A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.

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What’s In A Word?

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I get a big kick out of looking at all of the cute t-shirts in tourist spots like Estes Park, Colorado. Some of them are quite hilarious. On my most recent visit there I saw a shirt that made me roar with laughter. It featured two bears gazing down at a human camper who was unknowingly the subject of the bears’ conversation. One remark was, “Let’s eat. Bob.” The other was “Let’s eat Bob.” Thus noting the importance of punctuation.

Of course I chuckled over that one and would have instantly purchased the shirt but for the fact that it came in a putrid green color that made me look as though I had some kind of serious disease. Nonetheless, it made me think about how easily our words can be misinterpreted, especially in these days in which misunderstandings are so commonplace. One unfortunate word choice or misplaced comma can make a world of difference in how people view remarks. When dealing with the written word from times past it can become even more unsettling. We have a tendency to view commentaries from our own perspectives rather than taking the time to consider that there have been different ways of expressing ideas in different places and eras. What may seem just fine in a certain place or time, my appear to be rude or out of style in today’s world.

I’ve been reading all sorts of ridiculous claims from people who are finding offense in the strangest places. In one instance a national news and editorial outlet noted what they saw as blatant racism in the old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The source of the angst was that Franklin, the little Black child, was sitting all by himself on one side of the table. I suppose that one might draw some conclusions about that, but the fact is that the character was introduced into the Peanuts family by Charles Shultz in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intent of the cartoonist was to demonstrate that we are all one big family, not to discriminate. I feel relatively certain that Mr. Shultz would be appalled to think that his always loving cartoon might have offended someone.

I’ve also heard of people becoming upset with some of the classic Christmas stories and songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has come under particular fire for featuring bullies and because Rudolph’s father was ashamed of him. Those who complain about it miss the point that Rudolph eventually became a hero, demonstrating that differences are powerful, not something of which to be embarrassed. Even a small child seems to understand the moral of the story, but some adults are fretting over ideas that I don’t think there are really there. What I would suggest is that those who don’t like the story or the song simply choose not to watch.

I saw a number of comments on Facebook about how virtually every well known Christmas carol might be misinterpreted depending on one’s point of view. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town might actually show Santa to be a peeping and a stalker according to one way of viewing the song. I even read a story about someone who thought that White Christmas is a homage to far right extremists. Maybe those who think such things should watch the movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay to set the record straight. And so it goes,,,Deck the Halls insults gays, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is too suggestive for children, Santa Baby is about gold diggers. It’s enough to make one run screaming from the room.

It all makes me wonder how often I have unwittingly insulted someone. I write lots of word all the time. It seems certain that I have probably made people angry when my intent has never been to do so. We live in very sensitive times.

I appreciate the classes that I took as part of my college studies. Most of my professors in English, History and Psychology classes emphasized the necessity of learning more about the lives of the people in particular places and times. Without that important background information we have no context for their actions and remarks. The world has definitely changed from one decade to another and with those evolutions have come different ways of understanding the exact same words and ideas. Grass used to refer on to the green stuff that grows on lawns. By the twentieth century it was commonly used to speak of marijuana as well was the term “pot.” The word gay once only meant a form of happiness, now it is used to refer to a group of people and their sexual orientation. We add words and meanings to our dictionaries constantly, but we too often ignore the original ways that people spoke. We forget history and react as though we are the first and only generation to inhabit the earth.

I suggest that people take a chill pill unless utterances are egregiously vile and meant to be that way. When I don’t like something I simply choose to eliminate it from my world, abut I also attempt to be understanding. It doesn’t bother me that some people do not believe in the same meaning of Christmas that is mine. I’m all for wishing people Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah or whatever works best for them. Diversity is a beautiful thing, but so is a “live and let live” attitude. Let’s just spread love during this holiday and everything will be so much better.

“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.”

The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

Far From Finished

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From time to time I get writer’s block and find myself searching furiously for a blog topic. That’s when I surf the web for ideas, and luckily there are a number of sites offering suggestions. I found myself laughing out loud at one post about lists that focused on ten things to do before one dies. It occurred to me that my time for considering such things is perhaps running a bit shorter than say someone in his/her twenties since I will turn seventy on my next birthday. While nobody ever knows when the time for parting this world will actually come, it is more and more likely to happen as the years go by, for none of us is immortal.

I’m well past many of the things that once tempted me like learning to be a downhill skier. My bones would be quite unhappy with the falls and I’d rather sit inside a warm chateau sipping on some hot soup at the top of a mountain than contemplating sliding my way down. The same goes for exploring the Amazon River. Such an adventure sounded thrilling until I saw a program about a trek that almost killed Theodore Roosevelt. After realizing how brutal such an excursion would be, I’ve given up all thought of even trying such a crazy thing. I’ll leave that kind of insanity for the young. My new ideas are far more in line with the limitations that age has imposed on my body.

I still want to travel as much as possible. I haven’t seen Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican, and it seems to me that everyone should enjoy a view of those things at least once. I know that we are all a bit spoiled in this era because most of our ancestors were lucky to get a few hundred miles out of the towns in which they were born. Now such travels are rather commonplace, at least for Americans. I sometimes have to admit that I feel a bit guilty about our abundance and opportunities, but then I still dream of seeing more of the world and think I will be a better person for having done so. Travel opens the mind and the heart.

Of course, I still want my book to get published. To spur me forward my husband showed me a TED talk on planning. It made me realize what I need to do to move forward, and I am feeling more determined than ever. I have only a small bit of editing to do and then I must find someone who will help me design a cover. I already know how I want it to look, I just don’t have the skills to do it myself. After that I intend to send it to a company that will format it properly so that I can easily upload it to Amazon. I have to specify the time that I will do these things and then stick with the plan. I have friends and family who have already successfully published their works, so I need to be less hesitant to consult with them. I’m sure they will be more than glad to share their experiences to help get me going.

There are a number of small things that I think should also be on my list. I hope to live long enough to witness the next total eclipse of the sun. It’s not that far away and this time there will be great viewing right here in Texas. I also want to see the fall colors in Vermont and go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Maybe I might catch a showing of Hamilton while I’m in there.

I’d like to take a cooking class and then prepare a special feast for friends and family. My culinary arts are rather basic, but I’m fondly known as “The Bean Queen” and my gumbo might win a prize. I think that baking would be fun or becoming an expert in Italian cuisine. The art and science of food preparation is fascinating to me.

I want to reteach myself Calculus. I once did well with that subject but I was a good fifty years younger the last time I took a such a course. I never taught that subject nor had reason to use it, so it feels as though all memory of it is gone. I once began a review session at a junior college only to develop a bacterial infection after two days that left me hanging over the toilet bowl for over a week. I had to drop the idea of relearning, but never the desire to get back up to speed.

There are entertainers I would love to see in live performances like Yo Yo Ma, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, The Gypsy Kings. As a matter of fact I would love to take advantage of all of the concerts that come to town. I find that even people that I never thought to be so great end up being fabulous. My in-laws once took me to see Andy Williams. I was polite about their generous offer but believed that it would be a snooze, It was not. In fact it was a very memorable evening that demonstrated what makes someone famous. In person Andy was incredibly charismatic.

I’ve seen a sunset over the Grand Canyon but I’d love to observe a sunrise there. It would be more than cool to be in Chaco Canyon for the solstice. I want to hear the bagpipers at Edinburgh Castle and walk through the streets of the towns in Slovakia where my grandparents lived as children. I’d love to be in the audience of Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or even better would be to see Ellen. I want to reread the great classics and pour over the newest bestsellers. When I become too frail to go too far from home I hope to watch marathons of my all time favorite movies and call friends just to chat.

I suppose that my list is in fact rather endless. There is still so much to do and see. The world is an exciting place that I haven’t explored nearly enough. I’ll write about each of my adventures as they unfold, so stay tuned. I’m far from finished.