Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

The Versatile Blogger Award!

versatile

Try to picture me now, six foot three inches of hangdog pout, twisting the toes of one foot back and forth on the floor in shame at having let something sit for far too long.  A month or so back I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award, and like a lazy farmer wondering why the crops aren’t doing anything when the seeds haven’t been planted yet, I let this sit, and sit, and recede into the shallows of memory, assuring myself that I would indeed get around to it.  Terrible.  Well, after a few other projects have been swept from the deck, here I am finally, getting around to said thing.  Despite my drag-assedness, I’m deeply grateful to the four stellar talents who were kind enough to nominate this tiny corner of the Internets:  Michelle Gordon, Jessica West, Nillu Stelter and Debbie Vega.  Thank you so very much ladies!  Keep being awesome, and more to the point, keep writing awesomely.  And sorry I’ve taken so long to accept your generous nomination!

The rules for this particular honor are:  thank the person(s) who nominated you (check!), disclose seven interesting factoids about yourself, and nominate fifteen more deserving winners.  As regards the seven interesting facts about myself, well… I’m not really that interesting a person.  I can string words together pretty well on paper and I’m okay at parties until my material runs out, but you’d probably brush past me on the street and not even realize I was there.  I suppose I write fiction to make up for the tame trappings of an average, middle-class upbringing and ongoing life.  But if you’re looking to be regaled by recollections of jaunts through the African savanna or the backstreet jazz clubs of New Orleans or rubbing elbows with the famous and the powerful, you’ve clicked on the wrong link.  It’s why I have to try to captivate you with my words; the rest of me won’t do it.  Regardless, here goes with a few things you might not otherwise know about me.

1.  As noted above, I am six-foot-three, shuffling along in a world designed for the five-foot-six.  This means a chronic case of slouching and a neck somewhat out of alignment from leaning forward to look down.  It also means, for whatever reason, strangers predisposed to think you are athletic.  I am incredibly not.  I marvel at shorter folks who can run marathons – I’m wrecked after a half-walked 5K.  At the risk of sounding a bit Dangerfield-esque about it, I was such a lousy athlete as a child that even the teachers picked me last.  Can’t throw, can’t hit, can’t kick, can’t field.  And to think that a childhood dream (swiftly extinguished by reality) was pitching in major league baseball.  Nope – closest I’ll get is field level seats, and you know what?  I’m totally okay with that.

2.  When I was a teenager, I drew comic books.  This is similar to #1 in that I cannot really draw, either.  My character was an anthropomorphised simian version of James Bond (for the simple reason that monkeys were easier to draw than humans) and I did seven books with him, only four of which were finished.  The last one, that part of me regrets not completing, was a James Bond-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, in which Bond fell for Dr. Crusher.  And because I couldn’t draw, the story was a lot of dialogue and character development as opposed to splash pages of pencil-crayoned ass kicking.  Doing these books did teach me a great deal about how to create character beats and arcs, how to plot, and how to sharpen the storytelling edge to finish within the number of pages left in the purloined school exercise book.

3.  I usually wear at least one piece of Disney-related clothing on any given day.  It started a few years ago with one solitary T-shirt; now the wardrobe has expanded considerably through ties, boxers and other apparel, and I’m writing this with a grinning Mickey Mouse displayed proudly on the left breast of my black golf shirt.  We’ve added Olaf to our growing empire of stuffed animals; he’s on a shelf in our living room, enjoying the summer and peering down at the mischievous kittens who are plotting to knock him from his lofty perch.

4.  Speaking of kittens, after we said goodbye to our beloved Muffins, we acquired two new furry friends to carry on her legacy:  siblings Dudley and Daila.  Dudley is an orange tabby while Daila is a tortoiseshell, and while they are both very sweet, Dudley is a master thief!  He has stolen articles of clothing, stress balls, batteries and keys, but his favorite target is pieces of fruit, specifically, bananas.  We have to hide any bananas we buy in the microwave, otherwise we’ll wake up in the morning with a banana in our bed.  Last weekend Dudley figured out how to open the desk drawer in our kitchen, and pilfered a ball of string.  Even though we were proud (and a tad terrified) of his ingenuity, we were somewhat disappointed at his descent into cliche.  It’s all right, he’s young, he’ll grow up and be quoting Proust before you know it.  (A la recherche du souris perdu, anyone?)

5.  My wife and I are part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and we mentor a young boy we’ve known since he was nine.  It was a year and a half after we met him that we were introduced to the then-11-year-old who would become our adopted son.  So you don’t have to be a major in anything to connect those dots and realize that the experience of mentoring made us realize that we could parent an older child.  A project still lingering on the backburner is a detailed article about being a mentor which I’m hoping to get finished in the next couple of weeks, so watch this space for updates on that.

6.  The infamous novel to which I have alluded from time to time is still working its way through the query trenches, now numbering 11 rejections all told.  I refuse to accept that this is a trend, and I soldier on.  One rather disappointing (yet interesting) tale from this process is having a Twitter pitch for it favorited by one particular agent after she had already rejected the query and sample chapters, which were sent to her because she favorited the same pitch in a prior Twitter contest.  (She was great about it though.)  With that sort of thing, you just have to laugh and keep going.  There was another form rejection I received that was so apologetic I almost felt I should have responded, assuring the agent that I didn’t take it personally and that I wasn’t going to go fledermaus-scheise on her.  Probably a result of too many wannabes doing just that.  As an aside to any literary agent out there who might be reading this, I promise promise PROMISE that I won’t be a jerkwad if you say no to me.  I’m taking a stand against that crap.  I may even develop a variation of the Serenity Prayer for rejected writers, or something more basic, like “I will not break, I will not bend, I will not turn into a raging douche-a-holic.”

7.  And lastly, I have struggled with my hair since as long as I can remember.  The avatar I use for all my social media profiles is one of the rare few pictures in which I find it looks somewhat respectable, instead of like a wildebeest flayed by a helicopter rotor.

Ok then!  Onwards to the third part of this here deal.  Versatility to me suggests, at least by its dictionary definition, individuals with a wide range of skills.  Applied to blogging it would therefore seem to mean people who write well about a lot of different subjects.  This runs contrary to most blogging advice, which posits that in order to build an audience you should focus on one topic you know really well and then just write the bejeezus out of that, rather than trying to be good for all time zones.  I suppose that when you become established as a “voice” that others seek out, you are then freer to weigh in on whatever you want, as opposed to trying to build a niche audience from nothing.  Some blogs I follow are informative writing resources, others are pop culture treasure troves, others still are founts of creativity expressed through wildly imaginative fiction.  What they share, however, are voices I look forward to hearing, and find myself missing when absent.

You’ve been bearing with me for this long, and I want to shake it up and end on something of a twist, so here it is:  rather than list fifteen names and links you won’t click on, I’m going to do Q&A’s with each person I nominate.  I enjoyed hosting Emmie Mears in June and it’s given me the itch to do some more of that there stuff.  I just think you’ll get more of a sense of why I admire these writers, and it’ll give them a chance to talk about what drives them, what scares them, what they’re after and what they want their legacy to be.  None of this fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false quick answer claptrap, we’re going to dive deep down, tug at the heart and probe the soul.  I’m gonna be the Brian Linehan of the blogging world if it kills me.  (I am aware that Brian Linehan is dead, so that could be taken the wrong way.  I meant in the sense of his detailed interviewing style.)  And each will of course be asked for their favorite swear word.

This might take a while so don’t expect all fifteen to show up in the next week, or even the next couple of months – it’ll be an ongoing feature here and I’ll categorize them so they’re easy for you to find.  To my unwitting subjects:  watch your Twitter DM’s and your email inboxes, like so many arrows loosed by an intrepid archer, or darts flung at a perforated cork board by a drunken punter round the pub, my questions will be coming for you.  Mwa ha ha.

Catch: A story of fathers and sons

SAMSUNG

This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.

WHACK!

An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.