Category Archives: insight

The Nature of Our Better Angels

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I have friends and relatives that believe in angels.  Religious people who believe in the power of prayer and the love of God.  And I cannot say that I do not also believe.  But I also happen to believe that angels live among us.

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My Great Grandma Nellie Hinckley was, as far as I am concerned, an angel.  Born in the late 1800’s, she was a practical prairie farmer’s wife.  She knew how to make butter in a churn.  She knew how to treat bee stings and spider bites. She knew how to cook good, wholesome food that stuck to your ribs and kept you going until the next meal rolled around.  She knew how to cook on a wood-burning stove, and knew why you needed to keep corn cobs in a pile by the outhouse door.  Or, in the case of rich folks, why you needed to read the Sears catalog in the little room behind the cut-out crescent moon.

She also knew how to head a family.  She had seven kids and raised six of them up to adulthood.  She sent a son off to World War II.  She had nine grandchildren and more great grandchildren, of which I was one of the not-so-great ones, than I can even count on two hands and two feet, the toes of which I can’t always see.  Great great grandchildren were even greater.  Tell me you can’t believe she was a messenger from God, always knowing God’s will, and making the future happen with a steady hand, and eyes that brooked no nonsense from lie-telling boys.

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Mother Mendiola was an angel too.  I met her at my first school, Frank Newman Junior High in Cotulla, Texas.  She was the seventh grade Life Science teacher.  She had been a nun before becoming a teacher, and she was a single lady her whole life.  But she was a natural mother figure to the children in her classes.  She’s the one who taught me how to talk to fatherless boys, engage them in learning about things that excited them, and become a lifelong mentor to them, willing to help them with life’s problems even long after they had graduated from both junior high and high school.  She was not only a mother to students, but she nurtured other teachers as well.  She showed Alice and I how to talk to Hispanic kids even though we were both so white we almost glowed in the dark.  She went to bat for kids who got in trouble with the principal, and even those who sometimes got into trouble with the law.  She had a way of holding her hand out to kids and encouraging them to place their troubles in it.  She even helped pregnant young girls with wise counsel and a loving, accepting heart, even when they were seriously in the wrong.  When they talk about being an “advocate for kids” in educational conferences, they always make me picture her and her methods.  I can still see her in my mind’s eye with clenched fists on her hips and saying, “I am tired of it, and it will get better NOW!”  And it always got better.  Because she was an angel.  She had the power of the love of God behind her every action and motivation.  It still makes me weep to remember she is gone now.  She got her wings and flew on to other things a long time ago now.

Some people may call it a blasphemy for me to say that these people, no matter how good and critically important they were, could really be angels.  But I have to say it.  I have to believe it.  I know this because I saw them do these things, with my own two eyes, and how could they not be messengers from God?  I convinces me that I need to work at becoming an angel too.

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Debussy Reverie

Some Sunday thoughts require the right music.

Some Sunday thoughts actually are music.

rev·er·ie

/ˈrev(ə)rē/

noun

  • 1.a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream:”a knock on the door broke her reverie

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I had originally thought to call this post “A Walk with God.” But that would probably offend my Christian friends and alienate my Jehovah’s Witness wife. It would bother my intellectual atheist friends too. Because they know I claim to be a Christian Existentialist, in other words, “an atheist who believes in God.” Agnostics are agnostics because they literally know they don’t know what is true and what is merely made up by men. And not knowing offends most people in the Western world.

But Debussy’s Reverie is a quiet walk in the sacred woods, the forest of as-yet-uncovered truths.

And that is what I need today. A quiet walk in the woods… when no literal woods are available.

This pandemic has been hard on me. I am a prisoner in my room at home most days. My soul is in darkness, knowing that the end could be right around the corner. I am susceptible to the disease. It didn’t slay me on its first visit to the house, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get me on the second or third visit. Health experts are expecting a resurgence of up to 3,000 deaths per day before the end of the year. If I am relying on luck to avoid it, luck will run out.

I am not afraid to die. I have no regrets. But I have been in a reverie about what has been in the past, what might have been, and what yet may be… if only I am granted the time.

And, as always, I feel like I have writing yet to do. I am about to finish The Wizard in his Keep. And I have stories beyond that to complete if I may.

But the most important thing right now is having time to think. Time for Reverie. And reflections upon the great symphony of life as it continues to play on… with or without me.

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Upside Down and Inside Out

Ideally a writer must not become stuck in a rut, thinking about things in print from only one angle. If you fall into that trap you are doomed to be Tucker Carlson on FOX News, an evil, greedy, and anal-retentive soulless propagandist. Instead you need to have many eyes and notice things from up and down and all around.

As a writer of fiction I use the magic of observation, perception, and imagination together as three very different eyes. You use the observation eye, the one that sees naked Little Mickey in the center for what he really is, a naked, sometimes stinky, immature little brat who thinks he’s funny, to ground your thoughts in reality. You use the perception eye, the eye that discerns the things under the surface, like the presence of a happiness fairy and a sadness fairy in the picture, to determine what lies underneath everything, thoughts that may not be true, but are based on evidence and represent your best thinking. And you use the imagination eye to realize that you can take old pictures and paste them together in a new way to be creative and think a thought you totally never even thought about before.

And as a writer, you have to realize that everybody has a point of view that is uniquely their own. So, if you use the first-person narrative as much as I do, you have to learn to enter the character’s head and figure out how to be that person. I have become a small-town boy obsessed with monster movies. That one was easy. I became a somewhat dyspeptic and grumpy older man who owned a failing business. That was easier. Also I became a seventh-grade girl who lost her father and has to discover what post-trauma love is all about. Dang! That one was really hard. And I became a sentient sock puppet whose actual memories, perceptions, and personality reside in the head of his autistic puppeteer. Wow! Just wow!

So, what am I saying in this silly, unfocussed blog post? That you need to practice using your many eyes, and look at things from upside down and inside out, and finally see it’s not so unfocussed after all.

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Islands of Identity

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Who am I?

Why do I do the things that I do?

No man is an island.  John Donne the English poet stated that.  And Ernest Hemingway quoted it… and wove it into his stories as a major theme… and proceeded to try to disprove it.  We need other people.  I married an island girl from the island of Luzon in the Philippines.  She may have actually needed me too, though she will never admit it.

Gilligans Island

When I was a young junior high school teacher in the early eighties, they called me Mr. Gilligan.  My classroom was known as Gilligan’s Island.  This came about because a goofball student in the very first class on the very first day said, “You look like Gilligan’s Island!”  By which he meant I reminded him of Bob Denver, the actor that played Gilligan.  But as he said it, he was actually accusing me of being an island.  And no man is an island.  Thank you, Fabian, you were sorta dumb, but I loved you for it.

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You see, being Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island was not a bad thing to be.  It was who I was as a teacher.  Nerdy, awkward, telling stories about when I was young, and my doofy friends like Skinny Mulligan.  Being a teacher gave me an identity.  And Gilligan was stranded on the Island with two beautiful single women, Mary Ann and Ginger.  Not a bad thing to be.  And I loved teaching and telling stories to kids who would later be the doofy students in new stories.

But we go through life searching for who we are and why we are here.  Now that I am retired, and no longer a teacher… who am I now?  We never really find the answer.  Answers change over time.  And so do I.

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Softer Sunday Symbolism

Yesterday I was walking the dog when I was approached by a man and two women in the park. They were Jesus pushers. As a nominal Jehovah’s Witness, I am not supposed to have anything at all to do with such folks. They admired the little four-legged poop factory that I was walking. They listened patiently to the story of how we rescued her as a puppy in the middle of the street as cars zoomed past. They wanted to know what breed she was, and how we came to own her and love her. And then, they wanted to pray for me.

Jesus pushers! Just like the door-to-door work the Witnesses do, they want you to learn to pray their way and believe their truths.

I shared with them that I was a Christian Existentialist, and that could easily be interpreted as saying that I was an atheist who believes in God. And I admitted to them that I have a personal relationship with God and talk to him constantly. I admitted that in hard times I don’t merely rely on science for comfort. I do know what grace really means. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” says the Psalmist David. (The shepherd uses the rod to guide the flock and the shepherd’s crook to rescue the stranded and endangered one.)

It is not in me to turn away true believers, even if I cannot accept the tenets of their faith. I let the Witnesses down. But I am no more a Witness anymore than I am one of whatever flavor of fundamentalist Christian they are.

So, they prayed for me… my poor health, my financial difficulties, and my little dog too. Their prayers touched me. Though I believe they needed the prayers more than I did. They were proving their faith to their God after all.

My own faith, my own spirituality is fundamentally simpler than theirs.

I am a part of the universe, and the universe is all that is relevant, all that there is. The universe is God. And I know my place in the universe. It is as simple as that. When I die, I will still be a part of the universe. I don’t need to live forever. Death is not the end. But it is not the end because when you finish reading and close a book, the book does not cease to exist. Past, present, and future are all one. The book can be opened again.

I appreciate that they wanted to offer me “the good news” and give me comfort. But I don’t need the forgiveness of sins they offer. I have forgiven myself, just as I have forgiven all who have ever sinned against me. I am at peace. Life is good while I have it. I thanked them and wished them well.

And that’s what Sunday means to me.

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The Sedentary Stradivarius

The greatest tragedy known to man is the finely-tuned instrument that is merely sitting, barely active, when instead it should be soaring to heights never seen before.

It is a real shame that so much of human endeavor is bent towards the accumulation of wealth… And when the lucky few reach the pinnacle of that wealth-acquisition, measured in billions, they choose to hoard it and salt it away for their own exclusive use rather than solve problems like poverty, hunger, ignorance, pollution, violence, and want. The act of creation, being musical, artistic, literary, or profound, is given so little value that the idea of the starving artist is an idea that exists in every head.

I fear that far too many people don’t t truly understand what value means. For life to be worth living, you have to have priorities that justify mankind’s very existence. Surely we were not created… by either God or an indifferent random universe… to merely exist like the blue-green lichen that graces the bark of a rotting stump, or to elect Donald Trump as President just so we can see smarty-pants liberal elitists chopped down by a corrupt plague of racist frogs. The tragedy lies in the knowing… or the not knowing.

Perhaps you recognize Beethoven’s 9th Symphony when you hear the Dah-Dah-Dah-Dummm! of death knocking in that familiar musical phrase. But do you recognize the pastoral beauty of the sunshine-and-rain-filled 5th Symphony? Or have you heard the sorrow and the striving of daily life in the city streets depicted in the 7th Symphony (offered above)? If not, why not? How can you listen to any of it and not hear the many underlined reasons that it is considered among the greatest music ever created? And that by a man who was mildly insane and eventually stone deaf, unable to hear his own music anywhere but in his imagination?

I have reached a point in my life that I cannot do much beyond sit and think such thoughts. I am limited in how I can move and what work I can do by my ever-more-painful arthritis, stinging me in every joint. I am also limited by lack of money in where I can go and what I can afford to do. But I refuse to be that finely-tuned instrument that does not make much in the way of music. Hence, an essay like this one today. It is me, using my words to the best of my ability, to fill the sky with hopelessly beautiful attempts at making the stars twinkle.

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The Philosophy of Bad Poetry

I do write poetry. But I must admit, I am not a serious poet.  I am a humorist at heart, so I tend to write only goofy non-serious poems like this one;

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So here is a poem that rhymes but has too much “but-but-but” in it.  A poem about pants should not have too many “buts” in it.  One butt per pair, please.  So this is an example of spectacularly bad poetry.  Why do we need bad poetry?  Because it’s funny.  And it serves as a contrast to the best that poetry has to offer.

As a teacher I remember requiring students to memorize and recite Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”.  Now this sort of assignment is a rich source of humorous stories for another day.  Kids struggle to memorize things.  Kids hate to get up in front of the class and speak with everybody looking at them.  You get a sort of ant-under-a- magnifying-glass-in-the-sun sort of effect.  But in order to truly get the assignment right and get the A+,  you have to make that poem your own.  You have to live it, understand it, and when you reach that fork in the road in your own personal yellow wood, you have to understand what Frost was saying in that moment.  That is the life experience poetry has a responsibility to give you.

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Hopefully I gave that experience to at least a few of my students.

Bad poetry makes you more willing to twirl your fingers of understanding in the fine strands of good poetry’s hair.  (Please excuse that horrible metaphor.  I do write bad poetry, after all.)

But all poetry is the same thing.  Poetry is “the shortest, clearest, best way to see and touch the honest bones of the universe through the use of words.”  And I know that definition is really bad.  But it wasn’t written on this planet.  (Danged old Space Goons!)  Still, knowing that poetry comes from such a fundamental place in your heart, you realize that even bad poetry has value.  So, I will continue writing seriously bad poetry in the funniest way possible.  And all of you real poets who happen to read this, take heart, I am making your poetry look better by comparison.

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Under Unlucky Stars

The Astrologer

Here;s something undeniably true; Astrology is NOT science.

That being true, it is also true that there is a certain untestable validity to the ideas of someone gifted with a semi-accurate intuitive foresight I find Nostradamus endlessly fascinating. But I don’t rely on any of his so-called predictions. It is uncanny that his quatrains can be interpreted as having come true after the fact. I remember Orson Welles narrating a documentary on old Nosty back in the 1980’s offering a possible prediction for the near future. in which the third antichrist arises in the Middle East and sends destruction through the air to the New City.

Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center Towers in 2001 is a scary coincidence. But it is no more of a useful prediction of the future than Nosty’s predictions of the first and second antichrists, Napoleon and Hitler. Did anyone know about any of these three predictions at a time when they would’ve benefitted anybody?

The Coming End of the World

My most recent Christian faith system was, unfortunately, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are an eschatological faith that believes Jehovah God will soon destroy “This wicked system of things” and the bad people will all be done away with before all the newly “perfect people” take over and turn this world into a paradise. I am doomed. I have knocked on doors and shared the “Good News from God’s Word the Bible” with all the potential “other sheep.” But that’s not good enough to punch my ticket to paradise. I don’t keep the right words in my heart.

But my wife and other Witnesses are now eagerly waiting for “tribulation” to wipe out the rest of us so that the good times can begin. Wow. Jehovah can wipe you out just for touching the Ark of the Covenant with the wrong hands. He’s a rather angry, vindictive sort of God.

And yet, the world does seem to be ending. Actual climate scientists are presenting evidence in their latest report that it is a problem that will overwhelm us faster than I am ready for. And corruption in the world governments, prompted by the fossil fuels industry, continue to ignore the problem in favor of short-term profits. Talk about “having the wrong words written on their hearts!”

It does actually look like we are all gonna die. Not an A+ outcome.

Predictions and Solutions

So, what predictions does an amateur wizard like Mickey of the Goofy Grin have to offer about living under unlucky stars?

Well, here’s one I know will very likely prove true; If the world is ending tomorrow, I will be among the first to die. Seriously, my health is poor enough that a hot wind can easily blow out my candle. When the zombie apocalypse begins, I have warned my children to make good use of the time they gain to get away while the zombies are picnicking on my gray matter. I believe my brain should be pretty tasty.

But even though I and many many other people just like me will fold up and die at the beginning of the coming dark times, that doesn’t mean everyone is doomed. Humanity has shown remarkable resilience against war, famine, disease and that boney guy on the fourth horse. They may yet come up with a magic-bullet solution that allows life on earth to continue. Even if it becomes the planet of the cockroaches. And probably lawyers. I’m sure there is a legal maneuver that gets around not having air to breathe. From a God’s-eye perspective, there is still an entire universe to play with. We could go get reincarnated somewhere else in the galaxy. Maybe there are people out there who are smarter than us. There are ways to heal the ecosphere if we just have the will to do it.

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Thinking Differently

Buckminster Fuller is an intellectual hero of mine.  As he said in the video, if you bothered to watch it, “I was told I had to get a job and make money, but would you rather be making money, or making sense?”  Bucky was always a little bit to the left of center, and basically in the farthest corner of the outfield.  That’s why we depend so much on him in times like these when the ball is being hit to the warning track.  (I know the world doesn’t really work on baseball metaphors any more, but my life has always been about metaphors from 1964 with the St. Louis Cardinals playing and beating the New York Yankees.  Mantle was on their side, but Maris was playing for us.)  You have to live in the world that fits into your own mental map of reality.  And if you’ve been whacked on the side of the head one too many times… it changes the way you think.  You begin to think differently.  

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If you don’t know who Bucky is, as you probably don’t because he revolutionized the world in the 60’s and died in the 1980’s,  Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor.  He is credited with the invention of the Geodesic Dome.  But he was so much more than that.  He wanted to build things that made better sense, in a practical sort of way, than the way we actually do them.  He built geodesic homes because he felt a home should maximize space and use of materials and minimize costs and amounts of materials as well as environmental impacts.  He is the one who popularized the notion of “Spaceship Earth”.  He wrote and published more than thirty books, and gave us a variety of truly wise insights.  He promoted the concept of synergy.  He said, “Don’t fight forces, use them.”  He also pointed out, “Ninety per cent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.”  He was a man full of quotes useful for internet memes.

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So, lets consider an example from the mixed up mind of Mickey;

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Here are three dolls from the Planet of the Apes part of my doll collection. (Two different movies are represented here, the 1968 original, and the Tim Burton 2001 remake.)

The world we now live in is increasingly like the movie, The Planet of the Apes.  In that film the world the astronauts set down upon is ruled by talking apes.  The human beings in that film are relegated to the fields and forests where they are no more than speechless animals.  Much like the Republican Party and the wealthy ruling elite of this day and age, the apes control everything and, led by Dr. Zaius (seen on the far right) reject science and evidence as a way to explain things.  They rely on the rules set down by the Lawgiver in much the same way that modern day Republicans swear by the U.S. Constitution to determine the truth of all things.

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Here we see the apes capturing and enslaving Marky Mark… er… Mark Wahlberg rather than Chuck Heston from the original movie.

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In the original set of movies, Charleton Heston, playing the astronaut Taylor, discovers that through hatred and warring, the human beings of Earth have bombed themselves back into the stone age and enabled the evolved apes to take over.  How does Mr. Heston deal with that problem?  He discovers an old doomsday device and blows up the world.  Chuck Heston has always approved Second Amendment solutions to modern problems, so it is no wonder that he lays waste to everything, the good and the bad.  I think we can see that old orangutan-man, Donald Trump doing exactly the same things now as he runs for President, or Great Ape, or whatever…

In both the previous series, and the current remake, salvation from the rule of the monkey people comes in the form of a leader among the apes.  Caesar, whether he be played by Roddy MacDowell or by Andy Serkis, is able to solve the problems of apes and men by reaching out to those of the other species, assigning them value, and ultimately doing what helps everyone to survive and live together.  Diversity is power and provides a workable solution through cooperation.  The forces of hatred and fear are the things that must be overcome and threaten the existence of everyone.  Donald Trump needs to learn from the lesson of The Planet of the Apes, and be less like General Ursus.   We need Bernie Sanders to embrace the role of Caesar and show us how we can get along with our Muslim brothers… after all, they are more like us than the apes are, and Caesar builds bridges between apes and men.

So, there you have it, my attempt to build a new model based on an old movie… or on the remake… whichever you prefer.  And if that doesn’t work, well, there’s always…

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Spinning Wheels of Thought

Picture borrowed from; https://www.townsends.us/products/colonial-spinning-wheel-sp378-p-874

I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.

Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.

My own original illustration.

The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.

Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).

My mother’s spinning wheel, used to make threads for use in porcelain doll-making, and as a prop for displaying dolls.

As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.

And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.

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