Will Write For Free (But Would Rather Be Paid)

Ten days ago, I was contacted by one of the editors I write for. He asked if I could provide four book reviews for the next issue of his magazine and said he’d need them in about a week and a half. (Ahem, today.)

Despite an even busier week with mom than usual — seven appointments in five days — and a few personal commitments, I said I’d do my best to deliver. (And then I took out a paper bag and forced myself to breathe into it.)

Each book review requires at least three hours of writing and revising time, often more — and this doesn’t include the reading component. While I was able to pitch two books I’d already read, I also had to finish a third (already begun) and read a fourth. As a pdf file. (Call me old fashioned, but cell phones, Kindle, and other screens are not my preferred method consumption.)

The time demands have been substantial. For instance, I was up until nearly 1 o’clock in the morning finishing the last of the books. So … sleep deprivation on top of needing to find an extra handful of hours in my day.

Have I mentioned that this assignment is unpaid?

I can hear the chorus of “Aww, hell no” that resounded with that revelation. But the truth is I could have said no. Was tempted to, even — and maybe should have. Nobody held a gun to my head.

So why didn’t I say no?

The easy answer is that I’m a people pleaser — a yes man, even when it’s to my own detriment. I don’t like to disappoint. I’ve been working on this aspect of my personality, but it’s difficult going against one’s nature.

But there were other factors that informed my decision.

First, I like this editor. (Okay, I like all my editors.) Once upon a time, he sought me out at a conference to compliment my work — which he was actually familiar with — and invited me to contact him about writing for his magazine, should I wish to do so. And then he provided an opportunity to do just that when I emailed him to follow-up. Beyond business, he has taken an interest in my personal life, regularly inquiring about my family. That makes an impression.

Second, the magazine — and its corresponding blog, which I’ve also written for on occasion — is prestigious. It’s somewhat of a coup to write for them (even if it is gratis). Those bylines increase the likelihood that other editors of repute will be open to having me write for them. Hopefully for monetary compensation.

Third, I genuinely enjoyed the books and wasn’t slated to review them elsewhere. Perhaps my work will offer the author a bit more exposure or entice a reader to check out the title(s). That’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Why wouldn’t I want to share my enthusiasm? Books bring me an inordinate amount of joy and this is often my way of returning the favor.

Having said all that, I don’t believe that writers — or other artists, or anybody, really — should have to work for free. Or to be expected to. In fact, I know people that will not work for free regardless of the circumstances. And I respect that position. But I also think it’s wise to consider the pros and cons before drawing a firm line.

For instance, if you write a blog that few people read, might it be beneficial to expend that energy elsewhere if it means reaching a substantially larger audience — and particularly if the subject matter is the same or similar? If you’re going to be writing for free anyway, you might as well maximize the benefit(s).

If you simply cannot afford to write for free then don’t. If you have some flexibility in this regard, think about matters beyond money. Will the work introduce you to a new audience? Does the topic compel you? Might you be challenged to write beyond your comfort zone and/or style? Are you passionate enough about the subject that all other concerns are secondary?

(A confession: I should probably tell you that my background is in working for non-profits. So perhaps I’m simply accustomed to doing a whole lot for very little. Make of that what you will.)

I could go on about this at length — and maybe someday I will — but I’ve got a deadline to meet. And sometimes the mere act of completion, of hitting SEND, of crossing it off my “to do” list is payment enough.

JBV

The Library: A Hogwarts For Muggles

I recently read an article that made me think there’s hope for humanity yet: “In 2019, more Americans went to the library that to the movies. Yes, really.”

It was a piece for lithub recapping a new Gallup poll — the first of its kind since 2001 — that found patronizing the local library remains Americans’ most common cultural activity, with an average of 10.5 visits per year.

In a country dominated by disspiriting news — or so it seems — this is a ray of light. Despite division and disparity, libraries remain the hubs of their community, offering safe havens for education, socialization, and exposure to ideas (and people) seemingly different than our own. And at no cost. (Well, unless you’ve been racking up late fees.)

If knowledge is the antidote to fear, ignorance, and/or hate, then libraries may be our best defense in the war to save ourselves — and each other.

I grew up a faithful devotee to my local library. I still remember the thrill of searching the stacks for the perfect book(s), the feeling that I was getting one over on somebody every time I made it out the door with more than I could possibly read before their due dates. (And yes, the burning shame of the occasional overdue item.) The possibilities were endless, and I was a little bit greedy in my desire for more, more, more.

From picture books to chapter books to “adult books, and even audiobooks — not to mention magazines, movies, and music — the library may have been the truest mark of my (supposed) maturation.

I’m ashamed to admit I let my card expire after I left Portland. The irony is that this coincided with my deeper involvement in the literary world as a reviewer/interviewer/fledgling writer, when I developed the compulsion to own (and thereby keep) all the books I’d been reading or wanting to read.

That’s not to say I stopped patronizing libraries, though. I attended author discussions and conferences. Supported book sales (both through donations and purchases). I even moderated Portland’s One Book event after moving back to town in 2015 — hoping the entire time nobody would out me as a lapsed member. (The audience was made up largely of friends and family — so the likelihood of that happening was exponentially higher than normal.)

But it wasn’t until this past summer that mom and I renewed our library cards. While my intention was to encourage mom to select magazines, movies, and music to diversify her entertainment habits — because how many Law & Order: SVU re-runs can one person possibly watch? — I found myself doing the same. Before I knew it, I was right back in the habit of borrowing more books than I could possibly read in the allotted time.

And the librarian (Hi Janet!) would then give me that knowing smile and head nod. The one that says, “Yes, you are one of us.”

Which brings me back to the point that libraries are a place of belonging, and not just for the well-read but for the curious. They offer entertainment and enrichment and foster a sense of connectedness. It’s magical, really — like a Hogwarts for mere Muggles.

The cost is free but the value is priceless.

JBV

Mac Attack (With Recipe)

It’s an occasion in our house: the night I make dinner.

I refer to it as an occasion because it doesn’t happen very often. Once a month, maybe. (Even that might be too generous.) And when it does happen, the result is likely to be one of the following: baked macaroni and cheese, burgers, meatloaf, or quiche.

My wife and I have different philosophies when it comes to cooking. I like to stick to what I’m good at while she’s a bit more adventurous (and considers things like proper nutrition). In fact, it’s not unheard of for her to have a meal started and only then look up a recipe to account for the ingredients.

I like to poke fun at her for this (because that’s just what I do) but it’s an admirable trait, arguably. It keeps our diet mysteriously varied, adds an element of unpredictability, and makes use of our ridiculously expensive high-speed internet (or old fashioned cookbooks). There have been more hits than misses.

(Besides, how much can I criticize when I seldom bear the burden of big meals? I doubt we’d make a week without repetition, otherwise.)

Tonight, I’ll be making the aforementioned mac-and-cheese. Comfort food at its best for a cold and rainy winter’s night. And c’mon — who doesn’t love cheese carbs? (If the answer is you and you’d like for us to remain friends, it’d be better not to say it.)

It’s a recipe that I’ve been using for at least twenty years. I can’t remember where it originated or how it fell into my hands — dad, maybe — but it’s old enough to have been rewritten by my wife and then laminated for protection.

I’ve made this particular dish so often that I could probably do so without looking. But I won’t. With the exception of a few tweaks (more on these later), I’ll follow the recipe as if it was new to me. Simply because I like the consistency of knowing what’s to come.

(Have you pegged me as a creature of habit? If so, you’d be correct. But that’s its own entry, coming … some other day.)

The difficulty of the dish is in the timing. At the outset, you’ll be making a roux with butter, flour, salt, and pepper while also measuring/heating milk and chopping cheese (both to be added later), and boiling water. Stir this, nuke that, cut those. Lots of potential for error — and if you mess up the roux you’ll be starting from scratch.

Once you’ve begun to add the milk and cheese to your base mixture, the trick becomes finding a temperature that will melt the cheese without completely liquifying your sauce as you also prepare your pasta. I find that medium heat, or slightly lower, works best (it minimizes the risk of burning). You’ll want to adjust accordingly, and add cheese at consistent intervals throughout. And stir, dammit! Stir, stir, stir.

Speaking of cheese. You’re going to want to use something flavorful, like a sharp or extra sharp cheddar. Otherwise, you run the risk of achieving a taste that’s either too subtle or even — gasp! — bland. (This reminds me of the time that one of the kid’s tasted cousin ****’s macaroni and cheese dish at a family gathering and proceeded to scream: “It tastes like NOTHING!!!”)

I actually like to mix my cheeses — say, half extra sharp cheddar and half pepper jack. That way, you’re pretty much guaranteed a flavor burst. After all, the cheese is co-hosting this little culinary soiree and wants to show off.

Which brings me to the other main ingredient: macaroni. Ideally, you want a pasta that will both absorb the sauce and be easy to eat. Until just recently, I used cellentani — but I’ve come to prefer mezzi rigatoni. Not only is it robust, but easy to spear with a fork. Just trust me on this.

Your baking dish is also integral. Wide and deep, people, wide and deep. And, in addition to greasing, I would suggest coating the bottom with a bit of your cheese sauce before adding the noodles. Then, pour the remainder over the top and give everything a good stir so that your noodles are thoroughly coated.

Now this is where we discuss the liberties you might wish to take with the recipe. I prefer simplicity — diced scallions, which give a pop of color and flavor (AND satisfy the need for a vegetable, meaning you can nix the side salad) and bread crumbs to top, if I have them. (There were none in the pantry tonight so I grated a leftover cheese biscuit from Red Lobster — which is my idea of cooking dangerously!)

If you prefer to have a meat, I’d suggest bacon. I’m sure chicken or ham would be equally good, if either of those tickle your taste buds. Or picked lobster, even (delicious if it’s in the budget!). But moderation is key; you don’t want to overpower the original flavor profile. (Yup, I did just say that. Food Network here I come!)

If you’ve made it this far, the hard work is done. (Well, with the exception of waiting.) Pop your dish in the oven, set a timer, prepare your side dishes (if desired), and salivate accordingly.

A few last words of advice. Double the recipe. (Again, trust me on this.) Add extra cheese. (Yes, extra, extra cheese.) Bake for an additional six minutes.

Then … bon appetit! You might hate yourself in the morning — but it’ll be worth it.

JBV

***

Baked Mac-and-Cheese

Ingredients:

1 tbsp. butter

1 tbsp. flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

1 cup hot skim milk

1 cup diced cheddar cheese

8 oz. macaroni

Directions:

1. In a saucepan, melt butter and stir in flour, salt, and pepper

2. Gradually stir in hot milk and cook, stirring until the sauce is thickened

3. Add cheese and stir until it is melted

4. Cook macaroni as directed on package; drain lightly

5. Grease a casserole and pour hot sauce into it; stir in cooked macaroni

6. Bake in a 350-degree F oven; makes 3 servings

Freeform Friday III: $uccess (A Poem)

What is the measure of success

Does it come with money

Or a sense of satisfaction

Is it the quantity of your output

Or the quality of the work

Does it mean getting ahead

Or maintaining the status quo

Are you motivated by internal reward

Or external recognition

Is it the challenge of the tasks

Or the comfort of familiarity

Does it result from teamwork

Or is it a solitary endeavor

Are you looking to change the world

Or are you looking to be changed

Is it the purpose of the actions

Or the intent with which you act

Does it mean punching a clock

Or all-consuming, all the time

Are you looking to develop your profession

Or are you looking to develop your person

Does it mean taking care of yourself

Or that others are taken care off

Is there a retirement plan

Or is the retirement plan death

Are these not mutually exclusive

What is your measure of success

Present: To Be Or Not To Be?

I was invited to a retirement dinner tonight.

My first instinct was to decline. The excuses would have been good enough — mom, multiple (unexpected) deadlines, the fact that Chelsey has already covered for me one night this week — but they were just that: excuses.

The truth is that it would have been more comfortable (for me) to have sent my regrets. While we do have a busy day — mom has two appointments, one of which won’t have us home until the time the dinner is set to begin, and I am on deadline — it can be sorted out.

The instinct to decline was a selfish one. Yes, attending will complicate things. And yes, it will probably be awkward. I will only know a handful of people, and we’ve already established the fact that large groups of relative strangers make me uncomfortable. (See “The Internalizer.”)

And the people that do know me don’t know much of my life these days. They know that I take care of my mother and that my brother recently died. Not exactly the stuff that casual conversations are made of. Awkward for them. (Do we say something or don’t we?) Awkward for me. (Will they say something or won’t they?)

But if I allowed this thought to dictate my every movement, I’d probably never leave the house — and I’m hermit-enough as it is.

I suspect this — my semi-seclusion — is another contributing factor. The majority of my socialization is either through mom’s appointments (5-7/week) or my visits to the local Dunkin’ Donuts (or cyber chatting). In other words, brief and largely predictable interactions with people I now see far more regularly than most friends and family.

Consequently, the introversion I’ve worked so hard to suppress sometimes threatens to overtake my more social self. Resistance is not futile but it requires regularity.

Then, there’s what I call the Caretaker’s Curse — that nagging worry that something will happen when I’m not home. So, at the risk of appearing rude, I’ll be checking my phone frequently to make sure there are no messages.

This, and other such seemingly paranoid behavior, has led at least one person to tell me: “You cannot live in fear.”

To which I responded: “I don’t live in fear. I live in reality.”

Because the reality is that anything can happen at any time. It is my job to be prepared, even if that preparedness comes across as paranoia.

And finally, a more practical concern: What will I wear? I have become accustomed to dressing in what my wife call’s “the uniform” — athletic pants or sweats, a tee shirt, and a hoodie. (Yes, I am basically a soccer mom. Minus the mini-van, the child, and the vagina.) Glasses rather than contacts (which, arguably, equates to “intellectual”). Hair — or what remains of it — completely disheveled.

I avoid buttons and zippers the way somebody with a life-threatening allergy might avoid peanuts or shellfish. (Elastic waistband? Yes, please!) But these will be business people celebrating a respectable career that has required not only appropriate conduct but appropriate attire. A nice sweater might not cut it.

And perhaps that’s the crux of the problem right there. The party is in honor of the man who hired me for my first managerial position. I was 24 and a year out of college. He impressed on me that a button-down shirt (tucked in mind you), tie, and belt would go a long way toward establishing my credibility.

And he was right. While the tie didn’t last long — occupational hazard (the risk of being choked was moderate thanks to one behaviorally challenged young woman) — it did help to solidify my appearance as an adult authority figure. By the time I started leaning more toward the casual end of business casual, nobody much cared. Or if they did, they kept it buttoned, if you’ll pardon the pun.

This is also the man who taught me that to be on time is to be late (and thereby to be early is to be on time). So I’m guessing there may be a subconscious component to my reluctance, as well. I’m seldom on time for anything anymore.

All this is to say that I will be attending. I may be awkward. I may look like a shlub. And I’ll probably be late. But I’ll be there.

It was a generous invitation, after all, and I was (and am) honored to be included — and to still be held in this person’s esteem despite our increasingly infrequent contact in recent years. My presence will be a simple gesture (albeit one that I’ve complicated internally), but one that I hope will convey my gratitude and good wishes for whatever comes next.

JBV

PS — Note to self: Showing up is half the battle.

#WednesdayWisdom In Rhyme

If you carry the weight like a stone

Instead of like a boulder

When the time comes to let it go

It will roll right off your shoulder

***

The act of looking forward

Doesn’t mean you can’t look back

The things you’re moving toward

Are the result of that balancing act

***

When words alone are not enough

It’s then you must take action

Those two things make up the stuff

That will bring you satisfaction

***

Keep searching for the beauty

Even when it’s hard to find

This is our noble duty

And the key to peace of mind

***

JBV

The Internalizer

If I had a superhero name, it would probably be “The Internalizer.”

Despite evidence that suggests internalizing is, or can be, detrimental to one’s physical health and/or emotional well-being, I find that it works for me. Or at least it has so far. That’s not to say that I won’t spontaneously combust one of these days. (Maybe I should get a medic alert tag that reads: Contents Under Pressure.)

I don’t mean to make light of the topic — just to suggest that coping mechanisms, like dietary needs or supplemental insurance, are unique to the person. You need to know yourself well enough to understand what does (and doesn’t) work for you, and to be comfortable enough in that to stay true to your own needs even when others tell you that they know best.

This is not a blanket statement, however. You shouldn’t necessarily dismiss the advice or observation of others out of hand. Sometimes they will see things you cannot see. Or they might offer ideas you’ve not had. Consider what they have to say and then decide if it will benefit you in any way.

The first time someone suggested I might need therapy was after my grandfather went into cardiac arrest during his surprise birthday party. (Some surprise.) I witnessed this happen, was tasked with called 911, and then went outside to flag down the emergency responders. I was maybe 12.

We followed the ambulance to the hospital and were immediately ushered into a private room — always a bad sign — and informed that my grandfather was unable to be revived. The social worker told my mom I might need to talk to somebody about what I’d seen.

I declined.

(I wonder now if this is where my dark sense of humor took root. I firmly believe that a true sign of emotional distress is when you can no longer find a reason to laugh — even if that reason is wildly inappropriate.)

I was also told that I might benefit from therapy after my father died, when my mom got sick and required a full-time caretaker (me), and after it became clear that my brother’s illness was terminal.

No, no, and no.

I suggested to some of these same people that they might benefit from therapy. As you can imagine, this was sometimes taken as wiseassery — but I was entirely serious.

Because some people need to express themselves outwardly, to be heard, to have an impartial observer bear witness and offer constructive feedback. Some people just need to vent. To exhaust themselves or to exhaust a topic. And if it works for them (you) I’m sincerely glad.

I, however, prefer a more solitary approach. I often like to be left alone with my thoughts. To make sense of them through an internal dialogue. (There’s a near constant conversation going on in my head that sometimes spills over into the external world, much to the amusement/befuddlement/concern of those around me.)

Or to write them down. (Because I often don’t know what I really think until I commit it to paper.) Or to find catharsis through reading books or listening to music that either speaks to me or the situation, or both.

This is partly because I’m an introvert by nature. While I’ve learned to be social by necessity — and enjoy it, even — I still feel most comfortable when I’m in my own company, or that of a small group of trusted friends. (I hope that doesn’t sound snobbish or sad. I don’t mean it to.)

I also suspect that the all-consuming nature of caretaking coupled with my other deadline-driven work plays a part. My time to socialize freely is exceedingly rare, and so I don’t like to spend those occasions dwelling on the negative. I’d rather be positive and present and enjoy the company, the normalcy, while I have the opportunity to do so.

Ironically, I tend to be a good listener — ahem, please ignore what my wife has to say on the topic — and people often feel comfortable sharing their innermost demons with me. This sometimes embarrasses them when they realize that they’ve done it (especially if their intent was to provide me an expressive outlet). But it shouldn’t. It’s the connectedness that counts, the feeling of camaraderie despite who is contributing more to the conversation.

And sometimes I just need to be out in the world for a few minutes to remember that there’s a world to be out in. Everything else is incidental. (Well, except for the coffee. Coffee is never incidental.)

On the few occasions that I do feel an imminent threat of self-combustion, there are a handful of people that I can call upon to unburden myself and know that they will avail themselves. And I can do this unburdening over coffee or cocktails. Casually. There’s no ticking timeclock. No triple digit fee. No expectations other than to just be. That’s my kind of therapy.

But, more often than not, it’s just me with my thoughts. Or me with my thoughts and a pen and a notebook, trying to make some sense of this life and my purpose in it.

Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, regardless of how we do it?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to be alone with myself for a bit.

JBV

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

It’s been thirteen years since I watched you take your last, gasping breaths, your blue eyes going vacant as your body finally shuddered to a stop. And then … stillness. It was a haunting end to a haunted life.

I was the last one in the room with you, dry-eyed until a doctor came in to make the pronouncement. (Then, the tears came.) I felt I owed you that last showing of strength — a silent acknowledgment that I would be okay. That I would be sturdy enough to buffer mom.

I always felt the need to protect her. Even as a child, I knew your separation was a good thing, that living apart was better than living together. That the love was still there, if different.

But life is complicated. Relationships are complex. And sometimes love just ain’t enough.

I was always more mom than you, at least outwardly. Delicate. Sensitive. Quiet. I didn’t care about sports. Preferred the indoors to the outdoors. Spent more than I saved. I was scared of everything.

You probably worried about how I’d grow up in a world that preys on the weak and the vulnerable. And so you sometimes tried to toughen me up by breaking me down. You pushed and you hoped I’d push back.

Then there was the alcohol. It made you unpredictable. Drew that fine line between playfully affectionate and openly hostile.

I know now that you were trying to exorcise your own ghosts, whatever they were. That you were fighting some unnamed war. That you had as much hurt as you gave.

Children see in black and white, whereas the lens of adulthood is varying shades of grey. Back then, it was easy to hold grudges over absences and broken promises and other disappointments. Things you didn’t do or didn’t say.

Now, with the clarity of hindsight, it’s easier to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices you made. To understand that you were probably disappointed, too. That you felt a responsibility to support us by prioritizing the practical — even if that meant forgoing the pleasurable.

It was hard work and long hours. Lots of overtime. Two homes and properties to maintain. And only twenty-four hours in a day. No wonder you had your vices.

Still, there were good times. So many good times. Barbecues and go-karts and pool parties. You could be the kindest of men and the most generous of hosts.

It was largely your money that paid for family vacations (because we were always family, regardless of living arrangements) and first cars and college educations. Your plans –insurance and pensions — that ensured mom would be taken care of. All of us, really.

You gave me a predisposition for some of my best qualities. A love of books. Fierce loyalty to family and friends. The inability to resist awkward dancing and off-color jokes. (You also served as a cautionary tale, albeit unknowingly, as to the dangers of excess.)

You taught me to work hard (no half-assing it), to have aspirations, and to stand up for my beliefs. Nothing made you prouder than when I did the latter — even on the occasions it meant standing up to you.

Which is why I’ve come to believe that, despite your inability to say it, you forgave me our last argument. And I forgave you.

You were sick then (though I don’t think any of us knew just how soon the end would come). Largely confined to bed, and requiring help with meals and medications and mobility.

Though your appetite was minimal and you were largely living on liquids and supplemental shakes, you had a craving for toast. Mom made it for you, hot and buttered, and served it to you in bed. You took one bite and threw it back down on the plate, erupting as if it was her fault that your taste buds had changed, that you could no longer enjoy something as simple as toast.

And then I erupted at you. And we spewed at each other. Hurtful things. I eventually walked out.

I stopped coming around so much after that. I told myself it was because you could only tolerate being kind to one person at a time, and that my presence meant somebody else — usually mom — would bear the brunt of your despair. Why should they (she) suffer so that I could get the best of you?

I still believe this to be true. But I also wonder if it was a convenient way to let myself off the hook. A defense mechanism. I suppose the actual truth lies somewhere in between. Grey areas, and all.

The final decline came swiftly after that. Here one day and gone the next. There were no apologies. Just searching (forgiving?) eyes, a hand squeeze, a simple and reciprocal profession of love. Then, you left this world in the moment of your choosing — your awareness and intent were strikingly clear in that instant — as a gentle snow fell outside the hospital window.

Thirteen years ago today.

Regardless of anything that may have been left unsaid, I am at peace with you. I hope that you’re at peace, too, and with Ryan — and that you’ve both found whatever may have eluded you in life.

John

PS — Turns out I grew up plenty strong after all. Thank you for showing me the way.

Hopelessly Addicted To … Books

I am a hopeless addict — and books are my drug of choice.

I think about them constantly. When can I sneak a hit? Which will be the one to satisfy my craving? Will people judge me?

I’ve gone into debt for books. (Yes, A, the Barnes & Noble credit card was a bad idea — but the occasional gift card rewards almost make it worth it. Almost.) I can walk into a store and pass by a lot of things — necessities, even — but never books. Swipe and pray. If the card doesn’t burst into flames, the cycle continues.

The logical part of my brain knows that I own more books than I’ll ever be able to read. Perhaps this is my subconscious at work, then, planting the seeds that blossom into crazy notions of immortality. Can’t go anywhere until the books have all been read! (No, I don’t actually believe this. At least not that I know of.)

There’s plenty of research to suggest that surrounding yourself with books — more than you’ll ever read — does have emotional and physical benefits. I like to post these stories to Facebook and think: Ha! But I secretly wonder if they account for spouses who have the potential to snap. Books everywhere = justifiable homicide?

What I can say for certain, from my own personal experience, is that reading has been the thing that has kept me (semi) sane when insanity has beckoned. I can tell you what I was reading when my father died. When my mother was in the ICU. When my brother was in hospice. And it was only on the few occasions that I couldn’t sneak a few pages that I felt myself really and truly on the brink. No joke.

I have also found that reading lowers my blood pressure. (Yes, the Lisinopril helps, too.) On the mornings that I have a few free minutes to indulge — which have become increasingly rare since undertaking this writing project — my numbers are always lower, regardless of what I’m reading. And my tastes tend to run toward the murder and mayhem spectrum, so riddle me that.

(No, I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey, or anything of that ilk, so maybe there’s an exception to the rule.)

I’d attribute it to escapism, but that’s not entirely true. While the worlds I travel are often fictional, the characters’ realities are all to real. Cancer and strokes and other life-altering dramas play out on the page as if they’ve been following me between realms.

There’s both cruelty and comfort that comes with this. Fate, however unkind, is always waiting in the wings. Waiting for an opportunity to step in and flip the script. We are all at its mercy. And yet we are all one in this vulnerability. Because no matter how in control we are, or seem to be, there will always be circumstances beyond that. Beyond us.

In books, as in life, people live and love and lose and (hopefully) learn. They fall down and get back up. Or not. Or somebody picks them up. And then, slowly, they begin the process of adjusting to their new (fictional) realities.

Which means I (we) can, too.

I have related to characters in books in ways that I have not related to people in real life. Sometimes by choice and sometimes not. This camaraderie, however vicarious, has been absolutely vital in my development as a human being. I am more empathic. Kinder. Able to give people the benefit of the doubt because I realize that I don’t know everybody’s “off the page” story. But we all have one.

I have feasted on joy and sorrow and wisdom, and I have tried to bring this bounty to my own table. Because we all need to be nourished — and we all need to nourish each other.

So I’m going to continue amassing as many books as I can — or as many as my wife will tolerate — even if it means I’m at risk for succumbing to the great avalanche. (Seriously, my life is like an oversized game of Jenga, only played with books rather than blocks.) Because I find my humanity between their pages. And I believe that’s something that can always be further developed.

As far as addictions go, there far worse things. Like alcohol. Or hard drugs. Or boy bands.

And, rich or poor, I will always be indebted to books. Their value is priceless.

See you between the pages. (I see myself there, too.)

JBV

Dirty Word, Starts With S …

Snow.

It’s one of the dirtier four-letter words in a New Englander’s vocabulary.

Actually, allow me to amend that: It’s one of the dirtier four-letter words in an adult New Englander’s vocabulary. And the farther north you go, the truer this is. (Says the Southern New Englander.)

Kids love the stuff — or at least the promise of what comes with it. School cancellations! Sledding! Snowball fights!

Ah, kids. I used to be one.

Isn’t it funny how things that seemed so magical then have become mundane? Or burdensome, even? It’s like children and adults live in alternate realities, experiencing the same things … but very differently.

And the irony is that, so often, kids just want to grow up while grown-ups wish they could be kids again, free to see the world through the innocence of youth rather than the cynicism of adulthood.

I remember — vaguely, albeit — what it was like to anticipate the coming of the snow, almost with the enthusiasm and reverence usually reserved for opening presents on birthdays and Christmases. The kind of anticipation that would keep you up at night and then propel you straight out of bed at morning’s first light, straight to the TV or — gasp — radio to see if you’re wish had been granted. A snow day. Or at least a two-hour delay.

Was there anything better than the elation that came with a snow day?

Or anything worse that the crushing disappointment that came with … nothing?

Snow days brought the promise of vast hours suddenly opening up before you, rife for playing and snacking and sleeping. The rush to get suited up and out of doors as quickly as your little limbs allow. Snow angels and snow cones and snow slaloming. The bitter cold that somehow didn’t phase you until you were called back inside, teeth chattering. The mug of hot cocoa that awaited you there, dolloped with Fluff.

Then, it was warm baths and warm meals and pure exhaustion, the kind that only comes after a complete depletion of energy.

Winter is exhausting for adults, too.

You wonder just how much snow you’re going to get (because the only thing reliable about weather forecasts is how unreliable they are). And just how much earlier you’re going to have to get up to account for this. And just how bad travel will be.

When I was working outside of the home, I wondered how many call-outs we’d have and how many jobs I’d have to do that day beyond my own.

Now that I take care of my mom, my primary concern is this: Will circumstances permit me to get to Dunkin’ Donuts before I have to wake her up?

But also: Have I remembered to fill up so the gas tank doesn’t freeze? Is the car dug out and de-iced? Are travel conditions safe to get mom to her appointments (because there are always appointments) or should I cancel? Have I cleared the sidewalk sufficiently so that it’s walkable?

Snow means aching muscles. A back brace. The possibility of reaggravating a condition that can render me bed-ridden.

It means less time in which to do more things.

It means worrying about a second property, and the logistics of making a bank run to get cash to pay the person who’s been (hopefully) plowing that property.

It means worrying about electricity and heat and hot water. And batteries and clean clothes and non-perishable food items. It means worrying about cell service. You know, just in case.

Or, in other words, it means a lot of things to keep you up at night.

And then, just as soon as you finally do fall asleep, it means a plow going by (and by … and by) and waking you right back up.

But to keep perspective: While adulthood has largely ruined the allure of snow, it has also given me a far greater appreciation for things that didn’t much matter when I was a kid. Like coffee. And girls. And sleep.

You know, when I can actually get ’em.

JBV

PS — Yes, I am aware that we’re only expecting 3-6″ at most — but you know that really means a dusting or a foot.

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