There and Back Again

The Hobbit was one of the first books I read as a kid and probably the first one I re-read. The version I had contained illustrations as well, and my mind filled with the daring of dwarves, the majestic terror of the dragon Smaug, and the relief that came from the last minute save by giant eagles. As a kid, it was difficult for me to make friends, so I devoured books like the Hobbit instead, escaping into fantasy worlds and imagining myself fighting off hordes of goblins. When I lost that initial copy of the Hobbit, I replaced it as soon as I could with the 50th anniversary edition despite how badly the cover wanted me to put it back on the shelf. You know which one I’m talking about. You know.

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Yep. The closest thing that is to a burglar is the Hamburglar, and if by “game of riddles with Gollum” you mean “a horrid demon is about to thumb my rear in a damp cave despite my brandishing of a knife I clearly don’t know how to use”, you’d be right. Still, I broke the spine and wore the pages down and it had it’s own special spot in the center of my bookcase.

When I got a little older, I decided it was far past time to return to Middle Earth. I was skeptical of The Lord of the Rings at first. I wanted clumsy homebody Bilbo back. Who was this Frodo kid? How could he possibly live up to the adventures his uncle had embarked on. But soon I was captivated by the mysterious Strider and the trash-talking between Legolas and Gimli as they each tried to outdo the others in orc murder. I was tense while I read about Frodo’s growing corruption, and I was saddened by Boromir’s sacrifice.

These books meant a lot to me, and though it’s been some years since I’ve had a chance to read them, they mean a lot to me still.

I was thirteen when The Fellowship of the Ring came out and it was everything my young mind could hope for. It was unusual, to me, because I can’t recall there being any genuinely good fantasy films out at that time. I was reading Dragonlance novels and The Sword of Truth, while I found science fiction to be lacking, while in cinema it was the opposite. Alien and Terminator were favorites of mine, but there was a dearth of quality sword and sorcery stories.

Then Fellowship came out of the gates like a cave troll, smashing the competition to pieces. The costumes look worn, the Uruk-hai were terrifying to behold, the action was choreographed brilliantly and the set designs were gorgeous. What better way to illustrate the natural beauty and range of terrain than use the beautiful spots of our own planet? OH MY GOD. A BALROG.

I watched Fellowship multiple times in theaters. I watched The Two Towers and gawked at the Ents and railed at Christopher Lee’s sneering menace as Sarumon revealed his true colors (still white, but…an evil white?). I was transfixed by Andy Serkis’ excellent portrayal of Gollum arguing with himself. I cheered at the flooding of Isengard.

I watched Return of the King multiple times in theaters, and let’s be honest, I didn’t give a shit about Legolas surfing on a titanic elephant because Eowyn declared that she was no man, and I didn’t mind the gazillion endings because I didn’t want the movie to end. I wasn’t ready to leave Middle Earth!

So of course I bought all three extended editions when they came out, and I wish this was a joke, but I watched them my girlfriend at the time over the course of three nights and halfway through Return of the King, I rebuffed her sexual advances because there’s only 90 minutes left, Jesus.

It would be nine years before The Hobbit got the cinematic treatment. If you ask me, it was worth the wait.

Now, let me be clear: The Hobbit films are more CG heavy, which is kind of a bummer, but locations like Rivendell and Erebor and Mirkwood still look absolutely stunning. People complain about the way the dwarves all seem to blend together, with a few notable exceptions (namely Thorin, Kili, Balinese [the old one] and Bombur [the fat one]), but that was the way it went in the books, also, with a handful of character traits being sprinkled amongst them through the course of the book.

Some people also claim that they’re too silly or cartoonish as compared to the Lord of the Rings, which 1. The books are largely considered the same way, and 2. As you get into Desolation of Smaug and Battle of the Five Armies, that’s most definitely not the case. There isn’t anything silly about the deaths of Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Perhaps the biggest complaint, though, is that there films felt unnecessary. Bloated. I thought so, too, at first. But then I thought about the reasons it works.

1. A lot happens in the Hobbit. It’s only a 300 page book, but that’s because it’s designed to be read in brief by younger, more easily distracted minds. Even so, there’s the initial congregation, the troll encounter (which was showcased in the background of the LotR, and added treat for anyone watching the movies chronologically), Rivendell, capture by and escape from the goblins (this Misty Mountain sequence also showcases the stone giants throwing boulders at each other, a nice detail from the book), the Gollum riddle scene, the spiders of Beorn, the spiders of Mirkwood, capture by and escape from the elves of Mirkwood, Bard and Laketown, confronting Smaug, the destruction of Laketown, Thorin’s growing insanity, and of course the climactic final battle of five armies.

Sure, that was all written into 300 pages, but to actually develop them and do them justice takes more time. Oh, so there’s a bowman in Laketown who kills a dragon. Who is he? Why do we care? The time spent in Laketown makes it feel more like a thriving community with real people and real families. In fact, this time and care is shown in the goblin kingdom and Mirkwood, too.

We get movie-stealing sequences with Gollum and Smaug that work because they’re not rushed. They’re paced brilliantly and the performances that go in it are done so with panache. The final battle feels like a war, and it feels desperate. The paired battles feel earned by that point, and while they’re a little over the top, they were fantasy gold and it brought to mind my favorite Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

By taking the time to develop each step of the journey, it made it feel like more than “and then they went here, and then they went there”  but instead like an actual adventure with numerous varied perils.

2. The added stuff develops Middle Earth even more. There are parts of the Silmarillion in the movies. These parts add the extra lore and background into the varying races and conflicts. This is a land with history and blood feuds and fallen kingdoms. And we get just enough of a peek into it as to help us immerse ourselves in this world again. It adds complexity and tragedy to some of our characters.

Tauriel, on the other hand, is a brand-new character. Some purists decry her presence as unnecessary, but without her, the only women in the story would be Galadriel in her brief scenes and random citizenry here and there. Tauriel adds the Eowyn affect, being part of the conflict without disrupting the main story. Her presence excused the appearance of Legolas, but Legolas’ inclusion also added more weight to Thranduil’s involvement and general vindictiveness. We see how far he comes from his absolute racism towards dwarves to his grudging acceptance that banding together can sometimes accomplish a greater good.

Now, these first two things are necessary under a Peter Jackson direction. Jackson’s LotR trilogy and the Hobbit movies have a scope that feels epic when you watch it. The world is big, their journey is long, the battles are energetic. Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to do two Hobbit films, likely could have condensed it. He tells more personal stories, more tightly focused, and between that and his excellent creature designs, I believe they would have been excellent films, but they wouldn’t quite have fit in the same realm as Jackson’s trilogy.

And that works, for the books. The Hobbit is one kind of animal, light in tone and a swift romp for a rainy afternoon where Lord of the Rings is heavier material with deeper consequences and greater stakes. That’s fine.

But on film, we’re talking about two grand adventures, and a legacy that passes from uncle to nephew. When Jackson came back, with his scope and the expansion of the adventures, three films make sense, because…

3. They’re a perfect companion saga to Lord of the Rings. You have Bilbo’s full story and Frodo’s full story and they complement each other well. You see how two little Hobbits each adapted to a large world with very different types of conflicts and experiences. Bilbo is given as much time to grow and endure and adapt as Frodo is, and both films have their perfect beginnings, middles and ends. They bookend nicely. The comparisons are heart-felt while the contrasts set the two apart well enough that you don’t feel bored and you don’t feel like you’re running over the same ground.

At the end of the day, maybe The Hobbit films aren’t a great adaptation, but I don’t think that’s fair or even entirely correct. There is extra material there, but it supplements the Hobbit story which is recreated in pretty stellar detail. I do think that the Hobbit films are top to bottom the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen. The action is tight, the world feels real, the monsters are amazing, the quest feels fun. They’re as well-developed as any science fiction film.

Taken as a whole, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films are full of heart and adventure, and they’re either going to inspire people to read the original books and decide for themselves which they like better, or they’re going to be accessible for people who don’t like the older, drier style of writing Tolkien used. I don’t think that people who read the books should be so purist as to pick the movies apart.

I grew up on the books. They introduced me to fantasy, and fiction like it got me through hard times throughout my life. I was just excited to see these things I love so much translated on film, liberties and all. I was so excited to see these things that as the final credits rolled and Billy Boyd sang The Last Goodbye, I teared up in the theater.

And no matter what you say, this is one of the most perfect music videos ever made.

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Recap Redux

I’ve written or shared a hundred posts now, and it has been an absolutely rewarding experience so far. From being able to experiment via short stories set in worlds I plan on exploring in more detail later to reflecting on my life/my relationships/my family and friends, what started out as sort of a trial outlet for my thoughts and creative endeavors has turned into a cathartic routine.

Even more so, by sharing it online and via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve received a number of comments and personal messages expressing a wide variety of emotions. That’s good! That has been the point of this. I want you to be able to experience my type of art. I want you to think and to feel things, and if you’re going through an experience or feelings similar to something I’ve gone through,  I want you to be know you’re not alone.

Every fifty posts or so, I’ll create one of these as sort of a recap. With so many posts coming out of me and with no real regular schedule,  there’s a chance you may have missed something that pertains to your interests. This is meant to act as a quick guide to the posts, separated more or less into different categories.

If you read something you feel particularly thought-provoking or touching or infuriating or garbage, I encourage you to share it with others.

First off, you can find a quick recap to the first 49 articles here: FIVE OH.

Then:

About Me:
My Own Worst Enemy
I’m a Man Who Was Raped
Oktoberfest, Or That Time I Crippled Myself
Vagabond
Distilling Who I Used to Be
The Metal That Gave Me Mettle
Hundo
I Fell In Love
Playing the Doldrums
Kisses Have Pictures Beat
Office Space
Story Time With Grampa Jered
Just Plane Silly
The A Word

Family and Friend Profiles:
Go Out and Get ‘Em, and a Birthday Note
Mama Mia
Blondie
Father Of Mine

Writing Tips and Opinion Pieces:
Six Reasons Why 50 Shades of Grey Sucks, and Why It Doesn’t
Ten(ish) Books That Tickle My Fancy
Getting the Gang Together
Things I Love: The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Thanksgiving: A Better Christmas
No Place Like Home

Miscellaneous:
The Best Medicine
The Beautiful Last Breath of Day
Remembrance
The Wedding Bells Are Ringing
The Carolina Reaper

Fiction:
A Nice, Slow Day
Satori and the Key
The Wrong Kind of Flop
The Velvet Anchor
Love and Bullets
The Balloon Trick: An Absolute Zeroes Story
The Owl Part I: A Curious Shoppe
Trixie: A Flatliners Story
Yellow
The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

Poetry:
Shadow Hurt
Stoke the Fire
She, Of the Pale Stars
You Know
I Could Write
The House In the Ocean

Guest Entries and Shared Posts:
Life Is a Coping Mechanism by Jessica Michelle Singleton (follow @JMSComedy)
10 Tips and Tricks For Creating Memorable Characters by Charlie Jane Anders (follow @charliejane)
As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders
How to Create a Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story by Charlie Jane Anders
Cars. Booze. Central Oregon. by Robert Brockway (follow @Brockway_LLC)

So there you go. Hopefully you’ll find something you haven’t seen before that you like, or you’ll have a convenient way to link a friend.

Thank you to everyone who has followed, shared, commented, read, or even encouraged since Word Whiskey has started. It means the world to me.

The A Word

I never had a problem with drinking, until I did.

Boom! What a killer opening line. People should pay me for this shit. It’s true, though. Somewhere along the line, I stopped drinking recreationally, and I started doing it out of grief, and then out of fear. Fear for my health, believe it or not, and of course that would come around full circle to affect me anyway.

This is a milestone for me, in that it’s my 100th blog post of shared articles, original poetry and fiction, profile articles and personal reflections. This needed to be something more important, something next-level personal. I decided to push off my article on the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings and focus instead on alcohol. Let’s start at the beginning.

I had tried alcohol as a kid. I wasn’t shotgunning brews in elementary school or anything, but my parents would let me have a sip of their beer or their wine. Never more than a sip, and it was stressed to me that those were adult drinks and not to have any otherwise. I was pretty good about that for a long time, but I was also a rebellious little twat, so it was only a matter of time.

One night, when I was 12 or 13, or was staying up at my step-dad’s house to spend the night with my siblings. He was still a heavy drinker at that point and had a cornucopia of liquors in the kitchen. The night grew later, everyone fell asleep, and I tippy-toed up the stairs and into the kitchen because dammit, I was going to try some of this fire water (my late godfather once referred to it as “elephant juice” because it “makes you as strong as a bull”. I called him Poo-Poo Face for lying to me. I was a charming child, really).

I’m standing there and I’m looking at these bottles like the kids in the Goonies first took in One-Eyed Willie’s pirate treasure. Where do I start? What would I like? I ultimately decided to go with whichever bottle looked the coolest and settled on this stout, beautiful blue bottle of something called Bombay Sapphire Gin.

So I took my trembling pre-order hands and carefully lifted the bottle off of the counter, took it over to the sink and filled half of a Dixie cup with liquid. Hell, this stuff looks like water. Smells a little funny. I lifted the cup and tried to let it trickle down my throat the way one would a nice cold cup of H2O.

I desperately and successfully hid my wracking coughing fit as my throat burned and seized up and I poured the rest of the contents down the drain. It was ten years before I tried gin again. I like it okay now.

The next time I really started drinking, though, I was 15. I got invited to this house party by a guy I worked with and I ended up drinking too much rum and vomiting in everyone’s shoes. I managed to get away with that somehow, but it was an ignominious start to a storied drinking career.

There are far too many stories to go through over the course of a decade, so I’ll shorten it as much as I can:

When I was 16, I moved out of my grandparent’s house and into an apartment with a bunch of 21 and ups. We partied a lot. My grades suffered but that was more due to a crippling depression and crisis of self, because I was at school every day. I just didn’t give a shit. I partied, and when I moved back home, I barely partied, and when I turned 18, I partied all over Europe and paralyzed my hand and unparalyzed it because, guys, I’m pretty cool. I’m just really dumb.

I’d hit up one or two house parties a week until I turned 21 with the rest of my friends. I spent that birthday in Reno with my friend Amber, writing bad poetry and almost taking strippers home. I came back to Alaska and spent 4-5 nights a week with two of my best dude friends at a karaoke bar we came to love and be recognised at.

That fall, I moved to Los Angeles, and I drank a lot down there for two reasons:

1) I didn’t pay for shit. I’m talking free beers, free rum and Cokes, $6 pitchers of Adios Motherfuckers, and my friend and I drank like this for five months straight with people from all over the world, because goddamnit, that was a rock and roll type of life. And when that gravy train hit the station,

2). my friend moved away, I moved to a different spot, I was struggling financially and I was in a toxic relationship. THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING TO DO.

And I knew it, and I knew I had to get right, so I moved back up to Alaska for four months. I stopped drinking so heavily, I lost a lot of weight, I got my money in order, I moved back down, and three months after that, I made some stupid decisions completely independently of alcohol (I wish I could say I was drunk instead of a fool, believe me). I lost the job I had spent over a year building myself into, the girl I loved, a ton of friends, a ton of money,and I had to move to Washington.

In Seattle and Redmond, my friend and I adopted a more regular drinking schedule. We kept beer in the fridge and there was a dive bar down the road, but we didn’t drink in excess at the house (with a few special occasions), we primarily went to the bar on the weekends (there was a promo girl I liked, so I got to A. flirt, B. get cheap shots and C. get free swag for buying cheap shots). But also, man, I was feeling low. Those suicidal thoughts were creeping in. I had no money, I was a pariah, I was lonely and heartbroken, I felt like a failure. I got a job with the help of my friend, and it was a job testing video games, which is awesome, but it was a temp job, which was less awesome, and I felt aimless.

I visited Alaska again to see my newly born nephew. That weekend, sober, I popped into a (now closed) bar I never went to, and saw a woman I had long had an inexplicable and probably borderline creepy affection for. We were MySpace friends but had only ever shared one actual interaction. She saw me, she somehow recognised me, smiled and waved, came over and told me I was a great writer and she believed in me.

As silly as that might be, that changed everything for me. I got my head straight, I went back to Washington, just wrote my first book in six months and just made plans to come back to Alaska for 4-6 months just to visit everyone, save up some dough, and move back to California.

That was a little over three years ago. And you know what? I was doing great. I was out a bunch, but I wasn’t drinking much. I was writing, mostly, and it was good. And then two years ago, everything kind of went to shit.

My godfather died. His funeral was on my birthday, and while I was driving my mom back to rehab after, my date cancelled dinner a half hour before our reservation. A week later, my grandmother, the best mother figure I ever really knew, passed away of a heart attack. Five months after that, my grandfather passed away and a woman I had loved for five years promised me she would be there for me and left me instead for one of only two people I genuinely hate.

That was the start. Right there. That night. I got the news, I was crashing on my friend’s couch at the time and I was without a vehicle, but he had a half-time bottle or 99 Bananas in the freezer and I drank the whole thing. I cried until he got home, cried while we talked about it, he went to bed, I cried some more, another friend hit me up to cab it to his girlfriend’s place, I drank some Jack Daniels, let some girls pluck my eyebrows, called someone a bitch and woke up the next morning on the first friend’s floor, even though there was a perfectly good couch right there.

Grief had me. I lashed out at everybody. I hated myself for not being a better friend/grandson/person, and I embraced it, and then it got worse.

I got septic shock and almost died. When I pulled through, I put my two weeks in at my job, got harassed by an assistant manager and when I filed a complaint, they fired me. They skimped me on my pay. I’m still paying people back for that. My dad stole my inheritance and used half of it to pay for his legal fees around his prison sentence and gave the rest to his wife, who put him there in the first place. I didn’t see a penny.

I started drinking just about every night. At first, it was out of grief and anger and self-pity. That was for a good year, year and a half. I was a horrible person. I’ve since come to peace with that, and I’ve done my best to repair the relationships I ruined, and those who were open to forgiving me have. The rest is in the past.

After the grief, I started drinking to suppress everything. I didn’t need to black out, I just needed enough to sleep. Once I was there, I wouldn’t dream, or if I did, I didn’t remember it. When I woke up, I was either tired or hungover or both, but however I was feeling physically kept my mind from doing anything but focusing on that.

But, see, here’s the thing: I have never felt that I needed alcohol. I’ve wanted it. I’ve wanted it to drown out everything or to punish myself or to stoke creative embers (in my better days), but if there wasn’t any around, I was fine. I could go days, weeks, months without a drink no problem. And unlike most, I drink because I like the taste. I like the bite, the burn, the flavor. I’m a rum and Coke guy all day, but a shot of Jameson and a craft beer? A pale ale or a vodka martini? 12 year scotch on the rocks to sip on while I’m poring over notes? I like them all. I like the differences and the nuances and as long as it’s not tequila, we’re good to go.

I don’t drink shots of tequila because I hate the taste. Put it in a margarita that’s more fruit punch than agave, we can talk, but get that Tequila Sunrise bullshit out of my face. I’m not that guy who drinks whatever he can get his hands on. I have my tastes and I have restraint.

Or I used to.

And as the better parts of two years wound down and I was past the grief and I had become ready to face my thoughts and emotions again, I discovered another problem: at this point, I had drank so heavily, so regularly, and for so long, I was terrified at the toll it would take on my body to quit. So I started slowly struggling with some kind of game plan on how to wean myself off. I wanted to consult a doctor, but I don’t have a regular physician and I’m so deep in medical debt, I wasn’t sure what avenues to go to. I felt lost and, frankly, since I feel like most of my friends judge me and think I’m an alcoholic anyway, I didn’t know who to turn to.

Then one morning, I woke up to the sound of my roommate getting up and while I lay in bed, my body went through a full involuntary convulsion. It wasn’t long and I was conscious through it, but it was unusual and it was scary. I went to the ER where, after some basic tests,the doctor seemed to think it was dehydration related. Rather than put me on detox medication, he basically told me to figure it out and drink more water. So that was a cool trip.

I took the rest of the day off work and I talked to a couple friends (both of whom are bartenders) and they helped me come up with a plan to help regulate myself. So that’s what I’m doing, and it’s working like this:

First off, I only go out to the bars on Friday and Saturdays now. That’ll probably stay consistent, because I like to get out of the house, listen to music, watch some comedy, and see some friends I don’t have a chance to see otherwise. During the week, now that I’ve got my office set up, I’ll have A drink, just to make sure my body’s not fully without. Sometimes I’ll have a second, but since I started this a couple weeks ago, some nights I won’t have any at all.

When I do go out, for every drink I order, I have at least one glass of water with it. Sometimes two. I have a habit where, when I have a drink (any drink: liquor, water, soda, in a cup, in a glass, in a bottle), I’m constantly drinking it. By adding a glass of water, it scratches that itch while keeping me hydrated.

So after all of that, here is where I’m at: I’ve cut my drinks down to a third or less what I was drinking. I go to bed sober most nights, and I wake up tired but clear-headed and not nauseous. When I do go out on the weekend, I find I’m less hungover the following day, and that I’ve begun redeveloping restraint. I cut myself off and switch to strictly water if I feel I’ve had too much, and more than that, I’m finding less of an urge to get another drink. I’ll nurse them for longer periods of time.

I understand that this is normal shit for a lot of people, and it used to be normal shit for me. I think I had a bad reaction to a series of bad events, and it just took me longer than normal to start getting out of it.

Here’s the other thing, though: when I was drinking heavily, it suppressed my mind. Now that I don’t have that, I am thinking ALL OF THE THOUGHTS ALL OF THE TIME. I find myself falling asleep between 4AM and 7AM every single night. I get 3-5 hours of sleep on average, and what sleep I get more often than not has vivid dreams that are more often than not horrifically realistic nightmares. I’m nostalgic and short of temper, and I’ve got mood swings. I literally spent an hour googling monasteries the other day because I thought maybe going some place like that for 6-8 months would help. Help what? I don’t even know.

I feel like I know now why so many writers and artists are addicts of some kind, and I feel, sometimes, like I’m sacrificing my sanity for my sobriety.

But I’m not the religious type, I’m not the meetings type. Even though I bare my life, soul and all of my fuck-ups on this blog for the internet to see, in real life, I’m not even much of a trusting, talkative type. But I am a fighter. I have a plan. So far it’s working. I’m going to start with that.

The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

They were cold, but they would suffocate before hypothermia set in. It had been a terrifying notion at first, but they gradually came around to the idea that there was nothing to be done and so there was no reason to keep panicking about it. It simply was.

If anything, Houston had been more distraught. They were distraught over their inability to help the astronauts a million miles away, drifting peacefully. They felt they had betrayed them somehow by being unable to bring them back home to their families. Sam Burley, deep lines around his eyes, had let out a long sigh before absolving the command center of any guilt.

“It’s just bad luck, fellas,” he had said. “Space shit. Odds are somebody was going to hit something some time”.

It was the other way around in this case. Some kind of debris moving faster than they were had torn through the oxygen and disabled the controls. They had no idea what it could have been. A small meteor? Man-made garbage come back to haunt them? Some kind of alien weapon? The latter would have been exciting, at least.

All they knew, this crew of three, was that they were stuck on a ship pointed towards the vast nothingness of space with no way to turn back home. The oxygen was limited, the heat was failing, and contact with Houston was spotty at best.

The captain, Burley, asked that his wife and children be told he loved them. The mission specialist, Anthony Palumbo sent his love back to his siblings and nephew. James Ryman simply wanted the control team to get rip-roaring drunk in his honor.

“Shoot for the stars,” he said, “has a new meaning now. Try to vomit in the shape of Orion’s Belt. Or the Milky Way. I’ll be happy with Polaris if it’s all you can muster.”

His request was met with laughter, distracting everyone from the tears streaming down their faces. They said a few more goodbyes and then shut off contact. The astronauts settled in and waited to die. There was some comfort, anyway, that they wouldn’t have to go alone.

“I hate space food,” Palumbo finally said, breaking a silence that had lasted nearly an hour. “We put men on the moon, sent a satellite on an accurate nine year trip to the edge of our galaxy, but we still can’t figure out how to make space food not taste like dog shit.”

“You’re still chewing on that jerky, though,” said Burley.

“Well, yeah. I’m not exactly spoiled for choices when it comes to a last meal.”

Palumbo sighed and leaned his head back against the hull. They had strapped themselves in for bed and were now huddling into as many blankets and clothes as they could muster. It didn’t help much.

“There is one thing I’ve been wondering,” he said. “It’s a bit personal, though.”

“Might as well ask,” Ryman said.

“What about your wife, Jim? Why didn’t you tell Houston to send her a message?”

“Ah, they’ll probably give her one anyway. ‘James wanted you to know he would always love you. He died a hero, doing hero’s work, definitely not suffocating in a giant can. The nation is proud.’ Something like that.”

“But what if they don’t?” Burley asked.

The other two astronauts were unsure if Ryman would answer. When he did, he opened his eyes to look at both of them.

“About a week before liftoff, my wife asked me for a divorce. I say asked. She demanded. Hired some movers to pack all my shit into a storage unit she took out for three months.”

“Jesus,” Burley said softly.

“Ah, man. Jim…”

“The last time I saw her, I wept. I’m not really proud of that, but I didn’t know anything was wrong. We fought, but couples fight. You know? I was excited for this mission. Excited to go into space. I thought she’d be excited for me. With me.” Ryman shook his head. “Anyway, the way I figure it, maybe Houston will just tell her I wasn’t going to make it back and she’d feel guilty. Lord knows, I told her I loved her plenty of times over the years. She knew it. Maybe not hearing it again would make her remember how she used to love me.”

“Sorry we threw you such a shitty bachelor party,” Burley said.

Ryman barked out a laugh. “Does that mean you didn’t smuggle any strippers on board, Captain?”

“Or booze?” Palumbo asked hopefully.

“‘Fraid not, boys. Just us. One last ride.”

The ship went quiet again at that. Outside, the vast emptiness of space felt heavy against the hull. There were incredible sights out there, amazing, beautiful, terrifying things. The majority of space, though, was just cold and blank, and here they were just…coasting through it.

“Heh,” Palumbo said.

“What’s funny?” Ryman asked.

“You won’t find it funny.”

“I won’t?”

“Well, you might. I don’t know.”

Ryman rolled his eyes. “Just tell me, man.”

“Come on, Tony,” said Burley.

“Alright, alright.” Palumbo cleared his voice and started singing softly. ” She packed my bags last night pre flight. Zero hour nine a.m. And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.”

“Oh, you bastard,” Ryman laughed. “I miss the earth so much. I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space on such a timeless flight.”

“Might as well join in,” Burley muttered. “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”

“God, that falsetto,” Palumbo said, wincing. Burley continued on undeterred.

“Till touch down brings me round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh, no, no. Come on boys!”

They raised their voices in unison and sang, “I’m a rocket man! Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone!”

They all burst out laughing and settled further down into their makeshift beds. The air was getting thinner. They hadn’t done themselves any favors by using it to belt out lyrics. That was okay. Why drag it out?

“Ah, man,” Burley said softly. “You think they’ll name anything after us?”

“They’ll probably name a guilt trip after Jim.”

“Oh, go to hell. If you had a wife, you’d have done the same thing.”

“Maybe. Jim! You should have asked Houston to relay a cryptic riddle to your wife and set her off on a treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt to what?”

“Who cares? Something dumb. The landfill. Fuck her. She left you.”

Ryman considered that. “I should have. Dammit, Tony.”

Sam Burley chuckled. His head was growing light. “What do you think this thing will hit first? An asteroid, a planet, or a star?”

“I’m hoping Venus,” Anthony Palumbo said. His breathing was growing shallow.

“We’re going the wrong way.”

“Saturn, then.”

James Ryman smiled. “It’s been an honor, gentlemen.” He leaned his head back against the hull and closed his eyes.

Yellow

She wore dandelions in her hair. I told her, “You know, people eat that” and she spent ten minutes explaining how unhealthy it is to chew on hair before she realized I was talking about the weed instead. She had a cute little button nose that she scrunched up then, and she asked, “Why would anyone eat dandelions?” and I asked, “Why would anyone eat snails?” right back. She didn’t answer. She liked escargot.

I asked her once, a month or two later, why she chose dandelions. It was always dandelions. She said it was a personal preference, just because they were everywhere and nobody was doing anything with them but complaining. Girls wanted posies and lilies and daffodils. Well, she liked yellow and sunflowers were too big, so dandelions it was.

“It’s a weed,” I told her. “It’s bad for gardens.”

“We’re bad for the planet,” she said, and though I wasn’t a hippie (and she wasn’t exactly, either), I couldn’t disagree.

She liked things that were a little different, a little off the beaten path. She didn’t mind flinging a little mud around when we tramped through the woods and found a dying riverbed. She always ordered a hot chocolate at the coffee shop and pushed down all of the little plastic tabs on her soda lids except the kind she was drinking, which is the exact opposite of what is supposed to be done (and which is exactly what nobody does anyway).

She liked long walks and longer drives down trails and roads where the trees lined up like soldiers and the businesses, if there were any, were all locally owned. She liked to hear the birds sing and she wondered out loud to me once if birds named their children like humans did, and if those names were sometimes just as stupid as ours.

She liked me. She liked sitting next to me on the couch, sitting upright in a fetal position, knees tucked up against her chest, her back against my chest, a bowl of popcorn in my lap that she used to reach back and grab from and spill from, and she would tell me not to worry, the Roomba would get it, and we’d both laugh because we didn’t own a Roomba and we never would. Call it a misplaced fear of robots if you want, but we valued our feet and refused to let them be the first casualties when the uprising began.

She liked watching those horror movies that are a special kind of bad, full of schlock and dialogue so cardboard an action figure should have come packaged with it. We would pick a character just to see how long “we” survived and whoever lasted the longest had to do the dishes. She was good. I lost a lot.

She liked me and I liked her and we had a good thing for two winters and two summers. We met in the snowpants section of a chain store and I muttered something disparaging about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and she piped up an agreement, and we went out for coffee. Well, I got a coffee. She got a hot chocolate.

We curled up in front of a space heater and pretended it was a fireplace until the next winter when I moved into a bigger place with a real fireplace. She insisted I cut my own wood. I bought wood and pantomimed and she rolled her eyes, but she liked that, too.

She never got mad. I did. Never at her, but I could get mad. I could get moody and lethargic and sullen. She would go on her walk and I’d stay and I’d sleep and I’d wait and when she came back, I would smile a wistful little smile because it was all I could muster, but I loved her and she deserved something from me.

I could hold grudges. I was really good at losing. Losing friends, losing jobs, losing arguments, and I would be resentful because I felt there was something else I could do, some words I could have said that would have changed everything. Did I hold grudges against them or myself? I couldn’t be sure. She would ask me to let it go and I’d nod and I’d smile and I would hug her and stare at the wall behind her, a pit in my stomach turning over.

She loved to travel, to meet new people, to taste new foods. She liked culture and history, and the way the cars were small in France and the “medusa” warnings on Spanish beaches when the jellyfish clusters grew large.

I used to like that, too, but I grew tired and restless and grumpy and conflicted, and it’s difficult to plan an itinerary around a mood swing like that.

We liked to talk to each other. It was easy, too easy, too funny, too real. It was easy for two winters and two summers, from inside our snowpants in that first café to inside my arms that last night in bed. But that third winter started around and I couldn’t be happy for her, and it wasn’t as easy to talk about it, and I didn’t want to bring her energy down. I shut her out, and she didn’t like that. I didn’t either. It wasn’t a game for two, anymore, but the sky trying to carry on with a wall, and the door that led through it stayed locked.

I came home one day, close to spring, the snow melting on the sidewalk and me slipping through it because the sneakers I bought had no treads on the bottom for traction. There had been signs for weeks. I knew that. I had seen them and looked through them and practiced smiling in the mirror.

I saw this sign, though, the purple pair of lips pressed against the outside wall of my apartment, just next to the door. The door would have been easier to hold it. I don’t know why she chose the wall or how hard she would have had to press her lips into the scratchy wood to keep the prints there. I hoped she hadn’t hurt her lips.

There was no note inside. Her stuff wasn’t there, either. She cleaned before she left, though. Did the dishes even though my character had died first in the last film we watched and did my clothes, because…because she was sweet, and she liked me once.

She left one thing behind, though. I found a dandelion on the kitchen counter, next to the stove we took turns cooking each other breakfast on. I don’t know where she found a fresh dandelion. I just know she liked to wear them in her hair.

No Place Like Home

I’m a fan of a good homecoming story, the idea, of course, being someone who has left home for a while, years, only to find there way back for whatever reason, to the place they grew up in. There are a lot of options in how to tell them, for one: they can be heartwarming or sad, they can be a return to the past or a displacement story about someone returning to a place that has moved on without them. They can be comedies, dramas or romances. The best are some combination of these things.

Now, there are a couple things that have to be there for it to work. First off, it’s got to be a long period of time. This isn’t a case of someone moving away for a semester at college and then coming home and meeting up with their high school buddies. This isn’t someone showing up to visit family once or twice a year. I’m talking eyes-forward, home in the exhaust, build a life away from past-me until a death or an unemployment or something drags me back to my roots.

There has to be little to no contact with the people back home. A good homecoming story needs surprises on both sides. Who got married? Who had kids? Who has died, and how? Are you divorced? What do you do? Oh, she inherited her dad’s bakery. Oh, he opened a little bookstore. There needs to be high school loves that have moved on, though there will always be a little spark. There needs to be a resentment that either stays as fresh as if it were yesterday, or one that has softened over time so that now all that’s wanted is an explanation over a beer. Was it because I was fat? Did I offend you so much? You know, it was always you she loved, deep down I knew that.

The other thing about a solid homecoming story is it’s almost always a small town. There are exceptions, of course. There is a film called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that I love and recommend all the time because it seems nobody I know has seen it. It’s set in New York, sure, but focuses exclusively in a neighborhood in Astoria. The film alternates between the past (with stellar performances by both Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum, and I don’t say that lightly) and the future,  when Robert Downey Jr. returns home to see his ailing father. Rosario Dawson is also in it.

There’s another film that plays on a different homecoming trope: that of a reunion. You’ve seen reunion films before (10 Years, which is sad, beautiful in parts, and a little funny; American Reunion; Grown Ups; The Judge – RDJ again – which I want to see), but indie flick Beside Still Waters might be one of the best. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet, but I helped fund the Kickstarter and it got so much buzz that it went from a small independent venture to an upcoming theatrical release. You can find out more about it here, as well as see the trailer.

Why do I like that so much? It just seems so earnest and so honest. The chemistry feels natural, the relationships awkward and complex. It focuses on the simple things and the inside jokes and the layered relationships and past hurts and lingering loves. It looks like a goddamn beautiful film.

There is an inherent humanity in a homecoming story, whether it’s happy or sad or dramatic or hilarious. That’s because it’s about a person’s relationships with others and all of the history therein. These stories echo our feelings. Our fears, our dreams, our hopes, our loves and our failures. We relate because we, too, said the wrong thing once, or we didn’t say anything at all. We relate because we’ve wanted to escape, because we’ve had to watch people we love love someone else,  because we have had some action that we’ve taken torment us on long, rainy nights.

These are things we’ve experienced even if we’ve never had a homecoming. Many of us grew up in large cities or with a big group of friends, with a close family or no family. We haven’t necessarily needed to move out of state or to a “bigger” place to escape. All the same, those relationships that have been strained or forgotten or pushed aside in the name of a career, those mistakes made and loves lost, those are all things that happen anyway, because we’re human.

Setting it in a small town strips away the busyness, pares down the clutter of a cityscape and focuses on intimacy. It takes the time to explore all the thoughts and feelings that we don’t give ourselves time and energy to do the same with in our own lives. That’s why, no pun intended, those kinds of stories hit home so clearly.

Though Anchorage, Alaska isn’t exactly a small town with its 300,000 residents, it feels that way sometimes. Having been born, raised and lived here for over 20 years, I can find someone I know at just about any given time in any particular place. It’s not difficult to get around the city, either. It’s small, but not too small. It’s big enough to lose yourself in if you want to. But man, it’s easy to fall into a routine. The familiarity of the city is a comfort, but if you make yourself known enough, it’s easy to develop a rep. The funny thing about a reputation is that, for most people, twenty percent truth is enough. Whichever version is the most exciting can fill in the other eighty.

I had aspirations of being an actor rooted in a brief stint on theater during which I performed adequately and no better. I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and lived there for eight months before having a mental breakdown. I moved back to Alaska for four months almost to the day, then back to L.A. for three more months. After I lost my job, I moved to Washington and lived there for nine months.

20 months gone away from home with a brief break in the middle. I lost a lot of friends for a lot of reasons during that time, and I grew distant from several more. While it’s not really like the pattern I described for the stories I like so much, it felt as such to me. By the end of my time in Washington, I missed those people. I missed hanging out with them and partying with them. I had just finished my first novel and I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life or where I was going, so I decided to move home for six months or so.

That six months turned into three years and counting. At the start, though, it felt weird to be back. I had that homecoming feeling. The four months I had spent trying to get my head in gear was largely spent drinking, reading and sleeping around Anchorage. I didn’t really pay attention to much else. When I came back for good (for now), I opened my eyes up a bit more. I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, might as well see what’s up.

A lot of construction had gone on in two years. There were some marriages,  some babies, a divorce or two. Some people were in jail. I didn’t let people know I was back for a while;  I just kind of wandered around being introspective and mysterious and shit. It was nice, honestly.

I have mixed feelings about this city. I don’t think it’s healthy for me in long stints, especially during the winter. I think other places might afford me better opportunities concerning my writing, and I like the busyness of a place like Los Angeles, and the weather,  and the sounds the waves make crashing against the sand while I write on the pier. I don’t like seeing the people I graduate with pity me, because I already feel disappointed in myself.

But I also love this city. I’m proud to be Alaskan. I like knowing my way around town and the best places to eat and having a bar I can walk into where everyone knows my name and my drink is ready for me. I get to have my best friend drop by with my little nephew out of nowhere and have the kid give me a big hug.

Long term goal? To have a place in a city better suited for my personality and my craft, where I can go as long as I want without seeing someone who knows my history. I’d live there for 8-9 months out of the year. The other 3-4 months of spring/summer, I want a place in Alaska to come back to. As much as this place drains me, I do have a fond spot for it somewhere in me.

That doesn’t fit the homecoming narrative, but it works for me. After all, that’s what stories are for.