There’s so much that I like about it. But there’s one part that I hate and unfortunately it’s the most important part of this job. Before I get to the part that I hate I need to remind myself of all the things I really like about it because again, being honest here, there’s days that I want to chuck my laptop out my window and quit over this one really important thing.
Here’s what my process looks like in order. I’ll follow that with the thing that I hate the most because sometimes that thing comes before and sometimes it comes after the following:
I actually love the research part. I’ve written articles about sports, tech gadgets, bit coin, therapy and digestion. I’ve written poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and essays and every single thing I’ve ever written usually takes at least some research. It might not even be while you’re preparing to write or while your writing it, but some sort of digging has led me to be inspired to write a short story or a poem. Trying to write a short story about a man who fires a Desert Eagle? Head to the firing range with an ex-cop and learn something! That’s the best part of being a writer. I don’t have to actually choose a profession, I get to try them all on for a bit.
Trying to write a short story about a man who fires a Desert Eagle? Head to the firing range…
Planning and Development
Remember in high school when you learned to make an outline for your essay? Yup. That’s all this is. Every paragraph has about 4 or 5 sentences, the topic sentence starts it off and then a few supporting sentences. The last sentence may segue into the next paragraph. But tone and theme must be chosen and then each paragraph needs to fit into that mold. The prose and syntax is where the creativity can shine through. That was a segue sentence.
This is absolutely hands down the best part of writing! You just write. Sounds simple and it is. A runner might say that they hit their high and don’t remember the last ten miles. This can be this part of the writing process where your head is down, the fingers are moving, and the brain is on a roll. To me this part can kind of be like watching a movie. I can see the events unfold and I’ll be damned if my fingers can’t move fast enough. I don’t stop for misspelled words or other common mistakes. This is machine gun typing and it’s total madness and it’s friggin’ awesome.
Kind of boring but you need to fix all that machine gun typing. Capitalization, correct punctuation, misspellings, goofy errors and other easy to spot mistakes are taken care of here. This usually gets done the next day after a machine gun session when I feel a bit more calm and collected. It’s a completely necessary piece of the puzzle.
Here’s where it gets tricky. This is the body language of the written word. Tone can cover up the theme and sometimes the theme gets lost inside the tone. This goes for the whole piece and also for each and every sentence. “Can this sentence be rearranged”? “Can this sentence be said in a different way”? These questions get asked about every single utterance on the page. In a short piece, an off sentence can really derail a reader and authenticity can be quickly sidelined with a few badly written sentences. (See what I did there? Badly should be replaced with poorly!) As a writer all you have is your words so make ‘em goodly.
This is where I read the piece out loud and if I can’t smoothly read a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter without fumbling over my own mouth then something needs to change. It’s all about flow, baby. Make it flow. Make it beautiful. Make it unique. Make it make it because if you can’t sit there and read it and be entertained and feel the prose come alive then the editor won’t either and that means the reader won’t. Fix the spots that seem awkward.
Writing ain’t got nothing to do with writing and everything to do with rewriting and editing. I know I missed something and chances are I missed several things. Read back through very carefully.
Final Read Through
I have a very close friend and editor and this is where I would send it to her but not every article goes through her so sometimes this part is left up to me. For larger pieces she would read through here, put down her comments and I would go back to the first edit stage with what she wrote, sometimes having to wade through the creative stage again. But for smaller pieces I take one last read through and send it. If the editor of the magazine, website, etc. has any edits that need my approval it will come back to me, but nine times out of ten those edits are made without my approval (who the hell am I?) and the piece goes to publication.
Now we can get to the part that I freakin’ detest.
Like I said at the beginning this can sometimes come before the research stage or sometimes it comes after the Final Read Through stage. But it doesn’t matter where it rears its ugly head, I hate it no matter what. But it is more important than all the other stages combined if you want to get published. If you are only writing for you and you never want to share it then this stage will not matter to you and you no longer have to read my drivel.
You must query. A query is a question that you ask. That’s it. And it’s either “hey do you want me to write this thing so you can publish it”? or it’s “I wrote this thing, do you want to publish it”? Sounds simple enough but there’s a real art to it. I’m not very good at it and it’s by far my biggest downfall as a writer. But here’s why I hate it so much. Everything I believe in and want to write, feel passionate about, love, hate, ideas that I have, damn near everything that can evolve or devolve from writing comes down to a query. They’re about one page long and sometimes include a bio.
So all in all, you have a few sentences to prove to a total stranger, or an editor that you’ve worked with several times but actually never met in person, that whatever the hell you are going to write or have already written is worthy of getting paid for and for publishing. A lot of editors own the company you’re querying, or this is the editor’s dream and brain child and they want to know how you fit into their master plan, their complicated equation, their literary take-over. It’s depressing to think about and because of this my queries stink and I struggle for publication.
The best and most dramatic example is the current novel I’m shopping around. It took me six years to write it and it all comes down to a one pager to a stranger. It happened with a stage play I was shopping around too.
I ended up getting invited to a meeting filled with producers. I gave my one pager away to all of them. No one bit. Two and a half years of developing a stage play and I got fifteen minutes in a room full of producers who ultimately told me to take a hike. Then I had to read how they were reviving Guys and Dolls or some adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird because they knew audiences would come to that. No one is going out of their way to see some play they’ve never heard of by a guy they don’t know.
No one is going out of their way to see some play they’ve never heard of by a guy they don’t know.
It’s gut wrenching and keeps me awake at night. It’s probably the reason writers have the stigma of being drunk and staying up late, smoking by a dim light and eerily staring out the window to an empty street.
That’s not me. I don’t smoke.
Anyway, I trudge on, trying to get through one cruddy query at a time, trying to make a little money and hoping to catch that break that everyone keeps talking about. I started freelancing around 2007. So it’s only been twelve years. I’m not sure how long you have to wait for your break, but I think I can go another twelve years, another few novels, a few more plays, a thousand more articles, hundreds of poems, and countless mind numbing, gut wrenching queries.
I wait. Then I wait some more. The I twiddle my thumbs, play on my phone, and do some more waiting. I’m standing at a cattle crossing and hoping that I actually see some cattle cross. Why does it take so long? Why would they put up a sign that says cattle will be crossing if in fact they do not continuously cross?
Truth is, I’m not at a cattle crossing. I am however at a crossing of sorts.
I have said over and over again that finding a literary agent or a publisher that will take a writer not under contract to publish a novel is much like sitting in front of a cattle crossing sign and hoping to hell you see some cattle. The signs are there for you to know where to find the agents, where to find the publishers that take unsolicited manuscripts from writers without agents. They are not hard to find, but once you get there it’s a whole other story.
No doubt that who you know is much more important that what you know. Pop star Cardi B owns 5 cars but has no idea how to drive. She also can’t rap. But that doesn’t matter because she’s connected. Paris Hilton wrote a book that sold well called “Confessions of an Heiress”. She received $100,000 advance on that book, her first. That’s an unheard of amount. But she’s connected and they knew it would sell due to being famous.
Those are extreme examples but they set the tone for the truth. I’m sitting here querying agents and publishers when I should be out there trying to make real connections with real people. I’m good at it really, but Rochester, New York is not a budding literary scene with agents just waiting at every corner. So now what?
Drink until I pass out!
No. That’s not helpful. Just keep writing, keep querying, and keep the dream alive. It’s pretty easy to get depressed when your sitting here alone at night hacking away at the keyboard and thinking “why the hell should anyone in the world care what you write”?
Before you know it you’re giving up and bowing out, convinced that your words are no better than anyone else’s, determined that your ideas and stories will remain embedded in a heap of convoluted rubbish instead of being neatly stacked on a shelf.
It’s a boring metaphor but the sun rises. Every day. Even if it’s buried beneath so many clouds you can barely see it. Even if it’s brick outside and it doesn’t seem to do any good, it’s still came up. Every day. Every damn day.
I have been working on this novel for 5 years. It’s almost done and as I put the finishing touches on it and get ready to send it to my editor and then to the market, I can honestly say I’m going to miss these characters. I love them dearly and will remember them fondly like college friends I have not seen in years. This portion is unedited so excuse any blatant errors.
Part 4 Chapter 2 from “Minimal Reaction
I am admittedly not as close to my parents as other children, but the callousness displayed at the bottom of the dumpster was like nothing I had ever seen or heard of in my life. The house was completely empty of all the monetary valuable items and all that remained in the dumpster were the memories. I imagined the two sisters conspiring to have everything of value taken and stored somewhere to be later sold, or maybe it was already sold, liquidated through antique dealers, boxed up and ready for auction. The large pieces of furniture only staying to be sold with the house, which I quickly looked up and realized was already on the market. I have never felt so ashamed to be part of a larger family. I wanted to die right then and there.
The dumpster was filled about half way with photo albums, family video tapes, some personal items, old books, old newspapers, notes written in my grandparent’s handwriting. Anything personal had been carelessly tossed into the dumpster, anything of no value to anyone but a family member had been chucked, to make way for more money, to make way for purchasing new things with no ties to the past. Their guilt must have been so unconscionable, that it burned their hearts. The easiest thing to do was to declare it junk and throw it the trash. I was sick and getting sicker by the minute, but at least I had found what I had come for. There was a sigh of relief in that, they left everything my mother wanted in this dumpster, primed for pick up and taken to the local landfill, dreams, memories, and love buried with the rest of the rubbish from the entire area. The mental sickness my aunts displayed by throwing this stuff away I wasn’t ready for. This was to be my burden. My mother and Cassidy would never know because I would never tell them. I knew the truth and it literally hurt me. I needed to pack up as much as I could as soon as I could and get out of here. I started to become nervous, but my curiosity was overwhelming me.
I couldn’t help it. I had to look through some of the photos. In the first book I opened I found black and white photos of kids. Some I recognized as my mother and aunts, others could have been neighborhood children or distant cousins. There was a series of them in party hats, balloons abound the living room that was just on the other side of the dumpster in front of me, but decades earlier, children played happily while adults looked on proud. Camera’s flashed and everyone would want to come by after the film was developed to relive the day, now over a month ago. Pictures of the birthday transitioned into pictures of kids in hastily slapped together Halloween costumes, someone literally in a sheet with eye holes cut out. I laughed to myself. What a far cry from the realistic costumes we put on today. Evidence that time changes everything.
Time did change everything. Some of the smiling beautiful faces in these pictures were the same ones that have warped into money hungry devils. I looked at the peace and sanctity that was clearly present in my Aunt Sarah’s eyes, not at all like the ones that I saw earlier. These were seraphic, uncomplicated eyes that had innocence and purity and were free of judgement and hate. These were eyes that were simple, and loving, and wonderful. The adult world makes you jaded, money and consumer obsessed, if you’re not careful, capitalism because your way of life and you forget how to love things are aren’t covered in prices and money. The eyes I saw earlier were sad lost eyes that had no control over their own jealousy, greed, and obsession for materialism. She knew it was wrong but could not help it. My aunts were fiends for money and possessions like Stupid Mikey was for crystal meth. At least Stupid Mickey never hurt anyone he loved.
I started 3 piles. One that was clearly junk like old food boxes or dish towels with holes in them, the other was stuff that I had to get back to my mother like photo albums, video tapes, reel tapes, and knick-knacks, the third pile was mine, which so far had a hat that was my grandfather’s that said “Be A Happy Farmer” on it. It had his sweat marks on it and grease and oil on the brim. It was perfect. I tried to sort quickly and had it in the back of my head that I shouldn’t be there any longer than I had to. I was sitting on a box that had some tools in it, and I didn’t think my father would want anything. Certain items like an old jacket I sat thinking about too long. I had to make the choices quick, and going through these things so haphazardly was starting to bother me. My mind was wandering something wicked and I thought about gaining a little chemical help. I jumped up and tossed my legs over the top of the dumpster. Right before I hoisted myself out, I noticed a little brown leather bound notebook where I was sitting. I eased myself back in and grabbed it with the intentions of using it as a table to break up my next line. I lept back out and went to the car, opened the passenger side door, placed the book in my lap, and grabbed my stash. I emptied a little cocaine and half a Xanax onto the book, and broke up the pill and with the side of my license and then mixed the two together. I went back to my wallet and grabbed a bill, rolled it up, and bent my face down towards the line of powder I just made. I snorted it clean and I immediately felt the effects numb my brain. I picked my head up to see a small dark circle only an inch away from my eye and simultaneously heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked.
I was at a dinner party recently when someone almost 10 years younger than me exclaimed, “There’s no way I’m in the millennial generation. I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 16!” It was not received as anything but truth. Everyone agreed.
It had a profound impact on me. I left that party depressed, irritated, and sick to my stomach, despite the fantastic food.
If you were born between the years of 1981 and 1996, you’re a millennial. And it’s a soft border, meaning you might be a millennial if you are born on either cusp. The millennial generation has an odd and bizarre stigma attached to it that is more historically repetitious than accurate. But what that comment from the person at the dinner party illuminates is the control that the previous generation has over millennials. And it’s not Gen X, it’s the Boomers, the only other generation that has equal number of people enveloped inside and they feel threatened as every previous generation of Americans has felt since the 1600’s.
The first Jamestown colony on the New Land that Britain had acquired in what is now Virginia was largely a bust. No crop other than tobacco had grown successfully there and England’s premier tobacco provider was still Spain. Spanish tobacco couldn’t be overthrown by a successor until the King decided to make an announcement that the tobacco from the New Land was much better. This was in an effort to revive his investment and the marketing worked.
As production had to increase the workers that were sent to Jamestown in the first place needed help. They wrote to the King to send some new workers. The King, resourceful as ever, sent a younger generation there, in order to ensure that the farm system was taught to a new group, sustaining his investment long term. Not long after their arrival the letters started pouring back in to him.
The colonists wrote that the new batch of young workers he sent were lazy, unable to be trained, didn’t listen, and were practically no help. This began the American way of complaining about the next generation in order to preserve your own dignity and posterity, as a new batch of individuals is sent to take over.
My grandfather thought my dad’s generation was a bunch of lazy long haired, pot smoking hippies who were glued to their hi- fi stereos. They were, but they also were catalysts for change, ushering in an era where people stood together for what is right. Protests formed for peace, equal rights, and individuality around the country. These are the same baby boomers who are now repressing and propagandizing the Millennials in the same way that they were by the Traditionalist or the Silent Generation.
Make no mistake, not everything since the 1600’s is repetition. This current generation grew up in a socially different time that causes more time in front of a screen than in front of anything else. But what is seldom argued is that the Millennial generation’s world is the world, they grew up inherently global and so there views seem so completely different because they are the first generation to see what they want to see, have all information just a click away and seem generally accepting of all types of people regardless where they are from.
Much in the same way the baby boomer generation was ridiculed by their parents for spending far too much time and energy on rock and roll, radio, and television, this new generation is on their phone. The older generations didn’t grow up with things “going viral” and that term has a negative feel to it, and they themselves find they spend far too much time on their phones and on social platforms. If it’s addicting to them, it must be more addicting to the younger generation because they simply have less experience.
But it’s just not true. It’s always been in our hands and so we adapted much quicker. The issue isn’t addiction from the younger generation, but actually from the older. 62% of Facebook users are over 35, 20% is in the Millennial Generation, and 10% is over 65. All of these generations have had social media the same amount of time. And the numbers are actually pretty similar. The only exception being television. Millennials don’t watch TV they stream off their tablets, phones, and computers. Gen X and the Boomers still watch a few hours of TV every night.
Somehow the TV screen is lost in translation when compared to the cell phone screen.
The Millennials are the first generation to make inclusivity a priority, renewable energy a reality, and social media a tool. These initiatives were largely thought of by a previous generation that wanted to make things better for the next generation, but has now become irate and jealous that it is becoming a possibility. Fabricating things to complain about the next generation is a silly way to show support. But maybe a few of us will use that chip on our shoulder to break the rules all over again.
But how about instead of ridicule there is general support? What if we all worked together instead of drawing a line in the sand of who is right and who is wrong?
The Millennials themselves will be the first to try and weasel out of being part of their own generation. Where does that come from? Handed down from the previous generation trying to prove that their worth is still a worth. If you were born between 1981 and 1996 and you are saying that you are not a millennial you are only being beholden to the previous generations who paved the way and now have shackled you to a slower rate of growth, to their fears, and to their shadows disappearing as the sun sets. You’re buying into 400 years of historically repetitious inaccuracies fueled by tradition instead of truth.
Time to unshackle.
2018 marks the first year we could have a Millennial as president. Young leaders are being elected already. Justin Trudeau of Canada is 46 and Emanuel Macron is 40. The Millennial Generation is now larger than the Baby Boomers and that number will continue to grow larger as the years go by. We are in control. Not monetarily, but in populous and that means that we can start to dictate the direction of this great nation.
If you are already using phrases like “the kids these days” and “back in the day” you are already cementing into place the same repression and historical inaccuracies that previous generations put in place. But it’s not supportive and won’t help us all out long term. The younger generations should use their time and effort to connect with the older generation, to learn where certain things went wrong, and where things went right and accept that wisdom and learn. If everyone was willing to work together we could all be part in making the future of this great nation much brighter.
As long as everyone puts their phones down long enough to listen.
It was my freshman year of college when I met Dave. He was in the graduate program at hippy haven SUNY New Paltz teaching Freshman Comp 101. I landed in his class by mere fate or maybe some sort of secret lottery system I’m not sure of, but either way I was there.
Dave was going to show us what the Beat Generation meant to the world of literature and I was eager and ready having known for years who Allen Ginsberg was, his sad bearded face adorned a Rolling Stone that showed up some years before after his death on my parent’s coffee table. I read the article and was amazed that one man could do so much with poetry.
The novel that was assigned to us that class was Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece On the Road. I had no idea what was about to happen to me. I knew that I had been assigned many books to read in English classes, most of which were either good enough to finish or important enough to get through. My favorites up until that point were Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. I thought I was just a huge Steinbeck fan, little did I know how little I knew.
I read On the Road in one day. My eyes couldn’t stop darting around the pages and I needed more. I couldn’t wait to get to class every day to see what everyone else thought, to see what Dave had to say, to see what the narratives that were extracted smelled and felt like. I was, in part, obsessed, because I learned, Kerouac was more than just a writer, he was a rule breaker, a punk rocker, the beginning of the “hippy” movement and possibly the end and beginning of something bigger generationally in America.
Being immersed in the heart of the dragon every day, surrounded by neo hippy socialites and pot smoking sandal wearing patchouli addicts made me see why Jack drank himself to stupidity and eventually death. By the time the class had ended I not only had read other books by Jack, but a biography as well. I knew Jack like I knew myself, in and out, and was seriously pained to see how misconstrued his messages had become, the consumerism of it all, the lost art of jazz, true prose exploding like roman candles across the sky.
But Dave, he understood. He knew what Jack meant! He was explaining it daily and in terms I had never thought of. “Mississippi Gene is Buddha!” Dave yelled and my pen hit the paper to make a note. My brain was melting. “You don’t need to write this down”, I thought. “Jesus! This is life shit!”
Standing in the Shawangunk Mountains late one afternoon, the sun starting to disappear behind the peaks, the chilly air starting to casually stroll in, my stomach reminding me to go back to campus and hit the dining hall, and I realized what it was I wanted to do. Of course, I always knew it, but I needed this moment for it to become concrete.
I wrote my first book when I was in first grade. I was on the news. It was a Christmas book, but more Stephen King and Tim Burton than your typical Christmas story. Although I had no idea what macabre was I was certainly already dabbling in it.
In the book, Santa had been impersonated by the Devil, who went around killing children, then made toys from their bones and gave the toys as presents to other children.
It’s fucked, I know.
And the worst part is, they don’t catch the devil in the end. The lead detective, a woman named Kristy, is unable to solve the crime. The ending was either intentionally left open for a sequel or more importantly, was a precursor to the way I saw all literature, further backed and corroborated by the Beat Generation more than a decade later.
Even at an early age I always wondered why there had to be a well-defined good guy and bad guy in every story. Real life never works this way. Sometimes you’re the good guy and sometimes you’re the bad guy.
Sometimes you learn a bunch of stuff and change your ways and sometimes you learn a bunch of stuff and don’t change a damn thing. If life is never so cut and dry why should literature be?
Art imitates life. I have always considered writing an art before it is entertainment. Good art makes for good entertainment, but good entertainment isn’t necessarily art.
In New Paltz, under the distinct tutelage of Dave fish, I was shown that other people thought this way and I wasn’t alone. My thoughts were suddenly vindicated, it was a relief and a burden all at once. I couldn’t give up and I wouldn’t.
In order to break the rules I had to first learn them and I did, imitating Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Baraka, Corso, Snyder, and others. I spent so much time writing that I forgot to go to math class, business class, science class, and pretty much every other class. I helped start a poetry group and an on campus magazine that centered on poetry as art. I eventually dropped out of school completely and moved to the city of Syracuse to become the next Jack Kerouac.
I became a waiter instead.
I did go back and eventually graduate college with a degree in writing and since have pressed forward as the struggling writer that I have always wanted to be. But you can’t live out your dreams without a lot of people standing behind you encouraging you and aiding you along the way.
You never know where your inspiration can come from as a writer or as any individual ready to move forward and progress. What I may not have understood at the time but certainly do now is that my progress had to embrace the complete weirdness that I know resides inside me. But it’s hard to let that out.
You’re growing a second head that if you let it out people are going to look at you differently. I needed someone to tell me that it was acceptable and that others had done it before, to cultivate the plant of weirdness that has already rooted in the soul was actually a good thing. Let them think you’re weird, because, well, you are. Weird is unique. Unique is art. Art is entertainment.
The reason I’m a weird writer isn’t Dave’s fault. That burden probably falls on my parents. But the enrichment of my weirdness that led me to become a writer?
When I was in college I had a professor get an overstuffed ego when his book was published and he won an award. He became so bloated he could barely fit into a classroom and even filled lecture halls with the stink of his gloat.
I hated him with most of my might. I was eighteen and didn’t give a damn about his dumb book. I just wanted to know how to get where he was.
On the final exam one of the questions was “What’s the difference between an author and a writer?” My response? “A writer writes and an author auths”. I actually received one point.
What this particular professor taught me, even though he did not mean to teach me anything, was that in order to be a writer you need to write. That’s it. It’s really that simple. But there’s so much gut tearing, so many hernias at every turn, gallons of sweat and annoyance, and infinite amounts of brain freeze with every key stroke that it’s so difficult for even the best writer.
So I wrote this email to myself on September 9th of 2017. I wrote it and saved it and I look at it as much as I can to help defeat writers block, help remember the importance of the writer, and to take the chance of freezing up my brain with another key stroke again and again.
The writer is always at odds with him/her self, always trying to explain and justify their view, and going against popular belief now because it won’t’ be popular forever.
The writer is always creating the narrative of society when the narrative doesn’t exist, is constantly hearing the opposite of what they believe and will do anything to convince a straggling few that what they are seeing is a vision of the future, a glimpse into what is to become, however impossible that may seem at the time.
The writer isn’t about going against the norm on purpose, but because they can’t see it any other way, it’s not being contrarian just to rouse, but making sure people are roused to stay contrarian. The writer will bring something that isn’t’ in the limelight into view and do it even though there is no reception. The writer graduates into the next realm and lives to tell the tale, but it’s all for nothing because the writer won’t have the money and won’t have much recognition, but it gets done anyway.
The writer writes because if the writer doesn’t he/she will fucking explode.
The writer would rather be in writing than be in person because it’s not about standing in the spotlight, it’s about holding the spotlight, a light that most people won’t notice until it’s gone. What the writer identifies with now will make sense after the generation he or she exists in no longer exists.
This was first published in the Spring of 2005. It was my first published piece in a magazine and it really gave me the spirit to want to publish for the rest of my life. I often look back at this piece as the first time I became a writer and not for the fact that it was published in a magazine, but because I tapped into something that became important for me as a writer for the next decade, I found in myself the excavation tool to mine the deeper emotional coal, that if pressed, can be worn around your neck.
A Grocery Store Story
There was a strange moment earlier today in the grocery store. I looked at a box of banana flavored cookies, a package obviously intended to entice kids, bright colored purple and yellow, the banana cookies themselves on the outside of the package, each with an individual smiling face, actually on the cookie itself, saying to the chilled that its okay, these are delicious. Just an inanimate strange smiling cookie face. Dizzy with sudden nostalgia, I remembered how when I was a kid my mother used to make ghost cookies around Halloween. White frosted cookies in the shape of ghosts, with little red round cinnamon candies as the face. My mother always made the little ghosts smiling at me and when I returned home from school, the cookies laid heaping on a large crystal plate at the little table in our old kitchen. I remember how the wooden chair felt strange as I pulled it back, bumping over the groutless black and white, diamond checkered tile floor. I would sit and tell my mother about school. Eating my smiling little ghosty cookies, drinking my two percent milk, looking into the bright eyes of my young Italian mother, her brown eyes glazed and tired, waiting for the point to my childish and immature story about what Pete Hatch did at the lunch table. She would open the old brown Frigidaire and pull out more milk, encouraging me to talk on and on, and I would, for there was no one else to listen, no brothers or sisters, dad away with work, late in the fall, no neighborhood friends on this cold and dreary afternoon.
I remember doing my homework covered underneath my fleece colorful blue dinosaur blanket, my mother starting dinner just before my father would return home from work. And when he did, I would sit with the family, just us three, at an aged wood table in front of our big bay window, examining the multicolored autumnal themed backyard, listening to classic rock (a la Steve Miller, John Cougar Mellencamp, Pink Floyd). My parents sipped red wine and talked about grown up stuff and I secretly fed the cat under the table.
(All this from a banana cookie package at a grocery store, damn near twenty years later! What it boils down to is that I lost the functionality of my spirit. I see now that I’ve grown stagnant and strange, delineating from the initial splurge I felt years ago. But I think its back, suddenly, outrageously!)
After I would help with dishes and then retire to my room to play endless hours of Nintendo and listen to my CD player. (Alice in Chains, The Dave Mathews Band, Aerosmith) Just a kid.
And the nostalgia continued. All this in an eye blink, reeling in the cookie isle of a grocery store.
The next eye blink and I realized something else. It was this:
Later on, much later, around eighteen years old, my sophomore year of college, I left New York City to go to Syracuse to meet my mother for lunch. She brought my grandmother, now deceased, the matriarch of this deep Italian family, to meet me. It was a surprise. We went to Sweet Baba’s, a wood fired pizza joint, in Armory Square. It was just before Halloween. The weather was cool and dry, the foliage at its peak that year, leaves gathering in gutters in this concrete city. But sitting there across from my mother, and my mother’s mother, for the first time in my life I realized they were the same. I realized that my grandmother was growing old. That someday she would die. And I saw my mother, aged, weathered, beautiful, and aging. I told her at that moment that I wanted a ghosty cookie for dessert. She laughed. My grandmother touched my hand and said, “These are the things I also remember”, but in Italian so much more beautiful.
A week later, a message was in my mail box in my dorm room. I had a package, first class. It was from my mother. A big box of ghosty cookies with the little red candies in a big smiley face with a note saying “Share them, but only if you want.” I did share them. And I cried a little later, about how my mother remembered that I was still a little kid at heart.
Sunday was the perfect day for picking apples. The weather was warm and sunny, there was just a little breeze that made you wear a long sleeve shirt, and the air smelled like fall for the first time this year. There’s an excitement that takes hold when the leaves start falling and crunching under foot, a childlike nervousness that Christmas is coming soon and the snow will make outside quiet and moody.
My wife and I took our son for the thirty-five minute drive outside of the city of Rochester to the country, into Wayne County, the number one apple producing county in New York and home of Mott’s. We went to Lagoner Farms to ride the tractor pulled wagon, pick tree fresh apples, drink cider, and breathe in the beautiful scenery.
It was busy, as expected, and sometimes my first reaction to crowds is to recoil, becoming a little hesitant about even going, thinking that somewhere along the lines the size of the crowd will ruin the day. The bigger the group of people the better the chance that someone detestable shows up and irritates me, my acting skills have always been sub par in those situations and I often where my heart on my sleeve.
We walked around to get the feel for it and I decided to get in line for the tractor ride while Ruth followed Pi around the playground. It was the greatest playground ever, a real working farm playground with wooden swings, piles of bailed hay, and a big sandbox filled with trucks and diggers. My son was ecstatic.
I stood in line just behind a group of four. They were younger than me, but not by much and talked about how one couple was trying to have their first baby. It was nice to see them out doing something family oriented before having their first family. I know I rarely did before Pi came along. But I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation, partly because we were standing close together but also because I hated them.
They complained a lot. Pretty much about everything; how hot it was, how long this line was, how expensive the apples were, how crappy the city was, how stupid some movie was, how terrible some football game was, how awful their jobs were, how terrible their car was, how cruddy the food was at some restaurant was, and how bad, in general the world is all the time. It just didn’t seem to stop. I started getting itchy and hot.
We hadn’t been there for very long and my mood was foul. I thought about leaving, but I saw Pi having the time of his life so I tried to block it out. I was doing a miserable job of it when they decided to leave. They thought it was taking too long for the tractor to return and pick up more people.
“Why go out there and pick the same apples they already have on the front porch for the same price”?
One of the girls actually asked, “Do you guys even care about picking apples”? And everyone agreed that they didn’t and left the line. I was just happy it got shorter and quieter.
We boarded the little wagon pulled by a small tractor. The driver was a pleasant man that resembled my father. Pi even asked if it was Papa. Once we started pulling away from the farm, the sights and sounds were plenty and I started to forget about the “Fairport 4” as I nicknamed them because of a group opine about how much better Fairport is than all the other towns around Rochester as if they’re all different countries with strange new economies, currencies, and customs.
I enjoyed being out in the middle of a field, even with strangers, as we left the wagon and weaved our way past them into empty rows of trees, just the sun and the gleam of red and green apples, faint voices curling over the rustle of leaves, the occasional burst of laughter or a child yelling out for joy. We were having a great time and Pi really enjoyed taking the apples out of the tree and crunching into them, more than that, my wife and I felt “home” amid the quiet pews of trees and the alter of the country. It gave us a feeling in our hearts that we were closer to where we grew up, where our childhood memories reside, and where we finally figure to belong.
The pearl was still hidden, probably coyly peeking at me from underneath the vinegar scented apples that had fallen down to reconnect where they came from. I was lost in the day, conveniently absent minded, relaxed, and for the first time that day, happy.
We finished picking our apples and boarded the wagon to head back to the farm. They make their own hard cider, which we had before, and it’s very good, so we were headed back in to sample the new versions, sit out in the sun, let Pi play on the playground and have some late lunch. Ruth even had someone on the wagon take a family picture on the way back, the blue sky and red apples in the background looking more like a cartoon than reality.
The wagon ride was quiet, the bumps and ruts in the road were methodic, and my son was sitting contently in my lap, my left arm wrapped around his waist acting as a seat belt. I took my right hand and rested it on Ruth’s knee, her warm hand gently resting on mine and we rode on. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, and let the sun soak in.
That’s where I found it. I found the pearl right there. It was never hidden, but rather out in the open, not in the convalescence of the “Fairport 4” but rather in the very fabric of the reality of the day, a gentle Buddhist mindfulness that enlightenment doesn’t come from silently meditating alone, but can come when it’s least expected, because that’s when you’re most ready for it.
The adjective of the pearl comes from Jack Kerouac, who went searching in his infamous book “On the Road” for the same thing. Although he found it just 100 pages in. It seemed like an odd time to find what you were looking for so early in the novel, and it took me until this past Sunday to figure out what he meant.
Little pearls of wisdom can be found and saved for remembrance somewhere later in life. My pearl in the apple orchard will remain in my mind’s pocket, and someday, I’ll be old, or sick, or both, and pull that pearl out, running it through my fingers and it will feel the same; the same weight from my little boy on my lap, the warmth of my wife’s hand on mine, the gentle rhythmic bounce and hum of the tractor, the unmistakable feeling of the bright, beautiful autumn sun warming my bones, and I’ll be happy all over again.