Surviving a Lousy Childhood

I published a version of this on this blog before, but it’s been 3 years and most of the people who read my blog probably never saw it. So here’s a reprise.

Billy '66 3My childhood sucked.

Now I will grant you that many people believe their childhoods were miserable; however, few of us born in the industrialized world truly know the definition of childhood misery. My life would hardly have been fodder for a 20th-century version of David Copperfield. I always had a home, never wanted for food, and was no more abused than any other kid born in the late 1950s. I got beatings, although probably far fewer than I earned.

Life took its first sidewards turn in 1960, when my sister Lynn Marie died. I was two, and she was only months old, but she was the light of my mother’s life. When SIDS claimed Lynn Marie, it took my mother’s joy with it. Mom was only 24, had two children under four and a dead baby. She also had a husband with the emotional capacity of a wayward moth. Needless to say, the corners in which she found herself sitting were not conducive to energizing a shy two-year-old who needed attention.

I had been odd, as babies go. I, according to mom, skipped that whole baby talking, learning to speak phase. By age two, I had not spoken a word (to others). Finally, with my mother convinced that her only son was mentally deficient (which in 1960’s Southern vernacular was called retarded), she asked, weeping, “Why won’t you talk?” It must have been hard for her to deal with, as my mother began talking in 1937 and hasn’t stopped yet. According to mom, I looked at her and answered, “Because, I don’t have anything to say.” These were the first words she heard me utter.

Now, this of itself is not odd. What is odd is that I remembered that conversation for most of my life, and was shocked to learn, in adulthood, it happened when I was two. Yes, I do have memories from this age, though it is spotty, to say the least. My real memories start at age 3. Mainly, I remember sitting by myself or keeping my mother company. She was still reeling from the death of her daughter, and I decided I would be her rock. Of course, at age 3, I didn’t know what a rock was, but I did know that neither hell nor high water would get me to leave my 25-year-old mother all alone.

Bill and Kathy
My sister and I smile at the camera in typical fashion.

 

So we grew up that way, together, my mom and me. Thankfully, my mother divorced my biological father when I was four before retreating to small-town Virginia. We moved to my grandparents’ house, living amongst seven or eight of my closest relatives. I barely spoke to any of them. As was true when I was a toddler, I knew how to talk, I just choose not to. There still was nothing to say.

I didn’t go to daycare, or pre-school, or Kindergarten. In those days, it just wasn’t done. Instead, I stayed at home in Granddaddy’s house, and discovered his library at the top of the stairs. There was just one obstacle. I was four, and no one would teach me to read. So, I asked my mom what the letters were, and how to pronounce them, and taught my damn self. I think it took two days. That was something else I never told anyone. I used to be really, really smart. My sister would come home from Kindergarten, and “read” to me. She grew up thinking she had taught me to read. I would never have told her otherwise. I didn’t talk about myself in those days.

Books, all kinds of books, were my salvation. My grandfather was a career Army officer, having made Captain by WWII. He had learned the power of education in Negroes’ lives, and made certain his children learned it too. We had at least 3 encyclopedia sets, volumes of history, art, literature, science, and, of course, the National Geographic (for pictures of boobs). I read everything there was to read. By first grade, I was two years ahead of the other kids in school. So they did what any respectful school did in those days: they ignored me.

I made my first friend at age six, in the first grade. He was hit by a car while walking to school. The car was not totaled; he was. I was the only kid who didn’t go to his funeral. I didn’t try to make another friend until I was eight. I didn’t ask a friend to come to my house until I was ten years old. I was painfully shy and dreadfully lonely.

By age eight, when we’d moved to Oakland, I was even further ahead. See, Oakland was ghetto, and even a segregated southern school beat an integrated ghetto one. By third grade, I was three years ahead of the other kids in school. I helped a cool Mexican kid I met with his work. They pulled him out of third grade and placed him in the 4th grade. I went nowhere. Years later, I learned that they had asked to place me in the sixth grade, but mom said no. As you can imagine, by then I was even more shy than before.

I had no friends, was bullied relentlessly, and there was no hope in sight. Then I discovered the public library and the Catholic Church. I took myself to the library and would walk the 8-10 blocks to get there, alone. I’d check out 5 Dr. Doolittle books, read them, and 3 weeks later, I’d return. The librarians would smile, and then I’d check out Silas Marner, David Copperfield, and Treasure Island. They would counsel me those books were too advanced. I’d read them faster, just to piss the librarians off. Being Catholic meant I got pulled out of school once a week to attend catechism. I didn’t like the priests, or God forbid, the nuns, but I loved not being in school.

I doubt anyone had an idea I read. The only time I really did so was in school, when teachers were teaching the other kids whatever the hell they taught in those days. Some days, I didn’t want to read, so I’d color in my coloring books. I never did get much out of school. But books, I learned, meant I could still teach myself. I’d love to say the remainder of my childhood improved. It did, in some ways. My mom remarried, and my stepdad was, and is awesome. Something else good happened, though I can’t remember it at the moment. It must have, as I have a photograph of me smiling at age 13. It was the first time I’d ever smiled in a photo.

Age 15
Age 15. I’m smiling.

But I got from my childhood exactly what God wanted me to get. I received an understanding of childhood that few adults will ever have. I learned that no amount of torment can bend a strong will, if there is but a single person who stands behind you. I learned that for me, God was enough. So was my mom. I was bullied, but not always. I used what I’d learned to help other kids. Being helpful kept most of them from kicking my ass.

For the rest of them, I learned that at some point, they would get tired of hitting me. When they did, I’d beat the living shit out of them. (The moral of this story is: God helps those who help themselves.)

Life is like that. Some things we endure. We are strengthened by the trials. We learn to survive and take with us bits and pieces to form the person we need to be. School was never of much use to me. I had ADD, I was different. I was alone and ignored, but everything I ever needed I could find in a book. And, with books at my disposal, my mom at my back, and God in my corner, I never stopped believing I had the world outnumbered.

 

 

Inspiration, Demarcation, and Respiration fe di Nation

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.09.56 PMSo, I was sitting here, doing what I normally do this time at night, which is to miss the Bess to my Porgy, when WordPress dropped me the badge above. Now, normally, we don’ need no stinkin’ batches around here, but this one is a inconspicuous but important demarcation point for me. Eight years on WordPress, today.

It’s not the amount of time I’ve been a writer, nor does it mark how long I’ve blogged. (A very few know I actually had my first blog on Blogger in September 2005.) But 23 March 2007 is when I decided to take myself seriously as a writer and photographer. I created a blog, which I’ve long-since deleted, filled with rants, poems, laughs, and other bits of my psyche that flaked off like dehydrated skin. Eight years.

Other than wondering why I’m not much better at it by now (I start and stop, that’s why), my initial reaction is that perhaps that’s long enough time spent in shadows. Maybe it’s time I came Full Circle and make this place my own.

I call this blog This Blog Intentionally Blank for a reason. I drop things here, but I almost never showed up. The people who know me in real life will attest–while I occasionally blow through here, mostly I whisper. In the world, I am far more tempest than zephyr. I anguish; I rage; I vent; I love. I stopped selling my books not because I was unsuccessful, but because I have NEVER believed perfection to be an invalid goal.

And I won’t get there, I know, but that’s not the point.

The most profound bad poem ever written said it best. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” But I know y’all don’t hear me any more than you heard Dylan Thomas. I know because I’ve never heard a single person read that poem correctly. It’s not a eulogy. It isn’t meant for quiet sobs or gentle whispers. New Age music doesn’t blow out of some bagpiper’s ass while it’s being read. The poem is Fucking Angry. RAGE! RAGE against the dying of the light!

I don’t know whether I was given one of those new, fluorescent bulbs that will still be burning when our sun goes supernova, or if I’m an old-school incandescent meant to burn out with the next equinox. But I do know this: I won’t be going gentle into any more motherfucken nights. Rage, rage against 8 years spent in semi-darkness.

In the interim, in the real world, I wrote 100 or so poems, enough for a book if I wanted to produce one. I took over 40,000 frames with 8 cameras. I wrote 6 novels and a short story collection. And I made it to 30 years with the same company in my day job. But other than with my Girl, I’ve mostly kept all the vicissitudes hidden. I’m a fucking alpha Leo male. We ain’t supposed to do hidden. Hidden is for little cheetahs that think they’re lions.

So, eight years in, I’m no longer going gentle a goddamned place. And if you don’t like tempests, you might want to buckle up or unfollow. It may be occasionally angry up in this bitch. And I’m not talking about just writing. There’s a whole world out there, and it’s time we met.

About damn time, too.

ABC Award

I’ve been presented with the “Awesome Blog Content Award by my friend, artist Erica Kanters, from her Erica: Encaustic Artist blog. Don’t know what encaustic art is? Stop in her blog and find out.

First the these rules to the award:

Rules to this Award:

1. Display the Award on your Blog.
2. Announce your win with a post and thank the Blogger who awarded you.
3. Present 8 deserving Bloggers with the Award.
4. Link your awardees in the post and let them know of their being awarded with a comment.
5. Write a word or phrase about yourself for each letter of the Alphabet.

abc-award

Here goes:

A. Ambidextrous – I am. Everything I learned as a kid, I do right-handed. Everything I learned as an adult, I do left-handed.
B. Bill – is a nickname I chose for myself. Family used to call me something else, until I started ignoring them. No, I won’t tell you what it is.
C. Cee-Lo Green – ‘Nuff sed.
D. Dark – As a kid, I loved the dark. Liked it more than the daytime.
E. Energy – I have too much, unless I’m bored.
F. Females – Most of my friends have been women for as long as I can remember. Women like me, though I’m not sure why.
G. Genetics – According to a recent DNA test, I am 58% African (Togo/Benin, Ghana/Côte d’Ivoire, Congo/Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, etc.) 39% European (British/French, Iberian [Spanish]) and 3% Other. I check “Other” under race, because “Human” usually isn’t an option.
H. Handwriting – I used to do handwriting analysis. I haven’t in a while, although it proves to be accurate.
I. “Idiots!” is the thing I say the most often while driving.
J. Jones – my daughter and I are the ONLY people in my family with that name. However, I am the 4th William Jones in my line.
K. Kindle – I write books for the Kindle, and have one, but would rather hold a treeBook than an eBook.
L. Love Life – I have one.
M. Musicals – I love music and theater. HATE musicals and Opera. Go figure.
N. Night Owl – I don’t get sleepy. Ever.
O. One – The number of companies I’ve worked for since leaving grad school.
P. Poetry – I hated it in school. All that Yeats stuff was a yawn to me. (Still is.) Then I read street poets and wondered why we never studied them. I taught myself in college from watching spoken-word artists.
Q. Quiet – I have been quiet all my life. My voice is very soft. My will is not.
R. Retirement is on my mind a lot, even though it should be years out. We’ll see.
S. Sexy – Bringing it back. No, I mean to the store. Mine is all worn out; I need a new one.
T. Teenager – raised one, and she didn’t kill me. She did try; I’m certain of it.
U. Urban – I love nature, to visit. To live in, I’m a city boy at heart. I currently live in the suburbs, which is akin to purgatory.
V. Veggies – Yuck.
W. Wicked – I have a wicked sense of humor, though I wisely keep it mostly to myself.
X. X – As a kid, I was a Malcolm X fan, primarily for his overcoming racism, both against him and from him. I thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizing hypocrite. Now that I’m older, I haven’t changed my opinion much.
Y. Yams – I make candied yams (sweet potatoes) like my grandma did. They. Kick. Ass. I used to get invited to friends’ Thanksgiving dinners so I’d bring them.
Z. Zero – The chance of my ever winning a Pulitzer. Oh well.


The Crap’s in the Cradle

Your failings whisper to me
I look in my warped mirror
Seeing only ghosts of you
Indifference becomes me, I fear
No sorrows or tear-stained pillows
Just absence where you belong

The years passed, with them my caring
Hatred faded like sun-bleached photos
I see your face in sepia tint
Awaited the days of your ending
As you predictably reached for me

“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?” Who gives a damn?
We didn’t get together then, dad
No, there was no good time then.

Sometimes, later is just too damned late.

halcyon

acapulco sunset-001
So halcyon, my sweetest love
Slips the stolid ocean’s bed
Sunlit shimmers from above,
Jeweled dreams, not gently wed

Empty armed azure skies
Here my catechism lay
Near betraying sunlight’s lies
Of kisses at the end of day

Shut my eyes to setting sun
Open them to nascent stars
Not too shy to corral one
Just to take me where you are

Dare to hope, afraid to sleep
Wishes crumbled into dust
Stars for kissing, now to weep
Never should have learned to trust

dragon fall

I used to be a dragon.

On the last day of my existence, before the peopled masses crushed me underfoot, I was black-winged, graceful, with a flowing mane that rippled in the tearing winds beyond the rock face. I stood there, grey eyes closed to the dying sun, thirty meters of wingspan open, and fluttering like the jagged sails of ocean craft. There was a chill, a thin, biting wind upon my back, and I should have recognised its call. But I was inflamed and full, an alpha dragon amidst the soaring rage above.

I was a male, like none other, or so

I thought.

We were hot-blooded beasts, we dragonkind. The Others believed us to be outsized lizards, but it was never so. We burned with passion that frightened them, but our flames were never for violence, even though our cries were stark. Alone was our fire for love, for love, for love, and sex and love

and love, once more.

We were never what you painted us to be. And when the skies would open, and our Mother’s breath took us heavenward, we would soar, all rage and thunderclaps, all fire and love. And dance, we would, above them all.

And dance we would,

and dance.

But on the last night, before I ceased to be my dragon self, she came beside me, bid me take the leap, and whispered, “Go the way that you go, and I will meet you there.”

I leapt, I did, for faith abounded. The soft fur that covered me rippled in the frigid night. The air, you see, was far too cold, and so, I did not rise, but plummet ‘neath the scissored cliffs. And above, she stood there watching, but did not catch me,

falling.

So crash, I did, and crash and fall and burned the night air in my impotence. For in folly did I believe that should she see the brightness of my flames, she would fall there, with me, and together would we burn the night with such intensity that we would join the circling rage above.

But she did not. Another caught her eye, and so she left me to despair. And crash, did I, but crash. And to the bottom fallen, I saw the others’ bodies there, so did I join them,

dying.

And now, I’m here, no webeast, I, but empty man, despairing. For falling is a wondrous thing, but never is the

pairing.

Free

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It isn’t something smart business people do often. In fact, some of us downright hate the idea. Yet, again, I find myself giving away books to people who may or may not read them. It is marketing, they say, and necessary. The people who encourage me tell me that it takes a while to build an audience.

Yes, well, I’ve been “building” one for two years, without much success. In point of fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve failed at it. That’s not an easy admission, as short of a marriage (or two) I’ve not failed at many things in my life. I won’t call myself a failed writer, however. That would imply my work has no value or is at best, mediocre. I’ve never been accused of being mediocre and I won’t put that label on myself. In truth, if I were to add up all of the reviews of my 5 published works (only 4 of which have been reviewed) the average comes somewhere north of 4.3 out of 5. Not bad.

Still, no one’s tearing my door down to purchase my work.

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I can look at a photo, like the one above that I digitally enhanced, and easily envision an interesting world of interesting people. I can write sharp, witty dialogue. I can weave plots with twisting subplots and heartbreaking surprises. And still, at the end, it will be a party with few guests. I’m not the only one, not by a long shot. In fact, of the books published, even via traditional publishers, only 10% will cover their costs.

My latest book, Hard as Roxx, had at least half a dozen early readers. I’ve had sales and given copies away. After almost a month on sale, I’ve received 2 reviews. At least one of those two people almost certainly didn’t read the whole book before reviewing. It’s tiresome.

So, I toy with the idea of being free. I will never just give all my books away, however. I’ve been a businessman for too long to make dumb business decisions. Therefore, what I must make free is myself. I must free myself from the burden of trying to convince people to read my work. I’ve started along that path, as I’ve finished my 1st mystery, which I like more than my previous books. I’m not feeling at all compelled to seek publication, however. Likewise, I’ve begun work on a 2nd short story collection. There’s no rush to publication, since few have discovered the first collection. I am free to write. I’m free to price my work as I please. I’m free to ignore what editors, agents, publishers, or critics think of my work or themes. I’m free to cross genres, merge genres, and invent my own. I’m free to enjoy the process of writing, without worrying about the end result.

With no (writing) support system except my online friends and God, I have 1 of 2 choices. I can give up writing, or give up my faulty support system. I choose the latter. All those people who think I’m their friend, but who have made no attempt to read my work, to quote the Anita Baker song, “Just because I love you, it don’t mean I won’t disappear.” I am free now. Free to find friends who understand this is the career I care about, the work I value, the thing that expresses who I am. As an artist, if you do not care about my art, you cannot care about me. That is because, simply, you have never met me. Therefore, with much ambivalence love, I bid you all, fuck off adieu.

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My choice was hammered home by meeting someone new, a neighbor. Within minutes of finding out I was a writer, she said, “I’d like to read some of your books. I’m a reader.” Ah, so there is such a thing. I met another neighbor, who walks the 2-mile circuit around my neighborhood, reading her Kindle.  This week, I’ve been surprised by a few people who’ve told me they’ve read a few of my books.

The moral of this story is, if the people you love don’t support who you are, love the people who do.

Maybe there is still time to build an audience before I die. If not, perhaps my grandchildren will discover my books and be able to do something with them. Until then, I shall attempt to remain … free.

True Story

Friendly Neighbor asks to read some of my books. No one asks me that, so I bring her a couple. While we’re still standing in the doorway, a spider scrambles by. Friendly Neighbor screams a little, and then throws one of my books at the spider.

Bill: “Sheesh, if you didn’t want to read them, you could’ve just said so.”
FN: (Laughing) “Sorry. It was instinct.”
Bill: “They’re good for holding up uneven tables too.

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Have a great Saturday!

The Illusion of Confidence

Artistic endeavors are interesting things. In order to be accomplished, in any sort of way, one has to develop the underlying craft. Now, I’m not using that word in the pretentious way I hear it being used, e.g., “I am devoted to my craft,” she said, brushing stray strands of ermine from her face. No, I am talking about the grunt work that it takes to perfect the “art.”

For photographers, that means learning about composition, lighting, shutter speeds, camera types, angles, and more. It means you need to understand what the Rule of Thirds is, what vanishing points are, and when to use, or ignore these and other rules. It means you spend hours poring over texts, taking test photos, doing post processing. It means failed experiments with lighting and accidental delights. In short, it means work.

For writers, there are just as many technical details to learn. You need to know how to structure a story, what good pacing is and isn’t. You need to know grammar and spelling, editing and proofreading. You learn word usage, sentence structure. And then you read, read, read. Soon, there is no such thing as reading for pleasure — all reading is education, although some you get to enjoy.

Over time, you develop the skills, perfect the tools. Then, if luck persists, you go out and apply them, and hold your breath, and await the boomerang of criticism.

We wait, breathlessly, do artists. It’s not that we are weak-minded. Neither is it that we lack backbone, and need the affirmations of others to substitute for our own fortitude. Rather, it is that confidence in artistic endeavors are either transitory, or altogether false. Rarely is good art absolute, and when it is, you can be certain you are in the presence of a master.

Rembrandt was always good; so much so that even today we cannot tell his work from his students’. Why? Because his style came to define “good,” no matter how briefly. Van Gogh? Not so much. Was he good? Great? Did his work improve after his death, or did we become enamored with it because we love the sorrowful romance of his life story? We’ll never know for certain. All we know is that now, his work defines “good.”

And so it goes. No matter how many words I write (700,000 in my books, to date) I will never know whether they are good or not. The reason is simple: I don’t determine what is good. That is determined by those whom read them. Are popular, poorly written books (Shades of Grey, for example) good, or well-written, unread books that slipped off the shelves into the netherworld of dusty back bins good? Is it good because we say so, or because it was read? Is a photo a masterpiece because a million eyes have seen it, or because those few who have were moved enough to weep?

It’s not for me to say.

All I can offer is that I’ve been photographing since I was 12, and have been serious since I was 16. I have no idea if I’m good. I know I’m okay, as my work gets enough attention to qualify as okay. Is my writing good? Is Roxx a good book because one reader loved it enough to want to remember the words, or is it defined by those who started reading and didn’t finish? Is the book excellent because each chapter in the 2nd half is better than the one before, or poor because it doesn’t race to the ending like the Hunger Games trilogy? What the hell difference does it make?

What defines the gift a work brings is how it is remembered, or, more accurately, if it is remembered. Whatever I write will be judged a success or failure long after I am gone. If a child, who is not currently alive today, laughs, or cries, at one of my stories, then I am a good writer. Until that happens, I’ll work under the assumption that I am not. Not yet.

Which means, of course, I have work to do. And work. And work. And work.

Because it’s not a craft, unless you are crafting it.