To Georgia Jade, On the Occasion of Our Birthday

Dear Georgia Jade,

Welcome to the family!  Harpers are good people, and all of us are smiling big today. We’ve been waiting for you. And you are beautiful.  I know people always say this about babies.  But who cares.  I’m not above riding that particular bandwagon. 

We share a birthday, you and I.  I believe that to be a welcome serendipity.  It wasn’t planned this way, of course, but I’ll take it.  You are the most wonderful of gifts. 

I cried a lot today.  So many things make me cry lately.  Some of it is because I’m a softy.  Sentimental.  I am easily moved emotionally, and your arrival moved me.  And sometimes I cry because life, as you’ll no doubt find out soon enough, is hard.  Even when it’s good.  Even when I am surrounded by joy and smiles and the sun is shining, life often overwhelms me. 

But, you.  Precious, tiny, swaddled you.  You’re a promise.  Of things to come.  Of potential.  Of days and days and more days of life in all its splendor and passion and awe.

And you’re not even a day old yet.  Isn’t that something awesome, and maybe a bit too big, to think about?  But it’s all right there in you.  All of it.  Love, life, pain, joy, sparkling eyes, pink cheeks, and so many footsteps along roads that lead to places grand and wide and rough and waiting.  For you.  It’s all right there, in each breath you breathe.  In every tear you cry.  In every strong and steady beat of your heart.  In every thought you’ll think.  It’s all loaded to bursting.

Take it all in.  Let it all out.  Cling to nothing but the love that you find.  But not too tightly.  Another cliché.  These things have the ring of truth. 

I’m 46 years old today.  I’ve been around for a bit.  Trust me when I tell you: Life is a good thing.  Welcome to it . . .

georgiajade

My Daughter Told Me To Write This . . .

knothole

“I would come, many years later, to understand why ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is considered ‘an important novel’, but when I first read it at 11, I was simply absorbed by the way it evoked the mysteries of childhood, of treasures discovered in trees, and games played with an exotic summer friend.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A blinking cursor. 

I’ve been staring at it for fifteen minutes.  I’ve also smoked two cigarettes, heated up some vegetable soup for lunch, petted my dogs, chatted up my girls about stuff like Supernatural and the possibility of an afternoon swim at the somewhat-local pond, petted the dogs again, and sent the youngest to buy me a Mountain Dew.  Because cigarettes and Mountain Dew are the stuff of writing. 

Prior to all that nonsense, I spent about an hour trying to remember how to do this.  I finally remembered my WordPress password, and then my Google password, and then how to clean up the old stuff in my footer, and how to delete pages that are woefully obsolete.  (My son at fifteen, back when I had illusions of coolness and relevancy.)  I found a new website to help me find interesting and thought-provoking topical quotes because my old go-to site shut down and I’m just not smart enough to remember all the cool stuff I used to know.  Then I visited Flickr and found a neat picture of a knothole in a tree.  And then I had to remember that I use Live Writer to write blog posts and not Word or my dashboard.  And then . . .

The blinking cursor.

An old friend told me last night via Skype that I used to write blog posts that made him cry.  We talked about blogging and books and the state of the world and about the lack of compassion so prevalent these days, and how no one wants to walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes anymore, and how I’m losing my once-bountiful hair, but not the unibrow, and how I don’t really listen to Stryper anymore.  He recorded the conversation for his new podcast, Hobo Safe Camp.  An hour of me, the inaugural “astral hobo,” going on and on and on.  I haven’t had that much fun in ages . . .

And then I spent another hour chatting with another old friend, my Canadian brother-in-arms.  He barbequed chicken and red peppers and drank Canadian beer one handed because he had to hold his phone with the other.  Such was his concentration and skill that he never faded out of the camera lens, always kept it pointed at his face, so I could see him and he could see me.  He’s that way.  Mindful and aware of the needs of others.  I longed for an app that would let me smell the fire, the chicken sizzling, the hops and Canadian air.  The sun went down and I smiled . . .

My oldest daughter just threw the cat at my youngest daughter.  She got two scratches on her legs and one on her face.  The cat, apparently, does not like being tossed . . .

She told me to write that . . .

My dog just knocked over my Mountain Dew.  Then he smiled at me . . .

She told me to write that, too . . .  

I recently listened to Sissy Spacek read To Kill A Mockingbird.  Hers is the southern drawl that tops them all.  I’m forty five years old.  Tom Robinson is still guilty.  Tom Robinson still got shot.  And Scout still couldn’t see much of anything because of that damn ham costume.  But she saw everything that needed seeing.  She still took Boo Radley’s hand and showed him kindness.  And received kindness . . .

This post probably won’t make you cry . . .

And now I am going to go swimming.  Because my youngest daughter wants to go.  Need a cure for depression? For the oh-hell-no that settles in the bones during times of apathy and laziness and woe-is-me?  Have a daughter.  One that will drag you out of bed and make you do stuff.  Will harass you and poke you with nine irons and tickle you in that tender spot behind your knee and say things like I’m so bored! or Come on! fifty thousand times until you do it.  Until you get up and do it . . .

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Five Debut Novels You Should Read Right Now Or I’ll Come To Your House And Wear Your Slippers And Eat Your Food And Read Them To You

No time for blogging; it’s all been said, and better, anyway.  Trayvon this.  Baby George that.  BlogHer blah blah blah.

Me?  I’ve been reading, you see.  Making good on my New Year’s resolution to read as many debut novels as I can afford to load onto my Nook HD+.  An experiment of sorts to immerse myself in what first-time authors are getting published, in hopes of polishing my own feeble attempts at fiction writing.  These are the gems (with descriptive blurbs courtesy of Goodreads and my own review of each) . . .

CameronPost

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Verdict: An amazing debut. The writing is so catchy and never strays. Longish, but never slow. And don’t be fooled by those who whine about the portrayal of Christians. Being a recovering Pentecostal, I believe it was accurate and fair. Even sympathetic at times. Others have moaned about the ending. I found it completely fulfilling. Tough issues, handled with grace and care. And Montana!

HeartOfPalm

Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Utina, Florida, is a small, down-at-heels southern town. Once enlivened by the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine, Utina hasn’t seen economic growth in decades, and no family is more emblematic of the local reality than the Bravos. Deserted by the patriarch years ago, the Bravos are held together in equal measure by love, unspoken blame, and tenuously brokered truces.

The story opens on a sweltering July day, as Frank Bravo, dutiful middle son, is awakened by a distress call. Frank dreams of escaping to cool mountain rivers, but he’s only made it ten minutes from the family restaurant he manages every day and the decrepit, Spanish-moss-draped house he was raised in, and where his strong-willed mother and spitfire sister—both towering redheads, equally matched in stubbornness—are fighting another battle royale. Little do any of them know that Utina is about to meet the tide of development that has already engulfed the rest of Northeast Florida. When opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, secrets are unearthed, and each of the Bravos is forced to confront the tragedies of their shared past.

Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and Fannie Flagg,Heart of Palm introduces Laura Lee Smith as a captivating new voice in American fiction.

Verdict: Superb! A stunning debut, filled with rich characters, laughs and heartache, and unfailingly faith in the strength and the strangeness of family. Remember the old Paul Newman movie “Nobody’s Fool?” The same goosebumps. This is how characters are made, and remembered, for years to come.

AlexWoods

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

Verdict: A damn near perfectly written novel. Any synopsis would not do it justice, so go with your gut on this one. I laughed and cried and, for the first time, had to just sit and ponder this one when I finished it. Most impressive was the way the narrator never did anything that didn’t make sense to him. Building a moral framework in life is hard, but Alex rose to the challenge and found his heart. So impressed …

TruthInAdvertising

Truth In Advertising by John Kenney

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I have no idea what that means but I believe that in quoting him I appear far more intelligent than I am. I don’t know about second acts, but I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”

Finbar Dolan is lost and lonely. Except he doesn’t know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he’s a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He’s recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he’s forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.

Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It’s a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he’s made, admit that he’s falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.

Truth in Advertising is debut novelist John Kenney’s wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.

Verdict: It took a few pages to draw me in, and the story seemed to go nowhere at first. But I loved the style, written much the way I like to write, with asides and tangents that seem absurd at first but swing back around and illuminate the narrative as it unfolds. This is the first book I’ve read this year that I enjoyed because it is so much like the kind of story I’d like to write. There is heart here, even amidst the navel gazing and self-loathing. In the end, I cried. Hope rings true . . .

FellowMortals

Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney

When Henry Cooper sets out on his mail route on Arcadia Street one crisp spring morning, he has no idea that his world is about to change. He is simply enjoying the sunshine as he lights up a cigar and tosses the match to the ground, entirely unaware that he has just started a fire that will destroy a neighborhood and kill a young wife.

Even though the fire has been put out, it has ignited a lurking menace in an otherwise apparently peaceful suburb. In Fellow Mortals, Dennis Mahoney depicts the fire’s aftermath in the lives of its survivors. There’s Henry’s wife, Ava, devoted to her husband but yearning to recover a simpler time in their marriage. There’s the angry neighbor, Peg, who wants Henry to pay for what he’s done, no matter the cost—which ends up being grave. And then there’s Sam Bailey, the sculptor who lost his wife in the fire and has retreated to the woods to carve mysterious figures out of trees. As Sam struggles to overcome his anger and loss, Henry becomes the focal point of deepening loyalties and resentments, leaving them all vulnerable to hidden dangers and reliant on the bonds that have emerged, unexpectedly, from tragedy.

With sparse and handsome prose reminiscent of Raymond Carver and early Stewart O’Nan, Mahoney’s probing first novel charts the fall of a man who has spent his life working to be decent and shows us a community trying desperately to hold itself together.

Verdict: A lovely debut novel. Full of the kind of characters I love, down to earth folks that you’re likely to run into at the supermarket. Reminded me of Dubus in many ways. Even the dog, Wingnut, is a fleshed-out, lovable creature. His point of view, though sparse, adds to the story.  These people are flawed and perfect . . .

I’ve read more, some equally as good.  But these stand out.  Thematically, they are all similar: the complexities of families; recovery from tragedy; growing up and growing old.  And each has given me much to chew on with regards to storytelling and writing. 

If we’re not friends on Goodreads, remedy that here.  And, by all means, send your suggestions.  There’s a lot of year left.  You know where I’ll be . . .

Second

I finally found him, sitting the fifth row of the bleachers, digging through his duffel bag for a Clementine to munch. Orange fuel, peel and all, for the big match to come.

Three previous, early-morning matches. Three pins.

One, he confesses with a grin, was a total fluke. “The kid just let go! Or his hands slipped. Whatever. He got Beefcaked!”

He smiled. We fist bumped. Hugged. Did a little head butt thing that sort of hurt. And then he swaggered off to cheer on a teammate while I fought the crowd for a seat. In less than an hour, he’d be wrestling for his weight division championship at the regional Charger Classic.

2013 marks his third and final year in middle school wrestling. His uncles and cousins were all wrestlers, some of them quite good. State finalist good. His grandfather loved the sport. Me? I wrestle with doubt, not sweaty peers in singlets. The first two years, he rode the bench for the most part, occasionally getting a JV or exhibition match. His record stood at 1 and a bushel of losses. But he kept going to practice. Kept running and sparring and enduring the ribbings by others on the squad. The practical jokes. The sparse words from coaches more interested in the kids who were winning.

This year, he decided to put his nickname on the back of his spirit wear.

Beefcake.

The timid cat he once wanted to keep safely tucked away had been unleashed as a lion.

Before his champion match yesterday, his record for the year stood at 10-7. Ten pins for the wins. I reminded him of this just moments before he took the mat. I said, “Son, look at me.” He got all intense, the way he does, and planted his forehead against mine. Nose to nose. Eyes to beautiful blue eyes.

“Win or lose, be a gentleman. Be a good sport. Be kind. And know that I will always be proud of you.”

He lost.

The kid weighed more, as Ethan wrestled up for the tournament, and he stood a few inches taller. After the first period, after winning the toss, Coach called neutral when Ethan wanted to be on top. These aren’t excuses, mind you. Just facts. As with all things in life, the facts aren’t always in our favor. How we accept them is most times the only thing we can control.

He stood on the podium with pride, accepted his silver medal, and then helped his opponent up and patted him on the back.

There are times I feel I cannot carry the burdens that are a part of being a father. I turn my back, afraid to engage, replaying the mistakes I’ve made in my mind, knowing that I’ll make many more. The chant in my head: “I can’t do this.” But as I stood there, feeling his sweat and breath on my face, my mistakes didn’t matter. I was his father and he was my son. In that moment, win or lose, we transcended the shit and frustrations of life. He would know that I loved him and cared for him with a frightening savageness. And now, as he sleeps on the couch, his medal still around his neck, his body bruised but still, I love him even more . . .

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Interesting Is As Interesting Does

So, I’m back to blogging.  Writing for me, long form.  And sharing it with those of you who make it a habit to stop by or just pop in occasionally.  It’s been fun, sitting down and just pecking away.  Being all introspective and letting it flow out of my fingertips.

I’m glad you’re here.

But I realize that blogging is evolving.  No longer is it about just typing on a screen some meandering bullshit and hitting publish.  If you want to gain readers and make an impact, you have to do it differently these days.

My friend Neil Kramer of Citizen of the Month recently addressed this in his excellent post titled “The Five Ways To Make Yourself Interesting Online.”  It’s a “somewhat serious” look at how we as bloggers and writers and online social types can influence others with our own personal stories.  A great, short read.  And he wraps it up with his own brainstormed, coffee-induced list of things that will help us stand out.  Let’s see how I stack up . . .

1) Say something interesting.

My dogs lick their butts.  Sometimes, they lick each other’s butts.  In fact, as I type this, they are sitting at my feet doing this very thing.  They might have fleas, but even as they die off, they’re going to keep licking their butts.  Butt licking is noisy and gross to watch, so I just ignore them or yell at them to take it to their kennels.  Because no one wants to see that, you ignorant beasts.

2) Do something interesting.

I once drank a whole gallon of Nestlé Nesquik Chocolate Milk in less than an hour.  I worked in radio at the time and did it as an inner-office publicity stunt because someone said it couldn’t be done.  Too sweet.  Too much fat.  Or some such nonsense.  So I did it.  And then . . . well, the bathroom was never really the same after that.  Good thing we had a toilet and a garbage can.  That’s all I have to say about that.

3) Have something interesting happen to you.

Neil warns that sounding like a victim for too long is bad, so I won’t bring up smoking or my weight loss surgery.  I did once get my unibrow waxed.  Took pictures and everything.  (I just sat here for five minutes, racking my brain, trying to think of something else to add, but I’ve got nothing.  I also took an additional five minutes to Google whether I should have used “racking” or “wracking” in that last sentence.  Turns out I got it right.  Perhaps all this overthinking and fiddle-farting explains why nothing interesting ever happens to me.)

4) Look Interesting.

Hello? Unibrow?

5) Become friends with interesting people.

Well . . . there is this one guy.  He and I had breakfast just this morning at the IHOP.  But the stuff we talk about would be boring to you.  Stuff like God and building a deck and Jeff Gordon and how he hates Obama but he’s not a racist.  Online, I’m friends with:

. . . someone who makes government spy equipment,

. . . a couple former members of Christian rock bands who are now atheists,

. . . a bunch of amateur photographers,

. . . a cartoonist,

. . . several people who are still in Christian rock bands,

. . . a bartender,

. . . a plethora of old classmates who are amazed I’m still just as dumb as I was back then,

. . . an assortment of authors who make money selling books about dead girls and divorce and living with the Mormons, among other things,

. . . a former colleague with a pet rabbit,

. . . and someone who was a ranking officer on a nuclear submarine.

And a fine collection of other Regular Joes.  But we don’t hang out much.

In sum?  I’m sort of boring.  But I do make a mean pancake.

How am I doing, Neil . . .