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Portrait of a Reader

My vehicle to the world of reading

One of my first memories is laying on my back and watching the sunlight filter through the leaves as I somehow moved along. I was always puzzled by this memory as I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Once I asked my mom about it, and she replied with surprise, “I used to pull you in a red wagon when you were a baby. You would lay in the wagon and I would take you to the library.”

Reading has always been a part of my life. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. My mom started my love of reading even though I can’t remember the library or the books she read to me. When she told her cousin, Ethel, how much I liked to read, Ethel began sending me books. I think I was about four or five when I received my first set of Dick and Jane books. Ethel was a first-grade teacher and had something to do with the writing of or publication of Dick and Jane, but I don’t remember the details anymore. I used to read those books over and over. I liked them because I could read them on my own.

*****

My dad’s Uncle Wiggily book set

“Grandma, will you come read to me?” I called from her tiny bedroom in her tiny apartment. Even though I was seven years old and could read, I loved it when my grandma read to me. She came into the room and sat on her twin bed with the sunny yellow bedspread. I jumped up and got our favorite books, Uncle Wiggily’s Library , from her desk. The Uncle Wiggily books came in a bright red box held together with brown packing tape. The books nestled inside the box. When I turned the pages, my nose wrinkled at the dusty smell wafting up from the fragile pages. The Uncle Wiggly books once belonged to my dad and now they were mine.

Grandma and I read the Uncle Wiggily books over and over until we practically memorized them. Every book ended with a funny ending, like “And if the lollipop doesn’t take its sharp stick to make the baby carriage roll down the hill, I’ll tell you the story of Uncle Wiggily and the Canoe.” Each book led to another book. We always tried to guess which book was next in the series, but we never got it right. My grandma swore that Uncle Wiggily changed the ending when we weren’t looking.

My grandma was one of the first people to read to me. She instilled within me the love of reading and taught me to appreciate classic books like Uncle Wiggily. Because of these books, I learned to appreciate books that told about lives that were different from mine. My grandma loved these books because they reminded her of her childhood in the country. Born and raised in the city, I didn’t know what it was like to live in the country. The Uncle Wiggily books gave me a taste of what my grandma’s childhood must have been like and helped me to appreciate where she came from.

*****

Oddly enough, one of the adults I hated the most when I was little also helped develop my love of reading. Mrs. Wheeler had fading red hair that stuck out all over her head. Because she had lost most of her teeth, her cheeks were sunken, and her chin was curling up to meet the tip of her nose–a classic witch face. I always thought she was a witch. Even though she wasn’t the best babysitter in the world, she was the only person my mom could find when my first baby-sitter moved. Mrs. Wheeler’s house was only a couple of blocks from my elementary school. She had a cute little chair that fit into a corner of her living room. My mom paid her extra to let me sit in that chair and read.

Mrs. Wheeler had one other thing that also made my visits there a little more endurable. She had a beautiful set of children’s books from Walt Disney. For whatever reason (maybe, because my mom did pay her so much), she actually let me read those books when she didn’t let her own kids even touch those books. The books were hard-covered and accented with gold, and they were full of stories from Disney. There were your typical stories, like Snow White and Cinderella, but they had stories that I’d never encountered before like Br’er rabbit. My favorite story was “Br-er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” Br’er rabbit encounters a figure made of tar and gets stuck in it. No matter what he does he keeps getting more and more stuck. Whenever Mrs. Wheeler would get tired of having me in the living room, she would order me into the bedroom with the other kids. I would give her the look over my book, and she would back down. She knew I wasn’t afraid to tell my mom about whatever happened at her house. One time, I brought my own books to her house, and she became offended. “My books ain’t good enough for you no more?” she asked in her gruff voice. Afraid that she would never let me read her books again, I put my books away and went to get one of the Disney books. She seemed to relax then. “That’s what I thought,” she growled, as she turned away to light her cigarette. While I was glad to leave Mrs. Wheeler’s house when my mom finally found a new babysitter, I always regretted not being able to finish all her Disney books.

*****

The set of Louisa May Alcott books my father bought for me when I was in the fifth grade

Along, with my mother and grandmother, my father also encouraged me to read. When I was in the fifth grade, I came down with pneumonia. I missed the last month of school. Back then, we only had five or six channels on the television, and I was too sick to actually play with any of my toys. I could only sleep so much, and I got really bored. Before I got sick, my mom and I had talked about me reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, but, after I got sick, Mom didn’t have time to get me the book. My dad called me to see if I wanted anything, and I asked him to get me the book. It was a thick book, but, since I had nothing else to do, I read all day long. I finished the book in a couple of days and went back to boredom. When he called at the end of the week to see how the book was going, he was surprised to find out that I had already finished it. He told me he would get the next book, Little Men. The day after he brought me Little Men, I called to tell him about the book and request another one. Finally, he just bought me all the books in one trip, so I wouldn’t have to wait. He was so excited that I read so fast and was impressed that I could stick with longer books. The next year when I got sick again, he was prepared. When he heard I had a second round of pneumonia, he went to the store and bought me the complete Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

As I grew up, he would sometimes surprise me with a special book. One time he bought me a first edition collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Another time he gave me the complete collection of poems by Emily Dickinson.

*****

Hunter’s library

I continue to be an avid reader. No matter how busy I am from teaching, writing, or working on my dissertation, I always make time for reading. From reading, I have learned about other times and other cultures. I read at least 100 books a year, and I learn something new from every book I read.

Like the adults in my life, I strive to encourage my son, Hunter, to love reading, and I think I have succeeded. The first thing he does when he starts his home school activities for the day is read. Since August, he has read 28 books. As he finishes a series, his question is always “What will I read next?” I hope I can inspire him to become a lifelong reader like the adults in my life did.

Prodigal Son: Chapter 1

Elijah sat back and stared at the computer screen. Flexing his aching hands, he read the words he had typed, “extra set of hands for hire.” Three long years it had taken him to get to this point—to be able to read, to be able to write, to be able to use his hands. Madison said he didn’t have to work, but he knew she and Hal were having a hard time making ends meet with all his medical bills and the new baby coming. Whenever Madison convinced Hal to talk to him about working, Hal would pat him on the shoulder. His grey eyes that could be cold like a killer’s would get a warm twinkle, and he’d say, “Just make sure you keep up with your school work, son.”

He had a lot to keep up with. He had never gone to school when he was younger like most kids. He’d never even thought about school until he’d met Madison and Hal. His father had never…

He stopped that thought. He didn’t like to think about his father even though Dr. Ross said he needed to start facing some of the bad memories. She said they would haunt him forever until he learned to face them, until he realized he wasn’t responsible for the things his father had done.

Shaking his head, he focused on his Craigs list ad. He hoped someone would see his ad soon.

A couple of days after posting his ad, someone finally called him. A little old lady who needed some yard work done. He pulled up to the house on Emerson Street. The lady lived a couple of blocks from Washington Park. Unlike a lot of houses in the neighborhood, her house was really run down. The brown paint was peeling on the trim and one of her shutters hung askew. If you asked him, she needed a lot more than yard work. The yard was in pretty bad shape, too. The grass was at least a foot high, and the bushes in the yard were overgrown. Looking at the crumpled piece of paper in his had, he hoped he’d written down the address right. He was picturing a little lawn-mowing or maybe raking the leaves. He hadn’t pictured something like this. Slowly, he climbed out of his car. Madison and Hal had bought it for him when he turned sixteen. That was another reason he wanted to get a job. He wanted to be able to pay for his gas and insurance himself. He walked up the cracked sidewalk to the peeling screen. The mesh of the screen was ripped. Nervously, he knocked on the door. He winced a little at the ache in his knuckles. Little things, like knocking on a door, still hurt sometimes.

He could hear someone talking inside, then footsteps, as someone approached the door. The door opened and a beautiful girl looked through the screen at him. She had long dark hair like Madison’s and sparkling brown eyes. He swallowed. He kept his distance from girls. He didn’t know if he could trust himself around them, so he decided it was safer that way. That was another thing that Dr. Ross wanted him to work on. She kept trying to tell him that he wasn’t like his father, but he wasn’t sure he believed her. The girl frowned at him, and he realized that he was staring at her. He cleared his throat.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Roberts. I’m here about the yard work.”

“Grandma, the guy you hired to work in the yard is here.”

She opened the screen and let him in. He frowned. She just let him in without even checking to see who he was. He could be anyone, a psychopath with a razor sharp knife in his back pocket that he would…

He stepped into the house.

Anodyne

anodyne
Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

The self-help industry makes $9.9 billion a year to improve our self-image, increase our confidence, boost our physical fitness, and promote our mental health. A plethora of gurus stand ready to take our money and assure us that if we just think this certain way or live that way or eat this particular way, our lives will be perfect. We will be at peace with ourselves, become positive thinkers, and finally find our ideal weight.

I have to admit that I have contributed my fair share to that $9.9 billion figure. I have many negative qualities I would like to cure. I procrastinate. I’m a negative thinker. I’m overweight. My house is a mess. I own too much stuff. I worry about how my problems might influence my son. And, for each of these problems that plague me, there is a corresponding book: books that tell me how to tweak my to-do list so I can get more done; books that tell me how to eat or how not to eat; books that tell me it’s okay to be overweight as long as I’m healthy; books that will make me a more resilient person if I just rewrite my negative scripts.

Right now, I am reading a book that will help me transform into a warrior goddess. In ten easy lessons, I will learn to embrace my true self and become the woman I am meant to be. Through meditation and self-reflection, I will become a beautiful, compassionate, all-powerful, all-knowing being–a warrior goddess. And did I mention, for a small fee, I can meet the author of this book and walk on a hot bed of coals?

For $495, I can sit and meditate with complete strangers. I can attend a bonfire and walk on hot coals. I can do yoga (which I hate). I can learn to “commit to myself” and “align with life.” But first I have to “purify my vessel.” Yikes! That last one sounds uncomfortable! Maybe, that’s what the hot coals are for.

I saw a picture of a circle of women at this retreat. As I looked at the picture, I realized that while one or two of the women were smiling joyously, most of the women looked discomfited. With their arms around total strangers, their faces were turned away from the circle and they were not smiling. Another picture shows a group of women sitting on a pile of rocks, their arms reaching to the sky. They look like they are in rapture, but I kept wondering, how comfortable can they be sitting on that pile of rocks? There is even a picture of women walking across hot coals. Again, some of the women look transported, but most of them look afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid? They are being peer-pressured into walking on hot coals.

Unfortunately, after all the self-help books I’ve bought (I haven’t read a lot of them I purchased because of that habit of procrastination I have!), I am still the same insecure, messy person. Recently, I have begun to make some changes in my life, but they don’t arise from a book, but from my own determination. I am starting to realize that change has to be internal rather than external. It has to be one step at a time. I have to make my changes on my own terms. And I don’t need to spend $9.95 for a book or $495 for a retreat to do it.

Maybe, that could be the title of my self-help book: Change on Your Own Terms Without Spending Any Money (except for the $9.95 you will pay for this book). I could market a companion workbook and a retreat. I could become a motivational speaker. I could travel the world, bringing my message of change to people everywhere. But where do I start?…..Hmmm….Maybe, there’s a book on that.

It’s My Universe: A Conversation with a Killer

 

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Photo by Elti Meshau on Unsplash

In his book, The Cat Who Walks through Walls, Robert Heinlein theorizes about the nature of reality and time. In his universe, Heinlein presents a multitude of worlds and realities all existing side by side. The universes created by writers are just as real as the readers’ universe and are waiting…

 

“Excuse me.”

“I can’t talk right now. Can’t you see I’m writing my blog post?”

“I can see that, but I have a question.”

“Make it quick. I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”

“When are you going to use my name?”

“Your name?”

“Yeah, my name. When you were outlining my, I mean, your story, you kept calling me Killer, but that makes me sound like some drug dealer’s 100-pound rottweiler.”

“The only drug dealer I’ve ever met with a rottweiler called his dog Lestat.”

“See–that’s the name of a killer.”

“It’s not your name.”

“I know, but I have a name. I’m not just a faceless person who goes around killing people in your novel. I have a life. I have a past. I’m not just a killer.”

“I did give you a son.”

“No. I already had a son. You just tapped into my reality to use for your own gain.”

“No, I didn’t. I wanted to tell a story and your son happened to be in it.”

“See–there you go again. My son has a name. It’s Elijah. And I have a name.”

“I haven’t thought of your name yet.”

“No–you just don’t know my name. Just like you don’t know a lot of things.”

“Like what? You like walking in the rain and watching the sunset?”

“No–like, when I was eight, I wanted to be a fireman.”

“So, instead of killing people, you wanted to save them?”

“It’s ironic, I know. But, you see, I never had a chance. My dad was never satisfied with who I was. My mom was busy with her career.”

“Wait! Wasn’t your dad a violent drunk and your mom a prostitute?”

“That’s just wrong. Just because I’m a sadistic killer that means I had to have a rotten childhood. I had everything I could want as a child, but the one thing I craved.”

“What was that?”

“My parents’ understanding.”

“Ouch. But that’s no excuse for doing what you do.”

“I’m not trying to make excuses. I am who I am. But the point I’m trying to make is that I have a name.”

“And that is?”

“Call me—”

“Yes?”

“Paul. My name is Paul.”

“That’s not the name I was going to give you.”

“I know, but it’s my universe.”

 

 

 

Book Review: Echo Volume II: The Taste of Ashes

Kischan Atriya is a man with a mission–get into Cityscape 87, clear out a warehouse full of Dissidents, and get out alive. He has one problem–his commanding officer is out to get him.

The main character of Echo Volume II: The Taste of Ashes by Kent Wayne lives in a brutal world where honor is usurped by political gain. Piss off the wrong person and a soldier could find himself facing the muzzle of a gun. Knowing that he’s as good as dead doesn’t keep Atriya from committing to the mission–but, if he’s going to die, he plans on taking a few of his enemies with him.

The second in the Echo series, The Taste of Ashes begins with a vivid battle that seems to last forever, but, in fact, takes place in a day. A lot can change in a day, however, as Atriya finds himself facing insurmountable odds to survive.  Wayne’s lyrical descriptions weave haunting images in the reader’s mind that are difficult to forget. Readers who have never been in the military experience a taste of what going into battle against all odds must be like.

Book Review: Echo Volume 1: Approaching Shatter by Kent Wayne

Echo Volume 1:  Approaching ShatterOn Echo, an Earth colony in the distant future, the ruling class and its military fight a group of dissidents looking to overthrow the current regime. Despite the focus on military conflict, Wayne portrays the internal conflict of Kischan Atriya, a seasoned warrior. Atriya’s credo, “refuse to be weak,” has enabled him to attain a measure of success with the elite military unit, the Crusaders. Yet, with each achievement, Atriya continues to doubt his abilities.

While the novel contains one brutal, but crucial, fight scene, there is little external action. The important events occur within Atriya’s own mind as he attempts to pin down the source of his doubt. The introspective hero is a refreshing change from other all-powerful protagonists featured in other dystopian series. Wayne has crafted a protagonist with insecurities that many readers might share.

This novel presents a unique vision of Earth’s future. The writing is vivid. Wayne provides unexpected twists in the plot that keep the reader guessing.