Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Reflection on Sentimentality


This post was inspired by this one.
The Book of Life defines “sentimentality” as a view of life with the dark parts erased. When we look back at the past through sentimental eyes, we long for a simpler, happier time—one so very different from our present circumstances. Yet this longing, according to The Book of Life, breeds cynicism. We get caught up in our fantasy of how things used to be and ignore the reality that things weren’t always so good. We also look for the worst in the present day.
I couldn’t help wondering if this is how many Conservatives view the world—especially those who voted for and still support Donald Trump. To them, he is a throwback to a simpler time when boys could be boys and it was easy to tell who America’s enemies were: They looked different, dressed differently, and held to a different religion. Some Conservatives (I hate to make broad, general statements) want to return to this simpler time. Certain relatives of mine, who self-identified as Conservatives or Republicans, saw the world as getting much worse as it moves forward with gay rights, lack of prayer in public schools, and apparent disrespect of the American flag. In their youth, no one questioned these matters. Now everyone questions everything. Questions are scary. Questions undermine the certainty that God is on our side, or we are on his. (God is always a “he.”) They destroy the cherished illusions we take for granted: American superiority, Christian rightness, and male dominion.
However, this post is not about Conservatives. It is about me and my own brushes with sentimentality.
One of the recurring themes and preoccupations of my life is self-improvement. I know from first-hand experience that I can be wrong and usually am. So, any faith I had in American superiority, Christian rightness, and male dominion (because I am all these things—American, Christian, and male) was destroyed long ago. “Destroyed” perhaps isn’t the right word. Those thoughts are still with me. I am a product of the culture in which I was raised, and any culture has both a positive and a negative side. (Take that, sentimentality.) I also long for a past in which things were somehow “better” than they are now. I particularly feel this way when I miss certain relatives who have died and friends who have moved on. I imagine the conversations we should have had but didn’t, conversations which we made a silent pact not to have because their Truths were not my Truth, and a steady peace was preferred to the risk of all-out war of Truths. My attempts to be understood failed. My attempts to understand failed even worse.
Sentimentality seduces. A couple of years ago, I was delighted when a local radio station began playing American Top 40 programs from the ‘70s, the era of my childhood. At last, I was able to listen to all the programs I missed because I didn’t discover AT40 until I was 15. I was able to watch the classic artists and songs of my youth move up and down the chart, and to listen to host Casey Kasem’s anecdotes and chart trivia. Every Sunday I took notes and shared them on Facebook. A few of my FB friends even commented. Sentimentality is always best when shared.
Yet a certain boredom crept in. After a while, I realized there was nothing “classic” or transcendent about listening to the countdown year after year. The same artists released new songs every year, and while some were indeed memorable hits, others were just dreck. Rock ‘n’ roll, like any business, thrives on pushing product, no matter how lame, to the public. This interpretation is subjective, of course—every song is probably someone’s favorite. But even favorite status depends on where we were, who we were, who we were with, and countless other subjective associations. Most Top 40 music was bland and formulaic in the ‘70s, just as it was in the ‘80s, when I listened faithfully every week, hoping my own favorite songs and artists would rise to the top. Instead, I had to patiently wait out the reigns of “Endless Love” and Daryl Hall and John Oates. In hindsight, I appreciate the craft that went into such songs and artists. At the time, I longed for an imagined past of the ‘70s when the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Grand Funk reigned supreme.
Sentimentality runs its course—or it should. There should come a point where we realize we are learning nothing new and that the very feelings we are trying to avoid—uncertainty, anxiety, nervousness—point to impending change. The world evolves constantly, and we can either embrace those changes or turn back to an imagined past where things were better, happier. I suggest it’s not bad if we do this occasionally. Looking to the past can remind us who we are and where we came from. As is evident in some of my Conservative friends, tradition reaffirms values: what it means to be American or Christian or male (or female).
However, sentimentality becomes a trap when we refuse to see it for what it is, when we take the fantasy as real and become bitter towards a present which doesn’t live up to our expectations. The simple truth is that the past wasn’t always so great. The ‘70s I grew up in were full of personal upheavals. About a year ago, I found my old school records. I passed many of my classes only because my mother implored my teachers and principals to let me pass. I was so traumatized by being picked on and bullied that I couldn’t concentrate on school work. In the eighth grade, I stopped going to school yet somehow managed to pass. In the ninth grade, a teacher came to my house to deliver and collect assignments. Then I switched schools—to a Conservative, religious school which proclaimed rock ‘n’ roll to be the devil’s music. Of course, this was the time when I got into rock ‘n’ roll. My identity was formed in part by rebellion against what I saw as the narrow-mindedness of the people on whom I depended for life and education.
The sentimentality of my youth would have required me to be born about 20 years earlier so I could have been part of that generation which changed the music world—the Beatles, the Stones, and my go-to group, Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship. Many of these artists were still active in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They had “made it.” I, too, wanted to make it without having to go through adolescence and young adulthood and college and figuring out what I wanted to do. I imagined they lived happy lives as established artists whose records were all but guaranteed to be successful and whose every pronouncement made the news with Messianic weight. And they were all a “family”—creative and loved.
Of course, I know differently now. My curiosity about such artists led me to research them and learn their Truths: the addictions, the pressure to have hits, the tension between remaining original yet pleasing the crowds, the broken relationships, the massive egos. Yet in studying their Truths, I learned to let go of my own fantasies and to open myself to the wonder of reality: the miracle of what it is truly like to create something which impacts others. I also learned, in a roundabout way, to understand and embrace my own Truth.

The Book of Life has it right: Sentimentality can breed cynicism, but only if we let it. If we recognize sentimentality for what it is—a temporary excursion into how we want things to be—we can use it to create a better future.

Photo: https://openclipart.org/detail/277056/sad-lady-and-kids

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Okay, Mr. Writer, What Makes The Power Club So Special?



One of the cool things about publishing a book is getting interviewed. One blogger recently sent me a series of questions, and, while I enjoyed answering them all, one threw me. The blogger asked: Super-hero stories are quite common these days. What makes The Power Club unique?

It’s a fair question. Every writer should know what makes his or her book stand above the herd. In my mind, I’ve rehearsed an answer to such questions ever since I started writing PC. Yet answering that question for real requires the writer to take a good, hard look at his or her work, delve into personal reasons why he or she wrote the book in the first place, and connect those reasons with readers who will buy and (we hope) love the book.

It’s especially a fair question today with movie theaters glutted with Avengers and JLA movies. What makes PC—a story about kids with super-powers—different?  One obvious answer is that these kids are forced to live in a place known as “the district,” which restricts the use of their powers and keeps a careful, perhaps sinister, watch over them.

But there’s more to it than that. Herewith is my attempt to give a more complete answer to “What makes The Power Club unique?”

         1. PC is a deeply personal story which combines elements of real life and fantasy.

Growing up in the small Midwestern city of St. Joseph, MO, I dreamed of having super-powers and friends who had powers so we could form our own super-hero team. For a fleeting summer, a bunch of neighborhood kids and I, fueled by comic books and cartoons, pretended we were super-heroes. Then they moved on to other things (sports and cars), but I never did. In the back of my mind, I always wondered, “What if our super-team had been real?”

Also, I felt a sense of confinement in my neighborhood and hometown, just as Damon, the main character in PC, feels confined in the district. All the “real” super-heroes lived in New York or imaginary cities such as Metropolis and Coast City. I wanted to explore the world, but I was “stuck” in St. Joseph.

A third strand came from the realization that the world outside the safe confines of St. Joseph was a scary place (and it could be scary inside St. Joseph, as well). Suicide bombers and mass shooters were extremely rare in those days, but the world always seemed to be on the brink of nuclear disaster. Until I was almost 12, there were constant reminders that—as a young male—I could be drafted and sent off to fight in a war. When I was about Damon’s age, a cult led by the Rev. Jim Jones committed mass suicide. These events formed my perceptions of the world and fueled my desire to do something about them.

This isn’t to say that PC is based on fear. Quite the contrary, I hope readers derive a sense of hope and optimism from it. Yes, the world is screwed up, and there is much outside our control. However, we can do something about our own choices.

Fear, then, is a motivating factor in the book, and it hits Damon from all sides. He must contend with super-powered bullies as well as the district itself, which conspires against him. How Damon responds to these challenges determines who he is.

 2. PC isn’t just about good guys versus bad guys. Sometimes it's difficult to know what a good guy should do.

Many super-hero stories succeed because they are comforting and familiar. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and we know the good guys will win after they overcome many obstacles. But in PC, the obstacle and the choices the characters make to overcome them aren't so clear cut.

The PC characters share at least one common obstacle: they are young. They don’t have the resources, independence, or experience of adult heroes. They must contend with real-world challenges such as going to school, obeying rules, and even attending birthday parties. All of these things get in the way of being heroes.

Damon and some of the other characters have to make difficult choices in order to become heroes. One character lies to her parents so she can participate in a mission. Damon must decide whether to kick another member out of the club. He also learns that the district, which is supposed to protect him, uses dirty tricks to keep him from becoming a hero. Sometimes, doing "the right thing" is hard when there are competing choices.

Being a hero is also dangerous business, and this is shown in the book. Stopping a scared mob is one thing, but going up against real criminals is another. Some members of the PC question whether they want to be heroes, and the sacrifices they have to make. So, PC turns this assumption on its head: Just because you have powers doesn’t mean you can or want to be a hero.

      3. PC wasn’t written to cash in on trends and fashions.

Okay, I hope PC is a big success, and if it rides the current wave of super-hero popularity, so much the better. However, my goal is for PC to have universal appeal and to live on, be read, and be discussed for years. Though I don’t pretend to compare my book to Harry Potter, I think some lessons can be learned from J.K. Rowling’s series. HP is not just about a kid who wants to become a wizard; it’s about a kid who, bereft of a loving family, seeks to find his place in the world. This is something all kids everywhere can identify with. 

Likewise, PC is about kids discovering their special abilities and trying to figure out what those abilities mean for them and the world.


That’s my take on what makes PC unique. For another perspective, here’s a gracious review written by the Blushing Bibliophile:



Saturday, October 7, 2017

THE POWER CLUB Now Available on Amazon

I'm taking a sabbatical from the blog, but I wanted to let everyone know that the new version of The Power Club is now available on Amazon. Check it out.

Here is the brand spanking new ebook cover:


"Some kids play piano. Some make hook shots.

Some create darkness
. . . or teleport
. . . or fly.

Damon has what ordinary kids want: a power.

"Ords" have what he wants: freedom.

If he joins a 'special club,' he can use his power freely. But getting into a club isn't easy, and joining one is just the beginning."










And here's the full print cover:


Special thanks to my agent, Stephanie Hansen, for getting PC this far, and to Rogue Phoenix Press for taking a chance!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

One Writer's Journey, Cont'd: Taking It on Faith


“This is the day the Lord has made.”
            These words echo in the back of my mind every Sunday, but what do they mean? In my upbringing, they were taken literally: God, known as Jehovah or Yahweh, created heaven and earth and all living creatures. He creates each day anew, and we should be thankful for the opportunity to rise and breathe, and for everything that comes our way, whether pleasant or not. It’s a very useful phrase. It directs believers’ attention away from themselves and their own concerns. It focuses our thoughts, however briefly, on the mystery and majesty of the world and encourages us to live each day to the fullest.
            These words are also part of the refrain of a song sung at my church nearly every Sunday. The full refrain goes, “This is the day the Lord has made./I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I have sung these words for over 20 years. In some ways, they seem like a typical Sunday school song for small children—nursery rhyme inculcation into the faith. But even for adult, they are powerful, simple, and can be misleading.
***
            Like all spiritual songs and teachings, these words open the door to conversation—with God, with other teachings, with other believers or non-believers. They are not meant to be the final word. Unfortunately, many believers abandon dialogue for a simplistic faith which requires (or allows) them to avoid questioning anything. The Lord said it. I believe it. Period.
            I have never believed this way; over the last few years, however, my faith has undergone trials which have transformed and shaped it, as all trials do. I have come to view the world and my place in it in different terms. I no longer see God as an omnipotent Wise Man (He was always a man in my theology), looking down on us from above and rewarding or punishing us . . . a cosmic Santa Claus. I no longer see God as outside of anything but inside and all around us. It’s arrogant to say we are God, but I think it’s humble and truthful to say we are a piece of God.
            (I struggled in writing the above sentence as to whether to use part instead of piece. A number of my friends would support part of God without hesitation. However, piece of God challenges us more. Piece suggests a fragment, a broken part, minuscule and worthless. But a tiny piece can also be indispensable, such as the piece of a puzzle or a gear in a machine. A piece of glass is sharp and dangerous. Too many of us have used our shard-like qualities to hurt others, so  piece will stand.)
            I also no longer see heaven as a grand and glorious place of castles awaiting us when we die. I have too many questions and doubts. A dear relative of mine spent the last years of her life striving in vain to convert members of her family to her way of thinking. She feared that, when she died, these loved ones would be absent from heaven. To me, this doesn’t sound like heaven.
            I have no idea what awaits us when we die. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we simply stop. In the meantime, I take comfort in Saying 113 of the Gospel of Thomas: “. . . the kingdom of the father is spread over the earth, and people do not see it.” Each of us, these words suggest, can transform the world around us into heaven, yet most of us choose to live in fear, ignorance, and selfishness. Transforming the world is hard work. The hardest tasks begin inside each of us.
***
            So, does this re-purposed faith make me an atheist or agnostic? Some might say it does. To me, labels only limit people. They limit how we see ourselves and how we interact with others. Yet labels define who we are as human beings: We understand our place in the world and how we should act by associating with others who attach themselves to similar labels: Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, male, female, African-American, Caucasian, working class, academic, musician, writer. Unfortunately, many of these labels are seen as opposites instead of what they truly are: a means of categorizing our experiences instead of shutting out others. 
            For most of my life, I have considered myself a Christian; this label still holds meaning for me in the sense of belonging, serving others, and being a certain way in the world. It has less to do with what I actually believe or how I relate to God. Today, I prefer to think of myself as a questioning human being—one who hasn’t figured it all out but who has drawn a few conclusions based on what I have learned and experienced. These conclusions work for me right now. They may not work for anyone else. And they may not work for me tomorrow.
            But that’s life. To me, that’s also the ultimate message of those words: This is, indeed, the day Lord has made. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
***
            I’ve been asked to share some of the books which have shaped my present thinking about faith, life, and being in the world. A few are listed below. Each represents only a piece of a puzzle—a different way of looking at the world or challenging modes of thinking. None offers the final answer to anything, in my view, but each offers a step along the journey. Enjoy the ride!
  • Ellenberg, Jordan. (2014). How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. New York: Penguin.
  • Haidt, Jonathan. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books
  • Holiday, Ryan, and Hanselman, Stephen. (2016). The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
  • Mishra, Pankaj. (2017). The Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Tippett, Krista. (2016). Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
Photo credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/260594/woman-sitting-sunset-silhouette

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On Writing Deadlines, Commitments, and Balance

      
         When I revamped this blog back in May, I set an unofficial goal for myself to write a new post every two weeks. I chose this goal for two reasons: 1) It’s a well-established tenet of blogging wisdom that keeping a regular schedule and posting a new post at the same time every week or so builds an audience, and 2) a bi-weekly schedule is less demanding than the weekly schedule I kept during the first two years of this blog, from 2011-2013. (In 2013, when my professional priorities changed, I cut back on the frequency of posts.)
            I am proud to say I kept to this bi-weekly schedule from the end of May to the end of July.
            However, I missed last week for a good cause.
            When ye humble writer is not writing, he serves as a humble faculty member at an online university. Once a year, the university holds a graduation ceremony—a true physical affair with all the pomp and regalia. For most faculty members, it’s the only chance we get to meet our students face to face, as they live in widely different parts of the country and even abroad. For students, the ceremony of walking across the stage and receiving a diploma is so important that they will travel great distances to do it. (This year, we had one graduate from the Virgin Islands.) It is a privilege and an honor to attend this event, but it is also long and exhausting.
            That’s where I was last Saturday, and that’s why there was no blog post.
***
            As a rule, I don’t like it when writers make excuses: “I can’t write today because my dog died, I have to do the laundry, my computer crashed,” ad nauseum. Excuses are just that: excuses. The harsh truth is that writing is a business (unless you intend it to be a hobby): clients must be attended to, readers must be fed, and obligations must be met. Extenuating circumstances arise—the car wreck, the illness, the military service—but, barring these or other catastrophic events, writers should get their work done and submit it on time.
            I failed to do that last week. For that, I take full responsibility. Whatever consequences may arise—disappointed readers, disruption in building the audience—are mine to bear. For any who were looking forward to last week’s post, I apologize.
            And yet, they are consequences I chose to face.
            Another harsh truth is that writing is a demanding, arduous task. Yes, it can be fun, but it is always work. One of the most crucial choices a writer must face consists of how to balance writing with other obligations, such as work and family. There is no value in being the writer who spends every free moment chained to a keyboard and cranking out a word count if doing so leads to loss of health and vital relationships. Writers must make choices in how they spend their time. Some things must be sacrificed, including, at times, the writing itself.
***
            When I wrote my previous post of July 22, I mentioned my long-ago professor’s words of warning that studying writing only can be debilitating to writers. I would expand this warning further: Living only the so-called “writing life” can be debilitating to writers. It is not good for us to immerse ourselves so totally in the words of our imagination that we lose touch with other human beings and leisure activities, that we forget what it means to be in this world. If we can’t fully live in this world, we can’t create meaningful worlds for our readers.
            So, go outside. Enjoy the sun. Go for a swim. Call a friend. See a movie outside your genre. Live.

            Your muse will thank you.
Art credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/234997/push-back-time

Saturday, July 22, 2017

One Writer’s Journey: Writing and the Intersection of Everything


            One of my college professors gave me a strange piece of advice: If I wanted to be a professional writer, he cautioned me, I should study something other than writing. His reasoning: Writers need something (other than writing) to write about, and too much focus on one thing can lead to a myopic view of the world.
            At the time, I thought such advice was mad. I wanted to write comic books for a living; why did I need to study anything else? However, I kept his words in the back of my mind even as I went on to devote most of my studies to writing—majoring in English, completing a master’s in English, attending numerous workshops and conferences.
In time, I began to understand what he meant: Writing can be an insular world. Writers spend all day inside their own heads. They hang out with other writers, talk about writing, and perpetuate the sense the writing is the center of our universe—almost our god.
***
            However, a singular focus on the craft of writing isn’t necessarily bad. When I was young, I watched adults around me struggle through jobs they hated. I decided I didn’t want that. I never wanted to take a job or choose a career just to earn a paycheck. Money alone has never been sufficient motivation for me to do anything (though lack of money has been). 
            I chose a different path by focusing on things which interested me, things I enjoyed doing, and things which challenged me intellectually and emotionally. I found all of these things in writing—and it happened almost by accident.
***
            I grew up reading comic books and watching science fiction shows such as Star Trek. They sparked my imagination by showing me possibilities that didn’t exist in the so-called real world. I wanted to be a super-hero or a Starfleet officer! Since those careers did not exist, I turned to the creative process behind such characters.
            Like most kids, I first wanted to be an artist. Armed with only a pencil, typing paper, and markers, I got pretty good at copying the line work, figures, and shading of certain comic book artists (Neal Adams, Dave Cockrum, and John and Sal Buscema were favorites) and created my own characters. But when it came to studying art in school, something didn’t click. Learning to draw fruit, the folds in clothing, and the same figure doing different things (smiling, dancing, running), was too much like work. I wanted to do something fun.
***
            Learning the craft of writing hasn’t been fun (at least as I defined the term then), but it has engaged me in wholly different ways. I love the structure of writing—how an outline can lead to the basic building blocks of a story yet leave room for improvisation. I love the way writing looks on a page or screen—neat and ordered formats remove all doubt as to where to put the page number and allow me to concentrate on the most important thing in writing: ideas.
I also became enthralled with writing scripts. I write something down, and a character in a story says it. I describe a scene, and an artist brings it to life.
Early collaborations, however, did not go well. As I wrote numerous scripts which will never be drawn, I became aware of my own limitations as writer. I created a Star Trek-like military, but had little clue what being in the military was actually like. (Fortunately, my brother and father both served, so I learned somewhat from their experiences.) I cleverly called my science officer a “geometeorologist,” but had no idea what a geologist or a meteorologist would do in the context of an alien planet, let alone someone who combined both fields.
Writing super-heroes seemed easier because I could just make stuff up, but even then I had no idea how to pace or end a story. I was further dismayed when people read my scripts and told me all my characters sounded alike!
Clearly, I was missing something.
One thing I've learned from my journey is that writing does indeed go hand in hand with other things--with everything, in fact. Garrison Keillor said it best and with his usual wit: "Nothing bad happens to writers. Everything is material." Everything
My professor was partially correct: If you want to write, study writing, but also study everything else: politics, religion, philosophy, human behavior, geology, biology, history...everything informs your world and the worlds you create.


Art credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/277036/ink-muse

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Dreamer's World: The Strange Horizon by G.L. Didaleusky


        I’m trying something new with the blog this week. Rogue Phoenix Press, which will be publishing a new version of The Power Club in October, hosts weekly “blog tours” to get its authors involved in promoting each other’s books. It’s a novel concept to see if increased exposure results in better promotion and (we all hope) sales. The book featured for this week is The Strange Horizon by G.L. Didaleusky.

A "Collage" of Short Stories
            The Strange Horizon is billed a “collage” of short stories, and like a collage of pictures, it evokes many different images and moods in its 23 offerings, some of which are only a few paragraphs long while others span 4000 words. While the stories run a gamut of genres (see the banner, above), there are certain boundaries Didaleusky will not cross. “There isn’t any profanity, gore, or sexual innuendo in any of the stories,” he tells us in the introduction. Indeed, the seven or so stories I’ve read so far could easily by read by or shared with young children. In fact, many of them feature children as protagonists.
            This ties in nicely with a running theme of the book: If you do the right thing, you may be rewarded in unexpected ways. In the opening tale, “The White Pigeon,” three boys enter an abandoned building so they can capture and sell the pigeons which roost there. However, a mysterious white pigeon arrives just in time to save one of the boys from falling through a rotted plank, causing the boy to change his mind about capturing and selling the pigeons. In “A Christmas Visitor,” two spoiled children are sent by their father to volunteer at a homeless shelter. While there, they encounter Jacob, a homeless boy for whom there is no room at the shelter. Ashley and Aaron, the two children, bring Jacob home without their parents’ knowledge; he lives in their playroom until they can find a shelter that will take him. The twist of the story (I’m not giving away spoilers, I trust) is that it appears the elf-like Jacob has visited the family before.

Possibilities for the Imagination
            The stories are rife with possibilities, but Didaleusky touches on only a few of them and in ways that are intended to fill young readers with mystery and imagination. From an adult perspective, I was left wondering about some of the unexplored possibilities, such as the practicality of Ashley and Aaron bringing a boy they’ve just met into their home. Such stories may give children the false impression that if you do the right thing, it will always turn out well for you in the end. Anyone over the age of, say, 12, knows this is not the case.
            However, the stories do have considerable merit for young readers. They could be used by parents to foster dialogue: “Did Ashley and Aaron do the right thing by bringing Jacob home? What were some of the risks they took? What would you do in their situation?”  The stories can also lead to an exploration of what exactly the right thing is to do in certain situations, and how hard it can be to do the right thing. In “A Kind Heart,” for example, down-on-his-luck Jeff (an adult protagonist) finds a wallet with $8000 in it. Initially, he wants to keep the money for himself, but a chance encounter with the wallet’s owner convinces him to help a homeless mother and her son whom he had previously met.
            Didaleusky’s protagonists are not always human. In one story, a ladybug named Lily helps a boy who is sad because his friend moved away.

Writing Style
Author G.L. Didaleusky
            In addition to the charm and simple messages of the stories, there are other reasons to read The Strange Horizon. Didaleusky uses great economy of language, keeping his stories brief but using effective descriptions when necessary. In “A Kind Heart,” for example, this is how he introduces us to Jeff and his surroundings:
The streetlight poles sparkled with garland and twinkling Christmas bulbs. A mixture of holiday music from various storefronts created a festive and joyous atmosphere for the northern, small town of Clemens. His tethered coat, stocking cap and cloth gloves kept him warm from the cold.
       The last sentence provides a vivid contrast between how Jeff is dressed (or underdressed) for the season and sets him apart from the festive shopping district. Throughout the book, Didaleusky tells us what we need to know to get the point of the story, though he does vary the approach from time to time (one story is told in present tense, another shifts between past and present events), demonstrating both the tautness and flexibility of short stories.

   Stories to be Cuddled
          As an adult reader, I haven’t found any stories so far which challenged me as a reader or upended my worldview, though doing so is not Didaleusky’s intent. In the introduction, he tells us the reactions he expects: “You may smile, chuckle, express a tear or two, feel a sudden chill, or feel a warmth at the end of the story. Emotions are in the mind of the reader and the heart cuddles or rejects those emotions.”

            Like a new puppy, the stories in The Strange Horizon are meant to be cuddled.
Photos courtesy Rogue Phoenix Press

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Losing One's Cool, Filters, and the Cosmic Merry-Go-Round

           One of my professors once told me that if you're going to be a writer, you have to write about something other than just writing. I've come to realize he was right, so, on this blog I sometimes write about other things, such as life. Being a writer affords me certain advantages: I get to experience the world through fictional or historical lives. Sometimes these views help me to look at my own life in broader, more expansive ways. That's why in my more whimsical moments, I conclude that life consists of one absurdity after another, and that we bring most of our problems on ourselves.
  • Case No. 1: I hadn’t heard from a friend for a while. Since I had just experienced a medical situation, I was stunned and dismayed by his silence. When I finally called him, he told he had called twice and left two messages. For some reason (or perhaps no reason, considering my phone) I didn’t get these messages. As one of the great prophets of our time said, D’oh!
  • Case No. 2: I’m composing this blog post at a McDonald’s, where the TV screens are turned to a news program. (The fact that TV screens are now the norm in some restaurants is absurd by itself.) Casual glances at the screen reveal two “headlines” which jump out:
  • ·       “President accuses Obama of meddling.”
  • ·       “Video shows Dems’ disgusting comments 
            (The TV screens are tuned to Fox News, in case you were wondering.)
            Sometimes life becomes so complicated and scary and uncertain that we’re willing to believe anything. Change is hard and involves risk. It’s much less risky to conclude there’s nothing wrong with us and, if we can’t get what we want, it must be someone else’s fault.
***
            A few days ago, I visited the same McDonald’s (it’s in walking distance). I stood in line behind a man who ordered a “2 for $3” item on the overhead menu. The cashier, a skinny lad who must have been barely 16, rang up items totaling $12. The man shook his head and complained loudly “Can’t anyone here read?” as he thrust an angry finger at the menu.
            I couldn’t resist smiling because, as someone who has held customer service jobs, I’ve been on the receiving end of irate customers many times. It’s the nature of the job that mistakes will be made and customers will get upset. I wanted to tell the kid, “Don’t take it personally.”
            Should the kid have paid better attention to what the customer ordered? Probably. But that’s no excuse for the customer to lose his cool. The matter was resolved quickly when a supervisor came over and clarified what he wanted. It was also apparent to me that this may have been the kid’s first day. He had to ask for help several times; even though my order was straightforward, I threw him by asking for a sugar substitute McDonald’s didn’t carry. But even the most seasoned employee can misunderstand what a customer wants.
            Too many people lose their cool these days. We see it play out daily in the news and in social media. We have a president who personifies lost cool. News channels routinely hype every celebrity’s loss of cool as if it were as significant as the moon landing. Do we as a culture have nothing better to do than engage in others’ lack of decorum?
***
            What causes us to lose our cool? In my own case, it’s an inability to express myself and be understood by people close to me. Relationships become exceedingly difficult when differences in perception enter the picture. Attempts to express what I really think often backfire, leaving me frustrated, which, in turn, leads a sort of inner dialogue with the person, who, I imagine, is attentive and open to everything I have to say, and willing to be persuaded by what I see as right. In an odd twist, if I let these internal conversations run amuck, I eventually lose—even in my own imagination.
            This leads, of course, to a deeper emotion: the fear that I might be wrong.
            In fact, I can guarantee that I am wrong, at least some of the time and from certain perspectives—and this is where absurdity comes into play. Each of us perceives the world through only five senses. The information our senses take in is filtered through our experiences, beliefs, culture, opinions, and fears. Whatever happens to be left of the information reaches our brains, where it is interpreted in such a way that “makes sense” to us. Often this means reinforcing what we already believe about the world and our place in it.
            It’s all about filter—the filters we create for ourselves and those designed for us by the news outlets of our choice. Even the words our filters select (such as meddling and disgusting) reinforce a world view that brings us comfort about who we are—and, more importantly, who our “enemies” are.
            Yet we all find ourselves on the same planet—a cosmic merry-go-round—for only a short time and with pretty much the same goals: to make the world a better place, to pass on our genes, to achieve something worthwhile. What makes it so difficult for us to achieve these goals? Why do the very people who seek to make the world a better place often end up screwing it up so badly. (Think of random political figures, athletes, or politicians of your choice.) My opinion? It’s because we routinely cling to the notion that our filter portrays things the way they truly are and that we blind ourselves to our own shortcomings. We take the easy way out (at least I do) when it comes to making positive and risky improvements in our own lives, let alone the lives of our friends, neighbors, and fellow players on the merry-go-round.
            That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve the world. But maybe next time a kid overcharges us, we can step outside of our filter and try to see things from his for a change. 


Photo credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/65845/eye-can-see-the-world

Saturday, June 10, 2017

On Emily Dickinson, Untold Stories, and Becoming What You Despise

There’s a moment in the film A Quiet Passion in which the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson is confronted by her sister, Vinnie. Emily has gone on a tirade over her brother having an affair, but Vinnie prefers not to judge because "we're all human." Instead, Vinnie warns that Emily is becoming what she most despises: bitter, judgmental, rigid. Realizing the truth of Vinnie's words, Emily breaks down and sobs painfully in her sister’s arms.

How did Emily become what she despised? After all, she lived the life she chose. Never married, she had no husband to boss her around (a palpable reality, the movie suggests, in 19th century America). She lived all her days in her father’s house, where her family became the center of her universe. She wrote 1,800 poems, many dealing with death, loss, and eternity, but published only a few in her lifetime. (Her sister, Vinnie, discovered the rest and published them after Emily’s death.) The film portrays Emily as an independent-minded woman who refused to conform to the expectations of her as both a woman and a Christian in her puritanical era: She refuses to kneel before a minister (male, naturally) who tells her to turn herself over to God. However, Emily does fear loss—the loss of loved ones through marriage or death—and, in her final years, she becomes a recluse, refusing even to leave her room or socialize with the guests invited by her brother and sister.
***
The film and Dickinson’s life in general resonate with me because I can draw certain parallels between her experiences and my own, both as a writer and as a human being. I’m currently going through one of my “reclusive periods” when I spend a lot of time alone. Many of the social structures I’ve come to depend on in recent years—church, a writer’s group, etc.—have either disappeared or become less satisfying. I feel it’s time for something new to enter my life, but I don’t know what.

I write a lot, but, like Dickinson, very little of my work has been published. (There is hope that this will soon change.) Much of my writing is personal—stuff I do not wish to share. Yet I hope it gets out some day and in some form, as it reflects who I am and how I view my place in this world. It reflects how I’ve been shaped by the events of my life—the good, the bad, the bizarre, the vulnerable, the inexcusable…the human.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I want my readers (and my friends and potential lovers) to be more like Vinnie than Emily. The film portrays Lavinia “Vinnie” Dickinson as loving, friendly, and non-judgmental, but not docile—she readily confronts her elder sister over Emily’s bizarre and sometimes selfish behavior. Vinnie, too, never married, but remained outgoing and sociable. As noted above, it was she who found her sister’s life work and saw to it that it was published—an act of love and loyalty all writers can appreciate.

But if I have any readers at all, that would be more than wonderful. Intelligent, discerning readers—like Emily—could generate interesting conversations and correspondence, perhaps leading to a shift in how I view the world or how they view it. Perhaps that shift is the “something new” I’m looking for.
***
So, what is it I despise becoming? Let me answer this in a roundabout way by saying I loved my father, and I’m sure he loved me, but he had trouble expressing it. Like many men of his generation, he did what he was expected to do: work and provide for his family. Did these roles make him happy or bring him fulfillment? I cannot say because he never said.

I work hard, but I have no family to support. His life taught me a lesson that family can be more trouble than it’s worth. I’m sure that’s not the lesson he wanted to teach me, if he wanted to teach me one at all. But it’s the lesson I took from his silent forbearance.

Dad held few opinions or thoughts on many subjects, or at least few he cared to share with me. Yet I’m convinced he maintained a rich inner life. I would catch him making gestures as if he were holding a conversation with some unseen presence. I do the same thing. Yet I was not privy to his inner world. I think my brother had more success in penetrating it; he shared common interests with Dad: cars, the military, police work. My strange and esoteric interests (comic books, rock ‘n’ roll, stories) didn’t fit into that frame of reference.

Yet there was a time when we came close to sharing a connection. I was writing a series (never published) about a Star Trek-like military of the future. Rather than relying on the model I’d seen on TV, I decided to interview him about his real military experiences. Over dinner at Rax’s Roast Beef in St. Joseph, MO, I peppered him with questions about how things worked in the Missouri Air National Guard, to which he devoted 41 years of his life: what people in various ranks did, who reported to whom, etc. In my young development as a writer, I did not know which questions to ask to generate thoughtful, open-ended responses, and he did not provide me with much to extend our conversation further. He answered my questions directly as I posed them. In the end, I gained a lot of information but little insight.

So, I fear living as I perceived him to be: dwelling on my own island, isolated, unchallenged, uncurious—safe but not sound, free to let my opinions take root without being pruned. I fear I will become an untold story: the strange person nobody knows—the Scrooge, the Emily Dickinson.

Stories should be told, and, without some degree of strangeness, there is no story.

Photo credit: https://openclipart.org/detail/190081/island

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Dream Diary: Of Damon, Guitars, and Open Doors




I had a dream this morning in which a member of my church, an older lady, came to my house to deliver a mechanical device I had bought. There's nothing very special about this set-up, as far as dreams go, but there are some things you need to know in order to understand the context:

  • This lady experienced some financial difficulties a few years ago and tried to interest me in a product she was selling. However, I did not have the money myself.
  • In the dream, she was working for Google or some other high-tech company. She wore a uniform consisting of a white shirt, tie, shorts, and cap. She drove a Google (or whatever) van.
  • In the dream, I was living at my old house in St. Joseph, MO. This two-story, 100-plus-year-old house with its high ceilings and two living rooms often appears in my dreams, even though I haven't lived there since 1993.
Anyway, she showed me how to use the device, which we set up in the kitchen. Among its many features, the device auto-tuned my guitar--which thrilled me.

We retired to the living room to settle the account. Another Google (or whatever) employee was there, a friendly older woman whom I showed to the door and watched get in her own Google van and drive away. My church friend lingered, though, and tried to interest me in buying a second device as a gift for someone. Initially, I agreed because I wasn't sure what she was asking. When I realized I would be paying out an extra $189 for the second device and had no idea who I would give it to, I declined.

I returned to the kitchen, picked up my now auto-tuned guitar, and started strumming some riffs I knew. I played the opening to "China Grove" by the Doobie Brothers--an infectious riff but easy to play--but couldn't get the volume on the guitar loud enough. After fiddling with the controls, I returned to the living room, where I thought my friend would be finishing up the account. However, she had left. The front door stood ajar, so I went outside, but her Google (or whatever) van was also gone.

***

So much goes into dreams. People, objects, and surroundings from different chapters of our lives can combine and collide into new relationships, leaving us wondering how they all fit together and what the dream means. I've read several books and websites on dream interpretation, but none have proved satisfying. The most logical explanation for dreams, I think, is that they simply represent our minds at play: sorting out ideas and information.

Dreams are also the stuff of fiction: they encourage us to defy logic and sense and just "play"--as we used to when we were children (or still do if we haven't fallen victim to the disease known as Growing Up or have children of our own to give us an excuse to play). Dreams exist for no other reason than the joy of playing. But dreams can also tell us a lot about ourselves.

***

I'm currently writing the sequel to The Power Club; it begins with a dream. Damon, my now 14-year-old protagonist, finds himself seated with his family in a fancy restaurant--but the menu is written in hieroglyphics! Far from being disturbed by this, Damon relishes the chance to explore another language. But then the dream changes, and Damon finds himself among the other members of the Power Club, the group of powered teens he joined in the first book. They want to explore a cave, but Damon fears that if he enters the cave he will lose his power--the ability to create darkness. The others dismiss his fears and run into the cave, leaving Damon behind.

And then the alarm goes off, and it's time for school.

I'm not sure what significance the dream holds in the story yet, but it does reveal a lot about Damon's fears and how he feels about how things ended in the first book (no spoilers!). It also tells us something about what he wants.

***

Likewise, I'm not sure what my dream reveals--if anything. However, it does expose, albeit indirectly, some of my own wants, fears, and feelings about certain situations. Like Damon, I want my presence in the world to count for something and for my special talents to be recognized. I want to help those close to me but struggle to understand the limits and boundaries of relationships. I also feel sad when people disappear from my life, or when I disappear from theirs (which sometimes happens), without a clear understanding of or resolution to the relationship.

And, like Damon, I sometimes just want to hit the snooze alarm and go back to sleep before being thrust out into a chaotic world where I must make sense of incomplete information and mixed motivations. In a dream, at least, I don't have to pretend I understand anything.

NOTE: The Open ClipArt site says the photo above can be by anybody for any reason whatsoever. That's great, but I always feel an artist or site should be attributed. If you want more information, go to Photo: https://openclipart.org/detail/259927/surreal-valley-of-lost-drea

What Does The Power Club Have to do with Poetry?

Photo by  Morning Brew  on  Unsplash  . . . well, not much. But all writers should write a variety of things, so I've been exploring my ...