Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What Are You Afraid of?

There are very few genres’ I haven’t, at least tiptoed around, in my writing explorations. I’ve slashed my way through the thick jungles of Vietnam. I’ve scanned the Western horizon for signs of Indian troubles. I’ve ran from shapeshifters through the ruins of Angkor Wat.

But to cozy up to an insecure, skinny hippo in the Pangani River under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro was an entirely new experience for me. Undaunted by the challenge of talking to ‘little people’ verses my more mature crowd of readers, I stumbled ahead.

Thus was created my first children’s book: 'Waleed, the Skinny Hippo' written in English and Swahili. It’s the story of a skinny hippo who learns from a very wise fish that’s OK to be different. In fact, being different is something to embrace and welcome he is told. I’m delighted to report that the feedback on this first version of ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo’ has been fantastic. People love the bright colored pages, the cute and cuddly Waleed, and the moral tale of accepting oneself as you are.

As proud as I am of this first version, I did want to expand its reach as much as I could. Thus Vida and I decided to create two new versions of the first Waleed. So now I’m happy to report that besides being translated into Swahili, Waleed is now also available in both Spanish and Hmong.

Marketing, usually the bane of most writers, has always been a challenge for me. I am trying to get the story of Waleed out to various ethnic audiences in the Twin Cities. It’s been a slow and laborious process.

Despite the slow steps taken in marketing Waleed, it’s not too soon to think about a second book in the ‘Waleed’ children’s book series. I’ve decided that this next book will discuss the ‘concept of fear’ and how to handle it.

The idea of being afraid came from clichés thrown at me and other kids growing up. Unfortunately it was from a generation that thought tough love meant little affection and manning up to one’s fears. I’ve always thought that denying one’s fears or trying to ignore them was the wrong approach.

Based on that wrong approach and trying to correct it, I wanted to write a moral tale about facing one’s fears but not necessarily conquering them. I honestly don’t know if that is possible, especially for a little kid. The story, as it’s been roughed out thus far, is pretty straightforward.

Waleed is told about a magical river on the other side of the jungle. He is encouraged to go there and play with other hippos. But to get there Waleed must pass through this deep, dark, and perceived dangerous jungle. All of his friends leave him and enter the jungle. Waleed is all alone. He doesn’t know what to do. Finally he gathers up his courage and he too enters the dark jungle.

There are all kinds of scary sights and sounds in the jungle. Just about the time that Waleed decides to turn around and run away, he meets a wise elephant who talks to him about facing his fears and dealing with them.

I felt it was important to steer away from the clichés and pat phrases I had been bombarded with when I was growing up. While that older generation might have felt they were only trying to help, I think a lot of that advice fell far short of being helpful. The older generational ideas of masculinity and bravado proved to be obstacles to truly dealing with one's fears.

Waleed learns that fear can be managed and might not go away entirely. He learns that it is perfectly OK to be fearful of sights and sounds and things that might not bother other hippos. Like dealing with his weight, Waleed learns that he is unique as a little skinny hippo and he must handle his fear as he feels best suits him.

For human and hippo alike, that’s probably pretty good advice.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Crossing The Styx

Whether you believe in this stuff or not, it makes for fascinating reading. While I haven’t taken to reading the morning obituaries each day or mystical readings about passing over to the other side, I have come across phrases that have (for whatever reason) latched on to my consciousness.

‘Crossing the Styx’ is just one such phrase. But it wasn’t the first to grab my attention. As a writer, I try to be attuned to phrases that capture a moment in time, a particular scene or an emotion. They all add to the vernacular toolbox I use every day to paint picture stories in the minds of my readers.

‘Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog’ was one of those first such phrases. The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937).

I explained in a previous blog how that phrase dropped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

For me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

Now another phrase stumbled across my consciousness

‘Crossing the Styx’ has been formulated in many different configurations like ‘The River Styx’ and ‘Journey Across the Styx.’ They all mean the same thing. The Styx, which was also a female deity, formed the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead according to the philosopher Hades. When someone died, the psyche (spirit) of the deceased had to cross the river Styx, carried on a boat by the ferryman Charon, in order to enter the afterlife.

The concept of this ‘other side’ has long since fascinated me. The Vikings had their Valhalla or Viking heaven. Religions down through the ages have talk about, preached about, and warned about life after death; making it sound like the final tabulation.

Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other similar religions have their own take on this concept.

In their new book ‘The RE Generation’, Jack Uldrich and Camille Kolles talk about the influence of mystical experiences in our lives.

“Since the 1960s, the Gallup organization has been measuring the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In a recent poll, 84 percent of the respondents indicated that they had had at least one experience in which they ‘went beyond their ordinary self and felt connected to something greater than themselves.”

“In the same survey, a follow-up question revealed that 75 percent of the respondents agreed there was a social taboo against speaking in public about such experiences.”

That hasn’t stopped a lot of people, including myself, from trying to explore, examine and understand what isn’t easily understood. It’s a journey inside one’s head without guideposts, guidelines, or borders. There’s an easy way to stretch your imaginary muscles. Henry Miller, philosopher, poet, writer and a main character in my latest suspense mystery ‘Playground for the Devil’ said it best:

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

When my kids were just kids, I tried to do this. We would go hiking into the woods nearby and at a certain point; I’d have them sit on a log or the ground and ‘just listen.’ I made them sit quietly and listen to the sounds all around them; the birds, wind rustling leaves in the trees, distant traffic, etc. I wanted them to retreat back into their head and let their eyes see what hadn’t been seen before.

Then I would ask them what they heard and what they saw. We would talk about the visible foliage and the invisible animals around us. I wanted to them see beyond the trail we were following and embrace their surroundings. It was hard for them at first but gradually as they settled down, their senses became more attuned to their surroundings; sights and sounds and smells and atmosphere. I’d like to believe that these experiences are one reason both my kids and all my grandchildren are very active outdoors and have a great respect for their surroundings.

Try it sometime. It’s a fascinating and deeply satisfying experience.

Look beyond your eyes to where your vision melds into your memory and imagination. Let your thoughts roam free and see where they take you. Perhaps into another world, another realm just over the limits of your consciousness.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Art of Conversation

It can happen any place in the world. Perhaps in a pub in Ireland, England or Scotland with a pint of Ale. It can be a quiet intimate sharing of ideas or a lively exchange of opinions and attitudes.

It can be in a Paris café with a tiny cup of strong black espresso, meant to be sipped for hours on end. But it’s more than just conversation. It is the sharing of ideas and facts and history handed down between generations and friends.

West Africa has its griot or storyteller.  This is the historian for the people. People would gather regularly around the griot and they would pass down the stories, histories and customs of the village communities.

Back in the day, families went out on Sunday afternoon to visit other families for conversation and coffee. Intellectuals, bohemians, and the like had their salon. Children sat around the campfire at night and told stories. I’ve often talked in less than stellar words about the ‘old men at the coffee shop’ who seldom listen and often talk mindlessly.

The military has its bullshit and bravado sessions. Workers have their shop talk and techies talk code. Conversations come in every shape, form, configuration, and stated purpose. It can be two friends sharing, lovers intimate cooing and delightful banter about nothing in particular.

It started for me about two years ago with six friends and associates I simply wanted to talk to. The pandemic was raging and close contact was fast becoming a thing of the past. I still wanted to meet and greet and share ideas so I came up with the idea of a C & C; a coffee and chat session. It was always outdoors and usually first thing in the morning before our regular lives took ahold of our day.

Then it grew last year with eight and now ten folks whom I meet up with to chat about anything and everything. It’s neither formal nor structured.  Some are only once or twice a summer while others are much more frequently. But they all bring something different to the table.

Different folks, different backgrounds, different perspectives. We’ve managed to avoid talking about politics unless our views are in close alignment. Even then I’d rather talk about something fun, enjoyable, stimulating, thought-provoking or satisfying.

My friend Bob, in California, loves to talk about his current writing projects and me about mine. We’ve found that our sharing critiques are really helpful in bringing a fresh perspective to any current project of ours. My friends back home bring a plethora of similar life experiences to our vernacular mix.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a weeding out process over time. Some of those folks have fallen by the wayside, busy with other aspects of their lives. The ones that remain continue to bring new visions, new challenges and new reasons for getting out of bed each morning.

It may have taken me a lifetime to find pleasure and great value in cerebral discourse and exchange but I’ve got it now…and it’s a hoot.