Archive for April, 2010

There are lessons to be learned on the YBR…no matter how young you are…no matter how old you are. And while we often go looking to learn something, sometimes the learning comes looking for us.

When I got the call asking me if I wanted to teach College Writing to a class of ‘convicted felons’ at a Federal Correctional Facility, I was recovering from surgery for cancer. Sitting on my front porch, feeling a lot like the Scarecrow at the time, I told my caller, “sure, I’ll teach the class.”

I can tell you when I went in for my orientation, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. After going through a metal detector and six heavy metal doors opened by some invisible force with an eerie ‘clicking’ sound, I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision.

I mean, what does some white, middle-class, grandfather think he’s doing teaching a class of felons? Talk about being out of my element. (I’m the same person who spent much of his career working on Broadway openings, the Tony Awards and star-studded galas.)

If there was one word of warning I was given before starting my class, it was this: don’t be too trusting.

Well, that would be like asking me not to be nice. (I admit it. I’m a nice person. I’m also a trusting person.)

I decided to throw caution to the wind and told myself I was not going to be teaching felons, I was going to be teaching men who had stumbled on the YBR. I was going to trust them in the hope that they would trust me.

By the end of the course (15 weeks), I had come to think of my students as friends. I saw them make great strides in their writing. I saw them grow. And I think they saw me grow.

The greatest compliment came from one of ‘my’ students who came up to me after the last class and said to me: “I think I speak for the class when I say that we thank you for treating us like men, not like prisoners. You respected us. And that means a lot to us.”

I never felt sorry for my students because none of them wanted anything resembling pity. They understood why they were behind bars. That didn’t stop me from wishing I could have been a catcher in the rye for them; that I could have done something for them to keep them on the YBR.

In looking back on what was an amazing experience for me, I thought of Shylock’s wonderful monologue in The Merchant of Venice. I include it here with a minor change:

I am a felon. Hath not a felon eyes? Hath not a felon hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a free man  is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?

I count myself very lucky, for there but for the grace of God goes me…and you. We could have stumbled on the YBR and spent time behind bars.


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Part Two
(Not many visitors to Part One. Some things work. Some don’t.)

Keith’s kindness didn’t go unnoticed.  On his twelfth birthday, Keith got a second-hand bike.  He, his bike, and his faithful bucket were inseparable friends, spending hours together on great adventures that took him from one end of the Dark Continent to the far side of the moon.

While on one of his great missions, Keith hit a patch of gravel, and he went head-over heels into a pile of leaves.  He survived his mishap with only a scratched knee and a small bump on his head.  His bucket, however, did not get off so easy because it flew off the bike onto the road, getting run over, not just once, but twice.  Keith was crushed …and so was his bucket.  It was a misshapen piece of galvanized metal.

Joseph Matthews took the bucket down to his workbench and did his best to bring some shape back to the once-perfect bucket.  After some banging and clanging the bucket took on the semblance of a bucket, but it was not the bucket it was once upon a time.

Disappointed, but not disenchanted, Keith overlooked his bucket’s flaws and continued using it for one wonderful adventure after another.  The love affair continued unabated until Keith entered high school, but even then the bucket had a special place in Keith’s life.

Keith set it on top of a stepladder and used it as a basket to practice his jump shot and his foul shot.  Hour upon hour, from sun up to sun down, Keith perfected his game until he worked up the courage to tryout for the school basketball team.  And while not as good as some of the other players, Keith’s winning personality earned him a place on the team.  He was only given a few minutes playing time each game, but that didn’t matter to Keith.  He played his heart out, and every time he made a shot, it wasn’t the orange-rimmed hoop that he was shooting for, it was his bucket, the image that was forever galvanized in his mind and imagination.

With high school behind him, Keith went off to a nearby college.  His bucket went with him.  It became his study bucket.  He filled it with notes and quotes, scraps of paper scribbled with little pieces of random wisdom taken from great books of learning and literature.

In his junior year he met a girl who shared his love of learning.  Their friendship grew, and in time blossomed into a love that was real.  Keith took Jennifer out for a walk one night when the moon was full and high in the sky.  He had his bucket with him.  He took out a ring and asked Jennifer if she would share his bucket with him.  She said yes.

Walking down the aisle, her face radiating love, Jennifer carried Keith’s bucket.  It was filled with white roses. In the presence of God, surrounded by family and friends, Keith and Jennifer promised to love, honor and obey.  They vowed to love each other in sickness and in health, until death separated them from each other.

Through the good times and the bad times, Keith and Jennifer raised four children.   Keith presented each one of his children with a bucket, a simple galvanized pail just like the one he was given when he was born.  The buckets were filled with colorful wild flowers and a single red rose.  Keith wrote his newborn’s name on the bucket in white paint.

When the seasons turned, and the orange-red glow of life began to fade, Keith took to his bed.  After a brief illness, Keith died.  He was 78 years old.

After the priest finished intoning a final blessing on the grave, seven year-old Sarah, Keith’s granddaughter, took Keith’s bucket and went from one person to the next, asking them to reach into the bucket and take out a handful.

“A handful of what?  There’s nothing in the bucket,” one of the mourners said.

“Oh, yes there is.  The bucket is filled with a lifetime of love.  Grandpa’s love and he wants to share it with us.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it in the first place,” the mourner replied.  “I’ll take it home with me and share it with my family.”

The mourner dipped his hand deep into the bucket.

“I hope I didn’t take too much,” he said.

“That could never happen because love never runs out.  Grandpa told me that,”

Sarah said with a sparkling smile.

Where did Keith’s bucket come from?  Who gave it to his mother?  The answer remains a mystery.  And that’s the way it should be.

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Before hitting the keyboard to fill space on a blog, I was in the custom of writing random stories. Although a slight deviation from the normal content of the blog, I present here a piece I wrote that was inspired by my walk on the real YBR. It will be posted in two parts. Here’s Part One:

Love’s Bucket

It was a simple bucket.  A pail, actually; made of galvanized metal, and found in hardware stores all across America.   The only unusual thing about this particular bucket was that it arrived at the Kanticut General Hospital the day after Keith Matthews was born.  It was filled with a bouquet of beautiful wildflowers and a single, deep red rose.   The card of congratulations to Margaret and Joseph Matthews was not signed.  Other than that, it was a simple metal bucket.  A metal bucket with white letters across the middle spelling out Keith’s name.

Margaret took the bucket bouquet home with her from the hospital, and when the flowers finally lost their color and began to droop, she put the bucket in the corner of Keith’s room.  And there it stood collecting dust and not getting much notice until Keith began to crawl.   Although there were some colorful, stuffed animals within crawling distance, Keith was attracted to the shine of the metal bucket.  It became Keith’s first play toy.

When he learned to walk, Keith would carry his bucket with him all around the house.  It was first filed with wooden blocks.  For hours, Keith would entertain himself building roads and villages populated with people living in his imagination.  Turned upside down, the bucket became a magic mountain rising high into the heavens. In the evening, after Keith had finished playing with his blocks, he would, at his mother’s urging, pick them up and put them back in the bucket.  He’d then place his bucket at the foot of his bed; periodically checking to make sure no one came in and took it from him.

As he grew up, the contents of the bucket changed from time to time.  Instead of blocks, the bucket was filled with shiny rocks and smooth stones Keith had collected on one of the many treasure hunts he went on in the dense jungle behind his house.  Or that’s what Keith imagined the overgrown lot behind his house was…a dense jungle.

As soon as the rocks lost their luster, Keith’s bucket became home for a family of tadpoles he had scooped up from a nearby creek.  The tadpoles wiggle and squirmed in the slimy creek water that began to take on a somewhat unpleasant odor.  Unfortunately, the wiggling and squirming stopped within three days.  And after a proper tadpole burial, Keith was off in search of some other amazing find to fill his bucket.

When the bucket wasn’t used as a treasure trove, Keith found other uses for his bucket.  It was a seat that Keith used when he was tired and needed a place to rest his weary, nine-year old bones after a hard day playing stick ball, tag and hide-and-seek.  Sometimes it was a step stool giving Keith that extra few inches he needed to reach an apple on a branch that was just out of reach.  Then again, it was a helmet.  A space helmet Keith used when he and his friends traversed the breadth of the universe in a rocket ship that was once a cardboard box that contained a newly delivered refrigerator.   Sometimes the same bucket was a divers helmet Keith used to explore the depths of the ocean when he took a bath at his grandmother’s house.

On summer nights when the sky was filled with stars and the moon was overflowing with light, Keith would go outside and scoop up the stars in his bucket.  He’d carry the bucket inside and set it next to the bed and fill it with dreams.  His bucket was never empty.

When, as a ten year-old, he took a trip down to the shore, he took his bucket with him and used it to build a sand castle kingdom.  Before leaving to go home, Keith went down to the edge of the water and filled his bucket with sand and salt water so he could bring a little bit of the beach home for his little sister.

The bucket became the first national bank when  eleven year-old Keith took it upon himself to earn the $35 needed to buy a bright blue bike he saw at the downtown J. C.  Penney.  Every penny, nickel and occasional dime he made collecting bottles, walking dogs, raking leaves and babysitting his little sister went into the bucket.  In time the bucket was filled with the glorious sound of accomplishment.   $39.72, to be exact.  More than enough to buy the bike.  But Keith didn’t buy the bike.  Instead, he bought a doll for his sister, a house coat for his mother and a new hammer for his father.

To be continued

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Aunt Em had just come out of the house to water the cabbages when she looked up and saw Dorothy running toward her. “My darling child!” she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her face with kisses; “where in the world did you come from?”

“From the land of Oz,” said Dorothy, gravely. And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be home again!”

And that’s how L. Frank Baum ended his classic book, which is, in my opinion, a far better ending that the classic movie.

I prefer that ending because it was real, and real is very important in a fairy tale. The many screen writers who had a hand in scripting Oz, the movie, thought it would be better if Dorothy’s journey to Oz was all the result of a bump on the head.

All that “and you were there, and you, and you too!” that Dorothy exclaimed as she came out of her unconscious state took what was intended to be a fairy tale with a fairy tale ending, and turned it into some clap-trap Hollywood ending.

A bump on the head reduced Dorothy’s journey to a hallucination. In the book, Dorothy’s journey to Oz was real. Not real in the dictionary definition of the word, but real as in ‘fairy tale’ real, because in fairy tales, wonderful things can…and do happen.

Real things happen to us in our real lives on the YBR. But wonderful things also happen inside us when we dream of a world that is…over the rainbow. And to get there, we don’t have to suffer a traumatic brain injury. We just have to believe in the power of imagination.

Children love fairy tales because they are as real as the world of imagination that they carry inside of them. But what happens to us when we grow up? Do we exchange our copy of the Brothers Grimm for a copy of the Wall Street Journey?

I think some of the greatest moments in an adults life happen every time a child lets them join them on a trip fueled by imagination. In those special moments the adult leaves the adult world behind and becomes a child again. They go home.

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Kansas? Did I say I was from Kansas? I meant London. No. Paris. Rome...any place but Kansas

Although the Wizard came trough (sort of) for Dorothy’s friends, he was at a loss as how he was going to keep the ‘promise’ he made to Dorothy.  Ultimately he came up with a fly-by-night idea – escape Oz in a balloon…a balloon that Dorothy had to make out of strips of silk. (Did you really think the Wizard had a balloon up his sleeve? He didn’t even have a sleeve.)

Whatever. What happened in the movie happened in the book…thanks again to Toto. Dorothy was left behind as the Wizard took off. However, unlike the movie, Glinda did not magically appear. No, in the book, Dorothy had to go on yet another journey, this time to Glinda’s castle.

Four or so arduous days later, Dorothy and the guys finally meet up with Glinda who after a bit of blah, blah, blah, tells Dorothy that if  Dorothy had only known of the power of the silver shoes that she could have been back in Kansas before dinner. (I hear Aunt Em made a mean lasagna.)

Dorothy’s traveling companions quickly tell her that if she had gone click-click-bye-bye, they would not have been blessed with the gifts they wanted…and got.

Dorothy says (sort of) “I was glad to be of help, but now it’s my turn. I think I should like to go back to Kansas.”

Dorothy does as she’s instructed and finds herself whirling through the air ‘and then she stops so suddenly that she rolled over upon the grass several times before she knew where she was…She stood up in her stocking feet for the silver shoes had fallen off in her flight through the air, and were lost forever in the desert.

What can I say that hasn’t been said before? We’ve all interpreted the scene and arrived at a number of different conclusions.

And that’s the way it should be. If we all arrived at the same conclusion, then Dorothy, her journey, her trials and tribulations and the lessons she learned would not mean anything to us.

What we share in common with Dorothy is an inner power…an internal compass that will lead us home. Some of us have to literally travel the world to find our way home while some of us can arrive there without ever venturing more than a few miles from where we were born.

The real journey takes place within. The real journey makes us wiser, more loving and filled with courage. We just need to make sure we are taking OUR journey and traveling on OUR yellow brick road and not taking someone else’s journey. But that doesn’t mean we have to take the journey alone. In fact, I believe OUR journey experience is meant to be shared with others.

I don’t think any of us talk enough about the journey we’re on. Instead, far too many of us spend years building up a great career resume but have nothing to show for the time we’ve been given…to live.

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Now that you have melted her, I am ashamed to say that I cannot keep my promise.

What the *#+@$!!!! You travel the countryside with three very strange traveling companions (and Toto, too) suffering untold setbacks and when you arrive at your destination you learn, to your dismay, that your journey isn’t over. You have to kill a witch.

And you do. So you go back with proof in hand, fully expecting to be handed your boarding pass on Emerald Air – non-stop to Kansas.

Not so fast, Dorothy. All flights to Kansas have been grounded because….

Because? Because we actually believed that if we did what we were told, lived our lives justly and rightly, made an effort to be good…that we would be rewarded? No, Dorothy wasn’t looking for a reward. She just wanted to be duly compensated for her efforts – not expecting anything more than what was promised her.

Promises? If hope is not a plan, then promises are not guarantees.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth is the truth. But here’s the flip side. We don’t have to swallow the pill. If people make promises to us…and break them,  we can choose to become jaded and cynical. We can live our lives on the YBR never believing anyone will come through on their promises. Or, we can take a more cautious approach.

Instead of depending on the promises people make to us, don’t put yourself in that position. When someone promises us something we can say: “Thanks, but rather than have you make a promise you might not keep or cannot possible guarantee, let me tell you that I’ll do whatever I can to make things happen regardless of you and your promises.”

You see, I believe people who are going to do everything on their part to make something happen, don’t have to make any promises. Their actions will speak much louder than their deeds.”

When I was younger, I fell victim to people who made promises. I was like Dorothy. I might not have had any Wizards in my life, but I did have people I trusted…and many of those people I trusted made promises to me they never intended to keep.

I wasn’t alone. That happens to many people.

I have also been blessed many times over by the abundant kindness and genuine concern of people who never made promises…but came through.

I say, live your life with an open heart, an understanding mind and the courage to weather pelting hail storms, BUT the belief that there will be rainbows. And believe there are pots filled with surprises and golden opportunities at the ends of the rainbow.

We don’t need a Wizard. We just need to surround ourselves with people who love us for who we are.

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Once Dorothy was captured by the Wicked Witch of the West things moved along quickly in the movie. Not so in the book. Dorothy had to endure a number of hardships at the hands of the Witch. Nothing physical…because of the mark on her forehead.

But there was the time the Witch struck Toto a blow with an umbrella. Toto, probably the most together character in the story, bit the Witch on her leg. “The Witch did not bleed where she was bitten, for she was so wicked that the blood in her had dried up many years before.”

The bloodless bite did not escape Dorothy. That was clue # 1. Clue # 2 – Dorothy learned the Witch was afraid of the dark. Clue # 3 – Dorothy also learned the Witch was more afraid of water than she was of the dark. (BINGO!)

Let’s cut to the chase. The Witch wanted those damn silver shoes so bad that she ultimately resorted to magic to get them. (She placed an iron bar in the middle of the kitchen floor and then made it invisible.) Dorothy tripped over the iron bar and lost one of her shoes.

Now the score was even: Wicked Witch: One silver shoe. Dorothy: One silver shoe.

The Witch was pleased. Dorothy was pissed beyond belief. An argument ensued. Words and threats flew back and forth.

And then…Dorothy picked up a bucket of water and ‘dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.”

The Witch was liquidated. She was stunned because Dorothy claimed she had no idea what the water would do. (Right.)

Too bad. The bucket was thrown and in an instant the Witch melted away like brown sugar ” and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor.”

Dorothy then threw another bucket of water on the mess and then swept it out the door. (Go girl. Get rid of the evidence.)

If the subsequent series of events sounds strange to you, that’s because you only remember the melting in the movie.

And here’s where I say the movie let us all down. In the film, Dorothy ‘accidentally’ splashes water on the Witch when she attempts to put out the flaming Scarecrow (no sexual orientation intended).

In the book, Dorothy knows exactly what she’s doing. Perhaps she didn’t know what the water would do to the Witch, but she did throw the bucket of water on purpose.

And that brings me to the point of this rant. I believe it is far better thing to do something on purpose than by accident…even though the end result might be the same.

How many times have we been held prisoner by someone who wields power over us? How many times have we been forced to suffer at the hands of wicked people?

Obviously I’m not advocating acts of violence. However, I do believe we have the right to liberate ourselves from those who abuse us in any fashion.

Evil deeds should never be tolerated. Evil people should be held accountable for their actions. Evil should be liquified.

But how? I only wish I knew the answer to that question.

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