I am a universe away from where I was last year when I wrote this.  In the short span of 365 days, I have seen my world unravel in the midst of a painful separation and impending divorce and now, on this day set aside for lovers, I am left to pick up the threads in the hopes that I may stitch myself together and create something new.

For most writers, love is the most sacred of all things.  It is the most versatile plot element—sometimes the impetus of the story, sometimes a character’s salvation, sometimes the motive for murder, sometimes the reason for living.  Love is often the foundation on which a story, regardless of genre, stands.  In romance as well as fantasy and science fiction and comedy, love provides the highest stakes and the greatest conflict.

For my part, I have learned a great deal about love in the past year and, honestly, most of it has been bad.  I am still a romantic who believes in love as the most powerful of all forces, and no amount of rejection or heartbreak will change who I am.  What I have learned, however, is that you can’t love someone enough to make them love you.  No amount of kindness or affection or pleading can create love in someone where it refuses to exist.  Love is like a bridge—it’s only useful if it connects two people together.  No amount of work building that bridge will matter if it never connects to the opposite side.

Still, I believe that things happen for a reason and that the past year—the past few years, really—will eventually lead to a new, exciting time in my life.  I will not wait for love—it will find me when it’s ready as long as a I am still open to receiving it.  In the meantime, I will work on everything else (my kids, finishing school, my job, etc.) so that when it arrives, I’ll be ready.

I know this post hasn’t been very entertaining, so I thought I throw a video in with it.  I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately and it says a lot about my thoughts on love that I couldn’t articulate nearly as well as Ray LaMontagne does here:

At my store, I sell makeup.  One entire wall of the store is devoted to it.  Covergirl, Maybelline, Revlon, L’Oreal, Rimmel, Neutrogena, Sally Hansen, you name it—thousands of items, categorized by brand, use, color, and any other way the manufacturers can differentiate them.  It’s a daily occurrence to see some lady standing by the foundation, agonizing over whether she is a nude or a light beige.  To a guy like me, the entire process of selecting, coordinating, paying for (the stuff is on par with gold on a per ounce basis), applying, and wiping away makeup is a maddening ordeal that I am very thankful to avoid.

And, really, is it worth it?  Are cosmetics really worth the effort and expense you ladies put into them?

Some of you would argue that, absolutely, it’s worth it.  “If you could see me when I first wake up…” you say, and I won’t debate the point.  If it makes you feel better, prettier, sexier, more worthwhile, to paint your face, then by all means do it.  But I’m going to share with you now the big secret that the cosmetic companies don’t want you to know.  It’s a bit revolutionary, perhaps even inflammatory, but it needs to be said.

There is one brand of cosmetics that is far superior to all the others.  It hides scars and stretch marks, it evens out skin tone, it fills in wrinkles and restores a youthful appearance.  It adds color to pale skin, reduces redness, and covers unsightly blemishes, even those of the soul.

Yes, the best makeup out there isn’t Covergirl or Maybelline or Revlon.  The best makeup I know of is the love of another person.  100% natural, hypoallergenic, and it works for all skin types.

A person in love may see, with his or her physical senses, all the things this makeup covers, but love does what no other cosmetic product can—it makes them disappear without really doing anything to them at all.  A husband in love with his wife may see the scars on her knees from her bicycle accidents as a kid.  He may see the crow’s feet forming at the corners of her eyes, and he may see the stretch marks she had from bearing his children, but, at the same time, he sees none of these.  In his eyes, through the cosmetic impact of love, he sees her as whole and perfect.  Likewise, a wife may acknowledge her husband’s thinning hair, his thickening belly, and the lines on his brow, but to her, through her love, she sees him as her handsome prince.

Conversely, when that love fades or vanishes entirely, those details are thrown in sharp relief.  A man who once saw his wife as perfect may now see all the physical flaws he spent years reassuring her were not there.  The wife, estranged from her husband, not only sees his gut and receding hairline, she cannot look past them to find any resemblance to the man she once loved.  Love is a powerful cosmetic, to be sure, but nothing throws blemishes and scars into greater relief than love lost.

And so, to those of you in love or seeking love, please realize that what you see or hope to see is not truth.  The scars you see do not really fade, but that does not matter as long as love remains.  It’s when love fades that we learn how we have tricked ourselves with the grandest of illusions, the king of cosmetics, the all-concealing power of pure love for another.  All any of us can hope for is a life supply of that brand of makeup and to live the illusion as long as possible.

Photographs and memories,

All the love you gave to me

Somehow it just can’t be true

That’s all I’ve left of you.

–Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories”

When I was younger, around twelve or so, my parents would sometimes be out of the house and I would be free to explore that magical repository known as “their closet”.  Unlike some kids, my interest in my parents’ closet had nothing to do with finding something that shouldn’t be there, but rather with unearthing what should be there.  Like an archaeologist, I would sift through the old clothes and boxes in search of what I was really after.

History.

In the closet, my dad kept (and still keeps–I checked) various bits of nostalgia such as slides from the time he spent in Korea while serving with the Army.  He was too late for the war, but those pictures of a much younger him never failed to fascinate me, particularly against such an exotic backdrop.  He showed them occasionally when I was in elementary school, and I was even allowed to take them to school during the sixth grade to tell, thanks to some handwritten notes, about his experiences there.  There were also pictures, mostly of me and my brother when we were younger, but also of my parents when they were younger, filling in the vast space before my memories began to take root.  There were papers, none of which I understood at the time, but that I knew to be important simply because they were in the closet rather than in the trash.  Other items, such as my mom’s crafts abandoned craft projects and my dad’s airplane magazines collected there as well, not important enough to keep out, but too important, at least to them, to throw away.

During one such exploration into the Closet of Wonders, I discovered a couple of notebooks that I had never seen before.  They were tucked in the very back at the top of the closet–the area where other parents might hide a handgun or a porn collection.  Inside the notebooks were the opening pages of a handwritten manuscript, began, then abandoned, by my mother.   I read through the pages and was not surprised that they were the beginning stages of a romance novel.  My mother read every book Harlequin put out for a couple of decades, so it was only natural that she might try to express her love for those stories by trying one herself.  Even at that age, I could see a few problems with spelling and grammar, but I had recently learned about the differences between a “rough draft” and a “finished piece”.

So, I asked her about them.

My mom, for those of you who didn’t know her, was as fearless as anyone I’ve ever met, but at the mention of her aborted manuscripts, she shrugged off the question, somewhat embarrassed.  She had been a stay-at-home mom and babysitter until my brother and I were both in school and, having the time, she thought she’d give it a try.  It turned out to be a lot harder than she expected and, aware of her own limitations, she gave it up.  She told me, though, that she had always wanted to be a writer.

Now, we come to the present.  She has been gone two years today and in that two years, I’ve done what she had only dreamed of doing–become a published author.  This fall, I will have two more stories published, bringing my total to six, and my only regret is that she has not been here to tell me how inappropriate they are and how proud she is that I wrote them anyway.  Also, I made a commitment to writing my Christmas stories without ever realizing that I was writing them for her, Santa’s biggest fan, even though she’ll never read them.  They are a tribute–however silly or sad or gross they are–to the woman who showed me that even working in retail during the holidays cannot dampen the joy one can find in the holiday season.

According to the old saying, time heals all wounds.  It’s true, but tell that to the amputee who will never hold anything with his missing hand again, or the cancer patient who has parts removed as if she was an old station wagon, or the son who will never share his victories with his mother, victories in battles that he has fought for them both.  Yes, time does heal all wounds, but sometimes the scars left by time are almost too horrible to behold.

I miss my mother.  She could be a pain in the rump sometimes, but no one would have been more thrilled by my published stories, even the ones she really didn’t like (I can only imagine the eye-rolling response I would have received for “Santa’s Worst Stop).  She was my first fan, the one who read my stories in elementary school and told me how good they were, even when they weren’t, and no amount of success, no mile-long line at a book signing or movie deal, will replace her.

Okay, that’s enough crying for this year, I think.  Time to go work on a Christmas story.  Mom would have liked that.

I attended my second Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner this evening and my wife and I enjoyed a good meal along with several inspirational stories of people dealing with cancer.

Before last year’s dinner, my first since my cancer diagnosis in July 2009, I was told that I might be asked to give a speech about my experience with the disease.  I had most of the speech prepared, but found out shortly before the dinner that I would not be giving it after all.  I was a little disappointed, but upon further reflection, having a large group of mostly elderly cancer survivors listen to me talk about my nuts was probably not the best idea.

Still, I thought the speech was pretty good–entertaining, at least–and I decided to go ahead, finish it this evening, and post it on here.

And so, I give you my Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner Speech That I Was Not Asked to Give:

Good evening, my name is Lee Smiley and, like the rest of the speakers tonight, I’m a cancer survivor.  My experience, however, is a little different.  It is a tale of laughter and tears, of hardship and triumph, of sickness and health. 

And it all started with Legos. 

Well, that’s not entirely true.  The Legos came later. 

When you tell a friend you have cancer, the question you most often hear is, “What kind?”  For most of us, our answer is usually followed by a story, some personal anecdote about someone close to that friend who has battled the same disease.  “Oh, my sister is battling breast cancer,” they might say, or “My father had prostate cancer.” 

But when you tell someone you have testicular cancer, that pretty well ends the conversation.  There are no follow up questions.  Nobody asks you, “Oh, which side?”  What you usually get is an awkward silence, maybe a smile, and a quick change of subject.  

In early 2008, I started having troubles in—to put it nicely—my nether regions.  What began as a mild discomfort gradually grew into serious pain, to the point where any impact stronger than a light breeze would double me over, near vomiting.  It reached the point where my children would run up for me to hug them and I’d recoil in terror as though they were about to mug me. 

After much “suggesting”  from my wife, I did the un-male thing and went to the doctor, who diagnosed a bad case of epiditimytis, a bacterial infection of the testicular lining immortalized in the Mary Poppins song, Supercalifragilisticepiditimytis.  I can tell you, it was quite atrocious, but after a round of antibiotics, I was back to normal. 

Or so I thought. 

A year or so later, I was back at the doctor.  When asked about my symptoms, I told the physician that I was having similar pain to before, but now it was accompanied by serious fatigue.  I may be a little chubby, but don’t let that fool you.  I play tennis, chase my four children around, and have a somewhat physical job, so for me to be winded after ten minutes of hitting a tennis ball made me fairly sure that something was wrong. 

My wife, bless her, wanted to contribute to the list of symptoms.  She told him that “it feels like a Lego in there.” 

“A Lego, huh?” the doctor asked as he checked for the offending toy. 

“Hey, I’m a mother,” my wife told him.  “I know what a Lego feels like.” 

She got me to wondering if, perhaps through some unfortunate childhood swallowing accident, it could actually be a Lego in there.  The theory did nothing to explain why, if it was a little plastic cube, what was supposed to be there wasn’t, but it did make me dredge my memory for something that could explain what was going on.  Nothing came to mind, so I started, instead, to think of what I could build with it once it came out.  A Lego fertility clinic, perhaps. 

After a few tests, I was referred to a urologist in Paris, Dr. Mobley, who sent me immediately to the hopsital there for further tests.  One of these was an ultrasound of the Lego, which was done by a attractive young woman who took me into a dark room and told me to take off my pants and underwear.  She gave me a bath towel and told me, “Lie down on the table and use this to cover yourself.”  I thought about asking her if she had anything bigger than a bath towel—a king size sheet, maybe—but she was gone before I could think of anything other than, “Okay.” 

When the attractive ultrasound tech came back and began scanning for the Lego, I did everything in my power to not think about the attractive ultrasound tech scanning for the Lego.  We talked, though, and to hide my unease, I tried to be funny. 

“Can you see the baby?” 

“Is it a boy or a girl?” 

I thought about asking if this counted as getting to second or third base for her, but thought that might take me too close to thinking about what she was doing.  Instead, we talked about her family’s farm—what they grew, how they grew it, and how it had nothing to do with where she was touching. 

With the ultrasound done, I went back to Dr. Mobley’s office and found he already had the results from the test. 

“You definitely have a mass there,” he told me, and that was all it took to set my mind off again.  While my wife was crying over the diagnosis, I was imagining rows of sperm, all sitting in little pews, while another sperm cell in a priest’s robe stood before them reading the Gospel.  Before I could decide whether my testicular mass would be in English or, for a more exotic experience, Latin, I realized that my wife was about to come apart if I didn’t say something. 

“Well,” I said.  “What now?” 

Dr. Mobley told me he thought the mass was a seminoma, a rare form of testicular cancer, and that he wanted to remove the Lego. 

“Okay,” I said.  “When?” 

“How about tomorrow?” he asked, and when he didn’t smile or anything I knew he was serious.  I had started vacation that day and would be off for another eight days, so I told him yeah, I could do it.  We had been planning on going to see my father-in-law in Kansas that weekend, but that plan vanished with those three words from the doctor.  In a matter of minutes, I had gone from complaining of a child’s toy stuck in my body to having cancer and surgery less than 24 hours away. 

So, back to the hospital we went, this time to preregister for the surgery.  There were more tests, to the point that I told them if they wanted to take any more blood from me they were going to have to put some back in.  And I told jokes.  Jokes at the registration desk.  Jokes with the nurse in charge of my prep work.  Jokes that were inappropriate and, I suspect, in danger of getting me hauled off to the psych ward as soon as the surgery was over. 

The next day, we went back to the hospital for the surgery.  Step one, once I was placed in a room, was to have a nurse come in and shave virtually my entire body.  Despite having a surgery that required about six-inches of incision, this lady acted as though she was mowing her lawn.  I couldn’t tell if she thought she was prepping me for surgery or sheering wool.  During this process, a dozen or so people came in and out of the room for various things—bringing supplies, asking the clipper-happy nurse a question, checking that the remote for the television had batteries—and I’m sure all of them stopped outside my room to snicker about what they saw.  On top of this, my wife and mother sat nearby, unsure of whether to laugh at me or cry. 

Soon, they came to haul me away, but not before I assured my wife that I would see her soon, as long as I didn’t die on the operating table.  Somehow, she found this less than reassuring. 

As they wheeled me to the surgical suite, I made hand signals to mark which way the bed was turning, just in case there was another bed headed that way that needed to know our intentions.  For some reason, the staff thought this was hilarious, as did I until they wheeled me into a room that looked like a torture chamber from a horror movie.  Everything was stainless steel—the tables, the shelves, the surgical instruments, even Dr. Mobley, who had donned a suit of armor and was talking to an assistant about proper jousting techniques.  Okay, I made that last part up.  Sue me. 

Next came the anesthes— 

I woke up in another room.  Despite having a large bandage covering a sewn-up hole in my abdomen, I felt pretty good.  Several hours had passed, more than they expected, as I reacted strongly to the anesthesia, strongly enough that I became sick when I tried to go to the restroom.  A nurse brought me some phenergan for the nausea and I was— 

I woke up again a little while later.  I still felt pretty good and this time, when I went to the restroom—which I had to do before they’d let me leave—I managed without being sick.  I got dressed–feeling myself and thinking of the tagline from Highlander, “There can be only one”–and received permission to head home, along with a prescription for some mild pain medication.  Still under the influence of the meds, I asked my wife, “What do a confused squirrel, an asylum on high alert, and I have in common?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“We’re all missing a nut.”

I thought it was funny. Her, not so much.

They brought a wheelchair for me, but I wasn’t ready to leave.  Not yet.  As I was having part of my overproductive reproductive system removed, my next-door neighbor was giving birth to her second child, and I insisted on seeing them before I went home to begin my recovery. 

As I looked at the little newborn girl, I thought of all the wonders of modern medicine, how doctors can save a life, while just down the hall, they bring a new one into the world.  I thought of all the amazing, everyday miracles that happen every day in hospitals and doctor’s offices all over the world.  Diseases are treated and cured.  Hope is given back to those who have had none.  And babies are born.  Babies like this one. 

Then, I thought, “I should really get her some Legos.”

(Yes, I know I’m posting this early on Wednesday, but as I worked late and haven’t been to bed yet, it’s still Tuesday to me.  Get over it.)

Last weekend, I made my sojourn to Frankfort, Kentucky, for the annual meeting of the Statewide Selection Committee for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.  As usual, I had a great time seeing old friends and making new ones, despite my car biting the dust when I got to the hotel.

The committee is made up of volunteers—mostly people who, unlike me, work in education in some capacity–from all over who have insanely agreed to put off every other event in their lives for a couple of weeks in order to score nearly 2000 applications from students hoping to attend the program.  Some of us attend every year, mostly for the excellent lunch provided by the staff, and some do not attend at all for various reasons.  I try to make it every year, and not only for the lunch, but for the conversation.  It’s nice to learn what is new with the program, what changes are being made, and how the many hours I spend scoring applications benefit students from across the state of Kentucky.

During this year’s meeting, two of the members were discussing how little imagination children seem to have compared to what we had growing up and, as a fellow committee member and a parent and a writer, I have a few thoughts on this topic.

I used to score a part of the GSP application we called “The Unique”.  We asked the students to write a short description of something that set them apart from their peers, something that would make us take notice and say, “Now, there’s a kid who should be a Governor’s Scholar.”  I have talked about the shortcomings from this part of the application before, so I won’t rehash them here.  For the five or so years I scored Uniques, they collectively got worse and worse until, last year, the program decided to scrap them in favor of a Leadership Project that the students would describe, in bullet point format, from conception to execution.  The project could be something they actually plan to do or purely theoretical, but the entire idea was to get the students to think about what they could do to help their communities and, from our perspective, to see how organized and pragmatic their thinking processes are.  So far, the feedback has been generally positive about the change within the program, but the people scoring them have complained about the same general idea that I and others did with the Uniques—lack of creativity and imagination.

Sadly, I see the same problem in my own children.  It seems that my children can’t be outside for more than a few minutes before they are whining about wanted to come inside because there’s nothing to do.  They don’t want to jump on the trampoline or play with all the toys we’ve bought for them or watch the movies lying tossed like frisbees around their bedrooms or read any of the books bulging from the shelves.  You simply cannot walk into either of their bedrooms without stepping on something that is now too boring for them to play with.

As a child, I was certainly not deprived, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with material goods the way other children I knew were.  I loved to be outside playing baseball, even if “playing baseball” meant throwing imaginary no-hitters against a brick wall at the church next door or slaying invisible dragons with the straightest stick I could find in the brush pile.  Everything I needed to entertain myself for hours was lying around my yard and inside own head.

Nowadays, every stimulus children have comes from outside.  They have video games and movies and internet and all the other assorted things that the generations before first imagined, then brought into being.  Studies have shown that young people read less than their older counterparts, and while a number of legitimate ideas have been offered as to why this is, I think one of the most important, yet least discussed, is that with stimulus thrust upon them, children have perhaps lost the ability to produce these things inside their own minds, to see the invisible dragons or the fierce batters ready to spoil that historic moment in sports history.  Why imagine a thing when you can put a disk into a little machine and experience it without all the effort?  Are we driving our kids to the point where they cannot appreciate the simple act of creation that can occur inside the imagination and will we miss out on what those imaginings can provide for us in the future?

I have other fears regarding the loss of imagination as it affects my writing.  Children who cannot focus enough on a story to see what is happening without having it on Blu-Ray will not, as a rule, be potential readers.  On a larger scale, what will happen to literature as more and more children lose the ability to imagine stories themselves, to create the future of what we will read?  Even as the publishing industry shifts to a modern, digitized format, I wonder if there will be much worth reading when my children’s generation are the movers and shakers in society.

There is hope, however.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has done as much as any single person to reverse this awful trend.  The Harry Potter series gave children (and adults, for that matter) such a rich world, with vibrant characters and brilliant settings, that an entire generation learned to imagine again, creating a ripple effect in the Young Adult market and making it probably the only bright spot in the book world right now.  Not only is the Harry Potter generation reading more, they are writing.  I see young people all the time who are writing novels or short stories with the ultimate goal of being published.  Now, if they could only spell and use proper grammar . . . but that’s a rant for another day.

Imagination is not an intangible thing.  Without it, there is no industry, no innovation, no progress.  It’s hard to look around and not see the advances in technology that started, in their embryonic stage, as an idea.  An imagining.  How will society progress as more and more of our ideas, our very thoughts, come from the television or the internet?  Who will rise up and have the original thought that changes the world?

Why not me?  Why not you?  Go out, find a child, and slay the invisible dragons.

Admittedly, I’m a little tardy posting my first entry of 2011.  January just seemed to slip by me.  In my defense, though, I’ve had a lot going on (more than usual), some of which I’ll talk about on here and some of which I won’t.  Let me just say that change has been the rule of late rather than the exception.  And it’s not over yet.

I’d like to start this year by looking back at last year.  In some respects, it was a very successful year.  I stayed cancer-free.  I didn’t lose a parent.  My focus on short stories in 2010 yielded some positive results, including my first four published works (see my Bibliography).  I’ve seen other writers post their publishing income from a year, so here’s mine for the past year—$18.  It’s not much, but it is more than I made from writing my previous 33 years of life combined and, more importantly, it’s the tiny snowball that I hope to being rolling downhill to one day create an avalanche of publishing income that will allow me to retire from my day job and do this full time.

Yes, I’m still in that dream state where the Promised Land seems just over every mountain I must climb.

If I had to assign a title for 2009, with my cancer ordeal and the death of my mother, I would have to call it the Year of Loss.  On a smaller scale, I also had to deal with the realization that, given the current market conditions in publishing, I was not going to find an agent without first obtaining a few publishing credits—i.e. short stories—to lend myself a little credibility.  2010 I would call the Year of Recovery.  In addition to coping with the loss of both a beloved parent and my right testicle, I learned to temper my frustrations with the publishing industry by working within its unspoken system of rules, by paying my dues in the hopes that small success will lead to bigger success going forward.

This year, 2011, I believe will be the Year of Change.  As I mentioned before, my life is transitioning in nearly every area right now.  Some of these areas are painful and, right now, too personal for me to discuss in a public forum.  Some of these, however, are efforts I am making to improve my life, to push myself into a higher level of satisfaction with where I am and where I am going.  That said, here is an incomplete list of my goals for 2011:

  • One goal I have set, like so many people do every year, is to get in better shape.  I bought a treadmill three or so years ago and, since that time, it has mostly served as a laundry landing strip.  Beginning January 1st, however, I actually began using the treadmill for its God-given purpose and, since then, I have gone from doing a mile run/walk in 22 minutes, to 13:42 and have nearly lost 20 pounds.  I’m also doing crunches and am happy to report that discernible abs have been reported.  I still have a long way to go, but there is hope that I won’t finish this year a white beard away from looking like Santa.
  • I am also looking into going back to school to complete my degree.  I squandered a perfectly good scholarship when I was younger, overwhelmed as I was by the responsibilities of supporting a family, and now that my darling wife has provided me with such great inspiration by completing her Master’s degree, I want to remedy this one glaring hole in my accomplishments.  My hope is that, by fall, I will find a way to resume my studies without putting my family in a more serious financial bind than we are already in (cancer be expensive) and will start along the path that I abandoned so long ago.
  • I had some success with short stories this past year and would like to build upon that this year.  I have a few stories that have yet to find a good home, but I believe that’s mostly because I haven’t found the right market yet.  I’ve become better at researching my possibilities and targeting where to send my work, so I am optimistic that I’ll place at least a few of the stories I’ve finished.  I’ve already sent a new story out this year for a rather prestigious contest and I will be thrilled if I win or finish in the top three.  I also have a few more stories that I want to write this year, but not so many as last year because . . . .
  • I’m going back to novel writing for a while.  I still want to do some short stories as the ideas strike me, including three new Christmas stories, but I’m shifting my focus back to completing some of the novels I’ve left hanging while I worked on just getting something published.  I’ve already been working on Project Supervillain—which I am about ready to rename as soon as I can decide whatever the hell it is I’m going to call it.  The project now is at around 45,000 words and I have a pretty good feel for where I think the story is going to go all the way to its conclusion.  I’m guessing it will top out around 90-100k for a first draft, and then who knows after that.  As Stephen King says, some people are “leaver-outers” whereas others, including Mr. King, are “putter-inners”.  I’m more of a “leaver-outer” in that, when I go back and reread, I see lots of areas where I need more explanation of what is happening, more inner dialogue from the characters, better description, etc.  Still, for every word I add to the story after the first draft, I try to remove at least one, if not two.
  • In addition to P.S., I want to dust off Dead and Dying and see if I can take that next step now that the economy is showing some signs of life.  I feel that the recession, combined with my lack of publishing credits, hurt me during my last round of submissions, even though this particular novel gained three full manuscript requests from literary agents.  Everyone who read it, agents included, said wonderful things about it, but none of them thought they could see it in the market as it was two years ago.  I’m hoping that things have changed enough—both with me and with the industry—that I might be able to find a literary agent with this one even as I’m finishing up P.S. and moving on to other projects.
  • My other finished and submitted novel, Gifts of the Hirakee, did not receive the kind of compliments from my beta readers that I was hoping for and was only submitted to a couple of agents, who all passed, before I shelved it.  I still think this story has some merit and if any of my friends would like to take a look, read the thing, and let me know what I can do to improve it, send me an email and I’ll see about shooting it your way.
  • Finally, I want to learn to be happy again.  It seems like such a simple thing—being happy—but I’ve learned over the past few years that happiness, like relationships or parenthood or writing fiction, is something that requires constant work.  I’ve allowed myself to dwell on the pressures and obstacles in my life and have forgotten to take pleasure in all the blessings I do have.  My family, my work, and my friends are all precious to me, more now than ever, and I will work this year on improving myself with regards to all of them.  It’s time for me to leave the dark place where I’ve been hiding from my problems and learn to face them without cynicism, without doubt, and without fear.  In one of my novels-in-progress, a modern-day knight faces hordes of demons to save the ones he loves.  Likewise, I must face my own demons this year, but I must do so to save myself.

This is the Year of Change.  It has already begun and, by the time it is over and I have posted the last of this year’s Christmas stories, I hope to look back and marvel at the progress I’ve made.  And if you wish to have your own Year of Change, you don’t have to let this one pass you by before you start.  Every day is a chance for renewal.  Every sunrise is another opportunity for you to remake yourself into whatever you like.  I’ve learned well in the past few years that life is too short to be wasted on negativity and excuses.  For me, the Year of Change is every day.

And it’s only just begun.

I have made a few references to this on my Facebook and Twitter, but I have been asked to explain in a little more detail. At the risk of sounding like I’m complaining, which I suppose I am a bit, I will attempt to do just that.

Last Friday, my wife, Amy, and I rode with three of our friends to a popular restaurant for lunch. We rode in said friends’ vehicle, the make and model of which I will not disclose. I rode in the back driver’s side seat, Amy rode in the middle, and Emily, the teenage sister of the driver, sat in the back passenger seat. The ride to the restaurant, about a twenty-minute drive from McKenzie, went well, as did the lunch. The food and service were both excellent and abundant, and so we started for home quite content.

Now, the model of vehicle we were in has a belt attached to the ceiling which can be drawn across the upper torso of the person in the back middle seat to serve as a shoulder belt for an added measure of security. This belt does not clip into an enclosed apparatus as a regular seat belt does, but instead simply clips with a metal hook into a keyhole-type opening on the main belt and is held in place by an elastic cord attached to the belt. My wife inserted the hook per the operating instructions and the trap was set.

I, sitting next to my wife and digesting my burger, lay my head back against the seat and closed my eyes, unaware of the danger that lay inches away.

As I dozed, my wife leaned forward to adjust the backseat vents and the belt, formerly hooked securely into the appropriate slot, came unhooked. The elastic band attached to the belt, stretched further by my wife’s leaning forward, whipped the metal piece on the belt through the air–so fast it whistled–and into my exposed throat. The clasp bounced off the top of my Adam’s apple and bit hard into my windpipe before I knew what hit me.

Several things happened right then. First, I grabbed my throat and wheezed (I couldn’t really do much else) in pain. I looked to my right, trying to figure out why Emily, as meek a girl as you will ever meet, would give me the Miss Piggy judo chop for no apparent reason. My wife, realizing what had happened, paused just long enough to make sure I was not, as I thought, dying and burst into gales of laughter. Our two friends in the front seat both turned and tried to sort out why I was holding my throat.

In the end, I was relatively unharmed, although the impact knocked my voice out until late that evening, an unfortunate thing as I agreed to work concessions at the local high school football game that same night.

Anyway, that’s the story. It’s far better than having cancer, but at least my wife didn’t laugh at me when they told me about that.

Yes, my mother is gone and I will write about that soon. I promise. Yes, I’m still writing, a bit, and I will also discuss that soon. However, today I’m about to leave for work, where our big push to the end of the year has begun. Despite this being the month of Halloween, we are looking at Christmas and have already received much of our stock of trees and toys and such for the upcoming holiday season. Therefore, to reconcile the adversity of these two conflicting holidays, I present the following:

and:

and:

I will be returning soon with real content. Just a little longer, my faithful reader(s).

Nine radiation treatments down. Six more to go. This is what they call the “home stretch” and, fittingly, that’s where I’ll be for the next few days. After careful consideration of my not-so-careful work ethic, I’ve elected to take off the next five days while I’m doing my radiation treatments, a decision that provides both relief and a fair measure of guilt as I hate taking time off from work unless I’m near death. I just figure that working in a pharmacy, around a couple of hundred sick people every day, might not be what my compromised immune system needs right now. Also, based on the extreme fatigue I’ve been fighting just going through my daily work schedule, I could use the rest.

So, I now have a glorious stretch of five days in which to do whatever I want. I assume that mostly what I will want is sleep, but I do hope to salvage enough energy to do some other things I’ve been putting off. I still have the finished manuscript for Gifts of the Hirakee sitting on my hard drive, collecting cyber dust, and I would very much like to send out some queries to agents this week. So far, I’ve only sent this one out to two agents, both long shots, and the time has come to put some real effort in getting this story back out there, if for no other reason than to alleviate my guilt for having sat on it so long. I may also find some new outlets for Dead and Dying, which my friend and editor, Remla, has encouraged me not to give up on. I think this her her polite way of saying that GotH (purely coincidental initials) is better than DaD (again, purely coincidental), but I also agree that there are avenues out there that I have not explored. Perhaps my cancer ordeal is God’s way of telling me to get my story of Paul, also stricken with cancer, back out there. Regardless, I’ve had three full requests for that manuscript and some wonderful praise for the story and my writing, so anything else that comes along from it will be an added bonus, especially if I land an agent.

Also, I hope to get back to writing this week. I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off due to the all-consuming fatigue from my treatments and I’m starting to get that itch again, that little voice in the back of my head that says, “Quit slacking off and write something”. I’m 20k words into my new novel idea, a story about a superhero and his nemesis who aren’t quite what the public makes them out to be, and I’m having a good time watching what is taking place. The problem, and the reason I stopped for the time being, is that, to write well, I have to be able to really see what’s going on. It’s not as if I’m creating the story, more like I’m watching it and recording what I see with little control over the outcome. Lately, thanks to the sapping effects of the radiation, I haven’t had the energy–physical or mental–to get into that state of mind, to clear my head enough to see what is happening in this other world. I can pick up the occasional voice or see a shadowy figure here and there, but not enough to write with the kind of automatic detail that separates good writing from just words on a page. My best writing is that which, when I go back over it, I don’t remember writing. Therefore, I hope to get back to Gabe and Arch (and their alter egos) this week.

I have some other loose ends to check on, as well, including two short stories that I sent out for submission a while ago and haven’t heard back on. I was expecting to hear something this month, but thanks to the glacial pace of publishing, even among the smaller magazines, I’m not surprised at the delay. Still, I think they are good stories and I would very much like to see them in print, especially as I prepare another round of queries. Publishing Credits = Increased Chance of Agent = Good.

I have been reading while I’ve been out. I’m about halfway through Stephen King’s Just After Sunset, hoping that his return to the short story format will spark the same in me. I’m more of a novel guy, myself, but there are certain advantages to shorts, as evidenced in the previous paragraph. I’m also reading another book that shall remain nameless (although it is the third in a series) because I know the writing is bad and, frankly, it makes me feel better about my own work. The hard truth is that success in writing comes down to three factors–talent, work ethic, and confidence–and I’ll take the third one where I can get it, even at the expense of other, published authors.

Now, I must go to bed and try to sleep a few hours before my alarm beckons me for another round of cancer-causing radiation meant to prevent cancer from spreading in my body. I believe in literary terms that’s called irony.

Since I don’t have time to describe everything that has gone on with my treatment since my last post in detail, I bring you this summarized version:

Wednesday, August 12th: Went to Jackson to the Cancer Care Center for my “Planning Session”. This is where I strip down to my socks and a hospital gown while the nursing staff plays tic-tac-toe on my abdomen with permanent markers. Actually, they had place marks on where to line up the equipment for my radiation treatments the following Monday. I go to work looking like a curved, flesh-colored radar screen.

Thursday, August 13th: I commented to my wife how the marks on me look like targets. She spent the next twenty minutes shooting me with a Nerf dart gun while saying helpful things like, “Roll a little to your left”.

Friday, August 14th: I went to the Cancer Care Center in Paris for them to line up their equipment to my targets/marks. Not thinking that I would be stripping down again, I wore my glow-in-the-dark, smiley face boxers. The nurse said that I “must have personality”. I told her that I have oodles of personality–and that she’d have to wait until thong day to see just how much.

Saturday, August 15th: I worked. A lot.

Sunday, August 16th: I proposed to my wife exactly ten years ago at the Biltmore Estate. Had I known then that she would, a decade later, use me for target practice as I lay preparing for radiation therapy from my recent cancer surgery, I would have done it anyway.

Monday, August 17th: On the one-month anniversary of my surgery, I went to Paris for my first radiation therapy following an overnight shift babysitting the store while our floors got stripped and waxed. I lay on a table, aware that I was being judged solely on the character of my underwear, and got zapped for ten seconds on either side, the X-ray machine rotating and making me feel like a rotisserie chicken. I slept most of the day, awaiting my second (and final) overnight shift.

Tuesday, August 18th: My daughter, Alex, turned 14 and my mother turned older than that. Following my long night, I had my second treatment and asked why the X-ray machine had a “Broil” setting. The nurses laughed. A few hours after the treatment, I began to feel tired and a bit queasy. I went to bed and slept for most of the day and all night.

Wednesday, August 19th: Off from work, I went to have my treatment and spent most of the day at home feeling lousy. Tired and queasy again, I did as little as possible.

Thursday, August 20th: I went for my treatment early and then to work immediately following. I was feeling tired and queasy again, although this time I didn’t make it through unscathed. Crouched in the bathroom floor at the store, I vomited while holding a paper towel in one hand and a can of Lysol in the other. I know what kind of stuff happens in that restroom and it’s bad enough crouching in the floor without thinking of the nastiness I’ve had to clean off the toilet from time to time. Vomit, spray, wipe, repeat. Then, I finished my shift, feeling like that word minus the “f” and went home. I was feeling better later in the evening, but felt as though someangry biker had kicked me in the gut a few times with steel-toe boots.

Friday, August 21st: My middle daughter, Haley, turned 12. At 3am, I was sick again, going back and forth from the bed to the bathroom, trying not to wake my wife, as the storm system in my belly moved south. At 6:30, when my alarm went off for me to get ready for my treatment, then work, I was exhausted and still sick, so I called the CCC and was told to not come in that day because I likely had a stomach virus that has been going around rather than the effects of the radiation. I then called work and told them I would not be in as there would be no sense paying me wages for sitting in the restroom all day. I slept until about one in the afternoon, got up, and made a wonderful chess pie. I always feel guilty about calling into work, even when I need to, and baking something for my wife seemed like a good way to alleviate some of that negative feeling.

Today, August 22nd: Went to work this morning and listened to my boss rant for two hours about how he had to take a cold shower because his water heater went out. I didn’t mention any of the above, because anyone who would be so self-indulgent probably wouldn’t have anything close to perspective, even if it was handed to him. Still, except for a little fatigue, I felt almost normal today.

So, there it is. My apologies to anyone hoping for a day-by-day rundown of my underwear selection. If demand is high enough, I’ll post pictures of them on here as soon as possible. In the meantime, just know that I’m working my way through the radiation and will hopefully be back on top of the world very shortly.

Also, to those of you who have told me that you would like to comment on my LJ posts, but don’t have an LJ ID to reply, feel free to email any comments, questions, concerns, or credit card numbers (with expiration dates and any applicable PINs) to leesmiley@gmail.com. Thanks!