Song Stuck in My Head: Get Rhythm!

Yup, been listening to a lot of rockabilly and early rock collections while writing “Red Hot,” and this one stuck in my head. Which is great, because the next story, “Ramapough Ringer,” is set in a West Virginia holler, and this song feels right at home.
I came late to loving Johnny Cash. A co-worker named Reilly, who wore Sharpei slippers to work and looked sort of like Ralph Wiggum, went agog when I didn’t recognize lyrics from “Folsom Prison Blues.” He rectified that, and after finding both of Johnny’s live prison albums, I devoured whatever I could find. Prior to that, I knew Ring of Fire and “I Walk the Line,” which was one of my grandpa Abby’s favorites. A grandpa named Abby? Isn’t that short for Abigail?

Nope, “Abby” as we called him, resembled Fred Flinstone and drove a gravel truck. He always had an unlit cigar dangling from the corner of his cheek, and he called me “Rocky,” because even as a toddler, I had muscles like a rock. I sat on the rug and watched the Flintstones, and he imitated Fred’s catchphrase, “Yabba dabba doo,” once. And there is no “once” with a toddler. I asked for him to “Yabby” so much, it became his nickname through the family.

We lost Abby to cancer when I was seven, and like many men of his generation, he was an enigma behind a chiseled statue that betrayed little emotion. But he had a good heart, and we saw little of his temper as rambunctious children, when he lay on the couch eaten up by cancer. I inherited my love of “sloppy hamburgers,” as he called them, and muscle cars (he owned Mustangs) from Abby, and Johnny Cash inevitably brings back memories of him.


We Were Intrepid, Once

I climbed onto the roof of my building today to watch the fly-by of the Space Shuttle Enterprise atop a 747, for its final air voyage before it becomes a museum piece on the deck of the USS Intrepid. I remember the sense of wonder, a tickle in the gut, when I watched the first space shuttle launch, the Columbia. I recall the emptiness when the Challenger exploded over the ocean. And worse, when we later learned it was avoidable, and that they burned up in the shuttle’s slow death spiral into the sea.

So there is another sense of loss, seeing the iconic shuttle fly for the last time. I know the space program will go on, with the Orion vehicles. At least I hope it will. The shuttles were what a car maker calls a “halo vehicle,” a money loser that drives other sales. The Dodge Viper never makes money, but those who can’t afford it might buy a sporty, affordable car from Dodge. The shuttle may have struggled to remain relevant, but it looked like what our dreams expected when we thought of futuristic space travel, and that made us interested in what NASA was doing, even if the science was a little dubious. Like when John Glenn flew up there to test zero gravity’s effects on an aged body. Hey, I was fine with the astronaut getting a freebie flight up there.

Will we watch the Orion launches with the same sense of wonder? I hope so. It’s a rocket based system. Not as sexy. I hope it will be much safer for the astronauts, though. 2 missions out of 135 failed, with loss of life. The engineers said the design would have a 1 in 100 chance of failure, and sadly, it looks like their math was correct.

We tend to think of the space program as a luxury, but I think President Kennedy was correct about its importance. We must dream big. We should not abandon our fight for the stars. It is not a zero sum game. Every space launch does not leave a child unprotected. And while we wage war with impunity, we cannot point a finger of blame at the rocket taking humanity to Mars.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Review: Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios

Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios
Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios by Alice Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books that have succeeded in changing my way of thinking. One of them was The Confidence Course by Walter Anderson. This groundbreaking book exposes the breadth of child abuse in the world committed under the guise of discipline. “Man hands down inhumanity to man,” wrote Philip Larkin. And psychoanalyst Alice Miller- who left the Psychiatrists association for their refusal to let go of Freud’s abuser-forgiving “Oedipus Complex”- shows in stark detail how “every smack is a humiliation,” and we force ourselves to think we deserved it, because the truth- that our beloved parents hit us out of frustration or anger- is too much to bear.
I was blessed with a good childhood. I was never spanked or slapped that I remember. However, I learned that one expresses his anger by shouting, frightening his loved ones, slamming doors and punching walls, from my alcoholic father. It’s a behavior I struggle with. I avoid confrontations, because I am afraid of what my fists will do. When I was five, a playmate hit me in the head with a chunk of asphalt because he wanted the car I was playing with. My mother had to pull me off of him. Ever since then I have fought battles with temper. I’ve trained in MMA to have an outlet for it.
This short book will help you decode your own behavior, with a little introspection. And when you unravel it, you can begin to change it from the roots.
Its revelations are also stunning: not every abused child goes on to become a criminal, but every violent criminal studied has revealed a litany of abuses that “they deserved.” And they take it out on the rest of us until the day they die. Miller does not absolve the violent of their behavior, but shows us how to reduce it in future generations. We have yet to listen.

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When You Were a Young Adult…

The more hear the marketing term “young adult” the more it bothers me, but that’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to ask what books you enjoyed as a teenager, or a tween. My wife was reading Stephen King at age 12, and to this day if we see a clown in a sewer, she trembles with fear. I didn’t read Mr King until I was in high school, if I recall. My favorite “young adult” books were surprisingly tame, but I still have great memories of reading them. My mother thought I was weird for reading nonfiction books voraciously as a little nerd kid, but I slowly warmed to fiction after reading books that put forth supernatural horror legends as truth (kind of like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark meets In Search Of”), and from there Stephen King’s real horror tales were but a stepping stone away.

The Tripods series, by John Christopher

I read these out of order. The first one I read was The City of Gold and Lead, which occurs after an alien invasion and takeover of Earth. The aliens are tall fleshy bipeds not unlike the critters in Independence Day or “Hammerhead” from the Star Wars cantina:

Or at least they did in my imagination. These books were great fun, and reading of their flight and rebellion against the aliens fueled playtime adventures in the woods and decrepit railyards we romped in. They’d hold up today, and my kid is going to read them. Unless we’re ruled by aliens, then. I still remember how the enslaved kid beat his alien captor’s nose in with a back brush. John Christopher also wrote The Lotus Caves, about kids who explore a moon and find a lost astronaut living it up on hallucinogenic mushrooms. As you can guess from the title, it is a lot like the Lotus-Eaters section of The Odyssey.

The Pinballs, by Betsy Byars
The closest to a stereotypical “Y/A” book that I enjoyed was The Pinballs, from the spinner shelf of my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Murray. It was written by Betsy Byars, about three children in foster care, who feel like they are bounced around like pinballs, without any control. Many children have this feeling, and my parents had divorced, so it resonated with me. I don’t remember too much except the children were realistic, and learned to take control of their lives by the end, without it being too happy of an ending.

Blubber, by Judy Blume

I can’t remember how many Judy Blume books I read back then. Blubber sticks in my mind most, but I also read Iggie’s House and Tiger Eyes, I think. I read almost everything on Mr. Murray’s shelf, but I had no problem reading books that were supposedly “for girls.” Blubber is a great book about bullying and schoolbus dynamics. It shows how easily kids go from friends to enemies and how adults’ treatment of a peer will change their position in the kid pecking order. Maybe I’ll read it again after I tackle Moby Dick.

Strange Companion
This one also lured me into fiction because it was about animals. I was reading all the nonfiction books about wildlife that the library had to offer, and this is about a boy who is lost in the woods when the ranger who is taking him to his father’s remote cabin is kicked to death by a moose. I was into woods survival then, and with the Cold War raging under Reagan, we thought we’d be eating slugs and living like Lord of the Flies any day now. The boy sort of befriends an injured crane, and they survive together somehow. Then when he is an adult, the bird shits on his car and their friendship is ruined. Maybe I’m making up that last part.

So, what were your favorite books in the sixth grade?

 © 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Song in my head this week: Silent E by Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer is one of those clever and witty satirist songwriters that everyone says they like but rarely listen to. Maybe you’ve heard Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, or his hilarious poke at German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, but odds are you’ve heard the songs he did for Sesame Street (or was it The Electric Company?) the most. Silent E and L-Y.

L-Y is even better, it has a creepy vibe to it and uses adverbs properly for the sake of brevity. It’s also very funny. Lehrer had a great and cynical wit, and a prodigious output that I keep wishing to delve into. But I never do. I sit back and think of porcupines and turning a hug huge instantly, and that’s as far as I get. Any big fans of Lehrer out there? Which album is your favorite?

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Target, Focus, Execute

McGu, SEAL Team Six Commander Dick Marcinko, and Fat Me

I met former SEAL Team Six Commander “Big” Dick Marcinko at a book signing in the late ’90s for his motivational business book Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior. He signed it, “Tom: Find your target, aim, and execute.” It sat on a shelf for years. I was 28.

By the time I’d turned 30, I had plunged into debt, become morbidly obese, and given up writing.
I had a decent idea for a P.I. series about a guy named Phil, a heroin addict vaguely based on the alcoholics in recovery by my literary heroes Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. I might have gotten it published, if I’d tried. Phil was gonna hunt down someone’s daughter and follow her to New Orleans, get mixed up with a female cop, and find out the girl was running for good reason. Nothing new, but House of the Rising Sun might have gotten published, if I’d had the self-confidence to complete it. I’d gotten my first publication, “We’re All Guys Here,” in Blue Murder, a now defunct online mystery mag, after Pulphouse folded. Pulphouse was hot stuff at the time, and when Dean Wesley Smith accepted “Guys,” I was thrilled. And heartbroken when the zine closed before it made print. But I found it a new home… and then gave up. I was a fat nothing. What did I know? Hey, I sure like Everquest. I bet there’s a raid tonight…

When I turned 33, my “Jesus year,” as they call it, I had a sudden epiphany.
I wanted to lose weight.
I wanted to get out of debt.
I wanted to stop chasing unattainable, selfish and damaged women.
I have a lot of issues with my father, but he had died over 5 years ago. I had long ago internalized the belittlement and bullying and had taken to doing it to myself. Calling myself fat-ass. Berating my every failure. Every misstep, every procrastination. I was a complete failure, except for having a decent job.

My epiphany was realizing my self-flagellation was counterproductive.

I remembered what Big Dick said.

I became obsessed with one thing at a time. What made me most miserable? My weight. I went on Atkins, and 18 months later I’d lost 140lbs. I began walking 20 minutes every night, then 40, then an hour. Then I took martial arts and began lifting weights. I’d been beaten up by three wrestlers in high school, and my “tough guy” father never taught me how to fight. He expected it to be natural. So I learned to fight. I’m not that good, but I’ve taken punches from 6’4″ 260lb boxers, and returned the favor.

I did not write.

When that goal was in sight, I tackled my debt. I owned all sorts of junk I had bought for fleeting enjoyment, to distract from my self-loathing. Books I bought, but would never read. I still have shelves of those. I stopped buying books for five years, reading what I had. And I still have many, many more. I became the eBay master. I bought only food and necessities. I didn’t go on vacation. I stayed home on weekends.

I did not write.

Seeing myself beat a lifelong battle with lard and dig myself out of debt gave me the self confidence to seek a relationship. I hit the dating sites. But most importantly, I let friends know I was looking, and soon I was set up as the wingman for someone’s cousin, and ended up with the girl. We respected each other and didn’t hurt each other when we were upset. She is someone I love and deserve, a few years later I married her.

I did not write.

My job let me blog all day without any personal reward or appreciation. I could have written, but I was surrounded with negativity. I found another job where I was valued.

I began to write.

A friend told me about NaNoWriMo, and I wrote a 115,000 word novel in two months. It was crap, but it was liberating. I could write. It was just too big. So I wrote flash. I compressed stories into 700 words. Then 1000. Then 1500. Then 2500, 3500, 4500.

That 700 word story was “The Last Sacrament,” which was published in Shotgun Honey a few months ago. Before that, I worked on an even shorter piece, a bit of humor called “Punk Dad Manifesto.” It was rejected, so I tried elsewhere. A few days before my wedding, it was published in The Morning News. And they even paid for it.

What changed? My image of myself.
My image changed from a gullible, clumsy, pot-bellied kid who embarrassed his father to someone who could focus on a goal and chase it down like a vengeful water buffalo bent on goring the hunter who’d shot off its left butt cheek. I started small and focused on one thing at a time.

Big Dick had been right.

You don’t “Change your life.” That’s a monumental task. You focus on one duck at a time, and knock the little feathered bastards down. Eventually, you’ll find your life has changed. You’ve become a duck slaughterer. People will ask how you find the time. The motivation. The energy, to put the damn game controller down and DO IT.

Walk tall, and carry a Big Dick.

Target, focus, execute.

I’m not writing this to brag. A good friend of mine is plagued with similar self-doubt and feels the quicksand of many problems holding them back, so I wrote this on their blog. And it felt like something worth sharing. Another good friend repeated the adage that 99% of life is showing up. I mocked it at first, but when opportunity knocks, you’d best be answering.

Hey, there’s a writing contest. Join it.
Hey, there’s an open call (in my case it was the Munchmobile) … show up.
Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’, like Red says.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

1997: What I Wanted

  If all the world had one neck, I would have clenched my hands around it and squeezed until everything went black. I had won the game of checkers Dad and I played all our lives, and he flipped the board on me. I’d made it to his side and forced him to king me, when he called me out of the blue, something he’d never done before, and I’d turned his favorite phrase back on his latest self-inflicted tragedy:

  Life’s a bitch.
  Two weeks later, I heard he checked out and took the lead pill.
  I wanted to keep hating him.
  I wanted to not look at the pathetic, waxy and emaciated body in the coffin and feel pity for the man whose wake of wanton emotional destruction formed the stomach churning foundation for my formative years; gone was the charmer with glinty umber eyes and a disarming crescent grin, his acceptance doled out in niblets, treats passed to dogs standing stiff before the judges, trained to gladly suffer the verbal public flayings endured in between.
  I wanted not to cry when they sang “Danny Boy” at his funeral, elegizing the prodigal son who’d gone astray, lashing out at everyone loved him, seeking relief from a wound that would never heal. 
  I wanted him to stand up and fight. To swell into the hammer-swinging hardhat who loomed in the parlor sipping vodka and orange juice, hurling brickbat words and scraps of heart shrapnel at my mother, sister and me. I wanted to throw just one meaty fist into his face before he took the dirt nap, the coward’s way out, before he did the Dutch and gypped me out of his comeuppance.
  I wanted to revel, when his uppance had cometh.
  All I threw was a rose into his grave. 
  And I sang Danny Boy with the rest of them, tears running down my cheeks.
  From that day on, every fight I’ve ever had has been with my dead old man. His face has grinned from every drunk I’ve set straight, every cop I’ve mouthed off to, every driver who’s cut me off, and every woman who’s rejected me; they’ve all had that grinning face, saying I got you this time: I turned you into me.
  The battle thunders on in silence; a fist clenched at my side, nails digging into my palm leaving little grin-like crescents to fight back the red mist clouding the corners of my vision, the fire in my blood and the vitriol on my tongue, to spare those close to me from my frothing, fatherless rage.
–disclaimer: I am a lot better now.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck