Monday, August 15, 2016

Earning My Clownshoes

I shouldn't be writing this. I'm so tired, and I have ten thousand things to do.

But there was a convention two years ago that had me crying for days on the back end, because I knew even then that it was a singular, amazing, never-to-be-repeated event. I tripped over another one this weekend, and it has knocked my emotional teeth out.

On the face of it, it was a pretty straightforward exercise. Fly up to Portland, stay with my legendary lifemate Jennie, and together she and I would go to the Willamette Writers Conference. They set me up to teach one two-part class on Sunday, and the rest of the time was free. So Jennie and I decided to do some volunteering. It was all set up to be a fun, productive time.

This part was decidedly more fun than productive.
It started out pretty ordinary. We did the volunteer orientation on Wednesday night, and then I got to help with pitch desk setup on Thursday while she was at work. We were supposed to work in the bookstore together for most of the weekend.

Then they needed an emcee for one of the "Pitch for the Prize" events on Thursday night, so I signed up for that. (It was a blast - gave me an excuse to reprise the 'world's worst pitch' from DFWcon 2015.) Then on Friday morning they asked if I would work the pitch corral. You know how every flight you take requires a flight attendant to first give the schpiel about how to buckle your seat belt and where the emergency exits are?  This was that, but for a roomful of writers waiting to go in and pitch to an agent. The main difference is that instead of being ignored by people on their smartphones, you're talking to thirty desperate creatives on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

And somehow that became my entire weekend. Every ten minutes on the dot, we started the pep rally all over again.

Welcome to the Hunger Games, career introvert edition! Who's here to pitch to a film or TV agent? Excellent - District 1, head to the right. Who's here for a literary agent? District 2, to the left! You will enter here, through the Door of Destiny. When your time is up, you will exit to the left, through the Portal of Glory, smeared with the blood of your enemies and the last burning shreds of your self-doubt. Take a moment to prepare yourself: fly-check, cry-check, phone-on-silent-check. Good? Good. Now rise up to meet your destiny, word-warriors - your time begins as soon as this door opens. No shame, no surrender, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

It was fun in the moment - fun to talk to people about their story or listen to their Texas jokes or see pictures of the dogs or kids waiting for them back home. We joked about turning this whole pitch thing into a drinking game and shared horror stories about the wild speed-dating scrums from other conferences. And when someone came back waving a business card and vibrating with giddy disbelief, they wafted their good luck all over the people still waiting to go in. It was an incredible rush - the kind of wire-tight camaraderie you get among people who are all waiting to parachute out of an airplane. As the weekend wore on, the hugs and thank-yous piled up.

Then during Sunday's lunch, Jennie texted to say that they needed me in the ballroom ASAP. I thought something had gone seriously pear-shaped. In hindsight, I should have known better.

As usual, the only pear-shape was me.

The thing I want to emphasize here is that there was no awards presentation going on. This was not part of some kind of pre-planned ceremony. There were the usual lunch announcements - room changes, deadline reminders - and then I was up on stage, being named "sheriff" of the Willamette Writers Conference, and getting my badge pinned with a Portland flag.

I'm siting here groping for a way to keep this post from becoming an exercise in self-congratulation. That's really not what I'm trying to say. I keep thinking about what a fantastically fun, well-organized event this was, and how warmly the conference committee bent the rules and folded Jennie and I into the tribe (technically only WW members can volunteer), and how glad we both are that they took a risk on us. This conference has catapulted both of us forward in our respective life-goals.

Chief among them: finding hot sauce in barrel-mounted spigot-pail form.
But like... I do a lot of conferences and conventions. I'm used to teaching classes and moderating panels and getting compliments on my work. I think what makes this feel so revolutionary is that it's the first time I've gotten to be with someone during a potentially pivotal moment in their life and say with the voice of experience,"don't worry - you got this." I know it's small compared to what a delivery nurse or a crisis hotline operator does, but right now, today, it's the biggest thing in my world. Who would have thought that being the rodeo clown could be more fun than actually riding the bull?

And what REALLY gets me is that it almost didn't happen. I almost said, "I can't afford to give away 40 hours for the fun of it - I'll just sit in a corner and catch up on work." (Makes you think about how many insanely talented people aren't getting heard because they really, literally can't afford that time... but that's a separate rant.)

And to think: I nearly missed out on meeting Benedict Cumberbatch!
So I'm going to take this as a sign that I'm moving in the right direction - that if I keep dumping passion out into the world and looking for the places where it's reciprocated, good things will keep happening - that "audacious generosity" really can be a valid career strategy. (And if you're sitting there thinking "How could you have any doubt about any of that?", all I can say is, it's easy to beat up on yourself when you're four months out from a book launch and still haven't gotten around to planning for it.)

So... thank you for everything, Willamette friends - for an incredible conference, a fantastic initiation rite, and a sorely-needed spiritual affirmation. You've wrecked me in all the best ways, and since there's no riding off into the sunset when you're already out on the west coast, you better believe I'll be back.

Remember, y'all - it's a trash CAN, not a trash CAN'T.

Friday, July 29, 2016

One Night in Sixes - The Annotated Edition!

Yes, today is Friday. And that deserves a shout-out. But I'm celebrating extra hard today, because it's ALSO the two-year anniversary of One Night in Sixes' release. I could write a whole post about what I've learned in that time - and maybe I will!

But again: today is Friday. A day for classroom cupcakes, cutting out of work early, and staying up late. So let me pile on to your already-awesome weekend plans with a special goodie. Today, I'm giving away...

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Yep - you read that right. This here is the real deal - a copy of the book hand-annotated by yours truly, with notes and Easter Eggs and translations galore. Here's a few spoiler-free sneak previews:

Are you excited? I'm excited. My good friend Jodi Thompson even helped me set this up so that there's multiple ways to enter - and the biggest fans have the best odds. Go, click, enter - you have one magical week to maximize your fanhood before we pick a winner!

The eyes of the a'Krah lit up at the mention of horses. Vuchak tried to hide it, nodding in reserved contemplation, but Weisei clapped his hands to his knees in thunderstruck enthusiasm.

"Afvik," he said with a tipsy bright smile, "do you like to play games?"

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The First and Only EdCon

I was getting ready to go to a memorial service today when I noticed this weird, bitter taste in my mouth. I brushed again, drank water, chewed gum - nothing helped.

So naturally, I thought "well, it probably means I'm about to stroke out and die. I should hurry up and get to the service so someone can call 9-1-1 for me." (If anyone's looking for the secret sauce of my life, there it is: gratuitous anxiety + can-do pragmatism.)

Anyway, the service was for Ed Dravecky, the much-beloved confather of WhoFest, FenCon, ORAC, and more fannish organizations than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. The memorial was called EdCon (of course!), and it truly was a grand convention: food, panels, open mic, wonderful tributes all around. Over 150 people packed in to every corner - standing room only. (Let me tell you: you haven't seen nerd-love until you've seen a man so overcome that he gives up eulogizing with one hand over his eyes, and the other lifted in a "live long and prosper" Vulcan salute.)

And like... you guys. I'll never be as infinitely knowledgeable as Ed, or as well-read, or as massively in love with indoor soccer. His accomplishments can't belong to anyone else. But my god, I want to be that good. I want to be that inspiring, that well-remembered - I want to be a uniter and a doer and a big-hearted, infinitely-patient touchstone of human warmth and kindness. *I want to be that guy.*
The real shame is that Ed didn't get nearly enough innings. He was only 47. If I make it as long as he did, that gives me 14 more years to live up to his example.

Challenge accepted.


(Also, the weird taste in my mouth is gone now. No guarantees, but I reckon I have at least a 50-50 chance of surviving the night.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Different Kind of Call Goes Out

Okay, so you know the “this is my 2AM phone call” post from a few months back?

This is not that. This is not an emergency or a crisis or a disaster. This is a state-of-my-union address, and... let’s say a casting call.

Today is June 27th. Six months exactly until Dreams of the Eaten comes out. And the almost-perfect halfway point of 2016.

This is how I've spent my time this year, in hours.
I’ve worked hard this year, and with good results. So far, I have:
  1. Started a “secret” coalition of DFW-area writers groups. We have seventeen in the fold so far, with more still to add – and we are beginning to do great things.
  2. Begun a new program for the DFW Writers Workshop, called the Writers Bloc – a fledgling once-per-month education and social group, free and open to the public. It’s still a work in progress, but we’ve had great response so far.
  3. Taught at my first paid gig – a writers retreat – and been invited to another one (which is going to be awesome - you should come!)
  4. Led a three-month "speakers workshop" to prepare new instructors to teach at DFWcon 2016 - which is always one of the highlights of my year
  5. Started teaching for the Writers Path at SMU here in Dallas. I’m having such a good time – this is one of my proudest professional accomplishments to date.
  6. Helped Kristen stay in her house. (Actually, you-all have done that – I’m just banging the gong)
  7. Initiated a partnership with the Dallas County Community College District - too early and still too tentative to call a win, but one that has the potential to change the entire DFW literary scene
  8. Started teaching my own one-day writing workshops – irregularly, but to great enthusiasm
  9. Formed a crew of convention ambassadors from the DFW Writers Workshop – a bad-ass panelist posse if there ever was one
  10. Finished the edits for Dreams of the Eaten... almost.
And I haven't even gotten rolling yet. I haven't even started putting together the fan-swag and writer-merch I want to sell - still want to create a booth-sharing con-going author-coalition - am determined to get this "Page it Forward" free first chapters project off the ground.

You notice, though, how many of those list items up there start with the word “started,” “begun”, etc. – and the one “finished” thing isn’t even finished yet.

And what I’ve learned in the first half of 2016 is that I’m not going to make it through the second if I keep this up. I’m pushing hard because these are things I want to do for a living – things I want to spend my life doing. And if I’m going to stay in the game for the next 30 or 40 or 50 years (and I plan to!), I need my health. My friends. My marriage. All of which have been back-burnered for months now – none of which can afford to stay there.

This is not my to-do list.
This is one of my ten to-do lists.
But the other thing I learned, while we were making the big push for Kristen, is that it's not always a selfish thing to ask for help. Sometimes it's the hardest, bravest, kindest, most generous thing you can do - for yourself and for the people you're asking.

So this is me, taking the plunge, asking for help. Here in approximate order of urgency are the things I need.
  1. A digital me. A carnival barker – promoter – cyber-bard – whatever you want to call it. I am an organizer, teacher, motivator, and thoroughly analog human. I am not a promoter or an e-socializer. I need someone who can tweet, face, blog, and email so that the rest of the world can find out about these great deeds-in-progress. Maybe two someones (one for my books, and one for my writer-doings). And I’m happy to pay for that, but I don’t want to dig up some rando out of the phone book. I would much rather work with somebody who’s already drunk the Kool-Aid – who’s as excited about this stuff as I am. (You can buy a person’s time, y’all, but enthusiasm is a priceless, unsellable treasure.)

  2. Book reviews. The kind you write yourself, on Amazon and Goodreads, and the kind book bloggers write on their websites. This is the one kind of promotion I can't (ethically) buy or barter for myself. Getting Sixes past the 50-review mark on Amazon would be terrific. Getting Medicine to 25 would be fantastic. And getting *any* book blogger of size to pick up this series would be unutterably wonderful.
  3. Stockpiling pre-orders for this one would be good too.
  4. Speaking opportunities. I want to be on your podcast, at your conference, in your bookstore. Anything that involves speaking out loud, in real time (in person or online) is 100% my jam - and travel and expense may not be the barriers you think they are. Hit me up. Connect me. We’ll figure it out.
  5. Press. Publicity. Especially the kind that doesn't involve me having to sit down and gin up a 1,000-word blog post on my own initiative. (I can do those. I will do those - especially if your name is the Mary Sue, io9, John Scalzi, or Cracked. But they take a lot out of me, and I don't have the juice to do guest posts on the regular anymore.) If you can do the chronicling, I will provide all the insightful, hilarious, Textacular content you can handle.
  6. To date, I have not been on TV. But I've definitely been near TV.
  7. An artist - one who has enjoyed my books. Again, I will happily pay for time and talent - but it would be really great to have enthusiasm come pre-installed.
  8. Website help - especially someone who knows their way around a shopping cart. (And Shawn, Jonathan: thank you so much for putting yourselves forward for the Droughtworld website. I'm absolutely going to take you up on it. This bat-signal is for the events/workshops side of things.)
  9. Classroom/workshop spaces in DFW. They need to be suitable for video presentations (I can provide all the A/V equipment), ideally able to seat up to 25, available nights and weekends, and - here is the critical part - okay with me accepting money on the premises. I'm happy to give a percentage of what I make - so if you have an office or big back room that's going unused after-hours and want to see if we can help each other out, please hit me up.
  10. An A/V pro in DFW. Someone we can hire to help us to create professional-quality recordings of our Writers Bloc classes (one Saturday a month in Irving.)
Yeah, I know - it's a hell of a list. And the delicious irony of all this communal ruckus-raising I've been doing over the past couple years is that I've surrounded myself with people who are as driven as I am - who are stretching themselves to the max to chase their own dreams. It makes for a fantastic friends-circle, but doesn't leave any of us with much room to help each other out.

So for all of you wonderful people who would walk through fire and brimstone for me if only you could find five spare minutes to fire up the coals - don't worry. And don't let your chronic altruism sucker you into overcommitting yourself. I need your friendship more than anything on this list - and in that, you've already given me a great gift.

Including but not limited to the gift of shenanigans.

But if you do see something here that gets your inner overachiever all fired up ("Ooh! Me! Pick me!"), and you genuinely do have the bandwidth for it - please let me know. Here or email (tex at or smoke signals or a brick through my front window. And when you do, let me know how this will fit into your bigger picture - because so often we can do for each other what we can't do for ourselves, and I would love to be part of your success, too.

My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait - just you wait...

Friday, June 3, 2016

Con or Bust or Else

Okay, time for a happy one.

So I went to ConQuest this past weekend, which proceeded to treat me and everyone else like nerdy superstars. (Seriously, it's a terrific con. If you want aggressively welcoming bookish SFF, go.)

Per my usual custom, I waited until the last minute to figure out bunking arrangements, and asked on the ConQuest FB page if anyone needed a roommate. Carol Cao answered the call. We got to talking, and I asked her what took her all the way up to Kansas City. She said, "well, I applied for funding through this organization that provides assistance for fans of color to attend conventions, and -"

"- oh, you mean Con or Bust, right?!" (Me, gleefully interrupting)

"Yes! You know about it?"

"DO I." (NB: I do. It's my main charity.)

And it was the most aptly-timed conversation ever, because that was the last day to enter something in the annual Con or Bust auction, and I was seriously considering bailing this year. Don't have time, ruinously tired, need to stop adding more stuff to my plate, etc.

But here was a CoB recipient, offering me hotel space after my own total lack of forethought or planning. And you can't let generosity end there.

So now I have a new friend (she's going to Italy in a week, y'all! Cheer her on!) And now YOU have 48 hours to bid on these wonderful things:
  • an ARC of my third book, Dreams of the Eaten
  • a "director's cut" author-annotated edition of my second book, Medicine for the Dead
  • a "personal training session" for writers
All right here, right now.

And just in case you were wondering - yes, those are our excited faces.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Requiem for a Dane

Once upon a time, like five years ago, my mom lost 100 pounds. Not 10. 100.

Obviously, you have to celebrate big for a thing like that. So Allison and I agreed to meet up at Party City and go buy some of those special number balloons. I walked, since it was right behind my apartment, and she drove.

So we went in, got the balloons (huge shiny things!), and went back out to her car. Whereupon I discovered that she had filled up the ENTIRE back seat with Pete the Wonder-Dane. (Because Pete, I guess, but mostly because Al.)

That was when we discovered that Pete was deeply, deeply not okay with balloons. (We thought nothing could possibly be scarier than plastic bags and empty pizza boxes. We were wrong.)
So I held the balloons out the passenger side window while Allison drove at like ten miles an hour. Picture it, y'all: a tiny white Toyota clown-car making its own parade route down the street, sharing its bobbly silver "100" joy with the world while our harlequin Marmaduke farted anxiously in the back.

But despite our best efforts, the balloon strings broke and we lost them. So we went back to the store to buy new ones.

And I guess when you're a professional party-balloonist and the same two customers come back in the space of twenty minutes to order the same three balloons, you wonder about it. And when you ask, and we tell you the story, and you immediately have to rush out to meet the dog in question... well, when the dog in question is Pete, apparently there's nothing else you can do but give us a new set of balloons, free-gratis. It's probably just as well he didn't know that his own adorable melty Dali face prompted that second round of helium anxieties.

And that was Pete the nebbish adventure-dog. He walked parades and went shoe-shopping with Dad. He hiked and man-bonded with Alex. He moved up to Oklahoma with Al, and commuted back home with her every weekend like gassy clockwork. When she rescued Ripley, Pete helped teach him how to dog. And when she got married, Pete ran down the aisle after her, two rings secured in a drool-proof silk sachet around his neck.

Pete went on his last adventure today. 8 is a pretty good number for a dane, although of course we wish it were another shiny silver 100. And the thing I keep thinking about is something that Al and I decided a few years back: that pets are exercise for your emotions – especially the ones that don't get enough play in your everyday life. It's good that we remember how to roll in the monkey grass and run away from the vacuum cleaner and greet our favorite people with a full-throated, vociferous moo. And even though we don't enjoy it, it's good for us to invite this great, inevitable sadness into our lives – to know that the price for that big-footed puppy in the laundry basket will be a tremendous, piercing grief, and bring him home anyway, because we've already decided that we would rather lose a friend than miss out on one.

So here's to Pete, the Rick Moranis of dogs. Here's to Al, the greatest dog-mom I know. And here's to the love and friendship and carpet-stains that live on beyond our earthly tenure, and bring out the best in all of us.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Sisterhood of the Unravelling Plans

It's a hell of a thing, having a sister.

First you fight like cats and dogs, and if you're not getting in trouble for knocking her teeth out, you're yelling at her for eating all of the (insert literally anything here) even when you'd told her not to. And you just know she'll be your annoying, exasperating nemesis forever.

Then she turns fifteen and she's dating boys and gone ALL the time, and one time you stay up literally all night long to keep her from sneaking out of the house, and she's wicked pissed at you. And you just know that as soon as she's out of high school, she'll be gone for good and you won't be a family anymore.

Then at twenty-three, she decides she's going to be a vet. She gets a degree in biology. She takes all of the classes, gets all of the grades, applies to all of the vet schools – and keeps getting rejected. For four years.

Then she gives up on the dream. She says she's not going to be a vet, and you wonder what she could possibly do instead, because you've never tried and failed that hard at anything in your life. And you just know she's never going to make it.

Then – by which I mean now, yesterday, this weekend – her charming ubermensch of a husband drives your whole family up to Oklahoma to watch her walk across the stage and receive her Masters in International Agriculture, which is officially becoming a PhD in Veterinary Biomedical Science. She's not going to spend her life neutering cats and dogs. She's going to cure equine diabetes. She's going to replenish the oceans with tuna. She's going to save the goddamn world.

And this is why I don't believe in happily ever after – because it implies there's no more story left to tell. It erases all of the messy middles, the hard, unrewarded work, the life-changing chokepoints that force you to revise yourself and move forward.

Give me long enough and I'll find a new thing to worry about, a new reason why everything is hopeless. But I won't wish for a straight, easy road. When you're related to Allison, there's no such thing as happily ever after. There is only boldly forward – usually in a cloud of dog hair and fruity shampoo. And I just know it's going to be a hell of a ride.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Running Up the Down Escalator

All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was the first night of DFWcon, and there was nothing but a downward escalator standing between me and the party upstairs. Who's going to let a little workout get between them and cake?

Here's a little-known fact about escalators, though: they don't stand still. And when you get about three-quarters of the way up and your thighs catch wise to your cardio-treachery, your oxygen-starved brain starts thinking, "hey, that's all right - I'll just rest for a second."

And that's when true cost of your little escalark becomes clear.

It wasn't pretty, but I made it. #noregrets
That's about where I am these days. I've been charging hard up the stairs for a couple months now, and I'm so ruinously tired - but I'm not there yet, and there's no quitting without losing the progress I've made so far.

I got Kristen's Patreon launched, but still need to find another $450/month to cover her bases.

I did DFWcon - maybe better to say that DFWcon did me - but still need to turn that momentum into finally, actually running my own classes.

I got the Writers Bloc started (with a whole lot of help from my partner in organizational crime), but still need to find it a permanent home, and a new set of speakers for the summer.

I turned in Dreams of the Eaten, but still need to revise it, clean it up, and add the various bells and whistles (map, index, etc) before the end of the month.

I made this great plan to promote it when it comes out at Christmas, but none of that is going to mean bupkis if I don't actually start submitting, applying, and travel-planning pronto.

(And if you're wondering what in the hell is the Writers Bloc, or since when Eaten got a release date, that is because I am doing a lousy job of promoting any of this.)

And man, you guys. I am just so tired. It's mostly happy-tired, of course. None of these projects are disasters or tragedies; I threw myself at all of them voluntarily, and so far they're all bearing fruit.

I just miss the other parts of life. Cooking and going for walks and catching up with my friends. Doing things with the Dude. Sleeping through the night. Some things really are backsliding down the escalator - diet, physical therapy, all that good stuff - and I really need to pick them back up before they hit bottom.

So I'm sitting here at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, eating a reheated cheeseburger and writing this tiny little testament to the overclocked life. No, it's not healthy. No, it's not long-term sustainable. But there's party-cake waiting upstairs, and damn it, I'm going to get me some. Onward and upward, y'all.

You don't find your calling. You fight for it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Indispensable Word

You know, one of the best, most vexing things about Latin is that it is so dang ambiguous.

Take the word pes or pedis, for example. It's where we get pedestrian, pedestal, pedal, and so many other foot-related words. But for the Romans, the term encompassed the whole lower leg generally - there wasn't a special word for things like "calf" or "shin". (How this became the language of medicine is really beyond me.)

But the wonderful thing about this ambiguity is that it let Latin speakers enjoy multiple meanings simultaneously. We do this in English too, to a much lesser degree. "Season" can mean the time of year, or spicing your food. "Mine" can mean an excavation, or something that belongs to you. So much of the most beautiful Latin poetry really can't be translated, because putting it into English requires choosing just one of a word's multiple meanings, and destroying the others.

So gratia seems like a good word for today. It means grace, for one thing. You hear it in phrases like Maria, gratia plena (Mary, full of grace). It also means "for the sake of" - which you invoke every time you use the abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia, or "for the sake of example"). It's also thankfulness (gratitude), pleasure (gratifying), kindness (graciousness), and something freely given (gratis, gratuity). The phrase in gratiam even means "friendship".

Tecum in gratiam fui et semper ero.
This is something I did not appreciate at the time. Let me tell you: when it's already midnight and you have thirty more lines to translate before 9AM, ambiguity is not your friend.

But after this week, I am revisiting that.

English is by many counts a million-word language - a fact I've enjoyed and extolled to my students. After all, we don't just have a foot. We have a foot, ankle, heel, arch, ball, shin, calf, toes - some of us even have cankles! With so many words, it's easy not to get attached to any particular one. So if the word "diversity" gets too loaded, for example, we'll move on to "inclusiveness" or "multiculturalism" with no trouble. Because when you have a surfeit of anything, no single one is very valuable. When you have a million words, or a million workers, you might not even notice when a few of them get damaged or thrown away.

This is the dark side of plenty - one that we as a culture are seriously struggling with. We have more than at any time in our history - more people, more freedoms, more entertainments, more possibilities - and yet we've never felt worth less.

And I think in Latin we see the remedy for that. This old, sacred language carries old, sacred values. It was born from a time when people were precious, though not all well-treated - when everybody was valuable, because every body was valuable. It's been enshrined in a faith that says we are more than what we do, that we have worth beyond our works. And it lives on in us today, in our mouths and thoughts, as we go on blithely speaking daisy-chains of Latin children and grandchildren. This enduring language does not lose words easily. You can't cut out a word like gratia without leaving a bleeding hole in the lexicon.

So maybe it's not too late. Maybe our culture can re-learn to value its people the same way a language values its words - by giving them more than one meaning. Kristen was a disposable nonentity as long as she was a case number, a patient file, an unfortunate statistic. She has all too easily fallen through the cracks. But when you-all got to see her as a teacher, as a terrible-cat-lover, as a roommate and a friend and an underdog success story, she became real and precious to you - as multifaceted and meaningful as the Latin gratia. And now she can't be lost or forgotten about, because she is too many things to too many people.

So that's it, you guys. That's my plan. When we're well, we can be our own presenters. We can share as much of ourselves as we choose to. But when we're sick or hurt or grieving, we need someone else to communicate us - and if you're reading this right now, you have that power. You can be someone's avatar - communicate a person we otherwise wouldn't see or care about. This is how we can stay real to each other. This is how we make sure we don't get crushed by the engine of plenty.

Kristen is my indispensable word - my gratia, my grace. And now you-all are hers.

P.S.: If you haven't been able to sponsor her on Patreon but still want to get updates, please get me your email address (here, Twitter, Facebook, or tex at, and I'll be happy to include you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's Latin for "I Need You Now"

You know, I had been wondering what this blog is for – whether it matters, what I have that's even worth putting here.

Suffice to say that I'm no longer wondering.  And I am about to need you guys more than I ever have. So if you've noticed me being especially raggedy-edged over the last few weeks – well, strap in, because here's what's up. 

Some of y'all have heard me tell the story about my first day of Latin class in grad school. The professor was explaining the basic declensions to us: nouns work like this, adjectives and adverbs do this.

And I turned to the student next to me and said "what's an adjective?"

Don't even get me started on the pronouns.
Because somehow I'd gotten through twelve years of high school, four years of undergrad, and a year and a half of grad school – that's two and a half novels, a bachelor's in history, and three-quarters of a master's in literature – without ever getting a clue about grammar. I just winged it in English class and it worked.

Until suddenly it didn't. I needed that class to graduate, and there was no way I was going to be able to do a year's worth of Latin AND catch up on English, all in eight weeks.

But that student next to me saved my bacon. She invited me to study with her. We shared colored highlighters and quizzed each other for hours on end. We became great friends. And after I graduated that spring, we moved in together.

And it was glorious.
(My photography skills considerably less so.)
And she kept right on saving me. She was the first Christian to tell me that I was enough, just as I was, without converting or changing anything. I can't tell you what that did for me. She was a spiritual comfort when my grandparents died - the first time I'd ever lost anyone. More than that, I was 24 years old and had never lived anywhere but home, with my parents, in the same city I was born in. I'd never had a full-time job or paid bills. I didn't know anything about being an adult.

Kristen, on the other hand, was a case study in realness. She grew up in North Dakota. Her childhood was dysfunctional, bordering on abusive. She left home at 18 and drove alone to a Catholic college in California that she'd never even visited, because it was her one chance at a better life.  She lived in half of a stranger's garage. She changed adult diapers at a camp for the handicapped. And when she graduated, she piled her things in the car and moved again to Texas, chasing her dream of a PhD in literature.

Well, she got it. She also got a kitten from the animal shelter (despite my protests), which she absolutely adores.

Believe me when I say that the trash can suited her.
And when I got married and our time as roommates ended, she went right back to living in back rooms and spare bedrooms while fought to make her student loan minimums and put herself through a teachers certification program.

Needless to say, we were DELIGHTED when she was hired by a local charter school – as a classics professor, no less. She was a part-time spring replacement, but they were so happy with her that they had already signed on to make her full time in the fall. She was getting to teach Latin – a rare privilege – to some of the brightest students in our community. She joined the DFW Writers Workshop. She had written a novel. After all her hard work and struggle, she was finally living the dream.

This is a close-up photo of a classroom projector screen casing. It's powdered steel. And when Kristen pulled down the screen on an otherwise-unexceptional Wednesday, she found that out the hard way: when this thing falls, it will crush a human skull.

That was two years ago. Kristen has long since lost her job. She still can't drive, or use a computer, or walk without a cane. She suffers from chronic migraines, spinal compression, and balance issues. Most frustratingly, the vision problems caused by the injury means that she often can't read. I don't have to tell you what that means for a writer.

We are still friends, of course. I take her to vestibular therapy on Wednesday mornings, and sometimes we'll share a frozen pizza from the grocery store afterwards. She can't read my books, but she interrogates me about the triumphs and travails of author-life with passionate, vicarious delight. We crack raunchy jokes together.

Then on the way home from therapy a couple months ago, she turned serious. "Do you think you could help me research no-kill shelters for my cat?" she asked. "I think I'm about to lose my apartment, and I don't want to surrender her somewhere where she might get euthanized."

And guys. I just can't tell you what a gut-check that was.

I mean, for one thing, we're talking about the world's worst cat. She is an objectively terrible animal. She pees on the carpet, attacks children, and looks like Winston Churchill. Literally nobody but Kristen could or will love her.

Much less throw her cat birthday parties.

More than that, though, I had not realized just what kind of dire straits she was in. I knew that she couldn't use her own medical insurance to pay for treatment. I knew that workers' comp was giving her the runaround. But there is this gene in our shared American DNA that says you don't talk about money, you don't rely on charity, and if you ask for help, it had better be something you can pay back in kind: a reference for a job application, someone to watch your kids, someone to drive you home from the doctor. No matter what, the checkbook of favors and obligations has to stay balanced.

And for two years, Kristen has done exactly that. She lived off her savings. She lived off her credit cards. She lived off support (practical and financial) from friends and strangers the local Catholic community.  And when all that was finally exhausted, she didn't come to me and ask, "can you help me with my rent?" She said "can you help me find a shelter that won't kill my cat?"

And I said, "No."

No, I will not help you find a shelter. No, I will not let you surrender your home. No, I will not let the world do this to you. You are thirty-five years old, and you have earned your 500 square feet of independence.

"The line must be drawn here. This far - no further."

I know that Kristen is not special. I know we all know somebody who has worked hard, played by all the rules, and been ground up and pulverized for their trouble. There is a sickness in our system that has grown so deep and pervasive that sometimes it feels hopeless to try and fix it. It is terribly easy to do nothing, because we can't do everything.

So here I am, writing to you in the space between nothing and everything. I have to help my friend. She took care of me when I needed it, and now it's my turn. But my effort alone isn't enough. By myself, I am not enough.

So I'm cashing in my chips – right here, right now. If I've helped you in some way, if I've banked any goodwill with you, if you've ever wanted to do something nice for me – please, please help me help her. Go to her Patreon page and add what you can. A dollar a month. Five dollars a month. Give her anything besides the nothing she has now.

And then do one more thing. After you've become a patron, you will be able to add a "patron post" to her page, where everyone can see it. Write there and tell her about the Kristen in your life – the person who played fair and got the short end of the stick, the person who deserved so much more than they received, the person whose life you would have done anything to fix. Her life is so small right now, and she needs to hear that she's not alone.

She is mine. Who's yours?
Today is her birthday. Saturday is the two-year anniversary of her accident. In between those two things, I want to make this right. I want to pick her up for her doctor's appointment and say "guess what?"

And when I do, I will read to her every word that you write, about every person you've wanted to help. And we will make it our shared mission to tell the world about them. No, we can't do everything – but every one of us can do something. This is the other, better part of our American DNA, the truth we feel in our bones: if enough of us do something, we can change everything.

Te egero nunc.