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Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 1): The Importance of Literature

“The Importance of Literature”

Writing has been my passion since I was 13 years old, and I started not because I had some lofty ambition to become a best-seller, or even publicly known, but because I had an active imagination that was best expressed in words. I didn’t know how to make video games at the time, and my toys, which I was outgrowing, did not inherently create the explosions I had seen in my mind, or any “automated,” interactive, constructive, or destructive scenarios I wanted to play out. Because I wanted to tell stories somehow, I figured writing was the best way to go, if not the only way.

And the crazy thing about that is, at the time, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading.

Whether it deserves it or not, I blame the education system for the latter issue. In junior high and high school (actually, my junior high had become an official middle school the year I reached eighth grade, so I’ll say middle school and high school for this point), I was forced to read books that were written decades earlier, addressing topics I had neither knowledge nor interest in learning about. One in particular, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, I had to read twice, once in eighth grade and once in ninth. I didn’t enjoy it either time, and was notably upset when I was told to read it a second time. In tenth grade, I had to read Nectar in the Sieve, which bored me so much that I never finished it, even for a grade. Granted, I’m sure I would appreciate both books more today, now that I’m a 40-year-old adult who doesn’t need explosions to enjoy a story (even though it still helps), but I still would never automatically gravitate toward either.

The stuff I read in high school that I could read again and enjoy today include The Great Gatsby, which I believe is the book I’ve read more times than any other and will probably read again because it’s so freaking good (I honestly need to read all of Fitzgerald’s works to truly appreciate his genius, I think), The Catcher in the Rye, which was my favorite at the time, but has since been supplanted by Mr. Gatsby and friends, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which was just a brilliant piece of writing through and through. Each of these books had an important place in 1990s high school literature, establishing a foundation for society and whatnot, but none of them had ever turned me on to reading.

It took Alex Garland’s The Beach to get me to see that novels could actually take place in the modern world, present universal truths relevant to today and tomorrow, and still be interesting, and ultimately to get me interested in reading more books.

It was not an easy thing for me to become a regular reader of present-day fiction. It took me months to finish reading The Beach, and the only reason I bought it was because I had flipped to a page where the main character was talking about Super Mario Bros. I was impressed that someone had thought to bring pop culture into fiction, and I wanted to support any book that considered me its ideal reader. Kamala Markandaya, the author of Nectar in a Sieve, clearly wasn’t aiming to capture a 15-year-old boy who still watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings. I’m sure Markandaya had a compulsive urge to write the novel and knew that there was an audience for it. Maybe it was unfortunate that some educator believed I was that ideal audience. But, for as much as I appreciated the effort, The Beach didn’t captivate me the way it probably wanted to. Well, it did at first, so that’s not a fair statement. But it lost momentum for me when I realized I was basically reading Lord of the Flies (another classic) in a modern skin, which ultimately didn’t appeal to me. If I were to read it again today, now that I’ve built up my reading experience to sustainable levels, I might enjoy it much more. Might.

However, what it did accomplish initially was to break the wall that Nectar in a Sieve and required reading like it forced before me. Even though it wasn’t the book that turned me into an avid reader, it did give me cause to explore other titles. I think it was Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe that finally got me to take reading seriously (even though MTV published that book, and I don’t believe it was ever one to be taken seriously), and that encouraged me to look up the author who wrote the book that the John Cusack movie I had seen in college a couple of years earlier was based on, even though I didn’t like the movie as much as I’d wanted to but was curious about the book that inspired it, since I knew it was based on a book, and that, of course, was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, who became one of my favorite authors, as About a Boy is in my Top 10 favorite novels of all time (up there with The Great Gatsby and Syrup by Max Barry), and definitely the right one to discover, even if his latest, Funny Girl, isn’t particularly great.

I write all of this to express the importance of not just of reading, but to love it, and to find works that allow you to love it. By finding and reading books we love, we can develop a healthy reading habit that can carry us through the rest of our lives, and teach us things along the way. Right now, I’m reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and even though I lost my taste for science fiction back in the ‘90s, this book reminds me why I don’t have to eschew it completely. It’s so good, and I daresay its goodness has much to do with its relevance to what I know and understand and enjoy. Ready Player One is another one that straddles the lines of sci-fi, pop culture, adventure, and pure entertainment, a book that I absolutely loved and absolutely would’ve missed out on had I not refined my taste for reading years earlier, in spite of the damage that high school literature had caused me during my formative reading years.

That said, the books that reached me did so because they touched on a point of personal identity that other books like The Good Earth could not do. This isn’t to say that I think The Good Earth is a bad book. Not at all. It’s a classic for a reason. I’d even consider it a valuable resource if I ever wanted to familiarize myself with early 20th century Chinese dynasties. But, as of now, as it was back in high school, it’s not my thing.

However, families are relevant, and family sagas are universal, and that’s what The Good Earth ultimately is written to be, so there’s probably much to glean from it that’s relevant to all of us, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate that as a 14-year-old who looked forward to watching whatever was popular on Saturday mornings back in 1990.

I started writing my first major story, City Walker, the same school year I had to read The Good Earth the first time (1989-1990). It was an action-packed random events story about a man looking for a television repair shop. If I had been well-read, even as a 13-year-old, I would’ve realized that I was writing a meandering story that had no sustainable plot line. But I was watching a lot of television in those days, and I knew what made a story worthwhile, even then, and I knew as I was writing it that what I was writing wasn’t anything particularly good. Even when my English teacher offered to read it whenever I’d finish it, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t show her. Thinking about it all these years later, knowing all that I know about story now, I can safely say that what I had written over the course of two years was not a story, but a series of pointless events. But they were pointless events that allowed me to get my worst ideas out of my system. They also allowed me to develop a cast of characters that I actually did like, and wanted to see more of. This lead to me writing an updated version of the story as a screenplay a few years later. It still wasn’t good, but it was better.

Literature didn’t teach me structure, not as I understand it today, but it did teach me value. I knew from the books I didn’t enjoy that the story I was having fun writing was not great. Perhaps that slaps the face of anyone who has ever said, “If it feels good, do it.” No, you really shouldn’t, not unless you’re going to learn from it, and sometimes what you’ll learn is that you shouldn’t do it, even if it feels good. I didn’t enjoy The Good Earth when I read it, and come to think of it, I don’t recall enjoying The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, either (the fact that I love it now tells me that I should reacquaint myself with the classics, now that I’m at a point in my life that I can appreciate them). But it did teach me the idea of scope. It did teach me that actions have consequence, and that even characters we don’t like can still be memorable. I don’t remember a lot of the things I’ve read in my life, but I can still remember vividly how poorly Wang Lung treats his wife, and how creepy it is that the grandfather wants the warmth of the baby to help him sleep at night, and how systematic O-Lan’s birthing ends up being each time her water breaks and she heads into the bathroom to deal with it. Oh, and the fact that I remember these characters’ names also says something about it. I didn’t like it. But I sure as heck remember it. I vaguely remember the characters in Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia (they’re dinosaur detectives disguised as human, if I recall), but I don’t remember much about the story itself. Bits and pieces. Of course, weirdly, I enjoyed Anonymous Rex far more than I did The Good Earth. I wonder if I did simply because it was unconventional and not at all the kind of book my Honors English teacher would’ve assigned me in eleventh grade English. Or, maybe because I didn’t have to read it, I decided that I wanted to read it. All a bunch of maybes.

Ultimately, if we want to write, we need to read. In the years I wrote stories without reading other people’s published stories, I had a lot of fun, but I also wrote a lot of crap and didn’t learn anything. These days, I learn plenty. More on that next time.

Next Week: “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear

For Those Who Dream

May 4, 2016:

A couple of days ago, I was playing catch-up on my Publishers Lunch newsletter, when I read down to the footer in the February 29, 2016 letter and found a link to this interesting article about how The Martian by Andy Weir (the book about an astronaut left stranded on Mars that the movie is based on) began its life. If you’re a dreamer like I am, and you’re also a creative type, then you’ll find this is an article worth reading.

http://www.npr.org/2016/02/27/468402296/-the-martian-started-as-a-self-published-book

It’s really quite amazing how success stories happen. I think the takeaway, of course, is that luck (or God’s will) does have a huge part in the success of anything. Gaining success the way The Martian has is an extremely rare thing. But it happens.

The bigger takeaway is that you should really write (or create) for yourself first. If it’s not that good, it’s still good for you. If it’s amazing, it could eventually become something with Matt Damon in it. Either way, we’re all winners. Everyone except those who don’t get off their butts and try, of course.

Also, if there’s a third takeaway, it’s that self-publishing is not as stigmatic as the past may lead us to believe. If you can dream it, you can live it. Possibly!

Sunstreaker

March 15, 2014:

When he was alive, my dad had ADD and a nasty habit of flaking out on his family. He was the kind of guy who could get in his van, head to the store to buy a package of steak for dinner, and decide halfway there to hit the highway because suddenly he would rather drive to Georgia than buy his steak or head back home. Five days later, he would come home with no real explanation for his temporary disappearance or regard to the appointments he’d missed with his family or accountability to the promises he’d broken in order to satisfy his bout of distraction. He would just come home (with the package of steak he’d gone out for in the first place), hit the grill or go to bed depending on the time of night he’d walk in, or sit down in front of the television as if no time had passed. Of course, four days earlier I might’ve been eager to tell him about something he’d think was awesome, but whatever it was, it had since lost its relevance, or I’d forget about it, and that was that.

His was a self-control issue. I could go into a discussion about his battles with various substances, including alcohol, to make my point, but I think the story tells itself better when one considers how he broke his promise to me (and two of my friends) to take me (and my friends) to a water park down in Dania, Florida, called Six Flags Atlantis. I was just a kid. I hadn’t previously been to this water park, but I had heard so many awesome things about it that I couldn’t wait to finally go for the first time. Dad had promised to take my friends and I to the park that day, but only after we visited the nearby comic book convention first. My friends and I were cool with that because there were things we could browse, and checking out comics before racing down twisting waterslides was not a bad way to spend the day. But time was ticking away, and we were quickly losing hours, and I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy the park once we got there. Dad assured me we would have time, not to worry. Then he went looking for more comics to buy. I remained worried. I continued to paw at comics to pass the time, but desperately wanted out so I could get on with having his promise to take us to the water park fulfilled.

Eventually the moment came that we were finally ready to leave, with time to spare. I was relieved. I wish my relief had endured.

“We’re gonna have to cancel Six Flags,” he told us. “I ran out of money. We’re heading home.”

Broken-hearted, I said okay. I hated the turn of events in that moment (and temporarily hated comics and all that they had stood for), but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was a young kid: I had no job, no income, and a dollar-a-week allowance. I was somewhere between the ages of eight and ten. I couldn’t afford the trip to the water park myself. My dad had broken his promise to me (and my two friends), and his folly would be repeated many times in other forms throughout the remaining eleven years of his life, up to and including pawning or selling the stuff I had worked hard for or had been gifted with at Christmases or birthdays to support his addictions.

That was my earthly father at his worst. That was my working model of faith.

“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?”
-Luke 11:11-12 NAS

Because my dad was so good at putting himself first in pretty much any decision he had faced, I was generally surprised when he did something sacrificial or just plain thoughtful. Often I had asked him to give me something specific (a bite of his dinner, a drink from his soda, a toy from the store); sometimes he would give, sometimes not. During big gift seasons (Christmases and birthdays) I would ask for a toy or a video game. When I was a kid, toys and video games were all I really cared about. Usually I had to save the big-ticket requests for my grandmother (his mom) and my Aunt Jeannine since they were the ones who could afford it. I rarely got what I had asked for out of him, unless it was something simple or inconsequential. Sure, occasionally he would bring home a new television or stereo to celebrate the big landscaping job he had taken, replacing the one he had sold or pawned months earlier to support his addictions. But that was for the family, something I could use, something all of us, including him, could use. It was less common to see him come home with anything just for me.

Less common, but not unheard of.

When I was eight, I was eager to check out Six Flags Atlantis for the first time. He failed that one. But I also had another prime interest: Transformers.

Shawn, my neighbor and friend, was out in his front yard playing with this new advanced Go-Bot thing, a toy Porsche that could transform into a toy robot, and I was a bit jealous. The thing was like a Go-Bot, but bigger, badder, and had more moveable parts. As a car, it rolled around on surfaces smoothly, doing everything that a Hot Wheels toy could do. As a robot, it had less mobility, and was really made for modeling, but it was awesome. It had wings, die-cast metal parts, and guns and rockets. He called it “Jazz.” I called it the greatest toy I had ever seen. I had suddenly wanted my own Transformer.

On Christmas that year, someone had informed my grandmother (dad’s mom) of my interest in this toy. Naturally, I was excited from anticipation. But my excitement became weary as the family gift giving that morning had become exhausted, and the extended family gift giving at Grandma’s house was burning through quickly. I had gone through my entire stash of gifts that day, disappointed at one piece of clothing or toy of marginal interest after another. Sure, I was appreciative of the things I was opening. At some point I think I might have even opened an Atari game, which was my other childhood obsession (Nintendo still had another year to make its debut, and it would be another three years before I’d get one of those, using my own money to buy it), but these things weren’t really what my heart had desired. I just wanted a Transformer, and none of the wrapped packages I had left to open resembled the little rectangular box that Transformers were contained in. The only thing that had given me any hope was the command to hold off on opening the big package in the corner of the living room until the end. I was skeptical. Maybe whatever was in there was cool, but it was far too big to be a Transformer. Whatever it was, it didn’t do its job to maintain my hope.

The night was coming to an end. I had finally reached the big one. The shape of the package inside was curious: bulky, hollow, bulky, hollow, bulky. I couldn’t make sense of it. Why did they insist I save this one for last? It couldn’t have been the thing I had asked for. Did they somehow think I would like this mysterious thing better? I had my doubts. But I wasn’t about to let in on them. I had to put on my happy face, if for no other reason but to please my family, the people who thought I would like whatever this thing was. I opened it. My childish heart fluttered. I was right. It wasn’t a Transformer.

It was three Transformers.

All of their boxes were taped together, hence the size of the package. I couldn’t believe it. I was now the proud owner of “Hound,” “Wheeljack,” and “Trailbreaker.” Greatest gift of my eighth year on this planet, courtesy of my grandmother and, I think, my uncle, and maybe one other person. I’m pretty sure it was my dad’s idea to conceal them all in the same wrapping. Whenever he was involved with a surprise, he was good at getting it right.

Inside each box came an official series catalogue. In the 1984-1985 toy season, there was only one series available. This series came with the legendary robots “Optimus Prime,” “Megatron,” “Bumblebee,” “Starscream,” “Jazz,” “Ironhide,” “Ratchet,” “Soundwave,” and a host of lesser-known but equally important characters that any Transformers fan would remember. There was a total of 18 “Autobots” and 11 “Decepticons” available to collect. (Yeah, I may have a sucky memory today, but I rarely forget my obsessions, and I was so obsessed back then that I had studied every inch of that catalogue, and even now I can see the matted action scene on the back side of the folded glossy featuring all of the characters engaged in a space battle). I was so intrigued by the possibility of seeing all of these Series One robots in person, even though I knew I would never have the opportunity to own them all, that every time I went with my mom to the grocery store, the mall, or the toy store (we had a Toys-R-Us back then, but we usually shopped at Lionel Playworld), I would look for the aisle that had the Transformers on display and dream about maybe taking one home, even though I knew that wasn’t gonna happen. And every time I checked that aisle, I would take a mental note of the robots I’d find. “Jazz” was common. “Hound” was a little rarer. Sometimes I’d dare ask for one, but the answer was always no, even when the toys I’d asked for retailed for about $10. I fished for my requests a lot. And I’d keep looking. Kept seeing the common ones. Kept looking for the lesser-knowns.

The presence of “Optimus Prime” or “Megatron” was hit or miss, but at $25 each, I knew asking for either was fruitless and expecting either was lunacy. I asked for them anyway, and I asked for them a lot. No Transformers collection was complete without having at least one faction leader on hand. But I knew how little my family had to give to my toy box, and my mom was strict with the finances, so my expectations were loose.

I’m sure my dad also knew that. But I’m also sure that he took delight in hitting me with surprises when I least expected them, especially when I stopped expecting them. Whenever he tried to surprise me, he would get creative about it. Whenever he had a surprise to offer, I had learned to stop expecting the expected. One of the biggest surprises I had gotten as a nine-year-old was him telling me to go look in the cabin of his truck for something he had gotten for me at the store. I had no idea what to expect. I went out to the truck (he followed behind to watch my reaction), opened the door, let the dome light fill the cabin (it was nighttime), and saw this larger-than-life box sitting on the passenger seat. “Optimus Prime” had come home.

If I were to take stock of all the times I had been surprised as a kid, and given how much I loved my small, albeit important, Transformers collection, it would make sense that finding the leader of the Autobots sitting on my dad’s passenger seat would be pretty top. After all, we’re talking about my childhood cartoon hero. Shoot, I’m in my thirties, and I still get goose bumps whenever Optimus Prime appears in the live action movies and starts ripping Decepticons apart. Naturally, when Optimus Prime became part of my toy collection, I was beside myself with happiness. It didn’t matter that, as a toy, he was pretty uncomplicated and offered no challenge to my skills of mechanical manipulation. My dad had surprised me with something I had spent months asking for, and it was bliss knowing that my request had been answered. Whatever selfish thing he might have rather spent his money on, he decided that that night, he would ignore it and give his kid a good gift. But, this wasn’t the top gift of my Transformers-obsessed childhood, contrary to popular belief. No, when I was nine, dad did something that went beyond my comprehension. Even now, as an adult, I’m stunned by it.

As I said, one of the ways I had satisfied my obsessions was to travel the toy aisles in search for elusive robots. But, like all things that pique my curiosities, the same old same old got lame fast, and seeing the likes of “Ironhide” or “Prowl” everywhere, all the time, got tiring, even to me. The kids would bring their Ironhides and Prowls to school. One kid had even brought in his Megatron (a toy gun, which, by the way, the schools had no concern over back then, because, you know, they were toys and the adults knew they were harmless), and we fans would beg him for the opportunity to “transform” him. But the opportunities to see Prowl in action, or any others that had commonly surfaced, didn’t do much to quench my desire to see the rare ones in action. I wanted new; I wanted different. Yet, I never really spoke of those names that I could never find.

Enter “Sunstreaker.”

In the animated series, Sunstreaker was a virtual no-show. He had, to my memory, one episode with his brother, “Sideswipe,” a much more common character—one of the most common, if I recall—and at least one appearance in the animated movie from 1986. But he was one of the coolest in the lineup because he was a Lamborghini, and not just any Lamborghini; he was a yellow Lamborghini—classy, slick, and uncatchable. As if it should be no surprise, he was one of the fastest movers in the Autobot clan. Only his brother Sideswipe, a red Lamborghini, could hold a candle to him. But he was also one of the sleekest in robot form. Just an interesting character all around. Even cooler than the bulky twin that had a completely different robot mode.

As a toy, he was the most elusive character from Series One. In the catalogue, I took notice of him quickly because he was the one character I could never, ever find. I didn’t know of anyone who had him in his collection. No store I explored had him on the shelf. And there was no Amazon.com circa 1985. Sunstreaker was, in a word, impossible to own. I had never even spoken of him to my parents because the thought of seeing him in the store was hopeless, and the thought of adding him to the collection was ludicrous. Sunstreaker was the character that would live on in that unattainable part of my heart, the same place where the hope of starting my own family seems to live on today, never to rise into that place of hope or expectation. It just simply wasn’t meant to be.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I woke up on a Sunday morning, sleep still in my eyes, and looked over to the corner of my bedroom to notice something highly unusual about my dresser. There was a sealed box sitting on top. A Transformers box. A Transformers box with a yellow Lamborghini encased in the plastic seal and a cartoon image of Sunstreaker posing beside the window.

I was speechless. Speechless before erupting with thanks. Actionless before giving my dad a big hug. I hadn’t remembered ever saying anything about wanting to find, much less own, this toy, but it didn’t stop him from understanding that this was the one at the top of my request list, and I would remain restless until the day I saw it with my own eyes. I never dreamed I would actually hold Sunstreaker in my hands or claim that he was part of my toy collection. Dad had taken the silent thing that I never spoke of but still wanted so badly (to see Sunstreaker in person) and did one better. And this was the same man who, in spite of his faults, failures, and broken promises throughout the years, had somehow stashed eight Go-bots on his body when I was sick in bed and every couple of minutes would reveal one, telling me, “Perhaps what you need is another Go-bot.”

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
-Luke 11:13 NAS

My dad passed away in late December 1995, and any gift he had ever wanted to give prior to that day but didn’t, he would no longer have the opportunity to give. Outstanding debts were stuck in limbo. Empty promises would remain empty. On that late December evening, the job of being a father to me went exclusively to God, my heavenly Father. And given the kind of unpredictable earthly father I had, I had gone into this transition with numerous faith issues. I had spent years praying for my dad to overcome his addictions. It had taken his death for him to finally let go of them. Maybe that was a matter of free will, and maybe he was so stuck on what he wanted that he didn’t want to let go of what was clearly ruining his family dynamic. But I still asked for it. I still wanted a dad that didn’t flake out at any given moment, or rob his son of hard-earned possessions to pay for the vices that kept him enslaved (we can critique my childhood toy vice another time). I just wanted a dad who did his part to be a father. Consistently. Not just when he felt like it. Something pretty much all of us want and few of us ever get. I never did get that. God is, was, and will ever be the only one who can be that kind of father, and, let’s be honest, it’s hard to cry out to a dad that I can’t even see, or ask of things when it’s so easy to misread or mishear His answers. Watching my earthly father fall apart after enduring years of broken promises left me with a shaky faith. Having my own personal problems that I couldn’t control, that had little to do with another person’s free will, and waiting forever for the prayers I’d prayed regarding them to receive an answer, had left me with anxiety and shaky hope. Patience had always been required of me, but enduring it has never been an easy practice. Even today I struggle because, as I’ve mentioned in another recent journal, I’ve prayed tirelessly for the last twenty years for the opportunity to meet a good woman and start a family and to take on an income that would make doing so possible—my prayer obsession today and rival to any amount of heart I had devoted to my Transformers collection of yesteryear—and yet everything that looks like an opportunity is in fact a misread. I feel like my hands have gone bloody from all the asking, seeking, and knocking I’ve been doing. It has become more than an Optimus Prime moment for me. It has been my Sunstreaker. Sometimes the waiting for it leaves me in pieces. It’s not just a deep-seated hope that constantly eludes me; it’s the thing that keeps my faith on edge. It’s the thing that, in spite of those messages of hope I sometimes receive, whether through the words of a stranger or the acts that God performs through His sovereign hand, I still wait for, and trust Him for, and even respond with hope when the opportunity seems to arise, and it leaves me discouraged when that hope is shattered by someone else’s free will taking it all away, giving me no opportunity to fight for it, or punishing me with abandonment when I decide to fight for it anyway. When those messages of hope arise, it feels like thievery and broken promises when circumstances call for their destruction. I need that reminder of the time when my dad surprised me to keep those moments from hollowing me out inside.

“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and from inside he shall answer and say, “Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened.’”
-Luke 11:5-10 NAS

My dad can’t surprise me anymore, but God sure can. Many friends and family now know about my infamous “dolphin prayer” that I had prayed in late spring/early summer of 2012. As I often did and still do, I was struggling with my trust issues and how they related to prayer, and wanted to reach that state in my spirit that I could finally let go of my fears, insecurities, and senses of hopelessness, and trust God for anything and everything. I wanted to believe that “ask, seek, knock” is a real thing. So, after taking a friend’s advice to start a prayer journal, I had come up with a series of insignificant things to ask God for, things like a free dinner and an invitation to a pool party, just to see if my prayers were heard and if they had even mattered. I called it the “prayer block.” Among the things on that list included a free dinner, a free computer monitor (I couldn’t afford a store-bought one), a free car stereo (my current one had a broken CD player, and I was forgoing much needed trips out of town because I get tired without music, and I couldn’t afford to replace that either), $100 in the mail (just because why not?), all of which had since been answered within a few months (the $100 in the mail was my insurance check to replace the car stereo that was stolen from me later that year when my car itself had been stolen and its steering column damaged, and even though that $100 paid for a new car stereo with working CD player, I had never claimed that the $100 should be mine to spend on whatever I wanted or that someone else had to physically hand me the already-paid-for stereo, so I considered that two prayers answered in one). But the most insignificant member of my prayer list, one that was so easy to check as answered, the desire to see a whale or a dolphin in the wild (really, God could just tap the underside of a dolphin at that one moment I happened to be looking at the ocean, and send it just high enough above the surface of the water that I could see it, and I can call it “fulfilled”), ended up becoming that summer’s obsession, because God would not answer me, no matter how often I asked, no matter how often I sought, not matter how often I knocked, and it was driving me crazy because it was so simple—way simpler than asking Him to provide a path to that one woman that He knows would take me seriously as a love interest, and certainly way simpler than leading my dad to the right store at the right time with the right amount of money in his pocket to bring home the ever-elusive Sunstreaker.

I went to the beach three or four times a week. I’d walk the shoreline two miles north and two miles back, getting exercise and giving God plenty of opportunities to provide the answer to this prayer. For two and a half months I would persist in my prayer. “Just let me see the freakin’ dolphin,” I’d cry out. Of course, God knew what I was really asking: “Answer my freakin’ eighteen-year-old prayer.” He wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t let me see that dang dolphin, in spite of me looking at the ocean, the place where dolphins live, giving Him many opportunities to show me. I had started this prayer in early June. By late August, I had given up asking. It was pointless. Stupid. It was obvious God would not be manipulated by my prayer block. It was obvious that He would answer only the prayers that He wanted to, and my reasons for wanting to see this dolphin weren’t in accordance to His plan, or something philosophical like that.

Or, maybe, just maybe, it had nothing to do with any of that. Maybe he was just preparing to pull a Sunstreaker on me.

That summer was the summer that I had begun getting my walking exercise at the beach. My routine was and is that I’d park on the other side of the Intercoastal for additional exercise and to save on parking fees. On a Thursday in late September, more than a month after I had stopped asking God to answer my dolphin prayer, I was walking across the bridge to head for the beach when I spotted a dinosaur perched on the seawall. It was actually an iguana, but the thing was at least two feet long and probably weighed about thirty pounds. I was tempted to take a photo of it, but because I was planning to walk the shoreline, and the turbulent ocean loves to get my pockets wet, I decided to leave my phone in the car. So I kept walking, crossed A1A, entered the beach parking lot, headed for the sand, and started my journey northward. Seeing the iguana was cool, but it was nothing I had asked for, and I didn’t give it anymore thought once I’d reached the shore.

I had completed my roundtrip walk without having any prayers answered. I wasn’t surprised. Wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. I left the shore, left the sand, headed across the parking lot and across A1A, and started walking toward the bridge. As I neared the base, a man from Pennsylvania was riding his bike toward me, mentally preoccupied with two things: the 24-pack of beer under his arm and the creature that was swimming around in the dead waters of the Intercoastal. When he pointed at the swirling wake in the water, I had said, “Oh, that iguana must’ve jumped in.” I was disappointed because I was on my way back to my car to get my phone so I could get a picture of the thing. And now it had jumped in. Needless to say, the northerner was fascinated by the prospect of seeing a two-foot lizard swimming around in the Intercoastal. Yet, he was also skeptical. “What iguana?” I told him I had seen an iguana sunning itself on the wall. Then I pointed at the location where I had seen it. Then I was surprised. The iguana was still there, right where I had left it an hour earlier. Then what was that thing swimming in the water?

Everyone, including me, thought it was a shark. It was a dark creature that swam high enough to show its round-tipped dorsal fin but not one that would surface Jaws-style to devour lizards, fisherman, or anything that someone might’ve thrown in. It was just a roving shark, seeking whatever God commanded it to seek. I thought, “Well, it’s not really what I had asked for, but it’s something.” My spirit was giving me another signal: “Everything you’ve been told is true. This is how I’ll answer your big prayer: in the place and time that you least expect it.” I didn’t know how to turn my heart and brain off enough to “least expect it” because when I pray for anything specific, especially for the deepest desires of my heart, I prepare for the possibility every time I walk out my front door, even if my faith for it is shaky. But the message was nonetheless clear to me. I hadn’t seen the dolphin, but I did see something close enough to what I had asked for that the point was made. I went to my car, grabbed my phone, got to the lizard a minute too late to get a decent photo, went back to my car, and left the park. Later, I told my mom about the shark I had seen in the Intercoastal. She looked at me with confusion, clearly knowing something about the waterway that I didn’t. “There are no sharks down by the bridge,” she told me. “What you saw was a dolphin.”

I don’t know if the dolphin became my present-day Sunstreaker, or just a present-day Optimus Prime, but seeing it reminded me of something real, true, and maybe profound. It had certainly refueled my faith. It had reminded me that God hears me. It had reminded me that He’ll even answer me—in His timing and in His way. Yeah, I could’ve just gone to Sea World or the Miami Seaquarium to check this one off my list. Sometimes faith requires action, and sometimes we answer our own prayers, or, as some people have made popular, “make our own luck.” But I’m convinced that action can be anything, and letting God answer prayer His way and through His wisdom is far more satisfying to me, and sometimes less costly, sometimes, than doing it myself. After all, I’m an idiot. I thought seeing dolphins from the beach or a boat was the only way to see them. Nope, God knows better how to reach me and how best to answer my prayers and how, incidentally, to best surprise me.

“I’ll answer your big prayer in the time and place that you least expect it.” Kind of like waking up on a Sunday morning to see Sunstreaker sitting on my dresser, in spite of me never telling my dad I wanted it, but God knowing that my heart desired it more than anything else in childhood. It didn’t matter that Sunstreaker was one of the clunkiestly-designed Transformers from the original series or that he was the hardest one to use given how badly the toy company designed his arms. What mattered was that I had needed my heart fulfilled, and God used an incompetent dad and poorly-designed toy to remind me that faith is not a temporary thing, that all prayers are heard even if we don’t like the answers or solutions, and that we shouldn’t let circumstances convince us that what we hope for is impossible. Because I couldn’t make a dolphin pop up out of the ocean or feel satisfied that God had answered my prayer in His special way if I had to look for it at an aquatic preserve, and because I couldn’t do anything on my own to see, much less own, Sunstreaker, I know that sometimes I’m at God’s mercy. Yet, it’s at His mercy that our prayers seem to have the biggest impacts.

“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
-Matthew 7:7-12 NAS

I may still struggle with asking God for the desires of my heart. Those feelings of robbery and broken promises surface every time I respond to an opportunity in faith, especially those that come to me in a time and place I least expect, and the person that could be the instrument to fulfill that hope and that prayer has other plans in mind. Even with God’s sovereignty, free will takes all bets off the table. Dad didn’t have to bring home Optimus Prime or Sunstreaker. Likewise, he didn’t have to blow all of his money at the comic book convention when his kid and his kid’s friends trusted him to take them to Six Flags Atlantis. But sometimes he did his part and listened and responded. Eventually I made it to the water park, as did my friends. It was a year later, and my mom had to take me, but I got there. One day I’ll get my own family started. Eventually, someone will discover the desire stirring in her heart and respond favorably. I know that discovery will happen by divine appointment. God, like my earthly father, has a habit of surprising me when I least expect it.

It has become my core understanding. And it all started with a yellow Lamborghini that could transform into a robot.

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