Tag Archives: parenting

Monday Musings: We Are Broken

On Friday, I grieved.

Today I’m just ticked off.

Every approach to the subject I attempt feels inadequate. Our nation is broken and I despair of seeing it repaired in my lifetime or even that of my children.

When six deeply flawed human beings, driven by their religious beliefs and their disregard for the plights of anyone other than themselves, can set back the cause of human rights with such ease, we are broken. When legislators in two dozen states, the overwhelming majority of them white men, can deny adequate health care to forty-five million women, we are broken. When a U.S. President elected by a minority of the voting public, and a U.S. Senator elected by voters of one state, can twist the Supreme Court nomination process to place three ideologues on the bench in four years, we are broken.

When voters on the left can become so obsessed with a single candidate that they reject the party’s eventual nominee out of pique, thus enabling the election of a man who should NEVER have been President, we are broken. When two naïve, foolish, or perhaps just deeply dishonest “centrist” Senators can be duped by Supreme Court nominees into believing said nominees will “respect precedent,” and that’s enough to put those nominees on the bench, we are broken. When, after a four-year reign of corruption, white-supremacy, and wanton cruelty, ending in a violent insurrection and conspiracy aimed at undermining the very foundations of our Republic, people still need to be convinced that yes, there really are substantive differences between the two parties, we are broken.

When our nation’s political system can be manipulated to enable one-party rule in states that are evenly split between the parties, we are broken. When one party can win the national popular vote for the Presidency in five of six elections, but be declared the loser in three of those elections, we are broken.

When guns kill more than 40,000 Americans a year, we are broken.

When unarmed people of color are murdered in the streets by police again and again and again and again and again and again and again, while armed white suspects are routinely subdued and taken into custody, alive and well, we are broken.

When one’s skin color is a primary determining factor in one’s chances of finding and keeping a job, being able to buy a house, having access to health care, enjoying a comfortable retirement, living to our country’s average life expectancy, we are broken. And when one’s skin color is also a primary determining factor in one’s risk of contracting a disease, of being a victim of crime, of being poor, of being unemployed, of being homeless, of being incarcerated, of being pulled over by police, of being beaten by police, of being killed by police, we are broken.

When things we thought were settled law, like marriage equality and abortion rights and legal protections for suspects and availability of contraception and the freedom to love who and how we wish in the privacy of our homes, are all suddenly at risk again from a judicial system that responds not to legal doctrine, but to the vicissitudes of partisan politics, we are broken.

When elected officials treat educators and librarians and trans children like they’re criminals, and work harder at banning books from our schools and libraries than they do at banning weapons of war from our streets and classrooms, we are broken.

When global climate change is convincingly linked to exploding incidences of catastrophic floods, devastating storms, historic droughts, and hellish, record-setting fires, and still our body politic consistently proves itself incapable of doing anything to save our planet, we are broken.

When economic inequality in our country continues to grow, building on a forty-year trend, with no end in sight, and no true remedial steps under serious consideration, we are broken.

When our problems are so very easy to list, and our progress so very hard to maintain, we are broken.

I resist the urge to leave this post at that. I am weary and angry and despondent. But I am also a father, and someday I expect to be a grandfather. Which means I cannot and will not give up. Barack Obama famously said to an enthusiastic campaign crowd booing a certain 2016 Presidential candidate, “Don’t boo! Vote!” He also famously said, “Elections have consequences.”

Some look at the problems facing our country and say “Burn it all down.” As if that is a solution. As if that isn’t what the other side wants. As if with all their guns and their survivalist shit, the other side isn’t better prepared for such a scenario than we are.

No, the answer isn’t to boo or to burn. It’s to work and to vote and to never forget the anger so many of us feel right now.

Have a good week. Keep fighting.

Monday Musings: So Many Of Us Just Coping — A #HoldOnToTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLight

So, I don’t know where this post is going. I feel it’s important to make that clear up front. And I also want to say that, all things considered, I am doing pretty well right now. Our older daughter’s health is stable, and she is active, happy, enjoying her work and her friends. Our younger daughter is settling in to a new life out in Colorado with her love. She has an interesting job, a nice apartment, and the excitement of beginning a new chapter. And Nancy and I are solid as ever, partners in all we do, as always able to laugh and talk and enjoy each other’s company.

But I have been reflecting on the simple truth that life is just hard. Yeah, I know: quite the revelation.

I remember when I was younger, and I would go through a rough patch and think, “I just want life to get back to normal,” by which I seemed to mean a place where things were easy and smooth and not filled with heartache.

The naïveté of youth.

I’m not trying to get all existential, nor do I wish to say I think life is nothing but a slog through grief and worry and difficulty. Because I don’t. Life is wondrous. I have spent the last thirty-plus years (and intend to spend the next thirty-plus years) living with someone who is my best friend as well as the love of my life. I have two incredible daughters. I have the privilege of writing stories for a living. I have family and friends whom I adore. Life is good.

But it’s hard. Everywhere I look, I see friends and family — people I care about — dealing with loss, grief, tragedy, heartbreak. And, perhaps because I’m older now, and a bit wiser, a bit more jaded, I understand that this is life. There is no normal. The easy, smooth moments are the exceptions. In the last week or so alone, I have learned of one friend heading into a messy, difficult divorce. I have word from another that they are sick with a serious illness. And still another is dealing with as-yet-undetermined health issues. Less than a month ago, Nancy lost her mom. Our family — immediate and extended — have ongoing medical issues to deal with. Moreover, quite apart from all the other stuff, the pandemic has taken its toll. So has the ongoing right-wing assault on our democracy. And the epidemic of gun violence. Etc., etc., etc.

I could go on, but I actually don’t mean for the litany to become the point. Nor do I wish to extract from my readers expressions of sympathy. This stuff is happening to all of us, and I really am doing all right.

The point is not the difficulty, but rather the coping.

And I believe this brings us back to where I started, because I think dealing with the challenges life presents begins with acknowledging them, with having compassion both for ourselves and for those around us. I am part of an online writing group that keeps in touch via emails in which we share news, ask one another for advice, offer and seek moral support in times of difficulty, and even ask for word-of-mouth help in publicizing new releases and such. Recently, activity on that mailing list had slowed to a trickle and someone sent out a message asking if, after many years of activity, our group had finally given up.

No, came one reply. I’m still here. Just struggling with career issues, and pandemic exhaustion, and some personal problems.

Me, too, said another member. Still here. But I have a lot going on.

Same.

Same.

Same.

Before long, a bunch of us had checked in, reaffirming our enthusiasm for being in the group, but also confiding about all we had been through over the past few years. It was simultaneously warming and chilling. So many of us happy for even this small opportunity to reach out and reconnect, so many of us struggling with life issues that threatened to overwhelm.

I believe our tiny online community is reflective of something going on all over the country, all over the world. And I think my point in writing today is this: Life is hard. Life right now is REALLY hard. It’s all right to reach out. It’s all right to make ourselves vulnerable in that way. More, it’s all right to reach back, to be compassionate, to share and confide and commiserate and try to make others feel better. That, it seems to me, is a positive way to confront life’s challenges.

Twice now I have said I am doing okay. The third time makes it true (at least that’s how stuff works in the Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on . . .). I am.

And I hope you are, too.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Being a Dad in the NRA’s America

This past week, I moved my younger daughter and her boyfriend out to Colorado — the Denver area — where they will be beginning a new chapter in their lives. They have jobs lined up, a very nice apartment with a gorgeous view of the Rockies, and big plans for what their future together might hold. (People ask me how I feel about them living together. Nancy and I lived together for nearly two years before we married, so even if I minded, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on . . .)

It was a very Dad week for me. My younger kid and her beau wanted to drive in the moving truck together, with him doing most of the driving and her navigating, keeping him focused and awake, etc., etc. One of their cars was on the truck trailer. The other . . . well, the other I drove. 1250 miles in two and half days. And then we moved all their stuff into their third floor apartment (no elevator).

That’s what dads do. It’s the sort of thing my dad might have done for me. I thought of him a lot this week, as I dispensed the sort of advice he would have given my siblings and me, and did my best to be the calming, reasonable voice when things grew fraught, as they often do with moves of this magnitude. As I say, very Dad.

I am kind of exhausted from all the driving and from carrying stuff up all those freaking stairs, but I am so glad I did it. I loved being there to help, to see their new place and the wonderful neighborhood around it, to give all that advice, and to buy them a nice dinner when the difficult work was finished. I wouldn’t trade this past week for anything, even though while in the middle of it I wouldn’t have said it was fun. Because dads are supposed to help our grown kids begin their adult lives. We’re supposed to do that sort of hard work. I was lucky to have the opportunity.

As we all know — painfully, tragically, sickeningly — too many dads in Uvalde, Texas (this time), had a very different week.

Dads are not supposed to worry about their kids being shot dead in their schools. Dads are not supposed to mourn in elementary school parking lots. They shouldn’t have to wonder why police didn’t do their jobs, why so many “good guys with guns” let a bad guy with a gun run amok in that building for so long. Dads shouldn’t have to ask why an eighteen-year-old kid had access to a weapon of war and all the ammunition needed to take so many lives, or why the leaders of their state are so concerned with “promoting a culture of life” that they turn a blind eye to the dangers and sins of an industry of death. Dads shouldn’t have to worry that their child (or their partner, or they themselves) might be shot in a grocery store or a movie theater or a mall, or any of the dozens of places that have been the scenes of horrific shootings over the past couple of decades.

And, the fact is, in most of the world, certainly in most of the wealthier nations to which we in the United States like to compare ourselves, dads don’t have to worry about such things. Mass shootings of the sort we’ve seen this month in Uvalde and Buffalo are far, far, far more common in the U.S. than they are in any of the countries we consider our international peer-group.

Why? Republican politicians, who fear the electoral retribution of the National Rifle Association more than they do news of another mass killing, tell us this is a problem of mental illness, not guns. So is it their position that Americans are more prone to mental illness than are people in other countries? Are they saying we are more likely to be murderous psychopaths? Is that what they mean by American exceptionalism? There’s a winning platform. I can’t wait to see them put that on a bumper sticker.

Or is it possible, just maybe, that we have way, way, way more murders and suicides by firearm — per capita as well as in absolute numbers — than, say, Italy, or France, or Spain, of the United Kingdom, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Japan, or Ireland, or Finland, or Sweden, or Denmark, or Canada, or Belgium, or Greece, or Germany, or Poland, or Portugal, etc., etc., etc., because we have way, way, way more guns than they do? And because our guns are so readily available. And because our state legislatures are constantly passing laws to make them easier to conceal and carry.

Yes, the right to bear arms is in our Constitution. Everyone knows that. Far fewer people give consideration to the meaning of the exact wording of the amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

If we’re going to keep the damn amendment (and there is zero chance we’ll ever get rid of it — the Founders saddled us with a culture of guns and death that will forever haunt our nation) can’t we at least honor its complete wording? Is it so fucking hard for people to admit that we have a gun problem in the United States? If tightening laws surrounding background checks, mental health checks, gun-show sales, and the availability of ammunition can save even one life, can spare even one dad the gut-wrenching horror of going through what those parents in Uvalde have endured this week, wouldn’t it be worth a little inconvenience?

Or are we too much in the thrall of the gun lobby even for that?

Have a great week. Stay safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: The Things We Care About, a #HoldOntoTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLight

I honestly don’t know where this post is going, and so please bear with me as I work through my tangled thoughts.

I am struck today — as I ponder a life that is both fraught and wonderful, complicated and strikingly simple, weighted with deep worries and buoyed by simple yet profound pleasures — by the oddity of the things we choose to care about minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

As many of you know, last year our daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Her initial treatments went well, her maintenance regimen has been harder to pin down and she recently had a small setback — minor, but with cancer nothing is truly minor.

I suffer from anxiety anyway, and so any change for the worse in her situation can send me into a tailspin. The truth is, lots of things, big and small, can send me into a tailspin, but I am hardly unique in that regard. And when it comes right down to it, I am not convinced my anxiety explains the emotional phenomena with which I’m grappling in today’s post.

Perhaps an example will help me clarify my topic and allow you to follow along as I muse and ponder. I find — and this is nothing new — that one moment I can be focused on my daughter’s health, or something else of equal importance and solemnity, and the next I can be completely put out by my inability to solve the day’s Wordle puzzle in four guesses instead of five. A frivolous, even absurd, example to be sure, but I offer it in all seriousness. The frivolity is kind of the point.

This has been a difficult couple of years to say the least. I often begin my morning walks mired in dark thoughts, consumed with worry about my kid, or the state of the world, or, for a long time, the persistence of the pandemic. And then I will spot a hawk along the trail, or a warbler will pop up and start to sing in plain view, and I will be filled with happiness. Fleeting perhaps, but not any less powerful for its brevity.

We can be resilient creatures, we humans. And I do think some of what I’m writing about is resilience. Part of it might be as well the simple reality that our emotions demand respite. It can be exhausting living with worry or with grief. Many of us, myself included, live with anxiety or depression or other mental health issues, and these conditions can compound that weariness. Many of us struggle to find those moments of pleasure, those glimpses of resilience.

But the fact is, our minds — or at least my mind — seem to seek out breaks from the toughest issues. How else can I explain being consumed with the threat of global climate change one moment, and truly caring who wins the Tottenham v. Manchester City soccer match the next? How can I worry about my children, or the health of my in-laws, and also care whether I solve the puzzle on my phone in the allotted sixty seconds?

Do our minds do this to preserve our sanity? Ophthalmologists tell us that we can ease strain on our eyes when sitting in front of our computers by taking a few minutes periodically to focus on something farther away. Isn’t that what our brains do, too?

Okay, so I’m nearly six hundred words in to this post, and I still haven’t figured out what the hell I want to say. I suppose I am trying to explain to myself how my own coping mechanisms work. I know that for me, constant worry is debilitating. The intrusions of the frivolous save me from myself. I care about Wordle not because it matters, but because in making it matter, I force myself to look elsewhere, to focus on something other than the hard stuff right in front of me. I allow myself the pleasure of a bird sighting — or a song well played on my guitar, or a successful photograph — because without such pleasures my world would be a bleaker place.

I suppose I am merely describing distractions, which all of us have. And perhaps what I’m actually doing, in public, and in a roundabout way, is giving myself permission to be distracted. Because, I have to admit, in the depths of my legitimate worries, I am embarrassed by the trivial things I care about. Resilience. Distraction. Fun. Pleasure. Joy. When we confront serious matters — including life and death matters — these things can feel wrong, like violations of self-imposed gravity. How dare I take pleasure in a new music CD when my kid is dealing with cancer. How dare I care about a soccer match, or a Wordle puzzle, when the world is in crisis.

The thing is, though, without all those pursuits that delight and distract and bring joy, why does anything else matter? We help no one when we deny ourselves simple pleasures. Because they not only are born of resilience, they also promote it. And without resilience we are of no use to the people who need us, to a world that demands our attention and our compassion.

Perhaps this post is one long rationalization, a way to convince myself it’s okay for me to have fun now and then. But I think it’s more. In the depths of difficult times, I believe we need to remind ourselves to take joy when and where we can. Life is hard. We face no shortage of excuses to be sad or frightened or angry. Our humanity demands we also create opportunities to find happiness and peace, even if just for a short while.

Wishing you wonderful 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.

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

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

Last week, in the first of what I expect to be a three or four part series on how I got started in writing, I posted about my early creative efforts and the teachers who were so influential in encouraging and inspiring me. I titled that first installment “A Case Study of Dubious Worth” and I think the title holds for this week as well. This entire exercise — the writing and posting of these essays — might be interesting, I certainly hope it’s entertaining, but I’m not at all sure how illustrative it will be or whether it’s at all relevant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty old, and the world is a different place from what it was when I was getting started. And yet, I continue . . .

My last semester in high school, I was in a creative writing workshop class, taught by one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned last week (Phil Restaino), and populated by a remarkable, talented, close-knit group of fellow students. Many of them remain friends to this day. What I wrote in that class was, overall, pretty mediocre. But I learned so much about writing, about the creative process, about critiquing others and building a safe, productive space for having those intimate, at times difficult conversations.

My Brown graduation pic.

And so I went off to college thinking I would be a creative writing major, and fully expecting that I would find at Brown University a similarly nurturing creative environment.

[Cue sound of screeching brakes…]

Talk about rude awakenings.

Even then, I knew I wanted to write fantasy, and I had an idea for a novel. This idea would eventually morph into Children of Amarid, my first published book, which won the Crawford Award, but this early incarnation was a long, long, long way from that finished product. It was not very good. I know this. But that doesn’t excuse what I encountered in the very first creative writing class I took at Brown. Our professor was a writer of stature, well known in academic fiction circles. I’m willing to believe that early in his career he was a fine teacher. When I had him, he was a year or two away from retirement. His classes meandered, and he left most of the important work, including the facilitation of the critique sessions, to his graduate assistant.

But he did make clear that, in his view of the world, there was “Literary Fiction,” and then there was the genre stuff that didn’t really count because it was, well, genre stuff. And so, perhaps taking their cues from him, or perhaps responding to the fact that my work still needed a good deal of refinement, my fellow students savaged my manuscripts in the critique sessions. No one had taken time to teach our class the rudiments of critiquing. There was no “start with what’s good, move to what needs work, return to what is good and can be built upon.” There was just “this is bad.” After the wonderful experience I had in that high school workshop class, I found the experience devastating.

I should say that I did get one bit of good advice from that class. It came from the graduate assistant, who was unable to steer the critique discussion, but who went out of her way afterward to assure me there were strong elements to my writing, my storytelling, and even my world building. And she said, “I know that session was hard, but don’t retreat into rewrites. Keep moving forward with your book and revise these early chapters when you’re finished.”

It was, and still is, sound advice for any writer, and to this day I offer it to writers I work with. But the fact is, the graduate assistant’s kindness and wisdom were not enough to overcome the negative experience. I never took another workshop class at Brown. I did continue thinking maybe I would be a creative writing major, but I moved away from fiction toward journalism, where I had some better experiences. Sadly, though, that terrible first class pushed me away from writing fiction for a decade.

As I say, I was still thinking about a creative writing major as I began my sophomore year. But then I had a conversation with my mom and dad. Now, as I mentioned last week, my parents were very supportive of my writing. They were also my mom and dad and they worried a creative writing major would have little or no value in the real world. So they gently but persistently encouraged me to channel my interest in writing toward something more practical. Looking back, I am not sure how wise their advice was, but at the time, I found it compelling. I liked nice guitars and nice stereo equipment, and I had figured out that those things cost money . . .

I wound up choosing as my major American Studies, an interdisciplinary program combining (among other things) literature, political science, and history. I found these subjects and their intersections quite interesting, and, to my delight, I found as well that all my classes in the field were writing intensive. By the end of my second year at Brown, I was on the trajectory that would lead me to get my Ph.D. in history.

More on that as I continue this story next week.

But here are the most important things I would like you take away from this post. First, a badly run writing workshop, one in which critiques are done without sensitivity, without compassion, without pairing encouragement with criticism, can do irreparable harm to the aspirations of beginning writers. Dreams are powerful, but they can also be fragile. And just as last week’s post emphasized the importance of pedagogical excellence, this week’s ought to highlight the potential harm that can come of slipshod and lazy teaching.

Second, the literary prejudice that favors “literary” fiction over other sorts of storytelling is as poisonous as it is misguided. Writing is hard, whether our stories are about our world or another, whether they are firmly rooted in realism and “now” or imbued with magic and cast in different timelines. Quality work can be found in any genre; so can mediocrity. And lest we forget, some of the best and most important writing happening today is being done by writers in fantasy and science fiction. Ask N.K. Jemisin.

And third, stuff happens for a reason. I truly believe this. Yes, I was discouraged from writing fiction by a bad class and also by my parents’ overly developed sense of what was pragmatic. It would be easy for me to look at the changing trajectory of my life during my college years, and look as well at where I am now, and decide I had wasted that decade of my life when I didn’t write any fiction at all. But if I hadn’t gone to graduate school in history, I would have missed out on academic training that taught me so much about crafting prose, about doing research, about writing with discipline. If I hadn’t gone to grad school in history, where I developed a real interest in the American Colonial Era, I doubt I would have wound up writing the Thieftaker books. Most important, if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I never would have met Nancy and I wouldn’t have my two brilliant, beautiful daughters.

So maybe that class I hated so much was the best thing that ever happened to me.

More next Monday.

In the meantime, have a great week.

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

I’m often asked how I became an author, and by way of answering, I point to a book I wrote when I was all of six years old — “Jim, the Talking Fish.” Written and illustrated by yours truly, bound between two pieces of blue construction paper and tied with yellow yarn, it was my first novel. I crack a few jokes about the “book,” but then make clear that so early in my life, storytelling was already in my blood. What I usually leave out, for brevity’s sake, is that this was hardly the only book I wrote, illustrated, and bound at that age. There were several. I don’t talk about those others, because I can’t remember all the salient details.

There’s something else I leave out as well, and I really shouldn’t. Ever.

I wrote those books because I had a first grade teacher who encouraged me, and all of my classmates, to write. To create. To dive into our imaginations and explore. And I kept on writing because all through elementary school, and middle school, and high school, I had opportunities to write. I had teachers who encouraged us to write, who required us to write. And not just reports and such. We were required to write fiction, or to write about ourselves, or to journal.

When I was in seventh grade, I was in a team-teaching program at my middle school. Five teachers taught a group of about 100 students on a rotating basis. We were divided into classes of twenty, and we were with our cohort throughout the day, moving among the team of teachers, who covered English, Social Studies, Math, Science, and French. It was an amazing program. All the teachers were excellent. And for the second half of the school year, we 100 students were assigned to keep a journal as part of our regular homework. We could write whatever we wanted, but we had to write pretty much daily.

I still have the journal I kept that semester, in its original folder. I wrote poetry. I wrote about my life. But mostly I wrote stories. Every night before bed, I would put on my favorite music, and write for a half hour, or forty-five minutes, or, if a story really took hold of me, an hour. On some of those nights, my mother or father would come into my room wanting to know why I was still up. And seeing that I was writing, they would quietly retreat from my room and let me keep working.

That’s another thing I tend to leave out when asked about how I got started. I became a writer, in part, because when I was young my parents encouraged me. They loved my stories and kept nearly everything I wrote throughout grade school. They also held on to that journal.

My public high school, in our admittedly privileged town in the suburbs of New York City, was remarkable in many respects, and we had great teachers in many subjects. But no academic department was more impressive than our English Department. Starting my sophomore year, I had one outstanding teacher after another, including one man of incredible energy and passion and creativity who taught every one of us Coe kids — from my oldest sibling, my brother Bill, to me — spanning an age gap of fifteen years. All of those amazing teachers, who I name here — Duke Schirmer, Rose Scotch, Michael DiGennaro, and Phil Restaino — because they deserve to be named, encouraged us to write and spent as much time critiquing our prose as they did the substance of what we wrote. They held us to exacting standards, but did so with humor and compassion and a sense of mission that made us appreciate the importance of the written word.

I write because I love it, because I’ve been passionate about crafting stories for as long as I can remember. And because when I was young, the most important adults in my life — my parents and my teachers — encouraged to me to feed that passion, to follow it wherever it might lead me (to a point — more on that in next week’s post).

Today, we live in a world driven by science and technology, and the recognition of this has, by necessity, changed so much about how we educate our children. Math and science have taken primacy in school curricula. Language skills remain important, of course. But the arts have become afterthoughts. We also live in a time when school budgets have been slashed and teachers and school administrators alike have seen their opportunities for career advancement shackled to student performances on standardized tests. Education professionals have no choice but to devote more and more time to preparing students for those tests, leaving less and less room for passion and creativity in American classrooms.

I believe this is a tragedy, and I hope for a day when test scores will cease to matter so much, and once more students will have ample time during their school day to write — and paint and sculpt and sing and play instruments and act and dance. I fear, though, that this day will be a long time in coming. In the meantime, in today’s education environment, even the most dedicated of teachers will be hard pressed to do for their students all that my teachers were able to do for me in a simpler time. And so it falls to us, as parents, friends, and mentors, to support and inspire the next generations of young creators.

Without such people spurring me on in my youth, I would not be an author today, and I assure you I’m not alone in that regard.

Have a wonderful week.