Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Mad Ones

Yesterday I received an email from a fellow clergyperson that read, in part:

My daughter, Camryn (age 9), had a stroke during the overnight hours of Sunday to Monday.  It was a pretty big bleed. She is in ICU... At this time, she is stable.  She lost control in her left side.  She couldn't use her left arm or her left leg.  She could not focus with her eyes, anything left.  She has shown some movement in her left leg, and some of her focus is responding, but  not all of it.  She is in pain. Her brain is still swelling.  

Please join me in prayers for Camryn. Thanks

Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. ~ Flannery O’Connor

When I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, way back in 1964, I had a marvelous English teacher. His name was McCrown; he was young, maybe 25 or so; he had a stunning long red beard; and he drove a striking, British racing green MGA that turned me on to sports cars even more than my high school friend’s red Corvette.

He also turned me on to writers Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. Camus’ The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus taught me about Existentialism and “the freedom of the condemned man”—once we have accepted our own death, then we are free of all the worries and encumbrances of life. That was an important lesson for me.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises taught me about courage and acceptance of what we can’t control. A man can be destroyed but not defeated. (From The Old Man and the Sea). The final scene of The Sun Also Rises—when  Brett says, “Oh, Jake . . . we could have had such a damned good time together” and Jake replies, “Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?”—struck me in the gut.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road introduced me not only to the Beat Generation, but also to a style of writing that has influenced me for over forty years. He remembered events and people and wrote about them. I now know that Kerouac carried small notebooks, in which he wrote the stories of his road trips even as they were happening.

At some point—I think it was after an essay I wrote about The Sun Also Rises—McCrown was impressed by my writing. One day he asked to speak with me after class. We talked for a very long time. He stroked my ego by telling me that I had writing talent. But then he told me something that I didn’t understand: he said that if I wanted to write well, I should drop out of college and see the world.

It took me a while—and a lot of worthless criticism from anally fixated college professors—before I understood what McCrown was saying. Jack Kerouac wrote:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

One doesn’t meet those people sitting in classrooms. The place to find them is in the world.

No, I didn’t drop out of college. I ended up collecting three degrees and working toward a fourth. But I’ve traveled a lot since that conversation with McCrown back in 1964. I’ve met hundreds of interesting people—mad and otherwise. And I’ve collected stories—lots of stories.

I’ve used those stories as illustrations while teaching, in sermons, and in writing. I’ve never published a book, although I have four “in process.” All are based, as with Kerouac’s books, on experiences I’ve had and people—mad and otherwise—who are real. Many are included in stories I’ve posted on this blog.

I wonder what happened to McCrown. I never saw him again after my freshman year. Perhaps he drove around the country in his British racing green MGA as I later did in my blue MGB. I don’t know. I do know that he was one of the “mad ones” who touched my life. For that I am thankful.


  1. This is a wonderful essay, Nick. I hear what you are saying. I understand what it means to have talent that is criticized almost out of existence and "mad" people who enlighten it.

    I shall send good vibes to Camryn and her family.

    Thank you, dear sir.

  2. Nick,thank you for a great post.I will keep Camryn and her family in my prayers as well.

  3. Great post Nick. Reiki winging its way to Camryn as I type. I'll keep her in my thoughts. x

  4. Those who can do.
    Those who can't teach.
    Those who can't teach teach teachers.

    That's the way it is.

    Excellent post, Nick.

  5. I had a few of those mad professors. They were all mad in different ways. Thank you for sharing your experience. I too will pray for Camryn.

  6. Mike sent me over. Prayers in progress. What a shame. :)

  7. great post, nick! & hugs & prayers to camryn & family!

  8. I'll say an extra little prayer for Camryn and especially for her family. Kids usually bounce back, regardless of the circumstances; for her parents, it's going to be a lot harder.

    The problem with the people who burn, burn, burn is they tend to die young. I'm 45 and looking for role models, but I've outlived the best of them.

  9. Here by way of Mike G! :o)

    Our family makes children's hospital gowns- no snaps or ties, all velcro, full coverage with fun patterns. If the family would like one, I could get it done over the weekend and mail to any address (church, home, work, etc.). Just drop me a note.

    Praying for sweet little Camryn!

  10. Remembering you and your loved ones, including Camryn, in prayer.

    Anon said what I was thinking too. It's a generalisation as well of course, but a good one and funny. ;0)

  11. McCrown sounds like an interesting person and he was probably a good teacher. I really wish I could meet more “mad” people.

    I’m praying for the little girl and her family.

    I hope that you and Alex are doing well.

  12. I am praying for Camryn and her family.

    I really like your words today. I think "mad" people as Jack K. describes them are the people who are really alive.

  13. Nice post about your teacher. I hope that he, someday, does a search on himself and finds your blog post.

    I love the Kerouac quote!

    Very hard to have one's 9 year old daughter so sick. She and her family are in my thoughts.

  14. Cool car! Might have to add that to my to-bead list! ;)

  15. Love your posts. How true that the best education can be found in seeking out what is "real" in sito.

    What a shocking piece of news to receive about your friend's child. Keep us posted. Sending prayers.

  16. I suppoe there is a difference between mad and mentally impaired . . . I seem to attract more of the latter.

    I'll be praying for Camryn's full recovery as well. (I had a stroke myself, 10 years ago - very scary thing.)

    I'll be looking forward to reading those books your working on.


  17. Update on Camryn: Last night I received an email that quoted Camryn’s father: “Rev. (Jim) said thanks for prayers, Camryn has regained about 40% of use of left side, bleeding into brain has stopped, swelling still there, but sounds like things are stabilizing.”

  18. Kaahumanu: Well said. Thank you.

    Mike Golch: You are welcome. Thank you.

    Akelamalu: Thank you—and thank you.

    Anonymous: Thank you. I’ve not heard that quote in at least 40 years! I think it is about 98% true.

  19. Dr. John : I really can’t remember many truly mad professors. I can remember several wacky ones, but that’s a different genre. You are most welcome and thank you.

    Sandee (Comedy +) : Thank you for dropping by and for the prayers.

    Libby : Thank you! And thanks for the hugs and prayers from Camryn and her family.

    Thomas: Thank you. I’m praying that Camryn bounces back.

    I think you’re right about those who burn, burn, burn dying young. Jack Kerouac was pnly 47 when he died.

    I think that there are some “elderly” role models around: Hunter Thompson was 86 when he committed suicide and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. made it to age 85.

  20. Tug : Thank you!

    Irish Coffeehouse: Thank you. If I am in contact with Camryn’s family, I’ll pass on your message about the hospital gowns.

    CrazyCath : Thank you. Yes, Anon got the drift of my post—at least about the “anally fixated college professors” I encountered!

    Abby : Yes, McCrown was interesting. I learned a lot from him. With my health situation, I really miss traveling around the country and meeting neat, mad folks. If I could, I put some clothes, my guitar, and Alex in my CRV and just drive… maybe for a day or a week or a month or a year!

  21. Pussiwillow : Thank you! I agree with you about Kacl Kerouac’s words.

    Carol: Thank you. I think I would like to hear from McCrown—at least to know the rest of his life’s story.

    Yes, it is very hard to have one's 9 year old daughter so sick. This family has been through a lot with their children. Camryn’s older sister has leukemia; when I first heard about Camryn I thought it was her sister who had had the stroke.

    The Lone Beader : The MGA is a really neat looking sports car—much neater that the MGB that I owned, which, when you put its top up, looks exactly like a pregnant hamster wearing a baseball cap.

    Border Explorer : Thank you! I agree with you about education: I rather agree with Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Everything else is just relearning those lesson at a higher level. The lessons I have learned from the world—especially from mad people—have been much more interesting.

    Thanks for the prayers.

  22. Auburn haired artist named Susan: Yep, I too think that there is a difference between mad and mentally impaired. I fear that we all run into more of the latter than the former.

    Since you’ve had a stroke, I’m sure you can identify with what Camryn is experiencing more than I can. When I remember my father after he had his first serious stroke—he had many smaller strokes that no on recognized—what I remember most is the fear I saw in his eyes.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever complete any of those novels! There is a taste of one—just a smidgen—on my blog HERE.

  23. Wonderful quotes. The mad ones are definitely the best ones.

    Thinking of Camryn and her family.

  24. What an excellent post, Nick. I love that Flannery O quote.

    Sending prayers out to Camryn.

  25. Squirl: Yes, the “mad ones” are the best ones.

    Moonbeam: Thank you. I rather think that a “good teacher” would have ruined the style of both Hemingway and Kerouac.

  26. This is a thought provoking post, Nick. I want to meet more mad ones.

    I join the others in prayers for the little girl and her family.

  27. Good one nick. Thanks for an engaging read!

  28. Dear Nick ~~ It must be so very hard for people out of work with families to feed.
    Others don't want to work, but I can imagine how the family parents feel.
    Prayers for little Camryn ~ a stroke at 9 years. poor little girl and her family
    Thanks for your comments about Why Women Cry. I think these days that men can also shed tears without anyone finding it strange,as in the past.
    I hope that you have been keeping well.
    Take great care. Regards, Merle.

  29. Fiochra: Thank you. I, too, want to meet more mad ones. Perhaps my inability to drive for long distances is what depresses me most about this damned COPED.

    Vishwa: You are most welcome, my dear friend.

    Merle: Yes, I believe—as one who experienced it—that not having a job, meaningful or otherwise, is one of the most devastating things that can happen to any human being.

    Thank you for your prayers for young Camryn.

  30. I really like you thoughts, Nick. This is an excellent post.

    I am praying even now for the child.

  31. Poor little Camryn. Add my prayers to this list...

  32. This is very well written, Reverend Nick. You have me thinking!