Dancing with Gogos

Crashing through the Underbrush by Gary P Cornelius



Behind the Books...

Chasing Ivory
Gary P. Cornelius

Chasing Ivory is a novel about a taxi driver in early 1980s Anchorage, Alaska who works the graveyard shift. Gary didn't really get involved in a murder by ivory smugglers, fall in love with a police officer or work undercover for the feds, but he really was a  cabbie at night and those experiences are accurately reflected, more or less.

Dancing with Gogos
Gary P. Cornelius

"Dancing with Gogos" is the story of one man’s effort to make a difference in a collection of Zulu villages in rural South Africa, while fulfilling a life-long dream of serving in the United States Peace Corps.

It’s the story of learning a new language, of immersing oneself in a different culture, of leaving a love 15,000 kilometers behind and discovering the unexpected chance to find a new one half a world away. It’s the story of South Africa’s history of apartheid and the effects of that sorry legacy on tens of millions of black Africans who to this day struggle to leave behind 500 years of oppression. 

Gary Cornelius and 35 other would-be volunteers find themselves in a remote village in Mpumalanga Province as “trainees” for nine weeks of grueling learning before they can be sworn in as volunteers in “CHOP” – Peace Corps South Africa’s Community HIV-AIDS Outreach Project – to assume front-line positions in the battle to reduce spread of the disease in a country with one of the highest rates in the world.  It’s an adventure none will ever forget.

Crashing Through the Underbrush
Gary P. Cornelius

Stories of struggle and perseverance in the world of disabilities

Crashing Through the Underbrush” is a metaphor for dealing with major mental illness. In Chapter 28, “Stealing Cinderella,” you’ll read an eloquent description of it, offered by a character based on a young man I knew when I worked at Lane County Mental Health in Eugene, Oregon in the mid-90s. I still see him around town from time to time. He’s doing reasonably well.

I once wrote an op-ed piece for the Eugene Register-Guard in which I estimated I’d known, or at least met, about 2,000 people with significant psychiatric disabilities in my 28-year career in public mental health. I’ve since redone the math and believe it’s closer to 2,500. The characters in this book represent those 2,500 and all who struggle with mental illness and its effects on friends and loved ones.

I should also point out that the last nine years of my career were spent working in programs that support people with developmental disabilities, many of whom also experience mental health issues. It’s estimated that at least 30 percent of people with a developmental disability also have a diagnosable psychiatric disability, and some of those developmentally disabled folks are represented in this book, as well.

Even during the years I worked in the developmental disabilities system I maintained a connection to the mental health system and worked with colleagues in that realm to support people who had a foot in both worlds.

Crashing Through the Underbrush” is written as fiction, as a novel, since I couldn’t legally or ethically identify real people and couldn‘t have remembered 28 years of dialogue anyway. But virtually every character in the book -- people with mental illness and colleagues of Garth, the main character -- are based on people I really knew. In most cases, details are sufficiently changed to protect identity.

It should surprise no one that “Garth” is a name suspiciously similar to my name, Gary.

In some cases, where I had only positive things to say about a real person, I’ve used actual names. Glen Maynard, my first supervisor in a mental health program, is an example. Ann Lynn, my friend and colleague from Klamath County Mental Health, is another. Other characters so closely resemble real people that one would have to have, “No more sense than God gave a crowbar,” as my brother used to say, to not recognize them. An example is Dane Willets, Garth’s best friend, who is based loosely -- to no one’s surprise -- on Dan Willis, my friend and long-time colleague at Lane County Mental Health. I showed him a detailed profile of the character Dane before I named him that, and gave Dan the opportunity to nix him. He didn’t. Many, but not all, of Dane’s characteristics are similar to Dan’s. (Dan, for example, would never speed, and never worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico).

The vast majority of the incidents and events described really happened to me or, in some cases, to someone I know, with details changed to protect identity. Many characters, especially main ones, are composites of two, or in some cases three, people I actually knew. This helped make them a little more interesting, provided opportunities to educate about mental illness, and helped disguise identities. In any case, when people come up to me and say, “Is (insert name of book character here) in the book based on (insert name of actual person here)?” my answer will be, “Remember, it’s fiction, a novel, I made it up!”

In some cases, a character is based loosely on a real person, but many of the details are fiction. A deputy sheriff, Luke, introduced in Chapter Nine, for example, wasn’t really gay, at least not to my knowledge, nor did he become my friend and hit on me in a gay bar. But a deputy sheriff in Klamath Falls really did help me take into custody a psychotic mother of a newborn baby who wouldn’t go to the hospital voluntarily.

Anyone who is a student of Oregon geography might recognize that the fictional county of Callamette seems suspiciously like a combination of Lane and Klamath counties, two of the three counties where I worked. (The third, Clackamas County, is not disguised). The fictional town of Callamette Falls - - “a liberal college town” -- seems a lot like Eugene, and the fictional town of Ponderosa, in the high desert country of south central Oregon, seems a lot like Klamath Falls. . . . .

A word or two about music.

I like country songs and ballads; always have. When my friends in high school were listening to eardrum-blowing rock and roll, I was listening to Neil Diamond sing about "Sweet Caroline," or Peter, Paul and Mary singing about hammers, bells and justice. One of the themes in "Crashing Through the Underbrush" is that music, especially country songs that tell stories, can deliver a message, can offer a real live demonstration of a point someone is trying to make, or offer a few words of hope to people who struggle with mental illness, or their loved ones. Some are "metaphors for life" in the words of my daughter, Megan, when she was an astute teen-ager.

As Trace Adkins sings in his ballad "Songs About Me," country music is, "Songs about me and who I am; songs about lovin' and livin' and good-hearted women and family and God." He's trying to convince a skeptic he meets on an airplane of the value of country music. He invites the young man to his concert, where he sings about "scars and cars and broken hearts" and the young man responds, "Man, you were right! It was like you sang those songs about me and who I am."

When Rodney Atkins sings, in the song "15 Minutes", "I gave up smokin', women and drinkin' last night -- it was the worst 15 minutes of my life," there's no mistakin' his message! When Eric Church, in his song "Love Your Love the Most", sings, "Any song sung by George Strait is country at its best" he knows whereof he speaks --or sings.

Purists who are detail-oriented might notice that a song mentioned in what seems to be the mid-90s wasn't actually written until 2005! I decided not to let such details bother me because country music is timeless, human experiences repeat themselves, and a song that's appropriate to cite in 2007 might have been just as applicable in 1989, or any other year.

Gary Cornelius, Eugene, OR, August 2010

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