I’ve mentioned once or twice the life-changing trip I was lucky enough to make when I was sixteen, a student ambassadorship program called People-to-People. It was a mashed together group of about thirty of us Californian kids with another gaggle of maybe a dozen Texas teenagers, and all in all we traveled across six countries around Western Europe: England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. We were escorted by several chauffeurs who were part of the program, a couple tour guides, and our mainstay coach driver: Bjorn.
Bjorn was a big Austrian guy. Stout, dense with muscle beneath the padding, tall, and I’m sure his damn bones were heavier than a normal man’s. As a rambunctious sixteen-year-old, I knew a trophy when I saw one. So while going about our way in the U.K. (rhyme like that deserves a song, I think), I challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. His reply? A big, jovial smile and a bellowed, “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
Was that enough of a signal for me? Of course not. So for weeks, literal weeks, I pestered him. We saw the Louvre, the Palace at Versaille, the famous Dutch windmills and fields of tulips, Bonn, Germany, and so many other sights, and every step of the way I’m bugging Bjorn: “How about now, big guy?” “Aw, what? Scared of me? Weird, but probably good.” “Come on, I’ll make it quick. I promise.”
I carry on so much, so loudly and consistently, that over the course of the trip it becomes a point of interest for the rest of my travelmates. But every time, his answer is the same: “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
Finally, we’re at a hotel in Switzerland for our last night celebrating with a big old dinner and dance in fancy clothes. It was great! We had food, friends, music, some memories we’re already reminiscing over, and others being made that night to last a lifetime.
It was only missing one thing…
So I found Bjorn sitting by himself enjoying a book in the hotel’s rather sparse lobby. I approach, confident yet almost pleading, and ask again. “Bjorn. Man. It’s our last day. Can I finally crush you in an arm-wrestling match?” Around me is a small group of friends who’d heard I was going to pester him again. He looks from me, to the others, to his book. With a short sigh, he fits in the bookmark and sets it down, then with a big, beaming smile says, “Okay.”
You’d think he told us we’d won the lottery. We explode with excitement, and my buddy Peter runs off to grab a camera (phones didn’t have reliable cameras by default, back then – Christ that ages me some). We find a suitable table, a ring of spectators encircles us, Peter starts rolling the camera, Bjorn and I clasp hands and set our elbows, and with a nod show we’re ready. We get someone to referee, and they wave the flag (<ahem> napkin <ahem>) for us to start.
Immediately, I lean in full-bore. I’ve talked this up for weeks and poked the bear, I would not be made a fool of so easily now. So I throw my full weight and strength and strain into beating Bjorn. I will not let up, I will not give in, I will not allow myself to lose. And to my utter astonishment, I’m actually holding my own. Obviously I’m not demolishing him, but I’m actually being competitive. Our clasped hands are wavering at high noon, neither side able to gain ground, but also not losing it. This is amazing!
Then I see his face…
He…he was so calm, it was like he was holding the door open for a nice lady rather than arm-wrestling for life and honor.
So I ask him, my voice straining as I blink away the sweat, “Bjorn, are you even trying?”
His response? “Heh-heh-heh. No.”
At which point, he slams my hand back onto the table so quickly and with such absolute power he might as well have thrown me out the window.
If someone only tells you stories about times where they win, it’s an almost sure mark of insecurity and they’re almost certainly lying. With that understanding in place, let me tell you with utmost confidence that Bjorn kicked my ass that night. And you know what? It was awesome.
(I came across this gem while digging around through some folders on my laptop. It’s a story back from 2019, and I think one of the first ones I shared on here. That said, it’s been a bit since it’s been aired out, and I don’t want it to ever be said that I pass up an opportunity to humble myself with an embarrassing tale. Like the Half Man from clan Lannister once said, “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” So, before further adieu, a story about me f***ing up in front of a whole bunch of people…)
If I may, let me set the scene:
We’re in a martial arts studio currently packed full of kids in their gis, parents line the room, an old guy with a white ponytail stands in front of them all, and there’s a giant tiger painted on one wall with its claws sinking into a big ol’ Ying-Yang. The front door is open so you can hear the cars passing and see the Chinese food place across the street. I’m a cheerful, curly-headed eight-year-old in the judo class that’s wrapping up. I’d just earned my orange belt probably the week before, so I’m smiling big and feeling powerful.
Class wraps up, we bow to one another, and clear the mat so the karate students could have their time. I grab my dufflebag and head off to the bathroom to change, knowing some sweet, sweet orange chicken and fried rice will soon be mine.
Let’s pause real quick to address two personality traits that will soon unfortunately take center stage. They don’t sound that bad, but by their powers combined led to the most embarrassing moment of my life (and I’ve farted in front of a middle school crush in gym class).
One, I’m generally a pretty jolly, easily excitable guy. It was true as a kid and has largely remained that way into adulthood.
Two, it’s really, really, really easy to mess with me. Like, I’ve had to grow a thick shell of skepticism to protect my soft, gullible underbelly, but that doesn’t always work (and has actually been used to enormously great effect, but more on that later – lookin’ at you, Pierre). Nonetheless, I’ve seen more than my fair share of gas-lighting and stupidly easy pranks.
Right, we all set? Good.
So class wraps up, I grab my duffle bag, and hit the bathroom to change. To this day, I have no idea how to explain what took over, but I started singing. I don’t remember what it was or why I felt the need to do it, but I apparently felt a song in my heart and needed the porcelain throne to know it (maybe it was the acoustics). I don’t even remember what song it was, but I’d wager good money it was Celine Deon’s “My Heart will Go On” or something. So picture that.
Anyway, about a minute into my solo, there’s a knock at the door. First hunch that comes to mind is that it’s my friend being impatient for the bathroom, so I pause, tell him to give me a minute, and get right back to belting out my tunes. I only get a couple more words in before there’s another knock. It never crosses my mind that maybe he has to poop or something, so I tell him again, a little less patiently, that I’ll be out in a second and try once again to resume my singing. Immediately, the knocking continues.
Now, I realize what you’re probably thinking, oh Rational One: “Hey, Evan, it’s probably a kid who needs to poop. Give up the john.” And to you I say, “Yeah, that would have been great advice at the time. I really wish I’d had you there” (not IN the bathroom, God, but you get what I’m saying).
What did I do instead? Well, you remember that orange belt I was so proud of? I coiled it up and whapped it against the door like it was a disagreeable stepchild and I was a parent in the 1930’s.
I was proud. I’d stood up for myself, didn’t fall for my bully’s antics, and stopped the knocking. I looked at myself in the restroom mirror and put my hands on my hips proudly.
The silence was interrupted by three more knocks, this time quiet and timid ones.
I threw on my pants (yup, hadn’t gotten those on yet) and opened the door. To my shock, I wasn’t met by my friend Troy, but Sensei Ponytail. I don’t remember what he said, I was just too busy looking at the ROOM FULL OF STUDENTS AND PARENTS PRETENDING NOT TO LOOK AT ME. Like, shit. I wish they’d just laughed outright. Trying to spare my dignity in that moment as I realized what I’d been doing was like emotional keelhauling – which Adult Me now congratulates Ponytail for doing. I can honestly say it was a fuck-ton (metric, of course) of character-building in a pretty small window of time. But my mind was suddenly arrested by imaging that first minute before the knocking, the minute where they’re all just sitting there, listening to me, smiling and thinking “No. What? He’s- he’s still- he’s still singing? Like, he knows that door is thin as hell, right?”
He brought me in front of the karate instructor as the students went to their drills and I apologized to him. To this day, I’ve been as sincere as I was in that moment probably just a handful of times. He played the Tough Guy move and told me to give him push-ups until he got tired.
I did…like, three.
Remember the “orange chicken and fried rice that would soon be mine”? Mmhm, well, I focused on that a lot more than push-ups as a kid, so when he called for push-ups, he got, like, three. A heartfelt and earnest three, but also shaky as hell and absolutely no more than that. All the while, the parents’ hot gazes bored into the back of my head like angry little gophers.
I’d love it if this was my superhero origin story and I could tell you that today I’m a total Marine-bodied stud who doesn’t take his morning shit without pumping out fifty push-ups, but I’m super not. Instead I’ve chosen just to never sing loudly in bathrooms like a dick again. (If you sing in bathrooms, by God more power to you. Just don’t be a dick about it.)
I’ve alluded before recently that I can take instructions a little too literally at times, and that that’s had a history of getting me into funny spots. As I’ve thought on it, I’ve come to realize that’s actually been a bit of a longtime habit and not something I’ve just started doing in recent years.
One occasion that is a favorite of my mother’s to bring up was a time I ruined an expensive household appliance as a kid.
The year is 2005 – got up to a lotta sh*t when I was twelve – and I’m upstairs in my room. I’m probably playing PlayStation when my mom calls up the stairs, “Hey Evan, make sure you do your laundry.” I probably make some complaining, groaning sound, to which she out-groans me and shouts, “Just take all of your clothes and do a load, okay?”
Well’p. You heard the woman.
So I do. I take all of my clothes, jaunt down the stairs, start the load with an indeterminate amount of detergent, and bound back upstairs to get back to my game. About thirty minutes later, I hear my sweet mother’s voice again screech, “God DAMMIT, Evan!”
Hmm, can’t be too good news what follows, me’thinks.
I peer around the corner of the top step to see the door to the garage open, light spilling from the doorway, and a ton of smoke. Thin, white smoke, so not a huge fire or anything, but still: a lot of smoke. I run down the stairs, look in the garage, and see the dead, fried up remains of what used to be the washing machine, choked to death by an <ahem> unknown assailant. She asked me what I did, and I told her: I took all of my clothes and did a load of laundry.
All of my clothes, a load of laundry.
What she didn’t care too much for was the way I’d taken all of my clothes – dirty ones, clean ones I thought I’d “freshen up,” snow pants I’d worn once a year ago and no longer fit, a sweater I’d worn last Thanksgiving that had gum on the sleeve for some reason, a dress shirt or two that was hanging in the abyss of my closet, everything – and stuffed it all super-pack style mercilessly into the yawning pit of the twenty-year-old appliance.
That poor machine died a thankless, inglorious death.
I’m not saying that I stand by the actions of my twelve-year-old self, but it does make me think I might be part genie for the way I can happen to find any possible Monkey’s Paw approach to requests.
Hey all. On a trip, so gonna make this quick, but it weirdly came to mind as worthy of sharing.
I was on a job out in a rural part of the county a few months back. It was a big house up in the hills behind a winery, so it had a really nice view from the front deck we were working on. The house itself was shaped a bit like a horseshoe, and the whole inside curve of that shape was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was cool.
Well, I’m walking along that path to get some tools from the truck when I look down and see a bird on the concrete walkway. It’s on its back, wings splayed, kind of contorted out of shaped. Aww, poor little guy, I think, and start looking around for a bush to set the remains in. It was pretty obvious he’d gotten ambushed by one of the windows, and speed plus little bird spine equals…well, this.
Then I get a little closer and see what I didn’t want to: little sharp, stuttering, haggard breaths.
“…Fuck,” was of course the next mental diagnosis of the situation. Now, rather than a dead bird, here I had one that was dying and very likely suffering from its injuries. Didn’t want to move it, for fear of scaring it and causing it to twist painfully with reflex. Couldn’t just leave it there, for fear of a coworker stepping on him, if not just the unsightliness (is that a word?) for the owner. Wanted to mercy-kill it, but all I really had on me that was appropriate was my framing hammer, and that would have been a bad look if the aforementioned owner came around right as I was dropping it on the little guy.
I asked my older coworker for advice on what to do, and his answer was something akin to, “Hmm…dunno. Sucks.” I came back by the bird, and by now the dog of the house was staring at it, salivating, on the other side of the glass. So I bucked up, knocked on the door, and told the owner – just hoping she wouldn’t let the hounds out to brutalize the little guy with ‘play time.’
She saw, laughed, totally agreed, and we figured we’d just try and leave the little guy in what peace he might find in his last minutes; knowing that around evening time, nature (or a cat) would take its course.
Eventually, I come back and find the bird sitting upright, and I’m shocked. That ruled out a broken back, far as I could tell. He sat up straight, but his head was a little off-kilter. Broken neck still, maybe? I think, and I approach him a little. [By the way, I swear to God we got work done that day, even though this view may not make it seem like it. lol] His eyes flittered in and out of sleep. He’d lean forward with the loss of consciousness, catch himself, and sit upright again, like he was dozing off. As I got closer, he regarded me with one of his eyes, but he could. Not. Give. A. Shit. That I was coming within inches of his person. His birdsman…ship?
That was a first. I don’t think I’d ever seen a little finch dealing with results from a concussion before.
Later on, a landscaping crew came by, and before I could warn them about the bird [Again, guys, serious about my job, I really was working on the deck as my primary interest of the day.] I saw that one of them had picked the little guy up and was lightly petting his back between the wings. Who am I to say he shouldn’t? So I just watched from afar and smiled at the sweet moment.
Towards the end of the day, I come ’round the bend doing a final clean up of the day [See? Working.], and I notice the bird was gone. I check the hedges nearby, seeing if he was set in the shade. Nothing. I asked the owner if the landscaper had moved him, and she told me that no, he’d pet it and put it right back where it was. Then I’m ’rounding the bend for the final time that day – and I swear to God this is true – I hear a single ‘tweet’ from above me on the roof.
Now, I’ll never know if that landscaper was actually a Mexican druid with healing abilities or not, but I’d like to imagine that the bird had just taken a massive hit to the dome, suffered a bad concussion, and just needed some time to shake the cobwebs out; and that that ‘tweet’ was some kind of, “Hey, buddy, thanks for not smashing me when you thought I was dead.”
Altogether, it was a tale of trial, hardship, patience, adversity, and the ability to rally and overcome, all wrapped up in a neat little quarter-ounce package with wings.
Whether you believe in them or not, we all have a couple ghost stories. They might be for telling around a camp fire, sharing between friends, or recounting to a therapist. They have a habit of ranging from “just weird feelings” to seeing an apparition of some sort at the foot of your bed.
I won’t lie to you, I’ve never seen anything, but that’s SO MUCH for the best. I’ve heard things, felt things, and felt things, but never laid eyes on anything beyond the grave. I am completely convinced, however, that if I did, that would kick me straight into fight-or-flight mode. I realize there’s also a ‘freeze’ option there, but nope; if I see something, there’s going to be motion.
(First up, I want to remind you to check out a post from earlier this week, Lady Death, just as it’s a little appropriate for today. And what’s more, if you’re REALLY feeling a good ghost story, do me a favor and check out Episode 209: “The Scars of Eliza Gray” on the NIGHTLIGHT podcast. It was one of my first publications and remains one of my favorites.)
And now, a series of ghost- or near-ghost-experiences:
The Christmas Ornament Little bit of backstory to start off: my father passed away when I was nine, December of 2003. As one might imagine, that had a certain impact on Christmas that year. For the first time, it was just my mother and I, and looking back, I think on it less of how I remember it as a kid and more of how well she handled it as a newly single mother – which was, for the record, very well. We moved house that next summer, and when December ’04 came around, as the story goes, mom had an encounter. I had gone upstairs and gone to bed, she was downstairs closing down the house preparing to do the same. The way the house was situated, her bathroom was at the end of a short hallway that connected it to the now darkened living room. She’s standing there, brushing her teeth, when she hears a sound coming from the Christmas tree standing at the opposite end of the hallway. There was a little electronic train ornament that was a staple of our Christmas decorating. It had my name written on it, and when you pressed the button on the steam spout, it would sing a little song out of choo-choo noises. Thing was, the button had stopped working years ago. So there she stands, toothbrush in mouth, watching this little, long-silent ornament sing its song at the shadowy edge of the bathroom light’s furthest reaches. As she tells it, she addressed my father by name, calling out, “Vern, you don’t live here anymore. Go upstairs and see your son, but after that, you need to go.” I joked the next morning that I found it pretty irresponsible to think there was a ghost in the house and have your first response basically be, “There’s a defenseless, sleeping boy upstairs. Go bug him instead.”
Suddenly Awake This one remains my hallmark experience, and apologies up front as I still haven’t yet found that words do it justice, but here goes… It was a night like any other. I was maybe eighteen or nineteen at the time, fast asleep. Middle of the night, time unknown, I open my eyes. I wasn’t groggy, wasn’t sleepy or coming to consciousness. I was just suddenly awake, as if I had been for a while and was just now noticing; not startled, not scared or anxious or energetic, just suddenly conscious. I know that, because it was moments after I woke up where I began to wonder why I’d done so, that a dreaded creeping sensation came over the room. I didn’t hear anything, but some other sense was telling me that there was another person in the room with me. I felt myself being looked at, being observed or examined. It wasn’t sleep paralysis, necessarily. I could move if I wanted to, but chose to play possum, like if I’d looked over my shoulder at that moment it would incense whatever was in the room with me. The pinnacle of the experience came in two parts. The first was that – and as certain as I remain of this, the part of me that’s objective knows to acknowledge it may be the fault of memory – I finally heard something. There was a whisper, clear-as-fuckin’-day, right next to my ear. Couldn’t make out what it said, just that there was a voice inches from my head. And not a sound that’s half-heard, prompting a “Did I just hear something?” response; it was undoubtedly something. The second was that moments after the whisper, that anxious, defensive dread that had blanketed the room evaporated. It was a palpable change. As cliche as it is to describe something this way, it’s as though there was this weight to the air, and suddenly it vanished. It didn’t “lift,” it just…ceased. Right after it did, the exhaustion of sleep immediately took hold, like I’d been awake for days, and I konked out. Really, it was the suddenness of the experience that spooks me, here. Suddenly awake, there’s a presence, whisper, then nothing, then sleep again.
“Can’t get me now, bitch.” I’ll be honest, this one’s more funny and a moment of pride than anything else. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Grudge, you’ll know that, especially for it’s time, it was goddamn terrifying. I’ve always had a weakness for horror films, and not in the sense that I can’t resist watching but in that they affected me A LOT when I was younger. The gist to the film, if you haven’t seen it, is that an American gal goes to Japan for reasons and gets haunted by a dead girl for other reasons. There’s a scene somewhere near the middle where she’s in her high-rise apartment and receives a phone call from a friend of hers, another American. He tells her he’s downstairs and wants to be buzzed in to come up and visit about something in person. She hits whatever button that unlocks the ground floor gate to let him in, and not moments later, there’s a knock on her door. She goes to look through the peep hole and sees it’s her friend who was supposedly just on the ground floor, some twenty-odd stories below her. She makes a joke about “why go through the antics if you were already up here?” and opens the door for him. Of course she opens the door to an empty hallway. A ghostly sound comes through the phone and lights in the hallway begin ominously going dark. So, like a responsible adult, she flings the phone to the ground, slams the door shut, runs to her bed, and hides under the covers. While there, a lump rises at the end of the bed and starts snaking towards her, and INSTEAD of wildly kicking her legs like she should, she anxiously lifts the covers and gets dragged into the abyss by the ghost only to awake an untold time later. I was maybe twelve years old when I saw that and found it ghastly amounts of frightful. But what did I do? I didn’t let fear get the best of me, I got creative. For the next two weeks, I slept on TOP of my covers in a zipped-up sleeping bag, confidently safe in the knowledge that, “Ha! Bitch can’t get me if I’m in a BAG! Winning!”
First things first: it bugs me to no end that often times spellcheck will give the little red squiggle to “axe” if you spell it with an ‘e’ at the end, but “ax” is perfectly fine even though “axe” is already perfectly fine.
That was stupid.
What’s up everybody?
I’m not sure what reminded me the other day of the following story, but I’m glad whatever it was did. Back in 2016 was when I tried submitting my first-ever piece of fiction to an outlet. I didn’t know how to format it, hadn’t really tried writing like that ever before, never tried researching a market before, or had any practice addressing editors – I just went for it. You know who the outlet was?
For the uninitiated – they’re big; at the very least much, much, much, MUCH bigger than a kid trying his first EVER tale had right to reach for. But they were cool, polite, and cordial when they dutifully rejected the piece I rushed to compile for their submission window.
But I thought that was how you did it. I thought you went for the big fish. Adjusting my approach (still incorrectly), I then thought it was about thoroughly researching a market, tooling a piece of fiction tailored to them specifically, and spending months finely polishing it for them before perfectly and carefully crafting the impeccable cover letter to whet their appetite for the fruits of your labor; like a sniper lining up for a half-mile bullseye: check the wind, curvature, your breathing, your trigger discipline, time it between beats of your heart.
Turns out, a better approach is a lot more like laying down on the trigger of an uzi. Spray and pray, til you’re empty, reload, rinse, repeat. Tenaciously.
There’s a publisher called DreamForge that’s pretty great, and on their site they have an essay that attempts to outline why a story submitted to them might be rejected. And the answer in a nutshell is thus: any of a million reasons.
It could be that they find it poorly written; could be too many typos; could be they didn’t understand it; could be they didn’t care for the expression of the stated genre; could be they find it doesn’t fit their project’s theme tightly enough; could be word count conflicts with their budget; or it could be that it’s well written, but the editor wasn’t quite in the mood the day they read yours; or they love your story about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon, but they just happened to read and accept another story in their stack about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon right before finding yours.
The point is that it’s sort of a lottery, if you’re an independent writer starting out. Making sure your work is well-written, cleanly done, strong in concept, and appropriate for the market you’re submitting it to are all the right ways to increase your chances, but in the end you’re still competing with an unknown amount of other writers, of unknown quality, against unknown standards and tastes – a gamble.
Captain Picard said it best:
This tortuously long preamble brings us to a few summers ago in 2018. I was working in an optics lab at the time, preparing to leave that job for a writing sabbatical. I was feeling burnt out, tired of my day-to-day, and wanted to embrace the daydreams I kept cooking up. The budget I wrote up figured I had about a year to do that before reality would come calling. (Reality would catch up way quicker than that, and I’d find myself caring for my ailing mother two weeks after leaving my job – but we’ve talked about that life-asteroid to death already.)
About a month before leaving my job, Mandy and I were at a friend’s birthday party. Also present was a young woman we’ll call Delilah. Before I say anything moving forward, I want it clearer than crystal that I’ve nothing but fondness, respect, and best wishes for her, for reasons we’ll lay out here and in great part for the lesson my encounters with her taught me.
Turned out, Delilah was also going into writing freelance at about the same time, or had started about a month or so before. She talked about how (I believe I’m getting this right) she was a housewife at the time, and wanted to pursue it while she had the time. She went to an event or workshop of some sort down in San Francisco, delivered a stand-up set she’d prepared, met an editor, and snagged a gig for a that outlet.
On the one hand, easy-peasy; two weeks into freelance writing and you’ve bagged a job and a contact. On the other, it takes guts and no lack of panache to do what she did.
So she shares this with us and while the group dissolves a little into its various chat circles, I overhear Mandy and Delilah talking. Mandy’s sharing that I had an intent to pursue something similar, and Delilah’s asking questions. I’d wandered away, but was told later than Delilah’s response was more or less: “Oh…that’s his plan? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”
Even though it was just birthday party hearsay, probably said off-hand, it was a little dismissive remark that stuck with me. It bit me with this sort of stinking moral superiority that would gnaw at me for months later. The first five months of my sabbatical were literally nothing but hardship and rejection; and every time, I would think of Delilah’s quick-won success and her “I wouldn’t if I were him,” remark.
And every time, I would close my eyes, tell myself to shut up, and get back to it. I didn’t have a network, hadn’t made contacts, was learning through trial and error, had a lot outside of writing work on my plate, but dammit I would make it work out.
Then, luck struck, and I had my first story picked up. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck twice and I had a second acceptance, which came with being an interview on the podcast where the story aired (as well as a follow-up appearance later to talk movies). And since, I have had three more fiction sales, some traction in fiction contests, and been fortunate enough to work for a few local papers and magazines. It’s been hard-won, organic, independent, and with large amounts of tenacity and dumb luck.
A year after that party, the birthday boy had another (as is usually the case with birthdays), and we bumped into Delilah again. We caught up around a little campfire circle and naturally were each asked about how well writing was going. Delilah recounted how it was going well, but [paraphrasing] “her editor had relocated to a different outlet and gone radio silent, so that was dead now and a bummer; and while she was going to produce a podcast with a partner, said partner was being a c*** and so hadn’t come to fruition yet.”
When the question came to me, the host of the party (birthday boy’s wife) did me one of the greatest compliments/blessings I’ve received in my life.
“And you were going to be a writer too, right?” came Delilah’s question. And the host interjected with, “He’s been published, in fact,” then motioned for me to explain.
Doing me that honor, saving me that modesty, and acknowledging that achievement all in one swoop has been, to date, one of the deftest moves in etiquette I’ve witnessed in person; and I was thrilled to be its subject.
I did my best to continue that modesty through my explanation, but I’m sure some pride leaked through. I give myself a pass, though, because the truth is I was proud of it, and especially in that moment I felt vindicated. The slow, steady, organic grind of failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt finally becoming a small success triumphing over – at least as was the way my mind viewed it – over the model of quick but fleeting satisfaction…felt great.
But in that was also a lesson. And the markets and guidelines I’ve seen all point to an average acceptance rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3%; but usually it can be more like 1%. That means, if you do everything right, you can hope for or expect one success for every one hundred attempts.
So, try one hundred times. And after that, try a hundred more. So on and so forth until you can begin to count your successes. And be okay with them being small, they’ll get bigger.
At least, this is what I tell myself. But I will say that the math checks out.
My plan was to join the California Writers’ Club after my third independent fiction sale, and while I still plan on it because I’m eager to see what opportunities that might afford, the struggle of the independent author has been one I’ve come to enjoy the fruits of.
Ah, I just remembered what kicked this all off, actually. The other day, I was looking on my body of work (which feels hilarious to say, given how tiny it is) and feeling unsatisfied where I used to feel proud. And so mentally running back through the journey of the past couple of years was a good chance to review, take stock, and realize the accomplishment it is; especially as any beginning writer would likely agree, five months is actually a startlingly turnaround for one’s first printing. So I recognize the element of luck in this experience.
In the end, the message doesn’t really change. Help or not, friends or not, network or not: keep swinging the axe, keep trying.
I want to note that the tittle here is a little deceiving. Most of us probably recognize “a softball pitch” to be a phrase that roughly translates to “an easy problem to solve,” or “a simple obstacle to overcome.” Out of journalistic integrity (LOL), I looked up a few compilations of professional softball pitches…
What. The. F*ck?
That is such a criminally misused phrase, dude. Softball pitches ain’t only fast, but they’re kind of scary scary as sh*t.
So, while I move forward with this, let’s recognize that I’m using the expression “a softball pitch” in its classic meaning, but have since fully recognized the power in their real-world applications, cool?
This brief little story is about… <dons a deerstalker cap> …the power of deduction.
None of us should be strangers to giving, and I bet we all have had a least a few encounters sparing our change or extra dollars to needy folks we’ve encountered on the street. I do it both out of common human decency, and secretively as a little offering to the leylines of karma that I should never find myself in the same misfortune. Any one of us is only ever a few mistakes or unfortunate circumstances from being in the same position, and it’s good to bow our heads to that reality from time to time.
Now, that being the case, I think a few of us have also had encounters where those asking haven’t been…well, as needy as they let on, right? Which, let’s say up at the top, that that’s kind of a sh*tty thing to do, faking it, because you take away from and potentially spoil the perception of others who truly could benefit from others’ generosity.
Thankfully, the shysters in question this time were just in generous as to the clues they gave that they were up to no good.
My girlfriend Amanda and I had pulled up to a red light, and on the center divide between lanes stood a couple of folks holding signs. Amanda at times keeps a bag of loose bills cobbled together from the bills gotten by going to CoinMasters with spare change for just such occasions. So we see the couple and she asks for the bag.
I reach in the back, retrieve it, but as I’m opening it to retrieve bills, my Sherlock Sense starts tingling. There’s something about the way they’re speaking to each other (the window is still rolled up, so we see them, but can’t yet hear them), motioning, and strutting that stands out. This may have had nothing to do with anything, but they were also wearing identical jackets and backpacks; again, not strange or malicious in and of itself, but it caught my eye is all I’m saying. They also had…we’ll say “hallmark” acne around their mouths. Again, could be anything, people’s individual diets and biochemistries are all unique, but it raised an eyebrow.
Thankfully, the final softball pitch of a clue (remember what we talked about) came when we rolled down the window.
We gathered up ten dollars to pass out the window, but once it was down, it appeared we happened along at precisely the wrong time (or the right time, depending on how you feel about the encounter). We can hear the one guy singing to the woman with him, “Let’s get this money, hey-hey, so we can start feelin’ funny, hey-yeah!”
To this day, I strive to the level of confidence that guy had in that moment to openly admit, in SONG no less, that he was scamming for meth money. Needless to say, we rolled the window back up (a bit awkwardly now), and continued on our way, saving the bills for a more genuine case of need.
Please, please, PLEASE don’t take this in any way as a message to distrust those looking for charity by necessity – not at all condemning those in earnest need.
Instead, take it as the message it’s intended in that it relays my dope-ass deductive skills which sniffed out a couple of fakers. Did it get a bit easy there at the end? Yeah, maybe. But does that discount my awesome perception…?
I’d love to sit here and say this was something I put together for you, something I sat on and thought about and pored over and worked on for your enjoyment and betterment – but it’s not. This is about to be an anecdote for myself to come back to later and be embarrassed that I put out to the public.
This is about the time I caught…The Glow.
I started playing Magic: the Gathering (yup, and there goes anyone that made it even this far) back in the Summer of 2018. I’d heard the horror stories of how much people can just pour money into the hobby, how much it financially drains you, and I was determined not to be another statistic. I bought two little 60-card starter decks and said, “That’s quite enough for me. THIS will be my Magic collection and I’m happy with it.”
Suffice it to say, it did not stop there.
To date, I’ve built and dismantled more Modern decks than was ever worth counting, and maintain a rotation of eight Commander/EDH decks with themes all important to my heart and soul: Izzet Artifacts, Elves/Tokens, Blue-Black Mill, mono-Green Hydras, Jeskai Time Wizards, Rakdos Goblins, Boros Angels, and Liliana Necromancy/Zombies. With the exception of Time Wizards, who has yet to ever come through for me meaningfully and was probably a mistake, I love each of them dearly.
So, now that the stage is set, our tale…
I was over at my good friend Josh’s house for a day of cards with friends. These same friends, mind you, put me through a baptism of fire when I first started playing – which was good. As I was learning the basics, they beat the ever-loving shit out of me most games. But I persevered, learned, and took those lessons of brutality to heart. All for this day…
First game of the day was just against Josh, since I showed up first (a rare occurrence). I pulled out my ‘Selvala, Heart of the Wilds‘ Hydra deck and got to business. That said, Josh was using his pride and joy, a Sliver Overlord tribal deck that cost, probably, about two grand. Selvala, bless her heart, held her own valiantly, but was ultimately overcome (it’s okay, every hero’s journey needs to begin with struggle).
It was close, and to this day I’m convinced that if I hadn’t drawn into so much goddamn land, I could have taken him. Or, if I’d used my pride and joy, my first love, my Saheeli, the Gifted artifact deck, I could have had him up and out of there in no time. (She was the underdog of her Commander block in 2018, but together, we trained her up and put some real power behind her punches with practice, study, and plenty of steroids.)
Once our friends arrived, the REAL show began.
I’m not sure what it’s like with other people’s play groups, but it tends to be within ours, that when a person wins a game between four players, it’s in a single, fell swoop: an infinite combo (thankfully rare), an “if X, then win the game” condition, or a huge move like a surprise Craterhoof Behemoth stomping that takes out all other three players at once.
This day…this day was different.
We start off, it’s a table with FIVE of us, which is a lot of players for a game of EDH; not monstrous, but a lot. I pull out my Rhys the Redeemed elves/tokens deck for this one. His main win condition is either cheating out a Felidar Sovereign for a sort of cheaper win, or raising an army of saprolings, squirrels, and elves, then plopping out the ol’ Craterhoof Behemoth trick; either way, its quickest route to victory involves annihilating the table or the game all at once.
This day, however, I knocked out each of the other four players through combat damage, individually. It was a deadly dance of politics to incite a fight with only another player at a time to not draw any undue aggression, healing up my wounds with lifelink abilities after each skirmish, and maintain token numbers to be a reasonable presence without being a threatening one. It was kind of like a fight scene out of an action movie, where the hero is surrounded by henchman who come at him all-at-once-ish, but really one at a time, and by the end of it, it’s the hero who’s done all the ass-whoopin’.
It. Was. Glorious.
And it came down to a razor finish. I knocked out the third of my opponents, trying to leave enough defense to withstand my final opponent’s turn since I was the only remaining threat, when he equips a Colossus Hammer to one of his soldiers and swings all out at me. I had enough tokens remaining to block enough of the assault that it left me with two Life left…TWO. Then I was able to counter-swing on my next turn for the finish.
So I sat back, packed that deck away in its box, and contentedly notched my name in the win column for that night, feeling good. I’d gotten my win out of the way, and it was awesome. So, for the next game, I go back to my Selvala – Hydras deck, to give it another, Sliver-less try.
This time, there’s far more in-fighting at the table, with there being more aggressors than just myself, finally. Combat damage is being dealt back and forth among players, but no one is going for the knock-out yet, presumably so everyone can stay in the game until it ends; a noble gesture, but not a lesson my hard Magic upbringing taught me to embrace with them. I see an opportunity late game to flash in a Hydra Broodmaster on an end step before my turn begins. If I remember right, I had Unbound Flourishing on board, so I got to make her go monstrous where ‘X’ got to be something nice and big like ‘8,’ and then for combat on my turn, I throw down an Overwhelming Stampede and do exactly what one might expect…
…I stampeded the table.
Playful groans and gasps made their way around the table. And my proud triumph turned slightly to embarrassment….embarrassment that I was still inexorably proud of.
So I threw up my hands and said, “Woooof, y’all. Alright, my bad. I’ve had my fun for the night, had my fair share. Shit, I’m sorry,” all while laughing with them. “Looks like I caught The Glow tonight. I’ll change it up and just be a spectator for this next one.” I put away my Hydras, rolled up my foresty-colored play mat, and pulled out my Blue-Black Mill/Persistent Petitioners deck, headed by Phenax, God of Deception.
(My FAVORITE game ever of Magic is a story for another time if I ever again feel baseless enough to do another one of these posts, but I will say that what follows here might be my SECOND-FAVORITE ever game of Magic I’ve played.)
For the uninitiated, Mill-strategies in the Commander format are widely seen as a pretty unwise route to victory as, instead of the directness of combat damage, you’re trying to empty out your opponent’s 100-card deck. 1) It can be pretty slow, understandably. 2) It also usually has to be pretty focused, so with multiple opponents, your capacity for offense has a built-in cap. 3) To make up for its weaknesses, a mill deck usually has to be pretty focused on that goal, so defense can be somewhat lacking, leaving you kind of open. 4) Lastly, people, on average, fucking hate being milled and seeing their stuff get dumped into the graveyard, so it builds your villainy meter at the table pretty quickly (ie Players cheer when someone kills you in the name of public good, nobody mourns your loss, and they line up to poop on your grave).
This game was different.
Some brief stage-setting: It’s a 5-player game this time around, and since I don’t imagine any of them will EVER read this, I’m going to be using their real names. To my left, was my buddy Brent, who was playing mono-red Dwarves; to his left was Kopa, who was playing a Blue-Red-White ‘Voltron’ deck; followed by Woody, who was playing Blue-Red-Green elementals; followed at last by our illustrious host Josh, who was borrowing someones mono-blue artifact deck.
I draw my opening hand to see that I have two Petitioners, three land, a counter spell, and Thrumming Stone. In case it’s confusing as to why that’s cool, here’s the break-down: Since I can have as many Petitioners in my deck as I want, I run twenty-eight as a multiple of four per the card’s ability. That’s enough of a percentage that they come up commonly enough and have good odds at the Ripple ability without clogging up my draws. Thrumming Stone basically says if you cast a Petitioner, you can look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, yatta yatta, on until you have all twenty-eight of your Petitioners out – if you get lucky to roll on like that and provided none have gotten killed.
In my mind, I immediately see what I have to do: stall and be ignored long enough to drop Thrumming Stone and a Petitioner in the same turn – a seven mana cost – to hopefully let the Ripple effect take over. So if I can draw well and keep below radar until about Turn Nine, I have a shot at totally fucking over the table. Plus, hang onto that counter spell as an insurance policy.
So the game begins, and right out the gate Josh takes an aggressive lead. He rolls out artifacts and gadgets left and right, big equipment to buff his creatures, and throwing hot damage around the table. In addition, he starts lightly milling the table, which is where my Greatest Performance of Deception begins (Phenax would be proud).
We’re all getting milled for one or two cards at a time. With the rest of the table, I playfully and dramatically groan, pleading for him to maybe just forego the effect rather than having it go through, and commiserating with the other players at our misfortune, but inside I’m thrilled. Every card that gets skimmed off the top that isn’t a land card or a Petitioner is fantastic. He mills my Mind Funeral? Great, I don’t need the heat anyway. He dumps my Consuming Aberration? Super, I have something to jokingly “complain” about not getting to play. Every one of those is another turn closer to the land base that I need.
And so it goes, Josh battles and harasses the rest of the table while I draw, maybe play a land, pretend to have my hands tied, and pass. It comes to a point where I have six lands out and I’m just waiting for one more before I can pull my move, but I’m worried to death about something that would destroy my Thrumming Stone. Josh has become a huge threat at this point, in a night that’s twice seen a single player butcher the table (#humblebrag), and he gets up to go pee. Everyone else starts conspiring as to how to turn the tide against him.
“Hmm,” I ponder aloud. “Hey, do any of you have any artifact-removal? That way, we could get rid of his [insert specific dangerous artifact here that I’m totally blanking on].” “No,” says Brent. “No,” replies Kopa. “No,” laments Woody. “Ah, bummer,” I say, looking down at the artifact in my hand.
I play Phenax, just so it doesn’t look too much like I’m intentionally doing nothing. Josh comes back, then Kopa pulls a huge play that sees him kill Josh outright, but one that fortunately makes him become an even larger threat. So Woody follows that by detonating the board with an All is Dust (thankfully the turn after I used that counter spell to stop him playing an Eldrazi). With Josh dead, it comes to me, and I draw my seventh land. I figure if ever there was a blessing from the God of Deception that I’d played my role well and it was time to set the plan in motion, it was now.
So I do. I plop down that land, set out my Thrumming Stone, and play a Petitioner, which chained so marvelously well into all the rest that I exploded from a board state of absolutely nothing, into twenty-eight Petitioners out and proud (total milling potential of 84 cards, basically lethal at that point). Plus, with that All is Dust, everyone needed to rebuilding their boards to pose any threat.
Brent’s turn, he plays a couple of dwarves to reconstitute his board, and at his end step, I mill out Kopa. Playing Jeskai colors and the potential he had for out-of-nowhere kills, he had to go. So after that, it’s just me, Brent, and Woody. On Woody’s turn, he plays Nikya of the Old Ways to regain some board presence which, if you ask me, made my next decision really simple.
It came back to me, and Brent starts talking to the late Kopa that “if I just had one more land, I could blow up his entire fucking board.”
With Woody self-handicapped and unable to cast non-creature spells – meaning no big bombs, no board wipes, no nothin’ – and with Brent openly admitting he might draw into a way to kill me…
…yeah, duh, I milled the shit out of him.
Final turn came down to just me and Woody. His turn comes up, he plays a creature that can’t attack on account of summoning sickness, swings all-out for about 11 damage which I readily greet headfirst. Turn comes to me, I mill him down to dust to make my bread and make it my third straight full-table victory of the night.
A feat of which I was so embarrassingly proud, I just spent the last too-many hours bragging about it on an internet blog.
One minute, you’re writing a poem for your crush in the fourth grade, and the next, you’re thinking back on the decade since you last saw them, quietly browsing through their life on Facebook, wishing them well.
One minute, you’re a ten-year-old kid opening their bright blue lunchbox on the first day of fifth grade, and the next, you looking at that same, now-gray and weathered lunchbox while you’re twenty-six, emptying the pantry to move your mother out of her home.
One minute, you’re just a bunch of teenagers. Pot smoke, skateboard bruises, burgers, and savory high school politics, and the next, you’ve just come home from work, maybe you have plans with your colleagues maybe you don’t, and you’re reminiscing on those times you hadn’t thought would end.
Maybe you think of the cousin you’ve grown up with. Think of the man or woman they’ve become, then think back to the child you grew up alongside and realize that somewhere in the middle one became the other.
Somewhere in all those memories is the splendor of watching a huge web roll out (because “unfurl” would sound a bit pretentious here) like a gigantic road map of lives, seeing where the kids we knew somehow became the adults we know (or don’t, anymore).
“It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. This is not a weakness. This is life.” – Captain Picard
Moments like this, where we zoom out for a second, realize we’re twenty-six now, and we get to see how far we’ve come and how far we still get to go (if we play our cards right).
We knew kids…that became adults and then died.
We knew kids that didn’t make it that far.
We’ve probably seen friends accomplish really cool things.
And known others that have spun out.
Maybe we’ve fallen away from people who we were really close to.
But then again, met new people we’re glad to know now.
Nihil nove sub sole – “There is nothing new under the Sun.”
None of this is meant to be some epiphany or great revelation, some wisdom I’ve found that I’m sharing to waiting ears. This has all been figured out before and gets figured out all the time. It’s more like a moment in a reaaally good meal – just taking a second to savor what you’ve got. It’s a way to harness the good times, to get more out of them. We tell ourselves to do it all the time with struggles. “When times get hard, just think about how strong you’ll be on the other side.” Same thinking here. If you don’t take a moment here and there to examine the life you’ve had and the one you’ve got, how can you ever be sure of what’s important?
Pain sucks, but it’s part of the human experience, and thus can be a pleasure.
Loss sucks, but its memory can be used to make warmth.
Regret sucks hard, but its lesson is a real straight road to wisdom and experience.
A long time ago, a farmer would walk to a far away well for water. He had a yoke on his back which held a bucket at either end. He would fill the buckets and carry the water home. Well, after the years, one bucket became weathered and cracked, unable to hold water with its leak. “I’m sorry,” said the bucket. “I’m old now and cannot work like I used to.” “Not to worry,” replied the farmer. “When next we gather water, look to your side of the path.” When next the farmer gathered water, the bucket saw that its side of the path was covered in fresh flowers, watered from its own leak. “I planted seeds,” the farmer explained. “You see, as we grow older and acquire new qualities, they may all be turned to good advantage.”
If the title didn’t give it away, I have a lesson to share, one I earned myself the other day on account of a terrifically dumb mistake.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I day-job as a carpenter. Not a day at work goes by without me having a 50/50 debate in my head on whether or not the job is worth it. Some days, it’s fulfilling, good work that leaves me feeling grounded (in the good way); others, it’s just…fuckin’ hard.
And dumb. But sometimes that’s my fault.
So the other day, we were…hmm…reconstituting an old concrete barbecue setup. It was built out of bricks and spackled over, but the years had worn it down, cracked parts of it, and generally had it falling apart. Job was to remove all the old framing, reinforce the body of it with rebar, and build out a new framing for it.
Wielding our mighty angle grinder, I set to work cutting down all the exposed, rusted bolts sticking out of various parts of the structure. It’s fun. It’s a spray of sparks, some “nnnn’eeeeerrrrrrrrrggh!” from the grinder, then I sweep away the debris with my hand and onto the next.
Now, I KNOW two things: 1) Friction, like that built up by grinding metal to nubs, creates a lot of heat, and 2) not to touch hot things (burned my hand pretty good as a kid getting Snoopy cookies out of the oven, and thought I learned my lesson).
So, obviously, as I’m picking up the heads of these freshly-cut bolts and screws, it’s a quick engagement so I don’t burn my fingers. But here’s the thing: they weren’t hot. I thought it was weird, but was busy so didn’t give it too much mind.
There I am, grind, sweep, grind, sweep, repeat; until something weird happened.
I pass my thumb over the nub of a fresh cut, and it feels like…hmm, picture dragging your fingertip over a Elmer glue stick. Kind of tacky, bit of resistance, and just a ‘sticky’ sensation, right?
Immediately, my brain goes, “Uh-oh, the only thing that should be kind of all melty is the nail, which means- oh, shit, I have molten steel on my thumb!”
So I bite down and brace for the burn to catch up to the thought, but it doesn’t happen.
No molten metal? Then what…?
I look at my thumb, see the browned, whitened, bubbled, and crackling skin describing the line that had passed over the nail and quickly realize two things: 1) “Ooooh. The steel wasn’t melty. My THUMB was melty…shit.” And 2) “It doesn’t hurt now…? Oh…it doesn’t hurt now because this is one of them gonna-hurt-later’s.”
Heh heh heh, aaaah…I still just kind of chuckle at that phrase: “One of them ‘gonna-hurt-later’s.'”