Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reflection #40/40

I turned 40 today, May 27, but we’re about to move, so I had my birthday party last Saturday. It wouldn’t make sense to have a party when you don’t even have a house.

Alice and I moved into this house ten years ago, right after I turned 30. It was the perfect size for the two of us. But now that we have two kids, we need more room.

We’ve been moving stuff out of our house all year. At first the goal was to de-clutter, so that we could properly stage the house when we put it on the market. It took us months to get that done. Finally, after countless hours of labor, we transformed our home into a spacious and elegant place. It looked great; it made us think, Wow, we have plenty of room, why did we ever want to move? And then we remembered that half our belongings were in storage.

When we put our house on the market in April we were terrified that no one would want it and, even if we found a new house, we would end up paying two mortgages. But fortunately, amazingly, we found a buyer within four days of putting it on the market.

Most of our friends never saw our house in its elegant and spacious phase. By the time my birthday party rolled around, the house was mostly empty, with random piles of stuff crammed against the walls.

The theme of the party was 40 Appetizers for 40 Years, and everyone brought appetizers. Such wonderful appetizers. We ended up with more than 40, for sure. I thought I would be able to at least sample each one, but there was just too much, and I couldn’t do it. Though I made a valiant effort. Points for originality go out to Kate for the chicken & waffles with maple gravy, and to Joey for the weird retro hot-dog-pieces-on-sticks-stuck-in-cauliflower.

Tons of people showed up; people I know from college, from Barnes & Noble, from the Church of the Redeemer, from Good Shepherd, from Riverview East Academy, from Arcadian Comics & Games, from the Edge House, and more. All those places and eras I’ve been writing about in these reflections came to life and intermingled. It was great to see everyone, and chat with them, and my only problem was that I couldn’t talk to everyone longer. I felt bad to neglect anybody, but dang, there were a lot of people. And I am extremely grateful to all of them for showing up.

Not everyone could make it. I was particularly disappointed that Skaught and his family, who were originally planning to come, had to cancel because of a family emergency. I understand, of course, but I missed seeing him. I don’t see him enough.

Like I said, though, it was an excellent turnout, and it was great to bring together so many fine minds to discuss the important issues of the day. Like, who is the best Batman artist? Matt, Erik, and Chris all put Marshall Rogers in first or second place; I like Rogers, but I prefer Jim Aparo. Aparo’s Batman is the platonic ideal of Batman.

Many people I talked to commented on these reflections I’ve been writing. It’s gratifying that people have enjoyed them, and I’ve enjoyed doing it, but it’s also been a weird experience for me. For years I didn’t post anything personal on Facebook. But when I decided to do this project I thought, what the heck, let’s put it all out there. Now I’ve shared all sorts of details of my life with hundreds of people, and I like to think we’ve all grown a little bit closer.

When I started the project I made a list of topics I wanted to cover, and the list kept growing and growing. Now that I’m at the end, there are glaring gaps—I wish I had written about my cousin Rebecca and her family, and about my in-laws, and so many others. The more I named specific people, the more I felt guilty about all the people I hadn’t named.

At the beginning, I thought I could include all the important parts of my life in 40 reflections. I quickly realized, though, that there was no way. I tried to cram in the high points, with occasional digressions about cassette singles and comic books. At least I showed some restraint; I could have easily written 40 reflections about comics.

Despite the omissions and oversights, I’m glad I did this. Thinking back over my life I remembered a thousand more things than what I wrote about. I started out with the attitude of, “Oh my God, how can I be 40? Where did all the time go?” Now it’s, “Come to think of it, I did a lot of things in those 40 years.” And, even better, I realize that I don’t have much to regret; there have been so many good times and great people that I have to admit I have been very, very fortunate.

What I’ve realized is that I’m not really very anxious about turning 40. I turned 40 today, and I feel the same as I did yesterday. What I’m anxious about is moving. I have spent all day stressed out about the move. Looking back, moving, and the depression that has followed moving, has been a major theme in these reflections. This project has been at least partially an attempt to defuse any potential upcoming depression.

And yes, I know it’s not that big a move. We are literally moving one street away. We will be in the same neighborhood. The point is that we are leaving our home.

Tonight is our last night in this house. I’m going to miss it. So is Abby—it finally sunk in, that the move was really happening, and she started bawling. “I don’t want to move!” she said, “I love our house!” Alice and I nodded sadly. We love our house, too. This whole process is so exhausting that after a certain point you can’t even remember why you wanted to move in the first place. And, to make things worse, we’ll be leaving our neighbors, who we love.

Our realtor, Amy, who has been a huge help through this whole process, came over tonight to check on us. We were packing boxes when she arrived. She told me that this was the perfect way to spend my 40th birthday, because it's a reminder that being a grown-up sucks.

The good news, though, is that my birthday didn’t suck. I had a wonderful party. And that party is that it is a beacon of positivity, something I can think back on when I start to get stressed, and remember all the friends and the good times and how lucky I am.

We’re moving into a new house, and maybe we’ll be there for ten years, and maybe ten years from now I’ll be writing 50 Reflections for 50 Years. Or maybe Facebook will be long gone, and people will be telepathically beaming their messages to one another. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter; I will still have my store of experiences, and I will always have my memories of the good and bad times, of growing up in London, of my college years, Barnes & Noble, teaching, and everything else, and those times will always be a part of me. Like William Faulkner said, the past is not dead; it is not even past.

Reflection #39/40

Well before I went to college I knew that I was going to major in English. Not because of any solid career plan, of course, but because I really liked English.

Like my mother before me, I went to Transylvania University. People in Ohio always say, “Oh yeah, that’s in Pennsylvania, right?” It’s not. It’s in Lexington, Kentucky. For the first couple of years of my college career, I worried that I had made the wrong choice. Was Transy really the right school for me? But it turns out that it was, because I met
 Alice there, and that’s where I made most of my best friends.

I also learned stuff. In one of the introductory lit classes we read “A Rose for Emily,” and while we were talking about it, something clicked in my brain, and I really got it, the connection between form and content, and I could visualize the text as a complex web of meaning. In that moment, I truly became an English major.

I took way more English classes than were strictly necessary. I had enough credits for both a major and a minor in English, if such a thing were possible. Romanticism, 17th Century Lit, Metafiction, Genre Movies, Demystifying Faulkner, African Fiction, Detective Fiction, Creative Writing (Fiction), Creative Writing (Poetry) . . . I hated writing papers but I loved those classes.

The first friend I made at Transy was Jason C.
, and through him his roommate Chris, and soon afterwards Skaught, the tidiest Discordian of all time; Steve C., who I would later share an apartment with; Steve Johnson, my lifelong collaborator and fellow creator of unmarketable ideas; Ryan, who bought more comics every week than I did; Jason W., always calm in a crisis; Stacy, who I could talk to for hours on any subject; Ray . . . the list goes on and on. In particular I should mention that Ray was the one who encouraged me to get back together with Alice after the two of us broke up that one time, so my children literally owe their lives to their Uncle Ray.

By the end of my college career I was sick of writing papers and wanted a break, but I also feared change, so graduation was an odd time for me. The night before graduation I sat there, alone, in the Hazelrigg basement computer lab, wondering how it could all possibly be over.

After graduation, I knew I would see Steve and Skaught and Ray and Stacy and all of those folks soon enough, probably within the week. But there were so many other people I didn’t know if I would ever see again. That’s what’s so hard to process, to have people around who are a part of your daily life, and then one day they aren’t. It’s like your TV show has been cancelled, and your story will continue in a new series with a new setting and a different supporting cast.

The day came and we graduated. Before I went back to the dorm to carry my stuff down to the car, I said my good-byes. My last was to Kim W., star of the English department and all around good person, and it suddenly struck me that I might never see her again. It was a disturbing thought.

And I was right; I never saw Kim again in person. At least now there’s Facebook, and I can click “Like” on the pictures of her kids.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reflection #38/40

My maternal grandfather, Leighton Watkins, was born on May 27, 1910. We shared a name and a birthday. I called him NaNa. He lived next door to us, with my grandmother DeDe, in a big brick house. Sometimes I sat in the living room and watched baseball with him.

One morning when I was six I woke up and saw DeDe sitting next to my bed. I don’t know how long she had been sitting there, waiting for me to wake up, but as soon as I did she told me the news—NaNa ha
d died in the night.

I was devastated. I cried and cried. I stayed home from school, but I don’t know what I did for the rest of the day.

I was only six, and I only knew NaNa as my grandfather. There was so much I didn’t know about him. When I went to the funeral I was shocked and amazed when the man at the front talked about NaNa’s life and all he had done. He was a veteran of World War 2 and a beloved teacher and principal. So many people said that he had changed their lives for the better. It made me feel proud, to know that he had done so much good, but also disappointed, that I had only discovered all these great things after my grandfather was gone.

There was a night, maybe after that first day, or maybe after the funeral, or maybe even later, when I was lying in bed and couldn’t sleep. The loss hurt too much and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I got up out of bed and started playing with my Superman Colorforms set. I had gotten it for Christmas a couple of months earlier. Colorforms are little vinyl pictures that you can stick onto a laminated plastic backdrop. There were little vinyl Superman images and little Lex Luthors, and you could maneuver them around to create scenes of them fighting.

The adventures of Superman unfolded on the plastic backdrop and in my head. By playing with the Colorforms, I was able to distract myself from the pain. Soon afterwards I went back to bed.

That might have been the first time I used super-heroes as a coping mechanism. It would not be the last.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reflection #37/40

One night, sometime around 2010, Steve Johnson, Carter Newton, and I were in a hotel room in Collinsville, Illinois. We were there as representatives of Hex Games. Hex, as you may or may not be aware, is the company that Steve and I founded way back in 1997 to self-publish role-playing games, and we’ve been doing that ever since.

It had been a long day and Steve, Carter, and I were talking about hobos, because everyone loves hobos. We started bouncing around ideas and eventually came up with the concept for a game called Hobomancer
. It would be about magical hobos who had to ride the rails to keep the song lines in tune in order to prevent reality from collapsing. We loved the idea, but we have a lot of stupid ideas at night. The trick is to wait until the next morning. If you still love your idea in the harsh light of day, then maybe it’s actually good. The next morning we still loved the idea. We decided to proceed with it.

Soon we pitched it to
 Josh. Steve and Carter (and Colin) are all college friends, but Josh is someone we met through doing Hex stuff. The greatest benefit of being a part of Hex, for me, has been the friendships I’ve made along the way. Who could imagine a world in which I don’t know Josh? Anyway, we pitched the idea to Josh, and he also loved it.

We divided up the work on the book, and Steve, Josh, Carter, Colin, and I co-wrote it. Josh, Jeffrey Johnson, Juan Navarro, and Chris Newman illustrated it, with Jeffrey designing the cover. It took years of work, but we ended up with a book we were all proud of, and released it in May 2012, just in time for my 37th birthday.

The thing that makes Hobomancer more special to me than our other books is that it’s about things that are important. While I’m proud of the work I did on Leopard Women of Venus, that book doesn’t really express anything deeper than a love of pulp science-fiction. Hobomancer has a moral and sociopolitical message, about the dangers of our rampant consumer culture and the importance of community. Also there are monsters.

We felt like Hobomancer was the best thing we’d done, so Steve submitted it to the ENnie Awards. And, to our great delight, the panel of judges nominated it for Best Electronic Book.

Some people say that the ENnies are like the Academy Awards of the RPG industry. That’s not an entirely accurate comparison, because there’s no academy. The awards are decided by popular vote, so while it is indeed an honor to be nominated, literally anyone can go online and vote.

Once we were nominated we got on Facebook and encouraged everyone we knew to vote for us. Many people, including family and friends who didn’t know what the hell an ENnie was, were kind enough to do so.

The 2013 ENnie Awards were held at Gen Con in Indianapolis. My Hex friends were there at the con, but they were all busy during the ceremony, so I went as the one Hex representative. I had an acceptance speech prepared, just in case.

The ceremony took place in a ballroom in a hotel. There were hundreds of people in the crowd. I got increasingly nervous as the ceremony went on, through category after category, until finally they got to Best Electronic Book, and they showed the nominees up on the screen. We didn’t win the gold medal . . . but we won the silver, and they called our name, and played the musical clip we had selected (“Hobos are my Heroes.”) The crowd applauded as I walked down the aisle, went up to the stage, accepted the award, and gave my speech.

That’s one item marked off the bucket list.

I got a lot of laughs with that speech. It was a much easier crowd than my usual classroom of teenagers.

After the ceremony I met Steve at a nearby bar. We were giddy. After years of hard work, it felt great to be acknowledged. I only had one drink, but I left the server a $10 tip; that’s the sort of thing you do, when you’re a big shot award winner.

Reflection #36/40

Most of the teachers I know started teaching right out of college. I am unusual, in that I didn’t get my teaching license until I was in my thirties. I have less experience than most teachers my age, and I am farther away from retirement.

What was I doing in my twenties? Working in retail, mainly at Barnes & Noble.

In Reflection #34 I wrote about the thrill of sharing comics I had drawn with Mrs. Watkins’ fifth grade class. I had a similar experience when I worked at Barnes & Noble. My friend and manager
 Matt Kish asked me to collaborate on a comic strip that would run in the weekly bookseller news. We brainstormed ideas and came up with a comic called Don’t Quit Yer Day Job.

DQYDJ started out as a short humor strip about our co-workers, but installments started to get longer and longer, and an overarching story developed, and eventually it became the epic tale of our hero H-Bomb Ferguson’s battle against the Living Corporation.

Up to the end we continued to attach the comic to the bookseller news, so each week, when employees got their paychecks, they also got some action-packed anti-corporate propaganda. And we used store money to make the photocopies. How did we get away with that?

People got excited about the comic, and some of them became devoted fans.
 Sally, who was also H-Bomb Ferguson’s love interest in the comic, was our #1 fan, but we also got plenty of support from Xan, who got to be the evil sorceress Udanax. Casey got to get beaten up by H-Bomb.

We brought our epic to a close, sort of, and Matt left B&N in, what, 2002? But I soldiered on and kept working there through May 2005, when I moved to Cincinnati. It seemed like almost everyone who worked there came to my 30th birthday party, which was held just a few days before we left town.

After I had worked at B&N for a few years I used to complain about it, particularly with Casey and
 Sarah. We worried that we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives in retail, that we had greater dreams, that we were wasting our lives. It’s true; at the time, I felt trapped. But I did get out of retail and become a professional, with a salary and paid time off and no requirements to work the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve.

Now that I’m wildly successful I can look back on those times from a different perspective. I think about DQYDJ, and going to Mexico, and the parties at Casey’s house, and I don’t feel like it was a waste, and I don't regret how I spent my twenties at all.

I have to admit, those were good times, man . . . good times.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reflection #35/40

My best birthday was when I turned four. That’s when I got the gift of a little sister.

We were in Louisville, staying with my grandparents. One morning I got up and looked around for my mother. I asked my grandmother, Da, where she was. She said, “She’s in the hospital, having a baby.” I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought Da was joking, but she convinced me that she was telling the truth.

This is how I remember it, though it doesn’t really make sense. Obviously my parents had told me that I was going to have a new sibling. Was I really not paying attention at all for nine months?

We went to the hospital. I looked through a window and saw a row of babies in cribs. One of those babies, they told me, was my sister Cynthia. 

Cynthia was born on May 22nd. As I remember it—though, again, this seems odd—she came home to my grandparents’ house on my birthday, the 27th. I remember playing in the yard with my friend Dave
, that day, and wearing my father’s old Indian Guide uniform, and being excited at her arrival.

I have since learned that it is normal for kids to resent their newborn siblings. For whatever reason, I didn’t. I liked her from the beginning. And, aside from normal arguments, and disagreements about who was taking up too much of the back seat in the van on long family trips (her), we have always gotten along.

Cynthia and I played together, with Transformers going to parties with Barbies, Barbies fighting alongside Transformers. Our toys formed a super-hero team, fought evil, and operated a hair salon on the side. Thanks to me, she learned the names of obscure super-heroes (e.g., Doctor Fate); thanks to her, I learned all about the Babysitter’s Club (e.g., Claudia has a phone in her room and is obsessed with junk food.)

Over the years I’ve known a lot of people with sexist attitudes, and I like to think I’m not very sexist. A lot of that probably comes from growing up with a little sister who I loved. If my sister was a fun and interesting person, then girls were probably okay. In fact, they were probably just as good as boys.

My sister went on to become a superstar, with degrees and an impressive resume and glamorous friends. 
She's smart and talented. Now she’s all grown up and drives a car and has a job and everything, but I still remember when she came home from the hospital, and she’ll always be my little sister.

Happy birthday, Cynthia!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reflection #34/40

When I was little I would draw every night before bed. I filled notebooks with pictures of soldiers, robots, monsters, UFOS, and super-heroes. But they weren’t just pictures—they were stories, made up as I was drawing. I would draw the robot, and then draw the UFO shooting the robot, and then draw the explosion, one on top of the other. It ended up being an unreadable mess.

I remember staring down at the drawings in my notebook, wanting to share these storie
s, but knowing that no one else would be able to make any sense of them.

In fourth grade, when Dale Floyd French 
and I started making comics for each other’s amusement, I discovered that something had changed—he could understand them. It is an amazing feeling, to realize that you can combine words and pictures to tell a story, a story that other human beings can read and enjoy.

The first time I got a chance to share a story with a mass (meaning more than one person) audience was in fifth grade, in Mrs. Watkins’ class. That was a wonderful school year. Not only was Mrs. Watkins a great teacher, but I was lucky enough to be in the same class as Dale Floyd French and Michael Houchens.

Most importantly, when Mrs. Watkins found out that Dale, Michael, and I were making comic books, she asked us to display them in the back of the room. Every so often she would let the class go to the back, where everyone would choose a comic, take it back to their desk, and read it. Thanks to us, the class got a break from work. We were a hit. We created comics like Modern Art, Battle of the Century, One-Issue Special, Messy Comics, and the Barn Bots, and characters like Drip-Drop Man, Spot the Rainbow Dog, Chappy Chapstick, and Fuzzball & Scuzzball.

(Side-note: Around that time, Marvel Comics was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and it seemed to me like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four had been around forever. Next year Fuzzball & Scuzzball will be celebrating their 30th anniversary. More than anything in the world, this makes me feel old.)

Nowadays I draw a weekly Fuzzball & Scuzzball web comic. I have a much larger audience now; the web comic is read by literally dozens of people. While I enjoy drawing it and posting it online, it doesn’t compare to the thrill I had in the fifth grade, sharing my work with the other kids in the room.

Reflection #33/40

Though my wife is an Episcopal priest, who works for a Lutheran church, I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and was, at one time, a Discordian. And I co-founded the Church of Toast, but that didn’t really take off.

None of my college friends ever expected me to become a clergy spouse, yet here I am. When Alice went to seminary, I even audited some classes. I know stuff about the Bible. I taught senior high Sunday school at Redeemer f
or a few years.

Being a clergy spouse is strange, because when you come to a new church, everyone knows your spouse, and you become well-known by association. So dozens of people greet you by name, and you have no idea who they are. As I understand it, there are many more expectations of clergy wives than of clergy husbands. The male clergy spouse is still relatively new enough that stereotypes haven’t had time to form.

Being a clergy spouse means that, even though you have done absolutely nothing to earn a position of importance, you get invited to all kinds of functions and events. One time Alice and I went to a party in honor of Bishop Herb Thompson’s retirement. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a friend of Thompson’s, was there. Alice and I went over and spoke to him briefly, and one of us made some reference to being old, and he said to us, “No, you are young and beautiful.”

Have you ever been called beautiful by a Nobel Peace Prize winner? I didn’t think so.

Reflection #32/40

Remember that book, Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? I can’t say that’s true for me. When I was in kindergarten, I learned about letters, shapes, and numbers, but mostly I learned about loneliness and isolation. I hated kindergarten.

I was very shy as a child. There was no childhood trauma to make me that way, I just was. When I went to kindergarten I was scared to talk to anyone, teacher or student. And when you start the year o
ff not talking to anyone, you get stuck in the habit, and pretty soon everyone takes it for granted, and no one talks to you. You don’t know how to break the cycle, so you end up alone, watching the other kids play.

I wished no one could see me. I fantasized about being invisible, so I could come and go when I wanted, and not have to worry about what other people thought.

When the class sang “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” and I didn’t clap my hands, it’s not because I was being difficult; I was just following instructions. I was not happy, and I knew it.

Now I drop Abby off at kindergarten every morning. And every morning I am grateful that she is excited to go, that she has made friends and loves her teacher and has fun. I never want her to feel as lonely as I did.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reflection #31/40

In 2004 Alice and I took a vacation to New Orleans. On our way down south, we stopped in Cincinnati, a city we did not know at all, to visit the Church of the Redeemer for the first time.

This is the church where Alice would be working soon. First, she would be commuting down on weekends, but later we would be moving to Cincinnati. I knew going in that this place was going to be a central fixture in my life, and that gave me an odd perspective as I walked in the first time. I tried to wrap my head around the fact that, one day, every detail of this building would be familiar to me. Even more difficult to imagine, I would know these people, the people who at that moment were just nameless faces in a crowd.

We got lost in the building. It was maze-like, and we got to church late, but fortunately nobody noticed, because it’s a big church and we sat in the balcony. I was wrong, thinking that every detail would soon be familiar to me; shortly after that they began construction, and by the time we moved to Cincinnati the building was completely different. But I was right about the people.

We made many friends at Redeemer, over the course of next five years, but the ones that made the strongest impact on me were the members of a group called CORE. Alice was in charge of young adult ministry, and she started CORE shortly after she began working there.

I was active in the group for years, but oddly enough, it became an even more important part of my life after Alice and I left Redeemer. We stayed involved in the group, and now that Alice was no longer in charge, she could focus her time on making pie. She made a different kind every week; it was a golden age.  

Every Tuesday night we met at Mark and Jill’s house. It became fixture of my week, a time I could relax, get together with friends, have a good conversation, and eat pie. We planned events, we went on trips . . . those were good times.

But we kept having kids, and life got more and more complicated, and eventually the weekly Tuesday night meetings just weren’t viable anymore. We made a last ditch effort, at the end, but then Jackson was born, and Alice and I were too busy, and it came to an end.

When CORE stopped meeting regularly it broke my heart. For a long time, it felt weird not to have anything scheduled on a Tuesday night. It left a hole in my life. There are still CORE events, but since we no longer go to Redeemer, we aren’t as involved as we used to be, and we don’t see the others nearly as much as we used to. Ross doesn’t even live in Cincinnati any more. It’s sad, but you carry on, and eventually it started to feel normal to make plans for a Tuesday night.

Don’t get me wrong, I value the friendships I made, and I still see my CORE friends periodically. The thing I miss—the thing so many of us miss, in the world today—is the sense of community, the sense of feeling that, despite your individual differences, you are all connected to one another and there to help each other out as needed. That and the pie. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reflection #30/40

One of my earliest memories is of running away from my father when he came home from work. I ran outside, across the yard, into my grandmother’s yard, before he caught me. He hugged me, glad to see me, but I was genuinely annoyed that I hadn't managed to get away.

I also remember the time I went into my parents’ bathroom and tried to put cologne on my father’s toothbrush, to make it taste bad. This backfired, because I accidentally put it on my mother’s toot
hbrush instead.

Why did I have a vendetta against my father? I don’t know. I guess it’s just a stage. I know that my two-year-old son is always upset when his mother leaves and he gets stuck with me.

Fortunately, I figured out early on that my father is a stand-up guy. And it’s good that I liked him, because he was always around. I don’t just mean at home, or on family trips. He was my Boy Scout troop leader, my junior high librarian, a chaperone on field trips, a Future Problem Solving coach, my brother in the Order of the Arrow, the sponsor of the Young Astronauts club, and much more.

In 1989, he drove me and my friends to Washington, D.C. for the Boy Scout National Jamboree. In 1995, when a friend and I were stranded in Texas, he came and got us. When that same friend needed help being moved out of an apartment in Chicago in 1999, my father drove the truck.

My father has always been there, always willing to help me out. To be fair, though, he’d probably help you out, too. He’s just an all-around good person. Not in a boring or self-righteous way;
 Jim Connor is a fun guy. More than once in my adult life, I’ve invited someone to a party, and their eyes have lit up and they said, “Is your dad going to be there?”

As I have gotten older I’ve realized that, with all the deadbeat dads in the world, I am extraordinarily lucky to have a father who has always been there for me. And that is why, after all these years, I would like to publicly apologize for putting the cologne on the toothbrush.

Reflection #29/40

My most surprising birthday was my 34th.

It came at the end of my first year as a teacher. That first year was hard. Really hard. The first week was terrible, absolutely if-things-don’t-improve-I-need-to-find-a-new-job-fast terrible. The first day . . . I don’t even want to talk about the first day.

The only good thing that happened that first week was that one of my co-workers, Tim, invited me out for a drink with some co-workers after school on Friday. If I had turned him down, I might be in a different line of work right now. But I said yes, and I went, and I made friends. Friends made the job bearable.  

The second week was marginally better than the first, and the third was just a little bit better than the second. Gradually I started to, ever so slowly, get some idea what I was doing. I made it through the first few months, and then the time from the end of November to Christmas break was just a blur, because Abby was born and I had to function on little or no sleep. I don’t know what I did in class that December, but apparently I made it through.

And finally May rolled around. The last day of school was also my birthday. My parents were in town, and they took me on a trip to the mall. I don’t remember the pretext. I do remember sitting in the food court, saying we should go home, and them stalling for time.

Still, I did not really suspect that Alice was preparing a surprise party. Alice is terrible at surprises. It’s one of her virtues; she is an open and honest person, and not given to deception. It had never occurred to me that she might be planning something behind my back.

But she did. When I got home from the mall, my house was full of people. My friends from the Church of the Redeemer were there, and so were my friends from work. Alice had invited them, and they had made plans to come, without anyone letting anything slip. It was remarkable.

It was a celebration, not just of my birthday, but of my surviving my first year as a public school teacher. The surprise only made it better. I’m grateful to everyone who came, and I will always be extremely grateful to Tim, Jay, Jenny, and the other teachers who helped me stay sane.   

Reflection #28/40

Now that I’ve been happily married for more than fifteen years, people assume I am an expert in the ways of the human heart. And I am. Believe it or not, though, it was not always this way. There was a time, when I was in high school, when I desperately wanted a girlfriend but did not know how to get one.

I am not one of those people who endlessly relives his high school glory days. So much of high school is a blur to me, since I spent years not thinking about it. And I hardly ever see anyone I went to high school with, so there’s not a lot of, “Hey, remember that time we . . . ?”

When I was in high school, I was on the academic team. Specifically the quick recall team, though I also did Future Problem Solving. The main thing I remember is not the actual competitions, but riding the bus to and from other schools. I made good friends on that team.  

And there was this girl on the team, Beverly, and I liked her, and it really seemed like she liked me, but how could I be sure? In theory I could have asked her, but at the time that seemed unthinkable. It was better to live in doubt and hope.

Eventually the truth came out, though, that we were totally into each other, and it was supremely thrilling, like I was living in a movie, and I could hear the soundtrack swelling.

These days I don’t often think about high school football. But every fall, when it starts to get cool outside, and you need to wear a jacket, but it’s still comfortable, I specifically remember the time I went to an away football game. 

On the bus, I sat next to Beverly. We got off the bus, walked up the hill toward the other school’s stadium, and as we walked we held hands. It was a happy moment; so, so happy.   

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Reflection #27/40

By the end of my college career I was completely burnt out on academia. I could not handle the thought of grad school; I would rather just work a menial job at a movie theater. And so I did.

I worked at Woodhill Movies 10, where my friend Chris was an assistant manager. I swept floors, sold popcorn, tore tickets, and even eventually learned to thread the projectors. I worked there during the release of such blockbuster films as Twister, Mission Impossible, and Independence Day. It was the perfect job for a carefree young man. I made friends and saw tons of free movies.   

One day at work we learned about a contest for promoting Spawn, the upcoming movie based on the comic book series created by Todd McFarlane. The theatre that did the best job pushing Spawn would win a cash prize. I was not a fan of the comic, but I decided that we would win the contest.

One of my co-workers loaned me a big pile of Spawn comics. I read them and, man, were they terrible. So slow-paced, endlessly advancing the same two subplots, with nothing ever changing. My opinion didn’t matter, though, because that research gave me the material for a Spawn trivia contest.

I drew a poster to go with the contest, with a cartoony Spawn sitting in a movie seat and munching popcorn, and I oversaw the creation of a series of large drawings on the theatre’s front windows. I drew the outlines, and other people helped fill in the colors. I even came in and worked off the clock to get this done. It turned out great. We were the most Spawn-focused theatre you have ever seen.  

Our theatre won the contest, but by the time they announced the winner I had been fired. Me! The mastermind behind this award-winning promotional campaign. That’s gratitude for you. I still got my cut of the award money, though.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflection #26/40

Oni Press, a comic book publisher, recently announced that they would be accepting submissions. This is a big deal to me. It has been a dream of mine to get published by Oni, ever since the last time they opened up submissions, back in the 1990s.

In the summer of 1999 a friend and I had an idea for a comic book mini-series. I was the writer and he was the artist. Oni required at least five sample pages of art and script, so I outlined the first issue and wrote the script for the first five pages. My friend penciled the first five pages, and they looked great.

But then life got in the way. I moved to Columbus, and he moved to Nashville. I wrote the rest of the script for issue one, and emailed it to him. I hoped that would motivate him to finish the pages—they still needed to be inked—but it did not. Months passed, and still the pages went uninked.  

Eventually I got desperate. I really wanted to get this proposal mailed off to Oni, and it seemed like the only way I could get this guy to finish the pages was to oversee him in person, so in the spring of 2000 I drove from Columbus to Nashville, and brought him back with me to Columbus.

He stayed with us for a couple of days. During that time he inked the pages, and they looked good. Then the two of us sat down and worked on the proposal. We ran out of time, though, and I had to get him back to Nashville, so we finished up the proposal in his apartment. We put everything in a manila envelope, and my friend agreed to mail it first thing in the morning. It was late, but I had to get back home, so I said my good-byes, and made the long drive back to Columbus.  

That whole round trip was about 1,520 miles, just to get those five pages. Like I said—I was desperate.

I thought about that proposal a lot, in the weeks and months to come, because this was my chance, finally, to see if I had what it took, to see if my dream of becoming a published comic book writer really could come true.  

But we never heard anything.

In the fall of 2001, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I was back in that Nashville apartment. And, as I helped clean it up, I found something—the manila envelope with the proposal in it. The unopened, never-sent envelope.

I was furious. Deeply, deeply furious.  

When I confronted my friend, he was confused. He didn’t know what I was talking about at first. He thought he had mailed the submission off, and wasn’t sure why he hadn’t. He couldn’t remember.

While that proposal had been a milestone in my life, it was barely a footnote in his. Collaboration is a dangerous game; you have to be careful when you share your dreams. You have to remember that you can’t force someone to share your passion. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reflection #25/40

One summer, when I was a grown man in my 30s, I worked as a cashier at Target. I needed a job and my self-esteem was too limited for me to shoot for anything more ambitious.

To get a job at Target, you first take a quiz on a computer at the front of the store. It’s easy to guess what they want you to answer.  

Q. What would you do if you suspected a co-worker of stealing?
A. I would report them to my superior immediately!

I didn’t have company loyalty to Target, just like I didn’t for Barnes & Noble or Meijer, because it is ridiculous for a human being to feel loyalty to a corporation. Corporations are an integral part of our world, and you can’t avoid them, but it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, they are amoral monsters.  

Being a cashier is, more than anything, boring. You stand in one place and you do the same thing over and over. You are a cog in the machine. And to make the machine more efficient, they give you a speed score on your screen. I had very good speed scores. The key thing is to cut out that annoying “small talk” with the customer and get the items scanned as quickly as possible. My high point was when I maintained a 100% successful speed rating for over 100 consecutive transactions. My high speed scores made up for the fact that I never, ever talked people into signing up for the Target credit card.

The longer I worked as a cashier, the more I felt like I could see the outlines of what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison, whose walls surround us without us realizing it. Every day people came in, presumably to pick up something they needed, and then showed up at my line with a pile of stuff, just random stuff, not essential, and not particularly glamorous, just items that must have caught their eye as they roamed around the store. Hey, these shoes are on sale, and I needed some tape, and this little plastic pumpkin is only a dollar . . . Especially on payday, people would come in and, not even splurge and buy something exciting, but buy piles of junk.

I can’t know what the customers were actually thinking, of course—I avoided small talk—but I felt like I could see the desperation in their eyes. They knew that something was missing, they felt some void inside, and the only way they knew how to fill it was to go to Target and look for something, anything, to spend money on, to buy as much junk as they could in an effort to numb the pain. I’m not looking down on them; I’ve done the same thing plenty of times, particularly with fast food and the internet.

Standing there at Target, ringing people up, I started to think, what if this empty consumerism isn’t just a toxic strain in our culture? What if our culture itself is toxic, a virus that’s infecting and killing the world?  

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reflection #24/40

I have been a teacher for seven years now, and every year I go to graduation as part of my job. It’s just one of many obligations. Some years, you’re sad to see the students go; other years, not so much.

My first year, though, was also the first year that our school had a graduating class. They were pioneers. They had never, in their high school career, watched older kids go through their senior year and graduate. Many of them had never expected to graduate. Their peers had dropped off along the way, but these few, these lucky few, were the ones who had made it, and now that they were seniors they were somewhat surprised and delighted.

I loved that senior class. They did not take anything for granted. When people did nice things for them—like organize a senior dinner, or a picnic—they appreciated it. They said thank you. Which may not sound like much, but when you’re dealing with teenagers, it is.

When graduation day rolled around, our first ever graduation, it was a big deal. The staff and the students walked in a procession around the block and back into the building, as bagpipes played. The ceremony took place in the gym, not any place fancy, but it didn’t matter. The kids were so excited, their parents were excited, and so were we. I looked up on that stage and I felt like I had really done something worthwhile.

I’ve been to five graduations since, and there have certainly been emotional moments, but I’ve never again felt that same overwhelming sense of love and pride as when the class of 2009 walked up on the stage to accept their diplomas. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reflection #23/40

My fourth grade teacher’s name was Miss R------. It was interesting that she became an elementary school teacher, because she didn’t seem to like children at all. When she got angry she would scream and threaten us; when she wasn’t angry, she still wasn’t particularly nice.

Toward the end of my fourth grade year, as Mother’s Day drew near, Miss R------ gave us an assignment: Write about your mother. I remember sitting in class, staring at the blank piece of paper, unsure how to begin. Eventually I started, and I wrote that my mother said she wasn’t very good at singing.

Miss R------ walked around the room, checking on our progress. She stopped at my desk, and said something to the effect of, “That’s it? Not very good at singing? Boy, you sure do love your mother.” Her voice was filled with sarcasm.

I was annoyed, because of course I loved my mother, and she hadn’t even let me make my point. I went on to write that my mother said she wasn’t very good at singing, but I thought her singing was fine. I went on to write about how great my mother was, and the whole thing turned out very nice and touching, thank you very much, Miss R------.

It was hard for me then, and is hard for me now, to write what’s great about my mother. My mother has always been there for me; my whole life I have felt loved and appreciated. I don’t know what it’s like to have a bad mother, so it’s easy to take mine for granted, but when I step back and think about it, it’s overwhelming.

My mother is committed. When she signed me up for piano lessons or for Boy Scouts or tennis lessons, then I knew I would be going, consistently, for the foreseeable future. When she takes on a project, or joins a committee, or works for a charity, she will give it her all. She doesn’t spend time bragging all about the good work she’s doing; she gets the job done.

She is unfailingly supportive. Even though I know it was disappointing, when she realized I would never be interested in college basketball, she has never given up on me. She has helped me through break-ups, and bad life choices, and financial mishaps, and always encouraged me.

She has always put her family first. I don’t just mean us, the nuclear family. On many occasions she has done the hard, unglamorous work of taking care of elderly relatives.

And even though she never let on, for years and years, that she wanted grandchildren, she is an excellent grandmother. She is always happy to take care of Abby and Jackson, and they are always happy to visit her.

My mother will still tell you that she’s not much of a singer. She is honest, and probably too hard on herself, so I’ll go ahead and brag about her. She is the best mother I know. 

Reflection #22/40

When I was home for Christmas in 1998—I was living in Lexington at the time—I sat my parents down and told them that I was going to propose to Alice Van Brunt. I planned on doing this the old-fashioned way. Instead of having a frank and open conversation with Alice about the pros and cons of marriage, I wanted to surprise her with a ring. My mother immediately sprang into action and offered to help me find an engagement ring.

Alice had said, in earlier conv
ersations, that she didn’t care much about diamonds and had always wanted a pearl engagement ring. The woman working at London Gold insisted that you simply could not have a pearl engagement ring. Still, my mother, sister, and I were undeterred, and we found a beautiful pearl ring. My parents loaned me the money for the down-payment. I was not a rich man.

The ring was not ready right away. It had to be sized, or maybe we only saw the display copy, and they had to order one in? I don’t remember, but I didn’t get the ring until January. Once I had it, I invited Alice out on a date. She later told me that she should have been suspicious when I made reservations at a nice restaurant AND picked her up on time. The venue I chose was Regatta, a seafood place in Lexington Green that has since closed.

All through dinner I had the ring in my pocket, waiting for the right time, but it never felt quite right. For whatever reason, I had imagined myself being outdoors when I proposed. So I suggested we go take a walk in the park, and Alice agreed. As soon as we walked outside I realized that taking a walk in the park in January was fairly ridiculous, considering how cold it was, but I was committed now, and fortunately Alice didn’t complain.

On our drive to the park—it’s a very short drive, Shillito Park is right next to Lexington Green—Alice brought up, out of nowhere, the subject of marriage. She told me that, if I ever felt the need to propose, I didn’t need to worry about getting her a ring.

“Huh,” I said, and drove on to the park.

We got out of the car and walked a short ways. It was obviously too cold to walk for very long. Alice wanted to go back to the car. I told her to wait just a minute, got down on one knee, and asked her to marry me. She said yes.

Alice has since described me as a man made of regret, but proposing to her is something I have never regretted, and probably the best decision I ever made.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reflection #21/40

I was in no danger of growing up illiterate in Appalachia. My parents taught me to love books before I could read. There were always books in the house, from the bookshelves in the family room filled with titles like Love Story and Run, Rabbit and Einstein to the copy of One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish in my room.

My mother is a fast reader, the sort of person who is always looking for a new book because she just finished the previous one. She read me picture books when I was little, then when I was slightly older, she read to me from a series of Bible story books. Unlike some of my classmates, who would first encounter reading in school and come to see it as a chore, I saw reading as a good time.

It’s no surprise I ended up becoming an English teacher. Not only did my parents instill a love of reading at an early age, but I’m descended from a whole bunch of teachers. Aunt Bama got her grade 1 teaching certificate, the highest grade, in the 1920s. My great-grandfather J.M. Feltner traveled the mountains teaching from a McGuffey's Reader; my grandfather Leighton was a school principal, while my grandmother Mary Elizabeth taught Home Economics; my mother taught social studies, and my father was a junior high and high school librarian.

Everyone expected me to become a teacher, but I resisted it. When I majored in English people always asked, “What are you going to do with that, teach?” And I said no. And I had various jobs, and I worked in a bookstore for six years, and that, you know, related to my English degree, but still it wasn't quite enough. Eventually I grew tired of fighting it. I gave in and accepted my destiny.

Reflection #20/40

We waited and waited and waited what seemed like forever for Alice to go into labor. Finally they scheduled us to come into the hospital on a Wednesday, to induce labor, but what do you know, Alice started going into labor before we got there. It was afternoon when we got there. They told us that the baby would be born by 11:00.

That was a lie. After we had been there for a few hours Alice fell asleep, for quite some time. I dozed off in a chair next to the bed, nervous but exhausted.

Finally Alice woke up, and the doctors and nurses came in, and things started happening very quickly. Sometime, around 2 in the morning on November 20, 2008, Abigail Elizabeth Connor was born.

I saw them deliver her. She was small and pink, her head was slightly squished, and she was filthy. She was also the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I loved her immediately.
They cleaned her off, checked her vitals, and handed her to me. It was a profound moment; it went beyond terrifying, into the transcendent.

I remembered Alice telling me that, when she was born, her dad recited the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet to her. Alice went on to major in Theater, so who knows, maybe that had an effect. I looked down at my newborn baby girl, the center of my world, and softly whispered to her, “There came a time when the old gods died . . . ”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reflection #19/40

In the fall of 1982 I got to miss school so I could go with my parents to Philadelphia. We were there so my father could attend a library convention. We stayed in a hotel, which I remember as being huge and being super-fancy, and we walked around and took in the sights, and it was awesome. 

One of the best things about the hotel is that it was near a 7-11. Every night we would go down to the 7-11, and I would look at the comic books on the spinner rack, and my parents would buy me one. they were only 60 cents back then. They were displayed on a spinner rack. Is there anything more enticing, more filled with possibility, than a spinner rack of comics that you’ve never read?

I still remember looking through those comics on that rack, including that intriguing issue of Batman Family that I didn’t end up getting. The comics I did choose, over the course of that week, were an Archie, Marvel Team-Up #121 (Spider-Man and the Human Torch vs. the Speed Demon), Flash #313 (Flash vs. Gorilla Grodd and Psykon, with a Doctor Fate back-up story), Iron Man #162 (Iron Man fighting planes, maybe?), and Defenders #111.  

This is such a wonderful cover. Could you resist buying this? I couldn't. 

There's nothing I don't love about this cover. It's really got it all.

Aaaaand here's Iron Man fighting planes.

That issue of Defenders focused on a character called Hellcat, who traveled to Hell and met the Devil. I remember lying on the hotel floor, trying to puzzle this scene out—I was only six, so there were plenty of words I didn’t know. 

I asked, "What does S-A-T-A-N spell?" Without pausing my mother said, "Satan." There were no follow-up questions. 

Growing up in the Bible Belt, I would come to know plenty of kids whose parents forbade them to read certain books, or play certain games, or watch certain movies, because of imagined demonic overtones.  But I, at age six, could read a story that actually featured Satan as a character, and my parents didn't freak out.  I will always be grateful for that.

This comic has been missing its cover for a long, long time.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Reflection #18/40

People talk about how CDs replaced vinyl, but I only dimly remember records still being a thing in my early childhood. By the time I was old enough to buy music, I was buying cassette tapes. I know I bought the Ghostbusters soundtrack on cassette, and that would have been in 1984.

When I was in grade school I felt overwhelmed by popular music, like it was something that other kids knew all about but I didn’t. We didn’t listen to a lot of music in my house, and besides, it seemed like there was a lot of research involved in learning all those band names, and song titles, and lyrics.

This changed in 1989, partly because my family got MTV. It turned out that it didn’t take long to learn the band names and, hey, it’s popular music, so you only needed to know what was current anyway.

The other important factor in my growing musical awareness is that, in 1989, there was a Wal-Mart in walking distance from my house, and this Wal-Mart sold cassette singles. I loved the cassette singles. If there was a song I loved on the radio, I would have to sit and wait and hope they would play it. But if I bought the single, I could play it anytime I wanted, over and over and over. I could even play the crappy B-side, if I felt like it. Best of all, they were only $3 each.

Three dollars may sound like a lot for one song (and a crappy B-side) but at least you knew what you were getting. When I really liked a song by an artist, and risked buying an album based on that song, the album almost always sucked.

The first single I bought was Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator,” a song I cherished so much that I had to seek it out. Other stand-outs included Prince’s “Batdance,” Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” and the Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.”

That golden age of the cassette single only lasted a few years, but I’ll always remember standing there in the Wal-Mart electronics department, three dollars in my pocket, looking at all my options, excited by the possibilities. 

Reflection #17/40

Last week Jackson was sick. He was having trouble breathing in the middle of the night and Alice took him to the hospital at 3 AM. She hoped they would tell her that she had nothing to worry about, but they determined that he did have a problem and admitted him. They were in the hospital all day Monday and did not get home until 1 in the morning.

Everything turned out okay, but it made me think of all the times I have been scared about Jackson’s health, sta
rting before he was born.

Jackson was a big baby. Very, very big. He was also breach, meaning that not only could he barely fit inside his mother, but he was turned the wrong way. A traditional birth would be way too difficult so they scheduled Alice for a C-section.

Just before our family vacation, the doctor decided that Alice shouldn’t go. So I ended up driving through South Carolina with my parents, Cynthia, and Abby. While we were stopped for lunch, I got a call from Alice. She was panicked; she had gone to get an ultrasound, and the technician had warned her that she was at risk for pregnancy loss.

“Pregnancy loss” is the worst euphemism I have ever heard, in that it completely fails to make the thing it’s describing sound less terrible. Hearing this from Alice, in that Zaxby’s parking lot, was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.

We got back in the car, and continued driving, but my heart was racing and I could barely think straight. A few minutes later Alice called back. Alice had talked to her doctor, who had calmed her down, and said that the ultrasound technician should not have used that term, that things were not that dire, that Alice just needed to check in regularly so she could make sure everything was going smoothly.

That was reassuring, but my mood was pretty much ruined for the rest of the vacation. And, the day after we got back from vacation, when Jackson was born, I was excited, but I couldn’t stop worrying. The whole time we were in the hospital, I kept wondering, when is the other shoe going to drop?

It took me a long time to accept that, knock on wood, Jackson is healthy and happy and, as an added bonus, adorable. I am extremely grateful for that. Eventually my paranoia subsided. Now I still worry about him sometimes, like when he gets sick and has breathing problems, but generally I'm just glad to have him around.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reflection #16/40

Pretty much every Sunday, from my earliest memories up until I left home for college in 1993, my family went to church, came home and changed clothes, and then went next door to my grandmother’s house. She always made roast beef for lunch on Sunday. And, in addition, she always made about fifty sides to go with the roast beef. There were mashed potatoes, rolls, either a half a canned pear or a slice of pineapple, vegetables, and more that I’m probably forgetting. Every Sunday was a celebration.

At one point in my youth I foolishly decided I didn’t like mashed potatoes, so my grandmother would set a potato aside for me, and I would have a plain, boiled, non-mashed potato. Even when I started liking mashed potatoes again, I didn’t say anything, because I enjoyed having my own personal potato.

I especially enjoyed drenching the roast beef in Worcestershire sauce, and the potato—a boiled potato doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own, but douse it in Worcestershire sauce, and it’s a delight. And then you can use a roll or two to sop up the extra sauce on your plate.

After lunch my sister and I would play. Sometimes I would nap. In the evening, either I would still be there, at my grandmother’s house, or we would return. We had left-overs for dinner. Roast beef sandwiches, with potato chips and pickles and whatever else we found in my grandmother’s cabinets. Her cabinets were always well stocked.  

I miss that Sunday meal; I miss my grandmother.