How the Chimp Saved Christmas

This story is called How The Chimp Saved Christmas, and it features the unauthorized appearance and desecration of many beloved Christmas characters. Parents, you may wish to preview this story yourself first, to determine if it is a welcome addition to the catalogue of Christmas classics. Children, if your parents and caregivers have allowed you to hear this story, then please––at the conclusion of this tale––return to your previous understanding of these beloved characters, and forget this ever happened. I am presenting this original work as a busk––like a musician with their hat out, playing on the sidewalk––because my tapidly deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible to do any of the things I have done to supplement my writer income. Two lens replacement surgeries––one for each eye––figure to restore my sight fully by mid January. I am also reading HOW THE CHIMP SAVED CHRISTMAS on YouTube––which should be easy to find. If it brings you profound tidings of comfort and joy, or anything that floats your boat, then feel free to Venmo me a tip @Paul-Mosier-1, because only a desperate man could have produced a tale such as this. Happy Holidays!

Santa was in a pickle. Not a gherkin or a giant dill pickle like they sell at elementary school bake sales in spite of their requiring no baking. No, not that kind of pickle, because this isn’t a bake sale or a condiment bar, or the sort of story with that variety of pickle.

It was Christmas Eve. Eight tiny reindeer were hitched to a sleigh piled high with presents. Rudolf was at Buddy’s Tavern, topping off the glow on his nose-so-bright. But Santa had locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.

Ever-so-gently, Mrs. Claus rapped on the door. “You mustn’t keep the good children waiting,” Mrs Claus said.

“Please go away, Mrs Claus,” Santa said, his voice quavering and pathetic. “I’m afraid I’m unfit for duty.”

For the sake of expedient storytelling, let’s presume that news of Santa’s lock-in spread more or less immediately across the entire planet. Blink 182––who had been hired to perform a private concert at midnight for the exhausted toymakers––demanded advance payment before taking the stage. Late night radio hosts urged their listeners to gather up their silver and gold and head for the hills. Citizens were forced to choose between despair and outrage on social media polls, and many people found themselves wishing for more nuanced choices, and thus spent Christmas Eve staring undecided at their phones instead of reading ‘Twas The Blight Before Christmas as they should have..

This development also finally inspired the little blond elf––who had for years complained that he would rather be a dentist than a toymaker––to at last make good on his promise and resign, announcing his intentions to enroll in the Barbizon School Of Toothsome Arts. His resignation was received with glee by Twinkletoes––who supervised The Little Blond Elf Who Wanted To Be A Dentist. This because the Little Blond Elf Who Wanted To Be A Dentist was not only exceedingly dull––to the point that the other elves working alongside him referred to him privately as The Little Bland Elf Who Won’t Shut Up About Dentistry––but also had an abysmal product safety record, and was personally responsible for ruining hundreds of Christmases, damaging the average score of Elf Team Six and dashing Twinkletoes’ hopes of ever winning the Egg Nog Cup and getting a promotion out of the work camps.

Here it must be noted that Santa looks very unkindly on the use of the words shut up, and Santa sees everything, so please use only kind words.

Of course, The Little Bland Elf Who Wouldn’t Shut Up About Dentistry had to make a big production out of his exit. He pulled off his apron and flung it across the workshop, then banged his wooden mallet on the bench and shouted So long, suckas! I’m off to where the lady elves dwelleth!

This caused some of the more tender-hearted elves on Elf Team Six to hang their heads in sadness––not because they were loathe to see him go, but because they had long endured his embarrassing participation in the team-wide grumblings about the need to hire some fine-looking lady elves. His claim to be off in search of the ladies seemed to indicate that The Little Blond Elf Who Wanted To Be A Dentist would continue living a lie, no matter where his travels took him.

Ah, but this was 1964. And, ah, but it was not to be.

The Little Blond Elf Who Hated Christmas headed straight to the North Pole train station and boarded the Polar Express. He shared a private compartment with Frosty The Snowman, who was headed to Vegas for a winter-long residency at The Sands, his usual Pipe and Carrot routine. The two drank piping hot chocolate and shared laughs as they swapped stories of what a pain in the butt Santa could sometimes be.

Unfortunately, the Polar Express was ambushed by the Abominable Snowman, who threw the train into the depths of the Peppermint Fjord. Thumpity-thump-thump it went, ricocheting off the brittle toffee walls of the fjord before landing on the crust of the Hot Fudge Geyser, instantly killing both The Little Blond Elf Who Hated Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, thereby ending the careers of two of the most annoying members of the Central Christmas Casting roster. Attempts to revive Frosty by putting a top hat on his head and posing for selfies proved fruitless.

Tragically, this incident might never have occurred if not for one man who lived far away in The Land That Snow Forgot. The man––let’s call him Pablo––sat at his work desk one day and started a list of The Top Ten Abominations Of The Abominable Snowman. It began with

1 The Abominable Snowman loaded his own poop into Frosty’s corncob pipe

2 Threw a snowball at some kid but instead it hit the kid’s grandma and knocked her down, and her false teeth got lost in a snowdrift

3 Brought blizzard which stranded your racist great uncle at your house through New Year’s

This was as far as he got before his supervisor came up from behind and demanded he get back to work. Pablo had begun the list in jest, as he thought perhaps The Abominable Snowman had been judged unfairly. After all, Pablo thought, if he is so abominable, what are his abominations?

The Abominable Snowman caught wind of the list––most likely through Santa, who somehow sees everything, and who above the Arctic Circle is most famous for being a terrible gossip. Naturally The Abominable Snowman felt he had been disrespected, and flew into a rage. All of this was years before the invention of Twitter, so he felt he had no choice but to prove his Abomination Cred by plucking the Polar Express from its tracks and hurling it into the abyss of the Peppermint Fjord. On that foggy Christmas Eve of long ago, none would have guessed that one day parents would go to the deli at IKEA and buy edible gingerbread dioramas recreating the tragic final moments of Frosty and what’s-his-face, that blond elf kid who hated Christmas.

In what diehard supporters of Frosty would call a case of cosmic justice, Pablo––the man who began the list when he should have been toiling at his miserable job––was fired when the results of the accident investigation were made public, and spent the rest of his days drifting from one meaningless gig to the next.

But all of this is beside the point, and I apologize for wasting so much of your time, especially on Christmas Eve.

The point is that Santa was in a pickle. Eight tiny reindeer were hitched to a sleigh piled high with toys made with the blood and sweat of elf labor. Rudolf was at Buddy’s Tavern, topping off the glow on his nose-so-bright. But Santa had locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.

It’s always something with him, thought Bernard, the Head Elf. Every Christmas Eve, it’s always gotta be some kinda drama.

Mrs. Claus was summoned. She had been occupied enjoying hot rum with Lady Elaine, who was visiting for the holidays.

“What is it, Papa?” Mrs. Claus called through the door. “All the good children of the world are depending on you! And me and Lady Elaine were gettin’ cozy!”

Santa––who was concerned that Mrs. Claus kept insisting he fatten up after having increased the amount of his life insurance policy––was reluctant to disappoint his wife. She complained that Xmas Eve was her one chance each year to have a girl’s night, which usually meant hot rum with Lady Elaine.

I’m sorry, Dear, Santa said through the door. I’ve got a touch of diarrhea, so I’m going to have to cancel Christmas. There’s nothing I can do!

Mrs. Claus sighed in frustration. “Well, Nicholas, we can’t have you traveling through the night sky squirting feces on the good people below!” She snapped her fingers. “I know! There’s a 24 hour Rite Aid in the Sugarplum District––we can send The Little Blond Elf Who Hates Christmas to get you a bottle of Kaopectate!”

The crisis which unfolded became the basis of The Wall Street Journal’s scathing investigative report, which cited the lack of contingency planning as foremost among the reasons they labeled Santa’s Workshop the Worst Run Business In The History Of Business.

Of course, The Little Blond Elf Who Hates Christmas But Loves Dentistry was already headed to a date with a fireball at the bottom of the Peppermint Fjord. And, unbelievably, sending the Little Blond Elf Who Hated Christmas to get something for Santa’s diarrhea was literally the only idea anyone had to save Christmas.

Surely Christmas was lost! Santa’s inability to produce a proper Yule Log would put an end to centuries of joy! Children across the world woke up to get a drink of water and found themselves with an uneasy feeling! President Johnson asked constitutional scholars if he had the authority to command Santa to deliver presents as an economic emergency, but was told that the North Pole was not in his jurisdiction! Air Force jets were scrambled! The John Birch Society demanded the establishment of an American North Pole. Subcommittees were formed, whose work continues to this day!

These developments were cheered by Ebenezer Scrooge, who had backslid considerably since his mid-19th century enlightenment. He and The Grinch––who was a few years yet from his own transformation––were enjoying champagne in the hot tub on The Grinch’s terrace far above Whoville, and they raised their glasses to toast the demise of Christmas. Unfortunately, when their champagne flutes clinked together, a twinkling of vibration rose to a gurgling, and the gurgling rose to an uncertain flatulence, and the uncertain flatulence gained resolve and became an angry bellow, as an avalanche of the snowpack atop Mount Crumpitt buried the village of Whoville below, just as they had gathered in a circle to sing Bahoo Doray––an entirely unnecessary and gratuitous Christmas tragedy.

So, again, the village which won Christmas Aficionado Magazine’s Town That Understands The True Meaning Of Christmas award in 1953––and again in 1961––was wiped from the map. Are you not Outraged? Or would you describe yourself as Despairing?

Well, Santa moaned through the bathroom door, I guess I’m going to have to cancel Christmas! The Little Blond Elf Who Resigned Without Giving Two Weeks Notice has ruined everything!

Children cried! Elves wandered aimlessly on the featureless tundra! Chinese restaurants wondered whether they’d still be busy! George Bailey jumped unnoticed into a frozen river in Bedford Falls! Roast Beasts would be consumed without a appropriate degree of merriment!

Bernard, the Head Elf, wondered why canceling Christmas was always the first thing to occur to Santa.

But at that moment, the roar of an engine drowned out the cries of despair and general whining. A bright green, souped-up 1974 Chevy Nova––with sled blades instead of tires––came into view. The engine roared for effect, but the car was being pulled by 8 tiny reindeer––none that you’ve heard of previously, and please forgive me for not knowing why they are tiny. The tiny reindeer pulled the souped-up red Nova right to the front doors of Santa’s Workshop, taking the coveted Elf Of The Month parking space without prior authorization.

A gasp of excitement went up among the crowd of elves. The Elf on the Shelf fainted and fell to the floor, where he was mauled by the family dog. Who was this visitor in the muscle car?

The driver door opened and a chimpanzee emerged. But this was not just any chimp––it was Crisis Chimp, who appears whenever he’s needed most. He wore a white business shirt with red tie, dark shades, and held a briefcase which was handcuffed to his wrist.

“Who is this pant-less primate?” one elf wondered.

“Has he come to put the mas back in Christmas?” asked another.

“I saw a pair of pants with no-one in them,” offered a third.

“Stop wandering off into Dr Seuss stories!” demanded Bernard, the Head Elf.

Crisis Chimp shut the door of the Nova and quickly surveyed the scene. He was certain that his opposable thumbs and keen observation skills would be coming into play on this assignment.

“It’s old Saint Nick,” said Mrs Claus as she emerged from the workshop, a sloppy Lady Elaine in tow. “He’s got a serious case of the squirts. We were going to send the Little Blond Elf Who Hates Himself to get some Kaeopectate, but he and Frosty crashed into the Peppermint Fjord.”

Crisis Chimp frowned, wondering whether––in spite of the tragedy––Frosty would be back on Christmas Day.

Mrs Claus sighed. “If Santa can’t produce a proper Yule Log, Christmas will be cancelled forever.”

Send them all away! Santa cried from behind the door. Why does my diarrhea have to become a circus?

“That’s it!” exclaimed Bernard, the head elf. “We’ll save Christmas with a Diarrhea Circus!”

“Hooray!” arose a cheer.

“Hooray?” said one elf in a tone which was more of a question.

“Does that mean we have to get back to work?” complained one disgruntled elf.

Nobody’s going back to work! the Jolly Old Elf called from behind the bathroom door. Christmas is cancelled forever!

“Unless…” began Mrs. Claus. For she observed that Crisis Chimp was putting a key into the steel briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.

What was inside?

Could the briefcase contain something to save Christmas from ruin?

A hush fell over the crowd.

A snowflake fell.

An elf toward the back coughed.

An elf somewhere near the front farted.

Several elves complained about the smell.

Then the hush fell on the crowd again.

Crisis Chimp held the key to the briefcase between leathery index finger and opposable thumb.

“He’s got opposable thumbs!” someone shouted.

Obviously,” another elf replied.


The key went in.

Utilizing the very same trusty digits, Crisis Chimp turned the key.


The bathroom door creaked open just an inch, and Santa’s Yellowy Eye appeared, watching. Gently, ever so gently––Oh! You would have thrilled to see just how deliciously slowly Crisis Chimp parted the two halves of the steel briefcase, opening it by the increment until just a shaft of brilliance sprang forth!

Finally the briefcase was fully open, and all could see the Christmas Miracle it held––

Children! Christmas is literally hanging in the balance here, with one tray holding liquid human feces and the other holding––

Orange Wedges! Chock full of vitamin C and potassium, a veritable ray of sunshine on a dark Christmas Eve!

Crisis Chimp quickly distributed the orange wedges. Fully 2 dozen of the thousands of elves had a taste of the magic!

“Ho, Ho, Hojo!” Santa shouted as he burst from the bathroom, his furry red pants around his ankles. “You’ve saved Christmas! Now I can deliver Christmas joy to all the good children of the world`!”

Santa made his way to the sleigh. “On Dasher, on Dancer, On Prancer––”

“On pantser––” Bernard called out. “Pull ‘em up, Santa!”

“Dang it!” Santa shouted. “Now I gotta start all over again!”

A laugh of merriment went up among the elves.

Bernard the Head Elf turned to the camera and grinned. “That’s my Santa!

Crisis Chimp saluted the Elf In Chief as Santa’s sleigh disappeared into the dark sky, and wondered whether saving Christmas would finally take him off the naughty list. Then he shut his briefcase, climbed into the Nova-sled, and fired the engine––ready for whatever pickle came next.

Good work, Crisis Chimp! Happy Holidays!

Thank you everyone. Now let’s forget this ever happened, and children, please return to your previous understandings of Santa and the others. If this story brought you new joy and insight, then please Venmo me a lump of coal or the fuel of your choice to


Hope you all stay safe and healthy and surrounded by the people you love. Here’s to a better 2022. Thank you.

Commence Living

The above may be a good entry title for the end of a pandemic—and it feels like that, with two shots in my arm, competence in government returned—but in this case it refers to this being my post of a commencement speech I gave to high school graduates two years ago. Giving presentations, I think you can get away with a lack of preparation if you are the expert on the subject, or just speaking your truth. A speech of any length you can’t Ad lib. But although I didn’t begin writing this until late in the morning the day of the ceremony, I took my task seriously. Two years on my own older daughter, Eleri, is graduating from Arizona School for the Arts and moving on to college. Her performance has far surpassed my own—the only time I was ever on the honor roll at Central High—my last semester—I wondered how the hell it had happened. And her character is far better than mine. Eleri— ah, I’m so proud of you, my little buddy. My amazing young daughter. My teacher. I hope these words work for you.

Good evening Guardian graduates,
parents and family,
teachers and staff.
I’m happy and honored to be asked to say a few (thousand) words on this momentous occasion.
Throughout the years I have often thought of what I could say to young people, or to my younger self, that would be useful. As I begin this endeavor, I’d like to give two warnings.
One, I am an easy cry.
I’m constantly crying in public while writing novels,
and though it makes me feel like an idiot to be weeping at my own words, I cried while writing this, and it just might happen reading it this evening. Two, a friend once said of me that I was the only person they knew who interrupted himself.
Another friend said, “listening to Paul is a little like hearing John Coltrane play the saxophone. He usually has some kind of point, but he tends to wander a bit.”
Hopefully reading from this scroll will keep these things from happening.

Parents and teachers are forever trying to spare young people
the mistakes they themselves have made,
to smooth out the rough edges of their own experiences,
to find a shorter,
easier path to happiness.
That is, except for those parents and teachers who want to make sure
that the new generation has to suffer at least as much as they did.
Before I had an agent and a book deal,
when I was self publishing my first two books,
I called my acknowledgements page “Oats For The Dark Horse,”
where I thanked people who gave me encouragement along my way as a writer.
All of you are longshots, dark horses, though you may not know it yet.

You are longshots because the world wants to chew you up and spit you out.
It wants to crush your dreams, enslave you for the purposes of others. The world has its way with you more often than not.
Your mission is to resist,
and to find your own true purpose.
This will be your fight every day.
I feel that my duty this evening is to offer a handful of oats to you dark horses,
to help you have strength for your journeys.
Your journey will be long,
you will need many handfuls of oats,
so take them where you can find them.
Tonight is a checkpoint in your journeys.
It’s time for you to get off this campus,
It’s time to say goodbye to your teachers,
your classmates,
perhaps forever,
to move along to whatever comes next for you.
But it’s also a point at which to say,
hey, good job, kid,
you’ve learned so much,
you’ve grown so much,
we can’t wait to see what comes next for you.
Believe it when you hear it from others,
and say it to yourself,
and believe it when you say it to yourself.
Good job, kid.
A cautionary tale, as you may know, is a story meant to scare people,

mainly the young,
from engaging in some dangerous or prohibited behavior.
For much of my life,
I’ve felt that I’ve been a living cautionary tale for others.
I’ve made so many mistakes,
I’ve provided learning opportunities for everyone who has known me. I can’t even go to the bank without being a training opportunity. Perhaps that is what makes me qualified to stand here this evening. Or perhaps it is that,
in recent years,
people have told me that I am a model of perseverance.
Of grit.
Today I am celebrating 19,899 consecutive days without a fatal accident. So there’s that.
It’s amazing the things you can live through.
I’d like to read a poem by Allen Ginsberg,
because I don’t want to miss this opportunity to corrupt the youth
while they are still young.
This poem is called My Alba.
Alba means “Sunrise” in Spanish, as those of you who were smart enough to take Spanish instead of German might already know.
The poem was written in 1953, in New York City.
Picture Ginsberg living in a tiny coldwater flat somewhere in lower Manhattan,
back when someone with very little money could afford a tiny flat in lower Manhattan.
My Alba
Now that I’ve wasted

five years in Manhattan life decaying
talent a blank
talking disconnected patient and mental sliderule and number machine on a desk
autographed triplicate synopsis and taxes obedient prompt poorly paid
stayed on the market youth of my twenties fainted in offices wept on typewriters
deceived multitudes
in vast conspiracies deodorant battleships serious business industry
every six weeks whoever drank my blood bank innocent evil now
part of my system
five years unhappy labor 22 to 27 working

not a dime in the bank to show for it anyway
dawn breaks it’s only the sun the East smokes O my bedroom I am damned to Hell what alarm clock is ringing
Three years later his immense poem HOWL would be published by City Lights Books in San Francisco, and Allen Ginsberg probably woke at whatever hour he pleased from that point on.
I’d like to paint a picture,
a snapshot,
and then I’ll talk some more,
and then I’ll present another snapshot.
Paul Mosier, 1981.
Sophomore at Central High.
I’m eating dinner with my parents
at a restaurant called Beefeater’s
at 3rd avenue and Camelback
in Central Phoenix.
The sort of place where gray haired people
would eat slabs of beef
The busboy who pours our water,
wearing a medieval peasant shirt with poofy arms, is a good looking kid from Central,
a year older than me,
named Dave Foster.
My parents have been bugging me to get a job

even though I don’t believe in jobs
and don’t have any real need for money
as long as they keep giving it to me
but I ask for an application.
I take it home, fill it out, bring it back.
Weeks later on a Monday at school
the walls are covered in graffiti.
We love you Dave,
spray painted all over campus.
Dave Foster had been at the river
someone jumped off a cliff and landed on him
his body came up a mile downstream.
A few days later Beefeater’s called my home
and I was offered a dead boy’s job.
The maitre’d reminded me again and again that I was too slow, setting tables and clearing tables,
pouring people’s water.
I was drunk at work as much as I could be,
as I was a practicing alcoholic from 8th grade
until just before my 25th birthday.
There’s only so much you can learn from
being a busboy.
Forks on the left, salad fork on the outside.
Knife and spoon on the right, spoon on the outside.
I hope I have remembered it correctly,
or it will all have been a complete waste of my time.
No, that’s not really true, the one important thing I learned was economic justice, or the lack thereof.
When I’d bring the dishes back to the dishwasher,
I’d see two grown men,
Spanish speakers,

laboring in the heat and steam.
Every time I’d go back with a tub of dishes
they’d say “agua!” and point to a pitcher.
I had no idea what they were trying to say to me.
Like an idiot
or a Nazi
I took German in High School
though I was surrounded by Spanish speakers.
This went on for weeks
Their saying “agua,”
pointing to a pitcher,
until I figured out they were offering to me their home made aguas frescas, made of fresh strawberries and other fruits,
and ice and water.
Nectar of the gods.
After my first taste of it they had to double their batches to keep me hydrated.
These same generous men,
working in fear of immigration raids on the kitchen,
would walk home to their families late every night,
while I drove a car handed down by my parents.
They worked harder,
sweated more,
were paid less
though they had families to feed,
just because of where they were born.
I thought of how before our births
we are random seeds
blowing on a windy day
landing here or there

I was fired from Beefeaters for drinking on the job. They did not lock up the vermouth,
because who would drink the vermouth?
It tasted like fermented aquarium water.
I would drink vermouth, and did.
Same time,
sophomore year,
first day of class,
the young teacher, Mrs Kirker,
whom every boy would crush on
asks if there is something we would like to be called instead of our given name.
I tell her I go by Smith
which is not true.
So she calls me Smith all year long.
Yes Smith?
Good work, Smith.
She introduces me to the first poem that speaks to me, The Plot Against The Giant
by Wallace Stevens
and has us analyze song lyrics
like Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
and brings her guitar to class
and wears black the day after John Lennon is shot. She also encourages my writing
and is the best teacher ever
but leaves after one year
returning to her native Ohio.

Also at this time
in High School
I have my first car accident,
my first car sent to the junkyard,
an old LTD,
which I crashed into the side of Squaw Peak
which is now known as Piestewa Peak.
The car ended upside down.
The policeman knew I had been drinking
but didn’t press the issue,
probably thinking it was real enough for me to be looking at my car upside down.
I’d like to read another poem, this one by Robert Frost. It is likely familiar to many of you. From 1916, it is called The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poem is most often taken to mean that one should choose their own path, that one must choose their own path. And I think that’s a beautiful and useful interpretation.
But it only tells part of the story. Because two roads will diverge again and again, countless times throughout your lives, and what makes all the difference is choosing the one that feels right again and again, to make that choice as often as possible, to make a life of making that choice, to spend your days walking a path that makes your feet light instead of weary.
If there is anything I would wish for you, it is that you can spend your lives with people and occupations that fill you up, which make your cup and your soul runneth over, and not people and occupations which drain you and crush your spirit. That, I think, is the key to happiness. I know from managing the money of people who have a lot of it that money doesn’t cure financial insecurity, that people with the most money worry about money the most. And money, though we all need some of it, does not bring happiness proportionately. So find some other way to measure your happiness, to define it.
In the years since high school I have crashed maybe 15 cars, I had five majors in five years as an undergraduate, and something else in grad school, none of which had anything to do with anything I’ve ever made a living at. I have had miserable jobs where they kept track of how long you were in the bathroom every quarter, I’ve made so many mistakes, and

sometimes I’ve learned from them. But there are some important things I’ve done right. Among my five majors in college, I eventually chose subjects– History, Political Science, and Philosophy– that filled me up instead of draining me, that made me feel like my head was on fire, in a good way. And even though my graduate work in Early Childhood Education didn’t lead to me becoming a teacher, as I didn’t feel like enough of a grown-up to be in charge of a class, working as a teacher’s aide while I was in school, I never doubted the value or virtue of what I was doing for five bucks an hour. I don’t regret that I’ve filled enough journals to fill a large steam trunk, that I’ve come to know myself and become myself through writing. I don’t regret the years I spent making half my living as an artist with no training, painting enormous canvases. I don’t regret the mid 1990’s, when I wrote short stories and sent them to the sorts of literary publications that paid you in copies. These things never made me rich, but they filled me up, sustained my spirit, kept me alive.
It’s not that all my unsatisfying, soul crushing jobs were mistakes. When we are trying to live for today, living like it’s our last day on earth, it’s wise to have a contingency plan in case we live for another 100 lyears. But I never forgot about the dark horse, my dark horse. I gave it handfuls of oats when I could, and took it out to stretch its legs.
I doubted that I could write a novel, I thought my head was too messy, random, chaotic to pull off something of that size. But I tried it anyway, for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in November of 2012. It turns out I could write a novel. Now I feel like I was made for this. My first, Breakfast At Tuli’s, is about a young woman with an unusual psychological difficulty, who is attracted to men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her, and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own desire as he waits for her to find happiness with a member of her own species. I sent it to approximately 150 literary agents, and while some provided strong encouragement, none wanted to represent it. I self-published it, and it has deeply moved several dozen

people. The second and third novels I wrote I sent to fewer agents before self-publishing, because I knew I could have a rewarding experience sharing them with a very small audience. By the time I wrote Train I Ride, the second book I wrote for Middle Graders, I had very little hope of finding an agent and a publisher, but I sent it to 20 agents anyway, figuring I’d give it a shot, or a decent burial. Only one of the 20 wanted to see it. She liked Train I Ride quite a lot, and it only took her two weeks to find two of the big 5 publishers wanting it, and HarperCollins acquired it in a pre- empt, a two book deal with an option for a third, and enough money that I could have quit my day job on the spot. Instead I’ve just ignored it for the past few years.
So, don’t give up on your dark horse. Be patient with it. Give it handfuls of oats when you can, take it out and stretch its legs. Whatever it is that fills you up instead of draining you, spend as much time walking down that path as you can. Don’t give up on the dark horse, because it will never give up on you. One day you may be able to ride it all day long.
Snapshot 2019.
I still am not a guy you want to ask for a ride, even though I quit drinking almost 30 years ago. My most recent wrecked car was a twenty year old Mercedes S500. I managed to get t-boned by a double-length bus, which hit me right in the driver door without having a chance to slow down. Though it hurt to breathe for the next couple of weeks, I walked away without a scratch or a broken bone, though, interestingly, my right shoe came off on impact. Naturally the next car I bought was another 20 year old Mercedes S500, which I recommend for absent minded drivers like myself. Beefeaters, where I was fired for drinking on the job in high school, closed many years ago, as the customers gradually died from heart attacks and vascular difficulties. After being empty for several years, it was remodeled and is now home to Changing Hands Bookstore, my home base, the flagship store of my worldwide book distribution. As I sign a stack of my novels there, I can look to the corner where the generous Spanish speaking

dishwashers labored and shared with me their home made aguas frescas. I can think of what I learned from them, and be happy also that my work has been translated to Spanish.
A couple of years ago I searched Facebook and found Mrs Kirker, my sophomore year high school English teacher. Though she has a different last name, her smile was the same, she listed Bruce Springsteen among her favorite musicians, and she still teaches. I sent her a message saying I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m sorry for duping you into calling me Smith all year long, and thank you for introducing me to the first poem that ever spoke to me, and thank you for wearing black when John Lennon was shot and showing me it’s okay to feel, and even to cry in public, and though you probably have never been paid enough, please know that to the password question of who is your favorite teacher, you are the answer. She wrote back and sad “Of course I remember you, Smith!” Today she is among my biggest fans, strongest supporters, and she and her husband, who is a middle school teacher, both teach my novels as part of their curriculum.
I’ve learned that whatever you plan for life, or expect from it, it’s gonna bring you something very different. My younger daughter, Harmony, passed to the next dimension last May after a two year battle with a rare cancer. She’s my spirit animal and my teacher. One of the things she made me realize is we don’t know how many days we have been given. You can be a perfect, wise, funny, insanely creative and courageous girl and be taken from this life at nine years, or you can drive like an idiot, send 15 cars to the junkyard, and still be breathing. But the important thing isn’t how many breaths we are allotted, but rather what it is we are doing while we breathe our allotment of breaths. Two paths diverge, again and again, maybe every day. Walk the one that feels right, that fills you up, that lifts you. It’s the best we can hope for in life.
I tried to find a poem that would make a good bookend opposite the Ginsberg poem, the poem that begins with Now that I have wasted five

years in Manhattan and ends with I am damned to hell what alarm clock is ringing.
I had a hard time finding such a poem, which perhaps points to the difficulty of living in a manner the opposite of Ginsberg’s five wasted years in Manhattan.
But then I thought, it is for you, Guardians, dark horses, to write that poem. Maybe it begins with Now that I have lived richly, and maybe it ends with I am lucky, I am blessed as I leave my body and step into the unknown.
But I think it is for you to find that poem, to write it.
One last thing–
please don’t wait 35 years to tell your favorite teacher what they meant to you, to thank them for the handfuls of oats. I think you’ll find it incredibly gratifying, and I know your teacher will.
Now, quills up, Guardians! Go forth and write your poem! Congratulations!

The Musical Guide to Summer and July

I am very much a fan of music. I experience the world around me through music, and the songs I know and love come to describe what I see and hear around me, and what I feel.

This is also true of what I see, hear and feel in writing a novel. Most novels I have written come to have soundtracks, playlists that I listen to while writing them. The first was John Coltrane while writing Breakfast At Tuli’s. Train I Ride was inspired by the song MYSTERY TRAIN by Elvis Presley and Junior Parker.

SUMMER AND JULY was inspired by the sense of place of Ocean Park, Santa Monica, when I stayed there in an AirBnB with my wife and daughters Eleri and Harmony in the summer of 2016. It also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ album PET SOUNDS, Brian Wilson’s work of genius, which apparently made the Beatles and Stones wonder what the heck they could follow it with. For the Beatles, it ended up being Sgt. Pepper’s. The Stones didn’t really have their answer until Exile On Main Street in 1972.

I listened to PET SOUNDS endlessly during our week-long stay in a cottage on 4th street, playing it on a portable Bose bluetooth speaker, often while drinking coffee on the porch before the rest of my family woke. I had known some of the songs on the album previously––WOULDN’T IT BE NICE and SLOOP JOHN B––but I had never experienced the whole record before.


Here is a guide to the musical references, stolen lyrics and inspirations appearing in SUMMER AND JULY, which arrives a week from tomorrow on June 9, 2020.

PAGE 1: We plunge right into our rhymin’ and stealin’ (BEASTIE BOYS reference) as our young narrator Juillet says The airplane hasn’t even landed yet, and already this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

This borrows from the song SLOOP JOHN B from PET SOUNDS, and the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

Juillet’s mom has the Beach Boys playing on bluetooth to try to put her in the spirit of her seaside holiday, and on PAGE 16 she says “I hear a scratching noise, faintly, in the quiet between a song about a wave and a song about a girl.

I was probably thinking of CAROLINE, NO and the earlier CATCH A WAVE, both by the Beach Boys. I like how the line previews exactly what becomes Juillet’s two main concerns during the course of the novel.

PAGE 20: Juillet says, in narration, Mom would kill me if I hung down with a surfer boy who’s practically a surfer man.

“Hung down” is an homage to the song 1979 by SMASHING PUMPKINS, with the line “Justine never knew the rules, hung down with the freaks and ghouls.” I think it is a beautiful alternative to saying “hang out,” when spoken by a gothic girl, which Juillet begins the story as. I had to fight like hell with my editor for this beauty.

PAGE 21: The first appearance of the recurring IGNORE ALIN ORDERS. This is scratched in the sidewalk on 4th street very near the cottage we stayed in. The cottage was built around 1910, but the sidewalks are considerably newer. Googling the phrase, IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS was apparently printed on tee shirts and bumper stickers by a group of hippies in San Francisco after a night on LSD in the 1960s. One of these bumper stickers found it’s way onto the guitar of Joe Strummer, frontman of THE CLASH and a solo artist whose later records are under-appreciated in my opinion. Many of the photos of Joe Strummer show him holding the guitar with this sticker. In the novel, the spot in the sidewalk becomes the meeting place of Summer and Juillet, and also something of a rallying cry.

PAGE 47: GRAVESIDE LOBOTOMY is not a real band, but seemed like a good name for an act that Juillet would be a fan of. If such a band existed I would hope they’d have a song called LET’S SWITCH BRAINS.

PAGE 75: Summer and Juillet encounter a homeless man on the pier, who has a sign that says “MY TALE OF WOE PRINTED ON A GRAIN OF RICE. DONATIONS CHEERFULLY ACCEPTED.” Summer asks him if he can tell his tale of woe to she and Juillet, and asks him his name. He speaks in a gravelly voice, and says his name is Butch. Waits’ song IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, which describes a beat-up and economically tattered neighborhood has a line that says and Butch joined the army, yeah that’s where he’s been. I don’t really believe that Butch has been in the army. Also I feel like Butch should be an alter ego for Waits. When I have read this chapter aloud to classrooms on social media, doing Butch’s voice often makes me cough.

PAGE 108: Juillet and her mom eat dinner at a surf-themed vegan restaurant called WAVE OF MUTILATION. The restaurant does not exist, but it is the name of a fine song by the PIXIES from their album DOOLITTLE. The Pixies have great lyrics and they often get imbedded in my work.

PAGE 132: I needed to build the presence of The Big Kahuna, one of the characters, without him being seen. So I threw a party at his house which was entirely inspired by the song PARTIES IN THE USA by JONATHAN RICHMAN, formerly of THE MODERN LOVERS, and one of the most under appreciated geniuses of the rock and roll genre, though he goes far beyond that. PARTIES IN THE USA begins with Richman saying, to the riff of HANG ON SLOOPY, Hi everyone, I’m from the 60’s, the time of Louie Louie, and Little Latin Loopy Lou, after which his bandmates chime yeahyeahyeah in beatnik fashion. The song argues that we need more parties, with potato chips sittin’ there, and guitars playin’, a line which I put in Summer’s mouth. The scene also features a guy playing Louie Louie on guitar with a fuzzy amp, and Summer tells Juillet that she left her school after telling all her classmates to kiss off, which was certainly put in my head by THE VIOLENT FEMMES with their song KISS OFF. PAGE 139 features a mention of Huarache sandals, which would not be in my vocabulary if not for the song SURFIN’ SAFARI by the Beach Boys. The scene ends with a mention of crickets (BUDDY HOLLY’s BAND) and a song by Buddy Holly heard from across the street.

PAGE 163: Juillet is alone in a park and observes that it seems like a good day for a daydream, planted in my head by THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL and their song DAYDREAM. What a day for a daydream.

PAGE 166: One of the most important things that happens in the book came about quite accidentally. The girls meet in the morning, and, because I had been listening to a lot of THE REPLACEMENTS Pandora, Summer says “You be me and I’ll be you!” That was totally put in my head by The Replacements song with the lyric you be me for a while, and I’ll be you. I had no idea that, in wearing Juillet’s Goth regalia, Summer would give herself permission to feel the pain inside her, beneath her sunny exterior. It blew me away to watch it happening, and reaffirmed my belief in the muse.

PAGE 178: I feel it all. Planted in my head by FEIST.

PAGE 181: Sea, swallow me. Put in my head by Cocteau Twins, not the first or last time.

PAGE 186: WOULDN’T IT BE NICE. First song on PET SOUNDS, maybe the last to capture the innocence of youth. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if everything was completely different than how it is.

Page 202: This must be the place. Put in Summer’s mouth by TALKING HEADS, and the name of their most beautiful song.

PAGE 204: Boom Shaka-laka. All over rock and roll, but I hear it from Dave Wakeling in GENERAL PUBLIC and their song PUNK. Summer uses it in her prayer to the surf gods. God, I love that girl.

PAGE 216: Betty. Betty is all over the novel, and surf culture, as the word for an attractive surfer girl, and I need to give mention to the female band CUB, and their album BETTY COLA. It is such a lovely record, and carries such a beautiful, youthful aesthetic. They cover The Beach Boys and Daniel Johnston, and their own wonderful songs. Give it a listen.

PAGE 277: the ghost of a smile. I never would have used these words if not for THE POGUES and their song of the same name, from the album HELL’S DITCH. Fun fact––the record was produced by the aforementioned Joe Strummer.

PAGE 287: The predawn is quiet as a postcard. No dogs bark, no crickets chirp, no cars go on the empty streets. Okay, I do think that’s a fairly lovely bit there. The idea of no cars go came from the Arcade Fire song of the same name from Neon Bible.

PAGE 292: “When we ride, we ride together.” Ah, Juillet, you’re killing me. Also because this was put into my head by the DAN ZANES children’s song, “Catch That Train.” It makes me think of my daughters, how I always want to be with them. Dan Zanes makes children’s music that you’ll listen to when they aren’t in the car.

PAGE 295: I don’t want to spoil the scene, but the three words “Neptunes only daughter” come from the Pixies song Mister Grieves. What’s that floatin in the water, old Neptuna’s only daughter. I made something very different of the sequence of words.

PAGE 296: There is a whole vocabulary and a catalog of song for it, for this feeling, for these feelings–– ah, I could go on but I won’t. But she’s right.

PAGE 297: the last line is from the Beach Boys’ song DO IT AGAIN. They claimed to have invented nostalgia with this song, and who could argue?

PAGE 299: Yellow Taxi. All yellow taxis belong to Joni Mitchell, especially this one.

I hope this enhances your enjoyment of Summer and July. I hope you love the book, that it helps you to remember the way that summer might be once again––filled with happiness, ice cream, love, forgiveness, waves, peace and equality.

Thank you.

Thank you.

To the neighborhood, the community who never made us walk through Harmony’s cancer journey alone.

For the meals cooked and delivered.

For the gift cards.

For the cash.

The gifts of love.

For the airline flights for far flung treatment.

For the fundraisers. The artists, musicians, the eateries.

Neighbors, friends, strangers who became friends.

Strangers who paid for breakfast for the family of the girl with no hair.

The doctors who tried their hardest. The nurses who lit up when they came into Harmony’s room.

The lead pediatric oncologist, with whom i sometimes quarreled, who came in and kissed Harmony’s sweet forehead moments after she left her body.

The reiki practitioners. The bringers of love and favors.

The therapy dogs, lifters of spirits.

For Harmony’s young friends, wise and caring souls, who walked with their friend and lit a path of darkness.

Make A Wish, who granted Harmony’s wish, and then made an incredibly meaningful wish come true when the first wish was impossible.

Porcelain, for making the wish happen. You are a big hearted man.

My day job, for being supporting and understanding.

My publisher, and the world of middle grade literature, for being loving and generous.

People on airplanes moving seats so family of the sick girl could sit together.

For the gift of being with you as you took your last breaths, for all of your little family being able to pour our love to you as the end approached.

For raising your eyebrows dramatically to show us you heard our words.

For squeezing our hands.

For being beautiful and brave, even joyful, at the end.

For carrying me during your difficult journey.

For death, the second greatest teacher.

And Harmony, the greatest.

For 9 years and 8 months of your beauty, your silliness, your kindness, your strength, and ultimately your courage as you stepped into the unknown.

Thank you for choosing us to share your life with.

Thank you for shining above us.

Thank you, my beautiful spirit animal.

I love you, Harmony.

Thank you.

I dedicate my days to you.

Summer (2020) and July (7th)

In late July and early August of 2016, I stayed with my wife, Keri, and daughters Eleri (then nearly 13)  and Harmony (7) at a charming Airbnb cottage in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. The cottage was nearly a hundred years old, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a few blocks away. Outside in the sidewalk, the words IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS had been carved when the cement was still wet, most likely in the 1960’s.

Harmony was in the first remission of her cancer fight of 2 years and three months. It was the fifty year anniversary of the Beach Boys landmark album Pet Sounds, which I played relentlessly on a bluetooth speaker during our stay of eight days. A block away was the charming Ocean Park branch of the Santa Monica Public Library. Down the hill on Main Street were ice cream shops and eateries, and beyond, the beach, where we relaxed, built sand castles, splashed in the cold Pacific, and caught waves on boogie boards.

In this idyllic time and place, I was away from writing entirely. I had recently put to bed the first draft of Echo’s Sister– about a girl whose little sister is fighting cancer– and had begun work on Thirty Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball parks in a desperate attempt to repair their relationship. But while away from writing, I was seduced by the setting, which became the inspiration for a novel. Then the characters walked in, and Summer and July was born.

Ocean Park is an easy place to fall in love with. So naturally my narrator protagonist, Juillet, is a gothic girl who is not the least bit happy to be visiting for a month, and is determined not to have any fun. But why?

On day one of her 31 day visit, she meets local girl Summer. Summer loves skateboarding and surfing, and is so stoked about chasing good times, Juillet finds herself unable to refuse her overtures at a summer friendship. But beneath her sunny exterior, is Summer hurting?

Summer and July was conceived as a crush story. But it is also a story about friends helping each other find their courage in difficult times. Oh, and it’s also about ice cream, guacamole, veggie tacos, and catching waves.

I have not hidden my affection for this story, which is my favorite of the stories I have given birth to thus far. And Summer– seen through the eyes of Juillet– is my favorite character that I’ve come to know through writing. I also will never forget Juillet, Otis, and The Big Kahuna, though he is a man of few words. The novel is, by my reckoning, a love letter to decades of surf culture, to seaside holidays, and to the way a young person can bloom during a short period in a new setting.

SUMMER AND JULY is the sort of novel written by a man living in an intermission between rounds of fear and pain, in love with his family, and with life. It is scheduled for release by HarperCollins on July 7, 2020. I am so looking forward to sharing it with the world.


Shiny Happy Pediatric Cancer

As a novelist, I don’t ordinarily write about things that resemble my own life. I’ve written novels from the point of view of a fish, and adolescent females, but never a man resembling myself. But when my then 7 year old daughter Harmony was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma in February of 2016, I started seeing the lives of my family, responding to the unwelcome guest of cancer, as a story unfolding before me.

The resulting novel, Echo’s Sister, is not my family’s story precisely, but it is very much informed by it. Our cancer story concluded on May 2nd of 2018, when Harmony took her last breath and left her body. But the first draft of Echo’s Sister was finished in June of 2016, when Harmony was very much alive and her prognosis looked good. I think the ambiguous ending stands. We are always somewhere between birth and death, and the important thing is how we live and love in between. That’s the lesson taught me by the little girl on whom the book is based. In truth, this same little girl has led me onto a path of curiosity where the ideas of birth and death no longer mean what they once did to me, but that’s another subject, another story.

The response to the novel so far has been encouraging. There are six critically important reviews for middle grade books, and of the four that have come in for Echo’s Sister thus far, all have been positive, including a starred review from Booklist. But one of these important reviews thought that a flaw in the novel was the overly supportive community represented in Echo’s Sister, which they said bordered on optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale. I have also seen reviews on Goodreads from individuals which, while positive, thought that somehow the tone was overly sunny.

I set the novel in lower Manhattan to distance it from my own life, which takes place in central Phoenix, in the Coronado Historic District. In actuality, the support my family received is downplayed, understated, grossly minimized versus what we actually experienced. The Coronado Historic District and the greater Coronado neighborhood is an eclectic mix of people, and as we like to say, we aren’t as swanky as Palmcroft, but we lead the city in love. When I read the review characterizing the community support as optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale I laughed, and could not wait to share it in front of the assembled community at the book launch, where indeed they laughed as I thanked them for being literally unbelievable.

The neighborhood, and the surrounding community of which we are a part, was already special , but Harmony made us all better. She continues to do so. I wish that everyone experiencing something similar can have the sort of support that my family has experienced. I wish that nobody ever went through what we have, but for those who do, I hope they are surrounded by an army of love. I wish that our healthcare system was such that families didn’t have to worry about bankruptcy, and hunger, and homelessness, but as long as our system remains flawed, I wish that everyone could be surrounded by people of the sort my family is surrounded by, and loved by.

Whenever I write, I am guilty of trying to find the beauty in the lives we are suffering through. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write differently.

Echo’s Sister ends up being two kinds of love letters: one, to a little girl with an incredible lust for life, who never let cancer get in the way of finding whatever enjoyment she could get in whatever moment she was in. If the first draft was finished two years later, we might have seen the character Echo hold open her eye– swollen shut with tumor mass — with one hand, so she could draw with the other. That’s the kind of lust for life displayed by my Harmony, our Harmony, and it will be my teacher as long as I walk this earth. Secondly, it’s a love letter and thank you note to humanity, for showing me how lovely it is capable of being. It’s been the silver lining of this experience for my family, and indeed all of my life, and any and all lives. It’s why the piano player walks the narrator of Echo’s Sister out of the subway station with the tune “Sunny Side of the Street.” In my neighborhood, in my community, that’s apparently both sides of the street.

Our community told us that they were amazed at the strength of my family as we experienced cancer. We told them we were only as strong as they made us, that our strength came from our community. They, in turn, said that they were only as strong as Harmony made them, that she inspired them to be their best selves. It’s been a beautiful, synergistic relationship. I hope that Echo’s Sister will be read widely not as an urban fairy tale, or optimistic fantasy, but as a document of what our best selves look like, and an inspiration to be that. You guys can be so amazing, and I’m never gonna stop trying to see you that way.

Harmony by my side.

Dear Harmony–

It is the evening of Sunday, May twentieth, two thousand eighteen. I am standing in the courtyard of The Hive, where we have had so many good times together, and am surrounded by your family, friends, and neighbors. After a warm day, the evening is fittingly beautiful for a celebration of your life.

But this is stating the obvious, or telling you something you already know. For I feel you are here with me, with all of us.

In the days since you left your body, I have frequently visited your Instagram profile. Harmony Guacamole. It features photos of our dog, Oreo, along with other animals, family, and friends. You describe yourself as a piano player, which has been your persistent ambition, though your lessons with Mr Jay Melberg at Phoenix Center for the Arts were frequently interrupted by treatment and hospital stays. Your wonderful friend Cali also gave you lessons.

You describe yourself as an animal lover, which is certainly true. We have a rich photographic history of you adoring every variety of mammal and reptile, and especially your beloved Oreo. You even persuaded Mommy and Nana to give up eating fish, their last obstacles to becoming complete vegetarians.

On your Instagram profile you proudly call yourself a sis, and nobody has ever loved or looked up to their sister more than you have loved Eleri. And a dedicated guacamole lover, warning guac haters that you’re coming for them. As you are such a headstrong spirit, I would not bet against you making good on your word, so I encourage everyone in attendance to try some of the guacamole here this evening.

The one element of your Instagram bio that has given me pause is your calling yourself a cancer defeater. Frequently one sees obituaries that say so and so lost their battle with cancer. But I don’t know how often this is true, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of you, Harmony. After all, if I were to die of a heart attack tonight, you wouldn’t say Daddy lost his brief battle with a heart attack. All of us have to go sometime, we all must leave these bodies, our rides. But here’s the score: The cancer that attacked your body has been incinerated to ash. But you, Harmony, are very much present here among us.

When you had your first recurrence of cancer 18 months ago, you began visiting with Sangeet, the reiki practitioner who became our friend. The two of you immediately regarded each other as if you had known each other for several lifetimes. After meeting with you for the first time, Sangeet told the friend who introduced us to her that you, Harmony, would be a healer one day. That sounded interesting at the time, but we had no idea how true it would become.

The way you have brought people together, not only tonight but over time, and as a community– inspiring people to be their best, most loving and generous versions of themselves– has been a big part of the strange beauty of your 27 months being tested by cancer.

Why is this? Behind every door on the seventh floor at Phoenix Children’s Hospital is a child fighting for his or her life. But there’s been something special about your spirit, your courage, your lust for life, your endeavoring to find whatever fun could be found in every moment, your continued pursuit of the life you love as long as it was yours to live. You are the girl who in the last two weeks of this life held open your eye,–swollen shut with tumor mass– with one hand, so you could draw with the other.

In a strange way it was rhabdomyosarcoma that elicited this from you, Harmony. In the world we would choose, the world where the unwelcome guest of cancer never appeared at our door, you would be wrapping up your third grade year at Shaw Elementary, looking forward to a summer of adventure, just a funny, smart, talented, beautiful, kind-hearted nine year old. But cancer did come, and it tested you, it proved you, and you made a more beautiful display in 9 years and eight months than many of us will ever make, a firework exploding against a dark sky.

So, cancer defeater? Yes, I think. Nobody is having a party for rhabdomyosarcoma tonight, because celebrations are for those who have triumphed. And the triumph of your spirit is a monument for the rest of us to gaze at with wonder.

I avoid the use of the past tense in referring to you, Harmony. It’s not an instance of me being in denial– it just doesn’t feel accurate. It’s true that your bed is empty, it’s true that your physical form is now a box of ashes which I sometimes pick up and hold against my heart. But–

I’m a science-minded guy, and I’ve described myself that way for a long time. But I also don’t want to be guilty of ignoring evidence because of my inability to understand it.

In the last weeks of the life you shared with us, Mommy would read to you at bedtime from the book you loved so much, called “Goodnight, Rebel Girl,” which features short entries about women who have changed history. It was a heck of a thing for you, a nine year old, to express concern that you had not done enough to make a difference in this world. This tells me that, while you still spoke of your hopes for a future, you had a strong sense of what was happening to your body.

Twelve days before you passed, you said don’t worry, that you’d be fine. I hoped you meant that cancer would retreat and that you would live a long and happy life. But in my deepest, most fearful heart I hoped what you said– that you would be fine– would be true at least in some sense of the word. I decided that I trusted you and your words, whatever they would come to mean.

I still do. I trust that you are fine.

Three days before passing, you awoke and said, “This isn’t real.” This also is a heck of a thing for a nine year old to say, especially a nine year old with no religious, spiritual, philosophical or physics instruction under your belt. You were a blank slate with no spoon-fed expectations.

On the day that you passed, you were Harmony to your last breath. Your last utterance was “Ew!” when I noisily kissed your forehead. As your rate of oxygen absorption fell, Mommy, Eleri and I told you how much we love you, how proud we are of you, and we told you truthfully that you are a rebel girl who has inspired hundreds of people and made the world a better place. I promised that I would love Eleri as much as I love you, since you frequently expressed your worries about that. I told you that you’re so beautiful, that your beauty shone through the mask of cancer. We told you we would honor you on El Dia de los Muertos, and visit with you, and that you would always be with us, and part of us. You raised your beautiful, perfect eyebrows dramatically in response to everything we said, and squeezed our hands tightly to pass to us your abundant strength. You showed not a particle of fear. The last expressions we saw on your face were of joy and love.

We stayed with your body until the warmth had dissipated. Interestingly, and tellingly, the last warmth was located near and behind your right ear, corresponding to the parts of the brain which govern emotional understanding and emotional memory. I like to think that means you were feeling all the love we were pouring out, gathering it up to carry away with you.

I won’t talk about the unexplained phenomena since your passing. But your words, “this isn’t real,” have haunted me.

You speak to me most in the space between awake and asleep, and drifting into a nap one afternoon I was jolted awake by the opening words you wrote in response to a writing prompt: Imagine you are a tree that is about to be cut down. What would you think? Your response began, “I would think about all the things that might and might not happen.” This sounds very much like the quantum physics theory that everything which might happen is happening, that every instance of either/or is answered with “both,” resulting in the universe splitting into two copies where both possibilities occur, that every fork in the road is a quantum event creating new universes. It’s a very relatable idea to our lives, where there is the universe where I went to breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa and met Mommy at the restaurant where she was working as a server– 25 years to the day before the day you passed– and the other universe where instead I slept in. It’s easier to get one’s head around the idea that the universe we are standing in is expanding– and it is– than it is to fathom that the number of universes is functionally limitless, and ever expanding, which is also likely true.

If we back up in this family tree of universes, we arrive at the apparently original quantum event, the big bang. Physicists thinking about quantum physics get excited thinking about the hypothetical quantum computer, where the computing ability of all computers in all of the trillions of trillions of universes can be combined. I have no idea what one would compute with such a thing. But I think more beautiful than that, and more to the point of what you are trying to teach me, Harmony, is that all of our decisions are the quantum events which create new universes, which highlights the importance of how we choose to live our lives. If we dolly back, backing up in the family tree of quantum events, where our own consciousness goes from trillions of our own selves to just one, and further back to where there are not many selves, but just one self, I think it teaches me that we are all collectively the creator, split by countless quantum events into trillions of creation generators. This may seem like a mashup of listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” while thinking about Allen Ginsberg’s line “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” while taking a shower with Dr Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap and seeing the words “All One!” imprinted on the bar. And really it is all of those things. But it’s only all of those things because those people caught a glimpse of the same thing you have seen.

I believe that as you peered into the beyond and contemplated this building of universes, thinking of all the things that might and might not happen, your pure spirit is exemplified in your response to the writing prompt about the tree who is about to be cut down– your words, “I would want to be remembered as a good person-– I mean, tree” – I believe that what you saw taught you that it matters what we dream. It matters what kind of trees we are, and what sort of branches we grow.

Harmony, please stay by my side, please remain my strength and my teacher. Keep reminding me, and everyone here, to dream beautiful dreams. And together we can create universes with love and Harmony, and trees, and the best guacamole ever.

Playing through the pain.

In February of 2016, a sudden overbite in the mouth of my beautiful 7 year old daughter, Harmony, led to a diagnosis of Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer which strikes 5 children per million. 27 months later, Harmony’s bed is empty.

While Harmony was still in the hospital with her initial diagnosis, I pitched the idea for the second book of my contract with HarperCollins to be a novel informed by Harmony’s experience, and the experience of our family. My editor agreed, so long as the novel was from the point of view of the cancer fighter’s older sister. So I began work on the novel that would become Echo’s Sister. I wrote ahead of our actual experience, and the novel ends six months into Echo’s battle. I hoped I would be done with it– cancer and the book. Writing it was a good way to process what we experienced as a family, a subject I would never have imagined myself touching in a story. Cancer sucks. I never wanted to read about it and I certainly didn’t think I’d want to write about it. But write it I did, turning in the first draft about four months into Harmony’s cancer journey.

In the summer of 2016 I began work on my next middle grade novel, 30 Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball parks in a desperate attempt at repairing their relationship. It progressed well until our family of four went on holiday to an Airbnb in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. It was a beautiful time of good memories. Harmony was in remission, and we had every reason to think we would enjoy a long future with her. The sense of place– seaside town, ice cream shop, boogie boarding– pushed its way into my consciousness, and then two characters appeared– gothic Juillet and prototypical California girl Summer, and the novel Summer and July was born. I thought I could work on both it and 30 Parks at the same time, but I couldn’t really return to 30 Parks until Summer and July was finished. Summer and July came quickly, joyfully, and the first draft was nearly complete when Harmony experienced her first recurrence in November 2016.

Harmony fought hard, and refused to let cancer interfere with her getting as much from life as she could. She taught us, lifted us, and left her physical form fearlessly after telling us she would be fine, that this isn’t real. The bravest person I’ve ever known, and the wisest, is my younger daughter, Harmony. She will forever be 9 years, 7 months and 26 days old, but I’ll never impact the lives of others as much as she did in her short time in this dimension.

In truth I’ve been nearly unable to write for 18 months. My wonderful agent once called me “prolific,” but new words have been a struggle. It isn’t writer’s block– it’s been an inability to turn from the fear and the worry. Harmony kept on living, creating, but I could not.

Harmony created a breathtaking, funny body of artwork. She was also very much a consumer of novels and graphic novels. And so it is time for me to get back to the work of creating novels for the Harmonies of the world. It’s what my Harmony, our Harmony, would expect of me. So tonight I will open my laptop, find the in-progress manuscript of 30 Parks, and give it my best, if only for a few moments. Just to see if I still can.

I expect it will come. Two nights before her passing, sleeping in the chair beside Harmony’s hospital bed, I was awoken by her talking in her sleep. The last two words of the utterance were “Daddy’s book.” Two mornings later, the day she passed, I emailed my editor and found that it wasn’t too late to dedicate Echo’s Sister to Harmony Sea Mosier. Within three hours, we held her as she took her last breath, without a particle of fear. She squeezed my hand, I think to pass her strength to me. I will try to be worthy of hers.

I love you Harmony, and I’m so, so proud of you.

Characters: Gay by nature or choice?

The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.

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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.

I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.

I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”

But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.

I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.

I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.

Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.

For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.


Author Spotlight

A great interview by my friend Michelle from the Young Adult Authors Rendezvous!

YA Author Rendezvous

An interview with author Paul Mosier

By: Michelle Lynn

  1. What are the titles of your work and can you tell us a bit about them?

Completed novels begin with Breakfast At Tuli’s, which I self-published in I think 2013. paulIt’s for grown-ups, and about a young woman with a compulsion to have relations with men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own situation while waiting for Tuli to find happiness. It’s very sweet when you get past the premise. My second novel is called Genre, but I haven’t done anything with it. It examines the origin of characters and the author’s ability to control them while poking fun at writers, writer’s groups, agents and genre fiction. The third is the first I wrote for a younger audience, and is called…

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