Almost Didn’t Make It


Is there a sadder word in the language than “almost?”

I read this week’s stream of consciousness prompt — the word, almost — and my head began to fill with almosts. He almost won the gold medal, but his ankle snapped in the last hundred meters. She almost got the job, but they found out about her side business selling pygmies as house pets. We almost got married, but my ex showed up at the last minute, burned the church down, and impaled my bride-to-be with my collectible Wayne Gretzky hockey stick, broken off at the handle.

Almost is the language of failure, it’s a word of defeat. But it’s not simply a coming-up-short, it’s worlds worse than a didn’t-quite-make-it, it’s an age away from never-really-had-a-chance. Why? Because with the almost, you can taste the victory.

There’s something comforting in not reaching for the dream, in admitting to yourself that you don’t really have what it takes to even start down the path. The blankets on the bed are warm, after all, and these reruns of Law and Order, Criminal Justice Unit for White-Collar Executives who Only Get Slaps On The Wrist aren’t going to watch themselves. You never start down the path, you never really think of how victory might feel, so you never miss out.

Image result for couch potato

Or, okay, say you start; you make the resolutions, you block out the time, you hold fast for a few weeks, but then you bow out because it’s just too hard. That happens. Nothing to be ashamed of. This failure stings a little, because you “wasted” that time trying the thing, but it’s better to see you’re not cut out for it early than to change who you are, because change is fargoing scary. Nope, this one is a lesson learned, and that lesson is: stay home.

Right, so maybe quitting after just a few weeks isn’t your bag. You’re really determined to make this thing work this time, and you plug away at it for a few months or even maybe a year or so. Maybe even start to think it could happen. But you know what happens to everybody, eventually? LIFE HAPPENS. And work gets hectic, or you get that long bout of mono, or your deadbeat brother moves in, and god almighty, how are you supposed to deal with this thing that MUST be dealt with and that other thing you wanted to do? Something has to give, and we know what it’s going to be. At least you have something to blame this failure on, and blame is good, because you don’t have to own up to the fact that maybe it wasn’t that important to you anyway.

Which brings us to the almost. The saddest of the sad. Because with the almost, you do the work. You feel the change in yourself. You create or you achieve or you conquer or you otherwise get done the things you’re trying to get done, and little by little you gain on that big goal, that overarching thing that looked so monstrous when you first started, until it’s just a leap away… and then the catastrophe strikes. Broken ankle. Rejected manuscript. New guy gets the promotion over you. And you’re so focused on winning that you maybe don’t even realize that you’ve lost until the parade has started, and then it slowly dawns that the parade is not for you. How do you cope? How do you throw yourself at the wall again? How do you find the strength to go back to the beginning and start over?

But see… that’s one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is that the almost is just a whisker away from the Mission Accomplished. The almost is one favorable gust of wind away from the parade being in your honor instead of the other guy’s. The almost is the difference between your boss or your book reviewer or your opponent skipping breakfast on the day that matters because he didn’t get a good night’s sleep instead of coming in with guns a’blazing. If you can get to the almost… well… how can you stop there?

I changed my mind from the beginning of the post. Almost isn’t the saddest word in the language. It’s maybe the most motivating ever.

What’s almost within your grasp? What have you almost achieved? And what’s to stop you from going back and trying it again?

Baby Steps

Writing is a journey, yeah?

You start off uncertain whether the two words you just committed to the blank page even belong in the same zip code with one another, or whether, like tinfoil and microwave ovens, their relationship is doomed before the heat even gets turned up. But you press on, smashing words together with the blithe indifference of the LHC, watching for sparks, looking for anything that resonates, and before you know it, you have a thing.

Maybe it’s a novel. Or a screenplay. Or a short story. Or a poem. Or a lyric. But you have this thing, born from the unfathomable space between your ears, and it’s raw and wriggling and it may or may not have a chance in this world, but it’s yours.

And at first, it’s all: whoa. I did that. I created this thing from nothingness. And you float on that godlike feeling for a while. But it only lasts for so long, because we’re talking about literature of one caliber or another, here, and literature is only as important as its audience decides it is. And that means that, first and foremost, what it needs is an audience.

But it’s not ready for an audience yet. Too many rough edges, too many unshapen limbs, too many vestigial tails. You shape it, you trim it, you coddle it in some places and you axe its redundant bits in others, never really knowing if you’re helping it or dooming it, only trying your best to give it a chance to breathe the air of this strange and indifferent world. Like it or not, eventually that moment comes, when it must leave the nest and survive or die trying.

The second draft of my novel is out today to three beta readers. The first was my wife, and as much as I love and appreciate her for reading my drivel, I can’t trust her feedback alone. She’s more or less obligated to tell me it’s good, and that I haven’t been banging my head against the keyboards of various computers for the last seventeen months for nothing. And I value her feedback, I do — she’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am — but I’m (hopefully) writing for an audience that’s larger than just my wife. And I’m not ashamed to tell you, even though I know these beta readers personally, I am scared sharknadoless to get feedback from them.

It’s odd. I am hoping that they’ll be impartial enough to give me the feedback that I need to better the story, but I’m terrified of what that feedback will be.

Still, it’s a necessary step in the process. In order to grow, we must shed our skins, leave behind the old uses that threaten to keep us from becoming the new and future uses. (That’s “us”es, not “uses”.)

Of course, that doesn’t make it easy.

The Deuce Horizon (Where did my life go wrong?)

I sat down tonight to write a blarg, and all I could think about was poop.

Not my poop. Let’s get that right. Baby poop, cat poop, dog poop… I’m inundated by Poops Which Are Not Mine, and inevitably, regrettably, it oozes over (ew) to my recreational writing. And as I sat here, pondering the poop I was trying hard not to ponder, I realized that my life has taken a series of unfortunate turns to bring me to this point.

To be clear, that point would be the point where I feel compelled to write entire blog posts about poop.

It wasn’t always this way. My life used to be ordinary. Go to work. Talk to some friends. Party hard on the weekend and reload on Monday, then do it again. There’s very little about poop in the cycle that used to be my life, except of course for the unmentionable one or two per day, and it certainly didn’t occupy my thoughts the way it does recently.

But then I got married. And we got some cats. And some dogs. And now we have a couple of kids. And at some point, my life changed over from never think about poop even when poop is happening to poop is the gravitational sun at the center of my universe.

Cleaning poopy diapers. Trying to get the sprout to poop on the toilet. Baby sticking her foot in the poop while I’m trying to clean the poop. Cat poop in litter boxes. Cat poop out of litter boxes. Letting the dog out to poop. Dog pooping on the carpet because we were at work all day. Cats dragging their poopy butts on the carpet. Carrying kids’ poopy diapers straight out to the curb because they’re too horrific to keep bottled up in the house.

Didn’t the Talking Heads have a song like that? This is not my beautiful life! Who knew I would hear that lyric and think only of poop.

Here’s a true statement, without embellishment: I have to deal with Poop Which Is Not Mine at least four or five times a day, which is enough, I think, to cause anybody to fixate a little bit. In short, for me: poop is a problem.

And the problem goes beyond the poop itself (which, let’s face it, is more than enough problem in its own right). Since I deal with it so much, I fixate, as I believe I may have mentioned. And that means it’s floating around in my subconscious, not unlike turds in the crapper, just waiting to back up the septic system of my brain. So I sit down to write a blarg topic, and all I can think of is crap. Literally.

There’s the second problem. Who wants to read a blarg about poop? Nobody, that’s who. To be honest, I don’t even want to be writing about the poop. Even thinking the word makes me feel icky, let alone typing it out over and over again as I’ve done tonight. Sure, I’m desensitized to it in a sense, but then it all comes bubbling back up while I’m sitting here trying not to think about it.

This is not a blarg about poop. This is not my beautiful life. I want this blarg to be a place where I write about writing and funny and quirky and interesting things that happen to me and that flit through my mind like butterflies through a fragrant meadow, but the percentage of posts about poop is really skewing the numbers around here.

And here, I’m exacerbating the problem by writing an entire post solely about poop.

If there’s a poop event horizon, I’m pretty sure I’ve crossed it by now. The poop in my life (Poop Which Is Not Mine, I hasten to add) is taking over, and I am not okay with that.

But the fact is, I don’t know if I can be saved. I have several years yet before I can stop thinking so much about these particular biological functions in my children… and let’s be honest, even when these functions are done, there will be an entirely new host of biological functions I will have to worry about.

If nothing else, I can perhaps serve as a warning.

If there’s Poop Which Is Not Yours in your life… in any capacity at all… run. Get out now, while you still can. The word “poop” appeared thirty-five times in this blog post. That’s too many for any sane person.

Goals and Sub-Goals

I sat down to write a blarg post tonight, and all I wanted to do was work on my capital “W” Writing projects.

So I did.

And it got me to thinking, for all the time I’ve spent working on those projects, it’s about time I did something with them. Publication is the sort of over-arching goal for the foreseeable future — of my novel, of course, but really of anything — so I need to start finding out whether anything I’ve written is worth, you know, actual money to somebody. Which means it’s time to get over my big fear and start sending some work out.

And if I’m going to send work out, it damn sure needs to be my best, or at least my best for right now. But as I know from oh, the past 34 years of my life, if I don’t have a deadline, it won’t get done.

So, some new goals:

Existing already: first draft of second novel completed by September.

Nebulous at present: get some more feedback on edited version of Accidentally Inspired over the summer.

New goal: Brush up and extend at least 3 short stories to about 3k words in length in preparation for submission by the end of June. That’s about 1 per week, which should be easy, given the number of old flash fiction ditties I have kicking around the cellar here.

Tonight I added about 500 words and spruced up the wording a bit in one of my favorites. Not a bad job on my day off from working on the novel.

So: for anybody reading, are any of you published, including novels or short fiction? What advice do you have for a guy taking his tentative first steps? What works, what doesn’t? How should I focus my time? What steps should I be taking?

Solo Shot

Chuck’s challenge this week: Interestingness. In short, find a photo, write a story. I found my photo here. Something about it immediately haunted me, though I guess there’s nothing overtly creepy about it.

This one went in an unusual direction for me. Sometimes you just have to ride where the story takes you.

Solo Shot


Elise has been gone for four months now.

Every day or two I’ll go combing through her old facebook account, looking at her pictures, reading the stupid little things she wrote, choking back sobs at the tearful farewells of friends and families. Her pillow still smells of her shampoo, and sometimes if I go to sleep hugging it, I’ll have dreams where Elise is alive, warm. Feel her arms wrapping around my neck and her hair like angel’s breath brushing my cheek. But it never lasts. I wake up and it’s worse than ever; I feel her absence like a rash under my skin, like I want to claw at my insides to make the pain stop.

My sister asked me for a picture of myself last week. I told her I was fine, but she wanted proof, so I sent her a selfie, and I guess I didn’t convince her. The deep-set, drooping eyes, the hair plastered ridiculously straight up by pressing my face into her pillow, the week’s worth of scraggle under my chin, the t-shirt stained with Monday’s Taco Bell salsa, Tuesday’s McDonald’s ketchup, and maybe Wednesday’s bowl of tomato soup. (I may have been wearing this shirt for longer, but I only have proof of those three days.) The moment I snapped the picture, I nearly deleted it, but that was when I saw Elise for the first time.

It was the strand of hair just over my shoulder. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, just an overexposure, or an artifact on the lens causing the sublime glow over my shoulder, but the chill on my spine, the tingle on my neck, the cold sweat on my forehead told me it was her. My sister didn’t see what I was talking about, but it was as plain as a message etched in fire to me.

Was she with me, still? Watching me, waiting for me, looking over my shoulder? I snapped another picture, and again, that trick of the light, but this time there was still more — the ghostly blur of an outline just behind my ear. I know the curve of her face like I know the feel of her touch, the touch that I felt on my shoulders, the ghostly warmth of her embrace from beyond, as I was certain it was by now. It was as if in her first picture, I had merely sighted her like a distant ship on the horizon, and now, she was striving to be seen, being etched more clearly despite the shimmering veil she had to peer through.

I began to take pictures at every opportunity — with the rays of the morning sun streaming through the window, on the front porch in her favorite rocking chair in the hazy afternoon heat, by the window as the evening chill sets in — and with each one, I saw her more clearly. Like the slow advance of a glacier, Elise took shape over my shoulder: first that lock of hair, then her cheek, then one gleaming, eternal eye, then the other. Her face snapped more and more into focus, becoming more and more visible, the phases of the moon recreated in her too-pale flesh, peering over my shoulder with that smile like she knows what I’m thinking even now, long after she’s gone. My sister can’t see Elise at all in these pictures, or so she says. She says I’m trying too hard to hold onto her, that I need to let her go. More likely, she’s afraid; afraid that I’ve found a way to connect with her, to be with her, even though she’s gone. Even though she’s only a faded echo of herself, forever behind me, gossamer and translucent and present only through the lens of the cell phone camera.

Last night, on a whim, rather than taking my selfie as usual, I caught sight of my grandfather’s antique Nikon on the shelf. He was an avid photographer, believing that the right picture could literally capture a person’s essence. I found some film in a box of his things in the attic, loaded the camera, and pointed it at a mirror. I drove to the Walgreen’s at what felt like 100 miles an hour and waited in agony for the shot to develop.

Maybe there’s some ancient artistry at work in the camera, maybe it was the mirror, or maybe the electronics of the modern age muddle whatever wavelength she’s appearing on. In the photo Elise appears as real and as lifelike as if she were truly there, her chin propped on my shoulder, her eyes dark and knowing, her lips parted as if she wants to tell me a secret. She’s there, frozen in that moment, waiting for me, calling out to me through the film and the clockwork of the camera.

My sister still doesn’t believe. She looks at the picture and insists that nothing is there. I think she’s afraid for me, but it’s I who fear for her. She’s determined to believe that Elise is gone, that all who leave us are gone, and my insistence that I can still see Elise, feel her, through these pictures upsets her. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve ordered dozens of mirrors to hang all around the house, and found a trove of old film on ebay. It’s all right that she’s gone. My life with Elise doesn’t have to stop. I plan to fill the house with pictures of us, as blissful and enamored as the day we met. I can live our vacations, our date nights, our quiet nights at home and our rambling road trips, as long as I can find a mirror and keep my camera loaded.

My sister says that’s creepy. But I don’t care if she can see Elise or not. I don’t mind that she’ll see a house full of pictures of me all alone. I’ll always see her.

Because she’ll always be with me.