Why I Wrote Swimming Monkeys

I’ve been getting a few questions about where the idea for Swimming Monkeys came from, so I thought I’d post the story here.

While on a business trip to Singapore, my wife, CJ, and I decided to take a tour of the surrounding islands. As part of the tour, the boat docked at a small island with an ancient chapel. While on the upper deck, I surveyed the area and spotted another jungle-covered island about three football fields away. From my previous trips to Indonesia, I remembered seeing monkeys and apes in the jungles. For some reason, I was curious if our guide had ever seen a monkey swim across that small lagoon. As soon as I asked the question, the vision of a monkey swimming like Michael Phelps popped into my head and made me smile. Of course, the guide looked at me like I was from another planet. Still, I continued. I turned to CJ and asked her. After getting the same response, I stated that they were built like perfect swimmers—small torsos, strong long limbs and large hands—and should be able to swim the freestyle better than any human. CJ simply warned me not to keep asking people that unless I wanted to end up like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite the warning, I turned to an ex-secret service agent travelling with us and asked the same question. Well, it was nice to see a secret service agent grin while questioning my mental state.

My curiosity only grew from there. I had never seen a monkey swim like a human. On the long plane ride home, I sketched a monkey in mid-stroke and teased CJ about writing a book about one. I had no premise or plot in mind, but it was fun to joke about it.  Once home, I unleashed my questioning on my teenage kids, and actually had them laughing with me instead of at me (a rare moment as you parents know).

For several years the image of a swimming monkey pulled at my curiosity. Then I came across a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. For some reason, I thought of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and as a former chemical engineer and Catholic school graduate, I was always intrigued by the battle between science and religion. At that point I decided to explore it through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy in a novel called Swimming Monkeys.

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Sometimes It's What You Leave Behind

Last year, while working on my novel, Genetic Imperfections, I moved into a new home. It was around the time Steve Jobs resigned from Apple due to the deadly pancreatic cancer ravaging his body. Ironically, the idea for the book started when my wife and I were in the car one day, and the reporter on the radio talked about the Human Genome Project and the possible implication for medicine, including a genetic cure for cancer. I had watched my mother die a few years before from a particularly aggressive cancer, so I, of course, was fascinated. That, along with a newspaper article I'd read a few years earlier about a young father who heroically joined a biotech company in an effort to develop a cure for his son's cancer, formed the basis for the plot.

So back to the move. I had been a dedicated PC and Blackberry guy, despite the fact that my all of my family members were iPhone addicts. I'd read about Steve Jobs' initial success with a cute computing device called a Mac. I'd seen the report of him being fired by his own company, and his miraculous comeback with the iPod. Heck, I even broke down and bought one. As a runner, I loved the portability and the quality and quantity of the music it played. But still, iPhones weren't for me.

But as I researched the best way to connect audio in my home, Apple devices made the most economic sense. Then I discovered I could control most of the house's systems through an iPhone. Since I was no longer in the corporate world, I decided to break down and get an iPhone. By the way, my family was elated—and what I discovered next floored me.

I was quickly exposed to a new world—a world of Apps that connected me to my family and friends, helped keep me informed, entertained me, and helped manage everything from my finances to my interest in the guitar and piano. I began to think about Steve Job's life and what it meant to me, and billions of others in the world. He'd faced a world of skeptics (including me), who said he'd fail. He overcame monumental challenges to show us an entire new world none of us could see before, through his redesign of a simple tool. When he died, I wondered if he realized what he'd left behind. It reminded me of a fable I'd written years earlier for a colleague who'd taken on the corporate giant we were working for, and despite the personal cost to him, made lasting changes for all of us that survived. Here it is:

There once was a man traveling down a narrow canyon who came upon a huge bolder that blocked his path and towered over him. He knew his was a path many people would need to take in order to reach a very special place. Because of who he was and what he believed in, he decided to take it upon himself to move the mountainous rock. So, alone, he found a lever and began to pry against it as hard as he could. But the rock only seemed to push back harder.

Pretty soon a crowd began to gather and watch. Most said the rock had always been there and they saw no reason to do such a foolish thing since there was nothing better down the road. They warned him that some had tried to move the rock and it simply rolled back and crushed them. But the man persisted and told of the special place down the path, and one by one, a few people decided to help.

The rock began to move, slowly at first, and then it began to roll faster and faster, looking smaller and smaller. The crowd stood and watched and now could clearly see this special place the man had described. And they raced there and reveled in the warmth and goodness of it.

After a while, they thought about the man and what he'd done. They went back to where the rock had been, but the man was gone. All they found was the lever. And they remembered what they thought and how they felt before the man showed up. Then, a funny thing happened...they picked up the lever and began searching for another rock.

If you're listening Steve, thanks for the lever.

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