I recently spent the weekend in my beloved Philadelphia at the Independent Authors Conference. It was a great weekend and I met loads of new and amazing professionals and enjoyed having the chance to focus on various aspects of my craft and business. This is not about the conference, however.
As I looked at the Saturday schedule, I noticed that things were wrapping up around 5PM. As I don’t get out of town on my own all that much, I began to think about how I’d spend the evening. None of the sports teams had a game at home I could make, so I looked at a few other events. There were a few that seemed interesting, but then I though I’d reach out to Philly legend Reuben Frank, who in addition to being an authority on Philly sports, is a huge supporter of local music.
So, I tweeted him, asking for his recommendation on what I should check out. He responded with:
“Amazing triple bill at the First Unitarian Church with the incredible @katiebandellen, the fabulous @Glad_eee
and the perfect @chrisfarren/@jeffrosenstock (why doesn't Antarctigo Vespucci have a Twitter?) ... it'll be 117 degrees so don't bring a jacket”
I considered a few other options, including just crashing at the hotel and binging Daredevil season three, but then I found a still, small voice in the form of Avery, my protagonist in The Last Good Day, a young musician himself (as I once was in younger days). I could hear him pulling me to the “BUY” button the ticket site. “You can call it research for book three in the series even” I imagined him saying… Then, I remembered something I’d said recently to a group of young people who are just starting their NaNoWriMo projects.
“Do things worth writing about. Then write about them.”
I clicked the button, bought my ticket, and, since I’m old and I’d been running around all day, I took a twenty-minute nap and then caught an Uber to the show.
We all waited outside the church for about thirty minutes before they let us in. It was every bit a church basement. It looked like a smaller version of the church basement from SPS where we had the graduation dance back in ’87: Dark wood paneling and a simple stage. Ceiling fans that were not spinning and a small raised platform that would serve as the stage, a small sound board off to the side. Along the back wall, a series of tables were organized with artist merchandise.
There was a palpable buzz in the room. I might not have known anything about these bands but everyone else seemed to. Beyond the merch tables, there wasn’t food or beverage available for sale but everyone brought their own. As long as it wasn’t in glass, it was good so I stepped out and popped into a store around the corner and got some supplies for the evening and returned, finding a spot towards the back, near the steps where there was a wall I could lean on. (No seats.)
The first band was Gladie and featured Augusta Koch on lead vocals with Matt Schimelfenig. They were a lot of fun. Their vibe reminded me a little of Best Coast although her voice made me think of Beth Sorrentino, not because she sounds like her, but there’s something about the way she phrased things that reminded me of Beth’s solo work after Suddenly Tammy!
At one point Augusta sang “I am angry, I am lonely, but I’m not convinced it’s you” with what felt like deep meaning yet humor. I love that line. As a writer I sometimes focus too much on the impact of one good line, but that’s a damned good line. I really enjoyed their show and would totally recommend you check them out HERE!
The next artist was Katie Ellen. She’d come past the line as we were all waiting to be let into the basement and seemed very friendly. I got a folky vibe seeing her outside but when she and her band set up I noticed she was setting up an electric and from the first song, this woman shreds. The sound from her full band really filled the space and I was blown away by her playing and unique, nuanced vocals. She brought Liz Phair to mind in terms of overall mood, but she definitely rocked harder than Liz. Check her out HERE!
After her set the lights came back up and I noticed that the crowd had grown. There was a little buzz in the area and a group of young men, probably early twenties moved into the space directly in front of me. Once Antarctigo Vespucci had settled in on stage, the leaders of the group Chris Farren and Jeff Rosenstock seemed to play a game of Rock-paper-scissors or something and then launched into their first song.
It was a tight vamp, drums coming in after a bit, band clearly tight. I was into it. Then, as the vocals kicked in, the room simply exploded. Every single person in front of me knew the words and shouted along. Every head was in motion, including my own at this point, and the mood was simply among the most joyous musical eruptions I’d ever experienced, and I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen four times. This clip doesn’t do the sound justice, but check it out HERE!
It was loud and celebratory and I was instantly swept up in it. The three young men in front of me danced with unabashed excitement, signing the words to song after song to one another as though it was something that they alone were sharing. Constant hugs and crowd-surfing was observed throughout the whole set. The dad in me got a little nervous as a few of the surfers nearly brained themselves on the ceiling fans, and one young man very nearly landed head first, but, as I had all night, I tried to remain in the moment, way outside of my comfort zone, where I’ve become far more comfortable over the last year.
They were loud and musical and held sway over the now packed basement of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia throughout their whole set. I don’t know exactly who to compare them to. I felt like I heard a little bit of The Gaslight Anthem, with whom they share a drummer, so it might just be that. The songs were tight and catchy and easy to dive into. The crowd was fun and it was one of the purest experiences of shared music I’d ever enjoyed. Everyone seemed to be saying “I’m so glad I’m here!”
I should say more about their songs and each of the players in the band. They were a very tight unit and I left there a fan, to be sure. But there is a little more I want to say about what brought me there to begin with as well. I can’t recommend this band to you enough, unless you are not a fan of fun. Check them out HERE!
All in all, it was a really fun night that I won’t soon forget, not only because of the amazing artists I was able to enjoy. I’ll hang onto this one not only because the scene is totally going into book three in my “Avery & Angela” series, but also because it was something so different than anything I’ve done in the last ten years. I still love music. I’ve gone to a few concerts but it was always months of planning and saving up for tickets. I haven’t just found a show the day of and given it a chance in over a decade. Yes, I’m older with more responsibilities than I used to have. Yes, I have plantar Fasciitis, and probably don’t get enough sleep most of the time, but I don’t think that those things should make me stop seeking out new experiences or even, as was the case with the show in the church basement, revisiting stuff I used to do all the time.
Do stuff worth writing about and then write about it.
I think that’s good advice not just for the writer in me, but for the guy who’s trying to model living a full life to his children. I work really hard as a parent, as a writer and publisher, and as a mixologist at the greatest bar in the world. I have a lot going on, for sure, like we all do, but in addition to everything else I learned that weekend in Philadelphia, I learned this:
I’m not going to be of much use to anyone if I don’t continue to step out of my adult comfort zone and mosh around with some millennials in a church basement now and again.
Thanks again to Reuben for responding to my tweet. It was a good night. I’ll have to give you another cameo in book three…
And thanks to the bands and their fans. What a blast!
I wrote this column nine years ago on the nineteenth anniversary of his death from cancer at the age of fifty, twenty-eight years ago today.
I've now lived more of my life without him than I did with him. While that's been the case for many year now, as I grow closer to the age he was at the end of his life, I find myself thinking more and more about who he'd be today. I don't think about it often, but I'm human. I'm certainly thinking about it today, so I thought I'd share this with you all again, or perhaps for the first time. The following is included in The Best of Aloha Kugs: Volume I.
I was seventeen years old on the day my father died, nineteen years ago this week. I was a young man, very young. As it happened, I talked, prayed, screamed, argued, fought, cried, dismissed and accepted a great many things about myself during the time that my father was dying. In in the time after, as well.
It was a tremendously significant time in my life. Anyone who knew me then or knew me well in the years since could likely tell you a story about that time. I won’t speculate as to what anyone else would say about how I handled things as I really don’t care anymore. The death of my father colored every relationship and major choice I made for at least ten years after he died.
My father and I had a relationship that was very much in development. I know with unerring certainty that my father and I were just starting to understand one another when he got sick. I won’t deny the fact that there are a lot of days that I feel cheated out of the relationship with him that I would have had, had he lived.
Dad was diagnosed with Cancer during Memorial Day weekend, 1990. He died October 9, 1990. The months therein were among the most difficult times in my life. Beyond the issues with Dad’s health, I was a teenager. I had a serious girlfriend who was my best friend and then I did not. I had friends that genuinely tried hard to be there for me but I was too damaged to let them. I alienated myself from many of them. I made some new friends that were amazing and they tried too but, in the end, I was utterly lost. I was a mess and truth be told, I would remain a mess in one way or another for a long time.
The journal that Mrs. Alice Burnett made me keep as part of my Junior and Senior years in the American Studies program at HHS has, over the years, proved invaluable in my life, so much so that back in the old days when I was teaching English, I made my kids do the same thing. I always told them what Alice told us when we asked why we had to keep a journal: “because it’s a grade, and you’ll thank me later.”
And I do. I have several notebooks of my reflections to look back on what was an interesting period of years, to be sure.
So, in remembering my Dad on the anniversary of his death, I am revisiting these journals formally for the first time in a long time. I was sixteen when these entries start.
June 5, 1990:
“Tonight was the PIPA Dinner (the Drama club end of year function). I sang “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Your Song” by Elton John…Dad came home yesterday-it’s definite, he has Cancer. I shudder just writing the word-WHY HIM? I know a search for the answer will prove fruitless but I can’t help but wonder. It’s scary-the doctor says he has a lot going for him-perfect health, us, the best doctor (him) in the world. He’s got good chances but it’s a new field…but he has a low number of platelets or something. There’s just no answers. I don’t like it.”
June 14, 1990:
“I know I’m not going to be a coward. I love my family and I’m going to be here, make life easier. That’s why I’m here!”
September 6, 1990:
“It feels like I haven’t been gone at all-what a summer--Firstly, I spent hell of a lot of time in Princeton Hospital. My Father is very ill. Last night he went into Intensive Care with Pneumonia. What a way to start school…I’m scared.”
“Band camp starts tomorrow, and I’m not sure what to do. I called “Pelf” and asked her advice about whether to go or not and I’ve decided to go to Beemerville with the band-I really hope nothing happens at home-Dad is very sick.”
September 7, 1990:
“Today was the first day of Band Camp-it was a lot of fun-it’s really beautiful up here. I feel very at ease and very relaxed…I’ve called home a few times just to make sure all is ok-it seems pretty good-I’m beginning to think I’ve made a good choice by coming-it’s good to get away-I’m having a wonderful time. “Sweetchuck” and Adam are my roommates, and we busted into the best room here--we woke everyone up with “Tequila” this morning. Dad improved a little-at least nothing bad happened.”
The band returned form Beemerville on Sunday the 9th of September. I went back to school on Monday, and my Dad was still in the ICU. No one was sure if he would ever come out of it. While I did not write this down back then, I remember the following moment with a clarity that speaks to me of the sheer joy and significance of the moment. I’ve never written about this before, but it happened I believe on September 11, 1990. It was a Tuesday. I had Honors Physics with Mr. Grover every other day for periods 7/8 down by Shally House. I was a genuinely/sarcastically enthusiastic student of Physics and had weaseled my way out of class that day to stop by office of the Shally House, which was around the corner from Grover’s room. The Shally House secretary, who’s name I deeply regret not remembering, once again allowed me use the phone to call the hospital to check on my father, who was in ICU at the time and unresponsive. I called the all-too-familiar number and reached my mom, who told me that my Dad was back, and awake. It was as though he had simply had a long nap and had woken up. He seemed to have sat up and asked about what was going on…it was a huge relief to all of us. I remember heading back to class and running into my friend Kari and not only hugging her out of nowhere, but twirling her around in the air.
It was the first time I had felt hopeful in a long time and the weeks that followed were significant. I can’t recall a moment after that, for a long time, where I was so enthusiastically hopeful, or perhaps hopeful at all. It was definitely one of the best hugs I ever got.
After this point, my journal went into after-the-fact retelling-mode, as I hadn’t written in the journal until three weeks after my Dad had died. Much as I do now, I kept notes in my calendar about the things that were going on in my life and wrote the following narrative with that in hand. This is what I wrote in late October 1990, as it pertained to the last few weeks of my Father’s life and the first few weeks of my life without him. I have edited for content, clearly, as my thoughts on the HHS football team, and other such trivia are not quite as relevant to this topic, nor are my thoughts on my romantic relationships at the time. In addition, I am omitting from this column a variety of stories including that of an epic canoe ride, a drive to pick up storm windows, my debut as a solo artist at the short-lived “HHS Club,” the delivery of a Renoir poster, seeing “Flatliners” at the Mercer Mall, “The Foreigner,” Hancock Field, and my first rehearsals as part of the 1990 NJ All State Chorus. I was verbose, even then, but I am trying to focus here. It was fun to re-read all of that stuff though.
"Was a special day-we sprang Dad from the hospital for a few hours. We took him to the church picnic and had a wonderful time. Just for him to be out among friends was wonderful. He is so charismatic with people-everyone loves him-as do I”
September 18, 1990:
"Dad got to come home-it was so wonderful to have him back home. He slept in my parents’ bed for the first time in weeks and said he slept great! It’s really wonderful to have him here-I hope it lasts for a while.”
September 21, 1990:
“I had a little party-just some friends came over and we played music loud and ate and danced and talked and watched movies and stuff-it was nice to have people in my house-some of my best friends have never been here. Now they have”
The gap in time here covers a lot of the stories I mentioned above. I remember that time at home being very busy for me personally, with a pretty heavy course load, a role in the Fall play (until they fired me), rehearsals for All State Chorus, the band, Church, and the other social rigors of being a 17-year-old boy with an ‘85 Sentra to cruise in. A romance had ended in my life and others were beginning. I was pretty much every other thing I would have been at 17, except that my Father was dying. Life at home, as I recall, was pleasant. It was decided that it was important that I try to maintain as normal a life as possible and I did. Although, to be frank, I probably was not as honest with the people in my life about how bad things were with Dad’s health. I remember some of my closest friends being legitimately shocked that my Dad was as sick as he turned out to be.
October 6, 1990:
“The band had our first competition-what a night it turned out to be. As I marched on the field, I felt very confident. Dad at this point is very sick and I’m scared-Later, as I marched off the field, I realized that I had just played and performed well, and that my daddy wasn’t there to see it, and he may never be. He may never see his children get married or his son perform an original composition. I cried. I cried as I’ve never cried before, with TS and RA I wanted my Father back as he always had been. I guess I kinda knew.”
October 7, 1990:
“Was the last time I saw my Father. I went to the hospital alone and spent a few hours with him. I told him how I admired him for all he is and how I loved him. How much that is a part of me came from him. He was out of it and pretty unresponsive, but he held my hand and I held his. He didn’t really respond, but somehow, he must have heard me. He squeezed my hand and he knew I was there. Somehow, I know he heard me.”
Monday, October 8, 1990:
“Somehow, I had this desire to call the hospital and see how he was. I called from the Band Room phone during fifth period. My Mom was with him and she put the phone up to his ear I told him I loved him and he said ‘I Love you.” With an oxygen mask on and feeling so weak, slowly losing it, he managed to tell me he loved me! That is the last time I talked to my Father.”
October 9, 1990:
“My Father Died. I was awakened at 6:30 am by a phone call from the nurse who spent the night with him and said ‘He’s having a little more trouble breathing this morning, tell your mother.’ Mom had asked to be notified in the event of any change. By this point, Dad had developed the Pneumonia again that had put him in Intensive care and mom had decided not to treat him with Intensive Care. He made it back once and it was a miracle-a wonderful miracle. Mom didn’t want him to suffer in ICU forever. Mom left for the hospital. By the time she arrived, Dad had died. At the age of 50. She called me and said ‘It’s not looking good, don’t go to school.’ She didn’t tell me he had died until she came home. I knew though. After I got off the phone with her, I walked to my backdoor. It was such a beautiful morning and there was this breeze-a warm, loving and tender breeze. I went outside and walked around my backyard. It was very beautiful, the sky was a pale dark blue, free of clouds and the Sun made all the world so colorful. The dew had not yet dried and the birds were singing in my backyard that morning. That breeze lasted for 5 days. On the 5th day, I knew my Father was in heaven.
Jean, the Rector of our Church came home with my Mom. I had by now circled round to my side yard and saw them pull up. I knew. She told me. I held her in my arms. We planned the services that morning.
The first place I wanted to go was school. I did so-to get my books and to tell a few of my friends was had happened. I had Pelf and RA paged to the office and when they came, I took them outside and told them. We must have spent an hour outside talking. Pelf let the band know and helped organize people to come to the service.
She is one of the best friends I’ve ever had…"
October 11-12, 1990:
“On the 11th, we held a prayer vigil at my church for Dad. It was great…the service was on the 12th. I went into school for 3 periods (just for Pre-Calculus and American Studies) and it was nice. I can’t wait to go back Monday. I feel so at ease at school. All my friends are there. My Grandma and my Uncles came Wednesday night. Some friends came over too. BP, JG, RA, TS, CR, and Pelf. I had told them before he died that when what happened happens, I would not want to be avoided or treated with kid gloves. They know me well. They are here.
The Funeral was Beautiful. We had a nice sized pickup choir, incense, banners, bombastic music. It was not dull at all. It was a beautiful service-so many people. I made a speech there. It was very well accepted by the people. (Note: The eulogy I wrote, in Annie’s purple pen, is taped into the journal here. I later used my words that day as the basis for my College essay)
My sister’s friends from Ohio drove here for the service, 12 hours in the car, stayed for a few hours and went back that night for GRE’s the next day. It’s great to know she has such great friends.
Almost everybody came to the services-there were some surprises also. RL organized a whole bunch of Saint Paul’s School people to come, many of whom I haven’t seen since eighth grade graduation. I was just overwhelmed at the amount of support…I don’t know where I’d be without this band, I’ve been involved with it for years but this is the first year I’ve officially taken it as a class…"
Late October, 1990:
"…I miss my Father. I’ve realized it’s pointless to ask why this had to happen to us. We really had and exceptional family situation. I used to come home from school and go to the kitchen and Dad would be at the table…the radio on and Mom would be cooking and I’d tell them what I’d done, etc., all day. Now I come home from school and he’s not there. On Monday night, the football game’s not on. Every time I would go down to the playroom, all my life, he’d be there reading or watching TV and I’d watch with him for a bit in between homework…I miss him. I want him to be here for my All State concert and to see me march in competition and sing and play with the Jazz Ensemble and play with the concert band. I want him to hear the music I write and meet his grandchildren and travel the world with Mom when they retire. I want him here. Somehow, I think he can see me…This is not how it was supposed to be but they say life gives no guarantees…
From where I stand, the sun is still shining. I look to the sky, but I ask no questions. I know it will not answer the questions I have…There is a breeze that reminds me that I am loved.”
The journal continues beyond this point, but I had lost steam with journaling after that and was working more with expressing myself through awful poetry and later, into songs, starting with such non-hits as “The Road Not Far Behind” and “The Beach Song.” For the bulk of the next decade, that became my medium of expression. I wrote a lot of songs, and I remember reading the lyrics to one of my more mediocre lyrical efforts at Dad’s gravesite in Ohio, nearly two years after he had died.
In the end, I think that while I miss him-his humor, his nature and his presence, what I miss the most is what might have been and the relationship that I might have had with him. I was a dumb 16-year-old kid when he got sick. I was never the same and my own inability and refusal to deal with the challenges of my life and those of others around me at that time clouded every relationship I had for nearly a decade following his death. I was a mess for years and I didn’t know it. It was my wife that later pulled me back from the edge, though that is another story.
But, when all this went down, I was a kid. I often wonder about the relationship Dad and I would have today had he either lived through his cancer, or had he not had cancer at all. Both are fantasies and I don’t indulge them often anymore. I do wonder at times.
We all have a history. That was a significant time in my life. While it’s fun to look back, I do find myself looking back with less frequency. The past doesn’t change much and there is an awful lot happening in the now and in the future that matter an awful lot.
19 years have passed since Dad died. I was 17 when it happened. I know very few things about anything but I do know this: My Dad would have loved my wife. He’d have gone nuts for my kids. He was a good man.
That’s what I think. I don’t know what he would think of me as a man or as a Father. Nor can I speculate on what he would think of the choices that I made by leaving my career and walking away from education, which was his love. I don’t know and, in the end, I don’t know that it matters. He was my Father and I loved him. His death and the manner in which I handled it affected me deeply for many years. But I got better. I do wonder sometimes what he would think of my life now, but I wonder it less than I used to. I’m happy with it.
October 9 has always been a date of note on my calendar, but I have noticed that as the years go by, it means different things. I’m glad that I revisited my journals of the time and am grateful to Mrs. Burnett for making me write them. I found it interesting to revisit the kid I was then, as I am someone very different today.
I’ve always been interested in semantics. The way we say things and the words we use are often very fun to break down for me. It’s one of the things that drove me towards becoming an English teacher back in the day. During those years, I loved nothing more than breaking down a piece of literature with my students and I was often amazed at how each class might look at the same poem, play, story, or novel with a completely unique perspective. That’s probably the thing I miss most about teaching.
I’ve been thinking lately about a semantical distinction. As soon as I learned to read, I started writing. I remember my first book was written on Grandma’s old Smith-Corona typewriter in the basement. It was an eight-page, exhaustive history of Dinosaurs, complete with illustrations. I brought it up to my parents and asked them to please send it to the people who make books. I never did hear from those people.
Perhaps that was foreshadowing of some of my later experiences with the big publishing houses…but I digress.
I’ve always written. Journals, stories, letters, notes, all the time. I still have some of my school notebooks as far back as junior high and the margins are littered with thoughts and ideas that are very far afield of the topics I was supposed to be covering in those pages. It’s even more demonstrative in my notebooks in high school. This could explain a few grades I received, now that I consider it. My personal journals and other notebooks are often very fun for me to leaf through now and I’ve mined them over the years for different projects. Point is, I’ve always engaged in and enjoyed the activity of writing.
But was a I a writer? I don’t think I would have called myself one at the time. I was busy being loads of other things, often all at once. The same is likely true if applied to my life as an adult. After college, I was a teacher, then an administrator, was always a bartender, and a few other things here and there. I still wrote, quite a lot at times. At any given time, I was writing songs, stories, the occasional play (yes, I even worked on a musical), and eventually my first novel, which remains to this day in a place of honor, locked in a drawer in my office, where it will likely remain forever and ever. But I wrote it.
The first novel was my “Can I write a novel?” project. I could and I did. That the book is not likely publishable is immaterial now, since it gave me my first introduction to the world of writers and publishing and all that and I learned a lot from my first foray into that world. I’d left education to be a stay-at-home dad for the kids while we lived in Hawaii and I’d discovered blogging, which I really enjoyed. I published for over a decade as “Aloha Kugs,” but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have called myself a writer then either. I would have said, “I’d like to be, but I’m not now.”
I was writing every day back then, working on both the first novel, the blog, and other projects. I was publishing something weekly on the blog. Some weeks I’d publish multiple columns, if I felt like it and I had something to say. I wasn’t making money from it, but I don’t think this is about money. I’ve made money doing loads of jobs throughout my life, from washing dishes at fourteen, to hanging off the back of the garbage truck, to mixology. I’ve made money selling books now too, but honestly, I think I really started feeling like a writer because of something that had nothing, in that moment anyway, to do with writing or money.
I think it was a choice.
As I’ve said, I’ve been writing for years. I took it very seriously at times and at others, not seriously at all. I’ve been driven to publish and I’ve been afraid to publish. I’ve sought representation and run from it as well. I always kept writing, but there were times that it was clearly a hobby: one I was quite passionate about, but a hobby nevertheless. So, what changed?
Over a year ago, I decided to get serious about completing my novel The Last Good Day. I had four different novel projects I was messing around with but that was the story that kept poking me, over and over. It was those characters who wouldn’t let me go, pleading with me to tell their story. This is a real thing for many writers, by the way. The characters in our heads often become very insistent on the things they do or say, regardless of what we want them to do.
So, I decided, “I’m going to finish this book and see where these quirky characters take me and then I’ll decide what to do next.” I finished a draft. I edited. I revised. I had a team of readers review it and comment. I revised. I worked with some professionals. I revised again and again and eventually I felt like I had something worth trying to get published. I went to the big conference in NYC in hopes of learning more, obviously, but also in an effort to meet an agent who’d make all my dreams come true, because that’s what I thought I wanted. Turns out I was wrong about that, but that’s a different story. After months of working the emails to connect with the agents that I’d met in NY, I considered packing it in with The Last Good Day entirely. I’d started work on another novel with different characters and was having fun with that, but then something happened.
I recently wrote about this a little in the blog “From ‘Fantasy Camp’ to ‘Livin' the Dream,’" which you can scroll down and check out, but it talks about how last Christmas break, while visiting our house at the shore or by clicking HERE. Short version is that I sat down at the dining room table at our house at the shore with all of my materials for every project I’ve touched in the previous years and I made a choice. It was a long and difficult debate, especially as I was having it with myself and apparently, I can be a real pain in the posterior.
In the end, I decided that The Last Good Day, and more specifically, “Avery” and “Angela” were not done with me yet, nor I with them. And while I was going to continue to shepherd them and tell their story, things were going to change.
I was immediately filled with both relief and dread. I felt excited and motivated and anxious, but more importantly, I saw a path forward for those characters and every other person living in my head, anxiously awaiting their turn to have their stories told. While they might still lament the fact that they didn’t come to exist in John Green, Kaui Hart Hemmings, or John Scalzi’s heads instead of mine. That path forward was suddenly something I could see in way I couldn’t before and it was a path that started sitting at the table of our shore house and will eventually lead back there, as the wife and I plan to retire there someday far in the future.
“This is the business we have chosen” I thought to myself, which made me want to watch “Godfather II” all over again, but the point is I made a choice in that moment. That was the moment I stopped thinking of myself as someone who likes to write, who writes to process the world, who writes for fun. For better or worse, that was the moment I became a writer. Not because I started a business, not because I now earn money from my books, and certainly not because I am taking it more seriously, although that’s important.
I am a writer because I chose to be one. Maybe I was a writer all along but I don’t think it really mattered until I embraced that part of my creative journey. It didn’t matter until I created space in my life for this to be something I do, for real, for the rest of my life. There won’t be any more “I’m not going to do this anymore” moments. My chips are all in now and maybe they always were. All I know is that I sat down at that table as someone who enjoyed writing, cherished the art and process of writing, loved everything about it, but when I stood up and finally went to bed, I was a writer.
Maybe it’s not really a semantics question at all, but rather one of identity. Regardless, this is the business I have chosen, and that has made a great deal of difference in my life and hopefully, in my work.
Over the last few months, several of my friends have dealt with the loss of a beloved pet. It put me in mind of a something I wrote years ago after we lost our first dog, a black lab named Gracie. I thought I'd share this post again in support of them and in memory of Gracie, who I think of often. This reflection and others are available in The Best of Aloha Kugs: Volume I which you can find right HERE.
Everyone loves their dog. At least everyone is supposed to. I loved Gracie from the moment she tackled me in my apartment in New York in the mid-90's. She tackled me, as if to say: “I know you, and you’re mine!” and then sped off as if to say, “So, what else ya got?” She was one of a kind.
That first weekend that the wife brought Grace up to stay with me in NY, I got very sick with Gastroenteritis. I had a high fever and hallucinated a few times. I remember the dog, even having just met me, laying next to my side of the bed, doting on me as though she had known me forever.
She was always a handful, usually for the best. She snuck more cookies, pies, turkey butts, silver polish, pretzels, cakes, ice cream, steak, venison, chicken, cottage cheese, chili, buffalo wing bones, buffalo burgers, French fries, soap, and bread than any dog I’ve ever known. She could release herself from any enclosure, could hide evidence of her crimes, and in general, keep everyone on their toes. She was a menace to other dogs, unless she decided she liked them, and even then, it sometimes took some prodding. She was an only dog, to be certain, but she liked “Peaches,” and “Montana,” and especially “Mikey.”
Grace’s biggest impact on me was not only the manner in which she inspired me to open my heart to her, but in the way she, in her own way led me back to being a person of faith. I was in a pretty dark, but searching period spiritually, and I honestly feel that God chose to work through this 45 pound ball of energy to bring me back around.
I was working at Camp Ramaqoius during the summer of 1998, teaching rock climbing. It was a relatively soft job, but one day, I got a call to come to the office of the camp, as this was before I, or most people had a cell phone. I had a message to call the wife, though she was not the wife then, and she said it was an emergency. I called, and in tears, she told me that Gracie had been involved in a fracas with Harry, the annoying little dog next door, and that she’d bitten him, and his owners were being dicks about it-even though he came on her property. She was upset, and said that she was thinking of putting Grace down. I told her to wait until I got there and left work.
When I got to my car, I found that I was parked in. There was no room at all to get out without serious risk of damaging the other cars.
I was blessed in this time to be driving a 1995 Mercury Tracer, later to be called “Bullseye.“
So what did I do? I won’t say that I prayed as much as I opened a negotiation with the Almighty. I said, alright God-you want me? Here’s my price-get me there and help me fix this, and you’ve got me. Seemed a small price to pay, I thought.
Somehow, I managed to get my car through without damage. To this day, I’m not sure how it happened. Honestly, I have no memory of how I made it out of the parking lot but the nest thing I knew, I was on the road, speeding shamelessly to home, hoping that the future wife, “the girl” in this narrative, would respect my request. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure. Grace was her dog, technically. We weren’t married yet, so I had no real claim to her, though I like to think we were acting as a family, with the wedding less than a year away. My whole drive there, I didn’t put the radio on, which is rare for me. I held a whole dialog with God about not wanting to let this Dog go-that I wasn’t willing to do so, and that if need be, she was coming to live with me in New York whether “the girl” liked it or not. The trip remains a blur to me, and having never driven from Camp to the Girls’ before, I’m still not certain how I managed to figure out how to get there. I spent that drive spelling out my terms to God, and all it was going to cost to get me back, with a full heart, was for lack of a better term, saving this Dog. For whatever reason, I felt called to tie my spiritual life to Gracie’s.
Now, I like to think of myself as a strong man. I’m not sure anyone else does, but I like to think that I have strength, and especially when it is needed, I show it. The moments when I take charge are probably not as frequent, mostly because we work together on most things and build consensus. I remember going into the house, and finding her and Grace on the bed. She had been crying, and in essence, said that she’d said goodbye to Grace.
My specific words at that time I don’t recall, but I know they included that I was not going to allow Gracie to be put down, and that if I had to take her to NY to do so, I would, even if it was against her will. I said that we needed to do better by her as dog-parents, and if there was a failure here, it was ours, not hers. That we had to learn and we had to adjust, and that our family did not simply throw away a life because things got difficult. I said a lot of stuff, and in the end, we agreed to get some help training her, and to work on ourselves as caregivers to Grace. I think it was one of the first real “household decisions” that we made, as we were still only engaged, but I like to think that it helped me realize the importance of taking care of Grace as a mirror to what it means to care for a family. I’d like to think that that’s why God put this nutty dog in my path. But, whatever the reason, I’d made a deal with God and I was back.
It was that simple for me, honestly. The love of a Dog brought me back to God. The story of how I got back with Jesus is even sillier, but it has little to do with Grace.
Throughout the remainder of her life, she brought us incredible joy and humor. I can’t say that the training we did really stuck with her, but we never really had a major incident again, as we learned how to adjust to her, which I think is honestly a lesson about family. You can’t change them, but you can change how to live and deal with them. Grace was there through all of our surgeries and slept curled up in the crux of my knees on more nights then I can remember. We spoiled the daylights out of her, and in essence, she reaped the benefit of our long standing efforts to conceive. She was the first baby in the family. But then, she saw us through all that-every shot, every test, every drug, every disappointment, every hard decision, Grace was there. Sometimes she dozed off, but she never failed to be present.
I remember the summer we got married, I was off from work while she had to work all summer. There may not ever have been more fun had by one man and a dog than we had that summer. Geez-we had our own soundtrack. We’d work out in the morning, have lunch on the deck, listen to the radio in the afternoon, and then, just when it seemed the right time: play “Jump in the line” by Belafonte at happy hour and chill out in the hammock with the parrot head mug until “the girl” got home.
I remember one weekend when I worked at the school in New York, she was with me, and the kids were doing nightly check-in. There was a Korean boy, who was afraid of dogs and when he saw I was holding her leash, decided to make faces at her. Grace looked at me sideways, as if to say, “Mind if I bark at him?” to which I nodded. She let out one loud “ARF” and the boy took off. That one still makes me laugh.
I remember that Grace learned how to wink one eye. She honestly would do it at the most appropriate times, and it would be funny as hell.
I remember one day in North Jersey, she and I were walking outside the house when we were set upon by wasps. We ran, both of us getting stung. I ran into the bathroom, as I had one in my shirt and more following us, and once I hit the door, she turned around, setup on guard-dog duty and held them at bay.
I will always remember how she’d dive into snow banks. I think I will do that too from now on. Seems like a good policy.
I remember reading my graduate papers to her. Her input was invaluable.
I remember Sundays, when the wife would be working all day at the parish, I would be in the den, I’d turn on football and she’d curl up on the green Mona blanket, and we wouldn’t leave that room for hours…and I’d just absently pat her head
I remember how she knew that Great-Grandma Jensen was not someone to jump on…though she jumped on most everyone. I remember too, how when I got home from my back surgery, she just knew she had to be gentle with me. With the wife in Germany, she was my most consistent and welcome companion, and laid with me for hours. She knew to go easy.
I remember waking up with her on 9-11. We were the only two who seemed to have slept through the whole thing, but I remember getting a call from the wife at like 11am, and turning on the TV and holding on to Grace as I got the whole story at once. In all honesty, I just remembered that now. Today. Wow.
I remember how she ate Annie’s cookies and hid the evidence.
I remember playing ball with her in Beverly and how she loved that fence. It was probably the only time we had her that she was really un-tethered. I can still see her romping around that space, chasing the ball, or a bug, or her shadow, or rolling around in something icky. We had a lot of fun on Sundays there, too. Same Mona blanket-just a different couch.
I remember how once my wife got pregnant, Grace had to sleep near her. She did that both times.
I remember how, coming home late from the Dublin Pub, after work, sometimes at 2am, she’d meet me at the top of the steps, smell me, make a face, but go to bed satisfied that I was home. I just smelled bad.
I remember time in the living room in North Jersey listening to the radio, or just music, laying on the floor leaning my head on her for hours. Sometimes in front of the fire, which she always liked.
I will always remember the moments when the twins were sweet to her-petting her and hugging her. Talking to them about her death will be difficult, but necessary. I hope they will learn to understand.
Letting her go this afternoon was hard for me. I held her the whole time, and though it was difficult, I had to be there. To be honest, I saw that moment 9 years ago in my mind when I was racing to the girl’s house to try and save her. I have always known how her life would end, though I didn’t know when. It went pretty much exactly as I knew it would. I’m glad that we had those 9 years though. We packed a lot of love and a lot of life, growth and change into those years.
I knew I had to be with her at the end, because I honestly feel in my heart that she would have done the same for me. If I had asked her to, she’d have stayed with me that long, and longer. She would have waited up for me, as she often did. I held her all the way through, and I told her that I love her and that I always will. I told her that she was a good dog. I thanked her for being my and our dog. I told her that everyone loves her. I told her I will miss her, and I asked God, that even though I do not know what is out there beyond life, if there is a place for her, that she find her way there, as she has more than done her part to make this world better. I told her that she made me a much better person, and that she brought me back to God. I said that a day would not go by that I do not think of her, and I honestly feel that is true. She restored my faith and opened my heart to a world of endless love and wonder, and in all honesty, there are not that many human beings in my life that can top that for impact.
Perhaps that’s unusual. Take it up with God then-I’m at peace with it.
I’d like to think that she had a good life with us. The last few years her health was not as good, and with the birth or the twins and Allie, our attention to her diminished. I feel badly about that, except for the fact that I’d like to think that in some way, caring for her taught us how to care for them. She got to enjoy them and they her, and while the twins are not yet 3, they will remember her. I will see to that.
The house already seems emptier without her. There’s no one to pick up the food that the boy dropped on the Oriental rug. I guess I’m going to have to be more diligent about that. I keep thinking that I’m going to hear her adjust herself on Daddy’s chair and I’ll hear the clinking. I think the first night I spend in this house or the next by myself will be difficult, as even when the wife and the kids were away, Grace and I were usually home together. I’m not looking forward to that.
She was one of a kind. I don’t know that I’ll ever want another dog, or to be honest, any pet.
I had my dog, and she was spectacular. I will miss her, and I hope that we did right by her.
Addendum from 2018: As I revisit this over ten years since she died, I do still miss her. That said, there was a moment a few years ago where I really felt her presence. The children and the wife really wanted a dog and I’d been resistant. “I’d had my dog,” I said. "It wouldn’t be fair to another dog to try to have her fill the space that Gracie left," I said.
Someone posted something on Facebook a few years back that was written from the perspective of the dog who had passed and it said, essentially, “instead of missing me, please take that love and share it one of my brothers or sisters who need a home.”
And of course, that made me lose it too. And we have Maggie now (pictured above), who is laying on my foot again as I edit all this. It seems to be her happy place, right on top of my foot.
Just like Gracie.
A week from today I will celebrate my 45th birthday. I usually like my birthday, but it has obviously taken a back seat to other events in our family calendar over the years. More often than not, I have to do math in my head when someone asks me how old I am, but, I won’t likely have to do that next Wednesday at least. Any of you who’ve known me, read my books, blogs, or simply paid attention to the middle-aged gentlemen in your lives will know that we have a penchant for anniversaries. Maybe it’s just me but generally I think we mark events all year, especially now that Facebook makes it so easy to know what stupid thing we were doing “on this day” every single day.
My father died when he was fifty years old. He was the strongest and healthiest man I knew until about May 1990, after which cancer mangled us all, culminating in his death in October. I was seventeen. I’ve written about the mess I became and the nonsense that my difficulty in managing that whole part of my life has wrought. But this isn’t about that. This is about what it means to be a grown-up. Sort of.
Technically, I suppose I’m a grown-up. Certainly, I’m an adult, but I don’t know that I feel like one all the time. I spent so many years as a stay at home dad, living in the world of my children: their play, their imagination, their amazing creativity, much of which, I’m glad to say still continues to this day. I was all ways kind of a goof. My wife has said on several occasions that I’ve helped her learn how to be more fun. I won’t argue the point. I also spent so many years working in schools that I know my mind and schedule were locked into school-time, which is really similar to ‘young people time’ and promoted a sense of being youthful at times, at least for me.
I’m now a few years away from the age my father was when he died of cancer. I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with him and that saddens me when I think about it. I think he’d have been a spectacular grandfather and I believe he’d have really loved my wife.
So, as I think of it all, I’m at an age that my father was, for that one year. What’s funny to me though is that I still feel very much like myself. I still feel like the kid who did stuff as a kid: played sports, was in clubs, performed in shows and stuff like that. I still feel like the kid who grew up with a whole lot of dreams and plans. I was all of those kids until I became that kid who lost his dad on a breezy day in October. I still feel like the kid that had to figure out life with my mother for years after dad died. I still feel like the young man that had to navigate both of their deaths. I still feel like that same young man at times, despite what returns to me when I look in the mirror. It’s sometimes very strange to see it all in the moments we stare at ourselves.
I know that my father once turned 45, just like I’m getting ready to do. I don’t remember his 45th birthday, but it would have the winter of 1984 and I was in sixth grade. There was likely a steak dinner and a homemade Chocolate cake that my mother made for special occasions. There may be similar things on my birthday next week but the challenge I’m facing is that I find it nearly impossible to think about myself in the same context as my dad. He was a grown-up. Mom was a grown-up. Sister Jane, Father Dave, Mrs. Chorley, Mrs. MacFarland, Mr. Hartz, Jim the Mailman, Sal from Sal’s Pizza: these were grown-ups. Mr. Bedford, our bus driver for SPS, Mrs. McGinn, Grady at Trinity Church-those were grown-ups. I can’t be one of those now, can I? I suppose I am, but I don’t exactly feel like I’m a shining example of adulthood, like I remember them being. But what if they all felt like me? Maybe they still felt like the young person they’d been, inhabiting the body of an adult they hadn’t anticipated becoming? I don’t know that I’ll ever know the answer to that one, but I hope that makes sense.
“Don’t ever grow up completely.”
A good friend of mine wrote that to me in the yearbook the year she graduated high school. I’ve always liked the idea behind it. I used to take it to mean that I shouldn’t ever completely lose touch with the young person I was at the time. That strikes me as a totally reasonable explanation. Thinking about it right now, however, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that.
Maybe part of not “growing up completely” is allowing myself to look at the adults I knew as a child with similar wonder and respect, as opposed to looking at them with eyes that are much closer to the age than they were when I knew them. Maybe it’s that I shouldn’t lose my inherent sense of wonder and silliness, which was a big part of my persona then. I’d like to think it still is now. Regardless, as I grow older, I hope I grow wiser and more patient and more kind, but I hope I also hold onto some of the aspects of my youth that have survived all these years and challenges and flourished, especially in my life as a parent. I still have no plans to ever “grow up completely” but I’m intrigued now by the idea of how others might approach the question, so I’ll ask directly: What does being a “grown-up” mean to you? And are you one? Feel free to answer in the comments section and as always, thanks for your support.
What a difference a year makes.
At this time a year ago, I was getting ready to head to New York City for one of the largest annual writing conferences in North America. I had a novel in hand and a desire to bring it, and myself for that matter, back into the game that is publishing. I’d attended a smaller conference in Philadelphia earlier in the year and received some good advice and worked on a few things with my book pitch and the book itself. I’d then consulted with a major industry insider who worked with me on the overall scope of the book, my synopsis, and helped me make a few significant structural changes that made the book a lot better.
The weekend of the conference, I took the Acela up from DC on a Friday and arrived in Manhattan with a full head of steam. I was there to learn, network, cheat on my diet, and pitch my book to a roomful of editors and agents in what they call “Pitch Slam.” It’s essentially book-related speed dating.
Overall it was a great conference and I learned a lot and met some very cool people and ate some amazing food. I got to meet and talk with Richard Russo and a number of other writers and agents and editors, many of whom I’ve gotten to know a bit through their social media and web platforms in the months since. It was a valuable experience.
I did well at the Pitch Slam. I had worked on my pitch and felt like I had it down tight. I like to talk, so I had to really work on not rambling and getting off topic because there needed to be time for conversation. You’re given only a couple of minutes so you have to make the most of them. I ended up with requests for partials from five agents and one request for the full manuscript. That was about a 95% success rate for the day so I left the event feeling ecstatic. The cocktail hour later that evening was boisterous and many toasts were raised. It seemed as though almost all of us had met with some level of success. It was a good feeling and it permeated all of the remaining sessions during the conference.
Alas, then it was time to head home to continue our work as writers and prepare our submissions to the agents/editors that were about to make our dreams come true.
I left town on Sunday on the Bolt Bus. It was not as luxurious as the Acela, but it got the job done and I tried not to think of it as a commentary on how the weekend had gone. It had not been an inexpensive venture, which is why I’ve only gone to this conference twice in my life, and saving a little on the back end was really just fine.
After a week or so of fine-tuning my manuscript, I sent out the requested partials and the one full manuscript request. I personalized each letter with details from our conversations in New York, details I’d learned about other books and authors they’d represented or worked with and how I saw x, y, or z as something that indicated that we’d work well together. I did my homework and I respected the process. I believed in myself and I believed in my book, The Last Good Day.
I’m tempted to completely skip over the part where most of the agents didn’t respond, as this is not really about agents or that process. Literary agents work extremely hard and every single one of them I’ve met has been pleasant and professional. The ones who responded to me were kind and generally thoughtful in their replies. A few were clearly cut-and-paste passes, but again, I know many of them get over a 100 blind queries from people like me a day. It must be daunting and don’t envy them their inboxes. I heard from two of them within a month, another after four months and yet another seven months later, long after I’d made some changes I’ll discuss in just a moment. The other two I’ve still not heard from. I sent nearly forty more blind queries between August and December with no appreciable response.
It was getting close to Christmas and as I often do around that time of year, I began to take stock of things in my life. The family and I had some time off planned after the holidays and I brought all of my notes and everything related to both The Last Good Day and a few other projects I’d been playing with on vacation with me.
After our first day of vacation down the shore, everyone else went to sleep, leaving me and the dog awake to tackle the thing in front of us. Maggie, our very sweet yellow lab, promptly fell asleep on my foot. While certainly a supportive gesture, she was of little help.
The first question I asked myself was: “Do I believe in The Last Good Day?” I did, but I didn’t see a way forward with it in that moment, but the characters in that book have never really allowed me to let them go.
The next thing I thought about was “What do I really want out of all of this writing stuff?” Throughout my life, I’ve always written. I remember writing a book about dinosaurs on my Grandmother’s old Smith-Corona typewriter when I was five. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t take it up to the bookstore so everyone could have one. Writing was about the only thing I was good at in school, or at least the only thing I took any real interest in, besides music, and I didn’t get that at school. So, I’ve always been writing-stories, novels, journaling, blogging, and more-I’ve always written stuff and I likely always will. So, if writing was likely to serve as a constant anyway, what is it I really want from it?
I sat with that question a long time over a glass of Jameson’s Caskmates with one giant ice cube that looked a little like the Death Star. The answer I finally came to was, “I want to give my book a chance to find an audience.” I could almost feel the characters inside my head give me a slow and semi-sarcastic ‘golf clap,’ as they are occasionally smartasses, but it was the next moment that I remember more clearly.
Full disclosure: I talk to myself sometimes. Everybody does it but I do it more than most people, probably. I find it to be a healthy way to brainstorm and flesh out ideas and I usually only do it when alone.
Anyway, I leaned back in the really uncomfortable dining room chair, causing the dog to reposition herself onto not just my foot but my entire ankle, and said aloud to myself, “So what exactly are you going to about it?”
I sat with that question a while before my eyes settled on a chair in the living room. It’s one of those older, cushioned rocking chairs that were popular forty years ago. I don’t even know when or where we got it, but rocking chairs in general make me think of my grandmothers. In that moment I remembered my mom’s mom, sitting in that same room, probably in that same chair and for some reason, after midnight, during Christmas break, I had a flash of her reading her favorite children’s book to me as a little kid.
She read it to me so many times. She’d passed away years ago by that point but for some reason, I remember looking at that chair and flashing back to the first time I could remember her reading me The Little Red Hen.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the gist of it is that the Hen grows some wheat and all along the process she asks her friends if they are going to help her with it: planting, sowing, milling, and then baking it into bread. All of her friends say, “Not I!” None of them will help her so she replies to them all in turn, “I will do it myself.” Then, when she’s finished baking the bread, she asks who’s going to help her eat the bread and predictably, everyone is down for that part. But that Little Red Hen, she’s not having any of it since they couldn’t be bothered to help her along the way. As a result, they weren’t going to enjoy the delicious bread she labored on, so she said “I will eat it myself”
“And she did.” That’s actually how the book ends. I know why that story resonated so much for my Grandmother, though that’s not a story for this space. I remember looking at the chair and thinking about her and missing her very much in that moment and remembering how we’d shared that story. That was when I really started thinking about maybe, just maybe it was time to do it myself. Like the Little Red Hen. Like my grandmother.
I won’t go into my entire employment history here as that couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone, but I’ll say this: that moment was not the first time I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t take charge of this, it’s all going to be a mess so I better make myself in charge of it.’ I was possessed of a “I can fix that” complex in many of the jobs I held in my younger years. I was often wrong but I think I’ll leave it at that.
I’d been wary of Independent/self-publishing for years. I didn’t have any real reason to be, but I found that going it alone in an industry I was still learning wasn’t all that appealing to me until that moment when I felt my grandmother remind me that, “I can do it myself.” It felt ok then. It felt like acknowledging the fact that I’ve always been better when I can be in charge of the things that matter the most to me and that my characters would probably find no fiercer advocate than me, might just matter enough to make a difference.
So, with no formal business training and less sleep, I wrote a business plan in the middle of the night. OK, first I googled, “How to write a business plan.” Then I googled “How to start a business.” Then I emailed my accountant and asked her to explain it all to me. She’s pretty awesome.
But hey--I made a decision that night and it was not, “Hey, lemme publish my book!” The decision I made was, I’m going to start a publishing company. Yes, I’m going to publish my own book but that’s not the long-term goal. I’m not in this to write one book. I’m not in this to just say I did it once and go back to my other jobs. I’m in this now to publish multiple books and eventually help other writers do the same. Once I figure out how to do it effectively.
It’s been a challenge but it’s one that I’ve relished in, to be honest. I’m in my forties and I’m learning new things. I’ve published a book, the first in a series, and it’s done well. But I didn’t do this for one book. I’m here for good. I know it may take a while to become profitable, but I have time.
One year ago, I was looking for someone to VALIDATE me. I was looking for someone to WANT me as a client. By heading to New York, I was attending what one of my peers called, at the time: “Writers Fantasy Camp.” That moniker bothered me a lot at the time.
Today, I run a business. I’ve invested in my writing, my characters and perhaps most importantly, my belief that anything is possible. For now, I am the best shepherd for my sheep, the best “hype man” for my brand. It’s going to take some time and I might fail. I am learning a lot of new things and I’m not good at all of them. But stepping out on faith as an adult who’s already had and left several careers behind is really pretty darned exciting.
I might fail. I could run out of money and then I’d have some decisions to make. I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams and then I’d have some decisions to make. But you know what the fun part is? It’s that I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s a pretty fun place to be as an adult. Starting a new thing that’s based on the thing I’ve always done? To me, that sounds like living the dream.
I plan to remain my own best advocate. I plan to continue playing the long game. I plan to continue to learn how to market The Last Good Day effectively. I’m already working on book two in the Avery & Angela series and beyond.
I’m always going to write. My hope is that I’m able to look back on this time in my life and reflect on the beginnings of a sustainable career as a writer as opposed to a glorified fantasy camp. I’m optimistic.
Doing what you love and having it not feel like work: isn’t that the dream?
Well, I’m working on it and it’s never felt closer.
A few weeks back, my friend Ginny of NotSoFormulaic.com asked me to contribute a column to post for a series on her site on the topic of being a parent to a “twice exceptional” kid. It wasn’t a term I was initially familiar with but after a quick google search, I understood what she was going for and I was all too happy to help.
It was a fun diversion from the work of running a small business and writing the next book. It reminded me of my old blogging days when we first moved to Oahu. I was writing several blogs a week, mostly about our transition to life in Hawaii and my own bumps in the road being, apparently, the only stay-at-home dad on the island. I wrote a lot about being a parent and reacting to the things that the kids were doing, among other topics. It was fun and in many ways it helped me develop some good habits as a writer that I still employ today. Several of those columns are now available in a small release I put together earlier this year, which you can check out HERE, if you’re interested.
This new column, "There are No Boring Days" can be found on Ginny’s site, NotSoFormulaic, right HERE. It was well-timed, considering the rather turbulent trip the family and I just took to Busch Gardens. Let’s just say I may never visit another amusement park again. Ever. In perpetuity. I’m serious.
I encourage you to check out Ginny’s site and leave loads of comments on my blog so that I get asked back. I enjoyed writing it and it reminded me that I need to make time now and then. I’ve got deadlines for the next novel and a lot of other plates spinning (do people still get that reference?) but I need to remember to step away now and then and write about the real things that are happening in our lives. I really treasure the old Aloha Kugs writings as they really do a nice job of chronicling our story from those years. I’m truly glad that I have them to revisit.
My son takes his Black Belt test in Tae Kwon Do this Saturday. He’s been studying with this school for seven years. That’s more than half of his life to date.
That’s a lot of time. We’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and money in his training and while this is a big moment for him as a student, it’s an equally big moment for my family as a whole.
Here’s why: Just being on the threshold of this moment at all is a testament to how far we’ve come as a family. In many ways this test encapsulates the journey our family has made over the years. It hasn’t always been pretty but we are a fairly tough group of people.
It’s a grueling test where he has to demonstrate everything he’s learned in seven years of training including various forms (increasingly intricate ordered groupings of movements in a specific order, sometimes set to music), move combinations, sparring, basic skills, counting in Korean, physical challenges, endurance challenges, making a speech, copious paperwork, and more. It’s a lot of information but he’s ready.
There’s a picture of him on the wall at his school taken in February of 2012, the day he joined the “Black Belt Club” which is a special level of membership where the student (and family) commit to advancing to black belt. He was seven years old and we as a family were still acclimating to life in Virginia after our years in Hawaii. We were all still finding our places here then. I hadn’t begun at Mount Vernon yet, the wife had not been promoted to her current position, the twins were in first grade and their sister was in preschool. We didn’t have the dog yet, I didn’t have the Duster, my mom was still alive, I hadn’t started a business yet and the Eagles were nowhere near winning the Super Bowl. Many of the people we are closest to now here were not yet a part of out lives. But we had the tae kwon do school.
At one point, all three of the kids were taking classes there but it became apparent pretty early on that it was not really the girls’ thing. They moved on to other sports and activities but my son had found his place. Despite all of the other challenges our family would face, and I’ve covered them copiously over the years between IEP’s, engaging life on the spectrum, scoliosis and a litany of other things, my son found his spot before all of us. I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it in that context until now. He was leading by example even then.
I’ve been watching him learn and grow in the martial arts for years and of course, in every other conceivable way, all of his life. One of the cool things about TKD is that there are belts. There are points where you test what you learn and then you go learn the next group of things and then you test that. I think that sense of order is one of the things that’s always appealed to him about it. I do these specific things, I advance. But over the last few months as we’ve barreled forward towards this test, I’ve watched his training more closely and I’m just so amazed by what he can do! The raw information and the muscle memory involved in what he’s preparing to do this weekend is really staggering. This week in particular as they’ve practiced some of the very specific things they’ll do in the test in the way that they’ll do them, kind of like a dress rehearsal, I’ll admit, I’ve gotten pretty emotional.
As any parent would be, I’m proud of all of my kids for the amazing things they do. I was proud of his twin sister recently when after months away from rock climbing after her spinal surgery, she attacked the walls once she was cleared. The pride did that thing where it wells up in your chest and then has nowhere to go apparently except your throat, nose and eyes.
I was proud of his younger sister recently when, during her equestrian training, she got thrown off her horse and climbed right back up, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” And she canters and jumps like her aunts and grandmother before her. Again, that pride thing puts something in your eye. It’s tricky like that.
Even now, writing this rambling and rather uneven blog, I feel emotional thinking about him taking this test on Saturday because this journey has been long, it’s been laden with occasional detours and lessons learned and it’s just been so darned representative of everything that is awesome about my family and more so, everything that is amazing about my son. Whether or not he earns his black belt this weekend, I am so proud of him. I’ve had to control myself somewhat, always a dicey proposition, as he’s a kid uncomfortable with superlatives, embarrased by too many accolades and a little wary of being paid too much direct attention. He didn’t get any of that from me, to be certain. To be honest, he reminds me of my father in that respect and I hope that sounds like the compliment I mean it to be. Not for the first time, I wish my parents were here to experience this with their grandson and the rest of us. My dad never had the chance to know the kids at all but my mother did and attended a few of his belt tests early on. I think she’d have enjoyed this with him.
It’s Thursday night right now, which is my usual blog/newsletter night. I usually post things on Friday morning but I’m not going to post this ahead of the test. I may not post it at all, but I’m writing it now. If I post it after the test there will be an epilogue at the end.
So, I know I’m going to lose it on Saturday. Whatever happens I am simply proud in a way that I never thought possible. It’s not pride because I was responsible for any of this. It’s not pride because I’m earning anything. It’s really just being proud of my kid. I’ve been that a lot. All three of them are great kids but this journey is one that we’ve all taken, not necessarily as students of Tae Kwon Do, but as members of this family. We are in a very different place today than we were in 2010 when we came to Virginia.
But watching the things he can do now; the things he can say now; the things he knows now: It’s all so much more amazing when I look at the picture of that little guy in his first Black Belt uniform. He was a little kid then and he’s a young man now. Time passes and children grow, just as we all do. Someone said to me recently “Getting older stinks” to which I said, “Yeah, well it beats the alternative.”
I believe in my son and I have every confidence that he is ready. Watching his classes this week, I’ve worked on not losing it as I watch him fine-tune the tasks he’ll be performing. I’ve done pretty well but I know it’s coming. Whatever happens in the test itself, I know I’m going to burst with pride because of the perseverance and character it’s taken to get even here.
Years ago, when this test was a long way off, I told him that when he got his black belt, we’d throw a huge party. I like throwing parties and I’m a believer that you should celebrate both big and little things whenever possible. Over the last year he’s made it clear that he’s not really feeling a huge party, but he’s invited me to deliver to him in cash whatever funds I was planning to spend on said party.
So yeah, he’s a comedian too.
Whatever happens, I’m proud of him. One of the neat things about being a parent for me is the constant surprise at how much my heart can be filled by the things they do. Just when I think they’ve maxed me out, I find another level to deal with their awesome.
I just hope I can contain it this weekend. I don’t know that I will. Pass or fail, despite and because of all the bumps in the road to here, I like where we’ve found ourselves.
I’ll update things after the test but these are my thoughts now.
He did it! My son earned his black belt tonight. The test took over two and a half hours and was pretty stressful for me to watch, to be honest. I felt almost exactly the same as I did in the waiting room while his twin sister was having spinal surgery last winter. Might have been worse as I couldn’t do anything to distract myself. Every parent there was completely zoned in on their kid.
But he did great and I’m really proud of him. I held it together though. This was helped by the fact that we had to wait for the results, which was excruciating. The policy of the school is that if every student passes, they announce the results right then. If someone doesn’t pass, they post the results later on their website. So, I didn’t get that moment where they shook his hand and gave him his fourth stripe, which would have been emotional.
Instead, I got read it online almost three hours later after refreshing the website over and over while we watched “The Goldbergs.” A nice moment, but not one that led to me losing it. That might still come next month when he gets his formal black belt, with his name embroidered upon it. Stay tuned.
I’m really proud of him and of our whole family. One of the other candidates talked about how getting her black belt was a “checkpoint” in her life and not an “end point.” I liked how she phrased that a lot. It’s a huge accomplishment for him and an even better reminder for all of us about how far we’ve come and how much else there is to look forward to in our life as a family.
I’m living the dream. But I didn’t lose it…yet.
So, how’s it going?
I’ve been asked this question more than any other over the three-plus weeks since my novel, The Last Good Day launched. The question has come in a variety of forms including the general “how’s it actually going?” to the more forward “how’s it selling?”
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks to be sure. We took a week off and went to visit New Orleans with the wife while our kids were enjoying their annual comic book camp in New Jersey. It was a very good trip. New Orleans is a very interesting city, though I learned that summer is not generally the best time to visit. It was beyond hot. I think our next trip needs to be somewhere that is 60-70 degrees in June. Please give me suggestions in the comments section below. Seriously, I need them.
To answer the second question, the book is doing well. It’s a first novel and it’s #1 in a series that no one knows about yet, so my expectations are not immense. As I wrote recently, I’m playing a long game here with my writing. I didn’t start this business or this process in order to publish one book. I’m all about the tortoise: slow and steady. If I can stay on target, I’m hoping to have book #2 (tentatively called The Next Good Day) ready in December. That story takes place over winter break so I’d like to have it available then, just like The Last Good Day is a summertime story, and it’s out now.
My son keeps asking me if I’ve made back the money that I invested in creating the book. I’ll share with you the answer I gave him which is “not yet.” That was always a long-term goal. A few more months like June and that will take care of itself but the goal here was never about money. It was about sharing my work and developing a platform and market for the books I’ve yet to write. I think we are on target there and a lot of that is due to the support I’ve received from friends and family, obviously, but also to support I’ve received from a variety of communities: the online writers of the world have been very helpful.
Perhaps most exciting is that my undergraduate alma mater, The College of Wooster, is going to be featuring all of my books in a new alumni section of the bookstore on campus. I have to tell you that the moment I see a picture of my books on sale in the Florence O. Wilson Bookstore in Lowry Center, a dream will have come true.
I’m not kidding. One of my first goals as a young writer while at Wooster was to someday create something that would earn shelf space at the Flo. Wooster is an amazing place and was instrumental in my life, not just for what I learned there. Meeting my wife and several of my best friends there was a tremendous bonus to the amazing education I received, especially as a writer. The day I can see my books sharing shelf space with other alumni and faculty and just the everyday books of a great college education is one I am truly looking forward to with all my heart. I’m really, really excited about that. I honestly wish my mom was here to see that. Beyond any other accolade the book may or may not earn, I know that Mom would have really liked my book being for sale in Wooster.
So, how’s it going? I think it’s going pretty darned well! I’m still learning a lot about marketing and social media and how to continue to develop my platform and there are areas of this I’m struggling with. In the end, it’s going well but if you or someone you love is really good at online marketing please be in touch. I have a lot to learn and there are things I could be doing better. Playing the long game makes sense to me now. I’m grateful that I have characters who are continuing to boss me around as I tell their story.
So-my first book signing? Well, at work today, I had two friends bring in their copies of The Last Good Day for me to sign. I am so grateful for their support. These were the first copies of the novel that I’d been asked to sign. I was a little nervous to be honest. I’ve been collecting signed books from authors I admire for years! I’ve been the guy on the line or walking up after an event more times than I could count. It’s always fun and someday I should tell the stories of some of my more entertaining signed books stories, but I digress.
I’ve been the guy asking for the author’s signature so many times--when it was my turn to sign my own book, after a moment of awkwardness, I realized what every author who signs a book for anyone is saying when they sign that book. It was so simple once I took a breath and looked at the page and took out my pen. I understood it all in that moment and it was a bit of a sea change for me.
I wrote a note to my friends and included a few shared jokes we have but all of the words I wrote are easily boiled down to one simple sentiment:
“Oh my God, THANK YOU!”
That’s what I now believe every single signature on every single book in all of time in perpetuity really means, forever and ever and I don’t think it’s just me. I think James Patterson, John Green, Steven King, Kaui Hart Hemmings, John Scalzi, Harper Lee (I have a signed book from her!) all of them—Every writer ever who’s signed a book is thinking that same thing as they sign their name. Whether they personalize it or it’s just a signature, they’re all thinking it! “OH MY GOD! THANK YOU!”
And I felt a real, almost tangible sense of gratitude as I handed them back and watched as they flipped through to see what I’d written. It was like the coolest kid at school wanted you to sign their yearbook and then couldn’t wait to read what you’d written to them.
Even better is that all this led to wild discussion of the book around the bar and I passed out several cards and two guests ordered the book while still sitting there. Not a bad shift, to be sure.
To those of you who’ve supported the book I’ll say this: whether I ever get to sign your copy or not: OH MY GOD, THANK YOU!
I get it now. It’s a level of gratitude I didn’t know I was capable of but I’m really very grateful. So yeah, it’s going well. Thanks so much for your support and stay tuned.
I’m just getting started
Yes, I used SPECTACULAR Twice! It's spectacular!
As you may have heard, my first novel, The Last Good Day is now available! You can find it by clicking the cover page above.
Now that that's out of the way, let's have some fun! My novel is littered with what they call "Easter Eggs," little references to either things in my life, things in the world, people in my world, etc. For example, if you've been to Wildwood, lived in Mercer County, NJ, known me at all, or just have a sharp eye for details, chances are, you'll pick up on a few. Some of you may even recognize references to characters that my Facebook family helped me name through one of my "Let's name a Character" games. They were fun and the end result is that there are almost zero names or references that don't, as they say "Come from somewhere."
So, let's make it interesting. As you find them, please post them in the comments below. I will work to curate them over the coming weeks and months. Perhaps I'll set an end date of September 1, for now. Whoever finds and identifies the most "eggs" will win a prize pack that will include swag from Wildwood and a signed copy of book #2 in the Avery & Angela Series, The Next Good Day, which I hope to have available by Christmas.
So-Good Luck and may the odds ever be in your favor....