Ever wonder what it takes to be in a book? To have your life jotted down by someone because you did something worth remembering? I wouldn't say that it's something I ever wanted or dreamed of. Truth be told, I wasn’t really looking for anything spectacular to happen. I only wrote this down to help me process what the heck happened to me. That doesn't change the fact that a lot has happened and the only logical place I can think to start this little adventure I call my life is back in the good old days.
My name is Finnegan Benjamin Riley, though I typically go by Finn. Not a flashy name, but certainly not standard by any stretch. Since I'm not sitting there in front of you sharing this little tale, you'd probably like to know a little about me. I'm not one for spending much time talking about myself, so bear with me while I fumble my way through this.
I'm a relatively average guy. Others describe me as “lanky” - which is a kind way of saying I look unnaturally thin for how tall I am, considering I'm only 130 pounds and none of it is fat or muscle. I started working out recently, though, but the results are slow going. My sandy brown hair doesn’t stay put no matter how hard I try to style it. I’d like to think it makes me ruggedly handsome, but most ladies argue that it makes me look “greasy.” Anyway, I don't feel like I have much else to say that won't make its way out in the pages of this book. My personality just shines on paper. Okay, not really, but like I said, I'm not actually that into sharing about me.
Here's my guess at a bit about you, because you're not sitting in front of me for me to read your expressions and know when to shut my big mouth and change tone so I don't bore you to death: you like to read (really went out on a limb for that one, huh?). Something about reading takes you away from the mundane chores that keep you down during the day - maybe it's school and you're just not interested in “the quadratic formula” and the various applications your teacher swears it has for “the real world.” Perhaps you're working and just want to unwind at the end of the day and a good story is your way of leaving the stress of the day behind. Or maybe you’re an adrenaline junkie and interested in a story which leaves your breath hanging somewhere between your lungs and the gaping maw of your open mouth. Well here's my deal for you, you avid reader, you. You hang on for the ride and I won't judge you for leaving your hot beverage on the table so long it cooled off and is totally gross now. I'm kidding, (I will judge you) but in any event here we go - here's a shot at explaining what you're in for...
It was the year...well, it doesn't really matter what it was, does it? The world was much the same as it had always been. New talking heads trying to control the masses with each side trying to one-up the other. Power changed hands a bunch of times while I was a kid, but the world itself changed very little. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona - for which the best thing that can be said is that it is not Phoenix since that place might as well be the surface of the sun for anyone unfortunate enough to step outside during the summer.
Tucson is one of those odd places. It has a strange and charming allure to it. One part retirement community over the top of something ancient and mysterious. From ages past, Tucson was home to the Tohono O’odham, a revered and powerful group of Native Americans. Most of the land Tucson now occupies was once their sacred ground and if you look long enough, you find the handiwork of these people dotting the landscape - small hovels once housing a family now permanently etched on the horizon, or the beautiful designs of their culture inserted into the modern desert vogue. The impact is subtle, but if you ever choose to leave, the desert draws you back like an invisible undercurrent whose presence is only noticed once it has swept you up into its power. Everyone I knew growing up who left, young or old, always ended up coming back to their roots in Tucson. I was one of the few from my high school that even attempted to leave Tucson but I, too, was drawn back. When I returned, I found few others had left.
Ever since I returned, I’ve grown to love Tucson. I’m a bit of an outdoor junkie and Tucson has no shortage of places to explore outside. As a matter of fact, Tucson isn't what most people expect when they travel to a "desert." Sure, it qualifies as a desert by the technical definition (which, for those of you who live pretty much anywhere else here's a fun fact to lock in your noggin - to classify as a "desert," there must be less than 10 inches of rain a year on average. The more ya know.) Truth be told, Tucson has way more going for it than rolling dunes and sand everywhere.
Allow me to paint you a picture: The town is smack in the center of a valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The people brave enough to try and settle in the desert figured out that the ancient tribes who first dwelled there were onto something with their home design. As such, adobe brick buildings pay homage to the Natives, while a mix of contemporary homes and businesses show a desire to stick with the times. As the town spreads out, small communities grow next to one another, giving a unique personality to every neighborhood, and every few blocks, there are intentional art pieces designed to draw you back to the beauty of the desert landscape. To a point, most of the buildings around town are painted with neutral earth tones to avoid distracting from the view of nature that wraps completely around the city with mountains.
To the south, the Santa Rita mountain range pokes its head on the horizon - it is by far the furthest from the city and if you want to get there, you’re not likely to still be in Tucson, proper. Rumor has it, most of the “shady business” that occurs in the area tends to go down near those peaks. But still, they’re something to look at.
To the far east, the Rincon mountain range wraps around the city with rolling hills and occasional peaks which dot the horizon. As if two mountain ranges weren’t enough, directly next to the city itself is the Santa Catalina mountain range. If you’ve ever been to Tucson, you know the sight. Sharp peaks and deep crags litter the landscape. Dotted with brush, buffelgrass (a sort of bushy, dead looking fern), mesquite trees and loads of limestone, the Catalina mountains stretch upwards of nine thousand feet at some of its summits. The mountains have become hotspots for tourists and natives alike for any number of adventurous pastimes. If you're the outdoorsy type like me, all you need to do is point to a peak or destination and go for it. Chances are good someone else has paved the way and you can follow a rough (or well-traveled) path to your heart's delight. In any event, I digress. You get the idea, so I’ll spare you the details of all the other mountains that surround my hometown, because there are plenty more to talk about and I’m known to be a bit long winded.
The native wildlife is just as varied - mountain lions blend in with the natural tones of the cliff side to stalk their prey and birds have adapted by cracking open some of the hardest seeds on Earth for a bite to eat before carving out a home in the middle of a spined Saguaro cactus. There are deer and lizards, hawks and squirrels, pack rats and coyote coexisting and surviving under the harsh sun. There is even a boar-like creature called a javelina (pronounced have-uh-lee-nah). It's basically an overgrown bristleback brown pig with tusks that has a rank stench you can smell for hours after it has passed by. The things are nearly blind and incredibly stupid, but if you aren't paying attention, it’s possible to be mauled by one on an early morning walk around the neighborhood. Thankfully, they typically keep to themselves.
Of all the treasures that Tucson has to offer, none is more precious or beautiful than the sunset. I was told as a kid it had something to do with the right settings atmospherically and the dryness of the environment ("it's a dry heat!") that enables the sunsets to look the way they do. I don't remember all the science stuff and frankly, I don’t care. The reality is, you'll never experience a sunset in the entire world as you will in Tucson. The sky ripples with anticipation as the sun slowly dips beneath the horizon, finally letting the ground below cool down from a day of heat and strife. But those few moments when the sun and the sky are in harmony - man, you cannot find a painter who can do it justice or a photo which can capture it’s enormity. The late afternoon nearly explodes with an array of colors that vividly shift every moment with such clarity that the entire city is compelled by mother nature herself to stop moving for just a moment to appreciate her beauty. Truly, there is nothing on earth as magical as a Tucson sunset.
Or at least, that's what I thought.
It's funny how easy it is to go on and on about home when you miss it. When I was young, I was always told that horrible cliche “you never know what you're missing until it's gone!” I think as kids, we have a tendency to ignore these things because we don't have to miss life - we are living it. But with age comes perspective and an appreciation for the bygones. And my parents, teachers, and mentors were all right - you really have no idea what you're missing until it's gone.
I once spent a few years in living in Chicago and fell in love with the big city. The skyscrapers, the hustle and bustle and all the people knowing where they were going and looking sharp while they were doing it. I never wanted to leave. But every now and then, when someone asked me where I was from, I couldn't help but be drawn to the idea of a Tucson sunset. I knew that I'd eventually be back there. It was home.
So I went back. I left the Windy City and headed to the Old Pueblo. I moved back in with my parents and lived the dream, working a 9-to-5 job with zero prospects of any kind of advancement or a fulfilling career in sight. I was living in a small portion of my parent’s house, sectioned off by a curtain rod and a single drape in order to give me some sort of “privacy.” I’d leave every morning and head to my cubicle at the office. I’d plop down at my desk and stare at a mountain of invoices to process and phone calls to make. The little red light on the work phone flicked on and off, reminding me I had about six-trillion messages to listen to with customers yelling at my answering machine. Yep, living as a 20 something with my parents, and seeing no hope for change in the future. “Don't worry kids, life gets better!” Or so they say.
Once you climb out of the mound of crippling student debt, perhaps you can finally start looking for a job that doesn't seem to take away your soul with every ring of the telephone.
"Hi, this is Finn, how can I help you today?"
"Hi, Mr. I-dont-know-or-care I heard you were unsatisfied with your last visit from our technician. Let me assure you that it is always our goal to make sure you are highly satisfied with your experience and I'm calling to see how we can make sure you're highly satisfied. Oh? You want your next month of service free and a bunch of other free things in order to fix some perceived wrong you encountered when we showed up? Perfect, that'll just come out of my wages and we'll be all set."
Or maybe even better...
"Of course we will come back out immediately to make sure that things are done exactly the way you, the untrained non-technician, would like it to be done, even though that is against federal regulations we are ethically bound to. No no, please, allow us to take the fall for that one."
Yeah, okay, so perhaps I have a few bitter feelings towards that job.
Still, it was a chance to be home and I was actually enjoying living with my parents. It's not ideal for most people my age, but it saved money and my parents are probably the nicest people you’ve met. My mom is the kind of woman who will invite you over for dinner and insist that you get what you want. She's making pasta but you're feeling like a steak? Great, she'll make the pasta and grab you a steak and throw it on the grill. Need veggies with that? She'll find what's freshest and cook it up for you. See something in the cupboard you like? It's yours and please, if there isn't enough for you, let her know because she'll go out and get you more. My mom is just that kind of a lady.
My dad, on the other hand, is a gentle man. He will listen to you for hours and ask questions to find out about you while mentally creating a whole slew of chores for himself to get done in order to make your life easier. Because undoubtedly, in your stories, you've poured out your heart to him and he knows that you need your plumbing fixed or your vents checked or your computer reprogrammed or a new desk built from this random log you found at a discount thrift store. He'll get it all done for you today and won't complain a lick. Oh, and have I mentioned he's completely blind? No big deal - he only deconstructs computer programs for a living doing cybersecurity without seeing it.
Okay okay, I'll stop - you get the picture. They're wonderful people and I loved spending time with them.
The thing is, though, that everything else about my family is somewhat shrouded in mystery. My parents told me stories of their families when I was young, but by the time I was ten, the entirety of my extended family were no longer in the picture. My grandfather on my dad’s side went missing when my father was young, right around the time he lost his sight. The police marked it as a cold case after a few months and slowly resources dedicated to the case were cut and ultimately stopped altogether. According to dad, his mom was never the same afterward. She stayed strong for him as much as she was able, helping him with school work and trying to make life as easy as possible for a young man with a newfound disability. But slowly over time, she slipped away - mentally at first, but her body followed soon after. She died at age 51. He was only 24.
My mom’s family died young as well, though I did get the chance to meet them. We had spent several holidays with her family and it was always a fun time for me. When I was only five, however, my grandmother passed away around Thanksgiving and her husband a short while later. I remember going to their funerals and told how wonderful their lives had been, though I barely knew them. So that left just me, my parents and our cat, Bruce.
Oh, have I not mentioned Bruce yet? He is awesome. Best cat you’d ever meet. A brown and speckled little dude, he is 8 pounds of fluff and joy. He loves everyone and cannot seem to get enough affection. I have had many nights with that giant fluff ball conked out on my lap while I’m doing...well, really, whatever. He can sleep through anything.
As for me, I was stuck in a dead end job and chances were good nothing was going to change for a while. So why am I putting this all in a book then? Because you never know what you have until it's gone.