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!

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

 

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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.”

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The Depth of Our Loneliness (poem)

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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.

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

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

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

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

I needed to see a house of God.

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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 –

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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.”

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.