Brief Hiatus, 8.5.18

Hello, dear readers!

Herb and Verb will be taking a short hiatus from posting as a big life change happens. We love writing, but writing is hard when your everyday routine is doing somersaults! We aim to return September 7th.

In the meantime, let’s all wish Herb happy beginnings!

photo of three pineapples surrounded by balloons
A rockin’ pineapple. Just for you, Herb.

 

it’s a living #11

08.02.18

 

Grab N’ Go Gas Station, a capitalist machine. i’m not 100% sure what’s up with capitalism but i think it has to do with this hole that digs deeper in my chest as i stand behind the counter and listen to tinny synthpop:

low

persistent, infuriating

i don’t hate it, but i hate it’s constance.

like a migrain.

that’s a bad metaphor, because i do hate migrains.

and capitalism.

 

i don’t know.

deana said to write.

so i’m writing

i think.

just, whatever comes to mind, she said.

i had this high school english teacher who used to have us do this thing called freewriting. she’d give us a word or a phrase and we had to write about it, just go and go and go, until she told us to stop. maybe i should try that. don’t stop, don’t think. not thinking is what got me into all this shit to begin with, but who knows. well, i guess me, historically.

generous. that’s the word. don’t stop until a customer comes in.

generous:

the word’s been cycling through my head all day. you know when words do that? there’s a collection of syllables sitting up there, without their original meaning or attachment, like they’re waiting for their asigned seating. i had to asign it meaning eventually, cause it was getting annoying to have the word floating around up there without a purpose.

i’ve been wondering if generosity really exists, if people will actually do something just because it would help someone else. it seems like there’s always going to be at least a small part of you that wants to do it because it’ll make you feel better about yourself, right? like i know deana wants to help me, but also, she’s got her own issues. she’s got a guilt complex and i don’t think she has a lot of self-worth. so maybe some of it is her trying to alleveate that. i mean, i’m a good candidate, right? random kid with no connection to anyone else she knows, would probably be homeless and/or dead without her. that’s a hell of a drug for someone who wants to feel important.

i used to think my dad was really generous. he gave a lot of money to a lot of causes, and never really boasted about it. the only reason I knew about it was because he would make me help with bills and shit at the end of every month. wow, I always thought. what a generous guy.

and then I learned there was a difference between financial and ideological generosity. my dad has the first in spades. the second he’s still working on.

 

the ironic thing right now, of course, is that i’m being  incredibly ingenerous in my descriptions of them, as if i’m any better. let me be clear, if someone 100 years from now has found this notebook and has gotten farther than the first three words, that i am not better than deana. i’m probably not even better than my dad, and he’s a homophobic asshole. and he likes capitalism, probably. i’ve never asked him, but he seems like he would. pull yourself from your bootstraps and all that.

i don’t know why i’m stuck on capitalism today. it’s not the first thing that should come to mind when i’m supposed to be writing about generosity.

do you still have capitalism in 100 years? do you still have homophobia?

i assume after a century we’ll either be living in a dystopia or a utopia. it could go either way at this point, but my money’s on some hunger games shit for sure.

hey, person in 3018, if you ARE living some dystopian horror, would you mind travelling back in time and letting me know that i don’t have it so bad? just pop your head through a portal or some shit and say, “so what if your dad’s an asshole? at least you’re not being hunted by the government for harboring sugar rations and sentient android” or whatever.

generosity seems to have been a bad word to choose. i’ve got a way of

“Yeah, that’s what [INSERT AUTHOR] said, too.”

I have a fine arts degree in communication design. I fought tooth and nail in a class of 40 to win one of 15 spots for it. I’d fall asleep studying in the library. I managed to scrape by my final semester in the worst throes of depression that I’ve experienced in my life. This is to say, I didn’t take my college grades lightly.

Even though my education was deathly serious to me and I sat through enough philosophy lectures for a small mammal to die of old age, ultimately I realized I didn’t want to use my degree. As you might have guessed, creative writing is not something I ever took higher education courses in—I wrote when I was a child, I wrote throughout grade school, and then I studied the structure of visual storytelling and tone for four years in university.

As someone who lived their life missing what some people might consider a necessary fundament in the creative writing process (and as someone who felt deathly dependent on knowing all of “the answers”), this realization left me feeling dangerously unprepared once I decided I wanted to write books. A lot of these insecurities I still grapple with: how am I ever going to land an agent, what if I can’t afford to attend writers’ workshops, my writing is likely terrible in comparison to others’, will anyone in this industry even take me seriously if I don’t have a masters degree in writing? That’s a lot of “what if’s” to entertain on top of the stress of writing, but that’s where I started–back before I’d drafted my kids series, back before I had any picture books written, way back before I even realized my first picture book about a caterpillar was essentially garbage.

So, what do you do? If you’re anything like I was, you assume everyone else who’s “made it,” who seems even remotely approachable has the answers for you. You keep your eyes peeled for Q&As on Goodreads and Reddit, you occasionally tweet at them in the hopes that your question is interesting enough to grab their attention, and if you’re really lucky, you attend author signings and ask them in person when the floor opens up to questions. After all, whatever they did worked, thus inherently they have some insight into what might work for you, too.

adult alone black and white blur
“I just want my first draft of my first book to be flawless.”

And this is true… to an extent. I was fortunate enough to work specifically on author signings at my local bookstore for a year, and I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of authors coming through as I helped host their events: Crystal Wilkinson, Isaac Marion, Jan Brett, John Scalzi, Greg Iles, Jeff Zentner, Kevin Sherry. Not only did I ask them if they had any tips for writers trying to get published, but without fail, whenever it was Q&A time some hopefuls in the audience would as well. And that’s great! If you love an author, you probably want to know how they got to where they stand now.

But I’m gonna let you in on a secret, friends: I didn’t love all of those authors. I loved a few of them (omg Marion), but most were just people promoting their careers, and we only saw each other as polite faces in a work setting. The benefit of talking to lots of authors about their “secrets” indiscriminately—even ones I felt no butterflies over—is that I can deliver this kernel of truth that I learned to others, this granule of experience.

They all said the exact same thing, once boiled down.

Thus, I have created an untouchable formula for how to be a Successful Writer:

 

Success = finding what works for you + lots of effort + reading + creative partnership

 

That’s it. No tricks, no big secret. Just finding your own rhythm, sticking with it, consuming other stories, and getting feedback on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot of patience; the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace in itself, but all of these things are going to take time from you, as well. A metric fuck-ton of it.

The point of this post is to say that if you’re anything like I was when I started writing, you might be inadvertently wasting time by collecting knowledge from those who came before you instead of actually applying yourself. Don’t get bogged down in the preparation stages. As my own CP and co-contributor Herb might agree, preparation is a slippery slope—it’s easy to find yourself feeling endlessly shorthanded, when in reality your toolbox has been full for months. So next time you feel like you need answers from someone more experienced, pause–open a word processor–and try writing instead. You’re good to go, friends.

it’s a living #10

Sometimes the world crumbling around you doesn’t look like a shitty job and bad relationships and packs of ramen noodles that you lost the flavor pouches for.

Sometimes it’s far more abstract: staring at the page of a book and forgetting how to read, counting out a customer’s change and willing yourself to not think about how currency works, because if you do you’ll forget the simplest combination of coins to total 67 cents. Your brain on autopilot is numb and indifferent; it cannot enjoy or analyze, but it can function.

That’s the choice: functionality or presence. Functionality lets you go to work and wash dishes, presence is feeling like a living, breathing person with autonomy.

I explain this to Deanna.

“That’s dramatic as fuck, bud.”

I shrug, embarrassed. I’m sitting at the bar she’s tending. My head is in ‘presence’ mode, so even as we speak I’m breaking down the words leaving my mouth, analyzing our conversation like they’re lines in a play and I’m scanning for errors. Deanna plays a dual-role of bartender and therapist, I play the part of the man who’s had one too many drinks, only all I’ve had is half a sip of Pepsi. An actor needs to keep their wits.

“Why do you think it has to be one or the other?”

Another shrug, “That’s just how my brain works. If I turn it on, it starts breaking shit down to the micro level and it won’t stop until I make myself go brain-dead.”

“Has it always been like this?” God, she really knows her lines.

“No. No, just kinda recently. I used to… I mean… I think I broke my brain.” Why don’t I know mine?

“Hm.” Deanna leans on the counter, ignoring the glare she’s getting from a coworker. “Wanna know what I think?”

“No, Deanna, I came out here at 2:00 a.m. because I don’t give a shit about your opinion.”

“I think,” She pauses, stares at the drink in front of me, “that you don’t like Pepsi and I totally forgot.” She grabs the glass with a ridiculous flourish and turns to dump it down the drain. “You didn’t even say anything, idiot.”

I would have had to change the script, would have had to tell the props department that the soda machine should be Coke products, explain that the solid red logo matches the lighting better than the red and blue. “Too much work.”

“Tea?”

“Sure.” We won’t have to get the props department involved for that.

“But for real, wanna know what I think?”

“That Pepsi is better than Coke? You’ll never convert me.” I pluck the lemon from the edge of the glass and squeeze it. Juice dribbles, the cut on my thumb stings. That’s not part of the script. You can’t fake sharp, cleansing pain.

Deanna rolls her eyes. “I think you’ve had a lot of changes in your life recently, and that maybe it’s causing you to question things you didn’t even think to question before.”

I open my mouth to make fun of her Freudian tone, as my roles demands–my character is sarcastic and drunk, why wouldn’t I?–but what she’s saying makes sense.

“Plus you’re depressed and anxious and your brain doesn’t know how to chill the fuck out.”

“I actually figured that out by myself.” I grab a spoon and begin fishing the lemon seeds out of my glass, making sure to add the action to the scene. I can’t hazard getting a seed in my mouth and then trying to say my line.

“You have a lot of downtime at the gas station, yeah?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Will you get in trouble if you bring something to do while you’re not working?”

“I could kill a man and they would not give a shit.”

“Not the activity I had in mind, but you do you.”

Deanna’s coworker slips past her with a rag slung over their shoulder and a scowl: “Stop encouraging children to murder, Deanna.”

I delete their line from the script. They’re irrelevant.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Bring a notebook. Whenever your brain starts to over-analyze, try writing it all down instead of just ignoring it. Catalogue the fuck out of whatever you’re thinking. Let your brain do what’s it’s gonna do, you know?”

“That’s…” I frown at the lemon in my glass. It’s soaked up the tea, no longer looking clear and bright. Bad colors, bad lighting. I’ll have to fix that on the next edit. Maybe add sugar instead. I don’t like sugar in my tea, but maybe play-Kip does. “That’s smart.”

“I know.”

“You’re good at this.”

“What kind of bartender would I be if I gave shitty advice?”

“The normal kind.”

She laughs. “Hey, why don’t you head home and try to sleep, m’kay? If I don’t help Daniel clean up around here I’m not gonna be any kind of bartender at all.”

Like she’s called end scene, I snap out of the analytics and let myself drift back into nothing. “M’kay.”

“You work tomorrow?”

I nod.

“Top shelf of the bookcase in my room, there’s a couple empty notebooks. Put one in your bag and take it with you, alright? Just to try it out.”

I nod again. Stand up. “Yeah, sure.”

She looks me over. “Hang in there, bud. It’s either journaling or murder.”

“I take back what I said about good advice.”

“Hey, don’t knock it till you try it.”

“G’night, Deanna.” I sling my backpack over my shoulder.

“A little murder might be good for the soul.”

Good night, Deanna.”

“Night, Kip.”

For All the Books I’ve Loved Before

If there is one thing I learned about being a bookseller, it’s that there is nothing more difficult than getting people to branch outside of their preferred genre. And dear reader, let me preface this post by saying that I empathize, I really do; whenever I pick up a biography or a romance novel (it happens, believe it or not), there’s this moment where I have to brace myself for a new kind of story, a new type of content. However, even when you breach genres, you’re likely to choose a read that’s still relevant to your interests, right? If you dislike historical fiction but consider yourself a buff on 1920 women’s fashion, you’d probably decide on something tangentially related to that.

But what happens when we gleam over books with low marketability? When the genre marries the topic in a way that will fail to appeal to tons of people? As someone who worked in the fray of selling new releases, it was (and still is) disheartening to see so many good titles cast aside on the fly simply because the reader assumes they won’t connect with the story.

On a whim last year, I picked up Waiting for Augusta, a middle grade novel by Jessica Lawson. It’s a story where one of the large themes… is golf. Do I like golf? No.
Do I know absolutely anything
about golf? Also no. (I know that people yell “fore” sometimes.) Did I really and truly enjoy that book, and was I surprised to find themes about diversity that resonated with me? Absolutely. 
Yet, as a bookseller, this pleasant surprise meant nothing to anyone but myself since it did not translate into sales.

When you pitch a book to a customer, there are only so many ways to wrap it before they find out the hard details like the last nail in the coffin. Despite being a wonderful book, the fact that Waiting for Augusta wasn’t just a middle grade historical fiction novel, but a middle grade historical fiction novel involving golf seemed to be a magical combination of words that evaporated people’s interest in the title before I was even done telling them about the supernatural elements, the mysteries woven through the story, or the sense of freedom and adventure that would resonate with young readers. After going through this process repeatedly, it got discouraging when a book I was excited about got tossed aside flippantly over and over.

And so, I have a confession, dear reader.

I was never able to handsell a copy of Waiting for Augusta. Not one. I pitched it daily, I carried it around the store with me, I even made it my staff pick, but not a single person would take a chance on this book.

Now, I know that the people reading this aren’t the people who wouldn’t be risk-takers in the first place; you’re not your Aunt Molly shopping for a birthday book for your princess-loving niece (aside: we loved those customers, too). But if you’re reading this right now, you probably have an interest in books and writing, in which case there’s a chance–a tiny chance–that I could convince you to pick up something that was a marketing flop. Because those authors deserve love and recognition for misfit stories, too.

Just because something is hard to excite others about doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

Here are a few hard-to-sell books from my bookseller days. All of these titles are tried and true Good Books. Give one of them a chance, for yourself or a family member. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson (check it out!)

Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner (classic-style illustrated fantasy MG GN)

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter (YA historical fiction focused on slavery)

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (absurdist dark comedy about a failing theater production)

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa al Mansour (MG about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wants things the circumstances of her birth can’t give her)

Demon Dentist by David Walliams (absurdist humor MG novel, very Dahl-esque)

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley (contemporary MG about a fifth grader trying to win her estranged mother’s love)

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (a classic Nix fantasy geared for a MG audience)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG historical fiction about Hispanic labor camps in the US)

it’s a living #9

Trigger Warnings at the end. Please take care of yourself. 

Deanna sits me down on July 25th, the day after my little sister’s third birthday. She grabs me by the shoulders and steers me to the couch, gentle, like I’m a porcelain doll that she needs to take care of so she can sell me to a consignment shop. She’s perched on the coffee table across from me–determined, grim–and I haven’t been this nervous since senior-year-Zach and sophomore-year-me made out behind the Waffle House.

“Is this a sex talk?” I joke. “Cause like, I did get the talk, but it was a really straight one, so if you wanted to give me the gay version I’d actually really appreciate–”

“Kip, are you suicidal?”

“Um.” Wherever I thought she was going with this, I was wrong. “I’m…”

“We don’t talk about–well–that stuff.” Deanna rubs her eyes. “At least not like we should. And that’s shitty, and… I just. I don’t want to not talk and not talk and then… I don’t know. Something happens. And I’ll think, what if you had just said something, you know?”

“Yeah, sure.” I can feel myself retreating, distancing myself from the intensity of her gaze.

Maybe she can sense that, because she continues to ramble, “I’m not trying to be confrontational, but… I can’t just like, casually bring it up. Or like, I could, but I’m too much of a coward so I gotta like, psych myself up, and–”

“I get it.” I don’t get it, but I want to shut her up. I don’t know why she has to bring this up, why she has to see me. Why can’t she ignore it?

“Oh good. So like, if you wanna talk about anything… um. I’m listening.”

I fidget in my seat. “What do you want me to talk about?”

“Whatever you’re thinking?”

“Wellllll, I was thinking about washing the dishes. Might even dry them if I’m feeling really feisty.”

Deanna sighs. Bites her lip. “Kip, c’mon.”

“What?”

“I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay.”

“Cool. I’m fine.”

She sits back and crosses her arms. “You’re fine.”

“Fine.”

“Fine?”

“I’m fine, and you’re deaf, apparently.”

“Kip, stop it.”

“Stop what, Deanna? You wanted to know how I’m doing. I appreciate that, really, but I told you, I’m–”

“Fine,” She scoffs.

“Yeah. That’s the one.”

“That’s such bullshit, Kip. Why can’t you talk about it? Why won’t you let me help?”

“If this is you helping, I’d hate to see how you hurt.”

Her frown deepens. “Hey–”

“Also, if you wanna help someone why don’t you start with yourself? You spend every fucking day of your life in a stupor, you don’t remember half the conversations we have because you’re never here. You just wander through your life like it doesn’t even matter. That’s not healthy.”

“This isn’t about–”

“You keep saying you’re going to get your shit together, that you’re going to get a real job or whatever, but you can barely get out of bed most days.”

“Kip.”

I’m standing now, hands clenched at my sides. “You spent your teens and twenties fucking wasting away, waiting for life to come and pick you up off the ground. You’re such a hypocrite, Deanna. You’re a fucking–”

“Hey!” Deanna slams her fist down on the coffee table, and the violent sound jolts me out of my anger. I sink back into the couch, fold in on myself. “Oh. Hey.” Deanna’s voice softens. “Hey, sorry.”

I nod, but I can’t look up. It’s not safe yet.

We sit in silence for a minute while Deanna plucks fuzz off her sweatpants and I sit stock-still, waiting for the numbness to wash over me so we can brush past this. When three minutes tick by and still my pounding heart doesn’t settle into a slow, indifferent beat, I begin to panic; indifference is a necessity, the only thing that keeps me from paralyzing anxiety at all times.

“Kip, sweetie, try to calm down, okay?”

I shake my head.
“You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to, I swear. I’m sorry, I’m really not very good at this.”

She’s sorry? I’m the one who–

I run to the only other room in the apartment–Deanna’s room, since I don’t have one. I’m still sleeping on Deanna’s couch, in Deanna’s apartment, another reminder that she’s done so much for me and all I can do is yell at her and judge her life like mine isn’t a dumpster fire.

I close the door. Lock it. Even in my panic I feel absurd, like Lucy having one of her temper tantrums.

There’s a muffled thump against the door, and the shadow through the crack lets me know she leaning on it with her full body. “Kip. You don’t… you don’t have to let me in or anything, but um. If you need anything…” She groans. “I’m so fucking bad at this. I don’t know how to make you understand that I honestly just want you to feel better. I didn’t mean to lose my temper, and I’m not mad about the things you said to me either, okay? A little hurt, but not mad. So just–I don’t know–take a nap? And then maybe we can talk about this later. Or not, if you don’t want to…”

I nod my head as if she can see me, lowering myself onto the floor and curling up at the mere mention of sleep. “Okay,” I mumble.

Her sigh is muffled, but I can hear her relief even through the door. “I care about you, Kip.”

My chance to let her know it’s reciprocated slips by as her footsteps fade away.

Trigger warnings: discussion of suicide and depressive episodes. 

it’s a living #8

Trigger Warning at the end. Please take care of yourself. 

I don’t know why it takes over a year for the reality of it to hit me; denial or repression or shock, take your pick. Maybe it’s Gabby, the only real connection to my past, sprawled on my living room floor, setting up her ancient Nintendo 64. There had been such a strict divide, before and after the Incident; a Venn Diagram of two separate circles, but now those circles crossed. The smallest of collisions created a ripple effect of memories and emotions in my head, and it can’t be undone now.

“I’m really glad we were able hang out before I head back to school,” Gabby’s saying as she untangles some cords.

“Yeah, totally.” I wonder if she can hear the hollowness in my voice.

“I ran into Vicki the other day–you remember Vicki?”

“Badass tattoo girl,” I mumble.

“Yeah, exactly. Dude, I really thought you had a crush on her when we were freshies, even if you denied it. But anyways I ran into her the other day and she was telling me about her job at the mechanic’s down on 4th Street, and…”

This is how my life used to be. People came over and we talked about ourselves and other people and we complained about our teachers and discussed the newest Marvel movie and we ate pizza that our parents had ordered without a second thought to how much it cost, and we just were. There was no other way to be. Now it’s as if I’ve lost that ability. I can’t even re-contextualize the me that cares about how much the pizza cost into a situation of sociality that is so much better suited to the old me. I try to fit who I was over top of who I am, but that Kip is a mask made for a different face.

She’s just a person, I tell myself. She’s probably different now too. You’re not the only one who can change.

That helps a little, gets me out of my self-pitying spiral just enough to sit down next to her on the floor and play some fucking Mario Kart, the cure-all for existential breakdowns.

“Where’s your roommate?” Gabby asks after she beats me for the third time in a row.

“Working. She’s a bartender down on central.”

“Cool. How’d you meet her?”

A fuzzy memory of nausea and dulled terror hits me, a glass of water being set it front of me, a voice, tough luck, I don’t enable already drunk underage kids.

“Craigslist.”

Gabby laughs. “Super safe, Kip.”

“I am the model of adulthood.”

“Hell yeah you are.” She starts another round. “I’m like, still fully depending on my parents, and look at you, out here living all responsibly with your own apartment and job and shit.”

“I did a week’s worth of dishes like five minutes before you came over.”

“Well, one step at a time.”

One step at a time. Step one was getting out–was not immediately putting myself into a hole six feet under. Surviving. It’s all I’ve been doing, all I know how to do. Clinging to the edge of the cliff, unable to pull myself up, unable to let go.

“I like your hair longer, by the way. You look older. All cool and hipster. Bet it’s long enough to make a man-bun.”

“Oh yeah, thanks. I’m… trying something new.”

I’m aware of the fact that she’s making all the conversation, asking me all the questions, but I can’t think of a single thing to ask. I try to pull up information on her parents or siblings or an interest she has that I can inquire after, but the only question I can think of is, does your life suck as much as mine?

She wins the next round too. “Dude, you suck. You used to be way better than me.”

“Ah, I accidentally dropped my console and haven’t been able to get a new one yet.”

“That’s no excuse. You can’t untrain your brain how to play Mario Kart. It’s burned onto your hard drive.”

I shrug. “Well then maybe it’s you who’s gotten better.”

“Finally, I can take my rightful place as Queen.”

“You know, when I invited you over, it wasn’t so that you could usurp my throne.”

“That’s the thing about usurping, honey. You’re not supposed to see it coming.”

This, the banter. This I can do. This has been burned into my hard drive, an automatic button that gets pressed and allows me to slip back into something normal for a couple minutes.

 

Right before Gabby finishes packing up, she sighs, back towards me, and begins tentatively. “Kip.”

I ignore the unease in her voice. “Traitor to the crown.”

“I, uh. Heard about what happened.”

My stomach flips. I haven’t done this yet, not even with Deanna, and I don’t want to do it now. “What d’you mean?”

“C’mon, don’t play the Dumb Kip card. ” She turns to look at me, eyes roving my face for answers. “I know you better than that.”

“It’s…” I sigh. “Who told you?”

Gabby looks far too pitying. “Everyone knows, Kip.”

“Everyone?” I sit down on the couch, my head spinning.

“Yeah, man.”

My head nods, a movement independent of thought.

“But um.” She’s looking at me hard now, like she’s really trying to drive her point home. “I just wanted you to know that… uh. I’m cool with it, and. If you ever need anything…”

More nodding. “Thanks, Gabs.” I manage a half-smile. “Hey, at least now you’ll believe that I really wasn’t into Vicki.”

Gabby wraps her cord around her hand, then shoves it in her backpack. “Yeah, you know, maybe it was me who had a crush on her.” It’s a joke, but she’s fiddling with her backpack zipper and no longer making eye contact.

“For real?” Something like happiness bubbles up into my throat.

“I don’t know.” She shifts. “Yeah, maybe.”

“That’s awesome, Gabby.”

“Yeah?”

“Are you kidding?” My happiness bubble bursts into laughter. “This proves the theory that queer kids flock together before they even know they’re queer.”

Gabby’s laughing too now, and I can see a familiar relief in her shaking shoulders. “Wow, I haven’t seen you this happy since graduation. I would have led with this if I had known you were gonna go full puppy dog on me.”

The overlapped Venn Diagram of my two lives–absolutely panic-inducing just a couple minutes before–feels different now; a reassurance that both exist, separate and together at the same time.

“Okay.” Gabby stands up and swings her backpack over her shoulder. “This has all been very cathartic, and I think I’m drown in a pool of my own relief now.”

“Honestly, same.”

She kisses me on the cheek and gives me a big hug, that energy she’s famous for building back up inside her like a balloon. “Text me, my beautiful gay boy. We’re really stuck with each other now.”

Yes, we are.

Trigger warning: brief mention of suicidal thought. 

it’s a living #7

“Do you think,” Deanna grabs a jar of Jiffy peanut butter from the grocery store shelf, “That buying new underwear instead of washing my dirty ones makes me more or less adult-ish?”

I pluck the jar out of her hands and replace it with an off-brand. “I think it makes you gross.”

“Because, like, if I wash my dirty underwear then that’s very responsible of me, but if I’m able to afford buying new ones that means I’m making even a little money, which is the American Dream.”

“Is destroying the environment with your wasteful approach to undergarments the American Dream?”

“Um yeah? Haven’t you read The Great Gatsby?”

“I must have missed the part where Daisy throws all her underwear off the edge of her dock at the end of every week. No wonder I barely passed high school English.”

Deanna holds up a loaf of whole wheat bread.

I groan. “Do we have to?”

“Yes. It’s better for you.”

I waved a loaf of white bread in her face. “Look at it. Fluffy. Sweet. Like a kiss from an angel.”

“Yeah, the angel of death.”

I scowl and put the bread back.

“Good boy.”

The produce section–a battleground where the winner decides what our fresh fruit/vegetable of the week will be–is more crowded than usual. We spend our time there brandishing our preference from across the rows, making increasingly insistent faces and gestures to avoid yelling through the crowd, until I’m told by a tired-looking employee to “please handle the oranges gently, sir.”

“Yeah, Kip. God. No respect for mother nature.”

I give Deanna the finger. A soccer mom sees, scandalized, and works her way across the apple aisle for some good old-fashioned confrontation before Deanna pulls me into the flower section.

She’s giggling, looks present and childlike, eyes clear of that glaze that I assumed was just a part of her.

“We are a menace to society,” I sigh.

Deanna’s looking at me with something akin to pride, which is a weird reaction to me being scolded by a supermarket attendant and then escaping murder-by-soccer-mom. It makes me feel shy, like when a teacher you want to impress gives you a smiley face on your test, so I avert my gaze to the left, eyes landing on a bouquet of tulips. I pick them up.

“Pretty, huh?”

I nod. “My mom used to get flowers for the kitchen window every week.”

“Yeah?” Her tone is cautious.

“Yeah. Once, uh–once she wanted to get a fresh batch of roses because she had some important people coming over, and I. Um. I asked if I could take the old ones up to my room, you know, cause they were pretty and still perfectly fresh looking.”

“Mm. How’d that go?”

“She let me take them; said it was good for a man to appreciate the more delicate things. My dad, though…”

“Not a fan of the ‘men’ and ‘delicate’ combo?”

“Something like that.”

Deanna nods, somber, and I chide myself for bringing the mood down. She motions to the tulips in my hand. “You wanna pick some out?”

“What?”

“Flowers. You wanna get some for the apartment?”

“No, no.” I put the bouquet back as fast as I can. “They’re expensive and we don’t need them.”

She shrugs. “We got off-brand peanut butter. We can afford it.”

“We got whole wheat bread. No we can’t.”

“Bananas were our fruit of the week. Cheapest there is.”

“Good, then we can save our money.”

“Kiiiiiiiip.” She picks up the bouquet closest to her and sticks it under my nose. “Stop and smell the roses, Kip.”

I cross my arms. “Those are baby’s breath.”

“Kiiiiip,” She swings them back and forth like she’s trying to hypnotize me. “Don’t be a pedantic dick, Kip.”

The smell of the flowers seeps into my brain, sending me back to that bright kitchen with its nearly-fresh roses. I gently push the flowers out of my face. “Dea, seriously. We’ll just get what we got and save some money.”

She appraises me for a moment, then shrugs. “Fine, spoilsport.”

The next stop is the gas station. When we pull in, Deanna begins texting her boss about scheduling, and asks if I’ll hop out and fill up the car.

I feel heavy. I can’t unbuckle.

“Kip?”

“My mom called the other day.”

“Shit,” she mutters. “You answer?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.” She’s looking at me. “Wanna talk about it?”

My gaze remains in strict dashboard territory. “No, I just… ” I squeeze my eyes shut until the prickling feeling behind them goes away. “I just wanted to tell you.”

“Okay, well, if you change your mind–”

“I’ll get the gas.” I unbuckle and throw myself out of the car, slamming the door behind me. Good. Good job, Kip.

 

It’s a wide, unbusy two-lane road surrounded by empty fields that Deanna pulls over on, shifting the gear to park with an edge of defiance. I think, this is it, though I’m not sure what “it” is. A lecture, at best, a “your life is too much and I need you to move out” at worst.

Instead she points to the field and says, “flower time, baby.”

The bark of laughter that bursts through my chest, unexpected and giddy, is enough of a catalyst for me to undo my seatbelt and follow her out into the open air. The wildflowers are small, insignificant. Free, in both senses of the word. Dandelions are the only ones I know by name, but there are tiny white ones with petals that look like they’re made of porcelain, purples that work their way up the stem like a vine, and the yellows attract the most bumble bees. Deanna is brave enough to fetch those for me. By the time we’re done, we’ve got two bouquets of chaotic, brambly weeds that are already beginning to wilt.

She holds up our bounty with a combination of horror and delight. “Look at our perfect, ugly children.”

I giggle. “I can’t wait to watch them succeed in their perfect, ugly plant lives.”

“They’re gonna grow up, get married. These are 401k flowers, I can tell.”

I should say thank you, I want to say thank you, but I can’t. Thanking her means acknowledging that she helped me. Which means I needed help. “Deanna.”

“Kip.”

“My flowers are better than yours.”

“Fuck you.”

Character Games 101: Dice Games

Welcome back to the final installment in a series entitled Character Games 101!

Our first week we talked about learning more about your character through role-playing games, and last week we used Akinator to find out parallels between our characters and well-known ones in pop culture. This final type of game I’d like to explore in terms of its usefulness to characterization might feel similar to the first post in this series, if you play tabletop games. This game, however, isn’t aimed at helping you polish off your character–its goal is to help you create one to begin with.

Character Games #3: Dice Games

Wait! Please don’t leave. I know that at its face, a “dice game” sounds like the least amount of fun even someone in the 15th century would have. But before you click away, allow me to remind you that these dice exist (not a sponsor). If you consider yourself a storyteller yet you’ve never had an opportunity to play with storytelling dice, you should seriously consider remedying that. And you might think that having dice structure a story for you takes the fun out of the process, but I’ve found that it actually makes things more challenging; when you’re forced to fit two events or characters together, your brain has to do gymnastics to make that happen.

I’m not here to pitch those dice to you, though. I’m here to help you create a new character using a method that tabletop players will be familiar with already. We’re gonna roll a character.

Now, in RPGs “rolling” a character helps you determine stats for that character such as strength, dexterity, and charisma. But that’s narrow thinking.

Let me put that line of thought on pause while I talk about numbers. Personally, I hate numbers. They’ve never clicked with me; I don’t much care for mathematics. Just about the only thing I can find redeeming about numbers is their roles as symbols. For example, I bet off the top of your head you can list some significance of the number seven? There are the seven deadly sins, seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow.

So what? These concepts on their own are totally inane until you apply meaning to them. That’s where the fun is. By assigning meaning to the numbers on a die, you can create a character totally by chance. Here, let me give an example: ever seen a character alignment chart?

Hunger-Games-alignments
The real chaotic evil is that Cinna died. Totally unnecessary. 

Well, guess what? There are nine options there. Label ‘em, roll a nine-sided die, bam. Your character has an alignment. Sure, you’ll need to figure out why, but even then you can roll for an interesting backstory. Going back to the seven deadly sins: assign them to numbers, roll. Bam. Your character has a fatal flaw. What month were they born in? 12-sided die. For yes/no questions, substitute a quick coin flip. You can even use tracks from an album, or numbered pages from a book, or those horrifically addicting “what would your rapper name be?” posts floating around. It doesn’t matter! Because as more and more questions are answered, you’ll begin to see someone new take shape.

Just for fun, I’ll roll an example character. Since my dice are all still in storage somewhere, I’m going to be using this website to roll. You’ll note that it allows you to pick however many sides you like on a die, so there are no limits to your questions. Here I go…

My character hails from the southern-most part of their world. They are down-to-earth. They are chaotic evil, which makes their no-nonsense attitude even more terrifying. Their downfall is their hubris, befitting someone calm and collected, yet twisted. They have natural red hair and are non-binary. My character likes sour food, and is sensitive to smells; they are easily nauseated by foul odors. Their favorite season is autumn due to the decay (plus that’s when tangy tangerines in season, they always keep one in their pocket, dropping the peels wherever they please). They are a Capricorn, which lends the traits of patience, ambition, and fatalism to their personality. Their evil conquest is to spread a brain-controlling parasite everywhere they go, amassing followers that appear normal to the naked eye. Alas, they cannot get too close to their loyal minions, as the stench of the parasitic fungus is too pungent.

Wow. See? I have an underworld-born tangerine-loving demon who forcefully inducts people into a cult of his own worship by using fungus. And a few minutes ago I had nothing.

The beautiful part of this process of character creation is that it’s totally up to you how to structure it. Don’t like one of the options in your list of ideas? Strike it out. Feel no inspiration about the result you got, no matter how hard you brainstorm? Roll again. You’re still in control. This is simply a tool to help you get the story juices flowing.

A word of warning: know when enough inane detail is enough. Having quirks for your character is fun, but if your character is so unique that they begin to sound more like something a child would dream up while rambling, maybe back off a little.

Thanks for joining me in this series of Character Games 101! I hope you had fun, or at the very least, I hope you got some good ideas. And who knows? Characterization is a love of mine, so maybe this series will rear its head again in the future. Until then, keep writing!

it’s a living #6

I’m about halfway home. The bus is chugging along, industrious yet tired, and I’ve got my earbuds buried in as far as as they’ll go. I’m listening to a semi-decent 80’s playlist on Spotify, and the woman next to me keeps looking at me like she wants to talk to me, so I make a point to look even more “sulky teen” than usual. It’s not that I mind a conversation now and then–might even welcome it if it serves as a distraction–but today’s not one of those days.

When David Bowie cuts off, I assume it’s a bad connection for half a second before the silence is traded for my ringtone. I pull it out of my pocket, see the name across my screen, and decline the call with panicked rapidity. The woman next to me sees this, her eyes rove across my face as if my shit is any of her business, but I refuse to acknowledge her, waiting instead for Bowie to refill my ears and the static to return to my thoughts.
One verse later: my phone rings again, and this time I stare at the incoming call as dread begins to sink in. They haven’t called at all since I last saw them a year ago, and I can’t think of a reason they would now. I decline the call.

The music hasn’t enough time to start back up before I feel a tap on my shoulder. I sigh. Take my headphones out.
“It’s none of my business…”
—That’s for fucking sure—
“But if your mom is worried about you, you should really answer and let her know you’re okay.”
I nod. The thing is, my mom probably is worried. Not about the things she should be worried about, but worried nonetheless. “Yeah.”
The phone rings a third time. Now I’m worried. What if something happened? Is Lucy sick? Hurt? That’s enough to get me to answer, and as I do I see the woman out of the corner of my eye looking smug as if she had convinced me to answer. I’m almost feeling contrary enough to hang up, just to spite her.

“Hello?” My stomach is turning itself inside out, and I can already feel that ever-familiar tremor working its way down into the bones of my fingers.
I hear a little gasp on the other side, small enough that it might be a crackle of interference.
“Mom?”
“Hi Kip.”
“Mom.” My brain has come to a screeching halt. Mom, mom, mom. A weird word. A weird concept. Haven’t thought about it in too long. Sometimes Deanna is Mom-ish to me, but in a cool mom, doesn’t-enact-enough-discipline kind of way. Not real-mom. Not even surrogate-mom. Deeply involved aunt, maybe.
But this isn’t my deeply involved aunt on the phone, it’s my mom. Mom.
“How are you, Kip?”
“I’m… fine.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Yeah.
There’s a pause, and I take that time to shut my processing centers off. I can deal with whatever this means later.
“How’s Lucy?” It’s the only question that matters much; might as well start with it.
She laughs a small, strangled laugh. “She’s good.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah. She misses you.”
Yeah.


Keeping the panic at bay is harder than I thought it’d be. The tremor has bounced back from my fingertips, traveled up my arms and into my core. “Why uh… why’d you call?”
“Wanted to say hi.”
“Oh.” Does not compute. “Hi.”
She laughs again. “Hi. Hey, um, where are you living these days?”
These days. Like the question is for a fucking business man who moves around a lot, and not someone she thinks might be homeless.
I don’t answer. If she knew, then they could find me. I’m not ready for that. From somewhere on the crowded bus, a baby starts screaming.
“Is that a child?” Her tone is hilarious.
“Yeah. I adopted a kid.” The joke comes unbidden, far too naturally, as if this is a normal conversation.
“Uh—”
“Kidding. I’m on a bus.”
“Right.”
The bus lurches to a halt, the hissing tires fill my ears, and I don’t catch whatever she says next. “Listen, I uh—this is my stop. I gotta go.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“I’ll…” I can’t say that I’ll talk to her later. That’s far too much commitment. “Bye, Mom.”
“Bye, hon.” She takes a breath, like she’s got one more thing to say. I can hear the moment she decides not to say it. “Bye.”
“Bye.”

As the bus pulls away, I can see the woman who sat next to me staring out the window at me, smug smile replaced with something sad and betrayed, like she had expected the phone call to lead to tearful and precious apologies, not a half-conversation stilted with bitterness.

The aftershock hits me the second I step inside the apartment, and I melt to the floor in a puddle of my own adrenaline.
“Wow.” Deanna’s voice startles me despite my assumption that she was home. “Long day?”
I shrug.
“Wanna talk about it speed-round style? I’ve got seven minutes before I’ll be unacceptably late for work.”
I look up at her. “If I come to work with you will you let me get drunk?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Hm. Maybe you are Mom-ish.”
“What?” Deanna grabs her dinner out of the fridge and snatched her purse from the counter.
“Nothing. Get outta here. Don’t be late.”
She stares at me.
“What? I’m fine, I swear. Go.”
“You’re sitting in front of the door.”
“Oh.” I scoot forward just enough to let her squeeze through.
She gives me one last look. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
“Sure.” We won’t.
“‘Kay. Bye.”
“Later, sucker.” I slam the door before she can look at me like that again.