Religion and Suffering: a Lemon (Drop)

I didn’t want to bother my mother—that’s what I remember most. I was choking on a lemon drop in the back seat of her Dodge Spirit, but she was driving and I didn’t want to bother her.



Bicycle Race

Even before I was born, my mother had to square with the fact that I might die.

Her contractions started about a month too early, and as a premature baby I was at risk for a whole bunch of things. The most terrifying possibility was that my under-developed lungs weren’t world-worthy, and I might suffocate when I left the womb. The doctors had my mom sign a waiver that she wouldn’t sue, because in working to better my odds of getting oxygen they were also making cerebral palsy more likely. I’m safe in saying that everyone is happy with that decision, as I’m alive to write about it.

Still, my mother had seen the Grim Reaper over her shoulder, gunning—scything?—for her baby. They played high-stakes tug-o-war for a while as I, the trophy child, sat by in a clear plastic crib, wrapped up in tubes and tape. When at last my mother wrested me from the bastard she stormed from the hospital for the last time and didn’t look back. Whatever else she did, she had determined never again to let Death near her daughter.

In winter, I was that kid wearing a full-body snowsuit so thick that I couldn’t put my arms down. Underneath, I wore a sweater, sweatpants, and a jacket. I remember longing so much to actually feel the cold that I bolted into the night jacketless—just for a second—from the sliding door of our kitchen. I came back as soon as I was shouted for, but I had a moment of freedom and it was worth it.

In summer, I rode my bike, a scooter, and even—for one ill-advised moment—a pogo stick. But on top of the standard-issue helmet, I was required by maternal law to wear elbow- and knee-pads. If I was going to go out into a world where Death walked free, I was going to do it in armor.

For a long time, I went along. I was a Good KidTM, operating indefinitely under the assumptions that 1) Mom was always honest, 2) Mom was always looking out for me, and 3) Mom probably knew best anyway, so whatever. Then, one day, I forgot the elbow- and knee-pads.

She didn’t notice. Then I started skipping them on purpose. But hey, I still wore my helmet. Right about then was when I started pulling stupid stunts.

It started with the stairs. We lived in a split-level condo, so on either side of the long building there was a big hill. On the right, there was a sidewalk that led from the front parking lot to the back one. In-between, in order to navigate the hill, the sidewalk broke up into three steps. Each one was far enough from the previous one to fit a bicycle. So, on that pad-less day, I rode down the stairs.

I did it slowly the first time, certain that some law of physics beyond my comprehension would immediately bring about my death simply because I was doing something I was not supposed to do. Navigating each step was a shock to my system: first the climbing anticipation as the wheel approached a step, then overtook it, hovering over nothing; and then the crash that shook the bike and me.

Everything rattled. Then everything was still. And I hadn’t died.

Soon I was riding circuits around the condo. No stopping, no slowing down. From there, I started trying to tighten my bike turns in the parking lots. I remember—though perhaps I remember wrongly—one time brushing the side of my sneaker (which was on the bike pedal) against the ground during a turn, and not falling over.

Down the other side of the condos, instead of lawn, was a bunch of trees. There was sidewalk there, too, but it just ran in a long, somewhat steep decline. Here and there old tree roots broke up, through the cement, for tripping over. I used to ride full-speed down that hill, bumping over the cracks and the roots, until I flew off the sidewalk at the bottom and rode a victory lap through the big puddle that always gathered in the waiting parking lot after a good rain. It was wonderful.

One time, I rode so hard up onto my mother’s lawn that I flew off the bike seat and into the handlebars. My chest ached for days. I scraped my hands, skinned my knees, and scared myself. Finally, I realized what my mother had known from the first: in everything I did, I might die.

The knowledge was liberating. It gave my life value, because it could be taken away.

The pain was liberating. It made my body a real thing: weak because it sustained injuries, but strong because it could withstand them.

I wasn’t going to live forever, and I wasn’t just my brain. Those were the two things I learned out on my bicycle. I had limits—of control, time, pain thresholds—and the real joy of existence is exploring all that lies between them and me. Maybe even pushing them.

A little.

On (Captain) Jack Sparrow, Dr. Frank N. Furter, and the 3-Day Novel Contest

I was a late 80’s baby and a 90’s kid, so some of my childhood was computer-free. I spent my time playing in dirt, playing Super Nintendo, riding my bicycle, and (not to be redundant) listening to Queen.

I wrote an on-going story in a notebook. It was called Dog Vader, and it was about this teenage boy who turned into a dog to fight evildoers with his other dog-morphing friends. It was a reactionary story. Jaws was never my scene and I don’t like Star Wars, so I took the moniker of a certain Lucas villain, riffed on it in my ignorant, childish way, and made a story I could appreciate.

I had also been watching a lot of Sailor Moon at the time.

The first notebook I used was very thin, and robin’s egg blue. I drew Dog Vader on the cover with a Sharpie: a disembodied dog-head with his whole eyeballs shaded black (He had a body. I just couldn’t draw one.). When I filled that notebook, I wrote a sequel. This was in a much thicker two- or three-subject notebook, hunter green. Then, for the finale of the trilogy I graduated myself to a three-ring binder and just kept putting more sheets in there until the story was done. By the end, I even had my best friend in on it, writing pieces and integrating her own characters and illustrations. The binder was fuzzy, and pale like faded jeans.

I remember these details because I spent a lot of time with those notebooks. I used to listen to Now 4 over and over while I wrote, because somehow All the Small Things (Blink 182) and Larger than Life (Backstreet Boys) and This Time Around (Hanson) had become integral to the story, like a soundtrack—like theme music. And no, I did not just look up what was on the Now 4 CD. You can, though; I know I’m right.

When my family got a computer for the house, it was—as it was for many—mostly to get access to the Internet. The benefits for kids were many and varied, with whole new vistas of pretend possibilities (via AOL chat rooms), socializing (AIM), gaming (Neopets, anyone? Anyone?), and the transformative first-time encounter with porn.

I spent hours and hours in our basement-turned-family room, on our new computer. My mom would come down sometimes to switch the laundry. One day she asked me what I was up to—not in a suspicious way, but just trying to relate to me, catch up on my very important kid concerns, etcetera.

I said, “I’m writing.” She looked over, and sure enough I had Microsoft Word open, I was on page one hundred and something, and there were paragraphs and passages of dialogue and chapter breaks.

I didn’t think it was weird. She probably did.

I wrote an entire novel in that basement, and I have always regretted its disappearance. Somewhere in the middle of a move, the purchase of a dog, and several surgeries (mine), the document was lost forever. It was called “The World I Created,” and it was full of people named things like Blade and Mrs. Strawberry, but it was a real story. It wasn’t perfect—of course not, I was a little kid and I’d never written anything that long before. But it was complete. I finished it, you know? It began. It changed. And then it ended.

I never really stopped writing for pleasure after that, but neither did I finish anything I wrote. I had another story in my head—I have lots of stories in my head—but it was hard to get it out. You can’t use all the peanut butter in the jar. You scrape out as much as you can, but you never, ever get it all. You just buy a new jar of peanut butter and start using that. Writing was like that for me.

I apologize. I’m still sleep-deprived from writing a novel in three days. And I’m getting to that. Let’s just go a little further down memory lane first.

High school came, and I made a couple more friends. Also important, I saw two very different, very awesome films. One was The Rocky Horror Picture Show (actually, I saw this much earlier, in 6th or 7th grade) and Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. I immediately determined, as anyone would, that if any two characters were ever meant to team up to face the world together, it was Dr. Frank N. Furter and Captain Jack Sparrow. They both consider themselves the center of the universe, they both have questionable morals, they both swing both ways (Don’t deny it.), and they both wear eyeliner. It was just waiting to happen.

All it required was a little time warp.

So began a journey of 1,300+ pages (and that’s in Word, so for some real perspective you can double that number for actual book pages) that went on for years and years. I took Frank and Jack through their first adventure solo, and along the way found a wonderful person who shared my sweet, sexy vision in Missy, the writer of this fan-fiction about Frank N. Furter. I loved her stories, and she (I like to think) loved mine. Our writing became, if not a strict collaboration, an extension of a deep and real friendship that lives on into the present-day. The story about Frank and Jack became known between us simply as “the saga.”

Frank and Jack went through everything together, from love and lust to adventure and boredom. They were a team sometimes, and enemies others. Missy made it into the story to create a polyamorous relationship between the three of them. Bootstrap Bill appeared (in a way that made much more sense than how Disney later did it, but that is my little, 1st-Amendment-protected opinion). Transsexual, Transylvania came up (and here I borrowed from Missy’s original fan-fiction about Frank), and the duo traveled through time and space to meet Frank’s old destiny and see where it led them. You even learn what the N in Frank’s name stands for (according to me), for goodness’ sake.

Missy wrote stories about them that fit into my universe. Then, as she changed things, I got excited and wrote off-shoots of her off-shoots. It was this thing that was always expanding, in every direction, with both of us simultaneously writing alternate versions of the same stories. It was endlessly interesting. Or, it was to us. And now we’re almost to my 3-Day Novel experience. Almost.

I remember “the saga” being the first thought I’d have in the morning: the saga, and Missy—always together. I couldn’t wait to tell her about the idea I’d had, or to hear more after the cliff-hanger she’d left me with on her end, to get out of classes so that we could talk. So that we could write. From the moment I got home I’d be on AIM, and if she wasn’t on already she soon would be. We’d talk and laugh and write and trade paragraphs, and suddenly it would be two in the morning.

It was wonderful. It was idyllic. We had created a world for ourselves—for each other—and we were happy there. Everyone else could wait. We were off with the pirates and the transvestite aliens, on the tossing ships in the tropical weather.

And we were silly, too. I made it into my story as a narrator who rode an emu-penguin (Whether this creature was more emu or penguin, I left up to the reader.), and choreographed dances for Mr. Cotton’s parrot to perform. Our inside jokes snuck into the narrative. We were random, bizarre, and we were so, so entertained by ourselves. It was indulgent, perhaps even egotistical.

We didn’t care if it didn’t all make sense. We didn’t care if anyone could follow it but us. We never worried about causing offense. We liked it, so we did it. The sex was gratuitous, the humor was slapstick, the jokes went on and on and on until they were as dead as a parrot pining for the Fjords, and we courted deus ex machina like it was the prom queen of literary devices (instead of the Carrieafter the pig’s blood). As Eric Cartman might have said, but didn’t: it’s my story, I’ll do what I want!

And now, now, I’m ready to talk about the 3-Day Novel Contest.

It is what it sounds like. You write a novel in three days. You can plan an outline, but all of the actual writing must take place between 12:01 a.m. on the Saturday, and 11:59 p.m. on the Monday, of Labor Day weekend. I wanted to try it for a few reasons, the first of which sounds super boring and adult: I wanted to do it as a writing exercise, for the serious author inside me. Fine, but that’s not fun. What about my other reason?

I was missing that finals week experience, because I am a certified nerd. You know the part, when you eat junk (if you eat at all), drink a lot of caffeine, and just park your procrastinating butt in front of your laptop/books/notes for several days? I got a kick out of that. This would be like that, I thought.

The first night of the contest, I started at 12:01 like a crazy person instead of sleeping through until morning. I wrote until dawn (It actually startled me that there was light outside my window. I jumped.), and went to bed having already slapped down thousands of words. It wasn’t to be like finals, though. It was like writing the saga.

As the contest went on, I realized that it was hard. Day one had been like sitting down to write any other time, where I was very conscious of creating a full vision of a scene, of using my tools from my mental toolbox (thinking, here, in Stephen King-isms) to be clever and make the reader forget that they are reading. I just did it for much, much longer than I usually do.

The next day, my butt hurt and my knees hurt, I was sweaty, I was exhausted, and I wanted to do anything else but write. But I couldn’t. I paid $50 to compete in this thing; I couldn’t give up. I realized that if I was going to get through this—if I was going to finish a whole story in a matter of 72 hours—I needed to be having more fun than I was having. It would take more than crushing my doubts about my writing (which will block anybody). I would have to pretend no one was going to read this. At all. If I was going to have fun, I was going to have to go on a journey tailor-made for my very singular tastes. This wasn’t about “the reader,” this was about me.

Otherwise it was never, ever going to happen.

33,000 words later, I had a complete book. Sometimes scenes were too brief, but they always did what they were supposed to do. The plot points got covered in logical and engaging ways. There was some humor that I probably wouldn’t have ventured to express in any other writing situation—but, at 3:30 in the morning, I needed the laugh. And it was a good one, from my belly, that made me excited to share the moment with somebody. It is, of course, about original characters and NOT a fan-fiction, and there’s no gratuitous gay sex in there, but it’s definitely a story for me before anybody else.

But you know what? Reading it over now, being better rested and having a firmer grasp on reality once more, it’s a good story. And I wrote it in three days! It needs fleshing out, and some parts are rough, but it’s good. It’s entertaining, moving, and meaningful. The funny parts work. Best of all? It’s complete. I finished it.

It began. It changed. And then it ended.

So, here’s what I took away from the 3-Day Novel Contest: write for yourself. Of course I understand the urge to be published. I send out stories all the time. I feel like I’m wasting time if any of my pieces are not currently out for consideration by some journal or anthology. But, then again, I have yet to have anything be accepted. I got an Honorable Mention in a contest once, but that’s it so far. And all that rejection can get abrasive to the spirit.

So don’t forget to write for yourself, too. You’ll feel less doubt, and when you find your choices work it will make you courageous in your other writing. It’ll go faster, which will satisfy your need to finish something when you just can’t get all the damn peanut butter out of the jar. You’ll make yourself laugh, and you won’t have to erase it. You can share it with somebody, instead. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you can even make a best friend in the world you have created.