What's Important 10: Not So Desperate Times, Not So Desperate Measures

I'm upset that I’m not more upset.

I don't write as much as I used to. It bugs me and it's mostly logistical because, you know, busy life and all that. And when I do write it's stupid shit like blogging or writing about comics. I have been editing a YA book for MONTHS now.

I miss writing literary fiction. I actually miss short stories.

But the other day I had a realization about writing: it's no longer essential.

People talk about the arts in what seems like hyperbolic terms, but it's not: the arts save lives. I don't know that I would say that writing saved mine, but it certainly allowed me to live. It's where I've tried to make sense of the world around me, tried to make sense of the distortions in my head. It's where I've set up shop and lived when life was its hardest.

It was sometimes all I had.

But it's not anymore. My life is so full I honestly have a hard time believing it's real.

In the past, writing meant the difference between losing my shit and holding on. Writing meant keeping my head above water. It meant giving me some semblance of control.

Writing meant that something good could come out of me.

But at some point I realized that something good can come out of me all the damn time and writing stopped being so special.

That's not to say that I don't still love it/hate it or that I'm not still drawn to it. And that's certainly not to say that it's not still important to my mental/emotional/spiritual well being. It is and it always will be.

But it's not alone anymore. It's not fighting a seemingly hopeless battle on its own.

It's no longer life support.

It doesn't have to be.

My need to write has changed and I can tell that it has changed my writing.

That's hard for me to reconcile.

I look back on the things that I wrote in the past and it feels like someone else wrote it.

I won't lie: I miss it. The fact that I don't write the way that I used to makes me feel like I've failed in some way. Maybe I have. Maybe I've let a piece of myself down. Maybe I'm neglecting a part of myself that needs tending to even if it's not as obvious as it once was.

But maybe I am tending to that part just in other ways. Perhaps this blog does that, or my ongoing autobiographical/journal type thing that I've been writing for years now.

I suppose my concern comes down to my emotional side, although just writing that I feel how wrong I am. It feels like maybe it comes down to my ego.

My writing is what allowed me to have an emotional side, but that's not true anymore. I don't need it as an outlet, not in the way that I used to. I'm still writing to be creative and I'm still writing to exercise my brain, but I'm not writing to vent.

I'm no longer exorcising demons.

That should be a good thing, right?

But I focus on all the potential I thought I had and the fact that it is seemingly going to waste. I remember that rush that came from rereading something and realizing that it was actually pretty good.

I even miss the rejection letters.

And I miss the fire.

I think maybe the fire is what made my writing special and that maybe it's gone now or, at the very least, it's not as hot, not as all encompassing. It no longer engulfs all that I am.

I still have things I want to write. I still have story ideas written on scraps of paper all over this office. I just don't know if I will ever get to them because I don't have the drive that I once did.

The hardest part about all of this isn't that it's happening, but that I'm not more upset about it. Because I should be, right? I used to be special. I used to bare my soul. I used to cry when I wrote. I could even make other people cry, too.

I was an artist.

And maybe that's not me anymore. Maybe I don't have that fire anymore, at least not for all the soul bearing and heart ache.

When Nicole and I first started dating I told her that I worried about being in a happy relationship because I was concerned what being happy would do to my writing. I won't lie; being with Nicole changed my writing. There was a very clear shift in my work.

But I adjusted. I adapted. I think I was able to find my voice even when I was no longer miserable.

Finding my voice again as a parent seems to be harder because being a parent is more consuming than being a boyfriend/husband. It requires a greater time commitment, it requires a greater emotional commitment.

So this is me, now, trying to figure out how to deal with this. In part I’ve accepted it because it’s easy to accept: I have distractions. But that’s probably not the way to get over something.

Maybe it’s time to try something new.

I’m just not sure what that is yet.


Positive Parenting From Negative Parents

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about our respective childhoods, comparing notes, in a way. While our upbringings were very different, they were thematically the same. Our motivation to do good -- or to not do bad -- was the same: fear.

Fear is fear is fear. Whether it stems from years being locked under a staircase or the sting of a belt or fabricated stories about people who will harm you, fear is fear is fear. There may be other problems that stem from the impetus for that fear, but that feeling itself is the same no matter where it comes from.

Entire generations of adults were raised through fear, through negativity.

My hometown has trick or treating on the Sunday closest to Halloween during the day. Everyone I have ever met from anywhere else in the country is been confused by this. But in 1981 a boy named Adam Walsh was kidnapped and murdered and kids going door to door at night was no longer considered safe, so my hometown decided to take precautions.

Part of it was the times; we were all prepared for nuclear war at any moment. Part of it was that the generations before us were raised with a very strict set of rules. But at some point the best way to get children to behave was through fear.

More often than not, it worked. I've led a pretty responsible life. I passed on a lot of chances because I was afraid of what could possibly happen, but I never got into much trouble.

There are, ultimately, two ways to motivate people: through negativity or through positivity. Negativity will get faster results and is much easier, but usually has unintended side effects. Positivity can take much, much longer, but the side effects are things like self-esteem and confidence. So it's probably worth the extra time and effort.

And not to sound like a hippy, but positivity is always the best course of action. Positivity will ultimately get the best out of people.

I think my generation realized that at some point. I think we decided that we needed to raise our children in a different way. We decided to try positivity.

The problem is that none of us really speaks that language.

You then get a generation of parents who were raised on negativity trying to raise their children on positivity yet lacking the necessary skills to do so. More often than not, if we mess up it will be in overcompensating.

And this is how we get to endless internet articles on spoiled, entitled children and helicopter parents. This is how we get to mindless jokes about participation trophies (which have actually been around for 40 years, but we didn't have the internet then).

We don't want our children to live in fear so we do whatever we can to prevent that, even if we end up making mistakes in the other direction - as we should. Because you know what the world will take away from you? Self-esteem. Confidence. Naivete. You know it will give you? Fear. Humility.

Shrinking an ego is infinitely easier than growing one.

I understand that we run the risk of raising a generation of spoiled, entitled jerks, but I think that's a chance we should take. Fear is the great enemy. Fear is the source of our misery. We have to do something.

For my part, I ask a lot of questions and read a lot of articles. I look for advice from people who know better. And perhaps that's the lesson: we really can't do this alone.

Each generation has the opportunity to do better for the next. That's not a chance that any of us should waste.

Emo Babysteps

I'm an emotional person.

In the past I would have said "emotionally unstable," and either description would surprise those who only know me on a surface level. The majority of people who know me well would probably go with a nicer form of "emotionally unstable." It's taken me years to get to the point where I realize that what I experience isn't unstable at all.

I feel things deeply, but I lack the necessary ability to process those emotions. I'm also a male that grew up in the American Midwest; emotions are meant to be bottled up, particularly if they are large and scary.

Those are the ones I have the most.

My emotions would manifest themselves in bizarre ways, none of which were really that much less awkward than if I'd just allowed myself to express them, but being weird is a question mark, while being emotional is a knowable, contemptible action.

I used to hang out with some gay guys. I say "hangout" because we all worked together, but we were friends, too, so I saw them a lot, and they had a big influence on my life. A couple of them regularly told me that I was closeted. And that was something I thought about, because I always felt like there was a part of me that I had held back my entire life, but it wasn't being attracted to men. At least that's something I think I could have figured out, particularly given that I was surrounded by people who would have been supportive.

I knew there was something inside me that I had been denying for my entire life. I could feel it. And I regularly wondered if maybe I was gay, just like I wondered if maybe I should find Jesus, or maybe I should move to a small town and dig ditches, or any number of things. There always felt like there was something else going on.

My answer came when my son was born.

I could bury happiness. I could bury sadness. I could bury anger. I even managed to bury love on a regular basis. But this love, this joy, it would not be denied. The day my son entered this world he changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

I have a vivid memory of sitting on the couch, holding my son, and telling Nicole that I felt like I was going to burst. What I was experiencing was overwhelming. It couldn't be contained and I had no idea how to deal with it.

It's been a battle since then. It's not just that I need to figure out how to live like this, it's that I want to be able to process my emotions in a healthy way for my family.

This is not made any easier by the depression that runs in my family, but that's ultimately a different issue.

I think a big problem is that our society considers crying to be a bad thing. And if you're a man who's crying? God, no. And there are a lot of things that make me cry, most of which don't make me sad. There is a disconnect in my head because of this. Why am I crying if I'm not sad?

This passage from an article from Time magazine explains:

But crying is more than a symptom of sadness, as Vingerhoets and others are showing. It’s triggered by a range of feelings—from empathy and surprise to anger and grief—and unlike those butterflies that flap around invisibly when we’re in love, tears are a signal that others can see. That insight is central to the newest thinking about the science of crying.

That's Ad Vingerhoets, a Dutch professor known as the world’s foremost expert on crying in part because of his book, Why Only Humans Weep.

I should probably be crying six to ten times a week, given how often the feeling strikes me. All indications are that crying actually helps your overall emotional state, too.

The question remains, though: how do I let myself go? How do I give myself up, hand over control? How do I create an environment where my son realizes that crying is okay no matter the reason?

I'm trying. The fight against my intense emotions regularly makes me feel worse and I can't afford to feel worse these days. I don't know that I'll ever be that person who takes ten minutes out of their day to have a good cry, but I can't be that person who spends all their energy trying to stop it.

Now I'm going to go watch the "Under Pressure" scene from The Magicians again and allow myself to feel it.

Me and my friend whiskey

I'm a habitual drinker.

I'm drinking while I write this. As with most nights, I'm at my desk, a class of whiskey to my left, this keyboard and monitor in front of me. I will probably spend most of my time blogging when I should really be working on the bajillion books and short stories I have in various stages of completion. But blogging is infinitely easier and I don't have to convince anyone other than myself to publish it.

For what it's worth, I'm drinking Redemption Rye on the rocks from a Jameson's Irish Whskey glass.

I'm not an alcoholic. I would imagine that would be where most people's minds would go after reading that first line. I've had that discussion with a trained professional. I've never gotten black out drunk. I've never had a drink in the morning to get right. I've never shirked my responsibilities so I could drink.

In fact, I usually don't have a drink until around 9 o'clock at night because that's when my son has fallen asleep and even then that's only if my wife is home, as every once in a while she'll have to work late. I don't drink a drop unless the day is done. I am an unbelievably responsible drinker given how often I do it.

Drinking for me is a habit, one that has me around its finger.

I associate drinking with a lot of positive things, which is saying a lot given that my uncle drank himself to death. 

I fully admit that whiskey has been a way for me to cope with the things that I don't want to cope with.

But through the various ups and downs of drinking, in the end it has always been my way of relaxing, my way to shut myself off so that I can enjoy myself.

I am constantly at war with myself and alcohol creates peace.

A secondary problem is the fact that I've been drinking for about an hour now and the above line just came to me and I really, really like it and legitimately wonder if I could have come up with it stone cold sober. I think I could have. But I don't know.

I have always used alcohol to relax, to escape the part of my brain that prevents me from doing any number of things that I want to do. It is easier for me to write when I've been drinking because my mind doesn't wander as much, I have an easier time accessing the part of my brain that feels complete when I write, and I become less concerned with the world around me.

That last point is crucial. I think too much. I think way, way too much. I don't sleep, although at this point that's less to do with how much I think and more to do with the fact that my body has become accustomed to going to bed under the influence.

My habit has become more pronounced since I became a parent. That time once my son has gone to sleep and before I do is precious. It's when I am free to do what I want and what I want is to be able to relax, either for the sake of doing nothing or to write. And so I have a drink.

But I am well aware that this is a habit and it has become a point of contention for me. Aside from the obvious health issues (although I generally don't have more than a single drink each night [although I should point out that my drinks are roughly twice the size of a regular drink]), there's the simple fact that I hate that anything has any kind of control over me. I hate that at a certain point during the night I want to have a drink and I have to fight with myself about it.

I recently got sick yet again, so I went weeks without drinking, although I was still using relaxing agents in the form of cough medicine. At a certain point it was no longer necessary for my cough, so I stopped, and actually started going to bed chemical free. I had troubles falling asleep, but I was so tired from being sick that it wasn't as bad as it usually was. I was also going to bed earlier, which meant I could still get a decent night's sleep even if it took me a while to doze off.

At the tail end of my illness, I told Nicole that, if I started drinking every night and staying up late, to remind me of how good I felt now that I was getting some sleep. It's true; I felt great. It wasn't just that I no longer felt drowsy at various points throughout the day, it's that I felt happier.

It wasn't just the extra sleep that had changed me. Because I was sick, it gave me an excuse to not put pressure on myself to accomplish anything at night. It gave me permission to sit in front of the TV watching old episodes of shows I loved while reading comics and YA books.

I was finally able to relax.

But now I'm more or less better and I've returned to normal life and I find myself facing the same issues as before: I want to have a drink at night. I want to be able to relax and enjoy myself. I want to be able to write without thinking it's pointless.

The funny thing is that I'm actually great at rationalizing most things in my life, yet those few hours at night mess with my head.

It's Friday night as I finish writing this. My son is asleep. Nicole is asleep. Tomorrow is my morning to sleep in. I'm having a glass of Jack Daniels and I'm writing. This is only the second time I've had a drink this week, so I feel good about that.

I'm struggling with acceptance. There's hasn't been a night when I haven't thought that I should just have a drink and hide out in my office like I used to do. There hasn't been a night when I haven't felt bad about not doing anything, not using my time constructively, and there hasn't been a night where I haven't felt bad about feeling bad.

But tonight is the one night where I'm able to have a drink with no regrets. Tomorrow night I will endeavor to relax without one. Hopefully, slowly but surely, I can finally break this habit, and be all the happier for it.

I know that I don't need a drink to be happy; I just don't know if I need one to be content.

Me and my fancy birth defect

Image by artist Robert Stokes

I was born with pectus escavatum. Go ahead and Google that if you want, but fair warning, any images you come across will be kind of gross. They're not upsetting by any means and gross might actually be overstating it, but it's a major physical birth defect, so you should have some idea of what you're getting into.

But I'll let the Mayo Clinic give the basics:

"Pectus excavatum is a condition in which a person's breastbone is sunken into his or her chest. In severe cases, pectus excavatum can look as if the center of the chest has been scooped out, leaving a deep dent.

While the sunken breastbone is often noticeable shortly after birth, the severity of pectus excavatum typically worsens during the adolescent growth spurt.

Also called funnel chest, pectus excavatum is more common in boys than in girls. Severe cases of pectus excavatum can eventually interfere with the function of the heart and lungs. But even mild cases of pectus excavatum can make children feel self-conscious about their appearance. Surgery can correct the deformity."

I had that surgery, when I was 5. It lasted 3 hours. They cut open my chest, pulled my breastbone forward, and sewed me up. Just writing about it puts pressure on my chest, like its ears are burning.

I've been thinking about my pectus escavatum a lot lately. I got sick again recently, and I say "again" because I have been sick an inordinate amount over the last 12 months, and every time it has been an upper respiratory issue. I had pneumonia and coughed so much that I fractured a rib. I've had bronchitis twice. I have been a mess. And while dealing with my most recent bout of bronchitis, one of my doctors mention that perhaps my abnormal chest might have something to do with it.

Yes, I had the surgery, but that was in 1980, and even today the idea that you can simply correct something like that so that it's totally normal is a stretch. My chest is substantially better, yes, but it's still abnormal.

And while many, many years of alcohol, carbs, and a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to the buddha I carry above my waist, it's amplified by my complete lack of a chest.

I've never spent much time thinking about my chest. I don't take my shirt off very often, I suppose because of it. Every once in a while I have to explain the scar that spans the width of my breastbone and the other scar, higher up on my chest, marking where they removed an excess lump of cartilage when I was 18. Very few people have ever noticed the tiny scars I still have where the tubes went in.

Thinking about it now hasn't changed my overall perspective as far as how being born with such a drastic defect has impacted me. I doubt that most people with such things really think about them.

But I am now realizing how hard this must have been on my parents.

I don't know how prominent the pectus escavatum was when I was born. I'm thinking it couldn't have been that drastic just given the general physical shape of a baby. It would have become more pronounced as a I got older.

It's not like this was an indentation in my leg or something: important organs live in your chest, important organs that needed room to grow.

As if the birth defect wasn't bad enough, my parents then had to sit through a 3+ hour surgery that involved cutting open their 5 year old son's chest. I can't even imagine what that had to have been like for them. I'm having a hard time just thinking about it.

When you have a kid, every little thing takes on new meaning. Things I haven't thought about in years have taken on new meaning. Things I do and see every day have taken on new meaning. Every single thing is different.

Like my fancy birth defect.

25 Years Ago I Joined a High School Rock Band

"How would you like to be closer to Eddie Vedder?"

Honestly, I thought Jeremy was going to tell me he had tickets and backstage pass for a Pearl Jam concert.  Credit where it's due, he chose the exact right thing to say to pique my interest.

Twenty-five years ago today, when high school let out for the weekend, my friend Brett and I went to a house on the other side of town, walked down into the basement, and met Jeremy and the three other members of a then unnamed band.  Brett had brought his guitar because he wanted to jam with them.  I was there to audition as the lead singer.

That is ultimately hilarious because a) it sounds like they were a big time band looking to replace a member and b) I couldn't really sing.

Jeremy was the drummer.  He was a junior like I was and I would have considered him a friend even then.  I recognized the other three -- they'd all gone to the same elementary school as me.  Tony was the bass player.  Matt played one guitar.  Rob, whose dad's basement we were in, played the other guitar.

I was a tall, skinny, socially awkward soccer player who was obsessed with grunge and alternative music.  They were of various sizes, engaged in various activities at school, were obsessed with Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and were, I think they'll agree, nearly as socially awkward.

My audition consisted of singing "Somebody to Shove" by Soul Asylum.  It had to have been awful, but I'm going to guess that the PA system we were using wasn't good enough for them to notice.  And so, Rob stuck his hand out and asked me if I wanted to be in the band.  And we shook on it.

Up until that point, high school was not particularly fun or easy for me.  It would not have been a stretch to say that Brett was the only constant friend I had.  I played soccer and I was pretty good, but I was too weird to really be a part of that social group.  I was smart, but I was far too lazy and unfocused to be in any academic groups or cliques.  I spent most of my time in my room reading and writing fantasy fiction.

To say that I was unsure of my place in the world would have been an understatement.

In no time at all, the band, Oral Groove (usually written in all lower case letters ala e.e. cummings), became almost everything to me.  It set me on a path that I'm still on, one that I never would have started along if it weren't for that band.

It wasn't just the band that changed me, it was the friends that suffered through every show.  We jokingly referred to them as the Oral Groupies (Anne and J-Sully, in particular, deserve a special shout-out here), but they weren't really there for the music so much as to support us.

We were in the trenches of adolescence and we did everything you would imagine high school kids would do.  We formed our own clique.  I had a few other friends and I did a few other things, but in the end everything revolved around the band.

A lot has changed over the last twenty-five years.  The band members themselves are scattered across four separate states.  Our large, extended family has created larger, extended families.  Some of us kept playing, some of moved on, but eventually each of us set on to our individual paths.  That didn't involve being rock stars, but that was never really the point.

I would be a very different person today if I hadn't joined Oral Groove.  I don't know, exactly, who that person would have been, but I can guarantee that I would not have liked him as much.

And I guarantee you he wouldn't have been as happy.

Feeling Guilty About Nostalgia




noun: nostalgia; plural noun: nostalgias

    a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

By its very definition, nostalgia suggest that you wish things could be the way they were before, or that you could go back there, back to that time that must have been better than the time right now.  I mean, why would you long for something that's worse than what you've got now?

Parenting makes nostalgia feel wrong.

A memory came back to me recently, or, rather, came to the forefront, as it was never missing.  It's a nice memory, one that I've never really considered before.  I can't remember ever really wrapping myself in this memory, ever really taking the time to think about it and revel in its embrace.  It was always there, I'd just never given it the time.

I lived alone at 1716 Edgemont St. for four months before Nicole moved in.  I knew, or hoped, that would be the case when I moved into that apartment.  Nicole had helped me find it, after all, and my goal had been to find a place that she would consider to be Nicole friendly.  She was also my impetus to move, as she'd shown me that I could actually get a one bedroom apartment for the price I'd been paying for a studio.  Besides, the studio I had been living in was and always will be tied to my single days.  Nicole and I were serious by this point; it was time to grow up a little bit.

The apartment was the top floor, corner unit.  It had clearly been two apartments, a studio and a bachelor, that someone had combined into a single, one bedroom apartment.

The living room had been a studio at one point as evidenced by the hole in the wall that once housed a Murphy bed.  It was the wall that separated the room from the kitchen and that hole was the perfect size for an entertainment center, or a TV stand, which was the extent of what I had.  Still, it was nice to kind of have the TV, DVD player, etc. back inside the wall and not taking up what little space there was in the room.  My old futon was across from the TV as a couch.

Since it was a corner unit, both exterior walls for the living room were made up of windows, tall windows that let in a ton of light.  It was particularly great at night when the lights from the street light up the apartment; it was instant mood lighting.  In the summer time, these windows were all that kept me from expiring, as the cross breeze alleviated the heat just enough to keep me alive.

The bedroom was set parallel to the living room with the kitchen and bathroom in between. It contained perhaps the most interesting aspect of the apartment: the bedroom closet. It was a stand alone storage box that they'd just stuck in the corner of the room and attached to the walls.  It was completely out of place and it didn't even go to the ceiling.  There was probably a good four feet between the top of the closet and the ceiling.  We used that as storage.

The cats used it as a launching pad to jump onto bed.  We called them Kitty Bombs.

A note about my bed: I bought it for $1100, which was the most I'd ever spent on anything in my apartment, let alone a bed.  I had, up until that point, been sleeping on the aforementioned futon.  But now I was in a one bedroom apartment, not a studio, so it made sense that I should have a bed.  Besides, if this was really going to be a Nicole friendly place, it should probably have a comfortable bed.

I really loved that apartment, even if it was on the fourth floor and the elevator was the size of a port-a-pot, which made moving in a form of legal torture.  For the first nine months, we had to park on the street. When Nicole got a job working nights, I got up in the wee morning hours so we could park her car together, as I didn't want her walking back to our building alone late at night. Then I'd go back to bed for a few hours before getting up for work.  It was a banner day when we finally got a spot in the lot behind our building.

Like I said way up there at the top of this thing, I lived in that apartment alone for four months. It was the last place I would live alone.  Nicole moved in that August and we have lived together ever since.

But the memory that's been coming to me lately is from the time before that.  It's a false memory, actually, or rather a symbolic one, in that it represents an idea of a time in my life.  It's the memory of my first night alone in that apartment, no doubt bolstered by the memory of any night I spent alone in that apartment, of which there weren't many.

It would have been warm.  It was summer in Los Angeles, after all.  The windows would have been open.  I didn't have blinds, so light would have been pouring in from street lights, buildings, and parking lots.  The apartment was just off Sunset, so there would have been plenty of street noise.  I walked around with all the lights off, just enjoying the sounds of the city, enjoying the moment.

I would have felt so great in that moment.  I had a new place with an actual bedroom.  I had a new bed.  I had a girlfriend.  I was pushing thirty and life was getting better every day.  It was a fantastic moment in my life.

But it was one without my son, one where I was technically still single.  I feel guilty when I feel nostalgic about such things.

I'll admit that there are times when I would love to have moments like that, moments of what can best be described as enjoyable nothing.  An hour of time like that would go a long way.

But I wouldn't give up anything I have now for that, so even that twinge of longing makes me feel bad.  The greatest thing I've ever done is to be a dad.  Nothing has ever been better than this.

Not that I watched it much, but there was an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" where the guys were talking about fantasizing about women and the one married guy said that he couldn't do it, because he would have to create an elaborate story that involved his wife dying so that he would be single again to have sex with this theoretical woman.  The other guys gave him grief for it, of course, but that's exactly how I feel.

I feel like longing for the past is a betrayal of my present and I never felt that way until I became a father.

Ten years from now, I wonder if I'll feel bad about feeling nostalgic for this moment.

I hope so.

Because that will mean my life is even better than it is now.