Monday, December 19, 2022

Book Review: Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli

Someday, Maybe is a novel about grief. Eve loses her husband to suicide and struggles to overcome the depression and trauma of not only the loss of her beloved, but also the shock of his decision and the guilt she feels for not seeing the signs. He leaves no note, gives no warning, and creates a mess of family affairs and other loose ends. In addition, his mother pours out all her anger onto Eve, sinking to horrific, but believable, depths of verbal and legal cruelty at a time when Eve is least equipped to defend herself. 

As she grieves, we see flashbacks to Quentin and Eve's love and life together. As the novel progresses, those flashbacks become increasingly more honest. Eve begins to lose the gloss that distorted her view of Quentin, and begins to accept that he was not perfect, just as she isn't, but that both are still worth loving. One thing I like about the novel is that it centers an interracial marriage, with all of the nuances that brings, but the main conflict is not "them against the world." I appreciated the way it balanced the effort to normalize their union while still acknowledging the distinct issues it faces. At its core, the main conflict is grief, and the fact that the lovers are of different races is handled with honesty while still allowing Eve and Quentin to deal with the sorts of problems that most couples face. Even the animosity from Aspen, Quentin's mother, tinged as it might be with racism, is ultimately about control. I got the impression that while Aspen sees Eve as particularly unacceptable fas a daughter-in-law as a Black and Nigerian woman, nobody would have been acceptable. Her relationship with Quentin is one of those toxic relationships in which the mother tries to use her son as a surrogate partner after the death of his father, a dynamic also born out of unresolved grief. 

However, despite some of the critiques of the novel I've read, which I'll discuss later, the novel is not so heavy as to become torturous reading. Not only does the novel oscillate between the utter despair, shock, and grief that Eve is enduring and the mostly happy flashbacks of her life with her husband, but the tone of the novel itself has a dark, sardonic, self-deprecating humor that makes the sadness of it more palatable. One thing that Nwabineli does very well is keep the tone dialed mostly to dark humor, but then periodically remind us of the horror of what actually happened. When Eve is sorting out her feelings for her mother-in-law, balancing a merciful pity for the woman's grief against a justified indignation against her cruelty, she remarks, "She wasn't the one who slid in his blood." Every so often, Nwabineli throws a punch that lands flush, disrupting the dark humor with the pain of reality. And immediately after the punch lands, she can retreat into a rose-tinted flashback or another self-deprecating quip that resets the mood of the novel. 

In addition to the tone, there is a sense of hope produced by Nwabineli's choice of perspective and her strong sense of voice. By writing this novel in first person, Nwabineli is effectively reminding the reader of one of the oldest truths of fiction. If the main character tells the story, then she must survive in the end. In any first person narrative, no matter how many gunshots or breathless close calls, no matter how bleak or dangerous things get, the reader knows that the main character will live to tell the story. In Someday, Maybe, the person telling the story is the Eve who has survived, in whatever form that takes. The narrator is the Eve who no longer spends each day in bed, roused only by loving family members. The Eve telling the story no longer flinches at every hurdle or setback life throws at her. She has overcome, or at least is in the continuing process of overcoming, and this is probably the reason the novel takes the darkly humorous tone that it has. The Eve telling the story can afford to shake her head at the former Eve who easily falls apart at the slightest test of her resolve. In the future, she has the energy and strength to spare. She has survived the worst, and tells the story from the mountain top, or at least high on its face, even if the story itself takes place in the valley.

This brings me to some of the critiques I've read about Eve's grief process. In choosing the novel, I read some reviews, and found several that put me off the book a little, even though I still wanted to read it. Several of the reviews I found took issue with Eve "wallowing" in her grief. They found her either unlikable or unbelievable because she pushes away the people who try to help her and engages in behaviors that are either unhelpful or downright self-destructive to her healing process. I hate to give these reviews oxygen by linking to them, but I do want to respond to their criticism, so I'm posting screenshots here.

Grief is a very personal experience and I understand that is a main part of this story, but I could not spend one more minute watching Eve wallowing and isolating herself from everyone. If that was my only complaint I probably could have kept reading, but there were just a few too many stereotypical clich├ęs for me.

Listened to the audiobook. After listening to two hours of teeth gnashing, wallowing and caterwauling, I gave up. The heroine is grief stricken, we got that, but enough is enough. I wish I could have gotten past that, because the author has a beautiful writing style. Her descriptions are rich and image provoking. I would like to read more of her work, preferably without the nonstop misery.

I really tried to give this book a fair shot, and while there were moments of humor and hope, the vast majority of it felt like a glutton for trauma over and over again.  The glaring issues with the mother-in-law aside, and as much as I hate to agree with Aspen, I also cannot see how any adult would be able to succumb to grief to this extent. Although I think I would have felt the exact emotions that Eve was describing, I cannot think of any adult who would be able to spend almost nine months in bed with little to no repercussions. It just didn’t feel realistic to me at all. The tireless efforts of her family, friends, and acquaintances were inspiring, but I feel like I identified with the older sister Glo most of all. How do we care about Eve when she doesn’t even care about herself? There were so many different steps that could have been taken that, as a reader, I felt resentful of Eve at best and apathetic toward her in the end.

2.5 stars. I am still gathering my thoughts on this… Overall, I found Someday, Maybe to be very, very repetitive. I felt like this novel remained immersed in grief and lacked expansion in terms of healing/coping with loss.

As a rebuttal, first I'd like to congratulate anyone who's lived the type of charmed life that has so far avoided the kind of loss that causes a person to grieve this way. Even so, to have the attitude that "enough is enough" seems pretty callous.

Secondly, dear reader, can I just mention in response to the above reviews that the entire novel takes place in about eight months? Eight months. Ocho meses. Huit. I mention this because when I first read these reviews, I would have liked to know that bit of information. From the time Eve discovers the dead, bloody body of her husband to the end of the novel is a mere eight moons, and yet for some readers, that should be plenty of time to "get past that." For those of us burdened with human hearts and psyches, it can take years to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse, and especially with the suddenness and unanswered questions of an unforeseen suicide. Before I read the novel, reviews like this made me almost not read it, although I would have missed out on something beautiful. Now, after reading the novel, they make me a little angry.

People grieve, often for a long time, and this grief can be a burden or even a cause for repulsion to others, to those who are not grieving. Some time ago, I lost a child. I don't talk about it with anyone except my wife, and that probably less than I should. He was basically stillborn after a complicated pregnancy. I became depressed and angry for at least a couple of years, and I was probably difficult to be around. Today, I'm more or less healed, in the sense that I don't eat everything that isn't nailed down and lay around all the time. Still, I have about ten or fifteen minutes of intense sadness, every day, and I don't always know when it's going to hit. He'd be turning twenty-four soon if he'd survived. I don't think it's a fair critique to say that a woman should get over the loss of her husband to suicide in just eight months.

This doesn't mean that Someday, Maybe isn't a tough read sometimes, emotionally. Grief is tough, and this novel does a brilliant job of depicting the process - including the messiness and self-destructive behavior. As she works through her shock and depression, Eve really does become a burden to her family, who rally around her to the point of risking their own mental health. She pushes people away and fails to confront issues until they snowball into problems. Fortunately for her, she does have a family with strong bonds and strong faith to support her through her struggle. I don't know how anyone would survive a loss like hers without that support. I suppose some people don't.

In the end, Eve has to reckon with the fact that while she isn't responsible for Q's decision, that her husband both was and wasn't the man she believed him to be. She discovers that it's okay to love him for all the things she knew and the things she didn't, and it's okay to move on. "Sadness is not a reason to stop living." 

I found Someday, Maybe not only engaging and beautiful, but very helpful and encouraging. Nwabineli has created something with style and heart, and I look forward to reading whatever she does next.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Multiracial or Transcultural? Part 1

I've been reading Onyi Nwabileni's debut novel Someday, Maybe and it's really great. I'll do a review of it as soon as I finish it. One thing that I love about it is that it centers an interracial couple in a way that portrays some of the unique issues and advantages these unions face, but without making it the central theme of the novel. Nwabileni depicts in-law issues and cultural learning curves, but doesn't elevate those problems to a sob story about the couple overcoming racism or prejudice. On the other hand, sobbing does play a major role in the story, in the context of grief, but more on that later.

I felt a similar reaction to the central couple in the new Disney movie Strange World, which is ... not great ... for a lot of reasons. Not terrible, just underwhelming. One redeeming aspect of it is, again, the interracial couple at the core of the film, but in this case, the movie makes no reference at all to any hardships or issues stemming from their cultural and ethnic differences. In fact, aside from their complexion, I can't see any cultural differences at all, or any culture, really, which is one of the failures of the movie. While it's refreshing to see a multiracial family on screen that's allowed to just exist, experience has made me aware that while pockets of life are like that, interracial couples have their own problems.

In a Twitter discussion about interracial couples, Kyle J. Howard posted a definition that captures one of the main issues facing us:

Tweet from Kyle J. Howard: nterracial marriages are marriages that exist between two people who come from a different ethnic, racial, and/or cultural background. Interracial marriage doesn’t necessitate a blending or valuing of differences or distinctions, it simply acknowledges they exist.

That's it. That's an interracial marriage. And they can be healthy or toxic, loving or hateful, progressive or extremely racist. I remember during Trump's 2015 campaign and then presidency, one of the defenses his supporters would use against charges of racism against him were that "he'd be the only racist who ever dated a Black woman." As a rebuttal, consider the following:

1) No, he's not. Not even close.

2) That dynamic is a lot more common than people think.

3) There are various reasons why a racist white person would be sexually attracted to a Black person, all of them problematic and pretty icky.

Not being racist, I'd have a hard time listing all the reasons for a relationship like this to exist. I could give my own first hand experience of getting into a relationship only to find out that the person is not who I thought they were. In addition, being white has given me access to certain conversations, and I have learned that many people who don't think of themselves as racist love to embrace their friends or loved ones of color as "the good ones," because it covers and justifies their animosity towards all the rest, or "the bad ones." Either way, just like any romantic relationship has a tentative period of exploring if the partner is really who they present to be, the interracial couple, specifically the partner of color, has the added burden of figuring out if their romantic prospect really sees their personhood, rather than viewing them as a fetish, a mark, or one of "the good ones."

And the trust curve is just one of the issues that interracial couples face. Even when the trust is granted and the issue settled, it can flare up again whenever racial unrest hits the community. Add to that the in-law issues, the looks from strangers in certain places, the additional factors in choosing a neighborhood to live in. My middle daughter is nearing those preteen years when she's becoming increasing interested in hair and fashion. She's become adamant about straightening her hair. I don't mind it as a style, but I have to be concerned that it's not coming from a place of self-hate. As it is, people doubt that she's her mother's daughter because of the girl's light complexion and blue eyes, even though she's her mom's clone in every feature except color. If she straightens her coily hair, lighter than her mother's in color, but similar in texture, is she separating herself from her mother's culture and genetics? Does she think her mom's hair is less attractive?

My older daughter has been through all that. Today, she is very light-skinned with barely wavy, dark hair, but chooses to think of herself as a type of Black person, even though she embraces both sides of the family. After a tragic event in the community that hit us both, she made the mistake of reading the comments in the news report and sent me the following text:

Text from daughter to dad. Daughter says that the comments in the news story make her mad, and she knows they're white people. She says she's sorry, but white people make her mad sometimes. Dad responds that he's Jewish.

My mother is Jewish, but I think of myself as culturally white, probably because my siblings and I didn't know Mom was Jewish until I was a preteen (a wild story for another post). So in our multiracial home, my mixed daughter who thinks of herself as primarily Black has space in her sense of self to be angry with "a lot of white ppl," and her father, who thinks of himself as primarily white tries to channel her anger with my worn out "dad joke" about being Jewish only when racism enters the conversation. It's a tapestry we're weaving here. It's not always pretty, and it's got holes in places, but we've worked hard on it, and we love it, flaws and all.

Later in his thread, Howard gives another way of looking at these kinds of marriages, the tapestries woven from cultural and ethnic threads from both partners. He calls this type of marriage transcultural:
Tweet from Kyle J. Howard: Transcultural marriage is when to people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them. It’s a marriage where both spouses cultural backgrounds are honored & celebrated. To put it simply, it’s an actual marriage, the other dynamic is not.
This definition hits me right in the lived experience. I've heard of interracial marriages being colonizer marriages or missionary marriages, and it's a rather ugly reality. When one partner dominates the culture and traditions of the home, or blasts any ways of thinking or being that they don't recognize and respect from their own background and upbringing, what results is not marriage, but a form of toxicity and abuse that can warp and destroy the home, the other partner, and any children as well. And at the end of the day, as Howard says, transcultural marriage is an actual marriage, where both partners are celebrated in what makes them both similar and different. 

And in reality, while not every marriage has the same set of problems that an interracial marriage has, every successful marriage is a transcultural marriage in some way. Like Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I've seen marriages between two white partners where one's traditions and heritage were constantly belittled, where the in-laws were repeatedly ostracized and disrespected, where one partner's impact on the children was always considered suspect. The "culture" the mistreated partner brought into the marriage was never good enough, and it seemed to give the other partner a sick pleasure to think of their own family history and culture as superior. Wicked people thrive off of this false sense of superiority, and it may be the driving difference between what Howard calls a merely "interracial" marriage and a truly "transcultural" one. Heck, it may be the reason racist people seek out such partners in the first place.

In the next few weeks, I'd like to follow this up with some thoughts about how one would know if one were in a toxic interracial marriage or a transcultural one. I'm going to do some more thinking and reading on the subject, especially on the idea of whether an interracial marriage that is infected with superiority and condescension can ever really become transcultural. I'd like to think it can, but I don't want to be so naive as to ignore the struggle and change that would inevitably have to take place for that to happen. It reminds me of the ending of Ibsen's A Doll's House, when Nora says that in order for her relationship with Torvald to become anything but two strangers, the "greatest miracle would have to take place." She says she doesn't believe in miracles any longer, but I do. Still, I would be hard-pressed at the moment to say how that would happen in a situation like this, but I'll hold out hope.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Beta Readers

It's about a week after hurricane season here in South Florida, but apparently nobody sent the Atlantic Ocean the reminder text, so I've got two days off for Hurricane Nicole, who is currently sending us a trickle of rain and weak wind that nonetheless ruined my run this morning because I am getting too old and Nicole is mean. I keep seeing all the memes online about teachers dancing and cheering at these days off, and I don't doubt some are, but a lot of us are dealing with cabin fever combined with anxiety about how to catch up when classes resume.

I've graded everything that needs grading, except for the dozen or so emails from students crying about late assignments, which I've chosen to ignore for now, and the kids are either napping or playing games on the Switch. With all this free time, I've decided to tackle a chore that I've been putting off for some time. No, not housework, it's my Beta Reader Survey!

A tan sandwich sign on a red brick walkway says "awesome" with an arrow pointing right and "less awesome" with an arrow pointing left.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

For writers, beta readers are crucial to the success of any text, whether it's a short story or a novel, fiction or nonfiction. Beta readers are generally the first people to read an early, polished draft of your work and give you feedback about the story and writing quality. I used to wonder why they're called beta readers instead of alpha readers, since they're the first ones to see the (semi)finished story. But that's the thing, the writer is the alpha reader, the truly first to read the story all the way through. And that's why writers need beta readers, because we suck at evaluating our own work. Think about some of the most obvious reasons why writers are the worst judges of their writing:
  • We tend to always think our work is either terrible or terrific, and that opinion usually fluctuates with our mood, sleep debt, relationship status, and hunger level.
  • We know all the possible paths the story could have taken, all the "deleted scenes" as it were, so we can't really judge the story arc on its own merits.
  • We have a built in connection to the characters because they are people we know, people who live inside our heads, or people who are really ourselves with different names and hairstyles.
  • We're often just tired of the whole thing already and want it to be on bookshelves and over with, for goodness sake.
On the other hand, a good beta reader has none of those hangups. They evaluate the work as it appears on the page, without the baggage of self-doubt and the fear of people laughing at them. Because they are only seeing the draft in front of them, they can focus on whether it works or not, instead of the hundred revisions that might have been better. Like your best friend meeting your new girlfriend for the first time, they don't have any innate attachment to the characters, either negatively or positively, and will only feel connected to them if the writing accomplishes that feat for them. Lastly, a beta reader is seeing the work with fresh eyes, without the fatigue of hours and hours of writing and editing, and (if they're a decent person) probably still wants to see it on bookshelves wherever fine novels are sold.

Furthermore, if you're serious about publishing your work, whether through traditional houses or self-publishing means, you really don't want the first person to find the flaws in it to be an agent, a publisher, or a reader who will drop a one-star review that tanks your algorithms.

Now, you can always pay for good beta readers, and you'll usually find very professional and competent ones for hire. But some of us ain't sold a book yet, and ain't got that kind of money, so we need free help.

However, that doesn't mean that just anyone would make a good beta reader. Any literate person can read your work, but it takes a special person to respond in a way that actually helps guide your revision process. Your beta reader needs to be someone who can tell you your book sucks without jeopardizing the relationship, or at least be able to give constructive criticism that you can receive without catching feelings. If the reader is someone close to you by blood or romance, they might be hesitant to tell you anything other than "It's great!" and you might be too invested in the relationship to hear anything else as well.

But aside from the emotional connection to the person, you have to consider how likely they are to give you the kind of feedback you can use. If you choose someone who isn't really a reader, who might not even like reading (can you imagine?), then their reaction to your work is going to be equally dispassionate, assuming they even want to read it. On the other hand, just being an avid reader who goes through five or six books a month doesn't necessarily make someone a good beta reader for your work. You might be better off with someone who reads fewer books, but reads them more critically, and especially someone who can explain very clearly why they did or didn't like a book. A reader who is voracious but shallow will probably only be able to give you a thumbs up or down, and be eager to move on to their next conquest. But a thoughtful reader who can articulate their reactions to story, plot, character, theme, and style is a the perfect beta reader. This doesn't have to be someone with a degree in English or writing, although it helps. Just look for someone who can actually talk about the books they read. Any time you find yourself in an interesting conversation with someone about a novel or short story, get their contact info and ask them if they'd be willing to beta read for you sometime. Frame it as a compliment about how insightful they are and how much you think their opinions would help you.

Also, consider whether you need a beta reader with a special or unique background. Is there a question of cultural authenticity that you want the reader to address? Or maybe some occupational insight into a field of work that you want to ring true in your story? Do you need the perspective of someone with a particular gender, nationality, or ethnicity to read your work in order to evaluate a specific character's motivations or reactions? For my last (unpublished) WIP, I wanted to write about a boy growing up in Zambia, like my nephew. I was able to consult with my sister who adopted him about that experience and some general questions about the country, but she also referred me to her friends who are both Zambian nationals and academics. They were able to answer so many questions about how the plot of my story would have to work, what could and couldn't happen, and how different people in the culture would react to a specific conflict. It wasn't the focal point of the entire novel, but I want it to be authentic and respectful of Zambian culture, and these readers gave me tons of material to work with. Likewise, for my current WIP that involves a lot of scenes in the ocean, I was lucky enough to find a marine biologist willing to read the relevant chapters and let me know what worked and what didn't, scientifically.

So, the best beta reader is someone who can properly assess your novel's merits and is willing to tell you the truth about it, but also someone who has the time to actually commit to the project. If you're trying to publish, you can't wait months for someone to finish reading your novel. Not only that, but providing proper feedback is a whole other chore itself. It involves making notes while reading and probably a more holistic response at the end. It's work. For that reason, try to avoid asking the single parent with two kids and very little free time to beta read for you. They might even really want to do it, but if they can't get it done in a timely manner without disrupting their own personal lives, then it's really not a good idea for either one of you.

Of course, you can ease some of the burden on your beta readers by providing a formal method of feedback that relieves them of the pressure of trying to respond to absolutely everything in the novel or story. I've been using this Google form to collect feedback, and I add, remove, or change questions to suit the specific concerns I have about a given work in progress. This way, my beta reader doesn't waste time wondering what I want to know or over-responding, and I don't end up with completely useless feedback that doesn't address my concerns about the work. In addition, I can keep the feedback all in one place, and view all of my readers' responses to a specific question together.

Lastly, one of the best ways to find good beta readers is also the most obvious. Swap WIP's with other writers! If you're not already connected to a group of writers, this is one important reason to find your people. This could be an in-person, local writing group or an online, informal Twitter or Instagram circle, but it's really important to network with other writers, aside from all the other benefits, having other writers in your circle is the best pool from which to draw beta readers. Given all the necessary qualities of a good beta reader, another aspiring or successful writer is a perfect fit. They already know the craft as well as the process, they are probably not so close to you to cause emotions to interfere with feedback, and they have a vested interest in providing meaningful feedback if they are relying on you to do the same for them. Everybody wins.

So, by all means, copy the Google form above, if it helps, and modify it however you think will help you. Also, try listening to this podcast episode about being a good beta reader by K. M. Weiland at her podcast "Helping Writers Become Authors." She gives some good advice about being a beta reader that can also help you choose the right person to read for you. Also, watch this video from Shaelin Writes about how to handle feedback or criticism, and how to actually apply it to revising your work. She gives some insight in what to do with the criticisms your readers might make, other than rolling into a ball in the corner and telling yourself that you were stupid to even write your name on paper.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Who's the Man?

I've noticed that a lot of pastors and other evangelical pundits that pop up in my Twitter feed are very worried about the state of manliness these days.

For them, the true and proper - Biblical - definition of manliness, includes boldness in speech and authority in home, work, and church. It definitely means getting married, preferably young.

For many of them, manliness also includes looking the part - wearing the manliest of clothes and sporting a long, lush beard.

It's really been getting to me lately. Not for myself, of course. Goodness, no. But I have this friend I'm specifically worried about. 

I've known this guy for years now, and he doesn't fit the description of manliness at all, not even a little. It's the kind of thing I never really noticed before, but now, with all the emphasis on this biblical manhood, it's like I can't unsee it. I always thought of him as different, for sure, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Let me explain what I mean. For starters, this guy is in his thirties and unmarried, which is not necessarily so bad. A lot of guys just have bad luck in this area, for various reasons, and to be honest, my friend is, shall we say, aesthetically challenged. What I mean is, he ain't exactly good-looking. And yet, the womenfolk seem to flock to him. I wish I had half the charisma this guy has when I was single. Women are just naturally drawn to him, but it's like he doesn't even notice. No flirting, no dating, no "courting." Nothing. As far as I can tell, he's never even had a girlfriend. He never talks about even liking some woman, much less getting married some day or having kids. I'm not sure he's even interested.

To be clear, he's also a self-appointed preacher, although he's never been approved or ordained by any church or denomination I know of. He was endorsed by another famous preacher that a lot of people have heard of, but I'd rather not name here. But this guy is similarly outside the norm when it comes to masculinity, as well as a bunch of other stuff - unmarried as well, on top of being anti-capitalist and just all around odd. He laid hands on my friend at the beginning of my friend's career as a preacher, and then promptly got himself cancelled for saying some pretty harsh stuff about our local political leadership. 

Anyway, if it were just the unmarried thing, that wouldn't be so much, even though, as I said, he's surrounded by eligible, beautiful women. He's also overly affectionate with the guys. I mean, I suppose it's a part of his culture (he's not American), but he's the type to be kissing dudes on the cheek in greeting. If I'm being perfectly candid, it makes me a little uncomfortable. Also, he comes from one of those foot-washing traditions, and he tried to make us all do it the other night, like literally wash our feet. None of the other guys in the group have said anything about it, but I feel like they must notice, especially since there's one guy in our group that he's especially affectionate with. The two of them always sit together wherever we go, and even if you chalk up the kissing to cultural greeting standards, the two of them seem to always be leaning on each other or sitting with one's arm around the other, if you know what I'm saying. Close. 

Then there's the way he carries himself. I've seen him get cussed at and not even say anything back. He'll get hit and just take it, not even defend himself, at all. 

And on that note, I have to confess something that might make me look bad to some people, but I think it's important to note concerning his lack of manliness, specifically when it comes to sticking up for himself. So, among our group of guys, we have this sort of informal organization, a kind of club we put together to travel and spread the gospel. The club funds are supposed to be for travel expenses, advertising materials, messaging, event coordination, and sometimes charitable giving. Now, I'm in charge of the money we collect, from each other as well as donations, sort of the club treasurer. It's a volunteer position, completely unpaid, but it's also a lot of work. So, occasionally, I use some of the club funds for my personal expenses. Not much, and only because with all the time I spend on club business and the way the economy is lately, I'm really struggling. The thing is, I'm pretty sure my friend knows about this, and he hasn't said anything. He just won't confront me about it, which makes me think either he's too weak to speak up, or he doesn't care. In addition, some of the local pastors are concerned about him as well, and have been talking to me about getting my help to get him to quit preaching, maybe even expose some the stuff I'm talking about to get people to stop listening to him. Now, I know for sure he knows about these pastors and I talking about him, because he low-key brought it up the last time we all had dinner together. He just threw out there that he knew someone in the group was thinking about betraying him, and even though he didn't call me out by name, he looked at me later on and said basically, "do what you have to do." I don't want to be a bad friend, but these pastors are offering some real money for my help, and I'm thinking about taking it. And I'm pretty sure he knows all this, but he's too effeminate to do anything about it.

I wonder what some of these "theobro" pastors and Christian pundits would think of my friend - an unmarried man with no interest in women or romance, who refuses to stick up for himself, wouldn't crush a grape in a fruit fight, is overly affectionate with the guys, and doesn't even work out. A guy who openly preaches that Christians should be meek and put themselves last.

On the other hand, his his beard game is pretty fierce.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Bread Alone

I might need to get back into therapy.

It's been a couple of rough years for everyone, and the normal level of animosity and defensiveness in society has ratcheted up to the point where marriages, families, and churches are exploding in gory messes of latent hostility. It may be that we've all got recent trauma that needs healing, or it may be that the age of social media and politics has revealed our true selves, no longer content to hide behind an avatar. Either way, people ain't right, and we could all use some help with our mental health, myself included. 

A tall apartment building made of brick with a weathered sign on the side that reads, "How are you, really?"
A tall apartment building made of brick with a weathered sign on the
side that reads, "How are you, really?"
Photo by Finn on Unsplash

And yet, there are so many voices discouraging us from pursuing that help, dissuading us from seeking out mental health specialists. For men especially, it's a taboo, something that flies in the face of the tough guy stereotype that pervades our culture in film and music, even the church. Maybe even especially the church. I can't even count how many times I've seen pastors or so-called theobros on Twitter mocking therapy as some kind of safe space for sissies, or worse, something anti-god or anti-Christian.

In their anti-therapy rants (which generally expose both their ignorance and their need for therapy) a lot of them like to quote Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." It seems like a dunk on those who need therapy to help correct situations like grief, depression, or marital and family issues. The thing about Jesus' words there is that he doesn't say that we don't need bread, just that faith and specifically Scripture is as life-giving to our soul as food is to our body. It would be stupid to say that we could survive without food - or medicine, or education, or family, or any number of the necessities of life - as long as we read the Bible enough. Another way I've seen it said is that "Scripture is sufficient." This might sound a lot more spiritual, but again, what does it mean? What is Scripture sufficient for? Certainly for faith and salvation, but for cooking advice? For medical counseling? For depression or any other mental health issues? At the risk of sounding blasphemous, can the Scriptures alone, separate from all the science and data from the last few decades, help me raise my kids when our situation is complicated? There seems to be a whole lot of ground left uncovered between the "spare the rod and spoil the child" of the Old Testament and the "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger" of the New Testament. As a parent, how am I supposed to fill in those gaps?

Furthermore, for blended families, the need for both family therapy and personal therapy is even more crucial. It should almost be a requirement. I have to admit, I was slow to embrace therapy in the beginning of our marriage. My wife pushed for it nearly from the beginning. I, on the other hand, thought we had some normal problems that time and love would work out. I knew how much my kids and I had benefitted from therapy during those years of single fatherhood, but I wanted to believe that we had outgrown that need now that we were a new, happy family. Ultimately, things got hot enough that I had to admit that she was right, and we found a good family and marriage counselor to help us out. I don't think our family dynamic would have turned out as well as it did without that help and guidance.

Conventional church wisdom told me to talk to the pastor, or read the Bible more. Those are certainly necessary aspects of the solution, but, alone, not going to produce results. Blended families are different. Blended families are born out of pain and trauma. Somebody died. Somebody left. Everybody suffered. Stepchildren and stepparents, as well as adopted children and adopted parents, have unique traumas that require more healing that a well-intentioned, but untrained, pastor can provide. Generally speaking, most pastors are men, married, have never been through divorce, and lack extensive training in marriage counseling. Pastors, even the best, most highly educated ones, may have studied theology extensively, but only taken one or two courses in counseling, if that. Many MDiv programs don't require it at all. Both experientially and professionally, they lack the tools to actually guide broken families towards healing, and may do more harm than good. 

And beware of Christian counselors who have special practices in counseling, but also lack the credentials or experience to deal with issues involving mental health. I'm not saying that a Christian counselor is not adequate or even preferable, but as with any specialist, we should make sure we ask the right questions and look past the cross hanging on the wall of their office to the diplomas and certifications hanging there as well.

To make it even more complicated, there is a pervasive but often unspoken aversion in the church to taking our flaws and failures outside our faith "bubbles." After all, we're supposed to be the city on a hill, we don't get depressed or anxious, and if we do, prayer and fasting drives it away like roaches when the light comes on. Our children respond perfectly to the prescribed methods of discipline, and our marriages are all glorious pictures of Christ and his Bride, right? It feels like a betrayal to the church to look for guidance outside its walls.

We'd rather starve than eat the bread in the bakery right across the street and admit that we need help that the church doesn't provide.

So, in case you needed permission or a little push to start searching for a therapist in your area, now you have it. Whether that means you are seeking help with mental health or family issues, do your research, get references, and get started. If you need more encouragement, here's a couple of podcast episodes that might help.

The first is from Truth's Table, back in April of 2022, discussing the need for therapy in general, but more specifically for matters of church hurt and even spiritual abuse. Imagine having trauma related to the church, or even a pastor, and being told to just read the Bible more or sit down with other church officials to find healing.

The second is from a podcast created by a couple of friends of mine called Michel Matters. In this episode, among other topics, they discuss therapy and its usefulness in their lives. 

As much as I hope that you get something out of these podcasts, please remember that media is no replacement for professional help from a mental health or family therapist. Just like physical therapy after an accident or some trauma to the body, the sooner you get started, the sooner healing begins.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Artistry is Privilege: With Apologies for Late Blog Posts

I feel like I'm in confession. Forgive me for my sins. It's been two months since my last blog post.

I could give all kinds of excuses for my failure to post this summer with any consistency, but the truth is that I've been busy, and I no longer think that needs an apology or an excuse. In fact, one thing the past two months of hustle and guilt have taught me is that art and privilege go hand in hand.

Our culture is filled with images of artists spending hours covered in spots of paint, feverishly creating their magnum opus in wood-floored studio, or writers sipping lattes in leisure as they edit their debut novels. There's a certain romanticism of the artistic life, and some people really do live it. 

The rest of us have day jobs and kids.

Most of us have passions for writing or some other artistic vision, but very little time to pursue them. The majority of out time is spent making the money that keeps us and our dependents alive. For some of us, our work, even if we love it, saps most of the time and mental energy that we could use to hone our craft and breathe life into the works we want to give the world.

And the publishing industry knows this. On my own bookshelf here in my tiny writing nook, I have titles like The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and The 8-Minute Writing Habit by Monica Leonelle. Leonelle's cover actually has a picture of a woman with several arms, holding a grocery bag, a baby, a backpack, a clock, and a computer. It's a fine book, and a helpful one, but my point is - they know, y'all! They know that an entire market of stifled writers exists, dreaming up stories on their eight to ten hour shifts only to come home too physically exhausted and mentally drained to actually write them. 

On the other hand, there are rich writers out there, trust-fund kids (not that this is inherently a bad thing) who really do have the time and money for a devoted writers life, including all the contemplative morning lattes and idyllic retreats at lakeside spas. I wouldn't know what that feels like, but I imagine that it's pretty satisfying, having the time to not only write the stories that beat against the chest, but to actually reflect on them, to consider one's role in the culture and industry. I do wonder if it ever occurs to them that the barista who carefully concocts the perfect caffeinated beverage for them might have her own stories or poems to write, might jealously crave the leisure time they enjoy.

On that subject, Virginia Woolf got it right. Developing a writing practice takes time, space, and money, and those either gifted or cursed with the passion, but not the opportunity, drive themselves crazy with desperation. Alice Walker, in her essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," pointed to the elaborate and beautiful quilts and gardens created by women who poured their artistic instincts into their everyday work, in order to escape the looming madness of stifled inspiration.

Whenever I feel the most productive years of my life slipping away, or the tension of my art and my vocation pulling at each other, I remember Toni Morrison, whose work I love and try to emulate. I picture her writing The Bluest Eye at 39, then a single mother with two boys. I don't have boys in the house any more, just two, sometimes three, girls who want to play games with me, wrestle, sit in my lap, and tell me their own stories. I have about fifteen square feet in this entire condo unit dedicated to my writing, and sometimes, they don't seem to want to be anywhere else. My writing routines have evolved to include a smaller laptop that fits in my special chair right next to a sleepy toddler and a pair of noise-canceling headphones that block out the sound of endless Cocomelon songs and little ones singing them as loud as they can.

As I write that, it occurs to me that all that - the chair, the laptop, the headphones - is my own privilege as well. My writing nook may be small, but I have one, and I don't have to buy a burger to keep from getting booted out of the local McDonald's and off the free WIFI. I know, I know. More than that, as a teacher, I get summers off, and for the last few years, for the first time in my professional life, I have had the privilege of actually being able to enjoy them. I no longer have to work a summer job to make ends meet, and I don't have administrative duties keeping me chained to the campus eight-to-four anymore either. It really feels like I'm a writer now, for just two hot months out of the year. I have a whole routine works out.

8:00 - Drop the girls off at summer camp and head to the gym.

9:00 - Leave the gym and shower and eat at home.

10:00 - One hour of reading to fill my brain with good words.

11:00 - One hour of editing older work.

12:00 - Write a minimum of 1500 words in my current WIP, and don't stop, get up, or eat until I hit my numbers.

If time remains, and it often does, I treat myself to a movie or video game session before I have to pick up the girls at four. I'm so productive in those two short months, I've made it my goal to spend the year thinking of new novel ideas and outlining them just so I can start the summer with a clear goal in mind. Honestly, it's the one thing that sustains me through those last two hectic months of the school year. It's the reason my grades are in on time and my end of year checklist is checked and double-checked. Most days, I aim for the minimum 1500 words, but I can easily hit 2000 if the wind is blowing in the right direction. I even have the receipts to prove it.

But just look what happens to my productivity once school starts again, and I have to abandon my privileged writing routine for the grind that, currently, pays the bills.

I promise, it's not a lack of willpower or time management. I get so sick of seeing the stupid Instagram motivational posts that say, "Everyone has the same 24 hours in the day." I'm here to tell you, time is money, and money is time, and with enough wealth, anyone can stretch their days like their living room has a black hole in it. Forget about the daily work duties - if I could pay a chef to cook and grocery shop for me, I could carve out at least ten more hours in each week to write. I know that I'm privileged to have even two months out of the year to live like a bona fide writer, but the rest of the year, I'm risking madness like Shakespeare's sister in Woolf's essay. 

So, I haven't posted for a while, because I prioritized completing this most recent novel when I actually have the uninterrupted free time to devote to it. Thing is, I still didn't finish it. I got so close, just two more major scenes to write, but time and career caught up with me. At this point, the plan is to write 200 words a day, whether I'm tired or not, whether they're good or not, until I finish the first draft. I hope Ray and Leonelle would be proud of me. Later I can worry about making time to revise and edit. And I'm going to do my best to rant about the writing life and about mixed and blended families here on the blog. But pray for me, because some nights I'm failing to hit even that goal, and embarrassed by the difference between now and the numbers I could hit just a month ago. And for any struggling writers stealing time from work and family or falling asleep with unwritten stories crowding your minds, I'll pray for you and all of us, because the madness creeps up on us when we're not looking.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Book Review: Deep in Providence by Riss M. Neilson

Deep in Providence is a masterful debut novel from Riss M. Neilson, following the lives of three girls, Miliana, Inez, and Natalie, as they grieve over the loss of the fourth member of their tight quartet, Jasmine. Each one of them had a very different relationship with Jas, and misses her intensely, but in her own unique way. The reader never gets to see Jasmine in action, unless you count some of the supernatural or magical elements of the story, but we do get an exhaustive account of her character through the memories of the girls. It's as if each one knew a different side of Jasmine, and their memories may not sync up together, but they do provide an account of a complex person, and give clear reasons why this trio, which used to be a quartet, grieves her the way that they do. In fact, at points in the novel, through memories and flashbacks, we see accounts of Jasmine that almost contradict each other, as if each girl is remembering a different person. It might sound as if it makes the novel confusing, but I promise, it's a beautiful rendering of the way we remember our loved ones. This is what it means to be human, having complex, even contradictory facets to our personalities. Our parents know us as a very different person than our friends do, and our siblings, and our teachers, team members, and anyone else who has even a slightly different relationship with is. Even in a tight circle of friends, like the one depicted in the novel, there are bound to be nuances in the way we co-exist and little touches to our bonds that are different from the others in the same group. Not only that, but the way we remember a person after they are gone can often be very flawed. We choose to hold on to some memories and banish others, and end up with our own personal interpretation of the deceased, which may or may not align with someone else's interpretation, or even the actual truth of the person's life. Deep in Providence captures these complexities brilliantly, giving us a nuanced characterization of a girl we never actually meet.

Something else that kept me engaged with the novel from the beginning is the powerful theme of grief throughout. Each of the girls is grieving Jasmine in her own way, but also grieving other people in their lives as well - Miliana her Papa, Inez her father, and Natalie her mother. Even if the loved one is not dead, like in Inez' and Natalie's case, they are so distant or out or reach as to trigger the same loss and sadness. Sometimes, having a loved one who has changed so much or who is so physically distant can trigger the same feelings of grief that actual death does, grief for the person we knew, now lost to sickness, addiction, incarceration, or deportation. Deep in Providence deals with all of these issues through the theme of grief in a very touching way. The three main characters go through the stages of grief in very clear ways. They pass quickly through denial and then anger, camp out in bargaining for much of the novel, then deep depression and finally healing acceptance. At each stage, the girls' distinct personalities shine through, and while they grieve differently, any reader will be able to find an anchor for their own experiences of grief and loss.

In addition to the powerful theme of grief, I loved the focus on magic and the internal conflict it provokes in each of the girls. I came across this novel through the pre-order hype on Instagram, and immediately gravitated to the magical aspects of the story. After reading it, I loved how Neilson not only depicted the girls' pursuit of magic as a means of bargaining their way through grief, but also the conflict between their religious faith and the magical actions they have to take in preparation to essentially bring their beloved friend back from the dead. As people of faith, especially Christians, since that's my experience, it can be so difficult to trust in a God who allows such inexplicable suffering and loss in our lives. Each of the girls comes from a different cultural background, and each with some sense of magic in their families, but also a strong sense of Christian faith. At many points in the novel, this faith comes into direct conflict with their desire to subvert the grief process or reverse what God has wrought in their lives, and this struggle really brought back memories of the ways that I've dealt with grief, and still do. We may not all turn to magic, but we often find other ways to fight fate or try to rebel against nature or God when things don't go our way. In the novel, the girls face an ethical dilemma in bringing back Jasmine. They justify doing increasingly harmful things to others, or at least risking harm to innocent people in the hopes of mastering the art of magic enough to reach Jasmine's spirit. As someone who knows that dilemma, who has felt the kind of anger and depression that makes you so single-minded in your suffering that you forget that other people have their own lives and loves and losses, this connected me to the characters in a powerful way.

Overall, I loved the novel and can't wait to see what else Neilson publishes. The writing is beautiful - haunting and touching at the same time, and the story does a a great job of presenting very common human experiences through the lens of magic. By the end, I felt both connected to the girls and afraid for them as they pursued a path that could only lead to more heartbreak for them all, and devastating fallout for the people around them. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

CRT, Amoebas, and Venn Diagrams

CRT is the new boogeyman, in the sense that it's become a shapeless, formless specter that haunts our schools and churches. For those who are vehemently against it, it seems to include almost everything about race or racism, like some amoeba floating around absorbing everything in the water, or like the blob from the old horror movie, assimilating everything in its path. Being the skeptical person I am, every time I see a list of authors that I'm warned against because they are CRT (or do CRT, or believe CRT, or practice CRT. Honestly, even the language used to describe it is exhaustingly vague), I look them up to see if that's the case. Sometimes, they are authors who speak against racism or promote anti-racism, but who never claim to embrace CRT, sometimes even openly disclaiming it, like Ibram X. Kendi.

And yet, fellow Christians are constantly warning me that every book on anti-racism is CRT, and that CRT is the devil, to quote Mama Boucher. Usually, these accusations come from people who haven't read the books they warn against, and haven't read any CRT scholars of note. Instead, they lambast the (decidedly vague) notion of CRT at face value. It makes me wonder what we would think about the Christian faith itself, if we only ever listened to its detractors.

The most recent warning I've heard is against Ijeoma Olua's So You Want to Talk About Race? As far as I know, Olua doesn't claim CRT scholarship, but she writes primarily about anti-racism. I got an email with warnings from Christian ministries and Neil Shenvi concerning the book. One specific issue they take with the book is that she says a thing is about race if a person of color says it is. This feeds into the claim that CRT is all about feelings, that it places a higher priority on the subjective experience that on objective truth or statistics. I'm no CRT scholar myself, but in reading some of these anti-racist works, I can definitely say that these authors rely pretty heavily on studies and statistics, while still giving credence to the lived experiences of minorities in our culture. In fact, from what I can tell, a major function of true CRT is to explain the racial differences in legal and economic outcomes, based on the data collected by experts. 

Still, the contention is that CRT, and Olua's book by association, wants to elevate the lived experiences of people of color, particularly when it pertains to racism. But what Olua and others are getting at is that Black folks might just live in a different world than white folks, where the rules are written in stone, but somehow not applied in the same way. If that's true, then denying their lived experiences is like a lactose tolerant person telling a lactose intolerant person that their reactions to ice cream are imagined or made up or unimportant. What is really a very nuanced discussion of race gets reduced to the most controversial, cherry-picked statement in the book. And it's not even the most controversial statement in the book; just wait until the penultimate chapter.

To put it another way, consider how Christians often talk about the solution to racism. Those who are willing to accept that it exists, but often limit that existence to individual feelings of animosity towards other races, will often say that we should "just preach the Gospel," pray for changed hearts and minds. One quote from Olua's book reminded me of this approach to racism.

"When we look at racism simply as any racial prejudice we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter, fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it's a pretty useless one."

This struck me as extremely poignant and sad, considering that I hear Christians saying all the time that the response to racism should be preaching the gospel until hearts change. How exhausting must this be, to be tasked with the never-ending mission of reaching every heart who discriminates against me? And what if the heart belongs to my professor, a banker, a police officer, or anyone with the power to change my life for the worse? What if my livelihood, my legal status, or my safety depend on eliminating racism? How can I be expected to wait until every heart changes, and what if some hearts just never respond to the gospel? This is the basic premise of Dr. Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait.

There are other parts of the book that are tougher to read, and some points that are harder to agree with, but overall, there's a lot to learn, and it definitely isn't the devil. So, why do books like this get lumped all together in this supposedly evil category of CRT?

It's like looking at a Venn diagram of Christianity and capitalism, or socialism, or social justice, or Americana. If we're honest, there's bound to be some overlap, but never a complete alignment. All of creation is fallen and all of man’s systems are corrupt. Arguing that capitalism is better than socialism is like arguing that lying is better than murder. You might have a case, but don’t go printing the t-shirts with logos for your liars club just yet. 

Still, in that overlap, we can find lots of space for agreement, plenty of room to work with people who don't believe exactly the same things we do, but who share some of the same values and goals. By our own Scriptures, Christians should crave opportunities to seek justice, as much or more than anti-racist activists do. Christians should want their neighbors to have the best health care and education opportunities as much or more than any so-called leftist. In so many ways, we should be looking for bridges and making allies to work towards our common goals.

Instead, what we often do is look at these Venn diagrams of Christianity and other systems of thought, with their varying slivers of overlap, and, instead of focusing on the shared values, we first decide whether the opposing system of thought is convenient to us, or something that we're predisposed to accept. If it is, then we try to pull every other tenet of the other circle into the Christian one, whether they fit or not. We force things like rugged individualism or market dynamics into the Christian circle and cherry-pick verses to support it, often twisting them from their original meanings. Conversely, if the system of thought is one we disagree with, then we try to shove every overlapping value into the other circle, whether it's social justice or universal health care, and pretend as if they were never a part of the Christian faith. Ultimately, we alter and deform the faith to suit whatever philosophy we want to support or deny.

At some point, we have to start reading the books for ourselves, starting with our own Bible, instead of just letting others tell us what they mean. We have to decide that we're Christians first, with the primary mandate to love God and love others, and be willing to work with a variety of people to accomplish those two important goals.

Monday, April 11, 2022


This is another chapter from the YA novel that I gave up on. It was over a decade ago, and I was trying to write something that I thought would be more marketable, but not really my passion. Turns out, it was really difficult to write and really easy to quit. Still, I liked some of the characters, especially Norman, from my last post, and Eleina, the girl he's crushing on at school.In this chapter, I tried to give her perspective on the whole Norman issue, and why she seems not to notice him. Hope you enjoy it.


by Jeffray Harrison

He said that? He never told me he liked me. Sure, I knew he liked me, and I knew his name was Norman, too. I just pretended like I didn’t know. Wow, that sounds harsh. Okay, Norman is a very nice guy and all, and he’s even kind of cute when he wants to be, and he does a lot of things well. The problem with nice guys like him is that they change. They get their feelings worked up over a pretty girl so fast, and they don’t even know her. Before you even know they like you, they already think you’re going out with them or you’re their girlfriend or something. They take every little thing the wrong way, and then they get their feelings hurt when you don’t feel the same.

Guys like Jordan are the opposite. They don’t know you either, and they don’t want to know you. They just want to have you, in every way. It’s not enough for them to be able to touch you or tell everybody else that you belong to them – they want to own you. They want you to obey them, and so they tell you to do ridiculous things just to see how much you will take. Then when you reach your limit, no matter where that is, they try to push you just past it, to prove to themselves that they own you. That’s why Jordan’s not my boyfriend either.

I learned all this from my mom, where else. People say I’m pretty, but they all forget about me when they see my mom - boys and girls. But she taught me that pretty isn’t everything you think it is. My dad wanted my mom because she’s pretty, but then when she got pregnant with me, he left her for some other pretty girl. He’d already gotten her to go past her limit. Then when I was growing up, these men would come around and try to get at her, always making promises, but never even knowing who she is. They know what she looks like, and they find out just enough to try to get their way, but they don’t know her. My mom is more than just pretty, you know? She’s way smarter than me, even if I don’t tell her so. She runs her own business and helps everybody. But nobody helps her, least of all these men. They just want to see her limits. They want to spend the night, or take her away for the weekend, or start telling me what to do. Then when she says “no,” they call her names, tell her she’s worthless, even tell her she’s not that pretty, like anyone believes that.

The last one that she believed in asked her to marry him, and she said “yes.” That was six years ago and now we don’t even know where he is. He promised her he would take care of her, that he was going to make it so she didn’t have to work, like she was asking anybody for that. He promised to be faithful, but then once he got her where he wanted her, he left. He promised me things, too.

I remember the day Steve left for good. I was nine years old, ten in another month. I remember exactly when, because we had already started planning my tenth birthday and everything. It was supposed to be this big party, double digits and everything, right? Well, they hadn’t been fighting or anything, at least not where I could see, but it was obviously different. My mom had come home from the salon early to start writing invitations and planning the food for the party with me. We were sitting on the floor in the living room looking at some menus and putting together a guest list. She kept looking at the clock and looking at the door.

I knew it was something with Steve. I knew he should have been home by then. Then after we ordered some pizza for dinner, got it delivered, ate, and cleaned up, he comes walking in the door. 

I’ll never forget the look on his face, not because of the moment so much, but because I’ve seen it on so many men. I saw it on at least three or four of my mom’s boyfriends before that. I saw it on the one married man my mom ever dated, even though she said she never would. I saw it on my father’s face whenever he would come get me for the weekend, which was almost never.

I saw it on my first boyfriend’s face right after I slept with him.

The look on his face was like someone delivering the worst news, that they had done something so horrible that they knew would ruin your life. It’s really two looks – the look of being sorry mixed with the look of wanting to get away, run away, be somewhere else.

“Hey kiddo,” he said in that fakey smiley way, “Can you go into your room so I can talk to your mom for a sec?”

I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been bad because my mom grabbed me and covered my mouth. I remember fighting her off and throwing all of the invitations at Steve.

“Why don’t you just say it?” I yelled, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do, what men always do?”

“Eleina,” my mom put her arms around me and held me close, covering my mouth again with her hand, “settle down, mija.”

“No, I don’t want to,” I broke away from her and pushed Steve back to the door. “I know what you’re doing. So just go.”

Steve grabbed my arms to stop me from pushing him, but I got one free and punched him in the chest. 

“Stop, Eleina,” Steve coughed and grabbed my arms again, turning me around and holding my back to his chest with my arms crossed in front of me. “Let’s talk about it first.”

I felt so angry and so stupid. I kept trying to kick him or get away from him, but I couldn’t. I tried so hard not to cry, but I couldn’t help it. Finally, I just stopped fighting and cried. Steve let me go and I sat down on the floor.

“Just go,” my mom said, “I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t care.” She walked over to the door and opened it, standing there just like she did when she opened up the salon for her clients in the morning. “I’ll get your things ready and you can pick them up tomorrow. Just go now before you make Eleina more upset.”

He looked at her for a second, and then he looked down at me, and then he started out the door.

“And don’t come to my birthday party either,” I yelled at him as he left. He turned around once, looked like he was going to say something, and then looked down and walked out. I don’t know why I said it. It seems stupid now, but I wanted to find some way to hurt him. The worst thing is when he really didn’t come to the party. That was in October. Then he didn’t come for Christmas, or for Mom’s birthday, or for my next birthday. I think I only saw him two or three times after that, mostly when they were settling the divorce. That’s when I knew that all of those things he said to me, all of the special things he did with me, taking me places and buying me things and everything, it was all just one more way to get at my mom, to get her to go past her limits, just to see if he could.

I cried all that whole night, and then most of the next day, too. But my mom never did. She just slept in my bed with me that night and held me and sang to me, but she never cried. Even now I remember not just the look on his face, but what he must have seen – me crying on the floor and my mom holding the door for him just like she would for anybody else coming through her salon. That’s what my mom taught me, that when a guy leaves, just pretend like you don’t care, like you expected it all along.

Sometimes I look at pictures of my mom when she was a teenager. She had the same long black hair like mine, even though mine doesn’t go all the way to my waist like hers, thank God. She had the same brown eyes. And just like me, she, kind of, you know developed early. I’ve been looking at those pictures ever since I can remember, almost like watching my mom grow up with me. I used to look forward to being like her. Not that I don’t want to be like her now, but, well, when I look at the pictures of her with Dad, or with Steve, or with other guys that don’t come around anymore, I wonder if I’m going to grow into that to, just like the rest of it. Maybe one day I’ll just be the pretty woman with no husband.

In fact, the only difference between me and my mom is our skin. She’s got that light-skinned Puerto-Rican thing, and I’m mixed. Even then, I wish I was more like her, without everyone always telling me what I’m supposed to be, wondering why I don’t do this or eat that or listen to whatever music. I tried to get into the modeling thing last year, through one of those agencies that sets up a booth in the mall. I stuck with it for almost five months, but I got tired of being called “exotic.” It made me feel so uncomfortable – I could never tell if they were calling me beautiful, or different, or slutty, so I just walked away from it.

When I was younger, I used to see the way men would look at my mom, or even say things to her, and I used to pray that I would look like her when I grew up, so that men would notice me, too. But then when I was about eleven or twelve, they started noticing, and they started saying the same things, only by then I knew what they meant.

I remember the first time my mom let me go to the mall with my friends without her. It was a month after my twelfth birthday, and a few of us girls met at my house and then took the bus together to the mall. I felt so good about being on my own. I got dressed up the way my mother did when she went shopping, “looking fierce,” she would say. At first it was the bus driver looking at me funny, but I thought maybe it was just because there were so many kids getting on at one time. But then it was the men working in the stores, and the old guys in the food court, and the security guard who kept watching me and trying to get my attention. Then it was the tall man with the Miami Heat jersey on. He must have been at least thirty. He walked right over to the group of us, ignored everyone else, and kind of shoved himself in front of me while we were walking to get me away from the group.

“What’s going on, Lil’ Mama?” he said. “What you shopping for?”

I tried to be nice. “I’m with my friends,” I said.

“I could be your friend.”

The worst thing is that my friends didn’t do anything. They thought it was so cool, an older guy talking to me. But I knew better. I’ve seen the look in his eyes from plenty of guys who came up to talk to my mom, and mostly I thought it was cool, too. But when it’s you they’re talking to, and your body they can’t take their eyes off of, it’s not cool. I pretended to be sick and left my friends there.

That’s what I like about Jordan. I mean, he looks at me the same way, and he’s always trying to touch me somehow. No matter what I let him do, he always wants to do more. But at least I know him. There’s no secrets with him – no surprises. And when I’m with him, none of the other guys look at me that way. None of the other guys come talk to me, or try to touch me – not when he’s there. But I’m not going to sleep with him just because he wants to, or just because he protects me, or just because he says he’ll drop me if I don’t, because other girls will. I did that once already.

Sometimes I think it might be different with someone like Norman. I mean, he seems like the kind of guy who would really take care of a girl he liked, and not always try to get something from her. My mom says he’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do if he got it, which is really gross, but true. I see him looking at me sometimes, checking me out, but he always seems embarrassed about it. Other guys just keep looking, like some kind of hungry animal you see on those Discovery Channel shows. When he does get around to talking to me, it’s always about stuff that I like, instead of going right for what he wants, if he wants anything, that is. So, he seems like he’s the kind of guy you could trust, but then Steve seemed like that, too. I think I’d rather be with a guy like Jordan, where you know what you have and you protect yourself, than to be with a guy like Norman, let him go to work on you and get you believing him, just to get hurt. A guy like Jordan can’t hurt you, not even if he cheats on you or calls you names, or even worse, because you expect him to do those things. You see them coming. It’s when it comes from a guy like Norman or Steve, and it always does, and you get hurt, because you let yourself think he’s different, and that makes you different, and then he changes and you change too, back to the same old nothing you were.

I told you I knew he liked me, and it’s not like I don’t take him seriously. I even talked to my mom about him, and I never talk to her about boys; she gets so weird and her face looks all worried. She said I should take a chance with him, that he could be different. But she still had that worried look on her face, like she was telling me to play the lottery, I might win, or to try out for basketball, I might make it. It wouldn’t be like with Jordan. I know him. I know what he’s going to do before he does it, even before he knows he’s going to do it. Norman’s not like that. I never know what’s going on in his head. First I think he doesn’t like me, because acts like he’s ignoring me, and then he suddenly starts paying attention. For a while he would never speak to me for more than three words, and mess those up most of the time, and then he pulls something like he did in cooking class, trying to partner up with me for cupcakes. Anyway, I don’t need a boy that I have to figure out all the time. Better to stick with what you know, like my mom says.

Monday, March 28, 2022

“Cayenne Cupcakes”

Thanks for continuing to read by blog and my stories, internet stranger. This next story is from several years ago, and it was part of an unfinished novel involving a kind of ensemble cast of characters. At the time, I was trying to write a YA novel, which really isn't my style, as well as experimenting with tone and voice. So this was a chapter focused on one character, Norman, who is one of those young men who is really cool in his own right, but very few people know it because he's very reticent and slow to make friends. I do like it, but I'm not completely sure it works, and I can name at least five journal editors who agree with me on that note. Still, hope you like it. If this one gets a reaction, I'll post some of the other chapters as well.

"Cayenne Cupcakes"
By Jeff Harrison

        I mean, I know I can’t cook, all right, but those cupcakes could have ruined my life. The only reason I took cooking class sixth period anyway is because my mom made me, something about learning to fend for myself and after all my father cooks for a living for goodness’ sake. That, plus the fact that Eleina was in the class. 
So maybe I was distracted a little when Ms. Deneuve showed us how to mix the batter, but I’ve never had a crush on a girl like this before. Eleina, not Ms. Deneuve. So maybe I forgot to write down one or two of the ingredients. Still, I know cayenne pepper wasn’t one of them. 
        And who puts the shaker of cayenne pepper back in the cupboard without screwing the lid on anyway? I had a hard enough time with this assignment knowing I’m missing something. On top of that I don’t even like dark chocolate at all. I like milk chocolate, if anything, and barely even that. Just never been one for sweets. Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about that with these particular dark chocolate cupcakes, because while I was mixing the wet and dry ingredients together, I reached for the nutmeg, because I’m pretty sure that’s what Ms. Deneuve said, and instead I knocked over the cayenne pepper. Right into the cupcake batter. With the top unscrewed.
        So basically I was looking at dark chocolate cupcake batter with nearly a full five ounces of cayenne pepper in it, slowly sinking into the black goo, getter wetter and darker as it went down. If I had been a lesser man, I would have cried.
        The thing is, sometimes I feel like I fail at everything I try. Most of the time, really. My dad would say that’s not true, that the truth is I don’t really try, or that all I do is try. He would say that I bail out whenever things get a little hard or confusing. I guess he’s right, although I would never tell him.
        Take the whole thing with Eleina, for instance. Dad would say, “Just walk up to her, son, look her in the eye, smile, and start talking.” He’d tell me she’s a girl, no one to be afraid of. “But don’t let the conversation go on too long, and don’t let it end without asking for her number.”
        It’s not that easy for all of us. Dad’s always been the kind of guy who could do that. He laughs at danger. He smirks at adversity. He chuckles at peril. But Eleina is not the kind of girl you just walk up to. She must have a dozen or more guys trying to get at her like that every day. A girl like that, you’ve got to get on her radar first. Hence the cooking class. Problem is, by the time we were up to making the cupcakes, my plan wasn’t working so well. She still thought my name was Nelson. It’s Norman. This was our fourth class together. Not our fourth session of class. Our fourth class: Freshman English, Biology, World History, and Introduction to Culinary Arts.
        So, when the cayenne pepper fell into the batter, I was really ready to drop out of the race. I mean, all I need is more failure and embarrassment in front of her. And starting over was out of the question. It was already after eleven o’clock. I was planning to put them in the oven for twenty minutes and let them cool overnight so I could get some sleep. 
        I took the bowl of ruined batter back to my dad’s office, where he sat checking his email. I figured maybe he knew a way to get the pepper out of the batter and still be able to save some. As soon as I came in, he turned around and saw the bowl, saw the pile of spice on top of the batter, and sniffed the air with his eyebrows pushed together.
        “Is that …?”
        “Cayenne pepper.”
        “But weren’t you making …?”
        “Dark chocolate cupcakes.”
        Dad looked at the bowl for a second. Then he laughed right in my face. A loud, throaty laugh, too.
        “Thanks, Pop.”
        “Sorry,” he said, and straightened up a bit. Then he started laughing again.
        “Listen, can I get this stuff out of the batter or not?”
        Dad’s laughter slowed down. “You’re not getting that out, kid. No way.” He looked on as the last of the pepper turned from red to black as it sank in the batter. “You gotta start over.”
        “I don’t have time to start over, Dad.” I put the bowl on the desk next to him and leaned back hard against the wall. “Forget it. I’m dropping the class.”
        Dad just shook his head in that disappointed-father way. “Son, that’s not the way to be.”
        “Well, what am I supposed to do with this mess?” I really didn’t mean to raise my voice, but once it came out that way, I had to stick with it, so I added a stupid flail of the hands for emphasis.
        Dad settled back in his chair, put his hands on the armrests, looked at the bowl for a second, and then looked me dead in the eye.
        “Bake it.”
        I practically jumped off the wall. “What?” I pointed at the batter as if he hadn’t seen it. “You seriously want me to take chocolate cayenne pepper cupcakes to class tomorrow? I won’t have to drop the class – Ms. Deneuve will kick me out!”
        “Son, cooking is a lot like life …”
        “Yeah, cooking is always a lot like life …”
        Dad stared me down with his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to one side.
        “You’re not always going to have the things you need to make what you want. Master chefs don’t wish they had the ingredients to make a good meal. They make great food with the ingredients they have.” He leaned forward, and his eyes opened a bit. “Take what you have, and make it work.” He turned back to his computer and began scrolling through his inbox.
        I looked at the back of his head while I picked up the bowl. I hate it when he’s right. I mean, I could either throw it away, or bake it and then throw it away. The only difference would be the twenty minutes it took to make and the chance that it might not be that bad.
        “I’ll try it,” I said as I walked out.
        “Hey, Norman.”
        I turned back in the doorway. Dad was still looking at the computer screen, typing away. 
        “Put more chocolate in it.”
        After I turned on the oven, mixed the ridiculous cupcake batter, and prepared the pans, I looked at my leftover chocolate, a little over a cup. I figured I could mix it in the batter, but unless I melted it first, it would stay in chunks. The same time I was thinking that, a voice in the back of my head said, “Is that really a bad thing?” The voice sounded remarkably like my dad’s.
        So, I shrugged my shoulders, dumped the chocolate into the batter, and stirred the chunks in. Then came the longest twenty minutes of my young life. I was already tired, and more than a little stressed, and I just knew the cupcakes would be horrible anyway.
        When I took them out and started spreading them out on the cooling rack, I said to myself, “At least they don’t look bad.”
        Twenty-four cupcakes, four more than I needed, sat there on the counter, ready to decide my fate. I had to try one, even if they weren’t cool yet, just to see if I should toss them out and go to bed.
        From the first bite, it tasted weird. But not bad weird. They didn’t taste like chocolate, that’s for sure. But then they didn’t taste like cayenne pepper either, which surprised me. They were certainly spicy, but not pepper-spicy, more like apple cider-spicy, or pumpkin pie-spicy, but with a slight kick in the aftertaste.         I kind of liked them.
        Confused, I took one to my dad.
        “Can you try this?”
        “Is it bad?”
        “I don’t know.”
        Dad looked at me, holding the cupcake. I’m sure he thought I was playing a prank on him.
        “Okay,” he said, and slowly reached out and took the cupcake, keeping his eye on me the whole time he was unwrapping it and biting into it.
        Then he looked at the cupcake, turned it over in his hand, and took another bite.
        “These are the ones you just made?”
        “Wow. I thought they’d be terrible!”
        I stared at him. “Then what was all that about life and doing the best with what you have?” I snapped.
        “No, that’s all true,” he said as he took another bite, “but I still thought the cupcakes would taste like crap.”
        “Thanks, Pop.”
        “But they’re good.” He finished off the last bite. “Do you remember how you made them?”
        “Yeah,” I really didn’t want to smile, because I was still a little mad, but they did taste good. “Do you think you could put the frosting on them for me, when they cool off?”
        “You know, I wouldn’t even bother. Might mess them up.”
        “Yeah.” That actually made sense. “Thanks, Pop.”
        Still, I was nervous about bringing them in the next day, especially when my cupcakes were the only ones on the table with no icing. For a second, I felt like I should have done it before I left the house, but I tried not to show it.
        The thing is, out of fifteen sets of chocolate cupcakes, mine were the only ones that were different. And everyone said they were the best, even Ms. Deneuve.
        “You changed the recipe?”
        “I’m not really one for sweets.”
        She gave me an “A+” for them, which, by the way, saved my grade for the quarter.
        The best part is that Eleina asked me about them towards the end of class. “You have to tell me what you put into them, Nelson.”
        “It’s Norman, actually, and the secret ingredient is – cayenne pepper.”
        Eleina’s whole face opened up and twisted into a look of absolute shock, but somehow still pretty. “No way! How did you think of that?”
        “It was an accident.” I told her how it happened, minus the stuff with my dad, and she laughed out loud, her eyes glistening as they teared up a little.
        “Oh my gosh, that’s so funny.”
        “Yeah.” I heard my dad’s voice in my head, pushing me forward. “Listen, Eleina, can I have your number, maybe call you sometime?”
        All of the laughter and brightness washed out of her face, leaving only pity behind. “Um,” she bit her lip, “sorry, I have a boyfriend.”
        “Right,” I said, scrambling to get my thoughts together. “Of course, I knew that.”
        I didn’t know that.
        “I was just thinking I could call you next time we have an assignment like this for cooking, you know? Get some advice from someone who knows what she’s doing.”
        Her eyes opened up and she nodded. “Oh, yeah.” She kept nodding but the pity was still there in her face. “Yeah, I’d rather not.”
        She gathered up her books and things like the kitchen was on fire and headed for the door. I think I waved or something.
        She stopped and turned to me before she closed the door behind her. “The cupcakes were really good, Norman. I can’t wait to see what you make next.” And then she was gone.
        And I couldn’t help feeling extremely … satisfied. I mean, this was certainly not the way I pictured it going, getting rejected. And harshly too. But then again, I got rejected by Eleina Jackson. A lot of guys can’t even say that. And even though she turned me down cold, at least I accomplished something. After all, she knows my name now.