Thursday, December 26, 2013

All-Time Favorites

It’s the time of year when everyone is making lists. Top ten’s. Best of’s. Well, it’s been a good reading year for me, but as I considered writing about my favorites, it wasn’t long before my mind was permanently fixed upon books that have impacted my life over time. I decided that since it’s my blog, I could write about my “best of’s” any way I wanted, so here are some books that have stuck with me long after I’ve read them.

The Bible. Forgive me, God, but some of the Bible is terribly boring. If anyone enjoys Leviticus, Numbers, and Jeremiah, I’d like to know why. However, after reading it many, many times, it has clearly impacted my view of life, my values, my purpose for living, and my heart.

Heaven by John McArthur. There’s a lot to not understand about God and His workings in the world, but to have the hope of Heaven makes it a lot easier to deal with. This book presented Heaven in such a way that not only do I have something to look forward to, but I have a better perspective on my purpose for being on earth as well.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. My dad made me read this book. Crusoe was a guy who wasn’t an outdoorsman, wasn’t handy, and wasn’t equipped to live on an island alone for nearly thirty years, yet he did it. He never gave up hope. He learned how to do everything he needed to do. He was an inspiration to me that I also can do whatever I put my mind to do.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’m often proclaiming that this is my favorite book. I connected with it. I learned from it. I was captivated by it. I’ve read it numerous times, and each time I finish I say, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read.” It’s one of only two novels that I choose to read over and over again.

This Present Darkness/Piercing the Darkness by Frank Peretti. As a young adult, it was these books that got me interested in fantasy. I was also fascinated by the dual, intertwined stories of people on earth and also angels and demons on a different realm, an element which I included in Jumper.

Holes by Louis Sachar and The Colorado Kid by Stephen King. The books have nothing in common except for the fact that each had such a unique plot, written so superbly, that when I was finished, I wished I had written them. These two books had a lot to do with my decision to write books of my own—especially the mysteries in Skeleton Key and Bulletproof.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton. This book has my favorite character—a bad guy protagonist. Crichton took a true story from the 1850’s and retold it as a novel, a novel which is the other book that I read over and over. I received another new copy for Christmas because I gave away my best copy and my used replacement was in terrible condition. What a fascinating story, mixing history with mystery and adventure. It should be a movie.

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Again, these books have nothing to do with each other, but I read one this year and one ages ago and both brought me to tears. Books can do that, you know? Books can be written so well and be so captivating that I can cry. It’s good to read books like that once in a while.

Loving the Rain by Jeff LaFerney. Yep, I egotistically chose my own book. But why not? I wrote a book! I sat down with an idea and the ideas kept coming and the plot and characters came alive. And I even made myself cry during one of the scenes. I woke up in the middle of the night with the ending. I got it published and people liked it. This book means the world to me because it was a risk I took, and I typed out a part of me that I didn’t know existed.

The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. John Irving is a fantastic story-teller. His books ramble on and on in direction after direction. Characters are weird; their lives are weirder. His stories stick in my head and I can’t put his books down, and then somehow—miraculously—the whole story comes together—sometimes shockingly. These two books did it best. If I could write like someone, I’d choose John Irving.

Wish You Well by David Baldacci and A Painted House by John Grisham. These two well-known authors write thrillers and I’ve read many, many books by each, but these two novels divert from the norm. They’re historical, literary fiction. The stories are fabulous, showing a diversity and talent that impressed me. As a writer, I appreciate both of these stories immensely.

Emma vs. the Tech Guy by Lia Fairchild, The Last Great Wizard of Yden by S.G. Rogers, Blue Bells of Scotland by Laura Vosika, Long Live the King by Guy Cote, Embers at Galdrilene by A.D. Trosper, The Lie by Ashley Fontainne, The Conduit by Stacey Rourke, Warrior of the Ages by S.R. Karfelt, Golden Blood by Melissa Pearl, The Jewel Box by C. Michelle McCarty, and Deja Blue by Julie Cassar. These are indie authors all, and they’ve written very good books (I only listed one for each). These authors are my supportive, talented, funny, generous, intelligent, diverse friends whose books I treasure.

So that’s my year-end “best of” list. Choose any of those books to read and enjoy yourself. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and may the New Year bring you lots of stories to read and write.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Disaster Zone Ahead

I read a quote recently that said, “You can never be too far away from a disaster because there is no disaster-free zone in this entire universe.” I also stumbled upon the following words: “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” It got me thinking about times when things have happened in my life that I just have to step back and laugh about. No one is exempt from bad things happening in his or her life, but how we respond to them is wholly our own decision. 

When I was in high school, both of my parents were teachers in my building. Believe it or not, there were more advantages to that situation than disadvantages. One time when I was sixteen years old, one of my classes was simply having a make-up work day, and since all my work was in, I asked my dad if I could take his car and go get something to eat. He said yes. On the way back to school, on the side street right beside the school campus, a driver with a limited brain capacity backed out of her driveway and ran into me as I was driving by. Now, admittedly, if I was a more experienced driver, it’s likely that I could have avoided this accident, but the driver was ticketed and our car was taken to the shop for repairs. On the day that we picked it up, as my dad was looking over his right shoulder and crossing one lane to turn left into another, a driver from the opposite side of the road was doing the exact same thing. They met in the middle in the form of a car collision. My dad turned the car around and drove it right back into the repair shop for a second round of restoration. I thought he would be mad at me since he blamed me for the first accident, but instead, he laughed about it. He shook his head and laughed. What a good example that was to me.

Author Kim Edwards said, “You can't spend the rest of your life tiptoeing around to try and avert disaster. It won't work. You'll just end up missing the life you have.” Sooo…about a week and a half ago, my wife hit a deer on the way to work. It smashed in the front of her car. The car was in for a little over a week for repairs, costing us one hundred dollars for the comprehensive deductible. The day she picked it up, while stopped with her turn signal blinking and while waiting for traffic to pass so she could make a left turn, a lady smashed into the back of her car going about fifty-five or sixty miles per hour. I had just been lamenting to my son recently about how expensive our auto insurance was. For a family of four who had no points on our licenses, no accident claims for nearly twenty years, and no tickets, it was absurd how much we were paying for insurance. I actually said, “We sure don’t get our money’s worth.” Well, now we do. My wife was the model positive example through all this. If she complained, it wasn’t to me. She actually said to me, “Did I tell you the good news? The insurance company called and said we wouldn’t have to pay any of the deductible. This accident is cheaper than the last one!” 

Author Delphine de Vigan wrote: “In books there are chapters to separate out the moments, to show that time is going by and things are changing, and sometimes the parts even have titles that are full of promise—'The Meeting', 'Hope', 'Downfall'—like paintings do. But in life there's nothing like that, no titles or signs or warnings, nothing to say 'Beware, danger!' or 'Frequent landslides' or 'Disillusion ahead.’ In life you stand all alone in your costume, and too bad if it's in tatters.” In some ways, de Vigan is right. Do you realize that in 1997, eight individuals cracked their skulls when falling asleep while throwing up in a toilet? Did you ever hear about poor Willy Thevessen who threw his Christmas tree out of a third floor window? The problem was that somehow he managed to throw himself out of the window too. I woke up early one morning many years ago with a back ache. My “back ache” was actually a kidney stone. Now, I’m a pretty tough guy. I had rotator cuff surgery on a Tuesday and went to work on Wednesday. But kidney stones are debilitating. Once I realized I needed to go to the emergency room, I made phone calls to take care of school lesson plans and to inform the varsity basketball coach that I probably wouldn’t be coaching the JV that evening. When I finally made it back to our bedroom in full expectation of my wife being ready to hurry me to the hospital, I found her lying on the bathroom floor, passed out with her head between the toilet and the sink. I could hardly breathe, and there was my wife unconscious on the floor. She was my ride! She woke up, passed out again, and woke up again soaked in sweat. She let me know that she had to take a shower before we could leave, and that we had to take the kids to her parents before we went to the hospital. Looking back on it now, I can laugh about the extended pain, and about the ride on my hands and knees in the back of the van (because it was the best position I could manage). Everything’s good now, and apparently I now know what it’s like to have a baby. There were no warning signs about any of those example tragedies.

Sometimes, however, warning signs exist. I saw on a tractor (excavator) a warning sign that said, “Danger: Avoid Death.” I was grateful for the warning. Who knows, maybe it saved my life. On a fuel tank cap, it said, “Never use a lit match or open flame to check the fuel level.” That sounded like very sound advice, regardless of the fact that I normally check my fuel level with my gas gage on the dashboard.  On a child's buggy, it said, “Remove Child Before Folding.” I don’t think I would have forgotten. I appreciate the road sign that said, “Beware of Road Surprises.” Another said, “Caution:  Water on Road During Rain.” Another said, “Road May Be Subject to Sudden Catastrophic Sinkhole Collapse.” Another said, “Danger: Blasting Zone.” Is anyone motivated to drive their vehicles through blasting zones and sinkhole zones to test their survival? Yes, sometimes there are warning signs, but it’s the tragedies that have nothing to do with common sense that I’m writing about. It is the situations that happen because we live the human existence and there’s no way to avoid them.

Mark Twain once said, "Humor is tragedy plus time." We look back at our tragedies, and with time and distance we can often laugh about them. It’s great that we can look back at life optimistically and even gratefully or humorously. But how do we deal with catastrophe or disaster at the moment it happens? Like my dad? Like my wife? The great philosopher Marilyn Monroe once said, “I believe everything happens for a reason. People change so that you learn to let go. Things go wrong so that you learn to appreciate them when they are right….And sometimes, good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”

Chuck Swindoll once said, “Words can never adequately convey the incredible impact of our attitudes toward life. The longer I live, the more convinced I become that life is ten percent what happens to us and ninety percent how we respond to it.” Yes, we are never far from a “disaster zone,” and since we can’t “direct the wind,” we must learn to “adjust [our] sails.” We can’t “tiptoe” around life trying to “avoid disasters.” We must take them head on. Our attitudes in life show our strength of character. Our attitude determines whether we are bitter and unhappy or optimistically ready to meet new challenges and share our experiences to help other people. We only have one life. We must “stand all alone in [our] costume…[even] if it's in tatters.” Life happens to us. There is no stopping it. The question is, how do we respond to it?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Best Parade Ever

Have you ever run a marathon? You know, 26.2 miles of agony? If you haven’t, it probably just means you aren’t crazy. If you have, not only are you nuts, but you’re probably incredible. My wife, brother, and sister-in-law ran the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon on Sunday, October 20. It started at 7 am, which meant we got up at 3:30 in the morning to go. It was 44 degrees when the run started. I didn’t run it because, well, I possess a modicum of common sense, and after knee surgery, my doctor told me I had to stop running. I might have been disappointed if I had any interest in destroying my body.

I stood at the race’s end, waiting for my family to show up. I saw numerous people begin weeping when they saw the finish line. It was touching when couples held hands. A guy in a penguin suit encouraged the crowd into cheers. Two women in super-hero costumes finished together. One runner wrapped herself in her county’s flag as she ran the homestretch. Everyone who started the race wearing garbage bags (and there were loads of them for some reason) finished without them. Several children ran out and finished the race with parents. My wife finished with numerous blisters on her feet, hip pain, and the bold statement that she would never do that again.

Along the 26.2-mile route, bands played and kindhearted souls cheered on the runners, offering jellybeans, M & M’s, Jolly Ranchers, Chex Mix, water, Gatorade, orange slices, and beer. Beer? I thought alcohol caused dehydration? Maybe the beer chuggers were hoping to get inebriated so they wouldn’t feel so much pain. Various signs portrayed encouraging words. One sign that was hard to ignore said, “Smile if you’ve pooped yourself.” I wonder if the beer drinkers even cared? Another said, “Does my T-shirt make my butt look fast?” Men of the world: you could answer that question with a yes. One busty onlooker held a sign that said, “Of course I’m an organ donor. Who wouldn’t want a piece of this?” A male onlooker’s sign said, “You have great stamina. Give me a call.” One blatantly honest sign stated, “You run better than the government.” A T-shirt said, “If you can read this, it means I’m not last.” One sign said, “Toenails are for sissies.” Another said, “Run faster. The Kenyans are drinking all the beer.” My favorite was, “This is the worst parade I’ve ever been to.”

But in a way, it really was quite an awesome parade. I asked my wife if she was glad she did it. She hesitated and said yes. Yes, because she could say she did it, and yes, because she helped raise money to provide clean drinking water for the needy in Africa. When I asked her if she’d do it again, she said—and I quote—“Never in a million years.” I had my suspicions she wasn’t completely crazy. But in that parade of parades people proved the human spirit. They attained an accomplishment that was absurdly ridiculous to say the least. Something torturous, nearly debilitating, and mentally agonizing was completed. Everyone who finished was a winner. Everyone who trained for months and finished the run completed the goal. If they could survive that madness and succeed, what can’t they do? And amazingly, a huge number of participants were there, not for themselves, but for others. Numerous groups were there in support of various charities. Thousands of runners shed gloves and hats and jackets, leaving them in the streets for volunteers to pick up and donate to the homeless shelters. Other groups did things like my wife, brother, and sister-in-law who raised nearly $3,000.00 for clean drinking water. It again showed that people can be generous and selfless. They tortured themselves so people they didn’t even know could wear some warm clothes or drink some clean water. I saw that the human spirit is alive and well. I was able to witness an exhibition of the good in mankind in the parade of parades, and I’m proud of my wife and the other participants who helped to renew my faith in people. And isn’t that what a parade is—a celebration of some kind? The marathon in Detroit was a celebration of the human spirit.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Darwin J. Smith

My blog page has evolved into a potpourri of who knows what, but I haven’t made a post in weeks, in large part because of a tragedy to Darwin Smith, my father-in-law. He took a walk from his independent living home and never returned. We searched frantically from Tuesday night (the day after Labor Day) to Sunday night before conceding that either a) he was a victim of foul play b) he had a medical catastrophe or c) he was safe and sound either unable or unwilling to contact us. It ended up being the medical issue—a heart attack—which is what we suspected all along. He was discovered in the middle of a woods three days after the official search had ended. He had passed away somewhere between the Tuesday evening that he had left and early the following Wednesday morning and was found eight days later.

Let me say that tragedies like this are a strain on a person’s faith in God. I’m sure He knows this obvious fact. I had a few unhappy heart-to-hearts with God during the week. And just when I was wondering why I and hundreds or thousands of other praying people were so unimportant to Him, He pulled off a miracle, answering our prayers. The body was found “coincidentally” in a place the County Drain Commission was clearing brush and trees for the first time in seven years. A worker actually got lost in the woods where he discovered the body. There was closure. It doesn’t change the grief of losing a father, brother, grandpa, friend, and for me, a father-in-law. He was a fantastic man—someone for whom I had great respect…someone for whom I have fantastic memories. Below are a few of them:

1.       I’ll never forget the nervous meeting I had with him when I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me if I take her, I couldn’t give her back. He asked me if I had any idea what I was getting into. I felt compelled to defend my love for her before he started laughing and told me he would be honored for her to marry me. He teased everyone, and somehow it made him more likable. He was always having fun.

2.       Darwin had a unique way of saying goodbye. I remember one time after my wife and her sister and brother had investigated some places for him to move into, he told me that he wanted a “house with a restaurant in the basement.” Well, when we moved him into his third floor apartment at Genesee Gardens, the dining facility was on the first floor where we ate dinner with him on Labor Day. His house had “a restaurant in the basement.” When we’d officially moved him in and said our goodbyes for the day, he did what he always did. He walked us to the door and stood there in plain view, waving as we drove away. That’s the last time I saw him—he disappeared the next afternoon—but it’s how I’ll remember him.

3.       He had a stroke on Good Friday. After his stay in the hospital, we chose to put him in the same convalescent home for temporary rehab that his wife lived. She has Alzheimer’s; he had a difficult time speaking sensibly. I was visiting him with my wife, and we took him to see my mother-in-law. She likes to walk, so he grabbed her hand and held it as the four of us walked around the facility. It was such a sweet thing to see, sad as it was at the same time. But Darwin loved Bonnie—he told people before he left his apartment that he was planning on visiting her—and their hand-holding is the picture I’ll always remember.

4.       Both of my kids played three sports in school, and Darwin loved to come watch them play. However, he never got there on time. I can’t even fathom how many times we had to save seats for him and my mother-in-law, watching the doorway for him so we could get his attention. He’d been out to eat, of course. He rarely ate a meal at home, so rarely in fact, that we took to checking the dates on everything in his refrigerator before we’d consider eating it. He’d inevitably call my wife at least three or four times, asking us about the schedule (which we’d always given him), letting us know he was coming, checking where we were, telling us he was parking—it was a constant routine that seemed old at the time, but seems endearing now.

5.       Holiday celebrations were a constant in the Smith family. We’d meet on Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween night after the kids trick-or-treated, and Christmas (which will be a memory all its own). We met at the cottage for Labor Day, Memorial Day, and watched fireworks from a pontoon boat in Silver Lake on the Fourth of July. Meals were always organized and we spent lots of time laughing and sharing around the table. I’ll never forget the time for Thanksgiving that he was responsible for the turkey, and he purchased turkey in a can. He never lived that one down. All the family traditions will be remembered fondly and will be continued in his honor.

6.       Darwin was a handy guy. I am not. He could build or fix anything. I break permanently anything I try to fix. My wife just resigned herself to my ineptness, and she would call her dad. He whistled while he worked. Actually, he whistled while he walked, drove a car, and cooked. He whistled while he moved would be a better description. It was nice to hear because if he wasn’t around fixing our broken things, I would have been destroying them. I once broke my porcelain toilet, trying to change the toilet seat. He installed the new toilet. Another time, I had finally resorted to a hacksaw to remove a doorknob before my wife and sister-in-law removed it in about six seconds. If a dollar value could be placed on my father-in-law’s home fix ups, it would be in the thousands. What am I going to do now…maybe if I took up whistling my success rate would improve?

7.       He played the organ for his church, but he played our piano nearly every time he visited our house. I bought Jennifer a piano one Christmas. He’s played it more than she does. Even just a couple of weeks after his stroke when his mind was on the mend, he could still play the piano perfectly. Over the last five months as he struggled to get back to his old self, he continued to smile, laugh, and play the piano perfectly—never the same song twice. Our dogs would curl up at the piano bench when he played, sometimes even licking his legs. I’ll always think of him when I hear piano music.

8.       The newbies of the family have taken to calling the Smith Christmases “Smithmas.” Well, Smithmas is the single biggest thing I’ll remember about my father-in-law. Christmas in my family lasted about twenty minutes, not counting cleanup. Oh, we played with our nice gifts and had a fantastic meal, but the presents part was a shedding of paper and thank you’s at the end. My first Christmas with the Smiths ended with me opening my last gift 17 hours after arriving at my wife’s grandparents’ house for breakfast and round one. Three meals, numerous snacks, three separate gift-opening sessions, and about fifty gifts later, I collapsed into bed after midnight. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I was stunned and exhausted. There have been minor changes in the celebration considering the passing of the grandparents, growth of our families, and the changes in our economic conditions, but the enormity of it all has never changed. What a generous, happy man Darwin Smith was, and his family was raised just like him.

Teasing, waving goodbye, loving his wife unconditionally, being with his family, family traditions, handiness and helpfulness, happy whistling, piano playing, and Christmas—those are things I’ll never forget about my father-in-law. He’s in Heaven now, teasing his brother, waving goodbye to friends he is making, keeping an eye on his wife, spending time with his mom and dad, watching us carry on his legacy, laughing at me break things, whistling a perfect tune, singing praises while playing the piano and organ, and fellowshipping with the One who is the reason for Christmas. He’ll be missed, but we’ll see him again.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

For the Love of Surgery

Surgery isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s life or death. Sometimes the recovery period is awful. I’m not making light of such scenarios; however, as I tend to do, I am going to make light of my own recent surgery.  It is my fifth time under the knife in only about six years. I’m becoming a regular patient with three shoulder surgeries and two knee surgeries. Today I’m going to share my list of eight things that I don’t like about surgery.

1.       Pain meds. I have to admit my knee felt better on surgery day than it did the next couple of days because of the pain medication in my IV, but pain meds constipate me. I’d rather my knee be sore. The nurse suggested I use my pain meds and a “stool softener.” No thanks.
2.       Shaving my leg. Now, I’ve had arthroscopic knee surgery before. There are two little incisions right by my kneecap. So why does the nurse shave my leg eight inches above and below my knee? So I can’t wear shorts the rest of the summer out of pure embarrassment?
3.       Questions before the surgery. Why do five different people come up, grab my chart, read it, and ask the same exact series of questions? Doctor, intern, assisting nurse, prepping nurse, anesthesiologist. Yep, it’s still my left knee. Nope, I didn’t develop any new allergies since the last person asked. Yep, I’ve had surgery before. Nope, I haven’t changed my mind and decided to let you stick a needle in my spine. I’ll still go with general anesthetic.
4.       Showering. Lying on my back in the bathtub with my leg draped over the side of the tub doesn’t work. Showering with the shower door open and my leg dangling out doesn’t work. My leg in a garbage bag taped with duct tape works. Duct tape works for everything.
5.       Trips to the bathroom. The carpet is nearly worn out from my bed to the restroom. An IV must be necessary during surgery (and I surely enjoy getting all the hair ripped from my arm when they take it out), but it’s hard to deploy the rest and relaxation method of surgery-day recovery when I have to limp to the bathroom every ten minutes. I guess it’s better than the time that I couldn’t go. My bladder filled to explosion level. I was certain it was going to burst. I’m sure with an ultrasound my bladder has stretch marks. The hospital suggested I come in for a catheter. I finally peed out of fear. The dozens of restroom trips were better than the bloated bladder, but not much.
6.       Cottonmouth and vile taste on the back of my tongue. I tried to eat a graham cracker as a snack after surgery. It stuck to my tongue like dry cornbread. My mouth was so parched I couldn’t get the cracker unglued, and my tongue stayed that way the rest of the day. Drinking just led to longer pees in the bathroom. I brushed my tongue with toothpaste five times. My voice was raspy because of the tube they’d put in my throat, and my tongue was a baked slab of leather.
7.       Sleeping. Rather…not sleeping. Ice strapped to my knee, leg elevated a foot and a half, blankets pulled away from my head, pain medication wearing off, tongue made of leather, bladder working overtime…sleeping after surgery is wonderful.
8.       Memory loss. This has to be the worst thing for me. My wife and I were filling out a post-surgery evaluation form. One question was “Was your nurse friendly and professional both pre- and post-surgery. I said no. My wife asked why, and I said it was because as soon as I woke up, she pulled me from my bed, walked me to my car, and put me in it. My wife calmly explained I’d been in recovery for over an hour and that we had been talking for well over a half hour before we left surgery. Didn’t I remember getting dressed? No. Didn’t I remember eating a graham cracker? Oh, yeah. The dried cornbread stuck to my tongue. My wife said I told her I chose my snack poorly. I don’t remember that. Didn’t I remember the anesthesiologist stopping by? No. Didn’t I remember the doctor telling me I should no longer run? No. My wife said that I said, “I can’t run anymore? I’ll get fat!” Then I asked her three times if I could play basketball. She asked me finally if I had to run to play basketball and she claims it took me about 15 seconds to reach the conclusion that I did indeed need to run. Finally I said, “Well, if I can’t run, we’ll have to have sex every day so I don’t get fat.” I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember getting wheeled into surgery. I don’t remember the car trip home. I don’t remember how I got in my bed. About three hours of my life existed, but the memory is missing. I hate that worst about surgery. 

You know, I hurt my knee playing basketball. Maybe it’s time to quit. I hate running to stay in shape. Maybe it’s time I found a different thing that I can enjoy more. (Sex was an option I thought of even under anesthetic delirium). Maybe I should appreciate showers, hair on my legs, saliva in my mouth, a healthy bladder, a good night’s sleep, and one good knee. Maybe I should appreciate surgeons who can repair a tear in my meniscus and take out four pieces of floating cartilage. Maybe having a wife and kids to take care of me is a blessing. Maybe I should reassess my love of surgery.