Last week, I received the uncorrected proofs for my book, January First, which are known in the publishing world as “galleys.” It’s basically the completed book as it will look, except without my corrections of the “proof,” (the version that will actually be published and available for sale) and in paperback (the published version will be in hardcover).
The primary purpose of galleys is to be sent out to authors who have written similar books for what is called a “blurb.” A new writer must build ethos (credibility) with readers (because we have no previous books to point to) and the way this is done is try and ride to coattails of other authors whose books you have already read. The idea is that if David Sheff (author of Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) likes January First and you liked his book, you will probably like mine.
Whether David Sheff will read it, let alone like it, remains to be seen. He is on the short list of authors my editor is seeking a blurb from. What I can tell you is that one of the starting points when seeking blurbs is authors you personally know.
I know quite a few, a product of having been trying to become a published author myself for over a decade.
And this was how I got published.
Life tends to give you what you want. Just not on your terms.
David Sheff was a journalist and writer long before his son Nick evolved into a meth addict. That was his living. He actually got to interview John Lennon. He had written other books.
But Beautiful Boy is what he is known for.
He probably feels about Beautiful Boy the way I feel about January First: of all the stories we had in us to tell when we started as writers, this story was not one of them. These stories were not the stories we thought we would be telling. These stories are not stories we even could have dreamed of. Of course he knew meth addiction existed, just like I knew schizophrenia existed. But those are two things you never connect with your own children. When your child is born, when your child is growing up, your mind simply does not go there. It can’t. How the hell could you possibly see either of these things coming?
I still sometimes get asked (never to my face but usually on the Jani Foundation Youtube Channel) how we ever could have had kids, not one but two, knowing that there was mental illness in our families?
The answer is “You don’t think about it.” Humans tend not to think about things until it’s in our face. Mental illness was isn’t my face when Jani or Bodhi was conceived.
Sheff didn’t think about it either, despite his own rather extensive and somewhat heavy experimentation with drugs in the late Sixties and Seventies. He even tried meth. Once.
Looking back at my childhood, I can see now that my mother’s mental illness, her paranoia, her rages, her bizarre ideas, was staring me in the face the entire time. She even flat out told me, after recovering from chasing my out of the house with a butcher knife, that I should never have children.
I don’t know if it is arrogance of thinking that the sins of the parent will not be visited on the child. I don’t think so. I don’t think it is arrogance. I think it is another emotion: hope. You want to hope, you want to believe, that all of that is in your past. That you escaped.
In all human cultures the birth of a baby is a new beginning. Your life starts over anew with your child. Their birth is your rebirth.
And unless you are unlucky enough to face a life threatening illness with your baby at birth, the future is wide open.
The births of my children are the only times in my life that I felt the future was wide open. I didn’t feel it when I graduated from high school. Oh, I know the concept of it gets bandied about in high school and college graduation ceremonies, but it’s not really how you feel. I felt nothing but pressure every time I graduated, both from high school and with both my college degrees, the pressure to create my future. The pressure is there to figure out what the hell you are going to do with your life now, how to get to the next level.
For me, the birth of both my children was the closest to a moment of pure simplicity I will ever get. When I looked down at Jani and Bodhi for the first time, time ceased to exist. Everything from the past is forgotten and every worry for the future is erased.
It is a unique feeling, better than any drug I ever did as a teenager. It is just you, your baby, and the whole fucking universe at your fingertips. Endless possibilities, the energy of promise, courses through the body of your child and into your arms and rocks you back on your heels. You literally hold life, creation, in your arms. You want to lift your child toward the heavens and say, “This is my child!”
Anything is possible. Only good can come from this. The future is wide open.
Slowly, you lose that high. Only years later will you look back on it, as I did, and sadly realize you will never feel that again. There will never be that moment of total purity, of total faith, again.
For every parent, gradually, the future closes in, like the incoming tide. Even if your child doesn’t have schizophrenia or a meth addiction, restrictions close in around your child. That is life, sort of a twisted version of “Deal or No Deal.” Suitcases will be opened for you and your child. You will slam the plastic cover back down and tell Howie Mandel “No Deal,” even though you know damn well that that which each case you open, the odds of your “case,” your child, having a perfect future declines.
Except that in life you can never really accept the deal. You have to keep playing to the end. Or at least I do. And so does David Sheff.
And like the contestants on the game show, you delude yourself. You delude yourself that the case you hold is still the best one.
Actually, it’s not delusion. It’s hope. This is your child. You have to keep hoping. This is the case you have. You can’t choose another. One way or another, this is it. Whether the case in front of you has one dollar or a million dollars, it is yours. You have to play to the end.
For players on the game show, the worst is when the million dollar case is opened. They throw up their arms and turn away from the camera. Sometimes they will go to their knees, hand on their mouth, probably to keep from screaming.
Because the big dream is over.
They now know that whatever is in their case, it is not the million dollars.
The future is no longer wide open. It is restricted.
But then something amazing happens. They take a few deep breathes and they stand up and turn back to Howie. They go back to the game. And they start calling out numbers again.
I know it seems silly, but really it is a microcosm of life: you play the game, always hopeful, and then life deals you a devastating blow. You want to cry and scream. You want to slam your hand down on the table in front of Howie and curse your decisions, wishing you’d only chosen “14” instead of “2” because you knew, you KNEW you shouldn’t have picked “2.”
But like the game, you cannot go back in time. That is the first thing you have to accept. You cannot go back. Wishing you’d made different choices is pointless. Time is linear. You cannot go back. The Narrator in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” never considers going back the way he came, which if one took the poem literally would be a viable option. No, the roads before the narrator are a metaphor for life: you can make a decision at any fork in the road, but you can never go back.
If we use “Deal or No Deal” as a metaphor for life (sorry, I’m not as eloquent as Frost- or Sheff, for that matter), there are only two ways out of the game: “Deal,” and accept what the Grand Banker of Life has offered you, or “No Deal” until there are no more cases to open.
For me, I’ve kept choosing “No Deal,” and it has cost me a lot. It has cost me the teaching career I had. It cost me financial security. It cost me the dignity of having to beg people on the internet for money.
Honestly, I really need to do that again because the book doesn’t come out until August and what’s left of my teaching career (teaching two classes online so I can be with Jani and Bodhi) doesn’t pay the bills. I don’t know how we will make rent next month, or the month after that, or the month after that. I need to beg for money. But I can’t quite bring myself to nakedly do it. So I’ll take the coward’s way out and drop this massive hint in this paragraph and pray that I can get enough that we don’t face eviction for the first time since moving back into one apartment.
I’m not a very subtle writer, either, if you can’t tell.
But I really have no right to complain. This was the choice I made and every choice has its own difficulties. Still, live by the sword, die by the sword. This is the choice I made to aid Jani’s stability. If it now turns out that she doesn’t need me like she once did and I cannot so easily go back to the life I once had, so be it. That is the consequence of how I played the game. Many of you, many of my friends, screamed at me like the peanut gallery on the game show, “Take the deal!” And I confess I never really looked over at you. I always knew what I would do. I didn’t like the “deal,” (which was residential). Plenty of other parents didn’t like that “deal,” either. But I arrogant enough to believe that people would always be there to support us if I didn’t take the deal. I freely admit it. So many times friends and strangers came to our rescue that it bread the arrogance that I could defy the odds time and time again. One day, that luck is going to run out, I know it. I know it will. It runs out for everybody in the end. I just had extraordinary good luck to have been able to invoke the generosity of good people for so long. But like everything else in life, eventually the restrictions come. Choices become limited.
Don’t worry. Jani will never go to residential. She is where she is today because we, with your help, got her here. It was interesting to watch the recent repeat of the “20/20” episode. I usually never watch a re-run of a program we have been on. I’ve never watched the Oprah episode again. I’ve never watched “Born Schizophrenic” again. I’m not quite sure why I never watch a show we’ve been on again. I suppose it is for the same reason you don’t look at certain photographs. You don’t want to see yourself in that place. I don’t want to be reminded of where Jani is.
I watched the repeat of “20/20” only because I wanted to see what the anchor said at the end. I knew there would be no new footage but ABC News had called us for an update. I wanted to see what the anchor would say at the end, when he updated the story from its original ending.
It was hard to watch. We are not in that place anymore, neither physically nor mentally. It was gratifying to see how far Jani has come. She is so much more in our world than she was when that was shot in late 2009. She’s come a long way from that place. And just like my own youth, I want to run away from those memories (which is what made writing the book so excruciating-I had to relieve everything-most of which is not in this blog as the book ends in the summer of 2010 and I didn’t start blogging until spring 2009). It was not fun to relive how our lives were then, how in and out of it Jani was, how tormented by homicidal thoughts Becca was (she is no longer) and how tormented Brenna was (Jani and I ran into Brenna, now 16, at the mall with her mother in January-Brenna seemed happy. She was getting another ear piercing and was trying to convince Jani to do it-kinda cute).
Yes, there was some emotional satisfaction that things are better but it wasn’t a like your life before your child was born. I can’t completely say all of that is in the past forever. The future is no longer wide open, although it is wider again now than it was then. Even if Jani never returns to that again, there will be no return to innocence, either for her or for us. We lived that. There is no erasing that past. Like the birth of your child, what happens to your child, and to you in defense of your child, changes you forever. I am still closer to that guy asking Susan “Why are getting angry with me?” in the middle of the street than I am to why I was before Jani.
Maybe stuff just sticks to you more after you have kids. You no longer have the blissful ignorance that you can shake off the past and start again. Once they are born, there is no starting again.
So I had to watch it all over again (the first time I had ever watched any of them again). And then the update;
“They are managing,” referring to all the girls.
“They are back in one apartment. Jani is on medication (she was then, too) and no longer a threat to her little brother. As for her hallucinations, they are mostly girls who come for sleepovers.” Probably not an exact quote but close enough.
And so our lives over the past two years was wrapped in one or two sentences. I don’t think I could do that (but that’s why I don’t write fro ABC News). But TV needs “takeaways,” closure for the viewer, just like books. And that was a pretty good one.
I hated the first version, because it seemed so hopeless. Jani didn’t change during the course of their filming. Jani was stuck.
I liked this one because at least she was “unstuck” now. She is moving again. There is hope.
So I have to keep picking numbers and opening cases. I already know we won’t get the million.
But that was never the prize, was it?
In the beginning, you want the million.
In the end, all you want is the chance to keep playing.
I don’t know what’s in Jani’s “case.” I don’t know what is in Bodhi’s “case.”
Because I don’t have to open them yet. I am still playing the game.
There are still numbers on the board.
I know I’m not going to take a deal, but I still got a lot more cases to open. Everyday I open a new case.
Today Jani went to school and worked with her class, WITH OTHER KIDS, for an hour.
That was a pretty good case.
Tomorrow might be a bad case.
But as long as you don’t take the deal, there are always more cases to open.
The future may not be wide open anymore.
But it is still open.