You Could See It in Their Faces

Spur of the MomentI used to teach art in an elementary school, long ago and far away.  The kids were crazy fun back then.  There were the crayon-mashers, the booger-eaters, and even the occasional projectile-vomiters.  By the end of any given school year, my students could draw the hexagons on a turtle’s shell, shade things in to make them look 3-D, and paint a tree that did not look like a lollipop.  They were using their own creativity to find their way, and they were happy.  You could see it in their faces.

Fast-forward twenty or thirty years.  This evening I went to a friend’s retirement celebration.  But it was more than that; it was an acknowledgement of her decades of commitment to teaching and helping and guiding untold numbers of children.  Her own children were there with her–all grown up now with children of their own.  They too are teachers.  When they were little kids they used to come to my art class.  One was very serious and polite and practical.  The other was loud and precocious, with an infectious smile.  I looked forward to seeing both of them each and every week.

Like all teachers do, when I look back at my career I see those living, breathing whirlwinds of energy not just as mile markers along the path my teaching career took, but as my reason for taking that route in the first place.  As an art teacher, my students numbered in the thousands.  I shaped them and they shaped me.  And despite the occasional discontent (for them and me), we all seemed to turn out okay.

The thing I noticed most about this evening’s get-together was how little the teachers had changed over all that time.  For sure we had all aged; that’s a given.  But the same love and warmth they had given to their students during their many years in the classroom still radiated from their faces.  It’s as if their smiles had been placed in time capsules and pulled out immediately before the retirement celebration.  Nothing seemed different, at least not the important stuff.

And as the evening drew to a close, and hugs and goodbyes were exchanged, along with laughter–always laughter, I drew back for a moment and tried to imagine what my life would have been like without those teachers in it… and without my students.  And I realized what a dark, shallow place it would have been.  Then I thought of their students, and their students, and how the future might look because of those exchanges, those relationships.  And I saw how, despite my usual cynical outlook of this world, there could and would be generations of teachers, just like these folks, who would use their own creativity and love to help kids find their ways too.  I was sure of this as I slowly looked around the room.  I could see it in their faces.

Future Book Signing Events!

Walking Bridge Cover v.5If you live in the Tampa Bay area, there will be four fun book signing events coming up!  They are:

Wednesday, 5/18   3-5 PMUkulele’s   4805 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., Land O’ Lakes, FL  34639

Thursday, 5/26   5-8 PMLatitudes   131 Harbor Village Lane, Apollo Beach, FL  33572

Wednesday, 6/1  6-8 PMApollo’s Bistro   6520 Richie’s Way, Apollo Beach, FL  33572  (Also a wine tasting and art opening!)

Wednesday, 6/8  5-8 PMPRP Wine International   5910-F Breckenridge Pkwy., Tampa, FL  33610  (Also a wine tasting and charity event!)

If you can’t attend, you can also pick up a book on the following web site:


I Wish I Could Remember Her Name

WatchersShe told me her name, but I no longer remember what she said.  It was almost one in the morning when she rang the doorbell.  Twice.  I wasn’t too concerned at first, although it did seem a bit surreal.  I peered through the window panes of our front door to see who it was.  “Go away.”

‘I need help.”  She paused.  “I don’t want to be a bother; I have no place else to go.”

I reluctantly unlocked the front door and looked up at her.  She was maybe six-and-a-half-feet tall.  At least.  Long black hair, dyed, with matching lipstick–although most of it had smudged off.  There were human lips underneath.  Beneath her black leather jacket she wore a black, heavy metal band t-shirt with silver letters and logo.  Thrasher maybe?  Her yellow-and-brown plaid skirt was hiked up almost to her hips, accentuating long, smooth white legs that fit snuggly into tight, brown leather boots.  She was wrapped in a dirty, tan blanket and carried three black leather bags.  She explained to me that she had a tablet, and could use the outside outlet for electricity so she could contact someone to pick her up.  Mike had left her with Dave, and Dave had left her alone in our neighborhood in the middle of the night.  Her mother was asleep, but she would be of little help had her eyes actually been open.  This strange, helpless girl admitted to being homeless for most of the past three years, and she looked and smelled the part.  I guessed she was twenty-something.

I brought her into our house.

My wife had just gone to bed, but I had discreetly awakened her before I had unlocked the door so she knew what was happening.  It seemed like the responsible thing to do at the time.

The girl, whose name I still can’t recall, asked for my laptop because her tablet was apparently inoperable.  I offered it to her as she squatted cross-legged on the cold tile floor in our foyer.  She asked if I was alone, and it sounded like a proposition.  I answered in the negative while searching her neck for an Adam’s apple.  I realized that I was starting my Friday morning in the company of a very sexy man who drew the interest of both of our cats and was starting to scare the shit out of me.

As I crouched on the floor beside her, I asked about the hospital band on her wrist.  She replied that she had “checked in to get off the street,” and that she simply needed her meds.

Holy Mother of God, what had I gotten myself into?

She told me she needed her space and asked me (twice) if I could stop hovering over her.  I moved over to a living room couch and watched her punch buttons on my keyboard in my foyer in my house–wondering all the while if she was secretly contacting any number of her sociopathic friends to participate in her home invasion.  I imagined duct tape and rope and gags and torture for me and my wife.  I smelled the acrid scent of fear and realized it was me.  My wife had already gone back to sleep, imagining I had the situation under control.  She had never been more wrong about anything.

Minutes dragged on like hours as the stranger looked up phone numbers on a variety of social network sites and called people up on our home phone.  The conversations were short and fruitless, and she was getting visibly upset.  She rambled on and on to me about getting to Chicago, and how her own mother only offered her a cigarette and a beer the last time they had gotten together–and then complained about her accepting both.  The girl that was probably a guy and most likely a hooker that sat cross-legged in my foyer inside my home at one-thirty in the morning was getting very upset and I was trying to keep everything cool, trying to keep him from becoming enraged and violent.

And then my computer died.

With a defeated look, she abruptly got up and put on his jacket, and then covered her shoulders with a blanket before picking up his three satchels that she had placed on the floor when he had first entered my life.  I told her that I was sorry I couldn’t help him, and asked for our phone back–the one she had just deposited into her jacket pocket.  Once she was all geared up and ready to leave, he returned it to me.  It occurred to me at that moment that she felt so vulnerable, she had to reclaim her own clothing and belongings before she felt safe enough to return my phone.  She had been holding it hostage.  She was more afraid of me than I was of him.

I apologized for not being able to help, but I was secretly relieved to see her depart.  I wished him well and locked the front door behind her.  He walked away from our house in the suburbs into a dark, rainy, and uncertain night, carrying his three bulky satchels closely, like hungry infants whose cries for milky breasts were answered by the sound of boot heels on wet concrete sidewalks.

I wish I could remember her name.

The Ghosts of Paths Forgotten

IMG_1964When the package first arrived, I figured it probably contained old letters and photographs.  George had a penchant for doing things like that; digging up my past and serving it up on a large plate, drizzled with the angst and confusion of a young man’s problematic existence, and served with a side of questionable regret.

I guess I started writing letters to George when I left my neighborhood to join the army in 1977.  We had been friends since I was ten or eleven; at least that’s what I remember.  George is old enough to be my father, and he was there for me when I was the childhood victim of a failing marriage and a real father who either didn’t understand me, or flat-out didn’t care.  I’ll never know for sure; Mom and Dad are both dead.  George isn’t.  He sent me that package just the other day.

It was a thick, heavy envelope–full of all the words I had strung together during my stint in the army, my college years, and my first few semesters as a full-time art teacher in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta.  Almost a decade of my incomprehensibly questionable life on this wildly spinning orb.

I believe I may have become a man sometime during those years, although if George had pointed that out to me, I will never know; his letters to me are all gone.  George has always been better at that than me.  While I don’t keep more than one or two emails from the same person because they’re too troublesome to delete later on, George keeps meticulous records of the paths his good friends have travelled, in words and images, so he can opine at their eventual destinations.  It’s not that George is judgmental; he’s just that interested.

When I opened up the envelope, a slew of correspondences fell out onto the living room floor where I sat cross-legged beside my cat that rainy afternoon.  I was surprised, but not really, at all the things I had revealed to my old friend–doubts and dreams, the glory of superficial accomplishments, the anguish of lost love . . . It was as if I had discussed in great detail every path I had ever taken in my life.  But it wasn’t just a matter-of-fact diatribe; I seemed to be reaching out to him for approval.  I was lost and looking for directions, and that is the quest of any young person, I believe–to go on a journey and expect a map to show up somewhere along the way.

The map has not yet arrived, but the trek continues.  Some time over the years I was married, and George is now good friends with my wife.  And in his mind he is recording both our journeys, and also the one we travel together.

I haven’t gone through all the letters yet; the ones I’ve read so far make me fearful of the rest.  I don’t know why I feel this way, and even though I fully realize the past can’t be undone, I have an unrelenting urge to imagine that my earlier years were less treacherous than they actually were, and I do not want this spoiled.  I shared those things with George years ago because I couldn’t face them all by myself.  Why should I try to deal with them now, when I have certainly moved past all that?  Or have I?  Have any of us?

We are all, in one way or another, products of our pasts–of the paths we chose long, long ago.  And I wonder, now more than ever, will the knowledge of the events that have formed us enrich our lives in some way?  Or would we merely be digging up old, weathered bones?

Perhaps the ghosts of the past should be allowed, once again, to float freely along the old paths; or, if they are no longer interested in that single-minded pursuit, maybe they could just point the rest of us in the right direction.

Author and Publisher’s Book Fair

on point book fair save the date SHOWCASING ATHeeeeey!  There’s an author and publisher’s book fair coming to the Tampa Bay area on Friday, July 17th.  It will run from 5 – 8 PM.  It will be at On Point Executive Center on Rocky Point.  The sponsors of the event will be passing out appetizers and light food throughout the event, and some of the authors will be serving wine.  There will be close to 40 authors and publishers there, from what I hear.  It should be fun.  I’ll be there autographing copies of Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction.  I hope to see you there!

Sam is Dead, and So is Dick


“For your information, both Dick Walko and Same Herman have died.”

That was the email I received that morning.  It was how I started my day.  Not that it’s unusual for a baby boomer to receive that kind of fatalistic news.  Folks of our generation tend to spend more time at funerals than baby showers and christenings, so the deaths of the people in our lives is to be expected.  It was just the way the information was presented to me–cold, clinical, and unemotional–that got to me the most.  To be sure, Sam and Dick weren’t close friends of mine.  Actually, they were much older than me.  George, who sent me the email, used to sail with them out on the Chesapeake Bay when I was a teenager, and sometimes he’d invite me along. That’s how I got to know them in the first place.  All three of them, Sam, George, and Dick, were involved in education in Baltimore County.  Dick even taught at my old high school.

I didn’t have Dick Walko for a teacher, but I went sailing with him every now and then.  I remember how the wind used to play havoc with his comb-over as he tried to work the tiller without spilling any of his black Russian onto his clean, white deck.  Sam would sail with us sometimes too.  He drank Cutty Sark on the rocks.  It’s funny how I remember what those two men drank, but so little else about their lives.  They were good people, and good friends of George.  I remember spending more time with Sam.  I once went to the Smoky Mountains with Sam and George when I was a senior in high school.  One night we were asleep in a cabin, and Sam woke up screaming something about banshies coming through the window, obviously out to get us all.  Sam had a vivid imagination, but I imagine that was the Cutty Sark talking.  Or screaming, actually.  Good times.

Sam had a twin brother, Ben,  who died a couple of years earlier than he did.  I don’t remember what Ben drank.  Ben Herman was a writer.  He penned some columns for the Baltimore Sun, and wrote a couple of books of short stories.  Stories about what it was like growing up Jewish in Dundalk, just on the outskirts of Baltimore City.  He told stories of familiar things, but was somehow able to transform those memories into his own, personal mythology.  I still read those two books and, now that I’m much older, the myths make a lot more sense; they’ve even become a part of me.  Ben used to go into burger joints and coffee shops with a note pad, and write for hours.  Words flowed through the tips of his fingers and the end of his writing pen like a swiftly-running river.  And the coffee kept coming and coming until he finally ran out of ink and had to go back home.

Sam and Ben Herman were kind of short, as I recall.  But they were giants.  Sam had the ability to smile and goof around when the sky was crashing in all around us, and Ben could take any commonplace experience and transform it, with words, into something extraordinary.  It was nothing less than a miracle.  I knew Dick Walko much less than Sam and Ben, but the few memories I have of him are good ones.  Before I knew him personally, he was a customer on my paper route.  I remember getting praise and a smile for delivering his newspaper each day–and always a good tip when I collected his money.  After he retired, Dick became a substitute teacher in the same school he had just left.  I’ve done some substitute teaching, and I can’t say I was ever as enthusiastic about it as Dick was.  He said he missed the extra income, but I think he really just missed the kids.

I don’t talk to George about these three guys that much, and I don’t know exactly why.  I believe that the passing of so many friends, acquaintances, and relatives over the years has numbed me sufficiently, so I can now intellectualize the deaths of those who helped form me into the person I have become, without becoming too emotionally involved.

Sam is dead, and so is Dick.  Ben died a while back.  I still live, and so does George.

And every day the tides go out and the tides come in on the Chesapeake Bay.  In downtown Baltimore, the red bricks of the old buildings turn brown, and the sky goes cold and gray.  Time is a human construct, and the dead laugh at us, because we give time much more importance than it deserves.  And somewhere in Heaven, or whatever they call it, three old memories have started life anew.  Like sailboats coming about in a stiff, cool breeze out on the vast waters of the Chesapeake Bay, starting a new tack.  Or a writer in a fast food joint inhaling just enough cooking grease and coffee beans to charge him up into delving into the complexities of the human condition.  Or someone on the sidelines quietly guiding those who don’t feel as if they’re important enough to be noticed.

If there is a bar in the afterlife, I imagine it’s always open.  Sam, with his Cutty Sark, and Dick, with his black Russian, are already there.  Ben probably has a coffee cup in his hand, and is working on his third book.  I hope they leave a couple of stools empty for George and me.

In the meantime, the three of them will continue to look down and encourage us to live our lives while we still can.  To use the tools we’ve been given, and to use them wisely.

To take our commonplace existences and turn them into something extraordinary.

Remember the Christmas Truce

First SnowThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce of World War One.  Most people have never even heard of it.  We spend so much time and ink memorializing the wholesale slaughter of human beings we know nothing about, that we have little emotional space left to contemplate one of the most significant peaceful accomplishments in our history – when soldiers, for a very brief time, chose friendship over hatred, life over death, peace over war.

The British and German soldiers had been involved in a virtual blood bath for almost half a year, bombing and shelling each other from deep trenches they had dug with small shovels.  They were exhausted, depressed, frightened, and most likely wishing they were home for the holidays.  During one of the respites from fighting, when both sides were tending to their wounded, their ammo, and whatever food they could find, there arose a beautiful sound from one of the trenches.  The British soldiers heard the Germans singing a song whose words they did not understand, but still they could tell that they were listening to Silent Night from across the cold mud, barbed wire, and piles of dead bodies.  So they did the most sensible thing.  They started singing along with the Germans.

At first, soldiers on both sides popped their heads up to see what the others were doing, both afraid of getting shot.  Eventually, both Germans and Brits entered into No-Man’s Land to meet their enemies eye to eye on this Christmas day.  Apparently all it took was standing up and pulling themselves out of their trenches.  The rest was relatively easy.

Soldiers on both sides had a glorious Christmas.  One to remember.  One for the books.  They sang carols together, exchanged gifts, barbecued a pig for a Christmas feast, and played soccer later on.  German beer was exchanged for British rum.  Even officers as high as colonels relaxed in friendly conversations with their enemy counterparts, and eventually posed for pictures together.

There was one noticeable holdout that day – a 25 year-old German soldier who thought that all of that peace stuff was totally inappropriate.  His name was Adolph Hitler.

The following day the fighting resumed, hesitantly at first, because now the soldiers were charged with the daunting task of killing their new friends.  Christmas was over.

Religion can be a strange tool for beings as foolish and reactive as humans.  Terrorists roam the world looking for interesting and violent ways to kill innocents, all because they don’t have the intelligence to understand the basic peaceful teachings of their own religions.  Instead, they bastardize the words of their God to justify blowing up small children in large numbers.  But this is nothing new.  Religion has been used as an excuse to wage war since, well, the invention of religion.  There were The Crusades, The Trojan Wars, not to mention all of those who died in Northern Ireland not too long ago.

During the Second World War, that young man, Adolph, who refused to rise out of the trenches on Christmas day, saw to it that millions of Jews were slaughtered under his watch.  And, of course we have our present situation, where everyone is being targeted because of their different religious beliefs.

So what is it about that Christmas day one hundred years ago that was so special?  Why is it that enemies were able to use religion as a means to bridge gaps and build friendships, if even for a day, so long ago?  And now it’s just the opposite; religion is the force behind the sword that is thrust into another man’s heart.  Are we going backwards with the peace movement, or does such a movement even still exist?

Every now and then I try to imagine what special thing the British and German soldiers did to create peace and friendship on that special Christmas day.  Sometimes I can almost picture in my mind the initial act that led to handshakes and laughter and sharing and friendship.  It’s something we seem to have lost in the last 100 years, and I’m pretty sure I know what it was.

Those men of Christmas past had the courage and nobility to stand, and rise above the very trenches in which they had been placed.

Thanks For the Reviews!

Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction Front CoverI’d like to thank those of you who were kind enough to post a review of Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction on the Barnes and Noble website,, recently!  I’ve been struggling with time recently, trying to find the hours to work on my second novel while continuing to promote my first.  There is still time to write a positive review on my book if you haven’t gotten around to it yet.  If you have never read it, and would like to get an authorized/personalized copy (I’ll pay the shipping costs), please pm me on Facebook or leave a comment on this website where you can be reached.  Again, thank you all very much for your continued support!

Rick Sanders

Welcome to the “Too Much Information” Age

IMG_1963As I drove home this evening I got into another heated argument with my GPS.  She doesn’t understand me.  She never has.  Every time I try to take a short cut to my destination, she hollers, “Whenever possible, take a legal U-turn.”  First of all, this is Florida.  Taking any U-turn, legal or otherwise, usually involves an altercation with a blue hair driving a huge automobile with fins, or with a disoriented cow who has wandered out of its field.  What choice do I have but ignore the maniacal electronic wench, and simply go my own way.

The so-called Information Age bugs me, and I’m unashamed to say so.  It’s not because I’m old, although I am, but because human beings are simply not capable of absorbing, digesting, and effectively using the ridiculously large amount of information that is being passed, willy-nilly, between their ears.

YouTube is a popular means of information sharing, but is merely a distraction from real life.  It mirrors the lives of other people, and everyone else revels in it like it’s a reality TV show, in place of actually living out the subtle, and sometimes fantastic, nuances of their own lives.  I’ve gone into restaurants and observed couples sitting across from each other, not conversing or even recognizing each other’s presence, both completely absorbed in the visual emissions of small hand-held devices that offer a window into a strange new world of facts, fabrication, and excitement for the intellectually deficient.  Occasionally these couples will laugh at the same exact time, as if they were sharing a funny thought with each other, and then immediately immerse themselves back into the glowing screens of their respective electronic devices, falling deeper and deeper into their own personal voids.  Cell phones are occasionally used as communication devices, but few people ever hear a human voice on such a contraption.  Texting is the most popular form of communication, as it completely eliminates the need to actually talk to another human being.

I own a lap top computer.  I’m typing on it right now.  Occasionally I use it for something more than a typewriter; sometimes I use it to gather information .  My computer, however, often misinterprets my questions and my searches.  Sometimes I think it doesn’t understand me at all.  From what I’ve been able to comprehend, my computer thinks I’m a gay Flamenco dancer named Earl who enjoys shopping at Bass Pro Shop.

Facebook, however, seems more functional than most of the things that actually show up on my computer screen.  It allows me to completely ignore the daunting task of making plans to visit my old friends – by encouraging me to post information about my life in an informative way, but in a data stream that precludes intelligent and meaningful responses, thus preparing me for a life of approved interaction with others in the Electronic Age.  Twitter takes it one step further by restricting a person’s intellectual discourse to 140 characters, including a variety of abbreviations that are so bereft of content that few messages would even make a decent bumper sticker.

I even have a problem with CDs and DVDs.  I listen to albums.  Digital music compresses the sound so much that it has become flat and barely recognizable as sound.  CDs are convenient, but they don’t have any real sound quality.  Now, I do recognize that DVDs have great picture quality, but I can’t stand the big hand that pops up every time I want to fast – forward through a meaningless, irrelevant commercial.  I choose VCRs because they give me the freedom to decide what I’d like to watch.

The Information Age, and the electronic technology associated with it, do little to give me faith in the future advancement of humanity.  We live in an age of unlimited informational resources, but we represent an inexhaustible supply of ignorance, apathy, and an entire generation (or two) of uninformed voters, the likes of which do not exist anywhere else on this planet.  All of our freedom, and all of our information, has simply made us stupid, and a little more smug.  Trying to find actual, relevant, and worthwhile information on the Internet is like trying to locate a snail turd on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

So why do we even bother pretending that we are actually advancing, or learning, or evolving in any sense, whatsoever?

In the meantime, I will continue to drive around, pretending not to look for answers, pretending not to care, quietly listening to my GPS as she berates me any time I try to execute my God-given right of free will.  My relationship with her these days is tense, at best.  Not only does she insist that her directions are best, but she yells at me every time I get gutsy enough to ignore her demands and go my own way.

In the seventies we were warned about “Big Brother” by the conspiracy theorists who wandered the halls of our schools and our malls and our workplaces.  And we ignored them, as one normally ignores crazy people.  But walk into a school, or a mall, or a restaurant, or even your workplace – and see who’s tuning into the electronic circus that is social media.  Observe the information, and how and where it is being disseminated.  Think about times when people talked and thought and interacted and loved and cared and shared.

And then ask yourself – Now who’s crazy?

House of Fear

When she first whispered to him that she had heard someone in their back yard, he thought he might still be asleep and dreaming.  But then she nudged him with an urgency in her voice.  “Get up.  He’s in our backyard now!”  He stared at what he could see of her in their blackened bedroom, […]