Never Give Up (Unless You Should)

Mike Wazowski
One of the best and most underrated Pixar movies is Monsters University. Though it’s often damned for leaving no cinematic college cliche stone unturned, it’s filled with solid jokes (“I can’t go back to jail!”) and features a subtle, devastating lesson that would be daring even if it wasn’t in a kids movie. But it is in a kids’ movie. And it’s amazing.
SPOILERS if you haven’t seen M.U.: Mike Wazowski is a young monster whose dream is to be, like his heroes, a scarer. The problem is that he is not scary. He’s funny and cute. Doesn’t matter that he’s the smartest and hardest working in class, he’s just never going to be able to achieve his dream because he’s not built for it. The point of this movie–the actual lesson at the end of all of Mike’s striving and years of dreaming–is that he has to give up his dream and move onto something else.
Now, I’m a dad so I feel like I can say this with confidence: giving up your dream is the literal opposite point of 98% of every other piece of kids’ entertainment out there. Usually, our kids are taught to NEVER give up. Keep going. Keep striving. Live your dream because dreams come true if you want it bad enough and put in the work.
We are told to dream big and never give up.
I’ve thought a lot about giving up . I think more than failure, I’m afraid of being like Mike Wazowski and being guilty of kidding myself. I’m afraid of people looking at me like, “Man, if only somebody would tell him it’s not gonna happen.” I’m afraid of failing and never stopping.
I know all the inspirational quotes about how the most successful people have also failed the most–Thomas Edison’s perspiration and all that. I’m not talking about sweaty Tommy Edison. I’m talking about all the other guys who also thought candles were old news that you don’t know about because lights belong in bulbs, not pineapples (or whatever they tried). I’m talking about all the guys (and gals) whose failures led to nothing.
* * *
I had no idea I enjoyed writing until I wrote my first blog at 28 years old. Five years later I wrote a memoir called Raised By a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings about my relationship with my father and the two armed robberies at his store. I sent dozens of letters out to agents over a period of 9 months, received many, many rejections, and finally was fortunate enough to sign with a literary agent who believed in me. She was everything I wanted in an agent: attentive, smart, and had connections to all the best publishing houses. Mine was only the second book she ever pulled off the slush pile and chose to represent. Mine was also the first book she never sold. Raised By a Dead Man went to the top–to gatekeeping editors in big, fancy New York offices who repped Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and sucked down $500 scotch all day (I assume)–and they all rejected it. Some thought the writing not good enough (and they weren’t wrong–I’m much better now), but others raved about it. The big problem? They didn’t know how to sell it.
My agent, still believing in me, asked if I had any other ideas. I told her about another memoir I wanted to do, The Impossible Girl, a romance I pitched as a Romeo and Juliet story between a Mormon and a Protestant. She thought that sounded amazing and encouraged me to write it because it sounded more marketable. If I could sell it, then Raised would be more viable coming from an established author. I spent three long years writing the book and promptly handed it off to my agent once I felt it was worthy. She read it, was enthusiastic about my growth as a writer, and found the story fascinating. Also, it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. She had no idea how to sell it and didn’t see how it could possibly fit in any market, national or religious. I understood and set off to NOT write a wholly unique story no one wants to sell. Forget memoirs, I was gonna write a novel.
So, I wrote Paper Bag Mask, a YA  heist story that’s a bit like The Breakfast Club by way of Ocean’s 11. Seemed like the kind of story that would be pretty accessible and fun. When I brought it to my agent, she had to pass simply because she does not represent YA. I understood, we parted ways amicably, and I headed back to the trenches of emailing and querying potential agents. By then, 9 years had passed since I first decided to be an author.
14 months ago, the rejections began pouring in again. A couple of times, I got really close! There were agents who were incredibly enthusiastic about what I had done and the unique way I’d done it (three sections of the book feature sequential art)! But still I received no after no after no. Over 200 of them by the time I was ready to give it all up. Over 200 rejections on top of the (now) 10 years of rejection I’d already received.
I had to face facts: was I kidding myself? How long do you hold onto a dream before you realize it’s just not going to happen?
* * *
The most nuanced part of the lesson in Monsters University is this: our dreams should be focused on the things we can do. While it’s true that it’s possible to get really good at something (or luck into something) that you’re terrible at, it’s also true that we all have to face this one reality: we cannot be good at everything. It’s just not possible. So, if you can’t be good at everything, then you’ve got to get to terms with this other truth: the thing you want to be good at may not be the thing you CAN be good at. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol should be able to acknowledge this, but somehow people who can’t not sound like my garbage disposal keep coming back to audition anyway.
And, like the good-for-television-but-not-good-for-my-ears “singers” on American Idol, it’s possible there are people in your life who secretly think you should give up, but are afraid to tell you. Or, your own insecurity invents those people and you doubt yourself. Or, they are actually people in your life who tell you you’re terrible. Or, like me, failure after failure after failure has you doubting yourself. However you’re arriving at the secret suspicion that maybe you should stop dreaming so gosh darn big, the question comes down to the same thing: should you give up?
I don’t know. How could I? But you know who I think does know?
You.
The difference between failures that serve as track being laid down on the path of success and fooling yourself is in how honest with yourself you can be. It’s in your gut, in your soul. I believe we all know who who are and what are our capabilities. I’m not saying you know straight off, but it is discoverable. And when we make that discovery, that’s when either we back off that dream we’ve been holding onto, or we go all in. But knowing the either/or on that is entirely up to your capacity for self-awareness and truth. It’s not up to other people to confirm or deny it for us*, it’s up to us to discover and commit. One way or the other.
*Though they will try and they should not be dismissed out of hand–critique and feedback is part of the process of discovery.
How honest are you with yourself? And I don’t mean that in the way you’re prone to thinking about honesty, which is are you honest enough to know if you well and truly suck?  That’s only one side of it. The other side is being honest enough to say, “No, actually, I’m really good at this.” I don’t know about you, but that’s almost harder. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I’m comfortable enough to say with confidence, “I’m good at this, the world be damned.
I’ve know for awhile now I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know that was who I was until well after college, but it is who I am. I may have hard times and times of doubt and people telling me I suck, but deep in my gut, that’s what I know. I know that I not only love writing, but that I can do it. It’s not arrogance, it’s not fooling myself, it just is.
Paper Bag Mask will be published this Fall by Pen Name Publishing. Those 10 years–all that striving and failure–brought me to this major, major milestone. There will be more. My path to success is not complete, but I cannot help but be grateful and acknowledge that all my failures led to this successThere are many things I’m not good at, but:
I’m good at this. The world be damned.
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The Not-So-Secret Shame of My Very Bald Head

The thing is, I like hair. I’m fascinated by hair. I truly believe a good haircut can change a Quasimodo into a Brad Pitt (0% body fat helps as well). I also believe a bad haircut can be ruinous. Never ask me if I think your hair looks good. I promise you I have an opinion, and I can only give it honestly.

So, don’t ask me about your hair.

And don’t ask me about mine. It’s gone now, basically. Retreated back to the God who gave it life in the first place. Or to my pillow. Take your pick. The point is, a lot of it has fallen out in the past few years, exclusively in strange, alien ways. Bald patch in the back? Yep. Receding in the front? Of course. But also, for some reason, I’m also balding where my the back of my hair meets my neck and I’ve also got this river of off-centered baldness right on the top of my head that does not subscribe to any of the Rogaine diagrams. There is positively no way to grow out my hair and make it look good without resorting to hair contortions of the Christian Bale in American Hustle variety.

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Didn’t stop me from trying though. When this all first started happening, I did my best to maintain a normal hairstyle with what I had as best I could. I’ve never had great hair, mind you. Always been a little thin, always very brown. In certain lights–especially dim ones–it did look kind of good, though. Even in the early days of the loss.

So what if, as the months rolled along and my wife started believing me that a big change was happening, that my forehead could be rented out for advertising at reasonable rates? I wasn’t worried. Bigger the forehead, bigger the brain (Aristotle said that). The baldness in the back? I couldn’t even see it without geometry and mirrors, so it wasn’t really something I cared too much about. If my hair was really a problem–if I really had cause to be embarrassed or I was just kidding myself with the wisps atop my noggin–then my wife would tell me. She’d say something like “It’s time,” and then I’d know instantly what she was talking about, subject of sentence not necessary.

And that’s pretty much what happened.

“It’s time,” she said.

The next day, it all came off. (Mostly. I’m not down to the skin, yet, as you’ll soon see. I just think a little bit of fuzz looks better.)

22f968ba49f7df6f28a152ca93ea39a6This was absolutely frightening. What does my head even look like? I had no idea. Would I achieve Patrick Stewart levels of greatness? Of course not. No man can touch the hairless throne upon which that beknighted, gloriously bald man sits. Maybe I was the anti-Patrick Steward. Maybe there was a lumpy, asymmetrical skull under my head skirt that could frighten small children and scare away door-to-door salesman (which would only be half bad, I realize).

If I know one fear all guys have in common it’s that we are deathly afraid to lose our hair. I was no different.

No, strike that. I was worse. Like I said, I love hair. I even love to draw it. When I shot my short film earlier this year, I made sure each of my actors got time in a chair and had a hairstyle crafted specifically for their character. And y’know what? I think it made a difference. They all not only looked really good, but the hair communicated something. It tells you wether a person is fastidious or coiffed or lazy or haggard or practical or stylish or even smart or stupid or fun or generous.

Hair communicates something.

So what does it mean when your hair is all gone? What does that communicate?

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I’m still struggling with that. I can’t say, even three months later, that I’m used to it. I think my head is too small to begin with, so no hair makes it look even smaller. I think my face was balanced and framed a lot better by hair. I haven’t been able to bring myself to shave my face all the way ever since I did it. I feel like (mistakenly or no) my head is better balanced by a little hair in the southern region if my polar ice caps are gonna melt that much. I don’t really recognize myself in the mirror anymore, to be honest.

All of this is vanity. Vanity is a terrible thing. It’s a waste of time. No one cares as much as I do–and I shouldn’t care at all. I’ve gotten several compliments (which I struggle to not chalk up to overly kind people trying to put lipstick on the pig of a situation that is unexpectedly meeting my shiny chrome dome out in public), which should give me more confidence. It does, just a little.

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I could wear a rug. There’s a great scene at the end of the last season of Cheers where Sam Malone–who cared more about his hair than any fictional character ever–reveals to Carla that he is balding and wears “a piece.” It looks good on him and you can’t tell it’s not real. To this day, actor Ted Danson wears hairpieces and they look great. It probably helps to have people paid to make you look good. I would be willing to pay people to make me look good. I have a shiny quarter under the ash tray in my car. It’s all yours.

I can’t wear a rug. I can’t do the combover. I can’t get hair plugs. I can’t do any of that because it’s a kind of fakery I could never be comfortable with. I try to live an honest life, and though no one expects you to be honest about your hairline, I just can’t do it.

I will get used to it, I know that. In fact, for the majority of my life, this is pretty much how I’m going to look so I had better get used to it. And the comments. People will look at past pictures of me from now on and say, “Oh my gosh! You had hair!”* as though they thought I was born bald and stayed that way. Surprise! This is the first time I’ve been bald in my life. I was born almost four weeks late and came out with a mane all the other newborns envied. If I had a DeLorean, I know just what I’d say to baby Brock:

“It’s all downhill form here, kid. It’s all downhill from here…”

*Already happened.

The Mirror Image Anniversary

My father died 19 years ago today, on Nov. 23rd, 1996. I try not to take note of the anniversary of his passing every year (don’t know why, really, but I think I’m trying to not be guilty of not moving on). This year, however, is a significant one. As of today, from my perspective, he’s been gone as many years as he was here. That feels like a big deal, though it’s just math.

I was 19-years-old and ten months into my two-year, full time work as a missionary. I hadn’t seen Dad since he dropped me off at the training center in Utah. My last words to him in person were an optimistic “See you later.”

Elder Vaughn​ and I came home early that night. On the answering machine we shared Weldon​ and Suggs was a message from our Mission President to call him immediately. He told Elder Vaughn to be there for me as I was about to receive some pretty terrible news from my grandfather.

Grandpa told me Dad had been shot in a robbery, again (more on that in a bit), but no one knew how bad it was yet. He told me to pray. I knew Dad was dead.

I prayed anyway. I prayed that God would spare my father, that the pain would not be too great and that the feeling in my gut that he was gone was just youthful, useless cynicism. I prayed in vain. I prayed anyway. For the next 45 minutes my knees didn’t leave the carpet.

Mom called to tell me the news. Dad had died almost instantly, moments after a loud BANG cut their telephone conversation short and he ordered her to “Call the cops, Jill​!”

Two shots to the heart. One to the stomach. He went quickly, just like he always wanted.

Dad knew he was going to die relatively young. He talked about it often. In his own, what-seemed-to-us-pessimistic way, he prepared us well for the inevitable. What seemed a cruel and unpleasant joke when he was alive gave comfort once he was gone. There’s an order to things, a structure. Some of us are gifted with peeks at the plans, and always for a reason.

I’ve never thought it unfair that my father died when he did. Maybe because, as the oldest of four brothers, I had the longest time with Dad before he went. Logan​, McKay​, and Tyler​ all experienced this particular, mirror image anniversary a long time ago, and, of the four of us, only I ever knew him as an adult. But I don’t think that’s it. Now matter how much time you get with a parent or a loved one, it’s never enough.

I’ve never thought it unfair and I’ve never asked why my father had to die because Dad taught me better than that. He taught me, more than anyone, about having the proper perspective. This life is but a moment. There’s so much that’s grander just ahead. If the next life is Disneyland, then we’re in the car, maybe in the backseat, on our way right now. Who gripes about the car ride when you know you’re gonna end up in Disneyland?

I never thought it unfair and I never asked why. Maybe that’s why I got an answer anyway.

The next morning, after meeting with my compassionate, supportive Mission President and his wife, I left the mission field to return home for five days to be with my family, help get my dad’s affairs in order, and organize the funeral. I spoke at the funeral, which was one of the hardest–and easiest–things I ever had to do. A wise man, a spiritual leader I respect very much, pulled my family aside shortly afterwards and told us that it was his distinct impression, for whatever it’s worth, that Dad had to move on so my brothers and I could become the men we needed and ought to be.

That’s a bold thing to say. In the wrong context or to the wrong ear, that can be a cruel thing to say, but in that moment I understood perfectly what he meant. My brothers and I had a responsibility to take who our dad was and what he taught us and really add it all up. We had to see in a way we couldn’t see when he was alive just who he was, good and bad, and make some decisions about who we wanted to be. Our identities are wrapped up in who we belong to. We didn’t belong to Dad, the strongest man who ever lived, anymore. Strength now had to come from within. Not our old, weak strength that failed us and made us come running to Dad for help, but a new strength. A suspiciously, gentically familiar strength, but our own strength.

In the past 19 years I’ve done my best to nurture that strength, though I do fail. I fall. Dad failed a lot, too, but he always got back up again. I think, ultimately, that was his biggest strength. He knew how to fall and get back up again and keep going like no one I’ve ever met. Or will likely meet again.

19 years. He hasn’t been there to catch me in a long, long time, but he doesn’t need to now. I figured out how to get back up on my own.

Thanks, Dad.

(This video is part one of Dad’s biggest fall. The circumstances in this first shooting were exactly the same as the ones that killed him. The only differences were: 1) he was shot thirteen times, not three, and 2) He lived. In my house, we call that a miracle.)

What’s it Like Going to a Hollywood Movie Premiere?

It was probably sometime between noticing Kathie Lee Gifford was sitting right behind me and the woman in front of me with a tray of chicken and waffles was offering to get me anything I wanted that my wife, Erin, turned to me and said:

“Whose life is this?”

I looked around the room at the afterparty–at the DJ rocking it way too loud, at the black ties and the short skirts dotting the reserved table areas and the free bar, at the pretentious Evian water in front of me (I’m not clear on how or why a bottle of water could earn the label “pretentious,” but I do know it fits). I looked at all of us–at me and Erin and Travis and Amber and Chris and Rich and Steve and Tyler and all of us from, of all the dusty places on the Earth, Fresno–who came down to LA to celebrate a movie we made. There was just one answer to the question.

Whose life is this? This is our life now.

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* * *

The fanciest of evenings started out, as it so often does not, in a McDonald’s parking lot… Click here to read the rest on Tremendum.com!

What It’s Like Behind the Scenes at a Test Screening

I went up to the concessions stand with my pink VIP ticket in hand. I stood in line like everyone else for a few seconds before glancing left to see a roped off register with signs reading “Reserved Entrance.” I made my way over.

“Hi,” the nice girl behind the counter said. “What can I get for you?”

“Um, what can I have?”

“Anything you want.”

I looked up at the LED menu. It stretched for miles. Popcorn. Hot Dogs. Ice cream. Sodas. Candy. Nachos. Pretzels. Too many to choose from.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

* * *

I’ve been working with Tremendum Pictures for a couple of months now and in that time I’ve learned one very important thing: this is what I should have been dreaming about all along. A couple of times a week someone will come up to me and say, “Man, how great is it you get to live your dream?” And I always say, “Actually, I’m not. I never dreamed this. I never dared.” Thank goodness someone else did. Or, rather, two someone elses.

Most of my time lately is spent working on a TV show I’m co-creating with Tremendum founders Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, but I’ve also done some work as a production assistant and set designer on Chris and Travis’ movie, The Gallows, coming out July 10 from Blumhouse, New Line, and Warner Bros. I’m in “lucky to be here” mode and that’s not a bad place to be.

Friday evening, myself, Chris, Travis, and Production Associate Nate Healy piled into a car and drove down from Fresno to Long Beach for the final test screening of The Gallows. Unlike past test screenings, Chris and Travis, the writer-directors, weren’t scrambling at the last minute and staying up all night to make changes. Friday night was a night for relaxing, refusing the free drinks the hotel offered us when they found out what we were in town for (all four of us are Mormon), and playing board games until way too late. I don’t think “relax” has been part of Chris and Travis’ vocabulary lately. It was on that Friday night.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That's me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That’s me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff. Photo by Chris Lofing.

The next morning, we got up, ate a hotel breakfast we probably should have passed on (I understand I did well in refusing the pancakes), and made our way over to the local Edwards 26 where we watched the movie through once to make sure there weren’t any picture or sound glitches. The movie’s sound designer, Brandon Jones, spent the entire test for the test screening jumping around to different seats in the auditorium to make sure everything sounded right from all angles.

The movie checked out and we had some downtime before the screening, so we busted out the board game BANG! and played in the open air admist the mall shops while waiting for lunch. The six of us (we were joined by another Tremendum associate, Rich Mirelez, just after the test for the test screening) drew some attention from an old man who stopped, hovered, and stared at the game for a little while in bewilderment before moving on.

At lunch we were joined by Dave Neustadter of New Line Cinemas, one of the producers on The Gallows. He picked up the tab. The big perk of these trips is that once we’re there we don’t pay for a thing. Normally, I’d try to refuse such kindness as I prefer to pay my own way, but this is just part of the deal. Besides, I figure New Line probably has more money than me. The Hobbits have been good to them.

After lunch, we walked over to the theater to see a big crowd out front, waiting to get in. The actual test screening is not managed by the studio itself, but by a third party company who recruits, organizes, and runs the whole show. They did a great job stacking the audience with the under 21 crowd, most of them big horror fans.

Soon, the big brass filed in, including studio heads from both Blumhouse and New Line. Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows and the guy who discovered Chris and Travis in the first place, introduced me to his boss as the writer of Tremendum’s next project. Not gonna lie, that was pretty cool.

As VIPs, we didn’t get wanded going in (they’re lucky I forgot my bomb at home) and we got our pick of goodies from the concessions stand. I asked for “One of everything” as a joke and quickly backed off of that with a laugh. Instead, I got a small popcorn, milk duds, and a Dasani water. Because I am pretentious and oh-so-Hollywood now. Don’t talk to me.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about actual Hollywood people so far: they’re pretty cool. Rather than the all-black clad, slicked back hair, sunglasses, and blue tooth headset types you might expect, they’re a pretty casual crowd dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and three-day-old scruff for the most part. If they’re feeling really fancy, they might toss on a plain button down shirt, open at the collar. They are excited, thoughtful, and, yeah, they cuss a lot. (Well, a lot for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the F Word, so my barometer might be a little different than the average person.) This all squares with my memories of the last time Hollywood invaded my life, back when my family was on Rescue 911. As Nate said as we drove back from the trip: “They’re just people.”

* * *

The Gallows synopsis on IMDB:

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

* * *

Watching The Gallows with a crowd is the best possible experience. The energy coming off the audience was insane and, even though this was my fourth time seeing it, it was my favorite viewing of the movie without question. People were FREAKED OUT. This movie is intense, suspenseful, funny, emotionally involving, surprising, and just flat out SCARY.

Afterwards, Travis talked to the crew filming the audience with night vision cameras about how it went and was told that they got the best reactions they’d ever seen. Travis asked if this was their first time doing this sort of thing. He was assured it was far, far from the first time.

The theater was dead silent as questionnaires were handed out and the audience put their opinion of the move in writing. This is what were all waiting for. Does the movie work or not? You can’t argue with black and white.

While a bunch of strangers held their fates in their hands, Chris and Travis went from producer to producer, to studio head to studio head, taking in their notes and petitions for last minute changes. In two weeks, The Gallows will be submitted to the MPAA for a rating (going for a PG-13), and that means Chris and Travis only have that long to finalize the picture.

After all the questionnaires were filled out, a select group of people were asked to stick around for a focus group to offer up a more detailed analysis of the movie with questions like “Which scene did you like best?” and “Where would you rate the movie on a 1-to-5 scale?” Chris and Travis were on edge the entire time, just waiting for either worst fears to be realized or to have it confirmed they’d sealed the deal.

When the focus group finished, the numbers on the questionnaires came back. The real test is in the numbers. A movie like this, it’s all about word-of-mouth and if the audience doesn’t go for it, then you’re sunk. If The Gallows could hit a certain benchmark, then it would be in the same league as Blumhouse and New Line’s successful horror films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and The Conjuring.

The numbers were read off.

The Gallows doubled the benchmark. The focus group didn’t lie and everyone’s instincts about it were validated. People love this movie.

Everybody went nuts. Dave Neustadter turned around, cocked his arm back, and gave me the single hardest high five I’ve ever received in my life. He did the same with Brandon and Rich. No exaggeration, a full ten minutes later, Brandon turned to me and asked if my hand was still hurting like his. It absolutely was.

Everyone gathered around Chris and Travis to congratulate them. I got a little fanboy thrill as, at one point, I was in a circle of people that included Couper Samuelson, one of the producers on the Oscar-winning Whiplash; the head of Blumhouse, Jason Blum; and the head of New Line (and writer of one of my favorite films, Frequency), Toby Emmerich. I was basically invisible, but it was a pleasure to be there and hear these guys express their excitement for something my friends had created.

After everybody slapped backs, a few of the producers and the rest of us stuck around for some dinner. Again, New Line paid, but by then I was so full of popcorn and candy that would have been better eaten by a much, much younger version of myself that all I had was a cup of soup.

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Photo by Travis Cluff

This might have been my favorite part of the day. Everyone was in a great mood and just reveled in the fun that comes from seeing years of hard work come to fruition and paying off in spectacular fashion. These people really celebrate success, and that’s just not something I think we do enough of in the 9-to-5 world. I loved it. I loved that even though a lot of these guys have been doing this for a while, they still couldn’t help but be as giddy as those of us for whom this is all new.

Travis teared up a little at the table as he reflected on going from losing everything after being taken advantage of in a bad business deal, to winning on an episode of Wipeout in a desperate attempt to make some money, to meeting Chris, filming The Gallows, and then selling the movie. Theirs is the ultimate underdog story. Chris and Travis are a couple of nobodies from Fresno who have been scraping pennies together and working all hours of the day for the past four years to live this insane dream. If any two guys deserve success, it’s these guys.

I can’t help but be grateful that I get to be a part of any of this. I feel like I’ve been scooped up from the muck of unemployment, set high on the table, and asked to just partake of blessings I’m not totally sure I deserve. The time is coming fast for me to prove my worth in a more substantial way, and that’s great. That’s fantastic. I want that. I’m all in.

And I can’t friggin’ wait for July 10th.

Congrats, Chris and Travis. It’s not much longer now.

Travis and Chris

Travis and Chris. Photo by Nate Healy.

Raised By a Dead Man, Chapter 4 – “M&M’s”

This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.

Actually, this is probably the last entry in this series. A blog is just not the right place for this sort of thing. Blogs are fast-paced and play to the deficit in our attentions. A book is compelling in a different way. I hope one day I can share the full story with you all, but this will have to do for now:

Chapter Four

M&M’s

Mom shook, her forearms and hands vibrating intensely with anxiety and fear. Her mind raced as she paced the floor briefly and hatched a hundred different plans to make what she had to do next possible. She turned the music in the living room off quickly. My brothers and I waited for understanding. Tyler, my youngest brother, was two-years-old. He was the only one who didn’t stop playing.

“What?” I asked. “Mom, what’s going on?”

“It’s your father. Something’s happened and he’s—they’ve taken him to the hospital. I’m going to call my parents and I want you to come with us to the hospital. Your brothers are going to stay here, but I want you with me.”

“Is he all right?”

“I don’t know.”

“But something happened to him?”

“I don’t know.”

My grandparents lived just a few blocks away, so it didn’t take them long to arrive. Even so, the wait was excruciating. Within its space bred a million possibilities. Some of them pretty terrible. Most of them involving a gun.

Mom called a couple of women from church to come over to be with my brothers. She only wanted me with her. Just me. There were times when being the oldest had its perks, and getting to go to the hospital and drinking chocolate milk when something important was going down was certainly one of them.

My four-year-old brother, McKay, was a spoiled brat—an unfortunate and irritating affliction of personality brought on by a defect in his heart that sped it up into a dangerous double rhythm whenever he got too worked up over something. Crying would do it. So would swimming, oddly enough. If you took his teddy bear and he cried, you had to give it back or buy him one that talked or sang or pooped its pants. Anything to make him happy or else he would have an attack. The upside? Anytime McKay had to go to the hospital, I went too and got to pick something out from the vending machines in the cafeteria. I always chose chocolate milk.

It was the closest thing to candy Mom would allow us to have outside of Halloween. Cool, creamy chocolate milk in that little paper carton. As a bonus, and given the hour, I knew I might even get to stay up late that night. There really was a lot to get excited about.

As we made our way downtown in my grandparents’ car, I wondered if there might be something wrong with me. I was supposed to be consumed by the enormity of the situation, not scheming how I could manipulate it into a sugar rush. I tried and tried to look at things objectively and feel the weight of what was happening. But I just couldn’t. I was too excited. If Mom was bringing me along for comfort, she was destined for disappointment.

I was so grateful telepaths existed strictly within the confines of X-Men comic books. A telepath would see through me right away. They’d see that while my father was potentially hurt, shot, suffering and/or dead (no, not dead), all I could think of was the great fun of it all. No way I’d be going to school in the morning. When I eventually did come back in, say, a couple days or even a week (!) later…my dad had been shot. That was cool. And if he was dead or was going to die? Well, he wasn’t, so I was free to do some guilt-free fantasizing about what it would be like if he did. I’d be that kid. That kid whose dad had died. I’d get to play with that for a while and it could only work in my favor when it came time to choose teams for kickball.

It wasn’t that whatever was going on with Dad didn’t feel real. The whole situation actually felt inevitable, which is just about the best, most comforting version of real. Something bad happening to Dad at the Shop was always a possibility. Dad never had any qualms about pointing out that possibility over and over again. He sold guns. That’s a dangerous profession and it was only sensible to think he might be hurt at some point. We didn’t watch the news and think, “Well, at least it’s not happening to us.” Instead, it was “Gee, I wonder when that will happen to us?” And there was no fear in that. Only acceptance. Dad said the bad thing was coming and he didn’t fear it. So why should we?

The other kids in my neighborhood felt like their dads could handle anything, but with my Dad it was actually true. My dad was built like a tank and could probably take one down if it dared to mess with him. He wasn’t going to die from this thing at the hospital… whatever it was.

It was January 17th, 1989, three days before my twelfth birthday. Three days. (A cool part of the eventual story I’d be able to tell.) The worst thing that had happened in my life up until this point was when the family dog, Orf, had run away. Well, I always said he must have run away. Dad was convinced our Hmong neighbors had eaten him “because that’s what they do.” He was tough, not perfect.

When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa helped my still shaking mother out of the car. Grandpa was tall and lanky, good for leaning on for support, but not at all imposing. Both he and Grandma were good about always being there when we needed them, but also hanging back to allow my mother to do what she needed to do according to how she understood to do it. They gave counsel, not lectures or opinions that were not to be argued with. We all followed Mom’s lead to the emergency room.

I’d never been to an adult ER before. I was expecting something noisier. Where were the people screaming about their severed fingers and the doctors rushing about wildly, arms flailing as they waved off the impossible-to-meet demands of put-upon nurses and bleeding patients? What about the gurney (that’s what it’s called, right?) with the dying man being rushed to an operating room while his frantic wife ran alongside him weeping until the nurses pulled her away? Where this picture of what the emergency room was supposed to look like came from I didn’t know, but the eerily quiet scene in front of me was the last thing I expected.

file4121264630597The voices I did hear were few and hushed, many of them interrupted by coughing. The low-ceilinged room was full, but not to capacity. Most of the people huddled together in groups around campfires of germs and bacteria, seated in chairs that looked like something straight out of Star Trek with their bowl-like shape and many bright colors. No one had any loose appendages or a barely bandaged head. They just looked really sick. Most of them were Hispanic. I knew we were on that side of town, but I wondered why that was.

Once through the Emergency Room, a nurse led us to a secondary waiting room for, I assumed, family members of victims of awesome crimes. Inside the softly lit room were a small couch and a few padded chairs. In the corner between them sat a tiny table with a lamp and a phone. My grandparents and I were ushered in, but a doctor took Mom away immediately. Whatever secret knowledge awaited her, the rest of us weren’t allowed to hear it. My grandparents and I sat and waited quietly and in that silence I thought more about chocolate milk, school and telepaths. I couldn’t wait for my friends to find out what was going on.

When Mom finally came back, she didn’t have much to tell us. She seemed calm, but it was the kind of calm people adopt to convince themselves that they’re all right and that their home isn’t really burning. That it’s not cancer in those X-rays. That the car wasn’t just hit by an oncoming truck. That the dog wasn’t eaten by the neighbors.

That your husband wasn’t just fatally wounded.

The blankness in her eyes was a sign that the calm was just a precursor for what would come next. Whatever she was about to say to us hadn’t hit her yet. At that moment she was hanging on to whatever scraps of the moments before she knew this terrible knowledge she could grab. Once she let those go, there’d be nothing left with which to fight the oncoming emotions. She sat down next to me after closing the door behind her and began to speak, the tremor in her left hand slight but visible as she used it to lean on her chair.

“There was a robbery and… Bill has been shot. Many times. They’ve got him stabilized right now. He’s in critical condition and th-they’ll start working on him soon.”

“How many times?” I asked.

“T-they don’t know yet. It’s too hard to tell. Some of his wounds are where the bullets came…went in…and some of them are where they went out.”

“Can we see him?”

“Not right now. They let me see him for a little bit…I talked to him…but it’s hard for him to say anything right now. They don’t want anyone else to come back just yet. There’s a chance you could see him later…when they’re transporting him to surgery, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Great! It was almost 8’o’clock and in another hour I normally would have been going to bed. My brothers were probably already getting ready and putting on their PJ’s. Suckers.

“Jill,” Grandpa began to ask. “What’s…”

I found it impossible to focus properly on the conversation between my grandparents and my mother. Some confusing medical terms were thrown around, but I got the gist: Dad was in a bad way and the doctors were going to work on him and it would be a while before they knew when—or if—he’d survive. Probably not something we could count on having answered that night.

“Dad, what about the boys? Can you call home and talk to Sister Vance and Sister Pennington for me? Tell them…”

I knew Mom was concerned about my brothers, but I also knew her well enough to see she was using them as a distraction from what was going on. She would busy herself as best she could until the doctors came back with some (hopefully good) news. Until then: paranoia, worry. That was Mom. Me, I knew Dad was going to be fine. We were in a hospital (at night!), the place-that-makes-everything-better. The only real question, the only one worth asking, was: When? When would Dad be okay? And that’s when it hit me—what about my birthday party?

“Mom?”

She was still talking to Grandpa.

“Mom?”

“W-what? Brock, what?”

“Mom, do you think that we’ll still be able to go to the game?”

“What game?”

“The hockey game. For my birthday.”

Some people think hockey is a sport. It is not a sport. It’s a live stunt show. You can almost always guarantee there will be a fight either on the ice or (preferably) in the stands. The games themselves are barely contained madness and completely unlike anything I’d seen on television or been bored by at school. The players skated so quickly and turned so sharply and stopped so suddenly that the very ground beneath their feet gave way into a quick puff of white. How did they do that? It defied all my understanding of what a person could reasonably do with their bodies without breaking them in half.

And then there was the snack bar. I knew it was a fountain drink and that (supposedly) the same ingredients were used in the back rooms of the Selland Arena as those at my local 7-11, but it was only at hockey games that I got to taste the sweet, sweet nectar that was the best Sprite known to man. One sip after a bite of that other, delicious staple of any hockey watchin’ diet—nachos—and you’d have had a hard time convincing me that Heaven didn’t have its own ice rink. Nachos and Sprite—that’s what was at stake.

“No, Brock. I don’t think your father is going to feel up to that.”

“Oh.” I suspected that might be the answer and I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. I recovered quickly. “Can I call Matt and Nathan and Wes? To tell them what’s going on? They think we’re still going, but if we’re not then I need to tell them. I could call them right now. I mean, there’s a phone here and we’re just waiting anyway…”

“I don’t know…”

“Please? Mom, I’ll make the calls short. I promise. I’ll just tell them what’s going on and then I’ll get off the phone.”

“All right,” she said with a sigh. She was far too tired to do battle with me that night. “Go ahead and call them.”

I grabbed the receiver from the phone on the table excitedly. They were gonna freak. I called Matt first, calming myself down beforehand in order to act appropriately concerned. I didn’t want to be thought cold or uncaring.

 

Me: Hey Matt, I’ve got some bad news.

Matt: Okay, what’s up, bud?

Me: Um, we have to cancel my birthday party on Friday. My dad was shot and he’s in the hospital now.

Matt: You’re kidding.

Me: No, it’s bad. It doesn’t look like he’s gonna be well enough to go to the game, if he comes out of it at all. We don’t know for sure, but it’s probably better to just cancel the party. Maybe we’ll go next week.

Matt: Wow. Uh. Uh…okay?

Me: Yeah.

Matt:

Me: I gotta call the others. See ya.

Matt: Um, see ya.

 

Matt’s reaction was typical. By the time my calls were done I was quite pleased with myself. I knew that immediately after hanging up my friends would dash over to their parents to tell them what had happened and they, in turn, would dash back to the phone to tell everyone they knew. It was a safe bet that within the hour every member of our church who knew my family even in passing would be well aware of the situation at the hospital that night.

It was both the natural consequence and the function of belonging to a church that believes all of humanity is a rather large and very real family—so much so that Latter-Day Saints even refer to themselves as brothers and sisters. If one of their brothers or sisters is hurt, the LDS person offers whatever services they can—be it food or comfort. It’s the responsibility all Mormons share with each other. Cain’s ancient question rendered moot by lasagna and green Jello salad.

Sure enough, within an hour, thirty people had shown up. The hospital was crawling with Mormons and it occurred to me that Mom knew what would happen if I made my calls and probably wanted exactly this.

They were all adults; none of my friends came to comfort me. Okay, yeah, it was late, but how often does your dad get shot and nearly die? (Nearly, mind you.) I was disappointed. I felt robbed. Mostly, I was bothered by all the hugging.

There was no way the little waiting room was going to hold us all. The hospital staff moved us away from Emergency and towards the elevator leading to surgery. Along the wall in the hallway was a long bench upon which my mother sat at one end and I sat at the other. Friends of my mother and mothers of my friends sat and stood by us, wherever they could fit.

A part of me liked the attention, but the greater part wasn’t exactly sure how to behave. I felt small. Awkward. I didn’t know what was expected of me, but I was sure I wasn’t coming through for them. Everyone seemed to be in distress, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t feel it. Dad, after all, was gonna be okay.

What if they’re right to be so concerned? What if I’m wrong?

I hadn’t given that possibility enough attention. All these people were worried and seemed to really think something might be not okay at the end of this. What if they were right and I really was just being self-centered and selfish? I couldn’t help it though. I wanted my chocolate milk.

There was one person who got it.

“Brock, I saw a vending machine down the hall over there. Is there something I can get for you?”

Brother Willingham was our Home Teacher. Once a month he visited my family, taught us a spiritual lesson and made sure we were doing okay. If we were sick, Brother Willingham was the man Dad would call to come assist him in giving us a blessing. He was a large man. Wide shoulders. He reminded me of Dad, just taller and in a suit.

“Uh, sure!”

That night, the thing that was of the greatest comfort to me was a pack of M&M’s. I couldn’t ever remember having a pack all to myself like that. This was way beyond what I could even hope to have on Halloween Night, the only night—until now—I could reasonably expect chocolate candy of any magnitude. It was better than chocolate milk. Plus, bonus, Dad was in no position to swindle it away from me.

I wondered why Brother Willingham bought them for me. It was his own money he had spent. He had sacrificed for me. The one who wasn’t shot. The one who wasn’t crying. Why buy me M&M’s at a time when there was so much else to worry about?

 

Look here, son. Your father is lying on a table bleeding to death and may die within the next 24 hours. You know what you need?

What’s that, Brother Willingham?

Sugar!

Yeah!

 

This was no solution to our problems, but it was a solution to my problem. I relaxed. I didn’t have to put on a show for anybody or pretend I felt anything other than absolute sureness that my father would make it out of this alive. All I had to do was eat my M&M’s and wait it out. I felt better knowing someone was on my side and not waiting for the full body shudders and the tears in my eyes that would prove just how broken up I was by… my father… dying.

I looked over at Mom. Now, with people to lean on, she fell apart, collapsing into sobs as all her strength left her. Later, her mind would wipe the memory of the night clean.

I watched her in wonder and agony. Seeing Mom that way twisted my insides into knots. How could I be so sure? How could I be so blindly confident that Dad wasn’t in mortal danger when people far more educated and experienced than I had decided it was unknowable?

The answer: Because this was not the end of the world.

I assumed it would feel like the end of the world if Dad was going to actually die. I had been taught in Sunday School to trust my feelings because that’s how God communicates with us. All my hope and confidence in my life continuing from one moment to the next was in my parents. If one of them were truly going to be taken from me, then there would be an indication. I was convinced God would not allow something of such magnificent impact without telling me about it first.

I could see that Mom’s fear was easily overwhelming whatever other feelings might want to enter in. That’s why I was there, wasn’t it? Because she couldn’t help but think of the horribleness of it all and I couldn’t help but think every other way.

I wondered how I might tell her and if she’d believe me. I knew I could convince anyone of anything given enough time and if I spoke persuasively enough, but she didn’t seem able to hear it right then. Sure, there was a lot I didn’t understand about what was going on, but that didn’t mean I was wrong. Would she see it that way? Or would she doubt me?

I moved over and sat beside her. She quickly wrapped her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder. Softly and quietly, I told her.

“Mom, I think everything’s going to be okay. I think Dad will be all right.”

She held me tighter and cried some more.

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading.

* * *

Raised By a Dead Man Archive:

Book Logline and Prologue – “Ready”

Chapter One – “The Shooting”

Chapter Two – “The Call”