Share Your World – 2015 Week #2

Time for 2015’s second Share Your World!

Are you a hugger or a non-hugger?

I used to be a hugger, but I’ve really been leaning away from it in the past few years. Maybe because I haven’t been around many big huggers lately? Either way, I don’t mind the occasional hug, but I do like my personal space.

What’s your favorite ice-cream flavor?

I know it’s weird, but I love the strawberry soy ice cream from Trader Joe’s. Never would have thought those flavors would work together, but they do. Other than that, it’s Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy all the way.

Do you prefer exercising your mind or your body? How frequently do you do either?

Hm, now that I think of it, I guess I do both in a casual, everyday kind of way. I read all the time, and I’ve gotten through a lot of nonfiction lately. I walk all the time too, though slow-paced and not very far. I don’t have much of a preference, I enjoy both and could happily do either all day long.

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Are you more of a dog person or a cat person? Why?

Don’t laugh, but I remember my third grade friend group having a mini playground war between dog lovers and cat lovers. I was always firmly in Camp Kitty, and that stands no chance of changing now.

Bonus question:  What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

So many big changes came my way last week! Not all great ones, but I’m confident that they’re going to work out for the best in the end, and I’m excited to see what the coming weeks and months will bring.

Share Your World – 2015 Week #1

I’m late for 2015’s first Share Your World, but I figured I might as well put it together anyway before Week 2 goes up tomorrow! I’m going to do my best to get as many of these as possible done this year.

How do you get rid of pesky phone calls from telemarketers?

Mostly, I just don’t answer. I started using Google Voice, though, which helps. It gives me a new phone number that redirects calls to my cell and email. It translates my voicemails to text and allows me to block numbers, which helps a lot in getting the telemarketers off my back.

What are you a “natural” at doing?

Spelling! (Watch me make a spelling error in this very post after saying that.) I read so much as a kid that I sort of absorbed the basics of the English language without trying. I’m no grammar expert, but I can usually figure out how to spell a word on my first attempt.

How often do you get a haircut?
20130603_115319 It’s been over two years now since I last went to an actual salon. Over there to the left is a picture of me in early 2013, not too long after my last haircut. At $40 a pop plus tip, the cost just got to be too much, especially considering that it’s rare for a hairstylist to understand how to work with my thick, wavy hair.

I trim it myself every three or four months now, and I think it works fine. I’m considering going short again though, which might merit another visit to the salon after all.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “fun”?

I was hoping to come up with a real insightful answer, but all I can think about is the song from Spongebob. I guess this is proof that what we learn in songs sticks with us better than anything else? I can still recite every South American capital city thanks to a song we listened to all the time in middle school, too.

Skipping the bonus question this round, will answer it tomorrow!

Off hiatus!

nano_14_ml_badge_300pxAfter an unannounced hiatus between late October and early January, I’m back!

Lots of changes came my way in the past few months, and I think it’s safe to say I’ll probably be on hiatus and mostly unavailable online during the NaNoWriMo season every year.

I can’t wait to get all caught up and start writing here again!

Share Your World, Week 40

It’s time for Cee’s Share Your World again! With luck, I’ll be able to keep up with this challenge each Monday even in the busy upcoming months.

You’re given $500,000 dollars tax free (any currency), what do you spend it on?

20131128_122449 Let’s say, just for fun, that I’m not allowed to save any of it.

I’d split the first $100k between my family and friends who need it most. Another $100k goes to home care and pet care — look at that sweetie to your left and tell me he doesn’t deserve a shiny new dog bed. For my part, I want a couple new cat trees and a ridiculous glitter floor.

The next $100k goes to my partner, partly to spend on the students at the special needs school where they work. Hopefully there’ll be enough to take a few kids (plus their parents and caretakers) on a vacation they’d otherwise never get to experience.

I’ll keep $100k for traveling, new clothes, a new computer, and a couple of tattoos. With the last $100k, I’d start a charity to support creativity in local communities. There are so many stories out there waiting to be told through art, so many voices that go unheard, and I have to admit, I constantly daydream about being able to help lift them up and show them to the world.

What’s the finest education?

I wish we were taught compassion in school. Right now, it’s something you learn only through life experience — through hurting others, or getting hurt. It wouldn’t translate perfectly to the classroom, but I can’t envision anything negative coming from education on accepting and understanding others’ perspectives and ways of life.

What kind of art is your favorite? Why?

All art is beautiful, but writing is my favorite. As an anxious child, I liked that you could follow a set of rules to produce competent writing. As I grew older, it helped that I could write without any special materials — I still remember how much the supplies for my painting classes cost. Writing just meshes with me in a way other art forms don’t, even with practice.

Is there something that you memorized long ago and still remember?

In my freshman year of high school, I played a fairy in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I had a crush on the boy who played Lysander, and when I heard that the girl cast as Hermia was going through a family emergency, I memorized her lines overnight.

I became her understudy and stood in for her during almost every rehearsal. I’m still in awe of how quickly I managed to learn the part. Hermia’s actress showed up late to opening night. The director had a split second to decide whether she’d wait or send me in. She chose to wait.

I never did get my moment in the spotlight (or get to date Lysander), but I remember every line.

Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.

What even is an organizational skill?

20140905_195124_1 Ten minutes can count for a lot, if you know how to use them.

NaNoWriMo teaches this through the magic of word sprints, which have pulled countless writers across the finish line just in time.

Most sites intended to help you out of clutter and hoarding habits, like FlyLady and Stepping Out of Squalor, are based off a a similar principle. You may look around at your messy house and feel too overwhelmed to begin, so instead of tackling the problem as a whole, you set a timer for ten minutes (or five, or fifteen). Anyone can clean for that long. Build up a few small blocks of cleaning time, and you’re on your way to an uncluttered home.

For the longest time, I couldn’t accomplish anything even with the ten-minute method. I couldn’t even focus on something fun without feeling walled in, trapped, and desperate to do anything to relieve myself from the pressure of obligation and impending failure.

Now that things are changing for me, I’m discovering that I never developed the organizational skills that get most people through the day. I barely know how to look at the big picture, even though it doesn’t overwhelm me the way it used to. For goodness’ sake, at my last followup with my doctor, I told him that for the first time in my life, I feel capable of routinely choosing to get up when my alarm clock goes off. (And let me assure you, my past failures were not for lack of trying.)

As November draws nearer and my duties as an ML kick in, I find myself alternating between planning styles and states of mind. One day, I’ll feel fine checking off a few boxes on my to-do list and allotting the rest of my time to other tasks. The next day, I’ll be posting in the private ML forum in a panic, feeling like I’m weeks behind and have to get things done right this minute.

The truth is, I’m just no good at estimating how much time and effort a job will take.

I’ve moved mountains to get copious amounts of work done in no time at all, and I’ve ducked out of commitments just to get some of the pressure off, but I’ve never succeeded at pacing myself. I’ve tried my best to use ten-minute blocks of time productively, but I always either get distracted or let my ten minutes stretch into a frantic race against time.

So here’s my goal for the NaNoWriMo 2014 season: Realize that ten minutes means ten minutes. Break up my tasks into small steps, and schedule in downtime if I need to. I can do this! But the more I let myself stress over how much I have to do, the less I end up getting done.

Share Your World

It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d do Cee’s Share Your World this week.

Did you ever get lost?

Once. I must have been seven or eight years old. When my family moved to this part of Florida, we’d go to all the holiday celebrations in the area: the Fourth of July parade, the Christmas boat parade, and of course the annual Italian-American carnival.

This particular night, we were at an outdoor Mardi Gras party. It was tame enough for kids, but I was still awed by all the bright colors, loud music, and happy, noisy adults. (It didn’t occur to me that they were drunk.) I had handfuls of shiny plastic necklaces, and I was probably counting them and toying with them like a dragon with its hoard when I got separated from my family.

I looked at all the people whirling around me. I had a butt-eye-view, and there were no familiar rear ends in sight. Someone said, “Uh oh, lost kid.” Even though it was true, I remember getting so mad that someone would dare treat me like a child! (By age seven, I was convinced that I’d done about all the growing up anyone ever did.)

It didn’t take me long to track them down. They were just a few steps ahead, waiting for me to catch up. Score one for overprotective moms!

Who was your best friend in elementary school?

I met her at the orientation for my new school, right after the big move I mentioned above. We sat at the same table with our moms. We were both shy, but they got to talking, and after that it only seemed natural that we’d talk to each other during class too. I couldn’t tell you what we had in common at that point, but she was my only friend that year.

I made a few other friends eventually, but what’s most memorable about my best friend is that when I got sick, when I had to attend school only part-time and drop out of gym classes, she stuck by me. I think I would have spent my whole childhood as a loner without her.

We’ve met twice since graduation. I tried to fall back into the patterns of our old friendship, to be honest and open with her, but I ended up just feeling confused and vulnerable. It isn’t her fault. I guess we’ve both changed.

I took this picture the last time I saw her, over sushi.

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She was the first person outside my family to read any fiction I wrote, and she loved it so much that she showed it to everyone who rode her bus. She introduced me to both people and hobbies that changed my life, for better or worse. I probably won’t see her again, but I could never forget her.

Since the news television season has started in the US, list three favorite TV shows.

I’m not much of a TV watcher these days. As a kid, come hell or high water, I’d be in front of the TV with popcorn for The X-Files and Are You Afraid of the Dark? even if a rerun was airing. Later on, I LOVED the MTV reality series Fear. My love for creepy shows backfired, though: I became convinced at one point that my TV was possessed, and I never turned it on again. (It’s still a creepy story, looking back. I’ll write about it here one day.)

After that, I only watched TV with friends. In high school we’d have overnight parties where we’d watch anime, and in college, a few of us got together for every new episode of True Blood. Other than that, I occasionally put Food Network on as background noise. My partner did finally convince me to watch Orphan Black, and we’re excited for season 3.

If you were a mouse in your house in the evening, what would you see your family doing?

This is a decent summary:

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That’s five cats, all sniffing around the living room carpet, which I sprinkle with catnip on days I plan to vacuum.

My partner comes home around five, and the cats surround us much as they’re doing in the photo while I serve dinner. After that, we have fairly simple evenings — if it was a stressful day, we’ll stay at the table and chat for a while, and maybe have a glass of wine. Eventually, we’ll go to our computers to unwind with some browsing or games.

The real interesting stuff comes in when we roleplay (more like this than like this). It might sound like a completely nerdy thing to do (because it is), but I bet you’d get pretty invested in the stories if you were a mouse hiding in the corner. If you can evade the cats, at least.

Bonus question:  What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

I met a lot of new people and made more friends last week. Having a big social circle is all very new to me, and I’m still figuring out how to keep up with all of them, but I’m having a good time learning.

As for the coming week, the countdown to NaNoWriMo is about to begin!

“Here’s to those who wish us well…”

IMAG0286 “And those who don’t can go to hell!”

That’s our family toast. I don’t know if it originated from my grandfather or if it predates him, but we never miss saying it at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in his honor, although he’s been gone for over fifteen years now.

There are only five of us — mom, dad, two brothers, and me — but we’re an interesting mix.

Among the lot of us, we’ve got nine cats and one dog. We’ve got an extended family of high school friends, unknown birth parents, estranged parents, adoptive parents, partners, exes. Together, we’re Catholic, Lutheran, nondenominational, atheist, uncertain. We’re second-generation Italian, Czech, Floridian, New Jerseyan, one thirty-second Spanish, rural Tennesseean mutt. We’re de-facto music lovers, video game players, and Miami Dolphins fans. My parents are short, my brothers are enormous, and I’m the petite one at 5’1″. Except for my blonde mom, we’ve got curly dark hair. We tan easily, and we prefer dark clothes. In group photos, we tend to resemble a Mafia family, and I’m pretty sure none of us are especially ashamed.

We don’t drink underage, but except for my straight-edge kid brother, we are drinkers. My parents are beer drinkers, I’m a gin drinker, and we all go for the occasional glass of red wine, as per Italian heritage law. We don’t shy away from strong words, hence the toast above.

We have weird holiday celebrations that are holdovers from customs and religions no one really remembers or understands: honey crosses on the forehead, strong sauerkraut soup, chickpeas tossed on the floor for the angels to pick up. (Or for the dog to eat. He’s basically a little angel, isn’t he?)

I don’t always understand my family, and they don’t always understand me. But at the end of the day, you can’t strip me of my family identity any more than I can manage to escape it.

(And, don’t tell them I said this, but I’m the only one who’s a half-decent cook.)

 And, okay, I’ll say it: I love them.

They can be hard to talk to, and hard to handle, but when I head over for a visit, it still feels like going home. It’s a place where I know the rules. I know where to find the snacks and drinks. I know when to sit down and shut up. I know I’m likely to hear a man’s voice burst into song, and I know it’ll sound damn good, because apparently in our family, the carry-a-tune gene is sexist.

So please, remind me of all this the next time I have to go see them. I’ll need all the help I can get.

Stitched

IMAG0258(You can read this post without reading my short story Stitched, but the full text is available here.)

If anyone ever asks me where I get my story ideas, this is what I’m going to tell them:

I was a twentyish college kid and my kitten was going to die. I’d never had a pet of my own before, and I sure had fucked this one up. Four short months into her life, it was ending.

Until then, I’d been under the impression that cats landed on their feet, but my cat had fallen on her head. She’d had a seizure. Her brain swelled, making her head loll to one side. The vet gave me anti-inflammatory pills for her and told me that was all he could do.

“She could go at any time,” he said.

While I watched her walk in circles and vomit in the litter box — while I waited for her to go — I realized I didn’t have any idea what to do with an animal’s dead body. My family would have buried her in the backyard, but I lived far away from them, in an apartment. There was no place to bury my kitten. I knew I wouldn’t have long to figure it out after she died, so I started searching online.

I learned that you could leave their bodies out with the trash, as long as you notified the county, but I couldn’t do that to my baby. I learned that you could have them cremated, which appealed to me, though I knew I couldn’t afford the process.

And I learned about pet preservation.

There existed a company not too far from my area that, for a fee, would freeze-dry your pet. They emphasized that the process was not the same as taxidermy, where you’d pull an animal skin over a premade form. Freeze-drying kept the animal completely intact, bones and organs and all. They’d use reference photos to pose your pet as naturally as possible, and they’d mail you the little preserved corpse, which you’d then be free to display.

I wanted to click away from the page in disgust, but I found myself scrolling through the testimonials, most of which mentioned something about “having our beloved pet back forever”.

I let my eyes sloooowly drift toward my kitten. Forever. Didn’t that sound good?

Luck must have been on my side back then, because over the next few weeks, she healed up almost perfectly. She’ll always have vision problems, and she’ll never be able to have surgery thanks to the increased risk of seizure that comes along with anesthesia, but she’s a happy, healthy five-year-old today.

After that scare, I didn’t stop planning for the future. I bought her a collar I could remember her by if she passed away, and I decided to save up for cremation. I came to my senses about the freeze-drying procedure. Having her body around would be nothing like having her. It’d be just another empty, soulless thing to gather dust. 

The more I thought about it, the more curious I got. There were obviously people who loved having their freeze-dried pets around. What did they get out of it? I wondered how someone who’d keep a pet’s body forever would handle trying to come to terms with a human loved one’s death.

Just like that, the seeds of a story took root.

I came up with a woman who’d had her dead pets preserved, who thought of it as a celebration of their lives. When her teenage daughter suddenly died, it only seemed natural to do the same.

Her husband had always been skeptical about the freeze-drying situation, but he’d never been much of a family man. As it turned out, he had a lot to say to his daughter’s body, and a lot to make amends for.

These thoughts stewed in my head for a long time. I didn’t want to put them on paper. The idea made me uncomfortable, brought back bad memories, even grossed me out a little.

Eventually, I wrote and self-published the short story Stitched, which has been more widely read and enjoyed than any of my20140618_131208 other work. It was my first foray into horror, which made it more derivative than I would have liked (the Stephen King is strong with this one), but my discomfort during the writing process made it a story worth telling.

Here’s the true definition of horror fiction, as far as I’m concerned: It’s something you relate to, but wish you didn’t.

These days, I’m working on plenty of other horror projects. My sources of inspiration vary, from a sudden rainstorm to a road sign to a mountaintop sunset. I think these stories are better than Stitched in terms of plot and characterization, and I hope for them to eventually see the light of day.

But nothing will beat the story of how Stitched came to be. I still feel the horrible knowledge of what’s to come creeping up on me every time I look at the first few lines.

When Armand arrives home from work, he walks upstairs to his daughter’s room to press his forehead for several minutes against the cool wooden door, the same way he has each day since her death.

Today, though, the door is open. And his daughter is lying on her side on the window seat, hands folded beneath her head.

Will He Come Back?

IMG00026 This is my ex cradling my cat — our cat, back then — circa 2009.

Let me step again and give you a content warning here: this post discusses domestic violence. If you want a history of him and me, check here first.

Half of the reason why I left him was the cat. I took care of her. I trained her as well as I could. In sickness or health, she’s the one cat I’ve owned who doesn’t go outside the box. Early on, I believed my bad behavior caused him to abuse me, so it never crossed my mind that he’d hurt an innocent kitten. He did, and not infrequently. I started trying to leave as soon as it happened, with my cat in my arms, but it was like he had a sixth sense about us. He’d notice, and he’d put a stop to it. He’d be extra careful not to leave marks, to make sure I couldn’t call in help and show them evidence.

But he could be sweet, too. Any abuser can. The cat loved him, and he loved her, as much as he could love another living thing. I stayed with him for years because of how he’d cry over his mistakes, or tremble over his fears. Like an innocent, or a child. He’d refer to these moments as “showing his true self”. I don’t agree — it wasn’t a fake or unreal person who abused me. It was him. But the scared, vulnerable boy wasn’t fake either.

After I left him, I wanted to help him move on with his life, but I could only take so much. I couldn’t spend every evening on the phone, trying to walk him through basic household tasks like operating the coffee machine. I couldn’t give him money for rent every month; I had my own life to live. I tried and tried to cut off contact with him, but he’d keep sending me messages, no matter what. Finally, almost a year after we broke up, I sent him an email saying I’d contact the police if he kept trying to speak with me. He listened, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Today, I regretted that.

If I could see the future, even at a heavy price, I’d use it to see if my ex will ever reenter my life. I know that cutting off contact was the right thing to do for both of us. It stopped him from manipulating me. It stopped me from enabling him, or feeling constantly afraid.

But today, four years after our breakup, a reminder of him entered my life in the strangest way. I went to get a library card, only to find that he still has books out under my name.

The lady at the checkout desk said, “Maybe it’s worth getting in touch with an old friend, if you think they might be able to recover the book for you.”

I almost laughed. I left the library feeling okay. I’m used to taking responsibility for things he helped (or forced) me to thoroughly fuck up. I would pay the replacement fee and get on with my life.

Unfortunately, the thought of him didn’t leave me. I started to worry, as I do every week or two, when I have a thought or a dream about him. I cut off contact, so I don’t know where he is. Before, he would have messaged me if he was angry or upset or planning to come and find me. But now? He could be preparing to turn up at my doorstep with a gun, and I’d never know.

I tell myself I’m safe. It’s been a while. He’s probably moved on, and if he’s found another person to abuse, at least he has a police record thanks to me, so they’ll take any reports more seriously.

hope he has moved on. I hope he’s gotten help. I loved him once, I saw the good sides of him, and I want a good life for him. I hope he understands that me leaving him wasn’t an act borne from hatred or retribution, but from fear for myself, and from a wish that it’d drive him to understand that his abusive behavior is serious enough to require intervention. I hope he’s out there living a good life, never even allowing me to cross his mind.

I hope he’s not blaming me for all the ways his life has gone wrong, plotting revenge as I type.

Speaking statistically, I know that the danger has likely passed, but that doesn’t help me let go of the fear. It has faded over time, but inevitably, it comes back to me. I think it always will.

If I could look into the future and know for sure where he is, what he’s doing, whether he hates me, whether he’s well? I’d do it, at any cost. My peace of mind is worth it.

When I Need to Cry, I Watch Horror

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Growing up, I was not a crier.

One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”

I punched her in the face.

Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.

I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.

The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.

Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.

I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.

And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.

…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.

I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.

I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”

From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.

Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.

I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.

I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.

These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.

I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.

These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.

And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.