The Offering (A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #26)

staring-fox

And then something happened that changed everything.

I wish I could start the story that way, because that’s how it felt when it happened: startling, vivid, breathtakingly transformative. Even now it makes my heart race, the moment when I looked down and saw what I saw on our front porch, and the follow-up moment when I pulled the car out of the garage and saw what was there. But you can’t be jolted out of a world without there being a world to be jolted out of. That’s an awkward way of saying it, but I’m a storyteller, not an expert in metaphysics. Bear with me.

And then something happened that changed everything.

We’ll get to the something. But first, you have to know what the everything was.

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We were renting a house on a cul-de-sac in northern Virginia. The purplest part of a purple state, in the section of territory that, viewed on a map, looks like it was carved out of D.C. Someone probably fought a war over this patch of land, once upon a time. Historic battlefields were everywhere, replaced now by highway interchanges and big-box stores. Progress marched along. Even decent old brick houses like ours were being torn down in favor of ersatz palaces with fake-stone facades, their walls rising up from the very edges of the small-sized lots.

One nice thing about living in a purple state was that my vote mattered. What was less nice was that my next-door neighbors put up an Obama sign and the kids who lived across the street shot it up with their BB guns.

We had left New York City so that our toddlers could play in a backyard. And now this? Young political activists? With guns?

I had not moved to the suburbs so my kids could be caught in the crossfire.

But we had signed a twelve-month lease, so what could we do? We settled in and kept the blinds pulled. Our kids could play in the backyard. Away from stray bullets.

Since we were renting, there were a few things we had to do to convert the house to something suitable for our family. We took down a hammock after it caused too many problems. (Hammocks are lovely for grownups. They can propel small children halfway across a backyard.) We drained the hot tub on the back deck out of similar safety concerns.

Inside, there was a pull-down ladder to the attic. I loved the attic: it was huge and roomy, and we could stash plenty of clutter up there. The one downside was that the owners had left a few things of their own: a metal rack holding some coats, a letter jacket, and a wedding dress in plastic, and four or five boxes of trophies and other knickknacks. I knew I should have been grateful that they had not left those things in the house itself. Instead I was irritated and tempted to throw it all out.

What were we paying for? Dammit, we were renting a house. We were not renting a storage unit.

It was an unreasonable position, but there it was. Those items were a reminder that we did not own this house, and I did not like how that made me feel.

It was frustrating, for example, that the owners had not trusted us with the remote control to the automatic garage door opener. Every time we entered or exited the garage, we had to park the car, get out, punch buttons on a key pad, and get back in the car. In rain. In snow. In wind. With the kids asleep. With the kids screaming. Every single time it was a pain, and every single time I thought about how temporary and transient our lives were.

Twenty addresses in twelve years. It’s one thing to live like that when you’re poor and living in dirty old apartments. The life of the struggling writer. Paycheck to paycheck, meal to meal, crummy surroundings, cold nights spent under the covers on a hand-me-down futon. It’s living! It’s living free! Hello, Bohemia! But this? Rent at this place was a sizable expenditure, and it was for a house, with a finished basement and a backyard. This was a place for grownups to live in.

And we were grownups, whether we liked it or not, because parents have to be. Granted, I was a baffled, confused parent, a father with no idea what fatherhood meant or how to handle it, with zero strategy other than the single tactic that as a 35-year-old man, I could present what seemed to small children like wisdom and authority. Eventually they would figure me out. For now, I faked being an adult. And it worked: faced with a three-year-old and a one-year-old who believed in me just as they believed in Santa, their optimism and expectations overcoming what was in front of their very eyes, I pulled off a great con, day after day after day. I bluffed them.

So then: a grownup I was, or appeared to be, most of the time. But this house did not make me feel like a grownup. It felt as if the real grownups – the ones with the stuff in the attic, and the ones in possession of the automatic garage door opener – had gone somewhere and left us in charge.

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On a morning that spring I went to retrieve the kids, who were playing next door at the neighbors—the Obama-sign neighbors, not the camouflage-wearing junior soldiers of fortune. I left via our back door, walked across the deck, and headed for the gate that separated our two yards. Even from here I could admire their house, built to appear in Architectural Digest, which was literally the wife’s dream, or perhaps I should say vision. She had acquired two dogs, not because she wanted dogs particularly, but because their butterscotch coats matched the house and would look fantastic in the photo spread.

Her husband had told me this one day with a heavy sigh. I nodded as if I understood, but I felt like I was from another planet. Our house had two rooms that had no furniture at all, and a third that only had two beanbag chairs. Maybe Architectural Digest would have a Minimalist issue we could get in on.

I hopped down the steps and walked around the waterfall that no longer worked, hopefully through nothing my kids had done. And then, as I passed the back of the hot tub, I heard something strange. It sounded like growling.

I stopped in place, afraid to move until I heard what it was.

More growling. Like someone’s loud stomach, except more feral. It was an animal sound, there under our deck, behind the lattice woodwork.

Continue reading

Brush with Greatness: Harry Shearer and Me!

On Tuesday I launched into yet another high-flying ode to creative freedom and the indie spirit. I railed against the curtailing powers-that-be, those nattering nabobs of negativism, wherever they may reside. I talked about my own experiences with indie publishing, and I cited the example of Martin Short and Harry Shearer, who found the freedom to create the all-time classic Men’s Synchronized Swimming sketch (“I’m not that strong a swimmer” and “I know you, I know you”) when SNL just let them go shoot the damn thing (which Harry contrasted with the rounds of meetings that had marked his experience in L.A.).

And then…a surprise! The comedy god and national treasure Harry Shearer stopped by! And he tweeted this helpful reminder: Continue reading

The Indie Spirit: Martin Short and Harry Shearer

My name is Jacke Wilson, and I’m an indie author.

Yes, there’s a stigma attached to this. All those people saying: “Who do you think you are, Jacke Wilson?” and “There is no check on quality anymore! You can’t just SAY you’re a writer.” and “The self-publishing world is like an agent’s slushpile times a zillion!”

I’ve gotten over it. Mainly for the same reasons I gave in my support of NaNoWriMo. What’s the harm to you, Madame Slushpile? Who are you to stop me from writing and publishing what I want?

And also…I do have eyes, people. I’ve been to Barnes & Noble. I’ve seen what the gatekeepers have let through. If anyone think they provide a check on quality, as opposed to marketability…well, I don’t know what to say.

When I first cranked up this blog I posted several tributes to what I called the indie spirit. These were links to people – famous people, celebrated authors or artists – who took things into their own hands. Ezra PoundDr. JohnsonStéphane MallarméMarcel Proust. I had others as well – ten or twelve, I would guess. Some were people who adapted to technology before the rest of the field. Or who wrote a book that was claimed to be “unsellable” or “unpublishable,” but who found a way to sidestep the naysayers and get their voice heard somehow.

I posted a lot of these because I was trying to talk myself into why self-publishing was a good idea. Every success story heartened me; I drank them in, in the way someone afraid of flying might stop off at the airport bar for “shots of courage.”

Now that I’m on the other side (two books, a podcast, a blog, and lots more on the way), I consider my efforts a success. Success on a tiny scale, sure. But tens of thousands of readers and listeners is far more than I ever expected. Frankly, it’s more than most of my friends who have published with traditional publishers have. That’s the dirty little secret of literary fiction: A few Mobys. Lots of minnows.

And my experience has been better than theirs! Most of them hate their publisher: hate the contract, hate the lack of support they received, hate the cover of their book, hate the changes they were forced to make.

I am responsible to no one. I rise and fall with my own decisions. It’s liberating. It feels creative. It feels artistic.

Everywhere else in my life I’m governed by forces out of my control. But in this realm, where freedom is everything, I have it.

My friends have been told that their lack of success on the first book means that publishers won’t want to see their second. Does this have anything to do with quality? Is this how we encourage artists and writers in today’s world? It’s a ridiculous premise.

Most of my friends are so dispirited they’re ready to give up. I’m just getting started!

But set aside all that highfalutin’ puffery. Save that for the intellekshuls, as my beloved Flannery might say.

The main difference between the old way and the new way is this: I was getting nowhere the old way.

I had an idea for a novella-length piece of work. Ready to go! Fresh paper in front of me! Blue pen all revved up! Just a quick run to the agent websites to see where I’ll be aiming this when I’m finished…

Wait, what? A novella? About a hundred pages? You’re telling me not to bother? Nobody wants them? Publishers won’t look at them? Agents laugh behind your back for being so naive?

But…I like reading them. Don’t others like short novels? People are busy, no one has time for a novel…Wait, why the hell are you getting in our way?

Writers! Readers! The decision to connect or not should be their decision, not yours.

Because, Jacke. Just…because.

So then what? Set down my pen? Or decide to bring it out myself?

I brought it out myself.

And whatever you think about its quality, I think you would have to agree that it’s a better outcome than setting down my blue pen altogether. (If you can’t even meet me that far, if you’re going to tell me that I should not even bother writing anything if it’s a length that traditional publishers don’t want to sell, then we’re just not going to agree. Thanks for stopping by. You can go work out your daddy issues or whatever is forcing you into the comfortable thought that People In Charge Know What’s Best For Us. I’ll side with the artists, and the people, and the barbaric desire to create, every time.)

Here’s where Martin Short and Harry Shearer come in. Remember the Men’s Synchronized Swimming sketch? It struck the young me like a hurricane. I did not think I had ever seen anything this funny before.

I hope you’ve seen it. If you’re over forty, you probably have. If you’re a comedy fan, you probably have too. It makes it onto a lot of lists. In any case, it’s here if you want to take a look.

Here’s Martin Short describing his first year of SNL and the short films in particular:

I remember after we shot synchronized swimming, I said to Harry, What do you think we have here? Do you think these pieces are any good? And he said, “I don’t know, but all I know is that in L.A. I would have had two potential meetings about an idea and here at least we’re shooting stuff.” So he was thrilled about that, I remember.

Yes! Yes! And to that I can say, “Stigma? All I know is that in the past I’d have spent a hundred hours writing synopses and cover letters to agents and this way at least I have actual readers.”

So who cares if Grandma’s memoirs go online? Let’s let freedom ring! Let’s let creativity rule! Let’s seize the power! And the day! And the reins! Let’s seize whatever we can get our grubby little artistic hands on!

You’re telling me that books can’t make it in the world without the stamp of someone official? That the author’s imprimatur is insufficient? I refute it thus, Madame Slushpile!

   

Onward and upward, people!

Today’s Comment of the Week: On Hamlet Dad

Wonderful Reader cducey2013 comments on A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #9 – The Intersection (aka “Hamlet Dad Goes to the Movies”):

“We’ll all get to the same place eventually.”

This certainly reminds me of the graveyard scene in Hamlet, as well as the general sentiment throughout the play of “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But, do remember, Hamlet also says:

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”

Hamlet isn’t freaked out about death so much as he’s freaked out about life– he’s been “prompted to [his] revenge by Heaven and Hell.” So, rightly, this post also talks about how one is to live one’s life. Death isn’t the only scary part. . .

Yes! Life is scary too! Especially if you’re trying to avoid harming others.

For a lighter touch on parenting, check out Object #8 – The Burger Car (Proust Dad Goes To Five Guys) or Object #14 – The Bass Guitar (Van Halen Dad Stays Home). Or pick and choose your way through all the Objects by visiting the main Objects page or listening to an episode of the Jacke Wilson Show.

My thanks to cducey2013 for the Shakespearean gloss. It’s about time somebody classes up this joint a little. And speaking of class…

Authors I Love: Penelope Fitzgerald

I’ve written before about the great Penelope Fitzgerald, an author who I think gets woefully overlooked these days. Which is too bad: I love her beautiful, understated style, her deadpan sense of humor, and sneaky-great themes. You should give her books a try if you haven’t already.

But really, why do I like her so much? There are a lot of books I like, and a lot of authors I admire, but something about Fitzgerald resonates deeply with me. I think there are three reasons:

  1. She was a late bloomer
  2. She wrote short books
  3. She was a great aficionado of failure

Those certainly hit close to home!

Yesterday I ran across a great article in the New York Review of Books about Fitzgerald, including this wonderful opening:

Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong.

Ah, Penelope. How can you not love such a person? I’ve been laughing all day, just thinking about it.

Here’s my own passage on failure (from The Race):

“Who’s he?” Tina said to the Governor in the foyer.

“My biographer!”

I explained that it was actually an autobiography – I was just helping him do some organization.

“Don’t sell yourself short!” the Governor said, gripping my shoulder.

I had not intended this comment to be self-deprecating – in fact it was something of the opposite. I wanted her to know that he had been writing his memoirs, that he was paying me – not that I was so drawn to his story that I, on my own initiative… I was not a vulture looking to feast on their marital carcass… but at that moment one of his boys crossed through the room we were standing in and disappeared into the hallway and the Governor chased after him to see how he was doing.

I stayed with Tina in the foyer. She clearly didn’t know what to do with me. I had no options but to stand there. Finally she invited me into the living room where we did not sit down but ventured into small talk.

It surprised me that she recognized my last name.

“Are you Mandy’s brother?”

“She’s a second cousin,” I said.

“And you live in D.C. now? What do you do there?”

I saw a flicker of approval, or at least curiosity. I was one of the ones who had left. Yet I was not such a success that she’d heard of me. I told her I was basically a lawyer.

“Basically?” She smiled faintly. I got the sense that she liked people. She hated her husband, but he was not in the room at the moment.

“I guess I am one,” I said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be.”

“A long story?”

I nodded.

She looked down the hallway. Now I saw her full smile; it dazzled me. “We’ve got time,” she said with a shrug.

“It’s strange,” I began, “to feel, every minute of every day, that you’re only pretending to be something that you’re not. I went to law school, I’m a member of the bar, I get paid to do the tasks that lawyers do. I meet with clients, go to court, conference with judges – and yet I never feel like it’s me doing these things. It’s not what I feel like I really am.”

She smiled warmly. “And what do you feel like you really are?”

“A failure,” I said.

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The Race: A Novella by Jacke Wilson is available now at Amazon.com. A longer excerpt is available here.

Worst Thing I Ever Did? Had a Secret Orgy…

Wow. The confessions keep pouring in. I’ll save a few for the podcast, as I promised in the original post. But I’ll share some on the blog too.

Reader Anonymous writes:

Not quite sure why I’m doing this but I’m sure you can handle personal!

Indeed I can! Do go on…

I often refer to this as the ‘worst thing I have ever done’.

My pulse has quickened…I’m at the edge of my seat…the hair on the back of my neck is tingling…

I was in a ‘complicated’ relationship with a girl ‘R’, complicated in the sense that I was strict about not wanting to be in a relationship at this time in my life. I was sexually involved with a few partners at the time and was straight with all parties involved about this.

However, I spent most of my time with ‘R’, I was in a bad place and she took good care of me. She was very in love with me but, in relationship terms, we were not suited. Through the fog of roller coaster depression I could not see the lighthouse-bright fact that I was using her.

Oh no…oh no… I can see this one coming. There’s a pattern here, which fills me with ache. So often the worst thing we’ve done comes from letting down people who have treated us the best… you’re not alone, Anonymous! I’ve gotten dozens of these already!

So! We went to visit my friends in their cosy [location undisclosed] home where the two other people I was seeing were also staying. ‘R’ was uncomfortable from the start, I took great care to not be openly romantic with the others…

Whew! Dodged a bullet there. Good move, Anonymous!

…but we are an affectionate bunch who don’t see each other often…

D’oh!

…and even us cuddling up and watching a film was too much for her. She spent both days isolated in the corner not saying anything.

Oh no! This is not going to end well, I fear.

On the second night she went to bed in the attic early, I was frustrated at her for ‘bringing the mood down’ on one of my precious few times with this company and told her I’d be up later.

Okay, I think I see where this is headed. You flirted with someone else. Well, of course you did. You were feeling low, you were frustrated with R, and a little flirtation was in order. Maybe it even led to something physical, like a kiss on the cheek, that you regret now. Am I right? Don’t be too hard on yourself, Anonymous! R should understand a kiss on the cheek, given the circumstances. It might feel like this is the worst, but maybe you’re just being too hard on yourself.

(Am I right? Is that what happened?)

Very soon after, I went up to a bedroom with three others, barred the door and we all had sex.

Whoa!

She was upstairs devastated and I was downstairs sleeping with other people.

Argh! Well, look. I’m sure you handled it well. You told her, right? Told her what had just happened? Had a good talk about it… maybe a cry… came to some kind of understanding…

I then went up to join her and we cuddled to sleep.

Oh no!

How often did you think about this, Anonymous?

Not nearly often enough at first, that time in my life is a complete blur. Now I think about it often.

And what bothers you? Why do you think it’s the worst?

Because I didn’t even feel that bad about it. In hindsight I am distraught with myself but at the time I could see nothing but my own sense of entitlement to ‘happiness’ and excitement. Depression does that to people.

I now think about it whenever I encounter something that seems utterly unforgivable. I don’t consider myself to be a bad person and this made me realise that no one does. There are no bad people, just bad things.

Words to live by. You are definitely not a bad person, at least not as far as I can see. I think your description of your remorse is very human and full of empathy. Depression does put people in a bad place, but one doesn’t even need depression for things like this to happen. Sometimes people are in a selfish place because we have to try to make ourselves happy (if we don’t who will?), and life is hard to figure out.

We all make snap decisions every day. Some of them are poor – hopefully not too many of them are, and hopefully the damage is limited. But it’s inevitable that something, somewhere will go wrong with something we do. All we can do is keep trying.

We’ve all been there, Anonymous! We have all needed that forgiveness, and we’ve all been in a position where forgiveness is called for (even if it’s hard to give). I think you deserve it in this case, for whatever that’s worth.

Many thanks for passing along this story, which I learned from and found to be agonizingly human. And good luck with the rest of your relationships! If this is your worst, and nothing worse ever happens, I think you’ll be just fine.

Readers, I’m still taking entries! Tell me your worst! Leave a comment or shoot me an email at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com. Anonymity completely guaranteed!

Previous entries:

Contest Winners! The Brilliant Readers Who Guessed the Cover Themes

So here was the contest: guess the cover art themes to my book The Race and win a free copy of the book.

As a reminder, here’s the cover:

Race_12_28_final (1)

I also gave a brief description that had a few clues. I was looking for two things, or maybe three.

The book is about American politics, which the blue background and white stars reflect (as if we’ve zoomed in on a corner of the American flag).

It’s also about twilight, as a politician’s career heads toward darkness. The black and yellow at the bottom reminds me of a Wisconsin highway at night, your headlights lighting up the road as you head toward the horizon with an open starry sky ahead of you. (A good image for the loneliness of the campaign trail, at least for this particular candidate and his erstwhile biographer.)

And finally, there’s the small star that’s hanging on. Falling? Rising? Just hanging on.

“There’s some dignity in that little star!” I cried to my designer when I saw it. “It’s hanging on in spite of all the odds. No one knows why!”

My main character is elliptical in that way. Why hang on? Well, maybe he’s not capable of anything else…

I know, I know: I get a little carried away. You have to remember that I love like these, from a great Kafka series:

trialmetamorphosisstoriescastle

Aren’t those great? The eye motif, so perfect for Kafka. And the art is bold and full of expression, and the meaning has some playfulness and thought to it.

Kafka is a hero of mine, and while not at all trying to compare myself to such a genius, I thought some of the absurdities of The Race had some affinities with Kafka (also Svevo and Poe). If the spirit of the art above could work for the covers of Kafka, I thought it would work for mine too. Hence, the lowly little star, struggling to maintain its place in the heavens.

Okay! Did anyone guess? Indeed they did! Readers nailed this.  Continue reading