Sunday, December 20

Once Upon A Red Rocket: A Short Story For The Holidays

Once Upon A Red Rocket
by Richard Becker

Lizzy Capland outflanked the outstretched hands of the man in the Santa suit and sat down on the bench beside him. She had turned 11 last June, far too old to sit on someone’s lap.

 “Too old to sit on my lap but not too old to see me,” mused Santa from behind the big white curls of his beard. “Well, hello there.”

“Yes sir, I’m too old. I mean, no sir,” said Lizzy. “I’m not here to really see you. I mean…”

Santa drew up an eyebrow, waiting patiently for her explanation.

“Well, I’m here to see you, obviously,” said Lizzy nervously, trying to find the words. “But I’m here to see you for my brother. He’s eight.”

 “Oh, I see,” said Santa Claus. “And what is his name?”

“Johnny,” she said. “Only he likes to be called John now. It makes him feel older.”

“Yes,” Santa said as if remembering something before offering her a wink. “He’s still Johnny to me too.”

“Then you probably know why he couldn’t make it here himself,” she said, breathing out the words in anxious desperation. “He’s terribly, terribly sick. He has leukemia.”

“It’s all right, child,” he said, putting a bear of an arm around her. “It’s all right.”

“Well, no sir. It’s not all right,” she fought back the tears. “But that is why I came to see you. I want to ask you for a Christmas miracle.”

“Oh, my dear, dear girl,” his voice dropping from merry tenor to a whispering baritone. “As much as I wish I could move heaven and earth to heal all children, it is beyond my powers.”

“I know Mr. Claus,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m not asking for you to heal him.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“There is only one present on Johnny’s Christmas list this year,” she said.

“Tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.”

“He wants a rocket ship.” “A rocket ship?” said Santa. “I can certainly do that. What kind would he like? A red one that takes his imagination to outer space or a blue one that can blast off because it’s water propelled or maybe something with a remote control?”

“No sir, you don’t understand,” she squirmed. “Johnny doesn’t want a toy rocket ship. He wants a real one.”

“A real one?”

“Yes, sir. We both know you can’t cure him,” said Lizzy. “But maybe you could build him a rocket ship so he can travel to someplace where he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore.”

“Lizzy,” Santa sighed.

“Please, Mr. Claus? You just have to do something for him.”

“You dear, sweet girl,” he said, shoulders slumped. “This isn’t something I can promise …”

“I know,” she said, defeated. “It’s okay. I knew you weren't the real Santa Claus anyway. What would the real Santa be doing in a mall a few weeks before Christmas?”

“What I was going to say, Lizzy, is that it isn’t something I can promise,” he continued. “But if you believe and I mean really, really believe with all your heart … maybe your wish will come true.”

“You really mean that?”

“It’s Christmas, Lizzy. We are celebrating the anniversary of the miracle of miracles.”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!” Lizzy exclaimed, turning to hug him. “I’ll believe. You’ll see. I’ll believe.”

“I have faith in both you and your brother,” said Santa. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the biggest rocket ship you’ve ever seen wasn’t waiting for you and your brother on Christmas Day!”

“Christmas Day? Oh no, that won’t do,” Lizzy said, pulling back. “That won’t do at all.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t know if my brother will make it to Christmas Day,” said Lizzy. “We need it much sooner than that.”

“I see,” Santa sighed again, cupping his chin in thought. “This really is a puzzle.”

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t something you can promise.”

“It doesn’t matter what I can or can’t promise, Lizzy,” said Santa, laying a finger to her heart. “All miracles start from the inside out. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lizzy didn’t say a word as she first stood up. The once short line to see Santa Claus had swelled from to two children to nearly twenty, ranging from toddlers being held by enthusiastic mothers and fathers to six-year-old kids with shopping lists spooling out of one hand while using the other to tug at their tired-eyed parents who had become far too practiced in the annual ritual to be engaged.

The length of this line, along with the growing impatience of those waiting, seemed to break Lizzy from her spell. Time was no longer standing still. The rest of the world was waiting.

“You’re not such a bad guy for a mall Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Lizzy” he said. “Don’t forget. Miracles happen from the inside out.”

She didn’t say anything else nor did she look back over her shoulder as the merry tenor of Santa’s voice returned. He was asking the next kid in line a litany of questions with the same sing-song familiarity of seasons past. For weeks, she had prayed for her brother to be able to visit Santa and hear them too, but those prayers had gone unanswered.

“Did you tell Santa everything you wanted?” asked her mother. “Yes,” said Lizzy, avoiding eye contact.

“So what was at the top of your list?”

“Oh, you know,” said Lizzy. “I really want a gift card to Justice.”

 ***
This is the first of a four-part short for the holidays. If you would like to read the balance of "Once Upon A Red Rocket," you're invited to find it here on my fiction Facebook page. It's where I publish most "first look" fiction material from time to time. Good night, good luck, and Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 2

The Accidental Hiatus After Ten Years. How Life Happens.

A few weeks ago, a long-time friend and colleague sent me a question via Facebook. It was startling to read but not because of the content. It was startling because my immediate response didn't feel right.

"Hey brother, did you quit blogging?"

"No" was my most immediate response but then I stopped myself from pressing send. I hadn't published a stitch of content in more than four weeks — my first sustained break from blogging in more than ten years. "No" just didn't seem to cut it, especially since I was asking myself the same question.

Did I quit blogging?

No, not really. It just happened. Life had become unexpectedly busy in the weeks leading up to my presentation at the NRPA 2015 Conference and never slowed down. It only accelerated. Between a whirlwind series of conferences and conventions, both parents having health scares, and a fully integrated work-life schedule, there wasn't any time left in the day. I decided to skip one week.

One week quickly escalated into two weeks. It was four weeks by the time my friend messaged me — an unexpected hiatus that I didn't have time to really address. Add four more missing weeks to it.

He didn't seem to mind. There may have even been a note of envy in the back of his head. He is coming up on the 10-year anniversary of his blog and thought giving himself permission to write and publish when he wants sounded pretty appealing. Never mind that my hiatus was never so intentional.

It will be going forward. Permission granted.

No, I am not going to quit blogging. I am, however, going to take a page from my friend's unwritten playbook to write and publish when I want without a second thought of maintaining a schedule. Sure, this might sound counter intuitive for anyone who knows anything about social media. Consistency, after all, is part of any well-executed communication plan (especially social media). I stand by it.

Except, here is the thing. My blog has never been part of a communication plan or distribution channel for my company. It could have been, but it wasn't. My goals were always more holistic within the context of education, experimentation, and engagement. Some of this still applies.

Some of it doesn't. While there will always be a place for articles and essays, the social media landscape has changed and it is on the verge of changing again. Social networks are mostly better places for engagement than blogs (even for those of us who lament the loss of long format thought exchanges that still happen but not often enough). Experimentation has mostly moved off blogs and onto other platforms and technologies (except for writing and thought exercises). And that leaves education, which is one reason why I'll never shutter the space. This has been and continues to be one of the best places to sketch ideas, receive feedback, and provide students of mine with extracurricular education — previews and supplements to material I've made part of my classes.

I'll likely spend more time in the classroom. Spring 2016.

Some of the best material I've contributed to the field for the better part of a decade has arguably come out my classrooms. Students bring in some of the most interesting case studies and questions — puzzles that inspire problem solving for the here and now or long-term future. And in the upcoming year, I'll find my feet planted firmly on two campuses.

I have four classes scheduled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, during what I hope will be an interim schedule before continuing to build out a new Integrated Marketing Communication certificate program — with more than 40 different classes that would appeal to both working professionals and career explorers. The time is really right to introduce this program, but students are welcome to take any of the following in the interim.

Editing & Proofreading Your Work from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 6. This half-day program continues to be a staple for anyone interested in refining the written word by it making clear, concise, and grammatically correct. It focuses on all the essentials associated with solid writing mechanics.

Writing For Public Relations on Thursdays from Feb. 18 through April 21. For ten weeks, students learn to master a variety of writing styles and understand how best to apply them to news releases, fact sheets, biographical sketches, feature stories, media kits, and social media. Expect to write.

• Editing & Proofreading Your Work from noon to 3 p.m. on June 6. This is an encore session of the February class, except offered in the afternoon for students unable to attend a weekend session. The format is the same, but every class is different as it adapts to new people and perspectives.

Shaping Public Perception: Next Step Social Media from noon to 3 p.m. on June 25. When Social Media for Strategic Communication began to feel too mainstream, I knew it was time to expand beyond the confines of social media being a communication "medium" into a fully integrated and incredibly immersive multimedia strategy for public relations, marketing, advertising, and human resources. In a nutshell, this class explores what is happening and what is happening next.

Along with these classes, I have also been invited to teach (and accepted) a full semester course at the College of Southern Nevada. This experimental class cuts to the core of where communication is headed today. Employers are looking for a new generation of multi-disciplined professionals.

Writing For Design on Tuesdays from Jan. 19 through May 15. Search for class 35048 to enroll in a course designed to help designers master several modern writing styles that are in demand — copywriting, content marketing, and self-promotion across social networks and other media. This lecture-lab class will help students become familiar with message development, product differentiation, and brand voice while learning to understand how words and design converge.

With these five classes already slated for the spring, there will never be any shortage of topics to revisit from time to time, even if I no longer intend to keep a schedule. It is part of a bigger change.

The not-really-so-accidental hiatus. How times change.

I alluded to a direction a few years ago and I've stayed the course ever since. It came from the realization that the quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. The thinking applies everywhere.

As I started to remake my life and profession in a very different fashion, I decided that I only had time for a handful of the very best clients I could find and not just any client I could find. This might sound as counter initiative as my opening graphs to anyone who ever wanted to build a business.

Except, here is the thing. I'm happy helping a few people build their businesses or organizations and no more than that. I'm not really looking to build another business of my own anymore. And this realization provides me a luxury that very few people get to enjoy until they are almost worn out.

Nowadays, I have to love my clients or they are not my clients. There are no exceptions. At the first sign of angst, I resign the account with no hard feelings. And, not surprisingly, for those relative few I keep close — I am increasingly passionate and proficient in everything we do. It's magical.

As I've written before: Everyone is driven by something. We can choose what drives us. I'm driven by helping a few great people who lead some amazing organizations, teaching a few students with limitless potential, living my life surrounded by the people who matter most, and carving out a few more hours out of my week so I can write stories that have been held hostage far too long by a fixed schedule. That's all there is and it's enough to fill me up — it's more than most people ever have.

How about you? If you could be driven by something, what would it be? And once you've settled on a few ideas, give yourself permission to ask why you aren't letting that desire drive you as if all that time you think you have in the world has almost run out. It had run out. Good night and good luck.
 

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