At A Loss

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Last week, Hugh Howey wrote a blog piece about themes in his writing and it got me thinking about my own. I have enough of a sample to draw from now, so I should be able to find some major themes and one stuck out like a sore thumb.

Loss.

Oh boy, that struck home big time. I suppose it’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life. The presence of it in my writing shouldn’t surprise me, but the level to which it is intertwined in most of my stories was a little shocking.

This isn’t a woe is me story. I have it pretty good overall. But, I definitely find a sense of loss at the core of much of my writing.  

Take, for example, Mary from my story, The Veil. As a silo resident, she obviously has to deal with loss on a number of levels, some of which existed before she was even born (the loss of a life outside of the underground can). But reading through the story, Mary lost her father when she was just a young child. For me, this was a profound event. No, I haven’t lost my father, but there were many times in my childhood when he just wasn’t there. When my family left Arizona to move to Illinois at the end of my sixth grade year, he had already been working and living in the suburbs of Chicago for a year. His job certainly kept him at the office later than I would have liked as a child as well.

How about my very first protagonist – Kirk McIntyre in Perfect Game? I can’t go too deep into his loss without spoiling the story, but his loss is deeply personal and will last forever. The entire story is molded by what happens after his loss during his junior year in high school.

Kristina in my Dead Sleep series has lost so much. Her family…her childhood…her innocence. All because of choices her father made. Choices that were out of her hands when she was nine years old.

In all of these cases, the loss suffered by the characters shapes the narrative. It pulls the characters in directions they wouldn’t have normally gone and dictates what their roles in the story will be.

Just as the losses suffered in my life. I already mentioned my father, but the losses I went through in the early part of my life changed me and made me who I am today – whether good or bad. My family was and is stable. My parents are still married – going to celebrate 45 years of marriage at the end of this year – but the life I was given was not grounded. The first place I really remember living was in Michigan, but I apparently lived in at least two other states before my brain started catching on. Before I hit third grade, I was in Arizona, and then Illinois after sixth.

The loss I was handed as a child was that of the life I had developed and gotten used to. My best friend in Michigan was Mikey. I remember climbing trees with him and playing in the laundry chute in his house, talking about He-Man and altogether having a blast.

I’ve seen Mikey one time since 1987. It wasn’t the same. The trees were suddenly too imposing to climb. The laundry chute was too small (and what were we thinking – that thing was dangerous!). He-Man was old news and we just didn’t have anything in common. I wish I could have remained friends, but the bonds of friendship fell apart somewhere between Ann Arbor and Phoenix.

In Arizona, I had an amazing group of friends – Adam, Brent, Ben, Josh, and Brad. We all went to church together, played pick-up football after Sunday worship, had sleepovers, went to church camp, rooted for the Denver Broncos, and were inseparable. I moved to Illinois and we lost something. I actually did see them a few more times throughout junior high and high school, but each time we reconnected, the strands of friendship were a bit more frayed.

I actually went to college with two of them, but by then we were different people. I even took multiple classes with one and we had a good friendship, but there was a chasm between the acquaintances we were in college compared to the buddies we were in the desert.

I wish I could have those friendships back. I wish the time I’d spent making and cultivating those friendships hadn’t been put to waste. That is the loss I felt.

That sense of loss – from my father to my friends to my way of life – is perhaps the most resounding theme I have found in my writing.

But, throughout it all, I’ve come to look at it all with a sense of humility. I am not bigger than my family or my situations. And when you can step back from it all, you can use it all as a learning opportunity. Yes, I write with loss as a central theme, but in the end, there are always different ways to fill the void. With each character, the loss is part of them, but it doesn’t consume them. They learn to adapt, to grow, to make something of their lives. 

That’s the key. Loss is a part of all of our lives. My loss isn’t greater than anyone else’s, but hopefully writing through it can help others and entertain all at the same time. 

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Jam Night — a short story

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about bullying, and decided to share a fictional story that is very autobiographical in many respects. I haven’t posted fiction here before, but I thought you guys might enjoy this short story. 

Standing at the top of the three-point line, Scott kicked his right foot just a bit. It was just eight inches out in front of the left foot, but it was enough. The thought of what he was doing – what might actually happen, thrilled and scared him at the same time.

Scott waited in the middle of the junior high basketball court, holding one of the burnt orange leather balls, which bounced all around him. He wasn’t dressed to play – no one was, really. It was a Friday night and Scott had begrudgingly decided to attend Jackson Junior High Jam Night – a dance and activity night rolled into one event held once every couple months.

The last time – the only time – Scott had attended Jam Night, he’d stood against the wall in the cafeteria, too awkward and shy to find his way onto the dance floor. Definitely too uncoordinated to show off the dance moves he’d left in his basement at home.

Some friends of his – at least he hoped they were his friends – had encouraged Scott to come to the Jam Night. With his older sister hosting a slumber party, Scott ultimately chose the least awkward choice and had his mom drop him off at the school’s entrance just before 7 p.m.

As his mother drove away, Scott had the sudden urge to run after the family minivan, get back in, and take his lumps from the high school aged girls back at home. But Scott resisted, putting one foot in front of the other as the front doors of the junior high loomed in front of him.

The bass of the music was already thrumming through Scott even with the doors closed to the school’s cafeteria. Jump by Kriss Kross came blaring through the cracks between the doors and as if to emphasize the tune, Scott saw two classmates emerge from the cafeteria into the hallway with their jeans on backwards.

To calm his nerves, Scott found the snack table, picking up a few cookies and a cup of red punch.

“Hey Scott!”

Quickly turning around, Scott spilled some of the red fruit punch on his jeans. Great. Here five minutes and I’m already embarrassing myself. He looked up from the red splotches on the front of his jeans and sees Garrett walking in the front door. Sitting next to Garrett every day in band led to a natural friendship, but Scott was still a little wary of almost everyone in the school. He’d only been here four months so far after years in a previous state.

“Hi Garrett,” Scott muttered before turning his attention back to his pants.

Garrett sees the damage, realizing his greeting caused the spill. “Oh boy…sorry! I bet dabbing that with some warm water might help.”

The two boys headed to the nearest bathroom and did their best to clean the red spots off Scott’s jeans. Not only did Garrett’s solution not work, it only made the stains worse, giving Scott the appearance of wetting himself.

“Great. I didn’t even want to come – now I’m going to look stupid,” Scott said with resignation.

Scott slid down the tile wall opposite the sinks, more than willing to stay in the bathroom the rest of the evening. Garrett stood back, leaning against the edge of the porcelain sink. The look on his face is blank at first, but soon he has a quizzical look before he heads to the bathroom door.

“Hold on, Scott. I’ll be right back,” Garrett said, bursting out of the restroom. Less than a minute later, Garrett was back, but his jeans were now spotted with red splotches of their own – matching the red fruit punch Scott had initially spilled on his own jeans. Without a word, Garrett went back to the sink, and splashed a handful of water on the stained jeans.

“There. If you were planning on being the best dressed here tonight, you’ve got another thing coming,” Garrett said to Scott with a mischievous smile.

That was all it took to get Scott up off the bathroom floor and out among his peers. The school, normally quiet as lessons and lectures went on behind the closed classroom doors, was buzzing with the electricity of young teens uninhibited with a weekend ahead of them. It was a chance to show off for your friends and classmates and to possibly make some new friends in the process.

Scott and Garrett went around the edges of the cafeteria, eventually ditching out on the dance floor and the girls who primarily inhabited it. They found the game room with a few dozen adolescents playing Chess, Checkers, Clue, Sorry! and Monopoly among others. All the tables were filled with other classmates waiting to play, so Scott and Garrett kept wandering.

That wandering eventually led them to the school’s basketball court, which was a chaotic mess of gangly teens trying to make moves like Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson. Scott wasn’t gifted athletically, but Garrett liked to play, so the two grabbed a ball and took to a smaller half-court towards the back of the gym. Finally, Scott was enjoying himself as he made a few baskets with Garrett gathering rebounds.

As the two continued to play, others filtered over and eventually more than 10 were on the court, which meant substitutions, putting Scott on the sidelines. He couldn’t blame Garrett. After all, Scott just couldn’t compete in sports like his new-found friend could. With no end in sight to the game, Scott grabbed a nearby ball and went to another half-court on the other side of the large gym.

Scott went in for a few lay-ups, working up a little bit of a sweat in the process and then the ball was knocked out of his hands.

“Ha! Way to go fatty!”

Randy Weber. The one kid in the school that wouldn’t let up on Scott even though Scott was far from a new kid after four months. He was easy pickings in the first few weeks of school after transferring from the western part of the United States, but had hoped that after four months kids like Randy would let up. He remembered the first time he met Randy in English class. Scott saw the kid’s nameplate on his desk and introduced himself.

“My name is Scott and you are Randy Weber?” Scott asked, pronouncing the boy’s last name like Wee-ber.

“What a moron. What kind of kids are they letting in to this school these days? The name’s Weber – like Webb-er. Doofus.”

Ever since that day, Scott tried to keep his distance from Randy, but they had four classes together. Keeping your distance was difficult when you had to sit near your tormentor every day. At Jam Night in the gymnasium, Scott didn’t know what to do, so he simply gathered up the basketball and went back for a few three-pointers as Randy kept walking. But, after a few three-point attempts, it was clear Randy wasn’t going to leave Scott alone when he swatted the ball out of Scott’s hands after a miss and chucked it across the gym with a maniacal laugh.

Once again, Scott took a loose ball nearby and went back to the top of the key. Out of the corner of his eye, he found Randy Weber running towards him as he prepared to shoot. Instead of shooting, he stuck out his foot and purposefully tripped the bully.

Down Randy went, face first on the slick gym floor, skidding for a bit. The entire gymnasium seemed to stop; all the action on the courts froze as Randy slowly stood back up and turned around. His nose was bleeding, a small trickle which had already reached his upper lip.

He closed the ground between himself and Scott quickly, or so it seemed to Scott who was incapable of movement during the entire process. He couldn’t believe what he’d done, even if it was just a few inches of his foot.

“You’re gonna be sorry you did that, fatty,” Randy said, his mouth just inches from Scott’s. Without waiting for a response, Randy balled up his right hand and sucker-punched Scott in the gut.

Immediately, Scott crumpled on the ground, never before hit with the force he’d suffered at Randy’s hand or hit with the humiliation Randy had hit him with, all at the same time. He closed his eyes, just hoping that Randy would go away – that the single punch would be enough to sate the beast within. Before he knew it, however, another voice came through.

“Leave him alone.”

Garrett.

Scott opened his left eye to see what was going on above him. Garrett had abandoned the pick-up game on the other court and was now between him and Randy. The sweat Garrett had accumulated over the past 20 minutes on the basketball court, shone on his brow like a helmet on a medieval knight. Randy reached over with both hands and shoved Garrett, hoping Scott’s prone figure behind him would trip him up. Scott scrambled out of the way, allowing Garrett to stumble without interference.

Scott got back on his feet and Garrett joins him as they stand against Randy.

“Just go away…find someone else to pick on, Randy,” Garrett said, putting his arm around Scott’s shoulders.

Randy looked around and found no allies. Backing up, he picked up a loose ball and threw it overhand. As it flew over the head of the two friends, the bully turned and walked out of the gym.

Garrett turned back to Scott. Somehow he knew Scott didn’t want to talk about it, but instead did the best thing he could.

“Come on – let’s go play ball,” Garrett said, leading Scott back to the court and starting a new game with Scott as his first choice. 

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.