with a significant other.

It’s this blurring of reality and story that is necessary to sharpen our ability to process our own world. Entering stories teaches us to see properly because it plunges us into a world simultaneously unlike our own, and very much like our own. We emerge with our imaginations altered, our perceptions changed. In this way, stories work on our consciousness like no other part of life. They can reach down into us, bypassing our biases and the walls we’ve built around our carefully-held assumptions, and inspire, challenge, and most of all, get us to dream of a world that’s better, more truthful, and more good than the one we live in.

So, I’m sad I won’t be able to ride the movies ever again. But I hope the stories I write, and the stories I share with my children and others, will be the kind that pull them out of their own world into a place of truth and beauty in a way that leaves them seeing their own world clearer, and longing for something beyond.

 

Thrash Early – Some Thoughts on Taking the Plunge

 

I had a conversation this morning with a soon-to-be-graduate. (Soon-to-be, as in, tonight at approximately 9:30 p.m), and she told me something remarkable. She’s going to college this fall in Delaware, and immediately heading overseas to study at university in Madrid. Cool! I said, what a chance to improve on your knowledge of Spanish in an immersion setting (and maybe catch a world-class soccer match). It’ll be life-changing, and you’ll come back speaking the language like a native!

Nope, she says. I took French in high school.

Come again?

Yup. Here’s this French-language student going halfway around the world to put herself into a hugely-challenging life where she’s bound to be discouraged and frustrated nearly every day, multiple times a day. Not for the faint of heart.

Now there’s two ways to look at this kind of steep-learning-curve scenario. One is with an aversion to risk, the instinct to play it safe and avoid it, settling for learning Spanish in a classroom, or even a French-immersion scenario.

The other is to embrace it.

What better opportunity for growth, for learning about the potential pitfalls of a risky endeavor, and discovering how to overcome them than to pitch headlong into the water? Maybe it’s a carefully-calculated dive. (It probably should be). But even if it’s carefully-calculated, it’s still a dive. And there’s only one way to dive. Whether you know how to swim or not, what’s bound to happen after you hit the water?

Thrashing.

In this scenario, or a hundred others like it which you’re thinking of in your own life – your dreams, your deeply-held passions – there will be a chance to leap, which will be followed by the potential for thrashing. Maybe even epic amounts. And, along with that thrashing will come frustration, discouragement, questions about the purpose and meaning of our existence, or this dream, all of that.

But, as with all new endeavors which involve thrashing early, my friend Ceara will be doing something extremely important: she’ll be getting the most difficult, existential-crisis part of her venture out of the way up front, to make way for growth later. There’s only one way to go from there – up.

If you’re going to thrash, as Seth Godin puts it, thrash early. It’s better than thrashing later. Because obstacles will come. But you’ll see them early.

So, what new endeavor are you considering? What risky, lump-in-the-throat leap of faith in the direction of a dream or passion? There will be thrashing. But if there’s thrashing to be done, let’s get it out of the way early.

The Earth Between My Fingers

My wife stood at the kitchen table the other day separating coins for a lesson she was preparing for her kindergarten students. She divided the change into piles, separating the great silver discs of quarters from the dimes and nickels, finding a space in the corner for that midget of a copper afterthought, the penny. As I watched her work, I found myself wondering the point of learning such an increasingly-obsolete skill as counting change. After all, my pennies usually end up massed in the cup-holder of my car or orphaned in a dresser drawer, and most of my transactions take place electronically, with 1’s and 0’s substituting for the metal coins and paper bills.

I’ve also wondered the same thing about learning handwriting, a mountain which both my children have labored so mightily to climb. Why suffer over the proper formation of a “q” or a “g” when punching the keys on a laptop produces the same result? So much of our communication these days is electronic, and voice-activated communication seems to be the wave of the future, it seems.

But the more I think about these seemingly-vestigial practices, the more I am reminded of how blessedly tactile they are.

Read more at Story Warren