Tag Archives: marriage

Monday Musings: I’m Basically Ted from “How I Met Your Mother”

Are you familiar with the TV show How I Met Your Mother, which ran on CBS from 2005-2014? Ah, good! [Puts out hand.] Nice to meet you. I’m Ted.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it was a sitcom that featured Alyson Hannigan (“Willow” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, and Josh Radnor as “Ted.” The conceit of the series is that Ted (voiced in the opening narrative scenes by the late Bob Saget) is, at some point in the distant future, telling his teenage children the story of how he met their mom. Ted is a hopeless and hapless romantic, who goes through a long series of ill-fated relationships looking for The One, the person with whom he is destined to spend his life. It is an entertaining series, funny, poignant at times, and on occasion eloquent on the need to have faith, even in the midst of difficult times, that one’s dreams can be attained. You can stream it on Prime if you’re interested.

I say I’m “Ted” because for the longest time, throughout college and the early years of graduate school, I made many poor dating decisions based on my own epic quest to find The One. I wasn’t interested in casual dating. I wanted to fall in love, to meet the woman of my dreams. And so I pursued the wrong romances. I passed over opportunities to date people who probably would have been great companions for a while. Put another way, I took the whole thing way too seriously, and, more to the point, I made myself miserable doing so. I spent a lot of time alone, and sad about it. The two truly serious relationships I did have during this time ended badly, in part because I found myself thinking maybe they were my future. And so I grew too intense about the romances and placed too many expectations on my partners.

Why am I telling you this?

Wedding Day Photo 1Because eventually I did find The One, and I married her 31 years ago this week. (Our anniversary is Thursday.)

The funny thing is — and perhaps the predictable thing as well — when Nancy and I started dating, I thought I was making, at long last, a decision to live in the now instead of worrying about what was going to happen, about where the relationship was headed in the long run. I didn’t try to project out in my mind how things might go with respect to our possible lives together. I didn’t assume we had that kind of future. I had no expectations. And I also didn’t know, because Nancy hadn’t yet told me, that the moment she met me, she thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.”

Thank God I wasn’t aware of this. Because if I had been, I probably would have found some way to screw it all up.

To state the obvious, life is unpredictable. The Fates delight in messing with us, taking our plans and expectations and shaking them up like a snow globe. As I said, going in, I had no expectations about my relationship with Nancy. Within two weeks of our first date, I knew that I would spend my life with her. Within three months, we were living together. She was a thunderbolt in my life, and has been my love and my light ever since.

But as in love, so in life. Expectations and plans are good for things like AirBnB bookings and car rentals, project due dates and conference attendance. But for the stuff we can’t control, they can be a source of more stress than comfort, of more disappointment than direction. I found The One when I wasn’t looking for her. I have enjoyed my greatest triumphs and moments of joy professionally when working toward my goals without necessarily banking on my ambitions.

Thirty-one years ago at this time, Nancy and I were welcoming our first wedding guests to California (my brothers and their partners, and my parents). Over the next several days we had dinners, rehearsals, a wonderful Wedding Softball Game (Nancy, as the bride, never had to play in the field, and could bat for either team whenever the spirit moved her), and a glorious wedding day, complete with a civil ceremony in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford, that still resonates as one of the three happiest days of my life.

The point of Ted’s search for love in How I Met Your Mother is that all his setbacks and disappointments, while painful at the time, were actually carrying him inexorably toward his one true love. I like to think of my failed romances the same way. Yes, I made some poor decisions at the time, and I went through some spells of loneliness. But given how it all worked out, it was worth the pain. I am a very lucky man.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: “Time, Time, Time, See What’s Become of Me…”

The other day, as I was shaving (yes, I shave, despite the beard — I like to keep it trim and neat) I paused, taking in how very white my beard looks these days. There is almost no brown left in it. My temples are graying, my thinning hair is frosted with more white than I had realized. I am grizzled. That’s the polite way of saying it.

I suppose I should pause here to make a confession: I had a birthday last week.

To be sure, I am feeling my age. But this post is about more than just a guy of advanced middle age staring down the barrel of his sixtieth trip around the sun (my next birthday is A Big One). Time seems to be rushing past in an alarming way. We’re more than halfway done with March and I have no idea where the first two-months-plus of this year have gone. Each week, I set work goals for myself, and generally speaking I meet them. But then I have other things I want to get done — personal things; a song I want to learn on my guitar, photos I want to process from a recent shoot, a walk I’d like to take — but the week is already gone, and I am no closer to getting those things done.

I remember when I was college I spent a lot of time fighting the passage of time, which is a losing battle if ever there was one. I don’t know if I was hyper-conscious of how brief those four wonderful years would wind up feeling, or if I was struck by a growing awareness of my parents’ aging, or if I was merely anxious to get on with my life — with my search for direction, for love, for confidence and contentment. Whatever the reason, I struggled with a sense that my life was speeding past me, and I needed to slow it down somehow.

I have that sense again now, but it’s my own aging that has me thinking this way. Life is hard right now. It’s hard in a macro sense — the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the existential threat our own actions pose to our planet. It’s hard in a personal sense — my daughter’s health, end-of-life issues impacting Nancy’s parents, the difficulties of maintaining a writing career in this publishing climate, my own struggle with anxiety.

And yet, despite these difficulties, I am enjoying life as much as I ever have. Nancy and I are empty-nesters and, as much as we love our daughters, we also love our life together. We are deeply proud of the adult human beings our girls have become, and we savor our time with them. The literary landscape is fraught, but I love the stuff I’m writing, and I have been enjoying my new career as an editor. Nancy has just reached a career milestone and is finally receiving the recognition and attention she has deserved for so long. Life is good. But it is speeding by. Again. Still.

When I was a kid, I would express impatience for one thing or another — my next birthday, a baseball game for which we had tickets, a family trip in the offing — and invariably my mom or dad would say, “Don’t rush it. It’ll be here before you know it.” Years later, I found myself saying the same thing to my girls. Each successive year of life represents a smaller percentage of the time that has come before. Of course the years feel shorter and shorter. Put another way, time snowballs. It is relentless, immutable. It is the advance and retreat of the tide, the rotation and orbit of the earth. Sunrise and sunset. Waves upon sand. Pick your cliché.

The title of this post comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade Of Winter” — Paul Simon is a musical hero of mine. James Taylor, another of my musical heroes, famously sang “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” He may well be right. I wouldn’t know. It’s not a skill I’ve ever mastered.

I’m just back from a week in Florida with Nancy, Erin (our younger daughter), and Erin’s boyfriend. I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks, months even. As my parents would have warned, it was here and done before I knew it. I have learned nothing. Erin is preparing for a move westward. She has a job waiting, the promise of a new life with her love, the anticipation of the unknown, of something new and different and exciting.. She is counting the days. I can’t blame her.

Time, she likes to tell me, is a human construct. Like money. It doesn’t really exist except in our own minds. It has units and meaning and definition because we give it those things. And yet, it is the defining characteristic of life, of existence.

On a recent trip north, I spent a morning with two close friends from high school, guys I hung out with, was in theater with, got high with, played music with. We three hadn’t been together in probably thirty-five years. We had a great time. Truly. The years melted away. Except they didn’t. We were, all of us, wiser, calmer, kinder, more tolerant, less competitive. Time is a cudgel, but also a balm. It tests us, but it also smooths our edges. When my friends and I were making our plans to get together, the time since our last encounter felt like a chasm. It turns out it was anything but. Maybe Erin is right, and it doesn’t exist except in our heads.

I honestly can’t tell you what my point is. I’ve had a few posts like this recently. There’s a reason I call them “Monday Musings” . . . This is what I’m thinking about right now. Time. Age. Life. And I wish the flow of days and weeks and months would slow down a little, especially with spring coming. There are things I’d like to do.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, Epilogue

This week I conclude my series of posts on how I came to be a professional writer. You can read the previous posts before moving on with this one. We’ll wait. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

There! Now you’re all caught up. Feel better?

I’m calling this an Epilogue, because it seems foolish to go through every step of my career, when much of it has been fairly public and thus easy to trace through my publications, reviews of my work, con appearances, social media and the like, and my own blog posts about various experiences. Far more valuable, I believe, will be a discussion of a few key points about what I have learned in my twenty-five-plus years as a professional.

I’ll start with this. Recently, while giving a talk to the Apex Writer’s Group, I was asked what I know now about writing that I wish I had known from the start. My answer: I wish I had known then that career trajectories are not linear, they are not smooth, they are not simple. I have said a thousand and one times that writing is hard. A couple of weeks ago I went on a little rant about how we writers should handle adversity without just giving up on the whole thing. But the fact is, I have contemplated quitting more than once. My career followed a nice, upward trajectory for a time, but then, due both to circumstances beyond my control, and to poor decisions I made myself, my march toward bigger and better things halted, stumbled, took a few steps back. My sales numbers dipped. I reinvented myself. Things improved, but then more events I could not control (and a few I could) knocked me back again. Things seemed to be righting themselves and then they fell apart once more, this time through no fault of my own.

Yes, this is vague. Some of the stories that have impacted my career are not mine to tell. Others are, but they involve me casting light on questionable behavior and choices by others and I won’t go there. Another lesson: This — fantasy, writing, publishing — is a relatively small community and we need to be careful about the stories we tell, the actions of others we expose, the decisions we question publicly.

And really, the specifics are beside the point. Because what I’m talking about — the unpredictability of one’s writing fate — is something nearly all writers experience. I know precious few authors whose careers have followed a smooth, ever-rising trajectory. Most of us are knocked on our butts again and again and again.

What separates the professionals who enjoy long careers from those who don’t is the willingness of the former to get up off their rear ends each time they’re knocked down. As I said, I have contemplated giving up multiple times. But I never did quit.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonI am not the most talented writer I know. Not by a long shot. I am good. I believe that. My character work is strong. My world building is imaginative. My prose is clean and tight and it flows nicely. I write convincing, effective dialogue and I have a fine eye for detail. My plotting and pacing, which were once just okay, have gotten stronger over the years. I think writing the Thieftaker books — being forced to blend my fictional plots with real historical events — forced me to improve, and that improvement has shown up in the narratives of the Islevale and Radiants books.

But there are plenty of other writers who do all those things as well as I do if not better. I have been helped throughout my career, though, by a few other qualities. I am disciplined and productive. I work every weekday and at least one day on weekends. I consistently hit my word counts and meet my project goals. I never miss a deadline. I have developed a thick skin — mostly — and have learned not to take to heart criticism and rejections and bad reviews. (Mostly.) I am resilient. And, with effort and practice, I have learned to take to heart the advice I often give to self-define success.

I’m writing and editing for small presses now. I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to the bigger ones. I love my current publishers, and see little need to switch back to the high pressure relationships I once had with big-name houses. I’m writing books I love, and that is, I believe, a key to being successful as I define the word. I don’t expect any one project to make me a ton of money, and that’s okay. I’m happier in my career right now than I have ever been. Partly this is due to my enjoyment of my relatively new career as an editor. This year will see the release of my fourth co-edited anthology with Zombies Need Brains. And I will also continue to expand my freelance editing business. At this point, I expect I’ll spend more time in 2022 editing than writing.

This is not at all where I envisioned myself when I started my career. Back then, I was filled with dreams of bestselling books and a shelf (or two) filled with World Fantasy Awards. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did hope my commercial performance, which has always been a bit disappointing, would match my critical success, which has always been a point of pride. The fact is, though, the business today is greatly changed from where it was when I began. Back then no one had ever heard of e-books. I built myself a web page when my first book came out, and just having a web page conveyed more legitimacy than the publication itself. Seriously.

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

It is a changed world, and it is also now a much harder market. An ever-growing universe of authors are seeking the attention of a fairly static universe of readers, meaning sales for each writer are harder to come by. Advances are smaller if they’re offered at all. Many authors are working harder and harder just to maintain a level of income that is, nevertheless, lower than it used to be. Commercial success means something different now than it did when I began. I count as a triumph the mere fact that I continue to get writing contracts.

I once thought I would reach a point where I stopped worrying that my career would tank, forcing me to give it up as a full time profession. I was disabused of that notion early on by a writer who was very successful and who told me, “Oh, you never stop worrying.” And it’s true. I have been able to continue writing full-time because my partner in love and life has a good job that provides not just the bulk of our income, but also our health care and retirement funds.

The hard truth is, on some level my mother was right when she and I had our big fight about whether I should teach history or write fantasy. As a history professor I would have made a decent living. I would have had job security, retirement accounts, health benefits. And yes, that would have been success as defined a certain way.

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

Again, I find myself struck by my good fortune. Throughout my professional life, I have had the luxury of pursuing a career I love and choosing to define my success not just in terms of earnings, but also in terms of joy. It’s a cliché, but there is no way to put a price tag — or a royalty statement — on that.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part IV

Continuing my series on how I came to be a professional writer . . . (Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III)

When we left off last week, I had just received 1) an offer to teach history and 2) a phone call from an editor at Tor Books in which said editor expressed interest in buying my first novel. These two conversations occurred within twenty-four hours of each other, and in both cases, I was given the weekend to make up my mind before informing them of my decisions on Monday.

It was a fraught weekend, though less so than one might think. The most difficult part of it was a conversation I had with my mother, who argued strongly against giving up my history career to write fiction. The more she pushed, the harder I pushed back, not because I was being contrary, but because her adamancy and my response to it convinced me that I knew already what I wanted to do. It actually wasn’t a hard decision at all. If anything, I was troubled by how easy it was for me to choose.

I’d had my doubts about the history path for several years; the idea of accepting Colorado State’s job offer filled me with dread. Writing fantasy, on the other hand, had been my dream for half my life, and now, improbably, that dream was within reach. How could I turn my back on it?

My mom didn’t understand. She felt I was being irresponsible, immature, foolish. She said as much several times during that terribly difficult phone conversation, and the hard truth is, we hadn’t fully reconciled when she slipped into dementia less than a year later — a result of her cancer treatments. She died the following year.

I had several other conversations that weekend, but only one of them mattered.

I’ve said before that I have the World’s Best Spouse, and I mean it each time I say it. I know, though, that nearly every artist who has a life partner feels the same. A supportive, generous, patient, loving partner is, in my view, essential to creative success. I have been fortunate beyond words in this regard.

That weekend, after I hung up from my call with my mother, Nancy came into my office and essentially said, “Well, that sounded awful, but it also sounds like you’ve made up your mind.” When I asked if she thought I was making a mistake, she gave me an emphatic no. “I knew you before you started writing, and I know you now,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “I like you better now.”

Joking aside, to her mind, the decision was as clear cut as I thought it was. I was happy writing. I wouldn’t have been teaching history. We were in a good situation — she had a job she liked, our rent was low, we were saving money every month, we didn’t yet have kids. If ever there was a time for me to pursue a writing career, this was it. We agreed that if in five years it seemed things weren’t going well, we could rethink our plans. But for right then, this was a chance we could afford to take.

On that Monday, I made two phone calls, one to Fort Collins, Colorado, and one to New York City. For better or worse, I was now a professional writer.

In subsequent months, as we shared with friends and family what had happened, and what we had decided, the overwhelming response I got was “Wow, you are so courageous! You’re following your dream!”

I didn’t feel courageous. I felt like I had taken the easy path, like I had done something irresponsible, that I had cheated in some way. Maybe it was the residue of the conversation with my mom. Maybe it was some outdated sense of what adults — particularly adult men — are supposed to do. Dreams are for kids. Playing make-believe, writing stories about magic — these are frivolous, immature pursuits.

I feel silly typing this. I know better now. Writing is hard work. Like any creative venture, it can be a soul-tearing struggle, and as a business it demands near-constant promotion, strategic thinking, discipline, resilience, a thick skin, and an openness to criticism. I had some sense of this even then. And yet the doubts remained.

A few months later, in mid-summer, while Nancy and I were in Idaho visiting her parents, I had a conversation with her father. He was, and continues to be, in his ninetieth year, a man of wisdom and compassion. He sensed that I was still struggling to find peace with the choice I’d made. And he told me about when he first left the navy and decided he was going to move West and become a farmer. All of his navy buddies thought he was nuts, but he was determined.

“So I bought a cow,” he told me. He wanted to run a dairy, and he knew if he owned a cow, he would feel one step closer to that aspiration. More, he’d feel like he was a real farmer. “That’s kind of what you have to do,” he said. “You need to start thinking of yourself as a writer, instead of as a guy who gave up history and is trying to write.”

That simple distinction made all the difference in the world.

My first novel came out in May 1997. Neither of my parents lived to see the book in print. But my father was alive as the book went to production. He saw how proud and excited I was, and I think he shared in those emotions, despite having been as skeptical as my mom early on. Children of Amarid did well. The hardcover garnered some nice reviews despite a small print run. The paperback went through six or seven printings.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The Outlanders, my second book, may well be the most significant of all the books I’ve published. I knew I had it in me to write one book. But when I finished The Outlanders, and realized it was even better than CofA, I knew I was more than a guy who could write a novel. I was an author. And when Children of Amarid and The Outlanders together were given the Crawford Fantasy Award by the IAFA (International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts), for best fantasy by a new writer, I knew I would have a professional career beyond that first series.

As I’ve said before in this series of posts, I was incredibly fortunate to find my way to a writing career. I benefited from privilege, from luck, from the unstinting support of a loving partner. I don’t quite know what the lesson is this week. Not all of us face as stark a choice as I did. I know myself well enough to understand that I could not have taken the history job and also written fiction (my mother’s solution). It was a tenure-track job. I would have had a full teaching load and also would have been under immediate pressure to revise and publish my dissertation, do academic committee work, and get started on my next scholarly book. Add to that the time commitments of marriage and starting a family, and at the very least I would have been postponing my writing career for another decade or more. I didn’t want that.

But I’m not so naïve as to say, “So everyone should just follow their dreams, consequences be damned.” I will say, though, that if you love to write — or paint, or play music, or dance, or sculpt, or take photos — following your dream ought to be the goal. Maybe you’ll have to balance your artistic ambitions with the pragmatism of a day job. Maybe you’ll need to be patient for a year or two. Whatever path you find, I assure you the sacrifices are worth it. Few things in life match the joy of waking each morning to a workday that consists of doing what you love.

Next Monday, my final thoughts on my path to a writing career.

In the meantime, have a great week.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part III

Today I continue my series of posts on how I got started in writing. (If you want to catch up, you can find the first post here, and the second post here.) The subtitle of this collection of posts is “A Case Study of Dubious Worth,” and today we really begin to delve into the dubious side of things. So read on, and prepare to disregard everything I have to say . . .

When we left off last week, I was in college still, having abandoned my plans to major in creative writing, because of A) a crappy experience in a creative writing course, B) my parents’ rather trenchant observation about the lack of earning power for Brown graduates with BAs in creative writing. I graduated with my degree in American Studies, worked briefly for a political consultant I’d interned with the previous summer, and applied to Ph.D. programs in U.S. history. I loved the subject and thought I could satisfy my passion for writing by being a historian.

I was wrong.

Yeah, I know: spoiler.

I could take you through my grad school experience, which was hard, but also rich with amazing people, academic challenges and epiphanies, and the beginning of the love relationship that would shape the rest of my life. But here are the salient points. First, writing history wasn’t my calling. Yes, I love the act of writing. But it turns out I also love creating characters and plot lines and even imaginary worlds. And apparently you can’t do that with history and expect to get tenure. Who knew? Second, while writing my dissertation was not at all like writing fiction, I did learn a tremendous amount from the process, because, once again, I had a fantastic teacher. My advisor at Stanford was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy. He was a remarkable, exacting mentor whose high standards and generous feedback improved immensely my prose and narrative skills.

I knew before finishing my degree that I was on the wrong professional path, but I felt stuck — I had devoted years of my life to getting my Ph.D. How could I change course now? — and I was determined to complete my doctorate no matter what. So finish it I did, in May 1993. I figured I would apply for academic jobs in the coming academic year (1993-94) and see how I felt about whatever offers I received.

By this time, Nancy and I were married, and she had taken a job teaching biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee. Soon after I completed my degree, she said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. “Since the day I met you,” she told me, “you’ve talked about wanting to write a novel. The first history jobs won’t be posted until the fall. You have all summer. Why don’t you try writing and see if you enjoy it?”

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I did just that. I started with some short stories that have never since seen the light of day, but which helped me to shape the contours of my world and its history. Then I began work on the novel, and by September had completed the first five chapters of what would eventually be Children of Amarid, my first published novel. I gave the manuscript to a friend of the family who had been a publisher, and he agreed to act as my agent, operating under standard agenting fees. He sent those five chapters and an outline of the rest of the book to various fantasy publishers.

In the meantime, I began my history job search and found a listing for a tenure track position at Colorado State University teaching U.S. environmental history. I took the listing to Nancy and said, “This is my job. This is the one I’m going to get.” It was a perfect fit, and Colorado was a place we’d dreamed of living. If I was destined to teach history, this was the job for me.

And sure enough, I interviewed for the position at that year’s American Historical Association Conference, had an on-campus interview early in 1994, and on a Thursday in March received a call from the chair of the history department, who offered me the job.

Again, this was my perfect history job. I should have leapt at the offer. But the thought of doing so made me nauseous. For the past several months, even as I applied for history jobs, my thoughts had been on that manuscript floating around the halls of New York’s big fantasy publishing houses. That was the future I wanted. That was my dream.

I asked the chairman of the Colorado State history department if I could have until Monday to give him an answer. He said yes, reluctantly.

The next day — yes, that’s right: the next day — I got a call from an editor at Tor Books. He had read my chapters and wanted to buy the publishing rights to Children of Amarid.

And for this week, I’m going to stop there, with my 31-year-old self contemplating this improbable confluence of my two professional paths. We’ll pick up the story next week with the decision I faced that fateful weekend.

In the meantime, a few points to emphasize. As I said, this is the part of my story where the dubious worth of my experience really becomes obvious. The industry has changed so very much in the past thirty years. My friend who served as my agent was not licensed in that capacity. He was a publishing bigwig. People in the industry knew his name. And he and his wife were my parents’ dearest friends in the world. I was SO lucky in this regard. Having an agent at all was a huge advantage — having HIM for my agent was even better. I’m not sure that in today’s world that sort of informal arrangement would even be tolerated.

Moreover, in today’s publishing world there is also no way in hell that I could sell a novel based on five chapters and an outline. It’s laughable even to contemplate. I was a first time novelist with no fiction credits to his name. Yes, I had completed my Ph.D. and so could point to that as proof that I was capable of writing a book-length manuscript. But that hardly qualified me as a novelist.

As it happened, though, the Tor editor who read my chapters had recently bought and edited a book called Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind, which was a runaway bestseller. After that, Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, told my editor that he was free to buy the next book he found that he thought had potential. My editor had once worked for my agent and so the next book to land on the editor’s desk was mine. He liked it, thought it could be good. But if Goodkind’s book hadn’t struck gold, he might not have been free to make the offer on Children of Amarid. If my agent had known a different editor, that person might not have had the freedom to take a chance on an inexperienced unknown like me. And yes, it also bears mentioning that every person in this little story — the agent, the editor, the publisher, the bestseller, and the young writer — was a white man. I was helped enormously by my privilege and that of the people around me.

All this by way of saying that I was fortunate beyond words in every respect.

Don’t get me wrong: That first book was good, as were the volumes of the LonTobyn Chronicle that came after. They were strong enough to eventually win the Crawford Award as the best fantasy series by a new author. Despite my lack of experience, I knew how to write, how to tell a story, how to create compelling characters.

But my career path was charmed, and I trod it at a time when it was far easier to break into the business.

Next week, I’ll trace the early growth of my writing career. In the meantime, have a great week.

A Little News To Share!

So for the people in the little college town where I live, this is old news. But for the rest of you . . .

The former president of the university here (officially called the Vice Chancellor) has moved on to a new opportunity (it’s not really my place to say more, except that when the President of the United States asks you to serve, you serve . . .) Next in line for the university presidency is the University Provost, who happened to be my wife, Nancy. And so, I am thrilled to say that she is now acting president of the university, the first woman in the history of the school to assume the office. My sweetie has made a little bit of history. I could not be more proud.

Here is a photo of her presiding at the recent winter convocation. The red ermine robe is the traditional garb of the University Vice Chancellor.

Nancy at Winter Convocation

Monday Musings: The Pandemic Two Years On

Two years ago at this time, we were just starting to hear reports of a strange new disease first discovered in the Wuhan Province of China. We didn’t know much about it, and while doctors in China expressed concern about what they were seeing, most of us didn’t think much of it. China, I remember thinking, is a long way away. Whatever this illness is, it’s not likely to have a huge impact on my life.

The hubris. The foolishness. The ignorance. The innocence.

This Sunday morning, as I began thinking about this week’s post, I went back and read some of the Monday Musings I wrote in 2020, when we as a society were first coming to grips with Covid and its implications for our lives and our world. I returned to the topic again and again that year, lamenting the previous Administration’s bumbling response to the pandemic, and trying to make sense in real time of the changes being imposed upon us by something we didn’t yet fully understand.

As I read yesterday, some of what I found in those posts from 2020 struck me as eerily familiar. Almost from the very beginning a certain, too-large segment of our society refused to take any steps to combat the spread of the virus because the actions in question conflicted with their concept of “personal freedom,” of “liberty.” At the time this mostly meant objecting to mask-wearing, to restrictions on large social gatherings, to business closings that prevented people from eating out and going to sports events and shopping in malls.

Today, we fight many of the same battles, and, of course, we struggle with the added social conflicts over vaccines and vaccine mandates.

We worried then, as we do now, about school closures and remote learning, and their impact on children and families. We saw fatigue and desperation and grief battering health care workers, and we worried about the long-term impact their ordeal would have on our entire medical system. And we saw Covid and the public battles over how to deal with it being politicized, deepening the fracture lines in a nation already bitterly divided by politics and social strife.

In too many ways, nothing has changed. And in other ways, things have only gotten worse.

At the time, we believed children were somehow immune to Covid. We have since learned, tragically, how mistaken we were.

Early on, the CDC was projecting deaths from Covid in the U.S. would exceed 100,000 and might reach as high as a quarter of a million. The number of cases of the illness, we were told, might reach into the millions.

The innocence. The ignorance . . . .

Currently, as we weather the third major wave of Covid, our nation’s death toll stands at approximately 835,000. The total number of cases stands at about 60,000,000.

I wrote in one of my earliest 2020 posts about how I remained hopeful that when the pandemic had run its course, we would return to something approaching the normal life we once had known. I was thinking a couple of months, maybe six, maybe a year. Two years on, and I no longer have any illusions about “normal” and what that means. By midsummer in 2020, I understood how naïve I had been. Normal, as we once conceived it, was already gone. We now live in a Covid world. I expect it will forever be a part of our health-scape. Like flu. Like AIDS.

Pretty grim, right?

Except it’s not. Yes, I know, as often as not (or more) my optimistic takes on things turn out to be off base. And if this is another instance, so be it.

But we as a society have learned to live with flu. We get shots, and though the flu vaccines are imperfect year to year, because they are based on health professionals’ best guess as to what the coming season’s flu strain will look like, they generally perform quite well. AIDS was once a death sentence. It’s not anymore.

Over 245 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. Over 206 million are fully vaccinated. The numbers are growing. We must remain committed to fighting the wacky conspiracy theories and the misinformation, so that we can vaccinate millions more in the coming months. But compared to where we were a year ago, we are safer today because of the vaccines. Covid today is hitting hardest in counties with the lowest vaccination rates. Those who are getting sickest from Covid are those who haven’t had the shots. The vaccines work.

Omicron is hitting the country — and the world — hard right now. But it is demonstrably milder than the original strain and than Delta. My wife, who is a Stanford-trained biologist, tells me this is often the pattern with illnesses. They grow more contagious over time, but also less virulent. And there is an evolutionary explanation for this. The contagion grows, because like all living creatures viruses are driven to propagate, to ensure their own continued existence. And the virulence declines because a virus that kills its host has less chance of surviving and reproducing.

Moreover, while many of the problems we encountered with Covid in the earliest days of the pandemic have persisted over these two years, others have not. I wrote early on that I was so distracted by the pandemic and the accompanying social disruptions that I could barely work. I was desperate for normal interactions, for anything that felt familiar and safe. I had trouble remembering what day of the week it was.

As the pandemic has gone on, though, I have adjusted. I can keep track of the days better. I work every day at a pace very much like that which I maintained pre-pandemic. I don’t like Zoom very much, but I use it a lot and keep connected that way. I have attended many virtual conventions, and have taught workshops remotely. And I have gotten used to wearing my mask, to being with friends in open-air settings, to shopping online rather than in person, to cooking every night with Nancy rather than eating out once a week, or once every couple of weeks.

Is any of this ideal? Of course not. But neither is it such a hardship that I can’t cope. I still do believe we will come to some new way of living that feels closer to the old normal than where we are now. I no longer try to guess when that might happen. Because I can’t know. And because I am not as desperate for it as I was a couple of years ago.

I understand fully that I am privileged in this respect. For too many, the disruptions of the pandemic have been utterly devastating and have done permanent damage — physically, emotionally, economically. And I hope that as a society we will show compassion to those who have suffered most, and will help them rebuild their lives.

My point today, though, is that I believe this will be possible. Two years on, too much is the same. Too much has gotten worse. And yet so many of us have adjusted and are adjusting. It may not seem like it much of the time, but we are already building that “next normal.”

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Father

Mom and Dad, by the authorI have conversations with my father all the time. Literally every day. Which is kind of remarkable given that we lost him to leukemia twenty-five years ago.

There are, for me at least, people in my life whose voices I have internalized, made part of my subconscious. None of those voices is more prominent, more welcome, more beloved than Dad’s.

Sometimes, I hear advice that he offered me years ago that remains pertinent to this day. Other times, I can imagine the wisdom he would offer on matters we didn’t have occasion to discuss while he was alive. And still other times I can simply hear him teasing me for some foolish thing I’ve done, or laughing with me about something we’d both find hilarious.

As I’ve mentioned often in this space, I am the youngest of four children — by fifteen, twelve, and six years. Same mom and dad for all of us. They just spaced things out, as it were. With my two oldest siblings, my father was a bit of an authoritarian. By the time my brother Jim and I came along, he had mellowed, found professional contentment and personal peace. He was, with the two of us, playful, relaxed, indulgent without being lax. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was the perfect parent, but the balance he found with us worked. And I would add that our success as fathers has much to do with the example Dad set for us.

And yet, despite Dad’s different approach to parenting with the older two and with us, he was devoted to, and was loving and affectionate with, all four of us. He never played favorites. He made every effort to be evenhanded in all ways. And yet he also managed to have a special bond with each of us.

He doted on our mother, with whom he was hopelessly and completely in love. They were a wonderful pair. They bickered at times, and had a few memorable arguments — a couple of them lasted days. But they did everything together. They loved to travel. They went to museums and to classical concerts, to the theater and to movies. They had a core group of friends with whom they socialized on a regular basis, but they were most often content to enjoy quiet evenings together, watching TV or reading companionably.

Just as Dad modeled good parenting for Jim and me, he also modeled how to be a caring, attentive, supportive spouse. Yes, the division of labor in my parents’ household was far more traditional than that in either of our homes, but when Mom decided late in life to shape a career for herself as a special education teacher, Dad did everything he could to accommodate her dream. And he was so, so proud of all she accomplished.

We almost lost Dad before we had him. Which is to say, all of us were almost never here. When Dad was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, he contracted spinal meningitis. Even today, meningitis proves fatal in ten to fifteen percent of cases. Untreated it is nearly always fatal. In 1939, the diagnosis itself was essentially a death sentence. Dad grew very sick very quickly, and fell into a coma. Doctors did all they could for him, including removing a piece of skull from his forehead to relieve some of the pressure on his brain. And still, they were ready to give up on him. But a doctor recommended the use of a revolutionary new drug — penicillin — that he thought might work. Needless to say, the drug saved Dad’s life.

For the rest of his days, my father marked the date of his emergence from the coma as a sort of second birthday. And certainly in his later years, when I best knew him, he lived his life as a man who had been given a second chance. He was warm and compassionate with friends, friendly and jovial with strangers. He especially loved children and was wonderful with all his grandkids. As I indicated earlier, he loved all the arts. He was also a sports fanatic — any sport really. The truth was, he loved to watch anyone do anything at which they truly excelled. He was an admirer of human achievement.

He was captivated by gadgets of all sorts, and I think that, after initial resistance, he would have been utterly fascinated by smart phones. God knows he would have benefitted from mapping apps. He had a decent sense of direction, but it was never anywhere near as good as he thought it was. He used to get lost all the time — more than a few of those arguments with my mother likely started with the phrase, “I don’t need to ask — I know where I’m going . . .”

I could go on and on. I adored my father. I miss him tons. And, as I mentioned up front, I “speak” with him every day.

Dad was born on this day, December 20, in 1919.

Happy birthday, Pop. I love you.

Monday Musings: Taking Stock This Thanksgiving Week

A year ago at this time, I wrote a post about Thanksgiving — random thoughts on the holiday, essentially. I just reread it, and laughed once more at some of the memories I recounted. Part of the post touched on the oddness of last year’s celebration, the fact that we were in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that made family gatherings difficult if not impossible. And I lamented this, because, as I said then, Thanksgiving is just about my favorite holiday.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2021, and we find ourselves still grappling with the pandemic. Last year, while writing my post, I didn’t see that happening. Yes, I knew already that Covid would be with us for a long, long time — an illness to be managed rather than one we were likely to wipe out anytime soon. But I thought our management would have progressed further by now. I am not yet in a space where I want to dive into political discussions, but I will simply offer this: If you’re not yet vaccinated, please consider getting the vaccine before year’s end. And if you’re unvaccinated and you refuse to wear a mask, please consider that your recklessness is endangering everyone around you.

Despite the difficulties posed by another pandemic-inflicted Thanksgiving, and despite having endured a year more difficult than any my family and I have experienced before, I find myself embracing the spirit of this most spiritual holiday. I don’t mean spiritual in the sense of “religious,” at least not really. For some, I suppose, thankfulness does lend itself to religious expression. But as someone who considers himself agnostic in matters of faith, I still am drawn to what I perceive as a powerful spiritual component of Thanksgiving. This is a time when all of us in this country — a nation that is both flawed and deeply blessed — are called upon to pause in our work, in our private lives, in our political and cultural rancor, and reflect on all for which we ought to be grateful. We do this as the calendar year draws to a close, as the natural year — the cycle of seasons, of life’s emergence, flourish, and retreat — winds down as well. This is an opportunity to take stock, to appreciate what we have and, perhaps, to think about things we hope to be thankful for in another year.

And so . . .

I am grateful, as always, for my wonderful family. As always, I say. And yet after this year of crisis, of illness, of anxiety and sadness and deepest fear, I am more grateful than ever to be married to my love and closest friend, and to have two daughters whom I adore, who dazzle me with their humor and brilliance and beauty. I am grateful for my siblings, those I have still and the one I have lost, my relationships with whom have been so formative throughout my life. I am grateful for my parents, gone now for more than two decades, but who loved me and supported me in life, and who raised me to believe I could be anything I chose to become. I am grateful for my extended family, relatives I love even though we see one another far too infrequently.

I am grateful beyond words to have truly amazing friends, people who enrich my life with their wit, their intellect, their compassion and generosity. And I am so fortunate to have in my life fans of my work who are kind, vocal in their enthusiasm for my fiction, but also respectful of appropriate boundaries.

I am grateful for my career, which has been through ups and downs, which has perhaps not yet reached every height I hoped it would, but which continues to engage me and challenge me and reward me each day. I am grateful for all the talented professionals with whom I have had the honor and pleasure of working.

I am grateful for the pastimes I pursue daily — my music, my photography, my passion for nature, especially birds.

I am grateful for the comfort of our home, for the food we eat, for the privileges we enjoy, and I am mindful always, but particularly this time of year, of those who are not as fortunate as we are, who live without the certainty of shelter, who eat without the surety of a next meal, who encounter illness or injury without the peace of mind of knowing how they will access and pay for treatment.

And I am grateful for this past year, despite its difficulties. From it, I have learned to appreciate more deeply what I have. I have learned to cope with emotional crises that might have ruined me a year or two ago. And I have grown stronger, so that the next crisis — and of course there will be a next one; such is life — will be just a little easier to endure.

I wish you all a joyous Thanksgiving and hope that you have a long list of people and things for which you are grateful.

— DBC

Professional Wednesday: Work as Balm

Continuing this week’s theme of maintaining mental health through difficult times . . .

Back in March, when our daughter’s cancer was diagnosed, my first impulse was to put everything on pause. I contacted my editor and agent to let them know I was not going to be working for a while. I announced on my various social media platforms that I would be pulling back from them as well. I don’t know what I thought I would be busy with. I don’t know what I thought I would do to fill my days. But in that instant, I couldn’t imagine doing . . . anything.

I can’t say for certain if this was a good decision or a bad one. I did what I needed to do in that moment. I made time for myself to deal with something utterly devastating and unprecedented in my life, for the very reason I stated above. I didn’t know what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, being self-employed, I have the luxury of being able to clear my schedule when I need to.

I’ll pause here to say this is why paid family leave should be universal across the country. People deal with crises of this sort every day. The privileged few — people like me — shouldn’t be the only ones who can take the time to care for themselves and their loved ones in this way.

Of course, Nancy had work, and though her colleagues and boss would have understood had she taken time off, the truth is the nature of her position at the university, and the fact that the school was in the middle of implementing the Covid response she helped formulate, made this impossible. And so, perhaps not so surprisingly, after taking only a few days to be shellshocked and emotionally paralyzed, I got back to work as well.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)I was in the middle of writing a book — Invasives, the sequel to Radiants — and I dove back in. It’s a book about family, as so many of my novels are, and about discovering powers within. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why I would find that particular story line comforting.

At the time, I wasn’t very far along in the book — maybe one-third of the way in. But with my reality frightening and sad, I threw myself into the story. Work became the place I went to escape my dread, my grief, my rage at the injustice of my kid’s illness. The emotions came with me, of course, but I was able to channel them into my characters, to turn them into narrative. That is the magic of creation, the alchemy that allows us to convert anguish into art. Each day, I couldn’t wait to get back to my book; I can’t remember a time when work has meant more to me. My haven, my outlet, my balm.

I finished the book in less than two months, which is pretty quick for me, and I knew immediately that I had written something special. I love all my books. Someone asked me just the other day what my favorite book is among those I’ve written, and I answered as I always do: the newest one. But in this case, it was especially true. Invasives is laden with emotional power and it is, to my mind, one of the best plotted books I’ve written. Often when I write, I have to fight off distractions. Not this time. With Invasives, writing was the distraction.

I was sad to finish the book — which was definitely new for me. Usually I celebrate finishing a novel. This time, I wondered how I would cope without the book to write. My child was still sick, still dealing with treatments and such. And I was still scared, still sad.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)And so around that time, unsure of what to write next, I acted on an idea I’d had for several years. I hung out my virtual shingle as a freelance editor. Work came in quickly, and before I knew it I was editing a series for one friend, and talking to others about future editing projects. I also released the Thieftaker novellas. And prepared for the October release of Radiants. And started gearing up for the Kickstarter for Noir, the anthology I’m co-editing for Zombies Need Brains. And wrote a story for another anthology.

In other words, I worked the way I normally would. Yes, some days were harder than others. Some days I got nothing done at all. And part of working through this ordeal has been giving myself permission to have days where I do nothing more than spin my wheels. But more often than not, work has continued to offer me solace.

I’ve watched in awe as Nancy, who has even more on her plate than I do (elder care issues involving her parents and a job that is emotionally and mentally exhausting), has found the strength and discipline to be a loving, supportive mom, an attentive daughter, a skilled and focused professional, as well as a loving partner. She, too, has found refuge in her job.

Looking back, I feel a little foolish for having retreated from my professional life the way I did those first days after learning of my daughter’s diagnosis. From this vantage point, it appears rash, unnecessary. I feared that in some way my job would keep me from giving my full attention to my daughter’s health. I was right. The mistake I made was in thinking that would be a bad thing. Believe me, I spent a ton of time thinking about her, worrying about her, searching for ways I might ease her burden. But I couldn’t do that for every hour of every day, not without doing real damage to my own emotional and physical health.

Work saved me.

Now, I know each of us deals in unique ways with anxiety, fear, grief, and other emotions, and so I offer this post not as a prescription for others, but simply as a description of my experience. I hope that some of you find it helpful.