Tag Archives: Life

30 Years and 30 Books of Influence

I turned 30 recently, which prompted much life reflection, introspection and despair. Really, it’s not so bad. My childhood years were filled with wonder and play. My teenage years were riddled with angst, questioning and sarcasm. My twenties were a time for debauchery, wandering adventures and self discovery. I expect my thirties to build on the wisdom I’ve gained as a young adult and give me the opportunity to contribute to a community in a positive way. Whatever happens in the future, I’d like to take the time now to reflect on a life of books. 30 years and 30 books of influence. The following list occurs in the order they affected me, from youngest to present time.

1. Happy Birthday, Moon By Frank Asch

As a child I found this book enchanting. The illustrations seemed to illuminate from the page. I read this book repeatedly transfixed by the powers of imagination.

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2. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

This comic strip’s mischievous playfulness delighted my sense of adventure when I was a kid. As an adult I appreciate its philosophical and ethical commentary on the human condition.

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3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This is such a deranged novel. Set in the near future where society is shaped by an extremely violent youth culture, it is narrated by a teenage anti-hero. It is completely inappropriate reading material for a middle school student. My teachers were probably worried.

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4. The Republic by Plato

The foundation for any serious discussion on justice.

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5. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus never accepted the label “existentialist.” But because he preferred being called an “absurdist,” it is only fitting that his most famous work is almost always associated with existentialism. Such is the struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world.

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6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A deeply profound and disturbing Russian masterpiece. A text to be reckoned with.

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7. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

A book that never yawns or says a commonplace thing, but burns, burns, burns.

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8. Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Poetry that rattled my bones and opened my mind. The beauty and anguish captured in this rambling verse is remarkable.

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9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

The bizarre descriptions of demented hallucinatory confusion and the honest perverseness of this book made me laugh out loud. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

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10. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

A simple book with a simple question: do you want to save the world? Telepathic gorilla aside, there are some heavy topics about the evolution of civilization brought to light in this meditative novel.

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11. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

American history 101. I graduated high school a semester early and spent my time working and reading. This book made up for the shortcomings of my high school history education. 

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12. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since WWII by William Blum

I was and still am a big fan of the band Rage Against the Machine. In the liner notes to their album Evil Empire this book appears among a sprawl of other counter-cultural books. I considered the liner notes my curriculum for radical thinking. This book blew my mind and still serves to frame the way I look at the world today.

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13. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda

I was fortunate to have an avid reader for a father who grew up during the ‘60s. He introduced me to this book and many others. This book is as much of a spiritual journey as it is an intellectual exercise. Serendipitously, I met the love of my life in Boulder, CO who happened to be reading this same book at the time (at 18 years of age, my only peers who had heard of it were ones I told). 

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14. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Sex, drugs and rock and roll embodied the Merry Prankster attitude. This book is about a bunch of free thinking hippies, led by Ken Kesey – fresh from the success of One Flew Over the Cu Coo’s Nest. They painted a bus in psychedelic day-glo colors and crisscrossed America pontificating the gospel of LSD. At times tragic and hilarious, the book is a portrait of a culture with infinite optimism.

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15. Hamlet William Shakespeare

Classic philosophical tragedy. Shakespeare set the bar high.

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16. Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie

This is Guthrie’s hyperbolic autobiography that reads at the speed the man lived. Great stories and endearing characters open the reader up to the charisma Guthrie was known for.

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17. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

When I read that this book was the result of a bet between Mary Shelley, her husband and other literary figures to see who could write the scariest story, I thought, yea, that is kind of cool. She won the bet of course. You can’t grow up in an environment of pop culture without being familiar with this story. However, it took a college course to force me to actually read the book. I am happy I did. It is an affecting book about the dangerous possibilities of science and the ethical implications inventors must wrestle with.

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18. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This is a fictional account of Vietnam by a Vietnam veteran. Quizzically, the book is dedicated to its fictional characters. Throughout the narrative O’Brien discusses the blurred line between truth and fiction. Disjointed stories echo into one another. Nightmarish episodes explore the human heart and weigh the torment of those things people carry throughout their lives.

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19. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Chabon writes with such creative flare. His use of figurative language, character development and pacing is expert. Reading this book is like stepping into another world, which of course is what all good fiction strives to do.

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20. White Noise by Don DeLillo

This is an amazing commentary on the social and emotional state of America in the 20th century. I wonder what changes DeLillo would have to make if he rewrote it for the 21st century? In the book families are disconnected, dysfunctional and afraid of non/imaginary threats. Right, he wouldn’t have to change a thing.

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21. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If I had to pick a favorite book I would say that I don’t have a favorite book. But if I were pressed to name a book that could be my favorite I would say that it would depend on my mood and what book I was reading at the time. Then, eventually, by default I’d name “Grapes of Wrath.” I had a friend that wanted to name his band Rosasharn’s Milk. His band mates declined. They must have been illiterate.

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22. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Simple, profound and worth reading annually.

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23. 1984 by George Orwell

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Orwell was a brilliant writer. He envisioned the dystopian world that to some extent, we now live in. Beyond the big ideas, the love story at the center of this book is devastating.

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24. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Kundera opened my mind to the poetic power of the vignette. He weaves brief philosophical musings, erotic encounters and intimate secrets together, which form a brutally honest portrait of the human condition.

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25. A Joseph Campbell Companion by Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is known for his academic writings about myth and the power of metaphor. This book highlights his collective insights, dispensing nuggets of wisdom.

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26. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s sparse prose in this epic vision of a post-apocalyptic world is absolutely haunting. Its realism is tragic. Its thematic symbolism is spectacular. This is the story of a nameless father and son who makes their way to the coast after an unspecified catastrophic event has set the world back to year zero. A parable of the 21st century.

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27. The Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore

Who watches the watchmen? This graphic novel is the stuff of mythic proportions.

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28. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Words to live by – “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”

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29. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Hemingway said it best – “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that.”

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30. Beloved by Toni Morrison

This novel pushes the boundaries of the art form. It opened me to the possibilities of brutality and beauty. Reading it is like staring into the abyss of slavery and having the abyss stare back.

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Purple Sky Edging Toward Dusk

I am out in the yard trying to fix the garden hose nozzle that my 10-year-old son broke last weekend playing Ghost Busters with his friends, when I see the strangest looking plane fly low overhead. It looks like some sort of mythical bird. These high-tech military warplanes just keep getting more sophisticated.

I look up at its black, smooth, flat under belly and its jagged wings. The engine is so quiet that I wouldn’t have even noticed it if it wasn’t for the shadow that crossed my small suburban yard. I’m sure one day they’ll figure out how to conceal shadows though too.

I have always felt safe living so close to a military base, but the constant air traffic has become an issue not only for me, but also for some of my neighbors.

There is this Rastafarian guy that lives down the street who is extremely paranoid the military is running a surveillance operation in our community. He told me he never uses any electrical plugs unless he has to. Another neighbor told me he thinks the military is mapping the neighborhood and everyone in it to create some video game for training purposes. “We’re all going to be video game characters,” he told me, “How’s that for invasion of privacy.”

I really don’t know what the military is up to. Their planes are becoming bothersome, but not as bothersome as this garden hose nozzle. I can’t get the handle from sticking in the on position and it is getting late. My son walks outside in his Halloween costume. He is dressed as a lobster. He looks like a walking stuffed animal. The bright red suit flops around as he walks over to me. “Jimmy will be here soon dad, and then we’re going trick-or-treating.”

“Sounds good,” I tell him. “We’re having a two headed turkey for dinner tonight.”

“What?” my son says in an off-guarded amazement.

“Just kidding, we’re having lobster.”

“Ha, ha, dad.”

“Okay, we’re having turkey. Regular turkey, wishbone and all.”

My son’s friend Jimmy comes running and jumping into our yard with excitement. The way he is dressed, he looks like some sort of jumping holy man. “What are you supposed to be,” I ask him.

“A genie.”

“Can you grant me a wish,” I ask him.

“Om, yea-ah sure.”

“I wish I knew how to fix this garden hose nozzle.” He crosses his arms, closes his eyes and nods his head.

“Wait a little while, and you’ll get it,” he says.

I smile and look up at the purple sky edging toward dusk, wishing I could be young again and experience the pleasures and mysteries of childhood, the joyful freedom of Halloween night, walking around town in the dark, without parents, on a mission to collect candy, dressed up as imaginative characters. I notice in Jimmy’s hand a strange looking piece of thick plastic. “What’s that,” I ask.

“Oh, this,” he holds it out, “I found it in the woods.”

I take it from him and pass my fingers through the various notches of the object. It looks like some sort of martial arts weapon, designed to be inconspicuous, yet used to inflict a maximum amount of pain. I hand it back to him. “Weird,” I say.

“Do you think we’ll see a ghost tonight,” my son asks.

As I’m about to tell him, in the cheesy dad sort of way I’ve become accustomed to, that tonight is his best chance to see a ghost, but to stay away from the cemetery because the ghosts there will pull him underground, I see a bright flash in the distance. It is nothing, but it causes me to imagine a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. The worst-case scenario I’ve feared almost my whole life. Death has always seemed eminent. And I wonder if I should tell my son tonight, over dinner, that the x-ray of my chest taken last week showed my cancer is spreading through my lungs like an oil spill.

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Connecting to fulfill our purposelessness

He and I found out we were both from Denver. We started naming our favorite restaurants but he had never heard of the ones I mentioned and I had never heard of the ones he mentioned. It became frustrating until he said, “Lilly’s Café.”

And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been to Lilly’s Café.” I had never been to Lilly’s Café.

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Are Cats Governed Entirely By Chemistry?

“I can’t sleep,” she says.

“Oh.”

“Do you love me,” she asks.

“Yea.”

“I like to hear you say it,” she says.

She huffs. “Fine. I love you.”

“Don’t be such a bitch about it, you’re always a bitch when you’re tired.”

“Then don’t talk to me when I’m tired.”

The room is quiet again, but Maryanne is restless. She kicks the suffocating sheets away with her feet. She twists and tosses. She stretches. She pulls the sheets back again over her body, feeling secure for the moment.

“Do you think I’m crazy,” she asks.

“No. Is this about what you said earlier at dinner?”

“I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking a lot and I just can’t fall asleep lately. I can’t turn my brain off. My thoughts. My thoughts are a mess. Maybe I should try meditation, you know? I tried it once in a group and I couldn’t stop looking around at all the spandex. The teacher would be sitting there telling the group to concentrate on breathing and I would be peeking through half closed eyes at all the strange looking people and I would start wondering about what their lives were like. What did they do in the morning? What did their kitchens look like? Why did they choose to wear spandex? And I would think, why couldn’t I have been someone else? Someone who could be comfortable in spandex. And I wouldn’t be breathing the way the instructor wanted us to. But maybe if I tried meditation again it would be different, you know? Maybe I could block all that out and calm my mind. Meditation might help me sleep, you know? It might help center myself.”

“Yea. It might.”

“Yea. I think it would.”

The bed sheets are twisted again. Maryanne is turning over and around. The sheets are bunched and warped and lumpy. She rolls on her back finally and fans the sheets out like a parachute.

“Hey, you ever think about chemistry? About how everything works, like cats for example. Are cats governed entirely by chemistry? Is everything pre-programmed, like, pre-wired in our brains? Was I always meant to end up here, lying in this cold hollow room with you?

“I don’t know honey. Honestly, I’m really tired. Maybe you should talk to the doctor at the clinic here tomorrow. Maybe he could put you on some new medication.”

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The Forest

In the forest we were explorers, we were outcasts, we made our friendships and kept them. In the forest we built hideouts, we talked about forbidden knowledge, we talked about the biology of a woman’s body and we wondered about the limits of the universe. In the small forest we had in our town, we imagined it to be much bigger and since it played such a vital role in our lives, it was.

As teenagers my friends and I would smoke cigarettes in the forest. This was a big deal. Cigarettes were hard to acquire during those awkward, pubescent years. Mainly, we would steal them from our parents or buy them for outrageous prices from older kids. I remember the first cigarettes my friends and I smoked were ones I hand rolled from my fathers stash. They were sloppy and limp. We’d spit tobacco leaves out after every drag. Not the smoothest smoke. Regardless, it didn’t stop us from being hooked. Smoking cigarettes in the forest became sort of a badge of honor among my friends and I. Watching the smoke curl around our faces, sitting atop a fallen tree by a stream, nothing could touch our sense of cool confidence.

As we grew older, we’d still visit the forest frequently, with different types of smoke curling around our face and a case of beer in tow. We had a preferred spot, a nice clearing with ample seating and a fire pit. Nearly every weekend during the warm seasons we’d gather there to alter our reality. There’d be jokes told, stories embellished, truths confessed and questions posed unanswerable. We were strange that way, always talking about open-ended ideas, wondering about philosophical possibilities. Of course, we didn’t know much. Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Kant, these names were not part of our vocabulary. Yet, we knew enough to spend hours entangling ourselves in a lively conversation.

The forest was our sanctuary, our escape, the gathering grounds of our tribe. I miss it and everything it represented.

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Extra Door and Airy

Summer is over and I find myself looking back. I met a lot of interesting characters, saw a lot of beautiful places and experienced a lot of wonderful adventures. In some regards it was the best summer ever. In other regards, it was like any other summer. Isn’t it strange how something extraordinary can become ordinary when over indulged?

I lived and worked at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, a vacation destination on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, one of the most beautiful, ecologically diverse places in the country, a paradise for nature enthusiasts. When I first arrived there, after living in the stagnant mid-west, I was awestruck by the beauty of the peninsula, totally enamored. Yet, after living in a dorm and working there on a regular basis, its appeal began to wane. The extraordinary became ordinary.

Don’t get me wrong, my summer at Olympic was a blast. I had experiences there that I will remember for a lifetime. I look back on my summer there with great adoration. Yet, at times, the drudge of habitual life eclipsed the grandeur of the peninsula.

Think about all of your daily activities that would appear astonishing to those raised under different circumstances. Checking your email, listening to your ipod, using running water to wash your hands are all examples of privileged habits, in the eyes of the underprivileged. I’m not trying to preach about being grateful or persuade anyone to be philanthropic. I’m just saying think about it.

Here is a less dramatic example. A mature Midwesterner, seasoned by harsh winters, moves to Florida, where people complain that 50-degree weather is freezing. He can’t believe it. To the Midwesterner, 50 degrees feels like spring. Well, after a year or two of life in the sunshine state, the Midwesterner’s body adjusts and when the temp dips below 60, he’s wearing a scarf and gloves.

People acclimate, they reconcile and assimilate. They settle in their ways, form habits and become ordinary as they age. A new love grows comfortable. A dream job becomes boring.

To a child, everything is extraordinary. Everything is new and brimming with life. Children look at the world with questions and wonder imaginatively about possibilities. As an adult, nothing is a surprise. Not even the 9 O’clock news.

Granted, for something to be extraordinary, it must be rare. When we age, we accumulate knowledge. And the more we experience, the more habituated we become to the unusual. We slowly loose the ability to be amazed as we sink firmly into a routine.

While living on the Olympic peninsula, there were moments when I sank into a routine. In those moments I lost the sense of awesomeness that the beauty of the peninsula inspires. Despite those lapses into routine, it quite possibly was the best summer ever. In ways that I cannot fully explain, it was a summer of recreational splendor and personal growth. But I am looking back with eyes tinted by nostalgia. And as I look back, I think about the present. I don’t want to sink into a routine or to loose my ability to be amazed. I want to look at each day with fresh eyes. I want to look at each day as an extra door and airy.

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Life and Death in a Dresser Drawer

            I have been living and working at Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, on the Olympic peninsula of Washington State, for the past four months. It is in the middle of nowhere. I live in dorm style housing in a room with my girlfriend, Sara. Over the past four months we have caught and killed three mice in a trap (for a colorful depiction of our first mouse encounter, refer to my blog titled “Mousey”). We haven’t had any mouse trouble for the past couple of months, but our neighbors down the hall have.

            During the past week a mouse has terrorized a room shared by five girls. The girls wake up at night screaming, with the mouse running down their arms. While one of the girls was away for a few nights, the mouse made a nest beneath her pillow. She came home to find a circular wad of turn up Kleenex, littered with sunflower seeds. This proved to be the breaking point. Up until now the girls refused to use a lethal trap, insisting that it would go against their morals. And apparently the live trap didn’t work. And so, reluctantly, they set the lethal trap.

            Next day, nothing. No mouse. No one thought much of it. The girls probably figured that it had ventured into somebody else’s room.

            That same day, a more private room became available for a couple of the girls to move into, giving all of them more space. It proved to be a great relief for all the girls. High spirits hung in the hallway as the couple of girls moved their things into their new room. They moved their stereo, books and clothes and began cleaning out their dresser drawers, when one of them blurted out, “ holy shit, there is a dead mouse in my drawer with live babies.”

            It wasn’t long before everyone in our dorm community wandered over to have a look and to contribute their sentiments. I too, couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see such an uncanny sight. As I peered down upon the dead mouse, laying in the dresser drawer, with its babies writhing about, stretching their tiny limbs, wheezing with their open infant mouths, I thought about the delicacy of life.

            Lying there were five newborn mice, tiny as peanuts, totally helpless, with their dead mother by their side. Thrown into the world with nobody to protect them. Nobody to nurture and raise them. They didn’t stand a chance. They were born and just as quickly will die. In this way, the beginning and ending of every story is the same. Is there a deeper meaning to this particular story? I don’t think so. It is life and death in a dresser drawer. It is beautiful and tragic. And like all stories, we all take away something different.

            As I stood there, in the girls’ dorm room, looking into the drawer, pondering its significance, I was surrounded by people each having a different experience. Some just looked on spellbound, others said firmly “they’re goners,” and still others wanted to save the baby mice. They wanted to feed and incubate the babies somehow. Their nurturer instincts must have kicked in.

            It is interesting that the same people who had no trouble killing the adult, problem causing mouse, couldn’t bear to see the infant mice perish. Is a newborn life in some way more precious than a mature life?

            I spoke up and said, “Okay, even if it were possible to nurture and raise these baby mice, what are you going to do with them when they’re grown? When does a mouse stop being precious and adorable and start becoming vile and a nuisance? Is it a change in the mouse or a change in you?”

            No one knew what to say. Perhaps I spoke too curtly. They just kept staring into the dresser drawer. Finally someone said, “Well we have to do something.”

            I jumped in again and said, “Really, the best thing we can do is scoop them up and place them outside for an animal to eat.” I doubted I’d get a positive response. But to my surprise everyone agreed.

            I found a plastic bag and placed the dead mother and her five babies in it. Only two of the babies were still alive at this point. Squirming, clawing for some sort of purpose. I walked into the forest and placed the family beneath a bush. My thought is that if an animal doesn’t make a meal out of them, at least they will decompose and provide nutrients to the plants. After all, that is the essence of the cycle of life. Life living off life.

            And so it was. And it was something special. To see life and death all contained in a small dresser drawer.

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