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. 

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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.

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...