Picking Up Where We Left Off Last Time: Going Back to the Future After “To Be Continued”

The phrase “to be continued…” is a way of life for me.

In the summer of 1988 one of the things I remember most is watching reruns of The Incredible Hulk with my mom.  So many of the episodes ended with “to be continued…” flashed up on the screen.  For some reason, that really excited me.  Even to this day, if a TV show ends with that phrase I like it more than a regular episode.

Yes, closure is an important part of life.  But in my mind, the door is never really closed just because time separates me from another person.  (Obviously, I’m not including the given exception of ex-girlfriends. Instead, I’m referring to everyone else.) Childhood classmates and guys from my college dorm.  Anyone I’ve ever met in my life- I don’t forget them.  I may not remember many details about them- but at least in the smallest of ways, I remember them.

Therefore, something I have to remind myself of is this- my way of thinking and exceptionally good memory are not necessarily the norm.  Just because I can remember specific quotes from something someone said in 5th grade, it doesn’t mean they do, or necessarily even care.  The file folder in my head for that person reads “last seen: May 1998- to be continued…”  Theirs for me reads “last seen- sometime in high school- relationship terminated/cancelled”.

When I am reacquainted with a person I haven’t heard from in years or decades, I have this habit of immediately bringing up the first positive memory I have of that person.  For me, it’s like time never passed.  Interestingly, that’s how I think it will be after we die and are reunited with people in eternity.  Since time doesn’t really exist in the afterlife, we just pick up where we left off.

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Blue Skies Eventually Become Outer Space: From the Real World to the Heavenly Spiritual Realm

“Is there a God?  Why is He waiting? Don’t you think of it odd when He knows my address?  And look at the stars- don’t they remind you of just how feeble we are? Well it used to, I guess.” –John Mayer, “New Deep”

Though it may be difficult to grasp, neither the Wild West (in the past) nor Outer Space (in the future) in fictional entertainment have ever really interested me.  In fact, they have actually turned me off from certain franchises.  Back to the Future, Part III was a Wild Western, as was American Tail: Fievel Goes West.  And though it was before my time and marketed to the opposite gender, before being cancelled, the Saturday morning cartoon Josie and the Pussycats went to Outer Space for their final season.  Going into the Wild West or Outer Space both come across as “jump the shark” moments to me.  (Star Wars is an exception because it happened a long, long time ago, which is weird to think about.)

Here in the year 2010, the Wild West has been replaced as modern-day Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas have more trouble with violent gangs than they do misbehaving cowboys or Indians.  However, no matter what year we survive to, there is still an unseen future- and an unexplored Outer Space will always be something we remain fascinated by.  Even if we can shake off the possibility of other life forms out there (see Do Aliens Really Exist?), the scientific fact remains that there is no end to the Universe.  Space never stops; it literally can’t.  The ultimate great wide open.

A cliché idea is that when you look up at the stars you realize just how small you really are.  It’s true.  Even right now if I look up at the sky, I think how if only I could see far enough, I would see Outer Space.  And part of the whole “you realize how small you really are” doesn’t just account for physical size, but also for our spiritual relation to this Universe.

I am not convinced that Heaven is millions of light years away from us, way out there past Outer Space, like I have always unquestionably assumed.  God doesn’t fear that we humans will become so smart and efficient with our space travel programs that we will physically be able to fly to Heaven and therefore force our way in, despite our spiritual condition and relationship with Him.

For all I know, Heaven is actually so physically close we could throw a rock to it.  But our inability to see the spiritual realm prevents us from seeing it now.  Even when it somehow becomes easy to forget the relevance of God and eternity and how everything really is spiritual, Heaven isn’t that far away.  We definitely don’t have to travel past the blue skies into Outer Space to find the place.

And one more thing… Now that you’ve read my take on outer space, why not read my perspective on being a dad?  That’s right- parenting from a dad’s point of view.  I have been documenting my thoughts as a dad since the week we found out my wife was pregnant.  I formally invite you now to read my “dad blog” by clicking on the link below:

dad from day one

Nonfiction Rules; Fiction Drools (Why I Would Rather Allude to True Stories of My Own Life Than to Have to Create Characters and Story Lines)

Why make up a bunch of stuff to write about when the story is just sitting there, waiting to be told?

There are many times in life when I believe it’s important to work on my weaknesses until they become my strengths.  Like with the Rubik’s Cube, for example.  Other times, I just run the other way, knowing that the best option is just to stick with what I know best.  And so is the case with writing fiction; I’m not good at it, I don’t enjoy it, and I have no desire to try.  Seems like too much homework to me.  Granted, I very much admire/envy those who have the talent to write fiction.

I write nonfiction, instead, because it comes so naturally to me.  There’s no need to invent clever, yet deep characters- I already have all the ones I need.

The characters of my writings are usually you (both specifically and generically at the same time), friends, family, heroes, idiots, time, life itself, and myself.  The trickiest part of making this work is how I handle both the first and last subject I just named: you and me.

When I do actually use the word “you”, I try to avoid placing it next to the word “probably” because I don’t truly know anything “you probably” do, think, or are.  All I can do is portray things from my own perspective based on what I do, think, and am.  As for myself as a subject (the narrator and host), I’m careful not to make it obvious what a major role I play in the story.  I will quote French author Gustave Flaubert, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  It’s not about me; it’s about the story.  But the only way I can set the stage for common ground between “you” and me is by accenting the whole thing with my own life.  Like most album covers for the Steve Miller Band’s records where Steve Miller himself was M.I.A., if my face or image is attached or present, it’s almost better.  Let the art speak for itself.

I also love writing nonfiction because it’s pretty convenient how time can be manipulated; I am able to encompass the past, present, and future all in one.  Typically I start out the post with a story that already happened (past), linking it to who I am today (present day), and end it with how that sets the tone for how things will continue to be (future).

Writing nonfiction allows me to serve as my own psychologist, hopefully entertain others, and in a sense, to have the ability to travel through time.

When Our Life Expectations are Faster Than the Speed of God

Roll the dice.  Press the buzzer.  Time to play America’s favorite game.  “Solitaire: Life Expectations Edition”.

Life is often a difficult and careful balance of two extremes. Not any two certain extremes- each situation has its own.  But one in particular of these balances has proven consistently annoying: The balance of being a motivated, goal-oriented, hard-working American as well as living in accordance to God’s timing.

I have an agenda, a set plan, an order of events, a timeline by which I’m already behind on, according to me.  Yet on a yearly basis, I’m stalled by a classic answer to many of my prayers: “wait, it’s not time yet”.  And that’s what I call being faster than the speed of God.

Obviously, God, in all his power and lack of limitations can not be outrun.  But by pointing him to my calendar and its several missed and delayed events, I’m simply reminding God of my inability to keep up with him- since his calendar doesn’t simply just move forward; he’s in every moment of the past as well as the present and future.

When God misses my appointments for his involvement in my life expectations, it also serves as a reminder that man-schemed plans are often irrelevant in the face of God.  My life expectations are nothing more than an often-frustrating check-off list of a game that I am playing, involving other people at times, as my volunteers and spectators.

Graduate college and get a job.  Check.  Get married by age 27, which is the national average of American men when they get married.  Check.  Buy a house.  Check.  Have a baby by the time I’m 30.  Check (of course, Lord willing).

Good for me.  I’ve met some of my goals.  My American society-influenced landmarks.  Of course there are plenty more that I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of.  So by playing the rules of my own game, I lose.  Conveniently for me, though, I’ve still got the rest of my life to play this game, and accomplish these goals.  Yet still, the humbling truth is that this game still doesn’t matter to God.  His checklist for my life is much simpler, yet much more complicated.  And from everything I can tell, it mainly just revolves around loving other people.

As for the film based on my non-fiction book, Scenic Route Snapshots, starring James Franco, it’ll have to be postponed until 2013.  Because after all, I need to publish the book first.  And according to my calendar, that’s scheduled to happen next year.

And yet I return to the pointless game of Solitaire: Life Expectations edition.

Drinking Kool-Aid and Watching the Smurfs

Childhood isn’t a place too long gone for me; it’s what the attic of my head is wallpapered in.

For many of us, childhood was one of the brightest, most promising times.  Therefore, it remains today as a safe, heartwarming place in our minds.  A place where we can return to, like remembering a good dream, whenever we want.  And thanks to the people who are still alive who share those memories with us, we have access this seemingly imaginary fantasy world that we were all once a part of.  In a land called The Eighties.  Or Nineties.  Or Sixties.  (There are several to choose from.)

My literary teacher Michael Chabon explains it (he doesn’t know who I am, in reality) in a way that would make me jealous that he thought of it first, except for the fact if it weren’t for studying his style, I wouldn’t be the same writer I am today.  He refers to mutual collected memories in his book Manhood for Amateurs as “an entire network of tunnels, secret passageways, into the past”. 

We carry the exclusive memories of each other in the hard drives of our own minds, sporadically reminiscing to make sure of the validity of the events, and to glean from the enhanced emotions attached to them. 

The way my mind works, I can’t just simply open a file in my head entitled “Childhood: 1981-1993”.  Instead, these scattered gems are embedded along with all other memories and knowledge.  So when I click on one file, there’s sure to be a random childhood memory hanging on to it. 

And sometimes I just have flashes of them.  Like the Spring and Summer of 1989 (2nd grade) when I played baseball.  The pings of the aluminum bats, the crickets singing their alien songs in the moist, freshly cut baseball fields.  The sun going down as each game began. 

And when I go to that place, I remember how I had the biggest crush on Meg Guice, who never had a clue.  Yes, those were the days were drinking Kool-Aid; my favorite flavor being the short-lived “Sharkleberry Fin”, only second to Hi-C’s “Ecto Cooler”.  When Saved by the Bell hadn’t quite arrived, so The Smurfs pretty much taught me what I needed to know about society. 

Memories of being in Cub Scouts, riding the bus from school every Tuesday to the First Methodist Church, where my parents (the scout leaders) met us there with the aforementioned Kool-Aid and some adventurous craft assignment, like a bug collection (in which Matt Hall brought in a dead bat) or brainstorming about the upcoming Pinewood Derby race (which I won 1st place overall in 1991, thanks to my dad’s craftsmanship). 

I could go on, but I have a feeling by this point, some of your own childhood memories have been stirred up.  Don’t let me interrupt that for you.  Have fun.

A Storytelling of Snake Charmers (or Escapists)

Sometimes there’s no way to get around or over a problem; the only way to get past it is to just go through it.

This past Saturday my friend Tommy and I embarked on our second annual canoe trip on The Harpeth River in Nashville.  The same river that just a month ago flooded much of the western part of the city.  I would love to paint myself as this avid outdoorsman, compensating for the fact (as I’ve established before) that I’m no athlete.  But really, it’s just that I can’t turn down an activity with a friend that allows me to spend several hours breathing fresh air, getting sunburned (just my knees, very badly), and getting to see wildlife.

Especially one that I deem as a lazy adventure (Manspeak, Volume 8: Relaxation).  With the water being as high as it was, very little power was needed on our part to get the canoe moving.  Just basic steering away from rocks and into the best currents.  Like most male oriented social activities, canoeing  kept us from awkwardly facing each other the whole time (Manspeak, Volume 4: Stance).  And gave us something to do when there was nothing to say (which never really happened, because of our mutual love for Super Mario Bros. 2, McGee and Me, and fatherhood).

Two hours into our journey, after relatively no stress whatsoever, I had to do it.  I had to, in typical 1980’s sitcom fashion, speak a line of ironic foreshadowing: “This has been a really laid back trip.  No problems at all.”

Instantly, we look up and ahead.  Two trees had fallen from the flood; one from both sides of the river, blocking the entire length of passage, doubly.  But even in that moment, we didn’t realize that this puzzle ahead was more complicated than just getting past two fallen trees.

We decided the right side of the river promised the easiest and quickest clearance.  I had learned from our last trip that where there was thick, abundant, yellowish foam, it meant there was a decaying animal trapped alongside the river.  As we got closer to the foam, both of us smelled the corpse before we saw it.  A large dead fish, head and tail missing.  Still the size of the pillow you sleep on every night.  Meaning that passing through would ineviditably mean we would have to step in the water to lift the canoe over the fallen tree, we opted to check out the left side of the river blockage as to not get funky fish foam on our sunburning legs.

We steered to the canoe to the other side, seeing right way that the depth of blockage was even greater.  In our strategy forming minds, we both came up with our own idea of how to get through.  Tommy wanted us to stick to our original plan; to step in the water and lift the canoe over our heads and over the trees, then place it back in the water and hop back in the canoe.

I, however, saw a different means of escape.  Shaking the tree and its submerged limbs further in and out of the water, I came to the conclusion that if I crouched down low in the boat, Tommy could stand on the tree, pushing the canoe through the limbs as I helped keep them pushed down to make way for our path.

Tommy is an easy-going guy.  Or maybe it was my natural older brother demeanor, but I convinced him to do it my way.

And right as he said, “alright, let’s do this”, I replied with “Oh, there’s a snake right there!”

I picked my oar up, placing it on my shoulder like a rifle.  “Look five feet away from the end of my oar.  There’s a black snake wrapped around that branch.  He blends in almost perfectly.  His head is up, and he’s looking at us right now.”

It’s not that he didn’t believe me, it’s just that my head was in the way for a few minutes before he could finally see the thing.  And when he did, he jumped in to “crisis mode” with me.

Of course, a man in Crisis Mode is not a man who gets nervous or noticeably excited.  He is a man who speaks lower and slower as he attempts to play the situation in slo-mo, in order to figure out the best practical solution for the potentially dangerous and deadly problem.

After another five minutes (which seemed like 20) of deliberation, after realizing our wishes of killing the snake with a flame thrower were not part of reality (thanks a lot Contra), that we had to meet this problem head on, we went in to Action Mode, while of course, simultaneously remaining in Crisis Mode.

Keeping our eyes constantly scanning the weather, the bank (filled with a good amount of visible snake holes), and the canopy of tree branches over us for more snakes, we carefully lifted the canoe out of the water and over the fallen tree, sliding in the mud (he was wearing flip flops, I was wearing my ten-year old New Balance cross country running shoes), only to realize that once we set the canoe back into the water, another 12 feet ahead was another (this being the third) fallen tree blocking the entire width of the river.

The snake, now behind us, had slithered off of his resting (preying) place on the branch.  Was he in the water now?  Were his friends waiting up ahead of us?  We tried not to think about it.

We hoisted the canoe over the final tree.  The only way into our vehicular escape module was to hop down a few feet from the tree we were standing on at that point, which meant possibly tipping the boat over.  Thank God, we both landed it and got out of there as fast as we could.

The final hour of the trip involved a lot of head turning at every threat of another lethal animal.  We did end up seeing a doe that froze once it saw us.  I was convinced I would see a great beast out there, like a mountain lion or a blank panther.  Never happened though.

The thing is, I’m typically the last person to ever spot any kind of creature in wildlife.  And despite me being so close to the snake, I’m still amazed I spotted it.  We talked about the possible ending this story would have had if I wouldn’t have miraculously seen the snake.  I would have remained in the canoe as Tommy pushed us through, the snake would have been inches away from my nose- either biting my face and falling into the canoe with us.

When I bought my mountain bike back in April, the girl who sold it to me told me that when her brother was working at Bonnaroo last year, he got bit by a water moccasin.  He had to be airlifted to the hospital and given a $40,000 antidote.  Now he was to pay off that debt on a $30,000 a year salary.

But in that moment encountering the snake on the river, what else could we do?  We couldn’t go over or around the problem, we just had to man up and go through the problem.

Myself and Tommy back in 2008

Which Role Do You Play in Your Family?

As I a guy who doesn’t know anything about cars or building stuff, or even computers, or how to really fix anything, or sports (golf included), or politics, or business (investments and stock market crap), there aren’t seemingly many important roles left for me as a man in a family. 

Sure, I can tell you which actors from Saved by the Bell are Jewish and which songs were hits in 1983 and how tall Albert Einstein was and I can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than five minutes every time, but how does that fill any kind of necessary void in family dynamics?

I am a walking Wikipedia with an unforgettable memory of life events, sometimes nearing borderline Asperger’s.  So by default, what is my role in my family of six?  And to see the full picture, what are the roles of each member of my family? (My parents, my sister, her husband, and my wife.)

Me: The storyteller, the writer, the historian, and the event planner.  What drives me are memories.  Good memories take place because of events.  So I enjoy planning the family’s activities. 

I tend to be the one in the family that decides what we will do with our time when we’re all together.  And if I didn’t have an agenda for everyone to follow, it’s possible we would all just sit around and do nothing.  It’s possible we wouldn’t know where to go to eat, and end up settling for something mediocre like Outback or Chili’s. 

But I take the responsibility on myself for the six of us to decide where those memories (including potential funny stories and inside jokes) will take place.  And because “life happens” around food and entertainment and going to new places, my niche is being the one to set the backdrop for those events.

My role doesn’t fall into any of the typical manly stereotypes; I am the Montgomery Moose, the Desmond Hume, the John Cusack, the Pat Sajak.  The host, the MC of the evening, the narrator, the journalist of past, present, and future.  I just can’t fix anything.

My wife: The organized one, the teacher, the nurturer, the listener.

My dad: The mechanic, the electrician, the carpenter.

My mom: The financial expert, the chef, the encourager, the conversationalist.

My sister: The interior decorator, the helper, the initiator.

Her husband: The computer whiz, the tech expert, the sports enthusiast. 

Not that anyone can limit the talents and capabilities of their own family members down to just a few roles.  Because family members are not just stereotypes or TV characters.  They’re family.

What brought all this to mind is by watching the wonderfully crafted sitcom/drama Parenthood.  I love the dynamics of the family and how they all interact.  It hit me that the members of my family all have specific roles like the characters on that show.  And also, it seems the entertainment world is oversaturated with superheroes. 

I just wanted to know what my “superpowers” are.  Now I know. 

(And in case you’re still curious, Screech and Jessie were played Jewish actors, on the show Saved by the Bell.)

Would you, the random or regular reader, be willing to share with me your role and your family members’ roles in your family by leaving a comment below?  This isn’t a clever marketing ploy to boost my numbers or make this post seem more interesting.  I am just truly interested in this topic and want to know what other random family roles are out there.