Why People Are Getting More and More Neurotic

I spent most of my life just accepting everything in the world. I didn’t think I had any other choice. After all, it was created by adults, and I was just a punk kid taking up space. Then it dawned on me one day that much of what we consider to be normal is not, at all.

Part of the problem is human beings adapt to change very well. We can get used to just about anything. If a fleet of flying saucers landed on the White House lawn tomorrow morning and a bunch of slimy aliens with hundreds of eyeballs got out and said hello, we’d all freak out for a day or two, but then we’d go back to talking about the usual crap. We would move on. The same is true of the following stuff that makes us neurotic but we’ve come to accept as “normal” – – 

FAMILY PHOTOS AND HOME MOVIES

Up until 100 years or so ago, only the wealthy could afford to hire a photographer to get a personal portrait or family photo taken. Before that, people had to be even more wealthy to afford to hire an artist to paint their rough likeness. Before that, if you wanted to see yourself, you had to look into a puddle of water and risk getting your nose bit off by a snapping turtle. As time passed, photography became cheaper and easier. Now that we don’t have to buy film anymore, even the most mundane moments are chronicled – photos of lunch, for example.

But what really makes us neurotic are two things – seeing hundreds of photos and videos of ourselves in the prime of our youths makes getting older harder than ever before, and seeing photos and videos of friends and family who have passed away makes getting over their loss harder than ever before. How many people are out there right now in dark rooms with curtains drawn, longing for the glory days of their youth and/or watching home movies of deceased loved ones for the thousandth time, trapped in the past?  

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BIG CITY LIVING

Human spirits are more suited to village life, walking everywhere, knowing the same few hundred people from birth to death, people who will notice if we friggin’ die in our sleep. In the city, nobody notices somebody is missing until they notice an odor while walking by the house. There is also a lack of accountability in being able to be a total bastard and never get called on it because nobody ever sees anybody twice anyway. It’s the best place to be a prick (or criminal) for those who are so inclined.

POLITICAL DIVISIONS

The division between Republicans and Democrats has never been deeper or more caustic. It seems we’ve lost the ability to talk and maintain some emotional detachment from those who disagree with us. There have always been political differences – some Romans hated Caesar (and kept it to themselves!) and some loved him, and up until recently, people could disagree without hating or wanting to hurt each other. Presidential candidate Ben Carson nailed it when he said, “You can read the public comments under any news story on the internet, and no matter what it’s about, it won’t take long before you see people cursing and threatening each other. Where did this spirit come from? Definitely not from our Judeo-Christian background. Something is wrong in America.” Again, the easiest thing to do (calling people names) is the worst thing to do. If the goal is to truly influence people, we must be respectful. 

RACIAL DIVISIONS

The Civil Rights Movement was a huge success. Ask any eighty-year old black person how their childhood was compared to the lives of the average black child today. A lot of whites got their heads busted open by police batons and got bitten by police dogs during those marches, too. A lot of whites died to end slavery. Most whites are still basically good, as are most members of every race. In fact, most whites bend over backwards to prove how non-racist they are.

But if you watch the news, which seems hellbent on driving us all into a murderous rage, especially if you’re black, you would think nothing had improved. This is because the news is run by the same corporations that regular TV shows are, and they notice a spike in ratings and viewership when they sensationalize and exaggerate stories, and make us all sick and suspicious of each other. People being nice to each other doesn’t make the news, but when someone punches, stabs or shoots someone, they’re all over it. So 99% of the world is getting along great but the other 1% gets all the attention, which gives us a skewed version of reality every day, especially for those who don’t get out of the house much, or don’t get out of their own group much.

Victor Fankl wrote, “There are two races – the decent and the indecent. The best way to end racism is stop thinking and talking about it, for each of us to stop seeing skin color and look to the heart of each person we meet. Again, that’s harder than just categorizing people into groups – black, white, brown, yellow, red, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, etc.

Morgan Freeman said it best in this interview – 

 

BLOGGING

The irony of bloggers spending countless hours alone for the purpose of “communication” is lost on most people. Most people in today’s internet generation actually think Facebook posts are human interaction. They gain confidence when strangers “like” their posts and lose it when followers fall away. Strangers who could be mildly insane for all they know. Strangers they wouldn’t even want to talk to if they met them on the street.

If we insist on pursuing blogging, we should look at losing followers as refining our base, shedding dead weight, separating the grain from the chaff. That is, building a community, albeit digital, of like-minded, like-souled human beings. We should be pleased when someone stops following us the same way we would be happy if someone we didn’t like and who didn’t like us left a party we were attending.

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SOCIAL MEDIA

A friend once posted on Facebook that he couldn’t care less if anybody likes his posts, then I saw him check and re-check that post repeatedly to see how many people had liked and commented on it. Oh, the irony!

Like blogging, especially for teenagers, our self-worth depends far too much on how many “friends” (again, 98% of which we haven’t met and will never meet) we have, how many likes or comments our posts get, etc., and we stare at our iPhones when living human beings who we could actually talk and laugh with are sitting right next to us. So many missed opportunities for real conversations with real people, for the sake of typed, brief comments from strangers on the internet. Who hasn’t seen a couple on a date in a restaurant, both of them staring at their phones? I mean, really, what is happening to us? Are we really going to allow ourselves to be led by the nose like this? Apparently, yes.

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(Find the person with the most peace of mind in this photograph.)

I’m not saying we should all throw away our phones, but for the love of God, can we ignore them while we’re having dinner with family or on a date? Can we resist peeking at every text that comes in for one hour before we rush back to it like a junkie to a needle as soon as our friend or family member says goodbye?

CHANGING SOCIETAL NORMS ABOUT BEAUTY/MASCULINITY

Until the last thirty years or so, men could be thin and women could be a bit chunky, and both found the other wildly attractive anyway. Consider the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies. The butts on some of the women in those movies would be ridiculed today, and the guys, even the ones who were supposed to be “tough”, were wimps by modern standards. 


Nowadays, however, men are supposed to look like Conan the Barbarian and women are supposed to be thin and athletic, but somehow still with large breasts, which consist mainly of fat. Of course, the only people who have absolutely no problem with these impossibly high standards are plastic surgeons and peddlers of fitness programs and equipment. 

CARS

We can’t live without them, but car crashes take over 300 lives a day in America alone. That’s the equivalent of one commercial plane crashing every day. But we accept it because we love the convenience, privacy and sometimes the prestige of our cars. The fact is, however, the human body is not supposed to sit in a steel contraption traveling at high rates of speed. The human mind is not supposed to sit in traffic for hours a day, either. This is why people are so much nicer outside of their cars than inside them.

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PORNOGRAPHY AND VIOLENT IMAGERY

“Oh, God. He’s gonna get all puritanical now. What a sanctimonious pain in the ass.”

 Have you ever watched one of those shows from the 1950’s or 60’s like Leave it to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show? If you’re like most people, part of you probably thought it was quaint or cute, a little boring compared to modern shows due to the lack of swearing and violence, and you saw the characters as somewhat simple-minded and dull.

But were they? The people of the 1950’s had survived two world wars, Korea, the Great Depression, and diseases there was no cure for such as polio. In other words, they saw a lot of death and misery. They weren’t naive and simple, they chose to be wholesome because they had seen so much that wasn’t. Yet despite all that, their minds were pure compared to the average person’s mind today, untainted by the thousands of murders the average TV viewer sees in his or her lifetime, or the sordid and depraved acts the unfortunate patrons of pornography subject their minds to. Porn is not about sex, it’s about domination. It’s customers are men who resent and objectify women, and enjoy seeing them degraded. 

When I was about twenty-one, I went to a friend’s house on a Saturday night. He was having a get-together because his mother (who was divorced) was out of town for the weekend. When I got there, his younger stepbrother had five of his high school friends over. My friend, who was a little older than me, said “watch this” and put a porno movie in the VCR. A montage of graphic sex scenes started to play. I wasn’t the most mature 21-year old in the world but even I could see the irresponsibility in showing children porno. Most of them were quiet as they watched, probably stunned silent, but one of them kept saying, with wide eyes, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God” the same way he might have if he saw something horribly violent. I knew I was watching a brain being re-wired. I knew he was being damaged. It was all in his voice and on his face. Innocence was being smashed. I got up and turned it off. Somebody had to be the adult in the room. But it was too late for all of them.

This is why pornographers intentionally market their “product” to children. There was even a porn site once (before it got shut down) with the address fisney.com because they knew children would accidentally hit the F key next to the D key while typing disney.com. They would immediately see explicit images. Advertisers hired by pornographers consult psychologists the way any other ad agency does. They exploit the natural curiosity children and teenagers have about sexuality and what adults do behind closed doors. Like the Catholic church, they know if they get them as a child, they’ll own them for life.

Most of us are more careful about what we eat than what we feed our mind, then we expect it to have no lasting effect on us. Personally, when I watch an old movie, I envy how childlike and pure their minds were, and I miss how childlike and pure America (and I) used to be. I sometimes feel that America and I lost our innocence at the same time, starting mainly with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam war. What was left our innocence crashed and burned during the 60’s.

Conflict is the essence of drama, so there’s no way around violence, physical or psychological. We’ve got to wade through the bad to get to the good. (Seeing the bad guys get punished and the good guys rewarded.) But it’s a matter of sophistication. A good example of this is the movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. A woman is killed in a shower but we never see the knife piercing her skin. We see a shadowy figure, a knife being raised, see and hear her screaming, the curtain hooks being pulled off one by one as she falls, and blood running down the drain. It was horrifying for its time but extremely tame by today’s standards, even for TV.

In ancient Roman theater, if an actor got an arm cut off in the script, he got an arm cut off. If he died, he actually died. Talk about commitment to the craft! As the centuries passed, we became more civilized. By the time “talking pictures” (movies) were invented, murders were sanitized. Censorship extended this custom. When censorship was lifted, movies gradually became what Bob Dole correctly called “nightmares of depravity and violence.”

Do we really need to see the brains or entrails spill out? Isn’t that what imagination is for? The same is true of sex. In old movies, the couple got into bed, smiled at each other, then pulled the chain on the lamp by the bed. We all knew what happened next. Now we see it all in lurid detail. As the poet Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Show me a well-turned ankle in a white sundress and I’m ready to go. Show me everything at once and it’s hamburger on a plate. I’m not interested.” (Paraphrased.)

I love movies. I love seeing bad guys get taken out. It’s in our blood as human beings to tell stories. But what does it do to the mind to see endless representations of the worst of humanity, even if the movie ends with the good guys winning? Does it help us advance as a species to constantly set the bar so low? Some movies inspire and remind us of the power of cinema to transform minds/hearts, but most are just mental junk food. i.e., “They killed his family. Now he’s out for revenge.” 

So what’s the answer? I’m not moving to a cave in the Himalayas anytime soon, so all I or any of us can do is be careful about what we put in our minds because we become what we think about, be careful not to confuse who we are online with who we really are, and have just a little respect for the sanctity and purity of our inner world. What else do we really own, after all?

The degree to which one scoffs at this idea or writes it off as naive marks two distances – how far they have traveled from their original childlike (some might say God-like) purity, and how far they need to travel from this polluted world to the time when their mind was clean and their heart was happy, before the poisons were willingly and repeatedly ingested. 

There’s no way to say any of the above without sounding preachy. That’s not my intent. In my own life, my intent is to purify my mind/heart/soul because I’ve seen enough of the darkness. I’ve seen people killed up close. A man died in my arms as the blood from a bullet wound in his chest squirted through my fingers. I put my hand on a blood stain on the ground and prayed for the soul of a child who had died there the day before. I’ve walked through murder scenes and scraped coagulated blood off my shoes. I’ve beaten the hell out of two would-be rapists. And I’m not even a soldier or a cop. I’ve just lived in Los Angeles too long.

When I was a teenager, I actually thought I needed to see violent movies and horror movies to prepare myself for this world. As a father now of two girls, I realize, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Violence is not strength, compassion is not weakness.” As James Garner’s character in Murphy’s Romance (the kind of movie that uses conflict wisely) said after walking out of a slasher flick, “I saw that up close in Korea. I’m not going to pay good money to see it again.”

I’ve always had questions and doubts about faith, so it’s difficult for me to be impressed or moved by sermons. But one Sunday something the pastor said rang true for me. He said, “A lot of people think the commandments and other rules Christians strive to live by are meant to take away their fun. But they’re really like street signs and traffic laws. They weren’t created to keep you from driving, they were created to keep you alive and out of trouble.” 

Should we give in to lower impulses or live in an old-fashioned way, like the 1950’s when people still expected something from each other? When no man left the house at night without a suit and hat? When every man carried a handkerchief in his breast pocket, not for himself but for a lady who might need one. When it was shameful for anyone to curse, especially women. When a man who cursed around a woman was guaranteed a punch in the mouth.

Lazy thinking and living is easier, of course, but the bad choices always are. It’s hard to do the right thing, to say no to anything we know will hurt our mind/heart/spirit, just as it’s hard to turn down the slop burger and fries everyone else is eating when we’re trying to get our bodies in shape. So I suppose it’s just a matter of discipline. Nobody ever said being a holy man/woman was easy.

I miss the purity of the 1950’s, and of my own childhood. I guess I always will. I’ve learned all I can learn from the night. From here on in, I’ll take the morning, when the day is as innocent as the baby blue sky, and anything is still possible.

agori

 

Man Snaps, Says “Computer Made Me Do It”

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Another incident of “computer-induced mania” struck today, an increasingly common phenomena which affects mainly inexperienced computer users. A man identified as Lester P. Turtletaub, attempting to learn how to operate a new computer and complete a complicated formatting task in one evening, suddenly lost control of his faculties. In the words of his friends and family, he just “snapped.” 

The man, who hadn’t slept in close to 48 hours, had been making numerous unsuccessful attempts to navigate the many commands of his new “user-friendly” laptop computer. His roommate reports that he looked into his room several times throughout the night, only to see him sitting before the computer screen with a vacant gaze, muttering “demon machine.”

“He hadn’t blinked in such a long time,” his roommate states, “dust had collected on his eyeballs. I was very concerned about him.” He attempted to speak to him but received only an incomprehensible grunt in return, a sound he likened to that of “Frankenstein’s Monster.” 

His roommate had left for work when a next-door neighbor heard what she describes as “an unearthly wail” coming from the house. “It sent chills up my spine,” she said.

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Moments later, she heard the same voice in the rear yard of the property screaming, “Mock me, will you? I’ll kick the gigabytes out of you! Die, electronic Satan!” Curious, she looked over the fence and saw the man apparently attempting to “drown” the laptop computer in the swimming pool. 

“He’s normally such a nice young man so I asked him what he was doing,” the neighbor reports. His response, the neighbor tearfully recounted, was, “For once in your life, mind your own damn business, you meddling old heifer!” 

A short time later, his SUV was heard screeching out of the driveway. Numerous reports to 911 emergency lines were then received from various retail outlets and restaurants about a man tearing around like a maniac, knocking shoppers flying in every direction, and taking cuts in line, all the while yelling, “Out of my way! It’s my birthday, dammit!” (This unfortunate string of events also apparently took place on the man’s birthday.) 

It was later discovered that Mr. Turtletaub had purchased several dozen strips of plywood at a local Home Depot, twelve family-size buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, three loaves of white bread, two tubs of Jif peanut butter, three 12-packs of Coca-Cola, and a case of David’s sunflower seeds, intending to fashion a bunker out of his residence and binge on his favorite foods. 

Failing to heed his previous warning, the neighbor casually approached the deranged man as he was boarding up a window. Before she could ask him why he was doing this, he wrapped her up in duct tape, taped her onto a piece of plywood, secured it to the hitch of his Ford Pinto, and sped up and down the street at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour, all the while yelling out the window, “See what happens when you don’t mind your own (expletive) business? What was that? I can’t hear you!” The woman declined medical attention, saying, “It was actually kind of fun.” When she enthusiastically asked him to “do it again”, Mr. Turtletaub was enraged even further. 

Though being pursued by angry neighbors, he was then able to barricade himself in his residence. After a standoff that lasted almost three days, the man finally emerged from the house of his own volition. Apparently, the mania which had enveloped him suddenly wore off and he came out of the building in a disheveled state, squinting in the bright sunlight, his face greasy with chicken fat and peanut butter. He was nearly shot by a rookie police officer who mistook the drumstick he was holding for a gun. 

The main reason the standoff lasted so long was that the police were not sure if Turtletaub was armed. It was finally determined that he wasn’t, mainly because throughout the ordeal he did nothing but throw old sandwich curbs and chicken bones from open windows at SWAT officers who got too close to the house. At one point, he did employ a slingshot to fire at an officer what was later determined to be a Hot Tamale candy. The Tamale struck the officer in the neck, causing a slight welt. 

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Suspect’s weapon of choice.

As paramedics took the man away amid a media frenzy, he was heard muttering, “It’s my birthday. Why was the computer so mean to me? It made me do that bad stuff. You should arrest it!”

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He was transported to the nearby Shady Pines Rest Home for psychiatric evaluation. Staff members at Shady Pines report that he is recovering. Once his fitness to stand trial is established, he will be charged with assault with a deadly weapon (said Hot Tamale candy) he fired at the police officer. The neighbor who was taken on what she now calls “the plywood ride” refused to press charges and asked us to thank Mr. Turtletaub for giving her “the most fun she’s had in ages.” 

Captain Roger E. Kaputnick, who spoke with the neighbor at the hospital, reports, “Mr. Turtletaub will be charged with assault with or without the neighbor’s consent, but I do so very reluctantly. After speaking with her for only a minute or two, I felt like doing the same thing myself. She asked me a lot of very personal questions. That is one nosey, old heifer.”

By Irving P. Schmendrick, Staff Reporter.

A Book About Old Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is almost here! If you’d like to really explore what it’s like to be Irish, it’s all in my father’s memoir about his childhood and early youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 1933 to 1957. I wish he were still alive to sign a copy, but I’ll be proud and happy to sign it for him. Please send me a message here for details if you’d like me to send you a copy.
To give you an idea of what the book is about, here’s the foreword I wrote for it (for those of you who can still read for more than thirty seconds without A.D.D. kicking in.) 🙂 –
 
If my father were asked to tell every story and joke he knows, every member of the audience would expire of old age before he ran out. He has filled my head with so many wild and colorful tales over the years, I thought it was a great idea when he told me he wanted to finish writing his memoir. For four decades, he had scribbled his memories of his youth in Belfast in notebooks, which were yellowed with time and languishing in ancient boxes in his garage. I volunteered to find them and help patch them together. It has been a monumental task, mainly because the notebooks were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just when I thought the book was finished, he would tell me another story that the book couldn’t possibly do without.
 
It’s no mystery what happens to things we don’t appreciate. Eventually, we lose them. Some things in life are bound to be lost whether we appreciate them or not, but some can be saved if we are willing to make the effort, until they too are swallowed by time forever. The young traditionally turn a deaf ear to older people; the very people they can learn the most from. It’s yet another way that youth is wasted on the young; an ancient paradox.
 
There’s an old saying: “When an elderly person dies, it’s like a vast library burning to the ground.” The older the person, the more epic the tale. Conquering ourselves can make just as compelling a story as conquering a foreign power. Exploring our own spirits can be every bit as perilous and full of discovery as exploring the world outside ourselves. It has been said that artistic expression is simply the desire to capture the beauty and drama of life and put it into a more permanent and lasting form. The things in life most in danger of being taken for granted are those we perceive to be perennial. As Longfellow observed, “If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change!” And so it is with everything.
 
When I was a boy, I saw a Disney movie called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Darby was an old man and my dad was young then so I didn’t make the connection between him and Darby, the charming, old tale-spinner, but I do now. Like Darby, he never runs out of stories to tell, tells them with great aplomb, and doesn’t mind “gilding the lily” once in a while for dramatic effect. As an old writer’s saying goes, “Never let the truth ruin a good story.” In his spoken tales, anything can happen, but this book is the gospel truth. It is his life, after all, and as he put it, he wants to make sure he “gets it right.”
 
As a child, my father’s stories were as natural a part of life to me as the seasons. At Los Angeles pubs and weekend parties with “the Irish crowd”, he could always be found entertaining his friends, who would nod with understanding at the old ways his stories celebrated. Non-Irish people were usually present as well, and I was always impressed by the way he could enchant even them, the uninitiated. The tales he spun usually ended on a humorous note and as I sat playing with friends somewhere in the distance, I came to recognize the group’s eruption of laughter as the end of one of his jokes or stories.
 
He is also a tenor and has entertained the same crowd for decades. At weddings, funerals, or any other event, someone will inevitably say, “Get Rickerby up for a song!” I watched him sing Danny Boy a hundred times growing up, or some obscure ballad from the old country that would cause everyone’s eyes to well with tears, or a raucous, bawdy, tavern song that would get them all up dancing, and was always amazed by his ability to make people feel more emotion than they otherwise might have. I’m sure witnessing that wonderful, magical power was what made me want to become an artist.
 
Still, my Irish heritage held no great allure for me as a child. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it was the California lifestyle I identified with – the beach, surfing, the glittery and false world of Hollywood. Belfast was as obscure to me as the Himalayas, and I had no desire to bring it closer.
 
But it wasn’t just my own lack of interest that prevented me from embracing my heritage. As I was growing up in the 1970’s, my parents and I were constantly angered by news stories coming out of Ireland with sickening regularity of yet another bombing or shooting. All my life, the house would fall silent during these reports, and I could feel my parents’ dismay permeate the house, which had been light and cheerful moments before. This ritual was repeated dozens of times over the years, and it left its marks on my heart. The longer the conflict dragged on, the more anger I felt toward the Irish people responsible for such acts and for their apparent unwillingness or inability to settle their differences without violence.
 
It’s easy for me to condemn them because I had never been immersed in “the troubles.” Hate is a learned emotion. Like many civil wars around the world rooted in ancient grievances, intolerance is passed along from parent to child like a hereditary disease. Everyone has a story to tell about who did what to whom, even if it’s just something they heard about and didn’t experience themselves. Hatred becomes so entrenched over time that the only solution to the stubborn conflicts constantly raging in the world’s hot zones might be to take every newborn child to some remote island for a hundred years or so, tell them nothing about where they’re from, let the hatred and resentment die off in the people left behind, then bring them back and repopulate the place. Obviously, that is completely impossible, so we’re all stuck with ourselves as much as we’re stuck with whomever we consider to be “the enemy.”
 
My father has had a long-standing correspondence with the British Consulate and has appeared on numerous radio and talk shows since the early 1970’s discussing the situation in Northern Ireland. He has also contributed many articles to the Los Angeles Times on the subject. When I was about ten years old, I stumbled upon a pamphlet hidden in the bottom of a drawer. It contained graphic photos of the aftermath of an IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombing. One of the photos looked like a charred tree branch on a metal gurney. The caption below it read, “This is what the IRA did to a six year-old girl.” Only then did I make out the shape of a small body, which had curled into the fetal position as the fire sucked all the moisture out. I stared at that photo in horrified fascination until I felt the impulse to vomit. It was my first introduction to barbarity, and I couldn’t believe human beings were capable of doing such things to each other. My resilient young mind was able to bury the image somehow, and I went on with my childhood. But the image was never really gone, and like most Americans, I began to associate Ireland with terrorism.
 
It was only through exposure to my parents’ kindly Irish friends, both Protestant and Catholic, meeting the warm-hearted people of Ireland during trips back to “the old country,” and watching movies like The Quiet Man that I was made aware of another Ireland. It may have been a romanticized version, as Darby O’Gill and the Little People was, but this world has always required romanticizing and probably always will.
 
My father wrote a poem in 1972 which helped teach me that although the people of Ireland have their differences and too often live up to the pugnacious, hot-tempered, hard-drinking stereotype they’re famous for, they are for the most part very kind-hearted and decent, north or south. I suspect the same is true of people anywhere. As a young man told me in a Belfast pub during my last visit there in 2002, “The Irish get along with everyone, except each other.”
 
This is my father’s poem.
 
ULSTER
 
There are those who say that Ulster
is a place of hate and pain.
But many who have left it
would still go back again.
The strangers do not see
behind the bombs and flames and smoke
And fail to see the character
of the kindly Ulster folk.
But we have memories of the days
when we were young and gay,
Of carefree romps through Ormeau Park
or over Cave Hill’s Bray.
The Saturdays at Windsor,
the Sundays by the sea,
The bathing belles at Pickie,
the sands at Donaghadee.
Our best suit pressed and ready
and we were Plaza-bound
But first a stop at Mooney’s
and pints bought all around.
The Sunday morning papers,
the bacon and dip bread,
Then a dander to the castle
where all the scores are read.
Back to work on Monday,
the weekend’s tales are told
While the oldsters smile and chuckle
as our youthful tales unfold.
A new girl in the office,
she’s a quare wee bit o’ stuff.
Is she going strong, you wonder,
as you act so big and tough.
Those were the days; there is no doubt,
as my memory wanders back.
That is what we all recall,
not the rifle’s crack.
Will it ever be the same, you ask.
Will today’s kids ever know
The simple life we all enjoyed
a long, long time ago.
 
Even with introductions like that, I continued to ignore and deny my Irish heritage. After all, that was their world, not mine. My parents took me to Irish fairs every summer as a child, and though I felt oddly at home there (Joseph Campbell called it “recognizing one’s tribe”), I couldn’t stand the music, the dancing looked silly to me, the food was awful, and I just wanted to go home and play baseball in the street with my friends. I remained stubbornly Californian, but my parents never seemed to mind. My father would just laugh when I complained about the Irish music he played in the car during long trips and would give the universal parental response, “When you have your own car, you can pick the music.” This open antagonism only caused me to further deny their culture. Then came the onslaught of adolescence and the conformity to peers that it demanded. My attitude did not improve.
 
As the years passed, I met the parents of many American friends and couldn’t help noticing, as awful as it sounds, how inanimate their homes seemed to be compared to my own. There was little and often none of the laughter, singing, storytelling, sharing of poems, endless jokes and incessant ribbing that went on in my house. Being young, I even took their bored demeanors personally at times. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally realized that their parents were actually just boring in comparison. There were exceptions, of course, and maybe I just had the bad luck of crossing paths with a lot of dullards. Whatever the case, I finally stopped taking my own parents and all their wonderful quirks for granted. I began to realize how lucky I was to have been raised in an atmosphere bursting with so much humor, music, and whimsy – traits the Irish are famous for the world over. Until then, I had mistakenly assumed such qualities to be commonplace.
 
So what did I do after this epiphany? Relish every moment with my parents? Record their stories for posterity? Tell them every day how lucky I felt to be their son? No. I wasn’t much different from most young people so I let many more years pass before making any grand demonstrations of my esteem for them, or making any permanent record of the tales they told. However, this time, it was not due to lack of appreciation on my part. It was ordinary, old-fashioned denial. I was in my mid-twenties before the full breadth of what I had in them finally dawned on me.
 
I had found my father’s tattered notebooks in a box years earlier and thought about encouraging him to finish his memoir, but on a subconscious level I felt that if I did I would be acknowledging the fact that the stories would someday end; that my parents would not always be with me. That thought made me too uncomfortable, so like most of us do, I lived as if we were all immortal, as if death only existed for other people, as if my parents would be with me forever. Though I had begun to toy with the idea of being a writer, I all but ignored the greatest sources of inspiration and the deepest wellsprings of experience in my life. Many more years would pass before the old notebooks would be rescued from the dusty garage.
 
Then tragedy struck. My older brother and only sibling, who had been battling a heroin addiction for over ten years, died suddenly of an overdose at the age of thirty-seven just when we all thought he was finally getting his life together. For years since we became aware of his problem, we feared it might happen and did everything in our power to prevent it. The last ditch effort he made to stay clean toward the end of his life had raised our hopes for him higher than they had ever been. When he died, my parents and I were utterly devastated.
 
I was not a complete stranger to death. I had lost all of my grandparents by that time except for my maternal grandmother. However, their deaths were an abstraction to me because they all lived in Ireland, and I had only met them briefly on two short trips there. When they died, I felt sadness but mostly for my parents’ sake. A robbery victim had also died in my arms on a Los Angeles street, and I had lost a close friend to leukemia. But my brother’s death hit me over the head with everything I had been denying for so long – that life most certainly does not go on forever, that death will come for all of us eventually, and that we must celebrate the people we love in every way possible while they are alive. As the poet Andrew Marvell wrote,
 
The grave’s a fine and private place
but none I think do there embrace.
 
Several years ago, I was talking with my friend, an actor named Colin Cunningham, who is also the son of Belfast immigrants. My parents and his met in Canada when they were young and have been friends ever since. His father and mine were dancing together (or “acting the eejit” as they would say in Ireland.) During a break in the laughter, he said to me, “Do you realize that if we don’t marry Irish girls, the whole Irish thing is over? Once our parents are gone, that’s it. It all dies with them. They’re part of a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” I nodded in agreement, and as I watched our fathers carrying on, it struck me how true his words were. I had already let so much slip past. I vowed again silently to myself that I would not let the folklore of my parents’ lives die. I would help my father finish his book, this book, once and for all.
 
I didn’t run off to the Emerald Isle to find an Irish girl to marry. I married for love, not background (though I have taught my wife how to do a passable Irish accent and sing “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers.) So my way of preserving the magical world I was given is the book you are now holding in your hands – tales of a simpler time in an infinitely less perilous world. As my father said with a cracking voice at my brother’s eulogy to all of his friends gathered in the small church, every one of them heartbroken along with us, “There are evils in the modern
world we never dreamed of as kids back in Ireland.”
 
There are, and my heart is heavy with them. This world has become a minefield of dangers not only to the body but to the mind and spirit as well. So as well as a record, this book is also an escape. It was an escape during a difficult time for my father and I to work on it together. I hope it will be an escape for you to read it.
 
I’m not sure what drove my father to write these stories down over the years. His great love is singing, not writing. But my guess is it was plain, old homesickness. He left Belfast at the age of twenty-four and could not afford to return until he was thirty-five. Those eleven years were a struggle, especially with two boys to feed. He had quit school at fourteen to support his family so he had no fancy degrees to flash at potential employers. That kind of pressure can give rise to a lot of fond reminiscing. Most of the stories are in their original form. Others were gleaned more recently during conversations, some of which I secretly recorded so that his natural storytelling abilities would not be impeded. Others are new to me as well; stories he held onto until someone expressed the proper interest in hearing them. This book is forty years in the making, and the old stories are finally seeing the light of day.
 
I wish that I’d had the same desire to read them when I was a teenager and my father and I seemed to be at odds about everything. It surely would have helped me understand him more and resent him less. This project has taught me how little I really knew about him. It has also made me wonder how many other people there are who don’t know their loved ones as well as they imagine they do, and how many other dusty memoirs are decomposing in drawers or boxes all over the world. There are things that just don’t come up in conversation that can be told to an old journal when the kids are asleep and the world is quiet.
 
We often don’t understand the behavior of our family members, or anyone else for that matter, because we don’t know the whole story. Understanding another is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. If there are pieces missing, the whole picture never becomes clear and we continue to be baffled by their surface behavior. Finding the missing pieces and completing the picture of my father’s life has been one of the most rewarding adventures of my own, and it has increased my love and compassion for him immensely.
 
One word of warning: My father can be a bit, well, gross. He loves to shock people. A few chapters are both gross and shocking. In assisting my father with this book, I entertained the idea of leaving them out but changed my mind, for to do so would be to leave the portrait unfinished. The kind of person who would be offended is exactly the kind of person my father directs this kind of humor at like little bombs. The fact is, he enjoys it and feels they deserve it for taking life and themselves too seriously.
 
So, these are the tales of a little town called Belfast in the first half of the twentieth century, a time and place less sophisticated but also far less treacherous than the world I find myself in today, the world that took my brother and almost destroyed the spirits of my mother and father. However, the most common adjective placed before the expression Irish spirit is “irrepressible”, and since my brother died I have been given the grandest demonstration of this that anyone ever could. During the first year or so after his death, I didn’t think my parents or I would ever recover or that any of us would ever laugh or smile again. It just didn’t seem possible. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one, particularly a child, will know what I mean. But I have seen my parents’ spirits rise again, even through this, in spite of this. Not even the loss of their first-born son can suppress forever the beauty and vibrancy of their souls, and it shouldn’t. We do no honor to those we have lost by lying
down and dying next to them.
 
So, from the devastation of that horror, the humor has risen again, and the stories are being told once more, as irrepressible as ever, always one more just when I think I must have heard them all. And my parents have begun to sing again.
 
Much has been written and said about the tenacity of the Irish, how they conquer everything with a joke or a song. For instance, an Irish wake is a happy occasion, not a somber one, a party meant to celebrate the life of the departed. To a stranger, it appears to be madness, singing in the midst of such pain, but it is the singing that saves them from madness. The stories, the laughter and the singing are what have preserved and upheld the spirit of the Irish race through wars, famines, persecution, and all the other woes which have befallen that lyrical and tragic land. Likewise, my parents and I will go on living, as we must, and we’ll honor the good that there was in my brother’s life the same way the Irish always have, with a humorous tale told with an open heart and a tear sparkling in the eye.
 
So come with me now, friend, to a simpler day
Just for a moment, ‘fore you’re back in the fray.
There are just a few people I’d like you to meet
Over that hill there and down the next street.
You might recognize them as family because
Half the world’s Irish – and half wishes it was!
 
Mark Rickerby © 2008
 
 

Little Ways (poem about the end of a love affair)

I wrote this poem decades ago and found it yesterday in an ancient journal inside a forgotten box at the back of a cabinet, but the time and events it describes were not so obscure in my memory. The highest and lowest moments tend to stay in the mind and heart as well as that old box stayed in the cabinet.

I remember reading a poem by Charles Bukowski wherein he attempted to answer the question most commonly asked of him – “How can I become a great writer?” He gave advice in the form of a list, but the only piece of advice that repeated was “Have a stormy love affair.”

Pain makes us think, thinking makes us wise, and wisdom (i.e., lessons learned) gives us something worth writing about. 

Dried up Roses

Little Ways

Again, I lie down tired but empty
as though I have walked a great distance
through cold and dismal streets.
I have grown used to sleeping alone.

Love dies so slowly, in little ways.

Separate, you have given me more
than I ever would have allowed you to
beside me.
Loneliness and regret
are harsh but patient teachers
with cold hands and gentle eyes.

With no more you to hide in, the mirror is too clear.
Every flaw is exposed
and I can’t bear to look for too long.
But when I force myself, for my own good,
a man with haunted eyes looks back at me
and I wonder what compels him
to chase all the goodness from his life.
How much can be learned from the night?
I turn away from the mirror and go on with my day.
And love dies a little more,
but only the amount that living demands.

Six months after you left,
I took your photo from the shelf,
but not from its frame.
I put it, frame and all, in a box,
at the back of a closet.

Today, a little stronger,
I used the frame for a new photo
of some more recent, peaceful moment,
and filed yours away,
to be taken up again sometime, years from now,
when the person pictured there
is little more than a stranger to me,
someone I once cared about.
The laughter and the pain,
the peace and the mayhem
will be all but forgotten.
And the love . . .
it will be dead by then, I suppose.

The bouquet of flowers you collected
hung on the wall until only last week.
I took them down
knowing that what they had represented
had withered along with them.

In reality, the colors
created in that long-ago springtime
faded the moment you left.
I just refused to notice.

Gathering dust, they hung on the wall,
a museum piece from some happier time.
They were brittle in my hands
and some of the buds crumbled to the floor.
I walked to the trash but,
cursing myself, my heart,
I stopped, unable to throw them away.
I put them in a vase instead
as if they were still alive
knowing it was not healthy,
knowing I should move on,
take another chance, etcetera, etcetera.
I knew, but I put them in a vase anyway
on the shelf where your photo used to be
to be ignored for just a little while longer.

Love dies so slowly,
so slowly,
in little ways.

Because if it happened all at once,
we would be swallowed up by darkness
and crushed beneath all that tragedy.

Touring Paris with Jim Morrison – My Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book Angels and Miracles

 

Angels and Miracles

When I was twenty-seven years old, I traveled to Paris alone. Shortly after my arrival, I met a local woman named Lauren who offered to show me around the city. I asked her to take me to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. She thought it was strange that, of all the sites of Paris, I wanted to see a graveyard first.

At that time in my life, I was obsessed with finding out what happens when people die, mainly because I had lost a good friend to a car accident several years earlier. She was one of the kindest people I had ever known. I was aware of the personal responsibility argument, but I still couldn’t understand why God would let that happen to her.

After she died, I started reading everything I could about near-death experiences and accounts of the afterlife. I also became drawn to old cemeteries, and even conducted a séance in one. I didn’t expect to communicate with my friend, and had been warned by more faithful friends that I might attract malevolent spirits, but I did it anyway because even if something bad happened, I would at least know that there was something beyond life, and that my friend might still be alive in some way. The need for hope made me reckless. Words didn’t comfort me. I needed a real experience.

Pere-Lachaise Cemetery was established in 1806 so many notable artists and luminaries are buried there such as Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Frederic Chopin. However, the grave I was most interested in seeing was Jim Morrison’s, the lead singer of The Doors, because I had been exploring his music and writings for months before this trip.

In case you’ve never seen it, here are a few shots of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery – 

I became interested in Jim Morrison’s music and poetry because he shared my obsession with death and the afterlife, perhaps because of a similar experience – he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a child. His poetry and raging vocals gave a voice to the darkness in me. He wrote and sang like an animal crying out in pain. There was no self-consciousness or desire to please, just raw energy. In an era of peace and love, he crashed the party and reminded everyone that the dark side was still there.

The morning of the day we went to the cemetery, Lauren and I were at a Laundromat when a young Parisian man with long, blonde hair and denim overalls came over, introduced himself as Henri, and handed Lauren an Origami rose he had just made. He looked just like a “hippy” from the 60’s and, we would discover, had the same loving nature most of them strived for. We thanked him and complimented his artistry. After talking for an hour or so, he wrote down his address and invited us to dinner that evening. We accepted.

We went to the cemetery later that day. It was very crowded. When Lauren asked someone why, we learned that we had accidentally visited on the anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, July 3rd. That was the first coincidence.

A large crowd was gathered around his grave in reverent silence. As I read his grave marker and calculated his age, I discovered the second coincidence . . . I was the same age then that he was when he died – twenty-seven.

As I sat by his grave, I recalled the lines from his poetry that meant the most to me at that time.

“We must tie all these desperate impressions together.”

“I can forgive my injuries in the name of wisdom, luxury, romance.”

“Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of god. Wandering, wandering in hopeless night.”

A man with dreadlocks played People Are Strange on a guitar. A young girl started to cry. Her boyfriend put his arm around her. It began to rain softly, as if her sadness was affecting heaven itself.

I wondered what Jim might say if he saw us all. I imagined it might be something like, “Cheer up. I’m only dead.” After all, he had referred to death as a “beautiful friend” and asked, “Can you picture what will be? So limitless and free.” Unfortunately for those who loved him, he wasn’t afraid of dying.

That night, we took the metro across town to Henri’s apartment. His girlfriend and another couple were there. They all looked like flower children, too. We all got along wonderfully.

It was a warm night so Lauren and I sat by a window. I looked out and noticed a mural of a man’s face on the front wall of an apartment building across the street. I wasn’t able to make out who it was at first, but as I focused, I realized it was Jim Morrison! I asked Henri why it was there. He said, “That’s where he died.” He pointed to a window and said, “That was his apartment, right there.”

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That was the third and most chilling coincidence. We had not mentioned to Henri at the Laundromat that we were planning to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that day. In all of Paris, what were the chances of ending up across the street from the apartment where he died a few hours later? I imagined Jim had guided me there through Henri, a free spirit he would have liked and identified with.

I looked at the window of Jim’s old apartment again and saw the silhouette of a male figure passing behind the curtains. My rational mind knew it was just the current tenant, but my imagination had become unhinged. It was Jim, alive and well, pacing the floor, working on a new poem. 

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I looked at the portrait on the wall again, illuminated by soft moonlight, and it seemed to be smiling playfully at my bewilderment. But that feeling turned into comfort as I imagined it was Jim’s way of thanking me, not just for reading his work but for getting to the soul of it. I like to believe that artists who have passed on know when someone is savoring their creations, and that they smile for a moment before returning to whatever they’re doing in heaven. I hope so.

Lauren and I said goodnight to our new friends and walked down the street toward the metro. When we reached the corner, I asked her to wait for me. I walked back to the portrait on the wall and looked up at the window of Jim’s former apartment, lit with a soft, yellow light. I tried to remember the William Blake line that inspired the name of Morrison’s band . . . “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

I had been living in a cavern, but for the first time in years, death didn’t seem so final. Everything did seem infinite. I thought of the friend I had lost and finally felt a little peace. I closed my eyes, touched the mural of Jim’s face, whispered “thank you”, and walked away into the Paris night, into life.

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“This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles © 2016 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.”

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. Episode 21 – The Fungal Bungle

Welcome to episode 21 of Messin’ with Mark!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – Fungal Bungle!

I was in Brugge, Belgium, in the first month of what would turn out to be a six-month backpacking trip through Europe and the Greek Islands. I got so carried away sightseeing with new friends that I forgot to call my parents. I was staying at a youth hostel but their phone was out of order. This was back in the day before cell phones. (Yeah, I’m getting up there. Don’t give me a hard time about it.) I was feeling very guilty because I had promised my mother I would call her at a certain time every week to let her know I was still alive. An employee of the hostel said, “I have to go home and get something. You’re welcome to use my phone.” I thought this was very generous of him and I gladly accepted, telling him I would reverse the charges.

We had a pleasant conversation on the way there. He pointed me toward the phone and sat in the living room. As I chatted with my parents, I was somewhat repulsed by the sight of my generous host picking bits of flesh from between his toes due to an advanced case of athlete’s foot or some other fungal infection. I retched slightly, turned away so I wouldn’t have to witness this unsavory spectacle any longer, and was able to put the horror of it out of my mind and finish the phone call.

We got back on the road and I was enjoying the scenery so much I forgot about the fungus among-us. He stopped at a market. I went in with him and bought a bag of peanuts and a Coke. We got back into the car and were about halfway back to the hostel when I realized I hadn’t offered him any of my peanuts. How rude of me! He gladly accepted and took a few handfuls as we talked about life in Belgium, my travel plans, my life back in California, etc., when two things suddenly dawned on me –

  1. He didn’t wash his hands after picking at his foot scabs and fresh pustules.
  2. He was using the same hand to eat MY peanuts!

The problem was I had already ingested several handfuls of peanuts before I made this realization. 

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Uh-huh. I had swallowed and was now digesting the foot fungus of a complete stranger. I mean, if you’re going to snack on foot bacteria, you at least would prefer that it belong to a close friend or family member. 

I managed to keep it together and stay very stoic so he wouldn’t catch on that I was worried about his disease-riddled hand, but inside I felt like the sleeping guy in those prank videos that is woken up by all his friends pretending they’re about to crash. 

car-prank-bachelor-party(winterrowd.com)

As is usually the case, I didn’t realize I was smack-dab-o-rooney in the middle of another episode of Messin’ with Mark until this moment. I looked up and thought to God, “You’re at it again, aren’t ya?” I could almost hear the laughter from above the clouds. 

I remembered hearing that the acid in Coca-Cola could dissolve rust so I guzzled, gargled and rinsed with it, hoping it would do a similar number on the fungus I had just snacked upon. Then I stuck my head out of the window and spit out the peanut fragments that were in my mouth from the last handful. The ones that were in my stomach – well, I figured I would just have to wait to find out if I would be seeing them again. I was repulsed but not quite badly enough to vomit outright. 

When I had shaken off the nausea, I handed him the bag and said he could finish them. He eagerly polished them off, his foot flakes and oils blending with the peanut salt. I sat silently, struggling to keep my stomach right-side-up as the car filled with an aroma that now smelled like a foot covered with peanut sauce. 

I spent the rest of the trip with my head partially out the window like a labrador to escape the retched odor, thinking what I always do at the end of another episode of Messin’ with Mark . . .

“Well played, God. Well played.” 

god-laughing

 

 

 

The Withered, Old Stick (love poem)

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In my garden, there was a withered, old stick.
It was a beautiful flower, before it got sick.
I tried to pluck it but, with a defiant stance,
My wife said, “Don’t, honey. Give it a chance.”

Many months passed and the stick didn’t grow.
It just stood there laughing at me and my hoe.
(A gardening tool, not my wife. Come on!) 
But I kept my word and left the old stick alone.
A full year passed and it still hadn’t grown.

Then one morning while pruning a plant nearby,
Something green to my right attracted my eye.
A delicate bud had come up through the earth.
The old stick was not dead! It was a rebirth!

All that time, my wife never once gave up hope.
I called her to see it, though I felt like a dope.
I should have known she was right – for, you see,
Long, long ago, she did the same thing with me.