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!

The Four-Legged Horror Movie

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I had always loved dogs. That is, until I met Peanut, a chihuahua owned by an old girlfriend, Rhonda. His name was the least of his problems. He had bulging, leaking eyes that made him look like he was being perpetually squeezed. He had a bronchial disorder that made even calm breathing sound like he had been chain smoking all his life. He had a mysterious skin condition that covered most of his body, caused almost all of his hair to fall out, and left a sticky substance on the hand of anyone who dared to pet him. Last but certainly not least, he had a protracted rectum. In short, he was repulsive whether he was coming or going. A four-legged horror movie. The cumulative effect of all these conditions caused the trembling common to chihuahua’s to afflict him tenfold, and gave him the appearance of a rodent suffering from hypothermia. 

Rhonda spent a fortune in veterinary bills on Peanut but nothing improved. I just couldn’t see the upside. All the money she had thrown away trying to restore Peanut to awful seemed like a terrible waste to me. I joked with her that the only expenses I would have had if Peanut were mine was a tennis ball and the gasoline required to drive to the Grand Canyon for a game of fetch. 

Rhonda had four other dogs of various breeds. For the sake of avoiding lurid and possibly vomit-inducing imagery, let’s just say Peanut was the “janitor” of the group. Maybe “hazardous material clean-up” is a better description. Whatever your imagination is doing right now, triple it. That’s right. Theirs was what is known in science circles as a symbiotic relationship. The other four dogs received assistance with personal hygiene in their hard-to-reach nether regions, and Peanut received a constant supply of tasty snacks. They were all very happy with this arrangement. The only ones who were not happy with it were any humans (such as myself) who were unfortunate enough to witness the ungodly spectacle. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about Peanut trying to lick my face immediately after one of his many daily haz-mat disposal procedures because, as if to make the monstrosity complete, he had the personality of a shaken-up bag of rattlesnakes. One would think he would have tried to compensate for his appearance (and odor) with a sparkling personality, but no. People who say dogs can’t hate, or that dog spelled backwards is G-O-D, never met Peanut. He was evil incarnate. The stuff of nightmares. The kind of thing that suddenly pokes its head out of a hole in the wall of a labyrinth in the bowels of hell just when you think hell couldn’t get any worse.

Peanut took an immediate dislike to me. I didn’t take it personally because he hated everyone, including Rhonda. It was a mystery to me why she was so devoted to the little pustule. While watching TV or having dinner with her, I would feel his bulging, lopsided eyes watching me, filled with unspeakable evil, probably fantasizing about tearing me limb from limb and devouring my entrails. I would attempt to stare him down, thinking he might suddenly become aware of our vast size disparity, but his glare would only intensify, as if he was saying, “Come at me, bro!” I always ended up looking away. It was terrifying. I once searched the skin under his fur while he was asleep to see if I could find the 666 that Demian’s father found on his scalp in The Omen.

I decided to try to be more mature one day and at least attempt to make friends with Peanut. I slowly sat down next to him, spoke to him in loving tones, gave him a biscuit, waited for him to finish eating, then, smiling broadly, extended my hand to pet him. 

I still have the scar.

Therefore, I was panic-stricken when Rhonda said Peanut would be staying at our apartment for a month. Apparently, he had some other ailment she didn’t want the other four dogs to catch. I suggested a kennel, a doggy B&B, or better yet, a dungeon where he could be fitted with four small manacles for the sake of the public safety (myself being “the public”) but she wouldn’t think of it for her darling Peanut. To make matters worse, I was working at home at the time and she worked elsewhere, so I would be alone with the Evil Seed every day.

The day he arrived, she handed me a list of medicines, special foods, instructions, and his walking schedule. Walking schedule? Now I had to hang out with him? It didn’t help that the apartment we shared was in an affluent neighborhood known for dog lovers. At any time of the day, posh-looking people walked posh-looking dogs, all of them with their noses in the air. Then there was me, walking the canine equivalent of Freddy Kreuger. Our neighbors’ usually warm smiles would gradually contort into grimaces as they saw us coming and beheld the full horror of Peanut up close. Then they would retch violently, depress the button on their spring-loaded leashes, reel in their precious Fifi’s and Lulu’s, quicken their pace, and give us a wide berth as they would one who walks with the plague. 

At first, I was embarrassed by this treatment. I even apologized once as someone fled in horror. But after a week or so, to my amazement, I started to feel – yes, I’ll say it – compassion for Peanut, and contempt for the snobs who shunned him. When they would look at Peanut with repulsion, I would say, “What’s wrong? Never saw a protracted rectum before?” I actually began to enjoy annoying them and disrupting their perfect world and delicate sensibilities.

After that, my feelings toward Peanut began to change. Even I didn’t see it coming. The pivotal moment occurred one day when I was at my desk working and Peanut was sleeping by the fireplace. He was having a harder time breathing than usual. I stopped working, knelt by him, put my hand on his chest and thought maybe he was so mean because he was in pain all the time, or because he was overcompensating for his tiny stature. Plenty of humans behave similarly. How must life be for a dog that weighs only a few pounds? I’m ashamed now that I didn’t feel anything for Peanut before this epiphany. I can only blame it on my youth. 

That day, I resolved to help Peanut overcome his health challenges. I became very studious about his health regimen and spent more time with him. To my amazement, we actually began to have fun together. There was a personality under all that attitude, after all. (His and mine.) Of course, it also helped that he was alone, with no other dogs to perform his haz-mat services on. That would have been a deal-breaker for me. Despite ourselves, old Peanut and I became pretty good buddies. 

This all took place many years ago. Peanut is long gone by now and either guarding the gates of hell single-pawedly, or in command of larger dogs that do. 

Clare Booth Luce wrote, “I don’t have a warm personal enemy left. They’ve all died off. I miss them terribly because they helped define me.” That little monster did help define me, so much so that I’m writing a story about him twenty years later. He helped me find something inside myself I needed to find, something imperative in this world – the ability to love the unlovable. He also taught me that the more love you give, the more you receive, and that sometimes one must try a little harder to love someone, and to access theirs. Maybe there’s something to that God spelled backward thing, after all.

Loving and Killing

Sunday is a day of contrast for me. I go to church in the morning and hear sermons about how to love, then I meet friends in a park and study Krav Maga and learn how to kill bad people.

In case you’ve never heard of it, here’s a good demo video of Krav Maga (WARNING: some violent scenes) – 

As much as I love the philosophical aspects of martial arts, I hate that its still necessary to know how to fight in this world. When I was a kid watching sci-fi movies, the future was always depicted as a time when people communicated telepathically, wore white robes, and swore off violence decades earlier after an apocalypse had finally happened and taught them all (too late) the folly of hatred and aggression. These survivors were usually disfigured somehow. So the message was clear – spiritual advancement comes at a terrible cost.

And isn’t that true? Don’t we learn most quickly and deeply when things are worst? Some would argue that pain and the avoidance of further pain is the only thing that ever changes anyone. It is rare for one to learn anything once and for all, or to learn from someone else’s experience.

I’ve studied boxing, Dutch kickboxing, Okinawan karate and wrestling, but my black belt is in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. My latest love is Krav Maga, the Israeli army combat system, which I’ve been studying for about four years now. The two styles are very different. Kung Fu is soft. Krav Maga is hard. Kung Fu is pretty. Krav Maga is practical and direct, not dynamic enough for movies and tournament kata demonstrations. There are hundreds of techniques in kung fu, most of which are based on the movements and fighting styles of animals. Krav Maga tries to limit the number of movements so there’s less to remember, and those movements are based on natural, instinctive reactions.

I chose this style because it’s considered one of the most deadly modern martial arts, because I’m getting older and my daughters are, too, (and prettier), and because I’m alarmed every day by the craziness in the news. Things don’t seem to be getting better. Every day a new collection of horrors assails all us normal people who have never had a problem not assaulting, molesting, raping, or killing anyone, and to whom such things are inconceivable. 

And that is the reason martial arts are still necessary. Most people wake up and do their best to be happy and kind to others, thinking about their goals and how to achieve them. Others, thankfully the extreme few, but the ones who get all the attention on the news, wake up and immediately start planning who they’re going to rob, rape or kill that day, where they’re going to sell their drugs, what area they’re going to search for houses to burglarize, what schoolyard they’re going to hang around hoping to catch a parent not watching his/her child. Evil has always existed and it still does. It even appears to be growing. The reasons are many and a subject for another blog or series of them.

So I’ll keep training to protect those nearest and dearest to me, and even a stranger if I see someone being victimized, even as I wish it weren’t necessary. I’ve never been the type to look the other way, to my wife’s dismay. I’m proud of that. When someone who is victimized in broad daylight is interviewed, they often say what made the assault worse was all the people who looked the other way, who walked by as if they didn’t hear her/him screaming. Most people are just too terrified to help. Some have a good excuse – being small physically, being unarmed/untrained, age, etc., but too often they’re just selfish, concerned only about their own skin. So evil wins again.

The battle between good and evil has always been and always will be. I know what side I’m on. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but we only have two. And as the saying goes, evil flourishes when good men do nothing. So I’ll love people, even those with evil in their hearts, and do my best to steer them away from evil before they do anything wrong. But if they act on their evil impulses, or if they already have and are unrepentant, and I have a chance to punish them, the full weight of my thirty years of training in how to break bones and cut off their air supply will crash down around them. Our forefathers didn’t create this beautiful country at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives so that their sons and grandsons could just hand it over to the trash of the world.

On the back of the U.S. dollar, there’s an eagle with a quiver of arrows in one talon and laurel leaves in the other. The leaves are a symbol of peace, which the U.S. always tries first. But the arrows are there just in case the leaves are rejected. All men’s arms should be equally able to embrace or destroy. All men’s minds should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And all men should possess weapons that can be laid down or picked up, depending on whether an angel or devil crosses their path.

For instance, many years ago, I was driving past my local mall when I saw a woman with a very worried expression walking along a sidewalk and a man walking equally fast about twenty feet behind her. I passed by at first, then trusted my instinct that something wasn’t right and turned around. I followed them for a few blocks and he turned every time she did. I finally pulled into a driveway behind her, blocking his path, and asked if he was following her. With a horrified expression, she said, “Yes, he started following me in the mall and won’t go away!” I got out of the car and stopped him, asked him what he was doing, etc. He tried to go around me so I stopped him again. He got mad and took a big, primitive swing at me. I spun him around and put him into a chokehold until he passed out. That’s when the woman’s husband came flying out of her house, which was only a few more doors down, thanked me and finished him off. He was still beating him senseless when I drove away. The woman waved and said thank you as I passed her. That is a much happier ending to me than the alternative – the woman getting punched unconscious and raped in an alley or some bushes.

I want to be everyone’s friend and love everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone else feels that way. So I train so I can be who I am (happy, loving, friendly) with the knowledge that I can be very dangerous if I need to be, and only if I need to be, after all other options are exhausted, only when cornered or unable to ignore an evil act. As Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga, said, we train “so that we may walk in peace” – the same reason I go to church.  

When I get to heaven, I hope Jesus pats me on the back and says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” – for loving people, and protecting them.

Walking Around

Just a reminder for all my fellow work-a-holics – 

Never underestimate the extraordinary body/mind/soul healing power of a long walk past neighbors’ gardens with a child and a dog on a sunny, almost-spring day.

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A Sack Full of Feathers (Jewish Proverb)

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A man had an argument with a Rabbi and started spreading false rumors about him. This went on until he no longer felt angry and started feeling guilty. He went to the Rabbi feeling ashamed and said, “I’m sorry for the things I said about you. What can I do to make it up to you?”
The Rabbi said, “Go and collect as many feathers as you can.”
Though a strange request, the man was happy to do it to make amends and feel less guilty. He came back with a sack filled with thousands of feathers he had emptied out of pillows.
The man asked the Rabbi if that was all he could do.
The Rabbi replied, “No. Now empty the sack.”
Again confused, the man did so. It was a windy day so the feathers quickly flew all over the city. When the sack was empty, the man again asked if there was anything else he could do.
The Rabbi answered, “Yes. Go and collect all the feathers and put them back in the sack, and make sure you get every last one.”

Moral of the story –
A harsh word, whether true or not, can be apologized for, but it can never be taken back, and the damage to the person’s character and reputation can never be completely undone.

Who Are You Surrounded By?

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It’s not uncaring strangers we need to look out for, it’s family and friends, the ones who are supposed to love and support us to the bitter end. They’re the ones who will kill your dream. And almost always, they’re also the ones who have never dared to do anything great, the ones who have adhered slavishly to the safest path, never taken any risks, never made the sacrifices or had the discipline it takes to be a great artist or do anything extraordinary.

They will try to project their own reality onto you – sometimes in the subtlest of ways – saying things like “I just don’t want you to be let down” or “do you have a back-up plan in case this doesn’t work out” – because deep down inside, even when your success might benefit them, they really don’t want you to succeed. They don’t want to have to look up to you someday.

But it’s not always comfort junkies you have to look out for. Sometimes it’s people who appear to be successful in terms of material accomplishment but their egomania and type-A competitiveness overrides their sense of decency so much that their success just doesn’t feel complete to them unless they’re also making everyone else less successful. Sort of like chopping everyone’s head off so they can feel taller. Of course, if you dare to question such a person about an insulting comment, they’ll react with the standard, “You’re just too sensitive.” (The #1 mantra of the insensitive.) 

I know. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But sometimes your worst enemies aren’t enemies at all. They’re the people you live with. The people who tell you they love you. Assholes aren’t just people that flip you off from a passing car. Sometimes they’re sitting in your passenger seat, secretly hoping you’ll fail so they can feel better about the chances they weren’t courageous enough to take.

So what can you do? Once you have discovered a friend or family member who is determined to keep you down, the only solution is to eliminate them from your life. If you can’t do that, never – and I mean never – share your goals and dreams with them again. You should keep that stuff to yourself as a general rule anyway. What’s the point of talking about what you’re going to do? It steals the energy you’ll need to do it and gives some comfort zone junkie a chance to discourage you.

Some people don’t deserve to join you on your journey. It would be wasted on them anyway. If you are attempting extraordinarily difficult things that 99% of humanity is too addicted to security to attempt, explaining yourself to them will be like explaining the cosmos to a flea. 

Fortunately, the opposite is also true, though rarely. If you have a friend or family member who is confident and secure enough to wholeheartedly wish you well, who encourages you and strengthens waining courage, who praises the slightest improvement and reminds you of the greatness within you even when you feel like you’re forgetting it, take the time you were going to spend with the dream-stealers and give it all to him/her. That person is a treasure in this world. 

What is it with dogs and mailmen?

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I was working in the garden recently and had left the front gate open for a minute when the mailman came walking up out of my sight. My overly friendly German shepherd mix Charlie charged out to say hello, barking his head off, and I heard what I thought was a little girl screaming.

I went out looking for the child but there was only our fifty-ish year old mailman standing there, a very macho-looking fellow with a goatee and Indiana Jones style sun hat. Charlie had accessed his primal scream.

In a forced and overly deep voice (to compensate for the girlish squeal he had just emitted, which probably shocked even him), he said, “You need to control that dog.” I apologized but he just grunted and walked away angry, embarrassed that my dog had unveiled his inner Wendy.

 

Reluctant Poet (on writer’s block)

 

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The following is one of the first poems I ever wrote, back in those voice-finding days when I still believed in writer’s block. A bit melodramatic but accurate, which is more than I can say about many of my poems from back then. 

I had a conversation with an interesting fellow recently who said he was plagued by writer’s block and asked me what the cure was. I told him his belief in it was making it real. The world is full of interesting things to write about. All one needs to do is watch the news, talk to a neighbor, look out the window, sit in on a courtroom, read a newspaper (if you can find one), read a well-written book, or file through the thousands of memories each one of us has. With all this to draw from, how can anyone ever run out of stories?

This poem, when I wrote it, was about writer’s block, but what it was about more specifically was writing the things we know we must. The hard stuff most people spend their lives avoiding and burying. This is why authors and artists of any kind are celebrated, and should be – because they give freedom to the multitudes trapped within themselves, without the desire, ability, or perhaps the courage to excavate these emotions in themselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”

 

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Reluctant Poet

Words bound
through darkened corridors of my mind
like coy lovers daring me to catch them.
But I do not follow.
The darkness frightens me.
I do not follow.
I am safe in the light.
Safe from the worlds
they might open to me.
I accept myself, a fool,
until frustration with this half-life
erodes the empty shell of comfort,
forcing me to venture out,
to gape into the horrible blackness
I created
and groping, search
for what I really am
beneath the tortured, questioning facade
of awareness.

 

“Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.” (Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg)

Smash writer’s block by writing one line. It will lead to another, and another, and another, naturally following each other. Every book and poem you’ve read and every movie you’ve seen were written that way – one line at a time.

So when someone tells me they’re plagued by writer’s block, I assume that a) they’re being artsy and playing writer, b) they’re looking for excuses not to write instead of reasons to write, and c) they’re not paying close enough attention to the great, big, wide, throbbing world, to humanity, which is always bursting with stories. The hard part is choosing which ones you will devote large portions of your life to. I tell those plagued by writer’s block to stop thinking about it and it will evaporate like the fantasy it is.