About markrickerby

Hi. I'm Mark Rickerby. I'm a 19-time author/contributor for the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series and co-creator/head writer of a western TV show called Big Sky, coming to your TV screen soon. I like to write. I like writers, the ones I understand and who understand me, blessed and cursed with the same sickness to chronical absolutely everything. The ones who would be thinking of a story about someone who got hit by a car in the moments after they got hit by a car. My three and six year-old daughters help me with my writing. The other day, my eldest was running around the back yard collecting stars in a Mason jar. My two year-old dances better than I do. I do my best to live in their world as much as possible. I lost my way after all these years, but they're showing me the way back. You may have found this page because you read one of my stories in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Or you may have read my poem How We Survive. I'm very proud of that poem. It seems to help people, which for me is the highest purpose of any art. Or you may have heard the CD of songs I made for my first daughter to welcome her to the world. However you found me, I hope you'll hang out for a while. I'll be posting articles about writing, music, poetry, travel, friendship, poetry, marriage, fatherhood, and other stuff that makes life worthwhile. Please also look for my series called Messin' with Mark, God's (yes, God's) TV showing the pranks He has pulled on me. Thanks for stopping by!

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom! Episode 20 – The Sting

Welcome to episode 20 of Messin’ with Mark! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – The Sting.

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As you will see, dear reader, that title has a double-meaning. It was a sting operation by God and I also got my butt stung off by bees. Allow me to explain . . .

I got a wild hair one weekend and decided to go rock climbing. I didn’t want to drive far so I went to Griffith Park, which is a few miles from my house. I wouldn’t admit it then, but in retrospect I must admit I was a classic weekend warrior. Minimal rock climbing experience, no proper gear, not really in top shape for such activity, and no research ahead of time on the area where I’d be hiking. If I had known the mountain was called BEE ROCK (!), I probably would have chosen another one. 

Here it is. Looks inviting enough, doesn’t it?

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See that crevice at the bottom right? That’s where I started. I got to the top and was almost doing the splits with a seventy foot drop beneath me when it finally dawned on me that I had written a check my body couldn’t cash. It was also at that moment that I realized I was smack-dab in the middle of another episode of Messin’ with Mark, God’s sitcom!

As if I weren’t in enough trouble, bees started to sting me. Dozens of them. And I couldn’t run or hide. All I could do was stay there clinging to vertical rock faces on either side, hoping the bees would get bored.

They didn’t. They invited friends.

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I realized I needed to get down or move over. There was only one crag within distance – jumping distance. I knew if I stayed there, the collective bee venom would paralyze me and I would fall to my untimely demise. 

I can just imagine the control booth up in heaven at about this time, with Jesus looking at his Dad sideways, wondering if he was going to let up. Seeing He had no intention of cutting me any slack whatsoever, He had to say something.

JESUS: Okay, Dad, you’ve gone too far this time. He’s gonna die.

GOD: So what? I’m God. I’ll just make another one.

JESUS: But this is a comedy. He’s the original actor. Sequels and look-alike’s never capture the original magic. Didn’t we learn anything from Transporter 3 and 4?

GOD: Maybe you’re right. I’ll put a crag next to him, but far enough away so he has to make a death-defying jump from a splits position to reach it. Should be exciting!

JESUS: Okay, but please just make sure he makes it. Seeing him go splat would definitely be bad for ratings. I mean, humiliating him mercilessly over and over is great entertainment, but killing him outright is just mean. Nobody will tell you you’re a terrible director because you’re God and all, but they’ll be thinking it.

GOD: As if that helps. I know what they’re thinking, too.

JESUS: Dad, don’t get all Old Testament on me.

GOD: Okay, okay! I got the message.

So I jumped, caught it, and managed to crawl far enough up the mountain that the bees finally realized I wasn’t trying to steal their honey or whatever the hell it is bees get all uppity about. 

Bees seem so cute from a distance, flying from flower to flower. The springtime innocence of it warms the very soul. Not so much when there’s 93,000 of them all intent on stinging every square millimeter of your personage. And they look a lot bigger when they’re actually on you, too.

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I spent the next few days looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, which I’m sure also fetched big laughs up in heaven.

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As I lay there on the couch, slapping on the calamine lotion, I looked through the window to the big, blue sky and repeated those words I have said so many times before, usually in various states of emotional and/or physical trauma . . .

“Well-played, God. Well-played.”

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17 Children This Time

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I don’t expect very many people to read this. It’s going to be long. It will take a while to vent about this latest mass murder of our children by another recent child who decided being a monster was preferable to whatever he was experiencing. 

I was bullied terribly in school. I moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old so I was perpetually “the new kid”, being tested over and over at each new school by children modeling unbalanced, cruel behavior they had probably learned from unbalanced, cruel parents or other relatives. The problem was I had no violence in me. I was born without an aggressive instinct or the need to dominate others to make myself feel strong, as children should be.

I don’t know why I was so passive. My father was a great provider and could be very loving, but there was also an insecure side of him that told stories of old fights in his youth on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, as if he were describing some happy event. My older brother wasn’t naturally aggressive, either, but his desperation to win over my father was so strong, he begged him to teach him how to box in the back yard and would get into fights at school on an almost weekly basis. When he would come home with another black eye, our father would say he shouldn’t do that (because he knew he was supposed to) but then he would ask what happened and his eyes would light up when he told him he won. The message was clear – violence is manly. 

God in heaven, it took me a long time to shake that belief. It took me a long time to realize that violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.

When I was thirteen, again the new kid at a new junior high school, I was in P.E. class playing ping-pong when our ball jumped off the table and was picked up by a kid I didn’t know. I walked over and asked him for the ball. He didn’t give it to me. I asked him again. He said, “Why don’t you try to take it?”, then looked at his friends and laughed. When he looked away, I took it out of his hand, said thanks and walked away. He yelled “Hey!” and punched me as I turned around, all for taking a ping-pong ball that was mine to begin with. His equally disturbed friends then targeted me and the bullying began. The usual stuff – name-calling, knocking my books out of my hands in the halls, bumping shoulders, etc. Eventually, another one punched me for some made-up offense. 

Being a sensitive kid, I had not yet built up the rage necessary to learn to fight and walk around guarded, so I just took it. The truth is I was also scared. I didn’t understand these kids who so easily punched other kids in the face, and even seemed to take great pride and glee in it. I remember thinking I was glad it was they that were able to do that and not me, even as the cuts were healing and the bruises were yellowing.

I had taken an experimental sojourn into the world of bullying earlier in my childhood, sort of like trying on a costume. Fortunately, the costume didn’t fit me and I knew it right away. A classmate in fourth grade named Ward had told on me for talking in class and I punched him in the stomach by the bike racks after school. It was so against my nature to be cruel, I made myself physically ill from the guilt I felt about it. I tried to apologize to him the next day but he walked right by me. 

My best friend in sixth grade lived with a neglectful mother and had a father who was ex-military and stricken with the worst case of short-man’s complex I had ever witnessed before or since. The problem was he wasn’t short to me then, and seemed very manly. He was always bragging over beers about some poor, probably passive guy he had just pummeled, and would tell my friend to beat up a bully at school or don’t ever visit him again. He never spent a minute of quality time with my friend, but he was so desperate to connect with his father, we would walk across town to visit him where he lived with his new family. Of course, he would ask my friend to “make a muscle” and tell him about any fights he got into at school, beaming proudly when he said he won, just like my dad did. My friend became a bully. I didn’t. But then, my parents were together, and my father was a hell of a lot more loving, with a great sense of humor that balanced out the bad stuff. My mother was also more loving than his was. I just caught more breaks, and they saved me from becoming angry, bitter and resentful – all the precursors to psychotic.

I was bullied so badly at the new place we moved to when I was a very awkward thirteen year-old, I pretended to be sick to avoid school, or when I did go, I would walk toward the school until my mother drove away, then turn around and walk around town all day, returning home eight hours later as if I had been in school all day.

The stress a bullied child feels, to their minds, is equal to the stress any soldier feels going into battle. It’s all relative. A child who gets a giant zit on his/her nose on prom night is just as stressed as someone waking up in a hospital with a leg missing. Emotions are bigger to children because the world is new to them – life is new – and they are experiencing them for the first time. They don’t yet have the equal parts benefit and curse of experience and the comparative boredom that accompanies it. Some kids, anyway. A blessed few are somehow given that magical blend of wisdom that insulates them from the nonsense of high school cliques and head games. 

Despite all the bullying, though, the thought of murdering someone never crossed my mind back then. Not once. It wasn’t that the stress wasn’t there. It wasn’t that I didn’t hate them. So what was it? I have plenty of theories I could pontificate about, but what would be the use? Very few people will possess the required attention span to read a long post like this, and those that do are probably not going to be troubled enough to contemplate such horror and steered away from it by something I wrote. Nor will this post influence government policy. This is writing as pressure relief. Narcissistic in a way, because I don’t know what else to do. 

I have two daughters – four and six years old. I read to them and pray with them every night. My wife and I sleep in the same room with them. There are two beds side-by-side so the room is basically one big bed except for the dresser, which is bolted to the wall in the event of the California earthquake everyone says could strike at any minute. When I take them to school, I wait until the doors close and lock before I leave. I’m usually the last parent there. Some call it paranoia. I call it heightened awareness. I wish I didn’t have to worry, but how can’t I in a world with so many people hoping to become famous not by accomplishing something great but by becoming a monster. 

I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about those seventeen kids who went to school yesterday morning like any other day, waved goodbye to their parents, then ended up being murdered by somebody most of them probably didn’t even know. I held my girls a little tighter and prayed harder that they would be protected from the craziness of this world when I can’t be with them. I kissed my youngest daughters little hand as she slept. It smelled like a cookie she had eaten earlier that evening. 

So here’s my list of why mass shootings happen. All equally irrelevant and uncorrectable. 

  1. Absent or disinterested parents.
  2. Overworked teachers.
  3. Mean classmates.
  4. Complacent social media platforms and friends (who don’t report threats.)
  5. Violent movies and video games that inspire real-life experience, the way a drug dosage must be increased to achieve the same high.
  6. The general kindness in our culture, or lack thereof. 
  7. Celebration of the wrong things – celebrity and wealth vs. kindness and service to others.
  8. Incivility of speech and action. Look at the comments under any news story on the internet, even the most seemingly benign ones, and it doesn’t take long to find one with someone (usually operating under a nickname) verbally abusing someone else. Where did this lack of civility and respect come from? Certainly not from America’s Judeo-Christian background. People are getting uglier, meaner, less tolerant.
  9. The Internet. We tell our kids not to walk down dark alleys at night, but let their minds wander through a virtual one every day.
  10. Mental pollution. Watch any movie, documentary or home video prior to 1960 and you will see a different America populated by people whose minds had not been polluted by craven, ungodly imaged of depravity and violence, or the total degradation of the female that we call pornography. We accept these things as a natural part of modern life, but how natural are they, really? We’re all taking part in the largest mass experiment in history – to see what the effects of the constant exposure to depraved, violent imagery is on the human mind, particularly the adolescent mind. Have you ever wondered what your mind would be like if you had never seen a single, simulated murder? (The average American witnesses thousands of murders on TV, in movies and in video games before the age of 18.) Personally, I envy those who lived before 1960 for how pure their minds and spirits must have been. Childlike, as that word used to be defined. Many of them had survived world wars, which only made them even more committed to kindness and moral purity. Those who have seen the worst of humanity are most likely to celebrate the best of it. 
  11. Overpopulation and the lack of accountability it causes. People think they can treat anyone and everyone like dirt, blend back into the crowd, and never be questioned about it again. The human mind is better suited to life in small villages and feels small, insignificant and unimportant in giant crowds.
  12. Guns. The weapon of choice of the Florida killer and the Vegas killer was the AR-15 assault rifle, to ensure the largest number of murders. No civilian needs to own one of these to protect his home. The necessary evil of pistols in this increasingly violent and psychotic world is enough for anyone.
  13. More federal funding for mental health and mental health awareness.
  14. A greater emphasis on compassion from every conceivable angle – arts and politics – even with those we disagree with politically. The greater the divide is between each other, the easier it is to justify doing harm to others. 
  15. Pharmaceutical drugs. In the old days, kids were just called wild, spirited, or hyperactive, but the drug companies needed to name these conditions diseases, syndromes and disorders because you can’t sell a drug for something that doesn’t have a name. As a result, kids who are just different and will probably grow out of it are labeled so the pharmaceutical industry can sell them a drug. These drugs often causes “thoughts of suicide” – the TV ads for these drugs often say so – but you never hear “homicidal thoughts” for some reason, even though a lot of these homicidal kids were medicated. I don’t wonder why. It’s because Big Pharma has a stranglehold on us, in more ways than one. Any industry billions of dollars run through is rife with corruption. Some kids benefit from medication, but most can do without it. We are turning our kids into medicine cabinets and letting drug companies convince us that’s what they need – not time, love, spirituality, being heard. Nope, diagnosing them with some disorder and popping pills into their little yaps is much easier for today’s working parents.
  16. Severing of attachment to one or both parents through divorce, or just never having one to begin with because the parents are too self-centered to bother. A feeling of abandonment and isolation is possibly the root of all evil. My friend Amy Chesler taught me that. Her brother felt that way and ended up murdering their mother. Kids often act out the anger they feel at being cast aside. 
  17. Removal of God from school and just about everything else. It’s healthy for kids to believe their actions matter, even when nobody (mortal) is watching.

Okay, I’m putting the soapbox away. And that’s what it is. I mean, who cares about some little blog post? The kid who is developing a murderous rage or just the desire to be famous – to go from feeling like an insignificant nobody to a horrible somebody – will probably never read this blog. They’ll probably never read anything because that would take time away from playing Bulletstorm or Dead By Daylight.

Someone once argued with me that people have always been violent. For instance, the Nazi’s never played video games. Neither did the Japanese fascists. Most Muslim fanatics never did, either. I argued that the people they’re referring to were adults, and children didn’t start becoming mass murderers until recently. When children start to act in ways that have been the unfortunate domain of only adults for centuries, we are in deep trouble. Common sense tells me filling the minds of children with depraved images isn’t very good for them.

A quick Google search of “violent video game images” immediately demonstrates how psychologically unhealthy the world of “entertainment” has become over the past fifty years. 

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We’re supposed to be leading and guiding them wisely, not letting greedy corporations sell psychologically damaging products to them. We’re dying at the altars of freedom (“creative expression”) and profit. The people who make these games would make a movie or video game about eating babies if they thought they could profit from it. Who will care about the minds of our children if we don’t? Certainly not them.

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 In my late 20s, I saw a robbery victim murdered. He died in my arms. I put pressure on the wound but couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was shot in the chest and his windpipe was obliterated. With his dying breaths, he looked at me with the same question in  his eyes that all victims of violent crime ask – “Why me?”

For several years after that, I carried weapons and threw myself into my martial arts training so that I could kill anybody who would do such a thing to someone else if I ever crossed paths with a monster again. I was finally angry enough to be violent. The fact that the bullied kid still existed in me didn’t help. The kid was now a two-hundred pound black belt who hated thugs or anyone who looked, dressed or acted like them.

It took concentrated effort to purge that rage from my soul so I could be happy again. I still have resentment for anyone who could do harm to others and I’m willing and able to stop them but I don’t allow them to pollute my thoughts or disrupt my peace anymore.

I own two guns in case the craziness of this world comes to my door. I’m overprotective of my daughters because of my past, rising crime, and mass murders like the one that happened yesterday. That includes what I allow or don’t allow to enter their minds. The bubble of innocence will pop soon enough. I’ll protect it as long as I can. 

But again, no matter what I think, those seventeen kids are gone and they’re never coming back. Seventeen kids with heartbroken parents whose worst nightmare came true yesterday. Seventeen kids who, just ten years ago, had hands that smelled like cookies.

Maybe the lesson to be learned from all this, if there is one, and if we’re capable of learning as a culture, is to be kinder, more attentive, to reach out to troubled people, to report suspicious comments or behavior. A few lines from two now obscure songs come to mind –

“Oh, people, look around you, the signs are everywhere – you’ve left it for somebody other than you to be the one to care.” (Jackson Browne)

“I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.” (Ten Years After) 

After the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, I posted the poem below. I don’t know why I persist in thinking words will help me or anyone else. Again, I suppose it’s just pressure relief. For what it’s worth, here it is again – 

The Open Window

The old house by the lindens
   Stood silent in the shade,
And on the gravelled pathway
   The light and shadow played.

I saw the nursery windows
   Wide open to the air;
But the faces of the children,
   They were no longer there.

The large Newfoundland house-dog
   Was standing by the door;
He looked for his little playmates,
   Who would return no more.

They walked not under the lindens,
   They played not in the hall;
But shadow, and silence, and sadness
   Were hanging over all.

The birds sang in the branches,
   With sweet, familiar tone;
But the voices of the children
   Will be heard in dreams alone!

And the boy that walked beside me,
   He could not understand
Why closer in mine, ah! closer,
   I pressed his warm, soft hand!

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Words Are Not Enough (Love Poem)

I wrote this for my wife before we got married. We have been married now for eleven years, and she has given me two glorious orbs of light from heaven (daughters), another gift I am regularly rendered wordless by and can never possibly repay her for. Believe in love, and fight for it when it arrives. It’s worth it.

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We always say the words “I love you”
aren’t strong enough.
They aren’t.
Sometimes an emotion is so strong,
words can’t capture it.
The greatest poet can only come close.
Words can’t express love, not really.
Words are tangible, feelings aren’t.
But I am overwhelmed by my love for you.
So, like all the other fools
down through the ages,
I have to try . . .

I love you
like parched earth loves the rain
which awakens the seeds
deeply buried there,
dormant and forgotten,
gently urging them into blossom.
Thus, my hopes spring into life again
through the hardened soil
of my resignation.
That’s how I love you.

I love you
like a homeless man
loves the first rays of the morning sun
after a cold night, uncovered.

I love you
like a soldier, who,
though scarred and bitter
from all he has seen,
hears the laughter of children
and laughs himself
forgetting it all
for that moment.

And sometimes I love you
the way a frightened child
loves the nightlight by his bed.

You have become the mirror of my soul.

You have inspired me to rise above myself
further than anyone ever has before.

You have reminded me that goodness exists,
not by lecturing or judging
but simply by being yourself,
the way a flower shares its beauty
effortlessly
with all who behold it.

So what does such a person do?
A person with a heart so full,
achingly full,
of compassion for the suffering?

A person whose spirit
overflows with generosity
like a natural spring;

A person who Jesus Christ Himself
would point to proudly and say,
“There. She knows what I meant.
Watch her and she will show you The Way.”

What does such a person do?
The only thing she can imagine doing.
She becomes a nurse
so that she can do His work every day.

So that the sick, the infirm and the dying
can see Him in her eyes and be comforted.

So that those whom the world has forgotten
can know in their final days or moments
that somebody cared
and their last glimpse
of this tired and jaded world
will be of something good, sweet, untainted.
They will look into the eyes of a saint
and their passing will be lighter.

I know, you see.
These are not just words.
I know the works you are capable of.
I know the power you possess
in your eyes, your hands, your voice.
I know how fortunate
those in your care will be
because of the times
when you saved me from utter despair;
because of the times
when you helped me to my feet
after suffering injuries
that no x-ray could detect,
injuries of the spirit.
You helped me up
at the lowest moments of my life,
dusted me off, and guided me forward.

How do I thank you for doing nothing less
than reaching into hell and pulling me out?
Once again, words are not enough.

So I’ll just say “I love you”
with this small, human voice,
and hope you understand.

– Mark Rickerby

Pennies From Heaven – My story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More

 

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I was at a yard sale looking through a box of old books when I saw a 1936 yearbook from Glendale High School in California. The name “Ben” was written at the upper right corner of the first page. The yearbook was full of the usual notes from classmates and also some newspaper clippings about Ben’s academic and athletic achievements. I looked around for the owner of the house and found him carrying more boxes out of the garage with the help of his two young sons.

I asked him, “Are you selling this?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’ll take three bucks for it.”

I asked if he knew who Ben was. He said he was his grandfather.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to get rid of such a precious family memento, especially for such a paltry amount of money, so I asked if he was sure he wanted to sell it. He said yes again with a slightly impatient tone as he began talking with another customer.

Though he obviously had no interest in it, I still wanted to encourage him to keep it, if not for himself, for his children, but then thought maybe he had his reasons for letting the yearbook go. Family emotions are complicated. I felt sorry for his sons who would never get to look at this window into their grandfather’s life, and almost didn’t buy it for that reason until I heard him tell someone, “Anything that doesn’t sell is going to the thrift shop.”

I handed him the three dollars, got into my car, and set the yearbook on the seat beside me. I wanted to find someplace quiet and explore every page immediately, but I had to hurry home because I was repainting the interior of my house that day. My wife had taken our two daughters to her father’s house to get them away from the paint fumes. I worked all day but the job took longer than I expected so I called my wife and asked her to stay overnight there so the paint would be dry before she and the girls returned.

I worked through the night and looked at the yearbook during breaks. I learned that Ben, the yearbook’s owner, was no average Joe. He was the Student Body President and Yell Leader, as well as a track and football star. Leadership also ran in the family because his younger brother succeeded him as president, which was a first for the high school at the time and probably hasn’t been repeated since. They were both exemplary students, full of boundless energy and ambition.

The first thing that impressed me as I flipped through the pages was how well-dressed and groomed everyone was. The next was the penmanship and eloquence of the comments. I had to keep reminding myself that they were written by teenagers. The language was charming and full of terms of endearment unique to the 1930’s like “good egg” and “swell fellow.” By all accounts, Ben was both.

But I couldn’t help feeling sad as I looked at the photos of Ben and his classmates, their young faces so full of high expectations for their futures, because I knew their lives had been lived and they were all either gone or very, very old. It was a lot like the “Carpe Diem” scene from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Looking at photos of young people from another time has always stirred unsettling emotions in me and made me meditate on my own mortality.

Before I returned to my work, I found a playlist on YouTube of hit songs from 1936 and said, “Here’s some music from when you were young, Ben. I hope you enjoy it.”

As I worked, Bing Crosby crooned Pennies from Heaven, Billie Holliday sang Summertime, and dozens of other enchanting tunes from the brightest lights of that era such as Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Tommy Dorsey transported me to the year when Ben was a high school senior on top of the world and destined for great things. As Fred Astaire sang The Way You Look Tonight, I imagined Ben slow dancing with his girlfriend across the floor of my living room. The fact that my house was built in 1939 and hasn’t been changed much in the years since only added to the ethereal effect.

With such wonderful melodies playing, work was easier and time passed quickly. When I finished, it was four o’clock in the morning. The music ended and the house was quiet. I sat down, returned to the yearbook, found Ben’s photo and said, “Thanks for keeping me company, Ben. I wish I could have known you.” Using the vernacular of the era, I added, “You seemed like a swell fellow.”

A few seconds later, there was a knock at the door, but not just any knock – it was a knock with the “shave and a haircut – two bits” cadence very common to the era Ben lived in – five knocks, a pause, then two more. I was startled because of the late hour but figured my wife had come home early with the girls for some reason. I was sitting close to the door so I rushed over and opened it. There was nobody on the porch. Thinking it might have been kids pulling a prank, I went outside and scanned the front yard. No one. I walked to the middle of the street, looked both ways and listened closely. It was as still and quiet as one would expect in the hours before dawn. None of my closest neighbors have children so there was no chance some kid quickly ducked into a nearby house.

Completely bewildered, I went back inside and sat down with the old yearbook again. A few moments later, it dawned on me with a chill that the knock on the door was Ben’s answer, his way of thanking me for playing the music of his youth, and for turning the pages of his yearbook so he could see the faces of his old friends again.

The curtain between this world and the next is thick, but every now and then, if we’re respectful and receptive enough, and if all the conditions are perfect, I believe we can be given a “penny from heaven” – a greeting from someone on the other side who is determined enough to reach us somehow. I was certain in that moment that Ben had been there, and that his happy, musical knock at my door was his way of saying, “Thanks, pal. You’re a swell fellow, too.”

– Mark Rickerby

(There are 100 other stories in this book about modern-day miracles and unexplainable events, available now in stores, online, or directly from me. 

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Twitter Launch Party for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s New Book – Miracles and More

Join me and many of the other contributors to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More, today at 11:00 A.M. Pacific Time. The information is below. Should be fun and inspiring!

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The Real Greece

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They say it’s impossible to get bored in Mykonos, one of the world’s great crossroads, but I did. The constant hubbub of cafes and discos had finally worn me out. I wanted to see the real Greece. I wanted to look behind the stage prepared for tourists like me. I didn’t want to be just another sunburned fun-seeker collecting hangovers and notches on a bedpost. I wanted to slow down and feel my short existence in an ancient place. I didn’t know if I would ever return. I wanted a real moment or two to stand out above the typical version of Greece most travelers experience.

So one night I picked a direction and started walking, away from the noise, into the interior. The streets of Mykonos, like many Greek villages, have no pattern. They were built this way intentionally to confuse invading pirates and enemy armies. The village of Thira on the island of Santorini is probably the best example of this.

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The villagers would hide in doorways and windows with clubs and knives and slaughter the disoriented attackers as they passed. Now the labyrinthine streets confuse only tourists. After a half hour of wandering, I was lost but didn’t care. I was nervous but at least I felt alive again, out of the tepid bath of familiarity.

It was quiet for a long time as I passed apartments and the occasional shuttered cafe, then I started to hear music. I walked toward it. The sound of bouzouki’s and mandolins became clearer but not the source, until I came to a sunken doorway. Nobody was outside. I touched the handle. I wasn’t sure if it was a private house or a public bar. “I didn’t travel thousands of miles to be timid,” I thought. “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get thrown out.”

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I opened the door and saw a very small room, but it was a bar and cafe. I walked in and sat at the nearest table.

The room was filled with the mingled aromas of cigarette smoke, retsina wine, lamb and duck. Five men played vigorously and twenty or so others sang and clapped. A few took notice of me but most were too enraptured by the music to care about the outsider in their midst. A man I would later come to know as the owner walked to my table, looked at me very seriously, and waited for me to order. Wanting to earn the space I was using, I ordered a glass of retsina. He walked away, came back with a glass and, in a somber tone, said, “Welcome. Enjoy.” I had not yet earned his trust.

I watched and listened for an hour as the men did what they had clearly done for decades. They were masters of their instruments but most probably had never signed a recording contract.

Separated by language, the key that unlocks everything, I was unable to communicate with them, but the great gift and joy of that night, aside from the music, were the subtle looks and smiles the musicians and locals occasionally gave me. The bar owner refilled my glass without keeping track and became more friendly as time passed and he saw how much I was enjoying hearing his friends play.

 

I wish now that I would have snuck a photo or two but I didn’t take a single photo of the musicians for the same reason I started walking away from the crowd earlier – I was tired of feeling like a gawking tourist. I wanted something personal, sacred, real.

I stayed until they all went home, and shook hands with many of them as I was leaving. A few even hugged me, perhaps because they knew I didn’t find their secret hideaway to take photos of them and brag to friends back home. They knew I didn’t want to make an exhibit of them on some apartment wall. I’ve never even written about that night until now, twenty years later. They accepted me because they knew I was there to find the heart of Greece, and I did. And as usual, it was delivered to me by the two greatest forces that ever brought people of different cultures together – music and kindness.

 

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom! Episode 19 – The Wallabee Walloping.

 

Welcome to episode 19 of Messin’ with Mark! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – The Wallabee Walloping!

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I was twelve years old when I experienced a harrowing event that would come to be known in family circles as “The Wallabee Walloping.” In retrospect, however, I realize it was just another episode of Messin’ with Mark, God’s sitcom. 

One of my favorite places to go at the time was a store in our local mall called Spencer’s Gifts.

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I loved Spencer’s for several reasons. First and most importantly, it carried whoopee cushions, handshake buzzers, itching powder and other artillery I employed in the ongoing war between myself and my older brother, Paul.

I also fell for their “x-ray specs” once – that promised the ability to see through girls’ clothing.

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Even at that age, however, I couldn’t figure out how a hole cut in cardboard painted with a spiral design could accomplish such a feat. I tried it with my sixth grade heart-throb, Janis Stephenson, but her clothes did not become the least bit transparent, or even opaque. Imagine! Duping sweet, innocent children out of a whole dollar like that.  

Spencer’s also had a wide variety of “adult” paraphernalia, harmless stuff like breast-shaped coffee mugs, which provided my introduction to sexual education, for better or worse. (Probably worse.) Over the years, sadly, Spencer’s has become increasingly pornographic, but back then it was still relatively tame. 

But my favorite thing about Spencer’s was the back room where they kept the lava lamps, spinning disco lights, and fiber optic lamps with filaments that changed colors in waves every few seconds.

I would stare at them in a trancelike state, imagining I was an astral traveler and the tips of the fiber optic filaments were tiny stars outside the window of my spaceship. The eyes (and the mind of a twelve-year old) are easily entertained. Those lamps are tacky now but back then they were state of the art, and every self-respecting bachelor had at least one in his swingin’ bachelor pad.

There were always plenty of black light posters to flip through, too. The stalking black panther with deadly, green eyes peering menacingly through jungle ferns.

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The biker on a long, low chopper rumbling through the desert at night, his girlfriend leaning back languidly against the sissy bar, her long hair flowing behind her, the vast cosmos pitching and twirling overhead. The peace signs set against mind-bending optical illusions, and on and on.

I can’t explain how or why that explosion of illuminated color made me so happy. It just did. I spent about an hour there once a week gazing at the posters and lights, listening to the perpetually blasting music.

And that’s when I heard it . . . THE BEST SONG EVER. It was called Dream Weaver by Gary Wright.

The cosmic synthesizer intro and space-traveling lyrics made the electric wonderment of Spencer’s back room even more magical. I couldn’t wait to buy the 45. (For readers under thirty, that’s not a gun – it’s a small vinyl record album with one song on each side. Primitive, I know.)

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I left Spencer’s and rushed to the nearest Licorice Pizza (a long-dead record store), bought it for a buck and rushed home to play it and learn all the words.

Nobody was home when I arrived. I sprinted into my room and played Dream Weaver about fifty times, singing my heart out until I had mastered the vocals down to the slightest nuance. In retrospect, the lyrics were probably the main reason the song resonated with me so much. The stress I was living with because of Paul’s daily harassment had me fantasizing about escaping from the real world.

I’ve just closed my eyes again
and climbed aboard the dream weaver train.
Driver, take away my worries of today
and leave tomorrow behind.

I was completely lost in the music when I heard someone yell “Hey!” I looked over and saw something flying toward me, flapping like a bird. Before I could duck, it hit me in the mouth. Pain seared into my lips and I tasted blood. I opened my eyes and saw my brother standing in the doorway, laughing smugly. He had thrown a hardbound math textbook at me and yelled simultaneously so I would look over just as it collided with my face. His timing was perfect.

Blinded by rage, I jumped up and ran toward him in full attack mode. Unfortunately, since I had no fighting skills and weighed only seventy pounds, this mode consisted of closing my eyes and flailing my arms wildly. it was a very bad idea. Before I continue, allow me to explain why.

Paul wore shoes throughout his teenage years called Wallabee’s. They were popular at the time but were only one small step above a moccasin in quality. It was impossible to run, kick a ball, or do anything that required a sudden movement without one or both of them flying off. The leather laces were merely decoration.

He was fifteen, high most of the time like everyone else in the 1970’s, with more than his share of pimples, and long hair held in place by a blue bandanna. As that description implies, he was not an athlete by any stretch. However, as I ran across the room to exact revenge, I made the sudden and unfortunate discovery that he was a sort of Wallabee marksman. Perhaps he practiced firing them at tin cans in the backyard. I don’t know. But let me tell you, his accuracy was deadly, for my attack (the aforementioned running with flailing arms strategy) was foiled mid-thrust as he very casually kicked off one of his Wallabee’s, scoring a direct hit to my prepubescent left testicle. I crumpled to the ground, contorted in agony and emitted a noise that surprised even me; a noise I was not even aware I had the ability to make; something akin to a walrus’s mating call. The room spun counter-clockwise as Paul’s raucous, unguarded laughter blended with the mystical strains of Dream Weaver, providing a surreal, Fellini-esque quality to my already desperate and pain-addled emotional state.

Fly me high through the starry skies,
maybe to an astral plane.
Cross the highways of fantasy.
Help me to forget today’s pain.

We’ve all heard stories of people accessing supernatural strength to save themselves or loved ones from sure annihilation. Such was the force that flooded through my diminutive frame that day. Bleeding profusely from both lips, my only recently descended left testicle throbbing like a lighthouse beacon, I rose up valiantly again and rushed headlong toward my brother with murder in my heart. He backed up a few steps and fired the other Wallabee. His limp and awkward style belied his deadliness.

This will sound like an exaggeration but, as God is my witness, that second Wallabee scored a direct hit to the other testicle. Down I went again. That was it. I was finished. Curtains. Kaput. My brother brushed his palms together as if to say, “My work here is done” and picked up his Wallabee’s, one of which was lying within sniffing distance of my nose. He said “Let that be a lesson to ya!” and walked away, supremely satisfied and chuckling contentedly as I lay there in the fetal position, drooling and bleeding into the shag carpet, waiting in vain for the pain to subside as Gary Wright finished his song.

Ooh dream weaver,
I believe you can get me through the night.
Ooh dream weaver,
I believe we can reach the morning light.

But my mind was no longer on such lofty subjects as music. I was already plotting my revenge as I lay studying the intricacies of the carpet weave. However, being so much smaller than him, my attempts at getting some payback had to be non-physical and very, very devious. If he thought I was going to forget this latest assault on my person, he was sorely mistaken. As this story attests, I still haven’t. One never forgets his first shot to the fella’s, let alone two in rapid succession, with a pair of busted lips on the side.

Which brings me back to the most important reason I liked Spencer’s Gift’s so much – weaponry. The itching powder I had purchased for just such an occasion came in very handy that night. Suffice to say Paul slept very uncomfortably as I giggled through swollen lips. It was so funny, I even forgot about the ice pack.