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It was all about the ads.

Posted by christinkeck on May 18, 2015 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

For many years now, I’ve been enjoying MadMen for the singular reason that it so accurately reflected the days leading up to the Big Change in our lives—the transition from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Of all the things this show did well, that was probably my number one delight; the show so poignantly portrayed these times, and the ways our lives, our attitudes and our psyches changed, that it was almost scary—like looking at a crystal ball in reverse.


But sadly, the series finale showed us something else entirely. It turned out that this show wasn’t about the changes at all. It was about the ADS.


I confess to extreme disappointment in the finale. I’m disappointed that Matthew Weiner and company treated the massive changes in our culture with such shallowness at the end. To think that after the heartbreaking emotional epiphany of Don Draper, that the best he could do with his life after was go back and create the “I’d like to Teach the World” ad for Coca-Cola—really? It felt like that soul breakthrough had been diminished, as if everything he (and we) learned at the retreat was reduced to mere salesmanship. We learned nothing about Don from watching him break down completely. All we learned is that whatever changes took place within him, and whatever breakthrough there was, it was ultimately just SALABLE.


And no one else really changes either. Not Betty—in our last view of her she is shown sitting morosely at the kitchen table, smoking away, while Sally does dishes. Sally doesn’t; she still struggles between youthful dreaming and duty, and you can tell that’s going to be no different for a very long time. Pete says he’s changed, but probably not; we only see him triumphantly boarding a Lear with wife and daughter, but nowhere in the lead-up to this does it show how life has worked on him or why; he remained irascible and tightly wound until the very last scene with Trudy. Peggy doesn’t change despite that arrogant, sunglasses-sporting teaser during her delayed entrance into McCann. She’s settled in so happily to her new office and diminished responsibilities that she can’t accept Joan’s fabulous offer of a partnership where she would be her own boss. There’s only a hint of Peggy’s resilience in the brief scene where she claims her account back from the female shark who stole it, and even then, she invokes “Bob” as her shield and sword.


Roger doesn’t change, not really. He still considers his life worthwhile only as long as it is wrapped around a crazy woman, and a child who will never call him “Daddy.” There was nothing different about this Roger and the previous Rogers, only the name of the woman is different. And it’s just like he said to Joan—no one really cares. The only person who really grows—who uses the wounds that the era had inflicted and who lets the scars define her new persona, is Joan—and thank goodness for that one—because of all the characters who needed the changes that the 1970’s brought along, she was at the top of my list. No other character in this series showed with as much eloquence and infuriating frustration what a woman had to go through to get ahead in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I was thrilled to see her outcome. Kick the rich guy to the curb, start up your own business. YES. It’s about damned time.


The big change we were all praying for was Don’s. And it seemed like the episodes that led up to the finale all pointed to a gradual foreshadowing of what had to come eventually. Nearly everyone gave Don their “honest” opinion of what made him insufferable, from Mathis (“you're just handsome!")  to Sally ("you both just ooze.")  and even, gently, Betty (“I’m younger than you—always was, always will be.") and of course, Megan (“you ruined my life." )   Even the symbolic and not-too-subtle broken Coke Machine scene at the Kansas motel, led to the eventuality that Don would have to confront himself and his shortcomings fairly soon. But we had to wait until the very, very end which gave short shrift to the entire event by compressing seven seasons of repressed emotion into a 30-second hug with a stranger.


Then, we find out it wasn’t really a change at all. Not really. Not one we could build on. What we got instead was the AD FOR IT.


There was Don, broken Coke machine of a man. He’s just had—finally—a breach over the thick , nearly impenetrable wall that has defined his “mystique” all these years. He’s allowed himself to look in the mirror and what he has seen is the monster he really is. He’s summed himself up to Peggy, of all people, who suddenly has nothing to say about it, but who keeps urging him to “come home” and resume working, incredulously letting us all know that McCann would take him back in a heartbeat (Really? Really???) The wall crumbles. The flood begins—then it ends abruptly. We don’t ever get to see this “new” Don, the “new” peace he has found except for the silly “om” scene and a Mona-Lisa smile. Don. Draper. Chanting. OM. Yeah.


It was just too pat, too easy. And the result—that iconic singing commercial that made Coke into both a Titan and a joke at the same time—is that what we should expect of a life-change that broke the unbreakable, flooding the desert of Don Draper’s soul? A change that swept away all the past mistakes and promised redemption at long last? That’s what we get? Cue Peggy—not Olsen--LEE. Is that all there is?


Yup. That’s it. That’s all there is.


It was always just about the Ads. Not the change. Not the people. Just the Ads.


Is that how we ought to be remembering these pivotal times? By the ads? By what got sold? It is according to Weiner. We can reduce everything we went through, everything we felt then and feel now and even our nostalgia about it, to a calendar determined by which commercials were on the air. It was never about the characters—it was always about the ads. The people didn’t matter.


This was, in a way, foreshadowed when Don asked everyone to imagine their future and the future of SC&P: both Peggy and Ted both said they hoped for a big account. Peggy wanted to “create a catchphrase.” Ted wanted a big pharmaceutical. Don, presumably unsatisfied with these ambitions, could only gaze out the window or press on the window pane, as if testing it to see how much pressure it would take to break, while supposedly pondering these ideas. And he cannot echo the sentiments expressed, as Peggy so eloquently reminds him, but shits on their dreams. Then, when he is given the box lunch at the Miller meeting, he sits through what was undoubtedly the most truthful and hurtful mirror to date: another ad exec being him—painting the picture, selling the image and the life that would be the ideal consumer for Miller’s impending “Lite” beer launch. And that, as it turns out, he cannot stand, so he takes his box and walks out, heads for Racine, Wisconsin to rescue Diana; imagining himself as Jack Kerouac to the ghost of Bert Cooper, who promptly shoots down this self-projected image. The next dream Don will have is of being “caught up with.”


But caught up with how? Will Don’s past catch up with him—the stolen identity he has been walking around with all these years? No, apparently not; not even when he exposes his crime to the VFW. Don soon discovers that there were far more odious war crimes than his identity theft and killing his CO. Don acted impulsively—but his VFW drinking buddies tortured and murdered deliberately. He can feel almost elevated. And when they mistake him for the thief, beating him up with a phone book and taking his car keys until he returns the cash, he can even play the flawed hero again—by giving away his car and some sage advice to the young conman who actually took the money. The odious Don becomes the hero Don, if only for a few moments at a bus stop.


Or, will he be caught by his children who must loathe his absences and his lack of involvement over the years? No. He finds that his children still love him and even admire his behavior, no matter how ridiculous it is. Sally tells him it’s almost as if she’s taking the trip with him. They boys still take his calls. And even though she is told not to, Sally still confides in him about Betty.


Will his agency hire lawyers to pursue him for breach of his contract? Hardly. They just want him back., which I find incredible. But we know it’s true. They worked that entire deal just to get him on the payroll. Of course they’ll put up with temperament.


However, despite his dream, Don find that no one wants to really catch up to him. Not Betty, who could use the help. Not Peggy. Not Roger. And his agency is willing to let him have his corner office—as long as he returns someday.


What he will never face is the fraud he is, the fraud he was. Apparently he gets a pass on that, even though he gets no points for trying to comfort Betty,  or for wanting to give back Anna’s ring to the person who rightfully should have received it. He gets no points for anything, but they still want him home. Even when Betty tells him she doesn’t want him to step up and take responsibility for his own children because it just wouldn’t be “normal” for them. Another comeuppance. Sally doesn’t want his help. Diana has disappeared. Peggy is managing on her own. Roger is happy with Marie. Peter is moving out at long last, and even Harry Crane seems to be nicer. Why face anything when there are no rewards? No accolades? No welcome home?


This isn’t redemption, and it isn’t peace. In the end, it’s only about what gets sold. And Don is the master of sales here—the guy who sells his past for the pot of gold. The guy who turns his pain and shame into assets for the company. For some reason, this never makes him expendable. Nothing seems to.


I suppose Weiner and company might have just been showing us how some scoundrels manage to become heroes. Or that those fated to rise, like cream, will do so no matter how sour the milk is at the bottom of the bucket. But I think that what we actually get is that our lives are up for grabs by the world manipulating us; the ads we watch are not so much our mirrors, they are no more than raw material to be used for someone else’s gain. Don certainly proves that over and over again. But didn’t Anthony Burgess show us that we’re all just “Clockwork Oranges” earlier? Didn’t Albert Camus tell us who “The Stranger” really is? And didn’t Kerouac show us how being “On the Road” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? At least in these masterworks, the characters learn from their mistakes—and don’t try turning them into commodities.


But not Don. He will do almost anything for that very thing he ran from: the Catchphrase, the Clio-winner of an ad that, although it changes nothing, sticks in the memory, the mind, and the psyche forever. He can’t love, because as he learns from poor, benighted Leonard in the seminar, he doesn’t even know what it IS. But he can USE. Boy can he use.


We’ll never forget that ad ever. It was always just about the ads.

 

The Worth of a Father

Posted by christinkeck on June 15, 2014 at 3:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My father died on December 18, 1996. He had just had his 77th birthday not even a month prior to his death, and he wasn’t even sick. His death came very suddenly, without any warning. My brother, who lived with him, found him on the kitchen floor, still clutching the aspirin bottle he didn’t even have time to open. I found out when I got a phone call, in the middle of wrapping his Christmas gift.

 

I was named as executor of his estate, such as it was. I took care of the funeral arrangements according to the letter he had left for me—nothing elaborate—nothing fancy. Just the plainest and barest of funerals, he told me—spend the money left on yourselves and divide it equally without arguing about it. That is exactly what I did, and though it raised a few eyebrows in the family, it was what he wanted.

 

Dad was a simple soul. He didn’t have much ambition to be anything except comfortable, never wanted anything beyond the necessities of life: house, vehicle, enough food to eat, and time to fish, an easy social life without pressure to be anything he wasn’t. Fishing was his passion. He wasn’t a sentimental person most of the time. He remembered birthdays and holidays, and sent cards and gifts, but he never made a big deal about it. This was one of the things that caused a great deal of animosity between him and my mom, and to her, was “proof” that he didn’t love her or care about her feelings. It may have seemed that way to her, but it wasn’t true at all. My dad was just not demonstrative. At least not the way my mother thought he should be. Yet, I never doubted he loved me, and that he also loved my mom, though they had divorced almost 19 years before he died.

 

I can’t really give you evidence of his love for us. Not evidence that my mother would have accepted, at least; her criteria were so different from his. In her way of thinking, love meant being attentive, kind, emotionally invested, and thoughtful. In my dad’s thought-processes, these were all well and good—he didn’t argue about them—but they weren’t as important as the concrete things he did for his wife and family: support them, house them, stick with them through all the good and bad things that happen, and never waiver in these pursuits. I have come to understand that because they had such different outlooks, they were never going to be happy together as a married couple—but that love is something that embodies not one or the other, but both.

 

Neither my mother nor my father had it right. They clashed from day one until the day they finally called it quits. My mother kept right on clashing with the past even after that. My father simply cut his losses, never said a bad word about her or their marriage, and moved on to a more peaceful existence.

 

It took me a long time to understand my mother’s point of view. From age 7 on, I had always sided with my dad, not her. She knew it, and fought it. And kept on fighting it. We never had the same outlook on life while she was alive—and eventually, our disagreements became so bitter that they caused a permanent rift between us. In one of our more major arguments, her most pointed insult to me, among the many that she tossed out, was “you’re just like your father!” And in many ways, I was. At least the ones that meant something important to her. But in important ways, she wasn’t right at all. What I knew, from a very young age, was the worth of my father—not as a husband, not as a lover or a companion—but as a father to me. To me, he was the preferable parent. Not less strict, not less opinionated or wise. Not even because he listened to me and acknowledged my pain and suffering; but something in my own psyche saw what was beyond that and what the rest of it was actually worth, and why.

 

My dad was, frankly, insensitive most of the time. He would not pay attention to little things, and he wasn’t a really romantic guy. Most Mother’s Days passed without glurg. There would be a card, acknowledging the day. There would maybe be a box of chocolate-covered cherries, and once or twice, a bathrobe, negligee, or small appliance. These were given without fanfare. There was never a breakfast in bed, a personal piece of jewelry, or any special treatment such as a dinner out, or a date-night. And the gifts and card were usually given cheaply. The cheapness of my dad’s gifts was out of necessity, not preference. We never had much money. Most of our family income went toward those things that could not be ignored. But personal? Nope. Even the negligees and robes were given without any thought as to their need or beauty. My mother didn’t wear negligees—and robes were ordinary things. They didn’t make her feel sexy, beautiful, wanted or desired. So why give her something like that? He didn’t think about it. He knew such things were “typical” gifts, so that is what he bought.

 

Birthdays and Christmas were the same way. He always managed to get her something she needed—even the robes and nightgowns—but never anything she actually wanted. It drove my mother nuts.

 

But was she better at it than he was? Not even a little bit. She’d buy him shirts he didn’t wear, or socks, or underwear. She didn’t even try to use her gift-giving opportunities to inject their relationship with romance. Her justification for this reciprocity was because he wouldn’t “appreciate” anything else. Maybe she was right about that. And maybe not.

 

I had never seen my dad as romantic until I saw his personal photo album, which he never tried to hide, but didn’t pore over either; he had kept every picture of every girl he had ever dated. Among these were several pictures of one particular woman: Lily Rose. I noticed that she resembled my mother physically. For years, I didn’t know the story behind Lily Rose, but I found out later. My dad had been in love with her—had planned to ask her to marry him. Had bought the ring. There had been a trip to New York City with his mother. And the pictures were just slightly risqué and highly sentimental. What caused the breakup I don’t know. But I know from family anecdotes that it hurt my dad a lot. It was about 6 months after they broke up that he met my mom—at a dance—and six months after that, asked her to marry him. He was 27. She was 19. And he gave her the engagement ring he had bought for Lily Rose.

 

Of course my mother did not know that at the time. When she found out she refused to ever wear it again. It stayed in her jewelry box until the day she passed it along to me. That was when I found out about it, and my reaction was probably not what she anticipated or desired. I simply refused to understand her resentment.

 

There were numerous incidents like that in their 27 year marriage. My dad was not a horrible person—only a very practical one. Why toss out a perfectly good engagement ring if you can get some use out of it? Why throw out old clothes that have holes—when you can wear them to work or for comfort? Why get rid of old photos of past girlfriends when they chronologize your life or the era you lived through? These things didn’t mean the same things to my dad that they did to my mom. She resented them. He just found them worthy of keeping. He didn’t think about the emotional toll they took on an already shaky relationship. For my mom, the resentment and rancor just built up year after year. For my dad, there was no reason to even FEEL it. So he didn’t.

 

And gifts should be something a person can use—or eat. Not something that just made you feel good.

 

It was a basic difference that would eventually contribute to the destruction of the marriage for both of them. My dad withdrew over the years, and my mom let it eat at her until she drove herself and the rest of us crazy with it. And it would never be resolved.

 

My dad could also be fun. And social. He loved company, loved playing cards, having fish frys, seeing his family at holidays. He loved his kids—and was a fair disciplinarian. He tried to involve himself in our lives at times; he went to my school when I was in plays, he tried to help me memorize the names of all the presidents, he even tried to help my brother learn simple arithmetic and language skills. He read to us. And if we had nightmares, he was there to soothe, or even cuddle us. When we were sick, he brought us ginger ale or held the wastebasket. He took us fishing with him, and played with us in the water when we went swimming. He tossed a ball with my brothers, and took care of the dog when no one else would or could. He even brought us pets—hamsters once, chipmunks another time. He would make fantastic creatures out of modeling clay and line them up on the bookcase in the living room. He could draw and sing, and loved to play his guitar while we sang along. He tolerated our noise, our childish arguments, our differences. As a father, he wasn’t exciting—but he was good. As a husband, he was pretty much a failure.

 

And it was exactly the opposite of my mother’s way of doing things. As a wife and a girlfriend, she was wonderful: a good dancer, a fun date—as a parent, she blew it. She picked favorites. She punished unfairly. She used her own inability to reach my dad against us, dividing us up into two camps—his and hers. My brother was hers—I was my dad’s. It caused no end of sibling rivalry and took a concerted effort after they were both gone to overcome. Yet not once did my father ever say a mean word about her to us. Not even after 19 years of divorce, and her death—which came two years before his.

 

What is a father worth after all? Does being a good father mean you are overall a good person? A good husband? A good family member? My dad was a good son to his mother, a good brother to his siblings. A good friend, a good employee. But, maybe not, too. He was inattentive and insensitive to my mother, and refused to acknowledge her needs for anything more than food, shelter, or clothing. He was impossible to read—never asked for anything from her, and didn’t offer anything either. But did he love her? I think he did. He didn’t satisfy her emotionally, but he provided for her and us, and he did not do that with people who didn’t mean something to him. Now that I’ve had decades of perspective, I can see how both of them could have made it work, but hindsight doesn’t dry any of the tears that were shed then, and won’t now. It’s over; it won’t ever be fixed. They both had problems relating to each other and one was not at fault any more than the other. What I am grateful for even now, even through all that, is that I got a father I loved and one I can be proud of, that made my childhood tolerable and even happy. That’s worth something.

 

And as for my mother, I can say now I “get” it. I see why she felt the way she did—her perspective wasn’t mine, but it wasn’t invalid. Yes, it was unpleasant to know and live through, but that wasn’t her fault, really. She did the best she could, despite being desperately unhappy most of the time. The bottom line here is that both of them did all they could do for us children, no matter what they felt about each other. I’ve learned to take the worth out of that too. Wherever they both are now, I hope they can know that I loved them both, and that even though understanding came too late to do anything about, it finally did come.

 

Happy Father’s Day, dad. And Happy Mother’s day, Mom.

 

Ah, November!

Posted by christinkeck on November 25, 2013 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (0)

     Well, another November is almost finished--and that means another Nanowrimo victory!  I'm very proud of my accomplishments--it seems like once November begins, I get the novel-writing bug--and then go all out until it's done. In th past five years, I've only missed once--and that was because I'd just gotten another book finished not long before.

     This year, I managed to pump out 63,500 words in 16 days. It's still largely unedited--there will probably be a couple months of that in my near future. But it's not the only book I'm writing this year. I'm also compiling and editing a cookbook for our church. That one is far less pressure and a lot more fun to do than writing novels--but it's also in many ways more tedious. Recipes can't be "banged out"--they have to be carefully proofread prior to including them. That means going over each one at least three times before hitting the "paste" key. But it's still a satisfying project.

     And November also begins my official transformation into "elf." The holiday season is my favorite time of the year. I love Carols, I love decorations, I love the glitter and the kitsch and the baking and the preparation. I decorate, I make cookies, I even make sure I get my shopping done, wrapped and shipped on time; and I send out cards. Year after year I face down all the grinches who want to complain about how Yuletide is "too commercial" or "too greedy" for them. I'm sorry they feel that way. To me, there's nothing more satisfying than putting your best foot forward at this time. I'm not really a big spender, and I don't suffer grouchy people easily--but I see nothing wrong with spreading around the joy and warmth, even when I come up against those people who hate this time of year, or think that if they  have to listen to one more rendition of "Feliz Navidad" they will scream. It's one month a year--it's not all year. It's a few bucks here or there to let your friends know you do care about them. It's church, receiving cards in the mail from those you forgot about or even businesses that you didn't think remembered you--it's cookies and hot chocolate and a fire int he fireplace, and snow falling outside the windows. It's the marathon showing of A Christmas Story on TBS. It's my yearly ritual of watching and reading A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens--the best story ever told. It's dragging out all those plastic containers of ornaments and pine-scented candles. And it's my yearly anchor to all the past traditions, all the present joys and all the anticipation of waking up on The Day and finding wrapped presents you didn't know you were going to get, and watching the faces light up when they unwrap the ones I got them. I don't see a down-side here. I'm not lonely, I'm not depressed, I'm not grouchy or cranky. I love Yule. And there's a good reason I do.

     A long time ago I made a decision. It was a conscious decision--and a firm one--and I've never betrayed it. I decided that the holidays were MINE. Not someone else's--not my family's, not my friends', and not some merchant's. They belonged to me and I could make them anything I wanted them to be. If that meant staying up late to hand-paint 50 pieces of slate with the same little Santa Claus scene, or hand-tying and dressing a hundred yarn dolls, or wrapping 80 one-dollar gifts to give away at my church on Christmas Eve to anyone who attended, then that's what I did. If I wanted to bake 500 cookies, I did. If I wanted to bake SIX cookies I did. If I wanted to make someone a dollhouse, or can some grape jelly, or visit 18 different stores in one day to find the perfect blue headband, I did. It was whatever I wanted--not what other people wanted. It also meant that if I found the family dinner too stressful or argumentative, I didn't go. If I  saw no reason to participate in a work gift-exchange and buy a gift for someone I didn't even know, I said "no thanks."  If I didn't want to tip the mailman I didn't tip. If I wanted to eat chili and salsa instead of ham and mashed potatoes, I did. I did not force myself to do a single thing I didn't want to do--and that gave me all the time in the world to do exactly what I DID WANT TO DO. It was simple. It was liberating. And I have never looked back.

     But mostly what I did was claim my own holidays. It's been a big, important decision in my life I've never regretted. And it's so easy! All you do is keep what you love, and toss what you don't!  That meant those glass ornaments I've never liked went into the trash. The cheesy movies that I hate don't get watched. The ugly wrapping paper I used to save because it seemed wasteful to throw out? It got thrown OUT.  I bought paper I did like to replace it. This time of year is not for letting other people or other traditions pressure me into doing what I don't want to do. The words "we have to! It's a tradition!" don't mean a thing to me. Tradition is what you make it. Not what someone else tells you it is.

     So for the upcoming month ahead--relax. Take some time out and think--am I doing this because i actually like doing it? Or am I doing it out of some misguided idea that I have to? Pick out what you really love and hang on. Toss out what you hate or what makes you feel oppressed. Put your feet up--whether or not they are clad in stinky tube socks, or glittery-buckled Santa slippers--and sip your hot chocolate, or your Budweiser, or your glass of Chambord. Eat a few of those taco chips--or several of those carefully iced cookies. Whether it's 70 and sunny, or 25 and blizzardy, think about what makes you happy and only do that. Don't do anything else. This is not about obligations--it's about JOY. Remember the joy. And keep it in your heart. And this time of year won't have any power to make you sad, depressed or cranky.

Merry Christmas. Blessed Yule. Happy Hannukah. Kwanzaa blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, Happy New Year, Happy Valentine's Day, Happy President's Day, Happy Hallowe'en, Blessed Samhain, Imbolc, Lughnasaidh, Mabon, Litha, Beltain, and happy every other holiday you can celebrate. Keep that joy. It's all that counts.

 

 

How Writing and Hockey Compare by Guest blogger Luke Murphy

Posted by christinkeck on October 10, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (5)

     It can almost be said with certainty that I didn’t follow the path of the average writer. As a child, I never dreamed of writing a best-seller, never aspired to write the next classic novel, I wanted to be an NHL superstar…period.

     With the death of my mother in 1992, losing a battle to cancer she had fought so hard against for years, I sensed it was time to get serious about reaching my dreams, and moved away to pursue hockey.

     From 1992-1995, while playing for the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the Central Junior Hockey League, I noticed a shift in the game of hockey and realized that the odds of making it to the NHL were unfavorable for a kid who stood 5’9’’ and weighed 160 pounds. So, my goals shifted. I accepted a hockey scholarship to Rochester Institute of Technology. If I couldn’t make a living playing hockey, at least I could achieve an education and open doors for my future.

     After four rewarding years at College, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing, I wasn’t ready to give up on the game I love.

     I attended the Florida Panthers Rookie Camp and played well, playing in four games, as well as scoring the game winning goal against the Ottawa Senators.

     Unfortunately, I broke my hand in an awkward hit in my fourth exhibition game that ended my camp, but my hard work paid off. The Panthers offered me a Minor League contract, $500 a week to play the game I love. I spent six years in the minors and retired in 2006 with no regrets.

     From a family of avid readers, even as a child, I always had a passion for books. Whether it was reading novels on road trips or writing assignments in school, literature was always part of my life.

     In the winter of 2000, after sustaining a season ending eye injury while playing in Oklahoma City, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, and a new hobby emerged.

     One day, with an idea in mind, I sat down in front of a computer and began writing. I wrote a little every day, around my intense rehabilitation schedule and before I knew it, I had completed my first manuscript.

     I didn’t write with the intention of being published. I wrote for the love of writing, as a hobby. Ever the perfectionist, I didn’t see my novel at the level to compete with best-selling authors across the country. I continued to hobby write through the years, honing my craft, making time between work and family obligations.

     Then I made a decision – I enjoyed writing so much, I decided I wanted to take my interest one step further – write a story with the intention of being published. I realized that I wanted to be like my favorite authors - entertain readers and allow them, like when I read, to escape reality and for a moment be in another place and time.

     I’ve never been one to take things lightly or jump in half way. I took a full year off from writing to study the craft. I constantly read, from novels in my favorite genres to books written by experts in the writing field. I continually researched on the internet, reading up on the industry and process. I attended writing conferences and made friends (published and unpublished authors), bombarding them with questions and learning what it took to become successful.

     Feeling that I was finally prepared, in the winter of 2007, with an idea in mind and an outline on paper, I started to write DEAD MAN`S HAND. It took me two years (working around full time jobs) to complete the first draft of my novel.

     I then worked with editors and joined a critique group, doing anything I could to learn, to improve my writing and my novel to point where I could create the best possible novel.

     I sent out hundreds of query letters to agents. After six months of rejections, I pulled my manuscript back and worked on it again. Then in my next round of proposals, I was offered representation by Ms. Jennifer Lyons of the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency.

     After months of work with Jennifer, and more rejections from publishers, my dream was finally realized in April, 2012, when I signed a publishing contract with Imajin Books.

     So, exactly how smooth was my transition from playing hockey to writing books?

     The term “practice makes perfect” can basically relate to anything you do. Hockey and writing are no different.

     Many people might not see a connection between writing and hockey, but there are many similarities in not only your preparation, but “musts” once you’re there.

     In both hockey and writing, you need three things: patience, persistence and thick skin.

     My transition from professional hockey player to published author was surprisingly smooth. Hockey and writing have many things in common.

     For both, it takes hard work and practice. There are many critics, and you need to be able to take criticism with a grain of salt. Both the hockey and writing worlds are small communities, filled with people who want to help you succeed. In order to find success, in both you need to be persistent and confident.

     It’s all about taking a chance, putting yourself out there to be evaluated by your peers. That’s the scariest part.

     It takes time to get “good” at something. I started writing when I was young and playing professional hockey. A couple of hours a day on the ice and in the gym and then the day was mine. I also suffered a serious eye injury and couldn`t play, so I had a lot more time on my hands. Now that I`m older, with a family and full time job, makes it a lot harder to find the time to write. Take advantage and chase your dreams while you’re young.

     My one piece of advice for all aspiring hockey players and writers…you’ll get a lot of “no’s” along the way and people trying to bring you down. But remember, it only takes one “yes”. Stick with it. Anything is possible. It’s all about “staying the course” and not getting off track. Have no regrets and leave nothing on the table.

Erroneous Assumptions

Posted by christinkeck on July 24, 2013 at 12:25 AM Comments comments (0)

“You can’t assume without making an ASS of U and ME.” That’s an old adage, and it seems more and more these days to be true.

     Assumptions drive our most egregious thought processes. We assume even when facts are present—we assume even when we can be proven that our assumptions are ridiculous, unfounded or based on skewed logic. Why do humans assume so much? What is it that keeps us from thinking critically, basing our ideas on something other than unfounded ideals or faulty reasoning?

     Well, I suppose (I assume!) that this is a trait we aren’t going to ever give up, since it’s so ingrained. But that assumption is just as faulty as any other. And I can tell you exactly why I feel this way: I’m not an optimist when it comes to human reasoning. I’ve seen us grow in the ability to communicate over my 60+ years, but not in our ability to discern truth, find validity and think critically. It would be easy to blame the rise of the internet for this, but it really started a long time ago—longer than most of us have been alive. Placing blame isn’t helpful anyway. It is a basic fault of human communication and that’s been a factor in our lives since we have been communicating.

     Let’s take a basic assumption about physical appearance as an example.

     You see a man run a footrace. He is fit, he is healthy and he has two legs. He wins the race. We assume he wins that race because he has all the physical characteristics he needs in order to do so. He has two legs, he has trained to run, and he is healthy. And he has a desire to win, based on whatever competitive urges he has nurtured in himself, or which have been nurtured in him. It does not go against any of our assumptions when the man wins the race.

     But the man is the victim of an accident and he loses a leg. Now he does not have the physical characteristics he needs to win that race—not like he had before. What is the most common assumption then? That the man’s racing days are over. Logically, it seems sound. A man with two legs is a better runner than a man with one leg—he’s a more complete human specimen. No more racing for him!

     But this man has other ideas—and they aren’t based on assumptions. He gets a prosthesis, he continues to train—and he runs a race with only ONE leg. And he still wins. Now where are our assumptions? We see that there is nothing that prevents him from running prior to his accident, but apparently, there is also nothing that prevents him from running after it either!

     We accept that simply by having our physical characteristics changed that it will not necessarily preclude our ability to do what we love. It’s easy, right? We are proven wrong—and we cheer him on at the finish line—and we are not unhappy to give up our assumptions.

    Or are we?

     Will we, after watching the man win on his prosthesis, treat others who have lost legs in the same way we treated them prior to their loss? Will we believe that just because a physical characteristic has been altered, changed, lost or otherwise compromised, that we are dealing with the same person as before? The sad fact here is that we probably will not.

     We see this man as an exception—not as the norm. We still make assumptions based on physical characteristics that may or may not be valid. We will not dump those assumptions no matter how many amputees win footraces.

     Now project that same sort of thinking onto the color of someone’s skin. Or their religious beliefs. Or their country of origin. Or their gender. Or their sexual orientation.

     Do we change our minds because we have been proven to be erroneous in our assumptions about those characteristics? Or do we continue to hold these assumptions regardless of how often they are shown to be erroneous?

     Mostly, we do the latter.

     No matter how many peace-loving, kind, moral or upstanding Muslims we meet, we still find ourselves angry at the entire religion because of the attack on 9/11. No matter how many gay couples in committed, long term relationships we get to know, we still think there is something “wrong” with them getting married. No matter how many women we see become CEOs, elected officials, company founders and executives we are shown, we still think they should make less money than men in those same positions. No matter how many black Africans with college degrees, high IQs and erudite, articulate vocabularies we encounter, we still think they should have remained slaves.

     Mostly, these assumptions are based on one incident, one stupid or insensitive action or one example. Yet they persist in spreading to the entire culture, race, gender or ethnicity.

     In 1994 a book was published by a psychologist and a political scientist called The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. (1994, Free Press Publishing, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray). This book argued a basic theory that the level of human intelligence in Americans was determined by inherited and social factors and drew a boat-load of controversy over its assumptions especially where race was concerned. The book argued that race, especially the black race, was genetically inferior in intelligence and that it also caused the racial differences in IQ scores that exist. It went on to make “suggestions” for social and cultural changes, such as encouraging the “right” women to have more babies, severely curtailing or eliminating immigration and eliminating programs like Affirmative Action.

     To be completely fair the book did not name genetic differences as the ONLY reason for the difference in IQ scores. It did state that the question was not a proven or resolved issue. However, the rest of the text seemed to support the idea even with that disclaimer.

     Many people would read this book and believe it’s “scientific” credentials—but the problem is that it was based on several erroneous assumptions:

1. Human Cognitive ability is a single general entity, depictable as a single number.

2. Cognitive ability has a heritability of between 40 and 80 percent and is therefore primarily genetically based.

3. IQ is essentially immutable, fixed over the course of a life span.

4. IQ tests measure how "smart" or "intelligent" people are and are capable of rank ordering people in a linear order.

5. IQ tests can measure this accurately.

6. IQ tests are not biased with regard to race, ethnic group or socioeconomic status.

      As someone who was for many years a member of the social group Mensa, I can tell you that not a single one of these assumptions is either factual or correct. Human cognitive ability is not a single, general entity by any stretch of imagination or fact. And a number cannot give you any idea of the value of someone’s ability--no more so than losing a leg can guarantee you will never run again. IQ’s are not fixed and do not remain the same over a life-span. IQ tests do not measure how “smart” someone is—no more than a drawing test measures artistic ability. “Smart” is a completely subjective adjective. It cannot be quantified or measured. Not by an IQ test, not by any test. And IQ tests are highly biased, especially when it comes to race or ethnicity.

     Case in point: when I applied for entry to Mensa, I took two IQ tests. One was the Cattell test—before it was redesigned to eliminate its cultural bias. The other was the California Test of Mental Maturity. This second test was designed in a way that was more “non-verbal”. It relied on pictures instead of words, on listening and memory retention rather than reasoning by reading.

   In one section, the test gave you five pictures and you were to pick out the one that “didn’t belong” in the group. Each picture was rated according to its “rightness”—there were no “wrong” answers. I remember one question that really struck me as difficult:

     The question showed five women: one from Holland, one from Japan, one from India, one from Eastern Europe and one in a simple dress without any ethnic association. You were to pick out the one that did not belong—and the answer was obvious—it was the one in the dress without any ethnicity. But I puzzled over this for a while—to me it was obvious. But what if you were Japanese? Would you see it differently? What if you were East Indian? Russian? Dutch? If you were Asian, wouldn’t that one seem to be the one that did belong in the group—your group? And why was the lack of “ethnic” dress something that did not belong in a group? Was there something “wrong” with ethnic dress that caused it to be the anomaly? Or something wrong with non-ethnic dress? I understood what was wanted on this question, but I found myself very put off by the asking! If you were at an International Fair or the UN, or a multi-cultural summit meeting—would you want to think of yourself as not belonging there because you didn’t have an “ethnic” costume? The whole thing smacked of assumption and racist inequality, even though I realized in my logical brain that this question was only about the costuming—not the social implications. Still, it brought up many questions in my mind.

     Even when tests are designed to be less culturally biased, bias sneaks in in ways we might not consider. And our assumptions sneak in right along behind it.

     The Bell Curve was pretty much roundly dismissed as “junk science”. Still, quite a few people are willing to believe what it claims, even though there is more than enough proof and evidence to the contrary. And this type of erroneous assumption is everywhere, exacerbated by the internet and our inability to pick out truth from falsehood.

     Take the controversy over vaccinations. Jenny McCarthy, self-appointed spokeswoman for the Anti-Vac movement, has claimed that vaccinations cause autism. This assumption is based on her own personal experience. It’s not based on fact. It’s not based on science or evidence. Yet she received a huge audience and numerous adherents to her cause. Her celebrity and her outspoken-ness have given her a much wider audience than she might have received before the internet and television made it so easy to gain an audience. Back in the 1800’s a man named Sylvester Graham had some views about diet that were a fad for a while: he believed that bread and foods made without chemical additives was healthier for you. Sound good? Sure—and it’s mostly been found to be correct. But Graham started a movement—and actually opened centers where people were “treated” to correct their dietary ills. And it wasn’t only this one tenet they observed. Graham’s followers also believed that diet controlled our sexual urges, that masturbation would make you insane and that your diet could control your “impure” thoughts and cure alcoholism. He is probably the driving force behind the modern vegan movement, though his name is largely forgotten now, unless you buy a by-product of his ideas: Graham Crackers; though these crackers we know are nothing like the ones he made or ate.

     From one example—one erroneous assumption—to an entire thought process, a movement, a cultural shift. The truth becomes lost in the morass of garbage thinking, junk science and fad-loving zealots. Graham’s movement died out eventually, but McCarthy’s has not, despite overwhelming science that refutes it.

     And our assumptions have not died either. We assume cultural differences and potentiality based on race, gender, sexual orientation; we do not assume that these things are mutable, changeable, fixable or amendable. We continue to hold our beliefs as sacrosanct, despite being proven to be biased, or just plain wrong. Then, when challenged, we shift the argument to a question of “rights”—the right, mostly, to believe anything we choose, even when it is junk. We hold faster to our right to be stupid and unthinking than almost anything else. It has become a symbol of freedom of thought, but it is in reality the worst kind of mental prison, because it keeps us from growing, expanding, and opening our minds to better ways of living, better ways of understanding and it prevents us from being better human beings.

     If we are ever going to eliminate bad thinking, we must begin by showing that assumptions are not fact—and belief is not proof. We must realize that ASSUME just makes an ASS of U and ME.

The Voices of Women

Posted by christinkeck on July 8, 2013 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)

     Next time you are listening to a radio bit, or television interview when a woman is speaking, close your eyes; is she asking a question with every sentence?

     The most irritating thing about listening to a woman speak is that rising inflection at the end of every pause; it’s as if there is a question mark placed there. It bothers me tremendously that women speak this way because more than anything else they do, this one affectation of speech removes any authority they may have in the words they are saying.

     Why should a woman need to ask permission for her words? Most of them would tell you they don’t, or aren’t doing that at all—but if you listen to them, you hear the permission being asked. This can be especially frustrating when a woman is trying to say something authoritative, but quite a few of them do this with every sentence they speak, as if they aren’t sure if you will accept it, or aren’t confident in what they are saying at all.

     I have heard this most often from younger women—but there are plenty of older ones who do it too. Some of these have impressive credentials, but these are totally negated by that interrogative at the end of everything spoken. It’s too bad. Women need to speak as if they can run things, or they never will.

     Listen to someone like John Behner, Speaker of the House of Representatives sometime. He absolutely never uses a rising inflection at the end of a sentence. Never. Not even when he is asking a question. The most you get from him is a very slight pause before the question mark appears audibly.

     Radio talk show hosts and dee-jays are trained not to do this—they listen to the playback of their interviews, they are schooled in enunciation and elocution to avoid that interrogative. And as a result, even a moron like Rush Limbaugh or a shock-jock like Howard Stern sound like they know what they are talking about. Anyone can sound like an authority if they speak like one.

     Women have a particular investment in this: more and more these days, the rights of women to choose what happens to them are coming under fire. Everything from abortion to voting rights can be at stake here—and yet, they continue to ask the listener to approve what they say in public. If they continue to use the interrogative inflection, they will find that not even ignorant or invested listeners will believe what they are being told. Go ahead and put a question mark at the end of some sentence you respect, such as the following excerpt from the Gettysburg Address and see how it sounds:

Four score? and seven years ago? our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation? conceived in liberty? and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?

    Was it that long ago? Or some other time? Maybe I don’t know when it happened. My best guess is 87 years ago, but I can’t be sure. And were they our fathers? Maybe they were our uncles. Or brothers. Or mothers. Or some other people we don’t even know. And how were they conceived? And are they equal? Is equality a concern here?

     See what I mean? Just a simple sentence that states facts suddenly becomes a very iffy statement. We don’t know what the truth is. We can’t make a decision. We can’t get past that question mark.

     Women especially need to learn not to ask permission for what they say. Michelle Bachmann doesn’t ask—she does not use that rising inflection when she speaks, and as a result, even her most egregious lies and scurrilous untruths have a ring of authority. No wonder she got where she did. Even the least amount of checking into the validity of her statements reveals what an idiotic body of information it can be—but because she speaks without questions, she manages to convince a lot of people.

     There is another problem with women’s speech—the countermeasure to that “moronic interrogative” is sometimes even worse. This type of speech is the “flatline” voice that has almost the opposite effect of asking questions—it puts the listener to sleep. I have heard women, in an effort to avoid sounding as if they are asking everything, artificially enforce a non-inflected sort of speech that sounds a lot like the drone of a humming machine. It sounds as if they have no idea what it is they are saying—but reading it from cue-cards and reading it badly. The questioning inflection can be irritating, but this one is simply a turn-off.

     There are some fairly well-known women who do this: the actress Winona Ryder is one. She sounds tired—all the time. Another actress, Kristen Stewart, does it too. And unfortunately, Hilary Rodham Clinton does it, unless she gets angry. Then, that flat, level voice takes on a sharp edge. She will also slow down when she is angry—so her speech sounds a lot like a disgruntled kindergarten teacher speaking to errant five-year-olds. This isn’t a useful trait when you’re Secretary of State. It sounds as if she is talking down to people. Not diplomatic.

     What is particularly distressing about this speech trait is that many of the women who use it are lesbians. Not all, certainly—but many. If there is one group of women who ought to be concerned about speaking with some authority so their voices are heard, it is the homosexual community—and yet, both men and women in this segment of society seem to have the most noticeable speech identifiers: men use the rising inflection, and women use the drone; I refuse to believe this is anything but learned behavior. If a moron like Michelle Bachmann can sound like an authority, or an idiot like Rush Limbaugh can sound like he actually knows something, then any homosexual person can also learn to speak to be heard and heeded. I know it can be done. I just wish it were being done more often.

     So who are some good speakers? Who uses their voices to convince, educate, or inform? Who do you trust to tell you the truth?

     The best example I can think of is Dan Rather. Could there have been anything he said you did not take in completely or believe? Probably not. He could have read excerpts from the Satanic Bible on the air and it would have been heard in its entirety and the next day we might all have been hanging our crucifixes upside down.

     And listen to Martha Stewart speak sometime. She tells you to make perfectly adorable items out of dryer lint and pine cones, and you believe her—even when you try it and they turn out looking like pine cones covered in dryer lint and are good for absolutely nothing useful whatsoever. Why? Because she says it with authority. Her voice is a bit clipped and abrupt at times, but it’s not uninflected and she, too, never asks the listener any questions. She just directs.

     There are others, I’m sure you have your preferences; whether or not this is done consciously or subconsciously it determines how the listener or viewer ultimately responds to what is being said. Anyone who speaks in public for any reason needs to learn how they sound to others, and address them accordingly, especially if they are trying to get a point across.

     Women take heed. Don’t sound like a moron asking a question, and don’t lull your listeners into a stupor. Speak with conviction and authority. It will further whatever cause you have and make your words stand out as truth—even if they aren’t.

The Race I've Run - Part 2

Posted by christinkeck on June 28, 2013 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

PLEASE READ PART 1 FIRST  - (SCROLL DOWN)      

                                              …and differences are still the problem.

       There have been a lot of changes in Civil Rights in America, since the early 1960’s. Where once Americans had been a mostly white, Protestant population with mere pockets of ethnic or racially different people here and there, we can no longer say this is the case. For the most part, things have gotten better. We now are pretty universally offended by the use of the N-word—or any ethnic slur—and in many places, such as businesses and advertising, schools and churches and government institutions, the use of any such pejorative is actually illegal. You see acceptance of racial diversity all throughout the culture now.

      Particularly you see this on the one form of media that has been the main cultural touchstone for almost everyone in America: television. Television in the 1960’s was not nearly the societal giant it would become just yet; that era was just dawning and within only eight years, from 1960-1968, it would become a force that I doubt few had expected it to ever be. Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking work in 1964 “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” which elaborated on his 1951 aphorism “the medium is the message,” changed our lives and set us on a path that would forever alter our perceptions. I am not going to go into a long historical and sociological diatribe on how much of McLuhan’s work actually influenced our way of life. There were many such influences from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, and many of them might have been equally effective. It is not in dispute anyway. We were changed, and a lot of that change was wrought by and is reflected in television. You have only to remember what it was like in the early 1950-1960 decade to see it. The changes we have experienced as white people and black people are my focus here instead.

        Until I was 13 years old, you did not see many black people on television that weren’t caricatures. They were maids, butlers, tap dancers, slaves, comic relief or of such minor importance to the story they were obvious tokens, but mostly, they were servants of some kind. You never saw a black business-owner, executive, company official or president, and no black politicians in any roles on any programs. There was only one program that featured black performers in more than adjunct roles, and that was the Amos ‘n’Andy show, which was set in Harlem and featured most (but not all) of the black actors playing roles that ordinary folks might have in such a setting. That was a short-lived show, though—only on the air for two years from 1951-1953. When it died, it was not replaced.

       Other media was no better than television at portraying blacks. Movies, radio, print—popular culture of all kinds relegated the black person to the shadows, and made it difficult to rise above the stereotyping. Okay, we all know this. It’s not new information. But haven’t things gotten much better? Haven’t we broken free of that stereotyping and shadow-casting since we’re all now far more enlightened? I wish I could say we had. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s true. Sure—we have had TV shows with black casts, such as Good Times, The Jeffersons, Family Matters, The Cosby Show—and some of them have been good, and some just awful. Most still showed blacks as caricatures—in some way or another. Some shows even explored interracial dating and marriage. But few gave us thoughtful, serious drama—mostly these were comedies. Sanford and Son—Fat Albert—Good Times—gave us black people not as role models, but as figures of fun. Notable exceptions were the Cosby Show and Julia, starring Diahann Carroll—who was married to Vic Damone, a white man, in real life (though not in the show—no, never in the show.) Still, these were comedies—not drama, not “real”. And they were exceptions, and rare ones to boot. Most of the black TV shows are still comedies.

      I’ve watched all six seasons of Mad Men, the show about advertising that spans the decades between 1960 and 1980. It’s a fantastic show—great acting, great story lines; but it’s more than just good drama—it’s also an overview of our country’s shifts and changes, especially in cultural and social politics. Watching it, you get a distinct and clear picture of how and why and WHEN this country underwent the changes we’ve experienced. You’d think that having lived through it, one would already have that overview and be able to recall it—but even if you’ve paid close attention, there’s nothing like the long-view that this show has delivered, and some of the things I’ve noticed while watching have really startled me in their clarity.

      One of these is a better picture of advertising in general. Watching the show has made me acutely aware of how advertising shapes culture. It’s not the other way around as much as it is just that—advertising has been key in changing our attitudes and ideas. McLuhan was right—the medium IS the message. And advertising is definitely one of the major factors.

       Here’s an example: On one show, Peggy proposes an ad for children’s aspirin that draws inspiration from the film Rosemary’s Baby—the final scene where Rosemary finds out that her baby has not been stillborn, but is alive and well in the apartment next door—among a coven of Satanists. The ad is cleverly done—it never comes out and aligns itself with such horrors, but uses the iconic ideas inherent in the film; old people sitting around a baby’s cradle, spewing outmoded and outdated advice to the new mother, in a mildly menacing way. Of course in the ad, the mother is “saved” by the children’s aspirin product and the tag line is something like “all you really need is St. Joseph’s Aspirin” to cure your baby’s illness. Just as Rosemary takes charge in the film, the mother in the ad uses the “modern” and scientific product to combat old and moldy ideas of how to cure childhood illnesses. The ad is remarkable in that it has drawn from such a frightening and seminal source, but it also comes under fire for something else—something which makes it difficult to sell the ad to the aspirin company—it uses several actors. We learn from Mad Men that actors cost money. They must be paid at union wages. The ad is too expensive for the aspirin company, even though they are happy with the pitch. So not only do we learn that advertising draws from pop culture, we also learn the cost of that endeavor.

       Which brings me to this point. I have been seeing a modern ad recently for a car, the main point of which is that luxury does not have to mean large size. The car in question is a compact car, but luxuriously appointed—with extra cargo space, heated steering wheel, the finest interior appointments. Okay so far? Sure. But here’s the problem with this ad: The first part of the ad shows a black couple eating dinner in a modern well-appointed kitchen, seated at opposite ends of a long table. The woman asks the man to pass the salt, and he gets up to walk the salt shaker to her down the length of this long table, then has an idea—through some clever camera trickery, he pushes on his end of the table, shrinking it down to a more intimate size, and then reseats himself and hands her the salt. The couple in question is sharply dressed, urbane, sophisticated and obviously well-off. And they are black. Good, eh? Well, it ought to be—but as soon as the viewer is introduced to the car—do we see either one of them driving it? Nope. When the actual automobile is finally shown, the driver is a young white guy. Now using the knowledge I learned from Mad Men’s aspirin episode, I know that to make this ad they had to hire three actors. Three union wages. Three salaries. Three sets of residuals. Why? Why not use the same two black actors they had used (or one of them) for the driving portion of the ad? Why change? Because the perception is that black people would not buy a compact car, that’s why.

      The idea is that black people like BIG luxury cars like Cadillacs, Buicks, Chryslers and Lexuses (Lexi?) and not the smaller, eco-friendly, liberal, white-person compacts. Do you think I’m reading too much into this? I’m not. Every single moment of every single advertisement on television, in print media and anywhere else is engineered like this. It is the nature of the industry. It is a prime example of hidden stereotyping—shadow-bigotry. In order to sell this car company on this ad, the entire thing had to be broken down into cost per element—and those two actors’ salaries would have been placed right alongside of the other actor’s salary—and the car company would have had a chance to look at all three and make decisions. There is only one reason a car company would rather pay three actors rather than two—public perception of the product.

      Sure, you can use black actors to sell things to all races of people—but you better know your market. The market for smaller cars is not the black community. Not according to popular perception. But the truth is, there aren’t any car companies who actually push their products to black consumers—not even those large, luxury cars. There aren’t many who push them to women either. When you see a car being driven, it’s more than 99.9% likely it will be driven by a man--a white man. When you see a car company advertising a family vehicle, it will most often be a white family. It won’t be a Latino family, it won’t be an Asian family, not for the most part—and it probably won’t be a black family, though there are rare exceptions.

      Another example: A TV commercial for insurance, where a black mother sits at an outdoor table reviewing specs for insurance with her agent. So far, so good. No husband here—baby is in the stroller next to the table. Then a mime comes up to the agent and mother and speaks out in favor of the money he has saved by purchasing this same insurance. Again—cute and clever—a mime talking. I get it. Then, the baby speaks-- in heavy ghetto/ebonic-style-- and ends with the phrase “Fuh-REEKY!” The baby sounds like Sherman Helmsley on “The Jeffersons.” The mother, (supposedly the decision-maker and who will be paying for this insurance here,) says nothing in the entire ad—not a word. The agent speaks (white guy) the mime speaks (white guy) and that caricature of a baby with the ghetto accent speaks—but the woman says nothing. Her entire function is to look thoughtful (at first) then startled. She is given that same job that blacks were given in a lot of old films: the eye roller. What is this ad saying to us? Yes, the woman is in charge of the family—but is trumped by not one, but three men, two of which are white. So much is she trumped she has no speaking lines at all! She will pay for the insurance—but she will not get a single second of credit—not for making the right choice—not even from her baby—who insists it’s time for them to both leave so he can take his nap. What message does this one send?

      And of course, we can point to years of McDonald’s advertising which specifically targets blacks—young, high-school aged blacks—as their demographic of choice. And KFC’s targeted fried chicken ads to the same group. I’m surprised that there isn’t a “watermelon growers association” ad or a “pork chitlins association” ad for this target audience.

      How many hardware store ads do see targeted for the black homeowner? How many pizza ads? How many ads for high blood pressure medicine? How many high-end clothing retailers and on-line shoe stores? How many perfume ads?

      When you do see blacks in advertisements, they are part of a larger group that may also include at least one recognizably ethnic person from another minority group—an Asian, or Latino-looking type. You don’t see them as the auto repair shop manager—the automobile dealership manager—the insurance agent—the guy selling you an electric sander. You don’t see them as someone who might come into your home to do contracting work—such as a plumber, electrician or builder.

      You do see them in electronics store ads, as bumbling or goofy salespersons—but not buyers or bosses. In fact in another shadow-bigotry example I’ve seen recently for Best Buy, a black store trainee being given a pep talk by the (white) manager, “spikes” a laptop and shatters it. Hah hah. Dumb, huh. Sure. Dumb football player. Not tech-savvy electronics salesperson.

      Seen a black person hawking stomach ailment medicine? Allergy medicine? Drugs of any kind? They are few and far between. Seen one hawking cleaning supplies? Fast food? Beer? Sure—all the time. The messages are not clearly defined in most cases—but the ideas they plant are notable. They reinforce the same stereotypes they always have.

      To be fair, there are a couple of ads I like: one is for Kraft cheese—the one with the catchy song by Mother Mother (Bright Idea). I absolutely love those ads—which show a variety of households of different ethnicities making food together and enjoying it, and then hugging and loving each other. They’re very nice ads, and the tune is quite memorable. The Cheerios ad with the mixed-race family was a great start—but look at the controversy it stirred! What a shame we had to focus on that. Another Cheerios ad makes me smile too—that one shows a father making breakfast for his two boys—one in a high chair, the other one stealing the Cheerios from his little brother’s tray. No overt typing here—just a caring dad making breakfast, two charming kids eating Cheerios. Also good. Why can’t we have ads like that for other things? Ads that don’t promote judgment of a culture or ethnic group?

      We may have come a long way as far as race and racial prejudice is shown on television and in print media, but we haven’t come far enough. Until we no longer target, until we no longer bow to stereotyping, until we no longer care what races anyone in any commercial is—until they all show that all races can be all things—we can’t say we’ve overcome anything. Some companies who buy advertising might argue that by using the black cleaning woman in the Pine-sol commercials they are allowing a black woman to be a cleaner without judgments attached, but in my mind, they are only promoting that older racial category—a black person is good for certain things but not others. When was the last time you saw a black dentist in a commercial? A black heart surgeon? A black stock trader? A black electrician? A black scientist?

      Ad agencies are just a lot more subtle now. We may not have Aunt Jemima, Uncle Remus or Stepin Fetchit selling us products, but we still have Jim Crow.

The Race I've Run---part 1

Posted by christinkeck on June 28, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (0)

      I first became aware of race and prejudice when I was having my 9th birthday party. I was born in 1951, grew up in a lower-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, in a house at the end of a short street. My parents lived there because (a) my father’s family lived in two houses on the same street, and (b) they could actually afford it—the rent was a whopping $28 a month. Yes, you read that right—TWENTY-EIGHT dollars a month. Even in the 50’s that was low. But they’d gotten a “deal” for the place—which was a two-story frame house, very small, with only two real bedrooms—one downstairs by the kitchen and the entire upper story—which was really just one big room. The bathroom was an afterthought in that large upper room—carved into a corner of the large space and oddly shaped. There was a half-wall screening a smaller area away from the larger room. Apparently it had been a closet or dressing area at one time—or maybe just a storage area. Until I was five, the big main room was my bedroom, and the small room was used for storage. Then my brother came along, and that room became a nursery; then my other brother came along a year and half later, and the two boys shared the big space, and my bed and dressers were moved into the small space—and a door was installed. I had a place to myself finally—with slanted ceilings and my own window which looked out over the front porch roof and the silver maple in the front yard. The room was exactly as long as my twin bed, which went from wall to wall. The window was at the foot of my bed. There was no floor space, but it was private and it was mine.

My birthday is in the summer, and most summers when we had a party, it would be a cookout or fish fry in the back yard. Everyone I knew would come—family, neighbors, friends, adults and kids alike. We might make dinner, or just have ice cream and cake. Most of the time it was a fun event. But the year I learned about prejudice, it was a little different.

      We had been through a pretty rough year with me, academically speaking. Fourth grade was awful. I had a teacher who hated me for reasons I still will never understand completely; her name was Mrs. Sartor, and she didn’t like children who had been “skipped” a grade in school, which I was. I was only 8 in fourth grade—a year younger than everyone else. She singled me out for harassment and punishment all year long, culminating in my mother slapping her across the face in the principal’s office toward the end of the year, and Mrs. Sartor’s dismissal due to “nerves” shortly thereafter. She had made me fearful of math and learning for the first time in my life—and I was unhappy in school . Mrs. Sartor had also managed to isolate me from the other kids in my class—they made fun of me just to get on her good side.

      One of my friends in class was a girl named Jewel. She sat next to me when we were placed in the back of the room—later, when Mrs. Sartor moved me to the front so she could “keep an eye on me”, Jewel was left alone in the last seat on the row, and the seat next to her, which had been mine, was vacant. I never questioned this seating arrangement at all—it never occurred to me that there was anything more than randomness about it. I did not recognize it for “segregation”, but it was. I was hated because I had skipped a grade—Jewel was hated because she was black.

      She was the only African-American in our class that year. Usually we had more than one—sometimes three or four. But generally, even though we were all from the same district in Akron, which was heavily ethnic and mixed, we were not of a lot of different races—the “mixed” characteristics of our North Hill area was confined to mixed European ethnicities, not mixed races. We didn’t have Asians, Hispanics or Latinos—we didn’t have many blacks or browns. We had Germans, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Italians, Irish, and variations on the numerous sects and divisions of Christianity; it felt a lot like a mixed bag to me, but it wasn’t a lot of racial diversity. I was not used to differences in culture, societal norms or behavior for the most part, and didn’t even think about it. My dad was Italian. My mom was Scots-Irish. Neither one of these were touted as “right” or “wrong” to be. My dad’s people were Catholics, my mom’s were Southern protestants. My mom broke away from both to raise us as Episcopal, after a long search for just the right church to go to. We fit in.

      Jewel and I had become friends at recess. She was pretty, quiet and shy. She was smart, like me, but she never had much of a presence in class—mostly she sat quietly in the back of the room. She got good grades, wore nice dresses and shoes, and her hair was braided into many braids, which I found fascinating. She let me take one apart one day—and I marveled at how she didn’t have to use rubber bands to keep the braid from unraveling. I loved her hair and wanted mine to be like that. I was friends with only a few other people that year—in particular one boy I had a massive crush on, who didn’t seem to care much about me, but whom I would follow around on the playground for days trying to get a response, positive or negative—his name was Gail.

      My ninth birthday was to be a “Hobo Party” this year—the guests were supposed to dress up like hoboes, bring presents wrapped in newspaper, and my mother had devised a few games involving sticks and bandannas. We had beans and hot dogs to eat, and my dad had made us a “campfire”. The usual crowd of family and neighbors was invited, and my mom, as a palliative for the bad school year I’d had, encouraged me to invite friends from class. She was trying hard to erase the memory of the bad fourth grade year, trying to put as good a face on it as possible for me. But the truth was, Mrs. Sartor had been a dictator and a deeply troubled woman, and she’d turned most of the class against me except for Gail and Jewel. So they were the only two I invited.

      And Gail came! I was thrilled beyond words. He stepped out of his parents’ car wearing old tattered and fringed pants, a plaid shirt, and carrying his bandanna on a stick, his face smudged with coal dust. His present to me? A can of beans! It was delightful and quirky. I was in high spirits in the back yard, playing the egg-on-a-spoon race, passing a balloon from neck to neck—lots of fun things waiting for the hot dogs to get speared with sticks so we could hold them over the fire. Things were going really well and I had already received several nice presents—wrapped in layers of the funny papers or brown paper bags. Then another car pulled up to the house in front, and everything changed.

      It was Jewel. She had come! Now I really was over the moon. Both of my good friends had shown up—and the party was fun—and it was turning out to be a perfect day after all! Then it happened. My mother came to see who had just pulled up and watched as Jewel stepped out of the nice car, present under her arm, and gave me a hug. She wasn’t dressed like a hobo, but wore a pretty party dress and patent leather shoes. She greeted my mother with a polite hello and walked back to join the party.

      My mother said nothing in return—did not return the hello, or tell Jewel’s mother what time to pick her up. Instead, she stood there with a sort of strange expression on her face, frozen and stilted. I was too pleased to wonder about it, and was just about to follow Jewel to the back yard, when my mother grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the front porch. Now her expression was a little different. It was that face a parent makes when they are “concerned.”

      “Who is that?” she asked me.

      “It’s Jewel—I invited her. She’s my friend,” I told her.

      “Is she in your class?”

      “Yeah. Why?”

      “Um, well…” my mother’s voice was low and oddly timbred. I felt a small shiver of fear run through me. “Um,” she said again. Then she asked me the question that will stick with me forever and which forever changed my outlook on life:

      “Don’t you think,” my mother said carefully, “that she would be more, um, comfortable—with her own kind?”

      I was stunned. Her own kind? What did that mean? I looked at my mother’s face, which was now openly upset. Her own kind?

      “But she is with her own kind,” I told her, without hesitation; “We’re all in the same class!”

       My mother shut down her expression at that moment. Her face became a stone wall. I could not read the hieroglyphs on it. She didn’t reply for a moment, then said quietly, “No—I meant—“ then stopped. “I think you know what I mean,” she finished.

      But I didn’t know. Not immediately. Jewel was my friend, my classmate, one of the few in my fourth grade class who actually liked me and didn’t think I was some kind of freak. She had offered her friendship without reservation or expectation. And she was kind, and nice. I wanted to share my birthday with her as much as I wanted to share it with everyone else. So what was my mother referring to?

      Then, suddenly, I knew. And from that moment on, things changed between my mother and me. I saw her expression become clear, heard the fear and the prejudice in her voice. I felt sick to my stomach, almost violently; and I backed away from her as she stood there by the porch steps, and I walked slowly to the back yard. Jewel was there, sitting alone on the picnic table bench. None of the other kids were playing with her or had invited her to join the games. No one was talking to her. I wanted to cry, to scream, to push the table over, to set the place on fire. Something. Anything. I wanted this knowledge to go away and I wanted things to be like they were before I knew this horrible thing. I sat down on the picnic table bench next to Jewel and I tried to smile at her. But it didn’t matter what gestures I could manage--inside I was smashed to pieces. The whole party was ruined.

      I don’t remember the rest of the party; it passed in a fog of falsity, a haze of hypocrisy. I thanked people for their gifts, we ate hot dogs and toasted marshmallows. The kids drifted home, Gail and Jewel were picked up in their parents’ cars at some point. The party plates and newspapers were picked up, the leftover cake stored in the fridge, the campfire extinguished. And I was changed.

      I imagine it was something like the feeling Adam and Eve must have had when they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: once that happens, there is no returning to the joy, the innocence or the bliss. Pandora’s box all over again—but without the Hope. I would come to understand that later. Right now, all I felt was sick. A skin had been torn off of the world, and underneath were ugly, stinky maggots.

       I never saw Jewel again. Either she was placed in a different class for fifth grade, or her family moved, or she went to a different school. She would never visit again, but now I had another visitor, one who would never leave: Bigotry.

      In two years, it would be the reason we moved out of that inexpensive neighborhood into an even whiter, more middle-class home in the “country”. It was the reason my parents ran from the neighborhood I knew into a life that would eventually destroy their marriage and financial well-being. They would break themselves and the family trying to outrun black America, black equality, black “encroachment.” The diverse school system I would attend would become a mediocre, pale place, and in my entire high-school graduating class of over 100 students, we would have only ONE black person: a very light-skinned, red-haired, freckled kid named Alfred. The only reason we even knew he was black was because his younger brother was much darker and more “typically” African. But he, too, was treated differently than everyone else—not permitted to take a “white” girl to the prom or Homecoming. I imagine his high school life was somewhat lonely and isolating. But I don’t know--we were not friends. By the time Alfred came along, I was terrified of having black friends because of what my parents might say about them. There were no real opportunities to make any such friends, even so, but the fear remained.

      And as I grew up and moved out into the world, I found many more examples of my parents’ bigotry all around: every time they would talk about their “old neighborhood” and how it had been “taken over” or was being taken over by black families. Every time a news story about the Civil Rights movement was aired—every time the papers would quote a speech by Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers—there would be comments about how our country was going to hell in a handbasket. My mother loved to relate the story of her “terrifying” experience with a drunken black man who mistakenly got into her car one day while parked in downtown Akron—how she was too “paralyzed” to have stopped him if he had decided to rape or murder her. She always include rape and murder in this story, even though the truth was far more innocuous—it was simply a mistake an inebriated man had made, for which he apologized profusely. I know he apologized because my aunt told the real version of the story to me one day—she’d actually been there. That was another “fact” my mother had sort of left out of the tale.

      After I graduated from high school and went to work, I met more black people, and found that I had to make a conscious decision to not automatically categorize them. It annoyed me that every time I met someone of different race I thought these things. There was no putting them aside. Prejudice poisoned thought—I saw that—but you could not escape it. It was everywhere; in my father’s use of the N word—or in his substitution of the Italian pejorative when the N word was too harsh—in my mother’s evident fear of anything that was not Caucasian, in the spate of “black” jokes that were going around at the time. I had no black friends, and little opportunity to make any in the circles I frequented. But there was always that annoying and irritating pimple growing in the back of my otherwise clear brain.

      When I got to college, things changed. By that time, (1969 and 1970) things had heated up politically to a boiling point. There were marches all over the country for Civil Rights, for Black Equality, for Black Power. I suddenly found that I had plenty of opportunity to reverse my upbringing. My roommate was black. I dated a black man I’d met while acting in a play—and he introduced me to Black Panthers on campus; I even attended a rally or two. I started to believe that I could actually counteract the racial prejudice I’d been raised in.

      But I couldn’t. Because I was still afraid to confront my parents about it. For all the Suzy Whitebread activism I pretended to engage in, I could not go back to the source and root out the cancer. I was too afraid.

       Fast-forward a couple of decades. At 18, I was still concerned how my parents viewed me—I still needed their approval. By the time I was 38, much had actually changed. Not merely were laws passed which somewhat leveled the playing field politically and socially, but I was a completely different person as well. I was no longer fearful of bigotry—I saw it for what it was at last—the holdover from an earlier time, from a sense of entitlement white people had not earned or for the most part, or even deserved to have. And I now had my own children—and I would be damned if I was going to raise them to feel that separation, that isolation, that small-mindedness. I had finally learned to deal with it.

      Sometime around 1990, my mother fell seriously ill. She had to be placed on dialysis for the years of self-abuse in mistreating her Type II diabetes. She was already on disability and lived in a subsidized housing apartment. Unable to work, unable to afford her medications, she had taken a job as a babysitter for a wealthy family with three small, ill-behaved children. The job was killing her, but she was stubbornly clinging to it despite its obvious drawbacks. When she had to have the dialysis shunt placed in her arm, she became depressed and whiny, and even harder to handle than she had been; and a lot less cooperative. It was like dealing with a sick toddler at times. I had issues of my own, and worked full time and couldn’t monitor everything that happened, but my uncle and I tried to help, though it wore on our patience.

       Her first dialysis appointment had to be done at a specific time and place—and the appointment was set in stone. She could not change it, amend it or excuse it. If she missed it, she would have to be hospitalized. But miss it she did. It took my uncle and I several hours to track her down—she was babysitting for those three kids, and they had the flu. This was specifically forbidden for her to do—she was not supposed to expose herself to any viral infections. My uncle had to pick her up and watch the kids himself while she got taken to the appointment, four hours later than she was supposed to have been there. She was very fortunate they made an exception for her this time—but it would be the last one. If she missed another appointment, there would be no life-saving dialysis without being hospitalized.

      My mother arrived at the center in a bad mood, outwardly combative and aggressive. She lit into the receptionist, and the nurse. She refused to comply with instructions. She had to be sedated in order to have the procedure. And she was warned: do this again, and she wouldn’t be treated at all. By the time she got home that evening, she was royally PISSED.

      I called her after work to find out how it had gone. (I had not yet heard about the scene she caused at the center. My uncle would fill me in later.) When I spoke, she was still spouting invective about the whole arrangement, letting me know how inefficient and inconvenient it all was—and then she said the thing that literally made a sound in my spirit like nails on a blackboard—like the screech of air brakes just before the truck hits your car from behind:

      “…and the only reason she was telling me all this,” my mother said of the receptionist who was trying to get her set up for her regular appointments and having a difficult time because my mother refused to cooperate, “…was because she was BLACK.”

      The world stopped again—and I went back in time. I was standing again in front of a stone-faced woman at my ninth birthday party trying to understand what she meant by “her own kind” and why it made me feel bad. Why it didn’t seem quite right. Why I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach.

      This time, though—I knew. And I refused to accept it.

      “Mom—stop. That’s enough. I don’t want to hear another single word from you about being mistreated. There is no way you’re going to convince me that the ONLY reason someone was rude to you is because you’re white and they’re black. I don’t believe that for a second.”

      “Oh, you don’t? I’m not surprised. You were always a [N-word]-lover.”

      I tried to restrain myself from jumping through the telephone receiver to strangle this woman. I’d had enough. This was my breaking point.

      “That’s it, mom—I won’t listen to this bullshit. You either apologize for that remark and for the other ones you made, or I’m going to hang up and not speak to you again until you do. That’s your choice. And I’m going to tell you one more thing—if you ever—EVER—so much as use that word around either one of my children, you’ll never see them again either. Got it? Apologize—or I’m hanging up this phone. “

      The stream of invective I could hear before putting the receiver down was legendary. No apology was ever going to come out of this woman’s mouth. I knew that. And I had to make a choice. So I hung up.

      We didn’t speak for four months. She didn’t call, she didn’t even attempt to apologize to me, and she never, as far as I knew, tried to make amends with the dialysis center either. My uncle shuttled her to her first few appointments until she got a medical service ride, and she quit the babysitting job finally, but she didn’t make a single attempt to get in touch with me, or my kids. For four months.

      When she finally called, it was to talk to my youngest son invite him to come spend the night. She was stable now. And he was only 7—and missed his grandma. All of this was conveyed through him—not even asked directly of me. It made me seethe, but I didn’t want to prevent the kids from having a relationship with their grandmother, so I agreed to drop him off. He went, and when he came back it took all the restraint I had not to ask him if she had asked about me or tried to talk to him. But he seemed a little upset about something. When I went into his room to talk to him, I saw him hide something under his pillow quickly—and without saying anything, I turned it over to find my mother’s jewelry—an opal ring and a necklace—there. He had stolen it from her jewelry box.

      I debated for almost a week about how to handle this. I knew why he had done it—he didn’t really have another way to express his dismay over her absence. But I didn’t want him to think stealing was an answer either, and I knew we’d have to have a confrontation, my mother and I. I had no idea how she’d handle it when I told her. But when I called, she sounded reasonable and calm. She didn’t bring up our fight. She agreed to see us both the following evening, and she also agreed that it might be a good idea to put our differences aside and begin talking again. I had some hope, finally.

      But it didn’t work. When my son and I got there, everything went okay for about five minutes; he gave her back her jewelry, he apologized for taking it in the first place, and she was forgiving. Then all hell broke loose. Without warning or provocation, she lit into me, telling me I was mentally ill, that I had lied and been completely wrong about her and everything—and that I needed therapy. She screamed and yelled—scaring my son, terrifying me—and this went on for a good ten minutes before she stopped. I was too stunned to even respond. I burst into tears, gathered my child and left.

      My mother and I were done. This was it for me—I knew that she was toxic—disturbed—and probably never going to change. Prejudice was the least of my worries with her—she had deeper issues and I was never going to be able to fix any of them. For my own mental health, I knew this would be the last time we spoke. And it was. She died four years later, and we never reconciled.

      She died before I could let her know that I finally understood her illness—not the mental one which caused her bigotry—I will never understand that one—but the physical one that caused her combativeness and irritability and her reluctance to police her own health. I too became diabetic for a while, and I know now how hard the choices are and how difficult it is to be so constantly vigilant. I am no longer diabetic—but the experience taught me a great deal about why diabetics have a hard time. And I’ve forgiven her for her cruel and insensitive remarks about my mental health. I know that was just her way of lashing out to punish me for wanting to live my own life. I also know that my mother may have loved me, but she never really liked me, or who I was, and that those feelings had been around for a very long time before our estrangement. All in all, it was probably inevitable that we would stop talking to each other; still, it makes me regretful that I didn’t work harder to ignore our differences.

      After all, differences were the whole problem.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Ghosts in the Machinery

Posted by christinkeck on June 27, 2013 at 7:35 PM Comments comments (0)

In the history of transportation, why are there always “ghost” versions of conveyances? Since mankind has used something besides his feet to take him to other places, we have had stories of ghost conveyances; horses, carts, trains, cars, trucks—all have their ghost counterparts, which usually loom out of the darkness to signal something important—death, or perhaps even redemption. It doesn’t seem odd we might imbue humanity with ghostliness—it is humanity’s way of dealing with something that isn’t acceptable sometimes; but why do we also suffuse our transportation with the same personification of the soul? Do we really believe that modes of transportation can “die” and wander the earth seeking justice or resolution? Or are these methods only adjuncts to the human side of death—a way for the dead to get around in the afterlife? Judging from the numbers of stories about ghost transportation, it’s not clear whether conveyances or those who drive them are the ghosts.

      Before mechanical contraptions were used for travel, we used horses—they did our work, they pulled carts, they were ridden by people. We found out early on how sensitive and responsive horses were, how loyal they could be to their owners or riders. It’s easy to see why we would personify them, give them souls that could survive disasters and come back when we needed them or to warn us of danger. They could do this in life, why not in death? A ghost horse, phantom Horse, the riderless horse, the Headless Horseman on his ghost horse, seem almost a natural extension of our own fear of death as expressed in fiction. We loved our horses. So they could not die, not really. Not the very good ones, anyway—or the very bad ones.

      Of course, these stories might be found in greater numbers out West in the US, but many cultures have stories of ghost animals. There are ghost horse stories from Japan, China, Spain, Africa and our own native Americans. A ghost horse, good or evil, is not a severe stretch of the imagination.

      But horses gave way to other conveyances. We have ghost ships, ghost carriages. And one of the most popular versions, the Ghost Train. We even called trains “Iron Horses” for a long time—and still do. What qualities we attributed to ghost horses migrated right on over to locomotives. There are countless tales of ghost trains, some which run silently with no lights, some of which are long and black without markings, the shadows of lost souls in their passenger car windows; some of which are white and scream as they pass a crossing. Unlike horses, however, ghost trains in this country are rarely good omens. More often than not they signal a death is coming. Sometimes this death is the horrible result of stalling one’s car on the tracks at a crossing, or they are taking a person out of this world into the next. Ghost trains have also appeared all over the world, particularly in Japan, where trains are symbolic as well as convenient.

      The Ghost Train offers a unique view of death, justice, redemption and the afterlife, one that is a modern view of an old dilemma for mankind. Ghost Trains take the fear and distress of death, crime and guilt, and serve it with a side of mechanical reality for those who need the extra boost to help them accept the inevitable reality.

      It is a dark, moonless night, and John has been up to no good—he has decided to rob a train scheduled to stop at this Depot, and has placed dynamite on the tracks just around the first curve. People are going to die when he detonates the charge, but too bad. There is always collateral damage when someone is Up To No Good.

      John waits at the depot in the shadows watching its few straggling passengers. There is an older man of past importance but now fallen on hard times, who is traveling to beg forgiveness from a good-hearted daughter and spend Thanksgiving with his grandchildren, whom he has never seen. He carries a package, gifts for the kids, and prays his daughter will not shut the door in his face when he gets there. There is a woman with two small children, running away from an abusive husband; their solemn faces still carry the residuals of bruisings inflicted recently. They have hope in their eyes, and a meager $30, carefully purloined from the household allowance over several weeks, to start their new life with new names in a distant city. There is a young girl, pretty but no longer innocent, trying to find a new life after losing her entire family in a flood. A soldier home from the war, eager to see his girl, an inexpensive ring in a velvet box in his pocket (he doesn’t know it’s worthless glass, and it doesn’t matter.) Last there is a salesman with his sample case, bone-weary of life on the road, but bound to it like a slave to keep his mother and sister out of the poorhouse. Just these few passengers wait in the dimly lighted Depot to board the train. All of them have motives that are sympathetic, noble in many ways. None of them deserve to die. But when the train derails, they will be crushed, or maimed for life. John does not care. He has only one concern: there is a mail bag on the train, just two cars from the passengers, which has quite a lot of money packed below all the letters and packages. And he will have it; if these few have to be eliminated for him to get it, so what?

      He watches from the shadows as they wait to board. While he counts the minutes lost in thought, he is interrupted by an old, Old Man wearing a worn, white suit, who has stepped up to him from somewhere in the depths of the station. John is startled—he hadn’t seen this man waiting with the other passengers and can’t imagine where he has come from; the Old Man’s eyes are deep black, almost all pupil, and they penetrate. The Old Man wants to chat, but John does not want to listen. He must press his detonator at the right time, and that will mean carefully watching and counting the minutes when the train leaves the station. He is alert and nervous. And the Old Man annoys him.

      The Old Man is not deterred, however. He seems intent on telling John a story—a story about the Ghost Train. It comes through this crossing sometimes—it’s black, and silent, except for its peculiar, high-pitched whistle which sounds a lot like a woman crying. It always comes the day before a terrible disaster, and waits at the station for the dead to board, then screams away into the night on phantom track, not to be seen again until the next disaster. It hasn’t been around for a while—not since the bridge collapse of ten years ago when fifteen people died. Before that, it had been only a couple years since it had been seen, the day before a big fire. Before that, the Old Man couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen it, but it had been there every time there were a lot of deaths.

      And the Ghost Train had come in last night. Very late—or rather, early in the wee hours of this morning—just before John had shown up to lay his dynamite on the tracks ahead. Hadn’t John seen it steaming silently on the spur by the depot? Couldn’t he see it right now? It was still there, waiting; a black, misty aura rising from its boiler, an eerie, reddish light glowing from the conductor’s window, all the blinds pulled down and dark, and no markings of any kind! There it was—sitting right there—couldn’t he see it? Didn’t it make him shiver with dread?

      But no, John can’t see it. He will see it, it is inevitable that he will see what awaits him at some point—but not just yet. He is still unredeemable. The Old Man shakes his head in wonder. Why do they never see it? Why can’t they see what is coming for them?

      The answer is because if they did, they might change their ways.

      And that is not going to happen.

      John snaps at the Old Man for telling stupid tales and turns away from him so as not to see the penetrating black eyes any longer. The old white suit seems to shimmer in the darkness as the Old Man totters away, nodding a little as if to say yes, yes—it’s always this way. They never see until it’s too late. John checks his watch impatiently.

      And when John looks up again, there is no trace of the Old Man anywhere. The other passengers seem completely unaware of the conversation they have just had, even though John actually raised his voice at the Old Man once or twice; they have not looked up from their own silent ruminations to take any note of it. And John checks his pocket watch—it’s nearly time for the arriving train to roll in and pick up its load of passengers. He is on high alert now.

      As if cued, a whistle can be heard from far down the tracks. It’s a high, piercing whistle, and it almost sounds like a woman crying. John looks out the depot windows and sees a faint pinpoint of light off in the distance. Soon he will feel the rumble in the soles of his boots as the train brakes to a stop, and he can see the passengers stirring, taking note of the new sounds; they begin to gather their belongings to themselves in preparation.

     The train pulls into the station. It squeals as it stops, the heat from its boiler puffing out around the engine in a huge cloud, which makes the night air shimmer. The woman and her children are the first to board, carrying their cheap cardboard suitcases. Her little girl drops a flower on the platform from the limp bouquet she carries, and her mother helps her up the steep steps to the carriage. The older man is next with his valise and his package under his arm. The young girl, everything she now possesses in a cloth sack tied with a drawstring, salvaged from the mud and debris she had to sift through when the dam broke, holds the rail to step up; the soldier carrying his small rucksack goes next, then the salesman with his sample case and his tired eyes. All board one by one, and find seats in the darkened car. A porter helps them to their places, takes their tickets and assists them with their burdens.

      John does not board. He will allow the train to leave the station, then run as fast as he can down the track a ways to where his detonation plunger is hidden in a group of scrubby bushes, and where his horse is tethered to a tree, and when he sees the train round the first bend, he will push down on the plunger and make the dynamite explode; the tracks around the curve will buckle and warp, and before the train can stop it will slide off of them, twisting in the air, and fall over onto its side into a small ravine, where he will slide down on the loose gravelly soil and pluck the laden mailbag out of the car behind. Then he will scramble back up the side of the embankment to his horse and ride away. No one will find the damaged tracks and the derailed car until morning. No one at the Depot will hear anything, because the Depot is closing now that these last few have boarded, and the ticket agent has already climbed into the caboose with the other employees; he will ride with them to the next stop, where he will go home to his breakfast, and then to bed.

      John smiles. This is working out just as planned. As he watches the last of the passengers find a seat, a faint glimmer of white catches the corner of his eye, and he looks aside—the Old Man he was talking to earlier is standing by the tracks, also waiting to board. Or is he? He is standing by the stairs, surely, but that’s not the same train—is it? This train now looks a bit different—it’s darker, and there is no light on the front, no numbers and letters on the engine. It’s totally black, and makes no sounds at all. No puff of steam. No small ticks as the engine cools. No clicking or clacking noises as the wheels are rolled back and forth to engage the cams; yet, the door is open, and the Old Man in the white suit climbs up the steps to board, and disappears into the blackness of the doorway. The windows of this train are dark, unlit.

      John looks again, but now, all he sees is the Other Train—the Real train—with all passengers seated in window seats, looking ahead, being attended to by the blue-coated porter, who walks slowly to the front of the car. John shakes his head. He hopes the Old Man drops dead on his way home, for trying to scare him with his stupid story about black trains. Obviously, he has given John a powerful suggestion and his mind is just running away with imaginary visions. It only serves to make John more determined in his evil-doing.

      And so he does not wait for the real train to leave the station before running. Instead, he dashes now—jumps across the tracks to the other side, and into the scrub on the siding to get to the detonator sooner, but in the darkness and in his haste he trips and falls, rolling part-way down a small rise before coming to rest against a large rock. He smacks into the rock hard with the shin of his left leg, breaking the bone in two places.

      His scream shatters the night. When he feels his leg with his hand, he brings it back sticky with blood and sharp bits of bone.

      This can’t be happening! How will he get to the detonator? How will he blow up the tracks? How will he get the mail bag, get on his horse to ride away? He is nauseated, shaking, in shock now—and losing blood fast from the compound fracture—with no way to alert the passenger train, which has begun its chugging, whistling journey already, picking up speed as it leaves the station. Even if he could scream loudly enough for the conductor and engineer to hear, the whistle would drown it out—the whistle that sounds a lot like a woman crying—the whistle that seems to be getting louder and louder as the train leaves him further and further behind—how can that be? How can the whistle sound louder? It should be getting fainter, not louder—his brain, despite the pain and shock he feels, is at least able to process that fact.

      And what’s this lump under his back? What is this hard, metal thing pressing into him—in the darkness he gropes around for identification—it feels a lot like a metal bar. He has fallen not onto a rock, as he first thought, but has shattered his leg on the hard iron rail of another railroad track—one that apparently runs parallel to the main line, one he had no idea was there.

      Now he is as confused as he is sick and in pain—the fog of both are making him see things. No, he thinks. This is not possible. There were no double tracks. There was only the one track. There was no Old Man in white suit. There were only those sad, rag-tag passengers boarding in a darkened depot late at night. There is no black train without markings or lights in the windows, and it is not bearing down on him silently and fast, piercing the darkness like a knife, the scream of its whistle so loud he can barely think. This is not happening.

      They find his body around three o’clock the next afternoon lying on the siding just past the front of the Depot, his leg bent beneath him. The skin of his leg is not torn and bloody, only broken and not even very badly—though it appears to have been dislocated below the knee as he tried to crawl up the embankment to get away from something—something that left long streaks and ruts in the soft sandy soil—it almost looks as if he was dragged on a sledge or a wheeled cart had tried to stop before hitting him. Yet, there is no cart, and no sledge. And he was not hit. Or did not appear to be hit. There are no impact injuries, only the broken leg. What is more disturbing is the look on his face—as if he had died suddenly in great fear--a look that displays pure terror. The sheriff and railroad inspector and ticket agent scratch their heads in wonder. How could such a minor injury make a man look like this? They come to a conclusion that he must have died from heart failure when he fell. Perhaps an animal frightened him. Or a snake.

      They shrug and load the body on the stretcher and carry it back up the embankment to the depot, covered with a canvas tarp. They load it onto a coach that has come from town to pick up the disembarking passengers and the load of wire and mechanical debris that was found blocking the track a little ways down the line. It wasn’t clear what this was or why it was there—it appeared to be a broken wooden box, with a plunger like for a dynamite detonation set up—but no dynamite was found, and the wire was too old and rusty to have served as a good conductor anyway. Perhaps this man had been trying to remove that debris so last night’s train wouldn’t hit it and derail.

      The coach-driver shrugs and smiles at his passengers as they climb up onto the buckboard seats to be taken into town: A young girl with a pretty smile and curly black hair and her new diploma in her suitcase; a trim, fresh-faced woman seeking a job as a school teacher. A salesman with a sample case and new-minted hope in his eyes for making his fortune; a soldier who has survived the war and is coming home to marry his sweetheart. And an older man with his two happy grandchildren in tow—coming back from a wonderful holiday on a ranch where the kids rode horses and picked wildflowers and the man and his daughter reminisced about their lives together. It seems like a happy group.

      The driver adjusts his hat—an old, white hat that matches his old, frayed white suit and contrasts with his penetrating black eyes. Maybe he’d tell them a story on their trip into town.

Spring Cleaning

Posted by christinkeck on April 10, 2010 at 12:53 AM Comments comments (0)

Some thoughts I found while dusting my brain:

 

I don't blog that much. I've been told that for a writer, that is somewhat unusual behavior, but I don't like journaling much, actually. I prefer making stuff up and writing about it. So maybe that's it. Whatever the reason, I just have a harder time writing down these blog entries than any other kind of writing I do.

 

So why am I writing it at all? Because I came to a strange conclusion recently, and I thought maybe it would help if I tried to sort it out in my mind by writing about it. Fact is, I came to several strange conclusions. The first one is that I discovered my greatest writing influence, the author whose style impacted the most on my own, who I am convinced I am attempting to mimic in my own style. That author is John Irving, the award-winning author of The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and other works equally illustrious. The interesting thing is that I never would have consciously considered Irving my influence, but I recently picked up his latest work, Last Night In Twisted River, and from the very first few paragraphs I realized that my own writing style is very similiar: in the way we construct a sentence, the things we think of to include in paragraphs, the tangents we go off on, and other little things that I noticed this time--but failed to notice before. Perhaps I failed because I didn't attempt my own novels before. Yes, I think that's it. When you write your own books, you begin to read other authors as an author, instead of as a reader. That's when I noticed the similarities.

 

It really doesn't surprise me. Irving's Garp was the first character I ever read that literally haunted me, (and still does.) And I mean "literally." His literary life haunted my real one. I felt I knew Garp, personally, permanently, indelibly. I still do. From time to time I hear his kids asking me "how's the energy?" and I sometimes even reply to them. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "ghost writer" to me. I really believe it is because of Garp I am now a writer. That is the power Irving's writing had and still has, on me. His latest book is a big, fat dose of synchronicity--the first part of it is chock full of the information I needed to finish my first novel; I had the original idea, but Irving has done the research and put it into print. Instead of making me feel trumped, I actually may now finish that book properly and get it into print as well. Again, that's a powerful influence at work.

 

The second revelation I encountered this week was that I am old. I don't mean OLD old, I mean, Old. I am an adult, middle-aged, grown up. I am not a young person, not new, not fresh, not even "young at heart." I'm old. I finally "arrived" at Aged. I saw a concert tonight with some performers from my past, and they, too, were old, though they weren't acting that way. They were actually trying to act as if they were not old, but it didn't work. They looked old. And that ruined their act for me. Not all performers come off this way--out of the four on stage tonight only one stood out as truly current and relevant to Now. The other three--not so much. They appeared to me as if they were stuck in the same idea they'd originally come up with, only had turned grey-haired and paunchy and wrinkly while stuck there. That was disconcerting to watch.

 

The third conclusion I came to was very comforting. I encountered an old friend--someone I haven't seen for years--and he was happy to have found me. What a piece of serendipity that was! When you've gone away for a long time, and then come back to find that people still like you and want to be in your life it is a real blessing!

 

I may be old, and John Irving may be a much better (and far more successful) writer, but I still have friends who like me.

 

Another Spring has come.

 

 


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