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The Railroad: A mystery novel with a twist: Available on Amazon

The Railroad on Amazon

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The Railroad

There are killers plaguing New York, taking the lives of children and their parents. At the scene of each murder the numbers 4-5-1 are written in the victim’s own blood. The killings become known as the Chapter and Verse murders. For Mike Dobbs these murders are nothing more than a few gory sound bytes on the evening news; his thoughts are elsewhere. After years as a successful player on Wall Street, Mike is caught underground in the subwayas the Twin Towers collapse above him. In a deep depression, Mike runs away to a lonely existence in upstate New York. Shortly after, he takes in Eileen and Megan Benoit, both running from Eileen’s sexually abusive husband; the three become an unlikely family. When Eileen is suddenly forced to run , Mike undertakes a dangerous journey to find her. What he finds is the shocking meaning of the Chapter and Verse murders.

The Railroad on Amazon

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Reflections on the death of a pug

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Over twelve years ago I bought a pug puppy for my stepson. At that time, being the kind of person I am, I considered the fact that dogs don’t live as long as we would like. I had learned as a child that having a dog with you for ten years or so was natural and I saw it as the price you paid for having a pet in your life. Every few years I would remind myself of this disturbing fact.

We had bought this particular pug because he was the runt of the litter. When the breeder took us out to her garage to introduce us to the litter, all of the puppies had run forward, seeking attention. All but one. This particular dog hung back and looked at us, unsure whether he wanted to be involved. He was tiny in comparison to his brothers and sisters. That was the moment we picked him. This was not a conscious decision but, somewhere at the back of mind was the idea that his size would give him a longer life.

I was right, though I can only estimate that two plus years were added to his life. In the process our pug scratched his eye and punctured it. Twice. I learned that dogs have dry eye and are not given the intelligence to stop them from damaging themselves.

By the time he died he was mostly blind and deaf. But there was as strange footnote to his life. We have a running joke in our family that we have a silent beacon on our roof that calls to stray animals and instructs them telepathically to come to our house where they will be brought into our canine and feline fold. For those of you who have joined the “animal hording” persecution squad you will horrified to note that, at one time, we had five dogs and five cats. This number has fluctuated over the years but, for a while, that was our head count. All of them, except for out pug, were rescue animals. While we made an attempt to find some of their owners, it came down to a choice between dubious burden of increasing the members of our family or the probability that these animal would die with their demise on our heads. Tough choice.

Well tough choice for those lacking even a touch of a conscience.

One of strays, the latest in fact, was a dog of unknown breed. He was stocky, had wiry hair and had a long snout with a line of light fur leading down to his nose. We called him Oy (as in “Oy, another stray dog!”). At first we wondered about him; he seemed to fall in love with our pug. He would lick his ears that were constantly afflicted by sock ear. He would keep tabs on him, making sure that he was okay.

I come from the cynical set. Movies about animals acting like humans have always set my teeth on edge. I liked Milo and Otis but forgot it quickly. I watched Oy and our pug and thought their friendship was simply some biological oddity caused by genetics. That thought satisfied my sense of reason and rationality.

One morning, recently, our pug had a stroke and he could move only a few parts of his body. We all held him as he tried to adjust to his new situation. He was oddly calm and seemed more confused than anything else. Within an hour he had slipped into a coma. Minutes later he died with more dignity than I felt a dog would have. He was a class act.

I hadn’t considered what effects his death would have on Oy, who had only been with us for a few years and had missed most of our pug’s life. I learned a lesson in the value of reason; suddenly Oy, who was always upbeat and loved to go outside to roam the back yard, suddenly had a major shift in his personality. If he was human he would have been described as dissociative, vague, confused.  The common wisdom held by the rest of my family was that Oy was pining. That didn’t work for me: I felt it was a bit too mystical and too Disney. But as the days went on I watched a dog who seemed like he was no less than stoned and dazed. Before long he stopped going outside. He lay on a blanket with two other dogs and he barely raised his head.

I let it go; there were important things to worry about; there always are. And then the day came, only a couple of weeks after we lost our pug that my wife came to me. Our granddaughter was with us so she spoke in code to spare the little girl the sadness of the news. With her eyes wide my wife walked up to me and told me “Oy is D-E-A-D”.

I was speechless. And so I found a strange corollary to the pain we all experience with the repeated loss of pets throughout our lives. I thought of Milo and Otis again having, as it did, a pug in one of the leading parts. While I can see that movie for the fantasy that it was, I wondered about animals and their natures. I have always considered dog’s behavior to be mostly hardwired, an unavoidable manifestation of genetics. Now I’m not certain.

Our Pug (named Booda by our son over twelve years ago) finally met the end that I had dreaded for so many years. In his classy gentle way, his death was not horrific but quiet and dignified. But the reality of his death was magnified by watching Oy deteriorate, like a bereaved family member. It oddly widened my of what reality is and what holds value for me. Smaller things hold values, a fact that it has taken me years to accept due to my overblown sense of myself.

I can only reflect on a line from Shakespeare; there seem to be so many truths that are illuminated in his writing: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

My wife recently said, sadly, that Booda and Oy are together again. I didn’t exercise my right to be “reasonable”. I simply accepted it.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth

Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com

Many years ago, I came across a book named “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. What began then was what I now see as a lifetime journey. Campbell, in many ways, was like Einstein and Tesla. It’s a rare phenomenon that produces such a person. What Campbell has in common with other stellar intellects is nothing less than the ability to see beyond the physical world. For most of us, we exist in two dimensions, seeing the world through the narrow view of our society. For any of us who has pondered the infinite, the meaning of life found through religion and self-reflection, we have gained a small glimpse of the space beyond cell phones, trophy mates and a constant slavery to the novel, short lived and easily discarded social “brass rings” that dominate secular thinking. This is the realm where Joseph Campbell existed and did his work.

Campbell was a College Professor who spent his life studying the spiritual practices of all cultures of the world, codifying each and comparing all of them. His journey amounted to nothing less than a quest for the common thread throughout all of the myths and religions of the world, the common thread that is inherent to all mankind. What would you find if you searched for the common force that drives all of us, the thing we all must confront in the end? Are we all alike enough, despite our various religions and cultures, that there can be one purpose that underlies all of our struggles for meaning? Seeing beyond cultures and time itself, Campbell ferreted out this one purpose.

In the end Campbell called this one path we all share the “monomyth” or, in more popular parlance, the “Hero’s Journey”. We’ve seen dramatic versions of this journey in movies such as the Star Wars franchise. If you’ve watched any of these movies you are seeing the Hero’s Journey in action; Campbell was friends with George Lucas who has admitted Campbell’s teaching had a profound influence on his creation of Star wars.

Star Wars is a representation of the Hero’s Journey on a very grand scale. But the destruction of an evil empire is not the version of the Hero’s Journey that most of us experience; our lives are smaller in scope and our battles are often more internal and personal.  Despite this Campbell believed that even in our smaller and less spectacular battles there is something extraordinary and profound; the Hero’s Journey is just as significant for a CPA as it is for Luke Skywalker.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Hero’s Journey is that there is a tipping point, a difficult choice to be made; accept the call or resist it. Campbell believed each of us is called to some purpose regardless of our station in life. And those who resist this call to manifest a greater meaning in our lives, to be safe and avoid the risk inherent in the Hero’s Journey, are endlessly miserable in a way they can’t define. If our destiny is to find out who we are, then a challenge to our comfortable lives is the only natural crucible in which we can be forged. Can taking the path of least resistance, the safe route, reveal our greatest traits? Or is it just a placeholder for true meaning in our lives?

There has been very little written about the specifics of the Hero’s Journey; one of the questions that have found difficult to answer is this: what will any of us experience if we answer the call? It may be as simple as overcoming fears, allowing a “Hero” to take a path to being a great artist or something as important and basic as building a family. All of this can take place at a small, individual level, affecting only one person. Why is there no clear map to the specifics of the Hero’s Journey? It is because an integral part of the journey involves the hero facing his or her own demons and overcoming personal obstacles. These challenges are so specific to each person that no generic map can be created to express how an individual’s journey will manifest itself.

For each of us, our only path to finding our “call” is self-reflection, study and, if you are so inclined, prayer and meditation. Like any spiritual practice, the Hero’s Journey and its language are arcane and initially difficult to understand. But for many around the world this path has proved difficult but worth the pain it may bring initially.

It is our choice to ignore this call, perhaps for years, perhaps forever. And if we accept the call, things are not comfortable; we are tested and challenged and it is possible that we might falter. But if we stay our course through forces that seek to defeat us, we emerge on the other side with knowledge that helps us and possibly helps others.

Campbell is not for the faint of heart; much of his work is scholarly and requires absorbing a new set of concepts and a new language. But the trip can be worth the price. Start with a book named “The Power of Myth” which is a transcription of several hours of television interviews with Campbell. After a few readings you will start seeing the parallels between Campbell’s philosophy and your own life, or the life that you have always wished for yourself. This is not self-help; self-help seeks to calm the soul and provide simple techniques to make you happy. The study of Campbell’s works is a journey to something greater and the path is not always pleasant. But neither is a life well lived; nothing worthwhile can be learned without some discomfort.

Campbell, in my favorite of his many quotes, recommends answering the call, tested by a trial by fire as the only way to move forward. The particular quote puts his truth in stark relief: “If you are falling-dive”.

If you are interested in following this path, in “facing yourself”, I would suggest purchasing “The power of myth” and contacting the national Joseph Campbell Association. While Campbell’s books are basic to understanding his philosophy, the association can connect you to people interested in Campbell’s teachings. Take special notice of the national network of “Roundtables”; these are groups that meet locally to discuss various aspects of Campbell’s philosophy and the subject of mythology itself.

This is no cult. A cult is structured to support the organization itself. In the end internalizing Campbell’s teachings is a solitary journey that you must make on your own and the Joseph Campbell Foundation never benefits by it. Progressing in the Hero’s Journey involves using materials ranging from Campbell’s books to other “spiritual” books such as Sidhartha by Herman Hesse.; again, the Joseph Campbell foundation receives no money for the purchase of any of these books or from any of the activities of people attempting to follow this path. In many ways Campbell’s teachings create an “anti-cult”; where the individual ultimately eclipses any group affiliations.

In the end Joseph Campbell was a college professor whose scholarly work caught the attention of millions, though it was certainly not his intention as he navigated his way through a University Professor’s career.  But a serious student of Campbell can gain a lot by immersing himself or herself in the magic of the monomyth.

“Dive”.

Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com

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911 and PTSD: What you should know but probably won’t want to hear.

Neil Newton: Author of the novel “The Railroad”

Though we are close to the thirteenth anniversary of 911, I have just recently come to understand that many people are still unaware of its effects on those who survived; that while all this time I had thought people understood what had happened to me and others that day, many of them have clung to a very sanitized view of one of the greatest horrors in American history. This, despite all the patriotic protestations that “we will never forget”. Against my better judgment I find that I’m angry about this.

Logically, I know I shouldn’t be. People know what they know and see the world within a strict set of parameters based only on their experiences. Asking someone to understand something like 911, something incredibly far from their understanding, defies what we know of the way humans learn to see the world around them.

Two years ago I published a book. It is a mystery that incorporates the themes of 911 and child abuse. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, the first theme inspired the other. Child abuse became a metaphor for the complete loss of 911. I found myself imagining an existence where the very foundation of life had eroded. For some soldiers, war refugees and victims of abuse, the world is a place where no sane adaptations to an awful situation are possible. I will go so far to say that hope in life stems from our ability to adapt and internalize new realities. When those realities are nightmares and can’t be internalized and resolved, the mind often slips off its moorings to some extent. It has become popular to call this complete failure of the rational to guide our lives PTSD.

When 911 came, I was not in the towers or beneath them in the path trains. I spent half an hour in the subway less than two blocks from the World Trade Center.  During that half hour, the train I was in was motionless, unable to move ahead because the towers were in the process of collapsing.  Eventually the train made a history making move backwards into the station we had left half an hour before and I walked into the false night of the 911 dust cloud. 

 

I found out the truth about people’s views of 911 by reading reviews of my book and, finally speaking to my wife. Without going too far into the plot of my book, The Railroad, I will tell you that the main character, Mike Dobbs, once a rising star on Wall Street, earning an astronomical salary and destined for officer status in an enormous financial firm, shares my half hour in the subway while the towers fall. With few changes. His experience in the subway is mine. And unlike me, Mike falls into a deep depression, running away from his job, his friends, and his life to live an isolated existence in a small house two hours north of New York City. As his depression grows, Mike becomes a full-fledged alcoholic.

In a few of the book’s reviews, Mike’s alcoholism is seen as outrageous and implausible. How, someone asked, could someone function for up to a year drinking heavily? Could that be possible? Would someone who had a traumatic experience be likely to fall into some kind of anti-social behavior and continue it for the foreseeable future? One person suggested that my protagonist might have been a better protagonist if he was “less” alcoholic.

While it seems unnecessary to state this, I will say that the book was never written with the intention of condoning self-destructive behavior at the level that Mike Dobbs practiced it. Alcoholism is an inherently controversial and destructive. What has set me off is something that is essentially constitutes a wall that I’ve discovered between people who have experienced major disasters and those that haven’t.

 

While I haven’t fallen into a deep depression like the protagonist on my book, there are parts of my 911 experiences that I have simply blocked out of my mind. My wife has told me several times that when I first moved to Tennessee I experienced respiratory problems which included some dark substance that I  coughed up for the first few months after I left New York; I have no memory of this, though I must have been aware of it at the time it happened. The point of saying this is that even I, who haven’t shown any overt signs of PTSD, have blocked elements of that day out of my mind. The bottom line for me is that experiencing mind-numbing events pushes people’s behavior past the bounds of sanity and can create strange and unpredictable behavior.

What angers me is not the lack of understanding of my experiences which I consider to be relatively mild. What frustrates me is the lack of understanding how a traumatic experience can set some people on an uncontrollable downward spiral. What was in my mind when writing “The Railroad” is the experiences of some of my friends and acquaintances; those few hours of hell have destroyed their peace of mind and, in some cases, their lives. If you add the trauma experienced by thousands of people that I’ve never met it becomes a disaster of epic proportions, something that, despite some people’s expectations, often creates disturbing and “improper” reactions.

I do realize that everyone who had trouble with the main character descending into alcoholism had trouble with a disturbing image of a man destroying himself. What frustrates me is that we live in a world full of people who need our help. For millions of people who have experienced war, abuse, and a laundry list of other soul crushing experiences, the skills to simply “suck it up” and make lemonade out of lemons is not available without intervention. This is not only a moral issue, based solely on the desire to help others; our country is plagued by a growing level of mental illness, a bourgeoning prison pollution and a pharmaceuticals industry that is  one of the fastest growing in our nation’s history. Treating such a large portion of our population as “nature’s mistakes” and as people of uncommon weakness is ill-advised at best. Failing to help people who are pushed past the point of sanity has a ripple effect of negative results, something we have been experienced and are continuing to experience in the form of crime, law enforcement costs, and cost of maintaining an overburdened prison system.

  It is our lack of understanding of the damaged in our society that allows us to be condescending and expect “proper” behavior from people who are well past embracing it. In my view, being condescending to such people doesn’t raise the moral bar by being intolerant of distasteful behavior born of trauma; it lowers it by limiting our tendency toward mercy. And it flies in the face of our moral and religious traditions.

What is obvious to me about the after effects of 911 is related through stories of people I knew whose experience during 911 was much worse than mine. What is more than the point, their subsequent reaction to 911 was far more intense than mine and plagued them long after the towers fell.

 I know of one person who was in a building just to the west of the towers. What some of you may know is that an unknown number of people stood in the windows of both towers with flames at their backs. Not willing to submit to a painful death by fire, they jumped, some alone, some together and holding hands. Certainly, as these images hit our television screens, our attention was fixed on these people and the unthinkable sight of falling bodies; who could look away? One of the award winning pictures of that year was a photo called “The falling Man”, a surreal and strangely peaceful view of a man giving himself over to his descent to death.

My friend watched for at least an hour as flames engulfed tower one. And he watched as people jumped. From across the street I doubt he missed much. When the second tower was hit, his fear of becoming collateral damage to the terrorist attacks was overcome by his fear of being trapped and never seeing his family again. He ran south down West street to take one of the last water taxis back to New Jersey.

 

Next we have my friend who had gambled on the American Dream and moved from the Dominican Republic to live in the New Jersey suburbs. His journey to being a full-fledged American was a series of financial setbacks, offset by finally landing a permanent position as a programmer, his life-long career.  On that day, I believe he took the final steps to becoming an American, experiencing the worst along with the rest of us, becoming a true New Yorker. He told me that as he got down to the bottom of the island, attempting to get a water taxi to take him home to New Jersey, the awful iconic grey cloud of dust swept through the area and blinded everyone. Like all those around him, he groped through the darkness screaming until he managed to get inside of a ferry building and waited out the worst. One of the refrains that appears in all the stories of 911 is a perception of the cloud of dust, the awful sounds of the towers falling, as the beginning of an apocalypse in which their world and their lives would come to an end.

In the weeks that followed 911, for my Dominican friend, any odd play of sunlight off the towering buildings around our office would set off a reaction, one of fear that the planes were returning and that he would be engulfed in a cloud of choking dust and be separated from his family forever.

Another friend who was on the 26th floor of my office building saw tower one dissolve only a few blocks away. She ran for the elevators and barely managed to make it to the trains that would take her to Brooklyn Heights right across the river. She described the sound of the tower collapsing as indescribable, like the world cracking open.

Then there’s the story of a man whose partner eerily managed to avoid the towers that day, having had what became a lifesaving dentist appointment. Though his partner was fine, the man went to his business partner in a small travel firm and told her he was leaving, that he wanted no part of New York and that he would settle with her later, hoping to sell his half of the business. Just then, he told her, he couldn’t stay. The near miss of losing his lifelong partner had taken all the courage from him. As far as I know he left New York shortly after.

And then there is the final story, one I have never confirmed completely. It tells of a woman who had to make her way up Church Street, after the towers have fallen, to get to the Brooklyn Bridge and home. Church Street is just east of World Trade Center complex. As she made her way northward, she stepped over and around the parts of bodies that had fallen from the high floors of the towers. I was told that her plan was to leave New York City forever.

911, child abuse, domestic abuse, combat; no one can know how someone will react to any of it. But not all the reactions of someone who’s been frightened past the point of sanity can be seen as weakness or “gross impropriety”. “Suck it up” does not cover every situation. From the vantage point of relative safety it’s too easy to judge.

I am realistic enough to admit the significance of the fact that Mike Dobbs, the protagonist in my book “The Railroad”, is not real and doesn’t require sympathy or understanding. I also know that the existence of people damaged in the same way as Mike Dobbs is a subject that most people don’t care to dwell on. But not for me and several thousands of my fellow New Yorkers.

Bottom line: There are people in our country who need our help. Most of us are brought up in a tradition where helping the broken is part of our reason for living. The weak, the impoverished, have always been the focus of our greatest religious and altruistic impulses. And there are dangers in ignoring PTSD; we’ve just recently become aware of the effects of PTSD in soldiers who can spend up to a year or more living through a daily 911; violence, drug addiction, and depression are part of reality for many returned serviceman.

Ignoring people who are broken, condemning their behavior, does not solve the problem and the problem is often extremely serious. I have seen the disgust and annoyance on the faces of people who hear me bring up the issue of child abuse. It’s beyond my understanding, especially since young children have no chance of “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” in the face of cruelty from people who they are supposed to trust.  Despite that people are often annoyed by the very mention of child abuse.

Something is wrong if we can make value judgments about basic discussions of the brutalization of children who need our help.

I suppose that knowing the truth about people’s attitudes is a useful revelation; it just shows that there is more work to do. And minds to change.

I could go on. But it has been said in ways far superior to my angry rambling. Here is one example of that wisdom: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi.

 

My best wishes to all of my homies in New York. And a special thanks to our biggest heroes, the first responders who took on the impossible and, in many cases, gave their lives.

 

 

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Book Review: Torn from the inside out by Sara Niles

“Torn from the inside out” is a non-fiction account of a woman who spends thirteen years in an abusive marriage. Synthesizing an entire book down to that one sentence robs it of the true horror that this book represents.

The book follows Sara from her life as a child to her life as a battered wife. What I expected and found in this book is the horrible, repetitive, numbing nature of domestic abuse. In doing only that, Sara has done a service with her book. For those of you not familiar with domestic abuse, you’ll find that Sara expertly guides the reader through the unfortunately well-worn path and progression of this pathology. Starting with the initial disbelief and ending with a numbness and acceptance of repeated, awful terrors, Sara weaves a tapestry of pure evil and hopelessness.

Sara has a fine evocative touch with her pen. The story begins with a rendering of an almost idyllic life in the rural south during the nineteen-sixties. Poetic and flowery without being cloying, Sara’s style is highly evocative. Almost immediately the reader finds themselves immersed in the culture and the period of Sara’s youth. Slowly, throughout the book, the tone changes to fit the events and people that become a reality in the life of a battered woman, fighting for the survival of her and her children. Sara’s narrative expertly fits the events in her book.

Sara has done her job, leading the reader as she was led, into the psychopathy and lies of abuse. The question becomes, for the reader: Why read a book that is disturbing and terrifying and, worst of all, true to life? While the book is a “good read”, it also has elements that are shocking and raw. The answer to this question lies in Sara’s assertion that we are entrusted with the well-being of others, especially the children who are put into our care. Consider first that thousands of women are killed each year due to domestic violence. Consider also that the children who witness endless and senseless violence from a father who is a sociopath, have their world-view warped and their self-image twisted. Often this leads to substance abuse, mental health issues, and, often, to becoming abusers themselves.

If this were only true in even a hundred cases a year, a reader might consider this a marginal problem. What is true is that there are thousands of women abused ever year which represents thousands of families and thousands of children whose lives are essentially ruined for the years that they are witnesses to abuse and, quite often, for years after.

This book is worth your time. If nothing else it will make you think. At best it will sensitize you to an issue that affects society, and the reader, in ways that have only begun to be examined by law makers, police and mental health practitioners.

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