Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas on the Battlefield

...Christmas Day.

Mid-afternoon. The lights in the tree have been twinkling since sunrise. Silent flames dance in scarlet cheer from the gas fireplace. Through the front window the world rests quietly in gray doldrums, the air thick with moisture. Occasionally a car drifts by, it's exhaust fumes dissipating like scattering leaves in the wind. ...and the holiday is observed.

Meanwhile, a lone soldier clings an uzi to his waist as he rolls behind the wreckage from a recently destroyed apartment building as bullets slice through the air overhead.

His chinstrap unclasps, causing his helmet, once olive, now covered in dust, to slide over his eyes as he waits for the buzzing in his ears settle.

He opens his eyes, immediately feeling the sting of grit and tiny pieces of shrapnel floating through the paltry air. In the distance he can hear the voices of his enemy, calling out to one another in foreign tongue. If only he could understand them...

From his belt the two-way radio chirps. What remains of the rest of his squadron, calling out to him. He quickly taps the receiver with a forefinger, then turns the radio off. The voices fall silent. Did they hear it? Did they discover his whereabouts?

He rises to a sitting position behind the brick husk of what was once the home to many civilians and their children who are no doubt long gone by now.

He can hear the thudding of combat boots approaching. Several pairs, from different angles.

Knowing he's cornered, he clutches the sub-machine gun with both hands and looks up through the soot to the sun above. It's the same ball of fire he's seen countless times throughout his life. But from this strange, desolate place, it's somehow different. Not as friendly. It's managed to absorb the turbulence of the unforgiving mountainside surrounding him, of the blazing sand under his torn fatigues, and of the vacant angst expressed on the faces of the few survivors left behind. The one's he's fighting to protect. The same one's who turn on him without a moment's hesitation.

For a moment he closes his eyes, saying a prayer through a hoarse whisper. Then he releases a breath, grips his weapon, and turns toward the oncoming assault...

"Awww man! Got shot again!" my son exclaims, bent over in frustration in front of the television. I glance up from the book I'm reading. The television shows a downed soldier lying in a pool of blood, a few splatters having clouded the screen itself.

I look to my son, clutching his XBox controller as if wielding The Hobbit's magic ring and positively refusing to relinquish it's power.

Still bent over in defeat, his eyes find my gaze from across the room. The corner of his mouth curls up in a grin. "Care if I try again?" he asks.

I roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders, and return to my book.

"You're going down lousy terrorists!" my son exclaims.

Then I hear the eery background music. Moments later I hear the guns.

Christmas 2009. Modern Warfare.

...Jeez I'm getting old.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Excerpt from "The Fall" Part II

He was running.

Hurtling the guardrail and dodging the oncoming traffic. Ignoring the screech of tires and the frantic bellow of car horns, he escaped being run down by a careening Dodge pickup, and leapt onto a familiar side street. From there he turned west and faced the setting sun, it’s rays stretching toward him as it sunk below the purple landscape. Johnny slowed his breathing, allowing his athleticism to take over.

Only a few years earlier he’d been a star wide receiver on the high school football team. His speed had allowed him to break long touchdown runs regularly. Now as he rounded a corner, leaving pavement to bounce upon century old cobbled streets, he reached within himself, calling for one more burst of speed. A final run.

Despite the sun’s steady departure under a skyline smeared in copper, the temperature remained ablaze. He could see the heat radiating up from the sidewalk before him. Like transparent tentacles, waving in the thin breeze, reaching toward him, trying to slow his pace.
Johnny however, was no stranger to the intense heat of the south. Nor was he unfamiliar to running the historical streets of Charleston. He’d done it once before. On a breezy night a few years earlier. A night he’d never forget. No matter how hard he tried.

And as he ran on this day, veering around a couple of evening strollers walking hand in hand, getting yipped at by a stray spaniel lying under a park bench, memories from that night, not so long ago, began racing through his mind...

What he was doing was wrong. It went against every promise he’d ever made to her. And yet the fear he’d so easily recognized on her face, the tremor he’d felt when their lips touched, now justified his actions.

Jessica’s home was only a few short blocks from his parent’s two story colonial. And if you knew all the short cuts through little-known back allies, the trip could be made in minutes on foot.
As the shadows lengthened to night, and a hollow breeze nipped at his skin, causing gooseflesh to rise, Johnny found himself crouched behind a towering pine standing like an aging monument long forgotten, at the perimeter of Jessica’s ranch style home.

The house was small, resembling a large mobile home. The neglected white siding had grown cloudy over the years, changing it’s color to a dingy gray. A couple of maroon shutters were knocking against the house with the breeze, their fasteners having loosened, the threads long stripped. The square-shaped property hadn’t been mowed in weeks. Grass like jungle foliage sprouted in dense clumps throughout the backyard. The ideal hideaway for a copperhead in search of sleeping arrangements.

From his position, Johnny watched the silhouette of a lone figure moving behind the blinds from room to room. Tidying up the kitchen. Pushing a vacuum across the carpeted living room. And finally back to where he guessed was the bathroom, where she appeared to be standing under a showerhead.

Feeling guilty, Johnny was about to sneak back the way he’d come, when a car swerved into the driveway and screeched to a stop. The shadow of an elderly-looking man rose from the car, lunch pail in hand, and stumbled along the concrete drive to the front door. From where he remained behind the tree, Johnny could hear Jessica’s father mumbling to himself as he approached the house. The rambling slur of an alcoholic in full grace.

Johnny remembered the deep bruise Jessica had been trying to keep hidden under a tuft of curled bangs on her forehead. An ugly purple wound in the shape of a small egg, glaring out from the soft follicles of her hairline. Then Johnny thought of all the other bruises he’d spotted over the past month.

Jessica’s father fumbled with the doorknob, released a swear, and finally managed to fall into the house. Creeping along on the balls of his feet, Johnny quietly pursued...

Leather loafers were not intended for a spontaneous, two mile run along city streets, through a suffocating Carolina heat wave. The heels of each foot had eventually numbed from minimal arch support while pounding on Charleston’s ancient sidewalks. His beige trousers had grown heavy with either sweat or fatigue, or both. And he figured at this point he’d be able to peel off his collared, button down shirt and wring it out like a well-used dish towel.

He’d brought on the attention of many finger-pointers and confused expressions as he bolted for the outskirts of town. The rustle of aging palm fronds whispered encouragement as he passed beneath them.

A throb had begun twisting the muscles along his side as he fought to control his breathing. A few years ago he would’ve been able to run this distance without difficulty. In fact, a few years ago he had...

He slid through the front door, left slightly ajar by the lumbering form of Jessica’s father. He eased one of his sneakers onto the foyer, stepping onto a departing shadow as it faded toward the back of the house. Footsteps thudding to a stop in the hallway.

Hearing the twist and click of a door latch, he peeked around the corner as Jessica’s father entered the bathroom. A wedge of light pierced the darkened hallway, causing Johnny’s shadow to loom. He froze in mid-step, studying the sinewy shape upon the aged, desert-colored carpeting, and again silently cursed himself for being there.

From behind the partially opened door he heard the gravely rumble of a voice. The tinny squeal of another. He tensed, his breath held in behind the constricted muscles guarding his lungs. A moment passed before a scream filled the house. Then Johnny knew why he was there.

He lunged forward. "Jessica run!" he hollered. "Get out!"

Jessica’s father turned with a start. His mouth opened, chafed lips forming into a silent O as a look of shock, or perhaps fear, passed over his face. There and gone in an instant, as if carried by an ocean’s breeze.

Johnny watched as the man’s brow lowered. Grizzled cheeks gathered around a jaw clenched in fury. Burly fingers stained to the color of rust from a lifetime spent hunched over machinery, now closed to form grimy clubs, wavering upon the end of each arm.

From out of her father’s mouth came a warning, painfully gargled as if the rust from his fingers had somehow found it’s way to the lining of his throat. "Get outta my house." Beads of phlegm followed his words, tumbling through the air in an arc before at last plummeting to the floor between their feet.

Johnny hastened a glance at Jessica, huddled upon the porcelain floor of the bathtub. Trembling arms were wrapped around her chest, and her knees were folded up, partially hiding her face while shielding her body. For a moment their eyes met. A silent understanding rendered. Then Johnny backed out of the bathroom, her father in pursuit.

Facing Jessica’s father, Johnny backed down the hallway, the shadows growing longer as he departed the bathroom’s florescent glow. He watched as the towering form bent forward to a crouch. He glimpsed the fleeting image of his girlfriend sneaking out of the bathroom and down the hall in the opposite direction. She’d slipped a thin nightgown over her head, the hem trailing behind her like the dwindling fragments of a ghost. As her father released a grunt and lunged, the sound of the front door opening with a creak of strained hinges assured him of Jessica’s safety. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and awaited the blow...

He passed into a city park. Towering live oaks, their skeletal branches ever reaching, entwining themselves into the wooded appendages of their neighbor, lined both sides of his path. Olive shawls of moss cascaded from overhead, brushing his shoulders as he sprinted beneath.
His breathing labored, grew ragged, his chest heaving. The gasping drew the curious gazes of many. Some pointing from park benches. Others relaxing hand in hand under the shade of the century-old oaks.

As evening matured to dusk, the sun now nothing more than a paint stroke over the distant hills of Columbia, Johnny stumbled onward. Somehow he managed to quicken his pace. Perhaps the knowledge of his upcoming destination allowed his weary legs a second wind. He was close now. Across an ancient wooden bridge passing over the marsh along the western perimeter of the park. Through a small meadow of wild flowers native to the south, and left untouched by local developers. Just beyond the meadow, the cemetery awaited. He hoped he wasn’t too late...

The back of his head made contact with the paneled wall at the far end of the house. The thud seemed to shake the foundation of the entire home. A crack of bone and splintered paneling, still echoing inside his head. Johnny sagged to the floor of a bedroom, he wasn’t sure which one, and for a moment, lost awareness.

A right hook landed above his eye, was actually what drove the fogginess from his senses. A sharp pain, like a needle plunged into his temple, caused him to open his eyes and focus on the lumbering adversary standing over him.

Jessica’s inebriated father. Mumbling something in a lazy drawl about punks nosing into his business.

Johnny could feel the throb of his right eye as it began to swell. If not tended to soon it would surely close up.

He sensed the presence of his girlfriend’s father looming closer. Preparing for another strike. With his right hand, he reached out into the darkness, searching...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading Material...

...I guess you could say that I'm never at a loss for words.
10 years, give or take. 3 drafts. 534 pages. 40 chapters. 130,000 words.
"Broken" has been requested for a "read," by an authoritive figure in the publishing industry.
She's all grown up now and ready to spread her wings...

Saturday, December 5, 2009's something interesting, at least for bookworm/reader-geeks who also love a good movie now and me.

While finishing up James Patterson's "Cat & Mouse" while at work earlier this evening, (when I'm bored while at work, reading happens,) I read the following line which began on page 429, and at last fizzled out somewhere towards the top of 430.

"Everything was going crazy again, caroming out of control at the whim of a madman."

I stopped, went back, read it again, and thought, huh..."whim of a madman?" Now where have I heard that one before?

Then it came to me.

I thought back to a scene from one of my favorite action movies. Dennis Hopper in a small room, surrounded in nineteen inch televisions, and if memory serves, a computer or two, each one tuned to a different news channel broadcasting the same horrifying live feed involving a bus, a bomb, and a sinister plot with a pile of cash as the ultimate goal.

Dennis Hopper, playing the role of Howard Payne, ex-police officer with a grudge to settle, listens as one of the broadcasting news reporters describes the live feed as "Out of control on the whim of a madman."

Dennis Hopper laughs and says, "The whim of a madman! I like that!"

The movie's called "Speed."

It hit theaters in mid-summer of 1994. "Cat & Mouse" was released in 1997.

Considering how James Patterson probably averages a hundred million in sales per year with his literary prowess, I won't be pointing fingers anytime soon. For whatever reason, the majority of our reading population fancy those Alex Cross and Max novels to no end. And I guess I've grown fond of Alex running around the country in hot pursuit of all those sinister, over-arching bad guys myself.

Seriously though...from a literary standpoint, the thieving of an entire phrase from a high dollar movie only three years old takes moxie.

But what do I know? Maybe Patterson co-wrote "Speed," and thought to himself, "Hmm, that's catchy. I'm gonna have to use that one again sometime."

Or he watched the movie, liked the line and thought, "Screw it, I'm using it, and if they come after me, I'll throw one of my lawyers and a wallet full 'o cash at em."

Either way, it caught my eye, and earned itself a giggle. Not from Patterson...from Hopper of course. Love that guy.

And naturally, after putting all the pieces together on a "whim," Cross gets the madman in "Cat & Mouse." Oops. Gave it away...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mr. Sigmann

...the story was originally published in Saturday's edition of Mansfield's News Journal, and has since fueled an angry backlash of readers, including myself.

While at work one night, a man by the name of Dale Blamer, discovered an aging dog trapped in the bowels of a large pit. Using a ladder, he managed to rescue it, and later took it home in order to nurse it back to full health.

A few days later, his roomate, Toni Barger, spotted a plea for a "lost dog" in the local classifieds, with a perfect description of the hound they'd rescued. They responded, and later returned the dog to it's rightful owner, Paul Jones.

A short time later, Mr. Jones showed his appreciation to the couple, by presenting them a pup sired by the same dog they'd rescued a few months earlier. While that act of kindness may not seem like a monumental gesture at first, once everyone learned of the dog's breed, the matter changed entirely.

The dog who's life Dale Blamer saved, and later returned to it's rightful owner, turned out to be a fullbred Hungarian Vizsla. A rare breed of European hunting dog, often sold for as much as $4,500.

The rust-colored, floppy-eared pup given to Barger and Blamer was named Mr. Sigmann, and was roughly 18 months old in the evening of November 18th, when Barger let the dog outside to do his business. Mr. Sigmann never returned.

Vizsla's are a short-haired, people-oriented, breed of hunting dog, known for their outgoing personalities and sharp IQ. Much like their German cousin, the Weimaraner, which I own, Vizsla's are not fond of cold weather, or rain. Most importantly, they are attention fiends. They simply can not be left alone for long periods of time. It will literally drive them into depression.

That being said, when Mr. Sigmann didn't return home within a few minutes on that rainy, November evening, Toni Barger immediately knew something was wrong.

Later that evening, after returning home, Dale Blamer walked his five acre property in the dark, searching for his missing pup. He found him only a few minutes later. Mr. Sigmann had remained true to his breed. He had not run off and gotten lost. Having never left his owner's property line, the dog had been shot with a bow and arrow. Worse yet, whoever commited the crime, then pulled the arrow out of the dog, tossed it aside, and left Mr. Sigmann to die alone in the rain.

The couple believes their dog was shot between 10-15 minutes of being let out of the house for it's potty break. It had been around 5:30 in the evening, nearly nightfall. Seeing well enough to get off a shot would've been difficult after dark.

Authorities have been called in, locals hunters questioned, and little turned up. A reward has been offered for any information leading to the culprit, with no calls thus far.

The couple's other dog, a black lab, has since stopped eating, and has been diagnosed with canine depression. According to their vet, the lab has decided to "will itself to die," over losing it's best friend. For anyone who's ever read "Where the Red Fern Grows," by Wilson Rawls, knows these symptoms all too well.

I guess the obvious assumption would be that since the dog's coat was an off-brown, rusty color, similar to that of a deer, one could mistake a Vizsla for a small doe standing out in a clearing. The problem with that theory is that Mr. Sigmann was still considered a pup, and weighed only 47 pounds. Even a small doe normally tips the scale at 150-180 pounds, and that's considered frail.

I'm betting that wasn't the case. I see an impatient hunter, spending his day hidden in the nearby thicket, moody from a day spent under an icy drizzle, having seen no sign of deer, and cursed with an itchy trigger finger. Action is yearned for. Then a dog is spotted, brownish in color, standing waist high, trotting timidly, much like a fawn. And following a lousy day spent in the rain, the hunter simply can't resist.

And that's a best case scenario.

Sad. So very sad...what some people will do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Bear Necessities"

...sometimes you win, and sometimes you're left with your ass hung out to dry.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

...Rambling's an honest truth, something which may be a surprise to some of my friends, those beer guzzling, football crazed, grunting-farting-friends whom I personally feel every man on the planet needs in order to, well, continue to feel like a man. I can soak up a good novel like a politician can rattle off lies to the public.

It would be best to check this number with my wife, but I'd be willing to guess that I've tackled upwards of forty best-sellers this year alone. Usually after work, late at night, long after everyone else had called it a day, and normally while waiting for some sign that I was actually starting to feel sleepy myself. Droopy eyelids, head nodding, those little hints that have been failing me lately. Could be a form of depression, I've been debating on that for quite some time without an answer.

So one night I'm reading a John Sandford novel, one of my favorites, and I come across a phrase that I haven't been able to let go...

"If you look in the mirror while shaving in the morning and ask yourself what you've become, would you like the answer?"

The thing is, you can lie to your parents, you can lie to your boss. If you're morals are askew, you can lie to your spouse. Some can even lie to their kids. But when you stare at that face in the mirror, what comes out, whether spoken or not, has no choice in the matter. And what you see looking back at you is what you've become. I guess the question is, was it worth it? Is it what you've always wanted?

Twenty years ago I smuggled a handful of cold beers out of my father's not-so-hidden stash, and met up with the best friend I'd ever had on the edge of a small pond one summer night to stare up at the stars and act like we were far older than our mid-teens. We'd pulled this stunt often during that summer. Not so much out of boredom, or even as a mischievous act. But more so because, while unspoken between us, we were running out of time. My parents had divorced, and ugly partaking, and I was moving away with my father. Changing schools. Changing everything. And while it's difficult to understand when you're seventeen and fearless, time had become precious to him and I.

And so on this one particular night, while lying back on the soft earth, listening to frogs across the shore and staring upward, the question was raised of our futures. I'm no longer sure by whom. My buddy since kindergarten felt quite positive he'd be heading to college, then on to a teaching career. He'd mentioned it before so I wasn't caught off guard.

As for me, well I wanted to follow the sun and travel south. And more than anything, I wanted to be a writer. A novelist. Not necessarily one who would need to hire a team of analysts in order to math out my finances, but a comfortable income would've hit the spot.

Twenty years ago.

And now I look in the mirror. I see a face looking back at me. A face deemed impossible of anything but the truth. And what do I see?

I have a son who's in the top of his class. He takes his school work seriously. He creates goals and strives for them. He yearns to succeed. And I tell him to march on where I have stumbled. And I think to myself that this world will be okay with people like him in charge. But he looks up to me in awe, and listens to my every word. And I wonder if I'm deserving of such a privilege.

I have a wife who's become my new best friend. She's had this lifelong goal of adopting a child in need. Most recently her focus has been on international adoption. Bringing a child home from Africa. Saving a life otherwise doomed. And I've agreed. Let's make a difference. Let's create change. And then I think of a select few in my family who are openly racist. I picture the grimace on their faces when they hear the news. And I wonder if anyone can still be saved. If anywhere in this world can still be considered safe.

I have a job I can't stand. Working with machinery I couldn't care less about, on a work schedule I find nearly intolerable. And I'm told I should be happy I even have a job. That I can pay my bills and keep that roof over my family's head. And I think to myself how we've only got one life on this planet. One shot at making a difference. And yet everyday I clock in, and I watch that press go up...I watch the press go down...I watch the days go by...

My best friend of twenty years prior did end up going to college. Then he dropped out a year later. He moved south, found a job tending bar, and since then we've lost touch. We always knew we'd run out of time...

And I wonder what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

I look in the mirror and this is what I see... If asked, I'm a dad. Hopefully one worthy of being looked up to. Of being remembered. If asked, I'm a husband. Not a great one. But one willing to listen, willing to give in, hopefully one worth remembering. And if asked, I'm a writer. Twenty years in the making...and counting.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Election Day"

...a married man straining toward middle age, dashes into the neighborhood poll booth in order to "exercise his right," before heading off to work.

His hair is kept short, but has lately begun showing signs of wear, with a graying tint. An old grease-stained work T hangs from his shoulders, and an aged pair of denim carpenter's hide the tops of his ancient work boots.

While he grew up in a strictly Republican household, with age he's come to realize that he can no longer claim loyalty to either party. He considers himself a "tweener," casting his vote for what he feels would be best for his family rather than remaining true to some political cause or fattened agenda.

He quickly slides his identification card into the machine, hoping to be back on the road before his car's engine has a chance to cool, when his finger hesitates over the touch screen.

A school levy asking for additional funds generated through an increase in everyone's property taxes in order to make improvements to the local high school. Having a couple of kids enrolled at the school, he had anticipated on voting "yes" on the issue.

Then he thought of his elderly neighbor. A couple nearing seventy and in jeopardy of losing their home. They can't afford to pay their taxes as they are. An increase would no doubt force them to leave.

That neighbor of his is the nicest man he'd ever met. He'd borrowed countless tools from him over the years without the batting of an eye. And now...

His finger hovers over the touch screen, trembles, then lowers. The machine makes a clicking sound and the screen changes.

A group of people up north want to build a casino by the lake. The jobs, the money, a chance to right the ship in a state wallowing in debt.

Again his index finger lowers, then stops. Gambling is an age-old sin. It brings with it crime in every shape and form, like a pair of inseparable mobsters, both weilding tommy-guns under their knee-length trenchcoats.

But the money. A hundred million dollars leaves the state and get pushed into slot machines in states above and below us every year. So why not keep it here for a change? Why not help ourselves for once?

But the crime...our children.

A minute passes. His finger comes down. The machine clicks, moves on.

Voting on city officials. Republicans and Democrats. Ancient rivals with deep lines drawn in the sand. One can almost pick them out of a lineup at this point.

He thinks of the Vice President of the company he works for and his brow lowers, his jaw clenches. A sixty-something finger-pointer who liked standing behind or on top of machines while in operation, in order to keep an eye on his employees. To make sure there was no mischief on the shop floor. Never mind figuring out who the culprit was who repeatedly stole everyone's drinks from the refridgerator in the break room. Or that guy who takes pleasure in drawing racist graffiti behind the closed stalls in the lockeroom. Let's ignore them in order to make sure the machine's continued to hum, and products shipped, and money pocketed.

A Republican. No doubt.

Then he thinks of the owner of an impressive collection of boogers which have been smeared upon the walls of the restroom directly above each urinal, naturally at eye level for proper convenience. The simple foulness of the act causes his head to shake from side to side, and yet he couldn't help but grin. The level of maturity somewhere down below the crumbling leaves in his front yard.

Had to be a Democrat.

He glances at the names. Recognizes a few, squints at others. Then makes his choices.

He retrieves his card, pockets it and leaves.

He surprised himself on a few decisions, stuck to his guns on others. He doubts he'll be cast into the pits of hell over what he's chosen, or be issued a golden key at the Pearly Gates. But he did his best. Did what he thought was right. And in the end, he hopes maybe that's enough.

And he prays that the owner of all those boogers used a different voting machine whenever he showed up and made his selections...

Update... "Broken" is currently being read by a local publishing house, and a well-known agent from Los Angeles.

"Maji" will be entered into a short story contest in hopes of publication.

The second part of "The Fall" is on draft number two, and will be sent off to an E-magazine for publication when complete. Feeling confident over that one.

And "The Fellas" is currently being hammered out in between mortgage payments and overtime in the pressroom.

Still hoping...ever waiting.

Monday, October 12, 2009


...inspired by my wife.

The air smelled of mildew as she plugged the treadmill’s electric chord into a nearby outlet and listened to the hum of it’s motor, it’s nylon belt easing forward with a lazy groan.

She stepped onto the slow moving conveyer, each hand wrapped around a plastic support, and began walking, her thoughts wrestling over what to do with the aging basement’s moisture problem.

She was in her mid-thirties. A petite mother of three. Each in their own bedroom and hopefully fast asleep.

Her hair, the color of harvested wheat, was pulled back into a tail, the longer strands bouncing and tickling the nape of her bare neck with each step. Her clothes were loose-fitting, a gray t-shirt covered in blue paint stains from one of her recently completed home projects, and her black cotton shorts, rolling over her thighs in gentle waves of fabric.

On her feet were a pair of white Nikes. Walking shoes equipped with gel insoles for better support. They felt like tiny pillows under each heel. Money well spent.

Having fallen into sync with the belt’s speed, she let go of the supports and began pumping her arms with the steady pace of each step. Her breathing remained under control. Inhale through the nose, exhale slowly and out through the mouth. A technique she’d learned from her husband.

The hour was late. The only light in the basement came from the nearby television, it’s screen flickering, it’s volume muted. The Fitness Channel. A group of tanned bodies dance-stepping through an aerobic routine in the foreground of some tropical island. Hawaii or maybe Greece.

Minutes passed. Her pace quickened. Getting into it now. She reached up and brushed away a tuft of bangs which had fused to her moistened forehead. Before dropping her arm, she swung it forward toward the built in cup holder, reaching for her thermos.

Keeping her legs moving, she tilted the thermos to her mouth and accepted a swallow.

Water. A cool trickle sliding down her throat.

She returned the metallic thermos to the holder and began cycling her arms with each step.

Three miles. That was her goal. That would make a difference.

Her eyes drifted down to her feet. A blurred motion of white running shoes. Going nowhere fast. Her thoughts wandered...

At that moment, over seven thousand miles away,
across an ocean and to the far southeastern ridge of a barren landscape, another woman, of the same age, was also walking.

Weatherbeaten split ends and tufts of frizzy curls had been pulled back to an ebony bundle and wrapped with an assortment of beads and hemp.

A thin cotton dress, once red but long faded to a dull brown, clung to her body as a sultry breeze pulled at it’s fibers.

She walked barefoot over a landscape dominated in red clay. Her calloused heels, like crushed asphalt, hardly registered the gritty pebbles and sharp fragments of deteriorating earth jabbing at her skin.

Sprouts of dying foliage peaked out through countless fissures, reaching toward the unyielding sun as if begging for just a drop of precipitation. But the rainy season remained months away.

Clutched in each hand she carried a gallon-sized jug made of the same clay from under her feet. Molded to resemble an ordinary pot, each one was peaked with a long neck, an open mouth on top, and a crudely formed handle for easier transport.

Both jugs were currently empty, allowing her to swing them at her side with each step. If all went well, by late afternoon she would return with both jugs full.

She looked up from the red soil with eyes the color of mocha, and scanned the sun-drenched terrain. Far to the north were the Simen Mountains, the largest range in Ethiopia. To the south, the Omo River, it’s lush waters branching off from the mighty Nile, etching a path through the barren landscape to eventually dump into Lake Turkana along the northern coast of Kenya. Much too far to walk.

She was heading east. To a slowly deteriorating water hole shared by both villagers and the local wildlife as their only means of the most sacred and scarce resource in Africa.

“Maji,” she breathed.

She lowered the empty jugs to the ground, steadying her breath. She placed a palm over her mid-section. Felt the swelling lump just above her waist. A smile creased her dried lips. She was starting to show.

“Mtoto,” she murmured.

A lone bird flew overhead, it’s massive shadow resembling an albatross while slicing a path through the sunny rays. It issued a distant caw. On the hunt for prey long buried under ground until the rains began.

The desert floor is no place for man or beast during the dry season. Unless of course a need justified the means. One necessary for survival.

A hazy breeze pushed weightless dust into her face as she retrieved the clay jugs teetering on the sand. Three miles to the maji. Facing the torrent conditions defiantly, she continued on. One step at a time...

She’d achieved the mid-way point a few minutes earlier. The steady whine of the treadmill and the timely thudding of her steps were the only sounds she could hear.

She could feel beads of sweat leaving vapor trails from her neck down to moistened crevices of skin under her shirt. She’d be heading to the shower soon. Dumping her sweaty clothes into the washing machine along the way.

A new fitness show had replaced the one from Hawaii. More aerobic athletes strutting their stuff. This group appeared to be working out on a mountain ledge overlooking some barren desert. Nothing but sand and sun. A lonely palm tree in the distance.

Focusing on the whereabouts of the new workout show, her concentration lapsed, her breath quickening. Growing erratic.

Realizing her error, she quickly reached for the handles, steadying her balance. Her breathing slowed.

Striving for distance was all about one’s control. Not working the lungs too hard. Her husband’s advice. Point taken.

Now feeling the burn in her thighs, she again reached for her thermos. Her eyes drifted back to the desert background on the T.V. screen as she tilted the bottle toward her mouth. Something about the landscape troubled her.

She swallowed. Cool water easing down her throat. Suppressing the burn.

Then she remembered. An article she’d read somewhere about the people of Africa and their constant struggle for drinking water. People dying everyday because of a resource taken for granted in America.

For a moment her legs slowed, her thoughts drifting to a place on the other side of the globe. A place in dire need.

Then, an idea formed. One of those inspirations that sometimes flash through one’s mind like a bolt of lightning, offering an option outside the box. Something that could change everything.

Her feet nearly came to a stop. But not quite. Just like a bolt of lightning. There, then gone in moments if not grasped.

With a shake of her head, her focus returned, her steps increasing. After all, what could one person do?

One mile to go...

She approached the watering hole cautiously. While her raw throat burned, and a tear leaked from the corner of an eye at the sight of water, safety held her at bay.

The watering hole, which had shrunken in the past month to no more than a large mud puddle, was surrounded in grassy foliage and a tall cluster of palms. The perfect setting for a lounging pride of lions, or even worse, a bathing hippo.

She remained on alert, studying the swaying grasses in search of movement. Minutes passed. A bird, perhaps the same one which had flown overhead an hour earlier, screeched at her from it’s perch under the shade of a rustling palm.

At last she smiled. Besides the bird, she was alone.

She dropped to her knees at the water’s edge, cool mud greeting her tired legs. Both clay jugs slid from hands.

Reaching toward the water, she cupped her palms and a moment later brought soothing refreshment to her mouth. Rusty-brown in color, and littered with drowned insects, but maji nonetheless. It dripped from her chafed lips in muddy droplets.

Movement off to her left caused her body to suddenly stiffen. She spotted a snake slithering through the yellowed grasses on the other side of the watering hole.

“Nyoka,” she mumbled, watching as the snake left an impression the size of a man’s forearm through the mud in it’s wake. Her eyes followed it’s path into the thinning vegetation and out of sight before releasing a breath.

Then she grabbed the clay jugs and quickly lowered them into the water. It was time to go. Luck would soon run out.

Minutes later she hefted both jugs and rose wearily. The extra weight caused her bare feet to sink into the mud, her toes disappearing from sight. With a grunt she pulled herself from the muck and turned away from the shaded savanna.

The walk back would come with greater strain from the now full water jugs. But there was no choice.

She studied the horizon, a distant painting of blazing reds bleeding into soft peach as the sun began it’s evening descent. She’d have to hurry. Walking through the open desert at night was a recipe for disaster.

Releasing a sigh, she began moving her feet back across the hardened soil. Three miles. One step at a time...

She’d almost done it. Five more minutes. She was huffing, having lost control of her breathing at two and a half miles.

She’d given up on watching the swaying bodies of athletes on television, needing every ounce of concentration for the last quarter mile.

Under her marching Nikes, the treadmill motor quietly hummed. Her sinuses were closing, causing her open mouth to take over all respiratory duties. No doubt from the mildew problem. Something would have to be done about that.

An eighth of a mile to go.

The soft thudding of small footsteps caused her to glance up toward the basement ceiling. Still walking, she listened as the steps led into one of the first floor bathrooms. Running water from the faucet drained along the pipes behind the muted television.

The water stopped and the thudding footsteps faded back the way they’d come. She smiled. One of the kids needed a drink. Probably her youngest son. Part of his nightly routine.

A tenth of a mile to go. Her eyes fell back to the flickering television. A workout in the desert...

The sun had shrunken to a flaming scythe. A multitude of stars had begun twinkling like ever distant light bulbs overhead. The desert had turned a shade of purple, it’s sand fading to white. Soon it would glow under the night sky. She was running out of time.

Her breathing had become labored. In a matter of weeks she’d no longer be able to make this journey across the sands. Then help would be needed. What little there was.

A drop of moisture running down the back of her leg to collect at her ankle caused her to stop in mid-stride. She raised one of the clay jugs to eye level, fearing a leak.

She was studying the hardened clay for any signs of a crack when a second drop tickled the skin along her Achilles and down to her heel.

She looked down, studying the back of her leg. Then realizing what was in fact not water, but blood.

Both clay jugs slipped from her grasp, toppling onto their sides and spilling their contents over the desert floor.

She reached down and lifted her dress. Her hands returned, bloodied palms hovered in front of her face.

She dropped to her knees, the cracked earth under her feet refusing to cushion her fall. Tears like long forgotten raindrops leaked from her eyes. Her hands went to her swollen belly. Fists covered in blood, clenching her ragged attire into wrinkled balls of dusty cotton.

Out of her mouth she uttered a scream. “Mtoto! Mtoto!”

The looming shadow of a lone bird flew overhead...

More than seven thousand miles away, across an ocean and nestled into the heartland of a country bursting in riches, a woman flips a switch, quieting her treadmill. She whisks a remote control through the air like a magic wand, and the screen on her television fades to black. She kicks off her running shoes, acknowledging the throb in each heel. Then she lifts her thermos to her lips one last time before heading upstairs to take a shower.

Three miles. She wonders if it made a difference.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Your 2009 Cleveland Browns...

Having burned the first two minutes of the fourth quarter on three incomplete passes and a shanked punt, Browns QB Brady Quinn trudged to the sidelines and stood next to a grinning Derek Anderson.

While they were only losing to Denver by two scores, for everyone who’d been paying attention throughout the afternoon, the game was seemingly out of reach.

With a sneer plastered across his face, his orange ball cap placed backwards upon his head, backup QB Derek Anderson leaned toward the crestfallen Quinn and mumbled, “Man...dude, you suck.”

Scowling, Brady glared at Derek and replied, “Shut up, you suck.”

“No really,” Anderson said. “You suck.”

“Whatever. You suck.”

“Trust me, suck.”

As the argument before them intensified, over on the metal bench a few feet behind the quarreling gunslingers, backup center Hank Fraley elbowed his successor, Alex Mack and said, “Hey rook, three more bad snaps? Dude, you suck.”

Mack huffed and said, “What? Shut up. You suck.”

“No way man. You suck.”

“Listen you old suck!”

“Five bad snaps in two games? Dude, you suck.”

“Whatever. You suck.”

Their conversation suddenly halted as they both looked up and watched as Denver running back Correll Buckhalter rambled past them en route to a fifty yard touchdown.

Minutes later, backup cornerback Hank Poteat brushed up against Brandon McDonald and said, “Can’t believe you missed another tackle. Dude, you suck.”

Brandon turned angrily toward his backup and stated, “Like you coulda done better. You suck.”

“You’d be cut from any other team in the league,” Poteat fired back. “Trust me, you suck.”

“Shut up, punk. You suck!”

“No. You suck.”

McDonald clenched a fist. “No, you suck!”

While ambling along the tarmac in front of the first row of bleachers, the Cleveland Browns mascot, a giant bulldog with a head the size of a small hot-air balloon, was approached by Denver’s mascot, a massive two-legged stallion, who pointed at the hound and hollered, “Dude, you guys suck!”

Already in a foul state of mind, the bulldog raised his paw in order to flip the Bronco mascot the bird, when he suddenly realized that his paw only had four fingers and was missing the one he needed.

Three levels up, in the radio booth, color commentator Doug Dieken released a weary sigh as their broadcast went to commercial. He pulled his cell phone from a coat pocket and without looking, dialed a familiar number.


“Bernie?” Dieken asked into the mouth piece.

“You called me, dumbass...who you think it be, Tim Couch?”

Ignoring the comment, Dieken asked, “Are you watching this mess?”

“Thaaaay frunking sluck!”



“You said sluck.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Sober up, Bernie.”

“Shaadup, you ass–“

Dieken hit the end button on his phone, dropped it back into his pocket, and began watching the glass-encased luxury box next to theirs. Browns owner Randy Lerner was in the process of jabbing an accusatory finger into the crimson face of General Manager George Kokinis, and even from where he sat, Doug could clearly make out the short comment spat into George’s face from the distraught, majority owner.
“You suck!”

Doug Dieken turned back to the field as the game continued, and his obnoxious radio partner, Jim Donovan asked him where the team should go from here.

After a moment of silence, the former Browns lineman shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. We suck.”

Blushing, Jim leaned toward Dieken and whispered, “You can’t say that on the air, dumbass!”

Doug turned to Jim angrily, grabbed his partner in a choke hold and said, “Who the hell cares? No one’s listening any more anyway! And you suck too!”

Friday, September 18, 2009

Quote of the Week

"I've failed over and over and over again...and that is why I succeed..."

Michael Jordan

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


...I penned the following roughly a year ago under a different name. It's a piece I sometimes refer to whenever in need of inspiration. With revisions nearly complete, a simple idea growing wings and preparing for launch, I felt it appropriate to re-publish something near and dear...something I'll never forget.


Throughout the daily grind of time cards and babysitters, of pointless production meetings and forced overtime, we are surrounded by signs.

Small hints suggesting of a better life, floating about at eye level, or sometimes just out of the corner of one's peripheral vision, waiting to be discovered...yearning to be grasped by it's beneficiary...and boasting of the power to change everything.

Maybe it's the eery silhouette formed from that shock of sunlight through the passenger window upon the dashboard during a morning commute.

Perhaps it's a word spoken from the mouth of a complete stranger during lunch hour at a nearby table.

Something small. Something inadvertent. Something no one else would notice. For that's the beauty of it. Signs are only to be recognized for what they are by those who can see them. For those who can focus their attention at just the right moment...and see the sign. A sliver of light piercing through that somber tunnel of indifference.

Signs. They're out there. All around us. Waiting...

During the final leg of our family vacation to the Gulf Coast, we made a stop at my Great-Aunt's home a few miles north of Sarasota. I'd promised her nearly twenty years earlier that if I ever found myself aimlessly wondering the southern coasts, I'd make a point to drop by. A wife and three kids later...I kept my promise.

A short visit became an early dinner as we gathered around her dining room table and spoke of days long past. My "favorite aunt" carries with her a youthful spunk for her age, which I've always admired. And much like my late grandfather of the same family, when she speaks, people listen.

At some point during the afternoon I found myself rummaging through her collection of novels on a book shelf in her living room. Call it a nosy habit. I take interest in seeing what people are reading.

Not realizing that my aunt was standing next to me, I gave a start when she leaned in and pulled a book from the shelf just under my line of sight. She placed it into my hands and said, "See what you think of this one."

"Levi's Will," I mumbled. I studied the cover...two Amish boys walking toward a distant sunset. At first glance it didn't appear to be something I'd normally take an interest in. Then my aunt, in that calm tone of voice I'd grown accustomed to hearing over the years, mentioned something that caused me to catch my breath.

"It's a pretty good read," she said. "And we're related to the writer."

"What?" I stammered.

Noticing my sudden interest, she smiled and continued. "It's about two Amish boys who run away from home. One comes back..." She hesitated for a moment, then said, "But one never does. Not for a very long time anyway."

"W. Dale Cramer," I read the author's name aloud. "Is it a true story?"

"Kind of," my aunt said. "I can still remember when it happened. Quite a few years ago. You'll have to read it and see what you think."

I made it a priority and read "Levi's Will" as soon as we returned home.

It wasn't the type of novel I normally read. And yet, it turned out to be one of the best stories I'd come across in a long time.

Based on the life of Will Mullett, an Amish teenager who decides to run away from home, or more appropriately, the iron-fisted lifestyle of his father, Levi. His younger brother Tobe accompanies him as far south as Florida, before eventually returning home. Will Mullet never does.

The story, based on true events, chronicles the life of an Amish boy from Apple Creek, Ohio, who finds himself starting a new life practically a million miles from anything resembling his kind of normalcy.

Places like Carr Road, Millersburg, and even Winesburg become major backdrops to the plot when, after many years away, and having made a new life for himself, Will finds that he's yearning to return home.

A chill ran up my spine as I read of a scene which takes place in a restaurant in Winesburg, Ohio between Will and his son towards the end of the story. The small town of Winesburg only had one restaurant back in those days. The funny thing is, as a boy I spent a good deal of time in that very diner. In the kitchen to be exact. I'd become good friends with the owner's son, a boy of my own age, and together we'd take it upon ourselves to sneak into the kitchen after school and loot the shelves for french fries and sodas. To read of that very restaurant out of the pages of a book written by someone distantly related to me was quite the experience.

Upon finishing the novel, I found Mr. Cramer's website and on a glimmer of hope, decided to write him a letter. I really wasn't sure what I was expecting in return for my efforts. I've corresponded with other writers over the years...Steve Alten, J.D. Rhoades, Tess Gerritsen to name a few, and some have been most gracious in responding. Others however, have decided that personally responding to their fan mail is far beneath them, despite the fact that we're the reason why they've found success in the first place.

I spoke of our possibly being related, with a brief history from my side of the family. Of my roots from Carr Road, and my passion to one day make a living as a writer, like he's already achieved.

It took him one day to respond.

W. Dale Cramer lives in Georgia. He successfully published his first novel after completing an online writer's course and realizing that he may have discovered something about himself.

He never went to college. He instead married his highschool sweetheart and together are currently raising their children. He spent many years as a common laborer before at last realizing his dream of becoming a novelist.

The letter he sent me corroborated my aunt's claim. In his home in Georgia he has a geneology book of his family dating back many generations. He not only found my family's branch, he found my father, born in 1953, and he found me, a dangling twig somewhere on the far reaches of the ever thickening tree.

He revealed the names of several of the actual family members who later inspired
the making of "Levi's Will." And he also admitted that Will, the story's main character, is based on his father.

Dale Cramer ended the letter with a few words of support. "If it's a story based on the Amish cultures in Holmes and Wayne Counties...and you can get it've got a great shot at getting it published."

I've saved the letter in my email.

...had I not nosed around in my aunt's book shelf that day, I may have never known that I was actually related to a well-known writer.

...had my wonderful aunt not placed "Levi's Will" into my hands on that balmy afternoon in Florida, I never would've later written a letter to W.Dale Cramer.

...had I not read of Mr. Cramer's own struggles, only to later reach his dream, along with his final inspirational passage, my own impatience at achieving success may have one day gotten the better of me.


Okay...I can take a hint.

I'll keep on typing...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Companies Getting Fat on "Lean"

Stress carries with it a scent. Drying sweat. Sour breath, which can be attributed to the amount of heavy breathing as the heart quickens it’s pace. A thin layer of tension, like cigarette smoke hovering several inches above eye level. Lingering.

We could all smell it as we entered the central meeting room at work. See it in the somber faces of the office personnel, already seated on either side of our manager. Even before a word had been spoken, the members of my department, our numbers thinned dramatically over the past month, knew we were about to hear of our employer’s economic decisions, his “vision of the future,” of our company.

The overhead lighting had been dimmed. The air stuffy. The smell of tension embracing us as we took our seats around the U-shaped table.

We’d heard the rumors. A re-shaping of our company in order to survive our dwindling market base. Changing our way of thinking. Getting “Lean.” A phrase I’d been hearing a lot recently. On the news. In the papers. Even once out of President Obama’s mouth during one of his inspirational speeches.

We’d spoken amongst ourselves on the shop floor. Many of us had been witness to the mass firings of our fellow employees. The managers escorting a disgruntled worker, his or her face flushed, some angry, others in shock, some merely shrugging their shoulders and feigning a kind of mischievous rebellion, while their insides quaked as they headed for the exit. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to whom was chosen to be excused from employment. We had no choice but to clock in and wait. To see if one of us would be next. If we were on that list. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Our department manager rose from his chair, his face stern, failing to make eye contact with any of us. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His silver crew cut resembled that of an army cadet and personified an intimidating demeanor. He preferred looking down on us. His subordinates.

I watched his jaw muscles flex as he angrily chewed on a piece of gum. Like in every other task he’d supervised at the work place, he couldn’t simply enjoy a stick of sugarless Spearmint. He attacked it like a ravenous cougar upon an unsuspecting antelope. His temples pulsated as he chewed, like a second heart beat. He was always chewing gum. I figured him for an ex smoker, still haunted by the craving.

He folded his arms over his chest and elected to spare us of any small talk before laying down the terms of our new company structure. After all, we were on the clock and the machines on the shop floor were quiet. Quiet machines meant zero production which is unacceptable.

“We are re-structuring the company,” our manager began, eyes focused on a shadowy wall which couldn’t glare back. “Those of you in this room have been chosen as the employees we want for the new face of our company. It’s time for change in order to survive. Time to get Lean.”

I listened as our manager spelled out our fate. They’d decided to follow in the steps of Toyota, the founders of the concept of “Lean,”originally called The Toyota Production System.

Our inventory would be shrunk down to within days of current need. Schedules would be tighter, a level of stress pulled a bit more taut. However the money pocketed from the lack of idly sitting inventory made everything worth the challenge.

Then the bad news.

Our company was shrinking from a three shift operation to two, in order to consolidate what was left of our workforce, and to allow them to shut down the facility at night in order to save energy. As a result, my crew had been chosen to begin operations on what had been termed “The Toyota Shift.” A ten hour work day, lasting Monday thru Thursday. We would be given a three day weekend. However, the hours spent at work would begin in the early afternoon, and last until the wee hours of night.

I glanced around the meeting room, watching as the realization of what we’d just been told, began sinking in with my co-workers. Those of us who were married, who’s wives also had jobs, would no longer get to see them throughout the week. And worse yet, those of us who had children in school, would literally never see them until they hopped off the bus on Friday afternoon. The Toyota Shift.

Jaws were held open. Fists were clenched. The smell of stress intensified. Then we realized that our manager hadn’t stopped talking. There was more to come.

“You will no longer have a paid lunch,” he continued without pause. Not allowing for any rebuttal. Refusing to give any of us a chance at allowing the news to sink in. “Therefore, your shift will actually be clocked as ten and a half hours, with thirty minutes deducted automatically. That being said however, you will not be allowed to leave the premises for lunch. Anyone caught leaving the property during their shift will be released from employment.”

“That’s not even legal,” one of my co-workers spoke up, his face the color of crimson, his hands closed into fisted clubs.

“Of course it is,” our manager scoffed. “Don’t be silly.” He smothered a grin with his palm before continuing. “This is all part of the ‘Lean’ process. Teamwork and continuous flow. Everyone working together while building a stronger future for this company.”

He then grew quiet, noticing the hostile expressions painted across every face in the room. A scowl formed as he said, “You should just be happy you even have a job.”

Moments later our manager hastily excused himself, mumbling something under his breath about wanting to catch the first inning of his son’s baseball game. The room fell quiet, it’s occupants seething.

The following Monday, families were left behind, hobbies and other interests were shoved away into hallway closets or an empty corner in an upstairs attic, as my fellow co-workers and I clocked in on The Toyota Shift.

By Wednesday, an elderly lady from a neighboring department was fired for using her cell phone on the shop floor. She’d been calling home to check in on her teenage daughter who now had to fend for herself.

Weeks crawled by like slugs over wet pavement. Then months. Business eventually picked up. Orders increased. The demand for supply steadily grew.

Many of us were asked to start working five days instead of four. We refused, choosing our families over an offer of overtime pay.

Management shrugged their shoulders toward our unwillingness to cooperate and re-structured our work schedule, forcing us to work a fifth day. What was left of my home life had been cut even thinner. I’d lost another day with my kids.

A young father of two, struggling to make ends meet, slipped and fell on a grease spill back in Assembly one night. He twisted his lower back and was forced to go on light duty employment for three weeks. Upon his return to the assembly line almost a month later, he was released from employment less than an hour into his shift, informed that his duties were no longer needed. He was never replaced on the assembly line. Everyone else simply had to move a little faster to make up for the loss.

And the profits grew. The concept of “Lean” was working. At least for them.

During our company’s annual Christmas shutdown week, common normalcy throughout years past was for employees to use forty hours worth of vacation time in order to cover their finances during the downtime. This year more than half the work force chose instead to apply for unemployment, thus saving their precious earned time off for school events, youth athletics, and family outings.

Blindsided by the turn of events, and calculating the high amount of vacation time about to be spent by it’s disgruntled employees over the upcoming summer, company executives huddled together at some point between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, and decided on a plan of action.

We returned to work the following week and discovered that a new policy had been put in place during our absence. A vacation schedule. Each production employee was given a specific week in order to exercise our vacation time. We were no longer able to use our earned time off as we deemed it necessary. It would now be determined for us, by aging executives lounging behind mahogany desks who didn’t know us by our faces, but rather our clock numbers. Who’d never met any of our families and never would. Yet they wielded the power to control our lives with iron-clad amendments and harsh bureaucracy. Families were shoved further away as the company’s needs hissed for still more.

In time my co-workers resembled zombies. Faces pale. Expressions vacant. Walking like robots from one department to another, heads tilted forward, eyes staring outward but seeing nothing. For there was nothing to see. I knew this because I was a zombie too.

We’d arrive home from work to a darkened home. To a family asleep. We’d awaken the following morning to an empty home. To a family already gone for the day.

In early Summer of the following year, I was granted a rare treat when my oldest son had a Saturday evening baseball game to which I could actually attend without needing approval from my employer.

He played well, but the team lost. Too many errors cost them the game in the closing moments of the final inning. Considering how I’d coached the team the year prior, before “Lean” came into effect, I was saddened at how my son’s ball team had seemed to regress with the new coaching staff who’d taken my place.

I struck up a conversation with my replacement following the game, hoping to maybe offer some advice on coaching technique or anything else he was in need of. Minutes passed and we grew comfortable with each other.

He revealed to me that he’d been laid off from his job months earlier. How his family had been living on unemployment since before Christmas. He then informed me of how he’d been able to earn a grant which he was using to go back to school.

Sacrifices had been made. Trading down on the family car. Shopping at Aldi’s instead of Wal-Mart. A cheaper cell phone plan. A cheaper everything.

Then a smile creased his lips as he spoke of a Summer spent at home. Late night walks with his wife. Baseball practice every other day with his son and the team. Taking up an old hobby of building model trains in the shed behind the house. A Summer he’d remember.

“But hey,” he said, clapping a hand upon my shoulder. “You’re one of the lucky ones. At least you still have a job.”

I released a sigh while nodding my head, my eyes falling to the dusty ball diamond under my feet.

The following week, another employee was fired for using his cell phone at work. Calling home to his wife.

A month later our lead electrician handed in his two week notice. He’d accepted a position at the local hardware store. Customer service. An eight dollar an hour pay cut in salary. And yet, I’d never seen him so happy.

It was a chilly day in early October. One of those “Indian Summer” afternoons with an endless dazzle of sunshine, minus the grinding humidity of August. I had just backed out of my driveway and was sitting in my car staring up at the only stop light in town.

On my way to work.

On the other side of the square and across the alley from the country store, I caught sight of two people shooting baskets on the court at the town park. I watched the basketball bouncing from a father to his son, the sound of leather meeting pavement coming shortly after. Then I recognized him. My son’s baseball coach. Shooting baskets with his boy after school.

I turned my head and stared at the yellow school bus looming before me on the other side of the square. Waiting for the light to turn green, so that it could pass me by and drop off my kids at home.

I hadn’t seen them in four days.

I slowly turned back to the boy and his father at the park.

The light turned green. The bus passed me by. My foot lifted from the brake, then hesitated. Awaiting further instructions.

From behind me the sound of a car horn alerted my attention. Just a tap. In another moment I’d surely hear another.

In my rear view mirror I could see that the bus had stopped at my driveway. The angle was too sharp to see my kids step off and bound across the street. I’d missed them again.

I waited a moment longer, thinking what if...

Then my foot eased onto the accelerator, my car rolling forward through the intersection.

I shook my head, holding up blinders over those troubling thoughts.

“Need to be thankful I even have a job,” I mumbled to myself.

Well, shouldn’t I?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Defining Moments...

"...defining moments, the points on which people's lives turn, seldom come announced and planned and accompanied with all the fanfare and celebration of a wedding or a birth. Most of the true turning points in a man's life can be seen only in hindsight, and then only through the prism of his own skewed valuation of the outcome..."

W. Dale Cramer -"Bad Ground" would be hardpressed to find a more insightful quote during an economic time of great crises for so many. For in years to come, it will be these days which our generation will look back on as being the turning points in our own lives, and in the lives of our children. The choices we make now, during this time of epic "reform," will forever shape our future...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Captain America" had been over twenty years since I'd last experienced the pearly sands of Siesta Key's world famous beach.

...I could still remember the ocean, bath water with a touch of salt and little or no seaweed.

...sand like sugar, soft and endless. A beach as wide as a football field is long. Plenty of room for volleyball, a frisbee toss, or an afternoon bar-b-que.

...twenty plus years and I'd finally returned. I turned to my wife with a tear in my eye as together we watched our kids dash for the sea. "I like what they've done to the place," I said.

"Great," she mumbled. "But look at all these people."

...I directed my attention away from the near perfect sands at my feet and the Gulf's gentle tide, and allowed myself a moment to absorb the one not-so-perfect feature that my wife had quickly discovered. Too many people.

...some were young, others old, some robust, and others thin, a few were tan, but most were burnt. Thousands of them. People. Everywhere. At some point during my twenty year absense, Siesta Key Beach had been discovered, and was a secret no longer.

...They were positively everywhere. Basting in the Florida sun, bobbing in the surf, or strolling along the tide's wake. Half-naked people. Everywhere.

...and unfortunately for me at least, wherever there's a scantily clad population numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Captain America is sure to be somewhere nearby.

I spotted him while returning with my younger son from a dip in the waves. I couldn't help but notice...really, I couldn't.

He stretched to roughly five foot ten, probably one-eighty soaking wet,(and yes ladies, he was.)

He was of foreign descent, Italian or maybe Greek. His tanned, olive complexion was utterly hairless, except for what covered his scalp. Obviously an avid bodybuilder, his trimmed physique apparently permitted him the right to promenade the sands of Siesta with his elbows bent outward, his biceps ever bulging, as if to say, "No really, I'm not clenching. They're just like that."

Despite the impressive ensamble, what caught my eye had nothing to do with his male pleasantries. It was instead, the outlandish American-Flag-Loincloth plastered, or perhaps painted over his midsection.

Stars and Stripes, like I'd never seen them before.

One could only guess at the type of material needed for such pressurized abuse. Stretchy polyester? The thinnest form of cotton South Carolina's ever harvested? Something from Nasa perhaps? Whatever the cloth, I found myself thankful of it's powerful elasticity. For the slightest clinch of his sveinter muscle could've resulted in disaster.
And bumbling along on either side of the modern day super hero, his crime-fighting comrades, "Bill and Ted." Because for them this was no doubt one excellent adventure.

For a moment I found myself able to stifle the chuckle which had risen up in my throat, as my son and I crossed their path en route to my sun-bathing wife and our awaiting towels.

That's when I unfortunately noticed the one star on his supersuit which had been strategically placed directly over his "Italian Stallion."

One can only guess which U.S. state that star was supposed to represent...but their residents have my condolences.
The following events were the results of my unfortunate discovery of that cursed, crotch-shielding star...
I laughed.
Captain America noticed.
Dragging my nine year old in tow, we stumbled out of harm's way.
I made the mistake of glancing over my shoulder.
Captain America and I gazed upon one another.
He then arched an eyebrow, threw me a scowl, planted his fists upon his hips, and flexed his pectorals at me, like two fleshy mounds of jello.
My grin pulled downward.
My son's jaw dropped. "Dad, did you see that?" he asked, raising an index finger.
"Don't point," I instructed. "Come on."
We made it back to our towels, my son staring down at his chest, my head swiveling back and forth, still in disbelief.
"What's wrong?" my wife asked.
"Didn't you see that guy with that...suit?" I exclaimed. Then a thought occured to me. I leaned toward my wife's burnt earlobe. "Hey, why don't you go take a picture of that moron for my blog."
"What? I'm not sneaking up behind..." That's when she spotted him.
I watched as her eyes widened from behind the tinted lenses of her glasses. Her nose twitched, as if smelling a peculiar scent in the air. Then before I had a chance to come to my senses and rescind my earlier request, she snatched up her Cannon Rebel, slung it over her shoulder, and padded across the sand. The clever wolverine tracking it's prey.
She disappeared in the ever-moving mass of glistening bodies patrolling the coast. I again shook my head, disgruntled.
A few minutes passed. My irritation grew. My son, still for whatever reason, concentrating on his upper torso, finally turned to me and asked, "Dad, why can't I make my boobs wiggle like that?"
"Because they're not big enough yet," I said.
From out of the mass of beachcombers, my wife suddenly appeared, plopping down at my side, a mischevious smirk upon her face.
"Got you a good shot," she proudly announced. "I got pretty close."
"Hmmph," I grunted. "I bet you did."
"So Dad, can you do that?" my son persisted.
"Would you not worry about it please?" I huffed.
"Worry about what?" my wife asked.
"That guy," my son said, again pointing. "You know, the one with the flag on his butt. He wiggled his boobs at Dad."
"He did what?" my wife exclaimed.
I released a sigh.
A minute or two of precious silence was shared between the three of us, before my wife finally asked, "So...are you sure one picture's gonna be enough?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nokomis wife probably described the sound best as being, "tiny windchimes," as each departing wave rushes back toward the depths of the Gulf. Tiny windchimes...millions of them.
...peak time is at mid-afternoon to just as the sun starts debating on it's nightly the tide begins easing toward the dunes of Nokomis, and bringing with it a hundred million tiny shells from the ocean's floor.
...while meandering along the shoreline, at it's most shallow point, where the salt water can stretch it's tentacles to no more than an inch or two before being pulled back to sea, you'll find yourself surrounded in tiny conk shells, less than a quarter inch in diameter. Some are able to roll about and find their way back to sea with the departing current. Others, the ones housing baby hermit crabs and other ocean life, burrow into the sand around your feet, leaving a collection of water bubbles popping in their wake. And still others simply find themselves stranded along the coastline, awaiting the higher tide's mighty embrace to reach out and pull them back home.
...the sound is generated from trickles of water flowing over these shells. When lowered to a sitting position in the sand, an ear tilted slightly forward, the sound of shallow water drumming through and around these tiny conk shells is one that won't soon be forgotten. It's the sound of a trickling brook along a wooded creek, magnified a million times over. An echo of miniature applause, from a grandstand seating countless spectators.
...windchimes, tiny ones, millions of them, thrumming in the breeze. The sounds of paradise.
...Beautiful Nokomis.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tybee Island Mud Hole

...Tybee Island, Georgia carries with it the un-official title as being the most nostalgic beach north of Florida. Well...ok.
We visited Tybee as a way of passing the time while awaiting our dinner reservations at Paula Dean's famous eatery. Roughly two and a half hours on the best beach Georgia has to offer...
I came away with the following...
Ocean water the color of iced coffee...
Sand which can best be described as moistened Quikrete, which actually hardens on the skin if left unattended...
No seashells or shark teeth, but thousands of fossilized fragments of unrecognizable ocean debris, which washes ashore with each mocha-colored wave....
You are charged an hourly fee to park, which is strictly enforced...
The only changing rooms available are ancient, concrete stalls reeking of well-aged urine, and a rusty double sink, which failed to produce any water...
I kept experiencing flashbacks of Baylor Beach...a pond in Wilmot, Ohio...
While walking along the shoreline, one must keep an eye out for the oncoming skimmer, (watered down surfer punk riding a three foot long, concave board over two inches of water at twenty miles per hour,) and the inevitable collision...
I watched with mild amusement as a fellow nearby, having recently drained his last can of Schlitz from the twelve pack he'd been nursing on, laid down for a drunkened nap under the blazing sun with the temperature hovering around 92 degrees.
An hour or so later, having not moved a muscle, his mouth slightly agape, eyes melted shut, he was approached by a curious passerby who'd grown concerned.
Minutes later, lifeguards arrived to the scene and found the burnt lush to be unresponsive to their attempts at awakening him.
The police arrived...
A crowd gathered...
Empty cans of Schlitz began rolling away with the ocean breeze...
At last, having failed at all other attempts of hospitable ressurection, one of the police officers began kicking the man in the thigh...
I snuck in for a closer look, picture phone in hand...
It took between 5-8 healthy kicks from a policeman's boot before the gentleman rolled over onto his side, blindly swatted his arm through the air, and instructed the cops to, "F--- off!"
Of course at the time he didn't realize he was talking to police officers, since his eyelids were fused together from the sun's raging glare...
My family watched a gentleman, who could've played Patrick Swayze's character in a "Point Break" reunion movie--fifty-plus years old, flesh burnt to cedar, savagely receeding hair line, skimming the coastline with what can only be described as a home made, plywood table top. And he performed quite well. Spinning in circles at an insane rate of speed, while bulldozing over any man, woman and child in his path. I nicknamed him, "Table-Top Guy"...
My kids gathered around a boy who'd decided to bury himself in the Quikrete sand up to nostrils, not realizing the hardening strength that mortar possesses when exposed to the sun on a hot afternoon. We called him, "Mud-Boy." He may very well still be there. In the same spot, forever embedded in what the locals may call sand, but what the rest of us use to patch up cracks in driveways, or for properly securing mail box posts into the ground...
That's what I found on Tybee Island, prettiest beach in Georgia.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"His Dudeness..."

...while exploring the streets of historic Savannah, my family stumbled upon a rare and glorious sight.
Several blocks north of famous River Street, and while carousing through various gift shops and displays featuring southern antiques, I spotted a painting hanging outside a local gallery which nearly brought me to my knees.
My eyes widened in disbelief. My jaw dropped.
My son, noticing my reaction to the canvass, squeezed up to my side, studied the painting himself for moment, and asked, "Dad, is that Jesus?"
I placed my hand upon his shoulder, smiled and said, "No son, that's The Dude."
Year after year, countless movies are sent to theatres across the country. Some turn out to be box office successes, raking in countless millions and awarded with golden Oscars at year's end. Others manage to barely hold down a slot on the local theatre's lineup before dropping off the Hollywood spectrum and vanishing to the entertainment slushpile. And still others, while failing at the box office, find themselves reborn when their DVD hits the shelves at Wal-Mart, and soon become lifted to Cult-like status for generations to come.
"Office Space," "MallRats," and pretty much anything starring Charlie Sheen are a few examples of Big-Screen flubs, which later became DVD gems, with more Google hits than Jon and Kate's nasty tirades. And then there's my favorite..."The Big Lebowski."
Starring Jeff Bridges as The Dude, a philosophical soul-searcher with little time for such tedious travesties like holding down a job, or excersize, and who suffers from the occaisional acid-trip, is attacked by a fiendish band of mentally-challenged kidnappers who mistakenly identify him as Mr. Lebowski, multi-millionaire, and narrated by Sam Elliot...naturally.
With a plot simply too ignorant to be taken seriously, along with a steady dose of The Dude's keen awareness on life in general, sprinkled in with some of the funniest scenes I've ever witnessed, The Big Lebowski is a comic gem which has grown to cult-like status from coast to coast, and can even be found as the focal point of an artist's masterpiece in one of the most famed cities in the deep south.
While other iconic figures have in the past, attempted at using the conjunction "The" before their name as a glamorous title, they've failed at pulling off the maneuver where The Dude has stood the test of time.
The Donald?...sure he's got a lifetime of riches, but the hair, the crummy attitude...not even close.
A little closer to home, I give you The King. Yeah, LeBron James is a stud, but could he ever sit down in Lebowski attire and give a three hour speech on the glory of doing absolutely nothing, over a luke-warm Pabst, and while reclining in a ratty lawn chair from 1975? I think not.
And of course, let's not forget, The Dan, who's ignorant lifestyle actually finishes dangerously close in status to The Dude's, but only time will tell if he can master the longevity with which Lebowski can brag of. Personally, I have my doubts.
The painting I discovered along the fabled streets of Savannah carried with it an asking price of $2200...AND WAS SOLD. Cult status for The Dude? Oh I think so.
Also mentionable has to be the photogenic brilliance of my wife, who sensed a moment forthcoming, and managed to capture the above shot at just the right moment, as I was attempting to explain the iconic presense of The Dude to my son. The woman's amazing when armed with a camera.
In closing, watch "The Big Lebowski," laugh at will, and rest assured...The Dude abides.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Caspersen Beach and The Adventures of Nut-Hugger Ned

Caspersen Beach is a little known stretch of Florida sand nestled quietly in between the more popular Venice and Nokomis Beaches along the Gulf.
While it'll never boast of bringing in Siesta Key's tourist numbers, it does provide it's visitors with something more impressive than any other beach I've stumbled across...and I've walked many.
Shark Teeth!
Hidden within it's rocky alcoves, and often times buried under several layers of sand, shark teeth by the hundreds can be found with minimal effort. Even more astonishing, if you manage to walk it's course shores following a storm, or when the tide starts rolling in, you can literally reach down and snag shark teeth right out of the water as it rushes by your feet.
The above picture shows roughly 2/3 of our collection we gathered over the course of a few days. Several measured over an inch wide, and one was so impressive, we had it wrapped in silver in order to be worn as a charm around one's neck.
Hunting shark teeth can be as addictive as drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, with far healthier results. By week's end, literally everything I spotted in the sand, regardless of what beach we were visiting, resembled a tooth in some form other.
In fact, many local Floridians spend their evenings scouring the sands of Caspersen in search of whatever treasures may lie only inches below the surface. And one such local, I'm sorry to say, is Nut-Hugger Ned.
We had arrived at Caspersen shortly after a heavy rainfall, with hopes of finding some monster teeth with the stormy tides. We weren't disappointed. In a half hour's time my family had managed to find several handfuls of shark teeth, when I decided to go back to the Dodge in order to get a bucket to hold our many findings.
As I approached a nearby dune, I neared an elderly gentleman, six foot three at least, with skin like tanned leather, and the physique of a flagpole. He may have weighed 110 soaking wet.
Just before he caught me completely off guard with his actions, I was able to notice that he was wearing khaki trousers and a matching collared shirt with "Caspersen Beach Patrol" stiched across it's lapel. With his handful of stringy bleached hair stretching to the rumbling clouds above, I figured him to be a runaway beach bum lucky enough to find employment on Florida's shores.
Then, the unthinkable.
Regarding me as if I weren't even there, he suddenly unbuttoned his pants and dropped them to the sand, exposing a maroon-colored G-String which just barely managed to cover his loin.
Acting as I would imagine most heterosexual men in my position would do if caught in such a predicament, I said something to the effect of, "Aagh!" and stumbled backwards in the sand.
Throwing me an irritative glance and mumbling something under his breath having to do with stupid northerners, Nut-Hugger Ned pulled off his shirt, slipped out of his shoes, and glided past me in nothing but a G-String, en route to the beach, where he began jogging along it's shore.
We later found out that Ned, which I'm sure isn't his real name, but one I found quite catchy, jogs the shores of Caspersen every night following his shift. I just happened to be the unlucky one to stumble upon him as he disrobed.
By week's end he actually tossed me a grin as he loped by my family...with his happy package bouncing to and fro under what can only be described as a modern day loincloth.
Ok, so I dramatized the scene a bit, but you get the point.
Out of fear of starting rumors, I failed to snatch a picture of Nut-Hugger Ned while jogging along Caspersen Beach. Perhaps in this case however, the memory of that account is more than enough.