f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 12/01/2004 - 01/01/2005

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, December 31, 2004

And at InFuze....

The top five stories from the contest.

#1 - Missing Christmas

#2 - The Swap of the Magi

#3 - Unfinished Business
#4 - The Beautiful Girl
#5 - "Happy" Holidays

Claudia Burney - "Home for Christmas"

My name is Bell Brown, and I hate Christmas. I never hated it before, and I find this new and vexing feeling a bit foul and unsettling, like a bad case of gas, or maybe I really do have a bad case of gas.

I'm sitting in my shabby chic apartment, which in my hormonal rage resembles a garage sale gone painfully wrong. I'm polishing off my third bag of barbeque Fritos, which I topped with a shredded cheese blend labeled "Mexican." Feliz Navidad. Damn it.

Now I'm cussing.

I'm sorry Jesus.

This Christmas I'm single and pregnant. Now, don't go judging me. I'm forty years old, and recovering from a awful case of endometriosis, which my gynecologist assured me would be cured when I got pregnant.

God, all I wanted for Christmas was a baby, and when my biological clock exploded, I found the idea of being artificially inseminated floating about in the debris. So, I did it. And it worked.

Bad move. Not only am I alone and pregnant, I'm mad because I didn't even get to experience the joy of sex. My great grandmother, the diva I was named after, would say, "Baby, you wrong as two left shoes." And she'd be right. Old black women are mystics, and I, her hard-headed descendent, am rewarded with loneliness and a compulsion to strain my arteries with enough carbs to re-kill the late Dr. Atkins.

Adultery is against my religion. Yes, I said the 'A' word--a hateful, accusing word that gets people stoned--and I ain't talking dope. It stands out like a scarlet letter for more than literary reasons. You see, I nailed my sexual past--and I do have one, to the cross, and let the blood of sweet Jesus cover it, but I didn't nail love there. Like an idiot, I fell in love with a drop dead gorgeous, married detective, my sperm donor. His name is Jazz Brown. No relation.

Look, I didn't know he was married at first, and he wasn't expecting me to kiss him. The whole thing may have gone down a lot differently when we met if it weren't my fortieth birthday, and those two people weren't dead, and my sister wasn't the medical examiner dragging me to a crime scene. Honestly, the man invited me inside to give my professional opinion as a forensic psychologist. No way I was going to punk out. I just thank God he's a man of prayer, and comforted me so tenderly when I freaked out, just before I threw up on his alligator shoes. It was that death smell. You don't get a whiff of essence of corpse on a crime scene photo.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. That smell--it's the fearfully part, and let me tell you, it doesn't come out of the red silk dress that your sister gave you. Your sister who actually knows what Victoria's Secret is. The dress you know you will never, ever look that good in again.

It's Christmas Eve. Jazz called an hour ago. I would have survived, sappy music and all, if I'd never answered the phone.

He wanted to know how I was feeling.

Pukey.

"I'm great," I lied.

He wanted to know if I were doing anything tonight.

Suffering existential angst while being tormented with painful, futile thoughts. What's worse, I'm a psychologist, and feel guilty about my misery.

"Nah. I'm just going to enjoy the special Christmas programs on television and hit the sack early."

He said he was going to spend Christmas Eve with his family. By that I'm assuming he means his parents, not his wife, who left him three years ago for his partner, Chris. Chris, as in Christine, and now she's his wife's partner. Jazz is in love with me, too, and everyday is an adventure, trying to figure out how to stay away from each other. If I thought he excelled with the 'no touching' rule we implemented, he ascended to the heavens in avoidance of me today.

Insensitive M-A-L-E! The worst of four letter words. Almosts as insidious as L-O-V-E and W-I-F-E.

I showed admirable restraint on the phone, only to tie one on with salty snacks seconds after hanging up.

I'll be okay. Before I the call, I was almost as normal as the masses of pathetic souls who spend Christmas Eve excruciatingly depressed while the radio batters them with songs like, "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Sing it with me:

"I'll be home for Christmas,
You can count on me,
Blah, blah, blah,
How many stories down can I jump,
And will I die instantleeeeee?"


Okay, maybe I took a few liberties with the lyrics, but honestly, I don't want to be alone my first Christmas with my little test tube baby bun in the oven, and no angels to show me how not wonderful life would be like if I were never born.

He could have asked me to go to his parent's house. His wife and her lover certainly wouldn't be hanging out there. The last he heard, Kim married her in an illegal ceremony in Royal Oak.

It's cool. Being a high maintenance female, I do have an emergency stash of hot chocolate that I'll make when I'm truly desperate. I'll add a peppermint stick, for a festive touch.

Oh, God. Kill me now.

No, don't, God. I'm tough. My people were slaves. Surely I can abide one funky Christmas Eve. Call me Kizzy, or Kunta Kinte. I've got superblackwoman strength. I can do this!

No I can't. I'd fail as a slave. Massa would have to kill me because I'm too tired pick cotton due to profound, pregnancy induced fatigued, and salt swollen feet. If rousing stories of African American suffering can't motivate me, I need to take more extreme measures.

I must read my Bible, untouched since I attended church two weeks ago. I'll work on that. It's my pre-New Year's resolution. This year I'm going to read the Bible in one year. For now, the Christmas story will due, a less daunting, though still formidable task.

Okay, I don't have the strength to read the Bible. God, forgive me. Can you just allow me to wallow here in what will soon be my own vomit because I'm nauseated. Again.

Thank God for the scripture memory verses.

“Matthew 1:23. 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, God with us.'"

Wow. God with us. Wrapped in a tiny bundle of flesh, just like the one I'm carrying inside. I wonder if Mary was ever scared? If she ever questioned her sexuality because she craved so much salt that Lot's wife sounded good to her? Did she know if she did the right thing? I just wanted a baby. I didn't want to sin, but I didn't want to be alone anymore. God have mercy on the both of us if this was the wrong decision. On the three of us, God, because, I love Jazz, too.

Who's at my door? I have to drag my cadaver across the room, but the Word has sparked a little hope in my queasy soul.

Maybe it's my angel, here to show me that my baby is here for a reason.

Oh my goodness! It's Jazz, and he's got two huge shopping bags of presents, and flowers in his hands.

I'm shaking as I open the door.

"What are you doing here?"

"I told you I was spending Christmas Eve with my family."

He's smiling that amazing, movie star smile.

"Madonna lilies," he's saying, "'I have gone to my garden, to the beds of spices, to feed the flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloveds.' That's the song, Bell, chapter 6 verses, two and three. Actually, I got these flowers from the Internet, and have been trying to keep them alive for two days. They're a little wilted, but they symbolize chastity, and let's face it, both of our chastities are wilted."

He touched my face with a flower. "This is a token to let you know that I'll be a good boy. They also symbolize everlasting beauty, in honor of you, and the baby God has so mercifully given us, in spite of ourselves. Let's end the old year, and start the new one, right. Merry Christmas, mama, and Merry Christmas, baby."

"Merry Christmas, Jazz. And--and, waaaahhhhhh."

Jazz's arms are around me, expertly violating our no touching rule. I'm being ushered into the living room as if it were the presence of God. He's trailing gifts behind him.

God with us.

Maybe this is the presence of God. God with us. All around. Never going away.


I'm clutching my pregnant belly, a mere maternal swell in my first trimester, but God is with us, and somehow I know everything will be all right.

The radio is on, and he holds me and I cry. We rock, almost like we're dancing.

"We'll figure it out, little Mama. I'll keep seeking the Lord, just like the wise men did."

Jazz sings to me the song playing on the radio. He knows all the lyrics.

"I'll be home for Christmas," he croons, "If only in my dreams."

It's my favorite song, next to that one in the Bible, nestled in the books of wisdom.

I give him a squeeze, and then I throw up on his Nikes.

Feliz Navidad. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Kenn Allan - "The Last Patient"

For the third year in a row, I drew the Christmas Eve shift at the mental health clinic. This irritated me--not because I actually had anything better to do, but due to the common perception that people without families should willingly surrender their holiday for those who do. Therefore, I found myself once again commanding an office staffed by others either too young or too dedicated to take advantage of the freedom offered by domestic bliss.

It had been a slow day, the monotony only broken by the usual cases of holiday depression and one bona fide schizophrenic. Most of my time was spent gazing out the window at the fresh layer of snow covering the city and wondering how long it would take to dig my car out of the white mess at the end of my shift. I was about a half-hour from finding out when the intercom on my desk crackled to life.

"Dr. Simons?," came a static-filled voice. "There is a patient here to see you."

Drat. There went my chances of slipping out early. "Very well," I replied, translating my disappointment into a severe plunging of the intercom button. "Send them in."

I wasn't quite prepared for the person who shuffled through the door. It was a woman, diminutive in stature, wearing the customary street garb of oversized overcoat and woolen scarf tied over her head. Her eyes, although set deep into her weathered features, were bright and clear. A soiled shopping bag was clutched tightly in fingerless gloves, swinging gently against her sagging stockings as she approached the desk. Her entire appearance held a strangeness which was hard to identify--as if a character created by Hugo or Dickens was suddenly brought to life.

"Merry Christmas, doctor," she croaked, flashing a toothless grin. "May I sit?" Without waiting for an answer, she plopped into one of the two chairs situated in front of the desk.

It has become my habit to try and guess a person's complaint before the initial interview begins. This woman appeared too cheerful for depression and too cognizant for drug or alcohol abuse. Her attire, although somewhat faded in places, was clean and in good repair which ruled out dementia. Generally, she appeared to be a well-nourished elderly woman in no acute distress. I was stumped.

"So, how can I help you today?" I asked.

"Oh, look at it snow!" she sang, pointing at the view outside my window. "I think God created snow just for children, don't you? Grownups think it's a nuisance, but it is truly magical stuff if you look at it through a child's eyes."

Aware she had ignored my question, I opened my lower desk drawer and pulled out a copy of the standard mental status test. This one would have to be done by the book. "Do you know your name?" I asked firmly.

The woman looked startled. "Of course I do. My name is Lena."

"Very good," I murmured, recording her answer. "Do you know where we are?"

"Why?" she asked innocently. "Are we lost?"

It was my turn to ignore her question. "Do you know what day it is?"

"You certainly ask silly questions," Lena said, frowning. "It's Christmas Eve"

It was clear this approach wasn't going to work either. I jotted 'Uncooperative' across the top of the test and pushed it to one side. "Lena, I can't help you unless you tell me why you are here," I appealed in my most compassionate tone. "You must trust me."

Lena studied me long and hard, as if trying to decide if I was worthy of her trust. After a full minute, her face relaxed. "It's sugarplums!" she blurted. "You have to do something about those sugarplums."

I was both startled and dumbfounded by her unexpected outburst. "Sugarplums?"

The old woman nodded vigorously. "Every night it's the same thing. Visions of sugarplums a-dancin' through my head."

"Are you telling me you are experiencing visual hallucinations?" I asked.

"Naw, not hallucinations. Mainly gingerbread men," Lena replied. "Although candy canes and gumdrops do drop in occasionally."

"I see. And have you experienced any auditory hallucinations?"

"Eh?"

"Do you hear anything when you see the gingerbread men?"

"Music," Lena admitted. "Tchaikovsky, I think."

"How long have you been seeing and hearing these things?"

The old woman leaned back and stared dreamily at the ceiling. "Since I was a little girl, every Christmas I can remember," she said. "They'd arrive 'bout the same time as the Christmas tree and disappear with the last remnants of ribbon and wrapping paper. But they always came back the next year. And the next." Lena paused and looked directly into my eyes. "You understand what I'm talkin' about, don't you?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't."

"You mean to tell me your head never filled up with such things as a boy?"

For just a moment, I allowed my mind to wander back to childhood memories of pine-scented rooms and twinkling lights. The air was filled with whispers of unknown surprises, and bedtime was a struggle between exhaustion and anticipation. And yes, I suppose at one time there were visions of sugarplums.

"'Scuse me, doctor, but I think you're hallucinatin'."

"No, I was just remembering," I explained, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

"Rememberin' what? Sugarplums?"

"Partly, yes."

"Well, I don't have to think so hard to remember mine. Where did yours go?"

Her simple question took me off guard. When did the magic of Christmas go away? During those cynical teenage years when rebellion was confused with identity? Or was it simply overshadowed by a burgeoning career as a respected psychologist? Either way, it was gone. More troubling is that it wasn't missed. Until now, anyway.

Putting my personal thoughts aside, I forced myself to become a psychologist once again. "The only way to solve a problem is to identify the cause," I lectured. "For example, have you been drinking more than usual lately?"

Lena furrowed her brow. "No, not really. A few glasses of water per day and some spiced cider before bedtime is 'bout all I ever need."

"I meant alcohol."

"Never touch it. Oh, 'cept I did have a glass of eggnog at the Senior Center Christmas party a few days back. Made me positively giddy."

"Very good," I responded with clinical precision. "Have you suffered a recent trauma to the head?" I flashed her an exaggerated wink. "You didn't fall and bump your head while decorating your tree, did you?"

Lena shook her head vigorously. "Don't have a tree, only a wreath on my apartment door." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Least I did, until they took it."

"Who took it? The gingerbread men?"

Lena laughed out loud. "Don't be ridiculous. It were them boys that live down the hall."

"Ahh--and do you feel threatened by those boys?"

"Nope. They're good boys."

"Then why did they steal your wreath?"

"They didn't steal it. I gave it to 'em. Their folks are too poor to afford decorations of their own."

"So why are you telling me about it?" My head was beginning to pound.

"Because you asked. Weren't you interested?"

"No, I am only interested in possible reasons for your visions of sugarplums."

"Haven't you been listening?" she snapped. "I already know the reason. Christmas!"

Lena watched with interest as I retrieved three ibuprofen tablets from my desk drawer and swallowed them without the benefit of water. "Lena, what exactly do you want from me?" I asked, unable to hide my exasperation.

"Well, it's about time you asked me that," Lena sighed. "I need to get rid of those sugarplums. I was hopin' you could take 'em off my hands. Just for tonight, though."

"Why tonight?"

"'Cause I'm afraid they will keep me up late and I'll sleep late in the mornin'. I'm serving supper at the Hope Street Mission so there's lots of folks countin' on me for Christmas dinner." Her face suddenly brightened. "If you'll take the sugarplums off my mind fer tonight, I'll give you a Christmas dinner for your trouble tomorrow."

The very idea sent a shock of pride through my entire body. "I'm sorry, Lena, but I am certainly not in the habit of accepting charity."

"Oh, I see. You'll probably be sharin' Christmas with your family, is that it?"

"Well, no..."

"Goin' to church, mebbe?"

"No. I'll be spending a quiet day home alone."

"Humph," she grumbled. "Sure sound like a charity case to me."

I could almost hear the hiss of my stuffed shirt deflating. She was right, of course--I had nothing better to do than spend Christmas by myself. I spent the better part of my life striving for personal glory, while Lena worried more about the welfare of others than herself. The result? I was going to be alone on Christmas and she wasn't.

"Okay, here's the deal," I began. "I'll take the sugarplums tonight in exchange for dinner at the mission tomorrow. But only if you promise to take them back at the end of the day."

"You bet!" Lena agreed, her eyes dancing with excitement. "I couldn't face next Christmas without 'em." She slid from the chair and shuffled towards the door. "Noon, Hope Street and Fifth Avenue," she called over her shoulder. "Oh, one more thing..."

"Yes?"

"Better bring an apron." The door quickly closed behind her.

The muffled chiming of a clock somewhere signaled the end of another day. However, I was in no hurry to leave--the view of the city being slowly covered by a blanket of white was too beautiful to miss. I watched the gentle falling of snowflakes until drowsiness overtook me, and the last few hours before Christmas were spent surrounded by dancing sugarplums.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

2004 Christmas Stories

Have you read the submitted stories for the Christmas story contest? Besides those appearing here and at InFuze here's a great way to find many others.

Recently added
Phil Kan - "Gabriel"

Karlton Douglas-"A Santa Story"
Sandra Bishop-"And the Stockings Were Hung"
Micah L. Key-"A Promise Honored"
Violet Nesdoly - "My Messiah"
Angie Poole - "Like Birthday Cake "
Tom SternerHowe - "The Bicycle "
Warren Fitzpatrick-"From Castles to Stables"
Ben Forrest-"Loading Up"
Kenn Allan-"The Last Patient"
Mary DeMuth-"The Painting"
Marcia Lee Laycock-"Missing Christmas"
Steve Trower-"Strand"
Katie Hart-"Have Yourself a Merry Little "
Sally Apokedak-"No Accidents"
Rebecca Carter-"Peace on Earth"
Michael Snyder-"Unfinished Business"
Matt Bronleewe-"The Lamest Christmas Story Ever"
Tony Woodlief-"My Christmas Story: How I Ended Up Baking A Cake at 11PM Christmas Eve."
Trevor Denning-"Light and Life"
Marissa Lynn-"The Barnes and Noble Gift Wrapper"
Dianne E. Butts-"Twas the Night Before"
Chris Mikesell-"By Any Other Name"
David Long-"Good Neighbors"

Amber Ferguson - "It's a Wonderful Meat"

Not many myths surrounding him are true. Sure, he wears the red suit, has that white beard, and he is plump. Disgustingly so.

And, yeah, I've heard him, "Ho, ho," a couple of times--after he’s had too much eggnog. But he's not jolly and his eyes don't twinkle. They glow with an evil light.

That's why I'm here, starving in this Tijuana prison. I tried to extinguish that glow. Permanently. The Man is a menace--cruel--he must be stopped! His fame lies in the bowels of the earth: his toy-making slaves in the gloomy dungeons beneath the North Pole.

Even this jail is better than those dungeons. At least it's warm here. Do you realize how sensitive pointy ears are to frostbite? How susceptible tiny lungs are to pneumonia? The Man knows--and doesn't care. My mother died right after the big Christmas push of 1971. The Man sent her on reindeer poop-scoop detail, though she told him she was sick. I lost Dad shortly afterward. One day he filed a grievance and the next day he was crushed beneath an avalanche of Easy Bake Ovens, deep within Warehouse #8. "Freak accident," The Man called it.

That's when I decided to make a break for it; go someplace warm and dance in the sunshine. But how? Though magical creatures, elves are raised from infants as slaves. At the age of five, we’re forced to memorize The Book of Rules: 231 Rules, designed to control our magic so we never understand our powers.

I watched for a chance to escape. Finally, by luck or fate, I overslept one morning when my rooster didn't crow. I was furious with the bird. Braiding Barbie hair was the standard punishment for being tardy. No one was looking as I ran by him, so I stuck my tongue out at him--a direct violation of Rule #142. The rooster exploded. As the feathers rained down around me, I suddenly realized why that was a forbidden practice.

A hundred of us escaped together. The locks on the dungeon doors exploded before our outstretched tongues like dynamite. The guards, those foolish enough to get in our way, did the same. Shouting, "Take this job and shove it up a chimney!" we gagged the others and ran for the golden rays of Tijuana and freedom.

The Man sent his Royal Guard after us. Before we even set foot on the beach, they had thirty of us. Those of us who got away leased a beach condo and laid low. We posted guards but we were edgy; the mere tinkling of a wind chime sent us scrambling for cover. Forty more disappeared after they received postcards announcing they'd won a free cruise. They went to a remote dock to claim their prizes and we never saw them again. The Man was that cunning.

The rest were captured when an e-mail started circulating, warning that a deadly ice storm was heading for Tijuana. I had suspected it was a trick, and hopped on-line to surf the web for environmental and climate reports. But I stumbled across a web game called Bounce Out, distracting me from my research. Two days later, my finger too tired to click the mouse even once more, I looked up from the computer and realized they had left me behind. They had run straight to the airport, where the Royal Guard awaited them. I was the only one left.

I realized I had to get rid of The Man for good. I only had one weapon to use against him, but it was a sneaky one. I knew his dirty little secret--the one only someone who's ridden shotgun with him knows:

Santa has a fetish for canned Spam.

The Man craves that spicy, meat-like food with a sickening lust. I remember one Christmas Eve--just as we'd finished in the Manchester countryside, heading for London--he got that wild, dazed look that signified a craving. I hung on by my fingernails for half an hour as he drove that sleigh through a sky heavy with sleet, often upside down, sometimes in a nosedive, until he finally found an open store. It was the worst ride of my life. I'd have killed him then, if I could have gotten away with it.

I planned to use his addiction to my advantage. A true connoisseur, he is not satisfied with a simple snack of fried Spam on white bread. No, The Man lusts for variety: Spam on toasted wheat with anchovies and a pinch of thyme; Spam on gingerbread with a hint of mint; Spam on a bagel, dripping in melted Roquefort cheese, a carafe of Cognac on the side. . . . Fortunately, these abominable binges make him sick. I could work that to my advantage, gambling that he could not watch his back while keeping his head positioned correctly over the toilet.

He had to be somewhere close, closing in on my location. It would be risky, luring him directly to me, but I laid my trap. Attaching a small satellite-tracking device to a Spam can's bottom, I set it on top of my chimney with a recipe I had created to be particularly brutal to his gut: roasted Spam with shallots and cayenne pepper, swimming in a jalapeno chili-cheese sauce. It would be new to him, a recipe I hoped he find irresistible.

I held my breath and listened . . . soon, I detected a soft thud upon my roof. Though the sound of each little hoof's prancing and pawing grew quite loud, I distinguished a heavy tread lumbering toward my chimney, then . . . a pause. And there was silence.

I tossed and turned through the night, waiting for morning--the best time to attack someone suffering from a Spam hangover. When the sea shined barely pink in the dawning sunlight, I made my move. Following the can's satellite-tracking data, I crept toward a beach front condo. Closer, closer.... When I heard him inside, retching, I made my move....

I flung myself on his back and held on tight. It wasn’t easy; The Man bucked like a Brahma bull. Shoving his head in the toilet, I flushed with all my strength. He sputtered--victory was within my grasp--and I giggled, a direct violation of Rule #107. I suddenly learned why that rule existed. In a poof of red smoke, Santa transformed into an exquisite butterfly and fluttered away.

So did the toilet, the sink, the ceramic tile, and everything else within ten feet. The wall separating The Man's bathroom from the neighboring condo's bathroom fluttered away as well. Was it luck the surprised gentleman shampooing his hair was a Tijuana cop? I think not.

The Man was more cunning than I'd realized.

Editor's note: Of course, this was just a fairy tale. Toys are really produced by well-paid, college-educated citizens in democratic nations.

Our next story comes from China...

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Violet Nesdoly - "My Messiah"

I shiver under my goat hair cloak. It's cold at night on the hills outside Bethlehem. I wish I were at home in bed. But a few weeks ago my father said, "Joel, you're 12. You need to learn the night watch." And so here I am, cold and sleepy, but I have to stay awake because it's my turn to watch the sheep. I look over at the flock, an island of wooly pebbles. Beside me, father snores a soft rhythm. Nearby, Abiram and Kohar, still awake, talk quietly.

"Plugged with travelers," Kohar says.

"Caesar is insane to command a census at this time of year," says Abiram. "He just wants more names for his filthy tax list." Then, lowering his voice so I barely hear, "I met a man in the village who's gathering an army to fight those Gentile thieves. He's training them to use swords." When he notices I'm listening, he stops. "The lamblet has, big ears." He winks at Kohar.

He doesn't want me to hear because of my father. Father's the chief shepherd and he doesn't approve of resistance fighters. He has one passion. It's to see the coming of Messiah.

"Messiah is coming," he always says, "and when He comes, He will be a true Savior. He will bring freedom and set up God's kingdom in His own wonderful way."

In the past, I never doubted him. But the talk tonight reminds me of the anger I feel when I see the Roman soldiers. They ride into Bethlehem and inspect it on snorting horses. They beat people who don't pay taxes. They make fun of synagogue teachers. They treat us like animals.

Above me now, the black sky is dotted with stars. Is there really a God up there? All my life I've heard there is, but lately I wonder. Maybe God and Messiah are only wishes. My father serves God without question. Yet for our family, things only get worse. The price for wool goes down, my mother has to open a stall at the market and my father works longer - for what? Just to give Caesar more?

I imagine my fingers tracing the cold metal handle of a sword under my cloak. I shiver, get up, toss a few sticks into the fire. The flames lick and began to dance.

Then blinding brightness!

At first I think something has flamed in the fire pit, but in the next instant, the sky turns from dark to dazzling and I see the light is coming, not from the fire but from a man. I can’t move. Is this God? Has He read my doubting thoughts? Is He going to punish me?

Around me the others sit up.

"Don't be afraid," The shining man's voice booms. His bright eyes look right into mine. "I bring you the most joyful news ever told. And it's for everyone! The Savior has been born tonight in Bethlehem! Yes! This is the Messiah, the Lord. How will you know him? You'll find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger."

Then the sky gets even brighter and as far as I can see are more shining men. They stretch way into the distance like an army, and they are chanting. "Glory to God in the highest Heaven. Peace on earth, good will to men. Glory to God in the highest Heaven. Peace on earth, good will to men."

It's grand, majestic, the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. I wish they would never stop. But gradually the sound gets quieter and the shining army fades. Finally only the flickering firelight shows a ring of stunned faces. I hear the t-whoo, t-whoo of an owl.

Then everyone starts talking at once.

"Angels! Those were angels"

"Thousands, millions!"

"Messiah! He said Messiah!" It's my father. "I'm going to Bethlehem to find that baby."

"We're going with you!"

"Father, what about the sheep? Can I come too," I ask.

"If God can fill the sky with angels, He can surely watch a few sheep," my father says, with a laugh.

"Joel, I wouldn't have you miss this for the world!"

As we hurry into town, the talk turns to how we'll find this baby in the whole town of Bethlehem, and at night. Father's faith is unshakable. "If angels told us about the baby, we'll find him," he says.

"It's a baby in a manger."

"Many mangers here," Abiram says as we enter the town.

Bethlehem sleeps. As we pass house after house, inn after inn, no one's awake. Then I see a light.

"There Father," I point to the dim glow, coming from a shelter behind an inn.

We trot across the courtyard and push open the door. Inside, a man leans over something in the manger. Then Father and I hear the cry of a newborn baby.

"God be praised!" Father exclaims. The others crowd into the doorway.

The man straightens up and looks at us. "We have permission," he says. "The innkeeper--"

"We're sorry to bother you," Father says, "but we were told about the baby by angels.

"The sky was full of them," I add.

A young woman sits up from a pile of hay. Bits of straw stick to her hair and cloak. The man picks up the wailing baby and places it in her arms.

My Father walks over and crouches down beside her. "The angels called this baby Messiah," he says as he reaches out and touches the child, then kneels. "My Messiah."

The stable is full of a holy presence and we all fall to our knees.

As we troop through town on our way back to the hills we sing and talk and laugh.

Someone in a house along the way flings open a window and shouts, "Quiet down you drunks! How's a person to sleep?"

Father calls back, "We're not drunk. An amazing thing just happened!" Then he tells it all.

As he's talking other windows open. He tells and retells the story.

"Incredible! Amazing!" the people say. "Do you believe it?"

At our hillside encampment the sheep are still there, all safe. Only embers glow in the fire pit. I toss in some sticks and sit close to the warmth. It feels like days since I was last here.

A minute later, Abiram comes and sits beside me.

"No need to tell your father about the resistance army, Joel," he says. "I won't be joining."

I think, neither will I.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Grace Chik - "The Best Decorated House"

Four months before Christmas the people of a little town of Naton were already in a frenzy. Every year the residents competed for the best-decorated house. All put their free time into making their rooftops and front lawns into a fantastic Christmas exhibit. The judging night was always Christmas Eve. The judge was usually the mayor or a prominent citizen but this year, the identity was kept as a secret. The winning house would get no taxes and free government services, such as electricity, for the whole year.

There was an endless clamour of sounds everywhere, from the stores to all the neighbourhoods.

"All right! Who broke a leg off each reindeer?!"

"Why didn't anyone tell me these Christmas lights are no good?!"

"What do you mean you ran out of those nutcracker soldiers?! You're supposed to keep track of all your inventory at this time of year!"



One day a new family settled in Naton in the midst of the traditional Christmas competition. The Kohowks did their best to live in spite of the ongoing racket. In fact, everybody was so focussed with dressing up their rooftops and front lawns that hardly anyone bothered to welcome them.

One morning, Mrs. Kohowk went out for a walk. The birds' singing was muffled up by the constant bickering and accusations within the neighbourhood.

"You stole my idea!"

"Did not! You're just jealous!"

"Turn down that music!"

"Keep your kids and dogs away from my lawn!"

She happened to see a woman dressing a frozen snow-woman in a maid's costume. Her display appeared to be a Christmas dinner party. All the trees and bushes were decked with lights and ornaments. A ping-pong table and chairs were covered thinly with snow. Ice sculptures were shaped and coloured to resemble food, plates and utensils; only the wine glasses were real. Mannequins in elegant clothes and jewelry sat around the table. Everywhere else frozen snow-people stood in servants' clothes.

Mrs. Kohowk greeted, "Good morning."

The woman turned and studied her. "I've never seen you before."

"My husband, my kids and I came to live here recently. My name is Marilyn Kohowk."

"Well, nice to meet you. I'm Betty Jones."

Marilyn was impressed of Betty's artistic effort. "Well, you are doing a good job. Did your family help you as well?"

Betty bitterly sighed, "Not as much as I wanted. They're supposed to help me right now but my kids are down with a flu. So, my husband drove them to my parents' place out of town and now he still hasn't returned. They always leave things for me to do."

Betty glared at Marilyn. "What are you doing here now? If you're thinking of stealing my idea--"

"Oh, no. My family don't have much to decorate our new home; so, whatever we have is already sufficient."

Betty seemed to accept Marilyn's response. "Okay, I can live with that. Now, if you will excuse me, I can finish this at best without any more disturbance."

Marilyn remained friendly. "Certainly. Have a good day."



During the light blizzard, on the night of Christmas Eve, Betty was resting in her living room when she heard a shout from outside.

"OUT!! GET OUT!! YOU'LL RUIN MY CHANCE OF WINNING THE COMPETITION!!"

Betty peaked through the small window of her front door. Scampering to Betty's front lawn was a small child in a very warm coat, boots, hat and mitts. As the little girl stared in awe at the dinner scenery, Betty was steaming in fury. From her coat closet she seized a broom. Rushing out the door, she swung her broom at the wandering kid.

"SHOO!! GO HOME!! YOU'RE TRACKING FOOTPRINTS AND THE JUDGE WILL BE HERE SOON!! GO HOME!! NOW!!"

As the frightened child hurried towards the next house Betty’s husband rushed out. He took the broom away from his wife.

"Bets, calm down. That was only a little girl. You should have helped her; she might be lost."

"What? And ruin my chance of being congratulated by whoever the judge is? That kid is becoming a menace of the neighbourhood. You're some help, Roger."



Midnight came and went as the blizzard disappeared. Betty was pacing around her living room. Unexpectedly a sight caught her attention off-guard. Walking up the road, in front of her house, were the mayor and the police chief. Neither man took a glimpse at her sculpture. Trailing behind the two men were a group of Betty's neighbours; all appeared to be curious.
Quickly Betty grabbed her coat and boots and stepped outdoors.

She managed to catch up to the front of the line. "Mayor Servot. Chief Branz."

The two men glanced at her. "Hello, Betty," greeted Servot.

"Merry Christmas, Betty," greeted Branz.

"Where are you going?"

Branz explained, "The winning house has been found and we're on our way to see it."

As the group continued their journey, more neighbours came out with curiosity. They also wondered why their homes weren't judged and the mysterious judge had already made his decision.

They came upon a house at the end of the road. It was decorated with absolutely nothing. Behind the curtains of a large window, one could see the silhouette of a tree with very small lights.

A voice at the back demanded, "How could this be the winning house?! We worked so hard at ours and this one has nothing!”
As others raised their voices in agreement the mayor calmly suggested, "Let's go in and hear what the judge has to say about this one."

They approached the front door. The police chief rang the doorbell. There were light footsteps. They heard the lock clicked. The door was opened, revealing Marilyn's smiling face.

She greeted, "Merry Christmas, everyone."

Betty demanded, "Marilyn, how can your house be the best-decorated place in Naton?"

Marilyn became puzzled. "I don't understand. My family has no intention of entering the contest."

Servot declared, "Perhaps we come in and clear the whole matter up."

As the guests entered the Kohowks' household, the neighbours gasped in astonishment. Drinking a cup of hot chocolate in the dining room was the little girl.

Marilyn explained, "My husband found her crying on our front lawn. He took her inside here. Right now he is talking to her parents."

The child turned. Horrified, she placed the cup onto the table and jumped off the chair. She rushed to the mayor and grasped his right leg.

"Those people are mean to me, Mr. Mayor."

Servot patted her head. "I'm sure they didn't mean to be that way, Jessica. You did a good job tonight."

A man who scolded the child before Betty did demaned, "What job? We've been waiting for the judge all night and he didn't show up."

Branz pointed out, "Au contraire, the judge did show up but you scared her away."

Everyone, including Marilyn, was surprised and gazed at the frightened girl.

Servot explained, "We the city council knew that you expected the 'mysterious judge' to be someone with high prestige and popularity. So, we decided to send someone who is everyone's least expectations. Jessica's family won last year's contest. I told Jessica that, as soon she found the best-looking house, she was to call me at Chief Branz's office. I must say, this indeed is the best-decorated house in Naton."

Branz pointed out, "For the past few years, just about everyone forgot the nature of the contest. It's supposed to have fun. Look what happened lately. Every day and night, the police force have to keep the town quiet from noisy bickering. There's nothing wrong with the contest itself; it's your attitude towards it. You've been putting so much priority on it that you've forgotten to look after the needs of others. Even when the contest was over, I've heard a lot of disagreements and broken friendships during those years. It's one thing to make your houses look good on the outside; if you continue to fight about decorating your homes at work, in stores or anywhere, or even within your own families, not only you will make your place a disaster, but also the whole town of Naton. Our town has become a war-zone area and there hasn't been much peace around here."

Instantly the crowd's skepticism melted. The once bitter neighbours became saddened in guilt. However, when they gazed at Marilyn's smile they felt a bit of tenderness in themselves.

Servot nodded. "Now look at this house. In fact, can you feel the warmth of this house? There's love in the air. That's what attracted our little judge to choose this place and that's one of the key ingredients of making this house beautifully decorated."

In the same way, we celebrate Christmas because God has given us the best Christmas decoration for our lives: the birth of His Son Jesus. Our lives, no matter how we live, are made beautifully as God has intended us to be.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

My Christmas Story - 2004

This stems directly from immersing myself too deeply in Dickens this Christmas. Still, I hope you enjoy. Lots more stories coming soon. Merry Christmas!


"Good Neighbors"

-- He's drunk, Agatha. Off his gourd.

-- Bide your tongue, Edwin. T'is Christmas Eve.

Edwin spoke nothing further. But neither did he move from the leaded window where he stood watch however, swabbing now and then at the gathering frost and steam with the soiled hem of his apron. The night was beastly cold and it pained him to see the old codger--all sinew and venom--bearing the chill to stare at that gargantuan door knocker as though it had spoken to him.

-- Edwin... the Rafferty top. C'mon now.

The chime at the church just around the corner chimed quarter to ten, and its mournful, frigid greeting seemed to rouse their "esteemed" neighbor. He unlocked the great door's bolts, swung the irons open, and disappeared into the dark. Edwin waited for the door to swing shut.

-- Edwin!

Clang. It did, but a second later than he'd have expected. Things round these parts worked like clockwork--Edwin counted on it--and tonight, everything, even the smallest bits were amiss. The footsteps, sure, were the same scraping up the cobbled path...but they'd come an hour later. And they'd been slow and tedious, not the precise and measured beat of heel upon stone. Then there'd been that interminable silence that had driven Edwin to the window in the first place. Why wasn't he opening the door? Sound resounded through their shared building like a rector's words through St. Paul's and Edwin had waited, waited for the sound of the keys to find the lock, but it'd only been silence. He'd had to see what was happening.

-- He's in now.

-- Well thankee for small mercies. Wouldn't want a corpse, icicles about the nose, to greet us Christmas morning. Never a way to ring the Yule. If we're not still working by the break of morning in the first place.

Edwin heard the sharpening of her tone and stepped from the window. Agatha put up with most of his "curiousities" as she called them--his counting and recounting of shillings and pence, the way he touched her cheek five times before sleeping, that he measured six times, cut once--but never would she allow it to linger too long. Especially when they had orders to fill.

Millinery is fine work. In all senses of the word, at least for Edwin Hanover. The retting and mulling and even that final leuring with a supple velvetine pad to polish the felt to a fine gloss…it all required patience, precision, and what most souls would think of only as mind-numbing repetition. Edwin Hanover found it the only place his hands seemed to do what they should instead of needing to brush that yet again or count this one more time. The living they earned rarely left them with a pudding to take out of the copper--barely a copper to put one in at all, in fact--but Agatha rarely complained and Edwin felt himself more blessed than any man he knew. He remembered what it'd been like before the work.

They had six hats to finish that evening for delivery as Christmas presents throughout the whole of London and were into their fourth--a square biretta--when Edwin's attention had been diverted the first time. Agatha's coaxing soon started him in again but only for a single toll of the clock before a bell chimed incessantly from the building's highest tower. Agatha glanced at him over the beaver pelt she was trimming with shears.

-- Steady on, Edwin.

He tried, he really did, to put his mind to the biretta--Reverend Blaxton needed it by the stroke of ten tomorrow--but his hands were already slowing at his lathe.

-- Who could be visiting? At this hour? This weather? And not sounding a single footstep up the street?

-- We'll have no Christmas, Eddie-love. At this rate, we're likely to have no New Year's either.

But the thirst--and that's what it always felt like to Edwin, a unslaked thirst--had fell on him and he paced the room to their shop door, placing an ear to the cold iron, and closing his eyes. His hands, he knew, were counting the bolts in the door, counting the bricks in the wall next to it. Next door, he swore he heard the echoing din of loud conversation.

-- I know that voice. I know that voice.

Agatha said nothing.

-- I just can't remember.

-- Love. Dearest.

-- Lands, it sounds as if all the wharfers of the Thames brought their shackles up their tonight. Do you hear that, Aggie?

-- Edwin.

He opened his eyes and looked at her.

-- Edwin, I don't hear a thing.

For a long moment they looked at each other. He knew she wanted him from the door. His hands kept searching it though. He couldn't step from it.

-- Just a minute more.

Agatha finished her trimming and set about lining the inside of a top-hat.

The voices, the rattling, it all continued--until it didn't. There was nothing but the hiss of damp wood in the stove behind them and the rasp of Agatha's breathing.

-- He's gone.

Edwin stepped from the door to his work again. His wife did not look up, but from the angle of her shoulders he knew she was glad it was over.

-- Did you ever place him?

-- Yes. But...

-- What?

-- Well, it couldn't be who I thought. He's gone seven years now.

Again they shared a look. And then to the hats.

The night, if possible, grew darker and colder. Fog seemed to fill the street like ash, not cloud, and all Edwin could see in the window now was his own poor reflection. His hair slicked in the middle, like his father's always was. Pins stuck about his collar for easy purchase. Razor scar above his chin. Nothing in the image stayed with him in the least, nothing brought the thirst, and so he returned to his work, his fingers finding extravagant exercise in its dance towards completion and soon the biretta was off his block and on to Agatha to finish. He tackled a homburg next. Their rolled brims always made him merry somehow.

And so it was with this hat, too, until the tolling of one.

-- Hear that?

Agatha said nothing. Only scuttled a chip or three of coal into the fire. The night was bound to get them yet.

Edwin, meanwhile, found the door again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. This time though as he closed his eyes and strained himself toward the voices sifting down from above, he felt not thirst but aching longing.

A single shimmering memory came to him, as though raised from silver and acetone, and he saw himself, a boy of twelve, staring up at his mother and the local vicar as they said prayers over him. His wrists were bound and tied to the ends of a pallet and each hand was raw, oozing, and scalded nearly beyond repair. Back then nothing but burning took the thirst away no matter how many incantations were spoken over him, how many commands were given for demons he couldn't loose to spring from his body. They never did and the thirst seemed insatiable.

In the night, the sound of shutters being flung open roused Edwin, and within the passing of a second he was back.

-- Love?

Edwin found he had no breath. He coughed. Coughed again and finally took in air.

-- You're giving me a start, Edwin. It's like you heard a ghost.

-- Just a memory. Though they're a ghost of a kind, I suppose. I hadn't thought of it in years.

-- Take your dinner, dearest. It'll warm you and I know the cold is never good for your hands.

Edwin ate, but quick. Two eggs, hard-boiled. Cold ham. Two drafts of tea. The homburg waited and when he finally returned to it, it took him nearly the rest of the hour to finish. Ms. Graveston's toque was next.

This time, though, he never even started it

A chill swept at his stockinged ankles. His hands throbbed once more, as though remembering, and then went still and numb. Edwin looked at his wife. She was sewing a hood of quarter-wool to sell at the market on Tuesday to the grocer's wives and baker's daughters who wanted the look of a lady but had not the shillings to offer for it. From deep on the other side of the door, filtered the sound of a new voice. He whistled for his wife.

-- Aggie?

The look she returned him reminded him of a childhood's worth of glances from his mother. The worry and fear and anger and desperation all mingled about the brow, flickering like starlight on water.

-- You really don't hear it at all, then?

-- Edwin Hanover, you've always had an ear and eye for things the rest of us can't be bothered with. It's just that we're so very busy this evening and, if you could work on the toque.

He glanced at the door.

-- But, no. Go have a listen. I know ye won't be any good without it. I hope it's quick as last time.

And it was. Again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks.

This time when his fingers stilled he heard and saw not his childhood but himself as he lived and breathed that very day. Or it seemed to be that very day. He was in front of a baker's apparently waiting for Agatha to drop off their goose for that evening's dinner. One hand was jammed in his pocket sorting coins but the other was out, twirling and fingering a chain of gleaming platinum with a locket on it. Edwin had never seen the locket before but when Agatha came from the baker, he watched himself slip it into his vest pocket in a blink and catch his wife's fingers with his newly freed hand.

One-hundred-seventy-five-links on the chain, he said to himself.

-- What chain, love?

And again, his eyes were open, his hands on the door, and his wife looking at him with peculiar distrust. This time though he had no need for air.

-- Just thinking of a bit of jewelry, a shiny bauble I thought you might like, Aggie.

She snorted. Without contempt, but making her point as clear as though she said, And will we be starving to be buy me finery, then?

Edwin put his head down, thought no more of the chain and worked on the toque. It went quickly, as any brimless hat will for a skilled milliner, and soon Edwin finished and set to work on the last, a codwool smoking cap Lady Marlsbury ordered for her husband so that, as the tart-tongued woman put it, "the old goat would stop coming home smelling of colony smoke and weed." He was making fine progress, too, until, at the stroke of three, Edwin felt the nape of his neck go cold and heard the snap of a gas lamp going off down the street. All the air seemed infected with dread and even Agatha shivered.

-- Even I don't hear a thing this time.

But still he moved to the great door. His fingers stayed by his side, leaving the bolts and the bricks to worry themselves.

He could hardly bear to see what might come...but come it did.

And it was sad and wonderful and terrifying and gorgeous all at once. In a flash he saw himself, hands stilled like they'd never been before and the black lace of a veil his wife would soon be putting on. He saw the others coming into the room, others he did not know yet. Two men and a woman who looked both like him and yet not. And children who were the only ones that dared to approach the bed, to touch his still hands. He saw a neat hole in warm grass and thought, despite how much he hated dirt, that it might not be a bad place after all. And then, only for an instant, he saw light, light, light, LIGHT, and a steady, sure hand that took his own and, somehow, without words, said that here, there would be no unslaked thirst.

It disappeared in the gonging of a bell and when he next knew the world the hand that held his own was Agatha's.

-- I finished the smoking hat in time. Lady Marlsbury, I'm sure will never see one finer.

-- What's the hour?

-- On seven now.

-- I saw...

-- You slept. Poor thing. But never so well, I wonder. And on a stone floor. Perhaps that's the answer. If this be the case, I'll take the bedtick to myself and leave you the hearth.

-- Aggie.

-- Love. Christmas, Love. Merry Christmas.

From above, scuffling and shouting and windows thrown open. Even Agatha looked.

-- That, I hear. It's the old man. Is he calling out 'Merry Christmas' and not 'Humbug'? Perhaps he still is drunk?

-- Not a lick, I doubt.

-- Do you want to go see what the fuss is about?

-- Aye. And I think the old man may very well even have something for us this morning.

-- For us?

-- For being good tenants. Quiet tenants who mind our own business and let others get on with their own lives and stories.

-- Not bloody likely.

-- Then perhaps to just say 'Merry Christmas.'

Agatha squinted. Hard.

-- Edwin Hanover. Are you priming me for a surprise?

-- Very likely, Aggie. Quite likely indeed.

The end.

Year in Review - Day 4 - Books

I must have read far fewer NYTimes bestsellers this year than I normally do because looking back over their lists hasn’t sparked much. But reading only books released in 2004 seems a great waste of time anyway because there’s a boatload of great titles I’ve not yet managed to put my eyes to.

Anyway here’s a list of some worthy books I read this year…whether they came out in 2004 or not.

Fiction
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I’ve talked about this before. Fantasy made, well, adult. The acts of magic performed in this book (an armada of ships formed from a storm’s rain) dazzle, even from the page.

The Food of Love by Anthony Capella – Think Cyrano set in Italian kitchens. An American student is wooed by a gorgeous waiter who convinces his chef friend to cook intoxicating meals to seduce her. Chock full of sex and food. Throw baseball in there and you’ve got a top three in terms of life’s good pleasures.

lost boy, lost girl by Peter Straub – My first novel from this author. Just plain creepy. Takes “inspiration” from the death house murderer H.H. Holmes and concocts a quiet but intense ghost story. There’s a follow-up I’ll be tackling soon.


NonFiction
The Beast in the Garden by David Baron – Uses the tragic death of a healthy young man to a Colorado mountain lion to explore the tenuous balance of nature and man.

Journal of the Dead by Jason Kersten – Two men head into the desert to camp for an evening. Days later one is found barely alive, the other dead. Murdered by his best friend who claims the killing was an act of mercy. Sad stuff.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - More dead people. *sigh* Here a mother and daughter, slaughtered by fundamentalist Mormons. One of our most compelling creative nonfiction writer started a book about religious extremism and ended with a critical examination of the Mormon faith. The elders in Salt Lake City weren't pleased.


Writer You Need to Start Reading
Neil Gaiman – I recommend starting with Neverwhere. Or, if you’ve middle-grade kids, Coraline. American Gods is Joseph Campbell meets Dashiell Hammett. And once you’re ready, cross the border into his comics, especially his epic Sandman series. This is a guy doing whatever he pleases, succeeding, and generally making the whole business far too easy. He’s even written one of my favorite Christmas stories ever, too. It’s very short and can be found here. (It says excerpt, but it’s the whole thing.) Please tell me you laughed.

Books for 2005
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – The hype is almost getting too much. Can such a slim book bear it? I’ll let you know soon.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling – Six down, one to go. I can’t imagine the pressure.

Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky – I say it now. Before child #3 comes in May.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Year in Review – Day 3 – Miscellaneous

We’ll do books tomorrow mostly because I’m still trying to remember what I read earlier in the year. In 2005, I’m going to make a list.

This is just some other stuff that made me happy in 2004.


Comics

Y: The Last Man by Brian Vaughn – A plague wipes out all the men…except poor Yorrick Brown. My wife even reads this one…which should frighten me, I guess.

AstroCity by Kurt Busiek – Busiek somehow manages to capture what Marvel and DC have taken 70 years to achieve and cram it into five graphic novels—a world that’s familiar but startlingly unique. Tarnished Angel is a great hard-boiled graphic novel. If you’ve never visited this world, join soon. Busiek’s about to launch his “Dark Ages” run which explores the oft-mentioned but never explained tragedy of AstroCity’s past.

Bone by Jeff Smith – Just released as a 1200-page trade paperback, this is a fantasy adventure your kids may well enjoy.

Animal Man by Grant Morrison – Older, but fascinating. Very, very meta. Plus there's a great riff on WB's Coyote as being stuck in some agonizing purgatory where he can never die.



Music

Lee Morgan – Philly jazz trumpeter. He’s dead, but I’ve just started listening.

Guster, “Keep it Together” – This came out in 2003. I'm listening to it more now, though.

Fountains of Wayne – Pop music for adults.


On Stage

A Year with Frog and Toad – Fun for the kids. As a plus, I got to see the Broadway cast here in Minneapolis which included Mark Linn-Baker as Toad. You’d know him better as Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers. My life is complete.

Carmen – My first opera. Staged by Theater de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. One of the best independent theaters in the country.

Anything Goes – Cole Porter’s plot’s are nothing worth writing home about, but the character of “Moonface” Martin is usually worth the price of admission.

Vote for Change – Springsteen. REM. Unannounced guest Neil Young. “All Along the Watchtower” and “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” No matter what your politics, the show (and I’m using it correctly here) rocked.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Year in Review Day 2 – Movies

We see a fair number of movies but very few in the theater. Therefore I’m always behind the curve in terms of talking about what’s been excellent this particular year. I do tend, however, to watch a number of smaller films that may get overlooked and could be a good rental for you. These are all films that came out late 2003 - summer 2004.

1. Shattered Glass – This film was so good that even the guy who plays Anakin Skywalker in those awful Star Wars prequels is excellent in it. A little morality tale set at The New Republic, this is true story and it left me shaking my head.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Written by the odd mind behind Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, this was one had a heart the others, for all their narrative ingenuity, lacked. Not that this lacks for narrative ingenuity. Basically it’s about the damage we do to ourselves and others in the name of love. Can be found in the dictionary next to the word, “melancholy.”

3. Before Sunset – Nine years later, two people who’d spent one amazing night together reunite. It’s also been nine years in the lives of the actors and director (all three collaborated on the writing) and you can feel the weight of what’s changed in that decade in their performances and who their characters become. Fascinating from an artistic perspective (Imagine revisiting characters from your first book thirty years later. Updike’s done it.) and successful in every respect. (Please see Before Sunrise first, though.)

4. In America – An Irish family sneaks across the Canadian border to start life anew in amazing New York City. The two little girls in this film are some of the best kid actors I’ve ever seen. A touching film that avoids smarm.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Probably my favorite “blockbuster” of the year. Someone finally managed to mix the charm, the darkness, the wonder, and the power of Rowling’s stories into a film. Too bad he’s only directing one film.

6. The Station Agent – I have a pet theory that the great theme of the past decades has been loneliness and our paradoxically increasing isolation from each other in the world (despite there being more people alive than ever before). The Station Agent does its tango with loneliness and fits at least a ray of hope for its characters.

7. The Bourne Supremacy – This would have been way higher if they’d merely hired the same film editor as the first film. Instead, I’m still suffering from motion sickness from the ridiculous cutting. (And I’m part of the low-attention-span MTV generation.) Still…good, solid action. Who knew Good Will Hunting would become our 21st-Century action hero?

8. The Shape of Things – My wife hated this film. Of course, she has a good heart and doesn’t like to see people do mean things to each other. I like the occasional piece of provocative art that flaunts common decency in the name of asking questions about art, every day morality, and what makes us want to change. Is that a raving endorsement of the film or what?

9. 50 First Dates – What can I say, this worked for me.

10. Dirty Pretty Things – From the cover and the title, you might think this was soft-core porn. No, it’s pretty much about illegal aliens living in London, trying to make their way through a world in which they have no power, no status. Sorry to disappoint you.

And the Film I Disliked Most – That’d be 13 Going on 30.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Year in Review – Day 1 – Television/DVDs

This isn’t a “Best Of” column, because frankly I don’t watch enough television to know whether these shows are actually the best stuff on. Also, I don’t have cable, so there’s a good deal I can’t watch. When all is said and done though, these have entertained me over the past year. Feel free to agree or disagree or stump for your own.

1. Arrested Development – Reinventing the sit-com in the wake of Friends and Frasier ending, this show packs in the most laughs and gags per 30 minutes of any show since the hey-day of The Simpsons. And they do it trusting that their audience will get it. Season 2 has been a little uneven so far, but Season 1, on DVD, rocked.

2. The Amazing Race – My humble offering to the gods of reality television. Never has standing in line for airline tickets or trying to pay for a taxi seemed so invigorating. This show, unlike most reality TV, isn’t about stripping people of their dignity on purpose nor necessarily about lying or cheating. Mostly it’s about going cool places, keeping calm under pressure and fatigue, and the fickle finger of fate.

3. Scrubs – ITWS. (“It’s the Writing, Stupid.”) Like Arrested Development, this sit-com soars because of way-above-par writing. Here, it’s not only laughs but poignancy as well.

4. Lost – I am not a Lost fanatic, but I’ve been keeping track of the story. The narrative-style (lots o’flashbacks) is killing me and the writers have let more plot threads drop than most shows use in a year, but each show usually ends with a strong pull for next week.

5. Monk – Someone tapes this for us. I never have any idea when it’s going to be on. My wife could care less. Still, Tony Shaloub rocks in this character. He’s a darn fine actor.


On DVD
1. The Office – Best thing I watched on my television this year. David Brent needs to enter the common parlance as, say, Scrooge has.

2. Freaks and Geeks – Now on DVD. I wish I could buy it for all of you.

3. The Simpsons – Easily one of the top 5 shows of all time. Seasons 3 and 4 should be in the Smithsonian. And if you need your fill of literary allusions watch “A Streetcar Named Marge” which manages to base two separate plots around Tennessee Williams and Ayn Rand.

4. Looney Tunes – My daughter likes “Duck Amuck,” “Feed the Kitty,” “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” and “Hare-Raising Hare.” Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc rock.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Day 4 of Strengths and Weaknesses – The Rest

1. Creative Details – Does your world feel lived in and evocative? Do we avoid trite descriptions and easy explanations? Do we see every detail as a possible opportunity to enhance your novel?

2. Emotional Resonance – Does your story add up to something in your reader? Do you trigger an appropriate response of tears, laughter, fear when you are trying? Is the reader engaged with the characters and their struggles?

3. Overall Affect
– At the end of the book, does a reader feel impacted? Do they walk away affected, in at least some way, by the read. Do the elem

4. Originality – Is there something we haven’t seen before in your book? It just needs to be a single element? Does it set itself apart from other stories?

5. Saleability
– Are your idea and its execution at a level that your book is potentially attractive to a wide audience of readers?

6. Topicality/Zeitgeist – Is your idea at the cutting-edge or timely for what’s happening at the moment? Are you good at writing about things now that will be at the forefront of our minds soon?

7. Authentic research – Does the research and exposition sound real, credible, and yet fit into the story appropriately? Are readers ever drawn out of the story by something that seems out of place or wrong?

8. Genre Appropriate – If you’re writing in a genre, do you understand the genre? Do you meet expectations for that genre, but in a new and exciting way?

9. Inventive – Are you thinking outside of genre and trying creative things? Are you purposefully breaking rules of narrative, exposition, description, or genre in an intentional and comprehensible way? Are the new rules you establish clear to your readers?

10. “Whole” – Finally, have you written a book that exists and works within itself? It tells its story, its way, and succeeds.

So that’s it for your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve listed 40 things. To be a successful writer my guess is that you need to be excellent at 5, very good at 5 more, good at 20, and at least competent at the other 10. That’s all blind supposition though. I don’t actually have data to back that up.

::

Next week I’ll join the fray, ignore creativity, and do a review of my favorite books, music, movies, etc from the year. Then on Friday, Dec 24, I should have my Christmas story up for your holiday enjoyment.

Remember the deadline for submitting your own stories. We’ll be doing the selecting next week and then the ones that are chosen will appear Dec 27-31.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Strengths and Weaknesses Day 3 – The Heart of the Story

These are the things, I think, that most people think about when they think about writing. They’re a bit less technical than yesterday and so writers’ artistry and creativity are often wrapped up in them.

1. Setting – Place – Do you efficiently and precisely bring out the setting of story? Do you allow “place” to be meaningful in your story without overwhelming it?

2. Setting - Time – Do you know when every scene happens both within the context of the story and, if necessary, within a greater historical context? Is your setting accurate to (or evocative of) its intended time period?

3. Point-of-view – Do you select the most effective point-of-view for your story? Are you consistent? Does your selected point-of-view explain why the story is being told?

4. Voice – Does your writing evoke a “voice” inside readers’ heads? Does that voice change for (and match) different characters, situations, and/or POVs?

5. Tone – Does your story, as a whole, leave your reader with an intentional resounding feeling or sense?

6. Characterization – Are your characters vibrant, three-dimensional, and authentic? Do they sound like themselves and not like each other? Are they stripped of stereotypes and clichés? Do they have a point in the story? Do they have a motivation in the story?

7. Dialogue – In short, does it fit in the character’s mouth and sound authentic coming out of them? Is it serving to highlight character rather than act as exposition?

8. Exposition – Do you know what exposition is and not confuse it with narration? Are you able to give us the requisite backstory and any necessary details about character or plot without stopping the narration and without manipulating characters or arranging contrived scenes? Is your exposition true to the POV you’ve chosen?

9. Narration – How does your story flow? How does your plot move from A to B to G to M to Z? Are there contrivances and ghosts in the machines? Is their a defendable logic to the story (particularly the internal logic of characters) that never causes readers to exot their willing suspension of disbelief?

10. Scenes – Do you use scenes to ebb in and out of narration? Do you avoid turning scenes in narration/exposition? Do they stay true to POV and character? Are they intentionally entered and exited?
::
Go to Day 4 of Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Strengths and Weaknesses Day 2 – The Big Stuff

Long meeting, late post. We’re going to hit some of the core parts of writing today. These are on the story end. We’ll get to character and emotion tomorrow.

1. Inciting Incident – Think of a story as a big, heavy rock. You need that thing to get momentum. Are you able to come up with the lever or explosion or device to get the rock rolling? Or are you pushing it forward one painful step at a time?

2. Plot – Now that the rock is rolling…are you able to keep it going, keep it under control? Plot is the path that the story takes while hurtling forward.

3. Stakes – This is the big payoff, the reason why that rock started rolling in the first place. (And yes, I’ll be beating this rock metaphor to death today, thanks.) Can you make it compelling enough that we want to see what happens?

4. Conflict – A rock rolling toward a conclusion is pretty boring. But if you add the threat that it might derail, or large hills that it might not make it over, or obstacles in its path, the run becomes more interesting. Are you able to make it so the ending is always in question, so we never quite know what will happen?

5. Resolution – Can you wrap it up so we’re happy with how the rock ends up? (And I’m done.)

6. Pace – Most well-written stories ebb and flow to some degree. Action sequences need to feel fast. Waiting for Godot needs to feel slow. Can you control how your scenes and plot unwind to give a reader a sense of pace.

7. Syntax – How are your words arranged in your sentences? Do they flow and track? Better yet, do they flow and match the POV or situation?

8. Diction – What words are you using? Are you offering precision in your language without obfuscation? Do you know your intended audience? Do they match the POV and situation?

9. Theme – Is your story about something more than merely the unfolding of its plot? Do you lead readers to some recognition or insight? Is it consistent, subtle, and worth discussing? Do you let readers decide what your book means or do you tell them?

10. Structure – How does the story unfold? Are you able to bring the reader with you? Is there a defendable reason for all your structure choices? Are you able to see benefits of moving beyond merely chronological progression?
::
Continue to Day 3 of Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Monday, December 13, 2004

Strength and Weakness Week – Day 1 – Starting Out and Staying General

So we’re going to spend a few days looking at our strengths and weaknesses as authors. Feel free to post your answers, however unless you’re published there’s not too much way for us to tell you whether you’re right or wrong.

Also, this is only strengths and weaknesses in your OWN writing. We’re not comparing you to Richard Russo or Jan Karon, Michael Chabon or Jerry Jenkins. They have their own relative strengths and weaknesses they must deal with. This is all about you.

Also, some of these may be contradictory or inapplicable to your writing. Jane Austen, for instance, could’ve sucked at action scenes but we’d never know it because she didn’t write any in her novels.

1. Conceptualizing – How are you at coming up with ideas for books?

2. Engagement – Are you constantly on the look-out for inspiration…in books, music, the news? Are you open for inspiration?

3. Titling – A lesser-known skill, but an important one. Do you sometimes come up with a great title that just demands a book? Can you come up with a title your publisher loves, sales people love, and your audience loves? (Aside: Does such a title even exist?)

4. Discipline – Are you there, in your chair, every time you should be?

5. Productive – When you’re in the chair…are you putting words down that matter?

6. Creative Rhythm/Flow – Are you good at finding, and staying, in the ideal “zone” in which to write. Or are you all “fits and starts”?

7. Mapping/Outlining – Do you have a decent sense, early on, for where the story is going? Can you think your way through a story to the end without sacrificing creativity?

8. On-the-Fly Creativity – As you work through a story, are you bound by your outline or are you constantly seeking ways for your story to surprise?

9. Strong Starter – Can you write a killer opening sentence or scene that grabs a reader’s attention?

10. Strong Finisher – Can you bring the story home to a rousing or moving or stirring or dramatic or whatever-it-is-your-trying-to-achieve-type conclusion? Does the last sentence resound and stay with your readers after they shut the book?
::
Go to Day 2 of Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Strengths and Weaknesses: Or Step One on My Path to Becoming a Self-Help Guru

In tackling the most recent “nuts and bolts” conversation on character description you may have noticed that, on a few occasions, I admitted that characterization wasn’t a particular strength of mine as a writer. This wasn’t false modesty. It’s just how I evaluate myself as a writer and my comfort with various aspects of putting together a novel.

No book is strong in every area. No writer is strong in every area.

A few months ago the marketing department read a “business” book that I actually found pretty helpful in its basics. The book was called Now, Discover Your Strengths and it posited this theory (my summary):

Successful people and companies do not learn to overcome weaknesses. Instead they seek to neutralize their weaknesses and spend the rest of their efforts maximizing and developing their strengths.
Part of the point of the book is that, often, we spend a LOT of time and effort trying to become good at something that we’re just not good at. Instead we should become competent enough so that area doesn’t harm us and, instead, focus on developing and perfecting those areas in which we are talented.

(If you’d like, you can imagine me now, onstage with one of those tiny, headset mics, bouncing around trying to pump you guys up. Like a svelter Tony Robbins without the chin that scares children.)

I think there’s a lot of validity to that POV when writing. We all need to achieve competency across a wide variety of writing areas. We need to understand plotting and dialogue and pace and tone and syntax and we also need to apply it, with some level of success, in our novels.
That said, we need to play to our strengths.

And so it becomes key to begin discovering what those strengths are.

So, next week, we’re going to spend a week of self-evaluation. We’re going to think of every aspect of novel writing and look at it as a strength, a weakness, or an atrophied area that does need to be developed. Sound exciting? Good.

PS: Apparently, I miss the marketing department, as this is as close as I’ve come to being a life coach or a motivational speaker as I’ve ever come. Next thing you know I’ll be reading that Cheese book and using words like “incentivize” as though it meant something.(I’m kidding. I love the folks in our marketing department. They’re great people who I can poke fun at a little now.)
::
Go to Day 1 of Evaluating Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Mr. Timothy—a review

I’m a streaky reader. If reading were baseball, I’d be the equivalent of a batter going 1-23 then 18-20, then 5-18, etc. These days my hours have opened up in the evening for longer stretches and so I’ve been able to pound out two longish novels consecutively and have Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead waiting on the coffee table.

As for Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy. I’d seen this book mentioned last year at Salon or some such site, but it slipped off my radar until I unearthed a post over Thanksgiving for my “Best Of…” week that included a mention of it. My library happened to have a copy on the shelf and what with some other Christmas Carol-ish things happening in my life, it seemed a good time to sit down with it.

Overall, very engaging. I’d equate it with Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. (Similar covers, even.) Basically a literary historical thriller written with vivid historicity, a vibrant voice, solid action, and some depth of meaning under its sodden greatcoats and flashing butcher’s blades.

Remember when we spoke before of the scales of 1-10. This would rank as a solid 5 on the craft/story scale.

The basic story is that Timothy “Tiny Tim” Cratchit has grown up. He’s now trying to escape from the well-meaning but stifling patronage of his “Uncle” Ebeneezer who, as Dicken’s says, is still true to his word to be kind and giving.

Like his Uncle, Mr. Timothy is haunted by his own ghosts—mainly his father’s—who drive him to escape into the less respectable parts of London. Here he becomes embroiled in a mystery involving dead girls. At stake are not only the safety of more innocent girls but Mr. Timothy’s self-definition.

The blending of action sequences and interior monologues about being the narrator of your own story is handled more deftly than one might expect and Bayard creates a number of instantly engaging characters.

The book ends, of course, on yet another Christmas for the Cratchit’s and to Bayard’s supreme credit he didn’t once fall back on a single “God Bless Us, Every One” joke. He’s definitely a better man than I.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Day 6 of Characterization – The Way You Look Tonight

A few points on physical description of characters:

  1. The most annoying thing in the world is trying to give physical description from the first-person POV or a limited third-person POV with only one narrator. Most writers feel compelled to do it all in a chunk. Mirrors, bowls of water, darkened windows, reflections in puddles. It’s all been done. Feel free to space out the details. We don’t need a police sketch.

  2. Eye color is overrated as a meaningful descriptor and vastly abused. Especially in romances. (Sorry, you know it’s true.)

  3. Try not to let a single physical characteristic—“strong jaw,” “thin lips,” “aggressive bosom”—become the definition of a character. That seems antiquated.

  4. Describing clothes may be more important than actually body description. “Clothes make the man,” after all. But skip name brands. That’s for chick-lit, and chick-lit alone.

  5. How your character looks at and sees other characters says a lot about him/her. Use those descriptions of others to reflect back on your POV character.

  6. Character description is a weakness of mine as a writer. I tend not to care greatly what my characters look like. It’s more important to me how they sound.

  7. In the same vein, I think you’re more likely to be ignored in character description and setting description than anywhere else in your book. Maybe I think this solely because I do it, but I’ll create my own images of setting and character based on the book’s tone and the character’s voice. And like I mentioned yesterday, the less specific detail you give, the more opportunity there is for a reader to see themselves in that character.

  8. Maybe that’s me. Do you guys linger over physical description or rush past?