Prioritize Yourself

I’m 51—a number I can’t even begin to fathom—and for the first time in my life, I honestly like who I am and where I am and the possibilities for the future. I’ve always had a sort of quiet self-loathing so few people ever see. I’ve always said something like, “Nobody loves Jeff Brown the way Jeff Brown loves Jeff Brown.” It’s a true statement, but maybe not in the way I present it. I do love me, but I’m not really sure I ever liked me. It’s like being my own relative. You can’t choose your relatives and you can’t choose the person you’re born as. You love your relatives, you just may not like them very much. That’s where I’ve spent most of my life, loving me, but not liking me. 

Until this year, I never really tried to work on me. I never really tried to make myself a priority. There were other things far more important than my own well-being. I worked hard at everything because I hated the idea of failing—not necessarily actually failing, but the very idea of it. I hated it so much that I failed a LOT. So, I worked harder and I failed more spectacularly. I pushed myself to the point of physically hurting myself, then refusing to let me body heal, claiming, “I’m a man, I got this.” Okay, that’s a bullshit mindset. I don’t care if you’re a man. You still have to allow your body to heal or you will deal with it much later in life when your body is breaking down due to your bullshit mindset. 

I dealt with physical pain on an everyday basis because of injuries I didn’t allow to heal properly. Broken bone in my foot? No problem. I’ll walk it off. Blown out knee? I got this. I’ll just limp for the rest of my life because, I don’t know, I’m a damn man. Torn up shoulder? It’s okay. Just a little pain. Yup. I’m a man for sure—a dumb one. 

Back to my point: until this year I didn’t really work on me, mentally, physically or emotionally. And I never really liked myself, partially because, well, I’m a man and expressing you have limitations or flaws just isn’t allowed. Hold on, I need to sneeze. Ahh … ahhh … ahhhbullshitchoo.

Excuse me. Sorry. That one was building up for a while. 

Back in February I left publishing for what I thought would be for good but came back with a different mindset a few months later. I took all the pressure off that I had put on me. No one else put this pressure on me. I did it to myself. And when I left, I felt like I had spent nearly 30 years on something I failed at. 

I did a few things during that break that I should have done and kept doing for all these years: I focused on me. I put myself first for a change. I started looking at who I was and all the things I didn’t like about the person I was, who I claimed to love so much. I began working out, eating less junk food, writing for me and no one else. I got rid of several social media accounts and the ones I kept, I culled the friends’ lists and follows’ lists. I got rid of Twitter all together. On Facebook (my primary social media presence) I cut my friends’ list from around 2800 to just over 600. I slowly began removing people from my life who were a negative influence. I got rid of a lot of toxic people (and yes, some of those people had a positive mindset I found to be toxic).

One of the biggest things I did, outside of the ones mentioned above, is I stopped making excuses. You know what I’m talking about. You probably do it, too. I said things like, ‘If this would have happened …’ or ‘If I would have done this, then my life would be different,’ or ‘If I had a better job …’ or ‘If people would buy my books …’ or ‘I don’t have time to do this,’ (Ooooo, that one got a few of you, didn’t it?) or ‘I don’t know how’ (Ouch … got a few more of you, didn’t I?).

When I stopped making excuses, I started seeing a change in my attitude, my mindset, my physical well-being. When I stopped making excuses, I attacked my workouts with everything I had, even on days I didn’t want to. I changed how I viewed writing and publishing. I started smiling more. 

I never look in mirrors except to comb my hair. I’m not a bad looking dude, but I’ve never liked what I saw in the mirror. I walked by a mirror in Target last night, glanced at it, took a couple of steps, then stopped. I took those couple of steps back to the mirror and looked again. I only looked at myself for maybe five seconds. I smiled and thought, ‘Damn, that’s me,’ then, ‘Damn, I look good.’ I walked away, a smile on my face, my head held a little higher.

Physically, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in over 20 years. Mentally, I’m in the best place I think I’ve ever been. Emotionally, I’m also in the best place I’ve ever been. By prioritizing myself for the first time in my life, I’ve found a balance that works for me, that has helped me get to a place of actually liking myself, of liking who I am and where I am in life. 

By prioritizing yourself, you’re not being selfish. You’re not saying that nothing else matters in your life. You’re saying, ‘I matter,’ and when you start believing you matter, you change. You don’t become selfish. You don’t become arrogant. You become a better person, because the more you change for the better, the more you benefit. Those around you will notice, and if they try to drag you down or talk shit about what you’re doing, you know who to remove from your life. You begin to surround yourself with people who will lift you up, not tear you down. Why? Because you matter to yourself, and at the end of the day, you go to bed with yourself and you have to like who you are in order to truly experience this beautiful thing we call life.  

So, hear I am, deeper than ever, maybe even truly happy with who I am for the first time in my life. So, I say this to you: prioritize yourself. It may be the missing link between who you are and who you wish to be.

Much love to you all and be kind to one another.

A.J.

Be Astounding

What do you want in life? No, I’m not talking riches and popularity. I think most people want that (at least the riches part). What do you REALLY want in life? Do you want a better job? Do you want to get in shape? Do you want a better marriage or relationships with your friends, family, and the people you care about most? Do you want to write a song, a book, a play? Do you want to play a musical instrument? Do you want to paint, draw, or sculpt? Do you want to go back to college or go for the first time? Do you want to learn a new language? 

What do you want in life? Think about it. I mean, REALLY think about it. 

I listen to people when they talk. Some may not think I do, but I do. I listen to what they say, how they say it. I pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and the tone in their voices. As a writer, all these things play a huge part in my stories, and I’ve gotten good at listening and hearing what people say. 

I’ve seen or heard a few things this week that have made me ponder the question I posed above. One of those things—and to me the greatest deterrent from chasing dreams—is fear. That fear is based off the unknown. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I will be any good at it. I don’t know what tomorrow holds or how this will play out. Some of that fear is based off previous experiences. This happened to me before so … 

In many cases, I see fear of failure. I’m afraid if I try, I will fail. What if I don’t succeed? What if I fail? 

Hey, in your mind right now, I want you to look me in the eyes. Come on. Whatever color your eyes are, I want them to look into my blue ones right now, and hear the words coming off my fingertips. Are you ready for this? I understand how you feel. I have been there, and I am certain I will be there again. I hate the very idea of failing at something. It is a normal feeling. 

The following are a handful of quotes from Thomas Edison, you know, that guy that invented a bunch of things. The first of these is fairly well known. A couple of the others are not.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Yeah, so you’ve probably heard of that one. How about this one:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

One of the things I feel is important in order to doing anything is to believe you can do it. So often we don’t believe we can do something. We see someone else do it better and when we don’t do it as well as they do, we give up. 

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” Not Edison, but Theodore Roosevelt.

You may not do something the way someone else does, but that doesn’t mean you failed at it. That means you did it differently, and sometimes differently is a good thing. Don’t make the mistake of comparing how you do something, how well you do something, or your success to how well someone else does something and how successful they are. Don’t do that to yourself. Again, look into my eyes: don’t do that to yourself.

Okay, here is the third Edison quote, and it’s powerful:

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Did you get that? Seriously. Did you get that?

Giving up on something we want feels like failure. Giving up on ourselves feels like failure. It feels like shame and smells like regret later on. Keep trying. That next bit of effort might be what pushes you across the finish line.

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind: Not trying is worse than trying and not succeeding. At least by trying, you gave it your best effort. I would rather try and failed, than to wonder if I would have succeeded.

There’s one more thing and I promise I will let you go: we are a people of excuses. I can’t do that because I am too young, too old, handicapped, too fat, too thin, not strong enough, don’t have the money, don’t have the know-how, don’t have time. 

For those of you who say any of the things involving physical limits, go read my post called I’m Possible. (https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2021/04/07/impossible/). I understand the don’t have the money part. I deal with that on a regular basis. But there are ways around not having money to do things. The don’t know how I get as well. However, the University of Google and Youtube University are your friends and they are free. Also, you can ask people who know what they are doing for help. Sometimes they will surprise you and give you the information you need to do something. Google it. Youtube it. Ask for help. Do it. 

The issue of time. Whew. That’s a good one. Yeah, that’s mostly an excuse. If you have time to watch two hours of television at night or spend half an hour on social media five or six times a day, then you have time to pursue a dream or a desire or a better life for yourself. Sure, sometimes people are truly busy to the point of not having time for anything else. I get it. But, let’s be honest with each other, if you want something bad enough, there is always time for it because you will make time for it.

Cate and I have grabbed hold of a saying and it has become our mantra over the last half year or so: Be stronger than your excuses. We have developed separate goals for ourselves as well as goals for us as a couple. We will be the only reasons we do not reach those goals. Sure, things will come up, but excuses are no longer an option for us, and I don’t have time is the biggest excuse of them all. 

I guess there is one more Edison quote I want to share, and it’s good:

“If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”

Wow. That’s just … wow. I have nothing to add to that.

So, I ask you again, what do you want in life? What do you REALLY want? Don’t be afraid to go after it. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t give up on that dream or yourself. Don’t make excuses. Be astounding. 

Much love and peace to all of y’all.

Abel

I was excited. That excitement and joy was short-lived when we found out that most of his friends were in another league and he ended up on a team where he knew exactly none of the kids.

We were an hour into our first practice of our first t-ball season. My son wanted to give baseball a go. After all, his friends were playing, and he was five and what kid at that age didn’t want to do the same thing as all of his buddies. We signed him up in a league close to home—one with a pretty good reputation for grooming young boys into good ball players. 

The coach was a big man with a mainstay five o’clock shadow along his chin. He had two assistant coaches I would later find out worked with him. One of those coaches was the son of the man who built the ballpark. I sat on the hill watching as the three men tried to corral the group of young boys, Cate beside me, my daughter playing on the play set across from the field. Then the behemoth of a coach walked up the hill. 

“We’re a coach short and could use the help.”

“Me?” I asked. I looked around, thinking he really was talking to someone else.

“You played baseball, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then we could use your help.”

That was the beginning of my days as a coach in little league baseball. It was also the day I noticed Able, a shy boy with brown hair, and almond shaped eyes that didn’t seem to focus on any one thing. He looked at the ground, his shoes, his momma’s leg, back at the ground, his eyes and head never staying still too long. He looked as if he wanted to crawl inside himself and never come out. I could see him physically trying to blend in with the air around him, his elbows hugging his sides, his knees slightly bent in. He leaned into his mother’s legs. If he couldn’t disappear into the air, why not vanish into the black denim of her jeans?

I didn’t say anything at first, but I would later, at the season’s Opening Ceremonies, which other than having all the teams on the field at the same time and announcing the coaches, it was pretty much a waste of time. I hate to say that, but it is what it is.

During those ceremonies, the team mom, a lady named Patricia, held Abel’s hand as we walked onto the field to join the other teams, our hats in our hands. We waved at the crowd of onlookers when our team was announced. Like with his mother, Abel tried to fade into Patricia’s leg, the cheering and clapping from the crowd making him shake as if tiny earthquakes rumbled within his seemingly frail body.

Before the end of the ceremony his mom was on the field with him, and he clutched her leg and cried. I shook my head. I’m not going to lie when I say I thought the mother was being cruel for making him do something he clearly did not wish to do. I’m also not going to lie and say I didn’t think he was a bit on the spoiled side. I would soon learn I was wrong on both accounts, but not on that day. No, on that day, I looked down at my son, the eagerness on his youthful face, the dazzle in his blue eyes—there was excitement there, just like in the rest of the faces of the boys on our team. All except Abel’s.

The following Tuesday we had practice—the first of three that week before the season opener on Saturday. The coaches broke the team up into two groups, one dedicated to fielding and learning the bases, the other dedicated to learning the nuances of holding a bat and hitting, as well as learning how to stand in the batter’s box and keeping their eyes on the ball.  

I didn’t see Abel at the beginning of practice, and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe his mother had come to her senses and decided not to force him to play. That relief fled as I saw her coming down the sidewalk, Abel melded to her leg. She stopped near Coach Jim, spoke a few words.

“Abel,” he said loud enough for all of us to hear. “Let’s get your helmet on and take a few cuts.”

From where I stood between Jeromy and Jamille, a troubled child with divorced parents, I could hear Abel crying and mumbling words I couldn’t understand. He finally let go of his mother. While Coach Jim slipped a helmet over his head, she ran to her car. Yes, she ran. A minute later, Abel held a bat in front of the tee, his shoulders hunched, legs bent in. He was still trying to disappear. The bat seemed too heavy for him and he held it near his stomach, the barrel pointing down. Coach helped him, putting his arms around his shoulders and easing him to the tee. He showed him the sweet spot of the bat, pointed to it and told him to swing.  

It was agonizing watching him barely get the bat to the ball, striking the tee or whiffing altogether. Then, he did it—he swung hard, struck the ball with good force. He jumped up and down, excitement ringing from his voice in unintelligible words. He swung several more times, hit the ball and squealed happily.  

When it was time for him to come into the field with me, he closed up again, his excitement having faded.

“Come with me, Abel,” I said and knelt beside him, trying the teacher approach of welcoming a new kid to class. “I’m going to be right beside you the whole time, okay?”

He looked up at me, his brown eyes slightly rolled up, his lips a twisted frown. My heart sunk. Not because of the realization that Abel was a child with special needs, but because of how I had felt about his mother, angered by her forcing him to play baseball. She wasn’t forcing him, but helping him, a mother hoping her son can adjust in some way or other into a world where he didn’t seem to fit in.

It was the single most eye-opening moment of my life.

Having friends with autistic children, I realized right then I needed something to relate to with Abel. I needed something he related to, something that could get his interest. That’s when I noticed he wore an Atlanta Braves jersey. Number 10. Chipper Jones.

“Abel, do you like Chipper Jones?” I asked.

His head jerked up; his eyes brightened. He smiled his crooked smile. “Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah, Chipper Jones,” I said. I glanced up at his mother. His grip had loosened, and I had a feeling I found the relatable content I needed. “Abel, do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

“Chipper Jones? Hit? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah. Do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

He repeated his questions of Chipper Jones and hit. Yeah, that was the ticket I needed to get him to pick up what I was putting down.

“If you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones, you need to let me teach you hot to field like Chipper Jones, and how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones. Can you do that?”

Again, he said Chipper Jones several times. 

I stuck out my hand, “Come on, Abel, let’s go learn how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones.”

As Lady Luck would smile on a gambler from time to time, she smiled on me and Abel that day. He took my hand and walked with me out onto the field at some little elementary school I had never been to until we started having practices there. I helped him with his glove. I showed him how to stand and how to cup the ball in the glove using the alligator method. Chomp your bare hand down onto your glove hand when the ball gets to it. I pointed to the batter.  

“If the ball comes your way, you run and get it. Okay?”

He cringed a little but nodded. He could hear me; he could understand me. Then Coach D stepped up to pitch. He tossed the first ball, which was hit sharply by Cole, the boy at bat. The ball rolled toward Abel.  

“Abel,” I yelled, my heart lifting, “Get the ball!”

Without hesitation, he ran. The ball hit his foot, bounced off his shin. He picked it up and cheered himself for his efforts. I cheered, as well. Abel danced as the coaches clapped and yelled their “way to be’s.”

His mother stood from her car, clapping. Later, I saw her crying as she hugged him tight to her chest. I went up to her, tussled Abel’s hair and knelt beside him. “Abel, will I see you at the next practice?”

He smiled, gave a hearty nod.

“Give me five, buddy,” I said and stuck out my open hand. He slapped it hard and laughed. To his mother, I said, “Thank you for being a good mother.”

She smiled as another trail of tears slid down her face.

After practice, I went to my son and hugged him tight.

“Did I do good, Daddy?” he asked.

“Yes, buddy. You did great.” 

That’s not where this story ends. Where would the lesson be if I ended it here? I would love to say that Abel was the easiest kid to coach. He wasn’t. He tried, but his mind wandered a lot and so did he. But he stuck with it. His mother stuck with it. I stuck with it.

Coach Jim had a way about him that both scared the kids and enthralled them, so they listened, and our kids advanced far further than the tee ball level. By midseason our kids were hitting live pitching, whereas a lot of the kids on other teams were still hitting directly off the tee. Well, I need to correct that last statement. Except for Abel, the rest of the kids on our team were hitting live pitching. Don’t get me wrong, we pitched to Abel. He just couldn’t hit the ball. His hand/eye coordination and timing never seemed to flow together.

We had played nine games and Abel had not gotten a hit all season. I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him how to swing, teaching him how to hold his bat, teaching him how to stand, and no hits. I had not taught him to hit like Chipper Jones. Still, he tried. He swung as hard as he could, missing and usually hitting me with the follow through. I carried away many bruises that year. 

The season came to an end one hot June Saturday. Abel had been up to bat twice and had no luck hitting pitches thrown by Coach D. Then came his last at bat. I’m sure you can figure out where this is going, but I want to tell the story anyway. 

Abel came up to the plate, his orange- barreled bat in his hands, his dark blue helmet on his head. 

By this point in the season, I played catcher and caught the pitches Coach D threw that the kids didn’t hit. I had caught every one of them thrown to Abel. 

“Are you ready, Abel?” I asked as I knelt beside him at home plate. 

Abel nodded, but it wasn’t very confident. He looked like he did that first day I saw him, like he wanted to crawl into his own skin and hide away from the world.

“Look at me, Abel,” I said.

He fidgeted but didn’t look up.

“Abel, look at me.”

Finally, he lifted his head and held his gaze on me long enough for me to tell that somewhere in his mind he absolutely knew he couldn’t hit the baseball. I could almost feel his pain. Though he was special needs and I wasn’t, at one time I couldn’t hit a baseball, either. When I played the game, I got lucky to get a couple of hits every ten at bats. I just wasn’t that good of a hitter. I would get frustrated and down about it. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My heart almost broke right then.

“Abel, you’re going to hit that ball, do you hear me?”

At first, he only stared at me. I repeated my statement, then he nodded. Again, it wasn’t a confident gesture.

I settled him into his stance and did the robotic diatribe I did with all the kids. “Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin, Abel. Watch the ball. Watch it all the way to the plate.”

Coach D tossed the ball. Abel swung, missed and spun like a top trying to dig its way into the ground. I caught the ball, tossed it back and looked at Abel. He shook his head but didn’t look at me.

“Get your bat up, Abel. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Watch the ball, Abel. Watch it all the way until the bat hits it.”

Again, Coach D tossed the ball. It was just an underhanded lob to the plate. Abel swung with the ball still fifteen feet away. We did this two more times. The league had a five-pitch rule. If a kid hasn’t hit the ball after five pitches, then he has to hit it off the tee.

“Settle down, Abel,” I said. At this point I was sitting on my butt, legs criss-cross Indian style, the way they taught us in school when I was a kid. “Abel, listen to me. You’re going to hit this ball, and when you do, I want you to run all the way around the bases. Don’t stop, you hear me?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do, Abel?”

“Hit.”

“That’s right. Then what?”

“Run.”

“Don’t stop.”

“Don’t stop,” he repeated.

“Get in the box,” I said.

He stepped into the batter’s box. He was slouched over, the barrel of the bat touching the ground.

“Abel, bat up. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Abel, watch the ball, hit the ball, and then run.” Then I added, “Hit the ball like Chipper Jones.” 

I tapped him on the back of his helmet, a gesture I hoped he took as encouragement. I squatted behind the plate, looked at Coach D, then nodded. Coach D tossed the ball. It seemed to float toward home plate. I swear I saw the seams of the baseball.

Abel lifted his front leg and swung the bat as hard as I had ever seen him swing it … and it connected. The ball rolled a few feet in front of the plate. Abel stood looking at it. Well stood is not quite accurate. He appeared to have full body shivers.

“Run!” I yelled. So did half the crowd in the stands watching the game.

Abel took off down the base path, but instead of heading for first base, he headed for third.

“Abel,” I yelled and chased after him. “Wrong way.”

I caught him halfway up the third base line and redirected him. 

It was one of those moments I wish I could have caught on video. But, really, I don’t need it—I have it in my memory. Every detail, as if it were yesterday and not ten years ago.

The infield was orange dirt, covered in the footprints of all the kids who played that day. The on-deck circle was still pretty much a circle, but the chalk outline had spread out and had been scuffed up quite a bit. The outfield grass was as green as it would get that summer and the kids in the dugout were all jumping up and down. I don’t know what they were screaming, but I know they were cheering as loud as they could. 

Abel was still holding the bat as he cut across the field from the third base line to the first base side. I remember this because I yelled for him to ‘drop the bat, drop the bat, Abel.’ He did drop it just before stepping on first base and jumping up and down as if he had just won the lottery. In a way, I guess maybe he didn’t win the lottery, but the rest of us had. You see, we were witnessing one of the greatest moments in our own lives. We just didn’t know it right then.

One of the coaches from the other team pointed to second base and yelled, “Run. Run. RUN!” I yelled for him to run. Abel did. Head down, arms flailing and legs pumping in an awkward gallop that was simultaneously one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The kids on the other team didn’t chase after the ball, as were their instincts to do so. They didn’t try to tag him as he rounded second and headed for third, then rounded third and headed home. 

I don’t know when I dropped his bat and fell to my knees just on the other side of home plate, but I had. I was yelling for him to ‘run, don’t stop.’ I waved my arms for him to run toward me. I don’t believe he ever saw that. His head was still down, and his arms were still flailing and his legs were still pumping for all he was worth. 

Halfway down the line he looked up.

He looked up.

Ummm … 

I get a little choked up here, and I’m hoping you will understand why.

You see, there was this … this … broad smile plastered on his face. His eyes dazzled brighter than I had seen on any child’s face before that day. I saw this through the face mask on his helmet, even as the helmet itself bobbed up and down on his head with each awkward step he took.

The little boy with special needs was living his dream, and for a brief moment in time, he was just like any other kid. But he wasn’t. He was flying. Somewhere in his reserved mind he was soaring through the clouds as he ran the bases. Then, just a few feet from home plate he dove, feet first. It was just as awkward as his gait, but just as glorious as well. He landed next to home plate and stamped one cleated foot on it emphatically. 

Then he stood and started his lottery dance again. I gave him a hug, just as I would my own son, then we gave each other a high five—him slapping my hand as hard as he could—and he continued to jump up and down, even as his momma stood in the dugout door, her hands over her mouth and nose, tears streaming from her eyes. 

That’s when I noticed everyone in the bleachers were not only standing but clapping and whistling and cheering. There were others crying, and there were tears in my own eyes, though I didn’t realize it right then.

Abel’s mom met him at the dugout gate, picked him up and hugged him tight. I don’t know if it was what she envisioned for him—I’m certain it’s not—but I know it was a proud, emotional moment for her.

It was over entirely too quickly. A season full of hours of practices and games. And it was over in less than five minutes. After the game, Abel’s mom came to me as I was getting my son’s gear together.

“Thank you,” she said. 

“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.

We talked for a few minutes. The words exchanged really doesn’t matter. What does is for a moment in Abel’s life he was just another little boy on a baseball team, wearing the joy in his heart on his sleeve as he ran the bases and slid into home plate. I bet in his mind it wasn’t just a hit, but a game winning homerun by Chipper Jones in the World Series that played out somewhere in his mind.

As I left the field with my family, holding my son’s hand, I was reflective of the season, of the first day I saw Abel and his mom and how wrong I had been in my assessment of the situation. That wrongful thinking drove me all season to help Abel play the game he loved. I think that was a heaping of guilt I carried on my shoulders until Abel got his hit. Then all that guilt was gone.

“Daddy, we played good today,” my son said as he tugged on my hand. 

I took his bag and slung it over one shoulder, then I picked him up. “Yeah, buddy, you guys played great today.”

***

If you’ve read this far, thank you. This is a true story. I changed the names of most everyone mentioned, including Abel’s. I chose the name Abel because I thought it was important to use something that showed it was possible to do this and what better way to show someone was able to do something than to use a name quite similar to the word ‘able?’

Abel would be around 16 or 17 now. I haven’t seen him since that last game. I wish I knew how he was doing, what he was up to. 

This story originally appeared in my short story collection, Ball Four. If you would like a copy of the book, drop me a comment below. 


Thanks for reading.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Just A Memory

Memories are funny things. Sometimes they are as crisp and clear as yesterday. Sometimes they are hazy, like a foggy morning in the mountains. I think this one is somewhere in between. (These memories are completely unedited. They are written in one sitting and I feel if I go back and edit them, my mind will tell me something is wrong and want to make changes. )

My grandparents lived in the mill hill in West Columbia, not more than a couple hundred yards from the Congaree River. My brother and I spent a lot of time at the river, more times than not getting soaked because we were either stupid, daring or both. We skipped rocks, broke bottles (yeah, with rocks), and even got in trouble one time when the pretty little girl who lived on Alexander Road stepped on some of the glass we had shattered with a bunch of rocks we couldn’t skip (we caught hell for it and had to go down to her house and apologize for being idiots—that’s what my uncle called us). 

We walked those streets like we owned them, even though we knew if we did something wrong, our grandparents would know before we got back to their house. 

There were few kids in the neighborhood, most of them like us who were only around when they visited their grandparents. There was Wayne and David—popular names back then, apparently, and I knew three sets of brothers with those names. There was another Wayne and David who were not brothers (they were cousins) who visited from time to time. Bryce lived on the corner of Sortwell Street for a while and Susan visited her grandmother from time to time (whew, she was a sight for young boy eyes and the only girl on the street). There were the Burnette Brothers whose names I can’t recall now to save my life—they became the models for the bullies in Cory’s Way. They were the local bullies, mean as hell, ugly as hell. Then there was Tony C., not to be confused with my buddy Tony M., who I often called T. 

Tony C. was not much to look at as far as boys went in the late seventies and eighties. I can’t really say I was either, but I think I grew up and became better looking with age. His face was loaded with freckles, his hair was dark brown, skin fair. He was thin and his voice was kind of higher in pitch. He was a part time friend who always tried to intimidate the rest of us. We tolerated him because sometimes there was no one else around to hang out with. We played marbles in my grandparent’s front yard; played cops and robbers at his grandmother’s house two blocks down. We got in more fights when he was around than when he wasn’t. I don’t think we ever truly became friends. 

There was this one time … I think it was the only time any of us really showed some sort of compassion for each other. I was walking down the street by myself. I don’t recall why my brother wasn’t with me, but he wasn’t. I was, maybe nine, maybe ten—memories don’t always recall time too well. I passed Tony’s grandmother’s house to see him sitting on the porch, his knees pulled up to his chin and his arms wrapped around them. His back was against one of the porch pillars. He was wearing bluejeans—he always wore bluejeans—and a T-shirt that I think was white, but I honestly can’t remember. 

I asked him if he was okay. He looked up. He had a shiner that would get worse before it got better. He had been jumped by the Brothers and the fight didn’t last long. I remember thinking he had probably ran his mouth at them and his face paid the price. Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I opened the gate and entered his grandmother’s yard. I went up the steps and sat beside him. I have no clue how long I sat beside him, but neither of us spoke for the longest time. His sniffles dwindled and he wiped his nose. 

His grandmother came to the door and said it was time to eat. We looked at each other and stood. I shrugged my bony shoulders as if I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t. He wiped his nose again, then Tony C. went inside and closed the door. 

That was the last time I saw him. 

Fast forward many, many years later and my baby brother and I stopped one day in the parking lot of a Bi-Lo’s. We got out and walked. We talked about life and other stuff, but mostly life. We made our way to my old stomping grounds and I took that stroll down Memory Lane. I pointed out things, like where the German Shepard had chased me and my older brother and where some of my friends lived and where the old park used to be and the house where another pretty, but older girl lived and would wash her car in a bikini during the summer—yeah, us boys spent some quality gawking time at that park during the summer.

We passed by Tony’s grandmother’s house and a man was out in the yard. I stopped and asked about the lady who lived there once upon a time. I also asked about Tony. Turned out, he was Tony’s cousin. 

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“Tony’s dead,” he said. 

I was stunned at this matter of fact statement. The story went like this: Tony had been in all sorts of legal troubles during his life. He had spent time in prison, and as was his life, he got into some more trouble. Instead of going back to prison—which he surely would have, even though his cousin said Tony didn’t do anything wrong—he committed suicide. We talked a little while longer, then said our ‘goodbyes.’

I often think about Tony C., and our tolerating relationship. I also think about the last time I saw him. It was an unspoken understanding we had that day. He needed comfort and I provided it, though I didn’t realize it then. I’ve often wondered if I would have done something different, said something, tried to make him feel better, something other than just sitting there with my elbows on my knees looking out at the street in front of us. I don’t think I would have. I think that understanding: ‘I know you’re hurt and I won’t say anything,’ from me and a simple, ‘Thanks for that,’ from him was the only thing we ever shared that wasn’t argumentative or spiteful. I think it’s the only good way to have ended a friendship that never really was. 

ImPossible

My wife, Cate, joined a fitness group. They support each other with words of encouragement, congratulations on achieving goals, and friendship on their quests to become healthier. I’ve watched my wife take on this fitness routine with a fierce determination that makes me proud of her. They also do check-ins through the Marco Polo video app. Cate listens to them throughout the day, whether it is while she is driving or eating or just sitting on the couch resting after a long day. Seeing how I’ve been in the vicinity of my wife on a few occasions when she listened or watched these videos, I have heard a few of them. These women seem to genuinely care about each other, which is something we don’t see a lot of these days.

On the first Saturday in April, Cate and I took a day trip to several state parks here in South Carolina. Before we visited any of the parks, we popped into an RC car shop in Monroe, North Carolina, then went and had what amounted to brunch at this little diner called The Village Grill. As we sat and ate (me eating a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich and she eating a salad), she mentioned one of the videos she recently watched. The woman’s name is Marcia and her check-in was kind of typical check-in fair, but the main part of it was about one word: Impossible.

Before I continue with my story, let me state that after Cate told me about it, I asked if I could listen to it. A couple days later, as we sat at the kitchen table (me working on the RC car I bought the Saturday before, and she watching Marco Polo videos), she asked if I wanted to see the one by Marcia, the one about the word Impossible.

“Of course,” I said.

She tapped the screen of her phone a couple of times, then turned it around for me to see. Though, I didn’t look at the video, I stopped what I was doing and listened. 

Marcia mentioned how, at the beginning of the year, they were challenged with coming up with a word … a word for the year. It sounded like this word could be the one that defines their year. Or, maybe, it was a word of encouragement or something to strive for. Marcia liked the words some of the others came up with, but none of them was her word. None of them spoke to her. 

Then, in one of her workout programs, the instructor mentioned the word Impossible. It clicked with her. It resonated with her, and I think it might resonate with you—it did with me.

Stick with me. This next bit is important. 

Marcia mentioned how she is older (no, I’m not mentioning her age), and how she might have a little more weight on her bones than she thinks she should be carrying, and how she has bad knees. They were all things she could use to say she couldn’t do something, or maybe, something was Impossible for her to accomplish. It may not be exactly the same, but we all have things that we make excuses for why won’t try to do something. I don’t want to say it was an excuse for her, but I believe she alluded to it. 

Ahh, but then the instructor said that word. Impossible. It hit her. The word Impossible is made up of two words: I’m Possible. By seeing it as I’m Possible, the concept of Impossible changed for her. 

I’m Possible. Do you get that? Read it again:

Impossible … I’m Possible. 

Marcia goes on to state, in a somewhat excited tone, that “I’m possible to be the wife I need to be to my husband, the mother I need to be to my children …” But the realization doesn’t end there. She can be so much more—the possibilities are limitless. This was a huge realization for her.

There is more to Impossible and I’m Possible than just breaking the word into two and putting an apostrophe in there. It’s a mindset. It’s about believing in yourself, in your abilities, in your determination. It’s not making excuses.  

It’s about Can and Can’t. Possible and Impossible. 

If you go into something with the word Can’t (or Impossible) on your lips or in your heart, then you’ve sabotaged yourself. You’ve already given up, but you don’t realize it, yet. Mentally, you’ve checked out and you might think you are putting a lot of effort into something, but you aren’t—at least not the effort you could put forth if you went in with the mindset of I Can. Can’t or Impossible truly limits you in what you will do.

When I was younger, I played a lot of sports. I was good, especially at basketball. Every time I stepped onto the court I felt like I was the best player out there. It didn’t matter if I was or wasn’t because, mentally, I believed I was. Believing in yourself is more than half the battle. I sized up my opponent before the game started, and in my head and in my heart, I always believed, “I’m going to own you.” I never went into a game thinking my opponent could beat me, that he was better than me. 

It was a mindset. Just like Impossible and I’m Possible is a mindset. If you think it’s Impossible, it will be. If you think I’m Possible, YOU will be.

What Marcia did was look at things with new eyes. Instead of things being Impossible for her because she was a little older, maybe a little overweight, and had bad knees, she began seeing all things are possible if you believe. 

I’m Possible is also about ownership. Ownership of who you are, what you do, and how you view life. It’s making no excuses. There are no I Can’ts with I’m Possible. 

With that in mind, be possible. Not just possible, but be possible without limits. Believe in the term I’m Possible. Believe that you have the ability to do anything you want, and not just be who you are, but be who you want to be. Don’t say I can’t. Don’t give yourself a reason to not be possible. Be like Marcia. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Three Seconds of Life

I want to tell you a story. Well, it’s not really a story, but a moment in life, a few minutes of a day that was pretty much like any other day, except for these few minutes. But aren’t these moments what stories are made of? Aren’t these moments the times that we recall later in life, the stories we tell people? Moments like this are exactly what stories are made of.

It was a wet day. Gray outside. Rain coming in fits and starts. Just two days earlier it had been in the upper seventies. Pollen dusted most outside surfaces. People had been out and about enjoying the beautiful weather. But, like I said, that had been two days earlier. On this day it was in the mid-forties, rainy and windy. I’m not sure that really plays into the moment, but it might have. I’ll let you decide.

The events took place after a routine morning of stretching, coffee, getting ready for work, and going to that job I got ready for. 

I went to the post office, something I do from time to time when there is no one else there to do it. I had my raincoat on and I walked the two blocks there only getting rained on a little. At the post office I said good morning to Mrs. Cathy and we exchanged about thirty seconds worth of pleasantries. We gave our “Have a good days” and I left. The rain had picked up by then and I flipped my hood up.

Normally, I will make a left at the corner and walk along the sidewalk until I reached the next corner, where I cross the many lanes of traffic one way, then the many lanes of traffic the other way. I then walk the half block to the backside of the building I work in. It’s pretty simple and usually takes about ten minutes round trip. 

This day should have been no different.

I reached the corner of the block and stopped. Though I had the little white walkie man on the sign and the light was red for cars traveling in that direction, I reached the corner the same time as a car did. It was a burgundy Toyota, nothing new but certainly not something older than ten years. It had slowed a little faster than I liked and came to a stop halfway in the crosswalk. I waited for a couple of seconds to see if the person driving was going to make a right turn, even though I had the right of way. When the car did not go, I stepped into the road and started to round the front of the car. 

That is when things went south. 

I glanced at the car when i was about halfway by it. It lurched forward. Time did not stand still but it slowed down considerably like in the movies or a good book. There was no way to avoid what happened next. I didn’t jump but somehow ‘lifted’ myself a little. The car struck my left knee. I tensed up and lowered my elbow and shoulder as I fell onto the car’s hood. My elbow struck first, then my shoulder. I rolled to my right and off the car, landing on my right foot, then my left. Then I took a step backward.

The entire incident was maybe three seconds, but they could have been far more devastating than what they were. 

I was shocked.

I was stunned.

I was pissed.

I honestly believe the person in the car had struck me on purpose. I thought for a second there that the person had gotten angry that I decided to cross at the crosswalk when I had the light and drove into me on purpose. I imagined this angry guy with a scowl on his face and wearing a wife beater sitting behind the wheel and cursing me for having the balls to cross when I had the right of way. Or maybe he was just impatient and thought I was walking too slowly. I didn’t know.

I held my arms out at my side and yelled, “What the heck are you doing?” Yes, I said heck and not any of the other words that probably could have come out of my mouth. 

I stood in the road, mail rubber banded together in my left hand, and stared at the car for maybe ten seconds. When the driver didn’t open the door I thought, “They’re going to run.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my phone, certain I was going to have to take a picture of a fleeing vehicle’s license plate. 

During all of this, the light turned green. I stepped out of the road, my phone in hand and watched the burgundy Toyota. I flexed my left knee, rotated my shoulder and bent my elbow several times to make sure I was okay. Thankfully, there was no immediate notice of injury. 

The light turned red and the car had not moved. The hazard lights were now on and blinking their orange warnings. Then the door opened, and sitting in the car was not some crazed guy wearing a wife beater, but a woman who was possibly eighty or so (and if not, she missed a good chance to be). Her hands were shaking and she was crying—I’m talking ugly crying with tears and her face scrunched up and snot dribbling from her nose like a sniffly three-year-old. 

“Oh my God, Oh My God. I am so sorry.” She said this over and over again. 

Suddenly, I felt like crap standing there on the side of the road. I had yelled, not at the woman, but at my perception of who had to be driving that car. But that wasn’t who was there. Instead there she was, crying—sobbing—and shaking like a leaf in the wind. She was pale and constantly saying “I’m sorry.”

Right then, I had a choice. I could be a jerk and be rude to her or I could console her. Though it should have been the other way around—after all, I was the one hit by the car—I chose to console her. I squatted down in her doorway and we talked. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I talked, she cried and said she was sorry over and over again. 

As I squatted in her door trying to calm her down, I discovered there had been a witness. It turns out, a man who was maybe my age or a little younger, had seen the incident. He walks by the car where I am with this distraught woman and he said to me, “You need to call the cops.” He didn’t asks if either of us were okay. He just saw me do a slow motion Dukes of Hazzard style roll off the hood of a car and all he could say was, “You need to call the cops.” And it wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it, as if he couldn’t see the crying woman. In his eyes, I was the victim and she was the criminal. This was an opportunity for this guy to step in and be somewhat of a hero. Instead, well … you can see what I think of him two sentences from now.

Yes, I got pissed a second time. 

I turned to him and in my amazing wisdom, I said, “You don’t need to be a d*ck.”

It was his turn to have a shocked look on his face. I continued. “If you’re not going to help the situation, stay out of it.” He said something, but I don’t know what it was. He did, however, walk away. 

I turned my attention back to the woman. I learned a couple of things from her: 1) she parks in the garage not thirty yards away from where we were, 2) she works in the building we currently were in front of, and 3) she had just found out her sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The last of those three things told me her mind was elsewhere. She had said, multiple times, she had not seen me. She looked left then right and didn’t see me. Of course she didn’t. Her mind was on her sister—her terminally ill sister. 

With her still crying, I knew right then she was having a far more difficult go of things. Her hitting me was the straw that broke the floodgates open. It was my turn to ask if she was okay. She was not. I knew that. We sat and talked as cars went by, some honking because they were impatient and we were an inconvenience to them. 

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of trying to calm her down, she said she was sorry one last time. I reached over and took one of her shaking hands and said, “Ma’am, don’t say you’re sorry again. You’ve said it forty times. I forgive you. I am okay. Okay?”

I held her hand for probably thirty seconds. One thing I have learned in life is the importance of the human touch. The human touch is personal. It can have a calming effect or a damaging one. This is why hugs in hard times are so important and often lead to people letting their guards down long enough to get a good cry out. This is why physical or sexual abuse is so damaging, because it should never happen and it’s a personal attack on our bodies (and psyches). It can comfort in a time of stress. 

After getting assurance she was finally calm enough to drive the thirty yards to the parking garage, I stood, closed her door and backed out of the road. I watched her make the turn and drive away. 

As I made my way back to the office, this lady was on my mind. I had yelled at her after she hit me. I think it was a natural reaction, but I can’t help but believe that part of the reason she didn’t open her door right away is because of my dramatic display of anger and she was, possibly, scared of me. I felt terrible about that. 

When I arrived back at the office, most of my co-workers were already there. I walked in and one of them looked at me and said something, which I don’t really recall now. 

My response? “If you get hit by a car, do you get to go home?”

It was a tension joke all the way. It was at that moment that it sunk in: I had been hit by a car. Three seconds of my life could have ended much worse than it did. Three seconds either way and this story is different—or maybe not told at all. 

But there’s more to this than those three seconds. There were choices made. I had a choice: call the police and file a police report or look at this woman with compassion and console her. I chose to console her. I chose to look at someone—a complete stranger—as a human being, not as someone who struck me with their car, not as someone I could sue and get money from, not as someone who was negligent and needed to be punished. I looked at her like I would my grandmother, and I hurt for her. I can only imagine what went through her head as she sat in her car: “I could have killed him.” Yeah, that might have been one of the thoughts she had. I can only imagine.

I chose compassion over anger. I chose not to pursue a legal course of action. I chose to forgive and go on with my life. Unlike the guy who passed us and didn’t offer help or even ask if we were okay, I chose to not make this woman’s life any harder. 

There are moments in life where you can do the right thing or the thing you want to do or even the thing everyone else would do. Those are the moments that define you as a person, they show you—and the world—the type of character you have. Sometimes the right thing is easier to do than you think. It’s called having a heart and caring. 

A moment in life—three seconds—and things could have been different in a worse way. This is life. This is the way life happens and life is the very heart of every story.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

The Down Side Up and Other Things

Before I get started today, I want to state two things. This post will have a LOT of pictures. Second, if you are a long time (or even first time) reader of Type AJ Negative, hit the like button at the end of this post and leave a comment. Give me some feedback, especially about the last part of this post. 

Let’s dive in.

I realize I haven’t been around as much as a couple months ago, but if you have followed me any length of time, then you know I go in spurts. Sometimes I post two or three times a week, then don’t post another thing for a month. I try to go for quality over quantity. I hope that means my absence makes your hearts grow fonder. If not then …

So, where have I been pretty much since the beginning of the year? After not really going anywhere in the year of the Covid, 2020, Cate and I have spent nearly every Saturday of 2021 driving around, visiting parts of our state, going to state parks and spending a lot of time together. Rain or shine, cold or warm, we have been out and about, determined not to spend every waking moment cooped up in our house. 

That’s not the only thing going on. We have purchased a school bus. No, not a little school bus, but a regular sized bus. It’s huge. We’re in the process of renovating it and turning it into a tiny cabin. We call it The Get Away Bus. We got it in January and have spent at least one day every weekend (except for Valentine’s weekend) working on it. 

Cate has also begun pursuing her art. Back in September of 2020, I turned my shop into a studio for her so she would have a place to paint and explore different styles of art. She has done some amazing artwork. (Yes, her artwork is for sale, so you can check out her Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/Cates-Chaotic-Creations-113445590484536

But wait, there is more. 

I’ve gotten back into the Remote Control Car hobby. I’ve spent a lot of time researching things I didn’t know, and learning some of the ins and outs. I’ve rebuilt two of my RCs and fixed two others, including one that hasn’t worked in over ten years. For the first time since first dabbling in the hobby, I’m enjoying it. 

We’ve also restarted the Gettin’ Caffeinated Coffee Tour blog. 

To say Cate and I have kind of thrown ourselves into 2021 is an understatement. 

There is one more thing. This is a big thing. I’ve taken a step back from traditional publishing. It’s something I have thought about quite often in the last couple of years. If I’m thinking about it that much, maybe I should actually do it. This does not mean I will not be writing and putting out work. It just means I’m under no pressure to do so. 

A few years ago, I was told in order to stay relevant I had to constantly put out work to keep my name on the tongues of the readers. With that in mind, I constantly posted on blogs and social media, I sent out booklets to people, I released books and tried to engage people in person and online. I wrote a lot of stories, many of which felt forced and I didn’t like (and which have never been published). I put so much pressure on myself to be relevant that I stopped enjoying the thing I loved doing: writing. 

Here’s an honest moment I hope everyone understands (though I’m sure some will disagree, maybe even vehemently): I feel the publishing model is broken. I feel there is so much wrong with how things are done in publishing, from some of the way authors are treated by publishers and editors to the way some publishers steal ideas from others, to the way royalties are divided, to the way some (dare I say, many) authors no longer care about putting out good work, to how crappy Amazon is for writers and how people view authors whose work is not on Amazon, to writing organizations taking their fees but not really doing much for the writers, to those same organizations frowning on those who choose not to join them. It’s a crappy model and I have no clue how to go about fixing it. 

So, here is what I am doing: I’m creating a Patreon page for my writing. If you don’t know about Patreon, it is a subscription-based system that allows artists to have control of their art and for fans to show their support for those artists by purchasing subscriptions. The page is called The Down Side Up and will be going live sometime in the next eight weeks. It will have exclusive content you can’t get here at Type AJ Negative (or anywhere). Content includes serialized stories never published (quite possibly including my love story I wrote in 2020), an article titled One Step Forward, which is about my journey in the writing world, both the ups and downs. It’s somewhat autobiographical. There will be discounts for books, and we’re debating on video content as well.

I’ve never done anything like this. I have no clue how it will work. I have no clue if anyone will actually want to pay a subscription for my stories and my thoughts. I may get one subscriber. I may get twenty. I may get none. But I’ll never know unless I give it a try. I may go back to traditional publishing at some point, and yes, I will still put out physical books and do events, and yes, Type AJ Negative will still be here. For now, I feel it is time to go in another direction.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blogs, my stories and my thoughts. As a person, it means a lot to me. Don’t forget to like this post, share it with your friends and leave a comment below.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Her Happy Place

A few minutes ago I was working on a story called Whisper. I’m nearly done with it. It’s the first story I’ve written in a long time where I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself to write it and make it publishable. More on that, maybe not today, but later.

Cate walked into the room with the smile on her face that is usually reserved for when she is creating. Tonight she is baking cookies. Not just any cookies, but her sugar cookies that she will ice with the royal icing. They are delicious. 

“Hey,” I said and turned away from the computer. I put my feet on the bed and watched as she dug through a rolling unit of drawers for the right cookie cutter. She found the one she wanted, closed the drawer and looked at me.

I smiled.

She went to the door, turned and looked at me. “I have to get them cut,” she said. I guess she thought I wanted to talk or to get her attention. I didn’t. I just like seeing her that way.

I just smiled again. In return, she smiled, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. 

I turned to the laptop and stared at the last few sentences I had written. 

“She’s dead, you know?”

Shelley swallowed hard and nodded. She knew.

I saved the document, then closed it. I spun in the chair and put my feet back on the bed, crossing them at the ankles. I stared at a tie dyed sheet hanging on the wall. It’s something Cate made. I turned and looked at the wall where my desk is. It is lined with pages from a book—Cate wallpapered the wall with a copy of King’s The Stand. On my desk is a replica of the Stoker Award that Cate made me one year when I thought one of my stories was a shoe-in for a nomination and I was sad that it hadn’t received one. We did a Not at the Stoker’s Award show the same night as the Stoker’s event. She called it the Bram Stokeher award. The shirt I currently wear is one she made for my last birthday. On it are the words Who Knew 50 Could Look This Good! On the wall next to the television that sits on our dresser is a painting she did of a door in a garden. 

All around me are the things that make my wife happy. When she is creating anything she is the happiest person alive. Her mind is thinking, her hands are working, her eyes have that determined look in them. That’s her happy place. 

How can I not smile at such happiness and joy. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy?

(This is a rather long post, one where I talk about some of my writing and how I feel about some of those things. However, this isn’t just about writing. It’s about everything you do in life that brings you joy, which leads to happiness.)

I wrote a book a couple of years ago titled, Simply Put. It’s my thoughts on writing, on the craft, on telling stories, and on the things they don’t tell you coming into this business. They are, simply put, my opinions. It is not a how to book. Sure, there are some tips about writing, things I’ve learned along the way, but it’s not a book that teaches writing stories. I’m not a professor at a college who teaches writing and all its little nuances, so I don’t really feel I am qualified to say, ‘hey, do it this way or it’s wrong.’ Besides, I don’t believe in ‘do it this way or it’s wrong.’

Simply Put was set to come out mid-2020, but when the world went into shutdown mode, I decided to push it, and three other books back to 2021. As I sit here today typing this, I’m not so certain Simply Put is ready to be released. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been edited sixteen times. It’s gone through massive overhauls and rewrites. I’ve even taken a lot of snark out because I don’t think the sarcasm and snark are warranted in many places or will serve a purpose. 

Though a year ago I believed Simply Put was ready, now … now I don’t know if it will ever be ready. I’m not sure how I am going to explain this but let me try.

When I decided to get published—or attempted to—I thought I was a good writer. I was wrong. I had several people tell me I was. They were wrong. Those same people said, ‘you should try to get published.’ They meant well and they stroked my ego by suggesting that. Before I continue, I want you to understand something about writing: don’t listen to people you trust when it comes to publishing. Most of those people say you are a good writer because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you, just as they lied to me. They suggest things like ‘you should get published’ knowing fully you probably won’t pursue that avenue. Unless, of course, you do, and by then it’s too late for them to say, ‘oh, by the way, you really suck.’

Though I was wrong about being a good writer, I wasn’t wrong about being a good storyteller. That I have always been good at. When I really want to tell a story, I can do so with flare and humor and I don’t need the written word to do it. I could have been a comedian and told funny stories to crowds of eight or fewer at open mic night at whatever local bar was open at the time. I could have entertained with the oral word (get your minds out of the gutter …).

I may not have been an even halfway decent writer when I started out—I don’t think anyone is—but one element about it was also what pushed me to try and get published. I enjoyed it. The act of writing was fun and exciting. I could visualize things on the silver screen in my head as I typed or handwrote the words. I could watch events unfold for the first time and have the excitement of it all play out before me. Reaching the end of the story and signing my initials and dating the story always brought me great satisfaction. The accomplishment made me happy, but the process of writing brought me joy.

Publishing was the logical next step, even if others hadn’t suggested it. Again, I believed I was good enough to get published. For the record, you should never be ‘good enough.’ Never. Ever. You should always be good, great, awesome, amazing, brilliant, but not ‘enough.’ Enough is like being second place in a two person contest. I know that sounds harsh, but ‘enough’ is not really good. It’s barely getting by, it’s meeting the minimum to not fail. So, first lesson to this post: Never be just ‘enough.’ Never be average when you can be amazing. Oh, and don’t ask ‘what’s wrong with average?’ or say ‘this is who I am.’ Those are excuses to not try. 

So, I was an average writer wanting to be an above average author who really didn’t know what I was doing and who didn’t take the time to or put in the effort to become a better writer. I was just good enough.

For several years I couldn’t get published. I was rejected time and time again until a now defunct webzine published one of my stories. It was called, Diane’s A Whore and Simeon’s Payback. It was truly atrocious. The title alone makes me cringe now. Ah, but getting that story published made me happy, got me excited. It was like a drug and I wanted more of that euphoric high. 

I wrote more bad stories and got published by more bad webzines looking for content they didn’t have to pay much for. Each time I received an acceptance it fed my addiction to get published again and again and again. Hearing someone wanted to publish one of my stories, then seeing it on the computer screen on a webzine intensified that euphoria.

I continued to write, but this time, I didn’t just write a handful of stories a year. For those who didn’t know me in the early 2000s you might find this hard to believe but From 2006-2009 I wrote an average of 126 short stories a year. That’s not including poems, haiku, songs, limericks, novels, blog posts and all the things I didn’t finish. That’s just short stories. Of those 504 stories, maybe a hundred were good. Maybe half that number were good enough. The rest? Slop. 

Though probably 350 or so of those stories weren’t that great, the process of writing and writing so much in such a short period of time was immensely satisfying. I found great joy in the process of creating characters and putting them in crappy situations to see how they managed to survive if they survived. 

I want you to remember one word in that last paragraph for just a little later. JOY. Forget everything else. Okay, well, don’t forget everything else. Just remember JOY.

In 2010, I changed my entire concept—the very idea—of how I was writing. I wrote less stories, but they were longer and fleshed out and the characters were believable. My enJOYment of writing grew, even as I wrote fewer pieces. 

In January of 2012, my first book, Along the Splintered Path, was published by Dark Continents Publishing. I was excited. I was ecstatic. A publisher wanted to put out a book written by me. Sign me up, buttercup. 

In November and December of 2011 and on into early 2012, I had a serious bout of pneumonia. It was bad. Really, really bad. Though I was so sick I would cough until I threw up, and I couldn’t lay down in my bed for nearly two months, I worked on the edits to ATSP and got them back to my editor as quickly as I could. 

The book came out, the reviews were good, the sales were decent, and I was happy. I did interviews to promote the book and things were looking up. Then someone asked me if I planned to put out anything else. More importantly, they said, ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

What? Relevant? You mean one very good book isn’t going to catapult me to fame and fortune? 

In October of 2012, I released Southern Bones, a collection of 11 short stories. It was the first time I put out a book myself. The process of putting the stories together, editing and getting cover art and learning to format and upload the ebook, then the print version was exhilarating. I was excited and happy with what I had done. With my second book out there, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll get more readers and things will be even better than they are right now.’

That didn’t happen. I did a handful of interviews, but the book didn’t do that well in either sells or reviews. My happiness waned. ‘It’s a good book,’ I lamented. ‘Why aren’t people buying it?’

‘You need a novel,’ someone answered. 

‘Yeah, that’s the ticket,’ I thought. I already had several novels written, but one in particular, stood out. Cory’s Way came out in December of 2014, just in time for Christmas. It did well. It still does well. It is our best-selling book to date. 

I have put out quite a few books since then, some of which you may have read. Each time a book went out, I was happy. Happy. Happy. 

Happy is a fleeting feeling. You accomplish something and you become happy for a minute, then you have to accomplish something else to keep that happiness. You say to yourself, ‘If I only had more money or a better job or a spouse, I will be happy.’ Then you get a better job and it pays you more money and you meet the man or woman of your dreams while working there and get married. You’re happy for a while. Then it wanes. You don’t like the job as much as you used to, you want a raise, and maybe the things you overlooked while dating the man or woman of your dreams you have a hard time overlooking now. Happiness is such a fleeting feeling. 

Do you remember that word I mentioned a few paragraphs up? If not, scroll up and you will find it. I will wait.

Do you have the word? Okay. Say it with me: JOY.

Joy and being Happy are similar but are two different things. 

Happy is feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, according to the Oxford Languages dictionary. A lot of times happy comes after getting something you want or accomplishing something or even marrying someone. It is also fleeting.

Joy is slightly different: A feeling of pleasure and happiness. What brings you joy? Your job? What is it about your job that brings you that joy? Money? What is it about money that brings you that joy? Your spouse? What is it about your spouse that brings you joy? 

Do you follow me so far? Okay, let’s take this a step further.

Enjoyment is the state or process in taking pleasure in something. Right smack dab in the middle of the word enjoyment is the word JOY. Joy is active during the process of doing something. It is called enjoyment for a reason. What do you enjoy doing? What is it that brings you joy?

For me, for the longest time, it was writing and telling stories. The act of telling a story still excites me. However … let’s go back to another thing I said earlier. ‘In order to stay relevant in this business, you need to constantly have new books for the readers to get their hands on.’

Talk about putting pressure on yourself. I took that to heart when it was told to me. I would get antsy if I went too long without a new release. I got frustrated when the books weren’t selling, or the reviews weren’t coming. I kept asking ‘why?’ and not having any logical answers. I promoted the works and even started promoting months in advance. I checked my Amazon numbers obsessively. I checked to see if there were new reviews daily. I questioned myself on whether the books I released were any good. I revamped my social media pages and turned my blog into a full-blown website, all in hopes of driving people to my various pages and upping the sells of books. 

The happiness of a new release was no longer there. It was replaced with ‘I hope this one does better.’ The addictive euphoria was gone. Still, one thing hadn’t really changed: the joy of the process of writing a new story and creating a new book. It waned some and there was a time or six I thought it had died. It didn’t, but it was on life support.

Happiness is fleeting, but joy is always there, even if we don’t realize it, even if we push it out the way because our pursuits and our goals changed.

I put pressure on myself to create stories people would want to read, to put out books that would be good and do well. I put pressure on myself to get readers and reviews and create posts about books on social media and create marketing materials. A lot of writers do. A lot of writers buy into being relevant. A lot of writers buy into the idea of publishing, so much so, they lose the enjoyment of why they write in the first place. 

Why? Why do we do this? My only answers are money, success and … validation. Yes, validation. Writers need publishers and readers and reviews to validate that they are worth a damn at putting words together. It’s not enough to know we are good at this. We need to be told. And that’s the most damning thing of it all. Validation outside of our own minds is the driving force behind so many writers. 

I love writing. I love telling stories. I love the process of putting word after word after word to create sentences that form paragraphs that lead to worlds being opened in my mind and characters being created. I love the act of writing, the process of writing. It is what I enjoy doing. That never fails for me. 

I do not love publishing. I do not love marketing. I do not enjoy the obsession of reviews and hoping readers will find me. 

Creating … creating brings me massive enjoyment. No, it’s not a euphoric high like publishing used to be for me. But it brings me such satisfaction that I want the world to read my stories. 

Recently on Facebook I posted part of a review for my dark collection of stories, Voices. The review was from Scream Magazine and it was extremely good—one of the best reviews I have ever received. Yet sells and more than a handful of reviews didn’t happen for Voices. I was frustrated that one of the best collections I’ve put together had done so poorly. It took the words of a long-time friend and someone I admire to set my mind where it needed to be, to make me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Here is what my friend, Frank, said:

‘I say that is an excellent review and you shouldn’t overthink it. Unless, of course, what you lust after most in your authorial life is to write for “everyone.”’ And then, ‘Provided you’re content with the quality of what you’ve done … The review you posted flat out confirms you were right about the collection, no ifs ands or buts. The rest is just a crapshoot outside of your control.’

The idea of publishing is grand, and everyone now has the capability of doing it themselves if they choose not to go through a publisher. The idea of publishing so often leads to the need of validation from publishers, readers and other authors who can give us blurbs and help us push our books. The idea of publishing has also ruined the dreams of many writers. Outside of the actual writing and publishing, everything is a crapshoot outside of your control. As writers we overthink things and so many of us small press writers are left scratching our heads and asking ‘why?’

After writing the last 2600 words I no longer believe Simply Put is ready to be released. There needs to be an understanding that you should never let publishing a book or lack of sells and reviews hinder the enjoyment of writing and telling the story. But this isn’t just about writing. It’s about life. Don’t let anything hinder what you enjoy doing. Joy is an active thing. You can actively be joyful and when you are, happiness follows and tends to last longer. And isn’t that what we all want in life? Joy and happiness?

I am writing some of the best stories I have ever written. That joy of writing had been on life support, but now it’s off the respirator and getting its strength back. The joy of creating a book is back and there are several in the works with titles such as The Color of Sorrow and Grim as well as a possible three book set down the road. I still enjoy the process—I’m probably more excited than I have been in a while to create books, then release them. I think you’re going to like what’s coming, starting with Five Deaths on January 12th. I also think everything outside of writing the story is a crapshoot. 

If you’re doing something you used to love and you now longer love it, then you, like me, have probably altered your plans and goals and have forgotten what brings you joy. Be joyful in what you do. It leads to the happiness we all desire, but it also shows in your work. Readers and fans of any type of art can tell when something is forced and when the love of it is gone.

This has been one of the longest post I’ve written, and if you are still here, thank you for indulging me. 

Until we meet again my friends, be joyful, kind and happy.

A.J. 

They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.