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Archive for the ‘father/dad’ Category

To celebrate the release of the paperback edition of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on October 3rd, I’m giving away temporary tattoos that I had designed. Kellen’s tattoo becomes one of the things that define him in different ways for different characters all through the book. Aunt Brenda is horrified, Amy is mesmerized, and Wavy is protective over that tattoo, so I thought it would be fun to have people wear them. If you’d like to get a free temporary tattoo, just shoot me a message with your name and address. (North American only right now, as this is for the NA paperback release.)

On the topic of tattoos, I went in to see my tattoo artist for a little work last Friday, and met someone who got me thinking again about how mainstream acceptance of tattooing is butting up against traditional tattoo culture. My father owns a couple tattoo shops, and two of my sisters have worked on and off as tattoo artists for most of their adult lives. I grew up knowing I wanted tattoos as part of my cultural heritage, but also being told that they would harm my career and my dating prospects. As a result of those conflicting messages, all of my tattoos are in what we call “the employment zone.” They’re all easily hidden by the clothes I wear to work, and most people are surprised to find out I have multiple tattoos, because I’m “so clean looking.”

I’m not kidding, I have had employers and coworkers use those exact words to describe their dismay at learning that I have tattoos. I guess they think people with visible tattoos are “dirty looking”? Over the course of my life, though, I’ve watched tattooing get more and more mainstream, and people with tattoos be accepted as normal members of society. This is good. What I find strange, though, are the attempts to gentrify tattoo culture itself.

The woman I met on Friday was there as a walk-in to get what she described as a “small, personal tattoo.” (I think this means mine are large, personal tattoos?) I heard her on talking with the artist who was going to do the work. “Can it be smaller?” she asked, then again, “Smaller.” And a few minutes later, as he tweaked the design: “But smaller.” I never saw the tattoo, but I started to imagine it like one of those pictures painted on a grain of rice.

Not surprisingly, with something so small, it was done in a matter of minutes, and it was cheap. The woman opened her purse and took out … a credit card. The tattoo artist looked at her like she’d farted in church. Honestly, all of us there looked at her that way. The sign clearly says CASH ONLY. I’m sure there are tattoo shops in the world that accept credit cards or checks or maybe even chickens as trade. I have never been to one. When this woman was informed that it was cash only, just like the sign says, she got very angry.

Why don’t you take cards? Everybody takes cards. I don’t carry cash around.

Cash only, lady.

Instead of apologizing and making a plan to get cash, she doubled down.

I’m a small business owner and I can never imagine doing business this way. It’s outrageous. (She really said outrageous, like the artist had demanded part of her soul as payment.)

She ended up leaving her driver’s license there as surety, while she went to an ATM to get cash. When she came back to pay, she spent another few minutes lecturing the tattoo artist about how to do better as a small business owner.

After she was gone, the artists took turns telling stories about people who didn’t realize there are actual rules of etiquette around tattooing. They’re stories I’ve heard plenty of times from my father. People who bring in pics of other artists’ original work and wanted it duplicated. (Flash is one thing, but real original tattoos, no.) People who demand to see final, full color renderings of their tattoos before their appointment. (The art is in producing work on the skin, not drawings on paper or computer.) People who want to micromanage an original piece. (The whole point of an original piece is that it’s collaborative. The artist and the recipient work together to produce the final image.) People who want to be reassured that it can be removed later with a laser! (!!!!)

With tattooing going mainstream, it’s an inevitable clash of cultures. With all things, you have your choice of how to interact with a different culture. You can demand it on your terms, and no doubt there are tattoo shops who specialize in such things. Places where you can demand a full color mockup of your final design and pay for it with your credit card. I’ve heard there are places that offer numbing creams to make the process less painful.

Or you can accept that getting a tattoo is a cultural experience, not a product. Leave your cultural expectations at the door and embrace what it means to get a tattoo: receiving a permanent, collaborative, painful work of art that is your own.

Or you can ask me for one of these badass custom Tattly temporary tattoos. 😉

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When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about the drive from my house to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, KS, was the tree that stood by the side of Kansas Turnpike between the El Dorado exit and the Cassoday exit. It had been struck by lightning, causing one of its largest branches to separate from the main trunk. The branch hadn’t fallen to the ground, though. It toppled over, crown first, and stayed there.

 © Copyright Chris Upson

© Copyright Chris Upson

Two branches embedded in the ground kept the base of the large branch propped against the tree. Over the years, that severed branch lost its bark, and by the time I was making the drive by myself, between my parents’ house and college, it was a bleached white bone.

That white limb, as big as the living tree it leaned against, took on an echo of the lightning strike that severed it. Stark and jagged, it caught the eye. It became a landmark, to let me know how much further I had to go. I marked it every time I passed.

After I’d been away, first to Japan, then to Florida, it greeted me on my return. A quick flash of white, an act of violence frozen in time. It’s amazing that it stood there so long–at least 35 years by my reckoning. It’s not surprising that it fell. The progression of decay. That relentless Plains wind. A series of grazing cattle using it to scratch their rumps.

When did it fall? I don’t even know. Was it there that Friday when I drove by on the way to my dad’s funeral? I couldn’t swear to it, because my mind was elsewhere. When I drove down for my mother’s seventieth birthday on the 4th of July? No. It had fallen by then. Finally become what it was. Not the glinting white echo of a bolt of lightning, but a half-rotted dead tree branch. I slowed as I approached and scanned the field. Craning my neck to see over the grass in the ditch, I located the branch in the muddy edge of the cattle watering hole.

Just like that, one of my landmarks was gone. Really, it was two. Not just the tree, but my pop, too. In the year since then, it has started to dawn on me that this is what life is about. Landmarks aren’t just things, they are people and ideas. They are guideposts that you use to make decisions about your life. You base your decisions on the landmarks around you, but the older you get, the fewer landmarks there are.

I became a secretary, just like my grandmother. She was one of my landmarks, pointing the way for my decision to take that first secretarial job. There were other decisions, though, that pulled me away from her. When I chose not to have children, when I ended my marriage. Those things toppled that landmark. I couldn’t use her as a guidepost for a lot of the decisions I made after that.

The grade school where you learned to read will be torn down. The grocery store where you had your first job will go out of business and become a Family Dollar store. Someone will blow up your favorite café. All the people who made you who you are will die. I’m sorry, but they are going to die. But you will tear down your own landmarks, too. You will walk away from the life that was laid out for you. You will turn your back on relationships. You will make different decisions than your grandparents did.

It’s painful, losing those landmarks, but you’ll find new ones. You’ll make new ones. Those will disappear, too, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll realize the older you get that we’re always at the edge of what each of us knows. We’re always looking at a fork in the road and trying to decide which way to go.

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Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

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My mother once apologized to me for giving birth to me in Oklahoma.  It was one of those moments when life imitates art, or at least life imitates a King of the Hill episode.  The one in which Hank Hill’s long-suffering mother apologizes to him for having gone into labor while in New York City.  It turns out that Texan of all Texans…not a Texan.  For Hank, the news is devastating.  For me, not so much.

My mother is a Kansan by birth, as is my father, as are their parents and their parents before them.  (With the exception of one streak of Coloradan running in my mother’s veins, courtesy of her great-grandfather, Coyote Monty Cook.)  My sisters are all Kansans.  My cousins are all Kansans.

I am an Okie.

It’s a shameful business, but I suppose her apology was as much about what had taken her to Oklahoma in the first place: my father.  Both things leave me in an awkward position of explaining my origins.  Obviously, not as awkward a position as say, Superman trying to explain the whole thing with Krypton.

All the same, I find myself saying things like, “Well, I’m an Okie, but I’m a Kansan.”  I was born in Oklahoma, spent my first few years in Oklahoma, and was raised almost on the border of Oklahoma, but I still think of myself as a Kansan.  It makes me a little sad on those occasions when I have to put down my place of birth, a reminder I’m not really a Kansan.  My passport is a slap in my face, declaring me to the world’s customs officers as an Okie.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Similarly, my father’s early defection from my life leaves me saying things like, “Well, my biologicial father is the convicted felon.  My dad was a Command Sargeant-Major in the Army.”  It makes for an interesting study in language.  Words that start out as synonyms shift as they acquire more subtle shades of meaning.

My dad, he’s a Kansan, too.

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