The Book I’ll Never Finish

blank typewriterTHE BEST THING ABOUT WRITING A BOOK IS ALSO THE WORST THING.

You’re glad it’s done, it’s even hard to believe. An idea on a scrap of paper becomes a few sentences on your Notes app becomes a title page becomes a first chapter becomes more pages and more chapters and on and on until, without warning, you reach The End.

You should feel great — and for a while, you do. You focus on the agents and the synopsis, all the mundane details of launching your innocuous little story into the collective. Accomplishment courses through you like a glorious drug.

But the highly hardly lasts. And coming down is a bitch.

Soon your nemesis is back — that blank page teasing you, taunting you, daring you to christen it with a cogent thought. “So you just wrote 100,000 words and went through three drafts, big fucking deal! What’s next, loser? Or is that all you got?” 

And some people wonder why writers drink (I don’t know any of those people, but I assume they exist.)

But here’s the thing — the blank page isn’t wrong. “Mercy,” the book I just completed, may very well be all I’ve got. The idea well is dry, overflowing instead with work-related flotsam and other life-related “stuff.” Reality is the enemy of imagination.

I’ve felt this way before, right after I finished “Zaria’s Gate” in fact. Then one night I woke up at 2 AM and wrote “Death Row inmate comes back to life after execution,” and well, there went the next two-plus years.

I still wake up at 2 AM, and 3 AM, and sometimes 4 and 5 AM, waiting for the idea to come, but unlike before, inspiration eludes me like a receding tide. It feels just out of reach, as if I could only just stretch far enough I could grab it. It’s a cruel game that the universe is winning.

Everyone has a story, they say. Everyone has a book inside them waiting to come out. I’ve had more than my fair share, so maybe this really is it.

The beginning of the book I’ll never finish.

That is what’s really stopping me, what I’m really afraid of. The book I want to write is the one I don’t want to end. The one about what happens next, where my daughter grows up and raises a family of her own, where my wife and I end every night with a whiskey neat. The book with an infinite number of chapters, of twists and turns, of conflict and resolution and transformation.

You can put yourself inside a story; it’s where I love to hide. But when the only story left is you, then everything is exposed. The fiction of your life evaporates, until all that remains is that damn blank page.

I’m glad “Mercy” is done, and I’ll be happy when it’s out in the world. And if that’s all there is, then so be it.

I may not finish another book — but I have a lot more writing to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If The Shoe Fits

IMG_2406

WHAT I REMEMBER MOST ARE THE SHOES.

Piles and piles of soul-filled skyscrapers, spread high and wide, the colors muted by time. All shapes and sizes, some worn and others barely used. A monument to madness. 

There are images more visceral, like the emaciated men with empty stares, or ever-present dark skies, as if the world really was just black-and-white. And of course there is the incomparable scope of then to now.

There’s a reason you should never invoke the Holocaust in reference to anything else. Because you can’t. That horror stands alone.

But then there are the shoes.

The 7,000 placed on the Capitol lawn to remember children cut down by gun violence. The dozens left behind after a shooting in a mosque. The ones attached to scrambling feet in an El Paso Walmart. 

The hastily strewn pile in a Dayton parking lot.

They are striking images. Shoes, after all, don’t have ethnicity, skin tone or nationality. They don’t have prejudice or bias. The shoes are, in a way, what America is supposed to be — a jumbled mess that still fits together. Each pair very different yet sharing a singular purpose.

The question that dominates after these moments is always the same: Why. And the answers invariably fall short.

But something has changed. Now — after Christchurch, after Pittsburgh, after El Paso and Dayton — there is an answer.

It’s not access to guns or violent video games. It’s not drugs alone, or mental illness alone, or hate alone.

These have always been factors. Mass shootings are hardly a phenomenon of the last few years or even this century.

But 251 mass shootings in 216 days, that’s something different. Because now we’ve given people a new reason, one more deadly than assault weapons or manifestos.

We’ve given them permission.

I’m not saying it’s any one person’s fault. But when suspicion of the “other” is normalized, when virulent rhetoric and racist tropes are sanctioned by those in power — either by their words or their silence — then we are giving permission for the monsters to act. 

I meant what I said about the Holocaust. It stands alone in the annals of hate.

But that was about permission, too. And sometimes the shoe fits.

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Fathers Belong in the Picture

19275049_740760406096276_7906547852011281237_nSHE WAS A DARLING LITTLE GIRL in a black and white photo, holding a tiny flower, a face blooming with innocence and wonder.

I picked it up from my desk and walked to the next office, where I thanked my friend and colleague for the shot. “Your daughter is so cute,” I said.

He looked at me funny – not surprising as he did that often, but what he said next was no joke.

“Um, that’s your daughter, not mine.”

I looked again. The photo was from years earlier, when my daughter was about the same age as my friend’s. Not only was it my daughter, but as I looked closer, I realized the picture was taken at my house, in my own backyard.

I blamed my mistake on being tired, stressed. I blamed it on too much travel, too much work – anything but the real reason.

I didn’t remember because I wasn’t there.

I tried to make up for lost time in the ensuing years. I did my best to be at school events and volleyball matches; to be present at home, and not at home without being present. Now that she’s in college I make extra efforts to visit, to be available by phone or text – and to take pictures together more often.

I’m still pretty selfish and self-absorbed. I still too often put work and writing on a pedestal above seeing friends or relaxing with my wife. If I have a free moment, it’s usually spent working on the next book chapter or catching up on SportsCenter.

But at least now I see it – I know what I am and can try to get better. And I no longer use my past as an excuse.

Sure, I didn’t have a dad growing up, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be one. I didn’t have a close family, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make one.

Father’s Day has never been easy. It’s a reminder of loss – of my dad from cancer, of my fatherhood from ignorance. But each year it gets a little better, each year a little more focused on the future than the past.

I wasn’t too late after all. I’m back in the picture, where fathers belong.

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Thanks For All the Sugar

batSO AN ELDERLY CHRISTIAN GRANDMA WALKS INTO A BAT MITZVAH.

I know, you’re thinking “what happens next?” Does she lead the Hora? Sing Hava Nagila at the top of her lungs? Do the Electric Slide?

Well yeah, sure, she pretty much did all that. But that’s not the joke. And neither was Elva Schubert. A comedian at times, perhaps, but never a joke, never a mean spirit, never anything but “Grandma Sugar.”

Because for Elva that was enough. For Grandma Sugar, that was everything.

Here’s how I like to remember Grandma Sugar. First, some context: The night prior to a Bat Mitzvah is the Shabbat or Sabbath service. The Bat Mitzvah girl has to go, and by default so do her parents and siblings. But that’s it.

Other relatives can and do attend, but it’s not required. And if you know anything about Jews, especially Southern California Jews, we don’t go to anything if it’s not required or if you can’t drink until the end. If the synagogue doubled as a club where every night was Totally ’80s Flashback Night, well then I’m calling an Uber right now.  But 75 minutes of praying and a sermon that would wake the dead, though only long enough for the deceased to beg the rabbi to shut-up and let the congregation eat already? No thanks, I’d rather stay home and watch Jimmy Fallon try (here’s a hint, Jimmy — if you laugh at your own jokes, they probably aren’t funny.)

Anyway, despite all this, Grandma Sugar wanted to go. Mind you, this was the night before an all-day event, and she had just flown in from Missouri, but it didn’t matter. She was going and that was that.

You might think she felt obligated, despite our assurances that attending wasn’t necessary. But then you didn’t know Grandma Sugar. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I saw it that night.

Grandma Sugar went because she wanted to experience something new. She wanted to be with her great-granddaughter and share in her accomplishment, to create as many memories as possible. Because a Bat Mitzvah is much more about family than it is about religion, and Elva Schubert was all about family.

I watched my daughter that night but I also watched Elva, beaming and praying and standing and sitting (and standing and sitting, and standing and sitting — Jews, you know what I’m talking about.) I watched her animated conversations with my very Jewish mom and how happy Elva was to meet our friends. I watched in awe as she absorbed every last line of the Shema prayer and swayed to every note of the Cantor’s voice. Grandma Sugar was a sponge that never got wrung out, a soul soaked with the singular pleasure of being in the moment with people you love.

I didn’t get it until recently. I didn’t truly realize it until her last few years, when standing became a chore and talking had turned into a task akin to Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.

I didn’t understand until near the end, when she was still smiling, still engaged, still as happy to see you as she was when you first walked into her home on Christmas Eve — this odd Jewish kid from Orange County who was marrying her granddaughter, this fish out of water in a Midwest basement who felt all apprehension slip away with a warm embrace and chin snuggled against his neck.

Anyway, as I was saying, an elderly Christian grandma walks into a Bat Mitzvah.

What happens next?

Magic. Love. Joy.

A spirit so full of life you wonder how there could be any oxygen left in the room.

Thanks for all the sugar, Grandma. May your memory be a blessing.

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A Dollar In My Pocket

dollarIT HAPPENS MORE OFTEN THAN I CARE TO ADMIT.

I’ll put on a fresh pair of jeans and find a dollar in my pocket. I’ll smile, then sigh with the guilty resignation of a purpose unfulfilled.

I’m not upset that I didn’t spend it. Nor am I happy that I “found” some money. I’m just disappointed.

You see, that dollar wasn’t meant to be spent, at least not by me. It was meant to be given away.

I should explain. From 2007 to 2012 I traveled regularly to San Francisco and stayed at the Hilton Union Square, which is really in the Tenderloin area. The Tenderloin is known for some cool restaurants and clubs and culture and Union Square, but it also has a rather visible homeless population.

Seeing as how I always went to the same places for dinner, taking the same routes (my OCD traveled well), I would see the same homeless people every day. So one night, I decided to put a dollar in my pocket on the way to dinner and give it to a homeless person. I did the same thing on the way back, always trying to give it to someone new.

And I haven’t stopped since.

I mostly go to New York now, but the city doesn’t matter. Wherever I travel, whether for work or pleasure, I always keep a dollar in my pocket and give it away when walking to or from a destination. As you can imagine I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, from James, the war veteran in San Francisco who wore his VA card around his neck, to Leo Gnawa in Washington, D.C., who is always in front of my favorite restaurant ready with a handshake and a smile.

These aren’t faceless or nameless people to me. They are my friends, my reminders of what matters. Some get dollars, some also get meals, but they all get my attention and respect.

Leo got something else, too — a role in my upcoming novel. Homelessness is a sub-plot and thematic thread, and I needed someone like him to be an unlikely hero in the story.

The following excerpt — from a conversation between homeless man Leo Ebbitt and a shelter volunteer — was inspired by something the real Leo told me shortly after we met:

“You gave me a dollar once,” said Leo. “I’m sure you do that for other people too, and I get a lot of dollars and change from folks who I couldn’t pick out from a lineup if you asked me. But you…I remember you because you asked me my name.

“No one ever asks my name. People don’t say anything all. Most of the time they walk by like I’m not even there, like I’m just part of the landscape or background or something. Even when someone does see me and helps me out with some money, they don’t see a person, they just see pity — and then I blink out of existence again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“But you stopped. You gave me dollar, you shook my hand, just like you did a few minutes ago, and you asked me my name. You said, ‘Bless you, Leo, take care of yourself.’ For that moment, and for a long while after, I didn’t feel invisible anymore.”

My track record isn’t perfect. Sometimes I forget the dollar. Sometimes it’s there but I’m on the phone or focused on work or there’s some other distraction and I walk by without stopping. But I still try to stop, look people in the eye and ask them their names. It’s a small dignity to most of us but, as Leo knows, to some it’s a gift. Recognition is the first step toward regaining your humanity.

It’s not about the dollar, the handout. It’s about the people and knowing that each of us, no matter how minor or fleeting the gesture, can make a difference.

Still, I hate finding a dollar in my pocket. A dollar in my pocket is a missed opportunity. It’s a failed attempt.

But it’s also a good reminder that a dollar in my pocket doesn’t do any good staying there.

 

 

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A Number in the Dark

phoneSOMETIMES YOU NEED TO LET GO.

The jacket from high school that no longer fits (and stop fooling yourself, it never will.) The “lucky shirt” that has more holes than memories. The empty wine bottle you kept for 20 years because you wanted to remember, but now have no clue what.

The concert ticket stub, the sunglasses you swear you might still use someday, the souvenirs that made perfect sense at the time but now collect dust on the shelf.

We hang onto these and so many other talismans because we believe they connect us to what was. As if the past were a tangible, physical thing — an object you could hold and feel.

We also hang on because we don’t want to forget. Because, deep down, we know we have already forgotten so much and that scares the crap out of us. Memories, once as vibrant as a bright watercolor painting, soon melt and drip off the canvas until our past is nothing more than a few muted streaks. We know there was once a painting but we can no longer see it, no longer touch it. So eventually we forget.

Still we must let go. It’s not healthy to cling to what was or pine for what can never be. The past does us no favors — worse, it can keep us from living in the present and planning for the future. So we need to purge those things that hold us down, keep us back, gather so much dust.

I repeat this to myself as my finger hovers over the glowing screen. Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” That’s all, just two quick actions and it’s done.

It’s time, I say. It’s now been two years since I called that number. Two years since there was someone to answer. It’s time to stop picking up the phone in the middle of the night and filling the room with its ghosts.

Besides, it’s now 4 am and I’m tired and it’s the third time in a month I’ve done this yet all I do is stare and stare and stare until I turn the phone over again and let the room descend back into blackness.

Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” Nothing to it.

It’s funny, I had the landline memorized but not the mobile. Didn’t need to, so why bother? I called by her name — we all do that now, call each other by name.

“Hey Siri, call Christine.” Call Thomas, call Kate. Call Home, call Work, call for reservations or for tickets or for appointments.  Give your phone a number once and then forget it.

But now the name is a useless, colorless, lifeless painting. All that’s left is a number in the dark.

Mom Cell.”

“Delete Contact?”

I turn the phone over and let the darkness return.

Sometimes you need to let go. But sometimes all you can do is hold on.

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We Don’t Want You to Know

sIt still happens to us, we just don’t want you to know.

We don’t want to bother you. We want you to think everything is fine, because overall it is fine, it’s just fine, and you don’t have to worry.

For us this is nothing. Just another day. Normal isn’t new, it isn’t special, it doesn’t require deep reflection.

We’re good, we promise. We watched the World Series (stayed up all night!) We cheered and we covered our eyes and we drank beer and we sang the anthem. We did all the things that all of us do — nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing worth getting upset about.

We do normal stuff like this all the time. We go to work and school, we have friends and go to parties; we Netflix and Hulu. We buy groceries and pay taxes.

We go to Synagogue. But we don’t go to be different, or to be separate.

We go to feel normal.

Because in elementary school we were called a Kike. Because we were yelled at for not revealing the horns on our heads.

Because the Jew Boy is rich and the Jew Girl is a stuck-up bitch.

Because despite doing everything to fit in, despite getting jobs and raising families, people still tell us that we control the media and run the banks and killed Jesus. We’re told we’re overreacting about a few swastikas spray painted on our walls (“probably just some kids.”) And enough with the Holocaust already! Sure it sounded awful and that movie was sad but why can’t you people move on?

So we don’t say anything. Instead we turn to our quiet communities and tell ourselves it will be okay, it’s gonna be fine, just act normal and pretend like nothing happened, like nothing ever happens.

Like the Muslim women who get spit on and have their headscarfs ripped from their skulls. Like the black men who get called N***** in front of their children. Like the homosexuals who get beat up or worse for the crime of minding their own business.

There are smaller moments too — the sideways stares and the person following us around the store. The “well I assumed since you were Jewish” or the “I thought all black people” or the “well I know you’re not a terrorist” comments. It happens to us so often it’s almost become…

Normal.

You see “A Star is Born” yet? I know, the Rams are undefeated, can you believe it? So glad to hear that your daughter is enjoying college. How fun! Ours is a Pi Phi.

Happy Halloween! Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Merry Christmas to you, too!

Oh, that. Sure, we heard, of course.

Right. Yeah, Pittsburgh. Yes, terrible. Holocaust survivor, heard that as well. Mm Hmm.

No, it’s okay, we’re fine. We just don’t want to bother you. To be honest, we don’t want you to know.

Besides — you really don’t want to know, do you?

But it was nice of you to ask.

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