It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.

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Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be. 

 

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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I write a blog five days a week and sometimes I wonder if anyone other than my friends, Linda, Adriana and Paula are reading my thoughts. It often feels as though I am simply exercising my long held fantasy of being a writer for an audience of practically no one. One might argue that that my public journalling has become a vain obsession, but perhaps what is more important about my literary efforts than the number of readers that I attract or my reasons for writing is that I am allowed to voice my views freely. There is something more remarkable about having such a basic right than earning a viral following.

I read a great deal, observe continually, and watch historical documentaries in my quest for blog topics. From those efforts I have learned about the many parts of the world in which I would either be restricted in my comments or banned entirely. My freedom of speech is something that I admittedly all too often take for granted, but it is in fact one of my most precious gifts because I am someone who has a difficult time sitting silently in the background. I truly believe that I have a story to tell and a point of view to share that may not be particularly important or even wise, but that illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

I’ve watched almost seventy years of history unfolding and some of it was ugly and tainted with violence and hatred. Most of the time, however the horrific behavior that I have noted was more of a societal aberration than a true reckoning of who we are as people. Time and again I have watched the goodness of human beings ultimately win the day, often in imperfect but well intentioned ways. Like President Barrack Obama I believe in the idea that the arc of history bending toward justice is more that just a platitude. It is our reality. Unfortunately our evolution toward perfection is slow and even jerky at times as we lurch back and forth between our better natures and our more selfish tendencies. We are often reticent to speak out or fight for what is good and right until the pain of witnessing injustice becomes overwhelming. We tend to want to be left alone, but we are unwilling to let evil fester indefinitely.

When I was young I used to think that I would one day see a time much like that described in Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, a moment when we would all be judged only by the content of our individual character. Perhaps I was a bit premature in believing that we were on the brink of achieving an almost idyllic world. Still, I do think that we are moving in that direction even though at times our progress is imperceptible. My experience with people has taught me that generally everyone possesses a sincere wish to be loving and heroic, but sometimes circumstances make it difficult to be our best.

We are a society of rules and that is as it should be. I have never been in any situation that worked out well without some form of guidelines. Rubrics and laws help us to set parameters, but we have to be careful not to become so driven by regulations that our most basic freedoms are curtailed. I suspect that we all want to be able to think, speak and act in our own manner as long as what we are doing does no harm. Of late, however, we have tended as a society to turn our backs in profound judgement on those with whom we disagree. This trend has created schisms in families and among friends. We are broken on both a personal and a worldwide level, filled with suspicions and immutable opinions. Exercising our free speech has become a means of formally bending arms rather than a vehicle of persuasion. We are being distracted by propaganda and revolutions rather than hearing quiet but often compelling viewpoints filled with reason.

We have unwittingly allowed our freedom to speak to be dominated by the passions of the fringe, the outliers on a normal curve. While those of us who are more moderate have been busy performing the tasks of living, those with louder voices and unyielding opinions have managed to assume that they represent the rest of us. While we toil to survive, they are busy choosing the candidates and the platforms from which we will have to choose at the polling places. We are busy or perhaps too reserved and unwilling to foment disagreement to concern ourselves with the raucous until we find ourselves in front of a ballot filled with the names of individuals with whom we disagree, powerless to do more than choose the lesser of two evils. We watch in dismay from the sidelines as the opposing sides of the many issues that worry us tear each other apart when we actually want them to set aside their differences and come to a fruitful conclusion. We know that we are members of a silent majority that is the glue that is so tentatively holding our nation and our world together even as it appears to be falling apart.

Most of us have been taught to be respectful. We learned from our elders that speaking of religion and politics in public is bad form, taboo. We don’t wish to rock the boat, so we walk away from disagreements. We avoid mentioning topics that may lead to arguments. We tip toe around any discussions that might provide knowledge that makes us uncomfortable or challenges our thoughts. We worry that what we say will be ridiculed or misunderstood. We tell ourselves that nobody really cares what we have to say, and so we leave the speeches and the commentaries to strangers who are leading us away from what we actually believe. We know that we want to do something to change our current situation, but we have no idea how to even begin. The answer lies in the very freedom that we all too often neglect to exercise.

A shockingly low percentage of those eligible to vote take the time to go to the polls. Even fewer voice their beliefs to those who have been elected and are supposed to be serving all of the people. It takes only a few minutes to send an email or compose a letter to a representative. We waste our time on Facebook and Twitter, but when enough of us flood the offices of the President and Congress with our opinions we have the power of collectively making a difference. We have glorious rights that we have become too lazy or cynical to use. Instead of battling with friends and family in circular arguments, we should be contacting the very people who are supposed to be working for us.

I write because I am free to do so. I will please some and enrage others. The facts of my demographics do not serve as impediments to my rights as they might in so many corners of the world. I celebrate my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness with my words. It is a glorious feeling to be able to do so, and I will continue as long as it is my right.

Thinking Inside the Box

clichés-900x675“It’s such a cliche,” she says. “I am weary of platitudes,” he complains. “That comment was so trite,” they observe.

I often see such statements in the quibbling that arises in discussions involving politics or religion. The putdowns are intended to be an assessment of the quality of ideas rather than a sound rebuttal. There is more emotion than rational thought in such outbursts, more insult and arrogance than counterpoint. The use of snide commentary has become fashionable in the modern world of tweets and soundbites. The more outrageous the idea, the more memorable it becomes and so we eschew the old ways of using parables and fables and familiar sayings or themes to explain our human natures. Instead we search for originality and condemn the laziness of quoting ancient ideas.

The dictionary tells us that a cliche is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms:

platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplacebanality, old saying, maximtruism, stock phrase, trite phrase; old chestnut

“a good speechwriter will steer clear of clichés”

As someone who strives to string words together in unique ways there is probably no greater disappointment than to be considered trite, and yet I know full well that much of what I communicate is as old as the dirt on the ground. There are few totally original ideas. The themes and phrases that we use tend to simply be variations on ways of expressing ourselves that were actually invented eons ago. Furthermore, there is a usefulness of maxims that rings true through the centuries and captures our imaginations even though we have heard them many times before. The best of the old sayings are powerful educational tools perhaps because they are so familiar.

Each day those who watch television find hundreds of possible viewing choices, many of which feature programming that is quite original, modern, even avant guard, and yet in the month of December it was the Hallmark Channel that achieved the highest ratings. This of course was due in the main because of the 24/7 airing of Christmas films most of whose plots were as easy to predict as the fairytales of our childhood. They featured characters who had become lost and eventually found, families that were united in love, communities where the spirit of the season was bright. The stories were predictable and filled with the commonplace, all of which viewers enjoyed with unadulterated delight. They provided an often wished for break from the anger and confusion of our present day situations, and the comfort of the familiar that is all too often missing in the angst driven programming that is the fare of more critically acclaimed features.

The fact that such mundane movies were so embraced should tell us that people are generally weary and prefer light hearted positive messages over the portrayal of the complexities of life that daunt us in the real world. The public is voting for a break from gritty depictions of trouble, and instead choosing hackneyed positivity because sometimes we simply need a time out and a return to the familiar.

Cliches have in fact served as potent truisms whether in the form of fables or films throughout history. They are teaching tools that help us to remember and reflect on important ideas. Just because they are so on target that they are often quoted does not make them useless, but rather timeless and memorable. They provide us with a compact way of expressing important thoughts when our own minds are unable to create new phrases. There is a usefulness in them that we should not eschew simply because they are old and well known, or because they express ideas with which we do not agree.

There are indeed times when we find ourselves at a loss for words. When we hear of a mother who has lost a child or a spouse whose mate is dying, we often find it difficult to know what to say. We turn to the old masters who somehow found the brilliance to create comforting phrases that have a universal appeal throughout the ages. To argue that they make a comment moot simply because they have been used before is a kind of cliche in and of itself. It is a smug put down without really addressing the actual situation. The person who does such a thing may feel superior, but is in reality showing little original thought. An insult is rarely an effective argument as we see all too often in social networking.

There is a disconcerting haughtiness in the insinuations of those who mock the use of time honored phrases that is frankly disturbing to me. It is as disquieting as suggesting that one way of living is superior to another. In reality the abundance of variety speaks to the human need to be free to choose, a reality that we should respect rather than mock.

I would so love to see 2018 become the year of understanding and acceptance. It would be grand if we were somehow able to put an end to so much division and unwillingness to allow everyone to live and let live, and we might start by listening to the intended meaning of what people say rather than parsing their words for significances that are more in our minds than theirs. Our constant critiquing and arguing has become so loathsome that we find ourselves wanting to tune out and tune in to make believe worlds where everything comes out well in the end. We prefer staying inside the security of the box to venturing into unknown thoughts.

The truth is that if we worked just a bit harder to be open to differences of opinions and ideas we might indeed find closer approximations of the happy endings portrayed on those Hallmark movies. The platitudes that our mothers and fathers and teachers taught us were not meant to be nags, but guidelines for living more fully. There was a reason why they became so popular that everyone was repeating them, and they may in fact provide us with ways of better enjoying our human experience. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss them or the individuals who remind us of their power. We needn’t snicker with superiority. We all have much to learn.    

Mad Dogs and English

maxresdefaultI’ve loved to read from the time that I was quite young. I suspect that the warm feelings that I get from escaping into a well written tale began with the times when my father entertained me with his collection of fairytales and poetry. He’s been gone since I was only eight years old, but I have a vivid image of him devouring all forms of print with a joy that literally lit up his countenance. I suppose that in a Pavlovian sense I associate the act of reading with the love that my father gave so generously to me. For that reason delving into books is an immensely pleasurable experience. Sadly there are many for whom reading is an onerous task associated with negative encounters with teachers who were less about actually leading them to an appreciation of great works of literary art, and more about pounding them with cold rubrics and grading systems.

Besides learning from my dad at an early age that reading is one of our most glorious gifts I was lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who made every aspect of exploring the English language a beloved experience. I so looked forward to his class every single day that I was inspired to major in English in college. My professors there often asked me where I had received my educational background because I always seemed to be a bit more advanced in my command of the English language than my peers. Mostly it was because my teacher had inspired all of us to love the poetry, literature, grammar and usage of our language so that we became prolific writers and lifelong readers. It was his enthusiasm that lured us, not sets of rules. Like my father he understood that first one must appreciate the words, then the interpretations and ability to string them together comes almost naturally.

Recently I heard of a young man who has been working quite hard to please his freshman high school advanced placement English teacher. He faithfully read the book that she had assigned for summer reading and carefully followed her instructions for writing a report. He is a rather self motivated soul, and so he had completed the assignment far in advance of the opening of school so that he would be ready to present it to the teacher on the first day of class. The floods came to Houston delaying the beginning of the school year, but when the doors finally opened he was ready. The teacher decided to give everyone some extra time and refused to take his early submission. When she finally collected all of the work he was more than happy to hand his over to her. Nine weeks later she had still not graded the papers. When she finally did she essentially gave everyone the same mark and never returned the work so that they might determine the areas where they might improve.

A similar thing happened with a poster project that she gave them after reading their first novel of the year. The teacher provided the students with a rubric and emphasized that it was not an art project. The students only task was to select one of three themes and then find quotes from the book that represented one of that idea. The rubric instructed them to choose ten references, no more and no less. Neatness was a consideration, but not elaborate artistry. They eager student selected a black poster board and attempted to find a variety of color references from throughout the story. He meticulously typed them in the required font and carefully affixed them onto paper of the colors that they represented. Then placed them on the black background. He noticed that they represented the colors of the spectrum, so he used some colorful crystals to create his title in those hues. He carefully checked each aspect of the rubric and felt that he had a great submission. When he got to class he was proud of his efforts until the teacher began gushing over posters that included detailed drawings and other artistic creativity. In the end the students who had turned their projects into works of art worthy of a gallery earned the high grades and those who had followed the instructions on the rubric only received average marks with no comments as to why this was so.

With only another rubric to follow and no direct guidance for mastery, the young man recently wrote a research paper, his first ever for this same teacher. He worked quite hard but was somewhat unsure as to what his teacher might be hoping to see. Still he was confident that he had done a more than adequate job, so he was utterly dismayed when he saw online that he had made a sixty seven on the paper. He literally broke into tears as he relayed his frustration to his mom who shared his story with me hoping to garner from advice regarding how to proceed from this point forward. 

I could not help thinking of my old English teacher who had a very different and humane style of teaching. When I wrote my first research paper for him it was a mess, but he did not fail me. Instead he used the moment as a great learning experience by patiently demonstrating to me where I had gone wrong and how I might improve my writing in the future. After that I became well known for having superior skills in writing research papers. Again and again all the way through graduate school I used the techniques that he showed me. He might have humiliated me and left me wondering if I was somehow deficient, but he chose to help me master the technique of composing a worthy paper. The end result was that I not only improved, but I also came to love writing. To this very day he remains my all time favorite teacher.

In my final years in education I mentored teachers and helped them to improve their skills. The best among them always understood that their job was not to catch students failing, but rather to help them to become proficient. I remember attending the class of an English teacher who had his students enthusiastically quoting Beowulf as though is was a modern day rap. When some of his kids totally missed the mark on their senior research papers he asked me to work with him in an effort to help them to edit and rewrite their compsisitons so that they would earn satisfactory marks. Like my old teacher he encouraged his students every step of the way and in the end they were all much stronger writers capable of deep literary analysis.

I saw a novelist on PBS last week who reminded me with his brilliant words of just how we learn to be courageous when it comes to mastering the intricacies of language. He likened the fear of reading and writing to a child who is terrified of dogs. He pointed out that we would not force such a youngster to interact with a snarling pitbull in order to learn how to be more comfortable with canines. Instead we would let him/her cuddle sweet puppies and then slowly but surely provide interactions with bigger animals. He suggested that the way to teach the beauty of the English language to children is to begin with little chunks in the form of poems about topics that they might love, not worrying so much about how well they will interpret the words. An ability to think critically about what we read and write will evolve as we tackle more and more difficult tracts because we so love the very idea of reading and then writing about what we have learned from the words.

It saddens me to think that a young man who approached his English class with so much care and enthusiasm before school had even begun is now feeling incompetent and negative about the processes of understanding and using his language. It might have been a grand adventure like mine was, but the teacher in her unfeeling ways has made it an onerous task through which he must endure. I can only hope that this will not color his lifelong feelings about something that should instead be beautiful.