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Behind the Vignette: YOU DON’T DRINK?

I stopped drinking to get drunk when I was 27. I had started drinking when I was around 16, mostly things like Mike’s Hard Lemonade in a friend’s camper that sat in his backyard. Over time, particularly once my friends and I turned 21, the frequency and intensity of my drinking increased. I’ve never been an alcoholic (at least in the sense that I’ve never felt compelled to drink to excess, or like it was outside of my control), but for a long time we were having parties or going to bars every weekend where we would drink to get drunk, whatever that meant.

In theory, there wasn’t anything wrong with it. We did some stupid things, made lots of mistakes (I somehow remember one such incident when, after playing in a beer pong tournament downtown, I found myself driving on the thruway with no idea how I got there), but by the grace of God never hurt ourselves or anyone else.

What changed for me was a sense of losing myself. Getting further away from who I wanted to be. It was some holiday weekend (warm enough to be in a pool at a friend’s apartment complex, and so I’ve always thought it was Fourth of July, but that timeline doesn’t quite line up, so it must have been later in the summer or near Labor Day) and I got pretty sloshed. No big deal, I made it home okay (on a bike this time) and slept it off.

The next morning, though, I had to go to work. I felt so shitty that I ended up having to leave sick after maybe a quarter of the workday. I realized then that, in addition to disliking the person I am when I’m drunk, that I wasn’t being responsible and that, eventually, it would badly hurt me. At that point my body couldn’t rebound from being hungover like it had when I was younger, and so the circumstances aligned in such a way that I was able to give it up. I’ve been drunk a few times since then, but never memory-loss drunk and not with anyone aside from my wife or family.

I don’t miss it. But what I began to notice when going to parties, or hanging out at a bar, was some confusion on people’s faces when I tell them I don’t want a drink. Alcohol is such a common and accepted vice in our culture that it’s hard for people to understand those that don’t want it.

I imagine it’s even worse for recovering alcoholics, especially if they’re still friends with other alcoholics.

That was the genesis for this story. To explore that confusion and those feelings of someone that has changed coming up against those who haven’t. It’s a bit exaggerated, but I hope it’s honest, or reaches for something close to “Truth.” And I hope that if you’re someone who doesn’t understand when people turn down alcohol, that this story sheds a little light on why that might be, and why that’s okay.

Behind the Vignette: THE PACE OF CHANGE

Click the picture above to read the story.

I lived in Buffalo, NY for the first 24 years, 10 months of my life. I left just a tad over ten years ago. That first year of being away from home I visited often. I don’t remember how often, exactly, but probably more than five times and less than ten. Nowadays, I might go up once or twice. My visits now, as infrequent as they are, remind me of everything that’s changed since I left.

Obviously, in ten years there have been a lot of changes to the physical landscape. Businesses change names or close completely. The waterfront is completely different than when I left. New restaurants and public areas have cropped up. My high school is no longer in the same building (this actually happened before I left, but still).

But the people have changed, too. I’m different. My friends are different. My family is different. We can slide back into our old dynamics, fall into the old routines, but if you take a step back for more than a second it’s easy to see the changes in everyone.

So, in a sense, I think that our relationships are like the cities we live in. They change slowly, little by little, and it’s not always noticeable unless you take the time to notice it. This story is about that feeling of driving through someplace that should be familiar, and then you realize it’s not what you remember. Somewhere along the way, without your noticing, it changed into something you don’t recognize.

What you do with that realization only you can know. I don’t think the ending of this story is ambiguous, in fact I think the Universe is yelling at Geoff and Zelda something obvious to everyone but them, but it is unclear what they’ll do with the information. Most likely, they’ll ignore it and continue on like they always have. But maybe, the nudge is what will help them realize that in order to come to recognize the external changes pushing down on you, you also have to recognize the internal changes that can help you come to terms with it.

35

My birthday cake is officially a fire hazard.

Today is my 35th birthday. 35 is the last major milestone for a while (I can run for President! Yay?), but it’s also a point in life where things are either actively changing, or have changed enough to reflect on. I believe that we all live several lives over the course of our 80-some-odd years (or more! Hopefully!) on the planet, and by my math I’m somewhere around my fourth.

Let’s talk about them. And, for funsies, let’s call them “Ages.”

THE AGE OF CJ

The face of a martial arts master.

Childhood is weird. Memory is imperfect on our best days, and as we get further removed from childhood our recollection of it becomes a combination of unverifiable events and fantasy.

My childhood feels like staring at vague figures doing vague things in a thick fog. I remember being a generally happy child. I ran around outside, played with my friends, watched Saturday morning cartoons, played Nintendo upon waking up, and had an active imagination. That all sounds pretty good.

In reality, my childhood was filled anxiety and anger. I had chronic stomach pains that were never diagnosed, but in hindsight probably had to do with anxiety. My parents divorced when I was 13, and the years leading up to that were rough. Lots of arguments, snide comments, and a few physical altercations (none involving me).

To me, though, that was normal-adjacent. I had my coping mechanisms (wearing ear plugs and going to bed while it was still light out, for one) and so I didn’t think that the environment I was in might be unhealthy. Now that I have a son, though, for whom I want to provide an environment that supports his development in the smoothest way I can manage, I can see in what ways my childhood fell short. Some of that is because of my parents and their flaws, and some of it is because of circumstances they had no control over. They didn’t ask to be poor. My family didn’t ask to deal with mental and physical illness. We all had to deal with those things, and I think that contributed to a lot of the negative feelings in the house.

And so I’m left with frustration at all the things I never got but also am awestruck for what I had, given the circumstances. Sure, I only had two pairs of pants for an entire school year, but I never went hungry either–even if the food was often out of a box. My parents managed to pay for and take me to Tae Kwon Do three days per week, and then bought me equipment to play roller hockey after that. When you’re a kid you don’t understand that those types of expenses come with sacrifice.

We begin the long journey of discovering ourselves as children. My first identity was an angry, impatient child. After starting Tae Kwon Do I learned patience and how to direct my emotions into something productive. At home and at school I learned the value of being helpful to protect yourself. And I learned how to use sarcasm to deflect, and humor to engage. These traits have stayed with me, for better or worse.

Childhood is also when we begin to decide on who we want to be. I discovered reading and writing as a boy. I met my first best friend, who introduced me to hockey. I got a VHS-C camera from my grandfather and made videos with my friends.

I can recognize these things now, only because of how far away they seem, and how far I’ve come away from them.

THE AGE OF SIEGE

Puberty hit me like a truck hits a raccoon. Messily.

Many people say your teenage years are the best of your life. They’re absolutely wrong. Unless you stop maturing or run into tragedy as you get older, your teenage years won’t be your best years. However, they will be the most memorable.

My feeling is that this is because from the time puberty kicks in until you graduate college (or later) you’re a raw nerve and you feel every experience to maximum effect. Friendships are closer. Parties more fun. Sports harder and more exciting. Relationships deeper and more intense. To be a teenager is to truly experience everything in all its complicated glory for the first time.

My world expanded. I left my street for the first time and started to wander the neighborhood with new friends. I spent a lot of time on AIM, in chatrooms, and on Pogo. I went to overnight roller skating to meet a girl I only knew online. Later, I dated a girl from the suburbs, which was my first basic lesson in culture shock.

These new experiences also includes loss. As I moved into teenagedom, I let go of the friends I had made on my street (including my first best friend–the one that introduced me to hockey) in favor of new friends. My parents divorced. My sister joined the Army and left home. Pets died. I didn’t know how to deal with it.

I rebelled, in my own way. One year in high school I put my hair up in what I deemed “spider-legs” (basically, a bunch of tiny ponytails all over my head) and used colored gel to dye the tips green. I drank Mike’s Hard with my friends, when we could get it. Stayed out until 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes. Once, I ran into a friend’s dad outside while walking home late at night. He stopped me and asked if I was high. I’ve never been high, so the answer was no. He didn’t believe me. Most people didn’t. A consequence of living in a house where second hand smoke rolled out of the door like fog in a horror movie.

I also went to youth groups, despite not being religious. It was a place to hang out with kids my age, and if we went to the one with my friend’s older brother he would take us to the dollar show afterward (where I first saw MINORITY REPORT), and then we would help him clean car dealerships. Cleaning those dealerships made me think I wanted to work in an office. It seemed so fancy and stable.

I had my first heartbreaks (and did some of my own heartbreaking, as hard as that may be to believe if you’re going off the above picture), and poured that emotion into poetry, short stories, and screenplays. In those, I began to learn what it was I wanted in a relationship. Eventually, that rocky road would lead me to my wife.

But not quite yet.

THE AGE OF CRAIG

Henley’s for life.

The time after high school is insane. I went a bit insane with it.

I moved out when I was 19, vowing to never go back. Technically, that was true, although I have lived with my sister on two separate occasions. My vow wasn’t because my life was bad at home, although I certainly believed that at the time. First was dorming for a semester, which was pointless. I was stuck in a room with three other guys, one of whom slept through his alarm (the chorus to Thrice’s “Artist in the Ambulance” on repeat) every morning. On weekends I worked and generally spent my time at home, anyway.

After the dorm, I got an apartment with a high school friend. A family friend was our landlord, so we got free internet and cable. This only turned awkward once–when my landlord got a court summons for downloading porn to his IP Address, which was actually my roommates doing. Luckily, some research revealed there was nothing to worry about. My roommate and I got along really well (at least from my perspective–I’m sure there were lots of things I did to piss him off), which I am eternally grateful for.

Those four years were some of the poorest, most exciting of my life. Parties seemed to happen every weekend. I had friends in the art scene, and was able to score comp tickets to plenty of theater and music shows. My roommate was into gaming, so we played hours and hours of Halo, Gears of War, and Rock Band.

I was active everywhere. I wanted to get to know my city, and so I explored whenever I could. On my own, driving the ’84 Firebird my father had gifted me (and I then proceeded to neglect) around the city. Working in the independent film scene and getting to step foot in places most people rarely think of, like the water pumping station on Lake Erie. My work on independent film culminated in my writing and being Assistant Director on GRANTED, which then led me to reconsider all my dreams of being a filmmaker.

My friends and I played lots of sports. Dodgeball (2008 WNY Dodgeball champs!), volleyball, some hockey, and working out at the gym. We had to stay active, considering how much we drank and ate out.

This time was when I began having trouble holding down a job. Not out of incompetence (not always, anyway, although I was fired from being a telemarketer after two days), but in trying to find something that paid well and I truly enjoyed. I did Burger King for three years, two separate stints of machining, landscaping that didn’t end well, teaching an afterschool science program (where I would eventually meet my wife), and then working as an usher at the Buffalo Museum of Science. I also made wooden plugs on a drill press in my father’s basement for a penny per plug. If I worked quickly, and the wood cooperated and didn’t break apart of clog my drill bit (fat chance), I might make 200 plugs in an hour. I hated it.

Creatively, I wrote a lot. Mostly short stories and screenplays. I joined several writer’s groups that met in restaurants or coffee shops. I tried to direct my own short film, but royally fucked it up and gave up. I think I disappointed people.

There were also girls. Each one a lesson learned about who I am and what I need from a relationship. None were bad relationships, not really. Certainly not from my perspective. A few of those girlfriends might disagree, and I wouldn’t blame them. Most of my deepest shames are from how I interacted with women at this point in my life. My own insecurities made me less than they deserved.

Until Hanh, anyway.

THE AGE OF MR. GUSMANN

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Married with children.

Growing into a responsible adult is exhausting.

Now that myself and most of my friends are marrying and having kids, it sometimes feels like we’re transitioning from being participants in life to being observers of it. I spend way more time watching my kid grow than I do any growing myself. And I think that’s right. I think that’s how it should be.

Which isn’t to say I’m dead, or that I’m not longer capable of growth or dreams or whatever. My priorities have changed, though. Where I choose to focus my energies has changed. That change is because I’ve finally figured some shit out.

Now that I’m older, I have a lot of things that I didn’t in those other eras. Stability, a sense of my strengths and weaknesses, money. The only thing I don’t have much more of now than then is time. But that’s because my life is so damn full. It’s bursting with things I never expected to have. Love, for one thing.

I often wonder what 15 year old Siege or 25 year old Craig would think of 35 year old Mr. Gusmann. I think they’d have a lot of questions about why I’m not a famous director or screenwriter, but ultimately they’d be ecstatic with where I am. It’s a helpful gauge when I’m feeling down, sometimes. On my worst days, when I hate my dayjob and Elijah won’t let me sit down for five minutes, and the house needs to be cleaned, and God damnit something broke, and the cat’s sneezing, and fuck what now–I can still look around and appreciate how all of these little annoyances are a direct result of my filling my life with people and things I love.

For me, each age has been better than the last. I’m determined to make sure that holds true, which means the beginning of this new era should be the best yet.

Behind the Vignette: Tough Guy

Click the picture to read the story before learning about its inspiration.

One day a while back I was standing in line at the post office and there was a ratty looking man standing off to the side, just kind of watching everything. You know the type–dark hoodie, thin from years of use; dirty jeans; scruff; carried himself like he was an offhand remark from fight or flight.

While I was watching him I thought, “What if this dude’s here to rob them? What would I do?”

My mind ran off on an elaborate fantasy about how I’d stop him when, quite suddenly, my rational mind kicked in and said, You wouldn’t do shit except for what he told you to do. You’d die if you tried to play hero. Anyway, this dude is just here to mail something. Dickhead.

And in that, this story was born.

I think most men have hero fantasies. Chalk it up to a lifetime of seeing westerns, superhero movies, and other lone wolf action movies. Or maybe it’s a symptom of toxic masculinity. Probably a bit of both, feeding into one another like an ouroboros of assholes.

There are good examples of this phenomenon in celebrity news! Remember when Mark Wahlburg said that if he were on Flight 93 he would have stopped 9/11? That’s the kind of thinking that gets people killed.

I wanted to write about that. Take the piss out of it a bit. It’s one of my first attempts at writing actual comedy, and I think it’s pretty good.

Maybe I’ll try it again sometime (the comedy, not the violent fantasies against strangers).

2022 In Preview

Going into the New Year like…

2021 was a big year. Aside from having a kid that turned my world upside down, I published two works and made really good progress on a new novel. Initially, I wanted to use the momentum built up in 2021 to launch into 2022 and beyond. However, when I actually sat down to set some realistic goals, with realistic timelines for each, I realized that I won’t be able to capitalize on any momentum built in 2021 right away. See, I made a Gantt chart. Gantt charts don’t lie.

When things I learned at work come in handy in my personal life.

Essentially, I took my word count goal per week (4,000–same as last year) and extrapolated that out by how many words I would expect to get in a month and how long I expect each project to take. This allowed me to prioritize and plan out my projects for the next year. The colors designate when I’m actively writing, when things should be out in review, when I’m marketing, and when I’m publishing. There are more projects and pretty colors than are shown here, but you get the idea.

So, with that said, what are my goals this year?

PROJECTS

My goals here are based on the number of words I expect to write per month and the priority I’ve chosen for my projects. This priority is subject to change. For example, last year I had a time travel novel outlined and ready to go, when I decided to scrap it in favor of what I’m working on now. Some of these timelines are ambitious, and I don’t realistically expect to meet any of them, but I think it sets a solid foundation for what I want to achieve in the year. Here’s what I hope to accomplish:

New Novel: Titled (for now) THE END OF EVERYTHING, I wrote nearly 50,000 words of this in 2021. If I can stick to my word count goals I should finish this by the beginning of March, do a revision through April, and have it out to beta readers in May and June before doing a second revision in July. At that point I’ll see how I feel about it to decide what the next steps might be.

Novel Revision: Nearly five years ago I wrote a novel called THE INHABITORS. I spent a year writing it, another year revising it, and then gave it to beta readers. I got a lot of great feedback, but one critique in particular has stuck with me. The problem is that it requires overhauling major parts of the story. I ignored it for a long time, implementing all sorts of other changes, but I need to do it. It will make the story much stronger, and the experience I’ve gained over the past few years has made me a much stronger writer than I was then. And so March and April will be dedicated to that overhaul, assuming I meet my schedule for THE END OF EVERYTHING.

This is one I plan to self-publish, which means that once it’s done I need to find a professional editor and then do another revision. Hopefully that can be done end of spring / early summer while THE END OF EVERYTHING is with beta readers. What I’m really looking forward to, though, is putting together the marketing plan for this one. I didn’t do any marketing for ANH NGUYEN or THROUGH DARK. But for THE INHABITORS I plan to do as much of a full-court press as I can afford / manage. More on that below.

New Novella: Last year, before I started on THE END OF EVERYTHING, I began a new novella that I plan to self-publish this year. I envision it being between 20,000 and 30,000 words, 6,000 of which are already written. I hope to get a first draft done while THE END OF EVERYTHING is with beta readers and THE INHABITORS is with the pro editor. Then I can basically alternate months where I’m working on it or it’s with beta readers / a pro editor before self-publishing at the end of the year.

Series Idea: A while ago I came up with an idea for a novel that could lead to a series. I really love the concept, and if everything goes well I can do a research trip and write just under half of the first book before year end.

Web Series: It’s been a long time since I’ve applied my creative energies to a visual medium. I’d like to change that this year. I have an idea for an 11-episode web series that I want to use as a way to market THE INHABITORS. The plan is to write and film 3-5 minute episodes that are released weekly here, on YouTube, and via Twitter. Hopefully people like them. If so, I have a really ambitious idea for a season two. So ambitious it’ll never realistically happen, but a boy can dream. I hope to get this done in late summer / early fall, with THE INHABITORS following on its heels with publication in the fall.

WEBSITE GOALS

This is the last year of my initial plan for this website. The first two years haven’t been as successful as I was hoping, but much of that is on me. I’m inconsistent with posting, sometimes going months between blogs and never being able to maintain the vignette schedule. Considering my other goals for this year, I don’t expect that to change.

Instead of trying to blog once or twice a week, as I’ve done the past two years, which requires a lot of thought and effort, I’m going to shift focus. I’ll still blog sporadically, particularly when a new vignette goes up or I read / watch something I want to unpack. My expectation is that blog posts will decrease, but the length of each individual post will increase. That may be a net good.

That said, I do want to put more effort into the vignettes. They’re good practice for me, in writing and photography, and I enjoy doing them. I can also work them into my word count goals, which isn’t something I can really do with the blog. These are words, sure, but they’re not words that will ultimately help me reach a creative goal. Vignettes on the other hand, can be reused in collections or expanded into other types of prose.

So, once a month expect a new vignette and “behind the vignette.” (Maybe.)

CAREER GOALS

Ah… the day job. I’m lucky, in a lot of ways. I have stability, I’m paid well, and there is plenty of flexibility where I am. Still, after everything I wrote above, it feels strange to say I have career goals for the thing that I don’t want as a career.

But, the day job supports me and my family, makes everything else possible, and my other goals tend to live and die by what’s going on there. For example, our busy season is over summer, so I know that my word count will probably take a major hit. I have to be prepared for that.

An added wrinkle is that I’ve seriously considered jumping ship to a different place. If I did that I’d be giving up a lot of privileges I currently enjoy. And that, too, might affect my other goals. I won’t have the flexibility or clout that I have now.

What are my goals, then? Survive, mostly. Continue to mentor my team and improve the quality of our deliverables. Seize opportunity when it comes. The nice thing about my current position is that I control my own fate. We’ll have to see if and how that changes.

IN CONCLUSION

If 2020 and 2021 taught me anything, it’s that predictions are a fool’s game while there is unprecedented sickness and political upheaval happening. Throw a kid into that mix and it’ll explode.

I don’t expect to meet all my goals this year. I’m already something like 7,000 words behind. If I do end up changing jobs, that will only get worse. I do expect to meet some of them, though, and so the ambition is beneficial. If I get through the year with a healthy kid, happy wife, stable job, and another novel or published work under my belt, it’ll have been a good year.

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