Category Archives: insight

Ravel’s Bolero

One of the first pieces of classical music to grab me by the ears and absolutely force me to love a piece of music with no words was Ravel’s Bolero.

Miss Malek played it on a phonograph for us in the basement of the Rowan Schoolhouse when I was in 3rd grade back in the fall of 1965.  Shortly after that, my father bought a record of it for our record player at home.  I must have listened to it a hundred times before 4th grade.  It was the first piece of music I learned to listen to with pictures creating themselves in my mind.  Here’s the basic picture in fact;

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Yes, it suggests to me that life is a long plodding march toward inevitable battle, a battle that one day will end in defeat and death.  No one lives forever and no song continues without end.  But there is beauty, pageantry, and color to be felt and filled with along the way.  And the march is not without purpose.  What music we will create along the way!  It is glorious to be alive and provide the drumbeat for the march of the creations of your soul, your children and the words you come to live by.  I do not intend to retreat to the castle as many would do.  I will not cower as I await the conclusion.  I will march to meet it in a glorious crescendo.  And that, dear reader, is what Maurice Ravel’s Bolero is about, as far as I am concerned.

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Through the Valley of the Shadow

 

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As I wake up every morning feeling more and more foggy-headed and lethargic, more like I barely managed to survive the night, I am aware I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.   I even passed out for a few minutes as I wrote this intro.  I don’t know how long I actually have left.  I no longer have the funds to get tested by the cardiologist, the urologist, or the endocrinologist every time a pain or a lightheadedness concerns me.  I may not still be here when morning comes around again.  But I fear no evil.  When I finish reading the last page of a good book and close the book, I don’t mourn that the reading experience has ended.  I exult in the wonderful story I have read or marvel at the lessons and learning the book has taught me.  The end of my life will be like that.  My life is not one that must be regretted.

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The thing about having a shadow hanging over you is that it can be totally defeated by adding a little sunshine.  I have never been a better writer than I am now.  I am nearing the end of what seems to me to be the best novel I have ever written.  I felt that same way as Catch a Falling Star was being written, and it proved to be true.  I won the Rising Star Award and the Editor’s Choice Award from I-Universe publishing which has them on the phone with me again trying to find ways to fund the marketing they think it deserves in spite of my total lack of money.  I also thought Snow Babies was the best thing I had ever written, even better than Catch a Falling Star.  And the publisher I found for that one thought so too, right up to the moment when my curse as an unknown writer killed their little publishing company.  I feel really good about Sing Sad Songs as it continues to basically write itself.  So what if I never live to see any of my books yield success?  The fact that I have caused them to exist is enough to fulfill me.  It is enough to satisfy me.  Of course, I do have more stories in me that need to be told.  That is motivation enough to stay alive and keep writing.

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Francois singing a sad song.

It is the valley of the shadow of death, however.  A novel character I love is about to die.  It seems there are a lot of my novels that end with a death even though they are all basically comic novels, full of things that at least make me laugh.  But I fear no evil.  Thy rod and thy staff,  the stick that whacks me when I misstep and the shepherd’s crook that rescues me from dark crevices, they comfort me.  I will continue to pass through.

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Get Up and Do!

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It is daunting when bad fortune comes in waves, drowning us in debt, suffering, disabling illness, financial reversals, and so many more things I have been through this last year personally, so that we want to lie down and never get up.

But, I am not dead yet…  and there is poetry to be lived.

I say that as one of the world’s fifty worst poets who ever lived.   (In my defense, I am a humorist, and I write bad poetry on purpose.)  My inspiration for the living of poetry comes from reading and living good poetry.   I live because there is poetry by Walt Whitman.  Of course, also Shakespeare… whoever he really was.  And I understand that much of what I have learned in my brief and stupidly-lived 61 years comes from the poetry of the visionary poet I pictured above.  Do you know him?  If you have never read his poetry, you haven’t truly lived the poetry you need to live.

This poet taught me that “Being, not doing, is my first love.”  Of course, if I am satisfied with just sitting on my bed and “being” through most of my day, I will starve to death and not “be” anymore.  But he has taught me that what is essential is already within me.  There is wisdom and power in Uncle Ted’s poetry.  (Yes, I know I am not really related to him, but that’s only physical and overlooks the spiritual.)  I must partake of it to live.

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If you are bored by poetry about plants in a greenhouse under bright lights, or you can never understand what the poet means when he says, “My father was a fish”, then you need to practice reading poetry more.  You don’t truly understand what poetry is, and what it is for… yet.

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And I am sure you have probably concluded from all of this that I am a fool and a bad poet and I have no right to try to tell you who and what a truly great poet is.  But, fool that I am, I know it when I see it.  It is there in the verse, the hideous and horrible… the beautiful and the true.  And if I know anything at all worth telling about the subject, it is this; Ted Roethke is a great American poet.  And he writes poetry that you need to read… and not only read but live.

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More Powerful Than a Potassium-Rich Banana

20141204_133754It is a time when we need a hero to step forward.  We lost one when Senator John McCain .headed off to Valhalla this week.  I didn’t agree with practically any of his political positions.  But the man stood up for what’s right and what’s wrong.  He took stances routinely that went against some of the worst drivers of Republican actions.  He prevented them from doing a lot of worse evils.  My Republican friends in Iowa disparaged McCain just as Trump did as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).  But he stood up for  us with the thumb down gesture when the evil Republican Oligarchs were voting to take away the gains in health care that we made under Obama.

It is a time when we need a hero to step forward.  Of course, we are always in need of heroes.  There is so much in our little lives that depends on the strong among us to shield us from the darkness that fills the universe.  And heroes come in many forms.  There was a time when I needed a hero to step forward and deliver me from evil in the Emergency Room in Pearsall Texas.  I was there because I was suffering from a severe lack of potassium in my bloodstream.  You don’t realize how important balanced potassium in the bloodstream is until you don’t have it.  The shakes, the pain, the fog interfering with my cognitive functioning would all have overwhelmed me permanently if the banana doctor had not run a potassium-rich IV directly into a vein in my arm and then proscribed bananas and apples in my diet when he let me go home without an expensive hospital stay.  I never learned his name, hence the epithet of “banana doctor”, but he was a hero to me when I needed one.

I think the real point here is, though, that we are forever needing heroes to step up.  More than once, as a school teacher, it was me who was called on to step up and do the hero job.  Talking on the phone late on a Saturday night to a suffering, suicidal teen, getting between two middle school girls and a leering stranger on a field trip in San Antonio, facing down a berserk child with real metal ninja throwing stars in a school hallway and getting him to run away rather than pursuing his target… gawd, looking back, I should’ve been scared out of my wits.  Don’t tell my mother that those things really happened.

And maybe that is the only place we should really be looking for heroes, inside ourselves.  Believe me, there is no Superman or Wolverine in the real world outside of the one in your own heart.  And that one will step up and answer the call if you sincerely need him… or her.  Take it from a guy once known in high school as “Superchicken”.  Now there’s an inspiring superhero name!

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Sunflower People

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Sunflowers can be beautiful.  They are the State flower of the State of Kansas.  They are also weeds.  I know this because as a teenager I had to walk up and down beanfield rows in Iowa and pull them out of the ground by the roots.  They were slightly harder to be rid of than the hated button weeds and cockleburrs that made up the bulk of farm boy plant war enemies.

To be clear, a weed is a plant that grows where you really wish it wouldn’t.  Weeds can aggressively take over in places that are outside their natural environment.  They can, like sunflowers, be volunteer crops that come up amongst the desired plants, aggressively and with malice, to take away the moisture and the nutrients from the plants you are trying to cultivate.

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A picture from Holmes Seed Company… some people pay for sunflowers.

But sunflowers can be a useful plant in their own right.  As a farm product they can produce edible seeds, and sunflower oil, like soybean oil, has a multitude of food and industrial applications.  Plus, as flowers, sunflowers have a certain hardy and steady beauty that metaphorically symbolize happiness and hope.  It is probably the reason Kansas chose it as a State flower, more than the fact that Iowans hate it as a pernicious weed.

People can be sunflowers.  I know at this point you expect a little Trump bashing, as both Trump himself and Iowa Congressman Steve King are examples of sunflower people.  They thrive where you really don’t want them, and they are very hard to remove from your beloved country crop field.  But hopefully, the system will pull the racist weeds out of the soil by the roots so they don’t grow back right away.  Robert Mueller as special counsel has his farmer gloves on and he is already going up and down the rows.

So, enough about the weeds.

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Let’s talk about the sunflower people we all know and love.  They can be weeds, at times, too, but the most important things about them have to do with their basic flower-ness.  Just because they tend to vote Republican does not make them weeds.  They are all about a primary color.  Yellow.  That is the color of warmth and sunshine.  One thing that always holds true about sunflower people is that they definitely love the people they love, and while living in rural farming communities full of sunflower people, you will be warm in the embrace of a culture that knows how to keep you fed and happy.  Yellow is also the color of happiness.  Sunflower people know how to celebrate.  They get together in large family reunions with lots of grilling and lots of potato salad.  They can sing country western songs, and often play the guitar.  The women get together in quilt-making clubs that produce beautiful works of blanket art that makes you happy on cold winter nights.

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And sunflower people have smiles that radiate who they are in the same way a sunflower does, mirroring the firey orb in the sky the flower is named after.

But make no mistake either.

Sunflower people can burn you with the force of their angry fire if you don’t do the right thing.  Their frowns and displeasure can wilt you under righteous heat.  And they can do it with just a disgusted look, leaving you as sunburned as a day at the nude beach without sunscreen.  They can take root in your life and take hold in a way that eventually takes over, like the sunflowers dominating the flower garden.  You had better pay heed, or your other blossoms are lost to you.

Well, that being said, I’ve already written too many words about it for today.  I know many sunflower people.  I live with some and was raised by others.  And you are probably surrounded by similar blooms yourself.

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Singing Rock and Soul

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Yes, this is a picture of a rock.  But it is no ordinary rock.  Okay, that’s not precisely true.  It is a gray metamorphic rock roughly square in shape with numerous flecks of white and a white strip along the top.  As rocks go, it probably couldn’t be more ordinary, more rocky in its soul.  But, as with all things in this life, the importance and true meaning lies in the context.  This is a pocket rock.  It spent a quarter of a century riding around in my pants pocket.  I have held it in my hand millions of times.

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The Rowan Community Center, seen in this picture I used for the cover of Magical Miss Morgan, is the last part of the old Rowan school still standing.

In 1980, my Great Grandma Hinckley died.  That was also the year my folks had to move to Texas because of the transfer my Dad’s seedcorn company gave him to its cotton seed division.  It was one year before I got my teaching degree.  And it was the year they tore down the building where I went to school for grades 1 through 6.  That summer, as I walked around the demolition site, I found the homely gray rock that was nearly as square as I was, and because I was already feeling homesick before I actually left home, I picked it up  and stuck it in my pocket.  It was a little square piece of home.

That rock went with me to college.  It went with me to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Florida.  It has been to Washington D.C.  It has been in the depths of caves in Kentucky and Missouri and Texas.  It has been high in the sky in my pocket in an airplane.  It has been to beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the U.S.  It has visited both Mexico and Canada.  It his been to Las Vegas.  And it even rode in the subways of New York City.

And possibly the most interesting part of this pocket rock’s career happened in Texas schools.  It was with me in my pocket constantly from 1980 to 2004.  I finally took it out of my pocket and placed it in an old cigar box that once belonged to my grandfather and I have kept keepsakes in since I was a kid.

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And I have thought a lot about this ordinary rock that isn’t really ordinary on closer inspection.  At one point or another I thought about using it as a skipping stone at both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  In 2004 when I was considering the pocket watch broken by it and the car key accidentally bent against it, it almost wound up in Lake Superior.  I put in my cigar box and it has remained exiled there since.  Will I have it buried with me, in my pocket?  No, probably not.  My wife plans to have me cremated.  Hopefully, though, not until I am already dead.  This rock has pretty much been a symbol of my soul, travelling with me, teaching with me, jingling the pocket change when I walk…  And it will continue to exist when the thinking and writing parts of Mickey are gone.

But even rocks are not immortal.  Sometime in the future something will happen to it.  It will end up someplace unexpected or changed by grinding, melting, or chemical reaction into some other form.  But no matter what happens to it ultimately, the meaning of it, the context, the places it has been and the things that it has done will still be true, still have happened to it.  And, ultimately, it will still be just like me.

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Take the Midnight Train to Anywhere

 

Journey back with me to the 1980’s, and hear once again the music of escape.

There was a time when I was young when I did not know where I would be when the next new dawn came.  Yes, I once took the midnight train (except it was a bus) and I arrived in a teaching career in deep South Texas.  I crossed borders into another culture, another way of life, another journey made of words and pictures that hasn’t reached the final station yet.

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At the outset, we all take a risk.  Born and raised in South Detroit (although it was really North Central Iowa) I passed through established procedures, rules, and regulations to do things that desperately needed doing for people who could only help themselves in very limited ways.

Some spoke mostly Spanish.  Some lived in broken homes.  One boy lived for a while under the bridge of the Nueces River, but attended school every day because he was hungry to learn, and because free school lunch was the majority of the food he got to eat.  He got on a midnight train, and I never saw him or heard from him again.  His sister, though, lived with a tia who treated her like a daughter, and grew up to be a school teacher.  I let her teach the lesson for me during one class period, as part of an educational experiment, and it put her on her own midnight train.

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It was a train going on the same track I followed.  Not because of me and what I did for her.  But because she came to realize it was the right journey to take for her.  It was the perfect anywhere for her.

But there is danger inherent in getting on a midnight train going anywhere.  You don’t know who is waiting for you down the line, or what your circumstances will be at the next station along the way.  There may be strangers waiting up and down the boulevard, their shadows searching in the night.  I befriended other teachers, mentored some, learned from many,  even married one.  I had a run in or two with people who sell drugs to kids.  I had all four of my car tires slashed one night.  I had a car window broken out.  I had a boy once tell me he would kill me with a knife.  I later had that boy tell me he had a good job and a girlfriend and he was grateful that I talked him out of it and never turned him in to the police.

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And we end up paying anything to roll the dice just one more time…  At one time or another we have all been there, aboard that midnight train to anywhere.  There is a moment in everyone’s life when… well, some will win, and some will lose.  Some were born to sing the blues.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And it occurs to me, that song plays on in my head still.  I am still on that journey.  And I won’t stop believing.  Because it goes on and on and on and on…

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