Category Archives: insight

Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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Why Do You Think That? Part 5

On a sleepy summer Sunday it is only natural to think thoughts about God.  And I have to include Jesus and Christianity in all of that meditation.  After all, as a boy I attended Sunday school on Sunday morning in the Rowan Methodist Church and then would attend the Sunday service with my mother and father, brother, and two sisters.  We would sing songs from the Methodist hymnal.

But here’s the kicker.  Over time I have studied and learned science, how the world really works, and how people really act.  I have noticed that most of the most intelligent writers, scientists, and thinkers are atheists and agnostics.  I have had to make my peace with these things;

  • There is no life after death.
  • Jesus may not have been a real person.
  • If he was real, he had very little in common with the Jesus we worship.
  • Jesus doesn’t need to be real to have value in my life.
  • There is no white-haired old man sitting on a throne in heaven.
  • There is no heaven.
  • If there is no heaven, then there certainly is no hell.
  • We are all connected… even those of us who don’t live on this planet, in this galaxy.

So I guess, that makes me an atheist who believes in the existence of God.  And because of this moronic oxymoron, my thesis now has to be; Even atheists have a need for religion.

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Saint Raphael

Yes, when it comes to religion, I am an idiot.  Just like all the rest of you are.  Mark Twain once said something like, “Religion is the firmly held belief in what you know ain’t so.”  That misquote, of course, is taken entirely on faith from a vague memory of a passage in the short story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”

Of course, I am not saying that I find no value in religion.  I was associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses for almost twenty years because that was the religion my wife clings to.  They are a Bible-based religion with a strict literalist interpretation of scripture who are expecting the end of the world, this “wicked system of things” at any moment now and go around knocking on doors and giving away free Bible literature with their own Truth professionally printed to save as many of the unbelievers as possible.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have never really fully accepted what they believe.  But I have freely participated.  Their belief system makes them some of the most loving, self-sacrificing people you could ever meet.  They are non-violent and believe in helping everybody no matter how far they have to bend over backwards to do it.  There are very good things in the Bible about living a moral life that are absolutely true and will make you and your children into better people.  But here’s the most important thing about living that kind of life.  If you are doing it for the promised rewards of eternal life, then you are doing it wrong.  The goodness you do in this life and the love you both give and receive is the only heaven there is.  Hardship taken on as a sacrifice to a loving God gets you nothing but the feeling that you have done the right thing.  But let me assure you, that feeling is a treasure greater than fine gold.  That mental state you create for yourself is the whole point and purpose of religion.

 

I do realize that liars are the people most likely to say, “Believe me…” before telling you something is true, but believe me, I don’t expect you to accept my cold clinical dissection of what religion is in my world view.  I want you to believe whatever you believe is true about Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, or Budda…  or nirvana or existentialism or science.  I accept you and love you for who you are.  The important thing is that we are all connected.  Most religions make us nicer to each other and make us more loving and kind, as long as we are not allowing ourselves to fall victim to the dark side that exists in every religion.  When your religion tells you to hate something, especially when it tells you to do something to punish that something you hate, especially especially if that something you hate is another person of some kind, then that’s where Eve is biting the apple, that’s where all the trouble starts.

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Don’t let atheists tell you they don’t believe in anything.  I hear Neal DeGrasse Tyson talk about being made of star stuff and teach about the connections we have with everything in the universe.  Listen to him yourself on Cosmos talking about the wonders of science and the human quest to know, and tell me if you don’t hear hymns to God in his reverent explanations.  He just knows God in a different form than you do.

So here is my humble conclusion on a sleepy summer Sunday morning when my meditations drift back to a boyhood of telling Jesus jokes in the down-time during Sunday school.  I am an atheist who believes in a loving God.  And even atheists need God in their life.

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Imaginary Friends

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When you know someone has an imaginary friend, something like Elwood’s six-foot invisible rabbit called Harvey, don’t you immediately think that person is crazy?  I do.  But I have imaginary people as friends. I think most writers do.  So am I crazy?  Probably. But hopefully it is a good kind of crazy.

It began with imaginary friends from books.  The Cat in the Hat was my friend.  Jim Hawkins was my friend, as was Mowgli and all the members of the Swiss Family Robinson.  They entered my dreams and my daydreams.  I told them my troubles the same way I listened to theirs through their stories.

I began to have imaginary friends that came from my own imagination too.

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I used to tell my mere human friends about my friend Davalon from outer space.  I told them that he was real and secretly visited me at night to talk about being able to learn about humans on earth by walking around invisibly and watching them.  I got so involved with these stories that my sixth grade class began saying, “Michael is from Mars.”

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When I was a teenager, I began having conversations with a faun.  His name was Radasha.  He was a creature from Greek Myth, a sensual Dionysian creature who, in his child body, was both younger than me and way older than me.  I didn’t realize until much later in life that he was the result of my repressed memories of a childhood sexual assault that I was the victim of.  I could talk to him about my fear of nakedness.  I could tell him about my blossoming interests in naked girls and their bodies.  I could talk to him about all the things I was somehow too terrified to talk to my male friends about, even though none of them had the same reluctance to discuss sex.  Ra was imaginary.  But he helped me heal.

Then the story-telling seriously began.  I used Davalon as one of the main characters in my novel Catch a Falling Star.  I created Torrie Brownfield, the baby werewolf to express the feelings I had as a boy about being a monster and secretly terrible and deformed.  Torrie is a normal boy with a condition called hypertrichosis.  I am working on The Baby Werewolf now.  And then there’s lovely Valerie Clarke.  She is the main character of Snow Babies which is a finished novel, edited and proofread and ready to publish.  It is I book I will have to find another way to publish since the recent death of PDMI Publishing.  She is not a me-character, based on my own thoughts and feelings.  She is based on former classmates and students who told me things that express the sadness and isolation of growing up female.  So she is even more imaginary than my other characters.

They become real people to me.  They have their own point of view. They talk to me and I learn things from them.  But they are imaginary.  So am I crazy?   Yes… as a loon.  And happy as Elwood P. Dowd to be that way.

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Theme Songs for Living Life

You know how in movies and on TV they play a soundtrack behind the action of the show?  And how, sometimes, if the movie or TV show is any good, it enhances and underscores whatever is happening to the main theme of story and the action that expresses it on the screen?  Yeah, that.  A complex idea that lies just under the surface of consciousness, a something that somebody sometime thought up that actually works and can work quite well.  But why does it work?

Put as simply as I can say an idea that is so layered and complex, it is because that is how real life works.  Yeah, there is music in the background of every life.  It plays almost unnoticed until that point where you suddenly realize how it defines your very soul.

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Through childhood and junior high and high school, I used to joke with my two sisters that every song that came on the radio was my favorite song, my theme song.  Every new Beatles’ song, or Paul Revere and the Raiders’ song, or Elton John musical fantasy was the song that defined my entire life.  Yes, I really was that fickle.  But I was also responding to a sense that who I was had to change into something new as often as you heard a new song on the radio or bought a new record album.  (Yes, I know some of you have no idea what that is, but I am a child of the 60’s and 70’s, and I make no excuse for that.  So deal with it.)

I hope you have listened to some of the YouTube song-thingies I have added to this post.  They are not picked at random.  They are some of the key theme songs of my goofy, pointless, and fantastical life.

The Astroboy opening theme is here to represent my early childhood.  When I had the courage of the irrepressible imagination of childhood.  I soared with Astroboy through every black-and-white episode I could get hold of in the 60’s.  At times it met getting out of bed early to catch it at 6:00 am, just after Channel 3 came on the air in the morning.  At times it meant rushing home as soon as school let out because it came on only half an hour after the last bell, and the school was on the north end of Rowan, while home was as far south as the town went.Astroboy

I really used to believe that I would grow up to lead a heroic life and make a name for myself that would inspire others to greatness too.  We are uncommonly stupidly when we are children, and we need simplistic theme songs to wake us up to life gradually.

The Eagles provided the theme songs of my high school and college young manhood.  Trying out life, at times boldly, and at most times timidly, I had to “Take It to the Limit” as often as I could manage.  It turned out that due to irrepressible social awkwardness, my greatest presses against the walls of my existence were all academic in nature.  We learn by doing… and failing… and trying again.  The songs become more complex as they weave themselves into the background of your life story.

As a young teacher, shy and soft-spoken, it was impressed on me that discipline was about controlling behavior which you had to do by being stern and unyielding, good at rule-setting and handing down punishments.  But with my goofy temperament and non-threatening clown face, I soon learned that that road only led to misery and heartache for both me and, more importantly, the students.  In the 80’s I learned that you had to follow Bobby McFerrin’s philosophy of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.  I learned that you don’t teach someone lasting lessons by pushing them from behind with paddles and switches, but by leading them forward with jokes and obvious joy in the lessons you are teaching.

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Now that I have grown old and awful in the winter of my life, the songs that express my personal themes are classical music and complex with snowflakian symmetry and stark, cold beauty.  I would talk about a few more particulars, but I am now well past 500 words, and if you don’t have the idea yet, I’m sorry, you are probably never going to hear that music yourself.  But don’t worry… be happy.

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Becoming

The classic line from the visionary poet Theodore Roethke;

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But the truth is, before you can BE you must first BECOME.

I know what you are probably thinking.  “What is this idiot rambling on about now?”

Well, sometimes you simply have to spout a lot of love and hoo-haw and just pretend it means something.  That is the core, I think, of what philosophy is all about.

But maybe a list of what I have already become will get the idea knitting itself together.  You know, a list of the things I can already just BE.

I have already become college educated.  I have a BA in English and an MAT in Education (Master of the Art of Teaching).  Those letters my college years bestowed upon me are only an “N” short of being an anagram for BATMAN.  So I have almost become BATMAN.

I have also finished becoming a teacher.  In fact, I have spent 31 years becoming a teacher.  I have gotten so teacherfied over the years that I am actually now becoming a retired teacher.  I haven’t learned the art of retired teacher yet.  It is still gonna take a bit of practice to start getting it right.  But I can get a kid to sit down and shut up with just a look.  I can read the mind of a glum-faced student and know we are about to have a bad day.  And I always know when to tell a really awful joke so that the students know their only hope of keeping their lunch down and retaining their sanity is to ask me to please get back to today’s lesson.  So I can BE that, at least in theory.  I am still BECOMING retired.

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Why-ever would I draw myself as a naked boy?  I have inexplicably weird urges sometimes.

I am a living, breathing human being.  I have been that now for sixty years and eight months.  I have practiced it enough that I can BE that without even thinking about it.  Well, not now, just most of the time I don’t have to think about it.

But I did make a huge mistake fairly recently in applying for a chance to be a blogger for an AANR-affiliated website.  Yes, that’s right, the American Association for Nude Recreation.  I signed on to write about being a nudist.

I am asked to write a review of the nearest naturist park, the Bluebonnet Naturist Park in Alvord, Texas.  I am hoping to find a day for a day-visit that won’t find a lot of people there.  Ummm.  How did I get roped into BECOMING a nudist?  Is it too late to back out now?  Or would that be UNBECOMING?

But most of all, I have labored long and hard at BECOMING a real writer.  I have two books already published.  Aeroquest and Catch a Falling Star.    You can find them both on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  But don’t buy Aeroquest.  Those cheap burgle-binkies don’t deserve to make any more money off of me.  I have another book coming out soon from Page Publishing, Magical Miss Morgan.  It is a book I am really proud of, though these foofy publishers have done nothing to help it and a lot to mess it up for me.
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But, I must admit, I have just finished reading Mitch Albom’s masterpiece, The Magic Strings of Frankie Pesto.  It is a miraculous, engaging read that made me laugh and made me cry and made me fall in love with the story.  And it is so far beyond what I can do that I must write a review on it, maybe tomorrow, and gush praises all over it.  I can only dream of BEING a writer like that.  It proves to me that I have a lot more BECOMING to work on.  Sorry, Ted, I am just not there yet.

 

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Seeing Things Differently

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Where do I begin?  There are just too many ideas in this one topic to enumerate them all here.   I just got turned down on another loan application.  I am lost for what to do about the swimming pool.  I can’t fix it myself.  I can’t afford to pay anyone to fix it or remove it.  I am suffering from how the world sees me.  Debt to income ratio makes bankers see me as a deadbeat.  The city pool inspector thinks I don’t work hard enough at keeping my property from falling apart.  I don’t know what the doctor thinks any more.  I haven’t gone in for a check up in two years.  I can’t afford to go on insulin, so I simply don’t.  This world seems to see me as a potential homeless person in a short amount of time.  No chance that any one of those folks are going to let me define myself.

But suffering builds character.  And, damn!  I have a lot of character.  Want some of the extra?

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Life for me has always been pretty much a long march into the darkness.  I try to bring power and light and goodness with me as I march, but I know there is a final end to the journey, and it will not go smoothly.  It will not end well.  But I don’t see things the way other men do.  I continue to fight the good fight, even though I will ultimately lose the war.  “Rage! Rage against the dying of the light!” says the poet Dylan Thomas.  The fight is everything.  And I simply can’t be troubled with thinking about what lies over the last hill in this march toward the final battle.

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I think, ultimately, that the important thing isn’t winning or losing.  It is about who or what we have become on the inside.  I find solace in being able to laugh at life.  A lot of depressing things have been happening lately.  It can make the laughing harder to manage.  But if life is not joy at its heart, then what is it?  And what makes it worth living?

“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu

Thus it is…  Lao Tzu is wise.  The Tzu part of his name means “teacher”.  So maybe I need to learn from him.  There has to be a way forward, at least until the path ends.

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Things I Must Tell You Before I Die

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I collect sunrises.  The picture above is today’s, July 16th, 2017, looking east over the green belt park in Carrollton, Texas.  Every new day is a miracle.  I am sixty years and eight months old as of this sunrise.  I have six incurable diseases and am a cancer survivor since 1983.  One of those diseases is diabetes, and I cannot afford to be put on insulin.  There is no reason to believe I will have another sunrise tomorrow.

But I am not sad or angry.  I am not afraid.  I am thankful.  I have lived a good life.

And here’s a secret nobody has probably ever told you before in these exact words;  “Life is a miracle, and no matter how cruel it has been to you over time, or what terrible things have happened to you, the world is a better place because you have lived in it.”

Amazingly, those words apply even to Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson.  If you think about it, there was a backlash to all the misery, suffering, grief and death they caused.  In a backhanded way,  bad people make us come together, find the strength in ourselves to resist evil, and make the world better in ways it couldn’t have been if there had been no challenge or reason to do it.  Think of all the heroes like Oscar Schindler that Hitler’s persecution of Jews created.  Think of all the times a Satanic figure like Manson made you shudder when you confronted the darkness in your own soul, and how it made you vow to be a better person than he was.  And how you kept that vow.

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It seems I may have become a nudist in my doddering old age.  I signed up to blog for a nudist website associated with the AANR (American Association of Nude Recreation) and suddenly I have nudist friends who are encouraging me to take all my clothes off and go camping in spite of my little pink psoriasis spots.  I haven’t actually gone naked camping yet, despite the invitations.  But if I continue to blog about it, I will end up having to. Even though the pay per article is pretty paltry.   Hmm.  I still might not.  But you can’t be any more naked with no clothes on than you are when you bare your soul by writing.  If you have actually read my blog, you have seen things that are well beneath the very skin of me… all the way to heart and bone.  And here is the secret I must impart about all of that nakedness stuff;  “People are actually naked all the time.  Clothes merely make us think that we are not.”

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Here’s a really important thing I have to tell you.  I was a middle school teacher and actually loved it.  Don’t tell the people at the Institute for Keeping Crazy People Off the Streets.  They are probably still looking for me.  Though I have reason to believe they may also be entirely imaginary.  Teaching middle school kids will do that to you.  I was an English teacher for 31 years in Texas public schools.  I taught kids to read.  I taught kids to write.  I taught kids to laugh at Mark Twain’s story about a jumping frog and the people who bet on them.  I taught kids to be amazed at the ways and words of William Shakespeare, to see language and stories as poetry and music and the “stuff that dreams are made of”.  I taught them that Socrates supposedly invented school the way we do it now with teachers using the Socratic method.  So I suppose, realistically, you would have to say that I taught over a thousand kids in South Texas to sincerely hate Socrates.  But here’s a secret I must also tell you before I can die; “When it comes to learning about love and life and laughter, they taught me so much more than I could possibly have taught them.  I loved being their teacher for the too-brief time it was my privilege to be that.”

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And there you have it.  Three things I had to tell you in case I croak before sunrise tomorrow.  I am not saying that is what will happen.  Only that it could happen.  But there is wisdom in telling secrets and not carrying them with you to the grave.  Or was I supposed to admit that it is actually foolishness?  Now I’m not sure any more.  But it is one of those.

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