Tuesday, June 10

The Mighty One - On Wings of Desire

Here is a sample chapter of my novel to tease you all. Let me know what you think.

                                   On Wings of Desire

     In 1966, my eight year old curiosity got the better of me and I had to find out what I was getting for Christmas. My parents were kind, but set boundaries, and one of them meant staying out of their bedroom. They treated my room with the same respect and always knocked before entering.
Mother left to go grocery shopping which gave me the chance to go upstairs. I knew Dad kept presents under the bed and I carefully lifted up the comforter when I heard the front door open and shut. Panicking, I did the obvious and stupid thing; I stepped across the bed, opened the window, and climbed out on the rear porch roof. It had snowed the night before. Dad  had shoveled a path from the back door to the detached garage leaving a large pile of snow close by. I tiptoed to the edge of the roof, aimed for the mound and jumped. Instead of hurtling fifteen feet to the ground, I drifted like a leaf from a tree. 
     I laid in the snow bewildered. Trying to absorb what had happened, the cold snow on my backside reminded me Mother would expect me to be in the house. Brushing snow from my clothes, I noticed our next door neighbor Mr. Hoover in his driveway with a shovel in his hands and a gaping mouth. Giving him a nervous wave, I headed thru the back door, almost running into Mother unloading groceries in the kitchen.
     "Neil, what are you doing outside without a coat?" she asked . I mumbled something about something but Mother didn't notice. 
     I realized no one else did that floating thing after getting a weird look from a friend when I mentioned it. I knew I had to hide it, especially from the nosy  Mr. Hoover and his kids, Millie and the evil twins Ned and Ted . My burden of secrecy grew heavier, even after the careful realization that everyone had a secret to hide.
     I discovered I could float up as well when reaching for an apple at the top of a tree or something on a high shelf at Dad's hardware store. This developed into flying -- which took more effort to accomplish and was harder to hide since Galesburg Illinois is as flat as Kansas. 
  I became aware of other unusual skills as I went about the business of childhood. I used to take a red blanket off the clothes line and pin it to my tee shirt. Like many boys, I would run around the yard imitating the world's most famous super hero. Our dog Blinkers was energetic but not the brightest pet. He would chase me around trying to get his blanket back until exhausted. Once during the excitement he ran out in the street into the path of an oncoming car. Sensing the inevitable collision, I ate up the distance, grabbing the dog and dodging the car before the driver even slammed on his brakes.
My joy at saving him was dulled because I had no one to tell. The disappointment followed me for days until Mother noticed my unusual crankiness. 
  I don't like keeping this to myself,   I thought angrily.
     For two lonely years I suffered my uniqueness in silence until fourth grade. I was excited with the first week of school and made my way home bouncing a dense super ball as I walked. When it bounced it too hard and it ended up in the gutter of a nearby house, I stopped underneath in frustration, wondering what to do next. I really liked that ball and wanted it back. I looked around to make sure no was watching and quickly flew up, grabbed the ball, and landed back on the ground. I put the ball in my pocket for safekeeping and continued on my way. A screen door slammed, and turning back I saw a boy walking quickly towards me.
     "Hey that's a neat trick," he said breathlessly, as he caught up to me. 
     " What trick?" I asked, with innocent irritation.
     " How you flew up to get that ball," he replied, pointing to my pocket. 
     Any desire I had to confide my secret vanished at the reality of being exposed. He continued to walk alongside me for two more blocks in silence.
     " It's okay, I won't tell anyone,"  he  promised. I stopped walking and stared at him in a panic.
     "What are you talking about?" I said playing dumb. He shrugged.
     "Super heros have to keep it a secret. Superman and Spiderman do," he pointed out, as if this were obvious.
     "Who?"  I asked, unfamiliar with the world of comics. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, thinking.
     "I'll show you," he replied, gesturing for me to follow. Curiosity overrode my paranoia.
     We went back to his house-- the one with the ball snatching gutter-- and  he showed me into a house overflowing with books, shelves of them in every room. 
      Pete Thurston was only a  year older but was the wisest eleven year old II ever knew. His mother taught literature and his dad was an anthropologist. They endowed him with endless fascination for the world; he seemed to know everything. Pete was a bit taller and thicker than me with a tangled mess of blond hair and freckles that multiplied in the summer sun. 
     We threaded our way to a room at the back of the house where he had an extensive comic book collection. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the origins, history and powers of each caped, and masked super hero. Pete invited me to come by any time and once again promised to keep my secret.
As our friendship grew, I was glad to have someone to talk to and he was thrilled to be my confidant. I had no interest in the fantasy world of comics however,  I was too grounded in reality to take any of it seriously. 
     The only hero I emulated was my Father. He was fair and honest with everyone, teaching me to judge people by their actions not their appearance. I remember when he came back to the store one day after lunch with a portrait of Martin Luther King tucked under his arm. He hung it on the wall with the photos of Gandhi and John F. Kennedy. The reason for this addition to his wall of heros was a crude comment at the local cafe by a Mr. Ivers about a Vietnamese family that had recently moved to town.
"Son, people may look different on the outside but we are all the same on the inside," Dad informed me gravely. Ivers refused to shop at Dad's store after  he saw the new photo on the wall.
      I repeated Dad's observation to Pete who gazed skyward for a moment.
     "It's a start," he conceded.
     Pete realized I had no ambition to be a scientist or engineer like his comic book idol Ironman and took it in stride, but deep down hoped I would change my mind. Over the years he continued his attempts to convince me I was more than an average kid but I dismissed the idea.
     "You have a gift to share with the world and a personal mythology to realize," he told me while we walked home from school after his first driving class.
     "You sound like your father," I retorted, and he smiled at the comparison. The high- brow analysis was a bit much for me but there was no  stopping Pete.
     While my parents taught me to always be considerate of others out of simple kindness, Pete taught me the deeper consequences of altruism. I never gave it much thought because it brought on too much brooding, which I was never good at. He handled such big ideas with ease, while I questioned the need for such lengthy contemplation.
"A hero is someone who acts out of concern for others not himself. He gives his life to something bigger. Superheroes are the same. They are wiser, they use their intellect and reason to solve problems, but it's their morals that make them extraordinary. You need to read the classics, dumb ass," he said, giving my shoulder a playful shove.
     "Yes Herr Professor."  I returned with the right  amount of sarcasm, shoving him back and knocking him off his feet.
     That summer was spent getting more lessons from him on the hero business as we sat at the edge of a nearby pond surrounded by a dense wooded park of mature oak and poplars. It was a quiet, isolated place, perfect for contemplating the wider world. Insects flitted over the green water as a current stirred in the slight breeze.
     The idea of being a super hero dispensing justice had a certain appeal. God knows I wanted to bash in the faces of the bullies at school who picked on the smaller kids, and the evil twins next door could use a good drubbing, but what good would it do? They aren't going to listen to Pete's version of reason either.
     "I can't see myself as some kind of supercop meting out punishment,"  I finally answered to his latest argument.
     "There are other ways to use your special skills-- I just know it. And you don't have to do it alone," he advised. Here comes the sidekick pitch again, I thought with an inward groan. 
"I know you don't like the structure of working within a unit but it can offer you the kind of discipline beyond individualism," he went on without missing a beat. I turned and gave him a frown of irritation.
     "Would you please use words a fifteen year old can understand," I pleaded.
     He laughed and explained by example why I ran track because I preferred the one on one competition rather than being on the basket ball team, which was group oriented. I liked the focus of making decisions on my own.That wasn't entirely true when I gave it more thought. Sometimes I wished others would make decisions for me. I wanted to do the right thing but it wasn't always clear or easy. I guess that's what Pete tried to teach me, but my stubbornness got in the way.
     Such comraderie meant revealing my abilities to the other guys and I wasn't ready for that, if ever. Being a loner made it easier to avoid. I got up to stretch out, raising my hands high over my head. My jeans damn near slipped off my narrow hips.
     "Yeah well, I guess I can put these weird tricks to use some day I suppose,"  I r really wanted to drop the subject.
     "Some day you will be a hero, whether you like it or not and I'll be there to say I told you so," he said while stabbing a finger at me, a mischievous smile on his face. It was so obvious to him. I blinked at his certainty that I would make any difference. His loyalty to such a destiny left me speechless.
     Later that summer, he joined me at a job where we discovered how  much strength I  had. Although average in height and on the lean side, I could keep up with the football jocks working to make some extra money.
     The job was simple enough. We loaded fifty pound bags of grain from a conveyer belt to a nearby palette for transport. We got into a rhythm as the morning work progressed wit a friendly competition to see who could load the most sacks. By lunchtime the other guys were sweaty and covered in dust; their hair plastered to their foreheads. I was barely winded.
      " You're pretty strong for a skinny fellow Archer." One of them commented. There a tinge of jealousy in his remark so I slowed down. Pete was equally winded as we traded secret grins.
     We laughed about the contest on the way home from the ice cream store. When wee took a shortcut thru Mr. Rivers' property and passed by his tank-sized Edsel parked near the barn, Pete stopped me with a hand . Looking around he challenged me to lift up the back end of the car. Making sure no one was watching and with an ice cream cone in one hand, I reached down and took hold of the trailer hitch and lifted it until the rear wheels rose off the ground.Impressed with the results, I gently set it back down.We giggled and continued on our way.
     I was shattered when he and his father were killed in a car almost two years later. He was barely eighteen. I heard the news while at the school library and staring out the window, saw his house in the distance looking empty and lost in the dull gray light of the snowy landscape. 
     How could this happen? Pete who believed in me and wanted to be my sidekick more than anything. How he vicariously enjoyed the  moments when my quick reflexes peeked out as I  dodged snowballs in neighborhood battles or won a race at track meets. He encouraged me to test the limits of my flying and acted as lookout when I snuck off  near dawn for quick lessons out in the country. He'd  stand guard with a whistle. 
     I lost my best friend and my childhood in the same moment. It was the first time I had encountered death. Once again, I was alone.
     At graduation his mother presented me with a notebook. It was  his own attempt at writing a comic book. 
     "I thought you might like this," she said in a halting voice.
     It had both our names on the cover so she assumed I was a co author. The story I discovered, was a thinly veiled version of our relationship. Once assured that Mrs. Thurston had not read it, I promptly stowed it away.
     While trying to figure where to go to college,  I got a job driving a delivery truck in Chicago. Stuck in traffic one day, and frustrated with the wait, I got out to see what was happening. Down the street several fire trucks and police cars swarmed around a partially collapsed building in the run down neighborhood of abandoned and boarded up houses.
     "What's going on?" I asked a cop as  he held out a hand, barring me from getting closer.
     "Couple of folks are trapped under the rubble," he answered matter of  fact. I could see firefighters throwing aside big chunks of concrete and cinder blocks as they continued to search for more victims. A trio of firefighters struggled with a large piece.
     My God I could easily move that.  I tried to rush in and help but the cop would have none of it. I glared at him and for an instant considered just shoving him aside when I heard shouting as they pulled a kid out. The rescuers were relieved as the urgency appeared to be over. Everyone has a moment in their life that sets fate into motion. I watched the scene in a trance and knew exactly what to do with my life.
      Fate also has a way of laughing at our plans that isn't funny at all. My first year of college went smoothly and after finishing my last test of the term, Mother called and informed me Dad  had a stroke. 
      I held my breath as the information sunk in. I imagined the worst as I rushed to the hospital. I worried about how to comfort Mom as I frantically searched the hospital waiting room. I spotted her familiar mop of curly brown hair from behind and rushed over to find her knitting calmly. It was her way of dealing with stress.
      "I'm sorry this ruined your Spring break," she apologized in her usual practical manner.
"Don't worry about that now.," I said as she put the knitting down in her lap.
"Not to mention your birthday next month." She wasn't big on birthdays as a leftover from her upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness but knew I looked forward to it.
"Never mind that, how's Dad?"
The stroke was minor but sadly, it ruined his gift of speech. He could talk but it was so painfully slow, he lost interest. He felt like a failure and wouldn't to go to physical therapy.
"Dad you need to go to get better," I said. He crossed his arms and  refused to budge like an obstinate child when I tried to get him to the car. 
I recognized his stubbornness. We were different yet so alike. People constantly remarked on our resemblance; the same square face and dark brown hair. I llooked like a younger version of him minus his tortoise shell glasses.
  The therapy wasn't the problem, it was my presence at  home. I quit college to help Mom run the store while he recovered. Dad felt guilty about the interruption of my education but I never regretted it. His health was more important.
"I'll make you a deal," I said as I knelt down next to his chair and took his small hand in mine.
"You go to therapy,"-- he tried to pull his hand away but I held it fast. " You go to speech therapy and when you can talk well enough to work--I'll go back to college. Deal?" I riveted my gaze on him. His face softened into a smile.
"Deal," he said, agreeing. He fidgeted in an attempt to say something more and as I tried to guess what he meant, he gave up in exasperation. 
"Decide how. The world.Use your strength."  He forced the words out slowly., I didn't understand his meaning and frowned. He shook his head and squeezed my hand harder. He repeated himself, his gaze reaching into me for greater comprehension. Then it dawned on me, he  knew.

Monday, June 9

An Open Letter to the President of Egypt

Dear General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,

Congratulations on being "democratically " elected President of Egypt. The Egyptians need a strong leader for the country, not  some pansy ass  dictator like the ones Syria, Libya and Turkey got. They turned out to be narrow minded, greedy despots surrounded by sycophants and supported by an  oppressive military and foreign influences.

You knew what to do amid the chaos of weak leadership. You took control and know what's best for the people and they better appreciate it by golly.

However if I may, I would like to offer some historical perspective to help you avoid some of  the pitfalls that come with the job of ruling a country with an iron fist.

First, charm the people, it cuts down on all the bitching. Like Hitler did, give eloquent speeches geared to fill the average countryman with pride. How they come from a long and illustrious history. Remind them of how special they are, not like the (fill in the blank) who are obviously to blame for all the countries ills.

Second, let the people have fun. Let that annoying but popular comedian Bassem Youssef  have his show. His ridiculous satire will make people think they not being fooled, relieve them of the stress of living under a strict regime and give you an honest temperature of social/ political environment rather than the word of all those power hungry, lying, yes men who suck up to you.

Third, provide a superficially improved economy. Encourage the tourists to come back. Let the  people have music, games and pirated movies. These are great ways to make them feel content and rich. Let them play on the internet or on video games for hours ad nauseam. They will  be less inclined to revolt with all that mindless distraction. It's worked wondered in America and China.

So with this advice, Allah willing, you won't end up an old man with dyed hair clinging to delusional power or end up shot in the face like that loser Qaddafi. Good luck!

Sunday, June 1

Yes All Women and Men Can

Most phenomenon have a tipping point. The current news stories about the o going cultural/political war against women all seemed tame and harmless until a nut job recently took out his immature frustration out on seven people-- especially women. It got men and women talking to each other about the rampant misogyny in our society and it's about time.

I expect the usual sound bites from the media when there is yet another mass shooting but this one got my attention with some rather astute observations from surprising voices. Men. A certified nerd zeros in on the myth pushed by Hollywood that nerdy guys will always get the hot chick. A persistent and irritating plot line that I always found offensive and wildly unrealistic.

Bishop Ken Robinson in his Daily Beast article put his finger on something known all too well by women:
" It is difficult for those who are not subject to discrimination and denigration to believe that it’s happening right under their noses, especially if they belong to the group that is perpetrating societal bullying. White people are shocked to learn that African-Americans are routinely followed around stores while they shop because of the color of their skin and their perceived likelihood of being thieves. Able-bodied people rarely notice the barriers that riddle the world which keep the disabled from participating in society. The threat of violence against women, because they are women, goes unnoticed by most men."

This conversation needs to happen everywhere, In India where the national sport of gang raping/ murdering of women occurs on a regular basis. In Afghanistan where young women  attempt suicide rather than  be forced to marry some shriveled up old man. In China where female infratricide is still the norm where males are more precious and if they can't find a women locally they buy them.

Women are fed up being treated as cattle, sex toys or prizes for the male ego. Men have to recognize the value of the other half of humanity if the species is to evolve. 

Let's keep talking.

Thursday, May 8

The Wallflower and the Butterfly

One of the biggest hurdles for people with ASD ( Autism Spectrum Disorder) is social interactions. For me, its a especially hard as most of my life I have been around “normal” folk who have no trouble talking  to others. I am rather a good speaker and can be articulate but I’m not one who can easily approach others  and strike up a conversation.

I recently went to an aikido instructor’s class, where over 40 people were in attendence, most I knew for years, yet I still felt like an outsider. At lunch I sat in a corner alone at a table. While we waited for the afternoon session to start, I stood alone while everyone else chatted.

Mind you this is with people I know. I sat in the front seat on a recent car tripwith someone I’ve known for years, and we barely exchanged words. However, on the way back another person sat up front and the two chatted away. So does she prefer the other person’s company or I am a poor conversationalist? It’s hard for me to tell.

I try to improve my social skills but it’s a struggle. I fret awkwardly, trying to go beyond small talk--which I'm terrible at and wonder how dull or boring I sound. Every social encounter  is scrutinized, analyed and graded as a success or failure. Did I monologue? Did I stay on topic subject or dominate with one of my fixations? How well did I reciprocate ? Did I show interest in them or just wait impatiently until I could babble on.The stress is considerable.

I’m reminded of  what John Elder Robison commented in his memoir “Look Me in the Eye.”
“ Many descriptions of autism and Asperger’s  describe people like me as “not wanting contact with others” or “preferring to play alone.” I can’t speak for other kids, but I’d like to be very clear about my own feelings:  I did not ever want to to be alone . And all those child psychologists who said ”John prefers to play by himself” were dead wrong. I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life.”

I understand that all too well. Just because  I’m not good at interacting doesn’t mean I don’t want to and the pain of loneliness is as powerful for me as it is for anyone. So should you see me --or someone you know  with ASD at a gathering, please come over and talk, I crave conversation too and will appreciate the kindness of your company.

Tuesday, May 6

I'm Dreaming of Pittsburgh

I've been thinking of Pittsburgh cause my novel takes place there. My favorite year was 1967.  Everyday we walked from our apartment on North Nagley Ave. to the Highland Park about a mile away to spend the day in the Children's zoo.

My memories  beyond that  idyllic summer are bits and pieces of confetti but mostly what I recall is the feeling of childhood innocence. The humid summers playing with friends and the thick layer of snow I walked through in winter. My whole existence was in walking distance of home: Roosevelt Elementary School, the drug store, the park. We kids wandered without fear of crime or our safety.

A few years later Mom and my younger siblings lived in the darker Oakland neighborhood where we would walk to Schenley Park, another refuge from the city, or a few blocks to Isley's for a Klondike bar.

The novel has me nostalgic for those sweet days. The city had a funky lived in feel like an old couch: the upholstery was smudged and reeking of smoke. It sagged in a few places but was comfortable and familiar.

When the steel industry collapsed, the city had to reinvent itself like a divorcee suddenly in need of a career. Pittsburgh became bright and livable again once the polluting grime was washed away and it discovered hi-tech greenery. The downtown buildings sparkle in the clean air, the neighborhoods are gentrified. 

All I remember is a seven year old kid walking happily to the zoo.