The Lost Country

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I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

My Toddler’s First Fib – And It Is a Doozy!

My 19 month-old daughter has not only started fibbing but fibbing in the biggest way possible – blaming Mickey Mouse for damage she intentionally caused. She has a little hobby when she can’t sleep of picking the leather veneer off the backboard of the bed. Below is the video of her interrogation before being taken downtown and booked for vandalism.

https://www.facebook.com/mark.rickerby/videos/10153629711931350/?pnref=story

UPDATE: Turns out she was telling the truth! Mickey Mouse confessed, has taken a few of the seven dwarves hostage, and barricaded himself inside the whale on the Pinocchio ride at Disneyland. Fortunately, he is unable to fire a weapon because of the giant, white gloves he wears, so his only defense against the SWAT team is to throw lollipops. One officer was struck in the neck by one of those giant ones they sell at the gift shop, causing a small welt. I will keep you posted as the situation develops. I feel terrible for not believing my toddler, but who would have guessed? Mickey Mouse, a common criminal!

Upon further research, I learned that Mickey Mouse actually has a rap sheet as long as the monorail. Here are a few of his past mugshots –

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Warning Signs of Predators for Parents

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I would love to do nothing but write about the cute things my children do and say, but the sad reality is we need to protect our kids from evil, perverted people in this world, so information like the articles below can’t be shared often enough. It seems to be all over the news these days. I was just reading this morning that Jared the Subway spokesman is up on child porn charges and plans to plead guilty. And most of us have watched To Catch a Predator and been horrified about how common it is for grown men to solicit sex from kids online.

Aside from news stories, we all know someone personally who was molested, right? I know I do. So whatever we can do to prevent it from happening to our children or the children of others is a worthwhile use of our time.

The question in the article below that connected most with me was “Does a family friend always insist on “hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child, even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention?” 

That’s a tough one. My parents had friends who were always hugging and kissing me, and none of them ever molested me. So how does a parent separate a warm, affectionate person from a perverted child molester? My wife and I err on the side of caution. Any friends who are excessively physical with our kids, even if they don’t show any signs of not wanting physical attention, never get anywhere near our kids again. And we never leave our children alone with anyone. Why take the chance? I may not cut these friends out of my life, just in case I’m wrong about them. I don’t want to accuse someone wrongly if they’re just nice, lonely people who love kids. They may see me again socially, but they’ll never see my kids again. 

I had a lifelong friend who came by one day and, within moments of being introduced to my new baby daughter, started whispering some kind of high-speed chant in her ear while she sat in his lap. It was like one of those soundtracks you hear in demonic horror movies when someone is about to get killed. I only saw this friend about once a year because we live in different countries so I had no idea what he was into. For all I knew, he could have become a Satanist or Voodoo witch doctor since last time I saw him and was putting some kind of ancient whammy on her. So I told him whatever he was doing looked creepy and weird and to knock it off. He said he was whispering to soothe the baby, but the baby was already happy and calm. Weird. He got ticked off and we haven’t spoken since. Whatever. Good riddance. I don’t think he was a molester, just weird, but again, I’m not taking any chances with my kids. I only have one chance to get this right. If any of my friends, especially friends who don’t have kids of their own, (like the excessive hugger and the curse chanter) don’t understand that, as Powers Boothe said in Tombstone, “Well . . . bye.” I’d rather have less friends I can trust than a bunch that are insensitive to my (or any parent’s) concerns. I don’t need company that badly.

I’ve always been shocked by how common child molestation is. Here’s some information from victimsofcrime.org

Child Sexual Abuse Statistics

The prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported; experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities. CSA is also not uniformly defined, so statistics may vary. Statistics below represent some of the research done on child sexual abuse.

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.

According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows 1.6 % (sixteen out of one thousand) of children between the ages of 12-17 were victims of rape/sexual assault.

A study conducted in 1986 found that 63% of women who had suffered sexual abuse by a family member also reported a rape or attempted rape after the age of 14. Recent studies in 2000, 2002, and 2005 have all concluded similar results.

Children who had an experience of rape or attempted rape in their adolescent years were 13.7 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college.

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.

Children who do not live with both parents as well as children living in homes marked by parental discord, divorce, or domestic violence, have a higher risk of being sexually abused.

In the vast majority of cases where there is credible evidence that a child has been penetrated, only between 5 and 15% of those children will have genital injuries consistent with sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact; such abuse could include non contact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography.

Compared to those with no history of sexual abuse, young males who were sexually abused were five times more likely to cause teen pregnancy, three times more likely to have multiple sexual partners and two times more likely to have unprotected sex, according to the study published online and in the June print issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Below is the article referenced above by Jennifer O’Neill, a writer for Yahoo Parenting. 

How can you tell if someone has ulterior motives for wanting to get closer to your child? An expert identifies three red flags you want to watch out for.

News about sexual offenders is dominating the headlines — most recently about Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who is reportedly planning to plead guilty to child porn charges and crossing state lines to pay for sex with minors, and admitted teen molester Josh Duggar. 

But parents who assume their child could never be a victim should know that the reality is nine out of 10 children who are sexually abused are victimized by someone they know — including relatives, family friends, clergy, teachers, and babysitters, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC). 

“The offender usually uses coercion and manipulation, not physical force, to engage the child,” reports the American Academy of Pediatrics in a sexual abuse prevention tip sheet for parents. Deborah Callins, prevention director at the NCAC, tells Yahoo Parenting, “They take advantage of a child’s natural curiosity.” So how can mothers and fathers identify the close people most likely to have ulterior motives, or who might want to take advantage of your child? Here are a few simple ways to see the red flags that are often right in front of you: 

Take cues from your kids.
“Parents can protect their children by being better listeners,” she says. “Are they hearing what their child is actually meaning? If a child states he or she doesn’t want to spend time with a particular person, the parents may assume their child thinks the person is boring. But the real message the child might be trying to send is that the person makes him or her feel uncomfortable.” So stop a moment and try to really get to the heart of the matter before you insist that little Madison drive to the park with Uncle Jim to play on the swings if she’s dragging her feet. “Your children could be sending you little hints,” explains Callins. “You need to dig a little for more information.” 

Consider whether someone seems to be ‘testing’ your child’s ability to protect himself. 
Does a family friend always insist on “hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child, even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention?” asks sexual abuse prevention organization Stop It Now! in its resource sheet, Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults are With Children. Such seemingly innocuous behaviors indicate that the adult is ignoring a child’s social, emotional and physical boundaries — and that’s a big red flag. 

Take note if a person is sexually suggestive around your kid.

If someone always tends to point out sexual images, or tells dirty or suggestive jokes in the presence of kids, take heed, suggests Stop It Now! That goes for comments about a child’s “developing body” or a teen’s dating details, too. “It may be nothing, or it may be a warning signal that the person is grooming your child,” explains Callins. He or she may be trying to figure out how curious your child is about sex, how much they know about it, and whether they may be willing to participate in it. “Perhaps the parent doesn’t even realize that it’s an issue — ‘Oh, that’s just how my cousin is,’ or ‘That’s just how he talks,’” she says. “But it could also be a test.” 

Callins advises removing your child from such a situation if it makes you or your kid uncomfortable, and then talking about it separately afterward with both the person and your child. “That way, it’s out in the air,” she says. And that way there’s no question about your boundaries — and whether you’ll be aware if somebody tries to cross them.

Link to story – https://www.yahoo.com/parenting/warning-signs-of-predators-for-parents-127261332922.html

(Photo by Corbis Images)

Two Worlds (on growing up)

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When I was a child, I thought there was a wall between childhood and adulthood, a wall I would climb over one day and never look back. But there is no wall. The child I used to be keeps showing up all the time and whispering “come and play” while I’m trying to do adult things. Truth be told, I invite him in because he’s the only thing that keeps me from losing my mind entirely. I even memorized an Aldous Huxley quote so I could say it to anyone who accuses me of being immature.

“The childlike man is not a man whose development has been arrested. On the contrary, he is a man who has allowed himself to continue to develop while most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.”

Upon hearing this, they will usually say something like, “Oh! Well, if Aldous Huxley said it, go ahead and keep being a jackass.”

I finally decided to write children’s books so I can stay a child forever, and make a few bucks like adults are supposed to do.

This fear of being an adult is probably a composite of all the unfortunate adults I met throughout my life who grew up too much, who lost the child completely, and became pale, gray, dusty, lifeless shells. Some eyes have twinkles and some don’t. Many things can put it out, mainly grief, or loss of any kind. I want to keep mine. I’ll die before I let it burn out. We’ve got to fight for our twinkles.

Playing with my daughters helps, too. Their world is so much bigger than mine. As hard as I protect my twinkle, and though I have never stopped playing with the child I was, I’ve been a grown-up for so long now, I have forgotten much. It’s inevitable. Thankfully, my children let me into their world and are always happy to show me around.

Two Worlds

Two worlds have I known along the path of this life –
one of serenity, the other of strife.

The first world I knew was a magical place
of warm smiles and laughter and kind-hearted grace.
Of meadows and tulips, wood shoes and white blouses.
Of bread trails and bonnets and gingerbread houses.
Of blind mice and windmills and Little Jack Horner.
Of Winnie and Tigger and the tree at Pooh Corner.
Of fun-loving pirates and billowing sails.
Of serpents and mermaids and friendly, blue whales.

My young eyes saw the world as a sweet, gentle place
without hatred or killing over nation or race.
There was no better or worse, only different from me
and it made life enticing, a grand mystery!

I remember gazing in wonder, unexamined and pure,
at the indigo sky. Oh, the thoughts it allured!
So many places someday I would see!
So many people to share it with me!

But the wind-spinning freedom which was my young world
grew shrouded in darkness as adult years unfurled.
And the strangest thing is I never noticed peace die.
I just knew it was gone and I didn’t know why.

Thus began the long years of searching for answers,
questioning poets, musicians and dancers,
politicians and teachers, gurus and sages,
spending my youth between dusty pages
to recapture a feeling, stolen or lost,
and hold it again, no matter the cost.

Many years have passed now. I’ve grown old and gray
and I watch the games that my grandchildren play.
I can hardly recall how my youthful heart yearned
and I won’t bore you with stories of the lessons I’ve learned.
But I will tell you this – joy isn’t somewhere “out there.”
It cannot be studied or found anywhere.
It’s something you’ll either let in or you won’t,
something you give to yourself or you don’t.

Do you hear what I’m saying? All the searching’s for naught!
All that you need, you’ve already got.
There will surely be pain. That’s life’s one guarantee.
But how much we suffer – that’s up to you, and to me.

– Mark Rickerby (c) 2004

Father Forgets (on Patience)

I first read the story below when I was in my early twenties, in the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s written in the first person from a father to his son after the loss of the boy’s mother. Though I wasn’t a father yet when I first read it, I was so moved by it I performed it on stage in college. Someone approached me afterward and asked, “When is that going to be on the Hallmark channel?”

It was written in the 1930’s so the language is a little outdated, but I think you’ll agree that it’s a beautiful piece of writing containing timeless wisdom for parents.

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Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned

Listen, son; I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen to your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face a mere dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called you out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your friends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive-and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at your interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across the room in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped form my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed.

It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.