Uncle Buck’s Grill and Diner is a uniquely updated version of a bowling alley food counter. It’s part of the monstrosity called Bass Pro Shops, a sporting goods store which takes up the entire side of a strip mall filled with big stores. The draw to Uncle Buck’s was their underwater theme for the bowling alley. I knew we wouldn’t bowl, but I wanted to see the place anyway.
So late on a warm Sunday morning, my friends and I descended on this spectacularly overdone place for lunch. Entering, we walked past the statue of Uncle Buck with the dumbest “I caught a grrrrrrrl” look on his face holding a mermaid cuddled up to him as if to say, “My hero!” Through the small alley filled with families eating pizza and playing on the black light lanes, decorated under the sea with shark heads on the ball return. The balls themselves were reptilian eyes. On the way out Henry, who is from Florida, pointed out one set was alligator eyes. To which I retorted, “That’s Godzilla! What are you talking about?”
The three of us were the only ones in the restaurant proper. Deep fried gator, a boar cheese burger, and a shared dessert were talked over. I was so full I figured I wouldn’t be able to eat for a couple of days. I was pretty close to right. Gone are the days when I could have eaten that, not shared the dessert and gone home to another meal later.
Joy is my emotional intellect partner. We drill down into our feelings and sort through them. She has talked me through many anxiety and imposter syndrome attacks. Always understanding, empathetic and loving, she shows me I matter.
Henry, my book benefactor, is my intellectual jack of all subjects partner. We’ve drilled down into feminism, religion, books, emotional trauma, art, etc. He is my museum partner, come hang out and help me get stuff done friend. He also helps me remember my past has shaped me, and the struggles I fight are almost always because of childhood trauma.
The day before my birthday I asked Henry to come over because I didn’t want to be alone. I was all kinds of freaked out about turning 60. The number didn’t bother me so much as reflecting on what I thought I should have and didn’t at this point in my life. The dream had always been a house, a husband and a career. None of which were ever a possibility in my non-dream state.
The realization I was ill-prepared by my parents to face the world had come earlier in the day, but it was Henry who helped me drill deep and figure out why I was feeling like 60 was some sort of doomsday marker for me.
Watching my mother handle money was a master class in what not to do. But it didn’t teach me the things I needed to do to attain a house I could make a home. Things like saving and using credit judiciously in order to secure a mortgage.
Which brings us back to the weekend after my birthday when the three of us sat in Uncle Buck’s Diner and Grill and talked. My writing, the books I’ve read, the plans I have. And, somewhere during the S’mores skillet Joy and I shared, she looked at me and said, “Look how far you’ve come.”
Stunned into silence, my thoughts reviewed what we’d talked about. Henry and I taught Joy about genre appropriation, #LitFic vs. genre, ways of looking at the text. As I spoke, I felt the voice of authority creep through me. I actually sounded like I knew what I was talking about, and was thankful for the practice of explaining it to someone who doesn’t read genre.
Underneath all of this is a layer of anxiety which has caused procrastination which has led to guilt and paralysis. I keep taking deep breaths, reminding myself what it’s about, that being a critic is why I put up with the shenanigans at the day job. All the things, I have planned, scare the bejesus out of me if I let them
And when I stumbled over Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I panicked. I circled that review like my life depended on it. The perfectionist in me held me back, while my imposter taunted me. Who was I to think I could do any of what it would take to reach such lofty goals? I would come home drained from the day job and stare at the blank page. WTF did I have to say?
None of the conversations I’ve had with encouraging friends made it better. While talking to someone who’s also read Black Leopard, I bemoaned my inability to just write the review. “It’s dark, violent, and complicated.”
“Why can’t that be your review?”
Uhm …. Back to the blank page. I typed those words, and then I typed some more. I referred to Moral Fiction, which led to more typing. My imposter was laughing hysterically at me by this point. Jumping up and down and pointing at me in ridicule. I was an anxious, guilt-ridden mess. Then one weekend, “Oh fuck it I just want it to be done.” More words on the page. Still doubting myself, I wrote. I referred to my notebook, and thought about why I didn’t like this book, and about the conversations I’d had about it.
I got through a shitty first draft. And then I left it. I spun through the emotional cycle. Anxiety, guilt, fear. During my breaks at work I breathed deeply, and while reading another book, thought about Black Leopard as though it was a career defining review.
But I also thought about why I want to do this work, and what it would feel like if I stopped. What would happen if I just went back to reading and writing Reader Response? That thought didn’t make me happy at all. “No, I’ve come too far, learned too much to ever just go back to that.” Forward, onward it is then.
Why then am I following this path which has the possibility of taking me lofty places I’d never dreamed of? It’s easy to answer, and it’s not. The kind of conversations I have with Henry and Joy are the kinds of conversations I want to have with others. I want to cut through the chatter and get to the meat of a book. I want to stand in a hall at a gathering of geeks and talk about the way Marlon James thinks he can read Game of Thrones and then write the African version.
I want to talk about the way Alfred Bester took a noir crime thriller and turned it into a cyber-punk story with SJW overtones and bad feminism. Further, I want to write the critical reviews that almost no one else is writing. I’m not sure I’m up to saying I want to inspire others to dig deep and demand better from our genre, but I do want to hear those conversations. I want to see a LitHub for genre, a place where serious discussions are being had. Selfishly, I want to have more people in my life I can talk to the way I do Henry and Joy.
And what this means is I have to fight through that emotional cycle. I have to remember that getting the thing done is more important than getting it perfect. There’s no going back for me. I’ll never be able to read in the same way. My book journal will always be out with the book I’m reading. It’s scary. But I can’t give up, I just can’t.
And so, in not quite a year, I’ve gone from wanting to learn the better way to read and write about what I’ve read, to actually doing it. I’ve gone from just wanting to do it to amuse myself to wanting to do it for the community. From reading whatever came off the pile to reading with purpose, and writing about it with purpose.
I’m still stunned when publishers send books at my request for review. But I’ve gone from hoping I’d win a copy on LibraryThing to asking the publisher directly. This work fulfills me, even when my anxiety leads me to near paralysis.
It’s also led me to understand I just need a day job, not a career. It’s easier in some ways to shrug the nonsense off and move on. I may be drained when I get home, but I know there’s more for me than trying to carve a career out of yet another place made of jello and bandaids.
That sunny day at Uncle Buck’s will serve as a marker in time. It’s the one that reads, “I made 60 and am thriving.” It also reads, “We were together in congenial company and I was lifted up by the reminder of how much I’ve grown.” And that’s the difference a year makes.
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