A Bit of Fluff

The human brain is a remarkable instrument. When faced with things we don’t understand or can’t explain, the brain fills in the missing bits from the billions of informational bytes it has stored

Case in point: our cat came Friday morning as I was leaving for school. Unfortunately, Ralph passed away earlier this year. He was a very large presence in our household for 16 years and has been sorely missed, so it’s not surprising we see him everywhere and even hear him ticking the screen to be let in

I don’t believe in apparitions or ghosts, but I do believe that influence lives on. Ralph had that kind of influence on our lives. For such a small being (he weighed in around 15-25 pounds), he ruled the house. He took up massive amounts of space. Once stretched out, he seemed to dominate our six-foot couch and king-size bed. He seldom spoke, yet always made his presence known. Even when he deigned to grace us with an utterance, it was short, to the point and soft…a far cry from his kitten days when he wouldn’t shut up and his Siamese heritage was very much in evidence. And until Ralph came into our lives, I had no idea cats had a liquid state.

Since his death, we have stumbled over him, been surprised to see him under the futon in the back room, watched him slither between the flower pot and front door as he darted inside and heard him at the window or door asking to be let in. On occasion we’ve spotted him stretched out lion-like on the couch or sprawled on the carpet runner.

Even though we know he’s not there, our brains – long accustomed to having him constantly underfoot – will insist he is still (and ever will be).

Not Quite Otaku

Scrolling through Pinterest the other week I came across a comment about Disney Productions’ influence on anime. At the risk of offending and hurting some people’s tender feelings, I have to disagree. It’s actually the other way around.

See, I liked anime before it became popular or well known in the States. In fact, I’m the one that introduced (read..corrupted) my kids to Japanese cartoons. Back in the days when all we had were Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the same dumb backdrop repeated ad nauseam, Japanese fare was a shining star in an otherwise black night. Not only were the graphics incredible (some resembled actual photographs long before Disney came on the scene), anime featured strong plots and crisp dialogue, not to mention intriguing characters who somehow managed to grow and develop. Sure there were character stereotypes and facial styles were reused in different series, but for the most part no one thought Naruto looked liked Captain Tyler with a different hair color. In addition, anime featured epic space battles—a far cry from sappy birds singing a love song about a helpless princess. Japanese heroines could wield a blade as effectively as the hero without losing any of their femininity.

I’m not decrying Disney, nor am I putting down the current generation of animators. I just think anime deserves its own day in the spotlight without being beholden to an American animator.

While Disney characters are limited to the nursery and elementary school (when’s the last time you saw a teenager decorate his room with Mickey Mouse?), anime is wildly popular with all ages in Japan (and gaining ground in the U.S.) The bold colours, sharp detail, and complexity of its characters create a world not limited to children or teens. Anime inundates Japan from cosplay cafes to festivals to decorations on public buildings, trains, and buses.

And best of all, there is no stigma attached to anime in Japan. Watch cartoons in the U.S.? There must be something wrong with you. Cosplay downtown as your fav anime character? Cool! Can I come, too?

 

 

 

 

July 4th

After spending 10 years overseas, I’m a little more aware of July 4th and its significance than I ever was growing up in the USA with all the parades, fireworks, picnics, etc. Being overseas made me appreciate things I often took for granted and some days have to make a concerted effort to remember:

*running water

*electricity on demand

*free public education for everyone

*respect and dignity for the handicapped

*respect and dignity for women

*freedom to worship

*freedom to speak a dissenting opinion

Looking in from the outside, I can see the erosion of our personal liberties and freedoms, but what is most alarming is the apathy of our citizens. Because we have not fought and struggled for our liberty, because we have not suffered under oppression, because we have not seen life outside our own borders, we do not value freedom and liberty and we do not understand the terrible prices that were paid, even though we study about them in school.

So today I give a heartfelt thank you to all our service men and women for their sacrifices to keep our borders safe and our liberty unchecked. I thank their families for their sacrifices in missed birthdays and Little League games while Mom or Dad are gone, the struggles of the parent at home to hold the fort and keep the home fires burning.

America hasn’t always done the right thing or made the right choices, especially in the past few years as politics and peer pressure dictateslifestyles, but I am still proud to be an American. In spite of the internal problems, America is still the place of choice for immigrants; it is still a beacon of hope to the oppressed, the downtrodden, the tired and weary, and those seeking a better future.

 

Radio Cat

My friend Jim Baum owns a local radio station. We met several years ago when I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor and he was mayor. With a long history of radio broadcasting behind him, Jim became my mentor, teaching me how to manoeuvre my way through small town politics, to become comfortable conversing with movers and shakers, and to ask good, investigative questions.

However, this blog isn’t about my journalist friend….it’s about his cat. Squeak has been taking care of the radio station for as long as Jim has been there. Whether Squeak came with the station or moved in right along with Jim is something I’ve never learned. Squeak is there at 5:30 a.m. every morning to greet Jim and “open up” shop. She seldom ventures outside, preferring to prowl the small three to four room station 24-7. She greets visitors with feline elegance and graciousness and during most of Jim’s interviews at the station she supervises from his desk in a prominent position between interviewer and interviewee. To a lucky few, she extends the honor of a personal “cat bath”.

As any cat person knows, cats tend to make their presence known and felt without saying a word. The last time I was in the station, Squeak sat quietly on the floor at my feet letting me know in no uncertain terms I had usurped her chair. I quickly shared and was reward with the privilege of scratching her chin and ears.

Cats are highly intelligent creatures and every so often one seems to enjoy being intimately involved in the writing process. Squeak supervises Jim’s creative process, adding a comment now and again when he pays more attention to writing than to her.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a cat that shared my love of writing. Long, long ago in a town far, far away, we had a Siamese cat who felt I couldn’t write anything unless she was perched on my shoulders or the back of the desk chair. I have author friends who sometimes moan about their cats hijacking their stories by walking across the keyboard or getting between them and the computer screen. But let’s face it, where would we be without our furry muses? There is something soothing and creative about a purring cat, and even when they are not purring, the simple act of stroking their silky fur has often jumpstarted a story or idea.

Here’s to long life to all radio and writing cats…wherever they may be.

 

 

 

 

 

Simple Solution

After a visit to the Pacific War Museum in Fredricksburg last week, Bruce and I decided to rent the movie PT 109, an excellent film, made all the better since it was based on a true story. The heroism displayed during that time period got me wondering if we have any young people with the same grit and determination as those young men who gave their lives during WW II, as well as wondering about the underlying differences between that generation and the present one.

With the rise in juvenile crime and delinquency, I realized there is a radical, yet simple solution to transforming our youth culture: require every high school-college age student to complete six months in the Peace Corps. Most of our disenfranchisement among today’s youth is due to ingratitude and lack of anything meaningful in their lives. Not only would a six month to year long stint in the Peace Corps fill that gap, but it would produce a sense of accomplishment in their lives that, frankly, working at a fast food join flipping burgers doesn’t.

We can take this even  further. Instead of sentencing juvenile offenders to a stint in the prison system (where they learn to be worse, not better), require them to serve their time in the Peace Corps. Yes, I know President Kennedy’s dream was to send the best America had to offer overseas, but most of these delinquents have the potential for greatness, yet lacked the opportunity to discover it. Giving of themselves in a place far less fortunate than anywhere they may have grown up in the United States provides the chance for them to discover who they really are.

Think about the costs of keeping a young delinquent in the prison system versus the costs of the minimal stipend in the Peace Corps. Not only does the US benefit from reduced costs of imprisonment, but the other country benefits in terms of service and income (the youngsters have to eat, pay rent, and enjoy some free time); in addition, the young person has gainful employment instead of sitting in a jail cell thinking of more ways to get into mischief.

It’s a win-win for everyone.

 

Men in Dresses

Scrolling through the list of offerings on Netflix and Kindle often leaves me frustrated and longing for something good to read/watch. Not that there aren’t great sounding titles out there, but I get really tired of the glut of “strong female leads” inundating society right now. Although I much prefer watching something with a “strong hero lead,” I don’t mind a strong female if she’s well-written; however, most “strong female leads” aren’t females, but merely “men in dresses.”

Let me explain. Hollywood’s version of a strong female is someone who has dumped her femininity in exchange for being foul mouthed, pushy, control-freak, and beating the stuffing out of every villain around; i.e. just another guy in a dress. Not only is this insulting to me, it also denigrates females. We are strong warriors, but we go about it in a totally different way. Take Captain Janeway, for example. She tamed a Borg, took on Q and made mush of him, managed to make friends of alien cultures without “kirking” their planets or culture, all without having to punch out her opponent.

Strong women harness the power of words rather than profanity to make their point. Aside from the whole morality issue, profanity is just lazy writing and lazy speaking. Truly talented folks know the power of words, and women have the most experience in whittling down their opposition with a few well-chosen words. Take Princess Leia for example. “Governor Tarkin. I should have expected to see you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.” No wimpy captive this. She skillfully puts Vader in his place while expressing disdain for her captor, all the while giving up nothing of her femininity.

Strong women, like strong heroes, allow the strength of their convictions to make the right decision. While Hollywood has stripped women of their femininity as if it’s something bad, Hollywood seems to delight in making their heroes all wimps. Under pressure the hero caves, gives up, hopes the tough guy heroine can save the day by beating up the villain. True strength comes from an internal belief regardless of personal cost. Tarkin figures he can use Leia’s femininity against her by threatening her home planet of Alderaan. Leia, on the other hand, horrified by what he plans, actually uses her femininity to trick Tarkin. She feigns giving in and gives him a false answer. Of course the story writer doesn’t allow it to work, but still she doesn’t trade a whole planet for the rebellion. Earlier, she uses her strength of character to stare down Vader even under torture. She may look helpless, but she never gives in.

Strong women know how to use wit and timing to take out the bad guy. While I love a good fight scene, there is no way I’m going to believe some 100 pound girl can beat up several 200 pound guys, no matter how many martial art techniques she knows. Women just don’t have the body structure and strength to do that. Besides, why should we resort to brute strength when we can easily use our brains to find a less strenuous solution? Leia waits for the right moment, then strangles Jabba the Hut with a chain, not her bare hands.

Part of a woman’s mystique is that she is different from men. A truly great writer knows how to incorporate femininity into a heroine and allow her to be a warrior and a woman at the same time. Lazy writers simply put men in dresses and call them heroines.

 

 

A Word to the Strugglers

I’ve been to numerous graduations and have noticed over the years the gradual sugar coating of the messages. Too much “cotton candy fluff.” I’m not “successful” enough to ever be invited to speak at a graduation, but fortunately I have a blog post.

It matters who you know.

I grew up in the “baby boomer” generation under the misassumption that you could make your way in the world on your own merits and not “who you know.” Unfortunately and fortunately, this just isn’t true. Once when in Ecuador, I needed to leave the country immediately on a family emergency. Such a move was impossible without the proper paperwork, which I did not have. Standing in line, hoping and praying I could make it through customs, I found myself standing behind the second most influential man in Ecuador. I didn’t know him, but my missionary colleague did. Problem solved. Many years later, working as the editor in a small town, I learned to network with the movers and shakers as part of my job. When it was time for my daughter to graduate, numerous local scholarships came in; partly because of her efforts, but partly because these folks knew me and knew of our financial need. Make networks. Invest yourself in your community. Find people and make friends, not just to better yourself, but to understand others.

Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race, but it does get you there. I’ve always been amazed driving down the interstate or in town at the folks who think speeding is the only way to travel. I’ve seen cars zip around me only to stop at the same traffic light or bottleneck. I’ve often wonder what their hurry is and why they didn’t just leave a few minutes earlier to avoid the rush. Studies have been done that speeding doesn’t get you there that much faster—at least not faster enough to warrant risking your life or someone else’s. We’re all on the same journey and most of us are heading to similar destinations. However slow or fast we get there really doesn’t matter. I’m the kind of traveler who enjoys taking detours. Going back and forth to see my dad in Florida, I would see an interesting place and say, “Oooh, let’s stop here for a moment.” Some of our most enjoyable “Kodak” moments came from impulsive stops like this. Life has too many wonderful places to see and things to do to be in such a hurry to get to a destination, especially since there is always someplace else we need to be later on.

If you don’t put anything in, you can’t expect to get anything out. I love the old story of the hand pumps during pioneer days. Modern generations aren’t familiar with these pumps, but I wonder if we shouldn’t reintroduce the concept into society, just to teach this principle. The old pumps didn’t automatically produce water. A sealed jug would be set inside the pump and a user was expected to pour the pint of water into the pump to activate the pump. Once the water is poured in, the pump is lubricated and produces an unlimited supply of water. The same principle applies to life, work, success, friendships, etc. The problem is we are conditioned to think only large amounts of input or risk are worthwhile. Even tiny investments, over time, produce great results. I always tell my students, “Start at 18 putting $2000 a year into mutual funds and do this for seven years. Leave the money alone. When you retire, you’ll be a millionaire.” They don’t always believe me, but the financial tables prove this out. The amount itself isn’t the key; it’s the action of investing yourself, your time, your money into whatever captures your passion.

At the end of the day, you are the only one who can determine the parameters of your success. There is always going to be somebody better than you. Don’t let society’s definition of success rob you of the enjoyment of your accomplishments. You might never win the Nobel Peace Prize, make the cover of Time magazine or be named Doctor of the Year. Only a minuscule amount of people is remembered by history and there are millions of us who are equally successful as those rich and famous who are also long forgotten by history. As long as what you accomplish matters to you, it is sufficient. The parent who raises godly children, the doctor who works in a rural hospital, the farmer who provides for his family, the teacher who sees the light dawn on one student’s face, the photographer whose work graces a local hospital, are as successful as those whose names and faces are constantly before the public. One hundred years from now you will be as well remembered as they are. So refrain from beating yourself up at your “lack” of success. Enjoy your talents and your abilities; embrace your accomplishments and take pleasure in your life.

 

Convoluted mind of a writer

I have a Pinterest account, not a Facebook account. While that might not seem like a terribly important confession, my tendency is to use the Pinterest account as a sort of digital notebook. It’s much tidier than trying to find bits and scraps of ideas amid the flotsam of crumpled notepads and torn napkins, since I’m an inveterate jotter. I scribble down all sorts of random information wherever I can find a clean space.

So imagine my delight in finding Pinterest: a veritable wealth of ideas for the aspiring writer and nifty little categories to keep all that information organized. I think my favorites are the writing prompts. The ideas come from other writers to encourage one another to actually write or as exercises to spark the creative juices. I screen shot and use various prompts that pop up on Pinterest for my AVID classes as quick writes. I’m a firm believer in using imagination to build better writers, so prefer the flamboyance of “A talking wolf is the least of your problems,” he said to the humdrum write about a life experience or choose whether bubble gum should come in balls or sticks. Wait, that last has possibilities….

Still, there are those off the wall prompts that magically appear on my screen and tickle my skewed sense of humor. Prompts I find amusing and delightful, but will never use in a story or novel simple because it’s not my style, such as:

“That has got to be the lamest pick-up line in existence.”

“Don’t worry. That’s just Plan A.”

“So what’s Plan B?”

“To take you hostage.”

Or

Nope, I can’t go to Hell.

Satan still has a restraining order against me.

Or

“No, sir. I am not underestimating the kidnappers. YOU are underestimating my grandmother.”

Or

“I need to talk to a human,” he demanded.

Or

“And why do we have to bring a twelve-year-old to a crime scene?”

The boy smiled faintly and replied, “Detective, I am here for your protection.”

Such fun little prompts that stir my soul, yet will never find life on the printed page. So why do I collect them? For the same reason I collected bits of broken pottery or green rocks at the beach—they fascinate me; cases of what ifs, never weres, might have beens which satisfy some primal, deep seated urge to let my imagination run wild and fill up my creative tank. The bits and piece simmer and stew in the back of my brain and somewhere along the way metamorphose into brave new worlds of my own creation. They become the building blocks of my universe as essential and powerful as DNA.

And if not, they function as wonderful money wrenches to mess with my students’ minds.

Plot Twists

“Life is a book and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read.” Will Herondale

I don’t know who Will Herondale is, but he is quite right. Anyone who thinks life is boring or humdrum or not worth living simply isn’t living. When I was in high school I had my life all mapped out. Go to college, get a degree in journalism, and serve on the mission field writing news stories.

Like well-written books, a well-lived life has plot twists; although, I missed the first one in the midst of language school, cultural adaptation, and family life. I did graduate and did wind up on the mission field; however, no one seemed to want my services as a writer covering the various stories and events happening on the mission field. I wrote those stories in our letters home to family and friends. In spite of the curve in the road, I found a way to pursue my passion.

The curve turned into a plot twist where the “career girl” became a stay at home mom, and I still found time to write in the midst of bottles, diapers, meal planning and laundry. The unexpected direction filled my life with its share of troubles and unspeakable joys.

The next plot twist was equally unexpected, but more overt as we left the mission field to return stateside. We assumed we would always be on the mission field until we retired. Now we were no longer missionaries, but also right back where we started—in the same rural area serving the same small church. Ironic, but satisfying, and we had a wealth of experience and wisdom we would have missed out on.

Fast forward a few years to a time our last two children are in high school and the chance of a lifetime drops in my life. After 20 something years I finally get to use my journalism degree as editor of a small town newspaper. My ultimate dream job ended after four years as a new plot twist emerged.

Today I find myself teaching at a local high school. Back when I was in college I had no illusions about being a teacher. I wasn’t cut out for it; my personality didn’t fit in with being cooped up in a small room teaching the same thing over and over. Routine wasn’t for me. Yet I find myself strangely satisfied with this new chapter in my life even though the challenges some days leaving me feeling like I’ve gone a few rounds with a rancor. What will be in the next chapter? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Life’s plot twists are a good lesson for writers, who might mistake the humdrum and ordinary for extraneous material. It’s within those bits and pieces of ordinary life that one’s characters develop the strength and fortitude for handling the extraordinary times. Not all plot twists have to be earth shattering or life altering; they merely need to develop a new layer to one’s character and move the character forward on their journey.

Enjoy the detours.

The Scarf Sold the Sweater

I really don’t like shopping for clothes—long hours, fruitless perusal of stores which stock the exact same thing for the exact same price, clothes not the right size, not the right price, not the right colour. On the other hand, I do enjoy browsing and window-shopping, wandering around a mall or market or strolling down a shop-choked street for the excitement and enchantment of discovering something unexpected that sparks a connection.

On one such excursion I discovered a sweater and scarf combo. The sweater itself really wasn’t my style and definitely wasn’t my colour. The bright-banded scarf, however, draped artistically around the collar of the sweater caught my attention. “I have to have this sweater,” and although after the first wash the scarf never fell exactly the way it had in the shop, I still enjoy the combo, luxuriating in the sweater’s softness –something I would have missed if I hadn’t been lured by the scarf’s hues.

It’s the little details in out of the way places that call to me: a wildflower clinging tenaciously to the side of beach cliff, the bright green of leaf against a summer sky, the smooth stylistic lines of a wood carving that suggest a bird. While I can appreciate the “big picture” and I don’t get focused on crossing every ”t” and dotting every “i,” the tiny personal touches, the insignificant details are what stick in my memory long afterwards, like the mints on the pillows at a classy hotel. The mints themselves aren’t necessary; they’re even temporary. But no one who’s ever stayed at a luxury hotel forgets about the mints. It’s what often sets apart “good” from “better.”

“For some people, small beautiful events are what life is all about.” –Doctor Who

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