Tag Archives: parenting

Monday Musings: Sports and COVID

Last year, on the weekend of the Super Bowl, I wrote a post for that following Monday about the power of sports in our culture. In it, I noted that the Big Game was one of the few truly shared experiences in our national culture, an event of vast reach that crossed many of the demographic boundaries that usually divide us as a nation. I also might have voiced some disdain for the hype, the glitz, the obscene expenditures on everything from the halftime show to the half-minute advertising spots.

What a difference a year makes.

When I wrote that post, of course, COVID-19 was not yet on our radar. Sports, among so many other things, had not yet been taken away from us.

I have missed sports far more than I thought I would. And I have found COVID-restricted sports less satisfying than I might have hoped. Usually while watching sports on television I begrudge the crowd reaction shots, the panning of packed stands, the background chants and shouts and, in the case of the Premier League, singing. I realize now, though, that those things meant something to me. I suppose, unwittingly, I got a vicarious thrill out of knowing there were thousands of people attending the game, reveling in the excitement of being there.

I don’t like the cardboard cutouts that have been placed in stadiums and arenas. I understand why they’re there, but I find it creepy and unsettling — a reminder, as if we need it, of all that is absent from our lives right now. I’m not crazy about the prerecorded crowd noise either, although, again, I understand why some venues use it. I’ll even admit that some Premier League venues (Nancy and I probably watch more Premier League soccer than we do any other sport) have done a really great job of simulating crowd reactions to play on the pitch.

Nevertheless, what I love about sports — about the entire spectacle: the game, the interaction of the players, the crowd response, even the cheesy organ playing and sound effects that still infect baseball games — is the organic nature of each event. Over the course of my life, I have watched — in person or on television — literally hundreds upon hundreds of baseball games, football games, basketball games. We’re getting there with soccer games. I have watched a ton of golf tournaments (yes, that’s right — deal with it), swim competitions, track and field meets… I could go on, but you get my point. I love sports and have watched a lot. And I have never seen any two games or meets or tournaments that were exactly alike. That may seem self-evident, but to my mind it speaks to the power of sports.

Every inning, every play, every trip down the court or assault on the opposing team’s goal is a moment of possibility. Anything can happen. Yes, the environment is controlled — action is guided by rules and confined by the field of play, but that actually enhances the experience. There is a certain level of safety in the unpredictability of sports (unlike the unpredictability of life itself, which is anything but safe).

Sports blends the thrill of the possible with the suspense of the unknown and the exploration of human potential and frailty. We watch athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do, pit themselves against one another in full view of thousands, sometimes millions. Will they fold under the pressure? Will they thrive? Will someone unexpected emerge as a hero? Will the most revered among them fail in a key moment, forever changing the way history views them?

Yes, some people will say “Who cares? It’s just sports. None of this matters.”

And they’re right. I won’t go so far as to say that the nerve-wracking suspense of a tight game, the excruciating progression of a key at-bat, has no long-term consequence. I’m merely a fan, and yet there are still sports moments that haunt me, the pain of a devastating loss as raw now as the day it happened. But the fate of the world isn’t at stake. And isn’t that exactly what we need right now?

Sadly, though, the version of sports we’re getting currently is lacking. The players and coaches are doing their best — I have no doubt of that. And I also don’t wish to be misunderstood: I welcome any sports we can have, and I have no desire to see anyone — athlete or fan — put at risk. I’ll take what I can get. Let’s be honest, though. These games are not the same. They can’t be. Playing before hordes of screaming fans has to have an effect on player performance. Yes, the greats claim that they can block out all awareness of the crowd. I don’t believe it. Do you? I haven’t seen stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in these COVID leagues, home field advantage has declined markedly. How could it not?

Okay, I just did a quick search online, and home-field advantage has, in fact, diminished in a number of sports. So, yeah.

Look, having any sports at all is great — far better than having none. But I long for the day when stadiums can be filled to capacity. I look forward to going to games myself, to attending spring training again with my daughter, to seeing minor league baseball in the cities near us.

Sports matter, not just to those of us who love them, but to society at large. And having people in the stands makes a huge difference as well. Don’t believe me? Consider whether Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues would have had the impact on America that it did if the seats in Ebbets Field been empty.

Creative Friday: A Photo, and Thoughts About My Mom

I took this photo back around Christmas, while on a photo walk with my wonderful friend, John Willis. Like me, he is an avid amateur photographer, and he gets out on photo walks almost daily. Before our walk, he had told me that for a period of a few weeks around the Winter Solstice, in late afternoon, the trees and angled sunlight and reflections at Lake Cheston, in our little town, created a striking pattern of striated light and shadow.

As you can see, the man is true to his word.

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would be 99, if she was still with us. She would have loved this photo and would have been fascinated by the light at the lake that day. She was a photographer, too. Mostly, she liked to take pictures while traveling with my father. And travel they did. To Rome and Paris, to Egypt and Israel, to Peru and the Canadian Rockies and all over the Western U.S.

She was curious and lettered, a voracious reader, a lover of all the arts. But there was nothing she loved more than family, than spoiling her grandchildren and catching up with her own kids. She would have had all kinds of questions about this photo — about the place and the light and my friend. And from there she would have had questions about the town, the university, and Nancy’s place in it. And the girls and what they were doing, and my latest book and my next project.

In my mind, I often carry on long conversations with both her and my Dad. And so, with your permission, I will end this short piece, and spend some time conversing with my the memory of my mother.

Wishing you all a wonderful, safe weekend.

Cheston Solstice, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: What Memories of My Mom Have To Do With COVID

My mother’s birthday is this coming Friday, February 5. I’ve written about her before in this space. I’ve marked past birthdays with Facebook posts and the like. But somehow this year, with her birthday approaching, I find myself thinking of her even more than usual.

She would be turning 99 this year, but we lost her long ago — back in the mid-nineties, when my older daughter was just an infant, and my younger daughter was, to resort to cliché, not even a glimmer in our eyes. I won’t bore you with the sorts of general memories I’ve shared in the past — her love of travel and books, her slightly goofy sense of humor, and her passion for progressive causes and social justice.

My thoughts have gone in a somewhat different direction. I wonder what she would be thinking about the pandemic, and the state of our world. I know she would have been devastated by the earliest days of COVID, almost a year gone now, when her beloved New York City was virtually closed, its hospitals strained beyond capacity, its cultural treasures shuttered. I know she would have had nothing but contempt for those who refused to wear masks and failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease.

But I wonder what she would think now. The world is entering a new phase with the pandemic, and I’m not sure what to make of it myself. On the one hand, this is a time of tempered hope. The numbers are terrible, but not quite as bad as they were a few weeks ago. We have vaccines from several drug companies. The protocols vary, but the promise they offer — of limited but effective immunity — allows the optimists among us to envision a time when fear of COVID might fade a bit. Since the pandemic began, health officials have warned against comparing this strain of the Coronavirus to the flu. But if the vaccines work, if immunity can be introduced to broad swaths of the population, COVID might become something we can think as we do influenza: as an illness to be feared, but managed.

On the other hand, our hopes in this regard have to reckon with several troubling truths. First, COVID isn’t going anywhere. Regardless of where it came from, it will probably be around pretty much forever. And the comparison to the flu carries a darker implication. It will continue to mutate, just as the flu does. Already new strains have reached our shores from London, from Brazil, from South Africa. No doubt more are coming. Even now, these new mutations are exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the vaccines. Just as flu shots are somewhat hit-or-miss in their effectiveness, future COVID immunizations are likely to be as well. And COVID is far deadlier than the flu; vaccination failures will have tragic consequences.

What does all of this have to do with my mother? A good question, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Part of it might be this: She used to talk to me about the feared diseases of her childhood. As I say, she was born nearly a century ago, in 1922. When she was a child, penicillin didn’t exist. She was in her thirties, the mother of two small children, when the polio vaccine was developed. I remember once, when I was a kid, a friend of mine got Scarlet Fever, and Mom’s first reaction was to tell me how serious it could be. She almost had to remind herself that by then treatments had become fairly routine. I later learned that she had known children who died of it.

The truth was, my childhood, and that of my siblings, had been made far less perilous by the medical advances of the mid-Twentieth Century. Looking back, I believe that era will be looked upon as a historical aberration. Yes, medical advances continue. But we live in a world that is far more interconnected than it was in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The safety conferred by those advances must now race with accelerated exposures and mutations.

I don’t mean to make this a doom and gloom post. I do think that, by and large, the COVID vaccines will work. Our world will find its way, haltingly, to a new normal that returns to us some of the societal freedoms we’re all missing, while also remaining conscious of the novel threats we face. I’m sad to say that I believe my mother would be less optimistic. She would find all of this frightening, and I wouldn’t blame her. These are scary times. We are fortunate to now have in place an Administration that takes the danger seriously, that relies on science and health experts, and that has no political stake in denial.

That, though, only gets us so far. We need to remain vigilant. We need to watch out not only for ourselves, but also for one another. And that means masking, distancing, getting vaccinated when we are eligible.

Stay safe, friends. Take care of those you love. Take care of those you don’t even know. That’s how we overcome even the most pessimistic of scenarios.

Creative Friday: “Willin'” by Little Feat

This week, for Creative Friday, I offer a song.

Many, many years ago, my oldest brother turned me on to Little Feat, and they quickly became my favorite band. While in college, playing with my dear friends Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday as part of a group we called Free Samples, we included “Willin’,” by Little Feat, in our repertoire.

I kept playing the song after college, of course, and eventually, when Nancy and I had kids and I started playing guitar for them, “Willin’” became one of my younger daughter’s favorites. There are pauses in the song, and for some reason she found them hilarious. The more I dragged them out, the more she laughed. To this day, in her twenties, she still can’t listen to me play the song without giggling.

In short, this song has been a part of my musical life for the better part of forty years. I recorded this version, including a second guitar track for the instrumental break, a couple of years ago, with my daughter in mind.

I hope you enjoy it.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Why Do We Create?

I just reread my first post of the year, when I first discussed my weekly blogging plans, and my goals for the months to come. I closed the post with “Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.”

How did that work out…?

This is likely my last post of the year, and my final Writing-Tip Wednesday post before I shift Wednesdays to a slightly broader format. It’s also a slightly longer post than usual; I hope you’ll stick with it. I have posted about a vast array of topics over the past fifty-one weeks, and all of them have dealt with creativity in one way or another. At times, the creative elements of my posts have been explicit and obvious; at other times, when discussing the business and the state of the market, the connections have been less clear. But always it comes back to the act of creating, the process of harnessing the imagination in order to produce… something.

Creativity is integral to who I am, to the life I lead. I consider myself fortunate beyond words in this regard. And I’m not just talking about writing. If you follow my blog or my social media, then you know that I am also an avid photographer and a longtime musician, and I’m passionate about all of my creative endeavors. But I do each of these things for different reasons, and I think this speaks to something all writers ought to consider.

Why do we create?

I like to tell people that I wrote my first book when I was six. It wasn’t much of a book — a few sheets of paper on which I had scrawled a story and scribbled illustrations, sandwiched between a couple of pieces of colored construction paper and bound with yellow yarn. But it was, to my mind, as much a book as all the titles on my shelves. All through my childhood, there was nothing I enjoyed more in school than creative writing. Any opportunity we were given to sit quietly and write was, for me, like the most glorious sort of recess.

In junior high, my classmates and I were assigned to keep a creative journal. For an entire semester, we were to write every night — or as close to it as we could manage — and we were free to write whatever we wanted. I still have mine. I did write every night. I wrote short stories and poems and my reflections on the world as I saw it. I LOVED keeping that journal.

All through high school and college, I wrote. I saw the world through a writer’s eyes. Always, my first thought upon seeing a sunset, or enjoying a meal, or even dealing with emotional problems, was “How would I write this?”

My love of storytelling, of the creative alchemy we perform when converting emotion and sensation into words, still drives me, challenges me, fills me with joy and satisfaction (when it’s not frustrating me and making me want to chuck my computer through a window).

But, of course, my writing is also my job, and I have to think about it as such. That’s fine. I am so lucky to be able earn money doing what I love; I can hardly complain. At this point, though, I write to publish. Anything I work on for any amount of time, I expect to sell. If I don’t, then that piece of writing has…failed in some respect. That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s true. It also sounds mercenary, and that, I fear, is unavoidable. I can be passionate about my work, and also want to make money off of it. I make no apologies for that.

I feel quite differently about my photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have spent years studying photography, teaching myself techniques, making myself see my surroundings with an artist’s eye. I was drawn to photography early in life, in part, I have to admit, out of jealousy. My older brother, Jim, is a renowned and immensely talented painter. He was a bit of prodigy — his talent emerged in his early teens and as passionate as I am about writing, that’s how he continues to be about visual art. I wanted to creative images, too, but I have never been able to draw. Oh, I tried. But I’m terrible. There’s no other way to put it.

When I was thirteen, I asked for a camera, thinking that perhaps photography would offer me a path to visual artistic expression. My early efforts didn’t amount to much, and eventually I stopped trying. About fifteen years ago, though, I decided to try again. I dedicated myself to learning how to shoot, how to see, how to frame. The results have been deeply satisfying. I have sold a few photos and I’ve had work in local galleries. But while I have been pleased by these moments of public attention, I mostly capture images for myself. Nancy and I recently enlarged and framed several of my best images and they are now gracing the walls of our home. I have also produced a coffee-table photo book that I shared with just a few friends and family members. And my computer’s screen saver is a slide show of my best images.

I get as much joy out of seeing my own images in my house, in that book, on my computer, as I have from any sale of a photo. To be honest, I took nearly as much pride in hanging those images as I have in selling a new novel. I do it for me, and that’s enough.

And I feel still another sort of love and pride for my music. I have been playing guitar for more than forty years. I have always been able to sing, and for a while, in elementary school and junior high, I was content to express that talent in school musicals. But at some point I figured out that playing guitar might attract the notice of girls. (As it turns out, guitars weren’t enough. I also needed charm, height, and good looks, none of which I possessed. But hey, I learned to play guitar.)

I still love to play — for myself, for Nancy, occasionally for and with friends. Playing for my girls when they were young was truly a joy. I’ve never been very good at writing songs. I tried. I wrote a very few decent tunes in college, but I had a couple of friends who wrote amazing music, and my inability to craft songs as good as theirs, and as good as I thought mine should be as well, frustrated me. At some point, I stopped trying. Today, most of my playing is fairly derivative. I hear a song I like and I teach myself to play it. It’s fun. I get to recreate songs I admire, either for a small audience or for me. The truth is, though, I’m not adding much to the world’s music. I’m just another guy learning to play another James Taylor tune.

And so I ask again, why do we create?

I create stories for my livelihood. I create photos that are utterly original, but only for my friends, family, and me. I create music in order to pay homage to something I love, and to entertain myself.

I have tried throughout this year to gear my writing tips to writers of every ability level and every aspiration. Some of you won’t be satisfied with your writing until you’ve published a story, or a novel, or a series, or a bunch of series. I get that.

Some of you write because you want to craft the best story you can, and if you publish it, great. If you don’t, if the only people who read it are your friends and family, that’s okay, too. The process itself is the point. Your goal is to create the best piece you can.

And some of you take great joy in writing fan fiction, in writing homages to characters and storylines that you admire and want to be part of in some way. That’s great, too.

There is no single right answer to “Why do we create?” No matter where you fall on the continuum of creativity I’m describing here, you can learn to be a better writer, you can take satisfaction in the act of creation, and you can engage in that alchemy I mentioned earlier.

Because there is something truly magical in creativity — in the simple act of harnessing the imagination — something that has nothing at all to do with money or reviews.

I wish you joy and inspiration in all your endeavors.

And, of course, keep writing.

Monday Musings: 2020 is the New 1968

Putting on my historian’s cap…

There are certain years in modern history that stand out as significant all on their own. They are so fraught, so filled with resonance and import, that they become both microcosms and embodiments of the periods in which they occur. They typify entire eras.

Arguably, the most prominent example of this is 1968, the capstone of a tumultuous decade. It began with the Tet Offensive at the end of January — a coordinated and devastating attack on key military and civilian positions carried out by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The offensive gave the lie to all the false assurances of “progress” the U.S. military had been offering about the American war effort in Vietnam. In March, the sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, was nearly defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Weeks later, on the 31st of March, Johnson withdrew from the race, throwing the election into turmoil. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in many cities. Only two months after that, Bobby Kennedy, by then the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, was shot and killed as well. Summer saw the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with riots in the streets and near brawls within the convention center. In November, former Vice President Richard Nixon narrowly defeated the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, for the Presidency.

2020 will be remembered and written about the way 1968 is. The pandemic, which introduced the world to “masking” and “social distancing,” and exposed anew the anti-science, anti-“elite” biases of a significant portion of the American public, turned the world upside down. The casualty count — total cases, hospital capacity, deaths from the disease — has become a grim daily reminder of our nation’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the problem, and our national leaders’ incompetence and lack of compassion.

The resulting economic collapse sent shockwaves across the entire globe. Here in the U.S., unemployment spiked, businesses closed, the stock market tanked, rallied, fell again, and now is rallying again, even as the pandemic’s third wave ravages rural communities in nearly every state.

The murders of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd sparked protests throughout the country, and beyond our borders. These protests, in turn, further exposed the problem of police brutality in countless cities. Confrontations between White vigilantes and police on the one hand, and protesters, Black and White, on the other, turned ugly, violent, and deadly.

At the same time, the nation went through a political campaign like no other, with the pandemic curtailing in-person campaigning and complicating the voting process. We saw the historic nomination and subsequent election of Kamala Harris as our next Vice President. And we watched Donald Trump engage in an unprecedented assault on our democratic norms, that were ultimately unsuccessful, but damaging nevertheless.

Then there were the oddities — shortages of rice and beans, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, bread flour and other staples; restaurants and bars closed for a time (and now closing again); sporting events and entire major league seasons altered, reconfigured, “bubbled;” movies and theater and concerts forsaken.

And, of course, we saw more than our share of tragic and untimely deaths, losing Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, Kobe Bryant and his beautiful daughter, Chadwick Boseman and Naya Rivera and countless others.

Every time we thought 2020 couldn’t get crazier or darker, it did. Stress and anxiety afflicted nearly all of us in one form or another. Isolation became its own epidemic.

It goes without saying that future historians will write books about this year. Our grandchildren will ask us questions about the pandemic.

Here are a few things I’ll remember.

Early in April, our older daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, and who was living alone in the bleakest days of New York’s early struggle with COVID, texted me about what it was like living in the city at that point. All she heard, she said, were sirens. “It’s eerie because the streets are otherwise dead. Sirens are the only sound.” Except in the mornings, she added, when all the churches rang their bells. Haunting.

Our younger daughter contracted COVID in September, and I will never forget my fear, my feeling of helplessness, my awareness of the miles between us and the impracticality, even danger, of going to see her and care for her.

The news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died hit me like a gut punch, and prompted a very real concern that Trump’s replacement, whoever it might turn out to be, would help him steal the election.

I went to bed on election night, thinking that Trump had probably won. The counting of absentee ballots in key states hadn’t yet started, and though I had read enough about the “red mirage” and the “blue shift” to know what to expect, the numbers looked daunting. Waking up Wednesday morning to renewed hope was one of the highlights of the year.

For me, personally, this was a year of physical problems that reminded me of my advancing age. For the first half of 2020 I dealt with debilitating pain in my shoulder that made even the simplest tasks agonizing. The pain is much reduced now, but it’s not yet gone entirely. It was also a year of emotional struggles, though I’m hardly alone in that regard. Anxiety, panic attacks, stress, professional worries: I had enough of these for five years, much less one.

But amid all the sadness and worry, there have also been bright spots. Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together and have truly never been closer. I have made nature walks a feature of my daily routine, allowing myself to birdwatch each morning, and use my camera more often than ever. I have played a lot of guitar (when my shoulder allowed it) and have learned a bunch of new songs. Even with Major League Baseball’s regular season disrupted, and despite the odd spectacle of stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts, the postseason was terrific and rekindled my passion for the game.

Finally, I know this will sound hackneyed, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s the truth: I feel that I will enter 2021 with a new appreciation for things that I took for granted most of my life. Time with friends and family, the simple pleasure of sitting in a restaurant with my wife and daughters, the opportunity to think once more about travel. We have a long distance to go, as a nation, as a global community. But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.

That, in any case, is my hope.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: The Hardest, Most Wondrous, Most Creative Thing I Do

Interesting title for a post, right? Makes you wonder what this week’s essay might be about.

Spoiler Alert: The post has nothing at all to do with writing…

Parenting is hard. It’s hard when our children are newborns, and we’re operating on three hours of sleep, feeding and changing diapers with mind-numbing regularity. It’s hard when they’re toddlers, and we find ourselves trying to reason with tiny beings who are willful and eager for any form of independence, but not yet ready to face the world without guidance and protection. It’s hard then they’re adolescents, and they are ready to push us away, but still figuring out the nuances of adult life and their place in it. And it’s hard when they’re grown, and we still want to protect them and nurture them even though that’s not really our role anymore.

I love my daughters more than I can say, and I want — have always wanted — desperately to do the right thing. Always. But there’s this huge complicating factor in being a parent: We’re human. We are flawed. We make mistakes. We say foolish things or lose our temper at inappropriate times or allow our own tensions and worries and problems to interfere with the relationships that mean more to us than any others.

A friend of mine from college, who had her first child several years before Nancy and I had our first, once said to me, “Parenting is an exercise in letting go.” That’s gold, right there. Wisdom distilled to its very essence.

Yes, parenting is indeed an exercise in letting go. It’s knowing when to let that toddler wander a bit, and when to rein her in. It’s knowing when to push the pre-teen or teen to open up, to talk to us and let us in so that we can help, and when to leave it to her to work out her own issues, her own life. It’s knowing how to be a friend to our adult children rather than Mom or Dad.

I would add that parenting is also a constant quest for recalibration. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, and today’s answer doesn’t have much of a shelf life either. From the moment they’re born, our children are growing, developing, becoming more and more themselves and less and less reflections of us. To borrow a cliché, change is the only constant.

We try not to burden them with expectations, though that’s hard at times. We certainly don’t want to turn them into mini-me. We want them to be their own people, to develop interests and talents. We love their quirks, their originality.

Because here’s another thing about parenting: It’s wondrous. It is a voyage of near-constant discovery. Hard though it is, it’s also so very much fun. Our children make us laugh, they amaze and astonish, they give joy and pride and, yes, entertainment, repaying us ten-fold for what we have given them. For every difficult moment, there are twenty great ones. It doesn’t always feel that way, and in the depths of the hardest times, it can be difficult to remember, or anticipate, the good. But I can tell you that from the most trying moments of parenting have come some of my deepest connections with my children.

Which brings us to the third thing about parenting: It is the most creative endeavor I have ever attempted. And I spend a lot of time on creative endeavors. It is yet another cliché to refer to child-rearing as an act of creation. But that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about creativity, about problem-solving, about thinking on our feet and innovating — emotionally, logistically, temporally, culinarily… You name it, at some point we’ll have created it.

I started this post in a moment of reflection on a parenting moment that I probably didn’t handle as well as I should have. Even now, after twenty-five years of being a Dad, I still get it wrong nearly as often as I get it right. But writing this has helped me remember that mistakes are part of the process, that getting things wrong — on both sides of the relationship — often lead to conversations that make things better. And that if we’ve gotten the important things right from the outset, the underlying love endures and strengthens despite our flawed humanity.

Wishing you a great week.

Monday Musings: Random Thoughts About Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. It is, and has long been, one of my two favorite holidays of the year, along with Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the coming of spring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions revolve around family-style meals that are steeped in tradition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I didn’t always love Thanksgiving so much. When I was a kid, Turkey Day seemed nothing more than a gift-less dress rehearsal for Christmas. The food was similar, we saw the same relatives. The chocolate treats on the table were basically interchangeable, except for being shaped like turkeys rather than Santa. But, again — and I really can’t stress this enough — there were no presents! And also no tree.

Somehow it became a tradition in our family to pull the same prank on my poor, beleaguered mother year in and year out: At some point during the meal, one of us — usually my sister or me — would go over to speak with her about something we had contrived. And in the course of the conversation, we would slip a dinner mint into the cranberry sauce on her plate. Don’t ask me why we did it; I honestly don’t know. But we did it every year.

By the time I was in high school, we were having our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations either at our house, or at my aunt and uncle’s house — Turkey Day at one, Christmas at the other. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas, despite being Jewish. A lot of Jewish families did — it was a form of assimilation rooted in social pressure and prejudice.) But in the earliest years of my childhood (and in the years before I was born — I am the youngest child in the family, even the extended family, by quite a few years) we used to drive into New York City to celebrate both holidays at my grandmother’s apartment. Our Gram was a pistol. Funny, irreverent, fiercely loving, independent, strong-willed. She was all of 4 foot 10, but she dominated any room she was in. Even after all these years, when I think of Thanksgiving, the first image that pops into my head is that of our family gathered around her table.

Gram had a few friends who used to join us for Thanksgiving each year. Many of them had been friends of the family for so long that we were expected to call them “Aunt so-and-so” even though there was no actual blood relation. One of these friends was widowed, and she had remarried to a man named Milton, whom we were to call Uncle Milton. Uncle Milton was… Well, how do I describe him? He was old, as one would expect of the friend of a grandparent. But he was also somnambulant. And, looking back on it, I think he used to get pretty hammered at these dinners. We would arrive after he and his wife did, and he would already be well into his cups. We would go to say hello to him and, invariably, he would say, “David. Good to see you. Mind if I don’t get up?” He said this to everyone (although, as far as I know, he didn’t call everyone David…). He never got up, at least not until it was time to transfer from his comfortable chair to the supper table.

Milton became the butt of many, many family jokes. I am not proud of this. None of us are. But it’s true. When we would play 20 Questions, one of us would always devote a round to the poor man. “Is he dead or alive?” “Yes.” “Uncle Milton!” At some point we heard that Milton had fallen and broken his hip. His wife had called him for dinner and he had, against his own better judgment, gotten up. He pushed himself out of his chair and just sort of kept going… When sometime later, we got the sad news that Milton had died, we all wondered how anyone had been able to tell. I know — this is just terrible. Cruel, disrespectful, inappropriate. But, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m laughing as I type it all out.

Nancy and I have had extended family to our home for Thanksgiving now and again, and for a while we used to share the holiday with another family here in our little town. But our favorite Thanksgivings have been the ones we’ve had with just our daughters, and there have been too few of those in recent years. Our older child has lived in New York since going there for college in 2013. We’ve probably had only two or maybe three Thanksgivings with her since, and we miss her every year. Our younger daughter is still in college and will be coming home this year, with her boyfriend. They both had Covid earlier in the semester and, according to the public health experts Nancy works with at the University, should still be immune and will present no threat to us. It will just be the four of us for the holiday. Quiet, safe. We’ll Zoom with our older daughter at some point, and also with my brother and his wife, who are alone as well, and will be Zooming with their children and my sister-in-law’s parents. Needless to say, this is a strange year.

Which brings me full circle. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even under these extraordinary circumstances. I find the concept behind it, simple though it is, remarkably affecting. Of course we should take a day to ponder those things for which we are thankful. Yes, we should do this daily, but the fact is we are too often consumed with the demands of the day-to-day, the fraught emotions of a world that seems to careen from one crisis to another, the necessities of work and the obligations that sometimes keep us from appreciating fully the importance of family and friendship. A day of Thanksgiving is, it seems to me, just the tonic we need, this year especially, even as the exigencies of the pandemic limit how many we ought to have seated around our tables.

And so please allow me to close by thanking all of you. Whether you are a stranger who has read one of my books, or a friend I have known for years, or a relative who sat with me at our Gram’s table, I am glad to have you in my life. I wish you a joyous, safe holiday.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Real-World Influences On Our Fiction

It’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice.

I wrote the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series, in the mid-1990s. The first book, Children of Amarid, had been percolating in my head literally for more than a decade. It changed a bit as I wrote it, but it was a book I first imagined the summer before I started college.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The second book, in contrast, was very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a couple of ways. In that book, The Outlanders, my heroes, Jaryd and Alayna are building a life together and starting a family, just as Nancy and I were starting our own family. When writing in book III, Eagle-Sage, about their young daughter, I drew extensively on our experience raising our first child. And in book II, when Niall lost his wife to cancer, I drew upon the experience of watching my father deal with my mother’s death.

So far, I’m sure none of this is very surprising. When we write, our life experiences shape our fiction — this is hardly the stuff of epiphany.

But looking at books II and III in the LonTobyn series, you can also see the influence of outside events, specifically national politics, on my narrative. I won’t bore you with a deep summary of the plot, but suffice it to say that the partisan rancor between Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress plays out in a split among the community of mages in Tobyn-Ser. I hadn’t intended this, of course, but I did realize at the time that real-world events were informing my fiction and I made a conscious decision to roll with it.

The next time something similar happened, I didn’t realize what had happened to my books until I was well into the series. I wrote Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book in 2000. In that series, a conspiracy among the magical Qirsi seeks to overthrow the non-magical Eandi courts. Not all Qirsi are involved in this movement, but prejudice against the magical race among the Eandi is already widespread, and, as the series progresses, fear of the conspiracy breeds deep fear, even paranoia among the ruling people.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I was still working on the second book, Seeds of Betrayal, when the 9/11 attacks took place, and I wrote books three, four, and five against the backdrop of the Patriot Act, the torture of terrorism suspects, the illegal imprisonment of suspects at Guantanamo, and the deep anti-Islam sentiments of the early and mid-2000s. The Qirsi conspiracy was part of my plan for the series all along, but by the time the books were done, I realized that, without intending to, I had written a post-9/11 allegory. Again, I didn’t go back and change anything. I chose to keep the books as they developed. But I will admit to having been caught off guard by the degree to which our world had intruded upon my concept for the books.

And this still happens to me. My agent and I are currently shopping a supernatural thriller that involves, in part, a government agency trying to separate children from their parent. I wonder where that idea came from…

This is, of course, a writing-tips post, and so I am supposed to offer advice. For a number of reasons, I will not tell you to avoid allowing the real-world to impinge upon your fiction. First of all, it’s almost impossible to do. Even if we’re writing in a medieval setting, as I was with the Forelands books, we can’t help but allow some of our world to seep in. Sometimes it manifests in subtle ways; sometimes, as with Winds of the Forelands, it profoundly shapes the finished product. Chances are, though, it’s going to be there in some form. Second, that real-world influence might wind up being a good thing. It may give your already compelling and exciting novel a resonance and relevance that it otherwise would have lacked. And finally, speaking as a historian, this is the reason students of history view contemporary fiction as primary source material. The influence of our world on our books will be edifying not only for current readers, but also for readers fifty or one hundred or five hundred years from now. That’s all to the good.

The advice I would offer, however, is to watch for these outside influences. Understand that you’re not writing in a vacuum. It may be that history’s impact on your work will do wonderful things for your story. Great. But including those elements ought to be a choice rather than an accident. Because it’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice. If you see your book going places that you didn’t intend and that you don’t like, you can do something about it. Again, the key is to be aware so you can make an informed choice.

We are subject to history’s arc, but we’re not helpless before it. We can allow our art to be shaped by the world around us, or we can make our art a refuge from that world. There is no single right way to do this (a good rule of thumb for assessing any writing advice). Watch for the influence of the outside world on your story, and make an informed decision as to how much of it you want reflected in the final product.

Best of luck, and keep writing.