Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Letting go of (prop)aganda: Giving props to Him Who sustains

(Originally posted April 11, 2011;
reposted here with minor edits
& some updates)

We are surrounded with daily messages telling us what we need to be happy, successful, and just live comfortably in this world.

Then, about once a week, we go to church and sing a hymn that declares, “He [Jesus] is all we need.” We hear sermons that remind us to rest in and depend on Jesus for – everything.

But then, we leave church, get into a reliable car, drive to a nearby restaurant, easily pay for a great meal, go home to our nice house, and putter with our toys around the yard.

Ah, summertime and the living is easy.

Marketing = Give us all your money and then you’ll be happy

The world’s propaganda (called marketing and advertising) is essentially geared to take our money while claiming to give us satisfaction in return.

We are teased with the idea that buying this or that will bring us the happiness we won’t find from sticking our money into a savings account or donating it to worthy causes.

The purpose of man, we are told, is to get more stuff!


The devil in the marketing details

The devil’s propaganda is geared toward shifting our reliance away from God onto anything else, often things that appear good: better job, loving family, good health, lots of savings, moving closer to family, a nice house, food in the pantry, and so on.

Satan’s goal is to get us to find our identity in anything and everything other than faith in Christ and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

These other things may all be good. The point is that they are not the point!

Our purpose in life is not about our happiness, but about serving God and enjoying him.

Giving props to the One who knocks away the props

Both what the world sells us and what Satan spins to us is really (prop)aganda: These are all lies we use to “prop” ourselves up instead of depending on and trusting in God.

How does God tend to correct this misplaced dependence?

Simple. He knocks the props out from under us. One at a time. As often as it takes.

How do I know this? Because I’m learning it.

Learning to lean the right way

In the past year or so [2010-11], pretty much all of my props have been taken from me. I lost my job, developed a series of serious health issues, and had my car stolen and totaled.
  •  The job I lost was the one I quit a good job in Indiana and moved to Cleveland for, among “promises” that it would include years of stability and bonuses.
  • The health I lost included issues with bronchitis that somehow led to atrial fibrillation and flutter that required minor heart surgery and ongoing management with meds. Trailing these was severe anemia that required five units of blood and three iron infusions over several months to get me back on track.
  • The car I lost was a 1992 Jeep that was taken for a joy ride that ended head-on into a tree. It was insured, but the money was needed to cover other, more pressing bills, which means I’m still carless.
In the midst of all this, there have been no job offers, no freelance clients, and just enough unemployment to squeak by.

All of these taken together represent control over my life: it’s not in my hands!

Better than birds

Guess what? Despite fleeting moments of panic, I’m doing okay because God is taking care of me. But I have no idea what’s next! I’ve been kind of forced to live as Jesus directed in Matthew 6:25-34 where he said:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

What’s the point?

Why is this happening? I don’t know. All I know is that I can trust Him to take care of me and that He is.

Maybe what’s happening to me is actually an object lesson for someone else who’s watching my situation. Maybe it’s a training ground for something else coming down the road. Maybe, because I was feeling so cushy in my great-paying job, it’s God’s way of reminding me who’s really in charge of providing my income. Maybe it’s all of those or none of those reasons.

At times I feel like the three Hebrew dudes, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who, just before being tossed into a fiery furnace, said to their king:
"O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:16-18)

It is clear that I’m not in charge here; I’m not the boss of me. The point is that all the “props” in the world are worthless. The only right way to lean is on the everlasting arms of God the Father.

And God knows what’s best for me.

While there are days that feel a little “warmer” than others (meaning, getting a little close to furnace), the bottom line is that my needs have been and are being met.

Plus, in the midst of the tough stuff, there have been some very, very good things that have happened: God brought a wonderful, loving, godly woman into my life to whom I am now joyously married. He’s surrounded me with wonderful, godly friends who have blessed me enormously. He has proved to me, again, how much He cares for me.

While I have felt alone, He has never left me alone.

And although being propped up is nice, it’s more important to give props to the One who sustains our very lives:
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17)

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Brief update: BethAnn and I are still happily married. We have two nice cars and steady income. I am still dealing with a-fib issues, but am managing with meds. Things are pretty okay! Ill be the first to admit, Im still learning dependency on God. She and I both are. But then I believe that this is a day-to-day kind of thing. You know, give us this day, etc., etc. Kind of like how God provided the manna in the desert, one day at a time as needed. It isn’t always fun at the time, but its always good in the end. How are you doing? Share your experience or tips for hanging on in the comments!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Easy Chair (#PoetryMonday*)

I could sit here and read poetry all day,
he thinks, the fire crackling in the background,
the liar sun glistening over the frozen snow outside.

Writing poetry? Yes, I’d like to and I could, too.
But then I’d have to close the book, get up,
go into a colder room, wait to be fully roused
by some random muse passing by
as the PC turns on and boots,
open the word processing application, put fingers on keys,
poised, waiting for the lines to form on the pixeled page.

I’d rather just stay here next to the fire,
where it’s warmer, and enjoy the ripe fruit
of someone else
s labor.








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* It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

Ah, La-Z-Boy, you are a comfort to me
! Sometimes I wonder if easy chairs are more of a curse than a blessing. But Im not giving mine up! And, to be honest, with my laptop, I can write anywhere. And the only fireplace I have access to right now is a digital version on the TV. What do you think? Is it better to sit at a desk to write? Or in a coffee shop? Share in the comments section.

FYI: My blog has reached more than 100,000 views.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Police warn the suspect is armed & dangerous & dressed all in white. (#PoetryMonday*)

A random brown leaf feigning sentience
skips mockingly alongside as
I shovel laboriously
and then blows on.

Snow was once a plaything.
Now it's a potential murder weapon.

The white flakes were welcomed
as they transformed the
green and muddied earth into
a giant white tabula rasa.

Mused by Dylan Thomas I recall snow that
“was not only shaken from white wash buckets
down the sky,
it came shawling out of the ground
and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands
and bodies of the trees;
snow grew overnight....”

Imagination made it an alien landscape.
A white planet of sweet dread and possibility.
A delightful drifting dessert.

We burrowed like arctic ferrets,
our stocking caps poking up like cherries
topping glistening yards of sweet cream icing,
marked by magical paths, random designs,
outlines of games and constellations,
secret caves carved by snow gnomes.

When it was packable we built forts,
then fought white hot holy wars
fraught with glee. Joy our aim
as boredom was vanquished.

In winter, white was the color of fun,
the sign of schools closed and minds afire,
the sure bet that Christmas
and Jack Frost birthdays
would be wishes abundantly fulfilled.
There would be sleds!

We stayed out playing, freezing, turning
as blue as the sky when the clouds
parted briefly, then the stars shone signaling
the end of malleable snow as evening cooled
everything to a hard crust.

We went in and thawed, dreaming of tomorrow.
Hoping for more snow. Caring not a whit for
bird-chirped spring or soft-boiled summer.

Now,

matter-of-factly,
we wake,

check our phones before
even peeking out windows.

Snow is Death’s emissary, Death’s
soft stealth tool.

A multi-effectual snare. A trap without teeth.

We could slip, fall, become stuck in its soft
quicksand grip and die, sucked into the frozen
tundra, becoming a human popsicle,
literally licked by Death.

Or, shoveling an escape path, dreaming of flights
to warmer climes, succumb to a snow
stress induced heart attack in a fit
of cabin fever. Oh! Angina!

Found later in our driveway, clutching our chest,
dressed in Bermuda shorts and a poofy down parka,
the police and neighbors look on, shaking their heads
knowingly, mumbling under their visible breath,
“It could’ve been any one of us. There’s just been
so much snow this year. Just so much.
Only so much.”

Instead, my foot finds ice, my ankle twists, I fall
folded but unbruised, rise again, alive in pain,
crippled, star eyed and teared.

The wind carries Death’s mocking chuckles
rattling the curled dead leaves
dangling in the frozen trees,
a rustling knell.

Later, limping up the walk, I stop, turn with my back
to the white covered lawn,
fall backwards,
imagining it in slow motion but moving dizzyingly quick,
arms outstretched,
sticking out my tongue, mocking Death,
whispering “Neener! Neener!”
inches of frozen fluff embracing me gently,
more or less,
I fan my splayed limbs lying on the cold ground,
then rise again, slowly, with effort and hard breathing,
but unharmed,
leaving behind an impression
of an angel taking flight in the snow.

Take that cold Death!
Not yet!
             Not yet,
I supplicate.

Or, so I imagine as
I take up my shovel,
and walk, lame, into the warm
beckoning house.

Death waits outside. Shivering.
Skulking. Shrouded in white.
Fearing spring’s melting approach
but eyeing the promise
of summer beaches and
the possibilities of undertow.

For now, he scythes over fields of snow,
an icy garden mottled with a smattering of
leftover shriveled leaves.

I sit inside, ignoring what’s out,
eating my dinner mockingly,
blowing my soup cool.









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  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

  This one is long but I kind of like it. How about you? How are you doing during this very cold winter? Does this poem capture some of your feelings about the season? Let me know what you
’re thinking in the comments!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

10 rules for saving face & avoiding a Facebook faux pas

(Originally posted May 4, 2011;
reposted here with minor edits
& some updates)

I was initially reluctant to get on Facebook, but now am an avid (although sometimes aggravated) user. I try to be thoughtful in what I post and how I comment on others’ posts. I wish everyone would be as thoughtful and careful.

Among my pet peeves – and I have many – are the ways some people, in my opinion, abuse Facebook. So here are a few rules I’d like to suggest.

1. Keep your comment(s) related to the post to which it is attached. If you want to address an unrelated topic with the poster, message them via their inbox or chat. And if you want to communicate with someone who has commented, do it on their page or inbox them.

2. Make your comment short and to the point. Use your own Notes to share treatises, diatribes, and expound on your soap-box issues. In many cases, it’s best to just keep your quirky ideas to yourself.

3. Avoid daisy-chaining your comments. This is related to #2. If you can’t express yourself within the limitations of one comment box, then just be quiet. No one wants to read a book on Facebook.
Caveat to #2 & #3. Sometimes a longer comment may be called for, but this should be the exception. First, craft your response using Word. This will help you avoid spelling errors. Second, edit and rewrite it down as much as possible. Third, copy and paste it into the appropriate comment box.It’s hard enough to write a short comment directly in the comment box, long ones are impossible!  Fourth, check it one more time before making the post live.
Tip: Use two keys to create paragraph breaks! Use Shift+Enter to create a paragraph within a comment without posting it. Using only Enter posts the comment.

4. Match the tone of your comment to the tone of the Post. If the post is humorous, keep your comment light. If the posting is serious, don’t crack wise in your comment. If you’re not sure if the post is humorous or serious, then don’t comment.

5. Don’t start a fight in public on their page. If you thoroughly disagree with what someone has posted, be very careful how you respond. Don’t be insulting or abusive. Perhaps the best response is to hide that specific post so it doesn’t show up in your feed, and then inbox the person if you really need to get something off your chest. But be careful with your inbox message, too.

6. Eliminate foul language! Keep in mind that your posts can be read by a variety of people, young and old, who may be offended by foul, gutter language. Current or potential employers can find your posts. Do not use foul or abusive language on Facebook, in blogs, or anywhere else on the Internet. It will come back to haunt you. And it really isn’t cute or clever at all.

7. Avoid mixing drinking and commenting! Don’t, under any circumstances, comment when you’re not sober. Just as it’s dangerous to drive when you’re drunk, it’s just as dangerous to your reputation and character to post stupid rants on Facebook while drunk. It’s even more tragic if you’re angry and drunk. Just turn off the computer and watch TV or go to bed.
Tip: You can edit most of your posts and comments. On posts, look for the little down arrow (v) located on the top right. Click it to reveal the menu. On comments, hover your mouse over the comment and look for the pencil icon that will appear on the right side. Click it to reveal the menu.

8. Be civil. Yes, this is a free country, you are entitled to your opinions, and political correctness can be maddening. Still, as it always has been, civility is the better way to go. Avoid being intentionally insulting to people and their beliefs. There really is no need and it just makes you come across like a jerk.

9. Don’t post angry. Step away from the computer and take a breath. Just as when we're confronted with a heated situation face-to-face, take some time to cool down and rethink the situation before commenting. If you’ve posted something in anger and realize later that you have offended or crossed a line, you can delete the post. But, you can’t make those who have read it forget it. The best response is sometimes no response.

10. Before commenting on a shared link, read the linked item! If someone posts an article, read the article before you like it or comment to ensure you really do like it and that your comment is relevant and appropriate.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1118921178/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1118921178&linkCode=as2&tag=stephenrclark-20&linkId=WF7L4EIBHELLDA5W
These are just a few rules. I could probably come up with more.

Such as, if you’re going to be on Facebook, learn how to use Facebook.  There are plenty of useful tips right within Facebook in the Help section.

In fact, you can search right from the search box at the top of the page and find answers to just about any question you have about how to use Facebook.

There are also a variety of good books that explain all the ins and outs of Facebook in simple, clear terms. Get one and keep it next to your computer.

Oh, and be sure to use good grammar.

And of course, check your spelling.

Okay, maybe I should stop now.

Just remember, above all, be civil.

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Relevant link:

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What are your Facebook or general social media pet peeves? Have you ever embarrassed yourself on social media? Do you hate or love social media? What are some tips you can offer for behaving on social media? Share (nicely) in the comments!


Monday, February 16, 2015

God shed his grace (#PoetryMonday*)

On this Presidents Day,
we look to our founding fathers,
builders of our nation,
paragons of the Republic,
dispensers of freedom and dreams,
to provide historic doorbuster deals
for the essentials of American life,
computers, cars, and flat screen TVs.
Of thee we sing.

















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  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

  When I was a kid, we celebrated Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday separately. While their images were used to promote sales we still held a sense of respect for who they were and what they did. Now? It seems all that has been lost. What do you think? How do you view or celebrate Presidents Day?


Here is a link for more information on the day and former presidents: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/presidents-day-2015-12-things-past-us-commanders/story?id=28997278

Friday, February 13, 2015

Brief Review: The flaws that bind, or, Looking for love in all the messy places

In 2003, Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz was published and slowly crept up to bestseller status over the next few years. Blue was different from most Christian books at the time, employing a shoot-straight-from-the-hip style with a slightly irreverent and a tad snarky tone.


It was hip, funny, insightful, and a good read. I liked it.

Miller let fly a couple more books before his next notable release in 2009 with the odd title, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. The tone of this one was more staid and how-to and I didn’t enjoy it as much.

Frankly, as a writer, I’d be content to produce one well-selling book that was well received. But publishers aren’t content with that idea. They tend to insist writers produce additional titles, especially when one does well.

It took a tad over five years, but Miller’s new one is titled Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy. I like it better than A Million Miles, but not as much as Blue, which is not to say that it’s a bad book. Just different.

Writers write about what they know and what they know is essentially what they are experiencing. Miller was in a developing relationship that culminated in marriage. Aha! Material for a book!

I’ve got a feeling that women are going to like this new book a lot more than men and a lot of men are going to get copies as gifts on Valentine’s Day and beyond. That could be a good thing if the guys read the book. I think the primary audience are those who are under 40, in a relationship or want to be, and especially if you’re planning to get married.

The book is about relationships and centers heavily on Miller’s romance with his now wife, Betsy. In fact, at times, it feels a little voyeurish, like peeking in a window watching a couple dance. But then, that’s the aim of the book.

Frankly, it seems that anyone who gets close to Miller ends up in the book. Be warned!

The tone is very conversational. Miller is an excellent writer. I’ve seen comments from others who read the book in a single sitting. Not me.

The book felt a little cloying at times and I could only take it in small bites. Again, I’m not saying it’s a bad book. It’s just that it’s not a book for everyone, and some books connect with us because of where we are in our own lives at the time we read them.

As a kid, I read and fell in love with Henry Gregor Felsen’s books, Crash Club and Hot Rod. I picked one up again recently and read only little before I had to stop. The writing was crisp but dated. They’re still good books, just not for me right now.

That’s kind of how I feel about Scary Close. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, especially Miller’s most ardent fans. And maybe even my wife if she chooses to read the book. That’s cool.

Even Miller admitted some of what he had to say was a bit much even for him: “[W]riting this book is difficult for me, not because it’s a particularly hard book to write, but because I get tired of talking about my feelings all the time.”

See what I mean about the women liking this one more than the guys? You know what I’m saying.

In his poem “Searching”, Billy Collins reveals,
I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,

and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona--
its people, its history, its complex architecture--

all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.
For me, the more memorable parts of Miller’s new book -- my albino gorilla if you will -- were those places where he talks about being a writer. Like, “The downside of being a writer is you get plenty of time to overthink your life.” Although I’m not sure that’s possible.

The section where he acknowledges that his writing had become “too careful” and thus yielding the more business-like tone of A Million Miles, also resonated. I like the kind of manifesto he developed to help him free up the writing in his books and on his blogs:
I am willing to sound dumb.
I am willing to be wrong.
I am willing to be passionate about something that isn’t perceived as cool.
I am willing to express a theory.
I am willing to admit I’m afraid.
I’m willing to contradict something I’ve said before.
I’m willing to have a knee-jerk reaction, even a wrong one.
I’m willing to apologize.
I’m perfectly willing to be perfectly human.
These are excellent challenges for any writer to keep in mind.

This is not a how-to book. You will not find anything remotely close to “10 Easy Steps To Better Loving.” But, you will find good tips and lived-out examples that may contribute to improving your relationships.

Overall, Scary Close is a good story about growing close through giving and receiving grace in an often graceless world.

As Miller states, “We don’t think of our flaws as the glue that binds us to the people we love, but they are. Grace only sticks to our imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either.”

I wouldn’t recommend this book for a small group study, except perhaps a very small group of two, if you follow me. Again, there will be those who disagree. So be it.

But I do recommend Scary Close for those who enjoy a good casual read on a cold winter’s night, and want to better understand how our flaws and grace can work together to bring us closer to the ones we love.

That’s worth the price of any book.

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NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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Agree? Disagree? How many of Miller’s books have you read? What are you favorites? Least favorite? Are you a fan of Anne Lamott? Are there books on relationships you would recommend to others? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My life is becoming a basket case


(Originally posted October 27, 2011;
reposted here with minor edits)


Something’s happening here. What it is involves numerous containers made from woven plant fibers.

These are called baskets, and they have proliferated in nearly every room of the house.

It started innocently enough. A pile of semi-related stuff would form and, voila, suddenly there it was all gathered up tidily together in a basket. Lovely.

While for some the mantra of the day is, “There’s an app for that!” My wife’s is, “I’ve got just the basket for that!”

These woven containers are on shelves, on the floor, and even hang on the wall. Some are heart shaped. Most are rounds, oblongs, or rectangles. And they are of multiple sizes.

They hold cards, food, trash, clothing, and more.

Items I kept on a nightstand near the bed are now neatly tucked away in a small heart-shaped basket. A reedy reminder of my wife’s love.

On one side of the bathroom sink is a manly metal basket with my items in it, and on the other side is a larger, natural and more pretty basket with her stuff.


We have baskets that act as trash cans and one that is a clothes hamper. Although, for some reason, larger woven containers, while they look just like big baskets, are usually referred to as wicker. This is a code I don’t understand. A basket by any other name is wicker? Whatever.

I’m really not too opposed to all these baskets being woven into the fabric of our life.

The organization they offer appeals to my own sense of orderliness; a place for everything and everything in its place.

I think I inherited my own bent toward tidiness and order from my German parents. Oh, wait, my parents weren’t German. Guess it’s just my slight case of OCD. Although my dad did rigorously maintain a very neat pegboard of tools that I was only too happy to rearrange, usually by not putting them back where he had had them.

God forbid that any of my tools end up in a basket! That would be a basket too far.

Otherwise, I’m okay with the basketizing of our home. I have to admit, though, there are a couple that have no clear purpose as far as I can tell. But I do know better than to try to move them.


As a kid, I remember my mom having a sewing basket – I think – and maybe a couple more.  She did have these plastic boxes with lots of little plastic drawers she kept her sewing stuff in. Dad favored empty coffee cans.

But baskets are good things.

They’ve played important roles in biblical history. Moses was set sailing on the Nile in a basket. The crippled man was lowered through a roof to be placed before Jesus for healing. Twelve baskets were used to collect left over bread after thousands were fed from only a couple of loaves. And Paul’s life was saved through his being lowered out a window in a basket.

So I cannot begrudge baskets in my home. They do fit into the “green” lifestyle trend making us cutting edge in that regard.

There are many baskets-in-waiting in the basement that I know will eventually make their way upstairs. They’re stacked down there like little viney aliens. And I swear they’re reproducing.

My wife reminds me that you can never have too many baskets. I can't complain. I say the same thing about books.

She’s been talking about how we need to make plans for our deaths. I wonder if they have a basket for that? It does rhyme. But I’ll need one bigger than a handbasket because I’m not going there, if you know what I mean.





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What kinds of containers for item collection and organization dot your house? What are your preferences? And can anyone tell my what I meant by that near the end sentence “It does ryhme”? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bubble gum, peanut butter, kitschiness & Rod McKuen

“Rod McKuen, former prolific poet and songwriter of the 60s and 70s, died today. He was 81.”

This was a brief mention on the 11PM local news last night. When I got up today, I was surprised there was zero mention on CNN.com or on the homepages of several other news outlets. It took a Google search to pull up the details.

Seems a little disrespectful, something McKuen was probably used to.

I first encountered the poetry of Rod McKuen when I came across his books in the Hallmark store on Broad Street in New Castle, Indiana in the late 60s. The same place I bought my beloved sandalwood candles.

The books had warm abstract covers and simple titles: Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, Listen to the Warm, Lonesome Cities, And Autumn Came, In Someone's Shadow, Twelve Years of Christmas.

If you were alive in the late 60s, early 70s, you may remember the song “Jean” sung by the recording artist Oliver. McKuen wrote the song for the 1969 movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

What? You never heard of the movie, the song, the singer, or McKuen?

Sad. But not unusual.

McKuen was, as my friend and former high school English teacher Steve Dicken so aptly noted, my “gateway” poet. Dicken also referred to him as a “bubble gum” poet.

Someone once told me reading McKuen for them was like getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of their mouth. Peanut butter is tasty but the experience is a tad discomfiting, was the point they were making.

Okay, I get it. Now.

But back then, I was completely enamored of McKuen’s poetry. Unlike so much “better” or “real” poetry, his writing was accessible. That it tapped into the always-in-flux emotions of adolescent romanticism was probably also a factor.

Dicken wisely maneuvered me toward the better poets and craftily whetted my appreciation for finer writing. Dr. Zenas “Big Z” Bicket picked up in college where Dicken left off.

I grew up, my literary sensibilities shifted, and I grew away from McKuen.

But not entirely.

McKuen, by critics and academics, has been pooh-poohed as smarmy, saccharine, schmaltzy, mawkish, and he was even dubbed “King of Kitsch” at one point.

Snark is easy and cheap.

Yet, the man was prolific and successful. In fact I have to wonder if at least some of the harsher criticism was fueled by jealousy.

McKuen published more than 30 books of poetry and song lyrics, plus two non-fiction books. He produced hundreds of albums of music, spoken words, original compositions, and movie soundtracks. He earned two Oscar nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music. Frank Sinatra even commissioned him to compose an entire special album of music.

His books and albums sold in the millions.

He did this coming from an abused background, with no formal musical or literary training, producing poetry every day, proud to write what anyone could understand and that millions appreciated.

And you have to respect a guy who, for years after running away from home and an abusive stepfather, supported himself by holding a variety of hard labor kinds of jobs such as ranch hand, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, and  stuntman, among others, always sending money home to his mom in the process.

Not too shabby for “bubble gum” poet.

Still, as my literary sensibilities “matured,” his books were slowly culled from my library. Somehow I managed to keep one and recently picked up another in a moment of nostalgia in a thrift store. I also still have two of his old albums, as well as a Jacques Brel album with whom McKuen collaborated.

In recent months I had been wondering what ever happened to McKuen. It turns out he fell into a depression in the 80s and basically stopped giving concerts, more or less withdrawing from public life. And his poetry just wasn’t cool anymore. His final books were published in 2001 and 2004.

But here’s the thing.

If, for some weird reason I was about to be exiled to a desert island and told that the only poetry I could take with me was either the complete works of Rod McKuen or the complete works of, say, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, or Charles Bukowski, I’d go with McKuen in a heartbeat.

Why?

Because his writing is accessible, warm, genuine, and unpretentious, like having a good friend to hang out with. Which is the effect you’d want if alone on a desert island.

Of course, if my choices were expanded to include James Dickey, Wendell Berry, Stephen Dunn, or some others, well, my decision would be a little more difficult.

Still, if it weren’t for McKuen piquing my interest in poetry and drawing me in, I might never have discovered the “greater” poets and writers. Or wanted to try my own hand at the writing craft.

So, all you teachers of English out there. When one of your students shows interest in words and shares with you their favorite, but in your opinion “somewhat poor excuse for a writer”, be careful not to speak that thought. Instead, validate their interest, and gently nudge them toward what you believe to be “better” writers.

Besides, if those you believed to be the worst of the worst wrote as well as Rod McKuen did, it would not be a bad thing and all poems would be at least as lovely as a tree, if you catch my drift.

As for me, I’m unashamedly grateful for the gentle influence of Rod McKuen.

Thanks, Rod. I owe you.

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Links to more about Rod McKuen:


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Are there writers or musicians that have influenced you or that you enjoy that others pooh-pooh? Do you snark about the likes and dislikes of others? Why? To feel better about yourself? For shame. Share and sound off in the comments!

“It's Bartok time and this party’s had it.”:


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stinking to high heaven: Sorry dad.

In the 60s and 70s I think every teenager went through a phase where they were into burning incense or scented candles.

Sometimes the point of these were to disguise other, um, shall we say “troublesome” odors?

For me, I just liked them. I wasn’t trying to cover up other smoky smells.

My favorite scent was sandalwood. I made frequent trips to the Hallmark store to purchase the largest orange sandalwood candle they had. One nearly new candle bit the dust.

The college I went to grew up around an old Army hospital. Some of the original buildings were still in use as dorms and heated with steam. Over one Christmas break, for reasons still unclear, the maintenance department went into our vacant rooms and opened the radiators full blast.

Returning from vacation, when we opened our doors our rooms were bursting with heat! It took hours with the windows open to cool everything down.

In addition to warping a few of my vinyl albums, a sandalwood candle I had sitting on a shelf completely melted away. Since the shelf was a hunk of unfinished wood, the wax simply absorbed into it!

C’est la vie.

I also liked those little black cones of pine incense, especially around Christmas.

My dad, on the other hand, had a much different attitude about these and other artificially scented things. He hated those “smelly candles” and you didn’t even want to get him started on incense.

I never really understood his objections. I mean, how could you not enjoy the lovely scent of sandalwood wafting through the house?

He didn’t. At all.

In recent years, something has happened to my olfactory system.

As a result I’m realizing what my dad was objecting to. And now I feel a little bad I wasn’t more sensitive to his nasal sensitivities.

My wonderful wife loves scented candles. She’d have them burning all the time if she had her way. But not me. Not anymore.

Maybe it’s years of sinus infections or who knows what, but now, I’m just like my dad when it comes to those smelly candles.

We’ve experimented with various scents, all to no avail and to my wife’s grave disappointment. Just going into a candle shop is a challenge for me.

In fact, walking past a perfume counter in a store can send my head reeling. Dad had the same problem!

Strong smells do me in. When she needs to do her nails, my wife, lovingly, goes upstairs to our bedroom, closes the door and opens the window, even when it’s cold outside. I love her for that.

Oddly, her sense of smell is somewhat lacking. As a result, our opinions on how strong something smells will vary, to say the least. Like when she decides to roast garlic in the oven. Oy!

But we work through it. Sometimes I just have to endure. Still, she is more sensitive to me than I was to my dad.

Sorry, dad. Really. I get it now.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some candles to blow out.



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What do you think the moral of this story might be? Or is there one? Any spiritual application(s) you can think of? What memories do you have of your mom or dad? Share in the comments!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Keep this in mind when writing anything (#PoetryMonday*)

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful.

Power influences.

Influence changes behavior.

Behavior reveals character.

Character is defined by passion.

Passion follows from thought.

Thought generates ideas.

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful...

 
















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  * It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

 This is a repost from June 3, 2011 (also reposted on June 9, 2014)


Okay, so technically this may not be poetry. But poetry is a flexible and fluid concept, so maybe it is. At any rate, how we use words, in speech or in writing, is serious business. Words do matter.

Agree? Disagree? Neutral? Share your reactions and thoughts in the comments!