May 9, 2013
It’s May, and that means both good and bad things around here. Good in that the school year is almost over for my kids. Bad in that it still quite isn’t. That’s why my son said something about the happy gas last night.
Here’s where he got that:
He was six when he got his tonsils out. It wasn’t the visit to the hospital that worried him. He was okay with the hospital. And it wasn’t even the pain. What worried him the most was the very thing he most looked forward to.
The happy gas.
It’s tough trying to explain a medical procedure to a six-year-old, especially when the ins and outs are pretty vague to his father. I didn’t really know what tonsils and adenoids were, what function they served, or why they were giving him such trouble. But the anesthesia part I knew.
So I told him he got to wear a mask like Batman did and that the air would smell like cotton candy and he’d fall asleep. And while he was asleep the doctors would do their business and make him better.
“You won’t feel a thing,” I told him. “Promise.”
He didn’t believe me.
Experience had taught him otherwise. He’d slept before, and he’d either done things or had things happen that he not only remembered, but felt.
He fell out of the bed twice. Felt that. Bopped his face against the headboard. Felt that, too. He’s also awakened himself by burping, talking, snoring, and coughing. Sometimes all at once.
No way, he thought, no way, would he be able to sleep through someone operating on him.
So I explained that the happy gas wouldn’t just put him asleep, it would put him really asleep, and that the doctor would make sure he stayed that way until everything was finished.
Afterward, once we were home and he was safely on the sofa with his ice cream, I asked him about it.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I can’t even remember anything.”
And then he said this—“I wish I could have some of that for when I go to school. That way I could just wake up when I got home and I wouldn’t remember any of it.”
Funny, yes. And that definitely pegged him as my son. But he really had a great idea there, at least on the surface. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have some advance warning to the less than perfect things we have to face? And wouldn’t it be great if just before we could put on a Batman mask, breathe some cotton-candy air, and fall asleep through the whole thing?
Yes. It would.
I’ll admit for a while I did my best not to try and poke holes in his Happy Gas Theory. I knew there were some and most likely many. But sometimes we take comfort in those things that aren’t and can never be. That’s what I did while sitting on the sofa with him. I reveled.
But the truth of course was that we had to go through our painful things sometimes. We could slide around some and jump over others, but sooner or later a storm would come that we couldn’t outrun or take cover from, and we were left to stand there in the open under the pour.
Sometimes, that didn’t seem right to me.
It would make more sense to say that if God was there and if God was good, He would take better care of the ones who loved Him. He would make sure our paths were clear. He would prevent the pain and the pour and the doubt. He would take away the fear.
If there was such a thing as everyday happy gas, I thought, then shouldn’t it be God?
Maybe. But maybe that pain and pour and doubt served a purpose that outweighed the need for our happiness. Maybe we needed fear so we could know the value of faith.
I didn’t know for sure, but I thought the odds were good that He’d spared me from a great many troubles in my life without me knowing it. Not happy gas, but maybe something better. And as I looked down and saw my son wince when he tried to swallow, I knew that all the happy gas in the world couldn’t take away all the pain. Some still lingered.
That was true for all of us, I supposed. We were all a collection of bruises and cuts. We all had our tender places.
And I thought that in the end, it was our pain and not our happiness that brought us nearer to heaven.
May 6, 2013
“I like walking with you, Daddy,” my daughter said.
Her tiny hand slipped into mine and stayed there. Our joined arms moved back and forth in a soft cadence that echoed our footfalls.
“Me, too,” I said.
“Let’s play I Spy,” she offered.
“Okay. You go first.”
Our game began with the obvious—black for the truck in the driveway we were passing, red for the mailbox on the other side. Yellow for the sun. Gray for the dog that just bounded out from the field.
But then things began to get a little more difficult. On my part, anyway. I missed the orange on the robin that was pecking its dinner from the grass. And the brown on the rabbit that sat nearly invisible on the side of the road.
Missed the yellow hair bow on the little girl who was playing with a balloon in her backyard.
Missed the white on the rocks that scrunched under our feet.
Even missed the black on the very shirt I was wearing.
No father wants to be beaten in a game of I Spy by his daughter. Especially when that father happens to take a lot of pride in noticing things that others maybe wouldn’t. But as we walked and talked and swung our arms, I had to admit the obvious.
I was losing it. Slipping in my noticing.
It had been imperceptible rather than sudden, this change in me. That’s the worst kind. Change that comes sudden is painful, but at least you don’t go around wondering what happened and where you went wrong and how it got to be this way.
My thoughts were broken by the approach of a married couple taking that strange gait that is more than walk but not quite jog, puffing and sweating against the summer sun.
My daughter waved with her free hand, and I offered a “How ya’ll doin’?” in their direction. The man managed to nod weakly and gasp a “heeep,” which I took as hello. The woman was oblivious to us, transfixed on her goal of putting one foot in front of the other.
I looked down to see her gazing up to me, wrinkling her nose. I shrugged—beats me. We walked on.
A few more losing rounds of I Spy later, and we were greeted with another pedestrian. Younger woman, very fit. Decked out in Spandex and and armed with an iPod and a watch that looked as though it could not only count calories and measure distance, but split the atom as well.
She zoomed past our wave and “How are ya?” as if we were just more gravel and blades of grass. Just two more obstacles to avoid in the pursuit of a flatter stomach and firmer butt.
My daughter and I walked in silence a for a few steps, our game suspended. Then, “Daddy?”
“How come people walk so fast?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Most people around here use walking as exercising. But it’s only exercising if you go fast.”
She looked down to the road and kicked a pebble with her flip flop, thinking.
“Exercising’s good,” she offered.
“Very,” I said.
“And walking’s good, too.”
“But,” she said, “walking shouldn’t be exercising.”
“It shouldn’t? Why?”
She threw her arms up (and one of mine in the process) and said, “Look! Everything’s so pretty! These people are missing it all because they’re going too fast!”
I looked down at her and she up to me. She said, “Those people would be really bad at I Spy, Dad. They would lose every time because they can’t see anything.”
They’d lose every time. Because they’re going too fast.
We continued on then and resumed our game. The result was both inevitable and expected. She won without much of a contest.
But in a way, I won too. I learned something that evening with my daughter. Something important.
In the end, life should be a walk and not a run. We fool ourselves into thinking that the point is to get somewhere as fast as we can. It isn’t. It’s to have somewhere to go and then enjoy the trip to it.
There will always be a gap between where we are and where we want to be. In our deepest hearts we are all wanderers in search of something. That’s okay. Even wonderful. Just as long as we wander in wonder and hold the hand of someone we love.
May 2, 2013
Here’s the thing about writing a book—it’s mostly long and lonely process. Don’t get me wrong, writing is what I do. It’s what I love. And aside from spitting watermelon seeds and going to right field on a curve ball, it’s pretty much the only thing I think I can do well.
And it’s worth it. All that long loneliness, I mean. Because if all goes well, at the end of all that sitting down and scribbling out and editing and cutting and shaping is a story you’re proud to share. A story that will entertain you and inspire you. A story that might even make you a little uncomfortable, albeit in a good way.
That’s what has happened with my next novel, When Mockingbirds Sing.
We’re just over a month away from publication. As exciting as the next weeks will be, they also promise to be not unlike all the months spent writing. They’ll be long, no doubt. But maybe not so lonely.
We’re putting together a launch team for When Mockingbirds Sing—people willing to roll up their sleeves and help spread word about the book. And I’m hoping one of those people will be you.
Here’s the deal in a nutshell:
I’ll have the good folks at Thomas Nelson send you an e-book (if you don’t have an e-reader, they can get you a printed copy). In return, you agree to spread word of When Mockingbirds Sing during the week of June 11. Have a blog? Write a post about the book or set up an interview with me. Into social media? Put something on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. Post a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Tell your family, your friends, the folks at church, your neighbors. We may be living in an internet world, but when it comes to books, the old word of mouth still rules.
Easy peasy, right? Not fancy at all, but really kind of cool.
You can find more information about When Mockingbirds Sing by clicking on the “Coming Soon!” tab at the top of my web page.
If you’ve been reading this blog very long, what you can expect from my books is much of what you can find here—stories of people trying to find their way and trying to make sense of what sometimes feels like a senseless world. Ordinary people like you and me thrust into an extraordinary situation. And though I don’t often speak of my own work one way or another, I’ll say just this once that When Mockingbirds Sing will move you.
Still on the fence? You can read the first three chapters right now. Just click Here When Mockingbirds Sing
If you’d like to throw your name in the hat for consideration, click on the “Contact” tab in the header bar above. Shoot me a message about what you’d be willing to do. Be creative. Think outside the box. We’ll be taking submissions from now until Monday morning. After that, I’ll sort through all of the messages, choose the best, most awesome ones, and contact the winners.
And as always, Dear Reader, I say thank you.
April 29, 2013
It was my wife—God bless her—who said I was insane. And not only was I insane, but probably all the people in the world who called themselves writers were too. Certifiable. In need of round the clock psychological care and Thorazine milkshakes.
It was the pens, you see. She was going to the store, and I asked her to pick me up some pens. In my wife’s defense, I didn’t specify what sort of pens. And in my defense, I didn’t think I had to. We’ve been married for fifteen years. She’s seen me write before.
But she brought home black pens. I thought it was a joke at first. I even laughed. My wife didn’t call me insane then, but I bet the thought had crossed her mind.
Blue pens, I told her. I needed blue pens. Because blue ink produced the best words and black ink undermined creativity and the flow of artistic expression. How could anyone not know that? That’s when the insane comment was voiced. Jokingly, of course. Maybe half-jokingly. Which was followed by this:
“The problem isn’t black pens, it’s that you can’t tell the difference between what you want and what you need.”
Of course I disagreed. It’s a pride thing. But as the day wore on and I kept staring at my pack of black pens, I began to see she was right. As a writer, I don’t really have needs and wants. I just have needs.In the beginning there is rarely confusion between the two. When we decide we want to be writers, we just want to write. Life is simple because what we want is exactly what we need. We’re like babies then. And like babies, we believe the world to be both magical and ours.
But then we grow up and decide to get serious about writing. That’s when we realize the world isn’t ours to have as much as it is ours to borrow, and what was once magical can often become downright scary.
Trust me. I was there. Still am, too.
It starts out with needing to tell a story and then evolves into wanting to be published. Then from wanting to be published to needing an agent. It wasn’t that long ago that I told myself if I could only catch Rachelle Gardner’s attention, if she would only be my agent, then I would be a writer. That’s what I needed.
When that happened, I thought I needed a publisher, and when that happened I thought I needed a multi-book contract, and when that happened I thought I needed a bigger multi-book contract, and then somewhere in there my wife called me insane. Because as it turns out, those weren’t needs at all.
There are lessons that can be learned by heeding the experiences of others and lessons that can only be learned through one’s own failure. I’m pretty sure what I’m about to say falls under the latter, but I’m going to say it anyway:
If you are a writer and if you are reading this, you already have the essentials of success. The great secret is that the agents and the publishers and the book deals are just wants. Sure, you should go for them. Shoot for the moon. Dream big. Have faith. But know that being denied a want isn’t nearly as bad as failing to meet a need. Thankfully, as writers our needs are few.
We need a story to tell and a longing to tell that story in the best way possible. We need someone to tell that story to. And we need a determination to get up just one more time than we fall down.
That’s it. Meet those needs, and the wants will come. That’s not to say we’ll never be called insane, even if black ink makes the same words as blue ink. We’re writers after all. We don’t have to make sense all the time. Our hearts are bowed toward the hidden lands.
What do you want? What do you need?
“I dont’ ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’ I don’t need that question answered.” — Philip Roth
April 26, 2013
A few minutes ago a bit of the last forkful of my son’s green beans failed to be broken down into acids and molecules and slipped undigested into his large intestine. There the billions of hungry bacteria sat down to a dinner of their own, finishing the job and sending them off into his bloodstream.
The process resulted in a mixture of methane, hydrogen, and sulfide that was forced downward as pressure and expelled. Right onto the couch cushion beside me. With a rapid and not-so-elegant
I didn’t move my eyes from the book I was reading, didn’t even acknowledge it had happened. And to my son’s credit, he didn’t either. Not at first. He kept right on attacking the buttons on his Nintendo DS, and I let him.
I turned the page and without looking said, “Whatcha say, Bud?”
“Scuse me,” he answered.
I nodded and kept reading, thinking the moment had passed. Which it had, technically speaking. But the aftereffects had not, because then another sound escaped from his other end in the form of a muffled snort.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
I waited an appropriate amount of time—about three paragraphs of my novel—for the required Scuse me, but none came. There was, however, another snort.
And then, Squeak/Snort!
“Scuse me (snort!).”
I sighed and resumed reading. In a span of a few short minutes both noises from both places quieted. I offered myself a satisfied nod. It was a victory. Not a decisive one maybe, but complete enough.
I’m unsure at what point this certain bodily function became the holy grail of hilarity to him, but it did. Nothing in the world makes my son laugh as hard as either hearing it, smelling it, or—most of all—doing it.
He knows all the synonyms—gas, vapors, stinker, breaking wind, cutting the cheese, and the ever popular toot. He peppers them into his speech and has entire conversations about them with his friends. I suspect he even eats certain amounts of certain foods just to perform his own unique standup routine later on. Smellivision, I call it. The finale always seems reserved for the bathtub.
Raising a son is hard. Trying to explain why these antics aren’t what a young man should aspire to is harder.
So I sat him down. Said it’s a normal thing that everyone does, but not the sort of thing people should really be talking about a lot. And really not the sort of thing people should devote elaborate performances to. He nodded and yessir’d me and promised to be better.
And he was. Until bath time. His performance that night was somehow even more spectacular than usual.
Another talk. More parental wisdom. He said at the end, “But everybody does it.”
“But everybody should try not to make a big deal out of it,” I answered.
“I bet Jesus tooted.”
“I bet He did, too. I also bet he said ‘Excuse me’ after and then kept right on healing people and stuff instead of laughing and telling everyone how bad it smelled.”
“Yeah,” he said. “He was really good at that.”
Training a child is not unlike training a dog. It’s a long process that requires a lot of patience and a lot of effort. It’s reward and punishment, a firm hand and a loving one. And it’s also a practice best done knowing that while our children will slip from time to time, we do the very same thing.
Thankfully, he’s gotten better with this. Much better. The normal bodily functions are still functioning, but they’re being done so under the polite cover of modesty and discretion. Even in those times when nature plays its cruel hand and delivers multiple ones right after another—as just happened—he’s bent but not buckled. I’m proud of him. I really am.
Just now he handed me a sheet of paper between games on his DS, courtesy of his teacher. The class would be going on their first ever excursion in a week. To the fire department, no less. I scribbled my name at the bottom, giving my permission for him to attend.
“You’ll have fun,” I told him. “Did your teacher tell you what it’s called when you leave school and go somewhere?”
“Yep,” he said. “It’s a fart trip.”
Pray for me.