writing

I Am The 7%

Ever since losing my job back in August, 2014, I’ve been looking for a new job/identity*. At first, I looked for Art Director jobs. That’s was my old job, why not just do that again? The universe responded “Because” while I applied to dozens and dozens of places for months until I finally got it through my head I needed to move on. So, I poured myself into other things. I finished the book I was working on and submitted it to my literary agent. I doubled down on freelance graphic design and my online comic to generate a bit of cash. I designed a new religious symbol and started a business. I got a new, demanding calling at church. And, of course, I joined up with Tremendum Pictures to make movies. Just recently, I wrote and directed my first short film.

*Because, let’s face it, what’s the first thing you ask someone when you meet them? You ask about their job. Our occupations are inextricably linked to our identities as human beings. How do you talk to an unemployed or homeless person? The answer should be “Like everyone else,” but when you remove occupation from the equation you’re already handicapping the conversation right from the start.

But here’s the thing about all of that: none of what I do is a 9-to-5 job and none of it pays a whole heckuva lot right now. What I actually do with a big chunk of each and every day is completely unrelated to all my other pursuits. And it is the most important thing I do, period.

My wife went back to school this past semester to get her Master’s Degree in Communication. She’s an incredible public speaker, but more importantly she’s extremely talented at helping other adults become great public speakers. Her dream job is teaching them how to to do just that at the community college level, so, Master’s Degree. But here’s the thing about a Master’s Degree: it is a MASSIVE time suck. If Erin isn’t at school–which she always is–then she’s reading, or writing papers, or grading papers as part of being a TA, or meeting with professors, or etc. Most weeks, she makes cameo appearances in our lives, like a welcome guest star in a sitcom that everyone cheers when she walks through the door. Christmas Break was amazing; an extended guest stint where myself and our three girls got to remember what it was like when Mommy’s dressy pants weren’t permanently attached to her legs.

All of this is okay. It’s what we all signed up for and it’s temporary. In college, they tried to convince us that if we couldn’t handle the workload of all our classes then we weren’t ready for “the real world.” This was, of course, a lie. I’ve never been so busy as when I was in college. I was oppressively busy in college, same as Erin is now. This is temporary and, one day soon, Erin will just go to a job like a normal person and the hustle and bustle of College Round 2 will be over. All of this is okay.

This morning, Erin left for a weekend long conference. She won’t be back until Monday. It was at some point between saying goodbye to her after doing dropoffs with the kids and realizing I had better call the school about registering our youngest, Violet, for Kindergarten that I realized that, despite everything else I’ve got going on, I’ve got another identity altogether that I maybe haven’t been acknowledging.

I am a Stay-at-Home Dad. I am part of the 7% of American dads who stay home, with their kids, and parent while the mom goes off to do other things. I am the current, primary caregiver.

Photo on 2-26-16 at 4.05 PM #2 copy

Me and the only child I was able to wrangle for a photo, Violet.

This means I go to the doctor appointments. This means I do the dropoffs and pickups. This means I do the shopping. If the house is a mess, it’s my fault. If the kids don’t eat, it’s my fault. If Erin has to go to a conference for the weekend, I smile and see her on her way, knowing she doesn’t have any choice in the matter.

Being a Stay-at-Home Dad means all of that, but, for some reason, I don’t think I really realized that’s what I am until today. I’ve been pretty much doing all this since last August, but there’s something about realizing there’s a label attached to it that suddenly makes it different.

“Well, good,” I can hear a lot of you Stay-at-Hom Moms out there saying. “Now you know what it’s like for us!”

Well, yeah. But, to be fair to me… and I hate to disappoint you… but whatever else my faults may be (and they are legion), I like to think my batting average for not taking the work my wife has been doing all these years for granted is pretty good. I always, always, always thought her job was harder. And told her so, repeatedly. When I came home and the house was a mess? I said nothing. Why would I? How can anybody be expected to keep up with the house when there’s small gremlins running around it constantly, destroying it, and then demanding fruit snacks as a reward. What I do is a pretty poor imitation of her job, really. Erin and I both know that if the kids are going to eat anything other than fast food any given night then she’s gonna have to prepare something I can put in a crockpot. Tonight: Black Bean Cilantro Soup. Tomorrow: …probably pizza. She’s out of town, you see.

Already I can see some huge benefits to being a Stay-at-Home Dad. Every time I pick up Violet from preschool, she insists we run around a nearby tree together. That’s something we do together, just her and me. Cami, our middle daughter with special needs, greets me with squeals and hugs every afternoon when I pick her up. Elora, our oldest and newly christened teenager, depends on having some time with me every night so we can watch cool shows*. We talk a lot more now, too. I actually do know what’s going on her life, which is awesome.

* Currently: LOST, The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Agent Carter, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, anyway, I am a writer, a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, an artist, and the 7%. A Stay-at-Home Dad. Weird hats to be wearing all at once, for sure, but I’m going a bit bald now so hats are helpful. Even weird ones.

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Update on the New Job (Plus, “The Shooting”)

Things have a been a little crazy lately.

Now that I’m all in at Tremendum, I’m seeing what it is to fully dedicate myself to those things I enjoy and I’m best at. And I love it.

Last week, we headed down to Hollywood for a small screening of The Gallows and to work on sound design. I was more in tagalong mode as I learn more about the process, but I was able to offer some input here and there. I’ve never been to a test screening and I found the entire process completely fascinating, especially the conversation afterwards with the focus group and the studio heads. There’s far, far more that goes into the creation of every single second of a movie than you could even guess at.

After the test screening. From L-R: 'Gallows' Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

After the test screening. From L-R: ‘Gallows’ Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

Most of my work at the moment for Tremendum is in developing and writing a post-Gallows project. More on that when I can share it, but I hit a real milestone this week by finishing a first draft. I didn’t expect to get it done as quickly as I have, but I guess I’ve got the fire in me right now.

In an odd way, moving so completely forward and quickly on a new project has caused me to reflect on old projects, particularly one I put away years ago.

Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming of Age Story Between Two Shootings is the first memoir I wrote and the one that allowed me to form a relationship with my literary agent, Bonnie Solow. For a variety of reasons, few having to do with the quality of the story or even the way I wrote it, it didn’t sell. But it’s still a book and a story I feel passionate about. I’ve already posted the prologue on this site, but, just for kicks, this week I’m going to serialize the first few chapters of RBDM.

I welcome your feedback. If response is good, maybe I’ll post more than a few chapters. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

Here we go. The following is a true story:

* * *

Chapter One

Shooting

No one makes a living retailing junk food. Not one good enough to support a wife and four sons, anyway. The guns were what fed us. The bullets and the barrels sold right alongside the soda bottles and the Slim Jims put food on the table and gave us a home. Us, and Dad’s employees—both of whom had gone home early that night from the dirty little shop on the outskirts of Fresno. Bill’s Bait and Tackle closed at 5:00pm. Dad was alone for everything that happened afterwards.

A small business owner never clocks out. Not really. Once home, Dad could look forward to adding receipts and counting money long into the night. Might take even longer if his sons bristled once again at helping him or, even better, tempted him into a rubber band war. Closing time wasn’t particularly restful, but it didn’t require him to be a husband or a handy man or a father or a disciplinarian. All he had to do between the flipping of the “CLOSED” sign and the pulling of the car into his driveway—which probably needed to be cleared of bikes and toys—was to perform the routine.

Close out the register. Lock the freezer. Put away the inventory. Shut off the lights and secure the store with deadbolt and lock on the way out.

It took Dad a good fifteen minutes to pack up the dozens guns by himself. They were housed in two display cases doubling as the store’s front counters; Now and Laters and trucker hats making a pit stop on top of the .45’s and Thirty Ought Sixes on their way out the door. Dangling yellow tags attached to the guns on tiny, white strings shouted the sale price from behind the clean, always clear glass.

Dad removed the guns quickly, one by one, and placed them with great care into two long, black, clam shell cases for storage during the night. This was the puzzle to which only he had the picture. Without markers or leftover impressions on the foam pad lining the inside, he still knew the precise placement of each handgun and rifle inside their carriages. Once packed, he would transport the guns into the iron safe in the storage room just behind the freezers.

It was something Dad did night after night with little incident—with the exception of that night. On that night, he never made it to the safe.

Neither did the guns.

The two men kicked in the front door with a shout.

“YOU’RE DEAD, SUCKER!”

Their semi-automatics lit up only fifteen feet away from the fat man behind the counter, ejecting bullet after bullet directly at him. The first bullet rocketed towards Dad’s chest, but missed. The next went straight into his stomach, forcing him to double over from the impact. Not from the pain. That hadn’t registered yet.

Dad made a grab for his own gun stuck between the waistband of his pants and his hip. He got the weapon up and out, but didn’t have enough time to do anything productive with it as more bullets tore with great speed through his muscle and flesh, his body jerking with the impact of each one as it burst into him. His gun fell to the floor as he did, with a thud behind the open, sliding wooden doors of the display cases still filled with all the firearms he hadn’t had a chance to pack up yet.

The glass on the front of the cases exploded into twinkling, falling stars as the two men fired into them. Quickly, one of them collected the store’s most valuable merchandise into a bag while the other shooter fired even more bullets, this time at point-blank range, up and down my father’s body as he lay on the floor. Satisfied the store’s owner could not survive such a barrage, the men worked together to gather up the rest of their spoils as quickly as possible. When they were done, the only thing left on the carpeted shelves lining the now-broken cases was broken glass.

Dad, his pants and shirt already soaked red, had just enough of his wits remaining to grab his gun up off the floor to fight back. On his back and without much mobility, his mind ignored the swell of intense pain in his lower body while his hand searched, doing its best to find his metal piece before the shooters saw what he was doing. Frantic and fading, he grabbed one of the display guns that had fallen out of the cases instead. The yellow tag dangled.

click.

Display guns are never loaded.

The shooters gave Dad’s body one last sweep of bullets. His body jerked up and down on the hard, uncaring floor of the store. More blood exited from fresh wounds to make room for their hot new guests. Some bullets exited just as quickly as they entered. Others dug into Dad’s flesh and took residence.

Finally, the shooting stopped. Dad went still.

The two men, with bags full of black treasures, turned around and left in a hurry, slamming the door behind them.

* * *

Next: “The Call”

I Did a Guest Blog and You Can Read It Now

Guest Blog Alert!

As I mentioned in my previous post, while I am taking a bit of a short break from writing full posts right now, I did manage to crank out a guest blog a couple of weeks ago for author, blogger, and teacher of how to write memoir, Marion Roach Smith.

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I was invited by Marion to contribute to her blog on the topic of my choice. Since Marion’s focus is on helping others write memoir (and because she specifically requested I write to that audience), I chose to write about the very first rule I laid down for myself as I began to write my first book–two words I figured no writer of memoir should EVER put together. Which two words are those?

You can find out on Marion’s site, in my post, The Two Words No Memoir Writer Should Ever Use. (You saw that title coming, didn’t you?)

PLUS:

Marion generously offered me some space below the blog to include an excerpt from one of my books. I chose a piece from Raised By a Dad Man, a comedic, self-contained little short story about how I got the better of two high school bullies in a most unconventional way. Those who have read the book often cite it as a highlight. I hope you dig it.

More regular-type blog stuff coming soon!

Days 61 and 62 – Cami’s Halloween Surprise

On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.

Wednesday and Thursday – October 29-30, 2014

Wednesday

We had our church Halloween Party tonight. Party was fun, kids were cute. Always great to see everyone out of their church clothes and in witch costumes and dressed up as characters from the LEGO Movie. A friend of mine, Nate, dressed up at Lord Business, complete with cape and giant hat. I had the great pleasure of informing him that from the back the character looks like a giant neck tie. I can’t remember where I heard that, but it’s true.

My favorite moment was hanging out with Cami during the Trunk or Treat portion of the party. Cami doesn’t go for large crowds, so by the time it got dark enough and the kids were going from car to car to collect their candy, Cami was done and wanted out and she was going to cry and whine and claw to get out of there all night if she had to. Instead, we opened the back hatch of the van, sat inside, and, on a whim, I asked Cami, decked out in her Wonder Woman costume, to hand out the candy. (I love candy. Too much. And candy corn is best of all. Although, if you eat too much of it, it gets disgusting. But if I’m a dog, that’s my vomit.)

Cami as Wonder Woman, with her sister Violet who went as Merida.

Cami as Wonder Woman, with her sister Violet who went as Merida.

Since she’s nonverbal, I had no idea if Cami even understood what I was asking, but sure enough as the first kid came in, Cami happily reached into the bowl and pulled out the candy and deposited it into the kid’s bag. She did it again and again that night, for each and every kid that came along. She moved a little slower than Iron Man and Princess Anna and Michaelangelo may have liked, but she did it all, and pretty much by herself.

We underestimate, constantly, what Cami is capable of. This was a fantastic surprise.

Thursday

Spent a lot of the day writing, which makes for poor blogging. I did, however, hit a real milestone as I began the last chapter of WORLDS APART. There is nothing quite like the torture of writing the last chapter of a book. I’m gripped with fear and inadequacy. The last chapter is a terrorist.

I feel a great sense of urgency to finish this book. Once I finally have a job again, my spare time to work on projects like this will be once again be drastically reduced. Can I finish the book before that time comes? It would be nice.

Of course, it would be a far nicer thing to just have the job already The book will get done one way or another. The job is a far bigger question mark.

Day 56 – What It Takes to Write a Book (or The Benefit of Failure)

On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.

Friday – October 24, 2014

What is kid smiling about?

What is kid smiling about?

I’m kind of over the moon excited that I finished the penultimate chapter in my memoir, Worlds Aparttoday. The chapter, currently titled Family Junk*, deals with the limbo/hell that is engagement, and focuses particularly on all the religious and cultural strife we managed to layer on top of an already tense situation. I’ve posted a short excerpt from this chapter before. Anyone who’s been through an engagement can, I’m sure, relate.

*I hate chapters that are numbered. They tell you nothing and make it much more difficult to go back into the book and find particular passages. That said, especially during the first draft, chapter titles are always an in flux thing.

The chapter ends with the line “Somehow, this was all ending with a wedding.” Which is apt. The first half of the book makes that a more than improbable proposition.

The next–and last–chapter is entitled, naturally, The Wedding. Once it and a short epilogue are done, I will actually have a completed first draft. It’s taken three long years to get here but the point is it’s done. Er, almost done.

I’m close, is my point.

My literary agent has been incredibly patient with me through all of this. For me, there’s no shortcutting the process. Some can burn through a first draft no problem and that’s their favorite part, but the first draft is just pure torture for me. I edit as I go–a cardinal sin of writing–but I can’t generate ideas unless I’m feeling the language. And I can’t feel the language unless I make it “sound” at least somewhat decent. The upshot is this makes for quick subsequent drafts as the individual pieces of writing are more or less in good shape. It’s a very different kind of writing than the quick jots I do here in this blog.

Writing a book takes a scary amount of discipline, but thankfully there are some big deal things I’ve done in my life that required quite a bit of discipline. I spent a good chunk of my childhood and teen years teaching myself how to draw. Hours and hours over years and years of tracing and copying led to creations of my own and experimentations with different styles and mediums until, finally, I was able to make a living doing illustration and design. The hard work paid off.

At 19-years-old I volunteered to serve a two-year mission for my Church. I was assigned to teach the Hispanic peoples of Arizona, in their native language. I averaged a C- minus in Spanish in high school. I hated Spanish. I didn’t want to learn another language, but I did it anyway and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life–harder, for me at that late age, than learning to draw. The fluency I achieved during my time in Arizona is one of the great (admittedly God-assisted) accomplishments of my life.

At 28-years-old, I decided to be a writer. Have you ever just thought you could do something–I mean really do it, successfully–without any real evidence to support your self-belief? It’s a feeling that comes out of nowhere and I didn’t feel terribly responsible for it. Writing is more like something that happened to me and not something I necessarily chose.

After writing blogs and short stories for a while, I figured, in all my hubris, that I’d try my hand at writing a book. Worse, a non-celebrity memoir (which may be the most ill-advised kind of memoir because: who cares?).

Again I had to call upon a kind of discipline I didn’t even know I had. Books don’t get written only when you feel like writing. They get written every day, little-by-little, until they’re done. If you’re like me and you’ve got family and work and church commitments, you write it really-little-by-really-little. My first book took me about two years. It was a strong enough piece of writing that it got me a literary agent and got read by some fairly important people. But it didn’t sell.

If my first book required discipline, approaching the second one after the failure of the first required ten times more and about a month of crying in my proverbial beer. However–and I’ve only recently become grateful for this–my life is riddled with failures that came only after getting as close to success as a person possibly can without actually achieving it. My failures are bitter affairs, the perpetual football taken away at the last second.

Not that I wouldn’t choose to reverse a failure or two if I could (selling an idea to DC Comics, signing a contract to produce the comic for a year, and then having the entire line cancelled before my team could even get started on our entry ranks up there), but holy crud has all this failure honed my discipline and made me more grateful for good fortune and blessings than I ever thought possible. I take nothing for granted. Not one thing.

I’ve gone far off point here, if I ever had one. What I’m trying to say is, if there’s two things I’ve learned in my life–and this is certainly true of my current unemployment situation as well–it’s that 1) nothing is achieved without hard work, and 2) sometimes you don’t get it even with hard work, and that doesn’t, in the grand scheme of things, matter.

I’m a better person because of my disappointments. I know 100% I’m a better, more empathetic person for going through this unemployment mess. In the end, the lessons or self-improvement or self-understanding or whatever you want to call it, are the only thing of real value in this world, period. Those are the things we take with us into the next. When I’m clear and thinking and seeing things as they really are, I understand all this perfectly.

Today, I understand perfectly. I am saddled with difficulty and burdened by bills I don’t know how I’ll soon pay, but I can see it all as part of the larger tapestry that is a life I don’t think I’ve been completely unsuccessful at and hope to live out well.

For now, soon I queue up another football. We’ll see if I kick it this time.

* * *

As for the actual day today…

We came back reluctantly–and too early in the morning–from Uncle John’s Cabin in Bass Lake. I guess it was good to see the kids again. I mean, I guess they’re pretty cool and they put smiles on our faces and their hugs are kinda great. But they do ask for food. Constantly. No one needs as many snacks as they ask for.

They stayed the night at their grandparents’ house and my mom dropped them off at school, so I didn’t see Cami until I picked her up later in the afternoon. She spotted me from far away, but her teacher didn’t. Cami pulled and pulled on her, but her teacher wouldn’t let her go because she was busy with her conversation. Cami started shrieking and did everything she could to get away as I came closer, but still her teacher wouldn’t turn around to see what Cami was reaching for.

Finally, Cami broke free and covered the now short distance between us to fall into my arms and bury her face in my shoulder with even more shrieks of joy. We’d only been apart for a day or so, but you’d have thought it was a month.

Day 42 – What Happens When You’re Unemployed and Working Too Hard

On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.

Thursday – October 9, 2014

These are not the tools of my trade.

These are not the tools of my trade.

I’m excited to report I put in a full morning of writing the penultimate chapter of my next book. This is one of the most difficult chapters because it has so much to wrap up and so much to comment on at the same time. Good stories are a circle, thematically, but I find with a book length memoir project I don’t really know how I’m going to circle back until I’m actually writing the end. Themes emerge for me. Planning them is pretty pointless because I don’t know my story well enough until I’ve told it. After a long three years, I can hardly believe I’m at the point of ending this first draft and truly discovering just what the crud I’ve done.

Because of all of that, the writing process was utterly torturous this morning until the last half hour. Sometimes, the words just do not flow and the big ideas and themes do not emerge. Not without great difficulty, anyway. There’s some tricky material at the end of this book that I can barely wrap my head around, but that’s been true throughout the writing process. I’ll figure it out.

* * *

We met with Elora’s math teacher in the middle of the afternoon to discuss her grade, because that’s the sort of thing we have time for now. It was a good meeting. I noticed the teacher had some materials in her classroom that I had illustrated. Always cool to see my stuff “out in the wild,” but also, of course, it’s a reminder of what I don’t have anymore.

Elora’s teacher did not ask “Why are you both here?” I know it’s an odd thing to have both parents show up, especially in the middle 0f the work day. The teacher may not have even thought it, but every time I’m out and about I can’t help but wonder if people question why I’m not at work, earning a living, and making some contribution to society beyond creating more midday traffic. It feels like I’ve got a big, sloppy t-shirt covered with Cheetos crumbs that says, “I don’t have a job.” I don’t, of course. They’re Baked Cheetos. Healthy dieting is important.

* * *

Erin and I had to come to terms again today. We have to do these check-ins now and again because, while we’re both enduring the same trial, we each handle it very differently. And sometimes, by failing to recognize that difference, I handle it badly.

In her view, I’m just not pulling my weight around the house. I spend a lot of time working on this blog and writing my book and I’m saying things like “in a minute” a lot. Meanwhile, she isn’t able to work on the things that are important to her and take advantage of those opportunities that have come her way to make a little extra cash. I feel bad about the imbalance. I agree there are some changes I need to make about how I use my time when the kids are around and the house needs attention, but I’m also working hard on things that I think are important. I feel torn because it seems like I’m never able to get ahead on anything because I have so much to do (some of which, admittedly, I bring on myself). So the idea of backing off to allow her time to work on her stuff? Yeah, that freaks me out a little. It’s a selfish freakout, but there it is.

The most damning accusation–and the one for which I did not get super defensive–was that I’m operating my life as though being a writer is my profession, like I’m some sort of neglectful, stay-at-home dad who writes for a living I hope to make one day. She’s probably not wrong about the writing part of it, but I don’t know how long this unemployment thing is going to last and I want to take advantage of every second of it. I’m disciplined. My balance is out of whack, but I’m disciplined.

The idea that I’m neglectful though? Yeah, that hurts. I don’t want to do that.

We didn’t really reach a solution, but I’m determined to pay more attention to how I’m using my time and trying to take some initiative with the house. Erin made a good point about not wanting to be my boss, but by continually waiting for her to tell me when to get off the computer and what to do, I’ve made her into the worse kind of boss: a nagging one. I don’t want that.