Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Politician or Statesman?

            Trying my best to be an informed voter, I tuned in to the recent Republican debate. I felt a bit like I do when I go to a shopping mall—overwhelmed. When it comes to clothes, home improvement, laundry detergent . . . I’m the type that likes two or three choices. More than that and I’m confused.
            So as I watched the abundance of Republican hopefuls the other night, I decided I needed to find some sort of criteria/criterion that would narrow my options.  
            Being as this was a Republican debate, the candidates and I agreed for the most part on issues. So the issues weren’t . . . well, an issue. But as I watched the posturing, the often canned responses, the occasional heated moments, it became apparent some candidates were clearly more skilled at explaining the problems we face as a country and what they planned to do about them. I started thinking about that, and the word statesman came to mind.
There is no dearth of "politicians" on
either side of the aisle.
            To confirm I was on the right track, I consulted the dictionary. Concerning politicians, the definitions ran the gamut from "a person skilled in political government or administration; a statesman or stateswoman" to "a seeker or holder of public office who is more concerned about winning favor or retaining power than about maintaining principles." (They might as well have said “see bottom-feeding scum-sucker” for that last one.)
            The definitions for statesmen/stateswoman were a little kinder: "a person experienced in the art of government or versed in the administration of government affairs; a person exhibiting great wisdom and ability in directing the affairs of a government or in dealing with important public issues."
            On first reading, those definitions did nothing to solve my quandary. In fact, they seemed to suggest that politicians and statesmen weren’t that different. It seemed that to be either, there had to be a firm grounding in the ins and outs (read that “wheeling and dealing”) of government.
            While I don’t buy into the notion that all politicians are on-the-take sleaze balls (although some definitely are), neither do I believe that experience in government is necessary to be an effective chief executive. The definition of statesman seemed to suggest that. But then I read it again and noticed that little two-letter word: or.
            Statesmen don’t have to have experience in government. Just because people haven’t held a public office, it doesn’t mean they don’t possess skill in dealing with important public issues. They might have demonstrated this ability in other ways. To suggest a couple: through volunteerism, through the way they run their lives/businesses.
            And so I was able to establish my final criteria. My candidate of choice must fit my definition of a statesman: one who exhibits great wisdom and ability in dealing with important public issues and has the skill to effectively communicate those qualities. That narrows my choices considerably.                               



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Take a Hike!

            One of my favorite vacation destinations is Sedona, Arizona. I’ve visited numerous scenic venues in the US (and a few abroad), but I contend that for awe-inspiring views Sedona can’t be beat. Whether you’re on top of a mountain, at the bottom of a canyon, or shopping the tourist-crammed streets of “Uptown Sedona,” jaw-dropping vistas are just a matter of turning or tilting your head.
View from a Sedona summit
            With so much rugged beauty to be absorbed, it naturally follows that hiking is a popular activity in the area. And that is the main activity Bill and I pursue whenever we visit. Mind you, I’m not talking Walk Across America or Wild, here. No coast-to-coast or Pacific Rim trek with all our worldly possessions strapped to our backs. For the most part, our hikes range from three to six hours in the coolest or warmest part of the day, depending on the season. And they always end with a long soak in a hot tub and a good night’s rest in a comfy bed.
            But even wuss hikes such as these provide time and opportunity for inspiration and reflection. So on a recent one in Sedona, I “reflected” on rules for hiking and living.
For basic hiking equipment,
the basic stick is hard to
beat. (Is that a pum?)
Be prepared. Spontaneity has its place, but most endeavors in hiking—as in life—are more fully enjoyed if you take a tip from the Boy Scouts and prepare. The preparation doesn’t have to be elaborate. I’ve found the basic essentials to be plenty water and the right attire. Protection from the elements is a must as are comfortable shoes. (There are occasions in life where comfort can be sacrificed for a really smokin’ pair of shoes, but hiking isn’t one of them.) Also, take along a small emergency kit (think blisters, bug bites). I’ve become a fan of the walking stick. Whether it’s a carved and varnished one, a high-tech metal one, or one picked up along the trail, a stick can be a life-saver for knees. And a camera! Take a camera to help preserve memories.
My favorite hiking partner.
Share the trail (but occasionally go solo). I think most people will agree that new experiences are more fun when they’re shared. Plus, there’s safety in numbers. But ever so often, a solitary sojourn can be relaxing and soul-satisfying. On a familiar, easy trail, or on a portion of a longer one, go it alone and see what a difference it makes. (I got the idea for this post while I journeyed solo on a portion of a trail.)
Be open to a variety of experiences. It’s weird the way my and Bill’s preferences reflect our personalities. He likes to climb “above” the action and take in sweeping vistas. (I think it’s a “master of the universe” thing). I, on the other hand, enjoy the “coziness” of canyon hikes. (I know it makes no sense, but, for me, canyons seem to require less climbing.) We compromise and do both and have learned to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of both types of trails.
Notice the details...
Take time to notice. For most of my life, I’ve been a “get-‘er-done” kind of person. When I tackle a project, I want fast results. On a trail, I have to remind myself to focus on the journey and not the destination. I’m training myself to slow down and engage all my senses. To take in the panoramicview from a different perspective, to see the new green growth that has resulted from a recent rain, to breathe in the scent of warm pine needles, to hear the rush of a nearby stream.
Take time to look up. When hiking, it’s necessary to concentrate on your feet and the path immediately before you. Rocks, roots, and other snares to trip you up can spring from the ground in the time span of a step. Watching your feet take one step after another can become mind numbing, so don’t forget to look up. Whether you’re hiking to the top of a mountain or exploring the depths of a canyon, craning the neck can provide majestic views and perhaps give that needed jolt of inspiration to keep going.
Looking up can provide inspiration.
Obstacles are no reason to quit.
If you encounter an obstacle, consider the options. A fallen tree, a swollen stream, a critter on the trail—obstacles happen. Go over or around. Clear a new way. Plow through. Turn around. All are options. What is never an option, however, is giving up.
Cairns tell other hikers,
"I was here. You can do it!"
Take encouragement from those who have gone before. Moments of doubt will come. Just when you think you’ve climbed too high, taken a wrong turn, ventured too far, you see a sign that someone has gone before you. You realize that what you’re attempting is not impossible. And you keep going.
Know that the end of the trail is never the end of the trail. Trails seldom just end. They cross, loop, bisect, merge, converge, diverge. When you reach that end-of-the-trail marker, know it’s most often a lie. There are still myriad opportunities open to you. If on the rare occasion it actually is the end of the trail, enjoy the return trip. You’re sure to catch something you missed on the initial one.
            On the trail and in life, I wish you happy hiking!     

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Blogging: Busking for Writers

            At fifty-five, Carl Falsgraf chucked his successful, well-paying career and set out on a forty-nine-day, round-trip journey from Eugene, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. He planned to use this time to unwind, re-charge, and reflect on what to do with the remainder of his life. Along the way he recorded his reflections and revelations, which he later shared in his travel memoir Highway Blues. A musician and songwriter, he also composed some new songs as he traveled. And—in an activity that especially interested me—he tried his hand at busking.
            As I type this post, I’m glad to see that busk is immediately underlined with a red squiggle. Spellchecker is as unfamiliar with the term as I was. But dictionary.com ensures me it is indeed a word and means “to entertain by dancing, singing, or reciting on the street or in a public place.” The web site further informs me it is a chiefly British term, and a YouTube search reveals that, British or not, it is a thriving activity the U.S.
            Falsgraf describes busking as “the most primal, challenging, and rewarding mode of musical experience.” The busker puts himself out there without the benefit of advance people, publicists, promoters, and all manner of fancy sound equipment. It’s just him, his raw performance, and his voluntary audience. Feedback is immediate: If people don’t like the performance, they walk away.
            While busking can be nerve-racking, rewards do exist. Most often they are in the form of busy passers-by who pause to listen and indicate their pleasure by smiling and maybe nodding along to the music. If they are especially appreciative, these transitory fans might toss some coins into a jar or instrument case, but don’t count on those tips to pay the bills.
            As I read Falsgraf’s explanation of the experience, it struck me that busking and blogging have much in common. In fact, I’ll venture to say that blogging is to the writer what busking is to the musician. Especially the way I do it. While there are the professional bloggers who garner huge followings and rake in mega-bucks, a glance at my blog will quickly reveal its amateur status: not a lot of money invested, not a lot of hours spent in SEO searches, not a lot of advertising and/or promotional schemes. I do have the opportunity to edit and revise before casting out my writing “pearls,” but my posts are raw in that no professional editor or even trusted writer friend has tweaked them. As for feedback, the stats quickly inform me how well received my efforts are.
            Certainly, there are no financial rewards—not even a few coins tossed my way. But, as with busking, rewards can take other forms. There is the opportunity to air my thoughts and observations (of which I have many) without the pressure of meeting a quota or deadline. I have the freedom to choose my topics “as the spirit moves me.” I get the pleasure of feedback in the forms of comments and “likes” and “shares” and in the discovery I’ve added another follower. And there is always the unexpected bonus of someone complimenting you on a post and you had no idea they even read your blog.
            It took me years to arrive at this conclusion, but I consider writing to be like any other talent. And just as there are all types of forums in which other talents can be shared, blogging provides one in which both the writing pros and the “buskers” can publicly perform.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Debunking the Effortless-Entertaining Myth

One can learn a lot from these two!
            I subscribe to one magazine. Every month I look forward to its decorating tips, its travel suggestions, its recipes. But it seems as if at least every other month it features an article on how to entertain graciously with little or no effort. Not only do I not enjoy these, I find them downright irritating. Mainly because anyone who has ever so much as hosted a Tupperware or Mary Kay party knows that the claim of “effortless entertaining” is complete bul baloney.
            First, let me fill you in on my magazine’s idea of the perfect “lazy” lunch as described in the latest issue. If you’re hosting said lunch, it helps if you have a beach cottage with a front porch that will accommodate a table with seating for ten. With a few days planning, inspiration from the time you lived in the south of France, and a menu that requires an French-to-English dictionary just to pronounce the dishes, “easy” can be turned into “elegant” in no time. If you don’t have giant clamshells in which to ice down your wine selection, not to fret. Fake Faux versions can be found online at a mere $150 each. At that bargain price, you’ll want to snatch up a couple of them. And speaking of “clams,” let’s not forget a trip to the bank to finance this laid-back affair.
            If you don’t happen to have a beachside cottage at your disposal, how about offering a down-home, back-yard picnic? It helps if your back yard consists of ten acres with an 8,000 square-foot dairy barn (used to store your antiques), a stream, and a pond. With very little fuss, move your rustic farm table (which seats eight) outside under your towering red oak, add place-settings you’ve “plucked” from your barn, and fashion individual place-card holders with the wild flowers you’ve gathered from your very own meadow. Who knew a bucolic banquet could be both easy and economical?
            Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing those with the desire, means, and energy to entertain graciously. On the contrary, I admire their generosity and hospitality. But let’s call it what it is: a fete of biblical proportions that requires weeks (months?) of planning; a crew of cooks, cleaners, decorators, and furniture movers; and an income greater than that of most third-world countries. Even for those of us who don’t aspire to such grandiose galas, entertaining is never easy. I mean, we still have to plan, shop, clean, cook, serve, and clean again. That’s why I attempt it only about every five years. That is also why I never, ever call it "effortless."
            While magazine articles on entertaining can make great fantasy reading, the best lesson I ever learned about hassle-free entertaining was from a Laverne and Shirley episode. The girls had planned a festive affair at their apartment. About ten minutes before their guests arrived, they assembled their refreshments: Pepsi with milk and Oreo cookies with Redi-Whip sprayed on top. Now that, my friends, is about as effortless as it gets (and even then, they had to go to the store).          

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Celebracation in Sunriver, Oregon

     When family spans four generations and is scattered all over the country, it takes a special occasion to bring everyone together.  But gather we did last week for recreating and celebrating the special occasion of my mother’s 90th birthday. I must credit my sister Elaine for orchestrating this near-impossible feat. Being the oldest of three siblings (and having a natural tendency toward bossiness), she managed to schedule a time and place we could all meet. And what a place it was! Bittern Lodge—a vacation rental in Sunriver, Oregon—provided the perfect setting for both indoor and outdoor fun in the pleasant Oregon sun. I realize a narrative of someone else’s family reunion isn’t everyone’s idea of riveting reading, so I’ll keep this brief and hopefully more engaging by giving a quick photo tour of the week’s activities.

First things first. The birthday girl then
(1942) and now. (In the interest of full disclosure, her birthday isn't until Sept. 24., but this was the only time we could all work a group trip into our schedules. And, anyway, after 90 years, what's a couple of months?)


Sunriver, located on the Eastern slopes
of the Cascade Mountains, provided
miles of biking, hiking, and four-wheeling
trails that led to one scenic venue after another.


Thanks to nephew-in-law Justin, we didn't lack
for ways to get around on the trails. (No "minimalist"
vacationing for this group!)
Great-uncle Doug gave Bennett some operating tips. (Bennett didn't care that the four-wheeler was still on the trailer.) 
No back to the basics here, either. Plenty of room with 8 bedrooms--and (bonus!) 8 bathrooms.

A kitchen large enough to accommodate many cooks. (I did my part by staying out of their way.)
And food:
(Can't forget food!)
The good stuff...

the really good stuff...
and the REALLY, REALLY good stuff!
Most important--Family:
Mama and her sister, last two
surviving of 9 siblings.


Great grandkids
(I apologize I don't have a "kids" pic, as I
was in the picture and don't have a copy
of it yet.)

What's more fun than spending time with cousins? Spending time with FIVE of them!
Random moments:

Birthday dinner

Amy, our ad hoc historian

Doug, winner of our impromptu
One-handed Skillet-lifting
(The skillet weighted 12.5lbs plus
another pot and lid of about 5 lbs.)

and snores...

and a party-crasher!
To sum up the celebracation with a tried-and-true journalism phrase:
A good time was had by all!                  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Critique Recovery 101

Writing contests: the thrill
of victory...
...and the agony of
         As a battle-scarred veteran of many writing contests, I’ve had my share of wins and, in my opinion, more than my share of losses. I’ve also received my share of critiques. Here are some strategies I’ve developed over the years for dealing with critiques that can make me feel like either a budding John Grisham or a withering writing wannabe.

1. Be appreciative.
 I’ve never judged a writing contest, but I’ve graded approximately two million student essays in my day. I’m thinking the experiences must have a lot in common. Both can be thankless jobs, and, generally, the compensation is minimal. Not all contests offer critiques or comments, so be thankful for the ones that do. Appreciate the people who took the time to read and often comment on your submissions (even the ones who weren’t astute enough to recognize a Nobel Prize winner in the making). And for the record, I've found most judges to be considerate, encouraging folks.
2. Repeat over and over to yourself: The critique is my friend.
While cleaning my desk the other day, I ran across this quote among some notes I’d taken at a conference: “Nobody ever got better by being told how great they are.”
I apologize to the creator of this quote, whose name I failed to record. There is so much wisdom in these words. If you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback, take advantage of it. Read it, digest it, nurse your bruised feelings, and then experiment with the suggestions. If they don’t work, toss ‘em. Not all suggestions are nuggets of wisdom. But some of them are, and if the feedback does work, you’ve taken a big step forward on your writing journey. From personal experience, I can tell you that many critique suggestions I’ve taken to heart have resulted in an award in a subsequent contest.
3. Can you say subjective?
Bear in mind that responses to writing—like responses to all art—are personal and subjective. I recently wrote what was—in my mind—a touching and inspirational short story. In the very first contest I entered it, I won first place (and $100. Yay!). I received the following comments: “Very powerful. Well written. Good details.” But the judge didn’t like my title because it seemed “... at odds with the generosity of spirit that marks the end of the story.” I agreed. I changed the title and entered it in a different contest ... with a different judge. No prize this time. And in the comments, the judge—who obviously came from a totally different mindset than the first one—gave my ending a 2 out of 10, explaining that it showed my main character to be “vindictive and completely delusional.” Huh? What about that “generosity of spirit”? Was this the same story? I promise I’m not bitter, just a little confused. But it proves my point that what can be a love story to one person can be a horror tale to another.  And I know I’m not the only writer to have experienced this.
In my English-teaching days, we addressed the matter of subjectivity by instructing student writers to “consider your audience.” In some contests, you might be fortunate enough to do that. If a contest you’re entering lists the judge(s), do research. Find out what you can about the judge’s background, what he himself writes or prefers to read. If you discover his own writing style leans more toward artsy and experimental and yours comes right out of the Elements of Style playbook, you might save yourself an entry fee and move on to the next contest—there are lots of them out there. Unfortunately, many contests don’t identify the judge(s) in advance. But many contest sponsors publish former winning entries. Give those a read and see if your entry is a good fit. Over time, you’ll start to recognize those contests which in general exhibit a preference for your particular style and/or subject matter, and you can use subjectivity to avoid post-critique stress.
4. Don’t quit.
On one of the most negative (as in downright nasty) critiques I ever received, I got the best advice I ever received: Don’t quit. And that’s what it boils down to. If you love writing, why let someone else rob you of that pleasure? With today’s technology, social media connections, and self-publishing opportunities, there is nothing to stop anyone who wants to from writing. You might not win a contest, get an agent or a Big 5 contract, or make the best-seller list. But you can write. And with that in mind, I’m closing with another quote I love by Florence Foster Jenkins in which I’ve substituted the word write for sing.  In response to her critics, Ms. Jenkins said, “Some may say I cannot [write]; but no one can say I didn’t.
        How about you? Have some strategies/insights that keep you writing?


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"If the World Had a Front Porch..."

            Basically, I’m a city gal. Growing up on the outskirts of Houston spoiled me for urban conveniences. These days, I still like living within a few blocks of all the essential destinations in my life: supermarkets, shopping centers, my bank, my doctor, my church, and a Braums’ ice cream store. But my mother was a country girl, and frequent childhood trips to her tiny East Texas hometown established a few rural roots in me—at least enough to give me an appreciation for country music (some) and a yearning for a big front porch.
My grandparents' front porch.
Its appearance has changed some
since I was a kid, but the good
memories remain constant.
            In 1995, Tracy Lawrence came out with the hit “If the World had a Front Porch.” With the exception of a grandfather who taught the singer “how to cuss” (I never heard my grandfather utter a single curse word), that song tells so much of my own front-porch experience. My grandparents’ big porch was replete with the swing (why have a front porch if you don’t have a swing?), the rocking chair, and the yellow light bulb that attracted swarms of kamikaze insects. I never witnessed the birth of puppies on the porch, but I recall a couple of litters being cradled in boxes there. On hot summer nights, my siblings and I, along with a passel of cousins, would play games or collect “lightning bugs” in the yard, while the older folks sat on the porch to catch and shoot the breeze. Often, one of the kids was recruited to sit on top of the ice cream freezer while an adult cranked the handle. There were also truckloads of watermelon consumed on that porch.
            With so many good memories, is it any wonder I’ve always longed to own a big front porch? And yet I never have. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in one of those midcentury houses with a front porch the size of a postage stamp. The houses my husband Bill and I have owned all had porches the size of the envelope—a little larger but still not big enough to serve any useful purpose. It seems that until recently front porches all but disappeared. In the suburban sprawl of the fifties, folks retreated behind the walls of their houses to seek privacy and to watch TV. In the sixties and seventies, they ventured back outside, but instead of lounging on the porch to sip iced tea or lemonade, they retreated to backyard patios to barbecue. In the eighties, those patios became decks—often with the added luxury of a hot tub and/or a pool—and that trend held steady through the nineties and into the new millennium. These days, outdoor kitchens ensure that most of our socializing remains in the back yard.
            Lately, though, I’ve noticed a revival of the front porch. With the resurrection of the Craftsman and bungalow styles, lovely porches are once again gracing the fronts of new houses: porches large enough to provide shade and comfortable seating for several people; porches where folks can sit outside and greet—or meet—their neighbors.
            I don’t think my dream of owning a big front porch will ever become a reality. Bill and I have lived in several different houses throughout our married life but have been in our current one for twenty-five years. We’re so settled in, it would take an act of God to remove us (maybe not such a remote possibility with Oklahoma tornadoes and earthquakes). But  Bill insists his next address will be the ground. I’m thinking more along the lines of “the home.”
...my porch "wannabe"
(But, hey, it works.)
My dream porch...
            So what do you do when a dream eludes you? You improvise. Located between an exterior garage wall and the sidewalk that leads to our front door is a patch of land originally intended as a flower bed. Problem was, nothing but a boxwood hedge and a couple of yaupon hollies would grow there. When the hollies were bushes, summer sun burned up any flowers I planted in that spot. When they grew into trees, too much shade became the culprit. So about fifteen years ago, in a fit of frustration, I covered that patch with pavers and made my own “front porch.” It’s a poor substitute for a rambling veranda with the obligatory swing, but Bill and I use it for a cozy place to read or chat on the phone or to enjoy some fresh air. And it’s a great place to wave or yell “hello” to neighbors. 
            In regard to that aforementioned “home,” when the time comes and if I have anything to say about the matter, it will have a big front porch. I think that will make a nice transition into my final and eternal abode—which, of course, will have a HUGE one.
            Have any front-porch thoughts or memories you’d like to share?