I am having trouble writing today. I keep passing out for no particular reason. I know for a fact, if I go to the ER they will put me in the hospital and my tenuous hold on financial stability will go down that money drain. And my heart is not really the problem. My last hospital stay only yielded the theory that arthritis in my neck, in proximity to my spinal cord, is causing EKG machines to get false readings that suggest I am having a heart attack when I am not. It also complicated my bankruptcy situation. I cannot afford the health care I need. And I am not the only one in Trump’s America that has that problem. I don’t think I am going to die today. But there are no guarantees in life. Especially not in this hazy, cold morning in America.
Not everything is bad on this side of the mirror, though.
My family returns from Florida today. I have earned money from book sales on Amazon for the fifth month in a row, even though I am averaging less than two dollars a month. The sun is shining again in Texas after a stretch of arthritis-wringing pain from bad weather. I bought a gingerbread house kit at Walmart. I have at least one substitute teaching job this coming week.
I have passed the 35,000 word bar for my work in progress, long enough to qualify as a complete YA novel. But it isn’t finished yet, and probably going to be nearer to 50,000 words.
So, going forward, the world now looks very different. Thanos has been defeated. Trump is being impeached, though probably not removed. And though I am a pessimist, and am preparing for the worst, I am not unhappy about what the future may hold.
The case has been made in an article by John Welford (https://owlcation.com/humanities/Did-King-Henry-VIII-Have-A-Genetic-Abnormality) that English King Henry the VIII may have suffered from a genetic disorder commonly known as “having Kell blood” which may have made having a living male heir almost impossible with his first two wives. The disorder causes frequent miscarriages in the children sired, something that happened to Henry seven times in the quest for a living male heir. If you think about it, if Henry did not have this particular physical conflict at the root of his dynasty, he might’ve fathered a male heir with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Then there would’ve been no opening for the machinations of Anne Boleyn. It follows that Elizabeth would not have been born. Then no Elizabethan Age; no sir Francis Drake, Spain might’ve landed their armada, no Church of England, possibly no William Shakespeare, and then Mickey would never have gotten castigated by scholars of English literature for daring to state in this blog that the actor who came from Stratford on Avon and misspelled his own name numerous times was not the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
History would’ve been very different. One might even say “sucky”. Especially if one is the clown who thinks Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.
Conflict and struggle is necessary to the grand procession of History. If things are too easy and conflict is not necessary, lots of what we call “invention” and “progress” will not happen. Society is not advanced by its quiet dignity and static graces. It is advanced and transformed by its revolutions, its wars, its seemingly unconquerable problems… its conflicts.
Similarly, a novel, a story, a piece of fiction is no earthly good if it is static and without conflict. A happy story about a puppy and the children who love him eating healthy snacks and hugging each other and taking naps is NOT A STORY. It is the plot of a sappy greeting card that never leaves the shelf in the Walmart stationary-and-office-supplies section. Dick and Jane stories had a lot of seeing in them. But they never taught me anything about reading until the alligator ate Spot, and Dick drowned while trying to pry the gator’s jaws apart and get the dog back. And Jane killed the alligator with her bare hands and teeth at the start of what would become a lifelong obsession with alligator wrestling. And yes, I know that never actually happened in a Dick and Jane book, except in the evil imagination of a bored child who was learning to be a story-teller himself in Ms. Ketchum’s 1st Grade Class in 1962.
Yes, I admit to drawing in Ms. Ketchum’s set of first-grade reading books. I was a bad kid in some ways.
But the point is, no story, even if it happens to have a “live happily ever after” at the end of it, can be only about happiness. There must be conflict to overcome.
There are no heroes in stories that have no villains whom the heroes can shoot the guns out of the hands of. Luke Skywalker wouldn’t exist without Darth Vader, even though we didn’t learn that until the second movie… or is it the fifth movie? I forget. And James Bond needs a disposable villain that he can kill at the end of the movie, preferably a stupid one who monologues about his evil plan of writing in Ms. Ketchum’s textbooks, before allowing Bond to escape from the table he is tied down to while surrounded by pencil-drawn alligators in the margins of the page.
We actually learn by failing at things, by getting hurt by the biplanes of an angry difficult life. If we could just get away with eating all the Faye Wrays we wanted and never have a conflict, never have to pay a price, how would we ever learn the life-lesson that you can’t eat Faye Wray, even if you go to the top of the Empire State Building to be alone with her. Of course, that lesson didn’t last for Kong much beyond hitting the Manhattan pavement. But life is like that. Not all stories have a happy ending. Conflicts are not always resolved in a satisfying manner. A life with no challenges is not a life worth living.
So, my title today is “Conflict is Essential“. And that is an inescapable truth. Those who boldly face each new conflict the day brings will probably end up saying bad words quite a lot, and fail at things a lot, and even get in trouble for drawing in their textbooks, but they will fare far better than those who are afraid and hang back. (I do not know for sure that this is true. I really just wanted to say “fare far” in a sentence because it is a palindrome. But I accept that such a sentence may cause far more criticism and backlash than it is worth. But that is conflict and sorta proves my point too.)
As my life continues, long past the time I figured I would be allowed to live by my six incurable diseases, I find myself living more and more inside my own head. Truly, my failing physical health has isolated me more and more from the people I know and have relationships with. Instead of spending hours upon hours at work every week, I find myself confined to my bedroom where I maintain breathable air, doing little beyond reading and writing, watching movies and shows on Netflix, dreaming, remembering, and imagining. My “real-world” life has been ever the less active and ever more confined to a small space. But in my head, the opposite is true. I have lived in memory; revisiting places that have been changed or torn down since, and spending time with people whom I still see as children even though they are now grown in real life with children of their own, and spending time talking to people who live no more, anywhere but in my memory.
Some of those to whom I am talking are actually me, fictionalized versions of me, imagined as if something different had happened to me, or I had chosen different roads less traveled than the ones I actually walked upon.
Some are, naturally, people whom I have loved, seen through different colored lenses than I saw them when I saw them with my physical eyes.
And it is most definitely possible to see and re-interpret the things that happened to us in a very different light than the ones I saw it all in during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It helps to be able to put on the old time-traveler’s glasses to look again, not at how it really was, but how it really ought to be.
Everything I have just rambled on about in run-on sentences of purple paisley prose, is writer-thinking. It is the very thing that most probably goes on in your head too, since you are likely only reading this blog post because you are a writer too, and you find value in the ramblings of an old man who used to be a writing teacher and is now, very definitely, one of the goofier varieties of writer whom you can learn significant lessons from (even if only what not to do, because you are not as stupid as I am when it comes to writing).
I often live, as well, in the part of my head that is entirely made-up from galvanized, sauteed, or even moldy pieces of imagination. I live in places like the Mothership of the Telleron Explorers now in orbit around the planet Galtorr Prime. Or Animal Town in the middle of the country of Fantastica where I met my wife, seen here as Mandy Panda from the Pandalore Islands.
Or even in the Willow-Tree Fortress known as Cair Tellos, the Capital of the Fairy Kingdom of Tellosia in Wright County, Iowa.
Living in the world when your body betrays you constantly can be horrible and hard. But living inside your head is easy. And I actually plan to do more of it before the final page is turned in the Book of my Life.
There is a dark future hanging over us all. No, I am not simply trying to bring you down with the idea that we all will face death sooner or later. I am going to bring you down with an all-encompassing dread. Because, of course, that’s what humorists do. We try to introduce uncomfortable truths into your lives with a suddenly-revealed truth that takes you by surprise and leaves you with nothing you can do about it but laugh… laugh insanely.
Here’s a bummer. The government of the United States is dissolving into chaos because corrupt people have taken over all the political power due to the fact that they are legally allowed to spend whatever amount of money they want to change the laws and the people who make them.
And this did not begin with President Pumpkinhead. It has been a while since a Mr. Smith could go to Washington and actually make a dent in the armored juggernaut of evil. Why do you think nobody in the President’s party is working to remove him in spite of the clear evidence of corruption in how he incompetently goes about not doing the job he was elected to do?
I often turn to Answers with Joe on YouTube to make myself feel infinitely worse about these things. This video does a good job of explaining how stupid people like me are doing it wrong, not learning to field a meteor shower of informational fly balls that burn holes through your figurative baseball glove and the hand inside it if you actually catch one. And because we don’t know how to fact-check what we’re seeing inside our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bubbles that are built out of malevolent algorithm-directed soap, we have all failed to learn how to learn and protect ourselves from infectiously poopy facts. We have all become stupid people and are the ones Goofy Dave makes fun of in the cartoon above. And if you think that makes you feel bad, remember that I was once a teacher. What you haven’t learned is, at least in part,, my fault.
And it gets worse. Suppose for a moment the Mayan calendar wasn’t wrong about the world ending in 2012, but merely has a typo in it. Maybe it was supposed to say 2021. Ice in the Arctic will soon be gone from the global warming that stupid people don’t believe is established science. All of the carbon locked in the bottom of the Arctic sea and in the permafrost of the Northern Hemisphere will soon be free to enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and will be capable of turning our planet into Venus with thousand degree temperature days on the surface of the earth. I hate to say this, but my air-conditioner can’t handle that. Neither can yours.
But I am not like George Carlin, using humor to make you feel so low you have to look up to see the soles of your shoes and then leaving it there after the last black-humor joke-bomb has burned away your sole… er, soul. There is still hope. A massively important breakthrough in technology, or, more likely sociology, will have to be made and implemented really fast. And it will require some magnificently genius-level smart folks to do some magnificently genius-level problem-solving. But there are still very smart people on this planet. And they can’t all be corrupt, can they? And I really can’t imagine they have anything more important to do right now than save all life on the planet. But we can do our part too, you and I. We need to notice all this darkness around us, and light some danged candles!
My daughter, seen here in this oil painting of me and her, she’s the one trying to talk to the spirit elk in a previous lifetime, has started painting oil paintings. She started with a picture of a small cactus growing in sand. I have to admit, when she showed it to me for the first time, I thought it was a green basketball. But she has worked out the details since and it is beginning to actually look like a cactus. Now, you might think I was making fun of her in this post, calling her an oil painter who makes cactuses into green basketballs, and using my oil painting of a nude and overly-white Native American girl to illustrate her, but actually, this post is praising her abilities. She is already a much better watercolorist than I will ever be. And she is learning to paint green basketballs… er, cactuses, in oil paint at a much faster rate than I ever did. This semi-competent oil painting of mine took many practice paintings and many years to achieve. Far slower than her mastery of the medium coming into focus before her eighteenth birthday. And besides, she is leading the sacred spirit elk into the safety of the lake and away from the stormy darkness of the background, while I, as my Native American self, can stand hamming it up and looking at the artist as I have my vanity-project portrait done in oil paint.
Okay, so this is not a perfect essay, and it is not 500 words. But painting in oils and trying to be a real artist is hard enough without you criticizing. Be kind in the comments, or I might cry.
I am aware that nobody who looks at my blog ever clicks on my videos. This one, however, would be very useful if you are really going to read and engage with this essay. This self-reflection came into being as a response to watching this video. The video talks about how most people can’t stand to actually sit alone in a room with only themselves. And it has an impact. I have claimed in the past to being a devotee of the Theodore Roethke maxim, “Being, not doing, is my first love.” But how does one go about becoming truly self-aware? How does one enumerate the concept of “being”? I believe I can do it, but it requires a bit of self-examination. How do I do it?
Let me count the ways…
I find myself in both the written characters I create and the cartoon characters I draw. In Hidden Kingdom, my graphic novel, the Mouse and young Prinz Flute are both me. I can see myself both as the reluctant romantic hero and the snarky child-thing with a dangerous little bit of wisdom.
I learn to know more about my secret heart and what I truly think about the world I live in and react to by writing about what I think and the things that happen to me, both for good and ill. This blog is all about learning about myself, just as your blog is a mirror of who you really are. Consequently, I have no secrets left.
I live most of my life in my own imagination. It is a silly Willy Wonka world of images, songs, music, and dreams. It can all blow away in a moment when the sun comes out. It can also keep me in a light-obscuring cloud wrapped and safe, well away from the things I fear and the things that worry me. I came to realize I was repressing the memory of being sexually assaulted when I was ten through a dream when I was nineteen, re-living the event in a dream from which I awoke with a blinding flash of realization. I came to grips with the horror that mangled my childhood and young adulthood first by facing the fact that the nightmare had been real, and then by finding ways to overcome it. I became a teacher of young people in large part as a way to protect them and prevent such a thing from ever happening again to someone else.
I often worry that I don’t see real people as being real people. I tend to think of them from the first meeting onward as potential book characters, walking collections of details and quirks, conflicts and motivations. But I recognize too that that way of seeing with the author’s eye is not incorrect. People really are those things. There are rules and generalizations that everyone falls under at some point. It is not so much that I see real people as book characters as it is that I realize that book characters are as real as any other purportedly “real” people.
I am myself both the subject of my cartooning and fictionarooning, and the cartoon character of myself as well.
Mickey is not a real person. He is a cartoonist persona, a mask, a fake identity, and the lie I tell myself about who I actually am.
In this essay, I have attempted to explain to you who I think I am spending time with when I am alone in a room with myself. He is not such a terrible person to spend time with, this Mickey. Or else he really is truly awful, and I am lying about me and who I think I am when I am alone with me and have no other options. But probably not. I have been getting to know me for about 562 years, only exaggerating by 500, and I am not finished yet.
The retaining wall that keeps the yard from flowing downhill into the park and down to the creek, is now growing back upwards, visibly straighter and better grounded than it was before.
In his poem “Mending Wall”, Robert Frost suggested that the wall dividing his property and the neighbor’s property is constantly falling down and requiring mending. He gets together with his neighbor and they replace the fallen stones, mending the wall between them. And then the neighbor says the oft-quoted line, “Good fences make good neighbours.” Ironically, the neighbor is not saying that having a wall between them makes them better neighbors. He is saying that their friendship is built on mending the wall together.
And so it is with me and number two son as we labor together to straighten the foundation stones and replace all the heavy stone bricks that we had to remove to get to them. It is hard work, slowed by heavy bricks, one arthritic back, multiple rainy days, cold weather, and fatigue. But slowly we have problem-solved together, discussed the state of the world, and mended the wall. We have also mended our working relationship as father and son. A good wall makes a stronger family in the Frostian sense.
And so, I have come to see how life imitates art, and work begets poetry. A little sunshine creeps back into the picture when you engage in a little rebuilding.