UNDERWATER

When I was twelve, I signed up for Boy Scout Camp.  As explained to me by my older brother, it was the great summer adventure: water sports, merit badges, and exciting new foods.

Our Scoutmaster was one of my life role models, a giant of a man with the ability to make any scouting trip memorable and fun, without letting things get out of hand.  A few weeks before the camp, he handed me a blank form and asked me which merit badges classes I wanted to take.  A few of the choices were easy. I’d always wanted to learn to ride a horse, so I filled one time slot with Horsemanship. Mom did all the Cooking at home, so I didn’t need that one (I’ve since repented), but Leatherwork looked kind of cool, and building your own shelter in the woods for Wilderness Survival sounded awesome.

I had one slot left, and Lifesaving sounded a lot cooler than Emergency Preparedness, so I marked that one down too. One of the other boys warned me it was an aquatic merit badge, but I figured I was in pretty good shape from soccer, and I’d already completed the Swimming merit badge. How hard could this be?

Harder than it looks. For one thing, you never have to hold your breath while playing soccer. . .

Towards the end of the week, we were learning escapes. I went into the water with an instructor about three times my size and built of pure muscle.  Beefy was supposed to act like a panicked, drowning person, and I was supposed to escape his grip and carefully lead him back to the dock while maintaining a safe distance.  It all sounds great in theory, but I was in trouble from the get-go. The moment I hit the water, Beefy latched onto me like a three-hundred pound gorilla and began dragging me down. I took one gasp of air and then all I could see was muddy water. It got colder. I was wrapped up so tight I couldn’t move a muscle.

In that dark place, I wondered if I would just continue sinking forever, if I would ever breathe again, and if maybe Beefy was taking this escape exercise just a bit too seriously. I had a moment of complete and utter fear. It took me a lot longer than it should have to remember the training they’d given us. But eventually I did remember it. I broke Beefy’s grip and dove away from him, creating the safety space required.

In retrospect, I didn’t get out of that predicament on my own. I went in with a theoretical understanding learned from experts and some practical experience in breaking holds. And in retrospect, there was also a safety net. There were lifeguards, if my training, experience, and skill proved insufficient.

We have lifeguards too. We have safety nets.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I interviewed a friend and licensed marriage & family therapist Matt Brown. We talked about my book The Deep End of Life, finding support, and getting out of the deep end. I’ve been going back through the interview footage, making clips of specific topics kids (and adults) might wonder about before seeing therapist for the first time. Some of the questions are more serious than others, but sometimes laughing a little is just as important as asking for help.

Click here for the interview.

THE DEEP END OF LIFE

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The New Year is knocking on the front door. I can see him through the peephole with a handful of “bills past due” in his left hand and a wad of cash in the other. Every time I let him in, he knocks that priceless lamp by the door over or spills grape juice on the carpet.

I hesitate. Old Year is comfortable, relaxing on the couch with some luke-warm hot chocolate, re-reading list of unfinished projects. He’s comfortable in the same sort of way that a known misery trumps the unknown. Or comfortable like oft-worn pair of pants with a hole in the bum, and anyone looking too closely can see your undies.

Hopefully, nobody’s looking too closely.

Old Year hasn’t been all bad, though. For example, I finished writing a book called The Deep End Of Life.

It isn’t about dragons, spaceships, or a lonely thief trying feed his kids. In some ways it is a very ordinary book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about what sometimes happens to kids when their parents break up. It isn’t an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination, but it is real.

I’ve mentioned this before, but 2016 was a difficult year for me, and it was hard for my kids as well. It was the year their parents got divorced.

Sometime during the fall of 2016, while somewhat innocently browsing for internet video games, my oldest, a boy, came across an un-closed browser tab for “divorce attorneys.” He tried to cover up the screen and click away before the younger siblings saw, but they knew right away something was up.

Not how you want your kids to find out there’s trouble in paradise.

That led to some difficult, but important discussions. As parents, we offered to take them to counseling, and mentioned that it had been helpful for us in bringing healing and understanding. Only the youngest seemed open to the idea, but she—if I remember correctly—marched into the elementary school counselor’s office and demanded a session, without parental assistance.

Around that time, the kids were doing year-round swimming. When I picked them up from practice one day, a coach informed me that the youngest (same kid) had spent “a lot of time” in the bathroom. “I don’t like swim practice,” she said later, and she admitted skipping practice to “do gymnastics” on the locker room benches.

That moment stuck with me—a fourth grader swimming dutifully (mostly) through the winter months, when maybe she had bigger dreams, and it came back to me a few months later.

One evening, the youngest walks into the living room, whips out a piece of college-ruled paper, and accosts the oldest.

“Let’s talk,” she says.

He mumbles something that might, under duress, constitute an agreement.

I grin, because I like listening in on their private conversations, when I can. True, I’m only three feet away, but I’m also washing dishes. Chores (or anyone doing them) are completely invisible to kids. As long as you don’t make any noise or alter your facial expressions when they say outrageous things, they don’t know you’re actually there.

Over the counter I can see the paper she’s holding, and I realize—sadly—that this isn’t going to be one of the juicy ones.  The college-ruled notebook paper has “book titles” written at the top. I can’t, for the life of me, recognize any of them.

“Tell me if any of these are good,” she demands of her older brother.

It takes me a minute to catch on, but apparently they’ve done this before, and none of the titles on her list are real. What she’s written is a bunch of test-case titles to see if her big, mature, well-read junior high brother seems interested in any of them. She’s not even particularly motivated to do anything with the information. She just wants to know.

And for an eighth-grader, he’s remarkably patient. “Yeah, that one’s pretty good,” he says, occasionally. Or he just shakes his head when they don’t meet his fancy.

It’s a fun game, initiated by a ten-year-old. Most of them are acceptable middle-grade mock-up titles, but there’s only one I remember now: The Deep End Of Life.

The moment she read it, I was transported from the kitchen, out of the present, away from the months of co-parenting and breadwinning, and aches and worries that parents feel. For a moment, I was there, watching my daughter dancing across that locker room bench, finding her own peace of mind in a world that had just imploded. And I think of that same kid, striding powerfully into the elementary school front office demanding to meet with the school counselor, a trained mental health professional.

The Deep End of Life is a title written by a fourth-grader. There are plenty of people who could come up with a better one. But it stunned me, reminded me of how little of their lives I actually see. It pulled back the curtain for a moment on the drama of childhood, the drama of fourth grade.

I wanted to catch that image and put it in a bottle. Some authors write the book they wish they’d had growing up. I wrote the book I wish my kids had had. It’s okay—and sometimes even fun—to get help when you’re swimming in the deep end.  

With the day job in the mix, it took me a few years to finish. It helped that my commute in 2020 has been considerably shorter.

Thanks for that, at least, Old Year.

The New Year knocks again, louder this time. Opening that door will bring all sorts of problems. But it might bring some good things too. I look at Old Year, who is still lounging on the couch, eating smelly leftovers. “Yeah,” I say. “Get off the couch.”

He stands up and stretches, makes his way to the front door. His jeans are faded and a pocket seam has burst. There’s a bit of plaid boxer peeking through. He always lingers at the end.

“Undies are showing again,” I say, to encourage him onward.

He turns to look at me, hand on the doorknob. “Did you finish writing another book?”

“Yeah.”

“Do some cool things with your kids?”

“Yeah.”

“Then stop looking at my undies.”

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Every year is challenging. This year I’m thankful for friends, family, and a finishing another manuscript.

Constructive Criticism

“The paper is just [the] manuscript. It’s not the story. The story in your head is beautiful. . . You can take a lot of comfort in knowing that all they’re doing is reacting to the manuscript. It’s not [you]. It’s not even [your] story.” –Peter Orullian

 

Nobody likes to get told that they stink. Picture13(Try it sometime.  If you get throat-punched, then maybe you get my point.)

And yet, we like improving.  We like forward progress. We like being better today than we were yesterday.

And sometimes the thing we need to improve is a thing we don’t want to hear.

I have a friend at pick-up soccer who is always dispensing research-backed wisdom about this: “Don’t tell people what they did bad! It’s scientifically proven to trigger a defense mechanism.”

It’s funny, because he seems oblivious to the immediate walls that go up between him and the people he would educate about the dangers of negative feedback. Nobody seems to care that it’s “research-backed.”

And I’ve thought a lot about this. How do I invite positive change into my life as a writer, father, and friend?

If you’re bored, or tired of getting throat-punched for your “feedback,” check out this panel on constructive feedback for writers. Some of it might be useful.

Cheers!

 

Karate Kid at the Holiday Bazaar 2.0

The karate kid made my day.

He comes by, eyes wide, head swiveling, brain probably in sensory overload from the hanging air plants, flashing jewelry, and old-school fantasy books. He’s got a white uniform on with a yellow belt.

“Would you like to learn to juggle?” I say. I don’t bother selling him books any more than the ladies in the near-by booths would try foisting on him perfume and knitted cozies. This kid is looking for action!

He nods once, silent and confident. He’s young enough to still have that “I can do anything!” audacity that comes with wearing a karate uniform, and thinks it’s funny when I tell him that the first trick to juggling is learning to drop the ball properly.

Of course he nails it. And the next 5 steps in the juggling process. We get him up to double-throws and catches before karate beckons. It all takes less than 5 minutes, and his form is good.

He’s not the only one. Every kid in the place wants to see me juggle, even without the swords and torches that I’ve stopped bringing because they make the adjacent booths (and the fire marshal) nervous.

A couple more kids are brave enough to give it a shot themselves. I sell some books. I talk with their parents about literary tradition, and what they’re reading now. And I realize again why I like doing shows.

I thought I’d hate shows. The idea of being that guy who lurks at the mall kiosk and preys on unsuspecting passers-by makes my feet itch.

But I’ve realized, that I can do things my way. I can sit back and pass out free smiles. I can eat my sandwich, even with salami. I can teach kids to juggle and grannies to make snowflakes. Or, I can mix things up and teach the grannies to juggle and the kids to snowflake.

I’ve realized I can pretend to sell books as an excuse to talk to people about literature. And if, by chance, someone says they like Tolkien, or Pratchett, or Dragonlance, I can hand them one of my books and say, this one’s for you.

I like the quiet moments too. I like that lull around lunchtime where the morning crowd is drab-dribbling away and the afternoon crowd is still eating barbecue and wiping their fingers. I like talking shop with Laura who drove all the way from San Antonio to sell books and, well, talk shop.

Most of all, I like the people. These conversations wake the inner child and chase away the aches and pains of not being able to run a 5:20 mile anymore.

Thanks to those of you who stopped for conversations, lessons, and/or books. You made my day.

 

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Managing the Mortal Coil

“…what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
– William Shakespeare

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Sometimes writing good books isn’t about word count. Sometimes it’s just about living through a difficult week so that maybe, someday, you’ll be healthy enough to put words on a page.

2016 was that year for me: newly divorced, single dad, struggling at work, and feeling like a failure in nearly every aspect of my life. It wasn’t true, of course, but I felt it was.

Some nights I went to bed exhausted yet didn’t sleep.

One of the best decisions I made that year was to start attending writing conferences. I went to the World Fantasy conference in Columbus, Ohio. I crashed at my friend Josh’s place. In exchange, I cooked his family dinner. Calzones, I think. It was a soft landing.  There was laughter and kindness. Nobody expected too much of me. He let me guest star in his monthly D&D campaign. At the conference, Marco Palmieri gave me some writing advice and asked me for a partial manuscript. I made friends with some really cool writers. It woke me up a bit, reminded me that I had a lot going for me.

I also attended Life, the Universe, and Everything, or LTUE. I stayed with my sister. I ate delicious meals with her family. Enterprise gave me a free upgrade. I did an interview with Howard Tayler, although my interviewing skills were a bit . . . rusty. Still, the interview turned into a low-intensity, multi-day conversation.

I didn’t do much writing, but I connected with a community that I love, and that gave me something special to look forward to amid the day-to-day. It gave me hope. I made friends.

Fast forward.

Last February I got to do a panel with Howard. I’d been writing more, thriving, and finally felt like I had something to add to the conversation. This particular panel was “self-care.”

I arrived five minutes late and deeply embarrassed.

Howard smiled at me. He’d saved me the panelist seat next to him. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“You know. Taking care of myself,” I said.  “This is the self-care panel, right?”

Howard grinned. Everyone else laughed. Good friends are like that. They set you up for the home run.

Be a friend. Set someone up for the home run. Bring out the best in the people around you.

Activity Report: February 2019

 

 

Activity Report: February 2019 

  • Published Shadowcloaks.
  • Built book stands in my garage.
  • Presented at Life, the Universe, & Everything 37 (LTUE 37).
  • Planned and  drafted my first middle grade novel.

 Highlights from Life, The Universe, & Everything 37:

  • Driving my niece to school in the traditional rental car. (We’ll spare her the selfie for anonymity reasons, but let’s just say February 14th and me get along when it comes to car rentals.)
  • Hanging with Laura Palmer and juggling with Howard Tayler at LTUE’s mass book signing. Unfortunately, we forgot our cameras. All photographs are event-posthumous. (There’s probably a better way to describe that . . . )
  • Learning from Allison Hymas that “acquisitioners” might be called “retrieval specialists” in the modern middle school.
  • Being assigned panels with some very talented writers.
  • Receiving an epic 1-on-1 historic weapon tutorial with Gordon Frye and his wife.
  • Talking with Kelly Barnhill about space camp, Launch Pad, and fortuitous meetings.
  • Scoring a heely goal in a late-night, post-conference futsal game at SportCityUtah.
  • Seeing the opening scene from Shadowcloaks repeated on the Wasatch front.
  • Spreading grins and good cheer with Coco, the Emotional Support Queen Palm among the passengers of Delta Flights 3922. I have more seedlings in my back yard if you need one. . .

It’s been a busy month. Thanks for your support.

208 WORDS

Maybe it’s the relaxed day. Maybe it’s the teenage son voluntarily listening to jazz and doing dishes in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the knowledge that “Mr. Spazz,”—the squirrel haunting our attic—has finally gone to a better place. (Easy there, PETA.  “Better place” in this vernacular means “wildlife preserve on the opposite side of a major waterway.”)

Whatever the reason, here I am, reading an actual book.  Or I was, until I decided to post about reading an actual book. And it may not count as an actual book, since it’s actually the Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of a book that’s already been released and was probably modified from the version I have. But let’s not quibble. The first page impressed me. It was good enough that I had to put the book down and talk about it.

In one-half page and 208 words, the author (1)  bricks out a solid, sympathetic protagonist, (2) throws down a red herring or two, and (3) establishes three different  sources of conflict.

Hoping the rest of the book delivers. . .