The secret to this essay is that the title is a pun. And yes, I know you probably don’t find it very punny. But I wanted to talk about the difficulties of portraying the difficulties of communication in a talk-a-lot-sometimes-talk-too-much world.
Yes, my current work in progress, Fools and their Toys, is about a man who can hardly talk at all because of undiagnosed autism who suddenly, miraculously finds a voice through ventriloquism, and then finds himself needing to communicate to a boy who is deaf and only speaks sign language and another boy who is profoundly distracted with ADD and bipolar disorder. He needs to communicate desperately because he knows things that have been locked up in his head for years that may help the FBI stop a cereal killer. No, that is a pun again. Shame on me. The murderer commits multiple murders of young boys, not breakfast food
I chose to write this rather insane novel about how not to communicate with real people because I, myself, as a kid was given to all kinds of communication theatrics and tricks of entertainment. I was also a shy kid after the age of ten for very sinister reasons.
It is important to realize that you absolutely have to communicate with others in life. Even if something is preventing you, like my own bout of self-loathing brought on by a sexual assault committed against me by an older boy. I got a ventriloquist’s dummy for Christmas near the time of the terrible event. It was Danny O’Day from the Montgomery Ward’s Christmas catalog. I taught myself to do ventriloquism. And then I gave it up when I realized the puppet would say things I didn’t want anyone to hear.
Never the less, I continued to be fascinated life-long with ventriloquists and the little people they created.
Edgar Bergen was often in movies on TV during the Saturday afternoon matinee on Channel 3. I often saw his lips move. I was actually a better mouth-still ventriloquist than the old master.
Paul Winchell used to have a TV show in the 50’s which I saw on re-runs as a boy in the 60’s. He was also the voice of Tigger, Dick Dastardly, and Gargamel. (If you don’t recognize any of those cartoon characters, I mourn for your inadequately-filled childhood.)
And, of course, I was fascinated and enthralled by Shari Lewis and Lambchop any time they were on TV, especially Sunday nights with Ed Sullivan.
Learning about ventriloquism never solved any problems for me. But it gave me a way to talk to myself that simulated having real friends. It helped me survive the dark years of being a teenager.
Ventriloquism, humor, made-up characters, and the ability to talk with them is what I am chiefly concerned with now. My life and my current novel is taken up with talking, though not the normal talking of normal people. Talking with the voices that come from strange locked trunks inside you, the secrets you always meant to keep, but sooner or later have to be said out loud by someone. And maybe that someone is a dummy.
Describing the feeling of entering the Ghost House for the
first time would prove quite difficult for Valerie when she tried to do it later
on in Miss Bierstadt’s class for an English essay assignment. But at the moment she crawled through the
Tunnel of Doom, she would’ve described it as a feeling in her belly like eating
a bowl of iced earthworms and trying to find a place to throw up in a jungle
full of man-eating plants that smelled an awful lot like marigolds or
something. It was that kind of
combination of anticipation, bad smells, icky things to see and touch, and the sensory
deprivation of entering a candle-lit darkness from the bright September world
“Welcome, Miss Valerie Clarke,” said freshman football hero
and huge Polish hunk Pidney Breslow.
Valerie was deeply in love with the square-shouldered giant, and
sincerely hoped he would be the leader of this Pirate club.
“Hello,” she said, almost timidly.
“You are just in time for the first official meeting of the
reforming Norwall Pirates’ Club,” said Mary Philips brightly. Mary had extended the official invitation to
Valerie to come here, although Val didn’t really know why. Mary had said that she didn’t want to be the
only girl in the club, but why would a girl like Mary want to be in a boys’
club? She had a bad feeling that the
high school freshman girl also had her cap set for winning Pidney as a
boyfriend. But, plain-looking as Mary
was, Val was only mildly concerned.
A quick look around as Danny Murphy crawled in after her
revealed the other boys in attendance at the secret meeting. Ray Zeffer, another high school freshman was
there. He was kinda handsome in a way,
too, but he was always so sad-looking with those big puppy-dog brown eyes of
his. He had a neatly combed mess of jet
black hair too, which was also attractive.
Val could easily learn to like this club.
The other boy, a high school junior, was kinda creepy. His name was Conrad Doble. He was the only one at the meeting who had
been a member of the original Norwall Pirates.
He was tall and thin, with lank blond hair that hadn’t had a haircut in
too long. He had a distinct problem with
facial Acne. And he insisted on leering
at Valerie, like he wanted to take a bite or two and eat her up. For the first time Val understood why he had
the semi-Shakespearian nickname of King Leer.
“You know that re-forming the Pirates is a sucky idea,
right?” said Doble, leering at Mary Philips for the moment. “There’s no way to go back to those
things. Milt Morgan had all the ideas
and told us what to do. Brent Clarke was
the leader and made the ideas happen.
How are we gonna fight werewolves or undead Chinese wizards without them?”
“You know that those adventures were mostly lies and fairy
tales,” Mary said.
“Still, who will be the wizard? And who will be the leader?” Doble glared at Mary accusingly. “I actually saw the werewolf!”
The two older boys, Ray and Pidney looked at each other
“Re-forming the Pirates was my idea,” said Mary. “I think I should be the leader.”
“A girl as leader?” asked Doble. “We only used to let girls in for sex
“Be careful what you say to Mary, Goon,” said Pidney.
“Or what? You’ll beat
me up with your football muscles?”
“No,” said Ray. “The
two of us will beat the crap out of you.”
The fire flashing in Ray Zeffer’s eyes was even more intimidating than
Pidney’s football muscles, and Pidney’s football muscles were seriously huge.
“Yeah, well… I guess
there might be benefits to having girls in the Pirates,” grumbled Doble
“So, it’s settled.
The Norwall Pirates exist once more,” said Mary with a sparkly
smile. “I will be the leader and Pidney
will be second in command.”
“Who is the wizard?” growled Doble. “Milt is the hard one to replace.”
“I get that you always thought of Milt Morgan as Merlin and
Brent Clarke as his King Arthur,” said Mary, “but do we really need a wizard?”
“Yeah, I think we do,” insisted Doble.
“You know we don’t have to let you be a Pirate this time,”
“I’m the only real
Norwall Pirate here,” said Doble imperially.
“You have to have my permission to even do this.”
“It’s all right,” said Mary.
“What is it you think we need a wizard for?”
Conrad Doble stood up to his full height and lightly bonked
his head on a cellar rafter. After he
rubbed his somewhat flattened head of hair, he went over to a nearby cabinet,
and removed the right hand door which basically fell out when you touched
it. He reached in and brought out a
large peanut-butter jar filled with formaldehyde. Floating in it was the severed head of a huge
black cat, its dead eyes popped and staring.
He placed that on the crate in front of the old couch.
“Gack! What’s that?”
“The secret mystical symbol of the Pirate leader,” said
“Smart girl,” said Conrad Doble. “If you know that, then surely you know what
a wizard is for.”
“I’m guessing the keeper of secrets,” said Mary.
“The teller of stories!” Valerie blurted out.
“Yes!” said Doble.
“Both of those things. But
story-teller most of all. That’s what
Milt used to do. He told us stories and
made us believe in stuff.”
“So, who here is a story-teller?” asked Ray Zeffer.
“Tell us the story of your Uncle Noah,” Pidney said to Mary.
“He is NOT my uncle,” said Mary. “He’s just Dad’s friend. I used to call him uncle when I was little.”
“But that’s the idea, isn’t it?” asked Pidney. “That story you were telling me about your
dad’s friend on the freighter in the South Seas? You could tell us that.”
“Maybe. You have to
give me time to pull it all together. I
think we need to leave that position open for the moment, to give others here a
chance to tell a story of their
own.” Mary glared in Conrad’s direction for a change.
“Okay,” said Doble.
“It’s a deal.”
“Who will be in the club?” asked Pidney.
“I invited everyone here to be a Pirate,” said Mary. “I think all of us need to be here. The Norwall Pirates used to be a group of
friends that supported each other and helped each other through hard times. That’s what we all need again. Especially Ray.”
Ray Zeffer blushed and looked off into the darkness of the
far corner of the cellar. Valerie
wondered why. She decided she would find
“Why didn’t you invite Billy Martin?” asked Danny
Murphy. “He needs to be a Pirate too.”
“You are right,” said Mary with a smile. “But I didn’t know where to find him or how
to get the message to him. Inviting him
can be our first club project.”
“Club project? You
make it sound all girly!” complained Doble.
So it was decided. Valerie Clarke was now the second girl ever to be a Norwall Pirate. She smiled to herself, but when she caught Doble looking at her again, she changed the smile for a frown.
When you spend most of your time writing and thinking with the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head and the hourglass of your life looking more and more like the sands of time are running out, you are tempted to take the curves too fast and make extremely stupid mistakes that make your brain crash into a brick wall of stupidity. You are stuck in a stupor of stupidity that must somehow un-stupid you with downtime and do-nothing brainless activity. I won’t try to explain what I did wrong, because, after all, I am still stupid at the moment and don’t really know what I did wrong.
I bought myself a doll yesterday. I spent some of my birthday money on it. My octogenarian mother sends me birthday money every year to remind me how many years beyond sixty I have aged, especially now that, after more than twenty years spent not celebrating birthdays as a nominal Jehovah’s Witness, I am now no longer associated with prohibitions from God due to the arbitrary rules of religion. It was a stupid act based on the fact that I have been avoiding wasting money on my doll-collecting hoarding disorder for a matter of months. It could be like an alcoholic taking a drink after months of being sober. But the doll is pretty in a magical sort of way and provides me with someone else to talk to when I am brooding about being stupid.
It may seem like, since I am writing this while still stupid, that I am saying that being stupid is, by definition, a bad thing. If I am saying that, it is only because I am currently stupid.
If you look at the smiles on the faces of the gentleman with the brown cap and Scraggles the mouser, you can easily see that being happy is a simple thing. And it is the province of simple people, not complicated and extremely smart people. I can testify from hard experience that being too smart is a barrier to being simply happy. So, I benefit emotionally from being stupid this Sunday.
As to being stupid today and what caused it, well, it may have something to do with the fact that I am currently editing The Baby Werewolf, the most complex and potentially controversial novel I have ever written. Horror stories often mine and expose the author’s own traumas and fundamental fears. And I am trying to publish it as the fourth novel I have published in 2018. Is that biting off more than I can chew with my old teeth? I don’t know the answer. I am currently pretty stupid.
I was a boy back when the milk man still came around in his blue-and-white panel truck delivering bottles of milk with Elsie the Cow on them. I don’t remember clearly because I was only 4 years old back when I first became aware of being a boy in this world instead of being something else living somewhere else.
There were many things I didn’t know or understand back then. But one thing I did know, was that I loved Elsie the Cow. And why would a farm boy love a cartoon cow? There were many not-so-sensible reasons.
For one thing, Elsie the Cow reminded me of June Lockhart, Lassie’s mom and the mom from Lost in Space.
It may be that June Lockhart’s eyes reminded me of Elsie’s eyes, being large, soul-full eyes with large black eye lashes. It may be that she starred in a TV commercial for Borden’s milk in which Elsie winked at me at the end of the commercial.
Or maybe it was because Elsie had calves and was a mom. And June Lockhart was Lassie’s mom and the mom of Will Robinson, so I associated both of them with my mom, and thus with each other.
Elsie gave you milk to drink and was always taking care of you in that way. Milk was good for you, after all. My own mom was a registered nurse. So they were alike in that way too.
And she was constantly defending you against the bulls in your life. She stood up to Elmer to protect her daughter more than once. Of course, her son was usually guilty of whatever he was accused of, but she still loved him and kept Elmer from making his “hamburger” threats a reality.
And you can see in numerous ad illustrations that Elsie’s family were basically nudists. Although she often wore an apron, she was bare otherwise. And though her daughter often wore skirts and her son wore shorts, Elmer was always naked. And that didn’t surprise me, because no cow I knew from the farm wore clothes either. From very early in my life I was always fascinated by nakedness, and I would’ve become a nudist as a youngster if it hadn’t been soundly discouraged by family and society in general.
So there are many reasons why I have always loved Elsie the Cow. And it all boils down to the love of drinking milk and that appealing cartoon character who constantly asked you to drink more.
I finished a novel over the weekend. It was one of those novels that you have to write before you die because anything short of finishing it would leave your whole life incomplete.
So, now that it is finished, I can go ahead and die, right?
Well, of course, it is not as simple as that. I created a cover for it. But it is not proofread and formatted and I have to give it time to cool down, being fresh out of the oven, before I read it over again, make adjustments, and publish it. And I have two other novel drafts that haven’t yet reached the published state of being. So, I better put off dying for just a bit. Any clown can tell you that giving birth to a novel that you have been composing for 4o years and writing down for six months takes a lot out of you. And you have to stop and take a breath. At least one. Before you forge ahead with the next one. I do have Recipes for Gingerbread Children already formatted and I am working through the final edit. I am still in poor health yet and could drop dead at any moment. My computer is all funky from some sort of virus, hopefully not computer flu… or computer black death. So, I am still in a mad rush to beat an unknown deadline beyond which I am really dead.
I don’t have the luxury of dying yet.
I have to deal with the death of another beloved character, I can’t seem to write a comedy adventure novel without killing somebody at the end of it. Shakespearian comedies all end in marriages, and it is the tragedies that end in mass deaths. But like any clown, I have most things backward in my life. You learn that as a teacher in public schools, you really are just another form of professional fool pursuing your profession foolishly. That is kinda what life is for. And it doesn’t change when you retire and try to become a foolish writer of foolish novels to leave behind as a foolish legacy to a whole foolish world.
But, as for the question of whether there is life after writing… I really don’t know, and I am still not ready to find out.
Long about the middle of October every year I have to partake of the miracle that is Ginger Ale during pollen season. And believe me, in Texas, pollen season lasts until the parched grass and dry air sets in again during the droughts of middle July through September. Sometimes in a wet year (which used to be rarer than now) the tree pollen, mold spores, mountain cedar, and ragweed fill the air year around. Ginger in any form is a god-sent cure-all for ailments of the lungs, ears, nose, and throat. It reduces inflammation, dilutes mucus, and helps you restore the breath of life. I have developed a real taste for ginger products of all sorts as a result of the medicinal boost it gives me every year. It explains my addiction to gingerbread. Also why I often put ginger root in a pot on the stove filled with boiling water and then inhale the fumes. I love Ginger Ale because it makes me feel good.
Simon’s Cat on YouTube is another kind of Ginger Ale for me. Admittedly it is a mental sort of medicine, not a drink or a cookie or a steam inhaler. But watching those simple black and white cartoon antics that are so realistically catlike makes me laugh and increases serotonin in the brain, and it provides a very real depression medicine.
Now, I know full well that I am connecting two very unlike things and calling them both Ginger Ale on the mere passing similarity of the medicinal benefits. But life is far more metaphorical than it is literal. And that is why I continue to maintain that poets live better lives than the rest of us even if they die young for love of beauty. And it is better to be a cartoon cat than a literal king.
As I wake up every morning feeling more and more foggy-headed and lethargic, more like I barely managed to survive the night, I am aware I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I even passed out for a few minutes as I wrote this intro. I don’t know how long I actually have left. I no longer have the funds to get tested by the cardiologist, the urologist, or the endocrinologist every time a pain or a lightheadedness concerns me. I may not still be here when morning comes around again. But I fear no evil. When I finish reading the last page of a good book and close the book, I don’t mourn that the reading experience has ended. I exult in the wonderful story I have read or marvel at the lessons and learning the book has taught me. The end of my life will be like that. My life is not one that must be regretted.
The thing about having a shadow hanging over you is that it can be totally defeated by adding a little sunshine. I have never been a better writer than I am now. I am nearing the end of what seems to me to be the best novel I have ever written. I felt that same way as Catch a Falling Star was being written, and it proved to be true. I won the Rising Star Award and the Editor’s Choice Award from I-Universe publishing which has them on the phone with me again trying to find ways to fund the marketing they think it deserves in spite of my total lack of money. I also thought Snow Babies was the best thing I had ever written, even better than Catch a Falling Star. And the publisher I found for that one thought so too, right up to the moment when my curse as an unknown writer killed their little publishing company. I feel really good about Sing Sad Songs as it continues to basically write itself. So what if I never live to see any of my books yield success? The fact that I have caused them to exist is enough to fulfill me. It is enough to satisfy me. Of course, I do have more stories in me that need to be told. That is motivation enough to stay alive and keep writing.
Francois singing a sad song.
It is the valley of the shadow of death, however. A novel character I love is about to die. It seems there are a lot of my novels that end with a death even though they are all basically comic novels, full of things that at least make me laugh. But I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, the stick that whacks me when I misstep and the shepherd’s crook that rescues me from dark crevices, they comfort me. I will continue to pass through.