Thursday, April 14, 2011



sleep is a debit
paid in opportunities
yawning is lonely


those piercing glances
give chase to battered spirit
solitude is safe


freedom is intent
tyranny when we forget
to wake and to love


spring drops pattering
o'er glad wings dancing with sky
applause all around


in my larvae stage
i went pollywog hunting
then i lost my tail


wind like fetid breath
howls through a thirsty valley
cracked lips turn away

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cynicism Falls Asleep

We've finally reached my favorite time of the holiday season. The last two or three days before Christmas. You see, working retail for what seems like roughly the last seven hundred Christmas seasons in a row, I've noticed a pattern as to how the Season usually plays out.

Stage One - The early roll-out

You know what I'm talking about. It's the week after Halloween and the grocery stores begin re-stocking Christmas themed candy. Stuff like Hershey's Kisses and red and green M&M's. Most stores aren't bold enough to drop the candy canes in yet, but you know it's coming.

Stage Two - Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and the first Psychotic Break

This is the stage where retailer desperation mixes dangerously with a diminishing middle class fresh off feasting on hormone injected turkeys and copious amounts of beer and wine. The resulting commercial chaos is said to carry businesses over into the black for the year, but the resulting physical chaos of douche bags giving each other black eyes while fighting over half-price blu-ray players is much more fun to watch.

The other hallmark of stage two is the beginning of the utter deluge of Christmas music. Look, if you know me, you know how I feel about 99% of all the Christmas music ever created. It's not only hackneyed, overly sentimental crap but also incredibly familiar and overplayed. I guess it's kind of similar to the music of the Bee Gees in that regard. I'm sorry, but it doesn't matter what instruments you play or how well you sing, it's still just a song about a disfigured reindeer who finally gets in with the cool kids. And don't even get me started on all the songs about snow. There's only so many ways you can express how much you love snow in song, unless you're an Eskimo... Am I ranting? Sorry about that. On to...

Stage Three - Fever pitch. The last weekend.

The height of misery for most people, this stage is the result of people waiting to do all their shopping on the final weekend, with their last paycheck before Christmas. Because nothing puts people in a better mood than sitting down and figuring out what bills they are going to skip paying in December just so they can thrust themselves out into a retail meat grinder to find a Deluxe George Foreman Grill for their mouth-breathing cousin Cletus.

For customers and employees alike, Stage Three is a bloodbath. Scorched Earth commercialism. Anarchy with a debit card. All of the anger, resentment and cynicism people have unknowingly been hoarding all year long tend to bubble over during this stage and we often find ourselves screaming past each other in parking lots and in register aisles. We find ourselves working so hard to make the holidays happen, like they are just another chore that we need to get finished by the end of the day, and in Stage Three it is very late in the day indeed.

Which brings us to the calm after the storm...

Stage Four - "Cynicism Falls Asleep..."

Something seems to change following that last frantic weekend. Having expunged vast quantities of angst during our final fleeting hours of shopping, we seem to lapse into a cheerful aloofness. It's as if our holiday struggles have exhausted our capacity for frustration and irritation, bitterness and distrust, and all of the other emotional toxins that have built up within us over the year past. To quote a favored songwriter of mine, we allow our cynicism to fall asleep. And with sleep come dreams, and with those dreams comes hope. Hope that next year we can be better, and appreciation that we have people in our lives who make us want to be better.

It is this sense that pervades those final few days before Christmas and makes them my favorite of the season. To all of my friends and family, Merry Christmas.


P.S. - Be ready, because my cynicism is going to wake up bright-eyed and refreshed on January 1st.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Help A Brother Out?


CRAIG, a young man wearing a sandwich board advertisement for
a 15 dollar oil change stands on a moderately busy street
corner. He is waving at the passing cars with faux
enthusiasm. Into the frame comes another human advertisement,
this one in full costume as an ELEPHANT. He has an elaborate
trunk with no visible mouth hole. He stands next to Craig and
begins waving at cars.

Full costume... Tough break, dude.
(taking a closer look at
the costume)
Can you even breath in that thing?

(motioning to his trunk)
Fully functional trunk.


Yeah... They spare no expense at
Earl’s House of Peanuts.
(pointing to the logo on
his chest)

They both wave in silence for a beat or two.

Man... I’d trample a whole village
for a cigarette right now.
(looking at Craig)
Got a smoke?

Yeah, alright.

CRAIG takes out a cigarette and motions to the elephant head

You gonna take that thing off, or

(looking around
Yeah, I’m not really sure I should
do that... I mean, these peanut
people... They were pretty serious
about not breaking character... I
need this gig!

Craig shrugs his shoulders and starts to put away his

Alright then.

Wait, wait, wait. Let’s not be
hasty here. I need that smoke.

(slightly exasperated)
Well, unless you can take a drag
through your trunk I don’t see how
this is going to w-

That's perfect! You draw on it and
blow the smoke back up my trunk.
(holding the trunk out)

...You want me to give you blowback
through your elephant trunk?
(shaking head doubtfully)

(waving the trunk)
FULLY functional elephant trunk...
Come on, man. I’m jonesin. Help a
brother out!

This is really unbelievable. You
owe me one.

(pointing to his costume)
Hey, we NEVER forget, right? Don’t
worry about it. Let’s do this.

The STOPLIGHT above the street blinks from red to green. Cars
and trucks rumble past.

(a cigarette being lit)
Okay. Here it comes.

Okay... Now pinch the trunk so the
smoke doesn’t...
...Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff.
What are these, menthols?

Huh? Oh, no. That’s probably my

Hmm. It’s nice.

Thank you.


Craig is stamping out the CIGARETTE on the pavement. The
Elephant is standing next to him, wisps of smoke escaping
from the headpiece. They are waving at passing cars.

Whew! Now I’m ready to pimp some

He pats Craig on the back with one of his big elephant

Thanks, bro. I owe you one.

The elephant leaves. Craig shakes his head and begins waving
at cars again. After a pause, a man in a fish costume
approaches and stands next to him. The costume has small,
little flippers in place of functional arms, and a logo sewn
into the chest reading SUSHI SHACK. The FISH begins waving to
the cars.

Hey, man.

(trying to look busy)

(squirming in his armless
Man... I have to pee SO bad.

Craig looks over and sees him wiggling his useless flippers,
and looking down at his own crotch helplessly.

Hey, buddy? Help a brother out

Craig sighs, takes one last look at him, and walks away.
After a pause the Fish begins waving at cars again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Dollops of yellow cream shed pallid light
Time is graying. Sixty pages, creased and faded.
I twist my nose sourly and you glare at me.
It always smells like carpet shampoo here.

The couch is clad in plastic. I sit, septic.
You pace the empty room, tobacco smoke fading.
We scrawl our dreary names for the mistress in blue.
My feet drag, but you don't notice. You never notice.

The hallway is an endless cipher. Vacant.
Capsules of life, left and right. Leaking.
Bleak mortality laps at our feet. Flooding.
Remember how we used to collect seashells?

We find her in the lunch room. Alone with her food.
She is ancient and meager. Her smile is robust.
You plead with her to eat. She shakes her head no.
I sit, impotent. Fashioning a lifetime's regret.

I make the same empty promise every time we leave.
Next time it'll be different. I'll finally know how
to tear myself open and leave something for her
An ear for one last story, whispered through a seashell.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Love, Sitcom Style

There are lots of little rules for beginning writers. Write every day. Show, don't tell. Avoid purple prose. Edit, edit, edit. All excellent rules, very useful to the developing writer, but by far the most common piece of advice is to write about what you know, or alternately, to write about what you love. I've always wondered what this last bit of advice has to say about a guy like, say, Thomas Harris. Does he simply just happen to know a lot about cannibal serial killers, or does he love them too? I guess he knows at least enough about them to know that he loves them, or loves writing about them in any event.

Anyway, the reason I'm pondering such things is that I'd like to focus a series of blog posts on a specific subject, and the rules say to write about something I love and something I know about...

So I'm basically looking at writing about comic books, video games or television. Oh yes, I'm a Renaissance man. Look, I'd love to be writing about impressionist painters or world travel or macroeconomic policy, but that would be going against the rules. Write about what you know... write about what you love...

But how did I settle on television over the other two?

I bought my first proper comic book, Spectacular Spider-Man 132 (Part 6 of the classic “Fearful Symmetry” arc featuring Kraven the Hunter), at age 13 and from that point forward there was rarely a weekend where I didn't manage to whinebomb my mother into a trip to the comic book store. I absolutely loved comic books, still do, but I'd also like to secure a date with a member of the opposite gender persuasion one day, and I'm worried that a six part blog series on how chronically mishandled Wonder Man has been in the mainstream Avengers continuity over the last 25 years just might adversely affect my chances.

Video games? We got an Atari 2600 in our house when I was seven years old. I got one of the greatest gaming computers ever built, my beloved Commodore 64, just a couple of years later. I was born into the age of video games, forged in the crucible of Dig Dug. I was Sid Meier's bitch. From age nine until age twenty-one video games were indisputably the most important thing in my life. (Sorry, family. Sorry, friends. Sorry, personal growth and development.) I considered writing about my lifelong love of video games, but the nostalgia inspired by writing just this one paragraph has ended with me searching on Ebay like some frantic ex-junkie, calculating how much it would cost to reconstitute every video game system I've ever owned. No way, man. I'm mostly clean these days. I won't go back.

Which just leaves television. The alpha and the omega. My white whale. No other pop culture based anesthetic quite got its hooks into me as deeply as television. You know those ubiquitous studies showing the average American kid watching between three and four hours of TV a day? Yeah, well, I was in the vanguard, baby. I put in a good four to five hours a day, more in the summers. I like to think that I was making up for all those kids unfortunate enough to be born into television-less homes. Those poor bastards.

Like any all consuming, soul absorbing passion, my television watching preferences have evolved through the years. From cartoons and game shows as a kid, to cop dramas and adventure series as an adolescent, to the science fiction and fantasy genre stuff of today. I have deeply loved it all, but there is one particular genre of television that I loved more than any other. I'm talking about the half hour situation comedy.

You want to know how much I love sitcoms? If it were legal to marry a sitcom, you'd be talking to Mrs. Curb Your Enthusiasm right now. That's how much I love a great sitcom. I even like a mediocre sitcom. Hell, I'll even tolerate the most hackneyed, laugh track ridden, 22 minute suckfest if it has a compelling ensemble character or two.

Characters are obviously the heart of any television show, be it drama or comedy, but there's something special about a well constructed half hour sitcom ensemble. In many ways it's like having a character laboratory to experiment in: You take a bunch of quirky, eccentric, flawed, often archetypal characters and mix them up in a workplace or family setting and watch to see how they react to each other. Of course, the irony of the sitcom is that the situations are often the least important part. This is evidenced by the fact that so many sitcom plots are utilized over and over again in show after show. This works because it's not the situation, but how characters in the ensemble react to the situation (and more importantly, each other) that matters. The way in which Kramer and Frank Costanza go about starting their own business in an episode of Seinfeld will differ drastically from how Frasier and Niles Crane would go about opening their own restaurant in an episode of Frasier. Same basic plot, vastly different shows.

Because I'm a deeply disturbed individual, I also really enjoy breaking down sitcoms into sub-genres.

Undeniably the most established set-up is the family sitcom. The roots here go back to the 50's with shows like Father Knows Best, but they probably enjoyed their apex in the 70's with the brilliant All in the Family. Of course there was no shortage of family comedies in the 80's either (Family Ties, Cosby Show, Growing Pains), but they all lacked an edge and their wholesome banality ultimately helped inspire a backlash of satire against the ideal family, typified by shows like Married With Children, and later, Family Guy.

Like the family, the workplace has been some of the most fertile ground for ensemble comedy. Maybe there's something about the stresses of work or perhaps it's the sheer variety of settings, but the workplace sitcom has been responsible for some of the most memorable characters of all time. The “office weird guy” is a staple of workplace comedy. Think of characters like the Reverend Jim on Taxi or Matthew Brock on Newsradio. An interesting melding of family and workplace shows would be the school sitcom. Welcome Back, Kotter and the Howard Hesseman 80's hit, Head of the Class follow this formula, wherein life lessons are heavy-handedly doled out by the teacher to the students, or sometimes, the other way around.

Then there's the “single in the city” sitcoms that we saw a lot of in the 1990's. These shows were very relationship driven. Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt was a prime example, but mega-hits Seinfeld and Friends spawned a seemingly never ending slew of shows featuring attractive people living and dating in New York. Suddenly Susan with Brooke Shields, Caroline in the City with Lea Thompson and the Jonathan Silverman series The Single Guy all had multiple season runs in the 90's.

Another widely used sitcom set-up has been the buddy comedy. The Odd Couple, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, was never close to a ratings hit when it ran on CBS from 1970 to 1975, but the laughs generated by forcing two polar opposite characters together have been so strong that dozens of shows over the last three decades have tapped into this successful formula. Laverne and Shirley, Bosom Buddies, Kate and Allie, Perfect Strangers, Will and Grace and many others had successful runs in the 80's and 90's, and more recently the BBC cult hit Peep Show has taken the Odd Couple theme to a new creative high.

There's one final sitcom set-up that deserves mention. It's the nostalgia comedy. These shows are set during specific time periods in the past. Happy Days is the most well known, and highly regarded show within this sub-genre, but several other shows have made their mark. The critically acclaimed ABC comedy/drama the Wonder Years ran for six seasons into the early 90's, and That 70's Show capitalized on a mysterious nostalgia for the 1970's for a highly successful eight season run more recently. An unfortunately short-lived gem in this realm was the 2003 Fox sitcom, Oliver Beene. Set in 1963 New York, it followed the trials and tribulations of the 12-year-old titular character, in first person perspective, with the wonderfully dry narration of David Cross as an older Oliver reflecting on the experiences. The show also featured Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown) as Oliver's hyper-Jewish dentist father.

So there you have it. An overview of the mighty situation comedy. I now realize that I've just written nearly 1500 words on how much I love sitcoms. Clearly it's time to go have a nice long cry, and re-examine my life. Next time we're going to go in depth for a look at three of my favorite ensemble casts. One each from the family, workplace and buddy sub-genres.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Something Real

The sun was still some minutes from rising over the mountains to the east when Dan Wyman swung his truck into the gravelly parking lot of the Cascade Ranger Station. He skidded to a halt in front of a rustic looking stained log residence. A sign hanging from a chain attached to two wooden posts carved with totemic symbols read

Cascade National Forest

Visitors Lodge

He grabbed his worn green ruck from the seat next to him and hopped out of the truck. His heavy boots sank slightly in the dry, dusty gravel. He took a moment to stretch leg muscles gone stiff during the long, twisty drive up from the foothills. He sampled the unsullied mountain air, inhaling deeply as he approached the lodge. It was a traditional log structure with carved stone columns as vertical corner posts. Three windows fronted the entrance. Two smaller ones framed a large wide one running to the left of the entrance. The only thing Dan could make out clearly through the window was an infant fire smoldering in the stone fireplace. The sun, having finally mounted the peaks to the east was busy filtering a blanket of gray over the darkness of night. He kicked the dust from his boots and stepped into the lodge.

The interior of the lodge smelled vaguely of cedar. A number of souvenir racks were displayed about the room. There were post cards, hats and t-shirts, books and bumper stickers, as well as a large glass case containing dozens of small porcelain figurines of forest animals. A long, wooden counter ran parallel to the back wall where a set of stairs lead up to a second level. Brochures and fliers were stacked neatly along its length, but no sign of a service bell. He warmed his hands by the crackling fire and stared at the map hanging above the fireplace. Two days in the woods with a couple of college students searching for a myth... What was he thinking? He traced the path of the hiking loop on the map with tired blue eyes. Could be a long couple of days.

“Sergeant Wyman!”

Dan turned to find a rotund figure grinning at him through a bushy red beard.

“Corporal Killian!” Dan smiled as they embraced. “It's been too long, Kill.”

He tilted his wide brimmed ranger hat back and clapped his old army buddy on the back.

“Well, that's what happens when you retire...”

“Eh. I'd worn a uniform long enough.” he gave his friend a long look. “Looks like you've gone up a size or two.”

“Hey!” he smoothed out his tan button down shirt and sucked in his gut. “The food up here beats Army chow.”

“Coffee, Sarge?” he placed a couple of cups on the wooden counter.

Dan nodded and took the cup.

“So tell me about these kids?”

“Ugh. These kids are killing me, Dan” he shook his head and sipped on his coffee. “They go to the university in the metro. One of 'em is studying to be a zookeeper or something, I don't know.”

He motioned Dan over to a couple of chairs by the fire. The gray of the morning was melting away outside the window.

“So anyway, they been buggin' me for weeks wanting to come up here for an expedition to search for a Bigfoot” he chortled heartily, “A Bigfoot!”

“So you weren't pulling my leg about that?”

“Wish I was” he rolled his eyes. “I told em' they could camp the park as much as they want, but apparently Bigfoot doesn't come into the designated recreational areas.”

“He's a rebel like that, Kill” Dan said.

Laughing, he leaned forward in his chair and grabbed a folded map off the table. He tossed it to Dan.

“I figured you could hike the game trails that loop north and west and then back down south of the periphery.”

Dan ran his finger along the path highlighted on the map.

“That should be far enough out to satisfy them.”

Dan folded the map and slipped it in his jacket pocket.

“Why am I doing this again?” he asked.

Killian rubbed his left side with a dramatic, faux grimace.

“Funny how that always seems to act up when you need a favor.” Dan said.

“Hey, if you'd prefer to have the shrapnel in your side...”

“Alright, alright... you win.” Dan grinned.

“It's good to have you back up here, Dan” Killian rose and cleared the table of the coffee cups. “We've missed you.”

It had been nearly five years since Dan had left the Forest Service. He'd joined up after his discharge and spent four years as a Ranger at Cascade National Forest. In fact, he had been the one to recruit his old army buddy to join. They'd worked together for nearly a year when Dan took a leave to care for his wife, Penny, who had taken ill.

“It is nice to be back,” he glanced out the window. The sun had finally broken its misty gray shackles and was bathing the forest in radiant sunshine.

“Any thoughts about maybe coming back to work? We could use ya...” Killian gave him a hopeful glance.

Dan shrugged his shoulders. He'd entertained the notion briefly in the months after Penny's passing, but he never felt quite ready, or willing. Her death made him feel empty, and any thought of trying to fill the hollowness inside filled him with guilt. Moving on with life seemed almost an abandonment, so as his grief calcified he desperately preserved that void in his heart, as if her absence was all he had left of her.

“Mmm. I don't think so, Kill...” he rose from the chair and paced the room. “Thanks for the offer though”

Killian was readying to pour them some more coffee when they heard the crunch of tires sinking into the gravel of the parking lot outside. Dan could hear the thumping baseline of rock music pumping from a car stereo and he made his way to the front window. A purple Volkswagon bus, caked with dust, sat parked just outside the lodge. The door slid open and a sprightly young woman hopped out. She had dark brown hair cut short with curls that fell in rings around her ears and danced along her rosy cheeks. She wore a thin green flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and her bright blue eyes darted enthusiastically.

Killian was at the door.

“Come on,” he smiled. “I'll introduce you to your platoon, Sarge.”

He was enjoying this entirely too much.

Dan stepped out onto porch just in time to see a stringy young man lugging a backpack around back of the van. His blonde hair was deliberately unkempt and fuzzy sideburns angled half-way down to his chin. He squinted uncomfortably at the bright blue sky as he finally leaned against the van to rest. He was saying something to the girl as she went through the backpacks.

“Erin. Oliver” They both looked up as Killian approached, “This is Sargent Dan. He's gonna be your guide on this of yours.”

Erin's eyes flashed angrily.

“Excuse me? It's an expedition.” she snorted and rolled her eyes at them. “Quest makes it sound like we're looking for dragons!”

Behind her the young man, Oliver, was smiling and nodding as he watched her lecture Killian. There was something in the way he looked at her, admiration mixed with intimidation, and... something else.

“...And just last year they discovered an entirely new species of Hooded Gecko in the Mekong Delta that has been around for over 200 million years without anyone noticing so don't tell me...” she was peppering Killian rapid fire, like a boxer with his opponent against the ropes.

Oliver cleared his throat and stepped forward offering his hand to Dan

“Uh, good to meet you... Sir.” he said, “I'm Oliver.”

They shook hands and watched as Killian finally threw up his hands in surrender to Erin's fact-bombing.

“Okay! Okay! I apologize!” he turned to Dan and said “Godspeed, soldier.”

Killian retreated towards the lodge. Dan couldn't decide whether his last look back at him was one of pity or satisfaction. He picked up his ruck and turned to the two erstwhile monster hunters.

“Let's do this.”

“So how long have you guys been monster hunters?”

They had been on the trail for just under an hour. The forest was now fully awake, and the chirping of birds and skittering of animals provided a pleasant bed for conversation.

“What did you call us?” Erin asked.

Dan could hear Oliver suck in a breath.

“Oh, dude. No...” he whispered with a knowing smile.

“We're scientists, okay?” she said, “Cryptozoologists to be precise.”

“Ah. I see” he said, “Sorry.”

“It's alright, man” Oliver said, “It's just, well, the field doesn't get a lot of respect as it is, and when people start saying 'monster hunters' you know, it just kinda seems all Van Helsing and stuff.”

They hiked on for another couple of hours and eventually the trail came to track alongside a small bubbling creek. Erin rushed ahead of them to search the creek side, presumably for tracks. Dan watched Oliver gaze at her as she knelt down to examine the rocky bank.

“So, you and Erin...?” he asked.

“Hmm? Oh! Uh... no.” he stammered, “we're just, you know, friends.”

“I see.” Dan smiled. Who was this kid fooling?

Oliver swatted at an insect buzzing his face.

“What about you, married?” he said.

“My wife and I were married for thirty-five years” he paused for a moment, letting the warm breeze wash over him. “She passed away a few years back”

Oliver sighed. “I'm sorry... I...”

“It's alright, kid. Don't worry about it”

Up ahead Erin was waving her hands at Oliver.

“Ollie! Bring the camera. Might be a print!” she called.

Dan took the opportunity to have a seat on a gnarled old tree stump. He was in fair shape for a man his age, but his knees needed the break. He watched as the two of them snapped pictures of the ground and talked excitedly. Erin was all smiles now, and Oliver feasted on her joy as they laughed together. She could be a lovely young woman when she wasn't climbing down your gullet for some perceived insult, he thought.

They finished by the creek and the three of them continued on hiking late into the afternoon. When they rounded a bend and found a clearing nestled up against a short ridge Dan called for a stop. Erin showed no signs of fatigue, but Oliver had been puffing pretty hard for the last hour. It was a good place to camp for the night.

“Alright, guys...” He slung his sack to the ground and inhaled deeply, “Let's down for the night here, eh?”

Oliver's eyes brightened thankfully and he slumped to the ground.

“On your feet, soldier!” Dan used his command voice, but softened it with a wink. He saw that Erin was already laying out the tents.

“You're on wood gathering duty, kid.” he pulled Oliver to his weary feet “Come on. We get the fire going and we can eat.”

Oliver trudged into the brush, slapping at the mosquitoes dining in the early twilight. While he was gone Dan built a rudimentary fire pit and helped Erin raise the tents. She seemed more relaxed around him.

“So, Ranger K called you Sarge...” she pounded a stake into the ground. “Were you ever in Iraq?”

“Yeah” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I read something once about a species of scorpion in the Middle East that dates back to the Pleistocene” she said. “Supposed to be the size of a small dog.”

“Can't say I ever saw something like that” he laughed. “I once woke up with a camel spider damn near a foot long sleeping in my helmet though.”

They were still laughing when Oliver returned with a heaping armful of wood. He dropped it in a pile next to the pit.

“...Wood...” he huffed and puffed. “...Eat...Now...?”

“Take a break, kid” he said, “I'll put the stew on.”

Oliver sprawled out on a blanket near the tents and Erin, notebook in hand, took a seat next to him. Dan watched as Oliver rolled up on his side, leaned on one elbow and watched her take notes. By the time he had a small fire going the two of them were deep in a conversation punctuated by fits of laughter.

Later, after supping on old army ration stew, they sat before the dying embers of the fire and attempted to spot stars through the gaps in the tree cover overhead. Dan's body eventually offered its surrender.

“Alright, kids. These old bones need to turn in” he groaned as he rose and stretched. “Snuff that fire out before you bed down.”

He slipped into his tent and closed his eyes. Outside, a light breeze tenderly tickled the forest trees.

Dan woke quick, and slightly panicked, a legacy of his years of military service. He raised up on a single arm and listened. He'd heard a rustling of some kind outside the tent. Perhaps some small animal looking for food? He was sure he'd secured the supplies before turning in. He sat up and pulled on his first boot.


It was Erin's hushed voice.

“I'm trying!” Oliver said. “I can't find the other flashlight!”

Dan saw a beam of light bouncing around outside the tent.

“Here.” Erin said. “Let me look...”

Dan hastily pulled on his remaining boot, unzipped the tent flap, and crawled out into the bracing night air. Erin and Oliver froze as he glared at them.

“What the HELL are you two doing?” he checked his watch. It was just past 1:00 AM.

“Okay. Well, Dan.. You see...” Oliver sputtered.

“It's like this,” Erin interrupted. “Most researchers assume the Sasquatch is primarily active during the day, but I have a theory that they might be nocturnal...”

Dan put his face in his hand, rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply.

“We just wanted to scout around a bit.” she continued.

“You wanted to stumble around, in the dark, in an unfamiliar wilderness for a Bigfoot who works nights?” he said.

“We were going to take the flashlights” Oliver turned his flashlight in Dan's direction, and quickly turned it back away when he caught Dan's unhappy expression. “We didn't think you'd let us go.” he finished.

“Well, you got that part right at least.” he muttered.

Erin, predictably, wasn't done arguing.

“But since we're all up, maybe we could...” she said

“Negative, soldier” He was in the command voice again. “You two will return to your tents, and I won't see you out before 0600 hours!”

Erin huffed, but retreated back towards their tent. Oliver hesitated, glancing at his watch.

“Just to be clear...”

“Six o' clock, Ollie. Don't come out before six o' clock!” he barked.

Oliver scurried back to the tent and Dan took a deep gulp of night air. He reflected on Killian's parting smirk a day earlier as he slithered back through the narrow opening in the tent flap and struggled to find sleep once again.

The next morning found Erin still quite displeased with him. Oliver tried to mend fences, but the girl had quite the stubborn streak. They breakfasted silently on rice cakes and jerky. Erin scribbled notes in her pad while Oliver leaned back, eyes closed, resting. The kid clearly hadn't slept much.

Dan studied the sky. It was more gray than it had been the morning before. A good deal cooler as well. The mild breeze of yesterday now had a bit of chill bite to it. Thankfully the thick wood provided decent cover, but still, he thought the weather bore watching.

They set out, and once again Erin took to the forefront. Dan was grateful as it spared him her angry glare. She ranged a good 30 to 40 yards ahead of them, occasionally stopping to examine what might be a footprint or other sign of their quarry. Dan found himself having to slow his pace for poor Oliver, who was having even more difficulty than the day before. There wasn't a tree root or small rock in sight that he didn't manage to catch his foot on and nearly trip. To make matters worse, today he had been suffering vicious sneezing attacks inspired by nearby wild flower patches. He was an exhausted, runny-nosed, miserable mess. And it wasn't even mid day yet.

Dan tried to take his mind off things with conversation.

“You doin' okay there, Ollie?” he said.

Oliver sniffled and rubbed his nose on his sleeve.

“...Man... I hate nature.”

“Isn't that kind of strange given that you're studying zoology?” he asked.

“Huh?” he paused to sneeze, it was a small one. “Oh. Nah, man... I'm not studying zoology. That's Erin. I'm an English major.”

Dan stopped to give Oliver a breather. In the distance ahead he could see Erin photographing a copse of trees.

“Let me ask you something, Ollie.”

“Sure.” He was rubbing his arm where he'd tripped and scraped it against the ancient bark of an old pine tree.

“Why are you out here doing this?” he waved his arms around at the wilderness. “Do you even even believe in Sasquatches and Chupacabras and hooded lizards?”

“I... umm, Erin...” he threw up his hands. “I don't know, man. She's my friend... I guess. I like spending time with her.”

They started walking again. Dan smiled. Oliver was out here looking for something alright, but it wasn't a Bigfoot.

“You know, I met my wife in college,” he said. “first time I saw her was at a weaving class.”

“You weave?” Oliver asked

“I have weaved, yes, but that's not important.” he continued “I had ROTC training every morning at 0500 hours”

“Five AM!” Oliver said.

“Yeah, but listen” he said “Every day when training finished I would race across the quad to make it to that weaving class on time, merely to be in the same room with her.”

“Yeah...” he said.

“Oliver, I spent nearly a year taking weaving classes, beginner to advanced, and I absolutely hated weaving.” Dan laughed recalling the memory. “But I kept going because I thought it was the only way I could ever spend any time with her.”

He stopped them again so he could look Oliver straight in the eye.

“I spent nine months of my life weaving what might have been the ugliest red and gold rug anyone has ever seen, before I decided to stop pretending to love something she loved and instead offer something real. Myself.”

“How many weekends are you going to spend looking for creatures who may not exist before you offer her something real?”

Oliver broke his gaze and looked ahead at Erin who was standing in the path, hands on her hips, her dark curls cavorting in the increasingly austere wind.

“And it worked out okay?” he said unsteadily.

“Thirty-five years, Oliver” he said “But trust me, kid. No matter how much time you end up having together, it won't be enough.”

Oliver dropped his pack on the ground and began jogging up the trail to where she waited. He glided over the rough path like it was perfectly smooth pavement.

Dan supposed he should have been concerned about her reaction, but he wasn't. He'd seen them together.

He watched as Oliver shook his head and motioned to the woods around them. Then he smiled, bigger than Dan had ever seen him smile, and pointed directly at Erin. The shock on her face rendered into a broad smile within two heartbeats. Her blue eyes sparkled fiercely and they embraced.

Dan turned away and took a seat on a fallen tree covered with thick moss. He found himself overcome with emotion. It was all so familiar. The vacancy inside him reserved for Penny seemed to throb.

He thought about love then, and the way we clumsily paw around after it. How we constantly draw ourselves in reach of it, but never risk to grasp it with both hands, or have the strength to let go once it's gone.

He watched Oliver hold Erin under a canvas of leafy green. He used both hands.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The War is Over!

I don't remember the exact date the war started... Perhaps January or February of 2008? I'm not even sure how the war started... I seem to recall browsing the iTunes app store for games. I remember coming upon a simple, yet nifty, logic puzzle game called Blocked. I thought, "Well, I really suck at these lateral thinking games, but it's only $2.99. Why not?"

The next thing I knew, some Archduke got himself knocked off and my brain found itself mobilizing for the puzzle game to end all puzzle games.

Blocked, if you haven't played it before, is a game where you slide gray blocks back and forth and attempt to clear a path to move the blue block through the opening to the right. So simple, so elegant, so... incredibly aggravating.

I tore through the first ten levels blitzkrieg style and I must admit, my confidence was running high. Perhaps I was better at lateral thinking than I thought?

I think it was around level 17 that I was disabused of that notion. It was then that I realized I'd been drawn into catastrophic, mind-grinding, cerebral trench warfare. Where before I was completing levels in under a minute or two, now the progress was slowed. Five minute levels... Then ten, or fifteen. Occasionally I'd flail away for the better part of a half an hour. I inched my way through the rest of the teens and began the brutal slog through the twenties. My sanity took high casualties, but I was progressing.

And then I reached level 33. It was like my own personal Battle of the Somme. Again and again I thrust myself into the breach only to be repelled by my inability to work out the solution. Days, then weeks passed with no victory. At about a month and a half I took a break from the game, hoping some leave would bring fresh perspective, but each time I returned I found myself knocking against the same dilemma. I just couldn't work it out.

And then, after about three or four months of this stalemate I finally broke down and did what needed to be done. I went on Youtube and looked for a cheat solution. Look, I'm not terribly proud about this, but it was war! Men do what they have to do in war. I guarantee you that if Churchill could have simply gone on Youtube and watched a five minute video and ended the Blitz, that cigar chomping fat-ass would have been all over it. Then he would have watched that OK Go video like 25 times and drank whiskey until he puked.

Anyway, so I had cleared my first big hurdle by less than ethical means, but I had very little expectation that I'd be getting much further without repeatedly cheating. But a funny thing happened. I started getting good at the game. I knocked off the rest of the thirties in under two days and it only took me another two weeks to get up into the fifties. But more important than the fact that I was completing levels was the fact that I was beginning to see the puzzles differently. Instead of moving the blocks in a linear fashion, step by step until blocked, then reversing and trying again. I was able to analyze the whole puzzle and make moves based on where blocks potentially could be. In short, I was learning. I was getting better at the game.

I realized something very basic and obvious then that had always escaped me in the past. My capacity for lateral thinking puzzles wasn't static. It was dynamic and able to develop. To that point I had always considered Blocked a game I would play as far as my limitations allowed, never realizing that my limitations might lift simply by the act of doing.

I think it was when I hit level 60 that I determined I was going for total victory. I was going to win this war and I was going to do it without any more help. The campaign was slow and dirty. I finished some levels in ten or fifteen minutes, but most were taking me a day or two, and some a week or more. I had my challenges, particularly in the 80's (screw you, Reagan!), but over the last six months I methodically pushed my way through. The enemy army was on full retreat. I was cruising through the nineties

I'd been sitting on level 100 for the last three weeks. I'd grown weary and haggard, frustrated by my inability to decisively end the conflict. My brain was longing for V-Day, maybe a nice parade, certainly a baby boom, but I couldn't finish that last level!

Then, late last night as I was laying in bed playing my customary fifteen or twenty minutes before bed, it happened. I actually audibly gasped when I opened up the path for the blue block. I paused for a couple of seconds to reflect on the accomplishment of getting to this moment. It may seem a silly thing to take such pride in, but finishing Blocked and winning the "war" meant an awful lot to me at that moment.

I slid the blue block free and read the rather underwhelming "Congratulations." message that popped up on the screen. I was really hoping for that parade.

In fact, I feel so proud of winning this war that from now on I'm going to tell people I'm a member of the Greatest Generation. In your face, Brokaw!

So there's two plus years of my life into winning the war and solving Blocked. Need to make sure I craft a sensible peace or else I'll be right back here in 20 plus years playing Blocked 2: The Rise of Hitler.