Friday, December 20, 2013

The Birth of Santa Claus and Elfin Coital Cotillions

Manny worked toy assembly for almost 100 years, but was still lacking the seniority needed to request a transfer.  Most of his confederates had been promoted without benefit of seniority to the plusher jobs of sorting, wrapping and loading.  But Manny suffered what in his mind could only be discrimination.
Like every other elf, he had started off working in a southern plant cataloging names and GPS coordinates, sometimes working with the women in the paint shops, once he spent three shifts in the mine with a jackhammer.  The work excited him, but the North Pole promotion was all he ever wanted.
The day he received notice to report to headquarters was the greatest day of his life, or so he thought until he arrived at vast complex of workshops.  All through school, during his apprenticeship and journeyman stints, he was considered the best of the best.  Never once was there a bad grade or a disparaging remark on one of his performance evaluations, so he had come to think of himself as a super-performer with above average intelligence, and remarkably diverse abilities.  The problem was that everyone who made the trip north was of like ability, intellect and talent.  Manny became one of ten thousand other elfin workers with no way to set himself apart from the others; the once “big fish” was now only a non-descript guppy in an ocean of other guppies.  
Disappointment breeds dissatisfaction which in turn breeds despair.  Manny quickly lost his innate elfin humor and instinctive smile.  His work never suffered from the depression that ate at his diminutive heart, and drained the life from his soul.  The last century of monotonous averages had drained him of the ability to enjoy even the great Feast of the Sleigh.  His participation in the social and sexual cotillions had become more of a labor than the festive relief and generational procreative events that they were intended to be.  His last three concubines had failed to conceive during the week-long coital dances.  This added to his deepening sense of insignificance and futility.
The only times that Manny felt any of his old self begin to stir was when he secretly binged on cookies and fudge and laced his cocoa with Irish whiskey.  Unfortunately what started as an emotional crutch became a habit and then an addiction.  His secret diet began to take effect on his body; first his face became puffy often reddened with hypertensive blush, then his weight blossomed adding inches upon inches to his once tiny elfin waist line.  As his addiction worsened, he became more and more isolated from the other workers, taking breaks hidden in corners where the smell of the sugar rich snacks and alcohol laden drink would not be noticed.  The more recluse and rotund Manny became, the more his personal hygiene suffered.  He allowed his hair to grow long and without the regimen of perms and dyes, his locks became wavy tresses of unkempt gray.  He retired his razor and shaving mug letting his facial hair grow as disheveled as the hair on his head.  The once proud elf had morphed into an arctic derelict.  
It was during the midsummer coital cotillion that Manny wandered near the genetics lab where they modified young reindeer to fly and luminesce their noses, nearly blind drunk, he never saw the normal size humans approach from his right.  The abduction was swift and violent; Manny would never have had a chance to resist even if he was able.
The lights of the hospital examination room blinded the middle-aged elf.  A sea of strange humans was busily measuring his height, weight, girth and body fat index while Manny laid helplessly strapped to a gurney.  Someone started an IV through a port in the top of his left hand.  He watched as the clear liquid snaked its way through the clear tubes and entered his veins.  A unexpected transformation instantly overcame the hapless elf.  His ordinarily clouded thoughts reached a clarity that he had never known in the past.  He was then flooded with infinite memories and experiences of lives he never lived; he reeled with the sudden revelations of talents and accomplishments never known before that instant.  His body shuttered and then relaxed. The human attendants released the restraints and helped Manny to sit upright.  The strange tall people that were once his captors, were now his saviors.
The tallest of the female humans stepped forward and took his right hand.  “You will never again drink alcohol, but the effects will take some time to work out of your system.  Are you feeling, okay?”
Her words were not the language of the North Pole, but he understood her perfectly.  What came as no surprise was that he could answer her in that same foreign tongue.  “I feel fine, although I do have the shakes pretty bad.  If you don’t mind me asking, where am I and why did you bring me here?”
“We have been waiting a long time for the change to take place.  You have much to learn in the next six months, so we had better get started.”

The explanation that followed answered questions asked by children the world over.  Manny became Santa #4,258,165 with the responsibility for the villages of the Pyrenees Basque Country.  The impossible task of delivering toys to the children of the world was never left to one supernatural Santa Claus with a supercharged sleigh and bottomless sack, but to an army of elfin mutants driving genetically altered reindeer.  Merry Christmas, and I bet you never knew where baby elves came from.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My adolescent encounter with the REAL Santa Claus

Last month, I recycled that fowl story of how my little burb in the mountains shot and killed Tom Gobbles, our beloved town turkey in celebration of Thanksgiving.  Well, it’s December, which means it is Christmastime, so if you would indulge me, I would like to recycle my real-life childhood story of when I met Santa Claus.  Before your imaginations run wild, he was not the rotund, pink-cheeked icon of Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola fame; I am talking about the real honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood Santa dude.

I grew up in a not-so-well-off family.  My father was a career military intelligence officer who suffered (and eventually died) from a rare form of adult onset Muscular Dystrophy.  Translation: Our family lived on an enlisted man’s Air Force salary.  Because my parents thought it would be fun, they procreated and procreated until we had to buy a mismatched chair to seat all seven of us at the enameled dinette table with both extensions pulled.  We were certainly not the Rockefellers.  Hell, we weren’t the Rockefellers’ immigrant lawn care guy’s family.  We were a tad on the poor side.

Back in the days when I was still trying to figure out how a fat magical elf got down the chimney that did not exist on our 1200 square foot house.  (Yeah, I know, all those kids in such a vast and expansive space.  No matter how well-developed your imagination is, you still wouldn’t know the half of it.)  Okay, back to Christmas.  When that mythical criminal would break and enter into our house in the dead of the night, he would leave under the tree one real present for each of the Kent kids, plus a variety of gift wrapped packages of the ever so popular underwear and socks.  We did get to have our Christmas stockings “hung with care,” but on the headboards of our beds (no fireplace, no mantel), which surprisingly would be full of walnuts, apples, and an orange each and every year.  I doubt Charles Dickens could have written a grander Christmas than the one had in the Kent mansion.

As the herd of Kent clan grew and matured, the idea of a single Christmas present never diminished in importance or necessity.  I remember when I first got married and witnessed my wife buy dozens of gifts for her daughters; I thought that was like the oddest thing in the world, not to mention that it was my money buying all that stuff.  And to top that, none of it had come from W. T. Grants or F. W. Woolworths; she bought all of that crap from the mall.  But this story has nothing to do with me as a married man; it is about me as an awkward boy barely into his teenaged years.

Part of this may surprise you, but I was the consummate geek in those days.  I was into books, writing, science and knowledge of every mundane field I could find.  I did participate in the requisite male adolescent sports of baseball and football, I hunted and fished (we supplemented our groceries with subsistence meats), and had a moderate, albeit nerdish, social life, but most of my time was spent in the basement in my “lab.”  This was no ordinary child’s chemistry set type lab; I worked from college text books, scientific journals, used professional glassware; I had three fire stations for etnas and Bunsen burners, a cache of over 200 chemical compounds, four microscopes, medical quality dissection tools and all of the necessary safety equipment.  I had pilfered much of the stuff from an uncle who worked in some industrial laboratory and a cousin who was studying pharmacology, plus I saved every dime made on paper routes, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and bagging groceries to buy from our Hobby Lobby store, and occasionally from an assortment mail-order distributors that could no longer exist in this new age of terrorism and meth labs.

In the February before I turned 14, my father died from his lifelong illness, and life around the Kent house got a little more difficult.  We had moved across town to a larger home before he died; Mom benefited from his widow’s pension and some modest life insurance.  But as I was fourteen, my older brothers were 18 and 20.  They weren’t around much between jobs and girls, so I became the de facto male head of the household and left to deal with my mother’s worsening depression.

As we neared this first fatherless Christmas, I began my search for my single gift that would be both affordable to Mom and utile to me.  Earlier I mentioned the Hobby Lobby where I bought test-tubes, beakers, microscope slides and the like; the proprietor had long ago shared with me a catalog from a scientific supply house.  Among the harder to acquire and obscure instruments and gadgetry, featured on the back cover was a chemical resistant laboratory table complete with a pegboard backstop with hangers designed to hold my precious vials, crucibles, condensers, burets and thistle tubes.  That professional quality table would be the perfect addition to my growing laboratory.  That was to be my Christmas.

The single present tradition defeated the necessity of secrecy, surprise, and Santa myths, so I had shared my idea with Mom months in advance so that she could budget and timely order this rare find.  When the time arrived, I accompanied Mom down to Hobby Lobby to place the special order.  The proprietor had us wait so that he could call the distributor and be sure there were no price changes or similar problems.  There was one big problem; my catalog was out-of-date, and my coveted laboratory table was no longer available.  Apparently it had been discontinued due to the shrinking population of at-home laboratories and bookish geeks like me.  My meticulously researched and carefully selected present wasn’t manufactured anymore, and given the late date, I was hopelessly uncertain as to how to go about choosing something else.

Mom immediately started discussing alternatives of which there were none in my mind.  Eventually she posited the idea that we “make our own” lab table.  This was in the days before Home Depot and Lowe's, so we headed out to the Fair Grounds Plaza and the Channel Lumber Store.  We checked in every department, but found no kits, no plans, and no pre-fabs, nothing that, even with my ample imagination, and modest skill with power tools, could suffice for a suitable laboratory workspace.

Dejected and defeated, we started back across town with empty hopes of discovering some way to salvage the holiday for me.  Mom took an alternate route back to the house; she drove down Levis Drive a/k/a Holbien Hill, through my middle school’s parking lot, and winding out through the neighborhood onto Mill Street where she spontaneously pulled into French’s Lumber, our local contractor’s supply.  This was not a large store, nor was it really “public friendly,” but Mom jumped out of the car and I shuffled along to listen to the expected discouraging words of hopeless dreams. 

Inside, the leather-aproned clerk was attentive if not friendly, but he had no more workable ideas or ingenious solutions than the nicer people out on the highway.  There was simply nothing to buy, nothing to build, nothing to hope for, or dream about. 

And that’s when I met him.

He was tall and clean shaven, with a small round Budweiser belly.  He was dirty with dried sweat, his clothes soiled from saw dust, and from the smell of things, he apparently was estranged from his can of Right Guard.  This was not the kind of stranger that children would clamor to sit on his lap and squeal their insatiable wishes to, but then again, he really was Santa Claus.

See, he had been listening to our frustrated conversation with the store attendant and stepped in to interrupt.  It seems that the persona that Santa had adopted on that December afternoon was that of a hygiene-challenged contractor engaged in the construction of the new Vo-Tech high school out in Burlington Township.  In his unique and magical tradition of making Christmas happen for everyone, everywhere on Earth, my Santa claimed that “his company” had recently finished building the science department at the new school and that he had just enough materials left over to make one very special lab table. 

He had me sketch a facsimile of what the obsolete catalog showed as the exemplar table, and then he skillfully added the new features of a built-in light fixture and grounded electrical outlet; he increased the dimensions of the table top and the pegboard storage area, and finally inquired about the price the supply company had been asking for the now defunct table.  He agreed to build my table for half the cost of the catalog price.

My point is simple, as you muddle through this season, and all of the seasons that follow, don't be afraid to show a random act of kindness.  Sometimes the simplest favor can result in a life-changing feat.  That Christmas was never intended to be a merry holiday; Dad had gone home to Heaven, Mom was an emotional mess, my older brothers were orbiting the family nucleus in ever expanding apogees, my face was beginning to erupt in the blemishes that would plague the rest  of my teen years, and my little brother and sister were more orphaned than you would logically expect.  No one expected a grand holiday, but the Spirit of Christmas arrived and changed everything.  As Francis Church said in 1897 as part of his iconic editorial addressed to the eight-year-old daughter of Dr. Philip O'Hanlon:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.” 

You see Santa exists in me, and in you, and in everyone; not only in the weeks before the Winter Solstice, but he is alive every day of the year.  The mythical, magical Santa is that ethereal feeling that drives charity, goodwill and generosity.  If you feel his magical spirit start to invade your psyche, and you are even tempted to touch someone’s life with what might seem to be the most insignificant favor, yield to him, because for that moment, you become Santa Claus.  Besides you never know when your simple deed might make some old writer and editor look back on his youth with nostalgia for the day he met you in French’s Lumber.

As we say in my Faith and in our tradition, Merry Christmas, but feel free to edit my words to whatever saying might best convey my sincere wishes for joy and happiness, today and every day.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This is a Christmas like no other I have experienced

Tis the season!

I have been pondering for days what to write for this Christmastime letter and post.  I have a cache of stories some filled with joy and optimism and some filled with loneliness and remorse.  To be honest, each of them have been started and deleted in the past few days.  Nothing felt right as I started to string these letters together in my typical misspelled fashion.  You see this is a Christmas like no other I have experienced and I am not sure exactly what to feel.

Thirty-five years ago, I was still living in my childhood hometown surrounded by family and friends.  The holiday season had morphed from the exciting children’s myth of magical elves, through my adolescent revelations of gift givers and gift giving, solidified itself in my Faith and Salvation, become a burdensome event that had to have both money and time carefully budgeted, and finally evolved into strained and eroded family event at Mom’s where my siblings gathered dragging along unfamiliar love/like/lust relationships that may or may not endure for more than one season.  Christmas had lost some, but not all, of its magic for me.

It was roughly in that timeframe when I met an attractive waitress who worked at the restaurant where I was the master chef.  She was somewhat older than me with two preteen daughters.  She was my guest at Mom’s holiday table that year and had to be introduced and subjected to the Kent family eclectic humor, noise, chaos and occasional disagreements.  In the years following that meal, the waitress and her daughters became my family, the Christmas feasts were at “our” house, and the magic was rediscovered in the girls, their eventual husbands, and finally in the eyes of the grandchildren they bore.

But the magic of the season tends to ebb and flow.  In the interim years where my marital family supplanted my childhood family and I moved away from New Jersey to build a life in Florida, both my older brothers passed as did my Mom (I lost my father in 1969).  The “happily ever after” part of my story wasn’t well-written and as you know, my wife of 32 years and I have split up; the magic I so desperately seek has been displaced once again.
Christmas in all of its permutations has always been an important time for me; yes, I have had some sad ones and some lonely ones, but taken as a whole, it is a favorite time for me.  When my wife left, I purposefully asked her to take all of the Christmas décor she wanted and to sell the rest.  I figure that if I am starting a new life, either alone or with someone else, the visual icons of the season should not be a reminder of my “Dickens-esque” Christmas pasts, but reflective of my Christmas present and Christmas futures.

So here I am with a decimated financial budget, what I once called family is permanently estranged, I have only a single wreath made by my oldest brother before he died, a tole-painted plaque that my sister made, and a few seasonal CDs that did not take the ride south to Florida.  Am I sad?  Am I lonely?  Am I disappointed or angry?  No, believe it or not, there is a swelling deep in my chest; it is that magical feeling of Christmas still alive and growing.

I have a new life ahead, so there is nothing for me to be sad about.  I have a sister and a niece, a brother and his lovely wife, and wonderful, supportive friends all over the globe, so that I will never be lonely.  I survived 32 years of marriage to a great friend, and although there were and are difficulties that make continuing our marriage impossible, I have no regrets or anger over the outcome.  This is a Christmas like no other I have experienced, but there is still the magic, and come what may, I am going to make the most of it.  I suggest you do too.

Wherever you are in life, take time to feel that magic; the joy, charity, fellowship, and goodwill of this season.  Christmas is a metaphysical mirror, what shines from within is what is reflected back.  Celebrate the spirit and magic with everyone, not just your family and friends, but with those less fortunate than yourself.  It is easy to spread cheer: infect someone with your smile and greeting, drop an extra quarter in every red bucket you pass, buy the coffee for the person behind you in line, pay some family’s layaway balance, be a little extra courteous while driving or shopping, over tip your waitress, or volunteer at a shelter or Ronald McDonald House. 

Granted, it could be just as easy to find all of the reasons to ignore the magic.  Grinches run rampant this time of year: memories of loved ones lost, happy times gone, money issues, health issues, even those underwear clad bell ringers on that stupid commercial.  But to don a grimace, to defeat the joy, and find disdain for the celebratory air of Christmas, that is NOT the face I want to see in my metaphysical mirror; this may be a Christmas like no other I have experienced, but I can still feel the magic.  Tis the season!

Merry Christmas, my friends!


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Jerry and Izzy

     Izzy was waiting, and he knew that to leave a woman wanting and waiting would only lead to disaster.  The shortcut required a trespass across a cow pasture.  It was almost 600 yards from the tree that he used to scale the barbed wire, to the tractor gate on the lane.  It was a long trek through the minefield of cow pies and green-headed biting flies, but it saved more than a mile going by road.
     The Jones Z farm was about the only dairy left in the area, there were a few small dirt farms, but most of the fields Jeromy had played in as a child and then hunted in his teen years were now crammed with cookie cutter houses and plain vanilla condominiums.  The rural community was surrendering to the destructive siege of urban sprawl.  Life was changing.

     Jerry and Izzy had been best friends since the fifth grade.  In grade school everyone called her Isabel, but by the time they reached high school, the two were commonly known by one polysyllabic name, Jerry-and-Izzy.  No one ever said, “Hey Jerry,” or “What’s up, Izzy?”  If you saw one, you saw the other, and people spoke to them as if they were one person in two bodies.

     On a small knoll 70 or 80 yards to his left, Jerry watched the bull snort and scratch the ground with its front hoof.  Unflinching, he kept a steady pace.  Jerry knew the animal well and it was certainly not the first time that Blackie was out during his trek through the fields.  The bull was benign enough as long as he wasn’t provoked; he knew better than to run. 
     Jones Z’s prize Angus stud began a lumbering walk, matching Jerry’s pace stride by stride.  Coming of age working on dairies, the seasoned farmhand knew that the bovine’s movement was a sign of curiosity and not of an impending charge.  Jerry was only half way across the pasture, so if the bull did charge, there would be no way to outrun him.  His gait unchanged, he kept a close watch on both the bull and his manure pocked path. 
     When he was nearly fifty yards out from the tractor gate, he checked the bull one more time.  Smiling at his unspoken joke, he knew he could run 50 yards faster than the bull could cover 120; he had already taken six long strides before the bull started its charge.  Jerry hit the gate laughing and waited astraddle the top rail until the bull caught up to him. 
     Blackie snorted between his labored breaths and lifted his face to the man on the fence.  Jeromy patted the polled head of the thousand pound beast and renewed his old friendship.  Up close the bull’s eyes recognized the playful man as someone he knew and liked.  Slipping off the gate back into the pasture, Jerry stroked the strong shoulders of the amiable giant, and grabbing the bull’s head with both hands, laid his forehead against its face in a greeting that they had used for nearly ten years.
      Nothing can be sweeter than a friendship based on respect.  The man knew the bull could trample him with the slightest instigation and the bull knew that men were the masters capable of inflicting great pain.

      Izzy was waiting inside her trailer home and watched as her friend and lover ambled through the dust and into her yard.  They were three years out of school and everyone but Izzy was surprised that they were not married or living together.  The first time they had been intimate was in their sophomore year and Jerry announced as he zipped his pants that they should get married someday and raise a big family.
      But in the years since graduation, Jeromy’s parents’ marriage had turned bitter and angry.  The eventual divorce left Jerry with a pessimistic attitude and marriage became a taboo subject that often resulted in loud angry arguments.  Izzy resigned herself to a maiden’s life.

      Izzy knew Rory Horshein well; Jeromy still lived with his father.  She knew him as a man with a sense of humor but also a quick temper that had at times become violent.  The pills the VA gave him to ward off his pain affected him like an on / off switch.  With each dose, as the opiates hit his system, he mellowed, joked and put on the genuinely affable front that she had known since childhood.  Later as the prescription’s concentration in his blood rose, he would doze and sleep for hours before waking angry, nervous and in pain from the wounds he suffered four summers ago at the Army Reserve camp.  It was in this pre-medicated state that he frequently cursed his “whore” wife who left him to sleep with “every asshole in the fucking county.”
     Izzy’s memory of Luann Horsheim did not match the way Rory described her.  She had always been polite and attentive to her husband and son.  Even after the accident, the love she had for her family was apparent in everything she said and did.  But the accident took its toll on the marriage.  It was apparent in the arguing and frequent disappearances of Luann.  Knowing the severity of Rory’s wound, Izzy once asked about how the husband’s injuries affected their sexual relationship, the answer she got was cold and surprising.  “Sex,” Luann said, “is not what marriage is about.  You can still love someone even without sexual relations, and I do love Rory.  But I will tell you this; a woman can’t live a full life without some sexual gratification.  Since my husband can’t perform, I had to find other ways to be satisfied.”
It wasn’t until after the separation when Izzy put two and two together and realized the “other ways” had to do with the manager of the Piggly Wiggly on the north end of town.
     The separation changed Jerry.  He went from the sweet, lifelong friend, companion and lover to an impatient often hopeless man.  The quiet seductive romance of their lovemaking evolved into crass suggestions and profane innuendos.
      At first Izzy resisted adopting the obligatory concept of satisfying Jerry, but her love was such that making him happy became her sole purpose.  If he needed physical relief, then she would make herself available for him.  Unfortunately, the more she acquiesced, the more arrogant and demanding he became, sometimes showing up at her trailer as many as three times a day.        Izzy missed their social life; rarely did they go out together as a couple.  Jerry’s job kept him busy most of the time and the brief interludes of shared time were spent in passionless copulation.  Gone were the intimate talks and common goals that were the foundation of their love and friendship.  Her love, it seemed, was expected, but not reciprocated.

      Jerry opened the door wearing his all too familiar stoic gaze.  “My damned truck wouldn’t start.  I had to walk here.”
Izzy put her arms around his neck and stretched up to kiss his lips.  Jerry’s mouth was dry from the long walk and his breath tasted of raw onion, but she kissed him anyway, and he kissed back for a few moments.  He pulled her arms down and stepped back; the momentary affection had faded.  “Get me some water or something.  That hamburger I had for lunch left me parched.”
     Izzy opened the refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of water.  Handing it to him she asked, “What happened to the truck?”
“I don’t know, but I got to get it fixed today.  Come on, we need to get this over with so I can get back home.”
     She dutifully undressed and laid across the bed still rumpled from the morning visit.  He invaded her body with sharp forceful rhythms, finishing much too soon for Izzy to glean any physical satisfaction.  Jeromy shifted his weight to the far side of the bed to avoid the damp spots on the sheet and rested his forearm across his eyes.  Izzy rolled on her side to look at the man she loved and caressed his chest.  “Honey?” she asked in a soft voice.  His reply was a whispered, “I’m going to sleep for a few minutes.”
      Izzy propped herself up on one elbow and asked, “Before you go to sleep, can we talk for just a second.”  Jeromy grunted a sound that was neither affirmative nor negative.   Izzy sighed, “Sometimes this gets, you know, almost mechanical.  I like making love with you, but sometimes you act like it is more of a chore than a choice.”
Without lifting his arm and in a tired grumbled voice, “It is a chore, Babe.  I know what you women do when you ain’t getting enough at home.  It starts with those damned toys, and don’t think I don’t know you have one, and it ends with some other man in my woman.”  He lifted his arm up just far enough to see her face, “You never know when some punk-ass kid is going to shoot my balls off, so as long as I have this dick, we are going to fuck as often as we can.  You ain’t gonna be a whore for any man but me.”
     “Is that how you think of me?”  Her voice cracked, “A whore?  Is that the respect you have for me?  You think I am your whore?”  Izzy swung her feet heavily to the floor announcing, “I’m getting a water.  You want anything?”
      Jerry shook his head no and dropped his arm back across his face.

      Izzy returned from the kitchen carrying a bottle of water.  Jerry laid motionless; the slow rise and fall of his diaphragm evidenced his sleep.  Izzy carefully eased back into bed mentally replaying his words over and over.  “A whore for any man but me -- fuck as often as we can -- as long as I have this dick.”

     The last of her hope evaporated with the thought that nothing could be crueler than love without respect.  The cold metal of the kitchen knife felt good against her skin as she reached for her Jerry.  “As long as I have this dick.”  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Reason for Thanksgiving

I’m writing this short greeting on the eve of Thanksgiving.  Tomorrow we celebrate that unique American holiday when we gather our friends and loved ones around a banquet table and gorge ourselves with a month’s worth of sodium, fats and sugars.  The glorious day that awards the hard working chefs in each crowd, who spent countless hours shopping, prepping and cooking the sundry of “traditional” dishes, with the experience of an orgy of frenzied consumption that leaves little time to appreciate their exhaustive efforts.  Mountains of food will be devoured, at least partially, in a matter of a few minutes; with the remnants stowed in refrigeration for even more gluttony on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  It is during this celebration that the faithful, and the C&E’s (Christmas and Easter Christians), and even the non-practitioners, all pause in reverent prayer to express their gratitude for health, life, love and their own prosperity measured by whatever scales are appropriate.

It is precisely those “scales of measurement” that need our attention.  It would be easy to mire our thanks in the worry over an unsustainable national debt growing exponentially with unchecked deficit spending, nationwide continued high unemployment with faltering consumer confidence, the healthcare debacle, rockets flying in Syria, or the precarious world financial situation and the potential of forced austerity spreading from small countries into First World Economies.  But history demonstrates that in light of rampant pessimism and despair, we still need to recognize that there is much to be thankful for.

It started in 1623, when Governor Bill Bradford along with his fellow Plymouth colonists sat and feasted with the Wampanoag Indians for three days: 72 hours!  (That’s just about as long as we will have to spend at the gym to unstuff our gullets and arteries.)  Back then, they were thankful that they had had a harvest big enough that they weren’t going to suffer the same starvation and death they had endured during the previous two winters.  These early settlers were thankful they had something, anything to eat, now we as a society are so spoiled that we get pissed if the supermarket runs out of our favorite dinner rolls.

About 150 years later, after we had burned a few witches, decimated most of the indigenous peoples, and started importing cheap labor from Africa, George W (no, the other one) in remembrance of those Pilgrims, signed a proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1789 to celebrate the end of hostilities with mother England and the recent ratification of the U.S. Constitution (which of course immediately instigated what we now refer to as “American Politics”). 

Then a scant 74 years later, Haywood County, North Carolina native (that’s what they say around here) turned president, Abraham Lincoln, signed a new Thanksgiving proclamation in an attempt to “heal the wounds of the nation” and to urge people to offer tender care to “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”  By Honest Abe’s decree, the day-of-thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the LAST Thursday of November in perpetuity.  And it stayed that way until 1939, when FDR in the midst the “great depression” moved it up a week to spur retail sales and stimulate the failed economy.  (Roosevelt is responsible for Black Friday!  Take that Walmart.)

So even if you had to buy some substitute bread, and as we continue to argue over the interpretation of our national laws, divided as we are into red and blue states of differing philosophies, licking the wounds of yet another long war, and struggling with a precarious economy, there still should be gracious thanks.  Look across the table at your love, your child, your grandchild, or your friends, perhaps experience the joy of volunteering at your local mission, Ronald McDonald House or VA hospital, and look into the eyes of those who feel blessed because you are there.  Measure the bounties of your life by whatever scales are needed, and then, today and every day, give a look up to Heaven and pray: A Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My haunts are haunted! Or are they?

Ah, a peaceful Sunday morning, and it has turned into such a beautiful day, NOT!

I couldn’t sleep but a couple of hours last night; I have more work promised than I could ever accomplish; it is frigid cold outside; and whatever it is that haunts this house is running amok this morning.

A couple hours ago, I went downstairs for a cup of coffee, noticed the pretty snowcaps on the distant peaks, froze my you-know-what off trying to get one shot good enough to post, and returned to the much warmer second floor to download the pictures.

About the time I had them loaded and selected the shot to put up, I started hearing voices.  Now voices in this mostly vacant house are not at all unusual, but most of the time I can make out gender and even some hint as to the age of the voices, but rarely are they audible enough to actually follow the conversations.  This time was different; I could clearly hear the words and make out whole sentences. 

Now, in my bedroom I have an alarm clock radio.  You should understand that I have NEVER in my life used an alarm.  My internal clock is more accurate and always has me awake at the proper time.  Also I have never used the radio feature on the clock, because I don’t listen to radio. 

  After several minutes I when down to discover the never been used radio was on and tuned to a station.  I had to find a spare pair of glasses so that I could see the tiny control buttons and shut it off.  I was stymied but not concerned.

I returned to the loft, finished a couple of small jobs and was setting up to start the eye-bleeder that I should be working on now, when there was an odd crash like sound that came from my office.  I had a stack of #10 envelopes on a bookshelf sitting under a couple of books that I hadn’t refiled yet.  Somehow they got out from under the books and strew themselves across the floor.

By this time I knew my little haunts were playing games.  I see their shadows frequently and I already told you I hear them talking and laughing.  They have never presented any danger, so I abide their presence with some amusement.

But today, they are being a bigger pain-in-the-ass than that Tsarina you hear me reference once in a while (okay, all of the time).  

The radio turned back on.

That inspired me to write a quick email note to my partner and Royal PITA in case she had suddenly developed telekinesis and was playing games with me all the way from Denmark.  While I awaited her answer, I got up and started down the stairs; I was at the half way point when the radio turned off by itself.  I went into the bedroom and checked the controls; they were securely in the off position.  I chuckled to myself and wondered if it were my resident shadow people, or the pranks of an international brat.

If all of that were not enough to keep my day interesting, my poor Sebastian, who is normally peacefully asleep on my lap while I am working, is now alert and watchful with his little head twitching up-and-down and side-to-side like he is following some non-existent bug flying around the room.  If it is only my friendly ghosts, I am happy to play their games, but if this turns out to be the multi-talented Adrianna, I will exact an appropriate revenge.

Ah, a peaceful Sunday morning, and it has turned into such a beautiful day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Word Count or Words that Count -- advice on the use of modifiers

Adrianna and I have the privilege, and sometimes the tedious task, of reading many stories and pieces by a huge variety of writers.  Between students, writers that I mentor, the Writer’s Gallery, and my editing work (Adrianna has about the same sources), I see some really excellent writing, and some that leaves me cowering in the corner with bloodied eyes.

One of the biggest problems (I will use the plural here for me and my partner) that we see is the improper use of modifiers and descriptors.  In writing instruction, we continually tell people to paint their story.  Show me, don’t tell me. Fill me in on where the characters are. Don’t have an action scene on a blank canvas; show me where the action is.

From that tiny bit of instruction, many new or emerging writers think that every noun and every verb should be modified in some fashion to build their story.  Nothing could be more wrong.
In the past, I have written papers on word choice, and how it creates the magic of your writing.  Part of word choice is economy.  You know that flakey poet that lives up there in your brain? Go wake him or her up (I know they were out late last night again, but we are going to need them).

Poets will demonstrate to you, that given the constraints of their stanzas with or without an iambic foot, they have to develop their ideas with an efficiency of words and syllables that make many prose writers cry.

So what do descriptors and modifiers do for writing? They can foreshadow later events or character traits; add color or depth to a scene; purposely mislead us (in mysteries), and they can augment or diminish the importance of their subject.  What they can also do is drown your reader in superfluous information that distracts from your story while the reader is searching for the purpose of the words.

There are some descriptors that show up more often than the word tempest in Adrianna’s writing (Oh, I am going to pay for that!).  One of my favorites that I see all of the time, is useless bodily description.  “The water ran down her long slender body,” or “She brushed her raven black hair.”  Those two lines, or something very close to that, I have read at least 500 times, and in almost every instance the information was worthless to the character or story.  They were just fill-in words that the writer thought added something. 

It would be different if you were building an image that may have something to do with the story: “She had an exotic beauty that left a wake of wanting admirers wherever she ventured.  Her flawless olive complexion pulled taut over the sleek toned curves up and down her statuesque figure complemented her bedroom eyes and raven hair.  But her looks were only a small part of her weaponry.”  This is the same information, but this time it is telling the reader something.  Also, we can use the word “raven” to describe her hair, rather than two descriptors that mean the exact same thing.

Don’t modify a word or use a descriptor unless it is going to convey details the reader needs to know.  You might paint a scene for a shooting in front of a grocery store: the angle of the sun, the number of cars in the parking lot, the amount of traffic both foot and vehicular, the signage, the curbs, the car stops and sidewalks could all be very important, but how the cans of vegetables are stacked on the inside of the store is more likely useless information.
If you are fond of adjectives and adverbs, write them.  Sometimes they will take the story in a surprising verve.  If you find yourself wanting to describe the vast shelves filled with leather bound books in a room with bright upholstered sofas and chairs, and dark wood tables with stained glass lamps, then maybe your characters are trying to tell you they are rich, well-read, collectors, or decorators.  If not, you might find it necessary to pare those words out in a subsequent reread and edit.

As another example, do not have your character “jump into his candy-apple-red Ferrari and speed away” unless the fact that it’s red, a Ferrari, or that he sped, has something to do with the story.  It is great that you see him that way, but let me in on it.  Why does it matter to me that he has a red Ferrari and speeds?  If it is only an exit from a scene, I don’t need those details.

In workshops, I often get, “Well I think he should be rich and handsome, so that’s why he has a Ferrari.”  Okay, then tell me why that has to do with your story.  If it does, go back and write it.  If it doesn’t, take out the superfluous info, and let my reader’s imagination figure out whether he got into a Chevy Lumina, a BMW 3 series, a Lincoln Town Car, or a red Ferrari.  He left; that’s all we need to know.

Reread your work carefully; don’t let your pride stand in the way of parsing your sentences and paring off unnecessary information.  Be creative with your word choice, but be economical.  Show your readers what they need to know. Don’t bog them down with information that does not drive the story or your characters.  Good writing is not about word count, it is about WORDS THAT COUNT.

Don't be alarmed, it is only the alarm

     As many of you know, I live high on the side of a very steep
mountain.  If I am paying attention, I can hear a vehicle from the time they leave the county road and cross the stream onto my mountain access, all the way until the reach their destination somewhere either above or below me, but then, who pays attention.  Shortly after moving in here, twice I was startled to find an unexpected visitor standing at my front door.  I realized that living this deep in the woods and visually isolated from other houses (my nearest neighbor is two hundred feet above me), I needed some sort of advance warning system to alert me if someone was approaching.  To give you a little perspective, when you get to my gate, you cannot see my house, nor can I see you.  The driveway is approximately 100 yards long, has two 90 degree turns, and rises over 110 feet in height (10 stories) from the gate to the garage.
     After some careful research, I found an affordable, wireless, infrared sensor system with enough range to let me mount it on the gate post and still receive the signal up in the house. 
     It has been great.  When a repairman or the UPS driver is arriving, I know exactly when to go out to meet them.  The few times that unexpected people showed up, I knew they were on the driveway long before I could see them or they could see me.  And when my dog’s best friend, Angel, comes to visit and play, she sets off the alarm and my Sebastian jumps to window, barking his happy greetings.
     If there is a downside to the alarm at all, it is during a brief period in the afternoon when the sun shines directly on that part of the driveway.  The infrared sensor detects the warm sunlight and the slightest movement of a leaf will trip the alarm.  Over the past year, I have grown very used to that, but unfortunately Sebastian still thinks it must be Angel coming up the drive.  To calm him and get him to stop baking, I simply turn off the receiver until the Earth rotates a little further and the sunlight is no longer a problem.
     Well, I should say that was the only downside.  For the past three nights, some nocturnal animal or maybe family of animals has been playing in my driveway.  I haven’t seen them, but I have been awakened by their detected presence each night.  Whatever it or they are, the alarm does not only go off once, it trips again and again and again until I either go turn on the porch lights (which sometimes scares whatever it is away) or I turn off the alarm and lie awake worried that now I am left unprotected and you know that will be the exact time some crazed escaped murderer will walk up the mountain, bypassing all the other houses along the way, and break in my front door to get me.  No, I need the alarm active and the stupid animals gone.
     It has just occurred to me that this might be the first and only practical use for my night-vision monocular.  Yes, I really do have night-vision; it was a big boy toy that I treated myself to a few years back to watch the coyotes on the mountain behind another house I lived in.  I may have to play Navy Seals tonight and see if I can identify these varmint trespassers.
     We don’t have many of the large animals on this part of the mountain; the dogs that run free (Angel) keep the deer, catamount, and bear away.  I am sure that there are unseen raccoons and opossums frolicking with the ever-present populous of squirrels and chipmunks.  I have witnessed more than a couple of cottontail rabbits, heard turkeys, and the other day when Angel came to visit, she proved beyond all reasonable doubt, that somewhere around here there are skunks.  I didn’t let her in.   Which of these species it is that is robbing me of sleep, I have no idea, but I intend to find out.
     So here is my carefully thought out plan that I devised in the last five minutes.  I’ll stay up all night tonight, wear my fall colored camouflage pajamas (Note to self: go buy camo pj’s), paint my cheeks with black shoe polish (not the beard), about 1 a.m. sneak down to the second bend in the driveway, settle down on the concrete, remember I forgot the damn night-vision monocular, go back to the house and pour a cup of coffee to break the chill of walking around outside in my stocking feet, put on some warmer socks and my sneakers, take the coffee with me out the side door to the driveway, turn around curse my stupidity and go get the monocular, and eventually sit on the freezing concrete to spy on my little animal pests.
     Of course, once I have identified the culprits, I will have only one choice.  I gave up hunting thirty-five years ago, and I am not in favor of ever wasting a life (Well, there are a few people I wouldn’t mind… Oh, never mind), but this alarm is driving me crazy (It just now went off again!).  My only choice is to go into the closet, get a step stool, reach all the way to the top shelf in the back, and get my spare pillow to cover head while I try to sleep and hope Sebastian wakes me up when that sociopath kicks down the door.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Human emotions, a Penske rental truck, divorce and a new outlook on life

      Human emotions are so fickle and difficult. I have no idea how you people live with them.  A short while ago, a longtime friend who I married, and suffered a much too prolonged relationship, pulled away in a Penske rental truck with more than half of what I thought was mine.  My marriage has ended.
     There were no dishes thrown or vile name calling; only a solemn parting of ways.  This ending started and stopped too many times to count, but this time it is for real and permanent.  She wants to live near her children, and there was not enough of a relationship left for her to want to stay here with me, or for me to go there with her.
     So we parted as friends with a momentary, passionless hug that would have been more appropriate for a casual friend met in a public forum.
     Our marriage, that can now be pronounced dead, (the Death Certificate will read 8:10 a.m., November 19, 2013) has never been anything great.  There were too many lies, mutual indiscretions, horrible misunderstandings, and in the case of her daughters that I helped raise, the failure to ever consummate a true family unit. 
     Still all in all, that big yellow truck headed south is taking my regular dinner companion, half of my daily conversations, my housekeeping partner, and financial confederate.  Not counting the years of pre-marital relations, we shared 32 years and two months as a couple, with likes and dislikes, common experiences both good and bad, and varied uncommon friendships, she with hers and me with mine.  Part of me left in that truck.  All of those memories we shared have now been ripped from our communal book to be separated from now on.  Okay, it’s over, and although my life won’t and can’t be the same, it can be better.
     This marriage taught me the difference between love and being in love.  I discovered that it is possible to love someone without being in love, and that may be the best way to sum this up.  I have tasted being in love, and this wasn’t it.  None-the-less, for whatever it was, there is now a void in my daily life that will have to be dealt with (not to mention a whole bunch of voids where things were that are now gone).  I know this separation is right; it is way overdue, and it will be better for both of us.  At the same time, I also know we will likely never see each other ever again.  That has my eyes a tad weepy. 
     I think I would be doing better if I was mad, but I’m not.  I am only sad.  Sad that I failed, that we both failed.  Sad that it came apart so late.  Sad she took one of the dogs and left the other, and both will miss their other master.  Sad, because that is all that’s left to feel. 
     I’m back to how you ordinary people do this.  I am beginning to have a little more respect for you humans.
     Email has friends chiming in from all over with well-meaning advice to go party, or bury myself in any activity that avails itself.  Some are pleading that I go back and do all the things I didn’t do while married.  Then one, who always seems to have the right words, is telling me that if I didn’t feel this conflicted sadness mixed with a gladdened relief, then my humanity would come into question.  Me?  Human?  Plffffthz!  (Sorry, you have a tiny bit of spittle on your cheek.)
     So now I am back to wondering how you mere mortal beings deal with this emotional crap in your day-to-day lives.  There must be some intoxicant or antidote you use to ease the turmoil.  Is there anything more than trite Hallmark sayings?  I remember in the movie version of John Berendt’s true crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, one of the many real life personalities, Lady Chablis (a drag queen), who was a part of the social scene, wherein the renown antique dealer Jim Williams murdered his gay lover in the Mercer House in old Savannah.  She (he) expressed her (his) feigned mourning over the slain male prostitute and former roommate by declaring"Two tears in a bucket, Mother Fuck it."  That is certainly not Hallmark card quality (or even American Greetings), but it might be the best thing I’ve heard all day.
     That may be a little coarse, but it is time for me to shake off the dirt and dust of the past three decades and begin a new life.  I resolve right now that I am going to dry out these tear ducts so I can see clearer and formulate a plan to make this new part of my life better; not to ignore the past, but to concentrate on the future.
     I don’t need a lot of feedback on this post, but you are welcome to if you feel motivated.  I debated with my business partner whether I even needed to say something.  It was decided that I needed the cathartic cleansing, and as usual, she was right (damn, you’d think just once she’d get something wrong).  I do feel better now than when I wrote the starting sentence, and I guess that IS THE START!  All that is left now is to shed this pathetic public perception of me being human and get back to being the divine me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Do you know what I just hate.....?

No, I wouldn't subject you readers to my whole list.  Even if I only listed my own many pathetic faults (or those that my dear Adrianna loves to continually point out), this post would take up much too much space and time.  If I started to list all of the things wrong with you other people (yes, including you), I would have to plan my funeral early (I'd either die from writer's cramps or by the demonic-inspired hand of some latent slayer of mediocre fiction writers who might secretly love to see me planted).  No, I think I will pick on just one of my hated things.  (I just used just in a sentence.  I hate that, too, and so does Adrianna, believe me, she tells me all the time).  Okay two of my hateful things.  That should just be enough to fill this post.  (I just did it again, didn't I?)

Okay, what I just REALLY hate:  I hate that everything is moving just too fast.  I think faster than my phailing phat phingers can possibly type.  My plurals seem to always lose their ass, oops, I mean S.  My "yours" comes out as you.  I commonly omit articles like the, a, both.  I misspell the eesiest words, and autocorrect helps by substituting the wurst ideals in the most inopportunity places.  Ask my pretty PITA partner, she spends her days correcting me with an evil laugh and a licorice grin.

Add my horrid typing skills to the modern practices of instant messaging, hurried emails, and blog posts that can't wait for the requisite reread, edit, rewrite, edit, reread, cross out, send to a friend, be embarrassed, start over and eventually throw in the trash, like my normal work goes through.  No, in today's impatient world, I end up with sentences like, "Are your word that the way someone in their position would talk?"  That is real excerpt, right out of my Word Choice post.  Great word choices, huh?

Before I met my Pain-in-the-Aarhus (the city in Denmark), I had to self-edit.  That took rereads by the dozens.  See, I read like my mind thinks, no time for articles or bad spelling, just figure it must there and move on.  I don't see the simple things, only the big picture.  Did I get the point out?  Okay, success!  "What do you mean it doesn't make sense?"  Eventually, I came to realize that my first through my seventh drafts always read like it was written by a dyslexic fourth grader for whom English is a second language.  I need help.  Thank God for Adrianna Joleigh.

Did you get my point yet?  

Yesterday morning, as Adrianna and I were planning the day and triaging the tasks for the Writer's Gallery, the Christmas Challenge, the Select Showcase, gathering contributed content, plus our respective money making occupations, I managed to say something that really upset my partner.  As a consequence, she hardly talked to me all day, and when she did, it felt like a winter's gale wind blowing straight off the North Sea.  I was left alone and scared to deal with my many foibles all by myself.  I not only "did not like it," I HATED it; THAT is what I just hate.  

Oh, you thought the "I hate" was about my sloppy typing, pathetic spelling and hurried posting, nope; what I just hate is when I manage to piss off my darling Royal PITA, Adrianna and she gives me that intolerable cold shoulder all the way from the shores of northern Europe (and believe me, she has the mental and emotional stamina to keep it going full-force all day).  In all honesty, I'd much rather deal with her cruelly used cat-o-nine-tails whip and her rusty shackles than her inhumane silent treatment.  She knows I love her (I hope), but she has a magical gift for torture that she wields with perverse pleasure.

I am truly sorry, Your Majesty.  I am and will always be your humble and loyal servant.  Please, let me come in from the dog house, it is cold out here; I will kiss your feet to make you feel as special as you really are. 
(Shh, I think she's buying it.)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Steven's Clock (excerpt)

     The following is an except from an unfinished manuscript; it was posted here to garner a few cherished opinions as to the subject matter and the harsh portrayal of deviant sexual tendencies.  The initial 3,000 words were written in a single, sit down and type session with no prior research.  There were no edits or rewrites.   
     This is not simple fiction; it is written using significant conventions of the Modernist Movement, the story begins at the end and the traces the self-destructive choices of moderately successful accountant through the demise of his career, three failed marriages and the loss of his familial relationships.  My use of an unconventional, non-omniscient narrator speaking in the present tense directly to the reader and relating the past deeds of the degenerate Steven is intended to poke fun at some of the (my opinion) sophomoric conventions of the now popular Contemporary Movement.
     This excerpt of three paragraphs is not intended to reveal the entire plot line nor even the complexity of the characters. (If I ever found myself writing that simplistically I would abandon my literary career.)  A longer except may well have been more inviting to a casual internet reader, but the paragraphs contiguous to these were too poorly written to display without significant reworking.
     Feel free to read through and comment if you wish, but I have decided NOT to abandon the roughly 3,000 words of the unfinished first draft.  I suspect that the initial writing when culled in editing and rewritten to exploit language coloring, appropriately researched content and the requisite careful literary allusions will span between 3,000 and 4,000.  With all due respect to the hurried normality of Internet writing, I would suspect that this piece might be ready for viewing as a completed work in 3 to 4 months.

     The times changed and Steven didn’t.  Locked in a mire of self-assuredness and conceit, he ignored the damage his every relationship suffered.  Divorced for the third time, estranged from his brother, and an outcast at his menial job as an accounts payable clerk the Fordham’s Ford dealership, Steven easily identified every fault of every person he ever met, and was never afraid to voice his opinion. 
     Our poor, unsympathetic protagonist lives in a three room basement apartment where the rent covers all utilities and cable TV.  He had tried to upgrade the cable subscription to include some wished for movie channels, but the bill was in Jack’s, the landlord, name.  He did eventually convince a customer service rep to allow him to buy pay-per-view features using his debit card and keep it off the master bill.  These days, if you should venture past the side-yard entrance to his subterranean lair at any time later than ten at night, you will likely here the sophomorically written mood music and over-emoted moans of the latest adult channel releases.  With his right hand lover and his voyeuristic television, Steven reconciled himself to a voluntary hermitage.    

     Life hadn’t always been so simple.  In his youth, he had a string of passionate affairs propagated with hormone driven lust and a steadfast disbelief in the existence of love.  These trysts rarely lasted longer than a few weeks before our charming gigolo became bored his “unimaginative” sex partner, and with his callous but characteristic post-coital declaration of his dissatisfaction, ended the relationship by crushing yet another vulnerable ego while smirking at the incredulous look in her eyes.  In his mind, it was time to move on to the next willing woman in line.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

For All the Tea in Denmark

There was a time when mail was delivered on horseback that the idea of stringing a few wires, adding some relays and talking in a dit dot dit code, you could send a message across the country was an absurd fantasy.

Then this dude Alex came along and got the notion that using some kind of magic, and using the same type of wires and relays as a telegraph, he could send your voice anywhere that had one of his little black boxes with, you guessed it, a Bell inside.  (Talk about self-promotion!)

Marconi did Bell one better, he cast a spell that let voices fly invisibly across miles of sky and blended with some eerie whistles and hiss, could be heard on yet another box.  The radio magic was a huge success and just a couple of weeks before Betty Cronin was to release her newly patented frozen Radio Dinners, Philo Farnsworth improved Marconi's incantation and started broadcasting grainy black and white pictures to weirdly constructed radios with big tubes sticking through the front of the cabinet.

It would not be long before another Alex dreamed of a fantasy world where you could hook his new little box to Bell's little box, and providing someone at the other end had the same kind of box, you could put a piece of paper in one box and have a facsimile of it come out the other.  That of course became the "Bain" of businesses everywhere with the invention of fax spamming.

Only a short few years later, Vice President Al Gore, single handedly invented the Internet, and with a magic that is as yet still not known (Oops, sorry for the delay.  I got knocked off line.)  Anyway, people are still perfecting this unbelievable voodoo, where documents, pictures, whole files, live video, VoIP, and email are all instantly available to everyone who has a box with magic "Gates" inside.

This progression of these technologies is still astounding even today when most of us have never used a telegram, Martin (or is it Martian) Cooper cut the wires off our telephones, fax machines are now unsellable junk in thrift stores, Al Gore sold his TV network to Al Jazeera, and Bill Gates is trying to eradicate the world's diseases while viruses still plague his magic boxes.  But we need one more magical invention.

My partner, co-host, student and friend is "under-the-weather" over in Denmark.  I really want to get her a fresh cup of steaming tea to comfort her in her misery.  I need the next generation of magic boxes so I can put it in here and have it come out there.  Sorry, Adrianna.  I tried.  Maybe you could "nuke" a cup of water in that other magic box and make your own tea while I try to figure out the secret to molecular transportation.  Where is my chief engineer Scotty when I need him?

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Few Choice Words

What’s the difference between ordinary writing and extraordinary literature?

Word choice.

     That is not some editorial decree to run out and buy a new thesaurus (although if you don’t own J. I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, you should go get it), there is a lot more to word choice than a simple book-learned substitution of terms.
     As a self-directed exercise, I suggest you take any sentence out of your most recent work (eventually, take them all out, but start with just one) and challenge yourself to find three uniquely different ways of expressing that same thought.  While ruminating over your language skills, run across your cerebral hall and wake up that flaky poet who resides in the left hemisphere of your brain.  Ask your reclusive internal bard if he/she could suggest a better, more artistic way of presenting your idea.      
      Look for neoteric words, innovative sentence structures and scene appropriate idiom that will convey your ideas more proficiently and with more originality. Consider using of symbolism, analogy, metaphor, simile or juxtaposed scenarios to show your reader the story, not just tell it.
     Great writing requires great effort.  It takes practice to find new, different and novel (pun intended) ways to express your thoughts, and it does require study.  Read the classics, read the acclaimed, read the published, then go back and read them again.  Study the way the masters take a simple idea and apply the alchemy of word choice to turn the heavy LEAD of writing into the precious GOLD of literature.     A favorite line of mine is from Nabokov’s Lolita, as Vladimir described an ill kept lawn, he wrote, “Most of the dandelions had changed from suns into moons.”

     Can you see that lawn?  Is that not a great way to describe weeds?  Keep in mind that this was written by a man who grew up speaking Russian, went to school in France (speaking French) and came to the U.S. with English as his THIRD language.
     Next scan your writing for passé / dated language, clichés and unintentional informality.  I just break this rule every time I write.  Seems like just about every sentence I write with more than five words, just ends up with just in it.  It just bothers the hell out of me.  Really, I just hate that word just, but I say it all of the time so it just sneaks into my writing.
      Be continuously vigilant for equally mundane words or phrases that threaten to infiltrate your writing from the borders of your unregulated conversational language.  When you re-read, don’t read in your own voice; read with the new eyes of your potential audience.  Read your stories out loud, and slowly.  If you have succumbed to the habit of poor language and dismal sentence structure, the offending words will stick to your tongue like the purple dye of cheap grape candy.  
Another offense that every writer commits at times is the use of overused descriptions and clichés.  As an editor, nothing bothers me more than reading something from an author who I know has talent, and running across terms like "chiseled features" of their handsome hero, or his damsel who is "a diamond in the rough" and the inevitability their "falling head over heels" in love.  I would much rather read about a man whose symmetry and lines would make a Michelangelo sculpture envious, who is attracted to a commonly woman whose unadorned aesthetics belie the rich beauty of her soul, and their fated mating of hearts, where two bodies become the symbiotic unity of one love.
     Moving on, the next thing you need to parse and analyze, is your story’s dialogue.  Go hide in your bedroom or out in the shed, and act out your story!  Are your characters speaking like the people you wrote them to be, or are the people in your story talking just like you.  Excuse me for a moment while I strap on this safety helmet; you’ll understand in a second (have you seen my partner, Adrianna?).
      Not long ago I was helping a 
friend with a story.  In a scene were several seasoned, rough and ready, deadly combat marines were facing an as-yet unknown enemy.  One of the subordinate soldiers asked his CO if they should “blow the barn to smithereens.”  Duck!  Here Adrianna comes with her bat!
      I was cussed at for the next few days as my PITA researched military jargon and combat lingo to pen the right words for her platoon of doomed marines.  In the end the Mist lifted and her soldiers sounded like the lethal combatants she needed for the story to work.     
       Who are your characters?  Are they soldiers, doctors, nurses, teenagers, octogenarians, drug addicts, thieves, cops, Bible thumping preachers, unrepentant sinners, promiscuous bar flies, ex-cons or latent homosexual college professors?  Take the story’s action off the page, and look at the naked dialogue out of the context of your story's momentum.  Who is talking?  Are you using your words or are you writing the dialogue of someone with the heritage, education and socio-economic position of your character?  
     For the next exercise, you will need to replace your story’s action back on the page.  This time I want you to take a red pencil and divide your story into action segments.  Whether through summary narration, character actions, crisis building, resolution or denouement, your story is in constant motion.  (If not maybe you should consider starting over.)  With your story segmented, examine each of the portions and define the action using no more than two or three words.  Once you have a name for the action, take out your Synonym Finder (or thesaurus) and start listing as many words as possible that imply or complement that action.  If there is fire, build a list of words that relate to smoke, heat, flame, burnt, ash, charred, inferno, hell.  If there is a contest, look for words that imply victory (or defeat).  Use the same methodology for anger, romance, revenge, fear, betrayal, etc.  You should have a separate list for each change in the direction your story takes.  With these lists in hand, go word by word through your action segments substituting as many relational nouns, verbs and adjectives as is possible.  This is what is known in literature as coloring a story.  It guides your readers through the action with repetitious subliminal suggestions.
     Word colors will carry your audience along the currents of a story's energy, trap them in the eddies of character indecision and thrash them against the rocks in the rapids of crisis.

      When you've finished putting your colors in, go back through the words that you didn't change and be SURE that there are no words that contrast with the color of the action.  You would not want rosy, prize, win, award, ribbon, trophy, optimistic or leader if your character is in a downward spiral or in the process of failing at his/her efforts.

     Coloring your scenes will draw your readers into the mood of the story; dialogue will build the realism of your characters; idiom that matches the time, place and culture of your story creates credibility, and innovative expression will demonstrate your mastery of the craft.
      Writing takes effort; great writing takes great effort.  Nabokov, Faulkner, Chekov, Hemingway, Joyce, Kafka and Melville were not made in a single day.  They practiced and failed; learned and grew; and eventually found their unique path to the immortality we all strive for.  Your path is waiting.
      Did you REALLY think you were done?  C’mon, no one said this was going to be easy.  Get that story back out!   Read through it one more time and find everyplace you used the same word twice (or God forbid three times).  Recheck those sentences carefully, are there other word substitutions that might work?  Could you restructure the presentation of the story without using and re-using the same words.  Even your grandma’s 1950s vintage edition of Roget’s Thesaurus might suggest a few words to improve your writing.
       Okay, the lesson is over.  Now it is up to you to study, practice and improve.  The next time you need a woman to scream in fear while a violent storm rages and a door creaks open letting in some evil entity; I want to experience the high octave modulation of incomprehensible terror, the trees of the shadowy copse weeping their unheeded warning amidst the howl of dark winds, and the rusty pivots of hinges braking hard against unlubricated pins with an eerily down-pitched whistle that announces the ominous entry of the demonic poltergeist.
     Word choice is the incantation behind the Magic of Writing.  If you study the ancient texts, learn the lessons of sorcerers with more experience, practice your spell casting, and have confidence in your mystic powers, you too can create extraordinary literature from ordinary writing.