Tell Me Your Story, Part 2

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I have a few issues in my life. I have no doubt you do as well – we all do. My issues, however, have recently disrupted my life fairly significantly. This blog lay unattended for many months as I began grappling with them. My issues are part of my story, and I’d like to share piece with you. Of course, doing that will be a bit of therapy for me, but that’s not the point. The purpose in sharing here is to discuss how we can shape our own reality, change our own life, by how we choose to tell our own story, and especially how we choose to tell it to ourselves.

Exactly one year and two weeks after my mother died, my father followed her to the grave. She died on January 18th, 2002. My father was sick at that time as well, and as the year progressed, it became obvious he was going to lose his battle. Just after Christmas of that year my father went into hospice. He knew the end was coming, we all did, and with mom’s anniversary coming up, my dad realized he might also die in January. That really troubled him. It became very important for him that he somehow last until February. As life slowly evaporated from him, that became his number one goal.

I wanted to be more involved with what was happening, to spend more time with my dad, but my own emotional issues got in the way. To make matters more complicated, I was dealing with a failing marriage, and I was a full-time caretaker for my two children who were four and five at the time. My older brother and his wife were forced to bear most of that load, with help from my younger brother. It was they who changed dad’s dressings after surgery, they who kept his chemo port clean. It was my brother and his wife that helped dad clean out the house and make his final arrangements. I was distant, detached, too wrapped up in my own issues. As a result, I wasn’t there when my father died, but I was told what happened in those final hours.

You see, my dad, by force of will, had managed to hold on until the morning of February first 2003. His last act in this life was to make sure his boys didn’t have to grieve both parent’s death in the same month. What a precious gift that was, and how I have cherished it!

Sometime that day he died. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know specifically when. And, before he died, a friend of his leaned down and said “Bob, it’s February first. It’s okay. You can go now.” That moment became an important part of my story, and I would frequently relay it to others. My story. My memory.

But that isn’t quite how it happened.

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I wrote about that event on this blog a few years back. I wanted to share my story with others. As fate would have it, however, my older brother and his wife were shown that post, and they were furious. Turns out it wasn’t my dad’s friend, it was actually my older brother who was with dad that morning. You see, my version of the story is focused on my father’s final act, so I didn’t really remember who it was that had told him he could go. That detail wasn’t the purpose of the story for me. But for my older brother, the story was not just my father’s act. From his point of view, that story is also about how he, the dutiful son, was with my father, fulfilling his obligation to care for the parent. And, also from his perspective, not only was he dutiful, but I was not. He rightly expected me to be more involved, and resented having to carry that burden without my help. So his memory of that moment, his telling of the story, is different from mine. It isn’t a one-sided tale of love – the final gift our father gave us – but an exchange of love, where the son cares for the ailing father, and the father in return hangs on just a few hours extra.

It’s a good story. Heck, it’s much better than my version, and not just because it’s more accurate. My brother had good reason to take issue with my memory of those events, and these days when I regale people with my story of dad’s death, I am sure it’s my brother who is there, whispering in his ear. But that isn’t quite my point.

My brother and I don’t talk anymore, because of this very issue. I have spent years trying to understand his righteous wrath. I blamed myself for getting that detail wrong, beat myself up for my failure. The story for a couple of years became a negative one. They way I told it to myself was hurting me.

That’s the real point here.

We all have a choice with our personal stories, to make them positive or negative. The older I get, and the more I explore the craft of storytelling, the more I come to believe that it’s even more than that. It’s isn’t just a choice of positive or negative, it’s a choice between letting our stories hurt us or letting them bring healing. Further, I believe we have an obligation, a duty to choose healing, since hurting ourselves with negative stories invariably hurts those we love most.

It hasn’t been easy, but for this story at least I have chosen healing. I don’t blame myself anymore for my mistake. I remembered it the way I did because of its importance to me. I fully accept that my brother’s version is what’s important for him. Perhaps that includes his anger at me, since his version of that day now involves his conflict with me.

I’d like to talk to him again, but that’s up to him. It’s his story, different than mine. He isn’t responsible for my version, and I’m not responsible for his.

But here’s the kicker. We’re both right.let-the-light-guide-your-life-story

I am working to change other negative stories in my life to positive. I hope you see the value in that, and you try as well. But changing old stories is hard. If you can remember to make the healing choice when you first construct the story, well, that’s way easier.

In the end, we’re all just stories, piles of them. Try to make yours the healing kind.

whats your story

Tell Me Your Story, Part 1

childIt starts even before we’re born. Our parents, expecting a child, try to imagine what kind of life we’ll lead. They talk over coffee or whisper to each other late at night, trying to see what the future holds. After we’re born, we join in, telling ourselves stories about the doll or the toy car we’re playing with. The stories are very simple at first, but as we grow from toddlers to children they become more complex. Many of those stories are wildly fantastical, totally unrealistic, but we tell them just the same. In our teen years we might make up stories about who likes whom, or what a certain teacher’s home life is like. The stories are less fantastical, and more about understanding others, and how we fit in. By the time we become adults, the stories we tell ourselves and each other tend to be more realistic. We gush about our trip to Disney World, our new job, our favorite show or movie. Different stories, perhaps, but stories nonetheless.

This need, the need to tell stories, is one we all have, one of the defining features of being human. Some people will claim they aren’t good at storytelling, or that stories are for kids, but they are wrong. I would go so far as to say we can’t function without them.

Storytelling is so ingrained in our minds that it permeates society, culture and language. We tell local stories, national stories, religious stories, historical stories. You can make a pretty solid case that nearly all human communication is rooted somehow in our need to tell stories. The ancient Greeks explored issues of morality, purpose and ethics with stories. Jesus of Nazareth used parables to try to teach us His lessons. Folklore and mythology, fables and fairy tales are necessary for us to understand how the world works and what it expects from us. In fact, from a neurological point of view, they way our brains retain information and encode memory is by association with other memories and associations. Our brain remembers that movie we saw better because we saw it with a friend, or it was our birthday, or it was a sequel to another movie we love. Our entire personal history, and the larger cultural history around us, is built on stories.

cherry treeNot all of the stories have to be fiction either. I am sure there are people in this world who only connect with stories of the ‘real world’. If that works for them, then great. It isn’t so much about the content of the stories as it is the purpose. Why are we telling the story in the first place? It turns out they are an incredibly useful tool, a fantastic way to educate and learn. We use stories to practically comprehend ideas that might be too big for us, or too complex, or perhaps very alien. Almost every American could tell you stories about George Washington. One of the most popular is the tale of him cutting down a cherry tree and, when his father confronts him over it, he says “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.” If you happen to know that the tale of George and the cherry tree is a fiction, does it change what the story means?

450px-Lincoln_front_shotWe tell that tale in America because it’s an extremely fast way to teach children that George Washington, the most important of our Founding Fathers, was regarded in his day as an honest man. Really honest. In comparison to his peers, he was the most truthful and principled of them all by a great margin, and that is a very important piece of the American puzzle. A historian could cite you chapter and verse of Washington’s life to prove how serious he believed honesty was, and that would certainly give you a more accurate picture including his less clearly honest decisions. That takes time, however, and children need to learn about more than just George Washington’s honesty. In effect, we don’t have the time to give all the details.

We do the same thing with our personal stories. You cannot remember every detail of every situation, and why would you want to? You only need to remember the part of the story that matters for you. That becomes the purpose of the story. Why it matters to you is exactly why you remember it. For example, at my mother’s funeral I learned a detail of her life I had never known before. That moment is clear in my mind…or is it? I was standing at the back of the viewing room looking at a small table with little mementos of her life, her wedding photo, a picture of her in nursing school. I picked something up, a card I believe, and I read about how as a young woman she had wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I remember the general setting, small table, various items, how I read instead of heard it, even the direction I was facing in the room. But so many details are missing. Was it a card I picked up? What music was playing? Where was my father at that moment? I don’t have those details because they aren’t important to the story.

My mother was a nurse all her life, but not a pediatric nurse. That detail is now part of the larger story I have in my memory of my mother, specifically who she was as a human being. It changed my perception of who she was, and that makes it important to me. The story is about my mother, about her life, and what her story means in my life. Who cares what song was playing? It’s irrelevant to the story, so my memory dropped it, and that’s how it should be.

embraceSo we use storytelling constantly because we need to. Storytelling is a form of shorthand, allowing us personally, and society as a whole, to communicate important ideas quickly, and it’s the best way our brains learn. Embrace your stories, but more than that I would hope you think about how you use stories to shape your own view of the world. The way you deal with stories can have a huge impact on your life, and I’ll talk about that more in my next post.

Cheers!

Brothers

The Hoffman's, about 1985

The Hoffman’s, about 1985

I am the middle of three brothers. We have never been close. The family we grew up in, our parent’s dysfunctions, our age differences (we span nine years and I’m right in the middle), our own personal issues – all of these have led us to misunderstand each other. They misunderstand me, and I surely misunderstand them.

I have sent both of my brothers to the hospital in the past. My older brother was when I was just a few years old by hitting him in the face with a snow shovel (in summer, no less), and my younger brother was when we were young men during a scuffle. I promise they were both accidents; I didn’t mean to hurt them.

I have tried very hard in my life to avoid hurting anyone. My need to avoid hurting people borders on the pathological. I have a long list of failed attempts – many of them girlfriends – which are a testament to my social awkwardness. To this day I feel guilt and remorse for the way I treated several people. In my heart, I rarely have malicious thoughts. It just isn’t in my nature to want to harm others.

This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. If you wrong me, I hold it inside and let it fester until it makes me sick. So basically, if you harm me, I’ll punish you by harming myself even worse. I know, it doesn’t make any sense. Try living in here.

I also have a habit of coming across to people as arrogant or conceited. We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but trust me when I say I never feel arrogant or conceited. Usually I feel weak and confused, or inept and graceless. Never arrogant. I just come across that way. Call it my personal superpower.

I might have a condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome which makes it hard for me to understand other people’s feelings and emotions. It’s never been diagnosed in me, but my son has it, and it’s often hereditary. Asperger’s kids also often have issues with gross motor control, making them physically clumsy. This condition also makes it hard to read and respond properly to social situations. I might sound arrogant because I’ve read a situation wrong, and I’ve responded inappropriately. But there could be another cause. Please indulge me while I tell you a story.

When I was an infant, my mother noticed something wrong with my eyes. After being examined by an eye doctor, I was diagnosed with Strabismus, a disorder where the eyes fail to line up. In my case, my left eye was fine, but my right eye would turn outward. Sometimes this is called ‘walleye’. The doctors tried to correct the problem but, for a variety of reasons, their efforts failed. When I was 16 years old I had this condition surgically corrected, leaving me legally blind in that eye, but fairly normal looking.

So going into elementary school I was physically awkward, socially crippled and visually different from the other students. Oh, and I was a scrawny runt.

boy-child-being-bullied-by-two-other-boysThings went OK until about fourth grade. That’s when many of my classmates seemed to notice I was different from them. Between fourth grade and 11th grade, I was heavily bullied. I know some kids have had it worse, and this isn’t meant to be a pity party for me, but bad things happened. I was pushed down stairs, had my fingers slammed in lockers, was poked and stabbed with pens and pins and forks. I had my lunch knocked to the cafeteria floor several times, and I was openly mocked and laughed at in the halls and the classes. I was called every name you can think of. I was ‘pantsed’ (had my pants pulled down) in front of a group of cheerleaders. It was ugly.

If you can imagine for a moment what that was like, you can understand that I had, and still have, serious self-esteem issues. I felt there was nothing I had to offer the world, and nobody wanted me in the world with them. Three different principals at three different schools told me I needed to “just stand up to the bullies”. This was the late 1970’s and 1980’s: There were no anti-bullying campaigns. In fact, several of my teachers encouraged the bullying. My gym teacher told a bunch of the boys that he didn’t care if they picked on “faggots like Hoffman.”

I only had one asset, one thing that I could trust and rely on. I’m fairly smart. You might be thinking that’s a good thing. The poor, bullied kid had something he could be proud of. In a sense that’s true, because it was what eventually helped me to compensate for all my other issues. But it had a downside as well.

You see, the bitter irony here is that the only thing which made me special is the one thing that has alienated me from my brothers. Please read that again, so you understand where I’m going here.

And let me be crystal clear as well: My brothers are smart, too. I am not insulting them in any way. But they had other gifts they could rely on, so they didn’t need to rely on their raw intellect to get by in life. They had a toolbox with many tools in it. They are clever as I said, but also both are good with their hands. And they have a grasp of the world at a physical, practical level that blows my mind. They can fix things.

Me, I had one tool. That was it. I had to use my brains or get outta Dodge, and since I’m not the suicidal type, I went to college. Now I write, and I think I do a fair job of it.

But I feel to this day that neither of my brothers really appreciates my college success, or values the stupidly large and mostly useless database of facts and concepts I can draw on. I suspect they believe that when I spout facts and opinions I’m lording over them. That somehow I’m acting ‘uppity’ or superior in some way.

I am not. I never, ever have. I am a 13 year old boy crying in the bathroom, hoping nobody hears me so I don’t get beat up again. I am an 11 year old hiding my face because the teacher dumped my desk onto the floor just to embarrass me. I am a 12 year old boy begging my mother please, please not to make me go to school anymore. I am still that boy inside. I will always be that boy.

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My older brother with my father near the end of my father’s battle with cancer

Recently I wrote a story about a painful period in my life, the death of my father, and my brothers were hurt by it. I thought they would understand what I wrote about our father, and my experiences dealing with his death, one way, and they saw it another way. But it was never meant to be hurtful. I was having a reflective moment, and wanted to write down some thoughts and feelings about my father, and about my personal loss.

I am hoping my younger brother will understand this. My older brother and his wife, well, I am afraid too much damage has been done. But I have to try, as awkward and clumsy as my attempts may be. I need to say for the record, and publicly, that I am sorry for hurting them. But I must also ask them to understand this might happen again. I need to write what’s inside of me and sometimes that will involve powerful, volatile, dangerous feelings. That’s what writers do, and that’s how I need to heal.

But how can I write honestly about the world around me if I am not allowed to call it as I see it? My brothers may not have been the way I portrayed them in that story, but am I wrong for writing how I felt, how I experienced them? In this politically correct world of ours, are my feelings really invalidated because they might be hurtful to someone else?

I am very sorry to have caused anger and pain in my brothers, but the story is my story, not theirs, and I stick by my experiences. There is a very fine line between a true story, and a story written about a true experience. I am  not a journalist and I am not a historian. I am a writer, and I draw on my life for experiences. What I wrote was true, from my point of view. That it was hurtful, or had factual errors, was an unintended and unforeseen consequence, and for that I truly am sorry. But I must write what is true for me, and pray that they can understand.

My name is Matt, and I am a writer. Please forgive me for that awkward, difficult truth.

Can I Trust You?

If you wanted to hear about something fairly inane, simple, innocent, you’re at the wrong blog. Many bloggers keep things light on purpose. They don’t want to burden their readers. I am not one of them. My goal is to share some of my pain in the hopes that others won’t suffer like I have, or at least won’t feel alone. I want to wrestle with deep, complex, painful issues, and I want to do this because that has been the bulk of my life. Today I would like to tell you about the deepest pain I endure. Today, I want to tell you a bit about my bullying story. I’m not looking for sympathy, so please trust me when I say I am going somewhere with this. Please, sit with me a moment and listen.

This was me

This was me

In some very important ways, my story is a very normal American story. In other ways, it’s a tragedy. What I want you to understand about me right now is this: I am a survivor of long-term, systematic, intense bullying, and it’s still happening to me. Right now. As you read this. I am a victim, and part of me always will be. What happened to me in my youth will never fully go away. Those wounds will not ever heal. Mike and Eric and Perry and so many others in high school harmed me truly, badly and deeply. The pastor and his wife at my church harmed me in different, but equally terrible ways. So did several blood members of my family. Some of these people didn’t realize what they were doing. Some of them were very, very aware of what they were doing. All of them left me emotionally damaged, socially crippled, spiritually scared, and as I sit here writing this, I feel the pain.

In fact, it is this pain, this damage, that has prevented me from realizing my purpose here on earth. I am a writer, but I have told myself for more than 25 years of my life that I could never do it. In fact, the damage is so complete that I didn’t even realize until I was in my late 30’s just how complete. I didn’t have a little voice in my head talking me out of writing, or telling myself that I would fail, so why try. No, the self-confidence issues were, and in some ways still are, so bad that I never even considered writing. It just never even occurred to me that the thing I love most – even more than music and singing – and the thing I was constantly doing in my quiet moments (mentally), was what I was born to do.

A new life, a new spiritual awakening, and a new person who loved me for me alone, these things have given me enough perspective that I now see the damage. I now see early-childhood-bullyinghow it effects me mentally, emotionally, and even physically. I see now that the crazy ideas and thoughts scratched on bits of paper are all stories that I should have been writing all my life. I’ve statistically lost about half of my productive working years, but embraced the remaining ones. I’ve finally woken up from the nightmare that was my life post-bullying. I am finally writing, and writing for real. One novel done, a second started, dozens I could work on next, and a bunch of short stories.

But as much as I write, I can’t make a living at it unless people actually want to give me money for my writing, and so I’ve been learning as much as I can about how this can happen. In this process, I stumbled upon a TED talk with Amanda Palmer. If you don’t know who that is, you should look her up. She did an amazing talk which you can see on YouTube [HERE] on the way she has been able to give her music away for free, trusting those who love her music to support her. It’s an old model, she explains, and is the way musicians and other creative people have lived for about as long as they’ve been around. Only in the 20th century did that model change. And that’s where I’m going.

My being bullied destroyed my trust in others. In some ways I’ve always been very optimistic, but when it comes to trusting others to “catch” me – to support me when I can’t support myself – well, that needs some work. Amanda Palmer talks about what it takes to trust your own personal “crowd” with things like a place to sleep and compensation for creativity. It’s not all about money – in fact it often isn’t. It’s about trusting that the greater world has room – and an interest – to support people in non-traditional ways. The model you were raised with is “Get a job, do the job, get paid, repeat”. Amanda’s model is this “Create something (do the job), trust you’ll get paid by those who care about your work”. That’s it. It’s very simple, but almost impossible for many to understand, and it’s hand-in-hand for me with my desire to trust in God. In both cases, that little part of my brain, the one that still hurts so much, tries to talk me out of it.

Healing-How-Does-It-HappenIt’s difficult to trust like that, especially for someone who was bullied so harshly for so long.

I am trying to trust my “crowd”. You, reading this, you are my crowd. I am trusting you for any of three things, and I am on my knees begging you, yes you, to help me out.

  1. I am trusting that you will read what I write as frequently as you can and will, and forward what I write to others.
  2. I am trusting that you will point new people you meet in my direction if they might like what I do, or might be curious about what I do.
  3. I am trusting you to give me honest feedback about what I do. If something is badly written, I need to know that. If something is well written, I need to know that, too. If something is very relevant to you, or has some serious impact, please tell me.

Can you please help me with this? It’s not much, I promise, but I am asking for your help. Amanda Palmer points out that it’s very hard to ask for help like this, and I assure you it is. But I have a chance to tell some important stories – trust me, my head’s full of them, all screaming to get out on paper – and to bring some joy and happiness into the lives of others. Others will enjoy my stories, but I need you, my friends, to help spread what I do. I am asking you.

And I am trusting.

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People Are People

usatodayWhen a major media outlet like USA Today Tweets something that is racially blind and offensive, and they don’t even realize it, I shudder.

In a wonderful piece on how “The Best Man Holiday” isn’t a “black” movie, my fellow blogger Olivia A Cole dissects how we are still living in a “default-white” society: Everything is either “White” or it’s “Non-White”. There is no crossover, no middle ground. This, my friends, is a The-Best-Man-Holidayproblem, but most people are too busy or uninterested to see it as an issue worth addressing.

But this issue affects us in so many ways, many that you don’t even notice.

On our planet, the average person is not white. Now I understand that in America, the majority population is still white, and that’s just the way it is. But why, when almost one in five Americans identifies as African-American and a similar number identify as Hispanic, are about 90% of the models we see on advertisements white? Why is a movie with an all black cast called a “black movie” but a movie with an all white cast isn’t called a “white movie”, but just a movie? These are troubling issues to consider.

Texas, the Lone Star State, likes to portray itself as the stronghold of the traditional white American culture. They don’t deny there are people of non-white origins in their state, but simply don’t put much emphasis on them. Rather, they talk about “American values” and “Traditional Texas_20LogoAmerican culture”. Nothing against the citizens of Texas, but some of your politicians aren’t living in the same demographic world as the rest of us. They are denying the future.

Fun fact: According to a Saber Research Institutes study of Texas demographic trends, people of Hispanic descent will be the majority population group in Texas by 2020 (That’s just over six years from the writing of this blog), and by 2040 Hispanics will be more than 50% of the Texan population.

So things are changing, and they will only change more as the future becomes the present. Why, then, do we keep clinging to the “default white” cultural norm? I’m afraid I’m not qualified to say why, but it’s a fact. Whites seem afraid to acknowledge they are becoming less and less relevant as time marches forward, and this denial dilutes some of the amazing cultural diversity we have here in America. It makes me sad.

It also scares me, because the novel I am currently shopping around has a unique racial makeup. Only one of the major characters is white, and he’s a villain. All the other major characters – all of them – are people of color. I didn’t choose for them to be that way, they just are. And so I am shopping around a novel that might be totally unpalatable to the “default white” culture I live in. How will editors react to a book that, if made into a movie, could never star Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, or Bradley Cooper? In fact, of the 10 most popular actors in 2013, only one – Will Smith – isn’t white. Oh, and to keep the discrimination going, each of them is male. Not a single female on the list. Grrrr.

So what hope do I have, to sell a novel that flies in the face of the current cultural trends? Do I really think anyone will want to read about people of color as they struggle through my story?

In a word, yes. I believe – no matter what our culture keeps trying to tell me – that people are people, and the fact that you have more pigment in diversity-2your skin than I do, that you grew up speaking a different language, or eating a different food, doesn’t matter. At the end of the day I am confident that people will be able to see themselves in any character so long as they are well written.

No, I won’t be bringing everyone along with me. There will always be those who are offended by any daring choice an artist makes. That’s the nature of the world. But I am confident that enough of you will see my characters as people, not black people or asian people, or even religious people or female people. Just people, nothing more and nothing less. And I am proud of that faith in my fellow-man to be better than he was yesterday. Not everyone will be, not today, but sooner or later race will cease to be the issue it is today.

Someday, we will all be just people.

The “E” Word

e word 2So there I was, cooking dinner. Somewhere in the house my four-year-old son was getting into mischief. Someone else was supposed to be watching him, but you know how four-year-olds can be. Sneaky.

For just an instant the lights dimmed, and then from behind me I saw flashing light. I turned around in the echo of a heartbeat (that’s a good title. It’s mine, so don’t steal it!) and saw my son facing the 220 volt outlet in the kitchen. A shower of sparks was falling down around him, and he just – sat down on the floor, like someone had removed his legs for a second. I was two steps away, and on the floor next to him before the above heartbeat-echo could even fade. He was conscious, but hurt.

One ER visit later, and we pieced everything together. While nobody was looking, he had grabbed a bobby pin – you know, for hair – and inserted it into the outlet. The doctor informed me it could have stopped his heart. Thankfully he just went home with a u-shaped third degree burn on his thumb and pointer finger. e word 3

The experience for him was painful and frightening, and he struggles to this day with electricity and fire – both of which seem to revive this memory. I feel bad for him, but at least he doesn’t have a need to become an electrician. In other words, he can avoid most exposure to this thing that gives him pain.

I, sadly, am no longer that lucky.

This past week I was instructed that something I hate to do, something that gives me zero pleasure and 100% pain is now something that I must do every single day. Each morning when I wake up, I must willingly inflict pain on myself – my entire body and my mind – or I may not live to inflict the same pain on myself the next day.

I want to wear this to the gym. They all need to know!

I want to wear this to the gym. They all need to know!

Now I do realize I am being a bit over-dramatic, but I’m trying to illustrate a point. I know I should be happy to have the chance to do this thing – that I am not already dead or past the point where it would help. And it’s not like I am diabetic or have some very serious health issue. But if I don’t hurt myself every day, I will.

Exercise.

It’s been the “E” word (like the “F” word) for 25 years. I hate it. Ugh. But in spite of becoming a vegan, and making a choice to reduce my portion size at every meal, I can no longer avoid it. Treadmill, vigorous walks, elliptical machine, bicycle – it doesn’t matter. I must find a way, or my health will begin to seriously decay. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of dying slowly and suffering for years. So, to avoid this suffering, I must make myself suffer. And I’ll likely live longer, so I’ll get to suffer the entire lengthened time.

bff-hate-exerciseI don’t wanna!

How do you convince your brain that touching a hot burner every day is in your own best interest? I don’t know. I think I’m more scared of the “E” word than I am of the alternative. And yet this revelation – nay, commandment! – by my doctor set off a whole inner journey. I began thinking of the terrible church I was raised in – and the anger I still hold towards Pastor and Mrs. Focht, who might never have intended it, but hurt me badly. I thought of how this meant I was “giving in” to conformity. I dwelt on how my least favorite word in the English language is ‘Tradition’. I thought “I might as well just cut my hair short and buy clothing at American Eagle.” e word

Wow! I had no idea how much baggage was attached to this one thought. I had no idea that my carb-addiction and my extra 50 pounds might be related to how people I perceived as conformist and traditional – people who held power over me – hurt me.

I had no idea that, lurking inside me – at least the child and teenaged me – was raw hatred, seething anger, and naked fear. Who could have guessed? My rejection of traditional society and norms makes more sense to me now, though there were many intellectual reasons for rejecting this broken Frankenstein’s Monster we call American Culture. Some of the roots have made more sense to me over the past few days.

I hate this gif

Click Me!

So what does this mean? For me personally, it means I’ll be facing a dragon I didn’t even know was sleeping inside me. I’ll be fine, I guess, in the long run, but I wasn’t expecting this in my mid-forties. It also means daily “E” word. Plek.

But I’m an optimist, and here’s the bright side: I have a clearer picture than I did a week ago of how deep and complex a person’s motivations can be. And as a writer, that’s going to come in handy. As I edit Bloodsun Rising for submission, at least two of my characters will beexercise-motivation1 viewed a little differently. Perhaps I’m going through this physical and mental challenge because they demanded it. Perhaps they knew they weren’t written well enough yet.

And for you, writing or creating in your own way – or even just dealing with others – learn a little from me and respect the depth and complexity of others, be they fictional or real.

Give them the chance to be deep and complex, or you might find yourself walking a treadmill at seven am.exercise

Love and Marriage and Anxiety

So, my sister-in-law got married this past Saturday, September 7th. It was a lovely ceremony and a beautiful day. The bride was radiant, and the groom was darkly handsome. More important than that, however, it was heartfelt. I’m not sure every couple I’ve ever seen married actually liked each other. These too, I’m pretty sure they do, and I’m thrilled for them. So why does this post seem to have a bit of a sardonic tone to it?

Heidi and Anthony Dancing at Their Wedding

Heidi and Anthony Dancing at Their Wedding

Before I go any further about me, I want to be clear that this post also relates to writing. And let me also be clear that I have no great concerns about their marriage, or my own. The tone struck here is more a reflection on modern American marriage, not on any one individual marriage.

As writers, we often use marriage as a motivator for characters. They want to get married. They’re getting married. They’re recently married and figuring everything out. They’ve been married for a long time, trying to rekindle the fires. They want a divorce. The list goes on and on. Part of this, of course, has to do with the very real fact that most people you know are, have been, or will get married at some point. You were likely born to married parents, even if they didn’t stay that way. You’ve grown up seeing marriages, good and bad. It’s familiar territory for almost all of us.

It is also a powerful force in our society. Hallmark makes lots of money convincing you to send beautiful cards to newly married couples. De Beers makes lots more convincing you that diamonds are forever, even if the marriage isn’t. Caterers and bakers and dressmakers and tuxedo makers and wedding planners and limousine companies are all out for a cut of your wedding money. And then there’s the legal side of things. When you get married, depending on state, some, most or all of what you possess – both “stuff” and debt – become co-owned. And if one of you dies – as one of you eventually will, before the other – there is an important transfer of wealth that occurs.

van-eyck_marriage-of-arnolfiniIn older societies, marriage was the single most important transaction that occurred. Wars have been prevented – and a few fought – because of weddings. Powerful merchant interests or noble families were made weaker or stronger by a poor or good choice in spouse. Human history is littered with these transactions. As writers, then, this is a gold mine. But all of this sociological and historical information doesn’t matter if the story doesn’t feel real, doesn’t resonate with the reader. That’s where our personal experiences come in.

I was terrified of marriage as a young man, and I had right to be. My parents had had a rough marriage. My brothers would likely differ with me on the causes, but the net result was the same. For a time when I was just a baby, they split up for a year. They got back together – and had my little brother – but they fought heartily. More than once I remember my mother hurling something at my father – usually a pot or pan – and calling him something I won’t repeat here. It was ugly.

In fact, I’m probably a writer today in part because of how they fought. When things got bad, I would retreat to my bedroom – an impregnable fortress, at least in the mind of a young boy – and I would read. And read. And read. Did I mention my parents fought often? I became a storyteller because I found safety and peace traveling with Captain Kirk or Frodo Baggins or Arthur Dent or Skeeve and Aahz or any of a number of fantastical counselors and psychotherapists.

In my mid-twenties I met the mother of my children and ended up marrying her. I’m not sorry I did this because I have two amazing children, but, yeah, not the best move I ever made. And I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand why I did it. You see, all the fear I had previously from my parents marriage was still there. I just choked it and stuffed it into a trunk. I seemed, as they say, to be a good idea at the time. It ended badly, but she and I still communicate somewhat as co-parents.

So there I was. Thirty six years old, divorced, unable to see my children nearly as much as I wanted. I was clinically depressed, working a job I hated, depression is like cancerbuying way too much whiskey and ice-cream. It was a dream come true, for a writer, at least. It was a dream because it was ugly and painful. My parents had died a few years before the divorce, and I really felt alone. I thought deeply and reflected often on my mistakes and what purpose my life had. In short, I really suffered. Death, divorce, loneliness, ennui and angst. Yeah. It was fun. But it was exactly what I needed.

Fast forward a few years, and I met my now wife. We didn’t start out romantic, but when we realized our boats were lashed together and we had drifted into the Sea of Sentiment, I was faced with the same choice about marriage. Now granted I had changed much since my first marriage, and the circumstances were very different, but still…

You can see a character in a book with the very same back story, can’t you? And that’s kinda my point. Marriage is everywhere. It shows up in – or can show up in – nearly any form of fiction imaginable. And it has to be there. If there were no marriage, any human-like people would have invented it anyway. They might call it “mate-bonding” or “life-promise”, but a rose by any other name still costs too much. Or is that smells as sweet?

So, marriage is here. It’s not going anywhere in your life, even if you reject the cultural definition of marriage and never commit or actually go through with it. If you live with the same person for ten, twenty, thirty years, you’re married in all but name. And it’s not going anywhere in fiction either. People have a need to be with someone else for more reasons than I care to mention here. It’s part of who we are, and that

My wife and I, we gonna be like dis, yo!

My wife and I, we gonna be like dis, yo!

isn’t going to change. So consider how you can use the complexities of marriage in your stories, and consider how marriage will affect your life, even if you life alone all your life.

So to Heidi and Anthony, may God bless your marriage.

Mazel Tov!