On The Road Again…

I live in Seattle. It’s a place that, even now, has a frontier-like quality. If you were awake in 8th grade history, you know that it is the final destination of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase. If you’ve visited there (during the summer months), you know it’s one of the most physically beautiful places ever. If you live there, you know that it’s a city in a constant struggle with the rainforest that surrounds it. It’s both oasis and outpost.

It’s home. For me. For now.

A couple weeks ago, my wife woke up and said she wanted to move to Kentucky. Kentucky? Seriously? Seriously. Just like that. I should come to expect these bombshells by now, to be able to feel the pulses of changes drumming in her and in me. 7 years ago we started this wagon trail by leaving Cleveland for the promised land of Colorado. 2 years later we were traipsing over the Rockies for Seattle. We get restless; we seek adventure and new places and new chapters. It is our rhythm honestly, the one that started our relationship and, hopefully, one that will continue for years to come. I’m not moving to Kentucky. Not a chance. But I do know that I am moving. I do know my story doesn’t end in Seattle, as much as I love it. I guess it’s time to turn the page.

The last 7 days have been one story unraveling on top of another. This Thanksgiving holiday I hung out with my in-laws in Cincinnati. I visited the Natural History Museum in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal and saw a stunning model railroad display of the city in different decades since early 1900s. They recreated a 1800s-era dock with storefronts and a real steamboat floating in a lagoon. They told the story of explorers, of farmers and artisans and craftspeople, making something out of nothing.

My father-in-law lives in a 120 year-old house. It has a basement and attic, nooks and crannies, secret passageways. My daughter, the honey badger, has been itching to explore—she’s been opening doorways and sneaking up unused staircases, creeping down crooked basement stairs with low-hanging ceilings, chomping at the bit for a run in the attic. She’s doing what kids do, what we do, seeing what happens next.

I guess the need to explore is innate. At least it is for me. It is for my wife, my daughter, and millions of our forebears. It is what pushes us beyond the boundaries we see today, led us to challenge to flatness of the earth and the strength of its gravity. It sounds lofty and noble but, for me, it comes down to the story itself. It’s just not over yet. There is more adventure to seek, more plot to uncover, more characters to introduce. The only thing that changes along the way is why—our motivations influence the plotlines of our lives just like they govern the whims of the souls we populate on the page. A story is a story is a story.

I’ve often said that my wife is a walking Lifetime movie. While I staunchly believe she is the strongest person I’ve ever met, she didn’t get there quickly or easily. She’s the product of plenty of family drama, abusive relationships, a hard head and a quick tongue. Such resilience is contagious: her extended friends and family look to her as a center, an anchor, to ground their own fears and grief and trepidation about the future. They lost their mother recently and a family without a matriarch is like a flock of birds with no leader: aimless and lost. They need her as a platform—as context—to write the next chapters in their own stories.

I’m realizing we’re not alone in this, my wife and I, and this Restless Leg Syndrome is as human, and as American, as walking on two legs. It is what we do. What we’re meant to do. For my wife, she is answering the call of those closest to her, those whose own stories depend on her. For my daughter, the taste of a new adventure draws her to a new frontier: she has no idea what to expect but she walks toward the future wide-eyed. I should mention my son has no interest in this madness—his is an epic tale of deep roots and longevity (which is a nice way of saying he doesn’t want to go). For me, it’s the story itself that beckons me. I don’t care where we go (even Kentucky). I just want to see how it ends.

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For Veterans’ Day…

I’ve never done anything for a veteran before. Not intentionally. Maybe let a serviceman or woman cut in line at the airport, whispered a “thank you” under my breath, gave up the window seat on a flight. But really nothing of value. Nothing worth noting.

Until this Tuesday.

I was part of a community service project that donated time and labor to a Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles. Some of my peers fed wounded vets, others spent time at bedsides. Some painted curbs and washed cars. I worked on helping restore a Japanese Garden donated by vets to vets in the 50s.

The Garden butted up against a golf course and our hosts, 3 grizzled vets, told me about a much older vet, now 93, who frequented the course. They told me the older man recalled sitting in those same Japanese Gardens in the early 60s, legs amputated, pondering his future, his masculinity, his humanity. Now the old man refused to use a golf cart: he preferred to walk the grounds on his prosthetics. The vets said they reclaimed the Garden for him, this older peer: they wanted to give the opportunity for current wounded vets to reclaim their lives, their humanity.

But the Garden hadn’t been touched since 1985.

1985. Think about that. I was 12 years old. Back to the Future was out. Reagan was in office. The Challenger hadn’t exploded yet. The Cold War was still being waged. 6 weeks before we arrived our hosts cleared out much of the garden, chopping, slashing, digging. They’d cut down bamboo that was 30 feet tall, cleared fallen logs that were 10-15 feet long, banished coyotes. Fountains had been reclaimed from 3 feet of mud, cleaned and repaired. A concrete creek was retrieved and reactivated. All they wanted us to do was move the branches, the bamboo, the piles of brush, leaves and vines—the evidence of neglect—from one end of the garden to another. We were cleaning up after them.

My time at the Garden was one of both humility and outrage. I’d watched these men, the servants of our beloved country, battle nature to take back something that was given to them. And they’d done it without complaint, without backhoes or woodchippers or a crew—hell, without trashcans until 20 minutes after we showed up—they just did it. They did what was necessary when the rest of us didn’t. They did what millions of service people have done since before our country was a country: they made it happen.

They made it happen in an era where military service is used as a tool or a pawn in political games but rarely given the respect it is due. They made it happen in a time when hundreds of thousands of veterans live on the street and millions live in poverty; when nearly half of returning veterans need help finding employment,; when their active duty pay was threatened, during 2 wars, by a political game of chicken. They’d done it despite of their own injuries sustained in service to our nation.

So I moved mounds of dirt and bamboo stalks 6 times my height. I dragged branches and tree limbs from one end of the Garden to another. I did whatever my hosts told me to do. I didn’t say a word, didn’t sound a single complaint, and after a hot, sweaty, dirty two hours, I left.

And these great men had the audacity to tell me thank you.

My first review: Progeny by Shawn Hopkins

ProgenyProgeny by Shawn Hopkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first 4 verses of Genesis 6 introduce the rationale for God’s flooding of the earth: angels—the sons of God—were making wives out of the daughters of men. And having children with them. “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4). The contention is that God caused the flood to wash away the remnants of this corruption to return humanity to its pure roots. In Shawn Hopkins’ Progeny, the practice never stopped.

In a story I can best describe as The DaVinci Code meets Stargate, Hopkins weaves fallen angels, the gods of ancient mythology and the Bermuda Triangle into an intricate tale whose true focus is in the power of redemption. In a quest to find his missing brother, ex-Ranger John Carter is transported (literally) into a world of secrets and bloodlines, angels and demons. And giants. Big, nasty, bloodthirsty giants.

Carter’s quest is a much about his brother as it is about his own identity and the ties that bind. Hopkins knows his stuff and it is evident, though a little heavy-handed at times. His proficiency in scripture, the Book of Enoch, and ancient civilizations makes this novel credible and a little frightening. Hopkins describes the similarities between ancient mythologies and Old Testament tales with academic dexterity and makes them central to the plot of the story. Where his skill lies is in pulling you, through John’s experience, into the disconcerting realities his research suggests and the sinister conclusions they hold.

Progeny is equal parts religious thriller and action-packed roller coaster ride. Hopkins may write Christian-themed fiction but he doesn’t play it safe: it’s a gritty, bloody tale that will make you think, question and cringe from one page to the next. Did I mention the giants?

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Ready Or Not…it’s NaNoWriMo!

I wasn’t ready. I’m never ready.

November is National Novel Writing Month and somewhere in the midst of choosing costumes for kids, helping my wife turn a garage into a haunted house for a 7-year-old’s birthday party, and yet another round of client-based travel, I realized that it was high time for me to come up with another concept.

I was dreading the time though, hating the idea of writing a new book: I had finally gotten all versions of my novel The Road to Hell complete and available (you can buy them here or here). I was riding high on the idea that I could sit back and work on marketing my new masterpiece but here I was, faced with another November and already 5 days behind. I was seriously considering bowing out this year until I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with my son a few months ago.

I love movies and one of my great escapes is going to them by myself. Movie theatres, like airplanes, are among the few places in the country you can retreat to and be untouchable. No calls, no texts or emails—hey, the sign on the screen says for me to turn off the phone. You can escape your life and, for 2 hours, watch someone else’s adventure. On a night where I needed one of those escapes, I went to see the latest Planet of the Apes movie and convinced my 12 year old son he should go too. But it was 10pm and he’s scared of the dark. Still. (Somewhere along the way, I’d made the comment “the freaks come out at night” and The Boy took it to heart.)

He was scared that we’d go to this movie and something horrible was going to happen. Now I have a self-diagnosed Superman complex—I always believe that I can do anything and will be all right. This kid does not. Anyways, we make it through the movie unscathed and he realizes that sometimes taking a chance is worth it. Happy ending, right? That’s what I thought and I was riding that parental high. On the way home, he’s asking me all these questions about movies he wants to see but is wondering if he will get in trouble if he watches them. Basically asking me permission. Now, personally, I’m a fan of asking for forgiveness, not permission. Screw permission—asking for permission is restrictive to me; forgiveness is all about acceptance: I did it, what are you gonna do about it? And I’m not talking Debbie Does Dallas, this is about stuff like Hot Tub Time Machine and Scarface—stuff you don’t necessarily want your 12 year old watching but 12 year olds want to watch. So I finally pull over and tell the kid, “You know, some of the best experiences of my life have been because of two words: fuck it. Stop asking for permission for little stuff. You wanna watch the movie, just watch the movie. Just be big enough to deal with the consequences.”

The Boy: “But Mom is gonna be mad!”
Me: “You’re watching movies, dude, not doing crack—I think you’ll be alright. Live your life. You only get one.”

Which brings me back to NaNoWriMo. Now some of you might be thinking: why in the world would I try to write a novel? Much less in 30 days? The answer is, Why not? It’s part of living, part of joining that rare percentage of people who break up their mundane, routine lives with a little bit of “Fuck It.” The 30 days are going to pass anyway. What if you had something impressive to show for it? 50,000 incredible (or horrible) words on a page, the first draft of a novel. Your novel. Something you can cross off your bucket list.

You might also be saying, “Chris, you clown, it’s November 5. At a rate of 1667 words a day, I’d have to write 10,000 words just to be on goal by tomorrow.” Fair point. You could write 2500 words a day (that’s 2 ½ pages) over the next week and you’d be on track. My daughter is writing that much and she’s in the 4th grade. You write more in emails everyday. Or you can do what I did: I cheated. A little. There is always a story percolating in my head (usually there are a few of them, each one clamoring for my attention). Chances are, you have one swimming in there too, whispering in your ear. What NaNoWriMo offers me, and you, is a reason to pluck that bad boy out of my noggin and give it a life.

November 30 is going to come because, as Ben Stein said in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Time waits for no man.” Two little words are all that stand in your way.