Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Fox

So I’m running again. After the marathon in October of 2009, I told myself I should really take two weeks off from all running to let my body recover. After two weeks, I told myself, “Well, probably a month would be better than two weeks.” As I rolled into December, eating and drinking whatever I wanted, and sitting on the couch I figured I might want to start thinking about possibly cranking the exercise engine up again. But then again, naw! It’s the holidays, right?

2009 became 2010. 188 lbs became 198 lbs.

So I’m running again. I’m not training for anything, just running, trying to beat that “You’re going to gain 1 pound for every year after college” average. I started with 1.5 miles every other day, worked up to 3 miles every other day, and now I’m doing 5. I usually run up Sherman St., across to Logan and out to I-25 for my 5-mile run, and this morning was no exception. On the way back, instead of taking Sherman, I took Grant Street. I don’t know why. I never take Grant Street, but today I did, and I saw something that forced me to sit down and write this blog, even though I’m late for my dentist’s appointment. Even though that will, in turn, make me late for work.

Lara and I have been telling ourselves that we were going to get out of the city for years now. We bought our house, intending to keep it for three years, sell it and get out of Dodge, get back to our roots. Both of us grew up in small towns, and we relish the notion of life in the “countryside”. Our 3 years turned to 5. 5 years turned to 7. We meant to leave, but there has always been a reason to stay, or not a big enough reason to go.

My best friend and his wife had the same plan, back when we all arrived in Denver, and our two families were on the same track: Squeeze some money out of the city, then go spend it on living in the country. Their family left two years ago and have been living in the country ever since. Lara and I are still here, still hemming and hawing about where we ought to go, still trying to find the ‘perfect’ place. Still trying to build up ‘enough’ money. Still trying to leave. “Oh no, the housing economy is soft, we have to wait until it gets better to sell the house.” “Oh no, I just got promoted! Let’s build up some of that money and have a bigger cushion.” “Oh no, we just bought a new car. We need to pay it down a little before we leave.” It’s always something. Time and again.

I think about this a lot on my runs. Running, for me, is “of the country”, not “of the city”, and it reminds me of running across Florida Mesa when I was young. It reminds me –just a little bit- of nature.

About four years ago, right about the time we were supposed to sell the house and leave, I saw a fox during my run. I saw him in a residential neighborhood near I-25. I was astounded. I’d never seen a fox that close before. Two queer things happened at that moment. One, the fox wasn’t afraid of me. Now, I realize that city foxes are much more comfortable with people around, so I could’ve let that pass. But I had a 75-pound hunting dog with me, and the fox didn’t care about that, either. On top of it, Lancelot (the aforementioned dog) didn’t seem to see the fox at all. He made no indication that it was even there. The second queer thing was when I passed the fox and ran on, he followed me at a respectful, non-threatening distance. He did this for three blocks, then sat, watched me, and let me go.

It was cool on a number of levels, and I’ve always been fond of foxes. For one, it’s what my name means in old English. Secondly, when we were all having fun picking animal totems in college, the fox was, of course, my totem. So I came to view this fox as a sign that I needed to get out of the city. This wild creature showed up in the middle of Denver, as if to say, “Hey, you and me, we’re both country creatures. We don’t belong here. Let’s get out.”

I’ve seen foxes every now and then on my runs since then, over the last four years. I’ve seen as many as three at one time, and I love them. They’re beautiful, sleek, so quiet and graceful. It always elicits that same response. “What am I doing here? I promised myself I would get out, and I’m lingering. What am I doing?” Every time they show up, I think about leaving, but then I finish my run, and I go back to my life. I’ve seen so many now that the effect is fading. Now when I see them, I only have a passing thought about nature, and I smile that there are foxes in Denver. And I think that maybe I belong in the city. Maybe this is where I’m supposed to end up, that I should just get over this crazy notion.

So on my run today, I went down Grant street, where I never go, and I slowed, then stopped at a quiet, back-street intersection. Laying near the gutter was a dead fox. My fox. Perfect red fur and bushy tail, and not moving. And he would never move again.

Are there signs? Does the Universe really say things without words? I wish I knew for certain.

I know that my heart hurts, and there is a voice in the back of my head that keeps whispering.

Get me out. Get me out of the city.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Superbowl Zombies

So the Colts lost the Superbowl, and I had a dream about zombies. As a general rule, I don’t dream about zombies, or about any other hopeless, horrifying end-of the-world scenarios. I don’t go in for fright as an entertainment. Graduating from constant, hair-raising scares to normalcy isn’t my preferred outcome. In my dreams, the world is steeped in peril, with the golden light of utopia in the distance that one can reach if one is noble and brave enough. And I’m the hero, the protagonist of some grand adventure. I’m stealing a souped-up, six-wheeled car and we’re off to see the Wizard. Seven hooded figures appear out of the shadows to kill me and the poor, foundling waif at my side, and I must use my kung-fu to prevail. That kind of thing.

This is, no doubt, why I write fantasy novels, and not horror novels.

If one believes that dreams are reflections of our emotional responses to waking activities, then some part of my brain was obviously dejected last night at having my football team sputter and fail. The zombies came and wreaked havoc on the dream nations of the world, reducing cities to rubble, wandering the countryside to catch the unwary traveler and gobble them up. These would be my surface emotions. But my subconscious mind apparently rose up to defend my “there must be a utopia somewhere”, because it was the most pleasant, non-threatening zombie dream a guy could expect to have. The evidence of the zombies’ passing was clear. Deserted streets. Tense moments of silence. Caches of food or weapons to be found for the perceptive survivor.

But there wasn’t a single zombie.

Instead, I had a man who looked a lot like Pen from Pen & Teller, who traveled around selling government supplied frozen foods that he and his cabal of officials had stockpiled. Veggie burgers. Tater tots. He was the post-apocalyptic lunch truck man, and he implied that the world was going to get right back on its feet as soon as he made a few cycles through the United States and provided frozen foods.

Is there a lesson in that?

Anyway, the Colts lost and that sucked, but the Saints won, and if I had to lose to any team in the NFL, I’m glad it was them. They worked hard, and they earned it.

I wonder if they represent the frozen foods?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cheating at Civilization

I cheat at Civilization. For those of you who are of the younger generation (oh yes, it hurts to be able to say that), you might not remember Sid Meier’s computer game sensation called Civilization. Or maybe it was only sensational for us gaming geeks. Anyway, for a time in the 1990s, Civilization was THE game, and there were many people who sat in front of the computer for hours, days and in some rare cases even weeks as they nurtured their fledgling empire through the millennia, living from the age spear-chuckers to space-travelers.

I played a lot when I was in college. As I have gotten older, I return once in a blue moon to blow off steam. The version I play is Civilization II (or “Civ II”). In this age of iPhones aps and handheld arcades, Civ II is an obsolete computer game in every sense, but it is the only one on my laptop. And as ancient as it is, it is still formidable as a time suck. If I had modern games on my computer, no doubt I would never get anything done. I judiciously steer clear of that trap.

So, the object of Civ II is to reach a level of advanced civilization where you can send a spaceship to colonize one of the moons of Jupiter, all the while fending off the other vicious would-be empires in the world. Or, as an alternate objective, you can absorb, subvert or utterly destroy those other cultures, thereby ending the game. Either way works, depending on how blood-thirsty you envision yourself.

It’s mostly a maintenance game. There is no schnazzy real-time fighting or lifelike CG action sequences. Success is due to constant, consistent pressure over time, and by getting a jump on the competition. If you’re still dawdling around with chariots and iron working by the time B.C. becomes A.D., you are a ripe fruit from which the other empires will gladly take a big, wet bite.

This brings me to the cheating. In the early stages of the game, I will orchestrate the “random” elements of the game to my favor and build twice as many cities as anyone else before I even reach 2000 B.C. Once my cities are larger, I get scientific advances quicker, and soon I have tanks while everyone else is galloping around on horses. The game pretty much goes my way after that.

I have gaming friends who consider this blasphemy. I mean, it’s a one-person game. Who am I really cheating? The computer doesn’t care. What could possibly be the point?

My answer is: I don’t know.

I do know that it’s soothing, and strangely engaging. Somehow, there is a solid satisfaction in beating those little glowing Mongols or Babylonians, poor saps who never had a chance from the start.

But why do it? Just for the rush of believing, for a few hours, that you’re as canny as Caesar or as powerful as Alexander? Like fantasy novels, does it take one to a place where they can be someone more exciting? Someone better?

What about the other games out there that mimic real life? There are a thousand of them. And in many of them, one is actually doing things one could do for real. Really, why play a “life simulation” game at all? Why spend hours and hours of your life courting fake girls and becoming fake rich when you could go out into the world and court real girls or earn real money? What a lot of wasted energy.

But so many people do it. Is it because it’s easy? Controllable? In a life filled with innumerable variables, the fantasy that we could actually control those variables --make them roll our way as though we were “destined for greatness”-- has a vast, intrinsic payoff. And it’s safe. All reward and no sacrifice (aside from the aforementioned time). And since it’s all fantasy anyway, why not fantasize that you’re not cheating, too? Just throw that on the pile with the rest of the faux-truths, yes? Yes, that’s right, I really AM the unconquerable, immortal ruler of the Egyptian empire!

Then, of course, one wakes up 36 hours later, buzzing on Blue Sky soda, blind as a mole rat and blearing up at a frowning wife who wants to know why you’re such a waste of space. (Which, under the circumstance, is a difficult question to answer)

So why spend so much time in fantasy? Is the real world really that hard? That scary? Have we just become so comfortable that fake-effort and fake-reward are “good enough”? Why risk anything when you have everything you need?

It makes me wonder what future civilizations will think of this bizarre behavior…

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Interstices

So I have to take breaks between writing books. My wife is very good to me. When I’m in the middle of a writing project --furiously working Monday and Tuesday nights, but saving the weekends for our other social plans-- and suddenly our dinner plans at so-and-so’s house on Sunday are cancelled, I will often give her a wheedling smile and say, “So, um, can I sneak away and write, then?”

She will sigh, no doubt thinking that the family could have chosen some other activity besides the dinner, perhaps going to the aquarium, the zoo, the park, the library. After all, our kids are fantastic. They’re up for anything. I’ve taken them out and simply sat on a street corner while they run their scooters up and down the hill, laughing as they zoom down or crying as they crash and skin a knee. Or, in the case of my son, ramming his scooter into the grass hill on purpose, crashing AND laughing. The kids and I have spent entire days inside drawing or wrestling or whatever. As to my wife, anything sounds good except having to entertain the children again by herself, as she has done every day for the past six years. But she’ll sigh, then nod, and off I’ll scurry, closing the door to my office for an hour or ten, depending on how long the inspiration runs.

When I’m in the midst of a writing project, it is my top priority with my free time and this is an accepted truth at my house. That is to say, if something has not been scheduled already (my regular kid nights, scheduled family activities, business trips, family trips, family walks, family bike rides, birthday parties, dinner parties, friend parties, football parties or just random “how ya doin’? parties”) and there’s just extra time lying around --which does happen once in a blue moon--, I will try to take it and bring the novel closer to completion. I feel a rip inside every time I do this, a conscious, difficult choice between spending extra time with my family and furthering my dream of being a novelist. Obviously, I could spend every scrap of time I’m not at work with the family. Or I could spend every scrap of that time writing. The former would make me a better father and husband, and my dreams of being a novelist would slowly fade into just another “you know who I ALMOST became” story that I’d tell at those dinner parties. The latter would produce two, maybe three novels a year. My writing skills would sharpen to a keen edge, and when my children turned twenty they would talk to their college friends about how they never knew their father.

I strive for a balance. It tears into me every time, making the choice either way --to run away to write or to stay and do family activities. It hurts just a little, because I know what I’m losing on either side whenever I steal time. But the rewards so far are worth it. I do not write three novels a year, but “Daddy nights” are a favorite. The made-up story I tell my children before bed about “Gruffy the Griffin” is always news around the house. My daughter is learning to ride a bicycle because I’m there to teach and help her. I get to draw super-heroes with my son, who is a wickedly good artist for a 3-year-old, and my wife keeps telling me that she loves me --and means it. And I manage to finish a novel every two years or so.

So I have to take breaks between writing books and not steal that “extra” time. My wife’s angelic patience is not inexhaustible. But even when I’m pushing swings, or walking along as my daughter strives to master the pedals of her bicycle, I think about the next adventure. Those quiet times fill my mind with climactic explosions of magic, epic swordfights between our hero and the despicable villain who has stolen his power, with tears of longing for our heroine who can never have the man she wants. Those moments of walking and watching my children grow are fertile ground for my imagination. And I sometimes wonder…

What if the balance is a necessary thing? What if I could never write the stories I write without these quiet moments of restraint where I watch the world around me?

That one makes me smile. It makes me smile all the time.