The Antidotes for Sorrow

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I got together with a friend and his wife on Saturday night that I haven’t seen for over twenty years. He and I met on a train in Paris when we were in our twenties and ended up traveling around Europe a bit. He was from Texas and a long-haired hipster. I was from California and looked very clean-cut but was really a hedonist. We traveled together for a month or so before he went home and I continued on around Europe and the Greek islands for several more months. 

Though it was difficult to pull off, I’m glad I took that six-month backpacking trip, for many reasons. I wanted to do it while I was still in my twenties. I saw all the things I had read about in history books. I made friends around the world I’m still friends with today. It expanded me as a person in many ways. It made me braver because I learned that the world is as open or closed as we are. i.e., we create our own reality, get what we give, etc.

Another reason I’m glad I took that trip is that it was the last gasp of innocence in my life. My family was healthy. Everything still lay before me. In the years since, there have been quite a few bad experiences. I know we all have our lists of horrors, and I hate to present mine, but there’s a higher purpose for it. I promise. Here are the lowlights of my last twenty years –

Shortly after I returned home, I was at a park showing a friend photos from the trip when a man was robbed and murdered not twenty feet from us and he died in my arms. The bad guys got away. That messed me up good.

A good friend died of leukemia, unrecognizable from bloating and jaundice.

My brother and only sibling died of a drug overdose.

My mother barely survived breast cancer twice.

My wife lost her mother to a massive stroke only three years after we were married.

My father, always the life of the party and an amazing singer and storyteller, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia, was whittled down to nothing physically and mentally over five years, broke his hip, and spent an agonizing last month in a torture chamber called Kaiser Permanente Hospital (Panorama City, California) being abused by callus and grossly incompetent nurses and doctors, and couldn’t even say goodbye because his throat was so ravaged by botched tube placements. He died on 12/21/14.

Without warning, his perfectly healthy dog and now my mother’s only companion, died on Christmas Day four days later, as if wanting to be reunited with my father. (I wrote about it in a story called The Rainbow Bridge in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book My Very Good, Very Bad Dog.) 

My father had a sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was a recluse. She had always made my father feel guilty for leaving her and coming to America to seek better opportunities and start a family. “I’m your family, not them,” she would say. “You should be here taking care of me.” She told him her life wouldn’t have been so hard if he would have stayed. Like most people with tragic lives, she blamed everyone but herself for the way her life turned out. She never dated or married, never drove a car, never had a job, and never left the city of Belfast. My father sent her money to alleviate his guilt but when he developed Parkinson’s, he started to forget. Of course, that’s when we heard from her. When she found out he was sick, she never called again. So I felt no compulsion to let her know he was dying, or even tell her he had died. But I knew he would want me to so I wrote her a letter asking her to come out to California all expenses paid, to start over, let bygones be bygones, etc. Months passed and I didn’t hear back from her so I figured it was just her being her.

Then, in April, four months after my father died, I got a call from a Belfast policeman. He said, “I hate to tell you this, son, but your aunt is dead on the floor here, and judging by your letter, which was in a pile of mail inside her door, and the expiration dates on her food in the refrigerator, she died in late December or early January.”

She was such a recluse, nobody knew she was dead for four months. A neighbor finally realized he hadn’t seen her bringing groceries in and knocked the back door. It was unlocked so he opened it and yelled her name, then the smell hit him.

By pure coincidence, she died within two weeks of my father, as if her house – the house they shared as children – was my father’s first stop after being freed from his broken body. As if he said to her, “Come on, sis. This is no life. Come with me.”

It was a tragic end to a tragic life. I arranged her funeral to restore some of the dignity she had lost lying dead on the floor of her bedroom for four months. Fortunately, I had the help of two absolute Godsends – my maternal uncle and aunt, Billy and Jennifer, who live in Northern Ireland.

The day after she was buried, my mother’s house in California was burglarized. Along with the usual items, they stole an old make-up case my mother kept every letter my father ever wrote to her when they were young and still unmarried. He had moved to Canada before America and begged her to meet him there. He even proposed in one of those letters. I had never read them because I thought my mom wanted to keep them private, but after my father died, I was interested in seeing who he was before I or my brother were born. The burglars were too dumb to figure out how to open the simple latches on the case so they just took the whole thing, hoping there was jewelry in it.

My mother called to tell me about the burglary. The police were there when I arrived. She and I discovered the missing case together. She looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, “They took all my treasures.” I hugged her, then went into the other room and beat the living hell out of a bed. The next day, I searched every trash can in town hoping the burglars opened the box and threw it away when they saw there was nothing but old letters and photographs in it – worthless to them but priceless to my mother. I also made fliers and posted them all over town offering a $5000.00 reward for the return of the case and letters, or information leading to the arrest of the slugs who stole it.

I wrote a letter to the local paper and it got picked up by every news channel in town. My mom was interviewed repeatedly about it because of its Nicholas Sparks-esque plot. She used to read those letters to my father when his mind was buried under those diabolical brain diseases to remind him of who he was, and who they were together.

So . . . back to my friend’s visit. He was a wild man always joking around when we met twenty years ago in Europe, and he still is. It is impossible not to laugh with him. His wife is kind and gracious, with an infectious laugh. We all laughed until our faces hurt. And then it hit me, I hadn’t laughed that hard that long since my father died. Not often enough, anyway.

After they returned home, Mark sent me an email saying, “I know you’ve been through some horrible stuff lately, and we can always talk about that, but my job is to make you laugh and help you forget.” 

Another good friend from high school named Bob also told me that the best antidote for all the pain life sends our way is pure, unadulterated, full-tilt, edge-of-our-seats, mind-clearing FUN.

It’s true. Laughter washes sadness from the heart like water washes away dirt from the body. The problem is laughing is the last thing one wants to do when depressed. Depression takes work. We must keep our head down, fight the urge to smile, round our shoulders, and sigh a lot. If we would just do a hundred jumping jacks or run around the block, we would have no choice but to feel better, at least a little bit, because the mind follows the body’s posture, but we won’t. Depression feeds on itself. It even feeds on the desire to be free of it. 

It took me a while to learn this one. I was a serious SOB when I was younger. My friends then would often say to me, “You think too much.” I would usually have some obnoxious, depression-defending response like, “It’s the human being’s frontal lobe and our willingness to use it that separates us from the animals.” But I understand now what they were trying to say – that I was ruining my enjoyment of life by overthinking everything. There’s a lot to be said for pure experience. Pure fun.

I also understand now what a line from an old song called My Back Pages (written by Bob Dylan, sung by The Byrds) meant – “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” Youth really is wasted on the young sometimes. It takes so much for most of us to rediscover the joy we had naturally as children, before all the excrement came down.

I have finally not only learned but APPLIED what I learned – that depression and sadness are as strong as any prison wall and must be broken out of the same way, by finding friends who make us laugh, and who get our humor. By seeking Fun with a capital F.

Laughter is the wrecking ball. Real happiness sends the demons scattering, knowing they’ve failed. Not just opening the curtains that keep the light out but tearing them off the wall is an act of victory as surely as those soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima. And joy should be the reward for surviving pain. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell said people don’t really care about “the meaning of life” as much as they want to “feel the rapture of being alive” – to know that they’re spending their lives in the best way possible, the same way we want to spend our money wisely. Time spent depressed is the worst use of our time. Grief has its place and time, but it must be emerged from at some point completely. Walking around with a giant hole right through the middle of us is an insult to life, ourselves, and everyone trying to love us.

Below are a few photos that demonstrate the kind of joy I’m talking about. The kind of joy good friends, God bless them all, remind me of. The kind of joy we should seek every day to chase away the depression that threatens to consume us after the most horrible losses. Life is to be lived, my friends. Completely and passionately.

I suspect at that final moment when death comes for us, we will realize how precious every moment was, and regret every moment we spent wallowing in painful memories and grief. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do all the things we wanted to do, why we let ourselves live a half-life, why we didn’t trust our talents and the path they take us on completely, why we didn’t tell our friends and family we loved them more often, why we “tip-toed through life just to arrive at death comfortably.” Why, why, why, why, why. Those are why’s we don’t want to have.

To anyone who made it through this long blog post, you’re a rare breed in this fast food world. I wish you peace, happiness, and that thing that makes them both possible – Fun.

 

 

 

Sometimes at Night (poem)

Warning: Unsettling content. This is a poem based on a conversation I had many years ago with a soldier who had just returned from Iraq, and his reflections on his tour.

Sometimes at Night

For God and Country, I slaughter the enemy,
The way any faithful, obedient soldier should
But like me, the enemy thinks he’s right.
Like me, he believes that his cause is good.

We were sent over here to free these people
But I wonder if war can win minds and hearts.
I know a good soldier shouldn’t ask questions, 
And they don’t matter when the shooting starts.

Our God’s on our side, and their God is on theirs. 
I don’t have much faith left, so I do what I must.
Just like in Vietnam, the locals shelter our enemy.
I’m afraid of everyone; I don’t know who to trust. 

The people here are too frightened to smile,
Their lives have been full of fear for so long.
But today, a girl whispered “thank you” to me.
I’ll remember that when I need to be strong. 

When I enlisted, it was all black and white to me. 
I wanted the ones who hurt my people to pay.
But I’ve killed so many men, I’ve lost my soul 
And the enemy keeps coming, more every day.

In the heat of battle, there’s no time for reflection. 
To stay alive, I think only of right here and now. 
But sometimes at night, I think of all I’ve done. 
In all this killing, I’ve killed myself somehow.

A street fight is won by the most ruthless fighter
And lost by the one who can’t take the pain anymore. 
So war crimes and atrocities are always inevitable.
It takes inhumanity, not compassion, to finish a war. 

Last week, the enemy killed three Christian girls
On a bright, sunny day, on their way to school.
They found their bodies in a field of wildflowers.
I don’t know how a man can become such a ghoul.

It’s nothing new – what the enemy’s trying to do,
hoping to make us so sick, it’ll shatter our will.
They underestimate us, like our old enemies did 
But for every horror I see, there’s less of me left to kill.

Sometimes at night, faces of the dead fill my mind.
Men who, like me, were once little boys full of fun,
When I have time to wonder what changed them,
and what became of the children who played in the sun.

For God and Country, I slaughter the enemy,
The way any faithful, obedient soldier should
But like me, the enemy thinks he’s right.
Like me, he believes that his cause is good.

To write a letter to a soldier serving overseas, please visit this site –

www.lettersfromhomeprogram.org/

“My dear wife. You get something twisted out of your insides by all this blood, filth and noise. I want to stay changeless for you. I want to come back to you the man I was before. How do we get to those other shores? To those blue hills?” (The Thin Red Line)

Bad Topics For Writers (or anybody else) To Talk About (reblog)

This is a tough one. As writers, do we stay with the safe topics and ignore the ones that are dividing people the most and causing the greatest problems in the world? Do we allow the fear of our work being boycotted (which is essentially the fear of fascism) silence us when our voice is needed? Silence equals consent, as they say. We all want to be liked, followed, etc., so the way of the modern world, or at least the blogging world, is keeping our opinions on the most important subjects to ourselves, and staying on safe subjects. Establishing a niche and never straying from it, no matter how much we are bothered by something we see in the world around us. The end result is bland, watered-down, frightened writing, and letting the fascists who would silence dissenting opinions win. The question is, are we going to stand up for what we believe in or not? Anything else is living a life that is not true to ourselves.

I’m just as guilty as anyone. You won’t find a lot of political opinions on this blog, for the same reason the author of this article cites – it’s not what his blog is about, and nobody really cares anyway. My ultimate goal is to entertain, tell stories, help people feel better about life, forget their troubles for a few minutes, etc. I stay away from dark subjects for my own good as much as any reader who might stumble across my blog. But now and then, something needs to be said, for our good, and for society’s. As Paul Simon wrote, “Silence, like a cancer, grows.” What do you think?

Dysfunctional Literacy

When you see this look on the interviewer’s face, you might want to change the topic. (image via wikimedia) If you see this look on the interviewer’s face, you might want to change the topic. (image via wikimedia)

When it comes to writing, the topic is everything.  I’d rather read a poorly-written piece about an interesting topic than a well-crafted selection about something boring.  I’m pretty sure most readers agree with me.  I don’t have any statistics to back me up on this, but if I repeat myself loudly enough (“Most readers agree with me!!”), my assertions will eventually become accepted as truth (except I have a quiet voice so nobody will hear me).

If an author delves into a bad topic, the author can phrase things carefully and revise heavily before publishing.  But when an author talks about a bad topic, he can get into trouble just like anybody else.

Last week, famous author John Grisham got into trouble for talking about child pornography in an interview. Child pornography…

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Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. Episode 14 – The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-as-Your-Fist Superball by Wham-O

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Looking back, it is clear to me that God’s sitcom with me as the unwitting star was not a recent development. It started when I was very young. Like the day I knocked myself out with my own superball, fr’instance. Strange, but true! Read on, dear reader, as I bring you the mysterious tale of . . . The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-as-Your-Fist Superball by Wham-O!

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I was about nine years old, lying in bed, reading the latest “Tales From the Crypt” comic book under the covers with a flashlight.  I finished the last story and perused the ads on the last page in case there was something there I didn’t have yet.

Whoopie cushion – Had it.

Itching powder – Check.

3-D glasses – Had it.

(They didn’t work. They were supposed to be able to see through anything, but girls still had clothes on when I wore them. False advertising to sweet, innocent children! Those bastards!)

Hand buzzer – Had it.

Sea Monkeys – Check.

Fire-hot bubble gum – Had it.

Charles Atlas bodybuilding course – Had it.

(It didn’t work, either. Yet another example of deceptive advertising! Telling small children that they can have huge muscles. I lifted everything in sight but never became a “He-Man”. Where the hell was Ralph Nader when I was a kid?)

I was just about to close the comic and go to sleep to battle witches, zombies and skeletons, when I saw it . . . “The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-As-Your-Fist Superball by Wham-O.”

The ad said:

“Here it is, kids! The superball to beat all superballs! Be the king of your block with The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-As-Your-Fist Superball(TM) by Wham-O! This is no ordinary superball! Oh, no! Designed by NASA scientists, it is ultra-mega-condensed by massive, hydraulic thingy’s, and can bounce higher than any other superball in history. This baby comes down with snow on it! Own one for the low, introductory price of only $5.00!!”

My heart sank. Five bucks!? On my allowance, it would take me years to save that much! I threw the magazine on the floor and tried to sleep but visions of The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-As-Your-Fist Superball by Wham-O kept me awake. I tossed and turned for hours. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed about it bouncing in all its multi-colored glory, my friends looking on in astonishment as I careened it off the moon and back. They begged me to let them have a bounce. I brushed the snow off it and benevolently allowed them to. My enemies seethed with jealousy and my friends showered me with praise. Finally, I was reaping all of the respect and admiration I so richly deserved.

But I awoke the next morning superball-less. It was Saturday. Scooby-Doo was just about to start, but I had bigger things on my mind. My first entrepreneurial thoughts began at that moment. What would I do to amass the required five dollars? A paper-route? No, that’s a real job. I’d be stuck with it long after I had reached the goal. Besides, I’d be so busy delivering papers, I wouldn’t have time to play with said superball. Forget that. I thought about many potential careers – dog-walking, fence-painting, car-washing, lawn-mowing. I finally decided on lawn-mowing because I had the most experience with it, and my dad owned a mower. Besides, it was fairly simple; just back and forth over and over.

I jumped out of bed, stuffed a Scooter-Pie in my face, ran out to the garage, grabbed the lawnmower, and embarked on my new career. Well, until I had amassed five dollars and could retire.

I pushed the lawnmower down the street, hitting the softest targets first. Mrs. Knight, my piano teacher, surely wouldn’t turn me down. When she came to the door, I made my pitch.

“Hi, Mrs. Knight. Can I mow your lawn for a quarter?”

She looked at me like I had an armadillo sitting on top of my head. I had never volunteered for work before. It was enough of a chore to keep me in the seat during piano lessons.

Darn, I thought, I had asked for too much. What was I thinking asking for a whole quarter? That’s where greed gets you.

Suddenly, a smile broke on her face and she said, “Well, aren’t you the enterprising young fellow! Go right ahead.”

Wow, my first job! That was easy. I would be rich in no time. I finished the lawn in half an hour and went to the door to collect. Mrs. Knight handed me a quarter and gave me a glass of lemonade.

I worked my way down the block, then the next, and the next, but I was exhausted after the tenth lawn I mowed. This would be harder than I thought. My take at the end of the day was only half of what I needed – $2.50

I came home, put my loot in a cigar box in my room, had dinner, and fell asleep in front of the TV. The next thing I knew, I was draped over my dad’s shoulder being carried to bed.

I awoke the next morning, had my usual Scooter-Pie breakfast and sped down the driveway with the lawnmower, planning to hit the blocks in the other direction. Virgin territory! I purposely picked smaller lawns this time and was done by about two o’clock. Finally, I had the five clams I needed!

I ran home as fast as I could, clearing the sidewalk of pedestrians with the whizzing, gnashing blades of my lawnmower. I was so excited, I could hardly feel the blisters on my hands. I crashed the lawnmower into the garage, never planning to touch the infernal thing again as long as I lived, and ran to my room to fill out the all-important “order form”.

I asked my mother for a stamp, walked to the corner, and reached up to drop the envelope into the big, blue mailbox. The waiting began. Every day, I watched for the mailman, hoping to see a small box in his hand, and every day, I was disappointed. Had my letter been lost in the mail? Did somebody steal my five dollars? Did they run out of superballs? I was going crazy!

After about two weeks, I was starting to give up hope. A dark depression had consumed me. I was in my room playing with my Light Bright when I heard the mailman drop the mail through the slot in the door. I got up lackadaisically to go look, certain that there would be no superball yet again. Halfway there, though, I heard a knock on the door. The mailman had something that couldn’t fit through the slot! Good Lord in heaven, it was here! My prayers had been answered!
I threw open the door. The mailman asked, “You Mark Rickerby?”
“Yes!”
“Something for you.”

He handed me the box and walked away. “Something for you”, he says. That poor sap. He didn’t even know he was holding in his very own hands the Holy Grail of superballs. Grown-ups are so dumb.

I fell to my knees and tore into the box. The superball was wrapped in white paper and plastic beneath that. I threw the white paper into the air and ripped the plastic off. There it was. Glory of glories. It was too beautiful for words. A halo of light seemed to surround it. There was a small, gilt-edged certificate inside the box that read, “Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of The Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-As-Your-Fist Superball(TM) by Wham-O.” There was some other stuff about safety but who had time for that? I wanted to see this baby fly!

I ran outside to the middle of the street where there was plenty of room. I held the ball up in the sun to appreciate the sheer majesty of its swirled colors. It was like a solid ball of rainbow sherbet. High psychedelic art. Like something Peter Max coughed up. I almost didn’t want to bounce it and scratch the slick surface, but that just wasn’t an option. Like thoroughbreds are born to run, this little honey was born to bounce. What might happen? How high would it go? Would it really come down with snow on it? Would it bounce off the moon like it did in my dream? My mind was swimming with the possibilities.

I couldn’t hold back any longer. I took a few steps back, ran forward and fired the ball at the ground with all my might. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the cement like a sausage in a pan, looking up at the blue sky. My right eye was throbbing. It suddenly dawned on me that I had clobbered myself with my own superball! “Wham-O” is right!

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I made a fun discovery that day, though – cartoons are factual. You do see stars if you get hit in the head hard enough. 

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Cars were starting to back up on the street. A woman with horn-rimmed glasses looked down at me, her bouffant hairdo blocking the sun.

“Is he dead?” someone asked.
“No, I don’t think so” the lady answered.
“Was it a hit-and-run?” someone else asked.
“I don’t know, but he’s got one heck of a shiner coming up,” the lady said. “Maybe another kid punched him. What happened, dear?”

I sat up and assured them all that I was okay. They helped me to the curb. My parents noticed the commotion and came running out of the house. I couldn’t face the embarrassment of admitting that I had knocked myself out with my own superball, so I told them I fell down. They took me into the house. My mom put a steak on my eye and made me lie down. I could hear them talking in the other room.

“Fell down, my arse!” my dad said. “He probably got punched again. That boy never knows when to keep his yap shut.”

When the smoke cleared, I climbed out the window and found the superball under a car. Determined to get it right, I bounced the ball again, this time making sure my face was out of the way. It was everything they promised and more. With my one good eye, I lost sight of it in the high air for what seemed like a full minute. Birds stopped in mid-flight, wondering what was up there with them, and without wings! There was no snow on it when it came back down and it didn’t hit the moon but that didn’t matter. I loved it anyway, even if it did knock me out.

The End.

Moral of the story – If you ever bounce a Super-Duper, Ultra-Compacted, Rainbow-Swirl, Big-As-Your-Fist Superball by Wham-O, make sure your kisser is out of the way.

Ulster (poem)

belfast kids

There are those who say that Ulster is a place of hate and pain.
but many who have left it would still go back again.
The strangers do not see behind the bombs and flames and smoke
and fail to see the character of the kindly Ulster folk.

belfast soldier and child

But we have memories of the days when we were young and gay.
Those carefree romps through Ormeau Park or over Cave Hill’s Bray.
The Saturdays at Windsor, the Sundays by the sea,
the bathing belles at Pickie, the sands at Donaghadee.

under-winter-skiesdonaghadee-- Ken Lucas

Our best suit pressed and ready and we were Plaza-bound
but first a stop at Mooney’s and pints bought all around.
The Sunday morning papers, the bacon and dip bread,
then a dander to the castle where all the scores are read.

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Back to work on Monday, the weekend’s tales are told
while the oldsters smile and chuckle as our youthful tales unfold.
A new girl in the office, she’s a quare wee bit o’ stuff.
Is she going strong, you wonder, as you act so big and tough.

Those were the days, there is no doubt, as my memory wanders back.
That is what we all recall, not the rifle’s crack.
Will it ever be the same, you ask, will today’s kids ever know
the simple life we all enjoyed a long, long time ago.

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~ John Sidney Rickerby

My father was an outspoken critic of terrorism. I remember an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times opinion section titled Who Killed Little Michelle? about a little girl killed by an IRA bomb. She was incinerated on a bus. I remember finding an underground newspaper hidden in one of his drawers as a child when I was looking for a pen or some other item. It had a photo of the girl’s charred body on a metal gurney. The caption read, “This is what the IRA did to a seven-year old girl.” I remember staring at that photo until I felt the impulse to vomit. I put it back and went on with my day, but the image never really left me, and like most, I began to associate Belfast with horrors like that.

He received a few death threats after that L.A. Times article for opposing IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorism. He was also interviewed on television and radio. He believed that terrorism – murdering civilians, especially children – is a greater evil than anything a terrorist group is upset about. This simple truth – that killing a child over a grievance with a government is wrong – was lost on many in those days, and still is today in many parts of the world.

I’m glad to report that the situation in Belfast has improved immensely. Some of the old prejudices remain intact, of course, but during my trips back, most of the young people I spoke with, north or south, told me they were fed up with conflict and just want the troubles to end once and for all.

I helped my father write his memoir, The Other Belfast, and released it in 2010, four years before he died from Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia. He was always the singer, story and joke teller, and biggest personality in any room so the effects of those diabolical diseases were even more hard to witness. I miss him every day and all the stories he told and retold me. When he was healthy and asked if I had heard one story or another, I would usually say, “Yeah, da. I heard it.” That was especially true while we were working on his book. I would say, “Da, that story is in your book! Of course I’ve heard it, ya eejit.” He would laugh and tell me the story again anyway. But when he was sick and starting to forget everything, I always said, “No, da. You never told me that one. I’d love to hear it.” He got such joy from storytelling. 

In his younger, crusading days, it broke his heart to see his hometown so divided. As the title suggests, his book is about the nature of Belfast and the Belfast people before the troubles began – kind of a Northern Irish version of Angela’s Ashes. 

Despite his criticisms of terrorism, he didn’t use the book as a forum to take sides. In fact, his stories depict the divisions on both sides that led to the full-scale conflict later. For instance, he was walking to a soccer game with his dad one morning and they saw dirty milk bottles on a front step. His father said, “Look at that. You just know a fenian (Catholic) lives in that house. Only a Catholic wouldn’t wash the milk bottles out before leaving them on the step.” When they arrived home after the game, they saw milk bottles on their own porch, with milk at the bottom of them. My father joked, “Oh, no! Look, dad! Catholics must have taken over our house!” His father said “shut up” and didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

I added a lot of content to his book – mostly emotional nuances that he was too proud or strong to mention, such as how he felt when one of his childhood friends and the star of his soccer team died of Polio. It was like filling in missing pieces to me, and I knew him so well, I didn’t feel like I was exaggerating. Like most men of his generation, he was tough on the outside but soft on the inside. I used to joke that he was “hard candy with a gooey center.” So he told the stories in the book and I took care of the gooey stuff. Anytime it gets Michael Landon-ey, that’s me. 

One of the greatest things he ever said to me was near the end of his life, when the effects of Parkinson’s and Dementia were just starting. He said, “I talked about writing that memoir for forty years but never finished it because I always thought, who am I to think my story is so special? I didn’t go to the moon, or survive a POW camp, or cure a disease, or do anything remarkable in the grand scheme of things. But after reading the book, I realized my life was extraordinary in its own way. You made that possible for me, son. Thank you.” 

My wife and mother were in the room and talking to each other about something else but they could tell I was moved by something my dad said so they asked what happened. I told them, “Dad just said something wonderful to me, and no offense, but I want to keep that one to myself for a little while.” I savored that comment now after all the work we put into his book, and I savor it even more now that he’s gone.

If you’d like to order a copy of The Other Belfast, it’s available online at dozens of websites, or you can order it by Paypal for $17.95 at address mrickerby@yahoo.com (includes S&H). Add $20 to shipping outside the U.S., please. (Yeah, I know. That’s what it costs now.) If you do order, thank you in advance for helping me promote my father’s legacy of peace.

On Writing Greatness – The Saga of Donovan Stone

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Donovan Stone wanted to be a writer more than anyone had since the first hieroglyphs were scratched onto the wall of the first pyramid. He had read just about every book written on the craft, attended every fiction writing class he could, and had even changed his name to something he thought sounded more writer-ish. His actual name was Cedric Weatherwax, which he considered singularly inglorious and not in keeping with the illustrious future he had planned for himself.

In one of his writing books, the author outlined his formula for greatness. “There are three kinds of writers,” he wrote –

  1. Those who stink and don’t know they stink. This type of writer’s efforts will only be a big waste of everyone’s time, primarily his own. One lifetime is never enough to overcome pure, unadulterated stinkiness.
  2. Those who stink and are determined to become less stinky. This type of writer faces an uphill climb but may someday create something passable, albeit inconsistently, and then, usually, only by dumb luck.”
  3. Those who are great by divine intervention or some accident of nature and who couldn’t write poorly if they were being suspended over a pool of sharks. Only this kind of writer will ever be truly great, and even he doesn’t know how he does it. If you’re wondering if you’re this kind of writer, you’re not. You wouldn’t have to ask. Quit now.

Donovan wept uncontrollably after reading this, fearing he was a category two writer. When his wrenching sobs subsided, he steeled his resolve to achieve greatness. Still, every effort was met with severe frustration. There was just nothing in there. He loved poetry, but every word he wrote – nay, every letter – was a struggle he likened to childbirth.

One of his first poems read:

Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.

He saw nothing wrong with the use of the non-word “nowers” because he once read that Shakespeare created many words when ordinary language failed him.

Donovan’s poem continued:

She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I would cut off my ear, but it would hurt.

He thought the Van Gogh reference was pure genius. Others, not so much. In fact, when he shared it with the crowd at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse, a normally gracious group, they laughed unguardedly, assuming his poem was meant to be funny.

With sweat beading on his upper lip, he continued,

“My love is a sponge,
On our love raft, we will plunge.”

The laughter grew louder. Trembling with a mixture of embarrassment and rage, he pressed on,

“Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.”

That was it. The room erupted. He could have saved himself some humiliation if he had pretended he meant it to be funny, but he was cut to the quick. He threw his Gauloise cigarette on the floor, spit in a very French manner, and said, “You people wouldn’t know talent if it bit you on your fat, pimply asses!” He then kicked over a table and stormed out the back door into the alley. He kicked over trash cans all the way home, cursing about how most great artists were misunderstood and how that audience of barn animals was just too ignorant to grasp someone as brilliant and tortured as he.

The next week was spent in a bottomless purple funk. He drank excessively, didn’t bathe, and barely ate. If his phone ever rang, he wouldn’t have even answered it.

He felt comforted by the tragic lives many great artists had. Hemingway shot himself. Plath had electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky was exiled in Siberia for his political opinions. He felt he was suffering along with them, equally unappreciated. The more he suffered, the more romantic it felt. Unfortunately, he was the only one who felt it.

His father was no help. The last time he had spoken to him, he said, “Son, it’s time to grow up. How much of your life are you planning to waste on this pipe dream? Even the best writers struggle to eke out a living, and frankly, you ain’t one of ‘em. I found a poem in a notebook you left in the back yard and it stunk. Wait here, I’ll get it.”

He walked away and returned with a tattered, coffee-stained notebook, flipped through it and found the page.

“Oh, here it is,” he said. “Explain this one to me, if you even can. He began to read, “Flaming doorknobs tumble down my blasphemous eyebrows. The tragic sand screams oblong operettas to my parched bicycle seat. I am.”

He set the notebook down and asked, “What in hell’s blue blazes is that supposed to mean, Cedric? Why can’t you write a nice, rhyming poem that tells a story like Robert Frost or that Longfellow guy used to do?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he replied, “and my name is Donovan.”
“That’s another thing,” his father continued. “That name might work if, A, it was 1957, and, B, you were a teen idol.”
“Look, daddio,” Donovan argued, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. You know who said that? Einstein! That’s who!”
“Daddio? What is this? 1968? It’s 2017! Wake up and smell the failure, hepcat!”

After a pause, his father softened and said, “Look, son. I just want you to be happy. I hate seeing you running down a dead end like this, because there’s a big, brick wall at the end of it and you’re not gonna see it coming until it’s too late. I mean, of all things to choose to be, you had to pick a writer? Nothing has ever happened to you! I did two tours in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war, and survived cancer that damn Agent Orange gave me! If anyone should be a writer, it’s me!”
“Oh, so that’s it!” Donovan snapped. “You’re jealous because I’m a writer and you’re not!”
“Yeah, I’m real jealous I don’t have flaming door knobs tumbling down my blasphemous eyebrows. Think about it, son. All the great writers lived through some heavy stuff. Tennessee Williams had diphtheria as a kid, was tormented by a sadistic father, lived most of his life as a repressed homosexual, and died penniless after a nervous breakdown. But his sister one-upped him by getting a frontal lobotomy! So, again, what have you been through? What gives you the right to call yourself a writer? I would suggest you do some living first, then grace the world with your insights. You’re putting the cart before the horse, boy!”

Donovan couldn’t take anymore. He stormed out. He was good at storming. He didn’t speak to his father for weeks after that argument, which was difficult because he still lived at home. Though he cursed him inwardly, he couldn’t get his words out of his mind. What did give him the right to call himself a writer? Maybe his father was right. Maybe writing was so hard for him because nothing worth writing about had ever happened to him.

He decided to change that. He would do things, dammit, and starting right now. He showered, found clothes that smelled the least bad, and walked to a military recruiting office in his local mall. Many great writers had brushes with death and killed many men in battle. He would, too. That would show his dad.

He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because the minimum push-up requirement was forty-two and he was only able to do seven. The reviewer also mentioned a comment he had made in his application about hating America for runaway Capitalism and Imperialistic foreign policies.

Dejected but still determined to have something bad happen to him, he put on a white suit and costume jewelry rings, stuffed his wallet with toilet paper until it bulged, and walked through the worst neighborhood he could find on Saturday at midnight. A group of gang-bangers pulled up in a car next to him and yelled very hurtful things. His mania was such that he had no fear for his safety, but instead thought, “This will make a great story!” One of the men got out of the car and started pushing him around, but an elderly woman ran out of a nearby house and yelled, “You get on home and leave that boy alone! He’s obviously not right in the head!”

She drove Donovan back to his car, driving so slow pedestrians walked past them on the sidewalks. Oblivious to the cars honking their horns behind her, she gave him a lecture he thought would never end. When they finally arrived at his Ford Aspire, she handed him a Bible and said, “You need a whole lot of Jesus, son.”

The old lady’s lecture was the worst ordeal he had ever endured, much worse than being beaten and robbed would have been, so he figured he was off to a great start on his quest to collect bad experiences.

As he lay in bed that night, it dawned on him that he was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to make bad things happen to him, he would do bad things himself! Be pro-active! His father always said he lacked initiative and was hiding in writing as a way to avoid taking real chances in life. This would show him once and for all!

The next morning, he bought a pellet gun at Big 5 and a pair of nylon stockings at 7/11, drove to his local credit union, pulled the stocking over his head, took out the gun, walked in and yelled, “This is a stick up!”

None of the customers paid much attention because his voice lacked the requisite amount of bass to properly scare anyone. To make matters worse, one of the tellers recognized his voice because he chose to rob a bank he’d had an account at for several years.
“Cedric, what are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s not me,” he said. “Uh, I mean, who’s Cedric?”
“I know your voice, Cedric Weatherwax,” she replied.

Cedric made a run for it but was tackled by an elderly security guard who had been awakened by the conversation. However, due to his advanced age, he began to clutch his chest. He had a heart attack and was dead in under a minute.

The trial was only a formality. Due to a recent rash of bank robberies, and because he had induced the guard’s death, the judge made an example of him. He received the maximum sentence of thirty years for robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

During his first year in prison, he was subjected to every atrocity imaginable, but his mania to amass colorful experiences to someday write about still overrode even his own retched misery. Finally, he was experiencing something extreme and dramatic, fodder for great literature.

To pass the time one day, he sat talking to his cellmate, a psychotic, sexually ambiguous brute nicknamed Animal.
“I’m here voluntarily, I’ll have you know,” Donovan said. “All this stuff that’s happening to me, including what you did to me last night, is going to be in a book someday. Remember my name because I’m going to be famous.”
“Cedric Weatherwax?” Animal replied.
“No! Donovan Stone, man!”
Animal laughed and said, “Don’t you know federal law prohibits you from profiting from your crime or anything that happens to you in here? You’ll never get that book through the bars!”

After a few months of severe depression, Donovan signed up to read a poem at the prison talent show. Surely, he thought, this menagerie of nincompoops would be impressed with his talent. He walked to the stage, cleared his throat, and said,

“Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow but nowers.”

The prisoners laughed and laughed, and Donovan stormed back to his cell.