Category Archives: empathy

D&D the Robert E. Howard Way

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The idea for this post is to illustrate with covers from my own collection of books and comics.

Robert E. Howard, for those of you who like the stories but never look for the name of the author, is the young Texan who created Conan the Barbarian.  I say “young” because, although he was born in 1906, he died in 1936 at the age of 30.  And this young man created not only the iconic hero of the epic sword and sorcery genre of fiction, but basically founded the genre itself.  He definitely laid down the basics of it as a pattern for all others to follow.  Including the players of the sword and sorcery Dungeons and Dragons game.

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For D & D players the primary influence of all this is the Conan method of problem-solving.  “If you are confronted with a complex problem, a life and death problem, whack it with a sword until the problem is solved.”  This is the source of fascination for players with the fighter character; the warrior, the paladin, the knight, or the barbarian.  Superior physical prowess gives the individual control over so much more than he or she could ever be in control of in real life.  (And stop making that face while reading this.  Girls do play Dungeons and Dragons too.  I’ve seen it happen in school and with my own daughter.)

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And for the story-teller, also known as the game master or dungeon master, this can be a very good thing.  The sense of power  extremely high strength and endurance scores provide get the character strongly addicted to the hack and slash style of play, allowing you to teach all kinds of timely morals to the story about the need to use your brain and your creativity once in a while as well.

Conan was a brute and a slayer.  But he is perceived as a good guy because he was also capable of standing up for the little guy, righting wrongs and protecting others from powerful evils.  Conan had empathy, if not love, for others, and exhibited truly magnificent levels of the power to sacrifice self for the good of others and the general well-being of the weak.   As game master, all you need to do is add a vulnerable character to the party that needs some protecting in the fantasy game world.  It helps if that character has a good sense of humor, useful knowledge to offer, or cuteness to offer in return for the protection.  But even that is not required.  D & D players learn to wield power in ways that benefit others.  The Spiderman thing, you know; “With great power comes great responsibility.”  It is a lesson about life that many non-D & D players also really need to learn in their youth.

The Robert E. Howard way does not always work out so well for wizards.  Conan hated magic and wizards.  He whacked wizards even harder than he did other bad guys.  But that is generally assumed to apply to evil wizards.  Conan sometimes appreciated having a wizard on his side.

But the basic conclusion is this; there is a brutal, barbarian way to handle problems in real life as well as in Dungeons and Dragons life.  And it would be much better for everyone if people learned the right way and the wrong way to use it in the game world before the choice has to be made in the real world.

 

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Filed under artists I admire, artwork, characters, Dungeons and Dragons, empathy, heroes, humor, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Man in the Mirror

Every now and again we have to stop what we are doing for a moment and examine ourselves.  If we are writers, we tend to do it every fifteen minutes or so.  You have to expose the soul to the light of day for a moment and take a look with eyes wide open, prepared to see the worst… but also open to seeing beauty where you may not have seen it before.

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So what do I see when I look in the mirror?  More darkening age spots, more patches of psoriasis with increasingly red and irritated potential infections.  Drooping eyes that have lost their sparkle and now darken with blue melancholy.  I see a man falling down.  Falling slowly, but falling never-the-less.  It happens to everybody with age.  I can no longer do the job I loved for 31 years.  I am no longer the goofy Reluctant Rabbit with the big pencil in the front of the classroom, telling stories and making learning happen.

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Once I was a big deal to little people.  Once I created magical experiences involving books and great authors, poems and great poets… and I taught little people how to write and master big words.  I mattered like a big frog in a small pond, able to make the biggest splash in that particular pond.  I was the froggiest.  But I haven’t drawn myself as a frog yet.

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Of course, I was never as big as that other Michael.  He made a really big splash in a really big pond.  He was a really big frog.

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He and I have a lot in common.  Not far off in age.  We got married about the same time.  Both had three kids, two boys and a girl.  Both were associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses at one point.  Both of us never really grew up.  He had Peter Pan Syndrome, and I stayed in school my whole working life.

And everybody has a dark side, in counterpoint to their better angels.  I’m not entirely sure what my dark side entails.  Being a grouch?  A diabetic?  A closet nudist?  But I have one.  I trot it out to make fun of it constantly.

But as I was feeling sorry for myself, being forced by the city to remove the pool, becoming a bankrupt poor guy thanks to Bank of America, and generally in such ill health that I feel like I am wearing a lead suit all the time, I stumbled across one of those life-affirming moments.  A former student asked me on Facebook to post a picture of myself so he could see how I was doing.  I posted this picture.

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Yep, the man in the mirror is definitely me.  I got loads of complements and howdys from former students, former colleagues, a former grade school classmate, and my Aunt Wilma.  I heard from people I care about and they reaffirmed that they still care about me, even though some of them I haven’t seen in more years than I am willing to admit.  Sometimes you have to look in the mirror to see what needs to be changed.  Sometimes you just need to see the precious few things that were always good and haven’t changed.  It is a process worth the effort.

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Filed under battling depression, commentary, empathy, feeling sorry for myself, grumpiness, humor, insight, inspiration, Paffooney, rabbit people, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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Wisdom From a Writer’s Life

Don’t get too excited.  I searched every box, trunk, bag of tricks, safe, closet, and jelly bean jar that I have in my rusty old memory.  I didn’t find much.  In fact, the old saying is rather applicable, “The beginning of wisdom is recognizing just how much of a fool you really are.”  The little pile of bottle caps and marshmallows that represent the sum total of my wisdom is infinitely tiny compared to the vast universe of things I will never know and never understand.  I am a fool.  I probably have no more wisdom than you do.  But I have a different point of view.  It comes from years worth of turning my ideas inside out, of wearing my mental underwear on the outside of my mental pants just to get a laugh, of stringing images and stupid-headed notions together in long pointless strings like this one.

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Mason City, Iowa… where I was born.  River City in the musical “The Music Man“.

One thing I can say with certainty, nothing makes you understand “home”, the place you grew up in and think of as where you come from, better than leaving it and going somewhere else.  Federal Avenue in Mason City looks nothing now like it did when I was a boy in the 1960’s going shopping downtown and spending hours in department stores waiting for the ten minutes at the end in the toy section you were promised for being good.  You have to look at the places and people of your youth through the lenses of history and distance and context and knowing now what you didn’t know then.

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Grandpa Aldrich’s farm in Iowa is now Mom and Dad’s house.  It has been in the family for over 100 years, a Century Farm.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  If I look back at the arc of my life, growing up in Iowa with crazy story-telling skills inherited from Grandpa Aldrich, to going to Iowa State “Cow College” and studying English, to going to University of Iowa for a remedial teaching degree because English majors can’t get jobs reading books, to teaching in distant South Texas more than a thousand miles away, to learning all the classroom cuss words in Spanish the hard way, by being called that, to moving to Dallas/Fort Worth to get fired from one teaching job and taking another that involved teaching English to non-English speakers, to retiring and spending time writing foolish reflections like this one because I am old and mostly home-bound with ill health.  I have come a long way from childhood to second childhood.

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If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is really true, I should be Superman now.  I look like I’ve seen a lot of Kryptonite, don’t I?

Six incurable diseases and being a cancer survivor since 1983 have left their marks upon me.  Literally.  Little pink bleedy spots all over me are the mark of psoriasis.  The fuzzy-bad photo of me spares you some of the gory details.  The point is, I guess, that life is both fleeting and fragile.  If you never stop and think about what it all means then you are a fool.  If you don’t try to understand it in terms of sentences and paragraphs with main ideas, you are an even bigger fool.  You must write down the fruit of your examinations and ruminations.  But if you reach a point that you are actually satisfied that you know what it all means, that makes you the biggest fool of all.

If I have any wisdom at all to share in this post about wisdom, it can be summed up like this;

  • Writing helps you with knowing, and knowing leads to wisdom.  So take some time to write about what you know.
  • Writing every day makes you more coherent and easier to understand.  Stringing pearls of wisdom into a necklace comes with practice.
  • Writing is worth doing.  Everyone should do it.  Even if you don’t think you can do it well.
  • You should read and understand other people’s wisdom too, as often as possible.  You are not the only person in the world who knows stuff.  And some of their stuff is better than your stuff.
  • The stuff you write can outlive you.  So make the ghost of you that you leave behind as pretty as you can.  Someone may love you for it.  And you can never be sure who that someone will be.

So by now you are probably wondering, where is all that wisdom he promised us in the title?  Look around carefully in this essay.  If you don’t see it there, then you are probably right in thinking, just as I warned you about at the outset, “Gosh darn that Mickey!  He is a really big fool.”

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Filed under autobiography, education, empathy, goofy thoughts, humor, nostalgia, photo paffoonies, psoriasis, self portrait, strange and wonderful ideas about life, wisdom, writing, writing teacher

Ponderously Pondering the Imponderable

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Now that I have retired as a school teacher, I have so many spare thinks to think which I do not have to use to guide the future of school children, that I begin to wonder what I am really going to do with all those closets and suitcases full of spare thinks beyond allowing them to simply pile up.

A lot of those spare thinks lately have been taken up by the imponderable primate that has taken over the government of our little country.  I am keenly aware that, in the arc of history, nations and countries and even peoples reach the eventual end of the road and simply are no more.  Our country could very well be headed the way of the Roman Empire, the Maurya Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the Abbasid Caliphate.  They all ended with a mixture of violence and upheaval and suffering.  And did you even know that they existed?  Did you know that the Roman Empire was the smallest one on my list?

The imponderable primate has also moved the Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight.  The threats posed by nuclear war and global warming are made greater now because the hand on the ship’s wheel of the most powerful ship of state in the modern world is a tiny, unsteady hand controlled by a “really good brain”.  That’s why my Stardusters novel is a comedy about the end of the world and uses parodies of conservative politicians from our world to play the roles of lizard men intent on destroying their own planet.

I had intended to write a piece today about naked people, a light and breezy essay in more ways than one.  But I don’t want to let that turn into soft core porn or anything.  It needs to be more carefully planned and carried out.  Naked people really aren’t the danger that conservative and born-again Christians fear that they are, but you have to be careful of people’s sensibilities anyway.  Especially when you are mentally writing stuff with no metaphorical clothes on.  So I put that aside for the moment and spent some time this morning pondering the nature of pondering, what I think about thinking.  And so, while sorting through baskets and suitcases and a packed garage full of spare thinks, I wrote this essay instead, to write about nothing in a way that might actually mean something.  And if you believe that, it is no wonder the orange fellow was able to fool us all.

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“They” Don’t Think Like “We” Do

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I was recently asked how I can live surrounded by conservatives when I am obviously liberal-minded.  I hardly have to think about it to give an answer.

You have to realize that conservatives are people too.  To begin with, I hope you didn’t look at the picture I started with and think, “He must think all conservatives are stupid and look like that.”  The picture of Doofy Fuddbugg I used here is not about them.  It is about me.  This is the comedy face I wear when I am talking politics.  You live a life filled with economic, physical, and emotional pain like I have, you have a tendency to wear a mask that makes you, at the very least, happy on the outside.  People talk to me all the time, but not because I seek them out.  In social situations, I am not a bee, I’m a flower.  And because of my sense of humor, people feel comfortable seeking me out and telling me about their pain and anger and hurt to the point that they eventually reach the totally mistaken conclusion that I have wisdom to share.

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                                                                                                                                                           I do think that corporate bank CEO’s look like this, and I am not sure they count as people.

I hear lots of detailed complaints from my conservative friends in both Iowa and Texas.  I know what they fear and what makes them angry.  Here are a few of the key things;

  1. The world is no longer very much like the world I grew up in, and the changes make me afraid.
  2. I have worked hard all my life.  I’m still working hard.  For my father and mother that led to success and fulfillment.  For me it leads to a debt burden that’s hard to manage, and I am having to work hard for the rest of my life because of it.
  3. I’m not getting what I deserve out of life, and someone is to blame for that.  But who?  Minorities and immigrants seem to be getting ahead and getting whatever they want more than they ever used to.  It must be them.
  4. Liberals are all alike.  They want to tax and spend.  They don’t care about the consequences of trying out their high-fallutin’ ideas.  And they want me to pay for it all while they laugh at me and call me stupid and call me a racist.
  5. I am angry now, as angry as I have ever been in my life.  And someone has to hear me and feel my wrath.  Who better than these danged liberals?  And I can do that by voting in Trump.  Sure, I know how miserable he is as a human being, but he will make them suffer and pay.

I have always understood these feelings because I began hearing them repeatedly since the 1980’s.  They are like a fire-cracker with a very short fuse, these ideas conservatives live with.  And certain words you say to them are like matches.  They will set off, not just one, but all of the fireworks.

So, here is how I talk to conservatives.

  1. Never treat them as stupid people.  Conservatives are sometimes just as smart as I am, if not smarter.  I complement them on what they say that I think is a really good idea.  I point out areas of agreement whenever possible, even if they are rare sometimes.
  2. I defend what I believe in, but I try to understand what they believe and why.
  3. I am open about the doubts and questioning I have about my own positions on things, encouraging them to do the same.
  4. I always try to remember that we really have more in common than we have differences.  I try to point that out frequently too.  This point in particular helps them to think of me as being smarter than I really am.
  5. And if I haven’t convinced them that I am right, which, admittedly is impossible, that doesn’t mean I have lost the argument.  In fact, if I have made them feel good about actually listening calmly to a liberal point of view and then rejecting it as total liberal claptrap, I win, because I have been listened to.

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Filed under commentary, compassion, education, empathy, goofy thoughts, humor, politics, self portrait

Where I’d Like to Be (a book by Frances O’Roark Dowell)

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This book made me cry. And that is not unusual, even though I am a 60-year-old man. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens made me cry. At the end, not during the funny parts. But this was a book about a lonely eleven-year-old girl trying to make friends. Why should that make me cry?
But it is also a bittersweet tale of memorable child characters who have nowhere left to turn but each other, and their imaginations. The poetic sting of it can make a grown man cry. You should read it. You will understand then.

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