“Shrouded in a daft disguise…”

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For a few years now, I’ve been dreaming about a house. The same house, time after time. It’s not a house I know in the waking world, it bears no similarity to anywhere I’ve ever been. The closest place I could name to describe it would be the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Or the house that Hugh Crane built.

But it’s a solid, real place — at least, in my dreams. After so long, I’m starting to get to know the layout and furnishings of the place pretty well.

At least, that’s what I thought. Until last night…

Turns out, in my dreams, we’ve bought the house. Even though it’s impossibly huge and far more than our family would ever need. Even though it’s the kind of place that you wouldn’t ever really want to live in (unless you were me, apparently).

And, last night, I got to see more of the house than I ever had before. Ever new room and area was amazing — ornate bedrooms and parlors, crumbling basements and grottoes… And all sorts of strange things living there, undisturbed through the years. Until now. Until us.

(“We took a wrong turn and ended up down in a basement with crumbling brick walls and tunnels full of rats. They were white and brown and pink, all fleeing up the tunnels afraid of us.” I made little squeaking noises to demonstrate for my wife. She’d been very patiently listening to me ramble on about the dream house this morning when, really, it was way too early for that sort of thing.

“Neapolitan rats,” my wife observed, sipping her tea.

I don’t deserve her.)

20120818-082628.jpgWe’re moving in a couple of weeks, of course. Our current place is starting to fill up with boxes and everything is jumbled around edges. At this point, the wait is starting to get annoying and we’re all looking forward to finally getting into the new house.

But I’m kind of interested to see how we’re settling in to our other new house, next time I dream of it…

“…one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society…”

Like everywhere else, we’ve been dealing with the high end of tolerable heat this summer. Back in July, it was topping 100° for a few days. Unbearable.

We rent an old house in an old neighborhood, so central air is not an option. At best, we rely on a few window units to keep a few bedrooms cool enough to sleep. Downstairs, there’s Rube Goldberg system of fans set up to shove the air around. A third unit keeps it barely tolerable. Barely.

We’re not hot weather people. Everything slows down and whimpers under the heavy hand of humidity. The cats flop wherever they fall. The twice-daily walks for the baby are cut down to one, when the morning is cool. Sometimes it’s already too brutally hot for even that.

Sleep is restless and blurs the edges of our dreams. We’re all a bit irritable and, fortunately, too exhausted to do much about it.

At this point, we’re just waiting for the change of Autumn — cooler temperatures, falling leaves, and Halloween.

We could move to a new place, of course, something with more modern amenities. But it’s not even a consideration for us. New houses (i.e. anything built after 1940) just don’t feel right to us. We love our old neighborhood. The houses here have deep roots and old ghosts.

We’ve spent the past ten years moving from house to house, as our family has grown and changed. All within the same few blocks. We love it here. It’s always been our neighborhood.

(My next, next book — the one that is scheduled to come out after The Red Boy is all about those houses we’ve lived in . . . and the ghosts that, sometimes unwillingly, shared them with us.)

There’s a house a few blocks over that Keeley has always loved from afar. It’s been a little wish in the back of our heads for years, one of those conversations we have when we dream together about what our life could be in the years to come.

Whenever we drive by the place or go past it on one of our walks with Sophie, my wife always says “I love that place. If it ever went up for sale…”

It’s a sentence we leave unfinished.

This is our neighborhood but we’ve always known that we might not ever be able to afford to buy one of the houses here. We’re okay with that. We’re the luckiest people we know already . . . and we don’t take for granted everything we’ve been given.

A few weeks back, we were driving home one afternoon and Keeley said “You know . . . go up a few more streets.”

We’d been thinking about moving. It wasn’t our choice. Our landlord had let us know a few weeks earlier that he was going to have to raise the rent. It was still an unknown quantity but we knew — we felt — the change coming.

It’s an acquired skill, being able to see that on the horizon. I’ve moved over twenty times in my life. I know that feeling as well as I know how to pack a box. And, by now, I know how to pack.

“You know . . . go up a few more streets.”

I turn off my signal and continue on. We pass by a side street and my wife says “Wait.”

There’s a For Sale sign in front of the house, in front of her house.

Back home, we check online — the house is for sale. It just at the top of edge of our price range, maybe even a little over. But we take a chance and leave a message for the listing agent.

For five minutes there’s a sense of momentum, a larger hand at work to push things into place. We don’t dare hope. We can’t help but hope.

Then the phone rings and we’re brought back to reality. The owners already accepted an offer the night before.

We missed our chance. The hand withdraws, if it was there at all.

Blame the hot weather, the curtailed daily walks that almost certainly would have brought us past the house before now. Blame my own dull intuition, not listening closely enough to the reverberation out there to gauge what direction the change was coming from.

But don’t blame the gods — or, at least, try not to. A crisis of faith is no picnic. We struggle to let go of our dreams and assumptions, to continue to feel grateful for all we have been given, to trust that there is more than chance at work in our world.

It isn’t easy.

The lesson we take away is that it’s time to get our house in order. We need to find an agent, start the dreaded process of figuring out our financing options, and start looking at other houses.

We try not to talk about the other house. The one that got away is always the perfect one, the only one.

On her own, my wife is heartbroken. As I am for her. Each of us makes our own peace, finds our own little points of comfort and, yes, Magic to console us.

But it’s time to move on. At the very least, this gave us the nudge we needed to start. Whatever happens next, we’ll be ready. It’s what we believe because it’s what we have left to believe.

But we have to keep looking — to be more accurate, we have to start looking. Sooner or later our landlord is going to tell us what he has decided. We know it might not be in our favor.

So it’s back to the Internet. A day or so later we find another house that’s just gone on the market, so we gather ourselves up and brave the heat to go and have a look.

It isn’t for us. Wrong side of the neighborhood. Too small for our strangely-shaped family. Needs too much work.

But the agent who shows us the place is very nice. Because we don’t have an agent yet, he’s been tapped by the listing realtor to act as a buyer’s agent on our behalf, if we’re open to it?

Not entirely familiar with the intricacies of the real estate world, with the various species of agents and their loyalties, we tell him that we’ll let him know. He hands us a printout showing some other homes in the neighborhood that are on the market — but, he tells us, don’t pay any attention to one that’s on the last page. It’s been sold already.

Yeah. That’s our house, pal. We already know.

We try not to beat him up. It isn’t his fault. He’s very nice and knows the neighborhood very well. Coincidentally, it turns out that he lives in the house directly behind ours. He apologizes for the dog barking. We apologize for the baby crying.

Later that night, I send him an e-mail to let him know we’d like for him to keep his eyes open for us. I include a long list of things we’re looking for. And, like the heartbroken teenager that I seem perpetually doomed to be, I remind him to keep an eye on the other house — the one that got away — just in case the deal falls through.

Not that we would wish misfortune on anyone…

Three days later my wife calls me. She’s been feeling something at the edges of things, a little echo that won’t let her alone. She checks the online listing for the house — her house, our house, returns to the chance we missed — and sees that it still shows the house as being For Sale.

Drowning in work at the office, I tell her to call the listing agent and ask about it. I’ll shoot our agent a quick note as well.

“It’s still on the market,” Keeley tells me when she calls back. “I went ahead and told her we want to see it tomorrow afternoon. That was the earliest she could get us in. There’s already other people looking at it today.”

Our agent confirms this a few minutes later when he calls me back.

I do my best to silence the noise in my head before I put my ear to the ground to listen, straining to hear from what direction the change is coming . . . praying it’s not just wishful thinking that’s nudging us along.

The next day we’ve got a company picnic out at the lake to go to in the morning. We’re not beach people by any stretch but it turns out that the baby loves it. While my wife has Sophie up to her knees in Lake Michigan, my phone rings.

Our agent tells me that we’re probably out of luck. Again. Turns out there’s another offer already on the table and the sellers are just about to accept it.

We haven’t even had a chance to see inside yet. Just the pictures online.

“Did they offer full price?” I ask him. I’ve been talking to the bank and obsessively fine-tuning our budget for the past 24 hours, so I know what our limit is. It’s just about full price. Just.

He says they haven’t. I tell him to call them back and let them know that, if they wait long enough to let us in and if it looks like the house is what we’re looking for, we’re willing to go full price.

He rings off and I let Keeley know that we’re back on the edge of something again, not entirely sure which way it will go but the hinge of our life is moving under our feet. Again.

Our agent calls back. “How soon can you meet me there?”

We take enough time to apologize to everyone at the picnic and head back into town . . . driving through a sudden, fierce rainstorm. We get thunder and lightning all along the way, sometimes the rain is heavy enough to reduce our visibility to a few hundred yards.

My wife reassures the baby and I do my best to keep us safe, opting for slower speeds rather than let urgency take over.

The storm clears. We arrive home and get cleaned up, grandma arriving just in time to sit with Sophie while we head over to the house.

It’s raining again. The storm has caught up with us.

One foot inside the house and I know. Every other step is a confirmation. It isn’t perfect but it’s perfect for us. It’s a house that accommodates our family, the shifting size of it — who we are today, who we’ll be in ten years. It’s a house we can stay in together, Keeley and I, long after the kids are gone. It’s the house our grandkids can visit.

Sitting at a stranger’s dining room table, we draw up the paperwork with our agent. Our offer is submitted and accepted that afternoon.

All of the drama is now on the seller’s side. They’ve got to break the news to the other buyer. And even though that stretches out for a few days long than I’m entirely comfortable with, one thing is clear:

The house is ours.

Coda

When I was planning out my work for the year, the summer and fall were meant to be focused on getting my next book The Red Boy ready for publication. Needless to say, the events of the past month — and especially the past few weeks — have eclipsed those plans. And we’re still not done yet. There’s boxes to pack and plans to make and budgets to obsessively check and check again before we’re finally home.

I’m writing, off and on, a new story right now. It’s one that I suspect won’t let me leave it alone, even I wanted to. This kind of story comes and finds me when I forget about it (read the Afterword of The Cradle if you think I’m speaking figuratively).

But The Red Boy is almost there, I think. It’s all editing and proofreading now. If only I had the time.

Sixteen years ago when I was in the process of moving to Michigan from California, I was also trying to finish up a play for the Lit Moon Theatre Company. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed, surrounded by boxes, tapping away… doing my best to make it a good script. I only partially succeeded, regrettably. Lit Moon did a better job with the script than I did.

I don’t want to make that same mistake this time, especially with The Red Boy.

There’s an extra room in the new house. We’ve talking to calling it “the office” because that’s what it’ll be. It’s where I’ll finish up The Red Boy and keep nudging these other books along as best I can. I’m very happy to have a place of my own again — one that wasn’t a shared space or a compromise or a barely-finished basement with pipes and spiderwebs. It’s been a long time.

But I’m even more excited that Keeley will have her own place to write as well. It’s been too long for that, as well. And Sophie will have a backyard to play in. And Julia and Sam will have their rooms too. We can all fit there together, without too many compromises or sacrifices.

Although we’ll sacrifice a lot to be there, of course. It’s what you do when you’re given a gift. It’s expected. Belts will be tight for a few years. But we’re not the kind of people to complain or grumble about that sort of thing, not with everything we’ve been given. We don’t take anything for granted.

In other news…

It’s worth noting that the audiobook version of The Cradle is now available on iTunes or via RSS. It’s a free download, like my other books . . . even though I got a very, very nice note from a reader a while back letting me know I was a chump to give it away for free.

Far as I’m concerned, that’s a compliment.

And speaking of giving it away… Once we’re settled in the new house, the long-delayed second season of The Gospel of Thomas will start up once more. In addition to the usual ramblings and oddities, there’ll be some special guests, interviews, and a sneak peek or two from The Red Boy as well.

And finally…

Before all of the house shenanigans, I’d been experimenting with a new approach for my Twitter and Facebook followers. Beyond the usual intermittent comments or links, I’ve established (for lack of a better term) an editorial calendar to add a little structure to support the conversation. I’d love to see you take part in it, if you’re so inclined.

Now that the initial house madness is over, I’ll be starting up again.

So here’s some buttons. You know what to do.

It matters.

After a busy, stressful month or so at the office and a full court press to get The Cradle ready, I was all set last week to write a longish sort of post to catch up and get back on a normal schedule again. I’d been walking around with a perpetual static in head, an AM radio buzz of stress and irritation.

And then the Fates nudged everything back into proper perspective.

On Friday morning the call came that my wife’s aunt had passed away unexpectedly in the night. She went to bed on Thursday night and when her husband woke up the next morning, she was just . . . gone.

Claudia was a good lady. She took care of her husband and her three boys, doted on her four-year-old grandson. She had a wry sense of humor, a powerful bullshit meter, and a hearty laugh.

The sudden shock of her passing is still there for her family, eclipsing everything in life. The gods only know when the sun will shine again for them.

On Facebook, my wife had this to say…

“Cherish the people you love. Give them a hug and a kiss today. Sit with them for a while and just be together. Call your mom and tell her you love her. It matters.”

Amen.

The First. The Tenth. The Third.

A few months back, my wife had to switch doctors. She’d been with the same physician for years, so losing them halfway through her first pregnancy was a little bit of a disappointment. But it wasn’t the end of the world. The new doctor was a very experienced, businesslike woman who radiated confidence. Some people might want a warm and fuzzy bedside manner during a pregnancy, but it was good to have someone with a steady hand on the tiller (so to speak). So we made the change and continued on course.

Two weeks ago, we saw doubt and concern on our doctor’s face for the first time. It was a Friday, one of our weekly appointments. Our routine was pretty well nailed down at this point: On the days when we had an appointment, I would stay home and work for a few hours in the morning before we’d go to the doctor’s office. The doctor would examine my wife — an activity that seemed akin to dowsing as it appeared to involve nothing more than laying her hands at various angles on Keeley’s belly and asking how she was feeling. Once we’d answered and asked a few questions, my wife and I would head off to lunch together and talk about all the things we needed to get done before the baby was born.

As I said, routine.

Except for this one Friday a few weeks back.

I’d been staying up late that week to get Assam & Darjeeling ready for publication, working every night until about 3AM. I was pretty pleased to have finished up the Kindle version of the book and I’d made some progress on an iPad version as well. In addition, I’d been doing some good work on a new Jee story that night and I was looking forward to finishing it over the coming weekend. To celebrate, I’d made my self a fairly stiff drink and settled in to read for a while before bed. Honestly, I was spoiling myself a bit. I knew I wouldn’t get many chances for this sort of thing once the baby was born.

And, after all, I didn’t have to get up too early in the morning. I could always take a nap after the appointment. And there was the weekend when I could catch up on any sleep and work I’d missed out on. So I felt a little more tired than usual the next morning, but not debilitatingly so. Just a bit blurry around the edges.

I got a lot sharper during our appointment, when I saw the doctor pause with her hands on my wife’s stomach. Up until this point, the woman had been following a routine of her own. But something shifted somehow and I understood that I was no longer looking at her face.

I was looking at a mask, the thing you put on when you don’t want people to see what’s really there.

She made a few more measurements with her hands — a few more than usual, pressing a little harder than usual — and then she went over and leafed through my wife’s charts . . . something she had never done before.

I don’t remember the exact words she used, but the gist is that she suspected the baby was breech. This wasn’t too much of a shock, really. She’d mentioned it during a few previous appointments and, with three weeks to go, there was plenty of time to sort things out.

Only, uncharacteristically, she seemed unsure. She asked if we had time to stick around and do an extra ultrasound, just to be sure.

Ultrasounds are a lot of fun and the only plans we had were to get lunch afterward and, hopefully, take a nap together that afternoon. So, yeah, we could stick around.

The doctor sent us off with a nurse while she interrupted someone’s lunch break, so they could come confirm the baby’s position.

Once we were done, the technician sent us back off with the nurse again. “Okay,” she said to us out in the hallway, “I’m going to go get the doctor to come and talk with you. Based on the ultrasound, the baby is breech. Also, there’s zero amniotic fluid in there. So that means you’re going to have a C-section. And you’re going to have it today.

Oh. My.

We had to sit for a while and wait for the doctor to come back to talk with us. She told us what we’d already figured out: That we were very, very lucky.

We were lucky that our appointment had been moved up from later in the afternoon, lucky that the doctor hadn’t been able to confirm the position of the baby, lucky that she’d ordered an extra ultrasound, lucky that we’d decided to skip lunch to do it . . . lucky that they’d checked in on our little girl before we’d gone another three weeks.

There are a lot of things that could be the source of the missing amniotic fluid but what mattered most was that the baby needed to come out as soon as possible. With nothing to protect her, the risks were very real. It’s never a great thing to hear your doctor say the word “stillborn”. No matter how many times she says the word “lucky”, you’re going to have trouble forgetting that she said the other word too.

We went to the hospital straight from the doctor’s office.

I called my wife’s parents once we were settled in, monitors keeping watch over my wife and our baby.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked when I called her father. He said he didn’t have any plans. I asked if he wanted to drop by and hold his granddaughter three weeks early. They were there within the hour.

I called my parents as well. My father prayed.

I’m not very good at very many things, but my mind moves pretty fast and I do pretty well in a crisis. Also, my wife tells me that I look pretty good in scrubs.

A little while later, I tried to ignore a Caesarean going on over left my shoulder so I comfort my very frightened wife while we waited for our daughter was born.

But, in all honesty, it felt more like a rescue than a birth.

And so . . . at around 7:30PM, someone over my shoulder said “Do you want to see her?”

We did.

Her mother named her after the Greek word for wisdom. And I’d like to think that there must have been an owl whispering in the doctor’s ear that afternoon, sent from Athena to nudge us all in the right direction to make sure that ultrasound happened.

It did. And now we have Sophie.





On Boxes, Books, Ballet, and Birthdays

Turning 40?

Nothing to it really, once everything was said and done.

With chaotic detritus from the recent move still littering areas of the new house (and my own psyche), we celebrated my fortieth birthday a bit early on Saturday night by escaping to my favorite restaurant, Tres Lobos.
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No one took a picture, but I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot. I love Tres Lobos for their excellent Camarones ala Diabla (a dish so good I am unable to bring myself to order anything else on the menu) as well as the guy who roams between the tables on Fridays and Saturdays, singing the hell (and his heart) out of Mexican karaoke standards. Unfortunately, I forgot my video camera and was unable to record it when the singer (bribed by my father-in-law) came over to sing for my birthday! Alas.

You’ll just have to settle for this shot captured on my iPhone and take my word for it how awesome it all was.

The month of June showed up, wandered through and pointedly reminded me that (a) It wasn’t quite my birthday yet, and (b) I still had a lot of unpacking to do. Ninety-five percent of everything in the new house is squared away, of course. There are those boxes in the attic to organize, sure. And that old roll top desk isn’t going to take itself to the salvation army, no matter how much I beg it to.

But it’s really that little room in the basement where most of the trouble is — and by trouble, I mean books . . . boxes and boxes of them. They’re teetering everywhere, spilling out their contents like roadkill left in the tracks of the moving van. And unless I get them sorted out and put away, that little room in the basement won’t ever become an office where I can actually get some writing done.

I have a wishlist of things I need to get in order to make it a bit more homey, a bit more of a working space (a rug, some better lighting, a comfy chair) . . . but it’s really the boxes and boxes of books that are keeping it from being more than just extra storage in the basement.

I’ll get it there, eventually.

Saturday afternoon (before the evening’s festivities) I went to go see my daughter perform in her end of the year ballet program and ended up enjoying it much more than I expected to. Apart from the typical parade of positions and exercises, the company also performed a number of pieces and — to my surprise — I actually enjoyed them. A few of the older students were really quite good. I’m judging this based on (a) My lack of interest in (or enthusiasm for) ballet in general, and (b) How much I enjoyed watching them perform.

Best of all was a boy, maybe twelve years old, who completely, utterly, and obviously loved what he was doing so much, it just lit up his face and (by extension) the whole stage every time he was on. I tracked him down in the lobby afterwards and said “Listen kid, you don’t know me at all but I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your dancing. You were obviously having a lot of fun and that made it a lot of fun for the rest of us.” A little old lady overheard us and came up to tell him, in essence, the exact same thing.

And he just beamed like the sun, bright as anything.

I never quite understood the parents who absolutely forced their kids to do ballet or sports or theatre or music or whatever. They might say it’s to teach them discipline or expose them to the arts or show them ideas of teamwork and fair play, but more often than no, it seems like most of the kids don’t really want to be there. They’re enduring it, of course, because their parents are forcing them to do it.

That looks like a perfect recipe for aversion therapy to me.

I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. I’m just saying that your precious little offspring aren’t necessarily cut out to be ballerinas or a concert pianists or a champion quarterbacks — so lighten up, Santini . . . and let the kids have some fun every once in a while.

As a parent, I think it’s my role to light as many lamps as possible and then step back to see which ones draw my kids in, which ones kindle that same light within their eyes that I saw on that boy’s face this past weekend.

As a parent, that’s what makes me proud of my kids, seeing that light pouring out of them — whether or not they win the state championship or perform a flawless arabesque.

All of which is a roundabout way of blaming my mom and dad for all those boxes of books. They had things they wanted me to try out (piano lessons, freshman basketball) . . . but mostly, my parents influence is that they left books lying around everywhere. It seemed like everywhere you turned someone, everyone in the house was always reading something. But, of course, my parents never sat me down, forced a book into my hands, and said “Read, goddamnit.”

Books were stacked on the nightstand next to the beds, the shelves in the family room, carried in briefcases to work. I snuck them into church. We packed them up to go on vacation with us. They were everywhere.

That’s pretty much what my house looks like now. I’ve got forty years of books . . . and this birthday, my family happily added a few more to the stacks: Crowley and Steiner from my wife, vintage comics from my son, and an Amazon gift certificate from my parents that will almost certainly get spent on even more books and comics. All I have to do is find a place to put them all.

Also, I need to read them.

One of the things that hit me during this past move was not just how many books there are, but how many I’ve either not read in years or (gasp) never read at all. I’m going to need to remedy that, I think. As much as I love reading, I see no reason to hold books and comics hostage — especially if they’re not ones I plan on ever reading again (if at all).

Also, it’ll free up some space on the shelves. Which would be helpful as I am almost certainly going to need it.

img_0407At work on Monday, they sang Happy Birthday and there was a big chocolate cake with Batman on it. Yay.

The company I work for doesn’t allow people to work on their birthdays, so on Tuesday (my actual birthday, for those of you keeping track) I spent the day with my wife and had a wonderful time going out to breakfast and pushing the cart while she loaded it up with plants and flowers from the local nursery. Back home, I caught up on the overwhelming birthday wishes coming in from everyone online, read a bit from the Aleister Crowley biography that Keeley bought me, and then took a very very very long nap.

I woke up to more well wishes from the Internet and the smell of a fresh rhubarb pie baking downstairs. While my most excellent wife got a special birthday dinner started, I went off to collect the kids from various locations. My daughter brought a key lime pie to add to the mix, my son found some vintage comics for me, and my wonderful in-laws arrived. Together, we all demolished the beef stroganoff my wife had prepared.

And that, more or less, was that.

Not a bad way to spend your fortieth birthday, when you stop to think about it.

On New Ideas and the Perils of Watercress

Well, it’s been a while.

Lying in bed a few weeks back I found myself drifting in and out of a vague dream about a clone on the run from some sort of shadowy government agency. In my half-waking mind, the components of a story started to come together. Upon waking, I was surprised to discover that it held together pretty well. For a few days afterward, I’d find myself returning to the idea and playing with it further.

swamp_thing_and_abbeyAfter a week or so, it occurred to me that I’d (quite by accident) developed an actual, honest-to-goodness idea for a series — well suited to either television, animation, or comics. The closest thing I can compare it to is Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing — but I should probably leave it at that, for now.

I say “by accident” because it’s not the sort of thing I do on purpose. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever done it before. Although I’ve had ideas for individual episodes or issues of an already established, ongoing series — the world will perhaps never know the joy of watching, for instance, my “lost” season of Mad Men — I’ve never really come up with something new that was obviously an ongoing series.

The reason for this is, I think, because most of what I read is finite. Novels, plays, short stories, poetry — they all have an ending. Even in the world of comics, my favorite series tend to be the ones that are standalone volumes or finite storylines: Sandman, Cerebus, From Hell, Promethea, the various Gaiman/McKean collaborations, etc. As I’ve gotten older (no, I won’t say “matured”) as a reader, I’ve found the endless story arcs, crossovers, and reboots in most of the mainstream comics increasingly tedious and even insulting.

So it’s strange to have this sort of story coming together in my head . . . but it’s also a lot of fun, as well.

And it’s perfect timing, really. My work on Pantheon has been a little slow of late, as it’s difficult to find the time with everything else going on. We’re moving households in about a week and it always seems that there’s something else that needs to get done first. But it’s been good to have a nice little idea to play with for a while. Once things settle down a bit, I expect to have a strong outline and treatment that I can share with a few connections. After that, we’ll see where it goes.

It’s been nice too, talking about it with Keeley. My current project (the aforementioned Pantheon) began life as a collaboration with her. So it’s been fun to tell her what I’m thinking and then bounce ideas back and forth. In addition to the clarity that comes from simply talking over a story with someone else, she’s given me a lot of little things to consider around various chacters and plot points. I’ll owe her a story credit, when the time comes.

It’s a science fiction story, by the way — at least, on one level it is — and that’s a nice change as well since that’s not a genre I usually spend much time in (either reading or writing). I wouldn’t say it’s hard SF, at all. It’s more of a technological thriller, which sounds a bit odd even to me. Again, not typically the sort of thing my mind immediately comes up with.

But, so far, it’s working for me. At the very least it’s a good exercise to go through in the midst of the moving cyclone.

By my last count, I think I’ve moved about 20 times in my life (that’s 20 separate residences, not including different dorm rooms in college). At the time, it never seemed like that much . . . but it adds up, apparently. The end result is that I’m very, very good at packing. Especially books. There’s about forty-five boxes of them now.

Also, it’s taught me how to plan ahead so that the week leading up to the day when the truck shows up isn’t a hectic mess of last-minute preparation and stress. Oddly enough, we’re only moving one block away. That’s all. But you still have to go through everything, no matter the distance. So I’m disrupting my life, my writing schedule, my peace of mind, and the delicate psychic landscape of my offspring to go one block south.

But we need the room. The kids are getting bigger and we’re all starting to bump into each other a bit more than before. And sometime next year our family is likely to get even bigger, so there’s that to plan for as well. The timing couldn’t have been better. Just as we started getting serious about looking, our landlord had a bigger place open up down the street. That it has a pool table in the basement wasn’t the only deciding factor, I assure you. But it did help take the sting out of the idea of moving again.

As did the realization* that, with a little bit of imagination and some elbow grease, I could have an office again. It’s been a long time since I had a separate space where I could spread out and work — the past few years, I’ve set up shop at the kitchen table after everyone’s gone to bed. It’s been fine (I got two books and a full length play done that way, after all) but it’ll be nice to have things be a bit more grounded.

(It’s also the room right next to where the pool table is, so that’s okay.)

*It wasn’t my realization, of course. I’d been thinking that the back room would end up being storage. Keeley was the one you said “You know this could be an office…” and, as usual, she was absolutely right.

moldOut at Aurohn Lake last week, I got the chance to prove my devotion to her. Down near the southeast side of the lake there’s a spring where watercress grows in thick, abundant beds. The terrain gets a little swampy down there and one wrong step will find you sinking fast. No one’s entirely clear on how deep the mud goes, but (as I found out later) the rumor is that a cow was lost down there back when the angus beef farm was still in operation.

While Keeley was picking her ‘cress, I went off to take some photos of an interesting mold formation on a nearby tree. Coming back, I watched her shift position and loose her footing. She grabbed an overhead branch and I immediately went into rescue mode, taking one huge step into the seemingly solid center of the watercress.

I sank immediately and my knee boots were suddenly filled with water and mud. Trying to pull out one leg only made the other sink deeper. My main concern was that if I sank to my waist, my camera and my iPhone would be ruined.

As I am somewhat smarter than a cow, I was able to get back to solid ground eventually — all without losing my precious tech, but soaked from the thighs down. As I dumped the gallons of water and mud out of my boots, my only regret was that we didn’t capture the whole thing on video. Ah well, next time…

I will say this: based on the salad my wife made later that night, the watercress was well worth the risk.

Casting Call

We follow Bob, the Director, through a maze of students, hallways, paths, across streets. Students are everywhere and I come down from my post-lecture giddiness to feel a bit old. College was a long, long time ago.

We have lunch with the cast and, once again, I forget to record the conversation. People keep showing up throughout the meal and Bob introduces them to me: “This is Telemachus, this is the Merchant, this is…” It’s hard to reconcile the faces, the street clothes, with the characters I’ve been carrying around in my head for almost five years.

We eat, they ask questions — some very pointed ones, actually — and I realize that they’re the ones who have had to do all the heavy lifting on this project. It all comes back to me from my college theatre days, how In The Dark you are when you sit down with a script for the first time, trying to find a character in there.

I didn’t give them much help, I’m afraid. The script was written in a near-vacuum with Bob breathing some fresh air into it every once in a while. I wrote it for his eyes. It never occurred to me that actors might be looking at it.

I eat lunch, I answer their questions as best I can, I tell stories, I hope I’m not repeating myself too much.

“I have a question.”

“Yes. Okay.”

“Have you seen the costumes? The masks and the set?”

“I have. Bob gave me a sneak peek backstage.”

“What do you think?”

“I think they look great. They’re wonderful.”

“Do they look like what you pictured in your head?”

It’s a good question, one that I’m going to have to answer four or five times before I leave.

I realize, answering it, that they don’t in fact look like what I had in my head. But that’s because I didn’t have a play in my head while I was writing. I didn’t see a stage and actors and mask . . . I saw Hermes arguing with Calypso in her cave two steps ahead and half a day late . . . I saw Athena — pale and owl-like, almost luminous — nagging her father, Zeus, sculpted from living marble — I saw Poseidon, streaming green rage, riding on the clouds, pursuing Odysseus…

I didn’t see any of them and I feel a little embarrassed about that. They’re there, obviously. They’ve done the work. They’re the ones who deserve the applause (and they will get applause) and I didn’t write one line thinking about them.

It occurs to me that I never have. When I write plays, I don’t see a set. I don’t see actors. I see the characters and the place itself — am I the only one who does this?

At any rate, we finish lunch. I manage to hide my ignorance (I hope) and they manage to hide their disappointment.

They must be disappointed. I’m not nearly a real capital-W Writer at all. Just a guy willing to dare to wear black in Northwestern Iowa.

Back through the maze of buildings and hallways after lunch. The most excellent Jonathan tracks me down and hands me a sheaf of papers explaining how to connect to the wireless network in the theatre building. For a PC, it takes sixteen pages to explain. It takes two sentences for a Mac. Case closed.

Bob heads off to grade papers and, I assume, get some relief from my delighted babbling. I check e-mail, relieved to be able to do so but also annoyed that none of my e-mail is worth reading. I fire off a few of my own to coworkers and clients and even one to my attorney (it’s almost like being a grown up, folks) and I’m grinding my teeth over a late-night drunken rant that someone sent me the night before when the Director walks by with an envelope and says “Oh, hey, I’ve been carrying this around all day and almost forgot to give you your royalty check.”

Oh. Um. Yes. Thank you.

I’m so shocked to be paid that I forget to even open the envelope — something I’ll forget to do until after I’ve been home for three days, so it’s not like we do it for the money or anything.

But still . . . to be paid to tell stories?

It’s a good job, if you can find it.

I abandon the e-mail and go wandering through the building, worrying over the next class I’ll be teaching — well, facillitating. It’s not a class, more of a workshop really. A writing workshop that either four people or forty will show up for.

I start wishing I’d brought some hand puppets with me.

Keeley and I prowl through the lobby, looking over the lobby display. There are costume and make-up renderings, a model of the set, and this article that appeared a week earlier in the student newspaper…

Vaughnahue’s Top Ten Reasons to see “The Odyssey”
by Vaughn Donahue

Homer’s “Odyssey” is a classic. I’m going to bet that most of you read it in high school. I know that this ancient script might not be among the best of your memories, but I aim to convince you to give it another shot. In honor of Northwestern’s department of theatre and speech, I give you the Top Ten Reasons to see “The Odyssey!”

10. Enough livestock to make an Iowan blush – If the Greek gods and goddesses had a favorite punishment, it would be transforming their disloyal subjects into pigs, goats, cows—you name it. It makes you think about what (or who) that hamburger you ate at dinner might be made of.

9. Penelope, the slap-wench – When you’ve been waiting for years for your husband to return, and all you do all day is weave, weep and stay wary of the men seeking to take his place, you tend to become less than amiable. Penelope, played by junior Nicky Dutt, is not a happy camper. She slaps her way through the production, thus earning her character the title “slap-wench.”

8. The most convincing cow ever – Have you ever seen a darn good cow impression ? Senior Gavin Baker has the petulant “moo” down to a pat.

7. Solomon Davis topless – Doesn’t do much for me, but take it for what it’s worth.

6. Hermes with a Cockney accent – You’ve heard of Hermes, the god with the wings on his boots. In case you hadn’t caught on, this means he’s fast. In this production, he’s also a hilarious character hailing from the not-so-posh parts of London. He will take your breath away—literally.

5. Learn the best way to defeat a cyclops without saying a single word – Be prepared for this lesson, and learn these cyclops-killing techniques from the men who did it themselves! You might want to take notes.

4. Richard Moore on a power trip – Junior Richard Moore lives in West Hall, and I find him a pretty humble guy. But call him Zeus, give him a lighting bolt and humility goes right out the window. Life doesn’t get much better when you can spit out one-liners like, “I can do whatever I please, girl. I am Zeus.”

3. Seduction and lust – Oh how naughty those Greek goddesses are! They make seduction their business, and lust their tool. Boys, these probably are not the type of girls you’d marry because they remind you of your mom. No, I’m sure your reasons would be immensely different.

2. Rated PG-13 – You might be thinking, “seduction and lust at NW? No! Surely not!” Well, you’re wrong; this production may be just a tad too hot for NW to handle.

1. A brand new adaptation – Homer’s epic in its original form is not an easy read. While this might be a major reason for being wary of the play, have no fear! The script has been adapted by playwright T.M. Camp into a hilarious and pleasing modern masterpiece.
So despite what you remember from high school English class, this play is actually about love, murder, sex, revenge and redemption. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

Ahem.

You gotta love a preview that’s got a Your Mom joke in it.

The director walks by and hands me a copy of the latest edition of the student newspaper, which has a yet another preview of the show.

It’s opening night. I have a writing workshop to give. I collapse onto a small, um, divan in the lobby and talk to Keeley and wish I were taking a nap.

I have a writing workshop to give in a half-hour. I assume that my subconscious mind is working on how to take the two or three things I know about writing and extend them into a meaningful hour or so of workshoppy things.

After a while I go and buy two cans of Mountain Dew and go in to get ready for class. This mainly consists of playing Tom Waits on my laptop and shotgunning the two cans of Mountain Dew while Keeley assures me it will all work out.

Then student start to come in, some of them I recognize from the morning class. And from lunch. My repertoire is suddenly very limited.

Bob, the Director, introduces me and then leaves me in charge of thirty-plus students (and a few faculty members).

I am John’s spastic colon.

We muddle our way through. I do a few exercises which, it becomes painfully apparent, they already know inside and out — at least most of them — and I read a few somethings from one of my own exercises which, even more painfully, sound flat and stale.

When all else fails, change the rules.

We split up into groups, writing together, one line back and forth.

A few minutes go by and it suddenly feels like there’s something happening. Keeley and I slide a pad of paper back and forth, the sheets dripping with my own fear and flop sweat.

Eventually I call time and a few groups read what they came up with. Some of it is very good and, yet again, I miss that Writer’s Group I used to meet with.

I end off by reading “The Face Game” and asking for a response.

Everyone confirms what I have know since college: You can hide a lot behind a good performance.

The truth is, I love reading my work out loud.

All in all, not too bad a way to spend an afternoon in Iowa.

Afterwards, I realize that I completely forgot to record the afternoon session, too.

Then it’s off to the hotel to primp and get ready for a department potluck followed by (!) Opening Night.