From the Rental Car Waiting Room

This is the day I move [back] to Portland.

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I wait now in a grey-blue rental car waiting room. The news is on—Garth Kent, of ABC 7 Eyewitness News—in the NW corner; a woman, three seats to my right is tapping her iPhone with her index fingers, glasses slid to the tip of her nose.

Coffee lingers on my breath like when I don’t sleep enough and get ready to fly somewhere and smell my breath in a moment of hazy remembrance while standing in line to board. A familiar taste indeed: new things after traveling, with the possibility of a headache if I don’t nap soon.

There are pudgy men outside explaining car mechanics to a pudgy woman in large sunglasses and a floral-patterned shirt. The wind is hot and dry out there because Southern California is a desert, unlike Oregon.

My neck hurts. I slept funny. My feet are hot, socks too thick. They’ll work fine in Oregon, though. I suppose I’m getting acclimated.

My mind is tired, my heart full. I am digesting the last two weeks. Were my heart a bucket it would need a gutter all around it, for I don’t want to lose the memories of friends and their hugs and prayers. More than I can recall now anyway—my twenty or so meetings since quitting my job and getting ready to leave have molded together like steel above fire. I remember ten percent of all the loving and thoughtful words said to me. Ten percent. But, I remember one-hundred and ten percent of all that has been shown to me about what I mean to my friends. That extra ten percent falls over the brim and into the gutters. I will collect them again soon, sometime in the next month or two when I need them—when I need to feel the love of my people. I have reserves built up, ready to overflow my portion again. I have no way to fail; I have no ways to know how to not be loved.

A Mexican man—headphones swallowing his ears like lobster arms holding his head—whose phone makes noises, sounds that may or may not be known to him. He is in all black, his face down, his hands full of technology.

It is 11:50, and in ten minutes Hertz will rent me my vehicle. I will fill it to its capacity; I imagine using my shoulders to close the doors. I will pull the arms of my sunglasses over my ears, flick on the air-conditioning, turn to my travel companion, Les, and say, “well, here I go again.” He will nod and may say, “that’s right, man. That’s right.”

Five minutes now. The grey-blue room around me has failed to swallow me like the Moby Dick esophagus that it resembles. I can still see the sunshine outside, and I’m going to bring it with me all the way to Portland.

Give Freedom Away (or give it back)

I wrote this post last year on the 4th of July from the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago near Grant Park. I hope you enjoy!

Today is the fourth of July. In America, this means something.

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I have a tattoo on my arm that not a small number of people have asked about. It’s not that it’s entirely unique, or even that it stands out. It’s actually the smallest of the one’s I have, and it’s hidden by every shirt I wear.

When it is exposed, some people ask, “Is that Africa on your arm?” Others: “What does that writing say? What is it outlined with?” Most, however, ask: “Is that India?”

It is, in fact, India.

The writing on the inside says Psalm 67:1, 2.

I should say that I’m not a huge fan of faith-based tattoos, but only because I don’t like being boxed in. I don’t really find myself “edgy,” nor do I find any need to take allegiance with it.

Nevertheless, I have a tattoo with a verse from the Hebrew Bible on my arm. That verse says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us,

Selah

that your way may be known on earth,

your saving power among all nations.

Eight years ago I was in India for the second summer in a row. This summer, unlike the previous, I was traveling around with a translator telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a tool called the “Evangecube”. Basically, it’s a Rubik’s Cube-looking thing that only unfolds one way. It culminates in a picture of two hands meeting, symbolizing a relationship with God. They say pictures are easier for people to understand.

So here I am, a six-foot oaf with a bandana, a green canvas bag, and slacks I bought at a thrift store, walking from hut to hut doing the absolute worst job at re-telling a contrived version of Jesus’ LDR via the E-Cube. I am watching Bengali men and women look me in the eyes, folding their arms at their chests, as if to say, “Really? That’s what you came all the way from America to tell me? That a God I don’t believe exists wants to save me from something I don’t believe I need to be saved from?”

Heh. “Yeah, I think so,” I’d say.

A few days later I sit in a chair looking out upon the city from my hotel. I am in anguish. I hate what I am doing, all the while knowing that people need to hear about Jesus someway. Perhaps this team, these cubes, these intrusive tactics are their way. Perhaps.

From the street I can see taxis bumping each other and honking, men driving and beeping the horns of their tuk tuk’s. Dogs meander, sniffing grass. Cows stand in the middle of the road and drivers take great effort to avoid hitting them. There is a dump truck that pulls in front of the hotel and stops. Two men get out and hurl piles of trash into the back of the truck. I watch plastic bags, food wrappers, and dried out fruit rinds soar into the air, some of which don’t make it high enough. The trash men don’t mind.

One package of trash lands right at the top and I am stunned to see that it splats atop a man lain across the top of the heap. He is still in sight but quickly being buried. He does not move as trash flies at him, he only lays. His eyes are blank, his expression, empty. His demeanor, nothing. There is a human mind in this truck bed. There is a beating heart; a mother’s son.

The Dalits are at the bottom of India’s caste system. They are “untouchable,” and known as less valuable than work animals. There are approximately 160 million Dalits in India.

This man is likely one of them. His sunken eye sockets, his joints and bones ready to pierce through his skin, are emblems of the story he carries. And so far, it is not a hopeful one.

I want to confess to my team leader that I don’t think door-to-door evangelism is working, and that I think helping Dalits, or something like it, is a better use of our time for the gospel. Instead, I wind up telling him that I saw a man who didn’t have hope today, and that I’ve been handed hope for my entire life.

“I don’t need to worry about a thing,” I say. And it’s true. I have means to money, I have people who know my name, I have a warm place to lay my head, I have food whenever I want it. I am a king by a Dalit’s standard. Truly, I am the untouchable one.

“I didn’t choose this,” I tell him. “To be born white, privileged, and in a place like America. So why did I receive it while people like that man are treated like trash?”

All the while my mind is racing: Why did I get the easy way out? Why wasn’t I born here in India, where life is real and people suffer? Why aren’t all countries, neighborhoods, economic situations the same? Why do some of us get to live in suburbs with SUV’s, laundry detergent, extra blankets, and safe places for our kids to play? God, this, is injustice.

My leader doesn’t try to fix me. He doesn’t tell me that I had been blessed and that God was showing me favor. He doesn’t even try to explain why people are born into third world countries. Instead, he shows me Psalm 67:1, 2. He reads it, and then he hands me his Bible so that I can read it.

And then, it was like I knew all along.

Today, when I approach that passage I do a little interpreting when I read it:

God, you have been gracious to me and have blessed me

But you have given to me because you want me to give it all away again,

so that people will know it was you all along.

This fourth of July I try to remember my trips to India. I try to remember the friends I made, and the stories I heard. I try to remember that if I didn’t grow up in America I may never have had the opportunity to tell my Indian friends’ stories today; I may never have known how deep poverty can swim in this world, and that while Americans are mostly surface swimmers, more than half of the world will remain stuck upon the ocean floor.

Good Cover Copy: why it will completely make or break your book

At one point in your life you might have thought about writing a book. Chances are, however, that you probably haven’t thought about what you’d write for the cover copy on the back.

You know, the dust-jacket text that accompanies that funny picture of you wearing a tie.

Recently, I applied to write for a specialty at scripted.com. One of the questions I was asked to answer (in a constrained 250-300 words) was how a new author might write a successful cover copy for their new book.

If you didn’t know, I am currently writing my first book, and in a matter of months I’ll have to come up with something creative and catchy to “woo” my readers. This question was not only fun to think through, but entirely relevant!

Here’s what I submitted. What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice—they’d certainly be heeded!

So, you’re new to the self-publishing industry and you’ve just finished your first novel. Congratulations are in order, but not just yet. Pat yourself on the back, grab a snack, and come back here for your next assignment. I don’t mean to spoil the fun, but you’re only halfway done.

 

Marketing. The mark of a good writer is how bad he or she is at selling their work. Okay, not really. But, the truth is that many who write have a hard time understanding the importance of advertising. Their final product might be New York Times bestseller worthy, but if they fail to woo their audience in more ways than juicy plot lines and compelling character development, their book will inevitably fall face down into a CVS sale bin.

 

One of the best ways to woo is to offer a taste. An author’s cover copy is the most delectable portion that their book has to offer, and often, it becomes the only part of the meal that gets tasted. It could make or break their novel’s success. Creating compelling cover copy requires three things: attractiveness, charm, and brevity.

 

Attractiveness is the garnish upon the plate. It means the copy should be appealing to look at. The truth is that people judge books by their covers all the time. The same is true of cover copy. Make margins, font types, and letter sizing absolutely captivating or the book will get placed right back on the shelf.

 

Charm is an art form. It is the ability to hook and engage the reader, sometimes in a way so compelling that it is mysterious. Within the first fifteen words the author must have the reader’s attention or the likelihood that they will continue reading drops severely.

 

Brevity implies delivering only the best words. It means removing adverbs and adjectives entirely. Cut straight to the dilemma and then get out. Leave the reader tasting the plot in their mouth but still feeling the hunger in their stomach.

In The Beginning We Are Never The Same

A line of around one-hundred students stand shoulder to shoulder at the edge of a lawn, each holding a piece of paper. 

A teacher walks out in front.

“You should all have a number on your paper ranging from fourteen to negative twenty,” she says. “Right now, you’re all on the same line, but what we’re going to do next will teach you about social stratification.

The students shift their weight and shade their eyes from the sun. Some whisper to each other. Some look down the line to see how far it reaches. 

“First,” the teacher says, “who thinks they have the highest number.”

A boy on the left, toward the beginning of the line, raises his hand.

“What number?”

“Fourteen.”

“Okay, fourteen, you come here. Does anyone else have a number close to fourteen?”

A thirteen follows the fourteen out. Then: two twelves, two elevens, and four tens. 

The teacher has number fourteen stand at the front and groups each descending number in their own rows facing his back. 

Eight nines form a row behind the tens. Seven eights. Eight sevens. Nine sixes. Five fives. Seven fours. Four threes. Four twos. Ten ones. Six zeros. Four negative ones. Three negative twos. Three negative threes. Five negative fours. Four negative sevens. One negative ten. Two negative elevens. One negative nineteen. 

What once stood a line like the beginning of a footrace is a clump of uneven lines like a bell-curve standing on top of a mirror. 

“What do you notice?” The teacher says.

Two students speak at once. Then one student says, “we’re not on the same line anymore.” 

Some students snicker at this.

“Exactly,” the teacher says. “Now,” she says turning around and walking eighty or ninety feet in front of them. “If I were to tell you to race to me,” she shouts, “what would happen?”

The group is mostly silent.

The teacher walks back. 

“Is it possible that the fastest person could lose the race?”

“Yes,” some students say aloud.

“Why?”

“Because not everybody gets to start in the same place.”

“Did you hear that?” She calls to the crowd, her voice bouncing off the walls of neighboring buildings. “We don’t all get to start in an equal place. Now, let’s go back inside and talk about it.”

The crowd disperses.

Day 5 – King City to Watsonville

Below is a post from a blog called “Write a Bike” that I formerly wrote on. It chronicled my trip from LA to Portland via a bicycle, and it also housed odd stories just like this one. Enjoy!

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Our night in Watsonville may have been the most interesting experience of my entire life.

Warmshowers.org is a neat idea to connect mostly touring-cyclists (like myself) with others who have great road stories to swap, as well as to provide those who are touring with a warm shower and usually a dry place to sleep.  As I mentioned earlier, Britney was our host, and arriving at her house was…well…different.

When Britney called us to let us know she was ready for us to come we pedaled to the outskirts in the southeast and then up what seemed to be a two-mile driveway on her property. Suddenly I realized that something was off.

I saw three very small, and fairly new-looking shacks built up into the hill, and as I panned across the property I noticed two guys about my age staring at me. I waived and they raised a low hand and offered lazy half-smiles. I rode up and introduced myself to them. They had long hair pulled back into ponytails and patchy beards. Their jeans were dirty and their heavy sweaters looked like they hadn’t been washed in months. Their names were Josh and Jake, and before long a girl drove up with a two-year-old buckled in the backseat of her car. She got out and introduced herself as Britney’s sister, Kali. After five or so minutes of unsuccessful conversation I went to find a place for our bikes. Josh and Jake had pointed off beyond a big tree and said I could put them “under the camper.” I rolled over and found five other mangled bikes lying under a camper shell on stilts (I found out later that Jake actually lives in the camper shell).

Then I made my way past an enormous garden and up a wooden stairway toward the main house. The door creaked open and the smell of vegetables was in the air. The front room was full of books. At first blush I saw heaps of titles on gardening, traveling, and murder mystery novels.

The walls were covered with old Native American-like blankets and the roof had old potato sacks finely stapled to it. The child from the car was now playing in a tiny red tent and Denny was siting in the next room on a large burgundy sofa covered in Mexican-poncho material. There were two vintage lamps lighting the entire room and a turn-of-the-century wood-burning furnace that was heating the house. Kali and Jake were busy chopping potatoes and broccoli in the kitchen amongst heaps of recycled yogurt and margarine containers (they had numerous crates of old containers like these all over the kitchen).

As I sat down I noticed an old man tucked into the corner of the first room whom I had failed to notice when I first walked in. He had a long white beard that matched his long white hair, which he covered with a beanie. His eyes were glued to his Facebook profile. Kali introduced us. His name was James, and I later learned more than I ever thought I could know about camping in Oregon from him. That was all he spoke about to Denny and I, then he was off to one of the other shacks in the yard.

Kali said we could take a shower if we wanted. It was outside along the east side of the house. She said it is fun because you get to “bathe amongst the trees.”

I didn’t shower that night.

Dinner was almost completely made up of foods grown in the yard, which was exciting. A part of me did wonder, though, if I was secretly eating some kind of herbal narcotic. I imagined myself floating amongst books about eggplant and carrots with old-man James cackling at me from the corner of the front room.

Making conversation with the residents never got any easier. Denny and I mostly listened to them banter back and forth about the best places to find hot-springs, and which volcanoes in the United States were more likely to burst. They were not interested in our stories much, which was fine. I didn’t need to be asked, but it was weird that strangers could sit in their room and basically go unnoticed.

That night I slept on a piece of ply-wood stacked upon bricks with blankets as bedding beneath me. In the dark of the night I kept hearing people going in and out of the front door. I didn’t sleep peacefully, probably because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was sleeping in a genuine hippy-house. It was exciting, intriguing, and uncomfortable all at the same time.

The next morning Denny and I packed up, looked around for signs of any other woken life, and in finding none, rode off.

I Don’t Post…But I Know I Probably Should

It has been well over a month since I have done anything on this blog, and believe me, I’m aware. I think about it everyday. I think, “wow, I was so gung-ho about this when I first started. What happened?”

Yeah. Really. What happened?

In a lot of ways, life happened. I got a dog, said goodbye to a roommate, got handed new tasks to start doing at work, etc.

But I also know that any “writer” who is going to call him/herself as such must make the time to write. The truth is that life will never stop getting in the way of what I want to do, which means at some point I will seriously need to evaluate how badly I want to write.

Trust me, though. I want it. Recently, signed up for a short, rather inexpensive course on self-publishing, marketing, and other general writerly things at storycartel.com . I still don’t know if I am in, but if I do get in, I see this as a good kick in the right direction. I will be paying to do it, and because I’m cheap, I know that fact alone will motivate me to write more.

I’ll try to post all of my exercises and findings here on the blog too. I think thats a great place to re-start.