Book Review: Nicholas Sparks’ “Every Breath” Shines, But Misses Opportunities

On October 16th, Nicholas Sparks released a momentous work as “Every Breath” became his 20th novel released to the masses. It was his 22nd work overall, including a memoir written with his brother Micah, and a non-fiction work co-authored with Billy Mills.

On October 24th, I finished reading my 20th Sparks novel and 21st Sparks work overall (I’m missing only Wokini, the non-fiction work that was actually Sparks’ first release). To say I’m an expert in the works of Nicholas Sparks would be boastful and untrue; however, since I’ve been reading Sparks for over 15 years, I can honestly tell you that while I enjoyed this book, it is certainly not the best we’ve seen from him.

Sparks tries something entirely different from any of his other novels: he bookends the story with a fictional character named…Nicholas Sparks, a writer who happens to come upon the story of Hope Anderson and Tru Walls, and decides he needs to write about it. The average reader who skips the “Acknowledgements” and “Author’s Note” sections will be fooled into believing this was based on a true story, but tucked right at the end, Sparks admits that it’s not.

Sparks is certainly not the first author to attempt this; however, this insertion doesn’t add to the story and the illusion of it being based on true events is whimsical, but also unnecessary. If anything, the attempt takes up valuable pages that could have been devoted to more details regarding Hope and Tru’s story — incidentally, the fictional Sparks says he initially wrote more regarding their story but decided not to include it; this reader wishes that he had.

The love story takes place over two separate time periods, spread 25 years apart. In 1990, two strangers happen to meet because they find themselves visiting neighboring cottages on Sunset Beach. While the harsh critic might say the neighbor angle weakens the power of their love, I prefer to believe that it alludes that love can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Almost immediately, Sparks shows the deep connection developing between the two characters, but also mixes that with the conflict (exes and the long distance, among others) that the reader should expect to rear its head later in the story. And while the initial connection is brief — the characters are only brought together initially for less than 5 days — Sparks again shows, as is a constant theme with his works, that love does not follow a clock, and that a spark between two souls can ignite very quickly.

But once the initial connection ends, the story loses momentum. Sparks struggles to fill in the 25-year gap by telling the reader what happened leading up to the 2016 present time, rather than showing. Time jumping can be an effective narrative as long as the reader is not left questioning what happened in between. I’d have preferred to see chapters devoted strictly to important moments between  time frames, rather than learning about them in a conversation between two characters.

The story does eventually regain its momentum, but it is halted once again too soon when the fictional Nicholas Sparks reappears to end the story. As I turned the last page of the story and began reading the Sparks perspective, I thought “Oh, it’s over already? Oh, okay,” secretly disappointed that there would no more pages dedicated to Hope and Tru. Without giving too much away, I certainly felt there was more to say, or more that could be said, rather than abruptly ending the story where it did.

Sparks certainly knows how to carry momentum from beginning to end. And while I prefer a love story that also adds an element of suspense ala Safe Haven, The Lucky One The Guardian, I enjoy a story that focuses purely on love as well, ala The Notebook, The Choice or Dear John.

Though Every Breath contains the elements Sparks fans have come to know and love, with the tenderness and sweetness only Sparks knows how to write, the story had a hard time holding momentum for me, a quality that is crucial for any reader. Bottom Line: A little more Author Sparks and a little less Fictional Sparks next time. 

Playing CEO: My Proposal to Save Struggling Barnes & Noble

After basically announcing that they were up for sale today, I have gathered that Barnes & Noble is struggling.
Hardly news, right? Under statement of the year, even. Profits are down, and it’s becoming harder and harder to compete with behemoths like Amazon and Wal-Mart. Hell, I don’t even think B&N even has a CEO right now. So things are bad. Not “split in half after hitting the iceberg” bad. More like “Oh shit, there’s an iceberg ahead; we need to start shoveling in the coal and turning the ship” bad.
If you’re a book lover like me, that’s the silver lining. Barnes & Noble is struggling, but there’s fight left in them. And changes can certainly right the ship.
What are those changes? I’m sure they have plans. But if they don’t — or if any potential buyers are reading this and need some advice — here are a few suggestions on staying afloat (OK, I’m done with the boat analogies).
1. Close out some stores. Obvious, right? Look, if you want to play ostrich and bury your head in the sand about it, go ahead. I’m upset about this too — the closest B&N to me is roughly 50 minutes away. Beyond that, 90 minutes. After that, over 2 hours. After that? I’m afraid to look. I don’t want these stores to close — I’m still pissed about the Borders that was 30 minutes away and closed — but to recapture profitability, Barnes will not be able to continue operating at its current level.
So they need to look at numbers. What stores are currently deep in the red? Also, they need to look at stores that are close to other stores to avoid a harsh impact on buying customers, as well as the potential to transfer employees and minimize job loss. If there are 600+ stores, pessimistically, I’d say 100 stores are closing. Optimistically, I’d say less than 25. It’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle. And while we’re looking at those numbers, let’s find trends. Why is Store A so much more profitable than Store CCC? What are they doing differently?
But if articles I read are true — and assuming they own the structures — closing stores could turn into leasing opportunities for up-and-coming businesses Warby Parker or Casper (Thank You Mr Bary).
Dying limbs get cut off trees. Sadly, the same is true of struggling retail chains. I hate it, but it’s business. And I’m not ready to see B&N die.
2. Reward Loyal Customers Like the Ice Cream Shops and Gas Stations. Chances are you bought ice cream this summer, or purchased a fountain drink or coffee at a gas station. Did the ice cream shop give you a punch card? Did the gas station scan the little card on your keychain?
Both kinds of places offer the same type of reward system: buy so many of our product and we’ll offer you one free. Barnes currently does typically run “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” sales, but it’s book dependent (only the ones on this table, only the ones with the sticker). What if you earned an 11th book after buying 10? What if it wasn’t limited to certain books, but instead any book, perhaps with a set dollar limit (most paperbacks run about 16.99; I understand if they’re unable to do this with brand new hardbacks)? Barnes currently runs a number of discounts, but could really do themselves a favor by raising the stakes.
Also, if you’ve ever noticed on your receipt, Barnes recommends titles to you based on purchases. But do they offer these books at a discounted rate personally for you for a number of days, say 20% off if you purchase within the next 30 days? Well, they should.
3. Let’s Get Interactive! As Bary notes in the article linked above, a number of B&N stores already offer book clubs, but not all of them, and only certain titles. The Barnes in Manassas, VA also offers Bingo nights. But I highly doubt all stores do. And why not?
I LOVE to read (Duh, right?), and I would LOVE to interact with others based on books. But I’m an extreme introvert, so finding or even starting a book club is not a venture I can, or am even willing, to try. And I certainly can’t be the only one who feels this way. But if there’s one at my local bookstore, I would definitely want to check it out. It’d be a great way for adults to interact. Or even a book club for teens/college students might help inspire friendships for kids like me who had a hard time making friends. And now that I have young children, I would be delighted to take them to a store reading for a children’s book where they’d get to see other kids and enjoy a fun night out.
And that’s the essence of point 3. To me, books are fun. Entertaining. So why shouldn’t bookstores be the same way, full of energy and entertainment opportunities? Again, I’m not knocking the ones that already do this: I’m just saying there are certainly opportunities to expand upon this. Which, again, leads back to my earlier statement: what are your successful stores currently doing that separates them from the pact? 
4. Create an App Worth Downloading. A quick search on my phone at the App Store shows me that Barnes and Noble currently has several apps, but none seemed particularly appealing. And why is that?
McDonald’s has daily deals on their app. Target has coupons on their app that you can download. Does Barnes and Noble have enticing deals on their app? Doesn’t look like it. And why not? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
  • Daily, or even Weekly deals. “Buy One, get one 25% off.” “Buy this book, 40% off this week only.” “Buy a book, and get a free coffee.”
  • Pathway to Awesome Deals. I’m picturing a Candy-Land-Style board with certain “benchmarks” you have to hit (eg: Benchmark 1: Buy a book, then you move to Benchmark 2, etc) and at the end of the path when you hit the final benchmark, you get some awesome reward! Games could be quarterly so customers would have three months to reach the end of the path Wouldn’t that be fun??
  • Piggybacking on the above point, what about a Scavenger Hunt? Create Weekly Clues that customers need to unlock (ie. What is the first word on Page 132 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?). Once customer’s correctly guess the clue, a barcode unlocks that has to be scanned by a B&N employee (thus ensuring customers have to come to the store to do it), and then the next clue is revealed. After so many clues unlock, another handsome reward is waiting our faithful players.
  • Trivia Games: Weekly Trivia Games (with book trivia, obviously) that with a passing score of say, 80% and above, a reward is offered (And yes, put a timer on the questions so cheaters can’t Google the answers).
See a pattern here? Rewards. Discounts. Fun. Just because you can’t necessarily beat a competitor’s prices, it doesn’t mean you can’t beat them. What can Barnes offer that Amazon doesn’t? Within that answer lies the key to success.
5. Reclaim Your Identity. Cut the Crap: Trivia Time! What is Barnes & Noble?
  • a) Bookstore
  • b) Toy Store
  • c) Store for DVDs and CDs
  • d) A Store for Useless Trinkets at the Register that No One Needs
  • e) All of the Above
If you answered E, you are right. But that’s where Barnes went wrong.
I’d love to see numbers on the profitability of answers B-D. Are these things selling? Is the inventory hurting or helping sales? Because frankly, if it’s not a book, it probably shouldn’t be there when you’re losing millions in a year. Got news for you, Barnes: you have a hard time beating the competition at book prices, you sure as hell ain’t going to beat ’em at toys.
The answer to the above question should be A. In order to survive, Barnes has to remember its roots and appeal to that customer base. Books are what made you. Books are what can save you. Not overpriced stuffed animals. Not Marvel figures that are $80. Not card games. Not DVDs that cost less at Target, Amazon, AND Wal Mart. Inventory is costly. Inventory that doesn’t sell is painfully costly. So let’s run those numbers and remember who we really are: a BOOK store.
6. If We Are Ever Profitable Enough to Open More Stores, Cut the Coffee: Barnes & Noble does good coffee business. I am aware of that. Sadly, it’s a longer line than the book registers most of the time. And books and coffee go so well together! (In fact, I’m pretty sure I have a pillow that says that, along with rain) But maintaining the price to run a bookstore and a coffee shop is not cheap. Take it from a guy that works for a utility company.
Coffee costs money to make. Product aside, it runs up your electric, water, and gas bill (it probably runs up your trash bill too). It also forces you into maintaining a larger space, and larger spaces are more expensive to cool and heat. Like Jon Snow said: Winter is Coming.
Right now, Barnes is struggling to stay alive, so the very idea of opening stores is ludicrous. But if we can get to that point — and with all the uncertainties in the world right now, I have to believe that we can — we do not need to open a coffee shop as well. Leave that to Starbucks. Besides, without running data, I can guarantee there is probably already a Starbucks within 10 miles of every Barnes in the US. They need to stick to what they know best:
It just might be the key to their long term survival.

Ranking the 20 Books I’ve Read this Year

What a fantastic year of books.

I had a goal to read 20 books in 2018. However, with two kids under two, a full time job, a dog and cat, a wife I enjoy spending time with, a house that is in constant need of repair, and a yard that is in constant disarray due to a particularly harsh rainy summer, 20 books was a lofty goal for me. Yet here we are, mid-September, and I have finished my goal. 3. Freakin. Months. Early!
*Round of Applause*
It may be the only goal I accomplish this year, but I’m still counting that as successful, and I owe it all to the 19 authors (1 author I read twice) who wrote incredible books that kept me interested throughout. Some were better than others. Some were much much better than others, but I didn’t finish a book and say, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on this.” In fact, there are probably 10 books on this list that could have easily been the best book I read this year….if it weren’t for the other 9.
So yes, a fantastic year of books.
I’d like to share my personal ranking of the 20 with you now as all are certainly worth a read. So here we go.
20: An Unexpected Grace by Kristin Von Kreisler: love dogs and I love dog books (Dog’s Purpose, A Man of His Own) so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite meet my expectations, but that’s not completely the author’s fault. The book started dramatically enough, but kind of mellowed and just strolled along from there. Not enough rises and falls.
19: Two From the Heart by James Patterson: I enjoy Patterson’s “Women’s Murder Club” series, and I’ve enjoyed some of his romantic tales (Susanne’s Diary for Nicholas & Sam’s Letters to Jennifer, for example), but for the most part, his books are just not emotionally gripping enough. They move at a good pace, but emotionally, I am not all that drawn in, which is a problem for me.
18: The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand: This book is probably a Top 10 in a down year, but I read too many great books this year. I read this because I wanted a beach book, and I enjoyed the different perspectives. But I think the story just didn’t resound with me…but it could with others. Still a good book.
17: Caraval by Stephanie Garber: Garber does a wonderful job creating a magical world; sadly, though, it’s really hard to get me locked into a fantasy world. However, as this is a series, I am still intrigued to read Book 2, Legendary, which just released the end of May.
16: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: Again, a victim of circumstance. Nothing is particularly wrong with this book, but it just didn’t grab me as much as the ones above it.
15: Child Finder by Rene Denfeld: I was intrigued by the book’s premise, but it took so long to build suspense for me, as I was expecting more energy in the middle and just didn’t see it. Once the book picks up with the climax however, it flew and kept me glued to the page.
14: The Bear by Clare Cameron: Bear was recommended to me several years ago by someone who knew I enjoyed Room by Emma Donohue, and I finally picked it up cheap at a book sale this summer. Both books are told from a child’s perspective, and while I found the concept so unique and mesmerizing in Room, I had a harder time following it in Bear. And even though this book had a bear chase, Room had more suspense for me.
13: The Other Half by Sarah Rayner: I read a lot of books this year set in England, but I didn’t enjoy the “Brit Speak” as much as I did in this book. I tried incorporating it into real life, but people just looked at me strangely, so I had to stop.
12: Abundance of Katherines by John Green: I’ve read many of Green’s books over the past few years, but didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Paper Towns and Fault in Our Stars. Also, Green fell victim to the books above it this year.
11: Mistletoe Secret by Richard Paul Evans: Evans is certainly a Top 3 favorite author of mine all time, and even this book didn’t crack the Top 10 (though he sneaks in with another book later). A good Christmas read.
10: The Girl Before by JP Delaney: This book is a bona fide winner in other years, and it kept me reading with its suspense, but I wasn’t quite as hooked as a couple of books you’ll see in The Top 5.
9: The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: I love a good romantic story, and this one didn’t disappoint. This probably moves up a few spots if not for some of my beefs with the main character….but the fact that Santopolo creates a character that I care enough to argue with? Makes her a great writer, and this a great book.
8: Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin: If Evans is a Top 3 author, Martin is a Top 5, and I’ve never not enjoyed any of his books. Romance, intrigue, suspense, morality. This book had it all. The ending might have dragged a little too long, if I had to give a con.
7: One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr: I loved going on the journey with Flora Banks, the girl with amnesia, as she chased after a boy who, of all things, she remembered.
6: The Forgotten Road by Richard Paul Evans: Evans narrowly misses the Top 5 with the second book in a series whose main character is a wealthy, arrogant jerk that suddenly finds a conscience. The reason I enjoy Evans and Martin so much is because they create characters who either a)have a moral compass or b)are trying to find a moral compass. Both authors are guided by their belief in Christ that shapes their written words. In a world of constant chaos, we need characters like that. At least I do.
5: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown: A book with a mystery that leaves you guessing until the end. I love books where you spend pages trying to solve the mystery, only to be left surprised with the ending, anyway.
4: Woman in The Window by AJ Finn: As above, it’s suspenseful with a mystery you are constantly trying to solve. An edge-of-your-seat book that I didn’t want to put down. If you enjoy Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn, you’ll enjoy AJ Finn. Sidenote: this is becoming a movie with a great cast of actors/actresses.
3: My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry: I love love love discovering new authors, and even more, love finding out that this isn’t the only book of theirs that’s currently released! Jane quickly became a new favorite author with just this book, creating characters you think about long after you’ve put the book down. Just the right blend of suspense and intrigue.
2: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris: How is this book not #1?? Even I can’t believe it, and I made the list. I’ve never read anything like this. The “catch” in this book is unlike anything I’d ever read before. It made my mouth drop open. Paris also writes openly and brilliantly about a character with Down Syndrome, who I couldn’t get enough of. I don’t want to give anything away, but you need to read this book. And the only reason it’s not #1 is because….
1: The Neighbors by Hannah Mary McKinnon: This book literally came out of nowhere. Seriously. I’m at Barnes & Noble looking up books on my list of books I want to read. I go to find my wife, who is looking at something on a shelf, and this book catches my eye with its intriguing cover and tagline. I pick it up, say “Hmm, this sounds good” and put it on a pile of books that, 30 minutes later, I have to decide which are keepers and which are save-for-laters. I was on the fence between two books, and this was one of them. Something told me to keep it…and it was the best decision of the year.
This book has…a romantic story. Suspense. Page-turning quality. Characters you love. Characters you want to scream at. Characters you just shake your head at. A mystery that you’re trying to solve from Page 1 to 320. (PS, I convinced my wife to read this right after I finished, and she figured out part of the mystery I didn’t, but missed the part that I figured out that I thought was obvious). And that sinking “Oh No” feeling you get in your stomach when you’re afraid of what’s going to happen? McKinnon takes you there…and then she drops multiple plot bombs on you in a matter of….ten pages. You’re trying to recover from the first, and there’s the second, then another. And another. At least five near the end. I couldn’t breathe by the time I finished. And I LOOOOVE that feeling! It is so hard for a book to make me do that. That and cry are the two things that a fantastic book should make you do, and McKinnon got me further than most authors who have tried (For the record, there’s less than 5 books that have ever made me cry). Yes, this book benefited from the fact that I had low expectations going in, but the writing quality blew the others out of the literary water (note: “Literary Water” is a dry pond because water is bad for books. Duh!).
I am forever grateful for McKinnon and “The Neighbors” for reminding me, more than any other book did this year, why I read. And driving that passion home for me with a stake to the Literary Heart .
(note: the metaphorical stake is plastic because nothing can harm your Literary Heart. Also – steak. Mmmm…)

Diet Begins Tomorrow!

As Rabbit would affectionately call me, I am what you would call a “skinny fat person.”

On the surface, I look like I keep in decent shape and eat within my means. This could not be further from the truth.

In the past 30 days, I’ve probably consumed 28 frappes from McDonald’s, and averaged about 30 oz of soda per day. While I could get away with this in my younger days — and to a certain extent, I can get away with it now — if I would take a test, my cholesterol, triglycerides, etc would show numbers that would scare any doctor. Also, I’m starting get a belly pudge….and I really don’t like it.

In 28 days, Rabbit and I will be heading to the beach for 3 days, a much needed vacation from the stresses of life in Gotham and raising two young boys. I’d like to take my shirt off at the beach, and feel confident surfing the waves on my lizard boogie board (No, I am not kidding. In the ocean, I am still a teenager at heart). So I’ve decided I’d like to drop 10-15 pounds. Or at the very least, attempt to shape my bowlful of jelly.

The diet is simple enough: Cut out my two major addictions: Frappes and Soda. To you, that probably doesn’t seem difficult, right? Truthfully though, these two things are my batteries, the only way I get through the day. Switching to purely and almost no caffeine will be quite a system shock.

But if I can get over that initial hump? The headaches, the cravings, the little devil on my shoulder urging me to destroy my body with chocolaty goodness? I think I can drop those pounds pretty easily, because I’m basically cutting out at least 1,500 calories per day. But that’s not all! I also plan on doing some form of running (which I hate), biking (which I quite enjoy) and ab workouts (which I don’t hate, but I also don’t make a habit to do it regularly). I think this plan will work for me…if I can get over that first hump.

Rabbit has her doubts about me, and I can’t say I blame her. I’ve said I was going to do this before, only to fail by the 3rd day. But I’m telling you guys, something’s different now. I’m tired of living the status quo, of “just getting by.” I honestly feel like if I can do this, I’ll then have limitless capabilities to accomplish other goals, which includes a lot more writing.

So here’s the statistics and a before-and-after photo for your judgment:

Current Weight: 178.8 lbs
Desired Weight: 165 lbs.
Total Weight Loss: 13.8 lbs.


While I will not be posting updates during my diet, I will be keeping a daily journal that I will post snippets from at the end, likely August 1. Also, you can follow the journey through my Twitter account which you can see to the right of this post, or you can follow me @MiloPenbrell. All posts relating to the diet will be tagged #TheStruggleIsReal.

Thank you, and see you guys on the other side, hopefully 15 pounds lighter!


Did America Elect Bob Rumson to the Oval Office? Startling Coincidences Between President Trump and Andrew Shepard’s Nemesis.

There’s a fantastic, underrated movie that came out in 1995 called “The American President.”

Starring Michael Douglas, Michael J Fox, Martin Sheen and Annette Benning among others, it follows the fictional life of widower/president Andrew Shepard (Douglas) who is raising a young daughter on his own, falling in love with a lobbyist (Benning), and fending off attacks by presidential hopeful Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfus).

If you haven’t seen this movie, you should. It’s a great watch, with several memorable quotes. But the most powerful scene comes with about 25 minutes left in the movie. Throughout, Shepard refuses to address the verbal attacks that Rumson continues to throw his way, even though everyone thinks he should. He finally does in a spontaneous speech to the nation.

You should watch the speech here, but let me throw out some of the more memorable quotes to prove a fascinating point.

QUOTE #1:    “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

QUOTE #2:     “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.”

I could go on, but my main point is this….is Donald Trump the real life version of Bob Rumson?

Regarding the first quote: this is exactly how Trump won the election: placing blame. Blaming the Obama Administration for this, blaming Hillary for this. Blaming everyone but himself. Even now, whenever tragedy strikes not only America, but anywhere in the world, Trump is quick to point out whose to blame. Also, Trump feasts on people’s fear, which is why he’s able to push through policies on building a ridiculously expensive wall that will cripple the economy, as well as his controversial policies in regards to security and deportation.

Quote 2 relates directly to Trump’s agenda against the NFL and athletes kneeling during the anthem. You could just as easily re-quote this to say “If America is a Land of the Free, then your symbol can’t just be a flag, but also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right by kneeling during the anthem in protest.”

When re-watching this speech last week, I realized something: we elected Bob Rumson.

Yes, I realize it’s a fictional movie, but it raises some excellent points still relevant 23 years after it’s theatrical release.

President Trump won the election by placing blame and installing fear. But as Andrew Shepard would say, we have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them.

We found our Bob Rumson. Now we just need to find our Andrew Shepard.


That Time We Asked for Prayers and Received Accusations

There’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time now, and I think I just need to write about it and put it behind me once and for all.

On the morning of October 7th, 2017, my wife and I received a phone call from parents. Our son, who had spent the night, was crying and they couldn’t get him to stop. He had slipped and fallen in the bathroom, looking for his grandmother who was in the next room. My wife, J, quickly got dressed and drove over to check on him while I watched our youngest (luckily they live close) but unfortunately, she could not get him calmed down. He was complaining about his leg, but because he was so young, he couldn’t articulate exactly what the problem was. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance where after x-rays, we discovered he had fractured his right femur. He was then transported by ambulance to a different hospital that could cast his leg (apparently our local hospital can not do that for a young child).

It was 10 days before his 2nd birthday.

This, however, is only the beginning of the story.

My wife, J, and I were shocked. Stunned. Scared. We reached out on Facebook updating our son’s condition, asking for prayers. Our son was writhing and screaming in pain and there was absolutely nothing we could do. My in-laws, equally distraught, blamed themselves. What could they have done differently? Their grandson had run back the hall, as he had done a hundred times before (you can’t stop 23-month olds from runnings) and been fine. They were absolutely not to blame, J and I had no ill feelings toward them whatsoever, but the damage had been done. Any parent or grandparent knows it doesn’t matter if it was an accident or not. You will always blame yourself.

So too, it turns out, does Protective Services. You see, when your child is two years old and goes to a hospital for a severe injury, an investigation is automatically launched regardless of the reason. While we waited for the doctor who would be putting on our son’s cast, two strangers in street clothes marched into our hospital room, without manners or sympathy, and said they had to take a picture of our son “for the record.” My insides pulsed with rage. I wanted to tell them to get the hell out. But anger wouldn’t help. It was bad enough we were all being treated as guilty first, ask questions later. Even justified anger can be used against you. We knew who these people were; the local hospital had reported our son’s broken leg as potential child abuse case. They had to: it was their job.

As our son was not in our care at the time, the investigation was launched against my in-laws, who were labeled as “alleged perpetrators” in a letter we received from CPS, Child Protective Services. The investigation, as it was explained to us, had 2 potential outcomes: founded or unfounded. Unfounded was our best option: it meant there was no reason for CPS to believe that child abuse existed, but still it would remain on my in-laws’ record for a year before being expunged. But a year for nothing? It still didn’t seem right.

A home visit followed with a caseworker assigned by the county. She asked questions of us, which were honestly answered by all parties. After all, we had nothing to hide. Nothing about her questions surprised us, except for a piece of advice she gave us: don’t speak of these events on Social Media. Someone had seen our Facebook post asking for prayers, and reported it to the county as potential child abuse.

My eyes nearly dropped out of my head. My heart sank. And any anger I felt before towards the individuals taking pictures of my injured son were nothing compared to what I felt now. My wife and I were betrayed, at our weakest of moments, and we would never know by whom.

It could have been one of my “friends.” Or one of J’s “friends.” Or maybe it was a “friend” of a “friend” who just happened to see the post (You don’t always have to be “friends” with someone to see their posts). We would never know.

Here’s the thing: I understand that certain individuals are in professions where they have a duty to report such incidents. For examples, teachers are supposed to report such events if they would see it at school. But a)this was not in anyone’s professional setting and b)if you are in one of these professions, you should also be smart enough to know the hospital was going to report it anyway.

The move felt vengeful. Pointed. As someone who likes to believe in the good in people, I lost hope in that. I found myself becoming paranoid, making lists of who could have possibly done it. I also developed a healthy fear of social media. While I didn’t delete Facebook, I stopped posting almost altogether, and certainly no longer post about my children, including photos. And while I don’t find myself thinking about that incident much anymore, I guess I never really got over it. I still feel hurt. Angry.

To the coward who took our request for prayers and used it against us: I still can’t say I forgive you, even though God has taught me that’s exactly what I should do. Instead, I feel bad for you, that you feel what you did was acceptable, justifying as “what’s best for the child.” Because you clearly don’t know me, or my wife, or my in-laws. If you had reported and then talked to us, I would be angry, but less so. If you had come and talked to us about it before making some anonymous bullshit phone call, you would understand how much we love these kids. All of us. Instead, I see you as nothing but a malicious coward, whose objective was to tear down people you clearly don’t know. And for that reason, I feel bad for you. But at this point, I’m still hurt. And I don’t forgive you. Not yet, at least.

Luckily, my son made a full recovery. The case was labeled 3 weeks after the accident as Unfounded. And while it was a rough experience for all involved, we’re better for it. Closer, even, as a family. Our son is not afraid to run and be the curious boy he should be, nor will he ever remember that pain he was in, of which I am grateful. My wife and I get to see two happy, healthy carefree boys every day, and I thank God for that. And my in-laws remain two of the most loving, caring grandparents they were before. I worried the incident would change the kind of grandparents they were before, but I’m glad those worries were for nothing.

But posting pictures and updates about my kids on social media? That’s a thing of the past. Facebook isn’t worth it. Kids grew up happy and memories were made and shared before Facebook ever existed, and those same memories will be made and shared when Facebook eventually crumbles under its own weight.

For me? I just need to get back to writing. To believe in the good of most people. I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to be pessimistic. I want to rise above that. Maybe this blog post can be the first step in moving beyond that horrible incident. Maybe seven-and-a-half months of brooding is finally enough.

Until Next Time,



It is currently 5:20. My son – E, age 21 months – just woke from his nap and is lying with my wife, J, who is watching HG TV. My other son – L, age 3 days – is happily asleep in his side sleeper next to them. And me? I’m in the midst of working on 3-4 loads of laundry and writing a blog.

This is the Penbrell’s “New Normal – 2 kids, 2 parents, 2 pets and too little free time. But the less free time you have, the more you appreciate it, and maybe it’ll help me to maximize it more than I have in the past. At least that’s the goal.

Right now, I’m thankful that we’re home. During E’s birth, he struggled to breathe and ended up in the NICU for 10 days, with J and I driving back and forth, one hour each way, every day ’til he came home. It was scary; even knowing E would make a full recovery and come home, there were babies there that cried all the time, and parents of those babies who had been there longer than us, and would remain there even after we departed. I pray for those families even today, because situations like that occur every day.

I’m also thankful that L seems to be sleeping pretty good right now (fingers crossed it continues!) One of my larger anxieties was the lack of sleep J & I would incur, but so far, the transition has been smooth. But L has only been home for one night. So it’s impossible for me to say what our new routine will be.

I think E will be a great older brother, once he adjusts to the fact that he’s not the sole attention-getter anymore. He’s sweet, and kind, and loves to share….as long as he’s in a good mood.

The animals will adjust well too. Allie, our 3-yr-old Golden Retriever, just wants to love everyone. Her heart is bigger than her brain, but I love that about her. Noah, our five-yr-old cat, has been through so much already – new house, another pet, and now 2 kids. He’s the picture of flexibility…you know, as long as we keep feeding him on time.

J will adjust well. She’s already a great mother, so there are no worries there. And now that she’s no longer pregnant, she seems a lot happier already (you know, since she can walk and move and sleep better now that she’s a whole human being lighter). While her confidence was shaken because of her sudden (and though it can’t be proven, probably illegal, and certainly morally reprehensible) loss of job, she’ll be able to bounce back, and be better than ever.

As for me? I’ll be fine. I’m good at recovering too. My biggest fear is always going to be about being a great provider and dad. I had a great example growing up, so I worry I will never live up to the wonderful father I had. L is so incredibly small, I worry constantly about breaking him. You know Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and how he didn’t know his own strength? That’s how I feel. E was 11 days old before we brought him home. L was only 2. That’s a noticeable difference in a newborn.

And of course, I need to find the time to do this – writing – even if it’s only a little bit each day. I can’t keep putting it off.

For now, it’s about adjusting. Finding the “New Normal.” 2 kids, 2 parents, 2 pets, and too little free time.

But also a lot of love to go around.


It is with a great burden upon my shoulders that I come out of the shadows and share my first post in a while.

My wife, who is due to give birth to our second child in less than a week by the way, just got fired from her job yesterday. With various doctor appointments and a company that doesn’t offer any sick time, she was able to save up a little over 40 hours of vacation time (about a week) for the ~eight weeks that she is going to be off. So we were expecting to be tightening the belt for a little bit. But now the 40 hours she scraped together is gone, and so is the promise of a job to come back to.

(If you’re wondering if she “deserved it,” let’s just say…she didn’t. Long story short, she basically got tattled on by a fellow employee by doing something that other people have already done [including the tattletale!], and rather than being calm and rational and say “Well, this should not be the practice,” they decided to do the irrational thing and fire one person, instead of at least 3 people that could, nay, should, have been fired for doing the same thing. Bottom line: she was fired because they didn’t want a vacant position for the next 8+ weeks. Call it what you will, but when you fire someone that close to their pregnancy, the true reasoning speaks for itself. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to cover legal fees to drag them through the mud.)

We’re not really sharing this news right now with others, except for family. However, as this is a blog written under a pen name, I figured it was okay to share here.

I’m in a state of shock right now, at the nastiness of people. Who does this to someone? At first, I was just blinding angry when she called me, crying and telling me the news.

Picture this. You’ve been wondering for the past several weeks when your 2nd born kid is going to come. Your first came at 37 weeks because your wife battled high blood pressure in the last couple weeks of pregnancy. You sit in the hospital, scared about the health of your wife and, later, your son, who is born with under developed lungs and spends 10 days in the NICU, and takes years off your own life. So when the second pregnancy comes along, you wonder again: will the baby be healthy? Will she stay healthy?

Then you get blindsided. Your wife, who is now 37.5 weeks pregnant, calls you, hysterical, and you’re completely helpless. Why isn’t anyone helping her? Why doesn’t anyone care? What kind of people do this?

I went from anger to a kind of numbing feeling all day. I want to believe in the goodness of people, but when things like this happen, you see how cold some people can truly be.

Truth be told? I guess I feel sorry for them more than anything.

I’m not super concerned about the money, if I’m really honest myself. Sure, it’s scary…but I have a decent paying job that will (mostly) cover us if we shore up a few trivial expenditures. And my insurance is covering the pregnancy. We have some savings too, and if she finds something else — which I have no doubt she will. She’s smart and a social dynamo — in a reasonable amount of time, we’ll bounce back no problem.

I guess I’m saying I’m overwhelmed because I’m wondering….is this a God moment? And if so, who is it for?

Is it a God moment for my wife? Was it time for her to move on and she needed a good kick in the pants?

Is it a God moment for me? As someone who always wants to be a good provider for my family, is God kicking me in the pants and saying “You want to make some money with your writing? Well then do it, ya bozo.” (And yes, in this case, God would absolutely use the word “bozo.”)

Or is it a God moment for us? Our family unit? A moment to come together, a moment telling us both to better ourselves?

I guess I’m overwhelmed with the timing of it all. And also trying to understand how callous certain people can be. If you have any insight on that, please let me know.

Thanks for reading. If this does turn out to be a kick in the pants, which I desperately need, I hope to stay in touch soon.




Where Were You When…A Life’s Journey Through Books

So the beginning of this is going to be a little strange, but just go with it.

So I’m trying to lose about 15 pounds before the new baby comes in July. To do so, I need to change some dieting habits, i.e. drink less soda, consume less sugar. My problem is if work gets a little slow, I’ll eat and drink more, but I don’t eat healthy. I eat cookies, or food from McDonald’s, and I drink soda. A lot of it.

So this past Tuesday, the brilliant dietitian that I am, I decided I would eat cauliflower and drink water. Which, aside from going to the bathroom more frequently (which I hate!), it was working well…until about 7:oo that evening when someone started poking me with a million knives. It turns out eating an entire Ziploc bag of cauliflower may be healthier in theory, but it’s not going to make you FEEL better in the long run.

So of course I ended up doubled over in the bathroom. And I couldn’t help but be reminded back two years ago when I turned 30 and had to go through my first colonoscopy. And as anyone will tell you, the worst part about the colonoscopy is the preparation of cleaning yourself out the night before, which basically means drinking something that tastes like bathroom cleaner, but is really a powerful laxative that leaves you in the bathroom for hours on end.

And, this of course, reminded me of “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell for the simple reason that this was the book I was reading at the time, and I remember how powerful it was, and immediately upon finishing, I had to look up every other book she has written because one just wasn’t enough.

And this got me thinking about the power of books, and how they’re with you through the ups and downs of your lifetime.

Like when I was in my early twenties, and me and my best friend KG decided that after ten years of friendship, we would try dating. (But if I’m being honest, I mean KG finally decided she wanted to date me, because I had been trying that for years) And anyone who knows anything knows that when you date your best friend, it could go either extremely well, or extremely poor. And unfortunately, our courtship went sideways almost out of the gate, and was also the beginning of the end of our friendship as we started growing even further apart. It was also around Valentine’s Day and I was beyond devastated, reopening old wounds and thoughts that I would never find the one. Not sure I was ever going to get out of the abyss, I picked up “Bluesman” by Andre Dubus III, and almost immediately became engrossed in this coming-of-age story about a teenager in a different time period, but for some reason, the story resonated with me so personally in that moment, and I couldn’t have asked for a better story to get me moving again.

Before that was of course the Harry Potter craze, specifically JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” I was 22 at the time, fresh out of college, and temporarily living in Northern Virginia at the time, isolated from friends and family, but venturing out on my own, really for the first time (I don’t count college). I ordered the book through Amazon, waited for it to deliver around 10 am on a Saturday morning, and then I did nothing but read the entire day. This gargantuan, 800-900 page book, but I couldn’t put it down, because I needed to know what happened before the media floodgates broke and ruined the ending, and I finally finished around 7 or 8 that night, exhausted but relieved. Sometime in the afternoon, I chowed down on some fish sticks, but never put the book down.

I mean….Don’t You Just Frickin’ Love Books?! 

Of course, I won’t ever forget being 15 years old. My mom took me and my sister to Waldenbooks and we were each allowed to pick a book. And for some reason, unbeknownst to me, I was drawn to one in particular, “A Bend in the Road” by Nicholas Sparks, and I don’t remember ever devouring a book so quickly, and being a hopeless romantic who couldn’t get a date in high school, Sparks made my heart ache by describing love that I was missing. Sparks is also responsible for my own writing journey, as his ability to evoke deep emotions within me that I didn’t know existed, created my own personal desire to write and do the same for others.

Years later, my girlfriend’s mother would give me a book she thought I would enjoy. It was called “A Perfect Day” by Richard Paul Evans, and was the story of a writer who was just starting out, getting his first book published. Suffice it to say that Evans was successful in not only writing a great book, but hammering home the point that writing was exactly what I should be doing with my life.

This is only a small sampling. I could talk to you about “Every Day” by David Levithan, or The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Or we could beckon back even further to anything by Roald Dahl, RL Stine’s “Goosebumps” series, the quirky stylings of Dr. Seuss, particulary Marvin K Mooney, Will You Please Go Now and Green Eggs and Ham, which I read religiously every time we had to go to the doctor’s office. But my point in writing this blog is simple:

Books are always there for us.

Through good times and bad times, books are there. They let us forget about our troubles if for only a few hundred pages. They inspire us to be better people. They make us laugh when we don’t want to, cry when we really don’t want to. They help us to find what we’re looking for, when we didn’t even know we were looking for that particular thing. They connect us to others, and help open our eyes to events to which we were previously ignorant.

Why do I want to be a writer, you ask? Because of everything I just said. To inspire and help others in the same way countless authors did, and continue to do for me.

I have never been more sure of what I was meant to do.



To the Blind Boy I Saw Walking Downtown Last Week

Thank you.

For the past two months, I’ve been in a nasty mood, pissed off at the world about a promotion I didn’t get at work, feeling I was the best candidate. Angry about the politics of business, and how hard work isn’t as important as who your friends are.

I’ve been depressed because no matter how hard I’ve worked at my job, I’ve always been at the bottom. And just when things seemed they were going my way, BAM! the company gets bought out, I lose my job, and am forced to start over. At the bottom. Respected and known by no one.

Meanwhile, I’m in a self-imposed RUT, depressed about the vicious cycle of trying to balance work and family, and having no time for writing. In essence, it’s like I’m standing over myself, watching me sit on the couch in the evenings, or on weekends, sad and depressed, and unable to put words to paper. Powerless to stop it. Unable to rise above my own anger and sadness.

I always thought if you worked hard, people would notice, and it would eventually get you where you need to go. And my motivation is pure. Noble, even. I don’t want to get ahead for myself. For wealth. I want to get ahead for my family. To give them everything that they want. My wife. My son. My unborn child before he/she is born in July. I thought if my desire, my heart, was pure enough, then good would triumph. But that’s not how the world works, and once again, I was naive to think it did. But damnit, doesn’t the world owe me something? That’s been my mindset.

Then I saw you.

I was heading back to work after my lunch break. Angry, of course. Wishing the last 3 hours would fly by, determined to change my luck, but knowing deep down I wouldn’t. I sat at a red light, 2 minutes from work. And you were at the street corner with two adults. If I had to guess, I would say you were ten years old. It was unseasonably warm, and while you walked without a jacket, you walked with two other things I couldn’t fathom: a walking stick, and a smile.

I nearly lost it right then in the car, and every time I think about the moment since, I nearly lose it. Here you were, young, the entire world ahead of you. Every reason in the world to be angry. But you weren’t. You were smiling. And it was in that moment I realized that despite our differences physically, it was you whose eyes were wide open to the world around you, and I was the one who was blind to what truly mattered.

When people think of inspiration, or heroes, they think of actors who play important characters on tv. Or athletes who lead game-winning drives, and then do charity work in the off season. They don’t look at every day people like yourself, but I want to tell you that you are just as inspiring. Just as motivating. Just as important.

I wanted to jump out of my car, run up and hug you and say “Thank you for just being you,” but of course I didn’t. I couldn’t abandon my car on a public street, nor did I want to make you uncomfortable. But here and now, in the anonymous world of Online Blogging, I want to say Thank You. I needed that moment. To remember that the world owes me nothing, and to stop wallowing in self pity when things don’t go my way.

Thank you for walking that day. And thank you for smiling. You have a strength I can only dream of, a courage that doesn’t yet exist in me, but because of that moment, I know it can if I let it. Thank you for opening my eyes.