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.

Get to Work

I know; I know. I just published a post last week, and you’re used to me waiting six months between entries, but just hang with me, I promise it’ll be worth it.

I get sweaty.  (Not quite what you wanted, was it?) Not only that, I like getting sweaty, because for me to perspire enough to put deodorant to the test, I have to be doing work. For instance, the last time I got sweaty enough for my daughter to notice when she went in for a hug was at church this morning. You see, I led children’s worship, and it’s hard work trying to lead kids ranging from four years to fifth grade into the presence of the Lord. Sure, it may have had something to do with the fact I didn’t know the songs as well as I should, and the munchkins seemed more interested in wrestling each other to the ground instead of lifting their eyes to heaven, but I gave it enough to soak through my shirt.

The thing is, it’s not that difficult for me to get my skin glistening. The wife calls me “her little furnace” and enjoys snuggling up next to me when the nights are cold, but she can’t stay there. Apparently, I give off enough heat even at rest that she can hang on only for a few minutes before retreating to her side of the bed.

I also soaked through another shirt just yesterday. No, I wasn’t accumulating miles upon a treadmill, nor did I wrap myself in layers upon layers of fleece. My buddy, Steve, and I were running the trails of Infirmary Mound Park in 30-degree weather, and I had on a pair of shorts, some running tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. Don’t be crazy — I prepared for the December weather. I had on my insulated running shoes, a light jacket, ear protectors, and a pair of gloves, as we were outside running for over an hour.

I never did anything like this as a kid. I hated being dirty. Smelling bad meant something was wrong, which I had to remedy immediately.

So what’s changed? Now, sweat equals accomplishment. As a middle school English teacher, I don’t get many opportunities to sweat through my dress shirt. Sure, there’s been times in late August when the cooling unit’s not doing it’s job, and I have to crack a window or face melting into a puddle, but that’s the exception.

In my day-to-day, nitty-gritty life, it’s easy to avoid working hard enough to activate my integumentary system, and I have decades of experience coming up with reasons not to face physical challenges, which made me a soft spectator.

People watching is fun; observing human behavior can provide deep insight to our collective psychological condition, but restricting yourself to what equates to a seat on the short bus means you’ll get somewhere eventually, but you’ll have surrendered any influence on your trajectory to reach a destination with which you’ll have no connection.

I sweat to exercise influence. I work to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I create music and movement to inhabit my skin and draw myself and others closer to Perfection.

Embrace those tasks that seem difficult; don’t wait for someone else to do the work for you. Surrender your life to service and discover the person you were always intended to be.

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 – the Result

Well, it’s my own fault, asking you to contribute snippets of original text I can utilize to build a story. Your donations are pasted below, and as you can see, I face quite the challenge, taking this assortment of scraps and sewing them together into an exquisite quilt for you to draw up to your chin, cocoon within, and warm your soul while drifting off into peaceful slumber.

Wait, that metaphor sucks. Let’s try again.

I amassed a pile of limbs, teeth, and viscera to face frankensteining them together into a hulking monster of a story. Who knows if lightning will strike? My narrative may just lay there, dead on the table. Now that I’ve lowered your expectations…

No, seriously, check out all the cool Lego bricks you guys generated:

  • In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…”
  • As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this?
  • “Geez oh man, eh?”
  • You often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.”
  • These were not his shoes, he realized.
  • It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life.
  • “So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.
  • Just don’t call me a fool!
  • Where did she come up with a name like “Wild Goose” for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?
  • What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask.
  • There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody.
  • The day had begun brilliantly but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch.
  • “Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
    “Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
    I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence.”
    “I think that was pretty clear. Right?”
  • If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words.
  • I navigated the familiar route…
  • Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
    “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
    Twelve. Ten.
    “Do it!”
  • Electric wire — dark birds in flight…

Before beginning, allow me to present the ground rules I established for myself:

  1. Every contribution must be used as offered. No breaking it into smaller pieces or rearranging the components of a piece. Light editing only. Don’t turn off your internal grammar nazi, but keep him on a short leash.
  2. Contributions may be used in any order seen fit.
  3. Yes, and… Every offering must serve the story and add to the narrative.

Enough of my jabbering; please enjoy our creation:

Whenever we stood in her presence, my grandmother would say,”There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody,” which sounds fatalistic, except Granny made it worse by pointing at my little brother when she said, “everybody” and pointing at me when she said, “nobody.” I navigated the familiar route of smiling at Granny and laughing along with her, but she never cooperated. “Children should be seen and not heard, Nobody.”

“My name’s Dwight.”

“Not in this house it isn’t. Nobody cleans up around here, and everybody just goofs around,” so that’s what we did. I reorganized her stacks of magazines and emptied her ashtrays as Huey played cards with her as Dallas blared in the background.

“Granny, what do you want me to do with this dead mouse?”

“Shhhhh! If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words. J.R.’s about to confess his undying love.” I rolled my eyes. Granny often waxed poetic when she wanted to make a point. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie!”

I sighed. Time to clean Granny’s carpets.

I know it wasn’t Huey’s fault Granny always favored him. Mother said Granny acted a little funny off her medication, but I don’t think she was ever on any. When Mother dropped us off in the mornings, she ensured Granny took her tablets, watching the old bird place each pill in her mouth one after the other then draining her coffee cup and showing Mother an empty mouth. That was about the time Granny pointed at the wall clock, and Mother would run off, late for work yet again.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Granny slid her finger down her throat, and the pills and coffee all came back up again into the sink. It was my job to rinse each capsule off and put them back in their individual bottles, that way Granny could get three to four uses out of each pill. Mother had astigmatism, so she couldn’t make out that the pills’ imprints had faded, but Granny figured she was “dumber than hiring a midget to wash your windows. Just don’t call me a fool! I’ll slice you like a vagina going through Vaseline!”

Granny passed one Friday napping in her chair. I was twelve at the time, and Huey was eight. Granny always gave us strict instructions not to wake her even if, “Jesus and all His holy angels appeared to play a pick up game of hockey,” so we just left her in the chair all weekend.

All Mother could say after getting back from Vegas was, “Geez oh man, eh?” when she saw Granny sitting there slack-jawed with squadrons of flies circling for a landing. I guess they liked the chunks of cheese Huey kept dropping in her open mouth, “In case she gets hungry.”

It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life, but I hope it wasn’t the high point. Huey never really got over Granny’s death. Suddenly, he was no longer special. Even on his best days, something was broken inside him. Take last Wednesday for example. The day had begun brilliantly, but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch. Punching keys was his favorite part of working at the local hardware store. I guess that’s why they went out of business. Having two large storage units filled with pre-punched keys didn’t really help their bottom line all that much, so imagine my surprise when Huey showed up at my front door grinning like a pedophile at the Little Miss Texas Beauty Pageant.

“Hey, Dwight, Great to see you!” I slammed the door in his face.

When the state took custody of us, I didn’t expect Mother to fight to get us back. Maybe she’d visit every now and then, send us a present or two, maybe even call once in a while, but all we got were the postcards she’d send from Hawaii once a year telling us all about how great things were with Father since they remarried and how much she loved their new children.

In foster care, you often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.” I hated being the oldest, always taking care of the litter of children that paraded through Gail and Eugene’s door, but I didn’t get a choice as they’d leave to take the “good ones” out for ice cream. That’s how Huey got so fat.

He made good use of his bulk, too. When in frustration I went to open the door to tell Huey to stop banging on it, it felt like someone unloaded a dumpster on me, and he smelled just as bad.

“Dwight, I have to speak with you!” he yelled two inches from my face.

“Huey, get off me! I have to get to work!”

“No, not until you hear me out,” Huey paused. “What do you do anyway?”

“Please! You’re crushing my spine! I’ll tell you if you get offa me!”

It took Huey much longer to get up than I thought possible, but with one final burst of exertion and a lot of wheezing, I was finally free. I tested for sore spots and injuries but discovered no broken bones.

“You got a job?” Huey stared like I was a magician asking him for a twenty.

“Of course I have a job, a ca-REER. How else did you think I could afford all those loans I floated you?”

“Dunno, just thought you won alot of contests.”

“Alot of contests? Are you seri…” I held my breath, held it all in until I could feel myself grow dizzy. Then I started gulping down air like Vodka. “Huey, I’m a publisher for a major press.” When I saw his eyes trail to stare at the blank wall over my left shoulder, I tried again. “I work with writers.”

That snapped him back. “What are writers good for?”

“What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask!”

He looked at me expectantly, but I could tell sarcasm wasn’t his native language.

“Huey, why are you here?”

“I got a letter from Granny today.”

“Huey, she’s been dead 20 years.”

“That’s why I was scared to open it.” He winced as he shoved a crumpled manila envelope under my nose.

Covered with notices of ‘Insufficient Postage’ and ‘Return to Sender,’ the envelope featured the return address of one “Anthony Zalinsky, Esq. Aturny at Law.”

“Huey, this letter isn’t from Granny, it’s from an attorney.”

“Then why’s it say her name on it, then?”

He was right. The letter was addressed to “Eula Beaula Smithe’s next of kin.”

When I tore open the envelope, Huey dove under the table. I ignored him and scanned the letter. It appeared to be Granny’s last will and testament, dated October 8, 1996. This badly misspelled document had apparently been floating through the mail system for a double decade.

My pulse quickened. I’d always assumed Granny was just mean as shit and purposely bequeathed us nothing, but she’d made a will. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all!

“Huey! It’s Granny’s will!” Before I could finish my sentence, he’d snatched the document from me.

“She left me something!” Despite his terrible track record, Huey wasn’t wrong. Granny designated him as an heir, but I couldn’t find my name anywhere. I was wrong; Granny was mean as shit.

Standing in front of the dilapidated building containing the law office of Anthony Zalinsky, my life flashed before my eyes. “Huey, just open the door already. I don’t feel like getting stabbed today.” I glanced over my shoulder once again as the vagrant approached, a broken Coke bottle clutched in his trembling hand.

Huey stared off into the clouds, “I wonder what she left me.”

“Get inside and find out!” I shoved him through the door, slamming it just as the vagrant slashed the air where we stood a breath before. Shaking, I found my voice: “I thought they bulldozed this ghetto.”

“Nope, still here,” Huey said over his shoulder as he entered the single elevator. “Electric wire — dark birds in flight…”

“What are you prattling on about?”

Huey pointed to the graffiti emblazoned all over the elevator. “Must be somebody’s grocery list.”

I sighed and jabbed the button for the third floor. The elevator groaned, shuddered, and sank a few inches with the door still open. Huey stared at me with concern. “Do we have to take the stairs?”

Huey made it, but just barely. I thought he was going to have a coronary, but every time it looked like Huey could make it no further, he muttered, “Gotta do it for Granny.”

At last, we stood before the attorney’s door. “Do I look okay, Dwight?”

We’d found him a suit and tie, and Huey insisted he wear the trilby Granny got him for his 7th birthday, which was so small, it looked like a sugar cube perched upon an elephant. I lied, “You look fine.”

“I’m so glad you agreed to come with me. I couldn’t have done this by myself; you must really love me!” He crushed me in a bear hug.

Repulsed, I resisted the urge to struggle. Whatever Granny left Huey must be worth something, and if he didn’t get it, I would never see any of the money I leant him. “Yeah, that’s good. You can let go now.” I knocked on the office door before he could grab me again.

The door swung in on the top hinge, emitting one shrill squeak, which was soon drowned out by a higher-pitched scream. An emaciated man cowered behind a desk as a cloud of papers drifted to the floor around him. The room was filled with filing cabinets, a wood chipper, and about two inches worth of shredded documents.

“Don’t shoot! I’ll come quietly, I swear!” He hazarded a glance at us, which altered his whole demeanor. “Oh! Goodness me! You’re not the police. You gave me quite the scare. Please do come in. Don’t mind the mess. Just some spring cleaning.” He bustled about the room, causing some of the shredded paper to drift into the corners, and soon produced two mismatched chairs. “Please make yourselves comfortable. How may I help you, gentlemen?”

After seeing us to our chairs, the little man settled himself behind the desk and placed his feet upon it, nearly tipping himself onto the floor. Hands folded behind his head, he stared at his feet. These were not his shoes, he realized.

I explained who we were, our relationship to Granny, and why we came. After searching his records, the little man who’d introduced himself as Anthony Zalinsky Jr. produced the original copy of Granny’s will. “Lucky for you I haven’t gotten to the older records yet.” He pointed to the wood chipper and laughed too loud. Huey joined him, confused.

Anthony Jr. compared the wills side by side, pointing out minutia I cared nothing about, including a passage where Granny expressed a wish for a social club called Wild Goose. “Where did she come up with a name like ‘Wild Goose’ for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?”

I exploded: “Could you just hurry along to the important part!”

“Mr. Phlebotomy, these documents express the final desires of your dearly-departed grandmother. I can’t ‘hurry along to the important part’ as it’s all equally important.'” Anthony Jr. withered me with his gaze. I lifted my hands helplessly.

It took the man two hours to fully review Granny’s will. Huey napped through most of it, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except he asked me to sing him a lullaby, and I complied.

“Mr. Phlebotomy, would you wake your brother? I have good news for him.” I elbowed Huey in the ribs. He awoke with a snort.

“Mr. Cisero?” (Gail and Eugene adopted Huey.) “You and your grandmother must have been very close.”

Huey wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Yeah, we had a special relationship.”

“Eula Beaula Smithe named you as her sole heir, bequeathing to you, and I quote, ‘all my riches in this world…'” I sat up straighter. “‘…my prize possessions…'” Huey sobbed harder. “‘…my precious jewels.'”

I jumped out of the chair with a hoot, arms raised high in triumph. “Oh, man! I’m rich!” Both men stared at me, shocked. “Oh, man, you’re rich. Huey, I mean, you’re rich!” Anthony Jr. looked relieved. Huey still sobbed into his suit coat. I sat down and pretended to console him. “Where can I…Huey…pick up these precious jewels?”

“Ms. Eula’s file also contained this large envelope addressed to Huey.” He held it out, and I took it, doing my best not to snatch it out of his hand. The envelope was fat and heavy. I could feel metallic links through the paper.

“Huey, Granny left this for you. Do you want me to open it?” He nodded through his tears.

Finally! In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…” Hands trembling in anticipation, I broke the seal and turned the envelope. Its contents spilled into my open palm. Glittering in the light of the buzzing fluorescent bulbs, a safety deposit box key attached to a chain forged with heavy links flooded me with the all-too familiar experience of disappointment. I couldn’t help myself: “What is this?”

“It’s a key to a safety deposit box. There should be a paper still in the envelope detailing at which bank your grandmother secured her valuables,” Anthony Jr. offered.

I reached into the envelope, and to my surprise, produced the paper. “U.S. Bancorp?”

Anthony Jr.’s eyes widened. “That’s the biggest bank in Minneapolis!”

Huey whined, “That’s all the way downtown! Can’t we wait until tomorrow?”

I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Huey, don’t you want to find out what Granny left you?”

“Well, sure, but I haven’t had dinner yet, and it’s getting late.”

Anthony Jr. chimed in. “He’s right, you know. U.S. Bancorp closed hours ago.” I stared at my watch and slapped my head into my hands. “You gentlemen should get something to eat. Celebrate a little.”

Huey perked up. “Dwight! Can we go to Chop Suey Palace? Mr. Attorney, sir? You wanna come, too? It’s the best!”

“Thank you, Mr. Cisero, but I have much work left to do. Allow me to see you to the door.” We found ourselves in the hallway with the door slammed shut behind us. It sounded like the wood chipper struggled to make its way through an entire filing cabinet.

At dinner, I tried to distract Huey from the fact that as we pulled away from the office building, the SWAT team showed up, firing tear gas through a certain third floor window.

“Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
“Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence. I think that was pretty clear. Right?”

John Grisham ground his teeth in frustration. “Alright, Dwight, I’ll do it, but only because you owe me one.”

“Thank you. Now, was that so hard?” Before he could answer, my phone rang. It was Huey. I dismissed Grisham with a flick of my wrist. “Huey! How are you? Ready to  go to the bank?”

“Almost.” (Christ, why?) “I need you to take me somewheres else first.”

Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
Twelve. Ten.
“Do it!”

He screamed in pain even before Gwen touched the tattoo needle to his skin. I tried to talk Huey out of it, but he wanted to ‘honor Granny’s memory’ by tattooing her face just above his butt crack. I didn’t envy the tattoo artist her job. I had no idea how Gwen’d even start with Huey jerking like he was, but he soon passed out, and she did a helleuva job. No matter where I stood, it felt like Granny’s eyes followed me. I heaved a sigh of relief as Gwen covered her masterpiece with the sterile absorbing pad. Huey soon came to and perked up considerably when he saw the picture of his new ink. He blubbered, “Thank you so much,” and tried to kiss Gwen. Bruiser showed us out

Dusting myself off, I insisted we get to the bank. I’d cleared my afternoon for this, and would not be denied my prize.

“So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, could one of you fine tellers tell us how to get to the safety deposit boxes?”

The one who’d been telling jokes spoke up. “Be right wit’ you, sir.”

There it was. Number 385. Granny’s safety deposit box. Huey insisted on wearing the key around his neck. “I want to keep it close to my heart.”

“Huey? Go ahead.”

“I can’t. What if it’s too special? What if it reminds me of her all over again?”

I swallowed my anger. “Huey, she left it for you. If it reminds you of her, that’s what she would have wanted.”

He met my gaze, eyes brimming with tears. “You always know just what to say, Dwight.” He took a deep breath. “Granny never treated you right.”

The blood drained from my face.

“And Mother abandoned us after Granny died.”

I tried to interrupt, but Huey held up his hand. “No, Dwight, somebody has to say this. They always did you wrong at the foster homes, especially Gail and Eugene, making you slave all day just like Granny did. You could’ve left so many times, but you stayed. I never learned to do for myself, and you stayed to look after me.”

The hotness of the tears stung my cheeks. “And here you are again, helping me. I know you grew up feeling like you were never loved, but you were. I love you; always have, always will.”

Huey went for a bear hug, and I just let him. The frustrations and feelings of abandonment and abuse all welled up out of me. I was a snotty mess, but Huey didn’t care. He just held me and patted my back while I sobbed into his shirt. Finally, I pulled away. “Ugh, I’m so sorry. Your shirt…”

“Don’t you worry about it. I was glad to be the strong one for once.” We both laughed.

“You ready?” Huey held the key up to the lock.

“Wait. I haven’t been honest with you, Huey. I haven’t been helping you for your benefit…”

He cut me off with a wave. “Don’t you think I know that? No matter what’s in the box, I was going to split it down the middle with you then use my half to pay back all those loans you floated me.”

It took me a minute to find my voice. “Really?”

“Really. I owe you that much at least.”

I smiled. “Open it.”

As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this? Huey had told his barber all about how I was helping him preserve Granny’s memory, and when Joe the barber started laughing, Huey demanded to know what was so funny. “Isn’t it obvious?”

When Joe explained all about how I planned to cross him and take the last piece of Granny that Huey would ever get, Huey figured two could play at that game, so after getting me to lower my guard in the bank vault, Huey sprung his trap, tazing me when I turned my back. Huey figured that would give him enough time to grab the safety deposit box and get out before I came to, but he’d forgotten about the guards as well as the bank’s security system. Huey was almost at the door to the vault when three guards came charging down the steps. In his attempt to taze them, the guards knocked Huey’s feet out from under him, and the box went spinning.

I decided not to press charges, but the judge sentenced Huey to three months in jail, which he didn’t mind as he got to stamp license plates, which Huey thought was just as fun as punching keys. I visited often, and we talked about growing up the way we did and how things turned out between us. Being incarcerated gave Huey plenty of time to think about his life, and he wrote me a long letter apologizing for all that had happened. The day he got out, we returned to the bank and opened Granny’s safety deposit box together.

“Godammit!”

The box contained two skeletons, a lot of dust, and a note from Granny. Turns out, her “precious jewels” were her cats, Captain Mouser and Lady Pussington. The note contained detailed instructions for their care and feeding, including the post script: “And don’t you let nobody touch ’em!”

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 Unexpected

Cycling 30 miles with a friend is much easier when both tires hold air. That’s how inner tubes function, remaining inflated to provide a cushion upon which you can fly down the road with grip and precision, so imagine my frustration when at 5:30 this AM I discovered my rear tire was flat. Simple fix. I’ll just use my handy bicycle pump here and fill up this…Why’s it not inflating? Do I need to change my inner tube? What is this, the third or fourth time I’ve had to take my bike apart in the last few months to replace that piece of faulty rubber? Shit.

Called my friend; explaining the issue. “No problem,” he said.

Thirty minutes, much blue language, and approximately three gallons of sweat later; my brand new tube nestled within the tire, the tire perched upon the rim, and the wheel whirred upon the bike. All I had to do was fill it with air. No dice. Each time I pumped, the inner tube expanded then went limp as a politician’s promise.

At a complete loss, I implemented that age-old mental tool utilized by athletes and generals alike: visualization. Drawing in lungfuls of air, I stifled my urge to scream, shut out the world, and pictured my next move.

If I were another person, this would’ve been my MacGyver moment. Taking only spit, vaseline, and a container from my garage workbench marked with an indecipherable chemical formula, I would’ve combined all three agents with a furrowed brow and a quick stir, producing a single puff of blue smoke. Then, while the concoction continued to boil, I’d give my flat tire a spin with my free hand and pour with my right. Defying physics, every drop of the viscous liquid would rush into the gap between the tire and rim, and as a gaggle of neighbor kids gaped in amazement, their notifications of uncaptured Pokemon forgotten, my tire would reinflate with a bang to thunderous applause.

But this is me, so I visualized going back to bed and called my friend, resigned to my fate.

Turns out, Matt was already on his way to my house.

Whip-quick, he had the wheel off my bike and the tire off the rim. Matt diagnosed the cause of my trouble, tried to file the issue smooth, and resorted to duct tape, tearing it in long, thin strips to prevent the gouges on my inner rim from further puncturing my inner tube. Fitting my tire back in place with care and focus, having provided the spare tube he brought with him, he had me road-ready within the hour. We didn’t get in the full 30 miles as planned, but Matt resolved a problem that overwhelmed me.

Shootings, outrage, protests, murders, hangings, bombings, atrocities, coups — the last few weeks have overwhelmed, and we stand lost, not knowing how to fix the world. Some express frustration when others post about prayer in response to these situations, reasoning real solutions will effect change far better than sending mystic vibes at the sky, but when I pray, I’m calling out to the God who listens to my needs and resolves problems.

After being observed by my principal and given a poor review the spring of 2013, I was placed on a one-year probationary contract and told if I did not improve my methods, my contract would be terminated the following spring. I spent the remainder of that school year and the following summer praying I’d keep my job, and each time I asked God what to do, I felt He assured me He’d take care of it.

The following school year, a retired teacher came alongside and mentored me, spending time in my classroom, observing, modeling good teaching, and helping me plan lessons. The right person came to help me at just the right time, and this year, myself, my co-teacher, Greg, and two others won awards for exemplary teaching for our portion of Ohio. I didn’t know how to fix my teaching, so I asked God for help, and He saved my career.

Prone to ear infections, nine-year-old me spent one Saturday feeling as though someone drove a spike into the side of my head, and without Urgent Care, my best hope was Mom giving me Tylenol and waiting for the doctor’s office to open Monday. Given the option of staying home from Sunday service, I chose to go despite the throbbing. Nothing unusual happened that morning until the man who prayed for me following the sermon placed his hand on my shoulder. As he spoke, a stillness settled into my chest and the pain in my ear receded until no trace remained. Unsure how to process what just happened, I staggered back a bit as the man let out a whoop of joy when I confirmed the pain was gone. God is not my uncle who during family volleyball games attempted to hit the ball every time it soared over the net no matter how many of his team members stood in the way; He’s a gentleman, intervening when invited.

I have numerous examples of answered prayer and can confirm God concerns Himself with the troubles that concern us even when things don’t turn out the way we wish; I prayed religiously for family members and friends who died of disease and begged God to improve tough situations only to see them get worse. Even when things went sideways, those times I didn’t think I’d make it through, God stood with me, bringing me out stronger and wiser than when the trouble began.

Whether it’s a flat tire, race riots, or someone running down children celebrating a holiday, calling God for help isn’t wasting your breath, it’s placing a problem into the most capable, loving hands one has ever known.

Are you comfortable?

I know I am: coffee sits steaming within my favorite mug, an air-conditioned breeze wafts against my legs as my daughter grins her way through a dance lesson, and I get to sit here and compose my thoughts, but this time last week, comfort abandoned me. I chose to run a 50k — 31 miles American — in 88 degree weather.

When selecting running clothes, the rule of thumb is to dress for weather 20 degrees warmer than the thermometer displays; therefore, it felt like 108. So hot, the heat from the pavement seeped through the soles of my shoes. So unbearably hot, we ran from one shady spot to another along the paved path on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Me and my three running buddies traveled 6 hours, rented a cottage for two nights, and invested a three-day weekend to pay for this ultramarathon, going out of our way to risk dehydration or worse as we suffered through heat, physical pain, and mental exhaustion. This was not comfortable.

I grew up in a house where we squabbled over beanbag chairs and the La-Z-Boy before settling in for an evening of pizza and television where we’d watch sitcoms while awaiting a “good show” to come on, becoming champion channel flippers. I spent so much of my childhood being comfortable that I can still quote entire cereal or fruit snack commercials from 30 years ago. I quit t-ball and cub scouts due to lack of comfort along with choosing to home school in high school because it was easier. If choosing comfort over hardship was a major in college, I would’ve started my freshman year with enough credit to graduate as a senior by the time spring semester rolled around. I chose to sleep instead of going to work and left chores undone because I didn’t feel like doing them. I played hacky sack instead of revamping a script and walked away from multiple conversations knowing the tough remark I should have said instead of nodding dumbly in agreement.

Please don’t mistake this take on comfort as a condemnation of taking a rest. We all need to recharge; our brains wired to digest information as we sleep. Taking one day off per week equips us to face the challenges the following six days present with fresh eyes and a revitalized immune system.

Finding comfort is necessary, so why do I choose hardship? Am I making up for lost time? Is my running motivated by guilt, a sort of self-imposed self-flagellation for perceived failings?

No, I like meeting the challenge, staring it down, and exerting the effort to overcome. No matter how good binging on Doctor Who makes me feel for the moment, it doesn’t satisfy anywhere close to crossing the finish line of that 50k did. Pushing myself to the breaking point shows me I can push further than expected and each time I overcome an impossible challenge, daily challenges lose their fangs. Working through a conversation with a parent upset over their child’s grades for an hour holds less dread now that I’ve spent seven hours traversing 31 miles.

I’ve proven I’m not a pushover, that great accomplishments can be earned through hard work and consistent practice, and it’s through hard work and consistent practice that so many rise above their circumstances to become heroes — individuals who stand apart — demonstrating our capacity for greatness, but we’ve lost so many of late.

Bill Cosby wasn’t the husband and father we thought him to be. David Bowie and Prince, transcendent musicians, had their lights extinguished. Alan Rickman and Anton Yelchin, so large on screen, reminded us we’re all mortal, so we spend millions turning to talking fish or demigods to find hope, fictional characters who choose to do the hard things despite the risk. Risks we’re too comfortable to take.

Has Great Britain divided its kingdom and devalued the pound because leaving the European Union seemed easier than working through political and personal differences with foreigners? Are Hilary and Trump our de facto Presidential candidates because they’re familiar faces we’ve seen via media for the past several decades? Do we cry, “Guns, guns, guns!” when people die because it’s easier to arm ourselves or disarm others when the problem of hatred and fear is rooted within our own souls?

Meanwhile, Jesus of Nazareth ate with “tax collectors and sinners” and encouraged his followers to serve others in love, Lebron James showed us what’s possible when you give your all for the people of your hometown, and upon seeing we had a clog in our rain pipe, my friend Chad gave up going to a cookout so he could make use of his drain snake. You are unique in all the universe, for no other person shares your exact genetic make-up along with your specific set of experiences. A bowl of spaghetti sets off a sensory experience in you and awakens memories like no one else, so make something of yourself by bringing something new into this world. Choose to do what’s right despite the risk and invest in others.

Be the hero this world needs.