Monday, October 31, 2005
Time alone with God. Nice brisk air. Beautiful scenery. Lots of great people to converse with. And a good coffee shop. Besides internet access, what more could a guy ask for? It was a wonderful week of teaching, making new friends, seeing old friends, and reminiscing about a few who couldn't make it this year.
As I make my way through my massive to-do list today and tackle some of the most important tasks, I'm planning to resume my regular posting schedule here tomorrow. See you then.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
First-time novelists must write the entire book before a publisher will consider it—unlike nonfiction books which are sold to publishing houses with a book proposal and written after a contract has been signed. I make a living from my writing, so I can't set aside large amounts of time for a project for which I might never be paid.
With all of that said, I think I've found a good compromise—National Novel Writing Month. It's a challenge to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel in 30 days—from November 1 to November 30. Once a person registers, you can log your progress on the website each day and it'll tell you exactly where you stand regarding the goal. My novel will be longer than 50,000 words, but if I were able to write that many words in one month, then I'd be well on my way to getting it done by the end of the year.
National Novel Writing Month is mostly designed for "seat of the pants" novelists—those writers who don't use intricate character development charts or story outlines. They like to let the story unfold in front of them. Since I write for newspapers, I've learned to write much quicker that I used to and while I don't think I'll ever really be a seat of the pants novelist, I already have characters in mind for my novel and I have a good idea about where I want to take them.
So I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month challenge and I'm ready to go. Will I be able to follow through? I have no idea. But it'll be fun trying. If you've ever thought about writing a novel, maybe now would be a good time to stop thinking and talking about writing it and actually do it.
Monday, October 24, 2005
In another ad, actor Luke Perry asks parents if they can name three characters that his character ate lunch with regularly on the hit television show Beverly Hills 90210. And fans of the show can easily name Brenda, Brandon, Kelly, and others. (Yes, I watched the show in the early 90's.) Then he asks parents if they can name three students that their own children hang out with in the lunch room.
While I think that government schools are already way too nosey, and at times portray a sense of arrogance in regards to what is best for students, I like this effort by the PTA. The rather direct questions in these ads will hopefully cause all of us to think about how much time we spend being entertained by people we don't know. Most of us follow the lives of fictional characters on television on a weekly basis. We get to know their mannerisms, their weaknesses, their family problems, and many other intricate details about their lives. But yet, our neighbors are complete strangers—barely acknowledged with just an occasion wave or head nod.
I'm certainly guilty of it. For a long time, whenever I needed someone to feed my cat when I traveled, I would ask a relative—most of whom live at least five miles away from me—to come over and feed her. Before I left on my last trip, I decided that it was time to visit the couple who lives next door to me. They invited me in, we had a nice hour-long discussion, and I learned a little about their daily routines. Of course, they were happy to feed my cat. While I was gone, the man noticed that the lock on my front door didn't work properly so he fixed it. How cool is that? I don't know the couple next door yet as well as I know many characters on television, but it's a start.
Friday, October 21, 2005
I hardly recognize my old neighborhood. Actually it's my new old neighborhood. A few years ago, I moved back into the neighborhood I grew up in and it was immediately obvious that things weren't the same.
The little drug store on the corner that I used to buy baseball cards in is now an office for a construction company. The playground that I played many baseball games on—and experienced my first kiss on—is no longer a playground. Instead, five houses sit on that lot. The grade school I attended has been turned into apartments. The barber shop I frequented as a kid has been closed. I'm not sure if Ray the Barber died or if he just decided to retire. Gang graffiti is now prominent on buildings and under bridges. No, this isn't the same neighborhood I grew up in.
One by one these changes occurred—none of them seeming to be connected—just many individuals making separate decisions. But ultimately they are all connected, at least for those of who us remember what the neighborhood used to be like. Neighborhoods change with time—just like nearly everything else. But the older I get the more I want people to at least acknowledge how things used to be. Not because things were better then, but because those things are part of who I am.
If people forget the name of the little drug store—turned construction company on the corner, then somehow it feels like they are denying that I ever spent many allowances there. If people don't even know that the neighborhood kids played baseball games on the lot where five houses now sit, then it feels like people are saying those games were never played. If people who are living in the apartments where I used to attend grade school don't even realize it was a school, it's like they are saying…well, you get the idea.
The exception to all of this is my first kiss. No matter how much the neighborhood changes, nothing can ever invade or even come close to stealing that memory away. I guess because I guard it so closely. And maybe therein lies the answer to this dilemma, if you can really call it that. Maybe I'm supposed to guard these other memories in some fashion, like maybe writing them down in full detail, so that I can point to something tangible that won't change.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
But instead, he said something along the lines of, "Because life is often about just paying the phone bill and being happy about being able to do so and those are the sort of things I write about."
I don't agree with the majority of Mellencamp's politics, but I've never forgotten the premise of what he was saying during that interview. Joy can be found in simply living up to every day responsibilities. And even today, all these years later, I still get a small sense of satisfaction when I pay the phone bill.
If you get a chance, read the article. It includes a story about an eleven year old boy who was in the shelter on his birthday and I was so touched by it that I had a hard time getting through the article during the revision process.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
"Go as far as you can see, and when you get there you will see farther." – Orison Swett Marden
"If you don’t have enemies, you don’t have character." – Paul Newman
"Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us." – Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice
"Do the thing you are afraid to do and the death of fear is certain." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Yet, how often you do hear people misuse the word in a debate? They say things like, "I find it interesting that he has always been against ____________, but now he seems to have changed his mind." He doesn't really consider this change of heart "interesting." He either considers it a "flip flop," or maybe even "deceitful" if done for political reasons, but not "interesting." People probably intentionally misuse the word in a debate format because they want those listening to draw their own conclusions. It seems to be a polite way to point out an inconsistency. I'm all for polite, but why not just ask a direct question without a harsh or biting tone?
People misuse the word "interesting" in social gatherings as well. One friend tells another friend about something he's read, or saw, or experienced and the other friend, who doesn't share the same passion for the topic, says, "Hmm. Interesting." What he really means is, "Hmm. I have no idea what to say, but I need to respond, and I don't want to be rude, so I'll say it's interesting and hopefully you won't ask me if I really find it interesting." Why not just stay engaged with eye contact and then nod to indicate that you are still listening?
Like I said in my post about the word "just," I'm probably too picky about such things, but doesn't this type of misuse of words empty or alter their meaning?
Monday, October 17, 2005
I just couldn't imagine throwing away a card or letter from a friend. I never even thought about deleting e-mail from friends—it all went into a separate folder. I collected the front page of newspapers whenever big national events occurred. I kept almost every issue of some of my favorite magazines. I routinely had an inbox piled full of paperwork that I meant to handle, but often never found the time.
The result of all this, as you might imagine, is a house full of stuff. I've already written a couple of posts about my decision to go through my basement to get rid of most of the junk that has piled up over the years because I just felt like I had to hold on to it. I'm still making progress. I spend 15 minutes every day throwing stuff away and I've made enormous strides.
What has brought me to the point of realizing that I'm too sentimental and as a result, have kept too much stuff that clutters my house? A lot of little things. Moving it all a couple of times in the last five or six years. Never being able to find what I'm looking for because it's all buried in the avalanche of stuff. And a growing belief, rooted in my theology, that I ought to run my house, not the other way around.
I'm the type of person who externally appears to transition from one period of life to the next quite well. I'm mild-mannered and don't show a lot of emotion one way or the other—although I often would like to. But internally, it's a different story. I don't like change. So, I guess my way of dealing with it has been to hang on to little tangible pieces of the past.
But for all of the reasons I listed above, I've come to a place in my life when I want to think about the possibilities of a good future and stop thinking so much about the past. As for the present—I'd be happy if I could finally get organized.
Friday, October 14, 2005
If it is true that you can tell a lot about a man by the books that he reads, then I'd say that you can also tell a lot by what he doesn't read and maybe even more by which books he doesn't own.
Five years ago, I decided to start keeping a running list (actually a spreadsheet) of all the books I read, broken down by the year I read them. Since I started keeping the list, I've read 91 books. So, I'm averaging about 20 books per year. I bet that I buy at least 40 books a year, so what does that tell you? Yeah, I'm little behind.
But I suspect I'm like most other people who love to read. I buy tons of books, I read many of them, but some just sit on the shelf year and year and never get touched. I call these my "good intention" books. I had good intentions when I bought them and plan to get to them someday, but not while so many other good books are calling my name.
One such book is The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor. It's a book of 31 stories and it's not too big to tackle…around 550 pages. I've never been crazy about reading short stories, but I know that O'Connor is highly regarded and I want to read her for myself. I've just never gotten around to it.
I suspect it's because I'm a bit of a selfish reader. When I read fiction, I generally choose the latest novels by my favorite contemporary authors—not because I think that they are better than the classics, but because I can identify with modern characters better.
With that said, I've been thinking about reading many of the classics that I never got around to reading. Ultimately I know that all characters, whether in classic literature or contemporary, have many of the same goals and desires that are common to man. They love and hate and at times show apathy. They aspire to write, teach, paint, travel, and marry. And they want good friends with which to dine and to share life experiences.
The point where classic literature often loses me is the setting. It seems that many, if not most, who enjoy reading classic literature, prefer to read about other time periods and other places because they like the escape to the unfamiliar. I prefer the escape to the familiar.
That probably sounds like an oxymoron, but I really enjoy being inside the head of a contemporary character to see how he or she thinks about specific scenarios and to see what motivates him or her. I often find my own thoughts and motivations challenged in the process.
But maybe it's time I made time for Ms. O'Connor and many of the other great writers of the past. I suspect I'd be just as challenged by their writings, if not more.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
My distaste for small talk is rooted in the typical razzing that overweight kids get from peers in school. I was already shy, so every time someone made fun of me, I sank a little deeper inside myself, with no real desire to come out and see what the real world was up to.
I've always had a few close friends at different stages of my life and I was happy with that. I had people to share life with—so why participate in small talk with people who were supposed to be nice? To a degree it felt like an extension of the mockery I'd come to despise.
One day several years ago, a friend challenged me…
"Thanks and have a nice day," a store clerk said to me.
I echoed her remark in a nonchalant fashion and walked out of the store.
"What was that all about?" my friend asked.
"What do you mean?"
"She was polite, and you hardly acknowledged her."
"I said 'Thanks' didn't I?"
"She has to be polite," I said. "That's her job. That wasn't a real conversation."
For the first time though, I actually had second thoughts about my objection to small talk. My argument had some merit, but as I drove home that evening I came to the realization that the problem wasn't really small talk, or store clerks, or any other outside entity. My problem was me. I had operated in self-protection mode for so long that I had become bitter toward strangers.
Shortly after this event, another friend challenged me to begin taking chances in life—with other people and with my dreams. She believed that I could accomplish my dreams before I ever even considered them to be possible. I was always just content to dream. She was patient, and loving, and firm in her insistence that I be more open to all that life has to offer.
One day I took her advice…and I was rejected after showing interest in a woman who, as it turned out, had no interest in me. But for the first time in many many years, I felt fully alive, complete with anticipation, and excitement, and yes, ultimately defeat—the complete spectrum of the human experience all in one afternoon.
I'm still shy and I'm still afraid of being ridiculed or rejected, but I've actually begun to enjoy small talk. It's not a waste of time, but rather, it's the way people begin the process of interaction. And in reality, no matter how much we might deny it, most of us long for personal connections.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
"Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of."--Benjamin Franklin
"Fight and you may die. Run and you'll live, at least a while. And, dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies, that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!" --William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart)
"The heights by great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight. But they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night." --Thomas S. Monson
"Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened." --Winston Churchill
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
I opened a box in my basement a couple of days ago and found a number of birthday cards and old letters. Some of them came from my dad and grandmother, who are both deceased now. One letter was from my high school sweetheart. Another was from a girl that I knew shortly after I graduated from high school. And two were from a female friend with whom I endured some difficult times during early adulthood. All of the cards and letters are great memories, preserved on paper, and available to read decades later.
I can't help but wonder if people will actually take the time to preserve e-mail in the same fashion. E-mail is now the norm for staying in touch. But is it so easy, and instant, and deletable, that we are failing to preserve it? I've changed e-mail programs probably five or six times since going online in 1994. I've had numerous computers. And with some exceptions, most of the personal e-mail I've received over the years is gone. I do have several hundred e-mails from my dad and various other friends and relatives saved on a floppy disk that I really need to find a better way to preserve. Maybe I ought to burn it on CD or find a way to preserve it in paper format—or both.
Twenty years from now, I want to be able to stumble across words written to me from people I love. What about you? Are you preserving e-mail you've received over the years with the same vigor that you've saved cards and letters?
Monday, October 10, 2005
Blended with my thoughts about needing a new(er) car is that nagging sense of sentimentality that is all too familiar. As my basement can attest, I hang on to too many things for sentimental reasons. I can never find them when I want to take a trip down memory lane, but something about knowing I have them packed away somewhere seems to be enough to appease that side of me that hates, and sometimes refuses, to let go.
I bought my current car, a forest green Dodge Neon, in 1998—two years before my dad died. He sat in my passenger seat dozens of times as we had long conversations about politics, family matters, sports, and every other thing that fathers and sons normally talk about. He was tall and I can still see him scrunching up his legs to fit into my little matchbox of a car. He was a smoker, but always respected my "no-smoking" car. He was a coffee drinker and I can still see him holding his plastic coffee mug in his right hand as he pointed me to the nearest gas station so he could get a refill.
Giving up the car we shared so many such memories will not be easy. Just thinking about it brings a sense of uneasiness. Everybody else, including the person or car dealer that I sell the car too, will have no knowledge of the car's history. To that person, it'll simply be the same type of transaction that is carried out multiple times every day. But for me, it'll be much more than that.
I'll do it anyway when the time comes because much of life is about "doing it anyway." But it'll still be a sad day.
Friday, October 07, 2005
Here's the prompt for today: Fictional character with whom you most identify?
As crazy as this sounds, the answer is Father Tim in the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. I'm not in my 60's. I'm not Episcopalian. I'm certainly not a priest, but yet I so identify with him. Early in the series, he's a busy guy, content with his work, his dog, his books, his naps and the single life that he's grown so accustomed to. He never ruled out marriage, but it didn't seem to be in his future, so he just lived his life.
I haven't always been so content, but I'm getting there. A few years ago, I told a friend that even if I could somehow see into the future to find out if I would be married or not, I wouldn't want to know because if I found out that I would never find a spouse, it would crush me.
Since then however, my perspective has changed. Maybe it's maturity. Maybe it's an extra measure of grace from God. I don't know. But I now see my life as full—complete with family celebrations, hanging out with friends on weekends in coffee shops, reading any book I choose at any hour I desire with my slippers on while sitting in my favorite recliner (that used to belong to my grandmother), roughing up my cat when she wants to "fight" (of course, she wins every time and is still undefeated), and a lot of other things I used to take for granted when my eyes were on something I didn't have, but wished that I did.
I'm getting quite comfortable in my routines. And oddly, anything that threatens those routines now makes me wonder if I want to interrupt those routines. This is one of the reasons I identify so much with the Father Tim character. Let me back up a little.
In the first of the seven books in the series, a new neighbor named Cynthia moves in next to Father Tim. She's a writer, she's outgoing, she's funny, and she awakens something within Father Tim that he never expected (yes, Episcopalian priests can marry). Here's a little excerpt from At Home in Mitford:
I can picture myself thinking the same thoughts if I were in Father Tim's shoes. He eventually comes face to face with the "going steady" dilemma and his love for Cynthia pushes him past his comfort zone. My life is a lot like that. When I have a desire for something, like marriage, that doesn't appear to be in the works, I find a level of contentment. Then, something happens, like a new woman appearing out of the blue, and pushes me back into marriage mode.
"These pears," she said, "are ravishing, to put it plainly."
"One of the qualities I like in you is that you put things plainly."
"What else do you like about me?" she asked, unashamedly licking the sauce off her spoon.
"Now, Cynthia…" He felt a mild panic.
"Oh, just say! And then I'll tell you what I like about you."
To think that he might have been sitting here in perfect peace, in his burgundy dressing gown and old slippers, reading or dozing… "Well then. Are the rules complete candor? Or shall we shade the truth and flatter one another?"
Back and forth it goes. It used to drive me crazy. I've always liked steadiness and anything that causes ripples in my life seems to be an enemy to the familiar. But I'm starting to see that the ebb and flow of life is a constant, and ultimately necessary. And just coming to that realization helps to settle my anxiety about change.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Like the rest of us, Elisabeth has experienced the depths of loneliness. My first post about this book highlighted one such instance where she felt alone while on a crowded airplane. That's what I love about this book—Elisabeth doesn't try to pretend that loneliness isn't real and she doesn't try to minimize it. She meets it head on.
In one chapter, titled the "The Glory of Sacrifice," she suggests that loneliness can and should be offered as a sacrifice to God. Here's a little taste of what she said:
"After the Crucifixion came the Resurrection. After the Resurrection the Ascension. Because Jesus wore a crown of thorns, He now wears a crown of glory. Because He became poor, He now sits enthroned. Because He made Himself of no reputation, He now has a name which is above every name. Because He was willing to become a slave, He is now Master of everything. Because He was obedient to death, He is Lord of Life and holds the keys of hell and of death. Because He made Himself of no reputation, every knee will someday bow before Him. Every renunciation led to glory."
Powerful stuff, isn't it? She goes on to ask: "Is it not clear to us that the sacrifice of Calvary was not a tragedy but the release of life and power? Do we believe this?" And her inference is clear—if we believe this, then our loneliness, as real as it is, is not a tragedy, but rather an opportunity to taste the life God intended for us, if only we will offer up our loneliness as a sacrifice of praise.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
'There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book." –Saul Bellow
"Our lives improve only when we take chances—and the first most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves." –Walter Anderson
"Be kind—remember everyone you meet is fighting a battle—everybody's lonesome." –Marion Parker
"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable." –Sidney J. Harris
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
In school, I saw little value in studying history. I wish I would have had a better understanding that history is necessarily bound to the future. Nobody ever explained that to me. Instead, history class was something to be endured with the hope that I could remember facts and quotes long enough to pass the next test and then move on to the next set of facts and quotes.
I wish I had known that the study of history is the study of worldviews—those that failed and those that succeeded. I wish I had understood that a nation who doesn't know her history has no sense of what made her great (or evil) and without any anchor to the past, nations drift with each passing generation from one convoluted worldview to the next.
In recent years, I've been educating myself about history—reading and talking to others about things I should have learned long ago. A few weeks ago, I received a link in an e-newsletter to a great website that is helping me in my journey. The website is called American Rhetoric and one of the pages on the site includes the text (and often the actual audio) of what it considers to be the 100 best speeches of the 20th century.
I've been listening to some of the various speeches as I work each morning and I'm really enjoying it. If you get a chance, check it out.
Monday, October 03, 2005
I made one such trip on Friday afternoon during lunch. I had three things on my list and was determined to be in and out of the store within five minutes. As I headed into the store, I got behind an elderly couple walking extremely slow. The man, slightly doubled-over and looking like he probably needed a little help, was supporting the woman, who was using a cane, by locking elbows with her. It almost looked like they like were using each other for support and if one of them had let go, they both would have crashed to the ground.
Something about seeing an elderly couple showing signs of support and affection gets to me. I'm especially sentimental about such things because my grandparents modeled love in this fashion for me as I was growing up. When my grandpa got critically ill, my grandma was right there with him—feeding him, helping him out of bed, changing his clothes, taking him to the bathroom, all the while, treating him as the love of her life that he had always been.
Of course, the couple in the store might have been brother and sister or maybe even just friends, but neither of those scenarios would change the fact that they love each other. I see people like this as walking testimonies of love in a culture that doesn't appear to even understand what love is. It's easy to be "in love" and show affection toward others when we're young and/or in lust. It's much harder to actually put love into practice by persevering with someone through trials. And let's be honest, if love doesn't persevere, can we really call it love?
So, I waited for this couple to get inside the store and eventually made my way toward the isles I needed to get to. After I picked up two of the things on my list and was headed for the third, I passed an elderly woman slowly pushing a shopping cart past the meat section. She stopped and said this to the two butchers behind the counter: "I just have to say that your display looks beautiful."
I felt like I was in a television commercial or something. Who actually stops to compliment people for a job well done anymore? Perhaps people who have lived long enough to know that others are more important than racing in and out of a store with the sole purpose of getting everything on a shopping list within five minutes.