Saturday, December 3, 2016

Christmas With The Shalans

In keeping with the holiday season, I thought it might be fun to share some Christmas scenes from the Shalan Adventures. Harry and Dee have had some very happy Christmases, as well as one very sad one. I think I'll start with the sad and end right before Christmas with the happiest one. So be prepared. This is a hard one. Dee has just lost her baby and life in the Shalan household is pretty dark on Christmas morning. This is from the third book in the series, In the Shadow.

I gave up and lay on the couch looking at the still-lit tree. In the half-darkness, I could just make out the ornaments that adorned the artificial tree. When we first got married, we'd agreed to always have live trees, but she developed allergies, so we opted for a nice fake one. One thing, though, that had been true from year one: although we opened all our other presents on Christmas morning, every year we exchanged one gift the night before--a new ornament. We alternated, each giving the other an ornament that was appropriate to some milestone from the previous year. She started the tradition the December after our summer wedding with a "First Christmas" ornament from a local gift shop. The next year, I gave her one from the same store honoring our first year in the house we had just bought. She gave me a perfect replica of Eddie the year we adopted him. I could see each one, remember exactly the year it was given and by whom. The most recent had a place of honor high on a front limb. It was a clear ball filled with sand and tiny seashells she had picked out on the sly during our trip with my family to the Outer Banks.  A part of me, way back in the back of my heart, a part I didn't want to admit even existed, worried that it would be the last ornament we would exchange. The thought nauseated me, but after both of us being shot and me nearly dying--twice--this felt like the one thing we may not be able to get past. Our pain was so great that it wasn't allowing us to do the one thing that made us such a bullet-proof couple--lean on each other. Or, more accurately, she couldn't lean on me and I, who draw nearly all of my meaning in life from having her lean on me, felt utterly vacuous, as if all that made me me had been sucked out and discarded. And, worst of all, I couldn't say any of this to her. Partly I couldn't because I am male. Though I'm more in touch with my sensitive side than some gun-toting thugs, I still have male pride that keeps me from wanting to seem vulnerable--even when the choice is between vulnerability and being without my she. And when I finally broke down and tried, it came out all wrong; she took it as an attack, locked herself in her room again. Her room. Which had, just a few weeks ago, been our room.
I was snapped from my dark contemplation by movement in my line of sight. Eddie had basically become the fur baby of the Hillmans, so it wasn't him. She stood in front of me, a blanket wrapped around her, but still dressed in her church clothes from the night before. Her makeup was smeared.
christmas ball tree lights red blue green white holiday season blur "It's Christmas," she said in a flat voice with no tone of joy. No tone at all.
"Yes." I didn't know what else to say.
"We have to open presents so we can go to your parents' house."
"Are you up to that?"
"It's Christmas."
"Make coffee. I'll get cleaned up." And with that, she was in the bathroom. I automatically got up to follow her orders. I heard the shower come on as I scooped out the beans. I ground them, put a filter in the basket, filled it with the coffee, added water to the carafe from the filter pitcher in the refrigerator, put the water into the reservoir, closed the lid, and hit the brew button. I heard the shower shut off and knew I wouldn't scald her, so I went to the sink with the water filter and filled it twice before putting it back in the refrigerator. I did all this from sense memory and expended no thought in the act, but it took every ounce of energy I had left in me. As I collapsed back onto the couch, the bathroom door opened. She came out, her hair wet and face washed. She had worked quickly, but the part that took me aback was the fact that she had the towel wrapped around her. It wasn't because it was cold. Between the furnace I had neglected to turn down the previous night and the heat coming from the tree lights, it was almost uncomfortably hot. And hot or cold, she'd never left the shower and walked to the bedroom with so much as pair of panties on in all the years we'd been married. We spent whole days in the apartment in which she never put on a single piece of clothing without even a second's thought. I could only conclude that she didn't want me to see her naked.
She sat in beside me on the couch, up on the edge, her feet together and her back straight. For perhaps thirty seconds, she said nothing. Finally, I couldn't stand the silence.
"I'm sorry," she said before I could continue. "I love you."
"I love you too," I said, a catch in my throat. I tried to reach out to her, but she got up before I could. As she passed the tree, she paused, knelt down for a second, got up, paused again, and went on into the room, shutting the door behind her. I couldn't see what she had been doing.
She still loved me! For the first time in two weeks, I felt a tiny flicker of hope. With renewed energy, I got undressed and showered as the coffee finished brewing. I had no clothes to change into, but my robe hung on the back of the bathroom door, so I put that on and went out to get some coffee. But when I opened the door, I was startled to find her standing just outside it, a wild-eyed look on her tear-streaked face. She was panting as if she'd just been running. She had something in her hand that I couldn't make out at first, but slowly it dawned on me what she had picked up from under the tree. It had been my turn to get the ornament. My heart stopped. Or at least I would have preferred that it had stopped.
"I'm so sorry--I forgot--I got that two months ago--"
"A baby rattle? You got a baby rattle?! What is wrong with you?"
"I told you, I--"
“Just get out! I can't even look at you right now!"
"But I--"
"Get out!'
"Can I at least get dressed?"
"Fine!" She threw the rattle ornament at me. I had found it in a gift shop way back in early November. It was pink and said, "Baby's First Christmas" on one side and I had had them paint, "Emma Grace" on the other side. But so much had happened since that, even after looking at all of the previous years' ornaments overnight, I hadn't remembered that I'd gotten it. I had the gift shop wrap it and I put it under the tree way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving, right after we'd finished decorating. Dee had insisted we put up the tree despite our getting ready to move into the house. We would put it back up when we got there, she said, but she refused to have no tree until the week before Christmas, our favorite time of year. How ironic that we may look back on it in the future as the beginning of our end. I honestly wanted to just curl up on the couch and die. It had to be such a soul-crushing blow for her, because it definitely was for me. And the guilt of having done what I'd done, even if unintentionally, compounded the pain exponentially. I had to leave, I knew and wasn't going to argue, but I couldn't go out in my bathrobe. I didn't know what else to do, so I put on the clothes I'd had on the night before. In my distracted state, I forgot to take a cup of coffee or even put on a coat. It was probably cold as I staggered in a sleep-deprived stupor to the car, but I took no note. Ellie fired up and I pulled out. It being 7:00am on Christmas day, there was no traffic, which was lucky for me because I didn't even check.
winding hairpin road rural countryside trees nature outdoors Paying no attention to where I was going, I just drove. I suppose I could have gone to my parents' house. In fact that would have been the logical thing to do, since we were expected there in a couple hours anyway. But logic didn't enter into it. Pure instinct is all that kept me on the road. As the heater slowly kicked in, I was aware of becoming warm, which told me I must have been cold. The rising temperature seemed to thaw my brain, if only slightly, as I became cognizant for the first time of exactly where I was--Route 47, well past WVU-Parkersburg. Having little to no higher mental functions, my body must have put me on course for my old college, Glenville State.
 It also eventually registered that it was snowing pretty hard. Actually pretty hard may be a bit of an understatement. It was the big-flaked sideways snow that was wet and promised to accumulate massively in a short time. These were all facts that registered, but their ramifications were absolutely lost on me. I kept driving, barely aware that I was barreling at over 60 miles an hour over a snow-covered road that would have been unsafe to travel at 60 on a clear, sunny day. The good news is that the danger did become apparent. The bad news is that this happened as I lost control on a sharp curve. Ellie's rear end lost traction halfway through the turn, causing me to start running off the road and into a sheer limestone wall. I mashed on the brake and clutch and turned away from the skid--all the exact things I shouldn't have done. Somehow, the skid corrected just enough that I didn't hit the wall head on, but instead, with the screaming crunch of metal on stone, she caromed off it like a giant red pinball. It was enough of a head-on that the airbag deployed, knocking me even sillier. I thought for a split second that I had averted complete disaster, but an instant later the news got worse. I wasn't slowing down no matter how hard I hit the brakes and was hurtling toward the empty space of a sheer-sided and deep gulley at the bottom of which was the Hughes River. The space was interrupted only by several trees of varying sizes, but almost all of which could prove fatal if I hit one head on, especially since the airbag was a one off.

snow winter branch tree plant nature cold weather The next several seconds are a blur of shattering glass, crashing into trees, pirouetting in mid-air, and a spine-crushing impact with the side of the hill, followed by I don't know how many full rolls before Ellie came to a creaking halt on her now smashed convertible top. I was confused by the fact that I was hanging from my seatbelt looking down at the roof, which was way closer to me than it should have been. At a pace close to glacial, my head wrapped itself around what I had just done and exactly how big a predicament I had put myself into. Then another thing confused me. As I looked down at the roof, I could see my reflection, just barely, as if I were looking at myself in a highly polished crimson surface. I thought maybe my mind, shocked by the trauma, was playing tricks on me. Then it dawned on me. Blood. My blood. So much of my blood that it was pooling on the inside of the roof and making a reflective surface. I touched my head; the gash was pretty deep. I had been thrown forward to the limit of the seat belt at the same time the windshield had bowed inward on impact with the first tree at the top of the hill, and we must have met in the middle. 

So there you go. Harry and Dee's worst Christmas. Stay tuned next week for another episode in Christmas With The Shalans. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gifts For The Ones You Love

It's that time of year--time to be thinking about what to get your loved ones for Christmas. Well, if your significant other or family member or BFF is a reader, I have the perfect gift: The Shalan Adventures. There are four exciting tales and you can get them all for just $40! Or pick up any one for only $10. To order paperbacks, go to the books page of my website and click on Createspace beside each title.

If the recipient of your gift is more into e-books, they're available as well for only $2.99 each! That's less than $12 for the whole collection. And you don't even need to wrap them. To order ebooks, you can also go to my website and click the Kindle button beside each title.

You are undoubtedly familiar with Amazon, which is the only place you can get the electronic versions of my books, but you may not know what Createspace is. While it is affiliated with Amazon, it is an independent company that prints and distributes my books. If you order from them, you are essentially buying directly from the manufacturer and cutting out the middleman, Amazon in this case. Why does that matter? Well, frankly, it means that I get to keep a slightly larger portion of the royalty on each book that is sold, and I can tell you that as an independent author, every little bit helps. So, while you can choose to order from Amazon or any other online seller to get the paperbacks and pay the same price, if you want more of your money to go to the author and less to the big company selling it, you'll choose to order through Createspace.

Of course, if you live in the Mid-Ohio Valley, then you can buy directly from me. And I'm running a special that is available only to those who buy direct. Buy all four volumes in the Shalan Adventures series and receive $5 off. That's like getting the fourth book for half price! But that's only available to local customers buying directly from me.

If you want to learn more about my books, remember, all you need to do is go to my website and click on the Books tab. While you're there, you can learn more about me and how I came to be an author as well as find any events I'll be participating in. I hope you'll take some time and look around. And if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to do that here or by using the contact page of my website. You can also email me directly by clicking here. I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Time For Thanks

Writers hate to be labeled as hackneyed or cliché, but one time of year that I don't mind doing what's expected is this week. Yes, we should be thankful all year long and I like to believe that I am, but this week is the time to pay special attention to all of the blessings in our lives. And I have a lot. So here's what I'm thankful for:

Samuel knows exactly
what to do when the
phone is pointed at him.
Family: Folks who know me are aware that I live with my parents. That's partly an economic thing, but it's also a family thing. My mom and dad took me in a few years back when I was going through a divorce and it's just worked out well enough that we decided to keep it this way. Yes, living as an adult with your aging parents has its unique challenges, but I believe the blessings far outweigh them. I love them very much and am thankful to still have them in my life. The same is true for my siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and other family members, some of whom I don't see as often as I'd like, but they are also a great blessing to me. 

Friends: The gang of folks I hang around with, unofficially known as the Nerd Night Group, got a little larger this year. Part of that was by inducting new members--thanks for joining us, Cosbys--and partly by birth. Very shortly after Thanksgiving last year, Samuel Christian Schoenhut came into the world and completely stole my heart. There is just nothing in the world that
brings me greater joy than seeing him smile and hearing him laugh. I just love him more than I thought it was possible to love a miniature human. I know he's not my child, but I'm honored by the fact that Keith and Jennifer welcome me into their lives so that I feel like I'm actually contributing to his upbringing. So for my dear friends, I'm deeply thankful.

My wall of senior pics
that reminds me of all the
remarkable friends I've
had over the years. 
My Kids: I don't have any biological children, but every year I get the joy of temporarily adopting a bunch of kids who are officially my students, but I think of them as more than that. And there's a small group of kids who eat lunch in my room. Yesterday, on the last day before our Thanksgiving break, we all got together for what the kids dubbed "ThanksStephens." We had turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing--all the traditional favorites. But more than that, we had fellowship and laughter. It reminded me of just how amazingly blessed I am to do the job that I do. Sometimes I talk about retiring early if this writing thing ever takes off, but I'm just not sure I'm ready to give up these wonderful, loving, kind, hilarious kids. 

I could go on forever talking about all the remarkable things for which I'm grateful, but three seems like a good round number. I do want to say one last thing for which I'm thankful: you. All you lovely people who read this blog and buy my books. Your support means the world to me and I really do appreciate it. Now I leave it to you. I would love it if you would share what you're thankful for this Thanksgiving week. Comment here or on the Facebook link; either is great. But I'd really love to hear from everyone who reads this. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Keyboard Abides

laptop computer keyboard macbook apple business research study I've been sitting here, The Twilight Zone on in the background, wondering what to say this morning. I stared at the keyboard, which just stared right back. It didn't judge or clear its throat or shuffle its feet or roll its eyes. It patiently waited until the idea congealed in my mind: the keyboard is ever patient, but it's always there. No matter how long I put it off, no matter how much TV I watch or Facebook I scan through (apparently there was an election of some sort recently), the keyboard is sitting quietly, waiting for me to move my fingers across it and, hopefully, make a little magic.

Sometimes the magic just doesn't come. There are words, but they're ordinary, pedestrian, even boring. But other times I write something, go back and read over it, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. For that short period of time, for that paragraph or page or chapter, I've captured the lightning and put it on the screen. Whether anyone else would agree with my assessment is, at least for the moment, beside the point. I liked it. I believed, however briefly, that I could write and write well.

catholic church ceiling religion sculptures angels gold That's the essence of writing in my mind. It's magical; it's mystical; it's elusive, kind of like those times when a memory or even just a word hovers just outside of our consciousness. We like to say it's on the tips of our tongues. Well, for writers, it's on the tips of our fingers. We keep clacking away on this never-absent keyboard in the hopes that it will come out. Sometimes it does and other times, well, it just doesn't.

But when it does, it's such a glorious experience. Not to over-dramatize it, but it really does feel, even if for just a little while, like we're seeing the world clearly. We understand. We hear the flutter of the angels' wings. It's transcendent and we hope it never goes away.

nature landscape amazing lightning people trees silhouette shadows light But it does go away. And that's a good thing. Otherwise, all writers would do is huddle in their writing nooks and write forever, becoming hermits, shutting ourselves from all human contact. We spend enough time doing that as it is, so it's probably best that those lightning moments are just that: they strike and then they're gone until the next one comes. It's in between the lightning that we do "normal" stuff, like eat and sleep and see movies with friends and go to church. But when you text us and we don't answer, look around. See a flash of light in the sky in the direction of our house? I bet I know what it is.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

And We're Back, Ladies and Gentlemen

blog blogging business web internet scrabble wood When I opened my blog to start this post, it was with great disbelief that I took note of the fact that my last one was way back on September 24. I didn't realize how long I had taken off. The time flew by. Time seems to do that more and more as I age. But there was never any question that I would be back. I enjoy this blog whether anyone actually reads it or not. So it will continue, but I needed some time away. Away from the blog, away from writing, away from selling my books and feeling like a huckster for trying to sell my books.

So I stopped. All of it. I stopped writing for over a month. Not a word. Didn't carry my trusty little blue notebook with me. Didn't write any short stories, didn't write any poems, didn't write or even think much about my latest work-in-progress (except for when it crowded its way to the front of the line occasionally). I did write a couple of articles for Clutch, but I didn't really, unless I just wanted to resign from there--if you can resign from a job for which you receive no money--have much of a choice in that. But I also quit updating my Facebook page and my website and checking my Twitter feed and all the other social media things that I felt like were taking up all my time and energy.
pedestrian walking stop intersection pavement street road
Why did I stop? Well, that's a good question. It wasn't a fully conscious choice so much as a spontaneous response to just one too many disappointing author events. I had a pretty good string of those. Days of building up the psychic energy to go out there and smile and say hello and hand out bookmarks and ask people to buy my books and maybe sell a book or two or, more likely, not sell a book or two. I read somewhere once that a good salesman will receive at least nine rejections for every one sale. I feel like that's a bit low. Actually, a lot low. And that's not something I really enjoy. Part of why authors become authors is that they are often socially awkward and express themselves more comfortably in writing than they do in person.

I know that seems contradictory from a teacher, but you'd be surprised by how many teachers are completely comfortable in the specific setting of their classroom with their kids but wouldn't want to work with the public in any other setting ever. I'm really one of those people. I'd be glad to go to a reading and read and talk about my books with people who want to hear from me and I would be completely content answering all the questions anyone could ever think of, but going up to someone and trying to get them to be interested in me and my books is just not something I really enjoy doing at all.

But I'm not complaining. It just comes with the territory when you're an indie author. So it's either this or I just write these books for myself and the idea of writing an entire series of books and being mildly proud of them and then not trying to get people to read them is just odd. I guess I could give them away, but that will hardly provide me with a living when I retire from teaching, will it?

still camp fire flames hot burning wood charred ashes light shadows Sorry if I seem like I'm rambling. It's been so long that my fingers are suffering from some from of digital diarrhea, if you'll pardon the rather indelicate metaphor. To sum up, I was suffering from a touch of burnout and I was just kind of tired. I needed to step back, enjoy some time with my friends, take care of myself, and re-evaluate whether I wanted to maintain this activity, which many indie authors will likely agree is often not much more than a really expensive habit. And the answer is yes. Yes, I do want to continue. Yes, I do want to write and even sell books, hopefully for the rest of my life. And I hope you are here for all of them.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Bliss of An Uncluttered Day

calendar, agenda, planner, notebook, meeting, business, office, desk, meeting, workingI started to turn off my alarm this morning, but then I remembered that I have nowhere to be until 7:15 tonight, which means I am free for the entire day and I didn't want to miss any of it. I did lie in bed for about twenty minutes just enjoying the fact that I didn't have to get up and be ready to go somewhere. But then it was up for tea and devotions and browsing the Internet while I let my thoughts on my blog gel in a meandering, leisurely pace. I read a little, had some breakfast and another cup of tea, and here I am, two hours later, writing my post. After this, I might read some more--I'm getting to the good part of my book--or I may FINALLY get some writing done.

I have been thinking a lot about retirement lately. Trying to decide at what point I'm going to hang up my teacher spurs and turn to writing full-time. Despite the fact that I'm just in love with my kids again, there are times when I yearn for the ability to do this regularly. Get up early because I want to. Read. Write. Promote. Exercise. As my old friend Dan Daniel always used to say, make every week six Saturdays and a Sunday.

clock, timeBut then I think about just how much I was looking forward to today. A single uncluttered day in the midst of calendar slots filled with school activities and writing activities and church activities. And it takes me back to the summer, when I had great long stretches of days with literally nothing requiring my time. I took them for granted. I took no great joy in them. I failed to take advantage in the way I should have. I mean yes, I did travel a good deal and spend time with people I treasure, but I didn't get nearly the writing done that I could have and I definitely didn't read as much as I could have. Why? Because I had all the time in the world. If I didn't get 5,000 words written today, that's all right--I have tomorrow. Until I didn't. And then I looked back on all that time I didn't use how I could have. I'm not on a guilt trip. It was a good summer. But what I'm saying is that I tend not to appreciate free time unless I don't have it. Intellectually, I know that it's finite, but I'm not always intellectual. Sometimes I'm lazy and unfocused.
nature, outdoor, green, grass, forest, trees, plant, road, path, sky, wood, peaceful
But not on days like today. Today I'm like a laser. Reading. Writing. Cleaning up my room. Enjoying the fact that tomorrow, when it's back to the rat race of church and school and ClutchMOV stuff, I'll be able to look back at a day spent well.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Happy Birthday To Me!

For my birthday, I
became Batman.
It's my birthday, so I slept in today. When I woke up, my brain couldn't comprehend why it was so bright outside. I've gotten up before dawn seven days a week for well over a month. The last time I slept past daybreak was sometime in the summer. But I had a good excuse, aside from the whole birthday thing. Last night was my school's homecoming. As the assistant advisor to the Student Council, I had school all day, ran and grabbed some dinner, and then was at school again until about 11:15. It was a long but satisfying day. But I needed to get some sleep, so I turned off my alarm.

The other day my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. When I was younger, I always looked forward to being asked that because it meant the big day was coming. Then, when I got a little older, it was less of a happy thing and more of a reminder that I wasn't getting younger. Now, I'm in a good place in my life. I don't want to rush anything, but I'm at peace with the aging process. A lot of that has to do with my complete conviction that this life is only the beginning of a great adventure. Once this body dies, I'll get a new, perfect body and my soul will live on in the unending love of God. And so dying doesn't scare me like it used to. Which means I can celebrate birthdays all I want without an ounce of dread. I'm happy to say that I'm 53. I made it another year. I'm excited to see what the next one brings.

But the question still remains: what do I want for my birthday? Well, that's a toughie because it's hard to think of much that I could ask for that I don't already have. I have a big, close family who love me very much. I have a group of friends who are also my family. I have two great jobs, both of which I love; a comfortable, clean place to live; and a cool new ride. The one thing I never got to do was raise children, but I get my parenting instincts out on my students, some of whom have become just like my children. And there's a handsome young lad named Samuel Schoenhut who I love to the moon and back. I'm excited to help his parents guide him to adulthood in any way that I can.

So what does that leave? Frankly, not much. But if you put a gun to my head, I'd have to say--after I asked you to stop pointing the gun at me--that there are a few things I'd like to ask for this year. Here the are:

  • A publishing contract for my new, not-finished-yet book. I've enjoyed the independent thing with The Shalan Adventures and I intend to continue that, but I'm still old-school enough to want to publish at least one book traditionally. It doesn't have to be a bestseller. I just want to be able to say I did that. 
  • Speaking of the Shalan Adventures, I'd love to hear back from the production company who contacted me about the production rights on them. That would be a great present. 
  • Last, but most important, my wish is that the world and all its inhabitants would learn to live in the love of Christ. 
So there's my list. Publishing companies and studios, how about we get on those first two? As for the last one, if you want to know more about my faith, all you have to do is ask.