Loving others makes you beautiful.
Category Archives: Celebration
My mother passed away at the end of September this year. My father succumbed to Parkinson’s on my birthday in November of 2020. Because my wife is a Jehovah’s Witness, we haven’t celebrated Christmas as a family since 1995. I am not going with my wife and daughter on the Hawaii Trip they are taking with my wife’s sisters and their kids over the current holiday break. So, I guess you could argue a little bit of depression would not be abnormal if it set in.
But that’s not where my head is at.
I will be spending the holiday at home with the Sorcerer Eli Tragedy and his apprentices Bob and Mickey.the wererat. I have a new laptop that I am trying to learn how to use even though Chromebook doesn’t use Windows 10 and it is like trying to make the computer dance even though I apparently have to learn Mandarin Chinese to do it. I am attempting to use both the new and the old computers to try and write this essay.
If you didn’t understand that last paragraph at all, well. that’s probably because you didn’t remember I am a novelist, and Eli Tragedy’s home is in the novel I am writing, The Necromancer’s Apprentice.
Writing takes me away from the current holiday situation. In fact, it takes me away from reality.
The main characters in my novel are three inches tall or shorter. All of them. And they live in a castle built inside a willow tree.
Yes, a fairy tale full of magic and the battle between good and evil, love and hatred.
And Eli Tragedy is a practical old elf who teaches magic by being as pragmatic as a sorcerer with no magical power of his own can possibly be. Sorta the way my own father taught me his practical-farmer’s-son work ethic. He taught me to paint the house, re-shingle the roof after a tornado, change the oil in the car, repair a broken toilet, and anything else that might come up. He was good with his hands and excellent at problem-solving.
And my mother was always the master of Christmas magic. She was the one who organized the decoration of the Christmas tree. And even more important, she was in charge of all the holiday meal-planning and cooking. That is certainly the most important magical ability you can have at this time of year.
I have to admit, I had to stop and cry a little bit twice during the writing of this essay. But it is not a sad essay. I have Thanksgiving and Christmas memories that span from 1960 (the first ones I can remember) to 1995. And you carry more than just holiday spirit and Christmas cheer along with you in memories through the years. In those memories, not just my mother and father are still alive. Granpa and Grandma Beyer would still be alive along with Great Grandpa Raymond celebrating at their house in Mason City with the bubble lights on the tree and the carved wooden Santa that Uncle Skip had made in the 1940s with a pockte knife.
At Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich’s farm, not only are both of my grandparents putting food on the table, with turkey and ham balls, sweet potatoes baked with marshmellows, multiple bowls of mashed potatoes, and crates of apples and oranges for all the families, but Uncle Larry is still alive and cracking jokes in the kitchen. Aunt Ruth (Grandma Aldrich’s sister) and Uncle Dell (her husband) are holding court in the living room on the couch, Uncle Dell managing to complain about everything, especially the many kids (all of whom were me and my cousins) and how he didn’t like kids (although he loved to tell us stories about life in DesMoines after we grew up a bit and were closer to being adults.) And Karen (whom we just lost to Covid) is there listening, probably more to Uncle Larry’s jokes than Uncle Dell’s complaints.
They are all gone now. But not really gone. They live in me. Just as, one day, I will live in the memories of those who knew and loved me. And I will not be alone this Christmas. Not really alone. Not as long as I can remember.
Last night my wife and my daughter the Princess went with me to the movie musical The Greatest Showman at the dollar movie. I was enchanted. My wife laughed at me for how much the movie made me cry. But it was a very touching and timely movie for me because it was about pursuing dreams in spite of economic hardships. The award-winning songs promote with energy and stunning beauty the notion that you should follow your passion no matter the risk, and that choosing to do so will produce rewards as long as family and love are with you and along for the ride.
Of course, one has to remember that the whole story is based on the life and work of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who is a lot more like Donald Trump than he is Hugh Jackman. I really doubt he could sing and dance the way the movie portrays him. And words like “humbug”, “fraud”, and “exploiter” apply to him in a very real way.
Barnum was actually one of those wheeler dealers who wants to control the story. He actively found ways to alter the public narrative about himself and used criticism to help promote his money-making shows. The idea of bad publicity being just as good if not better than good publicity actually makes its presence felt in at least one scene in the movie. There is ample evidence that more than a little of Barnum’s efforts were aimed at making himself a star.
And although the movie sentimentalizes his exploitation of freaks and special individuals, giving him credit for giving them self esteem and a means to make a good living, that was really only the fictional Barnum created by Barnum’s own media efforts.
The truth of the matter, though far more fascinating than the movie version of Barnum, does not make for a good musical libretto. In the movie the theme of special people outcast from the society because of their uniqueness coming together to support each other in a circus is strongly woven into both the story and the music. The song “This is Me” performed by Keala Settle playing the part of bearded lady Lettie Lutz is a powerful anthem for everyone who feels smaller than they really are because of prejudice, bullying, racism, sexism, or any of the other forms of moronic stupidity that humans are so often guilty of. I have to admit, the song made me cry even as it filled me with joy. The musical score of this movie is one that I intend to listen to again and again and again. It makes the circus seem like an answer to life’s problems. It is the same feeling that I got the first time, and every time, I ever saw the circus with all its clowns and jugglers, acrobats and lion tamers, bare-back riders and elephants. And I knew it was all illusion. All humbug. But it was pure joy worth the price of the ticket never-the-less.
The movie was only rated 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But I rarely pay attention to things like that. This musical goes into the category with The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and Mary Poppins of musicals I can’t live without. Never mind the greedy little man that it is based on. This movie is about big dreams and even bigger achievements. And it is well worth the price.
Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich lived on the family farm outside of town, a little more than two miles from the tiny farm town of Rowan, Iowa. I walked it more than once. It was faster to walk the railroad tracks between the two places. About a mile and three quarters as the crow flies… three hours as the boy investigates the critters in the weeds, throws rocks at dragonflies, and listens to the birdsong along the way. But the point is, my maternal grandparents lived close enough to have a profound influence on my young life. Much of what they loved became what I love. And every Saturday night, they loved to watch the Lawrence Welk Show. And that show had highlights that we longed to see again and again… on a show that never really went into reruns. We lived to see Jo Ann Castle play the old rinky-tink piano, Bobby and Cissy doing a dance routine, and most of all… the lovely Lennon Sisters.
I always wanted to be the things they wished me to be in the song “May You Always”. I wanted to “walk in sunshine” and “live with laughter”. They presented a world of possibilities all clean and good and wholesome. As a young boy who hated girls, I had a secret crush on Janet Lennon who was the youngest, though a decade older than me, and on Peggy Lennon, the one with the exotic Asian eyes. They sang to me and spoke directly to my heart.
You have to believe in something when you are young. The world can present you with so many dark and hurtful experiences, that you simply have to have something to hang onto and keep you from being blighted and crippled by the pain. For me, it often came in the form of a lovely and simple lyric sung by the lovely Lennon Sisters. When you are faced with hard choices… especially in those dark moments when you think about ending it all because it is all just too much to bear, the things stored in those special pockets of your heart are the only things that can save you. For me, one of those things will always be the music of the Lennon Sisters… especially when watched on the old black and white TV in the farmhouse where my grandparents lived, and helped to raise me, every Saturday night in the 1960’s.
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.
Good things are happening right along. I got the job as a substitute teacher. The IRS investigation turned in my favor. I got money back from them because they charged me penalties I didn’t actually owe. It was THEIR fault that they didn’t register my previous $400.00 check. I dutifully made demanded payments during the 90-day investigation. Even though it hurt economically. And, miraculously, they admitted the mistake was theirs. I have been able to write more fluidly and well than I have in a long time.
You can see that I have had some success making illustrations for the next AeroQuest re-write book in spite of arthritis in my hands.
But everything has a price. I have had to scramble to do the online testing for qualifying to be a substitute teacher while the internet access in our house has been going in and out of order. I called the provider and scheduled a technician’s visit. But the thing fixed itself mysteriously before the date of the work arrived. I finished my testing even before I called Spectrum to cancel my appointment.
I ended up having to split the refund check with my wife. The bank would not let me put the check entirely in my personal account unless she was there in person to okay it. So, even though the penalty payment came 100% from my account, I had to give her 40% of the money because her bank will let her do what my bank would not. It’s not like that was a major fight between us, or anything. But she had originally agreed to sign the check over to me 100%, and then bank rules fudged up that agreement for me.
And this morning, the Princess had a nosebleed on the way to school. I was picturing a major emergency-room expense wiping out everything. There were, after all gushers of blood enough to soak five paper towels before the bleeding stopped. She made it to school on time in spite of the necessary clean-up-and-stop-bleeding time we had to put in.
So, I am not cursed with only the blackest of bad luck. But I am not blessed with purest white of the good luck either. And for those of you who will remind me, “Mickey, you don’t believe in luck!” I will remind you that, “Yes, I don’t, but you have to explain these bizarre random rewards and punishments somehow.”
The last couple of years we have started a new Christmas tradition, making a gingerbread house together. Of course, any Christmas tradition for my kids is a new one. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses up until recent years when the Brotherhood left us behind. You probably know already that it is against their religion to celebrate traditional holidays like Christmas. And I bear them no ill will for anything, but their ways are really not my ways anymore. So, since we are having our fourth Christmas mini-tradition, I prepared by finding gingerbread kits on sale at Walmart. I am not Scrooge anymore, but I still need to cut costs for poverty reasons.
I scored this one for only $5 because the Christmas rush is ending and they are trying to sell out the goodies that are growing old on the shelf. My daughter the Princess saw this and immediately declared she was looking forward to biting the head off Charlie Brown.
I responded to her somewhat-unexpectedly hostile comment against a cartoon character I love and identify with by showing her the back of the box.
The Charlie Brown figure will be the cardboard cut-out from the back of the box. The only candy figure is Snoopy. Of course, she then promised to decapitate and then cannibalize Snoopy. The girl ordinarily likes cartoons, so I don’t fully understand the double meaning behind her ravenousness.
As an added challenge to our artistical gustatory creativeness I also scored this gingerbread train, seen here pulling across the tracks at the Toonerville train station. All aboard! That won’t last long if we get it made this year. Of course it will fossilize if we try to save it for next year.
That, then, is the evil plan for Christmas that we are probably not supposed to be celebrating. But we will not roast in Hell for executing this evil plan. Jehovah’s people don’t believe in Hell.
Yesterday we went to the Wright County Fair as it winds down on the last weekend. My daughter and I went with my mother and father, all of us not ready to run any foot races, in fact, looking forward to viewing the small fair at a snail’s pace, two of us walking with canes.
It has always been a small county fair. But it has become almost depressing to see how much it has shrunk since I was a kid and competed there. Of course the beneficent pumpkinhead that runs the country now has put a cloud over it all by cutting off farmers’ primary markets in the trade war with China. Soon there may be no agriculture community at all to celebrate with a county fair.
We toured the 4-H projects exhibit building and saw all the baking, woodworking, photography. and sewing projects that the kids in 4-H had worked on all year. As always they were impressive in the way that enthusiastic kid-work inevitably is. But it was depressing to see that there are only three 4-H clubs in Wright County now where once there were seven. The elderly viewers of the goings-on outnumbered the kids about two to one. Iowa’s farm community population is getting older and older. Schools are shrinking. People per county numbers are declining too.
But as depressing as the long-range view is, the County 4-H program is still giving kids a firm farm-kid grounding in the values that made America great. It proves that pumpkinheads don’t need to try to make it great again.
It is important to celebrate who we are and what we do. Especially in a time when a tractor-and-cornfield way of life seems doomed. And a county fair does that. I helps us define who we are, what values we hold dear, and who we are determined to be for as long as we can be that.
I now have six good books and one embarrassing one published. They represent stories I have been crafting, revising, telling, and retelling for over 40 years. They represent things that happened to me in real life and people I have known and loved in real life that have all been transformed in the wizard’s crucible and witch’s cauldrons of my bizarre imagination. They contain some of my best magic spells and some of my most worthwhile wordsmithing, by which I mean writing in ways that give the spellchecker fits.
I tried to tell you this story about telling stories yesterday, but my computer glitched and burped and spontaneously deleted more than half of what I wrote just as I was finishing it to publish it. So the complex part I had planned to explain this Paffooney was lost and the resulting tantrum I threw kept me from remembering and rewriting.
But it was fortunate that I delayed the repair of this post until today. Because last night my daughter finished her end-of-the-year art project for school, and the snafu-demons have inadvertently given me the opportunity to include it here.
It is a soft sculpture dragon made of felt and hand-sewn. She didn’t tell me what his name is, or even that it is a him, but one can imagine that it must be something like Rumple-Tum Sneezer, or something equally awkwardly foolish like that. One can imagine it because one has a slightly off-kilter and Disney-demented imagination. But the whole project took a boatload of time, and you can see she crafted it with great care and skill.
Treasure takes time to create. We who attempt to create it in the red-hot forges of our stupid little creative heads put all the skill we have acquired over time into it. And the endeavor renders something of value almost every time. Time… time… time… Treasure takes time. And now I need to hurry and publish this before the computer tries to fart it all away again.
Yesterday we went to see Les Miserables, the Broadway musical. Fantine’s tragedy, Marius’s rescue, and Jean Valjean’s ultimate triumph made me cry again… copious amounts of tears… a waterfall of emotional floodwaters. There is beauty in living through challenges. Especially life-threatening ones.
We went to the musical in Fair Park as a celebration of the fact that a family member is now out of the hospital and on proper medication to be well again. We are liberated from fear again for a time. Of course, I can’t afford to go to a show like that, being newly bankrupted and swamped with medical bills. But a family member provided the funds, victory over severe depression being a thing that needs celebration.
And Eponine’s song “On My Own” is such a powerful statement of the self-sacrificing nature of love that it makes me weep just thinking of it. She loves a man who loves another and yet, loves him so well that she secures his happiness… with that other woman. And she dies in the arms of the man she loves. Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”, also makes me weep. It is the main theme of the entire show, that the thing to do when life buries you beneath a blizzard of misfortune, cruelty, and unfairness is to turn that into self-sacrificing, generous love for others even if they are not your flesh-and-blood kin. Love gives back more than you have given. It is the notion that makes me cry with the beauty of it.
The point is, I have had a hard week. I had to put a family member in the hospital for severe depression. And other family members couldn’t help me because depression can be as infectious as a cold, taking one person after another through exposure to the harsh realities of the disease. And though it is hard being the only one available to help someone through the dangerous darkness of the soul, I managed not to lose anybody again this time, the fifth time I have fought such a battle in a terrible, long war.
And now I have “One Day More” to enter into the new world I have made through sacrifice and suffering. I am devastated, but still whole. I am exhausted, but still standing. I needed yesterday to happen.