writing

Overcoming Expectations

Our daily expectations are those unconsidered expectations about daily life, like the fact that the sun will rise in the morning, that my morning coffee will be delicious and probably the highlight of my day, and the fact that I will sit in mind-numbing traffic for an hour as I attempt to drive 12 miles to work. These are the expectations that we take for granted, the things we expect due to the fact they have become such regular parts of our daily lives. Expectations like these make life boring, repetitive, and depressing.  It is simple brain reflex that causes the human mind to attempt to predict what is going to happen, whether you’re watching television, reading a book, or going to work for the ten thousandth day in a row. But how boring is it to know exactly what is going to happen all the time?

If everything always plays out exactly like you think it should, then you have in essence learned nothing new. It is through the serendipitous discovery of the unexpected that the human mind finds meaningful existence in this sad little hamster wheel known as life. My 6th grade science students are always required to make a hypothetical prediction before they start each lab experiment, and sometimes they get disappointed at the end if their hypothesis is not correct, like they have failed somehow. But I always tell them that if your hypothesis is correct you have learned nothing. It is only when the hypothesis doesn’t match expectations that we have actually discovered something new. I think that this is part of the reason most people find traveling to new places and cultures so invigorating. Everything is new and unexpected. Each today truly becomes a new day with endless possibility.

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But then there are more profound expectations, the long term plans we have for ourselves and the people we care about. The path we follow toward those expectations may be unexpected. My Grandma wrote me this letter (and many others also) when I was a “hopeless” surf bum living in my van. I surfed every day and worked as a room service waiter and bartender in Santa Cruz. It was by far the happiest time of my life. I had almost zero stress, and hours of free time to write and read every single day. Even living in a costly environment like Santa Cruz I had a very low overhead. A post office box, a storage unit, and my 1975 Chevy molester van with my surfboard and coffee pot felt like all I needed. Every couple weeks I would drive up or down the coast to hang out on some empty beach or campground for a couple days. I was rich in time but poor in money. In many respects I was the most successful person I knew.

But eventually the pull of more profound expectations made me question my own happiness. I wanted more money and more prestige, like these things would make me happier. I wanted people to not think of me as a dirty vagrant living in his van. I wanted a regular job with a regular paycheck. And as I returned to school and became more and more professionally successful, a little bit more of my happiness withered away. I transformed into what other people expected me to become, but it was never really what I expected for myself. It almost felt like I had given up, succumbed to the debilitating pull of my family’s expectations for me.

Now I work more hours and make more money than ever before, but the measure of my happiness seems to be inversely related to these factors. I have saved and scratched to buy a home only to find myself now more in debt than any other point of my life. Those paltry maxed out credit cards from my days living in my van feel like the good old days of financial stability.

I’m not sure why I saved this letter from my Grandma. I reflect on it sometimes to remember where I was and where I want to be, and remind myself that the path we follow to live up to our expectations is not always the path we expect. The letter used to make me angry, but now it makes me laugh. It’s not that I necessarily enjoy having the last laugh, but I think I will in this case, even if it means I am laughing at myself.


Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Great Expectations

(This was an unpublished post that I rewrote. It didn’t end up like I expected. They rarely do, and that’s a good thing.)

Sandals, Camera and Great Expectations (by Elizabeth Thomsen on Flickr)

The Package

What we have here is a failure to communicate.” –Cool Hand Luke (1967)


How can two people communicate when the word one says means something different than the word another hears? We take these things for granted, the fact that we are all speaking the same language, but just because we can use the same words doesn’t mean we are really communicating. We package our ideas into words and send them across space to other people, hoping that when they unwrap the present they will see what we intended them to see. But we all package and unwrap our ideas a little differently, and we all find something a little bit different inside the package when we open it. I send you an orange across space, and you peel the layers away to reveal the sweet fruit inside, and instead you discover a lemon.

So what is really inside the package?

Package! (by lemonhalf on Flickr)

now what

I’d like to talk about what.

What does what mean? What is a question. What is an action. What is that thing you can’t remember. What is what I’m trying to say. Do you know what I’m saying? That’s not what I meant.

What I meant was. . . What was I thinking? What is the point? What the bloody hell? What is supposed to happen? What’s the next step? What am I doing here? What can I do to help? WTF? What have I done? Oh my God, what have I done?

These are the kinds of whats I want. Now what are we going to do?

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? (by nolifebeforecoffee on Flickr)

Letter to My Future Self

Greetings to me in the future.

I am writing this letter to relate a peculiar happening and also provide a reminder of the utmost importance to you.  The happening occurred fairly recently, and I am only relating it to you now because you play an integral role in its passage despite my current ignorance of the exact methodology. Of course you probably already know this, and if I think on this fact too deeply I find myself paralyzed by a logical fallacy deeper than my tiny brain can endure, so I must just continue on and not consider the implications of it all.

I was wandering along the beach (you no doubt remember the one) lost in many moments of deep contemplation, such as consideration of the number of sand grains on the shore, the exact hue of the ocean’s blue, and the seeming pointless existence that I appeared to be carving for myself through the passing of days. The general melancholy and malaise that had been filling my gut recently had started to take purchase in my physical body in the form of stressful headaches, near debilitating back pain, and a battery of sleepless nights. I had just finished my college education and felt no more prepared for life than the day it had started. My job was a tedious dead end of triviality, and left me each day with a sense that I had accomplished nothing but a continued trajectory carrying me one step closer to the grave. There never seemed to be enough money, enough time, or enough love in my life to allow me to even feign happiness.

As I was reveling in my self-induced circling of the drain, a strange elderly gentleman approached me. I tried to ignore him so I could concentrate on the existential dread that seemed to be so important at the time, but his insistence was difficult to avoid. His hair was grey and frizzed out in the style of Einstein, and he walked with a pronounced limp accentuated by the soft unevenness of the sand. He waved to me and I continued past him, so he turned and shuffled after me across the beach. It was only when he called out my complete name that I halted and provided my attention.

I asked him how he knew my name. He responded that despite the fact that I was not familiar with him he knew me well. I asked if he had been spying on me, and he responded that he had indeed, but from a distance greater than I could comprehend. I then asked him who he was, and he told me he was me from the future, that he had traversed the very fabric of time to provide me with an important message.

The rigors of doubt immediately flooded my mind. I wondered if was he crazy or dangerous, what mental institution he had escaped from, and whether the authorities should be alerted. Of course he was able to understand my skepticism since he had presumably experienced the same moment of doubt himself at one time. He told me that he knew I didn’t believe him, and that was understandable, and someday soon I would come to appreciate this peculiar rendezvous. He told me that he had one simple thing to tell me.

“Just keep writing.”

I am providing it in quotes so you will know what to say to me when the time comes. Indeed the words seem to reverberate through my head without end recently, a mantra that I am unable to forget even with my most determined effort. I decided at the time that even if the man was crazed the advice was indeed useful. I at that point still didn’t believe anything he had said except those three words, not that I felt inclined to act upon them immediately. He then told me that was all he wanted to say, and that he felt it important enough to travel back to this beach to provide me this message using some as of yet unimagined technology. He then turned and started walking away, leaving me in the confusion that had overtaken my conscious thought.

On a whim I asked him what had caused his limp. He turned to me and smiled, and told me it was a motorcycle accident. I found this to be the final straw of discredit to his claims, as I did not own nor had I ever ridden a motorcycle. He winked at me and repeated those three words to me again, Just Keep Writing, and then hobbled off down the beach in a lurch. And I continued on with my woeful meditations and general unease with the process of living for many years after the encounter, positive that it had been a short foray into an old man’s dementia. But just to be safe, I avoided every temptation to ride, touch, or in any way come into contact with all imaginable manner of motorized cycle.

It wasn’t until I was standing on a street corner many years later and witnessed a motorcycle run a red light, get struck by a truck and sent careening through the intersection into me and my now destroyed leg that I realized the true value and importance of the man’s visit.

And of course, after the accident, I sat in my wheelchair during my rehabilitation and started writing immediately.

You know what to do.

Sincerely,

A Man Transformed

DeLorean Time Machine (by Anime Nut)

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Time Machine, and/or the DP Daily Prompt: If I Could Turn Back Time

 

Humorous Sorrows

I deal with the blues by using humor. I don’t know how but it makes me feel a little better, but also can have the unintended consequence of hiding my true sorrow.

I was in an accident recently that was pretty bad, and ended up missing almost 3.5 months of work. Here is an email update I sent to my boss (the principal). He took it as an indication that my spirits were doing well. It guess it masked the serious depressed sentiments I had at the time. I sent this email exactly one month after the accident.


re: News from the doctors…

Thursday, November 07, 2013 12:39 PM

From: Science Teacher [SV]

To: Mr Principal  [SV]‎; Mrs Office Manager [SV]
Cc: Mrs Vice Principal [SV]‎; Miss Union Rep [SV]

Greetings,

I got some good news and some bad news today. First the good news. My ankle looks great, and the surgery went perfectly. I got a plate and four screws installed, and I think my ankle will now be both bulletproof and bionic. It may also help improve my cell phone reception and be usable as a wifi hotspot, and the hardware does come with a one year warranty. I also got my stinky old splint off and got a shiny new boot. Even after only 12 days the stench on that plaster splint was debilitating and probably neurotoxic. So yeah for the shiny new boot!

Now for the bad news, which unfortunately is more plentiful. I’ll number the items so you can keep track.

  1. Even though I am in a boot I can only put partial weight on my foot, so will still need crutches until the big screw gets removed. Putting too much weight on my foot may result in the screw breaking, which I’m told would be very bad. In case you didn’t know, breaking things in your ankle is bad, even if they are things that aren’t really supposed to be there in the first place.
  2. The necrosis on the front of my shin has finally revealed a large open wound in the center where the impact occurred. The wound is so large they recommend a skin graft operation, which will happen as soon as the wound heals a bit more underneath. In the meantime the doctors had to debride the dead flesh, which looked like an impromptu scene from the Walking Dead. What is left is a great big window through my flesh straight down to the bone. Luckily the extensive nerve damage in the area means I could not feel any pain during the procedure, and feel no pain now. Who ever thought nerve damage could be lucky? Perhaps this should have been included in the good news above.
  3. They finally took a much closer look at my knee. There is an MRI scheduled for Monday to confirm for sure, but the initial diagnosis today was that I most likely completely tore my ACL, MCL, and possibly the PCL, but the LCL is strong like bull (3 out of 4 ain’t bad). My knee is extremely unstable and I am recommended not to put any weight on my leg at all to protect the knee, even though I am supposed to put partial weight on my foot to help heal the ankle bones. The burly medical knee brace that is supposed to help protect my knee from twisting and popping wildly out of joint can’t be worn with a boot, and my eventual skin graft will probably also inhibit my ability to wear the knee brace properly. I am thinking of designing a hybrid walking boot knee brace to help fulfill all my doctor’s wishes and improve my locomotive potential.
  4. I was referred to a plastic surgeon about the skin graft. The area is so messed up and swollen she told me it may be a month or more before I would be able to undergo the procedure. She told me I should keep my leg elevated above my heart at least 22 hours a day. I’ve decided the easiest way to do this is to learn to walk on my hands like an ambidextrous acrobat from Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately my initial attempts have not proven successful. I fear the percoset may be inhibiting my powers of proprioception, but luckily also makes the prospect of falling on my head less inhibiting.
  5. I have basically been given three completely contradictory courses of treatment from my doctors. Foot doctor: start putting partial weight on your ankle to stimulate healing, but don’t break the screw. Knee doctor: don’t put any weight on your knee without wearing the knee brace that you can’t actually wear. Plastic surgeon: keep your shin above your head at all times except when using the toilet or trying to take a one footed shower with a plastic bag over your leg. Luckily percoset not only helps with pain, but also helps one deal with paralyzing bouts of irony.
  6. Each of my doctors has told me that completely removing my leg and installing a fully bionic model is not an option.

Okay, so what’s next? I’m not sure honestly. All I know right now is that unless I can perfect my hand walking technique, my date of return is still up in the air. I was really hoping that I could return by November the 18th but that’s looking less and less likely, as I will possibly be needing additional (up to four) surgeries. My numerous doctor’s notes excuse me from physical activity until 2014!

It is getting harder and harder for me to keep up with the planning and grading of my different classes. At what point does hiring a long term sub become an option?

I really really really really really really wish I had more good news to share. Unfortunately this is what I got. Let me know what the options are moving forward.

Cordially, Jefe

the shiny new boot

Reposted for the DP Daily Prompt: Singing the Blues

How Did I Get Here?

(aka My Illustrious Writing Habit)

When I tell people that I started writing stories in second grade many find this hard to believe. In truth I may have started earlier, but since the first physical artifact of my early writing still in my possession dates from the second grade, I’ll go with it. The second grade was also when I published my first collection of short stories under the tutelage of Mrs. Olson, my 2nd Grade teacher. Most of my memories of Mrs. Olson revolve around my surprise at how freaking old she was, by far the oldest looking teacher I have ever had. I remember her librarian glasses and how the skin hung off her arms when she was writing on the chalk board, swinging back and forth like a wrinkled hammock in the breeze. It is quite possible that she wasn’t really that old, but the mere act of teaching snot-nosed little brats everyday had caused her physical body to age at an accelerated pace, something I know about all to well having somehow becoming a teacher myself. But I digress.

Chapter 1 – Simple Pleasures

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nogmania

I actually found my book of stories while cleaning out a closet at my mom’s house when we were getting ready to sell it. Its somber title was January Stories by Jeff Hager. One thing I had when I was younger was imagination, though not necessarily reflected in this title. I practically lived in an imaginary world, but  since I was such a lone wolf I had no imaginary friends in there with me. It was me and my words and my pictures. Here’s a transcript of one story, Nogmania.

My nogs live in people’s hair. If you don’t comb it they will eat you up. If you take one out they will give you a disease.They are like little savage monsters. They are smaller than a termite. One day everybody was combing his hair and all the nogs died, except one was lucky and didn’t die. He moved into Bottle City!

Despite the fact that the POV changes and there is a character named everybody, it is better than a lot of my first drafts. As you can see I also illustrated each of the stories, and I was quite the young artist if I do say so myself. I was using similes at age 8, and unlike a lot of the stories I wrote in high school, something actually happens in this one. But I also see why my teachers and mother were so concerned. I rarely ever spoke, in class or at home, but when I sat down to write somehow words and ideas poured onto the page. Soon after the triumph of January Stories I completed another illustrated book called Lost Land. It involved a young boy going back in time and meeting a bunch of dinosaurs. Some were nice and some tried to eat him. I think it was loosely based on the original Land of the Lost television show, which was a favorite of mine. This book proved very predictable in its storyline, but the illustrations were pretty kick ass, mainly because my father had given me a book on how to draw dinosaurs. I probably drew a dinosaur on at least 75% of my papers in elementary school, usually when I was supposed to be working on math problems or something else that didn’t interest me. Dinosaurs were cool. That was all that mattered. These early writing successes planted the writing seed somewhere deep in my brain, but unfortunately the successes were short lived. My youthful enthusiasm would soon be placed ruthlessly into a chokehold by the iron grip of editing, criticism, and rejection.

Chapter 2 – The Doubt Creeps In

3rd grade was difficult. ADD wasn’t widely understood. I wasn’t hyper, but definitely had difficulty concentrating and staying seated in class. My third grade teacher had called for a conference with my Mom about my distractibility in class, and her suggestion was I may have ringworm that was causing my restlessness. She swore she had seen it before, so my mother took me to the doctor to have me tested for parasites. I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately my imagination is not that macabre. Needless to say there were no parasites. I continued to struggle in school, except when I was writing.

By fourth grade my teacher noticed my writing immediately. She thought it was good, so good that she accused my parents of writing my homework assignments. Of course they didn’t. They proofread maybe, but I was very incensed that someone didn’t believe I had written the words that I wrote. My parents were contacted and of course denied the accusation. Being a teacher myself I know that parents always do, whether they wrote it or not.

My fifth grade teacher went even further and accused me of plagiarizing my state report. There were four grades and I got an A+ on three. On the writing grade I got a D because my teacher assumed I could not have written such descriptive and interesting passages. This was about twenty years BG (before google) and the internet was still a glimmer in some nerdy engineer’s glasses. I had written every word myself, and put a lot of work into it. I’m still not sure what is more disheartening for a writer, being told your writing is not good enough, or being told your writing was so good you couldn’t possibly have written it.

Chapter 3 – Accusations and Lies

It wasn’t until middle school that I finally found the recognition I thought I deserved. But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It was middle school after all.

During these middle school years my writing actually started gaining a little momentum, and garnered some praise and recognition from my teachers. In seventh grade I got first place in our school limerick contest, though I have no idea how, as poetry has never been my strong suit. The teacher that judged the contest had a peculiar disdain for me, and assumed I must have plagiarized the content from somewhere. I was called down to the principal’s office to answer to these accusations. She didn’t know where I had plagiarized it from and had absolutely no proof, but was nonetheless positive I could not have written the poem myself. But lacking any concrete evidence, I denied the charges and was eventually allowed the first place prize, and awarded a tacky little certificate most likely run off the school ditto machine. I have no further proof of any of this happening beyond my faulty and questionable memories of these incidents.

It was finally in the eighth grade that a teacher directly praised my writing abilities and presumably my intelligence. In English we often had to answer in class essay questions in response to the literature we read, and my English teacher would always start reading my paper the moment I handed it to her. I remember one time that she gasped out loud after I had turned in an essay response, while most of the class was reading silently. “Jeff, your response is perfect,” she said, “just perfect.” I felt suddenly embarrassed by this, and I’m sure that my classmates were looking at me like I was some kind of do-goody brown-noser, though I can’t be certain due to my prominent position in the front row (did I mention my ADD?). This one teacher had praised my writing privately many times, reassuring me that I had a certain lucky proficiency with words that was above the average.  Since she actually witnessed me sit down and compose the words in front of her, she must have realized that I had in fact written it myself. She was the first person I remember telling me to keep writing, which later became a theme among teachers that recognized some kernel of talent in me, and even as I write this now I try to keep telling myself this. Just keep writing.

Posted for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections

Stay tuned for more chapters…(upcoming episodes)

Chapter 4 – Acceptance

Chapter 5 – College (what I can remember of it)

Chapter 6 – Life Experience

Chapter 7 – Self Actualization

 

My name is Duane (by J.D. Hager)

Duane Reade NOT Coming Soon (by John Morton)

There is something liberating in the process of leaving home for college or any other exotic, far off locale, especially if you are going to a remote enough location that nobody will know you at all. This gives you the chance to reinvent yourself, to come up with a new persona, a new set of friends and hobbies, and a new secret identity if you are into that type of thing. Cut your hair or grow dreadlocks, get a dye job from some forgotten corner of the color spectrum, grow a bad mustache or a Grizzly Adams beard. The potentials are endless. And apart from changes of habit and appearance, sometimes coming up with a new name for yourself can provide  just the kind of perspective change you need. It is kind of crazy how a different name can cause people to react to you differently and see you in an entirely new light.

I have always gone by many names, and most not by my choosing. Jeffrey was what my mom called me when I had engaged in questionable decision making, and if I was really in trouble she would just use my full name like one long profanity, JeffreyDuaneHager! 

When I was in elementary school I went by plain old Jeff, but my nickname became Slacks, garnered by the advertising campaign of the Haggar Slacks brand of pantalones. Since there were about 10 other Jeffs at my school I didn’t mind the name Slacks. Most of us spelled it conventionally with the J-E-F-F, though a couple spelled it with a G, and one even spelled it with a whole bunch of unneeded letters – J-E-O-H-F-F.  I liked to spell mine without the extra F, just to simplify the whole process, shorten the shortened version if you will, but stopped when one of my teachers started marking my name as misspelled because I forgot an F. Meanwhile the guy who spelled it Jeohff was not chastised. Talk about confusing.

In middle school and high school I got the nicknames of Hagar the Horrible after the viking comic strip, and also Sammy due to my last name and similar haircut to Sammy Hagar – the red rocker. In college I actually started calling him my uncle Sammy, and more than a few people believed this little fiction. I made up stories of drinking tequila with uncle Sammy in Cabo, parties on the tour bus, clingy groupies, and tried to give off the general air of being a rock star through imaginary genetics.

After I graduated college I spent a few years traveling around and playing Ultimate Frisbee with an Open Division team from San Fran called Double Happiness, and everyone knew me simply as Hagar, like I was some sort of Brazilian soccer star. Many people who were not my teammates didn’t even know I had a first name, and to this day many of my old ultimate accomplices think my last name is spelled with an -ar rather than an -er, and have a look of confusion if they ever figure out the truth. When they find me on Facebook they wonder if I have misspelled or changed my last name for some reason.

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Soy el Jefe!

During my years working in restaurants the Spanish speaking cooks used to call me Jefe, because obviously I was in charge. I think this was probably because they had so much trouble pronouncing the English J sound. I remember one cook named Javier that used to call me Yefferson with a Y. Now of course my teacher nickname is Mister Hager. Whenever a student asks my first name I tell them it is Mister. They smile and I don’t. I tell them my parents had played a horrible joke on me for naming me that. If they read my ID card and try to tell me my name is Jeffrey, I quickly correct them and let them know my first name is indeed Mister. I tell them my mail is addressed to Mr. Mister Hager.

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lord of my own domain

The thing all of these monikers have in common is that I didn’t choose them myself. They were all given to me by others. So at some point I decided it was time to find a new name for myself, and decided to go by my middle name of Duane rather than Jeff. Even though they are both rather uninspired, people are much more perplexed by the name Duane than the name Jeff. When I introduce myself as Duane almost everyone asks Duane? as if they may have heard it wrong. Not Dave, Wayne, or Dane? Duane? Really?

My problem is that I decided to change my name when everybody already knew me as Jeff, so only the people I have met recently call me Duane, and much confusion ensues if someone who knows me as Jeff and someone who knows me as Duane happen to meet. So how long have you known Jeff? Who is Jeff? You mean Duane? Suddenly it feels like I have been caught in some sort of lie, my secret life revealed. I guess the real reason I tell people my name is Duane is to feel like I’m pretending to be somebody else for a moment, using a pseudonym that is not actually a pseudonym because it is actually me after all. He is me and I am him. We are one in the same.

When I started to submit my short stories and various other amalgamations of words for publication back in the 20th century I decided on the pen name of J.D. Hager. It’s not that I want to be known as J.D. As already discussed you can call me Duane, or Mister, or Slacks, or anything you want really. The reason I like having initials as my pen name is due to the fact that someone just reading the name won’t immediately identify me as a male or a female, because knowing someone’s gender will immediately cause someone to peg you into some sort of category even if it is unintentional. I want my words to stand alone without my white maleness to cast a shadow or doubt upon their worth. As a writer I guess that’s all we can hope for–for our words to be taken at face value without any extra baggage attached. Also it is a sort of homage to some of my favorite authors, such as T.C. Boyle, F.X. Toole, E.A. Proulx, and of course J.D. Salinger. I just like the mystery of initials, because they can stand for anything.

My pen name is J.D. Hager, but you can call me Duane.

Duane’s Toyland box truck – processed in HDR (by chuckthewriter)

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Names