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, […]

The First Day of School. Again.

The first day of school has always been a magical day to me, both as a student and a teacher.  It’s always been a day of fresh beginnings.  When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another “first day.”  I thought the same thing when I earned my first college degree.  But once I became a teacher, I was privy to, and looked forward to, many first days of school.

026My first day as an art teacher in Atlanta was as exhilarating as my first day as a young student.  I taught “art on a cart” in several different schools.  My office was a dusty furnace room with an old slab of wood stretched across two ancient cinder blocks that I used as a desk.  There were small piles of rat droppings in the corners, but there was a kiln, so I could teach my students how to work with clay.  Once I tried to create a slip mold of garden gloves by dipping them into liquid clay and then firing them up after the clay had dried.  The whole school smelled like burnt rubber gloves for hours.  Mrs. Hall, the Principal, never forgave me.

Many, many years later I retired from the noble profession of Education, and I thought that was the end of my first days.  Again, I was wrong.  Monday morning I ventured into the world of substitute teaching.  I was robo-called a little after 8 AM and was informed of a job availability that started at 7:15.  How could I possibly say “No” to a job that required reverse time travel for its correct execution?  Naturally I showed up, slightly off schedule, and was directed to my kindergarten class.

Kindergarten students are a special breed.  They are miniature tornadoes who live in a world of cotton candy, purple dinosaurs, imaginary playmates, and smiling rainbows.  They also live in a world of stinky giants, loud noises, contradictory messages, germs, and boogers.

I looked around at my new class and realized I was the only white guy in the room.  I wondered if they noticed that, too.  In any case, none of us really seemed to care, so we all just decided to move forward.  It was an interesting day.  I didn’t realize there were so many different ways to devastate the letter “B,” or how incredibly difficult it is to write a “3.”

Many of the kids were fascinated with my arms (as were my students in Atlanta).  Apparently they don’t get to see a lot of soft arm hair of any length, especially hair as white as mine.  Every time I leaned on a desk to help out, the students would start touching my arm hair like it was a new species of fern or sea grass.  One time during the day I was bent over tying a little girl’s shoe, and she started messing with what little hair is left on the top of my head.  She withdrew her hand whenever I looked up at her.  By the time her shoe was properly laced there were three of the little munchkins rubbing the top of my head like it was a genie’s magical lamp.

Perhaps the best part of the day was lunch.  I forget what they served as an entrée, but I distinctively remember getting two chocolate chip cookies for dessert.  I ate lunch with the kids, because that was who I knew.  A very, very small and frail blind boy sat next to me.  He could not see me, so I imagine he found me by smelling the stinky giant, and he wanted to get a better ‘look’ at me.  My comb-over was in fierce disarray from the outside wind; it vaguely resembled a scarecrow’s butt that had almost, but not quite, survived a raging tempest.  That, of course, made the company of a blind child perfect, because he saw nothing unusual to stare at or comment about, as five year-olds sometimes do.

The ambient cafeteria noise and the loud conversations, along with horrible acoustics, made it hard for me to hear the little guy talk.  This, too, was perfect.  Now the blind kid was hanging out with the old deaf guy.  We looked like some kind of bizarre, parallel universe version of Penn and Teller.

I had my two cookies waiting for me at the end of my meal, and my blind friend could smell them.  He used his powers of persuasion to try to place a formidable wedge of pity and charity between me and my cookies, but to no avail.

The rest of the day went by quickly, and before long it was time to send the kids out to their buses.  I didn’t get to say goodbye to my new friend, but I watched him go as I stood outside helping out with dismissal.  He couldn’t sense my presence in the riot of sounds and smells of hundreds of children and their parents, and a multitude of cars and buses.

As he walked by me, just inches away, I glanced down to see if his backpack was zippered up properly.

I didn’t want his cookie to fall out.

It’s Not a Bird. It’s a Painting.

The Castle, 7-14The Castle was an imposing fortress, rising up from cracked sidewalks and then fading mysteriously into the blackened sky above.  Goths, dressed in black and shiny metal, surrounded the ancient brick and stone building like sinister and mysterious sentinels on the payroll of Vlad the Impaler.  The four of us stood out from the rest of the bar’s patrons, dressed in bright colors and khaki shorts.  No one stared.  It was as if we were invisible to the regulars, or they simply didn’t care.  Once we were inside, a large man in dull black leather, combat boots, and a studded collar took our money for the cover charge, put plastic bracelets on our wrists, and sent us on our way.  Our first stop was the slate bar – A large, rectangular bar made entirely out of slate rock, gray and rough and chiseled, like something that had just risen all on its own from the bowels of the earth.  A small stream of water drizzled through the cracks in its surface, making it a challenge to handle a drink without getting one’s hands wet.  A young, rotund woman wearing little more than black, patent leather straps around her body asked me for our drink order with black-painted lips that reflected the light off the pulsating blue disco ball that hovered above the center of the crowded bar.  We took our drinks and worked our way around the people, all dressed in black, and silently walked up the old, wooden stairs accented with black lights and beer stains.

At the top of the stairs we heard the incredibly loud and repetitious ‘boom-boom-boom’ of what might be termed as industrial rock.  It didn’t sound much different than it did when I frequented the place decades ago.  The only thing that had changed was me, and probably the three friends I was with.  I left the group to explore the room by myself, moving first out onto the dance floor, wearing my khaki shorts, polo shirt, and white socks and tennis shoes.  I imagine I was a strange sight, standing in the middle of the open, wooden floor alone, absorbing the sounds and the darkness, and then the blue lights passing through strange layers of haze, sipping on a glass of beer.  I continued walking until I reached a metal pole stretching from floor to ceiling, occupied by a Goth girl in a mini skirt, combat boots, and a black t-shirt she had grown out of years ago.  She gyrated up and down the slick, shiny metal pillar like a snake, indifferent to anyone’s presence, but reliant on the heat put forth from the crowd.  Then she dismounted the steely column and rubbed my back and smiled as she walked away, disappearing into the dark, foggy dance floor.  There were men with spiked hair and high heels, and women who wore what looked like rags, and the rags mingled with their long, wild hair, until one could not be distinguished from the other, and soon everything that was different was the same.  Some people wore white paste on their faces that made them look like they had on porcelain masks, and many of them were embellished with subtle designs, like dots or series of small, dotted lines.  One very tall man, made even taller by his heels, wore a white face that sported a single tear drawn in black below one eye, and it made me wonder who he was crying for, or if he had simply stood too close to the light.

I eventually went back to my friends, and one of them was staring at a painting on the wall.  It was large – at least five feet tall and seven or eight feet across.  It was mostly a crisp cerulean blue.  In the center, stretching from left to right, was what seemed to be a painting of a metal cage forged out of intersecting diagonal lines, only it was in the form of a bird.  Inside the form, where one might expect the bird’s head, was the horrific, screaming countenance of a man’s head.  It appeared to be trapped inside the cage.  However, there was no body; just lots of empty blue sky behind the man’s neck.  My friend turned to me and asked, “Is that a bird?”

“No,” I replied.  “It’s a painting.”

I was just being coy, but I started examining my own words in the context of the sights and sounds inside The Castle.  Were the Goths who they projected themselves to be with their pale skin, black clothes, and wild hair and shoes?  Or was that just the painting they presented?  Did any of them decide when they got ready to go out that night that they were dressing up to be like their peers, or simply to be different in their own way?  And then I saw a reflection of myself in a smoky, smeared mirror below the DJ booth.  I froze for a moment, wondering if the eighties might call me and ask for their clothes back.

We all go through our lives, Goths and yuppies, old and young, wild and sedate, silently projecting the images of ourselves, while screaming mutely within the cages of our own construction.  And the cages may as well all be shaped like birds, because we all long to fly, to be free, to be something different than the personification of whatever options we were presented with in our earlier years.  What we wear and how we act are all part of our masking process.  But why do we wear these masks?  Are they part of our image, our personal persona?  Does our presentation of self in everyday life serve as a means of ‘branding’ or a way of camouflaging who we really are?  And in either case, I wonder if the ‘real’ surface image accurately reflects the person, or merely the person’s projection of himself.  I looked into the mirror again and saw myself thirty years ago, years before these Goths were even born, and I wondered how this person I was looking at would have been perceived by that exact same person all those decades ago.

Before long we knew it was time to leave The Castle.  My friends and I tucked ourselves safely inside our steel cages as we nodded farewell to strangers on our way out the front door.  We folded this new experience with the past and the present safely beneath our wings.  And then we flew on back home.



Love, Longing, and the Spaces In Between


089Years ago I sat on a dock and watched the sun set over Dark Head Creek, a small tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore County.  I remember thinking how nice it would be to share that sunset with someone else.  I was in junior high school, I think.  I didn’t realize it then, but that was probably the first time I ever longed to share a part of my life with another person.

As I got older my needs for companionship became slightly more sophisticated.  I dreamed of a solid relationship with someone I loved, but I also wanted the space to grow and become who I needed to be.  Those were my high school years.  Some time during that period my parents divorced.  Their marriage had been a troubled one from early on, fueled by my father’s drinking.  Fearful for my brother’s and my safety, our mother moved us away from our dad, and we lived with other relatives for several years.  We eventually moved back together as a family in a small apartment across the street from Dark Head Creek.

The problems in their relationship continued, but they were merely facades for the underlying dilemmas.  My father needed to be in control at all times, and my mother needed to leave his forceful grip and become her own person.  She needed to become whoever she was supposed to be.  So after twenty-two years of marriage, and just before my senior year of high school, my father walked out on us.  They divorced shortly thereafter.

Mom and Dad were apart for the next twelve years.  During that time my father learned the humbling lessons of compromise and empathy, and my mother finally became independent.  They both dated other people, some seriously.  I was an adult then.  When I came back from college or the Army to visit, I never quite knew which parent I should see first.  I timed myself so I would spend an equal number of hours with each, so no feelings would be hurt.  But, regardless of how hard I tried, I was unable to fill those spaces of time with anything that made any of us comfortable, and neither could they – at least not with me.

One year I came to visit and they were both over at my grandmother’s house.  Together.  It seems that the years spent apart and the lessons they learned in each other’s absence strengthened them and their newly-developed friendship.  They remarried each other later that year.

Not everyone gets a second chance to find true love, to end that crazed longing for someone or something you can’t ever quite put into words.  Many people don’t even get a first chance.  Love eludes them like a moving shadow on the tall grass at the edge of a forest.

I have good friends who have divorced, some very recently.  Some of them longed for the reconciliation that can sometimes occur with the right kind of counseling.  Others wanted to grow at a faster rate than their partners, not being empathetic and patient enough to realize that, while some people strive to force change upon themselves, most of us simply evolve.

Most of my friends did not leave their marriages and fall comfortably into the arms of new love interests.  Some stumbled unwillingly into love, and then cautiously allowed it to envelope them as each layer of fear, regret, and self-doubt peeled itself away and shriveled in the bright sunlight.

I believe we can have more than one true love in our lifetimes, but I also think that the only one that matters now is the one that occupies the present.  Anything from the past is something else – a kind love that gave and gave and sent you on your way, wiser and genuinely more fulfilled; a bad relationship where love once existed, but whose absence made you more attuned to its nuances; a love that ended in death, and you have the burden of two hearts to carry along.

Love is a strange roommate – very demanding and very giving, incredibly quirky but usually down to earth.  Love is a longing that exists so it can constantly be fulfilled, until it goes away, and then the longing stays behind.

Filling the spaces in between the loss and renewal of a relationship is the tricky part: How to pass through that terrible gauntlet of harmful feelings and come out the other side unscathed.

It’s less about looking up at the bright sun, and more about finding the right person to sit next to you as it sets down below the horizon.

Monkey Poop, Tony Abbott, and The Great Barrier Reef

Years ago I participated in an art show held at a zoo in Tampa Bay, Florida.  My wife and I set up the display at the assigned spot, just in front of a huge, open-air monkey habitat.  This was not a cage, but a walled-in area full of trees, ropes, swings, and a plethora of man-made climbing devices made out of logs and branches.  I’m no expert on monkeys, but they seemed to be relatively happy.

So it was a great surprise to me when a couple of them started collecting monkey poop from the ground and tree branches, and began throwing it at me and my oil paintings.  Was it something I said?  Did they not like my art?  Most of my paintings back then were of underwater scenes, usually coral reefs.  They were beautiful, colorful renditions of aquatic life from all over the world, and now their beauty and purpose was about to be compromised by the steaming, brown globs of monkey poo being thrown at them in rapid succession.

Indeed, when all the available fecal matter had been hurled, the monkeys involved in their little fiasco merely manufactured more, sometimes digging deep inside to scoop it out with their hairy, little fingers.  These monkeys played ‘scoop-n-toss’ until they got tired of making me run around yelling and screaming, while trying to protect my paintings with crossed arms and wild eyes.  By this time, of course, most of my underwater scenes were covered in thick, fetid, brown goo.

And that brings me to my latest monkey – Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia.

Mr. Abbott plans to allow the dumping of three million cubic meters of dredge spoil from coal mines, inside the World Heritage area, which contains the world’s largest coral reef system.  Even dumping near any coral reef is a bad idea, because the water column moves the silt around (in this case, 70% sand and 30% clay) long before it reaches the ocean floor.  Once dumped, there is no possible way to know where all the sediment will end up.

Tony Abbott’s motives are clearly more financial than environmental.  The Great Barrier Reef is already bordered and affected by mega ports, dredging, dumping, and a 7,000 ship superhighway.  Abbott, who once said that climate change is “crap,” is clearly exploiting the fragile reef environment for financial gain.

This issue is not just about contributing to the destruction of the living beauty of the world’s biggest single structure made up of living organisms.  It is about the long-term health of our planet.  Coral reefs are habitats for countless species of underwater plants and animals.  And when coral build their skeletons, they are actually taking carbon-dioxide out of the water, reducing ocean acidification.  All of the oceans are connected, so what happens in Australia eventually affects everywhere and everyone else.

Coral reefs around the world are already in a tenuous state.  Damaging any coral reef, even a little, is not just unacceptable; it’s patently insane.  It would appear as if Tony Abbott, upon looking around at all the industries currently polluting The Great Barrier Reef, wasn’t quite satisfied with all the crap being flung at one of the most beautiful and ecologically important areas on the planet.  So he dug in a little deeper until he found a new way to mess things up – the coal industry.  The coal miners just keep digging and digging and digging…

And so does Monkey Boy.

Reef Ballet

And the winners are….

Thanks for taking part in this year’s Blog Hop.  I hope you found it enjoyable, got introduced to some new author’s works, and won a bunch of free stuff.  There are many people out there writing books, and it’s hard if you’re an author to get your work out there.  It’s also hard, if you’re a reader, to find something new.  In this way, I hope we’ve scratched each other’s backs.  I apologize for 4 days of promotions on my Facebook page, but I hope you at least found some of them humorous….  So, without further delay, here are the five winners from my blog page:

First Place:  Sherry Malone

Second place: Maggie Steele

Third Place: Sarah Miles

Fourth Place: Bobbi Kinion

Fifth Place: author Mandy White

Congratulations!  For places 1 -2, I will need your mailing addresses.  For 3 – 4, I’ll need your mailing addresses plus your email addresses.  And for 5th place, I will need your email address.  Please PM me on Facebook with that information.  If I don’t hear from you, I’ll contact you.  Enjoy!

Strange Front Cover jpg

Time for the Summer Splash Blog Hop!

Summer Splash Blog Hop!Welcome to the Summer Splash Blog Hop 2014!

The web site for the Blog Hop is Here you can find out more about this fun event, find other authors, and see what prizes are offered by each author. Your participation will determine what great free stuff you will win!

There are five prizes for your participation on my website.  They are:

First Prize – an autographed copy of my book, Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction, and a signed copy of the art work for the new cover design.

Second Prize – an autographed copy of my book, Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction.

Third Prize – an ebook of (you guessed it) ‘Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction, and a signed copy of the art work for the new cover design.

Fourth Prize – an ebook of the same, along with a signed copy of the inside art work.

Fifth Prize – an ebook of Strange Times in Yeehaw Junction – my very first novel!


This is all you have to do to be eligible to WIN BIG on this site!

1. Follow my blog by entering your email address on this site.

2. Enter a comment so I know you were there.

3. If you are on Twitter, tweet the following: #rockthestrange, @rsandersauthor

4. Share this blog post on your Facebook page.

Good Luck and Have Fun!!!

The Ghost on the Beach

It was late evening by the time I left the hotel room and ventured back to the beach.  Small, gray clouds floated lazily across the horizon above a dark blue ocean.  The clouds were tinged on the edges with the same deep orange that slowly invaded the once cerulean skies.  It was a picture show that had played itself out millions of times before, and, although my moments on this beach number far less, I can’t imagine that the view has ever ceased to amaze.

I come to the ocean because it draws me back to it.  And maybe this is true with all of us.  If we did, indeed, originate and evolve from the briny depths, wouldn’t that make every trip to the beach a sort of homecoming?  A primordial urge to return to our place of origin?

I brought a book with me.  No blanket – just one book about a 67 year-old woman who hiked the entire 2.050 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  Three times.  Her name was Emma Gatewood.  Grandma Gatewood hiked other trails, too, and she walked places where trails didn’t even exist.  From her original hike along the AT until the time she died seventeen years later, Grandma Gatewood clocked in over 14,000 miles – more than half the distance around the earth.  And even to this day, though she is gone, hikers report seeing the ghost of Grandma Gatewood along the Appalachian Trail, still walking, walking, walking.  Perhaps she’s trying to find her way back to her home in Ohio, or maybe somewhere else.

I read until the orange sky turned a deeper blue, and then indigo, and the ocean faded into a dark slate-gray.  I placed my book in the sand and stared out at the ocean as small breakers cascaded into one another as they made their way up the beach, making hushed crashing sounds as if they wanted us to hear of their arrival without disturbing the small fish swimming in the shallows.  I sat and waited, I don’t know what for, as twilight eased into dusk and dusk into night.  The stars came out in full force, and the waves continued to sweep the beach like so many wet brooms.  It was on this dark and windless night that I first saw it on the edge of the surf.

At first I thought it was a huge rock, dark and covered with barnacles and sea weed.  But it moved.  Rocks aren’t supposed to move.

When I saw her long, wide flippers digging into the sand, I realized that a loggerhead sea turtle was crawling up onto the beach, most likely to lay a clutch of eggs.  She strained mightily as she slowly dragged herself along the wet sand, and continued up to the dry beach almost to the banyan trees.  I stared, fascinated, as she dug a large hole in the sand and backed into it.

I watched as she peered out at the ocean as she deposited one egg at a time into the freshly dug nest.  When she was through, she used her flippers to push the loose sand back over the hole, camouflaging it and protecting her eggs.  Then she crawled back toward the ocean, a little slower this time, and disappeared into the surf.

I remember once reading that loggerheads would travel thousands of miles to lay their eggs along the same beach where they, too, had broken out of their shells, crawled up through the coarse sand, and, emerging into the black of night, waddled into the raging surf.  Their cycle of birth to rebirth was also a sort of homecoming, but they didn’t come back to experience beginnings; they returned to create them.

I didn’t want to go back to my room just yet, so I packed up my book and walked along the wet sand.  My beginning.  Our beginning.  The wind blew softly from every direction as I walked along the beach that night, silently traversing the fine line between land and sea.  I walked until the darkness was so pervasive that everything was just sound and shadows under the faint, penetrating light of the stars above me.  I decided to turn back and try to find my way back to the hotel.

As I made an about-face to walk back, I noticed a vague form from the corner of my eye.  I turned back to see who or what it was.  She walked slowly and evenly, placing her walking stick in front of herself with every step.  Her eyes sparkled in the darkness.  The old lady stopped walking and smiled at me, ever so briefly.  And then she was gone.

The ghost of Grandma Gatewood.  Finally going home.



Summer Splash Blog Hop!

Less than 2 weeks away.  Details forthcoming...

Less than 2 weeks away. Details forthcoming…

The Path to Nirvana is Littered with Empty Beer Bottles

A vacation, by definition, is a time to get away from your life.  For some of us it’s all about fun, and for others it may be about reflection.  There’s relaxation, connecting with friends or family, or experiencing new places and things.  I had planned this as a working vacation – a time to relax with friends, but also a time for reflection and maybe a little writing.  I had envisioned myself walking into coffee shops with my laptop and spending hours stringing words together in some sort of beautiful and meaningful way.

Of course, things don’t always turn out the way they were planned.  Instead of creating the perfect vacation, I have inadvertently become a major financial contributor to the alcohol and cigar industries.  The most responsible thing I’ve done so far is get a one-hour massage the afternoon after I arrived.  However, instead of enjoying the normally rejuvenating qualities of a professional massage, I was barely able to have half the accumulated toxins squeezed out of me from the previous night’s adventures with beer, wine, and cheap cigars.  By the time the massage was over, my secreted toxins left a brown and yellow imprint of my tortured body on the massage table that was more detailed and revealing than the Shroud of Turin.

Hallucinations are usually more vivid when a person is in the semi-comatose state brought on my the sudden expulsion of poisons from the body, but I was still rather surprised when I noticed the scary clown standing in the corner of the room throwing flaming Raisinets at my massage therapist.

I drew very little attention when I ran out of the massage clinic screaming, clad only in my tidy-whities while holding a crumpled pile of clothes to my chest like a confused, half-naked marathon runner on a bad acid binge.  The fact that my behavior seemed so normal to the locals is proof positive that I had picked the right location to enjoy my vacation.

I ran all the way back to my friend’s house, largely ignored by humans but chased by at least a dozen crazed, feral canines.  Once I distanced myself from the pack of rabid dogs and gained safe haven inside the house, I immediately dressed and made myself a bloody Mary with extra horse radish and some hot sauce that was labeled, ‘You Gotta Be Kidding Me!’

My friend had heard me enter his house and came downstairs to greet me.  After one quick glance at me he simply said, “You need a beer, and you need it now.”  I concurred with his sage advise, downed the rest of my drink, and followed him to his jeep.  The drive to Taco Mac’s took less than ten minutes.  Shortly after our arrival we were downing pints of Tennessee Sludge IPA and staring at a huge plate of chicken wings.  My tongue was still inflamed from the bloody Mary, but my friend insisted that we order wings that had been marinated in a sauce called ‘You Gotta Die of Something!’  I started to question that decision, but decided to munch down on the saturated chicken wings nonetheless.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur of semi-conscious observations of my surroundings, explosive diarrhea, dangerously acidic sweat, and more alcohol and cigars.  I recalled reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse back in the seventies.  It seems like that guy had to go through a lot of hardships and strange events before he could ascend to a higher state of consciousness.  Maybe this is what was happening to me.  Perhaps I was only two or three cold pints from Nirvana…

I need to start keeping notes of these harrowing events so I can derive some sort of wisdom and understanding from them once my vacation is over.

If only I can keep dodging those flaming Raisinets.