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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Critical Thinking

The Gift of Words

Yesterday morning, as I was pulling on sweats at the scandalous hour of ten-thirty, I heard Maj Tom in the kitchen, scolding the Creature. I made my way downstairs and kissed the boy on the head. Maj Tom ranted that the Creature had commented that his eggs were cold and he overreacted and of course apologized. All said with a growly voice and a scowly face not normally seen on someone in the middle of a two-week break from work. I told the Creature that daddy needed snuggles, so we hugged him while tried to mope and growl and eat his own re-microwaved eggs.

I asked him what he wanted to do today. He’s spent the last week doing for and driving for others. I brought up a movie. The Creature brought up his remote control helicopter. Maj Tom brought up a funeral.

A couple of months ago, an old friend of his from high school mentioned on Facebook that she was in town. We met up with her and learned she was there to help her best friend who lived south of us and was fighting cancer. Tom knew the friend, although he hadn’t seen her in years. She died before Christmas, leaving behind a little girl. Tom couldn’t get ahold of his friend and didn’t know when or where the funeral was—besides today, sometime, in town.

And that’s why he grouched at the Creature for cold eggs.

A few days before Christmas, we went over to our friends’ house for dinner. My first novel, “Joshuwu Bradley: Rocket Scientist,” was loosely based on our family and theirs living on a space carrier. Rent-a-Kid, the daughter who’s a few months older than the Creature, was the inspiration for the character Greta. I’d emailed that book and a couple of others to my friend while she was deployed to Iraq for a year. These last few months, she and her daughter had read Joshuwu together.

“When are you sending me the next one?” my friend asked. I asked if Rent-a-Kid like the story. “Yeah, she kept asking when she was coming on again. And she was upset that she didn’t get to save the day.”

No “Greta”—“she.” That wasn’t a character in a book, it was Rent-a-Kid.

“But she did,” I said. “They never would have survived without her smarts.”

My friend laughed. “I think she wanted to fight more.”

“Well,” I said to Rent-a-Kid, “the sequel is all about you. I just have to write it.” Her blue eyes got huge, begging me to get started.

The next day, Tom’s parents arrived. I don’t get along with his mother very well. We’re alike in the wrong areas and different in everything else. She talks a lot. Stories, complaints, criticism, more stories that turn into complaints…I don’t talk a lot unless I’m caffeinated, and then I tend to say the wrong things.

Okay, she talks a lot unless she’s mad at me for something, and then she barely speaks to me. And she didn’t say very much the last two days they were here. I was worried that she’d explode all over Tom the morning they were to leave. Why? I dunno. Maybe because Rent-a-Kid’s mom calls her mother-in-law “mom” and I don’t. Maybe because I cooked chicken for Christmas dinner. Maybe because I had been sick while they were here.

So yesterday, before I left for work in the wee morning hours, I found some stationery and wrote a thank you note. I thanked them for coming, wished them well on their winter in Arizona, and put the fateful word “Love” before my signature. When Tom came downstairs, he called and asked where I’d put the card. I told him, but it was gone. Seemed someone had already been downstairs and found it. And it seems to have worked. The morning went very well—no last-minute drama as is custom.

At work, I logged in donations, played around in Excel to track donations by state (Colorado, Texas, and Missouri are big givers; Rhode Island, not so much), and worked on a couple of articles. The question page is down for the holidays so our writers don’t have to worry about deadlines in the midst of everything else.

But I bet the writers are starting to miss it as much as I am. Sometimes we get argumentative pickle-heads, and sometimes we can’t find the right words to get through to someone. But, every once in a while, we do get through. A couple of weeks ago, a man ask if he could be married in heaven. Three times he came back, intellectually understanding my canned answers, but still wondering, if God really loved him, why he couldn’t be married? This guy must really love his wife, I thought. But it’s pretty clear that there is no marriage in heaven.

So I told him a story. I said right now, it’s like we live underwater. When we’re young, we’re fitted with scuba gear and tethered to our parents. Our parents check our tank levels and clean our face mask and maintain our hoses. When we grow older, we join with a group of friends. If we’re lucky, we find one friend that we like enough and trust enough to tether ourselves to permanently. We check each other’s tank levels and maintain hoses. If our mask gets cloudy or lost, the other can hopefully still see clearly enough to keep us out of trouble. We learn to avoid the giant squids and the pirates and dangerous currents.

But, one day, the seas dry up. Land pokes out into the sky. We walk onto the sand, then the grass, and realize that we don’t have to rely on the air in our tanks—we’re surrounded by air. We don’t have to worry about cracked lines or broken regulators or fogged masks. The light is bright and clear, and we can breathe. There are no dangerous currents or giant squids. So we strip our scuba gear and unclasp our tethers. And from then on out, we may choose to stay with our friend, but we don’t have to. It’s a completely different world.

And this guy thanked me. Profusely. He said he finally understood. I was floored. It was just a little story I made up on the spur of the moment. But it meant everything to him. And we get quite a few comments like this—people thanking us for explaining things they’d always wondered about.

I think what I’ve been learning about this last month is the gift of words. Spontaneous notes, researched articles, stories. And not just our words. I got a Kindle gift card as part of my bonus at work. (I love my job!) The look on Maj Tom’s face when I sat down at the computer and asked him which Louis L’Amour books he wanted on my Kindle—worth every dime. On Monday, his parents took us to lunch at one of those places that take forever. The Creature was getting restless. I called him over to my side of the table, pushed a few buttons, and asked him which Magic Tree House books he wanted—right then and there. “Dolphins at Daybreak”! “Tigers at Twilight”! They were only a buck a piece and he was elated.

And I think that’s why Maj Tom was so cranky this morning. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to give his words. He’s very good about knowing what to say in any situation. He wanted to see his friends and his friend’s family and say the words. “I’m sorry. I remember. I’m here.” So, I plugged in the friend’s name, “Colorado Springs funeral” into the great searcher of words—Google—and found the information. He wolfed his breakfast, took a lightening shower, and ran out the door in time to catch the reception. In time to give his words.

May the words you say and write this year be a gift. May you be able to say what you need to, and may your readers and listeners understand.

“Say only what helps, each word a gift.” The Message
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