Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Saturday Evening blog Post presents: My Name is Job.

The following story is true. No names have been changed, because there are no innocent to protect:

The wheels of the Otter-9, a plane that looked like a bathtub with wings, touched down in Worcester, and I breathed a sigh of relief that the vacation gone wrong was over. Little did I know that my comedy of errors was just getting started. Perhaps I should have been warned by missing three consecutive connections--but I am a hopeful spirit and paid no attention. I mean, I had broken my shoulder on the first day of a week long skiing vacation; things had to get better. Right? When my ride failed to materialize, I merely threw my skis and bags over my one good shoulder and hoofed it back to my dorm room on Mt. St. James--I later learned there was a bus--as the skies opened and spit a light drizzle over my head.

Two weeks later my shoulder stopped aching and I thought it might be time to get more active, so I grabbed my skates and headed up to the Hart Center for some late-night skating. It was good to get some exercise, and nothing calamitous occurred--until I tried to walk home in a shower of freezing rain. We had almost made it back when I slipped trying to negotiate a pile of snow. My right arm was still in the sling, so I tried to break the fall with my left. But I was carrying my skates, which got fouled in my coat, leaving my nose to do the job. (The pavement remained cracked in that spot until after I graduated.)

The next day my face was swelled to pre-historic proportions--compelling my friend Andy to change my name from Peter Hogenkamp to Peter Cromagnumkamp--and both eyes were blackened. I was so hideous looking I didn't leave my room for a week. How I picked up a cold--in virtual isolation--I will never know, but when I finally left my room to go to Organic Chemisty class I was sneezing profusely.

And I almost made it through class--but not quite. With about 10 minutes left I sneezed into my sleeve and felt something pop in my nose. I wasn't sure what it was until I noticed that my flannel shirt was saturated with blood. I tried to sneak out of the room, but the girl behind me stopped taking notes for a second and started screaming. Since Plan A failed so badly, I moved to Plan B and started running up the steps leading out of the lecture hall, spurting blood like a stuck pig. I almost escaped too, but my back foot slipped in a slick of blood and I landed on my previously healing shoulder, cracking the bone callous I had spent three weeks creating.

So, what was I thinking about as I lay on my newly re-broken shoulder, swallowing the blood surging down my throat?  I was thinking that it sucked to be me, and about escape, of course, as I belly crawled my way toward the exit. But I was also thinking that it must suck to be a vampire as well, because it is impossible to ingest large volumes of blood without vomiting. And so, to add insult to injury, I began to hurl, spouting a maroon geyser all over the floor tiles. There was a major commotion--as the students occupying ground zero scrambled to evacuate--and then a couple of my buddies grabbed me and dragged me to the bathroom, where I could at least vomit blood in privacy.

And that's why you can call me Job.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

the Thursday afternoon #MINI post: #travelinyourownbackyard #travelswithmydad

Remember the #MINI post is inspired by the #MINI--short, fast and fun to drive. (And let's not forget easy on the eye.) Today's #MINI combines two of my favorite features, #travelinyourownbackyard and #travelswithmydad.

I have a theory (which is mine.) My theory (which is mine) says that that you can not escape problems by running away. All solutions come from within. This theory (which is mine) has a corollary: when you are searching for places to go, look in your backyard, because you have surely overlooked something right under your nose. This was certainly the case in 1999 when my father and I were attending a week long medical conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The lectures finished early in the afternoon, giving the attendees plenty of time to have some fun--as long as that fun didn't involve driving very far. My father wasn't actually attending the conference--although he did go to several lectures out of interest--and spent the morning researching our afternoon adventures. When class was dismissed, he was was waiting in front of school with the rental car, packs at the ready. There was even a snack for the car ride.

And off we would go. Dad would use car ride to go over the research he had done on the #hikeoftheday, and I would listen and nibble on Fig Newtons. Realizing I wouldn't be in the mood for making notes, he had prepared his own and left them next to the water bottles--which he had filled with water and plenty of ice. (What can I say: he was a great dad.) When we arrived at the trail head, we wasted no time because daylight was-a-wastin'. There was never any real worries--for me--as my father had already studied the trail map and calculated the best route for the remaining hours of light and the current meteorological conditions. And we enjoyed some great hikes, highlighted by the discovery of a shooting range for automatic weapons in the middle of the desert, dozens of rattlesnakes and scorpions, and the fact that no one--except us--hikes in Arizona without carrying a firearm. (We never learned why: I suspect there isn't any real answer.) And we say a lot of cacti--some as tall as silos. I would be remiss in omitting that we stumbled into a cluster of primitive dwellings guarded by rough-looking people carrying AK-47s, and I only barely talked my father out of cutting right through the middle of the compound. 'But that's where the trail goes.' We took the long way round and got back to the car in the pitch black, but without bullet holes.

When I got to talking with some of the local docs at the conference the next morning, I was surprised to learn that most had never hiked any of these trails; some had never even heard of them--and not one was more than 30 minutes away. One of our favorites, Camelback Mountain, was literally right inside the city of Phoenix. There is something about people that makes them poo-poo the things that they have, and build up the things that they don't. I will never understand it, because there are wonderful places everywhere you go, even #inyourownbackyard.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Saturday Evening blog Post presents: The Day We Stared Down at the Clouds

It was 1987 and I was in my second year as a Chemistry teacher (yes I was the original Walter White, just without the meth cooking) in Salzburg, Austria. Now, those lucky readers who have visited Salzburg know that it is a spectacular city, steeped in history and blessed with natural beauty. It does have an Achilles heel, however, and I discovered this fact in October of that year. A trough of low pressure built up, and grey clouds scudded in, supplanting the blue skies we had been enjoying--just in time to greet my friend Bill who was flying in to visit me. But I wasn't worried, this had happened before, and the sun had always returned in a few days to dry up the trails for us to hike upon.

But not this year. This year the clouds hung up on the mountains and stayed put, and the rain came and went as if it owned the city. Bill and I, however, were not deterred--at least not for a few days. We balled soccer with my friends from school, played poker with the boys, visited every Bierhalle and Weinstube in the city and and even spent a day playing hackensack in a peat bog. I was so covered in this dark, foul-smelling peat that it took me a good solid half-hour to scrub it off in my shower when we were done, which speaks to the pathetic nature of my shower as well--to use the word 'dribble' would be exaggerating. When I got out of the shower I watched the weather forecast, learning that the clouds were going to sink even lower over the next few days. I was obviously dismayed, but Bill--who is a lot smarter than me--was overjoyed.

Why? Because the Wolkendecke (cloud ceiling) was 1500 meters, and the Untersberg (the mountain at the end of our street that looked like it had been thrust upwards by a subterranean being of mythical proportions--which, according to local legend, it had) soared 2000 meters into the alpine sky. Which all meant that after a week of the contrast of gray on gray, we could theoretically climb above the cloud cover.

The next day dawned damp and cold, but we readied our hiking gear and headed for the bus stop anyway. The 25 bus picked us up and dropped us off at the base of the mountain, a wall of rock climbable only with ladders and iron railings bored into the stone. It was raining when we started up the Dopplersteig, and the fog was so thick I could barely see the wet steps in front of me. About midway we were considering turning back, as the trail became especially steep at this point, traversing a sheer face with nothing on the right but 200 meters of cold Austrian air. But Bill wasn't going to be denied, and we pressed on, after paying our respects at the tomb stones marking this section of the trail. (The Dopplersteig is decorated with over thirty funeral cairns, honoring the Austrians who have fallen to their death while hiking--most likely on a slippery day like this.)

But we were nothing if not stupid, and we pressed upward into the swirling mist. Around the 1500 meter mark the sky started to lighten, and at 1700 meters a strangely familiar orange ball appeared in the sky. By the time we crested the barren summit, even the tops of the clouds were below us and we were bathed in brilliant sunshine. Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you, but after a week of fog so thick you could cut it with a knife, the clear, bright air felt good.

We passed the day hiking around the top, soaking up the sunshine and a few Stiegls, and generally enjoying life. But, October days are not noted for their length, and we had to face in to the wet climb down sooner or later, and I favored sooner, because I prefer to see where I am going. Bill snapped a photo of me taking one last look down at the clouds--it remains my favorite photo of all time--and off we went, plunging into the grey haze. Somehow, we managed to avoid being memorialized by another pair of stone funeral markers, arriving safely at the bottom several hours later in the gathering darkness. Bill flew home the next day, but the clouds remained in place for another few weeks, shutting out the sunshine and dampening everyone's mood--except for mine. I could still see the sunshine in my mind's eye, and feel its warmth on my face.

In fact, I still can.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Thursday Afternoon #MINI post: The Three Lessons I learned from #VinceGilligan. #breakingbad

It's true, I am one of those people, you know, the kind that started out bashing #breakingbad before ever watching a single episode. It's because I wanted to hate it. No father wants to see a meth dealer made into some kind of hero. Ultimately, however, my son talked me into watching a few episodes. I mean, your teenager wants to spend some time together, you do it, right?

It was not love at first sight between Walter White and I. But there was something there, something I couldn't deny. And the next thing you know, I am sitting next to my son every Sunday night, waiting for the next episode. Why? Because I learned a few things about storytelling from Vince Gilligan, and a writer can NEVER pass up the opportunity to learn from an accomplished storyteller like Vince.

Lesson #1. A protagonist doesn't have to be good, or moral, or sympathetic, or even likable; just memorable. #WW may have started out as sympathetic, but he breaks bad away from sympathy, and we learn in the end what we suspected all along--that he was doing it for himself. But none of this detracted from the popularity of the show; to the contrary, the more #WW broke bad, the higher the ratings. #2) Great characters need strong supporting characters to fulfill their potential. #WW would been nothing more than a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker without Jessie Pinkman and Hank Schrader. 3) There is no substitute for good writing. Don't believe me, just wait for the onslaught of copycat dramas that are sure to come. Unless they are written well, they will fizzle.

Ok, that's the #MINI for this Thursday. Thanks again, and we'll see you on Sunday.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Saturday Evening blog Post presents: The Long (and dangerous) Ride Home.

If you have read parts 1 and 2 of this narrative, you will know that our heroes--Bill, Chief and Peter--have finally ascended to the peak of the mountain range protecting the southern coast of Gran Canaria, and need only to ride down to the coastal road that circles the island and bike the 40 kms back to their haven in Las Palmas. If you haven't read parts 1 and 2, you don't realize that one of the Mopeds the Sons of Anarchy rented had died, and that the light was waning. (How did you go a whole week without that knowledge?) Let's cut back to the story, where it has finally dawned on us that we should have brought some water, as the only liquid we has consumed all day was hard cider--which was not very tasty to burp up, mind you. Who knew that one should take water with you when traveling in a desert? Oh sure, now they teach that kind of thing in school, but back then?

Anyway, we rode down to the coastal road and headed northeast towards Las Palmas as the equatorial son set behind the mountains. Now--I know I said their would be no math, but--you do the math: 40 kms of road at 20 kms/hour--our top speed with two of us on the lead bike--yup, it was a three hour ride. And it started out well, watching the fading rays of the sun play on the Atlantic. But then the light died altogether, and we were forced to use our headlights, which had the collective brightness of a pair of underachieving glow worms. To make matters worse, the geography changed as we headed north, and the highway arched up to run along a ridge that rose above the sea. In other circumstances--in the day, in a car, on a highway with guardrails--it would have been the ride of a lifetime. But on a moped, in the dark, and without the benefit of guard rails, I was frankly terrified every meter of the way. Bill must have been as well, because I heard him saying the rosary again and again.

Bill must have been in a good state of grace back in the day, because the Sons of Anarchy rolled into Las Palmas several hours later, safe and sound despite the cars flying past us on the highway, blaring their horns to let us know they had almost run us over in the darkness. How we made it I don't really know, other than to say it is definitive proof of a higher power. In any event, the Moped shop was closed so we went back to the villa and collapsed into bed without eating--we didn't have enough money for food anyway.

It is safe to say that we were not looking forward to returning the Mopeds the next morning. One bike was chained to a rock on the other side of the island, one bike was leaking oil, and the other had a flat tire. There was also the fact that the guys from the shop had told us not to take them out of Las Palmas. So, hanging our heads in shame, we limped in to the garage and I explained--in German, which I had never studied--what had transpired. I must have got the message across because they stared at us like we were insane, and then broke out in laughter.

Now this was the tricky part, because we had no money to pay for repairs, and I envisioned cleaning toilets for the rest of the week to pay the bill. But they took pity on us instead, and gassed up the truck to retrieve the stranded bike. There was only room for one of us on the truck, and Bill drew the short straw. When they pulled out, we could see him waving bravely from the cab.

"Think we'll ever see him again?" Chief asked.

"Alive, you mean?" I replied, already rehearsing my speech to Bill's mom.

And so we fretted the day away, hoping for Bill's safe return. We were just about to to go down to the Moped shop and inquire when Bill showed up, no worse for the wear. His new friends had decided to take him out to dinner on the other side of the island, and so Bill got treated to a feast while Chief and I ate plain pasta and worried ourselves sick.

I can't even remember the rest of our week on Gran Canaria, but I will never forget that one day. Bill, Chief and I laugh about it often, once again proving that bad decisions make great stories. (Not that I am advocating for bad decision making.)  Thanks again for your patience and support. If any of you wants to write about a memorable trip you have taken, the off-the-beaten path travel log is officially accepting guest blog posts. See you next week.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Thursday Afternoon #Mini post: #evolvingfiction #ittakesavillagetowriteabook

Ok, something new on the #Mini post. Under the heavy influence of #breakingbad, I have been thinking about memorable characters recently, and how the classic molds for antagonists and protagonists have been smashed entirely. Think Walter White. So, sitting here on this sunny bench overlooking Pico Peak, I am giving a go to creating a memorable character, who is neither protagonist nor antagonist. But, please, give me some help. I have co-published this story on Readwave and WattPad under the tentative title of The Subverting of Dr. Molly Stryker. If you have a second, sign on, read the story as it evolves, and give me suggestions. Without further ado, The Subverting of Dr. Molly Stryker.

Molly would never be sure when she had grabbed the knife--during his last round of insults perhaps or maybe when he had gone into the dining room to make a quick call to his mistress--but there was no mistake about its feel, hard and reassuring in her sweaty palm, as she stood by the door to kiss him goodbye. He materialized out of the den, head bent down, staring at his iPhone as if the word of God was appearing on the screen. She told herself later that she wouldn't have killed him even then--not after the years of derision, abuse and infidelity--had he had the decency to look up as she gave him a loveless peck on the cheek on his way out the door.

But he didn't look up, and she did kill him, severing his spine with his favorite Japanese steak knife as passed into the garage. He was dead before he bounced off their new Brazilian cherry floor like a dead cat. Molly had fantasized about killing him so many times--usually after a particularly hard slap or a jab that bit deeper than most--that the sight of his dead body lying there didn't cause any shock. Relief perhaps, and a little regret that the small amount of blood might stain the wood, but nothing more than that. He had been a cruel bastard for so long she couldn't remember loving him at any time. Maybe she had never loved him.

And now the world had one less sleazy lawyer to to keep the drug dealers out of jail, and she would never fear for her life again when his fish wasn't cooked properly, or if the cleaners had used the wrong amount of starch on his shirts. There was only the small matter of making sure she didn't go to prison for ridding the world of him and then she could start over. Seattle perhaps, or Boise--she had heard great things about Boise--someplace far away from her little slice of hell overlooking Central Park.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Saturday Evening blogPost presents: The original Sons of Anarchy; Gran Canaria Part 2

The Canary Islands are a Spanish Archipelago about 100 kilometers west of Morocco. Why am I telling you this? Because it is there, in the northwest corner of Gran Canaria, that my travel companions, Bill and Chief--renamed el Hefe for the trip--and I found ourselves in May of 1988. If you read part 1 of this adventure, you will know that the vacation was a poorly thought out trip gone bad. Ok, poorly thought out is understating it; there was no thought involved. So, three days into our week, we find ourselves trapped in a tiny villa about a kilometer from the coast, on an arid, desert-like plain dotted with low-slung concrete buildings. The beach was out because we didn't have enough money to pay for one of the foxholes needed to get underneath the projectile-filled wind, and the nightclubs--in addition to being sketchy--were also too expensive.

As usual, however, el Hefe came to the rescue, by finding a book in the local library that alerted us to the fact we were only about thirty kilometers away from a lush national park atop a volcano. We only needed to get there. After a few hours of investigative work, we came up with four options: 1) tour bus, which we threw out straight off as too touristy(we were adventurers, not tourists) and too pricey; 2) hired car, (too much denero--we were broke, in case you weren't aware); 3) local bus, schedule too limiting, and 4) Mopeds, which was right up our alley. And cheap enough for us to rent for one day.

The next day we woke up early and headed down to the Moped shop, where birth was given to the original Sons of Anarchy: Bill, el Hefe, and Pete. We mounted up and headed south, happy to be putting Las Palmas in the rear-view mirror. The first ten kilometers threaded its way through the desert plain that comprised the entire west coast of Gran Canaria. And then we turned to the east and started climbing up the volcano. If you are wondering when it is going to dawn on us that Mopeds are made for cruising along the--flat--beach and not ascending a volcano, the answer is not yet. No, we were blissfully unaware of this fact (hint: foreshadowing) as we went up, passing cave dwellings, exotic vegetation and indigenous people. The Sons of Anarchy were fired up.

An hour later, after negotiating a series of switchbacks without the benefit of guardrails, we crested the peak at almost 2000 meters. Keeping in mind we had started at sea level, that's an impressive climb--for the mopeds, that is. We hiked around the top for a while, and then started down the back side, stopping at a real town where we gassed up and feasted on roasted chicken and hard cider. Yes sir, the Sons were living large, and we even enjoyed the admiration of some local boys who stood and stared. (At least I am assuming it was admiration.)

The problems began on the way down. Bill's bike started sputtering and fussing, and by the time we were near the bottom the darn thing quit entirely. Unfortunately, it was a desolate spot, and we could only chain the wounded stallion to a rock and take turns letting Bill ride piggy-back. And it worked great, until the road stopped falling down the mountain and started climbing again. It turned out that a single Moped could not carry two of us up a slope, leaving the three Sons of Anarchy on the wrong side of a simple math equation. Improvisation was in order, since none of us fancied the idea of hitchhiking back to Las Palmas, now over thirty kms away.

It was el Hefe's plan that saved us. Rather than retrace our path--where we would have to climb the backside of the volcano--we would keep going south toward the coast, and then take the flat coastal road all the way around the island back to Las Palmas. The only problem was the mountain range that lay in between us and the coast. There was only one thing to do, and Chief took the first leg, sprinting up the 30 degree grade like hellhounds were on his heels. He petered out in about two hundred meters, and gladly got back on his bike as Bill raced up the mountain, yelling like a rebel soldier on a charge. When he stopped, I gave him my bike and started sprinting, saving all my wind for my legs. After a hundred meters, my lungs were heaving like a bellows that hadn't been oiled in a year, and partially digested hard cider was refluxing into my mouth, but I refused to stop. I was going to pull my weight or die trying. And in this fashion we went up the mountain--in a sort of Pop-goes-the-Weasel fashion--each one of us taking a turn sprinting before we collapsed onto the moped.

I have never been so happy to reach the top of anything, but, even so, we were not out of the woods yet. Far from it, actually, as were now almost at the southern limit of the island--forty clicks away from home--and the light was beginning to wain.

I will end here, and finish up with part 3 next week. Thanks again for your patience and support; see you next Sunday.