Category Archives: empathy

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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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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Body Image Advice for Truly Ugly People

Mickey nude

Yes, I, of all people, should probably not be trying to give advice to ugly people.  I have some wisdom about ugliness to share, but only by participation in the world as a member of that class of people that ordinary folk would really, really, extremely importantly not want to see naked.  I am not Boris Karloff’s Mummy unwrapped, but I am in no way pretty under my clothes.

So why would anybody with six incurable diseases, one of which is a skin disease that involves reddish pink bleedy spots, ever contemplate becoming a nudist?

Well, horrible as I am, I have had a lifelong yearning for a life lived naked.  I recently found an online quiz thing that asked the question, “Should you become a nudist?”  Here is the result it gave me;

20180205_133849

So, apparently, I have nudist tendencies.  I have been concealing a long-standing desire to throw off all my clothes and walk around naked all the time.  And I have been doing it all my life.  But I am not some mentally ill pervert, or even an exhibitionist.  I just have an innate feeling, as I suspect most people do, that I was meant to live a more natural life wearing only the things that God clothed me with.  When I think of myself naked, I try to think of myself more like the boy I have drawn here to picture the feelings I have about nudity;

naked426_n

There is a certain innocence and rightness involved in being nude.  I don’t generally push it in people’s faces.  I don’t plaster a bunch of naked pictures of myself on the internet.  Some nudists do.  I see a lot of naked people on Twitter now that I have written articles for nudist blogs and joined a couple of nudist websites. But they are not Playboy magazine nudes.  They are more often than not the slightly overweight, blobby sort of people that look like oddly bulbous stacks of uncooked pancake dough.  They are the kind of unfettered and unashamed personal body images that go a long way toward making me feel better about my fat old blobby-spotty self.  If people like that can be proud of their naked form, then my bugged-out eyes help convince my stupid head that I could do it too.

I have been to a nudist park precisely one time.  As chronicled in this blog last July, I visited the Bluebonnet Nudist Park in Alvord, Texas.  I have been naked in the presence of other naked people.  And it really is a liberating experience.  Being seen naked by naked girls is not nearly as soul-crushingly embarrassing as I once believed.  Especially since being a nudist is in no way about sex.  In fact, lewd behavior of any kind gets you kicked out of a nudist park faster than if you were doing the same thing at the Ballpark at Arlington for a Texas Rangers baseball game.  (Most of those lewd dudes, admittedly, were fueled more by alcohol than hormones.)  Those people at the nudist park did not look at me, scream in horror, and run away.  They looked me in the eye, smiled, and talked to me as if I were the same as they are.

 

So my advice to sincerely ugly people, based on my own experiences as a bug-ugly human being is… become a nudist.  Learn to accept your whole ugly, horrible self as an ordinary human being with no artificial veneer.  Do not cover up who you actually are.  Then, you may begin to see that what you always thought of as ugliness and horribleness is really beauty and grace and healthy human-ness.

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