Reading is Fundamental

From a very young age, I have been a strong reader. My kind mother, a schoolteacher, instilled this virtue in my mind early and encouraged it whenever possible. Our family took routine trips to the public library, a place filled with echoes and strange scents, to allow my brother and I to disappear into the stacks and emerge later with a handful of books.

Throughout elementary school, I set the pace in my classes for reading, despite the reliance on old SRA reading exercises to gauge our progress. Later, I’d bring home the assigned anthology and read through it, cover to cover, just to enjoy and familiarize myself with the kinds of words and plots we’d explore.

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One kid’s chore is another kid’s cheer

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On Trick Candles and Disappointment

Pranks and practical jokes are, for the most part, incongruous little moments of humor injected into an otherwise pedestrian moment in time.  Well, at least they’re humorous to one of the people involved. Even a moment like a birthday celebration, for all the emphasis we place on it at varying points in our lives, is not immune to the chicanery of some wise ass with a smirk and an idea.

Of all the silly pranks performed during a birthday, I’ve always thought trick candles were the most nakedly cruel. Most of the moments in birthday celebration are either tolerably boring, mildly endearing, or even warmly appreciative. It’s supposed to be a happy time and while no one really seems to mind a bit of roasted ridicule thrown into the pot, it’s also quite deflating. The trick candles used on a birthday cake raise the stakes and add a moment of public shame to the awkward melange already stewing.

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There. Isn’t that sweet? Such a pure and thoughtful gesture. How could this be anything but kind?


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Moving at the Speed of the Sunset

For the majority of my twenties, I worked in security at a now-defunct automobile assembly plant on the outskirts of my adopted hometown, Oklahoma City. The job itself was as boring as an occupation can possibly be. Hours upon hours passed while I sat in a chair, monitoring a computer, radio, or gate house. I listened to a tremendous amount of music, wrote pages and pages of terrible fiction, most of which ended up in a box in the garage. Luckily, I also did a great deal of reading/studying.

From December 2001 to August 2008, this was my life. I worked evenings and weekends, mostly because they afforded me more chances to study and more time to take classes towards my bachelor’s during the day. Working evenings and weekends also afforded me another interesting set of opportunities: watching glorious sunsets. Most people only glance up at a sunset when it’s particularly colorful. I intently watched hundreds of them, out of fascination and because I had little else better to do at the time.

imageedit_1_8548231042I suppose there are worse ways to pass a Saturday evening


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On Being Afraid of Heights and Snakes

Over the course of my life, I’ve developed a generalized fear of heights. Of course, this implies that there was a point at which heights weren’t problematic for me. In fact, I loved climbing as a kid. I loved being on the top bunk, I loved climbing sets of stairs to be on higher floors in buildings and, more than almost anything, I loved climbing the pine tree in my front yard. The tree had lovely, sturdy branches low to the ground and dense needles delicately suspended on long branches, far from the thick, sap-streaked trunk. They provided a perfect sort of arboreal screen for a makeshift crow’s nest.

On adventurous days, I’d climb up the tree, carefully stepping upwards on the thickest branches I could find until the branches nearly became so small that they could scarcely support their own weight, much less mine as well. It was from this nest that I’d obnoxiously holler at passersby. Innocent retirees, out for an evening stroll with their meticulously groomed Cocker Spaniels, would hear a child’s voice making bird sounds and cackling maniacally. Their heads would swivel about, looking for the source of the offending sound, only to find no bratty children in their field of vision. I’d giggle more and call out “Hellllooooooo? Can you seEEEeee meEEEeee?” Totally unamused by the hijinks, my victims would start walking in the direction they were headed, still looking out for the voice assailing them from above. Some would catch sight of me and call me a varmint. Others would never deduce the source of the sound and proceed on, uncertain of what they’d heard.

Encouraged by the ability to confuse neighbors, my climbing became more ambitious. Our small brick house was outfitted with an aerial antenna, which was bolted to the side of the house with a slight gap between the pole and wall. My small hands fit perfectly between the two and by holding the pole, I could climb up the side of my house and then heave myself over the eave, onto the flat roof of the family room. For a six year old, this was a profound accomplishment. It’s probably also part of why my parents had to continually patch and repair the flat roof on that end of the house.

Being on the roof was terrifying at first, but the commanding view it provided was absolutely intoxicating. So, whenever the bricks weren’t slick from rain and whenever my parents were too busy to notice, I climbed up to the roof and spied the layout of the surrounding houses. From that point on, I was hooked on climbing things I shouldn’t climb. At first, the climbing was innocent enough. I’d climb higher on playground equipment than I should have or I’d climb random trees while out riding my bike with a friend.

As events grew increasingly turbulent at home, I’d spend more time out riding around on my bike, looking for things to climb. When the world seemed unfair, I could lift myself up out of it and feel better just by not being earthbound. I’d climb anything and everything I could, just for the fun of it. Friends’ roofs were scaled and jumped off of. Eventually, I stumbled across and scrambled up ladders bolted to the back side of buildings, climbing rungs mounted on power poles, or observation towers deemed unsafe by city inspectors, but not well-secured from the industrious curiosity of teenagers with bolt cutters.

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This doesn’t look like a rusty, unstable, Art Deco deathtrap at all.


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Labor Omnia Vincit

I have lived virtually my entire life in the state of Oklahoma and its familiarity encapsulates the concept of home for me quite nicely. Home isn’t simply a place of refuge or an idea of safety and security. It’s all of those things, all at once, and it’s always changing and evolving. Nearly everyone I love lives here, just as there are too many people that I loved who died and are buried here. I’ll meet new people in the next few years who will become part of that same comfortable, familiar feeling. The same holds true for places, as well. As time progresses, new scenes and locations become part of my identity and some places that will become part of where I feel at home haven’t yet been built. All the while, more and more places that were once central to my life become unique homes to ghostly embodiments of my memory.

There’s a nondescript garage on the corner of Waverly and State in my hometown. Behind it sits a pile of red bricks, which is all that remains of my childhood home. There’s an empty field on Fenway Avenue, where a huge mound of dirt once stood that was, by far, my favorite place in the world. It’s been bulldozed to make way for a few tract houses. A movie theater in which I first saw Return of the Jedi, occasionally worked at part-time during high school, and professed my love for a girl who ultimately didn’t love me back is now nothing but a patch of overgrown grass in a crumbling parking lot. I used to ride my bicycle into the Bandshell at Sooner Park and marvel at the authority its acoustics lent to my unconfident, shrill voice. If it hasn’t collapsed due to age, it can’t be far from doing so.

6912112770_69c4e356f0_hThere it sits, in all its overlooked glory. A crumbling temple to the echoes of the past.


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When Looking Back Is Better Than Looking Ahead

Like many other people, I was surprised at how much I was saddened by the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams. For a person I’ve never met, simply knowing that his life is over feels like a personal loss. Having been so busy with my new position at work, I hadn’t been plugged into the hive-mind on Reddit like I usually am when public tragedies or deaths occur. Once I was able to log into Facebook or scroll through rumor threads on Reddit, I found a sudden and overwhelming outpouring of sorrowful admiration.  Even my brother, who has impressive internal complexity but expresses his emotions to me as often as they hold Olympic Games, texted to tell me that it felt like we lost a great childhood friend. After I finished what I was doing, I marshaled forth a few scrambled thoughts that didn’t adequately express my heart.

Despite the fact that I’m actually very good at expressing certain emotions, such as appreciation and disappointment, I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about death. While this might seem inconsistent with my obsession over the past, death inhabits a different intellectual space in my mind than does a nostalgic look back on the past. Nostalgia is a homesickness for places, persons, or things of the past. Its gaze backwards is usually warm, illusory, and more expansive with each passing year, even if our memory is more and more unreliable as time passes.

Death, on the other hand, is an increasingly bitter and more immediate prospect. Each day that I wake up is one less day remaining in the future to look forward to. The day leaps across the present into the past, where it joins the thousands of other days that have irreversibly moved from potential to expended. At this precise moment, I hope that the scales of my life are still tilted more towards the future than the past, but I have no way of knowing. One day, the scales will be as unbalanced as they possibly can be and there won’t be any more days to expend. This fairly simple fact of existence is true for everyone. Me, my beloved family members, and you, dear reader are, as John Keating put it, food for worms.

Death bothers me because, despite it’s conceptual simplicity, it is completely unknowable. Death is the perfect other. It exists simultaneously as both punctuation and portal. I can’t be dead while still being me, because being me requires being alive and self-aware. I can’t experience death without no longer being able to report or record my experiences. Death can’t truly be known while a person still lives, even if an individual manages to clinically experience one of the reported encounters with a rich existence beyond the white light. In that state, you weren’t all dead, just mostly dead. There’s a big difference.

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With all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

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On Finally Listening to the Signals

The sweat gathered in glassy beads on my father’s brow as he carefully threaded the long, completely unstable fiberglass pole through the fabric of the tent it would soon support. I was with him two weeks before when he had bought this tent and I had heard the disinterested, underpaid store clerk mumble quick assurances of the tent’s “easy-as-cake” set-up. An hour spent fumbling with  fragile fiberglass pole sections, Velcro dome support straps, and a patented rain canopy that clearly didn’t fit right proved the clerk’s promise to be false.

Yet here we were, my father and I, taking part in the grand male ritual of learning how to be properly frustrated at inanimate objects that don’t perform as promised.  Some fathers impatiently snatch greasy spark plug wrenches from their inexperienced son’s hands with a grumble and a sideways glance, secretly questioning the true paternity of their mechanically disinclined offspring. Other fathers, at the behest of their picky wives, grouchily set their end of a sofa down, first accidentally on their foot and then on the floor, so that they can dramatically gesture with their arms to turn the sofa on its side, like an insane semaphore flagman.

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Which looks precisely like this to a perpetually distracted pre-teen son.


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New Adventures in Sweating and Shame

I attended my first writer’s workshop this last week, primarily on the invitation of a kind friend whose commitment to democratizing the act writing is rare and inspiring. At different times in my life, I’ve enjoyed writing for pleasure, but I haven’t been open to developmental opportunities like this. It’s summertime, though. My schedule is a bit lighter now and if the summer months are good for anything, with their long, hot days and sultry, starry nights,  it’s for exploring the kinds of new possibilities that an icy, isolating winter seeks to prohibit.

I signed in and took my seat at the nearest table, knowing that I was overdressed for the occasion after having taught all day. Between the near constant fanning of faces of all colors and ages and the awkward volleys of conversation amongst strangers, I wasn’t the only one who looked uncomfortable and out of place. Still, we soldiered on and waited for the workshop to begin. Summer is a wondrous time of year and I’m glad that we have all four seasons here in the Sooner State. On the other hand, icy winters mean that crowded community rooms at public libraries aren’t sweltering saunas harangued by houseflies whose sole purpose seems to be interrupting the creative process.

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Rest in Peace, Jeff Goldblum.


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There Are No Perfect Drafts

I spent the better part of yesterday futzing about in the garage, organizing shelves that had slowly accumulated a rather impressive variety of crap over the last few years. Normally, I’m fine with allowing the garage to be generally disorganized. It’s not attached to the house and over the years, it’s become more of glorified storage building than anything resembling a little cottage for our cars. I unwillingly started organizing the garage because I had nothing better to do while the pest control technician conducted indiscriminate chemical warfare to take care of unwanted interlopers inside my little homestead.

You see, a few months ago, my next door neighbors moved out in the midst of a divorce. They were generally nice people, despite the fact that their lived behaviors fit redneck stereotypes so perfectly that they make Jeff Foxworthy’s observations on the matter sound like those of an Ivy League sociologist. Near the end of their tenure as residents, they acquired a pair of puppies for their four children, with the purpose of training them as hunting dogs. The novelty of two little puppies wore off quickly and they were left in the backyard to their own devices, with only minimal attention from their once fawning owners.

I hate it when people buy a pet only to partially discard it a few months later by neglecting it in this precise way. There really wasn’t anything that could be done about it though, as the dogs had shelter, water, food, and secure fencing. I was glad to see them go, in a way, simply because I wouldn’t have to think about it every time I walked out on the back deck. Due to the neglect of their little furry compatriots, the dogs became infested with fleas, which naturally spread to my lawn and colonized my poor dog like a bunch of scurvy-ridden, foul smelling Spanish explorers in the 16th century. I suppose it was kind of the neighbors to leave a parting gift. I just would have preferred the flea farm hobby kit to be more like Sea Monkeys and less like a flea apocalypse.

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 I unknowingly gave my allowance money to a white supremacist who sold me a rip-off product and then used the profits to buy weapons for the KKK. You can’t make this up. It’s a miracle I’m not more cynical.


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Salt Crystals, Stubbornness, and Summertime Sadness.

I’ve always enjoyed day-trips. The liberating and expansive feeling of going to and from a distant destination, all in the same day, has always carried a satisfying sense of completeness. When I was young, my family would undertake ill-fated long voyages by car to distant destinations, often requiring several stops at local tourist attractions in fascinating places like Disneyworld, or somewhat less impressive locales like “Dogpatch USA“, in rural Arkansas. As I grew older and family funds grew tighter, the grand scope of family trips decreased, though I always appreciated that my mother was willing to do, out of love, ridiculous things like drive four hours north to Topeka,  so that I could tour the state capitol building and take pictures for a 4th grade class report on the 50 states.

Because I’m not wealthy enough to fund grand interstate pilgrimages to exotic amusement parks, most of my family outings have taken on the form of the latter. Day-trips and short ventures just a few hours away have been happily adequate and I recognize that a great many families never take any kind of day-trip together, much less to a state park a few hours away.

A few weeks ago, I packed up the family to trek into the Oklahoma wilderness on a voyage to pick up my oldest daughter from a week at a summer camp for Student Council. On the way back, we planned to stop at the Great Salt Plains and dig for salt crystals. While this might be incredibly boring to the average adult, I can’t imagine any kid that hasn’t secretly hoped to uncover a crystal or gem while digging around in a sandbox or backyard. My daughters are getting older at a rate that far outpaces my ability to catch up, so any time that I can get them to still be a kid is a time that I cherish.

We arrived at the sectioned off digging area, which is predictably in the middle of nowhere. A fairly nondescript county road stretched ahead over featureless land.  Crop fields were demonstratively partitioned by houses, encircled by the occasional copse of trees meant to break the wind in this part of the state legendary for its Dust Bowl conditions. Suddenly, the sleepy prairie transformed before my eyes into a minimalistically marvelous and absolutely barren, blindingly white moonscape.

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Looks like someone missed a spot..


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