Category Archives: Personal

Ghoulish, Gruesome, Goosebumps

The_Haunted_Mask

In honor of the spookiest month of the year, I thought I’d do a few posts on all things creepy and crawly. Let’s take a break from serious subjects and have some horror filled fun, starting with R. L. Stine’s famous horror series Goosebumps.

When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to read Goosebumps. At least not until I was like, 10 or 11 or so I suppose. My older brother was allowed to read them, but I had to wait and that drove me crazy. I’d watch my brother read through a stack of books with the most fantastically creepy covers and I’d seethe with envy. If you ever read Goosebumps you know what I mean about the covers. Sometimes the covers were better than the story underneath! They had brightly colored monsters, haunted masks, BBQing skeletons, giant hamsters, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, vampires, everything a kid could want! I’d see them sitting all in a row at the local library and look at each cover one by one. I may not have been allowed to read them, but who could stop me from looking? My parents didn’t want me reading them because they didn’t want me to have nightmares. My dad in particular was very protective of us when it came to anything scary and supernatural. Still, I can remember “borrowing” a Goosebumps book from my brother, crawling under my bed, and reading it by flashlight. When I was finally allowed to read them openly I devoured them. I read just about every Goosebumps that our local library had.

 

MonsterBlood

 

The first one I ever read, or at least the first that left any deep impression on me, was Goosebumps #2 Stay out of the Basement. I can still remember the story clearly: a scientist orders his two kids to stay out of the basement where he keeps his laboratory. He starts acting strangely, and when the kids finally do go down they discover…that he’s been slowly turning himself into a human/plant hybrid monster! I can’t quite remember what happened after that, but man did that book give me chills. The thought of human becoming something so inhuman as a plant was creepy enough, but that it was their own father took the cake. I didn’t know what I would do if my own father turned himself into a monster. And look at that cover (featured below)! I knew when I saw that cover that I was in for something great.

Stay_out_of_the_basement

As I look back on Goosebumps I have a lot of good memories. The Haunted Mask, Don’t go to Sleep, Monster Blood, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Say Cheese and Die, Why I’m Afraid of Bees, How I Learned to Fly; these were some of my favorites. To be sure they were cheesy, silly, and as the series wore on (and the publishers goaded R. L. Stine to write them faster and faster) the quality did suffer. But I was too young to think that they were written badly. For me they were an outlet for my own love and fear of all things creepy, spooky, and monstrous. A safe outlet too, for no matter how badly the stories ended (and few ended happily for the protagonist) I knew that I was safe. This was fantasy, not reality; a parallel universe of exaggerated colors and shapes that I could peek in through the cover of a worn paperback.

Just for fun, here’s my favorite Goosebumps cover: the story was pretty mediocre, but that giant tongue still gets me every time!

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2 Years and 10 Views per Day: The Inexplicability of Failure

Where the flipping flying farthamster is mine?

 

In my last post I asked for feedback on how I could improve the blog. I’m not sure kind of advice I was expecting to receive. I guess I wanted someone to say something along the lines of “Well Mark, your blog is failing because you don’t write enough fiction/apologetics/writing related posts! That’s all we care about!” Or “Well Mark, don’t you see that the key is to write X? Write X and the people will come running to your door!” Or even “Geez Mark, didn’t you know about the magic success switch built in to WordPress? You must have had yours turned off all this time! Just flip the switch and the views will start coming.” Instead I got what I should have expected: some very nice readers (you are officially my favorites!) told me that they like my writing in general. Some people like the fiction more, others like the history posts, but nobody said they particularly disliked anything. Which sucks, because the more I think about it the more I realize that I didn’t want to know what I was doing right. I want to know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve been blogging for two freaking years and I’m daily views that are orders of magnitude less than two month old blogs that look like they were written by a constipated Shar-Pei. What in the world am I doing wrong here? I found myself Googling random strings of words like “blog failure” or “failed blogs” or “why oh why does nobody like me waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” (that last one was particularly unhelpful).

I just have this frustrated feeling that everyone else knows something I don’t.

That feeling has followed me my whole life, really. Whenever I get frustrated with something that other people succeed at I can’t help but feel that I’m missing some vital piece of information. I’m smart, I work hard, and yet they’re having greater success than me; surely this means that they are hoarding some kind of secret information! Surely everyone else got some kind of secret manual on how to actually build muscle when you exercise, or play an instrument, or tie a square not, or hammer a nail without it bending, or get a headshot every time in an FPS, while here I am trying to figure it out on my own like a chump.

Of course reality is never that simple. Sometimes my own failures really are due to a lack of vital knowledge, but typically they have more to do with a lack of experience on my part, a difference in work effort, or pure dumb luck. There’s no “magic key” that I’m missing in most cases, no matter how much I feel like there is.

Still, it’s bothersome. I’ve been pouring over the numerous “How to run a successful blog” style of blogs and I’ve come away with nothing new. If anything those blogs are only more discouraging. Not only do they lack any advice of substance that I haven’t already heard, they also make little insinuating comments about how a blog with around a 1,000 views a day may take “a few more months” before it can grow to something decent. Nowhere is there any advice, it seems, for individuals who are such complete failures that their blog has 10 views a day after more than two years of regular posting.

I tried googling “10 views per day” specifically and that was the worse one yet. I found forum post full of people saying things like “Wow, I got 150 views today and I’ve only been blogging for two weeks!” or “It may take a few months for you to break 500 views a day, but if you’re consistent you’ll make it.” Then I click on over to my own stats page which reminds me, yet again, that my best day ever had a wooping 101 views…from 11 unique visitors. Apparently one or two of them decided to archive binge. And then I fall into dark frustration again, sure that somewhere I’m missing something that everyone else just naturally gets…

Now to address the obvious, insanitybytes22 and suckmywake both suggested that I need to promote myself more. Maybe this is the “key” I’m missing, but I must say that I doubt it. For one thing, I’m not even sure what promoting myself looks like. Posting links to my blog on Facebook? I did that for about the first year before stopping. Why did I stop? Because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. My first year of blogging had the most abysmal view count I’ve ever had, and none of the very, very few of my Facebook friends who actually clicked on the links became a regular reader. I was surprised to discover that my own brothers didn’t realize that I was still writing the blog. To be sure, giving the “post links on Facebook” thing another try is certainly worth a shot, and I will do so in the coming months, but I doubt it will make much of a difference.

Twitter is out as a self-promotion tool because I don’t do Twitter, and if I started an account today the only people who would follow it are people who are already reading the blog. There is literally no other reason for anyone to follow me, and honestly I’m not the Twitter type. My thoughts typically come in the shape of sprawling bog posts, not short, pithy tweets.

I suppose that leaves posting links to my blog in the comments of other people’s blogs, but that has always struck me as incredibly tacky. I hate it when people post links to their own blog in comment sections, so I’m extremely reluctant to do that myself. Still, I suppose I must try. It’s easy to say that I need more self-promotion, but I really don’t know what that properly means. I’d like to think that my work will speak for itself. Ah well. I’ll just have to try one thing at a time: and get back to posting on subjects that are actually interesting, rather than my own blog woes! Really, I feel like such a whiner even complaining about this. Still, the blog can’t live without content and we’ve certianly been short on that for the past couple months. I’m sure someone else out there can relate to feeling like you’re missing the manual for success.

A White Washington Boy’s Inability to Understand Ferguson

There’s a lot I don’t understand about race in America.

I was doing a little light reading about this whole Fergusen situation. I really don’t know all that much about what’s going on. I haven’t studied it in detail. I don’t really know how to think about any of it anyway. One article in particular left me flummoxed. In it the author talked about how white people are offended by black bodies, by black people doing things that white people don’t like, and how the white church refuses face the challenges that black people face. It got me thinking, but mostly it got me confused. This race stuff is so foreign to me. I don’t know how to process it correctly.

I think the main reason I have trouble with race stuff is that fact that I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I lived my whole life up until college in the state of Washington, then went to school in Oregon for four years, and I currently live in Anchorage, Alaska. Many people in the Pacific Northwest would tell you that we aren’t racist up here. Racists, after all, live in the South and are ignorant and intolerant bigots and we’re about as far north as you can get without being Canadian and we’re more enlightened and tolerant than just about any folks you’ll meet. Of course this sentiment is wrong. The Pacific Northwest has its own problem with race (involving Asians mostly) but we’re especially off our game when it comes to African Americans.

The simple fact is we don’t have any idea what black people are about.

In the state of Washington only 4% of the population is black, compared to the national average of 13%. The few blacks we have are mostly concentrated in urban areas. In Lewis County, where I grew up, blacks made up only .8% of the population. Oregon is worse than Washington with only 2%, and Alaska comes in at 3.9%. I can count on my hands the number of black people in my life that I was close enough to learn their name. There were 2 black people at my high school and 2 at my university (and that wasn’t because I went to a “white school” while all the black people went to a “black school: my school district was the only one available for about a dozen little towns in Southeast Pierce county. If you lived between Ashford and the Ohop Valley, that’s where you went). So when people like myself hear news about race riots or teenagers getting shot or any other racial controversy we feel very far removed from it. We don’t know what to think. We don’t know any black people. I mean we’re not racist, right? I mean, sure, I’ll lock my car windows when I see a black teenager walking around, but that doesn’t make me racist. It’s not that we don’t like black people we just find them…different. Strange. Unusual. And what is unknown is often frightening. Ask around and we’ll tell you we’re not racist like those Southerners. We didn’t have anything to do with slavery. Don’t remind us that Oregon made it illegal for black people to live in the state during the 1800s. That was the past. Besides, how many black people are up here anyway? We’ll cop to having a bad history with the Japanese, and the Chinese, and the Filipinos, but what do black people have to do with any of it?

The article I read laid out a series of challenges to white Christians. They are as follows:

 

“Choose a new church home and sit under the teaching of a black preacher for two years.

Choose a new neighborhood where your fate is intimately tied to the fate of people of color.

Go back to school and take a history class from a black professor where your academic success lies in his/her hands.

Choose to be mentored by a person of color every week. You do what they say, when they say it. No excuses.

Choose to go places where you see the stories behind the statistics, where someone can connect history to the present for you.

Send your kids to a black or brown school.”

 

And all I could think was that those things are physically impossible for me. Growing up I couldn’t tell you where to find a black church. I still can’t. I don’t know of any “black” neighborhoods. I can tell you that in Lewis County you probably couldn’t rustle up enough black people to fill a bingo hall, much less a single neighborhood. I don’t know any black people, anywhere, especially not well enough for them to mentor me. And a black school? To be honest, though it seems silly when I say this, I thought having all black or all white schools was illegal after Brown v. Board. I guess when you don’t have any black neighborhoods it’s hard to understand the concept of a black school.

So, do you want to know what I think about Fergusen? I think that if the police officer was breaking the law or acted improperly in shooting Michael Brown then he should be convicted and punished. That’s it. I can’t suss out any of this racial stuff. I guess that’s a flaw on my part.

Am I a Part of the World?

Monday’s post elicited a comment from insanitybytes22:

“’Does writing on your blog really make the world a better place?’

Yes! Because writing on a blog forces you to become a better person with a clearer vision of who are, and you carry that out into the world with you.”

It was a very nice and well appreciated comment, but most importantly it got me thinking. You see, recently I’ve been contemplating the weaknesses of my own personality. Some time ago my wife introduced me to the Enneagram personality typing system. I’m not going to say much about the Enneagram here other than the fact that it’s the best personality typing system I’ve ever found (to make a very long story very short: all the other systems I’ve tried, particularly the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs, told me very little that I didn’t already know: the Enneagram told me things about myself I didn’t know I knew). Recently my wife was talking to me about things I might try to improve my mental health, based on my personality. Her central recommendation boiled down to the following: “You think and act as if you were separate from the world around you; an observer of the universe who occasionally interacts with it. You need to understand that you are part of the world.”

This probably seems like strange advice to most of you. For myself, it made perfect sense. Deep down I do treat everything as if it was something to observe. I try to separate myself from the world in order to protect myself from it. I may participate in volunteer work, or have fun with my friends, but somewhere underneath it all I treat life as if it was a movie or a book that I was making my way through. Occasionally I’ll notice that I’m doing this, and I’ll be suddenly struck with dread and anxiety as I realize “This is YOUR life. All of this is happening to YOU. This is REAL.”

When I actually put it down in black and white I realize how crazy that sounds. But I’m not crazy. The idea that I am separate from the world, or that my life is not really my life but a story I’m experiencing, is emotional and not mental in nature. I never really think that the world is a giant movie, and I recognize quite well that I am part of the world around me; it’s my emotions that tend to tint everything in the light of externality. It’s those same emotions that are filled with dread when I recognize that sentiment isn’t true.

To bring this around to the point, reading insanitybytes22’s comment brought that back to me. You see the first reaction I had to the comment (after I felt good about the fact that someone was commenting positively on my post) was that improving myself didn’t really matter. And after I thought about that reaction I realized it didn’t make much sense. Of course improving myself matters! Self-improvement is vitally important to a life well lived. Understanding myself and developing my mind and spirit are some of the most important activities I can ever take part in. Yet it didn’t feel important, and after further contemplation I realized why. It’s because I emotionally viewed self-improvement as only being important if I could use that improvement to make the world a better place. Yet I know that if I helped someone else improve I would consider it making the world a better place. Yet somehow improving my own self is not making the world a better place?

Well of course it wasn’t, because I feel like I’m not part of the world. I’m separate from it. I treat myself as if I’m a tool whose purpose is to help fix the world. If you were trying to fix a car it would be nice to have good quality tools: but it would be stupid to spend more on upgrading your tools then you spend on fixing the actual car. After all, once the car is fixed the tools go back in the toolbox; and deep down I treated myself the same way. Sure it’s nice to improve myself, but only because that might help me fix the world. And once the world is fixed I’ll just pack myself up into the toolbox and be put under the shelf.

But the fact is that I am part of the world. I’m not a mechanic who studies and fixes the mechanism but a part of the machine as a whole. Improving myself does improve the world because I am part of the world. I am a participant in reality. Improving myself improves the whole.

My natural reaction to this idea is that it feels too self-important. If I start thinking like this won’t it make me selfish, focusing all my energies on helping myself over others? But this isn’t true. Focusing on improving myself can only make me more useful to everyone else. If I become selfish and ignore the needs of others then I am degrading myself. When I hear the needs of others and seek to help them I am improving myself. What good is it to try to improve the world before I have become improved myself? Can an alcoholic help others sober up if he’s still drunk? Can a liar help others become honest if he’s still practicing deceit? Can a doctor heal people if he is bedridden? If such people succeed it will only be haphazardly and almost by accident.

I am just now beginning to really understand what Jesus meant when he said “First take the log out of your own eye before you help your neighbor take the speck out of his.”

Writing this post helped me. I hope it helps you: but even if nobody reads it the world is a slightly better place.

Because I am part of the world.

Niche Media and Making a Difference

Things have been pretty quiet here on the blog. This is mostly because I’ve been musing about topics that are both personal and somewhat depressing. I often use writing as a way to understand my own feelings and work through difficult thoughts and emotions. The final product of these exercises is wonderfully cathartic but ultimately useless for general consumption. They illuminate and improve my own life, but they are unlikely to do so for others who lack my own personal context. I’ve tried to come up with a topic suitable for general consumption but I’ve been drawing a blank. I blame my last post for this: it was about abortion, and part of me felt that following it up with musings about writing or games or anything unserious would be indecorous. Unfortunately I have found that forcing myself to write about serious and important subjects when I don’t want to is a recipe for disaster. There will be a follow up post about abortion at some point: but it will have to wait until I can give the subject the time and attention it deserves.

Still, I began to wonder why I didn’t feel like writing more about abortion: or about apologetics or God or the poor or any other serious subject that is near and dear to my heart. This led to the logical next question: why do I want to write about these things in the first place?

Well, because I want to share important thoughts and ideas with the world.

Why do you want to do that?

To make the world a better place, I suppose. To contribute.

Are you though? Does writing on you blog really make the world a better place?

I don’t know.

This problem vexed me. Do I write for myself, or for others? What good is my writing anyway? Only a few people read my posts, and many of them already agree with me. Those that don’t agree with me are unlikely to have their minds changed by my writing, and the vast majority of those who disagree with me will never even see my blog.

I tried to pick myself up a bit. After all, what about C.S. Lewis? He was just an obscure Oxford don when he started writing, yet his words have touched and changed the lives of millions.

True: but remember how he got his start. He was asked to do radio broadcasts of apologetics talks during WWII. Since those talks were popular he put them into a book, and publishers picked it up and promoted it. From there any subsequent books he wrote would be newsworthy.

So what? Everyone starts somewhere. He started with radio, I’ll start with my blog.

But your blog isn’t radio. Lewis’s voice was heard all over England in those broadcasts, tens of thousands of people listening in (many of them listening because they didn’t have anything better to do). That was the old age of communication. The era of mass media is over. Even if you got on a radio station today you wouldn’t have a percentage of the audience he had. And TV is following the same route. Now everyone’s media is personalized: there are tens of thousands of blogs, vlogs, and independent artists floating through the web finding tiny niche audiences of people who already think exactly like they do. That’s the way it is now. There is no “general” audience anymore. Your blog is just floating through the internet, picking up the occasional follower who already believes what you’re trying to convince them of.

I have followers who disagree with me.

One or two at the most. And you must admit that controversy is practically a hobby of theirs: they don’t follow you because you’re convincing them of anything, they follow you so they’ll have material for their own blogs and someone to argue with on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps you’re right. But it is better to do something than nothing, even if it all amounts to the same thing in the end.

That’s where that line of thought always stops. It is better to do something then nothing, but that’s not the best attitude to write with. Not if you want to get anything done anyway.

The internet really has changed things. Mass media is getting smaller and smaller, while niche media is growing larger and larger. It’s both beautiful and terrible. Not many people would be asked to speak on the radio in Lewis’s day, but when they did speak they spoke to a wide audience: rich and poor, atheist, and theist, liberal and conservative. Today almost anyone can start a podcast but their audience will be far more narrow. Religious podcasts will gather a religious audience, skeptic podcasts will gather a skeptic audience, liberals will talk to liberals, and conservatives to conservatives and all over the internet one hundred thousand preachers will deliver their sermons to one hundred thousand choirs.

On the other hand, sometimes the choir needs a good preaching to. And sometimes a stranger passes through, usually while trying to Google an unrelated but similar sounding topic.

Something is better than nothing, and the era of niche media may have a few tricks up its sleeves yet. Time to get back to work.

Why do I Want to Create?

 

One unfortunate problem with choosing writing as a preferred method of communication is that it is a slow process. If you have an idea that you’re really excited about and ready to share with the world right now you still have to sit down and write for an hour or two, or even for days, depending on the scope of the subject. By the time you actually arrive at the point you’ve been eager to get to it can be days or weeks later. By then your enthusiasm may have understandably waned.

 

I was very excited to go into a series on the argument from reason, but it’s taken me weeks to get as far through it as I have and I’m only halfway done. At this point it’s difficult for me to summon the motivation to continue further. It seems that I may require some time to rest from that subject so that I can build up intellectual steam for the second half.

 

To that end this blog post will have nothing to do with the argument from reason, and will instead focus on a topic that my mind is still engaged with.

 

It has occurred to me lately that most of the things I would really like to do for a living are not very feasible. I would love to write for a living, but very few people make enough money writing to live off of or to support a family with. Of course I’ve understood that for a very long time: one of the first pieces of advice an aspiring writer typically receives is that you should never quit your day job. Still, I did hold some hope for perhaps becoming a columnist or freelance writer and that I could potentially make a living at that. Since then I’ve realized that, with the advent of the internet and the ability for anyone with a connection to become their own self publisher, the amount of amateur and freelance writers has exploded while at the same time the demand for such writers has decreased. Trying to make living as a writer in the internet age is like trying to make a living at picking fruit in Dust Bowl era California: it’s just not going to work out very well. Unless I manage to write a book that becomes the next Game of Thrones or Harry Potter (at which point I can celebrate by building a mansion in the woods and an early retirement) I’m going to have to hang on to my day job.

 

With writing out my next preferred profession was filmmaking. And though I’m still terribly interested in filmmaking (and would like to make a documentary or two someday) I’ve come to realize that it is not a viable day job either. Once again I have the internet to blame (along with the march of technological progress that has made high quality video recording equipment available to the public). There are now more people attempting to make a living off filmmaking and video production than ever before, at a time when the amount of money people are willing to pay for such entertainment has remained generally constant. There are aspiring directors, editors, screenwriters, and the like all over the world, and there are less jobs working for the big studies then there used to be. Hollywood is doubling down on a small number of huge blockbuster movies and there are less opportunities for an up and coming director to make a name for themselves. Steven Speilberg has bemoaned that even he can’t get funding for more personal and artistic projects. If Speilberg doesn’t think there’s a future in movies then what chance do I have? At this point I’d have better luck dedicating myself to becoming fabulously wealthy and then funding my own film projects than trying to work my way into and then up the ladder of the studio system.

 

I considered creating a webcomic that could grow into something that could provide a stable, or even lucrative, income. It’s happened for many other people, and I’ve always been fascinated by comics as a storytelling medium. I’m still considering it: but it is just as pointless to put your hopes in a webcomic becoming massively successful as it is to put your hopes into writing. Perhaps it will take off, perhaps it won’t, but in the meantime you’ve got bills to pay and a family to support. In other words: don’t quit your day job.

 

All this negative, yet purely practical and realistic, thinking has led me to ask myself: why do I want to write? Why do I want to make movies? Why do I want to make webcomics? And the answers I find are complicated. I love telling stories. I love sharing ideas. I love books. I love movies. I love comics. I would find great enjoyment in making my own. Still, why does it matter whether or not I can make a living at it? Essentially it doesn’t: it would just be really, really awesome if I could just create all day and be paid for it. But then the question is, who am I creating this for? Why am I creating it? For the money? For myself? For others?

 

Probably a little bit of all of those and a few other things besides, if we’re being honest. Things like my desire to be someone important, my desire to create something that the world will embrace and say “Here is a great creator!” So we have pride in there, and ambition. And then there is the irreplaceability of the creative professions: any competent person with the right education can be an accountant; but only Gary Paulson could write Hatchet. There are millions (billions, really, if I’m being honest) of people who could do my current job just as well as I do, if not better. But only C.S. Lewis could write The Chronicles of Narnia. Deep down I do not want to be replaceable. So that desire comes into it as well.

But lately I’ve been wondering…do I need the approval of the world to do so? Do I need to be a professional to create something unique?

 

Well no. But just because something is unique doesn’t mean it’s good. I made a lot of unique things out of popsicles and macaroni when I was in kindergarten but that doesn’t mean that any of them were important, or useful, or beautiful, or interesting. It’s all well and good to say that you should write for yourself: but the fact is that if I was writing this blog post for myself instead of for public viewing then it certainly wouldn’t be this long or this detailed and it would be riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes.

 

It’s a vexing problem. One I haven’t found the solution to yet.

 

At least I feel that I’m closer to an answer then I have been.

Dreaming of Fishing

Rainbow_trout_fish_onchorhynchus_mykiss_detailed_photography

Lately I’ve been dreaming of fishing.

I don’t come from a fishing family. Neither of my parents fish, and though I grew up in a town that was locally famous for its fine fishing lake none of my friends were big on fishing either. I suppose I would have been just the same as my family as far as fishing is concerned if it wasn’t for a small event in my early life.

When I was four or five years old some friends of my parents came to visit. I have no idea who they were today, and I didn’t really know back then either. At this early stage of my life I had the kind of confidence and trust in others that some small children have. I didn’t really need to know who they were to feel comfortable around them. Anyway, I wouldn’t even remember this couple if it wasn’t for the fact that they offered to take me fishing out on the lake. I don’t know if I professed any particular desire to go fishing before this, but I was certainly game to go. They had two little kids of their own (both of whom were a little older than me) so I suppose they thought one more little guy in the boat wouldn’t be an inconvenience.

I can still remember parts of that day with remarkable clarity considering how long ago it was. I can remember sitting in the aluminum boat: I can remember how the man showed me how you take the fish you catch, put a string through their gills, and tie them to the back of the boat so they stay fresh. I was amazed that you could put fish back in the lake and they wouldn’t disappear. I know that we caught several fish, though that wasn’t what was most important. The most important thing was that I caught a fish. I believe it was a rainbow trout: at least that’s what I think they told me it was. I was so excited to have caught a fish of my very own. Looking back on it, I think it’s likely that one of the adults had a lot more to do with catching the fish than I did: but it was my rod that caught it, and that was enough for me.

We took the fish home and I watched as it was gutted and cleaned. I don’t recall being disgusted by the gutting part. Instead I remember being fascinated by the scales, and how they fell off and covered the cutting board. It seemed so strange that they could fall off so easily. I wondered what a fish had under its scales, and I didn’t get the question answered to my satisfaction. My dad cooked it up and I ate it from my high chair. It was one of the best tasting things I had ever eaten. To this day I can taste that trout. What’s funny is that I don’t particularly like fish. I’ve always wondered whether it only tasted that good because I had caught it. Perhaps all rainbow trout taste like that. I’ve never had the chance to make a comparison, as that rainbow trout remains, to this day, the only fish I’ve ever caught.

From that day on I was slightly fish mad. I wanted to go fishing again, but there was nobody around to take me. Besides, we didn’t have any fishing gear. I can recall that at one point, possibly a year later, I went back to the lake with a group of men who my parents felt they could trust. We fished from the shore, and though people to the left and right of me caught plenty I didn’t get more than a nibble. I stayed until it got dark, and then one of the men took me home. In my mind the men were giants, and I still can’t recall their faces as they seemed too high and out of reach for me to see properly. I believe they had beards. If I was to be invited to go fishing with a similar group of strangers today I’d feel very uncomfortable and probably would decline. At that age I still had no fear of people.

After that fishing trip opportunities just dried up. Occasionally I would get it in my head to go fishing and I would find a sturdy stick, find some fishing line (we had no real poles, though my mom and dad kept line around to use for household projects), and tie one end to my stick and the other end to a safety pin. I’d try to find some works, or at least a beetle to use as bait. I tried tying pebbles to the line to use as a sinker, but I never could find a way to tie a pebble to a piece of fishing line that would work properly. Then I’d find a nice sitting place next to the deep part of the old creek and try to fish. I knew there were fish in there: if you looked long and hard enough you could barely see them move. Their backs were a sandy brown that blended in perfectly with the rocks below, so sometimes you had to sit a long time. I still don’t know what kind of fish they were, but they never even glanced at my bait. I was able to catch the occasional minnow though, with a cup or a bucket. Still, minnows hardly count: they’re strictly catch and release because you’d have to be awful hungry to try and eat one. Once a nice fellow took me fishing in the beaver pond up the road. He had proper equipment and was a nice guy. We didn’t catch a thing though. After that the next real occasion where I got to fish was back on the lake with two of my closest friends. We had known each other since elementary school, but were about to head off in different directions after graduating. Fishing wasn’t really the point: it was just an excuse to hang out one last time before we said goodbye. Nobody got close to catching anything.

Finally I had a chance to go properly fishing. I visited Ketchikan early in the summer with my girlfriend. I knew that I had to take advantage of being there: what’s the point of going to Alaska if you don’t fish? So one day I tried, and tried, and tried. I know the fish were out there (as they kept stealing my bait) but I didn’t catch a one of them. Still, as I assured my girlfriend, it was fun to try.

That was the last time I went fishing. You’d think I’d have cooled on it by now, considering my lack of experience and success. Yet somehow the desire to fish is still within me. I’m living in Alaska now. When things melt out I’d like to try again. The only problem is that I don’t know how. I’ve never really properly fished without someone there to show me what to do. I don’t have any equipment of my own. I don’t know where to fish, or what’s expected of you when you get there, or what any of the fishing etiquette is when dozens of other fishermen are all around you. Most importantly, I don’t want to fail again. I don’t want to get excited and have it come to nothing one more time. I’ve been looking through the fishing guidebooks up here. Most of the pages are spent telling you the best places and times to get salmon. Pink salmon, Silver salmon, Sockeye salmon, and the biggest prize of all, King salmon. But I don’t really care about those (addmittingly magnificent) fish. I just want to find myself a lake or stream and finally catch another rainbow trout. I want to take it home, clean it, and cook it.

And I want to find out if it tastes as sweet as I remember.

Memento Mori

 Detail of the Wall in the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

C.S. Lewis once pointed out, while commenting on the massive fear that accompanied the invention of the nuclear bomb, that all of us were doomed to die whether the bomb existed or not, and that most of us will die in horrible ways. When I first read that it seemed almost funny. It was certainly true. Most of us dream about the “perfect death:” to die peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age. Most desire it, but few achieve it. Very few. My great-grandfather was counted among the lucky ones. He died peacefully at the age of 101. I believe he was making a sandwich when his heart gave out. It happened quickly and presumably without much pain.

But my grandfather wasn’t so lucky when he died. He was in great pain for days before the end. He struggled and moaned under the weight of the painkillers. He could not even put on a brave face for his family: the drugs robbed him of that. It was a horrible way to die. In that sense it was very natural. Most death is horrible.

I don’t find that sentiment as funny anymore.

I have been blessed with getting to know my wife’s grandfather quite well. He lives in the same city where my wife and I went to college, and my wife stayed in a little apartment above his workshop before we got married. I got to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch across from him, watching TV and talking about cars and life. He’s a wonderful man who really loves God and loves others. He also has a wicked sense of humor: when he gets together with his best friend you’d think they were worst enemies the way they toss insults at each other.

For some time now he’s suffered from several different medical conditions. His kidneys keep failing, and he’s been on and off dialysis for years. He finds the dialysis extremely painful, and becomes listless and weak in the days following a dialysis session.  His heart is weak, so blood doesn’t properly circulate in his legs which leads to pain, numbness, and infections. A few months ago one of his legs had to be amputated because of this. He is often in pain, and his “good days” come and go almost unpredictably.

I’ve often thought that it would  be nice to be retired, to be able to sit around and watch TV or work on your hobbies all day. When I look at my wife’s grandfather I can’t be jealous. He has all the time in the world, but most of it is spent in pain. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t work on his cars anymore. Over the past several years he’s been slowly preparing to die. He auctioned off almost all of his tools and his collection of automobile memorabilia. His health is bad, and he’s ready to go. Yet for some reason he’s still here (and my wife and I, and all who love him, are grateful for that). I wonder if this is the kind of death I have to look forward to. Will my twilight years be full of drawn out pain and weakness? Or will my death be like my grandpa’s: an unexpected and terrible end to an otherwise idyllic retirement?

I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll die peacefully while making a sandwich.

All of this seems very morbid, but I think it’s something we need to think about more. Too often we try to insulate ourselves from suffering and death. We try to cut them out of our lives and our thoughts. The medievals had a different value. The prized the memento mori: something to remind us that we will die. Many medieval scholars and priests kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that someday they too would nothing more than bones. Franciscan monks in Portugal made an entire chapel out of human bones to serve as a memento mori to all who entered it. The engraving above it’s door reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: “We bones that are here await your own.”

The simple fact is that we will all die, and we will all suffer. Some of us will suffer greatly before the end. We should not deny this fact but accept it. That way we won’t be dismayed when suffering does come. Instead remember that this world is not the end, that suffering can strengthen us if we let it, and that we can survive more than we might imagine.

Hotels, Halibut, and Hightailin’ it

Today I thought I’d share a little story with you from my own life.

It was probably 2006 or 2007. Exact dates in my life are hard to place. I remember events, not calendars. I know it wasn’t my senior year, so that leaves out ’08 and ’09, and I wasn’t a freshman either. I would have been about 15 or 16 years old. I was off on a trip to Seattle for the biannual Junior Statesmen of America convention. For those who don’t know, JSA is basically a high school speech and debate organization. The hosting hotel was swarming with teenagers in suits being herded by frazzled chaperones. There was about six or seven of us coming from little old Eatonville, and our chaperones were Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Or Hill. To be honest, I can’t quite remember her name. I’m about as bad with names as I am with dates, but I know Mrs. Bell’s face. She was a kind, plump woman who had a certain air of authority that was necessary for keeping a crowd of independent high school kids in line. She was in charge of the JSA program, and her husband was here to keep an eye on the males in the party.

We were assigned rooms at random. I was bunking with two guys that I had only a passing acquaintance with. If it wasn’t for JSA I likely would have never reason to interact with either of them. Their names escape me as well. The one I knew best (but didn’t really know at all) had died his hair with a bright blue streak. The other roommate I have forgotten almost entirely. I can’t even place his face; the only memorable thing I can recall is that he was better friends with Blue Hair than I was, and that he was smart enough to order fish from the fish joint we scored dinner from that night. Growing up in the mountains I didn’t know swordfish from pollock. In my mind there where two kinds of fish: salmon and not salmon. Everyone in western Washington knows what salmon tastes like, but beyond that fish was a white, flaky mystery. Later my Alaskan wife would educate me on the wonders of good fish, but I wouldn’t meet her for at least four more years.

We picked this particular fish place on the grounds that it was the only thing open and nearby. Looking up at the menu I had no idea what I wanted to eat. I glanced over at Blue Hair, and he seemed similarly perplexed. Our comrade whose identity escapes me confidently ordered the halibut. Blue Hair and I chickened out and got hamburgers.

It was the worst hamburger I’ve ever tasted, and to this day I can still remember how tantalizingly flavorful that halibut dinner smelled. This event is my only notable memory of the man, so I’ll call him Hal.

Hal and Blue Hair were not my kind of people. I was a clean cut, shy, and extremely nerdy Christian boy. They cussed a blue streak, wore leather and chrome chains, and had no religion that I could make out. This didn’t bother me too much. I was used to being the odd one out at school. I stayed quiet and let them do the talking, throwing out an occasional comment now and then.

Now we may have had chaperones, but they showed us a remarkable amount of trust. For one thing, they opted to get a room together for themselves, leaving us to our own devices. They had laid down some ground rules ahead of time, however. Mrs. Bell made it extremely clear: if she found any girl in a boy’s room, or vice versa, then everyone involved in the incident would be sent home on the next Greyhound bus. Their parents would be called, even if it was 2:00 AM, and informed about the situation so that they could pick them up. I shuddered to think about such a thing happening to me: left at a bus station late at night by an angry chaperone, knowing that an equally disappointed parent would be waiting on the other end. I was glad that I didn’t have to worry about that happening. I had no girlfriend, so this seemed to be one rule I would have no trouble keeping.

 After getting dinner I was looking forward to relaxing in our hotel room. Locked within it was the magic of cable TV, a rare luxury. We didn’t have it at home, for a variety of reasons. The stated reason was that we didn’t want to waste money on it, but there were purely practical concerns beyond that. We lived in a narrow valley almost two miles down a bumpy forest service road. I don’t think cable would stretch that far. The high valley walls also ensured that we only got about three channels off our antenna with any regularity. But now, for a couple nights, I would have access to over a hundred channels. The world was at my fingertips.

One of my roommates grabbed the remote first. Fortunately he settled on a Ricky Gervais comedy routine. I love stand-up comedy, so this was right up my alley.  I prepared myself for a pleasant night of laughs, when there was a knock at the door.

Behind it, wearing leopard print tights, was Blue Hair’s girlfriend, Beth.

Beth strolled right in and made herself at home. All the while alarm bells were going off in my head.  I broke free of my usual shyness and pointed out that she wasn’t allowed in here. Blue Hair blew me off. “Nobody will know.”

I didn’t press the point. I had survived in high school by following some pretty strict rules. One of them was to keep as low a profile as possible around anyone who had yet to earn my trust. I could have gotten into an argument about it with Blue Hair, but I didn’t want to make a scene. Besides, Hal seemed to be on Blue Hair’s side. At the very least he exuded an aura of nonchalance. He just didn’t care. I felt sure I couldn’t make them do anything, and even if I could I didn’t want to piss them off. So I did the only thing I could do. I picked up my book (I always had a book with me in those days) and left the room. I couldn’t control them, but I was responsible for my own decisions. I wasn’t going to risk being sent home for their sakes.

Of course, I didn’t really have anywhere to go.

I ended up going down a few floors until I found a bench I could sit on while I read my book. I can’t remember exactly what book it was, but I’m fairly sure it was science fiction. I can remember cramped words in a tiny font printed on cheap paper that had begun to yellow with age. Combined with the fact that it was a very thick little paperback leads me to believe it might have been Dune. I read for about two and a half hours. By that time my back ached and my mind was getting foggy. I was upset. After all, it was just as much my room as theirs. Why should I be exiled to the hallway because they can’t follow the rules?

I figured I’d go up and check in on them. Maybe Beth had left by now. When I got back to the room, however, everything was as I left it, including Beth.

I had an internal debate. Nothing had really changed; the smart and right thing to do would be to go back into the hallway. I wasn’t going to rat them out (I knew they weren’t up to any real trouble) but I wasn’t going to participate either. On the other hand I was tired of sitting on that bench, and I needed to take a break from my book (which makes it all the more likely it was Dune, now that I think about it). It had been two and a half hours and Blue Hair was right: nobody was going to catch them. I walked in and sat on the bed. Time to relax a little. I could always leave later.

About five minutes later there was a knock at the door. A loud one.

Hal and I looked at each other. Blue Hair stood up, and Beth tried to hide behind her chair. She did a good job of it too, but her hiding place wouldn’t hold up to any serious inspection. Blue Hair opened the door. Behind it was a chaperone. It wasn’t Mr. Bell, but someone from another school . Not that it mattered: all the chaperones had the same rulebook, and their jurisdiction didn’t stop at school lines. This guy was middle aged, and on the tall side. He didn’t look happy. “Are there any girls in here?” It was more of a demand then a question. My heart plummeted into my guts. This was it. I had done the right thing. I didn’t approve of this. I had waited in the hallway for hours. Yet, due to a moment of weakness,  I was here, caught like the rest of them.

Blue Hair tried to play it cool. “No, no girls here.” He smiled reassuringly.

The chaperone was not impressed. “Really? So which one of you guys is wearing the leopard print tights someone saw walking in here?”

We were caught. There was no place for Beth to run to. If he came in here he would find her almost immediately. There was no chance that he would go away. Someone had seen her come in, and he wasn’t going to leave until he sorted this out. There was only one thing I could do.

Looking back on it, I’m not entirely sure how I pulled this off. I’m actually a little bit surprised that I had the confidence to try. But in the moment I didn’t think. I just acted, in the only way I knew how. As Blue Hair tried to explain how he had no idea what the chaperone was talking about I grabbed my book and stood up. I walked towards the door. In front of me was Blue Hair and the chaperone, who almost filled up the doorway. He looked very peeved. I calmly walked forward and said, in a polite and quiet tone, “Excuse me, I need a drink of water.”

I can still remember the faint look of surprise on the chaperone’s face. He stood aside and let me through, but I could see in his eyes that wheels were turning. I think it may have been an automatic response: if someone asks you politely to get out of the way, you typically do. It might have helped that I was completely calm.  I kept walking at a slow and natural pace down the hallway. I didn’t look back. As soon as I was around the corner I began to run as quietly as I could. I got in the elevator and took it down to the floor with the bench. I got out, got some water at a drinking fountain (somehow it felt less like a deception if I actually had a drink) and started reading my book again.

About a half hour later I got a call on my cell phone. It was Mr. Bell. He sounded flustered. He asked me where I was. I said I was on the 5th floor, reading my book. There was a long silence. Finally he said “Okay, that’s good. I just wanted to know where you were,”  and hung up. I went back to reading, and tried my best to lower my heartbeat. To this day I’m unsure whether Mr. Bell knew I was in the room and decided to let me off the hook, or whether he was just checking up on me.

After about an hour I got another call. It was Mrs. Bell. She was letting me know that my roommates had been found with a girl in the room, and had been sent home. I did my best to act surprised.

I had the TV to myself for the rest of the weekend.