I Failed.

December 28th, 2016

In the final pages of my 2015 publication, King John, I promised two books in 2016. I gave this promise great consideration before committing. I usually write one book a year.

The first book of the two promised books, Come Back To Me, ended up roughly 123K, and since 80K words is considered novel-length, this was a long novel. I wrote and rewrote much more than expected. My proposed writing schedule did not account for my attending the Lambda Literary retreat in August. I wrote and revised three research-heavy chapters to have critiqued. Food poisoning knocked me out for two weeks. From May to November, I glommed onto all-things-garden with ridiculous joy, and I do not regret the evenings I prioritized gardening over writing.

There were plenty of nights I watched Netflix and ate panang curry on the couch.

Still, I tried fairly goddamn hard. Come Back To Me published in August. In October, I finished the first draft of King Daniel. Since then, I have been engaged almost daily with what can only be described as “vigorous editing.” I gave myself until December 27th to finish those edits. Today is the 28th. I’m not done.

I failed.


I failed to get two books published in 2016. Then, I failed to meet my revised schedule to finish the draft and edits by December 27th.

That’s okay.

I’m trying to eliminate the sting of failure.

I’m not sure why failure is so horrible when you tried your best. (Or close to your best, minus a Elementary marathon, first three seasons. That show is soooooo good.) I spent most of my free time in 2016 writing. I didn’t start fretting about this goal in November, I’ve been writing my ass off since January.

I pursued this goal with vigor, while maintaining friendships, taking long visits to visit Mom, exploring Minneapolis on bicycle, mowing the lawn, and remembering to order pizza and work out.

Still, I failed.

Why sugarcoat it?

I don’t need accolades of “But you got so close!” or “It couldn’t be helped.” It could be helped. I could have watched less television, saw friends less, read less comic books before bed.


I want to be the kind of man who sets goals and strives. I want to be the kind of man who strives toward a goal and says, “Oooo–perfect autumn day! I should go throw leaves in the creek.” I want interruptions from achievement in the form of Saturday morning walks, and laughing crock pot dinners. I want to make time for pranks. I want to feel sadness and let that mood carry me, even if it means no writing gets done for two days. I embrace lazy Saturdays when they are necessary and pleasing.

In my life, I’ve worked through enough personal shit to skip internalizing the words “I failed” as a claim on my humanity. I’m not a failure. I love who I am. I love my life. Sure, I missed a writing goal I knew would be a massive commitment. But I really fucking tried.

I’d like “I failed” to be invisibly followed by, “because I tried.”

I called Ann last night, freaked out I had failed again, and equally upset my new “because I tried” philosophy was sorely tested. When you’re a former Type A, attempting to harness those attributes but with a new, moderated chill, conflict happens. Ann and I often laugh at our “straight A” tendencies, our fixed mindsets, and how it ass-bites us when we’re not paying attention.

Six minutes into my high-strung explanation, she sliced through my babble to lance the true issue.

“This is how you’re saying goodbye to Vin? Racing through this high pressure, self-imposed deadline. Don’t you think he deserves better than that?”

She shocked me.

I forgot something important. I have been writing The Lost and Founds aggressively for the past five years. During this time, I’ve had amazing adventures with readers, reviewers, and characters.

I remember many years ago, one ordinary night, I thought, “If I write a book about New York, I’ll have to live there.” I knew three things about that book: the title, it needed to include a secret apartment and there would be violence. Years later, three dozen copies of The Butterfly King sit in perfect alignment on my shelf, brightly gleaming. I lived in New York before writing that book. The book had a secret apartment under the New York Public Library. And violence.

The sixth book finishes the first story arc in The Lost and Founds. Even in future books where Vin narrates, I will never have the same relationship with him as I do now. He grew and changed. I did, too. We truly are saying goodbye, author and beloved character.

I wanted this book emailed to my editor by December 27th, so I could get inspired by this week’s vacation in a redwood forest. I’m beginning a new book! In my exuberance, I treated this final Lost and Founds book like an irritating, “To Do.”

Thank Hercules, I failed to reach my goal.

This means I can now take deep breaths. Celebrate. Walk with an old friend in an ancient forest, inhaling the clean miracle of telling your character’s story. I will start my new book while on vacation. I will also finish my edits on this vacation, celebrating the conclusion of Vin Vanbly’s story arc with great food, outdoor hot tubbing, and crisp red wine. I’ll get a massage in my cabin and then wrap myself in a blanket to sit on my little back porch, staring at the cold stars, impossible miles away.

I can’t think of a better failure.



Release Day

August 23rd, 2016

I’m writing on the back porch, the sunroom. The sun abandoned this side of the world an hour ago, a screaming periwinkle streaking across the sky before darkness finally caught up and blanketed it.

Years ago, I painted this room in cool colors, sea-foam greens, and blueberry sponge prints, interspersed with grape vines dancing along the room’s seams. There’s a Latin inscription YELLING ACROSS THE BACK WALL that makes you wonder if maybe the Roman’s went extinct because of hoarse voices. All that Latin yelling E PLURIBUS UNUM, and such.

The phrase wasn’t originally Latin.

The phrase came into my life as a fortune cookie from Rainbow Chinese. I had been so touched by the simple words, I taped the fortune in the kitchen door frame, somewhere I would notice but others might not. Over the next year, I grew so attached to the fortune, I asked my dad to help me translate it into Latin to go with my grapevine-themed, Romanesque sunroom.

“You have the capacity for enjoying life.”

Beautiful. Simple.

Insert a theological sermon about life-is-short, or why-not-love-it-all, but I have no patience for the simple morals dispersed at the end of TV sitcoms. Life can suck. People fall in love and then out. Children die unfair deaths. People wither from cancer all the fucking time, and then they’re just gone. You’re left with this person-shaped hole that only one person will ever, ever fit.

Life can be violent and brutal.

But the capacity is there. The capacity joy life.

I thought the phrase would look cool in Latin, so I asked Pop for assistance with the translation. Before his retirement, Dad taught high school Latin and English. In fact, he was my English teacher and also my Latin teacher. I saw him a lot during the course of a school day.


After the words were stenciled, outlined, and painstakingly painted with a tiny brush, I was proud. I liked seeing those muscular words whenever I passed through the room, the room hoarding the most sunlight and breeze. I photographed the final resulted and printed out the photos, mailing them in a letter. (Yes, this was pre-cell phones.) I called him to discuss our collaboration, and like every hungry son, silently hoped for a father’s praise.

The first words out of his mouth were, “I think I gave you the wrong word for enjoying. I don’t think it’s supposed to be laterandum.”

I screamed, “WHAT?”

“I’m kidding,” he said. “It’s the right word. Room looks nice, by the way.”

My dad died of cancer.

There’s a hole in my life where he stood. Brilliant men I love have stepped through this Joseph-Leon-Manning-shaped wound and held my hand, so I’m not complaining about how there’s “no love” left for me. Far from it. I’m one of the most fortunate people I know. But my dad is gone and while I am adult enough to spend a whole weekend doing those same chores he often performed, I will always love him unreasonably, as if I were ten.

My book, Come Back To Me, releases today.

I wonder what dad would say.

It’s easy to romanticize him now that he’s gone but I prefer to remember the hard truths. He was not what anyone would call “supportive” regarding things of a homosexual nature. When I came out, he wept. When I was in my teens, some local Chicago alderman was getting an award taken away from him because the press found out he was gay. My dad glanced over the top of the newspaper he was reading, and said, “Good.”

Over the next twenty years, we argued. I disagreed with his priorities. His religion. His hypocrisy in that religion. I treasure those fights now, because I sharpened my courage with that man. I argued for greater love. He argued for greater love, too, but with different rules. It’s hard when you love people who see the world so differently from your own world view, but you know that. You love people like that.

I’m not sure he’d send flowers for this latest book release.

But he might be proud of me.

Come Back To Me has an odd history.

This is the very first book I wrote in The Lost and Founds series. I created this story (well, a shittier version of this book) in 2008, and despite it being shitty, I loved what I wrote. I loved this strange narrator so much, and his insane manipulations, I decided I could write another book about him. There was a sentence in the original draft that had stuck with me.

In speaking to another character, Vin said, “Want to hear the story of King Perry? There was a baby duck involved.”

I kept returning to that sentence, sensing a challenge. I wondered, could I really write a whole novel in which a baby duck was a central character?

As the vision for a book series became clearer to me, I filed away this shitty first draft and focused my energy on writing King Perry.

I hadn’t finished King Perry before I started writing key scenes from King Mai. In fact, one night while returning to Minnesota from visiting my parents in Illinois, I was seized by a thrilling idea on how to resolve the second novel. Despite the late hour, I pulled over at a Wisconsin rest stop off I-94. Under the fluorescent glow of bug-swarming lights, I wrote frantically at a picnic table until the computer battery died.

Then, The Butterfly King.

King John.

There have been a lot of release days.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped celebrating.

There somehow feels like less to celebrate when a total of twenty-four people purchase your book during an entire sales quarter. (A GOOD sales quarter.) Don’t get me wrong, those twenty-four are incredibly loving readers who have gushed love back to me, so much so, it makes me feel guilty for writing this sentence. The reviews are incredible. The friendships I’ve made are lasting. People have wept with my characters, which is what an author secretly wants.

I feel blessed.

But when you spend a year writing and polishing your sentences, and it’s the very best you can offer, and those sentences are not mentioning on The Tonight Show…you feel a little slighted. (I felt slighted.) Where’s the parade? Why hasn’t someone told Oprah “there’s a new author you should read.” It’s not even about book sales (although it would be cool to make money doing this thing I love). It’s the dreamer inside who thinks “I can change the world.” And the world doesn’t even notice you exist. Over the years, I’ve gone through a process of adjusting expectations. Growing up. Accepting the world as it is.

After King Perry, I stopped celebrating my releases. It wasn’t an angry, pouting decision. I just felt silly celebrating something that five people would purchase on release day.

Grow up, I would tell myself.

But then there’s that Latin phrase in my sun room: you have the capacity for enjoying life.

Today, I am celebrating.

Celebrations are sometimes quiet and sometimes loud. I’ve been waiting soooooo long to share this book that perhaps this time should be a slightly louder celebration. I’m toying with an official book release in a few weeks, done at a local bookstore.


I might not. But I love that I’m considering such an extraverted party.

Then again, this book’s release might require a quieter celebration, spent eating carrot pie in the sun room, letting a chilly August breeze delight me.

Today, I’m choosing to enjoy my life–this life–not an imaginary one where Jimmy Fallon says, “Hey, did you see there’s a new Lost and Founds book out today?” Then, he rips me a new one.

Nope. I’m celebrating this life. This release day.

I think my dad would be proud.

Maybe he’d even yell at me in Latin.




Google: How Tell Cat Hitting On Me

November 19th, 2015

It’s funny, the things we Google. Crazy-ass shit.

I made this observation an hour ago while my cat vigorously worked the draw strings of my house pants with his teeth, the fuzzy warm brown ones with skulls. The experience wasn’t very sexy from my perspective, mostly annoying, but it was certainly a good attempt by the Professor to get into my pants.

Of course, he likes string, so maybe that was the real appeal. But, I dunno. I’ve been getting some romantic signals lately.


I haven’t blogged in a while, so I haven’t officially announced this, but most everyone I know already knows: I now own a cat. He is Professor Waffles. We have a complicated relationship.

I want to be a dog person. Not a cat person.

When I told my best friend about my decision to get a small four-legged to share my home, I explained with some resignation all the reasons it was impractical for me to get a dog. I travel too much. I work weird hours. They’re too much effort for a single person. But, you know, they’re dogs, so they’re awesome. I said, “I’m getting a cat.” I’m sure my voice conveyed this as the second best option.

Ann sputtered a laugh and said, “Of course you are! Oh, how did I never notice this before? You’re totally a cat person.”

I was annoyed by this observation.

I want to be a dog person.

But the Professor and I became friends immediately. Within the first five minutes in my home, he confidently meowed his loud presence to every room on the first floor. He scaled the couch and howled his arrival at the summit. I loved his fearlessness. For the next month, he followed me everywhere. Demanded constant attention. I discovered he mewed incessantly. In fact, one summer night while enjoying a drink on the back porch with a friend, my pal interrupted our conversation to say, “Dude, what the hell is wrong with your cat? He talks nonstop!”

This friend happens to own two cats himself, so I was surprised by his surprise.

“Don’t all cats talk a lot?”

“No,” he said with some alarm in his voice, “Not like that. Is he dying? Have you taken him to a vet?”

He’s not dying.

He’s just the Professor. He talks a lot.

I get a lot of lectures in my home.

He is a typical cat, so I won’t say much about that. Aloof, commandeering, demanding. He bears the regal essence of catness. He jumps on counters, then pretends he didn’t. I have squirt bottles all over the house. That little fucker is not getting on my counters when I’m sitting right here. He manages the house all day while I’m gone, and I guess he can do as he pleases. But damn it, I don’t want to be a cat person.

Cat people always freaked me out, their blind devotion and insistence this crazy little feline was a pal, when clearly it was a resentful would-be predator in a body too small to take action. Whatever the cat did was absolutely fine, because, cat. They were mostly assholes. I remember going to particular friends’ home for dinner many years ago. Moments before we ate, their cat jumped on the dining room table where all our uncovered meal steamed in its warm glory.

My eyes bulged out.

“Get off the table,” our hostess said, shooing the cat who returned her insistence with a cool hard gaze. Cheerfully, she said, “Oh, you’re the worst.”

She swung into the kitchen to get the final items. While her husband chatted me up, I stared at that cat–still strolling the table–careful to note what it licked, brushed, and touched with its littler-box paws. The husband finally noticed my fixed gaze, and said, “Get off the table, c’mon.”

The cat never flinched.

He sighed and said, “Cats.”

If you come to my house and I’m making you dinner, the cat will not be involved in the touching of your food.

I am not a cat person.

But, I am a fan of Professor Waffles.

Despite having the aforementioned less-endearing cat qualities, he also owns an impossible sense of expansion, that all is his domain, and it really is. His confidence constantly impresses me, how a creature this small and dependent has the courage to be so grand, so beautiful in his demanding vulnerability. PW oozes cat presumption, and maybe it’s good for me to see that boldness on a daily basis.

He wants to play. With everyone. Every hand is equal because every hand might hold treats. A month ago, I took him to work for the day and restrained him on a twenty-foot leash. He was completely chill, exploring every cube within range and eventually napping for hours on an empty desk. Everyone petted him, scratched him, dangled shiny things for him to grab at. He didn’t just endure it all–he loved it.

I like his equanimity regarding age, race, and belief system: every hand might hold treats. Every hand is equal.

He doesn’t use his claws. Various friends have remarked on this, his patience and refusal to pull a Wolverine during aggressive cat play. He knows the damage his claws can do, but he chooses restraint. I like this quality of his.

Also, he never gives up.

Every single time I come in from the outside world, he tries to escape. I stop him. I nudge him with my boot until he gets the daily message, “Not today.” He scowls and wanders a few feet away, allowing me to come in, drop my belongings. I greet him in my special voice. “‘Alloooooo, Professore. Hows arez youz? You arrrre good, no?”

Waffles stretches for me, not-too-subtly reminding me how awesome it is to nap all day, and then he consents to petting. He mews, complaining about his lack of food. “Are youz reaaady for your rubssingz, Professor?”

In the last few weeks, he’s taken to jumping into my lap, climbing up my chest and staring deep into my eyes. He blinks slowly (which I now know means, “I love you” in cat communication) and kneads my upper chest while I stroke him from head to tail. He likes every part of him touched and rubbed, and after he’s exhausted this position, he rolls onto his belly so I can stroke his furry belly like a guitar. Touch means everything to him and he cannot get enough.

But this eye-staring business makes me nervous.

When he hikes his paws around my neck and comes at me like I’m his prom date, I feel like whispering, “I like you but as a friend.” He bumps my head and mine together a lot–and I mean, a lot–which makes me think this must be cat foreplay. His wet nose constantly nuzzling mine, purring softly the whole times.

C’mon, man. You’re weirding me out.

Nevertheless, I pet him and stroke his skull and then rake my fingers down his back while he tries to make out with me. I admit, I find his purring soothing after a long day. I find this dog-like welcome delightful. However, I am equally pleased on those other days when he sees me at the door and turns–tail pointing straight up–so I  notice his casual dismissal of my arrival. I don’t always feel like being snuggly every day either, so fine by me.

We seem well-suited.

Last weekend, friends came over for dinner. One friend was allergic, so the Professor enjoyed some alone time in the den, complete with water fountain, scratching posts, a warm bed, multiple climbing surfaces, and, of course, a box for his turds. (Yup. Let’s just put it out there. I now clean turds out of a box.)

My new-parent friends brought their one-year-old, who conveniently napped in my guest room, giving them a welcome respite. We celebrated this break from grabbing hands and swatting paws by using wine glasses–actual wine glasses with stems–the kind that easily get knocked over. None of us were drinking wine. We laughed at how luxurious and foreign this felt, drinking out of an actual wine glasses without worrying about them being knocked to the floor.

I explained how I didn’t want to be one of those “cat people” who let their cat touch the food. I told about my ongoing battle to keep Prof Waff off my food-preparing counters and the dining room table. I explained what he eats, how often, how I had to learn about the right amount of food for him. But I worry I’m underfeeding him anyway, not from his size, but his constant complaining, whining about how I never feed him anything and he’s wasting away.

He talks less than he used to a few months ago, now that he knows I’m listening. At least he knows he is heard. I rub his face and pull his ears back while I say, “Noes, liddle kidden. No outsidez for youz today.”

At the dinner party, I suddenly realized I had been talking for almost twenty minutes about my relationship with my cat.

With that grim realization came another: it’s too late.

I’m already a cat person.



Sure Enough

May 6th, 2015

I have a cousin, third cousin, a young kid, and the extended family has been worried / not worried about him. He had been developing his toddler abilities a little off the bell curve. For a long time, he didn’t talk.

Nobody knew why.

He just didn’t seem interested in talking.

Personally, I’m totally behind this kid keeping silent. Talking is a racquet, kid. Once you start, you never stop. They get you hooked by just teaching you a few words. Easy ones. Useful, even. You’re a wide-eyed tyke, who thinks, ‘This is handy. Now I can finally ask for one of those chocolate chip orbs they constantly pass to each other.’

And you think, ‘Words good.’

Years later, you’re fighting with a lover at 1:00 a.m., rehashing the same argument from six hours earlier but now having spent six hours simmering in angry silence, it’s even more furious, and the ocean of words spit between the two of you will flood the room, drowning you both, and you think, what kind of idiot invented talking?

It’s safer in the world of no-words.

So this third cousin, call him Buck, was not vocalizing or showing interest in words. He wasn’t deaf. Seemed like a smart kid. His parents took him to specialists who advised strategies and non-verbal games to evoke the magic of speech.

As extended family bystanders, we worried, and reassured ourselves that kids develop differently. If he didn’t feel like talking, okay. We also did not worry. Whether Buck spoke (or not) might not matter.

That is to say, we already loved Buck with big hearts.

Perhaps we loved him even more in his silence, if that were possible. He was a miracle baby, and we thrilled he stayed on earth. Whether he spoke or not, we loved that kid. At family gatherings, Buck was like electric lightning–racing constantly–crashing into your leg, laughing as he grinned up at you. But he couldn’t be bothered to stop for conversation, as he was off to explore somewhere else.

Somewhere exciting!

His parents were baffled where his energy came from, this bright yellow Tonka truck of unstoppableness, this child with the energy of seven kids crammed into one.

We love Buck.

It’s strange, loving second and third cousins who you rarely get to see. Many, many years ago, we held those second cousins when they were infants. Demanded to see their missing teeth and begged to hear them play the violin or sing or dance or tell a story. They often complied at family gatherings, Christmas at Aunt Mary Beth’s or Thanksgiving at Aunt Barbara’s.

But then they grew up.

Got PhDs.

Got married.

Had kids.

They were once our yellow Tonka trucks, racing through my mom and dad’s home on Easter with soon-to-be-spilled soda, laughing and chattering and then suddenly turning so unbelievably shy they could do nothing but bite the tip of their finger, because that’s all you can do sometimes when you’re a kid, is gently bite the tip of your finger.

When one second cousin produced her own professional singing CD at the tender age of fifteen, we all gossiped about her for months, admiring her talent, discussing her next steps. Will she take her band on the road? Record contract? That Thanksgiving, we played one of her songs after dinner and she was so embarrassed by the attention she fled the room.

We couldn’t stop ourselves. We love her. (In fact, two days ago, I listened to her music again on the way to work, singing along at the top of my lungs.)

Though we don’t see them as often, the second and third cousins, we want to know the details of their lives. See fresh pictures. Hold their kids. When I speak with mom, part of every conversation is devoted to family updates. She provides what she heard from her Aunt Barbara who heard from Anita who is visiting her parents while her husband is away. Where is he you ask? Interesting story. Apparently for his next research project…and so the family stories unfurl. The news. Who visited whom. New jobs.

Eventually, I get most of the details.

But we miss the day to day victories in their lives and that’s sad. They’re having lives. They’re having friend-filled, career-rich lives. They watch Netflix and have outrageous game nights, do laundry on Saturdays. Good for them. But hey. The older generation who adored you from the beginning of your life, well, we miss you. We miss your big smiles. We miss your insane energy, running constantly from room to room. We’re glad you grew up so beautifully, but we miss you.

I spoke with mom the other night and got some family news.

Guess who started talking?

“Well, this is what I heard,” Mom said. “He says ‘no‘ really easily but they were struggling teaching him the word ‘yes.’ It’s very common in any kid to learn yes later than no, but he kinda refused. Buck kept saying ‘cerna.’”

I said, “What does that mean?”

“Well, nobody knew. He just said, cerna. Cerna. They couldn’t get him to say yes.”

I waited for the rest of the story. Mom’s a good story teller.

“They worried a little,” Mom talked a little slower to keep me in suspense, “Wondering if he was inventing his own words, his own language. What if he didn’t talk normal English? What if that word, cerna, revealed some mental problems ? But they listened more carefully to what he was saying and it turns out he wasn’t saying cerna exactly. He was saying the words so quickly. He was saying soo nu.”

“How is that any better?”

Mom said, “They realized that their nanny, I think she was from another country, that word, au pair, maybe. I don’t know. I heard this from Mary Beth who talked to Barbara yesterday, so I’ll call Barbara and ask her. Anyway, the au pair had an accent.”

“Yes,” I said, a little impatiently.

Mom said, “This nanny never said yes, when she agreed with something. She always said the same two words. ‘Sure enough.’ Buck has been saying sure enough. Cerna. Cerna! He’s fine!”

We laughed. Love that kid!

“Sure enough,” Mom said and she laughed happily. “We’re adopting it as our family slogan. I think we should. We all just start saying ‘sure enough’ instead of yes.’”

After years of playing with cousins and second cousins, you end up feeling very attached to people who do the discourteous service of growing up and moving away, permitting you to only glimpse the lives they have carved for themselves. You end up missing them more than you thought you would. You wonder about their kids, their struggles, and reminisce about when they were tiny little balls of energy.

But is it worth it? Loving those family members you now only see twice a year?

Sure enough.





Gentle Pranks

April 1st, 2015

I may have gone too far today, in prank world.

It wasn’t the first prank. The second one went off well, too. But the third one. I might have crossed the line on that one.

The first prank was kind of an eye-roller.

I like to make a big deal about the fact that I was Employee of the Month, January 2014. At the time, I ordered a sash. To this day, if I have a comment to make at company meetings, I will sometimes say, “Hi. Edmond Manning. January 2014 employee of the month. I think…” Everyone groans. Everyone knows the EOTM is picked randomly. They get the parking spot in the front of the building. It’s about 30-40 feet from all the other spots in the parking lot, so we all know the parking doesn’t matter that much.

But once a month, the email comes out and introduces a coworker we see every day in the kitchen, and we learn she’s a black belt in karate or that programmer once lived in China for two years. It’s a friendly way to remind us all we work with some cool, impressive people.

Our front receptionist–who selects the EOTM and sends out these lovely emails–agreed to plot with me. Today she announced I was the April 20014 Employee of the Month and even created my lovely interview she does. I emailed my acceptance speech and reminded people I was only available for photos on Thursday afternoon in the break area between 2-4 p.m. I promised change would be coming. A new era of change under my reign. Everyone assumed it was a joke almost immediately. Nobody wants me in that position again.

Not after the last time.

Prank number two was a little more sophisticated. I mean, no genius level stuff. I am a simple man.

A work friend has been pranking me gently for the past month. He told his story on reddit funny and it became a front page story–a big honor. Today Cheeseburger website named him “Coolest April Fools day prank.” The video catching my reaction to finding out lasts about 10 minutes and has been watched 20,000 times. I heard from two friends I hadn’t spoken to in months who reached out to say, “Hey, that’s you in this story, right?”

In the office, we’ve been chuckling over Tom’s insano-flakes patience and art skills, chuckling over my blindness, including not noticing the comic he changed so it screamed EDMOND int huge red letters on the cube wall right behind where I spend 90% of the working day staring at my computer.

Never saw it.

This week, I was the April fool, but in a gentle, friendly way.

I announced via email that we should gather at 3:00 p.m. and celebrate Tom. With a gift.

He IM’d me immediately to say, “What did you do?”

At 3:00, I stood behind Tom with a big knife and said, “It’s time. Come to the pool table.’

He glanced at the knife and walked in front of me.

We all gathered and stared.

I had purchased a grocery store cake and offered it to Tom as ‘thanks’ for all his hilariousness, punking me so damn publicly. Everyone in my studio was in on the prank, waiting for weeks for me to figure this out. In purple frosting, I had the the grocery store baker add these words: There’s Nothing Wrong With This Cake.

He read the cake, noticing my patch-up frosting areas where I tried to make it look someone had fucked with the insides. Maybe inserted something. Then, tried to frost over any evidence of foul-play.

Tom looked at us, all of us, staring at him and said, “No way. No.”

We cajoled him and I offered him the knife.

He held it reluctantly.

Someone said, “Can other non-Tom people have cake?”

No!” I spoke with vehemence. “This is for Tom.”

Everyone laughed. But waited expectantly.

Through gritted teeth I said, “After all the effort I went through, it would be downright rude not cut the cake and eat a piece.”

“But, I don’t eat–”


He gingerly cut a piece.

Stepped back.

A producer in our studio put her hand on my arm and said, “I need Tom this afternoon. He’s on deadline. He can’t spend time in an ER.”

Tom poked the cake with the knife.

She said, “I’m serious.”

Her seriousness did not reassure Tom.

After a little stalling, Tom eventually cut a piece and raised it to his mouth.

The worried producer gasped out the word, “No!”

Tom bit down as if he might lose his teeth, but then he ate the rest of his small piece, and said, “It’s just cake.”

After that, we all had cake!

The cake had not lied.

It was a pretty gentle prank. Nobody went to the ER.

But could I stop there? No.

The third prank.

I had this idea to do something a little dark.

I think April Fools Day is like Halloween. We celebrate the parts of us that are not so nice. Sometimes it’s funny when a person slips and falls. Saw a guy put Post-It notes all over his girlfriend’s car and she was late to work so had to drive with the entire car covered. She said all the flapping sounded like kazoos. We are compassionate people, most of us, but sometimes we can be a little rude. A little sharp. We need to indulge that desire to laugh at someone else.

We can choose as adults not to indulge the super mean pranks. We can choose to run to someone hurt and say, “Are you okay?” Personally, I cringe at the really mean stuff. We can find gentler pranks and still somehow honor the dark side in all of us.

The other aspect of this holiday is that we all get made fools of by life. We age. We say dumb things. We make mistakes and sometimes they aren’t so funny. We make big plans for our lives and they head a different direction. It’s not easy to laugh everything off, so we need a holiday that reminds us to laugh when reality is not what we thought it would be. April Fools Day helps us laugh at ourselves, our gullibility, our trusting nature, the goofy playfulness of our relationships with each other.

It’s nice to be prank and be pranked. It’s an affectionate punch on the shoulder from someone who thinks buying a $4 greeting card is bullshit.

For the third prank, I decided on three sentences.

I typed them .

Printed out the piece of paper and left it sitting at the printer for someone else to find.

The three sentences were these:  “I’ve made up my mind. Let’s go forward with this. Have them both killed.”

Okay, that was a little dark. I know.

When I left the building tonight, our HR person (let’s call her HR) was in her car and rolled down her window. We chatted for a few minutes. She and I chuckled over my temporary Employee of The Month status. Later today, when I was officially ousted, like a cat shooed from the window sil, I warned the new employee of the month that this wasn’t over. I also bragged that I spent the full day parked in her parking spot.

She replied to me privately and said, “I’m gonna need you to go move your car.”

I shared this with HR and we reminisced some good pranks we had both heard. Then, we reminisced about her car deoderizers. Last year, HR pranked all the executives with balloons in their offices, so many they couldn’t get in. She covered someone else’s entire office with Post-It notes. The walls, computer, the desk. One exec was traveling, so she opened up four dozen cheap air fresheners–mostly car wash variety–and sealed his office with a towel under the door so that when he returned from his trip, the air was unbreathable.

After his return, we all paraded by his office to see him working with his eyes watering, and choking as he said, “Yes. Verrrry funny.”

HR is a gentle pranker, The very best kind.

Worried I over did it with my third prank of the day, I said, “What would you say is going too far?”

Immediately, she said, “Sexist. Racist. Mean-spirited. Homophobic. Any phobic, really. Anything mean about a person.”

She added a few others conditions to the list because gentle prankers don’t want to exclude someone or make them feel like crap. We want them in on the joke with us. Come play.

“What about murderous threats type pranks?”

“Ah,” she said. “That would explain the piece of paper that ended up on my desk this afternoon.”

I am so going to be fired from this place.

Happy April, fools everywhere.






January 5th, 2015

The promise of a new year is the promise of a clean slate. New opportunities to shine brighter, to let go of more baggage, to be that better person.

New me!

Well, one and a half hours into 2015, I had already taken that clean slate and metaphorically wiped my butt on it, Instagrammed it, and tweeted, ‘Screw you, New Year. I intend to be as much of an idiot this year as I was last year.’

You see, at 1:30 a.m. on January 1st, I wrote the most intimate, wildly inappropriate graphic text message I have ever crafted, so terrible I shall never reveal the exact words, not to anyone. I sent it and then, for the first time, looked at the recipient.  (Cover your face with your hands because you know where this is going.) Yup. I failed to send it to the intended person.

Happy New Year.

I’m an idiot.

The message was intended for a man I feel extremely close to. We had been texting earlier that evening. For him, the message was crude but appropriate.

But it was not the kind of message you’d want read at Senate hearings, and I sometimes worry my life will be analyzed on CSPAN, possibly a Tuesday night special report hosted by angry senators with little hope of re-election unless they make me their last-ditch attack on behalf of public morality. In my imagination, I find myself apologizing into a dozen accusatory microphones.

“Mr. Manning, we need to know the exact wording of that text message.”

“I am so sorry, esteemed senators, but I fail to see the relevance–”

We’ll decide what’s relevant,” says a snarling senator (R-Texas) facing charges from the Ethics committee.

(She is hoping to draw attention away from those charges by making a name with my inquiry.)

Near tears, I say, “I can‘t tell you the exact wording. If you just let me explain, Senators, I can tell you why I don’t have a copy of the message.”

“Mr. Manning, this outrageous claim…”

They never let me explain.

The reason I don’t have this message anymore because when I reread my lengthy paragraph of human depravity in hair-tingling panic, the first thing I did was to instantly delete the message from my phone, hoping this action would cancel delivery. Of course it didn’t, but I wanted to believe, so desperately, that there was a way to undo this.

See, I had sent the message not to one person, but two. My two sisters.

I want to believe that a dozen of my close friends would have replied to an accidental text like that with something amusing like, “Kiss your mother with that mouth?” But this was the filthiest thing I had every written and as a guy who writes about men engaged in graphic sex, I think that’s saying something. I honestly believe that even a good-humored friend who accidentally received this message would eye me with naked disgust and say, “Seriously? You wrote this?”

Nobody would laugh.

I certainly wasn’t laughing.

Sure, it was an accident both sisters received this text. Accidents happen. I think they would forgive me, despite how enormously distasteful and disrespectful this message. But worse, worse by far, was how I believed they would forever look at me. See me. I’m not sure I’m a knight in shining armor to either one of them. But this message would tarnish any remaining silver in our relationship. I knew it.

My sisters have seen the worst of me. I have yelled at them unfairly, needled them, criticized them, and suffered them to endure my icy, damning silence. And yet, for all our childhood grievances and adult fights, they love me. We have colored with crayons together. Invented games together. Attended high school together, sharing classes. Over the years, we celebrated three dozen Christmases together, and more birthdays than that.

I wept with these women at my father’s funeral.

As an adult sibling, I am prickly to their very belief systems, and they are not exactly supportive of gays. But we still find ways to play together, to laugh together, to miss our Dad together, to celebrate this gift that we’re all a family. For whatever shortcomings we all tolerate in each other, there somehow remains a certain purity and light in our sibling love. When I call my younger sister, Eileen, we often replay stolen lines from Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive.

Brusquely, she answers, saying, “Talk to me.”

I say, “I didn’t kill my wife!

With a slight Tommy Lee Jones twang, she says, “I don’t care.”

Our good stories together outweigh our bad.

I need that unadulterated sister love.

Less than two minutes after clicking send, in blind panic, I did as thousands of other freaked-out individuals like me have done in the past, frantically googling, “UNSEND TEXT MESSAGE.”

Every link sadly proclaimed the same message: sorry, buddy.

I typed them a follow-up text explaining DO NOT READ THE PREVIOUS MESSAGE, which was silly because they would not read this latest message until they had finished the one immediately above it.

After sitting in terror and sadness and general freaked-outedness, I decided I may as well go to bed. I mean, relationship damage done. What else could I do? I sat in silence and thought about my older and younger sister.

I missed seeing them at Christmas this year.

I mean, I missed mom and my brother and new sister-in-law, extended family, and all my Chicago friends…that sucked also, but this is a story about missing your sisters, an older sister who I idolized in my youth, and a younger, so close to me in age, we are referenced as ‘Irish twins.’

Because of work-related project deadlines and a business trip between Christmas and New Years, this year, I did not take holiday vacation days. I chose not to drive to Illinois. I could have, I guess, but I felt exhausted by a frantic autumn and the prospect of four days’ vacation–at home–for two consecutive weekends felt like a Christmas gift I could not ignore.

I mostly did not regret that decision, not until Christmas Eve when I spoke on the phone with each of my beloved family members. It really hurt to hear them laughing in the background, imagining the house smells and last-minute gift wrapping chaos. When the phone was passed to Andrea, I opened the Christmas gift she had ensured arrived the day prior, a gift made for each sibling: a gorgeous replicas of our parents’ wedding album. We discussed our favorite photos, the Hollywood photo, the one where they are most happy, the one on the church steps, the one where our brother looks most like our father. I pretended not to cry and hoped she could not hear me.

Sitting in my New Year’s middle-of-the-night funk, after my colossal texting fuck-up, I decided to go to bed, and wondered if I would sleep at all.

Then a final, ridiculous idea dawned on me: call them.

Maybe they hadn’t seen the message yet?

After all, it was 1:30 in the morning when I sent it.

I called my older sister, Andrea, and woke her up. I didn’t care. This was worth it.

I explained the circumstances. Eileen had sent a post-midnight message of “HaPpY nEw YeArS” to both Andrea and myself, which made it to the top of the text messages pile. When I opened my message window, the phone defaulted to show me the newest message, so while I thought I was typing to someone else, I was actually typing to them.

With a sad and anxious voice, I explained how I feared the message I sent would change the way she looked at me, and not for the better. I said it would make me really heartbroken. I begged her not to read it. I told her it would mean everything to me.

In a soft, alert voice, she said, “Of course. Of course. I won’t read it. I promise.”

Of course she would show me that respect and love. Why did I even not consider this option, the phone call, until after fifteen minutes had passed? Of course she would show me the love I needed.

Moments later, I called my younger sister who answered her phone snorting, laughing, speaking before I could. She said, “Mom and I were just watching–”

Clearly, she hadn’t seen the text message.

I interrupted her and said, “Eileen, I need to talk to you. This is important to me.”

Instantly, the hilarity left her voice and she switched to cautious. “What’s wrong?”

For a second time, I explained the situation and let her know how much it would mean to me if she deleted before reading. I pleaded with her.

She assured me she had not read it and in her cheery voice said she was actually glad I asked this favor, because she got a new cell phone the day prior and she needed practice on deleting messages. Hell, I don’t even think she was mildly curious as to the message contents. After her assurances, she asked me a question or two about iPhones and their interfaces.

We wished each other happy new year, and hung up.

I went to bed.

I slept soundly, so soundly.

The next morning I awoke at 6:00 a.m. to find a message from Andrea who wrote to say ‘mission accomplished.’ She explained she wasn’t sure if it would be physically possible to find and delete the message without reading it, but she managed it.

Eileen texted me by 7:30 a.m. to say, “Deleted without reading. Both messages. And I learned a new feature! I love this new smartphone!”

Maybe I don’t need a ‘clean slate’ come New Years. The 2014 version of me seems to have a great deal of love and trust in his life. Maybe I just need to reevaluate “my existing slate” and show better appreciation to the people who have loved me all my life. Maybe the only real ‘clean slate’ is accepting who you are, the life you have, and trying to polish what’s already there.

I told a good friend this miraculous tale, my idiocy, and my sisters’ love.

He said, “Yeah, but how do you know they didn’t lie and just read it anyway?”

I know.

I know because I heard the promise in their tone as much as their words. And because they love me.

In the darkest hour, on the first day of 2015, they both promised, and then kept, their first New Years’ resolution.


The Gift

December 25th, 2014

One of the most unusual and wonderful presents I ever received was from a Catholic nun.  And I don’t even remember her name.  I was a high school junior attending weekly Catechism in the straight-backed wooden pews of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  St. Mary’s was brutally cold and darkly solemn that Wednesday in mid-December.  A few pale candles waved weakly from the alter, perhaps waving goodbye to my slipping faith.  It’s a terrible thing to doubt your Christianity during Christmastime.

The Sister who taught us now was a soft-spoken but confident woman with slow and elegant movements. She announced, “I have a Christmas gift for each of you. It’s actually from God.”

She passed around a shallow ceramic bowl filled with scraps of paper and continued to speak.  “On each of these slips of paper is a gift from God.  I promise you that God will grant you this gift sometime in your life when you need it most.  I do not know when that will be.  It may be next week, it may be in two years. But I promise.”

I reeled at what I considered the blasphemy of her words.  Who was she to promise a Christmas present from the Almighty?  This kind of “I-represent-God’s-will” grandstanding was exactly what eroded my belief system. I was tired of hearing what I considered hypocritical messages from people of faith. My high school counterparts each took a slip of paper as the bowl passed my way.  I looked at them anxiously, wondering what their slips of paper revealed.  Then I took mine.

In typed blocked letters was the word “GENTLENESS.”  Gentleness?  Who the fuck wants gentleness?   I remember thinking that God had a pretty crappy typewriter.  I crumpled the scrap and kicked it under the pew ahead of me.

Sister continued to explain, “I promise that God will give your gift to you.”

Sometime over that Christmas break, I had a fight with one of my sisters. I don’t remember what we fought about.  After we had each skulked away, I thought of my gift and wondered where God had been during that fight – why didn’t He – the Almighty – make a grand appearance to provide the ‘promised gentleness?’  And I thought about gentleness – what did it mean to be gentle?  Gentle in your heart? Your words? Did gentleness stop you from fighting or hurting someone you love?  Did it make you rise above the petty conflict?  Is gentleness a realization that the fight isn’t as important as the person? I thought about my sister and how I would want people in the world to be gentle with her. Soon I was calm; I was feeling…I didn’t know…could that moment be the experience of gentleness?  Was this the promised gift?

I found my sister in another room of the house and we reconciled.

A few years later in college, I had to initiate an uncomfortable discussion with my college roommate.  I truly hoped that I would display the kind of patience necessary for this talk to go well.  And I wondered ‘Is this time?  Will the promised gentleness will come now?’  Though I shook with nervousness (being very new to confrontation), the conversation went very well.  I held my ground. Respected his feelings. After it was over, I asked myself, ‘Was that the moment of the gift?’

I asked that question again a year or two later as my best friend cried in my arms over a failing relationship.  How could I find the right soothing words?  What do you say when someone’s entire world just ended?  ‘Please, let now be the time of the gift.’ I begged.  ‘Please God, let me find words of comfort. I’m not good at this stuff, but help me be gentle with her broken heart.’  And somehow I said things that made her feel better. Or maybe gentleness wasn’t in the words I said, but in holding her, in feeling sorrow with her.

Later in life when it was I who desperately grieved a failed relationship and my own heart was pierced with jagged regrets and unspoken recriminations, I wondered the familiar question ‘Will the gentleness come now?’  It did.

And I wept with gratitude.

I have been visited by gentleness many times since then, yet I still don’t know that I could define it.  Does gentleness yank you out of anger?  Or is it more like a child’s soft but insistent tug on the back of your shirt?  Perhaps gentleness seeps into you like milk through an Oreo, a delicious and thorough sensation.  Gentleness could have a far-away voice or perhaps it acts like a warm baking pie that wafts into consciousness and changes your perception.  Or maybe gentleness is present in buttery, toasty yellow, a pretty color acting as a distraction, encouraging a better part of yourself to swim to the surface.

I still don’t know.

All I know is that God kept the nun’s promise, over and over.  I still pray for gentleness to come to me when I need it most. And when my heart feels it or my eyes get wet with tears, I often think, ‘Is this it, God? Is today the day you keep the nun’s promise?’ I have since left the Catholic Church.

But I still have faith.

And now, I offer you a gift from my own crappy word processor, typed in all caps.  This gift is actually from God.  But it will come to you.  I promise.


The Longest Night

December 21st, 2014

I read an article online today promising tonight, Winter Solstice 2014, is the longest night ever in the history of our planet. Because the earth always moving from the sun due to IMAGINE SCIENCTIFICAL-TYPE STATEMENTS HERE ‘CAUSE I WAS TOO LAZY TO COPY THEM, which therefore means that today is roughly two seconds longer than last year. Tonight is the longest night we’ve ever experienced.


This alarms me.

I realize in checking the spelling of ‘exaggerate’ three times I already used up those extra two seconds allotted to our spinning planet this year, but it still freaks me out. Some days I look around me and I worry the darkness is winning. There are cops being killed in Florida tonight, possibly in retaliation for the killing of an unarmed black man. Our country is dealing with the after-effects of yet another racially-convoluted killing. How many people of color need to be slaughtered before we, on an institutional level, start saying, “No more deaths. We have to figure this out.”

It would be one thing if this were the first, shocking instance. But on the night before I was born in 1967, mom could see the McDonalds burning down across the street. She thought, ‘What kind of world?’ These were the Detroit Race Riots. Followed by a lot of incidents between then and now. So, you know, this isn’t new news.

Sometimes our world feel like the longest night. The darkest night. Will it ever get better?

And, hey. Happy holidays.

For me, the holidays are a combination of my best memories and a few of my least-favorite. Luckily, awesomeness outshines the bad, but that does not mean I feel both freely. Tired and needing a break, this year, I opted out of Christmas.

I didn’t know you could do that.

Other times, when I’ve missed Christmas at home, they were exceptions and had good reasons. I’ve had a lot more years in my hometown than away.

One year, Ann and I drove to Mississippi to do cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. An intense experience grieving and loving strangers. My first Christmas away from my family. When I called home on Christmas Eve, they passed the phone around and I sat in the back seat of my car and imagined the smells in mom’s house.  Fresh gingerbread. Roast beef.

Peppermint burning candles.

Last year, Ann and I drove to Galveston, Texas and treated ourselves to a vacation. Another first. I’d never spent a holiday pampering myself with my best friend in a gorgeous location. The experience was shocking to me. Liberating and naughty.

This year, I’m skipping the holiday claiming exhaustion and no vacation days. Both are true. And though I’ve seen family a lot this past year including Thanksgiving weekend, this is a lost opportunity to see family. No decorating gingerbread cookies with siblings on Christmas Eve morning. Beautiful friends in the twin cities have offered me invites. And yet, I want to see who I am without the holiday. I want to see who shows up.

And on the plus side, I didn’t have to put up outside lights this year.

Although I do like looking at all the lights. I will admit to my well-orchestrated neighbors, I’m impressed. Sorry for not doing my part this year, but good job.

They’re pretty, right? Regardless of religion or creed, we all agree that colored lights on a charming, snow-covered home is something we can appreciate as having a kind of loveliness. You don’t have to live here to appreciate that. You can nod to the north and share that appreciation from Texas. And still think, ‘They’re insane to live in that snow.’

Lights are pretty.

Obviously, I’ve been a little torn about the holidays. Happy to have zero shopping, and no decorating responsibilities. But sad, because it’s fun to get caught up in the excitement of gift giving and wrapping, and seeing surprise on a loved one’s face. There’s some real beauty in this season.

Friday night I was chatting with my friend Joel, and explaining my missing out. Joel and I talked about a number of things, previous holiday experiences, the good and the bad. At one point, he sounded distracted I asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was untangling his lights.

I asked, “Christmas tree?”

Just asking that made me miss all my favorite Christmas ornaments and remembering I would not see them for at least another year.

“No, a solstice tree. Just white lights. Last year, I dried out orange slices and placed them on the tree to represent the sun. They turned out really well.”

“Why celebrate the longest night?”

I was feeling a little contrary, I guess. Maybe I was looking for something to celebrate. I had been dwelling on the darkness all around us. Institutionalized racism. Revenge killings. So many wrongs still need to be righted.

Joel said, “I celebrate what happens next. The light. Days start getting longer.”

We talked about it and though I have plenty of friends who celebrate Solstice, I had never really given it much thought and I now found myself intrigued, the idea of celebrating nothing but the light. The light comes back. Weakly at first, but it’s coming back. Though January and February must unfurl with blizzards for us to slog through, still the light grows stronger.

And so do we.

By the time we hung up, I had found the clear lights in my basement storage and selected which potted plant to decorate, my Norfolk Pine, a former Christmas tree. I realized what I had been missing by not participating in Christmas this year. The ability to celebrate with others. To just feel celebratory.

Maybe this week is the anniversary of Jesus’ birth. Maybe it’s a marketing campaign masterminded by a hungry world religion. Who cares? Can we just say, Merry Christmas and let the words mean, ‘I celebrate you in your language.’ Happy Chanukah and Blessed Be if that’s what they want to hear. If we can’t celebrate the ideological differences or embrace each other’s life experiences, maybe we can still find surprising common ground.

Without agreeing on the target, we can celebrate being people who love to celebrate.

I awoke this morning excited to celebrate my non-celebratory year. I created a list of 34 things I’d like done this week. House projects mostly. Cupboards and storage things cleaned up. Piles sorted. I am getting rid of 50 items from this house. I make tic marks on the massive chore sheet. This is my celebration, and I gotta tell ya, I like making lists and checking things off.

I’m also seeing a few friends, so do not fret over me. I’m not completely isolated.

While scrubbing old water stains on the basement floor this afternoon, I spied the tub of Christmas decorations and decided to add one of my favorite ornaments, a cardboard bungalow home almost identical mine, intricately carved and hand-painted, crafted by an ex-boyfriend from my youth. Also, a jade elephant from Ireland made the tree, the last elephant from Ireland, sent to me by ridiculous, wonderful people. New friends.

I would never know them except for the internet.

Had a little shopping to do so I ended up going to Target. I chatted happily with the checkout lady and I was surprised she had so much good cheer, working in such a demanding environment, hour after hour. She celebrated me.

In another grocery store, a meat company employee offered me a cocktail wiener. He tried to explain the unique grilling flavor, but I cut him off immediately with “Yes, please. Yes.”

I love little cocktail wieners at holiday parties.

And, the taste of these guys! The rich flavor was tangy-grilled without tons of barbeque sauce (which I also like). Surprisingly perfect. I chatted with him about his hot dogs and then eagerly bought a package. He said thank you to me, and he was sincere.

A few aisles later, I was humming the Christmas carols, vaguely echoing the music swimming above me and feeling very happy about celebrating and not-celebrating. I am someone who welcomes the light. At the end of the aisle, I ran into a woman who only had a few things in her basket which included two packages of the amazing cocktail wieners.

I jabbed my finger at them and said, “You got suckered into that taste test.”

With a surprised seriousness she said, “Those were really good.”

“I bought them, too, see? What is it about those things?”

We chatted about hot dogs and holiday parties for another few sentences and went on our way. She will never know me, hell, she doesn’t even remember me at this point. But we were light to each other, for a split second. She might stand for everything I detest. I might be her worst liberal nightmare. But we chose to be light.

Tonight, I welcome the longest night.

C’mon, darkness, settle in. Depress us. Convince us there is no hope for morning. We will end you, longest night. We end you with a festival of lights. Kwanzaa. Chanukah. Christmas. And those who look at anyone in that pile and say, “You people are crazy.” We celebrate them, too.

People who find cocktail wieners disgusting and people like me.

All of us, together.

When we celebrate each other, we cannot be stopped.

We are the light.


The Unmasking

October 27th, 2014

This golden, gorgeous October is one of the top highlights of my year, and it’s a year full of highlights. My brother’s wedding. (His joy radiates from him.) I have a sister-in-law! His bachelor party. My mom and her sisters sang the national anthem at Wrigley field. A Chicago park named after my great aunt Midge. My beloved godson’s wedding to a powerful, talented woman. Gay Romance Lit.

I wrote two books and two short stories out this year. Three dozen reviews written by people who took the time to read my books and thought they deserved their serious consideration when penning their words. Some of them hated it, but many of them loved it, and reviews are like love letters sometimes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Love letters. I got to be author-of-the-month for dear friends. Made ‘crush alert’ for one review site. Made new friends.

My heart is full.

Impossibly, it got fuller this October, my favorite month of the year.

I like to wander under colorful, sun-drenched foliage as most everyone does. I do not consider myself unique. We all love it. I took five hundred photos of leaves and streams and rocks and little glimmers of splattered red leaves against hard blue skies, including a great photo of a sunflower that seemed to wave right at the sun. And the sun waved back.

Everyone does this, too. We all take lots of dumb leaf photos.

In fact, there’s little that’s unique about my October traditions, but that’s why I like them because you love them, too, and it makes us more connected to know we all crane our heads at the eight shades of orange, maroon, firetruck red, and the most fierce slivers of marigold ripping through slender branches.

We’re agog.

The leaves are mostly gone now. The trees are all but unmasked. I have been drunk on falling leaves for weeks now. But we’ve reached that time in October to celebrate the chilly night, the Halloween scratches of brittle twigs with no colorful flags to wave. I now spend evenings wandering the streets, listening to music and thinking about life. It’s a good time.

Tonight, my cell phone rang while I was a dozen blocks from home. I contemplated not answering because autumn is my favorite time of year and this is my favorite kind of night and I felt drunk on fresh air. But it was Joel.

Joel is one of the very first friends I made when writing my first Vin Vanbly tale. (I had published the first stories in a free-stories website.) I had received emails about Vin’s story. More and more emails came in, asking who is this guy, Vin Vanbly? What kind of story was this?  Joel was an early email friend who said, “I read your story an hour ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s making my sternum vibrate. Why is that?”

We became email friends. Then, real email address friends. Then, phone friends. Once when I was in his city for work, we were in-person friends. I love Joel.

Joel called tonight and I realized he’d be the perfect companion on an autumn walk, so I happily answered and we instantly began chatting about sexual words we found distasteful to say aloud. This was our hello. I told him of a recent radio show where I was a guest and I ranted against the word ‘quim,’ like a freakin’ lunatic and we laughed and were silly and chortled. I kicked leaves and Joel was with me.

We shared stories about our lives right now, the milestones in the last month, the in-between-big-events stuff that is interesting to your best friends. I started a story about someone I saw recently and Joel said, “Oh yeah, I remember him. You told me about that guy once. Like two years ago.” Joel shared his recent news and we rocked it together, gently in a warm blanket between us, his happy relationship with his boyfriend. He didn’t know he would ever be this much in love.

So we held hands, metaphorically, and walked through the night. I pointed out a moment he was showering himself with king love and he said, “Yeah,” kinda softly. We were quiet with each other because that’s what love is sometimes. Quiet. And laughing about raunchy words.

The air got colder.

Joel and I had walked together for the better part of an hour. I could hear more branches clattering together in the cold wind. Turned my steps toward home. Our evening stroll was coming to a close.

Walking up my street, I saw two boys, maybe eleven or twelve coming toward me. They had passed my house and were in front of my next door neighbor’s home. I saw a flash of white as one of the boys held it to his face and the other one laughed. They were already stuffing it into the backpack as I drew closer. It was the standard, serial killer Halloween mask, white plastic with holes and eye slits so the murderer can see who he’s hacking to bits.

They had just stolen my yard monster’s Halloween masks. I just hung that up yesterday.

I spent all day in the yard yesterday, doing a half-assed job of preparing for winter. Trying to fertilize the lawn, something I should have done weeks ago. I mowed, gathered bag after bag of leaf mulch and grass, yanked out the tomato plants, moved giant pots to the basement, and yet still had time to find Halloween masks for the yard monster.

One day.

The masks lasted one day on the tree before these two little fuckers stole them.

I said to Joel, “Can you hang on for a minute?”

I let the phone fall to my side. The kids reached me, chuckling and zipping up the backpack.

“Guys, stop. You just took the masks off the yard monster back there.”

Both their eyes widened. “No!”

One shook his head in sheer disbelief that they were busted almost immediately after their caper.

I don’t want to be the neighborhood hard ass. My friend Jenna predicted that kids in the neighborhood will call me “Old Manning,” and I will yell at them in my bathrobe from the front yard, shaking a folding chair at them. The really cheap, light folding chairs.

I don’t want to be that guy.

But I don’t want to be a pushover and pretend like it’s okay.

Joel was in my hand, listening (I imagined) to my every word.

“Guys,” I said, “I just saw you. C’mon.”

They protested, but the little guy was breaking already, his eyes turning into terror. Would I insist we go to his parents? Was that what was in store?

I said, “Be cool. Let me have them.”

This was the second time I implied there was more than one mask stolen though I had only seen the one mask. But there could be more and I didn’t want to fight them on every mask. So I just decided to bullshit my way with confidence.

The smaller guy said in a mournful voice, “We’re sorry.”

Confession! Yes!

He began to unzip the backpack.

This is the first time in the history of me, my uttering the words ‘Be cool,’ ever worked on anyone. I almost wanted to yell, “Ha! Gotcha!” But that, um, wouldn’t be cool.

His chubby companion who was the first to deny any theft, clearly was not ready to risk fleeing by foot. He looked down and said, “Yeah, I’m sorry.”

He and his buddy were out enjoying this perfect autumn evening the way eleven-year-old boys do, mischief and talking trash, the way I was talking trash with my lifelong friend, Joel. Just guys out enjoying the glorious night. And in the end, these boys were relatively harmless.

I said, “Don’t sweat it. I appreciate your giving them back. I just want people to enjoy them for a few days. It’s my way of sharing with the whole neighborhood, so don’t take them again, okay?”

Together, they humbly said in unison, “Okay.”

The younger one pulled out a second mask, the really creepy clear one.

My bluff paid off.

As he handed it over, he said in a tone of sad appreciation, “This mask is so awful. What it does to your face.”

I said, “I know, right? It’s really gross. Worse than the hockey mask.”

He nodded and sorta smiled faintly.

We have the same sick humor, this goonie kid and I.

I said, “Tell you what. If you leave the masks on the tree until Halloween is over, you can have them both on Saturday. Just come and take them. You have my permission. But leave them up for a few more days, okay?”

They both brightened considerably and immediately promised, “Sure, no problem.”

I said, “Thanks, guys. Goodnight.”

They waved and said, “Thanks.”

We had conducted master negotiations.

Those two buddies resumed their walk and I resumed mine with my buddy.

He said, “Where were you? What happened?”

I conveyed the whole story, especially my excitement that I said the phrase ‘be cool’ and it worked just like a magical disarming spell is supposed to work. Joel though I was missing the point of the experience.

He said, “You showered them with king love.”

His saying this to me caused me to shower myself in king love, to scrub in this golden, five-shades-of-orange-and-yellow love into my body, remembering I don’t have to turn into Old Manning. I can keep love in my heart even with the punk neighborhood kids. I felt like I instantly, explosively showered in autumn leaves as they plummeted and swirled from the trees above.

Our friends unmask us, find the best in us, and witness the worst in us. If they’re really good friends, they help convert the worst in us to the best in us.

Tonight, I walked the neighborhood with Joel.

We unmasked each other.




Future Me Is A Little Bitch

September 25th, 2014

If I could time travel, I would travel right back to younger me and tell me things.

Yes, I know one of the big rules of time travel is that you don’t go back and mess up your own future. Or reveal winning lottery numbers. These are things that break the space/time continuum and create splinter universes where people have lobster claws instead of human hands because every little piece of history matters. Please. I’m not a complete idiot.

But I’m not good at remembering numbers. Or who won big sporting events. But Younger Me would worry about screwing up the space/time continuum (we are very good about keeping it tidy), so one of the first things I’d say to Younger Me is “Oh, don’t worry about my spilling the beans on anything. You aren’t important in the future, so there’s nothing to screw up. It’s all good. We can talk.”

See? Future Me is kinda rude.

But Future Me will remember thinking that an say, “Sorry, that’s not what I meant. You’re not vice president of the United States or head of a company or famous. In fact, neighbors who live two doors down will argue whether your real name is Leonard or Jim. See? Not important.”

Future Me is a big fucking tool.

But Future Me will continue and say, “No, I’m not a tool. Let me finish. You’re incredibly important to lovely, lovely people. You are so fucking loved that your heart is gonna explode in six different directions. You have family. Big family. Online family. You have goddaughters and a god son and they all turn out amazing. You will be in love and important in a few different men’s lives.  Friends in your life will change you forever. It’s incredible. You will know all kinds of joy.”

This sounds better.

“Yeah, life is good. Some days suck, of course, and there’s a little cancer scare ahead, so get those moles checked out.”

Oh god.

“Just be careful. Slap on the sunscreen every day. Don’t worry too much. After all, I’m here from the future, arent I? Just be diligent.”

And it’s true. He’s here.

“Oooo, guess what?” Future Me asks, but does not pause for my guess. “You become a writer.”

I will explain I am a writer already.

“No, you’re really not. You’re not that good and you don’t take it seriously. Some people get better in a year or two but you’re on the slow track, Champ. So keep practicing.”

I will ask Future Me, “Will I ever master commas?”

“No. But luckily, you will work with editors much smarter than you. More importantly, you meet so many great people and friends through writing. It’s amazing. And strange. You will post pictures of your stuffed dolls online and people will talk about them and be eager to meet the various monsters in your home.”

“I am a writer who posts pictures of dolls?”

“No, it’s okay,” Future Me will explain. “It’s a blast. It’s like recess on the internet. You will have friends you never met who are so unbelievably kind to you. And gracious. And people will read your books and write reviews that are like love letters from their heart right to yours. And some reviews are funny and saucy and short and three sentences, but right-at-your-heart sentences.”

“So, everyone loves me?”

“Oh, God, no. No, some people hate you as a writer. They aren’t shy about saying it. One reviewer said she’d rather chew off her own arm rather than read your books.”

Well, shit.

“No, that’s okay, as in really okay. In the future, you can accept their opinion as true for them and let it be. You might get stung, but the love, the crazy, outrageous sparkling love is gonna outweigh everything.”

That’s nice to hear.

“It’s better than nice. You threw a release day party for The Butterfly King and so many people came, and played, and started reading your book right away, and then sent you messages of love. It was amazing. It’s hard to express gratitude for that kind of love. And it’s equally okay if friends don’t care for your writing because they were honest and honesty is celebrated in the future.”

This is where I begin to suspect Future Me is full of shit.

“Well, we’re trying. People are still learning to be fully honest with each other, but the world changes a lot in the next few decades. Some ways worse. And in a ton of ways, better. More people come out of the closet in the future. Not just the gay closet. The mental health closet, the gender fluidity closet, the introvert closet, the I-like-weird-shit closet. People share more of their true hearts. We’re not perfect, but people are growing their compassion and kindness.”

I would tell these things to my seventeen-year-old self so he could start opening his heart now, start getting it ready to bear this future love, this love of friends and readers and family.

Future Me would also say, “The Chicago Bears win the 1985 Superbowl, so if you can, get some money in on that action. Also, I think the human race is about to get lobster claw for hands because I shouldn’t have told you that. You shouldn’t mess with the space/time continuum. My bad.”

It’s okay,” I will say, “because I am the forgiving type, especially when the man before me is so damn handsome.”

That’s right. I said it.

Younger Me will say, “I hope you’re going to find a way to thank all these people for loving all those readers who become your friends.”

Future Me will say, “I will find a way.”

“So, how did you get back here in the past? Who invented time travel?”

Future Me will say, “Huggstibles.”

“Who is that?”

With a smirk and that smug I-know-more-than-you-do expression, Future Me will say, “You’ll see.”

See? Future Me is a little bitch.


Illustrated Huggstibles