Don’t Pop My Christmas – Play Me A Song With Heart

You probably already knew this, but “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (AIWFCIY) has bopped it’s way to the center of the Christmas Music Universe. From mid-November to the 25th of December, if you have a radio in your car, you will hear AIWFCIY 3,530,254 times. Mariah Carey has supplanted Andy Williams and Burle Ives and Kermit the Frog as the de-facto voice of the season.


I don’t object to Mariah – not my style but we all get our choices – it’s just that with approximately 45 days each year when Christmas music is allowable we can’t waste time re-chewing a piece of bubble gum that’s lost its flavor.

Let’s have some Christmas music with heart.

The defining Christmas music experience for me was a brave performance of “What Child is This” by an 11-year old girl at an Advent service some 18 years ago. I was home from college and went with my mom (who’s been gone almost two Christmases now.)

The lights were doused except for the cross above the altar and the candles of the Advent wreath, and from behind us came this small voice – a cappella – that grew more mighty with each line. She sang the right version – the one that goes “nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you” – and I still blink back a tear when I think about it. The kid did some heavy lifting that evening.

Of course that’s not what I expect from 97.5 KMYX (“The Christmas Myxx”) on my way home from work. It skews secular for one thing, and that little girl’s courage wouldn’t come through anyway. But we can do better than “all I want for Christmas is you, baaaybay.” (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

Friends and regular readers know I tend toward the melancholy. That’s especially true this time of year. With that in mind, here are my nominees to replace AIWFCIY.

What are yours?

“If We Make it Through December”

Merle Haggard

The Hag wrote the score for the human struggle, and this holiday contribution should get heavy radio rotation. The line “got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime” is so desperate and poignant. The hope is real but I think the plans are a lie:

“Hard Candy Christmas”

Dolly Parton

I grew up with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on the record player all December long. This one acknowledges the sadness a lot of us face at Christmas, but Dolly lifts the mood with assurances that we can be stronger than the blues:

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Judy Garland (original lyrics from “Meet Me in St. Louis” please)

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” What else is there to say?



The Fettuccini Brothers

IMG_31245:31 p.m. – The pizza is fresh from the oven and The Superintendent (six) and The Conductor (eight) sit facing each other discussing toppings. It’s pepperoni for The Conductor, but The Superintendent doesn’t like tomato sauce or melted cheese so it’s not pizza on his plate but “cheesy bread” with the cheese meticulously removed by his mother.

His palette may be conservative, but The Superintendent is not shy in his entrepreneurship.

“We should open a pizza restaurant,” he tells his brother.

6:03 p.m. – They are huddled with crayons and paper on the living room floor. Large corporations pay boutique agencies millions but don’t get this level of creative branding. “Papa Fettuccini’s” will be family-friendly with quality food at reasonable prices. The logo takes shape in Crayola Mahogany and Electric Lime. The menu is drawn up in magic marker.

The flagship will be the “Texas Pizza,” a large pie with cheese, bacon, pepperoni, hamburger, and a crust stuffed with parmesan cheese and more bacon.

“I’d like one right now,” I say, and I mean it.

“Sorry Dad,” says The Conductor. “You’ll have to wait ‘til I’m out of college.”

6:47 p.m. – The crayons and paper are supplemented by Lincoln Logs, and a mockup of the first store is unveiled. They peer at it while lying on their bellies on the living room floor, propped up on their elbows with their feet in the air.

I see them against a hazy orange sky early in the morning. They are wearing blazers and hard hats, their chinos are breaking over muddy work boots, and tubes of plans are under their arms. The Superintendent’s index finger taps a blueprint unrolled on the hood of a pickup truck while The Conductor gestures toward a crane several stories over their heads. Someone snaps a photograph. Framed prints will sit on each of their desks for the rest of their professional lives.

The Conductor says, “It’s going to be a sit-down place but there will also be a drive through. It’s going to be very fancy.”

7:06 p.m. – A steady stream of Matchbox cars parades in front of the Lincoln Log drive-through window. The grand opening was a smashing success, with free slices of Texas Pizza and garlic bread (no cheese). Now the word is out, and everybody who wants pizza wants Papa Fettuccini’s.

While the Monday Night Football pregame show commences in the background, new locations are announced in rapid succession – Buffalo! Pittsburgh! Denver! Kansas City! Green Bay!

In the movie, here will be the montage with the spinning newspapers and magazine covers with their photos on them, headlines announcing “Fettuccini Bros Serve Up Pizza Perfection.”

There are big houses and Ferraris and a Gulfstream G650 (Papa One) and The Superintendent lands a recurring guest spot on CNBC where he counters the hyper stock analyst with sober insights like, “Don’t get so excited about the dip in oil, Jim, we’ve had three straight quarters of GDP growth.”

7:28 p.m. – What goes up must come down.

“For a limited time only there’s a free chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizza when you buy a Texas Pizza and garlic bread,” The Superintendent declares.

The Conductor’s head snaps around and he glares at his brother.

“That’s not even on the menu,” he says. “Everybody has a chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizza. We need something different.”

But The Superintendent loves those chocolate-chip-cookie dessert pizzas, and even though it’s made them both millionaires the Texas Pizza was his brother’s idea and he’s always resented it. Desserts are his, and he won’t cave on this one.

“People like dessert pizzas,” The Superintendent says. “We’d do just fine if that’s all we sold.”

7:32 p.m. – The Conductor has retreated to the couch to watch football, while The Superintendent starts over with the paper and crayons though his heart is not in it.

Here’s another montage with spinning newspapers, only this time the headlines end in question marks:

“Can The Superintendent Have His Cookie and Eat It To?”

“Courts to Decide Pieces of Texas-Sized Pie?”

“Who Wins in Fettuccini Bros Split?”

In the end, nobody wins.

People like dessert pizzas – that’s true – but a dessert-only pizza place doesn’t support a Gulfstream lifestyle. The Superintendent turns more and more to his media appearances and before long he’s just another talking head, one of five or six on the screen, his face boxed in the upper right with the words “Los Angeles” under his chin while the others shout over him.

The Conductor, distracted and no longer balanced by his brother’s sober insights, clings to “we need something different” and leads Papa Fettuccini’s through a disastrous rebranding campaign. The Texas Pizza becomes “artisan” with a red-wine and balsamic glaze that turns the crust purple. Without a strong dessert lineup for support, sales tumble.

7:41 p.m. – The original store is bulldozed. Mom wants to run the vacuum but the football game is on so a deal is struck to get it done during a commercial. Somberly the Fettuccini Bros pile the Lincoln Logs into the tin, wordlessly acknowledging the end of an empire.

High in his office on the West Coast, The Superintendent wipes a tear from his eye and with a trembling finger touches the photo on his desk, the one of him and his brother at the construction site.

In Manhattan, The Conductor is doing the same. His reverie is broken when his telephone rings.

“Hey,” says The Superintendent.

“Hey,” replies The Conductor.

“You wanna go run trains?”

Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes

I can take or leave “RENT,” but those cats know how to measure a year.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes, or fifty two blog posts.

One year ago I decided to blog faithfully – once a week in perpetuity – but that’s hard work. Some weeks I struggled to get anything up, other weeks the ideas came in bunches and I’d find myself a month ahead. As of last week, it all washed out and I’d managed to post every week for a full year.

Now it’s time to regroup.

During my short tenure in small-town newspaper journalism, my managing editor told me, “there’s a novel inside every journalist – the smart ones will keep it there.”

(He also once asked me if I had a drinking problem, and when I said I did not, he replied, “I suggest you get one.”)

While I’d love to be the next Stephen King or JK Rowling and set the literary world on fire while lining my pockets, my writing anymore is just to amuse myself. Is it any good? You tell me. I like a lot of it. My favorites are the ModelStories, in particular Idaho, The Last Time, Rock ‘n Rye and The Cell. The first three are micro-fiction and I suppose at just 3,000 words The Cell is, too, but it’s about six times as long as the others.

Reading blogs, I’ve found that if the word count is more than 500 words, I’m unlikely to click on it, so I’ve tried to limit posts to that threshold.

But I want to focus on longer pieces, including, perhaps, that novel. I think there’s a good novel or even a series hiding in Salvation Point and Many Lost Ways and I’d like to see if I can find it, though I might find out I’m not the guy to write it.

Anyway all this is to say I am relieving myself of the burden of posting every week.

But I’m not going away. Tully Luiskama, the FCFL conductor/folk historian who told us about The Cell, might have something up his sleeve again for Halloween. If it’s any good, I’ll put it here 500 words at a time.

???????????????????????????????Some notes and acknowledgements:

My year of steady blogging has garnered 5,676 page views, 209 likes and 92 comments.

Twitter followers number 19, and 131 people like FCFL Railway on Facebook.

Half of my 67 WordPress followers blog about how to make money blogging while living in Costa Rica/Belize/Peru so it’s probably more like 35 actual followers.

To all of you, Dear Readers, thank you. I write to amuse myself, but it’s nice to know someone else might accidentally be amused along the way.

Special thanks:

To The Train Man’s Wife for her candid critiques, constant inspiration and delightful companionship.

To my good friend Aaron at Assured Services LLC for getting me started.

To Jonathan Caswell of By The Mighty Mumford for the frequent reblogs and kind words.

Major Awards!

Reheated leftovers this week, folks. Sorry. Back next week with new and exciting adventures from Many Lost Ways.

I’ve recently been participating in a couple of “flash fiction” writing contests, where the host offers a writing prompt – a phrase, a photograph, a word – then sets a word limit and deadline. The contests are Flash! Friday (careful Googling that) and Christian Flash Weekly.

I’ve had some recent success, winning Grand Champion on Christian Flash Weekly and 1st Runner Up on Flash! Friday.

Here are the lauded pieces:

Christain Flash Weekly:

Length: 500-700 Words

Prompt: Psalm 23:5 NIV (Or the translation of your choice.)

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

“Eternity, A Supper Club”winner

Running a quick errand one night, I skidded into a place called Eternity.

Everyone goes to Eternity but hardly anybody plans on it. When it’s your time, it’s your time.

Eternity sounds like a hip night spot, but it’s really supper clubby. You enter through a dim bar and check in with an aging hostess and then wait. It’s very ’70s – shag carpet, oranges and earth tones – and it’s hot, dry, and crowded.

Everybody has a glass but nobody has a drink. They all hold dusty, dry highballs with a cocktail straw in them and nothing else.

It made me unbearably thirsty.

“Just the water,” I told the bartender, and in my hand was a glass. I had been holding it for years, had always trusted it was there, but had never seen it.

I put it to my lips and drank deeply, and was refreshed. The glass remained full to the brim, and above the brim.

“So you’re one of THOSE,” said a woman next to me.

A woman but not a woman.

Her head was misshapen, like a burlap sack holding a ball of writhing snakes. It pulsed and squirmed beneath a bad wig. Her rose-tinted glasses hid where eyes should have been.

The woman rapped her dry highball glass on the bar and glared at the bartender, who only shook his head.

“I supposed you’ll expect to be … seated,” the woman said to me. She paused at “seated,” spat it scornfully from a mouth that wasn’t a mouth but red lipstick vibrating in a loop – the drawstring on the sack holding all those snakes.

“I know a Guy,” I said, and drank the water.

“But will He know you?” she said, the mouth flexing and pursing. “You? A liar? A cheater? A thief?”

I looked at her quizzically.

“Oh I know you’re not a … a thief,” she said. “Not like that. But, dutiful in your work, were you?”

I’d never thought of it as stealing, but sure, I cheated. I played hooky now and then, padded an occasional expense report.

Her point dawned on me. I was a thief, and therefore wouldn’t be known here. Anxiety poked my belly.

But I drank the water, and was relieved.

Annoyed, the woman tapped her glass on the bar. The bartender shook his head.

“Your wife then,” said the woman – the accuser – rising from her stool and stepping toward me. “Faithful to her were you? Forsook all others, cherished her and so forth?”

The words were hot, angry, convicting.

I was faithful to my wife, and loved her dearly.

But my eyes wandered. I coveted and compared. I said cruel words and damaged her.

Hot guilt throbbed in my chest. Surely He would deny me!

But I drank the water and was comforted.

The woman angrily banged her empty glass on the bar. The bartender shrugged.

“What about HIM then!” She advanced toward me, a bony finger in my chest. “He wanted to speak with you so often, each week! But you couldn’t be bothered to get up in time! And did you introduce anyone else to Him? Stand for Him?”

She was over me now, still a small woman but at the same time taller than me. I cowered and sank to the floor. The drawstring mouth yawned, beyond it a forest of yellow teeth and beyond that a throat of fire.

How right she was! I believed, but when did I witness for Him? How many did I bring to Him? Not one!

He wouldn’t know me. It was this woman – this accuser – who knew me. It was this beast that would have me in Eternity.

Tears rolled from my eyes. My trembling arm sloshed the glass toward my lips, but she held it fast. The mouth grew larger, the throat fire roared.

“Christian!” the hostess bellowed, hauling me to my feet with one hand and shoving the woman away with the other.

The accuser shrank back to the bar, furiously pounded her glass upon it. The bartender shook his head once more.

“Come,” said the hostess, dusting me off. “Your table is ready.”

Flash! Friday

Length: 140-160 words


This photograph, plus the admonition to “include a thunderstorm.”


“Memory Garden”

I fly the memories up, up, up to the secret place and plant them like seeds in a garden, then tend them until they bloom the only way stone can, into structure.

Knock on one door, you’ll find me with Mommy, not in my memory garden but the green garden, teaching me to plant and tend, singing silly songs until sunset. That’s a happy door.

Another door is Daddy, but it’s the only Daddy door, an old memory and Daddy can’t make new now.

The dark doors, the crumbly doors, are when Daddy hurt mommy and the darkest is the time Daddy hurt Mommy then slept while thunder roared, and while he slept I flew his memory here.

And now you ask me for the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth about that and you climb with your questions, but the secret place is up, up, up too high for you to reach.




“Hey Dad, Can We Build a New Layout?”

IMG_3065A syrupy Tuesday in July – a blank square on the calendar except for the “Dad Home” jotted in the corner indicating it was my week to stay home with the boys and stay in our pajamas the entire time.

When I was a kid, days like this meant Legos and model trains all day. For the Conductor and the Superintendent, as I have lamented before, it means baseball in different media: Playstation, ESPN, Cards and finally, you know … baseball.

Mid-morning front yard baseball in your pajamas on a weekday is an exquisite privilege. But when it ran its course we lost our momentum and found ourselves face-to-face with a powerful stuff called Boredom.

On days like this 11:15 a.m. can last six hours.

Boredom comes in two forms, and I hate the one and love the other.

There’s the boredom of the cubicle, the assembly line, the math worksheet – a painful boredom without which Work would not be the punishment God intended.

Then there’s idle boredom, when there is really nothing to do.

This is useful stuff and frankly if we had more of it we might not be so far behind the Chinese in math and science. Necessity is the mother of invention but its father is boredom.

It was idle boredom that led the Superintendent to wander aimlessly into my workshop, where he happened upon a box of leftover roadbed and track from the construction of the Flagstaff Subdivision.

“Hey Dad, can we build a new layout?”

Oh heck yeah.




A Folk History of Many Lost Ways and Salvation Point

The National Park Service explains the phenomenon of Many Lost Ways with some blah blah blah about topography and watersheds and how people who can’t find their way instinctively follow water downhill, and so for 10,000 years those who are lost have been turning up here.

It makes sense – the hills above the Benjamin-Henry River do form something of a giant natural funnel – but that’s overly simple for what happens here. It doesn’t explain the spiritual wayfinding that gives the park its name.

native woman

“Young lovers who found each other along the river.”

The Native lore is rich with tales of great chiefs who found direction in these cliffs, young lovers who found each other along the river, fathers and sons who found understanding under these starry skies.

Many lost ways.

There’s something here – call it a True North of the Soul – that helps them get found.

It’s still happening today.


“Drag him around Many Lost Ways for a week and you’ll know.”

Not sure if you should marry him? Drag him around Many Lost Ways for a week and you’ll know.

Not sure what to do with your life? Come to Many Lost Ways and the answer will go home with you.

Year after year, new stories of people who arrived with a vexing problem and left with clarity and peace. The locals talk it up with the tourists:

“Did you hear about this couple?”

“Did you hear about that guy?”

“Did you hear about the family?”

Many lost ways. Found.

Of course the most famous lost people to get found here are Lieutenants Benjamin and Henry. They deserted John Wesley Powell just before he fell 1,800 feet down the Colorado River and landed fortuitously in the Grand Canyon. Had they stuck with him they might have survived to experience that glorious discovery, but instead they wandered around the Colorado Plateau for some weeks before instinctively following water downhill into what is now Many Lost Ways National Park.


“A fertile little valley on a navigable river.”

They washed up starving, broken and in despair on the bank of the river that now bears their names. They were taken in by the indigenous people and after a good meal and some rest realized they’d discovered a fertile little valley on a navigable river.

Stick that in your rapids and raft it, Powell.

The FCFL still follows the lucrative trade route they opened, anchored by Salvation Point.

Speaking of Salvation Point, no one’s sure if it was Benjamin or Henry who put quill to parchment, but the line from their log is famous here:

“We need not return as condemned deserters. We need not return as failed expeditioners. Today we have redeemed ourselves. Today we have reached our salvation point.”

So the name doesn’t have a particularly religious provenance, and that’s disappointing to some visitors. There are more bars than churches here.

Now you know.

On Consuming the Outdoors – Take a Hike!

The little SUV is fine I guess, for a rental, but he wishes it was bigger, more lumbering, more … omnipotent.IMG_3031

He doesn’t feel like he owns the road. He’s not consuming it and that’s what he does after all, isn’t it? Consume?

You should see the mighty vehicles in his garage outside Chicago. Three-story jet black behemoths you can really lean against while comparing the rest of your stuff with the neighbors. (“Go Cubbies” stickers in the rear windows? You bet.)

Passionate consumers like him don’t do well in places like Many Lost Ways National Park.

You encounter dozens of them on your way to the trailhead. They roar up, park haphazardly, and leap out – leaving the doors open so you wonder if they might be paramedics – but no, there’s Alpha Male with the camera stretched out in front of him directing the entourage into the frame. Two, maybe three clicks and back they go into the A/C and on down the road, tailgating at 25 mph to the next brown sign.

Consuming the place. Or trying to.

That was Chicago’s plan: Snap photos of the boys at all the scenic overlooks and when he got home he was going to have the guys over for beers and casually pass around the digital vacation.

“Oh is this the new iPad Air?”


“I didn’t think it was supposed to be out until next month.”

“It’s not.”

They’d be scrambling for weeks to catch up to that one.

But Chicago’s frustrated with his pictures. The colors look bland on the screen. The kids look bored. He frowns to himself – geez, his trophy wife isn’t such a trophy anymore.

What poor service, he thinks, to buy a park pass and not get what he paid for!

He needs to take a lesson from the Europeans.

I don’t like seeing men in capri pants any more than the next guy, but you have to hand it to them when it comes to enjoying our National Parks. Descend the South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon much farther than Ooh Ahh Point and you realize English is no longer the primary language.

These people understand that to get the full benefit of a place like Glacier or Bryce Canyon or Many Lost Ways, you have to let it consume you.

When your socks are full of exotic-colored sand and the switchbacks zigzag up, up, up, painfully beyond where you can see, and you remember they weren’t kidding, all the signs about plenty of water – you lean against the rocks and close your eyes and melt into the place.

The sun is real on your face, the stone is real beneath your fingertips, the gravity is real under your feet. You feel infinitely small but also that you may be standing on the very hand of God. The trees, the bugs, the quiet, the Earth. There you are consumed by it, and that’s when it becomes yours.

Take a hike, Chicago.