Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.


On Success

After a long conversation with my mom the other day, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of success. Sometimes it's happening to us and we don't even notice it.

Forty years ago, a silly space opera hit theaters. Little did I know it'd be one of the pivotal events of my childhood. On the heels of Ray Bradbury's S Is for Space, it set me on the path toward being a professional storyteller. And I am. I tell real stories; I tell stories I made up. Every April I get to tell the IRS I write for a living...and I'll pay them when I can. It's not the best-paying job in the world, at least for folks who aren't Ray Bradbury or George Lucas, and that makes it harder for me to see when I'm succeeding day to day.

Thirty years ago, I was utterly lost. Two years out of high school, I was still paying heed to a religious sect that forbade me from going to the college I so desperately needed. Instead, I knocked on doors as a full-time evangelist. Yes, me. I honestly can't tell you how many Watchtowers I distributed, but I can tell you for sure it was more than the number of OLY ARTS I've distributed. My mom's patience was running out, though, and it wouldn't be long before she paid a visit to East Central University to enroll me behind my back. I gave her hell for doing that...but I was only playing the role expected of me by our moral "superiors." I knew she was right and all my other authority figures were wrong. You can feel that sometimes.

ANY success I've had in my adult life was the direct result of her act of rebellious frustration. Rebels are important; they certainly have been to me.

Twenty years ago, I was graduating from SIU-C after three of the most difficult years of my life, less than two months before I filed for divorce. Graduation is a success no matter how you slice it, especially for an ex-Witness trailer trashbag from Crowder, Oklahoma, but all I could feel was relief. I escaped. I escaped Illinois with my MFA, I escaped Crowder, I escaped a foolhardy marriage, I made it all the way back to L.A. and earned work in the entertainment industry. Simply braving the freeway was one of the greatest achievements of my life. I had a serious driving phobia back in those days, and merging onto the 110 felt like diving into a tank full of sharks. I arrived everywhere dripping with flop sweat. It was like that EVERY DAY. People tell me I was brave for trying to "make it in the big leagues." I wasn't. That was something I just had to do. The brave thing I did was arriving where it might happen.

Did I succeed in Los Angeles? To this day I don't know. I worked for Warner Bros. I passed that shield every day on my way into the office. Can you say something similar? I was on network TV dozens of times and appeared on screen in big-budget features. For a week, so I'm told, I was the writer of Terminator 3. I attended movie premieres and hobnobbed with the stars. But I was only a credited performer in two indie projects, neither of which I'd ever show you on a dare. My video-directing project collapsed into ignominy when my editor couldn't put her bong down for half an hour straight. But I did have my writing produced and performed on Sunset Boulevard. I had lightning shoot out of my eyes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And when I left Hollywood for good in 2004, I knew I could hold my head high after all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I could do that because, while I never really "made it," I also never lost my integrity or ability to tell a story in a meaningful, from-the-heart way. I never once created product; I told stories. And oh, my friends, the Hollywood stories my Hollywood accomplices and I could tell you.

Ten years ago I arrived in Washington state and auditioned for my first play here, TAO's Taming of the Shrew at the Minnaert Center black box. I made my first Pacific-Northwestern friends and earned a job teaching remedial algebra at Olympic College in Shelton. I started work on Salvation, the novel renamed Lightfall for publication in 2010. Sounds pretty good, right? But I was a lonely guy earning minimum wage, living with his mom at age 39, with no romantic prospects in sight, angry and so, so depressed from what felt like a life going nowhere. I told someone at a PARTY for God's sake that I'd been a disappointment to everyone who ever cared about me. What I didn't know was my life was about to take off like an Independence Day rocket. The seeds had already been sown. I was months away from my first date with Amanda (also my first date in Washington). And though Lightfall would come to feel like a nine-hours' wonder, breaking my authorial spirit for years, it would actually lead to writing jobs at the Weekly Volcano and Cengage Learning. Those would in turn prepare me for Chegg, then OLY ARTS.

I don't know if I'm a success. I look at my sister and brother-in-law's restaurant or my brother's inauguration at Valdosta State University and I'm not always thrilled by the comparison. But I have two novels and at least a dozen short-story publication credits to my name, I've written for a national magazine, I have loyal readers and a thriving marriage. I get to travel and see parts of the world no reasonable person would've predicted for my life thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago. I read the other day success can be defined as stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. If that's true, then yes, I suppose I really am a success. For no matter how bad things may seem sometimes, I can still feel the fire inside me burning. I have stories yet to tell and opportunities to tell them. And my goal for the next year or so is to keep telling your stories with you. Success, it seems to me, is never really a solo enterprise. You and I, we're in this together.

Let's be successes. Let's never, ever, never, NEVER give up.

"Let me tell you something you already know," a fighter once explained. "The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place; and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you permanently there if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you are worth, go out and get what you are worth; but you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers, saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody. Cowards do that..."

And that ain't us. I know it ain't you...and I know it ain't me. Not for long. Not now, not ever.

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The Grand Debut of OLY ARTS

It had been a tough spring. The world was in complete chaos. Closer to home, I was underemployed, and I failed to land three different teaching jobs I wanted very much. My wife was beginning to worry I'd morph into one of those guys who sits around the house paying video games and dozing through one TV series after another on Netflix. It turns out I work pretty hard when I'm unemployed, so I had numerous irons in the fire, but the disappointment and depression were weighing on me heavily.

That was when my friend Ned Hayes discovered he had a smash hit with his third published novel, The Eagle Tree, which you should buy the second you finish reading this. Some guys would buy a sports car or summer home; not Ned Hayes. He's actually holding down a day job that pays him just fine, so instead, he's put his newfound lucre into a longstanding dream project. A generous patron of South Sound theatre, Ned resolved to publish a periodical called OLY ARTS. This magazine would focus exclusively on art and culture in Olympia: especially theatre, but with serious excursions into music, visual arts and special events. To that end, he aimed his debut issue at an annual downtown tradition here, Capital Lakefair, which tightened his print date to Wednesday, July 13.

Ned first mentioned this project to me about two months ago. His idea was I would act as Managing Editor while he continued to work for [global tech giant, redacted]. Essentially, my job was to serve as copy editor and point man for a writing and distribution staff. There was still one big hurdle: advertising. We had to sell some and fast. To that end, Ned resolved to create a 12-page dummy edition, the "spring 2016" issue, to show potential advertisers as an example of the thing we were about to create. Would I be willing to craft that dummy issue in InDesign, subject to Ned's direction, and have it finished in two weeks? Uhhhhhm...sure. I mean, I'd never worked with InDesign, but how hard could it be? I signed my contract on May 18.

I learned the essentials of InDesign over the weekend while looking for past articles I could use as presentable lorem ipsum. (That's a phrase I learned on this project. It means filler copy.) Ned and I turned that "spring issue" around in record time, and if you didn't look at it with your glasses on, it looked like a no-foolin' magazine.


Meanwhile, Ned was setting up the infrastructure for our new website, I was mocking up fake ads and the basics of our summer edition. Ned hired a real designer, Dorothy Wong, and a staff of writers and distributors. I now have the privilege of assembling the work of some of the best arts writers in town, including Guy Bergstrom, Alec Clayton, Jennifer Crain, Molly Gilmore and Kelli Samson. I wrote tons of content myself for our website and calendar, only to rewrite the whole mess a week later when we learned we needed a more robust calendar plugin. Have you visited our website? It's freakin' huge. Ned and our ad rep, Rick Pearlstein, landed upscale advertisers. I learned the basics of MailChimp and Sprout Social to create a weekly newsletter and post regular social media updates. Ned hired people to write our mobile app for Android and iOS, available soon.

Long story short, we've produced TWO magazines, a massive website with an active arts calendar, a thriving social media presence, most of two mobile apps, and T-shirts for Pete's sake in two months, plus gathered a staff of seven great writers and seven extroverted distributors, all in two months. I've worked like crazy on this thing. I won't lie; it has my fingerprints all over it. But what amazed me throughout is the amount of time, effort and expertise Ned put into this project, not to mention startup capital, all while holding down a big-boy job and raising two great kids. That job, by the way, moved to Portland this summer, so he's been driving back and forth to another state three times a week. I had the opportunity to drive to our printer with him yesterday and watched him use his truck as a mobile office. To be honest, I assumed he benefited from some fancy [global tech giant, redacted] setup that allowed him to do his job vocally while his eyes were on the road. Not so much! Ned does it all on his everyday cell phone and, I suspect, 5-Hour ENERGY Shots.

I still write for the Weekly Volcano, by the way. OLY ARTS covers Olympia only, we don't do reviews, and it's all separate content, so there's no conflict of interest. But for the most part, I spend my days now as a quarterly magazine editor. Some days it's fun. Some days it's...less fun. Some days it's stressful, especially when the mistakes I'm frantically struggling to correct were my mistakes. That happens often. I can tell you without fear of exaggeration there hasn't been a day in the last two months when I haven't learned something major, often something I should've known before accepting the job. This will make me a better writer, editor, manager and friend to the Oly cultural scene. It feels to give back. I was a good critic, I think, but isn't a job that I miss.

The summer edition, our grand debut, is available now. Find our T-shirted street team at Music in the Park, Capital Lakefair and its associated parade, and a number of other events over the next three months. Meanwhile, I'm already planning our fall edition. OLY ARTS is here to stay.

OLY ARTS, Issue No. 1, Summer 2016

OLY ARTS, Issue No. 1, Summer 2016

Now, how cool and classy is that?

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Glory, Glory, Vanished

Hi, everyone! It's been a while, so I grabbed a few minutes to tell you what's been happening in my life. Yesterday saw the last performance of Theater Artists Olympia's Improbable Peck of Plays Vol. IV, in which I played three comic roles. The first was Martin, an irascible, middle-aged, urban professional in the short play "Amenities" by Gregory Hirschak. In Act II, I played Erik, a Viking adventurer in Eva Suter's "Glory, Glory, Vanish," followed by a hapless Little League coach in Adam Seidel's "One for the Chipper." I've also been cast as Capt. Markinson in Lakewood Playhouse's production of A Few Good Men, opening September 11, so I appreciate director Beau Prichard allowing me to focus on Peck for a month. I've been dipping in and out of rehearsals up north, and I'll return to that show full-time starting Thursday. Our preview is just two weeks away!

Meanwhile, I'm hawking Mr. Klein's Wild Ride and Lightfall. Might I take this opportunity to remind you that not only is Campanile still distributing Lightfall's hardback edition, but there's also an unabridged audio edition, read by yours truly, available on Audible? If you're interested, you can find it by clicking the link at your right to my Amazon author site. The link for Klein is just below that. Remember, positive reviews are very much appreciated on Amazon and/or Smashwords! Your reviews are more helpful to writers than you probably realize, as they open new sales categories.

On the day-job front, I've begun my fourth week--golly, how the time flies--writing content for online developmental math games. I've been earning my highest per-hour rate ever, so I'm fervently hoping to extend this particular contract as long as I can. It also makes me feel good to work on a product that'll help folks leap a difficult hurdle and master their undergraduate course work to get on with their lives.

I've submitted another story to an anthology, so I'm hoping for news on that soon. I've also started my research for a full-length play (tentatively called Stellar Composition) and a new comic novel, the sci-fi political satire Karakee. Busy, busy! I've been struck recently by how many plates I've kept spinning over the last twelve months. It'll be a welcome change to refocus on writing once A Few Good Men gets safely underway.

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Holiday on Ice, Part 2

Tomorrow marks the two-week anniversary of my hernia repair surgery. (Please, no gifts. A themed cake would be horrifying.) My surgeon prefers to slice his hernia patients and reach inside rather than any newfangled laparoscopic method. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he found an additional, smaller hernia near the first and repaired that as well. Nothing hurt as bad as the bill, but yes, there have been days of significant discomfort. I hesitate to call it pain because, while there have been a few yelp! moments, they're few and far between. So far I've taken only two of the Percocets prescribed by my doctor, forgoing even the Ibuprofen after my swelling went down. Yes, there was swelling. It wasn't as gross as you might think, but it did get my attention. Same goes for the discoloration, which tended toward a light-purple hue Wikipedia characterizes as "thistle." That only lasted a day or two, about the time I spent intermittently draping my midsection in bags of camp ice. Strangely, yesterday was one of my worst Oh Em Jeebus! days, partly because I made the foolish mistake of sneezing while in a seated position. Apparently, hernia repairs hate it when that happens.

It's embarrassing to talk about this, but only because my brother and stepfather are going through much worse so what the hell am I even going on about. I feel no shame in telling you the travails of my junk. You may think it's TMI. I accept there are cultural taboos, but the fact is men's health deserves to be publicized and generally understood more than it is. Societally, we've come to a place where we can talk about breast cancer and other female or mostly-female health concerns, and that's great--so why not hernias? I guess the main reason is it makes men wince to read it, and yes, IT REALLY DOES. Listen, I've read a lot more about the subject than you probably have now, so I get it. But honestly, isn't this something all men should know? If 27% of us are likely to suffer a hernia, shouldn't we know what to do about it?

I'll spare you the photos--you're welcome--but I now have a four-inch scar an inch northwest of Action Central. That's a serious scar. I'm also losing weight, partly on purpose and partly because I've been down in the dumps. It sucks being under the weather. It sucks having to take today off because I sneezed 24 hours ago. It sucks that I'm still getting bills from people who conspired to stab me near the sanctum sanctorum. It sucks that my wife has to take on greater responsibility. I think that's the part I hate most--but she's been a champ, and I suppose somewhere down the line I'll have the chance to make it up to her. I hope not, but life throws us lemons and we make Limoncello.

The main thing you should know about hernia repair is that for all the words I've thrown at it, and for all my discomforts and indignities over the past 13 days, it's still better to know my intestines aren't likely to burst through my abdominal wall like the "snakes" in one of those prank peanut butter jars. If you're a man with weird dragging or rippling or throbbing sensations down there in your equatorial region, then maybe you should head over to WebMD's inguinal hernia section and compare your situation. If your symptoms match, talk to your GP and have her set up an appointment with your urologist. Try to think of the resulting consultation as a truly exciting first date. The surgery's a drag but nothing you can't handle. In fact, I'd vote for the last two weeks over a flu every time. And if you happen to get your repair done through South Sound Surgical Associates in Olympia, WA, hey, please tell 'em Carv sent you. Maybe they'll knock a few bucks off my bill.

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Holiday on Ice, Part 1

Like most men, I've had it drummed into my brain from infancy that pain and fear are emotions any "real man" must labor to suppress. Trouble is, those emotions don't want to be suppressed, especially when there are valid reasons for both. Instead, they just liquefy into a medley of negative emotions with an overriding component of anger. I'm not allowed to be nervous or scared. I don't get to collapse in the corner and cry from physical pain. I'm not sure I'd know how to do it if I tried. Instead, I find myself getting more and more pissed off, because that, at least, is a societally-tolerated element of the male psyche.

Here's why I'm hurting. A few weeks ago, I took a bad step climbing upstairs. This caused days of agony that subsided, thank the stars, in time for performances of the radio drama. Then the pain returned a few days later, except this time it was on the side of my right foot rather than behind my middle toes. I'm guessing it's tendonitis. "How do you get an infection inside your foot?" my wife asks, and I reply it's a good question I don't know how to answer. I just know it flippin' hurts. It's been hurting for days. I have a high pain tolerance, but this is getting ridiculous. Each time my foot leaves the floor, it announces its motion with a riot of exclamation points and lightning bolts.

Here's why I'm nervous. At some as-yet-unannounced time tomorrow, I'm scheduled for inguinal hernia surgery. Inguinal is a fancy medical adjective for "groin stuff," and hernia means a hole in the wall of a body cavity. See, the inside of a human body is divided into several self-contained pockets. Your thoracic cavity, for example, lies inside your ribcage and houses your lungs and heart. Your abdominal cavity contains what we collectively refer to as guts, mostly so we won't have to think about what those guts do. But because of one of the jobs those guts do, namely process infectious bacteria, it's important those organs stay isolated from other bodily systems. Thus, if one were to develop a hole in the wall that surrounds that cavity, it may not be a huge deal immediately, but it can generate problems down the road.

Unfortunately, male abdomens have a built-in structural weakness. When we were embryos, our testicles developed inside our abdominal cavity, then headed south before that cavity began sealing shut. In fact, it never closed completely. There are still two passages called the inguinal canals, through which our spermatic cords descend. When we get cold or scared, our delicate man-parts use those passages to huddle back inside the abdominal cavity. Women have inguinal canals as well, but theirs are strengthened by protective ligaments. Ours are not. So much for intelligent design.

So here's Carv on the ab cruncher a few months ago, grimacing through an ordinary workout. His muscular contractions increase the pressure on his starboard inguinal canal. It gives way, and Carv experiences a sudden stab of lightning from his crotch to the right side of his thorax. He knows immediately something has gone very, very wrong; but for the next month or so, he experiences no symptoms. He thinks he got away scot-free. He is wrong.

What actually happened is he now has a tear in his abdominal wall through which his omentum, the apron of membranous peritoneum that surrounds his abdominal cavity, is free to pop in and out. He can feel it popping, especially in the bathroom. (Activities there cause pressure changes. You figure it out.) And Carv, who apparently feels less nervous talking about his biological difficulties in the third person, begins to lose sleep. About this time, he works on solutions to three anatomy textbooks in a row, and they all tell him the same thing: hernia. He knows how that ends. He remembers his roommate's surgery years ago, which didn't seem a picnic at all. Then he sees a David Spade standup routine about Spade's hernia operation, in which the words agony and catheter make frequent appearances. As the last few months go by, symptoms worsen. It's never terrible, but it's enough to convince Carv to go see a doctor. Sure enough, the doctor recommends surgery. It's not an emergency, the doctor says, but it prevents one. You should do it. Then the doctor indicates with surprising indelicacy how he'll make an incision here, use it to reach up here into Carv's abdomen, insert a mesh that looks like this, blah blah blah. Carv tries to pay attention but hears mostly a ringing in his ears.

Here's why I'm scared. In less than 24 hours, a guy I barely know will knock me out cold, use a sharp instrument to cut a deep hole into my abdomen, and stuff one "bun" of a hamburger-shaped piece of mesh through the hernia. Then, I suspect, he'll inject me full of glorious painkillers and antibiotics. If I'm right about the tendonitis in my foot, the antibiotics should make short work of that condition. My foot pain, unfortunately, will be replaced by at least a few days of horrible groin pain. There'll also be some swelling and discoloration; and hey, if that flipped the switch on your squeam factor, then imagine how it makes me feel.

I'm telling you about this for a reason--not to gross you out, but because no one ever does talk about this stuff. We see it as awful, inappropriate, TMI. But that taboo makes no sense because over the course of our lifetimes, over a quarter of us men will experience hernias. It's a pretty big deal. And maybe it's better I tell you about hernias now, as opposed to you having to look it all up on the Internet while panicking about an impending operation the way I did. Now, given the Whipple procedure my brother just went through, which is essentially having a team of surgeons fire a shotgun at his belly and then patch up whatever remained, my surgery is all but inconsequential. "Real man" that I am--and dear God, am I getting tired of being told what I have to do to qualify as a real anything--I feel a rush of guilt and insufficiency each time I complain about the week of super fun I'm about to have. Does it help to talk or write about it? No, not at all. But maybe it'll help you, am I right? "The More You Know," they keep telling me on NBC.

So what can you do to avoid hernia? Most importantly, try to be born a woman--except, as we're constantly and constructively reminded these days, that comes with its own drawbacks. On the plus side, women are 25 times less likely than men to experience my particular malfunction. Failing that, refrain from smoking and keep your weight in check. Be careful in the gym, in the bathroom, and when coughing. Wait, how do I do all that, you ask? It's an excellent question. I don't know. You probably can't. The fact is, if you're fated to suffer a hernia, that's probably what's gonna happen. It sucks, I know. If it does, you'll have a pretty good idea when it happens. As time goes by, you'll feel discomfort when lifting or straining. You may feel a popping or rippling or gurgling or heavy sensation or actually, you may feel nothing at all after the initial tear. I felt almost nothing till recently, when it turned into occasional burning. In some cases, you'll see visible swelling, and trust me: this is one time you should be grateful I don't include a lot of images on this site. If you're tempted to Google this swelling phenomenon, don't. Luckily, I've managed to avoid that particular symptom.

So. Here's hoping my surgery goes smoothly and I'm up and around after the expected 48 hours of miserable recovery. I'll spend much of that "free" time sitting on an icepack, watching stupid TV, and cursing the male anatomy gods. I'll spend some of it, I hope, snarling through work in my office. I don't expect friends to call or come by, nor do I imagine I'll be in much of a mood for socializing. If your instinct is to say "I'm praying for you," well, try not be surprised or offended when I say it's too late for that. I might add, "You should've asked God last spring not to give me a damn hernia in the first place," but that'll only be the misery talking.

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Spooky Noises

"Mola Carv"

My Halloween getup. Smile, and the mine full of emaciated child laborers smiles with you.

This being Halloween, the official release date of the Lightfall audiobook, I thought I'd share a couple of ominous sound clips with you. First, the very start of the book, a retelling of a now-ubiquitous news story. It wasn't when I wrote the book in 2007. I'm kind of a wizard:

Second, an interstitial segment a bit later in the book. Koine Greek scholars, now's your chance to unload on my reading skills:

If you like what you hear, hit the button on your right to order from Much obliged, and stay safe out there tonight!

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On Fairness

Before I say anything else, I want to make it very clear that this post has nothing to do with the one just below it. That post, which prophesies a resurrection of sorts, is related solely to my professional efforts. Significant events are underway in my author life, and I'm trying to get ahead of them as much as I can. You'll be hearing more about that over the next few months, so for now we'll leave the minor topic of my writing alone.

As for my nocturnal theatre life, Amanda and I are most of the way through a run of And Then There Were None at Lakewood Playhouse. I'm playing Doctor Armstrong; she's the prudish Mrs Emily Brent. It feels, frankly, like we've been doing the show for years, though it's only been four months (!). I wish I could say I've enjoyed it, but for the last two months it's been mostly a slog. Some of that was due to factors that couldn't be helped, some was the result of poor decisions I made in the heat of the moment--but primarily, the issue was my inability to leave my family life at home. As many of you know, my brother has been dealing with pancreatic cancer. His prognosis right now is exceptional, by which I mean he's the exception to a number of very grim rules. Over the last two months, however, there were times when that wasn't the case. He's made it clear that the ongoing details of his health are his own to withhold or divulge, and I'll honor that. I do feel comfortable saying, however, that his story has impacted my story. What's happened to my brother has proven enormously hard for me to deal with. It's affected my mood in ways I may not even fully grasp.

My brother Richard is truly a remarkable man. He's not yet 45, three years younger than me, but he's already the most successful person in the known history of our family. I mean, I guess that depends on how you define success, sure, but the way he defines it, he's the champ. He's the president of a state college in Georgia, he's been married to the same woman since they graduated from undergraduate college together, he has three degrees including a PhD, his two kids are doing well, he's shall-we-say financially comfortable, and he spent much of this summer training for a triathlon. Unfortunately, he was unable to act on that training, because he kept passing out from what he describes as the worst pain of his life. As we suspected, that pain was pancreatitis. What we didn't expect was the deeper illness his agony exposed, thereby saving his life. See, most people don't feel serious pain from pancreatic cancer till it's way too late. Richard went in for deep testing, and that's when the real roller coaster began.

Two weeks ago, his prognosis was dire. I traipsed through life knowing, simply knowing, that a bomb was about to drop on my family. Things would never be the same. And I can honestly tell you that the first, last, and most frequent thought that went through my mind each day was this: it isn't fair. It isn't fair! Richard's done nothing to deserve this and everything to avoid it. Meanwhile, I treat deep dish pizza like an FDA food group. I've been loading and unloading the same thirty extra pounds onto my body for decades, and I pack my life with enough unneeded stress to activate the San Andreas fault. So why him and not me? It ain't fair! There's no justice! What the hell, universe?

Fair, it seems, is one of the first words we learn, yet some of us never grasp the concept. When a toddler yells, "That's not fair!" what he or she means is, the universe isn't giving me what I want. The notion of actually deserving what we want seldom enters the discussion. And I know otherwise functional adults who never comprehend that before you get everything you want, you should actually have to do something extraordinary to get it. I know people who have been deeply unkind to other people, yet can't seem to fathom why the world at large hasn't been nicer to them. I suppose there are probably times when I've been one of those people. But hopefully, at least by middle age it begins to dawn on most of us that we have to atone for our sins and we have to work hard for what we get.

Except we don't. We all know people who make one brain-dead move after another, yet seem to float through life untouched by despair. Oh, and sometimes the universe drops a damn hammer on our heads. Molly Glynn, an actress on Chicago Fire who was, coincidentally, my age, was killed this month when a tree fell on her as she and her husband biked through the Erickson woods in suburban Chicago. "I couldn't save her. I couldn't save her. She's gone," her husband wrote hours later. It wasn't fair. Of course it wasn't fair. But see, this is one of the most difficult things we humans ever try to wrap our heads around. It's harder than quantum mechanics or learning Chinese. It's so hard that even when we do manage it, we immediately forget that awful lesson and have to learn it again over and over and over. We shake it from our minds and proceed through life clinging to our assumption that if we want (or wish to avoid) something badly enough, then the universe is obliged to comply. But that's a crock. Life isn't fair. The universe ain't a wish-fulfillment machine. If there is a God, He does, in fact, give each of us more than we can handle, and I mean all of us. That's a fact. It's obnoxious when people claim anything else, because God gives every one of us that bit at the end. We're mortal, my friends, and that's so completely intolerable to our psyches that we've crafted thousands of mythological structures in a vain attempt to ward it away.

So yeah, that is pretty dark. I agree. But it hit me one morning, during the worst of our family travails: an insight among the most profound of my life. It's so big I'm still processing it, weeks later, and I may never see my way around the breadth of it. My big realization was this...are you sitting down? It's a whopper! Are you ready? Here it comes...

The good news is...

No, I'm serious, a mind-blower's coming, so you really want to brace yourself. Okay? Here we go...

The good news is... isn't fair.

That's the good news. It is. Can you see why? Your not fair.

Has it hit you yet? No?

Life isn't fair. And that's the good news because every single one of us has made an unknowable number of stupid, at times even willful, malicious, mistakes. We've all been bad people. It's okay, we can say it. It's true. We've been morons, more often than we'd like to admit. We've betrayed those who loved us, talked smack about people who deserved open praise, lied to those with whom we cherish mutual trust, taken stupid life-threatening risks, deflected love, indulged in hate. We've made tactical errors that should've wrecked our careers for good, taken substances that were glorified poisons for brain cells, eaten foods no sane person would ever knowingly ingest, and pursued relationships our most clear-eyed friends warned us were toxic. At the age of eighteen, I climbed out onto the roof of a moving car, from which I leaped to the bed of a moving truck. I survived that puerile stunt, then smashed my head open minutes later when the truck hit a chuckhole and I went over the side. A few years later, I was working in the "clouds" forty feet over a stage, showing off for a pretty girl, when I missed a grab. If I had not made a second, desperate, flailing attempt, I'd have broken my fool neck and died just as sure as I'm sitting here to tell you about it now. There are universes, cosmologists suggest, in which I did fall that afternoon...

...and that, my friends, is what would've been fair. I deserved to get killed. In fact, it's reasonable to wonder if there haven't been dozen of times I avoided a well-earned demise. I've walked away from car crashes despite being a comically terrible driver, survived 104° fevers that had me hallucinating like a Biblical prophet, and taken falls that could've easily shattered my already-vulnerable spine. When I was twelve, doctors told me it was a sure bet I'd be in a wheelchair by now, because that's what happens to people with the skeletal birth defect they were certain I had. It turns out those competent doctors were wrong. I can walk and run now (if not dance), because life isn't fair. I avoided death hundreds of times because the universe does whatever the hell it wants. I've avoided living hells, not because I was wise enough to run for the hills, but because the other person dropped the ball so completely I had no choice but to slink away crying. Unlike my brother, I've never taken a shortcut to anything I wanted in life. He's the one with the superpower for minimizing steps, not me. I'm the brother who beats his head against reinforced walls, all while failing to notice the open door just around the corner. Yet my life is fine, even great more often than not, because despite all my foolishness and self-destructive behavior the universe simply isn't fair. As even Jesus noted, God's sun rises to shine on both the righteous and the cruel. You're here to read this because the cosmos was indifferent or looking the other way that time you cranked your car up to one-forty or dropped acid in a desert full of rattlers or ate gas-station food or smoked two packs a day for ten years. You have love in your life, no matter how many times you told truly awful jokes or made eyes at that waitress or pushed family away with both hands. And this is true because life isn't cause-and-effect, there ain't no justice, and love's a subjective phenomenon that endures despite all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not to mention our own stupidity and meanness.

Life isn't fair. Your life isn't fair. Nor is mine, Gentle Reader, and that's the only thing that gives us a shot. You may say--many have--that Richard's recovery is a miracle. Or, you can be logical and say that what the universe actually gave Richard was cancer, and that the breaks which saved his life were a wonderful medical team, literally millions of person-hours of scientific research, and Richard's own forty-year crusade to stay in peak physical form. There's a case to be made for both views. But the bigger truth is, Richard didn't "deserve" to stay alive any more than Molly Glynn "deserved" to die. The concept of deserving has nothing to do with this, because "deserving" is mostly an empty, subjective, human construct. A king isn't royal by the grace of God, nor do family curses doom the sick or poor to abject suffering. Life is chaos. Even God has to answer to Luck, the most powerful deity in all space and time. Yet however we assess our decisions, good or bad, we owe everything we love to the implacable immensity of cosmic injustice.

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Happy Holidays

First of all, merry Christmas. I have no problem with saying or hearing that phrase. I like Christmas fine, despite having a limited childhood history with it. If you're Jewish, like my father's ancestors apparently, happy Hanukkah (though it ended three weeks ago). Happy New Year, or, if you come from these traditions, may you enjoy a blessed Diwali, Eid, or Kwanzaa. If you're a Grinchy atheist, happy solstice or Tuesday or hey, whatever you're into. It makes no difference to me. I just think today and tomorrow would be good days on which to be happy.

See, we all know Jesus wasn't born on December 25th. Santa isn't really the Turkish St. Nicholas, he's a merry manifestation of Coca-Cola and a jolly face reflecting the pure wide-eyed greed of Western children. And that's okay! It's still a great time, with all those colorful twinkling lights and Nat King Cole and Linus Van Pelt on the telly. If you have kids, it's worth all those Target card migraines to see their eyes light up like those battery-heavy toys they'll soon break. If you don't, it's a gentle time to curl up with a hot cup of cocoa and watch Ralphie Parker angle for that Red Ryder carbine-action, two-hundred-shot Range Model air rifle all over again. We each have our own holiday traditions, and we revel in the joy of our comforting annual routine.

For me, of course, there's not much that's holy, per se, about the last week of December, yet I've always tried to make it a point of updating this blog on or just before Christmas Eve. I like to put my best foot forward in this entry, as one of my traditions is to remind you that for all my contentious contrarianism, I really do care about all you close ones as an actual, normal human being might do. This may be an agnostic blog, but I know what I know, and one of those facts is that ultimately, life and humanity are worth celebrating, especially in unison.

Christians like to talk about "the reason for the season." Well, listen, Jesus may be the reason for a whole lot of things, but he's not the reason for this particular season. Christians moved Christmas to late December in order to occupy territory once owned proudly by the winter solstice. That's the reason for this season, and it's a great one--not because the sun god holds any sway over us, but because the sun does. Every one of us is susceptible, at least to some degree, to seasonal affective disorder. As days get shorter, our moods darken, too. As we tear pages away from the calendar, we're reminded of all we've failed to accomplish. Some of us, it pains to me to say, had a lousy 2013. Some folks didn't make it to the end. But I'm not trying to bum anyone out; quite the opposite. Because we, Gentle Reader, you and me? We're still here. We hung on. The days are lengthening again, so now it's time to look ahead to all the possibilities inherent in a brand new year.

There's a great holiday song by Imogen Heap called "Just for Now," that exhorts us to "leave all our hopelessnesses aside, if just for a little while." And that's what these holidays mean to me. They're a time to celebrate survival and rejuvenation. If someone broke your heart this year, it will soon have happened last year, and from there it will fade in your memory. If your fortunes or health took a beating, those bruises will heal. As you sit around the tree, handing out gifts and enjoying favorite treats, know it's all about to change. That evergreen covered in lights doesn't represent our pie-in-the-sky dreams of a heavenly reward, nor even global peace among men (and women) of goodwill. It symbolizes survival in the face of freezing cold. Every apple-cheeked Christ child in a Bethlehem creche means our world is being born again even as we speak.

So shalom, my friends. We made it. Here comes the sun, and I say: it's all right.

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I should be reading right now, by which I mean professionally. See, a recent gig performing radio drama at Lakewood Playhouse, together with a lull in my usual day job, inspired me to seek out work as a voice actor. Apparently readers of audiobooks are in high demand these days. Can you believe I landed the first such job for which I've ever auditioned? Yay, life! Yeah, I was stunned, too. It's an translation in sonnets of The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, whomever that is. It's challenging work, because not only does each ancient Greek name present a daunting hurdle, but this translator's vocabulary puts that of Shakespeare to shame. has become my new best friend. I'm enjoying the assignment. Trouble is, my home office isn't soundproof, so November rain presents an unexpected problem. Same goes for traffic over the Tumwater airport a short distance away, and leaf blowers, and Amanda's cat Sloppy Joe out in the hall...

Still, I got the job, so I can call myself a professional voice actor. Why the hell would I complain about something like that?

As I've mentioned before, the concept of thankfulness is an odd one for agnostics--not because we don't feel the emotion, of course, but we're not sure whom we should be thanking. The Great Unknown Cosmic? Impersonal luck? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Take your pick. All I know is, there are times when I feel grateful to SOMETHING, and I don't want to let those moments vanish into nothing. They did not have to happen. The Universe doesn't owe us good luck or even fair treatment; when it arrives, it should never be taken for granted.

So. Y'know what I'm most grateful for, right at this moment? I feel wanted. I don't mean I feel wanted sexually, as valuable as that may be, but in every other dimension of my life. For example, when I was laid off by Cengage last year (a company that's since begun bankruptcy proceedings), I was only out of work for three months. In our current economy, that's just shy of miraculous. It seems my ex-supervisor liked my work so much that when he was hired by another company, Chegg, he asked if he could hire me as well. I've been writing for Chegg ever since.

Meanwhile, my publisher/editor at the Weekly Volcano keeps swearing he'll be obliged to decrease the paper's theatre coverage, but it never seems to happen. Trust me, that's not because he's a theatre buff. I don't think he's ever attended a show. He just says he likes my writing too much. Consequently, I've had maybe one cover story idea rejected in four years. How many newspaper writers, even recognized names, can say that?

This week another ex-employer indicated a desire to hire me for yet another writing job, and even if that never comes to pass, it's still lovely to hear. I didn't fish for the compliment. It just happened. As rejection emails clog my inbox, the inevitable result of recent query letters to possible agents, it's rewarding to hear I'm not completely wasting my time putting QWERTY to keyboard.

I suppose this is one of those posts that consists almost entirely of bragging, isn't it? Sorry about that. I'm trying to say thanks, if to no one other than you, Gentle Reader. I couldn't have done it without you. Because you're a reader, and a mensch, this former trailer park resident gets to be a professional writer. I mean WOW.

And then there's my wife. They say marriage is hard work. Ours is not. Ours runs smoothly, and I suspect that's because we're each other's best friend. Consequently, we have no one else to gripe to about each other. And she likes having me around. She doesn't need me, she wants me. We don't have kids to keep us together, we don't need to lie or omit many truths to make it work, yet her car still pulls into the driveway each weekday at 5:30 p.m. Granted, it was already her house, but you see where I'm coming from here.

Meanwhile, my Washington friends put up with my borderline-autistic behaviors and laugh at my clearly inappropriate jokes. Rare is the weekend someone hasn't sought out, or at least agreed to, the company of Amanda and me. I suspect they mostly want to hang out with her--but geez, that's only because she's so much nicer and friendlier than me. Their math does check out.

The South Sound arts scene wants me. People ask when I'll be in a show again. They don't need me; my niche is amply filled with multi-talented performers. Yet they ask, and when I audition, I tend to get cast. There's a publisher interested in releasing a paperback edition of Lightfall. I don't know if I want that to happen, but God, am I thankful that book hasn't faded into an absolute obscurity that seemed unstoppable two years ago.

What a blessing it is to be wanted. As we enter our mid-forties, the number of people who seem interested in jumping our bones decreases sharply. Aging sucks. It's not that other people find us unattractive; rather, they find us beside the point, sexually speaking. It's like they've looked up from their bus stop, we're the #45 bus, and they were waiting for the #23. They return to their People magazine, instantly forgetting we were ever passing by. As that particular variety of desirability diminishes into the rear-view mirror, then, it's comforting to replace it with something valuable and ageless and comprehensively satisfying.

This afternoon someone posted a picture of me and my undergraduate friends on Facebook. The photo was probably taken in 1990 or 1991, in a house which no longer exists. I felt that instant pang of nostalgia. Can it really be over two decades since that goofy kid was me? But y'know, as I reflect on how many people are happy to have me around, and the warm reception they've offered my talents and personality over the years, I feel grateful for how things turned out. At any point in our lives, that's a joy to be recognized and savored in most humble appreciation.

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Paris, 2013

When I was a junior in high school, I decided I wanted to be the kind of guy who was able to speak French. Looking back, that was one of thousands of choices that made me the person I am now. I chose wine over beer, sarcasm over pratfalls, writing over drawing, culture over machismo. For thirty years, I kept almost learning French: a year in high school, two semesters in undergrad college, two more in grad school. Finally, last spring, I completed French Course I on Duolingo, which means I can speak French about as well as a slow second-grader in Lyon.

By the time I finished college, my conception of my future self expanded toward visiting Paris. My French II professor showed us slides of le Centre Georges Pompidou, aka the museum of modern art in Beaubourg, and I was hooked. Here was a playground for the intellectual cutting edge. Such lofty heights were, it has to be said, a world away from my poor upbringing in Crowder, Oklahoma, and in more ways than one. I'm not sure I ever really believed I'd be able to afford traveling to Europe someday. It was just a romantic daydream.

The day my wife Amanda took me to pose for my very first passport photo, as a Christmas present early this year, it all started to turn a bit real. I could feel the world spinning to meet me. I owned a passport. A passport! Like Anthony Bourdain and Jason Bourne! We dove into guidebooks and travel videos. Little by little, Paris took on actual dimensions. I drew up an itinerary, swooning a bit as I included such landmarks as l'Arc de Triomphe and le Château de Versailles.

Our grand week arrived. Amanda's fall vacation began; we took her parents to Din Tai Fung in Bellevue (yum) and spent an afternoon at the Washington State Fair (sigh). Those, of course, were mere warm-ups to break in our shoes. (It didn't work.) Then came the big day, and for eleven hours, we sat in a metal tube in the sky with two irate babies screaming in our faces the whole way. It was sensory overload. I think we were exhausted before we even stepped into Charles de Gaulle Airport. A young woman who looked like an international supermodel helped us figure out the RER ticket dispenser, and off we went to Gare du Nord on Paris's northern side. The Metro system is clean and straightforward, so before long we were schlepping down the hill in Montmartre, Paris's scenic 18eme arrondissement. AirBnB had hooked us up with a Parisian couple, Joël and Anne, and the view from their flat encompassed l'Arc de Triomphe and the upper third of la Tour d'Eiffel. It hit me like I brick: here I am. I'm really here. This happened. Paris is a real place, I'm standing in it, and I've become the kind of person who can do that. My mind is still blown.

From the bottom of my heart, I want you to understand this isn't one of those "I can go to Paris and you can't" kind of stories. I'm as stunned as you are that I finally pulled it off, and I couldn't and wouldn't have achieved it without having Amanda by my side. I've been broke the overwhelming majority of my life. Time was, a trip from L.A. to Vegas was a huge undertaking. But Amanda and I made the decision not to have children, followed quickly by the offer of better jobs, and it's made all the difference. We can afford to take a major trip every two years now, barring future tragedy, and it's important to me to take you along to the degree I can manage it. I posted iPhone pics to Facebook each night, so some of you have already taken that journey with us, metaphorically speaking. This is really just a wrap-up, my takeaway from the City of Lights. As I've said dozens of times this past week, it was life-changing. I mean that.

For those who are just catching up, here's a rough outline of our trip:

Day 1: Travel, check in, Musée d'Orsay, Rue Cler street market, Tour d'Eiffel

Day 2: Louvre, Avenue Champs-Élysées, l'Arc de Triomphe, Lido

Day 3: Versailles, Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bateaux Mouches

Day 4: Saint-Sulpice, Centre Pompidou, Ile de la Cité, Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Company, El Fogón

Day 5: Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur, La Bonne Franquette, Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera Bastille

Day 6: Catacombs, Panthéon, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Frenchie's Wine Bar

Day 7: Cimetiere du Père-Lachaise, Bus #69, Musée de Cluny, Rue Montorgeuil

Day 8: Fly home.

I know. I can't believe we fit it all in, either, especially knowing I did it on mangled feet. I was stupid enough to believe travel guru Rick Steves when he told me Parisians would never be caught dead wearing tennis shoes. That's true for the most part; their walking shoes are apparently made for actual walking, however, and mine were clearly not. It took me five full days to recover back in Washington.

So what was so damn life-changing about Paris? I'd never felt so immersed in Western history before. Paris is named for a Roman tribe that settled on Ile de la Cité, the Parisii, and the Cluny Museum still has an authentic Roman bath in its basement. In the Louvre, I stood next to a four-thousand-year-old, statuary representation of the Code of Hammurabi, the first known system of laws and civil behavior on Earth. Its impact has echoed throughout the millennia--courtesy of the Law of Moses, who was certainly aware of its existence. We attended Mass in a church, Saint-Sulpice, where services were first held in the 13th century. Notre Dame is over three times older than our country. It boggles the mind. I imagined peasants hoisting those stone blocks hundreds of feet into the air, almost literally breaking their backs in reverence to the Eternal. And whatever the Eternal is, well, their work added to it.

Coming back to America was surreal. It was like that first night you take your intended to eat dinner with your family. Suddenly, you see your squabbling blood relations through fresh eyes. You've had years to get used to all their quirks, but now, you realize with the force of a hurricane that your loved ones are actually a high-functioning coven of sociopaths. So it was in the Dallas airport, where my fellow Yanks were all costumed like obnoxious grade-school kids: loud slogans on their clothes, baseball caps, floppy shorts. It was embarrassing! Already I missed the dapper scarves and pleated pants of the working-class Parisians on the Metro. Even worse? These Americans were on the plane to Seattle with us. They were our homies! They were us!

I don't know how I've changed, but I have. It's resolved a darkening dissatisfaction that could've morphed into a slow-burn midlife crisis. I've come to understand that I really am an adult now; it's okay if I look, act, and feel like one; and I can have adult goals. It isn't just about hanging on till the next directing project or Star Wars sequel. It's about stepping into the world, bit by bit, city by city, land by land. Next on our docket is Rome. Amanda and I watched a travel show about it yesterday, and I was struck, as I was every moment in Paris, by the sheer scale of things. I don't mean skyscrapers, our vast bland American expanses of featureless glass. I mean towers and columns and monuments of marble and granite, adorned from base to point with perfections of decorative art that took lifetimes to master. These were multi-generational projects. Once upon a time people knew they were building their legacies. I want to write that way, too, to demonstrate my hope that what I say will outlive me. I want the work I do to reflect the very best I can muster.

Yet I also remember standing in the Orsay Museum, Paris's unforgettable repository of impressionist art, and knowing deep down I would never, ever, could never be this good at anything. Standing before a Van Gogh or Renoir, one understands keenly that one is in the presence of the divine. I don't mean those artists were touched by the hand of God, whatever that even means. I mean they were themselves superhuman, by any measure I've ever learned to apply to that word. Of course no one understood them. How do you stand in the presence of a superman and not feel just a touch of resentment? If you were an artist who'd made a comfortable living all your life as a human-level painter, how do you look at a "Starry Night Over the Rhone" and not want to chuck all your paintings out the window and start looking for work as a barista instead?

When Napoleon's troops were given the daunting assignment of stacking six million dead Parisians in the catacombs under the city, it's pretty clear they found the job humbling. They did beautiful work, but between each crib of bones is a marker etched with some poetic quote or Bible verse about the mad inevitability of death. They carved meditations about the ephemeral nature of being. Now they too are gone. We walked through acres of tombs, tumbling over each other in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, their markers obscured, the names all but forgotten. We raced past them in a search for the late Oscar Wilde, barely sensing they held babies in their arms and made wonderful meals and had lives full of passion and hope, the meat of their lives. We wondered instead how long it would be before our own mortal remains added to yet another dusty layer of obscurity.

So here I am, a mere hitchhiker on a world that keeps getting bigger and bigger the deeper I look at it, pondering my own worthlessness in the shadow of superbeings, yet hoping to leave a few thousand meaningful words in my wake. It's the only way I know how to justify my stay on this orb. Paris made me feel tiny. It made me feel transient. It also reminded me what wonderful things mere humans can accomplish when the full moon rises over the Seine.

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