Thursday, August 13, 2009

 

In Which We Shore Things Up...

Just a couple days from starting my new job, and so I have officially Gone Insane, between wrapping up my last few freelance projects and fixing up all the many imperfections in the Magazine Mansion.

Not sure when I'll have time to post about my new doings, but I hate to leave you with nothing to read, so I thought I would put this up. I wrote it while I was in New Hampshire and although it feels like it should be a chapter from my book, I'm actually not quite sure where it fits in. It also touches on a story I posted long ago regarding the Easter Bunny, and while I've worked hard to write as much new material for the book as possible, the fact is I'm bound to include a few elements from old blog posts. When all is said and done, my hope is the book will be about 90 percent all new stuff, 10 percent material based in some part on stories told here. Anyway, hope it keeps you occupied for a little while. I call it:


Victory Lap

We called ourselves Catholic, but if anything I was half-Catholic. Whenever I mentioned this to Mom, she got mad, although for a full Catholic, she wasn’t exactly a model of piety. We almost never went to church on Sundays. It seemed like there were whole years when we didn’t go.

Then Mom put us in a Catholic school and I had religion class for the first time. It was my worst subject, right after penmanship. My teacher was a nun named Sister Augustina, who often took us down to the little chapel at the back of the school and drilled us in our prayers, but it had been so long between church visits for me, I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t even know Sunday service was called Mass. When Sister Augustina first mentioned going to Mass, I thought she was talking about driving down to my grandparents in Boston, which both my parents hated to do, Mom because she always got an earful from Grandma Horan about how her grandsons were growing up wild; Dad because it meant getting on a highway filled with crazy Massachusetts drivers.

One morning, Sister Augustina had been having us recite the Apostle’s Creed one by one, and caught me in the act of not knowing a thing about it. I told her I’d never heard it before, but it sure was nice. “You have to know the Creed,” she said, incredulous. “Don’t you go to Mass on the weekend?”

“Oh, hardly ever,” I said. “Mom says we wouldn’t go at all if Grandma and Papa didn’t call and make her feel bad about it. But once they die and we go to the funeral, she says we won’t have to go ever again. It drives Dad nuts. Every time we go, he complains about the mean people who flip him the bird. He keeps a little bottle in his jacket pocket and drinks from it the entire time. He says he needs it to get through the whole Christly ordeal.”

After that, it was pretty clear Sister Augustina and I were never going to be buddies, especially since she told my Mom what I said. Next Sunday, we started going to church again for a while, long enough that I learned all about the Creed, and a bunch of other stuff, like Communion, which my Big Brother was going to get to do that year. Sister Augustina said that when we got to go to Communion, we would actually be eating Jesus’s body (BB said it tasted just like bread, though). “But when it is your time, children, it will be up to me to decide who gets to share in this holy sacrament. Some of you may not be ready,” Sister said, looking right at me. I knew then that I was never going to get Communion. Not a half-Catholic like me.

I was half-Catholic because Dad was a whole other religion, a Methodist. He actually never went to church. On Sundays when Mom piled us in the car in our good shirts and best plaid slacks, Dad would head out to the garden to hoe. “Does being a Methodist mean you don’t ever go to church or believe in God?” I asked him one Sunday, after we got back and I’d changed into my grubby garden clothes.

“Hell, no,” he said, stopping to lean on his hoe and look out across the tilled acre. “I’m already at church, right here in my garden. And you know, I talk to God all the time, Jesus, too. Him and me, we’re old pals.” Well, that was true. Last summer, when Dad was putting on the addition on our house, the old wooden ladder broke under his feet and he dangled from the edge of the roof. Dad yelled Jesus’s name really loud then, and asked Him to bring the long stepladder, but Mom and BB got it instead.

My classmates told me that if you weren’t Catholic, you went to hell, and that scared me. I asked Mom if it was true that Dad would go to hell for being a Methodist. She thought about it for a long minute, then said, “No, but your father probably won’t get right into heaven. He’ll have to spend some time in Purgatory first.” Mom explained that Purgatory was where people like Dad would have to wait until their name was called. I imagined him sitting in a metal folding chair, reading old magazines and looking up at a clock. It sounded like being at the doctor’s.

Purgatory didn’t make sense to me. Hell either, for that matter. In religion class, Sister told us that God loved everyone, so I took that to mean everyone got to go to heaven. Certainly I was going. But how could I enjoy paradise knowing my Dad was stuck out in the waiting room? Dad would have to get a pass, I decided, if for no other reason than to satisfy the eternal happiness of me, a perfect child. Then that spring we learned in class about the meaning of Easter—that Jesus died for our sins so we could go to heaven--and I knew Dad would be okay. He was on a first-name basis with Him, after all. His pal Jesus would get him in somehow.

I always liked Easter, even before I knew why we celebrated it. For one thing, it made a nice break there at the end of winter. Depending on when Easter came, we sometimes still had a little snow on the ground, but some years, it was late enough and warm enough that we had already started work in the garden. Once the garden was planted, Dad got up at dawn to check on the seedlings and prowl for varmints. As a rule I didn’t get up early on weekends, Easter or not, but one year I made an exception. From Sister Augustina, I now knew that Jesus rose up into heaven on the first Easter Sunday, and I got it in my head that He did it again every year after that, like a victory lap. Naturally, I just knew it happened first thing in the morning, at sunrise.

That Easter, it was still all blue outside when I woke up. I threw on a coat and ran to the door, but Mom caught me and said I had to bring a Thermos of coffee out to Dad. The garden was on the wrong side of the house to catch the sun--or The Son--coming up. But I went, trying to look up in the sky the whole way.

“Ssst! Get down!” I heard my Dad whisper. I saw him over behind the pile of chicken manure and ran crouched over to him. He was kneeling on the cold wet ground, the shotgun already up on his shoulder. Beyond him, a faint row of little green seedlings sat, tiny and pale and vulnerable. A couple at the end were bent over where they’d been viciously nibbled and three or four on the other side were just gone, only a little green nub sticking out from where Dad had just planted them.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Thought I saw a woodchuck,” he muttered. He set the gun in his lap and I handed him the Thermos. He unscrewed the lid, pulled out his little bottle and poured the contents into it, then drank it. “So,” he said, scanning the woods along the edge of the garden. “Did the Easter Bunny come?” I had been so focused on coming out to see Jesus that I’d forgotten the other good thing about Easter. “I hope so,” I said. I had to get back in soon and check. Apart from anything else, BB would be up and if he saw my basket of eggs unattended, he’d be into it like a fox in a chocolate henhouse.

I turned back to the house apprehensively then, trying to look into the living room window from here, but it was too far. Also, the sun was rising up over the house now. I stared straight into the corona of glare that lit up the chimney. Dad said you shouldn’t look at the sun because you’d see spots for the rest of your life, but I figured it was my last chance to catch a glimpse of Jesus until next year.

Just then, right behind me, came a BAM! so loud my ears rang all day. I jumped about 20 feet and turned in time to see Dad sprinting around the manure pile, gun in one hand as he ran fast along the edge of the garden. Way off at the other end, I could see bushes moving. Dad had hit something but hadn’t killed it.

The shot brought Mom and BB out of the front door. BB was holding his Easter basket by the handle. He already had a little smeary chocolate beard on his face. “Was it the woodchucks?” he asked.

But just then, another BAM! ripped through the quiet morning. We turned and watched Dad as, with a distant cry of victory, he reached into the bushes and pulled up the body of the varmint who’d been at his new garden. It wasn’t a woodchuck. Dad lifted it up by its long ears.

“Suffering Jesus!” Mom cried.

BB dropped his basket, his chocolate-ringed mouth agape.

Dad was a short man with stubby legs and long arms and a round belly that spilled over the top of his jeans, but he looked so graceful that morning as the sun rose over the top of the house and the light hit him. He was smiling that big-bearded smile of his as he completed his lap around the garden, smoking shotgun in one hand, dead rabbit in the other. He ran right up to us, set the gun next to the Thermos and triumphantly shook the rabbit in the air. Mom just looked at him.

BB started crying. “Dad just shot the Easter Bunny!”

Well, of course it wasn’t. But the more I thought about it that day, the more the Easter Bunny troubled me. Well, the idea of him, anyway, which didn’t make any more sense to me than the idea of Purgatory. I knew he was real, of course, but the Easter Bunny just didn’t seem to fit in any way with the stuff Sister Augustina was telling us about Jesus the Risen Lord. An Easter Dove, or something that flew, well, that made sense. But an anthropomorphic bunny? Hiding colored eggs? How did that fit in with the Death and Resurrection of Christ?

When we got back to school after Easter break, our first class on Monday morning was English. But instead of reading a story or learning vocabulary words, our teacher asked us to get out a pencil and a sheet of paper and write a story about Easter. It could be about Jesus, about what our family did on Easter Sunday--anything. As I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts, I absently started doodling in the corner margin of my paper. Finally, I had my opening line: “Early Easter morning, Dad sat with his shotgun, aiming carefully at the furry little bunny that was eating in the garden.” But I never wrote it. Instead, I looked at what I had just doodled on the corner of the paper: It was a little sketch of an Easter egg, sitting not in an Easter basket, but in a little box full of hay. That box looks like a manger, I thought.

Then BAM! with the suddenness of a gunshot inside my head, the whole Easter Bunny puzzle resolved itself. I saw it clearly, instantly, and it all made sense! Sister Augustina had talked about divine inspiration--God pouring words into the heads of the guys who wrote the Bible--and I knew this had to be the same exact thing. I began writing as fast as I could, afraid I would forget it before I could get it all on paper. In the quiet of the room, my furious jottings were loud enough to attract attention. Classmates stopped, looked up from their monosyllabic nothings about egg hunts and Easter Mass, whispered, pointed, giggled.

My teacher got up, walked behind me, started reading over my shoulder. Ordinarily, this made me nervous and self-conscious, but I barely noticed her. When the bell rang for morning recess, she was still standing behind me. She called for the papers, but put a hand on my shoulder even as she did this. “You can stay and finish that, if you want,” she said, her voice all funny. “You can even take it home and hand it in tomorrow. Take your time.” Her name was Miss Seaver and she was the first teacher who ever encouraged me to write. She also gave me the two best pieces of advice you could ever give a writer: Stay and finish. Take your time. I took the story home and worked on it until bed time, then took my pen light and pad under the covers and kept writing. BB teased me from the top bunk. “What are you writing down there? Love letters to a girl?” I didn’t even look up from my paper. “Shut your damn mouth,” I said. “This is holy stuff.”

By first bell the next morning, it was finished, the information God had poured into my head the day before had made its way onto paper. The Almighty hadn’t supplied me with a title for my story, so I went with one inspired by the comic books I loved. I called it "The Secret Origin of The Easter Bunny." Miss Seaver handed back everyone else’s stories and had kids take turns reading theirs aloud in class, while she read through mine. Finally, when everyone else was done, she asked me to come up to the front of the class, handed me my story and had me read it. It was the first time a teacher had allowed me in front of a class since that time in first grade when I stood up and gave a monologue about bear poop. I cleared my throat a couple of times, then began to read:

Once upon a time, it was the first Christmas. “What?!?” you say? “An Easter story, beginning at Christmas?” Of course! Because that’s when the baby Jesus was born, after all. And he wasn’t the only one.

It was my doodle of the Easter egg in a manger that did it, see. Because when I thought about it, there was only one instance I knew for sure where Jesus interacted with animals at all, and that was in the stable in Bethlehem, so that’s where I started...

We all know how the Wise Men and the shepherds and all the other dirty animals came to look at the baby Jesus, right? Cows and birds and foxes and bears and deer all sat side by side, not eating each other because they all loved Jesus. And so did a special girl bunny. She couldn’t have kids. Like my great-aunt Pat, she had a kink in her pipes. So she hopped into the stable and had a look at Baby Jesus, and prayed for a miracle. And it happened! She suddenly was having a baby. But not a normal baby bunny, no! Instead, she laid a colored egg right there in the manger, and out of it hatched the Easter Bunny.

I went on from there. I worked in a story Dad had told me, how on farms, kids used to sneak into the barn at midnight on Christmas because, according to legend, all the cows and chickens gained the power of speech, just as they did on the first Christmas...

But because the Easter Bunny was actually born in the stable along with Jesus, he didn’t just get to talk at Christmas. He got to speak and think and walk and everything for his whole life, and that’s forever. So when he grew up, he started wearing clothes and carrying baskets and hiding colored eggs around people's houses so everyone would know how he was born and who made him that way. Then people would look at him and say, “How did a giant talking rabbit get in here? Jesus Christ!”


My story was six pages long and when I got to the end, I got a reaction I didn't expect: Miss Seaver started clapping, then the whole class joined in. Kids asked me where I heard that story, did I really make it up, I didn’t, did I? There was a lot of murmuring and nodding as though I had explained a lot of things for them.

People were still talking about it through morning recess and into the next class, which was religion. Sister Augustina was annoyed at the chatter in the little chapel and demanded to know what the hubbub was about. A girl named Maryann told Sister I had written the best Easter story ever and I fell right in love with her for saying that. But then Sister Augustina turned to me and asked me what my story was about.

I got as far as the Easter Bunny’s mom laying an egg by the baby Jesus' head when I got another reaction I didn’t expect. Sister Augustina got me by my sweater vest and hauled me straight over the top of the pew. For someone who was just complaining about noise in the chapel, she sure was making a lot of it herself.

“How dare you?” she screamed. “An Easter egg in the Manger? That is sacrilege!” As I would soon learn, a lot of priests and nuns were a little prickly about the whole Easter bunny thing. But Sister Augustina was more than prickly that morning, she was a whole porcupine. I tried to tell her about my moment of divine inspiration, but that just made her angrier. “I don’t want to hear another word! Easter rabbits in Bethlehem! It’s heresy. There IS no Easter bunny!” she cried. Maryann gasped. So did several other kids. One little girl started crying. Sister looked around, rattled. Then she turned back to me. I stared at her, wondering how she could say something like that. Everyone knew there was an Easter Bunny. Why he did what he did was a mystery--one I thought God had called me to solve--but he was real. No Easter Bunny? Please. She might as well have said there was no Santa Claus.

Sister Augustina left the class alone in the chapel, murmuring over this terrible lie the nun had told. She dragged me back to Miss Seaver, who tried to stand up for me, but that just got her in trouble, too. Next thing I knew, me, Miss Seaver, and my story were all sitting outside the principal’s office, up at the very top floor of the school. Sister Augustina shrieked and hollered from the other side of the door. Occasionally, she’d be interrupted by a deep, booming voice that was too low and froggy to understand, but I knew was the principal, Mother Mary. I had only seen her up close once when I was coming out of the library and she swooped past in her dark glasses and black dress and habit. She looked like the Angel of Death. It made me wish for my own mother Mary, and I started to sniffle a little.

“Don’t cry, now,” Miss Seaver said, patting me on the knee. “Everything will be fine. You musn’t let this discourage you. I thought it was a very creative story.” But then the booming voice called Miss Seaver’s name and her face went pale and I knew we were dead. She disappeared behind the door and then everyone’s voices got too low for me to hear, even with my ear pressed against the frosted glass. I jumped away quick as the door opened and Sister Augustina stepped out. She gave me a look that could have stripped paint, then stormed off back to the chapel, where the rest of my class was still waiting. A second later, Miss Seaver, still alive, leaned out the door and called me in. She gave me a quick wink and I felt my heart lift.

But Mother Mary crushed that. The Angel of Death was sitting silently, leafing through my story, a frown on her face. As I looked at that frown, I noticed she had a little gray mustache. Now that I thought about it, Sister Augustina did, too. I wondered if this meant anything, but then Mother Mary looked up, catching me in the act of staring at her mustache. I waited for her to open her mouth and pronounce my death in that deep voice of hers. I looked down at the spot on the carpet in her office where my body would fall.

“Did you really write this all yourself?” Mother Mary finally asked.

I was so expecting her to tell me to die that I just stood there staring, until Miss Seaver nudged me. “Yes, Mother Mary,” I squeaked. “I started it in class yesterday and Miss Seaver said I could finish it for homework.”

Mother Mary nodded, then took a breath and handed my story back to Miss Seaver. “Very interesting,” she said. “As a child, I myself wondered about the Easter Bunny. I am not quite sure he was part of the Holy Nativity, but you found a very imaginative way to tie the two together. When you are older, you will understand more fully the true nature of Christ’s Resurrection and the spirit of Easter. Sister Augustina will see to that.” Then Mother Mary made a face at me, her mustache peeling back to reveal a scary row of the straightest, whitest, falsest teeth ever. I didn’t realize until later that she was smiling. “That is all,” she said, nodding. I still couldn’t move. Miss Seaver had to grab my elbow and turn me out the door.

The bell rang then, signaling lunchtime recess. Miss Seaver nodded to me and I bolted down one floor to the cloakroom, where I found my lunchbox. Then I dashed out the back door to the fire escape that would take me down to the gymnasium where everyone ate.

I stopped on the fire escape and leaned over the railing, letting the cold spring air blow over me. The sun seemed extra bright after my escape from death. Birds were singing and everything. I stood there for a moment, looking down from my great height, first at the gymnasium, then at the playground beyond and finally to the greening hills and mountains off in the distance. I watched the children stream out from the doors below, then ran down the steps to join them. Even half-Catholic, I understood the spirit of Easter just fine.


So, there you go. And now here I go. More soon...

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Saturday, August 01, 2009

 

In Which We Start at the Very Beginning...

A wiser man than I once said that people don't read magazines for who they are, but for who they want to be. That in every magazine there is an inherent promise to grant a wish. Spend enough time with magazine editors and you will hear people talking about "the promise." What is the promise of this story? Have we got enough of the promise on the cover? The promise is that particular piece of verbiage that tells the reader not only what the story is about, but also what they can hope to have or become by reading it.

I got into magazines by virtue of a very different kind of promise. When I was a wee lad, I was a voracious reader. When I ran out of kids' books--The Great Brain, Encyclopedia Brown, even the musty old Hardy Boys books we had in the attic--I would read whatever my parents had on hand. Often as not, what they had was magazines, new and old, piled high in a big old wooden barrel in our living room. I got into the habit of reading to my mom while she did chores. I'd start with Woman's Day or Better Homes and Gardens. Some days, Mom did a lot of ironing and I'd dig deep into that barrel, reading to her from the musty vintage magazines she and Dad had accumulated over the years: Collier's and Holiday and many others. I always saved Reader's Digest and its humor departments for last. My mom loved those little nuggets. Oh, they made her laugh. "You know," she used to tell me. "Someone writes those for a living."

I pointed out that readers sent in the anecdotes for the Digest. "Yes," my mom countered, "but someone at the magazine polishes them up, makes them sound better, funnier. They get paid to play with words." It was a compelling promise, especially for me. I loved words. Picked them apart, played off them, strung different ones together to see how they looked on a page, or hear how they sounded spoken aloud. The idea that you could make a living doing this was an arresting one, even at the age of 10.

And now, here I am, 30 years later. After two decades of writing and editing, after playing with words for a variety of venues, some you've all heard of, some you haven't, I'm here: Seven months unemployed, scraping up enough freelance work to keep the lights on and the mortgage current. Whatever promise that compelled me as a child to choose this work seemed long since to have evaporated.


Or...maybe not:


I've just accepted a job to be editor-in-chief at one of the biggest magazines in the world--or at least it used to be.

Trust me, you've heard of it.

The magazine is in the process of a redesign (Incidentally, it also shares something very much in common with the day, time, and basic nature of this blog entry). My job is to help restore it to what it was in its heyday. To be paid to play with words.

As opportunities go, this was one of the most unexpected of my life. The notion of running a magazine--let alone this one--was a dream I had just about abandoned. Taking this challenge on may be my finest hour—or a total train wreck. Or, knowing me, probably a little bit of both.

Either way, I may be gone for a while--the "For Sale" sign goes up in front of the Magazine Mansion tomorrow. Even though I won't be in my new office until the middle of the month, I'm already deep into issue planning, as well as wrapping up the last of my freelance and, somehow, finishing my book proposal. Oh, and fixing up the house with spackle and fresh paint. Lots of spackle and fresh paint.

But I'll be back. As I wrote in my very first entry, "this is my attempt to cope with it all." I thought I was talking about the business I was in, but I see now that I was really talking about my life. And this blog has become a very special part of it. So I'll continue to use it as another opportunity to work with words, in whatever way seems to suit me. That's my promise.

You're welcome, as always, to follow along.

Yours (Once Again),
From Somewhere on the Masthead

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