Thursday, May 22, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed

Use more elaborate descriptions ("as many as a hand has fingers" vs "5")

Deep conflicts, climax of the characters life.

Try a "narrative within a narrative" style.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Writing Prompt

Describe a time you were truly awed by a force of nature.


The rain beats down furiously all around
but in the shelter of the garage
not a drop reaches us.

A stout fortress
offering staunch resistance against the elements
affording us the luxury of passive observance.

Lightning lashes out, but we know
this artillery is woefully inaccurate
and we have nothing to fear.

The rain picks up,
this is an all out assault,
one final charge at the walls.

But the bastions hold, of course,
as they always do.
Once again nature is foiled by the stubborn ingenuity of man.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


On a warm spring day, a young boy walks briskly down the sidewalk, the smell of fresh cut grass mixed with exhaust fumes from the lawnmower invades his nostrils like the vanguard of a barbarian horde, marching for chaos's sake, forging a path to the olfactory nerve with the objective of inducing a slight nauseation. He ignores the sensation and trudges on, unable to appreciate the soft song of the birds and the breeze. He glances up at an airplane passing far overhead and wonders: Is there someone up there in that airplane looking down out the window at me right this instant? He thinks to the moments he has spent on airplanes gazing absent-mindedly out the window. Perhaps a mile up in the sky, another young boy in the midst of intermittent chimes and the subtle roaring of jet engines is staring down at him, trying to ignore the building pressure in his ears. He holds eye contact with the hypothetical boy for a few seconds more before turning his head back down to the sidewalk. With his eyes directed elsewhere, it was a uniform flat surface under his feet, but now he can feel each crack through his shoes, and unconsciously adjusts his stride so that each gap in the walkway falls directly beneath the arch of his foot. He forgets where he is going for a moment, his legs are on autopilot, but this is a reliable software, and no matter how far his mind wanders, his body will not miss the turn. His body and mind are unified in their desire to get home, to walk up the steps of the front porch, turn the key in the lock, feel the loving embrace of the air condition, shrug off his backpack, slip off his shoes, and collapse onto the couch.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Boy Scouts

Arrow of Light
One night a group of Indian braves was out hunting. They wandered far through the woods chasing their prey, but as the night wore on, clouds obscured the stars and the moon. When the time came to return to the tribe, the braves were unable to navigate, and became hopelessly lost. Young Akela back at the village realized that the braves were taking longer than usual, so he lit an arrow on fire and shot it into the sky. The braves saw this and were able to set off in the right direction. Or so the story goes. The Arrow of Light is the award given to boys who have completed Cub Scouts and are ready to move on to Boy Scouts. The ceremony involves a show put on by scouts dressed as Native Americans. In an age were certain sporting mascots are banned as offensive caricatures of Native Americans, I'm surprised nobody has taken issue with the Arrow of Light Ceremony. In fact by now I'm sure there have been complaints. It's a fun ceremony nonetheless, and I had the pleasure of taking part in it a few times myself. Probably the largest role I'd ever had in any dramatic production. A group of scouts adorned in leather and feathers and other stereotypical Native American livery troop out onto the stage slow and purposefully to the solemn, steady beat of a drum. After a reading of the story, they proceed to bring the graduating cub scouts up to the stage and line them up. One by one, the medicine man runs a flaming arrow along each cub scout's arm (or, in the modern times of hyper-sensitivity to safety, just waves it in front of him), asking him if he is ready to accept the responsibilities of the arrow of light. The climax of the ordeal sees the medicine man put out the flame of the arrow with his bare (vaseline covered) hand. This was some good fun.

Almost all your scouting accomplishments were represented in the badges you wore, with the occasional pin or medal. Each rank and leadership position had its badge, and then just about every activity imaginable had an associated merit badge. Well, in truth I believe there are just under 200 different merit badges, but they span a vast range of skills and hobbies. After the basic 11 required for Eagle Scout, which include things such as swimming, hiking, first aid, and personal management, there are badges for almost anything a scout might be interested in. Music, pets, law, dentistry, computers, basketry, shotgun, motorboating... and all earned badges can be proudly displayed on a special sash. While most badges are earned on your own time, there are annual "Merit Badge Days" where you can take a four hour long class to complete the requirements for certain badges and earn them that day.

At home I would generally kill time watching TV or playing video games or browsing the internet. In the wilderness, we killed time playing cards. We massacred time playing cards. As soon as all the chores were done, we'd gather around the picnic table and break out the playing cards. One of the most popular games was called "Drug Dealer." Half the fun was probably spreading it around to all the younger scouts and seeing them running around shouting "drugs sold!"

A particularly troublesome young scout I had to deal with when I was in charge Senior Patrol Leader. Daniel was short with dark hair and glasses. His beady little eyes remind me of a snake who knows quite well that he is up to no good. I swear he was controlled by a switch and could be taken from slow-as-molasses indolence to bouncing-off-the-walls hyperactivity. When I needed him to do work, he was in slow-mode, but when I wanted him to just stay put, he would unleash the energy that he had been so reluctant to use on anything I told him to do. He also had the peevish habit of singing the same verse from whatever song was on his mind at the time over and over again in different voices. I didn't mind this myself so much, but some of the other scouts did, and when you're in charge, their problems are your problems.

Eagle Scout. The final rank. The end goal of most boys' efforts in scouting. Sources claim that 7% of all scouts end up making the rank of Eagle. In my troop it was more like 40%, but I'm sure this is balanced by troops that end up falling apart with nobody making Eagle. It was certainly a challenge, but nothing unreasonable is asked of you. I believe that at the time, getting my Eagle Scout rank was my primary motivation for doing Boy Scouts to begin with. I had heard it was great for the resume and of course I had college applications in mind. Looking back I realize that scouting was a great experience in itself, but I couldn't fully appreciate that then.

The young boy sits on the bench staring at the ground, his fingers pulled back inside his gloves, trying his best to ignore the biting cold. The patrol leader orders him up, "Clean this pot, we have to get ready for dinner." The young boy obeys, dreading the prospect of having to expose his fingers to the frigid air. It is normally not so hard to bear the temporary discomfort of being outside in the freezing cold when one has the warm indoors available to retreat to. On a campout, there is no such respite. A fire will provide some semblance of warmth, but ultimately your toes will stay frozen and you fingers have a hard time finding the medium between not enough heat and way too much as you hold them near the flame. And that doesn't account for the fact that you still have tents and tarps to set up and take down and other such chores that draw you away from the fire. This was the misery of cold weather camping. Of course I figured out how to deal with it as I progressed, but that didn't make the early years any better.

The position of Troop Guide is fairly bland and uninteresting, but it embodies my last years of scouting, which were probably the best years. The Guide's role is just what you might think; to guide the other, less experienced scouts. It counts as a full on leadership position, and you even get to wear a patch for it, yet you really don't do anything you wouldn't do already. Scouts generally became guides after serving their term as the Senior Patrol Leader (SPL, essentially the leader of the troop), and it almost felt like retirement. To me, being a Guide meant that I had done all the hard work I would ever have to do, and now it was time to relax. At meetings, the other Guide's and I would sit in the corner chatting and otherwise goofing off unless we were needed to help with some program. On campouts, we sat around and goofed off even more. It had all the perks of leadership without any of the responsibility. Of course you still have to answer to the SPL, but he's never going to make you do anything difficult. You get to lounge around the campsite while the younger scouts do the real work. Of course I would teach them how to do things, and pitch in to help when necessary, but I got to choose my tasks, so I would take the one's I knew were easy for me.

The young boy fastens up the uncomfortable harness around his thighs and waist and clips on to the cord running up the steep rock face. "On belay?" "Belay on!" He begins his slow, uncertain ascent. Good handholds are hard to come by, and it takes minutes sometimes to move even a couple feet up the rock. The boy's head has been craned up the whole time, scoping out the next moves to make, but about halfway up the stone wall he ventures a look down. Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all. It's so far down! He hasn't even climbed that far, how is this possible? Fear grips him, he cannot go on. "I-I'm r-ready to come down now," he shouts down in a shaky voice. It takes a while for him to begin moving again, and going down is almost harder than going up. He can't look at his feet because the sight of the ground far below makes him dizzy. All the while he can't stop thinking about what would happen if the rope he is secured to were to break... -splat!-

Is Isaac a particularly common name? I don't think so. How many boys are named Isaac? 1 in 1,000? 1 in 10,000? At one point there were as many as four Isaac's in our troop of about 20 or so boys, which was naturally lead to plenty of confusion. We tried to make nicknames for them but this technique seems to only work well with two or three duplicate names. Four? Forget it. To this day any mention of the name "Isaac" immediately pulls up flashbacks to campouts and meetings: "Isaac? Which one? Tall Isaac? Oh, new Isaac. Wait, who's newer?"

The Jamboree is the largest event in scouting by far, a massive ten day camp-a-thon that happened once every four years, where scouts from all around the country, and even some from other countries, gathered together in one place. When I first heard about it I wasn't initially sold on the idea, but my dad convinced me so I went. Naturally it ended up being one of the greatest times I'd had in scouting. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, the first of which being that new troops were made up specifically for the Jamboree, so I was with an entirely new group of boys. I went with two other scouts from my troop, and none of them ended up in my patrol. Of course this wasn't a bad thing as I got to meet plenty of new people. The event itself was truly magnificent, exceeding my expectations in every way. Literal tens of thousands of scouts were spread out across hundreds of acres at the army base Fort A.P. Hill. Waves of uniform olive drab tents stretched for miles. In fact, the whole site was so expansive that I don't think I was able to explore even half of it while I was there. There were tons of activities ranging from shooting to scuba diving, and just hiking around the different areas provided endless adventure. The Jamboree itself could easily have its own 26 sections. The military recruiting stood out a lot. I thank the National Guard for providing my patrol with great entertainment in the form of the board game Daring Eagle, as well as the collectible "Guard Cards." The most memorable moment though probably came when the entire camp gathered on the second to last day, 70,000 people in total all together on the same hillside. It felt like Woodstock, minus the bands, the drugs, the non-conformity; maybe it was the anti-Woodstock.

Klondike Derby
What better way to spend a three day weekend in the middle of the harsh Maryland winter than outside in a tent? This yearly campout is a mix between fun, excitement, and downright misery. Troops from all around the area gather together to compete in a series of scoutcraft-oriented challenges and activities, with awards for the best all around performances. Lots of fond memories from these events mixed in with not-so-fond memories of freezing my fingers and toes off in sub-zero (Celsius) conditions. Sometimes the snow is great to play in, other times it keeps you cold, wet, and hating life.

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
As with many things, after reciting this countless times, the words lose meaning. I actually don't know how much meaning they ever had to begin with. It really just seems like a laundry list of qualities that describe a 'good' person. As a scout I ended up reciting the law from memory at least once a week, but rarely would I stop and think about the words themselves. I sure didn't put much effort into following the law. Obviously I didn't go out of my way to be unkind or discourteous or irreverent or whatever else would break this law, but I had this view of the 'ideal scout' that sincerely held himself to this standard at all times as some sort of Jesus character who through some immense force of will is able to embody the perfect Samaritan.

Few things are more entertaining for a group of young boys out in the wilderness than a box of matches. At first the flame alone is enough to hold your attention, but soon you get creative. Shooting stars, match-dominoes, the invisible string trick, just to name a few. At times you feel like a chemist, investigating the pyro-dynamic properties of various materials.

South, east, and west as well. Before scouts, I had this idea in my head of the compass being this almost magical tool that one could use to get anywhere without getting lost. In practice, navigating in unfamiliar territory by map and compass alone is quite the challenge. Luckily, we had one camping trip each year dedicated to the art of orienteering, and eventually my buddies and I were able to trek through the dense wilderness and end up in (roughly) the right spot using simple map and compass navigation. With the advent of the GPS, this knowledge feels very obsoleted, but you never know when you might have to rely on old fashioned methods. Well, truth be told I am fairly sure I will never use a map and compass out of necessity ever again.

On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Again, words that were recited mindlessly at scouting events. I appreciate the idea of being a good person, but I never actually felt bound by this particular oath.

While in many cases a 'patch' and a 'badge' can refer to the same thing given that almost all badges are patches to be sewn onto the uniform, I think that the natural distinction is that a 'badge' is an award that signifies an accomplishment, while a 'patch' is like a collectors item, a participation award of sorts. When I first heard about the concept of patch collecting, I didn't think I would be into it at all. Sure enough, just as I had collected Pokemon cards in elementary school, I developed a subtle addiction for adding new patches to my collection, which became quite substantial by the end of my scouting career.

If Guide is the best position, quartermaster is the worst. You're in charge of all the supplies for your patrol, so not only do you have to store them and bring them to each campout, but you are responsible for cleaning them and keeping them organized. Supplies include: tarpaulin with eight support poles, two tents, a full set of pots and pans, a propane stove, a propane lantern, a propane tank, and the "chuckbox" filled with all the other little odds and ends that you need to go camping.

I normally enjoy the rain. When indoors, it is pleasant and almost comforting. As a kid I used to watch heavy thunderstorms from my garage. When camping, however, the rain takes on a whole new role as the enemy. I enjoy nothing about camping in the rain, especially when you have to set up your tent while it is raining. By some stroke of bad luck, maybe a voodoo curse, my early days in scouts were plagued by rainy campout after rainy campout. We went camping once a month, and for what seems like the first few years, it would rain every time, without fail. Luckily those turbulent times eventually passed, and I was able to enjoy the great, dry outdoors.

Summer Camp
As with many things in scouting, summer camp was the best of times and the worst of times. Our annual seven-day stint in the woods at Goshen Scouting Reservation in Virginia was certainly the highlight of the season as far as anything scout-related was concerned. During this time I probably had more freedom (and later on more responsibility) than at any other point in my life as a minor. There were plenty of events and activities, but even more downtime, and of course there were no electronics allowed. The usual cards-and-matches certainly filled the void for the most part, but occasionally we were driven to such crass stunts as rolling leaves up in a paper towel and daring someone to smoke it like a joint.
Where the days (at times) felt boring, the same state of nothing-to-do turned to comforting serenity at night. The sunlight would disappear around 9, and we would gather around the picnic table to talk or play games, illuminated by the yellow glow of the propane lantern. An assortment of bugs would flit around, pulled to the light by some primal force. Maybe if you walked out into the darkness you would hear the sound of crickets chirping, but the true sound of night was the blaring hiss of the propane lantern.
Nowadays weeks will pass me by as if they barely even happened, but that one week at summer camp always seemed to last months.

It's not school, but scouts is sure full of tests. Swim test, knot test, tot'n chip test, fireman test, first aid test, plant and tree test, the list goes on. Not that it doesn't make sense: if you want to advance in rank or earn a new patch or badge, your knowledge has to be put to the test. I thought I could view scouting as a break from the work and studying of school, only to consistently find myself studying a whole new slew of material.

The young scout stands at attention, his back straight, his pants creased, his patches and badges all in order. The patrol patch is just the right distance below the troop number, the American Flag slotted cleanly below the district insignia, the neckerchief is held tightly in place by the silver slide, boots are tightly laced, belt buckle aligned with buttons of the shirt. His hair is trimmed and combed and his fingernails clean and clipped, because The Uniform is not constrained to mere apparel. The Class-A is by no means the most comfortable outfit to wear, but it sure looks fine.

'Venture Patrol,' the name given to the patrol made up of senior scouts, synonymous with screw-around-crew. While the younger scouts in the normal patrols are consumed by the menial tasks of camp life and working towards their next rank advancement, the Venture scouts are free to do as they please. Realistically, the role of the Venture patrol is simply to uphold the image of responsibility and leadership whenever adults are around, and generally keep an eye on the others to make sure that nobody gets injured. Outside of that the Venture scouts are free to do whatever, but 'whatever' usually juts consists of ordering around younger scouts, cursing, and lighting stuff on fire.

The worst thing that could happen to anything while camping is for it to get wet. If your matches are wet or your firewood is wet you have no fire. If your picnic table is wet you stand. Or maybe you sit if you are already wet. If your food is wet you have a soggy meal. If your campsite is wet you have mud. If your clothes are wet you are cold. If your tent is wet you are miserable. 

I never played Xbox in Boy Scouts. Part of the focus was on moving away from modern electronics and living in the wild. I did, however, play Xbox outside of Boy Scouts, and it was what I would look forward to during weekend campouts. Nothing makes you appreciate video games more than being stuck out in the woods, often in the cold and rain. The best part about Sunday afternoons after a campout was getting out of the shower and playing Xbox.

Memorable as one of the only games we were able to play that didn't involve a deck of cards. People tried bringing board games to play while camping, but we soon realized that they were easily ruined by the rain and we were quite prone to losing pieces. Once you memorize the configurations and their corresponding point values, all you need to play Yahtzee is a set of five dice and something to write down scores on. We even came up with scoring charts for four-dice and three-dice Yahtzee for when we inevitably lost a die or two.

The nickname 'Goshen Zappers' was given to the spindly black breed of caterpillar one might encounter in the woods at summer camp. One of the rare species of wildlife that we were never lectured about preserving, I never ventured to test the rumor that touching one could leave you with first degree burns.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Summer Sonnet

Basking in the warmth the hot sun brings,
The lizard lies still, soaking up the heat.
A nice flat rock that surely can't be beat,
and kind song that the chorus of birds sings.

His skin is rough, he knows it will not burn
These are the kinds of things a lizard gets to learn.

As the day drags on, the docile reptile succumbs to lethargy
To sleep in the sun is truly bliss.
His blood runs cool, those strong rays unable to raise the enthalpy
These are the moments no lizard wants to miss.

The saurian joy of summer,
has reached it's height.
It will be a bummer,
When winter returns with it's blight.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Almanac Poems


Cramped in the back
of the old Toyota Van.
Our mom can only be one place at a time.

And so we wait alone,
my sister and I.
Idly munching potato sticks,
adding new crumbs to the collection.

The time isn't wasted
when you have nothing to do.
She returns, and we continue
on to the next errand.


The rain beats down furiously all around
but in the shelter of the garage
not a drop reaches us.

A stout fortress
offering staunch resistance against the elements
affording us the luxury of passive observance.

Lightning lashes out, but we know
this artillery is woefully inaccurate
and we have nothing to fear.

The rain picks up,
this is an all out assault,
one final charge at the walls.

But the bastions hold, of course,
as they always do.
Once again nature is foiled by the stubborn ingenuity of man.


It's all over the news, the atmosphere is just shy of hysteria.
We've been attacked, and it could happen again, anytime.
Families rush to the stores, buying bottled water by the case.
Turning basements into bomb shelters to hold out in for days.
Peanut butter and canned foods that keep for years,
Duct tape to seal the cracks for a gas attack.
But what are we truly expecting? The truth is: I don't know.
"Keep the bathtub filled with water," my mom says, "In case they poison the reservoirs."
Who are 'they' and why do they care?
You're telling me to drink from the bathtub?
The fear wears off with time and we begin to forget,
But I'll always wonder: What if I had to drink out of my bathtub?

How to:
How to tie a bowline.
On an early morning at the end of winter,
The rabbit pokes his head,
Out of his rabbit hole.
His eyes dart around for bit
And then he hops over to the sturdy tree
Taking root by his hole.
He loops around the tree
In a lazy frolic,
Before sliding back down
Into his hole.

The Salt Mines
As young children we love to play in the creek.
We explore up and down the banks, build dams,
Try to catch fish with our bare hands
(we never succeed).
One day we find some grainy white rock,
That sticks out from the usual dull drab stone
That populates the length of the creek.
My neighbor pulls a chunk up out of the bank
And we stare.
In a reckless act that only a child is capable of
He sticks his tongue out and gives it a lick.
He pauses, a slight grimace:
"Salt!" He states proudly.
And there is plenty more hiding around.
We makes plans: We will bottle it up and sell it.
Authentic sea salt, the birth of a company.
And so the excavation begins.
But digging is fun for its own sake,
We soon forget the salt,
Thus passes another week
Of summer by the creek.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

One Second

     "Alright, are we done here?"
     "I think so."
     "Let's pack it up then."
     The museum curator had been very kind, lending them a few exquisite pieces for the shoot. James watched as his partner, Andrew, deftly hoisted a beautiful glass vase into its soft, padded transport case.
     "I'll take these two if you can get the rest," Andrew said, referring to the vase he had just loaded and a porcelain bowl that he was in the process of wrapping up tightly in foam. "I think we can do it in one trip."
     Borrowed artwork in hand, James followed Andrew out into the hallway and down the stairs. As he trailed his partner, James watched Andrew shifting uneasily, trying to balance the weight of the pieces he was carrying. After cycling through a few configurations, Andrew hefted the boxy case containing the glass vase up onto his left shoulder, curling up the wrapped bowl under his right armpit. After a few steps, James saw the case on Andrew's shoulder tilt back, and the unsecured lid flopped to the side.
     James stared as gravity worked to overcome friction and the vase began it's slow, inexorable slide down the slight incline. The fall was a blur, the vase accelerated towards the linoleum tile floor too quickly for his mind to react mid flight. It's fall was soon arrested by the hard surface, and the vase burst out in a symmetrical spray. Shards flew across the ground in all directions, taking him back to the time he had dropped a plate at dinner. "Don't move," he heard his mother saying, "Let me get the broom and sweep up the pieces, I don't want you cutting your foot." And then the ensuing lecture about why he should never walk around barefoot and the time she stepped on a piece of glass as a child and spent twelve hours in the hospital. He felt the chill of winters spent cracking icicles off the side of his house and breaking them against the pavement, trying to track the scattered fragments. The tears that streamed down his cheeks when his elaborate diorama for the third grade book fair fell off the table and was utterly ruined. He could smell the oil sizzling up from the hot pan as he cracked eggs onto it. Reality began swimming back. He pictured the curator's old, creased features, his warm smile. The smile turned to an angry, disappointed frown as he imagined delivering the bad news.
     Back to the scene in front of him. jagged strips of glass littered the floor all around the two boys. Andrew turned around, mouth agape, taking in the magnitude of the calamity.
     "We're in big trouble."