Finding Inspiration

inspiration-cover

I  was having a difficult time finding inspiration for writing my blog today. I’ve been enjoying doing this task five days a week for almost five years now, and there really are very few days when I search desperately for a topic. When that happens I usually serf the Internet hoping to find something that sends a sudden burst of ideas to my brain. Today was one of those times when nothing was coming to mind, so I spent some time reading posts on my Facebook wall hoping desperately that something would jump from the page to tickle my fancy.

I read about a friend who had run a half marathon and ended up exhausted and hurting. I was intrigued by what she had done, but since it would never even cross my mind to think of doing such a thing I didn’t exactly come up with fertile ideas for writing when I read about her adventure. How far would I get reiterating the idea that my knees no longer allow me to run, and that I have little or no desire to push myself into a state of pain doing anything. It became obvious to me that I would have to keep reading if I was to find any kind of material for creating an essay. That’s when I saw  a post from a high school friend that sent me into gales of laughter.

He was asking if anyone had an extra set of feet for an artificial Christmas tree because he was unable to locate his. He had searched closets and attics and all sort of places all to no avail. Friends in his age group razzed him about getting old and the inevitability of becoming forgetful. I identified completely because I had decided on a great blog topic only an hour or so before, but couldn’t recall what it had been for the life of me. Lately I’ve had to learn to write things down as soon as they come to mind or the slightest interruption may erase them forever. My husband had asked me a question and in the short space of time that it took me to respond I literally forgot what I had intended to write about for today. So there I was wondering what to put on a page.

That’s when I saw yet another post from a former teacher friend who was asking for advice on what to do to find inspiration when it eludes us. There were some great ideas like gazing up at the sky, but it was very dark and rainy where I was, so that didn’t seem to be an option. I’d already tried looking for interesting quotes and perusing the news, none of which jostled even an iota of creativity. That’s when I thought of the many times when I had a deadline for an essay, and I drew a blank regarding what to compose.

Writer’s block is the stuff of legend. After creating the masterpiece The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to regain his footing. Somehow he was not able to repeat his performance as a writer and it lead to depression and alcoholism, so I know I shouldn’t feel too bad if I find myself without ideas now and again. Still it is so frustrating, and I remember one occasion in particular when I stared at a page with the same painful realization that I was as stumped as Jack in The Shining. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to write the same sentence over and over again. I was unable to even string together a nonsensical group of words, and it threw me into a panic because I was taking a class at the time, and my assignment was due the following day.

I was willing to admit that procrastination had created my dilemma, but that was little comfort as the clock ticked away. It seemed that the harder I tried, the more locked up my brain seemed to be. Taking a walk did little to help. Lying down and attempting to quiet my mind did not work. Screaming my frustration only felt worse, because I knew that I must have sounded ridiculous. I was on the verge of panic and tears when my husband brought me a cold beer.

I looked at him as though he had two heads. I argued that drinking a brew might only make me sleepy and then I would really be in a pickle. I thought of poor Fitzgerald and how not even a prolonged bender alleviated his problems. I failed to see how pausing for a sip of suds was going to change the situation, but I had almost reached a breaking point, so I surrendered to the idea.

I relaxed a bit while enjoying the amber liquid, and as I did I became quite mellow, so much so that I wondered if I would just drift off into slumber and end up having to attend class without completing the assignment. I was certain that I was totally in trouble, when I slowly found myself considering a number of out of the box ideas. The more gulps I took of the beer, the more fertile my thoughts became, and before long I was banging out a paper that in that moment made me feel as though I was writing the next great educational document. My fingers were barely able to keep up with the flood of ideas that filled the once blank paper with a sea of characters forming words, sentences, paragraphs and entire pages. Not more than an hour later I was proof reading my manuscript and creating the final copy for submission.

I went to bed that night feeling relaxed and accomplished. My alcohol soothed brain was bristling with greatness, or at least it felt that way. Sadly by morning I wasn’t as sure of myself, but I had to work all day and understood that I was stuck with the essay that I had written with a muddled mind and no time to change it in any way. Rather than torture myself I decided not to even read it again, and I began to feel a dark sense of foreboding. Somehow I believed that any chance of getting a decent grade was doomed. I chastised myself for allowing such a situation to exist in the first place, but it was too late.

As it happened, I had somehow unlocked the creative juices of my brain with my drinking binge and my paper proved to be more than satisfactory. When I saw the grade I was amused that I had pulled off my smoke and mirrors magic trick. The professor wrote dazzling comments about my brilliance, but I could only laugh at the fact that I was unable to remember what I had written. (Bear in mind that it takes very little for me to become the victim of a drunken state, so that beer had rendered me rather incoherent, but apparently still somehow in control of my faculties. I now fully understood why so many writers turn to drink as a muse.)

My latest episode of writer’s block and the search for inspiration lead me into a discussion of over imbibing with a group of relatives. My brother who is almost a tee totaler spoke of a time when he enjoyed himself a bit too much and engaged in a match of chess with a graduate of MIT after running a foot race with his buddies. Surprisingly he recalls the incident as the best game that he has ever played, and he was so relaxed that he won handily in both the race and the chess game. Others told of amazing feats like being able to do pushups on a countertop, or dancing like Fred Astaire. It seems that rather than inspiration, what we all found was a way to eliminate our inhibitions.

I certainly would never recommend my inebriated writing method as a regular means of expressing my thoughts. It might have ended quite badly, but for a bit of luck. I suspect that the secret was that I was able to relax, and I might have accomplished the same thing with a brisk walk or a few minutes of meditation. It may well have been my brother’s exercise before the chess match that was the source of his winning ways, and not the vodka. It didn’t seem to work for F. Scott Fitzgerald, so it may be a mistake to think that it worked for us.

Anyway, I’ve somehow managed to fill a blog with a bit of nostalgia and nonsense and maybe even some hidden ideas for finding inspiration. In the future, however it is no doubt best to write down the ideas that I have before I lose those thoughts. It is a lot less frustrating than tackling an empty page.

Advertisements

Satisfaction

3c4342a3-24bc-4b2f-8877-de26ce0abec1

Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

The Leftovers

leftoverheader3We humans are so incredibly complex. Even those of us who grow up in the exact same household with the same parents will be unique, just a bit unlike one another. We see beauty in different ways and are attracted to works of art according to our own preferences. We demonstrate our emotions in a multitude of ways, and when tragedy strikes there is no one manner in which every single one of us will react.

An amazing television production completed its final season a few weeks ago. The Leftovers was an offering of HBO that never quite caught the attention of a wide ranging audience, but it became a cult favorite of enough individuals to keep it alive for a year longer than HBO management intended. I am among those who believed from the very beginning that I was watching a masterpiece of theater unfold before my very eyes and I was rarely disappointed.

The Leftovers takes us to a situation in which people suddenly and quite randomly disappear on an otherwise normal October day. There is no rhyme or reason that explains who was selected or why certain people were left behind. Some families were not affected at all and others were decimated. It was a mysterious tragedy that left most of the world bereft and focused on dealing with the emotions that might accompany such a strange happening.

The story that unfolds introduces us to a cast of characters from Mapleton, New York who are dealing with the trauma each in his or her own way. The power of the program lies in the unveiling of the individual emotions of those people, and the actors portray them with a craft that is worthy of every possible award. They bring a humanity and believability to the stories even when they become far fetched indeed.

I don’t believe that anybody ever intended the audience to see the sequence of events in The Leftovers as anything other than allegories and metaphors for life. The plot unfolds in a kind of dreamlike sequence that strains credibility if one demands rational explanations. Instead it should be viewed much as one considers an abstract painting in which reality takes many forms. The best way to watch The Leftovers is as a tour de force of imagery and acting that is superior to most of the simple minded fodder on television.

In its three seasons the story moves from New York to Texas to Australia. I happened to be camping in McKinney Falls State Park in Austin when some of the Texas sequences were being filmed there. It was fun to see the images of places so familiar to me. My granddaughter was called for a role in the program that summer, but when they learned that she was not yet twelve they had to turn her away because the work would have been too dangerous for a younger child. I suspect that it might also have been a bit traumatic as well because The Leftovers is a show that is never fearful of taking emotional climaxes to the very limit.

This series is not for the faint of heart. It ruthlessly studies our humanity and the ways in which we choose to deal with tragedy or attempt to ignore it. Ultimately it becomes a story about love. It looks at questions of faith and portrays true believers as well as agnostics. It does not attempt to provide the audience with any kind of answers, but instead tempts us to think about such things and wonder how we might react if we were to endure a similar situation. I keeps the mysteries of our existence in the realm of unanswered questions, leaving us to decide for ourselves what everything that we see actually means.

I have discussed this series with a number of people who were discouraged from watching by the ephemeral feel of the story. I suppose that they require a bit more closure and reality than I do. I find myself agreeing with Bob Dylan, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that if the words and ideas of an artistic endeavor somehow sound good to us, we will imprint our own meanings on them. For me The Leftovers is a journey into a kind of hell much like Dante’s Inferno. It shows the dark places that we take ourselves as we search for meaning in an often cruel and confusing world. It provides us with a small taste of optimism as well in demonstrating that it is in the relationships that we somehow manage to build even when the worst happens that we ultimately find our salvation.

Everything about The Leftovers is so carefully considered for its impact. The music is as important as the script. The images are often like great paintings from the most masterful of artists. The acting is so real and intense that it often leaves those of us in the audience breathless. It is like watching a moving definition of beauty and truth.

I am sometimes reluctant to recommend The Leftovers to anyone because it is the essence of a figurative world where every aspect of the show means something and those meanings can be very different for each person. If you tend toward the literal this program probably won’t work for you, but if you are willing to suspend reality for the sake of pure art then you may be in for a treat.

For those of us who are huge fans of this program it is sad to realize that it is no more, but it is also true that elongating the story for the sake of keeping it going would undoubtedly detract from its ultimate beauty. The Leftovers is a masterpiece that will be studied by writers, actors and directors for years to come. I’m glad that I was part of the audience that understood its genius from the very beginning. I will miss Kevin and Nora and Matt and the others, but I am thankful that they came into my life for three years and provided me with a glimpse of brilliance.

Tea Time

564_HighTeaAtTheEmprassHotelFor most of my life I have rushed around with a schedule so busy that I rarely stopped blowing and going until I fell into bed at night. Now that I am retired I have developed a lovely habit of pausing for afternoon tea. I noticed that between two and three each day I would suddenly become sleepy. I’m not yet ready to take naps so I decided to perk myself up with a cup of brew in the English style which meant drinking tea rather than coffee. I sit in my favorite easy chair with a view of my gardens and sip on Earl Grey, Chai, English Breakfast or some exotic blend of teas from the east. It is a rather invigorating experience that I have grown to love.

My daughter who is a nurse says that there is actually a physiological reason that we grow weary in the afternoon. It has to do with food intake and elevated body temperature. I suppose that long ago certain cultures took note of the general dip in energy that we humans experience and decided to create traditions of ingesting caffeine products to induce a feeling of well being. The afternoon tea was part of that trend and has been followed now for centuries. I am one of its more recent converts.

There is something very civilized about taking care of oneself by pausing for refreshment that we tend to ignore in our go go go society. It’s truly a shame that we mistreat ourselves. Back when I was a child my mother always took a break at almost the same time every day. She gave me and my brothers fruit or cookies and a glass of milk. She prepared herself a cup of coffee and sometimes shared it with friends who would drop in for a brief respite from their chores. The tasks that she had to perform seemed far less odious after a little pause. We tend to do less and less of that sort of thing as we focus more and more on constant productivity.

One year Mike and I accompanied a friend from Austria on a trip to his homeland. We enjoyed a lovely concert in one of the local schools which prompted a discussion of the school day schedule in that country. Our friend told us that the required time in the classroom was much shorter than what our American students experience. He said that pupils are usually finished with their lessons rather early in afternoon and go home. In fact, throughout much of Austria shops, banks, restaurants and places of business close for a time each afternoon so that employees will be able to relax before completing the day’s work. I know that we had to wait for almost an hour one day before getting inside a bank because it was the time of day for a long break. The coffee and tea shops opened for the crowds of people who sat for a time enjoying warm drinks and conversations.

I had always read about the tradition of high tea. On a number of occasions I found myself walking through five star hotels where people were enjoying such a luxury, but I never actually got to try the experience. On a trip to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada I finally fulfilled an item that had long been on my bucket list when Mike and I and two of my grandsons went to the high tea at the Empress Hotel. It was not exactly an inexpensive diversion, but certainly one that I will always remember.

I felt like a dignitary as we sat at a table draped with a brilliant white starched tablecloth in a room dripping with chandeliers and warm mahogany. An elegant waiter explained the process to us and asked if we had any special requests. Soon he was bringing us heaping bowls of strawberries with real whipped cream along with trays of crumpets, delicate sandwiches, chocolates, scones and other delights. The tea itself was a special blend unique to the hotel which was served in delicate china cups. The waiter was at our service and his every move was refined and almost balletic. The funny thing is that we had brought two ten year old boys, one of whom was in thrall with the occasion and the other who seriously wanted to get away as quickly as possible because he did not like the smell of tea. The disgruntled one behaved beautifully in spite of his reservations and managed to find enough to eat to make it worthwhile. The happy one was so ecstatic that he swore that he wanted to move to Victoria one day and then take his mother and his future wife to tea time whenever he wished.

I purchased some of the special tea and brought it home to share with my other grandchildren who like to have a tea party when they come. They insist on using my china and having sugar cubes to sweeten the lovely brown liquid. When I finally ran out of the exquisite tea I tried to send for more only to learn that the hotel will not mail items to the United States. A friend of my daughter’s who lives in Calgary came to the rescue when she heard of my dilemma. I have it sent to her and then she forwards it to me. It is a rather expensive process but so worth it in the long run. My grandchildren grow excited when they hear of a new delivery arriving at my home.

I carry a metal teapot in my travel trailer for afternoon tea time. We used it over and over again last summer when we journeyed to California. It made us feel as though we were passengers on the Orient Express, seeking new lands and adventures. I was so happy that I had someone with whom to share my special passion.

My sister-in-law introduced me to a wonderful tea store in Estes Park, Colorado not long ago. She recommended that I try their Cream Earl Grey and it is phenomenal. I try to visit there at least once a year now to replenish my stock. When I am unable to travel I use their mail order service to keep myself always at the ready.

Tea is so delicate and has such an amazing history. One of my all time favorite mornings was spent with two of my former students who treated me to a tea tasting. We sipped on golden colored liquids from China and India while talking of the world’s problems and solving them at the same time. Later one of them gave me a book on the history of tea and a lovely teapot with matching cups along with cans of my favorite varieties from a Chinese market. I remember our special time whenever I use those items. There is something about sharing food and drink that creates a never forgotten bond.

When I was still working at South Houston Intermediate one of the teachers hosted a tea time for her students. She asked them to dress in their finery and she brought lovey dishes and china from her home for them to use. Few of them had ever experienced such a thing and they were so excited. I suspect that they recall that lovely treat just as much as I do and think of their thoughtful teacher warmly. Maybe they even began the tradition in their own homes.

I truly understand why tea has played such an important role in the history of the world and why rebellious colonists scoffed at the taxes levied on the imports of their favorite brews. Enjoying afternoon tea becomes a delightful habit that makes even a dreary day feel a bit brighter. If you’ve never tried it maybe now is a good time. Even a pot of plain old Lipton served in a pretty cup will energize you and send you back to work ready to tackle anything.

Speak Out

censorship-1.gifAttending college was one of the most exciting times of my life. My professors challenged the status quo of my beliefs and taught me how to think critically. They were never satisfied with having me simply regurgitate what I had learned. They insisted that I show evidence of having considered the pros and cons of every argument or theory. They showed me the importance of viewing the world from multiple points of view. I remember attending events featuring some of the most controversial speakers of the era. It mattered not whether I agreed with them, but rather that I allow myself to widen my own horizons. Some of those that I heard were brilliant and I wrote others off, but always there was the sheer enjoyment of becoming familiar with new and intriguing philosophies.

When I became a teacher I was enthralled with the idea of showing my students how to become critical thinkers. Even in mathematics classes we compared and contrasted differing methods for solving problems and began to discuss the merits of each. I once prefaced such an exercise by having my students read accounts of a Revolutionary War battle written by four quite different individuals. One was the eyewitness account of a patriot, another was from a letter written by a British soldier. Still another was penned by Winston Churchill for his famous history and the last was from the point of view of a bystander who had little interest in choosing sides. The students immediately realized that how we see the world is influenced by all of the complexities of our lifetime. They began to question who had been in the right and wondered if we ever get a totally unbiased reporting of events. It was quite rewarding to watch the scales fall from their eyes and to experience their enthusiasm in being able to engage in a debate.

I am and always will be a staunch proponent of free speech. Unlike many people that I know, I actually enjoy hearing from individuals whose opinions are diametrically opposed to mine. When in their company I listen with as open a mind as I might possibly muster, realizing that my own thinking is rooted in the totality of my lifetime. My goal is not to catch them in mistakes but to truly learn from them. It is rather amazing how much I derive from even the most ridiculous sounding ideas. I have always felt that we tend to spend too much time composing our responses and not nearly enough attempting to understand why people believe as they do.

Obviously there are many instances in which I am not even minutely swayed by someone’s beliefs, particularly when I sense that they are evil or violent. I have read Mein Kampf not because I am a follower of Nazi propaganda, but because I think it is important to know what lies in the minds of such people. Perhaps the biggest mistake that too many make is running away from the rants of those who would impinge on our freedoms. In truth we should make ourselves aware of even their most rancid and unbearable thinking. I agree with the Godfather that it is important to keep our enemies close.

I abhor censorship of any kind. Free speech is perhaps our most important right as citizens. When I write my blog each weekday I am fully aware that I will annoy or even anger some who read my words, but I will fight to the death for my right to state what I believe. I will do the same for anyone else, even those with whom I totally disagree. The hallmark of totalitarianism is the tendency to eliminate the written or spoken words of those voicing alternative points of view. A free nation insures free expression of ideas in all phases of society. If someone urinates on a cross and calls it art I may choose to disagree and even feel offended, but I will never insist that the offering be destroyed.

I am somewhat befuddled by the current trend to shut down free speech at universities that were once bastions of open expression. I don’t personally like Ann Coulter but I have no problem with having her speak on the campus of any college including my alma mater. I don’t have to attend the event and I certainly don’t have to agree with anything that she says. What I should insist on is that she have her opportunity to speak her mind without interference. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but her words will never hurt me. In fact, I suspect that her audience would be rather small if not for all of the unearned publicity that she gets each time a group of students threaten violence if she shows up to give a speech.

The history of the world is filled with instances of book burnings and executions of people whose thoughts and words seemed controversial. The Spanish Inquisition was a dark time of squelching ideas. Members of ISIL destroy anyone and anything that is offensive to them. Surely the examples of Nazi and Communist oppression should teach us that it is in an open society that we progress as humans, not one in which we refuse to allow alternative points of view. Unfortunately I fear that we are presently on a razor thin line between wanting to be inoffensive and becoming unthinking censors. It is my love of liberty that tells me that we must be very careful in protecting our rights as free men and women. All of us should be loudly complaining any time that there are attempts to silence any among us, regardless of whether we agree with that individual’s beliefs or not.

With regards to what I am presently witnessing I am reminded of the now famous words of Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

Speak out loudly and clearly. Let no one take away the free speech of any among us.