Stories from my life

In Appreciation of Teachers

Teachers see potential in all of us

Bishop McGuinness

I spoke recently at Bishop McGuinness High School at the invitation of Martha Lawrence, one of the English teachers there.  We had a few moments to chat before my presentation, and of course we talked about our mutual love of reading and our favorite books and authors.  Beyond that though, our conversation provided a refreshing reminder of how dedicated our teachers are, and how the enthusiasm of a teacher for the subject matter he or she is relaying to students can change that young mind forever.  I’m a living example of that.

My third book, The Road to Devotion, is dedicated in part to my English teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia.  Julie Wilson was the first teacher to introduce me to the great American writers; Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Wolfe.  The passion with which she revealed to us the greatness of A Farewell to Arms, Tortilla Flat, and The Grapes of Wrath has stayed with me forever, and no doubt been one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer.

At Wake Forest University I distinctly remember Professor Gary Ljungquist brimming over with excitement as he extolled the virtues of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Heavy material, but he not only taught us to understand it, he taught us to love it.  My English composition professor at Wake, William Moss, urged me to discover the great Irish poets and writers like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and I’m forever grateful for him guiding me toward such brilliance. He explained to me that their works are best consumed while sitting high on a hill in the Irish countryside, something I’ve yet to do.  Add it to the bucket list.

My favorite author, Pat Conroy, often gave credit for his enormous literary success to his English teacher in South Carolina, Gene Norris.  Conroy said of Norris, “my entire body of work is because of men and women like them. “ I can’t imagine higher praise for a teacher.

It is conversations with high school English teachers like Martha Lawrence that remind me of how important those instructors are to young and impressionable minds. They don’t usually receive the credit they deserve.  (Nor the pay, but that’s another essay in itself.)

I am the only member of my family who was not a teacher.  Perhaps there’s still time.

How Is Retirement?

The question I’m asked the most

For the last seven months, I’ve been asked the same questions everywhere I go: “How’s retirement?” I usually respond with something like “Great! I’m good at it!” Truth is, it’s not an easy answer. Even though I was ready to hang up my notebook as a reporter and move into the next chapter of my life, I do miss a lot of things about working in a newsroom. The day to day excitement of breaking news, the challenge of making sure our reporting is accurate and fair, and the pure joy of meeting interesting people and having the privilege to tell their stories. Most of all, I miss my co-workers, many of whom are among my best friends. WXII is filled with wonderful, dedicated people, both on and off the air. I miss the daily exchange of creative ideas, and the camaraderie that only comes with working so closely with people under the intense pressure of deadlines and live television. I still keep up with many of the people at WXII, but it’s just not the same as being there.


How's Retirement?

That said, I’m extremely happy in my new career as a full-time writer. Creative writing was always something I did in my spare time, but when you have a family and a job that often required 60 or 70 hours a week, there wasn’t much “spare” time. Penning a novel used to take me years of late nights and early mornings. Now it’s just a matter of months before I can complete a good first draft of a project. I try to go at it like a regular job, keeping normal office hours and putting in overtime when necessary, or when the spark of creativity hits me and I just have to get my thoughts down on paper.

So far I’ve been able to write a Christmas musical (Welcome to Virginia, which will be performed at Theatre Alliance in Winston-Salem starting November 29th), the screenplay for The Road to Devotion which has been picked up for a movie, and my latest novel, The Sea is Silent, which should be out in just a few weeks. I’ve also completed the first draft of a young adult novel which I’m letting some friends read now. In addition, I’m reading more, especially local authors. I’m so busy, I really don’t know how I ever had time to hold down a real job.

So the while the short answer to “how’s retirement?” is still “Great!”, the complete answer is “I do miss the news business, but I’m as happy and fulfilled as I can be in pursuing my passion of creative writing.”

I look forward to sharing more words and thoughts with my readers!

All the best,

The Run For Your Life

The run of my life

My third novel, The Road to Devotion, is dedicated to my high school English teacher, Julie Wilson. In addition to teaching me many important life lessons, many of which are reflected in the novel, Mrs. Wilson also inspired me to love the great American writers, particularly Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. It was while reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that I first heard about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and from that day forward, it was always at the top of my “bucket list”.  In 2009, I finally made the trip to Pamplona. (More importantly, I made it back.) The following is a recollection of that unforgettable day.

Run for your life


The Run for Your Life

The alarm rings at 5:45 am. It is the day. The day of your dreams, the day of your fears, one of the defining days of your life. It is the day you will find out what you’re made of, and how wide are the boundaries of your limits. The only certainty on this day of all days is what to wear… the traditional festival garb of white pants, white shirt, red sash, and red bandanna, plus the shoes I think will carry me the fastest over the cobblestone streets of Pamplona, Spain.

Dressed and almost awake, I step into the teeming confines of Calle de San Nicolas, barely wide enough to qualify as a street. It’s littered with the empty bottles, cups, and cans of alcohol that the mass of pilgrims consumed overnight and into daybreak to pay homage to Saint Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona. The entire spectacle is raucous and reckless, yet surprisingly romantic.

Few, if any, of the thousands of people I will encounter over the next few blocks has gone to bed. The nine day festival of San Fermin occasionally rests, but it never really goes to sleep. The hour of the day or night has no bearing on the number of revelers jammed into the narrow avenues of the old city, or how loudly the music will be played.

I blend into the growing throng, most of them young Spanish men, as they continue to filter out of the bars and bodegas and make their way into the heart of town.  Testosterone flows as freely as the sangria did the night before as the gathering masses ponder the challenge we’re about to undertake. For many, the historic running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona is a ritual they revisit every July. For many others like myself, it is a once in a lifetime experience that will be savored until our last breath. I am only hoping that my last breath doesn’t come later that morning. I know that at age 51, rarely again will the adventurer who lives deep inside me be able to convince the rational side of me to do something so daring, and perhaps so foolish. I know this day could be life ending, but I’m planning on it being life changing.

run for your life

It is now 6:45, and I have moved inside the wooden barricades that keep man separated from beast during the morning bull runs. As I pace nervously up and down the Via Mercado, I cross paths with a handful of other Americans also traveling alone. I meet Matt, a student at Southern Cal, who hasn’t had any sleep for 36 hours. I meet four 20-somethings from Brooklyn who are trying to reassure their friend Tony that this is not the time to have a sudden change of heart. “Tony, you come all this way! You chicken out now, you’ll regret it da rest of ya life!” Regret. That word tumbles through my mind, over and over. So much of this trip to Pamplona has been about avoiding regret. I never want to be someone who looks to the past and says “if only”, but rather someone who looks to the future and says “what if?”. I have come to realize that people without big dreams usually have small scrapbooks, and perhaps that’s why I find myself in northern Spain on this unique morning. It is truly now or never. No regrets.

It is now 7:30, a half hour before the “encierro” begins. The balconies on the four story apartment buildings that line Via Mercado are filling up with spectators. You can sense their nervousness as they nibble on their buttery croissants and drink their coffee with steamed milk while awaiting the bravado and bloodshed to come. The avenue is so narrow the people on one side could just about reach over the railing on their veranda and borrow a lump of brown sugar from the residents on the other side. I feel somewhat trapped, like the six fighting bulls waiting to be released from the corral at the far end of the street.

Despite only three hours of sleep, I am as awake and alive as I have ever been. Adrenaline is already racing through my veins as I wait, but it is nothing compared to what I am about to experience.

Loudspeakers, circa 1940, crackle from fixed positions along the route. The only words I can pick out are attencion and muerto, which is Spanish for ‘death’. I have no idea what else was said, but that one word certainly captured my full attention.

There are now just ten minutes to go before the first rocket goes off, signaling the release of the 1,500 pound bulls. As I stretch my legs again, I meet Ted from Arizona. “First time?” he asks me, already knowing the answer. With the wisdom that comes only through experience, Ted gives me a five minute primer on how to survive the run, admonishing me more than once that if I fall down, I need to stay down, and cover my head. As we finalize a strategy for getting up Via Mercado to the relatively safer portion of the run near City Hall, he leaves me with this thought… “have a plan and stick to it, but prepare to abandon it at a moment’s notice”. I appreciated all his sage advice. “How many times have you done this?” I asked him. “Yesterday, first time,” he replied. Great. My mortal safety has been entrusted to a complete stranger who has exactly three minutes more experience at this than I do.

With five minutes to go, I suddenly feel very alone with my thoughts. I’m thinking about the people I love and who love me, the people who have encouraged me to chase my dreams, even when those dreams mean running up medieval cobblestone streets. I’m thinking about my mother, who instilled in me the sense of adventure and wanderlust that brought me here, and who taught me to explore new things in old worlds. I’m thinking about my father, grateful for passing along his athletic genes that will get me through this. I’m thinking about my high school English teacher who introduced me to Ernest Hemingway and first planted the seed of Pamplona in my young mind. I also said a prayer, asking God to see me through the morning.

With less than a minute to go, the three or so thousand runners behind me start jumping up and down in anticipation. When the bulls are released, I’ll have about twenty five seconds before the mass of sprinting humanity reaches me, with a stampeding herd of bulls somewhere in the middle of the throng. That’s when I’ll run like I’ve never run before because I know that if I don’t keep up, I’ll certainly be trampled by foot or hoof. One misstep could be disastrous.

Thirty seconds to go and my mouth is bone dry. My adrenaline is flowing even faster than before. The fear is unlike any I’ve experienced, yet the thrill over what’s about to happen trumps any genuine concern over serious injury or worse. Now or never, I whisper to myself. Now is almost here.

run for your life

At precisely 8:00am, the first rocket goes off. The bulls are released. The swirling sea of white and red begins sprinting towards me. In the middle of the charging masses I can see the bulls for the first time, instinctively chasing some enormous domesticated steers in a herding mentality. All I can see are their horns, bobbing up and down as they run. It’s all I need to see. As if someone had ignited a fuse in my brain that then exploded in my feet, I take off running up the incline of Via Mercado, pushing and shoving my way through the frenzied crowd. Within 100 yards, the street suddenly narrows like the passageway between the two ends of an hourglass, and I’m but a single grain of sand trying to squeeze through.

My plan was to move to the outside of the avenue and get as close to the walls as possible. Only now did I realize that this was apparently everyone else’s plan, and I was immediately shoved back into the middle of the street, perilously close to the thundering herd. I had no idea going into this that once you’re caught up in the rip current of churning legs, there’s nothing you can do but try to survive. The next three seconds were a “my-whole-life-flashing-in-front-of-me” blur. I am literally close enough to the bulls to pat them on their coal black flanks if I so choose. I choose not to. What followed was sheer panic, the zenith of my fear, as I turned sideways on the dead run to allow horn and hoof to pass by. I distinctly remember the sound they made as they pounded by, something akin to a runaway stagecoach churning down a gravel road.

Within thirty seconds, it was all over, and the danger had galloped away. I chased after the bulls as they rumbled past City Hall and into the Mercaderes, a particularly dangerous stretch of the run. My heart was pounding as never before, as though it wanted to burst through my ribcage and flee my heaving chest.

Somewhere in all that chaos I found Ted from Arizona again. Like me, he was grinning widely. “We made it!” he yelled as we wrapped our arms around each other and slapped one another on the back as old comrades do. I don’t remember if I said anything through my nervous laughter, but I know I was euphoric. There were people on the balconies cheering wildly for their loved ones who survived, and I was thinking how wonderful it would have been to have somebody there to share it with me. For now, Ted from Arizona would have to do.

The next few hours provided an emotional tug of war between relief and exhilaration. I also felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Not so much for just managing to not get trampled, but for having a dream, and then doing what it took to realize it. In the grand scheme of things, running with the bulls in Pamplona is not a huge achievement, but nonetheless a deeply satisfying chapter in my life story that I will always cherish. I feel as though I stepped to the brink of my personal limits and looked over the edge. I will never be the same again.

I wandered back to my hotel and enjoyed a perfect cup of coffee at the bar as I watched the replay of the bull run on Spanish television. “I can’t believe I just did that,” I mutter to the woman behind the counter. She spoke not a word of English, but somehow she understood exactly what I meant.

I’m exhausted, but not ready for sleep. I have run on the streets of Pamplona, and now it is time to dance on them. The only thing that gets put to rest on this day is that word “regret”.