There was a time when Tarzan was one of the ruling heroes of my boyhood fantasies of power and self-fulfillment. And, while Tarzan was a cartoon show on Saturday morning, comics by Burne Hogarth, movies in the theater in color with Mike Henry, or a weekly series on TV with Ron Ely, he was always Johnny Weissmuller to me. Weissmuller who played both Tarzan and Jungle Jim in the Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies.
I have to admit, I didn’t identify with the character of Tarzan as much as I thought of myself like the character “Boy”, played by Johnny Sheffield in movies like “Tarzan Finds a Son”. It was a significant part of my boyhood to imagine myself being like Boy, free from practically all restraints, able to gad about the dangerous jungle nearly naked with monkey pals and no fear. If I got into trouble by believing my skills were greater than they really were, I would save myself with ingenuity, and, barring that, Tarzan would rescue me. And, believe it or not, sometimes there were fixes that Tarzan got into that he needed me and Cheetah to be creative and get him out of. I knew in my heart that one day real life would be like that, especially once I grew into Tarzan and stopped being just Boy. That idea was in my head so loudly that several times I went to Bingham Park Woods, stripped down, and played Boy in the Jungle.
As in the previous essay about Heroes of Yesteryear, I learned important things from Johnny Weissmuller on Saturday TV. He taught me that all you really needed, even in the darkest jungles of Africa, was confidence and courage. You could stand up to any deadly danger without the protection of any armor, practically naked, in fact, if only you had that heroic goodness of heart. The little boy I was then still believes that whole-heartedly even in the aging body of an old man.
So, Tarzan continues to live in my memory, a part of me, an essential part of my education. He is me and I am he. But only in my mind. Me in a loincloth, swinging on a vine now… and probably going splat like an overripe melon on the jungle floor… well, that is too ridiculous to even imagine being real anymore. Yet he lives on in me. And he battles the metaphorical leopard-people of modern life through me. Unarmored. Confident. And unafraid.
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.)
Canto Fourteen – Log
Book of the Reefer Mary Celeste
Valerie opened the book to the page Mary had indicated with
the red paper book mark.
“That’s the spot where the story seems to begin,” said
Mary. “The part before that ‘s all cargo
manifests and navigational data.”
“Okay,” said Valerie, “Then here goes;” She began to read
We were sailing southwest from the
Republic of Palau in Micronesia where we had taken on supplies at the big
island of Koror. It was September of
1979. The seas were calm, although the
first mate was tracking a big storm that could potentially turn in our
way. We were supposed to deliver the
refrigerated meat and vegetables in our hold to Pinoy Proud Food Markets of Manila by the beginning of
October. There were supposed to be
bananas too, but we had made the mistake of putting the bananas in the freezer
and frozen bananas become just the right shade of poo-poo color to make them
unmarketable. So the crew had been eating
a lot of frozen banana pops. Doc
Johnson, whom we call Doc because he knows a lot of useful stuff was worried
that we might inadvertently cause hyperkalemic death among the crew, which
worried me a bit, but since no one else seemed to know what the heck
hyperkalemic meant, we were okay with eating that many frozen bananas, but I
was later led to wonder if, in fact, the whole hyperkalemic death thing might
be the source of hallucinations.
It was a valid worry as it turned
out. Because that September, in the
early morning on Monday, September 10th, Kooky Smith first saw the
“Wow!” said Danny Murphy, “a real mermaid?”
“Well, that’s the debate, isn’t it?” said Mary. “The story starts to get stranger and
stranger. And he even says it might be
because they ate too many frozen bananas.”
“Does it say what the mermaid looked like?” asked Pidney.
Valerie looked carefully at the block of text ahead written
in Captain Dettbarn’s goofy wrong-way-leaning handwritten letters.
“Um, yes, let me read that part.”
Chinooki was a naked woman from the
waist upwards, with comely breasts and long pinkish-white hair. Her skin was a kind of fish-belly-looking
silver and her dark red eyes looked brown most of the time, but glowed like
fire at night.
“Gonga!” said Danny, a word he often used to express both
surprise and admiration at the same moment.
Pidney, however, was blushing a cherry red that covered most
of his crew-cut head and neck.
“Chinooki?” asked Mary, “What kind of name is that?”
“It sounds kinda fishy,” said Valerie. “Like Chinook salmon.”
“Or maybe Chinese,” suggested Danny.
They all turned and looked at Danny.
“What? They call
Chinese people Chinks, right?”
“Polite people don’t,” suggested Mary.
“Read more about what happened,” Pidney asked Valerie.
Kooky said that he saw her the
first time off the starboard rail, swimming with her head and shoulders raised
out of the water. He thought she was
some kind of shipwreck survivor, but when he hailed her to offer help, she
waved at him and smiled, then dove and showed him her fish tail.
Of course, no one believed
him. Sea stories like that get told all
the time, and Kooky liked to drink… sometimes even on duty. We all knew he was quite capable of seeing
things that weren’t real.
But the second time she was spotted,
Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones were also on deck, and when Kooky shouted they
immediately came to the rail and saw her too.
Now, Bob was like Kooky in a lot of ways, so we woulda thought he was
making it up too, or just backing Kooky’s kooky story for yucks and
kippers. But Chuck was well known for
both sobriety and honesty. He was the
man I trusted to keep the ship’s books because I knew he’d never cheat any of
us out of a single penny we were due.
And he’d sooner cut off his own hand than tell a lie.
“We have ta catch her and bring her
aboard,” Kooky said.
“You gonna eat her?” Bob asked.
“Are you daft, man? I don’t want to hurt her,” Kooky said. “She’s beautiful. I want to catch her and keep her.”
“Be wary,” Chuck said. “If she’s not a natural creature, then she’s
some kind of unnatural menace sort of thing.
Bringing her on board this ship might be the last thing we ever do in
“Well, I for one, would very much
like to see this real mermaid,” I said.
I would later come to regret those words more than any I had ever said
before in my whole life.
The four young Pirates all looked at each other, and all
four of them shivered at once. Valerie
could certainly read out loud in a way that would scare you out of your under
The gentleman writer pictured above is a successful creator of innovative and engaging fiction. As a 1979 vintage, he was still a toddler when I began my teaching career in 1981. Like John Green, another author I admire who was only a small child when I began teaching, he cut his writer’s teeth by writing for Mental Floss the humor-centric publisher of puzzles, facts, and trivia. While I do, in fact, envy his success, I do not in any way take it lightly. He is a capable, highly-intelligent story-teller whose books I have grown to dearly love.
The first book in the peculiar series, also the first book I snagged at Half-Price Books and then devoured in a week (I bought a second copy to read after foolishly eating the first), is the peculiar tome pictured above. In these stories, the peculiar author presents numerous old black-and-white photographs from the days when stereopticons stood in for televisions because the so-called boob-tubes hadn’t had the decency to be invented yet. Most of these photos are bizarre in some way like the one used on his first cover. And the pictures become the story. The girl on the cover of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children becomes Olive, a young girl whose peculiar power is to float in the air. In fact, she has to wear lead shoes to keep from floating off into the sky.
Peculiars are menaced by, and have to be protected from wights, former peculiars who eat the souls of their own kind to become white-eyed powerful villains who wish to rule and eat all peculiar people.
The peculiar children have to be protected by creatures called Ymbrynes, women who were originally peculiar birds that found they could turn into human women, and not only that, could loop time in ways that provided pockets of protection from those who would persecute them where time never passed.
The protagonist-narrator of the entire trilogy is Jacob Portman, a Florida boy who learns that he has inherited a one-of-a-kind peculiar power from his grandfather (turning it into a two-of–kind thing). And when his grandfather is killed by wights, he learns of a place he must go to take his grandfather’s former place guarding Miss Peregrine’s troop of peculiat children, including Emma, pictured here, (a hot chick in more than one way).
I will not tell you any more of the story of the trilogy. I hate to spoil anything from another author’s work. I found that the discovery of every delicious detail and oddity along the way was the tastiest feature of the fiction. (I do have to break that bad habit of eating books. Gustatory learning, my peculiar ability and my curse.) I will, rather, merely recommend that you discover the peculiar charms of these peculiar books for yourself. (And try not to discover them by eating them. Books have too much fiber and too little protein to be used like that.)
Being a role-playing-game dungeon master, you have to be familiar with how to absorb and implement the many, many game-playing books that are published to help you keep the adventure humming along towards epic goals. I have to admit to being a book addict. That is true for all books, but particularly game books. I collect them obsessively. I still troll Half Price Books looking for old and out-of-print D&D books and other game books.
Every role-playing game has certain necessary basic books. There is a book full of advice for the game master. It will tell you how to run an adventure and how to plan or map-out your events. There is a guide book for players that advises them on how to create a character, develop that character over time, and how to use the rules to create success. There is also usually some kind of enemies compendium, a monster book, filled with the characters you will have to defeat, slay, or outwit during the course of the adventure. Then there are game supplements that provide detailed settings, often complete with maps. They can give you non-player characters, adventure seeds, extra statistics, and sometimes additional useful tables. Equipment books are a thing as well.
I have a huge collection of Dungeons & Dragons books going back to TSR and continuing through their current publisher, Wizards of the Coast. I have practically every Call of Cthulhubook, a game system to turn H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction into RPG adventures. I have almost all of the Talislanta books, a D&D-like game with no elves, dwarves, or humans in their game. I have practically everything put out by Game Designers’ Workshop for Traveller. I have a few books from the Rifts RPG, a time-and-dimension bending science fiction game. I have practically all of the Star Wars RPG books. I have a lot of Star Trek books. I have some G.U.R.P.S. books (Generic Universal Role Playing System), some d20 RPG books, and many other odd books, including a boxed set of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s RPG, complete with hand puppets.
So, please don’t file paperwork on me with the authorities who put insane people in white jackets with extra long sleeves. I am a collector who suffers from hoarding disorder. And I love books. I just can’t help it.
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.
No, this isn’t some kind of multiple-book book review. This is an ungodly silly claim that I can actually read three books at once. Silly, but true.
Now I don’t claim to be a three-armed mutant with six eyes or anything. And I am relatively sure I only have one brain. But, remember, I was a school teacher who could successfully maintain a lesson thread through discussions that were supposed to be about a story by Mark Twain, but ventured off to the left into whether or not donuts were really invented by a guy who piloted a ship and stuck his pastries on the handles of the ships’ wheel, thus making the first donut holes, and then got briefly lost in the woods of a discussion about whether or not there were pirates on the Mississippi River, and who Jean Lafitte really was, and why he was not the barefoot pirate who stole Cap’n Crunch’s cereal, but finally got to the point of what the story was really trying to say. (How’s that for mastery of the compound sentence?) (Oh, so you could better? Really? You were in my class once, weren’t you.) I am quite capable of tracking more than one plot at the same time. And I am not slavishly devoted to finishing one book before I pick up the next.
I like reading things the way I eat a Sunday dinner… a little meatloaf is followed by a fork-full of mashed potatoes, then back to meat, and some green peas after that… until the whole plate is clean.
Treasure Islandby Robert Louis Stevenson is the meatloaf. I have read it before, just as I have probably had more meatloaf in my Iowegian/Texican lifetime than any other meat dish. It’s pretty much a middle-America thing. And Treasure Island is the second book I ever read. So you can understand how easy a re-read would be. I am reading it mostly while I am sitting in the high school parking lot waiting to pick up the Princess after school is out.
Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse is also an old friend. I used to read it in the newspaper practically every day. I watched those kids grow up and have adventures almost as if they were members of my own family. So the mashed potatoes part of the meal is easy to digest too.
So that brings me to the green peas. Green peas are good for you. They are filled with niacin and folic acid and other green stuff that makes you healthier, even though when the green peas get mashed a bit and mix together with the potatoes, they look like boogers, and when you are a kid, you really can’t be sure. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter wrote this book The Long War together. And while I love everything Terry Pratchett does, including the book he wrote with Neil Gaiman, I am having a hard time getting into this one. Parts of it seem disjointed and hard to follow, at least at the beginning. It takes work to choke down some of it. Peas and potatoes and boogers, you know.
But this isn’t the first time I have ever read multiple books at the same time. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I finished a book and the next one wasn’t at least halfway finished too. So it can be done. Even by sane people.