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 22: God Jumps the Shark

203

Welcome to episode 22 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 and 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 of them 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 – God Jumps the Shark

This is not the title God gave the episode. In fact, I never know what titles He gives them. But I’m calling it “God Jumps the Shark” because I think the show is getting old and he’s desperate for laughs. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “jump the shark” – it originated in Hollywood when the writers of a show called Happy Days, desperate to lift sagging ratings, had one their main characters, Fonzie, jump his motorcycle over a shark. It was so out of the blue and random, it was clearly a desperate attempt to give the show a kick in the pants. Thus the term “jumping the shark” was born. When your favorite show starts getting old and they do something ridiculous, they just jumped the shark. Of course, shark jumping is not as noticeable these days, with YouTube personalities always trying to outdo each other with increasingly outrageous antics and stunts. Jumping the shark is more the norm than the exception.

But I digress. Allow me to explain why I think my show in heaven is in trouble . . .

I had just returned from a week in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I drove for ten hours and was completely exhausted and restoring my comfort zone with some of my favorite snacks and one of my favorite TV shows, Svengoolie. All was right with the world. It was sort of like that scene in Uncle Buck when he indulges in all his comfort foods.

maxresdefault

I suspect it was this state of comfort that inspired God to mess with me again. He just can’t stand to see me relax.

Anyway, before I left for the trip, I noticed a skunk had taken a liking to my front garden, especially an area covered by wood chips. When I planted my garden and lovingly distributed the wood chips over it, I had no idea that I was really just building a skunk cafeteria. Every morning I would go outside and find little holes here, there and everywhere. I researched it and found that skunks like to dig through wood chips for whatever reason and search for worms and other bugs that live in the soil. I was keeping on top of the skunk’s damage before the trip but when I got home after being away for seven days, my front yard looked like a World War II battlefield.

I vowed to discourage him by turning the hose on him every night until he chose someone else to pick on. I didn’t want to hurt him. After all, everything needs to eat. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that he chose me to harass when there are plenty of other front gardens with his beloved wood chips all over town. The stinky little bugger could at least spread the damage around a bit.

I squirted him with the hose a few times before I left but that didn’t seem to discourage him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the occasional shower.

haters-gonna-hate-gif

So the return to my comfort zone when I returned from my vacation was disrupted by looking out the window every fifteen minutes or so, waiting for his inevitable return.

It was after midnight and I was starting to doze off when I was awoken by the sound of dogs barking very excitedly right outside my front window. I opened the door and was immediately accosted by two very panicked mutts with wet faces trying to squeeze by me and get into the house. Then the smell hit me. In a moment, I realized they had just been sprayed by the skunk and were desperate to escape – into my living room!

I closed the door, grabbed my blanket (my favorite blanket, by the way), and blocked the bottom of the door to keep the stink out. Too late. The entire house already stunk. My eyes and throat were burning as I looked out the window and saw the skunk spraying the dogs again. As you can imagine, dogs don’t enjoy that one bit. And I’m sure the snoot-full of skunk juice comes as quite a surprise because they probably think the skunk is just a very slow, black-and-white cat.

EI9

Then a car pulled up with two teenagers in it. They called the dogs and they both ran and jumped into the car. Apparently, these two Einstein’s saw the skunk and brought their dogs out to attack it. Seeing them call their hounds and flee the scene was quite a surprise to me. I didn’t think there were any hillbilly skunk hunters in this town. 

rednecks-with-guns

Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the requisite old truck so there was no truck bed for the dogs to jump into. They had a two-door Hyundai sedan so the dogs had nowhere to go but into their laps. They must have had to replace the carpet and seats in their car the next day, burn their clothes and soak themselves in tomato juice. 

Wow, I’m actually starting to feel sympathy for them. Excuse me a second.

Never mind. I just had to burp. Funny how gas can be mistaken for sympathy.

Anyway, the skunk survived but must have emptied its entire stank tank on my front porch. Skunk juice apparently has the power to penetrate walls and windows because after it was all over, it was as if the skunk was sitting on my couch with me, eating my snacks and asking me to change the channel, perhaps to a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.

I tried opening the back door to air out the house but the smell was there, too. I shut the doors to my and my daughter’s bedrooms to hopefully cut down on the smell in their rooms and they didn’t wake up so it seemed to work, but I tried to sleep on the couch, throat and eyes burning.

As I lay there, I realized it was the denouement of another episode of Messin’ with Mark. It must have been top-drawer slapstick for God and his angels, gathered around that flat screen in the sky, watching me fighting to keep the dogs out of the house and choking on skunk odor when I was supposed to be relaxing back into my comfort zone after a long trip. I can just imagine Him thinking, “Okay, he’s all set up, thinking this is going to be a normal night. Cue the skunk!” 

giphy

As usual, as I lay there choking, I looked up and whispered, “Well-played, God. Well-played.” I could only hope this apparent desperation for new show ideas (I mean, a skunk? Really?) is proof that this show at my expense is finally on its last leg and will be canceled soon.

But then I realized . . . it’s God’s show. Who’s going to cancel it?

He always gets the last laugh.

 

god-laughing

On Writing Well – The “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule

 

Screen-Shot-2013-11-20-at-3.24.03-PM

The “show, don’t tell” rule is the very heart of good writing. It’s difficult to avoid, especially when writing a memoir or some other type of nonfiction. But rather than saying a character is unselfish, show them doing something unselfish. If the story is told well, the reader will figure out that the character is unselfish without having to be told he/she is. Readers want to do some of the work. They don’t want to be told what to think, they want to think for themselves and make their own discoveries.  

The same is true of settings. Instead of simply writing “the diner was filthy”, a good writer will write something like, “I walked into the diner and was immediately assaulted by the stench of old meat. A hostess approached me who was too old to still be working, forced a smile that unintentionally revealed unfathomable world weariness, and led me sullenly to a formica table with chipped edges. As I sat and slid into my seat, a rat scurried over my foot. I looked under the table just in time to see its tail disappear into a ragged-edged hole in the ancient drywall.”

One might argue that writing “the diner was filthy” is just fine because it says it all, it’s brief, and the reader can just fill in the rest with his/her imagination. The problem is it’s boring. It’s also lazy. It doesn’t engage the readers’ senses or put them in the room. It doesn’t inspire the imagination or pull them into the story.

Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to paint a vivid picture and transport yourself and the reader to another world; a world they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. 

But here’s the catch – always leave more for the reader to discover for themselves. Don’t spell everything out too much. As Stephen King said, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

Unknown

The Depth of Our Loneliness (poem)

howling-wolf-wallpapers-desktop-background-For-Desktop-Wallpaper

I found this old poem by accident yesterday, excavated from a tattered, 25-year old notebook, written during my single days. I’m happily-married now with two girls (4 and 7) so though the poem is sad, there was a happy ending to the story. My heart is full every day. I shudder to think where I would be if I had remained that Steppenwolf out there in the cold, circling the campfire.

 

I was twenty-one years old
alone in an all-night diner
after another bad date
with a woman who couldn’t love me
no matter how much I gave
or how hard I tried.

Looking back, I know now
that I was asking the impossible.
We can never be more than we are
no matter how badly
someone else wants us to be.

There are a billion and one moments
that make us who we are.
Who could ever sort them out,
let alone rearrange them?

She was older than me
and had been hurt before
She was broken
and I could not fix her.
She had folded in on herself
and I could not unfold her
but I wanted her so desperately,
I couldn’t stop trying.
I saw a paradise
that she couldn’t see.

So I kept returning,
like a colt to a trough
too cracked and beaten to hold water.

After enough nights like that one
and a very bad ending;
after the storm had cleared
and the debris was swept away,
I returned to myself
and it finally dawned on me
how uncomplicated love really is.

We know when someone really cares.
We even know if someone can’t love at all.
It’s built in.
But the heart and mind
have never been much for communication
and the depth of our loneliness
can be measured
by how much we make it not matter.

I understand her now.
Time has humbled me.
The world has destroyed my delusions.
I am more mature, safer.

But now, I am afraid
that I will never love as hard
as that kid
who sat alone in an all-night diner
tasting a new kind of pain
deeper than he’d ever known.

Now, the world has broken me, too.

Royal Blood / Innocent Blood

I’m usually not interested in the royal family because of a combination of:

A) Having watched Braveheart too many times and seeing what they got up to in the past. (Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If two fish are fighting at the bottom of the ocean, the English probably had something to do with it.”) 

B) My disdain for inheritance, and being given vast wealth for nothing more than being born. This irks people like me who have had to struggle for every penny.

C) My parents are Irish Protestants from Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. They had photos of the royals around the house for years. I never understood that since Ireland, like Scotland, was not occupied nicely, either. I even asked them one day, “It’s one thing to not want to declare war on England or bomb civilians like the Irish Republican Army did, but do you need to like the royal family so much? Doesn’t occupation demand resistance of some kind?” My father was a very erudite man so I expected an intellectual answer, but he and my mom actually didn’t know why they accepted and even celebrated the royals. “We just do” was their answer. It was very unsatisfying. 

But today, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed the royals, too. I watched the royal wedding, but doubt if I would have if not for the following headlines in my home, America.

Ten High School Students Killed in School Shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

(That last one was enough, of course, but there were also the following bizarre occurrences in the land of the free and the home of the brave.)

Woman Jumps Off Building with Seven Year Old Son in New York.

Man Punches Pregnant Woman and Her Service Dog on Flight.

Shunned Jehovah’s Witness Mom Kills Her Entire Family

Father Leaves 18-Month Old Daughter in 120 Degree Car. (A daily occurrence in America.)

There was another shooting yesterday at another high school somewhere in America but only one precious, irreplaceable child’s life was taken so it didn’t get much attention.

There were also the usual daily robberies, beatings, car chases and murder-suicides in Los Angeles, where I live.

Don’t get me wrong – every news day is bad in America, but yesterday was particularly awful, and it just happened to coincide with the royal wedding. I expected to see a headline that read, “England Celebrates the Royal Wedding! Meanwhile, in America, There Were Two More High School Shootings.”

Growing up in America, I never once imagined that my country would become so hopelessly lost. I maintain the stubborn belief that the vast majority of Americans are getting along great and the screwed up one percent just gets all the attention, but that one percent sure can do a lot of damage to morale. 

Then again, when I hear “music” thumping from car speakers and even in restaurants and bars with vile, psychologically and spiritually toxic lyrics (rap and death metal leading the way), and think of how these “artists” get rich preying on lost children and making them even more lost, I wonder if it’s only one percent of America that’s totally screwed up. (To heck with Joe DiMaggio. Where did you go, Simon and Garfunkel? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)

So yesterday, in desperation to remove the headline images from my mind, for the first time in my life, I celebrated with the royal family.

I needed to see a wedding. I needed all the things weddings make me feel along with the betrothed – love, hope, faith, courage.

royal-wedding-everything-we-know-t

I needed to see the cool, clean air over Windsor Castle.

windsor-castle-rooftops

I needed to hear a choir sing a beautiful, hopeful song.

the-kingdom-choir-1526731337

I needed to see the stained glass windows of St. George’s Cathedral.

st. George's Cathedral

I even needed to smile at the silly, whimsical hats the ladies wore.

I needed to see a house of God.

2018_04_19_44475_1524123057._large

I needed to escape, but since I couldn’t buy a plain ticket and flee in terror to someplace that happens to be more sane at this point in history, I turned on the TV. 

When the darkness in my soul had been brushed away a little, I looked at my two young daughters and Googled “home schooling.”

 

 

 

People Every Writer (and songwriter, singer and musician) Should Know – Mac Davis

People often say, “When you live in Los Angeles, you never know who you’ll bump into.” Well, I found that out quite literally (and the hard way) one day when I bumped – okay, crashed – into country singer and movie star Mac Davis.

For those of you too young or just unfortunate enough to not know who he is, this is him in his prime –

macdavis

I used to watch The Mac Davis Show when I was a kid and was amazed and entranced by his many talents. He was a natural performer. Pure charm. The segment of his show I enjoyed the most was called “Audience Improvisations” when people would give him random song titles and he would write the song to go with it right on the spot. It was incredible to me and one of the things that made me want to be a writer. Here’s an example. Mac’s a bit older now but as sharp and talented as ever. You’ll see my favorite song title improv in this clip. It goes like this –

My girlfriend burned her bra today.
It really was a shame.
Cuz she ain’t exactly Dolly Parton.
That sucker hardly made a flame.

I was driving down Sepulveda Boulevard one day and had just crossed Wilshire going into Westwood when there was suddenly a stopped car in front of me. I went right under it and scooped it up onto my hood. I would find out later that the woman in front of Mac realized she had missed her on-ramp to the 405 freeway and slammed on her brakes. He was able to avoid rear-ending her but because I was glancing left and right in the intersection, I saw Mac’s rear bumper too late. Mac got out – actually, climbed down out of his car – and he was not happy. Because he was one of my heroes, I recognized him immediately. I apologized. He immediately relaxed and said in his Lubbock Texas accent, “It’s okay, kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

As we waited for the police to arrive, he told me a story about how he crashed a Cadillac (I think) he called his “In The Ghetto Car” because he bought it with the money he received after Elvis Presley recorded the song he wrote by the same name. Mac wrote a ton of hits in addition to that one – Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me, It’s Hard To Be Humble, Texas in My Rear-View Mirror, I Believe in Music, etc. He told me he was going to star in a Disney Christmas special at Disneyland the next day and said, “I’ll wave to you.” A pretty damn cool thing to say to someone who just wrecked his rear bumper. 

I tell this story for many reasons – to show that not all celebrities are jerks, particularly those as seasoned as Mac, and those who grew up in Texas, not L.A. Mac is old school not just in terms of writing songs that actually make sense, have a clear beat, and are impossible not to like, but in terms of intelligence, class and charm, too. I was nobody to him. He didn’t say, “Hey, you’re that guy who wrote twenty stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul, aren’t you?” Nobody recognizes writers. He could have easily been unfriendly to me but he wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. He smiled and waved at me from Disneyland. Mac Davis is country, in every sense of the word.

So if you ever read this, Mac, thank you for your kindness, especially to someone who messed up your car. It’s easy to be nice when everything is going right, but one’s true character is revealed when things go wrong. You certainly passed that test. I hope to bump into you again someday – when we’re not driving.

You’re the One That I Want. Wait a Minute . . . Who Are You?

I love the movie Grease for the nostalgia and catchy tunes but it contains possibly the worst message for young girls ever.

Sandy is doing so well with Danny that he ditches his leather jacket for a letterman sweater to impress her. His friends give him a hard time about it but he says, “Come on, guys. You know you mean a lot to me. It’s just that Sandy does, too, and I’m gonna do anything I can to get her, that’s all.”

51101

But despite both of them being hopelessly devoted to each other, Sandy decides to shed her Sandra Dee sweetness, start smoking and transform herself from the wholesome girl next door to a hussy anyway.

giphy

I suppose the writer pondered whether he should have them break up and then have Sandy alter her basic nature out of her desperation to win him back, but realized that would make her appear pathetic. Why then? I never did get it. The message to girls is, “Wholesome and innocent are stupid. You’ve got to become a slut to really get the boy of your dreams!”

grease-youre-the-one-that-i-want-hoo-hoo

To top it off, the entire high school dances around to celebrate her transformation. The happy energy is enough to make just about everyone completely miss all the destructive psychological programming.

grease-finale-we-go-together

But maybe there was a deeper meaning to this in the mind of the writer, such as the loss of innocence America experienced shortly after the 1950’s? The shedding of the restrictive social mores of that era that shocked all their stodgy, old parents so much in the following decade. i.e., free love, the sexual revolution, drugs for “mind expansion”, etc.

Or maybe the writer was saying loss of innocence is inevitable so we might as well embrace it.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking it and this was just a cool song and a cheap gimmick to give Sandy a character arc.

There’s no point denying sexuality, either, as many of the movies from the 1950’s did due both to censorship and to the fact that America and art was simply more innocent then. For instance, in bedroom scenes, both actors had to have at least one foot on the floor. Open sexuality was so frowned upon, in fact, that Jayne Mansfield’s career was ruined when she exposed her breasts in a bathtub scene in her increasing desperation to dethrone Marilyn Monroe as America’s #1 screen siren.

Censorship finally ended and the pendulum swung back the other way. It’s still swinging and will never swing back, just as surely as innocence, once lost, can never be fully restored. We can only taste it in flashes, like the aroma of something sweet carried on the wind from far away, and savor it for a moment before it evaporates again, always too soon.

Sex is part of life, of course, especially for teenagers wrestling with the mystery of love and the questions of self-worth and desirability that accompany it. But I’m always surprised when I see a local library or mall hosting an outdoor screening of Grease. Overthinking has got to be superior to not thinking at all.

 

 

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humor?

Okay, this is too weird not to share. 

My eldest daughter has reached that age where her teeth are falling out.

1408463928000-114266845

Her first lower incisor came out and she took it to school to show to some friends. This is big news in the first grade world, as is how much dough they took the Tooth Fairy for. Of course, there is no agreed-upon amount between parents so some kids end up feeling like their teeth are more valuable than other kids’ teeth. 

nate-boo-boo-lip

Anyway, she was having a little picnic on the front lawn of the school with some friends when she realized she had dropped her tooth. Tragedy strikes! She started crying because she was really depending on that Tooth Fairy moolah. About a dozen parents and even more kids started looking for it. After five minutes or so, the father of one of her friends found it so there was a happy ending. I told him I didn’t know how to thank him, he really saved my little girl from a lot of heartache, blah yada etcetera.

A few days later, he told me his daughter had lost the exact same tooth. My daughter and his daughter and all their friends were doing their usual picnic on the lawn when she lost her tooth somewhere on the lawn, too! Everyone started looking for it and I found it, in exactly the same spot where my daughter had lost her tooth several days before! So I got a chance to repay her dad, after all, and in exactly the same way. Talk about a tooth for a tooth!

There are hundreds of kids at the school, the front lawn is vast, and over a dozen people searched both times. What are the chances? I can’t help thinking coincidence is one of the ways God entertains Himself, that old prankster. He probably told the Tooth Fairy all about it. 

adngpx