Like every real, honest-to-God writer, I am on a journey. Like all the good ones and the great ones, I am compelled to find it…
“What is it?” you ask.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “But I’ll know it when I see it.”
“The answer?” you ask. “The secret to everything? Life, the universe, and everything? The equation that unifies all the theories that physicists instinctively know are all one thing? The treasure that pays for everything?”
Yes. That. The subject of the next book. The next idea. Life after death. The most important answer.
And I honestly believe that once found, then you die. Life is over. You have your meaning and purpose. You are fulfilled. Basically, I am writing and thinking and philosophizing to find the justification I need to accept the end of everything.
And you know what? The scariest thing about this post is that I never intended to write these particular words when I started typing. I was going to complain about the book-review process. It makes me think that, perhaps, I will type one more sentence and then drop dead. But maybe not. I don’t think I’ve found it yet.
The thing I am looking for, however, is not an evil thing. It is merely the end of the story. The need no longer to tell another tale.
When a book closes, it doesn’t cease to exist. My life is like that. It will end. Heck, the entire universe may come to an end, though not in our time. And it will still exist beyond that time. The story will just be over. And other stories that were being told will continue. And new ones by new authors will begin. That is how infinity happens.
I think, though, that the ultimate end of the Bookish Journey lies with the one that receives the tale, the listener, the reader, or the mind that is also pursuing the goal and thinks that what I have to say about it might prove useful to his or her own quest.
I was going to complain about the book reviewer I hired for Catch a Falling Star who wrote a book review for a book by that name that was written by a lady author who was not even remotely me. And I didn’t get my money back on that one. Instead I got a hastily re-done review composed from details on the book jacket so the reviewer didn’t have to actually read my book to make up for his mistake. I was also going to complain about Pubby who only give reviewers four days to read a book, no matter how long or short it is, and how some reviewers don’t actually read the book. They only look at the other reviews on Amazon and compose something from there. Or the review I just got today, where the reviewer didn’t bother to read or buy the book as he was contracted to do, and then gave me a tepid review on a book with no other reviews to go by, and the Amazon sales report proves no one bought a book. So, it is definitely a middling review on a book that the reviewer didn’t read. Those are things I had intended to talk about today.
But, in the course of this essay, I have discovered that I don’t need to talk about those tedious and unimportant things. What matters really depends on what you, Dear Reader, got from this post. The ultimate McGuffin is in your hands. Be careful what you do with it. I believe neither of us is really ready to drop dead.
My journey as a writer actually began in grade school. I was writing Star Trek-like comics from the time I was in the fourth and fifth grade, ten and eleven years old. I called my comics Zebra Fleet, about the last fleet in the Star League on the distant, far reaches of the Milky Way Galaxy.
I started writing book-length stories in college, at Iowa State University. They weren’t all science fiction. They began to be more and more about the time and place where I grew up, Rowan, Iowa in the 1960s and 1970s They involved the people I knew there and then. My family, my friends, the people of Rowan, and random Iowegians. I based important characters on people I actually knew, mostly those I knew quite well. But I changed and swapped character details to hide their identities a little bit, and I gave them names that were mixed and matched and borrowed from the 1977 Ames, Iowa phone book. Dettbarn, Efram, Sumpter, Bircher, Clarke, MacMillan, White, and Murphy all came from there. Niland came from a famous alumni of the University of Iowa who played for the Dallas Cowboys.
In order to have food to eat and money to spend as an adult, I had to take my BA in English and add to it an MA in Education to get a job as a teacher. I took my closet full of nascent novels and moved to Texas where my dad’s job took my parents before I graduated college. There I added hundreds of characters who were perfect for Young Adult novels as I got to know real kids and learned about their real lives. I changed their names, details, and often cultures as I added them to my stories.
Other than a couple of shots in the dark as submissions of cartoons and manuscripts to publishers, I mostly kept my stories in the closet and focused more on teaching (which, to be fair, is also a form of story-telling.) I put my handful of rejection letters in the closet too.
But then, I got laid off for two years due to health and a wicked witch as a principal, and I spent my non-job-hunting time writing a novel about my science-fiction role-playing games with former students. It was called AeroQuest.
I managed to find a publisher for that book. But it was a bogus sort of experience. They paid me an advance of one dollar. Then they had me sign a seven-year contract in 2007. No editor or proofreader even worked for them. I basically had to edit and format the book myself. All they did is intentionally flub-up some titles and sections of text in the printed form. This was part of the master plan to get me to pay for an extensive fix to the mistakes they made. The only marketing they did was to send a notice for my over-priced paperback to the list of friends and relatives that they required me to make for them. Publish America is no longer in business. They were closed down by a class-action lawsuit from the authors they had tricked into paying them thousands of dollars for totally defective publishing services. Since I didn’t pay them any scam pennies, I didn’t get any of the money from the lawsuit. I only got my publishing rights back.
So, I went back to whole-heartedly teaching. Then, in 2012 I completed another manuscript that I thought was the best work that I had ever done. I submitted it to I-Universe publishers. They read it and loved it. As it turned out, they were in the process of being acquired by Penguin Books. They were the closest thing to a mainstream publisher that would entertain submissions by new and unproven authors like me.
They, of course, were offering a publishing package that included working with real editors and marketing personnel. But I had to go a bit into debt to swing the price. So, I was still paying someone to publish my book correctly. But, as a step in my author’s journey, it was invaluable. I got to work closely with an experienced editor who had previously worked for both MacMillan and Harcourt, two mainstream traditional publishers.
My book was given the stock cover you see here despite the cover requests I made and got approved. My original ask was apparently too expensive to print. There is no girl flying a kite in the story at all, let alone at night. It is a story about incompetent aliens trying to invade a small town in Iowa. I had requested a flying saucer with a kite flying behind it.
That first real publisher, though, made me into a real writer. The I-Universe marketeers got me listed as a winner of the Editor’s Choice Award. And they put that award and the Rising Star award on every paperback copy they printed. Everyone who read the book seemed to really like it. They set me up with this blog, space on their website for my book and bio, and they put me in touch with Barnes and Noble to talk about “meet the author” sessions to promote getting the book on their shelves. But a trip to the hospital with pneumonia and the end of the room on my Discover Card caused me to bring an end to my marketing campaign. I ended up with two five-star reviews and sixteen dollars-worth of royalties.
At this point in the story, temporarily stalled, I must start touting the part two of my essay for today. I should warn you, I have a lot more negative things to say about publishing next time.
We are now entering the most deadly time in the pandemic. We are expecting a hundred thousand more deaths in January 2021.
The question of whether or not I will even survive this month has not been settled.
I am still isolated at home with three members of my immediate family. Contact with the outside world is as limited as it is possible to be. Of the four of us, only my wife and son have to leave the house for work. My son has had Covid once already, so he probably still has antibody protection, but there are no guarantees he won’t get it again, and worse the second time. He works as a jailor and so he is exposed to Covid-positive inmates daily. My wife will go back to her teaching job this coming week. They are taking precautions as much as possible, but it is still in-person instruction. And my wife is at-risk with diabetes and high blood pressure. And there is no question in the minds of the Texas Board of Education that she needs to risk her life five days week to keep kids in school.
I am deteriorating from my many health problems. But I am only a little over a year away from being done with my bankruptcy and the paying off of my medical bills. So, barring another hospitalization, I can actually see light at the end of that tunnel.
But getting back to normal?
It will never happen. I will never again be well enough to make money as a teacher in a classroom, even as a limited-time substitution. If staying in my room and writing all day is my new normal, well, I am already doing that. But the things I have done as a normal thing will not be coming back.
Traveling is going to be a thing of the past. I cannot weather long car trips anymore. No more visits to Six Flags or Disney World, and maybe not even trips home to Iowa.
Doll collecting is also a thing of the past. I have no more money or time to pursue those little plastic people anymore, even at five dollars a month. In many ways I gave it up for good months ago already. And I probably have too many of them already.
“Child, child, have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul – but so have we. You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them – but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us – we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.” ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
Thomas Wolfe is correct. Without being able to physically travel to the past, you simply can’t go home again. We can travel through time, but only forward. But he is also right that the present time will pass too. And we all will eventually reach a time where we become timeless. So, we hunker down, live in the moment, and the world will become normal even if it is unrecognizable as what was normal in the past.
You know how that Bible lesson goes, right? What He hath given, He can also take away. And the Bible doesn’t suggest He ever owes us any explanation. God is subject to capricious whims, apparently.
This is part of the reason why I often have doubts about the fairness of most religions. How do you worship that which is cold, uncaring, and capricious? And yet, to say there is no God above… or below… is anathema to the way I was raised and the fundamental structures of my moral and inner self.
If there is no God, then why is there any life at all? Life is complex and intricately ordered. How can that be if the universe is random and mindless? Physics already says all order is headed for eventual chaos. Our chance to control the climate crisis and save the planet is now down to seven more years. If we don’t get our act together before 2027, we are doomed. What is the need for order at all? Why do you need to have a counterpoint to chaos if there is no underlying point to the whole process?
Philosophical questions like this are why what I really am is a pure and simple agnostic. I am open to all possible answers. But I have no scale to weigh any of it.
One way that the Lord is taking things away right now is through the capitalist system worshipped by wealthy and greedy men. Especially the Septuagenarian Mutant Turtle currently in charge of the Senate. He and his billionaire mutant overlords don’t want to raise the national debt to help ordinary people through the Covid crisis and the economic chaos it caused, even though they were fine with ballooning the debt in 2017 to give tax breaks to billionaires and corporations while actually raising taxes on pensioners like me.
My house is falling apart. I can raise no extra income because of the pandemic. And the bank is making noises about balloon payments and raising the specter of homelessness for the four of us.
And, of course, the biggest thing God may soon take away is my very life. I am having problems with high blood pressure, fainting spells, and numerous symptoms that could easily be interpreted as the onset of Parkinson’s, the disease that took my father’s life. Of course, going into the clinic to find out for sure could financially sink me, as well as infect me with Covid and kill me even though I previously survived my son’s experience with the disease without becoming infected.
This January and February are expected to be the worst part of t the pandemic that we have yet experienced.
But this little exercise in philosophical whining and complaining will, in the long run, do nobody any good. I don’t blame a God for my troubles because of the atheist in me. I know difficult times lay ahead for everybody, not just me. And just as Muckman, the superhero, turns his unfortunate condition of nearly-deadly body odor into his super-power for fighting evil guys, I need to turn my misfortunes into something good.
The year began with me recovering from a bout of flu caught while substituting at Bush Middle School. I had thought it would be the end of me. But, no. I managed to survive. It left me feeling that no mere virus could get the better of me.
Oh, foolish and overly simple me! I had no idea what was coming. I had decided to write a novel set in a residential nudist park in South Texas that I knew nudists from but had never actually visited.
I discovered that my financial situation was headed for disaster if I didn’t earn enough money from substitute teaching. I was trying to pay off my Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and I was committed to paying $2000 dollars worth of our ever-increasing property tax. I wouldn’t be able to earn the money in time to avoid late fees, which meant I needed to earn even more extra money.
I dug down deep and found myself able to substitute teach to the full extent my doctor and the Texas Teacher Retirement System would allow. I was really hitting my stride and enjoying teaching again. I met a couple of kids in classes I subbed for that connected so well, I used them as inspiration for a few things in the novel I was writing, A Field Guide to Fauns. The novel practically wrote itself.
I published it. But it was about naked people. So a majority of people who might be fooled into reading one of my books will never read this one.
I was looking forward, after teaching so much that I could pay off the tax only one month late, to making more money I might actually be able to put in savings for a few minutes. But March ended all hope of that.
The long Covid imprisonment began with one novel published and one more, my AeroQuest rewrite, being more than halfway along.
I found myself with way more time to write and do other stuff than I had anticipated. But, of course, little money to do anything but survive with.
I definitely understood Kurt Vonnegut better in very short order.
I had a chance to reread a LOT of my own writing.
I gave some of my own books a careful reread and proofreading, even updating the content on Amazon. I began collecting my best posts from my daily blog. I put it in book form, becoming not one, but two collections of autobiographical essays.
My quest to put all my teacher recollections, goofy humor and cartoons, and philosophical wacky-waxings into some kind of order, allowed me to get a real sense of the overview of my life as both a teacher and a writer.
But, not only did my number two son get a job with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department as a jailor, but he got Covid in July as well from his job.
Not only did my number one son find a serious relationship with an excellent young lady, but he was forced to stay away from us and limit contact to the point he almost became a stranger.
And not only did my father’s Parkinson’s Disease get worse, it killed him in midsummer during a surge in the pandemic that meant only my mother and two sisters could actually be at the funeral.
But, in spite of setbacks, I managed to stay Covid-free and read and write way more than is probably good for any human man.
I published or re-published six books during 2020. It is an accomplishment that reflects a fear of imminent death and loss of any further chance to make my writing real, not just foolish fantasies and dreams trapped in my stupid head.
So, what has 2020 done to me?
It has made me fearful of the future. It took away enough of my health that I will never be able to stand in front of a classroom ever again. And it took my father away.
But it has also galvanized me with the heat of the struggle to survive. It has made me more careful, and more appreciative of what life is, and especially more determined to have more of it.
where I spent my childhood and early youth, there is a great tradition of making fun of the exceptionally eye-bonking ski sweaters and Norwegian-middle-layer clothing that dads and grandads are given as presents less often than only neckties.
Yes, they are functional in the land of 100-degree-below-zero wind-chill. And they also work as defenders of your male virginity when you are in college in Iowa. But we make fun of them not out of derision, but of love. These are gifts, after all, that are given on winter birthdays and Christmas because the giver loves you. And the creative criticism of them is given only as a sign of appreciation for what they are truly for.
And if you tried to click on the X’s on this sweater of mine, and it did not immediately close on your screen, that’s because this one has special meaning. I didn’t get this as a Christmas gift. I inherited it from my father who died in November 2020. And it will keep my heart warm now until it falls apart, or until the time comes to pass it on to my own eldest son.
this essay is actually about is the nature of good criticism.
The fact that this one is a red Christmas tree decorated with lawn flamingos is not the actual point. One has to look past the flaws and try to judge the effectiveness of how it achieves… or fails to achieve… its intended purpose… apparently to keep rats and small birds out of your yard… or from within a hundred yards of the thing.
if I were to be offended by the revelation of Santa’s sexy black thong, then the thing to do as a proper critic is not to use my power to condemn it, but not to take up the critique of it at all. I mean, if you are actually offended by the thing, you would not want to offer an opinion that some would take as a challenge.
“What? You are telling me that I can’t like Santa’s sexy black thong? I will not only like it, I will love it! And I will buy one for myself.”
the philosophy of the uncritical critic, I would only review this green nightmare sweater of a Christmas mutant demon-dog if I really liked it. Of course, since you are seeing a review of it here, it means I am actually quite charmed by the sweater itself, and amused by whatever seventy-plus-year-old grandmama that has the kitsch-defiant attitude that allows her to proudly wear it… even if it was given to her as a gift by a relative she probably doesn’t really like but, never tells them so.
Doing book reviews one after another (as I have been doing for Pubby in order to get reviews on my own books in return) I have done a lot of the uncritical critic bit. Some of the people I have been reviewing the books of should never have tried to write a book in the first place. But do I tell them that? Of course not. If I have taken the trouble to read the whole book, even though it may be horrible, I am not going to pour cold water on their flame. I have done reviews with innumerable editorial suggestions of what would make it a better story, or a better non-fiction book, or children’s book, or poetry book, or self-help book… I have read terrible books of all of these kinds. And I know the authors did not rewrite the books as I suggested. But in my many years as a writing teacher, I have learned well that you must always point out the fledgling writers’ strengths and ask them to build on those. And some will. Besides the points I earn to spend on reviews of Mickian books, that is reward enough.
Yesterday I posted one of my patented conspiracy-theory posts which was intended primarily to give my three kids more practice at using their Eye-fu skills. You know, that ancient Chinese martial art of using the dramatic eye-roll to combat the embarrassing way elderly parents have of saying what they actually think for the sole purpose of humiliating their much-more sensible offspring. So, today I need to humbly contemplate the many reasons I will not get any Christmas presents this year and begin to generate some holiday spirit to lighten the mood of what is likely to be a rather lonely Christmas season.
So, here’s a selfie from old Grumpy Klaus, wearing the aggravated countenance of the Jolly One looking at the Naughty List to determine who gets the bricks and who gets the lumps of coal… and who gets referred to Old Krampus.
Ho ho ho… kinda…
Having married a Jehovah’s Witness twenty-six years ago, I have gotten mostly out of the habit of celebrating Christmas. The Witnesses believe that holidays with pagan origins are from Satan, and bad for you. But it has been almost seven years now since they decided I was from Satan too, and so I stopped believing in knocking on doors and trying to get homeowners to reject their own form of Christianity because we are somehow more right than they are, and if they don’t swear off celebrating Christmas they are doomed. Among the many other things you have to swear off of for that religion. Like swearing.
Don’t get me wrong… Jehovah’s Witnesses are wonderful, loving people who care about others and whose religious teachings are more helpful than harmful over all… just like all other Christians who aren’t ISIS-level radicals. (The Westboro Baptists leap to mind for some reason.) If you really need religion, it is a good one to have. But even though my wife still needs to be one, I have begun to feel like I do not.
I personally cherish the holiday traditions I grew up with, and I really wish I could have shared those with my children. (This is another point for practicing Eye-fu right here.) I fear however. that like most devoutly religious parents, we managed to raise three devout agnostics and atheists. I have trained them in the last four years to like the tradition of making and eating gingerbread houses and gingerbread men. That’s probably of pagan origin too, but it’s too late now to save my sorry old soul from gingerbread.
Anyway, I am trying to look forward to the season of Peace on Earth once again. And though I will be celebrating mostly alone and ill and condemned by gingerbread, I do have pleasant memories. I can still reach my sisters and my mother by phone. They share some of those memories. And my kids will be around enough to eat the gingerbread castle I bought for this year.
You know what a contradiction is, don’t you? It is whatever comes out of your wife’s mouth whenever you make a statement asserting that whatever you said is factually true. She will promptly and always explain to you how wrong you are… loudly… and in great detail. No matter if you happen to be provably right or not.
What’s that, you say? I’m wrong about that too? Of course, I am, dear. I only deserve the catfood cookies.
The fact is, if you raise your hand and give the teacher the correct answer often enough, you get a certain reputation amongst your classmates. Instead of continuing to call you, “dumbhead,” or “stupidhead,” or the simplified form of “caca-poo-poo-head” like they endearingly call everybody else, they begin calling you pejoratives like “Einstein,” or “Brainiac,” or “Supernerd, taah tah taaah!” And they begin pointing out in detail everything that is wrong about you. How you dress… how you talk… especially how you laugh. You have become the enemy. You must be contradicted.
“You are wrong, Mickey!”
“So, I get to be Dumbhead again?”
“No. you are still “Supernerd, taah tah taaah!” But you are wrong. We all think so, so that must be right.”
The truth is, Life itself is a contradiction. Considering the violence and hostility of the physical universe towards life, it is a miracle that anything at all is alive in the universe. The chaos of everything guarantees that if you are born into the miracle of life, then at some point, caused by a nearly infinite variety of possible aids to chaos, you will die. Order is whittled away into chaos. Civilizations fall eventually. Things die all the time.
But if all order must, by physical laws of the universe, be broken down into chaos, then, how is it that we have any order at all in the first place? Where does order come from? I’d give you a possible answer. But I would just be contradicted by the majority
Except for fundamentalist Christians who would say, “Let me think for a moment about why you are still wrong… and then I’ll tell you what I think the Bible says about why you are actually still wrong.”
One thing about being “only book-smart, but without common sense” that makes being contradicted all the time worth it, is that the more challenged the answers you come up with are, the more deeply you dig into them, and the more of a real-world understanding of why I am wrong about everything begins to make a bit more sense. Or not. Because I’m probably wrong in your estimation anyway.