This month’s post comes from peripatetic author Josh Wagner, who in addition to being brilliant, funny, brave, adventurous, and good-looking,

also has the nerve to be such an amazing human being you can’t even resent him for it.

 

 

My travels through Europe are coming to a close. Next week we fly to Japan. It’s been a year of extremes, stunning experiences, profound loneliness, inspiration and growth. This isn’t the first time I’ve discovered how small the globe really is, or how many lessons I have to keep learning over and over…

Most have to do with my biases and fears about people and places. Though my life began in California, I spent most of it in the insular paradise of Montana. Emerging from that world many years ago meant facing my own personal brain storm of prejudice and paranoia.

An early 80s diet of movies and media taught me the concept of good vs. bad neighborhoods. It doesn’t take too many detective shows or spy movies to convince you there are places you go and places you don’t. I spent too many years trying to stay on the right side of the lines.

This year I crossed more lines than ever before. I wandered through weird neighborhoods in Istanbul, I hung out with refugees in Belgrade, I lived for three weeks in the heart of the most amazingly gritty zone in Torino–a middle eastern migrant neighborhood which has convinced me without a doubt that multiculturalism can be a real possibility in this world.

In my struggle against paranoia and prejudice, I once believed I could simply eradicate them. But by now I’m convinced the best approach is to make friends with my fears. We go on long walks together. We talk to strangers. We lay our heads in the kind of places that end up on Internet top 10 lists of sketchy neighborhoods to avoid.

I’m not bragging. I haven’t yet gone through a war zone or slept on the streets. I don’t dive recklessly into danger. All I’m saying is every place I’ve feared to tread, but then gone ahead and tread anyway, has kindly patted my paranoid head and welcomed me in with a smile. I intend to keep pushing my boundaries and shattering my illusions about people and places, even as those illusions scramble to restructure themselves in my mind.

You don’t have to travel the world. Openness to life can be as simple (and scary) as finally striking up a conversation with that person you always see in the coffee shop, or making eye contact on the subway, or taking a walk instead of watching a movie.

Out here I find endless confirmation that people are pretty much the same wherever you go: trying hard to live a good life, facing the confusion of existence as best they can, and always just a little afraid of the other guy (who is also a little afraid of them).

I understand the fear. Building walls around ourselves is the most natural thing in the world. But every time I make the choice for avoidance, or cocoon myself away, or say no to experience, I always look back to see another wasted day: without sunlight, without growth, without the rewards of the risk… which, I’m beginning to learn, win or lose, is often simply the risk itself.

Josh Wagner, 2/27/2017

 

Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Please check Josh out!

https://www.patreon.com/joshwagner/posts 

http://joshwagner.org/author/joshwagner/

 

Today we’re pleased to have that warm and wonderful author, humanitarian, and rescuer of pugs, John Middleton, guest blogging on his own journey from reader to writer, and what he learned on the way.

 

                 

I love books.

I’m what is usually called a “voracious” reader. One of my earliest recollections of reading a book on my own was when I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in one day—one sitting to be more accurate. I was about 10 years old at the time. I still have that book, and I’ve read it many more times since then. I also have its companion, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” They’re beautiful illustrated editions, published in 1923, which are among the many books I’ve inherited from my grandmother and mother.

I wish I’d kept a life-list of all the books I’ve read; I’m sure it runs into the thousands. And I’d like to say that it’s been my life-long passion to be a writer. The truth is, I’ve never had just one goal in life. I’m easily attracted by shiny objects, only to lose interest when another catches my glance. But I’ve always written. I wrote for a while as a reporter and columnist at the student newspaper of Texas A&M University, The Battalion. Not so long ago, I collaborated with my father, David Gene Middleton, on two novels, neither of which has been released upon the public as of yet. Maybe someday.

After books, or more precisely next to them, my passion is pugs. The dog. Mushed-in face, curly tail. Attitude. You know what I’m talking about. And they’re like potato chips—you can’t have one. I have four. And I’d have more if my sainted wife would let me. She won’t.

I didn’t always have four pugs. Until recently, I only had one. His name was Jem, and he was, far and away, the best friend I ever had. On Valentine’s Day, 2013, my world was shattered when Jem was killed in the street outside our house. He was three years old.

To cope with the loss, I began writing a memoir of my life with the little guy. On its own momentum, it evolved into the story of a life lived with pets, people—and problems. Within a few months, I had the makings of a book. A book that I wanted to share, something to leave behind for future family members and friends.

Enter Jane Ryder. We’d been good friends for about four years. When it comes to writing, she’s my biggest cheerleader—and gentlest critic. One conversation led to another and a project was launched. Editors edited, designers designed, and marketers marketed. I even created my own publishing imprint—Pious Pelican Press—complete with LLC and tax returns. (No employees; no one in their right mind would work for me.)

The result: Jem: Lessons in Living.

Next step: publishing. Look out world, here I come.

Before the Internet came along, there were two ways for an author to be published. The first, and more desirable, was for a traditional publishing house to recognize the merit of the author’s work and publish it for him. The other was for the underappreciated author to publish his own stuff—the method known as “vanity” publishing, presumably because the author was vain enough to think his writing worthwhile, even if real publishers couldn’t see it.

Now it’s called “self-publishing”, and thanks to the resources an author has at his disposal in this digital age, a self-published work need not be a second-rate substitute for the Real McCoy.

Jem: Lessons in Living is a work of art. I’m not a bit embarrassed to say that. A lot of hard work went into writing it, and a lot more hard work went into all that goes along with publishing. A bunch of talented people deserve credit: Jane Ryder, Liz Felix, Julie Miller, Beth Jusino, Morgana Gallaway, Peter Gelfan. I’ve probably overlooked more.

BUT…

The path doesn’t end there. Publishing is a long and winding road that leads through the Never-Never-Land of the Internet. Like it or not, we live in a world of websites, networking, and social media. A writer may thumb his nose at such pedestrian pursuits, but a successful writer will need at the very least a passing acquaintance with them. If you want to get your stuff out there, you need to embrace Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads—dada, dada, dada.

Jem was published in February 2015. I’m still a neophyte in this brave new world. I’ve learned how to post to my own blog and Facebook page. I’ve sold a few books, given away many dozen more.

And I’ve made new friends, all over the world. Even a Luddite like me will admit that the world of 2017 is an amazing place, and getting more exciting every day.

The memoir of my beloved Jem is making little ripples in a big pond.

If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, jump on in. The water’s fine!

Happy Tails,

John Donald Middleton


silhouette of a man against the night sky

 

By Jane Ryder

My mom, despite being an atheist and a lot like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket when it came to child rearing and picking fights with strangers, went to great lengths to instill in me an understanding that to be a halfway decent human being, you have to be willing to do things instead of just talk about doing them. “Try” was a dirty word: you either did things or you didn’t, and if you did them, you did them with grace and gave them your full attention. (Wait a minute. Was my mom Yoda?)

We often went to midnight mass on Christmas not because we were religious, but because Christmas was Jesus’s damn birthday and if we were going to enjoy the fun bits of that celebration—like presents—we were also going to spend some time thinking about why this religion had caught on in such a big way and what it was about. So from a very young age I sat groggily on unfamiliar pews in December and pondered the meaning of concepts like “goodwill” and “peace,” if only because I was afraid of how much trouble I’d be in if I didn’t.

Ma also made sure we understood concepts like sacrifice and charity. One Christmas nobody in the family was allowed to buy presents because she insisted we pool all our money and give it to someone who needed it more than we did. That was the year I’d first managed to save $50 from allowances so I could buy my sister and mom and dad presents myself. I had a savings account booklet and everything. That was a big deal to me, and I was devastated when Ma told us we were giving all our money to her friend Thelma because Thel couldn’t pay her rent that month. No presents, and Thel wasn’t even especially grateful (I know now that wasn’t the point, of course, but it added extra sting at the time).

Many years later when I was grown up and married, Ma and my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, at least the way it’s celebrated in the US of A. No present exchange, no big run-up and the concomitant sudden disappointment on December 26 because it’s all over, no big meal to stuff three people who already had more than enough to eat on a daily basis. Instead we’d find a big box and decorate it, then we’d go shopping to fill it up. We’d buy canned hams, canned vegetables, a box of wine, rolls, candy, a carton of cigarettes, paper plates and utensils and cups and a can opener, and we’d take the box full of goodies down to the riverbed where there were always a bunch of homeless guys and wish them a merry Christmas. Then we’d grab take-out Indian food, go home, and show how grateful we were for our ordinary lives by getting on each other’s nerves. We did that every year, often with the help of my nephew, who still remembers the tradition fondly.

Now it’s sixteen years later, I’m divorced and have been happily solo since 2007, both my mother and my only sibling have passed on, and the only family members I’m still in touch with are my favorite uncle’s widow and my sister’s three kids, the youngest of whom just had a kid of her own. My mother and sister both died in December (seventeen years apart), so you might think with all this absence of family I’d find the holidays depressing, but I don’t.

Because my family is all of you. My family is everyone I know and everyone I don’t know, people I love and people I’d find it painful to be around for more than five minutes. My family is people and cats and plants and furniture and microbes and dust mites and lizards and automobiles and soap suds. Everything in our universe is made of the same stuff and we share a plane of existence, so I always feel connected and surrounded by family. Sounds cheesy and New-Agey, I know, but there it is. What I loved most about Christmas—at least, after life stopped revolving around toys—was its emphasis on goodwill, love, and peace, and turns out there’s a way to have those things every single day. That’s a hell of a gift. It’s one I try to share as much as possible, in my imperfect human way.

My mom wasn’t always right and she was often utterly terrifying, but she cared more about being a decent person than anyone I’ve ever known. I’ll be eternally grateful to her for teaching me that being decent is important … and for “ruining” the occasional Christmas.

Happy holidays, my dears. Every day of every year.

 

“If we want our relationships to deepen, then we’ve got to stop tiptoeing around the surface. We have to find the courage to share the fullness of our truth—with kindness and compassion—and to trust that by doing so, we invite a more meaningful connection with others, and we magnetize the people and relationships that will best support our happiness.”

—Scott Stabile

 

authenticity

 

By Jane Ryder

When I was in college at the University of Arizona, I lived close enough to walk to campus. I didn’t often encounter other pedestrians—in Tucson it’s usually either too hot or too far to travel on foot—but when I did, it was always awkward. One or both of us would pretend to have a coughing fit, or suddenly become fascinated by a neighbor’s landscaping, or in some manner create a reason not to look at, much less talk to, the other person as we passed. And it wasn’t just me; this was pretty standard behavior in my hometown. We’re not unfriendly, just … cautious.

But it bothered me. Here I was, mere feet away from another human being, and we were both too afraid (of rejection more than anything else, I felt) to acknowledge each other. So I began forcing myself to look people in the eye and smile, or at least nod. Eventually I got up the nerve to actually say “Hi!” about every third encounter. People didn’t always respond, of course, and when they didn’t, I generally felt weird about it for at least the rest of the day, and often longer.

Fast forward 30 years.

A lot happened. I was married and divorced, I became an aunt and watched my nephew and nieces grow up, I traveled, I read, I watched, I talked and listened and lived and learned. I made and lost friends. Family members died. I tried to pay attention when life offered me free lessons, and to be open to what other people were teaching me every day. And I found Zen, which helped me stop trying to be happy and just be, at which point I was astonished to find myself in an almost constant state of bliss.

And I stopped being afraid of other people.

Now I wave to all my neighbors, whether they know me or not. I strike up conversations with strangers when I’m standing in line. I make friendly conversation when I’m on the phone with tech support. Not to get anything out of it, not to manipulate people, but because being on good terms with others simply makes life more pleasant. And if they don’t respond in kind, that’s okay too. There’s no law that says they have to wave back or laugh at my jokes.

These days, I not only spend a lot of time doing the equivalent in cyberspace (after all, social media is a lot like passing a stranger on the street, only the street is as big as the planet and the person is, well, everybody), I’m running a business where we do it for other folks, too.

It’s easy to write social media off as shallow—a platform for narcissists to post endless selfies and updates about what they had for lunch—and that facet certainly exists, but it can also be a versatile tool for meaningful connection with other humans.

That’s what we do for the authors we manage. We work hard to identify your audience so they’re already more inclined to be interested in hearing from you, and then (as you) we look for ways to provide them with a positive experience. It’s not about sales, it’s about relationships. Yes, the ultimate goal is for you to sell more books and find more readers, but you don’t do that by pestering people with BUY NOW buttons.

It may seem disingenuous or just plain hypocritical for us to espouse a belief in authenticity when we engage on behalf of other people, but we don’t fake anything. We’re genuine humans, talking to other genuine humans about things that matter to them and to you. We’re not robots or spammers. We share memes, blurbs, quotes, ideas, fragments, visuals, sound bites, and all the stuff that’s grist for the social-media mill on your behalf (with parameters we get from you), and we look for ways to continually answer the question everyone’s really asking when they’re online, regardless of platform: “What’s in this for me?”

We want the answer to be “We are!” We want to build your audience by interacting with them meaningfully on your behalf, by representing you in positive, constructive, fun ways. We view all social media as an opportunity to nod and smile as we pass other human beings, to acknowledge that we’re here, now, together.

Because what we say and do matters.