Thursday, December 30, 2010

Remembrances of Gramps

His name was Lee Gomer. He was my grandfather, and as we say of everyone who bids us their final adieu, he was a good man. Imperfect, like us all, but at his core – a very good man. He was honest, he worked very hard to provide for his family, he took pride in his actions and reputation, and he strove to improve upon his shortcomings. In my view, no man can do more of value than these during his journey through this transient world. He felt love for everyone in his family, a love I’m convinced each of us felt was only for us. Not that any one of us received more or less … just that the love he gave us individually always seemed to be intended only for us. Does that make sense? I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that.

I dream of him sometimes. I wish my mind could let me believe the sweet lie that he’s alive, but somehow every time it has to tell me it’s not real. I always mention it to him: “Hi, Gramps … Man, it’s sure good to see you.” And he gives me that smile of his. His smile was always sincere, yet it was also shy. In it I often imagined a young boy with a lot of brothers and sisters from the dust bowl of Kansas, one who might’ve felt overshadowed by them, maybe even on his own. That smile always let me know that even men as accomplished, as dignified, as IMPORTANT, as my grandpa could still feel unsure of themselves at times.

When he doesn’t say anything, I say, “I miss you, Gramps.”

He nods, and sometimes he answers: “Yeah.”

“I’m dreaming, huh?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Yeah,” he says.

“How are you?” I want to know.

“Grrreat,” he says, his standby response.

“Well,” I tell him, “I just want to sit near you and talk to you as long as I can. Is that okay?” He generally smiles bigger then, showing his teeth – a sign of warming up and waning shyness.

“Yeah,” he says again.

And I find myself entirely enthusiastic to have my grandpa all to myself. I’ll tell him the stories of my mundane life that always seem to rivet him. He’s genuinely listening and interested. Why, I wonder, did I not do this more when he was with me? Why did I visit him no more often when I lived on Beale than I did when I lived in Texas, or Nebraska, or Mississippi? Why did I let a forty-minute drive be as effective of a barrier as a several thousand-mile gap? How spoiled I was, often feeling impatience if I had to repeat myself to his hearing aid, taking for granted that he’d never be more than seven pushed phone buttons away if I really needed him. What about what he needed, what he missed? How much family chatter did he miss because of his hearing that he would’ve loved to hear? My boys might be young and teaching me more about life than I ever thought possible, but his were grown, with kids of their own – all lessons learned, for better or for worse. They visit when they can; they’re good people, like him and his wife. But maybe, just maybe, he might’ve needed us even more than we needed him. The way he leaned over when you sat next to his chair to bore the crap out of him with your everyday minutiae. A bit of it might’ve been to hear you better, but most of it was because he wanted to know. Wanted to know how you were, Nate, how your days were passing, what was new or interesting, what had brought a chuckle out of you recently, or what was worrying you right now?

My memories of him are 33 years long; shorter than some people’s, longer than others. My position in the family, chronologically anyway, was always unique: younger than his children by twenty years, older than his other grandkids by at least ten. As a result, he spoke to me as a grandkid for the first half of my time with him, and like a son for the second half. Of course, that’s not clear-cut; they often merged, but I think the point stands. My 18th birthday present from him was a phone call. I’m not sure he’d ever called me directly before; Granny usually handled his end of communications unless it was a pretty personal matter. And I suppose this one was.

“Nate?” he said.

I answered, “Hi, Gramps.”

“Today,” he announced, “you are a man.”

Before I could respond, he’d hung up.

In my early years, he smelled like smoke. Like pipe smoke when I was really young, and later of cigarettes. And even later, of neither – but by then the damage had been done. Only on him could these smell sweet. I perched myself on the arm of his reclining chair every Friday night until I was too big to, and then I kept doing it anyway. Even as the wedge of wood drove itself into sensitive areas, I wouldn’t budge. Having the attention and camaraderie of someone of Lee Gomer’s caliber makes some backside discomfort pale right away.

He had a treasure trove in his bedroom closet, up high where the shorter grandkids couldn’t reach. Joke hats and Halloween props from many years’ worth of First American parties: a plastic bottle that read “INSTANT BONER PILLS” which popped out a little plastic pecker when you unscrewed it. That was golden comedy for a twelve-year-old, let me tell you. There was a green laundry basket in there too, just for his dirty hankies. Such a foreign concept for someone past his generation: to carry around something that you would actually blow your nose into more than once and not throw away afterward, but rather return to your pocket. I fell into that basket one day while chasing around a younger cousin. I was horrified but unscathed. He wore hats when I was young but not when I was older. He took me with him golfing once in those fabulous old-man pants he used to favor, and those three hours seemed to me to be more like twenty. He ran and threw the football with his sons and me when I was little. He laughed at Bugs Bunny cartoons almost harder than I did. He and Greg used to exchange boxes of dog/pig/other animals’ dung – fully gift-wrapped – during Christmas when I was a kid. He’d mutter “I sure hope these pills of Mother’s are doing something for me” while swallowing vitamins and nutritional supplements in the morning by the handful. He ate his meals in front of the TV on a little folding tray. His quivering white poodle BeeBee used to cower pressed up next to his leg all the time, and his grouchy black poodle Frank stank bad. When I told him, he’d say, “I haven’t smelled anything for years. Sometimes I get a whiff of Mother’s hair spray or popcorn cooking, but that’s it.” He’d stop midway to the kitchen sometimes, hold a hand on his belly, crack off a series of eight to ten farts, and then say, “Jee-sus!”

He would curse at items in the kitchen when his food preparation wasn’t proceeding as smoothly as he’d like. One time he called me in to show me an example of something that, according to him, only he could do. His toast was sitting on a paper towel, and when he pushed the lid back onto the butter tub, a corner of the paper towel got pinched in between. As a result, when he lifted the tub to take it to the fridge, the paper towel got pulled off the counter and his toast got deposited on the floor (butter-side down, of course). He was frustrated but laughed along with me. Another prank by his personal poltergeist “Igor.” His standard war cry from the kitchen while fixing his dinner: “Fight me, you bastard, fight me!”

But he got sick. His lungs were bad from the smoking and the doctors had told him to move to the seaside, but he loved Yuba City and all the family members in it. He went to the hospital, then home, then back. His face puffed up from that drug they gave him. He waved off the tube for his lungs, tried to write “TORTURE” on a paper to let us know how he felt about it, and we all knew it was likely just a matter of time.

There was a sticker on the door to his room. It showed a picture of a cartoon bee and it read “BEE SAFE.” I grew to hate that sticker as we had family talks out in the hall about Gramps. The view out his window was mostly roof, but the trees of Yuba City beyond looked beautiful, and I wanted Gramps to see them again. I wanted him to breathe that air out there. I played video games on my Playstation Portable some of the time, but after he died I got rid of it and couldn’t bear to look at one of them ever again.

I stayed with him in the hospital. I felt like if I took enough time off and just … stayed there with him that he couldn’t die. It seemed impossible that his life would stop while I and others he loved were right next to him. So I stayed; many of us did. I sat, I ate, I slept, I went home, I came back, I played that damned PSP, and I prayed for him to recover. Maybe we only thought he was going to die because the doctors told us he would without that tube; maybe he’d shake it off like a cold given enough time. What do doctors know anyway? They’re wrong as often as they’re right. We gotta think positive here, I kept thinking, we need to pull him back to us and cling to him hard enough that he can’t leave.

But leave he did, and I watched it happen hour by agonizing hour. His eyes never closed, and his breathing became more and more shallow. During the early afternoon, perhaps two days before he resigned himself to a final peace, the nurses came in. They excused themselves and said they had to clean him. Those of us present took a few polite steps away and faced the other way. I glanced back and they were wiping his naked form with moist towels like he was a dusty statue or a soiled countertop. I vowed not to look back again. Then I did anyway and they had rolled him onto one side. I saw his buttocks and scrotum, and one nurse smeared both areas with a pinkish cream, undoubtedly to prevent bedsores. Then they flipped this man I loved so much onto his back again and scooted him back up onto his pillow. One pitched the blanket over him carelessly while the other stripped his latex gloves off, flashed us a faux smile, and chirped, “All done!” They left, and I’ve spent a lot of my time since trying to unremember how they treated him like a sack of potatoes. I don’t hate the nurses for it, but I hate that they made me see that there was not a whole lot of Lee Gomer left at that point, and what was left would likely be departing soon. I think it hit home somewhere around then, and that slapped-on dab of goo was my first notice to get ready to accept the idea.

Eventually we all realized it was inevitable, even as we clutched at him as hard as we could. A pain shot went into his IV, and we sang the family song to him. I like to imagine that he heard it and was pleased. We stopped squeezing the air from that plastic bag into his defeated lungs, and watched the numbers on his oxygen intake get smaller and smaller. A nurse used a stethoscope to confirm there was nothing to hear, and I took Gramps’s hand. Those big hands, those curved thumbs. It was still warm, but his skin had taken on a yellowish cast. Then I hugged my dad and cried. Gale cried and Granny hushed her. I went out to have a smoke with Jeff; clearly we had learned no lesson from Gramps' complete lung shutdown. I told Jeff that I wanted to step into the middle of Plumas Street and stop the cars, then explain to each one of them that the world had lost a great, great man before I’d let them resume their course.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New classes trip me up

My classes for the second half of the summer semester have started, which explains my lack of posts and failure to return to work on the novel. I actually don’t need any explanation because delays are my trademark. So I just have to forgive myself, set the blog-post timer for ten minutes, and get back to work.

I finished the pre-funeral scene and now it’s on to the main part. I probably should consider combining those two scenes, on a side note. Anyway, I hate these two scenes and I really need to figure out why. For one thing, I feel they’re important enough that I have to get their tone, pacing, and dialogue completely spot-on, and as a result I’m often so intimidated by the task that I grind to a halt on progress altogether. I also feel there are just too many scenes in the book that consist of Robbie “talking” to his mother (or her spirit, or whatever). There’s at least five I can think of off the top of my head: when he’s cleaning with his father, when he’s sitting on the boat, when he speaks at the funeral, at the surprise party, and at her headstone near the end. I just now decided that I’m going to change the headstone part vastly. It’s either going to be dialogue-free or have just two lines or so, just the crux of Robbie’s thoughts at that point, something about keeping Mama in his heart and not in his head all the time. That’ll speed things up a bit. I’m (thankfully) editing out a lot of extraneous material this go around, as well as combining scenes and consolidating material from several scenes into a single one. I have a pacing problem: the middle sags and the end rushes to catch up and make up for the middle. I think this can be successfully changed, but I have to take it on a scene-by-scene basis (don’t I have to do that for every problem?).

Alex’s birthday was fun, despite being delayed a few days because I sprained my ankle like a stupid fat guy jumping into our pool. Five-foot maximum depth in the pool plus 6-foot guy equals pull your feet up when you hop in, Hefty! Anyway, we went to Country Club Lanes’ Fun Arcade again and played the ticket games. The boys got a variety of Made in China toys and fun was had overall. We went to Arden Fair Mall for fireworks on the 4th. Not much more to report on the family front. I’m just typing to burn time and get warmed up for working on my dreaded funeral scene anyway.

Not to repeat, but I need to figure out why I don’t like this scene. Usually if I dread and avoid working on a scene there’s a reason for it that I should try to dig down and determine. It either doesn’t belong or it needs to be improved or some other reason. I have a note scribbled on the title page of my fourth, hard-copy draft that suggests I do an “Initial Reaction Test” to determine how I feel about each scene individually. I usually have one of three reactions: 1) Cool, I like this one, 2) Meh. This scene’s okay but it’s no real thrill to work on, and 3) Shit, not this damn scene again; I hate it. The funeral brings on that third reaction and I don’t feel any scene should make me feel that way. After all, if I react that way to my own work, how can I expect anyone else to enjoy reading it? I’m going to think long and hard on the answer to this one before I start work on the funeral tonight, and I’ll report my findings tomorrow (or the next time I post). It may just be that I need to re-focus or redirect my thinking, or just take it one paragraph at a time and stop worrying about how long and complex it is.

DING! Ten minutes is up, I’m off.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Birthday Eve

The boys love to celebrate “Birthday Eve,” especially since it carries with it the same privilege as Christmas Eve: one present early. Just as Daniel did the day before his birthday, Alex is setting up a table with imaginary cake and ice cream surrounded by all his friends. These are mostly stuffed animals with makeshift party hats, including a rare appearance by Alex’s friend “the invisible man.” He adhered a party hat to the upright part of his chair to simulate invisible-man wearing a party hat, too. These boys crack me up. We’re still awaiting our pay so we can celebrate a little with them today. Which means this blog will run silent run deep (mostly silent) tomorrow on Alex’s actual birthday. No work on the book will be possible.

Mom just shut off “The Biography of Sergei Eisenstein,” a famous Russian filmmaker, to put some more appropriate birthday fare for the boys: Looney Tunes (the Road Runner disc). Yesterday I “did some research” (a.k.a. putzing around on the Internet googling everything even indirectly related to something in my book in lieu of actual writing and revision) and read up on the San Jose Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) where the funeral for Robbie’s mother is going to take place when I edit that rather long and complex two-scene set today. It’s a beautiful-looking building; I just wish there were some online interior photos so I could accurately write about a few details on the place. Instead I have to google other temples and fake it. It’s also awfully hard to pull two different and distinctive eulogy-style soliloquies out of my butt – one for a mentally disabled 23-year-old Sikh man and the other for his enraged, drunken, widowed father. I want something significant said, but I have to make them realistic and neither one uncharacteristically eloquent.

I rearranged a lot of the scenes of my book yesterday after I printed out a scene list. I think the narrative rhythm will be enhanced. I’ve read before that if you are able to rearrange the scenes in your book without too much trouble, it might not be a good thing (although I can’t recall precisely what they said the problem was). It concerns me a bit, but it’s not as if I don’t have to significantly alter each scene in its new position in the tale’s timeline. It further seems to me that Robbie’s story is rather episodic by nature; he sort of drifts to and from work and isn’t very assertive and things happen TO him rather than him doing a whole lot. By the end of the book his personality has become much more independent and self-reliant so those scenes likely wouldn’t be relocated so easily. Plus, I’ve been through this book so many times that no matter which scene I pick up to work on, my mind has a pretty good handle of where Robbie is on his in-story developmental arc (from very dependent in the beginning to damn close to an typical adult at the very end).

DING! Ten minutes. See you in the literary trenches, soldier.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Alex approaches SE7EN years old

Okay, the ten-minute timer's going. It may be the same date, but I'm trying to do some writing earlier in the day rather than wait until the wee hours of the morning, post-midnight. Most of the (half-million) books on writing I’ve read recommend working early, as close to waking up as possible, but I've always been a "night writer" myself. I'm determined to make the most of my 10-day break (which is now down to a week flat) by working for two hours, then a one-hour break with my wife and boys, then two on one off again, etc. Hopefully I can get in something close to a full workday that way and not feel so guilty for sitting at the computer in front of my boys for so long at a time. They understand I'm pursuing a noble career goal here, something I even call my "second job" (full-time school is my first these days), but it's still hard to ask a 6- and 5-year-old to not bother their dad when he's sitting on the living room sofa in clear view most of the day with earbuds in. Thus the breaks. Alex seems to understand the concept of "Papa has to work" better than Dan, but both occasionally can't help interrupting. I try to be as patient as I can.

Speaking of Alex and 6-year-olds, today is June 29 and his seventh birthday is in two days on July 1. We're going to invite Greg and Angie and Zach over if we can, although we understand they're busy and can't necessarily just run over in the middle of the week. We saw Greg back on the 18th when he and Angie came and saw Irina's summer ballet/pointe performance (and in fact we saw Greg at the Save-Mart across the street two days ago, decked out in his sharp Polo clothes and grabbing something before a Christian singles dance nearby). Luckily we get paid tomorrow so Alex gets more than just a rock on his big day.

I got all hyped up and worked until six on my book, including printing up a summarized scene list so I can analyze the overall flow of my book and where it gets bogged down, repetitive, or otherwise "choppy." Sol Stein, in one of his brilliant books on writing, recommends a "triage" method where you work on your novel's biggest problems first (such as scene arrangement and flow) before you rewrite material and worry about other potential problems like continuity, character motivation, dialogue, description, etc. I love the theory, but I obviously haven't followed it. Hell, by the time I read his advice – even if I intended to follow it to the letter – I was on my third draft at least. Anyway, it's good for me to learn by doing, and I think I've made every conceivable error in the construction of my first novel by now. It's been a 3 ½-year journey so far, but I have faith that the outcome will be good. I had a sort of "insight" as I went to bed last night, and that was – after all the work I've put into crafting this thing – I can't imagine I'll just get nothing but flat-out refusals from agents and publishers. I think it's good enough that they'll suggest rewrites and see enough potential in the piece that they'll want to work with me on it. Of course, I could be completely wrong, as I'm sure many first-time writers have had the same thought, even as they collected polite rejection after rejection.

That's ten! (I have to admit that after my ten is up I give myself another ten to correct, proofread and rewrite for readability.) Thanks for hanging with me, and I’m off to work!

A TIme of Peace

This 10-day break between classes is a time of peace. Days are too hot to go outside so Irina and the boys and I hit the pool later, at 8 or 9 or so. My stopwatch is set for ten minutes, but don't expect me to be as prolific as I was yesterday. Partly because I actually typed a few minutes before starting the timer, and also because I don't anticipate having much to say today. But that's not the point, is it? The point is to type and not worry about editing until I'm done and ready to publish the post. And to "warm up" for tonight's revision.

I read a few posts in the blog of a guy I used to play Halo 2 with on Xbox Live. It seems his life is moving in a good, positive direction. He seems to be very physically active with his hobby of ultimate Frisbee, has gotten what seems to be a promotion and is relocating to the Bay Area (much nicer than Sacramento), and is expecting his first child soon. I, on the other hand, am still taking classes on the Montgomery G.I. Bill and trying to stave off my inevitable re-entry into the work world, and as of late February of 2009 am entering my FOURTH year of working on my novel. It's paycheck to paycheck for us (and oftentimes hand to mouth near the end of the month), and I can't very well sell a novel that I can't stop modifying and christen "completed." So Godspeed to me over these 10 days. No booze, no procrastination, no bullshit. I need to haul ass and complete this bastard so that I can worry about getting an agent and becoming published. That is the dream, and it is the reason I accept this rather Spartan lifestyle for the time being. When I have to start working on a resume and going to interviews, my morale's going to plummet. Having a novel on bookstore shelves (even one that doesn't earn out its paltry advance) would help me maintain a degree of sanity when I re-enter the hellish life of cubicle separation and inter-office sniping.

I'm depressing myself.

It's past midnight now, and I swore I'd work on my book when I first woke up. Naturally, and as always, it didn't happen. That's okay; I'm a night worker mostly anyway. I'm starting final revision on scene 22 of 84 tonight, which is a dream flashback of Robbie's trip to the San Francisco Zoo with his parents for his tenth birthday in 1996. Papa's cruel, Mama doesn't protect her boy much, and Robbie wakes up wondering why his mind is filled with bad memories of Mama following her death.

My God, Alex is so whiny tonight he's driving me insane! I'd put my iPod on a high volume right now, but it's in the pawn shop for the moment. Ugh, that shames me. If I'm ever able to live on writing income I'm going to rent an office; Irina and I agree on this point. Anyway, so I'll just plug my the headphones into my new laptop here and go to a Launchcast/Yahoo! music station and turn the volume up high. Actually my new laptop is a "netbook," some kind of relatively new term meaning a stripped-down laptop with limited memory, functions, and features -- including no CD-rom drive! Even it's screen is tiny: 9.5"! But it only cost $300 from the Circuit City website during it's "Going Out of Business" sale, and it serves my purpose. My faithful ($1800) HP laptop that I bought in 2003 finally flamed out so I had to replace it. Call it a business expense, of which I can afford damn few. This one's an HP, too.

Speaking of Launchcast, I heard an amazing piece of music yesterday when I clicked on the "Opera" station as a joke. It was called "Mi Mancherai" and it was performed by two prodigies. One is Josh Groban, who has an awesome voice and who was only 22 when he performed in this clip in 2004. He's a little off on some of the notes, but just a hair, and I didn't even notice until multiple listens. Very talented guy. The other prodigy is an Asian or Pacific Islander-looking woman who looks just as young and plays the violin beautifully. Cut and paste the link below and try it yourself (sorry I don't know how to make a clickable link because I'm lame):

DING! Time's up! Thanks for your patience with my rambling.

- Nate

P.S. EDIT: You sure hear some interesting new stuff on Launchcast. This one was under category "Classical Crossover." (I can't listen to music with lyrics when writing; I sing along. Alternately, all music must have foreign language lyrics, thus my occasional experimentation with the "Opera" channel). Listen to this clip at least to the point where Robert Plant would normally begin singing:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Traveler in the Dark

The title of this post is what I've re-christened my novel as of September of 2007. I stole a page from the John Steinbeck idea book and used a phrase from the verse of a well-known song. (He did it with "The Grapes of Wrath," which is a line from "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I actually hear his wife Elaine came up with the title, though.) Being a slightly less talented writer than Steinbeck, I aimed a bit lower and used a phrase from a later verse of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:"

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark;
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are

I'll try to be a bit more regular of a contributor on my own blog here. I've said that before, of course, but I think maybe setting a timer of say 10 minutes to "warm up" the typing fingers might help me with my productivity on the novel for the night. I'll do that now.

I've been "closing" scenes off, meaning that they are in a condition that I can safely say I'm no longer embarrassed about them. I'm on my fifth draft of my novel and I can sense it finally, FINALLY coming together during this final draft. It's a little late to be altering vital story elements and rearranging scenes, but I'm doing it anyway, and just about every change I make seems to be the right one. I've been going to college full-time since late 2007, and I'm just now stepping off a six-month break from my novel, which is really helping me see the story through fresh eyes.

I'm very proud of my story and I think it will sell. It will likely follow the route of every book in existence and first be turned down by every agent and publisher on planet Earth, but I'll keep the faith and keep plugging away (and even move on to a second novel if I can't seem to get this one sold).

My main focus now is figuring out a way to keep the final act from seeming too rushed and forced. I need to get Robbie's dad calling him from jail and trying to coerce his son to help in his release earlier on. I need to pump up Wendell's appearances a bit more and make the dialogue more meaningful (maybe even have those two do something fun or significant together). Sometimes I feel that Wendell is only around to provide a dramatic departure later in the story. Why are they friends? Why do they click when so many other people pick on or don't like Robbie?

By the way, I'm changing Wendell's race to black. Despite all the times I've mentioned his blond hair and that Robbie can see his veins through his pale skin due to his sickness, people can't seem to understand that he's supposed to be white. Maybe because I gave him realistic teen dialogue, which I suppose resembles the rhythm of urban black talk. Readers, particularly older ones, don't seem to understand that ALL teenagers these days, not just black ones, talk sort of hip-hoppy. And I swear if one more person tells me they thought Wendell is black because he speaks "jive talk," I'm going to rend my hair from my head. God, these preconceptions are just locked in!

I'm 8 1/2 minutes on my timer, so I better wind this up. I've closed 20 of the novel's 84 scenes, and I have to get to work. I'm feeling inspired and good, and I have a 10-day break before my classes for the second half of the summer semester start. Expect me to check in for a 10-minute warm-up like this every day during that break.

Nine and a half! Deep breath. Relax. And PLUNGE into the world of the story, man!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Another meaningless word my sons and I throw around for no reason. I just wanted it to pop up when I Google it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Moment of Silence for a Genius

A moment of silence, if you please, at the passing of George Carlin. A true genius.

May 12, 1937 - June 22, 2008

Man, I haven't been this bummed since Chris Farley died.