Wednesday, July 14, 2021

"Falling In"

 “Falling In”

It’s so dark in the bedroom that he can’t tell blanket from baby, but he peers into the crib until his eyes adjust. Moment by moment, the slatted lines of moonlight across the bed provide just enough light to see six pounds of baby girl lying half under the cover. Her face turns up to his, but her eyes are closed, her short, dark hair slicked against her pinkish, moonlit skin.

He leans against the edge of the crib, careful not to hit the latch of the drop-down, and stares at that face that doesn’t stare back at him. Her lips work an invisible nipple, and her chest moves up and down so slowly that it takes all of his concentration to see it. 

Then it stops.

He leans over the rail of the crib and looks closer, willing his pupils to open wider, praying the clouds move away from the moon enough to brighten the slatted lines of light so he can see her better.

She’s fine. Must be. Seconds go by and no movement, no twitch of the hand or foot, no wrinkle in the brow or pursing of the mouth, no chest moving up and down. 

She’s fine. Go back to bed. Even his thoughts feel loud in that quietest of rooms. He focuses his ears on her nose, listening for the slightest sound of breath escaping, focuses his gaze on a single strip of light crossing her chest to see if there’s any movement. 

His own breath holds, his heart stops, his muscles freeze, and every cell fixates on that strip of light, that unmoving chest. He leans closer, looks closer.

It’s as if he is completely still, and at the same time, falling very slowly into that crib, into those blankets, into that serene face and little chest that just won’t move enough for him to be sure, for him to be sure enough to go back to bed. And he doesn’t want to go back to bed. He wants to fall into that crib, into that serenity. 

With such subtle movement, his hand lowers towards that unmoving chest. It comes to rest so softly on her that he isn’t sure he is actually touching her until she flinches, her eyelids wrinkled into a scowl like the blinds on the window with the slits of moonlight shining through. 

She cries with her mouth open wide and her eyes still shut. Her arms flail as he slides his hand around her midsection, slips his other hand under her head, and pulls her into his arms. Eyes still focused on her face and her chest, he steps back and slowly lowers into the chair by the crib. He pulls her to his chest and the lines of moonlight stripe both of their faces. She falls into him and he falls into her and the room is silent again.


Monday, June 21, 2021

Things I Learned in School This Year

 As a teacher, I am always so glad for the summer break to finally arrive, but not necessarily for all the reasons that people outside the profession might think. There's still work to do, just of a very different nature. It's a time to redirect energies into honing my skills and working on more personal projects. The summer break makes me a better teacher because I have time to improve my performance in the classroom without the pressure of students, lessons, and grades, and also to improve my attitude by devoting time to other passions, which reignites my passion for teaching and gives a more weighty purpose to my work.

When it comes to my summer plans as a teacher, specifically, I like to divide the break into two major themes, reflection and retooling. I generally spend all of June reflecting on the year - its successes and failures. I look back at the new methods that I tried and how well they worked, and tweak them for the future, or drop them altogether. Then in July, I use those reflections to study and focus on those skills and methods that June said were deficient and shore up those gaps for the coming year. It's a constant process of self-criticism and refinement that, hopefully, results in my constant growth in the profession.

This past year was a tough one, and my reflections in July have been different from every year. In some sense, I learned some things about myself and about my students that I already knew, but had to confront in a much more direct way. On the other hand, COVID and distance or hybrid learning threw us all some curveballs that forced us to simultaneously sacrifice some best practices in the name of safety and also learn some ne skills and habits that might carry forward and become new best practices in the next year. Here's three of my top reflections on teaching English over the past year.

1) My students are going through it. I always knew this, and I've tried to be sensitive to the fact that students leave my classroom to go to a life that may not be ideal, and in some cases, is quite difficult and obstructs their learning process. It's a realization that has caused me to have more grace in giving deadlines, to ask more questions without stepping over the lines of propriety, and to try to make my classroom equally rigorous and safe, as much as possible. This year, the veil was ripped away in a lot of cases, and I realized that my students are having it rough, and often asking how valuable my lessons are, compared to their current needs. In the past school year, I had students who lost their parents, to COVID and other circumstances. I had students living by themselves, at home, and sick, because both parents were in the hospital fighting the virus. They weren't allowed to be on campus as long as they were positive, and often timid about sharing the facts of their situation. I had students who had to get full time work to help pay tuition and household bills because one of their parents lost a job. Faced with problems like those, getting an essay in on time, one which I probably won't be able to read for another week anyway, doesn't seem like such a crucial matter anymore.

Unfortunately, I often had my own problems. I caught the virus myself and was down for a while, although thankfully not hospitalized and able to make a full and quick recovery. There were family issues going on in my home as well. While this helped me to relate to my students who were struggling and open about their setbacks, there were other students whose grades dropped, whose attitudes changed, and whose eyes, when I could see them, had an entirely different spirit behind them, and, outside of a couple of emails, I could have done a better job of following through to find ways to help. I'm fortunate to have a strong and passionate guidance and counseling team on campus, whom I'm going to be leaning on in the next school year to team up with and reach out to these families.

2) My students learn better when they have the most structure. In the before days, when I could count on every student being in the room with me, I had years of training and experience in keeping them engaged and learning. When I had to do distance or online learning, I was able to come up with protocols and best practices that made the experience both rigorous and, hopefully, enjoyable. In fact, there are things I can do much more easily with an online class than I can with a large group of students in the same room. I can break them into groups and let some leave the meeting to work on an assignment while I have more focused time with others. I can discipline a student in a separate meeting without the other students listening in, and possibly affecting that student's dignity. I can give students more options, and even do some real enrichment, letting some soar without disturbing the ones who need more focused help. At one point, I was teaching at home with a ten-month-old baby who constantly wanted to see who I was talking to, and a male student whose mother was interviewing for jobs was taking turns watching his own one-year-old sister during class. It turned into an online baby party or play date several times, but we were able to make it work, because we knew what was coming.

But that hybrid. 

Having to find methods that work both for students in person and online is nearly impossible, and the learning suffers. The classroom students, or roomies, as they came to be called, complained that the online students, or homies, were cheating, or at least had all the advantages of time, tech, and comfort. The homies complained that they weren't getting the full experience. They couldn't hear, couldn't follow, couldn't effectively join the discussion, and often just gave up trying. I can't tell you how many times the chat would ring and I would see the words "You're not presenting" flash across my screen. 

The best aspects of this season of craziness are going in my toolbox. recording lessons, posting more information and documents online, as well as more precise and verbose instructions, are all going to be mainstays, but I'm definitely looking forward to the days when I can count on having all students in front of me, getting the same experience.

3) Diversity in the English curriculum is important. I introduced a couple of texts this year, one that I had taught before to much success, and one that I had never taught. Both were by African-American authors and had the potential to cause controversy, especially in an already heated season of political and racial upheaval and partisan animosity. It took some grace and prayer to navigate those units, but in the end, I'm glad I did it. There were a couple of tense moments that turned into interesting discussions, but not the kind of problems I was bracing for. Overall, I saw students of color engaging in ways that they hadn't before, and I have to think that it was because they were seeing themselves in the curriculum in ways they hadn't before. Some students who had shown nothing but disinterest before started not only participating in discussion, but taking it over and leading it. Even the tense moments became teachable ones, because the students who took issue with the text or some of the themes were forced to articulate their objections to their peers. Part of the problem with tribalism is that the tribes almost always go to war, never to diplomacy. We don't often listen to each other, and tend to hold tight to the stereotypes and propaganda that our tribe holds dear. These texts opened up a dialogue in which these ideas had to be tested, not only against the curriculum, but against the lived experience of their fellow students.

In one unit involving the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, we got into serious discussions about how miscommunication affects relationships, especially marriages, about friendships that have outlived their value, and about sticking up for oneself. These were things that every student in the class could relate to, sometimes unfortunately, and vocalized their thoughts about. On the other hand, the novel also deals a lot with racism, colorism, and racial "passing," a subject which was foreign to most of the class. Still, one day a female student, African-American, one who had never once spoken in class before without being practically forced, volunteered not only her thoughts on the subject, but pictures of her family, including baby pictures of herself that reminded her of characters in the novel. She got something out of that lesson that might stick with her, and might even see reading and literature as a form of self-reflection and expression that isn't just about people like Hester Prynne or Jay Gatsby. It's difficult to deal with the tense moments, but those kinds of breakthroughs are worth the risk, to draw in students who regularly feel as if they're on the margins of their academic experience, always learning about other people, and never themselves.

All in all, this past school year was a rough one, but if rigor and facing challenges is important for my students, then it must be equally important for me as well. If my summer break is supposed to be about reflecting on the past, what worked and what didn't, then the year of Rona and rebellion has certainly given me a lot to reflect on, as well as a lot more tools in my toolbox. Still, I'm praying that next year is just a little less interesting and challenging.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Empathy and Lamentation

In March of 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin made her protest on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. She was arrested and joined the legal fight for desegregation in the South. Young, pretty, smart, and engaging, she was the perfect person to represent the movement at the time. But a year later, in the midst of a Supreme Court battle, the civil rights movement leaders dropped her case, and she fell into near obscurity, with Rosa Parks now the face of the struggle in Montgomery. Despite all her talents and charm, she had committed the worst possible sin when appealing to America for civil rights.

She failed to be perfect.

When it was discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock at the age of sixteen, she ceased to be a viable conduit for empathy from America. Even Rosa Parks said about her that, "If the white press had gotten ahold of that information, they would have a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance." In other words, her talents, her cause, her legal standing, her humanity and the very stamp of God's image on her would have meant nothing, because she had given America a sliver of an excuse to dismiss her from their empathy.

When I hear about Colvin, I think about Ma'Khia Bryant. I've been thinking about her for some time, and wanting to write about her, but sitting with my emotions about her until I felt I could say it right. And in that time, it seems as if the rest of the world has moved on. I don't see her name or her smile or her joyful TikTok videos on my Twitter feed anymore. I don't see the memorials or the angry screeds on my Instagram now like in the days after she was killed.

More than that, when I think about Colvin and Ma'Khia, I think about my own daughter. Like them, she's pretty, smart, ambitious, passionate, even impulsive, about the things she wants. Also, like them, she's had it rough. Claudette Colvin suffered the breakdown of her family, just like Ma'Khia, just like my daughter, and that's no small thing for a developing young woman. I did the best I could as a single father, just as I'm sure Claudette's mother did for her, and Ma'Khia's mother did for her. But if I'm being honest, there were times when my intentions and my love exceeded my wisdom and abilities. Like Claudette, my daughter got pregnant before she was even a senior in high school, and sent us scrambling to care for her in the right way, and her daughter as well. Like Ma'Khia, my daughter had anger in her and a fiery sense of self-defense that was the result of being hurt by the ones she loved and trusted.

My daughter's road is not my road, and I can guide her and provide her with a team to navigate it, but I don't know what it's like to feel my feet cut on those rocks and gravel, to long for the grass under my toes again. But I can empathize with her. I've watched her struggle, succeed, fail, and fight back to success over and over, and I can imagine what she must feel, in the wins as well as the losses. Through her, and through my own experiences of loss and failure and guilt, I can imagine what Claudette must have felt, going from being the righteous defender of justice to the shameful byword of the movement, what Ma'Khia must have felt, calling the police for help in a moment of intense danger, and then realizing that she would have to be her own protector and warrior.

It bothers me that every time one of us is the victim of injustice, before we allow ourselves to empathize, before we lament their loss and the desecration of another bearer of the image of God, we feel the need to comb through every nuance of the situation to make sure the person did everything right, and the government did everything wrong. It bothers me that we feel compelled to scour the history of the victim of injustice to find any sin that would make them unworthy of our empathy and passionate advocacy.

As much as that lack of empathy gets to me, I'm glad that God doesn't treat us that way. Just look at Matthew 9:35. After dealing with people caught in the most repulsive sins and the ugliest diseases, the Scripture doesn't say, "When he saw the crowds, he was very careful to select those who were more or less blameless, or at least had only committed the kind of sins that the nation could relate to and therefore overlook." When Jesus looked at those crowds of sinners and sick people, "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Who was supposed to shepherd Ma'Khia? She was harassed and helpless, wasn't she? Removed from her family, stuck in a foster system that didn't serve her well, attacked and outnumbered in the place where she was supposed to call home, she called the shepherd, and he shot her to death. 

I wish she hadn't been holding that knife when the police arrived, but then I also wish she hadn't felt the need to defend her life at such a young age. 

I wish that she had never been in that foster home in the first place, that her family had the resources and the power to stay intact and be her foundation and root as well as her bulwark and defense.

I wish that her attackers had seen a young girl in need of love and guidance instead of an enemy.

I wish that the police had gotten there five minutes earlier, or had reached for the taser instead of the gun, or had otherwise been willing or able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

I wish that we could lament the unjust death of Ma'Khia Bryant without adding the asterisk at the end of our mourning, or just moving on. 

I wish that we were better at empathy, that we were so passionate about lamenting injustice that we didn't look for every loophole to grant ourselves immunity from the Christlike love of the downtrodden and hurting.

I wish I could love like Christ loves me.

When it came to empathy, Jesus set the example for all of us. Recently, Kyle J. Howard pointed out the idea that Christ's empathy for us was demonstrated in the incarnation, that Jesus left his glory to live among us, as one of us, and experience every temptation we experience. Because of his example, and only because of his power within me, I can empathize with a fifteen-year-old girl like Claudette, dehumanized by an unjust system, despite some of her poor decisions. I can see her grief at losing one mother to poverty and another mother to polio before she was thirteen, and I can imagine the ways that trauma would affect the way I think about relationships, motherhood, and pregnancy. Because of Christ's empathy for me, I can empathize with a sixteen-year-old girl whom the system had failed so badly that she found herself standing outside of a foster home wielding a knife against two attackers, only to have the public servants she herself called come and shoot her on sight. And because of Christ's love and empathy for me, I can love and empathize with my daughter when she makes bad decisions that not only affect her own life, but our family's as well.

Because of Christ, I can even empathize with a grown man called on to make a very difficult decision with split-second timing and little information. I can acknowledge the difficulty of that moment and still ask whether it was justice, real justice. And if culpability is found, as it was in the Derek Chauvin case on the same day that Ma'Khia was killed, I should be able to demand accountability and reparations from the offender, and still love him as the prison doors close on him. I should be able to do all these things, but, Lord, it's hard sometimes.

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.