Category Archives: compassion

I’d Like to Share Something Really Special…

I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.

I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.

https://www.cinemovie.tv/Movie-Reviews/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-movie-review

Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.

I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.

But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.

I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.

So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.

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Filed under artists I admire, compassion, education, empathy, heroes, humor, inspiration, movie review, sharing from YouTube, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Thinking About Another Birthday

I was born in a blizzard during the middle of the 1950’s. Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States. John F. Kennedy had written the book Profiles in Courage. Elvis Presley was pushing Rock and Roll to new heights. My father was a Korean War veteran who served in the Navy aboard aircraft carriers. My mother was a registered nurse. And all of that made me a Baby Boomer, a Midwestern child of the middle class, benefiting from Roosevelt’s New Deal, more than a decade of economic boom, and I was in many ways truly blessed.

I think the Baby Boomer generation has a lot to answer for. As a group we have not taken our blessings for what they truly are and selfishly did not give back as much as we were given. Self-sacrifice and service were considered unintelligent things to pursue. Wealth and power were the things universally pursued. And averting climate disaster fell within our power. And we didn’t do nothing to help the problem. We actively made matters worse.

Hopefully, however, we have more than our share of people who followed the kind of path I did. I chose teaching as the way to serve my society and my country. I put in over thirty years working with kids, teaching them to read and write and helping them to transform from children into young adults. And I did it in spite of the fact that investment culture and the drive to earn massive wealth tended to make people look down on teachers. We didn’t get the respect and the monetary rewards that we actually deserved. I don’t have to feel dissatisfied with my role. But I do regret the consequences we face because of it. If you denigrate teachers and education in general, you are going to raise a generation of stupid people.

So, let me give you what little wisdom I have gained in the struggle of my 63 years on this less-than-perfect planet.

The only wisdom I can offer that I am absolutely certain of is this, I am basically a fool muddling my way through the labyrinth the best way that I can. We are all fools. And those that don’t admit that do me the favor of proving there are bigger fools than me.

The current President of the United States is a criminal. Even a fool like me can see it. He needs to be removed and the people who have enabled him need to be voted out.

He may, however, survive it. He may even win another four years. After all, the foxes have been running the hen-house for years now. And the party in charge cheats at election time.

We may have flubbed our stewardship of the planet so badly that all life on Earth will be wiped out by atmospheric changes. Fossil fuel corporations have won a Pyrrhic victory.

But even if we have no future as a species, our lives have been valuable. Every child is born good and loving and worthy of love. And even though some are too soon taught evil ways or too soon robbed of their birthright, the story of the human race is a good one. We did great things. We took serious dilemmas and solved them. We wrote good morals, and more often than not, we finished writing the sentence of our lives correctly. We had a right to be here. And even if our collective candle flame goes out, the brief time that it was shining made the universe a brighter place.

I am a pessimist by nature. I don’t expect to survive until another birthday passes. I didn’t expect to reach this one alive. If I do, I have a right to be both pleased and amazed. I can make no promises for the future. But I do know this, everything in the past was worth it.

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Singing the Blues

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People like me, people who depend so much on a sense of humor and a good laugh on frequent occasions, are usually subject to depression.  The bad thing about being up is that eventually, you come down.  And the higher up you go, the further down you fall.

I have learned a great deal about surviving a depression in my time on Earth.  I have been in the emergency room for a sufferer of depression three times, one of those when a child hurt himself.  I have talked people out of a suicidal depression in the middle of the night exactly three times… three very long nights, two of them over the phone, not knowing where the sufferer actually was.  I have had three different family members in psychiatric care, hospitalized for a week, five separate times.  They don’t tell you these things can happen in teacher’s college.  They don’t tell you that sometimes it is part of a teacher’s job to deal with it, both the depression of students in your care and family members subject to the effects of stress in teachers’ lives.

I have lost three former students to suicide. (Typing that line just made me cry again.)  One of my high school classmates ended it all with a gun.  And, of course, we all lost Robin Williams to the deadly darkness of the mind as well.

And I am depressed right now, a depression brought on by a week’s worth of weather-related arthritis pain.  I was also betrayed today by someone whom I thought was a friend.  But before you panic for my safety and call a hotline in my name, don’t worry.  I know the answer.  I fought depression long and hard enough to know where the ladders are in the mythical dark pit of despair.

For one thing, you have to make the sufferer remember the good things in life.  There are people and places and things to do that everyone can use as that wonderful good that you have to live on for.  Listing things you have to stay alive for is a ladder.  I have children still in school.   I have pictures to draw and stories to write before I am through.  There are people I love that I have to live for.  I wrote about one of those yesterday, and I have at least two thousand more.

In fact, I met a former student in the Walmart parking lot the other day.  She had lost her mother to suicide.  She suffered bipolar disorder and depression herself, and in her junior year of high school, we almost lost her.  But she had to stop me and make me recognize her to show me that she has made it.  She is alive and happy, years after the fact.  She is now a rung in my ladder.

When you have to talk to somebody who is dangerously depressed, it is not enough to keep saying that everything is going to be all right.  You have to show them the ladders. It helps to know where the suicide hotline telephone number is posted, or have a copy of it in your wallet.  It helps to know where to find good professional help.  It helps to know that every school has a counselor who will either provide the help or direct that help to you.  That is another important ladder.

Eating chocolate helps, or fruit.   Serotonin levels in the brain are low if you are depressed.  My wife left apple turnovers in the refrigerator for me.  Of course, non-chocolate candy is a bad thing.  A sugar high leads to a sugar crash, and that is worse than where you started.

Singing songs also works for me.  Hence, the novel I am working on is called Sing Sad Songs.  Even singing sad songs increases the oxygen flow to the old brain and helps it think more clearly, sing more melodiously (not odiously), and feel better.  Ladders made of candy and ladders made of song… bet you didn’t see that one coming.  Telling a joke, even a bad one, can make a ladder too.

Writing this blog can be used as a ladder.  As I close in on 700 words, I am feeling better than I did when I started.  So, please, don’t be afraid of the darkness, and don’t let it defeat you.  You can win.  I know it. Because I have walked that path, fallen into that pit, and found the ladder out.

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Filed under battling depression, compassion, empathy, feeling sorry for myself, health, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Friday We Recover

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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.

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Filed under autobiography, battling depression, Celebration, compassion, healing, humor, medical issues, mental health, music, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Do Not Crush the Butterfly…

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Art on the bedroom wall, with Christmas lights being used as a night light.

Talking to a school administrator the other day about the challenges my children and I have been facing in the last year, I had one of those experiences where you get a look at your own life through someone else’s eyes.  “Wow, you have really been on a difficult journey,” he said.  I just nodded in response.  Financial difficulties, health problems, dealing with depression… life has been tough.  But you get through things like that by being centered.  Meditation tricks.  Things you can do to smooth out the wrinkles and keep moving forward.

I always return in the theater of my mind to a moment in childhood where I learned a critical lesson.  My life has been one of learning how to build rather than destroy.  It has been about creating, not criticizing.

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Electric lights have come to Toonerville, helping to light the darkness.

When I was a boy, I was a serious butterfly hunter.  It started when Uncle Don gave me a dead cecropia moth that he had found in the Rowan grain elevator.  It was big and beautiful and perfectly preserved.  Shortly thereafter, I located another cecropia in the garage behind the house, a building that had once been a wagon shed complete with horse stalls and a hay loft.  I tried to catch it with my bare hands. And by the time I had hold of it, the powder on its wings was mostly gone.  The wings were broken in a couple of places, and the poor bug was ruined in terms of starting a butterfly collection.

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A cecropia moth

Undeterred by tragedy, I got books about butterfly collecting at the Rowan Public Library and began teaching myself how to bug hunt.  I learned where to find them, and how to net them, and how to kill and mount them.

I discovered that my grandfather’s horse pasture had thistle patches which were natural feeding grounds for red admiral butterflies (pictured top left)  and painted lady butterflies (top right).  But if you wanted to catch the rarer mourning cloak butterfly (bottom picture), you had to stake out apple trees, particularly at apple blossom time, though I caught one on the ripening apples too.

swallowtailBut my greatest challenge as a butterfly hunter was the tiger swallowtail butterfly.  They are rare.  They are tricky.  And one summer I dueled with one, trying with all my might to catch him.  He was in my own back yard the first time I saw him.  I ran to get the butterfly net, and by the time I got back, he was flitting high in the trees out of reach.  I must’ve watched him for half an hour before I finally lost sight of him.  About five other times I had encounters with him in the yard or in the neighborhood.  I learned the hard way that some butterflies are acrobatic flyers and can actually maneuver to avoid being caught.  He frustrated me.

The tiger swallowtail was the butterfly that completed my collection, and it was finished when one of my cousins caught one and gave it to me because she knew I collected them.

But then, one day, while I was sitting on a blanket under a maple tree in the back yard with my notebooks open, writing something that I no longer even recall what I wrote, the backyard tiger swallowtail visited me again.  In fact, he landed on the back of my hand.  I dropped the pencil I was writing with, and slowly, carefully, I turned my hand over underneath him so that he was sitting on my palm.

I could’ve easily closed my hand upon him and captured him.  But I learned the lesson long before from the cecropia that catching a butterfly by hand would destroy its delicate beauty.  I would knock all the yellow and black powder off his exquisite wings.  I could not catch him.  But I could close my hand and crush him.  I would be victorious after a summer-long losing battle.

But that moment brought an end to my butterfly hunting.  I let him flutter away with the August breeze.  I did not crush the butterfly.  It was then that I realized what beauty there was in the world, and how fragile that beauty could be.  I could not keep it alive forever.  But it lasted a little big longer because I chose to let it.

So, here is the lesson that keeps me whole.  Even though I had the power, I did not crush the butterfly.

 

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Homely People

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I prefer to write about, think about, and draw pictures of homely people. But don’t mistake me.  I am not talking about ugly people.    Our President, the giant blood sausage with a bird’s nest on top that we have put in charge of making us all feel sick to our stomachs every day, demonstrates what ugly means.  Ugly is not just weird and interesting to look at, it is also repellent behavior that makes physical flaws take a back seat… no, a rumble seat in the trailer behind by comparison.

I am talking about the ordinary people back home.  The ones that may be sitting by your own fireplace on a cold day trying to warm their hands after throwing snowballs outside.  And, of course, that snowball that hit Maggie Doozman in the side of the face and knocked her glasses off, made you laugh for an instant, until you realized she was crying, and Kirk Longhatter didn’t even apologize for throwing so hard, so you went over and picked her glasses up for her and handed them to her, and she smiled at you through the tears.  That is the kind of homely I mean.

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There is a lot that is beautiful in homely people. Sure, maybe not a classically beautiful Elizabeth Taylor face or a Gregory Peck lantern jaw.  Maybe not even a shapely behind or a graceful step when walking across the street.  But ordinary beauty.  Kindness.  Humility.  Determination in the face of long odds.  Good-natured jokery.  A touch of childish silliness.  A moon face that actually shines when a smile lights it up.  That is beauty that can be found in homely people.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this post is just an excuse to show off some goofy old off-kilter portraits I did.  But that doesn’t change the fact.  I do love homely people.

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Christmas Magic

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Before now I have never talked about my childhood friend Jimmy Crafton.  It took a long long time to build up enough courage.  Writing this on Christmas Eve makes it easier.

It is not a terrible story.  I can’t think of anybody that fits the idea of a “hero” any more than Jim.  I remember him as a pale-faced little boy with a thousand Watt smile full of tiny white teeth.  He was two years younger than me.  He was in my sister’s class at Rowan Elementary.  He was outgoing and funny.  And he was a hemophiliac.  He had the rare condition of having too little of the essential blood-clotting proteins in the blood that the vast majority of us get to take for granted.  Every day for him was a risk of having an ordinary injury like a bruise or scrape cause him to bleed to death.  He missed great gobs of school days with injuries and crippling pain and the need to go to the emergency room in Mason City for life-saving blood transfusions.  We were told when I was eight that he probably wouldn’t last past his tenth birthday.  The teachers all gave us strict rules for playing with him on the playground… what not to do, what to immediately report, and what not to allow him to do.  I remember one time he decided to wrestle both Bobby and me at the same time.  He had a deep and passionate love for the sport of wrestling, big in the high schools of Iowa.  He aggressively took us both down and pinned us both with minimum effort.  And you should stop laughing at how wimpy that makes me sound.  Remember, I had to play the game by different rules than he did.  Bob and I both had to live with the consequences if bad things were to happen.

The miracle of Jim Crafton was that he did not die in childhood due to his genetic medical difficulty.  In fact, he grew up, went to college, and became a doctor all because of the gratitude he had towards the doctors and medical professionals who helped him conquer hemophilia in childhood.  He got married.  And he even had a son.  Those were things he accomplished in life that no one believed were possible back in the 1960’s.

But now we get to the part that I can’t write without typing through tears.  A hemophiliac relies on regular transfusions of blood to supply the clotting factors that he cannot live without.  And there was no effective screening technique for HIV in blood supplies before 1992.  Further problems arose from the blood bank practice of mixing blood donations together by blood type.  That meant that even clean blood donations were likely to become tainted through mixing.   Far too many of the hemophiliacs in America were given infected blood and became AIDS sufferers at a time when a diagnosis of HIV was basically a death sentence.  And worse, AIDS sufferers were often isolated and treated like lepers for fear of contracting the disease from ordinary contact with them.  You might remember the sad case of Ricky Ray in Florida.  He and his two brothers were all hemophiliacs.  They all were infected.  They were expelled from school.  They even had to live in hiding after loving members of their community burned their house down.  We were horrible to people who were dying of AIDS.

But I can’t leave this essay on such a sad note.  My friend Jimmy was a hero, a doctor, and a dad.  He lived a life worth living and worth knowing about.  His life was a gift to all of us lesser beings.  And this is the time of year for remembering those we have loved and lost.  Jim died of AIDS decades ago.  But he still lives in my heart and my memory.  And if you have read this little story, he lives in you now too.  That is a sort of magic, isn’t it?  I only wish I had more powerful magic to give.

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