Tag Archives: adventure

The happiest place in the world, a fable

30 Mar

The happiest land is the world is one none of us can easily reach. It’s tucked away in a hidden valley in a faraway part of the world that does not appear on any map.

By happenstance, a hiker entered this remote place on his way to climb one of the highest mountains in that part of the world. He did not know it was the happiest land. The hiker, though still young, had traipsed across four continents. He had thrown a stone off the Great Wall, bathed in an ice-cold river in Patagonia, and watched antelope drink from a calm pool at sunset in Namibia. He still had much left to see and experience. He wanted to write a great novel, learn the paint, fall in love, and have his name etched in a monument at the end of his days. But he had only one lifetime in which to achieve it all, and he worried that he couldn’t achieve all that he wanted. Therefore, the man lived in constant anxiety, as he hurried from one experience to the next.

When he first entered the happiest land, he found nothing outwardly interesting about it. Its mountains were no more majestic than others he had seen. The streams were no clearer, the flowers no more colorful, and the animals no bigger or faster.DSC07710

As he found it rather dull, the hiker chose to spend no more time than necessary in this small land. After asking directions, he took the shortest path possible that lead toward the mountain he intended to climb. Along the way, all the natives treated the visitor warmly. This was nothing new to the man. He had traveled through many hospitable places. However, the people in this land seemed even happier and more relaxed than he had previously experienced. This made him uneasy. He was not used to such calmness.

The stranger also noticed that some people wore white t-shirts with calendar dates printed in black. Some dates were many years in the future; others were close at hand. He assumed the shirts were the current fashion in this land, but he did not want to reveal his ignorance about their meaning. Still, he decided to buy one as a souvenir. He entered the next shop he came to and asked where he could purchase a white shirt like the ones he had seen others wearing.

The store clerk was pleasant, but firm. “I’m sorry, sir. You cannot buy those shirts. They are a gift when a person reaches a certain age.”

The clerk suggested other apparel — plenty of well-made shirts in beautiful colors were available — but they did not interest the hiker. He left the store frustrated.

Near the far end of his trek through the land, the hiker met a middle-aged woman along the path. Just as all the others he encountered that day, the woman had a look of almost otherworldly contentedness. By this time, the visitor had become annoyed at the serenity he saw in all the people he met. He stopped the woman as she passed him.

“Everyone I have seen here appears to have such inner peace,” the hiker said. “Frankly, it’s starting to get on my nerves. It’s as though you think you have all the time in the world. Trust me, you don’t.”

The woman shrugged.  “We have enough time.”

“I don’t know how you could. Look at me. I have no responsibilities, I travel all around the world. and yet I still feel like life it too short.”

“I imagine you have been to many wonderful places,” the woman said. She pointed to a large rock just off the path.  “Why don’t we rest for a bit while you share some of your stories?”

“I wish I had the time,” the hiker said. “But I have a mountain to climb.”

“Why must you climb it now? Is this your last day?”

“My last day?”

“I have seen other people like you. Not a lot, but a few. They hurry on the last day of their life like they are in a race.”

“It’s not my last day, I assure you,” the hiker said. “I’m still a young man, and I have a lot more to do in life. Besides, how would I know if it were my last day?”

The woman sat on the rock to rest. She rubbed the calves of her legs, which were much weaker than when she was a young woman. “We all know our last day in this land,” she said. “For some of us, that day is quite close. For others, the day is well in the future.”

“How can you know the day you’ll die?”

The woman shrugged. “We just do. We are born knowing.”

“That explains the shirts I saw,” the hiker said. “You must be miserable to be cursed with that knowledge. What if the time of your death is soon? There is so much to do and see.”

“For most of us, it’s comforting to know when we will die,” the woman said. “It liberates us to live. We can experience life with calmness, because we already know how it will end. Instead of worrying about it, we focus on what happens each minute of this life.”

“You sound like you believe in a life after this one,” the hiker said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so calm about it.”

“I do believe in a life after this one,” the woman said. “But that’s not for me worry about. I know for certain that I have been given this life. No matter how long it is, I make the most of it. That doesn’t mean I have to climb every mountain, though we have many beautiful ones here. It doesn’t mean I have to read every poem ever written, though we have wonderful poets among us. It means I must cherish the life I have.”

The woman stood again, ready to continue down the path.”You seem to be in a hurry to reach that mountain,” she said. “What is the point? If you knew you were dying tomorrow, would you want to be there? Or would you be somewhere else more important to you?”

“But I don’t know when my last day will come,” the hiker said. “What should I do?”

“The same as all of us here,” the woman said. “Love, of course. Love who you are, where you are and those around you.”

“I guess you have already figured out where you’ll be on your last day?” the hiker asked.

“In a place very special to me,” the woman said. “With people I love. I’m going there now.”

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A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.

Budda is staying busy

12 Sep

The Night Budda Got Deep in It is featured by these fine book bloggers and reviewers. Let’s hope it doesn’t go to Budda’s head.

Jenn’s Review Blog

All Things Writing

Crystal’s Book Corner

A little taste of Budda

7 Sep

 An excerpt from The Night Budda Got Deep in It.  At the urging of Blood Mama, a voice only he hears, fifteen-year-old Budda Jessico has run away to Kentucky to find his former foster sister, Addie Starkwether. Budda thinks he’s tracked Addie to a Chinese restaurant where he’s heard “the Starwether girl” works.

Mrs. Wei returned from the restaurant’s kitchen with a small bowl of steamed rice and set it in front of him. Budda now felt even worse. He had seen how much a bowl of rice cost — more than he had — and he didn’t even like rice.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to eat,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” the woman said. “Rice is cheap. Better for you to eat than to throw away.”

She went to the other table to refill their drinks. The man at the table returned to the buffet to pile on another plate with four varieties of breaded or sautéed chicken. He was so skinny Budda wondered where he could put it all. As if to transform his plate into something healthful, the man sprinkled a few sautéed green beans on top of his Mount Leghorn.

Budda didn’t like to be adventurous when it came to eating. His idea of pushing culinary boundaries was trying strawberry instead of grape jelly on his PB&J. Yet, the aromas coming from the buffet table smelled delightful. They reminded him of the Asian dishes his dad made him try once in awhile, dishes Budda refused to taste. Tiny pangs of homesickness began to creep in, but he blamed his burgeoning hunger instead.

Budda considered the bowl of rice in front of him, concluding it would suffice under the circumstances. He was hungry, and the rice provided an antidote, bland though it was. He dowsed the contents with a generous slosh of soy sauce that turned it into rice soup. He was about to take his first spoonful when a girl with tired eyes came to his table. She plopped down in the chair across from him and began fidgeting with a cigarette and lighter she had placed in front of her.

At first, she didn’t speak or even look at Budda. Budda was mesmerized. For the second time that long day, a pretty girl had joined him at his table without asking. He was going to like Kentucky a lot.

She’s trouble, Blood Mama said.

You think everyone’s trouble.

I don’t think it. I know it. She could be the reason our girl’s in a fix.

The girl made it clear from her blasé mien that her eight-hour shift was plenty tiresome enough without having it further dulled by a negative number like Budda.

“You the one looking for me?” she asked, making it clear from her tone that she didn’t care one way or another.

“No,” said Budda, who was loath to say more in case she really was as much trouble as Blood Mama believed.

The girl rolled her eyes the same way Budda often had seen Addie do when his legal parents gave an answer she considered asinine.

“My boss said a kid was here to see me,” the girl said. “After taking an exhaustive survey of all three customers in here, I’ve come to the conclusion you are indeed the only kid in this haute cuisine establishment.”

“I was looking for my sister. Addie Starkwether,” Budda said. “I apologize for not making myself clearer.”

It was a misunderstanding he found quite acceptable. Even though her hardened indifference was a bit off-putting, he would be content to sit at the table with the girl the rest of the night. She was around the same age as Addie, though prettier. Maybe even prettier than Baresha. She smelled wonderfully clean, too. Budda guessed she must have been scrubbing something with a bleach cleaner. Someone should make a perfume with bleach, he thought. It seemed so obvious he wondered why no one had thought of it before. Maybe he would develop a bleach perfume when he got older.

“I’m Kevin, and I came here to find her,” he said. He wanted this girl to know how much trouble he had gone to so far, thinking that might impress her. “I rode a bus from Missouri all the way to Louisville. Went across Illinois and Indiana. And then I hitched a ride to Valkyrie. That part cost me 20 bucks. Then I asked around a couple of places, and I was told Addie might work here.”

“You were told wrong,” the girl said flatly. She rifled an evil look at her boss, who stood at the banquet table, eavesdropping while agitating a pan of stir-fried tomatoes with a serving spoon to keep them looking fresh. “You got a Starkwether, all right, but not the right one. I’m Ellie, Addie’s cousin. Louise over there has been here half her life and she still can’t understand English.”

“It’s not her fault,” Budda said, not wanting to get Louise in trouble with her kitchen help. “I didn’t know Addie had a cousin. I just asked for the Starkwether girl. I didn’t think about there being more than one.”

Budda wasn’t disappointed to learn that he still had some more to do to get to Addie. He knew Ellie would have to know exactly where she was, because Addie had talked about how close the Starkwethers were, and how they kept an eye on each other.

“Maybe you could call and tell her to come here? My phone battery’s dead.”

Ellie fidgeted even more with the items in front of her. Ever since the meddlesome yahoos on the Valkyrie city council forced through the smoking ban, she’d been headachy and ill-tempered at work. The Weis didn’t give her nearly enough smoking breaks. Screw it. She was going to take one anyway.

“I’ve got to suck me some nicotine,” she said as she stood up. “Come on outside, and I’ll explain the situation to you.”

Ellie had the cigarette lit before they made it out the front door. She began to relax immediately. It wasn’t so bad smoking outside where she could enjoy the fresh air in her lungs.

Exhaling a plume of smoke, she asked, “You say you’re looking for Addie, huh?”

Budda nodded. He was momentarily less interested in finding his sister than watching this girl put her lips around the cigarette. Even the smoke couldn’t overpower the smell of cleanliness about her. He would from then on see her in his mind when he smelled bleach. But he had to get that out of his mind, because that wasn’t what brought him to Valkyrie.

“I just need to find Addie.” he said.

“She’s inaccessible at the moment,” Ellie said, blowing a plume of smoke upward.

“Inaccessible in what way?”

“The kind where she can’t be accessed.”

Told you so.

Ellie sized up Budda, but she couldn’t make him fit as Addie’s brother, even a half one she didn’t know about. Addie had moved with her mom a long time back to Missouri where her mom had an aunt or some such. Ellie hadn’t heard anything about Addie until she showed up back in Valkyrie a few months earlier, broke as the day she was born. Addie didn’t talk much about all the years she’d been away, and it didn’t matter enough to Ellie to ask.

“I guess her mom got knocked up with you after she left here,” Ellie said, going with the most obvious possibility.

“Addie’s my foster sister,” Budda said absently. “How long before she can be accessed?” He began to think Blood Mama was right about Addie needing help.

Ellie took a long drag, and then exhaled the smoke in bits like a chugging train as she answered. “I wouldn’t hold my breath. Could be awhile. Sorry you came all this way for nothing.”

This here girl’s a lying liar. She knows where Addie is, all right, Blood Mama said.

Am I supposed to just accuse Ellie of lying? That’s not going to make her too happy, Budda said.

You’re thinking with the wrong part of your anatomy. You’re not here to make this girl happy. You’re here to save your sister.

P.S. Order the book here. Seriously, please do. Winter’s coming.

Budda is ready for his closeup

13 Aug

The Night Budda Got Deep in It, a novel, is now available for your enjoyment. 

Fifteen-year-old Budda Jessico would first have to be noticed to be unpopular. Instead, he leads an unremarkable and anonymous life in suburban St. Louis where he lives with his over-protective father and his bullying older brother.
At the urging of Blood Mama, a voice only Budda hears, he catches a bus to Kentucky to rescue his former foster sister, Addie. As soon as Budda reaches Louisville, he goes to a McDonald’s for the first time in his life where he meets the resolute Baresha, a fellow runaway on her own adventure. Then Budda’s mission to find his sister goes awry. He hitches a ride to Valkyrie, Addie’s hometown, in hopes of saving her from some danger Blood Mama won’t reveal. Instead, Budda encounters her blood kin, led by the ominous Odyn Starkwether and his violent brother Dickie.
A drug shipment controlled by the Starkwethers has disappeared and so has Addie. The brothers have a mess to clean up, and Budda is soon in the middle of it. At first, Budda goes along willingly, if it will help him find Addie. Before long, though, Budda realizes it’s sometimes better to stay put.
Available at Smashwords in all digital formats.