If At First …

During my first semester of college, in between learning to catch a screaming frisbee behind my back (I should have been in class) and drinking unfathomable amounts of beer (I probably should have been studying), I wandered through a slightly advanced English class — trust me, it wasn’t that advanced — in which I was asked to write, as the year’s main project, a short story.

My first attempt at fiction was a tale about a radio disc jockey working an overnight gig and spinning various tunes — that’s what they did back then, DJs; they spun tunes — while watching a clock on the other side of the window tick inexorably toward the end of his shift. My dad had an occasional weekend job as a disc jockey/news reader. I remember going to see him at the station a few times. You write what you know.

The story turned out OK, especially given my lack of commitment to the process. The professor gave me an ‘A.’ (This, clearly, was not the creative writing program at Columbia.) The class applauded after my reading. A dark-haired girl who sat next to me, whose name I can’t recall, told me she liked it. And I remember thinking that if I could knock out a 10-page assignment a night after a killer toga party and ace it, maybe I could make a living someday at this writing thing.

***

We are on the cusp of a new year, wrapping up another 12 months that featured more misery and frustration than any year should rightly produce. Sure, maybe we made the most of 2021. Maybe we have learned, as best as we can, to live with the virus and the assorted variants that have upended our entire world. We have, in a few weird ways, actually thrived. The stock market is apparently unaffected. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in decades. Jobs are absolutely plentiful for those who don’t fear stepping out among the virus. They’re plenty available, too, for those who would rather hunker down at home until the pandemic passes. We’ve learned, in the past many, many months, that working at home can work. Imagine that.

But we’re going on Year 3 living this way. If it’s getting any easier, it’s at least partly because we’ve become desensitized to the pain, the suffering, the unending effort that it takes. Granted, there’s less a risk of death now from the virus, thanks largely to those who have decided that getting a vaccine and urging others to do the same is not, as some believe, an act of anti-Americanism. But people are still dying — you hear and see and read stories every day — and a ton of people are still getting sick. More than 1 million new cases were reported worldwide on Wednesday, the worst day yet. We set another record on Thursday.

If there’s an end in sight, you need some real rose-colored glasses to see it. It’s a strange and depressing time, if you let it become that. Well, strange, for sure.

The one common trait among the pro-vaccination crowd and the anti-vaxxers, those who mask up and the never-maskers, is that we all just want this damn thing to be over. Meanwhile, we trudge along, and gawdawful 2020 gives way to 2021, and ’21 sucks, too, though probably not quite as much, and now, before 2022 even pops out, it seems we’d all be happy simply with less sucky than last year.

What a way to ring in the new year.

***

College was a long time ago. A long time. Since those days of catching frisbees and an occasional class, and eventually finding my way into this life’s work, I’ve written thousands of stories — many, many thousands — for a lot of different newspapers, magazines and online sites. A few of those efforts, I think, might have even impressed that girl in my ENG 104 class.

But in all that time I’ve never once written another short, fictional story. Or a long one. No book, fiction or non-fiction. No novel. Nothing but those thousands of pieces of reportage and a few when-the-guilty-urge-strikes-me blog posts. Which are, by my definition, non-fiction.

I have all sorts of excuses for that seeming hole in my resume. But, really, I haven’t needed excuses. Have not looked for them. Did not want them. My career, as I have gladly accepted it, is not writing short stories or novels.

But for a while now, I have been looking for more. It’s why I started this blog in the first place, more than six years ago. To write something that doesn’t boil down to — this might be too simplistic a way to tar an entire profession, but that’s journalism — “This person had this to say.”

I want to use a little more imagination. To try something new. To see if I can.

***

When the pandemic interrupted everything, a lot of people thought exactly what the actress Anna Kendrick tweeted back at the start of the pandemic. A lot of us looked at our lifelong goals and thought … Now’s the Perfect Time.

Maybe we should have known, though, that a pandemic-stalled life is still life. The bills still come due. The relationships still must be tended to. The cars have to be gassed up (though not as much), the carpets vacuumed, the lawn mowed, the dog walked, the groceries bought, the meals cooked.

Life in a pandemic is even harder, we know now, than regular living. It’s so damn tiring. The worry. The frustration. The constant sniping at each other. The simple inability to go on as you’ve always gone. Even when you try to build some semblance of normal, the pandemic always butts in.

Our son, Luke, is home for the holidays. We ventured up to Cincinnati last week, as we do pretty much every year, mingled gingerly with a crowd of about 25 members of our extended family on Christmas Day, as we do pretty much every year, went to lunch masked-up at Skyline a couple times, made the roughly eight-hour drive back and did our Christmas here. Luke and I ate a lunch outside and one in our car in the past couple days, wandered around a deserted downtown Alpharetta one warm night and sat down, outside, to drink a beer. All three of us took our Covid tests Wednesday in preparation for his post-Christmas reunion here in Atlanta with his girlfriend and … screeeeeeeeeeeeech.

Thursday night, Luke got his test results. He’s positive.

He’s boostered up, and if we’re lucky, he’s caught the Omicron variant, which looks to be a little less severe than the original Covid or the Delta variant. Symptoms-wise, he’s got the sniffles and not much else. His case looks to be pretty mild. He says he feels fine. Still, as with pre-Covid life, when it comes to life with the virus, it’s always something.

That’s why, for many of us these days (Anna Kendrick evidently included), we get through a work day, if we’re lucky enough to have work, we do what has to be done in our personal lives — yeah, if we’re lucky enough to have those, too — and we sit down to watch Netflix.

The Perfect Time? Yeah. Maybe next week.

***

I’m a New Years resolutions type of guy. I’m not necessarily a resolutions keeper. I am, if anyone were ever to keep score, a pretty damn good New Years resolution breaker. I may be a professional at it. Still, at the end of a year, I like to take stock and think about what I want to get done in the year ahead.

Sometimes, in a year like this one, and the one before, getting through with your health, the health of those closest to you, and your relative sanity intact seems accomplishment enough. Resolution No. 1, then: Let’s get through 2022 and hope that it’s better than 2021. That’ll be big.

Obviously, I hope that Luke gets through this bout with the virus without a hitch, and that there’s no long-term effects, and I hope Mary Jo and her folks and all my family and friends stay healthy and safe. Heck, I hope that for everybody. But those aren’t really resolutions. Those aren’t something I can control.

These, I can:

For 2022, I resolve to read more and watch less Netflix. And Apple TV+. And Disney+. And Amazon. And Plus+. And whatever. There’s been some good stuff, sure. But so, so much is bad. Awful. Slapped together to keep people stuck on their couches. Not worth the time.

For 2022, I also resolve to try to understand better those with whom I don’t agree. I’ve spent a lot of the past two years trying to figure out anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. I read conservative sites. I have right-wing friends. Still don’t get them. I’ll listen more.

For 2022, along with the my annual health resolutions (watch my diet, keep up with my exercise, try to find my long-lost jump shot), I resolve to try something new. Stretching, maybe. Less salt. More cauliflower. Some of that new-fangled high-intensity interval training. (If I make a resolution fuzzy enough, you see, I can’t be held to it.)

For 2022, I resolve to write more on this blog. That’s a resolution that has failed miserably in the past. This blog is a little journalism-like — instead of “this person had this to say,” it’s “I have this to say” — but it’s personal, which is a nice change in what I do, it’s a bit of a different format than what I usually write in and it provides a little time capsule for Luke when I’m gone. (Though, I realize now, he may have to pay WordPress some day to keep this thing alive. Take it out of the inheritance, kid.)

And for 2022, I resolve to make a real run, finally, at writing fiction. Maybe I’ll try another short story. Maybe something longer. Maybe a re-start on that dream of a novel. Who knows? It’s a long year, and if it’s anything like the last two, life and the pandemic will try to screw up any carefully laid plans we have.

Still, it’s worth a real try, right? Just to see if I can.

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