The Christmas Corps: A journal from the front lines.

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte 

Welcome to the Christmas Corps.  Some of you volunteered for this mission, some were drafted by fate or dumb luck.  But here we are, joined by our solitary missions to bring Christmas to our loved ones.  There was stress, there may have been tears.  After all, you are given only a month to do what a jolly fat man can only pull off with a crack team of elves and a herd of reindeer in a year.  But on the morning of December 25th, you, the true Yuletide heroes, reaped the glories of the Jingle Bells battle.  You were mercantile marines, shopping soldiers and you performed bravely.

Being a father, I have found Christmas to be a sometimes complicated, sometimes demanding duty.  I started early this year, picking up toys out of clearance end caps in October, breaking the normal industry standard of no shopping before Black Friday, yet somehow, still found myself shopping in the waning days before I would eat all the cookies and blame in on a fat man in a red suit.

In the preparatory week prior to Christmas, I struggled with ribbon and paper, trying to figure out how to wrap packages that had no apparent adherence to any geometrical figure I ever learned in my public school education.  Maybe they teach you what shape a Happy Napper dragon is to packaged in during private school, but in my world, I slap a bow on it and set it under the tree.

I wondered to myself how I would explain to the emergency room doctor that I managed to severe my index finger with a pair of kitchen shears, the only cutting instrument I could find, and wondered it once again as I attempted to cut Snoopy wrapping paper with a rusty pocket knife.  Instead, I threw caution to the wind, avoiding sharp blades and tetanus by suffering a cut from a cardboard box.

After the cursing calmed, I found myself shocked by the amount of blood that can come from a finger and wondered if anyone had ever had a paper cut that required stitches.  I forgo the indignity of switching the wrapping paper that I had just bled on and tape it up.  That particular Lego set has plastic wrapping, screw it.

As a former art major, I was shocked and dismayed to find that the hands that could sculpt a face out of clay couldn’t figure out how to wrap a pirate hat with Transformer paper and make it look like anything but a festively paper mached pirate hat.

The morning of the grand opening, so to speak, I am excited by the light in my son’s eyes as he begins tearing paper from packages revealing the childhood treasures contained within.  I am certain I am the best father in the history of fathers, right up until he gives me the Hot Wheels semi-truck and wants it opened.  I send him off to tear apart more of my hours of literal blood and sweat, while I search for a screwdriver.

Pandora’s box is not as secure as a Hot Wheels semi.  I try to make sense of the diagrams telling me I need to break tab A, then turn the screw left while the pile of toys to be opened grows beside me.  I eventually defeat the security measures taken by the Matel Corporation and then move on to the next gift.

I’m not sure when a Construction Management degree became necessary to follow the blueprint instructions for putting a Pirates of the Caribbean play set together, but I quickly realized my English-based education has left me unprepared for following the instructional drawings.  I fell back on winging it, shoving pieces together that seem to match until I made something that closely resembles what I saw in the picture on the box.

In my brilliance, I had decided what my four year-old really needed was Lego blocks.   We could build things together.  He could learn creativity and the joy of making something yourself.  It would be awesome.  It turns out, the downside of Legos is that my son would like me to build everything the right way first.  There I sat with a grand total of nearly three thousand pieces of Legos from seven different sets, spending hour upon hour building, knowing that as soon as they are finished, he will tear them apart and mix the pieces together inside his Lego box.  But still, I do it with a smile.

It was already bed time.  Light turned to night and bed time was fast approaching.  I looked at the pile of packaging.  I felt sorry for the guys on the sanitation crew this week.  I was somewhat annoyed how large the pile of trash was compared to the pile of toys.  What a waste.  It was enough to make Green Peace cry.  It would be a hell of a mess to clean up.

I sat back on the couch and watched my son.  He wore the Jack Sparrow hat, and searched for buried treasure with a Happy Napper dragon and a plush Yoda.  The Lego Hero Factory characters scaled the side of Queen Anne’s Revenge, and battled a robot from Mars for control.  My son’s little voice was hoarse from an entire day of excitement, always talking, always full of love for everything.

There was a light in his eyes, pure and radiant that had stayed sparking since the first gift was opened.

I rejoiced in this year’s victory.  The Christmas mission had been completed, and was a resounding success.  It could not have been more worth it.

A Fisher of Hearts

“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” – Matthew 4:19

My grandfather had died, quietly, in his sleep.  I sat in a wooden pew, awaiting the beginning of his funeral.  There was no organ, only the constant drone of the crowd.  My family had arrived early.  As I sat impatiently, my hands shaking with sadness, the crowd had filtered in behind me.

The constant drone of their speech rang in my ears as people shared their memories of my Grandpa Joe.  He had been many things to many people.  We all dealt with his death in our own way.  I was introspective, like the lake, my calm surface denied a world busting below with biological activity.

Memories swam through my head in a constant blur.  I would sometimes get a nibble, catching a memory for a moment before losing it again.  Sometimes, I would set the hook and reel it in, embracing it fully.

I could describe the memories, but they would be meaningless to you.  These were not world-shattering moments you brag about, but small memories of little things.  It was the little things that my Grandpa Joe had done so well, the little things that added up to the sum-total of a great life.

This was the real funeral.  Removed from the pageantry and procedure was the real coping mechanism, story and memory.  So much of small town life is defined by storytelling.  You can see it all around you, from gossip rising from a café table along with rich coffee steam, to two pick-up trucks parked side-by-side, shooting smiles, laughter and bullshit through rolled-down windows.

The funeral dirge of dialogue played on, lifting my grandfather’s soul to the afterlife, as his body lay in the casket before me.  His shape was barely recognizable, stripped of the soulful smile that brought hundreds to this small church in the middle of a town of less than a hundred.  They drove past the sign post designating Grandpa Joe’s station, a historic landmark of the people.

They arrived at the church, one of two he attended every Sunday, walking the half a block from one to the other for a second sermon.  They walked up the ramp feeling the weight of the living, the survivor’s guilt of the masses, mournful for the time they would have to spend without a constant fixture of their lives.

The church was standing room only, the church basement, which had 130 chairs for overflow, was filled.  People sat on the floor in between the rows.  The funeral procession for family and dear friends, was miles long, stretching in each direction as far as you could see.  Leading the procession was Grandpa Joe’s car, a beat-up white Dodge Shadow with a large fishing bobber mounted on the top, just as it had been for years.

He lay in the casket, wearing bib coveralls, a cross, pocket watch, and dreamcatcher lying on his chest, held to the coveralls by a gold chain.  Beside him lay an ancient Native American medicine bag, his good luck charm, worn leather fastened by a bone button.  The contents were in many ways a mystery.  I knew only second hand of a fishing bobber and Native American figure held within.  My guess is that they would be the simple items of a man who enjoyed the simplicities life offered.

We cried, oh how we cried, tears of shared sadness.  We shared sobs with people who we did not know, who we had never seen, but had somehow been touched by Grandpa Joe’s life.

Person after person at the funeral spoke about how they had gone to comfort him in hospice, only to receive comfort from him instead.  Now, we only had his memory to hold us the way his smile once had.

My tears were tears of missed opportunity.  For several years, I had planned on taking a couple of weeks to spend with Grandpa Joe, to go fishing and hear about his life.  I pictured it as the biography of the average man, and of what he can be capable of becoming.  Thousands have benefited from inspirational books about thousands of people.  Surely, they could learn something from the life of Joe Brammer.

Sadly, on Thanksgiving, I realized that opportunity had passed.  His voice was a weak whisper, and even our short conversation, seemed to exhaust him.  I feel ashamed I did not write that book, the book of a man who loved intensely, and died the same.  I hope that in some way, these two blogs will atone for my procrastination.

It is the day after the funeral.  I stand alone in my parent’s living room, looking out a large window.  The house is silent save for my thoughts.  The snow begins to fall, large angel feather flakes floating from heaven, the Iowa sky weeping gently

I hope wherever he is, there is still a calm lake, a line, and a bobber floating gently in the water.  Jesus always had a fondness for fishermen.  He took the best we had, but not before he captured us all with his heart.

Joe Creese Brammer – October 31st, 1925 to December 16th, 2011

A Train Ride to an Unknown Stop

“A great man is always willing to be little.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The curse of living is not age, but the aging of those around you.  One by one, the flowers of your life, those who brought you the greatest color and beauty, whither and return to the Earth.

You move on, not because you want to, but because you must.  Life’s locomotion chugs always forward, the Little Engine that Could Not Help Itself.  You carry on the memory of those you passed along the way, those who got off the train at one stop or another.

Your ticket is one with no destination.  You ride the rail, ignorant of its path, never knowing what mountain or plain that will next grace the view.  From your window seat, you watch the storms, quivering with a child’s fear, then soak in the glory of the breaking sun, relieved to have survived.

In the confined quarters of the passenger car, you meet fellow travelers.  Some ride for only short, barely noticed spurts.  Others have ridden for as long as you remember, seeming to have as steady a presence as the train itself.

One of the greatest passengers I have known, my Grandpa Joe, is likely nearing the end of his travel.  I fear his departure may leave me missing one of my great influences, one of the few people I’ve known who can transcend the scenery, never affected by snow or storm, he speaks with everyone, yelling affectionate greetings of “Hey little sister!” or “Hey little brother!” to all the children, promising to take them fishing, the way he did their mothers and fathers, the way he did me.

On his worst days, his mood has rarely been darkened.  Sitting and chatting in his overalls, with a crucifix dangling lightly from the front pocket, he always has the appearance of comfort, despite all the pain his body has given him, especially of late.

He is a man who has read the bible cover to cover multiple times.  His relationship with God is personal and strong, and his loyalty to his family as absolute and concrete as his faith.

People speak of self-actualization, those who obtained it, defining it by example.  My example is him.  His is the happiness I most admire, not fueled by possessions and titles, but by love.

The world has changed around him.  The small-town gas station he owned, often leaving the pumps unattended, the door unlocked, trusting even strangers to leave money for the gas they took, is gone.  Nothing of it remains.  The home he owned, the one in which he raised his children and his raccoon hounds, is more in need of bulldozing than restoration.  But his mark on the world, his little section of rural Iowa, is permanent and absolute.

If a man’s worth is gauged by love, then he is rich beyond any I have met.  Where others aspire for the riches of Bill Gates, or the looks of Holly Berry, I aspire only for the happiness of Joe Brammer.

I know we are nearing his stop.  As he lays in hospice, surrounded by his living legacy, God stands with him, smiling at the work he has done.  The train is slowing, the brakes shrieking sparks, as we approach the depot.  I am sad, not just for myself, but for all of us.  My Grandpa Joe will soon be leaving the train.  The ride will never be the same without him.  I have no doubt that deep in your heart, whether you know him or not, you will miss him, as well.

The horizon darkens.  The winter night will be bitter cold.   But daybreak always comes again, smiling warmly like Grandpa Joe.

Writing from a parallel universe.

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” – Walt Whitman

I was mentioning to another writer this week how much I enjoy the use of parallels in fiction, particularly speculative fiction.  By parallel, I mean something that the reader can relate to their modern life, or the way the world currently works.

Humans haven’t changed much.  We love the same, hate the same, lust the same, fear the same.  Nothing has changed except for the targets of our love, hate, lust, and fear.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  In fact, the great works of horror were often based on real life parallels.  Dracula, Frankenstein, Godzilla, and zombies were all born out of real fears.  Parallel to the strange, you found the realities of nuclear war, science, and disease.

You don’t have to see someone run from a zombie to know how their mind is going to work when faced with the zombie plague.  You only have to look to the worldwide reactions to bird flu, mad cow disease, and similar epidemics.  You distill experiences, yours and others, down into an emotional base on which to build your story.

Your characters aren’t that much different from you or your friends.  Chances are, somewhere in the rich tapestry that is your life, there was a scene that can be related to the emotional state of the scene you are writing.  There, in that memory, find how you felt, the way your pulse seemed to radiate, racing from your heart.  Feel the tingle of your skin, as if every molecule in your body was threatening to pull apart.  Watch as your vision becomes cloudy and narrow, your mind seeming to disconnect from physical flesh.

Then, you write it.

At some point in your life, on some level, you have felt ever emotion your characters will ever feel.  Find it.  Amplify it.  Use it.  Write your pain.  Write your hate.  Write your lust.  Write your joy, your pride, your sorrow, your doubts, your stubbornness.  Write it all.

This is nothing new.  Actors have done it for decades.  They have used their real-life feelings and experiences to crawl inside the skins of people who never existed.  They have made characters real because they felt what the characters felt.

Real life runs parallel to fiction, crossing over for brief moments that anchor our stories to reality.  Our stories are real, not in the sense that they happened or that they take place in real settings, but in that they feel real.  If your story feels real, if the characters feel real, then your reader will believe you.

Show your reader real, relate-able emotion in the fantastic, the wonderful, and the horrible.   They will love you for it, and your writing will be a lot more fun.