Follow by Email

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Very Good Boy

We knew the day would come. 

Waiting for your dog to die is like walking on thin ice, watching the fractures spiderweb beneath your feet, tensing for the cold plunge that never seems to come. Death doesn’t come waving a white flag, doesn’t announce a date for his arrival. Death seems to lurk in the corner of the room, a wall flower that spoils the party.

Kooper was our favorite.

We’ve had several pets over the years, liked some more than others. We loved Koop. His head smelled like brownies. He didn’t wag his tail, he wagged his body. He curled up at our feet, always kept us in sight.

Seizures started about a couple of years ago. You never forget that first one, the panic in their eyes, the urine on the floor, foam on their lips. It took several months to find the right cocktail to get the seizures under control, a combination of gabapentin and phenobarbital, but not before a couple hard nights took their toll.

He started dragging his back legs.

Our long walks turned into short ones. He wore booties to keep from scraping his paws. Several months ago, his back legs stopped working all together. He wasn’t in pain, still scarfed down food and wagged his tail when we came in the room. He just watched the world from a pillow and his head still smelled like brownies.

My great aunt was in her 90s when she died. She spent her last year confined to a bed in a nursing home in a great deal of pain and mental anguish while her caretakers waited for her to stop breathing. Death took his sweet ass time. There was no reason not to invite him over for tea, to have him pull up a chair and take her with him when he left, give her the relief she deserved. 

Push a button. 

I hope when Death introduces himself to me, I'll have the sand to invite him inside for a quick drink, maybe a cigar. Afterwards, we can head down the road like long lost friends. I won't have my body pickled and preserved, it'll probably be cremated, but even that is a bit silly. If I had the balls, I would take long boat ride with Death at the helm, take on a lungful of seawater and feed the planet with the body I don't need anymore. Makes more sense, really. 

All of that sounds well and good until we had to do it. 

Like I said, Koop wasn't in pain, wasn't hurting in any way. He slept most of the day like dogs long in tooth tend to do. We fitted him with a chariot and resumed daily walks. That lasted about six months, until he just didn't have the energy. He resumed his place on the pillow. 

A few weeks ago, things changed.

His breath labored, his appetite waned. He barely had the energy to lift his head. We contacted a vet that did home hospice. She would come over and administer the final rest while we sat with him. It was all arranged. We were just waited for him to wave the flag. 

After a brief rebound, the labored breathing returned. He stopped eating. His tail stopped wagging. The look was in his eyes, his neck stretched out. He was waving the flag. We didn't want to see, but it was there. Death was knocking.

Now all we had to was open the door.

I could feel myself refusing, not accepting this moment. All that tough talk of dumping my body in the ocean when I reached terminal velocity and I couldn't call the vet. Not Koop. Just not him.

He grew with the kids. He watched over the house at night, patrolled the backyard during the day, laid his head in our laps. But our kids are grown up. The end was speeding toward us. One glance told us he needed our help. 

Our vet wasn't available for the home hospice, so we loaded him into the back seat of the car. I went back in the house and began losing it. I was certain I wouldn't be able to talk when I got to the vet, but I set aside the grief and drove to a pet hospital, waited for the vet while my wife stayed in the car with him. 

I carried him into the room when our name was called. He lay on the floor as the tech explained how the procedure would go down. He rested his head at our feet, ears relaxed. Emotion in my throat, I barely answered the vet's questions. When she administered the final syringe, the room blurred. Hands on him, we wept as his breath were numbered. Just before the final one fell, I managed to whisper the last words a very good boy would hear.

Goodbye, Koop.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Anatomy of a Book Signing

I rarely do book signings. For a couple of reasons.

One, 99% of my books are downloaded by readers all over the world. Aside from Christmas, I rarely sell more than a dozen paperbacks in a month.

Two, I'm not that big a deal. I have great rapport with readers through social media and email lists, but not the fervor that would compel someone to stand in line. I've worked author events in Charleston, in particular Yallfest, and watched fans stand in lines that stretched around the block to meet James Dashner. I'm not sure they all knew who he was, but it didn't matter.

Three, and probably most importantly, nobody asks me to do them. (See reason two for an explanation.)

Recently, Summerville did an event. Summerville is a small town outside of Charleston. It's where I live. Initially, I wasn't interested. We've all seen the sad author at a table of books with no one around. Passerbys avert their attention lest he start a conversation about his merch. I've been that guy.

Before writing fiction, I was primarily a technical writer that published in trade magazines and eventually two textbooks on landscape design. I was giving a talk at a conference on the topic. The attendance was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The event organizers asked if I would like to sign textbooks after my talk. They were being nice and I didn't want to look like a tool.

I sat next to a guy that was evidently a PBS personality in the gardening world. I wasn't familiar, but every person at the event was. They lined up, they laughed, they swooned. Every once in a while, they'd look to their left at the sad man with his landscape design books. I felt bad for putting them through that. It went on for an hour.

So of course when Four Green Fields asked if I'd like to participate in the local event, I said sure, why not. They've been kind to me, carrying my books in their storefront for the last several years. And, quite frankly, it sounded like a challenge I was up for.

My wife came with me, and that helped. I wasn't the sad lonely man and his books. I was the man with an attractive woman and his books.

We set up inside the store. As I was putting away the boxes, I caught my head on the corner of a glass shelf. Had the edge not been beveled, I'm certain it would've lobotomized me. Instead, I had a Harry Potter gash. So much for marketing.

This event is all over the downtown area. If you haven't been to it, downtown Summerville is like a movie set with very quaint brick roads and small storefronts. People walk down the street, stop in art galleries and restaurants. I was one of thirty-three authors scattered across the area. I guarantee you not one customer knew who I was.

But here's the thing. I didn't care if I sold a book. And that made all the difference.

Customers wandered through the store. As they rounded the corner and saw me, I imagined a shiver of discomfort possess them. To be honest, I didn't imagine it. It was happening for real. I said hi, they said hi and that was it.

Here's where things changed. We started conversations that had nothing to do with books. And this exchange, this interaction led to a connection that happened spontaneously. One person said she didn't like my kind of books, the science fiction kind. I said I don't blame her, fiction is subjective. I wasn't crazy about Harry Potter and clearly I was in the minority.

I sold 13 books. Quite frankly, that was shocking. But the best part of the night was this, I had fun. And that's what all this writing business is about.

The best part was a young man named Chris. He came through the store photographing the event. We started talking and I got him laughing. He didn't like digital books. He liked ones he could feel. He said his favorite science fiction book was probably Ender's Game. If he was interested, I said, he could come back at the end of this event and I'd hook him up with a free book. My wife went to the truck to grab The Discovery of Socket Greeny.

Chris came back when it was over. I signed the book and gave it to him. Maybe he'll like it, maybe not. It doesn't matter.

That made the whole event worth it.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Writerly Update

For those that follow me, thought I'd take a moment to update you. Doesn't seem like much has happened in my writerly world since the release of Bricks and Halfskin Boxed.

So here's the deal-o.

Humbug: The Unwinding of Ebenezer Scrooge

I missed my annual addition to the Claus series last holiday because, well, no reason. Just got behind and it didn't happen. Not this year. Humbug will be released November 2016. The rough draft is currently finished and still fairly rough. It's marinating in silence right now so I can come back for round two with fresh eyes. I will be courting advanced readers in October. We still have the whole summer to waste so I'll be putting the word out at a much later time.

In the meantime, this is the cover-in-progress:

Claus, Foreverland and Halfskin come to audio

All the Claus audiobooks were narrated by James Killavey. It occurred to me much too late that all we needed to do was upload the files to offer the CLAUS BOXED SET. What's that mean to the listener? You get all three books for one measly coupon.

HALFSKIN BOXED SET got way behind schedule. But it's out, yes! David Dietz, the narrator on Halfskin and Clay, put his pipes on Bricks (the third book in the trilogy) and wrapped all those up in one tidy boxed set download.

In the meantime, I put my voice on FOREVERLAND BOXED SET. I enjoyed reading SOCKET GREENY SAGA last year. I didn't plan on doing Foreverland, but a different narrator did each book in the trilogy so I couldn't package that. Six weeks in my studio (aka closet) and I wrapped the project. The timing of release was almost the exact day of Halfskin Boxed.

The Maze

I'll be submitting a short story to another Chronicles anthology. These anthologies have had some of the best of the best indie authors, so it's been an honor to contribute. My first run was in the Alt History 101 Chronicles with the short story 108 Stitches.

The next will be the Gamer Chronicles. I finished a short story called The Maze. After sending it through a beta read gauntlet, I blew up half the story and turned out something more exciting. The Gamer Chronicles will release in September.

More importantly, this short story gave rise to the next trilogy.

Maze, the trilogy

I hadn't thought about the tie-in until a few beta readers made suggestions that turned on the light. I've been toying with how to merge the Halfskin and Foreverland story arcs. Once the light went on, I sat down with a pad of paper. I know I've hit the target when I get this excited. I've churned 5000+ words in two days and already have the next several chapters outlined. The characters just stepped front and center. Don't know where they're taking the story, but we're off to a strong start.

Drayton is still asleep.

I promised fans of Drayton I would add another installment. Alas, he just won't come alive. I've made some attempts but his story is just dormant. Pressing too much never goes in a good direction. He's not dead, but he's still asleep. I will prod his bones after the first Maze novel.

Get your free downloads

Sunday, May 8, 2016

This is Kooper

Kooper is a boxer.

He's 9 years old. About a year ago, he suffered his first seizure. You never forget witnessing a beloved pet go rigid and piss the floor. Neither does he.

We tried a number of things to keep them from coming back. Nothing was perfect. Phenobarbital seemed to settle him down but eventually they came back, and this time in clusters -- several of them in a row. Our previous dog, a collie named Samu, suffered from seizures and went into a cluster and never came out of it. We thought it was happening to Kooper. In fact, the vet gave us an emergency dose of phenobarb to inject up his bottom should another cluster hit. Hitting a puckered butthole during a seizure is like throwing darts in a hurricane.

Did I mention this is the best dog ever?

Eventually the right balance of phenobarbital and gabapentin worked. It's been several months since he last went through the ringer.

Problems remained.

Kooper began dragging his back legs after the first seizure. It wasn't anything alarming, just occasionally noticed his nails dragging the concrete on long walks. As the seizures continued, the lethargy increased, his paws occasionally knuckling over. He began scuffing the fur off the top of his back paws and his nails were wearing down to bloody nubs.

We bought him booties, but the dragging got so bad that he wore holes through them. We duct taped the holes before every walk. This only worked for so long. The progression of symptoms seemed to hit a fast track and soon he was crumpling to the ground. His walks rapidly shortened from around the block to the end of the driveway. By the time we stopped, he could barely hold himself up to pee. Instead, he assumed an odd kickstand sort of stance to relieve himself.

All in a matter of months.

It seemed to be a condition called degenerative myelopathy, a genetic disorder in the boxer breed.

The question becomes... well, you know what it becomes. But he wasn't in pain. He had an appetite, wagged his tail when he saw us, barked at the front door and whined when we took our other dog for a walk. He spent all day in bed, venturing outside a couple times with assistance to drop a number one or two before returning to bed. What old dog doesn't do this?

We can't put him down.

It's not time for that, not yet. He still has some years in him, just needs a little helps living them. So we found some.

Excellent music performed by Madeline Walsh 

Get your free downloads

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Great Expectations (The Last Part)

We received a wedding invitation early 2016.

Michael was getting married in the spring. It would be in New York City where he now lived. He grew up in Oklahoma, spent most of his life there. Once he graduated high school, he moved to NYC. He has lived in the city ever since.

The invitation was flattering. But of course, all sorts of thoughts followed. Is this just a kindly gesture? Would it be inappropriate to go? Or weird? This went on for weeks. Heather, however, really wanted to be there, so after a short correspondence, she booked a flight.

Initially, I wasn't able to go. But, as luck would have it, plans unexpectedly changed at the last minute. We flew out on a Saturday morning. 

We'd never been to New York. It was a little intimidating. The unknown usually is. All we knew about New York is what we'd seen on television. In my experience, if your preparation for a new situation involves movies, you're effed. Fortunately, we knew someone besides Michael that lived there.

We didn't know much about his fiance. We wanted to know more so we did what most people would do. We stalked Facebook. Five minutes later and we were about to click off when I noticed a line in italics. 1 mutual friend. 

Remember the secret family password weirdness? Here it comes again.

Five minutes ago we didn't know Michael's fiance and now we have a mutual friend? Naturally, you'd think it was Michael but we're not linked on Facebook. The one mutual friend was someone that had lived in New York City for the past 26 years. His name is Jamie.

And we went to high school with him.

Heather and I grew up in a small town tucked between Illinois cornfields. Heather and Jamie were friends through middle school until he moved away. His career took him to New York City in his mid-twenties and he'd lived there ever since. And he knew Michael's fiance. He moved there 26 years ago. When Michael was born. 

Six degree of Kevin Bacon can't touch this.

Heather and Jamie.

We arrived before noon on Saturday and spent the afternoon with Jamie on the Lower East Side. It kept us occupied. We were out of our element, in a new city, not sure what the evening would bring. Would they be happy to see us? Nervous? Is this weird? Now we weren't so sure.

We asked the hotel what was the best way to catch a cab. He said walk outside and raise your arm. Was it really that easy? Yeah. Yeah, it was. Turns out, cabs really are everywhere. We arrived at the venue, early evening. The sun was hours from setting, the spring air cool and crisp.

Had it really been 26 years? Is this really how the story ends--the crises that began so long ago, when we were young and lost and scared, a distant memory? Will we wake up on the floor and realize it was all just a dream? Because these things don't end this way.

There aren't happy endings like this.

We followed the eclectic crowd up an iron staircase and for a moment, we were all alone. It was 26 years earlier, just a couple of nervous kids in a really big world, unsure which way to turn, what was around the corner. But in the next moment, we saw Cathy. Tears. Hugs.

It was real again.

We caught up with Wayne and Cathy, and a now grown-up and married Kelsie; we met extended family, recalled the day we met at the Italian Village. They were from the Midwest so it didn't take long to speak the same language. Had it really been 26 years? 

The ceremony took place on the rooftop. Wayne and Cathy ushered Michael out. As dusk drew near, they took their vows in a short ceremony among friends and family. It would be another hour before we met Michael.

The reception took place downstairs. We found a table in the corner. It was small and convenient, one where we could stand up and hold our drinks. An inconspicuous place. It wasn't until later that we realized it was perfect. The family graciously invited us to the table but we declined. From our little corner, we watched an extravagant New York crowd mix with Midwesterners--a clash of style and values, interests and eras. But a crowd united in love.

The reunion with Michael was what you would imagine. Outstanding. Grateful.

Perched in our corner, we watched the night unfold. We were not removed, not distant or antisocial. We spent time with all the family and friends. It was the perfect balance of being there.
The fathers gave touching speeches. And when cake was cut and, one by one, friends toasted the newlyweds, Heather and I made our exit. We thanked them for being the family anyone would wish for. They had exceeded all our hopes. The script of this moment was surreal and oddly perfect.

The night was relatively young, but we'd done everything we'd come to do in New York. We ate a slice of pizza in a very small hotel room and fell asleep.

Heather, Micheal, and Cathy

So why tell this story?

The world needs to hear it is a tad presumptuous. The world doesn't need anything. And this certainly isn't the end of anything. But for some reason, it certainly felt like it. Twenty-six years ago, we would not have been so bold as to write a tale like this.

But I'm a storyteller. I like a good ending. And this certainly felt worthy.

Even if it is true.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 9)

Why tell this story?

Here it is 26 years later. Looking back, crises doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it turned out quite storybook. So it would be easy to romanticize, to gloss over the bumps and bruises, the crying, the stress, the anguish and uncertainty--for us and those close to us, our families and friends. Time, though, works its magic, it smooths out the rough edges, takes the stink off a bad deal.

They say forgetting is a blessing, an survival mechanism that eases our suffering. A brain wash that dulls the pain. Case in point, when Heather got a tattoo several years back, she insisted it hurt worse than childbirth. I was there for both of those events. The baby hurt worse.

Trust me.

So why tell this story? I'm reminded of a cancer survivor that spoke about all the life lessons that were inherent in her struggle, the leaps and bounds of spiritual growth, how it renewed relationships and let the sun shine again. When asked if she was glad she got cancer, her response was curt.

Oh hell no.

We were once invited to tell our story to a youth group. It was a few years after Michael was born. By that time, the dust had settled and we were in a better place. Our presentation was upbeat and positive. Michael was a beautiful baby in a great family and we unwittingly made it sound too easy, too wonderful, too... Look what we did with an unplanned pregnancy, we made a beautiful flower, turned lemons into lemonade, ain't life grand?

Some of the parents wanted to see more remorse and less hey no problem if you get pregnant, there's always adoption. And I totally get that. In a lot of ways, we were lucky--lucky Cathy and Wayne were solid, lucky to have each other, lucky to have supportive parents. Maybe our message needed to be, perhaps, a little less rosy.

But we were happy. Happy for Michael, for Wayne and Cathy.

When we were older, we addressed adoptive parents about our experience, in particular the open adoption aspect. Some parents are wary, and that of course makes sense. Our experience provides a glimpse of what it can be, how healing can take place for everyone involved. Adoption is sometimes referred to as the third option. That's last place. It's frightening. Scary as hell. Will there be regret? Will something go wrong? There's a lot of unknowns, and that scares the shit out of us. So yeah, I get that. Completely valid fears, all of them. Like I said, we had some luck fall our way.

So why tell this story? Because it's about what's possible. Because it wasn't until recently--26 years after Michael's birth--that was a felt sense of closure. I don't think we realized we'd reached that juncture until after it happened.

You'd think a sense of closure would've occurred with all the birthday correspondence, or when Michael sent the email with our secret password. Or when we reunited downtown. Turns out, it happened a few weeks ago.

In New York City.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Great Expectations (Part 8)

Heather had a Bachelor's degree in Administration of Justice. She did want most people do with their college degree. Something else.

She became a social worker.

She started out in drug and alcohol counseling at a halfway house in Champaign-Urbana. A few years later, she would work for Catholic Social Services, the very same agency that introduced us to open adoption. While her job titles varied, she would end up working as an adoption case worker for the next twenty-some years.

She worked with the adoptive parents, helping them assemble portfolios, arranging meetings with potential birthmothers and handling the paperwork. Most importantly, she counselled them through waiting periods as well as the grieving process whenever an adoption didn't go as planned.

The past fifteen years, she worked closely with birthmothers. Her experiences varied greatly. Sometimes she spent six or eight months with the birthmother, taking them to doctor's appointments, providing them with necessities, counselling them through difficult emotions before and after delivery. Other times, she received a call from a hospital and arrived to meet the birthmother a day after delivery. Sometimes the adoption went well.

Other times, it did not.

She didn't always share her experience with those she worked with. It all depended on whether it would be helpful or not. For birthmothers, it often was. Heather had been through the crises and survived. She knew the importance of counselling and support. She also realized how lucky she was to have had both.

Many birthmothers had neither.

Some were alone. Sometimes they lacked basic necessities or emotional coping skills or had aggressive birthfathers that wanted them to keep the child or aunts or grandparents or parents that weren't about let them give away their baby. One thing she always made clear.

Adoption was loving.

It wasn't about getting rid of a problem or shucking responsibility. In fact, for us it was the opposite. We made an adoption plan because we loved Michael. He needed a family that was ready for him, parents that were loving and stable and supportive. Our intuition was right on the money. Wayne and Cathy were great parents, and Kelsie a wonderful sister.

Heather and I married two years after Michael was born. Crises will make you grow up in a hurry. Our relationship had grown stronger. However, my dark years of depression were still upon me. It would be a few more years before I found my footing through counselling and meditation. 

Ben and Maddi were born in Illinois. In 1998, four months after Maddi was born, we moved to Charleston, SC where I began teaching college. Heather stayed at home with the kids but resumed working as an adoption case worker on a part-time basis. I was born in Charleston, IL and thought it was coincidental that we would raise a family in Charleston, SC. As coincidences go, it was nothing compared to what happened in 2008.

That was when Michael came to visit.

To tell that story, I need to tell this one first. There was a news story about a family that had a secret word. I don't remember what the word was or even what it meant. We just knew we needed to have one.

So one night at dinner, we decided our secret word would be hammer. (Full disclosure: the secret isn't really hammer.) And hammer meant I love you. I don't remember if Heather was on board at first. Our kids' have my sense of humor. We were sort of goofing on the whole secret word thing. Not sort of. We were goofing on it.

But then it stuck.

We wrote little notes signed hammer, texts with hammer, waved goodbye saying hammer. It really became our weird secret word. In fact, it became a password for the longest time. Many of our accounts were assigned hammer88. The number had no significance. It was just tacked on when passwords required a letters and numbers.


In 2008, Heather received an email from Michael. He was eighteen years old. We had received annual updates from Cathy and Wayne, saw him grow up through the years. Heather would send birthday cards every year. But now he was graduating high school. 

And he wanted to visit.

Angst. Elation. Apprehension. Everything was in the room when the email arrived. He was going on a road trip with two friends. We would meet them in Charleston. Times and dates and places were arranged, but that's not the odd part of this story. Sure, eighteen years separating us is not a common event. And why tell the whole story about secret words and hammers and passwords? It was Michael's email. His username.


His username contained our secret family word. Not only that, it had the number. The number.


How is this possible? It's not. It's just not.

But there we were looking at it. It was there. It happened. You might assume I'm spinning a yarn, adding spice to story that's not really in need of it. The odds of that word and number are... they're impossible. We've shared our silly inside joke with very few people, certain not something that would go in a birthday card or texted with directions. Definitely not something for a birthday card.

Micheal didn't have an explanation. He didn't seem to really know why he used that word and number.

None of this felt real anymore. Like some sort of surreal Matrix movie moment, an impossibility that suggested this was a dream. It was all dream. Too perfect.

But we didn't wake up. We met Michael in Charleston. The reunion was stunning. Heather and Michael recognized each other from a block away. They tearfully embraced as tourists passed in horse-drawn carriages.

They had no idea she'd waited 18 years for this moment.