New Release – Jam Night

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Jam NightAbout a year ago, I wrote a short story inspired by things that were going on at the time. There had been some Internet bullying of indie authors, so I worked out some demons by writing a fictional story informed by my time in junior high. I can’t say by any stretch that I enjoyed junior high (with the exception of Mr. Henry’s Geography class and my 8th grade band trip to Michigan), but my experiences developed who I am.

Who am I?

I am a person who was bullied. Even now, over 20 years later, when I write that statement, my heart hesitates. Even admitting it makes me wonder if someone will retaliate against me. You might scoff, but that fear still runs through me to this day.

I was going through my blog the other day and found the story I’d posted, which I called Jam Night. I read through it, dusted it off a little, tightened up the wording and added a few hundred words to the narrative. It isn’t a long story — coming in just under 2,500 words, but it is one I needed to tell. I don’t care if anyone buys it or even reads it, but I wanted to put it out there for anyone who might be going through a tough time at school, or in their personal life with bullies. It is a trite saying, but it does get better. The first couple years of high school were no treat, either, but I can honestly say that a small group of friends made my final few years in high school some of my favorite memories.

Ultimately, writing the story helped me to tackle a few of my own demons left over from junior high. Will I ever be rid of all of the demons? I doubt it, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe those demons are there to remind me what it’s like to be on the side of the bullied. As an adult, it’s easy to say kids should just “suck it up,” but for them, the fear can be crippling and debilitating. I hope this story can at least help one person in that regard.

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Moving & Memories

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When I was young, I moved a few times. There were a few moves before I’d even hit the age of remembering what was happening to me, but the first real home I can recall was a large two-story home about 10 miles outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It was a dream — a big house on a big lot with a corn field backing up onto the backyard. I remember playing hide and seek with my sister in the cornfield and occasionally a friend that I would have over. My mom tended a garden in the back with all sorts of items, including tomatoes and even some blueberry bushes. The backdoor had a huge step down, especially for a six-year old, and I remember watching Haley’s Comet from the spacious backyard that was as large to me at the time as all of outer space.

In the front was our road — we lived on a cul-de-sac so there wasn’t much in terms of traffic. Our cat, Princess, had kittens during our time there. We took most to North Dakota and released them on Grandma’s farm, but we kept one, which us kids named Jamie. That kitten was hit by a car on that cul-de-sac, the road with virtually no traffic. I practiced riding my bike on the road, but didn’t perfect my cycling skills until we’d moved to Phoenix, Arizona the summer before my third grade year.

Phoenix was hot.

No joke — the place does have a dry heat. Those who grow up in the Midwest with the humidity of 98% on an August afternoon can’t comprehend the heat. But, that’s not what I remember about my home. Sure,  we had cactus growing in our neighbor’s yard — if you can call a gravel-filled space a yard. The grass in our backyard was brown most of the year and we rarely had to mow it. All of the homes in our subdivision had a six-foot tall block wall separating us from our neighbors, but our neighbor to the north had a Great Dane who could place his front paws on top of the wall and peer over. As you can imagine, that didn’t make Princess thrilled to be in the backyard.

The thing I remember about Phoenix was my friends. I went to church at Orangewood Church of the Nazarene and quickly was made a part of perhaps the best group of friends I’ve ever had in my life. Adam, Brent, Ben and Josh. Later Brad moved in from Indiana and Josh moved off to Idaho, but the friendships I developed will stick with me for the rest of my life. The time we would spend playing football in a grassy lot after church was finished each Sunday morning are some of the best memories I have in my life. One of the biggest regrets of my life wasn’t moving from Phoenix to the suburbs of Chicago — it was not keeping in touch with some of the greatest friends I’d ever made.

Once in Illinois, I was immediately thrown into a tough situation. I had gone through sixth grade in elementary school in Arizona, but at my new school, sixth grade was part of middle school. All the kids I was now joining in seventh grade had already bonded and made friends the year before. I was an easy target for bullies and it took a while to make friends. I went out for football that 7th grade year — and then was diagnosed with mono a few weeks into school. Already out sick for two weeks and unable to stay on the football team. Not a great way to start.

The new house was about 40 minutes outside Chicago and one of my first memories of the house was a wasp nest. The house had sat empty for so long before my parents bought it that a wasp colony had invaded one of the eaves and had built itself into the wall and even slightly into my bedroom. It was taken care of fairly quickly, but there was always a nagging fear early on that wasps would take over my room.

Junior high and high school wasn’t always great, but I did eventually make friends. Some friends I have managed to stay in contact with even today.

This look back is really because I was thinking about why writing and the love of books is so important to me. I suppose it’s because I was never able to make those lasting memories and friendships from one location to another. What did I have? The books that sat on the same bookshelf year after year. The dusty pages with stories that entertained me again and again never went away. Even if I went somewhere else, I could always take them along.

Even today, I’ve now lived in one spot longer than any other in my life, but the books and stories will always have a special place, both in my heart, and in my home.

Confronting the Bullies

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Just the word itself – Bully – is enough to cause my heart to skip a beat. For me to get a little short of breath and to force myself not to run to the nearest bathroom stall to shake in fear.

I was bullied as a kid. Through portions of elementary school, junior high, and the early part of high school, I was the subject of many different torments, taunts, and teasing.

Why? I’ve asked that question millions of times throughout my life. At times I was the new kid – I moved from Michigan to Phoenix just before third grade and then again to the suburbs of Chicago after sixth grade. Easy pickings with no friends at the beginning of my tenure in Arizona and Illinois, for sure.

Perhaps it was because of my weight. I take after my father’s Scandinavian line – overweight, but not plagued with health issues. It took me a long time to accept my weight. Even today it is difficult for me to lose weight and I’ve decided it is so I can survive the long winters in Sweden and Norway. But, the size of your shirt makes a difference to bullies when you have to undress in front of each other in a junior high locker room.

I’m sure I could come up with some other reasons, but the end result was the same. The bully would get their words and jabs in and I would just have to suffer.

But why didn’t you stand up for yourself? (Those who have never suffered from bullying might ask.)

Here’s the thing – I did. At least a few times. But, I wasn’t skilled at hiding from teachers and evading their wandering eyes like the bullies were. Once I got tired of the bullying from a classmate in junior high and tripped the kid in the hallway. End result? I got a detention as the bully got away Scott-free. Other times I said something to a teacher, but it just made it worse when the offender was free again.

Lesson learned? Don’t tell. Don’t fight back. Endure the bullying and it will go away.

But….

I was wrong. You have to fight back or the bullies will get their way.

It took me a long time to get to this point. I’m 34 now. High school bullying pretty much ended for me about my junior year when I fully settled into my role as a high school band member. I played the saxophone and the rest of the band welcomed and accepted me. Strength in numbers kept the bullies away. Slowly my self-esteem rebounded and I now believe I am strong psychologically and emotionally. But, the memories of bullies still strike fear into my heart.

Now as a high school teacher, I do see some bullying and when I see it, I do my best to stop it. To be honest, there are moments when I – twice the bully’s age – are fearful they will turn the taunts right back on me. But, those moments are thankfully more fleeting than they used to be thanks to the love and acceptance of family and friends.

Let’s bring this back to writing now. A few days ago, Hugh Howey wrote a blog post about paying for book reviews. Apparently, an anonymous blog “outed” a number of authors who have allegedly paid for reviews and they were going forward with names. Howey was on that list along with a number of other successful indie authors. Hugh decided to stick up for himself, declaring he had never paid for any reviews.

(In a brief sidenote – I’ll make a similar declaration that I have also never paid for reviews on any of my books.)

In his post, Hugh noted of a time when he was in middle school and being bullied.

The most common advice given is silence, to just ignore it, and I have mostly heeded this advice. I have chickened out. It has left me feeling like I did in middle school, where I was regularly bullied. I remember pretending to be sick so I didn’t have to go to school and deal with a kid who once pointed a gun at my brother, pulled the trigger, and laughed when it clicked. A kid who pushed us into thorny bushes (why the hell do they plant those at schools?) and who roughed us up when anyone wasn’t looking. I really did feel sick most mornings. My stomach would twist up in knots, and I lived in constant terror that I’d be targeted on a whim. I was also afraid to stick up for anyone, because I didn’t want to be targeted. We all felt this way.

 I’m right there with you Hugh. Now, the anonymous site is striking back at Hugh, pointing at Hugh’s declaration, made on the memory of his deceased dog, Jolie, as a ruse. “Could anyone be more guilty?” they say.

More bullying tactics. As people are calling for proof and evidence, the bully comes right back with taunts, name calling, sarcasm, and…no proof. In fact, there are no responses on the blog post. I have at least one friend who said he tried to make one but the moderator of the site hasn’t approved it. Shocking.

Bullies don’t want to show both sides. That’s a job for professional journalists. Bullies with blogs are just looking for website traffic and sensationalism. Job achieved. You’ll notice I haven’t linked the blog in question. If you want to find it, you can, but I’ll not give it any more links than it deserves.

I told Hugh this morning, “Success breeds jealousy.” I saw this in school as well. My grades were another aspect that earned me ridicule and I now realize my place and success in life are points that my grade school bullies would likely be jealous of as they contemplate life from a jail cell.

If a bully picks on you, we don’t have to take it. It may seem like junior high all over again, but it isn’t. We have family and friends. What do they have? An anonymous blog with no proof. Desperate for approval. Don’t give it to them. Don’t give in.