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.

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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?”

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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”

 

Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.

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.

Character viewpoint based on “traditional values”

Understanding a particular point of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create believable, three-dimensional, real characters is one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Problems arise when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in opposition to the writer’s. For me, the most challenging viewpoints are those based on “traditional values” that excuse characters from questioning their actions or personal beliefs. The characters, instead, cling to ignorance and prejudice, no matter who they hurt. In the short story “Contrition,” for example, an aging WWII Japanese veteran refuses to renounce the “traditional value” of racial/ethnic superiority that has led him during the war to torture, maim, and murder. In another story called “Responsibility,” an old man resides in a retirement medical facility, unable to die, miserable in senescent seclusion due to “traditional values” that have caused him to disown his gay son, an act that has driven the boy to suicide.

In the early-to-mid-1960s, southern schools were finally forced by law to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one summer night before mandated integration, my father, mother, and I came upon a rural traffic jam just south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a gas station bordering a field where hundreds of people surrounded a stage, the night ablaze with a giant flaming cross. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd in its hateful hysteria, fired by the litany of racial epithets streaming from onstage speakers.

Shortly before I entered fourth grade that fall, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with any African American students. But when I met those students, I began to question the traditional values I was being taught, values that enabled such hatred in the people I knew, values that were supposedly sacred but based only on personal religious beliefs and social prejudices. Other groups, I soon discovered, had their own traditional values. Every country. Every region. Every culture. Every ethnicity. Every race. Every religion. Every denomination within a religion. Traditional. Hallowed. Superior.

A local newspaper recently ran an article with the headline, “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The story extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations. Campaigns to deny rights to various groups is nothing new. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. And everyone—from company CEOs to performers like Ry Cooder, with his Election Special CD, to average persons concerned enough to pay attention—everyone has the right to support any particular political or social initiative, just as everyone has the right to oppose those initiatives by boycotting the businesses or individuals who support them.

Only recently has it become acceptable and legal in most parts of the country for interracial couples to marry, a move that still irks the preachers of the traditional values I endured as a child. As acceptance of interracial marriage has spread, the values bandwagon has turned toward gay couples. The torchbearers of traditional values who once railed against interracial marriage now rail against same-gender marriage, justifying arguments on selective passages and interpretations of whatever holy book they believe in, as though their religion, their beliefs, their values are superior to all others and should rule everyone.

As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. They lamented the passing of days when even lynching was justified by the traditional values of good, God fearing folks. Today, that same kind of hatred continues to thrive, targeting various groups, from homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, and different Christian denominations, to immigrants and, increasingly, women. The rants are consistent and vitriolic, filling the airwaves 24/7, inciting action among the lunatic fringe of political pawns, action that results in assassination attempts, buildings bombed, planes flown into IRS offices, treasonous plots among radical military members, and so much more. Those values can even translate into acts of law that prohibit basic rights of targeted groups, from denial of healthcare or marriage to the return of Jim Crow initiatives.

One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on members of other faiths such as Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims, laws that ban interracial and homosexual marriage, and forced submission of women—to name only a few. Many maintain that if everyone were governed by some supposedly god-ordained list of rules such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, then all would be fine. But do we truly understand exactly what we’re promoting?

The Christian commandments are pretty self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence do not mention is the punishment prescribed for violation—for good reason. It ranges from genocide for violating the graven images commandment to death for goofing on most of the others. (For a more comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please refer to http://www.evilbible.com/ten_commandments.htm.)

Based on our personal values, we believe we can dictate what’s best for everyone else until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. For example, Dick Cheney opposed gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But some of us don’t change even when we excuse ourselves from adhering to the same values we’d force others to live by. Author Ayn Rand vehemently opposed programs such as social security, yet reaped their benefits even as she campaigned to outlaw them. Politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. Yet the couple continue to advocate for passage of draconian laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.

Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it is critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts, facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone desiring to be informed cannot rely on accounts from one broadcast network or newspaper to understand events, especially if that paper or network is a political tool, as many of today’s media are. I recently engaged in a political argument with a relative who employs his chosen party’s platform and a strictly personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic agenda. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to exert those opinions on others by forcing them to live as he would have them live. Our debate ended in a shouting match as we failed to respect one another as individuals, damaging the relationship beyond repair.

Because of that argument, however, I realized that my viewpoint is based on certain values that I’ve made “traditional” to myself, affording me better understanding of why characters I create, such as those in “Responsibility” and “Contrition,” choose such disparate paths. In “Responsibility,” the old man finally reassesses his values and their effects on others, and accepts responsibility for the rejection of his son that led to the young man’s suicide. In “Contrition,” on the other hand, the Japanese veteran refuses to abandon his traditional values, clinging blindly to his prejudice, rejecting responsibility for the evil he’s perpetrated, condemning himself to an eternity of suffering in arrogant ignorance.

The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They usually reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one “golden” value traditional to most religions and cultures: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In other words, live and let live.

Life, however, isn’t fiction. And live and let live is sadly the biggest fantasy of all.

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.