The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Little Tragedy

The Little Tragedy presents some big existential questions. And delivers them in a fast-paced narrative that I couldn’t put down.

Ever worry about the state of the world we’re passing along to our children?

Yeah. Me, too.

Which is why The Little Tragedy, by Jeff Haws, freaked me the hell out. Seriously.

It’s science-fictiony and dystopian–and probable enough to be deeply disruptive. This novel managed to make me pick apart and analyze the reasons I chose to have a child, my believes about the sanctity of life (and what actually constitutes life), and whether only having a limited amount of time with my child would change my choice to bring her into the world.

On top of all those existential questions, destiny also plays a significant role in this novel. Can we escape our destiny (either through denial or foolish choices)? To what extent do universal work to ensure we fulfill our destiny? And (probably my favorite) do we ever truly understand our importance in the world?

Haws writes multi-dimensional, believable characters. He creates the kind of scenarios that play out in the world every day–ones that have no clear hero or villain. Just folks acting shockingly human.

Toward the end, the narrative becomes incredibly fast-paced. I skim-read because I needed to know what happened. Like RIGHT THEN.

I was left with some unanswered questions. But it’s impressive that Haws created a novel that made me want to know MORE about the fictional world he created. I like being left with a few questions nagging at my mind. Because that’s the sign of a story that just won’t let go.

 

No Idea Why I’m in a Picture with a Donkey (but I can guarantee I was drunk)

Getting sober is HARD. But life on this side of being a drunk is pretty damn miraculous.

I went to work one time–in my mid 20s–with huge red blotches on my legs. They were raised and hot to the touch. I acted like I had no idea how they’d gotten there.

It was alcohol poisoning.

My girlfriend and I got invited to dinner at my boss’ house. A super-casual affair. Just a home-cooked meal and the opportunity to meet her family. My girlfriend and I showed up drunk. I had to pour myself out of the car.

My boss and her husband had been sober for over a decade. 

I sat outside one warm, Florida night with my friends, several years later, drinking and talking at a party I’d thrown. I continued to sit outside and drink by myself, long after everyone else had gone.

In the morning, I had over 80 mosquito bites. I never felt them bite me. Not once.

This is such minor shit compared to some of the stunts I pulled. But these little things ate away at me, too. I carried the shame of these moments–and hundreds of others, big & small–with me all the time until I got sober. Oh, I didn’t act ashamed. I acted brash, like none of this mattered. I was defensive and angry. I acted simultaneously self-righteous and selfish.

I was terrified.

Because, let’s be honest, that’s not how anyone plans for their life to go.

And I had no idea how to change things.

Strike that. That’s a lie. I did know how to change things. But I found that even more terrifying. Because the real bitch of being a drunk is that giving up alcohol seems like the worst punishment in the world. That’s right. Giving up the substance that’s causing your life to be an absolute shitshow seems intolerable.

I had no idea how to move through life sober. None.

Layers and layers of unresolved pain–from my fractured relationship with my family, from breakup after breakup, from depression, anxiety, and intense feelings of worthlessness–loomed large in my world. If I didn’t have alcohol to obliterate those feelings, I’d have to face them. And that seemed way more terrifying than any predicament I found myself in while I was drunk (and that’s saying a lot).

Alcohol had so little to do with my alcoholism. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

My drinking, even at the start when I was just 16, was about escape. I never felt good enough. I never thought I fit in. I felt like if anyone really knew me, they’d be horrified at what they saw. I had panic attacks at school. My anxiety was making it harder and harder to leave the house. But drinking made all that go away.

When I drank, I felt sexy and smart. I could talk freely and laugh without reservation. Alcohol worked. Until it didn’t.

But the whole time, I was broken. And nothing could fix that but me.

Getting sober was terrifying because it meant taking ownership–of my life, my perspective, the whacked out shit I’d done, the pain I’d caused others, the very real pain people had caused me. I had to own my part in all of it. And then I had to choose to heal.

It was the hardest work I’ve ever had to do. And I talk about it and write about it so that I never have to get sober again.

 

Know-it-all-ness + perfectionism = the death of curiosity

Developing good listening skills is a top priority for me in 2019. I know some folks who will be REAL thrilled about that.

I’m kind of a shit listener.

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Trust me, this is as shocking a revelation to me as it is to you. I thrive on interpersonal connection. When someone is telling me about the stuff that drives them, shapes them, makes them them, then I excel at listening.

It’s the other 85% of the time that I’m falling way short of the mark.

But being a good listener is a trait I really prize in other people. Good listeners are the folks I usually consider wise and insightful. Other people gravitate to them. Because you know what people want more than almost anything else? To be heard.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I started sorting through my listening problem. Being an abysmal listener isn’t a space I’m willing to dwell in–now that I’m aware of it. Nope. Onward and upward.

Here’s what I found:

  1. My not-so-good listening is connected to my know-it-all-ness. True, in daily life, I’ve tamped down my need to act like I know everything. Because that’s all kinds of of annoying. But there’s still this underlying thing: when confronted with information I know nothing about, I simply gloss over it in my mind. It’s a mental version of yeah-yeah-yeahing. I just assume I kind of know what’s going on and can make educated guesses about the rest of it. And I do this with topics I know nothing about.  You can imagine how effective that might be. giphy-4
  2. This mental yeah-yeah-yeahing relates directly to my lack of curiosity. I’ve realized recently that I don’t ask enough questions. I don’t ask why or how enough. And this is precisely why I suck at small talk. I just assume I’m not interested in “surface topics.” Which is some bullshit that means I don’t want to mentally engage about things that may not be in my wheelhouse. I don’t want to dig deeper–and leave my comfort zone. But lately I’ve been watching Simon communicate with people–and I’ve realized he really excels at this. He asks questions about things that are obviously important to the person he’s talking to. And then he gets these really interesting answers. Because he’s curious. I need more of that in my world. giphy-5
  3. Ultimately, I think all this–the know-it-all-ness and the lack of curiosity–finds its root in the perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a kid. I know some folks roll their eyes at the idea of perfectionism. I mean, who doesn’t want to be perfect, right? But I was the kind of kid who wouldn’t do something if I didn’t know I could do it right the first time. Anything less than a A on a test made me want to give up (see: high school Trigonometry and Chemistry). I’ve worked hard to shake this nonsense. Because–hello–I believe life is a continuous learning cycle. But I also wrote a novel that I thought I got perfect on the first try. And I was kind of crushed when someone told me it, in fact, needed work. Even though I should’ve known this right away because a) I am a writer. I revise things all the time and b) I taught college writing for 5 years. Which means all I did for 5 years was read student revisions, while constantly reiterating the benefits of revision to said students. But suddenly, I wrote a book and I forgot all that. I needed the project to be perfect to be worthwhile. Which meant I didn’t want to listen. To anything.giphy-6

Good listening is top on my list of priorities in 2019. At 43, I’d be a fool not to admit how little I know. The universal well of knowledge is so vast that the mere thought of how much I don’t know can completely paralyze me. But the easiest way I’ve found to let knowledge flow into my world is simply acknowledging that everyone I meet is my teacher. Which means I have to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know everything, and then open myself to the knowledge people are willing to impart if I’m just curious enough to receive it.

I write because I believe that stories matter. That they can change the world. I think it’s time to really open myself to the stories around me–even the ones that present themselves in the most ordinary of ways.

Eight is GR8!

Elizabeth Jane (Lizard, Lizzie Jane, Janiepants, Bug, Bear, EJ, Chicken, Monkeybutt Jr, etc…) is 8 years old today!

Honestly, I have no idea how my favorite human in all the world is 8 years old today.

It both seems like I’ve known her forever and like she just got here. I do know that she changed my world forever the very moment she entered it. And that I love her more & more with each passing day. Which I would’ve sworn would be impossible as I stared into her sweet little newborn face. But here we are: I love her infinitely more today that I did on the day of her birth. Because now I know her. And she is breath-taking.

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Jane really sees people, in a way I think most of us have forgotten to. She finds the very best in people, and she holds it up for everyone else to see. She reminds people that they are good at their core. She believes it.  And she’s made me believe it again, too.

She loves without condition. Even when people are difficult. Because, hell, aren’t most of us difficult some of the time? She offers a lot of grace–room for mistakes, space for second chances. She’s quick to forgive. And always 100% ready to help someone feel better.

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Jane’s primary resting state is happiness. She’s enthusiastic beyond measure. And she’s silly. She’ll totally walk up into her classroom strutting like a chicken. NBD. She’s a stripes-with-polka-dots-and-a-tutu-just-because-she-likes-it kind of kid. I love her willingness to simply be herself. She often tells me she enjoys being herself–that she likes herself. I hope that remains true for always. There’s just so much about her to like.

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She’s not perfect, this kid. Not by a long shot. And, if she were reading this, she’d say “Nobody’s perfect, Mommy. There’s always room for improvement.” Amen to that. I think what I admire so much about her is that she really grabs a hold of opportunities to improve. Oh, not right away. But she’s willing to ponder situations where things, let’s say, could have gone better. And, after an initial blame shuffle, she’ll quite often own her part in the meltdown of situation normal. Good Lord, I couldn’t do that until my mid 30s. Sometimes I struggle to do it now.

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The other day, she came home proclaiming, “Mommy, we’re so close, it’s almost like we’re sisters instead of mom & kid.” Sweet, but wildly untrue. I’m Mommy 100% of the time. Motherhood is no fucking joke. Even with the sweetest of kids, it’s a job fraught with tears, frustration, and meltdowns (mine as much as hers). But what IS true is that there is no other kid on this planet–in the multi-verse, even–whose mother I’d rather be.

My favorite thing to tell Jane is that she was worth the wait. It took us 2 years to conceive her.

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I’d definitely given up hope by the time we found out we were pregnant with her. But that struggle made me appreciate her brilliant presence in our lives all the more. I can’t imagine a world without my sweet Elizabeth Jane.

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As far as I’m concerned, I am the luckiest mother in the world (8 years running).

Why do they call it “The Birds & Bees” talk? Way to make it even WEIRDER.

I want to control the narrative that my kid receives about sex. And I CERTAINLY don’t want her friends explaining it to her…

My (almost) 8 year old knows more about the female reproductive system and how babies are made than I knew when I started middle school. Let me tell you, NOT knowing about sex puts you at a distinct disadvantage in recess conversations. Because if your parents don’t tell you about sex, some kid is going to. And, most likely, they’ll get some pretty big parts of the equation completely wrong.

I want my daughter to understand her own body. I want her to know sex is not shameful. I want to give her knowledge.

And I have. Kind of.

In a theoretical sense, she knows how babies are made. Or, more accurately, she knows how SHE was made. She knows that making a baby requires a girl part (the egg) and a boy part (the sperm)–and that’s true no matter who is making the baby. But, she was conceived in a doctor’s office. While I looked up at star garland that had been placed along the ceiling for just such an occasion. But what she DOESN’T know is how the vast majority of babies are conceived.

And, you have to admit, compared to her conception story–where a doctor is strategically placing the sperm it has the very best chance of connecting with and fertilizing the egg–sex is just WEIRD.

I mean… come ON. A penis goes WHERE??? Can you imagine receiving this information as an 8 year old?

I can’t. Because no one ever talked to me plainly about any of this sex stuff. In fact, like so many other girls my age, my mother just handed me a book about sex, and the body, and puberty and told me I should report back with any questions. I grew up conservative Presbyterian. You can imagine that the Focus on the Family book she gave me wasn’t exactly sex-positive. It was homophobic, masturbation-shaming, abstinence preaching bullshit. But it shamed me into ever talking about or fully exploring my desires as a teenager. So, I guess mission accomplished?

I want something different for Jane. And that involves arming her with facts. Before the other kids try to “educate” her.

I think she’s gonna be pretty mad if I don’t explain the whole penis/vagina thing before someone else does. It’s a pretty big piece of the puzzle to leave out. But, wow, is that an odd conversation to instigate.

The other stuff has come so naturally. We want Jane to know her conception story. It’s an important part of who we are as a family–in part because we’re an LGBTQ family and in part because I just think people should fully understand their own story. So, telling her about the egg/sperm connection was easy. And, since she’s my constant sidekick and nothing gets by her, she asked about tampons at an early age & I told her what they were for. No one in this house is period-shaming. It’s just a thing that happens. No shame. No stigma.

But, you know, sometimes it takes more than one conversation for all the relevant info to sink in. The other day, I got my period and needed a fresh pair of underwear. So I shouted for Jane (who was standing right outside the bathroom door—because motherhood). She got me a pair… then she asked if I was okay (she was probably pondering why her perfectly capable mother seemed incapable of getting her own damn underwear. At least, that’s what I would have been thinking). I said all off-hand like, “Yeah, I’m just bleeding. NBD.”

Her eyes opened wide.

“It’s okay. I’m not hurt.”

She was still staring at me. “You are bleeding? From your VAGINA? Mommy, I’m not sure your vagina is supposed to do that.”

I laughed. Explained periods again. And we moved on. She’s still skeptical about the bleeding part. I mean, again, it IS kind of weird. In the way that the WHOLE human reproduction thing is weird. You should have seen her face when I explained how babies come OUT…

So, yeah, it’s time to explain all the weirdness of sex without making it, well, weird. Fingers crossed that the S-E-X conversation isn’t the first thing she brings up in therapy years from now…

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Wednesday Wars

Sometimes, my stubbornness pays off. This book is one of those times.

I got through one chapter of The Wednesday Wars– and I wanted to quit.

My passion is middle grades fiction. I adore it. And this book had a Newberry Honor Medal right on the cover. But I was bored. I didn’t take to Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, right away. He kept prattling on about Treasure Island, which I’d never read & didn’t give a flying fig about. Plus, he seemed kind of whiny.

But I kept reading…

The Wednesday Wars turned out to be one of the most moving, gut-punch real feelings books I’ve read in a while. I will cop to being enamored that much of the book works its way around and through Shakespeare’s plays (the Shakespearian curses–and the big themes, too). It’s set in 1967-68, so the book also reckons with the Vietnam war and the tense political climate (A+.for being historical without feeling preachy or teachy).

I loved all those things… but  most loved that Gary D. Schmidt creates a seventh grade protagonist who likes Shakespeare AND baseball, who says stupid things AND cares deeply that he said them, who is learning AND feeling AND making the reader laugh. (And maybe cry, too.) Schmidt’s artful turns of plot and his ability to narrate with stark honesty and beauty made this book a stand-out.

We need more protagonists like Holling: boys who are sensitive, kind, brave, and real. And seventh graders need more adults who take them seriously, who listen, and who remember how hard seventh grade can be.

If I Was A Character In A Book…

Play along! If you were a character in a book, what would you be like? Leave your description in the comments.

If I was a character in a book, I would be…

40 years old. Single, but in an on again off again relationship with a woman I loved but just couldn’t quite seem to commit to. And I’d have a perfectly trained German Shepherd, named Jack, who seemed to be able to read my mind. He’d ride everywhere in the passenger seat of my pickup truck. No leash necessary for Jack. He’s a good boy.

I’d live somewhere in the mountains, where I could hike and camp often. And I would. I’d be the kind of woman folks would refer to as fiercely independent. I’d be able to set up a campsite in my sleep. I’d know how to make the best damn coffee you’d ever had, just sat the sun pushed it’s way into the morning sky (I’d definitely be an early riser). And I’d be able to catch a fish, clean it, and cook it over the campfire on a moment’s notice. I’d spend a lot of time in the woods because I’d enjoy the time to myself, in the quiet, where I could think (Jack, the German Shepard, would always be with me, of course). I’d be both deeply spiritual and deeply insightful. I’d cuss like a sailor at the drop of a hat. But I’d be unfalteringly kind and patient, especially with kids and animals. From adults, I’d take no bullshit.

I’d be a straight-talker. Unafraid of speaking my truth. My mom would be my best friend–and we’d spend lots of afternoons fixing up her house or baking together. She’d always get after me to settle down and have kids. I’d tell her to go get her a dog to keep her occupied.

A journalist by trade, I’d get to travel all over the United States. Intrepid reporting, that’d be my calling. Readers would call me fearless. My editor would call me a pain in the ass. But I’d always come through with the story. And sometimes those stories would actually change things.

I’d have blondish curly hair that hung past my shoulders, which I’d usually pile into some crazy ass looking bun on the top of my head. I’d be not quite tan, but definitely sun-kissed. With lots of freckles and luminous green eyes. Jeans and cowboy boots would be my go-to, along with well-worn button up oxfords. And I’d never, not once, be caught dead in a dress.

I’d be completely devoted to helping LGBTQ kids in crisis that sometimes passed through my small town on their way to somewhere else, often letting them crash in the studio apartment adjacent to the barn. Of course I’d have a barn. And a horse. Named Clyde. The kids would come and go as they needed. They’d know I was always there for tough love and compassion. I’d love each of them more than I’d admit to myself. I’d end up adopting one, a young man named Miles, right before his 16th birthday. Because when people are meant to be family, they just know it.

I’d be happy and strong. Independent and kind. And I’d never give one flying fuck what anyone had to say about me or the way I lived my life. Because I’d be absolutely sure, 100%, that I was loved by the Universe. And that life was a grand adventure, and I was lucky to be along for the ride.

If you were a character in a book, who would you be?