… the river gets deeper, not shallow…

“River gets deeper not shallow,
the further you move down the stream.
Wonderin’if I can keep her as I
race to keep up with my dreams.
How they shine and glitter and gleam.”

Jimmy Buffett, “Wonder Why We Ever Go Home

 

 

I have often been amused by the karma of life. Things happen, and you find yourself looking to the sky, saying, “Okay… message received…”

For those of you that have not heard yet, the news finally arrived a few days ago. My book was accepted for publication!!! There are some more edits to be done, a few tweaks and some fine tuning, but the contract is signed. The deal is worked and the dream has come to fruition. A new chapter, if you will, has been written, and the story takes on a whole new plotline.

Yes, friends and neighbors, you will soon be able to go to Amazon.com or walk into your bookstore and glance up at the shelf, and, right there, in living color, will be a book with my name on the cover as the author. And, for the record, DAMN, it feels good…

And yet, there has been one thing missing from the equation that would have made the event perfect…

This week is a rough one for me. My mom’s birthday is March 16th. She would have been 71 this year. The one thing I wish I could have done is put that contract in her hand and say, “Check it out! All those stories I made you read, all those nights you made me stop typing on that old Remington and go to bed, all the wadded-up paper you made me clean up. The notebooks full of ideas that I left all over the house, the ones I would get mad if you flipped through them without asking. All the trips to the library and the bookstores when you had to drag me out because I didn’t want to leave. All that stuff finally paid off, Momma…”

Knowing her, she would have sat there and read every word of the contract, eyed me for a few moments, and said, “You did it, kiddo. You really did it.”

I have to confess, I have this mental image of my mom, up in Heaven, gently nagging a few folks. Tapping St. Peter on the shoulder a few times a day, saying very quietly, “When you get a moment, I want to talk about my son’s book with you.” Easing up beside God and saying, “When is the last time you read a good book?” My mom could drop a hint like nobody else. If there is such a thing as heavy-handed subtlety, my mom could have claimed it as her superpower.

The main character in my book has all sorts of issues with his mother. They bicker, they fight, she offers her opinions on his life and the choices he has made. She still thinks he needs to get his hair cut more often, that he smokes too much, and that he needs to eat healthier. He rolls his eyes when he sees her call on his phone, but he answers every time and lets her say what she thinks she needs to say. He would rather stab himself in the eye with a fork, but she’s his mom. He loves her for all her opinions, and she offers all of her ‘advice’ because she loves him.

Needless to say, the parts of the book that concern my main character and his mother needed very little research. Every word of those moments was written with a smile on my face and love in my heart.

For the past ten days or so, I have been trying to work on the manuscript for the second book. Keeping my mind on the task, though, has been almost impossible. My mind keeps going back to my mom’s birthday coming up, and the fact that she is not here now to celebrate it. It saddens me that she is not here to share this moment and the moments to come. But, I know that this moment is the result of my mom encouraging me to read every book I could get my hands on. She told me many times that, if I liked a book, it was because the person who wrote it had a gift for telling stories, and that there was no reason why I couldn’t do the same thing. She bought me hundreds of notebooks and read every one-page story I wrote. When librarians would tell me a book I had chosen was too ‘grown up’ for me to read, my mom would look at them and ask, “Why would he want to read a book that was too childish for him?”

Folks, I have a book that is about to be published. When the date of publication is decided on,  be assured I will be shouting it from the mountaintops and posting it to every friend I have. And I fully expect everyone to pass the word along to others. But there will be a one copy of the book that I will be saving. One copy will be for mom…

Rockin’ in the Free World….

There’s colors on the street
Red, white and blue
People shufflin’ their feet
People sleepin’ in their shoes
But there’s a warnin’ sign
on the road ahead
There’s a lot of people sayin’
we’d be better off dead
Don’t feel like Satan,
but I am to them
So I try to forget it,
any way I can.

Neil Young, “Rockin’ In the Free World”

Another opening night is upon us, gentle reader. In a few hours, I will be opening in David Mamet’s play, November. I am playing Charles H. P. Smith, the President of the United States. While I realize this is an absolute nightmare to some people, me being the ruler of the ‘free world’ and all that, this has been a serious adventure for me. Much to the chagrin of my agent, I am sure, though, because it has cut into my writing time. I am on stage and blathering like a madman for the entire show, so the line memorization has been a fight I am not used to. And I am not going to jinx anything by commenting further on that line…

The lovely bit of irony in this show, for me, has been the scheduling of its run. Opening two days after the nastiest presidential campaign I have ever been witness to has made me more focused on the body of politics in this country. Over the past few months, I have been branded as a socialist, a communist, a Nazi sympathizer, a panderer to gay rights, a feminist, a tree-hugger, a ‘f*ckin’ hippie,” and other such lovely terms. Alas, such is a life in the world of political opinion…

I am sitting here now, in the midst of my pre-show rituals and superstitions. Laugh all you want, but if it works, I keep it. I have my tunes blasting in my head and a particularly gory horror movie on the TV, set to mute. I have the jitters from piling on the caffeine, and a Camel Menthol burning in the ashtray. And with all that sensory input, I get my mind set to focus on nothing but the show coming up.

And, yet, I find myself thinking back to Tuesday night and the election. And the utter absurdity of the levels of bitterness and hatred that flew back and forth between people on both sides of the coin. I do confess, I got into the mix in the months prior to the actual voting day. My tolerance level for blind hate and stupidity has lowered drastically over the years. For the most part, though, I am an ‘agree to disagree’ person and if someone doesn’t share my opinion, I am not going to force the issue. Bombarding my Facebook page with dozens of “reputable” articles from one biased source is not going to change the “other team’s” favoritism, nor will it make me seem smarter or more ‘sensible’ than someone else. Rather, it tends to make the poster look like a nut with a superiority complex. It makes them feel good about themselves, though, so who am I to deny their right to do such…

The character I play in November, President Chuck Smith, is everything you would not want in a mayor of a village in the outskirts of Nowhere, much less want as your president. Let’s say this – he does not handle stress well. (Hmmmm… why do I suddenly wonder if Paul Conroy, my director, believes in typecasting…) And, a small confession? I have loved every second of playing this role. It has given me the outlet to vent a TON of emotions that have built up since my mom passed away. It has been therapeutic, raving like a madman, saying the most outrageous and bombastic lunacy at the top of my lungs for almost six weeks or more.

All that is left now is to follow the “Astronaut Prayer” as set forth by one of my heroes, Alan Shepard, before he became the first American to go into space. “Please, lord, don’t let me f*ck up…”

I have my superstitions, my rituals, my nervous traits that only show up before I am about to go onstage. Most people in the theatre company I work with know these superstitions by now, and respect them, thankfully. When we do get newcomers into the fold, I am told that someone always takes them aside and tells them, “That guy there? You are going to think he is insane… just let him do his thing… it works…” I don’t actually know if that is true, but it makes me chuckle, wondering what someone might actually think of my pacing back and forth, eyes closed, counting steps back and forth, moving to whatever tune is on the mp3 player, and muttering to myself.

I got asked the other day if concentrating on this role has made me consider doing more in the political world. My answer, once I caught my breath, was an emphatic, “Not only no but HELL NO!” I will support a candidate, or an issue, or a referendum that I believe in, and I will not support anything I do not believe in with an open mind. But I do not have any desire to be the go-to person to hold an office and put my family, friends, beliefs, and enjoyments under a microscope for anyone else to nitpick to the minutest detail. And my patience for those who would do that nitpicking would render me a screaming mass of profanity. It tickles me sometimes, watching a candidate run for office, and act surprised that something he or she did ten or twenty years ago was brought into question. These days, people do not look for skeletons in closets, folks, they look for bone chips. They look for crumbs. They look for tidbits.

No, no, Gentle Reader… I am content to play the president on stage for two weekends, and move on to whatever is next.

My friend, David Broshar, is a member of a theatre company in North Carolina. He and I have known one another since college, where we did many shows together. Another friend, Riley Clermont, is opening a show soon. I love the fact that people I know from long ago are still active in theatre, either as professionals, or as a part of the (gasp!!!) community theatre groups that get so maligned by some purists. We have the ‘sickness’ that makes us want to perform. And whether we are playing presidents, or doing Shakespeare, or just doing improv comedy for a laughing crowd, it’s what makes things right in our world. We can go without it for a while, maybe, but we find our way back to it, and when we do, great things happen…

To quote another David Mamet title, such is “a life in the theatre…”

The End of the Innocence…

Remember when the days were long 
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky 
Didn’t have a care in the world 
With mommy and daddy standin’ by 
But “happily ever after” fails 
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales 
The lawyers dwell on small details 
Since daddy had to fly 

The End of the Innocence – Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby

I have spent a lot of time today in thought. Thinking about the last few weeks, thinking about this day eleven years ago…

My biggest memory of the 9/11 tragedy is the fact that I almost had no idea what had happened that morning.  I had driven home from work that morning, with sports talk radio playing to keep myself awake on the hour-long commute through Atlanta. The biggest issue of the day was the fact that Michael Jordan was talking about making a comeback or some such. Maybe he was trying to be a player/GM for the team he wanted to buy. I honestly do not recall the details, but I know that was all that was being discussed. The Braves were in a three-game slump, but nobody cared. MJ coming back to the court was the order of business. I got out of the car when I arrived in Lawrenceville at 8:35 AM, and nothing had been out of the ordinary.

I went into the house, dropped my messenger bag on a bar chair, leashed the dog, and took her outside for a walk. She did her business, I smoked a cigarette, and we went back inside. I sat down on the sofa and turned on the television. I put it on FX, which was just barely a channel then, but I was a fan because they showed MASH and WKRP in Cincinnati reruns in the morning. A good episode of MASH, one from the first season, was on. I ate my Croissanwich and watched Hawkeye and Trapper give Frank Burns all sorts of hell. The WKRP episode that came on after that was not one of the best ones, so I decided to go to bed. There had been no break-in to the program with any sort of news flash… nothing…

I got ready to go to bed after a long night at the hospital. I was tired, and I could feel sleep trying to move into my head. The phone rang. Normally, being a graveyard shift person, I switched the phone ringer off when I walked into the bedroom. This day, though, I had not gotten to that step in the process yet. I looked at the Caller ID to see if it was anything important. It was my sister’s number.

Even then I almost ignored it, but it occurred to me that she knew I was a night shift worker. She knew I didn’t answer the phone until 4 PM or so. So why was she calling me? It had to be something important, so I answered it.

“What are you doing?” she said, very tense. No “hey, what’s going on” or “didn’t mean to wake you”…

“About to go to sleep, why?”

“Turn the television on.”

“I was just watching it a minute ago. Why, what’s going on?”

“Turn the television on now.”

“What channel?”

“Any channel.”

It was the “any channel” line that freaked me out. If you tell someone to turn the TV on to see something, it’s usually on a specific channel. “Any channel” meant something bad was going on.

I flipped the bedroom TV on and knocked it over to CNN. Just as the picture came on, I saw fire blow through one of the Twin Towers. The other Tower was already engulfed in smoke. My sister gasped when the fire blew through the Tower. “What the hell is going on?” I said. “This can’t be real.”

My sister said, “God, I wish it wasn’t.” I sat silently on the bed, holding the phone to my ear and staring at the TV screen. “I need to go,” I said to her. “Call Momma and Daddy and tell them I am home and safe. I’ll call them tonight.”

She said she would, and I hung the phone up. And I did not go to sleep for the next 30 hours. It was like being mesmerized by some horrific sight and being paralyzed. Reports were flying all over the place. CNN Plaza was being evacuated in Atlanta. Capitol Hill and the White House were both being evacuated. Every plane in the air was being landed anywhere that could take a plane. The next targets were Las Vegas, Disney World, Chicago, Dallas, the St. Louis Arch. Confusion was coming from every corner of the planet. Who did this, why did they do it, who was the mastermind…

I remember calling the hospital I worked for and asking my supervisor if I needed to come in. She told me, “Stay where you are and do not move. Come in tomorrow night unless you hear from me sooner,” and hung up. I did exactly what she said.

The next night, I left for work at 9:45 PM, just like always. The world was supposed to be on complete shutdown, but there were a few folks out driving that night. Ordinarily, traffic going through Atlanta was less than the normal madness once the sun went down, but it was still a bit unpredictable. Tonight, though, I felt like I was driving through a ghost town. Skyscrapers were dark when they were usually lit up. The Peachtree Plaza Hotel, with its revolving Sundial Room high atop the building, was dark. Turner Field was dark. It was unnerving, to say the least.

But, the memory that stays in my head the most from that whole 48-hour period was driving past the airport…

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta is notorious for being one of the busiest airports in the country. Planes never land on time, day or night. You see planes circling Atlanta for miles, waiting for permission to land. There is never a place to conveniently park because people seem to LIVE in that parking lot. The sky around the airport never looks like there is a nighttime because the sky is painted with landing lights, plane lights, billboard lights, and pretty much any other light you can think of.

But that night…

The airport looked abandoned. There were no lights anywhere, not even in the parking areas. No guide lights running lines across the interstate to bring planes in on a straight line. There were acres and acres of empty parking spaces. I counted five cars as I passed, still sitting in the lot closest to I-85. I leaned forward and looked up into the sky through the windshield, and what I saw made me slow down and pull over for a moment.

I saw stars. Twinkling stars in the sky. Nothing else. No moving lights to indicate planes circling overhead. No reflections of lights from the airport highlighting the clouds. All I could see were stars and a midnight black sky.

It was only then that it all seemed to sink in. Everything that had happened the day before. And what it had done to the world in only 24 hours.

I put the car into gear and got back onto the interstate. I had been listening to a CD on the drive down because the radio was only talk, but I didn’t feel like listening to music any more that night. The rest of the drive was quiet and, somehow, lonely.

I think about that night a lot. Especially when I have to go to the airport, or even if I just have to drive by it. It reminds me of the days after 9/11. Days of Americans pulling together, helping one another, pausing a bit longer to make eye contact with one another as we passed in store aisles or sitting at red lights. People took “America” a bit more to heart, and didn’t seem to care if their neighbors were black, white, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jew, Chinese, African, or any other subtitle that goes with the word “American” these days. For a few days, maybe even a few weeks, hatred of one another took a back seat as we were bound together by sadness, tragedy, and confusion.

Then, the hatred crawled back into the picture. Suspicious eyes spotted evil everywhere. Anyone that did not speak our language, anyone that dressed in any manner other than normal American clothes, or anyone that just did not ‘look right,” became targets. I heard the phrase “those people” a lot. I hate that phrase. I always have, and probably always will. I have heard it in reference to any of ten different races and probably as many different religions, and it chills me to the bone. Why? Because my first introduction to the phrase came from a man handing out pamphlets at a crossroads in my hometown, inviting people to a Klan rally. It was a two-word phrase that dripped hatred, anger, and venom, even to a ten year-old kid.

On September 11, 2001, I was thirty-five years old. I had been married once, gone through a painful divorce, and had remarried. I had travelled to Europe, graduated college, had a couple of automobile accidents, broken several bones, made some really stupid choices in my life, and paid for those choices. But on September 12, 2001, I suddenly felt old. I felt frightened for the first time in my life, scared of what might be around the corner as a result of one event. My ‘inner child” had finally been scarred by something that would never heal completely. I look around now and remember those first days after 9/11, and wonder if anyone else remembers the short period in our lives when we didn’t hate, we didn’t scream and tag one another as ‘racist’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ or worse because we had different ideas. We rose above that because of 9/11, and became one, if only for a while…

I’ve Wandered Much Further Today Than I Should…

Christopher Robin and I walked along
Under branches lit up by the moon
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
As our days disappeared all too soon
But I’ve wandered much further today than I should
And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood
So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
You’d be surprised, there’s so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh

Loggins and Messina, House At Pooh Corner

My mother passed away last week. She was seventy years old, barely what we know as ‘old’ by today’s standards. Cancer, however, does not pay attention to age. It does not pay attention to someone’s “bucket” list. It does not back off if someone’s agenda is too full, nor does it agree to come back later when things are more convenient. Cancer charges into the life of the patient and family like a rampaging beast trampling everything in its path, and leaving nothing but destruction.

When my mom got her diagnosis, we took the oncologist’s words to heart when he said “We could be talking years. We could be talking months.” We took some small degree of solace in the fact that we had some time, even with her decision not to attempt any sort of treatment. There were some treatments available, but with her medical history of pulmonary fibrosis, the treatments would likely have done more harm than good. Is it worth the cost of quality of life to gain, at the most, an extra month or two? My mother thought not, and we accepted her wish.

Whatever the oncologist’s words were, though, time became a factor. We only had twenty-three days from diagnosis to her death.  And, truth be told, she only showed true signs of the disease for maybe six days. The tumor had done the damage to her internal organs, and when those organs had had all they could take, they began to give up. Once the process starts, there is no stopping it. The final clock begins to tick, and all anyone can do is watch the hands move.

On that last night, I sat with her. I like to think she knew I was there. I talked to her. My sister and I both talked to her, asked her if she remembered the stories of our childhood, and tried to laugh at those memories, hoping the stories were making their way past the medications and the cancer, and into her heart, to bring her some peace. There were times when we would change positions around the bed, and my father would sit next to her, holding her hand, letting her know he was there. She was at her most peaceful when it was my father holding her hand. A portrait I now store in my head is of that particular picture – my mother, lying in her hospital bed, and my father sitting beside her, holding her hand.

I’ve had almost a week to think about my mother and her life. One of my favorite stories about my family is how everything started with her and my father. My mother worked for the dean of students at Oglethorpe University while studying there. One early morning in September, the dean called her and asked if she could go to the old downtown train station in Atlanta and pick up two transfer students from North Carolina. She did as she was asked and met the train. The two students would later become my godfather, John Day, and my father, Lee Daniel. My mom and dad became a couple a week or two after that meeting and were together for the next fifty years.

My mother was somewhat of a rebel in her time. The civil rights movement was just beginning to pick up steam in the first few years of the 1960’s, and my mother was a part of it. Not too many little white Southern girls thought much about people being treated equally, regardless of race, but my mom did. She never judged anyone with any regard to skin color, or religion, or ‘place in society.” She saw people for who they were, and the potential they had to be better. That became a mantra she served every day for the rest of her life – everyone has the potential to be great, if they are given a chance to find that greatness.

She started her professional career as a first grade teacher in North Carolina, but after I was born, she and my father moved back to Georgia when he accepted a job in Milledgeville. Much to the chagrin of my father’s mother, my mom took a job doing social work at what was known then as Central State Hospital. Most people know the facility by an easier term – the mental hospital. My mom started an adult education program at Central State, teaching female inmates how to read and write, and teaching basic skills like working a cash register and balancing a checkbook. There was not much in the way of childcare back then in South Georgia, so with no other choice available, she took me with her. My bassinet sat by the desk in her classroom while she taught murderers, drug addicts, and others of the ‘criminal element” that had been sent to the ‘crazy house’ instead of  one of the many state prisons. I have been told that the women were fascinated by the little ‘white girl’ who was not scared to bring her 6-month old baby to work with her. And I have been told that one of the rewards my mother gave her students for exceptional work was being allowed to hold me in their lap for the rest of the class time. My babysitters during her run as a teacher at Central State included a woman who had murdered her husband with a hatchet because he had beaten her, an older woman who was apparently very good with a straight razor, and a young girl who had helped her boyfriend kidnap a young girl from North Georgia and bury her alive. Some find the desire to comment on these early influences in my life, but I shall refrain…

The majority of her professional life, my mom worked for DFACS. Some scoff at the notion of the Department of Family and Children Services, waving it off as the ‘welfare department,’ and belittling the work done there to protect children. I will not get into a political rant now, because those who sneer at the mere mention of DFACS have no idea what actually goes on in that particular department, nor do they know the people that work there. Rarely do they even bother to find out…

My mother did Child Protective Service. She would step into a home where a child was being abused or neglected and find a proper placement for that child. Many times she would have an armed escort to these homes, either a sheriff’s deputy or a city policeman, but more often than not she would tell the officer to wait outside the door, and she would call out if she thought she needed protection. I have been told, much after the fact of course, about the times she stared down the barrel of a gun or had knives pulled on her. She stayed her course, armed only with her clipboard and her purse. Little did most of these people know, but my mother’s purse could have easily been considered a weapon of mass destruction, but those are stories for another time…

My mother never hid these stories of neglect and abuse from my sister and me. She wanted us to know it existed and recognize it if we saw it. We spent many a Christmas season shopping for toys for ‘her kids,’ wrapping them in beautiful paper and making sure each one of those kids had at least one gift under a tree, a tree that, in some cases, we also brought with us. It changed my outlook on the holiday, handing a child a present and knowing that one gift might be the only gift come Christmas morning. Seeing that moment, that light in a child’s eyes as the gift was accepted, makes whining about not getting the new Atari game system a lot harder.

We have heard from so many of ‘her kids’ in the past week, kids she rescued from situations that were horrendous to contemplate in many cases. The one phrase each one of them has used in conversations with my family is “She saved my life.” As I write this now, I remember one girl in particular, a case my mom worked with, fought the laws for, and finally rescued, almost at the point of no return. The girl was nine years old when her name came across my mother’s desk. She had gone to school with obvious bruises on her face and arms, but was not telling anyone at the school what happened to her. This was a kid from the “poor side of town,” a child most would not look twice at if she had passed them on the street. My mom talked to the girl at school for hours, and gradually she got the truth out of the girl. Suffice it to say that bruises and black eyes were only the tip of the iceberg of abuse this girl was living with on a daily basis. The little girl was taking this abuse on a daily basis because she did not want her little sister and brother to become the next victims. At nine years old, she was volunteering to do things most of us would not even know about until later in life and was being beaten repeatedly if she tried to refuse, in order to save her little sister and brother from taking the same abuse. I don’t know how the little girl’s parents found a lawyer to even try to argue their case, but they did. Over the next few years my mom would remove the girl, her sister, and her brother from the home and place them in Foster Care, only to have the parents somehow regain custody later. And within weeks of regaining that custody, the little girl would show up at school with bruises, split lips, black eyes, and assorted other signs that the abuse was continuing. I remember being in the car with my mom once when she had to pick the little girl up at school and take her to a doctor because her shoulder had been dislocated.

That little girl is now almost forty years old. My mom finally managed to get her and her brother and sister out of the home permanently. They were in foster care for a couple of years and were adopted by a family who raised them in an environment of nurturing love and care. She stayed in contact with my mother over the years. The ‘little girl’ now is married, has a family of her own, and credits my mother not only with saving her life, along with that of her brother and sister, but of also restoring her faith in others.

My mother was not a saint. Some saw her as an angel of mercy. I saw her as a human. I saw the tears she wept when she was not able to save one of ‘her kids.” I heard her anger and frustration when people tried to interfere with her job. One of the most notable times was when , as part of her job, she trained new foster parents and adoptive parents on how to bring abused and neglected children into new homes. In the late 1980’s, a gay couple showed up to start training. These ladies had been together for many years and had decided to open their home to children, specifically children who were born with the HIV virus. Yes, even in this small town, there were children with AIDS and HIV, and for obvious reasons, finding them protective placement was not the easiest task, especially in 1987. My mother welcomed these ladies into the class, got them trained and prepared for these children, and immediately placed three young children in their care.

Being a small town, most everyone knew the couple in question. And while ‘live and let live’ might have been an unspoken rule to most, when they showed up at church, or the grocery store, or at school, with children they called their own, the gossip began. Whispers turned to voices, and voices went from behind hands to loud shouts. My mother had always refused to make our home phone number unlisted, so when those who wanted to voice their opinion of these new foster parents and the ‘diseased children’ they were ‘parading around town,’ they called the person responsible – my mom. I was not at home much then because I was at college, but I was present a few times to answer the phone. I was never allowed to hang up on the callers, but rather, I was to simply say, ‘Hold on a moment,” and pass the phone to my mother.

One night, my mother got such a phone call. I recognized the voice as one of the many ministers in town. I did as I had been requested and handed the phone to my mother, mouthing the name of the caller to her as I handed her the phone. She shook her head, but she took the receiver and listened. She held the phone away from her face, so I could hear some of the conversation. Words like “godless,” “abomination,” and “curse from God” were used several times. The man accused my mother of being ‘in league with Satan’ for even letting these children “into the system.”

My mom listened to the man for several minutes without trying to speak. She took every word he said without arguing or trying to dispute his claims. Then she said, “You know, you are right. I had never considered that at all. I feel terrible about what I have done. Listen, the couple you are talking about lives about ten miles from me, right down the road. I can go down there now, pick the kids up, tell them that their service as foster parents is no longer welcome in this community.”

I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. My mother NEVER gave up that easily, not to anyone or anything. She looked at me and winked.

“As a matter of fact, “ she continued, “if I remember correctly, your children have all moved out and gone to college or gotten married. Why don’t I just drop these kids off with you for the next week, so you can pray over them, make their lives better, and save their souls that I so wrongly put in jeopardy by placing them in a home with two women who live in sin, who are abominations in the eyes of God. It may take me a few weeks, though, to find a new placement for them. Can you keep them for two weeks or so? The baby is still in diapers, but you know how to change those, right? I mean, there are other problems with them, but I can leave you a book about handling their waste, not exchanging bodily fluids and such. You are a college man, though. I am sure you learn quickly.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Then I heard a lot of stammering and stuttering. My mom listened and then she said, “I know. I know. Do you want to keep these children? Does anyone in your fine church want to keep them safe, well-fed, and medically cared for on a regular basis? Because I can bring them to you or anyone else you name.”

There was another silence. Then my mother said, “Thank you for calling.” And she hung the phone up.

There was never another phone call.

My mother died at 6:00 AM on August 15th. The past six days have been a blur of tears, anger, and frustration. I tried to be angry at the fact that she did not fight the disease harder, that she gave in to cancer without even trying chemotherapy or radiation or any other sort of “cure.” But I know that those would have only brought more pain and suffering than what she had already gone through. I guess I wanted her to be furious that this disease had even dared enter her body and fight for her life like she had fought for so many other lives that had crossed her path.

Then I remember talking to her one night, right after she had gotten the diagnosis. I was asking her about possible doctors, second opinions, treatment options. She just kept shaking her head. I let my guard down and said, “Dammit, you’ve got to do something!”

She looked me in the eye, and said, “I did do something. Now, I’m tired.”

With those words, I knew my mother was going to die. And that it would be sooner rather than later.

A few days later, we were over at my parents’ house, visiting. My sister, my fiancée, and her two kids were with me. My dad had left to run an errand or two, and it was close to time for my mother to get her next dose of pain medication. I got the pill for her, broke it into four pieces because she could not swallow much of anything due to the tumor forcing her stomach and esophagus into an angle that had it almost closed off. I handed her the pill, piece by piece, and I watched as her hands, once so steady, now shaking so badly she almost dropped the pieces as she got them into her mouth. And for the first time, my mother looked old. In a few short weeks since the diagnosis, my mother looked like she had aged thirty years. She looked old, she looked weary, and she looked beaten. I managed to keep my tears at bay until I got home, but just barely.

That last night, she was very restless and unsettled. She had not been responsive for two days prior. The only vocalizations she made were moans, with every exhalation. Around midnight we sent my father to bed, and I found a CD player to plug in by the bed, hoping some of her favorite music would somehow help soothe her. We played Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” because my mother loved old-school gospel music.

Music had always been an important part of her life. She had worked her way through college singing in the chorale at St. Phillip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. She sang loudly and with beauty, a talent I wish she had passed on to me.  There was always music in our house, on the radio, or the stereo, or by her singing to herself as she did what needed to be done in the home. So that night we played the music she loved. Gospel music, Celtic dulcimer music, Native American flute music… things to make her calm and soothe her soul, as we told her it was okay, that she could rest. We told her she could rest easy, and that we would take care of each other, that we could handle the job she had taught us how to do.

And my mom went to sleep with music playing. She found her peace with her music in her ears, and, I hope, in her heart.

As we sat that morning after she died, waiting on the hospice nurse to come to help bathe her before the funeral home men came, I noticed that, for the first time, the house was silent. The TV wasn’t on, nobody was really talking, and most of all, there was no music playing. And it hit me then that my mother was gone. I felt my throat tighten as that thought entered my head. My mother was not there anymore. Then, for whatever reason, in my head I heard music. I heard “Amazing Grace.” I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” And I heard the song my mother used to sing to my sister and me when we were children, a song that may seem childish on the surface, but has gained more and more meaning in the last six days.

I heard “House at Pooh Corner” by Loggins and Messina, in my head. The song is about the A.A. Milne characters of Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Owl, and all their friends. But it is also about finding that childhood again, that sense of being a child again, when magic and dreams meant more than anything. My mother always wanted my sister and me to keep that sense of childhood about us, to never stop believing in dreams, believing in magic, and seeing the magic in every day of our lives. She never gave up on anyone’s dream, because she wanted each person in her life to have that dream to drive them. And she wanted us all to see the magic that makes the world beautiful, no matter how bad it may seem on the surface.

I will never hear that song again without thinking of my mother, and her love, and her pride in her kids. Not just my sister and me, but all those kids she saved, all those kids she helped live to dream a new dream. I can only hope that, one day, she will see my dream come true. She knew it was close to happening, and I had hoped to put a copy of my first novel in her hands.

Maybe one day, I will…

There’s a party at the end of the world…

“To the party at the end of the world 
Where the locals do that tango twirl 
I don’t care about “the Rapture”
When there’s native girls to capture
There’s a party at the end of the world…”

Jimmy Buffett, “Party at the End of the World

It’s here, friends and neighbors! 2012!!! The Year the World Ends!!! All life as we know it ceases to exist! Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Human sacrifice! Cats and dogs sleeping together! Mass hysteria!!!

(Okay, I swiped that from Ghostbusters …. Sue me…)

Look, I already lived through this nonsense once, back in December of 1999. Amidst the never-ending onslaught of that damned Prince song over and over and over, I watched as people  I thought to be very logical and intellectual started sipping the Y2K Kool-Aid. Stockpiling canned goods in their basements, filling every container they could find with tap water, hoarding bottles of propane… I personally know one man who purchased two huge septic tanks and had them buried in his backyard, so he could convert them into one of those emergency shelter things like folks built back in the late 50’s, complete with bunk beds and an air filtration system. And he was PROUD of this shelter, lemme tell you. He had no qualms whatsoever about giving you a tour. “Over here, we have three Maxwell House cans full of gold coins, for bartering. And over here, I put a world-band radio, with the antenna connected above ground to our metal rain gutters. See, it has a crank for power, so we don’t ever have to worry about batteries running down. And here, look! I found a whole CRATE of Army-issue MRE’s, so we will have ample food supplies. We could live down here for at least four months!”

I remember looking at him, trying not to recall the time he fell off his own roof while he was hooking up a satellite dish to his television. “Bob,” I said, “you know, this whole ‘Y2K bug’ thing is not a definite thing, right? And if it is, it’s really not on the same level as, oh, the Cuban Missile Crisis, you know?”

The thing I remember most is his response to my statement. “Oh, I know,” he said, and he reached over and patted a gun rack that had five different long guns in it, and four handguns. “I know,” he sighed, patting that case, “but, hey, we can hope, can’t we?”

I think that’s what is getting to me the most with all this horse-hockey about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world. There are people that seem like they are actually looking forward to the challenge, like it was an extreme version of Survivor. Like Jeff Probst is gonna be set up with some freaky little obstacle courses and rope games and puzzle pieces, and whomever gets through those challenges gets to vote someone off the planet. The guy who managed to fall down and lose the fishing line, or the girl who keeps crying because her hometown was blown up by that volcano in South Philly that nobody had any idea existed.

Come to think of it, why exactly are we putting so much faith in the Mayan calendar all of a sudden? Half of this country cannot stand the fact that the Mexican people even live amongst us here in America. They resent the fact that our Mayan brothers and sisters of today have their own grocery stores and check-cashing places, but suddenly, the big round wheel they used as a calendar is something above reproach? We cannot afford to let them pick our fruit and vegetables, but dammit, they can predict the future like Nostra-freakin’-damus all of a sudden? You ever wonder if the whole shooting match doesn’t boil down to Montezuma pulling one hell of a mind freak on them white guys that rode into town and started looking for El Dorado? Hmmmmm….

At any rate, maybe I am a little too complacent about the possibility of the world ending in eleven months or so. To me, if it is such an inevitability, why bother worrying about it? It’s not like I have one of Richard Branson’s spaceships on standby and can hitch a ride to Ceti Alpha Five (Star Trek reference… heh heh…) to avoid the whole mess.

Personally, I’m kinda hoping Max Brooks has some credence and this whole thing will be a zombie apocalypse… me and all the other The Walking Dead/George Romero fanatics will be in hog heaven, as it were, and the “I TOLD YOU SO” parties will be a blast!

Bottom line, folks, live your life as you always do. If you’re honestly frightened that the world is coming to an end in a year, ask yourselves why you are frightened. You have regrets? Things you wanted to do that you never found time to do? Places to see that never got on the vacation agenda? Things to say to people, good or bad, that you feel the need to say?

Best answer there? Do those things. Visit those places. Say those things to those people. It’s not a hard equation. The phrase “live like you are dying” is not just a Tim McGraw song. It’s a philosophy, a mindset. Those of us who have been through some traumatic things in our lives know about it. You never put off saying or doing something, because you never know if you will have another chance. It’s an easy thing to do, postponing your feelings for someone because you just know there will be another day to say them. It’s an easy cop-out, thinking that you can do some amazing trip or visit some exotic locale another time when you have more time to waste on a “folly.”

Allow me to steal a line or two from John Lennon – “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Everyone has a “bucket list,” that long page of things they want to do “one day, before I die.” If this is the year that it’s all gonna wind down and fade to black, maybe it’s time we all started crossing some things off that list. Make a point to tell that one special person how you feel and see what happens. Spend that extra dollar or two and make that trip to the Grand Canyon or Italy or the Galapagos Islands. Go skydiving, or deep sea diving, or shark spotting off the coast of South Africa. Go watch the whales migrating and see those magnificent animals up close. Smell their aroma as they break water and blow fountains into the air.

And, maybe, come December 12, 2012, you can sit back and say, “Bring it on, World. I am ready now. I did what I wanted to do, and I have no problems.” And you can smile big and relax as everyone else panics and runs amok, trying to stockpile cans of turnip greens and cases of Spam.

Then, on December 13, 2012, when everyone realizes how ridiculous all this “Mayan calendar” crap was, the rest of us can sit back and smile even bigger and say, “Wow, that was one hell of an incredible year. I saw things that I have always wanted to, done things I never had the courage to do, and told people I love and care about exactly how I feel. And I feel friggin’ GREAT. I may do this stuff every year!”

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Be sure to drink your Ovaltine…

I’ve never made any secret of my movie geek status. It’s been as obvious as Rudolph’s red nose for as many years as I have known about movies themselves, I think. I debate movies, I discuss them. I memorize them by repeated viewings, to the point that I quote them verbatim as I watch them, down to sound effects in some cases. Star Wars is a notable example of the latter there…

To many movie fanatics, holiday movies are a genre that gets very little respect. “They are all the same,” the geekdom cries. “Someone does not get what Christmas is all about, then, magically, they somehow get it on Christmas Eve, and all is happy in the world.”

Is this true? Maybe. It doesn’t bother me, though, the way it probably should.

I love Christmas movies. The CLASSIC ones, I should say. You can keep all the Hallmark Channel crap, the Lifetime sob stories, all that mess. It offends me that some even consider those movies…

(Pardon me while I assume my father’s voice for a second…)

I remember when It’s A Wonderful Life was a public domain movie. For those of you who are not familiar with the phrase, there was a stretch of time when the broadcast rights to It’s A Wonderful Life were open property. Any channel on the airwaves could show the movie, simply by purchasing a broadcast right. My dad and I would start a tally on how many times it would show up, starting on Thanksgiving Night and ending on Christmas Day. One year, it hit 49 times. Do the math there… It was on at least once a night for thirty days, and more than once a night several times. You could watch it on one channel, then spin the dial and catch it again. It was paradise!

I know some people find this movie to be sad and refuse to watch it. Those people obviously do not grasp the whole point of the movie, and there is no point in trying to convince them otherwise. You are better off walking out to your driveway, kneeling down, and banging your face into the asphalt until you knock yourself silly.

My list of holiday favorites includes White Christmas, with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. A very close friend of mine seems to dislike this movie, which boggles my mind. She also claims that The Bishop’s Wife is not a Christmas movie (… where is my driveway again?). I love The Bishop’s Wife. Cary Grant, for one of the few times in his career, plays a very innocent character, not just a suave charmer, and Loretta Young was never as beautiful as she was in this film. I also have a particular fondness for Alistair Sim’s wonderful performance as Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. I love Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut and, hands down, the best screen Santa ever, Edmund Gwynn in the best version of Miracle on 34th Street.

Don’t get me wrong now… there have been some more recent holiday movies. Will Farrell in Elf? Very good movie. I could watch Bill Murray in Scrooged every day for the Christmas season and still laugh every time. Do not even get me started on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. That movie… just… damn… I mean, Chevy Chase’s final tirade against his miserly boss is reason enough to laugh yourself silly over the stresses and pains that accompany the holiday season. And Randy Quaid greeting the neighbors as he dumps his RV’s septic system into the sewer… lawdamercy…

For me, though… honestly… there is only one holiday movie. I watch it religiously every Christmas season, usually about three times before Christmas, then, on Christmas Eve, at least once. And, thankfully, the good people at Turner Broadcasting have seen fit now to make it an annual event. They show A Christmas Story for 24 straight hours. Angels, we have heard on high…

I may be one of 50 people that saw this movie in the theatre when it first premiered back in 1983. I had never read anything by Jean Shepherd, so I was completely blind to his humor. But I sat there in that movie house and found myself entranced by the story. It was so real, so entirely true to how a kid feels at Christmastime, when his parents don’t seem to hear his hints for a special gift, when nobody understands his world, when that whole world seems to be conspiring against him on a singular quest for some perfect item that would make his childhood complete.

I would go into greater detail about the story, but, truthfully, you would probably not be reading this if you didn’t know the story. And you would probably have to have been in a Turkish prison not to have seen it at least once. Very few people don’t know at least a few prime quotes from it. Walk up to anyone on the street and say, “I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle” and see what happens. They will either look at you like you are clinically insane, or they will say, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

If they say the latter, they are as addicted as you are…

I own this movie, in VHS and DVD (the special edition release, of course…). I own a leg lamp, both the nightlight model and the desktop. My goal in life is to have matching floor models to go on either side of my sofa, so the “soft glow of electric sex” can gleam through my windows as the world drives by my house. I cannot go into a Chinese restaurant without giggling at the thought of the waiters singing “Deck the Halls.” Every bully I see on the street becomes Scut Farkas, yellow eyes and all. I am now a master of the triple-dog dare. I am a frequent user of “THE word, the queen mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word.” I WILL NOT dress like a deranged Easter bunny. I always drink my Ovaltine, even though my decoder ring doesn’t work much anymore. And, yes, by God, I DO own an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot air rifle, with the compass in the stock and that thing that tells time. And no, I have never shot my eye out with it. I did manage to blow a headlight out of my own car trying to quick-shoot from the hip, but we don’t need to discuss that.

Holiday movies? Sure, they may be corny as Kellogg’s cereal flakes. Sure, most of them have musical numbers thrown in for no reason. And sure, it does seem rather odd that Bing Crosby shows up in a lot of them. It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby singing their hearts out in that ski lodge in Vermont, trying to help the general they served under in World War Two? I’ll watch it. Cary Grant as an angel sent to help a priest through a crisis of faith? Bring it on. Bill Murray? Will Farrell? Chevy Chase? Sign me up.

But, every once in a while, Hollywood manages to strike a special chord and gives a movie geek like me a gift, one that I treasure and would be miserable without. For me, that gift is A Christmas Story, and I thank the director, the late Bob Clark, and the late Jean Shepherd, for making a new classic for my holiday viewing.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am expecting a package from a foreign country. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Fra-gee-lay?

Vampires, mummies, and the Holy Ghost…

“…so many dragons lurking out in the fog

So many crazy people mumblin’ monologues
It’s not the tales of Stephen King that I’ve read
I need protection from the things in my head

Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost
These are the things that terrify me the most
No aliens, psychopaths or MTV hosts
Scares me like vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost…

Jimmy Buffett

As you could probably guess, I have been watching a lot of horror movies this month. I love Halloween season as much, if not more, than Christmas. Who am I kidding? To me, this IS Christmas!!! I have been hopelessly addicted to scary things since my parents stuck their old black and white TV in my room when I was eight or nine years old. It was put there with the intention of me watching Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and all those other PBS shows for kids that helped you learn to read, how to sound out words phonetically, and all that other stuff. What they were not counting on was me turning the channel one Friday evening and stumbling onto Ted Turner’s Superstation, Channel 17.

It was a Friday night in October, I remember that clearly. I was supposed to be asleep (yeah, right…), but, even then, I had a thing about not sleeping. So I turned on the television and ran through the clunky dial. I hit the space that went to the UHF stations (anyone else remember that space before Channel 2?), and Channel 17, out of Atlanta, came in clearly. There was a guy in a weird suit and slicked-back hair, talking with a weird accent, and he was introducing his show, Friday Night Frights. The movie that night was “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man,” one of the classics made by Universal Studios, back when they RULED the horror movie world.

To say I was hooked from that moment on is an understatement. I began my love affair with horror right then and there, and that affair has never waned, not for a moment. My parents never seemed to notice that, unlike every other night of the week, I had no problem taking a bath and going to bed promptly at 9 pm on Friday nights. I would close the door to my room, throw the pillows down on the floor, and flip that TV dial over to the UHF space, and spend the rest of the night staring at the black-and-white screen, eyes wide one moment, and hidden in the pillows the next.

On the surface, this would have been enough to satisfy any young boy. But a bad (or good, depending on your outlook) thing happened. There was a “white elephant sale” at church, one of those things that is basically a group yard sale, but with food and cleaner visitors. I got dragged to this thing, compromising only when I heard there would be cotton candy there, and walked around, looking at all the junk people had brought to sell. Being me, I spent a lot of time at the table where all the books are, because you never know what you will find on a book table. And, there it was, sitting off to the side… a box of old magazines. I glanced down, saw a couple of old Popular Mechanics on top, and almost walked on by. But, again, there it was… something in the box caught my eye… the word “monster.”

Under those two Popular Mechanics issues, there was a stack of magazines. The top one had Frankenstein on the cover. The title above the picture of Boris Karloff said, “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” I remember the next moments of that night as clear as a sunrise on Brasstown Bald Mountain. I looked up to see if anyone was watching me, then I tossed those Popular Mechanics aside and dug into that box. There were thirty-five issues of Famous Monsters in that box. I could not believe there was a magazine about MONSTERS!!! HOW COOL IS THAT??? I looked around again. Nobody had spotted me yet. None of my friends were close by. And I had no desire to see them at that moment. This treasure was MINE, MINE I say!!!!

A lady’s voice brought me out of my trance. “You like magazines?” she said. This was obviously a trick question. Even then, I knew enough not to act interested in something you want to buy. I had seen my dad trying to finagle the guy who sold him our black Chevy station wagon two years before. Act like you don’t care, and they will try to make a deal with you. I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess so,” I said.

“They’re a dime apiece,” she said, turning back to help someone with a collection of Rod McKuen poetry books. A dime apiece. Dang, I thought to myself. I had two dollars and three quarters in my pocket, a small fortune for me at the time. I was going to have to leave eight issues behind!!! How was I supposed to pick what eight I didn’t want? What a gyp! I looked back at the lady. “Anybody else look in this box tonight?” I asked her.

She shook her head and took a bite of carrot cake from a paper plate. “Not a soul,” she said. “Nobody wants old magazines. They just take up space.”

…. Oh, really…..?

“What happens to these, then? I mean, if nobody wants them?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “They go in the trash, I guess. Why? Do you want them?”

HA!! A trap! Now, play this right… “I guess. There’s some cool stuff in here.” I picked up the Popular Mechanics I had thrown to the side and held them up. “Cars and stuff,” I said. “What time does the sale end?”

She looked at her watch. “About an hour, I guess. You want those, honey, take them.”

Umm… “All of them? You sure? The whole box?”

“Give me fifty cents, it’s yours, honey.”

I practically hit her in the eye with two quarters and started dragging the box across the room. My mother threw a fit when she saw the monsters, but my dad, bless him, said, “What’s it going to hurt?”

The poor man had no idea…

I read those magazines from cover to cover a hundred times. I learned about people like Lon Chaney Sr and his son, Junior. I learned about Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I learned about Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Hammer Studios. I learned about Vincent Price and Roger Corman. I learned about King Kong and Godzilla and Rodan and Mothra. I learned about people named James Whale and Tod Browning, who directed movies. I learned about make-up artists like Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, who made monsters out of actors with grease paint and rubber and yak hair.

It was like wildfire after that. I had to learn more, I had to see more of these movies. I found the model kits by Aurora, so I had my own collection of monsters – Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature from The Black Lagoon, and the one that really freaked me out, The Bride of Frankenstein. A WOMAN MONSTER!!! (I shall refrain from making the obvious joke about my first marriage here…)

In 1981, two things happened that changed my world forever. I found a magazine called Fangoria, and my parents got our first VCR. It was all over after that. I could record horror movies and keep them??? I had managed to sneak into the local movie theatre in 1978 and see a movie everyone was talking about called Halloween, and suddenly, horror had color to it, and that color was blood-red. Fangoria taught me about the man who made Halloween, a genius named John Carpenter, and about other men of blood-red vision like George Romero, Tom Savini, Herschel Gordon Lewis, and Sean Cunningham. And now, I could get my mom to take me to the video store and rent stuff like Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead over and over again?  Are you KIDDING ME??? Oh, it was bliss… pure bliss…

These days, my collection of horror is a thing of beauty, in my humble opinion, of course. I have all of the Universal Monsters. I have the Val Lewton collection. I have every Godzilla movie, and most of the rest of the Japanese rubber-suit monsters as well. I managed to get Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci movies long before DVD’s were even invented. I have what many people think is an unnatural fondness for zombie movies and slasher movies. But, when it comes right down to it, my love of horror still goes back to the monsters. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, they are still  the ones I sharpened my teeth on, pardon the pun, and those are the ones I still like the most. Oh, I like the Saw movies, and the first Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity. But on a rainy weekend afternoon, I am more inclined to put Godzilla Vs. Megalon in the player first, then back it with one of Christopher Lee’s Dracula portrayals, and then round it out with the director’s cut of Dawn of the Dead (the original, not that dumb one with the fast-moving zombies). I will not discuss sparkly Twilight vampires, so do not ask. The only teen vampires that ever worked were Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, end of story. Sparkle, indeed…

Some people hang poster art in their homes, of movies like Gone with the Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Me, I have a poster of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (signed by Gunnar Hansen, the guy who played “Leatherface,” no less) and a huge one-sheet of the Lon Chaney version of Phantom of the Opera. My Phantom doesn’t need to sing about music of the night, he just scares the bejesus out of Christine when she rips his mask off. I have a snow globe of Michael Meyers stabbing a girl from Halloween, and when you shake it, little flakes of red fall everywhere instead of white snow. It sits on a shelf right next to my Hannibal Lecter mask and my Freddy Kruger glove.

And, this week, on AMC’s The Walking Dead? My high school, my alma mater, is featured as a home base for a swarm of zombies. Yes… my high school… where I walked the halls and was the president of the Student Council… is now a featured location on a TV show… about zombies…

I could just cry… it’s just so… so… *sniff*… so perfect… I love Halloween… *sniff*… I really do…

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