kids, lesson, life, memories, nostalgia, observation, reminiscing, summer, youth

How Do You Make Summer Less Magical?

Two words: “GET OLD.”

I cannot stress the importance of this enough: if you have children who are in school, teach them the value of summer. Teach them to go out and absorb the wonders that surround them every time that season of freedom rolls around.

Why? Because that magic doesn’t last.

I was talking to my 13-year-old son a few weeks back. It was a weekday. I asked him how his day was. He said, “Boring. There was nothing to do. I just sat around all day watching videos on YouTube.”

I said, “That might feel boring now, but you ought to enjoy it. Don’t take it for granted because someday you might WANT to do nothing but watch YouTube, and you won’t be able to, even if it is summertime. Want to know why?” I paused for dramatic effect. Then I said, “Because you will be old like Dad, and you will have a job, and summer won’t mean the same anymore.”

Yes, it’s sad but true: summer has no more magic once you finish high school/college/grad school. Once you have bills to pay and a job to attend, that season means nothing. The only exception would be if you are a teacher, but even they can be busy with “adulting” instead of getting some sun on their faces.

I hate feeling so jaded, but I can’t help it. The only positive thing I see about summer is that I don’t have to go outside earlier than usual and clean mounds of snow off my car. For a moment, I was tempted to say that I don’t have to warm my car UP, but summertime means you have to cool it DOWN, so there is no difference between the seasons (other than the way the temperature gauge moves, of course).

Although we are one-third of the way through September, we are still clinging to summer-type temperatures here in upstate New York. Yesterday I got home early, and I was alone because my girlfriend had an appointment. After taking some time to catch up on emails, I had nothing to do. I found myself standing in my living room, looking out the window at the empty street, my arms folded, my mind slipping into a haze of nostalgia. For a moment, I thought, “Man, I wish I still had a bicycle because I’d take it out for a ride right now.”

Then it dawned on me: no I wouldn’t. If I did, I’d probably enjoy the ride for a block or two before adult thoughts crept in. I’d start looking at my phone to see what time it was. Then I’d start to wonder when I should get back home. I’d start to feel anxiety over any chores I hadn’t done or any writing that I was neglecting by going on this bike ride. Not only did I have to get back home so I could get all that done AND get to bed at a decent time, but I also had to be sure I didn’t go so far that I still felt worn out from my trek the next day. Shoot! What was I thinking, taking my bike out on a weeknight???

You see what I’m trying to tell you, ladies and gentlemen? Please do this, for me and for the love of all that is sacred, teach your kids EVERY DAY to appreciate those “boring” summer days because when they get older, “boring” days will be all they wish for!

criticism, lesson, writing

The Worst Question to Ask a Writer?

Usually I write blogs that can relate to anyone. Today I want to be self-indulgent.

Stephen King once said that one of the questions he hated being asked was, “Where do you get your ideas?” At least I THINK he said that. I’m pretty sure it was an inquiry he didn’t enjoy. Even if he never said it, I know for a fact David J. Schow didn’t. He wrote about it at length in one of his “Raving & Drooling” articles in Fangoria.

My point is that I don’t understand why this question drew such repulsion. After all, there have been many non-fiction pieces written by many authors (King was one of them!) where they specifically say, “I was walking through the store when I saw something, and it made me think, ‘What if…'” In other words, there are many occasions where they know EXACTLY what inspired a story idea.

Maybe it’s because they think the question means, “Why are you so creative when the rest of us aren’t?” I can’t say. The only time a question related to my ideas annoyed me was when one person said to me, “All I kept thinking is, ‘Why would anyone write a story like this?'” That’s because she was a romance novelist, and I had asked for her assistance with a novel called The Size Curse.

To be honest, I kind of had it coming. I mean, Size Curse does not have your usual plot. Not a lot of people “get” it. However, I fired back at her and said, “Well, in that case you could ask why any author writes ANYTHING. I mean, I could just as easily ask you why you write the stories you do when Danielle Steel already got there decades before you, and did it better.” The reason for the snark in my reply was due to the implied snootiness in hers. If you think about it, what her question was really saying was, “I can’t imagine how anyone could be SICK ENOUGH to write a story like this.”

Meanwhile, the news is full of stories of terrorist attacks, serial murder, people selling their kids for their weight in drugs, etc. Given how horrifying real-life stories are, I don’t think it’s an indication of a sick mind if you come up with a horrifying story. (And if it’s a sick mind who comes up with these stories, what does that say of those who CONSUME them? I mean, the writer gets paid to write them, but the reader has to PAY to read them. Think about that for a moment!)

At any rate, enough about the close-minded Danielle Steel clone. My point is just that I don’t think being asked where you get your ideas is a bad thing. It’s not like they’re saying what Danielle 2.0 said: “This idea is so repulsive that I can’t imagine coming up with it. How could you possibly think of such a sick idea???” THAT would be a question worth hating, yes, but not the inquiry I’m discussing.

I like when people ask where I get ideas. Sometimes it’s easy to answer. For example, with The Size Curse, I was thinking about how so many people wish they are something they’re not: taller, more handsome, in better shape, etc. I combined that with a riff on the Franz Kafka story Metamorphoses, and BOOM! Instant Size Curse.

Being asked where I get my ideas make me think about it, and sometimes it’s an interesting exploration. Oh, and sometimes it will even make me think of NEW stories. So let’s dial back the hate for this question. It’s undeserved.

And in case you’re wondering what this Size Curse is all about (after all, reading it would help you understand this post more), then you can find out about it here:

The Size Curse

abuse, everyone, lesson, life, mental health

Emotional Wounds Don’t Automatically Heal Just Because the “Hitting” Stops

Is this rather long for a blog title? Maybe, but I couldn’t think of a shorter way to sum up today’s topic.

This is somewhat of an extension of Wednesday’s blog, because it relates to my inability to take a compliment about myself. Compliment me on my guitar playing or my writing or martial art skill, and I’m okay. Say I’m a good person, and I freak out. The last blog concluded with me wondering, “Why is that? Is it because I’m afraid someone will come along to knock me off my throne, or am I worried about letting it go to my head and turn me into an arrogant jerk?”

I shared that blog with my cousin Robin, and she said, “You’re too level-headed to let that happen. I wouldn’t worry about that.” That was reassuring, but it still didn’t give me an answer.

Then we got talking about the past and how, after a long time of someone making you feel worthless, you are bound to reject any attempts people make to tell you otherwise. In my case, the “someone” who did this was my stepfather Don. He was in my life from ages seven to seventeen. He was never physically abusive, but what he lacked there was made up in emotional abuse.

Shortly after my Mom kicked him out for good, I tried talking to her about things he had said to me, how it made me feel, etc. All she said was, “Well, he’s gone now.” I’m sure her dismissiveness stemmed from guilt. After all, her decision to marry him was what exposed me to his behavior. However, it didn’t help me to heal.

Imagine breaking your arm and never going to the doctor to get it in a cast. The bone won’t set right, and you’ll have trouble with that arm for the rest of your life. Well, that was me, except it was my mind and self-esteem that were broken. And what is the equivalent of it not setting right? The fact that, while he was gone, I still had this low self-esteem to live with. Over the years, it kept me from achieving a lot of things that, when I look back now, I KNOW I could have accomplished.

Another analogy (and believe me, I know this is an extreme one): think about any city or country that has had the crap bombed out of it during a war. Now imagine the war is over. The city is decimated. Thousands dead. Instead of working on a clean-up and reconstruction effort, the country’s leaders get on TV and say, “Okay, folks…back to business as usual.”

No. It doesn’t work like that. You need to rebuild. To reconstruct. To come to grips with what happened. To HEAL.

Sadly, Mom is not alone in her attitude of, “The abuser is gone, so get over it.” Far too many people believe this. They think just because they came through it and the abuse has ended that they can now move forward, but I’ve found it isn’t so. I had to talk through it with a therapist, had to get that third party opinion that yes, what I went through was very dysfunctional and toxic, that I wasn’t wrong to say I was left holding the emotional baggage.

Think about the movie Good Will Hunting. Will was abused by his father when he was a little kid. Then he is a young man in Sean Maguire’s office, and Sean keeps saying to him, “Will, it wasn’t your fault.” Eventually, Will breaks down in tears and hugs Sean. (Oddly enough, this is the kind of comfort Will SHOULD have received from his father.) All these years after the abuse, Will needed to hear that from someone to help him let the pain go. You’d be hard pressed to find a scene in any movie with more emotional power, and both Matt Damon and Robin Williams act this scene beautifully. However, I have to be honest here: while Matt Damon has shown he has his share of acting chops, you really have to hand this one to Robin Williams. After years of being that crazy, kooky, all over the place, manic, cocaine-fueled type of standup comic, he plays this part with wonderful restraint. We lost a great treasure in that man.

I won’t go down that route right now, because that could be turned into an entire SERIES of blog posts. For now, I will stick to the topic at hand. Simply put, the wounds don’t go away just because the abuse ends. To think otherwise is ignorant.

compliments, everyone, intelligence, lesson, life

Being Able to Take a Compliment

Consider this a bookend of sorts to my last blog about taking criticism. Like I said, I can take criticism…when it is intelligent and has some validity to it. However, there are times when I find it just as difficult to take a compliment.

This isn’t true 100% of the time. For example, if I’m at my martial arts class and I execute a move well, I have no problem taking a compliment if the other people in class express admiration for my technique. Having said that, this wasn’t always true. I used to react with a shrug of the shoulders, a lowering of the eyes to the ground, a blush rising in the cheeks, and a response like, “It was all right, I guess.”

The same holds true of someone complimenting my writing and guitar playing. What I always thought was weird about not being able to accept a compliment about these things is that, whenever I wrote something or played guitar, I would think that it was good IN MY HEAD, but then if someone complimented me, I’d start feeling awkward and shy about it.

These days, I’m okay with accepting compliments about writing, guitar playing, and martial arts. As you may notice, these are compliments about things I can do. However, what I still struggle with are compliments about ME. This could be remarks about my physical OR mental being, or any kind of statement that expresses admiration of me.

EXAMPLE OF THE PHYSICAL: My girlfriend will ask me, “Do you know how cute you are?” My automatic response is, “No.” By that I’m not saying, “No, I don’t know how cute I am to her.” I’m saying, “I don’t think I am.” In my eyes, I’m just plain.

EXAMPLE OF THE MENTAL: Someone tells me how smart they think I am. I can’t handle it, even though I HAVE had my IQ tested by a professional and know for a fact I am no slouch in that department.

EXAMPLE OF ADMIRATION: My son’s school had an open house where we got to meet the teachers. When his homeroom teacher was done with her presentation, we got to walk around the room for a few minutes. They had schoolwork on the wall, which was a questionnaire where the kids had to fill in the blanks. For example, it would say, “On summer breaks, my favorite thing to do is: __________.” One of these fill-ins started out by saying, “My biggest hero is: __________.”

And what was on the line on my son’s sheet?

“My Dad.”

I got choked up. My eyes watered. It felt like I was going to have a full-blown panic attack. The only remedy was to leave the room in a manner that was both quick and yet discreet. On the ride home, I kept thinking back about what I read. I thought to myself, “How can I be his hero? I’m no one to look up to.” That was two school years ago, and I still can’t shake the feeling that sentence gave me. Hell, I’m getting it again even as I write this!

What I can’t understand is WHY I can’t accept it. Why do I react the way I do? What fear do I have of admitting that I am a good person? Am I worried that, if I come off a little too proud, someone might come along and say something to knock me off my throne, so I want to make sure I’m not too high up there to begin with?

In previous blogs, I will start by writing about a problem where I don’t have an answer. However, by the end of it, I come up with a solution. That will not be the case today though, folks.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

criticism, lesson, life, music, universal, writing

Taking Criticism…When It Makes Sense

For some reason, this morning I woke up thinking about criticism and how I have gotten better at taking it. (Higher self-esteem can give you this ability.) However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized something: I have never really been BAD at taking it, but it has to mean something or else I can’t take it seriously.

This can make it seem like I can’t handle criticism. I remember telling a young woman I knew about a criticism a friend had of one of my stories, and she said, “Have you ever thought about taking people’s remarks as ways to make your story better instead of just being like, ‘Haha they’re so ignorant?'” To which I said, “Yes, I can…if it’s logical criticism.”

Let me explain the story in question, and you will see what I mean.

In this instance, I had asked a friend to read a script I’d written for a martial arts movie. (For the record, I called it Shaolin Secrets.) The story was about a half-American, half-Chinese martial arts star named Raymond Liu who gets drawn into some mysterious plot. I’m not going to explain the whole movie here; I gave you the very basics so that I could get to the part that drew criticism from my friend.

Raymond’s mother died when he was very young, which left him to be raised alone by his father. (His name: Jian.) Now some of you reading this might not know the history, but there was something that happened in Chinese history called the Sino-Japanese War. During this conflict, the Japanese committed many horrific war crimes; some people even refer to it as the “Asian Holocaust.” Jian lived through that and, as a result, developed a racist attitude toward the Japanese, which he passed on to Raymond.

You see, in most stories, the main character experiences some kind of growth by the end of the story. In this case, my intention was that Raymond would shed his racist attitude, and I had a way to do it that didn’t seem preachy/heavy-handed.

Then my friend got back to me with what he thought of the story. He liked the action sequences, liked the plot, liked the dialogue, liked the characters, but there was one thing he didn’t like.

What was that?

You guessed it.

The fact that Raymond was racist.

I asked why not, and he expressed a view about martial artists that has to be one of the most common myths out there. He said, “Well, it’s because he’s a serious martial artist, and most martial artists are enlightened, and they can rise above petty things like that.”

I said, “Really? So what about those martial artists that confronted Bruce Lee about teaching kung fu to whites and blacks? Or what about the Chinese guy who runs a school in Albany, who I’ve heard say disparaging things about the Japanese because he grew up through the Sino-Japanese War, just like Ray’s father?” (SIDE NOTE: I based Raymond’s racism on this real-life example.)

So when I passed my friend’s remark on to this other person, that is when she said I couldn’t take criticism. Incidentally, this same young lady was the source of another critique that I never took seriously because, again, it didn’t make sense.

At the time, I was in a band. This young lady and her boyfriend came to see one of my shows. When I saw her at work, I asked what they thought of our performance. She said the songs, lyrics, and my guitar playing were all good, but the singing fell short because I sang monotone. I asked what she meant by that, but she never explained it.

This is why I couldn’t take it seriously: I doubt she knew what the word meant. That sounds like I am mocking her, but think about it. If you went and saw a band where the lead vocalist sang “monotone,” then it would sound something like this:

I know for a fact I don’t sing like that. Near as I can tell, what she REALLY meant was that I didn’t sing with enough guts/passion, that I didn’t sound like I “meant” it, which is a criticism I’ve had of myself over the years. Still, that wasn’t the way it was communicated to me, so therefore the “criticism” was brushed aside.

In summary, I have no problem with criticism, but I don’t believe it should be taken blindly. Sometimes you might have knowledge of the subject being critiqued that the source of the remark doesn’t have that renders it meaningless. That doesn’t mean you can’t TAKE it; it just means it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Maybe most people reading this post are not writers or musicians. That’s fine because this idea of analyzing criticism can be applied to any part of life. Think about it: let’s say you buy some shoes that you think are the most stylish shoes ever made. You ask a friend what they think, and all they say is, “They’re ugly because they’re gray.”

Okay, well..maybe YOU like gray, so that is why, to you, they were awesome shoes. In my opinion, that would be a form of criticism that could be dismissed because it doesn’t hold up to close examination.

I always write my blogs with the intention of making what I say applicable to everyone, not just writers, musicians, and other artists. I bet you thought I was going to leave you folks out this time, huh? No, I’m going to always do my best to NEVER do that.

Until next time,

~~~Steve