Today is my fiftieth birthday and I feel like fifty years of life deserves a moment, ya know? So I took some time this morning to write a super long post about this pretty cool, pretty significant milestone.
Over the past fifty years I’ve done some weird shit, cool shit, bad shit—pretty much all the shits you can think of. And it’s kind of fitting that my life can *almost* be packaged neatly into decades because I like to make square things fit into round boxes.
I don’t think I was ever your average kid. I was never stand-out smart, or stand-out pretty, or stand-out funny, or stand-out talented. But I was always different. I was the only kid in my class who had a single mother for one. This was back in the 70’s when divorce was just finding its footing. All my friends had two parents—whether they were happy or not is a whole other matter—but they still had two. I was the kid with the working mom, the latch-key kid. From the time I was seven years old I was walking home with a house key tied to a green ribbon around my neck. I remember that ribbon. You know that avocado green that was so popular in the 70’s? That’s the green it was. And it wasn’t silky or satin or anything like that. Back then hair ribbons were this thick twisted yarn fluff. My key was on a green one and when I got home from school I had to call my mom at work and we had this *secret code* – call, let it ring once, and hang up. I’m not sure why we were doing this. Like… maybe it was long distance to her work? Remember long distance? So weird that it cost more to call faraway places. Or maybe she wasn’t allowed to have phone calls? I’m not sure. Her boss was pretty cool so I don’t think it was about her not being disturbed.
Another way I was different was that we were never home for holidays or birthdays. Every freaking holiday we had a road trip out to the small towns where my mom and dad were from. First my dad’s home town to see my grandma, then to my mom’s hometown to see my great aunts. So I was never around to play outside after opening presents at Christmas. For birthdays we’d always be in Sandusky, Ohio where one of the great aunts lived on a farm and my ass would be at Cedar Point all day. We went there every year for my birthday. If you’re not from the Midwest Cedar Point is a big amusement park on Lake Erie. So forty years ago on this day I’d be waking up in my great aunt’s house in nearby Huron, OH and we’d be getting ready to go to Cedar Point.
But I was often missing for summer vacations as well. Sometimes my dad would send me a plane ticket and off I’d go to Florida, or Lake Tahoe, or Phoenix, or Texas, or California for an entire summer. Not every summer but enough of them that people noticed I was “missing”.
So that’s how I spent my first ten years of life. Being the “weird kid” that was only sometimes there. It did not affect my social life. I have always been a loner but my friends never got the memo because I had a lot of friends and I would go do things like sleep overs and parties because that’s what kids do and I didn’t realize I was *allowed to be different* back then. It was fine. I had fun. But it would take me several more decades to learn that being a loner was OK.
My second decade was spent being a horse-loving party girl. I didn’t get the memo that I was a loner yet either. And my friends didn’t take no for an answer when I said I didn’t want to go skating, or sleep over, or whatever. Not that they forced me to do any of the crazy shit we did as teenagers, they didn’t. We did a lot of drinking, and drugs, and had a lot of sex. It was A LOT of fun, even for a loner like me. It’s funny because I was at the Gaylord Hotel in Texas this past week for Book Bonanza and the bellhop was taking this huge cart of books down to the signing room for me and he asked me where I was from. When I said Colorado of course he started asking about weed. And he asked me if I smoked pot. I said nah and he just didn’t understand this. So I told him I did enough drugs as a teenager to fill my drug quota for an entire lifetime. Which made him laugh.
I was also very into horses at this period of my life. Specifically show jumping horses. I worked at a barn in nearby Eastlake, Ohio to pay for lessons. So that’s how I spent two days a week for years. Feeding and watering a whole stable of show jumpers so I could take lessons.
But during that second decade of life we moved from sleepy Ohio to crazy Southern California and that’s when things really started to get interesting. We landed in Escondido, CA first because we were staying with my aunt and that’s where she lived at the time. I was in the middle of my junior year of high school and the whole experience was one of total culture shock. Also, the academic rules for graduation were very different in CA compared to OH. When I left Ohio I was in a tech school for graphic design so I only had English, History, and the rest of the day was just art. That was my whole school day. I had completed my science and math credits required for graduation by the end of 10th grade. So when I got to CA they didn’t know what to do with me. There was no point in me staying in school a whole day because I was actually ahead in credits. So in Escondido I left at noon and went to work at Burger King on some kind of work-study credit. But we only stayed in Escondido like two months before we moved to San Diego where my mom had a job. And in that school I was also ahead. I had an art class, an English class, and a PE class and then I worked in the library for a period and in the office for a period and left after lunch.
I had two *altercations* with both English teachers at those two schools. In Escondido I was called out in front of the whole class because I chose to read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck during *free reading time*. My teacher told the entire class I had chosen the book because it was short and I was lazy. And then she told me to choose a *teenage novel* like everyone else. Remember all those summers I spent with my dad as a kid? What I didn’t mention was that he was a hippie. A golf pro, Camaro-driving hippie who smoked pot, and did drugs, and didn’t stay in one place too long. But he did have a love for weird books (didn’t all hippies back then?) and I was a reader from an early age. So I got this Cannery Row book off his bookshelf. I made a FB post a couple weeks ago about the new Dune movie coming out and how it was one of the first science fiction books I ever read and his shelf was where I got that book from. That teacher was lucky I didn’t choose to read In Watermelon Sugar for her *free reading time*. Another hippie book from my dad’s bookshelf which I read when I was ten. I would’ve—just to blow her mind and piss her off, but it was super short too and I was about to make a point. I didn’t say anything back when she tried to shame me in front of the class. Just formulated a silent protest/evil-revenge plan. Which I enacted the following week when I chose Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as my *not-so-teenage-novel* during *free reading time*. Because it was super long. And super trippy. And super not appropriate. And I’d read it before during a long, hot, boring summer in Phoenix with my dad (also when I was ten). So when she handed back my book report the next Monday there was no note in red telling me to pick a more *appropriate teenage book*. Shut her ass up.
The English teacher in San Diego in junior year also stands out for me. She was super cool and one of our assignments was to write our biography. Which I did. By this time I already had a tattoo—my dad bought me my first tattoo for my 16th birthday. And I drew my tattoo as my cover art and inside I spilled out all the weird shit that had happened to me so far in life. She kept me after class when she handed back our essays asking me all kinds of questions about who I was, and who my dad was (golf pro, remember?) and how the hell I got here in her class. I liked her. The title of my 11th grade biography was My Life (So far).
My senior year started out in San Diego with that same weird, half-day schedule but then I moved to Anaheim with my dad. This is where my book Eighteen comes in. Because now all of a sudden they said I was behind in credits and I needed to take another year of science and math, plus PE, plus driver’s ed. Because even though I had my required credits in math and science, their rule was I had to take one of those credits as a junior or a senior. So they actually made me do an extra year in both those subjects to graduate. I did night school to make up for it.
Once again I was *different* but I’d gotten used to it by now.
I spent all my twenties being a mom. This was when I moved to Colorado and even though that whole experience was a disaster and filled with lots of bad times, I kind of fell in love with Colorado immediately. And this when I stopped being *different* in an interesting way and started being *different* in a tragic way. I fell into a lot of traps that young people often fall into. Bad relationships, bad choices, no options. I was a dental assistant during my twenties. Not because I liked teeth, just because it was a way to guarantee I could pay the bills. But near the end of my twenties this one dentist I was working for told me I was so good at being a dental assistant I should go to dental school and become a dentist. I could not think of anything I wanted less than to be a dentist, but his faith in me that I was smart enough to become a doctor is what planted the idea in my head to go back to school to become a veterinarian.
So that’s what I did. And I spent almost all of my thirties in school. First at Red Rocks Community College on the west side of Denver to catch up on some general ed credits, then on a free-ride scholarship at Colorado State University. I majored in equine science and fully intended on going on to the CSU vet school, which is one of the best vet schools in the world. But along the way I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor after all and ended up in grad school to be a biomedical scientist.
This new direction was *almost* an accident. There was this summer research program for at-risk students—minorities, and women, and non-traditional students – people who needed a break or just a little more help to get where they were going in the world of scientific research. I applied for this program because I helped out one of my professors during a research trial on horses the previous semester and I needed money to get through the summer and this program paid a stipend to all the participants. That’s how I paid my rent that summer and that was the main reason I applied to be in the program. But the catch was… you had to apply to grad school after you finished your summer research. So I did. I applied to a bunch of them and got accepted at the University of Colorado Health Science Center and it had a decent stipend so even though I still had to take out loans to fund my life as a professional student, I got living money too.
Side note – by the time I was done being a student I had over $120,000 in student loans- which I paid off in 2016 so I could buy this ranch I live on now in 2017.
So after I got my bachelor’s degree I moved back to the Denver area for grad school. I was going to be a scientist. I was gonna get that PhD and spend the rest of my life in a lab. I spent 14 hard months in that program before I finally decided this was *not my thing* and left. But I had too many grad school credits to just throw the whole thing away so instead I enrolled in a forensic science program and did the required course work to complete my master’s degree.
By this time I was also living way out in the country and working for the State of Colorado as a hog farm inspector. It was a cool work-from-home job that involved me driving into Denver every couple weeks to pick up a car, then driving all over the Eastern Plains to check out all our huge commercial hog farms to make sure they were complying with this stupid “odor” regulation the voters decided was necessary. My day was mostly just driving for hours and hours, then getting out of my car, getting into the farm manager’s truck, and driving around some more to look at each farm. I had about 120 of them spread out over hundreds of miles in various parts of Colorado.
I did that for seven years and this is when I started making online homeschool science courses. I had all this education, I was a homeschool mom, and so I said what the hell? I’m gonna write a science curriculum for kids because science is super cool and most of these homeschool science textbooks are boring as fuck. Kids should be excited about science. It’s fun. It’s interesting. And almost everyone thinks so until you start asking them to solve stoichiometry questions using math or make them learn stuff that “complies with the standards”. So I did. I wrote hundreds of online courses. They each came with a workbook with text and an online course presentation narrated by me. I made websites, and bought all this software to make cool educational games to put inside my courses, and I sold the eBook online at a homeschool store. I was one of their biggest publishers. And then I had a website where I hosted the online courses and sold subscriptions.
And this is how I ended up spending my fourth decade on Earth as a writer. I really didn’t plan this life. Not one bit of it. It was all just me trying to make the most of bad decisions, fucked-up choices, and paying the bills.
But I learned all about making websites, and turning PowerPoint presentations into online courses, and graphics. I also learned about marketing and social media. This was back when Twitter and Facebook were first becoming a *thing* and I was a super early adopter of all of that stuff. I had a newsletter with thousands of subscribers back before most people knew what a newsletter even was. I was running online ads back before most people realized that the internet was nothing but a massive way to collect private information on everyone who used it. I knew what SEO was long before anyone was talking about it in a meaningful way. And by the time I made this jahuss.com website in 2012 I had already made half a dozen massive homeschool websites using all kinds of crazy software. I had solved every problem with delivering eBooks online you can think of. There was no problem that I could not solve when it came to getting my message out.
But I got this email from the homeschool site I was selling my science curriculum on and they were *concerned* that I was pushing other publishers out of the market because of my pricing and release schedule strategies. I was *too successful*.
And this worried me. Because by this time I was making almost twice as much selling online courses as I was from the hog farm job. I was, for the first time in my life, not *struggling* to pay the bills. I wasn’t rich by any means. But I wasn’t struggling. And if I pissed these people off they could kick me off their site and all my hard-earned new income could disappear. So I decided maybe I’d like to write some fiction books and sell them on Amazon because the ereader was just becoming a thing and while I couldn’t really see a way to sell my PDF’s on Amazon (they did have digital downloads at that time, but they were already phasing it out due to pirates) I could make this thing called a mobi file and sell things that way. Specifically science fiction books. And while I was spending twelve to fourteen hours a day driving around Colorado looking at hog farms I was thinking about this girl called Junco and what her story might be.
By 2012 I knew that the hog farm gig was almost over. I’d been doing it for a long time already and even though my job was actually written into law by the voters, everyone, including me, knew this was a very stupid thing to waste money on. I knew the position was going to be changed and there was also that concerning email from the homeschool site about me crowding out other publishers.
So I decided to write fiction. I started with a 6 book SF series about Junco and then moved on to Tragic and the whole Rook & Ronin series. Remember my Tragic decade in my twenties? Yeah. That’s where all those stories came from. By the end of 2012 my boss at the State told me I’d either have to take a full-time position in Denver as an Environmental Protection Specialist or move on to something else.
By this time I had three books out in the Junco world but I was not making money off it. I was still relying on my homeschool science curriculum to pay the bills. But I knew that taking a full-time job in Denver was a soul-crushing kind of thing. I could not picture myself sitting in a cubicle under flickering fluorescent lights writing reports and giving out fucks I didn’t have for state regulations. Denver was an hour away. So not only would I have to work full-time as a government employee, that long commute meant that there would be no way I could keep writing. Not even the non-fiction stuff, which at this point was paying me slightly more than that future full-time position in Denver would.
So in January 2013, just a few months before Tragic released, I quit my *real job* decided that no matter what, I was going to make my own future from now on. It’s a scary thing to do that. Especially when you have teenage kids. But when I left that PhD program and decided to do something else there was a lot of drama behind my exit. And my PI (primary investigator – i.e. my grad school mentor) told me in our final conversation that while I was *tenacious* I was not smart enough to be a scientist. He was probably right. Maybe, if I really wanted to stay, I could’ve pulled it off. But I knew I’d need more dedication to the whole process of being a successful scientist than I was currently putting in to it.
But that word *tenacious* stayed with me. I am tenacious. I will work longer and harder than anyone else to get what I want IF I really want it. And I just didn’t want to that science gig bad enough. So his *real talk* with me on that last day, while crushing in the moment, was necessary to put me on my right path.
And I did want a writing career. Whether it was fiction or non-fiction, didn’t really matter. I wanted a job that let me take control of my life and be creative. And that’s when I decided I’d do everything in my power to make it happen.
This is how I spent most of my forties. Writing, writing, writing. Millions of words on paper during this decade. I don’t know how many millions but I’d guess I’ve written at least 5 million words in the last ten years and probably closer to 8 million.
I guess I had a lot to say.
And I still do. I have ideas in this weird head of mine. Just waiting to be fleshed out and written down. And somehow along the way, be it luck, or good timing, or tenacity, or talent, or all of the above – I did it. I made New York Times, I made USA Today, I sold TV and film rights, I wrote screenplays, I have been nominated for Audie Awards, and a RITA Award, and I paid off those student loans and I bought a ranch. Something I had dreamed of for as long as I could remember. Even as a kid I wanted a ranch.
But it wasn’t easy. Not one moment of it was easy. It was decades of hard work, and faith in myself, and trying new things, and taking risks. So on this day—my fiftieth birthday—I can look back at all the years it took to get here and say it was all worth it. Every bad decision was just as important as every good one. Every failure was just as important as every success. Every bad relationship, every poor choice, every day I worked eighteen hours, every homeschool science course I made, every hog farm I inspected, every job I quit, every school I went to, every class I failed, every diploma I earned… all adds up to this day right here.
And I would not change a single fuckin’ thing.
Thanks for taking this ride with me. I appreciate you more than you will ever know.
BY THE WAY – I put the Friday Night Freebie up late this week so I’m letting it run an extra day. So GO ENTER! There’s still time!
This is my Fifty!