What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

The Rift: A Short Horror Story

With a satisfied sigh, Helen glanced up from her book. Afternoon sunlight streamed in through the large bay window, dust motes dancing in the glow. “Hello, Patsy!”

Purring, the cat sprang up onto the chair, kneading Helen’s lap and arching her back as Helen’s hand slid along the length of her silver fur. Once they settled in, Helen resumed reading her novel — something about unrequited love — allowing time to spin away.

Maybe the dust motes misstepped, or Patsy cut her purring short. Perhaps the late afternoon light took ill. Whatever indicated the change mattered little. The world seemed off; Helen could feel it in her sinuses. Glancing up from her book, she noticed the living room had somehow shifted to the left. Her stomach felt queasy, though nothing was out of place. No, that’s not right, Helen thought. Everything is out of place, but in the same way.

The living room appeared perfectly normal — the afghan trailing off her lap onto the hardwood floor, the big tabby sleeping in her lap, and the portrait of her late husband beaming at her from above the fireplace. “Jim, what has happened?”

There. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it. An absence where her tea cart should’ve sat. With a cry, Helen fixed both her eyes…on her tea cart. What was she thinking? There was no gap there. How silly! She resumed reading.

Unease twisted her stomach tighter. Helen looked again, saw nothing. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Some warm milk will do us good. Come along, Patsy. There’s a good girl.” The cat sprang down, shook herself, and minced her way into the kitchen with an expectant meow. Neither one noticed the ball of yarn bouncing away from the tea cart like a ground ball headed to left field.

That Thursday, the Lady’s Society for the Betterment of Newtown just moved on to the allocation of funds for a Medieval Dinner at the Moose Lodge when Mrs. Schwartz let out a low moan. “Ooohhhh, Glenna, did you see that? Tell me you saw.”

“Heavens above, Ruth, you’ve gone pale! See what?”

Helen sat up straighter on the chaise.

“There in the corner. A gap where the room should be.”

The other ladies gathered around Mrs. Schwartz, clucking their tongues and exclaiming, “Ruth, you’ve overtaxed yourself again, haven’t you?” Then in aside to each other, “Such a shame she overindulges on the sherry. Can’t help herself, can she?”

When Ms. Althea mentioned a slight indigestion and a few other ladies agreed to feeling the same, Mrs. Schwartz ventured, “I wonder if it’s the pie. It’s a lovely meringue, but one can’t be too careful when it comes to egg whites, can one?”

“Ladies, I think we’ll adjourn for today, but we’ll be sure to pick up this order of business next week at Mrs. Lockwood’s.”

All agreed, and Helen saw each of them out, complimenting this one on her new hat and that one on how brightly her eyes shone. With many a good luck and goodbye, she was left to tidy up.

Disquiet coiled in her abdomen. And all I ate was one small slice of cake. Taking a deep breath, she glanced at the tea cart, seeing nothing. To help her sleep that night, Helen took something much stronger than sherry.

“Patsy, dear, come get your breakfast! Patsy?” A line of worry formed between Helen’s sculpted eyebrows. I don’t usually have to call her at all.

Even before she knew what she was doing, Helen searched half the house, even opening the doors to the bedrooms now used for storage. Coming up from the basement, Helen, now frantic, called out Patsy’s name one last time before a wave of nausea nearly knocked her back down the stairs. “Ooooooooohhhh!” Gripping the banister with her right hand, Helen panted as she tried to regain her feet, pushing off the top step with her left. She wobbled but kept her balance and plodded into the living room. Something moved in the corner, the tea cart flickered back into existence, and Helen’s nausea lifted. “Patsy!”

The devoted wife, faithful mother, resolute widow, and pillar of the community knelt before the last thing in this world she still loved with all the rigidity her calcium-depleted bones could muster.

The once-beautiful cat lay wheezing, filthy with rust and blood. Her side torn open released viscera and feces; the tail broken neatly in half. One rear leg, now only a stump, looked like it had been gnawed off. The jaw hung by a few tendons, while the tongue sat useless, moving only as air gurgled in and out.

Her eyes! Her beautiful green eyes! Both were gone, ripped out with such force, one could see fragments of skull gleaming within the empty sockets.

Helen’s stomach lurched. Her equilibrium slid to one side — ears popping as the rift yawned open just beyond where Patsy lay, and this time, a stench of death and mangoes filled the room.

The cat’s body responded, it’s back arching backwards, muscles contracting all at once until the woman heard Patsy’s spine break with a moist snap.

Helen flinched then grew still as some nameless goblin reached out to her, feasting on her terror. Her face contorted with the realization she had fallen for the bait and was now being reeled in.

Tears leaked down her cheeks as the creature’s hot breath blew back her hair. Something pierced Helen’s mind. When she felt it sucking at her thoughts, her bowels released.

The radio crackled to life. “Bill, we’ve got a report of a strange odor on Park Street.”

The sheriff heaved a sigh and spoke into his shoulder mic. “Acknowledged.” Looking down, he gave a few shakes, zipped up his fly, and sauntered back to the patrol car. He could always nail some speeders later as most of Tuesday’s traffic had thinned out already. Bill gave a cursory glance down the road before nosing his cruiser back towards town.

Turning onto Park Street, Bill put both hands back on the wheel. The knot of people gathered outside the brick colonial told him all he needed to know. Several covered their noses. When the sheriff forced open the front door, everyone’s hands went to their faces.

“Damn!” Bill’s red bandana came out of his rear pocket to cover his own before he pulled his gun and entered the house. He didn’t see her at first; the stench made his eyes water, and gloom pervaded the living room. After a few steps, a shadow separated itself from the rest of the dark. Bill dropped the bandana and aimed his pistol with both hands. “Don’t move!”

She didn’t.

Bill unstrapped his flashlight and directed its beam at the shadow. “Mrs. Hawthorne!”

The smell only worsened as he approached.

“Mrs. Hawthorne?” She knelt by her tea cart, facing the corner, back straight and both arms stiff at her sides.

Touching her shoulder, the sheriff and Helen’s former student went to step in front of her before pulling up short. He stifled a yell.

She stared with empty eyes down at the bloated corpse of her cat now writhing with maggots. Helen’s mouth hung open, a line of drool trailing to the hardwood.

Neither Bill nor the paramedics who responded to the scene that day spoke of what Helen had done to her cat, though rumors circulated. The house never sold, and eventually the town tore it down.

Only the members of the Lady’s Society paid visits at the nursing home. They did well enough when Helen stared off into space and drooled, but even they stopped coming when her hollow voice started describing what it felt to have your memories swallowed whole.

Chiffonier

Oh, he’d waited for this day. Feeling the old man’s breathing becoming shallower and shallower as he applied all his weight to the nonagenarian until one pathetic gurgle gave way to silence filled Chiffonier with such satisfaction, he felt his joints would burst. Ever since the master had sold his family at auction one by one, Chiffonier knew it would be his duty to end that monster’s life. How many other family sets had that man broken apart, their future reduced to smoke and ashes? Chiffonier refused to think about it. He can’t harm anyone anymore.

The first time Chiffonier had even considered paying back his master in kind, he groaned inwardly. Murder? Him? It went against everything he was designed to be. Talk about going against his grain! He pushed the idea far from him, refusing to even consider it, but the more he thought about his family members being hauled off one by one, the more the idea grew like a pile of dirty clothes beneath his smooth veneer. He had to end the suffering. Yes, but how?

Years went by before Chiffonier realized his greatest strength — steadfastness. Every morning, the master would come to him, trusting Chiffonier to dress him warmly, especially as the master’s limbs grew feebler, and his hinges rustier.

It all came in a flash of recognition. The master’s trust of his unwavering devotion would be his downfall. And so it was.

That afternoon, the old man’s nurse, horrified, discovered the dresser fallen over upon him. “Squashed him flat, like an ant. I told Mr. Wallace hanging onto that dresser was dangerous. He should have sold it when he got rid of the rest of that bedroom suite. That front leg was wobbly. Only a matter of time before it gave way. From now on, nothing but Ikea for me.”

Gooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!

Normally, this would be the point where I mention blowing the dust off my keyboard since I haven’t updated my blog since April. Thing is, I don’t have to do that as I spent the last month working on a fiction piece as well as transcribing interviews from our trip to Arizona over spring break, which resulted in about 10,000 words. Excuse me while I stand on my chair and celebrate with my own hearty congratulations.

Ooh, bad idea. The desk chair rotates as well as rolls. Lemme get down before I brain myself.

Thing is, I can’t take the credit for accomplishing what amounts to a monster level of writing for me. Ask any of the professors from my MFA, and they’ll tell you there’s no way Jake accomplished that much work by himself. I didn’t; I stole an idea.

Every month, there’s this very nice lady who creates an event in Facebook where the invitees post mileage and other fitness goals for themselves then provide posts, documenting their progress in achieving these goals. Because those who participate in the group are wonderfully generous themselves, whenever anyone posts, they get flooded with positive support along with a modicum of ornery banter.

In addition to the support I receive from this crew, I also gleaned ideas such as running twice in a day, setting a mileage goal for cycling, and adding whole body exercise routines to my repertoire, things I wouldn’t consider myself, which results in me feeling better and being far more confident than I ever have before.

So I stole this idea of doing a monthly mileage challenge on Facebook and created a monthly writing challenge after discovering one of my fellow runners is also a fellow writer with a similar need for accountability. I set it up, invited other writers, and set a goal of writing 25 hours in June.

Which I did.

After skipping a bunch of days.

You see, I figured I could write for an hour each day. (We were less than a week into June when I created the challenge.)

I found it was harder to carve the time out than I first assumed.

Which meant I had to up my daily production.

Forcing myself to write for two hours and forty-five minutes some days.

Which sucked.

And because I created this group challenge, there was no way I was going to miss my goal, so I kept at it.

And I learned something. Three things, actually.

  1. I learned that setting a goal and sharing that goal along with progress made in achieving it with others working toward similar goals nets you many cheerleaders.
  2. I learned that slacking off early makes more work for you in the end.
  3. I learned that spending time doing something important not only creates progress, it also reveals the person I want to be more often.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, procrastinating will get you nowhere. I should know.

Set a goal, share it with others pursuing similar goals, and root each other on till the end. You might not cross the finish line first, but you will move further down the road.

Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Getting Past the Pain

Last week, the massage therapist reminded me of the truth of the movie quote, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Laying face up on the massage table, a clean, white sheet beneath, I slowed my breathing. The air, relieved of its outdoor duties, teased my nose with the aroma of cloves and other indistinguishable scents. With my shoes and socks paired in the corner and my shirt hanging from a hook on the closed door, I was ready to find some relief. Normally, we’d be listening to Chopin, but today a wooden flute rose, fell, and merged with cricket song above the bubbling of a stream. A Himalayan salt lamp cast a soft, pink glow, and that, combined with the few rays of sunlight slipping through the blinds, was sufficient to create a kind of twilight within the converted office.

Having taken the time to guide my legs through some stretches, bending and turning them along a few different planes, William started the real work, kneading my heal with the tips of his fingers and searching for the reflex zone associated with my lower back. As he probed, I sensed William nearing his goal, for the closer he got to one particular area, the more twitchy I became. William sensed it too, and when he’d pinpointed his objective, we both realized it, because as he applied the most pressure he could to this singularly sensitive area, I resisted the urge to jerk my leg away and commenced Lamaze. 

    The pain soon faded, no longer afflicting my heel or lower back, and William remarked, “Ahhh, Jake, you handle pain pretty well, don’tcha?”

“I suppose so.”

“If it were me, my friend, sitting in your place, I’d be wincing, cussing, and ready to get while the getting’s good. You savvy?” His last words transmuted into breathy laughter, escaping mostly through his nose and ascending the scale.

Growing up, I didn’t handle pain well. In fact, I avoided it as much as I could. With a father who could fix anything, we had cars that ran 300,000 miles or more and sinks that served us leak-free for decades. I vaguely recall a general contractor coming in to build a closet for me, but even then, Dad was at his elbow, framing and hanging drywall. That and the time when — sick of repainting the outside of the house each spring — Dad hired a company to hang vinyl siding, were the only instances I remember him paying someone to do the maintenance for him. Otherwise, Dad did the work himself. Mom often encouraged me to go give Dad a hand, but after watching for awhile with no real knowledge of what he was up to, I’d wander off. Worse were the times when he’d be lying under the car, a piece of cardboard between him and the driveway, and he’d ask me to hand him a particular tool.

“Jacob…Jacob…JACOB!”

I’d snap back to reality from wherever my mind had wandered. “Huh?”

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. Hand me that 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. And hurry up, this flange is threatening to invert on me.”

I’d look, mystified, over at his bucket of tools. “Which one?”

“I told you, the 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. You can’t miss it, it’s right there next to the Heimfleck calibrator.”

Eager to please, I’d pick a tool up at random. “This one?”

“No! the Jabberwocky spanner. To your right.” I’d have to take a minute to call up which hand I used to write with. Before I could, I’d hear the anger in his voice. “Jacob, did you hear me? It’s just to your right. Right there.” I could feel him pointing from behind me, but since I was facing the tools, I never saw which one he indicated. That’s when panic set in. I’d drop the tool I was holding and begin reaching for another. “What are you doing? I said to your right!” As though the metal shone with heat, I’d drop the new tool and fumble toward some others. “That’s an 11/36ths!” By then, he was reaching past me, one hand still holding the flange in place, two fingers of the other attempting to reach the desired tool.

I hope I had enough sense to finally realize which tool he wanted and hand it to him, but I’ll bet more than once, mortified at my incompetence, I just watched him struggle until he snagged the right tool for the job.

If I stuck around long enough, I’d also see what cost my father paid doing the work himself. Squatting on my haunches, I could see his furrowed brow, his mouth opened as he panted and groaned with the effort of loosening a component seized by rust. The worst was when something would give way unexpectedly. There’d be a bang, the clash of metal striking the driveway, and Dad sucking in his breath then releasing it in a series of exclamations barely discernable. He’d slide out from under the car, cradling his skinned knuckles or touching where the new gash on his forehead had just begun to bleed. There’d be grease on his hands and dirt all over the back of his blue flannel shirt. Ten minutes later, sporting a few new bandages, he’d go right back to grunting and groaning under the car. Due to experiences like these, I so associate manual labor with struggle, pain, and unpleasantness that I haven’t changed my car’s oil since moving out of my parents’ house over a decade ago, and if anything needs repaired, assembled, or installed around the house, my wife’s the one to do it. She’s the son my father always wanted.

In elementary school, I claimed I was allergic to pain, using it to excuse myself from anything I deemed too intense. Slight of build and more likely to pick dandelions than catch pop flies, I seldom participated in sports, preferring my adventures packaged in pixels or printed on paper. Even in my 30’s I scoffed at the suggestion of doing a 5K; running for more than three miles sounded like torture.

Now, after running several marathons as well as the Niagra Ultra 50K, taking a 50 mile bike ride for fun, and signing up to do the Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay, with a team of only six guys, I can say I know pain in ways that not many do. Even as I sit here writing, my back throbs because just yesterday, I threw it out and spent all day in bed alternating Biofreeze and a heating pad. It may sound strange, but the kid who avoided pain at all costs has grown up to become an endurance athlete, one who voluntarily endures prolonged physical activity and all the pain that brings just for the sake of doing it. Sure I get shirts for entering the races and medals for completing them, but I don’t do it for the swag. I don’t do it to punish myself or because I derive pleasure from the pain. I do it for the experience of getting past the pain.

I remember training for the first race I ever ran, the 2011 Columbus Half Marathon. I remember that months before the race, the muscles in my legs hurt so bad, I thought I’d injured myself. I remember hobbling my way to the end of the 2012 Columbus Half Marathon while other runners tried to hurry me along because, “The finish line is right there!” I remember going out fast the first half of the 2014 Freedom’s Run Marathon and how badly my legs ached the last few miles of that race. I remember a man in his 70’s telling me I was too young to allow him to get by me, and I remember the sound of his approaching footsteps forcing me to push hard at the end. I remember falling and getting back up. I remember broken toes and black toe nails. I remember finishing a 20K with a twisted ankle; the feeling of the sun beating on my neck while the heat beat up at from the blacktop on 90° days with no wind and humidity through the roof where it feels the run will never end. I also remember the needling of frostnip hours after a run in sub-freezing temperatures with shoes too thin and socks too absorbent. I recall all those awful experiences and smile because I put up with all that pain, pushing through it and letting it go out my ears to find I am capable. I can accomplish feats I once considered impossible.

I wasn’t born this way. I wasn’t ever an athlete. A friend invited me to join him for a race one day, encouraged my training, and stood beside me in the starting corral. Josh knew I could do what I thought impossible, and I began believing him.

You too can do what you deem impossible. One woman opened the Cat Café in Columbus less than a year ago and has since seen 109 felines find new families. I have a friend who wrote his first novel this year, taking a little time each day to do it. My daughter can now ride her bike unaided, and Lu Chao of China recited 67,890 digits of pi. Is there something you want to do but feel intimidated by? Find someone already doing it and join them. Keep taking steps toward it. Start small. Do a little at a time. Avoiding it will only frustrate you, convincing you that you are less than you really are. All of us can achieve the impossible. “Life is pain.” Embrace it and take the next step.

Backache

Tangled fingers obscure the world

Pain transmutes the question of where do we begin

Into a gnashed plea crying when will it end

Focus funneled to the pinpricked point of light

A star mushrooming plasma down neurons swollen with the message

ThereispainYouarehurtDON’TMOVETHATWAY!

 

Fractured cerebral cortex, Overheated engine

Steams

Surrendered to the onslaught

Of glass-toothed mole rats

Burrowing deeper

Incisors clamp

Stopping the train at Lumbosacral Junction