Category Archives: empathy

Mr. Don Knotts

Being a child of the ’60s and also being fifty percent raised by the television set, it was my privilege to witness and learn from the master comedian of self-deprecating humor and ultimate humiliation. And there is no better preparation for becoming a Texas public school teacher than to learn how to be laughed at from Don Knotts.

I have spent a goodly number of hours during our recent COVID quarantine watching old DVDs of Don Knotts movies. The last four nights I viewed, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Love God. If you have never seen them, they come with the highest of Mickian recommendations, “They made me laugh so hard I cried.”

Of course, my favorite Don Knotts movie of all time is The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Knotts always seems to play a character put upon by life in general, yet always believing that he has the inner something to make himself into a huge success. Every time he gets knocked down he quivers with frustration and throws a punch at his tormentors that invariably hits nothing unless he hits himself. In Mr. Limpet, we find a man so frustrated in his inability to help in the war effort that he throws himself into the sea, turning himself into a fish… a fish that helps defeat German U-boats. He makes himself into a hero, He even finds love among the fishes.

Knotts found the perfect comic partner in Tim Conway as they made The Apple Dumpling Gang and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Slapstick antics and serious battles against the laws of physics somehow manage to win out over real bad guys with real guns and horses.

I guess the thing that makes Don Knotts such an important part of my television-sourced education is how much I identify with him. Life is a never-ending parade of humbling defeats and blush-inducing humiliations. I have spent most of my life being one with the little-guy within me, the put-upon fellow who has never quite overcome all the little hurts incurred by a desire to overcome the gravity holding me down.

And in a Don-Knotts world, based on a Don-Knotts movie script, things eventually turn out all right in the end. Mr. Chicken is proved right. Abner Peacock ends up marrying the beautiful girl who is the perfect one for him. The dentist who is mistaken for a gun-fighter still gets to be the hero in the end. So, there are worse things than living a Don Knotts sort of life.

Rest in peace, Don Knotts. For though you are no longer with us, you will always live on in my heart… and the hearts of many other Don Knotts wannabes.

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Filed under art my Grandpa loved, autobiography, comedians, education, empathy, goofiness, humor, movie review, nostalgia, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Other Mike

I live mostly in my memory nowadays, so you will have to forgive me for not doing everything in time order. Today I have chosen to use the time machine in my head to go back to the years 1965 through 1968 so that I can tell you a true-ish story about the Other Mike.

This is mostly important to where some of the things I put into my novels come from. Mike Bridger and I were alike in many ways. He was also a skinny kid from Iowa who was obsessed with comic books and monster movies. He was also immensely creative, especially about ways to get our gang of friends into trouble. He was likable, good-hearted, and enthusiastic about learning, especially about things the teacher didn’t really want him to know about. He was a year older than me, born in 1955 to my 1956. We were both the oldest child. He had two brothers. I had two sisters and one little brother. And he was both my enemy and my good friend. We both knew that purple was the color of real magic. And we were both Mike B. So, when we were in the same grade-school classroom, Miss Mennenga taught third and fourth graders together in the same classroom, just as Miss Rietz taught fifth and sixth graders together. So, one of us had to be the “Other Mike.”

In Miss Mennenga’s classroom, I was the student who excelled at reading aloud. So, I was the Literary Mike, the Story Mike. But when he brought the frog to school so that we could dissect it alive and see the heart beating (Miss M used a scalpel to pierce the little froggy-brain so the frog wouldn’t feel pain. This she learned how to do from a book about teaching science, and convinced me that knowledge treasures were inevitably in books.) he was forever after the Mr. Science Mike. He liked me enough to invite me to Science Frog’s funeral. He delivered the eulogy. The preacher’s kid and I dug the hole and buried the froggy corpse.

When we plotted how we were going to eventually get to the moon, the plans always came from the Other Mike’s evil little brain.We talked a lot about astronauts. We watched a lot of Walter Cronkite narrating Mercury and Gemini launches. And the two-person Gemini capsules led to a lot of space walks and really neat stuff like that. We talked about Alan Shepherd and Guss Grissom. We both knew about John Glenn’s amazing feat of orbiting the earth. We both knew about the first space walk by Ed White, and we were both devastated by the fire aboard Apollo 1 that caused the deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee. I built a model of the Apollo command module and the LEM ( Lunar Expeditionary Module), and the Other Mike broke the landing pad off of one of the LEM’s feet. We went through celebration and tragedy together several times. He moved away from Rowan in the Summer of 1969, so we never actually got to talk about the moon landing by Apollo 11.

And we both loved monster movies, which I wasn’t allowed to watch. He didn’t have a bedtime and could stay up to watch “Gravesend Manor,” the midnight monster-movie show on Saturday nights. I had to get my monster-movie fix each week from him. Second-hand narration was better than nothing, and because we both had vivid imaginations, it was probably scarier than watching the actual movie. I remember how he recounted Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, blow by blow, death by death. The recounting of what happened to Larry Talbot as he changed under the full moon not only gave me nightmares, it chilled him in the telling of it, and he was actually shaking in parts.

Mike Bridger (not his real name, though close because the Other Mike thing was real) became the character Milt Morgan in my hometown novels, Superchicken, The Baby Werewolf, The Boy… Forever, and his character arc will be complete when I finish the book, The Wizard in his Keep.

But as a boy, from ages 9 to 13, I know now things about the Other Mike that I didn’t know then.

I knew he was constantly bruised on his arms and legs. I knew he had cold sores more often than any of us. His hair was always kept closer cropped than mine, and I was known to have a lot of butch-cuts and flat-tops. I became aware that he was often plagued by fleas. I didn’t know his father was an alcoholic. And he never said a word about being abused. But the adults in my life were keener in discerning the truth. And now I regret every argument I had with him. I even regret the fistfight with his younger brother Danny. I got my first and only black eye from that fight. Boy! Do I ever regret that now, looking back at from years in future beyond that point. That hurt in more ways than one.

So, it’s safe to say that Milt Morgan is a me-character. I and the Other Mike are both the same person in a lot of ways. And I know how he feels about practically everything in life, because the Other Mike and I know each other really well. And we both had enough empathy to know what it was like to be the Other Mike. Not actually the same person, but close enough to know what it’s like to be the other person, to feel like the other person, the Other Mike.

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Filed under autobiography, characters, compassion, empathy, horror movie, Paffooney

All That Really Matters

I was not able to post yesterday for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is the turmoil caused by this nation trying to come to terms with those sins of the past that come back to haunt us and hunt us in the present.

I am an old white man. I suffer from “white privilege” in ways I can’t explain to some of my white friends back in Iowa, a State that was almost entirely white when I was growing up there. (And I pray that I grew UP, not just old.)

I learned yesterday that it matters how you put in order the things that you can say on matters of race. You can’t just say, “Black lives matter” to some white people. They will angrily insist that “All lives matter.” They will then proceed to tell you that you are being a racist when you suggest that black people are somehow more important than white people. I learned that you should say instead, “All lives matter, which means black lives certainly matter too. And the debate now is about a few recent black lives that were treated like they didn’t matter, and so, their lives ended in being murdered.” You can’t give white people a reasonable-sounding way to get out of admitting that, or they will. (See, I can be a bit racist too. I sometimes have a hard time believing all white people have positive human feelings in them somewhere.)

My illustrations for this post all came from Pinterest.

It has often, in my teaching career, been a disadvantage to be a white male. Black kids don’t believe you can see them as a good person. If you have to call them down for misbehavior, the worst ones will automatically assume it is about their race and not their behavior. A good teacher needs to listen more than they talk. You have to get them to open up about what happens in their lives that makes them behave the way that they do. You have to make them understand that you actually care about them and want to help. You have to earn their trust to get their best learning behavior. And being white makes that all so much harder. Not just with Afro Americans. Hispanic kids too. Vietnamese kids too. And I promise you, if you take the time to really get to know a kid… from any race or culture… you will discover that underneath it all, there are no bad kids. You stand a very good chance of learning to love them… no matter their racial or cultural differences from you.

And as an old white man, I suffer the disadvantage of never being able to truly understand what it feels like to have to worry that, at any moment, the police might kill you with a gun, or press the life out of you with a knee on your neck… just because of the color of your skin. That is in no way a fair thing that black men, black women, and black kids have to worry about that.

I am saddened and frustrated too that I can’t do any more to correct this terrible injustice than I am doing. I can’t attend protests because of my poor health and the pandemic that will probably kill me anyway. I am too old and crippled and broke to do any more than write this essay and post things on social media that make some of my old white friends angry and ready to argue.

I feel bad. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and too many more diminish me, make me hurt in my heart. And all I can do about it is tell you that there needs to be more love in this world, and less hate. And I hope maybe you have a little more of it to add to the world. After all, that’s all that really matters.

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Filed under 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, angry rant, commentary, compassion, empathy, kids, Liberal ideas, philosophy, racial profiling

The Teacher Sleeps

This 2019-2020 school year was my first as a retired school teacher earning extra money by substitute teaching. It ended before I was ready. I not only didn’t get a chance to earn all the money I needed, I did not get the chance to see some of the kids in five different middle schools I subbed for that I had learned to like and hoped to see again before the year ended. I did put in enough time to get rehired for next year. I even got to keep my sub badge so that I can go back if the schools ever reopen again. But I despair a bit over what I have lost. My health may not be good enough to go back to the job I love so much. In fact, I don’t really expect miracles to happen that would let me survive this pandemic. If I do go back to school next fall, it is more likely to be in order to haunt the hallways than to teach again.

The last few nights I have been sleeping longer than I have at any time since I retired in 2014. And I have had vivid dreams of being a teacher in a classroom yet again. But always in schools that are only vaguely familiar and are obviously new jobs with new kids that I haven’t seen or trained before. And yet, as it always is with teaching, they are all the same classroom, all the same schools, all the same kids, just in new packages that I haven’t seen before.

One of the things that is hardest about being a substitute rather than a regular teacher is the fact that one day, one class period, is not long enough to build a relationship with every kid. You cannot get to really know them in such a short amount of time. That’s why going back to certain schools is so exhilarating because you get a chance to cover the same classes again, see the same kids, and work on being a good teacher for them in the way I used to do it for kids that were mine for an entire school year.

And I was one of those rare teachers who actually likes kids.

Many teachers never get over the difficulty of managing a classroom and doing discipline. It is for them a never-ending battle for order and quiet. They only manage it by becoming fearsome ogres or anal-retentive control freaks. Most of those only ever consider discipline to be punishing kids enough to make them mind.

Those sorts of teachers don’t believe me when I tell them that the way to do discipline is not by quashing behaviors and limiting behaviors through punishment, but by encouraging the behaviors that you want. And by leading them into the excitement of reading a good story or learning an interesting new thing.

As a sub I went into the classrooms of punishing teachers and weak-willed teachers who let students do whatever they will. Invariably you meet boys who are convinced they are stupid and doomed to fail. They suspect their parents don’t like them. And all they want to do is stop lessons from happening by being disruptive. And invariably you meet girls who think the only hope for them is to capture the right boy (without any earthly idea what the right boy will be like). And they suspect their parents don’t like them very much. And all they want to do is fix their make-up, talk about boys with other girls, and talk boys into disrupting lessons to show their manliness.

As a substitute, I also went into the classes of teachers who knew the secret and actually loved kids. They had positive posters on the wall that could be paraphrased as, “There are wonderful things to do in this life, and I believe you can do them. You should believe it too.”

And they will say to their kids things like, “Look at this wonderful thing you have done. You are really good at this. And when you do things like this, nobody can tell me you aren’t a good and wonderful person that makes the world a better place.”

Kids need to see the evidence and hear those things from their teacher. And if the teacher is giving them that, they will even behave well for the substitute with very little work on the part of the substitute.

So, I have been dreaming about being a teacher again. It is a thing that I love to do, and I fear that, because of this pandemic, I will never be able to do it again. Even as a substitute. And if that is the case, then I hope that at least one person reads this and discovers the answer to the question, “How do you become a good teacher?” Because I believe I have it right. I know it worked for me. And I think it is true even if no one ever believes me.

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Filed under dreaming, dreams, education, empathy, feeling sorry for myself, humor, kids, Paffooney, philosophy, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Directions to Be Worried About

The question came up on Twitter. “What things aren’t safe to write about in a Young Adult novel?”

I have personally never questioned myself about that before. The writer asking for input was writing something science-fiction-y about a telepath using telepathy to torture someone. He was apparently worried that a younger audience would be traumatized by that.

Really? Anyone who can ask that has never spent much time talking to young readers.

I base my answer on over thirty years of trying to get kids to read things of literary quality. My very first year of teaching a male student stood up when the literature books were passed out and announced, “I don’t do literature!”

“Really, Ernie? You are going to lay that challenge before me?”

We slogged through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that year, using and reusing 20 paperback copies of the novel purchased with my own money. Ernie maybe didn’t like it. But he did literature.

And I went on a thirty-four year quest to find out what literature kids really would do and what literature kids really needed to do.

Aquaman saves Aqualad from a shark of evilness.

Here’s a tiny bit of wisdom from Mickey’s small brain and comparatively large experience; Kids are not traumatized by literature in any form. Kids are traumatized by life. They need literature to cope with trauma.

Kids want to read about things that they fear. A book like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has some graphic violence in it and a war against faceless aliens, but it does an excellent job of teaching how to empathize as well as fight against bullies, and it helps them grapple with the notion that the enemy is never clearly the thing that you thought it was to begin with.

Kids want to read the truth about subjects like love and sex. They are not looking for pornography in YA novels. They get that elsewhere and know a lot more about it than I do. They want to think about what is right and how you deal with things like teen pregnancy, abortion, matters of consent vs. rape and molestation. Judy Blume started being objectively honest with kids about topics like puberty and sex back in the 60’s with books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Iggie’s House.

If you are writing for young adults, middle grade and high school kids, even kids 5th Grade and below who are high-level readers, it is more important to worry about writing well and writing honestly than it is to worry about whether they can handle the topics and trauma that you wish to present. Write from the heart and write well.

I can honestly say I know these things I have said are true about young readers from having read to them, read with them, and even taught them to read. As an author, my opinion is worth diddly-squoot since I have hardly sold any books, and no kids I know have read them (except for two of my nieces, both of whom are pretty weird and nerdy just like me.)

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Filed under autobiography, commentary, education, empathy, good books, horror writing, humor, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, writing, writing humor, writing teacher

Living in the Spider Kingdom

Life seems to be getting harder and harder. And I realize that a big part of that perception is the fact that my health is deteriorating quickly. This is a humor blog, but it has been getting more and more serious and more and more grim as the grim reaper becomes more and more a central character in my own personal story.

My perception of reality, however, is best explained by a passage in a novel that spoke to me in college. It comes from the novel, the Bildungsroman by Thomas Mann called Der Zauberberg, in English, The Magic Mountain. In the scene, Hans Castorp is possibly freezing to death, and he hallucinates a pastoral mountainside scene where children are happily playing in the sunshine. Possibly Heaven? But maybe not. As he goes into a stone building and finds a passage down into the ground, he sees wrinkled, ugly, horrible hags gathered around a child’s corpse, eating it. And this vision explains the duality at the center of the meaning of life.

For every good thing, there is an equal and opposite bad thing that balances it our. There is no understanding what perfection and goodness mean without knowing profanity and evil. Just as you can’t understand hot without cold nor light without darkness. And you don’t get to overturn the way it is. You try your hardest to stay on the heads side of the coin knowing that half the time life falls to tails.

So, what good does it do me to think about and write about things like this? Well, it makes for me a sort of philosophical gyroscope that spins and dances and helps me keep my balance in the stormy sea of daily life. I deal with hard things with humor and a sense of literary irony. I make complex metaphors that help me throw a rope around the things that hurt me.

We are living now in the Spider Kingdom. Hard times are here again. The corrupt and corpulent corporate spiders are spinning the many webs we are trapped in. As metaphorical as it is, we wouldn’t have the government we currently have and be suffering the way we are if that weren’t true.

But no bad thing nor no good thing lasts forever. The wheel goes round and round. The top of the wheel reaches the bottom just as often as the bottom returns to the top. So, it will all pass if we can only hold out long enough.

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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

The Peak Year

Last night I watched the movie version of Jersey Boys the musical. It touched me deeply. And the band was asked to each answer the question,
“What was your best year as a member of the Four Seasons, your peak year?” Frankie Valli’s answer got me thinking about the answer to that question as it applies to who I am and what was the peak year of my career.

Now, I can’t deny that, having been a successful public school teacher who loved teaching for more than 30 years, there were a number of very successful years I could point to. But scoring well on State writing tests and reading tests despite teaching in a poor rural school district in South Texas, nor competing in the Odyssey of the Mind creativity contest with my gifted students were really what I would call my peak year. That honor has to go to the year I was twelve (for most of the year), 1969,

That was the year that men walked on the moon. I had followed the whole thing for several years, since Mom and Dad had gotten me excited about space by trying to spot John Glenn in his Mercury capsule crossing the blue sky in our back yard. I had watched religiously as Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra told us on CBS about Mercury and Gemini and finally Apollo.

It made me believe in myself and the power of people for the first time since the tornado and the sexual assault from 1966 had toppled my world.

I had numerous self-confidence issues after 1966. I really, deep down, blamed myself for what happened to me. I was convinced that I was worthless and evil. But watching Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon on that late July evening made me yearn to reshape the world the way he did, even if I could only do it in a much smaller way.

’69 was the “Summer of Love” in more than one way for me. I wasn’t really able to think about myself as a virgin in ’69 for… reasons. But it was the summer that I got to see a girl who wasn’t my sister naked because she wanted me to see her. We were not able to actually do what both of us wanted to do, and my double-clutching at the last moment destroyed any chance of her ever even talking to me again for the rest of my life, but it proved that I was at least desirable to girls. And music from that moment on began to underscore everything in my life. She had “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies playing in her bedroom. And the same song was playing again at the roller rink in Lake Cornelia the night she refused to do the couple’s skate with me, and I asked Leslie instead. Leslie accepted. I was not a monster made from the horror of ’66. i proved that to myself to the beat of “Sugar Sugar”.

And, of course, even though I was a Cardinals fan, the New York Mets proved to me that year that the impossible can happen. Of course, I rooted for the Orioles. You know, a team with a bird for a mascot.

But 1969 was also a year of big decision for me. I already knew at that point that I was destined to be a storyteller. But that was the year of the My Lai massacre. I remember looking at the photos in Life and Look magazines of the dead bodies of women and children, killed by American bullets. I could not, at that point, stomach the idea of going to war after turning 18, a possibility that became very real to me that year.

It was the year I made up my mind I would never kill anyone in my lifetime, never pick up a gun to harm others, or be a part of any such atrocity. I still have great respect for soldiers and what they do, but if I had been there, I would’ve been moved to lay down my weapon and stand with the victims in front of the machine guns. They would’ve had to kill me too. And I was determined to go to jail sooner than fight in the war. Luckily, that was never put to the test. The war ended in 1975, before I graduated high school.

The peak year was not for me a year of great personal success or wealth or accomplishment. 1969 was the year I chose who I was going to be in life. The year of decision. The year that brought me all the way through from there to now. It was 50 years ago. It was the year I was 12.

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I Don’t Believe in Ghosts… Except for Some Ghosts

As an atheist who believes in God, paradoxes and contradictions are something I am entirely comfortable with. So, it should come as no surprise that I don’t believe in ghosts… with notable exceptions.

Cool song, right? Did you listen to it? It’s a song about ghosts. It’s a lot older than I am. And the singer here, Burl Ives, has been dead since April of 1995. Hearing it today, at random, proves that Burl Ives is a ghost I believe in.

He came back to haunt me today as I am recovering from pink-eye, reminding me of my childhood and youth when he was the snowman in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer on TV around Christmas time.

He is also haunting me because 1995, the year he died, was the year I got married. I was married to my wife in Dallas in January. In March, we found out that we were going to have our firstborn child before the year was over. And we also found out that my grandfather was dying.

I was not able to make it from Texas to Iowa to see Grandpa Aldrich before he passed away. But he was told while he was in the hospital that we were expecting at about the same time that he got to hold my cousin’s newborn second son. Grandpa loved the music of Burl Ives. In many ways he was like Burl Ives. He even vaguely looked like Burl Ives. And we did get to attend his funeral. (My Grandpa, I mean.) And shortly after that, Burl Ives died and I saw the announcement on the news. This is one sort of ghost I believe in. He came to commune with me as I lay on my sickbed thinking about death. And on a day after finding out that my son, now in the Marines, is about to be discharged after five years and will be home next week. He is ghost of memory. A vibrant and talented spirit of the past who lives on through his work. And he brings with him the ghost of my Grandpa Aldrich, They are both no longer living, but lingering still in the echoes of memory, and still affecting life.

Dean Martin and Perry Como are also ghosts of memory.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the ghost dog. Yes, I continue to see flashes and images and shadows of a brown dog in our house, larger and browner than our own dog, that disappear as soon as you look directly at them. My oldest son has said that he has seen the very same thing, so it is not merely brain damage or impending insanity on my part, unless it is something that also runs in the family. And it has been suggested to me by an elderly neighbor that two families ago, a brown family dog lived in this house and may be buried in the yard.

I believe it is possible that life and love in a family leaves its imprint in many ways on a house, a home, an inhabited place.

I know it can easily be put down to misinterpretations of things seen in peripheral vision, or even mental misinterpretations responding to subtle suggestions. I doubt that there is actually a protoplasmic or energy form that continues after death. But if there is something there, it is benevolent rather than malevolent. Ghosts, if they exist, are a good thing, not a bad one. It doesn’t scare me to live in a place that has a soul capable of absorbing and incorporating a faithful family dog.

Basically, I am insisting that the existence of ghosts is irrelevant. I do not require the artificial reassurance of belief in a life after death to make me unafraid of facing death. I am a part of everything that exists, and I will continue to be a part of it even after my body is dissolved and my consciousness is silenced. Even if life on Earth is extinguished, the fact of my existence is not erased or invalidated. The poet says, “You are a child of the universe. No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should.” -from Disiderata by Anonymous

So, I am ill and thinking about death, for it is not very far away now. And I do not fear it. As I do not fear ghosts. For I don’t believe in them… except for the ones I do.

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Singing the Blues

blue2

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