A Thief Foiled By A Sacrificial Lamb–A Bike Lock

From touring across America to touring across the street to Safeway, I’ve put more than 15,000 miles on my Surly. I don’t say that to brag. I say that to emphasize the terror I felt in seeing a thief try to ride away with her last night.

2013-10-25 09.29.30 I’d arrived at my girlfriend Ashley’s house on SE 28th Place a little after 9pm. The night felt unusually dark—an addition to the literal and ever-present darkness of canopying tree cover. Older streets in Portland like 28th Place tend to be overgrown and well-shaded by Evergreen and Douglas Fir, giving them a very typical northwestern homeyness and burrowing charm.

I unwound a combination lock that I was borrowing from work on account of losing my Kryptonite u-lock and cable. I passed it around a tree and brought its ends together after pulling it snug through my rear wheel and my frame. The front wheel will be fine, I thought. I’ll only be here for a bit.

To say Ashley was having a hard week at work would be like calling Mt. Everest a hard hill to climb. She is a mental health therapist seeing four times as many clients that a typical therapist sees, a recent repercussion ailing public health facilities like hers brought on by the Affordable Care Act. I wrapped my arms around her and we sat for a few moments in silence. She exhaled and began to share what little she was allowed to. Without knowing the vocabulary, nor what it’s like to carry several dozen people’s psychological trauma, I was helpless to offer anything more than my ears and calm presence.

About thirty minutes later I whispered a prayer for her with my arms still firm around her body. She held her eyes shut. I used my index finger to sweep away two tears from her face. We sat in silence again for another five minutes until, outside, I heard rustling.

I figured one of Ashley’s neighbors was locking his or her bike to a tree just as I had. It was a relief to think that others felt safe enough to lock their bikes to the trees outside their homes in this neighborhood. I rose to see who it was, thinking I might have a talking point with one of them later. To my surprise, I only found one bike (my Surly) and one other person. I leapt to my feet, snapped the deadbolt unlocked and threw the door open. Before my eyes stood not a neighbor but a man in a black and red ball cap, jeans, a dark sweater, and the arms of a rusty pair of cable cutters draped over his left forearm. His legs being too short to fit the height of my bike, he looked frantic and unstable as he was attempting a get-away.

“HEY!” I yelled, the level of my voice rising with the milliseconds within the second it took to yell the word. I’d yelled too loud, probably, surprising myself and tricking my adrenaline into jolting into light-speed. My bike wobbled more beneath the man, my B17 Brooks saddle swaying like a head upon a stiff man’s neck. It felt like watching a thief trying to ride away with my helpless teenage daughter. I was beginning to burn with indignation. “HEY!” I yelled again. I sprang from the porch running.

“Don’t you f***ing run up on me like that,” the thief called.

“I’m not running up on you,” I yelled, obviously lying and sprinting right up to his side. It was then that I noticed he was unable to get away. Something was stuck in the rear wheel, impeding it from rotating. His cable cutters still dangled on his arm and both feet were now firmly planted over my bike—his body right above my bike gave her a vulnerable and lifeless look that I grimaced at.

“Come on, man,” I said, not knowing what else to reason with, and not actually knowing what I would do if the thief were to drop my bike, grip his cable cutters with both hands and take a swing at me. He might be packing, I suddenly thought. Sh*t—am I about to fight this guy? Would I even fight him if he swung at me?

To my surprise, the thief kept his ball cap low and made no eye contact. His hands eased up on my Surly’s neck and handlebars.

“Come on, man,” I said again, this time quieter and taking a step closer. Without knowing it, I was negotiating, my arms limp at my sides. “This is my bike. You’re taking my bike, man.”

He looked me in the eyes for the first time. He was frozen and, apparently, conflicted. I’d seen frightened thieves, angry thieves and careless thieves, but I’d never seen a conflicted thief in my life. He exhaled and closed his mouth and then said reluctantly, “Okay.” He dismounted and guided my Surly toward me. I picked her up, turned, and carried her back up the sidewalk toward Ashley’s house.

From the street I could hear muttering, stuttering one-liners. But I didn’t care. He could skulk around out in front as long as he’d wanted. I snapped the deadbolt locked again, still holding my bike in the air with my other arm like a frantic father just arriving at the ER.

She wasn’t moving, her rear wheel paralyzed. I looked closer and found a cleanly snipped cable that refused to free my bike; instead of lying lifeless like a severed limb upon the grass by the tree outside, the cable caught itself up into an increasingly tighter wind, like a last-ditch effort to protect my bike. After catching my breath and hugging a now wild-eyed Ashley, ensuring her I was safe, I, like a surgeon, cautiously removed the scapegoat cable. I slid the correct numbers into sequence and pulled it apart as it was meant to be broken. I held both sides of the lock in either hand and, after studying it, held it at eye level.

Well, I thought, comically reflecting on how I was about to give an inanimate bicycle lock my appreciation. The Surly and I live on; you definitely did your job, lock. Thank you.

Prompt: “In My Pocket” – 7 min

In my pocket there is lint. There is lint because of what I put inside my pockets, and because of how frequently I do so. For example, I put my wallet in my left pocket. It is made of leather, and with time, the articles within my leather wallet stretch, harden and reshape it. During this, no doubt, particles of leather drop as dust into the crevices of my pockets.

In my pocket and also making lint are my keys. I use my keys to unlock many things. Front doors, car doors, bike locks, pad locks. My keys take my lint and (no doubt) leave it inside whatever it is I must unlock that day. in exchange, they remove other particles, germs or dust with their rigid angles and find their way back into my pocket. I realize now that my lint is not just mine, but possibly many other people’s as well.

Faulkner Told Me to Do It

Faulkner

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”  ― William Faulkner

I used to think I needed to finish everything I started (and I still kind of do). But if Faulkner implies that I ought to throw Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume out the window, well then consider me looking to fill some space on my book shelf.

The Season I Fell In Love

During the Fall of 2010 I fell in love. It was silly how easy it was. Crazy even: a short drive, a salesman, a point, a swipe, a contract, a lifestyle. Stepping out of the retail store with a bag around my wrist and it in my palms, I felt like I was just handed the holy grail. Beams of light seemed to radiate from it. Its fragility juxtaposed with my wild inability to keep my desires contained; I wanted to look at it all day long, my focus captive as a beetle in a glass jar.

I didn’t give it a name, but I did believe its delicacy meant it was a she, and that I needed to take good care of her.

She was simple enough to understand, and she could do everything. My blood pressure seemed to decrease with each new thing I learned she could do. My life would finally be organized, I thought, and pools of knowledge, social interaction and game-play were finally at my finger tips. That night I held her face close to mine and we stared at each other for hours. My body had scarce been this attracted to anything before, my mind never before so enthralled, and my heart never so quickly in love.

The next day I took her to work with me because I was too excited to leave her in my bag or in my car. I had, after all, created a space for her just below my computer screen between my stack of post-its and paperclip holder. We watched each other all day, just as the evening before, and we held each other more often than I’d done with any others before her.

Needless to say, during that Fall season, I accomplished a significantly smaller amount of work than normal.

From the Rental Car Waiting Room

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

2014-05-15 15.14.31-2

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.

IMG_2970

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.

Why Do You Do What You Love to Do?

Recently, I read a short article on how to write with style. In it, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word were mentioned. It was a great read. Some points hit home, namely: Find a Subject You Care About. Vonnegut said:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I’ve always had a suspicion that it didn’t matter as much how I wrote but what I wrote about, and that an audience (albeit mine quite small) would see past my well-placed commas and thesaurus-mined words. That people are willing to sift through my 5th grade reading level prose and structure in order to be impacted by the elements of a great story proves that they get something. A beautiful sentence might cause one to reflect for a day, but a beautiful story could change their entire life.

But, it’s easy to shimmy around on a mediocre plot when you can flower up your dialogue with wit and tight grammar. Soon, though (and we’ve all been here), the reader grows tired and the inevitable realization that they’ve been staring at the same page for several minutes and don’t have an idea of what it’s said sets in (this is not always the writer’s fault—though sometimes it is).

Were someone to stop me on the street and ask me, “why do you write?” I am afraid I would hesitate a little longer than I would like to admit. Why? Because it’s one thing to care about something, but it’s another thing to get bogged down by how you want to convey it. In fumbling through my mind to answer the question I would wind up saying something idiotic like, “Oh, well, I like to try to write about bicycles. You know, because they’re good.” My problem would not be the subject of my response, but the thoughts that premeditate my speaking it. The thoughts that, of course, say, you better say this in a convincing way, or at least in a beautiful way, or they’re going to think you writing about bikes is ridiculous.

But that is ridiculous. We all know that. If we have the gall to stand up for what we’ve decided to give our lives to then few will be able to blame us. In this way, confidence, assurance, and die-hard belief leap further than physical strength, beauty, or well-punctuated paragraphs any day.

The reason for this is, again, because a beautiful story can change someone’s life. A painter who slaves at her canvas, day after day, fighting back thoughts about giving up and starting over, has a chance to impact thousands who might see it in a gallery; a business man who deals in medium-grade sod because he knows it will, at least, provide for his family might increase the opportunities his children have later in life; a data entry clerk who enters numbers into spreadsheets, but who chooses to do it meticulously, might be compiling statistical data that could eventually alter the way the world looks at injustice.

Belief precedes product every time.

So why do I write? What subjects do I genuinely care about?

I write because I believe in honesty. It propels people. After fame, strength, knowledge, etc., fade and fall, honesty always remains. People don’t say, “oh, well he was that strong all of his life,” or, “she was always able to out think us when it came to quantum-physics.” But they do say, “she was always an honest girl,” or “he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.” I have seen people dramatically open their lives to others because they were inspired by another’s honesty, and likewise, I’ve seen people’s lives utterly destroyed because of dishonesty. There is a keen power in honesty then. It doesn’t come with prestige or flashiness, but it does outlive most everything else.

I also write because I’m on a journey. I know that sounds cliche, just bear with me. I can’t say I’ve always known which journey I’m on, or that the journey has always looked the same (because it hasn’t), but I do know that I have had chances to experience sights, smells, people, beliefs, colors and tastes that others haven’t. I see this as an opportunity for others: some of my most profound realizations have come by reading other’s words about their experiences. Mingled with my knack for writing (and really my enjoyment of it), I want to tell the kinds of stories that change people. Not for me, but for them, and for the God who (for whatever reason) gives me the chances to do it (and believe me, I’ve squandered plenty of them).

That’s why I write and, genuinely, keeps me at it. What about you and your passions? What keeps you at it?

A Visitation is a Journey that Comes to You

Please enjoy this brief bit on the visitation shape often found in fiction writing, as well as my 25-minute practice with it afterward. Let me know what you think!

“The Visitation can show the character conquering or being conquered, transforming another or becoming transformed… The arc of the story is shaped by the visitor…The visitor must be intriguing, but as in all stories, readers must care what happens to your character.” — Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 38-39.

Making Shapely Fiction

Change your actions and you’ll make milage of your life. Change your heart and you’ll make miles for your soul. Charlie read it over to himself again. He tried to grasp the words but felt them float in through his mouth and right back out through his unsatisfied exhale.

This stuff will never work anyway, he thought. Self Help? I’m gonna need a lot more than that to–
“Hey, saw you reading earlier. Thought I’d come by and poke my nose around.”
Charlie looked up. The man stood twice his height. A lollipop hung from his mouth, hands upon his hips, his brow wrinkled like a sheet.
“It’s a book my wife suggested. She’s real into self help.”
“But you’re not.”
“Well–”
“Let me see,” the man swiped the book up like a grapefruit and held it to his face. He peeled back the pages. “Will yourself toward your goals and success will be your only option.”
Charlie was quiet.
“You believe it?”
“I don’t really know.”
The man dropped the book on the table in front of Charlie and looked at the sky. His hands on his hips again. “Stuff never works.”
“Why? What never works?”
“Oprah psychology crap. Makes for decent community, but not change.”
Charlie thought about that. He pushed his hair away from his face and noticed the man’s clothing. “Do you work here?” Charlie said, parsing the man’s shoes and jeans before looking back at him.
“What’s it look like, partner? Think a place like this would hire a guy like me?”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe–”
“How long you work here for?”
“About a month.”
“Haven’t met many people yet have you.”
“No. Wait, how do you know that?”
The man sat. His legs wide like branches bursting from a tree. He put his hands flat across the table. “Because here you are at lunch reading a book you don’t want to be reading.”
Charlie was annoyed.
“What do you want to do?”
“What, on my lunch break?”
“In life. What’s your dream?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really think like that.”
“Oh, bullshit. Everyone’s got dreams. Where are you in two years? Who are you with? Why are you stillon the earth?”
Charlie could feel his face getting hot. He considered leaving but didn’t. “Guess I’d love to take my wife and live in the country. Raise a family there. Write a novel.”
“Now we’re talking, partner.”
“Hey who are you anyway? You don’t work here I gather, but you just show up at accounting firms at lunch time to scrutinize what people read all the time or something?”
“Easy now,” the man said. He leaned in. Charlie wanted to pull back because the man’s breath smelled like Doritos. “Just think of me as that guy that told you to get the hell out of the place you hate and to make your ideas for the great life a reality. Ain’t going to find it in a book like that, and you ain’t going to write a novel if you’re stuck crunching numbers all day.”
Charlie was quiet again. He scrunched his nose and looked away. But he knew the man was right.
“Mr. Johnson,” came a voice from behind. It was a woman. Charlie looked back and saw a thick, green day-planner in her hands and headset on her ear. She was writing while walking. “Mr. Johnson your one o’clock is waiting.”
“Burn it, man,” the man whispered with his head low. “You’ll thank me one day.” He stood, addressed the woman and walked into Charlie’s building. He turned up the stairwell and jogged to the top. Two fingers to his forehead he saluted Charlie from the railing at the second floor. Then, he turned and went through the only set of Mahogany doors at the firm. The only set, Charlie figured, fit for the boss.

On Meeting Bill Kulchin

August, 2013

Medium height. Thin. Jeans, a white collar, a navy blazer. He had old red hair that was recently cut. He stood in front of my display holding his chin like he was looking at Rembrandt.

“I love it,” he said, walking over.
“Thanks.”
“Are you the designer?”
“No. Just wholesale and office work.”
“Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“I’m Bill,” he said, handing me his card. “I do apparel insurance.”
I’d never heart heard of such a thing. I turned his card over. It read: KULCHIN ROSS INSURANCE SERVICES.
“Are you out of L.A.?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Downtown near the fashion district.”
“Gladys avenue,” he says. “I know the area.” He’d picked up a card of mine from a stack on the stand in front me. They were next to another stack of half-sheet informational cards, and a stack of line sheets that still smelled like ink and wood, hours off the press.
“Oh yeah, are you local to downtown?”
“My office is there.” He studied my card. “A writer.”
“Ha. Yeah.”
He pointed at the card and read aloud: “Writer and operations.” He paused. “What does that mean?”
“Oh you know, I do office management and oversee wholesale. And I write.”
“Is that what you’d want to do?”
“What. Writing?”
He nodded.
“Oh man, I’d write day and night if I could.”
He seemed to watch me, crunching the edges of my card between his finger tips. “Oh,” he said.
I shifted my weight.
“Well that’s what you gotta do then.”