Like many people on quarantine I think about how I’m not getting to work. My job is a storyteller.
Upon reflection, it’s a poor career choice. Storytellers were probably one of the first professions. Everyone enjoyed traveling minstrels who could make you laugh, cry, be scared or pluck any other emotional string of your heart. They put their hats on the ground, and you dropped in any coin you wished.
We haven’t had a pay raise in five thousand years.
I’m seventy-two, so I’m too old to change jobs. Besides I was really incompetent at everything else I tried. And I have to admit I think I’ve gotten better at storytelling. On what criteria I based that is unscientific at best.
Over the years I have been told I haven’t grown up yet. Another said they hadn’t seen anyone go from sixty to six in six seconds before. I’ve been cut off in mid-sentence by good church people because I used terrible words like Halloween or witch. Some people think it’s funny to interrupt to ask questions about a phrase I used which doesn’t really influence the story. Or a few like to blurt out the end of the story early to let everyone else know how smart they are to figure it out.
Then there are the people who sit there and smile. Some parents like to take pictures of their children smiling at my stories. One lady said she had just left her husband in the hospital and came to the event where I was performing because she had promised a friend she would attend. Then she heard my stories and they made her feel better. I’ve had parents tell me they’ve never had their children sit still that long before.
The truth is these stories jump into my head and they won’t leave unless I share them with someone. If I don’t tell them I think I get emotionally constipated (Can I say that? I already did so it doesn’t matter.)
I’ve seen a lot of entertainers on television in the last few years who claim in interviews that they are storytellers, whether they be actors, musicians, film editors, directors, whatever. I don’t know if I like them claiming my profession. Why can’t they just be happy with all the fame and fortune?
That reminds me. Do you know the difference between a storyteller and a politician? A politician makes a lot more money. Besides when I tell a bad story people can just walk away, buy some kettle corn and forget the whole unfortunate incident. When a politician tells a bad story it becomes law and everyone is stuck with it for years.
Genuine storytellers know they won’t change the world. They won’t make it a better place, but they won’t make it a worse one either. I do know many people who are high-minded crusaders who want to make the planet a better place. I admire their courage, determination and tenacity. More power to them.
But I must settle for what I do. For a brief moment in time I can look into someone’s eyes, smile, tell a little story that doesn’t mean anything in particular and help make the cares of the world go away.
I’m so old I don’t know what streaming is. And I don’t want to know what streaming is.
When I was young, it was a bad thing to be red. We called it “The Red Scare”. Red meant you were communist, and nobody wanted to be called a commie. I’m so out of it now that I don’t know if there are any true blue red countries left in the world.
Oh yes. The United States of America. According to the new labeling system, red represents Republicans. Since Republicans hold the White House, Senate and many state houses, that makes the United States red. I suppose Democrats are blue because they’re sad they lost all those elections. Okay, after making my brain understand the complexities of the shifting colors of politics, I have to go to bed and sleep nine to ten hours.
It’s now mid-afternoon of the next day and I think I feel well enough to delve back into the things I don’t understand because I’m so old.
Before I could write, newspapers used the word “hack” in stories about people who cut apart their relatives. The word “whack” was also popular in those types of stories. You know, Lizzie Borden took an axe…”
When I was a teen-ager in the 1960s, my generation began to undermine the integrity of the English language by giving hack a new meaning—“unable to accomplish or tolerate.”
“I can’t hack that class in trigonometry.”
“I can’t hack another family reunion and all the old people saying I need a haircut.”
Everything was all right with the word hack until the last couple of years. I’ve been hearing on television about sharing new hacks on creating a quick and tasty meal for the family.
I first thought of the Lizzie Borden definition of hacks and nearly lost my lunch. I know we live in a dog eat dog world but this is ridiculous.
Then I consider the other meanings. If you are unable or bored with cooking dinner, just buy takeout and forget about it. The segment began and the word hack means suggestions to make something easy to do. Like Hints from Heloise. Hacks from Heloise. I still can’t the image of Lizzie Borden out of my head.
Come to think of it, I do need to hire a gardener to cut back some tree limbs. I can’t hack the hacks I heard on TV to hack my trees. I don’t own an axe anymore, just a hatchet. I think I got that right. Maybe I’m not as old as I think.
Oops, I forgot podcasts. I have no idea what a podcast is. A movie about alien pods that are going to control our thoughts or make us young again. I think I have to pay the cable company extra to find out for sure. And they’re not getting another penny out of me, those money grubbers.
Okay, it’s official. I’m old. Really old.
And it’s time for my nap.
Here’s a good idea for a New Year’s resolution.
Don’t argue with people who don’t listen.
Not no way. Not no how.
Let me tell you how I came upon this bit of wisdom. Mind you, I haven’t learned it completely myself. From time to time I still find myself in a futile conversation with someone who will not hear what I have to say.
About 25 years ago, far away in a beautiful little city called Temple, Texas, I decided I wanted to participate in community theater. The trouble was, in a town with the largest hospital in Central Texas, all the best roles always went to the doctors and the lawyers who donated the most money to keep the theater doors open. So a group of earnest though poor folks including me started our own little theater and put on plays at the local Ramada Inn. With limited expenses, a play that drew 45 to 50 people a performance was considered a success.
All went well until one spring when we needed someone to volunteer to direct the next production. The local high school drama teacher said she would do it—even though she was directing the students in Hello Dolly! at the same time—if she could have the lead in the next play 6 Rms Rv Vu. It fell to me to find a director for that show. I could not find anyone except the junior college drama instructor who was interested only if rehearsals began after June first when his semester ended. That seemed reasonable until the high school teacher announced the rehearsals had to begin the middle of May because of her summer schedule.
So there I was in a pickle. If I pleased the high school teacher there was no director. And, I felt, I would look foolish to the junior college instructor. If I accommodated the junior college guy I’d break the original deal and make the high school teacher mad.
Now, I know all this sounds petty and boring but I’m getting to the meat of the matter right now. The high school drama teacher was married to this building contractor who looked like the Norse god Thor, only stronger. This guy could lift two 8×4 ¾-inch plywood boards over his head and not even breathe hard. When his wife got mad, he got mad.
“How dare you treat Hortense (not her real name, but you could guess that) like that? After all she’s done for this group? And you were over at our house and didn’t even tell us!”
That’s true. I didn’t tell them when I had a chance because I was scared to death of their reaction. I had her best friend tell her. She didn’t speak to her friend for at least a year.
“There you sat in my house and drank all my wine!”
Yes, I did. He offered it and I drank it. What a baseborn ingrate I was.
“We’ve got to learn to work together in this group! How dare you treat Hortense like this! You should have seen the tears going down her cheeks!”
No matter how hard I tried to explain the situation to him I failed. He was too busy shouting at me to take time to listen to my explanation, no matter how wimpy it sounded.
Every time he saw me after that for the next six months or so he would lecture me on the importance of teamwork and cooperation. By that time I had learned to smile and nod. I got very good at smiling and nodding. But the damage was done. Half of the theater group thought I was terrible for double crossing Hortense. The other half thought Hortense and her husband were jerks. So we disbanded. Thankfully, the high school teacher shortly thereafter took a job at a junior college across the state and in a few years my family and I moved to Florida.
The point of this is that sometimes there are two groups of people, those who have to make hard decisions that they know will please no one and those who get mad. They are too busy exploding to be confused with the facts. It doesn’t have to be a community theater. It can be a church. It can be a business. It can be government, at all levels.
It always happens and will continue to happen. Most people who have actual problems with their ears get a hearing aid. The socially deaf don’t think they do anything wrong. The rest of us just have to accept this fact of life and practice our smiling and nodding.
One last thing, if you don’t like this commentary, or for that matter, anything else I’ve written, keep it to yourself. I’m getting a little hard of hearing myself.
Children see and feel more than we realize. Sometimes they say things that are so fantastic we decide they have to be lying. They only lie out of fear, the most threatening feeling of all. It takes years for a human being to lie for profit and self-aggrandizement. So when children make statements that appear to be lies, they are actually trying to express complex situations.
For example, when children complain their stomachs hurt, they’re trying to say they are scared, anxious, upset because someone has hurt their feelings. Even the idea that they didn’t want a parent to tell them to stop acting like a baby would be enough to bring on a nasty bellyache.
I know because I remember going through a similar experience, except I didn’t have a stomach ache.
I saw angels floating down from heaven.
I wasn’t hesitant to grab any adult available and point to the sky.
“Don’t you see them? Angels are coming down from heaven.”
Most neighbors were nice and merely said, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t see anything.”
I was not so lucky with my own family. My father scared the hell out of me. Remember I couldn’t have been more than four or five when I saw the angels, so I was very short. My father was six-foot two, two hundred fifty pounds and always looked like he was about to explode into a spate of dirty words—which he often did. I don’t think I said hello to him I was eight and then I only whispered it so he didn’t hear me.
When I told my mother, she demanded I should get those foolish ideas out of my head right now. I was taking up valuable time of people who had really important things to do.
My brother, who would eventually become an alcoholic, warned me never to say that to anyone else ever again. “People will think you’re crazy, and they’ll lock you up in the state mental hospital and keep you there until you die. I didn’t completely understand what all that meant but it sounded awful.
My older brother, who would spend much of his adult life in the aforementioned state mental hospital, pooh-poohed my observation. “Oh, you just want attention.” I didn’t think there was anything wrong with wanting attention. Everyone wanted attention at one time or another, but I decided not to continue the discussion because I didn’t want to be accused of wanting attention again.
Eventually I forgot that I could see angels floating in the sky. Surviving childhood took up all my time. I think it was after I was married and had children I discovered something quite enlightening. Humans have secretions to keep the eyeballs moist. Dry eyes are not comfortable. That’s why we have to put drops in our eyes sometimes.
When putting drops in my eyes once, I noticed rivulets going down my eyeballs. They looked just the angels coming down from heaven.
So it wasn’t foolishness, it wasn’t insanity and it was a cry for attention. I really saw something and only described it the best way I knew how as a small child.
They weren’t angels in the sky. They were angels in my eyes. I think it’s better that way.
I recently ran into a friend I had not seen in a year or so. This person is very kind and supportive, so I assumed this question was asked without malice:
“Are you still writing?”
I smiled and said yes. I write and post stories on my blog three times a week.
To be quite honest, I don’t receive this question kindly every time it has been asked, and it has been asked more often than I like. I don’t reply in a snippy way. I usually plaster on a smile and say as cheerfully as possible, “Oh, yes.”
The tone of this question implies, “You mean you haven’t accepted the fact that you’re a failure and will never be a professional writer?”
Of course, this is a battle I have fought within myself for years. I’ve had more rejection slips than I can count. Once I submitted the first three chapters of one novel to a top publisher and received word from one of its editors he wanted to see the rest of it. By the time I got it to him he had retired and the person who took his place didn’t like it.
I’ve had other close-but-no-prize experiences on other projects. My wife assured me not to worry until I turned fifty years old. Well, fifty years came and went and I still was not a full-fledged professional creative writer. I’m older than Johnny Cash was when he died, and he wrote hit songs right to the end. I’ve considered quitting but I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my time.
I decided to try self-publishing a novel about Abraham Lincoln being stuck in the White House basement and lost money on it. When I sold my book at street fairs, Civil War re-enactments and book festivals, people told me if the book was as half as good as I made it sound they’d buy it.
So I concentrated on storytelling. I enjoyed writing stories that could be told in five-to-six minutes. Just me talking to three or four people at a time. Hopefully one of them would throw a dollar or two into my tip basket. I wasn’t going to get rich, but I liked doing it anyway.
Then I discovered the internet. For a nominal monthly fee I could blog everything I’ve ever written. I don’t make any money but I get nice comments from time to time so it seemed worth it to me. And I still write original stories and novels, which I serialize one chapter a week. It’s come to me if I quit writing I would die.
So to the people who ask, “Are you STILL writing?” I reply:
“Am I above dirt? Then, yes, I’m still writing.”
In the last couple of weeks a very dear friend died. She was ninety years old, so she had a long life enriched by love, art, friends and contribution to the community. No one can grieve a life well lived.
What does make me sad is what I was unable to do for her.
Her husband, who had died three years ago, had a rich life of design in theater, costumes, dresses, cuisine and home decoration. Over the years he wrote a historical romance novel about an eighteenth century Irish actress. Many times he tried to sell it to traditional publishing houses, but at the end his manuscript was stuck in a drawer.
His wife could not stand the idea of all that work going uncelebrated. I decided to help out because I had experience in formatting manuscripts for e-publishing and in preparing paperback copies for a regional print company.
I offered to do this work for her because I read her husband’s book and fell in love with it. He used all of his knowledge to create the world of theater in Dublin and London in a time of doublets and powdered wigs.
The actress, Peg Woffington, left home as a child to join the circus. When she was a teen-ager her contract was sold to a Dublin theater where she learned quickly to shine on stage. She became a star as she moved to larger theaters until she was the talk of London. Peg shocked people by turning to her fellow actors instead of addressing the audience. She regularly played the male lead. Her love life was the scandal of the British Isles. She was not called Peg. She was “The Woffington”, with the emphasis on wolf.
The paperback copies sold quickly. Friends assured her they were buying the e-books on line. My friends bought it on line and told me how much they loved it.
The problem was my friend never received payment from the e-publisher. She had modest goals. She figured she had $200 in royalties coming to her. She kept telling me she needed that $200. She talked to company representatives. I talked to company representatives. Still no $200. At one point I offered to advance her the money, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
I knew how she felt. I self-published several books and am still in the hole. That’s why I put my stories now on my blog and let people read them for free. If I get a “thumbs up” along the way, that’s good enough.
But it wasn’t enough for my friend. We were still figuring out what to do when I saw her obituary in the newspaper.
I don’t know what else I could have done to help her. I did the best I could, but my best wasn’t good enough.
July Fourth brings back a time I worked for the Dallas Morning News on its editing desk. After five p.m., calls to the information center downstairs were rerouted to the editing desk. Why, I don’t know. We didn’t have the authority to reply to requests. We were on an assembly line of correcting typos and writing headlines fast so our readers would have their newspapers to skim as they ate breakfast.
One July Fourth night I got stuck with a call from a woman in tears.
“Why don’t children respect holidays anymore?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.” I kept reading for mistakes in an Associated Press story from Indonesia or some such distant location which had undergone a catastrophe.
“We always tried to make holidays special for them, but they didn’t appreciate it.”
“Nothing means anything to them anymore, except their silly fishing boats and always drinking that beer.”
My mind went back to a July Fourth long ago when I asked my mother if we could do something special for the holiday. My father was a Royal Crown Cola salesman and those grocery stores needed fresh supplies of soda pop whether it was a holiday or not. That meant the rest of us just sat home and ate hot dogs and watermelon. For entertainment my brothers lit firecrackers and threw them at me. I was only seven or eight so I screamed and ran. That’s why I was hoping this July Fourth we could do something different. If dad could take off a little early maybe we could go out to the local lake for a picnic and splashing in the water.
“We’ll have to ask your father,” she said.
“Yeah, sure, if I get done,” he said.
On July Fourth morning I was up early. I knew we couldn’t leave until dad came home, but I wanted to be ready when he did roll his truck in the yard and load us into the car for the lake. But he didn’t show up. Mom fixed the hot dogs for lunch, and we ate watermelon. In the afternoon, my brothers threw firecrackers at me and laughed when I screamed and ran.
Not only did dad not take off early, he worked extra late so he even missed supper. I didn’t say anything to mom because I didn’t want another lecture about how selfish a little boy I was for expecting dad to do anything except work hard. Here he slaved away to pay the bills and buy groceries and all I could think of was having fun.
“The children never show up for holidays,” the woman on the phone said through her tears.
“I wish I could do something to make you feel better.” I was only in my twenties. I didn’t know the right thing to say.
She sniffed. “Oh, that’s all right. Thank you for listening.”
After she hung up, I realized I was working on July Fourth, and my wife and baby boy were home alone. Some things never changed. No, I told myself. The difference was I wanted to be at home with them, and I promised myself to be there with them every holiday I could.
Then it was time to write another headline. After all, the newspaper had to come out on time.
So, how did you celebrate Juneteenth today? Neither did I, and that’s the problem.
To refresh your memory, June 19, 1865, was the day the Union military announced the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, a really long time after President Abraham Lincoln issued it. One reason put forth for the delay was that the plantation owners wanted to get one more cotton picking season out of the slaves before they set them free. For the first few years, Juneteenth was only celebrated by freed slaves in Texas. Eventually black communities throughout the south observed the date.
I’ve participated in two Juneteenth celebrations since I’ve lived in Florida. When I was a child in Texas I only knew the date as a day my father, who drove a soft drink truck, sold a lot of Royal Crown Cola and Nehi fruit sodas. It was his biggest sales day, second only to the county fair.
A large black man organized both Florida events and asked me to help with the publicity. I wrote letters to business and community leaders asking them to sponsor the event for anything from $50 to $1,000. No takers, but my new friend was impressed by the effort I put into it. One problem we had was that he was dead set on having a four-day event with everything from carnival rides for the children to a living history freedom trail featuring historic artifacts from the slave period. When he was told that area carnival ride companies were all going out of town that week, he refused to take the rides off the program.
“If I have to, I’ll give them all piggy back rides around the park,” he said, refusing to change his plans.
Actually the opening program went very well. City and community officials showed up and made speeches. There was the horse cavalry group, based on the historical black cavalry unit during the Spanish-American war. Local churches sold barbecue, children sang and danced and a good time was had by all. By the last day, however, only a handful showed up to hear a very long presentation on the history of slavery in America.
A couple of years later my friend tried it again, but instead of a city park he had to hold it in the parking lot of a fraternal lodge. Many black residents who participated the first time did not want to bring their children to a place where beer was sold. I think there were more people on the stage than sitting in the chairs. June in Florida is very hot. The highlight of the day was a group of rappers from Orlando who were there to get exposure for their act.
A lot of the problems arose from my friend. He was bull-headed, and his social skills declined from there. It’s sad to want to lead the parade only to have everyone behind you go home early. But he was relentless in keeping the entire community aware of racial injustices in the town’s past, which is tough going when you’re talking to the descendants of the men who owned the slaves.
He was a little sloppy with details too. He tried to run for city council and had to provide a statement from his daughter that he lived in the city limits with her. He had her sign the document and took it to a friend who was a notary public. The man notarized the document even though he did not actually see the daughter sign it. The local authorities were ready to throw him in jail for it when he died of a heart attack. The last time I saw him I gave him copies of stories about the case from a bi-weekly newspaper I wrote for. My friend looked terrible but still determined to fight for his rights.
Now when Juneteenth rolled around I thought of the man who was not socially equipped to fight for the rights of black citizens, but he didn’t let that stop him. Maybe what we need next Juneteenth is a memorial for all who have died to create a society where everyone knows indeed they are equal. And white residents need to acknowledge that the struggle continues, and no one is truly free as long as just one black person marches in a civil rights parade.
I have a lot of dreams.
This is mostly because I have Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep disorder. Put simply, I stay in the dream stage and never go into the deepest level of recuperative sleep. Sorry to bore you with my medical history, but it’s plot exposition, and I thought it best to get it out of the way up front.
One recent night I had this vision of a young boy in a tee shirt and blue jeans. He had a long angular face—soulful, sad. He seemed to be sitting on an L-shaped shadow. Then he spoke.
“Mom is worried about you.”
The pronouncement was so shocking I bolted awake and immediately tried to figure it out. My first thought was it was my interpretation of my son’s concern for my health. Before he leaves for work he reminds me where his work number is written down and tells me to be sure to call if I start to feel ill.
But how would he know if his mom was worried about me too? She died three years ago. And why would I see him as a child in my dream? He’s 45 years old. And he didn’t look anything like the dream boy when he was that age.
Then I remembered the framed photographs hanging in my childhood home. My picture was there, as well as my two brothers. The fourth photo was of the oldest brother who died six years before I was born. He was about seven years old. He wore a white shirt and bib overalls. As I thought more about it, his long face in the photograph did look very forlorn.
That meant when he said, “Mom is worried about you,” he was talking about our mother who died when I was fourteen years old.
The pieces were coming together for me. For traditional dream interpretation I am the one who is worried about myself, and I chose family members who had already passed to express my subconscious concerns.
For one who has an active imagination, however, I wonder if it weren’t a dream at all. Maybe it was an actual message from the other side saying I’ve got dead folks who are worried about me. It’s nice to know somebody up there cares.
There was no sex education in Texas schools in the 1950s, but we didn’t need it. We had animals, and we had eyes.
People didn’t neuter dogs and cats. And you know dogs have no shame. When they get in the mood they don’t care if it’s high noon in the front yard. They go ahead and do it. And they don’t care who’s looking. Can you imagine what parents back in the good old days were forced to come up with some sort of explanation when the kids asked, “Mommy, Daddy! What are the dogs doing?”
Cats, on the other hand, are more civilized when it comes to such matters of the feline heart. They have the good manners to go somewhere private. Now when it comes to the actual blessed event when the kittens tumble out into the world, the mother cat does it in the kitchen, under the porch, in front of God and country. After seeing kittens born a few times I was glad humans had the decency to go to hospitals.
By the time the freewheeling 1960s rolled around the schools felt obliged to have some sort of sex education presented in the Phys. Ed. classes, which were segregated by sexes. I remember the year we were marched into the school auditorium where the coach turned the presentation over to the school nurse, a gaunt old woman who you thought would not have any practical knowledge on the subject. She was able to turn something very fascinating into something as boring as dishwater.
Even the class smart aleck wasn’t able to faze her.
“What would happen if a dog and a cat did it?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied with a straight face. “Wrong genetics. Any other questions?”
Most people get upset about sex education in school because they’re afraid the teachers are going to talk about technique. Wouldn’t that be the most embarrassing six weeks ever in Phys. Ed.? And you know they’d have it in Phys. Ed. Biology class makes too much sense.
It makes me shudder to imagine a coach standing over us screaming, “No! No! Raise your elbow!”
And think of the other students standing around and watching. I got laughed at enough when I struck out in baseball.
My wife and I thought we’d come up with a good solution to sex education for our kids when we stumbled across this little book in a Barnes & Noble one time. It was written on a second or third grade level with simple illustrations. It started with chickens and ended with humans. When we gave it to our son he seemed to catch on pretty fast. Of course, he was 35 years old when we gave it to him. Not really. He was 25. No, honest, I think he was seven or eight.
Now our daughter definitely was more precocious. She took it to school the next day for show and tell. We had to transfer her to a private school and instructed her to leave her book at home. This created a new problem at the private church school because the students were even more naïve than the ones in public school. At recess the other little girls would tell our daughter that their parents ordered them out of the Sears catalog. With a straight face our child replied, “My parents had sex.”
So when it comes down to sex education I’ve decided it’s much better to have our children learn about the birds and bees from the gaunt old-maid school nurse than from other more worldly children—like my daughter. After all, better to have them think sex is not something exciting and forbidden but rather think it’s just another dry, boring subject taught at school.