Dec 14, 2017

The Wrong Key

Life turns upside down on the smallest of things.

"Hey!  Hey, man are you okay?"

I shuddered awake, my body wracked by furious shivering.  There is blinding light and the face of a white man with a reddish blonde beard hovers over me. He's wearing a blue knit hat and a puffy black coat.

"Are you okay?" he asks again, concern in his hazy blue eyes.

"Huh?" I ask.

"What are you doing out here?"

"Went for a run," I mumble, disoriented, shuddering, colder than I've ever been in my life. "Wrong key" and I hold up for proof the offending key still gripped tightly as if frozen in my numb hand.

"I'm gonna call 911 okay."

"No, no. She'll be here soon," I vaguely protests between paroxysms of violent shivering.  He disregards me and is on his cell phone.

"Yeah, I found my neighbor outside his apartment asleep. . . yes, I woke him up  and he's conscious.  He's shivering really bad. I can't tell for sure but I think he got locked out of his apartment.  He's got a key in his hand, but he said it was the wrong key."

I look down at my hand, and it's still there.  The wrong key.

"Okay, I'll bring him up to my apartment.  Yes, same street. Stone Valley.  I'm in 7340.  Ok. . .yes, I'll  definitely do that."  He hung up the phone.  "The paramedics are on their way," he said to me.  "Can you walk?"

I didn't know and I myself couldn't tell whether I shook or nodded my head, I was shivering so bad.

"Here let me help you," he said and bent to help me struggle to my feet. My muscles were stiff, and cramped and I felt I'd collapse if he hadn't been supporting me.  Together we hobbled up to his third floor apartment and I soon found myself sitting in a leather armchair wrapped in a heavy comforter that smelled of clean laundry. The neighbor place a mug of hot herbal tea on a coaster on one of his end tables for me to drink when my hands could hold the cup.

As warmth began to return to my body, the memory of what had led to this moment began to return as well.  I went out for an afternoon run.  Barbara and the kids were leaving for Dayton. I had a school event in the morning and would be driving down tomorrow night to join them.  I was looking forward to the solitude and the freedom to do as I pleased for a few hours.  Since they were about to head out the door, I took my key with me, knowing that by the time I returned they'd be gone.  It was cold that day--19 degrees and dropping, but I was bundled in multiple layers and even with temperatures below freezing I worked up quite a sweat.

When I returned to the apartment, Babs and the kids were gone as I'd expected.  I inserted the key in the lock and it wouldn't budge.  I tried it several times--our house key sticks sometimes--but to no avail. I began to wonder if I'd brought the right key.  I remembered feeling a sense of disquiet as I'd left the apartment--a vague sense that something wasn't quite right, that I was forgetting something.  I ignored the feeling.  A few minutes later when I was out on my run, Barbara called me on my phone to say that I'd left my keys.  I told her no, I"d taken the house key off the ring. Again I ignored that discomfiting twinge. 

And now, now I knew what I'd been trying to tell myself.  I had taken the wrong key.  A key to some obscure closet in my  school building looks just like our house key. More than once I'd tried to open our front door with that key and had been momentarily annoyed as it refused to open the door.  Momentary annoyance was all that extra key ever cost me--until today.  I'd called Babs who was already half an hour on the road and she agreed to turn around, and come back to let me in.  And so, I'd sat down by the door to wait for her.  At first, I was fine, since I'd bundled up for the run.  But slowly the chill been to creep in through my sweat soaked running clothes underneath my outer layers.  At the same time, the exhaustion from staying up half the night began to overtake me.  And so I'd fallen asleep, the wrong key still in hand, only to be awakened some time later by the neighbor gently shaking my shoulder and the far more violent shivering that marked the onset of hypothermia.

In short order, the paramedics arrived and as they checked me out, my thoughts became clearer.  With perfect clarity I realized that it was time to get rid of the extra keys in my life--keys that opened doors I no longer passed through. To hold on to them could cost me more than I cared to pay.

Dec 9, 2017

The Job

Prompt: Find a job ad in the paper. Write about your life if you had that job.

I started preparing for this piece the day before Thanksgiving.  I stopped off at a Kroger and picked up a copy of the Dayton Daily News.  This was literally the only job ad in the classifieds. Because I know nothing about the life of a truck driver I hit up Quora to get picture of life on the road.  Big thanks to J.W. Bruce Shaw, Rick Klugman, & Owen Lewis, real-life veteran truck drivers who generously took the time to share with me what their jobs are like.

My day starts early. On a typical day, I'm up at 4:30. I put on my work clothes, jeans, a t-shirt, a hoodie, and sturdy work boots. I sit in the living room with a single lamp on for some quiet devotional time, nursing my first coffee of the day. I try be out the door by five or shortly after to get to my first pick up ahead of rush hour traffic.  I park the rig in one of the large parking spaces on the boulevard that passes in front of our apartment.  We're hoping to buy a house this year and a big driveway is a deal breaker. 

I climb up into the drivers seat, start up the engine, check in with dispatch, and queue up my morning music . I'm not one to drive in silence. I always have something--a playlist of over a thousand songs curated for driving, various podcasts I'm faithful to, as well as NPR for the news.  I was never a books on tape guy but I've got the Audible app now, and I'm coming around. I'll even listen to a good sermon series that my best friend J recommends.

I'll usually get to my first pick-up around 6.  I just leave the empty trailer I was hauling and hook up to a new one ready to go.  After that it's pretty much driving from one point to another all day long mostly around Ohio but occasionally into West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Indiana. and end late.  Being on the road isn't terrible.  It can get pretty boring, especially since large portions of Ohio are flat, unremarkable farmland.  Still there's not much downtime. I'm paid by the mile and many of my deliveries are time sensitive. My eye is always on the clock. I tend to eat on the run.  I used to get a lot of fast food, but I rapidly grew sick of that kind of diet.  Babs is such a saint--she prepares the most wonderful healthy lunches, which she packs in a blue and white portable cooler.

Despite the pressure of on time deliveries, I am a conservative driver.  I stay in the right lane.  I don't feel a need to pass.  Unless there's a major traffic situation I prefer not to speed. It doesn't help me get there much faster.  The speed limit is faster than getting pulled over, or worse wrecking the rig. That's always been a great fear, especially early on,  losing an entire flatbed of pipe and causing a huge accident. Bad driving by non-truck drivers is regular annoyances. Cars cutting in front of me and then hitting the brakes, cars hovering in my blind spot, or cars riding on my tail, trying to "draft" off of me.  Before I became a trucker I did a lot of those things, not out spite but just because I didn't know better.

The hardest part about my job is the long days.  It's true that unlike my wife's job, when I'm done, I'm done. I never take work home with me.  The problem is when I get home. I wouldn't mind the early mornings if I was getting home in the early afternoon, or even the late afternoon.  The ad said I'd be home every night.  What they failed to mention is that every night doesn't mean coming home early enough to tuck your kids in. It's not unusual for me to come in from a day on the road well after midnight. It can be days where I don't see the boys at all.  Barbara pretty much raises them alone during the week, all while having to deal with her responsibilities as a teacher. I think my lack of involvement and my inability to provide her much help is a source of strain on our relationship.  I  also really miss having the chance to run (or really exercise at all).  Because I can't work on the Sabbath and thus always have Friday and Saturday off, I am always scheduled the remaining five days of the week.  Running once, maybe twice a week just isn't enough.

On the weekends, I try to catch up on sleep, try to make it to church spend time with the boys, spend time with Babs.  I should probably do more to help around the house, but I'm just always so exhausted.

Between my driving and Barbara's teacher's salary we're doing pretty good, but I wonder if it's really worth it.

Don't like having to secure loads myself. Prefer pre-loaded, where I just hook up and drive.

Dec 6, 2017


Prompt: If you could only take one more vacation in your lifetime, where would you go and why?

A beautiful coastal town in Spain

This is a tough one.  Immediately, I start thinking about why I could only take one more vacation in my lifetime.  Is it just an arbitrary hypothetical where there is some sort of law of the universe that I can only take one more vacation?  Or is it because my lifetime is soon to be cut short, as in a terminal illness? And what do they mean by "vacation?"  Is the implication that after this last vacation I will have no time off from work?  Or that I can't travel anywhere?  Or is it referring to a specific kind of vacation--one where you travel just for the sake of seeing the place?  In that case I'd still be able to visit family for the holidays and enjoy staycations at home.

I  decided that I would consider this as a vacation where my lifetime is limited.  To me it seems the best way to address what I feel is the spirit of the question. What if there's only room in the bucket for one more trip?

 There are so many places I still want to visit and to narrow it down to one is just too hard to do.  So if I could only take one more vacation in my life time I would choose the region that Barbara would visit if it were her last vacation.  I'm gonna cheat it here and say the Mediterranean, rather than one specific country.  We'd begin in Spain, maybe make a quick trip to Morocco, and then make our way over to Italy before ending up in Greece.  Perhaps we could tag on the Holy Land and Egypt since it also borders the Mediterranean. That would be a grand tour!

Why? Because if I had to take one final vacation, I'd want to go with the woman I love. If I have only one trip left, what's more important than the destination is who I travel with.

Dec 5, 2017


He looks like Billy Crystal with a bit of John Leguizamo swagger. He likes to nurse a toothpick in his mouth.  He drives a boat-like Buick and plays Guns N' Roses loud on the stereo.  He's the kind of guy the girls turn to when they want try being bad. He's the kind of guy who can get the fellas alcohol, who will teach you to smoke, who is known to have drugs.

Why the church youth leaders thought he would be a good choice to help drive teens to the water park is a mystery.  Maybe because his car looks safe and his name is Robert, a perfectly ordinary name.  Maybe because he has the appearance of middle-aged stand-up comedian, wears ordinary clothes and has no tattoos. Maybe it's because he's older.  Or maybe they just bought his whole "You look so nice today, Mrs. Cleaver", Eddie-Haskell kiss-up to the grown-ups routine.

Whatever the case, a quartet of us young people are assigned to his car.  A couple of his buddies are transporting kids too, and this is not a good thing. We pile into his car and before we can even consider whether we should buckle up he has floored it, just to let us know how he rolls and to set the bar for his boys.  There's a long trail of tire tracks behind us on the parking lot and the acrid smell of burnt rubber hangs in the air. He takes a hard left at the end of the lot, flinging us against each other and the passenger side door.  We scrabble to buckle up as he careens directly out on to the main drag.  The tires actually squeal. He pumps up "Mr. Brownstone" and flattens the pedal.

The traffic on 436 doesn't allow him to really let loose.  His approach to this is to bear down hard on cars that are going a mere 15 miles over the limit, pump the brakes while he rides their bumper until they either get out of the way or he is able to whip pass them. His car jerks and sways as he applies this version of "stop and go" traffic.  Several times,  I feel the car is going to jerk out of his control and send us crashing into the vehicles he's passing or across the median into oncoming traffic.

 Once we hit the interstate, it seems like there should be less of this but instead it's worse because the speeds at which he is applying his technique are now well north of 80.

Glancing out the window we can see his buddies keeping pace with us; we can just make out the terrified faces of our friends.  Eventually, traffic, as it is wont to do on I-4, slows to a six lane standstill.  At last, we breathe a sigh of relief, he'll have to slow down.

We couldn't have been more wrong. If anything Robert is set free. Without hesitation he swerves over on to the shoulder and guns the engine. With no one in his way, the speedometer rapidly approaches and then passes the 100 mile per hour mark.  The  cars stalled in traffic fly by on our left in a blur.  Robert looks supremely confident, his hand lies carelessly on the wheel. I look back and his friends are right behind us, also barreling down the shoulder.  "Welcome to the Jungle," indeed.

We shoot from the median into the off-ramp, forcing other cars to pull to the side to  make room for us.  We are going far too fast to hear their horns or see their upraised middle-fingers.  We buck and rock our way down International Drive until we roar into the parking lot of the water park.

By the time the bus with the main group of youth pulls up sedately at the front gate, we've been waiting there for twenty minutes.  Robert discreetly puts out the cigarette he's been smoking and puts on his best smarmy grin.

"Wow, Robert, you got here fast," the pastor declares.

"Oh, I know a back way," he says with a wink in our direction. "By the way, Pastor I really did enjoy your sermon this past Sabbath."

"Why thank you, Robert.  And thanks for bringing the kids."

"Oh, my pleasure, Pastor.  Any time."

I start making plans to be on the bus when it's time to go home.

Dec 4, 2017

Well Done

The "Captain" in my story is fictional--though I gave him the name of a kid I've known since the day he was born--but the guy in this picture is a true-life hero who saved a woman's life earlier this year.  Read about it here; his story is better than mine and it's true!  It's the exactly the sort of thing Captain would have done.

He pulls into the parking lot on his street bike just as the sun is disappearing over the horizon.  He strides across the pavement, ready to do battle.  He picks up his head-set, fits it carefully, checks in.  Moments later, he's off and flying and right in the thick of it.

Almost immediately he discovers Thompson is in trouble--again.  Poor guy, new on the force, typically gets flustered any time things go sideways.  And things always go sideways.

"I got this," he says and dives in.

"How can I help you?" he asks the irate woman in the purple velour track suit.

"I asked for no ketchup, no tomato and this thing is gotta bunch of ketchup on it!"

"I'm so sorry about that, ma'am."

"Yeah, that's what he said. I don't need no sorry, what I need is my burger done right!"

"I understand, ma'am.  We're gonna get that taken care of for you right now. And let me throw in a $10 gift card for your trouble."

"Ten bucks ain't gonna make up for my lost time at work, waitin' on you all to do your job right," she gripes, but he can tell by the softening in her face that she's pleased with the offer.  "Make sure he don't spit in my burger cause he mad," she adds.

"I'll make the burger myself, ma'am," he calls over his shoulder, as he wheels away from the counter and moves smoothly into the kitchen.  It appears Fountain has called in sick again. He'll have to do it all himself.  He checks the monitor, and sees three orders waiting.  It's not a problem. He reaches into the freezer, knocks loose a quartet of frozen patties, puts them on the grill,  and then lowers the press.  He makes a pass of the line, swiping off scraps of lettuce, tomato, and pickle in one graceful motion.  He arrives at the pick up window and sees an order for a large sweet tea on the monitor.  He puts the 32 oz cup under the dispenser, and hits the button to dispense the sweet, brown liquid.  He hears a harsh jangling at three o clock, and turns to find Gray struggling with the deep fryer again.  He moves in to assist, gives the potato-filled basket a brisk jerk and sinks it into the vat of boiling oil with a gratifying crackle.

In seconds he's back at the pick-up window.  He picks up the full tea, pops a lid on it, both wipes and wraps the cup with a single paper napkin and hands it to the Hodge who is manning the pick-up window. 

"Thanks, Captain," she smiles.  He flashes his trademark, jaunty grin, nods and is off, back to the grill where the patties are done.  He pops them on to the line, and Lavalas swings up to help him put the sandwiches together.  His movements are quick, but precise: cheese slice melting on the hot patty,  pickle slices, a pinch of onion slivers, and a shot of mustard.  He wraps the piping hot sandwich in foil, gives the work surface a quick wipe.  Then he snaps open a sack with a sharp crack and slips the quarter pounder in. 

"Ma'am here's your quarter pounder with cheese, no ketchup," he says with his trademark smile. "Give me a second and I'll get your gift card ready."

"You're fine," the woman in the purple velour tracksuit replies.  She is charmed.  In a few seconds he's loaded $10 on a gift card, placed it in it's own little envelope, and handed it to the woman.  "Thank you!" she says completely mollified.  "Now that's what I call service," she declares to her friend as they exit. 

He allows himself a brief moment of satisfaction, and then his headset comes alive.

"Captain, the ice cream machine is down again," Lavalas reports.

"I'm on it," he says, and heads back into the fray.

Some will say that he just works at McDonald's.  Some will say that he's just eighteen years old.  But the guy they call Noah at school, but who they call the Captain under the golden arches, understands this truth, even if he might not be able to articulate it: Excellence is not found only on the athletic field.  Greatness is not found only in the battle. Brilliance is not found only in the ivy league laboratory. Creativity is not found only on the stage.  These things are found anywhere a job is well done.

Nov 28, 2017

To-Do List

Prompt: Write a list of 25 things you want to do in your life.

My first novel.  My sister had a couple of copies printed up and bound. Someday I'd like to publish this book for the whole world to read.

1. I want to write and publish a book.
2. I want to go back to Saipan whether to visit or to live again for awhile.
3. I want to take a road trip across the United States.
4.  I want to get in a car sometime and just drive down a road for awhile to see where it goes.
5.  I want to be a missionary again, and ideally I'd like for my children to spend some of their formative years outside the United States, but for a variety of reasons this looks unlikely to happen.
6. I want to learn how to massage properly so that my hands don't hurt.  Barbara loves receiving massages and ever since the very first massage I gave her when we were just barely dating, it has been an uncomfortable experience for me.
7. I want to live in Hawaii
8. I want take classes on creative writing, the theater and acting.  In short, I want to get some actual training in the areas of life that I'm passionate about but am entirely self-taught in.
9. I want to learn to dance
10.  I want to go to Europe with Barbara.
11.  I want to learn to play the guitar.
12.  I want to buy a house.
13. I want to run the San Francisco Marathon again and finish with a better time and feeling less miserable than I did the first time.
14. I want to visit my cousin in Sweden and many friends in California.
15. I think I want to skydive.
16. I want to be debt free (we should be there in about 4 and a half years).
17. I want to see more of my mom and siblings than I do now.  I want to fly down to Florida on a whim just to hang out with them.
18. I want to go back to the Grand Canyon and this time go to the bottom of the canyon and go to Havasupai Falls.
19.  I'd like to go on a multi-day hike somewhere beautiful.
20.  I want to meet Bono, the Edge, Adam, and Larry and shoot the breeze with them.
21. I want to meet President Obama and shoot the breeze with him.
22.  I want to spend lots of time with good friends, eating good food, and having good conversation.
23.  I want to keep hanging out with my beautiful wife long into old age.
24.  I want to watch my boys grow up to be men of kindness, integrity, and courage; I want to see them become men who love God and know without question that He loves them.
25.  I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside, I want to reach out and touch the flame where the streets have no name. . . I want to run on greener pastures, I want to dance on higher hills, I want to drink from sweeter waters in the misty morning chill.  I want to go Home.

Nov 27, 2017


Prompt: Create a character who is falsely accused of a crime.

Michael Goldwyn looks out the massive floor to ceiling window of his Toluca Lake home and wonders how much longer he'll be able to enjoy this view.  His trial begins tomorrow and his lawyers are talking about how much they can get his sentence reduced rather than how they can win the case.  It's a slam-dunk for the prosecution, the media crows.

It's quite a fall for a Hollywood power player for whom nothing couldn't be fixed to his liking.  But it seems there's no fixing this.  Not this time.  He still can't quite believe it.  Producer Bill Nicholas is dead and all the evidence points at Michael.  Security cameras caught him leaving Nicholas's office not long before he was found bludgeoned to death with his own Oscar.  Michael's DNA is on the award/murder weapon.  Michael, a long-time rival of Bill Nicholas, had never been shy about his hatred of the producer.  Michael is known throughout the industry for his volcanic temper and tendency towards violent display. And Nicholas's recent efforts to get Michael pushed out of his own production company give Michael the motive too.

There's only one problem.  Michael Goldwyn is innocent.  And there is one person in the world who can vouch for him, who can testify that while he  may have been at Bill Nicholas's office the day of the murder he was not there at the time of his murder.  Erin Merrill knows that he's not the killer.

Michael had not mentioned Erin to anyone for a number of reasons--mainly because for so long he'd been certain he'd beat this with ease.  Combine his clout in this town with the fact of his innocence and it hadn't seemed necessary.  But yesterday, without consulting his lawyers, he'd reached out to Erin, to test the waters so to speak.  So far there's been no response.

But then, his phone rings. It's Erin.

"Hi Micheal," she says, her voice flat.

"Hi Erin.  Thanks so much for getting back to me.  Listen I'm really sorry about what happened--"

"I know," she interrupts.  She sounds upset.  This is not good. "I read the e-mail."

"I'm glad.  Listen--"

"No, you listen.  I will not be going public with what you did to me.  Let me make that very clear.  Not only do I not accept the apology in your e-mail, I deny it's even necessary.  As far as I'm concerned you have never been anything but the perfect gentleman in every encounter I've ever had with you. You did not come to my apartment on the afternoon of April 28.  You did not sexually assault me and suggest that my chances of staying on the film would depend on my 'cooperation'.  And you know why you didn't do any of these things?  Because, if you had, sure you might lose your job like Weinstein did, but you wouldn't go to prison.  Like you should.  Don't even think about trying to confess, leak it to TMZ or something, because I will vocally deny that you ever did anything to me and it will be obvious to everyone that you're simply making up a story, riding the wave of what's happening to a lot of other nasty men like yourself in effort to get out of more serious charges.  You and most of the people in this sick town think that what you did to me is the lesser of two evils.  Doing what practically every one does to young actresses trying to make it in the business versus murder.  No comparison, right?  Wrong. Bill Nicholas was a known sleazebag--worse than you if that's possible. Him dead and you in prison for life feels like justice to me."

And with that Erin Merrill hangs up, leaving Michael Goldwyn alone with his guilt.

Nov 26, 2017


Prompt: If we assume ghosts are real, what type of ghost would you like to see?

I don't believe in ghosts.  I do believe in spirits--good and bad--but not the spirits of the dead returned to visit us.  This is pretty standard Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.  We are a rather materialist bunch when it comes to matters of death and the soul.  Our belief that a God of love does not preside over an everlasting hell makes not believing in the immortal soul a matter of necessity.

But for the sake of this prompt, I'm going to assume for a moment that ghosts are real. But first a couple of necessary caveats.  My assumption is still going to be based on a God of love.  And there are a number of things about ghosts the way most people think of them that I'm going to dispense with:

First off, in my ghost world, ghosts are not creepy.  I'm not sure what it is about grandma who was such a nice, sweet woman when she was alive suddenly becomes this unsettling presence who only shows up at night, never says a word, knocks books off the shelf and such.  This doesn't make sense to me.  Ghosts of people we loved ought to be friendly--like Casper--not spooky.  They ought to be able to show up in the daytime rather than freaking us out at  night.  And they ought to be able to talk.  And if grandma used to get on me for knocking things over, she's not going to start doing it herself now that she's passed on.  I think it's telling that the preponderance of ghost stories are scary, not comforting.  It's like people across cultures understand that something is not quite right about this spirits of the dead business (and of course we Adventists have a ready answer as to why we might find visitations from the dead so unnerving).

Second, in my ghost world, my ghost wouldn't be just wandering about.  Presuming a God of love and still presuming that he won't be tormenting lost souls for eternity, only the saved could be ghosts.  Those not bound for heaven would simply cease to exist, body and soul.  So all ghosts would be good.  There would be no ghosts of dead ax-murderers.  Also, all my ghosts would be happy since they would reside in heaven with the Lord most of the time and only occasionally visit earth.  There would be no crying babies or weeping mothers haunting places seeking closure or consolation.  There would be no poltergeists causing mischief.  All of these characters seem more devilish than anything else (and again, I think there's a reason for that).

So there are no "kind" of ghosts.  There are just people and of course it's not hard to pick who I'd want to see.

I once had a dream that Dad came back. I remember that he was sitting in the Leen's living room on the couch, not his usual chair and I remember knowing that he wouldn't be able to stay.  In my ghost world the visit would be something like that dream. I imagine that my  father-in-law and my grandparents would have become good friends in heaven and that they would visit us together.   Being the polite sort, they wouldn't just show up unannounced.  Maybe they'd appear in a dream or leave a note of some sort to let us know when they'd like to drop by.

When they arrived, at least for the first visit, I would barely recognize them.  I've known them all of my life as senior citizens.  But they'd return at the peak of their young adulthood, strikingly  handsome and blindingly beautiful.  Energetic and fit they would move with an ease and firmness I'd never seen before.  They would know all about our lives since they passed and when we asked them to describe heaven, they wouldn't be able to.  They would simply say that the Lord wasn't kidding when he said "eyes has not seen nor ear heard" and that's it far more amazing then they could have guessed.  I see their faces bright with joy and free from worry in a way that I'd never known them in life (and all three seemed to have the peace that passes understanding even when they lived in our world).  Honestly, they seem almost like kids--excited, quick to laugh, truly enjoying eternity.  They would encourage us to stay close to Jesus, assure us that He is so much closer to us and and loves us so much more than we can even begin to realize.  While we would long to be with them all the time instead of just for this brief visitation they don't share our impatience.  "It's hard to explain," grandma would say. "Time just feels different there.  It really feels like we just arrived yesterday, even though your grandpa has been there for 13 years and I've been there for three."

"Boy!" my grandpa would bark in a way that is reminiscent of when he was on earth, "don't you worry.  We'll all be together soon enough."

"Your grandparents are real fine people," Dad would say in a clear young man's voice that I only barely recognize.  "You know the Lord has us living right next door to each other!"

All too soon, it would be time for them to go and they would fade away as gently as they'd arrived.  And we'd be sad all over again.  And the world would seem especially dreary and the wait for Jesus' return or own death would or at least till whenever they could next visit would seem  unbearably long.

It would be nice to see Dad, Grandpa  and Grandma again but I think that the devastating aftermath of those visits are why God saw fit not do things this way.  For now they rest, and there are no visits, just a permanent reunion one day.  I'm looking forward to that!

Nov 25, 2017

A Valentine for Elvis

The prompt: Elvis still gets 100 valentines each year. Tell about one of the people who sent one.

I styled this story as if it were an interview for Esquire magazine.

One of the candid photos of Elvis that adorns Alyssa Allison's research room.

Alyssa Allison wasn't even born when Elvis Presley purportedly died.  She's thirty-six years old, from a generation for whom Elvis is merely a legend.

I say purportedly because Alyssa is one of that small cadre of conspiracists that believe Elvis is still alive.  He's living in hiding--Alyssa favors Argentina as his most likely place of refuge--and is now 82 years old.

But he can't be alive forever, I point out as I sit down to talk with Alyssa in her spacious kitchen in suburban Ohio. At some point, he has to die right? Even if he didn't die on his toilet in Graceland in 1977, whose to say he hasn't died of old age already?

Alyssa brushes this suggestion aside. "No, I'd know. . .it's not his time. Not yet."  She doesn't explain how she'll know it's his time, other than to reiterate that it's her destiny to save him.  He can't die until then, I guess.

"But, even if he responds to your valentine and you save him, I  mean he's old. He's like 46 years older than you.  Doesn't that bother you?"

She blushes and looks down at her coffee.  She is blonde, with gray eyes and a runners physique. "I don't think it will.  I don't love him for the reasons most people do."

  But for this Elvis obsession she seems absolutely normal. She makes good money working as an attorney for a law firm in downtown Columbus. She's an avid runner--she just finished her third marathon this past spring--and maintains a blog on the subject.  She's also a single mother.  Her son is ten.  She and his father split up after a few years.  She admits that Elvis was the cause.

"At first he thought he wouldn't have trouble competing with a dead rock and roll star, and I guess I was going through a period of discouragement.  I wanted to try to be normal, I guess.  I wanted children.  But inside, I knew that whenever Elvis finally responded to my valentines, I would divorce Jason immediately."

Jason eventually realized that he was losing to a ghost and called it quits.  Their divorce is more or less amicable and their son splits his time evenly between his parents.  Alyssa feels some guilt that her mother, who lives with her, seems to spend more time with her son than she does.  She works long hours at her firm--by all accounts she is an outstanding lawyer with a knack for digging deep into the details for a case--and many hours online scouring the web for signs of life, signs that Elvis lives.

I ask her about the valentines and she responds be offering to show me her research room. It's a bedroom on the ground floor, converted into a command center in a hunt for Elvis that's been going on for close to twenty years now.  The room is plastered with posters of Elvis, but a closer examination reveals that none of the photos are of him performing or professional publicity stills.  All the photos are candid shots--Elvis backstage,  Elvis relaxing at Graceland, Elvis with his mother, Elvis in the army.

"I don't like the pictures of him on stage and I really don't care for the movie posters, album covers and the publicity pictures.  They're not the real him," Alyssa declares with a startling certainty,  "That's what most people don't get. The guy the women screamed for , the sex symbol, all of that was image.  People fell for the image.  I love the man.  That's what I need him to understand."

"What makes you so certain that you alone really know and understand Elvis the man as opposed to Elvis the rock star? " I ask

"Simple.  Research.  I don't watch his movies.  I don't even really listen to his music that much.  Home movies, yes.  Even certain interviews.  And reading.  A lot of reading.  I've read everything that's ever been written about him."


"And what the research reveals is that Elvis was alone. He was surrounded by sycophants, by people who wanted something from him.  After his mother died, there really was no one around him that truly loved him for him.  And part of it was his fault. He got rid of people pretty quick if they pissed him off or crossed him in any way.  People understood that you'd get knocked off the gravy train  if you tried to tell him no.  You asked me earlier if it bothers me that he's quite elderly now.  The answer is that I never loved him as performer, as a sex object, as a celebrity.  I love him the way you would love a girl you met in high school, who was unremarkable to everyone else, but to you she was everything. To me he's just a regular guy that I happen to have a connection with."

This seems like a bit of a stretch to me.  Does she really expect me to believe that she views Elvis Presely as just a "regular guy?"  Come on.

Alyssa seems to sense my skepticism but is undisturbed by it.

"You don't believe me," she asserts.  "It's okay. Most people don't.  But that's okay.  They don't have to.  It's our relationship. What other people think about it is not an issue."

How can a woman saying such crazy things seem so normal I wonder.  I ask her to tell me about the valentines.

"Well, every year around the first of February I'll start crafting the valentine for this year.  My goal is to create something that will catch his eye, for starters, and then the message  is crucial.  I need to make sure he's able to understand that I understand--that I'm not like everyone else he's had to deal with."

"Where do you send the valentine?"

"Well, I'll usually send three copies.  One to Graceland of course. It's the obvious choice, of course. Maybe too obvious.  So I also send one to the American Embassy in Argentina, which he would likely check in with from time to time.  Under an assumed name of course.  I also send one to the DEA. You know President Nixon made him an agent right?"

"Well,  yeah, not quite.  I think he just got him a badge."

"That's what the public was told of course. Whatever the case, as member of the agency they would likely have an idea of how to get information to him.  One of the prevailing theories is that he is he moved in to full time undercover work in Central and South America beginning in 1977.  A lot of the big take downs of drug kingpins down there have Elvis written all over it."

"So what do these valentines say?  How are you making your case to him?"

"Well, I prefer to keep that between me and him, but I can say that they're not typical Valentines messages "Be mine" and all that.  My goal is to let him know that I see the real him, that I will be for him what no one else could or would be--honest, not trying to get anything out of him, even willing to take his rejection rather than compromise my commitment to his best interest. And I also try to reveal my own reality--I don't try to sell him on a glamorized image of myself either.  For example, if I include a photo, I'm not going to be wearing make up or anything like that."

"You send pictures of yourself?"

She blushes again.  "I think it's important that he see me, just like I see him."

I find my interview is raising more questions than it answers about Alyssa and her odd quest.  I decide to ask one more.

"So, why did you agree to this interview?"

"Simple, really. If none of the valentines I've sent have gotten through, maybe he'll see this article.  It's been documented that he reads Esquire, and if he reads this then he'll finally know."

"So what would you want to say to Elvis Presley if he were to read this article?"  I ask

Alyssa looks directly at me and answers without hesitation, as if she's been preparing for this moment for a long time.

"I'm not gonna pull any punches with you.  I'm going to tell you the truth.  I don't want your money.  There's nothing you can buy me with.  Honestly there are times when you can be a real jerk and when you are I will call you on it. My commitment is to you, Elvis Aaron Presley, the person.  Not the star, not the symbol.  I am what you have always wanted and needed.  Let's make the rest of this life count, together."

Definitely not your typical valentine, I have to admit. But compelling in it's own strange way.  If I were Elvis I might bite.  And while I know this is the ravings of an attractive, and other wise normal lunatic, I can't help hoping that somehow she's right, that Elvis is out there.  And that he finally gets his valentine.

Nov 23, 2017

Missed Opportunity

Prompt: Write about a random picture you would find in an envelope of finished prints at Costco.

For this story, I did pretty much what the prompt described.  Since we no longer get prints at Costco I pulled out an envelope of Barbara's old prints from her time in Palau and pulled a photo out.  I couldn't imagine a less compelling picture.  It took me some time to come up with the "story behind the photo" and required me to make up an entire species of animal.  I'm sure anyone with even a passing knowledge of marine biology will find my story preposterous. But that's okay.  It was hard enough to come up with the idea without worrying about it's scientific plausibility.

When the engine cut off, we were engulfed in a sudden stillness.  The gentle washing sound of the water was all that could be heard. That and the occasional whisper or shuffling movement of the others on the boat.  We had all come all this way, paid many of thousands of dollars, for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the breaching ritual of the rare spotted porpoise.

 Unlike its gregarious close relative the dolphin, the spotted porpoise stays underwater seemingly all the time.  We know it is a mammal and thus must surface regularly to take in air, but it seems to have an uncanny ability to avoid actually being seen coming to the surface.   The spotted porpoise is also the only species of porpoise that lives exclusively in warm waters.  There are only four known locations where this notoriously reclusive marine mammal regularly breaches, and then only once every four to six years.

The waters surrounding of the island nation of Palau had the best track record of multiple breaches, .  The spotted porpoise doesn't appear to actually live in this region.  It's never seen in the area except during this breaching ritual.  It is assumed that this ritual is somehow connected to the animal's mating practice, but there is so much we still don't know.

The year was 1993 and I was a research fellow at the Marine Mammal Center and this was my chance.  I had flown into Koror the day before and atmosphere among the marine biologists that had gathered there from around the world was electric.  Scuba divers had seen pods gathering in the area of the last few days.  Everyone was certain that the breaches would happen in the next day or so.

And now the moment had arrived.  We were sure of it.  We knew it would be a wait.  The porpoises would have been spooked by the noise of the engines and it would take some time for them to feel comfortable to come to the surface again.  An hour passed. The hot tropical sun beat down on us.  But none of it mattered--all that mattered was that one moment. Eventually we noticed shadows in the water, dark shapes with light markings just visible in the clear water.  The porpoises had arrived.  I gripped my camera, a Nikon 4004. My job wasn't really to take pictures--there were professionals for that--but the opportunity was too good not to have my own personal keepsake, framed and mounted on my office wall for years to come.

The water started to churn.  The moment was near, it had to be.  I raised my camera, as did many others on the boat.

"Do you mind if I slip in next to you?"

Before I could even respond she was there next to me.  She wore an orange cap with her pony tail poking out the back.  Chocolate brown skin, with sweat glistening on the back of her neck.  She held a professional looking camera with one of those big lenses that come in its own separate case.  I saw a National Geographic badge dangling from her neck. She wore a light blue t-shirt, khaki shorts, and white tennis shoes. She hadn't waited for my response and was already poised for the photo. I couldn't see her face fully, obscured as it was by the camera, but in that moment she seemed the most rare and beautiful woman I'd ever seen.  And in that moment I heard the gasps of awe, the sighs of wonder. Out of my peripheral vision I saw the flash of gray and gold and immediately brought my camera up. I hit the button repeatedly, heard the shutter clicking in response.  I had been a little late but I felt pretty sure I'd manage to catch them, three leaping together in the bright sunshine.

We waited and waited, hoping for a repeat performance.  I had plenty of film left in the camera.  But the dark shapes vanished in the water, and eventually Mr. Whipp, our local guide signaled to the boat driver to start the engines.

"They are done," he announced with certainty.

It was incredible.  The photo taken by Shanna, the National Geographic photographer would become iconic, gracing the cover the magazine and reproduced countless times on everything from posters to jigsaw puzzles.  As for me, I finished the roll of film over the next few days I had in Palau, and when I got back to San Diego I dropped the film off at the Costco on my way home from the airport.  The next day I was back to pick up the prints.   I spent a few heart-warming moments savoring the memories of what would turn out to be my life-changing time in Palau, before arriving at the photos of that spectacular moment.  This was the best of the bunch:

It's framed on my office wall, as I always dreamed it would be, paired with another photo of my wife, taken that same day:  a beautiful woman in an orange cap and a light blue t-shirt, a professional looking camera in her hand.  The photo represents an opportunity I'm glad I missed and the opportunity I was smart enough not to let pass.

Nov 22, 2017

The Best Day

I've had trouble making a decision on this one and so I've decided to decide between my top three contenders as I write.  I will make the case for each and at the end I'm hoping the process will have helped  me decide which is my favorite day of the week.

The contenders are: Thursday, Friday and the Sabbath.

I've loved Thursdays for years.  There's something about being almost to the weekend, but not quite there that's always given me a warm fuzzy feeling.  Thursday was  Must-See-TV night from the Cosby show when I was a kid to ER and Seinfeld in the early days of our marriage to Greys Anatomy and Survivor (until they moved Survivor to Wedsnesdays).  Thursdays I always felt like I could finally begin to unwind.  But these days Thursdays tends to be a little overly busy.  I'm usually making my grocery list, trying to get newsletters or progress reports out for the my students the next day.  Of course this year, I have two back to back free periods during my workday which is great.  That's almost enough to put Thursday back in the top spot.

Friday would also be a contender for my favorite day.  I love that clean house feeling as the Sabbath approaches, the delicious food for supper, and relaxing early hours of the Sabbath.  Some of my favorite memories in the world are of Friday nights.  In Chuuk, sitting out under the stars, the palm trees bathed in moonlight.  Friday night Bible studies at my girlfriend's house, her little apartment aglow with candles. TGIS Friday night celebrations in Saipan, our home packed with our students feasting on heaping bowls of spaghetti and peach cobbler for dessert.  Even here in Columbus, sitting around the dining room table coloring as a family on Friday nights.  Those moments are golden.  The only problem is that of late the house is a disaster as day is dying in the west, food may be some take-out Chinese or pizza, and the edges of the Sabbath are not just guarded--they are outright disregarded as we clean well past sundown and collapse into bed later then we'd like.

And then of course there is Sabbath.  Sabbath is supposed to be the favorite.  "Of all the week the brightest, of all the week the best," as the old hymn says.  And the respite from work and household responsibilities, the inspiring and enriching worship service, the time with family, and the time in nature are wonderful indeed.  High Sabbaths at Pioneer Memorial Church in college listening to Dwight and Bible studies in the afternoon.  Hikes that climaxed in gorgeous vistas in Chuuk and Saipan. And my regular Sabbath afternoon adventures with my sons exploring Sugar Run and the surrounding woods.  We've a long tradition of eating well on the Sabbath too; this Sabbath Korean food, next Sabbath Indian food, and the Sabbath after that an Italian feast.  Delicious!  And lets not neglect the all-important Sabbath afternoon "lay activities."  I have never been a napper but since high school, Sabbath afternoon (and okay sometimes during the Sabbath sermon at church) has been the one time when I'll allow myself to luxuriate in a nice long nap.   An added tradition of recent years has been our weekly Skype with my mom, sister, and nephews in Florida.

And once Sabbath is over, Saturday night has its charms too.  I had the best Sabbath to new week transition while a student missionary on Chuuk. I'd sit on the beach at the Continental Hotel, watching the sunset and listening to Rich Mullins. I'd walk back to the campus in the gathering dark to the tune "How to Grow Up Big and Strong" and begin a new week with a game of Risk with the men of the mission.   Saturday nights have always been fun: movies, date nights, game nights. Even these days, with kids, we still have fun playing games together sometimes or putting on a movie for the boys.  And after the kids go to bed Babs and I have our tradition of watching an episode or two of Grey's Anatomy together.  Sabbath, clearly has to be the winner, right?

But Sabbath is never quite the restful, spiritual oasis that it's supposed to be.  Sabbath morning is typically a disappointment as we consistently fail to accomplish what we want.  We want to have Sabbath lunch prepared so we can eat soon after we get home from church.  We want to get to Sabbath School on time (or even simply get to Sabbath school, period.)  But these things rarely happen.  We wake up late and are slow in getting going. Lunch is either half made or not made at all.  More often than not the kids miss Sabbath School (and are always late on the rare occasion we make it).  Church services typically go long and it's hard to pay attention to the sermon while keeping two restless kids from causing a disturbance.  We get home late, and often don't eat until 3 in the afternoon.  The nap is not a luxury but a necessity and is often fitful as I'm repeatedly awakened by the boys involved in one calamity or another.  And the thing about the walk?  It's something I inexplicably dread.  I always wish I didn't have to do it and I'm always secretly glad when we are invited to lunch at someones house or have some other commitment so that we can't do the walk.  I don't know why I feel this way especially since I always end up enjoying the walks and they are among my most precious memories of time with my children.  Saturday nights are often disappointing these days as well.  The kids go to bed so late and there's usually a mountain of tasks waiting for us on Sunday, so we find we don't want to go to bed too late ourselves. And so Babs and I skip our weekly TV date too.  Overall, Sabbath has become the new Sunday in that it is a day defined by it's disappointments. (Sunday has long been my least favorite day because I almost never spend it the way I want to or the way I feel it should be spent.  I dislike Sunday so much I once wrote a short story about it!)

So there you have it.  Three great days that each fail to live up their potential in some way.  And now having written about them all, I think I can say the winner of the Best Day of the Week is. . . . .


Sabbath is really my favorite day, but it's the earliest hours of the Sabbath, before the inevitable disappointment of the main portion of the day, that I love the best.  Even on a Friday that doesn't meet expectations, it's still early enough that there's hope for the rest of the weekend.  And when Friday works the way it's supposed to, no other day can come close.

Nov 21, 2017


Rex in our backyard.  This photo was likely taken sometime in the early nineties.

This is a sad story.  One of the sad things about it is that I can’t really address the prompt: What was your first childhood pet? Describe it in detail.

The truth is I never knew Rex very well. Certainly not well enough to describe him in detail. And it’s also true that Rex wasn’t my first childhood pet either.  We had Wolfie and Nugget in Oregon.  Nugget was a beautiful golden retriever and Wolfie was a black dog.  That’s all I remember about them.  We had Garfield during my elementary years in Orlando.  He was so named not because he bore any resemblance to the the cartoon (our Garfield was a lithe, gray tabby that lived outside, not a fat orange house pet), but simply because he was a cat.

I chose to write about Rex though, because he was the pet that permanently changed the way I think about pets and pet ownership.

As a kid, I never felt a close connection to our pets. Maybe because none of them were my own animal--they belonged to all of us, and as a result, none of us. They were just around, strictly outdoor animals and I never paid much attention to them.  Rex was no exception.

We got Rex as a puppy from our cousins in Michigan.  He was part of a litter from our cousin’s dog Eve.  I don’t know what happened to the other puppies--I assume they were all given away, but the Salibas kept one puppy, Butch, and gave one to us.  Rex as a mix of several breeds, but I believe golden retriever and German shepherd were in his bloodline.  He was an orange-brown color shot through with darker brown and black.  He really was a beautiful dog.

I don’t remember much else about Rex, but I like to think we he was gentle, friendly, and incredibly patient.  I’m sure we played with him a lot when he was little, but after awhile he just kind of receded into the background and I barely noticed him. When we moved out of my grandparents house in 1987, Rex came with us. He took up residence in our fenced in backyard on Sue Drive and I hardly ever thought of him.  He was fed and watered daily, but that was about it. He never came inside the house and we rarely ever spent time with him in the backyard. We didn't take him to vet visits or bother with things like flea collars and heartworm meds.  I don’t recall him ever looking abandoned or neglected.  He never looked like the dogs you’d see wandering the streets in Saipan--mangy, matted fur, open sores and the like. He looked like someone was taking care of him.  I just don’t recall it being me.  Maybe it was Mom.  Perhaps there was some sort of rotation we followed because I do remember on occasion dumping food into his dirty bowl and being creeped out by the roaches that sometimes got into his food bag that was stored in the shed out back. But Rex never complained.

Then one day when I was in college my mom called to tell me Rex had died.  I guess he’d been ill and she’d taken him to the vet.  I can’t remember for certain but I think he had worms, probably as a result of not taking medicine that should have been part of his care.  Rather than expend big bucks to try to bring him back to health, it was decided to just put him to sleep.

I was horrified and enraged at my mother.  Suddenly all the guilt of those years and years of ignoring Rex came crashing down at once.  I was really hard on my mother about it, but I think I was a bit unfair to her.  I’m quite certain she did more than we ever did to take care of Rex.  But I still felt--and still feel--a lot of shame over how things went with Rex. He deserved so much better than I’d given him.  He needed more care and attention than he’d received.  I failed him.

And right then, I swore--never again. I would never let a dog under my watch go through what Rex did.

I kept that promise when about ten years later we adopted Kimo.  We did everything right by her, and even spent the money to bring her to the U.S. mainland when we couldn’t find a family to adopt her.  Kimo stayed in the house with us and so it was easy to spend time with her.  Of course being an indoor dog she needed her exercise, especially when she joined us in our apartment in Ohio.  We couldn’t just let her out in the yard to run like we did Saipan.  Every morning we walked her for a little bit to let her relieve herself.  No matter the weather, or how tired I was, I made sure she got her evening  exercise of walk of 30-40 minutes.  And every step was a step for Rex.  

When Rex died I couldn’t have told you when I’d last rubbed his head or even seen him.  But when Kimo died of cancer in the winter of 2013, I was by her side when she breathed her last.

Kimo with the family in 2011.

I don’t know when we’ll get a dog again. Our boys would love one, but I’m kind of a hardliner when it comes to getting another dog.  And again it’s because of Rex.  I’m not one of those people who gets all googly-eyed and lovey dovey about having a dog.  I am fiercely practical.  The dog must be fed, washed, exercised, and played with. A lot of money and time must be invested.  And when everyone else doesn’t feel like it or can’t be bothered, I will be the one who has to make sure all these bases are covered.  Because of Rex, it can’t be any other way.

And I’m just now realizing that maybe when we get do get another dog, finally, this dog should be mine. My first pet.  The kids can play with him.  Babs can cozy with him.  But I’ll make sure he’s taken care of.  Maybe, I’ll even name him Rex.


These students--nineteen years worth and counting--are what I want my legacy to be.  I want to be remembered for the investment I made in them.

There was a time when I wanted to write the Great American Novel or direct a critically acclaimed cinematic masterpiece.  I felt a desire to do something “important.”  But lately, I’ve found it doesn’t matter so much to me to be remembered for my accomplishments.  I don’t feel a need for immortality through books or plays that I write.  I don’t need my name on a building or my statue in a park.

I want to be remembered for what I was to people.  I want my legacy to be the investment I put into people, especially young people.  I want to be remembered as someone who cared and who was an inspiration to those who knew me. I want to be remembered  as someone who reflected the character of Christ and who shared on an authentic picture of what a relationship with Jesus looks like. I want to be remembered for living life authentically, with humility and good humor, and for treating everyone with dignity and respect.

In the end it’s the lives I change that is the greatest legacy I can leave behind.

Well here's another stone in the walls of this lifetime, of this lifetime.
I built them tall but they gonna fall
When the days gone by, when my children cry.
When I'm gone and gray what will the people say about this lifetime?
I'll stand to say you that you came my way with the Son of love, the brightest day
Of this lifetime.

             --Mat Kearney

Nov 20, 2017


What was your favorite childhood toy

This is my oldest son, Elijah's, favorite toy.  His name is Elephant-Elephant and he's had him since my mother bought him for Elijah on a trip to the zoo when he was 21 months old. My favorites, unfortunately can only be seen in my minds eye and so far the technology doesn't allow for those images to be uploaded to the internet.

There were the toys I wanted--Transformers were the big ones--and then there were the toys that were my constant companions, the ones that consumed my imaginative life.  There was no  one favorite toy, but there was a group of toys that were central to my childhood play: My “stuffties” (our childhood name for stuffed animal toys).  It never occurred to me that a boy playing with stuffed animals was unusual or un-masculine. (Of course it’s not something I talked about at school otherwise I’m sure someone would have “educated” me.)

Essentially what me and my siblings were playing was “house.”  I was father to ten children; my brother had his brood as well.  While I can’t identify a favorite among my ten, Vince definitely had two favorites, Snoopy and Celery.  Celery was a dog hand puppet that he’d had since his earliest days living in Oregon.  One of Celery’s eyelids had been burned off when he placed the dog’s head on the surface of our wood-burning stove in our Oregon farmhouse.   And then my sister, Dawn, being a girl, had a virtual orphanage of stuffed animals and dolls.  She was assigned the role (whether she liked it or not) of the wealthy and somewhat wicked aunt.  There were no spouses and this fact was glossed over without explanation.  There was no backstory of deaths or divorce.  We were simply single parents.

Together we created an entire alternate world where I was a pediatrician driving a yellow Corvette, Vince was an architect, and Dawn was some sort of self-made magnate, rich beyond telling.  Our games all revolved around our “children.”  Our beds were their homes and their cars were “slideboxes” (empty shoe boxes).

Imagine my amazement when the folks at Nissan actually created the real-life "Slidebox" vehicle we'd imagined those shoe boxes to be when we were kids playing with our stuffties.

Even all these years later I remember the distinct personalities of each of my “kids” as well as their real-life origins:

Leonard and Pupcake were the “youngest.”  I assigned them to be a year younger than my own age.

  • Leonard was my oldest stuffed animal, a leopard about the same size as Elijah’s favorite, Elephant-Elephant.  I got him at the same time as Vince got Celery and Dawn got a stuffed yellow duck (the only toy of the trio not to survive-Vince and I tossed it into that same wood-burning stove that destroyed Celery’s eye).  I was never attached to Leonard the way Vince was to Celery, probably because I lost him for about four years.  He turned up among my cousin’s toys and I brought him back home.  Leonard was fairly eccentric, moving to the beat of his own drum and favoring bizarre fashion choices.
  • Pupcake was my second oldest stufftie. He was a cheap print of the dog from the Strawberry Shortcake series, stuffed with filling to make a very small pillow rather than a three-dimensional toy.  I got him when I was  about 8 years old and living in St. Croix.  Pupcake was a chilled-out surfer dude.

The next two, Gerry and Frogger,  were my real-life age, both picked up second-hand after we moved to Florida.

  • Frogger was a flimsy frog with dangling limbs and a thin fabric covering.  Frogger was the nerd of the family, socially awkward but an outstanding skateboarder.
  • Gerry was a tan dog in peppermint striped pajama shirt and matching sleeping cap.  He had a music box inside that played a lullaby when you wound the the metal key on his rear.  I never used that feature.  Gerry was shrewd business-kid of the family, well on his way to wealth (if he could avoid prison due to his questionable ethics).

The next five, Humphrey, Big Bear, Riff Raff, Charlie, and Dotty were all a year “older” than me.

  • Humphrey (along with Dotty and Charlie) was hand-crocheted by my great-grandmother, an obsessive crocheter who was constantly sending us her creations.  All three of us had several several of the toys she made.  Humphrey was a light brown bear and was the athlete of the family, devoted to weight lifting, with a bulky, polyester-filled body to prove it.
  • Big Bear was actually not big.  He was both the newest and oldest member of the family.  He was the last addition but also a “reboot” of on my my first stuffed animals, a larger bear that I’d lost in Oregon.  When I got this bear, I gave him Big Bear’s name and in that sense brought him back to life.  He was a small plush bear wearing a North American Van Lines t-shirt.  Big Bear was the outdoorsman of the family, fond of camping, hunting, and fishing.
  • Charlie was a clown with yellow circus outfit crocheted to his crocheted body.  His head was styrofoam ball with a crocheted covering.  Charlie, in my imagination was no clown. Instead he was a blond, stereotypically “All-American boy” (yet in our imaginary world, he was also mixed race.  Stuffed animals were the equivalent of “white”--culturally and numerically dominant, and dolls had the “black” experience.  Mixed race toys were like Charlie, doll-like in appearance but having the fuzzy, soft texture and stuffing of a stuffed animal.  Likewise a plastic animal such as a My Little Pony would also have been considered racially mixed).
  • Riff-Raff was probably my highest quality stuffed animal, besides Big Bear.  He was a plush hand puppet lion with a full, golden mane.  He was loud and the de facto leader of his siblings.
  • Dotty was a white crocheted bear in an orange crocheted top and red crocheted pants.  She was the sole girl of the family, sweet, friendly, and kind (and frankly, along with Charlie, somewhat lacking in personality).  An odd note about Dotty is that I’m pretty sure I named her for a classmate of mine.  We were not close and I don’t recall ever having a crush on her so I'm not sure what motivated me to do that. The real Dottie would likely have found this very weird and perhaps a bit creepy, had she known, and would not have hesitated to let me know.

And last and probably least was Ralph.

  • Ralph was a dark brown vaguely dog shaped piece of stuffed plush material.  I bought the material and stuffing at a fabric store and made him myself during a short-lived interest in sewing my brother and I went through.  Ralph was like ten years older than everyone else in the family and had very little to do with the others.

Something else that Dottie (and all my other classmates) would have found weird is that I continued to play with these toys long past the age most kids abandoned this type of play.  I was still playing with them, drawing pictures of them, doing little personality profiles through 8th grade.  And I probably didn’t stop thinking about them and their imaginary lives until sometime in in my freshman year of high school.

Even today, if you asked me, with a little thought I could probably tell you where all ten of my “children” from my childhood are today and what they are doing as middle-aged stuffed animals with families of their own.

Sadly, in real life, all ten are gone.  Sometime after I went to college all of these stuffed animals (with all the drawings and paraphenalia I created around them) were lost, presumably carelessly thrown away during one move or another. It is one of the great regrets of my life.  I would have loved to share these toys with my own real-life children, especially Elijah, who has inherited his father’s penchant for deep, richly imaginative play, and who has far more stuffed animals than I could ever have dreamed of.

Clearly storytelling has been with me since I was a kid.  I love stories and the world of the imagination.  It’s remarkable that this passion survived a childhood where imagination was often regarded with suspicion and fiction considered at best a waste of time and at worst a spiritual danger.  Still my storytelling heart survived, thrived and grew through the world of my favorite toys.  And today I still believe in stories, that they can tell truths that are harder to access with just the facts and present reality.

My toys may be gone but they live, where they’ve always lived, in my imagination.