Observations and Meanderings

New Children’s Book

I’m pleased to announce the release of my newest children’s book, That Doesn’t Belong Here! In this illustrated children’s book, a little girl visiting her grandparents finds many things out of place and, one by one, returns them to where they belong. At the end, she finds herself in the backyard where her grandparents have a special treat waiting for her.

It is available here on Amazon.

This brings the total number of children’s books in my catalog to five, which by coincidence matches the number of grandchildren in my family. My daughter-in-law is due to deliver number six any day now, so there’s probably one more book coming in the future.   

Artists and the Pandemic

Difficult as it is to see clearly when we’re in the middle of something (Einstein once said that a problem cannot be solved on the same level it was created), after a year and a half of pandemic some things are starting to show up.

One of the early clinical directors of Peninsula Village told us that people in crisis tended to “go back home.” This is why, she said, that some of the coping skills of the teens we were serving seemed primitive and ineffectual; they had gone back home, to their emotional roots, to the coping skills they employed years ago, to the needs they experienced then, to a state of being when things made sense on a much simpler level.

Faced with a global pandemic that was/is no respecter of class, race, region, state or national boundaries, or any other structure we had created to order our lives, we sought and are seeking refuge in the basic elements of life as we understand them.

Some of us retreated, hunkered down, tried to become invisible. Some became defiant, refusing to have their routines disrupted by a disease they’d never even heard of before. Some entered a state of denial, either about the existence of the virus or its severity. Some cast the crisis in religious terms, as a battle between Good and Evil, characterizing the virus as a tool wielded by a supernatural power. Some looked for others who had similar fears and anger, and banded with them, looking for someone or some group or organization to blame. Some saw these groups banding together in fear and anger and saw opportunity for power, political advantage, or wealth. Some turned to the scientific method or to those who understood how to apply it, trusting in them to solve the problem as they had so many times before. Some, like me, used a combination of tactics, like retreat and trust in science. And every group looked at all the others and thought they were missing the point entirely.

In her response to the crisis, the poet Amanda Gorman took a blank page and created art. Her book Call Us What We Carry gives voice to the complexity of the crisis and finds in it, in addition to struggle and despair, hope and resolute spirit and opportunity. I’m about two-thirds through it and it is a fine piece of work. Much of the book focuses on the pandemic; her take is nuanced and spot-on. Her perspective as a person of color is given both from historic and contemporary points of reference, and is a significant but under examined facet of what we’re going through. And she sees the connections between the pandemic and the larger, longer-term issues facing us. 

This kind of unexpected, eye opening insight is a counterpoint to examination and analysis that barely touches the surface or the easy, often self-serving explanations. Ms. Gorman is not the only person doing the hard work of seeing, of expressing what is rarely said and more rarely understood. There are others; there always are. This is what artists do. This is what art does. This is why it is essential.

The Review That Matters

Over the last several days I’ve been participating in Zoom sessions with teens who have read or are reading the Boone series. I told them about my writing process, which is pretty organic and unstructured, and a little about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing (as I have experienced it; other’s mileage may vary); they asked questions and told me what they thought of Boone and the series.

The main reason I agreed to do this, and also the main reason I’m so very glad I did, was that the young people I was talking with are living out on the fringes of society, much as I portray Boone to be, and I wanted to get their opinions about how the characters came across and how Boone’s progress through the latter part of his teenage years sounded to them. I didn’t worry too much that they might be concerned with sparing my feelings; my career working with teens taught me that they would probably either give it to me straight or ignore me completely.

On the whole, they thought that Boone sounded like a real person, which was immensely gratifying and also a great relief. Like Boone, I spent my teenage years living in rural East Tennessee, but it has been a few decades, and Boone’s childhood was more dangerous and desperate than mine. I was never hungry, or beaten, and my family stayed intact throughout my childhood and far into my adult life; my mother died at 90 a few months ago, and my father (93) is still, as they say, alive and kicking. Much of Boone’s character was drawn from the issues faced, mistakes made, and resilience shown by the young people I worked with in treatment centers and residential facilities for the majority of my career. It was reassuring to hear that I mostly got it right.

I have always enjoyed writing for the pleasure of creation, the increased clarity of thought that is required when putting things into written form, and the satisfaction of having my characters take on lives of their own and let me know, in no uncertain terms, which direction they feel the story needs to go. I’m also insecure enough about my own abilities to place great value on the opinions of reviewers and judges. Now I find myself wondering why I worried so much about what they thought. The writer’s world is filled with people who are very comfortable using the yardsticks of number of positive reviews and number of sales to evaluate a book’s worth – and, by extension, the author’s – and having a legitimate reason to set aside those opinions is a pleasure. It’s an ego boost to read a positive review, unpleasant to get a negative one, and I won’t pretend that I’ll be completely ignoring either from here on out, but this experience has given me a more realistic frame of reference for them. These young people, largely ignored by society, have given me the most accurate feedback I have received to date, because they live the life I was trying to portray with Boone.

I can also say as a result of these sessions that I have received one review that is more meaningful than all the others I had gotten before, from Amazon or contest judges or anywhere else. The teacher I worked with during these sessions told me that one of the young men had never read an entire book before, but had finished the first three books in the series, was looking forward to reading the fourth, and wanted to know when Book Five was coming out. He said after reading the first few chapters he couldn’t put it down.

That’s where it’s at, folks.

The Boone Series is available in print or ebook versions on my website, housemountainviews.com or on Amazon. Also, I’m sure your local independent bookstore would be glad to order any of the books or the entire set upon request, so if you have a favorite, give them a little business. If you don’t have a favorite, there’s no time like now to find one.

A Rough Sketch of Boone as Everyman

Most of my career has been spent working with the “labeled” children. Socially maladjusted, oppositional/defiant, conduct disorder, juvenile delinquent, sexual predator, chemically dependent, criminal, alcoholic, clinically depressed, and so on. The ones out on the fringes of society, ignored for the most part, vilified or dismissed out of hand when they are noticed at all. It’s been said that one of the worst things that can be done to an individual or a group is to take away their voice, and these teenagers, like many other groups of outliers, have certainly been unable to speak to the larger community without their labels drowning out anything they might have to say.

The young people I spent my time and attention on had most of the characteristics one would expect, given the stereotype. Mistrust or open defiance of authority, anger simmering just under the surface and sometimes erupting into rage, hopelessness, inability to understand or function in the larger society, helplessness, refusal to follow the simplest norms of language or behavior – all these were present to a greater or lesser degree in the teens I worked with in the classroom or out in the field.

But there was also a side of them that usually gets dismissed as an aberration, if it is mentioned at all. These young people all had, often buried under layers of rage and mistrust, a desire to learn how to be a successful adult, to figure out how the world worked, to learn how to navigate the adult world they were about to enter. They all knew, even though they were reluctant to admit it, that adulthood was coming at them like a freight train, that they soon would be adults whether they wanted to be or not, and that they didn’t know how to be one. They, all of them, wanted to learn. For some of them this desire had been shamed or ridiculed or beaten almost completely out of them, but it never entirely disappeared. Entering the adult world was a step they recognized on some level as inevitable, and they wanted to get it right. One unintended result of being ignored or treated as unimportant is an independent streak, a determination to stand on one’s own two feet. The fact that it is often misplaced does nothing to diminish the validity of the drive; it will express itself one way or another. Misplaced, it can result in an attitude of disregard for others except as objects to be used, avoided, or overcome. Channeled, it is the same drive admired by society at large in our more successful members. It is present in these children, and is a valuable resource indeed. 

The strength and potential of this resource is almost never explored or even acknowledged by the larger society.

And that is our loss, yours and mine. What I found working with these children is that, like most groups that we characterize as “other,” they are much more like us than not. Our practice of cutting them off from society, whether actively or passively done, does not make us stronger. On the contrary, it weakens us as a society and as members of the human family.

Boone, the protagonist in the series I am writing, was conceived as a distillation of the young people I spent so much of my time with over the years. He is not patterned after any one of them, but their struggles, prejudices, insights and occasional triumphs are his as well as theirs. He is a modern-day teenage Everyman, stumbling toward adulthood with little in the way of assets and a long list of survival skills that often work against him. He realizes early on that his biggest job is to unlearn most of the stuff his daddy taught him, but finds his father’s voice in his head so powerful that many times it’s impossible to ignore. He has little in the way of life experience that leads him to think of people in general as trustworthy, and so his suspicions often take the lead. The thought of having a happy life is so foreign as to be outside his imagination.

Like the young people I worked with, though, he wants to figure things out. On some level, he is tired of being ignorant and uncertain of what to do or say in the most mundane of societal interactions, and is frustrated with being dismissed or ignored completely. His ability to read people, a handy trait in the average person and a survival skill in those living on the edge, is blunted by his father’s misguided teachings about how the world works and so fails him at important moments both dangerous and potentially hopeful. He is angry at his father for the abuse he suffered in the past, for leaving him alone in the world, but also for the lessons his father taught him that Boone is having to unlearn to make any progress toward a functional life. This anger often hamstrings him but just as often, and more importantly, serves as a driving force to set these useless lessons aside.

Boone is sixteen at the beginning of the series, but could just as easily be fifteen or seventeen. He lives in an unnamed rural area in East Tennessee; the precise location is unimportant for purposes of the story. Boone is the narrator in this first person, present tense series, so the only insights are those Boone himself has. This means, among other things, that if there are several possible responses to a situation and Boone only sees two, he acts on his knowledge that there are only two options. This is sometimes frustrating for the reader who has to endure the results of Boone’s limited understanding of how things work. It is also one of the more difficult parts of writing Boone’s story, but the struggle was not without rewards. Boone is rough-hewn, and angry, and socially inept, but he’s trying.

I wanted to tell Boone’s story because these children are seldom heard and their story, like your story and mine, is rich and layered and worth the telling. And also because they need someone to hear their story. They need someone to listen. Being heard is part of belonging.

These young people, easily dismissed in casual interactions as at best uninteresting and at worst dangerous, are very much like us if we’re willing to look just a little bit below the surface, if we’re willing to do the work that tears down the walls. Like Boone, they know little about societal niceties, but they do know if the person they’re interacting with is genuine. As soon as they sense insincerity, condescension, or a superior attitude they know what game is being played out even if they can’t give it a sophisticated name. If they decide we’re playing that game, they will base their future interactions with us on that decision. On the other hand, if they decide we’re the real thing, everything changes, and our common humanity becomes visible and is a starting point for all kinds of possibilities. But only a starting point.

It doesn’t happen at once, of course. One young man I worked with took years to open up and let us in. An expectation of instant gratification on our part will almost certainly destroy whatever mutually respectful relationship we might be beginning to build, leaving us with the same old adversarial relationships both of us know all too well. Most of these youth have extensive experience of being lied to, manipulated, and treated like something barely worth noticing. They recognize the moment when we give up on them; they’ve seen it thousands of times already. If we are to welcome them into the larger family that they are rightful members of, there is work to be done, no question about it. 

Somebody has to go first. It should be us.

Somebody has to refuse to give up. Again, it should be us.

It isn’t easy, but the rewards are significant. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

Tested

Today I was tested for COVID and now have written proof that there is at least one disease I do not have.

My daughter and her family, which includes a one- and a three-year-old, are visiting later this week, coming in from out of state. Her children are both in daycare and have been required to stay home several times during the course of the pandemic due to positive tests results from someone else in one of their classrooms (causing a two week shutdown of the room). I understand and support the daycare’s cautious approach, even though it is very inconvenient for my daughter and son-in-law, both of whom work outside the home. My wife and I are not hermits but have been careful for the last year and a half, putting much of our lives on hold for the duration in addition to being vaxxed and boosted. I decided to get tested, since I have recently participated in a few social activities. Even though I was careful to minimize the risk, a negative test would mean one less thing for my family to be concerned about.

So I made the appointment, drove to the local pharmacy, and had the test. Contrary to some accounts of how unpleasant the procedure was, the discomfort was barely noticeable. The wait was short (less than 15 minutes), and although I didn’t get a lollypop or other reward for being a good and brave boy, I did get a certificate. I do wish the test was less expensive; it was not a burden for me but I can understand the cost preventing others from getting tested. That is one small part of a debate I think is critical for our society to have, but not on social media. It’s too important for that.

Squirrel Wars

I was beginning my afternoon nap when the noise from the bathroom started. A quick recon pinpointed the source – a large hole in the outside wall between the window and the corner of the house. This particular squirrel had wisely (so it thought) chosen a location for its winter home construction that was inaccessible, being approximately 23’ off the ground. The cedar siding no doubt was familiar material for this project, and it was noisily setting up housekeeping in the cozy, insulation lined cavity it had created.

Being a squirrel, it was not familiar with the concept of windows, especially the fact that they open. A bit of what passes for research these days confirmed that squirrels do not care for pepper, especially the stronger types. Our kitchen cabinet happened to have black, cayenne, and red pepper on hand.

Creating a delivery system (see photo) took only a couple of minutes, and with the device and an armful of pepper containers in one hand and a step stool in the other, I made my way to the second floor corner bathroom. The window opened easily and depositing the quarter cup or so of mixed peppers took only a few seconds.

Now we wait.