Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


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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Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Hi, all! I'm not sure what the Volcano will choose to do with my review of SPSCC's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It's tricky because I was invited on short notice and my usual editor is on a much-deserved European vacation. The show only runs one more weekend so, for the time being at least, I'll post my review here. If it's posted at the new Volcano site, I'll delete it here.


Tiger, tiger, burning bright
Bengal Tiger prowls a city of ghosts
Christian Carvajal

It ain’t right, I tell ya. Were it not for a direct invitation from director Don Welch, I wouldn’t have known about his South Puget Sound Community College production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. I never saw a poster downtown. All but one of its actors were unknown to me. That may explain why my companion and I were the only two guests at Sunday’s matinée, but this show deserves better. It’s a slap in the face to wake up anyone who considers live theater culturally irrelevant.

Rajiv Joseph’s barrage of a script, a Pulitzer finalist, is a mere four years old. It’s set during an event only seven years older than itself: the invasion and occupation of Baghdad, which resulted in the partial destruction of an inhumane menagerie. The narrator of our story is Tiger, a zoo denizen guarded by two U.S. Marines. The savvier of the two, Tom, is in possession of two pricey items once owned by Saddam & Sons. His cohort, Kev, is a full-on imbecile who should never have been trusted with a weapon. Before long, at least one of those characters will be dead, but—as an Iraqi character so eloquently puts it—“You Americans, you think when something dies, it goes away.”

This, to be sure, is a junior college show, with all the roughness around the edges one accepts from such performances: muddled articulation, ham-handed sound cuts, memory glitches, all present and accounted for. It’s also stunningly ambitious. Most characters speak at length in what sounded, to my admittedly ignorant ears, like competent Arabic. Tavis Williams, dynamic as Laertes in SPSCC’s Hamlet last winter, stalks the stage with world-weary charisma as Tiger. Matthew Kline is painfully credible as Kev, both before and after a significant character transformation. As Tom, Kalen Manion seems more caged than any zoo animal. But one of the paradoxes woven into this script is its most charming character, the late, unlamented Uday Saddam Hussein—a despicable sociopath singlehandedly responsible for raping, torturing, and murdering unknown hundreds of innocents. Ryan Petersen plays the monster so amiably that we smile at what ought to leave us chilled to our moral centers.

This is a story rife with paradox. It’s profane, yet cares more about the nature of God than most devotional works. It’s funny, but the jokes land in horrifying ways and at all the wrong moments. It indicts everyone and no one. It’s foul-mouthed and deeply poetic. It’s a tale told by ghosts, yet feels bracingly alive. In short, it’s one of the most extraordinary scripts I’ve come across in years, and Welch and his young company play fair by it. I implore you to check it out this weekend.

[South Puget Sound Community College, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, $10-$15, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. through Aug. 18, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia, 360.753.8585]

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Bad Jokes

I've spent the last two months busting my hump on a massive assignment for my day job, which explains why I haven't been updating this blog. It also explains why my spine remains torqued into a question mark and I spend half each night applying the binomial theorem in my sleep. But! I finished that assignment this morning, which leaves me free for at least part of next week to start revising my novel. The timing worked out nicely, as my memory of what I wrote in the first draft has faded to a level that'll allow me to work through it (mostly) objectively.

In the meantime, I've found myself thinking a great deal about the subject of offensive communication. It started when Daniel Tosh, a comedian whose work I enjoy to widely differing degrees from set to set, got himself in trouble with an off-the-cuff rape joke. I won't repeat it here, nor will I say whether I found it "funny" or "unfunny." What I will say is that in my opinion, the definition of funny is simple: did I laugh or not? A lot of people laugh at Jeff Dunham. I don't. That doesn't mean he isn't funny to somebody, but it does make my definition highly subjective. Well, maybe it always was, but that doesn't discourage moral thought police from stomping all over racy jokes as if there were some grand, galactic, inviolable definition of comedy.

Unless something is seriously wrong with you, it isn't funny when a person gets raped. It may, however, be funny if someone makes a joke about a fictional person getting fictionally raped. A joke about a rape is not a rape, it's a joke. A joke about rape doesn't make more rape happen, it either makes people laugh or it doesn't. That doesn't mean we should all be proud of our laughter, but sometimes jokes expose flaws in our moral reckoning. Maybe that's part of the reason why jokes are so important.

They really are. A major chunk of my worldview was inspired, or at least encouraged, by comedians. I think I've written before about Sam Kinison's Jesus routine: "There's always thirty or forty Christians standing around [the cross], saying, 'It's a shame that he has to die.' And Jesus is saying, "Well, maybe I wouldn't have to if somebody would get a ladder and a pair of pliers!'" That joke is wrong, wrong, wrong. It's also funny, in my subjective opinion. It made me gasp when I first heard it, even as it Heimliched a laugh out of me. But y'know, it does make you think. It makes you think about piety over practicality. It makes you think about the dubious moral value of the crucifixion story. And, like a lot of voices that broke into my consciousness throughout my formative years, it made me question the Sacred Truths I'd received from my religion. I've since learned many of those supposed truths were misunderstandings, propaganda, or, in some minor cases, outright fraud. I feel better for knowing that. Your mileage may vary.

They say laughter is a defense mechanism against pain and humiliation. If that's true, then in order for a joke to be funny, it has to at least hurt somebody's feelings. For centuries, minority members were acceptable punch lines, as were women, homosexuals, and people with various physical or mental disabilities. We're starting to feel so much empathy for folks in those groups that, as a culture, it becomes harder and harder to laugh at their struggles. I think that's all for the best, as long as we recognize that a self-aware sense of humor is still healthy. For most of us, jokes about rape can be funny, not because it's funny when someone gets raped, but because it's shocking and awful when someone gets raped. A cleverly crafted joke plays off our horror. A rape joke isn't nice, to be sure, but I'm of the opinion that comedy is sometimes obliged to be not-very-nice.

Yet somewhere along the way in Western culture, we started telling ourselves that being pleasant was more important than being funny or even being honest. That's the feedback I get when people object to my blog entries, theatre criticism, or snarky remarks. "Carv, you aren't being nice. Why do you want to make people feel bad?" I don't. It's not how I get my kicks, swear to God. But the monologue I hear in my head was informed, not only by moral guides or skilled instructors, but also by comedians like Bill Cosby, David Letterman, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, George Carlin, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K.--the list goes on and on. They were crusty, impolite dudes (yes, even the Cos) who thought their take on the world was worth hearing, maybe even at the expense of my own tender feelings. And I love those guys. In no way whatsoever do I intend to compare my insights or talents to theirs. I just know they taught me how to talk, for worse and better.

There ought to be a word in the English language for supposed "jokes" that were only clever once, if in fact they ever were, but then get chirped ad infinitum by unfunny nice people. "Hot enough for ya?" "Pie aren't square, pie are round." "My get-up-and-go done got up and went!" You know the type. Nice and funny aren't comfortable companions. Much like Elvis and Beatles fandom, ya gotta lean a certain direction, no matter how hard you try to walk the line. We all think we've been gifted with fabulous senses of humor, but the truth is most of us don't possess a great deal of originality. Don't believe me? Log onto Facebook. "I don't always blah blah, but when I do..." Ugh. Just ugh. Jokes like that are what happens when nice people try their hand at sarcasm. It doesn't suit them. It's like me pretending I'm good at ballet. It's simply not something I'm built for.

Over the next few months and years, you'll probably see more on this site about sex--as if my years of digging deeper into religion weren't obnoxious enough--because it's the subject of my novel-in-progress. I'm likely to crack jokes about the subject, given my nature, and they'll probably strike some of you as impolite. I suppose they might even offend you--though most of us, in actual fact, have lost the capacity to be truly offended. Rather, we get off on staging moral attacks by saying we're miffed and no one has the right to challenge our fragile little mythscapes. Well, phooey on that, Gentle Reader. If you've been having sex for years, I'm not all that interested in hearing how "offended" you are to learn I might've had it, too.

Just know going forward that my views on sexuality are no longer informed by what Christian fundamentalists preach or believe or claim to believe when other fundamentalists are listening. I don't care what Paul of Tarsus thought about gay people. He didn't know squat about the subject. I don't care what your grandma thought about how proper ladies and gentlemen should behave. Behind closed doors, your sainted granny was a freak. I don't care that children might be reading my blog. If they're smart enough to find it, they're unlikely to be surprised by anything I have to say about sex or, for that matter, anything else. I don't care about cultural taboos or God's supposed distaste for knocking boots. It's a great pastime, and He should be proud of having invented it.

Lastly, you should never assume my comments about sex, religion, or any other topic have been approved or endorsed by the management; and by "the management," of course, I mean my wife. Love you, honey. And that's no joke.

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I turned 45 two days ago, but my wife and I postponed my birthday celebration till this week because we were too pooped to party. She had just wrapped a variety of roles in a new children's musical adaptation of Cinder Edna, and I finished the first draft of my new book. (More on that in a minute.) Tonight she's making me and her parents filets mignons--it seems my birthday got blended into her father's birthday and actual Father's Day--and then tomorrow night we're going out for pizza and Man of Steel with three dozen of our closest friends. I'm pretty stoked.

About that book: I'm calling it a memoir, though it isn't mine. I was intrigued enough to help Gary Klein write an account of his most famous public debacle. (Klein, you may remember, was involved in that fiasco out on Santa Catalina Island the day of the quake.) Once I got into his story, it really started rolling, and the first draft was finished right on the schedule--to the exact date, in fact--that I'd established several months ago. Now it goes into the softcopy equivalent of a drawer for a month or two while I try to forget every word of it. That way, when I come back to it for the revision process, I'll be able to work on it fresh, assessing it the way a new reader would. Once I'm happy with the writing, I'll run it by Gary for one last-fact check and anecdote hunt, and then it'll be time to start looking for representation. That's an emotionally draining process that can take over a year. In the meantime, a select few of you will be asked to read it early. If you're chosen and agree to help out, I can only hope you'll be as supportive as you are honest...and vice versa.

One of the few birthday treats I allowed myself in advance of tonight was a massage yesterday afternoon. It was my third time going to the same masseuse, so we're slowly getting to know each other while she tenderized my back like a chicken fried steak. She asked me what it was like to be 45. It was the day before her own 30th birthday, so age was on her mind. I started to tell her about noisy knees, lactose intolerance, weird hair products for people who don't have hair, all that Louis C.K. it's-rough-being-old kind of stuff. She didn't care about any of that. She's a dancer and yoga enthusiast, so she probably figures her body will stay bulletproof till she's well into her dotage. What she wanted to know was how it felt to be 45, meaning how is my thinking and emotional nature different from hers. Of course, I'm about as different from a 30-year-old German-born yoga enthusiast as I am from your average bonobo, so I didn't know where to begin. Instead, I thought about ways I may or may not feel different from when I was 25.

Why 25? Because in addition to my 45th birthday, this is the 20th anniversary of the week I graduated from my undergrad alma mater, East Central University. (If you graduated with me, congratulations; you're old now, too.) I loved ECU. I loved being an undergraduate college student. I loved my friends and wild parties and writing and learning and acting in five plays a year and sorority girls and for that matter, non-sorority girls and knowing I was where I belonged. If I became friends with someone at ECU, chances are we're still friends now. Some of those people are as close to me as anyone in my family, and I wouldn't trade my time there for a Harvard degree. I mean that.

Two decades ago, no one in our computer science department had heard of a JPEG. If you wanted to find something out, you went to an actual library (though we did have a computerized card catalog, on Apple IIe computers that could just about multiply numbers). AIDS was still an illness that affected young people's sex lives, as was Christian fundamentalism. President Clinton had been in office for about five months. People still had newspaper subscriptions. Jurassic Park was only a book, and no one doubted Han Solo shot first. All in all, it was just like today except everything was different.

So how am I different at age 45 than how I was then? I think the biggest difference is I still thought I had an outside chance at one day being COOL. I write COOL in all-caps because I'm trying to get at something bigger than the word, like YOLO or YWHW or TCBY. When I was young, whether I could've articulated it or not, I wanted to be COOL more than anything, and I honestly believed I might achieve it. What is COOL? God, it's everything. It's charisma and sexual attractiveness and fortune and fame and respect and a distinctive fashion sense and a great sense of humor and a reputation for trouble, but not like Amanda Bynes. It's about everyone remembering your name and maybe even spelling it correctly. It's about knowing that if life is a game, you've already won it with plenty of time to run out the clock and do illegal victory dances in the end zone and collect phone numbers from cheerleaders.

Why did I do theatre? It made me feel COOL.

Why did I write fiction? I liked inventing people and situations and writing jokes that were COOL.

Why did I move back to L.A., not just L.A. but actual Hollywood, and scratch and claw my way into the movie business as--try not to swoon--a glorified CopyMax clerk at GloboToad? Bet your ass it was COOL. I got to go to movie premieres. I roamed free on the studio backlot. I've been insulted by Joss Whedon, my friend, so good luck hurting my feelings. I'm not some bald math nerd with a Ben & Jerry's gut and a self-aggrandizing website; I've walked the surface of Planet COOL.

Except the thing is, I wasn't that COOL. I was kinda cool. I was lower-case cool. None of the dozens of celebrities I've met could pick me out of a lineup. They were COOL. I wasn't. I was just there. I've had a book published, and then my publisher went out of business five months later. How 'bout them apples? Story of my life, man. Story of my not-so-cool life. But I'm here, as Elaine Stritch would say. I'm still working. I put myself out there. I just don't believe for one second that I'm ever going to be Stephen King or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Come to think of it, both of those guys have dealt with substance abuse, so maybe it's all for the best. COOL can wear a brother out. In some ways, COOL is overrated.

I can honestly say I have few regrets when it comes to things I've done. I wish I hadn't given my ex-wife the silent treatment, but Lord knows how things would've gone if I'd talked. I wish I had a better handle on juggling two virtues I deeply respect, namely kindness and honesty. I'm sorry for times I've lost my temper or developed a persecution complex...but really, not that much. It all worked out okay.

I do, however, regret things I haven't done. I've never tried a hallucinogen or visited the Playboy mansion or, well, I could name several other things Gary Klein has done and I haven't. It may seem strange to you that I'm sitting here wishing I'd committed more sins, but one big way I've changed since I was 25 is I don't believe in an absolute moral authority anymore. Not that I believed in a personal God when I was 25, mind you--if anything, I was a more devout atheist then, as I was still a new convert--but I did believe some things were more right than others and so, in my reductivist logic, there had to be a set of things that were most right of all. I let that go a long time ago.

Of course, it's more right to not kill someone than to kill someone. It's important to tell the truth and be faithful to your spouse and support those in need and refrain from making fun of people as perilously troubled as, say, that poor Amanda Bynes. But is it more right to sleep with one person in your life than with 10? Or 20? Or 100? Is there a more right or wrong way to sleep with consenting adults? What if you bought them all breakfast the next morning? Is sex more or less wrong depending on the adults with whom you knock boots? Is smoking a joint more or less wrong than downing a six-pack? What about harder drugs? It's not simply that I don't have a definite answer for these questions anymore; it's that I don't think anyone else does, either. And before you say "well, the Bible says," no, it doesn't. The Bible hero-worships people like David and Solomon, whose sex lives put Ke$ha's to shame. The Bible doesn't say word one about masturbation or abortion or sexting. When the Bible does dictate morality, it's hard to take it seriously, because you just read a verse that said "here's how it's okay to have sex slaves and stone people in the public square and kill every man, woman and child who own real estate you want." I've realized in the last few decades that morality and ethics are no more or less than the decisions we make, day by day, moment by moment, about how good we can be to other people while still being great to ourselves. And that's okay.

If I could impart one useful life lesson to my 20-year-old self, it'd be this: Carv, you have a tendency right now to be nicer to people than they have been to you. As Stephen Chbosky says, "We accept the love we think we deserve." Try to believe you deserve better love. I mean, it's fine, good love will find you down the road either way, but maybe you'll have more fun before you get there. And maybe you won't be as depressed, which'll pacify some of those paranoid feelings, which'll make you more likely to be open to others.

Ah, but who am I kidding? I wouldn't have listened to me then. I barely listen to me now. I'm pretty fortunate that anyone does. It's okay being 45, at least the way I've managed to do it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I can hear those bacon-wrapped filets mignons hitting the skillet. Happy birthday to me!

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Status Update

Hey, there, friends, it's been a while. Many of you are Facebook friends or follow me on Twitter (@carvwriter), so you know where I've been. For the rest of you, I've been concentrating on other projects. I've written 40,000 words on the new novel, which is about half the book. I'm hoping to have a polished first draft finished by my 45th birthday in mid-June. I have a day job, of course, and that takes a fair amount of time. I'm acting again, as Little John in Olympia Family Theater's The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood, opening March 29. The day after that show closes, I'll start work on Legally Blonde: The Musical at Capital Playhouse, in which I'm playing Elle's father and singing in the ensemble. My wife is in Robin Hood with me, then starts work as three characters in OFT's debut production of Cinder Edna. We're going to Paris in mid-September, so I'm spending about five hours a week learning French. (Here's an unsolicited promo, incidentally, for the free language learning app Duolingo.) I write a few articles a month for the Weekly Volcano, including a cover story next week on the subject of--wait for it--swingers.

With all that on my plate, I've had little time to think about either blogging or podcasting. I feel somewhat guilty about that, but it's definitely time to push this new novel out of my head and into the world. I can't wait to talk to you about the process of seeking a new publisher (Fear Nought is still defunct, I'm afraid) and scheduling readings. Bear with me, please, and I'll be back with a vengeance in a couple of months. Thanks for reading, and hey: may the Force be with you! Assuming Star Wars, Episode VII comes out in May of 2015, I'll be in L.A. that week for Opening Day.

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