Boop boop boop.
Such a perfectly boopable nose.
Boop boop boop.
Such a perfectly boopable nose.
My dearest Olive,
I am sorry.
I am sorry you spent your brief life sick and hurting. I am sorry for the tinkering and experimentation and discomfort we put you through. All your mom and I wanted was for you to have a shot at a normal life and we were willing to do whatever we could to give that to you. We would have done even more, everything and anything, if we would have thought the pain you lived in was going to be fruitful. But it wasn’t, and suffering for suffering’s sake is no life.
I am sorry you don’t get to grow up with your sisters and your mom and me. I am sorry you never had a chance to leave Johns Hopkins to be warmed by the sun on your face. I am sorry you never felt the wind or saw the moon. I am sorry you only met your sisters a single time. I am sorry you never met so much of your huge family and that they never got to meet you. I am sorry that your stink-eye is something you only ever shared with your nurses, not your siblings. I am sorry I only got to hear your tiny cry a single time. I am sorry for all the onces and nevers, in all their terrible shapes.
I am sorry you will never get to experience all the joys of life, both regular and exceptional. Eating pomegranates outside during the summer. Listening to a great song that connects with your soul for the first time. A perfect cup of coffee on a cold morning. The pride of knowing you did a job as well as you could. A warm blanket and cool feet as you sleep. Falling in love and fighting to keep that love alive and healthy. A visit with a friend on a lazy Sunday. Christmas morning treats. Silly photoshoots. Blankets. Warm fires. Mountain tops. Birthday dinners. Late night karaoke. Chocolate chip cookies. Making art. Hugs. All the silly little and big important happinesses that we take for granted. I’m sorry I cannot share them with you.
And I am sorry for all the sadness and annoyances you will never endure. Heartbreak and loneliness and embarrassment. Being kept awake at night thinking of some stupid thing you said to someone a decade ago. Seeing an ex on the street and quickly deciding if you are going to be polite or pretend you didn’t see them. Annoying work e-mails. Saying something unintentionally rude and having to own up to it. The shame in knowing you failed at something because you half-assed it. Fights with your sisters and your parents and your friends. The feeling that no one understands you. All the stupid little miseries that make all the silly little happinesses so much sweeter. I am sorry I cannot comfort you through them.
I am so, so sorry that I don’t get to know what kind of woman you would have grown up to be. I would give anything to know you as a child and adolescent through your awkward teenage years and into your formative young adulthood. And then as an adult and potentially as a parent. And if you didn’t want to have kids, that would be ok too. I wanted you to have a life that was your own—Olive’s life—to make decisions on how and where and with whom you live it. Olive’s choices and Olive’s mistakes. Olive’s triumphs. Olive’s failures. The tapestry of a life that should have been uniquely yours.
I am sorry you don’t get to grow into the old lady name we gave you. I am sorry you only ever got to experience the little girl version, even if “Livvy” is an especially cute nickname. It was such a perfect plan: strong old lady names with adorable little girl versions. Your mom and I were willing long lives for all three of you to allow you time to make the most of the names we gave you and to become the perfect, distilled versions of yourselves. I am sorry you will miss that.
I am sorry your sisters will grow up without their middle triplet, the filling in their sibling sandwich. Since we learned that there would be three of you, your mom and I had a thousand ideas about what sort of life you girls would have as a trio. We imagined you all growing and learning together, experiencing life as a unit. What would the dynamic have been like between you all? Was Penny going to be the protector and Beatrice the quiet accomplice to Olive’s adventures? Would you all be friends or not? What secrets would you have shared together? What tales would you have told each other? I am sorry they don’t get to have that and that you don’t get to be a participant in our lives. I am sorry that they will only ever know you from photos and stories. I am glad your sisters are spared from our current sadness, but I am still sorry we couldn’t share you with them.
And please know, my little Tapenade, that we did everything we could for you. We pushed you as hard as our hearts, modern medical science, and the counsel of the medical team in the PCICU at Johns Hopkins would allow. We spent every single moment we had with you in the hospital to advocate for you in the busy times and love you in the down times. We thought long and critically about what the best path was for your care. We subjected you to serious risk with some of the things we allowed, some of the things we pushed for. But all of it was with the hope that something would break through and allow you to get better so you could come home to us. So we could be a complete family. Olive, Penny, Bea, mom, and dad. All your mom and I ever wanted was to have all three of you home, together, and safe.
I hope, my heart, that we made your last few days as lovely as we could. We strove to fill your hospital room with as much color, brightness, and love as possible. We wanted every second of that limited time to be free of hurt. Everyone in the hospital who knew you and loved you came by to say goodbye and make a memory with you. There were photos and hugs. Nurses and doctors cried and shared stories with us. We had three days of photos and decorations. We smelled your little head and kissed your cheeks and played with your funny little poof of hair. We held you as much as we could in those final days to try to make up for all the time you were in the hospital when we couldn’t and all the time after the hospital when we wouldn’t be able to.
And I hope, in the end, as you passed away in our arms, that it was gentle. You were surrounded by people who loved you so much and cared for you so hard. I had my hand on your chest and felt your heart slow and then stop. I watched you take your final breath, and then we knew you were gone. I will never know what it was like for you in that moment, but I hope it was as easy for you as it was terrible for us. I would have traded your pain with you in a heartbeat. I would have given everything of myself for you, if I could have.
My sweet little Livvy Bear, I don’t for a second regret the horrible decision your mom and I made to let you go. Given the same set of circumstances, I would make the same decision again. We chose your comfort over our own. But I am forever, forever sorry that you didn’t get the chance you deserved to live, to thrive, and to be. I love you, Olive, and I am so very sorry.
Love always always,
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin!
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
The Boneman digs through the pile of discarded children’s toys (much different than grown up toys) and discarded computers (the electronics, not the people) and discarded instruments (musical, not surgical). He knows the thing is in here somewhere.
He pulls the necklaces of assorted (possibly human) bones around his neck tight and gives them a sharp look that says “I mean business”.
“What the hell am I looking for? I know you know!” They are often vague, however, hard to understand, circular talkers. Sometimes he wishes he had clearer bones, but they are what he has and would have to do until he could find better replacements.
After a quarter and a half of business school and the work that went into the application and GMAT, I was starting to feel a little bit like I was losing myself. I hadn’t made anything for myself in ages which was making me seriously anxious. But between graduate school and work demands, I knew I would never make time to correct the imbalance.
My solution? Enroll in another class on Tuesday nights between my Monday/Wednesday blocks of MBA classes. Reasonable!
Ultimately it proved to be a great decision. Tuesday night creative writing class at Cabrillo quickly became the highlight of my week. For me, immersing myself—even in such a small dose—in something creative was critical for my mental health. It really helped rekindle my love for fiction writing.
No, that’s not right. My love was kindled, but I had a big block in my head. What the class did was provide enough structure to get through that block. The class gave me the reason to push through the block and actually get words down on paper and then provided me with a method to actively discuss the work with other real-live humans in meatspace, instead of just putting it up here to languish. That was pretty special for me and felt rewarding in a way I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for the class.
The class also provided a venue for me to interact with other creative people in a way now missing from my life. I love the people I work with and the people I go to business school with, but I missed having weirdos (like me) to talk to about artsy nerd stuff.
I could write a whole post about it (and I probably will), but for now I will share with you the final reflection I wrote for the class. It provides some insight into where my head is these days and maybe you’ll get something out of it. I got something out of writing it.
1. In which of the following elements of fiction do you feel you grew the most? In which do you still wish to grow more? -Character, Setting, Dialog, Plot, Imagery, Point of view, Other…
I focused most on the structure of my work, and thinking of each as a coherent structural unit. I was digging through my blog recently (so 00’s) and found tons of fiction I have little memory of writing. Some of it was good, but some of it was not so good. All of it was fully improvised in the moment. Pantsed. That’s where my practice lies. And for that reason, thinking about writing a longer piece always seemed pretty overwhelming, insurmountable.
When I enrolled in this class, I knew I had a block in my head about longer works, that I lacked the tools to engage a longer piece. Getting some practice considering the writing as a standalone unit rather than a scene proceeding from and leading to another scene was important and something I was deliberate about. I knew that thinking about each story this way would translate to thinking about longer pieces the same way. All I needed was to get into the habit.
Truthfully, I didn’t nail it on all my stories. The first one was a single unit. One and done. The second one was unfinished when submitted. I’ve since finished it and sent it out to the journals. The third was really just a sketch of a bigger idea. If I had to grade myself on nailing the idea of keeping each one of these as an independent unit, then I didn’t do so well. But if the idea was to figure out how to make these freestanding units within a larger project, then I think I did all right.
Past that, the aspect I struggle with the most is plot. I’ve always thought of plot as doing, not happening. It needs to feel like the choices characters make are the choices they would make if it was a real situation, if they were real people with real drives. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking, “well, I guess they could just sort of do anything, right?” and that leads nowhere. Creating a plot that feels motivated and purposeful is a little bit like playing the role of your characters as if you were an actor. But, in this case, it’s like you are one actor playing every single role all at once and that is pretty hard to focus on. One or two sets of motivations and desires and obstacles, sure, but dozens? Tough. That will require much practice. It’s a one-man show with an ensemble cast that is forty hours long.
2. What is your long term goal as a writer? (Both as what you want to achieve artistically, and how you hope the world will receive it.)
I’d like to see if I can make a living writing. I’ve always wanted to make a living in a creative field, and, for a long time, I did. The older I get and the more experienced I get, the more I recognize that I am not so good at working with other people. Over the years I’ve learned to do it, but I am impatient and often prickly when I feel like I don’t have the autonomy to execute as I think is best. It’s a bad tendency that I try to temper, but still comes up now and then.
What I am really good at is executing to a deadline when I need to. Want me to go sit an office all day? NOPE. Grumpy Joe all the time. But, give me a list of things to finish and a deadline and the autonomy to do them in the order and method I choose? You’re going to get everything as requested to the best of my ability. Writing professionally is, from what I know, a lot like that. I just need to get myself to a place where someone wants to give me some deadlines. I can, of course, give them to myself, but that is less effective.
I understand that it’s not some magical free-for-all, do-what-thou-wilt arrangement, that there is pressure from publishers and editors and agents and booksellers and the realities of the market. The auteur is always tempered by the situation. I’ve learned that lesson a thousand times already. I am prepared for it and not at all worried about it. I long ago rid myself of the delusion that my art is ineffable, too great to be sullied by the crassness of commerce. Anyone who wants to make a living has to learn that.
Beyond the lifestyle aspect, I really enjoy writing and telling stories. It’s what drew me to the film world in the first place. Humans are storytellers. It is an important part of how we interact with each other and an important part of what we leave for those who follow us. And I really think I have stories to tell that will resonate with people. What else could someone ask for? If I can reach out through my words and make someone’s day or week or month better, then I am happy.
3. What has been your journey with your inner critic? What is the critic saying to you these days? How do you handle it?
He’s a real son of a bitch. My greatest enemy, even with things I know I am good at. It’s been a lifetime struggle that is sometimes ok, sometimes terrible. I am getting better at working through the terrible and giving myself permission not to generate perfection at all times. That was a difficult lesson to learn.
He’s better these days, less quick to reject any thought I have. I’ve found the best way to deal with him is to just talk to someone about my ideas. That’s something I’ve never had before. Voicing them gives them life and allows a different part of my brain to process them, which I think is helpful. I’ve discovered that talking about the ideas with other people is a helpful way to create what my wife calls “commitment devices”; if someone knows I should be working on something it keeps me accountable. And accountability always wins out over the voice. It’s a factor that always worked for me with my film editing (since you never just edit for only yourself), but not something I incorporated into my writing life until this class. Pretty wild to think about, but I’ve always been too shy about the work to talk about it. I’d post it all over the internet with my name on it and to the social medias and whatever, but speaking about it aloud was hard. Weird how these things are sometimes, right? Part of what I looked for with this course was enough confidence to talk about these things aloud and that has been a great success. I am very thankful for it.
4. Do you plan to keep writing after the class? What will this look like? (How often, where, etc.) Do you want to form a workshop with buddies from the class?
Yes. I am planning a novel version of The Boneman (title subject to change) in the weeks until my business school quarter ends. I dropped all my summer MBA classes when I learned that school would only be online. It doesn’t work for me at all. Too old, I guess, but I really require the in-person engagement for classroom learning.
I am giving myself a little break from writing until the end of the quarter, but will be using my free time to do some pre-writing and outlining of the novel. I’d like to be ready to execute as soon as finals are done. From there I have a weekly word count to hit—which may or may not be totally reasonable—and a deadline for the first draft of the project. It’s all subject to change as things evolve, but this will be a good way to start.
I would love to form a workshop with buddies. Ann, JJ, Lily, and I spoke about it during our final workshop session. I’ve already sent them work to read since then. And even if it’s not as formal as the You Are A Mirror set-up, having someone to chat with about the work is super helpful. Obviously. That’s why people have writing groups, right? I’d love to have something more formal, but it’s pretty hard with the plague quarantine. I’m sure that the group will evolve as time goes on too. All groups do.
5. How did the move to online learning impact your experience of the class?
Real talk. It was terrible. I thought you did a great job of the sudden shift from real-life to online, especially considering how quickly you had to make the change. But the online format, as I mentioned earlier, does not work for me. And for a class like this one that relies so much on discussion and open communication, the format just doesn’t work. It also didn’t help that like 60% of the class just disappeared when we went online. And it’s really tough to have a conversation with other students who elect not to use their camera. Talking to a name whose face you cannot see is pretty unhelpful. You did your best and I recognize it and appreciate it.
6. Do you plan to take another creative writing class?
Maybe. I believe my only option at Cabrillo is to retake this class as 12A. Santa Clara isn’t an option. And Hunter didn’t take me for their MFA program either time. If something comes up, I’d like to take another class. I really enjoyed this one. Tuesday night was a bright spot in my week. Just not totally sure what my options are.
I intend to keep learning, though. I have a number of writing books queued up to keep my brain churning along on the best way to tell stories. I’m going to finish the Anne Lamott book. That one is best a chapter at a time. I’m going to give King’s On Writing a run. I purchased and read the beginning of Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction which you mentioned in class. That one is a touch dense and will have to wait until my non-fiction reading doesn’t also include Data Analytics and Ethics for Managers. But I am excited to read the genesis of the unreliable narrator. Dipping in and out of books like these is a great way to give my brain something to process while I do other stuff.
7. What activities did you most enjoy?
-specific group interactive writing games (We didn’t do a lot of these because of the move to online learning. Address them if you remember them, and if not, don’t worry about it.)
-specific individual writing prompts
Hands-down the thing I most enjoyed was the workshop. The prompts were good and helpful for getting into the mood. I even generated a handful of ideas there I’m going to develop. The music playlist game was fun too and I enjoyed the one where we created a backstory for a character as a group while discussing specificity. But, for my money, the workshop was the most valuable exercise we did.
8. A year from now, what will you remember from this class?
The value of having a writing group. Too-hot coffees from the stand outside the building. Wondering each night if I was going to get away with not having a parking pass. Dark walks to the bathroom around the corner. Curiosity about what the sign language class was talking about when I passed. That kid asking you about his Star Fox fan-fiction on the first night of class. Attendance dropping as the weeks went on. Recognizing that I probably needed to learn how to type with more than just my left index finger, right index finger, right middle finger, and right thumb. Getting back into the swing with Scrivener. Coming home totally jazzed about what we’d been doing in class and talking my poor wife’s ear off.
9. How was your experience of workshop? What did you learn from critiquing the work of your peers? What did you learn from getting the feedback of your peers?
Workshop was an incredibly valuable exercise for me. Getting feedback is great, even if the feedback itself isn’t what you want to hear. I mean, we all just want to be told how smart and how funny and how good looking we are, right?
It’s so easy to get stuck in your own head about parts of the work, and from there you have nowhere else to go. Just deeper into your own damn head. The workshop digs us out of that mire and keeps the wheels turning in a way that you just can’t do on your own. I also found that thinking about the other work helped me think about my work more critically. Maybe there’s something about getting into that mindset or maybe when we read other’s work, we are subconsciously looking for things that bug us about our own. Probably a little bit of both.
Regardless, I often had good breakthroughs on my work after dissecting the work of my group members. That is testament to the importance of having a writing group and not grinding things out in isolation. Perspective is key.
10. What are you most proud of? What were your personal writing “wins” this semester?
I am proud of the work I produced. It has been a long time since I’ve written and finished anything. Part of the point of enrollment was to shake off the cobwebs and I did that. No matter what comes of any of it, this has been valuable time spent honing my craft.
The ceiling collapse was the first thing that put a damper in Dave’s day. Michael and Greg’s master bedroom was a disaster. Crumbled drywall and fiberglass insulation covered the room in a damp-smelling blanket. Maybe a leak in the roof? What he knew was that this was going to be an expensive repair.
The second thing that put a damper in Dave’s day was the human bones spilling from a trunk that had fallen through the ceiling when it collapsed. The impact had forced the box open, revealing its ghastly contents. If it had been stored just a few feet over, it might have landed on the mattress and not opened, maintaining its diabolical secret. But, it had fallen through, hit a dresser, busted open, and spread bones all over the floor.
“I’m sorry” is totally insufficient. I hate it.
But, before you start to think me a monster, let me qualify.
First, I am not saying I hate apologies. Far from it. I am a big fan of apologies. We all screw up from time to time and a sincere apology can go a long way toward making things right. Trust me: I know. We’ve all done and will do stupid things that hurt other people. Apologize. Say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. You can’t travel back to the moment of your transgression and stop it from happening, but you can acknowledge that you screwed up and take steps to correct. And, don’t forget, there are no "buts" in an apology.
Second, I am not saying that I don’t think we should sympathize with other people’s pain. The human is a communal animal and our societies and our lives are better when we try as best we can to understand what other members of our tribe are going through. Stress at work, family strife, feeling unsure about your life path, whatever it is the ability to read the emotions of others and to incorporate that understanding is key to successfully navigating life. Just think how much better things would be if the GOP had a tiny sliver of sympathy for anyone. Right? A lot better.
What I am trying to get at is that I think "I’m sorry" as a phrase to mean, "I see that you are suffering and acknowledge it and sincerely wish I could help in some way to ease that suffering" is not even close to good enough. There is too much opportunity to confuse it with the other meaning, "I have regret for the harm I caused you," particularly in a moment when emotions are heightened. You know, when you might say something like "I’m sorry".
How many times have you said "I’m sorry" to someone the former meaning, for them to say, "You have nothing to be sorry about. It’s not your fault"? And then you have to clarify with something like, "No no, what I meant was that I am sorry your teeth hurt still, not I’m sorry I made your teeth hurt because we both know I had nothing to do at all with the pain level of your teeth. However, I feel sympathy for the aches in your chompers." This is a strong signal that "I’m sorry" is not up the task we’ve set out for it.
You could try something like, "I feel you," but that could just as easily be confused with "I agree". Not good enough. It leaves us with the same lack of clarity "I’m sorry" does. Grandma died? "I feel you." Wrong.
How about "I am pained for you"? Too dramatic. Try listening to less Morrissey.
Maybe "Yeah, sure, ok, yeah, ok, uh-huh"? I’ve performed extensive testing with this option when a plus-one is telling me about some upset they experienced and it didn’t go so well. I should have just used "I’m sorry".
The French have l’esprit de l’escalier to describe that feeling you get when you leave an argument and suddenly have a whole armament of pithy retorts, too late to make use of. The Germans have schadenfreude which describes the malicious enjoyment we take in the misfortunes of others. The Danish have 2016’s hottest word hygge which the OED defines as "a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being; contentment from simple pleasures, such as warmth, food, friends, etc." Damn, that sounds pretty nice.
And we English speakers, what do we have? "I’m sorry".
Not good enough! It’s confusing! It’s imprecise! It’s wholly insufficient for the work it’s meant to do! And, I hate it. There has to be some better, clearer way to express the same sentiment as simply but without the risk of mistaking its meaning.
While we’re all stuck inside the house due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, I want you to think about what else could take the place of "I’m sorry" and get back to me by Monday. Leave good suggestions in the comments. I believe in you.
Sylvia nursed her double-gin and single-tonic at the hotel bar and checked out the handsome, dark-haired man across the room. Just looking at him as she had been doing the last three or four drinks, she could tell she was definitely his type. She wanted to show him and his dark curls and darker eyes a thing or two.
He was her son’s age, but reminded her of her second husband, Ali, the car salesman with more body hair than any man had any right to. She remembered how he would smell after a day working in those cheap suits he preferred. “Buy a nice one!” she’d tell him. “Those dime-a-dozen suits don’t breathe right.” By the end of a hot summer day, his rank body odor would be vile.