Saturday, November 28, 2015

Warm Christmas Memories, Part 1

This month has always been my favorite time of year. I have so many warm memories of this festive season. So I decided that for the next four weeks I would do a series of reminiscences of Christmases past. Here's the first:

bedroom, window, curtains
This isn't my actual childhood window,
but mine was just as frosty during the
winter. Ah, the joys of the single
pane window.
Outside the blankets, it's icy cold, but underneath them, so numerous it's difficult to move, it is toasty warm. My bedroom is a converted attic and our house's heat source is a floor furnace that does an admirable job of warming the downstairs but is basically meaningless up here. But I don't mind at all. The best sleep is cold room sleep.

I'm half awake; it's a half-hour before I have to get up for school. I could get up, but I have no intention of stirring before I'm called. This time is too delicious. Wafting up from downstairs are sounds and smells that my pre-teen mind has no idea will become so precious to me as an adult. Mom has been up for a bit, and during this time of year--the weeks before Christmas--that means two things: blasting Christmas music on the stereo and baking delectable Christmas treats too numerous to list.

It just wouldn't sound right to me
without the pops and hiss of vinyl,
but if you want to try it, go to Amazon.
It's only $5.99 for the whole album.
We have lots of Christmas music, all of which hid in the bottom of the stack of LPs until Thanksgiving. This is long before the days of iPods, CDs, or even cassette tapes. Dad, along with the rest of the country, hasn't yet given in to the commercial excess of starting Christmas in mid or even early November. But from the morning after Thanksgiving until early January, I am awakened by one of those records. I love every single one, but my favorite is The Star Carol by legendary country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. His rich, silky baritone fills me with warmth on the frostiest morning.

Accompanying the music are the sounds and aromas of Mom working in the kitchen, splitting time between getting breakfast ready for the house, packing Dad's lunch, and baking the aforementioned Christmas goodies. Mom is famous in our circle of neighbors and family for her baking prowess. The list is seemingly endless: chocolate chip cookies, snicker doodles, Niemen Marcus cookies, fudge, toffee, snack mix, wedding cookies, sugar cookies--I could go on, but I'm getting fat just thinking about it.

cookies, dessert, baking, sweets, treats, ribbons, food
I have no easily accessible pictures
from the time period. The
memories are still fresh, even if
the cookies aren't.
Mom annually bakes so much that most years we walk around the neighborhood, tins in hand, to share the bounty with older folks who don't have much Christmas to be cheerful about. Some years when I'm younger and frustrated about not getting to join my older siblings (I often joke I'm the fourth of three children because I came along unexpectedly almost five years after my brother Don, who Mom and Dad thought was going to be their last kid.), Mom soothes my tears by letting me join her in the kitchen. This is why I'll love cooking and baking as an adult--and why I'll have a sweet tooth until the day I die.  

Shortly before it's time to get up and get ready for school, I hear Mom come and slide back the door at the bottom of the stairs to let some warm air up. It's an accordion-style device that wasn't really designed for what Dad installed it for, but it works. The door opening only intensifies the sensory delights as whatever's in the oven just at the bottom of the stairs dances up and tickles my nose. I don't know how my brother can stay asleep through it, but he doesn't stir until a few minutes later when Mom yells up that breakfast is ready. I don't want to get up, not because I want to keep sleeping, but because where I am is just so perfect and part of me wishes that it can stay this way forever. But another part of me, even the me that's not yet old enough to understand why, knows that perfection doesn't last. So it's up into the frigid morning air to get dressed, trudge downstairs, and meet the day.

PS--I would be remiss if I didn't remind you one last time about my reading and signing event today from 4pm to 6pm. It's at Emmanuel Baptist Church, which is on the corner of 23rd and Liberty Streets. It's just up the hill from City Park, so when you're finished, you can go enjoy the lights. I know that's what I plan to do.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I Can't Not Be Thankful

When I used to teach underclassmen, I emphasized the rules of writing that were unbreakable. Now that I teach Advanced Placement senior English, I enjoy letting them in on some secrets about effective writing, one being that every rule can be broken if it's for a good reason. Hence the title of my post. It's a double negative, which is strictly prohibited. But it's exactly what I need to say, and when we have to decide between following a rule of grammar and communicating exactly what we want to, always choose the latter.

It's not that I have to be thankful. I don't have to be. It's not a requirement of survival. It's that I'm incapable of ingratitude. I can try not to be, but it's baked right in. And this isn't some statement about how wonderful I am. The exact opposite, really. It's a statement of just how abundantly blessed I am. So blessed am I that any person with just a shred of human emotion and decency would be unable not to feel a deep sense of thankfulness in response.

Here's a brief list of the more outstanding blessings in my life for which I'm thankful:

This is almost everybody. Wish Don could've made the trip.
  • Family: At age 52, I find myself in a relatively unique position among my peer group. My entire immediate family, including my parents, are still living. Not only that, we all still love each other and enjoy each other's company. Family events are joyful gatherings, not tense affairs in which everyone walks on eggshells and guards their words. I'm more and more aware of the fact that this is not something to be taken for granted. Specifically, my parents have been such a powerful blessing to me. They took me in without hesitation in my time of need and continue to do so on a daily basis. I can't express in words how much that means to me. So for my family, I am thankful.

I hope you guys realize that you've saved me.
  • My Other Family: I don't mean my extended family, though that is something for which I have reason to be grateful. I mean my spiritual family, and, more specifically, my close circle of friends. I've written about these folks so many times that I hope you guys who read this don't find it boring, but I can't overstate how powerful a positive force these folks have been in my life. Keith and Jennifer and Jonathan and Maria are family to me just as completely as if we had all been born blood relatives. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are brothers and sisters in a more specific way too (though they're all nearly young enough to be my children). They have been my port in the storm. I can text or call or show up at either of their houses without notice and they'll take me in. They love me unconditionally and I them. In the years since my marriage dissolved, they have kept me upright with their undying support. And on top of all these things, they are without question the most fun people I have ever known. I can't be around them and stay unhappy. So for my other family, I am thankful.

    Many times through the years, my students have felt like my
    family. In a couple of cases, they've become my permanent
    children. I love you so much Jenna and Poonam. Could you
    have ever guessed you would become sisters?
  • My Work: Somebody somewhere said that the ideal job is the intersection between your greatest passion and the worlds' greatest need. Sadly, a lot of people can't say they make a living at that street corner. Their job is a way to make a living but has nothing to do with making a life. It's nothing more than a paycheck. Yes, we can learn to make meaning wherever we are, but I am doubly blessed in that I have a job that I actually enjoy that gives me the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of literally thousands of people. I get the privilege of helping to show generations of young people that they are loved and they matter and that they can make a difference in the world. Who could not be grateful for that? So, for my work as a teacher, I am thankful.

  • My Other Work: When I sat down that first day to write that first book, I really had no idea at all how joyful a journey I was embarking upon. I may never get to a point where I make a meaningful amount of money doing this, but I've found that money is pretty much the least important form of compensation. I'm compensated in much better ways, like through the friends I've made and the places I've gone and the fulfillment I've felt every time I've finished a book and felt good about the story I've told. Writing, like my family, has been my refuge, my sane place. During those times when I'm writing and I'm the brave, smart, young, talented Harry Shalan instead of just plain old Joe Stephens, all is right with the world. After that, sales are just gravy. So, for my writing, I am thankful.
I could go on for quite a while, but who wants to read that? Before I close this, I want to point out that all of these things for which I'm thankful are from God, the giver of all good gifts. So, rather than having a separate point for that, I want you to see God as shot throughout everything I've said. My prayer is that you can say the same about your life.

Finally, for each of you who take time to read my blogs and books and follow my life as a writer, please know that I don't take you for granted. Sometimes I question whether you're out there, but never for very long because one of you inevitably comes along at just the right time with an encouraging word that sends me back to my keyboard to keep on writing. So, for you, I am thankful.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Big Week

This week is going to be a big one. Or at least a busy one. There is, of course, the first major holiday of the upcoming festive season. But before and after that promises to be exciting as well. Except for the medical procedure I'm having Tuesday. Don't worry--nothing's wrong. Except that I'm getting old enough to start to have preventive testing. I don't want to get too personal so I won't tell you exactly what it is, but it rhymes with schmolonoscopy.

It all starts today with my visit to the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library on Emerson Avenue. I'll be there from 10am to 1pm with books and posters for sale. Autographs are, of course, no extra charge. That's because I don't think it's fair for you to make me pay to sign your book. I hope you'll come by and say hi even if you don't need a book. I love to see my friends--even the ones I haven't met yet. By the way, I'll be giving away a book and a poster.

And then next Saturday is a full-blown party. It will all take place in Emmanuel Baptist Church's Fellowship Hall. If you park in the back lot, it's on the left side. You can also come in through the courtyard. Festivities begin at 4pm with Christmas music courtesy of Michael BublĂ© (It's recorded--he couldn't make it, as much as he wanted to.), light refreshments, and good fellowship. Sometime between 4:30 and 5:00, I'll do readings from both In The Shadow and my new prequel novella, "Harry and the Redheaded Angel." I'll also answer questions. Finally, I'll be signing books and posters for a while. The evening will end with some more prizes to give away. Some lucky person will walk away with a boxed set of all three Shalan Adventures. Sadly, there's no actual box. It's just a figure of speech. The books are real, though. I'll also give away a couple of signed posters.

I hope you can make it to one of my events. Both would be fun, but I'm not greedy.

By the way, I'll be doing a special bonus Thanksgiving post later this week, so watch out for that!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Power of Storytelling

During the Anglo-Saxon Period, before England was even Angleland yet or even one unified country--that wouldn't happen until 1066 when the Normans invaded (sorry--English teacher coming out), there were, at least according to tradition, storytellers called scops. They were wandering oral poets, but they didn't come into town to recite some sonnets (those hadn't been invented yet either). No, they were there to trade a place in the mead hall or around the fire and temporary room and board for a ripping yarn of monsters and heroes and the ordinary people who were caught up in the struggle between them. They told, in rhymed, rhythmic form, stories like the battle between Beowulf and Grendel and Beowulf and Grendel's mom (Sadly, even then, women were seen as second-class citizens--she was never given a name, simply being defined by her role in life. But that's another entry) and finally between Beowulf and the dragon.

fire, fireplace, flamesTimes change and technology moves on, so how the stories get told varies, but the storyteller is still central to our existence. Instead of the fire in the mead hall, we gather around the TV or movie screen. Sitting in the dark, mesmerized by the flickering light and the edge-of-your-seat-scared-for-the-hero-even-though-we-know-he'll-win story isn't a whole lot different from the days of the wandering storyeller. Stories of those fictional monsters seem to help us forget the real monsters out there. It's hard-wired in us by our maker to need to tell and listen to stories. It's not a matter of choice or even of taste. It's part of us. We, as a race, could no more stop telling stories than we could sprout wings and fly or learn to breathe through our navels. It's central to our being.

book, reading, people, black and whiteI would argue that one of the greatest things that ever happened to the art of storytelling was the invention of written language and, eventually, the onset of movable type. When that happened, stories weren't limited to the campfire. They could travel vast miles over land and sea to audiences even on different continents.

Or even into space. I recently read The Martian by Andy Weir (you can read my review of that book on ClutchMOV sometime in the next month). It's set in a future time when the United States is regularly sending human expeditions to Mars. In one particular mission, a storm so huge that it threatens to topple the escape rocket hits. Long story short, one guy doesn't make it to the rocket. And he's trapped on Mars, maybe forever. How does he stay sane? By doing four things, three of which involve the power of story. First, he keeps a running narrative of his time trapped far from other humans. He says he's doing it for posterity, but we all know it's because he's human and he has to tell his story. And what a story it is. He also watches all the movies and TV shows that he and his fellow crew members had taken with them to pass the time. Finally, he reads all the books that had been brought on the trip. Though he doesn't think of it in those terms specifically, he's escaping from his predicament for a short while every time he watches or reads a story. Yes, the indomitable human spirit, the yearning to live, to survive, is a large part of it, but that's just one more element in the story, isn't it?

I'm proud to be a part of that tradition. In a sense, I'm a modern-day scop, coming into your home and asking to be a member of your household, at least for a short while. In a way you even provide me room and board when you pay me for my stories. And have you ever thought about the fact that the universal image of the perfect place to read a book is curled up beside a fireplace? Pretty sure that's not coincidence.

book, pages, reading, fireplace, flame
So I hope you have a chance to curl up in a warm chair beside a blazing fire this weekend and help to continue that thousands-of-years-long tradition of storytelling. I'd love it if the story is mine, but even if it's not, I'm glad you're inviting some nomadic bard to take a seat by the fire with you. Offer him a cup of coffee for me.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Preview of "Harry and the Redheaded Angel"

Thanksgiving through Christmas is my favorite time of year. I always thought as a writer that I would probably, at some point in time, do a collection of Christmas-themed stories. I haven't done that yet. And if you've read In the Shadow yet, you know that Christmas isn't exactly jolly in that story. So I was excited to get to tell a happier holiday tale in "Harry and the Redheaded Angel." It's not only a story of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it's a story of great romance. As an added bonus, I wrote it during the hot summer months, so it took me temporarily to the chill air of November and December.

I thought this would be a good time to give you a little taste of the story. It's from the very beginning, when Harry meets his angel. Well, meets isn't completely accurate. He already knew her. He just didn't realize before that she was his angel. I'll let the story explain it. Here's the opening scene of "Harry and the Redheaded Angel."

I was running late—again. I was tempted to find a sparsely populated pew in the back after I shook hands with an usher who handed me a bulletin. The first strains of an old hymn, one I’d undoubtedly heard a thousand times before but the title of which I just couldn’t place, were filtering into the narthex as I swung the door open and stopped to get my bearings at the threshold to the sanctuary. Halfway through scanning the pews, I spotted my boss and only real friend in town flagging me down like one of those people who wave in an airplane after it’s landed. The ones wielding the flashlights with the long orange extensions on them. There’s probably a name for that job, but I’ll be darned if I know what it is. He was way down front and the service was just about to start. I found it uncomfortable walking all the way up the center aisle in front of the whole church. Especially since I’d only been here one time before. But Lucas McCain was not letting up, so just to get him to stop, I hurried to take a seat beside him.  
“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” was the hymn. I really had heard it a thousand times. The pianist was really vamping it up, though, so I didn’t recognize it at first. I figured it out as she was finishing.  
“You barely made it,” whispered Lucas, scooting over to make room for me. “What happened?” 
Guess,” I said, flipping through the bulletin without really looking at it.  
“Again.” I glanced down the order of service, half paying attention. Something on the page caught my eye. “I wonder…” 
“Wonder what?” 
“Huh? Oh, nothing.” 
“It’s just the soloist. Same name as somebody I went to high school with.” 
“In West Virginia?” 
“No, the other place I went to high school.” 
He looked at me, his face deadpan. “Such disrespect. I just mean I doubt it’s her.” 
“Yeah,” I said. “Deanna Baxter’s probably a pretty common name.” 
“You know her well?” 
“No, she was a couple years behind me.” 
“But you remember her name?” 
“Dated my best friend for a while.” 
“I don’t know. She was only sixteen last I saw her. Redhead.” 
“You do like redheads.” 
“I do.” 
Speaking of which, what are you going to do about J Lo? 
I don’t know. She’s getting really temperamental.” 
I’d say. It’s not even that cold.” 
“Tell J Lo that.”  
It had become unseasonably cool early for Louisville, Kentucky, with the night before, November 1st, falling well below freezing 
“You gotta do something about her, he said. 
“Pay me a living wage and I’ll gladly move on.” 
He started to respond, no doubt with something to the effect that I was barely worth what he was paying me as it was. To which I would have said something to the effect of bite me, after which we both would have laughed too loudly for the setting. That was our relationship from the day we met. Never a serious word except when it came to work. And sometimes not even then. With some of the cases we worked, you couldn’t help but laugh. Others, it was laugh to keep from crying.  
But before he could speak, the heavens opened and my whole life changed.  I’d only been half listening to the pastor as he introduced the soloist. Lucas and I were busy gabbing. After a short piano introduction, she began singing. From that first note, I was captured, captivated, entranced. I was half afraid to look up, nearly convinced she was an angel and that her glory would blind me. As it turned out, I wasn’t far from right.  
Well, Shalan, I thought, better hope she’s beautiful because you’re going to marry her. Slowly, deliberately, I raised my eyes. Maybe it was coincidence or possibly divine intervention, but she looked right at me at precisely the same moment I focused on her. Probably mirroring mine, her eyes grew wide with recognition. It was Dee Baxter. My Dee Baxter. Well, to be fair, she was Otis’ Dee Baxter back in high school. She’s mine now, I thought.  

Want to read the rest? Well, you have two choices: wait until Thanksgiving week and get it on Smashwords or Amazon. Or join my mailing list and get the whole thing for free today! It's easy. Just put your email address in the box at the top of the page. You'll get a confirmation email and as soon as you confirm, you'll get a link to this whole novella absolutely free. And not just that. You'll get the first Shalan Adventure, Harsh Prey and a four-chapter preview of the third in my series, In the Shadow. All for the low cost of zippo.