Crushing Disappointment

I found out yesterday that I won’t be presenting at the Life, the Universe, and Everything convention next month. Right now, I’m still deciding (discovering?) how I feel about the whole thing. (I suspect the appropriate response is “FFFFFFUUUUUU–“) Besides that disappointment, I’m also feeling a bit of relief. I have to concede that the trip was an ambitious undertaking, and while I would have enjoyed teaching about cryptography, it isn’t exactly what I want to do.

A great bit of writing advice from the man himself, Mark Twain, goes like this: “The author shall … use the right word, not its second cousin.” His advice has a wider application than just word choice. When you have a goal, one of the best ways to placate yourself is by doing something sort of similar, especially if it’s less work. You can be a roadie instead of a musician, or an editor instead of a writer. There’s nothing wrong with working your way up in the field, but you can’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re actually reaching your goal. After working for 20 years as a roadie, you might be excellent at setting up stages, but you won’t be any better at performing on them.

What do I really want to do? I want to write. It’s not the same editing, teaching, public speaking, or pitching a book. I’m exceptionally bad at that last one, in fact. The truth is, I’ve always sucked at writing assignments. I could never quite meet the requirements, because I was always a little too interested in writing what I wanted to write. I don’t know if it came from being a stubborn, contrary person (probably) or if I just couldn’t force myself to do something I didn’t want to do.

When I was told to write about a person I admired, I chose Proto Man from the Mega Man video game series. There’s a slight chance the essay kept me from being a presidential scholar, but in 2006, the president was George W. Bush, so I regret nothing. When I was told to define art, I refused to. When I was told to name a time when I was completely satisfied, I suggested that complete satisfaction is impossible. I once wrote an “environmental” essay asserting that whales didn’t deserve human efforts to save them because whales did so little to save themselves.

It’s easy to lock yourself into one view. “This is how I will succeed. If I don’t do this, I will fail.” My views are still very traditional: “find representation, then a publisher, then market the book, and after a while, start writing another one.” The strategy might be a bit archaic. If nothing else, traditional publishing will take a great deal of time, and I’m fairly sure I can spend that time in better ways. And yes, self-publishing is one of my options.

Last week, I heavily criticized writers who self-publish. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes, sort of. My biggest concern with self-published authors is that they take an unpolished first draft, slap a generic cover on the manuscript, and throw it on amazon.com. I can self-publish and still hold myself to higher standards. This book will be well-edited, and I will hire a professional illustrator to do the cover. Am I settling? Maybe. Then again, I need to create my own definition of success, even if that does involve rationalizing away a few of my concerns.

When it comes to publishing, my current goals are to 1. expose myself and 2. make money doing it. If self-publishing will allow me to focus on writing while I do those things, it might be the best option. After all, instead of queries, I would rather write more books, stories, and poems. I may only be a so-so essayist and pitcher, but I’m far better at writing other things. If I’m being completely honest, this novel might not be cut out for mainstream success. It’s light, fun, and short. I believe it will make people laugh and (hopefully) think. Even if it could be a mainstream success, I don’t want to spend 2 years trying to publish this one book before anyone reads it.

So I’ll probably publish Favor as an e-book. Naturally, I’ll let everyone know when I do. After that, I’ll attend a few other conventions and try to meet people. Like Boxer, the ill-fated draft horse, I will work harder. I don’t need a break when I’ve had so many. I don’t need any luck when I’ve had so much. I just need to keep writing as much possible.

And no matter how I publish it, I’ll make it good.

(“–UUUUUUCK”)

Ideas, Impatience, and Agnostic Prayers

Some people think that the hardest part about writing is getting ideas. I disagree, primarily because I’ve always had ideas (even a few good ones). Furthermore, I know the best way to get ideas: thinking. Bill Watterson said it best: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

Think about anything you want, and the more you think, the more ideas will show up. If you’re a little lucky, they might turn out to be good. If you don’t get any good ideas, stick a few mediocre ideas together in the meantime. If you don’t get any ideas at all, go do something else, but don’t stop thinking. If you only get a stupid idea, it’s better than nothing.

Then you write. Writing will produce more ideas, which will help you write, which will produce more ideas, and so on. Writing, like all art, is a combination of ideas and effort. You can’t just wait for ideas to show up, and you can’t just wait for a novel to write itself.

So I wrote a novel. Like most novelists, I only had a vague idea of what to do next. First, you have to find a literary agent. Then, the agent finds a publisher. Then, something. The process is crystal clear. I wrote a query letter, which is essentially how authors pitch their books to agents. You pitch the book to a multitude of agents, and if one of them finds it interesting, they’ll contact you and offer to represent you. (By the way, if any literary agents are reading this, they should feel free to contact me.)

In the past couple of months, I’ve sent out about 45 emails and 6 letters. I’ve gotten a couple dozen rejections, which I expected. I don’t mind the rejection, because I know how to deal with rejection. It’s the same way I deal with acceptance: action. Action is my greatest ally, largely because inaction has been my greatest adversary for more than a decade.

I hate the waiting. Most agents take at least 6 weeks to respond to a query, for better or worse. I keep thinking of a line from FLCL, my second favorite anime: “Each day we spend here is like an entire lifetime of dying slowly.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it. I can’t shut off my brain while I wait I wait for responses, so ideas keep coming. Some of the ideas are good, of course. I write them down.

But some of my ideas are actually horrifying questions that sneaked up on me. What if the book is terrible? Am I pitching it correctly? Is there an audience for it? What if the ideas aren’t compelling enough? Has it been done before? Will it stand out from the thousands of books that don’t get published?

Then the worst question of all: What if it doesn’t matter? What if there’s nothing I can do to succeed?

I want to act! If the novel sucks, I’ll write a better one! I have the ideas! I’ll make the effort! I don’t know what to do!

I need this.

Of course, there’s always self-publishing. I could self-publish my novel without too much trouble. Then another question sneaks up: If the novel doesn’t interest agents, will it interest readers at large? The evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside the notable successes of self-publishing (all four of them), I can see that amazon.com is flooded with unfinished and uninteresting novels by tens of thousands of aspiring authors. They weren’t ready for primetime, so they settled for public access.

I’m not ready to settle yet, so during my waiting period, I took action. Next month, I will be lecturing about cryptography and steganography at a science fiction convention in Provo, Utah. It’s called Life, the Universe, and Everything (www.ltue.net). I’m not sure what specifically I’ll be doing, because I’m still waiting for an email response. Sigh.

Anyway, sharing ideas is the central reason I became a writer, and sharing mathematical ideas still counts. I’m looking forward to teaching this material, and hopefully I’ll encounter a lot of people who share my interests. I’ll probably meet some agents and other writers face-to-face, which will be a valuable experience.

As I wait, I’m worrying about the winter weather, the car trip, the expenses, and a million other concerns. If it all falls through, I can at least play 52 Pickup (actually, 100 Pickup) with the business cards I ordered. In the meantime, I’ve been checking my email far too often. Any response is better than nothing, right?

I also wanted to share a coping mechanism with the other agnostic waiters of the world. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears them; the value comes from saying them.

Steven’s Three Agnostic Prayers:

1. I don’t understand.
2. I can’t control everything.
3. I’m not sure what I should do.

For Fear of Emo

It finally happened: I was truly offended by South Park. I must be getting old or something. This week’s episode about Goth and Emo kids hit me a bit hard because it reminded me of high school, and not in a good way. I guess the basic concepts are still prevalent today, but I’ll explain them for the uninitiated.

Goth subculture has been popular with teenagers since the 80s. It’s all about black and white, particularly when it comes to clothing, make-up, and attitudes. The culture is about despair and futility, coupled with a little bit of resentment for the system. Cynicism abounds. The whole movement is often associated with punk rock, but that part’s kind of optional at this point.

Emo subculture is a little more recent. It has been around for almost as long, but it never gained ground until the late 90s. The name is appropriate, because it’s all about embracing negative emotions, including depression and self-loathing. Much like Goth culture, it started with Emo music, another form of punk rock.

There’s a ton of subjectivity in the definitions, of course, and there isn’t much difference between the two groups. The fashion and attitudes are both quite similar. Of course, black has always been cool (and slimming!), so that explains part of it. Both groups greatly appeal to teenagers. The concept of teenage angst isn’t new, after all. It’s all a reaction to the establishment, which always includes adults. Whether you’re disillusioned with the world or yourself, it doesn’t matter. You wear the clothes and listen to the music and maybe even fit in a little bit.

I was a half-assed Goth/Punk kid in high school. Amongst the Goths, there were two insults: Poseur and Emo. Poseurs just pretended to be Goth but were really just trying to fit in. Emos were pathetic, weepy, and lame. Goths were supposed to stand tall in a shitty world without getting the least bit affected, so being called Emo was a horrible insult. It also meant that discussing negative emotions could get you labeled Emo. There was a fine line between contemplating futility and succumbing to it.

I remember when Good Charlotte’s song “Hold On” came out. It was an Emo (technically, Screamo) song about teenagers who committed suicide. I remember thinking that it was over the top and only appealed to Emos. I also remember thinking about how I had already attempted suicide at age 13. It struck a weird discord in my brain. The fear of being Emo got mixed in with the many misconceptions I had about depression, and I never talked about it once. Six years later, I attempted suicide in earnest, and the rest is history.

So where does South Park fit into all this? This week’s episode was supposed to show that Goths and Emos are the same: kids affecting sadness to fit in. In the end, it’s all just teenage angst. (Actually, the Goth kids in the show are supposed to be preteens.) Anyway, these Goth kids start becoming Emo for some reason, and their anger at the world turns inward. Now they engage in suicidal thinking and self-harm instead of lashing out at their parents.

I’m a huge fan of South Park. None of the previous 240 episodes have offended me. This one did.

First of all, it wasn’t funny. Where’s the humor in a room full of preteens cutting themselves? When did that become okay? Well, the show is satirical, after all. This is an exaggerated depiction of a subculture for humorous effect. But Molly Ivins said it best: “When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” Second, there was just no reason for it. What is the social ill being skewered here? What are Matt and Trey trying to tell the world? And who gives a fuck if Goth kids and Emo kids really are the same?

On the other hand, I do have a reason for being offended. This might seem hard to believe, but suicidal teenagers are still suicidal. They really do kill themselves. Furthermore, kids never cut themselves to fit in. They do it alone. In fact, all the cutters I knew kept it completely secret, because if other people found out, they’d have to stop. Those teenagers had so much trouble confronting their depression that they literally tore themselves open.

As for me, I remember one of the phrases that stung the worst at that age: “they only do it to get attention.” Whether it was repeated self-harm, a suicide attempt, or even just a suicidal threat, it was always “just for attention.” As for me, I never wanted the slightest bit of attention for my depression, and that’s exactly what I got. Here’s the reality: People who are contemplating suicide or committing acts of self-harm always need attention, but that’s never the real reason.

In short, teenage angst can kill. This is the very first time I’ve watched an episode of South Park and felt worse afterward. Forgive me if that sounds a little Emo.

A Veterinary Discourse or: Shoving Your Hand Up the Horse’s Ass

When I was but a lad of about 6, I had a meager dream: I was going to be a veterinarian. I came to the decision after very little thought. Basically, I liked animals, so why not be around them constantly? I guess I imagined that I would be swarmed by puppies and kittens with cute ailments that I could immediately fix. Either that or they would look sad and sweet in neck cones, doggy splints, or little casts with pawprint signatures for a few days. It would be awesome!

I shared this dream with my friends and family. (My auxiliary dream was to be a music teacher, because the one we had was a babe. Ah, Heather…) Oddly enough, my friends were quite enthusiastic. In fact, a great number of them shared my dream. As it turned out, other kids liked animals, and they also wanted to be around them constantly. My elementary school was going to produce a cadre of veterinarians in just a few short years.

My family was more realistic. My mother sort of smiled shook her head, refusing to take it seriously without being too discouraging. Dad took a more blunt position. “Veterinarians have a gross job. They have to do surgery on horses and deliver baby cows, things like that. That’s why a lot of them just have dog and cat clinics. You know, for house pets.”

I had two responses to this. First, I was going to have to have a dog and cat clinic, and second, I would never do anything horse-related. In fact, I’ve always hated horses, and I refuse to work with them to this day. They would only hold me back.

Anyway, my veterinary dream persisted. I would think about it on and off when I wasn’t reading books. When I was 8, we finally got a dog. Mazie was awesome most of the time, even if she had some rather annoying (and intelligent) behaviors. For instance, she knew how to steal the TV remote so we could only change the channel if we chased her to get it back. Whenever we played fetch, she would bring the ball back once, and when I threw it again, she’d give me a look that said, “hey, I got it last time.”

Besides intelligence, her other significant trait was sickliness. She had allergies, joint problems, hepatitis, and a thyroid condition. It got to be pretty gross and complicated. I was also the family member charged with scooping her poop, so I got to appreciate that aspect. Our current dog Jetta has several health problems, though not as many as Mazie did. Yet. Fortunately, I don’t have to scoop her poop.

In a roundabout way, I’m saying that animals are actually kind of gross. Dealing with grossness is a veterinarian’s bread and butter. At some point, you might have to reach deep within a horse’s ass and pull out a tumor or blockage or something. It’s all part of the job.

Looking back, I could have been a veterinarian. I would have needed a lot more biology and chemistry (so I could get all those awesome veterinary drugs), some animal anatomy (animanatomy?) and a practical experience or internship before I could open that dog and cat clinic I mentioned. But I’m not going to do that. No, no, no, I have claimed many times that I am going to be a writer. So what does veterinary science have to do with anything?

Well, being a writer is a common desire. In some ways, it’s the college student’s version of the veterinarian dream: easy to picture, simple in concept, far more difficult in reality. College students spend a ton of time writing, after all. They write essays, term papers, exams, and the occasional break-up text. It’s second nature to assume that they could do the exact same thing and make money doing it. And once you graduate, you can write whatever you want, instead those group presentations and apology emails.

A college graduate’s usual approach is THE NOVEL. There are a number of genres and a wild variety of ways to approach them. If you write one that’s really good (and why wouldn’t you?), then you just have to send it off somewhere and get MAD MONEY for it. Be the next Harry Potter! Or Twilight! Or Fifty Shades of Grey! Or Orange Is the New Black! If you aren’t able to write a novel, you can work your way up to it with short stories or novellas, send them off somewhere, and get slightly less MAD MONEY for them.

In fact, writing a successful novel is such a common aspiration that hundreds of thousands of people spend the month of November trying to do it. National Novel Writing Month is an incredibly popular affair in which a vast number of people try to finish a novel of at least 50,000 words. After all, that volume of text is easy for most people to produce if they just type a whole bunch. If you don’t have any original ideas, just jump on the current bandwagon. No problem.

And when you’re finished … your book isn’t very good. Hm. Well, that’s okay. At least you showed yourself that you could do it, right? I mean, you just typed out 50,000 words, and that counts for something. Worrying about the quality or editing as you went would have slowed you way down, and you’d never have finished by December. Hell, you might never have finished. It’s better that you just crossed your fingers and went for it.

Except you didn’t go for it at all. You typed up a ton of sucky words that you’re going to toss in a drawer and never examine. How is that better than crawling through something, thinking and improving it as you go? It isn’t. It’s just a fantasy, like playing with puppies and pretending you’re healing them.

The reality of writing is more akin to pulling the tumor out of that horse’s ass. It’s going to take some time and effort, and you’re going to get dirty. You might even get kicked. If you like, you can just marvel at the horse’s ass and contemplate its innards. Perhaps you poke a finger in to examine, but the tumor is much farther up there. You’re going to have to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do it? And just how much?” If you still want to get it, you’re going to have to have to grit your teeth and shove your arm in right up to the shoulder. You have to grab that tumor and yank as hard as you can.

Now that I’ve overextended that metaphor, I’ll start talking about myself again. I realized that I have to focus my attention and redirect it into a single project. Trying to do a multitude of exciting things at once is a bad idea. In short, I have decided that my first project (ahead of the graphic novel and the animated series and the animated short and the dozens of other ideas in my head) is going to be a novel. A novel? There are millions of them. And here I just talked about how everyone tries to be a novelist! My hypocrisy knows no bounds.

On the other hand, I don’t want to do it because it’s popular or seems like a neat idea. I have my own reasons, and chief among them is getting noticed. I am going to have something I can point to and say “Hey, I wrote this book. Help me draw the next one.” At least, that’s the plan. I am going to reach within the horse’s ass of my mind and pull out the shiniest damned tumor I can find, even if I have to really root around for it. Then I’m going to polish it to a mirror shine, and the glint of that tumor will attract agents and publishers from all around.

Put more literally, I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to stop until the novel is good, and it will be good. I’m going to keep typing and more importantly, I’m going to keep thinking. But I have to acknowledge the difficulty. No matter how much I hate horses, I have to do what’s necessary.

So I’ll wear some gloves.

The Hardest Words to Write

Embarking on a creative career is risky for several reasons. The barriers to success are many and the advantages are few. For instance, you get to set your own schedule, but there is no guarantee that you aren’t wasting your time. Even if you do create something good, you have to draw attention to it. If it gets attention, you still have to turn that into further opportunities and (hopefully) money. Just attempting to be a creative writer requires a great deal of creativity. Ostensibly, being a writer is simple; you become one as soon as you write. What makes a good writer different from every other literate person with a keyboard?

Success as a writer is completely based on one thing: People have to read your work. It’s entirely possible that the most talented writers in the world have never had their work read by another soul. If that’s true, they certainly aren’t successful, and not just because they aren’t making money at it. A good writer has to involve other people, because improvement requires feedback. Every reader and every bit of honest feedback is helpful. In other words, the proof of the writing is in the reading.

So what are the hardest words to write? They always start the same way: “Will you read … ?”

I can almost hear you groaning from here. After all, I just asked you to do something potentially boring and you might have to admit it. I get roughly the same response from everyone: “Yes, but not right now.” It’s nice and diplomatic, but deceptively negative. Much like getting “Ask Again Later” on a Magic 8-Ball, it doesn’t help very much.

Am I imposing? Absolutely. I know you’re busy, and when I ask you to read something, I’m requesting your undivided attention. Ew. Reading is a homework assignment! It’s horrible! You’ll procrastinate, I’ll pester you, and we’ll both have to figure out how to share it online. How can a friendship survive a sudden, obnoxious jolt into a teacher/student relationship?

Then, after you read it (or just skim it), I’ll want feedback. Chances are good my work was unpolished or stupid. I may have completely wasted your time. But time is ticking, and you have to say something! A positive response is the safest approach. It’s a compliment, right? After all, what could be worse than negative feedback? Easy. Dishonest feedback, or worse, no feedback at all.

And that’s the problem. What I’m really asking is for you to be my friend by being a total asshole. You aren’t criticizing ME, you aren’t dismissing ME. You are reacting to my writing, and as long as you’re doing that, I’ll be just fine. Only hold back if your suggestion is that I stop writing altogether and cut off my hands for the good of humanity. At that point, it stops being constructive.

Once you’re done, I will put your feedback in my brain for thoughtful consideration. Most of the time, I will change something. Sometimes I won’t, and sometimes I will consider what you suggested and deliberately not do it. Who’s the asshole now, right? However, my reaction to criticism is never “Screw you! I like it!” or “You just didn’t get it!” I know better. When someone criticizes your beliefs, it doesn’t usually change them, but it almost always reminds you why you have them. Sometimes it will reinforce them. Other times, it will nudge you ever so slightly toward a new viewpoint.

Now that I’ve said all that, I will say this: It really is okay if you don’t want to read my writing. There are plenty of reasons to say no. I won’t hold it against you, but be honest about it. Don’t try to shut me up by saying you’ll read it eventually, because I’m persistent enough to ask again and again.

I have been on both ends of this exchange, so this is as much an admission as an admonishment. I have this dilemma any time I’m asked to proofread something. If you want me to read your work, I will. I’m a copy editor; I don’t pull punches and I don’t guarantee niceness. On the other hand, I know there are two kinds of writers: the ones who want honest feedback, and the ones who only want to hear nice things. It’s the difference between improvement and encouragement, but why encourage someone who doesn’t want to improve? Art is risk. I can’t tell you what will happen if you share your work with the world, but I can tell you what will happen if you don’t: absolutely nothing.

When someone asks you to read something, take a second and think about all of the things you read today, at home, at work, on your phone, on the internet, on TV. You probably spent a lot of time reading. Was any of it important? Did you always know what to expect? Did you enjoy it? If not, you might as well try reading something completely new.

And what else did you read today? You read this, and that was nice of you. If you have nice things to say, I’ll appreciate them. I’ll appreciate the mean things just as much.

Jumping Off of the Face of the Earth

I did a strange thing this week. I dropped out of graduate school before I even stepped in. I washed out before I even got dirty.

Ever since 2006, when I began attending the University of Nebraska, I have been studying math in some fashion or another. In 2011, I finally completed a bachelor’s degree. Since then, I have been taking online classes from Coursera. In 2013, I applied and got into a Ph.D. program in computer science and mathematics. The progression was perfectly natural.

Here’s the problem: I never knew what I wanted to do. I had a lot of talent, and I put a significant amount of work into my degree, but I never had more than a few passing interests. Some were particularly compelling, like steganography, but I didn’t want to do all the extra work in other areas before I could work on what really interested me. Basically, I was going to spend the next two years doing a lot of nothing on the off chance I would get to do something later.

There was a lot involved here, and I was perfectly willing to do what I needed to. I was going to commute from Lawrence to Kansas City, paying for gasoline, tolls, parking, and (naturally) tuition. I would spend 4 nights a week in class, and a significant amount of time doing homework during the day.

Now I’m not going to do any of it, and I’m tremendously relieved. Instead, I am going to abandon the world of academia to pursue a career as a writer. I know that sounds like the life plan of someone who really wants to fail.

The truly wise say you can never become a writer if you don’t write anything, so my goal from here on out is to continue writing. I will also continue tutoring math to pay the bills and such.

I have a bunch of ideas to work on, but I am going to be bold and work on the ones I care most about, even though they might be difficult to carry through. I am confident, and somewhat optimistic. If I can get other people interested, I can make things work. Unfortunately, things won’t work unless I make them work. That’s the cynical part.

Anyway, I will continue to post random updates, but now they’ll be less about graduate school and more about figuring stuff out. And maybe I’ll be a little more excited about it.

True Tales of Human Childhood

Recently, I have been indulging in the many joys of maturity. I have been buying my own K’nex sets and eating Toaster Strudel, Snack Packs, and Drumsticks. I drink a Mello Yello every day. Purchasing and consuming these things at my age almost makes up for never getting them as a child. In particular, the boxes of Toaster Strudel help compensate for one of the most common Nickelodeon ads:

“Maria’s parents give her delicious, flaky, sweet Toaster Strudel for breakfast. Jimmy’s cheapass parents only buy him Pop-Tarts. They must not love him as much.”

At least, that’s how I remember it. On the other hand, they did let us watch Nickelodeon.

It might seem strange to people who know me, but as I kid, I hated soda. I would drink Sprite or 7-Up when I was sick (or better yet, cola syrup), and I occasionally had an A&W at my grandpa’s house. Later, I went from being a known soda-hater to listing “soda” as one of my favorite things when I was expected to write a list of my favorite things.

My history of soda has two major turning points. The first followed a routine trip to McDonald’s. When I was 11, my brother and his friend Tim came home from parts unknown with a greasy sack of McDonald’s and 2 extremely large drinks. They had not offered to bring my anything, but for charity’s sake, Tim offered me some of his soda. Despite my prejudice, I said yes. I must have been compelled by the coolness of an older dude and disappointment with their lack of consideration.

So I took a sip. I was amazed by a flavor I had never encountered before, and I incredulously asked, “What is that?” Tim thought I was just trying to clear up what kind of soda he had, so he simply said “Dr. Pepper.” I doubt he realized that I had never tasted it before. Either way, I was a soda drinker from that day forth. Within the next few months, I nearly tripled my body weight. My health has suffered immensely ever since.

The other event was a competition during a New Year’s Eve lock-in at the church. My friend Markos and I had to chug (slang for “quickly drink”) a 2-liter bottle of unlabeled soda together. We met the challenge head-on, and began drinking immediately. After about 20% of the bottle was gone, we finally tasted it. When you’re in the zone, flavor takes a back seat. However, I never forgave the youth pastor for choosing peach-flavored soda.

I’ll say this, though: we won. Also, I didn’t barf. I probably should have. To this day, I can’t eat peaches without nausea, because they are just too damned sweet. Soda, on the other hand, is just sweet enough.

In lieu of vacations, my parents would take us to my grandparents’ house in a tiny town near St. Louis. (My dad once said, “I loved going to Disney World as a kid, but it’s really not the same as an adult.” At the time, I was 19.)

We did get to enjoy doing “several” things in Elsberry. I got to swim in 3 different pools (only one was above ground), play Nintendo (and I do mean the Nintendo Entertainment System), watch TV (before Grandpa woke up), and play 2 games after dinner (yes, the same two). I always took a lot of books. Elsberry is also where I bought most of my Beanie Babies, but I’ve written about that before.

After my grandma was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she lost a lot of mobility. She had to stop being constantly active and needed help getting around, which meant she couldn’t tend to her visitors. None of this stopped her from trying, however, and we were forbidden from getting up early because she would try to get up and help anyway. It didn’t always go well when she tried, but I’ve written about that before. My parents slept in until 8 or so, and I was forbidden from going downstairs until 7:30.

Like most 10-year-olds, I usually woke up around 6 in the morning. I had to get in my TV watching before grandpa got up and checked his stocks. (The stock market, that is. There were very few cattle allowed within city limits.) At my bedside, I had a vintage alarm clock with an actual radium dial. At least, the dark moles on my neck assume it was radium. The hour hand (that’s the smaller one) was about half an inch long, which meant it was roughly 3 feet from the numbers on the outside. My estimation skills were somewhat off at that age, so when I looked at the tiny hand and large numbers, I read 7:30. I went downstairs immediately, let out the dog, and fed her. Then I looked at the microwave. It had a digital clock, like the rest of civilization, and it read 6:30.

At this point, I was in trouble. My grandmother was asleep in a room about 20 feet away, and boy and dog were loose. The only option I could see was lying down on the ground and petting the dog so she wouldn’t move. I implemented the plan immediately, and the dog and I got bored quite quickly. Neither one of us could go back to sleep at this point, having just gotten up, and I was too worried to move. I’m not sure if I was more worried about waking Grandma or upsetting my parents, but they both seemed like bad ideas. After a long hour of waiting, I got up “officially” and started watching TV. The dog probably went back to sleep.

Grandmothers do a lot for their grandkids, but we make sacrifices, too. Once in a while.

How to Substitute Teach: An Informative Guide

I have now been certified as a substitute teacher for nearly 17 months, and I have spent no fewer than 8 days in class as a sub. I feel that these qualifications make me the perfect candidate to tell the world how to substitute teach. I have written a bulleted list of tips and other information on the art of subbing, so you can take the simplest and safest approach to the job. The list is not in any particular order, nor is it intended to be all-encompassing.

– As a substitute teacher, you must always remember that expectations are low. Extremely low. Unbelievably low. You will be considered “successful” if you avoid injuries, felonies, insurrection, alcohol use, and anything involving fire or explosives. Substitute teachers are considered above average if they have an 85% success rate or higher, based on these criteria.

– One of your most important duties is counting the hours and minutes until the end of the day. Try to know the absolute earliest you can leave, and be sure to use that in your calculations. There will usually be a schedule somewhere in the classroom, which will make it easier to count down to the end of the current class or lunchtime.

– Make sure the students know you do not want to be there. Various remarks or facial expressions can make this a great deal more apparent, but a general sense of listlessness and exhaustion is effective as well. Because the students do not want to be there either, this will garner sympathy. Sympathy and pity will prevent the students from acting out, because they will feel a great deal of guilt about making things worse. On the other hand, some students will sense your weakness and go for the kill. Students can smell weakness from miles away.

– Try to look young and naive or old and doddering, whichever is easier for you. This will also help the students feel sorry for you. If you seem to be incapable of controlling the classroom, the kinder students will do so, saving you a great deal of effort.

– Indifference is your greatest asset. As soon as you begin to feel anything approaching an emotion, think instead of what you will do after work, and you will immediately stop caring. Possible things to think about include alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, cable television, internet purchases, and being around people over the age of 18.

– At no point should you take an interest in the students. It’s really none of your business, and the district isn’t paying you to learn, just to be a teacher.

– The title “substitute teacher” is a bit of a misnomer. If you manage to teach anything during the day, you have probably made a mistake. Note the circumstances so you can prevent similar incidents in the future.

– At the beginning of the day, write your name and the current date on the front board. However, this will not prevent students from asking what your name is and what day it is.

– Around lunchtime, your eyes will no longer be able to focus. This is normal. Whether it is due to hunger or boredom, no one can say, but it will go away whenever you look at the clock, so it is nothing to worry about.

– Remember to appreciate that nothing you do matters. As soon as the regular teacher is back, you will be immediately forgotten.

– The students will try to convince you that their regular teacher lets them get away with absurd things. It’s best to just acquiesce to these requests.

– When students arrive for class, you can expect both disappointment and enthusiasm, which will always accompany the phrase “oh, we have a sub.”

– Students will just keep arriving throughout the day. This is impossible to avoid.

– Threats of violence against students are not unheard of, but are not recommended as a matter of course.

– Contemplating suicide is not out of the question either, but verbal threats to do so are only appropriate as a last resort.

– If you like teaching or being an educator, never become a substitute teacher.

Losing with Dignity

I have mentioned a few times in recent history that I am excited about an online competition to interview Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of my favorite book, House of Leaves. I have been cautiously optimistic about winning, for various reasons that I convinced myself make sense. I believed that there would be relatively few entries, even fewer of which would stand a significant chance. I believed that I might have produced a sufficiently eloquent contest entry, and that I stood a good chance against most competitors, provided that the judges were not looking for professional interviewing experience.

If you truly believe in something, you are called an adherent, or perhaps a sucker, I forget which. Either way, I have been reminded of the one truism of my life: hope is bullshit. I have a lot of uncharacteristic hope right now, about many things, but knowing that all of my hope is bullshit helps me sleep at night.

The secret that depressed people hide so well is that they are extremely hopeful. It might be more accurate to say that they WERE extremely hopeful. Naturally, The Dark Knight Rises put it best: “… there can be no true despair without hope.” Why is that? It’s because you get used to despair. If depression were just despair, it would become routine, and you would adapt. The occasional injection of real hope is what makes it unbearable.

In the interest of fairness, I will point out that hope makes beautiful promises. On the other hand, hope never accomplishes anything by itself, and it is certainly never held accountable for its false promises. For depressed people, hope is a new medication, a new job, a new friend, a new girlfriend, a new apartment, a new city, a new hobby, a new day.

As for my life, I have shifted to yet another hope. I got a new program for writing in screenplay format, in the interest of approaching my ideas from a new angle. The screenplay format is fairly simple. It makes dialogue a lot easier and lets you paint visuals without lingering too much on every little detail. Because I am still mostly interested in animation, I know a lot of the work is done by the artists, who have real control over how things look. I’d like to have the chance to work with artists to create a better visual representation of my writing.

So I’m writing spec scripts for a cartoon series scheduled to start airing next year. I have ideas that I like and I intend to make at least a few good scripts. Once I finish those, I have to figure out what to do with them and try to make progress in a vicious industry in which thousands of writers fail. Here’s hoping.

Anyway, I didn’t win the competition. Somebody named Trevor will be interviewing Mark Z. Danielewski tomorrow morning. I may decide to watch, but I have no doubt that it will be a terrible interview. I could have done much better. I’m already sure of it.

Something Intelligent from 2006

This is my essay submission for Scholar’s Recognition Day. The topic is “contemplate a point in your life when you experienced or expect to experience complete fulfillment and describe that point.”

The phrase “complete fulfillment” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. I think that, as humans, we should continually reach farther and try harder for goals in the near and distant future. There is no point at which any person can honestly say that he has no problems or that he has reached the pinnacle of success. Life simply does not provide such opportunities.

There should be no limit to what someone can learn or accomplish. Whenever humans have reached goals in the past, they served only as stepping stones to something greater. Just as mankind does not cease to learn as much as possible, I try to learn all that I can in as many fields as possible. My main interests are mathematics and computers, but I learn things from social science to fine arts to cooking. I think that a broad range of abilities will help more often in life than an extremely specialized one.

However, there is no shame in a sense of satisfaction about short term goals. An occasional sigh of relief or pat on the back is often important in continuing good work. In spite of this, though, no one should stop learning because he has achieved a goal. The next step should be a more difficult goal, beyond his grasp, and then he can work to exceed his limitations. As one of my teachers said, “if you’re getting straight A’s, you’re in the wrong classes.” I think this philosophy applies in many aspects of life. If I’m not challenged in a class, I am less likely to achieve any sense of satisfaction in completing it. If I were in a more difficult class, I would work to get the best grade I could, which might be an A. However, the difficult A would be more important to me than one received in a simpler class, because I will have gained more from the experience. Then, after a sigh of relief, it would be time to move on to another, more difficult goal.