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Reflections on reading Gone Girl

gonegirl1I read the NY Times runaway bestseller Gone Girl last month.

There were plenty of other things I could have read. It’s not like I’ve read everything of note, every Murakami book that has been recommended, every Franzen, Eugenides, Eggers, Gaiman, Chabon. I’d like to read Marilyn Robinson’s new one sometime. But there are even books by McCarthy, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway that I have not read. I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m trying to work in Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides, which was highly recommended. There are many British novels that would draw universal gasps of horror if I told you I’d not read them. And there are the Russians that I would like to read again, most of them in fact.

But in a whimsical moment, having heard from other author-types that it was fan-TAS-tick, I got Gone Girl and read it. Here’s what I have to say about it.

I cannot remember the last time I found it so hard to lay a book down. Very often the chapters would end with an exquisite hook, painfully well-placed, and I had to sit still and read one or two more chapters. The first 7/8 of the book was like this in almost every chapter. Never have I been captivated by such suspense. It was thrilling.

This has to have been because the two main characters, a husband and wife, were so well crafted that I deeply cared what happened to them. Congratulations to Gillian Flynn for her fine grasp of that art of storytelling.

Not only that, but the book made me think about what kinds of things make a bad husband. Nick Dunne was a careless, self-centered, and shallow husband. It made me circumspect, the way I think all good fiction should do at least a little bit. It also revealed like no other book I’ve read the way a modern woman’s mind works, albeit a really messed up and psychotic woman. Her perspective on her husband, her responsiveness to him, her awareness of other women and their dealings with each other, her awareness of how the dating scene works, at least in Manhattan circles.gonegirl2

I couldn’t help but notice a number of similarities to my own novel, similarities that made my shoulders slightly droop when I realized someone else did what I did and wound up on the NY Times Bestseller list, and my book did not (yet). These include an opening chapter in which a girl is suddenly missing, a chapter-by-chapter variation of voice (1st person, 3rd person etc.), and roughly the same length. Even some of the characters reminded me of some of my characters. Some of these things I was very proud of, thinking that I had thought of them first, or at least developed them in an original way.

The book had a large amount of sex and sex talk. I was interested in the way it was presented. It was not really erotic, not sensual. Graphic but not especially salacious. There was a generous amount, but it was all very Gen-Y: frank, unrestrained, but fairly bored and cynical about it. The complete opposite of what I expect 50 Shades of Gray would be, I mean quite a bit of sex talk, but nothing forbidden or even private. Suitable to the story and characters, but with no literary or artistic style. I think most people would feel the narrator was giving “a lot of very personal information.” Like being stuck on a plane next to a hipster gynecologist.

Unfortunately, the last 1/8 of the book completely lost it for me. Gone was the suspense. Missing was the grand finale that it should have been building up to. Finished was all the doom and destiny and the new strange people and the clever plot. I’ll just say it was a logical ending and leave it at that. That is very faint praise.

The whole thing made me reflect somewhat dismally on the plight of truly gifted writers (not me, but truly gifted writers). I know they are out there, writing things that are timely, full of wisdom and perspective, subtly leading the reader into new areas of thought. But in a market that has trimmed all the fat, there is no room to patronize the poor-selling but important book on the backs of 10 big-selling romance novels. Every book must be a big seller.


3 Days in Rome: on borrowing the lives of others for your fiction

There is a running joke among authors. “Lookout, or I’ll write you into one of my stories! Ha ha!”

I said it’s a joke. But for many authors it’s no joke.writer1

On October 19, 1998, The Author’s Guild held a panel discussion titled “Whose life is it anyway?” There were four panelists who addressed the topic of authors appropriating the lives and experiences of others in their writing. As Wendell Berry described it in his book Life is a Miracle, “the conversation is illustrative of the problem of freedom.” But I would go farther than that.

Three of the four panelists agreed that fiction writers must have total freedom to write absolutely anything, including stories that harm others. One panelist said,

“I could not imagine that fiction might not be an arena of total freedom…Life becomes real only through having been written…Inevitably, writers are responsible for wounds and hurts—but the writer must say, I don’t care, I don’t give a damn…”

Aside from the fact that the sentence ‘Life becomes real only through having been written‘ is a completely baffling statement, I find this quote somewhat threatening. What if some writer set me as their target? It would seem that no one is safe.

There may be some readers who are in sympathy with the statement. We can’t give in to censorship, even self-censorship, you might say. It could start to sound like authorial cowardice, like a writer didn’t have the bravery to write a real masterpiece, complete with controversy, and therefore their art lacked the real power that comes from honesty. Is that you? Let’s read on.

Another panelist approvingly offered the following quote: “For every writer it is a rite of passage to write the story after which a member of your family will no longer speak to you.” He then stated his personal credo, “I say anything goes in fiction—anything goes. If you start to take away bit by bit the rights of writers doing what they want, what you end up eroding is your own freedom.”

Now we have moved beyond threatening to gratuitous. I think I understand his intention, but the statement lacks any hit of nuance. Can he really mean this? If he really means what he says, to the full extent that he seems to mean it—that a writer’s friends and family are fair game—then the writer is a loose cannon, a persona non grata to the rest of society, a voyeur, a thief,  and a tyrant. One wonders, how far would this guy go? Would he proceed, one by one, to crush family members and friends until he was completely isolated but for the adulation of the anonymous masses of readers? Is the necessary freedom of fiction worth that ultimate price? Because really, you could make a great story out of anyone.

I’m going on record and say that writers should not base any character on anyone who would recognize themselves in the character without that person’s explicit permission. And even THEN it might be better judgement not to use the person. A fiction writer (excluding satirists here) should still live in the context of human community. Maybe your Uncle Frank is a goldmine of craziness. That divorce, the fist fights, the coke, and <gasp!> that trip to Thailand! Maybe he is a messed up, sociopath with a police record for child porn. But he is your mother’s brother, and she still loves him. He did come to your book launch, after all. And he mentioned your book on Facebook, several times.

Don’t do it. Don’t write Uncle Frank in any way that he would remotely recognize. For Uncle Frank’s sake, for your mother’s sake. And for your own soul’s sake.

This is not to say what should be obvious: that obviously writers draw from their own experience and from things they see and hear, perhaps even in the lives of friends and family. We can only write what we know, as the saying goes, and frequently life provides the most authentic and interesting material. The writers endeavor is to show readers something true, something beautiful, something real. But if that means writers can take the private, intimate experiences of others and say, “Hey! Look at my art! Look how messed up my cousin’s family is! It’s real! It’s authentic!” then that writer is little more than a cowardly, uncreative gossip, or worse, someone trying to get money and fame from selling gossip.

And we are not talking about “eroding your own freedom.” I am talking about voluntary self-restraint for the sake of intimacy, blood relations, honor, and humanity. It may be legal in the United States to write a family member’s dirty laundry into a book. As long as you don’t name names, you can probably avoid a charge of libel. No one is talking about laws for authorial censorship. I am saying, no story is so important that betrayal of friends or family justifies it.

I am talking about a Code of Ethics for writers. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. It could be short: don’t destroy people with your writing, don’t plagiarize. There may be others.

An example of the betrayal of having one’s experiences written down and published can be seen in one of Sheryl Crow’s songs. Apparently, she had a 3-day romantic experience in Rome with a writer who believed in this principle. On her 1996 self-titled album there was a song called “The Book” that contained the following lyrics:

I read your book

And I find it strange

That I know that girl

And I know her world

A little too well


I didn’t know

By giving my hand

That I would be written down

Sliced around

Passed down

Among strangers hands


Three days in RomeSheryl_Crow

Where do we go

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome

Never again

Would I see your face

You carry a pen and a paper

And no time and no words you waste


You’re a voyeur

The worst kind of thief

To take what happened to us

To write down everything

That went on between you and me


Three days in Rome

And I stand alone

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome

The final panelist, Janna Malamoud Smith, said the following:

“When rationalizing the exposure of others, writers tend to claim two values as having overriding worth. One is the aesthetic goal of telling the story well. There’s often a feeling that writing beautifully is an ultimate good, that telling a tale very well compensates any harm it might do to its subjects. The second virtue writers tend to honor is outing the truth. We take seriously the job of looking beyond hypocrisy and social facade….We like to believe there is a version of the truth that is superior and that we can state it….[But] when the private things intimacy has allowed you to expose are suddenly made public, that is a legitimate reason for a feeling of profound betrayal….Betrayals are a real thing.”

pengunWriters perhaps more than any other are given to romanticizing of their own profession. We see ourselves as freedom fighters, pioneers, guardians of free speech. We can romanticize our plight and the plight that will come to humanity by any hint of gagging or restraint. We can cry “censorship!” In Smith’s words, we can see our project as an “ultimate good.”

But as in many things, your freedom to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose. In the United States, Free Speech has never meant unlimited verbal license. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. You cannot advocate the overthrow of the government. You cannot print falsehood about someone else in the paper. There are laws about libel. There is such a thing as slander, lying, and verbal abuse. Free speech is not absolute.

Writing details from others lives and experiences does not necessarily entail betrayal or slander of that person. A half-way decent writer can sufficiently conceal identities. He could change Uncle Frank into a City Councilwoman. I don’t need to go into how to do that here.

I say to my fellow writers, if you can’t come up with original material without violating trust, if you can’t write with a conscience,  if you can’t contribute something good and noble and true, then for the sake of us all, find another trade.

What Happened to Penny?

An excerpt from The Former Hero.

With a clamor she burst onto the bright doorstep, one hand across her brow.

She strode out to the street and looked one way and then the other.

Up and down the sidewalk she saw a long mural of pastel chalk drawings: a winged horse and a man with some features of a vampire, a range of hills with cattle grazing and a sunset, and something like a dragon and angels and lightning bolts, and a commentary of misspelled words all around.

Further down was a simple house, and soaring over it was a stick-figure of a girl and a cat with big blue teardrops.

The girl had wings and flew over the house holding the cat’s hand.

Flames came out one side of the house, and beside it was a simple, grown-up figure, bland except for a scribble of long dark hair.

“Penny! Penelope Flax!”

The bird still chirped and a gust blew her mahogany hair.

An airplane motor hummed far away overhead, a descant above the distant highway noise. And the bare stick branches of the tree tapped together in the breeze like the ticking of some wild clock.

The glass tumbler with a little wine slipped from her hand and smashed on the cement, and time stood still while the earth shifted beneath her, while the lightning struck in her eyes, while all creation’s colors muted together through a smoky lens.

The girl was gone.

#TheFormerHero #whathappenedtopenny

Lucy and the ongoing quest for superheroism

lucy1If you are like me and do not have your analytical faculties constantly running full bore, you may have looked at the movie trailer for Lucy and thought to yourself, “Hm. Looks cool. And maybe for once Scarlett Johanssen will have a role where she can show a little more of her acting abilities. She’s nice-looking too. I think I’ll go see that.”

One thing panned out. She’s still good looking. Acting abilities? Still waiting for an Oscar performance.

I fell for it again. Yes, I paid way too much for a movie ticket to see a film when I should have waited for the video. I think I’ll write another blog post someday about how the law of diminishing returns is applying to almost all action movies: more bombs, more chases, more hype, louder music, more heroes, more evil villains— they’re just not doing it for me so much any more. Maybe you feel the same.

But what was really interesting about Lucy was what it told us about ourselves. Easy now. I’m not putting you on the couch here. This is a real observation, and it has everything to do with the book I just wrote (I wrote a book, if you hadn’t noticed.)

A quick plot summary. Lucy is kidnapped and gets a bag of a new kind of superdrug sewn inside her belly to be smuggled in to another country. In a violent encounter, she is kicked in the stomach. The bag ruptures, and the drug gets into her body. This drug has the power to unlock the fabled 90% of the brain that goes unused.

That old tale of only using 10% of our brains, though scientifically untrue, is essential to the story of Lucy. From the moment of getting kicked in the stomach to the end of the film, she is using steadily more and more of her unused brain. 20% flashes on the screen, then 30% then 40% and so on, you guessed it, all the way to 99%. And when she hits 100? Well, she vanishes.

Let me explain.lucy2

At 20%, [no, I’m not going to issue a spoiler alert. Grow up.] pain is no longer a problem, and she can learn new languages in minutes. At 30%, she is telekinetic, that is, if someone points a gun at her, she can restrain them with her mind, disarm them etc. You can imagine where it goes from 40% on.

I’ll just tell you. By 99% she has all godlike powers, except for one. She can stop time, create matter, understands everything to the point of being omniscient, travel through history all the way back to the Big Bang. You name it. She is like a god, except she still has a body.

At 100%, she disappears and gains omnipresence. All mind = no body.

Perhaps you had gone down this trail of imagination yourself. I know I have:

Gosh! I’m only using 10% of my brain? A genius like Einstein used about 15%. What amazing things could I do if I could somehow harness more of my own brain’s latent power!

This biological fiction of “the unused 90%” has created room in the popular imagination for something we are already greedy for: new horizons of human potential. We’ve all remember seeing psychics apparently moving things with their minds. We know about people with photographic memory. We know about savants and people who can do incredible math calculations in their minds. We’ve heard of ESP, telekinesis, astral projection. We all remember the kid bending the spoon in The Matrix — “there is no spoon.”

But here’s my point. We love this idea. Deep down inside, near the cockles of our heart, we love it. For the same reason we love superheroes, because secretly we fantasize about being like them.

Yes, in case you haven’t been reading my blogs for the last eight years, I believe that we love superheroes, in part, because we dream of being like them. Who doesn’t want to fly like Superman? Swing on a web through the streets like Spiderman? Be rich and invent really cool stuff like Batman and Iron Man? We all wish we had at least just one super power. And truly, we would like to have them all.

We would kick so much butt! Bullets bouncing off our chests? Yeah, baby. Forget the whole Open Carry movement. Don’t need guns for protection, because guns don’t hurt me. Bombs don’t hurt me. Terrorists don’t hurt me. I just walk into their camp, disarm them, win the war, usher in a new era of peace, uphold good and put down evil. That’s what we want. Or if nothing else, how about just X-Ray vision?

supermanSo when a movie comes along (same theme, new characters and premise) that suggests that the potential to be super is latent within each of us, because of this popular science notion from the 1940’s that we have untapped powers locked in our brains, WE EAT THAT **** UP!!

Put another way, we want to be gods, and not altogether illegitimately.

We recognize humans are special, despite snippy biologists who want to insist that we are no different, certainly no better or more valuable than all the other creatures in the animal kingdom. But we know differently. I mean look at us! We have iPads for pete’s sake! What do dolphins have? Not even the beginnings of an 8-track player.

We believe we are special though some scientists try to tell us differently. And that’s because we are, because of the amazing capabilities of our powers of rationalization, cogitation, cerebration and meditation.

And what if we really were destined for something more, some super quality? What would that look like?

New Age types in the late 20th century proclaimed a “spiritual evolution.” The next step of human evolution will be into a realm of spirit, not the addition of a finger, or wider bandwidth of hearing capacity.Spiritual-Evolution That’s not much different than Lucy.

So here’s my takeaway from the movie Lucy. We are impatient to evolve. Now that we humans know what that concept means, we cannot wait around for the next 10 million years. We want it now! And a handy cultural fiction about our brains is the platform for this movie that tells us what we so greedily want to hear, and reinforces one of the deepest urges, at least as far back as the legend of Prometheus and the Tower of Babel, that we can transcend our current bounds, that we can take heaven by storm.

Man desiring to be a god. An old, old story.

Flash fiction – The Test

The young girl sat in the bathroom stall. It was the same stall, the only stall she had ever used since she arrived seven months ago. Even if it was occupied she would wait by the sink and nip nervously at hangnails until the occupant left.

Nobody could say they knew her. Nobody noticed her. Why would they? There were plenty of shy girls. Nobody remarked about the sad turns at corners of her mouth, the mouth that set off her tired and lovely face. When the stall was vacated she would glide in and sit down, the last stall at the end of the row in the girl’s room in the freshman hallway, closest to the outside wall, farthest from the door and the hallway clamor.

She removed a long box from her book bag and opened it. She tore the plastic wrapping open with her eye-teeth. That always worked in a hurry: pinch the plastic between enamel points, feel the puncture, then rip. She followed the procedure as the instructions said in their short, discreet sentences. In three minutes a pink line would appear, or maybe two. She waited. A wad of toilet paper daubed her eyes.

Her spine stiffened as the door opened, and the hallway laughter and a stampede of sneaker noise poured in, and then it went silent again with the wooden door knocking shut and the hinge that always squeaked the same three note tune. She sat still, and expe


cted the sound of footsteps coming in to enter a stall, but there was no sound.

She checked for the pink line, and she listened again closely. A presence was certainly in the room. She smelled a person and heard the soughing of clothes. Another 30 seconds passed. Still no lines. She took a deep breath and her throat and chest rattled. She checked for the pink line again. Two lines faintly appeared, and as they did a man’s deep voice spoke. “It’s going to be a boy.” “How can that be?” she said and she daubed her eyes again. “I’m still a virgin.”

Animal or human, which one are you

One of my working theories about humanity has to do with the continuity and discontinuity between people and animals. How much are we “family” with the animal kingdom? What evidence is there that we are different than animals?  Where does the break take place?

There are varying levels of animal-like behavior in individuals and communities: greater or lesser expressions of culture, more of less living to feed basic appetites, greater or lesser domination by emotions and passions, what value is placed on orderly living, the overcoming the impulses of the body by the exercise of the mind, willingness to abide by the law, manners, decorum, formality vs. informality.

One easy example is the use of utensils to eat with, including chopsticks, instead of hands. I was reminded of this recently when watching Kill Bill vol. 2. In one scene,  Kiddo must eat her rice with chopsticks, and when she throws them down in frustration and starts to eat with her fingers, the Kung Fu master, PaPaiMeii Mei, dumps out her food on the floor and says, “If you want to eat like a dog, then you can live and sleep outside like a dog. If you want to live and sleep like a human, pick up those sticks.” It would be an even more stark example of animal behavior for someone to eat out of a dish without hands, just slurping food up with their lips.

Another example is whether we are content to live in squalor, disorder, messiness. Teenagers are a perfect illustration of this point I am developing, that is, that humans beings are creatures “in transition,” engaged in a lifelong struggle to rise up above their animal nature and live like the higher-order creatures we are intended to be. Little children are more animal by nature, and the process of maturing is, at least in part, a cultivation, an enculturation of the person out of their animal raw material into the form of a good human.

Other examples can be seen in what we choose to do with our free time, whether we default into mere pleasuring-seeking activities (that is, feeding of useless, purely self-centered appetites) or whether we foster at least some kind of drive to a meaningful activity. Hobbies are productive, culture-bearing, meaningful activities. And I think it is a great shame that people do not have “hobbies” as they once did. Reading, gardening, visiting with friends, cooking, knitting, hiking and so on, can be expressions of humanity rising up over mere survival activities and the pursuit of stimuli to the pleasure-center of the brain.

Sex obsession is another barometer of human vs. animal. One’s appetite for sex may be strong, but it is an animal-like behavior to give in to that call whenever it comes, to be obsessed with feeding that appetite, to let it dominate the mind rather than exhibit self-control, with no ability to master the impulse or to moderate it or to keep it in an appropriate context. I wont say that sex obsession is new, but I will say that the societal mores and manners that have helped people live according to rule of their minds have eroded so that sex obsession has become more accessible and acceptable.

There is a continuum at work here. One can never say to another, “You are an animal because you don’t eat with utensils,” or “because you are addicted to porn.” You can only say that such behavior is unfortunate because, among other things, it diminishes a person’s humanity. This is also how the conditions of harsh imprisonment can be said to dehumanize a person.

There is a kind of an implicit challenge to humanity always to be living and being according to what we are by virtue of being uniquely rational creatures. At some point in the advent of homo sapiens, that reason and rationality became the new operating domain for humanity. We escaped from the food chain. We were rocketed into a higher paradigm of rule and stewardship. Now, instead of a predatory relationship with animals, we were capturing and domesticating them. We were putting some of them to use carrying things and provide food.

Finally, this explanation affirms a storied and epic vision of the human experience. It gives new merit to “civilization” in that civilization is a scaffold that helps each of us stand upright like humans rather than groveling in the dirt like animals. Indoor plumbing, food supplies, law and medicine, education, institutions, manners, etc. are props against the gravitational pull toward animalness.

2013 Epic Vacation

2013-Trip-MapOur family had the epic vacation last summer. Some people were so impressed they asked for the itinerary. Here it is.

We rented a nice, clean minivan. Made a huge difference to have a nice car, and it wasn’t wildly expensive. Under $300 I think.

Day 1 – Drive from Austin to El Paso. Stay in the Camino Real Hotel in downtown: it is very inexpensive if you book online, the rooms are big the architecture is historic and there are restaurants nearby, less than a mile by foot. Be sure to get there before the stores close and walk down El Paso St. in the afternoon to see the Mexican markets. People walk over the footbridge from Juarez to shop there by day and cross back over. What a mind-blowing experience to see store after store of gimcrack that people cross the Rio Grande to come buy in droves.

Day 2 – We’re driving to Sedona, AZ, but it is SO worth it to take the scenic route. Take 191, a two-lane road. Look out for the speed trap (we were given a warning; I don’t remember why). It is mile after mile of heart-wrenching scenery, not traditional gushing forests and mountains, but landscape features that you have never seen. Trust me, you have NEVER seen. Stuff that you did not know existed on earth. Why would you want to take the interstate anyway? Through Tucson and Phoenix? Blech!


Tonto Natural Bridge

We stopped at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and spent about 1.5 hours there marveling at the beauty. That evening we arrived in Sedona. Now, we had a condo provided for us by my wife’s generous parents. It will probably be a challenge to get a condo, and it will be pricey. This is the part of the trip you will have to figure out on your own. Sedona is a touristy, upper class town, and aside from sleeping there, we didn’t spend much time there, although it had stupefying scenery and a happening retail center in town.



Day 3 – The Grand Canyon. It’s a longer drive than it looks so don’t piddle around getting away in the morning. Wear good shoes, take hiking supplies, and savor the experience. If you park take a shuttle, you can reach hiking trails that go as far down into canyon as you’d like to go. There is a 2-3 hour route (1/4 way down) and a 6 hour route (half way down), and longer routes to the very bottom.

Day 4 and 5 – We did things within easy reach of Sedona. In the town of Cottonwood, there is the Verde Canyon Railroad. You can take a ride that lasts probably 4 hours out and back. Mellow and relaxing. Beverages (including adult) and snacks are available. Look up Slide Rock and plan to spend 2-3 hours there. It is a long natural water slide. The kids had a great time.

Day 6 – We drove through Flagstaff and were charmed by the delightful highland city. Seems like a wonderful place to live. Then we took Interstate 40 to Meteor Crater. Beware, it is like $10 per person to get in, but it’s pretty cool. It is run by an independent organization and I was a little miffed at the price to see the big hole in the ground, but it is an authentic, massive crater about 1 mile in diameter. You can see the raised edges of it from several miles away.


Train ride

From there we were headed to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. But first we got off track and got tangled up in Winslow, which I didn’t mind because I had always wondered about Winslow Arizona from the Eagles song “Take it Easy” (…well I a’standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona and it’s such a fine sight to see. It’s

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

a girl my Lord in a flat bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me…). At Holbrook, take 180 to the southern point of the Petrified Forest and drive the scenic route back up to I-40. Then cross over I-40 and take the little road tour to see the Painted Desert. There just didn’t seem to be enough time to soak it all in, and I felt we were cheating ourselves for not stopping longer. But we had to get to Albuquerque for our reservations at High Finance restaurant!


Yes, this restaurant is amazing. Located at the top of the Sandia Mountains, it is an excellent restaurant, kinda pricey, but we figured we were on vacation and it was once in a lifetime. Be sure and take the tram to the top: do not drive around to the back and drive up. Go to the NE corner of Albuquerque and take the Sandia Peak Tramway. Unless you are afraid of heights. There is another restaurant on top that is more of a burger joint if you prefer.

Slide Rock

Slide Rock

We spent the night in Albuquerque.

Day 7 – Big day. We drove through Roswell, NM just to see what was up. We didn’t stop except to use the bathroom. Roswell has turned the whole UFO thing into one advertising gimmick



after another. Cardboard cutouts of lime green aliens were everywhere. The UFO museum in Roswell looks like a complete dump and tourist trap, so we didn’t stop. The whole city and UFO thing is totally overrated.

Drive down to Carlsbad Caverns. Again, you will feel that you are being completely irresponsible because you are going through this incredible place so quickly; we spent about 1.5 hours there going through one of several paths about 1000 feet underground. But what an experience.

Next on the agenda was the Star Party at McDonald Observatory. Here is what you should do. If the weather is pleasant (and it was fabulous in July- warm days, cool nights at that altitude), DO NOT GET A HOTEL. Instead, stay at the Stone Village Tourist Camp in Ft. Davis, TX. This turned out to be a highlight of the trip. I was unable to get a hotel reservation at any hotel I’d heard of. This place was a

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

last resort. It turned out not to be a hotel, but a hybrid hotel/campground. The rooms are rustic, stone wall, some of which have a screen for the front wall so that you are open to the outdoors. It was so much better than another mind-numbing typical hotel experience.

High Finance Restaurant

High Finance Restaurant

We checked into our rooms with an hour of daylight left (before you drive during the day, because the drive and view is magnificent getting to Ft. Davis). We found a bit to eat of one of a half dozen local restaurants (Mexican food for dinner, totally 100% authentic cooking and delicious), and then drove to the McDonald Observatory for their nightly Star Party, a MUST for everyone, even if you don’t have kids. It is hard to explain to make it sound interesting, but it is excellent and not to be missed. Multiple telescopes from small to huge in size, and a presentation that will make you feel that you understand the sky for the first time in your life.

Day 8 – Drive home. We passed through Marfa where No Country for Old Men was filmed just so I could say I’d been there. Then we went through Alpine up to Ft. Stockton, and back to Austin. This longer route was also a nice scenic detour and I definitely recommend it, although I didn’t recognize much from the movie.



If you’d like additional information, feel free to contact me.

Nihilo – a short story

Hello friends,gustave_dore_paradise_lost_019

This is my new blog and personal website. For your reading pleasure, I humbly submit a trifle I wrote at the end of last year, a short story called Nihilo.



Reaching that age

I thought of an analogy. Adolescence is like walking through a tunnel made of one-way mirrors. All you can see is yourself reflected on every wall, but meanwhile every one else is outside the tunnel watching you, awkward, only seeing yourself, lumbering through this lanky confused period to appear on the other end, relieved, sane, clear and thankful.

Such a conflicted time. But as a father of rapidly departing children, I think that the memories are the most painful part of life. While you are experiencing the picnics, the vacations on the beach, the nights playing basketball in the dark, the Christmas mornings, the days on a lake in a boat, the poverty, the struggling, the days before they all had cell phones—life was full and rich. And they are leaving the nest in rapid fire, just like they entered the nest, rapid fire, like little grenades into our family, changing everything, demanding much, but bringing incalculable happiness and meaning and beauty. What a life, and it’s not even over.

On death by drug overdose

Philip-Seymour-HoffmanLike many people, I was deeply saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He had some great lead roles (Synecdoche New York, The Master, Doubt, and of course his Oscar-winning performance in Capote which I wasn’t crazy about). But we also remember him for many minor roles in which he showed he could steal the show (The Big Lebowski, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia).

I wonder if he knew how strong the love is that many of us feel toward him. he wasn’t Brad Pitt or George Clooney. He was never the “most sexy man in Hollywood.” But we love him more than a lot actors and feel his loss especially. I suppose it is a very common experience to love an actor so much that you feel like you are friends even if you’ve never met. We feel that way, but we have to remind ourselves that the feeling is not mutual. He or she doesn’t know us, hasn’t seen us in hours and hours of emotional situations, does not have heroic associations with us, has not wept at our suffering etc.

He died young (only 46) from a heroin overdose. Now, I’m just speculating here. Don’t freak out over what I’m about to say. In fact, if you disagree, feel free to leave a comment and explain where I’m off base. But if someone is going to die, is there any better way to go than by a heroin overdose?

Yes, I’m sad. I wish he were still alive. I admired his talent and he was a great actor. Dying is a cause for grief, especially when we feel like the life was cut short, that he could have had many more years of life, continuing to bring delight and reflection to millions of people in his movies.

And of course I do not want to suggest that heroin or any drug is anything but dangerous. And the dangers of drugs runs from a little to extremely dangerous, with heroin being probably the most extremely dangerous because of the risk of addiction and self-destruction. So I’m not saying drugs are okay.

Nor do I think I am being insensitive. I’m just trying to nail something down. I am trying to separate the fact of death from the cause of death.

We should hate heroin for taking Hoffman and many other human beings away from us prematurely, unnecessarily. That part is truly sad.

But he died, most likely, in a state of euphoria that you and I have never even come close to, if the descriptions are accurate.Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Magnolia

He was not mauled by a bear, or from complications due to being hit by a car. He was not in 15 to 20 minutes of terror waiting for his crippled plane to hit the ground. He did not die a long painful death of tuberculosis or flesh-eating bacteria.

Not only did he apparently not suffer in death, but he died pursuing what each of us must admit we also would like very much to attain—escape from the pain of this world. I think we should be more understanding toward drug addicts. We shouldn’t think they are scum or degenerates. We all, you, me, and the drug addicts, want the same thing: escape from the pain of the world.

We should not think they are weaker than us. We shouldn’t be quick to think that their particular weakness is beneath OUR particular weakness. On the contrary, we should admit that, if heroin were completely free of any harmful or addictive aspect, we would all be using it on a regular basis. Instead of watching a TV show in the evenings, we would come home and get high. Then get up in the morning and go to work, because, in my hypothetical situation, it has no harmful effects accompanying the indescribable good feeling it gives.

Listen to someone describe the feeling of being on heroin and I defy anyone to say you are not just a little bit envious.

Sex is similar. When you were young and a virgin and heard how good sex was, didn’t you want to try it? Yes, you did. And were you wrong for wanting to experience pleasure? No. And sex can be destructive; it can be addicting. But very often it can be enjoyed in a healthy, proper, constructive way. It is like a little drug trip.

Other forms of pleasure can work the same way. Alcohol can be dangerous, but it can also be enjoyed in a healthy, proper, constructive way. This goes for anything: hamburgers and fries, chocolate, food of any kind, although admittedly the “high” is different in some major ways. What other things do people derive pleasure from? Football. NASCAR. Horse races. Music. Words with Friends. And each of these things can take on an addiction-like quality in our lives.

So drug addicts deserve our sympathy, not our disgust. And we should realize we all pursue some degree of pleasure, which is a nice word for “relief from the pain of the world.” Drug addicts just reached for extreme pleasure, extreme escape from the world. And they pay for it.

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