For the past couple years, I’ve worked on a book of interlocking stories, all of which follow the lives of four siblings as they travel through the foster care system. Each chapter is told from a different point of view: the police officer who removes the kids; foster parents; the birth mom; social workers; the kids themselves; etc. In February, sixteen chapters in, I decided to go back to the beginning and work on revisions before moving forward. And then the world collapsed, and I stopped working on it altogether.
When I opened the document last week, I found myself reading about a cop sitting in a bar, drinking a beer and listening to a woman nearby talk to her friends. In the next scene, he waits in his patrol car while three kids step off a school bus. Well, shit, I thought. This is a pre-COVID world. And since I have no idea what a post-COVID world will look like, and I don’t feel like rewriting the whole book with the characters in masks and physically distancing, I decided the project needs to be shelved.
The upside of this is that I’m returning to Aret.
Book Three has been sitting around tapping its foot for years, and it’s time to give it some attention. Besides, spending time on a world with multiple wars and man-eating dragons seems like a pretty decent option right about now.
Though I moved from Massachusetts 22 years ago, a recent interaction brought me straight back to my home state with sudden, unexpected clarity. I was listening to a couple of friends – one from New Mexico and the other from Texas – describe the cliques in their respective high schools. They soon realized that, in both regions, students who’d listened to country music and dressed like cowboys/girls (cowpeople?) had been referred to as “shit-kickers.” Intrigued by this discovery of shared nomenclature, my friends turned to me and asked what those kids had been called in my hometown. I thought for a moment, then replied, “He was called Billy.” In response to their confused looks, I added, “We just had the one.”
Poor Billy moved from Texas to Eastern Massachusetts at the beginning of high school, and he could not possibly have stood out more with his oversized cowboy hat, tight blue jeans, and giant silver belt buckle with the obscure warning: Don’t Mess with Texas. (I remember reading it and thinking, What the hell does that even mean?) Looking back, I must admit we made Billy’s transition to his new hometown pretty miserable, as Bay Staters (or Massholes, as we are aptly nicknamed) have little tolerance for anything “country.” [Case in point: last week, I heard from a childhood friend who’s raising her kids in Eastern Mass. As she lamented being the parent of a teenager, she offered this evidence of her daughter’s current, unacceptable behavior: “The other day I found myself outside her bedroom, pounding on the door and yelling, ‘We do not listen to country music in this house!’“]
A while back, I saw an episode of The Good Place in which Bad Janet insulted somebody (paraphrased: “Why don’t you shove it up your butt, you fat dink?”) and another rep from the Bad Place gave her a high-five. As I watched their interaction, I thought, Hmm. The Bad Place might be Massachusetts. Because that was a key element to social interactions during my formative years: whoever could deliver the most cutting insults got the biggest laughs and heartiest pats on the back. Mind you, these insults weren’t reserved for enemies. They were also for loved ones. We all (with the exception of poor Billy, bless his heart) honed our social skills by practicing the formulation and delivery of wicked burns with the most razor sharp cruelty possible.
It wasn’t until I moved out of Massachusetts that I learned not everyone relates to others in this way. For example, it turns out it’s not common practice to flip the bird to anyone who toots the horn while driving past me. Who knew? Also, it’s apparently not cool to burst out laughing when someone falls down, then proceed to tell that person what a clumsy idiot he or she is. Believe me, it took several years for my communication norms to be deprogrammed. I still need to tamp them down on a daily basis. And I am eternally thankful my thoughts aren’t audible, so every stranger who walks by with a smile and asks, “How are you?” won’t hear the response: “None of your business, asshole.”
To conclude, I’ll leave you with a couple of fun facts that I just learned:
Many years back, I wrote a blog post in which I detailed the grossest things I’ve done in my life (up to that point, at least. I’m sure I’ve outdone myself since then). While I figured the post would be read by my usual audience of ten, it has proven to be the most widely-read of anything I’ve ever written, with several thousand views. Yikes.
This post will be of a similar vein, in that it’s confession-based, but rather than relaying a lifetime of disgusting acts, it will focus on my struggle to access the maturity one expects from an adult – the very same lack of maturity that leads me to pull over, crying with laughter, to capture a sign like this:
Chronic maturity-deficiency has had an impact on my professional life, as well. I would detail all of the inappropriate comments I’ve made as a counselor over the past 20 years, but I think that would take the rest of my life. Instead, I’ll stick to one particularly telling story.
This happened about ten years ago when I was living in Oregon and worked as an advocate for students at a workforce development program. A new student saw the Oakland Raiders sticker on my car and decided it would be a good idea to come to my office to tell me: “The Raiders suck! Go, Ravens!”
[Side note: Because I don’t live at the bottom of a well, I realize the Raiders suck. I’ve known this for a long time. When people say, “Boo, Raiders!” it just seems redundant. Yeah, no shit. Boo, Raiders. They’re awful. But they’ve been my team since the 1900s and their sticker’s on my car, so there it is. Until I get a new car, they’re my team, and seeing as I have no money, that’s gonna be a while.]
Hence, an NFL-based rivalry began between that student and me. And here’s the story of the day it ended.
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, the staff at this program would gather in closed offices for case management meetings. Unless they had to be present at a specific meeting, students knew not to disturb staff during these times, because really important things were being discussed, like (if students were present) long-term life goals and short-term action steps, or (if students were not present) staff members’ drunken escapades, funny pet stories, and recipe exchanges.
On this particular Tuesday or Thursday, the Raven fan had been acting like a little shit all day, likely because the Ravens had won and Raiders had lost the previous weekend. (What a surprise.) And because I found myself with about 8 minutes of free time before case management began, I decided to pay him back for being a self-righteous butthead.
I don’t know anything about photo editing software, but I do know about Google Images, copy machines, scissors, and tape, so I did a search for “dead raven,” found a photo of a raven smooshed in the middle of a road, and printed it out. I then printed an image of the Raiders’ shield, cut it out, cut a slice through the raven’s back, stuck the shield through the slice, and taped it into place. Finally, I made two copies of my beautiful, finished image: a Raider shield murdering a raven.
I took one of the copies, folded it into quarters, and handed it to the Raven fan’s English teacher. I asked her to give it to him when silent reading commenced, knowing that I would be closed in my office at that time.
About five minutes into my first case management meeting, the Raven fan burst into the office, brandishing my brilliant piece of art. “This is so messed up!” he yelled.
“We’re in case management,” I informed him as my colleagues’ eyes grew large with confusion and concern. “You need to leave.” Tearing the page in two, he shot me a furious glare and wheeled around, but before he could cross the threshold, I added, “Oh, I did want you to see one thing.” I pointed at the wall behind my desk, where I’d tacked up the second copy. “Now you can stare straight at this every time we meet!”
The Raven fan spluttered in the open doorway for a moment, then cried, “I can’t believe you’re my therapist!” before he shot out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Winning, folks. Winning.
The moral of the story? The worse your team is, the more adeptly you should hone your low-tech photo editing skills.
I haven’t been writing. The act of typing those words made me feel a bit sick, but I guess self-reflection is important, even (or perhaps particularly) when it induces nausea.
Writers are supposed to write, ideally every day. I haven’t done that for weeks. My discipline has been derailed. It’s not for a lack of projects or ideas. I’m awash in those, yet I haven’t opened an in-progress manuscript since…okay, I just checked. June 3rd. 🙄 Ugh.
When I ask myself why this is happening, plenty of excuses stand at the ready. The world is a mess, so I can’t focus. My job involves too much computer time, so when I’m off the clock, I don’t want to stare at a screen. Doubts about why I write at all tug at my gut, poking my insecurities. What’s the point? It’s a waste of time. Find something useful to do.
Of course, it’s pretty shitty to be stuck in this place. I’m disappointed in myself. I fear that I’ve fallen too far off course to self-correct. I consider my unfinished work, cringing at the thought that it will remain that way.
Sometimes, when I’m in a rut like this, I engage in a mental exercise I call Be Your Own Client. If I were counseling myself right now, I imagine I’d say: “Accept the slump. It’s okay. It’s not permanent. If the inspiration to write isn’t there, do other things to support your writer self. Read. Go outside, explore, make discoveries. Spend time with loved ones. At some point, you’ll write again. It’s inevitable. The need to write is at your core. That hasn’t changed, and it won’t. So give yourself a break.”
Okay, that actually helped. I suppose a longtime counseling career has its benefits.
Our nation boasts a huge number of bizarre commemorative days. Today, for example, is National Weed Your Garden Day, Kitchen Klutzes of America Day, and Sewing Machine Day (this is a random assortment – there are others), and tomorrow is Pop Goes the Weasel Day, Strawberry Shortcake Day, and Bourbon Day. Why do we have these days? Who the hell knows. We just do.
So live it up, folks. Smash a dish on the kitchen floor, then sew together a pair of gardening gloves and pull some weeds. Tomorrow, whistle Pop Goes the Weasel while you pour bourbon over strawberry shortcake. But take care not to drink so much that you go from happy-drunk to sad-drunk. You wouldn’t want to spoil National Smile Power Day on the 15th!
Weirdly enough, I just happened upon my horoscope for the week, and it’s this:
Therefore, I believe myself justified in assigning June 13th yet another designation: National Meaningless Coincidence Day.
While I don’t love onscreen slapstick, I appreciate when it happens in real life (especially when it happens to me, so I don’t have to subject others to the indelicacy of laughing before I remember to ask if they’re okay). My most recent slapstick moment took place a few weeks ago when a dog I was walking decided to stop and sit down right in front of me for no discernible reason, thus creating the following string of events:
Kelly trips over dog
Whilst tripping, Kelly drops bag of dog poop
Kelly steps on bag of poop
Sadly, no one was around to witness this priceless occurrence. Maybe there’s drone footage somewhere. I truly hope so.
My Lifetime Achievement Award slapstick moment happened many years ago when I was running late to an important meeting. I screeched into a parking space, jumped out of the car, and attempted to dash off while slamming the car door behind me. Unfortunately, my hair flew back and got caught in the door as it slammed shut, thereby causing my whole body to shoot backwards, headfirst. As an added bonus, I’d locked the door from the inside during my hasty exit, so I had to stand at an absurd angle, head stuck to the car, to rummage through my bag for the keys. It probably took five seconds to find them, but it felt like an hour.
As in the dog poop incident, no one was around. I was grateful for this at the time, but when the sting of humiliation wore off, I was bummed no one had seen it. What a missed opportunity. Witnesses could have recalled that memory and laughed about it for the rest of their lives.
Slapstick isn’t all fun and games, however. Sometimes it leads to major life changes. Case in point: due to the aforementioned incident, I’ve chosen this hairdo since 2006 ~
The next thing I know, I’m standing in the large, industrial kitchen of a luxurious domicile where I’m housesitting. For some reason, the kitchen is full of visitors. The people are unfamiliar, but I know they’re connected to the homeowners somehow. On the counter is an answering machine (apparently I’ve traveled back in time), and I press the play button, then listen to a message from a young man who’s looking after my place while I’m away. His tone is morose as he explains that Jasper, my dog, has died. The folks in the kitchen give me sad, compassionate looks while the message plays. I assume they heard him leave it, so they already know the news.
I don’t have time to linger over Jasper’s passing, however, because I have to get to a show. An acquaintance of mine has embarked on a comedy career and asked me to attend her opening performance. I walk through a door (conveniently located right off the kitchen) to enter an auditorium full of people. The lights have been dimmed, and I work my way through the dark to find a seat. It turns out we’re not there for stand-up comedy. Instead, we watch a sitcom’s pilot episode, and the budding comic I’m there to see plays one of the characters. Sadly, as the show runs, the laugh track provides the only laughter in the room. I wonder what I’m going to tell the woman afterwards, though I imagine the crowd’s silence is feedback enough.
Then I’m in another house that I know is mine, though it’s nothing like anywhere I’ve ever lived. There are no signs of Jasper – no food bowl, leash, etc. I walk around the house, trying to piece together what might have happened to him, when my alarm goes off again.
In the real world, ten minutes have passed. I wake with a deep feeling of melancholy, but it dissolves as I hear Jasper’s claws tick across the floor in the other room. My sweet dog is alive, I have no housesitting responsibilities, and I don’t have to tell whoever that woman was that her show was awful.
To me, spring is a huge relief. As I emerge from the oppressive darkness, freezing temperatures, and skeletal landscapes of the winter doldrums, I am reminded once again that happiness is possible.
Months ago, I attended a daylong conference on authentic happiness. About halfway through, the presenter asked the audience if we believed optimists or pessimists possess a more realistic world view. Most of us voted for the pessimists, and we were right. (I’ve certainly remarked on occasion that I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist. Turns out my cynical assessment was correct.)
But she then told us this: while pessimists’ predictions tend to be more accurate, optimists rate themselves as happier people, have far fewer health problems, and live longer than pessimists. The logical conclusion, she said, is simple. Choose optimism. Being right is overrated.
On the day I attended this presentation, winter reigned. When I walked to my car at 5 p.m., night had already fallen, and sleet prickled my face. As I rubbed mittened hands together, trying to raise some warmth in my frozen fingers, I thought of the presenter’s advice about optimism and could only muster a sardonic laugh.
But today, the air is full of bird calls and the scent of blossoms. Redbuds, dogwoods, and tulips are in full bloom, and my vision is awash in pinks, purples, and lush, new greens. As I learned during four pitiful years in Oregon, my emotional state is a slave to the weather. That’s just the way it is, and I accept it about myself (another key to happiness, as it turns out). So today, I choose optimism. I choose to believe that events are unfolding as they should. I choose to believe there is a glow of hope on the horizon. I choose to believe humans are capable of powerful goodness.
Screw pessimism. Reality be damned. I choose happiness.
Self-published authorship is a hard row to hoe. Even if you wrap yourself in glittery lights, wave your arms, and yell, “Look at me! Over here!” 99.99% of the world will reply, “Why? I’ve never even heard of you. Leave me alone, loser. I’m watching The Real Housewives.” But you must soldier on and keep hope alive, believing that one day, someone not connected by blood or friendship will give a crap about your work.
Several months back, I posted Aret’s book trailer on my Facebook page. A few minutes later, I got a notice from Facebook offering a $10 voucher for a sponsored post. I figured, what the hell? I’d never found their ads effective, but for ten free dollars? Sure. So I turned the trailer post into an ad, chose an audience of fantasy-focused book lovers, and cast it into the interwebs.
I check Facebook once a day (a sanity-preservation deal I made with myself a couple years ago), so it wasn’t until the next morning that I logged in and discovered that, unsurprisingly, the trailer had gotten minimal attention. It had, however, received a comment from someone I didn’t know! Hurrah, such a boon for the self-published writer! I experienced about 2 seconds of happiness before clicking over to the comment to find this:
“A movie trailer for a book? I’m too old for this shit.” – Joe the Shmoe from Idaho* [*not his real name or state of origin, but the rebrand comforts me]
That was it – the only comment. Joe the Shmoe had taken it upon himself to stand alone, boldly sharing his brilliant observations with the world.
When you delete a comment (which I did immediately, in this case), Facebook asks if you’re sure you want to delete it. I wish there were also an option to generate a private message to the commenter, timed to arrive the moment the comment is obliterated. If there were such an option, I’d send this picture of myself:
But this irritating incident wasn’t really about Aret’s book trailer or my futile attempts at marketing. It was about communication choices. As I read and deleted Joe’s comment, I recalled a helpful and easy-to-remember model, posted in pretty much every school counselor’s office across our nation:
I love the THINK model, hokey as it may seem. Can you imagine if people used this framework when choosing whether or not to communicate? Incidents of getting butt-hurt for no good reason would be driven to near-extinction, and internet commentary would decrease by about 98%. In short, the world would be a much better place.
Unfortunately, the framework people seem to choose instead is something I’ve come to call the SO model:
S = Is it Stupid? O = Is it Obnoxious?
If SO...you should definitely say it!
Joe the Shmoe, and millions of other trolls just like him, are big supporters of the SO model. Some dumb idea flits through their heads, and they promptly carve it into the universe. From a professional standpoint, I suppose I should be happy about this, as people’s prevalent use of the SO model provides an ongoing stream of clients for mental health workers like me. But I am not happy about it. I would much rather have people think for two seconds before spewing their nonsense into the world. I believe our species is approaching max capacity for nonsense, and you know what happens when we hit that threshold, right?
The robots take over. 🤖 ☠️
So please, folks – choose THINK over SO. I can find another line of work, and I’d like to have the option to choose it myself, rather than being forced into servitude by android overlords.
The past couple of weeks have been all about patience and how much it sucks. The 2nd edition of Aret: Book One has been written, reviewed by a team of editors, updated, read through twice more, just to be safe (God help me), and uploaded to Amazon. Since then, the old and new versions have battled for dominance, the old version refusing to give up the ghost and no one, including Amazon, understanding why.
What that means for me is that I can’t do a formal launch of the 2nd edition, even though it is so totally ready, because I don’t want any new readers to end up with the old version of the book. Therefore, I sit in the doldrums, waiting to receive a message from Amazon that says something better than: “We are still investigating this matter. Thank you for your patience.”
Ah, patience, the virtue touted as “its own reward.” But we all know what that means, right? Choosing to be patient is slightly less awful than opting for impatience. That’s all. Ambrose Bierce offers a more accurate assessment. In The Devil’s Dictionary, he defines patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” Precisely, Ambrose. Very perceptive.
But none of that matters. The fact is that I can’t move forward, so there’s nothing to do but wait for the all-clear from Amazon and pretend I possess the patience for which they keep thanking me. In the interim, I will go to my happy place.
With my consciousness nestled in paradise, I will try to avoid thoughts of Aret, books in general, patience, or impatience. When Axl Rose starts to sing in my head about the-virtue-that-shall-not-be-named (🎶 “Said, woman, take it slow and it’ll work itself out fine…” 🎶), I will tell him to pipe down, reminding him that he’s sung that song to me five hundred times in the past two weeks, and it’s time to give it a rest.
Someday, this lapse in the doldrums will be naught but a distant, annoying memory. That will be a good day. For now, I’m off to the tropical tree swing in my mind. 🌴