Christmas Cheer–Part 3

“To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” ~Brandi Snyder

The gate agent wears a Santa Claus hat, but offers neither a smile nor a “Ho ho ho,” as the old man approaches him at his station. A wide counter bedecked with metallic green garland separates them, and the agent avoids eye contact as he makes one computer entry after another. He pauses only to look over his shoulder at the electronic display looming above and behind him. Though only the two men stand at the counter, the younger one is too busy to chat.

The old man watches as the sign showing the arrival time of flight 373 is replaced by a one-word pronouncement:


And instantly the old man ceases to be alone.

“When will…” His voice fades, swamped by a dozen others, all younger. All louder. The agent steps out from behind his protective wall and moves toward the concourse. Though slowed and surrounded by questioners, he still moves too fast for the old man to follow.

He watches the mob slowly dissipate as the agent seeks respite from the public, a comet trailing disappointment.

The rest of the crowd remains, camped in purgatory. Carry-on luggage and soon-to-be-exchanged gifts litter the walkway between crowded rows of seats. The old man shuffles by them, lost in thought. Though among them, he is not of them; he is a trespasser, not a traveler.

Thirty minutes pass.

He glances at the glowing red digits on the wall clock, then at his watch, then back at the clock.

“May I help you?” asks a cop, summoned by a concerned passenger.

The old man shakes his head. “I told her I would be here,” he says as if that explained it all. “I have to be here.”

“You’re meeting a flight?”

He nods, yes.

“Do you have a Gate Pass? Otherwise, you can’t be here unless you’re a passenger.”

He digs out the paper they gave him when he arrived.

The cop examines it and hands it back. “Ah. I see. You’re okay, then.”

The old man shrugs. Worry is not “Okay.”

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

The old man shakes his head and moves to the periphery.

Christmas music plays in the background, though largely obscured by the sounds of a busy airport–announcements, voices, the incessant beep of a golf cart used to shuttle VIPs from one gate to another. Through the windows he sees the tropical foliage of Florida beyond the runway and then is distracted by a child singing along as “Jingle Bells” pours from hidden speakers. The child knows most of the words but few of the notes.

People in the main corridor scurry by, searching for other gates and other flights. They are the world: a menagerie cloaked in noise and anonymity.

The old man ignores them as they ignore him. They look away as if they don’t see the skinny legs protruding from his running shoes or the sweat sock slipping down around one ankle. The image of the old man, his belly pushing against the waistband of his rolled-up walking shorts, is easy to catalog, easy to forget. Aged. Weak. Frail.

The neck of his T-shirt is stretched and reveals a tuft of thin curls on his chest, the same wet-newsprint grey as the few strands on his head. Centered on the shirt is a printed color photo of himself with his arm around a smiling, dark-haired woman. His face bears fewer wrinkles. A caption beneath the photo proclaims:

“I’ve got everything!”

He moves on, traversing old ground.

Cautious footsteps carry him through the overheated air by a huge window and deliver him into cooler shadows where his image is reflected on the glass. His strongest feature, a fiercely patrician nose, angles down steeply above an unlit cigar. Trailing behind is the faint odor of tobacco–unsmoked–he’s been told he cannot smoke. His rheumy eyes drift neither left nor right but stay locked on the carpet as if his stare alone will part the masses all around him.

It doesn’t work. Instead, he must maneuver between them and does so in silence.

An hour passes.

A heavy man in a flowered shirt stands in the middle of the aisle talking to a woman of similar size wearing a dress with the same floral pattern. “They never tell ‘ya nuthin’,” he says, and the old man turns away.

A child lands at his feet, dumps a mound of building blocks on the carpet, and begins to play. The old man turns again.

The flower-shirted passenger is still talking to his female counterpart. “Remember the crash they had a couple years back? Horrible. Terrible tragedy. And they never said a word about it. Sure, it was on the news, but nobody at the airport found out ’til later.” Shaking his head, the big man shifts his bags from seat to floor, then drops into the vacated space.

With his hands clenched and jaws set, the old man moves on.

Another hour passes.

“The Midwest? I’d never fly out of there,” says a woman whose jewelry and nail polish match the trim on her velour jogging suit. She talks into her cell phone, but her voice seems so loud she doesn’t need it. “Storms are so bad, they knock planes right out of the sky.”

“They should have extra planes standing by,” mutters a mother of three little ones in need of naps. The old man could use a nap, too, but that’s not possible–not yet, not until she’s safe. He drifts on through the restless crowd.

The gate agent returns and approaches him as if they know each other. “Maybe you ought to go home. It’s getting late and there’s nothing–” A phone at the desk rings. The agent answers it and holds up a hand. The old man walks away.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the agent announces over a loudspeaker, “flight 373 has just been cleared to land. We’ll have the aircraft ready for boarding as soon as possible.”

Against a background of scattered whistles and cheers, the old man raises his head. The cigar disappears. His hands, no longer clenched motionless behind him, come forth. Like the rest of him, they become animated, suddenly alive.

The crowd pushes past him and presses toward the door. Ropes on either side of it define a canyon of bodies risen on cue. The portal is lost to him. He can’t see it; he’s too far back, but he knows where it is. After another eternity, the door swings open and bodies spill out, singly at first, then more and faster until they pour through–in plaids and hats, with garment bags, stuffed bears, holiday packages, briefcases, skinned knees, and shopping bags.

The flow seems relentless, an inexhaustible supply in never-ending variety. He waits for it to end, knowing it must, knowing he has no choice, and knowing she will be the last in line. Wheelchairs always come last.

Finally, the numbers dwindle until the door stands empty; the passageway is vacant, and the ropes become tracks across a prairie. He waits, resisting crazy, stupid, scary thoughts of flights denied and missed connections, until he sees a flight attendant pushing her chair. She, too, is anxious, though her fear passes when she sees him. Her name on his lips becomes a grin as he moves toward her, his step more sure, his stride no longer humble. Reaching her, he leans down and swaddles her in his arms.

A tiny liquid jewel sparkles from the corner of her eye.

The embrace lasts a long time, but eventually, he must stand.

She smiles. Her hair matches his now, and a wisp of it has come loose. She tucks it behind her ear and pats his hand as he steps behind the chair and nods goodbye to the flight attendant.

They are on their way home–together again–in time for the holidays. She leans her head back and to the side as if trying to get closer to his hand. He squares his shoulders and draws in his stomach. Now it’s much easier to read the caption on his shirt.


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Christmas Cheer–Part Two

“I don’t believe in mathematics.” ~Albert Einstein

The intensity of the cold surprised Toby as much as his sudden and painful arrival–face down in a layer of feathery snow too thin to cushion him from the hard-pack beneath it. He came up sputtering and brushing frantically at the frozen powder sticking to his nose and cheeks. His glasses dangled precariously from one ear having sustained substantial damage to the wad of tape which held ear and eye-pieces together. Toby stuffed them in his pocket and rubbed his face to restore some warmth. It worked but sent a trickle of frigid runoff down the inside of his collar.

Suddenly motionless, he ground his teeth and waited quietly for the shiver to subside. The silence was his only friend, at least until he got things sorted out.

He had no idea the Translation Effect would leave him so wobbly. He’d heard his father talk about it, but he never paid much attention. His dad talked a lot, usually about stuff Toby didn’t understand.

Clutching himself for warmth, he turned in a circle and squinted at the dark wasteland.

The sky was less forbidding. Vast waves of colored light floated in a sea of brilliant stars. Neither moon nor horizon offered any clues about where he’d landed. Not that he needed them. He knew. Who could’ve imagined his dad’s stupid machine would work with neither longitude nor latitude settings? On a whim, he’d typed in a destination never once actually believing it might work.

Man oh man, was it cold!

He slapped his arms and pumped his chubby legs up and down as a thin ribbon of snot edged over his lip. He rubbed his nose and sniffed, undaunted by the salty taste.

It never should’ve worked. The whole idea was crazy! He couldn’t wait to get back home. Luckily, the same gizmo housed both the LAUNCH and RETURN buttons. It looked about as complicated as a TV remote control, and he’d been holding it when he left the comfort of his dad’s lab.

Now, his hands were empty.

Abandoning silence, he dropped to his knees and blubbered a mixture of prayer and curse, accusation and denial. Again and again, he plowed through the frozen dust, scoring his knuckles on the icepack until at last his numb digits bumped something solid. He pounced and brought the gadget into the dim light of the stars, weeping like a first grader and not caring in the least.

“Yes! Yes!” he cried, his voice dissipating in the gloom. Hastily brushing snow from the control, he stabbed the RETURN button with a dead thumb.

Nothing. Not even a click.

He pushed it again.

Still nothing.

“Dad!” he screamed, “how could you do this to me?”

Maybe it’s frozen, he thought. Maybe if I stuff it inside my sweater I can warm it up enough to work. Into the garment it went. He put his hands over the hard cold lump, pressed it to his chest, and waited.

One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three….

He counted off several minutes, though he cheated on the last few. Unable to wait longer, he retrieved the device and pressed RETURN with both thumbs.

Still nothing.

His tears stiffened on his cheeks as he stared down at the useless gadget blinking at him in the dark.


He stared again. A tiny screen centered near the top of the device displayed a row of ever-changing, ever-decreasing numbers. A timer — there was hope after all. Provided he could survive another 47 minutes.

In sub-zero weather.

Without a jacket.

Or mittens.


He wondered if anyone would find his body. Not that it would rot or anything. Frozen woolly mammoths popped up in Siberia all the time, and who knew how long ago they died.

All alone.

Just like Toby.

“Think!” he yelled. That’s what his dad would do. He’d think his way out.

Start at the beginning. What had he done? Why had he come here? Then he remembered.

He’d come to prove a point. To himself mostly. Most other kids just took it on faith. That’s why he hadn’t asked any of them to come with him.  Besides, they would only have laughed at him. Like they always did. No, he had to prove it alone, and how else could he do that without actually making the trip? He remembered giggling as he typed in the destination, as if he were filling in for the kids who weren’t there. Somebody had to laugh at the geeky kid — it was a rule of the kid cosmos.

Once again he scanned the bare white plains all around, praying for a light, a sign, or tracks in the snow. He knew the cartoons had it wrong. There’d be no cutesy candy cane signposts or gingerbread decorations on the building, assuming there even was a building. He knew about magic, too. He’d read everything the library had about it–not tricks and stuff, sleight of hand–but real magic. Unfortunately, the only thing the books seemed to agree on was that names had power. Just mispronouncing the name of something magic could mess it all up. He wouldn’t make that mistake. No way.

Lord, it’s cold!

Teeth chattering, Toby walked in a circle, tramping down the snow. The powder squeaked under his loafers and trickled in around his socks where it made him even more miserable.

He thought about rolling big snowballs and stacking them to make a fort, or at least a wall, something to block the wind. Except, there really wasn’t any wind. The cold came from everywhere–up, down, sideways. He shivered for the gazillionth time, and when he finally stopped, he saw it.

A glow.

Not too bright, but not too far away, either. Difficult to tell without his glasses. He took them out of his pocket, but they were too fogged up to see through.

Could the glow be real, or was it some kind of arctic mirage? He remembered seeing cartoons where some poor shlub tried to swim across a mirage only to drown in sand. Would he fall victim to a snowy alternative? Who cared! At least it gave him a goal, something to do besides walk in a stupid circle until his feet froze.

He headed for the maybe-light. Maybe it was, maybe not.

Plodding through the snow, he pretended not to feel the cold seep into his shoes. A superhero, that’s what he needed to be. For a little while, anyway. And if not super, then maybe just special. Maybe he could be like Rocky Balboa training to fight the giant Russian, avenge his dead pal, and strike a blow for the American Way. He always liked those movies. Toby could be tough, too, if he had to be. He wasn’t just a near-sighted ball of blubber. He could be hard.

He could also be dead pretty soon.

The glow grew. He hadn’t made it up after all. A double row of blue lights stretched away from a cluster of odd-shaped buildings. The largest one looked like a giant tin can buried halfway up its sides in the snow. Of course, he had no way of knowing how deep the snow might be. It could be a skyscraper for all he knew. Maybe only the top floors were exposed!

Whatever. It had windows. And lights. Warm, cheery lights.

Toby trudged faster, churning through the powder with renewed strength. Maybe it was true after all–maybe this was the place! He hadn’t seen any reindeer, but he’d seen rows of blue lights before–at the airfield outside of town. Oh, yeah.

Whoever lived here knew how to fly. Ab-so-lutely!

His original plan, though ill-defined, had been to debunk the myth. And if it turned out to be true–the condition he’d not so secretly hoped for–then he had yet another job. He had to find The List. Once he had his hands on that he could… But, no. That would all come in good time.

He glanced down at the little screen on the TV thingy and noted that he had another 31 minutes to go before he was automatically recalled.

Toby tried to wiggle his toes, but he couldn’t tell if he’d succeeded. He desperately wanted to get inside the building, peel off his shoes and socks and rub his feet in front of a fire. With his face and his fingers burning in the frigid air, he stumbled on.

The building had no doors on the side facing him, so he went to a window. The snow had drifted up to the metal sill, and he had to crouch down to look inside. It didn’t look like any workshop he’d ever seen. In fact, except for a single string of Christmas lights over a chalkboard, it looked a lot like where his dad worked. Books and papers were piled everywhere. A half dozen maps hung from bulletin boards around the walls. Bookshelves bulged under manuals, computer gear, and other mysterious paraphernalia. That’s probably where he’d find The List. He glanced briefly at the cartons, boxes, and cans stacked against the curved exterior walls and at the bunk beds shoved against a flat central partition.

He saw everything but people, large or small.

This close to the big day, they were probably working. Underground! That made sense. That’s how he’d do it if he were in charge. He tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge.

Rising slowly, like Scrooge’s last ghost, Toby staggered on in search of the door. The knowledge that he might actually survive propelled him along the circumference of the tubular building. Without corners to mark his progress, he couldn’t tell how far around he’d come. But then he reached it–the entrance to the Great Man’s home, the lair of The List, the portal of life.

Weeping with joy, Toby searched for a door handle.

There wasn’t one.

Groaning, he dropped the remote control device with the blinking screen and the balky RETURN button and pounded on the door with both hands. Surely someone would hear him if only he beat on the door hard enough. When no one came, he added his voice to the commotion, screaming and crying for someone, anyone, to let him in.

But no one did.

Defeated, Toby sank to his knees and leaned against the unyielding door. Maybe the occupants were busy preparing for the Great One’s annual trip. Maybe they were celebrating in some subterranean factory. Maybe they were just sleeping and couldn’t hear him. It made no difference. They’d find him in the morning when they went to load the sleigh, or the jet, or whatever the Great Man used for his deliveries. Toby’s name would either be on The List or not, but Toby would be long past caring.

So close, he thought, shaking his head. The little lighted screen kept blinking, the timer down to 24 minutes.

Too bad I won’t make it.

In a last gesture of futility, Toby made a fist and backhanded the wall beside the door. Instantly, a light went on overhead, and the door swung open.

Astonished, Toby rolled backward into a small empty room lighted by a single bare bulb in the ceiling. Regaining his wits, he turned himself around and stuck his head back outside where he saw the kick switch he must have hit with his hand. Of course! Anyone loaded down with stuff couldn’t turn a knob, and anyone else would want to keep their hands in their pockets. The old guy was clever–maybe even as clever as Toby’s dad.

By the time he got back on his feet, the outside door had closed, and warm air leaked into the cramped chamber. After stamping the snow from his feet and brushing it from his clothes, Toby faced a pair of inner doors which gave easily when he pushed against them.

He peeked through the gap in the doors at the room beyond. Warm air coursed through the opening and compelled him to enter. So he did.

Delicious heat from the room’s central furnace washed over him. He approached it with reverence, arms and hands extended, head bowed. A nearby chair beckoned. He lowered himself into it, toed the loafers from his numb feet and groaned in grateful pleasure as he massaged his frigid digits. Heat had never–ever–felt so grand. He basked in it like a love-starved puppy in the hands of a puppy-starved boy. It made him sleepy, and Lord knew he deserved a rest. He closed his eyes for just a moment.

When the tingle in his toes subsided, Toby sat up and surveyed his surroundings, albeit in soft focus. He fumbled the glasses from his pocket, squeezed the slack from the tape wad on the hinge and propped them in place on his nose. The room came instantly into detail, though it remained as messy as it looked when seen through the window.

He smirked. Tidiness was obviously no requirement for inclusion on The List’s “good” side. Score one for kids everywhere!

All he had to do now was find it and read it. That shouldn’t take long, especially since he only intended to look for his own name. He wouldn’t think of trying to change anything.

Unless forced.

He checked the screen on the RETURN gizmo and all but panicked as the timer erased the last second over three minutes. Had he wasted time sleeping? How stupid! He gasped at the sound of distant aircraft engines.

Where was The List? He searched beside a desktop computer, its screen-saver alive with images of sunlit sandy beaches. On a low bookcase struggling to hug the inward curving wall he found a box full of wool mittens and socks, and a tin of candies. The word “lagniappe” was scrawled on the lid. Never crazy about oriental food, Toby left them alone. Besides, how could he think of food now? He paused, thinking. Hey, chocolate was chocolate. What could it hurt? He popped one in his mouth and chewed.

The liquid center burst and flooded his teeth and gums with something cold and harsh and alcoholic. The fumes cleared his nose, but whatever it was scorched his throat when he swallowed. He exhaled as if someone had punched him. He thought of Rocky Balboa again and suddenly felt sorry for the big Russian Rocky had pummeled in Moscow or Leningrad or wherever it was. Toby screwed up his face at the aftertaste and shivered. Still, he liked the way the stuff warmed his chest and belly. Maybe one more would–No!

He had to find The List.

Outside, the aircraft engine noise grew to a crescendo, and the plane’s colored lights blipped through the windows in tiny bursts of red and green. Naturally.

The last minute disappeared from the timer. 59 seconds remained.



Where was The List?

And where were his shoes? Man, if he left those behind, and the Great One realized he had broken in… Toby shut the thought from his mind, raced back to the heater, and jammed his feet into the warm but still damp leather loafers.

And there–right beneath the chair he’d sat on earlier–lay the biggest, fattest computer printout he’d ever seen. Bound in a thick paper cover the color of pea soup, The List occupied the most logical spot in the building. Of course it would be here, right by the heater, so the Great Man himself could stay warm while he poured over it night after night.

Toby grabbed it with both hands and dragged it out as the timer in his pocket started beeping. Five seconds left. Surely the names would be listed alphabetically. His hands trembled as he opened the cover. No, that wouldn’t work. They’d be done geographically. Or maybe… whatever. He’d just have to–

The Translation Effect hit him harder than the booze in the candy, wrenching him off the floor and twisting him to fit through an invisible window in geo-space and null-time, words his dad had muttered endlessly while building his transport engine. The bizarre Effect would have broken every bone in his body had they not all become squishy and soft. He prayed he wouldn’t barf.

He prayed he’d left no traces behind.

He prayed his fingerprints weren’t registered somewhere.

And then he just prayed.

Really, really hard.

As silently as he’d arrived in the snow an hour earlier, Toby appeared face down in the air two feet off the floor of his father’s laboratory where the Effect winked out, and gravity took over.

Toby’s nose and toes hit the floor at the same time. The timer in his hand bounced twice then pin-wheeled across the cement floor. Toby groaned and rolled over on his back, squinting up at the fuzzy, dark-haired figure hovering anxiously over him.

Dad? Why was he so out of focus? And where were his glasses?

“Are you all right?” his father asked.

Toby nodded. “I think so.” His words had a wheezy sound. Then things quickly came back to him–where he’d been, what he’d seen. But most especially: what he’d gotten his hands on.

If only he had something to show for it besides a bloody nose and a mild case of frostbite. Ah, but the next time– Things would be different then! He would prepare: wear warm clothes, bring a camera and some food. It would be great, and best of all, he could prove to the whole world the truth of what he’d discovered: not only did the Great Man exist, Toby could connect with him at will. Next to the Great Man himself, Toby would be the most popular person in the universe!

“Toby! Are you listening to me?”

Toby blinked. “Sure, Dad. ‘Sup?”

“When I realized what you’d done I went out of my mind. For cryin’ out loud, Toby, I haven’t even finished preliminary testing of this thing! Don’t you see? It’s not merely a geographical matter transporter, it’s cross-dimensional. I wasn’t planning to transmit living tissue for years, and I certainly had no intention of sending a human being, let alone my own son. My God… You could’ve been– I don’t even want to think about it.”

Toby coughed as he sat up. His father knelt beside him on the floor and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”

Toby shook his head and briefly considered recounting his adventure, but without some sort of proof, nobody would ever believe him, including his father. So he mumbled something about a cold place and a makeshift shelter. It didn’t make much sense, but he didn’t care. In the back of his mind, all he could think about was the next trip.

Meanwhile, his father held him tight and gazed in unreserved horror at the equipment crowding his workspace.

Finally, Toby’s father handed him his broken glasses and helped him stand.

“I’m sorry about all this,” Toby said. “I hope I didn’t hurt anything. And if I did, I’d really like to help you fix it.” The more he knew about his Dad’s incredible device, the better. He could become the explorer of the year, maybe even the explorer of the millennium!

“Thanks for the offer, son,” his dad said. “But I won’t tempt fate twice. You go back in the house.” He turned and faced his invention. “I’ll join you later, after I’ve destroyed this thing.”



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Christmas Cheer–Part One

“The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.” ~Delo McKown

“They’re gone,” Mrs. Binderburg said. She set a plate of cookies on the kitchen table and lowered herself into a straight-backed chair. She stared at the cookies for a time, then pulled a wad of tissue from the pocket of her housecoat and blew a goose call into it.

“You’re sure?” Mr. Binderburg asked when she finished.

She looked out the window at the broad stump which was all that remained of the 100-year-old fir tree that once shaded their house. The folks from Rockefeller Center had paid them handsomely for it the day before and then hauled it into the city.

“The cookies went untouched,” she said, “so I’m sure they’re gone.”

Mr. Binderburg bowed his head and wrapped his wrinkled hands around his coffee mug as a tear worked its way down his cheek. “After all these years.” He raised his head, placed his hand gently on top of Mrs. B’s, and smiled.

“Thank God,” he said.


Tony Paschetti looked down in shock from the scaffolding surrounding the great tree in Rockefeller Center. He gripped the rail and stared at the scene on the ice rink below where a heavy-set man lay flat on his back, his arms and legs moving almost imperceptibly. Tony hadn’t seen the ornament fall, but he’d heard the commotion from below and feared the worst. The injured man lay like a target on the ice, surrounded by an inner ring of shattered ornament and an outer ring of curious on-lookers.

Moments later Abe Joli, the job foreman, arrived at his side. “Geez, Tony, how’d that happen? Don’t tell me you ain’t usin’ the locks on the bulb hangers.”

“‘Course I am,” Tony said, “ya think I’m nuts? I’m not out to kill anybody.” He looked up at the scaffolding and the brightly colored canvas which covered the huge tree while it was being decorated. “Somebody had to throw it off,” he said. “There’s no way a falling ornament could’ve slipped through that canvas.”

The two workers watched as a trio of emergency medical technicians burrowed through the crowd to reach the downed man.

Abe shoved his hands in the pockets of his work pants. “It don’t look so good for you, Tony. I mean, what’re the cops gonna think? You’re the only one working on this side of the tree.” He shook his head. “I hope for your sake you don’t know that poor slob down there on the ice.”


Detective Sergeant Mona Deevers pulled the collar of her coat close around her neck and looked down at the deserted ice rink from the plaza end of the Center. The decorations were magnificent, as usual. The bright colors of the many huge fiberglass toy soldiers all around added to the festive look of the massed state flags at the other end. Rockefeller Center had everything, except people.

“It’ll be Christmas in a few days. This place oughta be jammed.” She shivered. “It looks about as happy as a funeral parlor.”

Her companion, a uniformed officer named Bailey who had been on hand during two of the last four tree-related accidents, nodded. “Yeah, that fits–only the joint’s a graveyard. If ya ask me, I’d say that tree is haunted.”

Deevers laughed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

He shrugged. “We’ve had guys stationed all around that tree since the second accident. There’s no way anyone could’ve got past ’em, climbed up the tree, and tossed those ornaments. But, they did. They hit the Zamboni machine twice before the driver refused to bring it out anymore.”

“I’ll bet it’s the wind,” Deevers said. “It’s gotta be. I’ll bet there’s a new building or something that’s caused the wind to behave differently.”

“I talked to one of the guys who decorates the tree every year,” Bailey said. “According to him, there’s no way an ornament could come loose on its own. They’re actually locked on the branches.”

Deevers turned to look at the officer and noted a change in the shadows behind her. “Look out!” she screamed as one of the gigantic toy soldiers toppled over and landed within inches of them. Deevers looked up from her hands and knees at the deserted sidewalks all around. Even the Metropolitan Art Museum shop had closed early for lack of customers.

“Did you see anyone?” she asked.

Bailey shook his head. “I told you the place was haunted. Now do you believe me?”


Mrs. Binderburg poured her husband his second cup of coffee and helped herself to another sticky bun–just one of the many culinary wonders she regularly produced. And she had the ribbons from the county fair to prove it.

Mr. B. set the newspaper down on the table and uttered a deep sigh. “They’re in the city ya’ know.”

She nodded. “I figured as much.”

He sipped his coffee. “We really oughta do something.”

“Why? We had ’em for years. It’s time somebody else took the responsibility.”

“But nobody else understands them like we do.”

Mrs. B. gently wiped her mouth on her napkin. Sometimes the caramel from the buns would stick to the little hairs on her upper lip. She hadn’t yet figured out how to remedy that. “I never claimed to understand them.”

“Well, no, me neither, but we’ve dealt with ’em longer than anybody else. That should count for something.”

“It counts for us being rid of them,” she said emphatically. “We’ve earned our holiday. Let the city folk earn theirs.”


“Who died?” asked Deevers as she stepped from her unmarked car and approached the uniformed officer who had called in the report of vandalism.

“Very funny,” he said. “I was standing right here when it happened. One by one, each flag dropped halfway down the pole and stopped.”

“Then you must’ve seen who did it.”

Bailey shoved his hands in the pockets of his blue greatcoat. “I didn’t see a soul. Folks come by all the time, but they don’t stay. It’s too dangerous.”

Deevers looked around at all the downed toy soldiers and crushed Christmas tree ornaments. Yellow police investigation tape mingled with streamers, garlands and holiday ribbons. Though colorful, the effect was anything but cheery.

“Well, they’re taking the tree down in a couple days, and that should be the end of it.”

Bailey looked at her and shrugged. “I hope you’re right, but I’ve got a funny feeling you’re not.”

“Intuition, Bailey?”

He paused to measure his words. “No,” he said, “more like fear.”


Mr. Binderburg clicked off the television and stormed into the kitchen. “Get yer hat and coat, Millie. We’re goin’ to the city.”

Mrs. B. frowned. “Now? I’ve got a sheet of brownies in the oven.”

Mr. B. unfolded the earflaps on his camouflaged hat and slapped it on his head. “Leave ’em. This is more important. I just heard that a cop at Rocky Center was nearly killed in some bizarre accident. I can’t imagine what those little buggers did, but if that poor guy doesn’t make it, I’ll feel responsible. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to hear about anyone else gettin’ hurt just so’s I can have a pleasant Christmas. It ain’t right, Millie, and you know it.”

He hurried past her to a cookie jar shaped like a fat, cherubic friar, and dumped its contents into a plastic bag.

Mrs. B. reached for the bag. “You can’t take those! They’re for the Women’s Group at church.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “Now get a move on while I warm up the truck. We’ve gotta stop at the nursery on the way.”


Deevers met Bailey in the squad room, now dimly lit and otherwise unoccupied. “I read your report,” she said. “But I’ve gotta tell ya, it doesn’t make much sense.” She sat down close to the big patrolman. “The captain asked me to see if I could help you clarify it.”

Bailey crossed his arms and squinted at her. “You think I made it up?”

“No, I–”

“You think maybe I wrapped myself up in all those flags?” He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open to reveal broad bands of elastic bandage. “Whoever did it fractured three of my ribs.”

Deevers put her hand on Bailey’s shoulder. “I’m trying to understand–really. But if you couldn’t see your assailant, how can you say it was a ghost, or anything else for that matter?”

“I didn’t say ‘ghosts.’ I said ‘spirits.’ There’s a difference.”


“What is it with you, Deevers? You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened. I’ve tried to warn people, but no one listens. Rockefeller Center is haunted! Anyone with half a brain can see that.”

Deevers pushed her chair back and stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Bailey scowled.

“The tree’s coming down this afternoon,” she said. “Maybe that’ll make a difference.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Bailey said as he re-buttoned his shirt. He gave her an intense look. “Will the department have people out there while the work goes on?”

She nodded. “The union wouldn’t have it any other way.”


Deevers watched as an elderly man and woman exited an ancient Ford pickup truck which they’d parked illegally. She couldn’t help but smile as an officer intercepted them before they had waddled a dozen paces. She watched them argue for a few moments, but when they became angry, and the cop had to restrain them, she sauntered over to investigate.

“Easy, officer,” she said, turning so he could see her shield. “What’s the problem?”

“I told them they’d parked in a loading zone, and if they didn’t move their truck, I’d have to have it towed away.”

She turned to the old couple. “He’s right you know.”

The old woman looked at her companion. “See? I told you.”

“Hush, Millie. These folks just don’t understand the situation. Once they do, I’m sure they’ll let us leave the truck right where it is.”

Deevers dismissed the officer and then glanced at the bag of cookies in the old man’s hand. “Is that your lunch, or are you bringing snacks for the workers?”

“Neither. It’s uhm, a little hard to explain.”

“Give it a try Mr….”

“Binderburg,” he said. “Walt Binderburg. This is my wife, Millicent.”

“It’s bait,” the old woman said. She pointed at a mini-grove of fir trees jammed in the back of their truck. “He thinks we can lure them out of the big tree and into the little ones.” She sighed. “Then I guess we’ll have to take ’em home again.”

Deevers conquered the urge to smile. “Take who home again?”

“That’s the hard part,” Walt said. “We’re not exactly sure what they are.”

“What, or who?” Deevers asked.

“We’ve never actually seen ’em,” he said. “They’re only active around Christmas.”

Mrs. Binderburg exhaled impatiently. “Tell her the whole story, Walt, or don’t say anything. She’ll throw us in the loony bin.”

“That isn’t too likely,” Deevers said, smiling. She nodded at the old man. “Go on.”

“We used to make ornaments out of bird seed and suet and hang them from that big tree.” He pointed to the giant, scaffold-shrouded fir towering over the skating rink. “It used to be in our back yard y’know.” He paused. “There’s not much time left. Can we put these cookies out while we’re talking?”

Deevers frowned. “Well–”

“It won’t take long, I promise. What can it hurt?”

Deevers looked back at their truck. Traffic was light. She shrugged. “Sure.”

The old couple split the contents of the bag and took turns setting them out on the pavement as they walked.

“Anyway,” Walt said, “one year we noticed that the ornaments were being eaten mighty fast, even though we never saw any birds. We thought it was squirrels or something at first, but we never saw any of them either. It didn’t make sense. So, the next year, we didn’t put any out.” He shook his head. “That’s when the trouble started.”

Mrs. Binderburg took over the story as he worked his way through the scaffolding.

“He shouldn’t be in there,” Deevers said.

The old woman waved off her objection. “He’s gotta get close enough to get their attention. There’s so much going on right now, it’s important we reach them right away.”

“Why?” Deevers asked. “Christmas is over. The damage has already been done.”

Both of them turned at the sharp growl of a chainsaw. The old woman grew visibly upset.

“They’re just cutting off the limbs,” Deevers said. “Makes the tree easier to transport.”

Mr. Binderburg rejoined them, dusting the knees of his worn coveralls. “That’s it,” he said, “nothing to do now but wait.” He stared at the workers who had cranked two more saws and were busy slicing limbs from the tree. He shook his head.

While Deevers watched, one of the larger limbs rose two feet off the ground and flew toward a workman. She yelled to get his attention, but the racket from the chainsaws drowned her out. The worker went down hard when the limb smashed between his legs and twisted viciously. His chainsaw hurtled into the air, then bounced off the cement sidewalk amid a shower of concrete chips.

“Stay here!” Deevers barked as she hurried toward the downed man. The chainsaw rumbled on the cement a few feet away from him. He seemed unhurt, and she helped him up. Despite her protests of innocence, he continued to look at her as if she were his assailant. Finally she just walked away.

“They’re just askin’ for trouble,” Walt said. “I wouldn’t stir ’em up any more than they already are.”

Deevers looked deep into the old man’s eyes, searching for some sign of insanity, but what she saw was care and concern. When the old man reached for his wife’s hand, Deevers made her decision.

“I’ll be right back,” she said and signaled to the foreman standing under a makeshift plywood shelter. Their argument didn’t last long, but when Deevers offered to cover the cost of an early dinner, the foreman told his crew to take a break. Deevers hurried back to the old couple who sat huddled in their truck with the motor running.

“You were going to tell me about some kind of trouble you had when you quit putting out food for the birds.”

“Right,” said the woman. “It wasn’t bad at first, the doorbell would ring at night, and sometimes the trash cans would be knocked over. We thought it was kids, but when we looked in the snow for tracks we never found any that they might’ve made.”

Deevers raised an eyebrow. “What kind of tracks did you find?”

“Small ones,” Walt said, “about the size of rabbit tracks, but nothing I could identify.”

“We tried to ignore it,” said the woman, “but the trouble only got worse. They broke windows, destroyed lawn furniture, flattened truck tires. It was awful.”

The old man chimed in quickly. “We called the cops, and they left a car by the house all night, but the vandalism went on like before. I stayed up all night a couple times myself–”

“With a camera and a gun!” exclaimed Mrs. Binderburg.

“But I never saw them,” he said, “even when they smeared stuff on the walls or threw snowballs at the squad car.”

“Nothing worked,” said the old woman, “until we started putting food back out on the tree. After that, things got better. From then on, when the Christmas season started, I’d bake something different every day and leave it outside. The only time we had any trouble was when I forgot, or if we took a trip somewhere. By New Year’s Day things usually went back to normal.”

Deevers scratched her head and looked back at the trail of cookies the old couple had left behind. Several disappeared as she watched. She looked in the back of the truck where the last of the goodies had been scattered. One by one, those, too, evaporated.

“Assuming everything you’ve told me is true,” Deevers said, “and these peeved pixies, or whatever they are, were the cause of all the problems we’ve had here, there’s still one thing I don’t understand.” She put her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side. “Why are you trying to claim them? What’s in it for you?”

The old man looked at his wife for a moment, then back to the detective. “It’s Christmas, right?” He shrugged. “They’re the only family we’ve got.”


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Ask any kid; they’ll tell you…

Never too early 4 XmasXmas audio cover liteOkay, so it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. And yes, I know everyone complains that businesses push to get the Christmas shopping season started earlier every year, and that is undeniably true. BUT–sometimes getting the jump on the holidays is a GOOD idea!

Imagine you have a carload of folks riding with you to visit relatives. You can listen to the radio playing the same old tunes over and over, or you could pop in a brand new CD and listen to that for an hour or so. And how much did you shell out for that CD? Ten bucks, easy, unless you scooped it outta the Bargain Bin at Dirty Dan’s Discount Dump and Body Wax Emporium. (Heh, like you thought we didn’t know where you shop!)

OR, you could try something completely new and different for a whole lot less money. Get it early and you can enjoy it long before the holidays even begin, and long after they’re over, too. Want a sample? Check this out:

Paul Licamelli smallPaul Licameli has done an amazing job with this production. Not only does he handle a wide range of character voices, he does so in such a way that every last one of them comes absolutely alive. He had me wondering what would happen next, and I wrote the stories! That’s what a consummate professional does, and it’s a testament to his skills behind the mike and everywhere else in the studio. You’ll enjoy his performance for years to come, I promise. And, just to save you a little time, you can click right here to snag a copy.

However, I know there are lots of people who’d rather just curl up around a good book, or maybe a Kindle, and let their imaginations take them on fanciful journeys. If you’re in that camp, I’ve got just the thing for you, and it’s been endorsed by The Man Himself. In fact, I managed to get a photo of him with the print version of these very same tales.

It’s not often that I have the opportunity to show my appreciation to everyone who follows this blog, but I’ve found a way. If you’ll trundle over to Amazon and look up Christmas Beyond the Box, or just click HERE, you can get a copy of the ebook version absolutely FREE!

Naturally, there’s a catch. The free version will only be available for five days beginning today, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. The last day to grab a freebie will be Thanksgiving Day. So, forget Black Friday, or Plaid Saturday, or whatever else Madison Avenue has come up with this year.

Final thought: if you’re looking for traditional holiday tales along the lines of Frosty Knits Mittens for Kittens, then DON’T DOWNLOAD THE BOOK! You’ll only be disappointed, because these stories are fresh and new, creative and different. But mostly, they’re just great fun. I promise. And hey, they’ve been endorsed by The Man Himself!


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A Pre-Turkey Post (Encore)

There’s something to be said for writing about the history of holidays, and the one that’s nearly upon us is a great example.

Just about the time our Halloween pumpkins rot down to puddles of orange slag, Ta-Da — it’s time for Thanksgiving. Second only to Christmas in popularity, Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays which doesn’t focus as much on religion or patriotism as it does on over-eating and football.

Even the Canadians have Thanksgiving, though they choose to celebrate it earlier than we do, most likely because they know the snow’s coming, and they’d best get in one last celebration before they’re forced into hibernation. As we’re prone to saying here in the deep, (warm) south, “Bless their hearts; they’re mounting their snow chains.”

But, back to Thanksgiving on this side of the border. There are some little-known but curious facts which bubble up during a search of historical references to this holiday and its American traditions, and this is a great time to share them. Prepare to be enlightened!

Many of us focus solely on the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Vast amounts of time and energy go into the preparation — and consumption — of this annual nod to gluttony. Don’t believe it? Then explain why we serve up some 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That’s over two pounds per adult. [Burp!] It’s serious business. In fact, according to the National Turkey Foundation (a real thing, by the way), the American turkey industry boasts an economic impact on the US of $97.5 billion bucks.

With so much turkey on the table, the great majority of Americans are doing their part to eat it. In fact, the average American will gobble down 4,500 calories on T-Day. That’s broken down by food: 3,000 and snacks: 1,500. Estimates for the number of calories in beer, wine, and sundry other spirits are not available.

And what Thanksgiving meal would be complete without green bean casserole? Thank Campbell’s soup for that. They put the recipe in a cookbook half a century ago and now harvest $20 million annually selling cream of mushroom soup.

After the meal, many of us waddle to the nearest sofa and settle in to sleep through an NFL football game on the tube. But the tradition of  NFL games played on Thanksgiving day didn’t start until the 1930s. The “real” first Thanksgiving day football game was in 1876, between Yale and Princeton. The latter’s cheer, by the way–“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Tiger! S-s-s-t! Boom! Ah-h-h!”–dates back to the following year and remains in use with slight modifications today.

Eventually, we’ll succumb to what we misguidedly believe is the effect of the tryptophan we’ve ingested thanks to the turkey. Not so. There’s more of that sleep inducer in the average chicken. We get dopey because of all the other stuff we eat and drink, and digesting that takes energy.

We then drift off to sleep dreaming about turkeys and/or cheerleaders. With any luck, we won’t dream about “Turkasaurus,” the recently discovered, prehistoric critter more correctly called the anzu. Some clearly delusional reporter types referred to it as the “Chicken from hell.” They obviously failed to look at the skeleton or the artist’s renderings. This was no chicken as anyone can plainly see.

And while domestic turkeys usually weigh twice as much as wild turkeys and are too large to fly, the anzu had all the necessary ingredients to terrify the average clan of cave-dwelling proto-humans, if only they had been around back in the late Cretaceous.

Anzu stood over 11 feet tall and probably weighed around 600 pounds, maybe more. It had the body of a raptor, the head of a turkey, and the crest of a cassowary; it sported big sharp claws and, almost certainly, feathers. That’s enough to keep me awake!

But, lest we end on a carnivorous note, this is probably a good time to toss in something less creepy. Like, oh I dunno, a poem. How ’bout “Mary Had A Little Lamb?” Most of which was written by Sarah Josepha Hale. Why is that important? ‘Cause she’s the one who convinced Abe Lincoln in 1863 that declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday would be a good idea. “Black Friday” retailers should have been thanking her ever since.



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Oh, those damned middles! (Encore)

MiddleYou know how it starts, and you know how it ends. Now what?

For many, including most of my writing students, the gaping black hole which sits between the beginning and the end of a story can be daunting. How does one navigate that? How does one manufacture the trys and fails that will fill the void and entertain the masses?

I appreciate how challenging it can be to maintain the pace of constant threats and resolutions. What helps me is having more than one point of view character. It may sound counter-intuitive since it involves more plot problems rather than less, but it works for me.

With multiple POV characters, I’m given the option to tell more than one side of the story. It’s best if the players involved have competing motives. F’rinstance:

Polly PopularOne could start with Polly Popular, an entertainer at the bottom of the show biz ladder. She’s maybe working on a cruise ship doing song and dance at night while running bingo games and ping pong tournaments during the day. Her goal is to make it big in Hollywood. Obviously, she has a long way to go. We introduce her being hassled by some asshat cruise director with a grudge against her. Person, place, problem, right?

Next up is Daniel Dirtbag, a loser extraordinaire who is being pressured to commit a heinous crime to pay off gambling debts. All he has to do is follow instructions. It’s either that, or he can pay with his life. Oh, yeah, he lives near the cruise ship docks. Person, place, and problem number two.

Now we toss in Tommy Tourist, a fellow who’s been on his own so long, he can’t even spell female companionship. A recluse, the only reason he’s booked passage on the cruise is because his mother, who still loves him, insisted on it or she’d write him out of her will. Tommy isn’t interested in adventure, and he dreads the thought of being on a boat miles and miles from shore. He spends his paycheck on seasick pills and goes anyway. Person, place and problem number three.

Bad guyFinally, we could even add yet another character, or two! Maybe it’s a wannabe mob boss who wants to extort money from the cruise line, or it could be a real terrorist *posing* as a mobster. Either way, there needs to be some pressure (read: problem) that they’re responding to. For the mob boss, maybe it’s the need to show he’s tougher than anyone else competing for the top job. For the terrorist, maybe it’s a demand from the head of his jihadist organization–“Perform, buddy, or we behead your wife and kiddies.” Et voila, we have yet another person, place and problem.

As the story is told, we switch views over and over. First it’s Polly dealing with her issues. We learn about the tragedies in her life and why she has decided to substitute success for romance. At first, her biggest issue is the cruise director. He’s pissed at her because she refused his advances. Now he wants to punish her for it. (Readers will love her for this; who hasn’t had a boss who hates them because they wouldn’t give in?)

We learn that Tommy has dreams, too. But he doesn’t believe in himself enough to accomplish anything. His inhibitions have tied him in emotional Saran Wrap. In an effort to avoid other passengers, he walks through crew quarters and encounters a weeping Polly. Stricken by her beauty and her emotional state, he begins to rise to the occasion demanding to know what he can do to help her.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dirtbag is given his orders. He’s to board the cruise ship with a carry-on bag given to him by one of the mob’s henchmen. It’s heavy. He’s told to leave it in his cabin when he goes to dinner. He’s also told the bag is rigged to explode if anyone opens it.

The clock is ticking for the mob boss–or the terrorist–doesn’t matter. Someone higher up wants results, sooner rather than later, but naturally, there are problems. There must always be problems!

The reason this approach works for me is because it allows me to get away with writing a single scene featuring the problems of only one or two characters. I don’t have to think about anything except how this one scene will advance the over-all plot: Polly is upset; Polly finds an unlikely ally; Polly plots revenge against the Cruise Director; etc.

TommyMeanwhile, Tommy is rapidly falling in love; he rearranges everything to be near Polly; Polly’s co-worker, not realizing Polly has encouraged Tommy, thinks the geeky passenger is stalking poor Polly. She decides to do something about him, etc.

Daniel has a crisis of conscience, and instead of putting the bag of explosives in his cabin near the engine room, he sneaks it onto one of the lifeboats near an upper deck. Then he discovers that the mob boss (or terrorist) has put another agent on board to watch him. He has to move the bomb or risk having his treachery discovered. Just as he’s about to sneak back onto the lifeboat to grab it, the ship’s captain announces a surprise lifeboat drill, etc.

The point of all this is that you have the flexibility to pursue several different stories at once. Everything intertwines; one player’s success becomes another’s failure. Making these interactions work will generate opportunities for surprises. Tommy gets drunk; Polly gets pregnant; Daniel goes into denial; the FBI takes out the terrorist; a rival gang kills the mob boss. Tommy falls for the gal who thinks he’s a stalker. Whatever.

As long as you know how the story ends, you can take the middle pretty much anywhere you want to go. Just remember to bring the players back into position for the climax, and it should be the biggest firecracker in your July 4th collection. It’s the one everyone’s been waiting for. That’s where everything comes together for one last, grand collision: Polly and Tommy realize they aren’t good for each other, and Polly runs off with Daniel who turns out to be the real hero. The mob boss/terrorist is left dangling over the rail, forty feet above the cruise ship’s drive screws. If he falls, his death will be both quick and certain, to say nothing of gruesome. Who doesn’t love gruesome ends for bad guys?

Mean kidAlas, you won’t be happy with the first ending. It’s too bland and uncertain. So you start to rethink things, and you come up with yet another character, albeit one who isn’t a point of view character. It’s a mean little kid. Yes, I know it’s a stereotype, but who cares?

In the revision, we introduce cute, little Beauregard Butthead, who shows up repeatedly throughout the story. He pops up once again at the end, this time with a very sharp knife purchased in a tourist stall on one of the islands the cruise ship visited. Wee little Beauregard sees the bad guy dangling, helplessly. Beauregard’s mommy is, characteristically, nowhere around. Neither is anyone else. Beauregard remembers when the miscreant dangling below shoved him out of the way earlier in the voyage. He takes the knife from his pocket, giggles, and starts sawing away on the rope.

End of story.

Wphew! There’s an entire novel outlined in — I dunno — twenty minutes. It’s got more middle than most folks will know what to do with.

Now it’s your turn. Go write something better!


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I write fiction, not memoir. Or do I? (Encore)

Shocked-FaceI can’t count the number of times I’ve told folks I make stuff up for a living. Depending on who I’m talking to, I may substitute a different S-word for “stuff.” Shock value, y’know; it’s important sometimes. So, how do I square the idea of writing memoir with making stuff up? Could those two things be any more incompatible?

I dunno, maybe. What I do know is that good writing is good writing, whether the practitioner is relating something biographical or something else, perhaps something brewed up in the dark corners of a twisted mind. Either way, it boils down to storytelling. The same techniques apply to both: one must gain the reader’s attention and trust, create mental images and invoke enough senses to link a reader’s life experience to that of a character–real or invented.

Foot OdourWell-written fiction draws a reader in, and it doesn’t matter if the universe he or she is drawn into is a fantasy or is as real as Aunt Minerva’s root parlor. One does that by constructing a multi-sensory word picture detailing the feel of the clear plastic seat cover on the sofa, the sounds of the cat coughing up a hairball, and the smell of burnt popcorn in the microwave. Those are all mental triggers that work equally well in fiction and non-fiction. Using them puts readers in the room, grimacing at the couch, shifting away from the cat, and pinching off their collective nostrils. C’mon, we’ve all experienced burnt microwave popcorn. In that regard–at least–we’re a team!

Show me the rule which says you can’t reference bad smells in a memoir. Piffle! Anything that puts a reader in a place is fair. The more skillfully one does it, the better. If you’re discussing a difficult decision made by a desperate couple during the Great Depression it really doesn’t matter–in terms of the writing–whether those two people actually existed or not. In the world created by the written word, the writer’s goal should be to make readers join that couple, huddle with them for warmth, their tummies growling in unison from hunger, as they conspire to sell great uncle Jeptha down the river. (Hey, the mob pays, even if everyone else runs a little short by the end of the month.)

Hopefully, you see where I’m going with this. There’s no reason not to make a memoir come alive for the reader. Just as there’s no reason to intentionally make software documentation boring. I know; I’ve written my share. Even in technical writing, boredom should never be a requirement, despite what management at my last employer tried to tell me. If someone has to read it, then whoever is being paid to write it should do the best job they possibly can. And, in the process, if they can make it interesting, then they’ve done something of which they can be justifiably proud.

Coleslaw(Damn. Has anyone else noticed how high they’re making soapboxes these days? Sheesh!)

So, what all this means is pretty simple. If you intend for people to actually read what you write, be it fiction, memoir, documentary, or step-by-step instructions, you owe it to them to make the experience as real as you possibly can.

(And don’t even get me started on mangled English. I’d like to save that for a different rant, thank you veddymuch.)


Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments