It came to an end for Justice Ginsberg after 87 years. It will come to an end soon for my father too. He is in hospice care at 88 years and eleven months. Her turns 89 in October. But he is deteriorating every day now. The final destination can’t be too much farther down the road for me either.
Life is not a Disney movie with Bambi in it. My mother made it out of the meadow alive when I was small.
But, when you think about it, after a cute and funny childhood, there was that moment behind the car tires when trauma struck, at age ten, and after that I had to grow up faster than should have been necessary. And in my youth and in my prime, I had to struggle to prove myself. Against other bucks, and hunters with guns, and… at the end of the movie, it seems like the whole world is on fire.
So, maybe life is like a Disney movie with Bambi in it. And maybe I have to make my own happy ending.
Perhaps Bambi is my spirit-animal. The one who protects my family. My patronus. My guardian angel.
No matter how I take it on, it has been a long and wearying road to follow. And the journey now is nearly complete. But the last few miles are always the hardest to bear. Still, I know the journey has been worth it. And there will be rest to be had in that last meadow. RGB already knows it. Soon my father will too. Peace be upon us, for we have earned it.
I like to think of myself as a good person. In fact, having been a successful public school teacher, I basically feel that calling myself a hero is not the same sort of toxic narcissism that Prexydental Trumpalump displays when he thinks of himself that way.
I need to get it through my thick head that everyone sees themselves that way, and that it is universally untrue. We let too much badness go unopposed. We are hard-hearted too often towards our fellow men and women… and children… and animals… and the planet as a whole.
We see others who are different than ourselves as “others” and exclude them from our groups, some of us going so far as to villainize others just because their skin is green, or because they know what “Blogwopping” means and we don’t. And what we villainize, or demonize, or verminize, we feel righteous in harming, even exterminating.
So, what’s the point I am making? Am I such a loathsome creature that the only way I can make the world a better place is to curl up and die? Of course not. That’s the darkness talking me back into grave ideas and depressed thinking. I need to spread a little of that old Norman Vincent Peale peanut-butter on the slice of toast that is my world. Yes, a little bit of positive thinking can re-butter your toast for the better in order to prepare you to battle the battles that must be fought and won.
A true warrior is not the guy doing the most killing on the battlefield. And he is not the one who dies for his country either. Both may have their place in a war, but neither is the one who wins it. A true warrior is the one who endures to the end. The last man standing. The one who rules the battlefield at the end of the day.
So, what do I mean with all this warrior nonsense? I mean, my Great Grandma Hinckley was a true warrior, because she steadfastly led her family through five generations of it, and made more generations possible.
You say the world is dying of climate change? My Grandma was a relentless garden-keeper, helping us to survive with garden-fresh sweet corn, sweet peas, pumpkins, squash, and carrots from her garden. And she planted a multitude of flowers every year to keep the bees happy and a everything they pollinated growing.
You say we may succumb to pandemics and plagues? Grandma Hinckley was a maker of chicken soup, a mender of wills and willpower in the downhearted… church-goer, psalm-singer, user of Vick’s Vapo-Rub, Dr. Scholl’s inserts, Werther’s Original Butterscotch and Hard Candies, and if worse came to worse… Castor Oil!
And for political problems… government corruption and such? Well, maybe you can’t still vote for FDR or Eisenhower… but you damn sure better vote.
Yes, my Great Grandma Hinckley was a true warrior.
And so, I am ready for the fights to come. I will be a warrior like her. I will be a problem-solver, and I will endure. Because that’s just what you do, no matter the odds against you. I learned it from her. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with a warrior for a grandma, or mother, or father, or sister, brother, wife, or son… even daughter. We stand a chance if we will only stand together. And we do it for love.
You should never try to measure anything by using a yardstick that changes it size and dimensions at random. There is no way to tell if you are growing or shrinking if the recorded six inches on Wednesday is the same thing you measured at ten inches on Tuesday, but it’s a wrench that’s been in your tool box for twenty years and you know danged well that it hasn’t changed size. You realize that there is no empirical data to be had on anything if you keep using a fourth-dimensional yardstick whose flux capacitor is out of adjustment.
Human beans, however, tend to foolishly always measure with their fourth-dimensional yardsticks. The way Texas measures children’s educational development, with a new and harder test every single year. No matter that everyone knows the yardstick is broken.
During the COVID 19 pandemic, I have had a lot of time to evaluate myself and my life’s work. But it is important to find the proper yardstick. I don’t need a broken one. I need a solid, unchangeable one.
I worked for thirty-one years in Texas education, grades six through twelve, seven years teaching English as a second language to Spanish speakers, Vietnamese speakers, Chinese speakers, Lebanese speakers, Portuguese speakers, Egyptian speakers, speakers of that language used in Eritrea that I can’t even pronounce, much less spell, and speakers of multiple languages from India. I earned a pension voted into being in the 90’s and I was grandfathered past the legislation that gutted pensions for teachers in the 2000’s. Of course, pensions for teachers are like treaties with Native Americans. They disappear over time and are never spoken about again by people whose voices can actually be heard.
So, wealth is not a yardstick I can measure with. I am in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy from medical bills already, having only been six years retired. And, since I can’t afford further medical debt, the next heart problem, cancer problem, stroke, or other fatal illness will have to be the death of me. I can’t afford a cure at today’s prices. (I have health insurance, but they pay for diddly-nada. You only have health insurance so you can pay premiums to rich people, not to cover any expenses.)
Accomplishments are not a workable yardstick either. I was never a teacher of the year (or even employed in a district that gave out such an award.) I never walked on the Moon or Mars, like I wanted to do as a kid. I never starred in a movie, or directed one, or wrote the screenplay for one, as I hoped to do as a college freshman. But such things are daydreams and pixie dust anyway. No more real than a fourth-dimensional yardstick.
When I was ten years old, though, an older boy sexually assaulted me. Not merely molested me, but tortured me, caused me physical pain, from which he derived sexual pleasure. I was fortunate that he didn’t kill me, as that kind of sexual predator is known to have done. But he lived out his life quietly and died of heart attack a few years ago. He never assaulted anybody else that I or the authorities ever found out about. So, I actually forgave him after he was dead. And what he did to me made me vow to myself that I would fight against that kind of predatory behavior for the rest of my life. I would go on to be a teacher who became a mentor to lonely and fatherless boys, not to prey upon them, but to protect them from the wicked wolves of evil appetite. I did not do the same thing for girls because I knew that certain temptations might be too much for me. I am not, after all, gay even though my first sexual experience was a same-sex nightmare. And I did like beautiful women and girls. Maybe that part of my life is a gold star in the book rather than a black mark.
And I am a story-teller. I have now published sixteen novels, and I have two more cooking in the old black kettle of imagination along with a book of essays drawn from this goofy little blog. Whether that is a yardstick by which to measure or not, is entirely up to readers. Some have told me that my stories are well-written and the characters are realistic and engaging. Some have told me that putting mentions of pornography and sexual assault into my novels is too much, and that my depictions of nudists I have known and loved is inappropriate, but that too is a matter of opinion. I don’t believe I have done any of that gratuitously. And I firmly believe young adult readers want and need stories about unwanted pregnancies, being victimized, and suicidal depression. I know that when I faced those things in my real life, I benefited from the things I had read about those very things. It’s not like I was promoting anything bad.
But measuring yourself is hard. Especially if all rulers and yardsticks are of the growing-and-shrinking-randomly variety.
The pandemic has been wearing on us all. It keeps us home-bound. It prevented me from making the annual trip to Iowa to visit my octogenarian parents, even though my father is now in hospice care because Parkinson’s is winning the five-year battle he has been fighting against it. My mother got me to stay in Texas by telling me that my father no longer recognizes even her, and it would do him no good to see me through a glass window if he didn’t know me anyway. I may not even get to attend his funeral because of COVID.
My daughter too has been dealt a difficult hand of hearts to try to win a card-game of life with. She missed having a regular high school graduation. This is already her second time losing a grandfather. And she has been desperately worried about me with my six incurable pre-existing conditions catching my death of coronavirus flu just because I go to the grocery store to buy food.
But I am not suggesting that my family is the Flintstones, even though Fred, Wilma, and Pebbles have been a part of my life since the 1960’s. Instead I am showing you how we have been coping with it all. My daughter has taken to doing oil-paintings in her room, and today she registered online with the local Junior College. She has also developed an addiction to Fruity Pebbles cereal. They are putting these blank frames on the backs of her cereal boxes, and I have been addicted to cutting them out and drawing Flintstones characters on them. We have developed happy little artistical quirks to carry on the work of the Church of Bob Ross where we create whatever little worlds with our art that we feel like making today. And it is entirely up to us to make our world however we want it to be, just like Bob always says.
It is a fairly difficult thing to face a blank page every single day. I usually win in the battle to write something every day. But not always. Some days it is just too hard. Some days I am not well enough to make my stupid old brain spin up a spider-web of words. Some days the words are just Teufelsscheiße (poop coming out of the Devil in German).
But staring at a blank page today got me thinking about the process again, how the words come, where they come from, and why.
I just finished the most successful free-book promotion I have ever had. I gave away more books than ever before, and I gave some away every single day of the promotion. Some who downloaded the e-book even thanked me and told me they would read it. One even promised to read it right after he finished reading one of my other books.
Of course, you can see that this novel has nudist characters in it, and it is even set in a nudist park. So, naturally, the copies were mostly grabbed by members of the Twitter-nudist circle of friends and acquaintances I have on Twitter. But it is thrilling to know someone is actually going to read one, or even two of my books. I haven’t gotten enough of that feeling as an author. It is one of the main purposes of my writing, to have readers.
But this post is supposed to be about process, not publication. So, how did I come to write this thing? This nudist novel and this blog about writing it?
Well, like most real writers, I choose to write about what I know. And I am acquainted with naturism. I had a girlfriend once whose sister lived in a nudist apartment complex in Austin. I was inside that place a dozen times or so. I have also been to the nudist park north of Dallas. I have experience of nudists and at least some idea of what it is like to be one.
And the characters in the story are all based on real people. The main character is at least fifty percent me. The other fifty percent is a member of my family. The stepmom in the story is a combination of two former girlfriends. Her twin girls are partly based on my twin cousins (who have never been nudists) and on twin girls in my class in the 80’s (who lived naked at least once in a while, if not as much as the twins in the story).
But the critical themes in the story are not really about being a nudist. Naked is a metaphor for honesty, being able to hide nothing because you no longer wear the armor that you once used to hide from repressed memories of abuse. The main character, Devon, is battling depression and suicidal thoughts brought on by a life full of abuse. And he learns to overcome these life-threatening things by being honest with others, especially by being honest with himself. A little bit of naked honesty turns out to be the key that unlocks his prison cell.
As I put words and stories and blog posts together, I invariably find myself writing about certain things over and over and over again. They are the things I wrestle with daily. I write to keep my mind active, and to keep my heart and soul alive.
It isn’t too much to expect to look at a blank page every day, and to find there the words that I need to say. It is daunting, but doable. And it gets easier with practice.
Last night I reached the climax of the novel, A Field Guide to Fauns. I pulled the scene off in a way that made me cry and feel like a part of my soul had been pulled out through my nose. But a critical question remains to be answered. Does it matter to the reader as much as it does to me?
The climax occurs after a group of four characters participate in a Chicken Dance, and the critical conflict is resolved by talking about the past.
Probably not the most cinematic approach I could have used.
But this is not a cinematic story. It is introspective. It grapples with chronic child abuse and suicidal depression. It deals with recovery from a seriously traumatic event. And it is set in a nudist park featuring characters who are trying to rebuild families after divorce.
Can I leave it like it currently is? Knowing me, I probably will. It is an essential sort of story that I need to write because of who I am, who I was before, and where I am trying to be. I don’t write for anybody else but me. But I do hope others will read it. I will, in fact, continue to coerce family members and friends who are not sick of my story-telling (if such rare creatures still exist) to read it and make faces afterwards. And I firmly believe it is well-written, but it is a well-written, introspective and highly metaphorical novel. How many people do I know, after all, that read and enjoy Marcel Proust or William Faulkner or Saul Bellow? (I myself have only read multiple books from two of those three, and that because I can’t read French to get the book in its original language),
Last night I watched what I thought was a marvelous movie on Disney Plus. And the truth is, the gut-punching climax of that movie happens when the main character is reviewing his to-do list while sitting on a rock. So, it is not only me who sometimes soft-peddles the critical steps in a story plot.
In truth, then, the next critical step for me will be to finish the falling action of the novel, carefully re-read and edit the manuscript, and then publish it. The novel will be done soon.
Well, here I am now. Shut down and quarantined, not because I have Covid 19, which I don’t, even though I can’t prove that. Rather, it is because I am a high risk individual. Coronavirus could kill me easily. And also because the world is shut down around us. No school. Officially for this week, but probably for the rest of the school year.
So, what will I do now? Well, write more on my novel, of course. But this is not the 19th Century. There are ways to reach out to friends and family instantly, by phone, or Skype, or Facebook, or instant messenger… And you need to check on them. Keep them from feeling isolated and alone. Especially if, like me, you or any of them are at risk from this pandemic. We are not living in the days of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. We are able to actively connect with others to keep the depression monsters at bay. And no one gets physically sick from a phone call. (I honestly hope that is the truth.) I talked with my octogenarian parents last night, and texted my 60-something sister just to talk and reconnect. My daughter talked to her grandmother in Iowa. My number two son has online friends in Europe and South America. We have family in the Philippines. And I can write this blog post for you. How is your family doing? Do you know somebody that is at risk? Reach out to them. It may be the phone call that saves their life, and then the invention of the telephone will be validated and justified.
And hopefully, with the use of modern communication devices, you won’t infect them with anything, and they won’t infect you. Not even Mr. Grupp.
I am ill again. No apparent reason. Just headaches, body aches, and a pain in the chest. Day-after-day sort of pain for a sufferer of diabetes and arthritis. But pain is a reminder that you are still alive. It grabs you by the collarbones and shakes you with the realization that whatever you are going to accomplish will be done over, under, or around the difficult obstacles thrown in your way. So, I better pick myself up and get going.