The Beautiful Terror of Dr. Authorstein

It began with a single sentence. Now I’m left with the terrifying prospect of explaining everything that came after.

I wanted my brother back.

Seemed simple at the time. One thought, unspoken, bounding around my head day after day. But it bred. Opened up a world in which pain and suffering were the norm. Where desperation led to reckless behavior. Where truth and hope were no longer allies.

Mark Murphy had a story to tell and, at times, I wanted no part of it. It stung. Pulled out a sadness in me that lingered and scoffed at my attempts to wish it away. 30 years of suppession let loose and I came to understand that grief never ends. Then grief reared its head anew and everything on Mark’s journey became mine. We traveled together–we still travel together–and shared tears more often than I am able to admit.

The Weight of Ashes was easily the most emotionally challenging story I have ever told, much less written. It is the best thing I have ever written. And that’s saying something because I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist with my writing. I don’t brag much at all. I just write.

In two weeks, it releases. Readers will be able to buy it anywhere. That is awesome. And terrifying. I won’t speak on behalf of every writer, but I know I can speak on behalf of most of them. We control our imagined worlds and characters, we edit and rewrite to get it where it needs to be, we work with beta readers and critique groups and agents and editors, striving to make it the best book possible. Then, if we’re fortunate enough, it’s wrapped up in a pretty little bundle of pages and binding and set loose in the world and we can’t do a single thing about it. We’ve lost control. There’s joy, don’t get me wrong. There’s beauty in seeing that book baby sitting nice and shiny in a store.

It’s gorgeous. The smile can’t stretch far enough. Pride and joy and love and hope and intense happiness.

And fear. So much fear.

What if it doesn’t sell?

What if people don’t like it?

Did I do enough with the story? Will people emotionally connect with my character? With my story?

Oh, God. I just bore my soul to the world. Why didn’t I just go to therapy?

Alright, so maybe the fear isn’t always grounded. Maybe it’s an overreaction to, I don’t know, artistic desire or something nonsensical like that. But it’s real and present and a writer can only tighten their hands on the safety bar, watch the rising hill of the roller coaster, close their eyes (or more likely leave them open because every writer is curious about what their death will look like), and hope for the best. Probably not going to buy that picture of us screaming our way down, but still.

Crazy thing is this isn’t abnormal. This is what most every writer experiences as their book baby goes out into the world, no matter how many they’ve had. It. Is. Normal. Breathe. Relax. Enjoy the ride, okay?

Remember that the next time you read a book. There’s a soul attached to that story. There’s a reason authors plead for reviews, and not simply the business-related and most definitely true reason. It isn’t even about getting positive reviews (though, yes it is) or even bad reviews (which, no it isn’t), but peace in knowing that it is being read.

I am very much one who believes that speaking something aloud makes it real. I wanted Mark to learn that lesson. In that way, The Weight of Ashes is now real. It is in the world. Speaking daily. That is a most amazing and wonderful truth. Everything I poured into Mark’s journey is real. No longer imagined, but living in the hands of readers. On shelves of bookstores. In the homes of others. Mark can now share his heart with everyone.

And that scares the living hell out of me.

A Time Like No Other

I wrote this as a version of a PR release for Broadleaf Writers. Though it was sent to writers in that growing community, I feel it’s appropriate for (and meant for) everyone.

Hang in there folks. Stay safe. Be smart.

Feel free to share any thoughts, comments, worries, fears, hopes, etc that you may have.

Z

After the attacks on September 11th, 2001, our country fell silent. The skies were empty, roads spotty with cars, work ground to a stop as schools and stores closed. We waited. For what, we weren’t entirely sure, but we knew a moment was required to pause, reflect, regroup, and plan for the future.

Today is different. Today, while stores may open and work will continue–whether from home or a place of business–the waiting comes with an unknown endpoint. We aren’t recovering from a singular moment. We’re watching it unfold in slow motion across the globe. We’re not facing off against a radical segment of humanity, we’re settling in for a war with a pandemic.

Like any war, it requires a great deal of sacrifice, a willingness to do what must be done in order to save as many lives as we can. It requires solidarity, a desire to lift one another up as we fall, to stand together, as one nation, as one species. It requires faith and hope and an unwavering focus on the day when victory is acheived and life begins anew. Reformed, driven by an experience that reshapes our perspective.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. But there’s darkness to walk before we get there.

But we will get there.

As a writing organization, Broadleaf Writers is designed to influence and inspire writers, to educate and offer instruction in a skill that assists in taking that which is brain-bound and giving it a voice on the page. We are meant to function as a community, to help one another learn, grow, and realize our dreams. I will always believe that we–as humans, as a community, as a collective of like-minded individuals, etc–are only as strong as those we stand beside. So, I encourage you to buckle up, do what you must do to benefit us as a whole, and be prepared to jump in feet-first when it’s time to reset our world (no matter global or the world of your home). Be mindful of others, be mindful of those you love, be mindful of yourself.

And if you find yourself with an abundance of time–as it seems we all may–write. Dig in. Pour your soul onto the page. Take all the fear and worry and concern and hope you’re experience right now and write it out.

As to our slate of 2020 programming, we’re monitoring the virus and recommendations for public gatherings. At the moment, we’re holding a place for our April 11th Write Now program, while moving forward with the open of registration on April 1st for the 5th Annual Broadleaf Writers Conference in October. By then, I’m sure we’ll all need a breakout weekend of fun and community.

For now, stay safe. Follow the recommendations of the medical field and stay home unless you absolutely need to get out. You may be able to withstand the nastiness of an exceptionally powerful flu, but you can’t be certain others you will encounter can. Write. Read. Be with your family. Find reason to laugh as much as possible.

The darkness is temporary. There will be light. Walk the tunnel together and we’ll see what the world looks like when we get there. Then we’ll adjust accordingly.

If you want to share any thoughts–on writing or otherwise–or have some material you’d like feedback on, feel free to reach out. You can email me at zach@broadleafwriters.com, or find me on Facebook or Twitter.

Be well. My thoughts are with you all.

Once Upon a Retail Dream

I worked for Barnes & Noble many many moons ago. For the better part, it was a good job. I made a number of friends I still have to this day, learned a great deal about bureaucracy, came to grips with the fact that some people suck, and got to see the world of books from a side that was more terrifying and heart-wrenching than I could have ever imagined.

Working in a bookstore is a blessing.

Working in a bookstore during Christmas is soul-crushing.

One night I was the manager-on-duty during an overnight inventory. This involved a lot of wandering, answering questions when the inventory team (an outsourced company) had them, and an abundance of idle time.

I took some of that time to pay homage to one of my favorite stories of all time: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had it memorized at one point, though I doubt I could remember half of it now. To the beat–more or less–of The Grinch, I wrote about the experience of being in retail this time of year.

I was idealistic once, as well. My first Christmas at B&N put that to rest.

Final note: I’m not a poet. Generally, I’m an idiot. No need to edit my work here. Just enjoy, and maybe–just maybe–be a bit more kind to the folks working retail. It. Is. Hard.

Once Upon a Retail Dream

In a town, once there was, not so far from the fuss

of a city that travelled by car and by bus;

crowds of people who would pounce

and then pay no heed,

to the stories and literature they were told to read.

 

And in this small town was a store that sold books,

a place of joy and good will where friends and family alike

would come to browse and to gawk and to look

for stories upon stories to warm their bleak hearts,

for those in need, for those not quite right,

for those so eager to read by fine light.

 

And to this store one day, there came a man,

whose smile brought good cheer to this place in demand.

He came with a box full of ribbons and bows,

full of doo-dads and papers and puppets for shows!

They welcomed him warmly, this boss who promised the most,

and granted their allegiance as he took this fine post.

They cried, “Hooray for this man, who brings with him hope!

He seeks our redemption, he may right our doomed boat!”

 

But the man formed a grin, a strange little smirk.

“What do you mean?” he asked,

“This store is a blessing, not the slightest known quirk.”

The employees, they did laugh,

most simply shaking their heads;

then one spoke up light, her fair voice so sweet,

she bit at her lip and said, “Oh, brother, we’re dead.”

 

“Surely, you jest,” said the man still aglow,

“Let me show you the heart of the customer flow.”

He walked to the door with a bounce in his step,

his face full of joy, his hum full of pep.

He reached for the lock, those in wait staring long,

for a moment he paused, his mind waging within,

they looked so intense, unhappy and withdrawn.

But he drew his best smile—a patented grin—and parted the door,

which they pushed open so quickly,

he was knocked to the floor.

 

“We told you,” the workers said,

as he wiped dust from his pants,

“They’re maniacs, they’re mad,

they’re retail’s life-sucking ants.”

“Just anxious,” he said, with notable doubt,

“They needed their coffee, a few simple gifts,

they needed exercise books to workout.

They’ll get what they need,

then they’ll hurry right out.”

 

But the customers did linger, they plopped into chairs,

they scattered books and they slept,

and they bumped tables without care.

Signs fell to the floor, the children’s section was trashed,

the café was pillaged, and displays were crashed.

The carpet—once as neat as his bed—was littered

with pastries that were mangled, half-eaten and mashed.

“What are you doing?” asked the man, his hands wringing with fear,

“This is a store to buy books! There’s no carnival here!”

But the people paid no mind, they hurried instead,

their faces intent, eyes glossy like pearls,

they rummaged through clearance racks and filled him with dread.

 

“I don’t understand!” he cried, but to no great avail,

“You’re supposed to come shop, not barter for sales!”

And the man who did smile as he walked through the door,

with boasts of good fortune and scores of good cheer,

suddenly realized that retail was a little bit more

than selling to people who know what they want.

“They shop without purpose, they shop without heart.

They shop without discounts or knowledge or carts!”

 

And what did they hear on that cool winter day?

Those customers and employees, well, in whispers they say,

that the man with the smile and promises of more,

screamed and he screamed

as they carried him out from the store.

He screamed like a child, in the white jacket he wore.

The Grief Monster

Often, I feel alone. Not lonely, but alone. A great bit of this is my own fault. I’m a solitary creature, an introverted writer drifting in and out of the space-time continuum. I spend a great deal of time in my head with worlds and people who are very much real, albeit without any physical nature to them. They are, to me, no different at the heart than the people and places I see in this world. Imagination and reality are the same. There’s a comfort to it. Not an escape, but a pleasant dynamic of creation and satisfaction in discovering people and places that inspire me. It allows me to feel more human. More whole. Less alone.

In my everyday world, it’s a different story. I work alone 90% of the time. I’m not much for chatting on the phone. Texting is communication, and I prefer it, but it hardly leaves one feeling accompanied on a journey of any sort. Social media offers an opportunity to connect, to be a part of something, and certainly gives me the daily chance to broaden the Broadleaf community of writers. But, in the end, the world gets quiet, the sound of the fridge running filling the void when the air conditioner doesn’t. Whether on the patio or at the dining room table or sitting at my desk there is an abundance of silence.

Then, I am truly alone.

My only solace during these times, as I have not been so fortunate as to have children, is of the furry four-legged variety. For the past six years, the constant love and attention I’ve received from the ever-present Molly the Cavatese Muppet Dog has given me a healthy dose of what it might be like to have a mini-human in my life. For thirteen years, my cat companion Maggie has been by my side. Through the closing of my bookstore (long live Wordsmiths Books!), to divorce, to break-ups, loss, and moving from one rental property to another. More moves than most cats could endure, I’m sure. Mix those two in with the friend and family member (and mother to the fur babies) that the Moss has become and there is something daily to remind me that I am not entirely alone. They keep me balanced, humored, and moving forward through the worst life has to offer.

But now Maggie is gone. In a flash. Bone cancer took her one week ago. In retrospect, I can see she dealt with it for far longer than I knew. But from diagnosis to the end was a mere ten days. Ten days. The last three of which were filled with dread and horror, sadness and disbelief. I feel cheated. Stunned. Above all, heartbroken. Finding my way through the days that have followed has been challenging, with more breakdowns than I should probably admit.

Some, I know, don’t understand how losing a pet can rival the loss of a human. All I can say (and have said) to those folks is that, aside from believing that all life has equal value, Maggie was never a pet. She was a friend, a confidant (though I’m sure she spilled the beans to Molly far too often), and a loyal and loving companion through my everyday attempts to live. The void that remains is profound. It is intense. I can’t brush my teeth without staring at the spot on the vanity she would perch, tail driting in and out of the sink, not so patiently waiting for her next round of food or treats (and, I like to think, ensuring I wasn’t left alone). She’s not there to keep me company at night, sprawling out on more bed at my shoulder than I should allow. She’s not there in the morning to climb upon my chest, work her claws into my skin as she makes biscuits, and give me a slice of joy to start my day. She’s not there while I work, while I write, while I sit on the patio and take the world in for a few minutes. There’s no chirpy greeting when I come home, no soft tick, tick, tick of claws on the floor as she moves from room to room hunting her next spot to nap.

She’s just not there anymore. And I feel more alone for it.

Grief often carries one into anger. I can’t feel angry about it. Weird though it sounds, I’ve actually tried. She was suffering, in pain, her liver and kidneys failing as the cancer spread, as she quit eating. She’s at peace now, and I can live with that. I’ve quoted Albus Dumbledore more times this week than is reasonably sane, but it speaks to my beliefs on life and death: “Do not pity the dead. Pity the living. And those who live without love.”

That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t curb the unyielding waves of calm to agony in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t bring her back. But it helps.

As it happens, I’m working on a project now that this experience broadens. About a young boy dealing with the loss of his older brother. I understand the character far more than I did a week ago. Much like him, I would do just about anything to have Maggie here again. To fill that void created by her absence. And to ultimately come to terms with the fact that she’s gone. That life goes on, just differently.

There will never be another Maggie. In the physical world her uniquness lives only in memory, in picture, in video. In the other world within the walls of my mind, in the realm of imagination that houses worlds and people that keep me company, she prowls and talks and sleeps and plays as she did here. She watches over me, fusses when I’m not attentive enough, gives me that whisper of a meow when I wake her up kissing her head, and stays by my side always.

It doesn’t take the hurt away. It doesn’t remove the fact I’ll never be able to pet her, to pick her up and put her over my shoulder, or to watch her sleep by my feet while I write. But it’s something. And, somehow, that will have to do.

20190617_111335

The Manic’s Guide to Connections

 

The moment he took the taser out of the case, I sat down and waited. I knew what came next. In that inexplicable sense of destiny, or fate, or the complete and utter understanding of my best friend/meta-sibling’s personality, there was nothing I could do to stop it. It took only, “I wonder what it feels like?” to inspire him into action. For three seconds, he held the charge against his arm, smile twisted in a blend of shock and amusement. Anyone else and I’m running to stop them. But this is the guy who covered his face in shaving cream in order to act like, I don’t know, a rabid Frankenstein or something, then wound up screaming his way down the hall because he hadn’t expected it to burn so badly. This is also the guy who filled a plastic container with butane, stuck his hand through the opening, lit a lighter, thereby (shock!) rendering his arm hair to curled, horrible smelling, reminders of what once was.

This is the smartest guy I know. No, truly, he’s brilliant. In fairness, this all took place over twenty years ago, so perhaps his judgment merely lost its battle against youthful curiosity. A fight we all remember losing more often than not.

I, myself, have lost that battle numerous times, predominantly in the pursuit of the ideal connection (a.k.a. Twoo Wove, a.k.a. Aphrodite, a.k.a. Zach’s Insane and Somewhat Naïve Quest for Completion). The trick—the part I always lose myself within—is getting beyond the initial connection and immediately attempting to translate that into some state of permanence. Some might call this a, “relationship”. I have called them, “oops, nope”. Still, I persist. After all, life can be whittled down to nothing more than an ongoing series of connections, right? Like the charge through my friend’s arm, we absorb the shock and it fills us. It enlivens the mind and heart; and, sure, it scares the hell out of us, but we do it anyway because stopping seems as likely as travelling through time in a DeLorean.

Speaking of which, I read an article regarding the activity of particles in relation to time. The prevailing theory the scientists presented stated that particles show behavioral patterns based on future events, working then backward through the complexity of what we know as “time” in order to reveal their true nature. Now, I have neither a chalkboard, chalk, nor Doc Brown’s manic energy to explain any of that; but it did get me thinking about the connections (and disconnections, for that matter) I have experienced in my life.

Perhaps, in this context, connections are actually echoes from the future. Perhaps we know we’ve met someone important in our lives because—as with the nature of particles—we’re seeing the result that will be instead of the emotion of the moment. Perhaps all of this is utter nonsense and merely an escapist means by which to avoid the reality of the patterns in my life.

Until recently, that pattern has gone like this: I find a connection, I feel alive. I have a sense purpose, completion, and a dingle-dangle twinkle of the ever-elusive surge of happiness. I dive headlong, the connection following my lead. The connection is strong, the pairing complex yet thriving on simplicity, the bond like, I don’t know, every metaphor for love ever stated. Something with flowers and sunshine, probably. Or waves across an otherwise silent beach. I could probably invent one that has to do with tacos, but it might make me hungry and then I’ll spin off into some tangent on cheese.

Mmmmm…cheese.

Anyway.

The point. Right. The non-cheese point is that every new connection thrives on the euphoria of discovery. The newness, the elation of two people sharing commonality and dreams. Ultimately, this wanes in favor of reality, personality, behavior, and the truth that some people just like to shock themselves with tasers to see what happens. And that’s okay. I didn’t know that. I was under some deluded impression that every connection required permanence. It had to last forever, otherwise what was the point? Not quite a shock to the arm, but I did do it to myself and marvel at the results.

Sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then the river of life leads you to drift you apart. Or, sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then no matter how much you want it to continue, the one you’ve connected with drifts away on their own, leaving you to wonder what in the hell of hells you did wrong.

And that’s okay too, I suppose. Everyone deals with this stuff in their own crazy ass ways.

I’m no atomic particle travelling backward through space and time, but regardless of outcome, I’ll take the connection, no matter the result. Sure, I have wants, needs, dreams I can’t shake no matter how hard I try; but I can’t be without connections. Which means I might need to fill the container with butane and burn my arm hairs off from time to time. I might need to shock myself just to see how it feels. I might even need to act like a rabid Frankenstein just to see who runs away first.

Life’s a crazy thing. May as well be a little crazy with it.

I Have No Idea

Let me just hit you with a bit of shocking, unedited, truth so we can move on: I have no idea what I’m doing. Ever. I’ll give you a moment to digest that. It’s big, I know.

All good now? Maybe keep a glass of the bubbly handy, if not. In testament to my general lack of direction and understanding, I’m just winging this. Kind of a stream-of-consciousness type thing, if you will. That can be problematic for me.

I make no secret of the stupid things I’ve done in life. I’ve listed many of them here over the years and had a good laugh at myself in the process. Should you wish to know more about me and the stupid things I’ve done, take some time out of your busy schedule, keep the glass full, and have a read. I don’t know whether that’s a wise recommendation, or not; but as that keeps with the theme of the day, we’ll go with it.  Have fun. I’m a bit of a likable idiot, in that, “Oh, my, what brand of stupidity will he be a slave to today?” kind of way.

I don’t plan much of anything. Sure, I dream and fixate, handle my desire as if it were the most valuable gem in existence, then fall apart when it drops and smashes into cosmic dust; but I never truly have what one might call, “a plan”. As I understand it, life takes a good bit of prognostication, should one wish to excel within it. Ask me how the Braves will do this year, and I’ll give you a prediction. Ask me how my latest book, venture, or attempt at a relationship, will go and you get ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. My father asked me, after I graduated high school, to draft up a five-year plan for life so he could go over it with me. I moved out the next day. Not a plan. Just a reaction. Pure gold.

There is a reason I identify with Tigger

So, as we sit here together, please do keep in mind I have no actual plan for this. Any of this. I tend to operate better at this stage in my life if I cling to each word and watch where it takes me. Any effort to create a visual end point will only carry me off track. We don’t want that. Well, I don’t want that. I can’t presume to speak for you. You’re not here. I can’t see you. I have no idea what you’re thinking at this moment. Perhaps if I did I might consider my words more carefully, or generate something more akin to a point. Something like a plan, maybe? A loose sort of dangly string of a point? Something you can wrap your fingers around, just as a reminder there is a point to it somewhere? I don’t know. Just spitballing.

I’m a patient person. I can’t say this developed from my lack of planning, or if my lack of planning developed out of my patience. There’s a link there, I’m sure. One seems as connected to the other as an appendage to the body. You’d think they would work in concert at all times, but it wouldn’t be true. Truth is my patience is more like this … whatever it is I’m doing now. It has an end, somewhere. Could be the next sentence, could be another 1,000 words from now. Depends on what fuels it, how the line of Reece’s Pieces leads it from the shed and into the house. I would prefer the line of candy, honestly. Hell, I guess I’d prefer anything to nothing.  It’s a great deal easier to be patient with something guiding it, right? Regardless, I am patient because I want to see the point of it all. I want to watch the sunset to the day, to feel the warmth of the sky as the horizon blankets the light, as the clouds blush, as night takes the stage. That’s why I wait. Who needs to plan for that? In the moment, you just get to be in it. Sure, there’s the potential for clouds to move in, for the sky to diffuse the brilliance of the sun’s farewell, for any number of distractions to prevent full enjoyment of the moment; but I’ll take any chance on the potential for a glorious sunset I can find. The payoff is worth it, even if disappointment and life’s persistent clamor can occasionally blunt the joy.

That may best sum me up, actually. I’m looking for the perfect sunset. I believe it will happen at some point, but I may need to see far more sunsets than I can process to get there. I have no idea how many. For that matter, I have no idea what ‘perfect’ is. I have no idea what I’ll do in the moment I realize I’ve found it. I can wait, however, because the sunset keeps trying. I can be patient because each day I know it will return and try again. I can put effort into waiting on it because I know it will put effort into setting. And when the moment comes, when the sun and I find perfection together, it will own me and every ounce of my passion for it. That’s as much planning as I can muster, and in the end it’s less planning than it is a fait accompli. In the context of time and space, it’s already happened. I’m just bumbling my way toward it.

I tend overthink that which I do not know. It’s a product of an imaginative mind contemplating a path to the perfect sunset. I’ve tried to stop it, but the theater of dreams won’t close. I’m not sure how I afford it. The power bill is staggering. Most of my life I’ve overthought situations, emotions, interactions, you name it. Anything and everything beyond the bounds of what I know as fact. I don’t profess to have the answers. I have no idea what will happen next. I only know I want to find that perfect sunset; and when I do, I’m willing to make the most of every second it offers.

In the meantime, until I know what I need to know, I’m going to patiently do and say a lot of stupid things.

Just so you know.

Ruminations of the Reluctant Superhero

Recently, I was dubbed the Man of Zeal by a woman who is, by her actions and heart alone, a superhero. I thought it a comical title for a good three minutes until it occurred to me she wasn’t all that far off. I am, by nature, a zealous person, running around half-cocked on a mission to salvage some sense of purpose in this thing called life. Some times the quest pursues the fantasy list of happiness and dreams only an idiot–this one in particular–would dare expect to realize, the rest to serve those around me. The two entwine, often, but generally I find the latter balances out the failures of the former. In the end, though, I just like to help people. I like to be there when they need an ear, a voice, a shoulder, a heart, some muscle, whatever. It’s what I do.

I never stopped to consider why. I never questioned if I should let someone else handle it. I just did what my heart told me and hoped to hell it didn’t break me. I have no idea if this is healthy, if this is sane, or if it even matters. I know I’ve been taken advantage of. I know it’s blown up in my face from time-to-time. I know I’ve overreached when help wasn’t necessary. And still, I trudge on, zealous in my quest to do something, somewhere, anywhere, for anyone I can.

I imagine that sounds a bit braggadocious. I’m certainly no superhero. As far as I know it, superheroes tend to succeed more often than fail in their endeavors. That alone disqualifies me. However, that isn’t the bait on the hook here. The above is merely a train of thought leading to the station ahead. To narrow the field a bit: It’s only just now in life occurred to me that I never looked for any return of this way I have. I wanted it, somewhere within. Some quiet place where my brain sat idle in its desk, hand raised, patiently waiting to be called upon. Could very well be why my relationships have blown up, or why I don’t have a deep circle of friends to visit or hang out with regularly. No idea. I guess it’s irrelevant to me.

Truth is, I don’t worry about it. It doesn’t inherently change who I am. This is the way I’ve chosen to live my life, and I’m good with it. I’m at peace with it.

But it got me to considering the others out there. You know them. They’re in your life. The people who do, not for gain or reward but because someone needs to. The people who call, text, message, visit, invite you to coffee just to see how you’re doing. The people who aren’t asking for anything in return. They just want to help. Some will consider their motives suspect. Some might find annoyance in their do-goodery. Generally, however, they are beacons of light in an otherwise dim moment. You know exactly who they are.

So, should you actually be one of the ten or twelve people who read this, I ask of you a simple task: Find the superhero in your life. Thank them. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them if they need any help with anything, or need to talk life and its myriad challenges, or would just like to sit silently with someone and have some coffee or food or whatever and not feel as though they fight the good fight alone. Don’t let them turn the conversation on you. For one day, one moment, one blink of an eye, be their hero. It will fuel them more than you know.

It’s Only Funny When You Don’t Die

I once drove 7,500 miles in a circle.

Technically, it was only a circle if you’re two-years-old, have a box of crayons and a whole lotta wall awaiting your art. So, maybe it was more circle-esque, in that the start and end both coincided and it offered some sense of a looping line in between.

I had a number of wild ideas in my twenties. Most of them resulted in generous face-plants into walls inconveniently placed where doors should have been. Or it could have just been I had no directional awareness of where doors where supposed to be and a strange affinity for pain. On occasion, however, my wild ideas bore fruit. Bananas, mostly. A lemon or two. Nothing as exotic as a kiwi. Of course, I don’t really like kiwi. My associations with kiwi coincide with a time in which I thought dating a not so sane ex-stripper a fancy idea. That’s another kind of fruit altogether, however, but a decent explanation of both my dislike for kiwi and for running into metaphorical walls.

Where was I?

Oh, bad ideas. Right. So, I had this idea once that I should drive around the country in thirty days. Ambitious writer-type stuff. See what I see, live the life, draw words from the nectar of experience, write bold provocative words for the world to behold, stand proudly in fists-to-hips superhero pose. Not quite Jack Kerouac, at its core. More like Clark Griswold with a video camera instead of a family, and more ambition than actual plan. I didn’t so much as work on the logistics of the trip as dig my hands in the Lego box, toss things around, and scream OH MY GOD LEGOS YOU GUYS!

So, with the help of my Uncle Charles, I converted my pickup into a mobile hotel–complete with shelves, bed, topper that resembled the top of a square igloo, road atlas, all the sci-fi soundtracks any good sci-fi geek should own (yes, shut up), and left. I may have bought food. I can’t be certain. I don’t recall starving, so somewhere in there rest assured that Pringles, peanuts, or Combos made an appearance. Quality nutrition to fuel the soul of any spirited traveler. I figured I could find my way to various campsites along the unmarked, unplanned, who-the-hell-knows path and save a good bit of money avoiding hotels. REAL WRITER STUFF!

See, the thing is … the thing about “planning” that makes so much sense is you take the time to work out logistics, so that when you head out on the road for a month long trip around the country, you do so knowing whether or not you’re driving into the path of an oncoming hurricane on the first day of your journey. Small detail kind of stuff. What’s that? Oh, nothing. Just your average Category 4 nightmare bearing down on you. Hey, I made it six hours into my trip before needing a hotel. That has to count for something. All that prep and money invested on Hotel Truck really paid off! At least my vehicle had some height. Owners of the cars I passed, floating in their lagoons on side streets as they were, seemed terribly displeased with the situation. I probably would have been too, but I was too white-knuckled and desperate for a hill to pay much mind. Fortunately, not too far off I-10 I found a hotel, conveniently located at a higher point of elevation–for Florida this would be measured as ten to fifteen feet above People Level, since Sea Level is nothing short of a hopeless dream–where I watched the water level rise from the safe confines of a second-floor room.

By the way, have you ever seen a river flow from the sky? I have. It’s really fun.

Despite it all, and the odd dreams that night of being a fish trying to swim its way to Heaven, my truck did not float away. By a few inches, it managed to not get flooded, which is more than I can say for the guy in the Audi parked next to me. He was a sweet guy, for a man whose face flared with the focused rage of an insolent beet. I felt bad driving away as he tried to encourage his Insurance company that he didn’t drive into the pool this time.

The trip held it’s share of memories, not the least of which involved me, a couple of hours, a pig pen on the side of the road in the middle of Kansas, and a very one-sided conversation. Pigs really don’t have much to say, as it turns out. Fortunately, they fry up well.

Around Day 20, I found myself in Montana. At the time, my meta-dimensional secondary brother Jim lived in Livingston with his family. It was a long way from their previous home in Georgia, but with one look at the mountainous landscape, open sky, and brilliant Fall foliage I understood why they did it. Actually, that’s not true at all. I just wanted to talk about how beautiful it was. I’ve still never seen anything as majestic and breathtaking. But their reasons for moving were completely removed from the serenity of nature and more centrally fixated on the complete and utter lack of people. It was hoped that less people equaled less stupidity. Unfortunately, the equation doesn’t work that way. Though it would seem more people equals more stupidity, the truth is the percentage of stupidity in any group is always a constant. Spread fewer people out over a larger area, and they’re simply harder to find. They just account for a greater percentage of the required Stupid in the equation, and are therefore increasingly more stupid. Something like that. I don’t know. Jim’s father can explain it better. He rants on Stupid like know you’ve ever met.

Anyhow you rant it, I was there. Wanting to make the most of it on my behalf, Jim suggested we go hiking. Nothing extreme (that 10,000-foot peak came on the next trip). Just a small climb to the top of a waterfall. Didn’t matter that it was snowing. All the better even. More picturesque. Good for the trip’s documentary. So we headed out of town, camera recording the drive and the subsequent climb. Actually, it was great fun. Particularly the holy-hell-we’re-still-alive journey back down. After all, Jim did almost die at the top of the waterfall.

Funny thing about holding a video camera from the 90’s. They were big, heavy, and difficult to balance on your shoulder. Like holding a 24-pack of water bottles on its side. With one hand in the grip, and the other bouncing around in a vain attempt to offer support it could never manage, you were pretty much at its mercy. Sure, nostalgia is great, but the risk we took to record it was kind of, well, dumb. Especially when you’re trying to balance on an icy rock surface at the top of a waterfall. I give Jim credit. Both for offering to put my stubbly face on my trip documentary–of which it had not yet been–and also for maintaining a perfect cradle on my expensive equipment as his feet slipped out from underneath him and his body was suddenly no longer a part of the solid part of Earth. The recording went beautifully. After all, it was a really nice camera. One moment I was there, being the absurd and awkward fool I am in front of a camera, the next there’s a wonderful shot of the moon in daylight as Jim gives a subtle “oop” as he went airborne and a less subtle “oof” as he collided again with Mother Earth.

Here’s the kicker. What you should hear at this point is absolute panic. Screaming, calling Jim’s name, rushing to his side. Me, in frame, concerned for my best friend and meta-dimensional secondary brother. What you hear, instead, is me laughing. Hard. Jim, despite the ordeal, didn’t quit recording. A real trooper. Pure dedication. It’s just life after all. Better record it while you have it. He managed to sit up, find me, and then recount the harrowing tale of something that just happened as if I had not been there to witness it. To which, through my continued laughter, I offered in defense, “It’s only funny because you didn’t die.”

What still disturbs me to this day is how genuine my words were. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t sugarcoat it. I just said what I knew as a truth at that moment. Because Jim didn’t propel himself off the waterfall, instead falling flat on his back and in notable pain, I could laugh. Because his choice to protect my camera over an effort to brace himself during a fall didn’t result in horrible splatter death … funny. And I wonder what that means about me. About my perspective. Life is only funny until you die? A joke is only funny until it’s over? A hurricane is only funny unless it’s carrying you away kicking and screaming? Does this indicate derangement? Have I been on some type of lifelong psychotic bender?

Or was it just really funny?

It’s a fair question. I mean, America’s Funniest Home Videos made a living off poor schmucks whose kids accidentally whacked them in the nuts and people laughed at that. On some level, isn’t possible that children who might have been born will no longer? It’s not death per se, but a lack of opportunity at life. In fact, the Christian Coalition should look into whether or not it’s some type of pre-meditated sex-free abortion.  Not so funny anymore is it? If these poor schmoes died of testicular raculation it wouldn’t be funny either. Why? Because they died. See? It’s only funny when you don’t die.

An Accidental Identity Crisis

Twenty-three seconds into the accident, the nascent writer Joshua Alexander jumped for joy. Concentrating on the significant damage to the bumper of my Explorer proved challenging amidst the ever-maddening screams of “THIS IS MY MOMENT! I HAVE ARRIVED!” The poor kid who pulverized his car with my bumper, some student from George Washington University home on break, apologized repeatedly for his lapse in attention; though to be fair, I’m still not sure if he directed it to me or to the crumpled remains of his car. I consoled him, insomuch as I was capable with all the celebratory screaming coming from Joshua. To his credit, the kid remained stoic, clearly at war with the beside-himself-father in his head, taking complete blame when the officer arrived, while I stood at the back of my vehicle analyzing the damage.

“This is great. Fantastic. The best thing that could have happened.”

I countered that, citing that car accidents are not great watermarks of joy for anyone. Not that Joshua cared.

“This will pay for the conference. You should thank that kid.”

I hadn’t considered that. Granted, my bumper looked a bit as if the horrors of life had consumed its soul, leaving its remains to melt into a perpetual frown.

“It’s just a bumper. What do you even need it for?”

As far as I could tell, the moment offered an example as to the primary reason bumpers existed. If I learned anything from Bumper Cars as a kid it was to never play Bumper Cars with my older brother. He had this fixation on ejecting me from my car, or better, the entire ring. Of course, he also had a fixation with swinging me in circles from an arm and leg until my glasses flew off and I started crying, so maybe the Bumper Cars weren’t the issue. In the moment, however, I found my first appreciation for the lessons those ricocheting cars offered.

Still, I had a hard time arguing the point. It was just a bumper. What’s a bumper in comparison to a week’s worth of writing education that would certainly land me a contract with a publisher? Three days later, when the Insurance adjuster handed me a check for $1,100, Joshua’s elation caught up to me. The internal war began. Bumper vs. bills vs. writing conference. Bumper lost in the opening round, if for no reason than it shut Joshua up for a while, and the worst it could do was follow me wherever I drove, its downward slope of sadness perhaps warding off any other unwanted visitors. Bills … those were a trickier obstacle. Apparently, those are supposed to be paid? That’s what I’ve heard. Somewhere.

I guess I should probably mention I had quit my job three months prior in order to write a book. That seems important, in context. Bills and all. Sudden money at hand and the like. A lack of employment certainly made income a pestering nuisance in relation to actually paying for things. You know, the important things like bills. Food. Collectible Star Wars figures. Even writing conferences. Especially those lasting a week long and costing a thousand dollars. An amount I happened to have in my bank thanks to a careless kid fiddling with his radio at forty miles-per-hour as his car rudely greeted the stopped Explorer in its path.

Maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job, I thought for the one-hundred and thirty-first day in a row. As decisions went to this point in life, it ranked up there with the best of Not Good. Sure, I finished a first draft of the book (two if you count the less than stellar 1st person draft I finished in 21 days), and by the time the conference rolled around two months later I would have a good edit complete. The timing fit. The conference–my first ever–would offer me a chance to pitch it to agents and New York Times bestselling author David L. Robbins, who would be the judge in a fiction contest. My book, Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO was good, by my estimates. Okay, so I thought it was perfect. Something to behold. To cherish. To love and to squeeze and to call George. Surely the agents would agree and the whole suffering for my art thing would be worth it, just as I had envisioned. That singular dream in which I quit my job, wrote a book, went to a conference and BLAMMO … agent. Agent would become Publishing Contract. Publishing Contract would equal Advance. Advance would balance out Voluntary Unemployment. Success would follow.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

Did I have a choice? Sure. I had many. Many, many, many, many of which began the day before I quit my job. Did it feel like it? No. No, between Joshua’s screaming and my inability to see the world of possibility as more than a single light at the end of a short road, the Universe basically sat on my head, declared itself the Master of My Destiny and urged the chariot onward. All of this wouldn’t have happened otherwise, right? Everything happens for a reason, after all.

RIGHT YOU ARE UNIVERSE!

Fueled by the need to risk it all, to bypass sanity in favor of chance (LIVE NOW FOOL!), I registered for the conference and submitted the first fifty pages of my manuscript for the contest.

Sort of.

Technically, yes? Officially … not so much.

The thing is … the thing I should mention is how incredibly tired of me I had become. I saw myself every day. In the mirror, staring back for that brief flash before looking away, lest I thought myself some kind of creepy pervert offering longing glances from the other side of the glass. I talked to myself incessantly daily (yeah, yeah talked … that’s the ticket), whether I wanted to hear me or not. I cooked for myself, cleaned for myself, got sick of my needy self and needed a break.

So, I sent Joshua Alexander to the conference. I’m not sure if I thought he would generate better results, or if it would simply be nice to not be me for a week. Truthishly, I can’t really recall a specific thought of why I should do such a thing. Maybe I took a back seat to the process and Joshua jumped in. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m just weird like that, I suppose.

Regardless of reason–and likely absent it as well–I made my way to the conference full of cheer and lofty dreams, toting my completed manuscript in a wooden box as if it were the lost Ark of the Covenant. I checked in under my name since Joshua, for all of his robust enthusiasm, still lacked both an ID and a bank account, settled in and made off for the Opening Remarks with another hundred plus writers. All of whom were likely themselves because they were smart that way. I sat next to a behemoth of a figure–a tall, muscular man stretched out across two chairs. As I have established, socializing is not my strong point. Joshua, on the other hand, seemed to have no issue with the complexity of Hello and jumped right in.

“Hi. Joshua Alexander.”

Good for you, Josh. Well done.

The man shifted, shook my hand, introduced himself as David L. Robbins and immediately launched into praise for my submission, about how he had planned on finding me to discuss it, and stating his wonder at the luck we would sit next to each other.

It’s possible, at this point, I considered dropping the Joshua persona to ensure Mr. David L. Robbins, New York Times bestselling author, knew who I really was. I offer the possibility of such a though only because I don’t particularly recall if I though much of anything at all. Not with Joshua in charge.

THIS IS MY MOMENT.

So, I let him run with it. Let him talk throughout the Welcome, carrying the conversation onward into my work, its strengths and weakness, the nuances of the craft of writing, echoing David’s belief that conferences were vital to the growth of a writer, and I don’t know, tacos or something. It went on for hours. The next day David even invited me to go watch him golf in between sessions. I became the envy of the entire conference, buddied up to David like a excitable, loyal, puppy. Everyone knew my name, curious about what I wrote, how I had managed to so quickly win the favor of such a notable author.

They were the best two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

They were, in fact, the only two days of Joshua Alexander’s life.

On day three, David woke up and decided to invite good ole chum Joshua to breakfast. Strange thing though. The front desk had no room for a Joshua Alexander. David insisted they were wrong. Had them check and check again, taking potential misspellings into account. Nope. No Joshua. Confused and slightly embarrassed, David fell into full research mode, following the trail of Joshua Alexander to one Zachary Steele, in room whateverever. He called me. He grilled me. Questioned what reason a man with my name would possibly have to go under any other name, then laughed at me. For the rest of the week. As he told each and every person about the ludicrous tale of Zachary “Joshua Alexander” Steele. For the next few months, as we kept lines of communication open. For the next few years as our friendship grew, as he became a mentor to me as a writer. To this day, some sixteen years later, as the memory pops up and he needs a good laugh at my expense. His last words on this planet to me may very well be, “Tell Joshua I said hi.”

I will always accept life as a never-ending ride of Cause and Effect. For instance, I make really odd decisions, the effect of which tends to rail off into the deep recess of Shitsville. I get to relive them, marvel over them, and perhaps even grow from them, but damn. Just damn.

Every once in a while, despite myself, I get to follow a train of Cause and Effect that isn’t all bad in the end.

I quit my job to write a book, with the express purpose of getting said book published, thereby jump starting my career and minimizing the damage caused by Voluntary Unemployment. In order to facilitate this, I decided I should go to a conference to get noticed. Unable to afford said conference due to having no job, I made use of accidental money to fund my way. I changed my name for no reason, met the author I wanted to meet, made a sizable impression both due to my work and the fundamental identity crisis masquerading as me, and made a friend of David L. Robbins. David created James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia, invited me behind the scenes, to their conference, gave me time with other notable authors (um, hi there Tom Robbins) and awesome people, and taught me the craft. All of which made me a better writer. Fueled by the need for more, the hunger to be better in all aspects of life, I made other questionable decisions, one of which netted me a bookstore I called Wordsmiths Books. During my tenure as owner of Wordsmiths, I met a publisher interested in Anointed. She published it. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a good review. My career as a writer found first gear.

THIS IS MY MO … oh, wait. No.

SEVEN YEARS FROM … is that right? Seven years? Sevenish years, you say? Right.

SEVEN PLUS YEARS FROM NOW WILL BE MY MOMENT.

Sometimes the wrong way can be right. Just, like, way longer.

The Silent Note of the Running Boy

In the words of the reality firestorm that is renowned chef, entrepreneur, cheeky Brit and Tantrum King of the World, Gordon Ramsay, “Here’s the thing.”

I know I’m not dumb. I am, I will acknowledge, a few sprinkles shy of a full spread of shredded cheese on the taco of common sense, but I’m not dumb. Hey, I made all A’s in fifth grade. Not exactly A Brilliant Mind level accomplishment there, but it’s notable. Sure, I misspelled parsley in the school spelling bee, denied the notably visible crush I had on a girl who liked me quite a lot—to her face no less—and chartered my socially awkwardness bus of one onward to middle school with no sign of let up, but I made excellent grades. What did you do?

Point is, I rather like the mad festival of characters that comprise the committee of my brain. I would prefer they come to some consensus on what they ultimately want of me, but they do entertain me so. That has to count for something.

The problem is—the thing that has made my journey through this life so frustrating—I chastise my brain regularly as if it operates individual of the Me that is me, while moving through each moment like a spastic terrier in a thunderstorm. Can’t really blame the brain if I’ve soundproofed its walls, right? I’ve developed this utopian idea of what the world around me should look like and, ignoring my brain’s insistence I step clear of the cabin and move to the back of the plane please sir, I’ve gone ahead and bypassed the computer in order to pilot from the toilet.

In no aspect of my life has this whimsical spontaneity of questionable choice (see? not dumb … questionable … whimsical spontaneity) been more apparent than in my desperate quest to find the perfect woman. I want to say love here, rather than woman but it doesn’t fit the mold. Because, like any good writer, I’ve embodied this woman with a character, a persona, a name by which I might better define her. I call her Aphrodite. I know. Clever, right? Real original. She’s been at the forefront of every decision I’ve ever made, deeply ingrained in every story I’ve ever written. Moreover, she’s become a beacon to the greater dreams of life, thus rendering the name Aphrodite to a branding effort of all things I desire. Primarily, I seek her companionship. Tragically, every aspect of my life has fallen miserably short. Allow me to demonstrate. This tidbit is the into to my current work-in-progress, tentatively titled On the Market:

     When night comes she falls asleep on my couch, hand tucked between face and pillow, crumpled folds of cheek powdered and soft in the moon glow, and I see Aphrodite. There’s a peaceful chaos to her hair, a darkness that betrays the night, finds refuge across a pale canvas of forehead and slips unnoticed behind an ear. She smiles, not much, a simple turn now and again, just a glance behind the curtain. Not enough to comprehend what is seen, but enough to know that whatever it is beats whatever dream I may conjure behind closed doors. 

      She’s a queen of beauty and magnificence when she sleeps, this Aphrodite before me. Time can only grant me a glimpse, I know, until sleep has abandoned her, until her body goes rigid, arms outstretched, fingers flexing, uncoiling, reaching for a heart that is not my own. Then she’ll flash that smile, say my name and never realize how much she makes me quiver. I’ll go weak in the knees, and know that I will love her forever.

Though I understand now how this image has trickled down into every nook and cranny of my desire, I channeled it all for years into this hopelessly romantic ideal of a perfect mate. I simply had to find her. I had to be complete. I put it all on the unwitting shoulders of every woman in my life in order to make it so.

From pretty, shirt-signing, Lori in third grade onward, every female I’ve fallen for has been unwittingly and unfairly compared to this image.

Hey, did you know my relationships haven’t gone well? I wonder if there’s a link? Probably not. Just life stickin’ it the man.

man-around-wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The great irony is that, as a child, I went about pursuing every girl I liked as if things would work out fine, as long as I just never ever talked to her ever ever. I mean, I made no secret about liking a girl. If my repeated stares didn’t cover it, my insistence on giving said girl a note to define said liking then sprinting off as if I had just dropped a ticking time bomb in her hands spelled it out without question. Granted, in the few instances in which I spilled my soul to a girl who actually liked me, the resulting connection was one of her trying to talk to some paralyzed, non-responsive, version of myself. I swear ladies, I thought you all were a different species. I feared any measure of contact, verbal or heaven-forbid physical, would result in complete annihilation of self and soul. This lasted all the way through high school. It got mildly better as an adult.

To deal with this, I began subconsciously (I’m leaning on hope here, otherwise I have to admit it was by choice) sabotaging my efforts to find a girlfriend by fixating on girls who clearly had no interest in me (if they even knew my name in the first place, which most didn’t), while simultaneously ignoring any girl I truly liked. I wrote notes to girls I knew would never respond. I wrote one to a girl who—I was told by a friend sitting near her on the bus—laughed her way through it with friends. Yay me! I actually spoke to girls with whom I clearly had nothing in common, fishing for any kind of attention, blinders set to the rest of the school’s female population in order to maintain my focus. I was thirty-five before I learned most of these girls actually liked me. You know … liked me liked me.

In tenth grade, I moved in with my father. The shift from small town Florida to small town Georgia wasn’t much of a transition. Leaving the one friend I had behind hardly registered. In fact, I don’t even remember being at all fazed by the move initially, other than missing my mother terribly. My brain might have had issues with it all, but I wasn’t listening.

My first day at school I made my way to First Period, drifting down the hall of a foreign land like a fading cloud against blue skies, ducked into class and found a seat in the second to last row, three seats from the front. I would have tucked all the way into the corner had other students not beaten me to it. About two minutes after I sat, a girl walked in the room. The second Lori life offered for me to crush on. Dark curly hair, incredible smile, piercing eyes, absolutely beautiful. To this day, I still think she’s one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. She sat in the last row, two seats further up. First bell hadn’t even rung and there she was. Aphrodite.

Any normal kid might have thought about talking to her, introducing himself, finding some way to at least say hello. After all, we were going to be in class together for a few months. Plenty of opportunity to get to know one another, right? Nope. I sat there through that class learning everything I could about her without ever saying a word. I mean, I didn’t say a word. To anyone. I managed to channel my inner-chameleon just to ensure the teacher never called on me. What a crushing blow to the universe it would have been had she actually heard what my voice sounded like.

Though I carried this quiet crush through the whole of the next three years—we managed to be paired in exactly zero classes going forward—I never spoke to her. Sure, I watched for her, put myself in positions where I could see her from afar (ahem, yes I will cover the football and basketball teams for the paper, conveniently watching from seats near the cheerleaders, ahem), but I didn’t do that whole Hello, my name is Awkward how can I make you run away? thing I feared so much. Instead, I actively pursued all the girls whose primary talent or hobby seemed to be syphoning my soul into a tin can and crushing it whole. There really were a lot of them. I got quite adept at it, in fact. Practice does indeed make perfect.

Now, this isn’t meant as a lament. I don’t regret not talking to this one girl. Well, I do, but for different reasons. I don’t fear I may have lost my singular chance with Aphrodite. Rather, I want it to serve as the foundation for the stories that follow. Though I’ve made my life into a continual barrage of “whimsical spontaneity of questionable choice”, they’ve all been tied to this quest for Aphrodite, how that became a greater symbol of all that I desired, and every single one is relevant to this moment. This one instance in which I didn’t talk to a girl I liked, while actively talking to and pursuing girls I liked far less (and who all bested my less than like with none at all). Or, as an adult, choosing women unavailable, be that emotionally, physically, or romantically and attempting to force them into the wedge that defined Aphrodite no matter how much they subconsciously protested.

As I said, I’m not a dumb guy. I just want a designed perfection in life that defies true definition and requires only one possible truly glorious and dream-worthy outcome in order to pacify my need to be happy.

That’s normal, right?