My wife, Sheridan, was ill for the last twenty years of her life with one malady after another, and I spent most of the past ten years caring for her every day. At one point, she was seeing seven doctors, taking twenty-six prescriptions, and sleeping twenty hours daily. I sat down on the porch to have “that” conversation with myself about what happens if she survives… or what happens if she dies.
The character of Nellis grew out of that introspection: His porch is a larger version of my porch, his farm is a giant version of my property, and he draws on many of my interests as he evolves in my books.
Although I give each character a voice of their own, many in these novels certainly display my point of view, which demand a self-examination about how I’ve come to believe the things that comprise my vision of the current political world…
So let’s take a walk down memory lane, so that you might understand why I hope my stories inspire you to start conversations and take action to restore democracy and freedom for all of us.
ZERO TOLERANCE FOR HATE: SHE TANNED MY HIDE
At the age of 7, I was at the beach with my mother and I got pissed off at one of the other kids and called him a ‘nigger’. My mother jumped out of her chair, whipped my bathing suit down, tanned my hide, threw me in the car, drove me home and locked me in my room until she calmed down enough to explain why these terms are hateful and unacceptable.
HITLER’S MARCH TO POWER: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
My father earned a Doctorate to become a world-renowned biochemist who traveled to Germany often, where he witnessed Hitler’s march to power. When I was twelve and fascinated by how Hitler managed to convince millions of Germans to go along with his madness, my father handed me a copy of Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto… and asked, “What’s the difference?”
ROCK AND ROLL…There was a time
I started and ran a record store within the student store at the university that sold more rock-n-roll albums than any store in the state before I graduated and was forced to resign. I moved to Macon, Georgia, to join Uncle Pleasant, a southern rock band playing original music to enthusiastic audiences throughout the south and midwest.
CREATING “IMPOSSIBLE” PHOTOGRAPHS
My commercial photography career took off after moving to Tulsa in 1974, concentrating on architecture and interior design before gradually expanding into editorial, product, and industrial projects… all of which garnered numerous awards and a couple in the best of show category. What I loved most about my work was that each assignment was a new puzzle, a challenge to produce beautiful images that invited the viewer… whether in a magazine or printed promotional materials… to react. I seem to have attracted assignments for photographs that seemed impossible to make and many are still my favorites.
STANDING UP FOR HUNDREDS OF STUDENTS
That same son was expelled from Booker T Washington High School for having a hash pipe in his pocket under a new and unannounced “zero-tolerance” policy. The assistant principal at Booker T challenged me to fight for my son and the hundreds of other kids who were being thrown out for ridiculous offenses because all the other parents were embarrassed instead of angry. I began a six-month campaign to get the law amended and, in the end, 850 kids went back to school. Dr. Thompson, the bully superintendent, was fired.
SHERIDAN’S DECLINE AND MY RECLUSIVENESS
Sheridan suffered several major concussions which had a devastating effect over the last few years of her life, in addition to suffering from an endless series of medical issues. She eventually lost her life to cancer. After her passing, I literally became a hermit tending the gardens and working on my novels. Thanks to many kind and generous friends who have come into my life recently, I'd like to believe I'm on a path to fully open up again… and, well, I’m still working on it.
MY SCOTTISH HERITAGe
My German grandfather did very well as a banker in England until the first World War, when Germans were ostracized and speaking German became unacceptable. He was a chess champion, master's point bridge player, an artist, and had many other creative talents… but my aunt told stories about her resentment that the family found a way to send my dad to university but not her.
KKK AND BURNING CROSSES
One of my mom’s boyfriends took us to a Klan rally.
There were hooded guys dressed in white sheets on horses paraded around a burning cross, screaming hate for everyone who wasn’t a white evangelical Christian. That boyfriend didn’t stick around for long as this dating mishap reinforced her expectations and anti-racist sentiments.
GASSED DURING THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT
I attended the University of Wisconsin during the height of the anti-war movement and participated in many demonstrations that drew thousands of protestors. I witnessed countless police riots and brutality against the students. During that time, I had an underground radio show and I’m sure I was targeted because I was tear-gassed on my way to and from the studio several times.
FALLING IN LOVE
I met Sheridan when she was a premier interior design student at the Ringling School of Art and we connected immediately. She was gorgeous, talented, intelligent, and had a brilliant sense of design. We got married, bought a house, raised our kids, she started her design business and I opened my first photography studio. We were always involved in the community. Our unconventional garden pushed us to expand our artistic horizons, and it’s turned out to be our largest and longest endeavor.
THE 13 YEAR, 13 MILLION DOLLAR CHALLENGE
When my son was denied admittance to Carver Middle School, one of Tulsa’s original magnet middle schools, I pestered the principal relentlessly until she made space for him with the comment, “You’re going to owe me big!” Little did I realize that I was accepting a 13 year/13 million dollar challenge to renovate and rejuvenate a rundown school building…which I did.
MARRIED LIFE IN OUR “SECRET GARDEN”
Sheridan discovered her passion as a landscape designer and forty years later, our garden evolved into a wonderland of ornamentals that engage visitors and vegetable gardens that produce enough to share with neighbors and family and the food bank. It’s a refuge for critters who are being driven from their homes by the relentless construction in the neighborhood… and to our delight, many have taken up residence.
THE FUTUre OF DEMOCRACY, MY LIFE, AND YOURS
“What’s the difference?”
Reflecting on the question that my father asked me when I was 12, after beginning my study of fascism and reading Hitler’s speeches, my conclusion is this:
The messages are aimed at the same group of citizens… desperate workers looking for hope… despite coming from opposite directions. Republican propaganda is still saying, “I’ll put a chicken in every white man's pot and restore your dignity but we have to blame and denigrate ‘those other people’ for all that’s wrong in our society.”
After many long discussions with my father, he believed that fascism would become a dominant movement in the United States…
And that it would appear in my lifetime.
And… if that were allowed to happen, it would end our democracy.
Current events prove his point.
Because the themes from those old fascist speeches have been copied in spirit and method…if not verbatim... by the "radical-right", who control the Republican Party. That conspiracy elected a charlatan to the presidency, packed Congress and the Judiciary with unqualified bigots and racists, sponsored an attempted coup in the attack on our Capitol, and engineered the suppression of minority voting in far too many states in expectation of installing white-nationalist dominance to end our democracy.
ROLLED THE DICE AND HIT IT TWICE...
I still write and play original music.
I am fortunate to have my children and their children nearby, and I cherish the time I get to spend with intelligent and talented people.
I spend hours each day working in the gardens, photographing flowers, playing music, and editing and writing but my biggest complaint is that there is never enough time to complete all the projects I’m working on simultaneously.
And as our dear friend Nellis Gray would say, “Now it’s up to the rest of us to rise up and demand the return of our rights and our dignity.”
I agree… so if you’re in too, please join the discussion on our Friends of Nellis Gray Facebook Page.
Let's sing along with one of Nellis' songs... “Up with the sunrise, wipe the sleep from your eyes… Lord, save us from ourselves.”