Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dear Wind

Dear wind,
I hate you.

You're cold and annoying, and you follow me everywhere I go. Do you even sleep? I hear you every morning before it's even light enough to see you, attacking the tree outside my window with some kind of vengeful fury, tearing, slicing through the branches and screaming into the spaces between buildings. Why are you so angry?

You take things that belong on the ground, like dust and sand, and throw them in my face where they sting my eyes. Apparently you love tearing up my classroom like some bully at school, jumping in through the windows and scattering as many papers as you can before you run laughing out the door. Today at lunch, I guess you were hungry because you grabbed a piece of bok choy off of my fork and carried it away. But seriously, go make your own salad.

Dear wind, you're reason I cannot study outside. As I sit at a table and try to copy words from a page, you violently blow the paper back and forth and blow my Sharpies across the table. You turn the pages of my books before I've finished reading them. When I'm outside, you're the reason I have to turn up the volume on my audiobooks until my phone warns me I might damage my hearing.

Is your heart as cold as your touch? You turn a walk on a sunny seventy-degree day into a struggle through Arctic wastelands. You turn late summer evenings into cases of hypothermia. I wear extra layers to protect myself from you, but you jab your icy tendrils straight through them into my skin.

Dear wind, I try to be a pretty understanding guy. I wish there was some way we could get along. But you've always been cold to me. Maybe if we'd grown up together we'd be best friends, but now we're enemies that should have never met. Where I grew up in Oregon, I never really saw you. Do you not like it there or what? Not gonna lie, the only reason I might ever move back there is to get away from you.

Dear wind, this would be a breakup note, except we were never even together. What I need is more like a restraining order. I know you're important for sailing and flying kites, but I'd give those things up in a second to get away from you.

Dear wind, you're the reason we can't have nice things. Please go away. 
Caleb with a C

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


For more on writing stories, check out my post Real Talk!


The temperature was well below zero; although John knew it could be nowhere near the record of 90 below that had been set some 10 years before, that knowledge did nothing to assuage the unbelievable cold that assaulted his body. Yet still he trudged on, his steps sometimes stumbling in the still-falling snow, without even a glance behind him. The small fire of last night's camp––if you could call it a night, in a land of eternal darkness––would be long since smothered by the blizzard, anyway, he knew. The only thing John really missed was the dogs. Although they could do nothing to keep him warm, their company at least had broken a hole in the night. John hoped it would be warm on the other side of the window


Ted eased the car off the freeway and into a Pilot travel center without saying anything to his brother. David was dozing on the seat next to him, mouth slightly open. He came awake when the motion of the car stopped, quickly getting out while Ted began to pay for the gas. David hadn't talked much, but once they stretched, switched seats, and pulled away, he became talkative. Ted bit his tongue twice as he nodded and pretended to listen, before he finally blurted out: "I did it."
"Did what?" asked David, startled.
"I thought you had to know, just in case we don't make it out of this one," Ted replied.
David look out at the desert with a sinking feeling. He suspected what it was, but he had to ask. "Did what?"
"I killed Lenny," Ted replied without looking at him. 


You're startled from your daydream by the ring of your desk phone. "Hello?" you fumble to pick it up. Thirty-one years old, and you're still not over the first girl you loved. You can still see the way she laughed, the way her hair caught the sunlight, that day in the park just before everything went wrong. "Western Consulting, Max speaking," you say the correct words into the phone as the memory clears away. The woman on the other end gives you some numbers for the spending report; you try your best to pay attention, as you'll have to know these things if you really aspire to run the company. When you hang up the phone and look at the numbers you copied down, they make no sense.


David sighed and turned up the AC to max. It was still too hot. He had to squint to keep his eyes on the long, straight road. The speed limit was 80.
"So what do we now?" he asked after a pause.
Ted was fidgeting nervously, moving his hand back and forth across the hot vinyl on his door. Finally his hand stopped abruptly. "I say we drop the goods," he said, nodding his head.


but he didn't even remember what "warm" meant or felt like. Not that this oblivion made the cold any more bearable. He'd sold the dogs in the last little village he'd passed through for a meager amount of food. He had to ration it, though; he was almost out. Suddenly, as he rounded a bend in the sled track, 


All you want now, though, is a good pen and a piece of paper so you can write to Holly and express your regret. Hearing those numbers made something snap inside you; you never should have left Arizona, never should have put your journey up the corporate ladder above your relationship with this unbelievable woman. You jump up and rummage through the top left drawer, where you keep your favorite pen. Although you're both used to social media and texting, letters were always your favorite way to stay in touch. Where is that pen? A sense of urgency has overtaken you, like this letter needs to be written soon.


David's head snaps around to look at Ted, and the car almost careens into a cactus. "What?"
"We gotta make the drop, man. They're probably already looking at Lenny's body right now, and they'll put two and two together."
A mile goes by. Forty-six seconds. David and Ted don't dare speed.
"I'm sorry," Ted adds after a minute.
"Don't be," David replies. "You did what you had to. Let's do it."
Ted pulls one of the cell phones out of his bag in the backseat, and sends a text: "Go." He rolls down his window and throws out the phone, watching it skitter on the shimmering asphalt.


The text comes much earlier than Holly expected. She's eating lunch with her mom, in fact, earnestly discussing what she's been doing with the garden. She hasn't told her mom about this side of her life, the one she got back into after you left for New England. She hasn't told you either, but she's thinking about you, wishing you'd stayed.
"I've gotta go, mom," she blurts, almost spitting our her burger. "I guess something came up at work," she adds after she swallows.
Her mom nods, concerned. "All right, drive safe. I'll pay," she offers.
Holly uses the bathroom just so she can drop the phone in the toilet, and guns it out of the restaurant parking lot.


he sees a ridiculous square in the middle of the air. It looks superimposed, like it's not part of this world. It's completely blue, like.. the sky. John hasn't seen the sky in days. He thinks he must be imagining it, but just then a gust of unbelievably hot air hits him, and he notices an irregular patch of mud on the ground around the crazy square. So if air can come through the window, people...


Holly pulls up the spot on Google Maps with one hand as she white-knuckles the wheel with the other. Something must have gone wrong for David and Ted to signal the drop this early. The route isn't complicated, but the place is really out there, miles down a road that she doesn't remember seeing a sign for.


"When's Holly coming?" asks David. He jumps as a car passes them on the dusty gravel road, afraid it's the police, or even worse, Lenny's people. They wouldn't need a suspicion to search the car. Again, he promises himself to give up this life. The stress is gonna make him age prematurely. 
Ted shrugs. "She might be far, you know." They're standing outside now, since they've discovered an unusual cool breeze here. 
But then she pulls in.


Holly reaches the spot, a little valley nestled between low mountains. She sighs with relief when she sees only two people, she assumes it's David and Ted, and checks the narrow road for cars before she pulls the suitcase out of the backseat and opens the door. But at that moment, just as one of the men is smiling apologetically and beginning to walk toward her, his eyes get big and he jumps backward, falling over and scrambling up. 
"How did he--?" he exclaims, pointing toward her.
"How did they find us?" shouts the other, along with an expletive. 
But then it gets worse. Holly's door opens. As she spins around on the hot seat, she glimpses a huge man, huge mostly because he's dressed like an Arctic explorer, with furs piled over his shoulders and forming a halo around his face.
Forget how he's dressed, there's only one thing he could be here for, and his bearded face is a mixture of pleasure and curiosity, but Holly's seen enough, she pulls her gun and he sees it, his eyes widen and he pulls his


Your fingers open and you drop the pen you just found. Suddenly, your heart is beating fast and you're sweating. Holly--


With that shot, John knows his voyage of discovery is over. He turns and runs back through the sweltering air, away from the strange metal carriages with black wheels, through the window and into the freezing gray of his arctic. He would never want to kill anyone, but the nature of his work allowed him to take no chances. To ensure none of them will follow him, he closes the window behind, forever breaking the connection between their worlds.


You'll sit next to Holly's hospital bed in Arizona, holding her hand and crying as she tells you how much she's missed you. At the same time, you'll both tell each other you'll quit your respective jobs and move to where the other lives. As soon as she's out of the hospital. "No, but I really need to quit mine," she'll say, looking at the two men who have been with her the whole time, who introduced themselves as her stepbrothers, Dan and something. "Me too," Dan will say, shaking his head as if in disbelief. "Yeah," the other guy will say, "let's go clean up that last job," and they'll get up and gently hug Holly and leave, and you'll be together.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Real Talk

So I don't know how it is for you, but for me writing is a struggle. I thought about not doing it anymore, but then I remembered that I want to be an English teacher when I grow up, and if I stopped writing, the future students that I assigned papers to would probably be very angry with me. So I decided to keep writing.

Now the question becomes what to write about. And I guess there are sort of two options--maybe you know what I'm talking about--fiction or nonfiction. I've been reading a lot of fiction recently. It's great because anything can happen, like the protagonist getting a box for his birthday that contains the meaning of life; or befriending an armored polar bear and traveling to another universe. But I'm looking for real talk. Because I have this thing, I don't know if it happens to you, where everywhere I go, everything I do, it reminds me of something else I've done, somewhere else I've been.1 It happens instantly: a taste of peanut butter and I'm back in the dining hall at Camp Baker, getting ready for a canoe trip; a trace of cigarette smoke, and I'm walking down a rainy street in Europe; sand shifting under my feet on the beach in Santa Monica and (tangent)

I'm sprinting up the side of a sand dune, my heart pounding not only from the exertion but also from the terror of being chased. The Sun has long since disappeared, leaving behind a little orange glow that fades to the darkest blue sprinkled with stars. It's easy to misjudge distances at night on the sand, and I unexpectedly reach the top of the dune and stumble, giving a little scream of fright and immediately getting tagged. I laugh along with my pursuer and bend over to catch my breath as he tells me where I might find the rest of the group so I can help turn them into zombies.

Or I'm running up the biggest dune of all, so tall and steep I can't see the other side, past several young kids who started out enthusiastically but quickly ran out of steam. "Hey! No fair!" one yells as he rests, plunging his hands into the sand and breathing hard. I'm almost at the top, but my legs are burning. As I stop to breathe, sand flows down like a river, burying me well past my ankles. The river slows down and stops. The air is still and the sky is deep blue. The sand is so hot that I can't stay and rest longer, I put on a final burst of determination and make it to the top. The view that greets me belongs on a calendar. In front of me a world of pristine, rolling hills of sand stretches until you can barely make out the end, but there it is, a line of low green trees and then an endless strip of blue just a little darker than the sky. 

These are powerful memories, and they keep bouncing around inside my head, like they want to written down. But there are some problems I have to address before I write about them. I thought I'd take some time to tell you about these problems. In the process, you might also learn (I'll link you back to this checklist so you can check these off as you read):

Why sand dunes are awesome
The coldest recorded temperature in the arctic
Why spraining a body part can actually be quite useful
What really happened on the night of August 16, 20122
Things not to do with fire
Where to find the best grocery store on the central Oregon coast

Oh, and you should definitely check out the footnotes. I did this cool thing where when you click on the number (like the 2 up there) it takes you to the footnote, and when you click the number there it takes you back. Plus some of them are pretty funny.

Problem #1: Starting is Easy

10:02 AM on a typical Tuesday or Thursday in Spring 2015. I'm in my creative writing class, and the professor has just assigned us a prompt for the last few minutes of class: write a story about the arctic. She gave us a few facts to help us get started:
  1. The word arctic comes from Greek and means "near the bear"
  2. The coldest recorded temperature is -90°F
  3. The Arctic gets 24 hours of light in the summer and 24 hours of dark in the winter
The temperature was well below zero; although John knew it could be nowhere near the record of 90 below that had been set some 10 years before, that knowledge did nothing to assuage the unbelievable cold that assaulted his body. Yet still he trudged on, his steps sometimes stumbling in the still-falling snow, without even a glance behind him. The small fire of last night's camp––if you could call it a night, in a land of eternal darkness––would be long since smothered by the blizzard, anyway, he knew. The only thing John really missed was the dogs. Although they could do nothing to keep him warm, their company at least had broken a hole in the night. John hoped it would be warm on the other side of the window

"Time's up, please pass your papers to the front." My hand hurts. Writing frantically isn't hard at this point, laying down the background for the story, but I have no idea what would happen to John if I had to finish it. You'll have to keep reading for the solution.

Problem #2: Real People

Another problem is my real stories have real people in them, and I'm afraid of hurting their feelings if the stories make them look bad. (A lot of the stories are about my last seven summers, working at a Boy Scout camp.) To solve this problem, I thought I'd try something called an allegory. An allegory is a story where everything is a metaphor for something else. Here's one. I purposefully kept the metaphor a little thin for one of the characters, so you might be able to guess who he stands for.

Once there were two people who worked at Camp Baker. One went by the name of Kaleb with a K, and he was in charge of Scoutcraft. He thought the Kaleb with a K thing was pretty clever. People would always ask "Is there a Caleb with a C?" There wasn't anymore (Caleb with a C had been a camper years ago). But besides being easier to remember--Kaleb was easily confused with Jacob, Colby, etc.--the name made a lot of kids laugh. Kaleb with a K loved making people laugh.

Kaleb with a K spent his days in a clearing in the forest, where a welcoming fire could always be seen burning in a corner, and squirrels chattered as they dropped cones from the spruce trees. In front of the clearing was a homemade wooden fence, and in the entryway under the SCOUTCRAFT sign was a worn welcome mat. Whenever new groups entered the area, Kaleb with a K would ask them to please wipe their feet on the welcome mat. It was ironic because the ground in Scoutcraft had been trampled into a carpet of fine dust, and it probably would have made more sense to wipe your feet when leaving. But this also made people laugh, and Kaleb with a K enjoyed that.

Now remember I said there was another staffer. His name was Matt. Unlike Kaleb with a K, Matt had no need for clever tricks to make his name memorable, for Matt was the definition of memorable. When he stood straight with his hands clasped behind his back, he exuded power. When he spoke, his voice rang clear and even the birds stopped chirping to listen. Most people have never heard him raise his voice, because his normal voice was enough to send people running to do his bidding. Beneath his thin glasses he carried a slight smile that told you he always knew exactly what was going on. Nothing surprised or upset him. In fact, he had the skill of quietly appearing behind you whenever you asked where he was. When you turned around and gave a start of fright, his smile would widen and he would laugh softly and deeply. Legends spread from one awed child to the next: "When Matt gets in a rowboat, the oars get blisters!" "I heard Matt was born in a cabin he built with his own hands!"

Matt worked in the Trading Post, or camp store. It was a small building with faded gray paint, surrounded by grass and wheelbarrows. Inside, it was packed full of candy and soda, knives and compasses. The line stretched out the door during free time, but it wasn't just for the candy--staff and kids alike crowded in to hear Matt tell stories in that golden voice. 

There was also a young camper named Timmy. Now Timmy, like most young campers, spent his first couple of years building fires and sharpening knives with Kaleb with a K. Kaleb with a K and his staff liked having Timmy around, and Timmy promised that when he turned fifteen he'd be on staff, too. As he became thirteen, fourteen he lost no enthusiasm for the camp, and although he didn't need Scoutcraft anymore, it was clear that he still looked up to Kaleb with a K and his staff. He came along when they took younger kids camping, and he could often be found in Scoutcraft, talking story or passing on the skills he'd learned.

Finally, Tim (he'd outgrown the name Timmy) turned fifteen, and that summer in the dining hall, during his first ever staff meeting, when it was his turn to introduce himself he stood up and proudly declared, "Hi, my name is Tim, I'm from Eugene, I'm a Life Scout, and I'm working in..." The Trading Post. Kaleb with a K felt like a balloon when you fill it up and let it go and it flies briefly around the room and then falls dead. To him, it had been obvious that Tim would apply to work in Scoutcraft. All the things he'd taught him, all the time they'd spent together! But apparently all this was no match for Matt's electric personality. Kaleb with a K went back to his cabin that night feeling like just a little bit of a failure.

(interlude) Ted eased the car off the freeway and into a Pilot travel center without saying anything to his brother. David was dozing on the seat next to him, mouth slightly open. He came awake when the motion of the car stopped, quickly getting out while Ted began to pay for the gas. David hadn't talked much, but once they stretched, switched seats, and pulled away, he became talkative. Ted bit his tongue twice as he nodded and pretended to listen, before he finally blurted out: "I did it."
"Did what?" asked David, startled.
"I thought you had to know, just in case we don't make it out of this one," Ted replied.
David look out at the desert with a sinking feeling. He suspected what it was, but he had to ask. "Did what?"
"I killed Lenny," Ted replied without looking at him. 

Problem #3: You Had to Be There.

I'm in my friend Cameron's kitchen, where he's just finished telling me the story of how he lit something on fire one time and it was really sketchy. "So do you have any sketchy stories about fire?" My distress is immediate and obvious. I get up from the counter where I'm idly flipping through a Kindle book and begin pacing around the room. I sigh deeply: "Hhhhhh." Cameron looks at me, amused and kind of weirded out. "OK. Cameron." Gesture frantically with my hands. "This is always my problem! I have all these stories, but I can't figure out.. how to make them interesting to people!" But he encourages me, so I plunge ahead. One day I'm squatting next to an almost-dead fire, minding my own business, when all of a sudden FLSAH! Flames shoot higher than my head, and on every inch of my body is a feeling I can only describe as cold--a sudden, burning cold that fades slowly and leaves me with a smell of burnt hair, a little patch on my head that crumbles when I touch it and slightly less eyebrows. It turns out someone had poured the last little bit of a bottle of antifreeze on the fire. Good thing I wasn't wearing shorts like the guy next to me, or else I would have lost all my leg hair too.

Now this same guy, Cameron, is the one who so expertly advised me to make up a better story about how I sprained my right hand. We're on the same Quidditch team, and since lacking the use of a hand affects how I play, people there are always asking "How did you sprain your hand?" I used to tell them the truth, that is, that I was running one evening on a trail with a lot of roots, and I tripped on one. But thanks to Cameron I now tell people that I was saving a child from a burning building. It's a much better story. Here are four other reasons why injuring a body part can be a good thing:
  1. Getting attention. People are always like "Oh, what did you do to your wrist/foot/leg?" And they listen with genuine sympathy as you explain whatever stupid thing happened.  If you're fortunate enough to have crutches, they'll offer to carry your tray at meals, or your backpack. 
  2. Getting time off work. It's not that I don't enjoy what I do at camp, but there's nothing like a trip to the hospital to give you a few much-needed hours off.
  3. Developing your other hand. After a few months of pretending you're the-other-handed, you start to get good at stuff and feel somewhat ambidextrous. I'm told this makes you smarter. Of course, it's very time-consuming and awkward, so most people won't do this on their own initiative. Your dominant hand being in a cast is the perfect opportunity.
  4. Being incredible at Quidditch. Because I can't hold things with my right hand, I have to play Quidditch without a broom between my legs while I run. This makes me almost as good as Harry Potter himself, except that I'm not a wizard and I still can't fly. In fact, it's been suggested that I'm faking the injury just to gain this advantage.
"So did you do anything illegal after we left?" More people asking for stories. This time, it's some kids who had been campers at Baker, summer 2013; I'm visiting their troop on a trip to California. "Hmm..." I have to think for a sec. "Well, nothing illegal, but there was one thing that was funny." By this time several kids have clustered around me. "So one week there was this Cubmaster, and he actually gave us a bag of fireworks. You know, those little round firecrackers, they come in packs of like eight? He had this whole shopping bag of em! And you know how fireworks aren't allowed in camp, right?" Nodding heads. "But the powder inside, I was like 'Maybe that's allowed.' So I sat at a picnic table, and I'm not kidding, spent the entire morning smashing these fireworks with a hammer." A little laughter. "So then I had this bowl of flash powder, and I started sprinkling a little bit onto fires. It startled the kids a little at first cus it would sparkle, but they loved it. But there were still a ton left, so I decided we needed to go on an outbound to get rid of them." An outbound is a trip away from camp; I finish by telling how my staff and I went onto the street, just a few feet off camp property, and managed to light maybe two of them before we ran out of matches. Heads nod in approval and a few kids laugh.

So let's be honest: on a scale from 1 to the funniest thing you've ever heard in your life3, how would you rate those stories? If you'd give them a "meh," I completely understand. Most things just aren't funny unless you were there. So what should an aspiring writer do? Embellish, or add details that didn't really happen to make it more exciting?

It's like when I was driving with my friend Emily and we passed a Fred Meyer and I started freaking out. Fred Meyer is a grocery and department chain store, sorta like Target except with more food and less red circles. Anyway, I was like "Oh! Duuuude! Fred Meyer!" When I saw the bold, bright red sign
Fred Meyer  
against the black sky, a flood of memories poured into my mind. I could tell Emily stories about how we as staff would drive here almost every weekend during the summer, sometimes I'd go twice in one day, the first time throwing a case of Peach Fresca into a cart, the second time clutching a purchase order for forty gallons of milk. During the day you can see the wind blowing a little sand off the dunes, and at night as we come out of the woods onto the bridge into Florence4, the lights reflect and shimmer on the river. I could tell her about the ride over there, how it was often boisterous, full of loud music, how sometimes I was actually being tickled while attempting to drive the car. I could tell her how everyone would go and buy new Nerf guns, then rush back to camp and start shooting each other with them. I could tell her all this, but it wouldn't make her feel the same feelings I feel when I see the bright red sign. So instead I simply tell her we go there a lot during the summer because it's the main big store in Florence.

(interlude) You're startled from your daydream by the ring of your desk phone. "Hello?" you fumble to pick it up. Thirty-one years old, and you're still not over the first girl you loved. You can still see the way she laughed, the way her hair caught the sunlight, that day in the park just before everything went wrong. "Western Consulting, Max speaking," you correct into the phone as the memory clears away. The woman on the other end gives you some numbers for the spending report; you try your best to pay attention, as you'll have to know these things if you really aspire to run the company.

Problem #4: Sketchy Things

Let's tackle an easier problem. This is the problem where I have great stories to tell, but I hesitate because sketchy things happen in them and I'm afraid people will think less of me when they read them. I have an easy solution: I'll make this a choose-your-own-adventure type of story. I'll start the story, and give you four options of how it might have ended. Only one is right. Or maybe they all have grains of truth. Or perhaps I made everything up. But if any of them feature sketchy things, like me throwing stuff at animals or catching things on fire, it's not that sketchy because maybe I didn't actually do it. Ready? This story starts in the middle:

But I think the next night was the best night of the summer for me, when my group of campers built a treehouse and suggested we hang out and then spend the night in it. But I had other duties that night, since late Friday was when the staff checked and sorted about five hundred merit badge applications, or blue cards. I remember the contrast of these two places. I extricated myself as soon as I could from the Leaders' Lodge, a bustling hub of activity with every Camp Baker staff member in their green pants and tan shirts sitting around tables, walking around tables, eating cookies, handing stacks of blue cards, blue cards everywhere, to people, calling out troop numbers, calling out names of staff--"Where's Tim? Why isn't he here?" "Well, go get him!" The Leaders' Lodge was a hub of light on the edge of a dark forest, the only bright thing around, the bright yellow light glowing off the polished wood floors and tables, and it was into that forest that I plunged as soon as I answered whatever questions my staff had and grabbed a stack of paperwork to take with me.

I didn't need my headlamp anymore. We'd become familiar with the trail to our treehouse over the last few days, and anyway outside's never as dark as it looks from inside. A few steps away from the Leaders' Lodge and it was suddenly quiet, the din from the "blue card party" quickly fading as I found the Tsiltcoos sign and walked down the trail. There were four or five campers up in the treehouse, just talking story. I climbed the ladder and made myself a PB&J, then unzipped my backpack to take out the paperwork. 

What happened next? 
A) Nothing
B) Fire
C) Missing camper
D) Bear
E) Zombies

A) I took out the blue cards, along with a pen and my COMPLETED stamp, and began signing and stamping the cards while I ate my sandwich. One of the kids helped me write the numbers. I found out he had staffed at another camp the previous year, so I tried to recruit him to our staff the following year, but he already had plans. When we'd finished, I ran my blue cards back to the Leaders' Lodge and filed them, grabbed a cookie, and ran back to the treehouse. When I climbed up I was still hungry so I made another sandwich. We started playing a card game, but one of the players fell asleep while waiting for his turn, so we decided to call it a night. And that's how August 16, 2012 ended.

B) At that moment, the treehouse caught on fire. Someone had apparently lit a small fire in a metal pan, and the smoke announced just a few seconds before the flames that it was finally out of control. We rushed to dump all our water bottles on it, but the damage was already done; when we lifted the steaming pan there was a hole straight through the platform that made it unusable for sleeping. We ate the rest of the peanut butter sandwiches, climbed down the ladder, signed ourselves back into camp, and went off to spend a disappointing night in our beds.

C) At that moment, the camp alarm went off. I can't write the sound, but if you've ever heard it, it's easy to imitate: a simple, piercing air-raid siren that starts low and quickly rises to a high, constant note. Looks of disbelief were traded around the treehouse. Drills don't happen at night. With a sigh, I zipped up my backpack, descended the ladder, and jogged to the field to check in. About five minutes later, I realized with a sinking feeling that the "missing" kid was my fault. Timmy [name changed for anonimity] had been right there in the treehouse, but he'd forgotten to tell his troop and we'd forgotten to sign him out, so some people panicked. Timmy got a stern talk from his leaders about being more responsible, then he signed out and we all went back and spent the night.

D) At that moment, a bear emerged from the dark woods. One of the campers sitting next to me gave a muted cry of fright, the kind people give in books, and backed up against the tree--until everyone else turned and realized it was just the biggest raccoon we'd ever seen. It must have smelled the peanut butter. This raccoon, although not as threatening as a bear, was still really disturbing. It froze and looked up at us with its unblinking yellow eyes while we looked down at it silently. Wanting to scare it away, I reached into my backpack, pulled out a plastic bottle of beads, and threw it as hard as I could at the bearcoon. Lucky shot. The bottle hit its target and the lid popped open, throwing tiny red beads everywhere. The bearcoon gave a startled yelp and ran away, and we spent the next half hour picking through moss and twigs to collect the beads. It worked, but in general I don't like throwing things at animals.

E) At that moment, a small pack of zombies entered the clearing. Good thing zombies can't climb ladders. Sharpening branches we pulled from the trees, we stabbed them all in the brain and then went to sleep. 

Bringing it Together

So at this point we've learned about three problems in writing nonfiction, and how to solve them. Let's review:
  1. Starting a story is easy, but finishing it is harder. Solution: coming soon.
  2. Real stories can make real people look bad. Solution: make it an allegory.
  3. Stuff isn't funny unless you were there. Solution: oops, didn't solve this. I think it's just a fact of life.
  4. Sometimes in the stories I do sketchy or illegal things. Solution: obscure the truth behind several made-up stories.
But you might notice there are some fictional loose ends we need to tie up, some stories that need to be finished. Instead of finishing them now, I'll leave them as a teaser for my next post--it'll be fiction.

1. That was a chiasmus.
2. Or not.
3Want to know the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life? It goes like this:
—Knock, knock
—Who's there?
Again, you probably had to be there.
4Did you know that in 1970 the Oregon Department of Transportation blew up a dead whale with dynamite on the beach in Florence? Apparently decaying beached whales also explode naturally sometimes, from gas building up inside.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Something About Growing Up

This is a story of growing up and changing.

Their big black jackets that read "Camp Baker Staff 2003" 
I'm twelve years old and terrified of them 
I'm such a goober.
My plastic smile with lips closed, hands folded, hair too long 
T-shirt tucked in, because I always did that. 
I look this kid in the eyes: "Do I know you?" He smiles
back at me. I don't know him.
Basketry and space exploration.
The dust on the ground of Scoutcraft, where I'm too busy
learning to have friends

My buddy tag only colored red, blank space where blue should be:
I've failed my swim test.
Rain streaming off the canopy where I sit reading a book
Cookies our leader probably got at a secret meeting
Weather, camping, and rifle shooting

"Batteries in the fire?
Set the example, Caleb! You're an older Scout."
Woodcarving and orienteering
A timid knock on the office door to borrow the phone;
a hulking, scary staff member opening it

A night spent on the beach, but I'm not there
Canoeing and pioneering
Leader meetings every afternoon with free cookies
Discovery of Jones soda in the huge camp store
With glowsticks in the twilight we play Capture the Flag

My last year as a camper, with a
jerk wilderness survival teacher who apparently doesn't know
I'm two years older than him
Hasty shelter of branches completely fails
to keep me warm at wilderness survival
Cooking and emergency preparedness.

Black new jacket that reads "Camp Baker Staff 2008"
Orienteering, camping, wilderness survival,
pioneering, emergency preparedness
The moldy smell of decades-old staff cabins
Our path through the bushes to steal wi-fi at the lakeshore

Outdoor Skills Director
Faces around the table, all old enough to be
my parents. No idea what I'm doing. Leadership sucks

Assistant Outdoor Skills Director.
A few seconds of unbelievable flight in a hang glider
made of trash bags and duct tape.
Wilderness survival on the dunes, panic! a missing kid
is found.

Program Commissioner, in charge of all the Baker Games
Spent ammo of Nerf wars litters the living room
A jarring pain as I sprain my ankle
The crutches I carry with me for weeks, 
always too short because kids borrow them
A call from worker's comp:
"Please describe exactly what you were doing at the time of the injury." 
At home for a few days on doctor's orders
A hundred miles away, camp continues without me;
kids are taking merit badges,
someone else is running the Baker Games,
wind shakes the spruce trees,
and when the Sun goes down people put on their jackets.

But my inland street is smothered in heat and stillness.
Can't sit at the table anymore and listen to the clock

Back at camp,
the discovery of Crystal Light as a method to prevent death
by dehydration in places with terrible water
Pizza bagels; campfires started with explosives.

In the office I answer the phone: Good morning, Camp Baker

Scoutcraft Director. Emergency Preparedness,
camping, pioneering, wilderness survival, orienteering
Peanut butter sandwiches my students brought to class
An American flag hanging on the wall of Delaware,
Beach Boys blasting from our surround-sound system
A failed attempt at another hang glider,
A working catamaran made from scratch,
A raft flying the Washington flag,
A dark forest, lost at night
Leaders' leftover cookies passed furtively through a window
My new favorite phrase: "Walk with me"

Scout Skills Director. 
Giant sheets of plastic from TVs as fire starting devices.
Stack of forms in my lap on the way to the hospital

Next week, the call from worker's comp:
"Please describe exactly what you were doing at the time of the injury."
"Well, I was wearing a cape, and I tried to jump onto this loading dock..."
"You were wearing a cape?"
"One of my employees gave it to me and told me to wear it."
"So this was not required for your job duties?"
Nope, just trying to be cool.

I'm lifeguarding.
Fresh marker ink on the buddy tag I've just colored,
first red, then blue: the first kid I've ever given a swim test,
a Cub Scout of ten, has passed.
Plastic tubs of ham and cheese croissants loaded into canoes
paddling away and exploring for future years
Blue hydrangeas along the river.
The sun setting into the ocean.
Discovery of taping push pins to glow-in-the-dark Nerf darts
and turning out the lights

My driver's license in the hands of a Cub Scout
He studies it, hands it back, declares it's a fake:
I'm not 22.

Scoutcraft director, back to where I started:
Orienteering, camping, wilderness survival,
pioneering, emergency preparedness,
search and rescue, Timber Slugs, and Rangers 
Hot sand under my feet climbing the first dune 
eating blackberries--
"Guys guys guys! Come over here and turn off your flashlights!"
A bug that glows in the dark-- 
Everywhere a crowd of eleven-year-olds watches me.
Do I see in their faces
someone I used to be?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What I've Learned in College

Having recently walked across the stage and shaken hands with the dean, it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I learned and how I changed during my pursuit of a degree in computer science. Here are the most important things I've learned in college:
  • Everything is a social construction
  • Vertical integration is a huge deal in American history; for example, it made the steel and film industries successful
  • Not (A or B) = (Not A) and (not B) (DeMorgan's Law)
  • NOR is a universal gate
  • Reversible processes can be represented as a path on a state function surface
  • P probably doesn't equal NP
  • Correlation doesn't imply causality
  • The probability of A given B is the probability of B given A times the probability of A divided by the probability of B (Bayes' Formula)
  • The charge of an electron is 1.6 x 10^-19 Coulombs
  • 4, 4, 9, 7: the calories per gram in carbs, protein, fat, and alcohol
  • Neither computers nor the human brain multitask; they switch between jobs so quickly that it looks like they're multitasking
  • The doubling time of HeLa cells is 24 hours
  • 20% of the thing is usually responsible for 80% of the effect (The Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule; 20% of the people do 80% of the work, 20% of the code has 80% of the bugs, etc.)
Although these little bits of knowledge will doubtless be important, I guess college is more about the study skills. I got some of those, too, like how to read for school. It was a cloudy afternoon in fall 2012 when I went to my TA's office hours for History of the Middle East, slumped in a chair, and declared that there was no way I could keep up with the assigned reading. Every week, hours of my life were sucked into the 15th-century Ottoman Empire as I struggled to make sense of the dense chapters, and I still didn't get it. "Don't read every word," she told me as she took the packet from me and started flipping pages. "Oh look, there's a map." We briefly examined the map, then flipped to the next page, reading the headings and looking at the pictures. Then she went back to the beginning and started on the paragraphs, reading the first and last sentences and then skimming just closely enough to understand the key idea and write a summary sentence in the margin: "Reza Khan... republic in Persia... Ataturk... power of tribes was broken... Allies had him deposed..." Learning how to read saved my life that quarter, and since then I've applied the technique to everything from history to software engineering.

The main thing I've learned from science and engineering classes, though, is disillusionment. I thought class was for learning, but apparently on my side of campus learning is on your own. In class, the professor sighs as she begins with "All right, let's see if we can get through this." For the next 20 or 30 minutes, chalk dust rains on the floor as the professor frantically turns the board white with math. As the end of class approaches and you can hear the zip of backpacks all over the room, she circles the important formula she just derived and asks "Any questions?" And then some kid in the front row raises his hand and is like "Uh, professor? Shouldn't that be a minus sign?" And it's really obvious that it should be a minus sign, so no one really needed to ask, but now the professor is like "Oh, you're right, where else did I mess up?" and she spends the last few minutes getting super confused over the day's work. And as everyone is getting up to leave, she's like "Don't worry about understanding this derivation, just know how to use the important formula." Great, thanks. That was so helpful. Now I have to go home, get on YouTube, and actually learn something.

Labs are worse. I thought in science, the scientist was supposed to make a hypothesis and design an experiment to test it. But we don't do either. We get a 4-5 page set of instructions that tell us exactly how many microliters of each thing to put where and exactly what'll happen at the end. Much of the remaining fun in these experiments is sucked away by lab reports that take twelve hours and are still returned bleeding with red marks for too many sigfigs or missing chart titles.

I haven't learned how to not procrastinate. I still find myself turning in homework assignments the minute they're due, and saving a hundred pages of reading until the morning of the quiz. But I have learned when to say no and accept my best as good enough. I remember pulling all-nighters every week one term during my freshman year in a friend's floor lounge to finish the morning's math homework. He would finish as the Sun was coming up and go to bed for an hour or two, while I would keep working. These days I get more sleep, and feel like I'm finishing homework rather than homework finishing me.

This past term, though, I didn't know what was going on in any of my classes. I went from Bioengineering to Computational Genetics and filled my notebook with unexplained equations, half-drawn diagrams, and sentences that ended with "... what?" I always used to be such a good student, and I don't know what happened to me. I sigh as I come back from the bathroom and take my seat. Short read difficulties, genome resequencing. Am I getting too old for this? I discovered the viral game 2048 in the middle of the term, and several times in class I caught myself playing long after the break was over, missing a valuable explanation of why that magnetic field had no x-component. I even found myself scrolling through my Facebook news feed during class. I would try to pay attention, but I couldn't. I zoned out, my chin resting on my hand, and the words of the teacher turned into "Wah waaah wah wah waaaah..." like in the Charlie Brown movie.

But enough about school; I've learned a lot outside of class in the last five years. For example, I've learned that having a nickname makes you cool. People will always be glad to see you if they have a cool nickname that they can shout when you enter a room. Countless people I know have gone from somewhat cool to incredibly popular, or from nonexistent to somewhat cool, simply because they have a nickname. Here's a true story: When I was 17, I was Frosty. One day someone asked me "Frosty, why are you so cool?" And I didn't know what to tell him. So I stopped being Frosty. Of course I was still cool, but losing that nickname took an edge off of it.

I've learned to love LA and I've memorized a handful of bus routes. I've learned how to speak Romanian and play Quidditch. I've learned how to live life with a smartphone, with Google always within reach so that no question needs to go unanswered and a little blue dot to mark where I am so I never get lost. I've learned to keep everything I need on Dropbox, to write group papers and presentations on Google Docs, to pay people with Venmo, to read Kindle books, to listen to music on Spotify, to watch TV on Netflix, to talk with Facebook Messenger and Snapchat.

I've learned to be a little cynical, a little burnt out with people, but at the same time a little more resilient, a little more callous to rejection. I've learned that "Let me think about it" or "Let me get back to you" means no. I've learned that if you want to hang out with people, it's on you. If you sit in your room by yourself all day, no one will call you. You have to wake up and take the initiative every single day. I've learned to stop trying to get my friends to do what I like, and instead to make friends that like what I like.

I've learned to look for meaning in everything. I took a design and media arts class, and now everywhere I go I look for art museums and spend hours wandering through them. I took a film history class, and now I'm only interested in deep, artsy films. I've lost all patience for things made only for entertainment, for laughs or for action. I've stopped reading books halfway through because they have no meaning; I've traded science fiction and fantasy for books that I don't quite understand, that keep me guessing on the edge of metaphors. I look for the poetry in everyday life--dust flying in the sunlight as a bird drops a scrap of bread, in the background a homeless camp in the shade under the bridge. On Easter Sunday, sunlight shines through the ivy along Sunset Blvd., through the window of the bus a hand-painted sign reads "STAR MAPS" next to a man sitting dejectedly on a box, curled up on the seat in front of me a bored girl reads The Great Gatsby, and from behind me comes the laughter of men reminiscing about the days when racist epithets weren't politically incorrect. And somehow all of that seems to mean something.

Conclusions have always been the hardest part of writing for me. I've been waiting to post this until the prefect last paragraph pops into my mind, but how do you conclude a story that doesn't have an end yet? I told you I've changed a lot, but there are so many changes I'm still waiting for. I'm still waiting to understand people. Eventually I want to know why they like so many different kinds of music, why they watch sports, and why so many don't like share my love for LA. But first I want to be able to walk down the sidewalk, look someone in the eyes, and see someone like me. It's something I still have to learn. Maybe it will be while I'm still in college, or or maybe I should change the title to "What I've learned in life." Because I'll never write a conclusion to that story.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Isn't This More of a Thing?

I couldn't be further away from camp right now. I'm sitting next to the window in one of the dorms at school, looking out at the neighborhood where I live. I've got kind of a birds-eye view here on the eigth floor. The people walking by on the ground make no sound. Past all the roofs and trees I can see a blue smudge of ocean, the same one I'll be going to less than a month from now when camp starts. But today, all I have to remind me of my summer job is this green wristband I'm wearing and the ways it's changed me as a person. So this is the second in a series of stories about how peanut butter (my metaphor for the experience of staffing at Camp Baker) changed my life.

I've become known for having catchphrases. While the majority aren't original, my friends call them Calebisms because I say them a lot. I've started to realize that my excessive use of these phrases is a problem. I've decided to blame peanut butter. Being at Baker for eight weeks every summer gave me a taste of the power I have when I use inside jokes and memes, and I want to always have that influence over people. I'll tell you a story to explain what I mean.

Last year before camp, I had been talking like my roommate Stephen. I had a few catchphrases of his that I liked: "Yes my child," "It begins," "Let me put it to you this way," and "Noooooooo." That last one has a nasal sound and is disapproving rather than despairing; something you would say while shaking your head or facepalming. Anyway, I called these phrases the Stephenisms and pledged to teach them to as many staff and campers as possible. I then used them tirelessly all summer. At the end of the season, I was awestruck at how widespread the Stephenisms had become. Standing in the circle of staff on the last day of camp, I could hear someone drop a Stephenism at least once a minute. And it was all me; definitely no one else knew my roommate Stephen. Far from seeming backwards, being told "Yes my child" by nine- and ten-year-old kids only confirmed for me that I had done my job well.

There are catchphrases, memes, or inside jokes every year at camp. A few are original (like "I'll roll your goat"), while most are borrowed from popular culture. But we always manage to combine them in ways that absolutely no one outside the peninsula would understand. That's the point of inside jokes––they give a group of people something special they can share. New ones this year included "Get on my level," "Get with the program," and "Do you even lift?" which became "Do you even <insert thing>?". I brought "__ ALL THE THINGS" back when I printed posters of camp-related activities, such as "BURN ALL THE THINGS" and "ORIENT ALL THE MAPS." Older ones that were still used, but on their way out, were "IT'S OVER 9000!!!!!" and "Nope, Chuck Testa." When "hashtag" was introduced into our collective vocabulary, every sentence suddenly ended with several hashtags, all of them signed by swiping down and then sideways with the index and middle fingers of the right hand.

During camp, "Ain't nobody got time for that!" became a Calebism. Examples: "Bro, this Internet is so laggy right now.." "Yeah dude, ain't nobody got time for that!" "Caleb, you're not sleeping in a tent tonight?" "Nah, man. Ain't nobody got time for that!" "Want to come get dinner with us?" "Ain't nobody got time for that!" Now, nine months later, I know I need to stop. It's not funny anymore. But I'm addicted to memes. I haven't really found any new phrases yet, and until I do, how else will I connect with people? I call this the "Why Isn't This More of a Thing?" theme.

Do you remember Robot Unicorn Attack? It's an online game that went viral in early 2011, a simple side-scroller with bright colors, a catchy soundtrack about love, and only two commands: jump and dash. It gradually goes from easy to insanely hard as stars fly by and your point value reaches into the tens of thousands. During winter quarter, the game's happy music would drift through the open doors of people's rooms and I would have to step over people sprawled on the floor in the hallway playing it. At home with friends over spring break, it seemed like all we did was play Robot Unicorn Attack. We all knew our top scores by heart, and we would legitimately get angry when someone beat them. As spring break ended, threats were made to overthrow the current leader, but when we got back to school Robot Unicorn Attack had been forgotten. I felt ripped off, like I hadn't gotten enough of a chance to connect with people over this trend before it died. Just like catchphrases and memes, before I know it they're not a thing anymore. This year, I was only a few weeks late downloading 2048, but by the time I realized Flappy Bird or Twitch Plays Pok√©mon were a thing, it was too late to play them. 

Photo: Brent (Flickr)
There are other things that I wish were more of a thing. I'm walking to class one sunny day last week and I hear the voice of a tour guide above me on the steps. This is Janss steps, the iconic 87-step staircase that leads up the main hill of campus. She's standing among what seem to be a group of middle school students, telling them about the steps. I start up the stairs, reflexively counting them as I go: one, two, three, four, five, seven... I don't even think about skipping the sixth step anymore. Legend has it that one of the Janss brothers, who sold the property to the University in 1919, is buried under the sixth step. In fact, as I walk past the school group the tour guide is quoting Peter Janss, with a totally serious face, "'...because my brother is buried here.' So that's why we don't step on the sixth step. Nothing will happen to you if you do; it's just out of respect." Now every incoming class of freshmen learns that this is a myth; there's no one buried under the sixth step. But I still step over it, in hopes that someone will see me and understand.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Good Morning, Camp Baker

This is the story of how peanut butter changed my life. Peanut butter is a metaphor for my experience on the staff of a summer camp for boy scouts called Camp Baker. This is something I've had the pleasure of doing for the last six years, so the story will have many parts: funny parts, sad parts, scary parts, and inspiring parts. You'll learn how I developed my list of favorite things in the Universe; we'll talk about lying on top of picnic tables in the Sun, nomming near-unhealthy amounts of peanut butter, jumping off sand dunes, catching a variety of things on fire, not at all of which were supposed to be on fire, practicing survival skills in the forest, and not building any snowmen. Woven throughout the story you'll see these themes:
  • The "I'm a Lifeguard" theme
  • The being in charge of stuff theme
  • The "injuries are fun" theme
  • The "#nomALLthethings" theme
  • The "Why isn't this more of a thing?" theme
But the story starts with a simple greeting: "Good morning, Camp Baker." On the morning in question, it all starts on an empty field. This field is on a peninsula, and the peninsula sticks out into a very large lake near the Oregon coast. As the sky becomes a lighter shade of gray, the people who work here trickle up a little trail from their cabins onto the parade grounds and take their place around three bare flagpoles. By 7:20, all the staff and a few of the troops have arrived. Everyone except Corporate is rubbing sleep from their eyes; the parade ground itself is still a little tired with its blanket of fog.

I'm not on the field. As the staff take their showers and the boys in the troops frantically look for missing uniform parts, I'm approaching on the road from the waterfront. My group woke up while it was still dark, loaded our backpacks and sleeping bags onto canoes, and put into the Siltcoos River just as dark blue daylight began to illuminate it. The forest around the river was sleepy; the only sound was our paddles as we navigated around logs and sandbars. When we emerged onto the lake around 6:30, we greeted a fishing boat gliding silently along and my buddy and I led the way through the fog back to the peninsula. A few minutes late, I quickly led the effort to put the boats away, told the kids to hurry to the parade ground as I closed waterfront, and now here I am walking up the road.

I overtake the scouts from my group, pass around the troops waiting for the flag ceremony, and take the hidden road to my cabin. I jog down the little gravel path to the front porch and throw open the door just as one of my cabin mates puts his hand on the doorknob to go outside. Another one is just tucking in his shirt, and yet another is panicking because he can't find his beads. It's 7:19. They're almost late, and staff late to flags are sent directly to the kitchen to help with dishes. I have an excuse, but I'm not trying to take advantage. I have a greeting to deliver. I stride into the bedroom, glance at the bed that I haven't slept in for three days, and drop my backpack beside it. I'll have to remove some things I need for the day's work, but that will have to wait until after breakfast, along with showering. For now, jeans come off in favor of green Scout pants from the closet, plain white socks become clean Scout socks, and a uniform from a hanger completes the outfit. I'm already wearing my beads. When I leave the cabin and take my place by the flagpoles, I'm a different person. 

Working here has taught me to master this transition between different jobs. At night, sitting around a campfire, dressed like a normal person, laughing and talking in quiet tones with a few people around a campfire in the middle of nowhere; this morning, dressed like a model staffer, about to bring every ounce of enthusiasm inside me to the 250 people assembled on the field. These people don't care what I was doing earlier this morning. So when I jog to the middle of the field, cup my hands around my mouth and yell "GOOD MORNING, CAMP BAKER!!" I'm yelling what it feels like to be 100% in this moment; right now this greeting is my only job. The camp returns the greeting with just as much enthusiasm, and some people add "Caleb with a C!" I've successfully started the day. This is the "I'm a lifeguard" theme. It obviously has nothing to do with lifeguarding at this point, but wait for it.

Three hours later, I'm in the camp office printing something. The fog has lifted, and dust flies as two or three campers walk by outside. My work is interrupted by the ringing of all three phones. I jump to grab the nearest one and answer "Good morning, Camp Baker." Try to take me seriously when I say that answering the phone is one of my favorite things to do here. It's because of an experience I had when I was 14. I was at Baker as a camper, and the pay phone was broken so I knocked on the office door to see if I could call home. I wasn't homesick; I just wanted to talk. A big, intimidating staffer answered the door. I was a scared little boy back then, and all the staffers were big and intimidating to me as they stood around the flagpoles in their uniforms. He begrudgingly gave me the phone but said to make it quick, and the conversation was awkward under his constant gaze.

Now I always want to be the one who answers the phone, and the first face the campers see in the morning. This is how peanut butter changed my life. When I look back on those days, I don't recognize myself, and I'm glad. I want to be that face of the camp; to always be there to say "Good morning, Camp Baker."

And now a story about the phones. I bought an old rotary phone off a friend a few years ago, and I've been bringing it to camp and hooking it up in the office. Of course the older members of staff get a trip out of using it, but this summer brought new levels of fun when one evening I taught Corporate's young children how to dial the rotary phone--how to how to grab the dial at the right number, pull it around all the way to the metal piece, and let it go and listen to the whirring sound it makes as it dials. I also taught them that if you dial the camp's number (541-997-3526) and then hang up, all the phones will immediately start ringing. Then you can pick up and talk to yourself. What's interesting is that kids in the face of such a discovery can be rather oblivious to the fact that adults are trying to work. So it was that on the evening I taught this trick, I sat there and giggled while members of Corporate became more and more annoyed. The rotary phone rings very loudly, and together with the cacophony of rings from the other phones, it only took 10 or 15 minutes before use of the phone by corporate's children was banned.