Tuesday, April 20, 2021

"Overcome"

This is a story I wrote some years ago, and it represents a style that I've moved on from since. I still like it, but I'm not submitting it any more, so it's perfect for the blog site. Hope you enjoy it. Feel free to leave comments, even criticisms.


“Overcome”

By Jeffray Harrison

Alex sat down in the marriage counselor’s office and immediately sank back into the huge sofa with the bundle of papers in his lap. The sofa was soft, with a light green fabric that felt smooth against his skin. It couldn’t have been more comfortable, and yet Alex felt as anxious as he had ever been in his life. He pulled himself out of the depth of the couch and perched himself on the edge instead, elbows on knees, hands clasped in front of his face, ready for whatever this man said that would help him to fix his marriage.

“Well, this is a peculiar situation,” Dr. Martin said, in the same Boston accent Alex had picked up on the phone, “Marriage counseling for one.” He smiled, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first.”

Alex grinned back, hoping he looked normal. “I’ve been asking her to start counseling for a couple of months, but she doesn’t think it’ll do any good.”

Dr. Martin sat back in his armchair, “Could be,” he said, screwing up his eyes and shifting his head to the side. “But it couldn’t hurt.”

Alex shrugged his shoulders and nodded.

Dr. Martin looked at Alex, right in the eyes, for what seemed like a long time, until Nathan felt almost compelled to say something. 

“I just want her to come back.”

“Let’s talk about that,” Dr. Martin said, clipping Alex last word. “Are you sure that’s what you really want?”

Alex was shocked. What the hell else would I be here for? he thought. “Yes, absolutely.”

“Really?”

Alex started to doubt whether this was the right thing, or more correctly, whether this was the right man. “Of course.”

“That’s what you want,” the counselor repeated, “So she comes back and you’re happy as a schoolboy in summer. That’s it?”

Alex tried to look convincing, tried to stand his ground, wondering if this was some kind of test of his resolve.

“Everything goes back to the way it was, say, six months ago, and you’d feel like you got your money’s worth?”

Alex nodded his head and swallowed hard, shoving down the tears he didn’t want to cry in front of this man. “Yes, with all my heart.”

“With all your heart, I get it.” Dr. Martin leaned in closer, putting his elbows on his knees just like Alex's were. “Let’s say it was within my power to make this happen, today,” he said, speaking softly and drawing Alex in, “where are you gonna be six months from now?”

Alex clutched the papers closer to him, the emails he had printed out, both the ones addressed to him and the ones addressed to her girlfriends, the ones he had hacked her account to get. Some of those emails, he knew, were over six months old.

“I don’t know.”

Dr. Martin settled back into his chair, nodding his head.

“So then I ask again,” Dr. Martin said, “What do you really want?”

Alex put the papers down on the sofa beside him. He read the first couple of lines of the topmost one, addressed to Charlotte’s cousin, and then turned the whole stack face-down.

“I want my wife to respect me.”

Dr. Martin cocked his head to one side, waiting.

“I want her to stop taking advantage of me.” Alex continued. “I want to stop worrying about where she is and who she’s with, and whether or not she’s okay. I want to be able to talk to her again, without feeling like I’m getting beat up with every conversation. I want to ask her how her day was, and for once not hear some miserable, petty story that shatters my mood. I want to stop avoiding her when she’s home and waiting up for her when she’s gone. I want to be in love with her again, and feel like she’s in love with me.”

Alex waited for a reply, but Dr. Martin only closed his eyes and nodded his head again. This didn’t bother Alex a bit, since his eyes were starting to feel hot. He rubbed them with the back of his hand and looked at through the window at the parking lot, where the only cars there were his and Dr. Martin’s.

“I’m gonna shoot straight with you, Alex,” Dr. Martin said, opening his eyes and leaning forward. “When we talked on the phone, you said she had already moved out. In cases like this, it’s very unlikely she’ll come back.”

His words hung in the air like the silence after the smack of a judge’s gavel. Alex understood the import of it, and whether he liked it or not, realized that he had known it when he walked into this office by himself. 

“Now, I can guide you in the best course of action available to you, the best way to repair this marriage that’s still healthy for you.” Dr. Martin leaned over far enough to place both his hands on the coffee table between them. “But I can’t guarantee she’ll come back.”

Alex felt a pressure in his chest. Leaning back into the sofa and looking up at the ceiling relieved it a bit, but still Alex could feel it tightening.

“But here’s the thing, Alex,” Dr. Martin paused. “Alex?”

Alex forced himself to look away from the ceiling and back at the counselor, his eyes now feeling like they did when he had a high fever, like they would burn up or burst out of their sockets, and yet he held back the tears. He looked into this man’s honest, compassionate stare.

“Do you realize that out of all of the things you said you want,” Dr. Martin held his gaze, his face completely relaxed and open, “only one of them requires you to still be married to her?”

Alex felt like he had been sparring at the gym, when some guy knocks you around for a while, puts you on your butt, and then reaches down to help you up, with a friendly smile on his face. 

“Okay,” he said, “So how do I start?”


Saturday, April 3, 2021

Foxes Guarding the Hen House

 Here's three things I learned about racism in March:

1) A lot of people who say they don't have a racist bone in their body should make an appointment to get their pancreas checked out.

2) People who get very triggered by phrases like "white supremacy" and "white privilege" are very comfortable saying phrases like "China virus" and "Wuhan flu."

3) We probably should not let racist people define racism for us, or decide what is racist and what isn't.

It may be that the trial of Derek Chauvin is bringing this out in me, with all of the details of the crime and the trial in the news, or the video being back in rotation. It just feels as if the very definition of racism is being redefined, or at least questioned. For many people watching the trial, it seems like a clear case of racism, from the callousness of Chauvin to the human life he was snuffing out to the neglect from others on the scene. But for others, it's not so clear. Those people say we can't know what was in Chauvin's heart, and after all one of the other officers was of color, and Chauvin had a Black friend once.

Something similar happened with an announcer at a state tournament basketball game between Norman High and Midwest City. In reaction to a peaceful protest during the national anthem, an announcer battered the crowd with F-bombs and racial slurs. Later, the man blamed his verbal attack on the teenage girls on his blood sugar spiking because of diabetes. Now, I'm not a doctor, so feel free to take my opinion on this for what it's worth, but I did do a cursory search on WebMD, and racism is not listed as one of the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. It's probably more truthful to say that his blood sugar levels are responsible for him saying out loud the things that he often thinks or for him being unable to contain the hatred that lurks in his heart. Either way, it seems like the kind of thing, shouting the N-word at students involved in peaceful protest, to be specific, is the type of thing that we used to all agree was pretty racist.

One of the sure-fire ways to stop accusations of racism cold is to point to one's friends or relatives of color as evidence of the impossibility of racism in one's heart. Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted tried that defense after he tweeted "So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?" To some, this might be pretty innocuous, since the virus did originate in Wuhan, China. Many of his defenders, as well as defender of the former, twice-impeached president, have pointed this out, that it can't be wrong to simply state the origin of the virus. That's why it was called the Spanish Flu, right? Except it wasn't, and the Spanish Flu didn't start there. In addition, Asian-Americans have been warning us for the duration of the pandemic that these types of rhetoric are causing an increase in violence towards them, their families, and their businesses. To continue to fuel that violence seems to suggest racism, but then Husted insists that he has many Asian-American friends and neighbors, as do his children. He defended his comment by saying, "I was just pointing out that this is an international crisis, in my opinion, that the Chinese government is responsible for and I wanted an independent investigation." Once again, I did some research here, and my findings indicate that the latter statement would fit into a tweet just as easily as the former. It's true. Not only that, but the countless Asian-American friends and neighbors that Husted used as human shields against the bad press that his racist garnered wrote him a scathing letter about his words. In the letter, which he apparently still hasn't read, they very graciously educated him about the impact of his words on their families. 

This is a real issue for blended families. There is the idea that relationship with certain minorities comes with some kind of racism immunity or get-out-of-racism-free card. Being invited to the barbeque doesn't come with the freedom to get drunk and try to take over the grill. People get into relationships for a whole variety of reasons, and very often those reasons are self-serving. It's not ridiculous to imagine someone getting into a friendship or even more intimate relationship with a person of color just to create a smokescreen to blur their racist behavior. And this doesn't even have to be a conscious effort, either. It could be a totally subconscious part of the already internalized racism. We saw some of this dynamic in the fallout from the Harry and Meghan interview with Oprah, in which they exposed, in remarkable restrained terms, the racism that Meghan experienced while connected to the Royal Family. Many people have noted the problems with Harry saying that he was unaware of the problems Black folks face. For many, it seems like the kind of talk that should definitely come up while a mixed couple are courting each other, but I would give Harry the benefit of the doubt, if only because his actions have shown a desire to rise above his initial ignorance. On the other hand, many people have also criticized his brother's statement that the Royal Family is not racist, even while he aspires to an English throne adorned with African gold. 

It all depends on the definition of racism. If people decide for themselves if their words or actions are racist, they almost always reshape the definition in such a way that in includes everyone else and excludes themselves, regardless of the truth, like some gerrymandered district of racism. We need to listen to people who know about racism, either academically or experientially. The best chance for this to happen is in our churches, and yet too often we neglect to talk about race and racism there as well, or, worse, we make excuses for it in ways that we never would for any other sin. Because it is sin. Whether you want to call it partiality or oppression or injustice, racism is a dangerous sin that has the potential to infiltrate and destroy not only the heart but the church as well. Our definition has to include and emphasis that aspect of racism, so that we can stop blurring our vision and see clearly enough to call it out, in ourselves first and then in our communities.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"Hole in the Ocean"

 Every once in a while, I want to post a story that I'm not sure will find a home anywhere else, for whatever reason. This is one that I wrote several years ago for a contest, and then reworked and revised several times since then. I hope you all enjoy it, and feel free to leave comments.

“Hole in the Ocean”

By Jeffray Harrison

        On the ocean, things can change in ways that could improve, ruin, or end your life in a moment. Captain James Cooke had made a mistake that morning, and the weather was against him. Like his namesake, he had always prided himself on being adventurous, but scientific, ambitious, but careful. But in this case, his decision was definitely not scientific, and adventurous only in the sense that he had never done it before, and for good reason. The original Captain Cooke had always held it the worst possible omen to bring a woman on board, but somehow James had gotten it into his head that he could make it work. The guys in his monthly fishing group heartily agreed with the original captain in this matter, and had told him so before the trip.

"I didn't think it would be this hot out here," Mrs. Holly Cooke said, cringing in the shade of the small doorway to the cabin. "On the beach, it's hot, of course, but the breeze always balances it out." She sipped a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade through a straw and readjusted her big floppy straw hat. 

All five of the guys swiveled in their seats, their fishing poles firmly placed in the holders at the aft of the thirty-two foot yacht, and James knew what each one of them were thinking. It had already been five hours and close to five hundred ridiculous questions or complaints, and James was running out of both patience and ideas on how to handle this.

  "You could always go back below and rest for a while, maybe read, get out of the sun," James said, twisting his face into a smile that he hoped hid all of his frustration and anger.

"Eh," Holly said, holding her half-empty bottle against her face, "I'd just get bored down there. I'd rather watch you guys." She sipped her drink again and shifted her weight on her feet, leaning against the other side of the doorway. "When does the exciting part come? Anybody get a bite yet?"

All four men, still staring James down, now shook their heads in open and unabashed disdain and turned back to the flat ocean. 

They were all Miami policemen, career cops in their forties who had come up through training together, worked the streets together, ridden together, made detective together, not to mention raising kids together and planning their retirements together. So naturally, part of that plan was to buy a boat together, a real yacht with a double outboard motor and enough bunks below for all of them if they wanted to stay on the water all weekend, and a saloon style kitchen and dining area as well. Out of the entire group, James was the only one who had made captain, and while they were all still as close as always, he had become aware in the last year or so how this development had made things awkward at times. Not as awkward as bringing his wife on a fishing trip, but still pretty awkward. 

        Normally on these fishing trips, James could close his eyes and become keenly aware of the movement of the ocean, the depth of it under his feet. Today, when he closed his eyes, he was aware of the waves of disappointment and pity emanating from his friends on one side, and the sulky stench of boredom and annoyance coming from his wife.

        "How far out are we?" she asked. James opened his eyes to find that Holly had left the shade and comfort of the doorway and was now standing directly behind Fred and Arthur, her hands resting lightly on their shoulders as they squirmed underneath. She stared out across the ocean with that same displeased look she wore when looking at a bag of garbage that was still blocking the front door where she had put it an hour ago. “It seems like we’re out far. Is that safe?”

        “It’s fine, Holly,” James said, “this is where the big fish are.”

        As soon as he said it, he was sorry, and the snicker from Carl on the other side of the yacht didn’t help either. Fortunately for James, before Holly had a chance to respond, Jack was shouting and leaning back in his seat, alternately pulling back on the rod and furiously winding in the line.

        “I got something!” Jack yelled, and James ran to the railing to see, along with the other three guys. It wasn’t really that often that they actually caught something, so any action was a cause for excitement, but from the way Jack was struggling with that line, it was clearly a huge catch.

        “Hold it, Jack,” Carl said, running to the cabin wall and grabbing one of the spears mounted there. Just then, the fish leaped out of the water and seemed to hang in the air, arching and posing before striking the water again, while all five men gawked at it. 

        It was a Blue Marlin, and it leaped again, this time completely leaving the water, trying to throw the hook. Later, the guys would argue about whether it was eleven or twelve feet long, but for now they just yelled at Jack to let out some line before it snapped. Even Holly, despite the sun and the violence, moved to the railing just behind the men, to get a better look at the magnificent beast.

        Carl stood ready with a spear on Jack’s right, and James grabbed another and ran to his left, stumbling along the way as the boat rocked against the waves from the crashing marlin. Every man stood by as Jack reeled in the line, little by little, exhausting the marlin and reducing its range of motion, trying to keep it near the surface. James had no idea how they would bring this monster in, but he was already framing the pictures in his mind of all of them standing next to the huge fish hanging from the dock.

        Suddenly, the marlin made a hard dash to port. Jack leaned against the rod in its holder so it wouldn’t jump out of his grasp and let the line out just enough to soften the force, but it still yanked the boat to the side. Carl staggered and dropped to one knee, holding the spear point over the side. James slammed his hip into the railing and his right foot came off the deck for a second before he was able to regain his balance. His spear slapped Fred in the back, the shaft clanging against the back of his head.

        “Well, get out of the way, Fred,” James barked, once he was securely on two feet again. As he said it, Holly backed up a step or two, and looked back at the cabin, a look of fear and indecision on her face. She still held the railing tightly in one white-knuckled hand, and her bottle in the other. 

        Arthur reached across Jack’s lap and fastened the restraint for him, and then strapped himself into the next one. Fred stepped back behind both of them and hunkered down, hugging Arthur’s chair as the yacht rocked in the opposite direction. 

        The marlin looked almost twice its size as it circled around under the clear bluish green water to port. Then it took off at top speed towards the other side, disappearing under the boat and emerging on the other side. About ten feet away from the boat, the line went taught, Jack leaned into the rod the other way, and the whole vessel jerked to stern as if it had been hit broadside by another boat. Fred fell onto his butt. James smashed the other side of his hip into the railing and winced as his flesh got ground in between his bone and the metal rail. 

        Carl went backwards into the railing hard, still clutching the spear, and both of his feet left the deck. He tottered on the rail for a split second before Arthur reached over from his secure chair and grabbed his thigh, forcing his foot back down onto solid wood. None of the men were speaking much, but the grateful look in Carl’s eye said enough.

        Once more, the marlin circled around under the water, and once more it dashed under the boat to the other side. This time, Jack tried to let out a little line, tried to gauge when the fish would catch the end so he could reduce the impact, but even so, the boat seemed to turn on its middle, just about a foot, but enough to send everyone reeling.

        There was a high-pitched scream and a huge splash from behind James, and when he turned around, Holly was gone.

        He ran to the railing nearest where she had been standing, looked over, and saw her in the water. Quickly glancing over his shoulder, he saw Jack take the line clippers out of the kit beside his chair and cut the line. James hurdled the railing and dropped into the water near Holly.

        She was treading water, but barely keeping her head up. The detective in James only took a second to see that she may have hit her head on the way down. He reached out to her, grabbing the back of her neck and pulling her towards him. Wrapping his arm around her neck and hoisting her onto his chest to keep her face away from the water, he swam sideways to the hull of the boat, where Carl was already dropping the ladder over the side. 

        “Can you climb up?” James asked, placing Holly’s hands on the bottom rung of the ladder. She nodded, but her eyes never met his, and her face was weary and contorted with pain. Holding on to the side of the ladder himself, James pushed her upwards as she climbed, until Carl could pull her up and over, onto the deck. 

        When James got his wet feet onto the deck, he was just in time to see Holly disappear into the cabin, and the guys standing against the aft railing, watching the marlin swim away, its blue fin barely piercing the surface now and then.

        Storming down into the cabin where the bunks were, James found Holly sitting on one of the beds, dripping wet, with a towel around her shoulders, holding a cold bottled water from the fridge pressed against the back of her head.

        “What the hell were you thinking?” he barked through clenched teeth. “Why were you even out on deck?” 

        “It was just a fish,” Holly said, sighing, “You guys will probably catch another one.”

        James stomped his foot in rage “No,” he shouted, “not like that one.” He crossed to the other side of the bunk, looked out the porthole at the water, now much calmer than just ten minutes ago. “Dammit,” he pounded his fist against the cabin wall, “do you realize that marlin could have paid off the rest of the loan on this boat? Free and clear?”

        Holly dropped the water bottle into her lap and began to cry, holding it in as best she could but still avoiding looking into James’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”

        “Why in the hell did I even let you come out here? I must have been out of my mind.” James shouted, standing over his wife and glaring down at the top of her head, where a patch of red flesh was staring to show through the black hair. 

        James heard the engines starting up, and then the boat shifted and the view from the porthole swung around. “See,” he said, looking back through the doorway up towards the deck, “They’re heading back in, because of you.”

        Holly said nothing, but cried quietly and put the bottle back against her head. James looked down at her once more with a sneer before shaking his head and climbing the couple of steps back out to the deck.

        Fred was steering the yacht at a moderate speed back towards Miami, while the other guys sat around on the deck with angry looks on their faces.

        “Guys,” James said, wiping some of the sea water out of his hair and off his face, “I’m really sorry about this. You were all right, I never should have brought her.”

        “What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Arthur said, while Carl and Jack shook their heads and looked out over the water, both sipping at bottles of Coors. 

        “I know, I know,” James said, holding his hands out in front of him, “She’s just been a real bitch lately, nagging me about …”

        “Hey, watch your mouth,” Carl said, turning around in his swivel chair with a stern look. “That’s your wife you’re talking about.” 

        “Well, …” James stuttered, “I’m just …”

        “You ask me,” Jack said calmly, “Ever since you made captain, you’ve been different. Not a lot different, but a little cockier, a little harsher.” He took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You know we could hear everything you said down there, right?”

        James tried to replay the scene below deck, remember exactly what he had said, but suddenly it seemed like it was somebody else yelling at their hurt and scared wife, not him. He turned and looked down the steps at the empty doorway.

        “Okay, I shouldn’t have brought her.”

        “Damn right,” Arthur said, “but you did, and if you were just going to make her miserable, you should have left her at home. Hell, if you really wanted her to feel like crap, you could have stayed home with her.”

        “But she begged me to …”

        “Nobody wants to hear the excuses, brother,” Jack interrupted, “save your breath to go apologize to your wife.”

        For one long beat, all of the guys were glaring at James, and then all at the same time, they turned their backs to him and looked out over the ocean. James looked up at Fred behind the wheel of the boat, and while he didn’t look down at James, he was shaking his head with the same expression of disdain as the others. 

        Slowly, James went down into the cabin. Holly was still sitting in the same spot, but with her face buried in her hands, sobbing. The water bottle was on the floor next to her, gently rolling back and forth with the motion of the yacht.

        “Holly,” he started.

        “This damn boat,” she said through her fingers. “The kids are all gone, you’re always gone.” She dropped her hands to her lap and looked up at him, her eyes gone dark red with salt water and tears. “I just go to work and come home, and before long, I won’t even have work anymore. I live like a single woman.” She kicked away the bottle of water at her feet, sending it skittering over to him. “Or a widow.”

        James’s eyes burned, and his back suddenly hurt the way it always had whenever he had been in a fight, as if his body was tensing up to prepare for a punch.

        “Do you know how happy I was that you made captain? That you were behind a desk instead of in the streets? That I wouldn’t have to stay up late, expecting a call from your supervisor, saying you got shot, that I would have to spend the rest of my life alone and without you?” She buried the heels of her palms into her eye sockets and rubbed them. “And now that’s just what I’m doing, because of that damn job and this damn boat.” Her face dropped back into her hands and her back heaved again.

        James opened his mouth to say something, an apology, or maybe a comfort, but shame closed his mouth. He picked up the water bottled knocking against his feet and it felt almost warm. Tossing it on the bed, he stepped around divider to the kitchen and took another cold one from the back of the fridge. When he came back, Holly was still in the same state. He sat down beside her and felt the back of her head for the bump caused by her fall. After lightly pressing the cold bottle against it, he slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. She covering her face with her hands, she laid her head on her husband’s lap and allowed him to hold her. 

        It was a long trip back to shore, and they didn’t come up out of the cabin once.

        The next Saturday night found them at the docks again, this time with James leading a nervously blindfolded Holly. 

        “I can smell the water,” she said, “we better not be near that damn boat again.”

        Shrugging, James pulled the blindfold off her and smiled.

        “I knew it!” she screamed, “you will never get me out on that floating deathtrap again. I told you.”

        “Fine,” James said, “then we don’t have to take it out of dock if you don’t want to, but I want you to see some of that changes I’ve made.”

        Holly squinted at him and then looked at the gangplank moving slightly near her.

        “And we just get right back off and leave, without sailing anywhere, right?”

        “Absolutely,” James crossed his heart.

        Once he got her all the way up on deck, she could see the table he had set up there, with the white linen tablecloth, candlesticks, and roses in a green iridescent vase.

        She pursed her lips and shook her head, clearly fighting back a smile. “Okay, you got me. This is nice.”

        “Yeah, well, wait until you see what I did to the bunks down below.” James pulled her close and kissed her warmly.

        “You know what, sailor,” she said, finally letting her smile loose, “You might just get lucky tonight.”

        “So it’s not such a bad boat after all, right?” he said, moving in to kiss her again.

        “Then again,” she said, backing up and pushing his face away, “you might not.”


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rona and the Blended Family

 I've really tried to follow CDC guidelines to avoid contact with COVID-19. I've tried to even go further in protecting myself and my family by limiting the places I go. I teach at a school that opened in a hybrid schedule to best facilitate social distancing, make enforcing masks easier, and give students the option of staying home full-time if that feels safer to them. I go to a gym where the members are mindful of social distancing and cleaning the equipment they use, and will call each other out for failure to do so. Even then, I only go to the gym for workouts that I can't do at home or outside, like swimming, which seems like the safest gym activity to me. I go grocery shopping once a week, and big box shopping once a month, and refuse to go inside any other retail or dining establishments.

And still, the Rona got me. I'm trying to figure out where and how I got it, but it basically comes down to three places, and each of them hard to avoid. It's also possible that I could have been more vigilant, but in the end, it's too late for what-ifs.

It had me laid up for a couple of days with intense muscle aches and fatigue, but no respiratory symptoms, thank God. On days four and five, I started feeling well enough to start teaching from home, another advantage of the hybrid model, but at first, while I made it look easy on the outside, I was taking naps in between classes. This was back on the MLK weekend and I'm still catching up on grading. By a week after symptoms, I felt fully recovered and somewhat restless about being cooped up by myself.

The other impact was that it basically scattered the family structure in several ways. My oldest daughter took my granddaughter to a hotel for a week to quarantine, and then spent the rest of the time at her mother's place, waiting for me to get a negative COVID test that has yet to come. My wife, blessed saint that she is, was single-handedly taking care of the kids and house for the entire two weeks, in addition to feeding the prisoner down the hall. We actually created a kind of airlock in the hallway leading to the master bedroom, placing an end table from the living room in front of the door to place food and using a system of knocks to make sure we don't surprise each other and come face to face. As of now, however, everything is back to normal, or at least, as normal as it was before, except that my grown daughter is still waiting for my negative test result.

Still, one thing that this experience opened my eyes to is how different the experience of pandemic, quarantine, and COVID is for blended families. The pandemic has hit all families hard, but blended families suffer in unique ways with unique challenges to face.

1) Co-parenting and shared custody agreements

I actually looked for some articles on the subject of blended families and pandemic to try to understand this better, but one thing I noticed about many of them is that they mostly deal with the issue of step-parenting and not co-parenting. The issue of how to manage a pandemic in a house with step-children is certainly an important one, but my thoughts were more on how to manage these protocols when you have children in the house that travel back and forth between homes on a regular basis. The most obvious solution is to lock down at one parent's home, but which one? One or both parents may not be willing to give up their shared custody agreement.

Even if they do so, for the greater good, it can create resentment towards the other parent and extended family. It might seem petty, but consider how hard quarantine and shelter-in-place orders are on all families, and then consider how much harder that would be if you had to make a choice that meant not seeing your child for an indefinite amount of time. It's tough, even for good reason, to give up the time you spend with your child, the influence you have over them and the joy they bring your home, especially when you feel like that time has already been reduced by divorce and court decrees. Some co-parents have been able to make that hard decision and determine one home as the safest or most convenient place for the child until the pandemic is over, but a lot of others have stuck to their custody plan and made the best of it, trying to keep the child and themselves safe under those circumstances. It can work, to be sure, but it takes a lot of communication and compromise from everyone involved.

2) Different pandemic policies at home

In addition to the fact that blended families are more likely to have children that travel back and forth between homes, and therefore more likely to create opportunities for infection, they also deal with the reality of differing standards of pandemic safety, and different interpretations of CDC guidelines. The differences in my situation were pretty minor, and since my children have aged out of shared custody and can (and do) pretty well come and go as they please, just minor communication between my ex-wife and myself was all it took to develop some safety protocols that we agreed on.

One easy policy to develop was vigilant testing for anyone changing residence or feeling any sort of symptoms, from the biggest all the way to the littlest. On the other hand, one point of contention was my going to the gym. We ended up compromising on that issue, and, like any good compromise, both walked away from it feeling as if we didn't get exactly what we wanted. But in the end, I think that our negotiations were easy and motivated by trust - in the science, in each other, and in the kids. What about families where that trust is damaged, or dead? What if one co-parent is dedicated to following CDC guidelines, while the other is an anti-masker who thinks that the whole thing is a hoax? What kind of compromise can there be in that dynamic?

This is one of the hardest things about co-parenting, when the two parents have totally different standards on important matters, and it's what makes the pandemic so hard on blended families. What would I do if I were in a situation with young children to protect, unable to change the court ordered custody agreement, and equally unable to convince my opposite number to enforce even the simplest safety protocols. I thank God that isn't my life, but I pray for parents in blended families who experience exactly that. There are legal options available, and at some point, perhaps a co-parent has to make use of them, but they come at the cost of increased conflict with the other parent, and possibly even resentment from the child.

Overall, it seems like at every turn, whatever challenges families face, blended families find them more complicated. There's a mental and emotional cost that blended families pay that might be hard for others to even understand, and this is in addition to the stress we've all endured during this time. Hopefully, the increased access and better distribution of vaccines and all of the effort and sacrifice we've already invested will pay off in a return to some kind of new normal. Still, as a part of that new normal, keep washing your hands, keep isolating from others when you have symptoms, and keep considering ways that the new normal is going to affect the blended families that you love.

"Blended families already had unique financial issues — then the pandemic hit"

"Social Distancing and Stepfamilies"

"Challenges of Coronavirus for Divorced and Blended Families"

Monday, January 25, 2021

Managing the Rejection

One of the things that is hardest about writing is the self-promotion and constant rejection. I've always focused on improving my writing, and neglected the promotion part. I would give it a go for a few months, collect my rejection letters, and then move on to something else. This summer, for reasons that even I am still trying to figure out, I decided to get back to submitting stories. It's kind of like going back to dating after being out of the game for a while, risking rejection and humiliation, and all the while sensing, maybe I'm just not doing it right.

Truth is, I'm still not sure I'm doing it right, but I am doing it. It does give me some consolation that through all of the stops and starts, all of the rejection letters that turned into rejection emails, I've at least learned a few things that make this part of the job easier. Hopefully they can make it easier for you as well.

1) Thicken your skin.

There are dozens of reasons why the journal or publisher who received your story didn't choose to publish it, and only one of those reasons can be "it isn't good enough." Sometimes they just filled all their needs for the upcoming issue early, and they didn't want to string you along until they start planning the next one. Sometimes they might really mean it when they say "not for us." That same story with a different magazine editor might get in. Your promotional skills are at least as important as your writing skills, and sending a science fiction story to a journal that only publishes slice-of-life vignettes is bound to fail, no matter how good the story is. And maybe the story just isn't good enough, which is not the same as saying that you're not good enough. Stories can improve, and so can writers.

2) Get strategic.

If you're even aware that part of the reason you're getting so many rejections is because you're sending good stories to magazines or publishers who can't use them, then start learning the market. Get yourself a copy of the current Writer's Market and start figuring out who might want each one of your particular stories. Not only does the Market tell you what kind of writing each publication wants, it also tells you when they want it. One thing I did that helped me get more strategic about submitting is scanning the Writer's Market and separating each market by their window of submission. It could be that the reason your story query went unanswered for six months is that you submitted at a time when they aren't even considering manuscripts. To avoid doing this, I created four documents, one for each season of the year, and copied and pasted each market that I thought might be remotely right for me into those documents based on their reading windows. If a magazine said they read from August to December, then they go into the fall document. Now I can stop sorting through that massive book every time I'm ready to submit, and only consult my seasonal list. If I've already submitted to every journal on that list (which happens) then I have a list of journals that accept submissions all year long. 

3) Track your submissions.

Most journals don't want simultaneous submissions, or if they allow them, insist that you contact them as soon as the story gets accepted elsewhere. You definitely don't want to burn any bridges with a publisher by getting close to being published and then ruining it with poor etiquette. In addition, you don't want to forget where your stories are, in case you can send them out again. Use an app like Story Tracker to track your submissions so you remember when and where you submitted a story.  Submittable has a tracking feature as well, but it obviously doesn't help for submissions that don't go through it's platform. Keeping all that information is one place can be really helpful. As soon as you get a rejection email, and you will get a lot, enter that information into the tracker. Then revise that story and get it right back out the door to someone who might give it a home. The tracker will also tell you how long a journal has had your work, so you can decide for yourself if you want to pull it and submit elsewhere or just simultaneously submit. Set yourself a pace, whether it's sending a story every week or every month, and stick to it.

4) Don't give up. 

Writing is difficult and vulnerable work. We put so much of ourselves into our characters and stories that it's hard not to take rejection personal. But it isn't, regardless of what it feels like. Keep at it. Instead of focusing on how many rejections you get, really read them and see if you can track any changes in the responses. Are you getting any positive feedback, or, better yet, advice? Don't be so quick to delete a rejection email, when there might actually be some encouraging news buried among the shards of your broken dreams. Take those kind words from editors as encouragement that you're on the cusp of getting published. Think of it this way: you're not trying to get a bunch of stories published, just one. Success breeds success. All you need is to get one story published somewhere, anywhere, and the next submission you send out will have the words "recently published in ____" in your bio. Stephen King, a great writer who also got a lot of rejection letters in his time, wrote in his memoir On Writing, "... when you've had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, 'Not for us.'" So just keep writing and submitting, keep listening to the feedback you get and using it to improve your work, until you break through to that place where one success leads to others.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Big Things Popping

 It's been a few months since I've posted anything to the blog, but I promise I'm all right and I've been working. In fact, I took some time off from writing the blog to work on some more creative writing, including a short novel that I started over the summer. I've definitely noticed that I'm growing as a writer in the last few years, developing focus and style and committing to good habits. The problem has always been the marketing aspect of writing. While it's always such a satisfying feeling to finish a story or a novel, it's nerve-wracking and vulnerable to let that story out into the world to get beat up and criticized by others. Still, there's no sense in writing for yourself, and rejection is part of life. I've never been good at the marketing aspect of the writing business and maybe too humble for my own good when it comes to selling myself and my work. Whenever I even talk about my writing, I always feel like a huckster on the street corner selling corn syrup as a health tonic. This summer, however, I decided to give it another shot and dedicate myself to spending as much time submitting my work and seeking publishing as I do actually writing. I found some apps, websites, and tools to help me along the way, and I'll be sharing some of them in the coming weeks.

The big news, however, is that it worked! Over the Christmas break, I signed a contract with a publisher to publish and distribute my novel, hopefully the first of many. It's been such a whirlwind of events and feelings that it took a while for me to even tell my family and friends. I felt as if I needed to get my head wrapped around the reality of it, and it still feels like waiting for the bottom to drop out any second, but it's a thrilling ride. I'm also learning so much about the business of publishing that I never imagined before. Apparently, it's not about just sitting in your private writing nook and waiting for people to notice you. There's so much that goes into making a book successful, and I'm excited to jump to every step and learn the business.

One part of that is returning to the blog here at Mixed and Blended. I'll still be posting periodically about the issues that multiracial and blended families face, but now also about the things that I'm learning along this journey to publication. Hopefully, I can encourage and inform other aspiring writers whose breaks are just around the corner. In addition, from time to time I'll post some of my short stories and flash fiction to give you an idea of the kinds of stories I'm working on. Please follow along as I learn how to use social media as a platform instead of just lurking in the corners of the internet and occasionally liking a picture, and laugh as I shamelessly promote myself.

Thanks for your well-wishes and for giving my blog attention over the years, and I look forward to sharing this new project with everyone.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Change the System As Well As the Citizen

Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
With all of the protests and unrest that's going on to highlight the injustices in our midst, I'm seeing different reactions from churches and clergy around the country. One reaction is to stay silent, retreat into the bunker of whiteness and try to wait this thing out. Another reaction is to go on the offensive and declare that this is all sin, to mischaracterize the protestors, many of whom are Christian brothers and sisters, and lump them in with the misguided or opportunistic groups that are causing havoc, destroying property and looting. Both of those reactions are not only harmful, in that they ignore or perpetuate the problem of injustice, but they are also sinful, in that they represent a failure to love one's neighbor. Focusing more on the people stealing shoes and televisions than the murder of a man made in the image of God is like running up to a police officer with his knee on the neck of a man to report a stolen car. 
On the other hand, I've seen churches take time to talk about the issue of racism and injustice, often awkwardly, with varying degrees of depth, but bravely risking criticism to tackle the problem of this particular sin - one that we don't name as sin nearly often enough. We should commend this, even as we lovingly engage and critique it. 
One critique I would, lovingly, make of some of the response to the sin of injustice and racism in America is against the idea that we should focus on just preaching the gospel, and not on creating solutions - legal and systemic solutions - to solve the problem. These pastors insist that racism is a "heart problem," and that the ONLY solution is to preach the gospel, to fill those hearts with the love of Christ that will banish the hatred of one's neighbor and inspire a new attitude towards race and those people who might look different, but are nonetheless made in the image of God. The assumption at work here is that racism or prejudice is primarily a problem of individuals being hateful towards others, not a systemic problem of unfairness and injustice towards people of color, specifically Black folks. The preachers who espouse this idea are generally well-intentioned, and envision a day when the landscape of our nation will look very different, with the Holy Spirit indwelling each citizen and guiding their individual interactions with others in love and humility.
The problem with this kind of thinking is not that it's necessarily untrue, but that it's not enough. It sounds like a wonderful vision, a whole nation of people loving their neighbors as themselves, putting the needs of others above their own. But as lovers of the Word, we know that the way to life is narrow, and there are only few who find it, while the road to destruction - spiritual, social, personal, and physical destruction - is wide, and the vast majority of us walk that road. We have to be honest with ourselves enough to know that despite our best efforts to share the Gospel and change the hearts of the people in our circles of influence, many will reject it, will either postpone it or outright reject it until their dying day. The Scriptures teach us that it is our job to sow the seed of the Gospel, but that God decides which hearts are going to accept it. In that parable, only a quarter of the "soil" that is sown produces lasting growth. The idea that every perpetrator of prejudice and racism will be saved from their sin and become a force for justice is just not enough to deal with the immediate and often deadly reality of the problem.
There are really two issues at work here, and the concept of "just preaching the Gospel" and ignoring needed changes to the law and systems only covers one of them. To be sure, one issue at play here is the "heart problem," and the Gospel is the only cure for this illness. There is hatred in the hearts of people that only the love of Christ can dispel. We should absolutely be preaching the Word and carrying the Good News to a world that is saturated in its wickedness. But the other issue is systemic, and no amount of preaching is going to solve this problem if it's not accompanied by a change to the system. The problem of racism in America is not located solely in its police departments. It is also protected and perpetuated in her banks, her courts, her schools, her capitols, and sometimes, unfortunately, sadly, in her churches. Even if every person in charge embraced the love of Christ and dedicated themselves to loving their neighbors, there would still be very little change if the laws, policies, and traditions that disadvantage other people are not abolished along with the hatred in their hearts. At best, redeemed and repentant people bound by a system of privilege and exclusion grieve over injustices even while they struggle to prevent them. At worst, unredeemed and unrepentant people exploit those systems to protect their own wealth, status, and power.
Is there any other sin that we treat like this? Do we say that abortion is just a heart problem, and the only solution is to preach the gospel until unborn lives are safe? Or do we lobby our government leadership, take our cause to the voting booth, protest in the streets, and donate to organizations that have proven successful in the matter?
Take the example of the Greek widows in Acts 6. There is a problem of partiality, exclusion, and possibly racism in the early church. The victims of this sin expose it by bringing the matter to their pastors, the shepherds who are duty-bound to protect them. The apostles didn't say to them, "This is a heart problem. What we need to do is just continue preaching the Gospel until the hearts change, and the problem will go away on its own." Instead, their response was two-pronged. First, they recognized, rightly, that the preaching of the Word was vital, and should not be disrupted or hindered in any way. Secondly, they understood that the problem the widows were addressing was systemic, and upheld by long-standing traditions and policies than advantage one group and disadvantage another. So they devised a systemic response. We'll create a team to deal specifically with the issue, a group of good men, full of the Holy Spirit, to make sure that this matter is henceforth handled with fairness to all. They dealt with the heart problem, but also with the systemic problem.
That's what we need to do today - approach these two-fold problems with two-fold attacks. We should definitely be praying and preaching the Gospel, because is the only way to drive hatred and racism out of the hearts of individuals. But we should also be taking our passion for justice and equality to the streets, the courts, the voting booths, and changing the fabric of our society, because that is the only way to drive racism out of the system.