Archive for February, 2013

The Next Big Thing

My friend Megan Stielstra, author of Everyone Remain Calm and bestower of good news emails, asked if I wanted to partake in a blog chain going around amongst writers called The Next Big Thing. You agree to answer a ten-question form, then get 3-5 other writers to participate. The idea is not just to drum up support for our works in progress but to see what our writer friends are up to. Here’s Megan’s Big Thing.

As writers we don’t have a water cooler where we can meet at during the day to share our frustrations or boast of our minor breakthroughs. Few nonwriters could understand why you’d be bragging about finally nailing that key transitional paragraph. That’s what I’m taking from The Next Big Thing.

1. What is your working title of your book?

The Affairess

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Moving from the city to the suburbs, taking the 6:20 am express train, and seeing the same woman get dropped off by her husband at the train stop, then meeting her lover three stops later on the train. That might be fiction. I don’t know. Definitely from riding the commuter rail from the suburbs to the city. And feeling grateful for the first time to be at least underemployed.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Romance and humor. A student classified a writer as such tonight in class and I loved that. Bleak romance and dark humor.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Bugs Bunny doing both genders.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Lying to his wife about losing his job, a man about to lose everything finds inspiration in the woman having an affair on the train.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will have a  box-o-books with my name on the spine delivered to my door. I will have validation. Preferably in cash.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Tinkered around in the dark of winter, saw the light, wrote it in the summer. Came quick once I heard it. Three months. Read excerpts from six chapters last year at various reading series. Started third major rewrite in January 2013. Expect to be done in March, then writing group again, then my wife the ringer, then submitted by summer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t much like Updike yet Lyle has some Rabbit characteristics. The suburban pageantry and the economic collapse dovetail into characters who are estranged from themselves by the lies they perpetuate to assert a sense of identity. Earlier draft had the Affairess jumping in front of a train, so there’s some subconscious Anna Karenina. Sans threshing of the wheat. Takes place in February, the longest month of the year for Chicagoans, so it feels Russian at times, but with hope.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It was fun. Then it became something that was saying something. I didn’t hold it in the same make-or-break regard as my first (unpublished) book, which was personal and which had to be perfect(it isn’t). This was pure (see #1)fiction, a daily discovery that led to creation, and it was fun. The inspiration was not thinking about the old novel anymore (still do).

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’s a disturbing blow job scene.

NEXT UP:

Gint Aras, author of Finding The Moon in Sugar, editor of the Marriage section of the Good Men Project, professor at Morton Community College.

Amy Guth, author of Three Fallen Women, Social Media Manager at Tribune Media Company, RUI co-host.

Scott Miles, Pushcart-Prize nominated writer and author of The Downriver Horseshoe.

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On Death, Loneliness, and Goldfish

On Death, Loneliness, and Goldfish

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Addressing Death, as a Parent and a Son

On Death Loneliness and Goldfish

Talking to my kids about death was the first step in listening to the loneliness evoked by loss

Day three of single parenting and I want to do something big after picking up the kids from school. Something fun. Something social. Anything but go back to the house and its static winter silence.

Seems like a big weekend. The schoolyard buzzing with weekend plans. Some of my first grader’s friends and their dads rushing to their first overnight adventure as Cub Scouts. I was a little envious. Not of their plan, but of having a plan at all.

The daddy-daughter dance is the next night. Weeks earlier, she shot me down. You’d think the terror of embarrassment would’ve ended with high school. It might’ve been my method, casually over breakfast instead of getting down on a knee and handing her a bowl of chocolate ice cream with an invitation inscribed in sprinkles. Might not have mattered. She’d seen me “dance” to Led Zeppelin one too many times. Once is one too many times.

On the walk home, usually my favorite part of the day where we dawdle and play and recap our days, the old loneliness settled in. Amidst these people I see everyday, in the hometown I returned to for the community, I don’t know anyone well enough—or convenient enough—to call up and play, adults and kids, together and separate. Or for those with plans, I projected these fantastic family adventures with parents who would probably appreciate my night of nothing. Doesn’t matter that we had a two-night ski trip the weekend before. This illogical mood deepens because I’m inadequate not just socially but as a parent; I haven’t given the kids an option either. But this isn’t the source I’m avoiding. They want their mom and I want my best friend, who has gone home to Philly where her grandmother, who raised her like a daughter, had been waiting to die.

So we went home. Put a cork in my self-pitying bullshit. Played hockey in the basement, fiddled with Legos. Amused ourselves. This is what I wanted—a distraction from the self-examination evoked by death; from the seeking—for meaning, connection, validity, whatever—that results from loneliness.

God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

That morning, after breakfast, I told the kids that GG died. Their adaptability to any news amazes me, but it was their understanding that floored me. When I said she was in heaven, Ria, who was doted on as much as any great grandmother could, corrected me: “No, Dad, she’s in here,” touching her chest, “and over here,” gesturing over her shoulder, smiling coyly before running off.

I didn’t know my son was feeling anything until dinner tonight.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, Ria? You should be sad.”

From the range I was about to interject but then heard him say, “I almost cried this morning.”

“You did?” I asked, treading carefully.

“Kinda. My eyes got all hot.”

We talked about what happened–and what happens–over quesadillas. They were worried about Mom. She didn’t think GG would die. She had gone out there to boost her spirits and get her out of the hospital, show videos and tell stories of the kids, a strategy that had worked a half-dozen times before. Not this time. A day after Heather’s arrival, GG demanded hospice. She was tired of fighting, I told them.

They mentioned the fish. Just last week, Heather, a heart nurse who never lets anything go, took multiple trips to the pet store and the library and Google to resuscitate one of our four goldfish, who’d been hovering near the top of the tank, alive but unswimming. Diagnosis: swim bladder. Lots of causes, one remedy: Gotta feed the fish manually. Fish refused all her ministrations. Next morning, dead. There was a eulogy. I played TAPS. Flush. Best thing about those fish is teaching the kids the cycle of life.

I didn’t share with them the text Heather had sent at 2:20am, not three hours before GG passed:

“Fish with swim belly. GG with a clot in her belly. A Nor’ Easter named Nemo whirling outside this tank of a hospice room. Maybe God does have a sense of humour.”

Aside from autocorrect being British, we glean that God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

The connection they made with the fish blew my mind. We shared memories, we made lists of things we remembered, we facetimed with the Philly folk. What I couldn’t explain to the kids, what I’ve slowly been coming to all day, is this idea of loneliness. It is this reconciliation I wanted to avoid tonight, or at least forestall by surrounding myself with life. What is loneliness if not the consciousness of death? The fear of death is the fear of being alone; it’s why the faiths are filled with promises of eternal communion: believe in me and you will never walk alone.

This is Heather’s first major death, which is made even tougher for a woman who keeps people from dying for a living. It doesn’t matter that GG, who lived 82 years and with whom we were able to share her last Thanksgiving, whose hand Heather got to hold and say goodbye to, went out in an ideal way, quickly and in her sleep. Doesn’t matter. Now comes what my brother calls The Hardening.

It’s been 16 years since our mom died. She was 52. I was 21. My first major. Subsequent grievings are involuntarily compared to and pale to it. Maybe it’s that way with mothers. I hope to know nothing more about it. She had two remissions over three years then an interminable hospice. When her physical form finally passed I was free. I traveled, then I returned when the loneliness shifted from beautiful to dangerous. With each sojourn I’d get more distance, building up the confidence to live without anyone, making no commitments and keeping no connections. Being on my own, fully and freely, meant I could live without that insatiable, capricious pain of loss. Being alone meant I was in control. It didn’t take long to reconcile that trying to live without love sucks. That love leads to loss and loss leads to pain. The Hardening is the mature acceptance of our mortality, the resignation to all things transient, and learning to embrace the pain of loss.

It will be a while before Heather’s sets. The acuteness will fade but the hole will never disappear. It’s not something to get over; the feeling of loss—what we call loneliness—is something you come to appreciate as a reminder of what was there. I remind her of this via text, middle of the night, but I’m really reminding myself so I can better frame it for the kids, or better understand life and loss now as a father and a son. When we share pictures, we tell stories, we play out memories, however clumsily, we are listening to that hole of loss, listening to what it is saying. That hole is the sound of loneliness. It is a good thing; not an easy thing, most certainly not a bad thing. We must listen. Because the alternative is silence.

—first appeared at the Dads & Families section of the Good Men Project

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