The Unlit Christmas Tree


As per our family’s tradition, the Christmas tree’s started going up the day after Thanksgiving.  Yes, I used the plural because we put up as many as seven (eight if you count the one I decorate in my office at work) tree’s.  Of course there’s one main tree in the living room, but various sized specialty tree’s are also spread throughout the house as well.  There’s the cute and cuddly teddy bear tree in the sunroom, the eclectic world travel tree in my wife’s office, the reverential LSU tree in the playroom, and other creative interpretations scattered here and there.

I think I mentioned we get into Christmas around here.

Early this morning as I was making my zombie march from the bed to the coffee pot, I paused and admired our twelve-foot centerpiece tree.  Even in the semi-dark, unlit, it was a vision that filled my heart with pride & joy.  Truly an impressive sight.  But in the back of my mind I heard it calling to me (it was 6:30 in the AM after all), begging me to let it become what it was created to be.  So before I went any further, I was compelled to flip the switch and send currents of electricity through the miles of intertwined wire and awaken the hundreds of slumbering crystals.  The tree came to life with an explosion of twinkling lights and reflective shimmering, lifting the corners of my mouth along with my spirits.

After the coffee was brewed and the morning paper retrieved, I settled down at my desk to check emails and catch up with goings-on in cyber-land.  After a few minutes, I had to glance back over my shoulder to take in the awesomeness of our tree one more time, and when I turned back I happened to focus on my printed manuscript pages laying on the corner of my desk.  My affinity for analogies led me right where I needed to go.

For the past month I’ve been dragging my feet as far as my book is concerned, trying to muster the energy for some final revisions before pushing forward into the querying process.  As I stared at it there collecting dust, I realized that my manuscript was not unlike an unlit Christmas tree.  Impressive in its own right, but begging me to flip that switch and send it out to realize its true potential, what it was created for.  An ornament here, some tinsel there, and it would be ready to dazzle.  And like a Christmas tree, no two were alike…but all of us are drawn to certain types.  Even Charlie Brown’s tree had its admirers.

What about your unlit Christmas tree, how close are you to flipping that switch?

The Santa Claus Equation - 2010

The countdown has begun.

I can almost hear the groans echoing throughout the internet as everybody reads this. At the time of this posting, there is only thirty-four days remaining until Christmas. That means making lists, watching newspaper ads, and scouring the internet for any deal that will save precious dollars.

Everybody goes about their holiday shopping differently (feel free to post your own particular habits in the comments section) and my family has tried almost all of them. I’ve shopped extremely early, months and months ahead of time, but that left me with premature consumerization. Then there were the years where the bulk of the shopping happened during last-minute runs to Walmart, and I'd like to apologize to all of you who received presents from me during that time. I’m sure they’re still collecting dust in the back of a closet somewhere, or been used multiple times as dirty Santa gifts. I've even gone Christmas commando and subjected myself to Black Friday a couple times. Let me just say this about that experience . . . it is not for the feint of heart. Hell hath no fury like a woman shopper, at four in the morning, who's just watched the last cabbage patch doll pulled off the shelf!

Thank goodness the process of shopping has changed dramatically over the years. I’ve gone from running around the state in search of that one item that nobody seems to have in stock, to buying 75-85% of the presents on-line and having them delivered to our front door…gift-wrapped.

But no matter the personal toll, to me it's all worth it because I love Christmas! Just ask my wife. I’m the largest kid in our family during this time of year. I love giving presents and I’m not ashamed to admit I get excited receiving them as well. I guess my parents are partially to blame for my yuletide enthusiasm, having spoiled us kids year after year. They did so regardless of the family’s financial standing, or the state of the economy. Inside our bubble we kids were oblivious to those problems, always awakening to mountains of presents under the tree.

My wife is the pragmatic one in our family when it comes to money matters. It took awhile, and I still have to go to regular meetings and be faithful to the 12-step program, but she finally made me take a hard look at my Xmas addiction. The burden of debt the holidays put us under when I was in charge of the present buying was crippling. Now we’ve adopted a budget for our holiday spending which includes swearing off credit cards and the evils of other same as cash incentives. We decide on a number we think we can afford and work backwards from there.

When it comes to buying presents, the equation for working within a budget isn’t as simple as you’d might think. It’s definitely not as straight-forward as this:

$$ ÷ #people = $ per person

There are all sorts of other factors influencing the formula. For instance, factor #1 = relationship. Your children always receive the largest slice of the pie. It’s a golden rule that cannot be fooled with. Parents, bothers & sisters, nephews & nieces, and co-workers are left with the scraps. Then there’s factor #2 = age. The younger the recipient is, the higher the gift quotient. Christmas is for kids, after all. Then there’s what happens when you combine factors 1 & 2, what about grown kids? That’s when sub-factors come into play such as distance, both physically and emotionally? Does a child who stops by and calls frequently deserve a more substantial gift than one who you rarely see or hear from? And then there’s factor #3 = the reciprocation factor. How much do you spend on the relative whose presents to you look like re-gifts from a dirty Santa party?

Think that's complicated? We're just getting started. Now that you've broken down how much $$ you can spend on who, there are the other sub-factors to consider as you plan how Christmas morning will play out. Will the children be opening up an equal number of presents? This can be a real challenge for families who have both tiny tots and older kids whose gift lists are loaded with items where a single choice could consume their entire $$ alotment. What about the size of the presents? You have to acquire at least a couple gifts with enough bulk to fill out the space beneath the tree. I won’t even try to address households touched by divorce.

Were a scientist to interpret all of these decisions, it would probably resemble something like this.


Oh. . . I left out the most important element of all. It’s the one component of the whole equation that’s a wildcard multiplier, impacting each and every part.

Does the gift recipient believe in Santa Claus?

After all, everybody knows that people who believe in Santa receive way more presents than those who don’t.

I do!

Mom

(I post this same piece every year on this date. I appreciate your patience with me as I remember her again.)

My mom died on a Monday. It was chilly outside and the sun was trying to peek through a gloomy grey sky. I know because I was looking to the heavens a lot that day. Her death wasn’t expected, but neither was it a complete surprise. She went into the hospital a healthy woman with a minor case of Pancreatitis, which she suffered and recovered from previously, and two months later she was gone. There were infections, multiple surgeries, breathing problems, kidney failure, and a long list of other complications that led ultimately to a coma. In the end it reached a point where it became a family choice to discontinue the life saving measures that were keeping her alive and prolonging her suffering. When she slipped the bonds of her tortured body and moved on to her next journey, I wasn’t in the room. I couldn’t. She was 69 years young.

A few days later, just prior to her funeral, I was alone in the basement of my parents home when my Dad came to me with a question. He wanted to know if I would say something during the service. I had already been contemplating the notion, so I agreed without hesitation. My dad appeared relieved. I realized then that this rock of a man, who I had watched wither away emotionally as much as the woman he loved was doing physically, wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of our friends and family. He knew that even as shy and withdrawn as I am, my work had provided me experience communicating in front of groups. It was important to him, and me, that somebody who knew her well speak for her at the service.

Even though my parents weren’t regular church goers, my mother was raised Methodist and the services were held at a quaint little church not too far from where they lived. The two of them had only lived in Loganville for ten years, but you wouldn’t have known it from the number of people who made it to the funeral. Family and friends overwhelmed that poor little church.

The service was performed by a priest I had only met that very day, and that my mother had never met. It was generic, as only it could be, until he asked if there was anybody who wished to offer a few words. I stood up, nervously stepped to the podium and looked out over the gathering. A rush of panic momentarily seized me, constricting my vocal cords and raising the temperature in the room to 120 F. But a calmness settled over me when I found my father’s eyes. I was ready.

Although what follows isn’t word for word what I said back then, it’s pretty close.

“When Dad asked me if I wanted to speak here today I immediately said yes, but then I spent the next couple of days thinking about what it was I wanted to say. The more I thought about it, the more this single question kept popping into my head. Before long that question was all I could think about. It tormented me day and night. When the answer finally came to me, I realized it’s actually the reason I’m standing here right now. I also realized that many of you might be asking yourself the same question. I hope I can help answer it for you.

First I want to tell you of two memories of my Mom that I keep not in my head, but in my heart. They represent who she was to me and to a lot of you as well. The first one took place when I was just 7 or 8 years old and we were living in military housing at Quantico Virginia. For some reason I was in a different school system than my two brothers, which meant I had to take a separate school bus. This really terrified me, but I never let on to anybody. One morning my brothers were already gone off to school and I was dragging my feet getting ready, feeling especially alone that day, and mom asked me what was wrong. I can still see her standing there in her white housecoat that was three inches too long and dragged on the carpet wherever she walked. Of course I said nothing, but she must have known something wasn’t right. She asked me if I wanted to take the day off. The DAY OFF? You can do that, I asked her. We sure can, what do you want to do first? We never left the house that day. She made me pancakes, we played game after game, she watched cartoons with me, it was great. It was one of the best days ever, and it came at just the right time. And she knew it without me even saying a word.


The second story occurred years later when I was a sophomore in college. I had just broken up with what was my first serious girlfriend and I had crawled home to lick my wounds. Of course I didn’t come out with it right away, but Mom again knew something was wrong. Eventually she got me to open up and I cried my eyes out to her. The whole time she was calm and soothing, letting me just spill my guts out. After a while I felt much better, so she told me she needed to run into town to pick up some groceries. What I didn’t find out until much later was that when she left the house she drove to the first gas station she could find. She called Dad at work from a pay phone and cried her eyes out to him over the phone. She didn’t want me to see how my pain was tearing her up inside.


That’s the way Mom was, and I think that’s why Dad asked me to speak to you today. My Mother was not an emotional person on the outside. It was hard to tell where you stood with her sometimes. Everything with her ran very deep, with very little showing on the surface. But she always knew when you were down or needed a little extra attention. She was very in tune to peoples feelings, even though she didn’t demonstrate much of that herself. And I’m the same way. Of all us in this family, I’m the one who is most like her.


That is how I figured out the answer to the question upsetting me, because I’m like my Mom, and she was like me.


And what was that question? Did she know? When she left us, did she know how much I loved her, how much we all loved her and will now miss her? Did I tell her enough? Did I show her enough?


I can tell you now that the answer is yes. She may not have been the hugging, kissing, or fussing type, in fact that may have made her uncomfortable, but she knew how we felt just the same. Just as I would.


She knew we loved her, that I loved her, and will miss her terribly.


Goodbye, mom.

A parent’s passing is a loss that cracks your very foundation and makes you question your every step. I feel cheated that now that I’m a father with older children of my own, and I’m really starting to appreciate what it truly means to raise a child, that I won’t have her here with me so that I can thank her all the more. But writing this blog helps me keep her alive in my thoughts.

I miss you Mom!

Squirrel!

They’re everywhere you turn, lying in wait for an ambush. No, not the furry nut collectors, the clock robbers… time suckers…chronometrical pick-pockets. We break off finger-nails clawing for every minute of writing time we can hoard, fighting against the forces determined to deprive us of that desperately sought after compositional meter. Still, there’s never enough. Especially this month, with so many NaNo-nites (my own term) hunkered over their respective computers in a race to finish an entire novel in 30 days. How can they possibly cram 50,000 words into 43,200 minutes? Where can they find the time?

But that’s not the really interesting question. Nope. What’s fascinating is that even when we do manage to wrestle away some precious writing time (and yes…I’m including myself in this group), why is it that we are so easily distracted and end up pissing it away? Seriously! Facebook, twitter, blogger, text messaging, random internet surfing, alphabetizing your CD collection, playing bejeweled, re-grouting the shower, cleaning out a closet with boxes older than your eldest child, planning a trip you could never afford, checking the batteries in the smoke-alarms, reorganizing your CD collection to group them by styles of music, cleaning the dust off ceiling-fans no longer being used, preparing to take a long walk, driving to Walmart to buy new socks for walking, cleaning out the car, making room in the garage for the boxes you pulled out of the closet, re-sorting your CD collection again, this time by gender/music style/alphabet.

I think you get my point. I’ll admit, this happens a lot more when I’m revising (oh…the pain!), but it’s a pretty common problem just about any time I’m writing. Is it a writer’s nature to be easily sidetracked, or is it just human nature? Maybe…just maybe, the root cause is more primal. What if it’s a genetic throwback to the times when we were all hunters…and hunted…and survival depended on paying more attention to the world around you? Rationalization at its finest!

In fact, the next time my wife slaps the back of my head and complains, “You weren’t even listening to me”, I think I’m going to reply with, “Did you hear that? It sounded like a bear.”

:)
Those of you wondering what the title of this post has to do with distractions, really need to see the movie UP!

Six Guaranteed Ways to Boost Your Sex Hits (Oops, I Meant Site Hits)

I’m postponing my return to regular writing-related content for one more day so I can share a few insights I’ve gleamed from my years of surfing the internet. Specifically, I want to show you how to increase the traffic on your web site or blog. I’m not talking about high-brow methods such as making sure to post quality content, utilizing interviews with published authors or the occasional contests to give-away ARC’s. No sir. I’m talking about those low-rent techniques you’re more likely to find being used on web-sites your security filter would deem restricted. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this stuff out, just observant, and willing to lower your standards a bit. So, without further adieu…here are my six simple tips

1. By far, the single most important element in getting web-browsers pointed in your direction is the title of your post, or web-link. Every self-respecting salesman has ever been taught, “Getting them to walk through that door is half the battle.” And one of the most popular tricks used is structuring your blog post in the form of a numbered list. If you look around most popular browser home-pages such as YAHOO or DIGG, you’ll see multiple examples of what I’m talking about. This is a sampling just today of the real articles seeking attention on my own startup page.

Nine Most Badass (And Possibly Insane) Sports Of All-Time
Five Dance-Pop Remakes So Bad You’ll Puke
Ten Disappointing NFL Teams
Five Scary Cancer Questions
Eight Reasons you should watch Stargate Universe tonight
Five Things We Want to Know about MC Hammer’s Jaz-Z Diss Video
The 25 Hottest Women Born in November
Five Reasons Why Bert & Ernie Should Come Out of the Closet

2. Whenever possible, use the word GUARANTEED in your title. Let’s face it, most people are gullible and will fall for that gimmick every time, at least enough to get them through the door and reading the first paragraph of your blog.

3. Technically, this could be considered 2B because it also involves the title. Find a way to work the word SEX into your title. Do I really have to explain that one?

4. Change your domain name so it includes key wording used in the most frequent Google searches. For example: http://dlcruisingaltitude.dallascowboycheerleaders.blogspot.com.

5. Window decorations never hurt!





6. Finally, it doesn’t matter what you do to get the traffic flowing in your direction because unless you entertain them once they arrive, they won’t be back. So you’d better make sure you elicit one of four things from your visitors while they are here…a nod of the head, a chuckle, a sigh, or a tear. The internet is vast and counter-oriented to our attention spans, so here…more than anywhere…make every word count!

I hope everybody understands that my tongue is firmly planted in cheek, and I would never actually utilize any of these techniques. I do have some measure of self-respect, after all!

*wink*

The Proverbial Bump in the Road

How many times have we all heard that every aspiring writer’s journey toward publication is fraught with numerous obstacles and detours? Regardless of how well we’re prepared, the pace we proceed at, or the measure of our wide open eyes, there’s just no way around them. I ran into mine three weeks ago. Not so much a bump in the road, but a pot-hole, rather…a crater. It was a hazard that a toughened road crew, wearing yellow hard hats and their clothes dripping with sweat must have toiled long and hard to dig…then camouflage. And when I hit it, instead of the ground disappearing beneath me, I found myself fighting for traction on a slippery slope.

Afterwards, shaken and unsure of anything and everything, I surveyed the damage to my pedantic vehicle. It was going to take a lot more than a wheel alignment to get it back on the road. Yet there was something else even more dire, my will to drive, to continue the voyage, was now in question. So I simply did what every well adjusted adult does when faced with a reality jolt, I turned around and walked away. I left my imaginary vehicle behind, along with the path that was suddenly covered with literary acne.

There wasn’t a single inciting event that created my particular bump in the road, but rather a culmination of several. First and foremost was my job. Over the past several months the demands and pressures at work have steadily been increasing, making it harder and harder for me to come home at night and spend more hours in front of the PC. It was draining my creative energy and all I wanted to do when I got home was zone out in front of the TV. The frame of mind I was in had a lot to do with how I reacted to what followed.

With the help of my awesome CP’s I have been thoroughly revising my manuscript and just recently put a new version out for beta’s to read, fully confident my book was ready to query. I even had what I thought was a dynamite query letter all ready to go. Imagine my surprise when the feedback I received back from my beta’s was less than enthusiastic, pointing out many of the same flaws my CP’s had brought to light (mainly with shallow POV), and I thought had been addressed. What I’d learned was I had written a GOOD book, but I knew that in order to achieve the results I desired, it had to be GREAT. On top of that, the query letter I was so proud of and posted here on my blog, was rightfully shredded by commenter’s (which I’m very thankful for!).

Que the sound of screeching tires!

One moment I went from researching which agents I planned on contacting, to facing the daunting challenge of going through my manuscript scene by scene again to bring more depth to my characterizations, a skill I’m wondering now if I even possess. Factor in the frame of mind I mentioned earlier and my resulting fetal position response might be understandable. I turned off my home computer and ignored anything remotely writing related, which included the blogs.

The bottom line is…I’m still here! (as if I was even missed) Let me tell you why. Although none of the issues outlined above have changed, especially the confidence in my writing ability, time and distance has allowed me to realize that I do believe 110% in the characters and story I’m trying to tell. They deserve nothing but my best effort. Until I’m certain that I’ve reached my full capability as a writer, I’ll keep plugging away at it. That also means I’ll be hanging out here for a bit longer.

Yesterday I peeked at my Google reader for the first time and discovered while I was away licking my wounds, I missed 994 posts by the bloggers I follow the most. *deep sigh* I’ll never get back the three weeks I was away, or the blog posts I missed, but you’ll have to trust me that it was time well-spent.

I’ve read many similar accounts of what I went through on other blogs and learned that taking a step back can return much needed perspective. This post is about me paying that knowledge forward, and taking my first step toward rebuilding.

Maybe someday I’ll even consider this a merit badge earned.
 

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