Category Archives: insight

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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Filed under artists I admire, commentary, insight, inspiration, poetry, strange and wonderful ideas about life

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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Filed under autobiography, goofy thoughts, humor, insight, Iowa, irony, Paffooney, photo paffoonies, strange and wonderful ideas about life

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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Filed under autobiography, insight, music, nostalgia, philosophy, poetry, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Flying the Magic Flying Carpet

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There are many ways to fly.  Airplanes, bird wings, hot air balloons, bubble-gum-blowing goldfish… well, maybe I am really talking about flying by imagination.  The more my six incurable diseases and old age limit my movement, my ability to get out of bed and do things, the more I rely on reading, writing, and the movie in my head to go places I want to be.

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Sometimes the wings I use to fly come from other writers.  I get the flight feathers I need not only from books, but also from YouTube videos, movies, and television shows.

This magic carpet ride in video form is by the thoughtful creative thinker Will Schoder.  In it he carefully explains how Mister Rogers used the persuasion techniques of Logos, Ethos, and Pathos to talk to elephants and convinced a congressman intent on cutting the budget to actually give Public Television more money for educational programming.  This is a video full of warmth and grace and lovingly crafted magic flight feathers that anybody can use to soar across new skies and blue skies and higher skies than before.  I hope you will watch it more than once like I did, to see how beautifully the central explanation spreads its wings and gives us ideas that can keep us aloft in the realm of ideas.

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It is important to stay in the air of fresh ideas and new thinking.  The magic carpet ride that takes you there is the product of vivid imagination, cogent thinking, and the accurate connection of idea to better idea.  So instead of falling from the sunlit sky into the darkness that so easily consumes us on the ground, keep imagining, keep dreaming, and keep flying.  You won’t regret having learned to fly.

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Filed under battling depression, commentary, dreaming, humor, imagination, insight, inspiration, metaphor, Paffooney, philosophy, strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Welcome at the Front Door

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From the time I was a young teacher until I was nearing retirement I would put on a tie before going to school.  And I hated ties.  I never tied them well.  They turned into Dilbert ties every time I turned around. But I wore them practically every day… except when we wore school uniforms and none of the official teacher shirts were made for wearing a tie.  So, why the heck did I spend so much of my career wearing ties I hated?

Well, it matters how you appear at the door at the start of each and every class.  What happens at the classroom door can make or break the entire teacher’s day.

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“Good morning, Jose! Are you ready to make an A today?”

“Good morning, Rita.  Your hair looks beautiful today.  Did you color it?”

“No, Mr. B. It’s the same color it’s always been.”

“You mean it wasn’t purple yesterday?”

“I have never had purple hair.”

“Oh, well, then, it must’ve been that beautiful smile today that made me notice.”

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You have to welcome them in if you want them to sit down and listen to all the wonderful boring things you have to teach them.  I was known for a while as the “teacher who makes us laugh”.  And that can be dangerous.  Principals tend to prefer the silent filling out of worksheets as far as classroom management goes.  But kids got better grades on State tests and wrote better essays for school when we could talk and laugh and entertain playfully creative ideas just as openly as we did the boring old facts and practice.

And, truthfully, if you don’t establish that classroom air at the front door, it never has enough oxygen in it to grow once life in the classroom gets started.

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I suspect that the afterlife in the real world, once students get there after their school years are over, would profit greatly from bosses who knew how to do the grin and greet at the front door every day.  I also suspect that real world bosses almost universally don’t know this particular teacher trick.

You gotta smile and say hello.  You gotta make them feel like they belong. You gotta shake that hand if they offer it, even though you know the only boys who have washed that hand in the last week are the ones who go into the restroom just to comb their hair, and then wash their hands immediately after.  And most of them never comb their hair either. (Oh, please, don’t let me think about the millions of microbes finding their way onto desks and pens and pencils… even the pencils they chew.)  And if you can tell a joke that makes them feel good and laugh, then the victory in the classroom war against ignorance is already on its way to being won.

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