Category Archives: strange and wonderful ideas about life

Made-Up People

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I often get criticized for talking to people who are basically invisible, probably imaginary, and definitely not real people, no matter what else they may be.

The unfinished cover picture is from the novel The Bicycle-Wheel Genius which I just finished the final rewrite and edit for.  All of the characters in that book are fictional.    Even though some of them strongly resemble the real people who inspired me to create them, they are fictional people doing fictional and sometimes impossible things.  And yet, they are all people who I have lived with as walking, talking, fictional people for many years.  Most of those people have been talking to me since the 1970’s.  I know some of them far better than any of the real people who are a part of my life.

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These, of course, are only a few of my imaginary friends.  Some I spend time with a lot.  Some I haven’t seen or heard from in quite a while.  And I do know they are not real people.  Mandy is a cartoon panda bear, and Anneliese is a living gingerbread cookie.  I do understand I made these people up in my stupid little head.

But it seems to me that the people in the world around us are really no less imaginary, ephemeral, and unreal.  Look at the current Presidentumb of the Disunited States.  He is an evil cartoon James Bond villain if there ever was one.

Animated cast of OUR CARTOON PRESIDENT. Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Animated cast of OUR CARTOON PRESIDENT. Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

People in the real world create an imaginary person in their own stupid little heads, and pretend real hard that that imaginary person is really them in real life.  And of course, nobody sees anybody else in the same way that they see themselves.  Everybody thinks they are a somebody who is different from anybody else who thinks they are a somebody too, and really they are telling themselves, and each other, lies about who somebody really is, and it is all very confusing, and if you can follow this sentence, you must be a far better reader than I am a writer, because none of it really makes sense to me.  I think everybody is imaginary in some sense of the word.

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So, if you happen to see me talking to a big white rabbit-man who used to be a pet white rabbit, but got changed into a rabbit-man through futuristic genetic science and metal carrots, don’t panic and call the police.  I am just talking to another fictional character from a book I just finished writing.  And why are you looking inside my head, anyway?  There’s an awful lot of personal stuff going on in there.  Of course, you only see that because I wrote about it in this essay.  So it is not an invasion of privacy.  It is just me writing down stuff I probably should keep in my own stupid little head.  My bad.

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The Sardonic Solliloquy

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The homeless man wandered onto center stage just as the spotlight went on.  He shaded his old eyes against the brightness and looked outward into the dark  theater.  It was probably some kind of mistake.

“Oh, so now it’s my turn to talk, eh?”

There was no response.

“Well, if you’re expecting something funny to come out of my mouth, good luck with that.  More than half of what I say that makes people laugh is the result of depression, ill health, and just plain ignorant stupidity.  And the other half of it is not meant to be funny, but is because I don’t always understand what I am saying.”

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There was an embarrassed chuckle somewhere in the darkness.

“I mean, you can’t expect too much from me. I’m a bum.  I have no money.  I have no job.  Not having any work to be bothered with is kinda good.  But the other thing kinda sucks.

And all the great comedians that used to stand on this stage and try to save the world through humor are dead now.  It’s true.  Robin Williams died recently.  George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby are all long gone.”

There was some nervous laughter in the theater.

“Oh, I know, Cosby only thinks he’s dead.  But he kinda killed the character delivering the wisdom in the form of observational comedy, didn’t he.”

 

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“But most of them old boys tried to come up here and tell you the truth.  And the truth was so absolutely unexpectedly wacky and way out of bounds that you just had to laugh.  And the more wicked the humor, the more you just laughed.  You didn’t do anything about the problems they talked about.  But you sure did laugh.”

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“It seems like the more they told you the truth and the more you just laughed about it, the more old and bitter they got.  Sardonic?  You know that word?  Not sardines, fools, but sardonic.   Bitterly humorous and sadly funny.  Seems like a lot of them old boys got more and more bitter, more and more depressed up to the end.  More and more sardonic.”

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“I mean,  Carlin was calling you stupid right to your face at the end.  And you just laughed it off.”

The theater had grown eerily silent.

“But it ain’t all bad, is it?  I mean, at least you all can still laugh.  Only smart people get the jokes.  The ones Carlin moaned about were laughing because everybody else was laughing.  Those weren’t the ones we were talking to.  There’s still life out there somewhere.  Maybe intelligent life.  Maybe aliens ain’t located any intelligent life on Earth yet, but they’re still trying, ain’t they?”

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“You shoulda listened more carefully to what they were saying.  Life and love and laughter were bound up in their words.”

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“So I guess what I’m really saying is… just because I happened to get a rare chance to say it to you all… learn to listen better.  The voices are quiet now.  But the words are still there. And laughing at them is still a good thing.  But remember, you need to hear them too.”

The theater suddenly filled with the roar of a standing ovation.  The old man bowed.  And this was ironic because… the theater had always been empty.  No one at all was there now.

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Hearts in Atlantis (a book review)

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I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend.  And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.

This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack.  I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author.  He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant  (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett).  He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category.  I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read.  And then I did.  But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired.  And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring.  He is mimicking someone else’s voice.  I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.

But this book proved me totally wrong.  I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer.  It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”.  But it is a total trick to draw us in.  And it is even a very good monster story.  Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster.  And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot.  Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future.  Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.

But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two.  The hearts in the title is actually the card game.  It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s.  They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war.  Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.

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The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot.  I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler.  This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster.  I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember.  And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.

 

 

 

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Alliteration

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I find alliteration to be a useful poetic tool to use for comedy purposes.  I like to use it to the point of ridiculousness… as in apt alliteration’s artful aid.  The repetition for repetition’s sake in spite of meaning is in itself chuckle-worthy.  But when alliteration can further the meaning of the writing itself also… I liberally laugh out loud.

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L-Words (a Lousy L-Poem)

Lovely little lambs lament

Little lambs lament the loss of love

Lambs lament loudly and long

Lament the loss of lovely love

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Lovely little lambs laugh loudly

Little Lambs laugh at life lived lovingly

Lambs laugh long and loudly

Laugh long and loudly in lieu of love

Life and love and laughter

The three L’s

Laugh lovely little lambs!

Okay, I know… I am the king of bad poetry.  But perhaps the alliterative excess makes you laugh a little bit… at my poor poetry skills if nothing else.

Alliteration always awards awesomeness on authors… or not.

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Friday We Recover

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Yesterday we went to see Les Miserables, the Broadway musical.  Fantine’s tragedy, Marius’s rescue, and Jean Valjean’s ultimate triumph made me cry again… copious amounts of tears… a waterfall of emotional floodwaters.  There is beauty in living through challenges.  Especially life-threatening ones.

We went to the musical in Fair Park as a celebration of the fact that a family member is now out of the hospital and on proper medication to be well again.  We are liberated from fear again for a time.  Of course, I can’t afford to go to a show like that, being newly bankrupted and swamped with medical bills.  But a family member provided the funds, victory over severe depression being a thing that needs celebration.

And Eponine’s song “On My Own” is such a powerful statement of the self-sacrificing nature of love that it makes me weep just thinking of it.  She loves a man who loves another and yet, loves him so well that she secures his happiness… with that other woman.  And she dies in the arms of the man she loves.  Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”, also makes me weep.  It is the main theme of the entire show, that the thing to do when life buries you beneath a blizzard of misfortune, cruelty, and unfairness is to turn that into self-sacrificing, generous love for others even if they are not your flesh-and-blood kin.  Love gives back more than you have given.  It is the notion that makes me cry with the beauty of it.

The point is, I have had a hard week.  I had to put a family member in the hospital for severe depression.  And other family members couldn’t help me because depression can be as infectious as a cold, taking one person after another through exposure to the harsh realities of the disease.  And though it is hard being the only one available to help someone through the dangerous darkness of the soul, I managed not to lose anybody again this time, the fifth time I have fought such a battle in a terrible, long war.

And now I have “One Day More” to enter into the new world I have made through sacrifice and suffering.  I am devastated, but still whole.  I am exhausted, but still standing.  I needed yesterday to happen.

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Characters From Superchicken

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These are a few of the main characters of the old story which is now my newest novel.

Superchicken is Edward-Andrew Campbell.  He is basically a me-character.  His embarrassing nickname, from a Jay Ward cartoon that used to be on TV Saturday mornings, was actually my nickname in junior high and high school.  Many of the emotional changes he goes through and the embarrassments he endures to be a super hero were based on my own experiences.  But he definitely embraces the nickname as his superhero name in a way I can only wish that I did.

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Brent Clarke is the outgoing athlete sort of kid who was definitely not me.  He becomes leader of the Norwall Pirates because he pitched for the softball team, and because anyone who met him naturally assumed he was the most important kid in the group.  Others look to him for leadership even when they don’t need it.  Making friends with Brent is one of the most difficult and important tasks the Superchicken must undertake.

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Milt Morgan is the wizard of the group.  He is obsessed with magic and imagination. And though Brent is nominally the leader of the group, all their evil plans and hair-brained schemes come from Milt’s imagination.  The picture of Milt is drawn from me as a boy, but in reality he is the other Mike from my childhood, the one with a rather tough life and a heart of… well… maybe not gold, but at least silver.  He is also the one who insists on making Edward-Andrew part of the gang.

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The Cobble Sisters, Sherry and Shelly, are a pair of identical twin girls.  They are both nudists at home on the farm place and at the nudist club in Clear Lake.  They are problematic for a shy boy just discovering girls, but Sherry definitely pursues a crush on the Superchicken and tricks him into a family camping trip at the nudist camp.

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Sherry at the Sunshine Club

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Anita Jones is the shy girl who has a crush on the Superchicken.  And he secretly has a crush on her.  But she is also the girl who becomes, completely by accident, the first girl that Edward-Andrew sees naked.  Love and hate, embarrassment and attraction, she is the one girl whose opinion seems to matter most.  I, of course, will never reveal the real life girl she is based on.  I could never live that down, even though we are both now more than sixty years old.

So those are a few of the main characters that make this novel work for me.  They are real people to me now that the novel is written, just as they were once real people when I was a boy and living the nightmare of being a mere boy in a world that needs heroes.

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P.T. Barnum

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Last night my wife and my daughter the Princess went with me to the movie musical The Greatest Showman at the dollar movie.  I was enchanted.  My wife laughed at me for how much the movie made me cry.  But it was a very touching and timely movie for me because it was about pursuing dreams in spite of economic hardships.  The award-winning songs promote with energy and stunning beauty the notion that you should follow your passion no matter the risk, and that choosing to do so will produce rewards as long as family and love are with you and along for the ride.

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Of course, one has to remember that the whole story is based on the life and work of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who is a lot more like Donald Trump than he is Hugh Jackman.  I really doubt he could sing and dance the way the movie portrays him.  And words like “humbug”, “fraud”, and “exploiter” apply to him in a very real way.

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Barnum was actually one of those wheeler dealers who wants to control the story.  He actively found ways to alter the public narrative about himself and used criticism to help promote his money-making shows.  The idea of bad publicity being just as good if not better than good publicity actually makes its presence felt in at least one scene in the movie.  There is ample evidence that more than a little of Barnum’s efforts were aimed at making himself a star.

And although the movie sentimentalizes his exploitation of freaks and special individuals, giving him credit for giving them self esteem and a means to make a good living, that was really only the fictional Barnum created by Barnum’s own media efforts.

The truth of the matter, though far more fascinating than the movie version of Barnum, does not make for a good musical libretto.  In the movie the theme of special people outcast from the society because of their uniqueness coming together to support each other in a circus is strongly woven into both the story and the music.  The song “This is Me” performed by Keala Settle playing the part of bearded lady Lettie Lutz is a powerful anthem for everyone who feels smaller than they really are because of prejudice, bullying, racism, sexism, or any of the other forms of moronic stupidity that humans are so often guilty of.  I have to admit, the song made me cry even as it filled me with joy.  The musical score of this movie is one that I intend to listen to again and again and again.  It makes the circus seem like an answer to life’s problems.  It is the same feeling that I got the first time, and every time, I ever saw the circus with all its clowns and jugglers, acrobats and lion tamers, bare-back riders and elephants.  And I knew it was all illusion.  All humbug.  But it was pure joy worth the price of the ticket never-the-less.

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The movie was only rated 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I rarely pay attention to things like that.  This musical goes into the category with The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and Mary Poppins of musicals I can’t live without.  Never mind the greedy little man that it is based on.  This movie is about big dreams and even bigger achievements.  And it is well worth the price.

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