Ever Upward: Stan Lee’s Death and Why It Gives Me Hope

As most people seem to know, Stan Lee recently died. While that’s definitely been a bummer, in an odd way, it’s given me hope. But that might need some explaining.

I always thought it would be a lonely day when the man who created Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, and so many other parts of my childhood died. I used to have to point out those cameos Stan Lee has become famous for, often explaining that the distinct old man with sunglasses was actually the mind behind whichever comic character’s movie we were watching. That hasn’t been necessary for the past few years though. Stan has become a well know icon as Marvel movies have continued to be massive successes. While Stan’s death would have been sad no matter what, I doubt that ten years ago his passing would have been so impactful outside the brotherhood of nerds (or “True Believers” as Stan used to call his fans).

To my surprise, I’ve seen so many people pay tribute to Stan. They’ve expressed how he impacted their lives. I’ve read about the way his work entertained and inspired them. It’s reminded me that there’s a certain unity in grief; very few things can bring people together like loss. Amidst the sadness of death, there has also been the undercurrent of hope. I think that’s exactly what Stan would have wanted.

Stan had something at the end of his comics called “Stan’s Soapbox,” a column where he usually wrote whatever he had on his mind, directly addressing the reader as he did. He always concluded these with the phrase “Excelsior” followed by an enthusiastic exclamation mark. I never knew what that meant but I thought it sounded neat. My brother, cousins, and myself soon adopted the saying and used it as a common sign off. A few years ago I wondered exactly what that catchphrase meant. As is the case with most cool sounding words I don’t know the meaning of, it has a Latin origin.

The definition of excelsior is “ever upward.” I thought that over and spent some time asking myself what Stan had meant by it. Eventually I realized that Stan had been sending subliminal messages to myself and other fellow true believers over the years. Every time I read one of Stan’s stories, he was reminding me that I should always be moving upward. No matter where I was in life or what was going on, there was a consistent ideal I could strive for. It seemed to be the aim of his life’s work to remind people that there is hope to be found even in the darkest of circumstances, something that many stories, superhero or otherwise, fail to achieve.

What’s so interesting about Stan’s work is the way he illustrated that message. For the most part superheroes had existed as godlike figures for the first half of the twentieth century. They were usually larger than life and removed from reality. Someone like Superman had a pretty good job and personal life. He had nothing to worry about outside the occasional piece of kryptonite.

Then Stan started to create superheroes. He made characters like The X-Men, young people who were persecuted and shunned by the world due to their genetic mutations. Tony Stark, the invincible Iron Man, faced death on a daily basis not only from the villains he fought but because the shrapnel lodged in his heart could kill him at any time. Guilt and death played a crucial role in Spider-Man’s origin and he quickly became one of my favorite characters as a kid.

Spider-Man was a fascinating superhero with a cool costume and powers, but more importantly he was also Peter Parker. When he wasn’t wearing a mask, he was just a guy. He struggled with the death of a father figure at a young age just as I had. He felt things common to the human experience like guilt and sorrow. His career as a superhero was continually plagued by tragedy. Those things didn’t have to happen for him to be a hero, but he still made the most of them. Spider-Man, like most Stan’s characters, proved that bad things happening didn’t mean you had to give up hope.

I think that brings up a deeper truth about hope. Stan’s characters didn’t exist in make-believe realms or fake circumstances. They knew sorrow and loss and heartache just like real people. Yet despite that they would continually choose to rise above their circumstances, never give up, and cling to hope. So often I’ve found that hope tends to deny reality. It pretends that the tragic circumstances of life simply do not exist and believes for something better. This is often seen as the strength of hope, but I think hope can be dangerous when used this way. While hope that doesn’t confront the harsh truths of life works as a theory or an abstract concept, it doesn’t do much in real life. Hope that denies reality is no hope at all; it’s empty.

Growing up in a Christian household, I was taught to see God working in all circumstances, good and bad. There have definitely been times where I’ve been able to see the positive side of tragic events or how good can come from them. I’ve been able to connect with others who have experienced loss and encourage them by sharing what I’ve learned. Those have been powerful moments.

There have been other times in my life though, times where I can’t see the point in why my dad and sister are both dead. Some days it seems like those things happened for no reason at all. I understand how those experiences can completely rob someone of hope. When those things occur, or when you just consider the state of the world, it can make you wonder if hope can ever actually be genuine.

Taken at face value, planet earth is a pretty disappointing place to live. I think the secret to a meaningful life is finding a way to live in a disappointing world without being a product of disappointment. The Bible talks about how a person should be in the world but not of the world. In a lot of ways, that was the case with Stan’s heroes. They faced great personal loss, acknowledging their suffering and attempting to work through it, but that didn’t make them cynical. They continued to believe in something better and pressed on, even when they didn’t have all the answers or when every part of them wanted to give up.

Ultimately I’ve realized the harsh truth is that there are some things in life I won’t have the answers to. No matter what, there will be days where the reasons I’ve come up with to explain certain tragedy won’t be enough. There might be times where I wonder what’s the point of it all. That doesn’t have to be the end of the story though. It might sound silly, but I’ve been encouraged time and time again to not give up by words printed on colorful pages. No matter how bad things were, I was continually reminded of the direction I needed to keep moving in. I’m still reminded of that every time the Marvel logo appears on the big screen.

It’s sad that Stan Lee is dead. He wasn’t just a great comic writer; I would put his name down alongside the literary greats. He created fantastical worlds that someone could escape to, but he also prompted us to look inward and learn more about each other. I can’t help but think of the world as a darker place without him. But Stan left behind a message that said so much to so many people on what it means to live with genuine hope. He taught me that lesson through his life and the characters he created, but I’m reminded of its great impact once again in his death. I’m comforted to see so many people have had that same experience I did with Stan’s work. He taught us all that though the world can be a dark, lonely, and confusing place, and that while we may stumble or lose sight of life’s meaning as we make our way through it, we should always be pressing in one direction. There’s a common trajectory mankind should aspire to: ever upward.

I think that’s what excelsior means. And it only took me all these years to figure out. Thanks, Stan.

Excelsior!

Advertisements

Two Ordinary Lives

As a child, I always resented the idea of living what I considered to be an ordinary life.

I don’t mean to say that I didn’t admire those close to me who lived out the day to day of their lives as teachers, pastors, or any occupation my young mind considered ordinary. But as a child, I also grew up admiring individuals like Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. Since this was the case, I had a difficult time imagining a scenario where I ended up not living in a similar fashion to these characters I held so dear to my heart. After all, is there anything so grandly appealing to a child as dreaming of a heroic life consisting of saving the day and being loved by all?

While we can easily look at this scenario and point out logical flaws of aspiring to be a super hero, I have found that this innate desire for achievement doesn’t die with the coming of adulthood. It might change and take different forms, transforming from defeating evildoers to more tangible feats, but the idea remains the same: everyone wants to be remembered for something. The most humbling thing we as humans can confront is our own mortality and in that sense, we usually ask the question of what we will leave behind. What are we creating that might remain after we are gone? Will we leave anything at all? These questions terrify most people, a natural response to such concepts. For no matter how old we grow, one of the most universal of human desires is to make an impact. To be remembered for something. To leave behind a legacy.

But legacy is a powerful word.

It is a word we should confront and try to understand on a daily basis. It should change and shape the very way that we live our lives. I believe that in days gone by this word once brought a wide variety of life altering implications to the forefront of people’s mind. However, in today’s vernacular it seems that we only apply it to the dead or the dying (or for use when trying to reboot a film franchise). But when examined in its truest and purest form, legacy is a word that has strong connotations. In order to avoid sounding as if I’m simply using the word legacy for mere dramatic effect, allow me to elaborate with some real world grounding for my thought progression.

The month of April has always proven a trying time for my family. Not only did my father pass away during this month years ago but my sister Jules did as well. (My sister Jodi has always shared her birthday with the anniversary of my father’s death. I could never imagine having to go through such mourning over losing a life on a day usually reserved for celebration in the gaining of one. I admire her so very greatly for the way she has faced that hardship throughout the years.) Personally I have often internalized these losses around this time of year, thinking over how they have shaped my life and the person I have become. On that topic there are all kinds of essays and anecdotes that I could pen to bring into greater elaboration the lessons I have learned there. But for the purpose of this particular writing I’ll try to narrow in a bit more.

Often times people have approached members of my family to describe what an impact Jules and my father had on their lives. Most times I don’t even recognize these individuals, but I simply smile and thank them, listening to how they describe the legacies left behind by my father and sister. If you didn’t know it, you would think of these family members of mine as icons or heroes who went down as titans in the pages of history. But that wasn’t the case. Truthfully they lived what most would refer to as ordinary lives. They weren’t renowned throughout the nation, and you wouldn’t have recognized them on the street unless you had encountered them before. They achieved no grand or sweeping deeds to earn them a spot in the history books (or even a Wikipedia page for that matter). Neither my father nor my sister died in tragic accidents that took their lives, but their time on this earth was indeed cut drastically shorter than one might expect. In this sense, they did not have as many opportunities to achieve the kind of feats that might warrant remembering. Yet years after their deaths, they are continuing to shape the lives of others.

This confused me for the longest time. How could it be that these two people, two individuals who lived entirely ordinary lives, changed the lives of so many other people? They did something that so many spend their entire lifetimes focusing on and trying to create but still fall short. Yet it seemed as if my father and sister had done it without a second thought. Despite their ordinary and short lifetimes, they managed to leave legacies remembered long after they had died. Slowly I started talking more with these individuals they had impacted, examining the kind of lives that my father and sister led. As I did this, I finally realize exactly how they had pulled it off.

No matter what he had going on, my father wouldn’t hesitate to drop everything and do whatever he could to make others feel valued. It didn’t matter if that meant turning seemingly mundane occasions into celebrations or picking someone up off the street for a burger and Coke from McDonald’s; he was always ready to do something like that if the occasion called for it. Those who knew my sister know that Jules always had her phone on stand by, ready to answer a call if necessary. The topic of conversation could range from general chit chat to life altering crisis, but it made no difference to her: she treated them both with equal interest and care. Regardless of their own personal life circumstances, good or bad, sickness or health, my father and sister were never too busy to be there for other people.

I realize that many people lead these kind of lives but what made my father and sister so special was the reason as to exactly why they behaved the way they did. When they made themselves available for these opportunities, they never did it to put on a show. They weren’t seeking out a metaphorical pat on the back from the world so that they could feel good about themselves at the end of the day but for another reason all together: they did these things because they genuinely loved everyone they met. They didn’t show compassion based on how the people they encountered might advance their own lives but merely on the fact that these people were fellow human beings. As such, they deserved attention and love.

Though they might not have consciously asked the question of what they would leave behind, my father and sister understood what legacy truly meant. They knew that more often than not, our marks on the world are not defined by a single day or one momentous decision. So often it seems that we believe some great work or achievement in the future will create an identity for us, something to be left behind when we are gone. We make the error of thinking of legacy as something that doesn’t become a reality until we reach a far off point on some occasion down the road. Once we are dying we can start to consider it. Once we are dead we will leave one behind. Yet my father and sister taught me that a legacy is not built overnight. In fact, the opposite is true.

A legacy is slowly built over each day, more often than not during the monotony of life. We build the foundation as we wake up and go through the motions of our day. And we lay each brick throughout that day: a conversation had, an individual reached out to, a kind deed for those in need. So often those opportunities are seen as peripheral occurrences. Despite these seemingly trivial interactions, they ultimately shape what we will leave behind. Living that way may feel ordinary at times, but those actions make up the collective extraordinary. Whether we are aware of it or not, they are what form our legacy.

A good friend of mine once told me that the true purpose in life is to invest in something that will outlast yourself, something that won’t fade away simply because you aren’t there to maintain it anymore. We have a nearly unlimited plethora of options as to how we might invest our time, constantly faced with these choices on a daily basis. But my father and sister taught me that there is one thing we can devote our time to that will outlast most all other alternatives. But it’s not something we can simply choose to invest in one day and expect to see immediate results; it’s something that takes deliberate time and effort, an investment that usually offers a pay off that you may never see. That thing is the human race itself.

As I go through this season of anniversaries of my loved ones passing, I am reminded more than ever of how limited our time can be. I am forced to more seriously confront the notion that I will one day be gone from the face of the earth. While it is tempting to despair over the losses of these loved ones or collapse in an existential crisis (which I’ve done a good time or two), I know that these individuals would instead want me to turn these circumstances into learning opportunities. Every day we have the chance to take the kind of compassion, empathy, and love that God feels towards the world and exemplify it. In that kind of mindset, doing whatever we can to devote ourselves to others throughout the day, our interaction with the world changes entirely. Though it might seem quite ordinary, spending your life in that manner builds the kind of legacy that can never be forgotten.

While it’s not having your face on a lunch box or saving the galaxy from the Sith, I believe that kind of life is the only one worth living.

 

 

 

A Time for Tomorrow

“Who knows? Starting a new journey may not be so hard. Or maybe it’s already begun.”

The summer before fourth grade started, dread filled my entire young and chubby being.

Until that point in my life I had spent my days under the tutelage of my mother in a homeschool environment. But all that was about to change with my enrollment in the local Christian school that fall. Needless to say, I was having about as massive of a panic attack as a nine year old can have at the prospect of this change. Luckily the summer before this great transition brought a much needed distraction for my burdened mind: my family took a trip to Disney World.

One eventful road trip later we had arrived in the Happiest Place on Earth. Taking advantage of the reality numbing magic around us, I devoted myself to exploring every aspect of this new land that I could. I discovered many new things during this excursion, but prime among them was the conclusion that theme park attractions break down into three main classifications:

1) Attractions that you want to go on

2) Attractions that small children and the elderly want to go on

3) Attractions that no one wants to go on

To illustrate the strength of this point, I’ll use a few real life examples. When it comes to the first category, rides like Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Star Tours, and similar attractions came to mind. (Who doesn’t want to spend their hot summer day serenaded by animals on a log flume or light speeding their way through the Star Wars universe in an air conditioned space craft?) Other attractions formed a Venn Diagram between people on opposite ends of the age spectrum. Rides like It’s a Small World, Peter Pan’s Flight, and other such slow moving and often musical experiences made up this category. And those two conclusions brought me to the third category.

Some attractions made me wonder how they every got created. For example, The Hall of Presidents. Even as a kid I appreciated Walt Disney’s inventive mind, but the decision to create an entire attraction based around very creepy and robotic versions of United States Presidents always baffled me. (I would have said the same for all of the other attractions in the park that lasted twenty minutes and didn’t compensate with rapid acceleration or at least a death plunge.) The attraction known as The Carousel of Progress also fell under this third category.

For those of you unfamiliar with this ride, allow me to try out my Wikipedia article creation skills. The Carousel of Progress, created by Walt Disney for the 1964 World’s Fair, is quite accurately summed up in its name. It involves a vehicle that takes passengers around a circular track, divided into six different sections designed to show America’s journey from the start of the twentieth century into modern day. Along the way, animatronics tell about the advances each decade or so has brought, occasionally breaking into song as (all?) Disney creations do. As they belt out the song titled, “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”, they repeat this chorus throughout the ride:

“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

Shining at the end of every day.

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

And tomorrow’s just a dream away.”

Despite the experience and particular point I was at in life, filled with fear and dread of my uncertain future, the ride didn’t impress me. Perhaps I was too young to understand. Or maybe I was too busy getting the image of robo Abraham Lincoln out of my head. Regardless, the ride didn’t initially make much of an impression, serving as a small blip on the radar of that summer. I soon went back to my adventuring in the overheated and overcrowded Florida theme park, biding my time until I had to be brave and return to the reality of my next step in life. And that was that.

To fast forward to modern day, I was doing some contemplating about life in the company of my trusty iPod. I repent the afternoon reflecting on the past year of my life, the things I had been through, and most of all, the future on the horizon. In desperate need of some soulful jams to soothe my mind, I set my iPod on shuffle mode. After several skips and realizing I have a lot of music that I need to delete, I came across my digital copies of the Disney Parks soundtrack. Specifically, I rediscovered “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”. My day stopped for a moment as I listened to the words.

“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

Shining at the end of every day.

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

Just a dream away.”

As I stood still and truly listened to those words, the lyrics struck a certain resonance with my soul. (I have no shame in saying such a thing over a Disney song. And if you’re honest with yourself you shouldn’t either.)

Right now, I have a lot in common with fourth grade Jordan. I am rapidly approaching an entirely new chapter in my life. Change looms on the horizon. I’ve spent a good deal of time reflecting on the past as I did years ago before such a great change in my life occurred. With that contemplation comes a lot of great memories that I cherish dearly. But those can easily become harmful if I let them. Allow me to explain.

I’m quite possibly as nostalgic as someone can be, but I have realized that good memories can be harmful to us if we allow them to. I believe this to be the case when we take good experiences and choose to live in them as an escape from reality or a way to avoid embracing something new. I used to think indulging in the past in this manner was simply “not helpful.” I thought it was okay to do but it just wasn’t productive. But I have realized that this isn’t the case. Many behaviors that we perceive as simply “not helpful” are so much more than this. In reality they are harmful, even toxic if we let them be.

It’s so interesting to me how as humans, we always want the next best thing.Yet when it comes to stepping out into the future and making that happen, we hesitate. We want to begin a new journey but starting it simply terrifies us. I am not exempt from this. I love excitement and new adventures yet the current adventure can be so familiar it’s hard to imagine the next one. I went through this thought process in fourth grade, at the end of high school, and I am experiencing traces of it again. But as always, God has something to say that address this very thing in the Bible.

At the beginning of this school year my wonderful mother lead me to a specific passage in the book of Isaiah. To give a bit of context, the people of Israel had experienced many blessings as a powerful nation, but things were starting to change as other world powers slowly arose. In the face of this uncertainty, they began to question the part God played in all of this as they lamented their current condition. Out of fear some began to cling tightly to great memories of the past rather than face the uncertain future. But through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord spoke:

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV)

There are times when reading God’s Word can feel like just reading. But there are other times when it literally feels like God is speaking to you. This was one of those instances for me. My anxious and uncertain self read these words and I realized how foolish I had been. I began to understand a simple truth: the future isn’t something to be feared.

God has given us wonderful experiences in the past but He doesn’t want us to cling so tightly to those that we miss the brand new things he has for us. So many wonderful opportunities spring up in the future, but we can’t see them if we’re looking backwards. I can just visualize God on His knees, begging us to adopt His perspective that allows us to step forward with boldness. All we have to do is turn our heads to see what is literally right in front of us.

No matter where you are in life, God has a plan for you. You could be starting something new, ending something you’ve done for awhile, or simply continuing with where you are. Regardless of where you find yourself placed in life, He has something amazing in store for you. It might be hard to see that at times. Some days you’ll come home and collapse from exhaustion, drowning in the mundane as you look up and wonder how you can go another day. But like the song says, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.”

I took me a long time to understand the meaning behind The Carousel of Progress, but I believe Disney grasped a deep spiritual truth when he created that attraction. Taking the step from today’s memories to tomorrow’s happenings can be a challenge, but I believe that it’s not nearly as difficult as our minds make it out to be. And besides, who’s to say: maybe the next big journey in your life has already started. Or maybe it’s going to begin tomorrow.

After all, tomorrow is just a dream away.

The Great Release

For Jules

Oh, how time flies,
But it’s still hard to say
That you last closed your eyes
Two years ago today.

The skies are often dark
In the month before May.
But they were blackest then
Two years ago today.

We all gathered round,
Emotions flew high,
But I swore not to cry,
Two years ago today.

Because you were strong,
I thought I had to be fine.
So a mask I hid behind
Two years ago today.

Tiny hand in mine,
Trying to squeeze away the fears,
I fought back the tears,
Two years ago today.

If I held real tight,
Perhaps you could stay,
For I had so much more to learn
Two years ago today.

You’d taught me how to laugh,
Enduring to remain,
Striving through the flames,
Two years ago today.

You’d taught me how to smile,
To encourage those knocked down
And that hope can always be found
Two years ago today.

These lessons you’d given,
Instructing over time.
They all flashed through my mind
Two years ago today.

I knew you had to stay and teach me
Another thing or three.
So I held your hand tighter
Two years ago today.

Though that room was filled
The world grew suddenly still,
As I looked into your eyes
Two years ago today.

You couldn’t make a sound
But your words met my ears,
Piercing lingering fears,
Two years ago today

“To love and hold tightly
Is a trait we often meet.
But to love and then release?
That’s quite the rare feat.

You held me for a time
And good times are what we had.
You’ve refused to let me go,
But today it’s not so bad.

He’s extending them outward,
Those scarred and loving arms,
Bidding me to enter the place
With no fear or alarms.

There is a time to mourn,
That urge you cannot fight.
Just remember the coming day
When we all will reunite.

So don’t shed too many tears
For someday they will cease.
Simply reflect and embrace this change;
It’s called The Great Release.”

I stared into your eyes
Until you shut yours,
Closing this world’s door,
Two years ago today.

I didn’t understand
As I drew back my hand,
Letting yours go,
Two years ago today.

I often recalled your words
But didn’t know what to say
As I relived those moments from
Two years ago today.

Now I realize you had to show
One last lesson to this world
Before He would allow you to go,
Two years ago today.

The most important thing you did relay
Was when you closed your eyes:
You taught me how to say goodbye,
Two years ago today.

The Dark Side

“Never be too busy to meet someone new.”-Unknown

The other week I started an introductory psychology course. I know what you’re thinking: “Jordan, I need you to come interpret my dreams involving Hungry Hungry Hippos eating my Billy Ray Cyrus albums!” Well unfortunately my insights into the human mind haven’t yet reached that level, but I will share what I have learned.

Our first assignment for the course involved an observation of a public setting.  We were to sit somewhere and watch the behaviors of others for some time and then compile that information into a report. My classmates began planning their ideas for sitting in the parking lot of Wal-Mart or a public park, all fine places for a steak out. Yet I have had the blessing of being exposed to a very interesting subdivision of culture, namely that of the nerd world existing inside of comic book stores.

As a youngster I spent plenty of time in comic book stores, participating in various game tournaments, shopping, and encountering the locals. Most people see this somewhat scraggly sub culture of society as something of an anomaly, and this is entirely accurate. Not everyone invests their weekends in tiny plastic figures and dice rolling. But I always spring for the chance to spend time in such an environment.Realizing how diverse of a psychological study observing this group would bring, I immediately made my plans for Saturday night.

My good friend Travis Black had yet to do his report, soon agreeing to be my battle buddy and write his report on the happenings of the Bradenton/Sarasota area’s premiere comic store. His insightful account can be found here. However, what follows in the rest of this writing is my record of the evening. It’s my attempt to put into words an encounter rarely had by most. An experience with one of the most unique parts of society. It is the tale of a night spent voyaging into…

The Dark Side.

***

Time passed and the sun had set. Neon signs illuminated our path as we walked towards the door, an excitement in the air. Penetrating the darkness surrounding us, an inscription on the brightly lit glass window told us where we were:“The Dark Side- Comics & Games.” Little did we realize how appropriate this name was as we were about to descend into the underbelly most of society doesn’t realize exists.

We entered silently, careful not to draw attention to ourselves. A wall immediately to our left stood filled with comics and several different boxed action figures. Covering the rest of the room were more shelves filled with board games, miniature figures, cards, and similar items. These fixtures seemed to make the room feel quite small, causing us to focus on the interaction going on at the counter immediately to our right.

Behind the counter stood a Dark Side employee and across from him an Asian fellow wearing an orange shirt hunched over the counter. His shirt displayed a symbol from the show Dragon Ball Z, specifically that of the character named Goku. But this real life Goku had not orbs of energy in hand, but a Lipton peach tea. The employee flipped through a white cardboard box containing assorted comics as he mentioned to Goku that he believed a new comic had arrived.

At this, Goku looked up and exclaimed, “You have it?! Yes!” Goku moved quickly, producing money that he gave to the man in exchange for the tea and comics. After doing this, he turned and headed towards the back of the store. Thinking Goku knew his way around, we followed him in hopes of greater discovery. He led us through the maze of shelves we had seen earlier, anxious for what was to come. Finally, we rounded a corner that revealed an ant colony of activity.

Or as Travis described it, “The Hornet’s Nest.”

Spread across the room were nearly fifteen tables with black table cloths, four or five people seated at each table. Most these individuals were males, although a few women stood at the tables, looking around the room from time to time. The men sat playing various card games with each other while others rolled dice and read from role playing books. A few men stood around a miniature model city in the center of the room, something Travis dubbed, “Tiny Town.”

Overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds, Travis and I snuck over and crouched behind several boxes of comics stacked on top of each other. From here we set up camp to safely observe the environment without disturbing it. Focusing on different areas, myself on a nearby table and Travis on Tiny Town, we went to work.

Around a table sat four men, all seemingly in their mid to late teens. They sat across from each other in pairs, Yu-Gi-Oh playing cards both in hand and scattered in front of them. In particular, one man wore glasses and appeared to be facing off against an orange Polo wearing opponent who clung tightly to a bag with an anime princess emblazoned upon it. Orange Polo exclaimed, “I’ve got this!” and whipped a card from his deck, placing it in front of Black Shirt.

At this Black Shirt sat up, replying, “He can’t attack if he doesn’t have the materials!” A fellow Polo wearer from another table leaned close to Orange Polo and hurriedly spoke.

“Do the thing!”

Unphased by the commentary, Orange Polo kept his gaze locked with Black Shirt, again repeating, “I’ve got this!” The situation continued to escalate as more cards were produced and rules discussed. Several of them took pause to refuel with the Mountain Dew and V8 juice variety at the table. Despite the intensity of this situation, I realized how much of the room remained unobserved by my eye. After conferring with Travis, we decided it was time for a move.

We stood and approached a table that had recently opened up. As we moved, I grabbed a role playing book from a nearby shelf for us to pretend to read in order to cloak our presence. However, as we journeyed, Travis disappeared from behind me, lost in the vast expanse of shelves that The Dark Side provided. Despite this, I pressed on towards our new temporary camp.

Taking my seat, I failed to notice the board game in front of me, something that drew the attention of a long haired gentleman from another table. He stepped forward, reaching out to grab the game. Startled, I leapt back in panic as my eyes grew wide. I was on a mission to simply observe and report, yet now I found myself within arm’s length of a subject looking directly at me. My terror mounted while he opened his mouth to speak.

“Excuse me. Let me grab that.”

I remained silent and wide eyed, staring at the long haired hunk. He turned and left to a group at another table as I reeled, panting and attempting to recover from what just happened. Not long after this Travis rejoined me, clearly shaken by the interaction he just witnessed from a distance. Once more looking around the room, several new presences in the area drew my attention.

One man stood with greying hair and the patchy beard to accompany it, very much resembling the grizzled appearance of a modern day Mark Hamill. A red and white Polo framed the somewhat large dimensions of his body, hanging loosely around his waist. This man wandered the room, floating from table to table and occasionally waving his hands in the air.

Several times, he made pistols with his thumb and index fingers, pointing them at individuals and making sound effects to accompany firing motions. Every so often he would get close enough to touch others, poking them in the sides with varying degrees of intensity. One lucky patron was the recipient of a complimentary back massage. (It appeared to be some form of shiatsu, but without experiencing it I cannot be certain.)

This behavior went on for some time until a skinny teen approached the man, telling him something before both headed for the front of the store. As he walked away, Mark waved his hands in the air several more times until he disappeared from view.

Two other gentlemen caught my eye after this. One wore a tucked in navy Polo with a pony tail running the length of most his back. Cradled in his arm was a motorcycle helmet, something he set down as he took his seat. Another man soon entered with a proper posture, finely trimmed and styled black hair excentuated by the dress pants and suit coat he wore. Carrying a bag and with a beautiful woman at his side, he approached the table slowly. As he took his seat, the woman sighed and rolled her eyes, soon leaving to examine books in the corner.

These comings and goings all intrigued me, but another sight pulled me in. Not far away and quite literally at the room’s center sat six individuals. These five males and one female all sat with a board full of miniature figures in front of them, the men rolling dice as the woman read aloud from a book. The squalor of the room blocked my hearing and I knew in order to get an accurate record I would need to move.

Standing up and moving once more, this shift led us not only nearer to the action. No, this new table positioned us quite literally at that heart of the room. The Belly of the Beast. Unshaken by how naked and exposed we felt, I leaned over to get a closer perspective on these individuals as Travis continued to pursue Tiny Town.

An Indian male with a pony tail, looking to be in his mid fifties, sat silently at the table as the others participated in the game. Next to this Indian was a young teen clad in a camouflage shirt also leaning back and silently observing. Across from these two were three males all talking amongst themselves on how their miniature warriors would best survive this adventure. Finally at the head of the table was the woman of the group, reading aloud from a book that narrated different scenarios to the game.

During the course of these events, one male, wearing an Albert Einstein shirt, spoke with a confident edge in his voice. Leveling his eyes with the man next to him, he uttered, “My dog stays with me unless I say otherwise.”

Continuing with her narration, the woman read from the book. “Two of the dark siders are approaching.” Einstein stared at the board, looking to the men seated next to him as he assessed the situation aloud.

“I can get in front of him but I can’t get inside him.”

The other two scratched their heads and shuffled through a few cards in their hands. One asked, “Should I go in the vault?”

The third man spoke up with a calmness to his voice. “I think you’ll be fine either way. I cast a spell on her.” While the others grew quiet, no action took place. Apparently aware of the intensity of the situation, he spoke in what seemed to be an attempt to calm their fears. “I have a speed of six.”

Out of the corner, the return of the Mark Hamill doppelganger took my eye off the game. I watched him return to his routine of circling the room as Goku entered the room as well, the first time I had seen him since we discovered this place. With half of his peach tea depleted and boxes in hand, Goku took a seat at a table by himself and began whipping around cards with haste. The sheer intensity of his movements caused me to turn my gaze elsewhere and I am thankful for it.

Back at the adventure table, the camouflaged boy looked at us and furrowed his brow. We continued with our note taking, hoping to remain uncompromised. However after several similar looks from the boy, we feared he had begun to catch on to what our business was at The Dark Side that night. Realizing the situation had gotten too hot and not wanting to blow our cover, we hurriedly closed our notebooks, gathered our things, and headed for the door.

We talked quietly amongst ourselves and reflected on everything we had just seen while approaching the exit. As we did, a man struggled to open the door, doing so with his feet as his hands were incapacitated. He held a large plastic tub with multiple layers of foam inside of it. These layers divided several different miniatures ranging from knights to dragons and other similar such figures. Trailing behind the man stood who I presumed to be his two children, looking no more than eight years old. Words fail to describe the sorrow in their eyes.

While I took this sight in, the man stopped and looked at me. Both of us stood silently near the door for a moment or two until he stammered out, “Excuse me.” At this he slid past me, and the small ones followed suit as they all approached the back of the store, disappearing into The Dark Side.

***

Travis and I took time to refuel after this experience by consuming items from the ever affordable value menu of Wendy’s. Sitting and enjoying Frosties, I helped my friend make sense of the bizarre sights we had just taken in as I had before to strangers to this culture. Yes, he had just witnessed a society entirely of its own. And he would be quite right in describing how uncomfortable the entire situation had made him. Yet I am quite proud to say Travis had quite the opposite reaction.

He understood the necessity for such a place like this, a haven offering a most radical alternative to Saturday night entertainment. A place where there are no rules except for those printed in books with monsters on the covers. A club where individuals don’t dace to the tune of the latest R&B rehash, but instead to the sound of die rolling through miniature cities. These patrons are linked not only by their mutual love for Polos, but also for each other.

Despite our status as outsiders, I don’t believe any person in The Dark Side would have hesitated to pull up a chair and offer us a seat at Tiny Town. Had we not just been on a mission of observation, these warriors and wizards would have welcomed us peasants into their culture with open arms. That’s a kind of hospitality that I seek out often but have found in very few places. Yet this one night we did find it. The night we entered….

The Dark Side.

Something Good

“Very rarely do I have to make the daily choice between doing good or doing evil. Real life is hardly so epic. Most days I simply have to choose between doing something good or doing nothing at all.” -Paraphrased inspirational quote from Mrs. Butler’s Advanced English class

Setting the clock back a few years, I found myself driving to school back dropped by a sunrise only the glorious Midwest can provide. Per my traditional en route to school voyages, the sweet serenades of Haddaway poured into my ears, blasted out by the best sound system a vehicle could ask for. But this wasn’t just any vehicle. No, my friend. This was the ride to end all rides. The car of all cars. As a matter of fact, she wan’t even a car. She was something better.

She was a mini van.

Crusing in my Chevy Venture always proved for an interesting ride. (Her friends call her The Electric Mayhem, named so after Muppets fame; the resemblance is uncanny) On a good day she had at least one functioning door and windows that usually rolled up (but suspiciously broke in the winter). She had survived a hit and run that looked more like an attack from The Incredible Hulk and had the battle scars to prove it.

Needless to say, we had seen a lot together and really reached the point where man and machine become almost indistinguishable. Maybe that’s why I was able to swerve so quickly when I saw one of our school issued Macbooks in the middle of the road.

Before I proceed, a bit of exposition if you will indulge me. For those of you not familiar with the concept, some schools such as the lovely Oskaloosa High School do one to one computing. This is a system where they issue each student a laptop that all students used for academic pursuits. I knew it was a genius idea from the inception because if there’s one thing every single high schooler can do, it’s keep a thousand dollar device safe for multiple years.

So every student, from freshman to senior, served as guardian over the lives of their own personal Macbook. The loss of one would mean money coming out of said students non existent surplus of funds. Fret not though; we each got paper thing bags to prevent any cosmetic damages, not to mention the fact they threw in some complimentary cheap foam for added protection. Despite these safety measures, a rogue Macbook somehow found its way into the middle of the road.

Unseen to my distracted Friday morning self, the path of my Lady Mayhem had brought me closer and closer to this helpless machine stranded in the middle of the heavily trafficked are. I immediately recognized what the object was, quickly pulling over into a nearby driveway. Risking life and liimb in a Frogger type rescue mission, but looking before doing so, I hopped across the street and retrieved the bag.

I hadn’t brushed up on any Sherlock Holmes for some time, but luckily all bags had the names of the computer’s owner printed on them. And if you didn’t know how to read, no worries: they put a picture on it. Without possibility of failing, I soon hopped back into The Mayhem and let her carry me the rest of my journey, resolved to return the bag and computer to its proper master.

One Saving Private Ryan grade student location mission later, I headed off to class, glad to have done what I could to help someone for the day. Settling down a few minutes early into my next class, I sat down and dumped out a large stack of scholastic reading material. Usually I spent those precious pre class moments gleaning everything I could from these literary giants I often read studied, but a stray comment drew me into one of the room’s ongoing conversations.

“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it. It was just sitting there!”

My classmate had clearly been telling a story that I had, much like my mother whenever we are watching a confusing film, hopped into midway through the action. Her tale apparently captivated another student who related to her experience, soon interjecting.

“I saw it too! I got this close to running that thing over!”

Instantly understanding what they were talking about, I decided to play a bit of a social experiment. After placing my reading material down, I leaned back and played dumb while posing the question, “Wait, what’s going on?”

A crowd had started to form and several components of this gathering looked over at me. The first girl answered my question with, “Someone’s school computer was just in the middle of the road on the way here.”

Almost involuntarily, I asked a follow up question.

“Did anyone stop and get it?”

Silence ruled the room for a moment as my classmates exchanged a few glances. After a long moment or two one spoke up with a, “I don’t know. I had to be here early so I couldn’t stop.” Several other similar such reasonings arose as to why no one decided to take the time to remove the computer from the middle of the road. Nodding at each other, they accepted these explanations and continued with their days. However, as everyone moved about the room and went their separate ways, I had an entirely different response.

Brimming with anger, I felt appalled that no one had even seriously considered picking up the computer. How could they all be okay with simply passing by? These thoughts and questions troubled me for some time that morning. I couldn’t fathom how the behavior of everyone around me appeared normal to each other. But gradually I understood their thinking. They felt justified in not stopping. And in their minds, rightfully so.

They didn’t look down on each other for not stopping for the computer. Picking it up could have been dangerous. Even worse, it could have made them late to class. Heaven forbid saving a stranger from a thousand dollar fee earn them a tardy. Instead they simply chose to carry on with their day.

And it wasn’t like they were the ones who threw the computer into the middle of the street anyways. They hadn’t committed any evil or malicious act, laughing maniacally and stroking their mustache as they cast the poor laptop onto the path of an unforgiving mini van. Now that would be something blatantly evil to do. They didn’t do anything good, nor did they do anything bad.

They simply did nothing at all.

Later that day I saw the quote at the top of this page and it has stuck with me ever since. So often we wish to view life as an epic battle, engaging in struggles against the dark forces of evil. I myself have similar expectations of how my life is going to turn out, perhaps serving as an explanation for my life long fascination with comic books. I enjoy imagining a world of larger than life heroic deeds and sweeping saves. And at times, I think of what it would be like to live in that kind of world.

Yet in reality, this heroic struggle hardly ever proves to be the case. I’ve found that the key to navigating life isn’t conforming our life to fit the mold of fantastical heroics, but finding meaning in the day to day. Our adventures won’t always look like soaring over the sprawling Manhattan skyline. Instead we have to find adventure in fetching J. Jonah Jameson a hot cup of joe without a dollar in our pocket.

For those of you who aren’t nerds and don’t get that last point of comparison, allow me to give a few more examples. Our heroic struggle exists in what might seem to be the mundane. It reveals itself through things like encouraging someone, asking how a stranger how their day is, or giving that person on the sidewalk a ride home. Heck, it might even be as boring or straining as picking up a laptop from the middle of the road.

If you take nothing else from this, remember the words that OHS teacher extraordinaire Kris Butler posted on her walls. Whenever seeing someone in need, your instincts might implore you to one thing, but I implore you to do the opposite. Choose to do something good.

Whatever you do, don’t do nothing at all.

Pizza Ponderings

“People are so enslaved by their perception of the past and future that they are incapable of properly experiencing the present until it’s vanished.”- Alan Moore

This past week, I once again had the pleasure of entertaining my mother and the North Dakota branch of the family while they visited me here in good ol’ Bradenton. This trip, like most that have come before it, proved to be one full of excitement. We had many adventures, Goodwill shopping trips, and a near death encounter or two courtesy of The Friendly City’s all star drivers.

In addition to these, I also had the opportunity to take the gang to several local eateries. I wanted to introduce them to a new little hole in the wall burger joint, but they insisted that they had heard of it already. Seeing as this was the case, I introduced them to the finest pizza buffet this city can offer: Hungry Howie’s.

If you’ve been to Hungry Howie’s, you know what it’s like. If you don’t, allow me to briefly explain. Imagine Chuck E. Cheese, minus the ball pits (I was bummed too), add in an excessive amount of TVs all playing the same football game, and multiply both the quality and quantity of the pizza. That’s Howie’s in a nutshell. (Oh! And sub out that lovable mouse mascot for a somewhat creepy looking kid. Although Chuck E. Cheese has gone through quite a startling metamorphosis himself over the years.)

As we entered this fake Italian dojo, my mouth instantly began to water at what met my eyes. One employee slid one of the famous Philly Cheese Steak pizzas under the bright heat lamps. Another worker restocked the fettuccine alfredo fresh out of the oven, oozing with that white hot cheese. All the delicious aromas floating through the air instantly sent my mind shuffling through a folder labeled, “Days Gone By.” And with it, a twinge of pain and longing shot through my being.

Years ago, eating at a buffet was much different for my younger and rounder self. Most times these buffet visits were accompanied by my brother and his high school friends. I quickly figured out that this group couldn’t help but get a kick out of a fifth grader’s wacky antics, especially when it came to eating food in a silly fashion. Aside from these social trips, most other pizza buffet trips were preceded by an intense battle waged on the basketball court.

Now I was hardly an all star athlete back in the day, but that’s okay because the Oskaloosa Christian Crusaders were hardly a basketball team. As far as middle school teams go we were the most unique in the county; we had almost three years straight of perfect seasons (1 and 29 record!) and we were proud of it. (Well, not proud of the score board, but we tried our best. )

Even though we walked off that court every night in defeat, those were still some of the best memories I have. Forming the friendships I did and getting to shout out the names of nonsensical plays will never escape my mind (Every time the phrase, “Chicken wing!” escaped my lips, rival teams always collapsed in confusion.)

Despite the fact that the score board never said we were winners, it didn’t matter at all once the game was over. Because after games, as a great friend of mine named Cello once wrote of our would be sorrows, “They got something better than a victory: they got to go to Pizza Ranch.”

I’ve lost any real skill I had on the basketball court as well as a few pounds since the eight grade, but despite this metamorphosis, I still love pizza buffets to a Ninja Turtle degree. But at times it can be hard for me to look back through this folder labeled “Days Gone By.” In the past I’ve looked at those experiences and allowed myself to wallow in sorrow, believing that my best days are behind me. For so long I fell into this deadly trap of being ensnared by the past. But this is so opposite of what our memories are supposed to do.

I believe God gives us wonderful experiences and memories to encourage us, both in the moment and in the future. They give us encouragement for where we are, but they also gives us strength for the future when times get tough. These experiences serve as a reminder that even if the scoreboard reads, “VISITOR- 70, HOME-2” there’s still hope of a “great big beautiful tomorrow.” Or at least a visit to Pizza Ranch.

All these thoughts ran through my head as I walked into Howie’s that night, picking up my first plate as round one of the evening began. In due time, the feeding frenzy had ended and we sat back, deliberating whether The Equalizer with Denzel was a good choice for the evening’s entertainment. While the rest of the table delved into the finer points of Redbox’s recent releases, my mind drifted elsewhere for the second time that night.

That certain subtle wave of nostalgia swept over me once again, bringing back to mind those days I remember so fondly. But strangely enough, they weren’t things that held me back. I recalled them in a way that reminded me of where I’ve been, but also where I’m going. It brought back to my mind the truth that that the best days are yet to come. And it reminded me that my journey is far from over.

On the contrary, it’s hardly even begun.

A Hamster in the Sun

“MAMA: It’s dangerous, son.

WALTER: What’s dangerous?

MAMA: When a man goes outside his home to look for peace.”

-Lorraine Hansberry from the play, A Raisin in the Sun

The words of good ol’ FDR ring in my ears as once more the return to normalcy has arrived. While the new year is fun and exciting, with it come some tragic consequences. Among these are egg nog no longer making itself available at every turn, Christmas music losing something of its luster, and particularly, the resuming of classes.

I had the opportunity to pick from several different courses this semester. Similar to my much younger and much rounder self in a Krispy Kreme, I had a hard time deciding where to start. Luckily, my main man and advisor Lance (not this Lance) gave wise counsel and directed me to a literature class. For those of you who know me, I’m a pretty big literature guy who loves to write, read, and anything in between. So it turned out this course would both conveniently fill my schedule and hopefully prove most interesting. And let me say, Lance didn’t steer me wrong.

I’ve gotten to read several different short stories and plays that I have enjoyed immensely, but this last week I got to read A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry. I had never even been aware of this play’s existence until sitting down to read it. To my surprise, I soon learned that it’s ranked up there as a classic alongside Death of a Salesman. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed by this particular facet of my cultural ignorance or not, but regardless, I have historically felt little to no shame. So why start now?

Anyways, I soon found myself engrossed in the play. It tells the story of the Youngers, an African American family living in an urban city of the 1950s, a time when segregation and discrimination ran rampant. There’s lots of both heavy duty and Full House grade drama going on (but aren’t they kind of one in the same?), coupled with some very insightful examinations of dreams and aspirations. From such subject matter naturally spring some great memorable quotes, yet the one quoted at this post’s beginning stuck with me the most. I’ll explain why.

In the play, Mama serves as grandmother and wise voice of reason to the Youngers. Each member of the family has their own particular dreams, her son Walter included. Despite loving his family and wanting what’s best for them, Walter has his own dream of owning a liquor store. He believes that this store would finally allow him the means to consistently provide for his family. While on the surface this may seem like an admirable desire, ultimately Walter’s dream for the store has many self centered implications.

To condense a lot of rising, falling, and “again it’s rising” action, this particular interaction happens after Walter grows fed up with his unmet dreams. As per usual, Walter decides to trade an evening at home for another night at the bar in an attempt to “find himself some peace.” Mama realizes the dangerous folly of such a course of action that Walter can’t even recognize, soon vocalizing it.

I believe Mama’s words hits two very relatable issues on the head: how we pursue our dreams and how we deal with our problems. As in the story, most every person in real life has dreams of some kind. While these dreams can be in the best interest of the world and others around you, this isn’t always the case. If you’re anything like me, if one of these dreams gets dangerously close to that line of becoming self centered, you find a way to justify. Like Walter, we think,

Sure, what I want might seem to be a little self centered. Maybe I might need to sacrifice others interests, time with family, my health, (insert justification here), but ultimately it’s for the greater good. Once I get over this and have what I need, life will be smooth sailing for everyone. They’ll see.

This thought process can become such a deadly trap though. In the pursuit of that dream we can lose sight of what we really want. Often our dream is already fulfilled and around us but we focus so much on pursuing what we already have that we lose it. Sometimes we have to do what it takes to make ends meet, but I promise you that if those who really love you could choose between the money you get from working Christmas Eve or spending that night with you, they would pick you every time.

Mama addresses another common issue as well in how we respond to reality and our difficulties. Peter Pan has always been my favorite Disney film, so I speak with authority when I say that facing reality is one of the hardest things a person can do. Often times it is so much easier to turn a blind eye to problems that to face them. I understand the psychology of this quite a bit and will prove so in an object lesson.

Many a night after pajamas are on, teeth have been brushed, and the lights are out. I slowly recline in bed. As my head makes impact with the cool fabric pressing against my cheek, the day flashes before my eyes. I remember lunch (ever delicious left over beef stew), the embarrassment felt after yet another intramural football game (I essentially loitered the whole time), and making a few hilarious jokes (I’m clearly almost dreaming at this point). Just as these thoughts begin mixing with Abraham Lincoln teaching me how to hunt vampires, a sudden sensation begins and my stomach sinks: I have to use the bathroom.

An immediate internal struggle begins. I would very much like to relieve myself, but the labor of standing up, turning the light on, and making the ten foot trek to the bathroom proves far too insurmountable. I battle myself for a time, weighing the pros and cons. Resolved in my stance, I roll over, trusting that ignoring my demanding bladder is the best course of action. Yet time and time again, I find that I only lose a half hour of sleep until my body wins out and forces me into the bathroom.

I trust that some of you can relate to this struggle, and if you can, then you understand the appeal of simply ignoring reality. It’s so very easy to put stock in hoping that if out feet move quick enough, they’ll put a decent amount of ground between those issues and ourselves. But in the end, all that kind of running does is amount to exercising on a hamster wheel; we go through the motions, but never end up going anywhere. Once more, Mama cuts right through how detrimental this response can be.

As that Christian rocker Keith Green once said, “You can run to the end of the highway and come back no better than before… to find yourself you’ve got to start right here.” If we truly want to better ourselves, overcome our obstacles, and embrace what’s ahead, we have to stop running from where we are. Doing anything less is just thinking like a hamster. And I don’t know about you, but I’m smarter than a hamster. (Well, most hamsters.)

So as the return to our regular routines sets in, I encourage you to take a look at things around you a little differently. Examine both your dreams for the year to come and your responses to any current or potential problems, viewing them through the filter of Mama’s eternal wisdom. I doubt that you will regret it because after all, Mama knows best. And if you can squeeze it in, take some time to dive into some good literature this year. It just might change your life.

Speaking of good literature, I just found out that the sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, my favorite book of all time, released earlier this month without my knowing. So if anyone needs me for the next few days, my secretary will field your calls.

Toll Free Dreaming

I stood in the kitchen, mouth agape in a manner displaying my shock as I stared at the device in front of me. For months I had lived in agony, wrestling with the longing that filed my being with an empty void. After so much time spent toiling, I had all but given up hope that the heavens would finally provide the sweet deliverance that I craved. Yet the darkest hour is just before the dawn. So hot on the heels of Christmas break, the Good Lord blessed me with a quite literal deux ex machina provided by my wonderful host parents. (Their names are Michael and Cindy Van Kirk, The Friendly City’s resident power couple.) Ladies and gentleman, my host parents had bought an ice cream machine.

However, this rejoicing proved short lived as a buzzing sensation began in my pocket. This could mean one of two things. First, my room mate David Willis might have finally grown weary of my penchant for inventing nicknames for him and jammed a tazer into my thigh. (But can you blame me on the nicknames? I mean, with a last name like “Willis”, it’s just a short skip to calling him McClane. I almost have to strain to think of his birth name at this point.) It also could mean my phone was vibrating.

Luckily, this particular chicanery of mine had not brought on the moment’s distraction. Sliding my hand into the deep treasure trove of denim, I retrieved said cellular device. Considering the circumstances, I thought to ignore the intrusion, yet this was unique. My brow furrowed as I looked at the screen. I did not recognize the number, but the modern miracle of caller ID identified it as coming from New York. The moment’s confusion soon gave way to wild fantasies.

I hadn’t worked on my creative writing for quite some time, but visions of Stan “The Man” Lee calling from his Marvel publishing office and immediately hiring me to write for The Amazing Spider-Man flashed through my head. With these thoughts in mind, I eagerly answered the phone and ran outside to get better reception.

My suspicions proved half right. A broken voice crackled through the line.

“Is this Jordan Fash?”

Confirming my identity without hesitation, the voice continued.

“My name is Lorraine and I am with Page Publishing in New York. We wanted to let you know that you will be receiving a submission packet for your book in the next few days. We just need to confirm your contact information.”

This was all fine and good, but I had not in recent memory contacted any publishing companies. At this point, I grew suspicious. Was this some kind of scheme to steal my identity or get me to make four easy payments of $49.95? Seeking to rectify this concern, I proceeded to interrogate Lorraine to a degree, something that took a bit longer than I anticipated. (I’m pretty sure Lorraine didn’t speak much English. Either that or she was some new and malfunctioning prototype of Siri being used to make company calls.) After a drawn out process, I discovered this process was completely free and legitimate. In a manner most unintelligible, Lorraine wrapped things up.

“Okay, Mr. Fash. Our package should be arriving to you in a few days and our director of publishing will be calling you to hear the pitch for your book. Have a great day.”

Lorraine’s voice dropped out and I was left standing in the much too warm January sun, overheated phone still clinging to my now sweaty ear. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t Marvel like I had dreamed, but a publishing company had just called me! Not only that, but a publishing company in New York, the Hollywood of publishing! A huge smile spread across my face as I once more imagined this as a stepping stone towards my dream of employment as a writer. The director of a publishing company would be calling me to hear a pitch for a book! There was only one problem with this scenario:

I don’t have a book.

I realized that, as my dear sister Jules would say, someone had some “splaning” to do. Looking up Page Publishing online, I discovered the ease with which you could enter your contact information and request a book submission packet be sent your way. I immediately suspected what had happened: an overly zealous family member somehow stumbled upon this site, remembered that I love to write, and decided that it was about time I got off my lazy butt and cranked out a novel. Now to just Scooby-Doo my way to the identity of this culprit.

My fellow collaborator Zach Phillips (who has an amazing blog you can check out here) made it to the top of my suspect list. But alas, after a brief contact with my temporary Liberia resident of a cousin, he was proven innocent. I then decided to place a call to the next person on my list, a certain Deb Fash. And let’s just say that my mother’s poker face is a poor one to say the least.

It turns out my mother had decided to sign me up for the process of publishing my novel that wasn’t complete. And by not complete I mean had never even been thought of. She simply wanted to see “how that whole publishing thing works.” Apparently she decided that having a book written proves of little importance in the grand scheme of getting a book published. I mean, who needs a silly thing like actual content when a publishing director calls expecting a pitch for the next Hunger Games? I tried to explain this dilemma, but to no avail. Unable to be frustrated and simply laughing at my dear old mother’s chicanery of her own, I hung up the phone.

What was I going to do? I imagined the hijinks that could ensue. Do I keep up the charade, pretending I have a book? Was my life about to turn into a wacky family comedy as a well dressed yet tragically grumpy publishing executive flew me out to New York to pitch a book that didn’t exist? Was I going to have to find some way to reunite him with his estranged daughter whose heart I broke after she discovered my deception? The possibilities were endless. But so too were the flavors my new ice cream maker could produce. So, resolved to consume as much Kit Kat infused dessert as I could conjure up, I returned inside to mull over my current predicament.

To put a long story short, massive amounts of ice cream consumption usually results in regret and sorrow, but this evening proved different. The situation my mother got me into had me thinking. How groovy would it be to actually have a book to pitch to these guys? All throughout high school, I dreamed of focusing on my writing. Of creating stories and sharing them with the world. I had plenty of different ideas that I thought I would like to write, but for whatever reason, life always seemed to get in the way. (I always had more important things to do, like trying to learn how to moonwalk and serving as a chair to the Oskaloosa Parkour Club.)

But I am now at the stage in my life where these ambitions are no longer fanciful longings. I am growing up and transitioning into a place where I can take the steps towards making these dreams come true. However, that can only happen if I put in the time. I can’t sit around, waiting for that magical call to come that will change my life. I have to work for it.

With this in mind, I took the other day, locked myself inside, and didn’t emerge until I had turned a concept I came up with a few years ago into a short story. It took a bit of discipline, focusing, and hard work, but at the end of the day I could sit back and smile, knowing I took one small step towards making those dreams of authorship a reality.

So I don’t have a book written. Not even a concept. I’m not working for Marvel yet, nor do I see that happening anytime soon. I understand though that in order to get to that place of living my dream, it will take more than just dreams. It will take lots of small steps. Sometimes those steps might seem tedious, out of the way, or even in the opposite direction. Yet those steps are the ones that I must be willing to endure and see through if I want to achieve my goal of creating stories that delight and inspire the masses under the Marvel label.

In this season of New Year’s resolutions (most of which I imagine have been long broken), I think this is an important lesson to be reminded of. Until we decided to act, our dreams, no matter how badly we wish for them to be true, are simply that: dreams. I understand this allure to inaction though. You know why? Because I’ve struggled with it myself.

Not acting on our desires takes the pressure off. We don’t have to wrestle with the possibility of failure as we kick back, content to continue dreaming of a great big beautiful tomorrow that’s never really going to come. But if we aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to make our dreams come true, then maybe we don’t want them as badly as we think.

So I don’t care if it’s reuniting with a family member you’ve drifted out of touch with, writing a novel, reading through the Bible in a year, or learning to cook. We cannot give up on what we once set our minds to. But sometimes we need a little reminder to keep us going. And that’s okay. As for me though, I know I’m done waiting around for my mother to shanghai me into going after my dreams. I wish the exact same thing for you in this new year. Now I best be going; there’s a very important call I am expecting in the next few days that I have yet to prepare for.

On an entirely unrelated note, if anyone has a phenomenal idea for a best selling book they’ve been itching to get rid of, I’m all ears.

Ch-Ch-Changes (Not Featuring David Bowie)

“Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”- 2 Corinthians 1:9 (NIV)

Yowzers. What a journey the past few months have been.

As I kick back to relax with a nice comic book and reflect on completing my first semester of college, several thoughts cross my mind. First, Spider-Man really better get his act together or Doctor Octopus is going to set the planet on fire. I don’t know about you guys, but outside of the metaphorical idea of a “world on fire” that usually pertains to revolutions, I possess no real desire for many flames in my life. (Unless it concerns smores. Then flames are entirely acceptable.) Second, I realize that I’ve grown up a lot over the past few months.

Now I don’t mean to sound exceptionally stereotypical in saying that. I never could stand hearing from “grown up” college students who suddenly found themselves playing the roles of scholars and masters of all life’s facets after a few introductory courses. But as with any kind of foray into a brand new environment, the college experience ideally results in personal growth. Fortunately, my first bout with college proves no exception.

That growth has come from new realizations, like slowly coming to understand that coffee actually can taste good or that there’s nothing like a good nap. It also stems from discovering that, contrary to popular belief, college is exactly how An Extremely Goofy Movie depicted it. And when I had the time, I grew a bit in knowledge while picking up a thing or two from the whole “school and classes” thing.

While I believe these things to be all fine and good, having experienced them all and seen the benefits they bring, I must say that the growth that has impacted me the most hasn’t come from forming new trivial habits or reading through a textbook. The kind of growing up that changed my life isn’t something I could learn from studying. It’s the kind that comes only from being forced into a new environment, becoming uncomfortable, facing the hard questions life brings, and learning to navigate it all.

I’ve written before about my struggles with depression. I’ve described how for so long I kept things to myself, content to sit back in the familiarity of my day to day with family close by and a routine I knew. Eventually, I sank into a habit of simply going through the motions of life. Living but not alive. That kind of thing. Yet a few months ago, that all changed.

Suddenly, I found myself on my own, in an unfamiliar environment, and starting a new phase of life. Usually I employ the philosophy David Bowie taught me and embrace change, but this particular change triggered a lot of things. Throughout the summer I had faced one of my more intense bouts of depression, a condition only worsened by where I now was. I also started dealing with the aftermath my dad and sister’s deaths, things I had done my best to avoid getting emotional about for years. These things all coupled together as a perfect storm that brought me to the closest thing to a mental breakdown I’ve ever faced

To speak quite truthfully, I wanted nothing more than to go home. But something inside me, or more specifically, Someone, told me not to. That I had to face these things in my life. I had to learn how to get help. And through that, I needed to learn how to truly grow. In order to do that, I started doing something I had never done before: getting help.

I started talking to family and friends about things. I got set up with seeing a counselor. I even looked into and started taking medication to help with things. Months ago I would have felt embarrassed and ashamed to seek out this kind of help or talk about it. But recently as I stood in line to pick up my medication at the CVS pharmacy, wondering what kind of deal with the Illuminati Anne Hathaway made to go from Princess Diaries to gracing the cover of TIME magazine, I realized something had changed inside me.

No longer did I feel shame at getting help. I understood that for so long I had a problem I didn’t even realize I had. I couldn’t form close relationships with people because I never shared anything with them. I wanted to be able to share in my sufferings, but I never thought anyone else could handle what I dealt with. But because of that, no one shared their struggles with me, so I never knew what they were going through. I was living a paradox and had no idea.

Ultimately though, I had to learn to rely on God. I felt like Paul did in the verse above, desperate beyond belief and in agony. But I realize now that sometimes the only way we can truly grow is when we lose everything that makes us comfortable. Sometimes, we have to be brought to the end of our own rope to realize that we’re dangling only a few feet above the ground. All we have to do is show crazy courage and endure a brief fall, trusting that our feet will find solid ground. And they always will.

So as I said, I’ve grown a lot over the course of these few months. I now know how to be vulnerable, one of the most difficult things it is for us to do as human beings, yet it brings indescribable healing. I’ve also learned the value of getting uncomfortable and the rewards that brings. Learning these lessons, especially on my own, have proven to be the hardest things I have ever had to do. However, my life wouldn’t be nearly the same without them.

Anyways, those are my musings for the moment. (“Musings for the Moment.” That’s a catchy little phrase. Possible new blog title?) I hope you’ve enjoyed my forays into sharing my adventures and discoveries in the blog world as much as I have. Seeing as this might be one of my last few posts of the year, I encourage you to boldly embrace what’s ahead. Don’t be afraid to get uncomfortable. Once you realize what that can bring, you won’t want to trade it for anything in the world.

Well, maybe for the next issue of Spider-Man so you can wrap up a high octane story that you’re in the middle of. Speaking of which….

PS- Merry Christmas! Be nice to The Fat Man, drink lots of nog, and go watch Jingle All the Way! But not Jingle All the Way 2. I would request you protest that with me. How dare they make a sequel to that holiday classic without Arnold Schwarzenegger? I think we know what they’re getting for Christmas.