King Tony the Defender

September 10th, 2015

The first email correspondence I received from Tony was in May of 2008. He had read a story I published online, a crazy story I wrote about a gentlemen named Vin Vanbly. Tony, like others, had found the free story quite by accident. He decided to take a moment to email me. He wrote:

“Thank-you so much for the deep tissue massage to my sexual psyche. You’re clearly a person of high emotional intelligence whose ability to manipulate others is quite frankly, a little scary. I hope in your real life you have as powerful and caring an impact on people as you do in your writing and would LOVE it if you have the time and the inclination to write more.”

This initiated our email correspondence. Tony was an insightful reader, easily making connections I thought were invisible to readers. He understood what I was trying to accomplish. He got me. We furiously scribbled twelve-paragraph emails to each other about love, about life, about how hard the world is sometimes. We wrote about unexpected moments of brilliance and the beauty of small gestures.

He’s not the only one who wrote me.

I received quite a bit of email in response to that story, enough positive feedback that I decided to write a few books about this strange guy, Vin, and how he came to be who he was. At that point in my life, I had been writing fiction for decades, but never anything I thought good enough to print. (Sell digitally. Whatever.) No, my writing was mediocre at best and I did not want to subject the world to more mediocre fiction. However, writing about the oddball Vin Vanbly sparked my writing to a new level.

I made a half-dozen lasting online friends from that experience, all of whom were mildly irritated when I yanked the free story from that site, having decided to turn this short-story silliness into a proper novel. In fact, I had decided to write a series of six books, The Lost and Founds, and rework this freebee story into Book Five.

Tony supported me.

He believed in me.

He called my story a “book of spells” and never tired of digging for the clues and philosophies I’d hidden within. Every riddler wants someone to solve the riddles, or at least have a blast investigating. Tony investigated. We played together! We laughed and goofed, shared websites or YouTube clips we loved, and revealed our life-shaping experiences. He always returned to Vin’s tale, telling me I must publish it and share it with the world.

I did. I published.

As the months turned into years, Tony remained one of my biggest fans, greatest cheerleaders, and grew as a dear friend. He preferred to keep out of the spotlight with my growing readership, but we corresponded privately, sometimes every single day for a month at a time. (While this may not seem extraordinary to some, for an introvert, this is marathon communication.) Tony emailed me articles about Found Kings and Queens he discovered out in the world, doing good, making the world better.

It wasn’t always about me. He shared dozens of favorite classical music clips from YouTube and noted the exact minute and seconds when Pavarotti’s voice made him cry. He adored Barbara Streisand and loved educating me on her best moments in song and in movies. His tastes were sophisticated and yet playful. He described exquisite meals he prepared. He explored the globe photographing animals, documenting his journey with his best friend, Denise.

While traveling, he emailed dazzling photos of icebergs, penguins, gorillas, exotic resorts, and once a picture of their group approaching Mount Kilimanjaro—a photo so breathtaking I made it my desktop wallpaper for three months. I used one of his penguin photos for the entire summer and autumn as my desktop. He drank expensive wines in Eastern Europe and saw Russian Opera. In Africa, he stayed in a bed and breakfast where giraffes came to wake you in the morning by poking their heads in your second story window, demanding breakfast.

Through Tony, I got to know Denise. I never met her, and we never emailed directly, but he told me about Denise’s horse ranch in California, how she loved her animals, particularly her dogs, how Tony celebrated Thanksgiving with Denise and her family every year. He belonged to their family as well as his own. He sent me pictures of the dazzling table setting and feast.

He was not wealthy. Oh, he liked nice things and I guess he was affluent. But he worked very hard at his job and—to my understanding—was much beloved in that environment. He successfully managed big integrations of monster computer systems (something like that), so I don’t think anyone at work begrudged him time off to explore the world.

We talked about his struggles and the times when he felt like giving up. We discussed the hard time, when he felt he had hit rock bottom. There were some pretty awful rock bottoms for Tony. Sometimes he lost the battle to his inner demons. Sometimes he won. After one such victory, he excitedly told me he knew his king name.

King Tony the Defender.

He explained he sometimes needed to defend himself in this life. He had allowed his good nature to be taken advantage of in the past. A highly visible profile at work meant he attracted some negative attention because, well, just because: high profile.

He knew that sometimes he needed to defend himself from himself. Tony was a man who “did his work” and stared unflinchingly at his own inner pain, the ugliness we all share and don’t want to witness. The negative voices in his head could yell and scream in his ear, and with his king name, Tony now possessed a sword to cut through those whispering ghosts, and cry out, “Enough!”

Tony and a group of work colleagues volunteered once a week reading to toddlers. Tony felt very protective of them, their vulnerability. Reading aloud to a small kid in his lap is the exact moment when he realized his king name was perfect for him.

When he was excited and proud of some healthy choice made or endured a hard work week while remaining positive and focused, he would sign his emails to me, Tony the DEFENDER. Sometimes he defended group morale. Sometimes he defended his family history by telling the absolute truth about his mother and father. He took his king name seriously and invented shades of meaning for the word ‘defender.’ His king name mattered to him, representing something powerful and beautiful.

Tony and I met only once.

In 2011, I threw myself a release party for King Perry, and Tony flew to Minneapolis  to attend. It was my first book and I was proud, so I reserved a pub’s side room, proclaimed an open bar, and allowed my friends to show up and spend the evening partying. I had no idea what I was doing. The intense, extroverted energy of this party exploding for almost six hours. I talked non-stop to everyone, hugging people who loved me and were genuinely happy for this measure of success.

And Tony—who had flown from Canada to share this experience with me—sipped his drink quietly somewhere in the background, completely accepting that his night was to be shared with every person in the room. Despite the personal cost and the effort he’d made to be there for me, he gave me every inch of space I needed, and then some. He brought me water a few times and when I apologized profusely for not having enough time for him exclusively, he reminded me this was my night. Then, he’d wander away so I could socialize more.

Plus, he was spending the weekend, so we’d eventually have our chance to hang out.

We had a great weekend. My brother surprised me by coming to town for the party, and the three of us ate dinners together and took long walks around the lakes. Tony and I spent hours reviewing his Antarctica scrapbook full of incredible photos. I showed him Minneapolis. We walked by Minnehaha Creek as the spring buds began to green the bushes along the gushing stream.

The next year, for King Mai’s release, Tony mailed me an expensive bottle of champagne and suggested I save it for a very special occasion. I looked up the label once. I would never buy a bottle of anything this expensive, not ever. It’s that expensive. In fact, I’m still saving it. I was hoping Tony and I would drink it together at some point, possibly during our trip to Italy.

Tony wanted us to take a big trip together. He wanted to share his love of global travel with me. We agreed to tour Italy sometime in 2016. (Trip to be planned in 2015.) Back in 2014 when we first started planning together, I told him I needed a year or two to save up the money. He had no problem waiting. He and Denise had other fabulous trips scheduled.

But we’re not going to Italy in 2016.

We’re never going.

Earlier this year, one February afternoon, Tony disappeared.

He’s gone.

He left a note asking a few friends be notified. I was on the list. He left behind his cell phone and computer. As far as the police could tell, he did not pack a bag.

Seven months later, he’s still gone.

Nobody understands what happened.

Suicide seems like the obvious answer here, but nobody realized he was suicidal. If he was, he hid it well. He gave away a family heirloom to a beloved relative the month before he disappeared—classic sign of someone planning on checking out.

Yet, he didn’t give away everything. Not all the family heirlooms. And Tony was regularly generous. While working in India years ago, he befriended a local man, someone assigned to take care of his American corporate charge. They became friends. Tony ate dinner in the man’s home. Met his family. Almost a year after he returned to Canada, Tony heard from his Indian friend who explained that without money for a lifesaving operation, he would die. Tony paid for the operation. He also paid the family’s living expenses for the next six months while his friend recovered. As far as I know, they kept in touch long afterward.

Tony defended that man’s life.

Tony defended the integrity of that family. He kept them alive. Together.

The day before Tony disappeared, he bought several pair of hand warmers and a coffee. In his apartment, they found printed maps of state forests hundreds of miles from where they eventually discovered his car.  Did he walk into the Canadian wilderness to freeze in the winter? If so, why didn’t the professional search teams—experts in finding suicides and missing persons—find him anywhere within the two mile radius from the church parking lot where he abandoned his car?

The police investigating his disappearance seemed incredibly thorough and competent. I have never been through a missing person experience with a fellow American, but something tells me Tony’s case got more hours of careful attention than would be allocated here in my own country. I think they did their very best.

But nobody knows.

All of us who loved Tony must go forward without knowing.

After his disappearance, Tony’s sister did an amazing job keeping us updated on the investigation details. The night he left, she and I wept together on the phone.

For weeks we sweated through every lead, every possible hint of a clue…but nothing turned up. The emails became less frequent as there was less to report, less new leads. Lately, Denise and I have emailed each other to say, “Are you thinking of him? I am. This is kind of horrible, actually.” She and I have never met but we are forever bound by the burden of not knowing, of our unresolved love for him.

Where are you, King Tony the Defender?

Did an experienced world traveler decide to start over in some exotic foreign locale? Maybe. But he loved being part his extended family. He loved living close to his aunt and uncle. He loved Denise. He was eager to see the next king book. I’m not sure that makes sense.

Did he commit suicide? Yes, that seems plausible. But how did he disappear so effectively? Was he really suicidal? Could have been. The last time we talked at length, his life was in a good place, so I believed. He asked me if I wanted a Christmas fruitcake. I said, “Fuck yeah.”

Tony is also a gourmet cook.

Was a gourmet cook.

He mailed me gorgeous fruitcake, a work of art. A thing of beauty. I photographed it in sunlight and posted the picture to my Facebook page in December.

On Christmas Eve, after a fireside dinner with my dear friend Ron, we munched fruitcake and discussed its undeserved reputation. Still, we agreed that fruitcake was rarely this delicious. Over particularly good whiskey, Ron and I toasted my friend, King Tony. I shared the story of how I had come to feel very close to someone I had only met once.

The world is like that now. We love people far away. They get stuck in our hearts.

I refuse to throw away the last bit of unfinished fruitcake. I can’t. Tony made it. Besides, I think it’s still good to eat. Last I checked, no fur had grown on it. I’ve decided to finish it on the day King John releases. The book is dedicated to you, Tony.

I hadn’t told him that I planned on dedicating one of the series to him. I wanted it to be a surprise. For the years before I had a single Goodreads or Amazon review to remind me my stories might be worth telling, there was Tony. He nurtured me when I had little faith in myself.

He defended me.

King Tony, I miss you.

If you’re alive, you don’t have to write. You don’t have to explain. Just send another fruitcake. I will mail half of it to Denise and we will eat it together, chewing into the phone, thrilled to know you’re out there in the world.

Probably defending someone.


Fruitcake from Tony Ward

The Wedding Poem

July 21st, 2015

A few months ago, Emme, a reader-turned-friend, asked me if she could pay me to write a short story for her son, something she could give him as a special wedding present. I considered the very cool opportunity but declined. At the time, I was in the throes of researching and writing my big 2015 novel (King John), and writing a short story could prove too potent a distraction. I needed to focus.

I countered with a proposal:  what about a poem?

She was equally delighted. When I declined payment, she insisted on donating money to charity instead, which made the happiness of a wedding poem that much sweeter.

I wrote a questionnaire for her son (Anthony) and his betrothed (Mike) asking them questions: what kind of kid were you? How would you describe your love? What is your favorite color? Where is your favorite place in the world? She forwarded the questions and they dutifully answered. Some of their responses challenged me.

“Our love is like a boulder.”

“My favorite color is blue with green a close second.”

“Our love is like a redwood.”


I wondered how to create something to honor them both and their love. After all, I’m no poet. Sure, I love poetry but I’m just a dabbler. That’s not false humility. It’s true. Also, I am a terrible dancer, but I love to dance. I sing off key, but I sing. I think we should all attempt creative talents we do not possess because it helps us admire those who excel in these areas.

Plus, it’s damn fun.

While crafting their poem, I learned of their courtship: their first date (Mets game), the things each one does which drives the other nuts, a description of the park where they were to marry, and their special wedding clothes. Emme sent me links and background information. I studied their photographs. They seemed like lovely men.

They were married at the end of June. At the reception, Emme presented them with a wedding poem.


Mike, did you ever dream,

as a child, when you thought you knew everything,

did you dream that love would come for you, like a family of redwoods,

standing tall and strong beside you, the fresh, clean heady scent of holiness

swimming inside you, reminding you to love?

Did you dream,

that he would forgive your papers left everywhere,

and that he would love you tenderly, with grace and humor, this man of great integrity?

How could you know?

How could you know that one day,

when asked about your favorite place in the world, you would answer,

“Anywhere he is.”


Anthony, did you ever dream

that love would stop you in your path like a boulder,

relentless in its desire to be loved, to be recognized as loving,

you, who spent your childhood wrapped in book after book, fact after eager fact,

Waiting impatiently for someone to listen to your hard-won knowledge?

And already, someone interested in knowing you, in loving you, was walking his path to you.

A menschlichkeit, a man you would admire for his openness to the good in humanity.

A man who cherishes your clever jokes, your amazing intellect.

Your hard-won knowledge is now fully loved.


As you come together in Preservation Park,

proud Victorian homes admiring with silent majesty two kings in love,

When you catch each other’s gaze,

will you remember the past?

Your first date at Shea Stadium, the day Anthony recalls,

“The Mets lost, but we won.”

In front of the park fountain, on the gorgeous lawn,

will you flash to your future?

Lives pursuing justice, and music, and faith, with gray in your hair?

Living in your own home, a family of two, or four, or possibly so many more?

Or will you see each other in the present on your wedding day?

Anthony in his kittel, dancing with birds, crowns, grapes and vines,

pomegranates, too.

Michael in a clever gray suit, grinning and hungry for this new chapter to begin.

Will you see each other as the men you are today?

Will you say yes to that man, today’s man, and yes to that tomorrow man, too?

Each day you say yes, the sky will be blue, with green a very, very close second.


Did you ever dream, Mike?

Could you have known, Anthony?

That one day, you would love this way?




wedding 1

Sure Enough

May 6th, 2015

I have a cousin, third cousin, a young kid, and the extended family has been worried / not worried about him. He had been developing his toddler abilities a little off the bell curve. For a long time, he didn’t talk.

Nobody knew why.

He just didn’t seem interested in talking.

Personally, I’m totally behind this kid keeping silent. Talking is a racquet, kid. Once you start, you never stop. They get you hooked by just teaching you a few words. Easy ones. Useful, even. You’re a wide-eyed tyke, who thinks, ‘This is handy. Now I can finally ask for one of those chocolate chip orbs they constantly pass to each other.’

And you think, ‘Words good.’

Years later, you’re fighting with a lover at 1:00 a.m., rehashing the same argument from six hours earlier but now having spent six hours simmering in angry silence, it’s even more furious, and the ocean of words spit between the two of you will flood the room, drowning you both, and you think, what kind of idiot invented talking?

It’s safer in the world of no-words.

So this third cousin, call him Buck, was not vocalizing or showing interest in words. He wasn’t deaf. Seemed like a smart kid. His parents took him to specialists who advised strategies and non-verbal games to evoke the magic of speech.

As extended family bystanders, we worried, and reassured ourselves that kids develop differently. If he didn’t feel like talking, okay. We also did not worry. Whether Buck spoke (or not) might not matter.

That is to say, we already loved Buck with big hearts.

Perhaps we loved him even more in his silence, if that were possible. He was a miracle baby, and we thrilled he stayed on earth. Whether he spoke or not, we loved that kid. At family gatherings, Buck was like electric lightning–racing constantly–crashing into your leg, laughing as he grinned up at you. But he couldn’t be bothered to stop for conversation, as he was off to explore somewhere else.

Somewhere exciting!

His parents were baffled where his energy came from, this bright yellow Tonka truck of unstoppableness, this child with the energy of seven kids crammed into one.

We love Buck.

It’s strange, loving second and third cousins who you rarely get to see. Many, many years ago, we held those second cousins when they were infants. Demanded to see their missing teeth and begged to hear them play the violin or sing or dance or tell a story. They often complied at family gatherings, Christmas at Aunt Mary Beth’s or Thanksgiving at Aunt Barbara’s.

But then they grew up.

Got PhDs.

Got married.

Had kids.

They were once our yellow Tonka trucks, racing through my mom and dad’s home on Easter with soon-to-be-spilled soda, laughing and chattering and then suddenly turning so unbelievably shy they could do nothing but bite the tip of their finger, because that’s all you can do sometimes when you’re a kid, is gently bite the tip of your finger.

When one second cousin produced her own professional singing CD at the tender age of fifteen, we all gossiped about her for months, admiring her talent, discussing her next steps. Will she take her band on the road? Record contract? That Thanksgiving, we played one of her songs after dinner and she was so embarrassed by the attention she fled the room.

We couldn’t stop ourselves. We love her. (In fact, two days ago, I listened to her music again on the way to work, singing along at the top of my lungs.)

Though we don’t see them as often, the second and third cousins, we want to know the details of their lives. See fresh pictures. Hold their kids. When I speak with mom, part of every conversation is devoted to family updates. She provides what she heard from her Aunt Barbara who heard from Anita who is visiting her parents while her husband is away. Where is he you ask? Interesting story. Apparently for his next research project…and so the family stories unfurl. The news. Who visited whom. New jobs.

Eventually, I get most of the details.

But we miss the day to day victories in their lives and that’s sad. They’re having lives. They’re having friend-filled, career-rich lives. They watch Netflix and have outrageous game nights, do laundry on Saturdays. Good for them. But hey. The older generation who adored you from the beginning of your life, well, we miss you. We miss your big smiles. We miss your insane energy, running constantly from room to room. We’re glad you grew up so beautifully, but we miss you.

I spoke with mom the other night and got some family news.

Guess who started talking?

“Well, this is what I heard,” Mom said. “He says ‘no‘ really easily but they were struggling teaching him the word ‘yes.’ It’s very common in any kid to learn yes later than no, but he kinda refused. Buck kept saying ‘cerna.’”

I said, “What does that mean?”

“Well, nobody knew. He just said, cerna. Cerna. They couldn’t get him to say yes.”

I waited for the rest of the story. Mom’s a good story teller.

“They worried a little,” Mom talked a little slower to keep me in suspense, “Wondering if he was inventing his own words, his own language. What if he didn’t talk normal English? What if that word, cerna, revealed some mental problems ? But they listened more carefully to what he was saying and it turns out he wasn’t saying cerna exactly. He was saying the words so quickly. He was saying soo nu.”

“How is that any better?”

Mom said, “They realized that their nanny, I think she was from another country, that word, au pair, maybe. I don’t know. I heard this from Mary Beth who talked to Barbara yesterday, so I’ll call Barbara and ask her. Anyway, the au pair had an accent.”

“Yes,” I said, a little impatiently.

Mom said, “This nanny never said yes, when she agreed with something. She always said the same two words. ‘Sure enough.’ Buck has been saying sure enough. Cerna. Cerna! He’s fine!”

We laughed. Love that kid!

“Sure enough,” Mom said and she laughed happily. “We’re adopting it as our family slogan. I think we should. We all just start saying ‘sure enough’ instead of yes.’”

After years of playing with cousins and second cousins, you end up feeling very attached to people who do the discourteous service of growing up and moving away, permitting you to only glimpse the lives they have carved for themselves. You end up missing them more than you thought you would. You wonder about their kids, their struggles, and reminisce about when they were tiny little balls of energy.

But is it worth it? Loving those family members you now only see twice a year?

Sure enough.





King Daniel, Chapters 1-10

April 17th, 2015

Didn’t you sometimes resent J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series?

She created this fantastic world that sucked us in and made us care about potions class, an old geezer named Dumbledore, and bewitched furniture. But then we had to wait two years for the next installment. Two years. C’mon, woman, give us a fix! I had always wished she provided a tasty tidbit between novels, like a Harry Potter short story.

I’m a slow writer, so between king novels I’m hoping to provide you with a tasty tidbit.

Roughly six months after the last book release (which hopefully is roughly six month before the next full novel), I will make chapters available from the sixth book in the series, King Daniel.

I know, I know.

It’s messed up. But Vin Vanbly’s tale is odd and the telling of his stories must also reflect this oddness. Just go with it. Part of the grand adventure.

The release schedule:

King Perry (first book) – February, 2012

King Daniel, chapters 1-3 – October 2012

King Mai (second book) – July, 2013

King Daniel, chapters 4-7 – January, 2014

The Butterfly King (third book) – September, 2014

King Daniel, chapters 8-10– April, 2015

King John (fourth book) – August (?), 2015

The tension in Daniel’s story ratchets up higher in the latest chapters, revealing several of his dark secrets in his ongoing quest to find his kingship. What happened in the garage? Who is DC? What happened to Vin? I hope you enjoy meeting Daniel and exploring the world of the Found Kings in 2013, the year this story takes place.

All my love,

Edmond Manning

King Daniel Chapters 1-10

Gentle Pranks

April 1st, 2015

I may have gone too far today, in prank world.

It wasn’t the first prank. The second one went off well, too. But the third one. I might have crossed the line on that one.

The first prank was kind of an eye-roller.

I like to make a big deal about the fact that I was Employee of the Month, January 2014. At the time, I ordered a sash. To this day, if I have a comment to make at company meetings, I will sometimes say, “Hi. Edmond Manning. January 2014 employee of the month. I think…” Everyone groans. Everyone knows the EOTM is picked randomly. They get the parking spot in the front of the building. It’s about 30-40 feet from all the other spots in the parking lot, so we all know the parking doesn’t matter that much.

But once a month, the email comes out and introduces a coworker we see every day in the kitchen, and we learn she’s a black belt in karate or that programmer once lived in China for two years. It’s a friendly way to remind us all we work with some cool, impressive people.

Our front receptionist–who selects the EOTM and sends out these lovely emails–agreed to plot with me. Today she announced I was the April 20014 Employee of the Month and even created my lovely interview she does. I emailed my acceptance speech and reminded people I was only available for photos on Thursday afternoon in the break area between 2-4 p.m. I promised change would be coming. A new era of change under my reign. Everyone assumed it was a joke almost immediately. Nobody wants me in that position again.

Not after the last time.

Prank number two was a little more sophisticated. I mean, no genius level stuff. I am a simple man.

A work friend has been pranking me gently for the past month. He told his story on reddit funny and it became a front page story–a big honor. Today Cheeseburger website named him “Coolest April Fools day prank.” The video catching my reaction to finding out lasts about 10 minutes and has been watched 20,000 times. I heard from two friends I hadn’t spoken to in months who reached out to say, “Hey, that’s you in this story, right?”

In the office, we’ve been chuckling over Tom’s insano-flakes patience and art skills, chuckling over my blindness, including not noticing the comic he changed so it screamed EDMOND int huge red letters on the cube wall right behind where I spend 90% of the working day staring at my computer.

Never saw it.

This week, I was the April fool, but in a gentle, friendly way.

I announced via email that we should gather at 3:00 p.m. and celebrate Tom. With a gift.

He IM’d me immediately to say, “What did you do?”

At 3:00, I stood behind Tom with a big knife and said, “It’s time. Come to the pool table.’

He glanced at the knife and walked in front of me.

We all gathered and stared.

I had purchased a grocery store cake and offered it to Tom as ‘thanks’ for all his hilariousness, punking me so damn publicly. Everyone in my studio was in on the prank, waiting for weeks for me to figure this out. In purple frosting, I had the the grocery store baker add these words: There’s Nothing Wrong With This Cake.

He read the cake, noticing my patch-up frosting areas where I tried to make it look someone had fucked with the insides. Maybe inserted something. Then, tried to frost over any evidence of foul-play.

Tom looked at us, all of us, staring at him and said, “No way. No.”

We cajoled him and I offered him the knife.

He held it reluctantly.

Someone said, “Can other non-Tom people have cake?”

No!” I spoke with vehemence. “This is for Tom.”

Everyone laughed. But waited expectantly.

Through gritted teeth I said, “After all the effort I went through, it would be downright rude not cut the cake and eat a piece.”

“But, I don’t eat–”


He gingerly cut a piece.

Stepped back.

A producer in our studio put her hand on my arm and said, “I need Tom this afternoon. He’s on deadline. He can’t spend time in an ER.”

Tom poked the cake with the knife.

She said, “I’m serious.”

Her seriousness did not reassure Tom.

After a little stalling, Tom eventually cut a piece and raised it to his mouth.

The worried producer gasped out the word, “No!”

Tom bit down as if he might lose his teeth, but then he ate the rest of his small piece, and said, “It’s just cake.”

After that, we all had cake!

The cake had not lied.

It was a pretty gentle prank. Nobody went to the ER.

But could I stop there? No.

The third prank.

I had this idea to do something a little dark.

I think April Fools Day is like Halloween. We celebrate the parts of us that are not so nice. Sometimes it’s funny when a person slips and falls. Saw a guy put Post-It notes all over his girlfriend’s car and she was late to work so had to drive with the entire car covered. She said all the flapping sounded like kazoos. We are compassionate people, most of us, but sometimes we can be a little rude. A little sharp. We need to indulge that desire to laugh at someone else.

We can choose as adults not to indulge the super mean pranks. We can choose to run to someone hurt and say, “Are you okay?” Personally, I cringe at the really mean stuff. We can find gentler pranks and still somehow honor the dark side in all of us.

The other aspect of this holiday is that we all get made fools of by life. We age. We say dumb things. We make mistakes and sometimes they aren’t so funny. We make big plans for our lives and they head a different direction. It’s not easy to laugh everything off, so we need a holiday that reminds us to laugh when reality is not what we thought it would be. April Fools Day helps us laugh at ourselves, our gullibility, our trusting nature, the goofy playfulness of our relationships with each other.

It’s nice to be prank and be pranked. It’s an affectionate punch on the shoulder from someone who thinks buying a $4 greeting card is bullshit.

For the third prank, I decided on three sentences.

I typed them .

Printed out the piece of paper and left it sitting at the printer for someone else to find.

The three sentences were these:  “I’ve made up my mind. Let’s go forward with this. Have them both killed.”

Okay, that was a little dark. I know.

When I left the building tonight, our HR person (let’s call her HR) was in her car and rolled down her window. We chatted for a few minutes. She and I chuckled over my temporary Employee of The Month status. Later today, when I was officially ousted, like a cat shooed from the window sil, I warned the new employee of the month that this wasn’t over. I also bragged that I spent the full day parked in her parking spot.

She replied to me privately and said, “I’m gonna need you to go move your car.”

I shared this with HR and we reminisced some good pranks we had both heard. Then, we reminisced about her car deoderizers. Last year, HR pranked all the executives with balloons in their offices, so many they couldn’t get in. She covered someone else’s entire office with Post-It notes. The walls, computer, the desk. One exec was traveling, so she opened up four dozen cheap air fresheners–mostly car wash variety–and sealed his office with a towel under the door so that when he returned from his trip, the air was unbreathable.

After his return, we all paraded by his office to see him working with his eyes watering, and choking as he said, “Yes. Verrrry funny.”

HR is a gentle pranker, The very best kind.

Worried I over did it with my third prank of the day, I said, “What would you say is going too far?”

Immediately, she said, “Sexist. Racist. Mean-spirited. Homophobic. Any phobic, really. Anything mean about a person.”

She added a few others conditions to the list because gentle prankers don’t want to exclude someone or make them feel like crap. We want them in on the joke with us. Come play.

“What about murderous threats type pranks?”

“Ah,” she said. “That would explain the piece of paper that ended up on my desk this afternoon.”

I am so going to be fired from this place.

Happy April, fools everywhere.






February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy for us to be outraged these days.

I mean, true, there’s a lot to be outraged by. But it’s also easy to express our outrage in Facebook comments and anonymous replies to angry strangers where we can say, ‘NO, YOU’RE THE JERK” and feel satisfied that we didn’t use the word asswipe instead. Demonstrates some modicum of civility, yes? We have the pleasure of hindsight when we respond online and say things like, “You know what I would have said?” or respond from a compassionate distance to say, “I feel for this person.”

It’s so much easier to comment from far away.

But do you confront the outside world’s daily outrages? Could you do it with compassion and firmness? Not betraying your values but also not descending into asswipe territory?

I don’t think it’s that easy.

Especially when it’s someone you like, or liked up until that second they said something racist. Someone you trust. Someone who you don’t think is a total asshole . In circumstances that are challenging, would you confront an outrage if witnessed?

Michelle did.

She is a coworker of mine.

We’ve worked together for many years, but we don’t work in the same state, so it can be a year or three between our sightings. She’s in our company’s QA (Quality Assurance) department, which means she and her team review the software our team and other teams are building, try to break it, clean up our sloppy words, and sometimes have the dreaded task of saying, “I don’t really get this piece.” It’s their job to raise the flag on anything that’s not functional, inappropriate, or questionable.

I got an email from Michelle last week.

The contents shocked me.

With a professional tone and language, Michelle very courteously told me that she and a coworker had come upon a QA comment I had made some months ago. They discussed it. Michelle decided to address it, because it was so very inappropriate. “It’s not the swearing that offends me,” she said in her email.

I hadn’t actually remember the offending QA comment I made, so my eyebrows were pretty high over my head in disbelief.

What had I said?

She provided a link to the offending comment but due to the space-time continuum (that’s the short version), the link didn’t work. I had checked work email from home, so I couldn’t see the actual QA comment until I got to my work computer, later that day.

I continued to read.

Michelle explained how it was very unprofessional to call out a colleague with such disrespect as I had done in the comment. She urged me to remember that whoever’s words I had criticized with my comment, that person was a coworker, someone we value, someone on our team. They deserved our respect and if that person had made a mistake, then certainly our compassion.

What the hell had I said?

With great heart, Michelle pointed out that she had always thought of me as a very compassionate person and she couldn’t believe I would treat someone this way.

We’re Facebook friends (one of the few coworkers I friended outside the office) and she has read my fiction. She’s an author, too. She first introduced me to National Novel Writing Month. Politically, we both lean left, so we can bitch together. We think Obama got the shaft and we’re angry about it.

She’s political outside Facebook. She’s knows every senator and most house of representatives, in her state and nationally. She writes thoughtful opinion pieces. She advocates for social justice causes in the real world. It was years before I realized her two sons were adopted because they are not really adopted to Michelle and her husband. It’s simple. They are family.

And now she was standing up to me.

Michelle urged me to think of other strategies for communication and gave me a few ways I could have explained my frustration (minus the f-word) with how the original writer crafted the instructions.

It was a longish email, carefully considered, and I was mystified how and why I could say something so horrible to cause her such upset.

I can be harsh sometimes. I know that. But what the fuck did I say?

Was my account hacked and another coworker was playing a joke on me? We tend to joke around.

Had I experienced the worst day of my life and blocked it out of memory?

Michelle is patient and fair. She has to be. People are constantly telling her she was wrong to point out their software bugs and her job is to smile and nod and say, “I’ll do better next time. Thank you.” Even when she is right, she is the dreaded QA expert who finds flaws. It’s not an easy job.

I drove a little quickly to work.

After logging on, first thing I did was to click the link and see my exact words.

There they were, staring at me: “Existing instructions are just terrible. Seriously. Who the fuck wrote that nonsensical bullshit? Use these instead: Click…”

Wow. That was pretty mean.

But would I write something like that? Did I? Something that mean to a coworker? Could I–

I remembered to look at the date the comment was made. Light bulb. From Michelle’s email, I got the impression the comment I made was from many months ago. Many months ago, I had been on a half-dozen different projects. I couldn’t remember which might have driven me to be such an, well, asswipe. But the date of this comment was only January 2015. I had misunderstood – this comment was recent.

And then. Light bulb.

Because I remembered which coworker this comment was directed at: me.

I wrote the original instructions for a computer interaction we built. Two week later, when I reviewed the software, performing my own QA, I reread my own instructions and they seemed like gibberish to me. So I made a QA comment and insisted they be rewritten. I provided the rewrite, but first I chastized myself:  Who the fuck wrote that nonsensical bullshit?

I was bad-mouthing my own words.

Michelle both stood up to me and also protected me, though neither of us realized I was the victim as well as the bully. Maybe she’s skilled at addressing conflict as a result of parenting two sons. Maybe her unapologetic respect and compassion is grown from years debating politics with friends. I don’t know.

I wrote her, greatly relieved, and explained that the original writer was me and I thought my developer pals would laugh at my comment when they got into the software to update the instructions. We live for small funnies like that.

Michelle was then flooded with relief because she couldn’t believe she had to call me out the way she did, and the whole situation upset her. We laughed the way you’re permitted via email, exchanging LOLs at the end of sentences.

After a few emails updating each other on politics and writing, we went back to work.

But I was touched, very touched, by her actions that day. She stood up for me. She said, “Nobody can treat Edmond this way. Nobody. Not even someone I like and respect.” (She actually said in her original email that it was hard to confront me because “she liked and respected me.”) She was kind to the bully and unapologetic in representing the aggrieved.

But what if she never confronted me and just lived with the knowledge that I was an asswipe?

What if a client saw it, somehow?

Michelle and I agreed that I shouldn’t joke around like that in the QA software anymore, because of the rich potential for misunderstanding. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have done that.

But I learned another lesson from this experience, too.

Michelle will not tolerate meanness.

She will stand up to outrages and abuse. She will defend those who need defending.

And not just when it’s easy.



King John

January 7th, 2015

I am Bedouin.

I walk the hard-packed alkali desert in my canyon-brown jubba, the thin, cotton gown flitting over the tops of my exposed feet, tickling them. I feel the scorching heat rise through the barren earth, through my sandals, slowly cooking me on this oven-blasted day. A sturdy rope belt, woven from camel wool, wraps around my waist twice, the excess swinging at my side almost as a lasso. My canvas water bag sloshes at my side. A shorter length of camel wool secures my keffiyeh, the long white sides flowing down my back and sides of my face, protecting me from the brutal desert rays.

I could die out here. We could all die out here.

Sunstroke. Dehydration. A deep flesh wound could kill, so far from civilization and hospitals. The desert cares nothing about our survival. This is my world.

I am Bedouin.

I travel with my thick staff, observing my people, pondering their multi-faceted fates. The sun celebrants, fire worshippers, the partiers, the burn-outs, the techno-geeks, aging hippies, acrobats, metal artists, colossal dreamers, and the in-over-their-heads vacationers. The Mad Maxers. They come to escape. They come to experience something they cannot anywhere else. They come to get laid.

We are Burning Man.

Despite living here for five days, I still haven’t picked my Bedouin name. I haven’t had need. Haven’t talked to many people. But I do like to pretend to be someone else. Should I be…Vinicio Vanabalay. What? No, that sounds almost Italian. A terrible Bedouin name. I need a more Arabic-sounding name. What about…Vanaco. No. How about….Vintalmach. Ick. No, that’s a mess of letters flung together without any regard for their personal safety. This is hard. The Arabic alphabet contains no letter v. In their language, my name couldn’t possibly exist.

V—the touchpoint of two ls clashing, meeting by rooftop in the dead of night, two ninja swords—no.

Enough on the word stuff.

I step aside to let twins pass me, not twins exactly, but dressed as twin bumblebees, both with martini glasses and singing. I will head down Mizzen, a street I have not yet explored and see what I might barter for lunch. Who needs the services of the traveling Bedouin, Vinicio Vanabalay? No, dummy. Too Italian.

I chat with cheerful folks who offer trampoline bouncing to passerbys, the chance to jump high into the blistering sky. I politely decline. I pass southern swamp mucks who have recreated a rundown trailer camp. They call, ‘hey, foreigner’ in their friendliest, redneck accent. I bow. I pass a camp themed around squirrels, which is pleasantly odd, and ahead on the left I see Camp Cuddleville, where lingering hugs evolve into non-sexual intimacy under their RV’s awning shade. May have to return.

A block later, one guy snarls at me, “Go home, towel head,” which I expected, this recent after 9-11. I intentionally chose a Bedouin costume this year to generate and share goodwill dressed as an Arab. We lost lives, New York landmarks, and trust in the world. We most regrow our tolerance, a sturdier crop this time. The world grows smaller each week. We must grow to meet the new ear unfolding with patience and love.

A medium-height, black woman in a silver-flashing skirt, some space-age polymer wrapped around her with sensuous folds, argues loudly with a taller frat man, early twenties, shirtless with burnt shoulders. His spikey blond hair suggests more hair-care product than the haphazard, windblown appearance most burners share. Dozens of silver necklaces fall over and shelter her naked breasts, yet the heavy curve of their undersides reveal thickness and perfection. She defines austere elegance in this harsh environment. I see his abandoned robot-something costume a few feet away, same silver material as hers, already layered in playa dust.

She yells. He sloshes his drink, gesturing wildly and snarks back. She screams louder. He shrinks from her—only for a second—redoubling his yell. Interesting. A few people stop, a small crowd forming. I see others dressed similarly, probably from the same camp, whispering, deciding whether to intervene.

Common enough scene, drunken rowdiness or random expression of fierce emotions, but perhaps I am needed.

I stroll right between them. I must distract their rage.

I jerk my staff above my head and I out-shout them both. “‘Nobody fucks with the Butterfly King’, he would cry in his resonant voice and all rejoiced when he thundered those words, for this meant he would take action against an injustice to his people and so many considered themselves his people.”

It works, for they pause long enough to gape at me.

“The Butterfly King ruled with the gentlest touch, not ruling at all, merely a hand on a shoulder, the soft awareness of his presence behind you as you blew out your birthday candles, letting you know he shared in your wish, whatever it might be. He sometimes paid the rent for those who could not afford it. Those fired from their jobs often found fresh roses delivered the next morning, compliments of him. Next time you go to New York, look for a new kind of graffiti, not spray-painted. Look for the yarn butterflies. This king taught me the lightest, feather touch will enable a certain magic to emerge, an ability he bequeathed me, a simple Bedouin, and I stand in your service, to see if I might offer you butterflies of your own.”

“What?” The frat man is annoyed. “No, go the fuck away, dude. Private conversation.”

“Of course, of course,” I say and bow before them. “Sahib, I am yours to command, yet might I suggest with four minutes of your time, I could change your life direction, making your fights softer and more loving. Four minutes, is all I ask. This, and you must answer my every question with truth.”

“Go the fuck away,” he repeats, his emphasis harder.

“No, stay,” she says. “Help us. Four minutes?”

She wants me to stay if only to defy him. She’s spoiling for the fight. Still, it’s an invitation to stay.

“Yes, beautiful lady, four minutes, if you both agree. And you both must answer whatever I ask, however I ask it.”

She glowers at her lover. “Stay. We agree.”

He scowls and takes a slug of his drink. I don’t work with drunk people, but I don’t think he’s wasted. He’s merely enjoying a cold one as they explore the city streets. Yeah, he’s okay. More importantly, I measured her reaction when I said beautiful lady. I believe I know her story.

“My name is Vinicio Vanabalay.”

Why didn’t I invent a better name?


January 5th, 2015

The promise of a new year is the promise of a clean slate. New opportunities to shine brighter, to let go of more baggage, to be that better person.

New me!

Well, one and a half hours into 2015, I had already taken that clean slate and metaphorically wiped my butt on it, Instagrammed it, and tweeted, ‘Screw you, New Year. I intend to be as much of an idiot this year as I was last year.’

You see, at 1:30 a.m. on January 1st, I wrote the most intimate, wildly inappropriate graphic text message I have ever crafted, so terrible I shall never reveal the exact words, not to anyone. I sent it and then, for the first time, looked at the recipient.  (Cover your face with your hands because you know where this is going.) Yup. I failed to send it to the intended person.

Happy New Year.

I’m an idiot.

The message was intended for a man I feel extremely close to. We had been texting earlier that evening. For him, the message was crude but appropriate.

But it was not the kind of message you’d want read at Senate hearings, and I sometimes worry my life will be analyzed on CSPAN, possibly a Tuesday night special report hosted by angry senators with little hope of re-election unless they make me their last-ditch attack on behalf of public morality. In my imagination, I find myself apologizing into a dozen accusatory microphones.

“Mr. Manning, we need to know the exact wording of that text message.”

“I am so sorry, esteemed senators, but I fail to see the relevance–”

We’ll decide what’s relevant,” says a snarling senator (R-Texas) facing charges from the Ethics committee.

(She is hoping to draw attention away from those charges by making a name with my inquiry.)

Near tears, I say, “I can‘t tell you the exact wording. If you just let me explain, Senators, I can tell you why I don’t have a copy of the message.”

“Mr. Manning, this outrageous claim…”

They never let me explain.

The reason I don’t have this message anymore because when I reread my lengthy paragraph of human depravity in hair-tingling panic, the first thing I did was to instantly delete the message from my phone, hoping this action would cancel delivery. Of course it didn’t, but I wanted to believe, so desperately, that there was a way to undo this.

See, I had sent the message not to one person, but two. My two sisters.

I want to believe that a dozen of my close friends would have replied to an accidental text like that with something amusing like, “Kiss your mother with that mouth?” But this was the filthiest thing I had every written and as a guy who writes about men engaged in graphic sex, I think that’s saying something. I honestly believe that even a good-humored friend who accidentally received this message would eye me with naked disgust and say, “Seriously? You wrote this?”

Nobody would laugh.

I certainly wasn’t laughing.

Sure, it was an accident both sisters received this text. Accidents happen. I think they would forgive me, despite how enormously distasteful and disrespectful this message. But worse, worse by far, was how I believed they would forever look at me. See me. I’m not sure I’m a knight in shining armor to either one of them. But this message would tarnish any remaining silver in our relationship. I knew it.

My sisters have seen the worst of me. I have yelled at them unfairly, needled them, criticized them, and suffered them to endure my icy, damning silence. And yet, for all our childhood grievances and adult fights, they love me. We have colored with crayons together. Invented games together. Attended high school together, sharing classes. Over the years, we celebrated three dozen Christmases together, and more birthdays than that.

I wept with these women at my father’s funeral.

As an adult sibling, I am prickly to their very belief systems, and they are not exactly supportive of gays. But we still find ways to play together, to laugh together, to miss our Dad together, to celebrate this gift that we’re all a family. For whatever shortcomings we all tolerate in each other, there somehow remains a certain purity and light in our sibling love. When I call my younger sister, Eileen, we often replay stolen lines from Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive.

Brusquely, she answers, saying, “Talk to me.”

I say, “I didn’t kill my wife!

With a slight Tommy Lee Jones twang, she says, “I don’t care.”

Our good stories together outweigh our bad.

I need that unadulterated sister love.

Less than two minutes after clicking send, in blind panic, I did as thousands of other freaked-out individuals like me have done in the past, frantically googling, “UNSEND TEXT MESSAGE.”

Every link sadly proclaimed the same message: sorry, buddy.

I typed them a follow-up text explaining DO NOT READ THE PREVIOUS MESSAGE, which was silly because they would not read this latest message until they had finished the one immediately above it.

After sitting in terror and sadness and general freaked-outedness, I decided I may as well go to bed. I mean, relationship damage done. What else could I do? I sat in silence and thought about my older and younger sister.

I missed seeing them at Christmas this year.

I mean, I missed mom and my brother and new sister-in-law, extended family, and all my Chicago friends…that sucked also, but this is a story about missing your sisters, an older sister who I idolized in my youth, and a younger, so close to me in age, we are referenced as ‘Irish twins.’

Because of work-related project deadlines and a business trip between Christmas and New Years, this year, I did not take holiday vacation days. I chose not to drive to Illinois. I could have, I guess, but I felt exhausted by a frantic autumn and the prospect of four days’ vacation–at home–for two consecutive weekends felt like a Christmas gift I could not ignore.

I mostly did not regret that decision, not until Christmas Eve when I spoke on the phone with each of my beloved family members. It really hurt to hear them laughing in the background, imagining the house smells and last-minute gift wrapping chaos. When the phone was passed to Andrea, I opened the Christmas gift she had ensured arrived the day prior, a gift made for each sibling: a gorgeous replicas of our parents’ wedding album. We discussed our favorite photos, the Hollywood photo, the one where they are most happy, the one on the church steps, the one where our brother looks most like our father. I pretended not to cry and hoped she could not hear me.

Sitting in my New Year’s middle-of-the-night funk, after my colossal texting fuck-up, I decided to go to bed, and wondered if I would sleep at all.

Then a final, ridiculous idea dawned on me: call them.

Maybe they hadn’t seen the message yet?

After all, it was 1:30 in the morning when I sent it.

I called my older sister, Andrea, and woke her up. I didn’t care. This was worth it.

I explained the circumstances. Eileen had sent a post-midnight message of “HaPpY nEw YeArS” to both Andrea and myself, which made it to the top of the text messages pile. When I opened my message window, the phone defaulted to show me the newest message, so while I thought I was typing to someone else, I was actually typing to them.

With a sad and anxious voice, I explained how I feared the message I sent would change the way she looked at me, and not for the better. I said it would make me really heartbroken. I begged her not to read it. I told her it would mean everything to me.

In a soft, alert voice, she said, “Of course. Of course. I won’t read it. I promise.”

Of course she would show me that respect and love. Why did I even not consider this option, the phone call, until after fifteen minutes had passed? Of course she would show me the love I needed.

Moments later, I called my younger sister who answered her phone snorting, laughing, speaking before I could. She said, “Mom and I were just watching–”

Clearly, she hadn’t seen the text message.

I interrupted her and said, “Eileen, I need to talk to you. This is important to me.”

Instantly, the hilarity left her voice and she switched to cautious. “What’s wrong?”

For a second time, I explained the situation and let her know how much it would mean to me if she deleted before reading. I pleaded with her.

She assured me she had not read it and in her cheery voice said she was actually glad I asked this favor, because she got a new cell phone the day prior and she needed practice on deleting messages. Hell, I don’t even think she was mildly curious as to the message contents. After her assurances, she asked me a question or two about iPhones and their interfaces.

We wished each other happy new year, and hung up.

I went to bed.

I slept soundly, so soundly.

The next morning I awoke at 6:00 a.m. to find a message from Andrea who wrote to say ‘mission accomplished.’ She explained she wasn’t sure if it would be physically possible to find and delete the message without reading it, but she managed it.

Eileen texted me by 7:30 a.m. to say, “Deleted without reading. Both messages. And I learned a new feature! I love this new smartphone!”

Maybe I don’t need a ‘clean slate’ come New Years. The 2014 version of me seems to have a great deal of love and trust in his life. Maybe I just need to reevaluate “my existing slate” and show better appreciation to the people who have loved me all my life. Maybe the only real ‘clean slate’ is accepting who you are, the life you have, and trying to polish what’s already there.

I told a good friend this miraculous tale, my idiocy, and my sisters’ love.

He said, “Yeah, but how do you know they didn’t lie and just read it anyway?”

I know.

I know because I heard the promise in their tone as much as their words. And because they love me.

In the darkest hour, on the first day of 2015, they both promised, and then kept, their first New Years’ resolution.


The Gift

December 25th, 2014

One of the most unusual and wonderful presents I ever received was from a Catholic nun.  And I don’t even remember her name.  I was a high school junior attending weekly Catechism in the straight-backed wooden pews of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  St. Mary’s was brutally cold and darkly solemn that Wednesday in mid-December.  A few pale candles waved weakly from the alter, perhaps waving goodbye to my slipping faith.  It’s a terrible thing to doubt your Christianity during Christmastime.

The Sister who taught us now was a soft-spoken but confident woman with slow and elegant movements. She announced, “I have a Christmas gift for each of you. It’s actually from God.”

She passed around a shallow ceramic bowl filled with scraps of paper and continued to speak.  “On each of these slips of paper is a gift from God.  I promise you that God will grant you this gift sometime in your life when you need it most.  I do not know when that will be.  It may be next week, it may be in two years. But I promise.”

I reeled at what I considered the blasphemy of her words.  Who was she to promise a Christmas present from the Almighty?  This kind of “I-represent-God’s-will” grandstanding was exactly what eroded my belief system. I was tired of hearing what I considered hypocritical messages from people of faith. My high school counterparts each took a slip of paper as the bowl passed my way.  I looked at them anxiously, wondering what their slips of paper revealed.  Then I took mine.

In typed blocked letters was the word “GENTLENESS.”  Gentleness?  Who the fuck wants gentleness?   I remember thinking that God had a pretty crappy typewriter.  I crumpled the scrap and kicked it under the pew ahead of me.

Sister continued to explain, “I promise that God will give your gift to you.”

Sometime over that Christmas break, I had a fight with one of my sisters. I don’t remember what we fought about.  After we had each skulked away, I thought of my gift and wondered where God had been during that fight – why didn’t He – the Almighty – make a grand appearance to provide the ‘promised gentleness?’  And I thought about gentleness – what did it mean to be gentle?  Gentle in your heart? Your words? Did gentleness stop you from fighting or hurting someone you love?  Did it make you rise above the petty conflict?  Is gentleness a realization that the fight isn’t as important as the person? I thought about my sister and how I would want people in the world to be gentle with her. Soon I was calm; I was feeling…I didn’t know…could that moment be the experience of gentleness?  Was this the promised gift?

I found my sister in another room of the house and we reconciled.

A few years later in college, I had to initiate an uncomfortable discussion with my college roommate.  I truly hoped that I would display the kind of patience necessary for this talk to go well.  And I wondered ‘Is this time?  Will the promised gentleness will come now?’  Though I shook with nervousness (being very new to confrontation), the conversation went very well.  I held my ground. Respected his feelings. After it was over, I asked myself, ‘Was that the moment of the gift?’

I asked that question again a year or two later as my best friend cried in my arms over a failing relationship.  How could I find the right soothing words?  What do you say when someone’s entire world just ended?  ‘Please, let now be the time of the gift.’ I begged.  ‘Please God, let me find words of comfort. I’m not good at this stuff, but help me be gentle with her broken heart.’  And somehow I said things that made her feel better. Or maybe gentleness wasn’t in the words I said, but in holding her, in feeling sorrow with her.

Later in life when it was I who desperately grieved a failed relationship and my own heart was pierced with jagged regrets and unspoken recriminations, I wondered the familiar question ‘Will the gentleness come now?’  It did.

And I wept with gratitude.

I have been visited by gentleness many times since then, yet I still don’t know that I could define it.  Does gentleness yank you out of anger?  Or is it more like a child’s soft but insistent tug on the back of your shirt?  Perhaps gentleness seeps into you like milk through an Oreo, a delicious and thorough sensation.  Gentleness could have a far-away voice or perhaps it acts like a warm baking pie that wafts into consciousness and changes your perception.  Or maybe gentleness is present in buttery, toasty yellow, a pretty color acting as a distraction, encouraging a better part of yourself to swim to the surface.

I still don’t know.

All I know is that God kept the nun’s promise, over and over.  I still pray for gentleness to come to me when I need it most. And when my heart feels it or my eyes get wet with tears, I often think, ‘Is this it, God? Is today the day you keep the nun’s promise?’ I have since left the Catholic Church.

But I still have faith.

And now, I offer you a gift from my own crappy word processor, typed in all caps.  This gift is actually from God.  But it will come to you.  I promise.


The Longest Night

December 21st, 2014

I read an article online today promising tonight, Winter Solstice 2014, is the longest night ever in the history of our planet. Because the earth always moving from the sun due to IMAGINE SCIENCTIFICAL-TYPE STATEMENTS HERE ‘CAUSE I WAS TOO LAZY TO COPY THEM, which therefore means that today is roughly two seconds longer than last year. Tonight is the longest night we’ve ever experienced.


This alarms me.

I realize in checking the spelling of ‘exaggerate’ three times I already used up those extra two seconds allotted to our spinning planet this year, but it still freaks me out. Some days I look around me and I worry the darkness is winning. There are cops being killed in Florida tonight, possibly in retaliation for the killing of an unarmed black man. Our country is dealing with the after-effects of yet another racially-convoluted killing. How many people of color need to be slaughtered before we, on an institutional level, start saying, “No more deaths. We have to figure this out.”

It would be one thing if this were the first, shocking instance. But on the night before I was born in 1967, mom could see the McDonalds burning down across the street. She thought, ‘What kind of world?’ These were the Detroit Race Riots. Followed by a lot of incidents between then and now. So, you know, this isn’t new news.

Sometimes our world feel like the longest night. The darkest night. Will it ever get better?

And, hey. Happy holidays.

For me, the holidays are a combination of my best memories and a few of my least-favorite. Luckily, awesomeness outshines the bad, but that does not mean I feel both freely. Tired and needing a break, this year, I opted out of Christmas.

I didn’t know you could do that.

Other times, when I’ve missed Christmas at home, they were exceptions and had good reasons. I’ve had a lot more years in my hometown than away.

One year, Ann and I drove to Mississippi to do cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. An intense experience grieving and loving strangers. My first Christmas away from my family. When I called home on Christmas Eve, they passed the phone around and I sat in the back seat of my car and imagined the smells in mom’s house.  Fresh gingerbread. Roast beef.

Peppermint burning candles.

Last year, Ann and I drove to Galveston, Texas and treated ourselves to a vacation. Another first. I’d never spent a holiday pampering myself with my best friend in a gorgeous location. The experience was shocking to me. Liberating and naughty.

This year, I’m skipping the holiday claiming exhaustion and no vacation days. Both are true. And though I’ve seen family a lot this past year including Thanksgiving weekend, this is a lost opportunity to see family. No decorating gingerbread cookies with siblings on Christmas Eve morning. Beautiful friends in the twin cities have offered me invites. And yet, I want to see who I am without the holiday. I want to see who shows up.

And on the plus side, I didn’t have to put up outside lights this year.

Although I do like looking at all the lights. I will admit to my well-orchestrated neighbors, I’m impressed. Sorry for not doing my part this year, but good job.

They’re pretty, right? Regardless of religion or creed, we all agree that colored lights on a charming, snow-covered home is something we can appreciate as having a kind of loveliness. You don’t have to live here to appreciate that. You can nod to the north and share that appreciation from Texas. And still think, ‘They’re insane to live in that snow.’

Lights are pretty.

Obviously, I’ve been a little torn about the holidays. Happy to have zero shopping, and no decorating responsibilities. But sad, because it’s fun to get caught up in the excitement of gift giving and wrapping, and seeing surprise on a loved one’s face. There’s some real beauty in this season.

Friday night I was chatting with my friend Joel, and explaining my missing out. Joel and I talked about a number of things, previous holiday experiences, the good and the bad. At one point, he sounded distracted I asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was untangling his lights.

I asked, “Christmas tree?”

Just asking that made me miss all my favorite Christmas ornaments and remembering I would not see them for at least another year.

“No, a solstice tree. Just white lights. Last year, I dried out orange slices and placed them on the tree to represent the sun. They turned out really well.”

“Why celebrate the longest night?”

I was feeling a little contrary, I guess. Maybe I was looking for something to celebrate. I had been dwelling on the darkness all around us. Institutionalized racism. Revenge killings. So many wrongs still need to be righted.

Joel said, “I celebrate what happens next. The light. Days start getting longer.”

We talked about it and though I have plenty of friends who celebrate Solstice, I had never really given it much thought and I now found myself intrigued, the idea of celebrating nothing but the light. The light comes back. Weakly at first, but it’s coming back. Though January and February must unfurl with blizzards for us to slog through, still the light grows stronger.

And so do we.

By the time we hung up, I had found the clear lights in my basement storage and selected which potted plant to decorate, my Norfolk Pine, a former Christmas tree. I realized what I had been missing by not participating in Christmas this year. The ability to celebrate with others. To just feel celebratory.

Maybe this week is the anniversary of Jesus’ birth. Maybe it’s a marketing campaign masterminded by a hungry world religion. Who cares? Can we just say, Merry Christmas and let the words mean, ‘I celebrate you in your language.’ Happy Chanukah and Blessed Be if that’s what they want to hear. If we can’t celebrate the ideological differences or embrace each other’s life experiences, maybe we can still find surprising common ground.

Without agreeing on the target, we can celebrate being people who love to celebrate.

I awoke this morning excited to celebrate my non-celebratory year. I created a list of 34 things I’d like done this week. House projects mostly. Cupboards and storage things cleaned up. Piles sorted. I am getting rid of 50 items from this house. I make tic marks on the massive chore sheet. This is my celebration, and I gotta tell ya, I like making lists and checking things off.

I’m also seeing a few friends, so do not fret over me. I’m not completely isolated.

While scrubbing old water stains on the basement floor this afternoon, I spied the tub of Christmas decorations and decided to add one of my favorite ornaments, a cardboard bungalow home almost identical mine, intricately carved and hand-painted, crafted by an ex-boyfriend from my youth. Also, a jade elephant from Ireland made the tree, the last elephant from Ireland, sent to me by ridiculous, wonderful people. New friends.

I would never know them except for the internet.

Had a little shopping to do so I ended up going to Target. I chatted happily with the checkout lady and I was surprised she had so much good cheer, working in such a demanding environment, hour after hour. She celebrated me.

In another grocery store, a meat company employee offered me a cocktail wiener. He tried to explain the unique grilling flavor, but I cut him off immediately with “Yes, please. Yes.”

I love little cocktail wieners at holiday parties.

And, the taste of these guys! The rich flavor was tangy-grilled without tons of barbeque sauce (which I also like). Surprisingly perfect. I chatted with him about his hot dogs and then eagerly bought a package. He said thank you to me, and he was sincere.

A few aisles later, I was humming the Christmas carols, vaguely echoing the music swimming above me and feeling very happy about celebrating and not-celebrating. I am someone who welcomes the light. At the end of the aisle, I ran into a woman who only had a few things in her basket which included two packages of the amazing cocktail wieners.

I jabbed my finger at them and said, “You got suckered into that taste test.”

With a surprised seriousness she said, “Those were really good.”

“I bought them, too, see? What is it about those things?”

We chatted about hot dogs and holiday parties for another few sentences and went on our way. She will never know me, hell, she doesn’t even remember me at this point. But we were light to each other, for a split second. She might stand for everything I detest. I might be her worst liberal nightmare. But we chose to be light.

Tonight, I welcome the longest night.

C’mon, darkness, settle in. Depress us. Convince us there is no hope for morning. We will end you, longest night. We end you with a festival of lights. Kwanzaa. Chanukah. Christmas. And those who look at anyone in that pile and say, “You people are crazy.” We celebrate them, too.

People who find cocktail wieners disgusting and people like me.

All of us, together.

When we celebrate each other, we cannot be stopped.

We are the light.