Tag Archives: memories

Monday Musings: Remembering My Brother Bill

Five years ago this week, my family—spouse and kids, brother and sister and their families, cousins—gathered in northern Massachusetts to say goodbye to my oldest brother, Bill, who had passed away earlier in the year after a brief, intense battle with lymphoma.

Five years ago.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been so long.

My brother, Bill
Bill in 1976, while visiting me at sleep away camp.

Bill was older than me by nearly fifteen years. Same parents; I was a mistake. A happy one, my folks always claimed, but a mistake nevertheless. Despite the age difference between us, Bill and I were very close, drawn together by shared passions for music, for baseball, for nature and birds, for literature, for history. He (and Jim, our middle brother) introduced me to much of the music I still love to this day, everything from the Rolling Stones and Little Feat to Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice. Bill was also a musician—a fantastic vocalist and skilled blues harmonica player. He and I performed a short set together back when I was in college—a memory I still cherish, and one of the coolest things we ever did together.

Bill, David, Jim
Left to right, Bill, me, Jim. Back in 1990 or so, when I, at least, still had hair.

He and I didn’t get to see each other nearly as often as either of us would have liked, but usually we spoke weekly, sometimes more. One of us would hear a new piece of music, or see some unbelievable highlight from a pennant race game, or finish reading something the other would just love—whatever. And it would prompt a phone call. An excuse, really, for the joy and comfort we each derived from speaking to the other. (And I should add here that Bill had a very similar relationship with Jim. Some of the shared interests were different but they were just as close. And I should add as well that to this day Jim and I have the same sort of relationship as well. We three were/are bound by so much.)

Like many relationships, though, mine with Bill was as complicated as it was loving. He struggled all his life with mental health issues and substance abuse. For several years, when his life-long battle with alcoholism raged with particular ferocity, he drew me into his struggles as a reluctant enabler. He confided in me, called me in the midst of binges, then swore me to secrecy, telling me I couldn’t tell our parents. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, living a continent away in California, trying to survive my first years of graduate school. I still remember those conversations with disturbing clarity. Slurred, confused, maudlin, affectionate, but also manipulative, all against the background noises of sloshing bourbon and ice cubes clacking against the edges of a crystal tumbler. I finally broke out of the pattern, but those phone calls took their toll on me, and, for a time, on our friendship.

Bill was a brilliant poet, but after the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of a job he truly loved, he stopped writing. He could have had a writing career. He was that good. On some level, I believe he resented the fact that I managed to turn my dream of being an author into a profession. He read what many call “literary fiction” and often expressed, subtly or not, his belief that writing fantasy was a waste of my talent. At the same time, he kept all of my books displayed prominently on shelves in his home.

With Bill, such contradictions were fairly common.

Uncle Bubba, Erin, and Alex
Bill with Erin (center) and Alex, back around 2004.

He loved his nieces and nephew—my girls (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, used to call him Uncle Bubba), Jim’s son and daughter, our sister Liz’s son and daughter—and doted on them, more like an attentive grandparent than an uncle. But often during family get-togethers he would, without warning, grow moody, sullen, silent. To this day, I wonder if on some level being with our families made him regret choices he made earlier in life, when he might have started his own family.

Yet, as difficult as he could be, he was always the king of whatever room he entered. He was beautiful, he had unbelievable charisma, he was a terrific storyteller. He was also brilliant, well-read, funny as hell, and stunningly generous. He had the best laugh I have ever heard. I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: his laugh was so wonderful, it made others want to be funny. Eliciting that laugh was like winning the humor lottery.

The memorial in 2017 that drew my family and me to Massachusetts on a crisp, gorgeous fall day, coincided with Bill’s birthday, which would be tomorrow. He would be 74 if he was still with us. He would lament how old that sounds, but then make some crack about Mick Jagger still touring at 79. (Once he and I were joking about something and I made some remark about me being more immature than he was, and he said, “Hey, man! I was immature before you were born!”)

I miss him every day. I have a musical mix on my phone that I named for him. It includes all the music he turned me on to, all the music we used to talk about during those many phone calls, and some stuff I’ve discovered since he died that I know he would have loved. The playlist is constantly growing.

Happy birthday, Bubba. Love you.

Monday Musings: The Wisdom and Love of Friends and Family

Many years ago — decades, in fact — in a rare moment of precocious insight, I wrote the following in my journal:

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends to remind us of who we are.”

Even at the time, I understood that I had, without any intention of doing so, stumbled upon some deep wisdom of my own. Because add to “the wisdom and love of friends” the words “and family,” and you have precisely the experience I have just enjoyed.

I have recently returned from an extended journey east and north, and I am feeling stronger than I have in some time, in large part because of the friends and family I encountered along the way. The trip began with Nancy and me attending a university event in Richmond, where she was the guest of honor and featured speaker. Seeing her excel at her job, watching her move among strangers with ease and poise, listening to her deliver remarks with the aplomb of a seasoned pro, brings me such joy and makes me so proud I can hardly find words to express the emotion. And so the trip began, as do all things in my life, with her, with us.

From there, as many of you already know, I went on to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, which was well-run and professionally fulfilling. The highlights of the weekend, though, were the two evenings I spent hanging out with Edmund Schubert and John Hartness. Both nights, we talked business, we talked craft and market, we spoke of family, of life and friendships, we just shot the shit for hours. It was amazing.

I have spent too, too long, in my own head, dealing with uncertainties, with anxieties, with fear and grief, with my own emotional health issues as well as with the challenges life throws at so many of us. It wasn’t that these evenings with my friends made me forget all that other stuff. Rather, it was that these two amazing friends and I made room in our interactions for all that each of us is going through right now. We commiserated and supported, even as we also laughed and spoke of other things.

And that was a harbinger of the entire trip.

David and daughter AlexFrom Virginia Beach, I went to Brooklyn, where I spent two evenings with my older daughter. She looks beautiful, seems great, has a ton of energy, and was her normal, playful, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, slightly acerbic self. Seeing her, having such amazing time with her, was reassuring to say the least.

I also spent an afternoon with two old friends from my high school and college years. We are, all of us, changed. How could we not be? But our affection for one another remains, as does our ability to joke and laugh one minute, and then shift gears into matters weighty and significant the next. Seeing them was a rare treat, one I have missed these many years.

I drove from Brooklyn to central New York State, where I stayed with my brother Jim, and his wife, Karen. They are two of Nancy and my favorite people in the world. Jim is my birdwatching partner and guru, not to mention my oldest and dearest friend in the world outside of Nancy and my girls. Karen, his wife of 35 years, is brilliant, witty, articulate, passionate about her work, and so much fun. She and I share affinities for good Scotch and teasing Jim. While I was there, we were joined for dinner one night by Jim and Karen’s daughter, Rachel, who is as terrific as her parents.

And while in the Albany area, I also saw my wonderful friends Alan and Karen. Alan was (along with our friend, Amy — more on her in a moment) my closest friend in college, my musical partner (also along with Amy), and my housemate. In the nearly forty years since college, he (and Karen, and Amy and her husband, Paul) has remained as caring and constant a friend as anyone could want.

I started home on Friday, driving into the wind and rain of Ian, and I stayed that night in the Charlottesville area with Amy and Paul. We drank Manhattans and ate pasta, they showed me photos from their son’s recent wedding, and we talked deep into the night. Or as deep as we of advanced middle age are capable of these days. Which is to say, not really that late at all. But it was a great evening.

The next day, I arrived home.

My trip lasted twelve days, and pretty much every one of them brought me to someone I care about, someone who knows and understands me, someone whose wisdom and love made for a special day or evening.

I am back home now, and I feel restored in some way. Yes, the anxieties and difficulties persist. Life continues to throw stuff in our paths, and much of what Nancy and I have struggled with for the past year and a half will continue to challenge us for a long time to come. But I feel more connected to where I come from, to the person I have long known myself to be. I am reminded that there is more to me than fear and sadness and struggle. There is strength as well, and worth and humor and, most important, the love of people I respect and admire.

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends and family to remind us of who we are.”

Yes, maybe there is something trite to the thought. But at 22, when I wrote it, it felt like a valuable insight. And three and a half decades later, it still carries the weight of truth.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Celebrating Nancy

David and Nancy
Us in Dublin, Ireland for WorldCon 2019. (Photo by Cat Sparks)

I mention Nancy on this blog quite often, yet, I rarely write about her. Well, she has a big birthday coming up this week (tomorrow) — a BIG birthday — and so this seems as good a time as any to sing her praises.

For those who have somehow missed the references, Nancy is my wife of thirty-plus years. She and I met at Stanford, when we were both getting our Ph.D.s. She was a first-year grad student in biology; I was in my second year in the history program. We met because one of her suite-mates in grad school housing, another history candidate, brought her to the department’s weekly grad student card game at the on-campus pub.

Yes, we met over a game of hearts, and we were both smitten that very day. Nancy later confessed that she saw me and thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.” Poor thing . . . . For my part, being a guy, I saw her and thought, “Wow!”

Wedding Day Photo 1
Our wedding day, 1991.

We were married in the Rodin Sculpture Garden beside Stanford’s art museum, and a year later moved to Tennessee so that Nancy could take an assistant professorship at Sewanee: The University of the South. Our plan was to stay for a couple of years, and if nothing worked out for me in the history department, we’d leave for wherever and start again with me taking the offered job and her trying to work something out. Rinse, repeat until both of us were employed. That was the idea. But at her urging I started to pursue my lifelong dream of writing fantasy professionally, and before we had to leave, I got my first publishing contract. Thirty years later, we’re still here.

Nancy provost installation
Our family, the day Nancy was officially made provost of the university. Erin is on the left, Alex is on the right.

In that time, Nancy has been assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and chairperson of her department. She has been appointed to a named chair in the biology department (for those unfamiliar with academia, this is big deal). She has received research grants to support her scholarship from a host of organizations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation. She has been an associate dean, associate provost, university provost, and, for the past nine months, acting president of the university. She is the first woman ever to serve as Sewanee’s president.

I am a pretty confident person. I believe in my creative abilities, and I believe in my own intelligence. I like to think that I’m usually one of the smartest people in whatever room I’m in. And yet, when both of us are home, I’m not even the smartest person in my own kitchen.

Erin, Nancy, Alex
Erin, Nancy, and Alex.

Nancy is a creative thinker, too, though in an entirely different way. Her creativity, her brilliance, is rooted in her ability to approach any problem, any issue, at any given time, from multiple perspectives. This is what has made her such a successful scientist, and it is what informs her strategic thinking as an institutional leader. She is also a person of remarkable yet quiet strength. She is serving as president, coping with issues large and small, interacting with people in various university constituencies who, let us say, sometimes forget how to be their best selves. She is also, like me, dealing with the illness of her child. She recently lost her mother and, with her brothers, had to help get her father situated in an assisted living community. She is spouse, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, community leader. She does all of this with composure, with grace, with her sparkling and mischievous wit, with an equanimity that humbles and dazzles me on a daily basis.

Nancy and Samantha
Back when we first started dating. Nancy is the one on the left . . .

Yes, I adore her. I would never claim to be a neutral observer where Nancy is concerned. But you don’t have to trust me on any of what I’ve written here. Others will say it as well, including many who don’t always see eye-to-eye with her. That is part of her charm. She can disarm with a smile. She can discuss without bringing ego to the conversation, and — something truly rare in today’s world — she can agree cordially to disagree.

And still I haven’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to telling you about her. She is far more than her professional activities. She knits and gardens, she brews beer and makes AMAZING Indian, Thai, Moroccan, and Southwestern cuisine, not to mention gorgeous fresh bread and the best chocolate chip cookies anywhere. She has run triathlons and used to be an active rock climber. She loves to travel and to hike (and she tolerates my birdwatching interruptions when we’re hiking together). She plays cards and board games and is somehow really good at all of them.

I’ll stop now. Except to say she’s the love of my life, my partner in silliness, my best friend. And yeah, tomorrow’s her birthday.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. Love you.

Monday Musings: Fireworks and My Environmental Hypocrisy Explained

The first fireworks display I remember with any clarity came on a Fourth of July when I was three or four years old. My family had gone to the park in town where the fireworks displays took place each year, and we were sitting with our neighbors, including the high school student who babysat me when my older siblings were unavailable.

I was terrified of the big booms, and I cowered on my babysitter’s lap, my eyes closed, wishing this nightmare would end. Until she convinced me to look at just one.

It was magical! The colors! The patterns! Even the resonance of the explosions in my chest. From that day forward, I was hooked, and I have been ever since.

Anyone who knows me, knows that my politics track well to the left of center. On no issues am I more committed or more radical in my advocacy than those pertaining to the environment. And so, as environmental groups and activists, including some in our little town here on the Cumberland Plateau, turn more attention to the negative environmental impacts of fireworks, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between fighting against something I love, or making myself look like a hypocrite.

This one time, I’m embracing hypocrisy. Hear me out.

First, let me acknowledge the obvious. Fireworks ARE bad for the environment. They release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They pollute the air with particulate matter, and, because those lovely colors are produced by the burning of different elements, including heavy metals and other toxins, they pollute our water and soil as well. They are incredibly loud, and so can be deeply disruptive to local wildlife, not to mention being harmful to our pets and to livestock. And, with drought impacting more and more of the U.S. every year, we can’t ignore the significant fire danger posed by fireworks.

In short, they are pretty much a nightmare, and at some point, as we continue to fight the effects of global climate change, we will probably need to get rid of them altogether. But we are nowhere near that point yet, and, in fact, trying to get rid of fireworks now could actually set back the cause of environmental protection.

Again, hear me out.

All the fireworks used in the United States in a single year, including displays put on by municipalities as well as those set off by private citizens, emit about the same amount of greenhouse gas as 12,000 gas powered automobiles do on average, over the course of a year. Which sounds like a lot, until we place the number in context. There are 276 million automobiles in the U.S., which means that the entire universe of fireworks in this country emits less than 0.00005% of what cars produce. Put another way, if we could come up with technology that reduces car emissions by one percent — just one percent! — the reduction in our nation’s carbon output would be 20,000 times more than what a total ban on fireworks could accomplish.

What about the particulate matter in our air, the heavy metals and toxins in our water and soil, the sheer solid waste of all those fireworks casings made out of plastic and cardboard and paper? Yes, the harm from fireworks is real. But as with greenhouse gases, the contribution of fireworks to all of these problems is minuscule when considered against the scale of industrial pollution in the U.S., or automobile pollution, or household waste production, or any number of other causes of environmental degradation.

Aiming our ecological ire at fireworks is foolishness. It is virtue-signaling en masse. It is like ordering a double-patty bacon cheeseburger, a super-sized container of curly fries, and a huge slice of New York cheesecake, and then also asking for a Diet Coke.

Worse, it is politically stupid. Progressives could come up with a comprehensive, scientifically sound, guaranteed-to-address-the-problem legislative package to combat climate change, and if it included a ban on fireworks that would be the only thing Fox News and the Republicans would focus on. “Liberals want to ban your fireworks!” “Liberals have declared war on the Fourth of July!” “Liberals hate America for winning our independence!”

The fact is, progressives have, again and again, come up with comprehensive, scientifically sound, guaranteed-to-address-the-problem legislative packages to combat climate change, and always the right-wing climate deniers have latched onto the one element of the plan that is a) least significant, and b) easiest to parody and misrepresent. “Liberals want to keep you from eating hamburgers!” “Liberals want to replace your pickup with a bicycle!” “Liberals want to use climate legislation to turn America into a socialist hell-scape!” “Liberals want to make you compost your puppies!”

Okay, I made up that last one, but you get the idea. Banning fireworks gets us next to nothing. The impact would be minimal at best. And the cost to the larger cause of saving our planet could be far greater than this one step is worth.

So what should we do about fireworks?

Already governments across the globe, national, territorial, and municipal, are beginning to use drone and laser technologies to make celebrations less fireworks-dependent. We should do more of this. Displays that blend these newer approaches with traditional fireworks, have less impact on our land, water, and air. Moreover, many U.S. states already ban the purchase and use of fireworks by private citizens. More states should do the same. This would lessen fire danger while also lowering the amounts of smoke and pollutants we put into the environment. We would still get to see our fireworks displays and celebrate July 4th as we always have. We would just have to rely on public fireworks displays for our yearly fix of “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

That, it seems to me, is a reasonable sacrifice for the greater good.

Have a great week.

Remembering Wayne McCalla

Wayne McCallaI have to confess that I don’t remember when I first met Wayne McCalla.

It’s not that our first meeting wasn’t important, but rather that Wayne was so much a part of my career, my life, that he just always seemed to be there. I remember sending him ARCs of my later Winds of the Forelands books. So that puts us back into the mid 2000s. It could have been even earlier.

Wayne loved to read. He loved to meet authors, to have his books signed, to get turned on to yet another speculative fiction series. He frequented cons, always carrying a book bag, always looking for his next signature, the next world to explore. And if he fell in love with your books watch out. He couldn’t get enough of them. He liked to brag to me that he had every edition of every book I had ever published. He once drove from his home in Indiana to my town in southern middle Tennessee, just to attend a signing I did at the University bookstore here. He was like that. As I say, he loved books, and he loved authors. It was almost embarrassing. It was profoundly humbling.

He was generous, fun-loving, and a great travel companion. We drove together to several conventions and our conversations never flagged. He had a wonderful laugh, and an ever-present, shy, beautiful smile. He was quiet, that diffident smile revealing something intrinsic to his gentle nature. He would come to dinners with authors and other fans and simply listen, soaking up the camaraderie, occasionally chipping in something that always wound up being witty or uncommonly observant.

But he was passionate about fandom and speculative fiction and convention culture. The health problems that curtailed his ability to attend such gatherings were an ever-increasing source of frustration for him. He missed his friends. And they missed him. More recently, it seemed he was finally putting some of his medical issues behind him. He looked forward to returning to the convention circuit, if not this year, then certainly in 2023.

All of which makes his unexpected and sudden death earlier this week that much more tragic. As I said when I began, it seemed like Wayne was always just there. His absence is haunting, heart-rending, deeply unfair, and utterly bewildering. It is, quite simply, wrong.

I was nowhere near ready to say goodbye, but what do time and fate care for our readiness or lack thereof.

Farewell, my friend. I miss you already. I hope wherever you are now, the books are plentiful, and every one of them is signed.

— DBC

Professional Wednesday: Roger Angell, 1920-2022

If you are not a baseball fan, and not a reader of The New Yorker, chances are the news of Roger Angell’s passing, at the age of 101, had little significance for you. But if you are familiar with his work, then you know we have lost a brilliant essayist, a keen observer of the human condition, and the greatest chronicler of baseball in the game’s history.

Angell’s achievements are legion, and others writing tributes to him can do a better job than I in summarizing his magnificent career. It is worth noting that he was the stepson of E.B. White, that he published articles and stories in the The New Yorker for a span of 76 years (that’s not a typo), and was for more than two decades the fiction editor at that august magazine. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame AND the American Academy of Arts of Letters. No other writer — no other person — can claim membership in both.

He was, in short, far, far more than a baseball writer.

And yet, for me, his legacy will always be tied firmly to the game.

The Summer Game, by Roger AngellBeginning in 1962, and continuing through most of the next sixty years, Angell wrote about baseball, contributing articles to The New Yorker a couple of times each season, usually once during spring training, and once at the end of the World Series. Some seasons he added a mid-season essay. His articles were later collected in volumes — The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Once More Around the Park (1991). I own all of them, and have read them multiple times.

My mother was a dedicated subscriber to The New Yorker, and always had piles of them on her night table, because she could never quite keep up with all the reading. But whenever she received an issue containing a Roger Angell article, she would read it immediately so she could send it on to me, to my oldest brother, and to our sister. My father usually stole the magazine long enough to read the article as well. The appearance of an Angell piece was a family affair.

It wasn’t just that he wrote about a game we all loved. It was that he did so with poetry, with humor, and with the giddy appreciation of baseball’s unique grace only a fan can harbor and no writer, no matter how talented, can fake.

Writing in 1962, as the brand-new New York Mets franchise stumbled to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, he ruminated about their die-hard, stadium-filling fans:

It seemed statistically unlikely that there could be, even in New York, a forty- or fifty-thousand-man [sic] audience made up exclusively of born losers — leftover Landon voters, collectors of mongrel puppies, owners of stock in played-out gold mines — who had been waiting years for a suitably hopeless cause…
…This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

He described the daring base-running of the wonderful Willie Mays (“the best ballplayer anywhere”) this way:

He runs low to the ground, his shoulders swinging to his huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and lopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.

Wit, lyricism, and a fundamental understanding not just of how the game is played, but what it means to those of us who lack the talent to play at that level, but still identify with beloved teams and admired stars. Angell’s writing did more than reflect back at me my own passion for baseball. It deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

More important in the long run, his work taught me about the craft to which I would devote the bulk of my life. His observations and descriptions challenged my preconceptions. I thought I knew baseball — I was a fanatic about the sport from an early age. But the game Angell described was more beautiful than the one I had seen up until that point. He made me look at it again, not as a fan, but as a storyteller. He inspired me to think like a writer, about baseball at first, but later about so much more. I read his first book when I was in junior high. His second when I was in high school. His third after I finished college. I grew up on his writing. The lessons I gleaned from his essays shaped my voice, even though I wasn’t writing about baseball at all.

Angell was born in 1920. He saw Ruth play, and Gehrig. He saw Mays and Aaron, Koufax and Gibson, Seaver and Jeter. He lived a long life filled with achievement and also with tragedy. And he wrote about it all. He continued to write pretty much to the end of his life, and I will miss his essays the way I miss watching Willie run. But his words remain, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, now is the perfect time to dive in.

Have a great week.

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: Baseball, Opening Day, and Childhood Dreams

Baseball season opens this week. That might not seem like a big deal to you. And in truth, it’s far less of a big deal for me now than it used to be.

But once upon a time, Opening Day was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. It was the best day of the year that didn’t involve me getting presents. It was a day of possibility, of dreams deferred finally having their day in the sun. And, yes, quite often, it was also the day those dreams and possibilities were doused with icy water.

When I was a kid, baseball was everything to me. Sure, I had other interests, but I lived and died with the Yankees (mostly died, for the first twelve years of my life) and I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. I remember a first grade class assignment in which we were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves in whatever job we expected to do when we grew up, and then write a few sentences about that job. I drew myself playing center field for the Yankees.

I should pause here to say that I must have been truly delusional. I was a TERRIBLE baseball player as a kid. I was terrified of getting hit by the baseball. My little league at-bats were panic-inducing affairs that saw me swinging at any pitch within four or five feet of the plate so that I could strike out more quickly. The strikeout itself was a foregone conclusion, right? So why prolong the encounter and risk devastating physical injury? Every once in a while, I would screw up the courage NOT to swing and would manage a walk.

And as I trotted down to first base, marveling at the mere fact that I was still alive, my father would clap from the stands, calling “Nice going, Charlie [his nickname for me — he did, in fact, know my real name]! Walk’s as good as a hit!”

Kind, but untrue. Walks are great — on average, players who walk a lot help their teams far more than players who walk infrequently. Still, hits are better. There are stats to back this up. But I digress . . .

What about my fielding, you might ask. Well, I was already a birdwatcher by the time I was playing little league, and I spent a lot of time out in right field, watching for interesting fly-overs, and running after hit balls that were safely on the ground and decelerating, and therefore far less of a threat . . .

[I did get a little better as I grew older. I spent three summers at sleepaway camp when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, and during my last year there had a pretty good season. I batted over .300 — yes, I kept track; yes, I still remember — fielded well, and generally acquitted myself quite well. But I should also say that this was a camp for well-to-do Jewish kids. Not exactly the training ground for future Major Leaguers. The pitchers I faced were more likely to wind up as orthodontists than as professional athletes.]

And still, I insisted year after year that I would someday play for the Yankees. And not just at any position. I would play center field. The realm of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As I said: delusional. My parents tried, gently, to steer me away from this dream, pointing out that baseball players — and most professional athletes — had certain skills and attributes that I lacked. Like hand-eye coordination. And height.

Joe Morgan, 1974 Topps“Aha!!” I was able to reply. “What about Joe Morgan? Two time Most Valuable Player, perennial All-Star, World Series champion. He’s five foot seven!” Besides, I assured them. I didn’t expect or need to be six feet tall. I would be perfectly happy with five foot ten, like my hero, Roy White.

Amazingly, it was this statement that my father couldn’t abide. God bless him, he was willing to put up with my elephantine blind spot when it came to my playing ability. But me growing to be five foot ten? No. This was the bridge too far. “Charlie, I’m sorry. But you are never, ever going to be five foot ten . . .”

Spoiler alert: He was right.

I did eventually get over my baseball-playing dreams. Mostly. But baseball’s Opening Day still elicits from me a different sort of dream. “This is the year!” I tell myself, literally every year. “This is the year the Yankees will dominate the American League. The Mets will dominate the National League. The two will meet in an epic seven game World Series! I won’t even care which team wins!”

So maybe I’m still delusional.

But did you know that in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, both teams were just one year removed from last-place finishes in their respective divisions? True story. In 1969, the Miracle Mets won 100 games and the World Series, after spending their first seven years of existence at or near the basement of the National League.

And while we’re at it, did you know that Freddie Patek, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, three time All-Star, was only five foot five??

Anything can happen!

And that really is the point.

Look, baseball is no longer the game I worshiped as a child. Games have gotten too long and boring. Batters swing for the fences in every at-bat. Pitchers try to strike out every batter they face. The nuance and strategy that I loved — it all seems to be gone. And yet, with Opening Day approaching, I find myself dreaming of a season in which smart baseball returns, in which the obsession with power-hitting and power-pitching fades, and this amazing game returns to the subtle brilliance I remember so fondly.

Call me delusional.

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: 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.