It’s Almost Midnight

I should be sleeping.

It’s 11:39 p.m. as I start this blog, and I’m going to need to get up in two hours and then again four hours after that.

I should be sleeping.

Instead, here I am, writing, because I can’t shut off my mind.

Upstairs, my mother lies in our bed.  Earlier this evening, she tripped over the entrance to her home and went down hard on her right shoulder.  She snapped the bone about three inches down from her shoulder.  Apparently the bone then slid under, then up into her armpit.  I can’t imagine how painful that must have been.

She’s 84.

And now, she’s staying with us.  And I worry, because both I and my wife work full time.  Neither of us will be able to adequately look after her.  She’s a stubborn woman and she won’t slow down for this, even though she’s been told to basically not move it for at least a week.  How do I know?  Because mere minutes after being told that, she was trying to get back to her house to get a bunch of stuff.  She’s not going to stay still.  It’s not in her nature.

So, instead of sleeping, I worry.

And I wonder why, after she fell, she called a few people, including me.  I live a solid half hour’s drive away from her.  It never occured to her to call 911.  My wife had to from another line while I stayed on the phone with her, trying to get her to not worry about dinner being ruined in the oven, or the friend she had coming over, or one of several other things.  Why would she call around instead of calling 911?

And that gets me worrying even more.

I worry about the thing that all children worry about.  What happens if my parents can no longer look after themselves?

I worry about the thing that all parents worry about.  What happens if I can no longer look after myself one day?

I don’t ever want to be a burden to my kids.  I don’t ever want to be that old person that only talks of how sick their friends are, or how many of their friends have died.  I don’t want to be that old person that no one wants to listen to, because all their conversations revolve around aches, pains, sickness and death.  I don’t want those things to encompass my world.  I don’t want them to define me.

My mother is doing well for her age.  Overall, she’s very healthy, her mind is quite clear and she’s extremely independent and self-sufficient.

But when things like this happen, you see a different side of your parents.  As a child, I’m used to needing my parent, not the other way around, and, though I’m 48 and should have wrapped my head around this a long time ago, I have not yet.  I’ve been lucky.  My mother’s been lucky.

Sooner or later, however, that luck runs out.  For all of us.

Funny how, just this morning, I was looking at all the good that we can learn from those who came before us.  And now, here I am in another mindset altogether, wondering how long it will take before I become more of a burden than a benefit to my own kids.

I’m sure my mother’s going to be fine, and this is simply the initial shock of the injury, the concern at seeing her in pain, seeing the exhaustion in my wife’s face from being that strong one for the past several hours.  Still, I can’t help, when I look in my mother’s face tonight, to feel my own mortality.

I can’t help but realize that young, immortal man that I was, seemingly so little time ago, is now past middle age.  I’m realizing, with the passing of my uncle, with my mom’s injury, that I’m not immortal.  I never was.

I said this morning that it’s times like this when it’s easy to question why we put so much effort in for so little reward.  I guess, the other side of that is, I don’t want to be the one that’s causing a lot of effort and not rewarding it somehow for my kids, for my loved ones.  One of my cousin’s commented on my last blog, saying they wished they could be 10 years old again, because life was so much less complicated.

Tonight, I couldn’t agree with her more.  Tonight, I would take 10 years old.  Tonight, I would take uncomplicated…

It’s midnight now.  And it strikes me how bleak the world can seem in the middle of the night when there’s no one around to tell you different.

I’m sure I’ll be much better in the morning.  I’ll have had time to regroup, to plan things out.

But right now, morning seems a long way off.

I should be sleeping.

Instead, I worry.

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My Uncle Merle

My Uncle Merle passed away last Friday. He’s been on my mind much of the weekend.

What will follow will not be a eulogy for him, because I didn’t know him well enough for that, nor do I want to do that sort of thing.  Nor am I qualified to do so. Instead, I wanted to get down my impressions of Merle. A last remembrance, if you will.

To me, Merle always was, and always will be, that white-haired man with the kindly face and slight smirk lifting one side of his mouth. A smirk that said various things. At times, the smirk said he had a joke, likely a dirty one, that he knew was going to make you laugh in spite of yourself. A smirk that said he was anticipating something funny to happen. A smirk that said he found amusement in many things in life. A smirk that told you he was always in on the joke.

It never was a smirk of condescension. It was always pleasant. A pleasant smile on a pleasant face.

He also had a voice in the deeper registers. When I was a young child, I found it intimidating, but as I grew older, it was a welcome, comforting voice. And though deep, it always carried a lilt of laughter.

It was the perfect voice for my next memory of Merle. He had a side business for years as a DJ – Merle’s Music. I still remember his business cards. But more than that, I remember all the family events that he hosted. You could always find him behind the turntables, a drink nearby, lit from the small lamps. I remember that deep voice coming on between songs to make an announcement, crack a joke, or announce the next song. There’s certain songs that have been incorporated into me, right into my DNA because of Merle.

The song that everyone did “The Slosh” to…Daniel Boone’s Beautiful Sunday.  Remember the song?

Hi <boom> hi <boom> hi <boom> beautiful Suuuuun-day

This is my <boom> my <boom> my <boom> beautiful da-a-ay!

Then there was Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Knock Three Times.

And Ringo Starr’s You’re Sixteen

And about a hundred other mid-70s hits that we’ve all forgotten. But Merle played them all. And there I was, a scrawny little kid, not yet in his teens, trying to act unimpressed at how uncool it all was, but secretly having a blast, my Uncle spinning all these great tunes.  I can’t hear one of them today without seeing his face.  And smiling.

The other memories I have of Uncle Merle was going over to his house. It was never the most spotless house you ever saw, but that never bugged me. He and Aunt Betty had a mess of girls to raise. I remember weekend afternoons in the main floor living room in the house. There always seemed to be a big pot of soup on in the kitchen that I always resisted eating, for some forgotten reason, but always loved once they’d plunked a bowl in front of me. That living room was where I read one of my first horror novels, THE RATS by James Herbert. I remember asking one of my cousins to explain the concept of “prologue” and “epilogue” to me. That room gave me my first glimpse into Mary Shelly’s original version of FRANKENSTEIN. The image of the monster on an ice floe still resonates almost forty years later.

It seemed like, in Merle’s house, there was always something to eat, something to laugh at, something to provoke your mind. That, to me, is a good house. That’s a home.

Downstairs in their rec room, funny enough, the thing that sticks out the most for me was that, though the basement was finished, there was this crazy metal support beam in the middle of the room that always seemed so incongruous to me.

Later on, Uncle Merle and Aunt Betty divorced and Merle moved into a different relationship with Nina. Around this time, we’d moved to Barry’s Bay, so I wasn’t seeing any of my aunts or uncles as regularly, and I was getting older. And everyone knows the world revolves around you when you’re seventeen. So I didn’t have much time for others.

Sadly, that’s where a lot of my memories of Merle end, as we fell out of touch after that.

But, around the time I was first married and my wife and I were looking for our first home, one of the houses we toured was the house Uncle Merle actually used to own. That same house of the soup and Frankenstein and the support beam. As I walked through the house, I could remember all the things I experienced there, but it wasn’t the same house anymore. Cleaned up for showing, no sign of all the girls and no pot of soup brewing in the kitchen, it just wasn’t the same place anymore. A house is just a house. It’s the people in it that make it a home.

And, a few years back, I attended a birthday celebration for one of my aunts, Hannah, sister to my mother and to Merle. And it was at this event that I was finally able to reconnect with my uncle. We sat and talked for quite a while, and it was good. It was really the first time I’d talked with him as an adult, and, though the deep, warm voice was softer now, the face more lined, the posture more stooped, I found him engaging, warm and just as funny as I remembered him when I was a kid.

And now he’s gone.  This is the hard time, the time when those who knew and loved Merle will suffer his loss. His pain is ended, ours is here to be dealt with.

It’s easy, at times like this, when faced with the passing of a loved one, to wonder about the worth of it all. We put so much effort in, for so little reward at times. We’re trained to look for those big rewards: that promotion or raise at work, that big vacation, those big events like births or weddings…and yes, all those things can feel like justification for all the work you put in…but there’s precious few big rewards in life.

Instead, at least I believe, life is made up of very small, very subtle moments that can be life changing.

I think about those dances I attended as a kid, and I realize that Merle gave me an indelible sense of what good dance music is. I look at those memories of his home and I realize that a home with a pot of soup on, a home where there’s something there to provoke deeper thoughts, that’s a good home, a successful home.

Maybe these things are life altering, but for me, they are strong enough reminders that they tend to serve as course corrections for my life. I look at them as small trail guides along the way. So, not life altering, but maybe life adjusting is more the proper term.

And I think back to that crazy, unadorned incongruous metal support beam in the rec room of Uncle Merle’s old house. And, looking back, to me, that was Merle. In a house full of women, he was the only man, he was the one thing that was different in that house, and he supported it all.

Thanks for the small lessons, Uncle Merle. Thanks for the trail guides that I still use to this day.

Customer Service…and fun

This is the second in absentia blog I’m posting.  Our regularly scheduled blogs should recommence tomorrow.

But I had to take a moment to show everyone that I’ve been a smartass a lot longer than just the past month.  It goes back years.

I used to work for Columbia House Canada back in the day.  You know…the 11 CDs for a dollar deals you got in the mail all the time?  So I was initially put in the role of answering the letters we’d receive from our customers.  Yes, real, Honest to God paper mail.  Then they promoted me to supervisor.  So that meant I got the “escalations” or the ones that were a little outside the norm of the everyday CSR (Customer Service Rep).  I never really minded.  Let’s just say I like a challenge and leave it at that.

So, to my point, I love to have fun with whatever I’m doing.  When someone else comes along to help make it fun, I appreciate that and respond in kind.  So, when one of my reps came up to me, paper thrust out in front of him, saying, “How the hell am I supposed to answer this?”  I knew I had a challenge.  When I read it, I knew it was going to be fun.

So, here’s the letter we received.

June 5, 1998

ATTN: Pam Marshall – Membership Director

Columbia House

PO Box 63003 STN BRM B

Toronto, ON

M7Y 3B3

Dear music membership marketers,

Words cannot describe my elation at receiving your personal congratulations that I was selected to be a member of your prestigious organization. I was absolutely thrilled at the sight of my name on my very own blue and white membership card. And when I realized the deal that you were offering, I just about went berserk! “Where do I sign up?”, I screamed as I ripped into your package of reading materials and unfolded the stamps showing album covers from your fine selection of music. If I had been a dog, this would have been my day! However, after poring over your personal invitation three times, my stomach knotted up really tight, and a fear grabbed at my heart that never seemed to let go. Your club seems to cater only to people with CD players!

This would not be a normal obstacle to most of your clients, but being a devout Seventh Day Mormon (a conglomerate sect), I am not allowed to entertain myself with the more modern conveniences of today. Therein lies my problem. I own numerous record players and eight-track players, and so the excitement of updating my record collection sent me soaring. But lo and behold, newfangled shiny discs prevail over older, vinyl ones. Can you help me? Do any of your selections come on LP or 45? Can you possibly have an 8-track or two in your new releases?

Or, can you please write back with some reasons for purchasing a CD player and signing up with your club right away? My business (polyester suit renewals) provides me with enough income to buy hundreds of compact disc players, and Heaven knows your personal letter is tempting enough to disregard my religion and join your worldly ranks. Please respond as soon as you can, and if possible, could you send me a Columbia House t-shirt (XL)? I’d be most grateful!

With two turntables and a microphone,

Dairn M Peters

How the hell am I supposed to answer this indeed…  And here’s my response.

June 22, 1998

Re: CDs versus LPs/8-Tracks

Dear Dairn;

Thank you for your letter of June 5, 1998.

We appreciate and rejoice in your elation due to the arrival of our offer of application and we do also share in your pain and discomfort at the lack of selections in 8-track and/or vinyl format. Unfortunately, due to the “rule of majority”, demand for these forms of musical preservation have unfortunately gone the way of the dodo or (in more recent memory) the fine Pacer automobile. Take heart though, as the VW Beetle seems to have made a resurgence!

Though I am not familiar with the Seventh Day Mormon religion, I am sure if they do permit the prevailing technology of the Seventies to be utilized for your personal gratification and edification, surely you might be able to sway the decision makers of this particular religious sect. Perhaps including the following arguments may help to soften the impact of newer technology:

Unlike LPs, 45s and 8-Tracks, CDs don’t produce music through the physical touching of the components, but through an incredible “laser” technology. (If you have seen “Star Trek” it is similar to their fictional “phasers” but with much less destructive force. A technology used for the greater good of man, not evil. Does your religion permit the viewing of television?)

Also, CDs carry all the music on only one side of the shiny disc, so there is no more annoying “ka-CHUNK” of an 8-Track changing channels, or the constant 20 minute trip to the turntable to lift the LP, flip it 180 degrees, clean the dust motes and continue the playing of the second side.

As well, with our wonderful CDs, you can forever kiss goodbye those aggravating hisses, pops and squeaks of a record with too much dust. CDs are also much more resistant to warping, so it’s much safer to transport them in your vehicle of choice (a good feature for those remaining AMC Pacer owners – the sheer window space of this car is enough to drive one mad due to the unencumbered view of the outside world rushing past!).

As a further enticement to your religious elders (if I may be so bold), you may wish to offer them some sort of bargain on some of your fine polyester garments. I am sure you would be safe in assuming the loss would be quickly offset by the incredible bargains offered through our Music Club. I am sorry we cannot send the requested Columbia House T-shirt, though you do seem to be in the advantageous position of possibly designing something along that line yourself out of polyester!

In closing, I hope this missive answers the many questions you seem to need education on. I will take the liberty of enclosing another application in hopes that you may wax eloquent enough to bring the power and pleasures of the 90’s to all the Seventh Day Mormons in Burnaby, nay, the world!

Musically (and technologically) yours,

Tobin Elliott

Supervisor, Customer Service

Ya gotta have fun with it sometimes.  Had my boss at the time seen this, he likely would have fired my ass, but enh, what the heck.  This was one of those times I just had to go with it.  It was that frustrated writer coming out in me, clearly.

Anyway, my point is, have fun with whatever you do…otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?  My reward?  The letter writer stating, “This is easily the best response I’ve ever received.”

And thanks to Dairn over at D Mail.  The blog isn’t active anymore, but it’s still a hoot.

Guest Blog – Pat Flewwelling – Vanquishing the Gottamonster and the Nevergudy Nuff

While I’m away, I got permission to repost one of my favourite blogs from Pat Flewwelling over at Nine Day Wonder.  You should read her.

Over to you, Pat!

The next person who asks me “So what’s wrong? Why haven’t you been published?” gets a free smack upside the head. After eighteen years and a lot of writing, my answer is, “It doesn’t matter. Stop asking and go away.”

What is publication but the act of seeking some stranger’s validation that you are a writer?

Pause here. This is not a blog about making fine wine of my sour grapes. I still have a goal to accomplish. This is about refining that goal. You can write in order to be published, or, you can entertain someone with a good story. The difference is subtle, but oh, so important, especially in a world where all you need is a registered domain name and basic computer skills to publicize your work.

Writing can happen in the absence of publication. What a liberating thought! I can write whatever I want, as badly as I want, because you ain’t never gonna read it! If it’s any good, I’ll edit it, change the names to protect the innocent (and/or the guilty), and then I’ll let you read it.

So, in the spirit of taking a long, healthy step backwards, I’ve concocted 10 survival tactics for myself as the unpublished author – and who knows, maybe they’ll help you too.

1. Banish the Gottamonster. This animal gorges itself on your guilt. When you’re not writing, you’ve “gotta write.” When you’re writing, you’ve “gotta write better than that.” Banish “I gotta get published” from your creative vocabulary. You’ve “gotta” go to the bathroom from time to time. You’ve “gotta” eat. You’ve “gotta” sleep eventually. You don’t “gotta” get published any more than Rebecca Black’s “gotta” make a make a new music video. Publication is a want, not a need.

2. Starve the Nevergudy Nuff. This parasite thrives on your despair and self-doubt, and it will do anything to stay alive, even if it means lying to you. Quickly turn on him and say “It doesn’t matter! Go away!” Or, take him to the book store and show him all the other authors who were Nevergudy Nuff and still got published (you know, the ones that have wooden characters, bloated narration, and eye-popping logic errors). He’ll choke on his own indignation and pass out. Or, you can befriend him by patting him on the head and saying “there there, it’s okay.” After all, you’re writing for the love of a story, and Being Gudy Nuff doesn’t count. He’ll be so confused by your self-assurance that he’ll fall down and forget what he was doing.

3. Read stuff you loved as a kid. When you were small, you said, “Tell me a story,” and that’s what authors did. It’s so simple, isn’t it? Something appealed to you, and something they wrote satisfied. Go back and find out what it was.

4. Remember your priorities. You’re not here to tell a “scenery” or an “angst”. You’re here to tell a story. Everything else should revolve around that. When you edit, it’s the same thing: the scenery, the angst, the really-awesome-image-I-just-described – everything that you write must propel the story forward. (Here, an affectionate nod to both Tobin Elliott and Michael Lorenson. I do listen.)

5. Make a muse. There needs to be a story-teller and an audience. Imagine: you’re sitting under a shady tree on a riverside rock, late in spring. Facing you is someone who is awestruck by what’s happening in your story. Maybe your companion is a child, maybe a young adult, maybe an older person. Maybe they remind you of someone; maybe they’re a character from another book you wrote. Whenever you pause, they say, “Really? And then what happens?” Here, I’m going to go against the mainstream and suggest that you simply make up this person. You’re a writer, after all – you should be able to create an imaginary friend who may or may not agree with you; they may have a sarcastic streak, but they should always be enthusiastic about what you have to say. If they lose interest in your story, I’ll bet you buckets of money the story itself is uninteresting. But if you write for someone real, you may lose your story – and your creativity – if they grow up and move on, leaving you and your stories behind. What would happen to Peter Pan if his Lost Boys grew up? And just look what happened to Puff the Magic Dragon! Real or imagined, you need a muse, because without an audience, a storyteller is nothing but a lonely old booger sitting in the corner talking to himself. (Go on, tired soul, click the link. I’ll still be here when you get back.)

6. Surround yourself with readers. Surrounding yourself with published writers is like one used car dealer asking business advice of the car dealership next door. No matter how friendly they are, how supportive they are, how helpful and full of sound advice they are, regardless, other writers are your competition. You will always measure yourself against them. So long as you are unpublished, you will think of yourself as less clever than they are; even when you are published, they’ll still be better than you because they’ve been published longer. Stop that! You’re feeding the Gottamonster and the Nevergudy Nuff! Yes, learn from them, yes seek advice from other writers (published or otherwise), but for sanity’s sake, for every writer you know, meet three readers, to balance “we want” against “you should.” Besides, wouldn’t it make sense to hear what the customer wants, before stocking your store? Be aware of what’s out there, and learn what it is that draws the reader to them. Hear it directly from the reader.

7. Listen to stories around the dinner table. A couple of months ago, over a cup of tea, my Uncle David told me about how he saw a locally well-known homeless man out on the street holding up a picture frame. There was nothing in the frame, except his own head and shoulders. He would stop and look out at the world through the frame. People crossed the street to get away from him, and he would laugh at them. But what makes this story is that my uncle went up to him and asked him about the picture frame. When was the last time you went up to a crazy-looking homeless person and engaged him in a conversation? Do you know anyone who would? Character study, people! This is where story-lings are hatched! Parachute down from your ivory tower and listen.

8. Watch your language. “I need to work on this story.” “Another plot hole? Great, more work I have to do.” “This needs even more work than I thought.” It took a really long time to realize that writing had become “work.” Remember, writer: in your world, the words you use become reality. As for me, because writing had become a job, I was therefore working full-time (paid) plus part-time (unpaid), for a sum total of no-time-left-over. Yet all the hoity-toities told me, if I wanted to succeed, I had to approach writing with a solid work ethic – therefore, if I wasn’t getting published, I wasn’t working hard enough (and boy, was the Gottamonster getting fat). But I didn’t need any more work! Especially since it wasn’t earning anything and it wasn’t doing the dishes. So you know what I say? Stuff it. From now on, what I practice is “regular playtime.” I’m going to play with characters and plot and do something totally outrageous and unexpected, and if I need something to shake up the story, maybe I’ll even have someone streaking across the field wearing nothing but his hand and a great big grin.

9. Highlight the good stuff. Oh, dear writer, I know thee well. It’s editing season somewhere. In one hand, you have a red pen, and you’re underlining, scratching, scribbling, even ripping through the paper in your efforts to expunge badness from your writing; in the other hand, you have your aching forehead. For the computer-age author, your pencil case is full of delete buttons, backspaces, and CTRL-A + Delete. Stop that high school stuff right now.

Whatever happened to props for a job well done? Why can’t we give ourselves check marks for awesome sentence structure, or smiley faces when the thing we wrote made us laugh? Go out right now, buy a stack of dinosaur stickers and put one somewhere on every page, so that when you go back to delete stuff, you remember what to save. If you’re virtual, then use highlight functions, memos, clip art and sound bites of wild applause. (Just remember to remove them again when you’re ready to submit.)

10. Validate yourself. What’s with this whole “I so want to be published” thing anyhow? How many times have we been told to stop using passive verbs? And don’t try to mask your declaration with some “I will be published” hocus pocus – it’s still the passive voice. Instead, commit to short, concrete, active thoughts, like “I shall write,” and “I am writing!” and “I will send this off to a publishing house/agent/magazine/contest before X-date”. It’s healthier than waiting around for people to do something to you.

Repeat after me: “Published or not, I am still a writer. As long as I write for the joy of a story, I am still a writer. I need no one else to validate this for me.”

Writing is all the proof you need to show that you’re a writer, but it’s the audience that gives the story purpose, and it’s the audience that gives you a reason to write. The final step is getting that story out to the audience – and it’s this hope will carry you through the drought of non-publication.