Sunday, February 23, 2014

A New Prayer

This past August, I started a new relationship with a woman who lives on the west coast. Over a period of days we had conversations that pushed me. She challenged how I looked at the world, how I looked at others, how I looked at myself. At the end of my trip, as I sat in a plane to fly from LAX back to BWI, I thought of things I wanted to change in my life. I wanted to spend more time outdoors. Pay attention to the cycles of the moon. Watch more sunsets. I wanted to get more ambitious with the meals I prepared for myself.

And though we scarcely broached the topic, I can only assume it was the interactions of the preceding days that motivated me to think about my spiritual being.

Let’s back up a step.

I didn’t grow up with religion. Case in point my experiences in churches and religious settings up to the age of twenty, enumerated:
1) Attending a funeral I can’t remember, at which, by my sister’s account, I spent the bulk of the service thumb wrestling a boy I had just met.
2) Sleeping in a pew at a church in Harlem, that hosted a group of us protesters for a demonstration against the second war in Iraq.
3) Sitting toward the back of the church while children under my care at CTY attended their services.

Despite not being introduced to religion in any meaningful way, at the age of nine or ten I started to pray each night. I don’t recall if there were any explicit motivation, but my best guess is that it had to do with growing up around so many Catholics, few of whom would overtly proselytize, but for so many of whom their faith was a clear aspect of their being.

I developed a custom prayer, anchored around a long list of items to thank and to ask God for. Long enough that I’d more often than not fall asleep before I had finished running through the list. In the morning, I’d try to remember where I’d drifted off and pick up the prayer again. I distinctly remember running through a segment of prayers I hadn't made it to the night before, whilst standing at my station for warm-up calisthenics in fifth grade gym class.

So I trimmed the list to a shorter set of words.

Dear lord, as I lay to rest may my lord please be blessed eternally for all which is good he or she has bestowed upon this world. And may I, my family, and friends please also be blessed. Thank you for listening to these prayers, and may my life please be filled with peace, prosperity, good health, and happiness. Amen.

I thought this prayer every night for over 19 years.

I thought it sleeping alone in my bed in the house I grew up in. I thought it in my college dorm room, and on the air mattress I slept on senior year. I thought it spooning with lovers as we drifted off. I thought it and sighed during the worst periods of my life as my temples ached with an alcoholic throb. I thought it at my happiest and reiterated the thank you a few extra times at the end.

At different points in time, the prayer assumed greater depths. I tried to visualize what peace would look like. Prosperity. Health. Most of all, happiness.

As I settled into my office job with an early morning alarm awaiting me each day, when I was tired more often than not, I settled for cycling through the words.

After 19 years, it wasn’t hard to pray in this style. It was routine. Almost effortless.

And as I rode on that plane, I thought that perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy.

I’m agnostic. Though the lord in my prayer was pretty clearly God, I’ve never been certain if I believe in God. But I do believe in something, rooted in goodness and karma. A sense of overarching order and justice, or that these things at least should be in place and that this greater system deserves thanks and homage. The best way I know to make these notions coagulate and to communicate with them is to call them God, as imprecise and incomplete as that proper noun has always been for me.

And so, at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, between the final chapters of John Irving's In One Person, episodes of Girlson DVD, revising the short story I was toiling over, and napping--between all of these things, I drafted a new prayer. Less formal. Less about God, per se. Less artificially worldly, if a bit more self-centered. More about reflection. More about looking forward. More about finding peace, perspective, and meaning. More about active thought, over rote recitation.

Today, I am grateful for ________________.
Tomorrow, I want ___________________.
For my life, I want __________________.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Remembering Preston Burns

Eight years ago this week, I started a blog.

Preston Burns: Life Unlimited was a project unlike any other I’ve written. A blog, but also fiction. Creative, but subject to very little revision.

For over two years, I updated the blog daily. To put a finer point on it, including weekends, holidays, workdays, and whatever else was going on, I had a post for every day of the week, 828 days running.

Preston Burns did not represent my best, most ambitious, or most creative work as an author, and try as I might, I never amassed more than a hundred readers in a given day; I doubt that there were more than twenty people who read with enough regularity to grasp more than one major story arc, let alone the overarching journey.

All of that said, Preston Burns remains a project that I hold close to my heart. Close enough that, though I haven’t updated the website in over five years, I still can’t bring myself to seriously consider taking down the page or letting the domain registration lapse.

The fictional blog was, in a sense, my love letter to college life. While most of the particulars, the characters, and the events were pure fiction, there’s no denying the similarities to my own life--Preston’s attendance at a small liberal arts school in upstate New York; his participation in the student newspaper and later residence life; his relationships with girls from an a cappella group; his summer job folding sweaters at a discount clothing store; his tendency to reflect whilst shooting hoops alone the way I did so many evenings throughout high school and early college.

I started Preston Burns a little over one full semester removed from college, when I was still dealing with the transition to a life in which my primary vocation was not that of student, but of a professional. I decided to close down the blog about a year and half later, toward the end of my time living in Syracuse, when I observed that site traffic wasn’t exactly swelling, and became concerned about the amount of time and energy this project diverted from my other creative pursuits--novel and story writing, and the fledgling A Cappella Blog, which was already building an audience three-to-four times the size of my fictional blog in its first year.

I always wrote ahead, and so I saw the project through, not to its original planned ending, a year or two after Preston’s undergrad, but to the a clean breaking spot at the end of his junior year, May 16, 2008. Now, it’s time to look back on parts of what this project was all about.

Note: On the off chance this post tempts you to read Preston Burns, you may want to stop reading here—the portion to follow does contain spoilers.

The Window
The Window was a not-so-thinly veiled doppelganger for The Lamron, the weekly student newspaper I worked on for all four years of my undergrad. The Window was a key source for plot development over the first year and a half of the blog. Early in the story, Preston and company uncover a scandal around the student government president, who may or may not have raped a woman, then stolen student funds to pay off the victim and a guy who was blackmailing him. It’s a dark and (perhaps over-) dramatic turn that made up the first really significant story arc for the blog, and had had a pretty wide ripple effect on the plot. A year later, the since-expelled former president pays off assailants to beat Preston into a coma for a trippy week of dream entries, and months after that the student government exacts its revenge by closing down The Window, to replace it with a new newspaper without the same baggage. This, in turn, leads to another plot line in the late stages of the blog, in which Preston runs for president (more on that to follow).

Aside from the student government angle, The Window functioned as a vehicle for Preston to meet other characters, and to develop one of his romances. The storyline I remember most fondly was arguably the greatest flight of fancy of all--Preston staking out a dorm on account of ghost sightings. While the results aren’t entirely conclusive, the Halloween climax suggests that something supernatural is afoot in Bower Hall.

Preston has friends at home and friends at school. Best friend, Matt, whose city life and on-again off-again relationships with his high school girlfriend offer distractions from, tangents off, and parallels for the events in Preston’s own life. There’s drug-addicted Dave, Preston’s freshman year roommate who ultimately ODs. Cameron, the young woman placed in Preston’s dorm room based her androgynous name.

Then there’s Chang, the most whimsically conceived character who ended up having a larger impact than I ever expected. In the early going, a snarky friend suggested that I add a character named Chang so someone could nickname he and Preston “Presto-Chango.” The bad joke only surfaced once in the story, but the character stuck--a bridge between home and college life when Chang joins Preston at college for sophomore year, and a more vital link when he turns out to be Preston’s half-brother, the product of an affair left for adoption, only to grow up as one Preston’s closest buddies.

By my count, Preston went through five romances over the course of the blog. There’s freshman sweetheart Emma, overlapped by Veronica--the older woman from the same a cappella group with whom Preston cheats. There’s Anastasia from Preston’s hometown, who spends most of her time outside work caring for her niece, and in so doing offers Preston a taste of what adult responsibility and a working class life can look like. There’s Teri, Preston’s longest standing girlfriend over the course of blog, a fellow newspaper writer whose nose he accidentally breaks when he rolls over in bed and elbows her in the face. There’s Valerie, a wealthy girl from back home who literally gets away with murder.

And there’s Emma again. But we’ll get back to her.

Free Throw Parts 2 & 3
Friends and family may recall that the first novel I ever wrote was called Free Throw, a tale of high school basketball and high school romance in more or less equal parts that I wrote longhand, then typed over the course of my freshman and sophomore years of high school, before self-publishing it through Publish America the summer before I went to college. I aspired for Free Throw to be a trilogy and had the biggest plot points for the second and third parts mapped out in my mind. In the interim, though, I got caught up with other writing projects, and by the time I might have circled back to Free Throw, it was clear the franchise would never be a mainstream success and I didn’t have an overwhelming urge to revisit the story or its characters in a sustained way.

I wrote Free Throw protagonist Mike Weaver into the Preston Burns mythology on a lark. He would be another of Preston’s buddies from the dorm, and the one to cajole Preston and Dave to join him on the basketball court for a short story arc in which they won a three-on-three tournament.

Executing the Free Throw parts two and three under the Preston Burns umbrella was a clumsy proposition, but in the later stages of the blog, it seemed only fitting to see Mike Weaver’s story through just as I was working through the end of Preston’s. So, as a graduating senior, Mike sleeps with Free Throw’s “other woman” Alicia just in time to get caught by the love his life, Pepper, on a surprise visit to his dorm. One year later, the second to last week of the blog sees Free Throw 3 take over. Preston and company watch Mike Weaver, filling in for an injured starter, lead his team into the NBA Finals, playing against high school teammate Shawn. The game closes out the Free Throw chronicles in more or less symmetrical fashion. Mike finds himself at the free throw line one last time, a championship on the line, with Pepper faithfully cheering him on in the stands. Mike gets his trophy and gets the girl after all, for his story to end with his head held high.

Meeting at the bottom
Things did not wind down quite as happily for Preston. After the student government shuts down his newspaper, he becomes a college RA and runs for student government president. He not only loses the election, but gets into a drunken fight shortly after and gets fired from his RA job.

Meanwhile, Emma, who has reappeared sporadically throughout the blog, surfaces once more for the reveal that her last boyfriend gave her HIV.

These were difficult creative choices that I’m still not sure I got quite right, and which certainly swerved a bit from my original plans for the blog. Nonetheless, as time went on, I had the feeling that if the young lovers were going to find one another again, the way I had always intended for them to, they should do so by meeting at the bottom--at their respective lowest points in their college careers, if not their lives. Only in losing everything they’d accrued over the preceding 27 months could they fully appreciate what they had had from the beginning, and rise up together.

Preston Burns was meant to come to a more definitive conclusion, but as I described earlier, the response and rewards I was getting from the project really weren’t justifying the amount of time and effort I invested in it. So I cut things short with less of a finale, more of a an ellipsis, with a vibe not altogether different from the final strip of Calvin and Hobbes.

See, when Bill Watterson ended his comic strip, he did not do so with one last epic adventure with the transmogrifier or the ultimate reveal that Hobbes actually is a real tiger, but rather continued the spirit and story of the strip by having the title characters ride off on a sled together in search of new adventures.

For Preston, there’s not a sled, but there is a car, and Preston drives away from his college dorm at the end of his junior year, looking ahead to a summer camp job, a senior year spent with Emma, and any number of untold stories and adventures ahead of him.

My original plans for the last post would have happened at Preston and Emma’s wedding, a year or two after graduation. In particular, I had visions of one last scene with the two of them on the dance floor alongside Chang and Brad, Preston’s mom and dad, and any other number of faces from the blog’s past.

The wedding post would have been feel-good and would have lent the blog a sense of both culmination and closure. Just the same, I felt a moment of that ilk needed to be earned, and thus I resisted the temptation to write it as a stand-alone post or two or three. That, and the specter of Emma’s health complicated long-term projections for Preston and Emma’s future.

In the interceding years, I thought, too, about an afterward post that would see Preston and friends reunite at a beach house for Thanksgiving, not only a return to the blog, but a return for Preston, the character, to any semblance of a life after enduring Emma’s passing. Preston would start at the bottom again, and see the light through the support of his friends, and by meeting his first new love interest since college.

I thought that idea had more legs. Just the same, I no longer had the software to update the site the way I had in the past, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that that fact alone was symbolic that Preston’s time had already passed and he was best left where he was in May 2008.

In preparation for writing this post, I, of course, re-read some of the old Preston Burns posts and other site content. As I’ve experienced time again as a developing writer, I’m embarrassed with some of the clumsy prose and questionable creative choices.

That said, I was pleased to find that I still had a sense of fondness for both the project itself and its characters. Writing a daily fictional blog helped me into the habit of writing consistently and drafting quickly. When I recognized it was time to quit the blog, it gave me the rare experience of plotting and executing an exit strategy. And, of course, on an emotional level, I feel this project did wonders for my psyche, offering the catharsis to truly move past college life much sooner than I suspect I otherwise would have. As it pertains to the characters, I was pleased that so many of them, even if they were not fully realized or rendered in my writing, nonetheless resonated with me. Rereading their dialog felt not altogether different from reading old emails or Facebook messages from friends I haven’t interacted with in years, but whom I nonetheless hold dear.

And with that, allow me to close this post with one of the fictional blog’s best real-life tie ins. I counted Mike Peek among my few loyal readers for this endeavor, and in an effort to commemorate the blog and cross-pollinate my audience of readers with the people who listened to his music, I asked if he would write a theme song for Preston Burns. He came with “On My Side,” a wistful piece about love, nostalgia, being young, and then not being so young after all--a perfect tribute to a perfectly imperfect endeavor, which you can download and listen to for free below.

“On My Side” by Mike Peek