Second year medical students have a particular problem known as intern’s syndrome, wherein they start to have symptoms of every new disease and malady they study. While there’s no fancy terminology for this issue for writers (unless it be imposter’s syndrome)—who see themselves or their work in the biographies of other writers—the struggle to not judge yourself by comparing your life or work to another is all too real. The best thing to do is, like the medical students, to acknowledge that you are under the influence of your imagination.

Thus, even though I knew some of the salient details of Alice Sheldon’s life, especially the manner of her death, I was interested in reading Julie Phillips biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, for it also spoke to my hopes and dreams as a writer who might, despite my dint of age, have the possibility of being ablcover art for booke to write and publish and make a name for myself, as Sheldon did, for she didn’t begin to do so successfully until her 50s. But my life and experience hardly match Sheldon’s, for both good and bad, so it’s just another case of my imagination running away with me.

For instance, a writer is often the sum of their life experience, and Alice Sheldon led a most unusual life—from being a child of African explorers who took her with them when what that meant was still traipsing by foot through jungles, collecting wildlife trophies and trading for artifacts with native tribes. It meant living in the shadow of her mother, who kept the family afloat during the depression by selling stories to the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers, determining that maybe writing wasn’t for her, instead deciding to be an artist and achieving a modicum of success as such. It meant trying to live as an independent woman when such was hardly an option, from her failed attempts to escape her home by eloping only days after her debut to the contentious open marriage that ensued and the on-again, off-again education. From joining the Women’s Army Corps and rising through the ranks by first her ability to handle logistics to moving into the intelligence branch of photo analysis in order to identify bombing targets. It meant a five-year stint in a chicken-raising business, three years as a CIA analyst, and a very late-in-life return to university to finally obtain her Bachelor’s degree and follow that up with a Ph.D. in psychology. And then, only then, did she turn back to her love for writing and science fiction.

My imposter’s syndrome is only a faint echo of Sheldon’s life. My travels didn’t begin until my thirties, while I flunked out of college as she did initially, I managed an earlier return and stopped at the Master’s level, and thankfully I managed to avoid any war service or attempts at animal husbandry. And I, obviously, haven’t suffered for my gender. But where I most fail in comparison to Sheldon is in the intensity of her depressions, her constant prescription drug use, and her dismay for humanity, ultimately culminating in the murder-suicide that was reported on the front page of the Washington Post. For Sheldon was not a well-adjusted individual—while she could be incredibly charming and witty, she carried a dark cloud within her, a frustration with her past and future that continually threatened her ability to live. It is amazing that she was able to write at all, but it may be that her decision to adopt the persona of James Tiptree, Jr. was the perfect ticket to escape her darkness and live a life of her own making, rather than the one she had been born into.

Phillips’ biography does an amazing job at capturing the essence of Sheldon’s life, focusing at least two-thirds of it before the decision to become Tiptree, because understanding that past is key to unlocking Tiptree’s ability to seemingly arise magically onto the SF publishing scene. As I read the biography, I also read or re-read many of Tiptree’s stories, finding that Sheldon is indeed present in each, even when Tiptree wrote about aliens and time travel and other planets. For example, Tiptree’s first published story, “Birth of a Salesman,” is filled with the kind of small details from her Army WAC days of trying to move items from one location to another. “Mamma Comes Home” uses that CIA background to believably portray Washington, DC and the bureaucracy behind understanding crises and responding to them. And, in “The Only Neat Thing To Do,” Tiptree lays out both the hopes of life and the desire to end it before it threatens to become something worse. In fact, reading Tiptree is to face death (or at least final departures) over and over again, in stories like “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” and “The Screwfly Solution” (the death of humanity), “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Beam Us Home” (leaving Earth is better than staying in such a society), and “A Momentary Taste of Being” and “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (biology determines that death is inevitable despite or even because of our best efforts).

Phillips indicates that Tiptree died when he was revealed to be Alice Sheldon, and provides some evidence for that, although I think that a couple of stories post-reveal still had the same Tiptree magic, such as “The Only Neat Thing to Do” and “We Who Stole the Dream.” But Sheldon wasn’t the same after being outed and obviously missed the ability to escape into the world that Tiptree made. If she had still had that outlet, would she have written the suicide note in 1979 much less acted on it eight years later? Or had the death of Tiptree actually preceded the reveal of his being a her, that Tiptree died when he received those Nebula and Hugo awards, even though worthy, by putting a burden on future Tiptree stories to live up to the praise and admiration of her friends and readers, thus preventing Sheldon from simply writing as a lark or as a pressure outlet as she had in the past. That is, when the hobby became a chore, was the music over?

As a writer-hobbyist, I worry about that, then I recall that it’s likely just another case of imposter’s syndrome: may I live to have the success to discover if that’s so.

photo courtesy of David Clow (cc license)

“Odd’s here?”

I could hear the question from where I stood, playing simple background chords to Bob Seger’s “Her Strut.” It was exactly the sort of question I wanted to hear. Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes-Know-It-All Todd was at a keg party playing in the band. Maybe he’s not as much of a prick as we thought he was. I smiled.

My electronic keyboard sat precariously on a piece of plywood held up by two old sawhorses. Every time I played a full chord the plywood bent a little in the middle, providing my imitation ivories with more spring than intended by the manufacturer. I had been placed stage left, between Dave and the drumset. Dave played rhythm guitar by leaning against a tree next to the stage with his body totally still except for his two hands, resembling Jon Entwhistle at his best; the drummer mindlessly kept the beat and rarely looked up from his set. The three of us stayed out of the way of the bass player and lead guitarist who occupied stage front. They were testing the theorem that all the girls love guys in the band, and wanted to make it obvious that they were the movers and shakers in this particular combo. It was our first gig, if you could call playing on a rotting hay trailer hidden inside a clump of pine trees a gig. I would, but then I was not looking to make it big. I was slumming.

My family moved to Gatesville the summer before I began seventh grade. My nickname quickly became Odd, partly because it was just dropping the T from my name, but mainly because I was nerdy.

Joe tripped me in the hall the first week — testing the new kid, I suppose — and I dropped my bag and swung at him with all I had. Time has dimmed my memory of it, but I knew I couldn’t stop swinging and neither did he. When a couple of male teachers were finally able to pull us apart, I had the black eye, but his lip was bleeding.

The next week we faced off against each other in Physical Education. It was War Ball — a game in which the entire purpose was to throw a dull red rubber ball at people as hard as you possibly could. Although half of the entire grade was there in the gym, Joe and I focused on each other. I hesitated in the back, using a couple of larger kids as blockers, hoping to catch him on his blind side. He acted like he did not care, but I could tell he knew where I was standing at all times. A kid next to me went down, hit by one of the soft, squishy ones that would leave a welt on his leg for an hour. I went to pick up the ball and — wham — -right against the side of my neck. I looked across the room, and Joe strutted in front of the other players, oblivious of the game still being waged around him.

It never stopped. He bolted my locker shut one day; I injected a dose of hydrogen sulfide through the vent in his locker for revenge. But it was just physical. We weren’t scholastic rivals by any means. My grades put me in the honors classes; I often wondered how he even made the next grade.

By the time we hit high school, our fighting had escalated into a cold war. We preferred to have nothing to do with each other, but if we did interact, it was a hard elbow to the head or stomach. Joe had the advantage in these situations, for he had gained pound after pound and turned it into muscle while I remained a 110-pound weakling.

Joe was everything I hated. I considered him a lazy, rude redneck who would likely get some fourteen-year-old girl pregnant before he turned twenty-one. And I couldn’t understand how he could be so popular.

Keith, the lead guitarist, swung his arm in a full circle on his guitar as if he was Pete Townsend — the five of us were all big Who fans — signifying the end of the song. The drummer woke up long enough from his basic one-two beat to bash everything in sight, then slumped back into his seat.

One or two claps came from the direction of the keg. It was still early, most people had not arrived yet, and those that were here had not had enough time to get drunk yet. As a band we sounded better with alcohol. We discovered that in practice.

“Take fifteen,” said Keith, trying to sound like he did this every night. The drummer, some army brat from Killeen, immediately shuffled off for a beer. Dave flipped off the amplifier for his guitar and my synthesizer. Dave was the reason I was in this band. Dave and I had been sharing musical discoveries for years, trading mixtapes and sheet music. Dave and Keith were cousins and had learned guitar together and formed a band when they were freshmen. When they finally decided to move into the synthesizer-influenced Who music, Dave suggested to Keith that I join. Being the only person they knew who had a Roland had something to do with it.

“Wanna beer, Odd?” Dave asked.

“Sure,” I said. Even though I was a first-time slummer, I planned to go all the way.

High school is the training ground for the assembly-line world of tomorrow. You not only learn categories for people, but you also discover the joys of watching the slow hand of the clock, working to stay busy, and attaching blame to others. Forget those cynics who claim that our schools do not teach children what they need to know. They do. What schools do not do so well is advancing people past these basic lessons into learning how to enjoy life under those circumstances.

Music supposedly calms the savage beast. For me, though, music helped me escape my stereotype and gain entry into the other side of school. What did you call them when you were in school? Kids from the other side of the tracks? Hoods? Juvenile delinquents? For these kids, music delivered the savage message, and provided a soundtrack for their destruction.

For me, the two became intertwined. There existed a seed of rebellion and destruction inside me. Rock and roll nurtured it through a long winter of being a model son, and it bloomed on the night of April 20: Joe’s end-of-the-school year kegger. “Can you make it, Odd?” Keith asked me, during a practice session the week before. All eyes were fixed on me, even though we were packing up after an hour’s rehearsal. This was the final test of whether the nerd was willing to accept a full initiation into the belly of the beast.

“No problem,” I said.

The party started to come alive about an hour after dark. Joe as the host had placed spotlights where it was needed — on the beer and the area around the band — leaving the parking lot and the hay bales dark. In the near shadows, Joe sat in the cab of his pickup truck, his arm draped around his girl of the moment. His truck was the envy of the school — a Ford F150 with a chromium roll bar for show, bright red pin stripes from the hood to the door, then flickering flames across the back wheel wells. He drove it like those back tires were actually on fire.

I had just finished slamming my second beer when Keith said, “Rage, Odd.” Rage was the band; the song was called “Burnout,” something that Keith and Dave had come across in the used record store and decided to transcribe. It was my show number, because it let me diddle with the pitch bender and echo on my Roland, which I was much better at than actually playing the thing.

Gatesville, Texas, is such a small town that I used to tell people that we went to Waco to have fun. Waco: the sleepy home of that conservative Baptist college, Baylor University. Excitement in Waco was dancing on campus.

I had known about Joe’s party before the band brought it up during practice that night. News got around, even to the nerds. One last bash. Come May, we would all go our separate ways, which in Gatesville meant that you either went to work as a guard at the Women’s Penitentiary or you left town for college. Joe’s party was the last hurrah for our class.

Joe would never have invited me to his party, but I could come as one of the band.

Why are teenagers so angry? I certainly did not have anything to complain about. My parents were fair and honest with me, providing me with most everything I asked for. I did well in school. I had friends. I guess I was just missing excitement. I found my life drab and boring, and I was tired of being the perfect child.

My life had been safe, and I wanted to see what non-safe was like.

Dave and I sat on the edge of the trailer. He was still drinking beer in a plastic cup, but I had graduated to Johnny Walker. The party was now over a hundred people. As we drank, I would glance surreptitiously over at the edge of the barn, my heart pounding, imagining what might be happening with the couples whom I had seen disappear into the tall grass.

“Is this what you wanted?” asked Dave.

I looked at Dave. In some way, he was above this all. He was neither a nerd, a scholar, a jock, nor a hood. He maintained an independence from everything. In school he neither failed nor excelled, in the schoolyard he was never an instigator nor the victim of a fight, in gossip he was never a wallflower nor a pushover. In the theater, there’s a term for the character who is neither protagonist nor villain, not a second banana or the love interest. These characters that sit apart and nudge the action along every so often are called “fifth business.” Dave was like that, the odd man out, the fellow who was never picked for play by either side not because he wasn’t any good, but because he walked away from the game.

“Yeah,” I said. The startled looks of recognition, the whispers, and the faint nods — the combined group of my peers had acknowledged my presence and the alcohol in my hand. I had shocked them.

Gatesville was a dry county, which meant that alcohol could not be sold in any store within its boundaries. Just thirty minutes away, however, was Ireland, a tiny town with a population of 60, most of them farmers, but hardly big enough drinkers to support the three liquor stores on the county border. Joe’s brother, a sophomore in college who was home for scholastic probation, had bought the keg.

I have no idea where the marijuana came from. Maybe that’s what the Irish farmers did the rest of their time.

Joe came by the music trailer a little after midnight. The party had reached its peak an hour ago, and people were now starting to pull out in waves of twos and threes, conversations broken by the backfire of pickup trucks with bad mufflers and beery goodbyes. We were into our last set — all the good parts of Who’s Next. We had saved “Baba O’Reilly” for an encore, although none had been asked for. The Roland played itself for most of it — once I pressed for program one, it would continue its endless electronic twiddle until I hit the end key.

Joe motioned for me to come down. I hesitated, staring at him. He had been drinking. I wasn’t ready for a fight. The music faded in my ears as I realized just how unprepared I was for this. Behind him, back at the keg, but watching us, were Jacks and Rutherford, his cronies. Dave was no help here; I had lost my protective coating of school roles and social class. Joe motioned to me again to come down. I jumped off the makeshift stage, staggered a little, then reached back and steadied myself against the trailer.

Joe grabbed my arm, pulling me to him. I tensed, waiting for the kidney punch from the other hand. I could just fall and curl into a ball, I thought. He might kick, but I could put my arms up and protect my face.

“I just wanted to know, to let you know,” he slurred, breathing heavily into my face. “I wanted to say, to, to let you know I’m glad you came,” he said.

I glanced at him. He was definitely drunk. But he was nodding as he continued talking, “You guys did a kick ass job. Great sound.”

“Uh, thanks,” I muttered. He started to walk away, then turned around quickly and flung his hand out to me; I took it, and we shook hands. He let go, turned around again, and went back to his pickup truck.

I left Gatesville in 1984, and only went back a few years ago to clean out my room when my parents sold the house. When people ask where I’m from, I call it my hometown, although it never felt like home. Except for one night.

Photo courtesy of Peter Roome (cc license)

Roads in Texas are wide, with generous shoulders and good markings. I drove home slowly, likely too slowly for safety. I was drunk, I knew I was drunk, but I knew I had to get home before two o’clock. The brightly painted yellow line in the middle of the road was my friend — it separated me from the vehicles in the other lane, their glaring lights making me nervous. The shoulder was my friend. I could always pull over, I thought. But I pressed on. Every mile seemed to take forever, and the entire time I thought, never again. If I get out of this, I would never drink again. Nothing was worth this, not even the warm feeling that I had been floating on since Joe’s handshake that I knew was not related to the whisky.

I made it home at 1:30 a.m. I parked my father’s pickup away from the house in the dirt driveway. I let myself in the side door so I did not have to open the creaky garage door. I made my way to my room, and safety.

The next morning’s headline was about a highway crash on Farm-to-Market Road 12. One pickup, two occupants, driver dead, female passenger in serious condition. A picture of the vehicle was included, where you could still see the custom paint job. Likely time of the accident was 2:30 a.m. I didn’t have to read the story, because I knew that road. I knew that pickup, its pinstripe along the door with the flames on the wheelwell.

“Did you know him?” asked my mother.

“Not very well,” I said. “Not well at all.”

In my 50th year, I started a project to read all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, in order of publication. I’m not entirely sure why. Most men in the throes of mid-life focus on fast, fancy cars or svelte young women. But my life has always been about reading and writing, so when it comes to being crazy, this is as wild as it gets for me.

A temporary Terry Pratchett tribute graffiti that had been painted in London on Code Street, near Brick Lane in 2015 (photo courtesy of Flickr user David Skinner)

I’ve always been an obsessive/compulsive reader. When I was able to measure my years using only my fingers, it was reading the complete works of A. Conan Doyle or the entire Bible, both of which I managed in one summer. In middle school it was the entire oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs, followed by Michael Moorcock, progressing to John D. MacDonald and Stephen King in high school. In college, instead of attending class like I should have, I ensconced myself in the huge University of Texas Undergraduate Library, which afforded me a massive amount of reading choices, but the one project I fixated on was the 80+ books written by P. G. Wodehouse. Returning to University a few years later (after having been politely asked to take a short break by the academic powers-that-be), my next obsession was Philip K. Dick, which my friends at the time facilitated by presenting me with a set of his complete short fiction for one birthday. A decade later, when I visited Ireland for the first time, it was sandwiched by a six-week project of working my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses with the assistance of a book of similar size that contained annotations on that work.

Sir Terry Pratchett

My name is Glen and I have a reading problem. It’s not that I read too much, but that I feel the need to read things in their complete order. As addictive habits go, I realize that this is somewhat benign (well, except for that college incident).

So why Pratchett?

It’s not like I was a particular fan of Pratchett. In fact, I was always a bit bewildered by my lack of enjoyment of the Pratchett novels that I had read. I encountered the first one, The Colour of Magic, right after it was published, but that was also around the same time as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to which Pratchett’s publisher tried to draw comparisons. Unfortunately, I felt it wasn’t a fair match. The concept was similar: Pratchett was skewering fantasy conventions in the same way that Adams had used for science fiction. But Adams’ book was based on a radio series and had gone through innumerable edits; frankly, the jokes were much tighter, funnier, and broad. The Colour of Magic lacked the same comic timing, relying more on repetition and incongruities that I had already seen explored in previous humorous fantasy written by Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp.

Ten years later, I tried him again. It was obvious that something was up, because he was publishing about a book a year and getting some great press. I felt I was missing out. Given that I had a smattering of Shakespeare knowledge, a friend suggested I read Witches Abroad, loosely based around King Lear. Again, I didn’t cotton to it. I got all the jokes, but nothing made me really laugh. Another decade later, I tried again, this time with Lords and Ladies, and I liked it quite a bit more than my previous attempts, and recognized that Pratchett’s prose had definitely improved over time. But I still wasn’t a fan.

Then 2016 rolled around and I felt the urge to read something, anything. I had fallen off the reading wagon around 2004 when I had been diagnosed with angina and came up against mortality, tumbling into the ditch that was video games, which provided a similar escape that fiction had fulfilled in me, but in a socially repetitive matter. I started reading again in 2008 after expatriating to Asia, but work and travel took precedent for nearly a decade and the amount I read was nowhere near the record pace of my teens and twenties. Then the end of 2015 arrived and I was living in a new location where I spent most of my daytime job-searching and worrying about employment, and I needed something light-hearted to keep my spirits up. The death of Pratchett earlier in 2015 and the numerous elegies and tributes that came out following that likely brought him to mind as the reading panacea I needed. And so, in December 2015, I re-read The Colour of Magic, then persevered through The Light Fantastic and on to the next. By Mort, the fourth book, I was hooked, and then it became an inevitable obsession following the first City Watch book. the eighth Discworld novel, Guards! Guards!

The Great A’Tuin (image courtesy of Flickr user Lamerie)

For the few of you who are unfamiliar with Pratchett’s work, the majority of it is set in a shared fantasy world that is shaped like a discus that travels through space on the backs of four immense elephants who all stand on the shell of the great turtle, A’Tuin. This is, of course, made possible by the most common element in Discworld, narrativium, otherwise known as magic. Over the course of 41 novels, a handful of short stories, and a scattering of related graphic novels and popular science explorations, Pratchett explored the nooks and crannies of this world. The first protagonist, and the least, is Rincewind, an inept wizard who is best at running away from a problem, and features prominently in the first two books, then pops up again about every eight thereafter. Other major characters include witches (Granny Weatherwax, the leader of the witches, if they had a leader, but all know that she is; Tiffany Aching, a young girl who finds witchness thrust upon her), guardsmen (Sam Vines, recovering alcoholic and defender of all citizens; Carrot Ironfoundersson, who may be the last heir of the kings of Ankh-Morpork, but was raised by dwarves and has no desire to take up the throne; Detrius the troll), other wizards (the Librarian, a wizard that was turned into an orangutan by a failed experiment but has no desire to return to being human; the blustery Mustrum Ridcully), politicians (the Patrician, or defacto dictator, of Ankh-Morpork), conmen (Moist von Lipwig, who the Patrician blackmails into first running the postal service then reforming the banking), and Death (a literal personification of the idea, black robe, scythe, and all).

Partly the reason why the first books featuring Rincewind are a poor introduction is because those rely heavily on situational humor. Rincewind constantly finds himself in the worst of all possible places and struggles to extricate himself. While there are some nice bits of wordplay in those books, that’s not the focus. I favor the novels that feature the politics of Ankh-Morpork, because in those Pratchett found his voice as a social satirist. The deftness by which the Patrician (a former assassin, and what better training for a politician?) maintains power as well as instituting progress in the city allows Pratchett to comment on our own government institutions. With each novel, Pratchett also adds a new technology or discovery into the mix, including film (Moving Pictures), music (Soul Music), newspapers (The Truth), the postal service (Going Postal), and finance (Making Money). The ongoing series about the wizards allows him to comment on universities and academics, the books about the City Watch enable commentary about law and order, and the witch novels provide a venue for an exploration of common sense and tradition.

My absolute favorite of the Discworld novels, however, is Small Gods, which stands somewhat apart from the others; the reoccurring characters are The History Monks, who only reappear in one other novel. The focus of Small Gods is on faith and belief, satirizing both clergy and followers without being heavy-handed or sacrilegious.

A pile of books (photo courtesy of Flickr user rawdonfox)

All in all, I read 36 of these novels over 2016 and was happy to have finally discovered why Pratchett had developed such a following over three decades of writing. In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s, which severally affected his ability to physically write, which he called “an embuggerance.” For the last eight years of his life, he continued to produce what he could, relying on an assistant who typed what he dictated. Unfortunately, the quality of his writing suffered for it, and the last five books of the series, which I have yet to read, are considered somewhat subpar to the earlier work, with more straightforward telling and less clever showing. I plan to read them eventually, just because I’m a completist, as well as someday get to Nation, a non-Discworld fantasy/alternative history, which some consider his best novel.

Most of all, though, this project helped reawaken my interest in reading and writing. It also helped that when I did finally land a new job in 2016, it was one that had a focus on writing as well. Strangely, rather than being worn out by writing during the day job, my desire to write my own work has only increased. So, thanks, Sir Terry — for a year full of laughter and discovery.

I received a government-backed student loan for my first year of college: $2,500 in 1984 to cover the cost of tuition, fees, and books at the University of Texas at Austin. However, since my parents were already covering those costs, I instead used that loan to purchase a brand new Macintosh computer. This was one of the original Macs, and my purchase was within months of its first release. It had 128k of RAM memory, a 3.5” floppy drive, a black and white screen, and all-in-one casing. After my first year of college, I ended up on scholastic dismissal (i.e., I flunked out) and didn’t end up obtaining my college degree until nine years later, and by that time I was already having to make payments on that student loan.

Instead, what if I had invested that money in Apple stock rather than purchasing that Mac?

Apple shares were selling for $28 per share in 1984. I could have purchased 89 shares instead of the $2,495 Macintosh (approximately $5,700 in today’s dollars). Apple didn’t start paying dividends until 1987, but the average yield was 2.5% yearly through 1995. The stock split 2 for 1 in 1987, 2000, and 2005. They restarted paying dividends in 2012, and had an amazing 7 for 1 stock split in 2014. If I had held on to the stock, reinvesting the dividends back into additional shares, I would have grown those 89 shares into 6,870 shares, which at today’s Apple share price of $117.45 would total an investment of $806,882. (A classic example of the power of investing over time.)

However, I don’t regret that purchase. Because buying that little Apple computer was actually a wise investment in myself. That Macintosh was my entry into what became my professional career in communications, and eventually a better education than the one I initially failed. On that computer, I learned how to program and I learned how to write and to layout a magazine. With a 1200-baud modem, I was an early adopter of social media, starting on Austin’s various electronic bulletin boards and eventually GEnie, Delphi, and Usenet. In those online conversations, I learned how to express myself so people would find what I wrote interesting and I learned how to present an opinion that went beyond just personal preference, but was backed with researched evidence. I learned how to engage people from different backgrounds and opinions. I learned spreadsheets, graphic design, presentations, and desktop publishing.

Buying Apple stock in 1984 and holding on to it for 32 years would have taken an incredible amount of faith in the company, especially in that first decade, when it wasn’t clear at all that Apple would survive. Whereas having that computer gave me faith in myself, and my abilities, to land that first database programming administration job. Communicating via computers continues to be the bedrock of my current career.

The point is that investing is all about making decisions, the most important of which is that you shouldn’t delay in starting to make those investments. The earlier you begin to do so, the stronger your eventual position will be. And the wisest investment to make is the one you make in yourself.

When we arrived at the city park there were already more than 200 people there lounging on blankets, sitting in lawn chairs, milling about. In the middle of the park was a small pond, and the 4th of July organizers had partitioned off the dock, setting up the fireworks launchers at the end of it and running the control wires to a small table on the pond bank. As more and more viewers arrived, the edge of the pond continued to fill in until there was no more shore unoccupied.

As dusk darkened into evening, a test firework sped into the night, then the show began in earnest. Unseen before in the low light, the Canada geese underneath the dock emerged, swimming frantically for the shore, then pulling up short as they realized the shore was filled with people. Like ping pong balls, they immediately shifted in the opposite direction, swimming faster this time, only to find that shore full as well. No safe harbor anywhere—unable to fly for the constant explosions ahead, and unable to return to the dock where the muffled mortars popped every ten seconds or more—they ended up huddling together in the middle of the pond.

It would have been funny, except you knew that the geese had no understanding of what was happening, and never would.

I always knew I was going to have a heart attack. Following the diagnosis in 2004 of a stable angina condition, of which I was reminded every time I strenuously exerted myself, the possibility of one of those throat-tightening, chest-pressure instances lasting more than the usual 15-to-30 seconds was always a possibility. I knew a heart attack was likely coming. What I didn’t know was when, where, and just how bad it was going to be.

The best analogy I’ve discovered for my heart experience is that it is like an earthquake. In 2004, the doctors discovered that my heart had developed enough blockage to classify it as a major fault line, but given its geographic age, only cautioned the resident and provided some drugs to keep him calm to try and prevent any stressing of the fault, avoiding for the nonce the engineering options of structural fortifications or bypasses. But as anyone who lives in California knows, tremors happen. For me, tremors happened typically during my tennis play, when a point was long and had me running from side-to-side or front-to-back for more than a few seconds at a time. The pain wasn’t much—typically a shortness of breath, or a tightness in the throat, and simply taking a little extra time to rest afterwards would put the system right back to steady state. For those few times where rest didn’t seem to be going to cut it, I could take a hit of powdered nitroglycerin from a metal vial that I carried on my key ring. The nitro would cause an immediate rush as it instantly dilates blood vessels, solving the pressure issue but giving you a humongous headache. I was good at playing through pain.

But I knew that some day the fault line was going to slip, and for me, that was Friday, 1 August 2008.

I actually started feeling bad the night of Tuesday, 29 July. We had just relocated to Malaysia from the U.S. and were staying in the Traders Hotel that bordered the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center (KLCC) prior to moving into our rental house. Over the weekend, my wife and I had a discussion about how much all this eating we were enjoying with the total absence of any exercise was not doing us any good, so we made a pact to get exercise every night after work before retiring to the club lounge and heading out for dinner. She was going to do some walking around the KLCC park while I opted for swimming laps in the pool. We did this on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Getting out of the pool on Tuesday, however, I told her that three days of exercise after not getting any at all had really taken a toll on me and I was sore all over. We opted to return to a known Japanese restaurant called Ozeki that was quite close to the Traders rather than trying something new, especially given that our meal on Monday had been the worst we had had in KL.

Getting up on the next morning, not only did I feel sore all over, I also had a sore throat and a fever. I went ahead and showered and dressed, for this was the day of a big group meeting, a 30-min huddle to finalize a big presentation that had brought us to Malaysia on a three-to-five year project, and I was in charge of the meeting agenda. Halfway through the meeting, though, I felt like I was about to pass out or throw up and had to excuse myself. I eventually drove myself back to the hotel and fell into bed for the rest of the day. And the rest of the next day.

I was feeling better on Friday, but I still hadn’t eaten much in the last 48 hours, as the sore throat was so bad that I could hardly swallow anything but liquids (warm soup was ok, as long as there was nothing chunky in it). After sitting around the hotel for two days, I was ready to get out. And it was the day we were to meet up with the landlord’s representative to go over the rental villa and get our keys so we could finally begin moving in. The walk through began at 9:30 a.m. and I was good for about 30 minutes, but then started to lose steam. I passed the checklist paperwork to my wife and sat down on the stair steps (there was no furniture in the house as of yet—the outdoor chairs, which we were going to use inside until our ground shipment arrived, weren’t due until 11 a.m.). I’d get up every now and then to walk around, but I was definitely still not feeling well. I even took some aspirin around 11:30, feeling that the fever might be returning. When the chairs arrived, I was happy to finally have something to sit in, to take breaks from the walk-through. After that was done, we were due to stick around until 1 p.m. when the phone installer was to arrive to hook-up our telephone landline.

The heart attack started at noon. At first I didn’t recognize it, thinking that I was just uncomfortable in the new chair, so I tried laying down, first on the marble floor, then on the wooden floor in the room that was to be my study. That felt better, but I realized I was still uncomfortable. I got up and went back to the chair and that’s when I realized the chest pressure for what it was—my heart. On the Richter scale, this was fairly low. If the tennis angina attacks were a 1 or 2, this was only about a 3. Still, it was chest pressure, and in this case I hadn’t been doing anything to exert myself, and that’s what should have really clued me in that this one wasn’t normal. I pulled out my nitro spray bottle (an atomized version of the powder) and did three or four quick spritzes under my tongue.

And I sat there, expecting the pressure to go away. But it didn’t. As minute after minute passed, I realized that this was something I wasn’t going to be able to ignore. My wife was on the other side of the house, on the phone with a work colleague, so I just sat there by myself going through the options. We had only been in Malaysia for a couple of weeks and I wasn’t really sure how the medical insurance worked here, or even where I should go. The emergency room, I guessed, or at least a hospital somewhere. I recalled that there was one near KLCC but I couldn’t recall exactly where. And all along I kept waiting for the pressure to stop. When my wife finished her call, she came to sit beside me in the new chair and she knew I wasn’t feeling well.


The pressure was still there, at the same intensity. That’s when I said, “I think we have to go to the hospital.”

It’s easy to look back at this string of events and illuminate every wrong decision: That I didn’t go to the doctor earlier when I was so sick I couldn’t eat. That as soon as the nitro didn’t work, I didn’t immediately get my wife to end her call and take me to the hospital, or even that we didn’t call the emergency number and get an ambulance out to me immediately. The problem all along was that I, and my wife as well, was in denial. While I knew that I was going to have a heart attack someday, I couldn’t believe it was happening right then, right now. Not just as we had gotten the new keys to the house in a foreign country that we were going to be living in for at least three years, a lifelong dream for both of us. Surely it was just because I was starving, having not eaten hardly anything for 72 hours. It was kind of like when the earthquake happens and you stare down at your drink to see if the reason the world just wobbled was because you had been drinking too much, then realizing everyone in the room had just looked down at their own drink, too. Except, in this case, I was the only one feeling the quake and had to report what it felt like. It also didn’t help that by 1 p.m., a full hour after it had started, the pressure finally began to ease off, the tremor subsiding.

We called our relocation company and they were able to give us directions to the hospital, which turned out to be just down the road (literally, about 300m) from our hotel. By the time we arrived at the hopsital, it was around 2 p.m. When we stepped from the car, the pressure had basically ceased and although I was still feeling bad , it was due to my original illness rather than my heart. I hesitated. Before we headed to the hospital, we had gotten something to eat just in case the problem was my need for food instead (see, denial), and I was thinking that perhaps the food that I had eaten (not much really—I had forced myself to swallow about a dixie cupful of french fries) had solved the problem. But we were there, and all-in-all I couldn’t deny to myself that I hadn’t felt the quake or that it hadn’t gone on for such a long time.

When you mention chest pains in a hospital, no matter what hospital, they don’t mess around. You get immediately led to a bed where they put the blood pressure cuff on you, draw some blood, and began asking the questions: when did it begin, how long has it lasted, what does it feel like, have you felt this before, does your family have a history, are you a smoker, diabetic, are you feeling any pressure now? Then it’s the EKG, where they attach the electrodes to your chest and the insides of your arms and the insides of your calves. All along you try and remain calm and tell your story to each and every one: I have angina, I’ve never had pressure that went for this long, I’m not feeling it right now, it started around noon and lasted an hour.

In 15–30 minutes, the emergency doc came by with the bad news. The blood test confirmed an increase in Troponin in the blood. As he was telling me, the staff were fitting the oxygen up to my nose and getting ready to insert the IV to start saline drip and that’s when I knew that I had both made the right decision to come to the hospital as well as a sinking feeling knowing that this might not be the end. The cardiologist showed up shortly to explain that elevated Troponin meant that I had suffered heart muscle damage, i.e., a mild myocardial infarction commonly called a heart attack. I had two options: (a) I could undergo a cardiac catheterization to see how bad the damage was and to determine if immediate angioplasty or stenting was required, or (b) thrombolytic treatment, where a very strong blood thinning drug would be administered over an hour’s time to help break up any clots that had formed, to be followed up with additional anticoagulant and blood-thinning medications.

I chose option (b). I wasn’t ready to undergo a surgical procedure, especially not laying there feeling fine.

They immediately wheeled me up to the Intensive Care Unit where I was transferred to a bed and hooked up to the heart monitor by connecting additional sticky electrodes on my chest, a clamp placed on my left index finger that measured the amount of oxygen in my blood, and a saline drip connected to the IV for hydration. After that, they wheeled in the sonogram machine and proceeded to do the “look, it’s a beating boy” routine on the heart, which I normally found, er, heartening, but wasn’t actually in the mood for levity by this time, especially after the cardiologist and his sonogramic friend pointed out the places they could see where the heart muscle was being moved rather than moving itself, which is evidence of damage. (And not prior damage, as scar tissue shows up as white, and this was dark.)

After that, it was time for thrombolytic treatment itself. Replacing the saline drip was a drip of streptokinase, a clot-busting, fast-working anti-coagulant. Halfway through the hour-long process, my throat began burning. Like a brand. A cattle brand. Fresh from the coals. Applied to my throat. Constantly. I started to worry that maybe I was having an allergic reaction to the drug, or that my sore throat was actually an open wound and the streptokinase was going to make it burst into a gushing torrent of blood. I mentioned the burning sensation to the monitoring staff, but no one seemed concerned so I just lay there in pain. My doctor once told my wife that I had a high tolerance for pain, but believe me, there’s nothing I’ve ever felt that’s ever come close to those ten minutes. When it finally began to lessen, and I could swallow again, I felt that it had indeed been a trial by fire.

I finally got to leave the ICU on Sunday and transferred to a normal room. The Prince Court Medical Facility only has two types of rooms in its medical ward: a suite or a single room. I took the latter, which was as tastefully appointed as the hotel room over at the Traders, except that it had a bunch of staff call buttons. The couch even makes a single bed, in case your spouse wants to stay in the room overnight (I told my wife that wasn’t necessary, since we still were paying for the suite over at the Traders). After the ICU, it was heavenly. Before an hour was up, I had already stripped and taken a shower, the first I had gotten in over 48 hours (really, sponge baths are only romantic if you were dying of heat in the Sahara). I ended up getting the bandage of my IV wet, which required that they remove it (you would have thought I did that on purpose), so I was also free of any interface between machines and my body since I had entered the Emergency Room on Friday.
I had to stay in the ICU for two nights, mainly for follow-up observation to the thrombolytic treatment. I can tell you that it’s not two nights I want to ever repeat, not to disparage the wonderful staff or service at the Prince Court Medical Center. It’s just that in the ICU, with all those wires hooked up to you, with someone constantly monitoring you, with all the beep-beeps of the monitor, and, frankly, having to relieve yourself from a bedridden position, you realize just how good it is to have a “normal” hospital room. The entire time I was in ICU, I kept mentioning the fact that my throat was still sore, and had been since Wednesday, and that I was unable to eat anything beyond soft foods (which basically meant soup—although I found out after moving out that I should have been requesting the “soft diet”). My wife and I inquired about the possibility of it being strep throat, partly because of the swelling of the lymph glands. The cardiologist pulled out a tongue depressor and had me do the “aaaahhh” routine, then got a bit of surprise when he hit my gag reflex. Luckily he jumped back fast and I hadn’t eaten much due to the fact that I couldn’t swallow anything. He agreed to refer me to an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist on Monday and instructed the nurses to take a swab sample for lab analysis in the morning.

As for additional chest pain? None. I was still weak, and the throat continued to be a bother, although with the discovery of the soft food diet, I had finally downed enough food to consider an actual meal on Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, I finally got to see the ENT, who carefully avoided the gag reflex on my warning, and gave me the final piece of the puzzle. Although I had my tonsils removed when I was young, either the surgeon had not removed all of them or, more likely, the tonsils were trying to grow back. I had 1–2% of normal size tissue on both sides of my throat, and each of those had white, ulcerish growths. He sprayed some topical anesthetic on them and gave me some high strength anesthetic lozenges. I discovered later that tonsils are actually the inside throat version of your lymph glands, and thus instead of a cold, I had actually acquired a viral tonsilitus, which likely weakened my body’s system enough to trigger the heart attack itself.

The cardiologist discharged me the next day, on the promise that I return the next week for a follow-up checkup. He also warned me not to exert myself for the next four weeks. We agreed that I would contact my U.S. cardiologist, who had been done my angina diagnosis and ongoing care, to follow-up with a catheterization to determine if I needed a stent or something more. This wasn’t a slight against Malaysia’s health care, but my desire to be close to family and easier-to-file insurance claims.

I always knew I was going to have a heart attack. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was very, very lucky that the one I had was so mild.

They tell you, in writing how-to books and workshops, don’t quit the day job. In today’s economy, however, quitting the day job isn’t so hard as finding a day job in the first place.

I moved from Los Angeles to Fort Collins, Colorado in August, 1991. My significant other was going for her master’s degree, and I was doing my part to equal the battle of the sexes by following along. We were happy to leave Los Angeles, for, although we both had nice jobs with nice pay, the cost of living took care of any extra money we were making, and the size of Los Angeles seemed to preclude any chance of having close friends. We expected Fort Collins to be much like Austin, Texas, where we had met. I knew that we would be happier than the self-enforced isolation of LA. What I didn’t know is that I would be unemployed for seven months.

It wasn’t because I was without abilities or skills. Like most writers, I am a jack-of-all-trades, moving from job-to-job in a never-ending quest for knowledge. Personally, I had never found a company that couldn’t use a typist or someone who was unafraid of the computer. And in Fort Collins, the same was true. Unfortunately, though, for every opening of this type, there were 80 other jobseekers with similar skills who were also applying for the same job, and many of them did have college degrees or other experience that I couldn’t match.

Before we moved, I sent out resumes, using an address list of the largest companies in the area provided by the Chamber of Commerce. When we visited Fort Collins in July to sign a lease, I subscribed to the Sunday paper and had it mailed to LA, and sent out resumes in response to classifieds. I should have been alarmed when first only negative responses were forthcoming, and often, no response at all. But I’ve always been an optimist, and felt that the problem was that I was not there in Fort Collins and that the jobs were for immediate filling was true. Unfortunately, though, for every opening of this type, there were 80 other jobseekers with similar skills who were also applying for the same job, and many of them did have college degrees or other experience that I couldn’t match.

After I finally made the move, the situation didn’t change. As the weeks went by, I first applied with personnel offices, and then the temporary agencies. At the temporary agencies, I learned the other aspect of Fort Collins. Not only were jobs few and far between, I could only hope to make half the salary that I had received in Los Angeles. And, although we had reduced our rent and insurance, that was still a very tangible difference.

Then the weeks turned into months . Every morning I would get up and look at the classifieds, finding maybe three jobs a week to respond to if I was lucky. A visit to the Job Service Bureau might turn up another lead. As my significant other’s graduate friends (and their significant others) were telling me, things were tough all over. This girlfriend was working at the local bookstore for just slightly over minimum wage, although she had a master’s degree in finance. This boyfriend didn’t find a job for six months, this wife four months. I wasn’t alone, but sometimes there is little comfort in being just one of the crowd.

I made do, however. My former employer in LA had signed a consulting contract with me before I left, and sent a little work my way each month. I ate a little crow and worked for the temporary agencies for what I felt were substandard wages for my skills in order to make the rent. And Ikept an eye out for any openings.

Things came to a head in the first week of March. Successive weeks of frustration, the lack of temporary assignments and no work forthcoming from LA led me to sit in front of the computer, unable to write, but instead just vegetating, reading electronic messages like a zombie. The worsening bank account was something I didn’t want to reflect on, and I began turning to alcohol as a mind-number and time-condenser. And my relationship began to feel the strain. Fortunately, nothing broke. After the yelling, the tears, and the reconciliation, we talked. Her graduate friends (or, should I say, our friends, for they had befriended me as well as her) noticed my depression and were quick to offer sympathy and devices to help alleviate it. And things started to turn around.

Even when things were at their worst, I can see the items that raised my spirits. Joining the Internet provided me with another outlet for my idle fingers. My first published story appeared in Alternate Presidents in February. I made my second professional sale in March. I joined an online workshop in January, befriending a fellow spirit from Suffolk. And the support groups, from our graduate friends, to the online Delphi Wednesday Nighters, provided help and encouragement.

If you couldn’t tell, this story has a happy ending. After seven months of unemployment, and a two-and-a-half month application/testing/interview process, I landed a job as a Library Assistant with the local university. (Unknown at the time, I beat out the girlfriend of one of my graduate school friends.) I started in May, and life, and my finances, finally started to improve.

Never quit the day job, they say, until you are ready to support yourself with your writing income. There’s a corollary as well: Never take the day job for granted. I once thought the best thing for me would be to have my days free just to spend writing. How wrong I was.