Me-Man

Commas matter, because without them, the phrase, “Don’t screw with me, man!” becomes “Don’t screw with Me Man!” And just like that, the super-egotistical pseudo-hero Me-Man is born!

——————————————————

Me-Man stood on the steps of City Hall, checking his hair in a small hand mirror. He ran his fingers through a tuft of his perfect blonde hair, polished his teeth with the tip of his tongue, then winked at his reflection and said, “You are gorgeous.”

A beeping sounded from his utility belt, me-me-me-me-me . . . me-me-me-me-me . . . Me-Man tucked the mirror back into its holster on his right hip and pulled out his cell phone. He struck a pose, chin held high, and held the phone to his ear. “Me-Man here,” he said. “Does someone need . . . me?”

He laughed at his own private joke. Of course they need me, he thought. I am fabulous.

“Me-Man!” the police chief shouted into the phone. “We need you downtown! There’s a hostage situation at Starbucks!”

“I’ll be right there,” Me-Man said. “You know you can always count on . . . me.”

Me-Man looked around the steps of city hall. It looked like his arch-nemesis, Dr. Social Anxiety, wouldn’t be showing up for their final showdown. Again. “Sorry, folks,” he said to the crowd gathered at the base of the steps. “Duty calls, and it looks like Doctor Too-Shy-To-Show-Up is . . . well, too shy to show up.”

He descended the steps, throwing his bright blue cape back over his shoulder. His insignia, a stylized depiction of his own face, grinned at the spectators from the back of the cape. He hopped on the me-torcycle and sped off, ready to save the day.

Me-Man arrived at Starbucks a short time later. The coffee shop was surrounded by police. They all turned to Me-Man as he approached. “Good day, gentlemen,” he said, dismounting from the me-torcycle. “Tell . . . me exactly what’s going on here?” He gave the police chief an up-nod and winked.

“Me-Man, thank goodness you’re here!” the police chief said. “There’s a man in there with a gun, and he’s going to kill the hostages if they don’t start serving Pumpkin Spice Latte year-round.”

“No problem, Chief,” Me-Man said, grinning. The light of the afternoon sun reflected off his shining teeth. “Sounds like the perfect job for . . . me.”

Me-Man strode forward and entered the Starbucks. The hostages and the wild criminal all turned towards him. “Me-Man!” the criminal shouted, pointing his gun at him. “You’ll never stop me! Not until the pumpkinny goodness is made available regardless of the season!”

“Now, now,” Me-Man said, waving his hands to calm the man down. “Let’s not do anything rash. Why, you wouldn’t shoot . . . me, would you? Just look at . . . me.”

The criminals wild eyes focused on Me-Man’s magnificent hair, his shining teeth, and his cleft chin.

“That’s right,” Me-Man said, raising his chin and planting his fists on his hips. “Take  . . . me in.”

The criminal looked over Me-Man’s magnificent uniform, his spiffy utility belt, his perfectly-formed dimples, and the stylized Me-Man face emblazoned across his chest. He was mesmerized.

While Me-Man held the crazy man in his thrall, the police came in and freed the hostages. Then they took the criminal’s gun and handcuffed him. The criminal was so fixated on Me-Man that he didn’t resist.

“Thank you, Me-Man,” the police chief said, clapping Me-Man on his magnificent shoulder. “You’ve done it again.”

“Any time, my slightly inferior friend,” Me-Man said, patting the chief on his round belly. “It’s all in a day’s work for  . . . me.”

He looked up at the sky, the sun shining on his golden hair, the wind rustling his cape. He winked.

“It’s good to be . . . me.”

Advertisements

Inspiration vs Hard Work

Today I sat for awhile trying to figure out what this blog post would be about. I even went to Twitter and a few different people tried to offer up suggestions about what I should write about. The suggestions led to the question I’m exploring today: What is the balance between inspiration and hard work in your writing?

How many miles is it until Inspiration?
How many miles is it until Inspiration?

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that you can’t wait for your Muse to come to you. Instead you need to sit down every day and work, so that when your Muse decides to show up, she’ll know where to find you. This philosophy makes a lot of sense to me, since I know I can’t always sit around waiting on inspiration. It’s better to start working, get the words moving on the page, and wait for things to start flowing.

However, there’s another view to consider here. When I was getting read to work on this blog post, I brought up the fact that I’m supposed to be sticking to a blogging schedule. The schedule is designed around the idea I mentioned above, that you need to sit down and work regularly instead of waiting for inspiration to show up. But when I brought this up, my Twitter friend Ash said, “I would rather read something that was clearly inspired than something put out just because today is Thursday.” This leads to an interesting contradiction that I think is worth exploring. Is the “work hard every day” idea worth it if all you end up writing is crap?

Of course, everyone knows that the first draft of anything is crap. Even Ernest Hemingway said so.

The first draft of this quote was also shit.
The first draft of this quote was also shit.

But, of course, we mustn’t forget revisions. The Mythbusters proved you CAN polish a turd, so you can definitely turn your shitty first draft into something brilliant. I’ve gone through a huge amount of revisions myself, while working on Manifestation, and the final draft is in many ways unrecognizable from the first. So in the “inspiration vs hard work” debate, I’m firmly on board with the idea that you should sit down and do the hard work every day. After all, you can’t revise that shitty draft until you at least finish writing it. It’s better, in my opinion, to keep writing and get it done so that you at least have a finished product you can work on improving.

But WAIT . . . what about blog posts? I don’t know about you, but I don’t revise blog posts. When I post a poem, a short story, or an article on the blog, those things have usually gone through several drafts to get them in the best shape possible. But a regular blog post (like the one you’re reading now) is always written as a single stream of consciousness, one draft, then posted. Aside from the embarrassing typos and errors I sometimes find in a blog post, this raises another issue: If I intend for every blog post to be a single draft, does the “write a crappy first draft” idea of hard work before inspiration still work?

Not sure if this picture is relevant, or a non-sequitur.
Not sure if this picture is relevant, or a non-sequitur.

Of course, a blog post isn’t ever going to be as lovingly-crafted as a novel. I can’t be expected to put the kind of effort into a blog post as I do the book that I’ve spent two years working on. Blog posts are also free, so from a “risk vs reward” perspective, there’s not much to worry about if one blog post turns out to be crappy. The reader can move on with no real loss. (That’s not to say I don’t want my readers to have quality posts to read, but there’s certainly not as much at stake.) I also know from all the blogs I’m subscribed to that it’s easy to pick and choose which posts you want to read. I get email notifications for at least twenty blogs each week, but I probably only read maybe 1/3 of the posts that go up. Usually it involves reading the title and skimming the first paragraph to see if I’m interested in reading more. If I am, I go to the page and read the whole thing. If not, I wait for the next email and hope the post will be more interesting.

So does the combination of free content, low threshold of commitment, and rapid production of new posts excuse the occasional crappy post? In other words, is it okay to put out an uninspired post “just because it’s Thursday,” based on the hope that sitting down to work hard will get the inspiration flowing? Or does the lack of revision mean that a blog post shouldn’t go up unless there was a lot of inspiration behind it?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. I do know that some of my blog posts tend to be extremely popular, while others end up getting no attention at all. That could simply be because some are more interesting than others, or it might be a sign that on some days, my Muse was with me, and other days, I was just churning out a crappy first draft.

I’m curious to hear what other bloggers think about this, and whether or not you also have days you feel like you “just have to” write a blog post because it’s your scheduled day to do so. Do those posts end up coming out as shit? Do you shrug it off and remember that there’s three more blog posts coming next week, so the crappy one can be swept under the rug? Or do you actually plan out, outline, and revise your blog posts, instead of writing them as a stream of consciousness?

The Pizza Hut Diaries

            I never made the choice to become a manager at Pizza Hut. That choice was made for me by a police officer at the intersection of RT 47 and Donald Barger Blvd in Glassboro, NJ, during the autumn of 1999.

            I started working at Pizza Hut a year before. I hadn’t wanted to get a restaurant job at all, after the bad experiences I’d had in the past. I had just recently quit a job at KFC, after a long, greasy summer that left me tired every day. I was sick of coming home smelling like food and covered in flour. When I got my first car, a bright green ’94 Geo Tracker, I decided I could expand my job options beyond the local restaurants in walking distance of home. I started driving around searching for quiet, clean retail establishments where I could fill out job applications. Since I had just started school at Rowan University, I expanded my search to the Glassboro area, hoping to find a job within a reasonable driving distance of school.

            I wouldn’t have walked into the Pizza Hut on RT 47 if not for the sign hanging out front: “Now Hiring Delivery Drivers – $10-$18/hour.” Having just come from a minimum wage job making $5.50 an hour, this was a huge opportunity. I decided to give the pizza place a shot. After all, I figured, I wouldn’t get all that greasy or smelly just delivering the pizzas, as long as I wasn’t stuck cooking them.

            Delivering pizza was the easiest, most profitable job I ever had. On an eight hour shift, I probably spent less than an hour actually in the store. The majority of my time was spent on the road. I got to drive around town with the windows down, the radio playing, the sunroof on my Geo flipped open, and my sunglasses on. I could stop at a fast food place or a Wawa if I didn’t have time between deliveries to eat at my store. I could hang out on campus when I delivered pizzas to all of the college kids. I got invited into frat parties when I delivered to them, and as the Pizza Man, I was always escorted to the head of the keg line. I accepted liquor and beer as tips, even though I was only 19. I rationalized my drinking and driving by telling myself that just having one or two wouldn’t hurt me. Luckily, I wasn’t drinking the first time a cop pulled me over during a delivery.

            The first time I ever got pulled over, in spring of ’99, I was speeding through Pitman, trying to get back and forth on deliveries as fast as possible. The faster I got back from a delivery, the more orders I could take and the more tips I would earn. Going 43 in a 25 didn’t seem like a big deal. I hadn’t realized at the time how much of my tips would be wasted when I had to pay a ticket. Luckily, the cop who pulled me over that first time took sympathy on me, and gave me a “failure to observe sign” ticket instead of a speeding ticket. The fine wasn’t too high (though it cost me that whole day’s tips), and there were no points involved.

            I told myself I would start driving slower. That I wouldn’t go more than five miles an hour over the speed limit. This decision lasted about a week, then I was back to cruising along with the top down, not a care in the world.

            I racked up the tips all year long, loving my job. I finished my first year of college, and kept on delivering pizza full time during the summer break. Some of the other delivery drivers left when the summer started, and only a few came back when the fall semester started. Summer was mostly dead, since the majority of our business came from the nearby college. When students can pay for pizza on their meal plan, the local dorms become a hot spot for deliveries. During the school year, I’d be taking six orders at a time to each dorm building. During summer, however, deliveries were few and far between. I spent a lot more time in the store, and started learning how to cook pizzas and take phone orders, just for something to do in between deliveries. By the time autumn rolled around again, I had been working at Pizza Hut for a year, and I had learned how to perform most of the tasks in the store. I could cook, do prep work, take care of customers, and even direct the other drivers on where they were going on deliveries.

            I was always eager to get back on the road, though. I’d pop into the kitchen for ten minutes, help the cooks get caught up, then be off as soon as a pizza came out of the oven. I never got another traffic ticket on the clock at Pizza Hut, but I also didn’t learn my lesson. I kept an eye out for the cops, slowed down on the streets I knew they frequently patrolled, and learned the timing of the local traffic lights so I always knew how much time I had to make a yellow light. I managed to avoid any trouble while I was on deliveries. As it turned out, however, the life-changing ticket came when I was off the clock.

            That autumn, I took an art class at Rowan. It was a required gen ed, a class I had no interest in whatsoever. It was also the only class I was taking that didn’t require a $60 text book. Instead, the art teacher gave us a list of supplies we’d need for our projects: paint and brushes, spray paint, poster board, and a pack of 3’x5’ index cards. I was trying to save money, and didn’t want to buy these supplies in the Rowan bookstore. I decided to shop around and look for a discount. When I thought about where I could buy the poster board and index cards, I remembered an office supply store one block away from my Pizza Hut.

            I headed straight from class to that store, heading through an intersection I’d driven through a thousand times on deliveries. As I was approaching the light, I noticed a cop in the nearby parking lot. Wary of getting another ticket, I tapped my brakes and wondered, How fast am I going? This decision turned out to be a crucial mistake, since a moment later, the traffic light turned yellow.

            I floored it on reflex, trying to make the light. I’d done this hundreds of times at this exact same light, and if I hadn’t hit the brakes just a moment before, I would have cleared the light fine. When the cop pulled up behind me in the office store parking lot, I told him, “I thought I’d make the light.”

            “You didn’t quite make it,” he told me as he wrote the ticket. “That’s why I was sitting there today. We’re cracking down on people running that light.”

            I got lucky again and was given a lesser citation, one that didn’t put any points on my license. I didn’t think it was that bad. I paid my fine and move on with my life. It took another three months after the ticket before the real consequences reached me.

            One day when it was getting close to Christmas, my Assistant Manager, Dave, pulled me aside with some bad news. “We ran your MVR,” he said. “You can’t deliver anymore.”

            I was confused, and protested. He explained. Pizza Hut has a rule. If a delivery driver has two “moving violations” within a year, they aren’t allowed to drive for the company any more. It doesn’t matter if the tickets had points, or what the specific violations were. Anything that happens while you’re driving your car counts. Unbeknownst to me, the management ran a check on every driver’s license, a Motor Vehicle Report, every six months. Mine came back flagged because of my violations.

            I entered a mild panic. I needed this job. Not because of my bills; I was only paying my car insurance and gas each month, and didn’t even have a cell phone yet. But I had gotten used to having spending money, and I have managed to save up $9000 over the course of the past year, money which I was setting aside for my future. The prospect of going back to a minimum wage job didn’t appeal to me. Not at all.

            I was considering what other pizza places in the area I could apply to, perhaps Domino’s or Papa John’s, when my general manager pulled me into the office. “We’d like you to stay,” he said. “I can use you as a cook, train you on the phones. We can work something out. Then in a few months, we run your MVR again, and if it comes up clean, you can go back to driving.”

            I considered the offer. I already knew cooking and order taking, though it would be a bit different doing these things full time. But I wavered; I liked my job, and I liked my coworkers, but I was only making $6 per hour if I lost my tips. When I hesitated, my boss offered me a raise, increasing my pay to $6.50. An 8% pay increase wouldn’t quite make up for the lost tips, but as raises went, it was a generous offer. I decided to stay, figuring if things didn’t work out I could still look for another delivery job someplace else.

            My schedule changed. I started working weekend mornings instead of nights, and I was trained in how to make pizza dough. I’d come in at 8 am to start mixing and rolling dough, and still be doing it until around 3:00 or 4:00 pm. My store was one of the busiest Pizza Huts there was, and we sold hundreds upon hundreds of pizzas each day. We even won two awards that year, for Highest Sales and Highest Sales Growth, beating out every other Pizza Hut in the east coast region.

            After finishing dough on the weekends, I was sent up front to help answer the phones, help customers, and cut pizzas as they came out of the oven. I also worked up front on weeknights, after I got done classes at Rowan. With how busy our store was, there would be at least half a dozen people behind the counter, just to take care of phones and carryout customers. Mostly, though, I stayed at the oven, cutting pizzas. This was a two-man job at our store. Our pizza oven had been replaced earlier that year, because the old oven had just been too small to keep up with the volume of orders we got from Rowan students. The new oven was a double-decker, triple-wide monster that fed pizzas through on a conveyor belt. At any given time on a busy Friday or Saturday night, there could easily be as many as 40 pizzas in the oven at a time, not to mention trays of breadsticks, wings, and garlic bread. If the person cutting pizzas didn’t keep up with the flow of cooked food coming out at the end of the conveyor belt, pans could get pushed off by the other pizzas coming up from behind. Slower cutters either had to pull pizzas out and set them to the side just to clear them out of the way, or else risk pans falling to the floor and splattering hot cheese and sauce everywhere.

            When I was cutting, I had a system to keep up with the flow. An assistant to my right would prep the box while I grabbed a pan with a pair of metal tongs. I had perfected the flick of the wrist it took to flip the pizza out of the pan and onto the cutting board in one smooth motion. I then hacked the pizza into six, eight, or twelve slices, depending on the size, using a blade the size of a Klingon Bat’leth. I then slid it into the box, and the assistant sent it off where it needed to go. He worried about whether the order was for dine-in, carryout, or delivery. All I did was cut.

            At any given moment, there could be anywhere from six to twelve pizzas nearing the edge of the conveyor belt. They would all have to be cut within thirty to forty-five seconds to prevent a backup. That left me, on average, about four seconds to cut each pizza. And I could do it; I was fast. I was like a ninja wielding the pizza cutter, focused on keeping up with the flow. I didn’t worry about customers, I just cut. I didn’t answer phones, I cut. I didn’t get to take a bathroom break, I just cut. This usually lasted from around 5:30 pm until at least 9:00 pm, when it would finally slow down.

            Over time, I started realizing that we needed to maintain a strict level of organization in the front counter area. Otherwise, we would never be able to keep up. There were half a dozen tasks that had to be done between 4:00 to 5:00, before the main dinner rush hit. The managers never had time to worry about these things; one would be swamped dealing with the delivery drivers, another would be helping the cooks, and another would be in the dining room, helping with customers. That left the counter crew alone, with no leadership. I had to step up. When I first arrived, I would set my coworkers on the various tasks that needed to be done: folding cardboard boxes for the pizza; stocking up on tin foil, wax paper, and those little plastic box supports; prepping sauce cups for breadstick boxes and ranch cups for wings; and making sure everything was clean and sanitary. My coworkers got so used to me asking them to help with such things that when I entered the store, they would ask me, “What needs to get done?”

            After awhile, they got so used to asking me what they needed to do that they came to me when problems arose. If there was a customer complaint, and no manager was around, I would have to deal with it. Often, this meant handing the pizza Bat’leth to my assistant, helping a customer, then rushing back to relieve the overwhelmed cutter as soon as I could. I started making command decisions that I had no authority to do, such as discounting a customer’s order when a mistake had been made. I had peeked at the manager’s computer password, and I used it myself when I needed to authorize a discount. By the time I started nearing my deadline, the date when my first ticket would no longer be on my MVR, I was essentially a manager in everything but name.

            Then one day, my boss asked me, “Did you ever think about becoming a manager?”

            I hesitated. The truth was, yes, I HAD thought about it. I thought that it would be a terrible idea. I thought that the managers were under far too much stress; over the past year, I had seen six assistant managers quit, two of whom had walked out in the middle of a shift. I also knew delivery drivers made more money than the managers. All I wanted to do was get back to being a driver, and back to making a fortune in tips.

            So when my manager asked me if I’d thought about becoming a manager, I said, “Well, I’ve thought about it . . .”

            A week later he pulled me aside and said, “Okay! I signed you up for the next management training seminar.”

            This would prove to be the beginning of the end.

* * *

            The training class was a two-day seminar that included all of the new manager trainees throughout the entire South Jersey region. After the initial training class, each trainee was sent for an eight week “hands-on” training period in a store in their home district. I was transferred to the training store in Berlin, working for Ted Hobbs, known throughout the local franchise as “Two-faced Ted.” During my first meeting with the other trainees at the regional training seminar, people had flinched when they heard I was being sent to the Berlin store.

            “Here are the words that come to mind when I hear the name ‘Ted Hobbs,’” one of the other trainees had told me. “Asshole. Scumbag. Two-faced. Pig.”

            I was worried, but decided to give Ted a chance. After all, it would only be for eight weeks, and only four days a week at that. On Friday nights I would be training in the Washington Township store, which was the store I’d be transferred to permanently at the end of my training. Working there one day a week was meant to help me get to know the new crew and how their store ran.

            The training in Berlin turned out to be worse than I’d thought. Ted Hobbs was a liar, a cheat, and a passive aggressive asshole. Most of my “training” days were spent making pizzas, mixing dough, and sweeping cigarette butts out of the parking lot; things I’d done as a regular employee, and things which didn’t teach me anything about how to run a store. I quickly realized that Ted was using me as “free labor”; my pay during the training period came from a district-wide training budget, not from Ted’s labor costs for his store. By scheduling me to work as a cook during his shifts, he could save labor costs by cutting hours from his regular employees. And since there were two other trainees there at the same time I was, he was saving himself about 90 hours a week in labor costs.

            At the end of the eight weeks of training—eight weeks I couldn’t wait to be done with—I had to sit down with the District Manager for a final interview. The District Manager, Rick, ran eight different stores in our area. He said that the final interview was his way of making sure he could be confident that I was ready to be a manager in one of his stores.

            We met in the newly built, but not yet open for business Pizza Hut in Deptford. I had to take a written test first, answering questions about what I had learned during my training. It was mostly made of multiple choice questions about how to handle certain customer service issues, how to react in an emergency, how to handle disgruntled employees, and how to reconcile problems in the daily cash count.

            After the written test, Rick asked me some questions to see if I was ready. Many of the answers I was able to quote almost word for word, having memorized them from my training manuals. I have a memory that lets me recall such things verbatim even years later. When Rick asked me what “L.A.S.T.” meant when helping a dissatisfied customer, I quoted, “Listen to the customer, Ask for more information, Satisfy their concerns, and Thank them for bringing the problem to my attention.” When he asked me what “C.H.A.M.P.S.” stands for, I quoted, “Cleanliness, Hospitality, Accuracy, Maintenance, Product Quality, and Speed.” When he asked me what toppings go on a Supreme Pizza, I rattled off the list, “Pepperoni, beef, pork, green peppers, red onions, and mushrooms.” I kept quoting everything with such accuracy that by the end of the interview, he had called me a Walking Procedures Manual. He also said that I was the strongest trainee to come through the new training program since they had implemented it a few years before.

            I remember thinking to myself, Yeah, because I taught myself. The rest of the trainees had to deal with this douchebag training manager. I couldn’t wait to be away from Ted Hobbs and his two-faced manipulations and illegal activities.

            As the interview came to an end, Rick said, “I think you’re ready. I’ll be glad to have you in one of my stores. But now I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

            I tensed up. Nothing about this experience so far had gone well. First I had been strong-armed into becoming a manager, then I’d found out Rick had low-balled me on my pay (I was only being paid $8 per hour when other starting managers earned $8.50), and then I’d been stuck for eight weeks of “training” with Ted Hobbs, who had disappeared for four weeks of it to go on paternity leave. I just wanted to go back to being a driver.

            “I know you’ve been working Fridays in the Washington Township store,” he said. “And I know you’ve gotten to know everyone there, and you were expecting to be working there when your training was done.” What I really wanted, but didn’t mention, was to be sent back to my home store in Glassboro. Rick didn’t like a manager to work in the same store they’d come from, since all of the other employees there were used to seeing you as their equal, rather than their boss. “But I’ve got a problem. We just lost a manager in the Clementon store, and that’s a much busier store. I really need someone there. Do you think you could go there instead?”

            I only hesitated for a moment. After all, by then I was used to being sent where the company wanted me without really having much say in it. “Sure,” I said. “If that’s what you need.” I hadn’t wanted to be a manager to begin with. They weren’t likely to send me back to Glassboro any time soon. What difference did it make which store they sent me to?

            I was completely unprepared for what was ahead.

            In fall of 2000, I was transferred to the Pizza Hut in Clementon, New Jersey. It was a sorely understaffed establishment. When I first arrived, there were already too few drivers, servers, and cooks, and only one dishwasher. They were also short on managers, which is why I was sent there. What made it even worse, however, was that the General Manager was leaving on sick leave only a week after I arrived. He had been in a bar fight some time before, and had to have surgery performed on his wrist (as I understood it, he had broken his wrist on some other guy’s face). For six weeks, my new store would be running without a leader.

            For the first couple of weeks, the only managers were myself and the Senior Assistant Manager, Carol. We were both working double shifts to cover the entire week, in a store that should have had at least four managers on staff. Two weeks into my time there, another manager joined our team, but like me, she was fresh out of training. Unlike me, she hadn’t managed to complete the training herself; Ted Hobbs has only taught her about 1/3 of what she needed to know, and she showed up on her first day with her training manuals in hand, expecting to finish them later and learn the rest on the job. Since the store was so short-handed, I ended up being the one teaching her most of what she had missed in training.

            People in the Clementon store often quit after they’d only been working there for a week, and I often yearned to be one of those people. There weren’t many left who had been there for any memorable length of time, though there were some that would always remain memorable. Arthur was one of them.

            Arthur was our dishwasher; the only dishwasher we had, even though the store was busy enough that there should have been at least three or four to cover days, nights, and weekends. Arthur had been the dishwasher there since before I came to work in Clementon, and as far as I know, he continued working there long after I was gone.

            Arthur was mentally handicapped. This made it very difficult to talk to him. He was, in many ways, like a child, even though he was a grown man in his sixties. You could hand him a stack of dishes and he would hold it, very carefully, with both wrinkled hands. He would carry the dishes in front of him as he took slow steps to the dishwasher, then set them down on the counter and lift each one, one at a time, to examine it. His mouth often moved and made a sound not quite like speaking, but more like the spark of communication you see in a child before they learn words. He could understand you well enough to follow directions, but working with him always took great care. He would never quite look at you; he always stood hunched over, his graying head bowed and tilted away from you as if he were trying not to be seen. I never knew quite how to talk to him. He was good at his job, though, and that was what counted.

            Working in this store was stressful for all of us, but it was hardest on Arthur. He sometimes had panic attacks. They usually came when the dishes piled up too high and he became overwhelmed. Sometimes the stacks of dishes were piled so high in the dish room that they formed a wall, blocking off all sight. I think Arthur felt trapped by that wall. He would pace back and forth, moaning and hitting himself in the head. We would have to clear the dishes out and give him time to relax so that he wouldn’t feel so trapped.

            The problems were worse on the night shift. The busy dinner rush meant a lot of dishes, usually more than Arthur could keep up with. He was good at handling the dishes without breaking them, but he needed to take his time, and couldn’t be rushed. Night shifts at a busy pizza place are always rushed. It certainly isn’t the place to take your time.

            We eventually moved Arthur to the day shift. Lunchtime was always slower, and he was better able to keep up with the work load. Of course, this left us without a single dishwasher on the busy nights, since any time we hired one they quit before long. Dishes would often pile up from 5:00, when we started the dinner rush, until midnight, when we closed. There just wouldn’t be time to send anyone back there before closing time, unless deliveries slowed down enough that we could send a driver back.

            It was for the best, though. Arthur was happier once he was freed from the stresses of the night shift, and it was easier for the rest of us not having to handle his attacks. Despite all of his problems, however, Arthur may have been the best employee we had. He stuck it out, through all the hard times. Unlike the other employees, he never called up and quit on us. Unlike me, he never walked out in the middle of a shift.

            I almost quit on the day Rick told me they were rearranging the districts. The company had promoted a new District manager, he said, and they were forming a new district for him to run. Each of the seven surrounding districts in the area was losing one store, dropping them all down from eight stores to seven, and those stores were being made into the new district. The store Rick was losing was the Berlin store. The one I had trained in. The one Ted Hobbs worked for.

            Our GM was scheduled to come back from his sick leave that week. When I asked where he would be going, Rick told me he was being transferred to the Washington Township store; the same store I was originally going to transfer to. Ted Hobbs was being pulled out of the Berlin store and sent to Clementon. After asking around and talking to some of the other managers in the district, I found out why: Ted Hobbs and Rick were best friends, and that was the only reason (so it was said) that Ted still had a job. Rather than leaving him to work under, and perhaps get fired by, another District Manager, he was being transferred to stay in Rick’s district.

            One of our servers came up to me the day the transfer was announced. “Am I going to have to quit?” she asked. “I’ve been here for seven years.” She had heard the same stories about Ted Hobbs that I had, and wanted to know if they were as bad as she’d heard. After working with Ted for eight weeks (well, four, since he was on paternity leave for half of my training period), I knew all of the bad stories about him were true. I didn’t have any assurances to give her.

            More people quit. We had to hire more replacements, and half of our crew was inexperienced and incompetent. I called my old GM from my home store in Glassboro, asking him what I should do. He told me to stick it out. “I’ve been trying to get Rick to send you back here,” he told me on the phone. “I keep telling him how hard it’s been to run this store without you here, how I need you back.” I told him I’d try to wait it out.

            On October 31st, 2000, I quit my job.

            I didn’t go Trick-or-Treating that day, not because I was too old for it (you’re never too old for Halloween), but because I was working the worst day of my career as a manager at Pizza Hut. I was stuck in a store with not enough help and too many customers. I only had one server waiting tables (the other three that were supposed to be there had called out). I only had one cook making pizzas, and it was her first week in the store. I only had one delivery driver (one had called out, a second just didn’t show up, and a third called me to say he was quitting because “he wasn’t making enough money”). I tried to call the Ted, who was coming in later to do inventory, to come in early to help. He refused and said “You’ll be fine.” That left just me, an exhausted, undertrained, underpaid manager, with three employees that ranged from incompetent to just not giving a crap.

            I unplugged the phone when the orders were rolling in faster than we could keep up with. Since the phones were down, an angry customer decided to come down to the store and scream at me in person, while I was holding a heavy stack of filthy dishes (we didn’t have a dishwasher either). I stood there, clutching a stack of plates and greasy pizza pans, and decided it wasn’t worth it anymore, doing this job for not much above minimum wage.

            I locked the doors, preventing any new customers from coming in and allowing those who left to exit through the main doors that could be set to only open from the inside, locking automatically behind each customer after they left. I gathered my three coworkers around me and told them, “I’m quitting. I’m locking everything up, counting the cash in the register so I don’t get in trouble for missing money, locking it all in the safe, and then I’m leaving.”

            The cook panicked, uncertain how to react when her boss said he was quitting on her third day. The driver just laughed (he was probably stoned). The server gave me a high five and said, “All right! I’m quitting too!”

            When the cook asked what she was supposed to do, I told her, “Ted will be here in a couple of hours to do inventory. Just find something to clean until then. You won’t get in trouble.” Ever since he’d become our new general manager, Ted had been manipulating the inventory counts to cover up losses and hide the fact that the store was losing hundreds of dollars a week in wasted cheese (most of which got spilled on the floor while the cooks were too busy to be careful).

            The server went back to waiting on the few remaining customers until they all exited the store. The driver went in the back to do dishes. The cook fumbled about, unsure of herself. I counted the cash, made sure to account for every penny, and locked it in the safe. I left a nice, nasty note for Two-faced Ted in the manager’s log book (the one that remains a part of permanent store records), letting him know just what I thought about him and his horrible managerial skills. He was also covering up cash losses from the register and manipulating labor costs to hide violations.

            I was about to leave when my server came rushing back and said, “Two parties of eight just walked in! What do we do?”

            Two parties. Eight people each. Both walked in the door at the same time. While the front doors remained locked from the inside, one of the earlier customers had unlocked the side door and exited that way. The side door didn’t lock behind someone when they left.

            I paused for a moment, considering it. I had already recorded my exodus on the managerial log. I was committed. So I shrugged and said, “I’ll go talk to them.”

            I walked up to the first party, clasped my hands before me in a very professional stance, and said, “I’m very sorry, but we won’t be able to serve you tonight. I’m quitting, and my server is quitting. So we won’t be able to help you.”

            A confused woman, presumably mother of the teens she had brought in, stared at me in shock and asked, “What? What are we supposed to do?”

            I shrugged and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Maybe if you call another Pizza Hut in the area and explain to them what happened, they’ll offer you a discount or some free food as an apology. Or my cook will still be here, maybe she can make you something. But I’m quitting, so I can’t help you. Have a nice day.”

            I then walked around to the other side of the dining room and gave the same speech to the second party.

            My server and I left, shook hands, and never looked back. The last thing I saw that night was the cook, on her third day, frantically trying to deal with sixteen confused and angry customers who wanted to know why the manager had just walked out.

            I saw Two-faced Ted just one more time, when I dropped off my uniform and picked up my last paycheck. He didn’t say a single word to me when we exchanged clothing and check, but I’ll never forget the look on his face.

Six Christmases

I sat on the steps at my aunt’s house the Sunday after Christmas, 1992. I held my Christmas gift in my lap and watched the rest of my family mingle at the annual family Christmas party and exchange gifts. My little sister, Amy, was with a group of my cousins. They passed presents back and forth that they had bought with their allowances. Amy had also received a Pollyanna gift from one of my aunts; since our extended family was so large, my mom and each of my eight aunts drew names from a hat each year, and each one bought Pollyanna presents for the nieces and nephews whose names they’d drawn. I got a gift from my Aunt Marm, who had drawn my name. Amy got a gift from Aunt Cathy, plus others from our cousins, plus more from my Aunt Claire and Uncle John, who were also Amy’s godparents, and had gotten her a gift even though they hadn’t drawn her name that year.

My Pollyanna gift was a “Philadelphia Eagles” sweatshirt that was a size too small. I had tried it on, but didn’t bother telling anyone that it didn’t fit. Even if my Aunt Marm returned it and bought a new one, it wouldn’t have mattered. I hated football, had no interest in the Eagles, and couldn’t stand getting clothes for Christmas. I never understood what motivated my aunts and grandparents to get a twelve year old boy clothes for Christmas. So I sat and held the gift in my lap while I watched my little sister and my cousins exchange presents with each other. While I’d gotten other Christmas gifts from my immediate family on Christmas morning at home, at the big family party the sweatshirt was it.

Later in the day, a commotion erupted between my mother and my older sister, Dana. I didn’t witness most of it; I was still sitting on the steps, and all I heard was my mom shouting from the kitchen. Then Dana screamed and cursed at her before running out of the kitchen and upstairs. She locked herself in my Aunt Cathy’s room. Aunt Sharon, the youngest and “coolest” of my aunts, followed her to offer comfort.

I didn’t know what had happened, but I was pretty sure it related to the fact that Dana was pregnant at the age of 15, something the rest of the family didn’t yet know. Mom was trying to convince her to have an abortion. I later found out that the reason for today’s fight was because Dana showed up at the party wearing her Christmas gift from her boyfriend: a gold necklace that read “World’s Greatest Mom.” My mother had seen it, freaked out that the rest of the family would find out her daughter was pregnant, and snatched it from Dana’s neck. Before anyone could stop her, she had thrown it down the garbage disposal and hit the switch, grinding the necklace to bits. I didn’t much care for Dana’s boyfriend (a few years later they would break up, and he would later end up in jail for statutory rape of a girl even younger than my sister). But even though I didn’t like him, I couldn’t imagine what it felt like for Dana to watch as her mother destroyed the first Christmas present he had given her.

I sat on the steps and didn’t say anything about the fight. I usually didn’t get involved in these things. My mom surely didn’t want me telling the rest of the family that I knew Dana was pregnant. She had tried to hide it from me, but I had figured it out pretty easily when Dana moved out of Mom’s house and moved in with Dad. Mom had lied about the pregnancy, and said, “Your sister is feeling sick, and she’ll come back home as soon as she feels better.”

Dad was the one who told me the truth a week later; the truth I’d already figured out on my own. I didn’t blame Dana for moving in with Dad, though. If I’d been the one in that situation, I would have moved in with Dad, too. When Dana had her first broken heart at the age of 14, my mother had laughed at her tears and told her that she didn’t know what love was. Dana stopped going to her for help after that.

The fight at Christmas wasn’t the end of things between Dana and Mom. After the holiday, Mom took Dana on a cruise, just the two of them, so they “could have time to talk.” Later, Dana told me that on the cruise Mom said, “When I got pregnant in college, my mother told me ‘Well, you’re gonna get married.’ No one ever told me I had a choice.” Dana said that those words made her realize that if Mom had been given a choice, Dana never would have been born. I suppose I wouldn’t have been either.

Dana went into labor the next April, two months premature. We went down to the hospital, but Dana didn’t want Mom in the delivery room. I got the chance to see her for just a few minutes, fragile and scared, a kid with braces on her teeth about to have a premature baby. My mother called the police to try to force her way into the room against the doctor’s orders. She stood in the hall, screaming at the doctors and the police, demanding to be let in, despite being told that the stress would make it worse for Dana.

Eventually, after long hours on drugs intended to hold off labor, the doctors decided that continuing with the delivery was safer than trying to hold it off any longer. My niece, Ariana, spent her first days in an incubator with plastic tubes up her nose while the doctors tried to keep her pink, shriveled body alive.

Dana finally agreed to let Mom see Ariana in the incubator. After all the arguing and fighting, Mom stood there next to Dana, looking down at the tiny, struggling baby, and said, “I hope she doesn’t die.”

 

Early in 2002, I was fighting with my mother. I had dropped out of college, and I was barely holding a job. I slept in most days, lacking the energy to be bothered to get up and do anything. I had gotten fired from a job as a cook at Friendly’s when I called out because I couldn’t be bothered to drive through the snow to get there. I’d gotten a new job cooking at another local bar and grill, but I wasn’t particularly motivated and I was barely pulling part time hours.

My mother kept hounding me to get back into school, without bothering to ask why I had stopped going to begin with. All she was worried about was the money thrown away on tuition, not caring that it had gone towards a major I wasn’t motivated in for a career path I no longer cared about. Eventually, after one too many arguments, my mother told me that I either needed to get back into school or else get a full time job and start paying her rent. I decided I’d rather pay rent to someone else, and that if I was going to move out, it’d be to someplace warm. I packed everything up on a whim one day late February and drove five days cross country to move to San Francisco.

For the next year I lived alone in California in a studio apartment with just enough room for my bed and my computer desk. I had a second chair in case company ever came over, but none ever did. There wasn’t enough room for a Christmas tree, but since I was spending Christmas alone, I didn’t bother even trying to squeeze one in.

Christmas that year consisted of phone calls to my family, three thousand miles away on the east coast. My parents each sent me gift cards for Target and Best Buy, since it was cheaper and easier than paying shipping for actual gifts. They had been divorced since I was ten, so as usual their gifts were separate. My mom’s gift card came with a Hallmark card, and she’d written a long note in it about how she couldn’t understand why things were so rough between us. We hadn’t spoken much since I moved out, and I didn’t care to keep her updated on my new life.

On top of the gift card he send, my dad mailed me a box of Whitman’s Sampler candy, which had been our traditional stocking stuffer my entire life. The only actual gift I got that year that wasn’t a gift card was from Dana. She sent me “Kingdom Hearts” for Playstation, and wisely included a gift receipt. After I received the gift, I called her up, told her how much I loved the game, and how I had already bought it for myself a week before and had been playing it since.

I ended up trading the extra copy in for the special edition DVD collection of “Back to the Future.”

 

By 2003, I had left California. The rent was just too expensive, over $1,000 for a tiny studio apartment. I had friends in the Seattle, Washington area, and I had heard good things about that region. I ended up moving up there, where I found an apartment twice the size for half the rent.

My family sent me gift cards that year, but I didn’t send anything back. I was $12,000 in credit card debt, most of it from living expenses related to my time in California, along with moving expenses for the thousand-mile move up north. I was working full time at Burger King and barely scraping by on minimum wage. Working in a restaurant was the only way I was able to feed myself; all of my coworkers were in equally bad situations, so we helped each other sneak food out of the kitchen without the manager finding out. I was living mostly on French fries and chicken sandwiches, plus the occasional sausage biscuit for breakfast.

I didn’t end up alone for Christmas that year, however. I was seeing a girl named Crystal, who I had met when I was still living in New Jersey. We’d started a long distance relationship in the summer of 2003, and she had flown out to visit me for a couple of weeks in July. She decided to plan another trip for Christmas, and this time she brought her family along.

Crystal had a timeshare that let her book stays at a number of different resorts around the country. She booked a cabin at a mountain resort about an hour east of Seattle. She flew up with her mother and her teenage brother, and they rented a car for the week. I was too busy working during the week to spend much time with her, but I had a three-day weekend for Christmas, and I spent it at the resort.

When I got to the resort, I gave Crystal the only gift I gave to anyone that year. The Burger King I was working at had been selling Christmas ornaments based on “The Cat in the Hat” characters, as part of the promotion for the movie that came out that year. I’d won a set of them at work as a prize for being the only cook in the restaurant who kept proper track of when the pre-cooked food went bad and had to be thrown out. Of course, I’d been cheating the timers on the food warmers, but the manager never found that out. Without any money to buy any other gift, I gave the ornaments to Crystal. When I told her they had been a prize, it made her cry. She said she was touched that I would give her a prize that I’d worked so hard to win. I didn’t tell her about how I’d cheated.

The rest of the Christmas weekend was awkward, trying to find time to spend alone with Crystal while her little brother was hanging around. The cabin only had two rooms, and the sleeping arrangements had Crystal and her mom sharing the bedroom, while I shared the pullout sofa bed with her brother. We managed to sneak off here and there for some alone time. The first night we slipped into the backseat of the rental car and steamed up the windows while snow fell outside. The next day we nearly got caught making use of one of the empty rooms in the recreation lodge.

 

By 2004, I’d managed to straighten up my financial situation a bit. I’d found a new job, working at a Pizza Hut in Bellingham, Washington. I’d quickly earned a promotion, thanks in no small part to my previous management experience working for another Pizza Hut back in New Jersey, the same one I’d met Crystal in. With my increased pay, I managed to pay off a few of my credit cards and put a down payment on a 2004 Chevy Cavalier. I also saved up enough to fly back home to New Jersey for the holidays.

I made arrangements to stay at my sister’s townhouse for the week. I booked my plane tickets, took time off work, and once all the plans were set I emailed my extended family to let them know I’d be in town. A few days later, I got a rather nasty email from my mother.

Mom and I had been on short terms since I’d moved out two years before. I rarely called her, not because of any anger or resentment, but simply because we didn’t have much to talk about. We kept in touch with the occasional email, but that was about it. The email she sent me before Christmas unloaded a lot of the things that hadn’t been said over the last couple of years.

I sat at my computer, reading the email, getting more and more irritated with each paragraph. Mom told me that she was upset that I never called her, and that she felt as if I only contacted her when I needed something, like copies of my old tax returns. She wanted to know what was going on in my life. She hadn’t even known what was going on in my life when I was living with her. I’d learned when I was younger not to trust her with such things.

I kept reading the email as Mom continued on about how she felt betrayed, and how she didn’t think it was right for her child to treat her so disrespectfully. At the end of the email, my mother told me that she didn’t feel like she could be in the same room with me for Christmas. Not unless I told her I truly wanted her there. If I didn’t, she said, she would leave the state and spend Christmas in Maryland with my Aunt Marm. She demanded a reply so she could decide what she was going to do.

I sat in my cold apartment for awhile and considered what to write. It was true that I hadn’t spoken much to my mother for two years. I had, however, always tried hard to be civil and polite in our communications. I answered her other emails when she sent them, and while I didn’t keep her updated on my life, I at least hadn’t been directly rude to her. I saw no reason why we couldn’t spend Christmas together, exchange gifts, and share a hug. Not wanting to live with someone isn’t the same as not wanting to ever see them again.

My main concern, however, was for my sisters and my niece, who was eleven years old that year. My mother hadn’t asked them whether they wanted to spend Christmas with her. They weren’t being given the choice. I was. I was being told I had to decide whether any of us got to see our mother at Christmas, since if Mom left the state to avoid me, none of them would get to see her.

I didn’t want that burden. I didn’t want to be the one who decided for the whole family. I wrote my mother back and told her this. I told her it wasn’t fair for her to put it on me, and to have me take the blame if my sisters and my niece didn’t get to see her. I told her that she would have to make that choice herself.

Christmas was being held at Dana’s townhouse that year. Since I was staying there for the entire week, I told my mother that I would be at Dana’s place on Christmas morning. If Mom was going to be there too, that was fine. If she wasn’t, that was fine. It was her choice, not mine. I refused to tell her what she could or couldn’t do.

I sent off the email, but no reply came. A week later, when I got off the plane in New Jersey and then arrived at Dana’s, I found out Mom had already left for Maryland. We spent Christmas without her. It was just me, my niece, Dana, and my little sister Amy. I also had the chance to meet Amy’s fiancé, John. No one really talked about why Mom wasn’t there. My sisters gave me Best Buy gift cards for Christmas. Crystal gave me a “Do it Yourself” chili cooking set. My mom didn’t get me anything.

Later that night, we headed to my dad’s house to exchange presents with him. He gave me the usual stocking stuffer box of Whitman’s Sampler candy, some gift cards, and a check for $100. We had Christmas dinner at dad’s house, and after dinner we got into our usual RISK match. We’d had a lifelong ongoing competition, but it had been a few years since we played, since I had moved away.

 

In the summer of 2005 Amy and John got married. I flew back to New Jersey for their wedding, and invited Crystal as my plus one. My mom met her in passing; “in passing” has always been the most contact my mother and my girlfriends have. After the ceremony, my mom hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I’m glad you came.” We didn’t talk during the reception.

By year’s end I was missing my family, and decided it was time to move back home. I’d had my fill of independence and living far off without a safety net. Dana’s roommate had split, and she had a spare bedroom in the townhouse, so we decided to be roommates after I moved back home. Crystal flew out to Washington to help me move, and we drove cross country together with everything I owned in the back of a Budget rental truck. I got into New Jersey on Christmas Eve, with about $10 left in my bank account after the expense of a cross-country move. I didn’t buy anyone any presents that year.

This year, Christmas was at my little sister’s brand new house. My mother had decided to spend Christmas in Maryland again. It was therefore just me, my sisters, my niece, and my new brother-in-law, John. I saw Crystal later that night for dinner. She gave me a shirt.

I got my usual gift cards with the usual excuses that I was too hard to shop for. Everyone knew if they bought me a game I probably already owned it. I spent most of Christmas morning with a small pile of gift cards in my lap, watching everyone else open their presents from each other and from Mom. There were some group gifts as well, just like when we were kids. My parents used to always give me and my sisters board games addressed to all three of us. This year the board game was “Apples to Apples.” The card with it was addressed to Dana, Amy, Ariana, and John. But not to me.

 

2006 was a year of transition. Crystal became upset that I spent too much time with Dana and Amy. Not because she had any problem with my sisters per se, but because they were both heavy pot smokers, and Crystal knew the only time I’d take a hit was when I was around my sisters and their peer pressure. Crystal didn’t want me around pot, not even in the same house with it, even if I almost never touched it myself. I told her I wouldn’t alienate my sisters over their casual drug use.

We got into an intense argument about it over the phone one day. I invited her to come over to Dana’s house for dinner, and she refused. She then told me that she didn’t even want me there. I tried to explain that to me, smoking pot was no different than drinking alcohol. I asked her how she would feel if I told her I didn’t want her to be around friends and family members who drank. She actually said that if I had asked that of her, she would respect my wishes. Yet I told her that I would never make such a demand of her, and that she shouldn’t make it of me, either. By the end of January, Crystal and I were no longer speaking.

Throughout the year I saw my mother from time to time. If she came over to see my sister or my niece, I was there. She got used to talking to me again, though I still didn’t tell her what was going on in my life or introduce her to anyone else I dated. She asked me for favors when she needed a ride to and from a doctor’s appointment, or help moving furniture. I always did whatever she needed, because she was my mom. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you’re getting along; when your mom asks for help, you just do it.

When Christmas rolled around, I decided to go the extra mile with my holiday shopping to make up for having no money to spend on presents the year before. I decided I still wasn’t getting my mother anything, however. When I mentioned this to my sisters, Amy said, “Well, I know she’s getting you stuff.” I shrugged and said I didn’t care. A few more gift cards and some clothes wouldn’t make up for the previous two years.

We held Christmas 2006 at the townhouse I shared with Dana, and it was the year of duplicate presents. None of us knew until it was too late that we’d all bought the same things. Amy and John both bought each other Madden ’07 for Playstation 2. John got three radio controlled dinosaurs, one from me, one from Amy, and one from my mom. Both Dana and Amy got me the Mario Brothers version of Monopoly.

My mom sat off to the side while we opened presents. When my sisters handed her the gifts they’d gotten her, she sat them next to her without opening them because she was focused on us. Instead of just letting us open our presents, she had stories to share about each one.

She got me a $200 suede winter coat, and was worried about whether it was the right size or if I liked the style. She also gave me and my sisters each one of the ceramic plates that had been passed down from my grandmother. They had winter scenes painted on them, and they had hung in our hallway for my entire life. She told us they were part of a larger set that had been divided up among her and her sisters after my grandmother died. She wanted to keep them in the family and pass them along to the next generation, so she passed her share of the set along to us.

She also gave me the plaque with the Cantrell family crest on it, the plaque which had hung in our home my entire life. My sisters had both changed their names when they got married, so I would be the last Cantrell. She told me that as the last Cantrell, I should be the one to get it.

There was also a scattering of other gifts, none of which were gift cards. Each one had been hand selected. I sat there, stunned, looking at the two presents that sat next to my mother: one from Dana and Ariana, and one from Amy and John. I hadn’t gotten her anything.

I felt like a jerk. I thanked my mother over and over again for the gifts, and tried my best to show how sincere my appreciation was. I also silently vowed to make up for it when my mother’s birthday came around.

Later in the day, I took a nap, and when I awoke Mom was gone. The rest of us headed over to Amy’s house. Dana and I took one car together, and something came up in conversation.

“I probably shouldn’t even tell you this,” she said.

I glanced at her and studied her facial expression. She didn’t look happy. “What?” I asked.

“I talked to Amy,” she said. “Mom talked to her, and apparently she was really upset you didn’t get her a present. She said you ‘ruined Christmas.’”

I was silent the rest of the car ride. I ended up deciding not to get mom anything for her birthday after all.

Dapper Hats and Bodycounters

Friday night, I attended the Monster Mania Convention at Crowne Plaza Hotel, Cherry Hill, NJ. It was the first time I’ve ever been to any kind of convention, despite how much I’ve wanted to go for years. Any time I had the opportunity in the last few years, I was always working all weekend when the con was being held. Being unemployed gave me a bit of an advantage this time since it means I have weekends off.

I attended with my friend and fellow Rowan University grad student, Kaitlin Zeilman. She’d been to this con several times before, and some of her other friends were on a first name basis with half the vendors. Since it was my first time, I didn’t know what to expect. I definitely found it an educational experience.

The first thing I did was peruse the vendor tables. There was a wide selection of clothing, jewelry, and accessories, many of them handmade. There were all kinds of collectibles, ranging from horror movie memorabilia (given that it was a horror movie convention), to other geek-culture collectibles from Star Trek, Doctor Who, Batman, and plenty of other comic books and video games. There were also some rather swanky steampunk items for sale, and I ended up walking away with a rather dapper hat sold by Steampunk Works.

Perfect for piloting your airship and/or steam-powered war machine.
Perfect for piloting your airship and/or steam-powered war machine.

There were a number of celebrities in attendance. My friend got an autograph from Verne Troyer, Michael Berryman, and a couple of other stars. There were a few horror movie stars there, as well as some cast members from The Walking Dead. I also saw Denise Crosby, and while she was most likely there because of her appearances on The Walking Dead, I’ve always been a fan of hers from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also in attendance were Adam West and Burt Ward, also known as the original TV’s Batman and Robin. Rumor has it that Adam West threw some sort of tantrum at his signing table; he ended up leaving the floor after only about an hour, and wasn’t seen again. Though there were some classic pieces of Batman history parked out front:

The insurance policy on the Batmobile is worth $1,000,000
The insurance policy on the Batmobile is worth $1,000,000
Autographed by Julie Newmar.
Autographed by Julie Newmar.

Of course, not everything at the convention was comic books, superheroes, and undead. Not for me, at least. There was an unexpected personal encounter that I wasn’t quite prepared for.

I don’t often mention my family on the blog. There’s a reason for that. I’m not on speaking terms with most of them. I still talk to my dad and we go on fishing trips and do the whole male bonding thing. But I also have an older and a younger sister, neither of which I’ve spoken to in seven years. I’m not inclined to go into details about that story right now, but I can relay the short version.

My older sister and I shared a townhouse for about a year and a half from 2006-2007. I moved out when I got involved with a girl and we decided to move in together (she and I ended up being together for four years). I gave her a little over a month’s notice and paid my share of the rent until the end of July that year. My sister unloaded a fair bit of anger at me when I asked if I might leave my computer there for an extra week after the end of the month, since I didn’t have internet access in my new place, and I needed internet access to pay my bills online. The request prompted a deluge of complaints, a refusal of the favor, and a demand that I finish vacating the premises and return my key. I did so, leaving with the distinct impression that I would not be welcome to return. I waited to see if there would ever be an invitation to come back over, such as for the weekly dinner gatherings my sister and a circle of friends had there every Thursday. I was never invited back. That was seven years ago.

I’m no longer angry at my sister, nor am I holding any sort of grudge. I’ve simply accepted that she doesn’t want me in her life, and I have no inclination to put forth the effort required to rekindle our relationship. Which made things especially awkward when I found out she was running a vendor table at the convention. Dana runs a website called Bodycounters.com. The purpose of the site is to watch movies and count the number of dead bodies, including humans, animals, aliens, and even dead relationships. They chronicle the totals on the website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (as of this writing, the movie with the greatest total body count is Melancholia, with a total of 7,021,836,029 dead by the end of the movie). Obviously this is a fitting site to be represented at a horror convention, and the Bodycounters have a wide range of merchandise for sale. Though I was still caught off guard when I walked right past her vendor table without any clue that she was going to be there.

I gave serious consideration to approaching the vendor table, but frankly, accidentally crossing paths at the Monster Mania Con didn’t really strike me as the best way to approach someone I haven’t spoken to in seven years. I ended up simply avoiding that end of the vendor room for the rest of the night, and I’m not certain whether or not she saw me the one time I walked by. If she did, she seemingly also decided not to make contact.

So that’s the story of my first ever convention experience. I saw the Batmobile, Denise Crosby, and Verne Troyer; I bought a very dapper hat; and I had the biggest surprise of the year when I saw my sister. If nothing else, it was an interesting experience. Though I’m definitely glad that Adam West was the one who caused a scene and stormed out, instead of it being my family drama that made a scene.

Monster Motivation

Character motivation is an important part of any novel. A character’s motivations, desires, hopes, and dreams will influence the decisions they make and the path they follow throughout the course of the story. An effective way to build conflict and tension is to have two characters with conflicting desires. Their opposing needs or wants will lead to them struggling against each other, and that struggle will fuel your plot.

Some basic examples of opposing motivations include a criminal who wants to break the law vs a cop who wants the law enforced, a parent who wants control vs a child who wants freedom, or an evil wizard who wants to conquer the world vs a hero who wants to keep it free. The motivations you choose can be more complex and layered than these, but the basic formula is there.

What do you do, however, when the antagonist isn’t human? Some types of stories are based on a conflict of man vs beast or man vs nature. In those cases, sometimes it can seem like there is no opposing motivation, unless you count a hungry animal who wants to eat someone vs someone who (naturally) doesn’t want to be eaten. This motivation can work quite well, and plenty of classic works have been based on it. For example, I recently read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The two main conflicts in that book were the old man who wanted to catch a fish vs the fish that did not wish to be caught, and later, the old man who wanted to get his fish home safely vs the sharks who wanted to eat that fish. The tension lasted good and long, and there was plenty of depth, even when the fish and sharks were motivated purely by animal instincts.

But what if you have a more monstrous beast? A dragon, werewolf, or other mythological or supernatural creature can have a more complex mind than a normal animal. Yet in some stories, writers tend to keep their motivations as simple as those of a lesser animal. I mentioned this in a blog post awhile back when I was discussing how much I wish alien invasion stories had stronger motivations. For example the aliens in Independence Day show up and try to destroy humanity for no better reason than “they’re evil and want to take all of our resources.” That was pretty flimsy motivation. After all, if the aliens really needed resources, there’s plenty of uninhabited worlds they could have gone to in order to strip-mine everything they wanted without having to worry about fighting the native inhabitants. In the long run, the “we’re evil, prepare to die” motivation is a sign of an undeveloped antagonist and/or lazy writing.

There are some other examples I’ve seen recently where a villain lacks sufficient motivation. I recently started re-watching Star Trek: Voyager. The season 2 episode “Persistence of Vision” involves an alien who attacks the ship and uses telepathic abilities to cause the crew to hallucinate and go into a type of telepathically-induced comas. When the villain is defeated and Captain Janeway asks why he did it, his flimsy and poorly-thought-out answer was, “Because I can.”

A story can have a lot more meaning if the villain’s motivations have more weight behind them. And the motivation doesn’t always need to be elaborate in order to be effective. A good example of this is the classic tale Beowulf. In the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the monster Grendel, which attacks the king’s feast hall and kills dozens of men. However, the story didn’t just have Grendel attack because “he’s evil, prepare to die.” Instead, a simple yet effective motivation is used:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of the poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters ; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.

So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world. Grendel was the name of this grim demon, haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.

So instead of Grendel being a random rampaging beast, he’s specifically a demon cursed by God, who is thrown into a rampage when he hears the king’s men singing God’s praises. That makes Grendel’s rampage a more personal one, and adds a tone of religious significance. The religious side of Beowulf can be seen throughout the story with a number of other biblical references, and Beowulf himself could be interpreted as being not just a human hero, but also as a soldier of God:

Beowulf, that prince of goodness, proudly asserted: “When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel. So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield to mow him down, easily as I might. He has no idea of the arts of war, of shield or sword-play, although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore, for either this night: unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.”

What makes this declaration by Beowulf especially interesting and important is that it later turns out that Grendel is magically protected against all forged weapons. Beowulf declared that he would face Grendel in a fair fight with no weapons and trust in God to guide him to victory, and choosing not to bring a weapon is what led to his victory.

So you can see here how the monster’s motivation (rage against religious celebration) and the hero’s motivation (wanting God to grant him victory over the beast) actually match up thematically. This shows that a simple thing like giving the monster a meaningful motivation can lead to a more elaborate and dynamic story. It’s no wonder that Beowulf is a classic.

This is something I give a lot of thought to in my writing. Adding extra layers like this can deepen the conflict and make things far more interesting. So next time you have a beast, monster, dragon, or demon in your story, take a step back and ask yourself: “What does this monster really want?”

Book Addictions

Hello. My name is Jason. And I’m addicted to books.

Yes, I bought all of those. Yes, I also bought several others that I found after I took the picture.
Yes, I bought all of those. Yes, I also bought several others that I found after I took the picture.

Today I went to Barnes & Noble for the first time in a long time. I do most of my book buying online these days, both for the convenience and for the ability to find used and/or out of print books that won’t be found on the bookshelves. Sometimes I search Amazon and find used books for a penny plus shipping, which basically means I pay $4.00 for a $10.00 book. Other times I use it to search inventories from around the country to find books I can’t find locally, such as when I ordered the first 28 or so books in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, since my local bookstores usually only have a random selection of 5 or 6 of them. But the thing about shopping online is that it doesn’t have quite the same experience as wandering the bookshelves and searching for something that will just jump out at you.

Sometimes, you spot a new book in a long-running series, like Kristen Britain’s Mirror Sight that I didn’t even know was out until I walked past it. Sometimes it’s a classic like Beowulf or Gilgamesh that I had to wonder how I’d gone my whole life without reading yet. Or sometimes I just spot a cover and title so fascinating I can’t help but buy it:

There was no way to resist this.
There was no way to resist this.

Though living in the digital age makes the book buying experience a very different one than it was ten years ago. Such as when I tweeted the picture above, and then next thing I knew the author himself was tweeting me with a promise that I’ll like the book. It goes to show the inter-connectivity we’re experiencing with social media. I can only imagine how excited I’d be in the author’s shoes when I find someone tweeting about my book. I look forward to the day I come across a total stranger talking about my book and we can make a connection like that.

So maybe being a book addict isn’t such a bad thing. You meet interesting people, discover new stories you’d never thought you’d find, and you get to write blog posts about being an addict.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to do before I get buried under a huge stack of hardbacks.

The Crucible

I’m a big fan of Star Trek in all of its incarnations. The Star Trek series and movies have always had a unique setting, and there’s definitely something compelling about a cast of characters committed to a mission to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

I’ve recently been marathoning the Star Trek series, and I’ve gotten up to Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager has some ups and downs compared to the other series. Any hardcore Trekkie has their own favorites among the series, and there can be some big arguments about which series is the best. Regardless of whether you love Voyager or hate it, however, it has some unique traits that make it different from any of the other series. One in particular is the Crucible.

Wikipedia defines a crucible as “a container that can withstand very high temperatures and is used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes . . . they can be made from any material that withstands temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents.” In other words, it’s a big pot that can hold molten metals and other volatile substances.

In the case of literature, the crucible is any environment that can hold a volatile group of characters together to increase conflict. The starship Voyager is a prime example. The ship contained a mixture of two crews, the military Starfleet personnel and the rebels/terrorists of the Maquis. They were stuck together, 70,000 light years from home, and forced to work together without any outside support.

While Voyager sometimes under-utilized the potential for conflict, the principle of the crucible is a sound one that can be used in any number of situations.

In the book Stein On Writing, Sol Stein refers to the crucible as “A Key to Successful Plotting” (p. 94). The idea is to take a group of characters in a setting or situation where they either physically cannot leave (such as characters sharing a prison cell or stranded on a deserted island), or where “the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.” Voyager is the former type of crucible, where the ship itself is a physical setting that the characters can’t leave. They’re stuck together for better or worse and they don’t really have much choice in the matter. The latter type of crucible can be a bit more complicated, however, since it is based more on the characters’ emotions and motivation.

I’ve been studying romance novels a lot lately, and a romantic relationship serves as a good example of a crucible. If the characters are in some sort of romantic conflict, they could end it by breaking up and running away from each other. The conflict will continue for as long as their desire to remain together is greater than their desire to flee the situation. This can create a complex emotional web if the characters have goals or motivations that are in direct opposition to each other. A simple example can be if one of the characters wants to settle down and have children while the other wants to travel and develop their career. These desires are in conflict, and they will remain so for as long as the characters stay in their relationship.

Other types of crucibles can be offices where employees are forced to work together even if they don’t get along, musical groups that have to get through performances even if they have creative differences, or investigators that have to put their differences aside while working on a difficult case. In each case, the crucible remains intact as long as all the members are highly motivated to their job, cause, or mission. If their motivation to escape each other ever exceeds their motivation to continue working together, then the business will fail, the band will break up, or the crime will go unsolved. This sort of situation can add another layer of tension to an already difficult situation. Trying to run a successful business, win the battle of the bands, or catch the criminal can already be difficult enough on its own without internal pressures tearing the characters apart. The more potential obstacles you insert into the story, the higher the stakes will be, and the more suspense you’ll create.

On a more meta level, writing a novel can be a sort of crucible in itself. There’s constant conflict in a writer’s struggled to meet deadlines, their issues with fear and self-doubt, the need to avoid plot holes and develop strong characters, and all the other complications that go into making a successful novel. That conflict will continue as long as the writer’s desire to get the novel written exceeds their desire to escape the stress and fear.

Hopefully that volatile melting pot of words ends up turning into something fabulous. Though you won’t know that until it’s finished.

Combing the Manuscript

I’ve recently completed what should be the final draft of Manifestation. There’s nothing left that needs to be changed on a structural level. The story is what it is and what I think it will always be. That means that at this point, all that I think is left is fine-tuned proofreading. This is basically going over everything again and again, combing through the words until there isn’t anything left to find.

When I was a kid I did NOT get this. That's good old-fashioned racism.
When I was a kid I did NOT get this. That’s good old-fashioned racism.

The interesting thing about this process is how often I find myself going back to earlier chapters and carefully scanning just one more time. I’m about 2/5 of the way through the manuscript now, and I’ll catch something minor, like, say, the right way to format punctuation when you use italics, or a lay/lie mistake. I’ll then remember (or think I remember) three different times in previous chapters where I used the same thing. So I’ll have to go back and check again, and again, and again.

This leads to a sort of “two steps forward, one step back” style of proofreading. But with any luck, I’ll be finished within the next few days. Which means you should stay tuned to hear about cover art in the near future. Probably not in time for Eve’s birthday, like I had planned, but I’ll do the best I can.

Insert gorgeous cover art here.
Insert gorgeous cover art here.

In the meantime, I’ve started posting a few new short stories and poems on the blog lately. It had been too long since there had been any stories here instead of just blog posts. So, in case you missed them, here’s a few fun little pieces I’ve put up recently:

Chasing the Scene – A creative nonfiction piece about my writing process.
Shadow – A poem I wrote awhile back, now with a YouTube clip of me reading it aloud.
Peace – Another poem, also with video.
Where There Be Dragons – A very punny story about weredragons.

Also, if you enjoy those free stories, you should also check out Radiance, the short story I have published on Kindle. It’s about a girl who discovers an amazing supernatural power, and it’ll give you a glimpse into the world where Manifestation will take place. Think of it as a preview of the novel to tide you over until I finish combing through it and making everything as perfect as I can.

Chasing the Scene

It starts with an image, fading in from black. I see a character standing there. A girl. She has disheveled hair and stained clothes. Her troubled eyes hide dark memories. Her shoulders slump and her chest heaves; she is out of breath. I know how her eyes became so troubled, because I wrote the troubles she lived through. I know that the stains on her clothes are blood, because I wrote the creature that tried to kill her. I know why she is out of breath, because I wrote her fighting for her life.

The image zooms out, and I see the beasts on the ground. The mutated corpses of hell hounds lie on the dirt before the girl. The door to the cabin is broken, and splinters of wood still jut from one hound’s jaws. The second hound lays further back, its body riddled with bullet holes. A second girl stands beyond it, still holding a rifle.

I hear the voices of the characters in my mind. I see them start to move. I know it’s time for the next scene. I look back, and remember where I had left off:

She stared at it for a moment, wondering what kind of animal it was. The torn, mangled flesh was hard to identify. It almost looked like a basset hound, but they were normally so gentle . . .

She shook her head and turned towards the building. She had to climb over the wreckage of the destroyed door to get in. Inside, she found Gabby, looking like hell. Her clothes were torn and muddy, her hair tangled, her skin marred with dirt. She looked like she hadn’t bathed in months. On top of all that, blood was dripping from her nose and ears.

My mind fills with these images, and it’s time to continue. I have the scene in my mind, and writing it down becomes a race to record everything I see before it disappears. I watch the characters flee for the safety of the jeep, and try to describe it faster than they can run, so that the words are on the page before they escape the danger. It’s hard to keep up. I rush to describe the monster before it catches them. I capture every detail I can, from its gleaming fangs to its bulging, mutated muscles. My fingers slip on the keys. For a moment, I fear the delay will cost the characters their freedom and their lives. Another beast rushes in, closing in on the girls. I have to write the beast falling behind, just so I can catch up.

I don’t pay attention to the time that passes me by in the real world while I write like this. All I see is the moment in the scene, pulling away, while I try to catch up to it. Minutes become hours while I labor over every detail. My writing time is almost up, and they haven’t even gotten the jeep moving yet.

Eventually, I write them escaping, and I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over. Hours become days as I leave the scene to rest, catching its breath before I come back to it. Then I pick the scene up again, study it, and try to see what I missed. I always write the initial scene in that mad rush, stopping only long enough to pick out the right word here or cut down a run-on sentence there. During revision, though, there’s no more rushing, no more trying to outrun the beast. I’m able to look over every leg of the chase and nitpick every step the characters took. I rewind to the key moment when the nightmare was mutating on the ground before it rose up and became the monster that pursued them. I look over the scene and ask if the details I wrote captured the image in my mind. I ask if it took too long for the characters to start running. I ask if the emotions feel real. I shuffle things around, cut here, add there, and try to polish up what I wrote into something presentable.

The revision experience is much calmer. More analytical. There’s no need to race. I can stop and catch my breath this time. I sit still and reread each line, considering where it fits into the whole, or if it fits at all. I’m not a samurai, chopping up my prose in broad sweeps with the revising blade; instead I’m a surgeon, selecting my cuts with care and precision. If I see something rambling or meandering, I cut it up and rearrange the pieces into something healthier. If I see something that threatens to bring the whole piece down, I cut a chunk off the tail and let it die. The head can live on.

The overall experience is like watching a film from beginning to end, then going back later to analyze everything frame by frame. The scene doesn’t enter my mind in a single dump of information; instead, it plays out in a rapid sequence like a movie on the screen. I try to record that rush of images onto the page. The more I see playing out in the scene, the faster I have to work to keep up with it. Usually I don’t know what the plot will be or how it will end until the scene plays out. The chase continues, and I find myself on the edge of my seat watching to see how it ends so I can capture that moment.

Then, once it’s been captured, it remains in my possession. I can build my connection with the scene by adding details I missed the first time. I pick up on things I didn’t focus on when the chase first played out before me. I can pause it, zoom in, and try to describe that certain look on the girl’s face, the particular sound of the beast’s growl, the scent of blood in the air. Details that were always there, but which I didn’t capture or express fully until revision. Nothing new gets created; instead I shine a new light on what is already there. The characters still escape the beast at the end, but with each revision, I hope to better express how close the beast came to catching them. I let it get a little closer to them, now that I know I won’t stumble and fall.