The Quest to remember Uncle Mike

Me driving, clearly not a Civic 😉

 

There are trips and there are vacations and there are journeys. My recent trek to Iowa for my Uncle Mike’s funeral services was none of these. It was a quest.

On Wednesday afternoon, my parents, my sister and her family of four, and my family of four, set off in the rented RV pictured below. Within the RV was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement over something new (we’ve never taken this trip with our girls before), anxiety over the actual driving (the RV is 36 feet long and sways like a boat cresting a wave), and the very obvious grief and sadness that is part and parcel when attending the services for a loved one.

So, with that, we drove into the night, and through the next day, for a total of 26 hours. It was difficult, and an RV does not handle like a car, as much as I psyched myself up to believe it would be no more difficult to drive than my Civic. But with no more than a few bumps and bruises, we prevailed, hitting the one side trip we had scheduled before our final destination of Knoxville, Iowa.

Field of Dreams is a family favorite of ours because, Iowa. Also, that movie has a bit of magic interspersed, which makes you believe in a better world than this. Therefore, visiting the location where the movie was filmed, on a quest such as this, only made sense. Out there in the fields of Dyserville, Iowa, sits the field and home from the movie. We walked on the field and pretended to get swallowed up by the corn, and reveled in the beautiful breeze and patchwork sky, after so many hours on the road.

However, if you know the movie—or even better, the novel, Shoeless Joe—then you understand the import of the question within it that has become a bit of a tagline for the movie: “Is this heaven? No. It’s Iowa.” As my mother stood behind a wrought iron sign, twisted into this quote, with her granddaughters beside her, it was clear that this destination was not truly one of coincidence, but of necessity. She would be saying goodbye to her brother the next day, and the notion of him being in the afterlife, was soothed a bit by the rustling corn and the whispers on the wind.

We then drove the RV to our final destination, the Marion County Park in Knoxville, Iowa. Fortunately for my parents, they were met by my mother’s sister and husband and escorted to dinner and then to their hotel, while my brother-in-law and I tried to figure out the ins and outs of RV park living. Neither of us had ever done this before, but it worked out, and even though our New York license plate stuck out like a sore thumb amid the much more prevalent and local RVs, the people in the park were kind and considerate. We then settled in for the night, in preparation for the most difficult part of everything, the services the following day.

Now, through a bit of misunderstanding on my part, I did not know until the day we left on our quest that I would be delivering my uncle’s eulogy. Not a problem, except that when I write, I like the ability to be in an office, and to have coffee and white noise, and most importantly, time to write and revise. I had none of these available to me, except for coffee. Therefore, on Friday morning, I woke up early and got on my phone and started writing. I had the good fortune of my mother’s correspondence with my uncle’s colleagues and friends, and could then insert a bit of context and flavor of my uncle’s life in Iowa. I knew him as my uncle, but I also knew he was so much more than that. And if a eulogy is to meet any criteria, it is this: tell the story of the person’s life.

With Death Wish Coffee pumping through my veins, I secluded myself in the passenger seat at the front of the RV, while my daughters and nieces slept, and wrote for an hour. I then sent the draft to my wife for review and got on with the day. Because we had errands to run, my cousin’s son to entertain, and pieces of the services and after party to put together.

So, we went our separate ways, and then came back together for lunch at my Aunt’s house in Knoxville, and then all ten of us got ready for the services in my parents’ hotel room, which as you can imagine is no small feat. I found myself ironing my clothes in the hallway because the women needed their space.

Sadly, I’ve attended many wakes and funerals, all of them traditional Catholic events. However, my Uncle Mike was not a religious person. He was raised Catholic, but ultimately walked away from that faith. Therefore, the celebration of life service was a beautifully simple affair, with flowers and a slideshow and my uncle’s urn (not filled—I get to that in the eulogy). Family, friends, and community members all came and milled around and gave their condolences to my Aunt Deb and Mike’s children, Morgan and Troy, and then sat and told stories about Mike, or simply caught up with one another. There was no receiving line, no clergy, no prayers, just good music that Mike would have enjoyed playing in the background, hand-picked by my parents.

Cousins at the services

Then, it was time for the eulogy, and the funeral director gathered the room’s attention and I stood behind a podium at the front of the room, with the slideshow playing over my shoulders. And I read what I had written and hoped it was good enough for the people in attendance and for my uncle’s memory (the eulogy is at the end of this post). I feel like it went well, but after, people were invited to tell their own stories about Mike, and that was wonderful. People stood and told funny and poignant stories about my uncle, and it was how a remembrance should be—wrought with sadness, but underpinned with the joy of having known the person being celebrated.

While my uncle was in the hospital, and unable to breathe without direct flow oxygen, he entertained the people at his bedside, and sang songs that he loved, one of them being the Beatles’ classic “In My Life.” Therefore, at the very end of the services, the song was played and people were asked to sing along, and as chilling as it was to hear, it was also a beautiful way to end the celebration. There weren’t many dry eyes after, but that was the point.

From there, we all ventured to one of my uncle’s favorite local breweries, Peace Tree Brewery, for great beer and more stories and jokes and a couple hours of merriment, which my uncle would have adored.

Unfortunately, we left the brewery and went back to the RV park, and prepared for our departure the next day. We had achieved what we came to do; our quest was fulfilled. And now the journey home lay ahead.

We drove with a purpose and arrived home at 4:30 the next morning, for a total time of 20 hours of driving. We were exhausted, especially my brother-in-law, who took the last leg, and my sister, who was his co-pilot and in charge of keeping him awake. At some point, they must have turned on the radio. I don’t know when, because I didn’t hear it until I was fully awake, but when we turned the last bend into my sister’s neighborhood, one last song began on the radio. It was one of my uncle’s favorites, and in that moment, with our journey complete, the song made so much sense: “It Ain’t Me Babe”

Because we were no longer searching for anyone or for anything. We had achieved it, and I think my uncle gave us a tip of his hat with that song, thanking us for making the quest, for honoring his life. That’s what family does, and what we will continue to do.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Mike.

Mike’s Eulogy:

You’re lucky if in your life you know a handful of great men. Mike Gaffney was one of those great men. He was kind and empathetic and compassionate, and always punctual. Which is so ironic, considering he’s late to his own funeral (indeed, his cremains have not arrived yet)

Mike was a man comprised of grit and resilience. When he was 17, his father died, presenting a situation that often topples many. But you already know that’s not what happened. Thanks in large part to his mother, Gene, the support of his sisters, and later, his drinking buddy, who became his brother-in-law, my father, Tim, Mike forged on, and pursued academics to feed his brilliant mind. He found Psychology to be his calling. And wonderful for all of us, amid his academic pursuits, he also pursued Deb.

He created a wonderful life out here in Iowa, with Deb and the Rankin family, treating his patients, and then raising his children, Morgan and Troy, all while being “relentlessly accepting.” Because with grit comes a certain wisdom: regardless of how strong we are, we must also be malleable, so that we do not break. Mike had an ability to be humble, yet strong, kind, yet unrelenting. He was basically a superhero.

Because, with this beautiful life of his fully intact, he should have lost it after his biking accident, 15 years ago. And yet, he did not. Mike transformed himself all over again, relying on family and friends in ways he never wanted, but later came to appreciate in deep and meaningful ways.

And the accident changed him, altering how he saw life and those around him, and those he treated. Fortunately, he also got to become Papa Mike, and bask in the glow of a grandchild’s perception of him. If he didn’t wear a superhero cape before, he certainly did now.

Then, as we all know, Mike was besieged with another critical challenge, leukemia. He received the best medical care available and unbelievable support from his family. Mike came out of the other side of this care with an opportunity to be with his family once again. It was all worth it, if only for the brief time he was allowed to see his family and to assert his will one last time.

Mike lived by the adage “Never let common sense get in the way of opportunity.” He lived it, and if you consider it, we are all following in his footsteps. Our lives are all non-sensical aspirations of hope, bolstered by our grit and resilience. In this we are all like Mike.

There’s a lesson here and I think Mike would appreciate that we are using his life to teach us how to better our own. It’s this: we are stronger than we think, capable of more love and empathy than we think, and that we already possess the tools we need to forge our lives into something epic. We just need to believe in each other and especially in ourselves.

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Godspeed, Mike Gaffney

Last Thursday my mother sent me a writing prompt like no other: If you have anything at all you want to say to Mike you can send a text. He has decided to start Hospice this afternoon.

The Mike in this situation is her brother, my Uncle Mike, and he died in Chicago on Friday evening from complications attributed to his battle with leukemia.

I’ve often heard that writers are people for whom words are more difficult, because we care so much about them. This couldn’t have been more spot on for me in that moment. I was working on a novel, and that project suddenly did not matter. Responding articulately to Mom’s text through my tears, did.

Here’s what I wrote:

Life’s purpose is to achieve the absolute most you can with the time you have. To love, to work, to hope, to believe. To live fully is to feel as if you’ve never done enough. Uncle Mike, you’ve lived so fully that others will follow in your footsteps of loving, of working, of hoping, and of believing. Thank you for forging the way.

My mother read that text to him and he smiled, and I am so happy to have had that last moment, because Mike Gaffney was a figure in my life, who was more than Mom’s brother. He was a whip-smart intellectual, but also one of the kindest and bravest men I’ve ever met.

He lived in Iowa with his wife, daughter, and son, and every summer, growing up, his family would either make the trek in a van, driving non-stop for 24-hours (coffee cans have multiple uses) to us in Upstate, NY, or, my family would make the trek in their direction, driving in our own van, filled with my parents, my aunt, my sister, me, and one or two of our friends.

These were not luxurious trips. Our van didn’t have AC, and when driving through farm county in July, you really want AC, or at least a gas mask. But luxury isn’t the point of a family trip, it’s the experience. And as a child, heading to Iowa, and while there, I had plenty of experiences:

I learned that the word “pop” meant soda and that breakfast burritos are a thing.

I once saw my mother and uncle remove a tick from my cousin Morgan’s head with the end of a burnt match.

Corn can, indeed, stretch for miles, and in the morning, it emits a fine mist, like a pond or swimming pool.

There are creations known as pig condos, and they are as adorable as they sound, but equally rancid smelling.

The experience that is RAGBRAI, and how biking, not racing, is a thing in Iowa. As is “scooping the loop.”

Because of my uncle and Iowa, I also had some of the best Catfish in my entire life (and I’ve been to New Orleans). It was served up in a run-down looking shack of an establishment, complete with a snapping turtle that had a cigar in its mouth, adorning the wall. Because, why not.

And in the years when they came to us, the main element that stands out is how real he made all the stories of their youth, how having him in that space he and my mother and my aunt shared, made it more tangible, and yet, larger-than-life. I believe much of that is due to his gregarious personality. To me, Mike was epic.

When I became a teen, my time on those trips became limited, especially when I went to college. But Mike kept correspondence, sending me obscure books of fiction and philosophy, and introducing me to Coltrane. Listen to “All Blues”, below, if you’ve never had any Coltrane in your life.

Mike was a psychologist, and he didn’t so much talk me out of psych—a field I was heading toward—as he brought the reality of his field into light. It helped inform my decision to go into teaching and not psych, which I believe is one of the best decisions I’ve made.

In later years, when my sister and I had children of our own, and family vacations shifted to going to the shore, the Iowa family would join, and Mike was always so thrilled to see our daughters and hear about our lives and their lives, and simply enjoy the family he got to see, sporadically.

In his own life, Mike accomplished more than I will ever know. By all accounts he was an acclaimed psychologist, helping countless veterans, but he was also a phenomenal husband, father, and grandfather. In spite of being a man who pushed his body to the end of its limits through biking and hiking (he made it up Kilimanjaro), he was, foremost, a man who put family first and wore his heart on his sleeve.

The last time I saw him was when we moved into our home, two years ago. He helped transport our backyard items, including a hammock, which he promptly laid on, looked around and said, “Wow, your home is like a resort. How much a night?”

Mike was definitely onto something 🙂

 

And so, on Wednesday of this week, my family of four and my sister’s family of four, and our parents, will get in an RV and head back to Iowa for Mike’s services. The RV might be a bit more luxurious than the minivans of my youth, but I hope the experience will be the same for my daughters and nieces. At some point, I am certain, someone will ask, “Is this heaven?” And we will all get to reply, “No, it’s Iowa.”

And to that end, I will offer my uncle’s last request: complete acts of kindness. Especially amid the backdrop that is our country today, I cannot think of a better way to focus your time, here on earth. The afterlife is something my uncle grappled with, and I think this final request seems a perfect way to make peace with the uncertainty, because following in Mike’s path means creating experiences for others that are like little slices of heaven.

I can’t ever know if the words I sent in that text or the words I have now written here can fully convey all that I mean, but I know that my uncle would be proud of me for giving it my best. That is all we can ever truly strive for.

Godspeed, Mike Gaffney.

Perfecto in Mexico, while traveling with type 1 diabetes

Our beachfront view.

Last year I was fortunate enough to take a family vacation to Ireland. This summer, after an exhausting school year, my wife, daughters, and I took a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, for a fifteen-year wedding anniversary present. We booked the trip with the ever-awesome Lisa LaForest of Plaza Travel Center, and as I did with our trip to Ireland last year,  I documented much of the process of taking two people with type 1 diabetes to a foreign country–this one with 90% humidity and endless hours in the sun, sand, and ocean. For those of you here for book-related posts, this isn’t one of them, but I will provide a writing update at the end. For those of you who appreciate my insight into living with type 1, this is a great post if you’re considering some fun in the sun in the tropics.

Packing

Packing for Ireland taught me so much, especially about the necessity of having a separate bag for all medical products. Foreign countries get a bit concerned when you bring in a lot of medical stuff, for obvious reasons, and so along with the medical bag, I strongly suggest a letter from your doctor detailing what you are using and why. Honesty, this information helps for our own TSA, who have seen a lot, but not all know about or even understand something like the Dexcom sensor or OmniPod. And in this day, just one look at the stuff screams, “bomb search,” which I agree with and completely appreciate. 

So as you can see from the pictures, I have everything double packed, so that the TSA has an easy time swabbing the products and then returning them to the plastic bag when done. Making their lives easier makes your life easier. I simply hand off the bag and the rest goes through the X-Ray.

 

*Side note: At Albany International, because I had a juice box over the allotted liquid amount, I was subjected to a pat down. This has never happened before. I don’t know if there is a change in protocol, but I didn’t fight the search, and was happy the juice was in my bag, and not my daughter’s. She did not need to be subjected to that.

In-Flight

Fortunately, on all flights, neither my daughter nor I experienced the pressure-induced insulin bolus like we did on the return flight from Ireland. We knew we were good because we kept our eyes on our Dexcom app, incessantly, for the first hour. I think because our longest flight was from Baltimore to Cancun, the planes never had to spike into the necessary cruising altitude, as Aer Lingus did. However, that’s just my assumption. If you’re concerned, just suspend for a half hour prior to take off (if using a Pod or pump) and check your number frequently.

Customs and bag check in Mexico

Cancun Airport has a very straightforward method for incoming international flights: they screen all bags. Once your bags are screened, you must then press a button beyond the screening point, and if the light turns red, your bags are then searched by hand. It should come as no surprise that our bags were checked. The security, though, was very nice about the entire process. They took one look at all the medical products and did not ask for any explanation. I don’t know if this is because they understood what was in front of them, or simply didn’t want to know, but either way, we thanked them and were on our way.

It’s all about the Skin Tac and armbands

Once out of the airport and into the sultry air of Cancun, I knew that the bottle of Skin Tac we brought, as well as the arm bands we use for our sensors, were absolute necessities. Ireland has no humidity. Well, maybe not none, but not 80-90%, which we experienced the entire time while in Mexico. If you are wearing a CGM or Pod or infusion set, you are going to need to take great pains to keep your products from falling off. We applied copious amounts of Skin Tac prior to leaving, and reapplied as needed throughout the trip. The added compression of the arm bands kept the sensors on beautifully through our swimming, snorkeling, and dolphin swimming adventure. We wore no additional belly bands or other products to keep our Pods on, but they kept extremely well, with only the need for additional Skin Tac.

Arm band tan 😉

Fun in the Sun

We stayed at the Iberostar resort in Playa del Carmen, and I could write an entire post about how much I adore the resort and staff. If you are considering Mexico, just check out the pictures of the resort. Top Notch.

And not only was the resort top notch, but so was the ocean and beach we came for: crystal blue, 86-degree water and powdery soft white sand (as noted in the header picture). Every day was in the high 90s, with non-stop sun. This is the perfect recipe for a beautiful beach day, but for us with type 1, it is also the perfect recipe for wreaking havoc on our blood sugar. Therefore, we spent as much time in the shade as we did the sun, wore rash guard UV blocking shirts in the afternoon, reapplied sunblock every hour, and drank as much water or diet soda as possible.

Hydration and staying cool are key, and not only while at the beach. As soon as we stepped away form the water, the humidity kicked in and it became as necessary to keep drinking. A word of caution: all-inclusive resorts and their beachfront bars are great, but cervazas and mojitos do not hydrate as well as water 😉 Take advantage of water whenever you can, so you aren’t struggling with the hypoglycemic reactions to overheating that can be so common for us.

On water

The ocean in Mexico is beautiful, but the same can’t be said of the h2o. A general rule we followed was that if it’s bottled, or if it’s from the resort, drink it. Other than that, don’t. However, we still brought strong antibiotics. Talk to your endocrinologist about doing the same. Because one bought of gastroenteritis for a non-type 1, could ruin a vacation, but for one of us, it could result in hospitalization. We were fortunate and did not need to use the antibiotics, but I felt much safer knowing that we had them, just in case.

In Water

Aside from swimming at our resort, we took two excursions: snorkeling on the Great Barrier reef in Cozumel and swimming with dolphins in the Ecological Park of Xcaret. Regardless of whether you use CGMs and receivers or your phone, and a Pod or pump, as a type 1, you will, at minimum, have a blood glucose kit. The kit and any other products have to stay dry, period. So how do you do that while snorkeling for three hours and swimming with dolphins for one hour?

We picked up a dry bag prior to leaving. We knew it would be good for keeping the water and sand out of our products while at the beach, and figured it would come in handy when even closer to the water. Additionally, I picked up a Pelican case for my daughter’s kit, phone, and receiver. I already use one and adore it, so with these cases and the dry bag, I knew we would be safe on land. On the boat and directly in the water were different concerns.

PDMs in one case; receivers in another.

The dry bag with cases and phones.

Our only evidence of swimming with the dolphins. The experience was great, but the video and photo package was a ripoff.

Many of the snorkeling outfits, including those we could have gone through via our resort, are fantastic, but they pack as many as twenty customers onto the boat, with as few personal belongings as possible. That wasn’t going to work for my family, as we had to bring all our products and juice and snacks and back up insulin pens, etcetera, because we chose to take the ferry to an island almost an hour away. Therefore, I got on Trip Advisor to see which companies were best for small parties. One name came up, Mystic Snorkeling. Review after review praised the company for the attention to detail with small parties and what a wonderful experience was had. I sent an email to them describing our situation of needing safe, dry storage for all the things we need to stay alive. I received a call hours later, assuring me that all would be taken care of, and it was. The captain tucked my bag of tricks beneath his wheel and personally watched over it. This may have been possible with a crew that took a larger party, but I doubt it. Therefore, if you are planning a day on the water, consider using Trip Advisor or the concierge to find a crew that only deals with small parties. Aside from my family, one other couple joined the outing, and the six of us had an exceptional time peering at rainbow parrot fish, and barracuda, and the vast coral life below, all while knowing if I needed anything aboard, it would be safe and dry.

The water above the amazing snorkeling below.

Sugars on the rise, because it’s best to be safe before jumping into the ocean.

The dolphin excursion posed a similar concern. What do you do with the essentials, after you’ve been asked to tuck away your personal belongings into lockers? The dry bag came in so handy. I simply told the guide that I had medical products that I needed to be near us, and he created a spot on the dock for me, no issues (most dolphin swim experiences do not allow you to bring any phones or cameras near the swim area because they try to get you to buy their photo and video packages at the end, so it is important to be upfront about needing to have your bag with you). Because the products were in the aforementioned cases and bag, I felt at ease while swimming with dolphins. I’m not sure I would have felt the same, had our products been in jut a back pack or something similar.

Food and Glucose levels

I don’t know how you generally approach tight control when it comes to vacation, but for us I go with a shifted goal point. My range is 90-170, normally; for vacation, that bumps up 50 -75 mg/dl (Note the Share image above). Same for my daughter. It’s just safer. And considering all of the factors that I’ve already mentioned, now throw in carb counting with mostly foreign food (like bananas fried in honey) and you are potentially facing a heap of trouble if you keep things too tight. So, if my daughter and I ran in the 200s all day, great. If higher, I might bolus, but only a half correction. Same for meals. I never gave the fully suggested bolus until we were back home. Better to have to correct a couple of times, than to have to sit out from time in the ocean because of a low. Again, not necessarily what your Endo is going to tell you, but the adage of “better being safe than sorry” has always been sound advice.

Anniversary dinner on the beach.

You can’t go wrong with dessert.

In Conclusion

If my daughters had it their way, we would visit a new country every year. I love that idea, not because I can actually afford to do such, but because it tells me that our traveling has lit a spark of wanderlust. And for my youngest, who is type 1, not being afraid to leave the comfort of the bubble-life we often create around having type 1, and wanting to see the world, lets me know that all the packing and prepping were worth it. It’s not always smooth sailing, but if you prepare for the worst and hope for the best, chances are you’re going to be all right. She sees that, and I look forward to wherever we travel next, because each trip brings us closer to the destination that is truly the goal: independence. There are ways type 1 binds us, and we cannot break those trappings, not yet, but we certainly can pack them up and take them wherever we want to go.

Love this wacky family of mine.

Writing Update

If you’re still here and wondering what I’ve got going on, here it is. I’m finishing what I believe is the last draft of a novel before it goes from my agent to be shopped. Fingers crossed. After that, I’m picking up on a novel that I’m halfway through, but needed a break from, because it took a strange and awesome turn. It’s like nothing I’ve ever written, so I need my agent’s feedback. After that, I already have an idea fleshed out for what’s next. Therefore, if I can generate these stories into sales, you’ll have some steady work from me for the next few years.

I hope you are enjoying your summer and are getting as much pleasure reading in as possible. If my work happens to be part of that, please send me a pic to let me know. I’ll share widely. Gracias.

Rochester Teen Book Fest

On the bus to the Fest.

On Saturday I attended the Rochester Teen  Book Festival with English teachers and librarians from Albany High School, along with 45 of their students. They were kind enough to let me tag along to a fest that I wanted to be a part of, but didn’t get the invite to. And now that I’ve been, damn, do I wanted to get invited next year.

First, the lineup of authors was stellar. Seriously, there are too many New York Times bestselling authors here to list; check the site. And beyond being well-read, the authors were fabulous to the teens and all held excellent sessions for them to attend.

I had the pleasure of listening to A.G. Howard (Splintered series and Rose Blood) and Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die) in conversation about their paths to writing and publication and then their excellent answers and advice to budding authors in the audience.

And I love these two all the more because they snuck me into the author lunch with them 😉

I also had the good fortune to see Libba Bray (Beauty Queens, Going Bovine, Diviners). She read a story to the audience to prove a phenomenal point, writing improves. Her story was from her childhood and sprawled genres from Paranormal to Sci-Fi time travel, and included great plot holes, both literal and figurative. The audience loved it, and for many teens who have read her work, I can imagine it opened their eyes to the principle, “we all have to start somewhere.”

Libba warming up with some interpretive dance.

The last session I attended was with A.S. King (Ask the Passengers, Still Life with Tornado) and Zac Brewer (the Vladimir Tod series), who riffed with each other about the ills of our society and the things we are afraid to talk about, especially with teens. The librarian who attended with me said, “They’re like a walking PSA.” Which, indeed, they were, in all the right ways. Both addressed issues in their lives and how they deal with them in their own writing, and how it’s a shame that teens aren’t given the respect they deserve by adults when considering whether or not conversations should go there. So they went there, and it was glorious.

A.S. King giving zero f@*&s to the delight of all.

Zac on the right, because once the session began, I was so enthralled I forgot to get up and take a pic. Apologies, all around.

 

 

I’ve been to a number of festivals, as an author and as an attendee, and this one is truly worth putting on your calendar for next year, not solely because I’m hoping to be there as an author, but because it is everything a teen fest should be: a gathering of fabulous authors, who are there first and foremost for the teens, who deliver sessions that inspire, delight, and entertain.

I’m so glad that Albany High went and that they were kind enough to let me on board. Their book club is full of the kids who deserve a day like this, one that fosters lifelong reading in a world where attention to stories and our ever-expanding world is not only necessary, but vital.

I tip my hat to all who had a hand in making the Fest a reality. I’ll see you next year.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reality of Readers

It is very easy in this industry to lose sight of the fact that the majority of readership and the conversations about books exist in the real world. I am guilty of giving far too much attention to social media and online reviews, and forgetting the unbelievable importance of readers in the real world.

It’s an issue of reach. As an author, it seems like you’re reaching more when you are online, being social, and it feels as if EVERYONE will read that review. But that’s not true. Yes, lots of eyes will be on those things, but to what extent they care is impossible to measurable.

However, the readers I meet, the  ones who I have a chance to interact with, and spend some time just talking about story–and not just my stories–provide me a tangible sense of just how much books and my work matter to them.

Friday, this past week, I was fortunate enough to visit Hudson High school and present to various classes about my work, the day before the annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival. The students were great and we had fun together. That afternoon, I got to talk about my work, on air, with Ellen Hopkins, Jack Gantos, Crissa-Jean Chappell, and Laurie Stolarz. Another fabulous experience. But the best was the following day.

This was my third year at the festival and it was busier than I’ve ever seen it. People were there early and stayed late. I signed books steadily and talked to so many adults and teens about my work and writing and books in general. However, this year, two things were different.

One, so many teens who I had met the day before during my presentations in their classrooms, showed up to buy my books. Some specifically came to this event, which hosted over 75 authors, just to get my work. Yeah, those are readers, real, in the flesh, awesome people, who made the effort because we connected. And still others, who couldn’t attend because of prior commitments, sent mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters to get my books. This happened so much, I had only one copy of Dare Me left by the end of the festival. Unreal.

Two, Look Past was available this year. I had a few ARC copies last year, but that was it. This year I was able to get copies of that book into hands of those who were curious, and those, like Max, needed it. Max asked me to sign a copy of Look Past, and when I asked for his name, there was a moment of hesitation, and then he said, “I’m Max.” I began to sign, but heard the teens with Max reacting and asking if he was okay. I paused and looked up. Max was crying. I asked if everything was all right, and he said this was the first time he felt comfortable asking someone to refer to him as Max, and this was the absolute first book he had signed to him as such. The fact that it was Look Past was not lost on me. I made sure to give him props for asserting who he is, and circled his name a half-dozen times on that page in my book, which speaks volumes about his lived experience. “Powerful” doesn’t cut it as a description for a moment like that.

It’s why I write. For the stories, for the readers, those I will only meet virtually, and for those who will stand in front of me and say, “I love your work.”

So, thanks Hudson HS and the entire Hudson Children’s Book Fest crew for keeping such a wonderful event going. As much as it is a day for those readers, it is one for the authors, too. We live in this world, and it’s nice to be reminded that we are seen.

On writing about the Subject and not the Story

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s classic, On Writing, for like the twentieth time. If you’ve never read it, and even if you have no writerly aspirations, do so. If you ever want to write for a living, then definitely read it, along with Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird and Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Through re-reading King’s advice, I realized what I did wrong with my failed manuscript. I wrote about the subject matter of the story and not the story itself. That may seem like semantics, but the approach in storytelling matters. Instead of spending time with my characters, I asked my characters to spend time focusing on things I wanted them to discuss. Classic mistake.

The characters always guide.  They do what they want based on who they are as people and what motivations drive them. This makes them real, human, flawed, worth reading about.

This was not a pleasurable epiphany, but one I’m glad I had. And I bring it up because I believe in our current climate this type of scenario may happen with other writers and creative individuals. We are so infuriated with our current environment, we want to do something about it with the tools we have, words. But regardless of the skill set of the person wielding any tool, the approach is still everything.

If a carpenter built  “about a house” instead of actually building one, I’m not sure the results would be desirable. Same with writing. It’s perfectly fine to have a mental sense of what the story is about, but that’s only because of the action that’s taking place, the emotions on the page, the push and pull of characters as they move through this life they’re living.

I know you know this. I know I know this, but a little reminder can’t hurt.

And while I’m realizing things and making changes, I’ve also decided to put my YouTube channel to use. I have my book trailers there, but I also think it would be a great benefit to librarians trying to book talk my work, or to any reader who is researching who I am, to have a face with the name and stories. Therefore, I’m thinking of posting on Fridays, and for the next few weeks will cover my books, one at a time. After that, I’m open to any suggestions.

So, if you want to see where I write or what my outlines look like, or what books have most influenced my career, or how I get my inspiration, let me know. Do so here, via my email contact, or leave notes on my YouTube channel.

Additionally, there’s still time to win a copy of Look Past over at Goodreads, but make sure you enter before the clock runs out today.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the change of the season and the beginning of new things in your life, be them old things remembered, or new avenues to travel 😉