Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Full Story Here

Tom blew his car horn as a squat, cube-shaped car switched lanes in front of him. “Self-driving HOOEY!” he muttered.

“You have self-driving cars?” said Kaylen. “We are just now getting that sort of technology in America. That is so cool!”

“Cool?” repeated Tom. “Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Take a look, though!” Tom pointed to the car that had just cut in front of him.

The car had four wheels but otherwise looked alien to Kaylen’s eyes, unlike any automobile she had ever seen. It was a box-shaped car with vertical windows on all sides, akin to a gondola, and the wheels were small and appeared to be able to go in any direction, similar to the wheels of a dolly. Despite this modern design, the car seemed to trundle along in a very uncertain fashion. It moved a foot into Tom’s lane and then stopped and readjusted. On the top of the car was a reflective orb suspended like a bell from a small frame, and above this belfry was an antenna that pointed upward. The car continued moving very cautiously forward, stopping abruptly as a sheet of paper blew across the roadway.

Tom honked again. “These self-driving cars are so flighty. It’s amazing that they move at all. They are so sensitive to interruptions, that they can barely move above 5 miles per hour.”

“Well, new technology always has hiccups when it’s first introduced,” noted Kaylen.

“Spoken like someone who has witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies!” said Tom brightly. “You should have seen the first prototype of these cars. They were the opposite of now. They were forever bursting with energy, so they would routinely be bumping into cars in front of them. Just a sort of persistent tap in the rear as we were moving forward in stop-and-go traffic. Very annoying. So the manufacturer of the car reprogrammed them to be safer. Now, the cars of petrified of moving at all!”

Kaylen listened to all this, absorbing the sight of the timid car. It completed its lane change and seemed to settle down somewhat, having for the moment reached an equilibrium. “I’m sure they will work out the glitches before too long.”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Everyone is chattering about innovation, but innovation here always seem to hit some snags.”

“The point of purgatory,” continued Tom, “As you may have read in certain religious texts, is purification, or expiation. It’s not the fire of hell—it’s the fire of purification. And what better way to expiate and make someone suffer…than by making them sit in traffic.” Tom said this last part as his cab slowed to a complete stop. To the right, a giant billboard displayed a map of the traffic circles, with each circle colored brightly in either yellow or red colors. As Kaylen watched the billboard, the outer circle’s color turned from yellow to red.

“Hmm. Want to get a bite to eat?” said Tom. “There’s a pub not far from here that has exquisite Caribbean-inspired street tacos.”

Kaylen looked at the tightly interlocked cars all around them. “But, how will we get there?”

“Come with me!” said Tom, putting his car in park and opening his door to get out. “This jam will take at least an hour to sort out. We have the time.”

To be continued…

The Writer’s Quandary

This poem sums up what forms my writer’s block most of the time when I’m creating stories and poems.  I hesitate because I worry my work isn’t novel, special, or worthwhile.  Instead of pushing my limits, I am paralyzed by the idea that someone else can write my thoughts better than me, tell my stories more creatively.  Or even worse—has already penned and published my idea that I imagine is so unique.

“The Writer’s Quandary”

Have all the poems been written?

Has every story been told?

Are all the metaphors spoken,

And are all the similes old?

 

Can I add to mankind’s canon?

Can I make a new connection?

Or am I merely an echo,

A well-traveled intersection?

 

Am I even the first to have

Thought this, wondering what remains?

I doubt it, yet I continue:

For many great songs have refrains.

 

And perhaps I can add a gem

Of value through the work I do,

Whether repeating a truth once

More or sharing something that’s new.


In this age of ever-multiplying information, is there anything left to be added?  I’ll argue that no matter what, we can always keep asking questions and searching for answers, which is what I love to do…And perhaps that pursuit is not limited to research papers and essays, like I so often assume.  Asking questions and finding answers is one avenue where creative writing, from stories to plays to poems, can also expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world and each other.

Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Canva.com

An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

Remembering Rockwell—Snapshots of the Ordinary

I wish Norman Rockwell had been there.  Scenes like those were the stuff that inspired him, I think.  The little moments in life.  Something so ordinary it resonated with audiences and became extraordinary.  Rockwell had an eye for those moments.  He captured the humor, the sweetness, the tenderness.  Then he, or a Saturday Evening Post editor, enhanced the image with a simple but fitting caption.

I wish I were artistic or had my camera when those moments happened.  Instead, all I can do is snapshot the scenes in my mind, trying to imprint every detail for later recall.  I realize now that I have a mental scrapbook of moments like these.  And while it can be a delight to peruse them, I wish I could free them from those solitary pages to share with others.  But like dreams, these pictures and their emotions can rarely be brought to light without losing the meaning that I feel so keenly.  A glimmering quality is lost in translation.  Words can’t capture the entirety of what I try to communicate.  I doubt even the best writers communicate a thought or a picture as perfectly as they want—at least not often.

If people gave up because they knew perfection were impossible, though, where would we be?  Only by trying will we improve, so here I am.  Spilling my thoughts and stretching out the moments until I make the jump.  Here I go.

Getting Acquainted

“Look, Elaine.”  My sister and I had just slid into her car after a brief shopping expedition.  I was pointing across the parking lot.

“I wish I had my camera and could capture moments like these,” I commented wistfully, as my sister looked too.  “Isn’t that sweet?”

What had caught my attention was a uniformed police officer.  Standing at a corner of the sidewalk, he was approaching a woman who was walking her German shepherd mix dog, and by his body language, I could tell he was asking if he could pet the dog.  The woman agreed, and the officer bent down and tentatively reached out to introduce himself to the canine, who appeared to be a bit uncertain about the acquaintanceship.  It was a moment of vulnerability for both.  An ordinary scene that I had never seen before.  The dog obliged and let his head be petted as my sister and I drove away.

Here was a little moment in time where a police officer was an ordinary guy who liked dogs.  I wish I could have shared that occurrence with others as vividly as I experienced it.

A silly, optimistic part of me imagines that this Rockwell scene could change people’s perspectives and combat their prejudices.  But the moment these scenes become publicity, they tend to lose their credibility.  I think that was part of the appeal of the moment.  The people didn’t know they were being watched, which made the scene that much more touching.

Rainy Day Melancholy

I was eating a meal with some friends when something beyond the cafeteria window caught my eye.

“That’s so sad, isn’t it?” I commented, pointing out what I had just noticed to my friends, who turned to see for themselves.

“It’s the picture of finals week,” I continued.

“Yeah, that is pretty sad,” one of my friends agreed.

Trudging past the window was a dripping college student.  A bedraggled black umbrella drooped from his hand, almost unidentifiable.  It looked more like a kite than an umbrella, its tines bent and fabric torn into triangle-shaped scraps.  The student gazed at his umbrella with an attitude that seemed to mimic the mournful appearance of the umbrella.

I felt so sad for him when I saw his expression as he contemplated his ruined umbrella.  I hoped that his day improved and that what I saw in passing didn’t summarize how his finals were going.  Despite my sympathy, though, I admit there was something comical in the scene.  What I saw was the weird juxtaposition that Rockwell would capture, where a scene walked the tightrope between sorrow and humor, where perhaps one person took something a little too seriously when others wouldn’t.  It was just an umbrella, after all.  But I think I understand.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

This is the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Okay, fine. This is not the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done; this is the story of one of the worst things I’ve ever done. And, obviously, it’s not even really all that terrible, because I have no qualms telling any of you about it, ye anonymous internet reader, ye not-so-anonymous internet reader, or ye rando I’m swapping anecdotes with at a party.

So here it goes. When I was a sophomore in college, I semi-routinely went two-steppin’ with a group of friends at the local dance hall. Not for any great love of country/western music, as I actually dislike the genre. I can claim no higher motives than that all my friends were doing it, I’m a bit of a social caterpillar, and dancing can be objectively fun, especially with people who are good at it. Also, the guy I was into at the time sometimes made an appearance, so I was always hoping to run into him.

This one time, though, this time I’m telling you about, it was just me and a friend. We’ve lost touch since then, this friend and I, for a few valid reasons, but I still think fondly of her. She was, well, the fun friend. Some of you will know what I mean by this very simple description; for others, you should know that she was charming, clever, cheeky and opinionated, extremely generous and also incredibly impulsive. Arguably flighty, and openly flirty, she was fun, and she persuaded me to accompany her and her alone to the dance hall one night, because no one else could go, but she still wanted to go dancing.

It was she who would be the victim of that very bad thing I did, which occurred between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m., on the left-hand side of the first dance floor in the building.

We, two unaccompanied girls, stood on the edge of the shuffling couples, thereby signalling that we were ready to jump in at a moment’s invitation. We didn’t want for partners (well, she especially didn’t). Like most country/western halls, I gather, the atmosphere was congenial, and you, a male, could ask unknown females to dance without being inherently creepy. Unless, of course, you yourself were creepy.

This is the juncture where I will introduce the third player in the upcoming scene: Fedora Guy. In the spirit of charity, I should state that “creepy” is perhaps too strong a word for him. In all of this that I am about to tell, I never felt threatened, and he was perfectly polite in every interaction. But, he was…weird.

First off, he was wearing a fedora, a buttoned vest, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes that had, I think I recall, slightly pointed toes. Not to belabor the point, but this was a country/western dance hall, meaning that jeans and cowboy boots were the unofficial dress code, and if a hat was worn, it was obviously also a cowboy one.

Secondly, it was the way he danced. He danced much as I imagine an oily octopus might. He oozed his way rhythmically across the floor, attempting to exude what he thought was pizzaz while draping his tentacles as best he could around his partner.

Being that partner dancing with him was exactly as awkward as it looked. I know this, because I danced with him when he asked me that one time. I attempted to make small talk with him as we slimed our way across the floor. I thanked him for his trouble when we were done, though it was really all mine. I was determined to never dance with him ever again.

So, on that night out dancing with my Fun Friend, it was with quite a bit of panic that I watched Fedora Guy seep his way over until he was in front of us, and faux-suavely hold out his hand between the two of us, mutely asking: “Do either of you want to dance with me?” And so at last we come to it: the moment of the kind of bad thing I did.

I picked up my friend’s hand, and placed it in his.

He sucked her into his eight-legged orbit, where she remained for the next three to four minutes, while I went and hid.

Afterwards, she was, honestly, pretty much fuming at me, and she did not appreciate my defense at the time: “You said you needed a wingwoman, and look at me! I think I’m being a pretty great wingwoman – I just got you a guy to dance with!”

Postscript: I actually met Fedora Guy a couple years later, outside of the dance hall, at a wedding. Turns out he was good friends with both the bride and groom, who were also friends of mine. He was not wearing a fedora at the time, and he seemed pretty, well, normal. Thus, I’m not really sure whether the moral of this story is “Know when it’s worth it to throw your friends under the bus,” or “don’t wear fedoras.”

Diary of a Date-o-Phobic

This story is a work of fiction but inspired by the true experience

Her name was Janet. We were in the same Engage group during my first semester at Northwestern at the campus Wesley Foundation—a semester-long bible study group for freshman. I didn’t know her well, but I did see her at an open mic night hosted by the college radio station towards the end of fall semester. I was playing a couple songs—“Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan and the reindeer song from Frozen, which had come out a month or two before. I was explaining what songs I was going to play to her, and she was excited when I said I was doing the Frozen song. Well, I was the second performer of the night—which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because I got my performance out of the way and was then free to enjoy the rest of the night. A curse, because the crowd was just getting warmed up and everybody was paying more attention than they would be later on. I led with “Ring Them Bells,” and I’m not sure how it sounded because my guitar wouldn’t output audio to the PA, so I was playing purely acoustic next to a cardioid microphone, one for me and one for my guitar. I know I mis-played several of the chords, but ultimately wound my way to the end of the first song. People clapped, but they felt like claps of sympathy more than anything else. “My next song,” I said, slowly. “Is about reindeers. And people. From Frozen.” I know I got a few laughs for this, and then I sang it. I remember, as I played the last, intentionally discordant notes of the song, seeing people smiling and laughing and clapping, and Janet on the front row, on her feet, laughing.

Which I didn’t think about much at the time.

2 Years Later

“Hey,” I said as I looked over at the new person who had just walked into the classroom—it was Janet. “It’s been a while,” I said.

Smiling, she agreed, and we talked for a bit. Except for a couple times in passing sophomore year, Janet and I hadn’t seen or talked to each other since freshman year. Now, it was spring semester of junior year—two summers had gone by.

The class was an introductory legal policy class, taught by a local attorney—Professor Stevens—and it met for 3 hours every Wednesday night.


It was late on a Friday night. I had participated in a sound check and setup that morning, competed in a debate competition all afternoon, and had then headed straight to a local church to get ready for a worship night happening at seven. Fighting a headache due to lack of food, I awkwardly mingled with the other musicians until seven o’clock rolled around and some friends arrived for the show. I sat most of the service, enjoying the music, playing when my turn finally came.

All of these details are mostly irrelevant, but I’m just trying to set the stage.

It was 9.30, and the service was finally over. Musicians began to drift out. I mingled with some of the other musicians and friends who had attended.

When I finished, I texted my friend Will that I was on my way over to his place—the Incubator, as I had christened the house he lived at with his three roommates. I needed to borrow a soldering iron to fix an audio cable that had been torn earlier that day while setting up for the sound check. The weather was cool in the darkness of a southern spring, and I kept the radio playing loudly to help maintain my alertness as I drove by the gas station, over the railroad tracks, and through the woods to the Incubator. Will and his roommates were watching TV, but when I walked in, Will took me to his garage, where he kept all his soldering irons. I say “all,” because apparently he had two cheap old irons in addition to a bigger, nicer one he used himself. Unsure which one actually worked, Will plugged both of the cheap ones in to test. While we waited for them to heat (and later cool), we sat in the garage and talked (the garage was well-equipped with a coffee table, two couches, a fridge, and many, many, other odds and ends).

We talked about all sorts of things, from the doctrine of original sin and backslidden Christians to the behavior of electricity at power plants. I mentioned Janet to Will, just noting how she had come by the programming competition I participated in the day before and had seemed really interested in it.

“You have her number, right?” said Will. “You should ask her out.”

“Yeeeaaah,” I said, skeptically. “But it’s so close to the end of the semester. And I’m not sure I really feel like trying anything romantic right now.” I paused. “But. Since summer’s almost here, I’ve really got nothing to lose. I mean, if we go on a date and it’s awful, then I get to leave for the summer and not see her again.” I realized that my thinking, while pragmatic, was not very nice. “I’m an awful person, aren’t I?” I said.

Will shrugged. The topic changed. We talked some more, and I left.

The next morning, I woke, late, if I remember correctly. While drinking coffee, I pulled out my laptop and opened Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed, a picture appeared. It was Janet, next to a man. It was a sorority formal, and the man in the photo was her date—a football star, no less. He had a championship bowl ring and everything.

I laughed, and then I told my roommate, David, what Will had told me, and what I discovered. David listened, then he shook his head. “Nah, having a date to formal, that’s just a…formality—you’ve still got a shot.”

I shook my head, and I didn’t really think about it again.

You’re probably wondering when I’ll get to the important part of the story. Well, hang on.

The following Tuesday, around 11, Dr. McCullin, the computer science professor teacher teaching us the theory of computing, let the students take a five minute break, halfway into his 2 hour long lecture. Stepping out into the hall for a drink, I noticed as I was returning to the classroom a poster on a bulletin board advertising a drive-in movie showing of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Back in the classroom, I mention to the classmates sitting around me, “They’re showing Avengers tonight. That would probably be cool.”

At this, Ron, who I had several classes with—including the one with Janet, leaned forward and said in a quiet, quirky tone, “You should ask Janet to go with you.”

I turned around and stared at him with a quizzical smile.

“What?” he said, giving an impish grin in reply. “Penny for your thoughts?”

I didn’t have time to reply because Dr. McCullin resumed teaching at that moment.

After class, as I hurried to pack up my notes to head to my next class, I turned to Ron. “The reason I gave you that look is because you’re the second person who’s told me I should ask Janet out in the past week.”

Ron shrugged. “I just noticed both of you seemed like really…normal people. Who are both friendly. And I thought—” he motioned with his hands, bringing them together in a figurative gesture. “And I notice people. When I’m sitting in the back of that class, every time I look over at her, she’s looking at you.”

I laugh. “That’s because Professor Stevens stands over where I am,” I said, but I had been convinced. I pulled out my phone, composed a quick message to ask Janet if she’d like to go with me, and sent it off. Normally, I would have re-read the text 10 million times before sending it and said at least one prayer, but this time I was quick to tap the send icon—as I had told Will, I had nothing to lose if she turned me down.

Sitting at the back of the lecture hall at my next class, I checked my phone periodically. No response. It had only been 10 minutes. She’s in class, or busy doing something. I said. Don’t worry. That didn’t help. I felt like I was being torn apart with anxiety for the next 20 or so minutes. But then, a reply!

That sounds like fun. Yeah, I’m down!

So it was settled. Looking over at Ron, I whispered, “It’s happening.”

“What?” he said, confused for a moment.

I gestured at my phone, and he realized what I was saying. He smiled that same impish grin, “I told you so.”

At 7.15 that night, I rolled up to Janet’s apartment in my freshly washed and vacuumed Nissan Sentra. She came out almost immediately, and I drove us to Sonic, where we got drinks for during the movie—her a Cherry Coke and me a Cherry Limeade.

We chatted about class, and sports, and about favorite hobbies. It was not memorable conversation, but it was pleasant.

Pulling up to the parking lot where the movie was scheduled to play, an attendant guided us to a spot at the front of the lot, a great position for viewing the screen. The rest was an agreeable blur. I learned about Snapchat (which I had not used before and have not used since that night), and we both ended up angling our seats back—Janet did first to get more comfortable, and I did too when I realized it enabled me to see the screen better without contorting my neck as much. The movie was good, but I’d seen it 3 or 4 times already, so I’ll admit I was slightly bored throughout.

On the way back to Janet’s apartment, we talked about movies and TV shows. When I pulled up at her apartment again, she thanked me for inviting her and told me how she’d never been to a drive-in movie before and had wanted to try it. I told her I’d enjoyed it, too.

“See you Wednesday!” she said, as she got out.

“Yep!” I said. We were all friendly smiles.

And that was that. The most normal, regret-free date I had ever had. I didn’t ask her out again or do anything in the remaining week and half before school let out for summer—we were both incredibly busy, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’m not saying it was a ridiculously good, best-date-ever sort of thing. But it was fun, and I regret nothing. Which, for someone who had mostly awkward, cringy memories of interactions with the opposite sex up to that point in life, was something very refreshing.

Sandpipers and the Seashore

A biting wind blustered across the pebbled and loosely packed path—causing Bartley to shiver under his wool coat. Folding the collar up, he braced as a particularly strong gust threatened to take his feet out from under him. After a brief recovery of balance, he resumed walking briskly against the cold, neither looking west toward the riotous green-gray sea, nor east toward the lush green hills that towered above him—but straight ahead as many do who have a goal in sight.

The sun had been up for some hours, but the grey haze that blanketed the heavens dispersed its piercing rays and created an ambiance that seemed to be from nowhere, and yet everywhere, casting a muted light evenly across the landscape. Bartley found the overcast sky oddly cathartic—in the sort of way that a joyful person finds the sunny day invigorating, or a raging storm feels like home to an angry man. He had been away from home for some time, living out of the pack on his back, doing business wherever the company had sent him. Now, at last, he was coming home.

He used to work in a small store, an establishment run by his father-in-law, located in the same town where he had spent his youth. Years of repeating the same tasks had begun to wear on him, however, and wondering if he had misspent the best years of his life—he dreamed of what might have been. Soon thereafter a bank opened an office down the street and advertised a position for a man of ‘business sense’ to travel up and down the western seaboard (all for good pay of course), reclaiming properties in which the residents had defaulted on their loans. Now, a job described as such does not sound very heartwarming or appealing to most, but Bartley was determined to live out his ‘missed years of adventure’ as he described them, and telling his wife and children goodbye, began trekking down the rocky coast.

The job was great at first, lots of days on the road followed by nights at a local pub or inn. Working with his fellow evictors, Bartley would spend a day or two in a region, making the rounds for the bank on various households; however, evicting people is not a pleasant business, and soon he found the faces of the poor families he saw day after day staring back at him from his glass of ale in the evenings. At the start he had begun each morning spryly, wondering what new place, conversation, or town lay around the next bend, but now he dreaded the rising of the sun—for each new day brought fresh grief to his conscience. While he had once only briefly replied to the letters of his wife and children, giving them barely a thought, he now looked forward to the evening hour to see if a labeled envelope awaited him upon the completion of his daily rigor.

Bartley tucked his hands more deeply into his coat pockets—clenching cold fingers into fists. Watery eyes scanned the rocks in front of him and upon seeing a small dirt detour down to the beach, he turned aside to eat his lunch. Sandpipers darted on nimble legs through the vestiges of waves as Bartley walked along the shoreline. The birds’ feet left trails in the coarse sand, like snapshots of the progress of each little life, until a wave would come rolling across the beach and mask over the tracks as if nothing had disturbed that shore before. “If only life were that simple,” murmured Bartley to himself, thinking about his own footsteps during the preceding months—footprints he would much like to have expunged. Footprints right back to the door of his house with his wife and children waving him away as he disappeared into the dark night. Sometimes forgetfulness is a blessing, but there on the beach, as the sandpipers darted to and fro amidst the foamy water, he knew that he had to remember where he came from to know where he was going.

My Pledge

Rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, RATS, I thought, using the expression I picked up sometime in elementary school, ‘cause Michael-what’s-his-face used it and I thought it was funny. It’s a slightly absurd exclamation to use, especially in dire circumstances such as these, but I contend that it’s much better than other things I could say. At the moment, I was directing my ire at the creek crossing in front of me, which, sooner or later, I and my horse, Lilah, were going to have to navigate.

Oh, in the grand scheme of things it was nothing so horrible. It certainly wasn’t a very large creek bed, and it was nearly dry, too. A short short slope down, a small flat area at the bottom, and an even shorter slope back up. But then, the path down was just a little bit steep, and the bottom was a tad muddy, and it really was a rather steep path back up. And so here I was, frozen in, well…I am unfortunately forced to label my emotion at the time to be “terror.”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one about to navigate what was fast becoming, to my mind, a gaping chasm. My dad was ahead of me, on his horse, Sawyer, and I watched as they walked down the slope into the gorge, and then did a little hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud and up the other side. Dad congratulated Sawyer, and then turned around to wait for me.

My turn, now. But, what if Lilah slipped and fell and took me with her? What if she, the horse, always attuned to the nerves of its rider, grew just as nervous as me and started to fight me? What if she decided to actually jump and I fell off? What if I just forgot how to ride altogether and slid off on the way down, or up? What if she became stuck in the mud and freaked out? What if we were slowly sucked into ooze, down, down into oblivion and despair, a la that horse from The NeverEnding Story?  What if…?

No, there could be none of that worrying nonsense, or we’d never get out of here. Hope may have been at its lowest, but that just meant it was time for an epic speech, which I promptly gave myself:

Okay, come on. If you want in any way to be able to even remotely survive Middle-earth, if you want to ride with the horse-lords of Rohan, if you want to be in any way worthy of the Mark, you are going to have to at least be able to get across this little trickle of a creek. Onwards and upwards. Literally.

And, so, we went. And, of course, Lilah and I did just fine. Down the slope, and then a hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud, and up the other side. And, it was even, dare I say it, a fun experience, what with the skipping and the jumping. And I told Lilah, in my “sugary” voice, very unbecoming a rider of Rohan, that she was “such a good girl!” And so we set off on our way.

You see, as should be quite obvious, I did not live in some adventure story. To tell (or face) the truth, I probably didn’t want to. I liked hot water and soft pillows and air conditioning far, far too much. I don’t even like camping for a night, let alone traipsing about the wild for weeks on end like a real ranger. So, in my line of work, I must take whatever small chance I get, like this one ever-so-slightly-maybe-theoretically-a-tad-dangerous creek crossing, to show a little of something resembling courage, to pledge my unused, still-in-its-box pocket knife to all my favorite fantasy books, and to have just a tiny bit of adventure.

Forest Grump

Granthos, the troll, hoisted the tree trunk to his shoulder and with a guttural noise, raised it overhead. One-two-three. Granthos pumped the trunk with his right arm several times, to a total of eight repetitions, and then, with the grace of a ballerina, he lowered the trunk to the ground.

Wiping his granite-like hands on his workout loincloth, he rested his hands on his hips for a moment. Standing 7 feet tall and weighing 800 pounds, Granthos had always been short and skinny compared to his more athletic siblings. Even his sister, Marthos, was taller than he was–something she had reminded of him of every opportunity she had. “Hey Granthos,” she would say, “Can you reach this rock? Hah! Well, I can!” And other similar remarks.

But Granthos was not an ordinary troll–he had dreams of greatness. While his siblings were throwing rocks at each other and yelling loudly and scaring travelers passing through the forest, Granthos had discovered his one true passion: bodybuilding. Inspired by the greatest troll bodybuilder of all–Arnos Boneshaker–Granthos eagerly learned all he could from Arnos Boneshaker’s TV show, Building YOUR Boneshaker Body.

Boneshaker was a giant of a man–10 feet tall and 1200 pounds, but he talked emphatically about how he had once been a “TINY weakling.”

“Once, I had arms like small rocks,” he would say, while doing bicep curls with an Oak that must have weighed at least 400 stones. “But then one day, I said to myself. I am TIRED of being weak. This stuff is for sissies. So I started to train, and I trained harder and harder, and I was consistent. That was the key. Anyone can do it, but you have to SEE your goal and then pump YOURSELF up. I committed to this path, and now–” he said, pausing as he hefted one arm and flexed his bicep into a granite ball, “I have biceps like BOULDERS and am the champion of MANY bodybuilding competitions.”

When Granthos heard this, his whole life suddenly became clear before him. He knew what he wanted to do; he knew what he must do.

“ONE!”

“TWO”

“THREE”

Granthos bellowed out the numbers as he squatted, the trunk of a large fir tree spread across his back. His legs strained under the exertion–sometimes his legs would cramp, and they would become as immovable as the mountain in whose shadow he lifted. In such situations, he would fall clumsily to the ground, bellowing out a string of troll-ish profanities. But today he felt strong enough to complete the set: eight repetitions.

Pushing into a standing position for the last repetition, Granthos roared and threw the tree to the ground. It crashed into the undergrowth, startling some doves that fluttered away. Then he sat down to rest. Nearby, a stream of water gurgled, and Granthos reached over and scooped a draught of water from the stream, then ladled it into his mouth.

Granthos’s stomach growled–he could use a snack. Just then, from behind a clump of trees to his left, he heard whispering voices. Leaning towards the copse and concentrating, Granthos made out the faint conversation.

“We need to run! Did you see him–he must have pulled that tree right out of the ground, then threw it away like it was a toothpick! Plus–you heard him grunting and bellowing. He’s feeling grumpy today, so it would be very dangerous to bother him.”

Granthos recognized from the high, nervous patter of the voice that it was a human being. Grumpy? thought Granthos. I’m not grumpy. I’m feeling PUMPED.

But, thought Granthos, licking his lips. Now that I think about it, it is time for my post-workout meal.

The End.

Frank’s Social Experiment: Music

The following took place later in Frank’s life. You’ll be happy to know that he did indeed find a new job, and a friend, and that he kept bicycling with his bicycle group and had numerous adventures with them. But these are all parts of his story I’m not ready to tell, yet. Eventually, Frank decided he wanted a new hobby.

“Okay, so you play B – good. Then E, A, D, G, C, F. Now comes the tricky part! You’re going to Repeat those – but flat this time. B flat, E flat, D, G – and then start the circle over. This is the circle of fourths.”

600px-Circle_of_fifths_deluxe_4.svg

It didn’t make total sense. It didn’t even make partial sense. But it was a logical picture set before Frank—the musical notes, sitting in a circle, related to each other via some voodoo magic or 12-pointed mystical diagram.

There was an order to the notes, Frank was noticing however—some notes sounded good together, like a sentence formed with a pleasing structure. It rolled off the tongue, or in this case, out of Frank’s guitar as he twanged an artless melody.

“Good job, Frank,” said Mr. Hebert, Frank’s teacher. He was a broad shouldered, burly man with a cigarette dangling from one corner of his mouth, observing Frank’s playing from behind his slightly drooped, puffy eyelids.

“You’re getting it. Now, you’ll have to practice that a bunch more times. But see now—any time you’re playing in a key, you’ve got your tonic note, right?”

Frank nodded. Tonic—the home base. “Doe.” The center where songs often began and rested most easily.

“And you’ve also got your dominant and subdominant notes, right? So if you’re in the key of G major, there are a couple major chords that are gonna fit with a tonic of G, right?”

“Right,” said Frank. He wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Right—so the cool thing is, with the circle of fourths I just showed you, the dominant and subdominant notes are always gonna be right next to whatever the tonic is. Okay, so what’s the order again?” Mr. Hebert twisted his colorfully beaded necklace as a hint.

“B – E – A – D,” said Frank, before being interrupted.

“That’s enough,” said Mr. Hebert. “Okay, so A—based on what you just said, what notes are on either side of it in the circle?”

“Um, well. E. And D, I guess,” said Frank.

“Exactly!” said Mr. Hebert, “The dominant and subdominant notes! His eyes glinting through the cigarette smoke. “So anytime you can’t remember, just think about your circle.”

Mr. Hebert tapped off the ash from his cigarette, took a final pull from the stub, and then smothered it in an ashtray sitting on the window sill of his screened back porch.

Frank sat patiently. He didn’t know what was next. Birds chattered in the backyard, a well-kept lawn mixed with a small garden and flowerbeds. A cardinal—one of the few birds Frank could recognize—flew by.

Mr. Hebert was gazing thoughtfully towards his backyard. “Frank,” he said, finally. “There’s something you need to understand about music. There’s a lot to it. You’ll never get to the bottom of it, but there’s one thing that I have found to be true: music is meant to be shared.”

Mr. Hebert paused. It was a theatrical affectation, perhaps, but Frank didn’t mind.

“You hear that bird?” said Mr. Hebert. “That’s a tufted titmouse. You can tell because they go ‘Peter-peter-peter.’ Well, just like they share their music, we humans have to share ours too. When we don’t, we lose interest–we become discouraged.”

“So,” said Mr. Hebert, concluding his speech, “This has been a one-time lesson. You want to come again, fine. You want to go it alone and learn through YouTube or whatever kids these days are using….that’ s fine too. Just make sure if you aren’t sharing your music with me, that you’re sharing it with someone. Find a place to play, a person to play for. That way, you’ll stick with it.”

Frank nodded. Behind the cigarette smoke and beer breath, he had heard something true, he thought.

“Now that’ll be forty bucks. And get out of here,” said Mr. Hebert with a chuckle.