April 28, 2013

Suffering


My parents.

Friday night when I got home from work, my Mom called. I answered the phone and she told me that my dad had been in the hospital with double-pneumonia since Wednesday. Once admitted, the doctors also determined that he has congestive heart failure and had to perform surgery to place a stint. They also confirmed what we already knew--that he was in the first stages of Alzheimer's.

We talked for a moment. She said he was okay right now, and the reason she didn’t call was she didn’t want to worry me in the middle of the work week when she knew how much I had on my plate already. I mumbled something or other. Mom said she was tired and going to bed.

I hung up and walked back into the living room. The lovely wife asked me what was the matter. I asked for a minute, focused on nothing, and then took a deep breath. I repeated what my mother had told me. I saw Maria’s face, could tell that she was starting to get upset and struggling to keep it down even as she asked if I was okay and what could she do to help.

I shrugged. Took another deep breath. Then said, “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Maria asked if I was sure, I nodded, and we went on about her night.

Much later, lying in bed, so many things tried to seize control of my thoughts. My father was going to die. It is a simple idea that carries a lot of sharp. It’s like thinking about early man discovering weapons, you know? After having cut themselves by accident on sharp rocks or stabbed a rough hand with a splinter, picturing that moment when one of them, maybe the smartest and by corollary the saddest of the tribe, realized that this jagged bit of rock here in his hand? You could use that to purposefully pierce flesh. This thing that had always been there suddenly carried a different meaning. It was like that, I think.

My brother.
You know I experienced death when I was very young. My brother was killed in a car accident when I was around six years old. One of the best things my mother did was to explain it to me with no bullshit. That he was dead and I wouldn’t see him again and everything dies and everything will die. Some people think that means a lot of different things, but what everyone knows is that he’s dead and he was gone. She didn’t even raise a fuss during the funeral when I threw a fit outside because I didn’t want to see Nathan in the casket. If he was gone, I didn’t want to stare at meat, didn’t want the image of meat stealing the memories of my brother breathing. I’m very glad for that, especially knowing that she couldn’t have conceived that someday it would lead me to where I was this morning, with a mala in my hand.

But the thought of my father dying fucked me up for a long moment in the quiet night. It drudged up all our bullshit. The anger, the hurt feelings, the emotional distance...a damn laundry list of dysfunction. Worst of all, in the vulnerability of the dark, by proxy it reaffirmed that someday the dog is going to die, Maria is going to die, and I’m going to die.

My mind started going. Even though I know this is where suffering begins, with mental attachments to transient things, it started racing. As it raced, it gathered so many other things with it. Maria’s failing eyesight, the dog’s failing mobility, my friend Gabe’s Huntington’s Disease, and, this is probably the one you’ll have the most trouble with my reader and it would take too long to explain, the subtle way my mother refused to acknowledge my adulthood by calling when and how she did.

I took control of my thoughts by imagining a candle burning in the darkness. I focused on the candle. The image of the flame. The way it guttered and flared. When all those thoughts I had pushed to the side threatened to cloud the image, I’d focus on being present, how it felt lying there with Maria on one side, the dog on the other.

There is no moment, but this one.

When my thoughts were pushed back to the corners, I returned to the mental image of the flame until my mind quieted and, in quieting, submitted to sleep.

April 24, 2013

Sweet The Small Stuff



When people learn you’re a writer, they always assume that you have perfect grammar and expert spelling skills. I think I’m okay with both but wouldn’t use the words perfect or expert to refer to either. I have too many hang-ups and weird mental blocks.

For example, let's take the words sweet and sweat. Easy to mix up when you’re typing and the words are coming quick. They’re up there with a word like, well, their. It’s why you learn not to trust spellcheck. However, for me, sweet and sweat are guaranteed to be used incorrectly in the first draft, and probably somewhere in the second too.

I don’t know why. If nothing else I should just be able to memorize which is which, but I can’t. I mean, okay, so sweat means to perspire and sweet means pleasing or sugary tasting. Now, how do you spell what you do with food?

E-A-T.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Since my mind can’t get past that, sweet and sweat are on now on my revision checklist. Though you still probably don’t want me to proofread a love note to your sweaty or the card thanking your Gram Gram for the nice sweeter.

_________________________________
Addendum:
You can also add "speech" to the list of words I constantly misspell, as seen here in the comments section of +Thomas Pluck's excellent interview with +Dan O'Shea.

April 21, 2013

Burial



I haven’t been reading as much as I used to. My time is devoured by an increasingly busy day job, the lovely wife’s health issues, and making time to write. What’s left usually goes to either sleep or brain shut-down in front of the television set. When I have sat down to read, my patience is thin. Doorstop thrillers or fantasy novels are a no-go. A writer has a short window to grab me with something before I put down the book. Assuming the writer can pull that off, next comes the true test: can my attention be caught again after several days, maybe even a week between readings?



When I came across Burial at the library booksale, I was excited. The plot sounded engaging:
“Everyone makes mistakes.
But what if your biggest mistake was something you could never live down?
Something so awful and despicable that it weighs daily on your soul?
Nathan has never been able to forget the worst night of his life.  Only he and an old acquaintance know what really happened and they have made a pact to keep silent. Now, years later, a knock on his door brings terrifying news.  Old wounds are suddenly reopened, threatening to tear Nathan's whole world apart, as he comes face to face with the bleak landscape of lies and deception that has become his life. Burial is the story of one man’s obsession with redemption. Can you ever really bury your guiltiest secret?”
Carrying the book around wouldn't cause a hernia, and Burial is written by Neil Cross. Cross is probably best known to American audiences as the head writer of MI5 (Spooks in the UK) and the writer/creator of Luther. His novels are finally becoming more readily available in the US thanks to the popularity of his BBCAmerica vehicle with Idris Elba.

At only $2 for a hardcover copy, it was no-brainer.

When I started it that night after I got home from work, I thought had a made a mistake. The opening is almost all dialogue and the prose is typical, all tough-guy crime novel terse. I sighed, thinking it was going to read like a lengthy screen treatment.

I was wrong.

After the knock on the door, Cross takes us back to the beginning of Nathan's psychological hell and shows us the writing chops that make Luther one of the best shows on television: the prose style becomes focused and poetic, the dialogue spot-on, and the tension very real--growing not out of increasing violent confrontations or Bruckheimer showdowns, but understandable mistakes stemming from a fully-realized human being in awful circumstances. It was incredibly refreshing to read crime fiction that was character driven and about normal people, not cops and criminals or hitmen and junkies.

Cross easily stood the time test and is now one of my go-to authors. You should give him a chance, maybe while you're waiting for the third and final series of Luther.


April 19, 2013

Doctor Who



Doctor Who is nearing its 50th Anniversary. I’ve been a fan of the show for quite some time, maybe not a half century but a long time. My local PBS station ran “Classic Doctor Who” episodes in order when I was a kid. The first Doctor I saw was Jon Pertwee as the Third: grounded on Earth by the ruling council of Time Lords, wearing his dandy clothes, practicing Venusian Aikido (or Karate depending on the episode), and cruising the streets in that terrible Whomobile. I watched the original series through the end: Baker, Davidson, a different Baker, and finally Sylvester McCoy (who I seem to like much more than most). Later, I was able to go back and catch some of the extant episodes with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. And I even managed to tune in for the awful awful attempt by Fox to revive the series with poor Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor (he would have made a good one) paired with a scene-chewing Eric Roberts, of all people, as the Master. But one of the things I’ve always loved about the show is that at its worst, it’s a fun science-fiction adventure story, but at its best, it really is about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.



When Season One of the new series was released on DVD, I  grabbed it and convinced the lovely wife to watch it. I didn’t tell her much except that it was a revival of a British TV show that I liked a lot as a kid and it had to do with time travel. She’s not a big science fiction fan so she was a little wary but gave it a chance and ended up liking it a lot—think the love story aspect helped and, mostly likely, contributed to her calling me an asshole with such fury when the 9th was dying.


I smiled and said, “You better keep watching.”


The look on her face was priceless when the Doctor started regenerating. When the light dimmed and a smiling David Tennant stood in Eccleston's place, the lovely wife said, “Who the hell is that?”


“It’s the Doctor.”


“No, it’s not.”


“Yes, it is. He’s the tenth incarnation. The Doctor is a Time Lord and Time Lords regenerate.”


She was resistant at first, but came to love Tennant and count him as her favorite.
When Tennant and Davies left the show, we were both initially excited about Steven Moffat—again, me a little more so than her; she had only one season of Eccleston but multiple ones of Tennant. I thought Moffat wrote some great episodes of the show under Davies, I thought Jekyll was brilliant, and Coupling made me laugh my ass off. However, his time as showrunner has been my least favorite of the new series. I worried it would after thinking his and Smith’s first outing, “The 11th Hour,” was just an okay episode, and “The Beast Below,” the one about the Star Whale, was cheesy and saccharine. Frankly, if we’re being honest, I found Amy Pond off-putting from the start. She’s nothing but a fanboy stroke character and walking plot device. (Clara seems to be in the same mode, and after going back recently to re-watch Coupling, Moffat needs to examine his feelings about women.) Reading interviews with him, it’s clear that he and I share a fundamental difference of opinion about the point of the show. To me, its a show about the Doctor, it’s not a show about the Companion.

But that’s all okay. It’s the nature of Doctor Who. You don’t like what’s going on? Stick it out until they change writers and the Doctor regenerates. Or just drop out and come back. It’s part of what makes the setup of Doctor Who one of the most brilliant ideas ever—built right into the show is a way for the series to evolve while giving the core audience the same thing...but different. Sure, even then, it’s occasionally going to require some tinkering and reworking to create some new mysteries and feel like you’re not just recycling the same junk (see the Cartmel Master Plan). As a writer thinking about creating a series of my own someday, it’s something I’ve been mulling over a lot. Plus, I’ve been working some on The War of All Worlds, my final story for Simon Rip. If I’m being completely honest, the biggest reason I ever agreed to write any of the Simon Rip stories was my love of Doctor Who and the knowledge that, as much as I’d give my right arm for the chance, they’ll probably never going to let me write it...

...though if someone at the BBC is reading this, I have an idea involving the Valeyard that ties into The Question and the 11th’s fall at the Fields of Trenzalore. I'm just saying.


April 6, 2013

Killer Diller and My First Fistfight


Killer Diller

A couple of Sundays ago, our dog Killer got sick. He seemed fine in the morning going through his usual routine, but as the day went on, it was obvious there was something wrong with him. He wanted to do nothing except sleep. He didn’t want to be petted anywhere but his head and even then he’d jerk it to the side when you raised your hand. He had trouble sitting or standing up. When it was time for his food, I had to carry him into the kitchen and stand him by his bowl; his jaw movements as he ate were awkward and uncoordinated.


I wanted to call the vet immediately but couldn’t. There is only one vet with emergency hours in our area and that’s in Indianapolis, well over an hour away. Instead, I kept watch until first thing Monday morning when a friend gave me a ride into town. We were at the vet’s office exactly as 7 am. I dropped our pug off and waited anxiously through my day.


He ended up being fine and is fine now, currently sleeping behind me in my office chair. All the tests the vet ran came back negative. Her best guess was that he either ate something weird outside that made him sick (Killer is a pug so often his first thought is, "Can I eat it?") or he hurt his bad knee and the pain was intense and confusing. She gave him some doggie anti-inflammatories and said if it happens again, bring him back immediately.


It was very upsetting. He’s approaching the twelve year mark. While he still probably has years ahead of him, his coat has greyed and he’s slowed down quite a bit. Seeing him in such bad shape was a reminder that he, like everything else that lives and breathes, is going to die someday. Confronted with such a grim memento mori, it was a struggle to stay mindful, to be present. When your mind is not present, your thoughts rage out of control and you open the door to further suffering.

I wasn’t entirely successful. What ifs and countless fears rioted through my brain, tearing open the doors of the past and unleashing memories I had forgotten...

Summer in southern Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee line. We were visiting my dad’s parents. It was a cool afternoon and I walked uphill through the woods, then down the road to play with my cousin Joe. We did boy stuff: running around the yard, playing war, hitting things with sticks, and climbing trees. I remember it being fun until the thing with his dog.

I was sensitive kid who spent a lot of time reading books and living in my head. Back home in Indiana, we lived out in the middle of nowhere without any kids for me to play with. My brothers were both long gone, Nathan killed in a car accident and Kevin serving one of many prison sentences. So I spent most of my time alone.

Boys, young ones just shy of being a teenager especially, get caught up in pecking order. When Joe started playing rough with his hound dog and it visibly made me uncomfortable, his monkey brain took over. Rough house wrasslin’ gave way to the broom. Jab. Jab. Jab. Shake. Shake. Shake.

Hey, man, let’s go climb that tree again! What about TV? You wanna watch TV?

Don’t be a baby. He likes to play rough. Jab. Jab. Jab. Is the baby gonna cry?

I didn’t cry (not right then). I knew if I did, even if it was just me and Joe, I was fucked and would be saddled with a nickname like Bawl Baby--at ten you’re convinced something like that will follow you around forever and you’ll never get a girl, even though at ten you’re not sure maybe why you’d want one but are pretty certain that someday you might so don’t fuck it up, son.

Then Joe got out his pocketknife and told me he was gonna cut his dog’s wiener off. (That’s what he said, “wiener.”)

Looking back at it now, do I think Joe would have really cut his dog’s wiener off? No, not on purpose. But it doesn’t matter and it didn’t matter then.

I hit him.

I don’t think he expected it. They weren’t pretty punches. But two of them hit. One on his jaw and one just under his right eye.

I took his knife, threw it in the woods, and did the little kid upset quick walk down the round and back down the hill.
Then I cried and I think I even cried when Joe got a wuppin’.

I hadn’t remembered that incident in years. It came to me again, full blown and as a clear as day, when Killer slept fitfully on my lap and I waited for the vet to open.

We’re always fighting something, aren’t we? Even if it’s just our thoughts.


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