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Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Santa Claus Is Leaving Our Planet" Allusion Key

Last week I posted my Christmas story for this year, "Santa Claus Is Leaving Our Planet." Introducing that story, I challenged the reader to first find the correct TV show referred to, and then to find all seven of the allusions to that TV show in the story. If you haven't read that story and attempted to find those references, I recommend doing so before reading further here. If you've read the story and are here to see if you found them all or you don't care, you just want the answers, then read on. If you'd like, post in the comments how many out of eight you got right.

Follow the dots a little ways down to start!

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1) “. . . Santa's sleigh is like a time machine. Santa could be the Doctor for all we know.”

~This is the overt reference to the TV show, Doctor Who, to which I added seven other allusions. The other TV references mentioned or alluded to are Star Trek: the Original Series (in the discussion about how their dad read/sang the song like William Shatner and Andy calls him Captain Kirk) and Mission Impossible (Samantha says, “I have a mission for you, should you decide to accept it.”) Any other references were purely unintentional.

2) He paused, waiting for a reply that didn't come. He was not amused.

~In the 2006 Dr. Who episode, “Tooth and Claw,” Rose tries to get Queen Victoria to say “I am not amused,” a saying attributed to her but without much historical evidence. Rose finally get her to say the phrase at the end of the episode.

3) The corners of his mouth turned up. “Does that mean I get to tape you into a box?”
“Something like that, about the size of a phone booth, I’d suspect. Plus you'll get to ride in Santa's sleigh.”


~The Doctor travels around in a time machine/space ship called a TARDIS, an acronym for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space.” TARDISes can appear outwardly like any common item, but the Doctor’s became stuck as a British police call box—a type of phone booth exclusively used for contacting the police. However, one never sees any other TARDIS (that I recall) look like anything other than a police box until the modern reboot, and is likely that the “stuck” explanation was a later addition from the modern Dr. Who episodes.

4) Santa: “Time is a squishy, slimy reality. Has to be for me, you know.”

~In the 2007 episode titled, “Blink,” the Doctor uses the phrase “wibbily wobbly timey wimey” in explaining how time “operates.” My version here, though not nearly as memorable, should be enough to trigger that connection in any Doctor Who fan.

5) Santa held up a finger. “. . . Not everyone is as smart as me.”

~The Doctor usually sees himself as the smartest and most “clever” person in the room. And usually he’s right. But in recent years that arrogance has been mitigated to a degree, usually by the influence of his companions.

6) Santa nodded. “Now get a seat and hold on. This time-warp stuff gets a little tricky.”

~The Doctor would like to think he’s in full control, but sometimes his time travels don’t go as planned as the TARDIS has a mind of its own. Most notable is the first episode when Matt Smith becomes the Doctor, “The Eleventh Hour” in April of 2010. He miscalculates in returning to young Amy the promised few minutes after he left. Instead he arrives several years later when she’s a young adult. Whoops!

7) Santa pulled a lever, flipped a switch, spun a couple of dials, and then banged on the dash. Lights flashed randomly across the console. A huge tube, swirling with every color of the rainbow, materialized before them.

~Anyone who’s seen the controls of the TARDIS and how the Doctor goes around flipping this switch, pulling that lever, spinning various dials in seemingly random fashion, and sometimes banging on the controls to get them to work, will get this allusion of Santa operating his sleigh for time-warp in a similar fashion.

8) Santa: “Besides, I believe they’ll understand you better than you might think.”

~In Doctor Who, the TARDIS generates an automatic translation effect so as to allow the show’s writers to use English for all alien species and still be relatively realistic. So if Samantha was with the Doctor, she’d have no problems communicating with the aliens in a common language. Santa’s comment to Samantha allude to that aspect of Doctor Who.

The final question to answer: Is Santa Claus from Gallifrey?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Santa Claus Is Leaving Our Planet

This year, for my annual Christmas story, I had the story trigger to write something about Santa Claus. So, I did. I recorded my process and progress on Twitter using the hashtag #RLWriting. Below is the fruit of that labor for your Christmas enjoyment.

One note before we begin. I made 8 allusions to a popular TV program. I also made some overt references to more than two TV shows as well. Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to determine which of the overt allusions is the one I used, and what are the other seven allusions I made. See if you can locate all eight for that TV show. On or shortly after Christmas, I'll provide the allusion key so you can determine how many you found.

And now, for the story:

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Dad eased back in his comfy chair. “And this is one of my all time favorites.” He flipped a couple of pages in his well-worn book as the fire crackled, casting smoke up the chimney. The four stockings hung from the mantel, competing with the Christmas tree for their attention.

Samantha drew her knees to her chest and propped her feet against the edge of the couch. She knew what was coming. The same song that always followed that comment: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. He sort of sung-read it William Shatner style every Christmas Eve that she could remember. Dad had all of Mr. Shatner's records. She, being fifteen years old, had listened to Dad's rendition around fourteen times. He must have sung it when she was a baby too.

Samantha glanced at her younger brother, Andy. His freckled face lit up and he sat tall in anticipation of what was to come. At least he was eager to hear it again. But he'd only heard it nine times so far. Then again he watched the “Ninja Force” movie over—

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town!” Dad smiled as he studied their faces for a reaction. He had the uncanny ability to act like this was the first time he'd ever read it to them. He seemed to enjoy it more than they did. Mom was noticeably absent.

Andy clapped. “Yay! Read it like Captain Kirk.”

Well, maybe not more than Andy.

Dad smiled as he glanced down at the book, as if he didn't have it memorized word for work years ago. He read in his baritone, sing-song voice, “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I'm telling you why.” Dad's eyes scanned the book's page. “Santa Claus is leaving . . .” Dad's forehead wrinkled and his mouth fell open. “. . . our planet?”

Samantha straightened her back and widened her eyes. The big guy had actually done it.

Dad rechecked the front book cover. He reexamined the rebellious text. “How did this get changed?”

Andy sighed. “Dad, he has to come before he can leave. Besides, a planet is cooler than a town.”

“But that's not what it's suppose to say. Someone’s changed the words.” He ran his fingers through his salt and pepper beard. “This must be someone's idea of a joke. And I can guess who might be behind it.” He rose from his chair. “Sally!” He paused, waiting for a reply that didn't come. He was not amused. “Sally!” he yelled louder as he headed for the door.

He turned to his children before he exited the room. “You two go to bed now.”

“Aw, Dad!” Andy blurted out.

Dad pointed at Andy. “Bed. Now.”

“Yes, sir,” they both responded in unison. When Dad was like this, one argued with him only if they enjoyed pain. Besides, mom didn't change the words; Santa did. If Samantha didn't have so little time, she'd entertain the thought of slipping to their bedroom door and listen in on the ensuing argument.

Dad left the room. “Sally!”

Andy fell back in the couch, slapping his left hand on the armrest. “No fair.” He scooted to the edge and prepared to head upstairs.

“Andy?” Samantha flipped her hair over her shoulders.

“What?”

“I have a mission for you, should you choose to accept it.”

“A mission? Can we do this later? What if Dad comes back and finds us still here?”

Samantha glanced at the door. “Dad will be busy arguing with Mom for at least thirty minutes. Besides, this can’t wait.”

Andy scooted back on the couch. “Alright, but it will be your fault if we’re caught. So what is this ‘mission’?”

“It involves Santa.”

He laughed. “Santa? Like you've met him?”

“I have.”

“When?”

“Last Christmas morning. Woke up early and caught him eating the cookies.”

“Really?” Andy leaned in.

She cast a who-dares-question-my-words roll of her eyes to the ceiling. “Yes, really. He gave me a mission should he end up taking an offer. He didn't say how he would convey that he'd taken it, but the change in the song's words are obvious.”

Andy huffed. “What's obvious?”

Samantha shook her head and sighed. “That Santa Claus has left Earth to start Christmas on a planet far, far away; and he wants me to do the mission he gave me.”

“What mission? You don't mean you're going to deliver presents all over the world for him?”

She chuckled. “Hardly! I'm not Santa Claus.”

“Then who's going to do it for him if he's not here?”

Samantha shrugged. “He said he'd already taken care of that. Don't know anything more.”

Andy cocked his head. “Then what did he want you to do?”

Samantha scooted closer to Andy and leaned in. “He said it was top secret, and that I should tell no one.”

Andy crossed his arms and squinted his eyes at her. “Really? You can't be serious.”

She gazed at the ceiling. “Of course, if you help me on this mission, then I suppose I'll have to tell you.”

He frowned for a moment. “How can I do that not knowing what it is? What if it is hammering a nail into a toy on Santa's assembly line? Boooriiing!”

She huffed. “Okay, I can tell you this much. I'm going to be a present.”

The corners of his mouth turned up. “Does that mean I get to tape you into a box?”

“Something like that, about the size of a phone booth, I’d suspect. Plus you'll get to ride in Santa's sleigh.”

He grinned. “Cool! I'm in!” His eyes grew beady. “Are you going to be a slave for someone?”

“A slave?” She shook her head. “Get real! I'm going to be a friend to someone.”

“Who?”

“Don't know. He said I'd find out when I arrive, but I’m sure it will be someone I can be best friends with, who shares a lot of my interest and desires.”

“You mean someone like you.”

Samantha stared at the floor. “Is that so bad?”

Andy sighed. “I suppose not.” He hopped off the couch. “So when do we go?”

“Sometime tonight. The sleigh will come for us. That's why we need to get ready now. No telling when it will show up.” She rose from the couch and headed to the stairs.

Andy followed, but then stopped, glancing at the door their dad had left through “But what about mom and dad? Won't they freak out when we aren't here in the morning?”

Samantha face-palmed her forehead. “Did you forget? Santa's sleigh is like a time machine. Santa could be the Doctor for all we know.”

Andy nodded. “That would explain a lot.”

“From dad and mom's perspective, it will be as if we'd never left.” She waved for him to follow her. “Now come on. Let's get ready.”

The sister and brother headed to their rooms.

___________

RAP, RAP, RAP!

Samantha jerked out of her dreams and focused sleep-laden eyes toward her window. A small but worn and bearded face, topped with a green and white-trimmed cone-hat, smiled at her. The elf waved.

“Santa's sleigh is here!” She bounded out of bed, tied her shoes, slipped on her coat, then headed to the door.

RAP, RAP, RAP!

Samantha turned toward the elf. He waved for her to come.

She held up one finger. “I'll be right back. My brother's coming.”

The elf frowned. She dashed down the hall and knocked on Andy's door.

His door swung open to reveal a boy clothed with thick jeans, a coat, and heavy shoes. He smiled. “About time.”

She grunted. “I guess you knew.”

He pointed to the ceiling. “All that clatter woke me up.”

“Well then, let's go.”

They returned to Samantha's room. The elf stood with crossed arms, staring impatiently through the window. Though she couldn't see his feet, she could tell one was tapping.”

Andy's eyes bulged. “Wow! A real elf!”

She unlocked the window and pulled it open.

The elf swung his right arm wide and bowed. “Enter the sleigh, please.”

As she stepped out, the shiny vehicle—reflecting metallic reds, golds, and greens—appeared much like it had been depicted in so many stories and movies. It hovered above the ground at her second story window. Toward the front floated a long line of reindeer. Holding the reins sat a big man wearing a red coat and cap with . . .

Samantha squinted. “Hey, wait a minute. Santa?”

The driver turned around.

Samantha smiled. “It is you!” She rubbed her head. “But I thought you'd left the planet?”

He belched out a rolling laugh. “In a way I have, and yet I'm here.” He raised a hand into the air. “Time is a squishy, slimy reality. Has to be for me, you know.”

Andy stared bug-eyed at Santa once he'd stepped into the sleigh, as if in shock.

Samantha scratched her forehead. “I'm confused. If you're here, what do you need me for?”

Santa held up a finger. “You misunderstood. But that is to be expected. Not everyone is as smart as me.”

“Or thinks like you.” Samantha winked.

“Touché. But I didn't need you because I was gone. I needed you because I was going.”

Samantha blinked. “What?”

He pointed into the sky. “You're coming with me.”

Her mouth fell open. “Say what?”

Andy blurted out, “We're going to another planet?”

Santa nodded. “Now get a seat and hold on. This time-warp stuff gets a little tricky.”

“Awesome!” Andy landed in a seat and buckled up.

Samantha sat down, still processing what Santa had said. Did some lonely human on a distant planet need a friend like her? Must be.

“Here we go!” Santa whipped the reins. “On Donner, on Blitzen . . .” The sleigh lurched forward, slowly at first, but rapidly gained speed as they headed toward the clouds. They entered and plowed through the clouds for a few seconds before breaking into the clear moonlit sky above them. Santa pulled a lever, flipped a switch, spun a couple of dials, and then banged on the dash. Lights flashed randomly across the console. A huge tube, swirling with every color of the rainbow, materialized before them. Santa flew into it without hesitation.

Samantha couldn't believe what had happened. “Surely I'm still sleeping at home safe and sound in bed. This has to be a dream,” she mumbled.

“Dream on, young one. Dream on.” Santa's “ho, ho” laugh resounded in her ears.

What might have been seconds, minutes, hours, or days—Samantha couldn't tell in the no-man's-land of time—ended when Santa spun a few dials, pushed down on a foot petal, then pushed the lever back up. The tube of swirling colors ended, dumping them out into a reddish sky and green clouds. Santa banked the sleigh to the right and headed downward.

As they drew closer to the ground, Samantha spotted a city lying among a forest of burning-orange foliage. The city’s tall spired buildings and bluish-tinted windows impressed upon Samantha the foreignness that they had dived into. If ever she knew what feeling like a fish out of water was about, this was it.

Santa guided the sleigh to a halt before a big building. Various aliens scurried around, glancing at them with big eyes, long necks, and lanky legs.

“Where are we?” Andy asked.

Santa turned to face the back. “Oir in the southern province of Alva. Their name for their planet is unpronounceable in English, but you would know it as Alpha Centauri. And in there,” he pointed at the building beside them, “is your mission, Samantha.”

Samantha stared at it. “What do they do in there?”

“It’s your equivalent of a cancer hospice ward. Now go on in and make a friend. I'll wait here.”

She started to step out, but paused. “But we'll have nothing in common with them. We don't even speak the same language. How am I supposed to befriend anyone in there?”

Santa threw up his hands. “Why do people focus on differences to the loss of communion? Believe me, they have many of the same desires, fears, and needs you have. Especially the need to be unconditionally loved, no matter the differences. Besides, I believe they’ll understand you better than you might think.”

Andy leaped out of the sleigh, stood by the side of it, and held out a hand. “Santa's right. I'll help you.”

Santa nodded his head. “And a child shall lead them.”

Samantha stepped onto the foreign soil.

“And remember . . .” Santa paused for effect. “. . . you're not only giving them a gift, you're getting one. This is, after all, my Christmas gift to you: the experience of true love and friendship.”

Samantha nodded. With Andy's hand in hers, she stepped into the unknown future of love.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Getting FB to Show the Right Photo in WordPress

Sharing a drinkFacebook used to allow one to cycle through photos from a shared link, giving the poster control over which imaged showed, or allowed one to not show a photo at all but keep the graphic link. For some unexplained reason, this feature was lost in an update some time ago. Now a poster has absolutely no control over the selection of  a site's photo in their link, usually pulling one from an unrelated article. Very frustrating.

Today I finally did some research and found one way to re-activate that feature. Figuring others would want this information, I decided to post it here and share it on Facebook.

This works on my WordPress site, this blog (version 3.0.3--yes, I need to update). The concept should work on other sites if you can add to the webpage's meta data. What needs to be added is the following metadata link in the webpage's <head> area: <meta property="og:image" content="image weblink here" /> For WordPress there is an easy way to do this for an individual post.

Once logged in to your admin page on the blog, and on the "add new post" or "edit a post" page, you'll see under the post entry window a section labeled "Custom Fields." Click the "Enter new" link. In the "name field," enter: og:image. In the content field, enter the full web-link to your image. You can find that address if you have inserted it into your post by right-clicking the image in the post entry field and select "Copy image address" from the menu. Then paste it into the content field of your new entry.

Once published, share on Facebook as usual. You should now see the old arrows allowing you to cycle through available images, one which should be your post photo.

You're welcome!

Update #1:


Apparently Facebook's photo memory is limited when it allows you to choose a photo. This method does allow the option (currently, they could change that at any time) to select multiple photos from the referenced site, but there is no guarantee that the post's photo will be included among them. In the case of this post, the photo above wasn't in the choices I had, so I selected my mug shot. Better than a totally unrelated photo like the covers of one of my books, but not what I had hoped. We'll see how it goes with future posts.

Update #2:


After some more research, I've discovered that Facebook has a sub-site that handles this, and though the above custom fields seems to indicate it will add that text into the metadata, apparently it doesn't upon reviewing the source code, even though it seems to force Facebook to allow a choice of images instead of forcing you to take what it gives you. No, the real solution is to install a plug-in that makes it easy to output that data automatically, or add in the needed code in the theme's function.php file to automatically set the featured image to be output as the image Facebook picks up.

Being geeky, I fiddled with the code of the file, and after some failed attempts, got it to work. You, however, may want to take the simpler route by installing one of two plug-ins that will do the job. I've not tried either of those so I can't tell you how well or easy they are to work with.

Rather than regurgitating that article with the information on how to do that here, I'll point you to the site that I found to be the most help on this topic: How to Add Facebook Open Graph Meta Data in WordPress Themes

The only note on this is to make sure your original file is bigger than 200px x 200px, but not more than 8 MB. Otherwise you'll get errors from Facebook.

There you go! Now I should have the right image post to Facebook each time.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Unlikely Angel

I think this may be my first Thanksgiving story. And also my first non-fiction story. Yes, this is a true story that happened to me. I wrote it in an omniscient first person point of view, mainly because that's my view of the story. If you're not sure what an omniscient first person point of view is, ask me in the comments and I'll 'splain it to you,

Now, onto the story!

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A Likely Angel

I encountered an angel in the wee hours of the morning in 1994. A very unlikely angel, but an angel nonetheless.

I pastored a church in Weslaco, Texas at the time—about mid-way between McAllen and Harlingen in the Texas “Valley.” I put valley in quotes because there really is no physical valley. The land there is as flat as the plains in east Colorado, west Kansas, and north-west Oklahoma. First time I drove there, I kept waiting for the drop into a valley that never came.

In this instance, however, I was driving out of the Valley on my way to Wichita Falls, Texas. My mom’s aunt had passed away, and I wanted to be there for my mom and grandmother, which meant driving all night to arrive on time after taking care of pastoral tasks I had that day. By the time I turned off US 281 onto IH 37 and headed north toward San Antonio, it was past three o’clock in the morning, and I still had a long way to go.

But I was at least glad I had fixed the car before I left on this trip. The car’s battery had died. First I replaced the battery, but it died again after some driving. As it turned out, the alternator wasn’t charging the battery, so I paid the auto shop to replace the alternator. With that problem solved, or so I thought, I felt confident I could drive the car to Wichita Falls.

However, it was nearing four in the morning when my dash lights began flickering and my headlights dimmed. I barely had time to pull off onto the shoulder before the car lost all electrical power and turned into an expensive, oversized paperweight. Turning the key failed to get so much as a grunt from the engine, much less any flash of light on the dashboard.

I couldn’t understand it. The battery was new, the alternator was new; what else could it be? Whatever the problem was, I was stranded on IH 37 in the middle of the night. This was long before I had a cell phone I could call for help on, and the closest city was miles away.

“Okay, Lord, now what am I going to do?” I had no clue. Even if someone traveled this lonely stretch of road, who would dare stop to help someone like me?

As I struggled to figure out how to deal with this development, lights crested a rise behind me. The first vehicle to approach my location. I watched, fully expecting the driver to fly right on by me. Instead, he slowed until he stopped beside my car. I couldn’t believe it. God had so quickly answered my prayer!

I exited my car. An old, well-used pickup truck greeted me. Inside the truck sat a grungy-looking, rough rancher of some kind. Dirty overalls, scraggly beard, and a tattoo on his arm, along with a pack of cigarettes resting on the dash. “Lord,” I said to myself, “couldn’t you’ve sent someone a little less scary?”

He nodded toward me. “Need some help?”

I nodded back and proceeded to tell him my story in abbreviated form.

“Hop in. I’ll take you to San Antonio so you can get a new battery.”

I hesitated. I could see my mug shot on a milk carton after I’d mysteriously gone missing. This man didn’t engender any good vibes. Yet what other options did I have? Who else might drive by and stop to help? I didn’t have much choice. How could I look this gift-horse in the mouth?

“If you’re sure, Lord,” I confessed to God. I accepted his offer, locked up the car, slid onto his passenger seat, and off we headed for San Antonio. I kept waiting for the turn onto a side-road that never came.

He wasn’t much of a talker, but I did find out a little about him, and told him something about myself as well. But he seemed in a different world than I was, so a good part of the time we sat in silence, watching the miles roll under the truck.

True to his word, he pulled into a Walmart once we arrived in San Antonio. I bought a battery, and he drove me back to my car, an hour each way. Then he helped me install the new battery. When I offered him some money for his time, he refused it. By this time the dawn had arrived. He returned to his truck and rode off into the sunrise.

I marveled that someone like him was willing to take two plus hours out of his day to help some stranger on the road in the middle of the night. Despite his appearance and apparent lifestyle, he literally was an angel to me. An unlikely one, but an angel nonetheless.

With the dawning of the day I no longer needed my headlights, so I took to the road once more, knowing I’d arrive, if all went well, less than thirty minutes before the funeral was to begin. I kept expecting the battery to lose power again, but it didn’t happen. I arrived in time to attend the funeral.

That evening, I followed my mom and aunt to my aunt’s house in Granbury. On the way there, with my lights on, my car began to show signs it was about to run out of power again. I cut the lights and pulled over. The engine kept running. Obviously the headlight were pulling more power than the alternator could keep up with. So I drove behind my aunt and mom with my lights off and hoped we wouldn’t be stopped by a patrol officer.

The next day, we had a mechanic check out the car. Come to find out the shop that installed the alternator failed to pull the pin that allowed the brushes to rest against the armature. The arcing from the armature to the brushes was enough energy to power the car with the headlights off but not on. Another alternator installed, I returned safely to my family in Weslaco.

But I’ll never forget the unexpected angel God sent my way, and the lesson I learned not to prejudge people. The most unlikely person could be an angel to you as well. It is sad that so many will be judgmental instead of grateful for those God has sent to help us in our trials and struggle for spiritual growth.

For the former rejects God’s help, but the latter emboldens us to be an unlikely angel to someone else in need.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Death by InjectionHorror for October



Serial Killer William Burke (1792–1829)


I've not done one of these every year, but several of the last few years I've written an October fiction horror story, which somehow end up usually being a comedy or similar. Go figure. But this year, this isn't your author's standard comedic horror story. I'd say this is at least a PG-13 rating, maybe edging into an R rating due to one scene of violence, that while not graphic, you'll probably fill in the details in your head.

But don't let that scare you. (Ha!) What might really scare you is I'm attempting to infuse life into an overused horror trope: the serial killer. One way I'm doing that is I've got two mysteries going on for you to solve from this 997 word flash fiction: what is the way the killer multiplies and what is this story an allegory about? Figure that last one out and it will make perfect sense why I chose a serial killer story despite its overuse.

So, without further delay, here is "Death by Injection."

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A man stood in my living room. I jumped in my chair and gasped. “Who are you? What do you want?”

He smiled under the brim of a hat and reached into his trench coat. “I’m The Injector.” He pulled out a syringe.

I froze in shock. The mass serial killer stood in my house? Why me? Why now?

The number of his victims defied description: over 5000 a year. No one knew how the killer brought down so many; impossible for one man.

But his MO was consistent—chemical injection. It didn’t drain life quickly, but extracted it over months or years. One didn’t merely die, but adopted death as a companion. This man had put many in hospital and hospice alike.

Yet people rarely thought about it. The news no longer covered his victims. The sheer volume had numbed society’s conscious. That is, until the killer attacked them or someone they loved.

Likewise, I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I knew better, but that’s the truth. Now reality felt so unreal. This couldn’t be happening, but there he was.

He stepped forward extending the needle toward me. “What is your astrological sign?”

That seemed an odd question considering his motive. Best to humor him. The more he talked, the more time I had. “Gemini.”

He shook his head. “To bad, and so young too.”

I nodded. “Yes, that’s right. And I have two kids who need their mother. Their dad died last year in an automobile accident. Please don’t do this. Have mercy!”

He continued to make his way toward me. I knew the killer had no moral compass. He’d killed many in worse situations than mine—an equal-opportunity killer.

I held out a hand. “Wait! At least tell me one thing before you sentence me to death.”

He paused and cocked his head to one side. “An unusual request. Most simply scream at this point and try to get away.” He nodded. “Go ahead and ask.”

“How can you kill so many people everyday? You’re just one person.”

He laughed, and haunted echoes filled the room. Death dripped from his words. “You’ve got it wrong, my dear. I am many. I multiply and infest this world with fear.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “You’ve been cloned?”

He shook his head. “My birth occurred in July.” He proceeded to move my way again.

What did his birthday have to do with anything?

Contemplating the answer to that question would have to wait. How to escape his death wish was paramount. One fact I’d read suggested the earlier one fought back, the better the chance of escaping him or getting a small enough dose that the doctors could heal one. Now was the time to act, but what to do?

I leaped up and dashed to the kitchen. He followed at a quickened pace. I opened a drawer and pulled out a large carving knife. Despite holding it in a threatening position, he failed to stop. His eyes glowed with the greed of power as he thrust the syringe toward my chest.

I held my arm up to block his attack and swung the knife into his gut. He grunted and for a moment his face lost its smile, and his eyes their glow. But instead of falling to the floor in a pool of blood, he stood taller and the grin returned to his face, followed by a mind-numbing laughter that chilled my soul—taunting me with thoughts of giving up.

He pushed harder against my arm, shoving me against a wall. My arm trembled under his forceful muscles, the needle inched toward my chest. Months and years of pain and grief filled my future, replacing dreams and goals that I’d hoped to achieve, and family to grow old with. I couldn’t lose that. I had to do something.

A sideways glanced caught the microwave next to us. It was a long shot, but there was nothing for it but to try. I swung my free hand to the appliance, popped the door open, and held down the door sensor with one finger while my thumb hit the automatic one-minute button. The microwave sprung to life.

His grin vanished. His eyes drooped. The needle stopped its advance, quivered, then slowly started to move toward him. It was working!

Encouraged by my success, I shoved back at him harder. He stumbled backwards while his mouth opened to wail in pain. I grabbed the knife from his gut and swung it at his neck. It buried itself deep into his jugular vein. My stomach retched at the sight of blood careening over his body, but if I were to survive, I couldn’t stop. I sawed with the knife, digging in deeper, until his head hit the floor with a thud and his body collapsed with it.

I sank to the floor, trembling, I still held the knife in my blood-soaked hand. In disgust I threw it onto the floor. I’d never killed anyone, and it didn’t lessen the blow knowing he’d been a serial killer, knowing if I hadn’t, he’d killed me. I struggled to catch my breath.

“Mommy?” My five-year-old son Vince stood in the entryway. His wide eyes soaked in the scene.

I attempted to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “Son, go back to bed. You’re dreaming. Everything will be fine in the morning.”

He nodded. “The man who gave me a shot was a dream? Okay, but he was still scary.” He turned to head back to his room.

My mouth dropped open. “Oh God, no!” And Vince’s birthday was in July. But what did that mean? My eyes opened wide. He had said, “too bad,” when I had told him I was a Gemini. If being born in July is why there are many of him, that means the injection doesn’t kill them, but . . .

I wanted to weep, but instead shook with fear.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Embracing the Gate

I'm going to share something of a personal nature today. So bear with me.

My mother is currently dying of liver cancer. About a month ago, she was given less than three months to live. With chemotherapy, it would have been less than a year, but she didn't see much point in prolonging the inevitable for a handful of months more, so she said let it run its course. So now she's in hospice care, facing the gate of death in the next few weeks.

I've been struggling to even know what to feel, say, or do other than to be there for her. My dad still lives, though my step-dad died a couple years ago, but due to how it happened, I didn't even find out about that until the funeral was done and he was in the ground. So to a large extent, this is new ground for me--knowing one of my biological parents is approaching death.

It dawned on me earlier this week that I should do what I normally do when faced with these life-changing events: write about it. Inspired by one of the poets at our critique group this past Tuesday, I decided to write a poem for my mother, while she can still read it and appreciate the sentiments I wanted to share. So I've decided to share this poem here today with my friends and family in the hope it will not only remind me of what I value about her life, but what each of us should think about in our own lives.

Thanks in advance for your prayers and support for my mom and our family this coming two months. Know they are appreciated, even if I fail to say thank you individually or never knew you did so to begin with. Now onto the poem I wrote just today: "Embracing the Gate" by yours truly.

In this world, the journey of life
carries us to the gate of death.
Some earlier than others,
some much later than the rest.

In life, most of us ignore this gate
that so few will escape—
fearing the unknown it hides
and the road beyond its dark glass.

Now, my beloved mother,
you're drawing near to this portal,
to experience the reality we've been
told about but have never tasted.

You've taught your children,
through word and life,
the virtues you've valued,
that have graced your heart.

You've taught us to respect
all people, no matter their
race, sex, culture, or differences—
since we are all equal in God's eyes.

You've taught us not to interrupt
with our talking points, but to
patiently listen and respond, knowing
their thoughts are important too.

You've taught us to empathize
with everyone by refusing to
judge their souls, whose experiences
are alien to our paths and thoughts.

Those values will carry forward into
the world beyond the gate and guide
you to trust not in your own judgment
but in the lovingkindness of the Father.

But perhaps the greatest lesson you
are teaching us now is not to
fear the gate but to embrace it
with courage and firm resolve.

Have you held to your values in
each and every instance?
I'm sure you'd agree that with
dreams come regrets—

they hold hands as they greet us,
they are partners in the dance of life.
We are prone to failure and sin even
against our values, much less God's.

For none of us are perfect,
being humans restricted by finitude;
our only hope resides through
resting in the mercy of Love.

How we face death says a lot
about how we've faced life and
the lives we've encountered
in our journey toward the gate.

You've accepted it is your time to
enter those opening doors.
You've greeted the gate with confidence.

We will miss you, even as we share
your values and our memories of you.

And know that beyond the gate,

You will not be—

alone.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Idealism v. Realism

This week I watched the Batman v. Superman movie, Dawn of Justice. I had heard plenty of negatives about it, so I went in with eyes wide open. There are some problems as far as plot goes, for sure. Most movies tend to have them to some degree, but I'd heard that it had too many story lines going, little character development, and deviation from past character history both in comics and movies.

And to a degree, I can understand what they are saying. Without revealing any spoilers, one big difference is the character arc for Superman. This was evident in the first movie, Man of Steel. Traditionally, Superman has been portrayed as a highly moral, righteous, and benevolent god-like being. Why does he use his powers to help people instead of satisfying his own self-interest? Because, he is innately good at heart.

But in Man of Steel, what you get is a more self-absorbed Superman, who ends up involved in the destruction of a lot of property and life, despite his desire to do the right thing. In other words, he's more like us than the selfless, moral, and ethical hero he'd been portrayed previously. That theme continues in Batman v. Superman. As a matter of fact, it is the premise for most of the city protesting Superman, and why Batman sees him as a threat and tries to take him out.

However, this gives Superman a character arc, room to grow. The basic movie plan is that no one is fully faultless and can resist temptations without a struggle. When they find an established, near-perfect character to depict, it is rare to see them stay that way.

Case in point: Faramir in the Lord of the Rings. In the book, he appears to easily resist the temptation to take the ring back to Gondor, and sends the two hobbits off to continue their journey. In the movie, Faramir desires to take it, commands his men to take the two hobbits and the ring back to Gondor. It is only an attack from the Nazgul that he comes to his senses and lets them go. Peter Jackson's reason for that change is that it diminishes the power of the threat for anyone to be able to resist the ring's pull without much effort.

Certainly it made for more tension and interest in the story. It also makes it more “real” in that we know no one who doesn't struggle with temptation to do the wrong thing, to do what is best for one's self-interest, not even within our own lives. We all have our points where we struggle with certain temptations, even if we don't give in to them. Even Jesus struggled with temptations in the desert and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

That said, our stories have a history of putting in the strong character, who may not “grow” through the plot, but act as the ideal of what we should say, do, and be.

Many Christian fiction stories, especially the romance genre, have these characters. Some would say to the other extreme: they never cuss, act unbecoming, avoid sexual situations, always act appropriate in all situations. The perfect Christian.

The problem with that approach, if taken too far, is few can identify with the person. Consequently there is a temptation for the digester of such a story to feel they can't be that person. Give them some faults, temptations, sins and then not only will the reader/watcher identify with the character, but will see the way to grow with the character to reach a more ideal state of being.

That is in part what I think the director is shooting for with this new version of Superman. Without giving anything away, Superman does show the good in him in the end of Batman v. Superman and it is truly heroic. He proves his selfless core. The big difference you see between this Superman and previous versions was the struggle to get to that point as opposed to being there on day 1. It becomes gold refined in the fire as opposed to an innate goodness that everyone sees at first glance. In that sense, we can identify more with his own struggle to figure out what his place in this world is.

It highlighted for me the friction between a perfect role model and real life.

Superman has always been portrayed as an example of virtues to follow contrasted against the gritty realism where it seems evil rules—no one has pure motives. That's the part Batman plays in this film. He's lost all hope that justice can prevail despite all his efforts to combat the evil in his city. In the end, Superman reignites that flame of hope in him.

Good fiction will not be on either extreme of the idealism v. realism spectrum. Just like we experience in reality, most people have their selfless acts and goals to strive for as well as temptations, ugly behavior, and blind spots to their own sins. When a character is portrayed as being purely evil with no redeeming qualities, it isn't realistic. Likewise a character who appears perfect in all points is no one we've ever met either, aside from Jesus Christ Himself.

So what do I think of this modification to Superman and Batman's character arcs, which differ from previous renditions?

First, I can understand people's aghast at seeing Superman smashing through buildings and not saving everyone, even intentionally killing the villain in Man of Steel.

That had never been Superman before. Superman shouldn't be intimidated into doing wrong by a villain. Even Batman doesn't escape this change. For the first time we see Batman regularly toting a gun and shooting people, not to mention the firepower in his car. Batman kills people in this movie, mostly bad guys, but that is a change from the traditional Batman we've seen before.

Second, while that might be a shock to many people's view of the two heroes, it does give room to see their growth to the “Bright Side.”

You catch a glimpse of it at the end of Batman v. Superman. You see the rise from despair to a joyful hope. It does give the viewer a taste of their journey as to how and why they chose to use their abilities for helping others instead of trying to control everyone for their own pride—the definition of a villain.

Third, we finally get to see heroes struggling with what it means to make life and death decisions that can have devastating consequences.

Fighting evil is a messy business and frequently there aren't any perfect solutions to fixing a situation. Doing the right thing can end up hurting someone else and it isn't always clear what the right thing to do is. For instance, Superman could have killed Lex Luther several times in this movie. Doing so would have prevented many others from dying at the hands of Doomsday who Luther brings to life.

But Superman can't kill someone purposefully without a very good cause, as he did at the end of the Man of Steel movie. Fighting to stop Zod may have been the right thing to do, but resulted in whole buildings coming down on who knows how many people, at least in part by Superman's heat vision. It was more like Godzilla than Superman. It shocks our sense of justice that everything isn't packed into a neat and tidy box by the time the movie is over, but that is reality.

To see their character progressions makes the virtue they demonstrate more forceful, inspiring, and that maybe I too can rise above self-interest and use my abilities and resources to help others rather than hording them for my own pleasure and means. So while the previous versions of these heroes have their value in being role models for our kids, they don't always have the inspirational force that our children can be that person. Rather, sometimes it may do the opposite when they become teenagers and discover that they are not all that super of a man or woman. Because they've not seen Superman battle the evil within as he does the evil without. It came naturally to him.

So I'm content to see where this goes before pronouncing final judgment.

It is obvious there will be more character growth in future movies. While Batman v. Superman has its problems, I recommend to see it. So much happens it might take more than one viewing to catch it all. At first it can seem all over the place, but there is a reason for the madness within the movie, save perhaps for some of the future Justice League characters making cameos here and there (why they don't join in and help like Wonder Woman, who knows?)

Without casting aside the value of the previous versions of Superman, I do see the added value of watching our heroes face the real-life difficulties and consequences of their decisions and actions, and struggle with how to overcome them within themselves. They can be just as heroic in that version as the more pure and virtuous heroes we've come to love.

What do you think? Where on the scale of idealism and realism do you think the characters should fall?