Friday, June 30, 2017

The Great American Scream Machine - a Lesson in Overcoming Fear

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I was probably around 10 years old when my family made its first trip to Six Flags Over Atlanta. The trip is a fond memory including bumper cars, log flume water rides, the Dahlonega Mine Train - which at that time was a wooden roller coaster that smelled of creosote and had an interactive animated "Buford the Buzzard" tossing insults at the waiting crowd in the queue line.

The event of the day the left an indelible mark in my memory from 43 years ago, was the Great American Scream Machine - a wooden roller coaster that had opened that year with a hill that was 105 feet tall and a top speed of 57 miles an hour. The restraints for the coaster consisted of a lap bar. Current day it utilizes a seat belt and a lap bar, but for the life of me I only remember the lap bar on my first ride.

As a 10 year old kid, I had seen the advertisements for the Scream Machine and had my hesitations. It was a mammoth site painted in gleaming white adorned with red, white, and blue banners.  Somehow my Dad performed a skillful job of talking me into it over the course of the day. As we stood in the queue line, I glanced up at the huge 105 feet tall hill and began to rethink my decision.

"I think I have changed my mind", I told my Dad.

He chuckled, "Too late now", he said pointing to the sea of people in line behind us.

I began to try to muster up all of the courage I could possibly find in my 10 year old being. I loved the Dahlonega Mine Train, so I told myself that maybe after the first hill it would be about the same. But somehow deep down, I knew that even if it was, it would be a heck of a lot faster. After several minutes, we took our seats about halfway back in the roller coaster. The lap bar came down about three inches away from actually touching my thighs. I took hold of it and decided holding on would probably be in my best interest for self preservation. Minutes went by as we set motionless in the roller coaster anticipating what was about to happen. Finally the high school kid at the console with all the cool lights and buttons pressed a button and our car began to roll out of the station and around a curve in the track providing a clear view of the huge hill of wood and track that stood before us like a mountain.

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The car began to climb the hill with an all to familiar click-click-click sound. I could feel all of the courage I had mustered up in the queue line quickly draining out of my body, seeping into the soles of my shoes, and out the bottom of the car. As riders in front of me held up their hands to show the absence of fear, I increased by grip on the lap bar sitting several inches above my lap. After what seemed like hours, we reached the top of the huge hill. I looked off to the sides and marveled at how small everything below us seemed. The first couple of rows of riders and cars began to disappear over the peak of the hill and the screaming began. Then after a few moments, we were rocketing down the other side. I felt weightless. I could feel my small 10 year old butt leaving the seat of the car and my thighs rose to make contact with the lap bar. I struggled with what little strength my little bony arms contained to hold on to the lap bar and tried unsuccessfully to leverage myself back down into my seat. Looking straight ahead all I could see were the cars of riders descending the hill in front of us and the bottom of the hill which seemed miles away. In my mind, I could begin to picture myself floating completely out of the car and tumbling down in front of the coaster. I flexed all of my non-existent 10 year old not-going-out-for-football muscles and continued trying to hold myself in the car while clenching the muscles in my abdomen and holding my breath. My Dad sat laughing in the seat next to me unaware of his youngest son's impending death. I began to pray confessing every misdeed I had ever committed or even thought of committing over the last 10 years promising to read my Bible and study every Sunday School lesson every week.

When we finally reached the bottom and began to climb the next hill that paled in comparison to the first, I felt my butt make contact with the seat, and I began breathing again.

"Dad, you better hold onto me", I screamed, "I almost fell out on that last hill."

He smiled and chuckled seemingly unconvinced that I had just had a close encounter with death. The next few hills seemed enjoyable compared to the introduction with the Grim Reaper I had just experienced on the downhill of a 105 feet plunge to almost certain death. I managed to continue to breathe through the remaining hills until the car came sliding into a sudden stop at the station.

I quickly gazed around me and then performed a self inventory - all fingers check, all toes check, two legs, two arms check, no detectable dampness in my underwear and no unusual smells. Yes! I had survived and would live to see another episode of Emergency!

As we walked away from the station, my legs felt wobbly and my head seemed to be spinning. I stopped,turned, and looked at that menacing towering track and was amazed that I had done it. I had rode the Great American Scream Machine and had lived to tell about it.

Years later, I returned to Six Flags as a Junior in High School. When we unloaded the van, I glanced up at that same towering track and thought, "I rode that as a little kid no big deal". I rode it again but this time with my hands up. Six Flags had added a new coaster called the MindBender an all steel roller coaster. While not as tall as the Scream Machine and slightly slower, the MindBender completed two barrel rolls mid-track. And to grab your attention, the designers made sure you could see the inversions sections of track from the parking lot. We rode everything in the park that day, and I had successfully steered clear of the MindBender. But just after dark, two girls in our group asked me if I had ridden it. When I said no, they responded, "We rode it before lunch. Come on, you gotta try this!" What was I going to do, chicken out in front of two high school girls?

When we boarded the cars it was dark, and the operators had tied glow sticks to the front of the first car. As we rolled out and came to speed, I could see maybe 10 feet of track in front of the glow stick so every twist and turn was a surprise. Before I knew it we were inverted twice and sliding back to a stop at the station. As I stepped out of the car and onto the platform I felt slightly dizzy and began laughing.

I would return to Six Flags several times while living in Georgia. I reached a point where I skipped all of the other rides and spent an entire Saturday going from one coaster to another until I had ridden all they had to offer and some more than once. I now go to Disney World on a regular basis and ride any and all coasters they offer.

What got me to a point where I was not scared to ride a new unfamiliar coaster? What was it that got me over the fear of roller coasters? It is simple. I conquered the fear by pushing through it when I was 10 years old and agreeing to get on the Great American Scream Machine against all of my better judgement and a little 10 year old voice screaming inside my head "NOOOOO". Is not that the way we overcome any fear? It's the fear of the unknown. Despite seeing all the commercials and the watching movie at the Chevy Show just hours before getting on it that was filmed from the front of the first car on the Great American Scream Machine, I had no idea what it was going to be like. So, I was scared silly. But once I rode it, once I overcame the initial fear, the second time as a Junior in High School was not so bad, because I knew what to expect. I remembered the sensation of weightlessness and the lap bar actually touched my lap. So having that fear conquered, moving onto the MindBender was not as overwhelming. And after riding the MindBender, I had no fear of riding the Georgia Scorcher, Batman, Acrophobia, the Ninja, the Georgia Cyclone, or Goliath.

When I returned with my daughter around age 10, she quickly decline every coaster in the park. I spent countless Saturdays for two season with season passes with her. Finally, I talked her into it. She agreed to ride the Great American Scream Machine. When we stepped out of the car onto the platform, her words were "I'm glad that's over with!" Did I talk her into it, because I wanted to make her do something she did not want to do? No! I did it, because I wanted her to face fear head on and discover what a fearless and courageous person she could be come by facing her fears. Face your fears and free yourself from them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review: Real Artists Don't Starve - Jeff Goins

I have read several of Jeff Goins' books and follow him in social media as he has been an excellent source for strategy and encouragement for writers and bloggers. When I learned he was releasing "Real Artists Don't Starve", I added it to my reading list for a future purchase once released. A couple of weeks ago, Jeff emailed me and asked if I would like a pre-release copy to read and review. Being a budget minded avid reader, I of course took him up on his generous offer. Who would not, it is a free book after all that I wanted to read anyhow.

The book is an excellent read for anyone that writes - short stories, novelist, bloggers, poets, and other artists as well. Especially those who have been keeping you art under wraps and not putting it out for the public to experience and enjoy. Jeff sets to work immediately to dispel the ancient theory that to produce good art one has to starve. Right off the bat he user Michaelangelo as a prime example. He provides research that clearly shows Michaelangelo was not a starving artist despite what you might have been told in school. Through out the book, he provides numerous examples of artists who have not starved for the sake of art, but have worked day jobs while perfecting their art and then shuttered their day jobs once their art became a source of sustenance. 

Even better, Jeff goes on to provide recommendations for artists who have been perfecting their art on how to continue to make the next step. Instead of starving, he encourages the reader to thrive and provides solid recommendations on moving from starving to thriving. He provides a solid contrast between the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of a starving artist versus a thriving artist.

I found the book to be an easy and delightful read and a shot in the arm of encouragement. So the first book did not sell 10,000 copies and you were unable to retire to Key West on the profits? Go write another and another. Find some writers that have enjoyed some publication success and study up on what they are doing, follow them, hang out with them when opportunity arises and learn from them.

If you are a writer, a musician, a painter, or any other artist who has been quietly working at your art, may I make a humble recommendation that might just give you the shot in the arm you need to reach success? Buy this book, read it, contemplate his recommendations, and then in a few months read it again. I honestly believe you will thank me for making the recommendation.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cardinals and Blackberries

When I was around 4 years old, my family moved from Southern Indiana to South Georgia. My father had been working in Georgia for a few months before the move, and had been sending us reel to reel tape recorded messages describing the land down South. We left behind a neighborhood full of kids that were our friends and headed off into the unknown. My brother and I rode in the back of my Mom's Buick station wagon in the area behind the third seat on a set of large foam cushions that had been made to fit the area. This was a day before car seats and mandatory seat belts. While they drove down the interstate, we had our own private play area with huge windows that provided us ample opportunity to pump our arms at every passing semi in hopes they would sound off their air horns. 

Also left behind in the move were two sets of grandparents. Granny Jackson, my mother's mom, was not particularly keen on the idea of her only grand kids being so many miles away. She had lived hours away from us in Loiusville, Kentucky when we were in Indiana, but she had cajoled by Granddad into carrying her to see us on a regular basis. I fondly remember she made the most of every holiday on the calendar. We would awaken on Christmas morning to find them setting in our family room waiting to watch us open presents. She recorded ghost stories complete with sound effects rattling silverware to sound like chains for Halloween. Even at a young age, we knew we would miss her after the long distance move.

We moved into a rental house that I vividly remember to this day. There was not a blade of grass in the yard, just bare dirt and a huge Oak tree in the front yard. The day we moved in, my Dad checked out the washing machine sitting on the back porch and got stung by wasps. I specifically remember you could see the ground beneath the house through the cracks in our bedroom floorboards. In the Winter, we would go out to the hallway where there was a large furnace grate in the floor. We would stand on it until out socks got smoking hot and then run to our beds and crawl down in the covers.

When our house in Indiana sold, we loaded up the station wagon and began looking at houses. A few months we moved into what would be our family's home for my entire kindergarten through college years. Not long after we had moved into the new house, we received a surprise phone call. My Granny Jackson had been cajoling and pestering my Granddad to bring her to Georgia to see her grandkids. He was driving a truck for Meadow Gold Creamery and repeatedly refused her requests on grounds of his work schedule. She did not drive, so she had grown accustomed to utilizing taxis and the like when she needed. Much to our surprise, she got fed up with the waiting and bought herself a ticket on a Trailways bus and rode from Louisville to rural South Georgia. I am quite sure at the time, it did not occur to me what a major feat that was for her as it does now. 

Within a few months, we were given the news that they were moving to Georgia and they built a house diagonally across the street from us. Granny Jackson was a captivating storyteller. Around campfires or at the side of our beds, she crafted stories that held our attention and unlocked our imagination. She loved music and loved to sing with the phonograph in the big console television that sat in their living room. On grand occasion, she would pull out her guitar, and play and sing Pasty Cline songs for me.

Her house was always filled with the smell of home cooking. She made soup beans and ham in an cast iron dutch oven and cornbread in a cast iron skillet. Coffee was made in a percolator on the stove. During the Spring and Summer, she would lead me out to the backyard, and we would pick wild blackberries. She wash them and bake a blackberry cobbler in a cast iron skillet and serve it up with a scoop of ice cream. To this day, I still think it is perhaps one of the greatest desserts known to man. 

When her diabetes reached a point where she could not longer hold down a chord against the frets of her guitar, she gave it to me. I tried to resist accepting, but she would have no part of it. I had taken piano lessons for years up until that point. I promptly quit piano lesson and took up the guitar. 

When I was in high school, they bought a piece of land just outside of town, and my brother and I helped my Granddad build their new house there. There land backed up to woods and the blackberry picking was even better than at the other house. Once I was old enough to drive, many a weekend, I chose to stay at their house. 

While off at college, I got the news Granny had experienced a stroke and had been rushed to a hospital in Tallahassee. I drove home and accompanied our family to visit her in the hospital. I was paralyzed with fear as I watched her roll a Get Well card someone had sent her like a two year old might. I cried huge crocodile tears, stroked her hand, kissed her cheek, and prayed with every fiber of my being that she would recover. And recover she did. Several weeks later, I called her at home. She had some trouble speaking, but I could tell she was just happy to hear my voice. I soon learned that she was leaving the cane the doctor sent her home with lying beside her chair and moving around the house without "any of that foolishness". But the stroke had severely affected her vision to the point she could only show shadows. I continued to call and check in on her and encourage her. A few days later, I received a package through the college mail - a package of homemade brownies she had baked for me with a note that she was worried that I was not eating well with that college cafeteria food. Stunned that a recovering stroke victim that could only see shadows had baked me brownies, I sat in my dorm room and cried grateful tears for a Grandmother that loved me so selflessly. 

Several weeks later, I walked out of a college class that I was certain I was failing and looked up to see the campus pastor from the United Methodist Wesley Foundation. He invited me to lunch which of course I gladly accepted considering my options at the college cafeteria. Over lunch he broke the news to me that Granny Jackson had suffered another stroke and had passed away. The 4 hour drive home was a blur punctuated by a flat tire in the rain. That was 31 years ago.  I remember it vividly as if it were yesterday.

I have always heard that if you see a cardinal (red bird) and coincidentally the state bird of Indiana, that it is a late relative coming by to check on you. While I do not necessarily buy into the whole concept of reincarnation, it is a pleasant thought. Since we moved into our home here in Florida last Summer, there has been a Cardinal that visits our bird feeder in the front yard just outside our picture window. I smile and say, Granny is checking in on us. While that might not really be the case, I do know I carry her around with me. My love of hearing, reading, writing and storytelling are gifts she gave me. Her guitar hangs in a case in my office. Every time I pickup a guitar and play, I think of her. And whenever I find blackberry cobbler on a menu and I order it, I always catch myself thinking, Granny's was better.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Book Review: Ten Beach Road - Wendy Wax

Three women who are total strangers wake one morning to find their live savings have completely vanished victims of a Ponzi scheme. The three are awarded co-ownership of a seized asset - a beach house in Pass-a-Grille, Florida. OK, so she had me hook line and sinker at this point, because we live maybe 15 miles from Pass-a-Grille. When the three women descend upon the house to try and determine how they can quickly liquidate their shared asset and recover some of their lost savings, they find a house in disrepair and neglect. The three set out on a journey to live in the house while renovating it to improve the marketability and profitability.

This is a great summer read and even better if your vacationing at the beach. Wax does a masterful job of defining the characters and the interactions will keep you entertained from cover to cover. She has also done a commendable job researching construction and other details to make the story believable while entertaining.

I recommend it to anyone who is heading to the beach, lives at the beach, or even dreams about the beach.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Book Review: All Over But the Shoutin' - Rick Bragg

The autobiography of Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Rick Bragg who grew up in rural Alabama the son of poor parents struggling to earn a living. His mother picked cotton in the fields by hand and his father struggled with demons of war and alcoholism. Bragg tells the story of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s when children spent their time outside climbing trees, playing in creek beds, and racing old bikes down red clay dirt roads. At night they fell asleep listening to crickets while Faron Young and Little Jimmy Dickens sang on the radio. He tells the vivid details of his father's raging anger and abandonment of the family while his mother wore worn out pants and shoes, eating the leftovers after feeding all of her children dinner. The story paints a sharp contrast of his father's self focus versus his mother's dedication to her family. While it seemed that young Rick would follow in the footsteps of every other male in the area down a path of a lifelong career at the mill, sentenced to a penitentiary, or submitting to alcoholism, he instead became a journalist and escaped the bonds of rural poverty.

It is a well written story accurately portraying the rural South in the 60s and 70s detailing the struggles of poverty and racism and the beauty of the love of a mother.  

I highly recommend this book. I found myself aggravated every time I had to stop and set it down.