Sunday, August 31, 2014

Politically incorrect for a reason

A disclaimer: Please read this blog all the way to the end. Please don't pull an excerpt out of context and let it go viral. 

From the time our country was founded, it was destined for greatness. We have given birth to great minds in science and medicine, musical geniuses, champions of business, world-class athletes, inventors and innovators. We are a strong people, hard-working and proud of who we are and what we have accomplished. The world is a better, more productive place because of us. 
In this last generation, we have been demoralized. Our economy has tanked. Jobless rates are up. Cost of living has skyrocketed. Our infrastructure of roads and bridges is failing. Twenty years ago, we were a global power. Now we are struggling. And our current government has not addressed these problems to our satisfaction.

Most of us work hard and care for ourselves and our families. We contribute to our community and nation through taxes and volunteer work, knowing full well that we all must do our part and pay our fair share.

Yet some people sit around and do nothing. They are happy to sap our country's resources and collect from the public coffers without contributing to our nation's economic growth. They want what our nation has to offer: good medical care, decent housing, and schooling for their children. They are lazy. They hoard their possessions and won't pay their fair share of taxes as part of the people. They want something for nothing.

They are not like us, our nation of family-loving, self-sufficient people. So are they really part of us? Or are they subversive outsiders, pushing themselves into our country, trying to blend in while they drain our resources? 

Sound familiar? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us either have had thoughts like those, however fleeting, or have overheard someone voicing something similar about illegal immigrants, unaccompanied minors crossing the border in Mexico, folks on public assistance, etc. As rational adults, we know the problems are complex; there are no easy answers.

Because of the research I've done (and continue to do) into Nazi Germany, I can tell you - this is just the type of coercion Adolf Hitler used get into power in the early 1930s. Half-truths, exaggerations, and generalizations were used to get a people to fall in line, like citizens of Hamelin behind the Pied Piper.
Tolerance of this type of outburst created a dictatorship. That dictatorship created laws, which led to pursuit of world dominance and a war which cost tens of millions of lives.

What have we learned? Our lesson ought to be to not blindly follow the masses.

Through sticky situations like unaccompanied minors and long-term use of public assistance, we must proceed with eyes and minds wide open. We need to think for ourselves and propose creative solutions, independent of what the media, our friends, and popular opinion say.
If we've truly learned the lessons of history, we have an obligation to speak against outbursts like the one above. Otherwise we're at the top of a slippery slope, a position we should know to avoid. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Memoir week

Your average adult probably doesn't see their own life interesting enough to capture in a memoir. But on occasion, I've overheard folks say, "If only I wrote down the (crazy, terrible, unexpected, hilarious) things that happened to me, I'd have a best-seller." At that moment at least, their experiences were unusual enough to merit recording and sharing.

Well, the Writers Group at the Dietrich Theater had a special guest this week, Ronald Wendling, a retired academic turned writer from the Philadelphia area. He graciously shared the first 10 pages of his March '15 release Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past.  He spoke about his experiences in taking the book from idea to its final form, a journey several decades long. The title says it all - this book tells his unusual tale of joining the Jesuits and then moving away from them and into secular life. Certainly not your everyday experience, uncommon enough to be appropriately captured in a memoir.

I've just begun reading I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. This memoir also tells a remarkable story, this time one of courage as this young girl acted on her personal beliefs and her right to an education. In the prologue, Malala says she has shared her story and continues to speak out because not to do so would mean triumph for the Taliban. So exceptional is her life that she has her memoir finished before she's out of her teens. God willing, this brave, articulate girl has many years ahead of her filled with extraordinary accomplishments suitable for another memoir or two.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tell me a story and a Robin Williams moment

Last week, our granddaughters spent a few days with us. Addie who is 'almost four!' and whose language development is off-the-charts is at that wondrous stage of emerging imagination. One of her favorite requests is, "Tell me a story." Stories she knows about characters she loves are easy for re-telling - Nemo, Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs.

One afternoon, we were blowing bubbles outside and Addie stopped in her tracks. "Tell me a story about a magic bubble." She supplied the characters and in less than a minute, I had the rough sketch of a story in my head - beginning, middle, and end, problem and resolution, setting - all of it. Whoa. I told her my story and then dictated it into my voice recorder for safekeeping.

The following day, the same thing happened, this time with a story about 'a tree that's lost in the woods.' Trying to picture how a tree could get lost, I asked about the tree, could it walk and talk, like Tolkien's Ents. She said, "No, silly. Trees don't walk or talk. They're just trees." Ah, well. But again inside a minute, I had a story about a magic tree whose whereabouts had been lost to the ages.

Then I turned it around on her. "Your turn to tell a story," I said. "Who is it about?" I'm proud to say  she was the hero of her own story and she brought along a companion on her imaginary adventure, either her sister or her buddy Cole who lives down the street. I'd supply a detail or two, maybe the setting (a beach) or a problem (they lost their sand toys) and with a few 'and then what happened?' prompts, she'd take it from there. She is a great storyteller-in-the-making.

Ironic that this happened the week we lost one of our generation's great creative minds. When asked about how he came up with imaginative ideas in his classic rapid-fire style, the late Robin Williams once said it came to him as he watched his four-year-old playing with action figures. The child made different voices and personalities for each figure, creating villain-filled problems with hero-filled solutions. One of our generations greatest actors and comics said all he did was try to channel his inner four-year-old.

I'm thankful to have an imaginative four-year-old in my life too. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The chatty muse

I've had the great gift of some time off work and have spent several hours each day immersing myself in the historical era of my fictional world. It's gotten so that even during routine events, my muse has been chatty. I listen and take notes.

I recently reread a scene I wrote a few weeks back. In it, my main character confesses her wrongdoing to a priest, and I judged the scene to be good but somewhat predictable. Near the end of the reading, my muse tickled my conscious thought with a question - who is that listening outside the confessional? And I thought Yes! There is someone there! And a more powerful scene (and turn of events for the whole novel) was born.

Early on summer mornings, I pull the pool cover aside to create a swim lane. There, between the solar cover and the pool wall, I swim laps, careful to stay on the straight and narrow, avoiding bumps by straying off course. I did this one morning, thinking about my character, when it hit me. She too is in a narrow divide, and if she veers a little to either side, she will be in big trouble. So I wrote a scene, loaded with symbolism, in which she takes an early morning swim in a pond and notes her thin secure path between the tangle of lily pads and towering cattails, between the mucky pond bottom and the open sky, between the fading night and the brightness of day.

Climbing out of the pool yesterday, something dark stuck to my leg. It's a chlorinated pool so it was just one of those 'helicopter' maple seeds, but my initial thought was that it was a leech, fairly common in ponds and lakes. And I thought - ah, more symbolism. A leech can be stuck to her leg when she climbs out of the pond.

So on I go, listening and writing.