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.

Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

Improvisational Story

Friends, I want to build a story from original snippets of text contributed by you. They can be sentences, paragraphs, or even a word or two.

Simply scroll down to the end of this post, click “Leave a Comment,” post your contribution, and I’ll do the rest. Hurry though, I want to get this bad boy written before week’s end. 

The Dutch Kid

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Philip Wiegratz, 2005, (c) Warner brothers

I almost named this post Finger in the Dike, then Pluggin’ the Dike sounded better but still seemed to convey the wrong idea. Anyway…

On with the post!

You remember that story they told us as children where this kid’s walking home from school, admiring the windmills of his native Holland until he notices a crack in the earthen dike? Knowing he stands below sea level and the failure of the dike spells deluge for all, this little scrapper takes action, plugging the hole with the one thing he’s got on hand: his finger. It’s only then that he realizes the consequences of his actions. Going to get help means inviting the ocean to come on in, so he stands there as his finger loses feeling and hopes someone wanders by. Eventually help comes, and the nation lauds the boy as a hero for his perseverance and selflessness. Good story. Inspirational.

I have a similar Dutch kid living in a corner of my brain. Think Augustus Gloop, but instead of that turtleneck, he’s rockin’ a pair of wooden clogs and a blue, pointed cap. When he’s not swaying back and forth in a hammock made from my grey matter and chomping on an oversized chocolate bar, he perseveres with trouble in mind.

My overactive imagination produces so much thought, I experience difficulty sorting each idea and storing them away for further use. Instead of a meticulous filing system, I imagine my brain contains a huge reservoir of thoughts swirling about, held at bay by a gargantuan dam. There’s a built-in sluice to direct these ideas, allowing them to flow naturally in the right direction.

Writing opens this gate for me, organizing my thoughts and relieving the internal pressure, but the Dutch kid gets in the way. When I need to open the sluice, he slams it shut, convincing me there are far more important things to do like laundry or scrolling through internet feeds, slack-jawed.

Over time, ideas build one on top of the other and the dam wall starts to creak. Dutch Kid throws his weight behind his efforts, pushing back against the dam and forcing one thought to surface, “There’s not enough time to write right now.” Convinced, I go on with life as though all is well, but the pressure continues to increase.

Days, weeks, and months go by. Running and sharing life with close friends helps me manage external stressors, but the metric tons of accumulated thought bear down on my shoulders, knotting them up. Just as the dam’s about to unleash all that pent-up creativity like a starved tiger let loose in a butcher shop, Dutch Kid finds the cracks in the dam wall and corks them with his chubby digits.

Why subject myself to this? I know Dutch Kid exists as a personification of my psyche copping excuses to my detriment. He prevents my writing, because practicing that art may cause me to dredge up the things I fear to face. A multitude of scuttled memories lays at rest in the aphotic zone of my memory, and a prior project exposing my middle school self and all his insecurity was no joke. During that time of growth, I was raw and anguished, my identity shaken.

Better for it now, I have to choose. Do I continue allowing the thoughts and ideas to amalgamate, further submerging memories I fear to face? Or do I go mano a mano with Dutch Kid, eliminate his position, and evict him from his hammock? With him absent, the dam would burst, releasing torrents of thought to thunder forth and reveal barnacle-encrusted memories. With my grey matter dripping, I’d have no choice but to write, sorting through what the flood uncovered, cleansing me.

“Dutch Kid! Stop fingering that! You and I gotta discuss a thing or two!”