When you get to be old and burdened with deteriorating health like I am, you appreciate the renewal of spring with a new intensity. This year has been like that. Cold weather and dehydrating cold were worse this winter than I can remember… especially since I feel it in the marrow of my bones now more than ever before. But the inevitable rebirth did eventually come. The apple tree my wife planted in the hope that Texas heat would not destroy it is putting out more blossoms than ever before.
The first flowers to put out their winter-weary heads this year were relatively stupid daffodils. They came out in February only a day before an ice storm came along to slay them for their daffy dunderheadedness. I didn’t take their demise very well. I suffered a lot this winter and was looking for the sun with desperation.
But then, in March, dandelions poked out their bright, dandy heads and decided to stay.
And, though we have had plenty of wet weather and rain, the flowers apparently all had a big meeting and decided the time had come to make their yearly assault and wrench the world out of the hands of Jack Frost and his icy minions.
Wisteria began climbing the back corner of the house. They like to spread their purple majesty out over the area by the cracked and derelict swimming pool. It is moist and shaded out there, somewhat protected from our cruel Texas sun.
My wife’s bed of roses, both red and yellow marched out into the open air and began to dance gently in the wind like grand ladies decked out in their Easter best , showing off their color and their sass for all the world to see.
I am coming back now too… less seriously depressed. I completed a doll collection last week. The educational problems my children were facing are now seemingly straightening out. It is a time of rebirth… happiness… and flowers. My smile has returned.
I know I am mixing metaphors again. It is supposed to be blueBIRDS of happiness. But not only am I starting this essay with a berry theme, I happen to be allergic to blueberries, thus solidly symbolizing my somewhat complicated relationship to the state of being truly happy.
You see, blueberries are full of antioxidants that are beneficial in so many ways that I really need that it seems absolutely a bitter irony that they make me sick to my stomach and constrict my lungs. I used to love eating blueberry muffins and blueberry pancakes, as well as fresh, cold ripe berries. They are good for my strained urinary tract and my glaucoma-plagued eyes. They help stave off cancer and help circulation to prevent heart disease. They are good for your blood pressure. But I also learned the hard way that they can stop me from breathing, a habit I really don’t wish to give up.
It is, unfortunately, a universal fact that no human life ever ran on one-hundred percent happiness. It is not possible to be a living, breathing, feeling human bean without knowing a little sadness… a little tragedy… a fair share of sorrow. In fact, I think it must be a rule that the happiest people you know have faced some of the hardest things you can imagine. My Great Uncle Harry was never able to talk about his experiences in Normandy during World War II. But I never knew a man who appreciated a good joke and a laugh more. My Grandpa Aldrich, my mother’s father, was probably the happiest man I ever knew, but his childhood was made difficult because of his mother’s dark secret, and how his father handled the truth about his birth. I too am a generally happy person. Did you know I have been in a psychiatric hospital after midnight admitting someone I love to the suicide-prevention ward? And I have had serious discussions on more than one occasion with more than one other person who was seriously discussing self-harm with me. I think there is probably no one in this life who truly appreciates happiness that hasn’t stared at least once into the dark eyes of despair.
It goes a long way towards explaining why I included a picture of Blueberry Bates in this essay. She’s a character in more than one of my novels, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius, Magical Miss Morgan, and Kingdoms Under the Earth.
Blueberry blames herself for the death of her mother. She was born a cyanotic, or blue, baby at the same time that her mother went into cardiac arrest during childbirth. The tragedy of her birth broke her father’s relationship to reality. He rejected the little boy who had been born to him because the mother, his beloved wife had died in the process. It fell to Blueberry’s two older sisters to take the baby, care for it, and give it a name.
You’ve probably figured out by now that Blueberry was raised as a girl even though she had a penis because her father would never have accepted the son whose birth killed his wife. He secretly blamed himself because the only reason they had a third child was because he so desperately wanted a son. So, he ended up with three daughters, the youngest one with a terrible secret that she really didn’t understand. And Mr. Bates never really came around to accepting that third daughter either. She was raised by her sisters Becky and Carla, and her Aunt Wilma, her father’s unmarried sister. And it took years of therapy and visits to the specialist in Minnesota who became the expert on gender dysphoria to reach the determination that Blueberry was going to be a girl and would transition when she was old enough. You are probably aware that this is a hard thing to deal with, especially when you don’t have any actual parents to help you deal with it.
But Blueberry is one of the happiest characters I have created in my fiction so far. She loves to draw, especially with colored pencil. She loves her boyfriend, Mike Murphy, to whom she revealed the truth, and in spite of Mike’s struggles with it, he eventually came to accept her not only as a girl, but as a girl he was in love with. That was a choice that didn’t sit well with Mike’s best friend, Tim Kellogg. Tim would have to come to terms with either accepting Blue as a girl, or losing his best friend. And that took more than one novel to decide.
Happiness is like that. The higher your kite flies in the April breeze, the harder it crashes to the ground. And if it is not destroyed in the fall, it longs to fly high again.
Happiness is a blueberry. And I like the taste very much. But I am also allergic to blueberries.
My wife is an immigrant from the Philippines, come to this country in 1993 to be a Texas public school teacher. Like the other members of the Filipino colonization of the United States, she came here with family. And more are coming every year. You go to a family gathering and meet cousins by the dozens, friends from this country, and friends from that country, and their relatives, and lots and lots of kids… that must belong to somebody somewhere.
They get together and talk, tell jokes, eat, talk some more, sing karaoke, mostly off key, tell stories about the Philippines in English, and stories about the Philippines in Tagalog, and stories about the Philippines in Kapampangan, and even stories about the Philippines in Ilocano (but nobody listens to him anyway… He’s from the North) and sing more karaoke, and definitely take a group photo while eating and talking.
And one time at one of these family gatherings, while others were singing karaoke, somebody put a baby girl in my lap. She was Renfatootie Paffenboingey. (Obviously not her real name… even in Kapampangan.) She was the daughter of my wife’s cousin and her Greek husband. She was only about a month old then. My own daughter had not yet been born. She was, in fact, not even certain to be a daughter at that point in the pregnancy.
“You need to get used to holding one of those,” Renfatootie’s mother told me.
And then the sweet little thing looked at me and smiled (though she was not old enough to focus her eyes and what she did was probably more gas bubble than smile.) I am told that you are not supposed to fall in love with other people’s children, so I didn’t. Or I did and just lied about it afterwords.
There were several other times that baby Ren was put in my lap. I rocked her to sleep and sang softly to her more than once at family gatherings and picnics and barbecues and… they do a lot of eating in Filipino families.
As Ren got older they began to call her “Tweety” because of the big forehead and big eyes and the Tweety-bird grin she always wore. I didn’t see her often, and talked to her even less. I really thought she didn’t know who I was. She was not my kid. She smiled at me a lot, but she smiled at everybody.
Then one day we were at a picnic in New Braunfels where the families were all taking advantage of the cold spring water in the creek in the park on hot South Texas day. I was talked into putting on swim trunks and getting in the water with my kids and all the other kids. Renfatootie had a squirt gun. She was about ten then. And as malevolent as a ten-year-old is made by God to be. Every opportunity she found she used to squirt me directly in the face. And then she giggled and ducked the splashes of my weakly attempted revenge. It almost got to the point of being more irritating than cute.
Later I had put clothes back on and most everyone was settled into eating and talking and taking group photos while eating for the rest of the afternoon. Renfatootie “Tweety” Paffenboingey came after me soaking wet from her most recent dip in the cold water.
“Michael! Give me a hug!” she commanded, throwing her arms out wide for me. I took hold. And the wet little thing soaked my clothes in chilled water as she gave me such a squeeze that my eyes nearly popped out of my head.
“You did that just to get me wet again,” I said, with a smile rather than anger.
“Nah. You gotta love ’em while you got ’em. I don’t get to love you near enough.”
I was not the only one she pulled the wet-hug trick on that day. But she left me admiring her philosophy of life in a big way. I may not seize the opportunity as much as she does. But I have resolved to try.
It’s been a few years since I saw her last. She’s a big girl now. Graduated from high school and everything. But remembering her brings a smile to my face even now.
I hardly ever have a day now where I am not going through some kind of suffering. I have just been through rainy days that make my arthritis sore to crippling levels of hurting-ness. Okay, that’s not a real word, so let’s say hurtyness… not a real word either, but funnier sounding. I have been through a number of months of budget-squeezing economic pain, not making enough to afford medicine the doctor orders, or even enough for the doctor’s visit so he can tell me what expensive medicines (like insulin) that I may need to stay alive and yell at me for not taking the medicine I used to be on and couldn’t afford anymore. The news is unrelenting with pandemic infections out of control and death tolls rising while the criminal we elected in 2016 screams that it is all the fault of radical ANTIFA Democrats like me (ANTIFA meaning anybody against fascism) and we are entirely to blame for everything, and we better be opening schools soon or he will cut education funds again… and even more… and make us put up Betsy DeVos posters in our bedrooms so she can watch us sleep and make us have nightmares about schools because we had the audacity to be educators and pro-public-school advocates.
So, maybe, you think, I am bitter and hate my life. Ha! No! If I had it all to do over again, I would not change a thing!
Two times in my life I have had a job that I hated. Both were teaching jobs. Each of them only lasted for one year. The first time, my very first teaching job, I came back the second year to a new principal and mostly new kids. I worked really hard and turned it into a job I loved for the next 23 years. The second time was a job for a principal who was decidedly dictatorial and hated by most of the staff. She ended up firing me because I liked black and brown kids too much, and it resulted in me finding a much better job which I loved for seven more years. I have never regretted becoming a teacher. In fellow faculty and the vast majority of over two thousand students, I encountered some of the most interesting and best people I have ever known. Including my wife. Now, when pain and suffering are lonelier things to deal with than the hubbub and struggle of daily school life, I have all of that to look back upon and remember and grin insanely about with high levels of life-satisfaction. Doing things you love to do is a key to happiness.
Another reason I am in love with life in spite of it all is the chance I had to be an artist and express myself through drawing, painting, coloring, and telling stories. As you can see by this blog, I have done a lot of doodling since I discovered I could draw at somewhere around the ripe old age of four. And because I rarely throw artwork away, I have a lot of it to share. Some of it I am very proud of. The stuff I am ashamed of that I have not trashed, I am only mildly ashamed of.
I claim to be humorist. Some of my best stories can make you laugh. And some of my drawings can too.
But not every part of the world of humor is about laughing, chortling, giggling, snickering, or full-blown donkey-like hee-haws. Some humor only makes you smile.
Some humor is gentle and thoughtful, even ironic.
And some of the best humor calls up truths and feelings that can bring you to tears.
But all of us “normal” human beans love to laugh (or even groan about that bean-pun) and laughter is good for us. Expressing yourself through art, especially if it makes us laugh, is another reason I love being alive.
Being dead, of course, makes it awful hard to laugh. This is why I generally try to avoid being dead. But thoughts of death can too easily become a way of life. That is why I try to put fear and anger and Republican Senators from Texas far away from me. They will not take me out of my laughing place while I am still alive.
And most important of all, you need to love life because of love itself. Now, I am not saying anything about sex here. Not that sex isn’t a good thing, and that it doesn’t pop into your old head every time you think about love, but that sex isn’t the most important part of love. It is possible to love everybody unconditionally. As much as Mark Twain and I both complain a lot about “That damned human race!” we both understand that the most wonderful thing about people is that, in spite of the fact that the word “people” is a little label on a very big thing… they are, in fact, an ever-expanding balloon of infinitely hilarious and detestable and cuddly things that threaten to pop at any moment and spew weird and wild personalities all over the damned universe. No matter how much you hate some people, or even if you hate people generally, loving people is the spicy Italian meat sauce on the spaghetti pile of your life. So, do some acts of pure gluttony upon it, and just be happy to be alive.
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.
For the past twenty-plus years I have basically been living a holiday-free life. I married a Jehovah’s Witness, and it is an article of faith with them to never celebrate worldly holidays of any kind.
This has always included Father’s Day. I have never celebrated Father’s Day in any way during the 22 years I have been a father.
Explaining why I no longer associate with Witnesses is complicated and began when illness started to take over my life and my family. And it wasn’t only my illnesses that took hold. Religion, to hold your faith and obedience, really needs to keep its promises. No matter how well-meaning they were in their doctrines, their decisions had the opposite effect on me.
So, a side benefit is a return to celebrating the things that everybody else celebrates.
My daughter is highly skilled at some online Japanese games. She won a few prizes and had them mailed here to us free from Japan. The action figure shown above is my original Father’s Day gift, a Star Wars Last Jedi figure in a box with only Japanese product information on the box.
And because my daughter felt so good about giving me a Father’s Day gift, and is also seriously bangarang at Japanese video games, she won me a second one that came on the Friday before Father’s Day. I feel blessed and loved by my children. And, honestly, I believe that is what holidays are actually for. Even the little ones.
Sundays have always been a day for rest. And yet, I have always gotten more work done on Sunday than any other day of the week. It was always in the past a day for grading papers and reading student essays. It was also a day for housework; washing dishes, mowing the lawn, painting the house, and paying bills.
And today, I have paid bills and fully intend to do more meal deliveries through Uber to raise money for paying even more bills. I have no shortage of bills.
But I also need to “Carpe Diem” a little bit and do some of the things that are most important in life. And here I intend to confess a few of those things that I consider important.
My wife has gone to California for a week to a religious convention. I took her to the airplane early yesterday morning. So I am alone with the kids for a while. I intend to take them out to eat today, maybe at Braums. Later, the movie Ready Player One is playing at the dollar movie in Plano.
You can also see by the initial picture of this piece that the flower garden has zinnias blooming, but desperately needs weeding. I don’t wish to horrify you too much, so I will not post a picture of me working on the flowers because I have resolved to do it in the nude. Seriously, have you ever heard of the oriental practice of Forest Bathing? Spending time in nature, like the time we visited the redwoods in California, really does cleanse the soul. And because we have a privacy fence in the back yard, and because wifey is gone to California where she can’t make fun of me for it, I intend to get a little bit of that feeling by practicing nudism a wee bit in the back yard. I know it sounds like the idiot pronouncements of a fool entering his second childhood, but it is really a refreshing thing to be out in the light of the sun bathing in the growing greenness and yellow sunshine. And I can get a few weeds pulled out of both the flower garden and my soul.
So I vow to get important things done today. I will seize the day. And while the things I do can’t all be called work, necessarily, they will be accomplishments. And I will have done something worthwhile.