I am no longer blogging here at Little Nuances, but I would love for you to join me on my author website www.leewarren.info.

Friday, March 31, 2006

43 Things

As someone who is committed to become a better planner—and a better worker of the plan—I found a website a couple of months ago that I really enjoy. It's nothing elaborate and it won't magically transform a person into a great planner, but it does provide good motivation. It's called 43 Things.

The premise is simple. As a registered user (it's free), a person makes a list of 43 things that he or she wants to accomplish. The list can include general or specific plans (I prefer specific). Once a person enters a goal, he or she is affiliated with all of the other people on the website with the same goal.

One of the things on my list is to "publish a novel." I'm not the only one with that goal—277 people right now want to publish one as well. I've actually written a couple of novels, but I want to write another one—now that I finally know what I'm doing. The first two were just practice. I didn't know that at the time, but that's what transpired.

Anyway, when you click on one of your goals you'll see short bios of other people who are trying to do the same thing. You can click on bios and leave "cheers" to root people on. Or you can send messages through the service—but 43 Things runs a tight ship. Spamming is discouraged and they have a system in place to help keep it from happening.  

Beyond seeing what others with similar goals are up to, you can also write entries (much like blog posts) that get attached to your goals so people can see how you are progressing. You can also see the bios of people who have already accomplished the goal you are working on and they tell you whether or not they believed the goal was worth pursuing.

You get the idea. The site is full of ways to bond with people who are pursuing the same goals as you are. Knowing that others are pursuing and struggling toward the same things somehow strengthens a person's resolve to continuing the fight.

I'm still tweaking my list, but when I get it done, I'll probably post it here at Little Nuances. 43 Things even has a RSS feed which makes it easy to display a list on blogs and websites. Give the website a try when you get a chance.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The French Riots

I've never been one to bash the French for the mere sport of it. In fact, on my previous blog, I wrote a post called "The French Are Not Cowards" in which I reminded people of two facts: first, a French soldier named Marquis de Lafayette fought alongside George Washington at Valley Forge and second, if a French fleet hadn't driven the British navy from Chesapeake Bay during the War for Independence, we'd hardly be the home of the free.

Granted, that was a long time ago. But more than a hundred years after the War for Independence, the people of France sent us a gift—the Statue of Liberty, which according to the National Park Service, they gave to us "in recognition of the friendship established during the American Revolution." We didn't send it back, so I can only assume that our relationship with them couldn't have been all that bad.

Fast forward another hundred years to the modern era, and well…France is a mess. They've created a welfare state, and as is always the case with welfare states, they create dependents who moan when said welfare state threatens to shut off the cash flow. A couple of days ago, more than a million young adults took to the streets in more than 250 protests all across the country in France.

They were protesting because France passed a law that allows employers to fire employees under 26 without cause, which obviously shatters the notion that so many in France are accustomed to—a guaranteed job for life.

One 18 year-old Paris protestor named Maxime Ourly, a literature student, said this: "Young people are sacrificed in the name of the economy, and we are here to fight against it. We don’t know what will happen in the future, and we want to control our futures."

If you want to control your future Maxime, then control it. Stop depending upon the government to give you security. If you knew anything about history, then you'd know that socialism never sustains itself. It collapses from within. The economy that you show such distain for is your lifeblood. You have a vested interest in it doing well.

An opinion writer named David Rennie made this observation about the riots on The Daily Telegraph website in London: "The students want to turn back the clock to the France of their parents, and grandparents—to some golden age, when jobs were for life and the state took care of all ills. This is militant, car-burning nostalgia."

Nostalgia for socialism is sad, but when one generation after another knows nothing else, it is understandable. When the protest turns violent however, it goes from sad to criminal—as was the case during the most recent protests/riots in which five police officers were injured.

Maybe a little capitalism would be in order the next time these rioters try such a thing. No better time than the present to take advantage of the new law by firing every employee who skips work to protest the fact that the government is no longer going to guarantee them a job.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Reality TV

Reality television. You either love it or hate it. Some of it is staged, some of it looks legitimate, and some of looks stupid. But huge amounts of people are watching it and I've been thinking about why it appeals to so many. My first thought was to compare reality television to novels and movies. Maybe we don't care whether reality television is staged because we love the escape and the emotion that it can invoke within us.

As much as my first thought is probably true, I think the answer is probably deeper than that. If we care about fictional characters, how much more attractive is the possibility of following the lives of real life people?

Recently, while flipping through one of Henri Nouwen's books called Reaching Out, something he said clicked. He said that every day he got on a subway train and everybody on board did their best to try to ignore everybody else. They were buried in newspapers, books, and magazines, trying to avoid eye contact with each other. At the same time, Nouwen said, billboards on the subway walls had messages that invited him to interact with people. The faces on the billboards all smiled and offered a sense of concern about him and his needs.

In our haste to secure our privacy and to keep to ourselves, we've cut ourselves off from old fashioned community. The community that we have today is structured. We have a community of people we interact with at work or school. We have a community of people we interact with at church. We have a community of friends we interact with on the weekends. But interacting with strangers has become something to avoid.  

Along came reality television offered us the chance to see into the lives of people we don't know. We supposedly get to see how they react in real life settings and somehow that seems to temporarily fill the need that we all have for community. But watching or reading about people involved in community can never take the place of getting involved in one.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Anniversary Dates

My dad died on April 11, 2000 and when the six year anniversary arrives in a couple of weeks, I imagine I'll do what most other people do to get through the anniversary date of the death of a loved one. I'll endure it by remembering him and the times we shared together.  

In recent days, as I've thought about the events of that day six years ago, I've also been thinking about anniversary dates on a broader scale. Every single day of the year, somebody somewhere is enduring the loss of something from years gone by, and most of their closest friends don't really know it. Their friends remember the initial loss and maybe even the one year anniversary, but after that, it's gone.

And who came blame them? Trying to remember all of these dates is nearly impossible. Chances are—you and I are just like everybody else. We forget the anniversary dates of the tragedies and heartaches of our own friends. I sure do. I'm getting better about it because I started entering them into my Palm Pilot last year, but I do wonder how many friends have silently suffered heartaches while I was oblivious.

We miss out on some great opportunities to show people that we care about them every time we let one of these anniversary dates slip by. Bringing up past difficulties to people is difficult, but I think most people would be highly appreciative of the fact that we remembered their hardships. People aren't looking for answers from friends. They are looking for love, and concern, and acceptance. I can't think of a better way to show it than by remember something that most other people will quickly forget.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Abdul Rahman

Does anybody still question whether Islam makes converts via the sword after the Abdul Rahman case in Afghanistan? Last night, NBC reported that the "case" against Rahman was dropped because of "some technical as well as legal flaws." Notice that it wasn't dropped because the law was asinine or intolerant. And even though Rahman appears to be free, the law remains on the books.

What would happen if America had a similar law that said that anybody who was found guilty of converting to Islam would be executed? What sort of global outcry would we experience? Would Islamic nations declare war against us? Would terrorists step up their attempted attacks? Would the United Nations step in? How about an international court? The answer to all of those questions is probably yes.

If we think the level of hatred that Islamic countries have for America is high right now, how much higher would it be if we threatened to execute a convert to Islam? And why does Afghanistan get off so easily? Why aren't they seen as monsters rather than just a "new democracy" trying to find her way? I don't have an answer for that question, but listening to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on "Meet the Press" yesterday morning was sickening.

Here's part of what she said after making a case that the United States is in favor of religious freedom around the world: "We have to be respectful of the fact that this is a country that is coming out of twenty-five years of civil war. A country that is going to have to find its own way. And a country that is going through one of the most difficult debates that any society goes through—and that is the proper role of religion in the politics of the state."

After being questioned by host Tim Russert about Afghanistan's human rights violations, during which he said that the violations are "a far cry from the responsibilities and rights given to most people who live in a democracy," Rice responded by saying, "It's also a far cry from the Taliban. This is a country that has come an enormous way in four years."

We're talking about a country who believes it is okay to murder somebody for not holding to a particular belief system. How can that possibly be a far cry from the Taliban? And weren't we led to believe that the Taliban was a bunch of religious extremists who took over Afghanistan, but they didn't really speak for the common people? Looks to me like they spoke for the common people more than we ever imagined.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Speaking the Truth

"I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more, as I grow older." Michel de Montaigne, French essayist (1533-1592)

While reading the paper during lunch yesterday, I stumbled across the quote above. I nodded as I read it because I can certainly identify with de Montaigne. Some people know me as a soft spoken, mild-mannered, even-keeled, willing to help others, kind of guy. Others have known me to be a bit snobbish. Perhaps it's because to varying degrees in my life, I've failed to successfully walk the fine line between "speaking the truth in love" and just speaking the truth without regard for the other person.

Speaking the truth in love is my aim, but most of my life I've erred on the side of mushiness, which turned me into a people-pleaser. Other times, when I'm at my wits end, I speak the truth out of frustration and it comes across as arrogant. Or maybe it is arrogant. I don't know. When I suspect that my tone is too harsh, I try to dial it back a little because I think we're slowly losing the art of tact. Maybe it's the advent of instant communication that just makes it look or feel like we're losing the art, or maybe I just notice it more since I'm getting older, but I don't think so.

That's not to say that certain instances don't call for boldness—even bordering on the edge of brashness. Sometimes evil needs to be dealt with in such a fashion. But generally, tact wins the day. Doing so, however, without a bunch of qualifiers is difficult. I prefer to listen to and read the writings of people who tell me what they think, without qualifiers, modifiers, or apologies and let me decide if I agree or not. These are the people who challenge my presuppositions, my comfort, and my intellectual laziness that we're all prone to. But even those people come across as being too harsh at times.

de Montaigne seemed to be addressing the concept of courage in the quote above, but maybe he dared to speak the truth "a little more" as he got older as opposed to a lot more or continually because he saw the wisdom and compassion in being tactful—maybe to the point of silence when silence was appropriate.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Prima Donna Soriano

Alfonso Soriano makes $10 million a year to play baseball. You'd think that he'd be content to play any position that his manager tells him to play, but apparently Soriano thinks he's above all that.  

He was traded to the Nationals this past off season from the Texas Rangers. He's been a second baseman for most of his six-year career (he played a little shortstop and third base during his first season with the Yankees), but the Nationals didn't need Soriano to play second base. They have Jose Vidro who is a far better fielder (Soriano had the worst fielding percentage of all MLB second baseman last season who played enough games at the position to qualify for a ranking).

A few days ago, Soriano refused to play left field when manager Frank Robinson told him to do so. Then he refused again the next day. That prompted Nationals' GM Jim Bowden to threaten Soriano with the disqualification list—which meant that Soriano wouldn't have been paid until he changed his mind. Bowden had apparently already started to consult with MLB to make sure he could move Soriano to the DQ list, but Soriano caved and agreed to play left field yesterday.

If I were the Nationals' GM, I would still put Soriano on the DQ list. Refusing to play where his manager told him to is grounds for disqualification—and frankly, in my mind, I'd be looking to dump this headache somewhere else. I don't care how good Soriano is at the plate (and even that is debatable—he swings at everything and strikes out way too much), he doesn't deserve a spot on a major league roster.

I'm currently reading a book called The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner. In a chapter in which Euchner discusses "swinging styles," he said this: "Old-timers often disdain the uppercut. In its early days, baseball was a game of singles and doubles. Hall of Fame players like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Nelson Fox mastered the art of getting their bat on the ball, punching the ball through infield holes and outfield gaps. In an era dominated by pitching and fielding—as well as a Puritan ethic of small, unpretentious contributions to a team's offense—batters learned to swing down on the ball."

Imagine that—a puritan work ethic that was more concerned with the success of the team than an individual's next contract. What I wouldn't give for a return to those days. Whatever happened to running ground balls out, or bunting runners over, or slapping a ball to the right side to advance a runner? None of those things are nearly as sexy, but so what?

I'd love to see baseball teams either cut guys like Soriano loose (which is difficult to do in MLB with guaranteed contracts) or DQ them for a long period of time. Insubordination doesn't work in the real world and it shouldn't in MLB either.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Glorieta Christian Writers Conference

In 2005, I had a chance to teach a couple of classes at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference and I had a blast doing it. Yesterday, I was invited back to teach at the 2006 conference. The conference center is set in the beautiful mountains of Glorieta, New Mexico and this year the conference is going to be held October 11-15. If you are interested in writing for publication, this is an excellent conference to attend and I'd highly recommend signing up for it. Click here if you'd like to do so.

This will be my fourth straight year of attending the conference (the first two years I was an attendee) and I'm always impressed by the number of magazine and book publishing editors that the conference director is able to get to come to the conference. And the staff always contains many professional writers who are willing to meet with conferees to help them shape their manuscripts into more marketable pieces. I'll be one of those professional writers. I'll also be teaching a class about advanced blogging and leading several round table discussions about various different topics that will be pertinent to writers. By the way, if you are interested in purchasing a copy of the CD from the class I taught at the 2005 Glorieta Christian Writers Conference on blogging basics, you'll find a place to do so on the right side of this page.

I'm often asked by people who want to write for publication how to do it. I can give people tips depending upon their skill level and I've done that here on this blog—but the best piece of advice I can give anybody is to put yourself in front of editors at a conference. They are the people who can potentially purchase your work. But, don't worry so much about making the sale at your first conference. Instead, soak up the publishing atmosphere for five days. Meet the editors. Eat meals with them. Listen to what they are looking for. Listen to what they are not looking for. Talk to the freelancers in the coffee shop on campus. Make appointments with the freelancers. Attend as many classes as you can get to. And immerse yourself in the industry to figure out where you fit in.

You'll feel like a freshman who wanders the publishing halls when you first get there. And while you won't leave the conference as a senior if this is your first conference, you may end up feeling like a sophomore who leaves with a much better understanding of the publishing industry.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Free Cycle

From dating websites, to family websites complete with video and chat capabilities, to VOIP, the internet is bringing people together like never before.

My latest fascination is with a website called FreeCycle. It allows people to join a group of local people who post emails to the group offering or asking for free stuff. The organization was started to reduce waste. I think it's a great idea. Who doesn't have extra stuff lying around that they don't want to throw away, but they also don't have the time or the means to drop it off at a thrift store? I sure do. And I love the idea of my stuff going to people who can really use it.

I also like the idea that members of the group are not allowed to trade items, or even include links (or signatures) in emails that advertise businesses of any sort. The group is just about the distribution of free stuff. I've seen so many great things offered: tires, baby beds, clothing, movies on VHS, telephones, computer stuff, and many other things.

If you are a little short on cash, or just looking to make sure that your extra stuff ends up in the hands of someone who can really use it, give FreeCycle a shot.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Jeff Burton

You know you're a NASCAR fan when you watch the Busch Series race on Saturday leading up to the Nextel Cup race the following day. I knew I was going to be gone on Saturday, so I ended up taping Busch Series race and I'm glad that I did.

If you aren't familiar with the Busch Series, it's the highest level of the NASCAR minor leagues. Some of the greatest stories come out of the minor leagues of life. The minor leagues are where dreams are realized and sometimes, where they die. And once in a while, the minor leagues are where people like Jeff Burton go to prove to themselves and others that they've still got what it takes.

Burton first started racing in the Busch Series back in 1988 where he won 20 races and earned a shot in 1993 at the big leagues—the Winston Cup (now called the Nextel Cup). He won 17 races at the highest level in NASCAR by 2001. Then he changed racing teams. His victories faded away and he's been struggling ever since.

But on Saturday, at the Nicorette 300 Busch Series race in Atlanta, Jeff Burton took the lead with 20 laps to go and found himself in the Winner's Circle for the first time (on any level) since 2002. Afterward, he was interviewed, and he was quite emotional. Here's the brief exchange between the reporter and Burton:

Reporter: "It has been a long time Jeff."

Burton: "You know. It has been. You question yourself. You question everything. And I'm proud of myself. I've stayed focused through all of it. We're working really hard and trying really hard to get back to the top."

Burton's voice cracked throughout his statement and you got the sense that this win meant more to him that any win has in a long time. The Busch Series race next week will come and go and a few weeks from now, most people will forget who won the Nicorette 300 in 2006. But Jeff Burton won't.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Successful Days

Planning is a taste that I had to acquire. I've never been crazy about it. Mostly because I believed that it somehow zapped spontaneity. That was before I started my own writing business. Now I think that spontaneity is overrated. If I spend more time writing things I get paid little or nothing to write—not matter how much fun it might be, my business will fail. The further I've gotten into this venture, the more I've realized that I needed a specific plan that is multifaceted.

I need one plan that tells me how much work I need to get done each day on the projects I have due to editors. I have another plan that breaks down my work day based upon what I've learned about my work habits. I write best early in the day, so if I'm under contract (like I am right now) to write a book, I first work on my planned book quota (page-count or word-count, depending upon the project) for that day. Articles, paperwork, e-mail, and various other duties are handled in the afternoon when I don't need as much energy.

I've really been in the groove this past week—cranking out my page quota each morning on the book I'm writing and even making specific plans about the material I'll include in the book the following day when I sit down to write. I'm keeping up better with my other projects in the afternoon and early evening than I ever have and it's largely because I've discovered a schedule that maximizes my efficiency and I'm following it. For the past week or so, I've really felt like I've had a string of "successful days."

But that caused me to wonder about the definition of "successful." I don't think the days were successful because I got a lot of work done, but instead, because I got the work done that needed to be done in order to keep my business on track. But how will I feel if a family situation arises that pulls me away from my schedule? Will I still consider the day to be successful? I'm trying to incorporate a plan that includes buffers—which means I'm trying to be realistic about my goals each day while leaving extra time in case something else does need my attention—because invariably something will.

Just last week, one of my friends underwent surgery. I knew that I wanted to visit her in the hospital and I wanted to actually take a little time away from work to spend with her husband, whom I've been good friends with for years. I followed my normal routine that morning and by lunch time I had hit my page quota for my book project. The rest of things on my work agenda could wait until the next day—so I took the afternoon off, ate lunch with my friend and was able to visit my other friend, his wife, in the hospital that evening. That too, and maybe especially, was a successful day.

In fact, oddly, the more I plan, the more time I have for other things. I would have never thought that to be the case, but then again, I've never been the most organized person you'll ever meet. That's starting to change though and I'm enjoying the benefits. It has even changed the way I define "successful day." Formerly, I would have considered accomplishing a bunch of tasks in one day to be the definition of a successful day. Now I consider accomplishing the necessary, and good things (like being available for friends), to be the definition of a successful day.

But what about when my plans go awry and I'm not able to accomplish any of the necessary or good things I'd hoped? I'm still working on that—but I'm starting to think that embracing the challenges of each day, sorting through them all, and then doing the things that need to be done while letting everything else go until another day will be good enough.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Tender Secrets

I'm making a little progress each day on the book I'm reading called The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. It's still a painful book to read because the main character, Smithy Ide, is so unwilling to mask his deficiencies. But I love his insight about life. He's quite nonchalant about most things in life—including the time he got shot while fighting in Vietnam and the time he was hit by a truck while on his cross country bike ride. It's the in between moments—those moments when he's evaluating what has happened to him that I find most interesting.

One of those moments comes after he has just finished reading a book he bought on the road called Iggy. The book is set in the 1800's and it's about a black Cowboy who was just looking for his place in the world—sort of like Smithy.

Here's Smithy's reaction after finishing the book: "Anyway, Iggy. So good I was sorry I finished it. It was his whole life right until he was an old black man eating an apple under a Colorado cottonwood. Everybody would think that he was just another old black man, but all of us who read the book knew that he was a giant. A great man at the end of his life. It was a tender kind of a secret, and I loved knowing it."

What I liked about his take was this—obviously he knew that Iggy was a fictional character and that he would never really see Iggy sitting under a Colorado cottonwood. But it seems to me that Smithy was saying that everybody has a story and it's a shame that we pass each other by without listening to each other's stories more often.

If that's what he was saying, then I think Smithy was right.

And can't you just relate to his "tender kind of a secret" line? I instantly thought of many tender secrets. When I go to a concert and hear a "filler" song that never got any radio play, but for some reason, it touched me—I feel like I know a tender secret. When a friend tells me about his or her guilty pleasure, but doesn't want anybody else to know—I feel like I know a tender secret every time I see, hear, or experience his or her guilty pleasure. Not long ago, a man I know gave me several writing books. They belong to his father-in-law who passed away recently. As I flipped through them, I saw many passages underlined and all of them were the tender secrets of a man I never met.

Letting too many people know our tender secrets would somehow diminish their power. But what an empty life it would be if nobody knew our tender secrets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

You're Beautiful

I don't really get the song You're Beautiful by James Blunt. It's about a man who sees a woman he's attracted to on a subway, but she's with another man. But the stranger has a plan—or so he says in the first verse of the song. In the next verse the stranger says he doesn't know what to do and concludes with "Cause I'll never be with you." In the next verse, the stranger says that they shared a moment that "will last till the end." But then he concludes the song with the realization that he'll never be with her.

So much for the plan I guess.

Blunt has a good voice—in a Bee Gees sort of way, but this song makes no sense whatsoever and it's just weird that a stranger would be so attracted to someone to be thinking about sharing a moment with her that will last forever. Now, if the song reminded him of somebody he once loved and seeing this woman on the subway somehow reawakened that love, then I would understand. But I must be crazy, because somebody sure likes this song—it's on the radio constantly.

A few days ago, I told a friend that I didn't get this song and he said, "I thought you would love that song. It sounds like one of those chick-flicks you like so much. In fact, I'm predicting that this song will be made into to a romantic comedy."

How could I not laugh? Partially because he's right about me—if this were a chick flick I probably would go see it. And partially because he's probably right about the marketability of such a movie. Love at first sight works for me in the movies. Maybe it's because I can actually see the two people and their mannerisms as they make eye contact for the first time. Maybe it's just because I like sappy movies. But, love at first sight in a cheesy song that makes little sense (if the guy had a plan, then why didn't he give it a shot?) doesn't work. At least for me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


This is a repost from my previous blog:

My grandmother used to tell her grandchildren stories about the way things used to be when she grew up in Hazen, Arkansas. She told us about the Friday-night-sings they used to have where everybody just sort of showed up at her house and they all sat out on the front porch playing spoons and singing. She told us about how mothers used to watch out for each other's children and every child knew that if they got too far out of line, their mom was going to get a phone call. And she told us how people looked out for each other. When one family was low on food, another family just happened to have "a little extra."

This might seem a little too "hickish" for some in our modern society, but deep down, I think that most people long for such days. Remember the character named Wilson on the wildly successful sitcom called Home Improvement? He was Tim Taylor's eccentric next door neighbor. Wilson spoke in colloquialisms and quoted philosophers that Tim had never heard of before, but he had a gentle way of getting Tim to realize how self-centered he was. Tim responded by making the necessary corrections in his life and he always realized how important Wilson was to him.

Beyond the emotional bond that Wilson and Tim had, they watched each other's house during vacations, they attended each other's parties, and they hung out together in the local hardware store. They were very different people, but they cared enough to be involved in each other's lives.

With all of this in mind, not long ago, I read an article written by Greg Marago about a new website that made me shake my head. The purpose of the site is to provide a "service" for men who want to meet women. A man hires an "attractive, smart, vivacious" woman to accompany him to an event and the women serves as a way to "popularize him" among other females "and, if he's lucky, get him some action."  

"Sound like rent-a-friend?" Morago said in his article. "In a way, it is. But hiring someone to perform the roles or services that traditionally have been the responsibility of best friends is a growing trend. Need someone to take you to the airport, drive you home from a night of heavy drinking or help you score at a bar or nightclub? There are services happy to take your money to help you out.

"Aren't these things friends did for free? Isn't this the domain of your closest buddy or best girlfriend? Not anymore."

Thankfully, Morago found "pop culture expert" Susie Watson to quote in his article. Here's what she said: "If you look back, historically there was a time when a friend or neighbor was an absolute need; now they're a luxury. At one time, you couldn't survive in this country without good friends and neighbors. Today, what has happened is that these services have appeared, and because they've appeared, friends tend to sit back."  

Watson continued:

"It's not just because we're more busy. It's because we've become more self-absorbed. Think back to earlier times, when people would have dropped everything to help someone else. They wouldn't have said, 'I can do that next week.' They would have put their own needs aside to make themselves available now for others. It's a selfishness that sadly has become more a part of our daily lives. I don't think we expect as much out of our friends now."

Could she have nailed her analysis any better?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Brevity of Life

Over the past couple of months, I've had my share of family members and friends who are dealing with health problems. And over the last few years, I've had my own health concerns. All of this is yet another reminder about the brevity of life. It comes and goes so quickly. The scripture says it this way: "Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14).

On Saturday night, we got another reminder when the small town of St. Mary, Missouri (located about 80 miles south of St. Louis) was hit by a tornado with winds ranging from 113 mph to 206 mph. Can you imagine? And they also saw softball-sized hail. Sadly, the tornado picked up a truck containing a married couple tossed it under a roadside propane tank—killing the couple.

The couple had no idea when they got up on Saturday morning that it would be their last day on earth. But most of us will have no idea when our last day will be. It will just come, and then go, and time will march on just as it has since God set the earth in motion. What we do between now and our last day counts for eternity. Knowing that ought to make today seem extremely significant.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Over the Rhine

The first note of music I ever heard from Over the Rhine crushed me—in a good way.  Then I heard Karin Bergquist pouring out her soul as she sang the first lyrics I ever heard from the band, "What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be…" from a song called "Latter Days." If the music crushed me, the lyrics massaged me back to life and reminded me of the delicate balance between beauty and heartache—and that sometimes, heartache can be beautiful. Not in a masochistic sort of way, but in an "I'm alive enough to feel this pain" sort of way.

After hearing their music for the first time as the backdrop for a television drama, I started hearing more of their music as characters on other television shows struggled through the many challenges they faced. As I flipped through the stations the other night, I caught the tail end of another one of their songs being used in the same manor.

I only have a couple of their approximately dozen CDs and I'm not sure how "big" this group is in the mainstream of the music industry, but somehow I don't think that matters to them. While they certainly seem to have a good following, they appear to be the type of people who relish the important things of life. The two primary members of the band, Linford Detweiler and the aforementioned Karin Bergquist, are married.

Listen to this blurb about the couple, taken from their website: "Several months into a national tour in 2003, Karin and Linford realized that while good things were happening with their music, little energy, creativity, or time was left for their life together. The road began taking a toll on their marriage. They opted to put the tour on hold and retreat home. 'When we came home, we bought two cases of wine and decided we were going to put a bottle on the kitchen table every evening and start talking until nothing was left. The idea wasn't to get smashed, but to talk face-to-face and open up, even if that meant deep into the night.'"

Marriage before anything else. I knew their music touched me for a reason.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Clear Things

A few years ago, Florida seemed to have this strange sort of hold on me. I usually go there once a year for a writer's conference in the Bradenton area and over the years I've made several good friends in various parts of the state. At times it was difficult for me to distinguish the exact source of the pull—yes, part of it had to do with a woman. Part of it had to do with weather. As someone who loves to play tennis, playing all year long would be a dream come true. And another part had to do with venturing out on my own.

For one reason or another, I've never really felt free to venture out into the world to do my own thing. That might speak more about my insecurities than it does my desire to live up to my responsibilities, but sometimes that line is a blurry one as well. I do travel quite frequently, but it's hard to enjoy any place to its fullest when time is limited. I don't have a big desire to leave the city I live in now, but I think knowing that I could do it would mean more to me than the actual action.

The calling Florida had on me seemed so clear at the time, but my circumstances didn't seem quite so clear. I never did quite get over the clarity of the calling though. I'm rarely clear about such big things. Maybe I was just swept up in the emotion of it all—I can't really say for sure, but I ran across a paragraph yesterday in the book that I'm reading that really got me.

I'm reading The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. I wrote about the book in a previous post. The book is about a 40-something year old alcoholic named Smithy who loses his parents in a car accident and then finds out that his long lost sister is also dead. In his grief, he goes out to his parent's garage, sees his boyhood bicycle, rides it to the end of his driveway and keeps going. He travels all the way from Rhode Island to Los Angeles to claim his sister's remains. On his way he meets people, some good—some not so good, and in the process he gets his life back on track.

The book is painful to read. Smithy's character knows exactly what he is and he's stopped trying to convince himself otherwise. I think he's like most of us though—he's spent large portions of his life in denial, but by the time the book begins, his character is forced to see himself as he really is and it's unnerving—both for him and the reader.

Anyway, here's the paragraph that got me:

"Now, this is one of those clear things. Where I was. A pretty grove of fir trees. Picnic benches. Bathroom. A pretty place. When you're a kid, place is everything. And when you leave, you're so absolutely aware of departure. I haven't been aware for a while now. Long enough, actually, to not be aware when one place started running into another place, until they were all the same. But on this Saturday, in this cool grove, with kickstand down and my feet feeling wonderful, I had a sense, a real sense, of having left Rhode Island and crossed out of my life."

Smithy saw his leaving Rhode Island as "one of those clear things" and somehow he knew that it would lead to a different life. Geography had nothing to do with it. Risk did. People did. A willingness to follow clarity did. And while I'm only about a third of the way through the book and early on in Smithy's journey, I can already see how this trip will be the medicine that his soul needed.

Would an experimental trip to Florida have had the same affect on me? I don't know. But I think I'll be a little more open to clarity when it hits me again in the future.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

FM Radio

I've listened to the FM radio more in the past couple of weeks than I have in many years. My new (used) car doesn't have a CD player (or even a tape player), so for now, I'm scanning my way across the dial and in the process, making myself familiar with some of the new (to me) stations in town.

One of the new stations plays the same songs over and over—thankfully the format is 80's music and I liked most of the music that came out of that era. Now I'm hoping they will expand their selection in the coming months. Another station plays a mixture of everything and I like that too. Most people like many different styles of music and I'm no exception. Another plays new(er) country and I don't mind that format either.

But I'm starting to notice something—no matter which station it is, and no matter what format, they all seem to be trying to do things to improve the community. One country station held a fundraiser last week to raise money for a children's hospital—specifically, they were trying raise money to help children who need heart surgery. They raised $309,000. Another station sponsored a bowling league to help people make new friends. Another station had a contest running to see who could lose the most weight.

When I listened to FM radio fifteen or twenty years ago, I can't remember many stations or personalities doing any of these sorts of things. Instead, I remember radio being all about partying and, in general, being all about the self-absorbed life—a "get all you can, while you can, and if you are struggling or in need, then you must have done something wrong" sort of attitude.

I'm glad to see that some things change. Granted, my experience is limited, but so far, I like what I hear.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Substitute People

The three posts I wrote about Elizabethtown last month are turning out to be quite popular—not because I had anything brilliant to say about the movie, but because people are googling many of the quotable lines from the movie and they are finding this blog.

If you missed the series, here are the links to help you get caught up:

The quote that most people are googling to get here is “substitute people.” Here’s the quote from the movie: “You and I have a special talent,” Claire says to Drew. “And I saw it immediately. We’re the substitute people. I’ve been the substitute person my whole life. I’m not an Ellen [a co-worker Drew was into]. I never wanted to be an Ellen. And I’m not a Cindy either … I like being alone too much. I mean, I’m with a guy who is married to his academic career. I rarely see him and I’m the substitute person there. I like it that way. It’s a lot less pressure.”

Obviously, a lot of people can relate to Claire’s character. I already explored the definition of “substitute people” in my first post in the series, so I won’t get into that again now, but I didn’t talk about how I really don’t believe Claire when she implies that she likes being a substitute person. She tries to convince Drew, and I’m sure herself, that she likes not feeling needed or in demand all the time during a relationship.

But if that were really true, she wouldn’t have spent the entire night on the phone with Drew. She wouldn’t have switched her work schedule so she could be with him as he dealt with his father’s death. She wouldn’t have shared her dreams, and fears, and insecurities with him. She wouldn’t have told him that their first kiss was more intimate than most of the sex she’d had in her life. She wouldn’t have made him the travel kit. And she wouldn’t have been willing to let him go – hoping that he’d choose to be with her at the end of his journey.

Nobody wants to be a substitute person. We just claim that the position is acceptable because we’re afraid that nobody will ever consider us an original. But along with way, most will consider us substitute people and that’s not a knock against them or us. They have an original in mind and for whatever reason – justified or not, we don’t live up to it.

The problem comes when we embrace substitute person status, like Claire did, because embracing it means that we’ll never get to see wonder in the other person’s eyes as we tell him or her about our theories, our beliefs, our hopes, and our dreams. It means we’ll never get that all-knowing, all-understanding hand-squeeze, or look from the person we love that says, “I know exactly what you are thinking or feeling and I want you to know that it means just as much to me as it does to you.”

No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that being a substitute person is better than not being in the game, the seeming cruel and mocking indifference we receive from someone who doesn’t consider us an original slowly crushes our will to live a vibrant life. I’d much rather be out living the life I choose right now because it allows me to save my experiences in an emotional place where one day I hope to invite a person who considers me to be her original.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Lesson Learned

I dislike the process of backing up my computer documents. Deleting my previously backed up files before copying and pasting all of my original files that I need to back up seems like such a waste of time. This process takes about 30 minutes, but I've been doing it every Friday afternoon for the past couple of years. My laptop crashed a few Fridays ago early in the morning before I backed up my work—which meant that I lost a full week of work and I've been scrambling ever since to try to get caught up.

A few days ago, a friend told me about software that can be set up to automatically back up files to an external hard drive. I loved the idea. And better yet, my friend said that back up software quickly scans files to see if any changes have been made since the last back up and when it finds one, it only backs up that particular file—keeping systems resources more free. This type of software has probably existed for a long time, but I've never heard of it before. After a little research, I downloaded and installed a program called Argentum Backup.

It worked so well I couldn't believe it. After my initial back up (on a new 120 GB external hard drive), I can now back up my work in about one minute at the end of each day—or I can set the program to do it while I sleep. I wish I had taken the time long ago to find and use such a program, but I'm glad that I at least had a back up to turn to. Otherwise I would have been in big trouble because I would have lost the book that I'm currently working on (and is due to the publisher by April 15).

Why is it that something bad has to happen before we do the things we should have been doing all along? I guess we believe that we're the exception and that the "bad" things will always happen to other people. But then it happens to us and it's hard not to feel a little foolish. I guess if that's what it takes to learn a lesson, then it's worth it.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Old Ideas

In the late 90's, when Amazon.com could hardly buy a customer, they tried. As a token of appreciation, they sent coffee cups to customers one year. Since I was an early customer, I received one such cup and I still use it. Something about the cup though has always rubbed me the wrong way—one of the quotes Amazon.com put on the cup: "I can't understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I'm frightened of old ones." –John Cage

I'm assuming that this is John Cage, the music composer, who died in 1992. I know very little about him and I'm not sure about the context of the quote that Amazon.com was so fond of, so all I have to work with is the quote itself. On the surface, I can understand what Cage was trying to say—new ideas are often rejected by people who like the status quo, and certainly some old ideas have proved to be wrong, and sometimes even evil. Maybe that's what Cage meant. I don't know.

But it seems to me that the quote is rooted in arrogance—as if those currently living are much more enlightened than previous generations, as if previous generations have nothing to teach us, as if their ideas should be forgotten or ignored. Does anybody really believe that every generation before our own got it all wrong, that we are so enlightened that real living starts with us, that the ideas of generations past are better off left there?

I hope not. Because if that's true, our ideas will quickly be forgotten by our own children who will embrace the same attitude. And every person who has built a legacy—not because they were concerned about legacy building, but because they went about their daily routines advancing the ideas they believed to be right—would have wasted his or her time.

I, for one, am not frightened of old ideas. In fact, I find great comfort in them. But I'm also not frightened of new ideas. I'm just a little more skeptical of them since they haven't stood the test of time yet.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Things We Couldn't Say

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the relevance of books. It reminded me of a book I read last year called Things We Couldn’t Say written by Diet Eman with James Schaap that greatly challenged my faith. It’s a true story about how Diet, who was a young Dutch woman during WWII, and her fiancĂ©, Hein Sietsma, got involved in the Resistance–hiding Jews and other people that Hitler wanted to exterminate after he overran Holland.

Early in the book, when Diet was 20, she tells the story about when the Gestapo first discovered that Hein was working with the Resistance and how she went looking for places for Hein to hide. See if this excerpt from pages 58 and 59 (of the trade paperback version) moves and challenges you as much as it did me:

"That night I went to many Christian friends and family, and no one would take Hein in. I remember that I was riding (my bike) on main avenue in The Hague, Laan van Meerdervoort, which goes from one end of the city to the other, tears streaming down my cheeks. Nobody wanted to take in my beloved Hein. People would remind me of their little children at home, and they would say, 'We don’t know what the Gestapo might do if they find him here.' And they were all so busy, and they had to have other guests. They were all fake excuses, lame excuses!

"That night, right there on the street in The Hague, I made a vow that if ever people were being persecuted and needed a place to hide or something to eat, I vowed I would help them. What had happened that night to me was horrible. I was so upset with all those so-called Christians."

Do you ever think about how you would respond if God had placed you in another time period? I do. I wasn't even a Christian at the age of 20, but even if I had been, I wouldn't have had the spiritual maturity or the courage to be part of the Resistance like Diet and Hein were. And I wonder if I would have been one of those "so-called Christians" who turned Diet and Hein away that day. It pains me to think about it.

How about you? Would you have joined the Resistance when you were 20? Or if you had been one of those Christians that Diet and Hein approached to hide Hein, would you have turned them away? Diet eventually lost her freedom for her part in the Resistance and Hein lost his life. They were willing pay that price because their cause was just.

I'm so thankful for books like this. They chronicle and preserve history. And they challenge future generations to think about the unthinkable.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Relevancy of Books

I'm a member of a group called the Christian Author's Network. In February, on our blog, we addressed this question: Are books still relevant?

Here was my response:

In my opinion, books are not only still relevant today, but they are more relevant than in most previous ages. Books have always allowed previous generations to pass on knowledge, and more importantly, wisdom to future generations. But it seems to me that our culture is becoming more aliterate (able to read, but not interested in it) with each passing year and as a result we are becoming more detached from the wisdom of the generations who preceded us.

That's a problem not easily fixed, but I love the fact that no matter what the ebb and flow of any given culture is, books remain on library and bookstore shelves just waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. And when that happens, the joys and challenges that previous generations once experienced from the same books will be experienced by future generations.

Books often become a permanent record of what life looked like when the author wrote them—especially fiction. Jane Austin preserved 19th century British culture for us. Leo Tolstoy preserved 19th century Russian culture. Flannery O'Connor preserved the provocative side of early 20th century American culture in the south. And the list goes on.

Oddly, time isn't so kind to non-fiction books—which are considered "dated" when illustrations are no longer current. But I still love to read old non-fiction books. I recently read Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. The book was published in 1965, and yes, the illustrations and some of the advice he gave is dated (one of which is to make sure you have a new typewriter ribbon as you begin to work on a project), but it's the best technical book I've ever read about the craft of writing fiction. I'm thankful that he wrote it because forty years later, it's turning me into a better novelist.


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