Dick and Jane's objective was to teach us how to read using the Look-Say Method which worked, and would still be working today had Dick and Jane not landed in serious legal difficulty in the '60s. Ultimately, they lost their final court battle to phonics. Shortly thereafter, Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, retired to Tahiti, bought a small inaccessible island, and today locals often report sighting the two children and Spot running along the beach and shouting:
The Tahiti part may be a myth, but the Dick and Jane story is absolute fact. If you would like to know more, click here.
Everyday I think of Dick and Jane and wish them well. Though they often made me crazy and constantly bored the hell out of me, they taught me to read, and in so doing, they taught me to write.
They also taught Ernest Hemingway, Beryl Markham, John Grisham, and Amanda Hocking to read and to write. They taught Robert Crais also, and he used the reading skills they imparted to write this:
...even your bravest young man didn't stand there and die for little Sally back home or even for the Stars and Stripes. If he stood at all, he stood for his buddies beside him. His love for them, and fear of shame in their eyes, is what kept him fighting even after his sphincter let loose, and even when his world turned to hell. It took a special man to stand there all alone, without the weight of his buddies to anchor him in place, and Aimes was looking for young warriors that he could train to move and fight and win alone. Die alone, too, if that's what it took, and not just any man was up to that. But poets were different. You could take a poet and fill his heart with the notions of duty and honor, and sometimes, if you were very lucky, that was enough. Aimes had learned long ago, perhaps even in an earlier life, that a poet would die for a rose." from L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais
Thanks, Dick, Jane, and Spot, we owe you a debt that is too enormous to define. A debt that can be repaid only through using the skills you taught us.
Writing - Bert Carson's Rule One: before you can write, you must learn to read. When you've mastered the basics of reading, you must continue to read, and read, and read. You cannot write if you do not read.
This post isn't about writing, at least not totally, and it isn't about eating, at least not totally. This post is totally about hanging tough.
I've been losing weight for over sixty years. In the course of that time I've tried everything you can imagine and probably some things that even you can't imagine. A couple of things that have stuck, but not proved to be the end-all-cure-all, are vegetarianism and running, both of which I've been a practitioner of for more than thirty-five years. In spite of that, until a couple of months ago, I was carrying more weight than I wanted to carry, and I was still a slave to my appetite.
Now, twenty pounds later and with satisfying my appetite far down my to-do list, I know that I've finally found the answer to the weight thing. The answer was so simple; it still boggles me - stop eating sugar. Since I'm not writing about eating, I'm not going to go into detail about it; however, if you want to know more about eating sugar free, read Christina's blog: How Sweet It Is To Be Sugar Free.
Here's my point about eating. It's easy for me to say things like: "Just stop eating sugar." Or, "Sugar is the only diet issue you have, cut it out." Or, "Go sugar free and live to be a zillion," and a lot of other things like that. However, easy has nothing to do with going sugar free. Sugar is added to almost everything I've eaten since I was two years old. Check a few food labels, and you'll see what I mean. Which is my point. If you're going to eat sugar free, you have to be serious. You have to be committed. You have to "hang in there."
So what does eating and hanging in there have to do with writing? It's the same issue. It's easy for me say, "Just write." Or, "Make time everyday to write at least (fill in the blank) words or pages every day." Easy to say, but what about the days when you have a zillion things to do, and at best, you figure you aren't going to get half of them? What do you do on those days?
You guessed it - you hang tough. You put whatever IT is: sugar free eating, writing daily, running, walking the dog, whatever, in the front of your mind, and
you keep it there. You don't let anything take it away. You hang tough.
If you can't hang tough, don't name the IT in the first place, then you won't be adding, beat-myself-up-for not-hanging-tough to your list of things to do today.
Here's a hint - tattoo the words of my new favorite novel character, Joe Pike, on the inside of your eyelids -
Buddy Stone passed away November 22, 2012. At least that’s what his obituary reported. But I’m sure he’s still here. Oh, I know he’s physically not among us, but I also know that he is right here, right now, right beside me, looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear as I search for the right words to tell you about him. I know that’s true in spite of the fact that I never physically met Buddy.
If you wonder how that can be, let me explain. Buddy left a legacy of people, the only kind of legacy that amounts to anything. After you read this, more than likely, you’re going to discover that you have become part of the Buddy Stone Legacy – a legacy of love, compassion, commitment, and integrity. And trust me; you could do a whole lot worse than to be part of the extended Buddy Stone family.
I’m part of the legacy because of my association over the past twenty-eight years
with one of his nephews, Danny, and two of his Grand Nephews, Brandon, and Aaron, all barbers of the highest order. Here’s a link to the blog I wrote about them a year ago:
Early last December, I climbed into Brandon’s chair at Taylor’s Barber Shop. We did a few minutes of catch up as he prepared me for my monthly clip.
I told him about our hectic Christmas photo season which was winding down.
He listened attentively, and then said, “I have some bad news to share with you Mr. Carson (I’ll never break him of that respectful habit).
Before I could say anything, Ollie Taylor, the co-owner of the shop, cutting at the next chair, said in a quiet voice, “We all went down to Alexander City for the service.” Then he added, “Buddy conducted it.”
That gave me something to say. “Buddy conducted his own funeral service?”
Brandon, who still thinks the Stone Family is no different from everyone’s family, said, “Yep. He knew that the cancer was going to get him, so a couple of weeks before it did, he got his preacher to record him conducting his own funeral service. He delivered the message, which was simply him telling how he always tried to do the best he could in everything that he took on, including his relationships with his family, friends, customers, and strangers.”
Brandon laughed at my question. “No sir, what Buddy recorded was the whole service, he even sang all the hymns.”
Ollie, with as much respect as I've heard in any man’s voice, said, “I have never heard anything like it. Never.”
Buddy Stone was one of twenty-one children. Early on, he realized that he only had two career choices: work for Avondale Mills, the principle employer in his home town, Alexander City, Alabama, or learn a trade. He took the latter course and became a barber, a master barber who was more than willing to share the trade with anyone who wanted to learn.
Today there are fourteen Stones cutting hair and sharing Buddy’s love and commitment to life.
I don’t know how many lives those fourteen have and will touch, but I know they've touched me and unconditionally included me in the legacy of love and commitment established by Isaiah “Buddy” Stone.
Even if it were possible for me to sit in Buddy’s barber chair today, there wouldn't be words for me to tell him how I feel about being part of his legacy, but I know that he knows that – knowing is an integral part of the legacy, the part that connects us all.
I started to call this post Happy Birthday Harlan, but that implies that I know him, or at least know far more about him than I do. So I gave up that first title and went with Write Like Harlan Ellison.
Before I explain why, you should know that until fifteen minutes ago, I'd never heard of Harlan Ellison. Imagine that! And I call myself a writer. How can one be a writer and not be aware of Harlan Ellison? For me, it was no problem. I've lived at our present address more than three years, and I only know the names of three or maybe four of the neighbors and that only because our mailman is willing to share information with me.
Harlan Ellison and I never crossed paths until tonight, and then we just barely crossed. Two or three weeks ago, I discovered Robert Crais, and that was by accident. Now I've read six Crais books, including the one I finished this evening. Not wanting to be without Joe Pike, or Elvis Cole, or a Crais standalone character, I frantically entered the Amazon Kindle Store and selected The First Rule, bought it, turned on my Kindle and watched it open to the 4% mark.
I've never been one to knowingly miss anything, so I sent my Kindle back to the cover and began to work forward through all of the disclaimers, copyrights, threats, and testimonials, finally stopping on the dedication page where I read:
whose work, more than any other,
brought me to this place.
I turned to Christina and asked, "Have you ever heard of Harlan Ellison?
She said, "Sure," and I knew I had some serious catching up to do. I Goggled Harlan Ellison and discovered, among other things, that he just turned eighty last week, May 27th to be exact. His published works include more than 1,700 novellas, short stories, screen plays, teleplays, and essays. He has been married one more time than I have, and since he and his current wife have been married since 1986, I have to assume that, like me, after a shaky start in the matrimonial arena, he has found the woman he knew was out there waiting.
I put Robert Crais and Joe Pike on hold and went back to Amazon. For some reason, maybe destiny or fate or maybe it was just the way Amazon chooses to list books, I selected Web of the City, downloaded it to my Kindle, backed up to the cover, and began moving forward.
A couple of pages south of the cover, I opened a new page with the title: Introduction: Unnecessary Words.
I read it, then read it again, this time aloud to Christina, and now I'm going to share it with you. After you've read it you'll understand why I called this post, Write Like Harlan Ellison
There's really no point to writing an introduction to a novel. A book of short stories, sure, okay. A collection of essays, definitely. A scholarly tome, naturally. But what the hell should one have to say about an entertainment, a fiction, a novel? Nothing. It should speak for itself.
And I intend to let it.
Even so, I'd like to make one brief statement about the book. Bear with me; I won't be long.
There's a story about Hemingway - I don't know if it's true or not, but if it isn't, it ought to be. The story goes that he was either on his way to France or on his way back from France, one or the other, I don't recall the specifics of the anecdote that well. He was on shipboard, and he had with him his first novel. Not The Sun Also Rises; the one he wrote before that "first novel" that made him a literary catchword almost overnight.
Yes, the story goes, Hemingway had written a book before The Sun Also Rises, and there he was aboard ship, steaming either here or there; and he was at the rail, leaning over, thinking, and then he took the boxed manuscript of the book... and threw it into the ocean.
Apparently on the theory that no one should ever a writer's first novel.
Which would mean - were all writers to subscribe to that theory - we'd never have had One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding or The Catcher in the Rye or From Here to Eternity or The Seven Who Fled or The Painted Bird or Gone With the Wind or...
Well, you get the idea.
I don't know whether to argue with the theory or not, but I suppose I'm lobbying against it by permitting (nay, encouraging) this reprint of my first novel, Web of the City. It was my first book, written under mostly awful personal circumstances, and I'm rather fond of it. I've re-read it this last week, just to find out how amateurish and inept it is, and I find it still holds the interest. I even gave it to a couple of nasty types who profess to being my friends when they aren't sticking it in my back, and even they say it's worth preserving.
So the book is alive once more.
The time about which it speaks is gone - the early fifties; and the place it talks about has changed somewhat - Brooklyn, the slums. But it has a kind of innocent verve about it that commends it to your attention. I hope of course, that you'll agree with me.
In case you might wonder, I began writing it around the tail end of 1956 and the first three months of 1957. I was drafted in March of 1957 and wrote the bulk of the book while undergoing the horrors of Ranger basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. After a full day, from damned near dawn till well after dusk, marching, drilling, crawling on my belly across infiltration courses, jumping off static-line towers, learning to carve people up with bayonets and break their bodies with judo and other unpleasant martial arts, our company would be fed and then hustled into a barracks, where the crazed killers who were my fellow troopers would clean their weapons, spit-shine their boots, and then collapse across their bunks to sleep the sleep of the tormented. I, on the other hand, would take a wooden plank, my Olympia typewriter, and my box of manuscript and blank paper, and would go into the head (that's the toilet to you civilized folks), place the board across my lap as I sat on one of the potties, and I would write this book.
After the first couple of fist fights, they stopped complaining about the noise and let me alone. But Sgt. Jabowski called me, in his dragon's voice, "The Author." The way he pronounce it, it always came out sounding like The Aw-ter.
The editor who bought the book originally, who took the first chance on me as a novelist, was a wonderful guy named Walter Fultz. He was the editor at Lion Books, a minor paperback house that gave a lot of newcomers a break. Walter is dead now, tragically, before his time, but I think he would have liked to've seen how long-lived this book has become, and how the kid he gave a break has come along.
Lion Books went out of business before they could release Web of the City, and the backlog of titles was sold here and there. Pyramid Books then bought the manuscript.
It was almost a year later, in 1958, while I was serving out my sentence as the most-often-demoted PFC in the history of the United States Army, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when this book finally hit print. I was writing for the Fort Knox newspaper, and getting boxes of review paperbacks for a column I was doing, when the August shipment of Pyramid titles came in. I opened the box, flipped through the various products therein, and almost had a coronary when I held in my hands, for the first time in my life, a book with my name on the cover.
Except, the book was titled Rumble.
Nonetheless, it was an experience that comes only once in a writer's life, the first book, and I was the tallest walkin' Private in the Army that week.
Maybe I should have taken sides with old Ernie, dumping this book in the Pacific as he dumped that first novel in the Atlantic; but I cannot forget the hot August afternoon in Kentucky during which I realized my life's dream and became, for the first time, an author.
And even if Web of the City isn't War and Peace, you just can't kill something you've loved as much as I love this book.
So read on and, with a little compassion on your part, you'll be kind to the memory of the punk kid who wrote it.
That doesn't need further comment from me. Hell, if you don't know by now why I called this, Write Like Harlan Ellison, it's because you didn't make it this far.
"...a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors or abusers, sometimes to the point of defending them, and sometimes the feeling of love for the captor shows. These feelings are generally consider irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness."
That and more is what Wikipedia says about Stockholm Syndrome. Here's what I say. For as long as I can remember, and that covers almost seventy years, I've been a student of all things esoteric. Any serious study of the esoteric quickly involves research into the "ego," and there is no lack of information and opinion on the subject. If you're curious, one of the best books I've found on the topic is The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts.
Ego is the collection of unproven
beliefs, third-party opinions, and biases that we weave and mold into something we call "our self" or "who I am."
I am never far away from thoughts of ego and the immensity and intricacy of it. That's why, when I read the definition of the Stockholm Syndrome, I realized it isn't a "psychological phenomenon." The Stockholm Syndrome is a simple, yet profound, explanation of the human condition.
I wasn't "who I am," and you weren't "your self" the moment you entered this human experience. We were pure spirit, universal energy, encapsulated in a human body. Our first reaction on discovering our dilemma was to scream and then cry. The next few years were erased from our ego memory by our captors as they began indoctrinating us with the a new story - our "who I am" story.
Consider this, with the exception of a few hard-wired details (gender being chief among them), the only difference between you and me or either of us and anyone else on the planet, is the story we have accepted about who we are: it's not only a story we've totally accepted, it's the story that runs every moment of our life. It determines every decision we make and every step we take: unless we see through it and remember the time before our capture.
We speak glibly of "freedom" yet until we free our self from the story our captors sold us, we are victims of the Stockholm Syndrome.
November 30, 1954, 2:45 PM, I was twelve years old, sitting in a straight backed chair, in front of the open window at the back of the classroom. The back row was made up of six straight back chairs, not the single arm desks that filled every other row in the old oak floored and paneled classroom in central Alabama. Even though it was late fall, the window was open because the air was heavy and humid, thanks to summer's last ditch effort to hang on.
Our teacher, a substitute who appeared to be as excited about being there as the rest of us were, nodded a bit as we slogged through a forty minute reading exercise. Noting her inattention and being fully aware that she didn't know our regular teacher's ironclad rule stipulating that all four chair legs must remain on the floor, I leaned my chair back until I found the perfect balance point against the window frame. Then, I dropped my head back until half of it was outside the classroom. I opened my eyes and waited for my vision to adjust to the brightness imagining all of me was outside that hated room.
I focused on the clouds and took a deep breath, wondering how long it would be before the substitute teacher looked up and saw what I was doing and ordered me to return all four chair legs to the floor. That didn't happen. Seconds after I opened my eyes, two golden lights, traveling faster than anything I'd ever seen, swept across the small portion of the sky I was focused on.
Involuntarily I slammed back to the floor waking the substitute teacher and every kid in the room. There was a long moment of silence which I used to get small. However, I couldn't get small enough.
The teacher's head snapped up, and her eyes locked on mine. "That's it young man (she hadn't bothered to learn any of our names). "Get your things and move to the front row where I can watch you."
My buddy, Douglas Jackson, sitting in the chair next to mine, grabbed my arm and whispered, "What happened? Did you go to sleep?"
"Nope, I just saw two shooting stars."
He laughed and said, "Yeah, right." And that would have been the end of it, had there not been a news report that evening about the meteorite that crashed through the roof of a house ten miles south of the school, at 2:46 pm, striking Ann Elizabeth Hodges who was lying on her sofa. The next day, Douglas, one of the smartest kids I knew, remembered what I'd said and commented, "You did see shooting stars."
"Yep," I said, and that was the end of it, until fifty-eight years and a few odd
months later - the night before last to be exact. It was almost midnight. Christina and I were driving home from Clarksville, Tennessee to Huntsville, Alabama. Somewhere south of Nashville and north of the Alabama state line, in an area of little light pollution, a meteor streaked across the sky carving a hot red line just above the treeline. Seconds later it was followed by a smaller twin.
This time, I was a bit more knowledgeable, and as I raised my vision searching for more meteors I said, "I read that tonight earth is passing closer to an asteroid, whose name I don't remember, than at any time in the past 200 years."
Christina said that she had read about that also and we continued in silence, our attention locked on the sky, as we recalled the night we lay on a dock at a state park in north Florida and watched a spectacular display meteor display presented by the Leonid Comet.
Seeing the two meteors Friday night did more than trigger the fifty-eight year old memory of the Hodges Meteorite, it shifted my focus from the events of the day, fatigue, and relief that were heading home, to a much larger picture - a picture of the oneness of all things. In that picture I was no longer a man, traveling home with his wife after a business trip, I was one with all things - the night, the earth, the sky, Asteroid 1998 QE2, 3.6 million miles away from the state of Tennessee, and the entire universe.
When I was twelve years old, I'd lost touch with that perspective. Somehow, somewhere, in the intervening years, I've reconnected. My re-connection to the oneness of all things won't get me a seat on the front row of the class, but it will surely take me home.
The power of focus is the key to success in all endeavors. To operate without engaging our focus is at best a waste of time, at worst, it is an instant pass to the hereafter.
In a blog that I called Story Book Endings, I mentioned Evan Gattis. In this blog on focus, Evan is my example.
In the third game of the just completed series against the Dodgers, Gattis, an Atlanta Braves rookie, had not been in the starting lineup for the previous two games. The Braves were down, 2 - 0, with two men on base, when Gattis was called on to pinch hit.
Stepping to the plate, he looked like a "normal player." By normal player I mean he wasn't totally focused. He was maybe 80% present, the other 20% of his focus was being eaten up by the shock of being suddenly being inserted into the line up, before a sell out home crowd, in the face of a almost hopeless situation.
The Dodger pitcher wasted a pitch, then realizing that Gattis wasn't totally ready, delivered two quick strikes, followed by another wasted pitch. And then a funny thing happened. The missing 20% of focus began to return to Gattis eyes. He fouled off three consecutive two strike pitches and after each one the increased focused became more apparent. Want to know what happened on the eighth pitch of his at bat? Click the play button below.
Focus is a choice, one that most people aren't willing to make because it requires a total expenditure of energy, leaving no room for hole cards or hold backs.
If you want to win, at whatever you are doing, you must be willing to pay the price, to give all your energy to bring your total focus to the moment.