This post is on the 502nd consecutive day in a row that I have posted at least one thing. It is a streak worth continuing.
But what’ve I really done since arriving in Iowa for my yearly visit? Well, I was haunted by the spirits of grandparents long gone as well as the more recently departed spirits of my parents. The old farmhouse and town are saturated with memories, dreams, and… worst of all, regrets.
But I did visit Ames, where I attended college for the first four years. I bought a good book there. I watched movie musicals with my sister.
Maybe it is enough. I invested my time and money in pursuing memories. And there are worse ways to invest those things.
This is a quilt that my mother completed herself before she passed away last September. It was given to me last night, and it kept me warm during the Iowa night. A piece of art that my mother designed, pieced together and quilted with her own hands. It makes me tremble just to think about what that truly means. Will I ever be able to provide anything like that for my own children? They are not impressed with my stories and books. They don;t even laugh at my jokes. I can’t say I have provided them a home in their young lives the way my mother and father did for me. It is humbling.
It is said you can’t really go home again. And I can’t. My boyhood home is falling down and owned by someone else. But the farmplace has been in the family for 150 years. The house has changed a little. But it is mostly the same structure it always was. And the spirits of the past are plentiful now.
My great grandfather, Friend Aldrich, established the farm in the 1800s. My great grandmother, Emily Brannon Aldrich bore him three sons. Henry Aldrich and Ira Clarke Aldrich were their elder sons. My grandfather, Raymond Aldrich, was his youngest.
My grandfather and grandmother, Neva Hinckley Aldrich, lived in this old house after my Great Grandfather was gone. They had Larry, Lois (my mother,) and Donny, the youngest. Uncle Donny was a favorite of Great Uncle I. C. and his wife and inherited their farm since the old couple was childless. Uncle Larry eventually bought his own farmplace, and my mother was destined to inherit Grandpa’s farm. Thus the spirits of the whole clan still gather there. (Uncle Done is the only one I have mentioned who is still alive.)
This will be the first summer trip back home where no parent will be living there, and I am officially a part-owner of the place.
Now that it is a place of mostly memories… and ghosts of the past… I don’t know if you can really call it going home. But it will be good to get back there one more time.
Every writer, especially a fiction writer, has an opinion about what his or her work really means.
Of course, their readers have their own opinions of what it means. And the two different flavors of opinion, author sauce or reader ragu, rarely are the same flavor, and often work at cross purposes to spoil the whole stew. Look at how the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird went over with readers for Harper Lee. Or how J. K. Rowling’s opinions about trans people have affected the most recent movie trilogy made from her works of fiction.
So, maybe I should clarify where I stand on certain issues before anybody threatens to make a movie from, or ban and burn any of my books.
(As if either of those things are ever going to happen.)
In Texas now, it is generally agreed because of laws passed and pronouncements made by Fox-News-influenced Republican leaders, that trans people are 20-or-30-year-old male perverts putting on dresses and trying to get into middle school girls’ locker rooms, or worse, trying to play and win female sports with the advantages that come with testosterone and male aggressiveness.
My opinion on this issue is… you don’t get to have an opinion on this gol danged issue unless you yourself are a trans person. This is based on knowing two trans people in the entirety of my thirty-one-year teaching career. Not enough to make me qualified to open my stupid mouth about it, but more than any Texas Republican knows about it despite the large amount of foul-smelling opinion-gas they fill their speech balloons with in public.
One of these two people whose real names I will never utter was a confident and highly competent young lady whose sexual identity you could never doubt. I only knew about it because I was the teacher tasked with sitting in on her ARD meeting (a Special Education status update that she needed only because her situation qualified her as a Special Education student under the Emotionally Disturbed category.) She was at the meeting, so she knew that I knew. She would later warn me not to tell anybody, because it was no one else’s business what shape of genitals she was born with, and her hormone therapy and entire life experience made her a girl. Other teachers had leaked her secret in the past, and that was unfair to her. She was definitely a female in mind and personality. She was sweet, intelligent, witty, and capable of laughing at my classroom jokes… if they were funny. I suspect only a few if any of her classmates knew she was actually trans. She was all girl. I never told anyone. I never heard another student bad-mouth her. Although she did tell me that bad things had happened to her previously in elementary school. Nothing she was forced to endure was in any way deserved. And I am confident she is doing fine now.
The other trans student I was aware of, didn’t have it so good. I will call him a “he” because he never transitioned. But he was actually a girl. He had a penis, but it was only on the outside. His interior plumbing included a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. His hormones were, judging by what puberty did to his body and behavior, mostly feminine. But he didn’t have the other girl’s advantages of being from a wealthier, big-city family with relevant health services available to him. He was a member of a poor, Hispanic family that lived in a small rural Texas town. He was not treated as a trans person. He was considered a homosexual. And Hispanic culture in South Texas is not kind to homosexuals. He had serious mental problems. He tried to talk to me about his problems late one Saturday night. But the conversation ended when he tried to proposition me, and I rejected his advances. I was not a homosexual either. Months later I found him crying in the hallway and bashing his forehead against a metal doorpost. I got help from the Reading teacher to get him to the nurse. He wasn’t in class very often after that. He did not pass any of his classes that year. And he didn’t come to school at all the next year. I heard rumors that he went to Laredo and became a drug dealer and a prostitute. I also heard from one of his relatives that he had attempted suicide more than once. At this point, I feel sadly certain that he never got the help he needed and is probably now dead.
I have now told you everything I actually know about the subject of trans people. And I can safely say I had no measureable effect on either one. I still cry about one of them. I still feel a small bit of pride about the other one. As a teacher I loved both of them, but not the kind of love he asked me for on that late Saturday night when I probably should not have opened the door to him. But I am not entitled to have an opinion. It is not my business no matter how much I care.
One of my favorite characters that I have used in multiple stories, Blueberry Bates, is a trans girl. How realistic she is as a character is probably still up in the air. I have revealed what I know about trans people that she is based on. But I love her, just as I loved the two of them. I think people like that are worthy of love and whatever you have to invest in them to be of help to them. I do not think they need to be legislated against. Their lives are hard enough as it is.
My glitchy computer published this before I got to write the conclusion. But having opinions is a matter of glitchiness anyway. And if you find you need to cancel me for my terrible opinions, you don’t need my permission to do it. I doubt you would even think about asking anyway. I hope I have made what I think clear. These are my writer’s opinions. And it is obvious from this essay that this is probably not the last one I will inflict on you.
“My name is Michael Beyer, and I am an amateur cartoonist.”
“Hi, Michael!” says the entire group of CA group-therapy participants.
(CA stands for Cartoonists Anonymous.)
“I have to admit, I am guilty of giving in to the urge to draw cartoons. I know how it can fill lives with slapstick pain and derisive laughter, and I give in to the urge anyway.”
“So, what did you draw that you have to be ashamed of now?” asked one mad-eyed cartoonist with a pencil lodged behind each of his large ears.
“I made a very unfortunate video to post on YouTube that was supposed to be How-to-draw Cartooning. But everything went wrong. You couldn’t see my drawings in the video. It was not adequately lit. I look like a doofus (which probably can’t be cured) in the video. And instead of thinking twice or editing it, I posted it anyway.”
“Wow!” said a rather ugly cartoonist lady, “that is really bad. You have a seriously bad case of cartoonity.”
“Cartoonity?” I responded stupidly.
“The condition of needing love for your cartoons so bad that you will risk anything to make people look at them and like them,” said the wise group therapist (who looked an awful lot like Chuck Jones, though I am fairly sure Chuck Jones is now dead).
“Yes, I suppose that’s about the size of the problem,” I said. “I have been posting pages from my graphic novel, Hidden Kingdom, and I really haven’t seen more than one comment about it. Do people actually read cartoons and comics nowadays? Or is it just me that gets ignored?”
“You have to focus on how much you love drawing and doing it just for that reason, and nothing beyond that,” said the wise therapist. “Cartooning should be done for its own sake, and nothing more than that. Craving attention and approval for it can get seriously infected and become a bad case of cartoonititis. How do you think I dealt with it when I was still alive?”
At that point, my eyes popped out of my head in disbelief and my lower jaw fell all the way to the floor. Could he really be…?
And so I must end today’s blog post since it is hard to keep typing when your eyeballs are rolling around on the floor.
She is older than both my mother and my father. In fact, if she were alive today, if she hadn’t died young when I was thirteen, she would be 98, and approaching the century mark. She was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922.
And even though that’s right next door to where I was born in Mason City, Iowa, we were never really neighbors. Our families never met in person, and didn’t know diddly-boo about each other.
But she had a profound impact on our lives. And, boy! Could she ever sing and dance!
I don’t know why she ever felt that way, but Frances from childhood onward was always desperate to not be seen as fat.
She took pills to keep the weight off. She eventually had to take pills to sleep at night. Pills would make her suffer through most of her life. In fact, pills would eventually take her life.
But Frances Gumm would have an impact on my life. Frances would have an impact on my parents’ generation through the movie theater, back when you paid a dime to watch a movie projected on a white sheet tacked up on the Rowan firehouse wall. And she had an impact on my generation when we watched her on TV, mostly in black and white like we saw Meet Me in St. Louis. But also around Thanksgiving time. That movie they played every year.
Yes, Frances was a movie star.
But she didn’t go by the name she was born with in the movies.
And, boy! Could she ever sing!
And now that I am old and fragile, that song can make me cry. Like it did just now. And why?
Because Frances Gumm taught me something important when I was a little boy. Something that stuck with me for a lifetime.
While it’s true that there is no place like home, we are allowed to think about what is over the rainbow… and even to go there… and back again.
And I owe Frances for that memory. Especially because she had to struggle so hard to give me that. Frances, I will always love you for it.
I briefly thought this last Sunday that my writing life was over. I found my computer was dead after I had spent time doing household chores like washing the dishes. I couldn’t turn it on. And I found the battery wasn’t properly connected to the wall socket for recharging, a thing that had apparently been true for far too long. It was the third time that my faulty memory and my excruciatingly bad luck had conspired to completely drain the computer battery. That is, of course, about the worst thing you can do to damage a modern lithium battery, drain it completely. And I had done it THREE TIMES!!!
So, naturally, I cussed myself as a stupid loser and decided to buy myself another laptop instead of paying the 300+ dollars it would cost to replace the electrical system of my Chromebook at Best Buy. My wife and daughter were in San Antonio visiting my sister-in-law and mother-in-law for the weekend. So, they were not around to talk me out of my evil plan. I bought a Windows 10 compatible HP Laptop at Walmart for about a hundred dollars more than I thought the repair of the other computer would cost me. And I was amazed as I got it home and started retrieving my essential apps and documents. It is much more compatible with my documents and writing habits than the Chromebook. I didn’t have to waste a lot of time learning new procedures and linking things up in a different way. I could even do Google Chrome on the new computer where the Chromebook doesn’t allow easy access to the Microsoft Edge I had gotten used to before the Chromebook. I was actually feeling quite pleased with myself.
On Monday, the same day I brilliantly replaced the Chromebook, my daughter came home from San Antonio. She heard the story of my tragedy and following triumph, and she immediately demanded to see the Chromebook. I had been keeping it on the charger since its death, and we still seemingly couldn’t turn it on.
“Wait a minute, how long did you wait after pressing the “on” button before you pressed it again?” she asked.
I hadn’t been timing it. But I had tried everything when it died.
“Try it again. But press it only once.”
I pressed the “on” button, not holding it down, just like she had advised me. A quick click followed by a long wait.
“See? The battery is truly dead.”
“Wait a moment more.”
As soon as she said that, the screen was suddenly prompting me for my password. I typed in, “bullwinklemooseismyheroandrolemodel989” (Not actually my password) and the computer was back from the dead!
“Amazing! I spent all that money just because I wasn’t turning it on correctly!”
“Well, you did have to fully reload the battery. And the Chromebook I had at school used to do almost the same thing sometimes when it didn’t feel like working properly. But now you have two laptops. One for watching Netflix and one for writing stuff.”
Genius! Pure genius. I now have two new computers, and my wife can’t even get mad at me for how it happened. Once in a great while, it pays to be forgetful and excruciatingly unlucky.
Yes, this post is a shameless promotion. But this is a good book that not enough people are reading to truly appreciate that fact. When I was a boy in the 1960’s, there really was an old German lady who lived in a small tar-papered house, all ginger-brown in color, which we all called the Gingerbread House. She really did love to give out sweets and cookies and popcorn balls to the kids in our town. And she really did love to talk to people and tell them little stories.
Her name, in real life, was Marie Jacobson. She was, in fact, a survivor of the holocaust. She had a tattoo on her right forearm that I saw only one time. Our parents told us what the tattoo meant. But there were no details ever added to the story. Mrs. Jacobson doted on the local children. She regularly gave me chocolate bars just because I held the door for her after church. But she was apparently unwilling to ever talk about World War II and Germany. We were told never to press for answers. There was, however, a rumor that she lost her family in one of the camps. And I have always been the kind that fills in the details with fiction when the truth is out of reach.
I based the character of Grandma Gretel on Mrs. Jacobson. But the facts about her secret life are, of course, from my imagination, not from the truth about Mrs. Jacobson’s real life.
Marie Jacobson cooked gingerbread cookies. I know because I ate some. But she didn’t talk to fairies or use magic spells in cooking. I know because the fairies from the Hidden Kingdom in Rowan disavowed ever talking to any slow one but me. She wasn’t Jewish, since she went to our Methodist Church. She wasn’t a nudist, either. But neither were my twin cousins who the Cobble Sisters, the nude girls in the story, are fifty percent based on. A lot of details about the kids in my book come from the lives of my students in Texas. The blond nudist twins were in my class in the early eighties. And they were only part-time nudists who talked about it more than lived it.
But the story itself is not about nudists, or Nazis, or gingerbread children coming to life through magic. The story is about how telling stories can help us to allay our fears. Telling stories can help us cope with and make meaning out of the most terrible things that have happened to us in life. And it is also a way to connect with the hearts of other people and help them to see us for who we really are. And that was the whole reason for writing this book.
It is getting harder and harder to climb the new day’s hill to get to the summit where I can reasonably get a good look at the road ahead. At almost-64, I can see the road ahead is far shorter and much darker than the highway stretching out behind me. It is not so much a matter of how much time I have spent on the road as it is a matter of the wear and tear the mileage has caused.
This weekend I had another depressing free-book promotion where, in five days, I only moved five books, one purchase, and four free books. I have made $0.45 as an author for the month of June.
I was recently given another bit of good advice from a successful author. He said that I shouldn’t be in such a rush to publish. He suggested taking more time with my writing. Hold on to it longer. Polish it and love it more. And now that I have reached sixteen books published on my author’s page, I have basically beaten the grim reaper in the question of whether or not he was ever going to silence me and my author’s voice. I can afford to live with the next one longer.
But the last one, A Field Guide to Fauns, practically wrote itself. It went fast from inspiration to publication simply because the writer in me was on fire and full of love and life and laughter that had to boil over into hot print exactly as quickly as it did. The additional writing time afforded me by the pandemic and quarantine didn’t hurt either. Once in print, my nudist friends loved it.
This next one has the potential to boil and brew and pop out of me in the same accelerated way as that last one did. Of course, it has been percolating inside my brain basically since the Summer of 1974. So, this is no rushed job. The Wizard in his Keep is a story of a man who tries to take the children of the sister of his childhood best friend to a place of safety when their parents are killed in a car wreck. But the only safe place he has to offer is in the world of his imagination. A world he has bizarrely made real. And that best friend comes searching for the children. And so does a predator who seeks to do them all grievous harm.
In many ways, it is a story already written.
So, I am rekindling the flame that keeps the story-pot boiling. And more of it is already cooking. And I am recovering from the cool winds of disappointment, as well as the dark storm clouds of the nearing future.
This is now actually a two-year-old post. Both of the books mentioned here are published and available from Amazon. As far as holding on to the books longer, there is no problem with that on Amazon. Editing, improving, and re-publishing a book is actually easier than publishing it the first time. Nothing about this old post has been made untrue by the passage of time. I am still probably the best author of books like these whose published books almost never get read.