This weekend, Dawn and I are celebrating our anniversary. If you read Feels Like the First Time, you might remember we got married in October, but that is not the anniversary we are marking. Instead, we are celebrating the 35th anniversary of our Prom date. For nearly 30 years, I would stop whatever I was doing on April 29th and get away by myself for at least an hour or two and think of the love I had lost and the life together we might have been living. Now that we are together and happily, wonderfully married, I actually get to mark the occasion with her instead of just thinking about her. This is much better.
On days like this, I like to stop and think about where our life is. This morning, Dawn and I had a conversation about something important and at the end, she looked at me calmly and said "I trust you to make the best decision." And, I knew that was right. I also knew that I needed her input before I could make that decision. When Dawn and I first got back together, I warned her that our relationship would be my first "real" grown-up relationship and that there might be some growing pains as I learn how to do that. There hasn't been, really, but I have to say how nice it is to have someone you love and trust completely in all things. I have learned that Dawn and I are truly partners in everything, large and small.
This is the anniversary of the first time we told each other "I love you." Kind of. Pretty much. A month or so before our Prom night, I had written Dawn a letter saying that I wanted to tell her I loved her "right out loud." But, as Dawn's mom rightly pointed out, "It wasn't out loud, it was in a letter." Details, details.
That night, when Dawn reached out and grabbed me, pulled me close and said "Shawn. I love you." I felt the impact all the way into my soul. The truth is, those first words of love are still echoing inside me to this very day. I realized at that moment that my life had changed forever. I also had to admit that when it comes to things like telling your soulmate that you love them, Dawn possesses a better skill-set than I do.
Because we missed so many years together, we make sure we can do whatever we can to make every anniversary special. This year, we are going to spend the night at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Seattle. I'm not sure what we'll do from there... wander down to Pike Place Market probably, maybe go listen to some live music in Pioneer Square or catch an IMAX movie or laserium at The Seattle Center. Maybe we'll get super-lazy (yes, that's like regular lazy, but I wear a cape) and just order room service and enjoy the view of the sun setting over the Puget Sound. The truth is, it doesn't matter where we go or what we do because I'll be doing it with the girl who told me she loved me for the first time 35 years ago this weekend.
Happy Anniversary, Baby!
We were having very typical Western Washington weather several weeks before Christmas this last year. That meant it was cold, but not freezing, and raining, but not pouring. It was a Saturday morning, and Dawn and I were driving to the King County Humane Society up in Bellevue. We had our two Chocolate Labs, Hershey and Sadie, but there was still a little empty spot in our home. We thought it would be filled up perfectly by a kitten that could grow into the cat we both longed for. Since neither Dawn nor I can stand the idea of a puppy or kitten mill, we wanted to adopt from the Humane Society. We would give him or her their forever home, but we knew the truth - we would be getting much more in return.
When I was a young boy, I spent my first six years on a working farm. That meant that cats were just another working animal, keeping the rat and mice population under control around the barn and house. We always had a handful of "barn cats" hanging around and I have a clear picture of my older brother Mick, milking the cows and squirting the occasional jet stream of milk into the open mouths of the ring of cats gathered patiently around.
Dawn, on the other hand, has always been a cat girl. When I first met her, she had Alan, who ruled the roost at her house. He had all the best traits of a cat - he was imperious, demanding, and knew with absolute certainty that the world revolved around him. When I found Dawn again in 2009, she had Garfield, but left him behind with daughter Dani when we got married. I knew there was always a spot beside her on the couch that was missing a little fur ball.
And so, there we were, driving north on a semi-stormy December morning, wanting to look at the cats and kittens. On the way there, we talked about what we wanted. I didn't have a care for what we got, I just knew what I didn't want. I knew I didn't want a Siamese. If you've ever spent much time around a Siamese, you may be guessing: It's the yowl. Take the sound of a hungry baby and cross it with an entire first grade class dragging their fingernails down a chalkboard, and you get about ten percent of what a Siamese yowl sounds like. Aside from that, though, I was completely open to the possibilities the universe might present us. Dawn had an idea that she would like a Maine Coon cat, but she was pretty open as well.
When we got to the shelter, it was pretty crowded - I guess cats seemed like a great Christmas present to many people, not just us. There were plenty of unwanted kittens and cats looking for a home, though, so we weren't worried they were going to run out. The very first cage I walked up to had a whole writhing litter of tan and white kittens with slightly darker faces and startling blue eyes. I walked over to the cage and there he was. He didn't meow at me, he didn't beg or twitch cutely, he just stared at me seriously. I asked Dawn if she would go find a volunteer so we could look at him. I didn't want to take my eyes off him and risk losing him to the ball of confusion in the rest of the cage.
When the volunteer arrived and plucked him out of the cage, I held him loosely against me. He snuggled down against my arm and began to purr as if he was home. Of course, that was right, he was.
"Shawn," Dawn said. "He's a Siamese."
I nodded at her happily, agreeing. He was a Siamese. A Flame-Tipped Siamese to be precise.
"You said you wanted anything other than a Siamese," Dawn said reasonably.
I nodded at her again, agreeing completely.
"Are you saying this is the one you want?"
In answer, I just held him out, face-first to her. I watched her heart melt and her hands involuntarily reach out and grabb him, holding him against her and burying her face in his fur. I am nothing if not a good salesman.
We took him home and named him Buddha, although truthfully we always called him Buddha Boy. We had been right, there had been a tiny little hole in our house waiting for him to fill it up. It didn't take long before he had completely buffaloed Hershey and Sadie into believing he was the boss. Growing up around the two dogs as he did,he seemed to think that he had the best qualities of both cat and dog.
Hershey was his favorite. At night, Buddha and Hershey were almost always together, curled up in front of the fire. When we went to bed, though, it was all Dawn. As soon as we laid down, Buddha crawled on top of her and claimed his spot as though it were a birthright, never to be forsaken. Dawn and I both loved him instantly and intensely. He returned that love for Dawn and tolerated me. I could live with that, and it didn't change how I felt about him one whit.
By the way, about that yowl. He had it. There were evenings that he would wander around the house, letting loose in full, obnoxious voice. Every time (EVERY TIME) he did that, Dawn would look at me sweetly and do her best imitation of me saying "I don't care what we get, I just don't want a Siamese." Then we would look at Buddha boy and smile and try to figure out the inscrutable mysteries of what he wanted at that moment.
We wanted Buddha to be an "inside-only" cat. He had other ideas. He watched Hershey and Sadie happily trip in and out of the house several time a day and knew that anything they got to do, he got to do. At first, we were worried that he would run off, but he was so good about staying in our backyard that we let that worry slip away from us.
Last night, Buddha decided to go exploring away from our house, for reasons we will never know. He was hit by a car and killed instantly. The part of my mind that never stops working was glad that he hadn't been just horribly injured to linger for some time. Instead, he departed this earth so quickly, I'm willing to bet he never knew it. I hope so.
We loved him instantly and so much. Right now, our loss and grief is overwhelming. We know that only another pet lover will understand that, and that's OK.
Now, that little cat-sized hole is in both our hearts.
I don't have to tell you there's been a big news event this week. Since the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday, it's been impossible to miss the wall to wall coverage on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc. And that's fine, I guess, as far as it goes. If people weren't tuning in, they would start broadcasting something else eventually.
First, a word about tragedies like this. When something tragic first happens, it feels like a punch to my gut. I am naturally an empathetic person, and when I think of the toll that an event like this has on real people who were living their very real lives, it impacts me greatly. I think of the families torn asunder, the innocent bystanders who will never walk again, the family in China that sent their daughter to be educated in America and will now never see her again... and then it gets too much for me. I max out my empathy-meter and hide in my brain.
I am a writer. That means I am always writing stories in my head. I wish I could tell you that I didn't use the scenarios that were playing out on my television and computer screen to create scenes for future stories, but I can't. It's my nature to convert information into conflict, resolution, happiness and sadness. As I watch how the FBI scolds the media when they get something horribly wrong, I am thinking "That is so authentic. I can use that in a story someday." And, that is my own shame.
More to the point of today's blog, though, I want to talk about the news media and their complete inability to get things right. I somewhat understand what the media goes through on these occasions. It wasn't on the scale of a CNN reporter, certainly, but I worked in radio and had to cover a number of breaking issues with virtually no preparation. I was on the air at the moment the Challenger crashed and had to remain calm as I broadcast that story with my heart in my throat. I was on the air at KCMT FM in Lake Almanor California when the earthquake hit that rocked the Bay Area World Series in 1989. I have at least a little perspective on what it is like to broadcast on-the-run.
Watching today's media broadcast, I honestly want to throw up. Instead, I turn my television off. I wish more of us would have the same reaction, then we might see some changes. There are actually quite a few things that bug me about major media news, but I'll talk about just a couple of them: giving more coverage to an issue than is normal, sane and healthy, and getting things wrong.
When the tragedy du jour strikes, whether it is a rocket exploding in space or some type of freakish weather or a rogue cop going on a killing spree in Southern California, the media shifts into overdrive. First comes the catchy nickname for the event, then the nearly 24 hour coverage of every minute aspect of said tragedy. On NBC's Today Show this morning, I heard them extensively interview a semi-distant high school friend of one of the accused bombers. Her take on the national conversation? (Paraphrasing) "He seemed like a nice normal kid." Holy heck, stop the presses! "Ah, but you are contributing to this by listening to that drivel" you might say. "I turned my TV off at that moment," I would respond.
Then, there is the rush to be first. First with anything. "Thank you Bob, I'd like to report now that we have confirmation that the unnamed suspect was definitely wearing blue socks and had Cheerios for breakfast. Now back to you." If any of the cameras shooting the reporters would move back far enough that we could see the area they are reporting from, I think we would get a whole new perspective on the media onslaught. This week's coverage has been marked by mistakes large and small, all announced by one front-runner in stupidity and soon repeated by the media lemmings jumping off the cliff behind them. A huge part of the problem is that the emphasis in almost completely on getting it first and not at all on getting it right.
I'd like to say that this is all new, but honestly it's been like this for as long as I can remember. The day John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, I was glued to the TV, waiting to see if there was going to be another name added to the JFK/MLK/RFK roll call. Things were tense for some hours after the shooting and then it was announced that Reagan's Press Secretary, James Brady was dead. That announcement hit me hard. I had talked to Mr. Brady on several occasions over the previous year and was very impressed by him. The feeling of loss was settling over me like a dark cloud of dread when the same anchor came on and said, in effect, "ooops. Sorry, he's not dead after all." Usually, those kind of resurrections make big news, but in this case, it was just antsy, ineffective reporting, rushing to be first. In 1981.
I know that criticizing the news media these days is like complaining about reality television: It's an easy target. Most of the time, I can ignore it. It's at times like this week, when it's so prevalent in all our lives that I just can't take it anymore. And so, I turn it all off. You know what? That might mean that I find out who the bombers are several hours after everyone else, maybe even a full day later. I can live with that.
I am running a promo for my book Feels Like the First Time this week. If you click the name of the book, you can actually download it for your Kindle for absolutely free through Friday, April 19th. Many times, people ask me why I give away a book that I worked so hard on and that means so much to me. The answers to that question are here, here and here. I don't blame you if you don't want to read those links, but suffice it to say, the reason I occasionally run the book for free is that it helps me find new readers. Today, though, I want to talk about how I ever came to write this book. If you've read the book, you might have seen that I dedicated it to my oldest sister Terri. What wasn't in the book was that after that first fateful reunion I had with Dawn on December 1st, 2006, the first thing I did as I drove home was call my sister. Over the next two years, Terri and I emailed each other literally hundreds of times. Does it seem a little odd that a full-grown man and his sister spent two years sending emails back and forth re-living a thirty year old romance? In retrospect, it does to me too. At the time, though, it felt like the only outlet I had to keep from going crazy. Eventually, those emails formed the basis of what would become Feels Like the First Time. Tonight, just for fun, I thought I would share the body of the first email I sent Terri back in 2006. It covers much of the material that would eventually be Chapter One, which I titled Where True Love Goes. Here, then, with very few edits, is that first email: Hey, Redhead...
So here's the story of what happened the other night when I saw Dawn for the first time in so long. It had been a long week. I was probably a little tired, and not at my best, to be quite honest, when I pulled in to Bill and Bea's that evening. I was a little annoyed, because I had first stopped at Safeway to get something to eat, and had no luck there because the Deli had only White Bread, if you can believe that. It's kind of hard to believe, but this whole story wouldn't have happened if Safeway hadn't been out of bread.
When I pulled into Bill and Bea's and saw Dawn for the first time in forever, an electric charge started at the top of my head and extended all the way down my spine. My stomach flipped like I was on a roller coaster, and I felt as euphoric as if the air had been filled with happy gas. And then it was gone. Mostly. The stomach continued to flip flop unexpectedly for quite some time, and, truth be told, really hasn't settled yet.
I thought I saw a slight narrowing of her eyes as if trying to figure out a crossword word that is just eluding her, but then she let it go, for the moment.
It was at that moment that I saw her laugh, and I knew that was Dawn. More importantly, I knew that I loved her just as truly, madly, inexplicably, and eternally as I had when I had last seen her twenty six years before. I knew that if I never saw her again in this lifetime, that I would now go to my grave realizing that she is the one true love of my life.I don't say that lightly or as a comparison to anyone else. It simply, absolutely was the truth.
At that moment, my subconscious mind jumped up out of the "sub" right into my consciousness, and said "You've managed to bury this so deep, you thought it would never resurface, but from the moment
your eyes met, you will never again be able to deny this Truth: you love her like you have never loved another."
And so it is true.
For most of those twenty six years, I had sold myself on a story along the lines of "of course I will always love Dawn. She was my first love. Everyone has a soft spot in their heart for their first love, their first
heartbreak. That's over now, though... it's time to put her away with other childish things and get on with the business of growing up and growing old."
And so I did.For twenty six plus years.Until my subconscious decided to finally let me in on the secret it had known all along... there will never be another for me.
I love you Red...
As I go back and re-read those early emails to Terri, I feel the same feelings I had so often then - sadness, loneliness, a complete lack of momentum in life. Then, I look over the top of my laptop and see Dawn sitting on the other end of the couch, and I remember everything is good again.
Dawn and I went to see Joe Walsh and Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in the Tacoma Dome last night. If you're one of those people that might want to read a review for a couple of classic rock acts from the 70's to find out if they've lost it or not, here's the tl:dr version: they haven't lost a thing.
For the rest of us, here's the story:
Concerts at the Tacoma Dome, especially on a Friday night, are not my favorite thing. There is essentially no way to arrive at a concert at the Dome 45 minutes before the show. You can either arrive two hours early, relax and have dinner, or you can be re-routed through Washington's Largest Traffic Jam for 90 minutes or so and miss the first few songs of the opening act. Being a beautiful spring day, we elected to get there early. By the way, if you're wondering what it costs to park around the Tacoma Dome these days, the answer is $25. When Jerry Weible, my nephew Tommy and I went to our first KISS concert in 1977, all three of our tickets combined cost less than that. But, I digress...
Not surprisingly, the crowd that streamed into the Tacoma Dome last night was graying and re-living a little slice of their lost youth through the power of music. As we had anticipated, we saw a fair number of Bullets (bald men with mullets) on the way into the show. It was a mellow crowd made more so by the newly legalized cannabis laws. I've never smoked dope, so I'm not an expert on getting high, but I think it was semi-impossible not to get a slight contact high last night.
Speaking of which, Joe Walsh opened the show. I had only seen the former James Gang/Eagle/solo artist once before, and that was as part of The Eagles Hell Has Frozen Over and We Are Skating on the Frozen Remains of Our Greatest Hits tour. Joe was kind of a late-comer to the Eagles, and even though he laid down some historically memorable riffs for them (that's him blazing away at the end of Hotel California) he never seemed to completely fit in. Last night, with his own band, including not one, not two, but three drummers (just in case one or two of them exploded, ala Spinal Tap, I guess) he was right at home.
Before we go much further, let's talk about something. Rock concerts have changed, and it's not just the ticket prices. Bic lighters that used to be snuffed out by the first power chord were almost entirely absent. Every song was recorded by hundreds, if not thousands, of cell phones, and judging by the intoxication levels I saw from some of the attendees, that may be their only memory of the show. Festival seating is so long gone that if you're under 35, you probably never went to a show where you could fight you way to the front row if you were of such a mind. Here's the biggest difference though: it started right on time. At 7:56, the lights went down, Dylan's Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, affectionately known as "Everyone must get stoned" played over the PA, and there he was, the clown prince of rock 'n roll, Joe Walsh. Now, Joe has never been a handsome man, but he looked great last night - relaxed, happy, and with the same old attitude he's always had. It is slightly ironic that guys like Keith Richards and Joe Walsh potter on their merry way while musical stars from two or three generations behind them fall by the wayside.
Joe did a tight, strong 45 minute set that included everything you might have wanted to hear from his James Gang and solo days. As usual, he didn't dip into any of the Eagles stuff. There's something odd that I have noticed over the years, and that is that guys that don't have the traditionally excellent singing voices to begin with - think Neil Young or Joe Walsh - don't seem to lose much as they get older. Joe's vocals were not much different in 2013 than when he burst on the scene with The James Gang. As usual, his guitar playing was excellent, and I came away impressed again by how difficult some of the riffs he played in songs like Life's Been Good really are. The drunk dude behind me, whose girlfriend spilled her beer all over my Russell Wilson Seahawks jersey, seemed disappointed that he didn't do Turn to Stone, since he shouted out his request to Joe 3,782 (yes, I counted) times during the set.
Half an hour after Joe wrapped up, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band took over and the party really began. Even playing for two hours, which he did, there was no way he could get through the entire catalog that people wanted to hear from him. I can't imagine what it's like to have such a diverse setlist to choose from.
As you can see from the picture above, Bob has gotten a little older and a little grayer since he dominated the scene in the 70s and early 80s. He looks a little less like the Motor City Madman and a little more like your cool Uncle Joe that tells the awesome stories at Thanksgiving. Aside from that, though, I didn't notice a lot of difference. He still uses the same energy, body language and happy-go-lucky stage presence that he always did.
He did a great job of walking the line between satisfying his die-hard fans by playing some of his more-obscure songs like Come to Papa along with all those Top 40 hits like Hollywood Nights, We've Got Tonight, Against the Wind, etc. For most, I think the highlight was one of the oldest songs he did - Turn the Page. It's kind of an angry-young-man type of song, but he still put everything into it, and it got the loudest ovation of the night.
There were times I ended up watching the crowd almost as much as the show because they were so entertaining on their own. One thing I have come to believe is that when our ancestors came over on the Mayflower, they left everyone with any sense of rhythm in Europe. I haven't seen that much bad dancing since I accidentally clicked past Glee a season or two ago.
The bottom line is, Bob Seger hasn't lost a step, The Silver Bullet Band is still a top-notch rowdy party band, and if you get a chance to go see them at another stop on this tour, I think you should.
I've been submitting a few short stories to a website called Clever Fiction for the past month or so. The way Clever Fiction works is this: every Friday, there is a new "prompt" put up on the site and whatever writers want to have a go at it do so. We have a week to write a story, submit it and get it up on the website. Then, kind readers come along and read our stories and, hopefully, leave comments.
So, why am I writing stories for this website? Partially, it's because my cover artist, Linda Boulanger, is associated with the site and I want to support her and her endeavors. More than that, though, is that it is fun. It is the equivalent of bending and stretching before doing some serious exercising. The truth is, I know that my short fiction will never pay my bills. Unless you're Stephen King, you're probably not making much money off short stories. Still, I have ideas that I'd like to explore that I don't need forty or fifty thousand words to get the story wrapped up.
Anyway, I thought I'd highlight the three stories I've published over at Clever Fiction as of today. The first challenge I participated in was to write a story that was inspired by this picture:
The very cool thing about these challenges is that although we all start from the same place, our trajectories from the launch pad are all so different. When I looked at that picture, I saw loss and grief, so I wrote a story called Another Cup of Tea. It's very short - only 750 words, but I rather like it. The next challenge was a word prompt. For that exercise, we could write anything we wanted with one caveat: The Hero Must Die. Now people die all the time in fiction. No big deal. I realized though, that it is harder when that person is your main character. I could have cheated a little, I suppose and made the "hero" a secondary character, but what's the fun in that? Instead, I decided to have my main character die. Then, to up the ante a little, I told the story in the first person. For one last little element of fun, I decided that main character would be a dog. That story turned out to be Shannon. As is so often the case, I didn't pick that name at random. Do you remember the song from the 70's by Henry Gross called Shannon? I did, and if you click the link, you'll find a refresher in the falsetto singing that made the 70s music scene what it was. This week's challenge was another photo prompt: This was one of those times when a lot of disparate elements all came together in a cosmic kismet. Dawn and I listen to different Pandora radio stations while we go to sleep, and the other night Neil Young's Old Man came on. It was the live version, and before he played the song, he told a little about what the song was about. He had bought a ranch when he was a young man, and when he arrived at the ranch he found an old couple living there. Apparently, they came with the ranch. Neil Young seems like a pretty cool guy, and so of course, he wrote an awesome song full of interesting perspectives and thoughts about love and relationships. I'd had the story behind that song rattling around in my head ever since, and as soon as I saw the picture above, I knew I wanted to write my own version of it. My idea was, what if the guy who bought the ranch wasn't as cool as Neil Young about the whole thing. What would happen then? I also called my version of the story Old Man, mainly because I love giving my stories the same titles as songs. If you're interested in reading the stories, click the titles above and it will take you right to them. While you're there, you should check out some of the other writers that have posted their stories there. In the meantime, if you'll keep reading my stories, I'll keep writing them and we'll form a happy little partnership.
We are all the ages we've ever been. That means that inside my 53 year old self is that little four year old boy in the picture above, who thought he looked pretty sharp in his pants pulled up past his navel and black suspenders. I've also got the twelve year old boy inside who discovered Science Fiction novels and disappeared into them for many years. And the teenager who fell in love for a lifetime with the girl next door, and the young father, and the grandfather who, six years ago, lost his first, precious granddaughter to complications from heart surgery.
I am all these people, and hundreds, maybe thousands more. So are you, right? No matter how people know you now, there might be no one that thinks about you like you do yourself, in all your incarnations. And, here's the thought I want to emphasize now, while I still feel like I am in the middle of my life... It all went by so fast.
I know that to your eyes, that picture above is dated. It is black and white and has furniture and clothes in it that have been out of style for four decades or more. But to me, to the memory I have of that boy -- it wasn't very long ago. And that little girl standing beside me? She was Denise, one of my earliest friends. She's gone now too, passed away years ago. It all goes by so fast.
Life is good right now. I am able to follow my life-long dream to be creative. I spend hours every day writing my stories, or my silly Facebook updates or this blog. I spend every day with that same girl-next-door, who these days is the girl-next-to-me-in-bed, which is a very good thing. I would like to find the pause button somewhere and push it so I can slow things down for a while.
I was talking to an online friend the other day. His job requires that he spend a great deal of time with people who are living out their last days. He told me that the most common thing he hears from these dying men and women are not complaints or regrets. Instead, he says, so many of them say "It all went by so fast."
One of my dear friends, Bob McKean, passed away several months ago. He and I had a great many things in common - music in particular, but also our love of the sad-sack Seattle Mariners. When the M's season opens next week, it won't feel right without Bob there. The last time I saw Bob, he knew he was dying and that the end wasn't far. When I left his room that last time, I told him how much I appreciated him and who he was. I held his hand briefly as I left and he looked at me and smiled and said "It was a helluva ride."
It all goes by so fast.
There is no solution, of course. No pause button. The only thing to do is to spend as much time as possible with the people we love and doing the things we love. Savor the flavor of life, suck the marrow from the bone, because it will all... ah, you know.
One of the things I've really enjoyed about having a book out is that I get to "meet" a large number of other writers in various online hangouts. One of those writers is Terrence O'Brien. I first noticed Terrence when I saw that he often posted questions that ran contrary to whatever conventional wisdom might be on display in a particular thread. Since I tend to like people who tweak the nose of conventional wisdom, I bought a copy of his book, The Templar Concordat, which is available here for only $2.99. I loved the book. He created memorable characters that have stuck with me in the intervening weeks since I finished it. In a nutshell, it is the story of what happens when two ancient and powerful organizations clash while using 21st Century technology. If this sounds like The Templar Concordat might be in Dan Brown-Da Vinci Code territory, I suppose it is. If you are a horror writer, I the comparisons to Stephen King are inevitable and if you write about Knights Templar and The Catholic Church, Dan Brown looms just as large. Here's the thing - I actually liked Templar Concordat better than Angels and Demons and its ilk. Those books are often so numbingly serious that I forget to have fun while I am reading them. There is plenty of serious stuff in this book, but it is leavened with fun elements as well. My favorite character in the book is a newly-elected Pope who hails from Mexico. He has characteristics we don't often associate with Popes: he is low-key, isn't impressed with himself and keeps a small refrigerator filled with Diet Coke in his office. I would gladly read an entire book that just follows him on his daily duties. In any case, because Terrance has done so much research and thinking about the Catholic Church and its history, I dropped him a line and asked him if he would be willing to write a guest blog for me about the resignation of a Pope. Ladies and gentlemen, Terrence O'Brien:
Lots of things have happened in the last few years that I didn't expect. We all heard it. Housing prices always go up. Depressions are a thing of the past. Unemployment will never go above 6%. The Euro is solid. A Black will never be president. We even had a near miss by an asteroid, and Russia got slammed by a meteoric little brother. At least the Cubs aren't a pennant threat this year. Or are they?
But now a pope has resigned? That’s something I never expected to see. He just wrote a letter, got out of the Chair of Peter, waved to 1.2 billion Catholics, wished the world well, and headed off to the countryside. There was no invading army, no anti-pope, no alliances with kings, and no sudden scandal. Those would all have been things we could grasp. But, no. He just walked away. The world knows something significant just happened, but we don’t really know what.
I have always been fascinated with Church history. It’s the oldest organization in the world, and has a track record that can’t be matched. For an author there is more material in the real history of the Church than he could ever dream up.
Today we tend to think of the Church as a religious organization, but its religious influence has been matched by secular power that transcended nation states and continents. We don’t have to look far. Pope John Paul plotted against the communists in Eastern Europe, then faced down the rulers of those countries in a cat-and-mouse game that ended with the capitulation of the communists. Millions turned out to see him and he told them they were free. They decided he was right. He certainly had help, but no other player in the game would ever downplay his contribution.
Resignations of past popes seem to have more to do with secular power plays than any religious considerations. Including Benedict’s recent resignation, there have only been six other well documented resignations. There are three others from Roman Empire times, but the details are sketchy.
Gregory XII 1415
The last man to walk away from that kind of power was Gregory XII in 1415. He left the papacy in a deal that ended the schism in the Church that resulted in having one pope in Rome and another pope in Avignon. When Gregory left, there were actually three popes since a council that tried to resolve the situation in 1408 only succeeded in making a third pope rather than consolidating around one. In 1415 the Council of Constance managed a grand bargain that resulted in no pope. The Council avoided any confusion by waiting until Gregory died in 1418 to elect Martin V as the only pope.
Celestine V 1294
In today’s papal elections, the cardinals are locked away in Conclave until they elect a pope. That keeps out all the other interested parties. But that practice didn’t become fully accepted until after the election of Pope Celestine V in 1294. Celestine himself ordered that all future elections be under Conclave rules. The twelve cardinals who elected Celestine voted over a two year period, moved around to the strongholds of their allies, and finally convened in Perugia where six cardinals elected Celestine. Celestine never sought the papacy, lacked political skills to deal with the Roman families vying for papal power, and resigned under pressure after five months. His successor did have the political skills and imprisoned Celestine until his death.
Benedict IX and Gregory VI 1045-1046
Accounts vary, but in 1045 the twenty-year-old Pope Benedict IX received a sum of money, and abdicated in favor of his godfather who became Gregory VI. Benedict didn’t want to be pope, and was stuck in the job by his powerful family. This was before the papal elections took place in Conclave, and the people of Rome, the ruling families, and the important clergy decided on a pope by consensus. But consensus can be fickle, and Sylvester III also claimed the papacy. To complicate things even more, Benedict returned and wanted the papacy back after he had sold it. The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, came down from Germany to settle things. He cleared the field of all popes, told Gregory he had to resign because he had purchased the papacy, and took him back to Germany for safe keeping.
Benedict V 964
When the Romans decided they didn’t like the pope backed by Otto, the Holy Roman Emperor, they threw the pope out and re-installed the pope Otto had thrown out. When that one died, the Romans once again snubbed the emperor and elected Benedict V who controlled the city militia. Otto wasn’t about to take that, so he took his army south and put Rome under siege. Rather than starve for the pope, the Romans opened the gates and turned him over to Otto. Otto put his own man back in the papacy again, and gave Benedict a simple choice. He could resign or die. Benedict quickly chose, and Otto took him back to Germany where he died a year later.
And that brings us to the most recent resignation that’s in today’s headlines. There was no emperor, no rioting Romans, no anti-popes, and no prison. Benedict apparently decided it was time for him to retire. There are lots of questions, and few answers.
Is he setting a precedent? Will popes now step down when they feel the job is too much? Will they be expected to step down? Will they be pressured to step down? Cardinals can’t vote in the Conclave if they are older than eighty, so perhaps there is also a limit for the pope. Any pope can also make a rule stipulating retirement for all his successors.
Now that Cardinal Bergoglio has become Pope Francis, we can’t deny there are two men alive who have been elected pope. In the past, the Church has been plagued by competing claims to the papacy. It hasn’t been a problem since the resignation of Gregory XII in 1415 because the Church was very careful to avoid the situation. Note that even after Gregory’s resignation, the Church did not select a new pope until Gregory died. There was no retired Gregory when Martin was elected pope.
While Benedict made it abundantly clear he no longer has any claim to the papacy, there is no guarantee future factions will not unite around some retired pope. It’s often the interests behind the pope, rather than the man himself, that have generated the problems. For now, it looks like the Church is playing it by ear, but I’m sure both Benedict and Francis know the history and will do everything they can to set a precedent that chokes the potential in the cradle.
How about the Vatican bureaucracy? This is a bureaucracy that has been building for two thousand years. As popes age and lose their health and mental agility, the bureaucracy has room to maneuver. If popes leave before age slows them, the power of the Vatican institutions and the cardinals who run them is diminished. Will that lead to opposition to retirement from powerful Vatican forces?
And just as speculation, what could a novelist construct around Benedict’s resignation? The Church is being challenged on many fronts. Europe is receding as its center while Africa and South America are now strongholds of Catholicism. Sex scandals have spread around the world, and Benedict was handed that mess when John Paul died. Neither pope distinguished himself in dealing with it. Islamists are flexing their muscles against Christians in many parts of the world. And Europe which had been the center of Catholicism since ancient days is retreating from unification as the single currency fails and production cannot support the promises of the social compact. The pope’s butler was even convicted of stealing documents in an effort to support one Vatican faction against another.
One of the things history shows us is that the Church has been through far worse times than what we see today. I suspect there is great deal to be learned from that, and I suspect it will still be around when today’s headlines are history. Some say it is because of divine guidance. That would be remarkable. But what would be even more remarkable is if the Church is a purely human organization.
But the Conclave has done its job. We wondered if the new pope would be an African, South American, or a New Yorker. Now we know. But I have an idea Benedict’s resignation changed something, and a new chapter is opening in the life of a very old institution.
The picture above is of an Atari 2600 video game console. Aside from a few quick games of Pong at the Mossyrock Lanes bowling alley, this was the first video game I ever touched. I can't remember exactly when my family bought it, but I think it was sometime in 1978, my senior year in high school. This blog isn't about video games, though. This blog is about what we did before video games. In Feels Like the First Time, I wrote about how my friend and next door neighbor Mark Panter and I killed most of a summer playing with a huge, rusted out barrel. I also blogged about it here. The first thing I learned when I was writing a memoir, though, was: Just because you can remember it, doesn't mean you should write it down. That meant that a lot of childhood memories were justifiably cut from the manuscript and mostly forgotten about. This morning, though, I looked out my front window and saw the boy across the street playing in his yard. He had what looked like a piece of wood from a picket fence. It was a couple of feet long and sharp on one end. He was throwing it up in the air and seeing if it would stick in the ground or not. Of course, if his Mom had seen him doing that, she would have resorted to the age-old "You'll put your eye out" fun-block, but she was apparently busy elsewhere. Watching him happily throw the stick up in the air repeatedly got me to thinking about how I entertained myself in the pre-video game era. Admittedly, It took a little more creativity to occupy myself back then. In addition to no video games, there was no internet, no iPods, and, for me, almost no television. Cable TV didn't reach the little town I lived in until several years after I graduated, which meant that my whole life growing up, we had exactly one channel. Worse, it was the ABC affiliate, which meant that I missed all those great 70s CBS shows like MASH, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, etc. All in all, my entertainment options usually came down to the books I had and whatever I could create for myself. I did that in ways that would no doubt be thought odd today. Honestly, they were probably odd back then. Here's what I mean... Much of my entertainment centered around a badminton racket and a whip. That sounds like a good beginning for a plot of an erotica book, but that wasn't the case at all. Growing up in a small town that was heavily made up of farmers, it wasn't all that unusual to find whips laying around here and there. The first time I picked one up, I found I had a knack for "cracking" it, probably because I was tall and skinny - I was kind of built like a whip myself. I spent more hours than I could count wandering around our little piece of acreage, cracking the whip my sister Terri bought me for Christmas. I got so that I could crack the head off a dandelion from eight feet away. Sadly, this skill never translated well into later life, and I haven't picked up a whip in 35 years. Also, although I wasn't very athletic as a kid, I was a terror on the badminton court. That probably had more to do with my willingness to sacrifice my body going after a shot than any natural athleticism. Again, this not a skill that was helpful in later life or for impressing girls. I would spend entire afternoons wandering around the yard, hunting moths and flying ants with my racket. The days when the cherry tree in the yard dropped its blossoms was always exciting. I would stand for hours, swinging my racket at the falling white blossoms. Knowing this about me, it's easier to see why Dawn was my first girlfriend, isn't it? I never remember feeling bored during those years, although I'm sure today's teenagers would be out of their gourd with boredom after about ten minutes of that lifestyle. Instead, I feel blessed that I grew up in that time, when imagination took the place of binary code.
Someone asked me what book my own book Feels Like the First Time is the most like. I really had to think about that. I can't come up with many non-fiction books that deal with romance and falling in love, other than advice books. My book is definitely not an advice book, except maybe as a cautionary tale of what happens when things get out of control in our lives at a very young age. I've always thought that FLTFT is most like fictional romances, like Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. Young lovers, separated by fate and disapproving parents, eventually find each other and realize their love is still strong.
When it comes to non-fiction, my mental cupboard is a bit more bare. The only example I can really think of is Richard Bach's Bridge Across Forever. I know there are mixed opinions about Richard Bach and his books these days, but he is still an author I admire very much. He vaulted into the publishing spotlight in 1970 with the publication of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He sold one million copies of Jonathan that first year. I suppose the pop psychology and new age spirituality of the book seems a little dated to most of us 43 years later, but it still extols many ideas that I believe are true. It was also the first "adult" book I ever read. I could feel my consciousness and world view expand with every page. His next book was Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. If Jonathan expanded my horizons, Illusions felt like it opened whole new worlds to me. It was the story of two men who flew biplanes across the heartland of America, pondering the meaning of life. To say it changed my life is not an exaggeration. Growing up in a tiny town in rural Washington State, I didn't have a lot of opportunity to find alternative world viewpoints, but Illusions showed me I could find that between the pages of a book. I've been doing so ever since. In 1984, he published The Bridge Across Forever. It told the story of his love affair and marriage to Leslie Parrish. I thought it was a lovely book, although the last time I read it I had the distinct impression that Mr. Bach didn't come off as a sympathetic character even in his own book. Still, I thought it was an honest and fascinating glimpse into the life and love of an iconic writer. The bloom came off the rose a little bit when Mr. Bach and Ms. Parrish divorced in 1997. I'm sure it was difficult and painful for both of them to declare themselves soul mates over the course of several hundred pages only to divorce after just a few years. Fans seemed to desert both the book and the author, feeling betrayed, I suppose. I had a different take, as usual. I never hung my belief in soul mates on a couple I read about in a book. I hung it on my belief in my own soul mate, which is still strong. In any case, I think Bridge is the closest thing I've found to my own book. That's one of the reasons I elected to pursue independent publishing without even attempting to be traditionally published. The big publishers like books that they can say is "The next... whatever." Feels Like the First Time didn't really feel like the next... anything., except itself. At this juncture, I am very glad I followed the publishing route I did. I don't talk about sales very much, because I don't think it matters all that much, but sales of the book improved each of the first three months it was out. Then it tripled in January and doubled again in February. Dawn and I feel so blessed that so many people have found their way to our story and have taken the time to read it and get in touch with us. Also, please don't forget: If you haven't joined my New Release Newsletter, which gives you a chance to win a new Kindle Fire HD, you can enter by dropping me a quick line using the "Contact Shawn" box just above and to the right. I will never sell your email address, and I will only use it to send you notifications when I have a new book or story coming out.