Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gifts of an Unexpected Year

I stood in the checkout line at Kmart and pouted like a six-year-old.  I was mad at my wife--an unnatural phenomenon as rare as Haley's Comet, Susan Lucci Emmys, and painless root canals.  I was mad at her because she wouldn't let me buy a DVD boxed set of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Frosty the Snowman, and Frosty Returns.  (I warned you I was being petulant, didn't I?)

I am a man who surrenders easily to nostalgia and these Rankin-Bass animated Christmas specials were--with the exception of Frosty Returns, which I've never seen--the golden essence of Yuletides of Yore.  Like many others of my Watergate-era generation, Christmas meant an Island of Misfit Toys, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, and a sad puddle of snow-water in a greenhouse.  It also means an annual weeping jag during The Little Drummer Boy--which, for some reason, is not included in the Blu-Ray set of "Original Christmas Classics."

This year, I wanted to own this gift of Christmas nostalgia, to watch it over and over again on my Blu-Ray player.  So, when Jean and I were shopping in Kmart last week and I saw the DVD set, I put it in our shopping cart.  Jean immediately took it out of the shopping cart with a firm, "No!"  I put it back in the cart with a "Why not?"  She took it out of the cart with a "Because."  I threw it back into the cart: "Well, I want it!"  She grabbed it back out: "Well, you're not getting it!"

Normally, our conversations are more reasonable, and less on the level of parent to toddler.  But I really, really, really wanted that DVD collection and I couldn't understand why my wife would be so vehemently anti-Christmas Joy.  I mean, I know she gags at the sound of Christmas carols, but I've gotten used to that over the past 29 years.  But this--this--

Well, this was just too intolerably mean, too joy-snuffing, too Scroogey for me to bear.  And so I pouted in the checkout line and all the way home.  I knew I was being unreasonable, but I couldn't help it.  I wanted my Rudolph.

When we got home, Jean went straight to the bedroom while I hung up my coat.  She came back out with a bag from Target, where she'd been shopping earlier in the week.  "Here!" she said, thrusting it at me with a smile.  "I was going to wrap it for you, but since you insist on having it now...."

Of course, you know what was inside the bag.

Like Frosty in the greenhouse, I melted in an instant.  I was contrite and thankful and forgiving and full of love for my life-companion--all of it expressed in a series of kisses and rib-crushing hugs.  Tonight, on the holiest of Eves, we'll watch these Christmas specials.  Maybe we'll roll our eyes and comment on the creaky-but-charming stop-motion animation and maybe the inside of my nose will start to tingle and I'll ask my wife to hand me a Kleenex (just in case).  But I know one thing for certain: I'll love Jean even more for this unexpected gift.

I tell you this story because this entire year has, for me, been an unexpected gift.  I began 2012 with a package arriving in the mail from my editor at Grove/Atlantic.  The cardboard box was battered, torn at the corners, bandaged with tape, and—according to the black-marker markings on the outside of the box—once held the pages to Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like To Go To War. Now, there was a large sticker in the center of the recycled box. On that sticker, just below the Grove/Atlantic logo, someone had written: "FOBBIT, David Abrams." These were the copy-edited pages of the novel I'd worked on for nearly seven years and they were on one of their last stops before heading to the printer to be bound into advance copies for reviewers.  If I tell you I got a little emotional at that moment, I think you'll understand why.

The eleven months that followed have been filled with just as many moments of random joy.  Here are just a few of the Greatest Hits of 2012:

The day I came home on my lunch break from the Day Job and, unbeknownst to me, a box of about 20 copies of Fobbit had arrived from the publisher.  Jean had already opened the box and arrayed the copies in a miniature pyramid on the table in our breakfast nook, with one copy facing out so I'd see it as soon as I walked in the door.

The day in May when Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) posted this to her Facebook wall after receiving an advance copy of the novel: I'm reading this book right now and it's fantastic. I'm not a "war novel" type of girl, and this thing has me by the throat. It's funny, smart, horrifying, wry, real, and totally gripping. I predict this one is going to be big. I think it's going to jump off the shelves. To have that kind of reaction from a fellow author (whose book I also happened to love) was gratifying and validating.

The unsolicited advice I got from another author I deeply respect, who wrote in an email:
Rudeness is always, always, always unacceptable and inexcusable.
Don't be careless.
Keep it real.
False humility reeks.
I have cherished those words throughout this year and have often returned to them, holding them up as a virtual mirror.  I've failed to live up to them at times, but I know that all I can do is to keep trying to make them less of an ideal and more of a practice.

The many, many virtual friends of mine on Facebook and Twitter who were like enthusiastic Paul Reveres on Fobbit's behalf, helping me to spread the word as publication day approached--and then posting photos of "Fobbit sightings" in their local bookstores.  A special shout-out to my friend from high school, Jayme L., who took my book on a tour around New York City:

The emails I've received from readers who took the time to send me their thoughts about a book they sometimes found difficult to get through--like this one from a former soldier:
I just started reading Fobbit. I’d like to say that I finished it, but I don’t expect that will happen. It’s not that Fobbit is bad. Or even that I don’t like it. It’s just too close to home. I haven’t been able to read many Iraq books. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf 1, Afghanistan--no problem. But Iraq does me in. I got to the casualty announcement in the Tactical Operations Center. That’s probably where I’ll stay for a while. The whole thing is too familiar....Your book was a surreal deja vu, and I quickly had to stop.

My final book-signing event of 2012 at Books and Books here in uptown Butte, Montana.  Frankly, I'd expected to sit at the small table for two hours, fidgeting and wallowing in self-pity because nobody came out to the bookstore on a bitter-chill December afternoon (and, really, who could blame them?).  But to my surprise, there was a near-constant stream of people for an hour-and-a-half, buying one, two, or even three copies of Fobbit.  A couple of them were friends, but the majority of Butte-icians who came that afternoon--hugging me and telling me how proud they were of me--were complete strangers.  I promise to never again underestimate the deep kindness of the people of my adopted hometown.

There have been many other moments like these--random gifts of charity from readers, booksellers, bloggers, and my own family (including my aunt Sharon who called at dinner time one night and could hardly talk because she was still laughing at some of the passages in Fobbit).  From the start, I've kept the bar of my expectations set low.  I know how lucky I am to even have a novel published and I've never taken for granted the miracle of how words go from my head to the printed page.  This year has exceeded even my highest expectations, surpassed any hopes I had of my debut novel making even a ripple in the world.  I thought I'd reached the mountaintop just by having Fobbit printed and bound with a striking Christmas-red cover design--but you, my dear readers, have shown me there is still land beyond that peak.  And it's full of unexpected gifts.

Reindeer ornament by Jean Abrams


  1. This is a fantastic recount of 2012. Congratulations! May 2013 be filled with more good things!

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  3. Lovely story, David. I look forward to reading your book in the upcoming year. Merry Christmas.