Last night I watched again Part I of Ken Burns’ Mark Twain. I think it reminds me of who I am as a writer. No, I am not being all big-head arrogant and full of myself. I devoured certain writers as a youth, consumed them whole. Charles Dickens was my first passion, followed by J.R.R. Tolkien, and then Mark Twain. Of all of them, Samuel Clemens is the most like me. He was from the Midwest, born and raised in Missouri along the Mississippi River. I am from the Midwest, born and raised in Iowa along the Iowa River. He endured hardship and tragedy as a youth, losing his little brother in a riverboat accident, and he dealt with it by humor. I endured a sexual assault from an older boy, and dealt with it by… well, you get the picture. We are alike, him and I. We both draw upon the place we grew up, the people we have known, and the events of our youth to create stories.
It is a pretty big responsibility to follow in his footsteps, and I will probably never live to see the success and the wealth that came to him. But I have a responsibility to the people I knew and the time that gave rise to me to tell their story. I need to build a network of stories that resonate the truth of existence that I have been witness to. A big responsibility… and I probably will not live up to it. But I have to try.
Being a writer is somewhat like being cursed. The words burn inside, needing to get out, needing to be heard. I have stories that need to be told, and they will be told, even if only to file away in the closet again. Like Mark Twain, I am good at feeling sorry for myself. And the Mickey part of me, the writer part of me, is just like Mark Twain, a writer persona, and not the real man himself. I am simply the container for something that has to exist and has to tell stories. It is not a bad thing to be. But the more I get to know it, the more I would not wish the destiny on others.
Forgive how sad and bunglingly boorish this post is. But sometimes there are thoughts I simply have to think. And as a writer, I am bound to write down the silly things that I think.
Okay, this is not going like I had hoped. Medical bills are overwhelming. Impacted molars are going to cost my family over three thousand dollars when we still can’t afford bills of bigger than 50. And I got word today that I did not win in the Chanticleer Book Reviews novel-writing contest. I was beaten out for the prize by Elisabeth Hamill’s book Song Magick.
I am bummed out. It is not that I expected to win that contest, but Magical Miss Morgan is a better book than Snow Babies, and that one at least made the list of finalists. I seem to be getting further away from the goal. If I placed, or got a prize in that contest, I would at least get the attention of literary agents and big publishers. Perhaps it is God’s wish that I remain an unknown novelist who makes no money at writing. It is consistent with His divine sense of humor. The angels get a good laugh whenever I fall on my figurative face for wishing too hard for money and success. God wants people to be happy being poor. Right? That’s what Republican politicians in Texas keep saying.
But if I keep playing the same sweet-sad songs and singing in the lonely darkness… at least I can make a melody or two that lifts the souls of my fellow dwellers in the dark.
But, wait a minute… something is not right here! Why are the winners the same ones they told me about a couple of months ago? Ms. Hamill’s book is also listed on this… 2014 list? Did I jump the gun? Look at this list for me; Dante Rossetti Awards
Am I wrong, or does that say these are the 2014 winners? There’s the due date by which I sent in my novel for the NEXT COMPETITION in 2015! That means I won’t actually hear about my novel until next summer! Hang dang it! Both bad news and good news in one fell swoop. So, I am not out of the running yet. Perhaps there is time to do more and be more and write more after all!
A year ago, I had to make the tough decision to end my teaching career of thirty-one years. I had a run of about three months where the sick days were costing me $330 apiece and my monthly paycheck kept sinking lower and lower. It was a choice between continuing to work hard, catch every virus that germy school kids carried into my classroom every day, and end up owing the school money at the end of the month. Teacher paychecks are earned during the nine months of teaching time, but spread over the twelve actual months (actually we work for ten and a half months because holiday breaks are always filled with paperwork, homework, and preparation, but you don’t actually get paid for that… eleven and a half months if you teach summer school for $20 an hour), and retiring on a fixed income that would turn out to be more each month than I was taking home each month while working.
After a year of headaches and breathing trouble… visits to the heart doctor… dealing with family bouts of social anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder… along with the resulting depression and physical pain… I am beginning to believe I made a good decision. I never could’ve weathered another year of teaching. I would’ve physically given out. But I have had ample time to write, to talk with and spend time with my children, and heal. I am still not well enough to get a part time job to supplement my income… but the chance to achieve good health again is closer now than it would’ve been if I hadn’t retired. Goofing off and playing with my toys has been good for me.
During the school day, with my kids in school, I can sit and write stark naked. (I know that sounds kinda perverted, but with psoriasis chewing my skin up in all the covered parts, that is far more comfortable than wearing clothes. Sitting in a hot bath is even better.) I have taken up Facebooking and WordPressing and playing Facebook games like Magecraft (I am now level 35 and gaining). I can’t keep playing and wasting time for too much longer, but I have never been more creative than I have in the last year. I wrote and finished four novels.
So, why am I telling you this instead of creating some humorous post about city driving or why bankers are better pirates than Blackbeard ever was? (Hmm… I think I better write those topics down). Because I can. I have recently undergone several setbacks with family and health, and that takes some meditation and healthy thinking to recover from (especially when you don’t have enough money to get help from the doctor). And besides, you all read my posts and offer words of comfort and pity… and I have a perverse need to write things that elicit comment and other proof that readers are actually reading what I write. Most of my fiction-writing life has been addressed to the unseen ghosts of future readers… and I’m always a little bit afraid of ghosts.
We live in world that is profoundly unkind to non-conformity, weirdness, or even basic differences. How do you explain to a child that his school doesn’t want him there any more because his uniqueness is too much of a bother, a pain to deal with, an issue too complicated for a school administrator to get their little gray minds around? I can’t tell you the details of what we are going through right now. Too many privacy and legal issues get in the way of complete candor. But Texas school systems do not handle issues of exceptionality well. They are designed to crush originality and individual differences and grind out a workforce that will be compliant, that won’t complain when they are underpaid or mistreated, that will all be alike in many important ways. They would also like to turn out students who vote Republican, but it is all right if they turn out to be the type of citizen who won’t or can’t vote. Your life can be turned upside down over minor infractions. It is a law that Texas students must be in attendance over 90% of the time. If not, they are going to hound you, fine you, take you to court and even jail you. Because students must all fit into the same mold. No square pegs allowed. They do make exceptions for health problems… but only the right kind of health problems. Stomach cancer. okay, panic disorder, not okay… There are laws in place to protect those of us with special handicaps… but this is the de-regulation State. The city of West, Texas blew up in a fireball because too many regulations means lower profit margins. Of course, they don’t hesitate to apply regulations against me and mine. That is another matter (and the profits flow the opposite direction, offender to State).
So, what will I do now? I will do the best I can. I complained about it here to the best of my ability. The child even remarked that one day he will be wiser and more experienced than others because he went through this. There are other means of education, even if I have to do it all myself. And I can take the frustrations and turn them into future funny fables that will ring true, because they are.
I made the horrible mistake yesterday of revealing the true nature of my hideous mental condition that leads to never-ending collecting of a long list of collections that probably will become a black hole of collecting from its own gravitas and stretch on into infinity. (Yeah. I know… you can see right through my phony over-blown exaggerations that consist mainly of stringing lots of science-y sounding adjectives together. Don’t get all smug about it.)
I did not, however, reveal the newest collection. So today I open my stupid writer mouth and another sacred secret pops out. Since retiring from teaching last June, I have been collecting sunrises.
I know it is a silly, sentimental,, goofy-sort-of self-pitying thing, and I also know that is probably not “normal” from an abnormal psychology viewpoint, but don’t call the loon-catchers just yet. Wait till I reveal my delusional quasi-religious reasons for doing it.
I am retired now from a profession I truly loved. I have a full pension now because Texans Republicans are not completely on their toes about taking benefits away from people who don’t earn them by trading stocks and bonds, running a corporation for maximum profits, or inheriting billions because Daddy did one or both of the previous things for you. They let my pension slip by unaltered on a grandfather clause because I’ve been teaching since a time when education was actually a respected, value-producing industry that rewarded those who did the actual work (This really only occurred in the middle 1990’s when the world was briefly too sane to be Republican.) I can’t do the job any more for crippling health reasons. I am lucky to have a good pension, but not lucky enough to be able to use it for very long. Hence, the interest in sunrises. Every single one is a miracle.
You may have already noticed that most of my sunrises in this collection are taken in the same park. It is where the dog walks me every morning in order to keep my heart pumping. She wants to keep me alive so the food dish keeps getting refilled, and so someone will still be able to bag and dispose of her daily poops. (I swear, that dog is a champion pooper. Three times her own weight in poops every single day.) I also can’t sleep as much as I used to. Five hours a night is about the maximum that arthritis pain, COPD, and diabetes allows me. School trained me to get up early because my last job was a thirty-mile commute one way and classes started at 7:30 a.m. I really began noticing on my morning drive how beautiful city sunrises can be thanks to the colors produced by exotic pollutants.
So, I keep adding to this collection of sunrises because each one is a reminder that a loving God is still being generous with me, and I still get at least one more day. See? I warned you there was crackpot religious sentiment in this post. Now you can call the loony-catchers. But hopefully, they won’t catch me until after sunrise.
I am trying to hold everything together. I have made my plans, including plans for dealing with irrational things that some people might do. And so, it is time to go visit the rabbit people.
The Rabbit people represent the people and personalities from my past, fortifying me with good memories and pleasant thoughts. I depend on my interior mental life more and more as my body breaks down and my present life is more and more limited.
The hero is a younger me, leading the way to places I have been before and ready to defend me with old truth.
But there is no such thing as a perfect sanctuary. No castle of willpower and mental toughness is ever impregnable.
A thousand things now assail me. Unpaid tax bills, surprise expenses, continued struggles with illness, and other horrible goblins of chance and bad fortune continue to hound me.
The battle is not over. I have not yet lost, though I have not won yet either.
Today was an incredibly hard work day. I haven’t slept now since 8:00 a.m. yesterday. Almost 36 hours of achy wakefulness. Thunderstorms are making my arthritis ache and keeping me from actually falling asleep. I stumble now in five directions at once… forward, backward, to the left, to the right, and straight down. Soon this old clown will tumble down and roll around on the ground and finally fall to sleeeee….zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Is it a curse? Or is it a blessing? My mind doesn’t travel in straight lines. More likely circles, or curly-cues, or just plain scribbles…
Whenever I have a problem, like now, with money, or my children, or my wife, or my dog, or my job, or my… goodness this seems to go on forever… I tend to get screwy ideas about mass public transit via circus cannon, or dog diapers, or little green men invading the Earth and claiming to be from Mars although they are really from a planet one hundred light years away… Well, you get the idea. Off topic… outside the box… from deep left field… all sorts of cliches to explain why I don’t think normally about stuff. I just can’t. I need to sail on a sea of dreams in a ship with pink sails. Escape… dream… imagine… And sometimes it solves the problem, but usually it doesn’t. And life goes on, but with a little less cash than before, a little less discipline than before, a little less love than before, a little more rolled-up newspaper… You understand. The Devil didn’t make me do it. Imagination did. And so I must go sailing.
Yep, the last round-up is in sight for the silly old Cowboy Mickey… The time has finally come, and I submitted my resignation to the principal, Twenty three years I was a Cowboy in Cotulla, teaching English to mostly seventh graders. I spent a lot of time polishing the heads of eighth graders too. One year as a Wildcat at Creek Valley Middle School, a Lewisville School, working for the Wicked Witch of Creek Valley… seven more years in Garland teaching high school, one as a Garland Owl, and six as a Naaman Forest Ranger. This year it all ends. My heart is now sick and sad, and from where the sun now stands… I will teach no more forever.
Don’t weep for me. Old English teachers never die. They just slowly lose their class. I will carry forward as a writer, an artist, and a wacky-bird cartoonist. Not that I haven’t been those things all along. I am still a dungeon master. I am still father to Dorin, Henry, and the Princess. I am still secretly the Knight of the White Rose. Some day soon… but no, a fool knows for sure… but if a wizard is wise, there will always be room for doubt, and new horizons to conquer. Did I pile the hoo-haw and self-pity high enough? Not yet. I still have a few more teacher stories to tell.
It began with the day back in 2000 when Deke Moreno was credited with saving my life. I was in the classroom, in the middle of a vocabulary lesson. I hadn’t felt particularly well that morning. In fact, I felt like I must be coming down with another virus. It reached a point where my temples were pounding, my chest hurt, and I couldn’t move. I sat in my chair in the front, completely motionless, something I rarely did before that day. Eighteen seventh graders were suddenly looking at me with large, round eyes. I was the favorite teacher of a few, hated by many, and the object of some indifference to the rest. Still, they were suddenly silent and unified in their concern.
“Is something wrong?” asked Deke.
“Come here…” I waggled my hand at him.
Deke came up to me. “Push the intercom button… call for help.” That was, of course, his moment of heroism, his life-saving act.
The assistant principal, whose son was in my GT Class, came in and checked me out. The head principal and the secretary who really ran the school were close behind him. The AP didn’t waste a moment. They got the wheel chair from the nurse’s office and wheeled me to his car. He drove me himself to the local clinic. My blood pressure was through the roof. I would’ve died easily had my heart not received some medicine to reduce the strain. It was a mystery ailment then. Before the year was out, I found out that I had diabetes. My diet would change. My lifestyle would change. I missed work more often. I began to get in trouble with the administration for not being able to find the perfect balance between order and chaos (where good lessons lie) any longer. The work got harder and harder. I developed a disorder that led to frequently passing out. I began to collect things like stamps and action figures as a way to put the universe back into some kind of sensible order. I had a young family. My two youngest children both came along during the time I was first learning to cope with the disease. When we moved to the Dallas Metroplex to be nearer to my wife’s family, I managed to get stressed out at my new job, and the one-year probationary period I got with the Lewisville School District undid all the years of building skills and community confidence. I lost my teaching position. It took two long years of substitute teaching to get it back. Sometime in the future I will have to write the ultimate horror story of being a “good sub”.
Now, I know you are going to find me a total fool for saying this, but Type Two Diabetes is the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds in view of what the disease did to my life, but I have gained benefits that I would not have otherwise gained. Dealing with the disease and having to make a comeback has made me an infinitely better teacher. I see students with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of urgency.
The most important thing is that now I have to live each day for the value it has, rather than for what the future may bring. When Wordsworth spoke of those “spots of time” where the eyes are suddenly opened and everything is seen in a new way, he was talking about what was destined to happen to me on a daily basis. There are things that you put off for the sake of a career like teaching. All of us are a Mr. Holland in some way. We all have our Opus that we must somehow get around to completing. I have been working on mine steadily for thirty years, but I never really put it into words before as I have done since I lost my teaching job. My Opus comes from some of those two thousand children whose lives I touched, whose lives touched, grabbed, jerked, mangled, caressed, or twitched mine. The story I have to tell is a story about the loves and longings of teens like poor Deke, who played football, fought with his mother over grades, got into trouble with the law, had many high school sweethearts, and saved my life one fateful day. Some of my former students are now dead. Some are in prison. But some are successful business men and successful parents. Some thanked me for being their teacher. And, though most of them rarely actually listened and heard me say it, or read my comments in their class journals, I constantly thanked them for being my students, too. Each and every one of them.
I have a good chance to live for many years yet. With more attention from doctors and more careful planning and good conduct I have a good chance to finish my teaching career on a strong note. I have thirty-one years of service in the books. But I must write now, too, because the dark wind of mortality is blowing out of the near future and signaling approaching storms.