Thursday, April 30, 2015

Reflection #13/40

As I mentioned earlier, my first novel was a surreal detective story called The Lobster-Quadrille.

I wrote my second novel shortly after we moved to Cincinnati, when I was unemployed and didn’t leave the house much. Working on it was therapeutic. The novel was . . . Did you hear the story about the teacher who wrote a novel and published it and then lost his job because the school district thought it was inappropriate? Yeah, I’m not going to tell you any more about my second novel.

My third novel was inspired by my college years. It had some nice parts, and was coming along pretty well, but it had structural problems. I got about three-quarters of the way through and set it aside to try the National Novel Writer’s Month challenge. My third novel is still incomplete.

In July of 2009 I participated in NaNoWriMo (which is technically in November, but whatever) and wrote a novel in a month. It ended up being a young adult fantasy novel called The Akseliad. The problem with writing a novel in a month, though, is that you have to do a lot of revision afterwards; I spent the next six years working on it. It also ended up being way longer than a YA fantasy novel can be, so it split it into two books. It’s now my fourth and fifth novels. Someday soon I’m going to try to find an agent and work on getting it published.  

My sixth novel is well underway, and is a complete departure from The Akseliad. Instead of young adult fantasy, it’s about grown-up reality. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, though I am told by the members of my writing group that it is extremely depressing. 

Reflection #12/40

When we first moved to Cincinnati in 2005 I had no job, I didn’t know anybody, and Alice was often away at work. Sometimes she was gone for weeks at a time; within days of us moving in, for instance, she flew off to Arizona for a mission trip. I was alone in our new house, with no idea what to do. It was not a good time for me. I became depressed.

I had imagined that once I quit working in retail I would be able to find the job of my dreams. But I was too lethargic to look for a job. It was hard enough just to get out of bed in the morning.

Alice was supportive--extremely, ridiculously supportive--but months passed and the sadness did not go away. I really wanted to be happy again, and I started to think that maybe I could get some kind of pill that would fix me up. I got a list of psychologists who were covered by Alice’s insurance, and I chose a name off the list, and made an appointment. It turned out that, out of all the therapists in Cincinnati, this guy was the one most passionately opposed to the use of psychoactive drugs. He’s written books about it. There was no way he was going to help me get a prescription for anything.

But that was okay, because he helped me see the obvious (in retrospect) solution to my problem. The more I stayed at home alone, the more I withdrew from the world, the less functional I became. The only way to get better was to reconnect with society. Instead of holding out for some perfect job, I needed to just get any kind of job, and get back around people again.

I took his advice and worked at Target for a summer, and then at a movie theater. I decided to become a teacher, and I went to grad school. I got a teaching license. My first year as a teacher, I became a father. Everything I am now, everything in my life, was defined by how I came out of that depression. In a way, it’s my secret origin. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reflection #11/40

On August 3rd, 1999, I started work at Barnes & Noble in Dublin, Ohio. I was glad to have the job, because I had just moved to Columbus, and was going to get married in a little over a month. On my first day a manager named Matt Kish gave me a tour of the store. He was a funny guy; I immediately liked him and hoped that we would become friends. According to him, he decided early on that I was some sort of right-wing nutjob and should be avoided. I guess I don’t always make a good first impression.

But one day Matt came into the break room and found me reading a copy of Jack Kirby’s Forever People. He asked if I liked comics, and I said yes, figuring he was probably just interested in recent well-known stuff. Then he surprised me by saying that Jack Kirby’s New Gods was one of the best things he’d ever read.

A little bit of backstory: Jack Kirby, the greatest American comic book artist of the 20th century, wrote and drew a series called New Gods in the 70s. It was all set to be his magnum opus, an epic story told over the course of years, but tragically it was cancelled with issue #11. People of my generation had not had a chance to read the series until it was reprinted as a cheap paperback in 1997. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, and it was, like Matt said, one of the best things I’d ever read.

So we bonded over Jack Kirby, and even though Matt was a cruel, bitter man who delighted in tormenting others, we became friends and, over time, boon companions. We talked about comics, we collaborated on making our own comics, we argued about weighty philosophical issues, and we stayed in touch when we lived in different cities.

Okay, so maybe calling him a cruel and bitter man is unfair. Matt often gave me a hard time, back when we worked together, but he’s also shown me plenty of support, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness over the years. He has been a true friend. And, eventually, he became family, when he became the godfather to my first-born child.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Reflection #10/40

My worst birthday was my 21st. It was the end of my junior year of college. The day before my birthday, I completely bombed my Conceptual Physics final. Feeling defeated, I emptied my dorm room and loaded up my car. I spent the night at a friend’s house; he had to work the next day, and was not up for doing anything fun.

The day of my birthday I drove home to London. I could now legally buy alcohol, but I was in a dry county, so it didn’t really matter. After I got home, my girlfriend broke up with me over the phone. Over the phone, on my birthday. I really wished she could have waited, at least a day.

That night my mother made me a birthday dinner, and there was cake, but I was not in a good mood. And then, when my mother found out about my grade in Physics, she was not in a good mood, either.

When I went back to school in the fall, I saw Alice Van Brunt in the cafeteria, and she inquired after my girlfriend, and I said that she had broken up with me. And Alice said she was so sorry, but she did not really seem very sorry, and she gave me a hug.

In retrospect, that break-up is one of the best things that happened to me, so maybe my 21st birthday wasn’t a total waste. 

Reflection #9/40

When I was 17 my great aunt Alabama Honchell, called Bama for short, asked me to come over to her house. She was 99 years old at the time. She knew I wanted to be a writer, so she made me promise to write a story about her life and call it “99 Years.”

The day after I made the promise I returned to her house and she started telling me about her life. She told me how she got sick when she was very young, maybe five or six or seven, and had to stay in bed, and even though she recovered she couldn’t remember anything from before the sickness, and so she lost the first five or six or seven years of her life. That was strange to me, that at 99 years old it bothered her that she couldn’t remember her first seven years.  But she kept her mind all the way up until the end. Her memory was better than most people’s, even at 99.

Aunt Bama graduated from High School in a time when that was certainly not a given and went on to earn her teaching certificate.  There were three levels of teaching certificates. Hers was grade 1, the highest. She taught for several years until she got married and moved to Ohio, though she later returned to Kentucky.

For years Aunt Bama and Uncle Bob lived on a farm. When I was a kid they sold the farm and moved into a house not too far from ours. Aunt Bama would live in that house for ten years, but Uncle Bob would only live there for three.

My Aunt Bama was good at cooking, and an expert seamstress, and great with plants; she was good at doing almost anything with her hands, at creating or growing or building. She was very intelligent and even the last Sunday of her life she knew what day it was. It was not until the very end, lying there in the hospital bed the last week after the last Sunday, that she could no longer recognize us.
I was a pall-bearer at her funeral. It was way far out, in Rough Creek cemetery a million miles away from town, down a winding country road.  When they lowered her into the ground all I could think about was how when I was really little out on the farm she taught me how to play baseball, how to steal bases when the other guy wasn’t looking. And I thought about how when I was little my parents told me, trying to prepare me and soften the blow, that Aunt Bama probably wouldn’t be around much longer, and how pleased I was that they were wrong.

She was 99 years old when she called me over to tell me her life story, and she told me she was worried that she was going to die soon. You would think someone at that age would be worn out and ready to go, but not her; she still had too much to do.

I kept my promise, and I wrote her story, “99 Years.” I was in college and I wrote it as my final project for my final class. That was appropriate, since Aunt Bama paid for much of my college education with the money she made from selling the farm. I wrote her story the best I could, but I’ve never come close to repaying the debt I owe her. 

Reflection #8/40

In college I did not take very good care of myself, in that I ate horribly, had no sort of regular sleep schedule, and did not exercise.

I had a meal card, but at that time the meal cards only had a certain dollar amount per day and didn’t carry over. So you couldn’t just buy what you wanted one day and then skip lunch the next day; that would have been handy, because I frequently missed meals. I would say I probably missed breakfast every day for about 98% of my college career, and I only made it to that 2% because I had stayed up all night. Anyway, the cards didn’t carry over, so if you wanted to get a bag of Tostitos and a jar of cheese dip for lunch, you couldn’t, because it was too expensive. So I would get a bag of Tostitos one day and a jar of cheese dip the next.

I don’t know if we had the food pyramid back then, but if we did I was unaware of it.

Skipping all those meals left me hungry, so at night, generally sometime around 3 in the morning, I often went to Denny’s and got a club sandwich, seasoned fries, a side of honey mustard, and a root beer. I would sit at Denny’s and talk with my friends for hours, then go back to the dorm and sleep as long as I could until I had to go to class. I had a belief, then, that circadian rhythms were for suckers.

I remember one time I had stayed up all night, and then stayed up the next day, and felt exhausted and delirious, so I vowed to go to bed early, and forced myself to go to bed at midnight.

That was when I was young. Now it’s just after 11:00 pm and I feel sleepy, and I wish I hadn’t eaten so much for dinner, and I want to get this done so I can go to bed.

Reflection #7/40

In 1998, when I was still living in Lexington, I started writing a surreal detective story that was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and Lewis Carroll. I was a little ways into it when I thought, what the hell, why not make this into a novel. I had always wanted to write a novel and I figured I might as well prove to myself that I could do it.

I worked on the book on and off and in 2002, when I was living in Columbus, I finished the first draft. I titled it The Lobster-Quadrille. I shared the first draft with some friends, who gave me feedback, and then started work on the second draft. When we moved to Cincinnati in 2005 I didn’t have a job at first, which gave me time to write. I finished the second draft in January 2006. It was about 83,000 words long.

I did some research and found the publisher that I thought would be the best fit for my novel. I wrote up a proposal, with cover letter and synopsis and sample chapters. I mailed it off. Soon afterwards, I got a rejection letter. And then I . . . did nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Why would you give up after just one rejection? I have no idea. It makes no sense.

Now I’ve waited so long that there’s a glaring omission in the text. It wasn’t meant to be a period piece, but if you were to read it now you would wonder, why don’t any of the characters have cell phones?

Reflection #6/40

When Alice and I lived in Columbus she attended seminary at Bexley Hall. She graduated in 2005 and got an internship at the Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati. The only things I knew about Cincinnati were that they put spaghetti in their chili, they’d recently had race riots, and they didn’t like the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. I had no desire to move to Cincinnati, and even less desire to leave my friends in Columbus.

During those last few months in Columbus, counting down to moving day, I felt an increasing sense of dread. Near the end, I became anhedonic. I wasn’t sad, exactly, but I didn’t feel any pleasure or happiness. I remember one afternoon when I got home from work—it was a nice day out, and we had no other obligations for the evening—and Alice asked me what I wanted to do. I said nothing, there is nothing I want to do, nothing appeals to me. All I could do was sit on the couch and stare at the wall. At that point I did not see myself ever being happy again.

Reflection #5/40

My friend Steve used to work at a comic book store called Red Rock Collectables. At one point he ended up becoming roommates with a guy Robert, who also worked at Red Rock, and lived right across the street.

One time when I was visiting Steve we talked about an idea we had called Qerth. We had the general premise, a parody of Dungeons & Dragons, but we didn’t really know how all the pieces fit together. We talked it over, and suddenly inspiration struck—we knew the key, the concept that would make it all work. It’s an amazing rush, that moment when you come up with a great idea.

Steve’s roommate Robert came home, and said hi, and I said hi, and he went about his business. And maybe I thought, Man, Robert, you have no idea what a great idea we’ve come up with. I can’t say for sure, but wouldn’t it be funny if I, in that moment, pitied Robert for not being a really creative individual like me? Because Robert Kirkman no longer lives in that house in Lexington, across the street from Red Rock; he’s out in LA, where he’s busy being one of the most influential creators in modern popular culture.

Qerth did not end up taking the world by storm. But that sense of excitement and deep satisfaction, when Steve and I figured it out, was a reward in itself. 

Qerth cover art by Juan Navarro

Reflection #4/40

My parents did not raise me to be a fundamentalist but, sadly, I fell into it on my own. It’s an easy mistake to make, when you’re living in London, Kentucky.

When I was in 7th grade one of my teachers told the class that, according to the book of Revelation, the world was going to end soon. He gave an actual date, though I don’t remember what it was; something around 1997, I think. This worried me. What good was going to school, getting an education, getting married, doing anything, if the world was going to end within the next ten years?

I needed to check this out so I began reading Revelation, which was a mistake. I didn’t read much, but what I did read was terrifying, and did nothing to lift my spirits. I became extremely depressed. If I saw something good or life-affirming, it just added to my sadness that we were all doomed.

This lasted for weeks. Finally I decided that I had to stop worrying about the future and live for the here and now. That sounds kind of noble, like a carpe diem sort of thing, but it wasn’t; it was hedonism, focusing on simple pleasures to distract from the larger problem. Whatever the case, it worked. I stopped worrying about the impending apocalypse all the time, and after awhile I stopped believing that the world was going to end in 1997. And, happily, it did not.

Reflection #3/40

In terms of birthdays, I peaked early. My best birthday present came when I turned four, and my second best was when I turned three. Cognitive scientists would tell you that I don’t really remember my third birthday, that I’ve just heard about it enough from family members that I have constructed an artificial memory. That makes sense, but I do not believe it, because, you know, I remember my third birthday. 

For my birthday my family gathered outside at the end of my house, where the family room would later be built, and ate watermelon and strawberry cake. And then my parents gave me the best gift ever: a green tractor that you pedaled like a bicycle. It was glorious. For years I rode that tractor around and around on my grandmother’s driveway, until I got too big to fit on it.

Years later, my father made a confession to me. “It’s not a John Deere tractor,” he said. “You wanted a John Deere tractor, but they didn’t have one, so we just got this one, and told you it was a John Deere.” I had never noticed. 

Jackson, me, and the tractor, on my grandmother's driveway.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reflection #2/40

During the presidential race of 2004 I worked at Barnes & Noble. I was more politically informed than at any other time in my life. Every day I listened to talk radio on my way to and from work, and read political magazines on my break, and shared impassioned opinions about the issues of the day with my co-workers. In particular I could count on Matt Reber and Casey Giblin to share their thoughts on any new release in the Current Events section. We routinely read and discussed thought-provoking books like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?

And I didn’t just read about these things. I was politically active. I was convinced that another four years of George W. Bush as president would be apocalyptically bad for the nation, the world, and the continued existence of the human race. I didn’t love John Kerry, but I didn’t think he was apocalyptically bad, either. I pushed through my instinctive revulsion against talking to people I don’t know and went door to door in our neighborhood, campaigning for Kerry.

On Election Day, November 2nd, it rained all day. Alice, Casey, and I trudged through the rain, lists of names and addresses in hand, ringing doorbells, trying to convince people to go vote. Then we moved to our local polling place, so we could stand the appropriate distance away, in the rain and mud, and hand out fliers.

It was an exhausting day, but were optimistic. The mood at our local polling place seemed encouraging. After the polls closed, we went over to Casey’s house to watch the returns and celebrate the good news. We expected a victory party.  

And then the results started coming in. At some point Alice left, and it was just me on the couch, and Casey on the floor, watching state after state go for Bush. We stopped speaking. All we could do was lie there, motionless, watching. Hours passed. Eventually it was over. I think I said good night, and I think Casey said good night in response. But there was nothing else to say.

Reflection #1/40

I remember one night in the late 1990s when I was standing in the parking lot of Clay Villa apartments, where I lived with my college friend Steve C., and looking out at what little I could see of Lexington, and thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve done it, I’m living in an apartment in the city, I’m an adult, and I can do whatever I want.” It’s tempting to say that I was foolishly na├»ve. If you looked at my life at that time from the outside, you would see that I was working a series of crappy jobs and living in a fairly crappy apartment and I didn’t have a whole lot going on. But from the inside, living in that place in that time, it really was wonderful. So what if I didn’t go to grad school? I was doing what I wanted to do, which mainly consisted of reading and hanging out with my friends. I was not overly worried about the future. I was optimistic that, before long, I would be published, and possibly writing the adventures of the Justice Society for DC Comics, but I was in no hurry. If I feel regret when I look back on my life in the 1990s, it’s not about the things I did or the things I didn’t do; it’s that I can’t feel that way anymore, like I’ve got all the time in the world. 

Mission Statement

I started this project on April 18, 2015, 40 days before my 40th birthday. The idea is to avoid living in denial about turning 40 by confronting it head-on. Each day, for 40 days, I will write a reflection on a different memory from my life.

These reflections are posted on Facebook, one a day, but I am archiving them here to make them easier to read in order.