Stranger in a stranger land

For me, Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is familiar territory that looks, well, unfamiliar. At first, anyway.

The show, released just last month, felt like going home to the odd township that’s made up of the type of stories I love the most. But watching it also reminded me I hadn’t paid a visit for some time.

See, it’s rare to get a story like this. Years can pass, and I tend to forget that quality of this caliber isn’t mythical.

That didn’t last long.  Eventually a portal yawned open in the ethereal fabric of space-time and the familiar came seeping through the doorway like a fungus from another dimension, smothering the unfamiliar, drowning it.

Until I couldn’t remember leaving this place.

Set in 1983, “Stranger Things” follows the story about a young boy named Will who disappears from his Indiana home, the search to find him, and everything his friends and family find in the dark along the way.

When we first meet Will, he’s invested in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, torn between blasting a dungeon squatter with a fireball or throwing up a forcefield.

“Will. Your action,” dungeon master and pal Mike demands.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Fireball him!” fellow adventurer and pal Lucas chimes in.

“I’d have to roll a 13 or higher,” he says. (Note: actually a semi-tough feat on a D20).

“Too risky. Cast a protection spell,” Dustin, the final member of this charming quartet, says.

Flustered, Will impulsively rolls for the fireball. Dungeon Master Mike’s mom breaks up the game, though – lame – and we never get to see the result. Later, as Will bikes home, he is pursued by something; a creature that creaks and groans like a door hinge and staggers drunkenly through shadows. Will runs. His escape ends in a shed behind his home. He loads a gun left inside the creepy workshop and points it at his pursuer. There are no friends, no adventurers to consider this time. Just him. He’s all fireball this time, no doubts.

You shall not pass.

But then he disappears.

Police, led by the town’s brooding Sheriff Hopper, begin a search. Will’s mom and brother – understandably – don’t think it’s good enough.

Will’s trio of remaining friends pursue their own search. They find help in the woods. It’s a young girl clad in a hospital gown who frowns often, speaks rarely, and is on the run from some very bad people. She has no name, so the boys give her one, based on the number she has tattooed on her skin. Eleven, “El” for short. El can do terrifying things.  She has powers, but they drain her quickly. She’s a telekinetic iPhone 5S, basically.

(El is also a Hebrew word for “god” or “deity,” by the way. But I’m sure that’s just coincidence.)

And so the story goes. All search parties start to figure things out along the way. Someone has flipped a table and destroyed a puzzle, and everyone concerned with finding Will begins to re-assemble it in their own separate corners of the room.

This is “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me, “X-Files” and “It.” It’s “Alien,” “Close Encounters,” and even a little bit of “E.T.” It’s a story about misfits and losers fighting dark things and regimes in horrific dungeons. It’s a story about fireball spells and protection spells, why both and more are needed in combat such as this.

Fictional stories like that matter to me. They are reminders of potential. They encourage loyalty and bravery, even (especially) in the darker moments. Filmmakers like Spielberg, Richard Donner and Ridley Scott seemed to have an ironclad grasp of that in their 70s and 80s flicks. I rooted for their characters. I was horrified and sad when they died or were in peril. The makeup and effects were frequently pretty goofy, but you could tell these artists cared deeply about every second of celluloid they printed on.

“Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer bring the same meticulous obsession to this project. They love their characters, their story, their humor, their darkness and light. They seem to feel privileged and honored to make what they’re making.

And, according to one story, they never compromised.

I rarely love TV. Movies are easier to love, I think. They don’t require as much of a time investment. Five times out of 10, TV shows fall on a scale of completely solid to “meh, it’s fine.” The other 4.5 times, it’s boring or a dumpster fire. But every once in awhile, I get something special: a “Breaking Bad” or “True Detective.” A story that seeps into your bones like summer heat with characters you swear you know from somewhere.

“Stranger Things” is there now. I didn’t recognize it at first, but sometimes the best things sneak up on you.

Either way, it’s good to be home.

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I have a new hero; she’s nine

When she’s of the appropriate age and comprehension, I’m going to tell my daughter about Hilde Kate Lysiak.

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard about her. Yet. In 15 years you should probably feel bad. Or disconnected. Something. Point is, she’ll be a household name and you’ll be behind if you aren’t familiar with it, if it doesn’t bring to mind a face and ferocity.

I just heard about her this morning. A Washington Post story that ran today tipped me off about this single-digit dynamo, this Lois Lane who can’t drink, vote, drive, or even work legally yet.

According to Post crime reporter Tom Jackman, Hilde is 9 years old. She lives in Selinsgrove, Pa., a 5,000-person town that’s about a 45-minute drive north from the state capitol.

She also might be gunning for Jackman’s job. She’s already getting scoops. Like real honest-to-God scoops on real honest-to-God news.

From the piece:

“Lysiak got the tip early Saturday afternoon that there was heavy police activity on Ninth Street. She hustled over with her pen and camera, as any good reporter would, and soon she posted something short online, beating all her competitors. Then, working the neighbors and the cops, she nailed down her scoop with a full-length story and this headline:


The online story not only beat the local daily paper, but she also included a short video from the crime scene, assuring viewers that ‘I’m working hard on this investigation.'”

Hilde isn’t a lucky one-hit wonder. The 9-year-old has covered crime, government, and features. They range from murder to possibly rabid skunks getting shot in alleys, to the goings-on at mundane local government meetings. The pieces get published at, and in a print version. She also has a Facebook page where she posts her stories.

Hilde caught this bug from her father, a former reporter, who helps. Her older sister also contributes an advice column. But don’t be misunderstand, the rest of the words are all her.

“I’m the only one who writes the Orange Street News,” she says in the Post piece.

The comments on her posts are mostly positive, but trolls are like gravity: ever-present, always trying to bring you down. Hilde’s story has proven they sometimes will take shots at 9-year-olds doing cool things.

From the murder story post:

“Hilde, I think this is appalling that u would do a story like this when all the facts are not in yet. Have some respect for all parties involved please.”

“I believe they call this type of reporting sensationalism.”

The vast majority of Hilde’s readers have stepped to her defense, given her kudos, encouragement, etc. Not that she needed it. In a video response to her “critics,” Hilde reads some of the criticism out loud, then gives a general response. You can also watch the YouTube file right here.

Here’s the knock out punch.

“If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”

Apply ice to burn. This kid buys her sass and wit at Costco in bulk, apparently.

I hope Hilde keeps it up. Doing something you love that is also constructive and betters a community of any size is a hard combination to nail down. Continuing to love it in the face of haters with WiFi – especially when you’re NINE – is even harder.

So props to you, Hilde. Keep giving ’em hell and never apologize.

(Unless you get something wrong in a story. Then you should do a correction.)

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A tale of two Superbowls

Two years ago, I glared at my friend’s expensive TV and imagined hurling knives and bricks and live grenades through the screen.

I can explain.

I’d just watched the first play of Super Bowl 48: the Denver Broncos’ mistimed snap that resulted in the ball sailing over the head of a wide-eyed, unprepared Peyton Manning and a safety after running back Knowshon Moreno fell on the ball in the (wrong) end zone. About 12 seconds had ticked off the clock and the Seattle Seahawks were up two points.

I absorbed the disaster from a chair, decked out in orange – except for my face, my face was actually a devilish, crime scene red – as I tried to convince myself I was dreaming. Wake up, Ryan.

Wake up. Pinch. Pinch. PINCH.

My phone started chirping: Facebook notifications, texts.

“Oh man, Pfeil. #FirstPlay,” my friend Sara wrote.

“Ryan, are you watching this right now?!” my sister-in-law’s husband chimed in.

If you watched that Superbowl, you know nothing improved. The Seattle Seahawks turned that field into a wasteland of craters and mangled Broncos; a cavalry charge that got bombarded by an air strike. Final score: 43-8. For a guy who’s bled orange and blue since he was a kid, it was torture.

There were a lot more transmissions from “friends” and “family” throughout the course of the game. I have half a dozen relatives who live in Seattle. My wife’s aunt and cousins live in Puyallup. I have friends in Portland. Most of them wrote to me at least twice: gloating yarns with plenty of laughing emojis and LOLs.

I spent the next day or so in self-imposed exile, said almost nothing to anyone. Encouraging co-workers got grunts and forced smirks. Food didn’t taste right. Sleep eluded me.

And there was no one I could turn to, either. I wasn’t in Denver or Colorado Springs, couldn’t just point at a random stranger on the street and profess my pain. I was alone in my misery. My posse of Denver fans are, for the most part, almost 1,000 miles away (as the Seahawk flies).

About a week removed from Superbowl 50, I’m reminded of that dark day in Mile High City history. It seems appropriate to reflect on it, considering the opposite just happened. Broncos win, baby, 24-10 against a tough-as-nails Carolina Panthers team that was two games short of a perfect season.

I weathered the two weeks between Broncos’ AFC championship victory against the New England Patriots and the Superbowl in survivalist mode. I devoured the analysis because I don’t know any better. Their outlook was close to unanimous: Carolina wins. Offense is too good, defense is too stout, Manning is too broken.

Remember that disaster two years ago? They seemed to say. It’s going to happen again; another cavalry charge, only this time they’re going up against predatory cat tanks.

Still, part of me believed. I had to. I was Lloyd from “Dumb and Dumber” when the woman he loves says there’s a one in a million shot that they’ll ever be an item.

His response: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

Game day rolled in, and I wondered how long I could hold my breath. Then things started happening. Denver didn’t blow the first snap. They scored…points on the first drive. Yeah, a field goal, but still. Then Von Miller sacked Cam Newton and ripped the football out of his hands, which led to a defensive touchdown as a scream my 1-year-old was not a fan of erupted from my throat.

There wasn’t much Miller didn’t do that game. He was crowned MVP in the end, and rightly so. He was more vengeful poltergeist than human. Denver went home with their third Lombardi trophy.

There were no grunts for co-workers from me the next day.

This life of delusional feasts and famines, of mood sometimes being predicated on something so silly, is horrific. But some days this degree of loyalty to well-paid strangers – whether they all but die in a Seahawk-led airstrike or emerge victorious from a ground war with Panther Tanks – doesn’t feel like a choice; more of a tattoo. A choice in the beginning that’s there for life that, at best, fades slightly over time.

Together forever because.

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For Christa

Thirty years ago, my mom wept for a woman she had never met but admired fiercely.

The tears were delayed. Shock came first, that sudden and utter onslaught of disbelief over something horrific that’s occurred that somehow makes the world move in slow motion.

The woman, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher on a star trek.

She was one of seven aboard a space shuttle dubbed “Challenger” bound for outer space that rose and rose and suddenly became a horrific mosaic of fire and smoke as CNN cameras rolled.

McAuliffe, a high school teacher and mother from New Hampshire along for the ride, was preparing to be the first teacher and civilian in space. Her mission was to communicate with students once she arrived in orbit.

She died in the disaster. So did the crew’s other six astronauts: mission specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick, payload specialist Greg Jarvis, pilot Mike Smith, and commander Dick Scobee.

There’s an eerie, boogie man silence that follows the initial blast. You can hear muffled moans in the background. (Mission Control? People watching in horror from the surface?) There’s also the consistent hiss of radio static that sounds like a skipping record in a haunted house, but nothing substantial.

I have to imagine people at mission control just stared for a few moments, in complete disbelief at what they had just seen.

My mom heard about it on the radio as she drove 2-year-old me to preschool. We were on our way out of Gleneagle, a suburb just outside of Colorado Springs, when the news broke.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” my mom says over the phone 30 years later.

She’s on her way to a doctor’s appointment when I call. Not for her; for my new nephew, TJ, a 9+ pound heartbreaker who’s not yet a week old.

She tells me how 30 years ago – then in the presence of another slightly older baby (me) – she stopped the car when she heard the stunning news. Our neighborhood sales office was across the street, so she ran in to see if they had a television. They didn’t.

“I said, ‘Well, you might want to turn on the radio because the Challenger just exploded.’ And the woman said to me, ‘Is anybody hurt?'”

A silly question in hindsight, but I get it in the moment. No one is prepared for tragedy on that scale.

My mom left, took me to preschool, and traveled back home. She watched news of the explosion the rest of the day, cried here and there.

It wasn’t just because of the crash. It was the thing it reminded her of, too. Seven months prior, her brother Larry died in a plane crash while racing gliders over northern California. Still-healing wounds reopened. Tragedy marks its territory well.

“You kept telling me ‘It’s OK’ and ‘Are you OK?'” my mom says.

Again, I was 2. I wonder how effective or therapeutic my words could have been.

There was, of course, the similarity my mom had with one of the crew, with Christa. Until very recently – maybe a year – my mom’s professional life has revolved around education, specifically English and literature. She’s good at it. Her Facebook wall is consistently peppered with comments and messages from past students saying hello. The fact that a teacher – and a mom – had died in this disaster brought it that much closer to home.

For my mom, it also was a reminder of just how vulnerable we are; just how dangerous this business of riding missiles into space can be.

Christa McAuliffe was exceptionally brave to have stepped aboard voluntarily. She had the soul of an explorer, always looking up and out and unafraid.

The era seems different now. Our interaction with the great beyond is much more robot-inclusive. The Mars Rover program. New Horizons. Etc. We’re still exploring, still curious, but we’ve got expensive, meticulously built heaps of wires and servos doing most of the legwork. That’s great. Wonderful in fact.

In the midst of their missions, let’s just not forget who came before them. People like Christa McAuliffe paved the way.

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My ‘Star Wars’ isn’t ‘Star Wars’

My buddy recalls being 5 with crystalline clarity. One day, anyway; a two-hours-and-change period that’s burned into his brain.

“You remember that day?” I ask him on the phone.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

Even over the phone I can hear gears clicking in his head as he drifts back in time almost 40 years to 1977. That’s the year “A New Hope,” the first Star Wars movie, was released. That’s the year my buddy became a franchise fan, the year he saw his first movie in a theater.

It’s not just a vague memory, either. It’s a recollection collection. When the Rebel Alliance’s blockade runner sprints through space, chased by a Star Destroyer, he remembers wondering if the chase lasted the whole movie. When Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are trapped in an ever-slimming garbage compactor with some godless slithering swamp beastie, he remembers being scared and looking to his dad for reassurance.

When – spoiler alert – the Death Star explodes seconds before its nuke laser turns Yavin 4 into a memory, he wanted to cheer. What 5-year-old boy doesn’t want to cheer when the good guys win, really?

“I was sold,” my buddy says. “I was definitely a Star Wars fan from the moment.”

I’m telling you his “A-New-Hope-In-The-Theater” story because I don’t have one of my own. I didn’t exist when my friend took a journey to a galaxy far, far away. I came along six years later. My first movie in a theater was “Follow That Bird.” As in the Sesame Street movie.

See, I watched the “Star Wars” movies on VHS on a TV smaller than my work computer monitor. It was in a childhood pal’s basement during a sleepover. No thudding sounds pummeled my eardrums, no larger-than-life images of X-Wings and Y-Wings duking it out with TIE Fighters took up my entire field of vision. This was a placemat-sized screen in a basement.

That’s how people in jail watch “Star Wars.”

Of course I still loved it, but upon reflection, I didn’t get to experience it like my buddy did. My consolation prize was the dreaded trifecta of prequels, the goofy ones with too much CGI and terrible acting and this shrieking pit beast who must not be named.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend’s introduction to Star Wars and how it compares to my own a lot this week for a couple reasons.

The first is obvious: a new Star Wars movie dropped this week, and it’s neck in neck with Donald Trump for most-discussed news topic.

The second is because of a movie that has nothing to do with Star Wars. Here, look:

The trailer for “Independence Day: Resurgence” was also released this week; a poor choice in timing, in my opinion, overshadowed by, well, you know. “The Force Awakens” has become a geek black hole this month, angrily devouring any other nerdy stars that try to shine.

But overshadowed or not, I appreciated it. That’s because the first “Independence Day” was my memorable theater moment, the ironclad one that’s buried so deep it’s practically part of my DNA.

I saw it on my 13th birthday with my dad, basically my go-to guy for epic sci-fi flicks because he’ll listen to me blab about absolutely everything I thought post-credits roll. He’ll even chip in his own thoughts, draw comparisons, point out the points where the filmmakers “borrowed” from authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov and Philip K. Dick. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to aliens and lasers and giant ships that can leap between stars before you’re done blinking, and it’s fun to ruminate out loud with him.

Like my buddy’s 5-year-old self, I remember being affected by “Independence Day” on such a fundamental level that I was afraid to blink for most of it. It’s massive. MASSIVE. The alien ships. The wanton leveling of cities. The dog fights between F/A-18s and funnel clouds of alien fighters.

My dad agrees.

“The scenes of those things coming into the atmosphere and then settling over cities…that was new,” he tells me. “It was like ‘2001.’ It was something new for me.”

There are quite a few characters, but screenwriters Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich develop them all beautifully. Moments of darkest-before-dawn bleakness are balanced with cramp-inducing humor.

It’s stacked with homages to other classics that came before it, winks directed at “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Footfall,” and “War of the Worlds” (duh on the last one). Among others.

Then there’s this speech.

Sorry, Trump/Sanders/Clinton/Cruz, et al. This speech ruined presidential candidates and elections for me. Can any of you give a speech like this? Didn’t think so. Move along. #BillPullman2016

I think plenty of those of the Nerd Persuasion have near-and-dear movies like these, those bigger-than-life cinematic hurricanes that pounded them into the ground and set the tone for what kinds of stories they love. “The Terminator.” “The Matrix.” “Inception.” Not meant to be viewed on a TV you can wrap your arms all the way around in a muggy basement, but on house-sized, bright screens you can see just fine from the nosebleed seats.

People like us all have our “Star Wars” to bear, even if it isn’t actually “Star Wars.”

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Sentimental reunion

I keep crossing paths with her.

She’s a hellcat; 70 years young and doesn’t look a day over 30. Elegant and sleek. Men and women are drawn to her. Her honesty is refreshing; she lets people right in. No secrets. An open book.

Her dreams: big. You could say she’s got her head in the clouds. Superman ambitions.

Her voice: booming. Volume-wise, she cranks it up to 11 when she’s off and running; think of an army of chainsaws blasting through a titan’s megaphone in a tight space. It’s not her fault. You can’t cage a personality like that.

They call her Sentimental Journey. It fits. She’s a flying museum that takes you from A to B and back again.

Here’s her picture.


We met in 2009. I was over the hill in a town called Klamath Falls, employed by another newsroom. I’d just wrapped writing a series of stories called “Letters From War,” which chronicled the stories of veterans from a variety of conflicts as told through the letters they wrote and received to and from home.

The first installment in that series told the story of Ralph Kesling, a B-17 bubble gunner who was a Nazi prisoner of war for two years, of the man who saved him.

My first interview with Mr. Kesling was not to be my last encounter with him. A year later, we boarded Sentimental Journey and took a 15-minute flight over the Klamath Basin.

I wrote about that, too.

It was a nice ride. Ralph looked out the window. He looked comfortable and lost in thought.

We landed. I shook Ralph’s hand and haven’t seen him since. Sentimental Journey flew back into the clouds.


Six years, a new job, a wedding and a 1-year-old later, I’d forgotten her name. She was just some airplane I met someplace that gave a brave man something to smile about.

Ages ago.

I was on the hunt for stories. We had blank space to fill. I saw a B-17G Flying Fortress named Sentimental Journey was coming to Medford. I wrote a few words to let people know it was en route and filled some of that blank space.

I suggested taking a ride in it for another story because why wouldn’t I? My editors took pity on me and said yes.

I told my co-workers about my first flight in a B-17, left out the detail about my second imminent jaunt being the same plane.

Because I didn’t know. It didn’t occur to me that this 36,000-pound hunk of metal and I are tethered by some kind of fate-laced gravity.

As before, I made the flight with a former B-17 gunner, and as before, I wrote about it. I also took pictures and made a video.

You were looking pretty good, Rogue Valley. I have to say.

That story ran today, and it wasn’t until I saw it on the page that something clicked. I looked back at my old story. Ironically, the Google search took me to a version that had been picked up by the Associated Press and run in my hometown paper in Colorado Springs. Weird.

Sentimental Journey is here all week. I may take my wife and daughter to check it out. Either way, she’ll be gone by Sunday, back into the skies as she travels to her next destination and continues her mission of teaching history and veteran appreciation.

Guess that means our respective orbits won’t collide again until 2021. My daughter will be in second grade by then. I’ll be 38. Almost 40.

I wonder how many WWII veterans there will be by then, how many former B-17 gunners will be able to appreciate the roar of the props and the delicate tiptoe one needs to adopt when walking around such an aircraft so as not to fall on your face.

Maybe a visit every six years is the least I can do.

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In ‘N Out reminds me of a dark, betrayal-ridden time

I was a sophomore in college the first time I was abandoned by people I trusted.


It was a Saturday in Ashland. I came out of my bedroom to an empty house.

The house was 78 N. Mountain St., a pleasant 10-minute walk from Southern Oregon University’s campus. Four other guys lived there. I walked up a winding staircase to drop off our rent check every month. I always wrote it and got paid back.

I wrote all the checks actually: garbage, utilities, cable. A small whiteboard next to our house phone – yes, we had a house phone; with voicemail and everything – detailed who owed me what. Very professional and sort of “Rain Man”-ish.

That morning – the morning of my betrayal – that whiteboard didn’t have dollars-and-cents amounts scrawled across it in dry-erase chicken scratch. There was a message instead: “Went to Redding to get In ‘N Out.”

Redding. As in Redding, Calif. As in a 2-hour, 11-minute drive from our driveway to the popular burger joint’s parking lot. Close to 140 miles one way.

I ate dry toast and drank garbage coffee and stared out our window. I envisioned my roommates Bunion, Spigot and Drywall – their names have been changed – in the car as they took an early morning drive; how they probably watched the sun rise and counted down the miles and listened to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on repeat.

The joy in their faces as they ordered: “Double Double, Animal Style, please. With fries. And a strawberry shake.”

The taste. How they probably savored. Every. Bite.

All but forgetting me. Unaware of just how long the aftertaste in the cheap instant coffee we had lingered.

They came back and we laughed. LAUGHED. Wasn’t that funny, Ryan? Wasn’t that funny how we didn’t wake you up and went on a mini road trip to get tasty food without you?

This happened 12 years ago. More than a decade. We’re all married now. At least half of us have kids. We say “hi” on Facebook from time to time.

But I guess memories of betrayal can’t stay buried, what with the opening of a new In ‘N Out in Medford this week.

Weird how the time Drywall, Bunion, and Spigot didn’t shake me awake to go on a grand quest to get tasty treats still resonates so richly that it hurts.

Did you know betrayal tastes like dry toast? Like instant – likely expired – coffee?

No, I’m not OK. Maybe someday.

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Origin Story: First meetings and lack of warning labels

Dear Bethany,

I want to tell you about two memories I have of you. One I treasure. The other is a cautionary tale.

We’ll start with the treasured bit, open this on a positive note.

Ice & fire 

Almost a year ago, quite unexpectedly, I froze.

The icy blast was momentary and swift, that space between heartbeats. It was the first sight of you that brought it, appearing all at once and looking so small – God, nothing could be so small – and confused and vulnerable to everything.

My shell, my carbonite fortress, melted just as quickly. Your tiny lungs heaved, and some kind of battle cry launched out. The sound itself  was an arsonist. It spit fire at my heart and set it ablaze. Then the ice melted, cascaded downward in a splash. To most, it would have looked like tears.

It’s been almost a year since that finger-snap battle of the elements raged; almost 365 days since my daughter appeared and froze me and set me on fire in the space of a breath.

Head clash 

I haven’t stopped thinking about this scene since last week. That was when you cracked your head between my eyes so hard I saw stars.

It was sudden and vengeful and brought on by rage, the seein’ red kind. Your mouth is getting more and more crowded with new teeth, and frankly, you hate it. I can’t fault you for it. Being stabbed in the gums 20 times in slow motion over the course of a few months is enough to rile anyone up.

Your mom and I were trying to calm you down, but you just had it. I had no chance. You squirmed and writhed and swung. Our foreheads met and bounced. Stars nova’d. The assault set you to crying and left me a mess of pain-stricken moans while my brain screamed for a damage assessment.

It was something you hadn’t done since you were a newborn, since you’d gotten control of your neck and stopped your head from occasional unprovoked attacks on mine.

But here we were again, kicking it old school; you, tired and hurting from teething, and me, trying to shake off the Ronda Rousey ka-pow you’d just landed on my face as I came to grips with the fact that an 11-month-old just beat me up.

“Just wait.”

It’s a study in contrasts, these two incidents: a joyous first meeting and a horrific medley of pain and confusion.

That will be the format for however long it is I have the pleasure of your company, I think, Bethany: chaos, beauty, chaos, beauty. It would be irresponsibly naive of me to think it’s going to be all puppies and rainbows, but it would be woefully glum of me to think it’s going to all head butts and crying.

It’s going to be both. All the time. Sometimes it’ll be hard to tell what’s what.

The intensity is going to build, too. I’ve known that. Family and friends whose kids are grown just keep affirming the inevitable with vague horoscope doom-and-gloom statements.

“Just wait,” they say after I tell them a more chaos-focused story about you. “Just wait.”

I get it, I do. Like any video game worth its salt, the challenges we will undoubtedly face will just get harder and harder. The bummer is that there’s no YouTube walkthrough or forum I can visit to get tips on a particular level that just stumps me.

For teething babies, see pg. 18. (Read also: “Choosing a helmet that’s right for you.”)

No such thing. I’ll just have to keep learning by doing, I suppose, figure out the angles without surefire absolute solutions from professionals. That’s daunting. There’s a comfort that comes with consumer warnings that say things like “may headbutt” or “will set your heart on fire and make it swell to its absolute limit.”

But Bethany, there’s also a kind of purity to not having any idea what you’re doing, to having God laugh at your plans.

It’s freeing in a way. You get blank pages in lieu of an instruction manual, ones you’re responsible for filling up. Those pages will be packed by the end, filled with eraser marks and crossed out words and ink smudges. A disorganized collection of notes and doodles that’s actually a story.

“All The Times I Wasn’t Ready”: The Ryan Pfeil Dadding Chronicles.

It’s far from over, but if I had to write a dedication right now, it would look something like this:

To my daughter, who prepared me to be unprepared. 

Happy first birthday, Bethany. The word to describe how much I love you hasn’t been invented yet, probably never will be.

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Pop quiz: Why do people keep sending me shark videos?

Pop quiz! Great white sharks:

a) Can reach speeds of 25 mph

b) Can grow up to 20+ feet in size

c) Have a bite force of close to two tons

d) All of the above.


It’s d. Congratulations to those who passed. The rest of you get out.

I’m not kidding, get out.

Thank you. Now that THEY’RE gone, let’s talk about the subject of this pop quiz a little bit. That and how my friends and family are conspiring against me and want me to lose sleep.

I don’t know where my fear of sharks started, but it really does feel like it’s always been there. I don’t think it’s something I acquired. There was no single “Jaws” viewing that kept me away from pools for three weeks, no close calls with stabby teeth traps while surfing.

This fear of mine is DNA-deep. My genetic helixes are built from nasty maws and deep water.

And before you jump on your “Actually-Did-You-Know” soapbox, yes, I’ve read the stats. I get that sharks confuse us for seals and actually don’t like how we taste that much. I understand toilets, buckets, and room fresheners injure more people each year than sharks do.

Here’s the thing: that logic has always reeked of men made of straw to me. Because yeah, anything can hurt you. My daughter went through a head butt phase when she was three months old. I stub my toe probably thrice weekly. One time my friend Mitch bit into a pepporcini, which sent a sniper shot of the vegetable’s fluid right in my eye.

Those things aren’t PURPOSELY DESIGNED to kill. Sharks, on the other hand…well, think submarines with teeth. Actual sea monsters. Chomp Torpedoes ®. ♫ They eat you while you drooooowwwwwn. ♪

We on the same page? Good.

My family and friends understand my hyper-sensitive dread of these beasts. And in classic friends-and-family fashion, they MAKE SURE I know about about every attack that gets on the news. It’s practically science at this point, their reactions.

Take this doozy of an attack, actually caught on camera at a recent surfing competition.

Pop quiz! How many people sent me that video over the course of about two hours?

a) 1

b) 2

c) 3

d) 4


Again, d. And again, the rest of you get out.

I’m an easy target when it comes to this, I get that. “Sharks petrify Ryan, ergo, we show our tough love* by sending him horrifying videos of them.”

*palatable hate

But if this practice MUST continue, coordinate. Family members, friends, and enemies with letters A-M can send me digital nightmares Sunday through Wednesday, the N-Z crowd Thursday into Saturday. Something like that. This current system feels like getting the same office memo from 10 different bosses. And they all have their caps lock keys on.

My point is that everyone could be so much more efficient about this. Streamline, man. Tighten your belts. You wanna devote this many mismanaged resources to the same goal? In this economy?

Food for thought. (That’s what sharks say when they see smart people in the water, by the way.)

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Team Pluto

Here’s a distance to consider: 7,750 miles.

That’s almost 300 marathons. About nine round trips from between Medford and Seattle. Just over 31 percent of the Earth’s total circumference. (I was Googling A LOT this morning.)

It’s also how close an earthling spacecraft came to Pluto this morning; a stone’s throw in space terms, “just down the street,” as they say in Texas.

The NASA New Horizons mission has been a decade in the making. Here’s its purpose, per the NASA website:

“New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.”

“Dwarf planet.” (Why not call it Gimli or Sneezy, then?)

There is actual, concrete controversy over what to classify Pluto as, much of it due to its orbit and location in the Kuiper Belt. In some ways the debate is the same as arguing about presidential candidates on Twitter or determining which of the original “Star Wars” films is the best, where a definitive answer is impossible and discussion dies a horrific death, replaced by a shouting match instead. Garbage discourse, fueled mostly by volume and caffeine and broken caps lock keys.

I get it but I don’t. Science is a fickle mistress when it comes to what’s what. Things that were definitive 100, 50, 10, 5 years ago have changed, maybe multiple times. Just look at nutrition. Hell, just look at whether eggs are good or bad for you.

But think about what’s at the center here: whether or not one giant, meandering space sphere is different from eight other meandering space spheres because of *Charlie Brown teacher drone.*

This is probably the curmudgeon in me talking, but leave Pluto alone, man. You don’t even have to make it a planet. Who cares if it doesn’t blah blah and blah blah?* Make it an Honorary Member or something. Don’t revoke its membership. We’re better than that.

* – Rough translation

Nostalgia and tradition have everything to do with my stance. Like most early-30 and late 20-somethings, Pluto was part of the full Solar System Package, the cherry on top of the planetary sundae. He was the little guy, sort of weird and quiet and doing his own thing. Not really boasting about his violent red spot or beautiful rings or life-sustaining atmosphere, just content to exist and just wander aimlessly.

Maybe Tolkien was talking about Pluto when he said that famous line about wandering and not necessarily being lost. (Go to Ashland and you’ll probably see the bumper sticker on at least three Priuses.)

Even when bored nerds wanted to strip its title, it didn’t fuss. Really it just seemed to shrug and kept on drifting through the icy dark vacuum of space, threw up a peace sign and just kept trucking when our expensive space probe surged past in the star-spotted dark at 30,000 mph.

So, while New Horizons is certainly another scientific feather in NASA’s cap, I hope the stunning image above – actually taken Monday, July 13 when the craft was about 476,000 miles away – reminds the know-hows that even though the far-flung ball of rock and ice is a little different, it deserves to keep its “planet” status.

Either way, the meek shall inherit the Solar System.

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