There’s this thing called the Hero’s Journey, which is not the same as driving to El Paso with three kids in the back seat. It’s a type of story that is found in many different cultures at different times in history. In recent years Joseph Campbell explained it extensively. It’s sad that he’s dead now, but at least he can’t tell me I’m wrong about everything I will now say.
Most movies and many books leave out the best part of the Journey!
Every Hero’s Journey has certain parts that always come in the same order. For example, one of the parts is Refusing the Call. It shows up in Star Wars: A New Hope, which is the Real Star Wars Movie.
Obi Wan: “You must become a pilot, Luke.”
Luke: “No, I’ve got to fix evaporators and stare at the desert while my theme music plays.” (Refuse the Call)
[Then the Empire barbeques Uncle Owen and Aunt Maru]
Luke: “I guess I’m going after all. Sell the speeder!”
People often use the Real Star Wars Movie as an example of the Hero’s Journey because it shows the steps so clearly. For example, three of the last steps in the Journey are:
The Ordeal (destroying the Death Star)
The Road Home (flying back to the luckiest moon in the universe)
Return with the Elixir / Prize / Weapon / Magic Horse / Hope for the Future / Whatever (Luke getting a hero’s medal from his sister, which really gives the rebels new hope—until the next movie, which starts on a planet so cold they wish they’d die)
Yet the best part is left out—the Resurrection. It comes after the hero has bitch-slapped the bad guy and hit the road for home, but before he returns with the prize (not a toy unicorn). It’s the last challenge, often unexpected, that threatens to destroy the hero and everything he loves. The Real Star Wars Movie doesn’t have it, but the Lord of the Rings books do. (Peter Jackson left it out of the movie.)
When Frodo comes home to the Shire, it is being destroyed. He (and some of his very tall buddies) fight and save it. Frodo commands the defense as if he were a mighty lord, or maybe a squatty king. He is transformed from the hobbit who started the journey.
The Resurrection is where the hero is finally transformed into his new self by everything that’s happened on his journey. He becomes worthy to bring home the prize. The prize Frodo brings home is peace. You just don’t have time to put that sort of thing in a movie. It’s probably the first thing you’d have to cut.
My wife and I dig Ghost Tours even though neither of us has ever seen anything in the least supernatural. We like enthusiastic tour guides, especially those playing costumed characters with conviction. We’ve ghost-toured in lots of cities such as New Orleans, Nashville, Boston, Edinburgh, and Inverness.
Savannah claims to be the most haunted city in America. A slew of websites say it’s pretty darn haunted, which is a recommendation. So, last week when we visited Savannah with family, we weren’t leaving town until we enjoyed a ghost tour.
A ghost tour in a hearse. Cool!
Along with my wife’s brother and his wife, we stood on the curb at 10:00 p.m. when the hearse pulled up as scheduled. The guide was friendly, although he looked kind of like he’d driven there straight from rehab. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, so a costumed character performance was out.
The tour folks had cut windows into the sides of the hearse and mounted eight seats where the dead people used to go. The plastic seats could have come straight from an elementary school cafeteria and were mounted on posts. They bobbled around like one of those coin-op rocket ships in front of a grocery store. We did have seat cushions. Well, we had large-ish kitchen hot pads laying on the seats. Safety clearly came first, since we had seat belts—three straps bolted to various spots on the floor. No two straps matched up to create a full belt.
If we had been t-boned, we’d have hurtled around like seeds in a cantaloupe dropped off the Tower of Pisa by Galileo.
This could all have been very bad. However, my wife and I arrived looking for reasons to be entertained. The tour provided a quite modest number of reasons to be entertained, so it’s good that we jumped on and rode them like they were Secretariat.
Our guide stopped at The Pirate House, disembarked, and stuck on a Halloween costume pirate hat. Then he gave us ten minutes of readings from Treasure Island and some ghost stories, throwing in a little Pirates of the Caribbean accent one out of every five words.
That was not the highlight of the tour. But it was close. He was enthusiastic. We were entertained. We found reasons.
After another hour of riding around listening to ghost stories, we reached the highlight of the tour. We stopped to visit a windowless concrete block building that housed a little collection of curiosities. I mean spliced-together mermaid skeletons, creepy newspaper clippings, a stuffed river otter, and so on.
The tour highlight: a two-headed turtle, an albino raccoon, and a picture of the Sacred Hairy Family of Burma, all right next to one another. Entertained. Reasons. Ride them like the wind.
My wife despises things that beep. Whenever a blackout ends, her first recovery checklist item is reprogramming every beeping thing in our house so that it becomes a non-beeping thing. So, when our security system randomly began beeping at me Wednesday night I knew right away that it would bug her when she got home. That was literally my first thought. I had walked halfway through the house before wondering whether somebody had broken in to steal our collection of four dozen unmatched coffee mugs.
Well, the system wasn’t sounding an actual alarm. It was just beeping the way it does when a door opens, telling you to watch the cat sprint outside and fall over in the dirt. I felt confident about diagnosing keypad error messages, and this one was easy since it just said to call the alarm company. I examined all the control keys, but none looked like it would connect me straight to the alarm company, as if the keypad were also the bat-phone.
Out of the universe of things that can be known, I have not learned many. But I have learned not to manipulate an electronic security system by randomly pushing buttons and hoping that something good happens. I’ve never seen it done successfully, even in spy movies where people fly airplanes sideways all the way through empty buildings and live. I called the alarm company.
The nice alarm lady told me to push Cancel twice to make the beeping stop. Then she had me push a different button, which gave me a “Low Batt” message. Beautiful. I just needed to change the backup battery. I knew we had the manual, because my wife keeps a kitchen drawer full of manuals for every household system, appliance, tool, and piece of electronics we own. It sounds terrifying, but because of her organizational skills, I had the manual in my hands within seconds.
The battery was the size and weight of a big, shiny, black brick, like something you’d throw through a window at a black-tie riot. I slid it out, ordered a replacement, and was watching TV all relaxed and smug when my wife got home.
At midnight the security system started beeping again and woke us up. I figured maybe I should have hit Cancel twice again after I took out the battery, so I did that.
At four a.m. it beeped again until I hit Cancel twice. Perhaps I needed to reinstall the dead battery, so it could keep the seat warm for its replacement. I did that. The beeping had pulled my wife out of some horrific nightmare, the nicest part of which was being trapped in a car that was washed away by a river of blood. I am not exaggerating. She lay awake while I slept until eight. That’s when the system beeped again. I hit Cancel twice.
We studied the manual the next day because there’s got to be a setting for this, and I hate to call companies for help before I read the damn manual (unless their keypad message says to). We found a possible solution (that didn’t work), and then another (that didn’t work). We were handicapped by the fact that we had to wait for four hours to find out whether a solution worked. And as crazy as it sounds, we had other things to do during the day, so that limited our trials.
At bed-time we decided to just turn off the beeping functionality. Brute force.
At three a.m. it beeped. I pressed the Cancel button an improbable number of times. “Press” may not be the right word. Ten minutes later the system began beeping again.
I called a different nice alarm lady and explained our situation. She said that the system should only beep every twelve hours, not four. I invited her to wait on hold for four hours to experience the joy of the next beeping with me. She declined and said the only ways to stop the beeping were to install a fresh battery (which wouldn’t arrive until Saturday), or power down the system by unplugging it inside the house.
“Yes, power us down! We don’t care about death as long as we can sleep. Where do we unplug it?”
“It could be somewhere in your garage, or basement, or laundry room, or attic. Or in any closet in your house.”
For the next half-hour my wife and I re-enacted the scene from “Practical Magic” in which Sandra Bullock rips up the entire floor of her Victorian house looking for a deadly, chirping beetle. Our scene was less picturesque in that we were throwing around clothes, and boxes, and vacuum cleaners, looking for a fist-sized, gray transformer plugged into a random outlet.
At last my wife spotted three feet of near-invisible wire running down her closet wall, going from nothing to nothing. Her cedar chest squatted on the other side of the wall. It was a brutal, coffin-sized thing holding her entire past, which weighed more than her current husband. We threw everything out, moved it, and tore the dread transformer from the outlet behind it.
The creature was dead. I wanted to snip it off at the wall and dangle it from the mantle by its wires. We went back to bed just before dawn. My wife patted my shoulder and muttered, “My hero.”
Now it’s Tuesday, and our home is once again as secure as the belly of a constipated whale. I’m sitting around with no tangible threats for us to slay, after which I can take all the credit. It’s one of the curses of modern man. Tonight, I will secretly break the clothes dryer so I can look good fixing it tomorrow.
We all know that most Canadians are polite. I now know why. They sublimate their fury. Canadians drive like enraged Mongols. They walk through public places like they were electrons pinging around in a supercollider. I can only confirm that’s true for the ones in Montreal, of course, and only for some of them, but evidence is evidence.
Our hotel in Montreal sits next to the largest mall in Quebec. I mean I could spit on it from my window if I wanted to, and if my window opened. I was surprised, since I had only been looking for a reasonable rate at a hotel that was still inside Quebec. We had gotten into town right in the middle of the Montreal evening rush hour that lasts from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We were tired and snippy, and we just wanted to eat something cheap and fast, then go to bed.
At the mall I realized that only one in fifty or so Canadians is overweight. I now know why. Fast food at the largest mall in Quebec was not a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. It was a small bowl of tortellini that cost the same as a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. I wasn’t getting the same dollar to calorie ratio that I do at home, but I didn’t feel cheated. I felt kind of smug and superior. I drove around and cut people off in traffic for a while, and all the nastiness went away.
These Legos have nothing to do with anything except I saw them in the mall and thought they were cool. The Midgard Serpent is just out of frame to the left.
When I walked into the restaurant last night my feet stuck to the floor. The smell of grease choked me up a little, and I couldn’t hear my wife over the pressure cookers and fans. I assumed the fans were there to keep the sole employee from exploding like a CO2 cartridge in a bonfire.
I decided that I had done something bad without knowing it, and my wife was bringing me to Uncle Nick’s Greek Fried Chicken to punish me.
One of the fun things about visiting other cities is eating at restaurants we’ve never heard of. McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Waffle Houses are everyplace, so why eat at one of them in when you’re in Nashville or Columbus? We don’t like those damn places much even when we’re at home.
In Nashville I picked out a place called the Whiskey Diner—lots of dead cow and single malt scotch. However, my wife leaned heavily towards the Frothy Monkey, a hip coffee house with comfort food. I was skeptical, since we’re not hip, we’re suspicious of comfort, and neither of us drinks coffee. But I agreed to go with her to the Frothy Monkey for one excellent reason: when it turned out to be horrible I could hold it over her for the rest of the trip and achieve the moral high ground, from which I would dictate all future food decisions.
Sadly, the Frothy Monkey served up some pretty fine food. The grilled salmon sandwich did not suck. So, I arrived in Columbus with no record of being correct when she had blown it. When she suggested Uncle Nick’s I said, “Uncle Nick’s Greek Fried Chicken? Sure, sweetie, it sounds great. I’ll pull up the directions on my iPad, without which previous generations must have circled the same four blocks in bewilderment, until they gave up and built a new home on whatever sidewalk they had run out of gas beside.”
Uncle Nick’s had four parking spaces. That was fine, since it had three tables, also sticky. The only thing Greek about the chicken was that it shared a menu with gyros and baklava. The menu also offered family packs ranging up to 200 pieces of chicken with 300 orders of potatoes, which could be the right size for some Greek families I guess.
We ordered chicken from the skeezy guy leaning against the register. Then we waited. We waited some more. A fellow wearing flip-flops came in and picked up bags and bags of food. He might have been the 200-piece chicken guy. My wife was very quiet. Or, maybe she was talking a streak and I couldn’t hear her over all the pressure cookers. At last, Skeezy Guy brought us chicken. This is what it looked like.
Without exaggeration, it was the best fried chicken I’ve eaten in 20 years, damn it. I may not get to make another food-related decision for the rest of the trip.
I am objectively a lousy father. Compared to my father, I am a psychotic crack addict trying to raise orchids in a toilet.
It started with a rose-colored memory of my family’s driving vacations when I was a boy. Swinging through the western states and the national parks. Driving from Texas to the arctic circle and back. That sort of thing. My wife and I had long discussed a trip like that, and we finally decided to do it: Dallas to Montreal and back.
Many lists were made, and my wife declared them good. We packed the necessities, like phones, computers, and some other stuff, maybe underwear. We got the house-sitter, and the person to come in multiple unspecified times a day to check on the cats, and new shells for the shotgun. We packed the night before departure. My wife would no more wait to pack last minute than she would kick a puppy over the backyard fence.
This morning, the day of departure, we loaded the car and did a cat headcount. We came up one head short.
That didn’t worry us much. This cat is a big baby, and he probably hid someplace because we were acting weirder than usual. We checked his usual hiding places. We searched unusual hiding places. We looked behind things and under things, in every cabinet twice and every closet three times. We shook cans of treats and containers of food while calling his name like the kid in Shane. He did not appear.
My wife felt sure he was hiding in some super-secret kitty spot. I thought maybe he had run out when we were loading the car. He could be wandering the neighborhood, dazed with hunger, staggering onto Crazy-Street, the six-lane race track behind our house, to be crushed like a cat-shaped jar of jelly. My fears were valid—we once had a cat that sneaked out the front door and never came back.
We searched the neighborhood. No cat. At last my wife reasoned that the cat was too much of a coward to ever go outside, so we should get on the road. I agreed, but I felt bad about it—like a rotten kitty-dad. We notified the people staying in our house to watch out for the cat and tell us if they saw him.
I pulled the car out of the driveway, certain that our cat was, at that very moment, dodging cars someplace down the block. I drove the other way though, because Montreal is in that direction. After five minutes I couldn’t stand it. I turned the car around and drove home. Our cat was laying where he always lays, on our bed, with a, “Holy shit, what are you doing back?” expression.
As we drove our first leg to Little Rock, I felt relieved and thrilled that our cat was safe at home, thinking bad thoughts about it. But all the way there a voice in my head said, “YOU WERE WILLING TO LEAVE YOUR CAT BEHIND TO GET SQUISHED BY A CAR, WEREN’T YOU? ASSHOLE.”
Little Rock is beautiful. Here’s a picture.
By the way, east of Dallas I found out there are no Buc-ees on the way to Little Rock, and I strongly recommended we go back home.
I’ve been looking for a way to explain how I feel about my father dying. It’s as if I were born on a continent, and I played there, and I grew up falling, and getting back up, and figuring out how I fell. I went back there when I was proud. I went back there when I was miserable, and it was always home.
That continent has fallen and disappeared into the ocean. That’s how I feel.
There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.
At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.
He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.
I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.
A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:
One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”
At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.
My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.
My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.
When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”
I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.
In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.
My wife never came right out and said she was distressed by our house and the fact that I live in it. I only became aware of her distress after years of examining various signs and back-trails. It was like tracking a bear that occasionally walks into your kitchen muttering and flashing grumpy looks.
I couldn’t decide which of my manifold foolish actions she was upset about, so I asked her. She answered. I didn’t understand. Perhaps I didn’t speak bear.
You should know that my wife lives and suffers and prevails according to her list. She has the words “Most Organized Person On The Planet” embroidered on her underwear. One day I noticed that she relaxed a bit every time she crossed something off her list, as if she’d just murdered a family enemy. Maybe that was the key.
I volunteered to help her clear her list, which made her grin. She began to send me on missions. “Strangle the dirty dishes.” “Stab the litter box in the eye.” “Shoot the grocery store in the back of the head and dump it in the lake.” I did these things, and she thanked me. Yet she remained disgruntled. I even began rubbing out some targets on my own, but that didn’t solve the problem.
I gave up. I decided I’d have to spend the rest of my life buying lots of flowers and watching Notting Hill with her an improbable number of times.
Some time ago I began working from home, and then later I began not working, still from home. Every day I was confronted by the items from my wife’s list, or as I now thought of them, “The Enemies of My People.” Whenever I became frustrated or bored I began attacking our enemies. After a while I made it my mission to eradicate them.
That was when my wife smiled. By accident I’d made myself just as accountable for slaying our enemies as she was.
My wife still performs her share of assassinations. We could never deny her the pleasure of the kill. But now she has an ally instead of a flunky. I had never understood why it wasn’t enough for me to just help out. As long as we shared the work and it got done, who cared? Well, somebody has to take responsibility for seeing that things get properly killed around here, and my wife doesn’t want to be stuck with the job by herself.
I know this is confusing, because it confused the heck out of me. Let me translate it into a form more understandable than bear language:
Say you and I go in 50/50 on an Chevy 429 V8 engine so we can rebuild it. We plan to put it on blocks and start it up once a day to hear how badass it sounds. As we work, every time I’m done with a tool I just leave it laying on the garage floor. Soon you’re tripping over wrenches and pullers. You justifiably chew my ass out, but after that I only pick up a tool when you specifically tell me to. You yell at me some more, and I finally begin picking up a tool on my own once in a while. But mainly you still have to tell me.
What am I?
I’m a lazy pain in the ass, that’s what I am. And I will be until I take some responsibility for the damn tools getting picked up. It’s not about how many tools I pick up. My job isn’t to pick up tools. My job is to make sure tools aren’t laying around on the floor, and that’s your job too. Then nobody has to get their ass chewed.
So, I stumbled onto that whole realization entirely by accident. It makes me happy, because I now have a happier wife, and because I expect to be watching Kelly’s Heroes on many future occasions instead of watching Notting Hill.
My mom passed away exactly 2.54 years ago today. To mark this anniversary I’m sharing a brief anecdote from her life, one involving violence, drunkenness, profanity, and murder. Incidentally, this explains a lot about my behavior.
Mom always detested one of her brothers, mainly because of all his lying, mooching, drinking, and screwing around. The rest of the family apologized for him and said it was because he’d been in the war. Mom said no, he’d always been a mean, no good bastard.
As a young man, this lying brother suckered someone into loaning him money to build a beer joint. A beer joint was a little bar where people drank beer, danced and engaged in unfortunate shenanigans. There weren’t many places in town to socialize, and the alternative was church. Most everybody hung out at beer joints.
One night Mom and some friends were hanging out at her brother’s beer joint. My not-yet-married father was absent, but he heard plenty of first-hand accounts later. My lying uncle got as plastered as Versailles, and he started knocking his wife around. Mom picked up some object (no one remembers what) and cold-cocked her brother with it. He was not entirely flattened, so turned and slapped his assailant. Then he saw who he’d slapped.
In my father’s words, “That’s when he knew he’d made a fatal mistake.”
Although petite, my mom proceeded to excoriate not just her brother but every other person in the building. She employed screaming, obscenities, moral outrage and physical intimidation to ruin everyone’s good time, followed the whole way by her brother who was crying and begging to be forgiven.
Dad arrived at the beer joint a little while after the calamitous blow had landed. There were no cars in the parking lot. The lights were off, and the door was locked. Mom had chased everyone out and closed the place down. It didn’t open the next day. In fact, her brother left town for a while, and his beer joint never opened again.
Mom had murdered it.
During her lifetime Mom told me this story two or three times, corroborated by my dad. Not everyone can say they’ve single-handedly slaughtered a place of business, and she told this story with lots of amusement. As well as pride.