Tuesday, February 24, 2015

October relationships are something different

The thing is, I’m a storyteller. I can’t seem to help it. It’s what I do. This very morning I was entering a typewritten story on the computer---step one in creating a new book. It’s a story I wrote for our kids in 1970, when we lived on a ranch in Eastern Oregon. Last year I published a 1972 story, written in our tiny home in Winchester, England. Our children have a copy of my Cabinboy Cal tale, seven hand printed pages from the summer of my eighth year. Turns out, that obsession began early and only grew stronger in retirement

Of course, it’s one thing to decide that you’ll tell a story, and another to know what you will write about. However, for some reason I have yet to understand, when I retired and returned to the scene of those earlier efforts I knew without asking the kind of story I would be telling. By then I had learned that life, at least the best part of life, is about relationships. It is the people in our lives, or sometimes the ones who are not, who make life worth living. 

Without thinking twice I realized that I would be telling “relational” stories. I know, of course, that’s not what everyone calls them. But I prefer that label to the other possibility -- “romance.” After all, what kind of seventy-some year-old guy  admits to writing “romances”? More to the point, does that label even apply to the often stumbling efforts of my seriously Beta-Male characters? In the end I always settle for “relational.” 

Still, it took a while to get over the embarrassment of admitting that I wrote such stories. Finally I realized that it’s hard to imagine a story that is not at its heart a relational story. Whether it’s about young lovers, time-traveling vagabonds, zombies and vampires, or in the extreme---October Years seniors---at some point you and the author will probably explore the role of relationship in the lives of the characters.
Most of us have experienced the April version of relationship at least once. You know---the young dreams, young love, and young hormones. (Remember those?) It was a time of new experiences, when anything seemed possible. That was April love. We’ve been there and done that.
As you can imagine the October edition is bound to be something different. We may think we know how to play that game. After all, we played it once before, or more. Yet chances are we’ve never started over with someone who, like us, brings the baggage, barnacles, and limitations that come with October. The resulting relationship will be different. Why wouldn’t it be? After all, we’ve spent a lifetime becoming someone else.

Although treading that “second time” path may be daunting, the relation seekers that I portray are a tenacious bunch, not the kind to be easily put off. The fellow may win her in the end, or he may not. October endings are not always happily-ever-after. But whatever the outcome, it won’t be for lack of trying. It’s a trait we’ve learned over a lifetime. When you’re dealing with what might be your last chance, most of us are not apt to give up.

It was that way for Jack Benz in Becoming. He had pursued that lady for so long that he didn’t recognize her when they met again. Even then it was hard to understand what she was saying. But he wasn’t about to back off until he knew her better.

Hank Rolland, on the other hand, had been looking for answers in all the wrong places. Only when he runs away from his Conversations With Sarah---all the way to the Mendocino headlands---is he able to understand what she had been telling him all along.

Going Poor illustrates a different sort of October becoming. Lane Tipton’s dreams of “happily-ever-after” have gone terribly wrong. He is sixty years old, disappointed and dejected, and forced to face his depressing failure, It is a hard thing---watching his investment in the future turn out so badly. Yet even as he walks that troubling path he is surprised to learn that his dreams of relationship have not died---but have instead grown more urgent.
And then there is perhaps the ultimate challenge facing October relationships. What happens when the deep shadows of dementia intrude? In Best Friends and Promises Aaron Peck deals with that distressing change of course. Though Alzheimer’s seems to have transported her to some place beyond him, Leona is still there beside him. Sadly, the love and companionship she has always represented are gone. In time his October trials will be further complicated by the all-to-human need for companionship, and the upsetting attention of someone willing to ease his loneliness.
At every turn Tanner provides late-life relational stories waiting to be told. Be aware, however. These are not the stories of youthful abandon, the ones that line the supermarket bookshelves. And while you’re at it, throw away your dated stereotypes---of used-up seniors and their altogether boring lives. The October seekers I depict, the ones trying so hard to overcome the emptiness of life lived alone, are definitely worth getting to know. I hope you’ll check them out.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The long road to Here

For the last three years I have used these pages to make the case that we are meant to keep “becoming” during our October Years. Even at our age we are not a “finished” product. We still have things to accomplish. Why should we allow the calendar or a number that represents our age to keep us from pursuing our October dreams? So today, in this self-ascribed “writer’s blog,” I am focusing on one of the most “unfinished products” I know. This admittedly self-indulgent post is about me, and the dream I have followed to reach this place I call Here.

The idea came to me a couple nights ago as I revisited a few of the seventy-some blog entries I have posted on these pages. From beginning to end my survey had the feel of a travel diary. I hope you will bear with me for a few minutes as I retrace some of the highs and lows on this retirement journey of mine.

It was 2008, after spending three years writing five “finished” books, when I was first ready to share my stories. At the time they resided in five three-ring binders on my bookshelf. Except for a few close friends, no one had seen them. Then, with daughter Amy’s help, a website was created and I began serializing each of the stories. 

I remember the anxiety I felt as I posted the first story. The writing was rough and unpolished, the subject matter so unlikely. There I was, a rank amateur, going public with stories about seventy year-olds meeting at a high school reunion. How bizarre was that? What would people think? As it turned out I had no reason to be so uptight. After all, unless I told someone about the stories and how to find them, no one even knew they were there.

For the next two years I posted those serialized stories twice a week---until the possibility of turning them into e-books took hold. My first excursions on the internet to learn about e-book publishing were a bit depressing. The e-book revolution was just taking off, spawning dozens of would-be publishers, all of them wanting to cash in---hoping to sell their so-called expertise to wannabe writers for a very high price.
 I had decided long before that neither my stories or my budget warranted sinking big dollars into vanity publishing schemes or pricey e-book providers. Instead, my nationwide internet search led me all the way to the wilds of Oregon, thirty miles from home. I learned that Ray Hoy’s Corvallis-based Fictionworks, Inc would design and create the e-book files, then send them off to all the major e-book sellers. At no cost to me my stories would be available as e-books, even earning a modest royalty.
Just as remarkable, Ray and I finalized our deal over lunch---discussing my books and talking about the next night’s high school football game, when the two Corvallis high schools would play each other. His grandson was a starter for Crescent Valley High School. My grandson started for Corvallis High. The next night we both watched Corvallis win by a single point.
Literally overnight I was in the e-book business. That was something special. Still, unless I personally told my prospective audience where to look, no one would have known the books were available. That same truth applied to my first Print-on-Demand paperback---a handsome volume, badly in need of proofing, that I ordered in mid-2012. Finally I had one of my own stories sitting there on my shelf. But it was expensive. Having all my books, there were eight of them by then, on that bookshelf would cost more than I was willing to spend.
Then I stumbled on to Create Space---a low-cost, do-it-yourself approach to Print-on-Demand self-publishing that fits me like a glove. In a matter of three months all eight titles were there on my shelf, and available online in affordable paperback and Kindle versions. What was there not to like about that?
Just as that task was accomplished I was surprised to find a pair of very special desserts on my plate. First, Barbara Curtin of the Salem Statesman-Journal wrote a nice article about my efforts. Though I wish she had said more about the stories themselves, instead of her amazement at finding an old fossil like me who wrote love stories about other old fossils, I definitely appreciated her article. Then, just weeks later came the first round results of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest. Though we were judged on only the first chapter of our story, it was seriously gratifying to receive my first professional reviews---flattering ones at that.
By mid-2014 there were eleven books on my Amazon Author’s page. I had spent eight months reading, editing, proofing, and rewriting each of them---creating what I was willing to accept as their final form. Finally, after posting the first chapter of each of those books on the Tanner Chronicles website, I was ready to start the next story.
Today, when I pause to retrace my own twisted path to Here, I wonder how many unpublished (in the generally accepted sense) writers there are out there. By all accounts tens of thousands of us are writing the stories we want to tell---often spending years to bring our characters and their story to life. Each of those tales, no matter the genre or style, represents an extraordinary investment of time and self.
It seems that writing, in all its many forms, has become a national passion. In this day of digital, independent publishing hundreds, even thousands, of new books become available on any given day---each one representing a significant expenditure of someone’s time and imagination. Creating a novel length story is a grueling, often frustrating endeavor. Feeding an always hungry blog site like this is a constant challenge. 

So what kind of return would justify such an investment? I suppose there are as many answers as there are would-be writers. Some are seeking fame and fortune---a viable career. I was willing to settle for a more modest payoff when, just a few weeks ago, Amazon’s Kindle Review Service provided my first full-book review of Best Friends and Promises. I’ll admit I was walking on air when I opened the reviewer’s email to find these nine words.

Your book is fantastic. I just posted my review.

Was it really “fantastic”? Perhaps not. Yet by the time I finished reading his full review I realized that a qualified reviewer had taken time to read my story and come away understanding what I was trying to say. With that validation I considered myself repaid in full, with interest. The more I thought about that the more I realized how rewarding this retirement journey of mine has been, and how glad I am to have chosen this path. 
Yet as surely as it had a beginning, it will have an ending---one that I can see from where I stand. There are three books in process, and an intriguing possibility for a fourth, along with a few blog ideas to flesh out and post before I end that. By then it will be time to turn down a different path, toward some new sort of “becoming.”

Monday, February 2, 2015

Are we addicted to Existential Anesthesia?

I am not sure when I started spelling BLOG --- R-A-N-T. I suppose its been building for a while, until it finally spilled over into bad spelling.

You see, the day is fast approaching---when my beloved Tanner, along with the rest of Oregon, becomes a legal marijuana zone. As willed by a vote of the people my mythical city, in the heart of a very real Willamette Valley, is about to be part of a rapidly spreading social experiment---one that offers our population the freedom to indulge themselves with impunity. As you might suspect, I have some very real October reservations about the wisdom of that so-called “progress.”

Let’s begin with the obvious---ours is already the most medicated culture in history. For the most part that medication is perfectly legal---the product of both human need and a highly effective pharmaceutical industry that spends hundreds of millions to convince us, and a cadre of well-funded lawmakers, that we need what they are selling. 

I will be the first to admit that when I seek the relief and healing of today’s medicines I am thankful to have them available. Yet I realize that even as they heal me, they are instrumental in creating and funding a delivery system designed to insure huge profits for both vendors and providers---while leaving our population to pay by far the highest health-care costs in the world, for something less than the best results.

Yet beyond those legal and socially acceptable forms of medicinal intervention, our society is awash in a sea of chemical “coping” agents---from booze, to narcotics, to pot, and a whole array of manufactured “designer” drugs. Our citizens are increasingly addicted to those pharmaceutical aids, both legal and illegal. Moreover, a widespread, often underground economy is equally addicted to the profits that our coping produces. More than ever before, our “land of the free and the brave” is addicted to its addictions.

And now we come face to face with the latest round of coping capabilities. Marijuana, long relegated to the shadow side of the conversation, has been liberated. Now, firmly established in the daylight, it will be available to one and all---young and old. Tipping the scales in that sometimes contentious debate was pot's new role as a productive and popular source of coveted tax revenue.
But before I address my concerns about my state’s “progressive” expansion of pot’s availability, give me a moment to limit the scope of my objections. Like many states Oregon already has a modest medical marijuana program in place. Though not everyone agrees with that, I accept the evidence of the drug’s medicinal capabilities and have no problem with it being available in that form, given proper regulation and oversight.
Rather, it is the brave new world of universal marijuana acceptance that has me concerned about what lies ahead. This new reality has yet to make its way into any of my Tanner stories. But rest assured, it has more than a few of us October and November types wondering what good or bad, help or harm, will come from this new state of affairs. At least one old fossil I know feels the need to have his say about that.
I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. I may be the only one who harbors unsettling visions of where our chemically-sated society is heading. Of course our efforts to escape the harsh realities of life are nothing new. That is surely as old as mankind. Everyone has moments when they want to avoid a hurtful circumstance. There was a time when scotch-on-the-rocks was my favored retreat. Fortunately, somewhere along the way I learned that whatever I was running from would still be there in the morning.
But I worry that with today’s increasingly effective, and sometimes lethal, means of avoiding life as it is, more of us are opting to use, even rely on, those means of escape. I am so concerned  about that trend that I have given it a name. I call our societal attempts to escape reality Existential Anesthesia or EA.
Of course, with true October logic I tell myself that if anyone needs Existential Anesthesia to face their circumstances, it would be we October and November types---the ones worn down by decades of dealing with real life. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

But instead it seems that many of our young are succumbing to EA in one or more of its often enticing forms. At the very time of life we want them to be curious, alert, and clear minded---ready to face the daunting challenges that await them---I fear that too many of them, overwhelmed by those possibilities, are turning to EA---seeking an emotional retreat that is too often a dead end. 
The advocates tell us we must accept the reality of a “new way”---one that makes pot available to everyone. They tout its “decriminalization,” a change that will allow future generations to avoid the legal residue of youthful indiscretions. And I'll admit, those arguments ring true. Yet how many lives, young and not-so-young, will be impacted by the reinforced message that we have the right to indulge ourselves in potentially harmful, but perfectly legal ways? How many of us will learn to cope by retreating into a TCH haze?
We tell ourselves, or others tell us, that escape, in a socially acceptable manner, is fine---even therapeutic. They say it can be a wonderful stress reliever. Yet in the end how often does that retreat resolve the ills driving their urge to escape?
Still, in the end this is not an argument I am going to win. The forces behind this new form of EA are growing. They will eventually have their way. I may not agree, and will sometimes give thanks that I won’t be around to see how it ends. But then I remember that my children and grandchildren will be there, dealing with that outcome. It seems that I must pray for their well being and accept what I cannot change. Unless, of course, I choose to pour myself a tall scotch-on-the-rocks and try to forget it.
So what do you think? I know there are a lot of opinions out there. I’d like to hear yours. If you would like to “Comment” feel free to choose “Anonymous” to avoid exposing your personal details. If you are inclined to share the post via email use the “M” symbol to do that. Let me know what you think about this.