New Publishings

Hey Friends. Here are three new Chicken Soup for the Soul books featuring stories of mine. One is in stores (online and off) now and two will be available soon. They are:

The Dog Really Did That? – 101 Stories of Miracles, Mischief and Magical Moments. (In stores now.)

My story in this one is about my dog Charlie, a German Shepard mix we rescued so we could have a “guard dog” but who turned out to be so sweet, he wouldn’t hurt a fly (which is the title of the story.) We’ve learned a lot about tolerance and patience from Charlie, especially after adopting a second dog, a vastly smaller Morkie who spends the better part of most days chewing on some part of Charlie’s anatomy. He could end the torment any time he wants with one snap, but he doesn’t. He loves the little monster. She’s the mob boss and he’s the dopey bodyguard. 

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My Kind (of) America – Stories About the True Spirit of Our Country. (Available October 3rd.)

My story The American Team is about a Physical Education teacher in 7th grade who took a few minutes to reveal to all us kids, very artfully, how unique America is in the world. 

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Step Outside Your Comfort Zone – Stories about Trying New Things, Overcoming Fears, and Broadening Your World. (Available October 31st)

I feel a sense of providence at being included in this book because I once paraglided over the Swiss alps exactly like the person on the cover is doing. My story More Kindness Than Danger is about how we’re all just a little poisoned by entertainment, which is necessarily rife with conflict between people, and how that skewed reality can make us nervous about venturing out into the world. But once we get out there, even on the extremities, we find mostly what we have inside and what we give to others. Except for rare and extreme circumstances, the world is as open and loving as we allow ourselves to be. 

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If you’d like a signed copy of any of these books, please message me here. (The Dog Really Did That is sold out. Sorry!)

Here’s a favorite poem of mine that perfectly illustrates the message in my story in Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

The Right Kind of People
by Edwin Markham

Gone is the city, gone the day,
Yet still the story and the meaning stay:
Once where a prophet in the palm shade basked
A traveler chanced at noon to rest his miles.
“What sort of people may they be,” he asked,
“In this proud city on the plains o’erspread?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” the packman scowled;
“Why, knaves and fools.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.

Another stranger in the dusk drew near,
And pausing, cried, “What sort of people here
In your bright city where yon towers arise?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” The pilgrim smiled,
“Good, true, and wise.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.

 

Books, Nooks and Hiding Places

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When I was a kid and still today, I loved to find the most obscure, abandoned, neglected book in a library, then look for an equally obscure, abandoned and neglected place to read it. If no such place could be found, hiding under the bedsheets with a flashlight would do nicely. 

There’s something about knowing I’m the only one on earth reading that particular book at that particular time, and feeling that reading it is breathing new life into the words of some long-gone author. I also like to believe that artists somehow know when someone down here is appreciating their work, and they stop whatever they’re doing for a moment and smile. I hope so. 

When I first got on the internet and accepted the fact that it wasn’t a passing fad, and when I first read a book on the Internet, I concluded that a Nook or Kindle device has exactly none of the charm that an old, musty book has. All my fellow book-sniffers will know what I mean.

Have you ever picked up a book from the 1800’s and held your face deep into the inner binding, imagining your smelling not only the book but that time? Some remnant of a Little House on the Prairie-esque scene, with a family gathered around a solid oak table, saying Grace together, the kids peeking at the delicious meal and wishing dad would hurry up. Sure, it’s usually just paper and maybe a little mold, but the mind, like the eyes, has it’s own pareidolia, completing mental pictures and fantasies from very little information.

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Of course, there’s also the charm and romance of wondering who else might have owned the old book, seeing their names and the date written on the first page, or maybe the indentation of some note they wrote on the cover, and playing secret agent by placing paper on it and making it appear with a pencil. Even a mundane note about groceries can be exciting if it’s over a hundred years old.

 

Then there’s the ache. An actual ache I get when I look at those old, deteriorated books and think of all the time, effort and passion that went into writing them, how the writer labored over every line and the book as a whole, and how unfair it is that after so much work, he or she wasn’t magically granted a extra few hundred years of life on earth to enjoy seeing the delight it gave readers. I mean, it’s only fair.

For this reason, I don’t think ebooks will ever completely displace real books. The only “Nook” I’m interested in is the hiding place I read actual books in. But there is hope even for those of us who have succumbed to the ease of internet reading, in the form of obscure and forgotten archived pages deep in the internet’s basement. I usually find them when doing research on some obscure detail of a script. For instance, I found this page today while trying to find out the name of a newspaper in Coloma, California, in 1880, for research on a western TV show. 

https://archive.org/stream/california00giff/california00giff_djvu.txt

And as I knew I was the only one reading that particular page at that particular time, that old feeling came over me again – “This is mine for this moment.” Nerdy, I know. It’s the same feeling I got while exploring an old ruin alone on a lesser-known Greek island, or when I found an out-of-the-way corner deep in the Colosseum in Rome that none of the other tourists were interested in seeing, then settling in there and feeling history engulf me. Of having one thing for one moment in this overcrowded world that is mine alone. The humbleness and lack of importance of the thing (such as that forgotten web page up there) only makes its allure stronger. 

The internet has already become mankind’s greatest storehouse of knowledge. It’s a library with countless caverns, filled with everything human beings have figured out. Old books will always be loaded with charm, just like old houses, old cars, old music and old people, but cold technology can have charm once in a while, too, if we’re sensitive enough to divine it. 

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To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

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A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.

All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.

The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.

The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.

Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.

A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.

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Providence

Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?

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I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.

It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.

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I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With  a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.

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A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.

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They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.

Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.

These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”

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~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930

 

11. Homeless

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The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –

A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!

On Writing Greatness – The Saga of Donovan Stone

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Donovan Stone wanted to be a writer more than anyone had since the first hieroglyphs were scratched onto the wall of the first pyramid. He had read just about every book written on the craft, attended every fiction writing class he could, and had even changed his name to something he thought sounded more writer-ish. His actual name was Cedric Weatherwax, which he considered singularly inglorious and not in keeping with the illustrious future he had planned for himself.

In one of his writing books, the author outlined his formula for greatness. “There are three kinds of writers,” he wrote –

  1. Those who stink and don’t know they stink. This type of writer’s efforts will only be a big waste of everyone’s time, primarily his own. One lifetime is never enough to overcome pure, unadulterated stinkiness.
  2. Those who stink and are determined to become less stinky. This type of writer faces an uphill climb but may someday create something passable, albeit inconsistently, and then, usually, only by dumb luck.”
  3. Those who are great by divine intervention or some accident of nature and who couldn’t write poorly if they were being suspended over a pool of sharks. Only this kind of writer will ever be truly great, and even he doesn’t know how he does it. If you’re wondering if you’re this kind of writer, you’re not. You wouldn’t have to ask. Quit now.

Donovan wept uncontrollably after reading this, fearing he was a category two writer. When his wrenching sobs subsided, he steeled his resolve to achieve greatness. Still, every effort was met with severe frustration. There was just nothing in there. He loved poetry, but every word he wrote – nay, every letter – was a struggle he likened to childbirth.

One of his first poems read:

Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.

He saw nothing wrong with the use of the non-word “nowers” because he once read that Shakespeare created many words when ordinary language failed him.

Donovan’s poem continued:

She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I would cut off my ear, but it would hurt.

He thought the Van Gogh reference was pure genius. Others, not so much. In fact, when he shared it with the crowd at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse, a normally gracious group, they laughed unguardedly, assuming his poem was meant to be funny.

With sweat beading on his upper lip, he continued,

“My love is a sponge,
On our love raft, we will plunge.”

The laughter grew louder. Trembling with a mixture of embarrassment and rage, he pressed on,

“Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.”

That was it. The room erupted. He could have saved himself some humiliation if he had pretended he meant it to be funny, but he was cut to the quick. He threw his Gauloise cigarette on the floor, spit in a very French manner, and said, “You people wouldn’t know talent if it bit you on your fat, pimply asses!” He then kicked over a table and stormed out the back door into the alley. He kicked over trash cans all the way home, cursing about how most great artists were misunderstood and how that audience of barn animals was just too ignorant to grasp someone as brilliant and tortured as he.

The next week was spent in a bottomless purple funk. He drank excessively, didn’t bathe, and barely ate. If his phone ever rang, he wouldn’t have even answered it.

He felt comforted by the tragic lives many great artists had. Hemingway shot himself. Plath had electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky was exiled in Siberia for his political opinions. He felt he was suffering along with them, equally unappreciated. The more he suffered, the more romantic it felt. Unfortunately, he was the only one who felt it.

His father was no help. The last time he had spoken to him, he said, “Son, it’s time to grow up. How much of your life are you planning to waste on this pipe dream? Even the best writers struggle to eke out a living, and frankly, you ain’t one of ‘em. I found a poem in a notebook you left in the back yard and it stunk. Wait here, I’ll get it.”

He walked away and returned with a tattered, coffee-stained notebook, flipped through it and found the page.

“Oh, here it is,” he said. “Explain this one to me, if you even can. He began to read, “Flaming doorknobs tumble down my blasphemous eyebrows. The tragic sand screams oblong operettas to my parched bicycle seat. I am.”

He set the notebook down and asked, “What in hell’s blue blazes is that supposed to mean, Cedric? Why can’t you write a nice, rhyming poem that tells a story like Robert Frost or that Longfellow guy used to do?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he replied, “and my name is Donovan.”
“That’s another thing,” his father continued. “That name might work if, A, it was 1957, and, B, you were a teen idol.”
“Look, daddio,” Donovan argued, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. You know who said that? Einstein! That’s who!”
“Daddio? What is this? 1968? It’s 2017! Wake up and smell the failure, hepcat!”

After a pause, his father softened and said, “Look, son. I just want you to be happy. I hate seeing you running down a dead end like this, because there’s a big, brick wall at the end of it and you’re not gonna see it coming until it’s too late. I mean, of all things to choose to be, you had to pick a writer? Nothing has ever happened to you! I did two tours in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war, and survived cancer that damn Agent Orange gave me! If anyone should be a writer, it’s me!”
“Oh, so that’s it!” Donovan snapped. “You’re jealous because I’m a writer and you’re not!”
“Yeah, I’m real jealous I don’t have flaming door knobs tumbling down my blasphemous eyebrows. Think about it, son. All the great writers lived through some heavy stuff. Tennessee Williams had diphtheria as a kid, was tormented by a sadistic father, lived most of his life as a repressed homosexual, and died penniless after a nervous breakdown. But his sister one-upped him by getting a frontal lobotomy! So, again, what have you been through? What gives you the right to call yourself a writer? I would suggest you do some living first, then grace the world with your insights. You’re putting the cart before the horse, boy!”

Donovan couldn’t take anymore. He stormed out. He was good at storming. He didn’t speak to his father for weeks after that argument, which was difficult because he still lived at home. Though he cursed him inwardly, he couldn’t get his words out of his mind. What did give him the right to call himself a writer? Maybe his father was right. Maybe writing was so hard for him because nothing worth writing about had ever happened to him.

He decided to change that. He would do things, dammit, and starting right now. He showered, found clothes that smelled the least bad, and walked to a military recruiting office in his local mall. Many great writers had brushes with death and killed many men in battle. He would, too. That would show his dad.

He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because the minimum push-up requirement was forty-two and he was only able to do seven. The reviewer also mentioned a comment he had made in his application about hating America for runaway Capitalism and Imperialistic foreign policies.

Dejected but still determined to have something bad happen to him, he put on a white suit and costume jewelry rings, stuffed his wallet with toilet paper until it bulged, and walked through the worst neighborhood he could find on Saturday at midnight. A group of gang-bangers pulled up in a car next to him and yelled very hurtful things. His mania was such that he had no fear for his safety, but instead thought, “This will make a great story!” One of the men got out of the car and started pushing him around, but an elderly woman ran out of a nearby house and yelled, “You get on home and leave that boy alone! He’s obviously not right in the head!”

She drove Donovan back to his car, driving so slow pedestrians walked past them on the sidewalks. Oblivious to the cars honking their horns behind her, she gave him a lecture he thought would never end. When they finally arrived at his Ford Aspire, she handed him a Bible and said, “You need a whole lot of Jesus, son.”

The old lady’s lecture was the worst ordeal he had ever endured, much worse than being beaten and robbed would have been, so he figured he was off to a great start on his quest to collect bad experiences.

As he lay in bed that night, it dawned on him that he was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to make bad things happen to him, he would do bad things himself! Be pro-active! His father always said he lacked initiative and was hiding in writing as a way to avoid taking real chances in life. This would show him once and for all!

The next morning, he bought a pellet gun at Big 5 and a pair of nylon stockings at 7/11, drove to his local credit union, pulled the stocking over his head, took out the gun, walked in and yelled, “This is a stick up!”

None of the customers paid much attention because his voice lacked the requisite amount of bass to properly scare anyone. To make matters worse, one of the tellers recognized his voice because he chose to rob a bank he’d had an account at for several years.
“Cedric, what are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s not me,” he said. “Uh, I mean, who’s Cedric?”
“I know your voice, Cedric Weatherwax,” she replied.

Cedric made a run for it but was tackled by an elderly security guard who had been awakened by the conversation. However, due to his advanced age, he began to clutch his chest. He had a heart attack and was dead in under a minute.

The trial was only a formality. Due to a recent rash of bank robberies, and because he had induced the guard’s death, the judge made an example of him. He received the maximum sentence of thirty years for robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

During his first year in prison, he was subjected to every atrocity imaginable, but his mania to amass colorful experiences to someday write about still overrode even his own retched misery. Finally, he was experiencing something extreme and dramatic, fodder for great literature.

To pass the time one day, he sat talking to his cellmate, a psychotic, sexually ambiguous brute nicknamed Animal.
“I’m here voluntarily, I’ll have you know,” Donovan said. “All this stuff that’s happening to me, including what you did to me last night, is going to be in a book someday. Remember my name because I’m going to be famous.”
“Cedric Weatherwax?” Animal replied.
“No! Donovan Stone, man!”
Animal laughed and said, “Don’t you know federal law prohibits you from profiting from your crime or anything that happens to you in here? You’ll never get that book through the bars!”

After a few months of severe depression, Donovan signed up to read a poem at the prison talent show. Surely, he thought, this menagerie of nincompoops would be impressed with his talent. He walked to the stage, cleared his throat, and said,

“Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow but nowers.”

The prisoners laughed and laughed, and Donovan stormed back to his cell.

Integrity or Despair?

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Everyone is a teacher. I met one today. He was reading a Louis L’amour novel called The Strong Shall Live, sitting on a city bench in the outdoor seating area of Porto’s, my favorite bakery in Burbank, California. He appeared to be over eighty years old and wore a neatly-pressed suit and dress shoes despite the warm July weather. Because of his age, I imagined him to be a throwback to a time when men dressed well when they planned to be among others.

I had seen him reading in that spot before but never spoke to him. Today I decided to change that. I asked him how the book was. He smiled and said, “Excellent! I’ve read it a few times but it never gets old.” He said he has plenty of time to read now that he’s retired but likes to be around people. “Some men don’t like to drink alone,” he said with a smile. “I don’t like to read alone.”

I asked him what he did when he was younger. He replied, “What didn’t I do would be a shorter answer, or maybe what I wish I would have done.”

That seemed like a more interesting question anyway so I asked, “Okay, what do you wish you would have done?”

He said, “I always wanted to be a screenwriter. I even wrote a movie, but I never had the guts to share it with anyone.”

I told him that was a shame and suggested that he dust it off and share it now. He said, “Ah, no. I’m afraid the subject matter is as dated as I am. Nobody would be interested.”

I told him I happened to be a writer, offered to take a look at it, and suggested that maybe it was providence that brought us together, but he refused to share his screenplay. “To be honest,” he said, “I don’t even know where I put it.”

My fellow writers will understand how sad that made me feel. At the bottom of some box lay 120 pages he poured his heart and soul into at one time, yet never shared with anyone. He just held the dice, he never threw them. All the work for nothing.

An old line came to mind – “Much talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.” One could say the joy and reward was in the writing, but what is writing without an audience? Without new eyes? Third-party perspective?

He went on to say that he had done some stunt riding for westerns back in the 40’s and 50’s when he was very young. He had learned to ride growing up in Texas so it was easy work for him. He dreamt of being an actor but – and this is the part that really made me sad – he said, “I was never successful at that because I was a combination of shy and ignorant. I wasn’t assertive enough, and even if I had been, I was stupid.”

I felt he was being unfairly hard on himself and tried to make him feel better. I said, “Everybody is shy and uneducated to some degree when they’re young. There’s a reason people say ‘youth is wasted on the young.'” But he kept insisting that he was incurably stupid as a young man, and blamed that for his never being the screenwriter or actor he wanted to be. I tried again to comfort him by saying those businesses are hard for even the most assertive and educated. He conceded that was true.

It’s difficult to see anyone of an advanced age kicking themselves around. They’re the embodiment of what psychologist Erik Erickson described as the final stage of life – “integrity versus despair” – people either feel they’ve accomplished something with their lives or they’ve wasted it, that they were good or bad, wise or foolish. Grumpy old people are usually in despair. Nice, kind, friendly old people feel integrity – satisfaction with a life well-lived. I wondered if my new friend even saw the irony of telling me he never tried hard enough while reading a book called The Strong Shall Live.

This man puzzled me because he was very kind to me but not kind at all to himself. I suppose that’s true of most of us. Most of us occasionally say or think things about ourselves that we would never say about someone else. We really are our own worst enemy. As Mark Twain wrote, “I never met a man who gave me as much trouble as I have.”

So what lessons did this teacher teach me? I’ve been both shy and ignorant. Fortunately, it was many years ago when I was very young. But I’ve worked hard to educate myself in my chosen field, and I’m actually a bit of an extrovert now, so I’ve turned that around, thank God. It seems, therefore, that the only way to prevent that kind of despair in old age is to DO THE WORK, and what the work consists of is a uniquely individual thing. It can only be determined by us individually, privately. What is it that stands between you and your dream right now? How are you going to dissolve it, destroy it, get it out of the way?

Part of the work for me was writing my way out of my shyness, doubt, sadness, regret, guilt or any other emotion I didn’t want. These exercises often took the form of poems – big ideas in little packages. Powerful ideas change people, not lectures. What Joseph Campbell called “ouches and aah’s” – trials and revelations.

One of these poems was the one below about the bullies that hide in the heart. As much as I liked the man I met today, I don’t want to become him. I don’t want to read novels about courage under fire but have none myself. I don’t want to reach old age and wish I would have tried harder. I will not “tip-toe through life to arrive at death comfortably.” No. Lack of effort is failure by default. And the less we try to become who we are supposed to be, the less comfortable old age becomes. 

There’s No Way Around But Through

When I was thirteen years old or so,
walking through the hallway to class,
the school bully stood in front of me
And absolutely refused to let me pass.

I moved to the left, and then to the right.
He just laughed and moved that way, too.
It was that moment when it dawned on me –
There was no way around but through.

So I kicked the bully right where it hurts.
He let out a yell and I watched him fall.
After that, he gave me plenty of room
When he saw me coming down the hall.

I really should try to remember his name,
Maybe send a flowery thank you card.
Without the lesson he taught that day,
My life might have been very hard.

You see, a bully doesn’t have to be human.
It’s what keeps you and your dream apart.
So much talent is forever lost to the world
Because of the bullies that hide in the heart.

So whatever it is that stands in your way
And keeps you from living a life that’s true,
Remember the lesson I learned from the bully.
My friend, there’s no way around but through.

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Memories of John Denver

My parents moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old so I spent a lot of time alone. I remember sitting in my room in a house on a hill in Sun Valley, California, listening to music with headphones on, finding comfort and even guidance in some lyrics, but only annoyance and more confusion in other music of the time. (The 1970’s) One can only deduce that much of it was written under the influence of psychotropic, hallucinogenic substances. To a kid or anyone else struggling to figure out the world and people, clear guidance is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, songs that became popular and were played over and over again were not clear at all. Here are a few examples.

1.
In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they
STAND THERE!
(Roundabout by Yes. Not helpful.)

2.
Mars ain’t the kind of place
to raise your kids.
In fact, it’s cold as hell
and there’s no one there to raise them
if you did.
(Rocket Man by Elton John. Again, not helpful.)

3.
Some people call me Maurice ’cause I speak of the pompitous of love.

(The Joker by The Steve Miller Band. I really like this song but what the heck is going on with this lyric? I heard Steve even made up the word “pompitous” just to confuse people even more. File under Not Helpful.)

4.
“I am”… I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair

(I am, I Said by Neil Diamond, apparently tiring of his rich and famous singer life and attempting to tap into Rene Descartes’ territory.)

5.
Muskrat Suzie, Muskrat Sam
Do the jitterbug at a Muskrat Land
And they shimmy, Sam is so skinny

(Muskrat Love by Captain and Tennille. Originally recorded by America. I remember liking this song’s soft, gentle, soothing quality but I didn’t know what a muskrat was, and just having the word “rat” in its name made the song hard to like because one of them that got stuck in our garage took a chunk out of the front wheel of my beloved Big Wheel, either because it was starving or dulling its front teeth, which I hear will grow and grow forever (kind of like human fingernails) and cause the rat to starve to death because it can’t shut its mouth. Yet another reason to not like rats, muskrats, or any other kind of rat. Or songs about rat love.)

6.
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again

(MacArthur Park by Donna Summer. Even as a kid, I knew a weird metaphor when I heard one.)

7.
A Horse With No Name by America – the entire song, but here are the more confusing lyrics of the entire nightmarish bunch.

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

And yet a hit song played repeatedly forever and ever.

8.
‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there
Seasons crying no despair
Alligator lizards in the air, in the air

(Ventura Highway – America. I like this song melodically, too, but again, these lyrics only added to the already immense confusion of my youth.)

One singer more than any other rescued me. His name was John Denver.

GHits_1

He was the best-selling singer of the 1970’s. In other words, what Elvis was to the 50’s and The Beatles were to the 60’s, John was to the 70’s.  He was so popular then and even today because he was able to write easy-to-understand but deeply emotional lyrics.

I had a speech teacher in college who said if I had a choice between a simple word and an obscure one, I should choose the simple one because, though the obscure one might impress a few people, it would cause many others to lose track of what I was saying, and if the audience didn’t understand, it was my fault, not theirs.

My brother went to the dark side, listening to not only confusing lyrics but deeply toxic ones by death metal groups. I warned him that music is like a chant – it gets into our psyches more deeply than anything else because we listen to it hundreds, even thousands of times, and melodies (using the term loosely) and rhyming verse are easy for the human mind to remember. We can be purified or polluted by music. As with everything in life, it is always our choice whether we see the bars of our prison or the stars beyond them.

John helped audiences put their own difficult feelings into words, not confuse them even more. That’s what great writers, poets and singers should do. For example, after all the lyrics above, isn’t this refreshing?

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely.
Sunshine almost always makes me high.
(Sunshine)

I am the eagle. I live in high country
in rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky.
I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers
but time is still turning, they soon will be dry.
And all those who see me, and all who believe in me
share in the freedom I feel when I fly.
(The Eagle and The Hawk)

Well, I got me a fine wife, I got my old fiddle.
When the sun’s coming’ up, I got cakes on the griddle.
Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle.
(Thank God I’m a Country Boy.)

Almost heaven, West Virginia.
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees.
Younger than the mountains, blowin’ like the breeze.
Country roads, take me home
to the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain momma,
take me home, country roads.”
(Take Me Home, Country Roads)

You fill up my senses
like a night in a forest,
like the mountains in springtime,
like a walk in the rain,
like a storm in the desert,
like a sleepy blue ocean,
you fill up my senses,
come fill me again.
(Annie’s Song)

I learned how to write from John Denver, how to love and respect nature, and how to live a good and decent life. He helped me climb out of one of the loneliest times in my life and invited me to explore the fields, forests, rivers and mountains of Colorado with him that he loved so much. The best artists can do that. They take you along. They transport you out of the world you’re in and show you how great life can be if you never knew, or remind you if you’ve forgotten. That’s the kind of artist I want to be. 

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Get John’s music here – https://www.amazon.com/John-Denver/e/B000AR80Z0/mrw02-20

Chicken Soup for the Soul Podcast – How to Get a Literary Agent and Get Published.

Click the link below to hear Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Amy Newmark’s podcast called:

THOUGHTFUL THURSDAY: The Quest for an Agent – How Two Writers Found Theirs and Got Published