Everybody wants to be a rockstar.

I took the guitar out last week.

Not out on the town, or even out of the house. Just out of the corner in my office that it has occupied for the better part of two years. The guitar was coated in a thick layer of dust. The strings were out of tune. I tried to remember how to play the first song that I had learned on the instrument, which was “Let Her Cry” (yes, the Hootie classic). I couldn’t even remember how to finger the chords properly.

So here I am, with a guitar that has been wiped clean and lightly oiled. I replaced the strings with new ones, a Phosphor Bronze set that claims to offer “warm, bright, and balanced tones”. I have watched the YouTube instructional videos; I have studied the chord patterns of my favorite songs on Ultimate Guitar.

And now I’m strumming. It’s not good, mind you. If someone were to show up at my house for a visit, I would quickly put the instrument down and pretend like I was doing something else. But even if it’s in secret it still counts as practice. I’m getting better each day. I’m getting more comfortable with the strums and the chords and the humming of lyric patterns at the same time.

I’m a dining room rocker, a backyard balladeer. And I’m having fun.

acoustic guitar

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Neil Gaiman helped me remember my oceans.

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.” – Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

A few days ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Today, driving through the town that I have lived in for the vast majority of my life, I realize that in my younger days I have lived on two actual lanes. Each of them had an ocean for me, at least in the sense of what the ocean in Gaiman’s work represented for the narrator of Gaiman’s book.

In the first instance, I was the one that lived at the very end of the lane and the ocean was actually a wheat field. The stalks would grow stiff from the earth, reaching for the sky, their leaves rustling as the wind raked through the rows. I would disappear into them, my young body too short to break the upper limits of the wheat, and find myself inside of another world.

When I returned home, minutes or hours or imagined days later, I would sit on the deck and break open husks of the grass that I carried back with me, digging out the insides and chewing on the tasteless pulp. Even later, in bed, I would wrap myself in the sheets and twirl a chunk of the stalk between my fingers while dreaming up the next day’s adventure.

The second lane that I lived on was during my teenage years. In this case, I lived at the start of the lane. On hot summer days I would walk down the dirt road until I reached the house at the end, then I would go around the back of that building and find myself at the beginning of a grassy field dotted with wildflowers. After crossing the hundred yards or so of field, I would reach a river.

’

’The waters of my youth.

That river was mine through those years. It was where I went to skip rocks across the water, to pick at the dried up carcasses of cicadas stuck to the trees, and to challenge myself to submerge my entire body beneath the icy waters. It was also where I went to think about those that have left this world – which, I guess, makes that river even more like Gaiman’s ocean, at least for me.

That wheat field is still some sort of crop, but it’s a green field with short plants that reach no higher than the shins. I don’t know what the plants are, what type of harvest they are producing, only that a young boy could no longer wade into the brown stalks and find the places where this world ends and a new one begins.

That river, at least that particular stretch that once meant – still means – so much to me, still exists. The grassy field, and the wildflowers, is gone. In that place there are now two-story houses with landscaped yards and cobbled drives that are blocked with code-protected gates. Even down near the water, so that only those that belonged to that community can enter, there is a wrought-iron gate flanked by fencing on either side.

Even though those waters surely meant more to me than any of the retirees that have settled at the water’s edge, I am not part of that community.

The wheat has been mowed down, replaced by another crop that generates more income or is easier to harvest. The river has been blocked, deemed off-limits to anyone who does not live there.

My oceans have dried up, they are gone and will never return.

Except for the waves and ripples that still live, forever, within me.

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_Cover

The Ocean at the End of the Lane” was written by Neil Gaiman and originally published in 2013.

I fell through the sky at more than 120 mph.

“I watched him strap on his harness and helmet, climb into the cockpit and, minutes later, a black dot falls off the wing two thousand feet above our field. At almost the same instant, a while streak behind him flowered out into the delicate wavering muslin of a parachute — a few gossamer yards grasping onto air and suspending below them, with invisible threads, a human life, and man who by stitches, cloth, and cord, had made himself a god of the sky for those immortal moments.” – Charles A. Lindbergh, contemplating his first parachute jump, ‘The Spirit of St Louis,’  1953

A few days ago, I went skydiving for the first time.

My dad, my three brothers, and I packed into a truck and drove more than 250 miles for the privilege of jumping – intentionally – from a working plane.

I now know what it feels like to, as the saying goes, “sign your life away”. The waiver form that is required of each jumper contains more than eighty boxes that must be checked and multiple lines that require a signature. Some of the boxes, when checked, indicate that the jumper (or his/her surviving family) will not seek litigation against the skydiving company, the instructors, the aircraft manufacturer, the parachute manufacturer, the owners of the property being used by the skydiving company, and on and on. Essentially, if anything happens then the jumper assumes full responsibility. Another of the boxes, when checked, indicates that the jumper understands that PARACHUTES DO NOT ALWAYS WORK PROPERLY. That sentence was actually written just like that on the waiver, bold caps included.

And still we all signed; we all went through with it.

I stepped into a harness that ran over my shoulders, around my waists, and through my legs. On the back of the harness were a few clips where my instructor would connect himself to me. A few clips that would keep me attached to the person that had the parachute. I wore a leather helmet similar to what old-time football players wore. This wasn’t for my protection, it was so that if I panicked and threw my head backwards violently I wouldn’t knock my instructor unconscious. Him being awake is an important factor to the whole “open the parachute at the proper time and remain alive” calculation.

When it was our group’s turn, we climbed into a tiny airplane. The five of us – my dad, brothers, and I – along with our personal instructors filled the entire plane. We straddled a bench seat and sat silently while the plane climbed through the clouds. Mountains that loomed over the horizon while we were on the ground were tiny triangles that I could cover with a thumbnail. The farms that once stretched out around us, clinging to the banks of a large river, were indecipherable blotches split by a curving hairline crack of water.

At 13,000 feet above the ground, it was time to fall. A side door opened and I slid from the bench seat to the floor and stuck my feet outside, feeling the cold air rush past my legs. My instructor gave me a thumbs up, I returned it, and then I felt the grounded comfort of the airplane leave my body as my instructor threw us both into the open air.

It took a few seconds for me to remember to breathe.

The clouds rushed by us, the horizon line climbed towards us, and gravity welcomed our weight as the wind rushed through my ears and deafened the world.

We fell at more than 120 miles per hour, covering 8,000 feet in something like 45 seconds. Somewhere around 5,000 feet, my instructor released the parachute from the bag on his back and our descent slowed dramatically as the chute opened up and we floated above the earth.

As the waves of adrenaline coursed through my body, I finally understood why people are willing to throw themselves from working airplanes. It wasn’t about falling, it was about flying.

And for that brief time, I saw the world from an angle that most never do.

All image credit belongs to Skydive Oregon.

All image credit belongs to Skydive Oregon. Book a flight with them here!

Each breath, a step closer to the finish.

It has been six months since I left the Marine Corps.

In that time, I have grown the required just-reentered-civilian-life beard that most veterans attempt to cultivate, part of a casual pact that myself and three others have agreed upon. I have experienced that strange feeling of missing something that I so often hated, then realizing that it wasn’t so much the structure that I am longing for but the camaraderie with those that I served alongside – the small collective of men that I lived in the deserts of Afghanistan with, the few that are able to wholly relate to what it is like to wake up with a rifle slung across your body and then go to sleep with that rifle still at your side, those that were willing to kill in order for me to live.

What I haven’t done a whole lot of is running. There have been no upcoming Physical Fitness Tests to motivate me to remain in fighting shape, and my infrequent gym sessions and weekly slow-pitch softball games are no substitute for the heart-pumping adrenaline rush of competing against 150 fellow Marines through obstacle courses and during the duration of an out-and-back three-mile run.

I own a GPS watch, a decent one at that, the Garmin Forerunner 110 (cheaper, refurbished models are another option) which also came with a heart rate monitor chest strap. It tracks distance, pace, elapsed time, lap splits, and heart rate. But it was getting no use without the military forcing me to get up and hit the pavement.

And so, to prove to myself that my willpower is strong enough to refuse the temptation to enter that quiet death, the one where my capabilities regress to the depressing state that is the American “average”, I started running again.

The Marine Corps standard of three miles is a sprint away from equaling the 3.1 miles that are a 5k, so after a couple weeks of late-night runs, I entered a race. I ran a local 5k and finished in 23 minutes, 42 seconds. Then I ran another local 5k the following week and finished in 22 minutes, 44 seconds.

These are not incredibly fast times, but the important part is that they are getting faster. Already I have my sights set on 10k runs, and then possibly something that I have never done before – a half-marathon early next year.

I find something powerful in that moment of isolation and self-doubt, when each inhale burns and my chest heaves irregularly as I attempt to control my breathing, when my legs are screaming at me and I can feel the tightness in each stride, when beads of sweat run down the side of my nose and find their way into my eyes and then my vision clouds and it burns to keep focused on the finish line in front of me, just a little farther…

And then I keep going.

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Search within, unearth mystery – go participate in “Plenum”.

The 2015 graduating cohort of Oregon State’s low-residency MFA program have put together an intriguing capstone project. They have created a website/blog called Plenum, with a beckoning tagline of Enter here. Disappear.

Each week, there is a new prompt to encourage creative writing. As an incoming MFA student, I decided to participate in week one (which is now over) and will soon submit my entry for week two (which is open through Sunday – the 5th). The week one prompt involved a number of questions, and asked the writer to answer them in whatever way they felt compelled.

Though the first week has come and gone, there are quite a few weeks left in the project, meaning that you also have time to head over there and contribute.

My week one entry is posted below, as an example of what to expect. Check it out, then head over to Plenum and post some writing of your own.

(Questions posted as prompts for all by Oregon State MFA students, these specific answers are mine.)

1. How is it that you have come to breathe?
With heart beating and lungs burning; I inhale and decide to live through all of this.

2. In which ocean has your heart landed and how did it get there?
In an ocean of ink – black waters so thick that I find my way by feel, and by hope.

3. How will you let it be different every time?
By removing all expectation, and also by noticing the details.

4. What does underwater smell like?
Like a dream, a word stuck on the tip of a tongue, or an image seen through the heat rising from an asphalt roadway.

5. What value do you place on your sacrum?
It’s not for sale, but then again, nobody has attempted to purchase it.

6. What does it mean to be made in the image of god?
To understand that everything is flawed, everything is broken.

7. Where do you go when you cannot move?
To a small town on the river, apple trees in the front yard. To a time when the world could have become anything, and then it did. I go home.

8. What is the sex of your language?
Scientists have yet to decipher.

9. What do you remember about tomorrow?
That I rose, fell, and got up again.

10. What is the meaning of the color of your eyes?
A storm is on the horizon – greens and hazels, specks of gray, a dark border. In one eye, a tiny black freckle disrupts the color and reminds me that even if nobody notices, the details are still there.

11. What are the consequences?
Bleeding out, fading away.

12. Who told you it was okay?
Is it though?

13. Where is your impetus?
Soaked in a fear of failing, and wrapped in a fear of flying too high.

14. How will you continue?
Just by stretching letters into words; words into sentences.

And so that is what I will do.

Will you?

Almost done, only to begin again.

It’s been three months since my last blog post, which is far too long.

Much has happened during those 90-some days. I have completed yet another term at Oregon State, and now sit only two summer courses away from completing my Bachelor’s degree. I have been accepted into Oregon State’s low-residency MFA program (contingent upon my graduation of course), and look forward to beginning that in the fall.

My Marine Corps career has come to a close, as I have decided to focus on raising my son rather than worry about having to leave him constantly with various military obligations. This also frees me up to write a bit more, which seems to be an essential habit for writers to have.

My son has had his first birthday, eaten the cake, and is now 13 months old. He walks very well, skilled enough that he can pirouette when I go to pick him up, spinning away from me and running drunkenly in the other direction. We (myself, my wife, and my son) have just started swimming lessons. Other than the screams of preservation let loose by some of the other children in the group, the lessons have proven to be enjoyable.

The reading that I have done since my last post (around 15-20 novels) consists entirely of school-mandated books, but some of them have been quite enjoyable. For the first time, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby. With my undergraduate studies nearly over and the MFA program swiftly approaching, I feel a bit like Gatsby himself. While Fitzgerald’s titular character is first seen on his balcony staring across the bay at a green light, it seems that I also spend time looking ahead to the adventure of an MFA program that I know very little about.

The question is, will the next few years propel me to greater heights? Or will my fate be similar to Gatsby’s, just a bloodied body stiff in the grass; the burden of potential left unfulfilled? Only one way to find out, I guess.

Onward.

Reading to my son, or: How I Became Mr. Brown.

BOOM BOOM BOOM, Mr. Brown is a wonder. BOOM BOOM BOOM, Mr. Brown makes thunder. – Dr. Seuss, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?

My 10-month-old son is beginning to show an interest in books.

Since before he was born, I have stocked the bookshelf in his nursery with all of the books that I remember reading – and loving – when I myself was a child. In my excitement for future days reading to him, I got online and ordered Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Then I ordered The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Soon after that, my wife brought home the obligatory slew of Dr. Seuss books. They all sat on the shelf, spines colorful and bright, waiting for their turn as the nightly bedtime book of choice.

Except that we didn’t have my favorite Dr. Seuss book of all time. I tried to resist buying it, telling myself that we already had a fine selection of books for any developing infant mind, but my brain wouldn’t let go of the idea that we just had to have The Butter Battle Book.

So I bought that one, too.

And then I bought The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, because I remembered the over-sized cover and the large painted images. I remembered enough of the book to know that the story was beautifully sad, but not enough of it to recall that there is entirely too much text on each page to hold the attention of a baby.

I bought other books as well, and even now I have a list of children’s books that I still “need” to buy. All of the books that I loved as a child, I want to share those with my son and impress my nostalgic love for them onto him.

And yet, while I have focused on the books that will spark his future four- or five- or six-year-old imagination, he has been busy creating his own love for particular books. There are no board books that I can specifically recall being favorites of mine, but my 10-month-old son most definitely already has favorites of his own.

His mother, almost daily, reads him Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. He laughs at each turn of the page, as mommy emphatically calls out the next creature that is “seen”. A red bird or a green frog; a blue horse or a black sheep. He sits in her lap and anticipates the next reveal by tilting his head to the right, hoping to get the earliest possible glimpse of each page.

Today, I climbed into his play area and sat down with him, centered on the foam mat lining the floor. I sat my son in my lap, and we read another Dr. Seuss classic, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? Each page requires the engaged reader to make the silly noises – dibble dop, dibble dibble dop – that Mr. Brown is able to make, and as I formed a new voice for each one my son giggled hard enough that his hitches went silent and he gasped for breath before the turn of each page. His laughter would cause him to topple over sideways, leaving him leaning against my outstretched leg and scrambling to get upright again, before the next page – and the next sound.

He looked up at me, a big half-toothy grin, and leaned his head back into my chest. He is only 10 months old, and is still trying to figure out this whole daddy’s words are connected to the book idea, but at that moment I was happily aware that while mommy was the one that read Brown Bear, maybe it was daddy who got to be Mr. Brown.

And in my son’s mind – BOOM BOOM BOOM – Mr. Brown was a wonder.

Mr. Brown

“The Widow’s Breakfast” by Joe Hill

“The most terrible things happen to the best people. The kindest people. Most of the time it isn’t for any reason at all. It’s just stupid luck.” – Joe Hill, The Widow’s Breakfast

For a handful of years now, Joe Hill’s short story collection 20th Century Ghosts has held a place on my bookshelf. I haven’t read all of the stories inside, but the ones that I have been lucky enough to settle into have largely been very good. Hill, the son of Stephen King, has the same knack that his father does in conjuring older days. “The Widow’s Breakfast” casually demonstrates what I am referring to, as we meet a traveling hobo who hops trains as a means of traveling across the open country and through the steep mountains.

This particular story is told from the perspective of Killian, a man who has found himself suddenly alone after the loss of a companion. As Killian goes where the trains will take him, he ends up on a track that has run out of options. The only destination is the terminating stop for the train, and Killian is fearful of the law enforcement there. He jumps from the train while it is still moving quickly, and ends up limping to a cottage that stands alone in the trees.

Killian is growing desperate. His shoes are battered, his clothes torn. Feeling completely lost, he puts himself at the mercy of the woman who lives in the cottage, and what he experiences there leaves him with a newly formed perspective on his position. He learns that maybe the final stop, both on the tracks and in life, is not as scary as the rumors have suggested.

And maybe, if we are all headed there anyway, we might as well ride the rails until the train stops, and enjoy the ride before seeing what awaits us at the end of the line.

It might not be as bad as we think.

20th Century Ghosts

“The Widow’s Breakfast” was originally published in The Clackamas Review. I read the story in 20th Century Ghosts, a short story collection by Joe Hill.

Still grinding.

It has been months since my last blog post.

In earlier years, that alone would have been reason enough for me to delete the site completely; not this time. When I started ordinaryGIANT, I did so knowing that I would be buried with school assignments, military duties, regular job obligations, and the arrival of my first child. I knew that there would be days, even weeks, where this blog went without updates. That’s okay. Eventually, I want to build this blog into a place where readers can come and interact with me, but for now simply having the framework up and waiting for me is enough.

The good news is that winter term is a day away from being over, and I will be only six courses away from graduating from Oregon State University. Despite all of the mixed advice that I have read on the subject of MFA programs, I am leaning more and more in favor of attending one. So much of being a writer is about experiencing a variety of things, developing an eye for unique details. I understand that one can accomplish that on their own, simply by living, but I believe that an MFA program – especially the one that tops my wish list, set in the Oregon Cascades where the landscape breathes inspiration for writers – would be a solid choice for where I am at with the business of arranging letters into words.

Spring break is upon us, and I hope to get some fresh reviews posted shortly. Come back soon for my thoughts on some stories from Burnt Tongues (edited primarily by Chuck Palahniuk), 20th Century Ghosts (a 2005 collection by Joe Hill), and Bark (the latest from Lorrie Moore).

“Live This Down” by Neil Krolicki

“Japan is way chill about suicide. You lose your job, all your money, can’t feed your kids, and everybody’s cool if you want to sit in your car while it’s running in a closed garage.” – Neil Krolicki, Live This Down

So I received a copy of Burnt Tongues for Christmas. The book is “a collection of transgressive stories selected by a rigorous nomination and vetting process and hand-selected by Chuck Palahniuk” (this a quote from the back cover of the book itself). Skimming the titles of each story within, and the authors who penned each respective story, I recognized no stories, no names. Still, the fact that an author of Chuck Palahniuk’s caliber chose the twenty tales offered in Burnt Tongues made me believe that they would be enjoyable.

The first story, “Live This Down” by Neil Krolicki, didn’t disappoint. Any fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s style would immediately feel comfortable within the sentences that Krolicki composes. The descriptions are graphic, their textures and scents rising from the page as the reader presses on. The subject matter is unsettling: a group of three teenagers who have become outcasts for a variety of reasons, and have decided to kill themselves; and yes, the reasons are given, in the same gut-turning way that the entire story is detailed.

The best part of Krolicki’s writing is the tone that he uses throughout. The story is being told from the perspective of one of the girls who is attempting suicide, and the writing echoes the sarcastic/trendy way that younger generations often talk. The reasoning, the juvenile logic involved as the story progresses, almost lulls the reader into taking on the tone of a stereotypical “valley girl” due to the infusion of “like” (as in, like, totally) and the use of shortened words such as “sec” for second. In my experience, any story that causes me to unconsciously read the sentences in the voices of the characters is written pretty well.

“Live This Down” maintains a consistent voice – and determination – throughout the entire story. Upon finishing this first entry in Burnt Tongues, the reader will surely feel as though they have read an excerpt from a Palahniuk book, which is fitting considering that each story within was not only selected by Palahniuk himself but also birthed within the writer’s workshop featured on Palahniuk’s official fan website.

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“Live This Down” was originally published in Burnt Tongues, which was edited by Chuck Palahniuk.