Stressed Out and Hating It

I’m stressed out.  Others notice it, too.  Some think it’s because of my job.  They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re also not entirely correct.

The truth is, I’m like the stress version of the Hulk–I’m always stressed.  Everything stresses me out.  I feel like I’m always on the verge of a breakdown, always ready to rage at whomever is nearby over everything that has irritated me that day.

It’s not healthy.  I know it’s not.  But I can’t help it.  And then I start freaking out that my stress is going to set off my arrhythmia and I’m going to feel even worse if I go into afib. You might guess that doesn’t help the stress levels.

The truth is, I wasn’t made for the real world.  I should be spending my days at home, writing, taking care of the house.  But instead I not only work (as is necessary), but I chose a career where I’m constantly dealing with teenagers who think they know everything, and who expect me to treat them like adults when they won’t behave like adults.  A career that is nearly universally hated in this country, where I’m constantly judged by people who don’t know the first thing about what I do but feel they have the right and the knowledge to critique me.

Okay, maybe it’s a little bit my job.

That Time I Yelled At My Kid in Public: A Story of Parenting In Progress

I haven’t been posting much, because aside from “Where I am now in my interminable monkeying with this new project I haven’t actually gotten ready to write yet,” I haven’t felt like I had much to say.

And then I remembered that one of the things I most love about Harlan Ellison–and yes, I get that he’s made mistakes, he’s still a brilliant writer, let’s move on–is his ability and willingness to expose his viscera in his introductions.

Well, if he can do it, I can, right?  I guess we’ll see.  So here, have an anecdote from an incident that happened a few years ago, and why it illustrates what I most love about my family:

Sometimes, parenting is hard.  Sometimes it’s even harder.

When my daughter was five or so, she and I went camping with my family–my aunt, my uncle, my sisters, and some family friends who are basically family.  Tegan did great the first day, on the drive up to the campsite, and she had fun that first night, but on the second day she got hit with a bout of “I want my mama.”

Now, Tegan is what most people would call “stubborn,” just like her mom and I, but which experts would call “Holy fuck, she must be Scottish!” She started needling me about how she wanted to go home, because she wanted her mom.  She just Would Not Stop.

At first, I was able to reason with her and handle it, but it got difficult really fast.  I was feeling overwhelmed by being the sole caretaker of her, being unable to relax, and dealing with her nearly-constant demands for this or that.  And after a good long while of hearing “I want to go home!” I was ready to burst.

Once more, I tried to reason with her.  Mama was having some quiet alone time, and we needed to let her have that.  We were having fun, and if she would just relax, and put her socks and shoes on for me, I’d take her to the playground, and we would have dinner, and then go to sleep, and we’d see mama tomorrow.

She was having none of it.

And finally, I snapped, and screamed “Knock it off!”

Now, when I say I screamed, I’m not telling you I raised my voice, and I didn’t yell.  I outright screamed, in a five year old child’s face, to knock it off.  At the top of my lungs.

Yeah. Parenting fail.

As soon as I did it, I knew I’d fucked up.  Her little face was in tears, and I was feeling like the biggest shithead in the universe, and the worst dad ever.  I couldn’t even dare to look away from her; I knew everyone would be looking at me in horror.

And then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and my aunt said, gently, “Take a breath,” and steered me back to everyone else.  And my sister Blair, took my daughter, and said “Hey, let’s go play and give dad a minute.”  And my sister Brooke handed me a beer, and said “Sit.”

Nobody lectured me.  Nobody said anything, except “It’s hard, sometimes, huh?” And I talked about feeling overwhelmed, and how I wasn’t sure how my daughter was going to grow up without hating me, because I just don’t have patience.  And the family friend told me stories about her losing it at her kids, and that they turned out pretty good (which they did).  And when Tegan came back, I gave her a hug, and she sat in my lap until it was time to eat, and gave me kisses.

That was the first time I ever really lost my temper with my kid.  I wish I could say it was the last, but that would be a lie.  But when it happens, I do what I did then–I apologize for losing my patience, and for making her afraid, and then deal with the actual problem.  I’m getting better now and heading off that kind of loss of temper and cooling down, but that’s a thing you learn over time–I wish I’d known it then, but I was still pretty new at the whole “parenting someone who can walk and talk and has her own mind and personality now” stage.

I just talked to Tegan about this incident–and she has no memory of it at all.  But she remembers other times, and she knows that my temper is a lot like hers–sometimes it gets the better of us, but we keep getting better at controlling it.

My daughter and I are super close.  She’s lost it at me, I’ve lost it at her, but when it happens, we handle it.  And we heal.

And the thing about my family that story illustrates is that we’re there for each other.  We don’t talk about how close we are, and we don’t generally say shit like “Family is Important,” but when the chips are down, we are there for each other.

Our New Kitten

I hesitate to include posts like this sometimes, but he’s so cute.

You wish you had a cat this cute

Meet Loki.  Loki is only five weeks old, but he was found stuck in a fence and turned in to the veterinary office where my sister works.  She couldn’t keep him, but we could, so he’s now nominally Tegan’s kitty (but really spends about as much time with Elli and I).  He’s a cutey, of course, and his run makes us burst out laughing every time.

I had some internal misgivings about adopting another cat–we already had three, and we long ago decided to stop acquiring new ones and letting attrition take us back down to two.  But he needed a home, and he’s very sweet, so I no longer have any problems with it.

He’s a good boy, too–uses his litter box and everything.  The other cats tolerate him, but aren’t ready to make friends yet.  But at least none of them are outright attacking him.  It’s all posturing and hissing.

Anyway, I’ve got essays to grade, so I’ll see you all on the other side of hell.

On Becoming the Johnston Family Archivist

I was just delivered a treasure trove. My late Uncle Michael had decided I should have the Johnston family records and paraphernalia, and my Aunt Kaye sent it to me this week.
This is an amazing treasure trove of documents, from pictures of my dad and uncle as kids, to pictures of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and even further back into the 19th century. There are newspaper clippings from V-E and V-J days, from FDR’s death and Kennedy’s assassination, as well as many clippings from a huge flood that hit Kansas City in 1951.
Best of all, there are letters, not only between my grandfather and his mother, but between my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather, dating to the literal turn of the century–one of the letters is dated 1900.
I’m looking forward to spending more time with this archive, and protecting the papers within it.
All my life, I’ve been connected to my mother’s family, but keenly felt the lack of knowledge of the other side of my being. Over the last few years, as I met Michael, and found my brother, I’ve become more and more steeped in the history of my dad’s family. It’s somewhat overwhelming.
There are lots of people who are holding on to the stories and archives of my mom’s family, myself included. But with my dad’s family, I’m it. There are others connected, of course–my dad and uncle had cousins, and the Johnston clan is all over this country. But my particular branch, my dad’s branch, there isn’t anyone left now but my brother and I, and those who come after us.
It’s humbling.

The Things That Get In Our Way

Arthur Dent said it best: “I seem to be having this terrible difficulty with my lifestyle.”

My daily routine is to get up, help get my child up, and on some days take her to school.  When the work day ends, I pick her up.  I’m supposed to go to the Y, work out while she does her homework, then head home.  But I never seem to do that.

There’s always something that needs to be done, you see.  An errand I need to run, a car to pick up from the shop, a package to mail.  And then there’s a solid 30-45 minutes of traffic to get home. So I don’t go.

So I’m still fat.

I need to either get my days under control, and go to the gym, or I need to suck it up and go back on Medifast.  I am sick to death of carrying this extra 80 pounds around, and I want it gone.  Changing eating has helped, but not enough–I simply need more exercise.

This kind of thing gets in the way of writing, too.  There’s homework to help with, papers to grade, and when it’s all done, my brain is not at all interested in letting me create fiction.  Who cares where Azhan and Jasen are?  Who cares that Ereka is a prisoner of the Dalken Ro, and why should I figure out how she escapes? It’s much easier to sleep, or play a game, or watch something fun.

And who really gives a crap about the Zhen Empire and its people?

I’m working on ways around my daily errands and such, but it isn’t easy.  If you have a suggestion that doesn’t involve getting up at 5am to write (I am NOT a morning person, no matter how much it may seem otherwise once I’m actually awake), feel free to sling it my way.

Age and Perspective Are Amazing Things

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was totally into Cosplay.  I couldn’t afford to do it right, but I did my best. I even marched with local groups in a couple of parades.

When I was in my 30s, I was over it.  I had no interest in cosplay.  I left fandom behind.

Now, at 45?  I’m over being over it.  I found a local vendor of Jedi Robes.  I could probably, with my wife’s help, try to figure out how to make them for myself, but frankly I think that would end with my wife killing me by bashing my brains out with a sewing machine.  If she agrees, I plan on getting this vendor to make them for me, and joining the Rebel Legion to revel in my cosplay and do Good Deeds at the same time.

That’s the thing about growing older–things you used to absolutely avoid because they were embarrassing, or shameful, become less so the older you get. At a certain point you realize that other people can’t make you feel bad for liking something.  Only you can do that, and you lose interest in it quickly.

I seem to have finally reached that point.

I grew up on singers like Neil Diamond, Anne Murray, Crystal Gale, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline.  But in the early 80s I fell in love with the New Wave, and I stopped listening to the old stuff.  My musical tastes became wrapped almost entirely in Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and all the rest of that era’s signature acts.

For years, I didn’t listen to the music of my youth, because someone might make fun of me.  But you know what?  Who gives a shit?  Anybody who wants to mock me for liking something can fuck right off.  I don’t need that level of crap; I get plenty at work.  So I listen to those acts from my childhood, and I listen to Britney Spears if I feel like it, or Disney tunes, or showtunes, or whatever the hell I want.

I don’t like sushi.  I pretended to, once upon a time, to fit in.  Screw that.

I hate horror movies.  Won’t watch ’em.  Don’t care.

I am a sci-fi geek.  I am a cosplayer.  “Forever in Blue Jeans” is one of my favorite songs.  Go ahead, make fun of me.

I don’t care anymore.

Summer is Over. Let’s Check In

So, the blog fell into disuse over August.  I started to write posts, but they were mostly whining about how I wasn’t getting any fiction done, so I stopped.  But now we’ve begun the new school year, so let’s do a rundown of life.

Writing Life

I wrote very little over the summer, and most of it was terrible.  Part of it is that I’m in limbo, with several different projects on the burners, with none of them shaped enough to really get them written.  I’ve got a “Die Hard in Space” plot, a Sci-Fi Mystery save-the-world plot, a coming-of-age/revenge plot, two fictional oral history-type projects, and of course the second and third Zhen books. None of them are developed enough to write except the Zhen books, but I don’t want to start those until the first book is under contract (or at least signed to an agent) and revised, because I have a feeling it will change enough that it will force changes in the second and third books.  Also, the way book 1 is doing in agent rounds suggests maybe it needs more work.

On that note… Book 1 has been outright rejected based on the query alone 25 times, with 5 requests for partials, which all got rejects.  There’s one partial out now, but my pessimistic self expects that rejection any day now.  That’s only It’s really hard to know if this is the numbers game, or if I need to make some changes to the first three chapters to make the book more “eye-grabbing.”  Maybe I start off wrong.  Maybe Tajen finds out about his brother’s death in a stupid way.  Maybe I need to do more with Zhen anti-human prejudice in the first chapter.  I dunno.

I’m looking forward to October, when I’ll be heading to Martha’s Vineyard for a reunion with my Viable Paradise class (and students from other classes, as well as at least some of the instructors).


Tegan has started in a new school, and while day one wasn’t awesome for her, day two seems to be better.  The savings we’re seeing from leaving Private School are enabling us to allow her to do more activities she’s into–she’s joined the school’s choir, and may start learning the violin in the school orchestra (she hasn’t made up her mind yet).  Bottom line, she’s happy.

Over the month of August I ripped the floor out of both of our bathrooms, laid down new tile floors, and installed new toilets.  Doing my bathroom was fairly simple, and took a day and a half, but Tegan’s bathroom had bigger problems to solve, and it took me nearly a week and involved repainting a wall, as well as installing new tile and plumbing.


School started September 1.  My classes are pretty good this year, though the start of a new year is always somewhat awkward.  We’ll see how things shake out as the students and I get to know each other.



A Long-Delayed Delight

Greetings from beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I am vacationing with my family this week.  I was last here (the first time I came) at Christmas in 2005.  It’s a great place, a real slice of Old Mexico: the town was founded in 1541, and because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, the town has very strict rules about color and what you can build in your home–everything has to look roughly like it did during the Colonial period. It’s really cool to walk down streets that are still cobblestone–slightly less cool to walk UP the streets (this is a city of hills), but oh well.

Anyway, when I was last here, we had a family dinner the last night in a local restaurant owned by my wife’s aunt and uncle, El Pegaso  (If you’re ever in SMA, I highly recommend this place).

During that dinner, my eye was held by a dish on the menu, but in the end I went with something “safe” and known.  And it was good, but I always regretted not trying that dish. Well, we’re here again, and a couple of nights ago we had dinner at El Pegaso.  And I tried that dish, Chiles en Nogada.


That was one of the best things I have ever eaten.  Had Tia Robin been there, I’d have kissed her.  She’s safely out of my reach right now, though, as she’s out of the country.

Here’s roughly what it is: Two Poblano chiles, stuffed with ground beef, cheese, raisins, and some other stuff I’ve forgotten, all topped with a completely freaking wonderful walnut sauce and then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (as the menu says, “All the colors of Mexico on one plate”).

It sounds good, but it tastes so much better than it sounds.  I felt bad for my vegetarian family that they can’t taste that amazing dish.  And I kind of want to eat dinner there one more time so I can have it again before we leave.  I mean, I looked it up, and I’ve found recipes for it (and you’d better believe I’ll be attempting this dish), but I doubt I will ever be able to make it as well as the chef at El Pegaso did.

No lie, this is one of my favorite dishes now.

A Death in The Family

This morning the phone rang at 5:20.  I didn’t wake up when it rang (it was on silent), but a few minutes later, woke up and saw the notification. I knew, as soon as I saw who it was, it was bad news. I had a pretty good idea I knew what it was, too.  As there was no sense in putting it off, I returned the call.
My uncle, Michael Johnston, passed away this morning after a month-long battle with cancer.  He’d kept it from all but the closest of friends and family.
Despite having pictures of Michael holding me when I was a baby, I’ve only known him about seven years, and if I’m being truthful, not well. I first found him in 2008 after years of searching, and spoke to him shortly afterward. We met a couple of years later, as he was in California visiting relatives, so we met halfway and spent several hours talking face to face.
We didn’t speak on the phone much–I guess neither of us really like talking on the phone–but we traded emails and Facebook messages.
I didn’t know him well at all–but he was important to me, as a link to my father’s family. I’ve never been able to shrug off the fact that my dad wasn’t in my life, especially after his death, and MJ was a bright spot in an otherwise messy and often painful mess of feelings about family. He gave me some much-needed information about where my dad came from and what he was like, both as a kid and as an adult. It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad, either.
I didn’t know him well–but I loved him. We had a lot in common, from our taciturn manner to our love of bacon, and even our love of music, though he pursued that rather more assiduously than I did.
Michael had a great voice, and I still play his music often.
I always meant to work harder at keeping in touch. Now it’s too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Halfway Through My Forties. Mid-Life Hits Hard.

Warning: Today is one of those “baring my inner demons” posts.  You might want to skip it.

Today I am 45 years old.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I mean, I know how I should feel.  But I really don’t feel like that.

On the one hand, I don’t feel appreciably older than I did last month, or last year.  On the other hand, people say things to me like “I want to celebrate you!” and I think “What’s to celebrate?”  I’m 45, and the only really noteworthy thing I’ve done is be a dad to an amazing little girl.  I’ve muddled my way through my life and I have damned little to show for it.  No books or stories published, I make a middling wage with no real chance of it increasing much, and I live in fear that I’m actually a jerk people tolerate for some reason. (Please, friends, no jokes about this.)

I’ve survived a lot of hell, but what’s to celebrate about that? What else was I going to do? It’s not noble, it’s not special.  Lots of people have survived worse.

I have lived twenty years longer than my mom, and 2 years longer than my dad. The fact they died young shouldn’t make me feel old, but it does.

Also, let’s face it.  Nobody can tell me I’m not middle aged now.  My grandfather lived to be 92.  If I live that long, then I’m now halfway through my lifespan.  I’m no longer of any real concern to the people who made decisions about the kinds of movies and shows I love.  I am in an increasingly irrelevant demographic, and it’s probably just going to get worse.

I don’t want to be feeling like this on my damn birthday.  But there it is.  I know it’s temporary; I know I’ll feel better eventually.  But this is me now.