A Goodbye for a Nice Dog

2003 marked a definitive change in my life. I returned to college, effectively abandoning a potential career in journalism to pursue English, effectively changing my focus to fiction writing. That was also the year that my ex-wife told me that she wanted to adopt Tippie after finding her in an Ames animal shelter.

Tippie always had this ability to make herself look smaller than she was. There were times, even recently, when she would seem tiny and vulnerable, curled in a small ball in the corner of her bead. That is how I remember her in the animal shelter that first day, sitting on the concrete pad inside her cage, looking up at us with these eyes that always seemed slightly worried. She was so timid and so quiet.

The second day, that changed entirely. Tippie was an adult when we adopted her, probably two or three years old. She had two owners prior, one for a very short time. That turnover seemed to make her anxious. Every time one of us would leave the apartment, she would get upset and bark until we were out of sight. In the last several months, she had stopped barking. She had stopped doing much of anything other than lying in one of her beds and watching us.

Tippie proved to be too smart for her own good. When we tried to train her, we quickly discovered that she already knew sit, lay down, stay. We added roll over, but she got so used to the pattern that she would start rolling around on the floor, doing dog somersaults as soon as the treat came out. She was an escape artist and loved to get out where she could run. Tippie was part Italian Greyhound and could really run. She loved the chase, to race anything, but rarely knew what to do when she caught it. There were several times when she took off and I wondered if I would ever be able to find her again, but she always came back. A couple of weeks ago, she wandered off, her back legs having lost the ability to run or jump, or even get up on the couch where she often sat watch from the upstairs window, guarding her domain like a dedicated watchman. I found her after three hours, cold and lost. I’d nearly given up then.

She would test her limits on a near-daily basis. One day, when I got locked out of the house, she saw me on the patio outside the kitchen. In an attempt to goad me to coming inside, she jumped up on the table and laid right in the center, taunting me. She had a war with Sara over the trashcans. If there was a trashcan available, she would dump it over, if only to pull out the liner. She would eat chocolate if she could get to it, and would never show ill-effects. She wasn’t always a good dog. She listened when she wanted to listen and rebelled when she wanted to rebel. She was almost more cat than dog sometimes. But she was a nice dog, and she was there through many changes in our lives, whether she was with me or my ex-wife.

This morning, Sara and I took Tippie to the vet. She hasn’t been eating much. She’d lost a third of her body weight in the last couple of months. She was in obvious pain while walking. Her breathing had become erratic. When the doctor walked in, it was obvious the diagnosis wouldn’t be good. After blood draws and chest x-rays, we learned that the time had come to say goodbye. Her body was shutting down and there was nothing we could do about it.

It has been twelve years since I made that change from Journalism to English, since I decided that, for better or for worse, I was a writer. Tippie was there through all of it, often curled up in a tiny ball just a few feet away from where I sat typing story after story. It will be strange to continue my career without her, to finish Very Dangerous People for NaNoWriMo and then push through to the next project.

The house will be too silent, slightly colder at night without her sleeping nearby. I will miss my dog very much, as I know she will be missed by others. Just as she had the ability to make body so tiny, she had an equally prevalent ability to make her presence incredibly large.


The Closing of “My” Bookstore

As I write this, another bookstore is about to die. This, on its own, would be a tragedy in itself. For a booklover, the bookstore is almost as much a part of the experience as the book. From the rainbow of spines peppering the worn wooden shelves to the intoxicating odor of old paper, a bookstore is a special place.

But this isn’t just any bookstore, it is my bookstore, and that makes a world of difference. When I say it is my bookstore, I don’t mean I own it. Not in any literal sense, though I’ve probably spent a month’s rent inside. The store is owned by Half-Price Books, but for me and the regular customers, it was ours.

I know where to find everything, from the Clearance rack that is always my first stop and has been the location of assorted treasures, to the somewhat misplaced genre authors (Caitlin Kiernan and Richard Matheson can be found in Science Fiction and Fantasy, rather than horror). This place is the reason I could go six years without purchasing another book and probably not make it through my collection. They have fueled a sort of addiction, but have also given me the comfort that only a good bookstore can provide.

This story is nothing special. It happens all over the United States, probably every day. Amazon has proven to be the femme fatale mistress of the bookstore. While I love Amazon and my Kindle, it saddens me that physical bookstores are unable to compete.

Yesterday, all the regulars received a letter from Half-Price Bookstore thanking us for our patronage and reminding us of other locations: Olathe, Kansas City, and a new store in Independence, MO. The Lawrence location, they say, didn’t get enough traffic. Of course there are other bookstores. Others in town, others of the same chain in other cities. Unfortunately, 15% off coupons and other options can’t ease my melancholy mind. They aren’t my bookstore.

I’m sure I and the other customers will move on. It’s human nature. But in the meantime, I will miss the little treasures I have found, and the staff that was never anything but nice. Books are very personal things. I’ve found postcards from a trip to Yellowstone in a copy of Bird by Bird, an essay on Faulkner inside a copy of As I Lay Dying, and numerous inscriptions from anonymous loved ones within numerous books that were loved and then passed on.

Books are like people, in that they contain more than their outward appearance. Similarly, while the closing of a bookstore is sad on the surface, it is tragic for the staff who gave so much, but will now be looking for new jobs. I wish the best for all of them, and for all of the customers who will now go on a search for a new bookstore to call their own.

Holiday Wishes and Goodreads

Holiday Wishes and Goodreads

This week at The Confabulator Cafe, we are sharing our feelings on the holidays. My views have become conflicted in recent years. You can read all about it at http://www.confabulatorcafe.com/2012/12/holiday-wishes/

Also, if you are a Goodreads user, feel free to connect with me there. I usually review every book I read. Discussing literature is one of my great loves. Feel free to comment there, as well. http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/1295160-jack

The New Year is coming fast, and I have a lot of stories scheduled to be published in 2013 in such publications as Epiphany Magazine, The Rusty Nail, Bete Noir Magazine, Separate Worlds, and Wicked East Press. It should be a good year. Keep checking back for updates.

Happy Holidays,


Fear and the Fourth in Clearfield

Pripyat Ferris Wheel by KasFEAR

The Fourth of July is a time of family, fireworks, a hot grill, and a scorching sun. For me, many of my Fourth of July memories revolve around the small Iowa town of Clearfield.

Clearfield is a rural town of only a couple hundred people. Broadway is a wide two block street flanked by crumbling brick buildings, most of which are empty these days, but back then the Fourth of July was our time.

It felt like every person in the county came to my home town for the Fourth of July. It seemed so big then. The two blocks of Broadway branched north and south for eternity. Blocked off at both ends, the street was filled with concessions, flea market booths, and carnival rides. I remember beach volleyball and basketball tournaments, and the central attraction a tractor pull behind the car wash. Not to be outdone, the kids pedal tractor pull took place smack dab in the middle of Broadway. After dark, the night sky would explode with fireworks.

I had lived in Clearfield my entire life. I knew every pothole in every gravel-covered street. I was a survivor of numerous bicycle wrecks as a result of them. Every house was old hat, every person as familiar as family.

But on the Fourth, Clearfield became exotic and dangerous, filled with people I had never seen. The flea market boots were mysterious places where you might find anything. Tables waited, full of pocket knives, ninja stars, snappers, and black snakes. Money exchanged hands over folding tables in a way that I imagined only occurred on foreign black markets.

I ran the two blocks from my parents’ house, usually along with cousins or my sister, and experienced the strange noises and smells of crowd and carnival. There, in the center of it all, one of my great fears was born.

I’m terrified of heights. I can work around them, but it means dealing with a constant sense of dread, a feeling of too-much gravity and not enough security. Every moment seems to cheat death and my bladder trembles, asking me exactly what the Hell I was thinking. It all started on one of those Clearfield Fourth of July Days, and a Ferris Wheel.

I sat in that Ferris Wheel with a cousin, my first time riding it. As we began our ascent in the claustrophobic buckets secured by not enough bolts, my cousin began rocking the bucket back and forth. I held on, terrified of falling, but even more terrified of admitting fear. The ride lasted for both an eternity and a moment. It was frightening, yet exhilarating. I have always remembered it.

One of the things I’ve learned about aging is that it damages our childhood perceptions. As I got older, it seemed like a different place: smaller, less mysterious. The booths were no longer the bazaars of the bizarre that I remembered. The street was no longer than it was on the Third. The magical expansion that happened once a year had ceased. The millions who filled the streets were probably only a couple of hundred.

I know now that the Farris Wheel that spawned my fear of heights is not that high at all. If I had somehow fallen, I would have walked away with nothing more seriously damaged than my courage. The figment of my fear was small enough be towed on the back of a pick-up truck.

Being around my son reminds me of that realization. The real tragedy is that we lose a child’s mystique about the ordinary. Our fears of imaginary things are replaced by real-life terrors of a much less sinister nature. We no longer fear what may lurk in the dark. We fear what we know awaits us in the real world.

But as we lose those fears, we lose the excitement we once had. Simple things excite my son. Parades are endless showcases of the amazing. Playgrounds contain unimagined possibilities. I experience his fascination vicariously, and mourn the loss of my own.

Broadway doesn’t seem as big anymore. It doesn’t contain the magic it once did. Clearfield is no longer familiar. We grew apart.  Still, every Fourth of July, I see fireworks, and almost expect to find myself standing next to that terrifying Farris Wheel, surrounded by a million exotic strangers. It is a few moments of child-magic in an otherwise horrifically adult life.

I will always be thankful for my childhood in Clearfield and the influence it had on my dreams and nightmares, and my writing by extension. I hope my son finds a place that will fuel his. I hope it is a long time before the magic of his childhood slips away.

Minor Moments

It is human fate to have our dreams and to chase them throughout our lives. But dreams are fleet-footed. They tease our hope then slip through our fingers time and again. But, in the end, the chase and those minor moments of success are what will matter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately. A friend of mine, a professional wrestler, is retiring next month. I’m sure part of his dream was always to be famous, to make it to one of the major companies and tour the world. But, it didn’t happen.

However, looking at his career, you could never call it a failure. Michael Strider has wrestled all over the Midwest. Independent wrestling fans know him as a guy who always gives them a great match. He has been a champion many times over, and has wrestled on television, even minor appearances on national television as a sort of wrestling extra. He has been featured by local news outlets, including a feature I produced for Kansas Public Radio. Most of the wrestlers in this area have trained with him, or benefited in some way from his vast knowledge of how to make a crowd love or hate you. He has wrestled with stars and legends. His years of experience will leave him with scars, aches, pains, and more memories than he could probably count. Maybe that is enough. On June 2nd, in Kansas City, for Metro Pro Wrestling, he gets one last memory of his life in a wrestling ring.

We all have our dreams. We can all relate to my friend and the minor moments that he will forever remember. Whether you wanted to be a race car driver and find yourself racing Saturday nights on small dirt tracks or wanted to be a rock star, but find your only fame in local bars, you have seized some of those minor moments.

Writers are full of them. Writing as an art is mostly rejection and disappointment, especially starting out. Endless strings of submissions are neutralized by an endless string of rejections, mostly impersonal form letters. Still, you dream of the day your name is on that book, in the credits of that movie, or connected in some way to something someone liked enough to put out there.

But if you do it long enough, seriously enough, those minor moments start to come. You find various projects and outlets for writing. You write a blog that is well received, get involved in some sort of project, get accepted to a magazine or anthology, or experience some other small, welcome success. Those minor moments are the ones that keep you going, the ones that you will forever remember.

If you have ever golfed, you know those moments. You know that one drive, put, or chip that was perfect, that no one could have done better. That shot will keep you golfing till the next one, little minor moments that keep you hopeful, even as you fish your ball out of the rough.

Perhaps that is success in life, stringing together minor moments. You proudly wear them on your sleeve, remembering when you touched your dreams, however slightly. Here’s to all of our minor moments, and the dreams that we still chase.

Fifty Dollar Crossroads

“Destiny is no matter of chance. It’s a matter of choice…” William Jennings Bryan

The tree that is your life has many branches breaking off in various directions. Sometimes, it seems there is no reasoning behind which way the branches go, but on you climb, wondering what the view will be like from the next one.

Looking back on you life, you may see that many of the branches travelled were linked at one specific point in time where one choice, however minor, could have altered your present drastically. For me, that choice involved a fifty dollar orientation fee at Iowa State University.

In order to save money on college, the first two years of my post-secondary education came from Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, IA, known as the perennial community college basketball national champions, and the alma mater of Tom Arnold. I’m not kidding on either of those tidbits. In fact, there is a copper bust of Tom in the Arnold Net Center, home to the Warriors volleyball squad.

Nearing graduation, and never having considered that one would actually leave the state to go to college, I looked at colleges in Iowa. I was interested in Art at the time. I hoped to be a motion picture animator. However, I had seen the writing on the wall when Toy Story was released. I had also recently taken a video production class and had written a scene of a screenplay.

Thinking a film career might be the way to go, I applied at Iowa State University and The University of Iowa. I was accepted to both. Being that you ar

e here and likely know that I am a writer, you might think I chose the University of Iowa. Nay, for I had been accepted to Iowa State University first, and had already sent I a fifty dollar orientation fee. I was not going to let that fifty dollars go to waste.

I entered in to Iowa State University as a Journalism major with a focus in Electronic Media Studies. To this day, I know that with my interests and talents, The University of Iowa may have been the better, definitely more logical choice, but fate does not deal in logic.

I could never question fate. If I had not been at Iowa State University, there are a few things that would have been different. Predominantly, I would not have met my ex-wife. If I had not met her, I would not have moved to Kansas to follow her, and I would not have my son, nor my day job, which has allowed me to provide for him.

Sometimes, I wonder where I would be right now. I would not trade my son, nor the friends I have made on this life limb, but it is interesting to think where I might have been.

Hollywood? I’m not suggesting that I would be a big star at this point, a gun for hire, crafting screenplays for the stars, but I would have likely taken a chance and moved at some point, probably working as a peon somewhere. I would just as likely be teaching English in some random United States high school. None of that sounds bad to me. They are perfectly acceptable alternate realities.

Ultimately, I like the place I am, and the journey it has taken me on. I would not be the writer I am today without it. I would be a writer, yes, but one with a different skill set, more importantly a different experience set.

It strikes me that perhaps the limb is not as important as the roots. It isn’t where I ended up, or the choices I made along the way that matter. It is the person I am beneath all of it, the man my parents raised.

If you were to cut in to my trunk, you would find many rings, more than I would like to think as the years continue to pass by without slowing in the slightest. You would see the years when things were dry and survival was all that could be mustered, and then the years that were rich in growth and development. You would see scars were I was damaged, but continued to grow anyway.

Most important, you would see that my roots are strong, strengthened by family and friends, a blue-collar upbringing, and faith that no matter the choices, I will always survive.

All the fifty dollar orientation fees in the world might be able to change my role in life, but they could never change the man playing that role. The roots were too strong.

Pressing the Reset Button

“If some people didn’t tell you, you’d never know they’d been away on a vacation.

– Kin Hubbar

Vacation is a time of peace and relaxation meant to give you a break from the day to day. So how is it Thursday already?

I have been off from my day job since last Friday, but all things considered, I have been busier than I am during a normal work day. One thing has lead to another which has lead to another which has lead me to the final two days of my vacation feeling short of sleep, and without having accomplished anything on the list of what I had planned to do.

Looking back on vacations throughout my life they seemed to be full of constant events. Rather than relaxation, they have been a constant stream of activities, odd or otherwise. Especially the family vacations when I was growing up.

There was the world’s deepest hand dug well in Greensburg, KS. We bought a penny for well over one cent after throwing our own penny down into the well.

There was Albert, the world’s largest bull in Audobon, IA. By world’s largest bull, I actually mean a concrete replica of a bull. The graffiti on his nuts was quite possibly the most entertaining part of this attraction.

That isn’t to say that all our journeys were so uneventful. There was the trip to New Mexico. I got into a fight with my sister, and as punishment, we both had to write essays about the trip. The true punishment was probably that we made the trip in a Chrysler Le Baron. Not exactly the roomiest of cross-country travel vehicles, but cars like that, with a trailer full of camping supplies took us anywhere within driving distance, including over mountains that made me worry we might not be able to cross.

My dad likes to stop at every attraction and historical marker a long the way. There are some duds, like the ones I already mentioned, but there were some pretty cool stops, as well. The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, IA was beautiful. The city of Santa Fe was full of things I had never seen before. Everything had a story behind it.

The trips were sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometimes more stressful than daily life, but all in all, they were a big part of my life. Maybe vacation is less about relaxation and more about pressing reset, temporary suspension of the every day. I took the week, in part, to work on my screenplay for Script Frenzy. So far, in five days, I managed five pages.

Still, it has been a good week, one that was necessary in many ways. I’ll see how many pages I can crank out in the next few days, and then go back to the office on Monday. It will be good to get back, it will be sad to go back, but it will be temporarily new. Sometimes, that is all you can ask.



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.