Monday, December 2, 2013

Samuel Hamilton

Samuel's children, in thinking and talking about him:

"They all wanted to say the same thing--all of them. Samuel was an old man. It was as startling a discovery as the sudden seeing of a ghost. Somehow they had not believed it could happen. They drank their whisky and talked softly of the new thought.

His shoulders--did you see how they slump? And there's no spring in his step.

His toes drag a little, but it's not that--it's in his eyes. His eyes are old.

He never would go to bed until last.

Did you notice he forgot what he was saying right in the middle of a story?

It's his skin told me. It's gone wrinkled, and the backs of his hands have turned transparent.

He favors his right leg.

Yes, but that's the one the horse broke.

I know, but he never favored it before.

They said these things in outrage. This can't happen, they were saying. Father can't be an old man. Samuel is young as the dawn--the perpetual dawn.

He might get old as midday maybe, but sweet God! the evening cannot come, and the night--? Sweet God, no!

It was natural that their minds leaped on and recoiled, and they would not speak of that, but their minds said, There can't be any world without Samuel.

How could we think about anything without knowing what he thought about it?

What would the spring be like, or Christmas, or rain? There couldn't be a Christmas."

I read these words for the first time, I suspect, somewhere around 2005 or 2006. Six-hundred pages of beautifully constructed sentences and these are the ones that stood out in my mind. But it wasn't a clear vision. I didn't write them down anywhere. They spoke to me, and like anything that makes its way through time but isn't pinned down and crystallized into some form of permanence, the words became jumbled and confused. My memory of them were condensed down to two of the sentences incorrectly mashed together. I had to re-read this novel because somewhere in its depths I thought it said, "Without their father Samuel, they wouldn't know what to think about the rain."

When I closed the book after finishing it the first time I thought to myself, I must read this again before I become a father. It had joined a very short list of books that also/only included "To Kill a Mocking Bird." I had at least four years to accomplish the task but never quite got around to reading both books prior to Berkeley joining our family. I did re-read "To Kill a Mocking Bird" but "East of Eden" was always harder to get back to; a six hundred page book is no small commitment. With baby number two merely a week away (if she arrives on time) I have another three hundred and fifty pages to go to make good on my vow before becoming a father a second time.

I always felt that the story was suppose to be about Adam and Kathy and their two boys more than it was about the Hamilton family. Samuel wasn't quite the main character and whenever I hear people talk about the novel they rarely mention him, instead they make reference to the bigger biblical allusions in the Trask family. It's hard for a character to hold the attention of readers when placed next to someone as big and horrible as Kathy. But to me, the story is Samuel's.

But why these sentences? Now that I have a child I realize there is no small conceit in my hope that my children will one day duplicate the feelings Samuel's children expressed. And yet, after reading about his relationship with his children and those specific sentences again, my fondness of the idea holds no less of a sway over me.

I feel some need to defend myself and my desires. If you read the novel you'll notice that what Samuel does not do is he does not force or even aim to make his children resemble his own character. He finds ways to enjoy their various personalities, and celebrates them in ways that make sense to him. He tries not to lead them to a specific path, but he's certainly the backbone of their journey, a stable force, an iron rod, a trusted source, even when in disagreement. His children don't know how to think about the rain not because they depend on Samuel to tell them what to think about the rain, but because he has taught them how to think, period. He's a pool of water they can throw a rock into and always know, without a doubt, that the rock will make a splash and from that splash will ripple out little waves. What those movements mean are up to them to divine but he's equipped them with the tools to do so and the place to test the waters, to wonder. This is what I hope I can one day offer my children.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

August and Everything After

Grantland brought to my attention the fact that August and Everything After, Counting Crows' debut album, was released 20 years ago this month (September). The article is fun, though the author is wrong when he states that their second album was their best (all albums after their first are so inferior that it baffles my mind how they're even related to the first). That's beside the point though, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a word or two about the album given that it is celebrating a major birthday and its significance in my own life.

I can't recall exactly how I became aware of the album. Surely I had heard Mr. Jones on the radio, but, as I'll explain later, that wouldn't have been reason for me to go out and make the purchase. I'm also pretty certain I didn't buy it in 1993, maybe 94 or 95. My only real guess is my best friend Jason, who lived half a country away, probably recommended it, a recommendation he probably regrets to some degree (again, more on that later). But I like its entry into my life being a mystery.

Leaving high school I probably owned five full length CDs of any importance to me:
  1. August and Everything After
  2. Pretty Hate Machine
  3. Little Earthquakes
  4. Portrait of an American Family
  5. Rage Against the Machine
Those who knew me in high school, and later college, even my closer friends (other than Jason and my future wife Robyn) probably wouldn't even have suspected I had August and Everything After in my meager collection. Outwardly I lived and breathed NIN and Marilyn Manson. Had I had to guess which of those albums would be my favorite ten or twenty years later I would have guessed wrong.

But life wasn't like a Nine Inch Nails album, it wasn't like a Marilyn Manson album. What life was like was August and Everything After. What life and the album convinced me of, on a variety of levels, was that I was destined for heartache. And much of the album is a mental map of my failed early attempts at courtship with Robyn.

The amazing thing about this album, for me, is that at different points in time almost every single one of the songs on it was my favorite. As a whole, it remains my favorite album.

1. Round Here - Although this was never my favorite song it has the distinction of always being my second favorite song on the album. Other songs would rise to the top and then sink back below the white-on-white fog of this song. Thematically the song always felt a little off compared to the other songs that I loved the most on the album. It feels more like a portrait of a girl, while the songs I loved the most were portraits of a boy who loves a girl.

I once heard a joke in Sunday school. What's the most read verse of the Book of Mormon? First Nephi, Chapter 1, verse 1. The joke being (I have to explain this) that most people, even the devote, start the book but never finish it, and First Nephi chapter 1, verse 1 is the start of the book. Similarly, I listened to this CD back before music was online, or even on your computer (other than with the intent of putting it on another CD), so I always listened to it straight through, and so this song is likely the single most listened to song in the existence of Shawn. Can I be certain? From my last year of high school through to the end of college I literally fell asleep listening to this album six or seven times a week. Here is why Jason probably regrets having introduced the CD to me; he had the great misfortune of being my roommate for all four years of college. It might also be his single most listened to song.

2. Omaha - Another thematically confusing song to me. It unfortunately isn't as pretty lyrically or musically as the first song and so it never made its way deep into my heart. I remember once stumbling on the fact that one of my friends (hi Betsy) loved, loved, loved this album and she considered this her favorite song on the album. It blew my mind, it still blows my mind.

3. Mr. Jones - It took almost 20 years for me to appreciate Mr. Jones at all, I always considered it the low point of the album. In a record of broken heart love songs this one felt the furthest from the mark. In addition the up-beat tempo felt like a song destined for an album of happier times. I didn't hate the song because the radio played the crap out of it, remember I listened the album nightly so I'm suited to hearing the same music a lot. On an album of muted grays and blacks, this song shined. I wanted to cover my eyes and ears when it came on, for the shock of it.

I recall the moment pretty vividly still. Driving along a back road in Northern California, headed to a Vegan BBQ retreat at the Farm Sanctuary, enjoying the green grasses blowing in the wind, the warm sun on my skin, and the twisting roads, this song came on the radio and I really really really listened to it. And there was this little thing that clicked in my head. I'm not sure how true it is or if it was the intent, but I see this song now as a meta song about the album itself. Which still places it at odds with most of the other songs but it helps ease the pressure of its existence at this precise moment in time. The other songs are songs about love. A boy in love. Losing that love. And what that feels like. But what this song is about is about that same boy meeting someone else, someone older whose already been there and done that, and to some degree still is groping around trying to fill that missing love. Mr. Jones is precisely the kind of guy who would love this album.

4. Perfect Blue Buildings -  Now we're getting somewhere! Look, as the Grantland article pointed out the lyrics on this album aren't mysterious and deep like a Nirvana song can be, but it's also not as opaque and lifeless as a lot of love songs (they are kicking the crap out of most country songs). The lyrics here use symbolism to set the mood, is there anything more somber than a perfect blue building? I'm not convinced there is. This was probably my first favorite song on the album. I love some of the simpler lyrics, "I have bones beneath my skin," "where I have friends who care for me," "help me stay awake, I'm falling."

5. Anna Begins - This is one that was a favorite early on and stays near the top. It never fails to impress me. Never fails to yank at my heart. Never fails to make me think of failed romance. The lyrics from beginning to end slay me. If I tried to quote some of my favorite lyrics it would likely include the entirety of this song. I'll try to pull out my favorite three, "It seems like I should say, as long as this is love, but it's not all that easy." "Every time she sneezes I believe it's love." Poor Robyn. "I'm not ready for this sort of thing." The last proves nothing on lyrical quality but how great Adam's voice is at delivering even these simple lines with emotion. OK, one more: "Maybe I should, snap her up in a butterfly net, pin her down on a photograph album."

6. Time and Time Again - "I wanted so badly, someone other than me, staring back at me. I wanted to see you walking backwards, get the sensation of you coming home. I wanted to see you, walking away from me, without the sensation of your leaving me alone." I think I spent two years of college feeling this way about Robyn. Just want want want want wanting, without a clue on how to make it happen. I felt like I got close time and time again. And each time it drew near again I wondered if this time it would last or if I should be guarded (smart?) and not get my hopes too high. I always got my hopes too high. Why fly if you're going to stay near the ground?

7. Rain King - This song has the same up-beatness to it that Mr. Jones has but I never had a problem with it. And though it isn't in my top three or four songs it always felt the most "Counting Crows" to me. Like it some how exemplified them as a band. It's so perfect now when I see crows in the rain I think of them as "rain kings." The song has made me love the metaphor of lover as queen.

8. Sullivan Street - There may not be 10 seconds of guitar that stirs my soul more than the beginning of this song. Sullivan Street currently reigns as my favorite song on the album, and has been in this most honored place for perhaps the longest of all. It's spot, I suspect, is secure for all time and eternity. This is the perfect broken down love song. Not a violent I hate you sort of break up, but something softer and yet just as devastating. When Robyn spurned me all those years ago, I walked with my head down, lost, along my own Sullivan Street. The mood of the song and the lyrics capture perfectly what I felt when I felt the saddest I've ever felt. However terrible, it's an amazing gift to be able to dial up that sort of emotion pretty much at will. "Past the shadows that fall down wherever we meet." "Pretty soon now, I won't come around." "If she remembers, she hides it whenever we meet." DEATH! "Either way now, I don't really care." LIES! "Cause I'm gone from there."

The song basically ends with this lyric "It's almost everything I need." I love the line. When they released a live album I was sort "eh" about it but Adam does this thing with this line, where he sings it and then alters what comes next to "no no no no no, It's EVERYTHING." I don't know if I can explain how much that alteration means to me.

9. Ghost Train - This song actually never made it to the top of my favorite list. It never inspired the same level of distaste I had for Mr. Jones or even Omaha, but I've never been particularly attached to it, except in as much as it's part of the album and seems perfectly natural here now.

10. Raining in Baltimore - The desire for a phone call and a rain coat have never been sadder. You want to mope in your loving sadness? Wait for a rainy day, put some headphones in, and take walk and get soaked while listening to this song. Totally worth it. "I miss you, I guess that I should." I think this song is the best example of the passion in Adam's voice. I can't imagine anyone else singing it with the same impact.

11. A Murder of One - After my initial infatuation with some of the other songs this one crept into my subconscious and became my favorite for an extended period of time, but was eventually overcome by Sullivan Street. I don't think I even realized I liked the song, or that I knew it well. It being at the end of the album, I rarely heard it when I was falling asleep. But it perched in my sleeping ear like a crow on a fence, singing its song.

When Robyn dated other people I thought of this song often. It reinforced this notion in my mind that none of them could be as good to her as I would be. In all my arrogance, I worried "all [her] life would be such a shame shame shame," if she didn't pick me.

For the longest time I thought this song contained my favorite lyric, "There's a perfectness in side you, sleeping underneath your skin, when you open up your wings to speak I wish you'd let me in." I probably believed this to be the lyrics for a good five years. One day I read the actual lyrics and was destroyed when I saw it's "There's a bird that nests in side you." ACK! Anyway, that was a sad day. It may or may not have corresponded with the switch from this to Sullivan Street being my favorite song.

Other funny thing, I never understood the title. I don't know that I really get it even now, but it occurred to me just this year that the "Murder" in the title is not a murder as in death, but is the word for a group of crows. It's a group of one crows. A lonely crow. I'm dumb, but I love that 20 years later I'm still unearthing little nuggets in the album.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Story of a Marriage

I burned through this book pretty quickly.

While the theme is probably what the author wants us to talk about I can't help but first talk about plot devices. The author really wanted to throw us for some loops. I guessed the first, he left enough bread crumbs (maybe just one but it was a big one that left me wondering why he didn't just come out and say what the "surprise" was with such a blatant hint half way through the first section). But I was blind sided by most of the others, just like Pearlie was. However on a smaller level the plot devices used were a little annoying. People would say things or pick things up but rather than be told what was said or what was picked up I'd have to read another chapter to see what was picked up or said. I can only imagine this was done to get us to keep turning the pages, but it actually slowed me down as I had to re-read the paragraph or two around those sections to try to figure out if I'd just missed a detail or if it was again intentionally left off to keep me in suspense.

Enough about the plot, but a little more about writing style. Greer loves similes, a lot. In my own writing I often worry that I put too many in, but I feel reassured when I compare myself to Greer. Luckily most of his similes are really good, but yeah, I started to notice their ever-presence. (If I was feeling really clever I'd make a simile right now comparing his production of similes to something else, but I'm not feeling really clever right now).

Now, finally, at last, the theme. What do we know about the people around us, especially our spouses? It's a good theme, one with a lot to look at, however I think Greer didn't deal with it with much nuance. To make the husband and wife opaque to each other he had to literally have them never talk about anything of any importance. The relationship didn't feel real because of this. Mind you, I'm sure there are relationships where a pretty substantial lack of communication is present but my hope (and experience, though small) is that most people just don't live like that, at least not to the degree that Pearlie and Holland did. Of course this very gulf between them made it easier for him to make his point, you don't know your spouse so much as you know a construction of your spouse that you've constructed in your head. It happens to all of us, even if to a lesser degree, but hopefully we're doing better than these two were. Have I beat this horse dead yet? I think so.

The writing was beautiful. I picked the book up for two reasons. 1) I read the Confessions of Max Tivoli a while ago and loved it and 2) It took place in the Sunset District of San Francisco, which is where I live, the familiarity of the environment adds a bit of fun to a story. While some of the plot devices were distracting I was pulled into the story and had a hard time putting the book down, I couldn't look away from their marriage. One might argue that it is as much a story about war (or the effects of war) as it is a story about marriage. I don't think one would be wrong in making that argument, but I'd probably have to read the story a second time with that in mind to talk sensibly about it. Maybe I will one day, it's a pretty short novel.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Painfully Impressed

Pardon this disjointed mess. Sometimes forming coherent thoughts is like cleaning someone else's home, or putting together Ikea furniture, you're often left with little items and pieces you don't know where to put. Consider this a virtual Ziploc baggy half-full of this and that; even if it's not obvious, all of these things go together, some how or other. Bear with me.

The other day I was looking at Berkeley while she slept. I thought to myself, "If every soul on the planet could see her now, in this state of helpless innocence, no one would ever hurt her." I knew the logic was false before the words could even reach my lips. I can't imagine loving her more, but I will no doubt cause her pain some day, even if not intentional. How little can I expect from those that don't know her, even if they were afforded a glimpse into this little slice of our lives?

A long time ago I saw these words juxtaposed: painfully impressed. The exact reference is lost to me now but those two words have stayed with me ever since. They express something other than envy or jealousy. It's amazement, perhaps even gratitude, that simultaneously impresses and makes the observer aware of some deficiency of their own. It's sadness wrapped in admiration.

Once upon a time there was a little girl. She entered the the world naked, radiant, and beautiful as any child ever born.  Once upon a time her father gazed down upon her sleeping body and rather than be stirred to his core with joy he felt what? Emptiness? Fear? Loathing? His own failings? Nothing? Anger? Some other feeling(s) impossible to separate from his wife, from his father, from his mother, from his childhood? God only knows. God. Only. Knows. The father likely couldn't label it any better than I can. But whatever it is, it remains. And she saw it again, ten or twelve years later, not directly, but by measuring the distance between herself and him and comparing it to the distance between Berkeley and me. She saw it and it broke her heart. And it unexpectedly hurt when I discovered that my closeness to Berkeley caused her this pain.

Of course she knew before our encounter. We make a mistake when we think that kids aren't aware  enough to be affected by complex events. Their little eyes and ears and hearts are taking it all in. Even if they can't process it at the moment, they'll look back one day and wonder why it happened the way it did. Why them? Why couldn't it have been different? I lack a good answer for her. But for the rest of us: please don't forget the little ones, because they never will.

Brief Review on Mountain Man

There are a few chapters in this book that I would give five stars to, but as a whole it felt rather slow. Expectations may have hindered my ability to love the novel. I expected a fast paced story and a lot of action because it was a western, but something else entirely was delivered. It felt less like a story and more like a character study. As a character study it felt like it could have been 200 pages shorter. I received a great many lessons on the way you could cook elk roast and berries, many of them seemingly the same receipts. I was briefly introduced to enough mountain men that it was near impossible to keep any of them straight in my head, other than Sam Minard himself. Point being, instead of a story I read a lot about a man sitting around preparing food and thinking about classical music.

On the positive side Fisher sketches some really great scenes where animals are the main actors. The battle between the badger and grizzly that introduces the book sucked me in enough to buy the thing while standing in the Portland airport. Later a similar fight between a small pack of wolves and a grizzly was good enough that I had to stop and re-read it out loud to Robyn.

Beyond these glimpses into the minds of animals, the third chapter, where Sam silently builds a cabin for Kathy, was one of the most unexpectedly human things I've had the privilege to read. It was so good that the remaining 200+ pages were nearly redundant in their efforts.

I bought the book partially as a challenge to myself to read something different. I'm glad I read it.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Some brief thoughts about the Pride Parade yesterday:

I started the day thinking about something said by a friend somewhere else on the Internet. She had expressed a certain amount of discomfort about Mormons for Marriage Equality (or similar groups) walking in the Pride Parades. It wasn't because she's anti-same-sex marriage (quite the opposite) but because it in a way refocused the spot light from one community and shifted it to another. Beyond that I thought about my own relationship to the church. For all intents and purposes I'm probably better labeled an ex-Mormon than a Mormon. So I walked a street lined with hundreds of thousands of people cheering (in some small part) for a group I no longer identify with. And yet, in some ways it was the perfect place for me to be, and for others close to me to be.

There's a certain bitter sweetness to the death of Prop 8. And talking about it feels to me like the same spotlight stealing that the marching in the parade invoked in my friend. While it's fantastic, and possibly the best possible outcome for California same-sex partners, I imagine there are more than a few people who marched in our group, and those so far detached now that they wouldn't dream of marching with the group, that have lost something that they once found important and powerful in their lives. I'll admit that the effect upon myself is less than it likely is on others, on life-long members with broken hearts over their church's actions during Prop 8. The repeal of Prop 8 won't change that. The relationship between person and church remains broke. There will be more than a few forgotten soldiers from this battle. All those cheering people, all that happiness, all that joy, won't remove the bits of dread Robyn feels when she goes to church, a church she dedicated a greater part of her life to. And she is but one amongst many.

One can of course argue that the recognition of the church's flaws is its own sort of gift for those who are now less active or inactive all together. That the choice is empowering. That they're now on a better course that may, who knows, lead somewhere better and greater in the future. I agree mostly with that, but even when a decision is the right one to make, that doesn't make it easy and without painful repercussions; (Warning: I started watching Breaking Bad recently, so my blog posts might frequently reference it now) like when Jesse Pinkman's parents kicked him out of their home(s) and lives. Preservation doesn't always feel good.

To my fellow strugglers and drifters, to my friends, to my wife, to my daughter--for our history with the issue will one day likely cause her confusion--my heart goes out to you, even during these glorious days, when God is proving that he truly is good. I hope you all end up happy, wherever your trail leads you, whether it be down a wide street lined with thousands of jubilant people, or sitting quietly alone by yourself wondering where and when everything that once seemed so easy and simple changed.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1)

I believe this review is spoiler free.

A confession: I like to act the part of  a book snob. Confession two: I've read a lot of fantasy novels. Confession two (b): Most of those fantasy novels have the words "Dungeons & Dragons" on the cover. I actually have a hard time reading non-D&D fantasy books. Being honest, I can't say it has anything to do with the quality of writing, but everything to do with the make up of the fantasy world depicted. Of course I like the Lord of Rings trilogy, which is basically the ancestor of all D&D fantasy; there's a familiarity there that settles well with me. I've read a couple World of Warcraft books too, which if Lord of the Rings is the grandfather of D&D then World of Warcraft and D&D are cousins if not siblings (everyone knows it's important to map out paternal hierarchy across generations in fantasy writing--there's nothing more sacred than the family tree).

This insistent adherence to D&D makes for a strange dichotomy. Many (most?) read fantasy as a sort of escape; it presents a place where rules are broken, where limitations are removed. It offers a place where we can easily imagine ourselves as, if not something more, at least something other than what we currently are. But when I read books in the genre that drift too far from the familiarity of the D&D world I can't get into them. I want the rules and laws I'm familiar with to hold. I want fireballs to work a certain way. I want the way you learn magic to work the same ways. I want orcs. I want dwarfs. Leave these familiar and sacred grounds and I'm hesitant to follow. I've started a few other fantasy books that are outside of the D&D landscape but usually I don't finish them. I'll even grant that the few I've started (that I can think of off the top of my head) likely have better writing than 99% of the D&D books I've read, but I just can't finish them. I quit reading the first "Game of Thrones" book after reading about a fifth of it (right about the point when Brann is pushed out the window). My friends praised "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" highly enough that I picked it up eventually and I don't think I made it halfway through before I discarded it.

So my great praise for "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss is this: it is completely unrelated to D&D and I finished it. I even finished it rather quickly. It has its flaws--these relate to my desire to be a book snob--but as far as a fantasy story goes it is top notch. The tension in the story is almost palatable in sections, especially later in the book. The plot and the speed at which the story moves is masterful. The magic is interesting and well thought out. The world feels whole and vast, even though we only get a fairly small glimpse of it in this story.

On I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars. Why not five? I think there was some weakness around the main character. I don't have a problem with precocious children as main characters (I love Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird and Ruth in Housekeeping) but Kvothe changed very little from about age 11 to 15. Outside of his magical prowess I didn't feel like he grew much at all. There almost felt to be a mild regression, he was a man at 11 and a young man by the end of the book when he was 15. Perhaps this was intentional but it felt accidental to me. Secondly, the character wasn't super interesting to me. I kind of disliked him. Again, it could be intentional, but I had the sense that I was suppose to really like the kid. That being said, I must have had some connection with the character since I was pulled along through his story eagerly and rapidly (I originally misspelled that word "rabidly"). There were also some stylistic ticks that bothered me. The author (or Kvothe) would, rather than try to fully explain a feeling, say something like, "If you've never been 'X' then you wouldn't understand." For instance, "If you've never been poor...", "If you've never been a musician...", "If you've never been stuck in a [literal] tight spot..." These are where a really great writer has an opportunity to shine, to let us who have never been in those situations gain some appreciation of them, but instead he punts on them. As far as the story went I was a little underwhelmed by Kvothe's life on the streets. I don't think it fully drew you into the misery and hardship he was suppose to be feeling there. And once he was in the University I grew a little bored of sentences that looked something like, "And I knew I was on the edge of disaster." Or "There was no way I'd be able to make it through another term." More broadly I felt, especially in the beginning, that while the author used the tools of writing well to move his story along, I couldn't help but notice the tools, it felt akin to looking at a sculpture that somehow made you think more about the chisel used to sculpt it than the final product itself.

I'll read more of the series though. I actually look forward to the post adolescence books more than this coming of age story.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Les Misérables, Unabridged.

I read this book for a few reasons. I like reading classics. Unlike many people, I enjoyed the latest movie version of the musical (I even defended its "villian"). I had this recent epiphany: approximately, Les Mis is to American liberalism what Atlas Shrugged is to American conservatism. And finally, the most compelling one: of the handful of women I most respect in the world, a majority of them love the story.

I like to read things that my friends love. I don't always have a great expectation of loving the thing myself; I mainly like seeing what sets them afire. In retrospect reading the unabridged version likely misses the mark on that front. Along the way I haven't encountered anyone clarifying that what they loved was this long form of the story and even beyond that what most people seem to love is the musical and not the actual novel, not even the abridged version. Much of what I thought while reading the book has a great deal to do with its relationship to the musical.

I've seen the musical, as an actual musical, only once a long time ago. My knowledge of the musical is really a knowledge of the recent movie. I'm not sure how close the movie sticks to the lines of the musical. I assume it was fairly close because most of the complaints about the movie revolved around the singing and not about wandering too far from the plot as laid out by the musical.

Walking away from the movie my biggest complaint was that the suicide of Javert made no sense. Robyn insisted it made perfect sense, that he had all his ideals fall down around him and thus felt a wasted life. I could see this happening to a person, but it didn't make sense to me because the truth that he discovered was that rigidness to rules was flawed and that true goodness came through redemption and forgiveness. So either he learned that lessen or he didn't. If he didn't, then his former life still could hold meaning. If he did learn it, then he should have been able to apply it to even himself. The suicide seemed unnecessary for a man who learned what he had just learned, even though it came along with a significant loss of prior beliefs. The book has the advantage of entering into Javert's mind but beyond that it includes a scene that's missing from the musical that I think is crucial to understanding Javert's final act. After Jean Valjean set's Javert free they encounter each other again, but this time Jean Valjean is captured by Javert and Javert eventually set's Jean Valjean free. Now Javert is not only struggling with which ideal is right, but recognizes a sort of failure in himself as defined by his older view of life. He has let a convict go. He has subverted the law. He has been weak. He has set his personal feelings above the good of the country. He no longer feels consistent. In a way the convict has turned him into a criminal as well. He still clings to this old way of thinking while having acted upon the new way that Jean Valjean has shown him. But he can't set everything back in order. He is, of course, also affected by the fact that he now sees that good can come from one who was once a convict (still is a convict in Javert's eyes). But I gather it is the lesser influence on his eventual decision to end his life. By stripping away the larger influence, by removing the scene where Javert releases Jean Valjean, the musical is murky and confusing where the novel is clear and easy to follow.

There were many more differences between the musical and the book. Forgetting for a moment the plethora of asides the novel takes, the individual characters aren't quite as angelic in the novel. Jean Valjean and Marius in particular are three-dimensional in the novel where in the musical they are, while quite admirable, unabashedly flat. We get to see Jean Valjean continue to struggle to make good choices even after his incident with the Bishop. It becomes a mental effort to stay on the right path; while in the musical you get the sense that a demon became a saint in an instance, the novel let's us see it's a difficult and deliberate process.

Even very late in the story, and Jean Valjean's life, he struggles with an unspoken animosity toward Marius as the latter encroaches on the happiness that Jean Valjean has created with Cosette. To guard and eventually save Marius is a decision he makes only after first trying to flee the country with Cosette so that the two lovers cleaving to one another might not in turn cleave Cosette from Jean Valjean. Even his saving of Marius seems to be done somewhat begrudgingly. And later, when Jean Valjean tells Marius of his life, Marius does not instantly accept him for who he is now. Instead he too acts begrudgingly. He consents to let Jean Valjean to visit with Cosette, but only in the evenings and slowly he makes the meetings more uncomfortable until it's clear that Jean should no longer return.

This conflict between the two makes the ending all the better. We get to see how Jean Valjean makes his biggest sacrifice. He tells Marius his life story so that he can be cast off. He sacrifices his own happiness so that Marius and Cosette never need be put at risk for harboring a convict, even if unknowingly. Much of his prior good deeds still produced some happiness in him, but this act was nothing but sadness and misery. It hurt so much that it sapped his soul and after months of loneliness (a longer time frame than the musical portrays) it saps away his life too.

Marius then stumbles upon the fact that Jean Valjean saved him from the battle and made his reunion with Cosette possible. It is at this point that Marius realizes how wrong he has acted because of lack of information. The impact of the final scene is greatly enhanced with the tension of these two characters as a backdrop. This is something the musical misses out on.

Another major difference: Eponine. In the novel she is the one that summons Marius to the barricade and as she lays dying in his arms she admits that she drew him there because she thought it would please her knowing that he would die there, that if she couldn't have him then no one could. The musical makes her much more agreeable, Marius's first guardian angel at the barricade who survives just long enough for his second (Jean Valjean) to arrive and pick up where she left off.
At this point I can't recall all the differences between the stories, but I recall noting quite frequently along the way that things were playing out differently in the novel.  One last thing I did want to note is that the Inn-Keeper and his wife are far more sinister in the novel. The movie made them into jesters where the novel had them more akin to assassins.

That all being said, I wish I hadn't read the unabridged version of the novel. I haven't read a lot of "epic" novels (Crime and Punishment might be the only one that nears the length of this one), but this story didn't feel epic to me. It didn't feel like it needed to be 1400 pages long. It didn't feel expansive. It felt like a story interrupted by very long and self aware tangents. The tangents felt like they were intended to serve the purpose of cliffhangers but unlike cliffhangers turning the page wouldn't lead you anywhere along the story. Many of the asides didn't add to the story proper and really just slowed the pacing of the book. In the end, when I would recognize and aside (they're very obvious) I would skip over them rather than spend the next ten or twenty or sometimes forty pages reading text that felt more appropriate for an encyclopedia than a novel. In comparison Crime and Punishment was long but it always felt on task, it was always moving the story forward. And though a story like Moby Dick isn't as long and has it's own little asides they always felt more integral to the story. I don't kow if this rightly explains the difference but I feel like where Les Mis's asides taught you history, Moby Dick's asides taught you about a mythology; somehow the latter seems more integral to a story than the former.

Beyond the asides there were some paragraphs that were an exercise in Hugo coming up with as many different ways to express a single idea as possible. I imagine they amused him greatly, but they were an impediment to my reading and enjoyment of the novel.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I've Learned From My Child

I've been wanting to write about this topic for a while but I keep putting it off because I predict it will be full of cliches, which sounds boring to me, and because I don't want to write something that implies I think you have to have a child to be a complete person. I reject the latter notion and hope it is not the impression that the reader walks away with. Life works in all sorts of different ways, and I mean only to talk about my life without judgement or assumed understanding of anyone elses life, regardless of any language used here that might lead someone to believe otherwise. I recognize the experiences I've gained with Berkeley come with a loss of other potential great and enlightening experiences. End preamble.

Going into parenting my eyes were wide open to the fact that I'd get to learn all sorts of things about sacrifice. I'd get to sacrifice free time, sleep, money, sleep, time with Robyn, sleep. And did I mention sleep? I've probably learned more about sacrifice than I expected but I haven't felt any great revelation there--the fact that I can survive on 7 hours of sleep instead of 9 isn't exactly groundbreaking--and discussing that particular topic without stepping on a multitude of cliches is probably near impossible so I won't linger any longer there.

The thing about life, at least my life, is that there is so much of it I don't remember. Without thinking really hard I couldn't tell you much about what happened yesterday. I could talk about some major milestones from last year, but ask me about a particular date from 2012 and I'd likely look at you stupidly. What was high school like? The question conjures emotions more than specific events. What was it like to be a preteen? It has something to do with riding BMX bikes and playing kickball. Before that? I don't know. I can see glue sliding down paper, maybe I was seven, maybe I was six, maybe I was five. Before that? Nothing.

Barring the invention of a time machine, watching Berkeley is likely the closest I'll ever get to re-experiencing faint memories and stages of life I have absolutely no memory of. Granted, it's impossible that our experience were the same, but I'm sure there is a reasonably sized overlap. There is something primal about watching your child stumble their way through new experiences and language that, I think, goes beyond the love of a parent for a child. It's a glimpse into your own life, it binds you not only to your child but back to yourself as well, and possibly, on really good days, it binds you to all of humankind. It's not just me I see there playing with stickers or having a one on one conversation with a stuffed animal, it's my wife, it's my brother, it's my father, it's my mother, it's my friends, it's the guy who bugs me on the bus, it's my bosses, and it's billions of people I've never met. We were all once there, so new and so fragile. But even on the average day it feels like staring into a mirror that reflects my past. So much of my own forgotten experiences are grounded there in reality before me, and so I learn who I am by watching who she is.

The second thing I've learned about, though I don't claim to fully understand it, is a new aspect to the relativity of time. This isn't about how the individual days can sometimes drag along while the years seem to fly by, which is also worth noting. But it's about how even though I have substantially fewer hours in the day to get stuff done, I've somehow managed to feel more productive since Berkeley was born. It feels like the same paradox that is taught at church about tithing; somehow, by giving money away, you end up with more of it. And somehow, giving more of my time results in having more of it. My explanation is that this experience is like a crucible. It burns away excess, what is most important comes into great focus when the number of hours you have to yourself, to do whatever you want, is reduced greatly. I've put aside many things and now focus on the stuff that really matters to me. She's forced me take that look and to make those choices. Sometimes it's a conscious decision but it works at a lower level too; things have been intentionally put aside while others have fallen to the wayside almost unknowingly and it's surprising how little I miss most of them.

When did she teach me all of this? I honestly don't know. But I'm grateful for the chance to learn and the opportunity to be her father. I hope there is much more of this sort of thing in store.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Road, Story Two

Here is the second story in my set of stories. Freshly finished.

Friends by Shawn Kessler

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Small Step in a Big Project

The last two years I've been "working" on what I think is an interesting project. In brief, it's a set of short stories loosely based on characters in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. I don't know how much interest the stories will hold to anyone who hasn't read the book or seen the movie, but I think (more like hope) they can stand on their own even without the prehistory. But for the benefit of anyone who is nice enough to read my stories without the time or inclination to read the entire book I'll talk a little about the stories as I post them here. All of the stories will include an intersection with The Road; the man and the boy from The Road will be in each story although they are not the main characters in my stories. If you've read The Road you'll likely recognize the intersecting point but I didn't stick to the exact details found in The Road because the goal was more to explore the characters than to adhere to the original novel as if it were gospel.

I have completed two stories so far. I have an outline for two others and hope, in the end, to create at least two more beyond these.

The first story I'm sharing is the one that put the idea in my head in the first place and, when everything is completed, the compilation will likely share the title with this story. It's rated R or NC-17. I plan for other stories to be less graphic. I actually wrote it shortly after reading Blood Meridian, I think the tone and characters reflect this fact.

"The ugly fact is books are made out of books." -- Cormac McCarthy

Things Found on The Road by Shawn Kessler

I might talk further about this story in a later post. I don't want to include any spoilers here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Night Noises

A poem I wrote when sleep was hard to procure. 

Night Noises

Awoke from sleep
By some bleak seabird
Gray against black water
Afloat upon the distant ocean
Waning moon, 
Forlorn Froth
Something dredged from the depths
Where the water meets the shore
Closer, nearer
Atop sanded crests of dunes
A lupine specter 
Howling, barking, whining
Closer yet. 
Unknown feet lift and fall
Once on four, now on two
Yet still padded like a paw
Crunching leaves
Fences scraped then jumped
The Moon obscured by tree and house
Cats on prowl, raccoons too
Both protest with hiss and growl
Then the silence takes its form
Ghosts and ghouls
Werewolves, vampires
Stalkers, killers
All heaped up at the door
Dog ears perked, lifted heads
The slightest click
Then the dread 
Something on the stairs
A creak
A crack
And nothing more

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Day on the Track

Once upon a time I wanted to be a race car driver. Saturday was likely the closest I'll ever get to that once upon a time dream.

Let me start over. Once upon a time I thought I could really be a race car driver. I still want to be one.

For Christmas I had scheduled, for my brother and me, a day on the track at Laguna Seca near Monterey, CA. The track was accidentally double-booked and so our event was cancelled. Frank looked around the Internet and found that NASA (which probably doesn't stand for what you think it stands for) hosts track days as well in our area. We quickly signed up  for a day at The Sonoma Raceway, aka Sears Point (for about half the price of the prior one we had hoped to do). To be honest, while the price decrease was nice I was a little disappointed to not get to drive Laguna Seca. However, I'm now convinced, 100%, that this was the best possible outcome. The Sonoma Raceway is an incredibly fun track to drive and I'm under the impression that NASA is a much better organization to be involved with than the other business I had singed up for.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Everything really started prior to the actual day of the event (we only signed up two weeks before the events so we had a compressed scheduled to get ready). First I had to get a helmet. On the pretty good chance that I would love every minute and second of the day and want to do more events I bought a new one instead of renting one. Frank went all the way out by Pleasanton to get a pair for him and me and I drove down that night to get it from his house. Then the next day I had to take my car and helmet to a service shop to have the car teched and the helmet verified. The tech was free, which was surprising but nice! They go over the car, make sure your brakes and tires look like they can handle a day of hard driving, check your fluids, look for leaks, check lights, etc. I passed and was officially all set for the day.

Friday, the day before the track event, Frank drove up and stayed the night. We should have gone to bed a little early but instead we spent about an hour playing Grand Turismo 4 learning the layout of the track (video games have never been so useful). Then we rolled out of bed at 5:30am (this is how you know I love driving, I don't roll out of bed at 5:30am for anything). We prepped our cars and headed north! We stopped for gas on our way up and as we filled up a guy came by to inform us that it would be epic to see us line up at a light on Gerry and race.

For a little clarity, Frank took his 2012 Grand Sport red Corvette to the event and I brought my 2009 black BMW M6. They're flashy cars and guys have a hard time not noticing them.

It was a nice clear drive up north. Little to no traffic. We saw a few other cars on trailers clearly being towed to the event. After getting on highway 37 toward Sonoma we came upon a thick layer of fog. The road gained a fair amount of elevation and we found ourselves overlooking a cow pasture covered in a layer of thick fog (the fact that it was a cow pasture wouldn't be revealed until our drive home when the fog had burned off and we drove through the same pasture beautifully lit by the setting sun). It was one of the prettiest mornings I've ever seen. It felt like we were on the peak of some mountain with a ring of clouds around us. Tall power station towers peaked out just above the fog and the sun was on the verge of rising so there was just the lightest color to everything. It boded well for a great day. Then we sank into the fog and quickly arrived at the track.

Arrival was probably the worst part of the day. We arrived about an hour before the first mandatory meeting and we needed all of it to figure out what we were suppose to be doing. We ended up parking where our map said NO PARKING, but all the other spots had been filled or were reserved for racing class cars. But after that it was smooth sailing the rest of the day and no one harassed us about parking where we did.

We had an all drivers meeting at 8am. There we learned the rules (no passing in our group except in three straight aways), a set of hand signals, and the meaning of the flags. In addition we met our instructors for the day. Since this was both of our first times out on a track we were in group 1. This is the noob group. The great thing about the noob group is an instructor rides with you the whole time. They give you valuable tips on where to drive, how fast you can take a corner, when to break and generally remind you of anything you might forget while driving on a track for the first time trying to take in so much new stuff (there is a lot to forget). My instructor was Sean. He was driving in group 4, which was the highest non-racing group. He was an immense help that day and I think perfect for me and how I learn.

I spent a little time talking to him and then he offered to let me ride in his car when he went out in his group (which was happening before I went out in my group). First I ran back over to my car and taped a big number 35 on the side of my car, grabbed my helmet and then came back to the staging area where Sean was lined-up in his fairly new Subaru BRZ. It was the first time he had taken the car out on a track and he clearly had a lot of fun driving it. It was very helpful to be in the car as he took the correct line and to feel the types of speeds that were appropriate for the track, it might have been the single most helpful thing he did for me that day.

I should explain how the event works a little more. There were a bunch of different groups and each group was on the track multiple times, either for 20 or 30 minute sessions. After each of group 1 sessions the drivers in the group would do a "download" where the group leader would talk about what people did wrong and what people did right. Then we had between 30 minutes and 2 hours between our next run. There was a fair amount of downtime, but with lunch and watching other people drive the track it never felt like we were just waiting around.

Before each run you line up at the pre-grid. Sean met me there for my first run and we talked a little more about the line. I didn't line up anywhere near Frank, just randomly worked out that way, so we didn't go out on the track close to each other. The first two laps of the first session are under double yellow flags. So no passing and no driving super fast. This lets you get familiar with the track and find all the flag people on the track. After the double yellow they give you the green and you're free to drive at whatever speed you're comfortable with but still only allowed to pass on the designated straights. Everyone's newness made this first session pretty slow. We stayed bunched up and everyone seemed hesitant to make their first pass.

Directly in front of me was a newer Porsche GT2. In front of him was a similarly yeared 911. I was keeping up with them well and thought I could handle some more speed and Sean was feeling it too so after about the fourth lap he suggested I pass them. Hot dog!

The pass was a little difficult because the GT2 decided right around the same time to pass the 911 too. But it was fine. We both leaped frogged the 911 and then I expected the GT2 to disappear into the distance. But I kept up with him and still felt like my car and I had more in us. So at the next straight we passed him too.

Later in the day I passed the 911 again (and my brother in his Corvette). I mention these now because they, I felt, were the only markers I had for the day that really let me know how I was doing relative to the other drivers out there. Because there are so few limits on the cars you can bring to group 1 it made it very hard to compare drivers. I passed many Subaru WRXs and STIs, a Ford Focus, a Toyota Yaris, some Nissan's, Minis, Mazda Miatas, older 933 Porsches, etc; but I felt like the newer Porsches and the Corvette were the only cars near me that were of the same caliber as (or better than) my car. So those passes gave me some confidence that I was doing alright (also, no one passed me all day, I'm so boss).

A couple other things I learned during that first run. In a straight line my car is faster than I thought. When you go from 3rd to 4th and 4th to 5th gear you are literally slammed back into the seat. Later, when I was driving closer to Frank it was even clear that the M6 accelerated in a straight line pretty close to the same speed as his Corvette. I also learned the car can corner better than I expected for such a heavy car. I didn't need to slow down nearly as much as I thought I would. And finally, cars these days can stop soooo fast.

During that first session a young kid (I suspect he was 18, the youngest you can be to drive the event) spun his car 180 degrees in the final turn of the track. Luckily that is where you're going a mere 15-20 miles per hour so he didn't hurt anything. But it felt a little crazy to drive by him and see him sitting there facing the wrong direction. It got "real" right about then. So much happens on the track that when we were done with that session I talked with Frank and we both realized we had no idea how fast we were going anywhere on the track. Looking at the actual speed was like item 40 on a list of a 50 things you need to keep track of as a beginner. So much of the course, even after that first run, was run by feel as opposed to a continual tracking of real time speed. I'm certain as you want to go faster and do better the actual speed becomes more important, but for us beginners it was only something I glanced at on the straights (where I could hit about 95MPH) and some of the broader turns (where I averaged about 60MPH).

After I got out of the car and was walking over to the download session I texted Robyn, "OMG! OMG! OMG!" Seriously, the whole day felt like that.

At the first download session the instructor started calling people out, "Car number 15, what happened?" The person was then made to explain what went wrong. They called out events as small as running off the track for half a second (which kicks dirt onto the track), to missing the checkered flag and staying out on the track for one too many laps, to the spin out, to running your car into one of the walls (oh you just wait). This was a little shocking, and I imagine humbling for those who were called out in front of the rest of the group so unexpectedly. However, it added so much value to the experience for everyone. First it made the person who had messed up really analyze what they did wrong (I noted that no one was called out more than once, so I assume it also made them more cautious, aka less dangerous to other drivers) and it reminded those who hadn't messed up how you could mess up. The kid who spun out in particular was useful for me because it was a good reminder that at the speeds we were going it's a terrible idea to brake and turn at the same time. I thought of that multiple times while on the track that day and it likely saved me from making the same mistake.

Session two was twice as fun as session one. Unfortunately it was only half as long. The spacing of the cars stretched out quite a bit as people became more comfortable passing and everyone was driving at higher speeds now that they had some familiarity with the course. I passed my 911 friend again and a bunch of other slower moving vehicles. I finally had a bunch of open road in front of me and I could push the car as much as I wanted. This was something entirely different than following slower cars. Here I got to see how fast my car could slow from 95 to about 20mph. It was a much more of an exploratory driving and I felt like I was learning a lot about mine and the car's limits. And we were just starting to work on mastering turns 3 and 3a when a yellow flag came out. On the back side of the track a car had spun off the track and hit the tire barrier. We went around the track one more time and then they called us off the track, cutting our run in about half. We again went to the download and had a discussion about what went wrong for people including this gentleman's incident with the tire walls. His car wasn't completely totaled, it still drove, but would need some serious body work, and most importantly he seemed unharmed. I'm not sure of the exact model of his car but it looked to be a Honda or Toyota sedan of some sort. I'm certain he crashed going much slower than Frank and I were, which just went to show how much of a difference huge tires can make. :)

The wreck created a substantial adrenaline rush in me. And I started to double think bringing my car to the track ever again. My instructor told me that most days there are no accidents. He was surprised by already having one and the spin out earlier. I hadn't felt out of control on the track myself but had I been near either of these two cars it isn't out of the realm of possibilities that they could have taken me with them on their detours.

Session three I lined up in pre-grid just in front of my brother so we could finally get out on the track near each other and see how we were doing. We passed a few cars together and raced down a straight together. We also discovered together, that even though our cars accelerate much faster than a Yaris, it's still pretty hard to pass them if they're taking a better line out of a corner and getting on their gas too. I was surprised how that little car was handling the course in front of us.

I again had a lot of open space in front of me and worked at mastering the 3 and 3a combo. By the end of that round I felt like I was doing them pretty good and had really perfected not getting sucked into following other people's lines. It's hard to stick to your line, even if you know it's right, when the guy in front of you is taking a bad line. You naturally sort of just want to follow him.

After that session my instructor signed my little passport booklet and said I could go to group two if I wanted. He confirmed that I was doing great. Unfortunately I wasn't going to be at the event the next day so group two would have to wait. However, he said I could drive on my own if I wanted for the last session. Group two actually runs with group one, the only difference is they don't have instructors, but they have to follow the same passing rules. I felt good about this little promotion and drove the last session on my own. We also talked about how to handle turn 1. You go into that turn at close 100MPH and I was braking pretty hard before entering it and he showed me that I didn't need to brake at all if I changed my line a little.

Between session 3 and 4 an older Chinese couple came over to look at our cars and started pointing at Frank's and talking in Chinese. He broke out his Chinese and had a nice 20-30 minute long talk with them about cars. The wife at first refused to admit that Frank spoke Chinese, her husband kind of had to convince her. But then she was thrilled. It was pretty funny.

For session 4 I continued to focus on 3 and 3a but also worked at turn 1. I was really having fun there in that session. I felt at ease in the car. I felt in control of the car. I felt fast. I felt confident in the advice I had been given and I was now flying through turn 1. Unfortunately another car, this time a Subaru WRX, went off the track and broadsided the wall (lots of damage, but the guy again seemed okay) and our session ended a couple minutes early. But it was fine. Both Frank and I had a blast and were happy to have made it through the day without damaging our vehicles, which not everyone was so lucky.

It was seriously the funnest time ever. But I don't think I'll bring my M6 back. Too much carnage, and even though I didn't feel I was putting myself at risk with my driving, I clearly can't depend on other people's driving. There was one other wreck during the day and that was in group 4. None of the racing groups had an accident.

We stayed for a little group BBQ and then drove home. Highway 37 is seriously gorgeous, apparently at all hours of the day. You should go drive it some day, even if you're not going to the track.

The next day my calves hurt. Yeah, I worked them that hard. And this morning (two days later) my back and arms hurt. It's a nice little workout to go with the fun. Yesterday I think I was a little depressed. Thinking about my boring day job. Thinking about how I felt like I did so good. Maybe I could have succeeded as a race car driver.

But then I went to the park with Robyn and Berkeley. Slept in the sun. Pushed a little angel in a swing, kissed my beautiful wife, and knew I was blessed beyond belief.

Still, I'm gonna find my way back on a track somehow, some day.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Saying Important Things

This is something I wrote to myself a couple weeks ago. I post it now because I did contact my cousin and it turned out to be a positive experience.

How do you say something important to someone you don't really know?

This isn't a problem I normally have. If I have something I feel is important to say it’s either general enough that I can drop it on my blog (like littering on the internet) or it’s to someone I know well enough that I’m comfortable just saying it to them.

I have this cousin who’s about ten years younger than I. As with most of my cousins I don’t know her very well. There are a few of my cousins who I know better, but I could count the number of times I saw this cousin, or any of my cousins, on both hands. Although, at this point it’s probably fair to say whatever I once knew about even my closest cousins has little to nothing to do with who they are now. They aren't to be blamed for this thing. If it’s a failing, it’s all mine. Admittedly I didn't have a lot of opportunities to bond with my cousins, or aunts and uncles or grandparents while growing up. At best we saw some subset of them once a year, sometimes we’d go two or three years without in person contact. And now that I've been out of my parent’s house and in California for 16 years I see everyone even less.

Facebook has allowed me to interact with a few of my cousins less directly. I can at least see where they live and every now and then what they do with their days. Mostly though it just lets me know that they’re playing Farmville or need me to join their zombie apocalypse army. I’m not knocking anyone for playing those games, I play far too many video games to judge anyone on that account; I’m just establishing the limited view I get even with Facebook around. 

However, recently I friended this particular, younger, cousin on Facebook. I still can’t say I know her very well, but I can’t help but feel that had we been the same age and gone to the same school we would have been good friends. And more friends was a thing I could have sorely used during that time, and if I had to venture a guess she likely could have too. Even though such a rearranging of timelines and geographies is impossible, it doesn't detract from the fact that I have this feeling of kinship with her that I've never really felt before between myself and one of my non-immediate relatives.

And though this age gap and this spacial distance exists between us, and though I’m probably the cousin she knows least of all, I can’t help but want to connect with her in a meaningful way. I want to reach across those miles and tell her she’s a beautiful human being; that shit gets better; that life, when you stand in the light just right and close your eyes to the sun, is astonishing; I want her to know I’m rooting for her happiness. But how does one say that? How does one come out of the murky past and make such bold statements of affection? And how does one do it without coming across as creepy? I don’t know.

When I was sixteen, living in Washington, I met my “Uncle” Greg. He was twelve or fourteen years older than I was. He kept his exact age secret and it was one of the many things that made Greg mysterious to me (and everyone who met him). He isn't really my uncle and at the time he lived in California. He is my best friend's uncle. When I moved to California I moved in with my best friend and Greg. Admittedly the relationship I had with Greg was unusual. He was a mentor, a nonjudgmental sounding board, and--even with our age difference--above all else he was a friend. There were months during my four years of college when I spent more time with him than I did with anyone else, even my best friend. And though he had many mighty struggles of his own, he gave a young man who often felt alone in the world, hope in the future, and even more importantly, a contentedness with my own societal differences/awkwardnesses. More than anyone he helped me feel comfortable with who I was; figuring out how to do that allows me to remain comfortable with who I am today, even though that young man of 20 doesn't much resemble this older man of 34.

These thoughts of Greg feel relevant somehow. I suspect my cousin could benefit from someone like Greg in her life, honestly I think everyone could. But more to the point, it lends some credence to the myriad of ways that people can connect, despite their different experiences and ages.

Regardless, I don’t even know what I would say to her, other than what I already mentioned before. I’d probably send her MP3s to listen to and books to read, I’d beg her to never stop writing. I’d expect the things that helped me to have the same impact upon her. She likely needs something else, maybe she needs nothing, maybe she’s tired of other people--especially men--trying to fix her, but I've convinced myself she absolutely needed The Downward Spiral five years ago. Maybe she has her own Pretty Hate Machine and Little Earthquakes. Maybe she has her shit together. Maybe I've mistaken the whole thing, but couldn't everyone use one more friend to lean on even in the best of circumstances?

I suppose I could just be blunt about it. It’s not like I can ruin our nonexistent friendship. Worst case she can mark me down as a crazy cousin. Or maybe I can casually interact with her more. But maybe she’ll miss what I’m trying to say and maybe I’ll forget what I’m trying to say. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Things I Wish We Didn't Carry

We're on the verge of moving Berkeley from her crib to a bed. Part of this move will require that she learn when it's acceptable to get up in the morning. The notion of hours and time are, I imagine, rather vague in her mind at this point. A friend pointed us to some devices that use colored lights to let a child know when they should remain in bed and when they can get up.

While browsing through these devices I had this nagging reservation. Berkeley has slept without the need for a nightlight in her room; adding one now was making me nervous. I realized I don't want her to become dependent on a nightlight, but more importantly, I don't want her to become afraid of the dark.

Last night she woke at 2:30am. Robyn tended to her for a few minutes and then came back to bed. Maybe a half hour later she was up again crying. I went in and the first thing she requested was that I turn on the light. I  probably spent an hour or so with her and she revealed that she was worried about "the lions." She not only voiced this concern, but kept checking behind her back as if she expected to be attacked at any moment.

Here I worry about DNA. I'm worried that if you zoom in close enough you will find a little sequence of A's, G's, C's, and T's that spell something frightening on both hers and mine. But that's not all I worry about. I also worry about the environment. I worry that I've hinted to her of my own fear. I worry she's picked up from my behavior that one SHOULD be afraid of the dark, even if one isn't predisposed to be so.

I often think of the things I want to pass along to her, but not this--this is a thing I hope we don't both have to carry. I've come pretty far I think. The rational mind of an adult can cope well where a child's mind is more prone to fantasy. I suspect this sort of thing happens to all children at some point; nonetheless, I'll feel guilty if it sticks long to her.

Normally we let her cry a bit when she wakes and usually she settles back in and falls asleep. But this time I heard it; it wasn't just discomfort or frustration, there was fear there. It echoed around the inside of my head like the cry of a lost child draped in white, running through some dark and unknown forest. It sounded too much like one of my own. I couldn't remain in bed and I found myself staying with her longer than usual.

When I was a child I had a couple requirements for sleeping. I wanted curtains closed; this allowed me to avoid werewolves. I wanted doors closed; this prevented mass murders from standing in my doorway. I wanted closets closed; this allowed fewer shapes for my mind to contort. The problem was anything could take a terrible shape. A bookcase is easily a large man. A dresser a gaping mouth. 

But the real solution was people. If I could surround myself with people I knew then I would be fine. Where people were not available, which normally they weren't, dogs made acceptable replacements. 

I can't imagine this is significantly different than most other childhoods. And as the years went by I was relatively content as long as I had a dog willing to sleep in my room. 

This all changed when we moved from Indiana to Washington. This was a stressful time in my young life. I hated the move. I left some really good friends behind. I was starting high school a year earlier than I had planned (because in Indiana 9th grade was the last year of junior high but in Washington it was the first year of high school). And generally I was just feeling out of place in the town we moved to.

We stayed with some friends for a little while in this new town. It was a small town that lived and died with the lumber industry. It was sort of remote and I guess most people felt safe there. The people we lived with had a penchant for leaving their downstairs back door unlocked. Their house wasn't massive so my brother and I ended up sleeping downstairs with our two dogs. We slept on two couches, one on each side of the room. And of course the state of the door always bugged me, but since it wasn't my house I guess I felt weird about locking their door for them.

One night, after having been asleep for a while, I heard a high pitched ringing noise in my ear. First it wasn't very loud but it grew and grew with strength. It grew so much that it woke me fully and I opened my eyes. There, clearly, standing next to me was a bearded man in a flannel jacket. He held a large knife over his head. He slashed it down at me. I tried to move my hands but they wouldn't budge. So instead I closed my eyes and thought, "this is what it's like to die." There was no pain. Just a horrible paralysis and the ceaseless ringing. It went on and on for what felt like hours. During that time I thought about how my dogs and my brother had failed me. How did the man get in without rousing any of them? 

Eventually I regained control of my body. I opened my eyes and all was well in the room. There was no man.  I had no wounds. The dogs slept next to my couch. My brother slept on his. As for me? I didn't sleep the following two nights. Eventually exhaustion took me and I returned to a relatively normal sleeping schedule. Unfortunately from that time forward, at various intervals, I'm woken by that same ringing noise and by that same dreadful paralysis. I've learned to keep my eyes close and to wait it out. But fear always hangs over me during those minutes that disappear like kidnapped children. I'm certain the stress of them must shave away hours of my life. 

Once I'm awake I have to talk my self out of them being some sort of harbinger of imminent doom. I simultaneously want them to mean something and nothing. I want them to not just be some flaw in my brain, so I give them meaning, but I hate the only meaning I can find for them.Whatever it is, it has become more tricky as I've learned to cope. I now have dreams that start with the ringing. When I wake from the dream--feeling safe that it is over--something odd or frightening will happen. Soon I realize I'm still dreaming, caught in some dark Inception plot. So when I finally do awake, I have to wonder if I'm still worming my way out of my subconscious. Other times I "wake" from so many different layers of dreaming that I'm left crying in my last and final dream, wondering if I'll ever really wake or if I'm stuck there forever, wherever there is.

And so it's not the common dream I worry about in Berkeley's DNA, nor even nightmares. No, instead I hope night terrors will always only be a thing she knows about because her father has them and that they forever remain something she does not have to carry.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stairway to Heaven

I've been wanting to share with you how we might all get to heaven. It's been on the tip of my tongue for the longest time. Then it hit me last night while lying in bed. Someone just needs to build a stairway. It's no job for the government, nor even private enterprise. It requires something else.

You start with this (
And end with this )
In between you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, repeat

Think of this ( and this ) as arms wrapped around a body. Think of them as the left and right ventricles of a heart. Think of them as a heart and a brain. Think of them as yin and yang. Think of them as hand and foot. Think of them as man and woman. Think of them as parent and child. Think of them. Then think of those numbers in between as breathes of air. Think of them as heartbeats. Think of them an electromagnetic waves. Think of them as seconds. Think of them as years. Think of them as stairs. Think of them.

Here is the miracle and the paradox. If you buy the album (or already own it), go search it out, put it on your iPod/iPhone/iPad/CD player. Make sure it is plugged into an outlet. If you're not overly familiar with your device, spend some time to discover the location of the repeat button. Set it to repeat. Hit play. Now marvel at how every song is greater than the one before it. Ingest every sound; from that little click at the beginning to the final one at the end. Wrap your arms around someone you love and watch as the end becomes the beginning and there is nothing but increase forever and ever.

Follow these stairs up. I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where Movies Meet Reality. Or, Zero Dark Thirty at Noon

I don't want to get into the habit of making my weekly blog post about movies I've recently seen; that feels a bit like cheating and I don't have that much interesting to say about movies anyway. I probably shouldn't worry about it becoming habit since I'm averaging about five movies a year these days. But I wanted to write about this one in particular because of a certain juxtaposition with events that happened directly after seeing it.

Yesterday I had some free time and I hadn't seen my brother in about a month so I talked him into going to see a movie. I've really wanted to see Zero Dark Thirty and it looked too intense for Robyn so it  was a good choice for us. To keep my critique to a minimum, let me just say the movie was superb. What you need to know is that the movie is about The War on Terrorism. It spans both the Bush and Obama administrations and is told mainly from the point of view of the CIA. It culminates with the now famous Bin Laden raid. The movie takes place across the globe but spends most of its time lingering over real events in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After our noon viewing of the movie I drove my brother back to his house. He lives on Moffett Field, which is technically a NASA installation but it welcomes military families from all branches of the service in their small housing area. It's a mixed bag there, they have army and marines for sure and I think some air force and navy families as well, but it's a very small community. There are perhaps fifty buildings that home a few hundred families. Four or five streets run north to south and the same number crisscross them east to west. Once you enter the housing area, driving to my brothers house takes about two minutes and requires that you pass just about every other house before arriving at his. If you hate the monotony that some suburban housing developments have made famous, then the stark sameness of military housing might drive you mad.

We turned down one of these streets lined with houses of muted browns and grays; here we immediately saw two things. In the foreground a group of kids congregated around a small makeshift lemonade-stand, and in the background four or five cop cars were parked outside one of the homes. It seemed apparent that the kids were using the lemonade-stand as an excuse to stand around and gawk at the happenings further down the street. Between the parked cars and the sparse trees it wasn't obvious what the police were doing but my brother said, "Oh no, not again. This guy has had it rough."

At this point I wish I were a painter or photographer rather than a writer. As we drew closer we saw what is in my mind perhaps the most iconic image I've ever witnessed. I hesitate to even explain, as I'm certain I won't do it justice. On the door frame of the house hung a single red flag with the small yellowish symbols that are peculiar to the U.S. Marines. Below the flag sat a man in shorts and a tank-top. His chest and arms had a few tattoos that further marked him as a military man. But his most obvious badges of service were his missing legs and the wheelchair he sat in. His eyes and face--they haunt me already--stared blankly ahead. He looked not at the cops nor at the children a little ways off, instead he stared at the empty space between the two groups. At one point we were in his line of sight but I'm certain he looked right through us, into some other world. At his side sat a full grown black Labrador. One hand rested on the dog's head, the other in his lap.

The police officers formed a misshapen semicircle around him. No one appeared to be in charge. They all looked uncomfortable in their uniforms. Their body language hinted at a resistance to the task at hand, their shoulders drooped with regret and their knees bent with sadness, or maybe respect. The cops stood around and the man and his dog sat still, all waited for something to happen. But all that happened was two brothers drove by in a car none of them will likely remember. We rounded the next corner and they were gone from our sight.

My brother explained that the man had lost his legs in Iraq, which seemed obvious, but he also lost his hearing and large parts of his cognitive abilities. He can't speak. He has a wife and a baby that was merely months old when he was wounded. We saw neither as we passed by. Who knows how much pain we've collectively created here in just one house, much less across the country and across the world.

Later I went skateboarding with my nephew through the neighborhood and out around the base. We looked at the machines of war that are littered across the base. It being a NASA installation they only have a few such machines and most of them are out of service. We passed below the blimp hanger that is under repair. They've stripped it of its paneling and have just started putting new ones up. We marveled at the things man can build and fix, like a skeleton getting its skin reapplied.

My nephew stopped at the housing office to look for candy (I've been sworn to secrecy on whether or not he found any). While he scavenged I skated ahead a little ways and then took a seat on the curb to wait for him. Without being aware of it I'd sat down ten or fifteen feet from where the man sat an hour earlier. Everyone had cleared out, the kids, the cops, the man, the dog. I tried for a moment to imagine how he experienced the world. What it might be like to sit in that chair. To be surrounded by silence and confusion. And I failed. All I saw was grass and houses and trees, heard the freeway in the distance. I've likely been more successful sitting on a plane trying to imagine what a bird might think as it flies. I looked up at his flag still blowing in the breeze and wondered to myself how it is we can fix that blimp hanger out there with ease while it seems like there is so little we can do for a broken man.

Ten years from now I might not remember too much about what happened in that theater. But the images from the day will probably play through my mind like a movie for the rest of my life.