Saturday, April 18, 2015

What Do You See?

      Several years ago, I was preparing a PowerPoint to introduce John Knowles’s A Separate Peace to my students. This award-winning novel addresses the struggle between good and evil both in the universe and in the individual’s heart. I told Brenda Price, our ever-helpful school librarian, I wanted pictures that would represent this struggle. We sifted through images of the most heinous acts in history, of the vilest villains, of the most corrupt institutions. We also sought out the acts of incomparable courage, the heroes, the saints. In the course of our search, she took from a shelf In Their Name, the book commemorating the OKC bombing. We leafed through it quickly but then lingered when we came to the iconic photo that had spread all over the world after the bombing—the one of Baylee Almon’s lifeless little body so tenderly cradled in a fireman’s arms.
In photos from OKC bombing, do you see
evil? goodness? despair? hope?

      As we studied that emotionally charged photograph, the question came to us simultaneously: “Does this represent the good or the evil?”
      It was a difficult question to answer. Difficult, because in that image we are reminded of the vilest, basest, most depraved acts of which mankind is capable. And in that same image we are shown love manifested in selfless sacrifice and heart-wrenching compassion—the noblest of human actions and emotions. 
      That day in the library, Brenda and I came to the conclusion the photograph represents both—the best and the worst of humankind. But as that image continued to invade my thoughts through the years, I came to another conclusion. Whether we see in that picture hate and despair in a hopeless world or whether we see love and hope in a struggling one depends on what we carry in our own hearts.

                                         Double Exposure
                             Lifeless baby,
                             victim of hatred,
                             cradled with love
                             in a fireman’s arms

                            Timeless image,
                            quintessence of grief,
                            to man’s condition

                           Ageless question—
                           goodness or evil?—
                           answered only
                           by the viewer’s heart

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"They" as a Singular Pronoun

            In perusing the Review section of the WSJ last Saturday (4/11/15), I came across the headline “Can We Take ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” I realize the admission of the slightest interest in such a subject puts me in a class of weirdoes right up there with crossword puzzle competitors (watch the documentary Crossplay) and Trekkies. But a one-third page article was dedicated to this question, so there must be a respectable number of us around.
            The article reported that the question had been discussed at length in the “Ask a Lexicographer” session at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I could be wrong, but somehow I can’t imagine these conference attendees posting Facebook pics of themselves lounging in the hot tub while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. Talk about an intimidating group. Surrounded by such esteemed literati, I would have been too terrified to utter a word. I break out in a cold sweat just knowing the group exists. And, as if a society of editors weren’t already intimidating enough, check out the acronym: ACES. I wonder how long it took the charter members to come up with that. (Come to think of it, probably not long.)
Problem solved. The ACES have spoken.
            But as it turns out, ACES members proved not to be the stuffy traditionalists I’d envisioned. The consensus, it appears, is that not only is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun but it is preferred over the cumbersome alternatives of “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.” As an amateur writer, I’m glad to have this issue resolved. As a former English teacher, I’m experiencing mild guilt over all those times I marked “they” with a big, red PAA (faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement.) Notice I said "mild guilt." I’ll get over it, as I’m sure all my former pupils have.
            The English language is a complex and evolving organism. What works in one century . . . decade . . . year, doesn’t necessarily translate well to the following. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been gaining momentum ever since the 1970s, when the generic “he” became too sexist. And women of my generation learned quickly to stop saying “thongs” when referring to our sandals.
            Despite my lighthearted jabs at ACES, I’m actually very grateful the society exists. Something as malleable and yet so critical to civilization as language needs a watchdog to ensure change stays within reason. Otherwise, pandemonium will ensue and what then? Participles dangling precariously like the last autumn leaf on a tree?  Infinitives split with all the destructive force of splitting the atom? The elimination of “whom” from our vocabulary? It’s a slippery slope.                


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grammy Dee the Groupie...NOT!

            In the lingo of the entertainment industry, I consider myself more of a “seat-filler” than a “plant.” More of a person designated to occupy a seat and make the place look full rather than someone situated in the audience to drum up excitement. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being entertained. But be it a lecture or a rock concert, I tend to internalize my enjoyment rather than joining in enthusiastic audience participation. I mean, go beyond a little hand-clapping, head-nodding, or foot tapping, and I’m waaay out of my comfort zone. So what are the odds that last week a seat-filler like me would find herself filling a seat right under the noses—literally—of the entertainers in a popular Nashville restaurant?
            I should’ve been suspicious when my daughter Kristin and I were told there’d be a forty-five-minute-to-an hour wait and then our name was called within ten minutes. And when the two of us were seated at a table for six, a foot from the stage, I should’ve declined. But I’d perused the menu during the previous ten minutes, and my mouth was already watering for chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and home-made cobbler. I couldn’t risk an actual hour-long wait. And the stage was bare, so maybe, I thought, we could eat our meal and make a quick exit before the show began.
            Nope. We’d barely scooted our chairs under the table when two performers—let’s call them Jim and Bob—appeared on the stage. They tuned their guitars, adjusted the mics, and checked the sound system. Satisfied that all was well, they stepped down. I breathed a sigh of relief. Still time to eat and make our get-away. But rather than go do whatever else he needed to do, Jim decided to visit with Kristin and me...well, mainly Kristin. Go figure. But even after she informed him she had a husband and two kids and she was there with her mother, he hung around to tell us about his career playing with TimMcGraw and give us a free, autographed CD. Okay, something was definitely up.
            About the time our food arrived, Jim and Bob returned to the stage and cranked up the music. And about the time I’d sweetened my tea, the waitress came over and asked if we minded if a few of Jim’s family and friends joined us at our table. And so it was I found myself right in the middle of a mini mosh pot pit.
            The pressure was on. Front and center, in full view of the entertainers who were stomping and strumming their hearts out, and surrounded by Jim’s partying friends and family, I couldn’t have felt more awkward if I'd been seated on the stage. I did the only thing a hungry seat-filler could do: I dug into my food.
            To be fair, Jim was a nice guy and an accomplished musician. As it turns out, he was also the writer of several hit country songs which he performed and I enjoyed. And while I might not be the most rambunctious of fans, I’m a polite one. I didn’t heckle, I applauded when appropriate, and I chewed my food quietly. Kristin and I stayed for the entire program, and I tipped generously—at least enough to cover the cost of the CD. What more could a performer want from a fan? Had Tim McGraw himself been on the stage, I might have been a bit more rowdy. But I doubt it.
Performers in background were closer than they appear.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Not Your Ordinary Madonna

            The winter months in Oklahoma always present a conumdrum for me. Minus the yardwork and outside activities of summer, I have plenty of time to write, but the post-holiday letdown and the bleak and bleary landscape don’t provide much in the way of inspiration or ideas.  It’s sort of like when you’re working, you have money but no time to shop. Then when you’re not working, you have time but no money. 
            But this past weekend, friend Nancy rescued me from my winter malaise with the suggestion we take in the “Madonnas of the Prairie” Exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I found plenty to write about there.
            The exhibit was organized and curated by Michael R. Grauer at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. The more than one hundred works are tributes to the women of the American West—both native and transplanted—from the late 19th century through the present. They depict a wide range of artistic styles as well as varied notions about the women, either past or present, who embody the western spirit. They also elicit an array of emotions.
            I was amused by the renditions of the “Cow-Boy Girl,” a popular image in the early 1900s and a by-product of the rise of Western fiction. No longer a passive object of pity or adoration, this woman could plow, ride, shoot, and bring outlaws to justice with the best of men. And as the paintings suggest, she could do it all with flawless hair and make-up. Talk about “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan”! Eventually, at the hands of advertisers and commercial artists, these rough and ready women evolved into a sort of Western “pin-up” girl. Found on calendars and in ads, this booted beauty with her denim short-shorts, cinched waist, and perfectly coifed hair was clearly more fantasy than fact. But she still proved herself extremely competent in boosting sales of just about anything.
Madonna, framed by a windmill
"halo," keeps a vigilant watch.

            Many of the paintings inspired me, especially the “Madonnas,” for which the exhibit was named. Borrowing from Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, artists such as William S. Jewett, George Caleb Bingham, and Emanuel Leutze depicted pioneer women in a holy light, often framed by “halos” of real world objects such as the blades of a windmill or the opening in a  wagon cover. In many of these works, the women strike poses of either determined strength or of patient waiting.
            For me, the paintings by far the most moving were those that reflected the hardships western women endured. You have to look at only a few to grasp the severity of the challenges these women faced day in and day out. In one particular work, a woman stands hunch-backed in front of her sod house tending a withering garden. Around her stretches miles and miles of prairie, with no sign of another human being. I thought that of all the trials the women faced—relentless toil, sickness, hunger, uncertainty—isolation might have been the most devastating. And I might not be too far off the mark with that conjecture. As one of the placards in the exhibit explained, that era of history accounted for an unusually high rate of suicides and mental illnesses.
            As you can probably tell from this post, I’m no art critic. I can’t comment on style or technique or medium with any degree of expertise. But I know what moves me, and this exhibit did. If pressed to name the emotion I experienced most from it, I would say gratitude. Gratitude for women who were survivors; women who faced danger with courage and fortitude; women who carved out a better life for themselves, their families, and their descendants.
            The exhibit will be on display until May 10. If you want to be amused, inspired, moved, and infused with gratitude all within a matter of a few hours, be sure to take it in.

No Cow-Boy Girl here. If this side saddle had been
on a real horse, I would've never stayed on!


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

That Awkward In-Between Age

            I just “celebrated” another birthday. With this one came the problem of classifying myself according to age. Middle-aged didn’t really seem honest unless I’m planning to live to one-hundred-thirty. But “senior citizen” or “elderly”? That would be my mother. I gave it some thought and decided I’m a ‘tweener—someone between middle age and death. Here are some of my observations about this awkward in-between age. 

            Transportation: My latest car-buying expedition convinced me I’m too old to ever again consider a ground-hugging sports car. I’m over the “need for speed,” and zipping along at 85 mph with only a few inches between the asphalt and my ass no longer carries the thrill it once did. However, I’m not yet ready for an over-sized tricycle or a motorized wheelchair, either.   

'tweeners have to make lots
of choices: Fashion or comfort?

            Fashion:  A recovering shoe addict, I’m learning to manage my obsession of buying the latest styles, regardless of the pain they inflict. But as any addict will tell you, although the urge can be controlled, it never completely goes away. I’ll bypass rhinestone-embellished gladiator sandals for Clarks only if it’s cold or I’ll be doing a lot of walking. I haven’t succumbed to wearing jeans with elastic in the waist but don’t object to a little lot of stretch in the fabric. And those As-Seen-on-TV-waist-extender buttons? A great alternative to Spanx—especially on a hot day. (Right, Shel?)

 Appearance: I’ll admit it: I’m vain. Even at this age, I worry about my appearance. I buy the wrinkle creams and the teeth-whitening toothpaste, and, yes, have even given Botox and fillers a try. I’m fine with my hair being gray, but I’m not ready to crop it above my ears or perm it into wash-n-wear curls. As a ‘tweener, though, I see maintenance taking over my beauty routine. By the time I apply ointments, floss my teeth, take medications, and insert eye drops, my bedtime ritual has already run thirty minutes past my bedtime. Should a beauty routine interfere with beauty sleep? It’s a dilemma. 
Beauty or...

            Manners: I try hard not to harp on the shortcomings of younger generations. In many ways, I think they’re smarter than ‘tweeners were. I hope I haven’t reached the point where I consider it my God-given right to interrupt someone because I’ll forget what I was going to say if I wait for them to finish speaking. Or to pull into traffic at my leisure and expect others to look out for me. However, I have caught myself holding up the line a time or two while trying to decipher the coffee choices at Starbucks. 

Snack A or Snack B?
(A no-brainer. Snack A, of course!)
            Food: Sadly, I’ve come to the stage where eating certain foods just isn’t worth the consequences. Not only the consequence of weight gain but also of heartburn. A juicy hamburger for lunch followed by a greasy pizza for dinner are things of the past for me. I’m trying to teach myself a slice of cantaloupe is as good as a hot fudge sundae (like that’s ever gonna happen), but I haven’t yet reached the point of having a bowl of Raisin Bran for supper. 

            Exercise: My exercise regimen has downgraded from jogging and competitive tennis to a lovely Pilates class and power-lifting a wine glass to my lips while I soak in the hot tub. But I hope I have a few years before participating in chair calisthenics. I came across some exercises in a magazine that required jumping. I gave them a try and was pleased to find I can still get both feet off the ground at the same time, albeit not very high. However, I also discovered that landing hurts my knees, so I’m looking for something that will give me the same results and allow me to keep at least one foot on the ground. 

            Technology: I know a few computer basics and how to text-message. But keeping up with the latest technology grows more challenging every day. I don’t understand half the advertisements on TV about computers or phones or tablets. The other day a salesman at Best Buy showed me an iPad on which I could download 500,000 apps. I couldn’t bring myself to tell this young geek—and I use that term with all due respect—that by the time I downloaded 500,000 apps, I’d be wearing wings and circling that great cellular satellite in the sky.  

            s-e-x:  From time to time, I’ll read about which generation experienced the greatest changes in its lifespan. Some claim it was our grandparents who lived through the Industrial Revolution. Others say it was our parents who ushered in the Technology Revolution. I contend ‘tweeners have faced the greatest adjustments with the arrival of “the pill” and the Sexual Revolution. We went from spelling out the word gender-segregated marching in demonstrations calling for “free love.” And that was all within a range of about fifteen years. Now, yet another “pill” is insisting all the fun doesn’t have to end just because we’re getting on in years. We can massage our mates with exotic oils right after we rub in our arthritis cream.  

            Advantages: For all the adjustments ‘tweeners have to make, there are also advantages. For me, grandchildren would top the list. Acquiring patience is another. Until recently, I was an “annual” gardener. Spent a fortune on blooming beauties at the nursery only to bring them home and watch all the blossoms fall off a week later. Lately, I’m learning that good things—like daffodils and tulips and peonies and roses—come to those who wait. Other advantages? Realizing how quickly time flies and taking the time to live in and appreciate the moment; preferring the scent of fresh basil or honeysuckle over that of pricey perfumes; discovering the luxury of an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Another favorite—learning I don’t have to have all the answers in order to believe.

Grandkids--the best advantage of being a 'tweener!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Don't Let Getting a Goat Get Your Goat

            When I read the article in the paper, all those videos I’ve seen recently on Facebook  began to make sense. Videos of imp-faced baby goats frolicking in a pen, tumbling over each other, playing clever goat versions of Leap Frog or King of the Mountain. Videos that made me want to run out and buy one of those comical little critters for myself. Videos like this one.
            Cuteness like that is hard to resist. But, thankfully, I did. For one of the few times in my life, reason prevailed as I realized a goat—even a small, cuddly one—is really a strip mining project on four legs. In no time at all, one of those endearing creatures would transform my yard into a setting for an apocalypse movie.
            Apparently, I’m not the only one to be lured by that clownish star of petting zoos everywhere. Goat mania is rampant. Articles about them are popping up in major publications, goat videos have gone viral, and goats are proving to be effective marketing tools in commercials (although I personally find those goats creepy). Goat Simulator, a new video game, has been a rainmaker for its creators at Coffee Stain Studios. (Btw, doesn’t that name say it all about video game companies?)
            I’m glad goats are finally getting some recognition because not only are they entertaining, they’re also quite useful. An article in the Wall Street Journal (1/15/15) reports that in Germany, goats have long been used as therapy animals and are increasingly being used in business courses to teach leadership skills. (To borrow Dave Barry’s line, I am not making this up.) In the movie Cold Mountain—based on Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel—there is a scene in which an old mountain woman claims that for survival purposes, a person can’t do better than owning a few goats. When alive, she says, a goat provides nourishment, clothing, companionship. When it dies, it provides meat, and its skin provides shelter and warmth. She says all this while gazing lovingly into a little goat’s trusting eyes. Then she kills it. (I don’t want to know what it says about my psyche that this scene stuck with me. But the goat’s death is quick and painless, and its blood is used for medicinal purposes, so maybe I’m not too messed up—nothing a little goat therapy couldn’t cure.)
            Yes, it seems that right now the multi-talented goat is all the rage. In the trend of barnyard- animals-as-pets, goat is the new chicken. The WSJ article claims “goats hit it big in 2013” and goes on to state, “Goats have become part of our culture.” Like I said, I’m happy for the goats, but, as with all fads concerning animals, I have concerns.
            With goat popularity on the rise, it is tempting join the ranks of goat owners. If you feel yourself yielding to that temptation, keep these absolute requisites in mind. First, make sure you can afford to feed your goat well and often. Otherwise, you’ll find it consuming everything from your car’s bumpers to the family dog. (Even though goats are not normally carnivores, in a feeding frenzy they sometimes forget that fact.) Second, get a goat only if you have the space for it—space as in a ranch roughly the size of Montana. If you live in a residential neighborhood with a postage-stamp yard or even on a ranchette, please resist the urge to get a playful kid for your kids. That charming little goat will grow up. When the postman won’t deliver your mail for fear of being butted into the next county or when you’re down to your last blade of grass and your shrubs are no more than spiked nubs protruding from the ground, that goat will look more satanic than cute. You’ll be carting him off to an animal shelter which most likely has already reached its quota of gamboling goats. Either that, or your children’s beloved pet might wind up as a meal you insist is beef stew.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2015 - A Balancing Act

            I’m writing this blog post seven days into the New Year and three weeks since my last post. Those facts should serve as evidence enough that “blogging on a timely and regular basis” is not among my New Year’s resolutions. Neither is “losing ten pounds” nor “exercising daily" nor “getting organized.” That’s because I have no New Year’s resolutions. I gave up that exercise in futility long ago. But it seems as if several blogs I follow on a regular basis (here and here) have something to say about resolutions, so I feel “oblogated” to pitch in my two cents.

            Of all the advice I’ve read concerning resolutions, I think the suggestion to condense them into one word works best for me—to have not so much a “to do” list as an underlying principle, an all-encompassing directive. I considered some such words that might guide my actions and thoughts in this new year. Fellow blogger Mari suggests the chosen word be in the form of a verb, so I considered move or do (as in “Do it now” or “Just do it”) to remind myself to keep active and healthy. But then I thought of other areas of my life that could stand a bit of shaping up. Words to improve my mental fitness came to mind. Words such as read or study or learn. And what about my spiritual life? I considered pray and meditate and reflect. My social life? How about serve, connect, communicate?
Achieving perfect balance might
be impossible, but even the attempt
can bring satisfaction.
            All of these are good words, but I couldn’t get past the notion that to choose just one concentrated on a single aspect of my life, ignoring others. After much deliberation—at least fifteen minutes’ worth—I finally settled on a word: balance. (It can be a verb, right?)
            It didn’t take me long to decide on balance because it’s pretty much been my motto—either consciously or subconsciously—for most of my life. I’ve never really had an overriding passion to pursue one particular endeavor to the exclusion of everything else. I enjoy doing or at least trying my hand at lots of things. There has never been nor is there now a solitary cause to which I want to devote all my waking hours. In the past, I’ve experienced guilt over this because I interpreted my lack of passion as lack of self-discipline or commitment. And forget about achieving success. That’s all about focus and drive, isn’t it?
            But success carries different definitions for different people. For some individuals, it does mean achieving that singular, long-sought-after goal—that prize-winning novel, that gold medal, that prestigious job title. For me, it means enjoying a variety of experiences that enrich all aspects of my life. And while keeping them balanced can sometimes be a challenge, that’s my “directive” for this year.
            Here’s to 2015—A year in perfect balance!