Day Whatever – Things Break but There’s Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving, and we’re back from the great monarch adventure…

Although I wrote most of this post on the road, lack of internet and electricity kept me from finishing until now, so I’ll cover several points from the last two or three weeks. Some reconstruction ahead.

 


Nov. 16th – So says a receipt in my pocket, acquired after writing most of this passage. One week after election day.


I think part of living long enough to claim adulthood is to embrace the truth that everything’s broken or in the process of breaking. Bob Dylan said it and I affirm it. Here he goes, from ‘Oh Mercy,’ that lovely and underappreciated Daniel Lanois-produced album from 1989:

Broken bottles broken plates
Broken switches broken gates
Broken dishes broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken.

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

I’m sitting in a car dealership sipping wifi while they change the truck’s oil and I race against my bluetooth keyboard’s last remaining battery charge. Last remaining because my keyboard, like many delicate things I’ve forced to travel a long, bumpy road, has received a blow from which won’t recover. For the moment though, in spite of its busted charging port, I have juice to blog.

What can I say now, though, thirty-odd days into our adventure? With the bulk of our beautiful trip complete, we now return north to cold weather in a world that just shifted on its axis. Funny. The broken keyboard just spelled out ‘shitted on its axis’ before I corrected the typo. Fair enough.

On Election Day

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By way commentary on the election, I’ll let Dorothy’s morning-after statement lead off because no one can call too much foul on preschooler politics: “Let’s not make breakfast because Donald Trump might come and eat it all up!” I guess she has the gist of it. We’re still trying to convince Dorothy that we didn’t vote for Trump. The idea of majority is a tough sell to an egocentrist under the clearest circumstances. Here’s us trying to explain it to her:

When two people want to go out for sushi and one person wants to go out for pizza, you have two votes against one, and two’s more than one so everyone goes out to sushi. Right? Even though mommy and I voted for Hilary Clinton, a lot more people voted for Trump than… well actually… Hm.

So, I’ll wait on explaining the electoral college. I’ll also wait on explaining the full reasons for my anger, sadness, and disgust. As a Christian I’m ashamed of evangelical Christianity’s support for this man. It confounds and maddens me. For a while I likened Trump to a Bond villain, then an Austin Powers villain, and then… my friend Alex gave me the perfect correlative: America, through its votes or lack thereof, just chose for its leader a Paul Verhoeven villain. Like this evil guy from Robocop. Remember him?Robocop

Like many others I find myself searching for what right action I can take now. What’s reasonable to do in an unreasonable situation? Another friend of mine, Joseph, is a minister who went to Standing Rock for five days just before the election. We spoke on the phone about it. Joseph’s one of my favorite people: a former atheist who received a full ride to Union Seminary in New York (the famous US digs of everyone’s favorite anti-autocrat, Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

At Standing Rock Joseph saw tribal elders leading people in prayer, keeping vigil around a fire kept burning since August. This is one small part of their protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline, but an important part. He described a scene of protesters who didn’t act out of desperation, but from reliance upon prayer. Even though the tribes admit they’ll likely lose this cause, their grounding in prayer gives them a sense that they’ve already won. They’re connected to something greater than their circumstances, greater than the macings, beatings, and rubber bullets doled out from local law enforcement.

Joseph said the elders had this response when he asked how his community could help: (my paraphrase) “Money, a truck, food – they’re helpful, but what we need most from you is prayer.” I talked to Joseph about that – how even as theists, he and I usually look for immediate, practical solutions. We fret. We grasp for a right action, wondering if we’ll make an irreparable mistake. Right action is necessary now, of course. I don’t condone inaction or anything that looks like apathy, but I was moved by the simple idea that right action can be grounded in the broad, sturdy peace of prayer. Peace that’s victorious even in the face of defeat.

“This is what we try to do in church,” Joseph chuckled. Along with practical social/political justice, yes, that is what we try to do. I’ll try to do it better.

img_9840In my office I have a little prayer station filled with a few items of remembrance: A picture of my grandma, a little wooden dolphin brought back from Bali by my late brother Quentyn, a copy of Sarah’s wedding vows – examples of love given to me. Last year before Otis died, he sometimes sat there in my lap. In the quiet we’d watch a candle burn down, his little hands upturned in mine, and I’d say a few thank-yous. It’s a ritual I miss sharing with him, but I do get to share it with Dorothy. I think we’ll start Thanksgiving that way.

Traveling On


Nov. 23rd


Now that we’re back home I’ve spent the last couple days repairing lots of those little trailer things that broke over the course of five weeks. So far I’ve been very successful, and that’s satisfying. I try to know my limits, though.

Last Friday, on our last day of travel, a wheel bearing went out on the trailer in a burst of smoke and sparks. It happened just five miles south of home on I-205, rush hour. What are the odds? We were able to get off the freeway and leave the trailer overnight near an office building since we couldn’t find anyone to tow it. After piling our things in two cars, one belonging to Bonnie, my beloved mother-in-law, we drove the last five miles home sans-trailer and slept in our old beds. I say ‘old beds’ and not ‘real beds’ because the trailer became a very real home for us these last five weeks. The cavernous space of our house feels alien and pretty ridiculous. Dorothy couldn’t even find the bathroom, and we’ve lived here two years. But back to the trailer: After calling a number of places I finally secured the help of Wayne’s Mobile RV Repair, who came out and replaced the R-Pod’s ruined lefthand drum and bearings. Thankfully the axle was fine and we got away from it all for a few hundred dollars and no wasted time from me trying to do the job myself. I do love experts.
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My work over the next few weeks should be exciting as I compile all the trip’s photos, data, and rough draft pages for use in The Guidebook. I also have a meeting coming up to discuss partnership and scientific fact-checking with the Xerces Society, who lead the march to protect and restore monarchs across the country. It’s great fun to start piecing everything together after five weeks on this latest trip and five years since we first set out to gather resources for this project. I know there’ll be plenty of days where I throw up my hands because making books is hard, but I feel fortunate to have so many creative resources gathered up just waiting to be pieced together.

Thank you for following along on this journey with us. Updates from the road were sometimes sporadic, but that’s the nature of adventures. I have so many other tales to tell – monarchs at Hearst Castle, waterfalls in Big Sur, building a lego trailer in a trailer. For now I’ll leave off on this memory which seems like a good shorthand for the whole trip:

Near our southernmost point, Dorothy and I took a daddy-daughter day to explore Moss Landing’s estuary in our inflatable kayak – a Czech-made Gumotex Solar 410c, for you gear-junkies. After we suited up Dorothy with life vest, sparkle skirt, and a bow strapped over her torso, she declared, “No one’s going to mess-up with me.” That’s right, girl.

We put in and paddled for two hours, seeing in that time dozens of sea otters, sea lions, pelicans, barnacles (absurdist Dorothy’s favorite, of course), and more. The kid never complained or declared boredom: A new stage for us in boating. img_9619After this we slogged ashore on a muddy bank at about noon. We slung our hammock between two cypress trees and ate a veggie-heavy picnic lunch chased by Dorothy’s Hello Kitty jelly beans, which she shared with me. Miraculously, she does love to share. Then it was over the sand dunes to the beach for archery practice on monster heads made of sand. When we returned to our boat the tide had gone out enough that we couldn’t paddle back, so I ended up shouldering vessel and gear the last quarter mile back to camp. A small price to pay for our fun.

And I guess that’s the gist of my experience out on the road – things broke, or the tide went out, or they elected a Robocop villain for President, but these things were the least of it all. The riches outweighed them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
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Day 16 – Monarch Central, Santa Cruz

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The Monarch Grove, Natural Bridges, San Diego.


 

Casa LatinaLeaving Berkeley on Tuesday we caught lunch at a great little Taqueria – Casa Latina on San Pablo Ave. Seems to me they’re all great once you get deep into California. This one was outfitted with a table for Day of the Dead remembrances: candles, bread loaves, and sugar skulls with names of the deceased spelled out in purple sequins. Dorothy asked if there was an ‘Otis’ on the table, but there wasn’t. We did later see his name on a street sign as we pulled into Santa Cruz. And that’s where we found one of the largest Monarch groves on the coast.monarch trail

If you grew up in Santa Cruz, maybe the thousands of overwintering monarchs wouldn’t seem so impressive. The Cases, however, were impressed. Monarchs come to Santa Cruz every October and stay over til spring. They’re generation 4, the special ones, built stronger and with greater life spans than generations 1 to 3 combined. This is all so they can travel from far northern territories to this tiny part of the earth they’ve never seen before. Here they will survive the winter, reach their postponed sexual maturity in spring, them push north again to bring on the next generation of migrants.

img_9299No parent ever communicates with the monarchs or guides them in their mission, at least in any way humans understand. We don’t know how their navigational intelligence works, but we believe it includes knowledge of the stars, the sun, and the earth’s magnetic fields. Whether genetic or mystic, there’s a driving command in the monarchs that endures beyond their lifetimes. Maybe that’s why native peoples see in them the spirits of their departed. Monarchs bear not only a consciousness that overcomes death, but an unmatched grace and boldness even in their frailty. In spite of my family knowing the butterflies’ link to the Day of the Dead, our arrival on that very date to their winter home at Natural Bridges was pure serendipity. We’ve made no reservations on this trip, planned few plans, and really just let the wind blow us south. We felt that something greater than us had worked to time our arrival. Inside the monarchs’ eucalyptus grove Sarah and I could only stare up in silence and watch them. She shed tears for Otis. I held her and thanked God for another moment of awe – never sufficient, but a little healing.

More Connections

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After lingering in the grove and absorbing what we could, we traveled outside of town a few miles to camp on some distant relatives’ rural property. Our host, Luke, whom I’d only met earlier this year at San Diego Comic Con, told us that my brother Quentyn had camped in our spot years ago. Like Otis, we lost Quent too soon a little over four years ago. He was 42. Before bed we lit a candle for Otis and Quent and thought of what it might be like if they were sharing some time together. I think they’d be well matched. Both handsome brown-eyed men, both lovers of machines. Otis might teach Quent to just embrace his sensitivity already, and Quent could teach Otis how to write – something he did well but never showed me during his life.

The truth is that even though I believe in God, I’m less and less sure about life beyond death. I don’t know anything about it and I don’t trust anyone who claims certainty. I do know, though, that there’s mystery beyond mystery, and reason behind what seems impossible. Monarchs navigate to places they’ve never seen or heard about with confounding confidence. If they can do it, I suppose I can keep my little faith for now, and hope that more will be revealed in time.

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Day 14 – Victory on Albany Hill

Albany Hill

Yesterday, in the eucalyptus trees on top of Albany Hill, I saw monarchs. This was in spite of my timing being early for their arrival in this particular part of the Bay. It was a definite high point in my journey to bring The Guidebook to life, and one of many small miracles I’ve encountered on our trip.

Until last night I’d only seen one monarch in the wild, this summer on top of Portland’s Mt. Tabor. I’d just finished the day’s work on my rough draft from my mobile hammock+notebook studio. At the moment I closed my notebook I looked up and saw it fluttering ten feet directly over my head like a little spirit come to say, “Yes, grown man. You may perform your work in the woods, in a hammock. Good idea.” I watched the monarch for two or three minutes before it shot west down the mountain. I chased its shadow through the leaf canopy for a few paces before it glided into a clearing, across a road, and out of sight.

Historically, I really try not to force meaning from these moments. I want to tell the truth as best I can, even through the complete fabrications that are my books. Then along comes this year with its tragedy upon tragedy and I find it just a little easier to embrace the big pile of schmaltz that’s inside me. If I have to find gratitude in impossibly awful scenarios (and I do have to), acknowledging the miraculous in very small moments becomes natural.

Last night, when I finally found migratory monarchs on Albany Hill, there was no clear message like that time on Mt. Tabor. mexico day of the deadStill, I have to claim a growing bond to these creatures and all the mysteries they embody. Butterflies are a symbol across world cultures for those who’ve died before their time: Soldiers in war, lovers, and lost children. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is rich with monarch iconography. Even Shigeru Mizuki, Japanese master of manga, recounted a spiritual experience with butterflies in his autobio and history of Japan, Showa. A vet of WWII, showaMizuki tells in one chapter of his return with war buddies to a South Pacific island and an old battlefield covered with decades-old bones from dozens of Japanese soldiers. After a restless sleep in the jungle, Mizuki and his friends share with each other that they all had the same nightmare: the bones rose to ask them why? Why did they return? How did they deserve to live? Shaken, the men decide to gather all the remains they can find, anoint them with sake, and hold a makeshift funeral. After praying over the bones for a time, they’re shocked to see butterflies pour out of the jungle from all directions, then descend to cover the bone pile in a blanket of living color. Were they just attracted to the sake? Were they the movement of spirits? Shigeru asserts the latter. I think I would too.


Photos from Albany Hill, ordered to give you an impression of my hunt:

albany hill cross

I don’t think it was the random giant metal cross that prompted it, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill, I prayed for a monarch. I’d spent a few minutes circling and climbing the park with no sign of any flying insects whatsoever, maybe thanks to the thriving robin population. But… robins don’t eat monarchs.

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This little one appeared moments later, maybe sixty feet above me. I thought this might be the best photo I’d get. I lost the butterfly in the trees, then spent about ten minutes circling the hilltop looking for more. I gave up, grateful for the brief sighting, and headed back down towards my car…

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When I saw another! Just down the hill the same way I’d come up. Again, far off, even with the telephoto lens.

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Closer, but not better.

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I took a few dozen wasted pictures as I tried to follow one, then two butterflies through the tree limbs. Finally:

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Some color! Blurry, but now most definitely a monarch. Then I saw this:

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A whole cluster of them!

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Two clusters! Just 15 – 20 feet above me.

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Then another flash of orange…

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Then a slow fanning of wings. A gift.

With night about to fall, I celebrated this victory with a Japanese dinner accompanied by a giant Sapporo beer. Just me, Shigeru Mizuki, and the memory of two dozen little miracles.

Day 12 – Get Rhythm

the rhythm rig

Now on day 12, the Cases have established trailer life rhythm. Roughly: Comics, eat, hike. Eat, drive, eat. Comics, read, sleep. Sleep more. Repeat.

The sleeping portion came easily. With Dorothy to bed at 7:30 PM, we’re never far behind. Everyone more or less sleeps ’til 7:30 AM barring obedience to my 5:00 AM work alarm clock. Obedience has happened, twice. Taskmaster Jonathan wants a reasonable defense for that behavior, and I do have one… The quality and quantity of my dreams on this trip trumps early morning productivity. I haven’t dreamed big technicolor d
reams like this since college and they’re much better creative fuel than the spoils of un-rested critical thinking. Someone in an old Italian art-house movie (La Dolce Vita?) said people who talk about their dreams are bores, but they were just trying to sound cool. No one writes better dialogue than dreams.

In spite of my justified lazing, work on The Guidebook progresses at a steady pace. I’ve gathered field data for about 50 locations according to my plus-sized Garmin watch, monarch mapand I’ve filled notebook #1 completely with rough draft pages. I look forward to this weekend and our arrival in Alameda County, where we just might start to see Monarchs in the first of their overwintering sites. Santa Cruz is a more certain bet. Either way we’re very close, and we get to spend most of our remaining travel time in monarch territory. Just look at them there on this migration sighting map (thanks to learner.org). East of the Rockies they’re lousy with monarchs, but in terms of our Western population, the Bay Area’s the place to be.

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Dear Creature HCSigning at The Escapist Comic Book Store – OCT 29

Another upcoming event, also in Alameda county, is my Saturday signing at The Escapist Comic Book Store. Dear Creature’s hardcover edition is the main deal, but they’ll probably have a smattering of my other work, too. Looks like the trade of Superman: American Alien just topped the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels, so…what else can I say? As one of the six contributing artists on Max Landis’s retelling of Superman-history, I’m one sixth of a yooge deal. Come get yours signed. Get a quick sketch for free if you’re a kid or really nice. Whatever you do, if you’re in Berkeley on Saturday at 1 PM, come say hey.

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Speaking of motivating a turnout: What do you think’s required, decoration-wise, to invite trick-or-treaters to a trailer door when said trailer’s parked on a random Bay Area street? Probably depends whether we’re in the Tenderloin or Haight-Ashbury.

I’ll let you know!

Sanity Strategies

Last night we discovered an incredible method to keep energy-riddled Dorothy from tearing apart our trailer’s interior on a dark and rainy night. Sarah asked her, joking, if she wanted to go outside and run around the trailer a few times.

“Yes!” said Dorothy.

We geared her up with her raincoat, rubber boots, and my headlamp and scooted her outside. I asked her, just before shutting the door against the elements and my child, if she could do 10 laps around the rig. She did, pausing only to comment excitedly on her progress or the imaginary obstacles she avoided (a forest of pooping butts was the standout). I really didn’t think she’d make 10 laps, but she blew past every expectation. Visible only via the satellite orbit of her headlamp, Doro’s running monologue bounced passed my window a full 100 times before she reentered the R-Pod, soaked and elated with victory.

She says she’s going to be an astronaut. Sarah thinks maybe a proctologist.

She probably has a good shot at both.

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The Guidebook

The Guidebook Splash

Today I want to share a very little bit about my next book. As we travel the west coast, dodging raindrops and making memories, I’m also gathering data and reference material for a young readers graphic novel, The Guidebook. Here’s a snapshot from my proposal:

To survive in a world where mammals are nearly extinct, a little girl named Elvi and a brilliant naturalist, Flora, must follow and protect the monarch butterfly migration.

It’s 2260. Solar radiation, now lethal to mammals, has forced humans into underground bunkers while nature overtakes cities, roads, and landmarks. The only eight-year-old girl lucky enough to roam free on Earth’s surface is Elvira Jones. Flora, Elvi’s adoptive mother, is a brilliant naturalist who discovered a chemical in monarch butterflies that allows mammals to live in sunlight again. Against the wishes of important people, Flora escaped her bunker with a few supplies, a pigeon named Thoreau, and the only person she couldn’t leave behind – Elvi.

Now Elvi and Flora follow the western monarchs from north to south on America’s Pacific coast. Flora wants to make enough medicine so that every human can live above ground again. Along their adventure, Elvi and Flora rescue a mysterious baby boy, navigate considerable mother-daughter drama, and overcome a threat from five men who want control of the monarch’s secret. Elvi reflects on these and more important moments (like getting bit by a weird bug) in a journal she calls “The Guidebook.” Elvi’s journal pages pop up through the comics narrative to serve as a field guide. Sort of like Flora’s fancy naturalist textbooks, but much more fun.

On every page or two, in the corner of a landscape panel, there are coordinates and a compass heading. This allows readers to follow Flora and Elvi’s progress through real places and even travel their exact route themselves.

So we travel with Elvi and Flora. We’re in our travel trailer rig and they’re in an imaginary, heavily modified 1988 Toyota van (my dream rig – the one that never dies, even in a far fetched-future scenario). Our routes overlap as I map their fiction to our stops from Florence, OR to Big Sur, CA and beyond. These are the tools I use to merge our travels:

watch and compass

The big watch-like thing on my wrist allows me to get coordinates. It’s early 2000s’ tech, but it was cheap, it’s durable, and it gets the job done. The little compass on the right gives me a rough heading towards whatever view I take in. Once I double-check these numbers, I tuck them into the corner of a Guidebook drawing and add in my fictional details… In the example below, I put Elvi and Flora’s adventure van and an old driftwood stump I used to climb on as a kid in Pacific City, OR. Elvi hangs on it there in her red hammock.

The Guidebook

Adventure calls us down the road again now, so I’ll leave more details for later. We’re currently in Arcata, CA, headed towards the Avenue of the Giants – a place where my dad marathoned back in his wildman running days. After that, it’s further down the coast toward the monarchs’ overwintering turf.

Can’t wait!