"We rob banks." -Clyde Barrow

My Star Wars collection consists of hundreds upon hundreds of different items, but my favorite ones are the ones that have memories associated with them, like these cup toppers.

On December 17th, 2015, my family and I watched the premiere of The Force Awakens at El Capitan theater in Los Angeles, California. For the film’s debut some theater chains were distributing Star Wars branded popcorn tubs and drinking cups, and our theater happened to be one of those. Before the movie began, we purchased a set at the snack bar. Our cups came with these two figures (Chewbacca and a Flamethrower Clone Trooper) affixed to the lids.

When it comes to Star Wars collections, there is always another plateau to achieve. Guys like me with vintage (but well played with) toys look up to the guys with mint toys. In turn, those guys look up to guys with toys and action figures still in their original packaging. There are collectors who own things so rare that I’ve only seen pictures of them in books, and still other collectors who own actual props from the films. No matter what your collection looks like, there’s always someone else with more (or more valuable) stuff.

But things like these cup toppers possess a different kind of value. They’re worth more to me not because of how much they cost or how rare they are, but because of the memories associated with them. The Twin Pod Cloud Car Pilot my mom stuck on top of my eleventh birthday cake, the original Star Wars comic books my dad collected and passed down to me, the Star Wars posters I had hanging in my room as a kid that are now neatly folded in my closet… those are the collectibles I value the most. I own hundreds of Star Wars action figures, toys, and random collectibles that I’ve purchased over the past three decades, and while I like and enjoy them, they aren’t anywhere as important to me as the things I own that contain memories.

There will come a time, maybe sooner than later, that I “retire” from collecting Star Wars memorabilia. There’s even a chance that I could see myself parting with some of my collection. But you can bet that no matter what happens, I’ll hang on to things like these cup toppers forever. Ever time I see them I’ll be reminded of how I saw the first six Star Wars films in theaters with my parents, and how I saw The Force Awakens in the theater with my kids.

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Back in the summer of 2009 I posted a blog post noting that I had visited 38 of the 50 states. After realizing that I had visited almost 80% of the US, I made it a goal to visit all 50 states.

In March of this year, after a 2,500 mile family road trip I was able to mark Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin off the list, leaving just Hawaii. On December 23rd, 2015, after arriving in Oahu, I was able to officially mark Hawaii off the list. That officially makes all 50 plus Washington DC, Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas.

There are a couple of states on my list that are sketchy at best (South Carolina and Rhode Island, specifically) that I plan on revisiting. I’ve definitely driven through them on other trips, although I might not have done more than get gas or grab a burger. I didn’t count any states that I simply flew over or anything, but I did count the ones that I physically drove through.

You can check out all my state travels on this page. I tried documenting some of the things I did in each state and most of the entries have pictures, so be sure to click on your own state and see what I did there!

I have no idea what my future travel goals are, but I’m sure I will make some soon!

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I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon. Everybody has already been up and is back in bed. It’s been a long 2 1/2 weeks away from home. Here’s a summary of where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to.

Our vacation began on Thursday, December 17th, when we flew non-stop from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. After landing we picked up our rental car, drove to the hotel to unload our luggage, and then walked over to El Capitan theater to catch the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We got back to our hotel around 1 a.m. (3 a.m. Oklahoma time), although at some point during the trip we would lose track of time zones.

On Friday, December 18th, we got up early to go on the Paramount Studio’s back lot tour. Last year while in California we went on the Warner Bros. tour and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do another one. After the tour we drove to the port and began the embarking process. The process was a mess. A group of tourists from Canada didn’t bring the proper paperwork and couldn’t leave the ship, which was preventing us from boarding. As we would eventually learn, the entire boarding and unboarding process is a bit of a scheduling nightmare and one minor thing (like this) can screw everything up. Instead of waiting in our reserved area and boarding the ship smoothly, we spent a couple of hours standing around (and later sitting on the hard ground) waiting for things to move. Like many things, these waits were frustrating at the time but seem inconsequential in retrospect.

With all 3,300 passengers finally on board, the Ruby Princess pulled out of port around 6 p.m., headed toward Hawaii. We spent five days on the open sea, travelling roughly twenty miles per hour. There are a million things to do on the ship while you are at sea. There were three trivia games a day (the highlight of Morgan’s day), and just all kinds of things to see and do. We saw a stand up comedian, a juggler/comedian, a magician, karaoke, a Broadway quality musical performance, “The Voice at Sea,” a Beatles’ tribute band, and more. Mason played basketball and mini-golf up on the ship’s 19th deck. Both kids also had “come and go” privileges to their respective clubs — one for kids aged 8-12 and a teen club for passengers ages 13-17. Both clubs had ping-pong and air hockey tables and at least 30 Xboxes. There were a million things we didn’t attend, from speeches and presentations to ukulele and hula lessons.

We also ate, a lot. We ate breakfast at a private restaurant for platinum, elite and suite passengers that served everything from oatmeal and fruit to eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce and French toast. For lunch, we took turns visiting the buffet, the hamburger and hot dog grill, the pizza station, the sushi bar, and other places. For dinner we either ate at one of those same places or the Da Vinci and Michelangelo dining rooms. One night we ate snacks up at the Skywalker Lounge for dinner. Most of not all of those places would also delivered their goods to your room via room service. It is literally impossible to starve on a cruise ship.

During our cruise to Hawaii we went through another two time zones. Our internal clocks were never quite right.

Then, we arrived at Hawaii. We visited four islands in Hawaii, one per day. On the first day we visited Hilo in Hawaii and went on a tour of the island. On day two, we rented a car in Honolulu (on Oahu) and drove around visiting things. We visited Pearl Harbor, a Macademia Nut farm, the Dole Pineapple Farm, and several other locations. On day three we went snorkeling in Maui. On day four, we took a tour and visited filming locations on Kauai from the port of Nawiliwili. I’ll be writing about those adventures in days to come.

One of those days, I forget which one, was Christmas day.

We left Kauai and headed out for another five days at sea, this time headed for Ensenada, Mexico. We went to more trivia and more shows. We ate more. We played Scattergories in the library. I watched a lot of episodes of The Love Boat in our cabin. We did not get off the boat in Ensenada — it didn’t seem worth the hassle at that point. I watched the OU and OSU games on deck 15 on a 100′ outdoor television screen, near the pool. Susan and I spent some time in the casino, and sitting outside on our deck.

The day before Ensenada was New Year’s Eve. We went to a fancy dinner and a show in formal wear. Everyone was pooped by 11 p.m. and we retreated to our room to watch the ball drop in Times Square on our TV.

On the last day of our trip we disembarked after eating breakfast on the ship and waiting around. Embarking and disembarking is a trial of patience and waiting. We went from the port to the airport and due to a change in flight plans ended up waiting there 8 hours for our plane to arrive. It did, and we flew home, arriving in Oklahoma just after midnight and eating dinner at 1:30 a.m. at Taco Bell.

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot about this trip over the next couple of weeks, but that’s a basic overview. Two and a half weeks on a cruise ship is a long time. We had a great time and are glad to be home!

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George Lucas loves it when history repeats itself in the Star Wars universe, whether it’s father and son losing the same hand, or generations of characters “having a bad feeling about this.”

Thirty-two years ago, the day after I had my tonsils removed, my dad took me to see Return of the Jedi. My throat was on fire the entire time. When we got to the theater, people were lined up outside all the way around it. Many were dressed in costumes and carrying toy lightsabers. When the film began, the theater erupted in applause, and each time something great happened in the film, they cheered wildly.

I’ve never had another theater experience like it. Until last night.

Those same fans were out in force (har) last night at the El Capitan theater in L.A. For nearly an hour we stood on street with other fans (and their kids) dressed in costume, waving their (much more high tech) lightsabers in the air. Around us, conversations drifted from Star Wars video games to trivia about those horrible made for television Ewok movies from the 1980s.

Oh, and Morgan has a sore throat, and has given it to me. Kudos, Mr. Lucas.

I’ve never heard of El Capitan and didn’t know what to expect, but once inside the theater we found a man playing the pipe organ on stage. For 10-15 minutes, while people found their seats, he piped out the classic movie themes t E.T., Superman, and many other classic films from John Williams. After we heard (and sang along to) the theme from Star Wars we knew it was almost showtime.

When the lights went out we were then treated to a laser light show, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Lasers filled the theater all around us. A rigging lowered, with motorized lightsabers swinging and twirling from it. X-Wing fighters screamed across the movie screen as lasers lit up the theater. Fog rolled out as blasts went off all around us. It was an incredible surprise.

Then the theater went dark. The words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on screen. The audience erupted more loudly than I’ve ever heard people cheer before in a theater before.

It was showtime.

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I received A’s for all four stories I turned in for my short story writing class, with encouragement from my professor to submit them for publication. Over the past few months, I’ve been doing just that.

My experience, to date:

The first step involves finding the right publication for your story. You might think that’s as simple as searching Google for magazines that publish short stories and submitting your story to them, but I found there’s more to it than that. First of all, you’ve got to find magazines that publish stories in the same genre as what you’ve written. (Makes sense — no sense in sending your horror story to a magazine for children.) Then you need to ensure that your story falls within the magazine’s length requirements. Some magazines define short stories as anything with less than 10,000 words, while others cut them off as low as 4,000. Next I found that many magazines only accept submissions during certain months of the year. Finding a market that’s perfect for your story only to discover that they’re not accepting submissions for the next six months is like taking a cross country road trip only to discover that Wally World is closed for the season.

You also have to pay attention to the magazine’s required format for submissions. Some want .DOC files, some want .DOCX files, some require .PDF files and one asked that you cut and paste your entire story into the body of the email. Even after your story has been written you’ll be tweaking the format for every single submission. I also found that many of the larger magazines charge a submission fee (usually $3).

Finally, most magazines frown upon “multiple submissions,” and request that you should only submit your story to one magazine at a time. You’re supposed to wait until that magazine either accepts or passes on your story before submitting it to another magazine. Of the magazines I’ve submitted to, the shortest advertised wait period is 4-6 weeks and the longest has been 4-6 months. If you’ve only written one or two stories, you’ll have plenty of time to write some more while you’re sitting around waiting for hear from magazine editors.

This morning, six weeks after submitting my first story to Cicada Magazine, I got my first rejection slip. It wasn’t as devastating as I had imagined the experience would be. The email was a form letter that said the story wasn’t a good fit for their magazine. That’s an important thing to remember, and a lesson our professor recently shared with us. Having your story rejected doesn’t always mean your story is bad. Sometimes it simply means that it wasn’t a good fit for their publication. The website LitRejections.com is dedicated to collecting rejection slips from famous works of fiction. And even though it takes a bit of the sting out to know that almost every famous novel was rejected at least once, it’s not really a dinner party any of us are particularly excited about being invited to.

As a kid or even a young man, I would have been more bothered by getting a rejection slip. I would have taken it personally, I think, to have someone say, “Your work isn’t good enough.” But when you begin to look at writing as a business, that’s not what a rejection slip is really saying. It’s saying, “we’re not going to buy your story,” for one of many reasons: maybe the length or tone isn’t right for their publication. Maybe they don’t run stories like yours at all, or perhaps they bought a story just like yours the day before, and don’t need two of them. It’s simply a formal notice informing me that this story, at this time, for this publication, isn’t a perfect fit.

I can live with that.

I’ve started a spreadsheet to track what I’ve submitted to whom. And that story that got rejected this morning at 8 AM? It went to the next magazine on the list by 8:30.

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I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out two days from now. For this week’s Star Wednesday article, I decided to write about something that really takes me back to my childhood: these vintage cardbacks.

Cardbacks were, of course, the pieces of cardboard that Star Wars action figures came attached to. All of these cardbacks are ones I acquired as a kid. Santa always opened the presents he left in our stockings or under the tree, so chances are most of these were birthday gifts from friends or ones I begged my parents to buy me at the store. I have nine cardbacks in all: three from The Empire Strikes Back (AT-AT Commander, AT-AT Driver, and Twin-Pod Cloud Car Pilot), five from Return of the Jedi (Biker Scout, Chief Chirpa, Emperor’s Royal Guard, Logray, Princess Leia Organa as Boushh), and one Power of the Force card (AT-ST Driver).

Most of the cards still have their price tags intact. The cheapest price tags are for Boushh, Chief Chirpa, and Logray. Each of those Return of the Jedi figures cost me (or someone) $2.59 each at Target. The most expensive figures, the Biker Scout and Emperor’s Royal Guard (also both from Return of the Jedi) cost $3.49 each at Hyde Drug. AT-AT Commander, AT-AT Driver, and the Twin-Pod Cloud Car Pilot all came from TG&Y. The first two were $2.77 and the pilot was $3.29. My lone Power of the Force card has the price tag completely scraped off.

Kenner changed their mail in offers frequently. These two cards contain offers for a Star Wars Display Arena and 4-LOM, a bounty hunter from The Empire Strikes Back. 4-LOM would have set you back 5 proofs of purchase (available on the back of all action figure and playsets), while the Display Arena required 10 (plus $2 for shipping). Don’t bother sending them in now. The display offer expired in May of 1982, while the 4-LOM offer expired three months after that.

Each cardback contained a list of every available figure at that time so kids would know which ones they were missing. The earliest cards released contained 12 action figures and are known as “12 Backs.” Those are super expensive and I don’t have any of them. The oldest cardback I have shows 45 figures, while the most recent one has 92.

I know that a lot (and perhaps the majority?) of Star Wars toys purchased today are by adult collectors (like me). My kids don’t have any interest in Star Wars toys (or most toys at all, for that matter). Maybe things will change next week. These cards remind me of a time when Star Wars was for kids, when there was nothing more exciting than talking your mother out of a new action figure while visiting Hyde Drug.

May the Force be with you all. See you Thursday night!

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This week marks the end of my first semester as a grad student at OU… except I wasn’t really a grad student, and the class I took won’t count toward my degree.

Where to begin?

The ball started rolling this past summer when Susan asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was a trick question as I don’t really plan on growing up, but if I had to, I suppose the answer is, “a writer.” This sparked a conversation that ultimately led us to discover the “Master of Professional Writing” graduate degree program. The program isn’t available at a ton of universities, but surprisingly, it’s offered at the University of Oklahoma.

OU’s website lists several undergraduate courses as required prerequisites for the program. With no idea as to what we were doing, I enrolled in one: Writing the Short Story. Susan helped me enroll for the class and sign up to take the GRE exam, which I took (and passed) shortly before the class began.

While attending the class, I applied for graduate school. This involved tracking down transcripts, providing writing samples, and getting letters of recommendation (thanks again, Ellston and Gabe!). It was a lot of paperwork, but 20 years with the federal government has been good practice. Several weeks after my application was submitted, I received my acceptance letter. I’m in!

One confusing section of the application asked me whether I was an undergraduate student or a graduate student. Technically, I was neither. I graduated from Southern Nazarene University with a BA in 2005, so I’m not an undergraduate, but until I had been accepted into OU’s master’s program, I wasn’t a graduate student, either. This was further complicated by the fact that I was currently enrolled and taking a class at OU. And because my application came back with “no deficiencies” (“he don’t know me very well, do he?”), the prerequisite I took was not required.

At least it wasn’t required by the school. For me, mentally, it was required.

It was required because I needed somebody neutral to read things I had written and say, “yes, these are good.” Not a family member or a friend or a co-worker, and not anyone who has read my books or listens to my podcasts, but someone who had no idea who I was. Someone neutral. Someone qualified to teach graduate level classes. Someone who grades and judges people’s writing for a living. That’s who I needed to tell me that my stuff was okay.

I turned in three short stories. I got A’s on all three of them.

I’m not telling you that to brag or pat myself on the back. I’m telling you that because it wasn’t until I got all three of those grades that I felt like I belonged in that program. Those grades didn’t make me feel proud; they made me feed validated. And that’s what I was looking for.

The very first time I set foot in Gaylord Hall, Susan, the kids and I went up to the third floor and found this sign: Professional Writing Alcoves. Unbeknownst to me, my classroom ended up being right next to this sign. Twice a week for the past sixteen weeks I’ve walked underneath this sign and looked up at it. Me, hanging out in the professional writing alcoves.

There’s an awful lot about writing fiction that I don’t know, but the one thing I now know is, I’m good enough to take a stab at it.

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Earlier this year when I was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, one of the questions the doctor asked me upon each visit was, “Have you noticed yourself falling or tripping over things more frequently?”. I hadn’t at the time, no.

The building at college I attend class at is a block away from my bus stop. Yesterday after class I left my building and walked out to the sidewalk, where there was only one person — a lady, 50ish I’m guessing — walking slowly down the sidewalk. It is my nature to let women go first, so I filed onto the sidewalk behind her. It wasn’t until after I got behind her that I realized just how slowly she was walking. The sidewalk is plenty wide for two people to pass once another, and so that’s what I attempted to do.

Moments after I had walked past the woman, I misjudged the edge of the sidewalk. My left foot slid off the side of the sidewalk. My ankle rolled and I fell, landing on my hands and knees. I was wearing shorts, and instantly felt the sting of the scrapes on my knees from the pavement.

Mind you, this is the equivalent of passing a car that is driving slow, only to crash at the top of the next hill.

I don’t fall as gracefully as I used to. As a teen, I was really into skateboarding. Often times a crack in the road or stray piece of gravel would stop my board and I fall to the ground, but I was always able to “tuck and roll,” rolling into a ball and popping back up on my feet, usually unscathed. Not anymore. When I hit the ground yesterday I hit it hard. Before I felt the stinging scrapes on my knees I heard the involuntary “OOF” sound I made as the sidewalk pushed all the air out of my fat belly.

As I stood up and dusted myself off, the woman asked if I was okay. “That happened to me once,” she said. “I walk on the right hand side now.” It’s hard not to take advice from someone who is still standing as you are sprawled out on a sidewalk for the world to see.

This morning, my ankle, knees, palms (and yes, pride) are sore. Any time my doctor asks me about symptoms, I second guess everything.

“Have you felt chills lately?”

“Well, last year, on our trip to Alaska…”

Vision related or not, I’m going to have to be a bit more careful walking down that sidewalk in the future.

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December 3rd will always be an important day for me. As some or many of you know and remember, on December 3rd, 1998, I was hit by a truck while walking down the side of the interstate. Calling it a “bad day” is kind of an understatement. It was scary as hell, to be honest. Being told by a doctor that you were literally one to two inches away from having your back broken or (more likely) being killed is a sobering event.

The first anniversary of that date was a really big deal to me; the next one, slightly less. It’s (unbelievably) been seventeen years now. Most of the emotion attached to that date is gone (I’ve even missed it a year or two), but when I do remember the date, I try to take a moment and assess where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Earlier this week, two great things happened: I started a new position at work, and I got my final, official acceptance for graduate school. At work, I’ve moved to the communication branch. I’ll be writing internal press releases, and helping other branches and divisions with their communication plans. I’m super excited about that, and equally excited about being accepted in the Masters of Professional Writing graduate program at the University of Oklahoma. I’ve had a blast this past semester getting back into the swing of things in my “Writing the Short Story.” I’ve received a lot of positive feedback in regards to my stories from both my professor and several of my classmates. I feel like this is something I might actually be able to do!

December 3rd was pretty good this year. Some years, it’s better than others.

I have no good way to end this post but I just learned it is Ozzy Osbourne’s 67’s birthday. Happy birthday, Oz!

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In the late 1970s, Kenner released twelve unique 12″ Star Wars action figures. The first ten figures were from Star Wars, while the last two (Boba Fett and IG-88) were from The Empire Strikes Back. The line didn’t sell well and was abandoned before more figures from Empire and Jedi were released. And while this particular toy wasn’t actually a part of Kenner’s vintage 12″ line of toys, he was close enough to scale that I always thought of him as one.

The Yoda Hand Puppet, released in 1981, was made out of vinyl and, other than a few strands of white hair stitched to the back of his head, was made of one single piece. Yoda is a puppet in the loosest of terms. He is hollow, but his mouth (which most people think of when they hear the word “puppet”) is not articulated. Instead, kids could make Yoda nod (“Yes, Luke!”), bring his hands up toward his chin, and… that’s about it.

This Yoda Hand Puppet is the one I owned as a kid. I can’t remember if I got him for Christmas or a birthday, but I do remember opening the box.

Again, as far as puppets go, the Yoda Hand Puppet is pretty lame. Of course as a display toy, he was pretty cool. The sculpt was detailed for the time, and as a kid there was always something cool about having toys that were “big.” While this Yoda was actually a little too large to be a part of the original 12″ line of figures, he’s almost perfect when displayed next to Jakks Pacific’s newer line of 18″ figures.

The back of the Yoda Hand Puppet box shows one child playing with the Yoda Hand Puppet and another playing with the then recently released yellow Force lightsaber. Both items were also featured in television commercials as well. Check out the amazing range of articulation on that puppet in this commercial!

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