All my life, I was told I was lazy.

Too lazy to be bothered studying for school.

Too lazy to help with chores.

Too lazy to join in with activities and events.

Too lazy.

The incident my family could point to to prove my laziness occurred in the summer of 1966, when I was 11. We lived in Brooklyn, New York, in a two-bedroom apartment in which I shared a room with my two brothers. My mother’s sister Maura lived in Cleveland, Ohio, in a nice two-story private home in Shaker Heights with her husband and their three sons, each of whom had a bedroom of their own. Once every year or so, we would pile into the car and make the 8- or 9-hour drive from NY to OH for a family visit (mom was born in Cleveland and had a bunch of aunts, uncles, and cousins who still lived there).

On this particular visit, Uncle Ernie was in the process of having a family room put on the house (or maybe just a down-to-the-studs remodel) and announced that his visiting nephews were being recruited to help install fiberglass insulation before the arrival the next day of the sheet-rockers. I followed my uncle, brothers, and cousins into the room. Ernie quickly ran through the process—shove the bare face of fiberglass batt into the stud bay, trim, repeat—and set us to work. That old school pink Owens-Corning insulation was miserable stuff. There was no way to avoid fingers being lacerated by the glass fibers and, within minutes, we were all scratching at our hands and arms and sweating like pigs in the July heat in the non-air-conditioned space.

I asked my uncle for gloves but was told there weren’t enough for everyone, so none of us could have a pair.

A moment later, when Ernie’s back was turned, I walked out of the room, grabbed my notebook and pencils, and sat down in an easy chair in a corner not 6-feet from where the work went on, and lost myself for the next several hours, drawing a comic book story. Ernie and others passed by where I was sitting all day, but no one gave me a second look.

Finally, the job done, everyone went to clean up and, all of a sudden, Ernie was towering over my chair, his hands literally on his hips and angrily glaring at me.

“Where the hell you been? We’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I’ve been right here the whole time.”

Ernie went off on me. Years (decades) later he would be diagnosed as bi-polar and start taking meds, but at that moment, he was just a red-faced, spittle-spewing adult screaming at me for some crime that I had committed in his head.

“I can’t understand why you’d treat me like this! You’re a guest in my house!” he thundered.

Uncle Ernie was a bully. To his wife. To his children. Probably to a lot of others. And I hate bullies. My older brother bullied and tormented me from birth until the day, as a 40-something, I stood up to him and promised, with every intention of following through on it, that I would beat him to a bloody pulp if he ever raised his hand or voice to me again. He believed me. When I was 8-years old, I used the jump rope the bully on our block was forcing me to twirl for him late into a winter afternoon to trip him up, giving him a concussion. He avoided me after that.

“Hey! Leave him alone,” my father said. “The job got done, with or without him. It’s over!”

“No thanks to his laziness,” Ernie sneered.

But it was official. I was lazy.

Not, I wasn’t interested in or just didn’t want to be pressed into being used as free labor to build his house. I couldn’t possibly have an opinion, ergo it had to be laziness. And as a neurotic, overweight insecure kid, I bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Look at my grades, all Cs and Ds (except for the straight-As I received in almost every English, creative writing, or lit class I took). And how about the two and a half years of monthly fanzines Paul Levitz and I put out simultaneous with our high school years? Or the dozens of APA zines and stories and comic books I wrote and drew on my own?

By 19, I was a professional writer. By 25, I was writing Superman for DC Comics and had published 2 novels. Throughout the late-70s and the 80s, I was one of DC’s most prolific writers.

But the fucked-up thing is, I continued to believe I was lazy. I would chide myself for every minute I wasn’t at the keyboard. I had an inordinate fear of missing deadlines, afraid it would reveal my laziness to my editor and get me fired. During my own editorial career at DC, my fear of being found out grew even worse, especially since most of my time operating in the DCU was under a group editor whose default management style was to shout and bully, making no distinction between dangerously late books and usually on-schedule books only a few days late. At one meeting, I responded to his dressing down over an issue of John Byrne’s Wonder Woman that would end up being 3 days late (as John warned me it would be, a fact already I’d already reported to him), “Even if the book was delivered right now, it would get stuck in the production department queue behind all the really late books like (I named some titles, including two of his, both over 3 weeks late), so I think we can give John, who by the way never misses deadlines, the benefit of the doubt.”

He didn’t agree. “That’s not the point! The deadline is the deadline. Stop being so god damn lazy and fix it!”

He couldn’t possibly be overreacting (or as was actually the case, be totally unqualified for his job). No. I was lazy.

The other day, 56 years after my “diagnosis” as being lazy, I was looking for an old story on my “brag shelf”—the space in a writer’s bookcase where they shelf their own work—and realized mine took up 9 and one-half 26”-inch long shelves, or about 20 feet of comics, books, graphic novels, magazines, fanzines, tabloid newspapers, custom comics, and other formats. And that doesn’t include the 4 short boxes crammed in the storage closet with my editorial output.

I’m turning 67 years old next month. I consider myself semi-retired, happily receiving SSI and my Warners pension. Yet, I just finished my second screenplay (for hire), and the active projects on my desk today include: a novel, a book of interviews with my Bronze Age peers, at least 4 short stories for various anthologies, as well as the several columns a month I write for a comics website. Later this coming week I have a Zoom meeting scheduled about possibly writing a new 4-issue webcomic series. On the editorial side, I’m project managing and editing/rewriting a 96-page graphic novel.

Lazy? No. Just stubborn. I never wanted to do what I didn’t want to do. But the stuff I do want to do? Try and get in my way!

And fuck you, Uncle Ernie.

1 Comment on A Retrospective In the Time of Covid-19: “Fuck you, Uncle Ernie!”

  1. Great story, Paul. Thanks for sharing.

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