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Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

Our Choices Define Us

Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $24.

Wolf in White Van is unlike anything I have ever read. John Darnielle plunges the reader into a maze of unsynchronized thoughts and chronologically displaced views. The narrator’s mind is a labyrinth into which he invites not only the reader but anyone willing to join in his mail-in role playing game. The cover does a masterful job of conveying the complexities of this novel to anyone lucky enough to happen upon it in a bookstore. Like the cover, the novel offers no way through the winding tunnels of the subconscious. Darnielle is also the lead singer of the musical group Mountain Goats, and his lyrical writing is displayed in flowing sentences that parallel the novel’s intricacies.

The entire novel focuses on the idea of choices and the effects the choices we make have on our lives. Sean Phillips, the main character and narrator of the novel, begins the journey in the middle of its entirety. There are two tragic accidents in which Sean is involved. One of these involves him directly, where the other indirectly implicates him. However, in both situations it is the choices that Sean makes that deliver the tragic outcomes.

After Sean’s self-destructive accident, he is forced to delve deeper into his own mind. Never knowing if he will ever be able to see or be a part of the world of his body, Sean begins to build an intricate and detailed world in his mind. He calls it the Trace Italian, and it becomes a role playing game that generates enough income for him to live on his own. Sean states, “It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details”. Even as a child, Sean imagined himself as a conquering ruler. “I ruled a smoking, wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, not even its king.” These childhood thoughts seem more than the workings of a child’s imagination. Instead they make us wonder about Sean, and his motives later in the story.

As the game master of the Trace Italian, Sean sets the scene for the characters involved. In a post-apocalyptic United States, there is not much hope for those who plunge into the game. The players mail their moves to Sean and he dictates the outcome of their choices. Sean never killed off any of his players for making one poor choice, but instead coerced them into making better decisions on the next turn. Only after several terrible turns would Sean feel the need to kill off a character. This idea of one poor choice not dooming someone to death seems to have been inspired by Sean’s own accident. The players were searching for a haven located in Kansas, the Trace Italian. Oddly enough, Sean never actually created the place. It seemed as if he never intended anyone to make it to the Trace.

A young couple, mailing their journey to the Trace Italian from Florida, makes the choice to try to find the Trace in the real world. Their decision leads to terrible consequences, leaving one of them dead and the other in a precarious state. Sean is called in to court, to be held accountable for the effects his game had on the young people. Ultimately, Sean is not help responsible, but it does not stop his mind from wondering if perhaps he should have been. Sean talks about one of his players, “I pictured him acting out his dreams in real space, pantomiming his moves in a room somewhere before he wrote them down”. He proceeded to send the boy a scalpel through the mail in honor of one of the boys more courageous turns. Sean even drew comparisons between this particular player and the couple who ended up exactly what he imagined. Certainly, he did not feel that he was completely innocent.

The book deals with the decisions we make and the outcomes that come after, but Darnielle does a masterful job of taking these elements and tangling them in the mysteries of the mind. The structure of the novel is worked so masterfully that both of the horrific events, although taking place many years apart, become both the beginning and the end of the novel. Wolf in White Van is an interesting read for anyone familiar with the intricacies of role playing games. The novel is intelligent, yet very comical in a real way, at the same time.

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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in From the Desk of the Author


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All Quiet on The Wasteland

All Quiet on the Wasteland

All Quiet on the Western Front drops the reader right into the Great War. Here we follow a young German soldier, Paul Baumer, as he takes up a journey of self-discovery. Remarque, through Baumer, allows the reader a glimpse into the young and impressionable minds of the soldiers during the battles of World War I. The text describes not only the atrocities of war but also the hopelessness these men felt. The soldiers struggled to understand the reasoning behind the war, and they also tried to carve for themselves some hope beyond the war. Throughout the novel, Baumer shows his detachment from humanity. Sometimes he likens himself and his fellow soldiers to animals, and other times he understands that being a soldier is something completely different than being a human. Through it all, Baumer realizes his disillusionment and that he will never be the same, no matter how the war ends. Remarque takes a modernist approach in All Quiet on the Western Front which followed the terrors brought out during the war. This approach allows a nice parallel to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? – T.S. Eliot

Initially, Baumer is critical of the male elders. These men called Baumer and his peers the Iron Youth. In response he states, “Iron Youth. Youth! We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk.” (Remarque 10). The recruiters and teachers took something from these boys that they themselves never had to sacrifice. Baumer felt that “they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity” (7). “The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief” (7). The older men, the ones who convinced these boys to give their all for Social Darwinism ideals, had real lives before the war and were therefore more likely to fall back into that rhythm of being. “We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption” (11). Baumer and his friends try to determine the reasoning for the war in Chapter Nine, but in the end they come to the conclusion that “the wrong people do the fighting” (22). They had been deceived by the very people they trusted the most, “And that is why they let us down so badly” (7).

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. – T.S. Eliot

In the terrors of the war, Baumer detached himself from his humanity and instead gave himself and his fellow soldiers animalistic qualities. “By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness” (27). To view the war through an unfiltered lens could drive the men insane, and they protected themselves using whatever mentality it required to survive. “Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us through safely” (65). The way in which these troops were treated lends itself to feeling little more than an animal, an unthinking and reactionary creature used up for the cause of man in his Great War. “They flock together like sheep instead of scattering, and even the wounded are shot down like hares by the airmen” (61). Baumer, himself, recalls, “I feel like a pig” (125). A man can kill an animal without much regret or loathing for his actions, however to kill a man for no reason other than the commands and decrees of unseen leaders is something else entirely.

I had not thought death had undone so many. –T.S. Eliot

To Baumer being a soldier was something far different than being a man, and in some ways one could never be both. His troop, his outfit, and the war began to define him. “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life” (106). Baumer speaks about his uniform and the manner in which it transforms him from a skinny and malnourished boy into something far more intimidating, a German soldier. As the troops press forward into battle, Baumer recalls that they more closely resembled “A column–not men at all”. When he returns home while on leave, he laments, “I used to live in this room before I was a soldier”.  Here we can see that he believed it was impossible for him to be the person he once was. The war had stolen his identity and left only the husk of soldier. “But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world”. In the end, Baumer felt more comfortable on the battlefield than he did in his own hometown. The transformation was complete.

Baumer is detached from his humanity during his time serving in the war. He understands that the war has left nothing for him. He speaks of his mother “Who else is there that has any claim on me but you.” However, Baumer allowed the recruiters and teachers to steal that claim. He is stuck somewhere between youth and manhood. In Chapter One he speaks of not being a youth anymore, yet in Chapter Seven he laments, “I would like to weep and be comforted too, indeed I am little more than a child.” Although Baumer is convinced that the war has rendered him something less than human, his actions while on leave back home suggest something quite different. He denies his mother’s claims that the war is bad with the gas and everything. He swears to Kemmerich’s mother that he died quickly and without pain. All of these things suggest that Baumer has not lost his humanity during the war. In fact, it could be argued that being on the front lines and experiencing death in such an intimate fashion has rendered him more in tune with the realities of what it means to be human. Society focuses on truth, yet truth has no place in the words spoken to parents dealing with the loss of their children. The truth is something cold and calculated, and serves not the individual. In some ways, Baumer’s truth is the war, and he “would swear to anything” to keep those back home from that truth. “We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.”

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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Penn's Diary


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Sight Beyond Sight

Sight Beyond Sight

            Sight is an important idea in the play, Oedipus the King.  There are two characters which most prominently portray the contradicting ideas of blindness and sight. Although Tiresias’ eyes have failed him, it is Oedipus who is blind. Sophocles has Oedipus look down upon Tiresias’ handicap, but Tiresias has knowledge that Oedipus longs to have revealed to him. In his rage, Oedipus cannot see but continues to plunge forward into the darkness of the unknown. His friends and family cannot stop him from his descent into the preordained will of the gods and the darkness which follows. There is a paradox with the lines of Oedipus; Tiresias is blind but represents vision, and Oedipus has sight but cannot see the clarity of his own identity. The two men seem to weave and dance in and out of the confining strictures of blindness and sight, and there are three movements within that dance.

            Tiresias must be led to his encounter with Oedipus, and the audience is forced to understand the misfortune of the poor man. He is forced to be led by a boy. Oedipus initially praises Tiresias.  “Though your eyes can’t see it, your mind is well aware of the plague that  afflicts us. Against it, we have no savior of defense but you, my Lord.” At this point, it is the audience that finds Tiresias lacking but Oedipus who understands the man’s wisdom. As Tiresias refuses to enlighten the king of his own downfall, there is a shift; the audience begins to understand the soothsayer, and Oedipus starts to doubt. The king, who once saw Tiresias a savior, now throws taunts and jeers at the man. “Oh, truth has strength, but you have none. You have blind eyes, blind ears, and a blind brain.”  The first movement, as Tiresias flows from blindness to sight, has taken place.

Oedipus takes up the next movement, as he slowly and painfully cultivates an understanding of his identity. Through seemingly no fault of his own, Oedipus cannot see who he truly is and what horrific acts he has already committed. Tiresias begins to chip away at the stony façade which Oedipus has surrounded himself within. “You are the plague. You poison your own land.” The king’s blindness pushes him to accuse Kreon of betrayal. However, Kreon asks Oedipus to listen and understand reason. The king replies, “I reason in my own interest.” This sort of thinking is what keeps Oedipus blind to the swirling truth around him. It is not until many witnesses have been called and many stories corroborated that the king finally begins to open his eyes. As his eyes opened to the truth, Oedipus cries out. “It was all true. O light! Let this be the last time I look on you.” Oedipus moved from an uncomfortable darkness to an unbearable light as he was forced from blindness to sight.

The third movement takes place as Oedipus makes a decision regarding his newfound vision. The next time that the audience sees the king, he is being escorted by a servant. Oedipus remarks of his blindness, “Darkness buries me in her hate, takes me in her black hold. Unspeakable blackness. It can’t be fought off, it keeps coming, wafting evil all over me.” Although it is clear to the audience that Oedipus is now blind, the horror behind the empty sockets has yet to be revealed. Then, the king tells us how he lost sight. “But the hand that struck these eyes was my hand. I in my wretchedness struck me, no one else did. What good was left for my eyes to see?” There is a clear shift in Oedipus’ way to thinking. He pushed and pressed so hard to finally be able gain true sight. However, when he finally received that vision, he could not bear to keep it. “If I had eyes, how could they bear to look at my father in Hades? Or at my devastated mother?” It is here that Oedipus makes a choice to step back into the confines of the blinding darkness.

Three different movements , all part of the same symphony, accompany Tiresias and Oedipus and bind them in a cycle of blindness and sight. Tiresias’ eyes did not function properly, yet he was able to see and understand the truth of Oedipus. Oedipus was blind to his own identity, yet he forced those around him to bring clarity of vision to him. Upon receiving his much sought after lucidity, Oedipus chooses blindness to the light of vision. Throughout the entirety of the play, Sophocles forces the audience to take a hard look at what vision and blindness truly mean.

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in From the Desk of the Author


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Language and Reality

Language and Reality

            Language is an essential function in every society, and allows us to share our culture and pass on our beliefs. It seems to be known and established that our culture has a direct impact on our language. This understanding of the function of our language is generally and widely accepted among anthropologists as well as in our society. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, however, proposed a different hypothesis which has not been so readily embraced. In their theory, they believed that language could change the way a person perceived reality. We will take a look at a few examples of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and attempt to understand how our lives may be changed if we were subjected to other languages since birth.

Our language can be used as a tool for building our culture. Each culture uses a different set of tools to create the desired impact. In the same sense that a farmer would need a completely different set of items than a fisherman, our languages dictate the type of reality we find ourselves embedded within. Using the example above, it would be hard to produce an effective fisherman using only a farmer’s tools. This is important in understanding the language tools used by people of differing cultures, and exactly how those differing tools can ultimately alter their reality.

Generally, the best way to understand how language can dictate our reality is to take a look at the children of different cultures and languages. A wonderful example of this is the idea of gender specification. Some languages, such as Hebrew, place heavy emphasis on gender. All nouns are broken down into masculine and feminine forms. In the United States, we have some distinction but not nearly to the extent of the Hebrews. In Finland, there is little language to differentiate gender. How could this language affect culture? Middle Eastern nations have the lowest toleration of homosexuality; however, European nations were among the most accepting of such behavior. The results of these statistics could be, in part, due to the language spoken and the effects it has on the reality of those who speak it.

In Hopi culture there seems to be no distinction in past, present, and future events. This is a far cry from our English language and the emphasis we place on time relativity. Our English verbs have tenses, ensuring that we can immediately determine exactly when an action took place. It is not surprising, then, that our people almost seem to be controlled by time. We are in a constant battle with the calendar and clock. Our children’s stories begin with “once upon a time”, and engrain within our young ones an idea that there is a time for everything. We have snack time, play time, bed time and so forth. These children grow up feeling the stress and pressures of such scheduling. The language of the Hopi, however, does not emphasize time in nearly such stringent tones. Imagine a society that was not bound to deadlines or schedules; try to wrap your brain around even a week with no direct effects of time. A Hopi child, as opposed to an American child, does not understand the standing three count that we rattle off to our young. The Hopi child would likely be expected to obey their parent or guardian immediately, not before a certain scaling number was reached. With less focus on time and a strict adherence to schedule, the Hopi are certainly less stressed and rushed than Americans. It is not surprising that Hopi means “the peaceful people”.

Lastly, the idea of numbering in a language is believed to affect the ability of different cultures to identify images. The Yucatec Mayan language allows the noun to remain neutral in regard to number, where English ensures that there is an indication of exactly how many or how much is being referred to. Strangely, this has less of an effect on actual numbering and more impact on how things are described. The Mayans are more likely to refer to an item by its material composition. People who speak English, however, have a tendency to attribute shape to items. Americans want to label everything according to shape if no number quantity presents itself. Our shapes help us attribute number quantities to things that otherwise would not be easy to describe. We have dunes of sand and cubes of sugar; however, the Mayans do not feel the need for such distinction. Also, when asked to recall images the Mayans did not elaborate on the number of items shown in the pictures. On the other hand, the English speaking participants more often offered the actual number. American society is heavy on how much or how many things we can acquire. We have limits on how many fish we are allowed to catch and how many wild animals we are allowed to hunt. There are laws about how many miles per hour we are allowed to travel while on the roads. I imagine Mayan culture and how liberating it must be to be freed from the constant constraints of number and volume.

There is one glaring problem in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; there is no real way to separate the effect of language from the many other variables and aspects of culture. Using our analogy of the fisherman and the farmer, there is no way to know for certain that the tools alone are what define the person as a fisherman or farmer. Could a farmer become a fisherman simply by changing his tools? There are simply too many variables to safe for certain that language alone can alter our reality. However we have proven that, at least in some fashion, our language does indeed have some bearing on our perceptions of what is real. It is likely that a child from Israel would be more tolerant of homosexuality if the language did not make such a distinction between male and female. A Hopi child would almost certainly be bound to the same constraints of time if the language constantly referenced it. If a Mayan had the language to describe everything numerically, then certainly they would make that distinction. So, although we cannot prove the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, we can certainly hold it up and draw some interesting conclusions.


Ember, C.R., Ember, M., & Peregrine, P.N. (2009). Human Evolution and Culture. Upper Saddle

River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in From the Desk of the Author


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Dichotomy of Naturalism

Dichotomy of Naturalism

A new concept, naturalism, began to develop during the late 1800s and lasted into the early 1900s. Grounded in the ideas of great minds like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, writers began to integrate naturalism into their stories. Jack London and Kate Chopin are two artists that showcase the shift toward the darker side of nature. Although both of these writers were experimenting with the same naturalistic ideas, the finished stories take two completely different approaches to those ideas. The sordid and pessimistic subject matter of humanity as it exists in the natural world forced itself into our literature in a way that both enthralled and terrified its readers. Jack London, in To Build a Fire, appeared to have been influenced by the writings of Darwin while Kate Chopin, in The Storm, seemed to encapsulate Freudian ideals. London portrays man’s desire to dominate the living world, and Chopin delves into the animalistic sexuality of humanity and the primal need to procreate.

First, it is important to understand exactly what naturalism stands for in literary aspects. At its core, naturalism is an attempt to determine and identify the forces that drive the actions of those living in the world. It seeks to quantify the physical state and strives to measure, with exactness, the natural state of things. In naturalism, there is great emphasis on the impact of heredity on the actions of humanity. Combining heredity with environmental surroundings culminates in the harsh realities of the naturalistic writer’s realm. This type of writing may come across as harsh or crass to some readers and violent or miserable to others. However, the reality of these situations cannot be discarded. There is a certain appeal to the truth within both of these works. The readers can understand the lust-tinged fear that is brewing during the storm and can almost feel the cold bearing down on them as the life-bringing fire is snuffed out.

In London’s To Build a Fire, the man is at the mercy of the natural as he travels through the cold and unyielding forest of the Yukon. Throughout the entirety of the story, the temperature is mentioned. This constant focus on the measurement of temperature falls in line with naturalism and the need to quantify and measure the world. The man acknowledges the cold, yet “it did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general” (629). At one point in the novel, the man has built for himself a “roaring fire” and “for the moment the cold of space was outwitted” (632). Throughout the entirety of the man’s trek in the forest, he is accompanied by a dog. In true Darwin form, the dog survives where the man could not. It was the adaptability of the dog throughout its ancestry which had equipped it with the tools required to survive in the frigid conditions. “This man did not know cold” (632). “But the dog knew; all of its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge” (633).

The ignorance of man and his inability to understand the intricacies of natural world will ultimately end in the death of man. The dog understands the danger of venturing out into the cold night away from the warmth and comfort of the fire. There is an interesting facet to this part of the story which sheds light on man’s desire to dominate the living creatures surrounding him. The man was the master of the dog and “there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man” (633). London writes, “the only caresses it (the dog) had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash” (633). If a bond had been cultivated between the man and animal, then perhaps the dog would have attempted to lure the man to remain in protection of the warmth. However, the man did not seek companionship but continued to establish his dominance. It is no surprise, then, that “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire” (633). Throughout the story, London beseeches the reader to understand the value of instinct; he begs that we recognize the faults of humanity and learn to rely on the wisdom which nature so readily supplies.

In Kate Chopin’s The Storm, the characters are at the mercy of the natural as they find themselves amid a duality of terrible storms, one meteorological and the other physical. The idea proposed in the story is that Alcee and Calixta were at the mercy of something that was bigger than both of them, something that simply would not be denied. Every indication is that neither did anything to serve as a catalyst for the passionate affair. Alcee “expressed an intention to remain outside, but it was soon apparent that he might as well have been out in the open” (434). The force of the storm, perhaps both storms, drove him into the house. If the rain was responsible for placing Alcee in the house, then it was the lightning which could be credited with placing Calixta in his arms. The “lightning was incessant” and “the crash seemed to invade the very boards they stood upon” (435). Their very foundation had been rattled.

At this point, the primal libido of both Alcee and Calixta cannot hope to be repressed. In true Freudian form, the erotic attachments of the id are sated. The meteorological storm posited the two characters in the same physical space, but it was the sexual storm which had been brewing since Assumption that took over. For Alcee, this storm “had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh” (435). Calixta “had given place to drowsy gleam that unconsciously betrayed a sensuous desire” (436). There is no mention of love between the two of them, only the purely physical attraction which could not be denied. In truth, it seems that both couples benefit from the unplanned rendezvous. Calixta “seemed to express nothing but satisfaction at their (Bobinot and Bibi) safe return” (437). Alcee “was getting on nicely” (437). “Bobinot and Bibi began to relax and enjoy themselves, and when the three seated themselves at table they laughed” (437). “As for Clarisse… she and the babies were doing well” (437). Both of the storms had run their course. “So the storm passed and every one was happy” (437).

Both Jack London and Kate Chopin embraced the ideas of naturalism; however their works celebrated different aspects of the same notion. London used his platform to position humans in a place where survival is an achievement and not simply a right granted by humanity. He showcases the slow decline of man when he is knocked from the comfort of his niche. Chopin strives to open the ideas of women and their sexuality. She justifies her characters actions by shedding light on the natural desires of man and woman alike. Naturalism displays all of man’s faults, but it is through that portrayal that we can find our place in the world.

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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Penn's Diary


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I, myself, have enjoyed the challenges offered by the Spartan Race. It pushed me to my limits and seemed to calm my nerves. I had recently accepted a promotion, and things were tough at work; however, none of that factored in during the race. I was so focused on completing the task, that those things faded into the background (which is where they belong). Instead of concerning myself with my job, I took my wife’s hand and together we proudly conquered obstacle after obstacle. Together, with other every day warriors, we went the distance and earned the medals that were placed around our necks

Barbed wire crawl: a crawl through mud under barbed wire. Participants must stay low to the ground as to not get injured by the wire. Crawls range from 20-100+ yards in length. The wire crawl has appeared in every Spartan Race to date. Our length was about 40 yards, if I had to guess (which I do).This was not as challenging to me as it seemed to be to some of the other racers.

Over-Under-Through: a series of obstacles in which runners must first climb over a wall, then under a wall, then through a tire or square hole placed in a wall. This obstacle is often repeated three or more times in a row and appears in almost every Spartan Race.This was not really an obstacle at all. We handled it easily without losing much pace. I think it was put there simply to break the monotony of mud, and I was thankful for the respite.

Spear throw: from a distance of 10-20 yards, athletes must throw a wooden spear into a target. If the spear does not stick, a penalty of 30 burpees is assigned. The spear throw is present at every Spartan Race with the exception of state parks that do not allow weapons. Typically, the spear throw is near the end of the race. First of all, Burpees suck BAD, especially at the end of a taxing race. Make sure you sink the spear throw or you will burn yourself out on the big bad burpees. My manliness (don’t laugh) did not like the fact that my spear did not stick and my muscles followed suit. In my defense, it was more like throwing a floundering gig than an actual spear but still…

Wall climb: as the name suggests, runners must climb over a wooden wall. Walls range from 4-8 feet and are often in sequence. This obstacle may be repeated throughout the course. There again, not really much to write about. It is a wall and you have to climb over it.

Object carry: A signature obstacle, the object carry is often the most challenging. In a Spartan Sprint, this obstacle typically appears once. In a Super Spartan, twice; in a Beast, three times or more. The object to be carried may be a tire, rock-filled bucket, or sandbag. Both the bucket and sandbag weight between 30 and 70 pounds. Men must carry heavier objects than women. We had to carry a sandbag which weighed about 30 lbs and we also had to carry a concrete wad that weighed about 70 lbs. The sandbag was not really a challenge, even though we had to carry it much farther than the heavier weight. The heavy concrete mass was awkward to grab and this was compounded by the massive amounts of mud caked all over our hands. This slowed us down a bit, but we powered through it.

Herculean Hoist: athletes must hoist a cement block or heavy bucket off the ground using a pulley system. This obstacle is similar to the “lat-pull” exercise machine, but is more difficult because the rope is often muddy and slippery. This obstacle seemed to be a challenge for some of the other racers, but I was able to get it quickly and without exhausting too much energy. I guess working in an asphalt plant has its advantages.

Traversal Wall: the traversal wall is similar to a bouldering wall. This obstacle was ridiculously unfair. All of the footholds and handholds were covered in mud. I imagine the first racers had a nice clean path, but by the time we ran it was crazy slick. Needless to say, we had burpees to do. My stamina wept.

Slippery Wall: a wall built at an incline (roughly 45 degrees) that is covered in soap or grease. Runners may try to sprint up the wall or use a rope for assistance. We had the luxury of a rope, so this was not very challenging.

Rope Climb: A rope is hung over a body of water/mud with a bell installed at the very top. Participants must “ring the bell” before climbing down. My wife had the great idea of holding the bottom of rope still while I climbed and this helped me ascend quickly and ring the bell. I will say, though, that a muddy rope will still burn your hands.

Fire jump: participants leap over flames. This obstacle is typically at the beginning or end of a race. The fire jump has appeared in nearly every Spartan Race, though certain venues do not allow fire. We had fire, but it was not very intense. Not that I expected an inferno or anything, but it was easy to jump over. This was right toward the end of the race and the finish line was in sight, so that probably inspired me to greater heights.

Gladiator Arena: before the finish line, athletes must pass through the “gladiators” who try to knock down runners using their pugil sticks. These guys were tired of hitting little pieces of crap like me, so they barely even tried… until I tried to put a spin move on them (summoned my inner AP). Then the guy got mad, or his steroids got angry for my attempted dodge and he swung at the back of my head. Glancing blow.

We had a really good time, and I highly suggest that you give it a shot. We were proud to finish, and most importantly we decided that we wanted to start back up on our running.


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Posted by on January 29, 2015 in From the Desk of the Author


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Formative Fiction

What books have you read that helped shape you into the human that you are at this moment?

I was asked to answer this question in my Literature for Teachers class. Here is my list:

Kender, Gully Dwarves & Gnomes


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux


Dracula by Bram Stoker


Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton


Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

eaters of the dead

This is by no means a full list, but these are the books I came up with in the ten minute time frame given to me.

What are some of your formative fiction books?


Posted by on January 13, 2015 in From the Desk of the Author


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Saving the World from Solomon Grundy (short essay #1)


Saving the World from Solomon Grundy

We killed Superman in 1992. A year later, we decided to break Batman’s back. “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”[1] These two heroes had been around since before the start of WWII; however in the 90’s, they were simply not what we wanted to read about. It is not surprising that the popularity of comics took a plunge during this decade. Most of us were too busy seizing our own destiny with a controller firmly in hand to really care. We certainly didn’t want to read about the heroes of our childhood, especially when we could become heroes ourselves on the other side of the screen. We were Generation X and we would not stand for any cookie-cutter heroes.

Video games consumed us.[2] I know that Chun-Li’s blood type is A (why do I know this?). Consumed. Nintendo pumped out the Super NES in the early 90’s and Playstation grabbed our attention in the middle of the decade. Gaming, unfortunately, cannot be held fully responsible for the decline of comics during the 90’s. The market was ripe for glutting. The comic companies continued to run an absurd amount of the issues that collectors thought would be valuable. The same thing happened to baseball cards during the late 80’s and early 90’s. The market was flooded. To compensate, the comic companies started producing limited edition alternatives to boost value. Gold, silver, and hologram covers could not cover the fact that comics themselves were absolute shit.

A new comic book company was formed called Image. Have you ever heard the saying, “Image isn’t everything”? Keep that in mind. Image comics took a lot of the fresh new artists and offered them a chance to flesh out some really nice looking characters. This split the talent pool; the old writers were left with no real artists and the artists couldn’t carry a storyline. The Image characters were great for posters but that was about it. I am sure it seemed to the comic companies that we wanted something edgier and they delivered. More and more companies sprouted up overnight in the hopes to sell us some sex and violence. The heroes’ muscles and guns got bigger; the heroines’ costumes all but disappeared (probably to make room for their huge chests). This is what we wanted, right? We weren’t reading it anyway; we just wanted it to look cool.

Superman wasn’t cool. Batman didn’t kill people. Hell, comics weren’t cool. I learned quickly that talking about comics at school was a quick ticket to being outcast (as if my playing Dungeons and Dragons and being in choir didn’t already punch my ticket). Now comic books are cool. Now. “Liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant. If I was just born ten years later, I would have been the coolest person ever.”[3] I started collecting a comic book called Gen X. Here is a quick rundown of some of the team: a girl who could literally pull her skin off to create something new underneath, a guy that was missing his lower jaw and had to cover his face, a girl with autism, a mindless girl with diamond hard skin. I am sure there is some psychology study here that would make my head spin, but the point is that these kids were a far cry from the alien known as Kal-El.

We couldn’t relate to Superman, so he had to die. He and Doomsday beat each other to death in the streets of Metropolis. He was replaced by four heroes, but it did not take long for the writers to understand that the world of comics needed Superman. Superman was resurrected within a year’s time. It took us five years to get tired of him again, and the writers split him into two separate entities with more limits on his powers, Red Superman and Blue Superman. We can’t forget about Batman. The Dark Knight was not dark enough for us, so we broke his back and put him out of commission. And who better to break the bat than a villain that is pumped full of steroids? We replaced Batman with Azrael, a crime-fighter that did not share Batman’s aversion to killing. Azrael was the Batman we thought we wanted. “I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone’s really hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you’re not sure whether or not you like yet.”[4] However, we quickly realized that if he killed all the bad guys… well, there wouldn’t be any more bad guys. Lucky for us, Batman healed up and kicked Azrael’s ass into submission.

We killed Superman in 1992. A year later, we decided to break Batman’s back. If we don’t pull our heads away from our televisions and gaming, our icons will slowly disappear. Then, it won’t be long before the ideals that these characters stood for follow suit.

[1] Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

[2] Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Select-Start (you know what I am talking about)

[3] 21 Jump Street (2012)

[4] Swingers (1996)


Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Penn's Diary


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Back to School

I enjoyed my summer, but it is time to head back to class. Since last semester I stepped down from my position at work. This should help me keep focus on the things which are important. 

My desire to become an English teacher has not diminished. In fact, it has only grown. The nature of the business that I am in now does not allow for some of the basic needs of happiness. Demand supersedes all else. If the customer wants it (or even thinks he might want it, they can change their minds on a whim) then it is our responsibility to get it for them. Now I know that some of you may say, “Well my job is the same way”. Probably not. I can’t hope to convey the frustration, but I can give you a piece of my latest toil.


I went in to work to produce our base material. I got there at 6am on Sunday in the hopes to salvage part of my day. I was on schedule to finish up at around 11am, when a call comes in. “The dispatcher misunderstood, you have another load coming in”. What am I to do? I can’t leave the truck loaded. I must stay. I wait for two hours on a truck before finally getting another call. “I am sorry, there was confusion. There is no other truck coming in.” 

This is just a glimpse of our everyday. So as you can see, the desire to teach grows more and more with each and every day. I will keep you all abreast of how my classes are going. I am sure that my papers will find their way here as well. 


Posted by on August 19, 2014 in From the Desk of the Author


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Star Wars?

Star Wars


I am, by no means, the greatest Star Wars fan. I enjoyed the movies,and I feel comfortable with all of the main characters and a good amount of the minor characters. So, when my son wanted some Star Wars gummies, I had no problem making that purchase (in fact, I was pleased that he picked Star Wars over Diego, Scooby Doo, etc). My problem was when I looked closely at the box!!!! I feel like some random employee put his face on the package and nobody caught it. Who is this guy? Someone please help clear my brain… I cannot advance in life until this is resolved.


Posted by on April 23, 2014 in From the Desk of the Author


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