And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

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Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there. 

“Shut Up He Explained”

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“Shut up he explained.” —-Ring Lardner

Words, words, words.,,they matter, but sometimes we get so caught up in them that we place more meaning and importance on them than they were ever meant to convey. As an English major in college I was privy to a number of academic conversations in which the peers of my chosen field of study derived strange meanings from the writings of noted authors. I recall countless discussions focused on interpretations of what various writers actually meant when they chose certain phrases. Sometimes those discussions devolved into silliness, and I found myself wondering how much of our own thinking is responsible for the meanings that we derive whenever someone says or writes something to which we become privy. Perhaps what we think is being said is not what the originator meant at all.

How many times have you found your statements being misinterpreted? I know that as someone who spent a lifetime speaking publicly in front of countless audiences I often had to explain my intent to people who had ascribed some profoundly insulting meaning that had never even crossed my mind. We bring lifetimes of experience to every situation and often how we hear something is based far more on the kinds of experiences we have had than on any maliciousness from a speaker or an author.

When I write blogs each day I expose myself to constant criticism. Quite often someone will twist my words into contortions that had never occurred to me. Without the ability to immediately correct the misconceptions, I have made an enemy or two. Writing or speaking publicly is risky, but attempting to cloak words in cautious sentences sometimes backfires even more. Honesty is required to be believable, but such willingness to be true to ones’ self has its price, particularly in a world in which people are parsing every single word that is uttered or written down. Anyone who says something deemed to be unacceptable may find themselves losing friends or even jobs. We seem to be in an era that categorizes everyone in one way or another, and woe be the consequences for anyone who chooses to utter the wrong kind of statements regardless of what he/she may have really meant.

A few months back The Atlantic magazine hired conservative writer, Kevin Williamson, to balance out the staff which was mostly composed of liberals. Kevin is a Texan who has a rare gift for writing. He chooses vivid and colorful words and phrases that bring his work to life. I enjoy reading his columns just for the sheer appreciation of his craft in a world where true artistic talent with the written word seems to be quite lacking.

Kevin Williamson has strong points of view. He has had no problem speaking loudly against Donald Trump since before the man was even elected. His critiques of the President have not abated. He has made it quite clear that he sees Trump as a rather ignorant buffoon, thus I suppose that The Atlantic may have seen him as a good candidate for giving the periodical a veneer of diversity of thought. Unfortunately trouble ensued from the moment that Mr. Williamson became a member of the staff, mostly because of his unwavering view that abortion is murder. The reality is that Williamson was adopted as a baby, given up by a mother who did not have the wherewithal to raise him. He has often expressed his thanks that he was given a chance to live a wonderful life rather than being denied that opportunity by experiencing death before he was even born. His comments regarding abortion have angered many people over the years but he has steadfastly stood by them. Once he was hired by The Atlantic a furor arose that resulted in his being fired within days. It was a sad commentary on freedom of thought and speech regardless of what one’s views on abortion may be. More recently we have seen others relieved of their public duties for various and sundry slips of the tongue. Among them is Megan Kelley. 

I have admittedly never been a big fan of Megyn Kelley. She is bright and beautiful and appears to be quite sincere, but I never quite understood the admiration for her journalistic skills that were so prevalent. I suppose that my respect for her grew by leaps and bounds when she was willing to openly criticize then candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election. I understood how much courage it took for her to voice her concerns given that she worked for Fox News. She stood her ground even as Donald Trump hurled unseemly insults at her, and her popularity among conservatives took a plunge. I was happy for her when NBC hired her to host part of the Today Show lineup. I found her programs to be far more informative than the drivel that most of the morning entertainers provide. She attacked difficult topics with honesty and I slowly came to like her. At the same time I sensed that her coworkers still held it against her that she had at one time worked for Fox. 

While I was off camping last week Ms. Kelley had a segment on Halloween and the idea that some costumes are deemed to be offensive because of cultural appropriation. She had a panel of guests to discuss this rather recent phenomenon. She made the cardinal mistake of insisting that there may actually be times when wearing blackface is not as egregious as it may appear and her guests soundly disagreed with her premises. Admittedly her arguments were thin and I do understand how some may have found them offensive, but after much thought she reversed her thinking and apologized first on Twitter and then on air the following morning. Sadly it was too late for her. The executives at NBC decided to let her go in spite of her mea culpas. She has become yet another pariah in a world that allows no mistakes even knowing that erring is human.

Any magazine or studio has every right to hire and fire whomsoever they want. Still it bothers me that people who disagree with the general thinking of the organization are let go with very little provocation. There seems to be a fear that contrary thoughts and utterances should be quickly excisized rather than allowed. It is as though we are no longer able to accept ideas counter to our own. Rather than debating the merits of one argument or another, we prefer to shun those who do not think like ourselves. Such lack of reasoning is dangerous and we should all be concerned that it is happening more and more frequently both on the left and on the right. There is no room for differences or even for changes of heart. We must march in cadence with a particular group or leave the ranks.

I had not really thought of writing about this until I read a plaintive comment  from a dear friend regarding her sadness that Megyn Kelley had been fired from NBC. She spoke of how much she admired Ms. Kelley and how she would miss her program. My friend is such a sweet and compassionate woman that I began to think of how sad it is that very talented people are being forced to toe the prevailing line rather than being encouraged to think, debate, pose questions, suggest alternatives. We really should not want to become people who think like one of Ring Lardner’s characters, “Shut up he explained.”

Talking To Learn

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I collect ideas for blogs, as well as quotes that I like. I save them and then one day write about them. One that struck me was, “The best way to learn about things is to talk about them.”

This is a rather profound and complex idea that represents far more than it may seem. It resonated with me because I have found that the concept of talking about things has brought me all sorts of learning, starting when I was a student. When I was attempting to unravel the essence of various concepts I would begin with a conversation with myself in which I attempted to discern the essential elements of ideas or processes. If I was able to explain such things so that they made sense I knew that I was on the way to mastering them. It was an odd way to learn that my brothers laughed about. I would pace back and forth in my bedroom chatting out loud with myself as though I was in a real conversation.

I now understand from learning theory that I was enlisting several styles of comprehension at one time. I needed to hear what I was trying to remember because my brain performs better when there is audible input. I also required the movement of pacing to provide the kinesthetic elements that enhance the process of storing and sorting information in my mind. Somehow I had discovered a methodology for my particular needs, and in my years as a student it worked amazingly well. Talking was the key to my success.

The idea that we learn what we talk about also applies to dealing with personal or psychological issues. For many years I struggled with my mother’s mental illness in silence. Like far too many, I was initially embarrassed by what was happening. I remained ignorant of the power of speaking about the challenges that I faced in keeping her healthy until one day when I broke down and revealed my dilemma to a coworker with whom I was not particularly close. With a stroke of luck I learned that my colleague had endured many of the same experiences in a quest to provide his aunt with the treatments that she needed for her psychological problems. My confidant knew exactly what I needed to hear, and it was undeniably freeing to finally open my heart about the guilt and concerns that had been bearing down on me. Over time the two of us often conferred and our conversations brought me more and more moments of enlightenment that not only helped me, but ultimately helped my mother. I eventually abandoned my secretive ways, and as I talked about my situation with different people I learned how to better navigate the through the different crises that arose. I found that I also began to help others who were dealing with the health issues of a loved one.

Long ago when my husband Mike was still in graduate school his professors often invited him to casual gatherings at their homes. The talk always centered on the concepts that were being presented in classes. It was positively scintillating to indulge in such an intellectual pursuit. I always felt as though I was privy to the kind of cafe society that was so popular in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century when the giants of literature, psychology and philosophy would gather to collaborate and argue about the big questions of who we are. I learned more at those informal seminars than in all of the courses that I took for my two degrees.

MIke’s best friend, Egon, was a brilliant man and until his mind was stunted by his alcoholism visits to his home were like delving into a potpourri of knowledge. We would spend entire evenings discussing one issue after another. I always thought that if someone had brought in a camera those conversations would have made for incredible television. Long before reality programs were popular I saw great merit in those long evenings when we dialogue into the wee hours of the morning about meaningful and thought provoking ideas.

One of the problems that I see in today’s world is that we don’t talk enough to learn. Instead we simply argue and defend. We are not interested enough in differing points of view. We prefer instead to listen only to those who parrot our own thinking. I wonder how anyone might actually learn in such and environment. I believe that we have to continuously converse with people who see the world through eyes different from our own if we are to stimulate our brains enough to really gain more knowledge about the people and the world around us. Our minds must be open and willing to consider alternative possibilities. It is then that we feel that rush of excitement that comes from truly grasping the complexities of reality.

I keep thinking of John McCain standing in the halls of Congress only days after brain surgery, admonishing his fellow lawmakers to begin to work together, to talk and to listen without preconceived notions, to get things done. It is healthy to hear from many different people. It is good to ask questions and genuinely desire to engage in polite back and forth discourse. It is like exercising the mind, a routine as necessary as working out our bodies and eating a healthy diet. We should be willing to take as much time for the care of our brains as any other part of our beings.

Start some conversations about anything that excites you. Just remember that you need not do all the talking. Be open and honest and willing to make new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to engage and experiment. It is a truly wonderful way to be, and it guarantees learning regardless of what age you may be.

A Fit of Nincompoopery

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According to the dictionary a nincompoop is a silly or foolish person. Nincompoopery refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a nincompoop. It is folly, stupidity. With a tip of the hat to Nero Wolf who first proposed the turn of the phrase, I submit that each day Twitter becomes the locale of many “fits of nincompoopery.”

Let’s face it, how much of great worth can be stated or argued in only one hundred forty characters? The comments are generally so terse that they might be interpreted in dozens of different ways, and therein lies a great number of the problems. Add to that the trolls lurking under the Twitter bridge and the so called discussions often become quite nasty, festering like plastic bags for perpetuity. Many a soul has lost a job or been revealed as a scum bag because of an outburst of tweets that might better have been left unsaid. We now live in a world of instant verbal arguments among strangers who somehow erroneously believe that they are doing no harm. It all reminds me of the back and forth that I sometimes heard among rival groups of fourth graders when I was teaching elementary school long ago.

Sure it’s a free country and all that, but frankly I’m becoming quite weary of the vast numbers of degrading tweets, particularly when they come from people who should know better than to let their fingers run afoul of common decency. We all see and hear things that make us angry, but generally control our temptations to lash out. There is a certain level of immaturity associated with outbursts that are hurtful to other people, so I find myself wondering when we lost our sense of decorum.

We have Roseann Barr, who has never seemed to know when to keep her mouth shut, losing a popular television series over rash racist observations. There is a New York Times journalist who seems to think that there is nothing particularly wrong with hurling invective at white men. The director of the highly successful Avengers series was recently fired over troublesome tweets and jokes made many years ago. Of course there is also the embarrassing aspect of the President of the United States making a fool of himself and the country far too many times with his late night rants. Regardless of the defenses being suggested in these cases, we somehow have a sense that something is going terribly wrong, particularly when we accept such behaviors as normal.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of our Bill of Rights and certainly insults between adults are nothing new, but the more frequent incidence of such behavior is bothersome to me. I prefer a bit of propriety in public. If two people wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs in private, so be it, but why do we now seem to actually encourage public verbal executions, and even sometimes get down in the mud with the perpetrators?

Believe me, I do not wish to indict certain individuals or political persuasions because quite frankly there is plenty of criticism to go around to all sorts of people. I’d just like to encourage everyone to be careful about rapid responses that are hurtful and ugly. Those kind of things have a nasty way of coming back on us, but more importantly we need to rise above the muck and grime as a way of life. Nobody ever wins an argument with invective, and most often it’s not even necessary to attempt to do so. What does it really matter if someone disagrees with our beliefs? Why should we feel compelled to put down individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. The likelihood that we will actually make a difference in their thinking is slim to none. Indeed what will probably happen is that we will make them even more enraged.

I refuse to be that person who gets pulled into verbal battles, and I think that we would all do well to walk away when a fight of words seems imminent. I learned long ago as an educator that ignoring nincompoopery is the quickest way to shut it down. Most people who engage in such shenanigans are just looking for an audience and I refuse to give them one. Perhaps more of us should consider bringing in the crickets whenever someone is being outrageous.

As a society we still have not yet learned how to deal with social media successfully. We forget our manners and too often neglect to take a deep breath before reacting. We have people using our outrage to stoke their own egos. We don’t have to play their game.

I am slowly learning how to move quickly past comments and tweets that make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to let them just lie on the ground seemingly unnoticed. I am seeing more and more evidence that lots of folks are following the same routine. The most egregious remarks that I see are frequently going without response, which is the way that we might all shut them down.

There is a flock of mockingbirds living in the trees in my backyard. They chatter day and night, but I have learned how to turn off the volume in my head. Now I scarcely hear them even though they are still there. I’m doing the same with Twitter.