Old Man, Look at My Life*

Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood

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My father and his “Mama” on the family farm, early 1940s.

Insecurity and salvation.

These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?

A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.

The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.

My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.

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My father, age 18, holding me, mid-1956.

In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.

Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.

During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.

Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.

My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.

Phillips
The Phillips 66 station where I worked summers, afternoons, and Saturdays when I was age 9 to 12.

“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”

Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.

Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.

Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.

On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.

“Dad?”

He slowly turned his gaze.

“You know me?”

dadcigarette
My father in his prime.

After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Who am I?”

He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.

“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”

Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”

Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.

I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.

He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”

Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.

“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”

“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”

A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”

“I’m sure they do.”

He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”

My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.

“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”

I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”

He sat back.

An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.

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My father (right) discussing one of his used cars with a potential customer.

“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”

The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.

“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”

He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.

“I love you,” he whispered.

She hugged him.

He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.

“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.

“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”

His eyes glazed.

I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.

The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”

We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.

Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.

I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.

That’s fine.

Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.

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My father six days before his death. (May 11, 1938 – August 16, 2016)

What does it hurt?

Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.

At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.

Perhaps I’ll thank him.

Perhaps not.

 

* from Neil Young’s “Old Man”

 

Moral, Moral, Lesson Be

This essay was written originally for PoetryRepairs.com and entitled “The Moral of It All.”

In a review of my short story collection Rise Up, a critic wrote that “…many of these tales [are] meant to leave the writer with a moral lesson, or at least comment on morality in the modern age.” Although it was expressed as criticism, I took the comment as compliment because I believe a piece should imply more than the description on the page and impart some kind of moral or position. When my work achieves that, I feel lucky.

I’ve published short and book-length material, nonfiction and fiction, poetry and prose. By far, my short work, especially poetry, is the most satisfying to produce. Everything is story, and the most challenging form of story is the poem—the shorter, the better. What’s more, if the narrative on the page implies an extensive story beyond the words, then, in my opinion, it has succeeded on a greater level. And if it imparts a moral? Pure gravy.

The poet whose work I admire most was a master at achieving story and moral beyond the printed page. Raymond Carver is celebrated most for his short stories, but he was a master poet as well. Take “The Net” as example. The narrator describes passing a one-armed fisherman who’s wrestling with a fishing net. The narrator assumes the fisherman is simply doing his job. But when the narrator looks back from a greater distance, he sees the fisherman is caught in the net, struggling to free himself. In its simplest interpretation, the poem’s net is a metaphor for life or circumstances. The distancing of the narrator from the fisherman is a metaphor for achieving objectivity by seeing the “big picture.” Of course, much more is going on in this poem, but even its most simplistic story and moral demonstrate the power and depth of short, concise, precise writing, of creating an expansive story within the confines of a poem.

My poem “Studebaker” accomplishes what I try but regularly fail to accomplish in each poem I write. “Studebaker” has appeared in several journals and is included in my first collection of poems, White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

Studebaker

There, next to the polished Mercedes,
the yellow Studebaker,
rust holes in the fender walls,
paint-chipped hood,
worn seats—nothing like
the old man’s.
He kept his sparkling, let me tell you,
just like the Model T before,
and the Thunderbird, the ’56 Chevy,
and the entire freeway of cars
that sped through my youth,
but none was so striking
as that hand-buffed Studebaker
with its whitewalls,
its custom steering wheel,
its immaculate seats,and that night,
coming back from Andalusia
when they thought I was asleep
in the back,
and he reached over,
grabbed her hair,
jerked her hard enough
to spin her head to the side.
I found two spots of dried blood
the following day,
and I remembered how the moon
had hung in the rear window
just below a cluster of stars
as he muttered, Christ,
why’d you make me do that?
And she had rested her head
back against that perfect seat
as the hum of new tires on asphalt
rose through the floorboard.

The story beyond the words involves a family plagued by domestic violence—a father/husband who prizes flashy cars over his relationship with his wife, who rules with anger and violence, whose behavior taints the very things that should be cause for celebration and enjoyment, a man who blames others for his own failures as a human being. Further, the poem’s second half implies that life itself is a cynical journey because everything that’s perfect in the poem—immaculate seats, custom steering wheel, whitewalls, new tires, moon, stars—is corrupted by the dark side of reality. As for lessons, draw your own conclusion, but, if I had to define a moral, it would be that people should value one another at least as much as they value their toys. Does the fact the poem communicates a moral make it less important, less enjoyable, less relevant?

As “Studebaker” suggests, I’m not a fan of poetry that relies on abstract, philosophical musing. I don’t condemn such writing. Certainly not. It’s just a matter of preference. I prefer to write and read poetry derived from and descriptive of everyday struggle, failure, success, and celebration, poetry that relates life through specific events and situations that may or may not be similar to the reader’s experiences. Through such work, we can relate to circumstances that might otherwise be foreign to us. We can sympathize and empathize closely with characters. And we can learn something new or validate something old, even if it’s the simple fact that not every reader enjoys work with a moral.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

***

I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.

The Willful Ignorance Factor: Denial in Fiction and Reality

He stands on the tracks.

“There is no train.”

The rails tremble.

“There is no train.”

The whistle blasts.

“There is no…”

Tick.

Characters in the fiction I write reflect qualities and values of people I’ve met along the way. One quality I find intriguing to explore is the ability to deny reality. Whether failing or frailty, we humans exhibit a propensity for choosing fancy over reason, the mystical over reality. That’s why I base so many of my stories in dark fantasy to explore real-world problems, views, and reactions, creating a speculative world that seems possible even though it isn’t. Through dark fantasy’s hocus-pocus, the negative quality of denial occasionally spawns positive results, and everyone lives happily ever after. But real life isn’t hocus-pocus.

As a species, we’ve advanced rapidly via science and are well on the way to verifying and observing the Higgs boson*, the so-called “God particle,” and yet many of us believe the Earth is no older than 6,000 years, that planetary alignment will initiate Armageddon, that God speaks directly to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Aunt Gerdie or Brother Jimbo because the great creator obviously supports our particular political and social agendas—whatever side we’re on; their god is always wrong—while shunning the rest of the world as it descends further into chaos, starvation, war, and environmental peril. Our television programming reflects our values in so-called “reality shows,” elevating the worst traits of our species into goals supposedly worth attaining. We’re a simple, narcissistic lot, and repeatedly we gleefully employ willful ignorance over rational thought and education. As long as we have our iPhones, a good connection, and Facebook, we’re content to exist in a virtual life and be led by liars who pander to our personal prejudices, even as we follow them off the cliff into the abyss.

Tick.

Time and again, like people you and I know, the characters in my stories deny the truth, even when it’s overwhelmingly indisputable, but how can a character deny facts? More important, how can we deny facts, especially when denial is against our best interests and will ultimately cause us pain and loss?

The U.S. in 2012 experienced its warmest spring on record. That’s a small fact in a sea of alarming scientific data. And yet many of us—perhaps a majority—are convinced that global warming is something one can choose to or not to believe. We can thank organizations like the conservative policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and fair-and-balanced news media for convincing so many of us that scientific theory—for example, gravity—is faith based rather than built upon empirical scientific data. While ALEC has convinced many state lawmakers to curtail air pollution rules and to teach climate change skepticism in schools, various news media highlight freak spring snowstorms as “evidence” that, if anything, Earth is cooling instead of warming, even though those freak storms are direct results of the very reality talking heads deny. Some states have even targeted renewable energy mandates for elimination, insisting on the continuation of wasteful, environmentally destructive policies that only exacerbate a rapidly growing quandary.

Do we really harbor a planetary death wish?

Tick.

Like those of fictional characters, our reactions to problems have severe consequences. The denial of global warming, for instance, has pushed the planet to a tipping point. Based on increasingly reliable data, 22 internationally known and respected scientists warn in a paper in the June 7 issue of Nature that climate change, coupled with explosive population growth and widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, is pushing Earth dangerously close to an irreversible change in the biosphere that will result in destructive consequences without adequate preparation and palliation. Even the recent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, funded in part by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, a source for backing conservative organizations and initiatives to dispute global warming science and fuel denial, confirmed to the Koch foundation’s chagrin that global warming is indeed a rapidly worsening situation, primarily the result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The project confirmed findings highlighted in previous accounts such as the 2007 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report compiled data from work by 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries, concluding humans have caused most of the current planetary warming, with industrialization, deforestation, and pollution the greatest human-made culprits in altering the planet’s natural cycles.

The past two decades have been the planet’s warmest in the last 400 years, with 11 of the past 12 years among the dozen warmest since 1850. The average global temperature since 1880 has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), primarily in recent decades, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The rise in the average Arctic temperature, however, is double the global average. And as Arctic temperatures rise, ice-melt increases, unlocking even more greenhouse gases now trapped in sea ice, permafrost, and undersea deposits. As a result of rising temperatures, glaciers and mountain snows are vanishing rapidly. Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, had 150 glaciers in 1910; now it has 27. Shorelines are retreating as waters rise. In one case soon to be followed by others, the populated island of Lohachara, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, has vanished under rising water levels caused by global warming. And each year, increasingly bizarre and extreme weather worldwide makes headlines, from major snowstorms to vast outbreaks of tornadoes, from extreme droughts to massive typhoons and flooding. More than a million species already face extinction from current climate change effects. And yet, our political leaders conduct us in a chorus of denial that anything is wrong as they delay or prohibit action to remedy the situation because it might adversely affect corporate profits.

In a dying world, when does survival outweigh the bottom line?

Tick.

Willful ignorance is a considerable impediment for fictional characters to overcome. A few of the characters in my stories prevail, but most accept the truth only after it’s too late. The problem is the decisions we make in real life are little better than those made by characters in fiction. To make better decisions, we’ll have to discard the arrogant belief that we own this planet when, in fact, it owns us and we are simply squatters in time.

Like characters rapidly approaching the climax of a story, we have a quickly vanishing window of opportunity to act. We’ve arrived at the moment we must decide whether this planet is worth saving, whether the generations that could follow deserve the same shot at existence that we’ve had.

Tick.

The rails shudder.

The whistle wails.

Tock.

Farewell to India: A Study of Character

india nose 1Two questions usually come up during presentations: Where do you get ideas? How do you create characters? For me, ideas come from daily experiences, sprinkled with a good helping of what if. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. My characters are usually vague reflections of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, although rarely based on a specific person, but rather a composite of three or four people. Some characters, however, aren’t based on people at all.

In 1997, we purchased an Australian shepherd named India who bonded with us quickly. To our then six-year-old daughter, she became a reliable, exuberant playmate and companion. To the adults, she became a helper, eager to accompany on any errand or perform whatever trick or task taught. To each of us, she provided comfort with unqualified affection. Although the breed had been developed strictly for herding, India found cats and kids unwilling participants, but she enjoyed the romping, scampering, and playing as fully and jubilantly as any child. When left behind, she’d lie with her head between her front paws, eyes on the door, waiting for our daughter to return and the fun to begin again.

We lived in the countryside at the time, where leash laws were considered an infringement upon an individual’s rights (go figure). The neighbor across the street owned a golden retriever with the IQ of a nail and fidelity of a politician. Time and again, the dog had tried to rush me from behind as I jogged on the street. But when faced, it always ran. One afternoon, I went into the front yard to hoe away some weeds near the street while India waited on the porch where she’d been instructed to “sit” and “stay.” The retriever was nowhere in sight, so I got to work. I was on my knees at the curb, back toward the street, pulling up a stubborn root when India bounded past me. I spun in time to see her intercept the retriever in mid-air as the retriever sprang for me. The retriever was easily twice her size, but India did not hesitate to protect me.

I shouted for her to heel, and she immediately responded, but the retriever, not having made eye contact with me and in the fever of battle, now lunged for her. I stepped between them, hoe drawn back to do whatever needed to protect India and me. The retriever set, snarling and drooling as it prepared to attack. The owner emerged from her house, screaming as she ran to the street where she grabbed for the dog, breaking its concentration on India and me only to have it snap at her. I jabbed the retriever’s shoulder with the hoe, forcing it to retreat into its yard. The owner and I then engaged in a rather intense discussion, resulting in the retriever’s confinement inside the fenced backyard following the incident. The retriever’s conniving cowardice has since surfaced in several characters in my stories, but, more important, India’s brave and selfless nature has served as the basis for some of my most honorable characters.

In recent years, age took its toll on India’s health. She developed cataracts, muscle spasms, and aching joints. A few months after she turned 16 last year, we found a marble-size knot over her left upper canine tooth that had already fused with the bone. Surgery would have required removal of a good portion of her snout and mouth with no cure or extension of life, while chemical treatment would have proved useless.

Over the next few months, her abilities declined rapidly. When she barked, it was usually only once, more of a grumble than protest. The stiffness in her joints intensified, and on some mornings she could barely move. She slept more and more. Even so, she always became excited and animated when one of us would arrive home. And she still experienced moments good enough to play with one of us, wrestle with the cats, or chase her ball until winded. By late November, however, the knot had tripled in size, and she’d begun to experience dementia, staring at her food as though she didn’t know what it was, walking in endless circles, stopping in the hallway to stare and sway as though she’d forgotten where she wanted to go. Then the vet discovered a large mass in her belly and suspected more in other organs.

Early on November 30, India stood at the window from where she had watched the neighborhood for years, then bowed her head briefly and turned away. She went to each of the two cats, gave them a nudge with her nose, then walked to each room in the house, finally to our sleeping daughter’s bedside. She slipped her head under our daughter’s hand for a pat on the head.

Two hours later, she died.

I buried India’s body in the backyard in a place she favored in the final months of her life, a place visible from where I’m now writing. I spend a good deal of time looking out at that small mound of dirt, especially when I’m developing story characters. I recall how she loped after her ball, tried to herd cats and kids, played tug-of-war with my daughter, protected us from any danger with no concern for herself, and so much more. She embodied the best qualities in fiction’s most endearing and admired characters. Devoted, forgiving, accepting without reservation, reliable, responsible, India exhibited as basic instinct the primary traits we cherish in human beings, the most honorable qualities most of us only wish we possessed.

“I’ll be Fine”: Empathy through Experience

The cashier’s eyes widen as a faint, embarrassed smile blossoms. Even though she won’t ask the obvious question, she can’t stop looking. Outside, the guy passing us on the sidewalk rubbernecks for a full view. And the two women in the minivan in the lane by the walk are simultaneously so disgusted and relieved, it’s comical. Angered, my teenage daughter threatens to educate these people on the social impoliteness of staring.

In my dark fantasy story, “Eyes of a Child,” a father effectively imprisons his physically deformed daughter to spare her negative public reaction and saccharine sympathy. As a father, I understood during the writing the character’s desire to protect his child, albeit misguided, but I could not genuinely empathize with the daughter because I’d never experienced a “disability” and the public reaction to it. Then, a few days ago, I had a bicycle accident.

I’ve been riding the same bike/pedestrian course for months, day after day. Usually, extraordinary evens are limited to one or two auto drivers who fail to yield for pedestrian/bike crossings. One part of the route descends a shallow hill with a curve at the bottom. I’ve had no problem with it in the past. But heavy rain had fallen overnight, spreading a thin layer of clay mud across the asphalt path, mud that I saw too late. The bicycle slued from under me into grass and mud beside the path, and I hit the asphalt path that took chunks of flesh from my knuckles, arms and elbows, and a wide swath from below my left knee. My head and face hit first. The impact destroyed my helmet, but it protected my skull. My nose, left cheek, and chin didn’t fare as well, slamming into the asphalt and scraping across before I began to roll.

Though aching and bloody, the wounds on my hands, arms, and legs were no worse than any I’d suffered before, only more in number than usual. My face also burned, but I had no way of examining it, so I knocked mud off the bike, mounted, and cycled the four miles home, noting a few stares along the way, chalking them up to my bloody-leg, muddy appearance. Back home, a mirror revealed why my face burned and why people had been staring. The impact had scraped the skin off my left cheek, across my nose, above my upper lip, and off my chin. My left eye was bruised and puffy, and my cheek and chin had begun to swell. I showered, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged those that could be covered, but those on my face could not be bandaged effectively.

Injured or not, I still had work to do. My first stop was to drop a package for shipment. The clerk’s initial look of fear as I came up to the counter nearly made me laugh. “A bike accident,” I said. She nodded eagerly, relief flooding her face. “Oh, I’ve had that happen, too. Just keep it clean, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, I’d be fine, but what about people like the daughter in my story, people with permanent disabilities, people who will never be fine in the public view?

The subject of disabilities is saturated with ignorance and media misrepresentation. In movies and literature, blindness is often equated with stupidity, disability with inability, deformity with evil. A recent Louis Harris poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed and uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and almost half are actually afraid of people with disabilities. In “Eyes of a Child,” the father fears public disgust and feigned sympathy so much that he never allows his daughter out of the house. If I were writing the story today, I would better empathize with the girl’s character and more deeply understand the father’s love for his daughter and his fear and loathing of the public.

My injuries will heal and leave only the slightest of scars on my cheek and chin. They have not provided me with complete understanding of the social challenges faced by persons with disabilities, but the reactions of others to my appearance have provided me with a glimpse of the daily battle. In the past couple of days, I’ve considered wearing a cap and keeping my head bowed to spare others the sight of my hamburger patty face, but, more, to spare me of their reactions. But I won’t. We all can learn something important without the cap.

Back at the store, my daughter and I cross the lane to our car, get in. Another car pulls into the space facing us. The guy behind the wheel narrows his eyes at me until he realizes I’m glaring directly back at him. He fumbles with the door, gets out, and hurries into the store. I glance over at my daughter, and we laugh. The guy doesn’t know I’ll be fine.

***

Another perspective…
by Dick Claassen

The owner of this blog, Chris Fuqua, is a good friend of mine. He recently had a bike accident and told me he really bunged up his face. As proof, he sent me a frontal photo of his face a couple of days after the accident so I would get the full impact of the damage. Ouch! Chris could walk onto the set of an action flick and wouldn’t even have to go through makeup!

Chris commented that when he appeared in public with his temporarily wounded face, his appearance drew many stares. So many stares that it made him uncomfortable. He told me he didn’t even want to appear in public until his face was healed. I was amazed by this rude behavior of strangers. I mean, this is 2010, for crying out loud. Aren’t we supposed to be enlightened by now? But as I thought about Chris’s experience, I hearkened back to the experiences of my own life when I was a kid. I’m 69, and when I was five, I contracted Polio. This would be in 1946. (Yeah, I know, loooong time ago.) People were truly ignorant back then. Polio randomly attacks and paralyzes different limbs, and all too often those of us who are hit by it end up with not only weak limbs, but muscles that won’t keep the feet up, giving the Polio survivor a peculiar slapping walk. This was me. So people stared at me when I walked. I hated to move in a group of strangers, because my funky walk was sure to draw stares.

I put up with this ignorant nonsense until I was a young adult, and I’ve gotta tell ya, that can do some serious damage to your self confidence. But then something peculiar happened: Sesame Street. Sesame Street? Yup. That program was all about tolerance. Preaching tolerance was its reason for being. We saw kids of different races as a matter of course on that show. We also saw kids in wheelchairs. And most important, those “different” kids were characters in the show along with all kinds of other “normal” kids. Sesame Street didn’t point out that little Suzie had to be in a wheelchair. Suzie simply was another normal kid on the show, and was treated as such. Now, this change in attitude among the public gawkers didn’t happen all at once, but eventually those who watched Sesame Street long enough, (and that was just about everyone of any age), finally became comfortable with those who were “different.” Without realizing it, the majority of our population, both young and old, helped by the positive influence of Sesame Street, finally saw the light and put people like me into the “normal” category. And as people became more accepting, they no longer stared at me. I seldom get stares anymore, and that’s a very nice feeling. And I give Sesame Street all the credit.

I don’t mind being physically disabled. Okay, I do mind. But not to the point of either distraction or destruction. I’ve had this body for 64 years. If I’m not comfortable with myself by now, there’s no hope. But after experiencing real courtesy from almost everyone I meet these days, I was very disappointed that someone like Chris, who simply had bumps and bruises, (okay, granted, BIG bumps and bruises), was stared at. Apparently this kind of behavior varies from one region to the other. Case in point: I live in Iowa, and never was I more proud of the people in my state than two weeks after 9(11). Emotion was high, and people were scared to death of anyone who even wore a beanie, let alone a hijab. One day in Wal-Mart I was about to walk out when I just happened to look behind me. There was a family of four walking into the store: a mom, dad, little brother, and big sister. They obviously were Muslim because they all wore traditional Muslim clothing. The dad and son wore trousers and shirts of their culture, and the mom and the big sister were in long abayas and hijabs. (The hijab is the veil that frames the face but doesn’t cover the face). Their attire really made them stand out in the crowd. There were many people in the store, all local white bread Protestant Iowans, and they all saw this young family. But not one person stared. Not one. Sure, there were quick and covert glances, the kind of looks one might give to any stranger. But those glances never lingered. They would simply look elsewhere and go about their business. The Muslim family was comfortable, the people around them were polite, and I felt proud to be an Iowan.

Before you conclude that none of this is any big deal, it is. It’s huge. It’s far bigger than we might suppose. The very future of our democracy hangs on tolerance. Intolerance breeds fear, and fear will tear a democracy down faster than anything else. The question is not “Is Obama a Muslim?” That question shouldn’t even be asked. What faith, (or no faith), our leaders embrace is none of our business. It really isn’t. Personal faith or no faith is a private matter. Sesame Street was extremely successful in acclimating us all to those who were “different” from us. That show increased our level of tolerance. We might have to hope for an adult version of Sesame Street that can instill and infuse tolerance into the heads of those who insist on infusing fear and violence into the minds of those who should know better. Let’s all get down on our little knees and pray tonight for the adult version of Sesame Street before it’s too late. Even if you have no personal faith, pray anyway.

–Dick Claassen is a retired math and chemistry teacher, a guitarist, banjoist, professional of the Native American flute, and author of numerous romance novels, textbooks, magazine articles, and several books on Native American flute instruction and technique. Please visit his website at http://playfolkinstruments.com.