Thursday, August 17, 2017

Writers Write

A few years ago, while attending the Tallgrass Writing Workshop at ESU, I found myself complaining to one of the guest speakers about how I never got a chance to work on my still unfinished novel. I was working long hours and traveling at the time but his response was, "That's no excuse, writers write.”

I have thought of that many times since and what he says is true.  Writers write.  I have been composing sentences in my head almost from the time I first learned to read, at least from the first time that I chanced upon a sentence so finely crafted that I wished it was my own.  As I was a solitary person, my opportunities to compose the perfect sentence were endless.  I would spend hours exploring the wooded area adjoining our house, all the time imagining and writing stories in my head. 

In school, I wasn’t the best student, but if writing was required, I relished the challenge.  The first day of my eleventh-grade government class, the teacher stated that he did not believe in grades higher than “A”.  He did not give A+ for any reason.  He should not have challenged me.  At the end of the semester, when the term papers were returned, he apologized in front of the whole class as he returned my paper with a big A+ circled in red to me.  I do not remember what the subject of my paper was, but I remember working on it for days until the writing was the best I had to offer. 

Very few realize that there is tremendous benefit in being able to write documents that are well crafted; letters, reports, term papers, proposals, even e-mails can produce the desired results when well written.  To succeed in business, education, or any endeavor, one must be able to produce good writing.

But the written word was created for more than just utility.  When I was younger one of my favorite books was Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I read it over and over, underlining phrases I found to be a delight. There are words that convey thoughts and ideas, and then there are words that convey emotion, light and music and fragrance, an assault to my eyes, my ears, and my mind. Writers are inspired to create something that will live on long after us.

In 1941, John Gillespie Magee Junior was a nineteen-year-old airman in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in Great Britain when he sent his sonnet “High Flight” to his parents in a letter.  Little did he know that his words would be immortalized some forty-five years later by an American president when Ronald Regan addressed the nation after the challenger catastrophe in 1986. 

“Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;”

“And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

A few months later he was dead, killed in a mid-air collision over the hamlet of Roxholme in Lincolnshire.  That someone so young, whose life was cut so short, could leave such a rich legacy in so few words attests to the power that we possess when we write.

There is a trend today to reduce our communication to abbreviations, acronyms, and Emoji’s. In doing so, we are losing the ability to truly communicate, the ability to share a piece of ourselves rather than regurgitating a tired old phrase that is part of the popular lexicon.  ROTFLMAO does not convey the same emotion as the few simple words “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings”. 

We may be lurching towards becoming a nation of illiterates, but for a few of us, writers still write!

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

Hopefully, those lazy, hazy days of summer that we have experienced lately are fast becoming a fleeting memory. Summers I’ve decided are only for the young, for those who can spend hours lying by the pool, lazily floating down a stream in a canoe, or sitting for hours on a riverbank waiting for the fish to bite. For the rest of us, summers, especially like the one we have been experiencing for the last couple of weeks with temperatures hovering around one hundred and humidity almost as high, are something to be endured but not embraced.

While there are those of us who still have to be outside in the heat: farmers, laborers, the poor guys trying to keep us all supplied in water, for the most part the rest of us find ourselves ensconced indoors, enjoying the air conditioning, but nevertheless having our energy sapped by the heat.

Even the animals know the difference. They are cranky when the temperature and the humidity rise. Then don’t want to stay in; they don’t want to go out. They whine for something that we cannot give them, so they mope around all day unsatisfied, looking for something to amuse themselves with.  Unfortunately, we find ourselves doing the same thing.

All I have accomplished for the past three weeks has been staying indoors trying to keep cool and amused. My schedule has been ruled by the need for staying out of the heat. As a result, I have had way too much leisure time. I have spent my days either reading books or playing games. Reading in itself is not bad, but when the weather is unseasonable, I tend to light reading which consists solely of fluff, following rabbit trails on Facebook or checking news sites that report facts that I don’t really need to know and which add absolutely nothing to my overall well-being.  All these activities do is increase my anxiety while providing nothing that keeps my mind in working order.

Suddenly, change is in the air. Hints of autumn are beginning to appear. Sounds change, dead stillness replaced by the rustle of a gentle wind through the trees. All of a sudden, the first brown leaves fall, littering the ground.  With their demise, the lethargy that has been weighing me down for weeks has lifted.  Finally after listless weeks, all I want to do is something productive.
The malaise which I felt, the inability to do any work in the yard or garden is replaced by invigoration.  I find myself overwhelmed with the desire to work as fast as possible.  I rush through the morning outside in my overgrown gardens, weeding, trimming and raking, making a major dent in all of the tasks which I envisioned but found myself unable to do for weeks on end, all the time hoping that the weather and my mood have changed at least for the rest of the season.

We were not meant for a life of leisure.  Even in the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve tasks that they were to perform.  There were to dress, till and keep the earth.  As long as they did that, they were satisfied.  It was only when they got bored that they were tempted.
Work is what we all need. As one of my friends posted recently on Face Book, “Preoccupation with leisure time and being entertained has been the last chapter in the history of all great civilizations.  Sound close to home?”
We are one of the most privileged societies to ever grace the earth.  We produce very little yet consume much.  When we lost access to water a week or so ago, it caused me to wonder where we would be if instead of water, we lost electricity for any extended length of time.  Most of us would be hopelessly lost.  We would lose our ability to communicate and even more importantly, our ability to survive.  Where would we be without all the things dependent on electricity, without refrigeration, without air conditioning or God forbid, without the internet?  A few who live a more rural existence might be able to get by for a while, but the rest of us are totally dependent.  Our clothes, our food, our appliances, our cars are produced by others in locations halfway around the world.

It’s ironic that this increased leisure time has not made us happier, but instead has made us more self absorbed, more litigious, and more suspicious of our neighbors.

The lazy, haziness of summer is one thing, but we need to rethink the amount of leisure time we are enjoying.  It is time that we begin putting it to a good productive use for our community and for posterity. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Times are a Changin'

For the past couple of weeks we have been re-watching "Larkrise to Candleford", the BBC series based on Flora Thompson's trilogy about rural life in England towards the end of the nineteenth century.  The story depicts events in a small farming community, Larkrise, and the neighboring market town of Candleford.   

Hidden from sight, but still beginning to encroach on their idyllic life is the industrial revolution. Their agrarian society is being modernized and some members of the community accept and even welcome the change while others, who perhaps see more clearly the implications of all the changes that the technological advances will make on their way of life, are not so welcoming.  The small farms  and the hired men and women who labor to plant and harvest by hand are destined to become redundant, their labor given over to mechanization.  The hands that lovingly created lace or embroidered pillows would be replaced by machines that are much faster.  The foods they ate, the local honey, the wild game, herbs and vegetables would disappear.  Most importantly, even the  quality of life and the deep relationships that were formed within communities dependent upon each other would be forever changed. 

Some of the characters sense that they are not prepared, that their skills will not be useful in the future, that they may have to acquire new skills in order to survive.  Alf, one of the characters suddenly realizes that he needs to be able to read.  Others can see no reason for changing and some even think that all of the new inventions are a tool of the devil.

We all know what happens.  Industrial revolution follows industrial revolution.  The automobile gave us the ability to travel further than ten or twenty miles in a day.  The airplane enabled us to see the world and opened the most remote corner of the world to everyone. 

It would be nice to think that changing times would bring out the best in people, but that was not the case with the Larkrise and Candleford folks, just as it is not the case during the changing times we are now experiencing.  Even then, there were those who saw changing times as the chance to take advantage of their fellow men.  There were rents to be raised, fines to be levied and new laws to be enacted to keep opportunity away from the common folk,   Some saw the tractor as a marvelous beast of burden, others saw it merely as a beast that would drive them off of the land. 

Suddenly, their quiet peaceful corner of England became a battle ground pitting those in favor of the newest invention against those who saw their way of life disappearing.  At one point, Laura, the narrator of the story, and one of the principal characters, asks her mother about the friction arising between neighbors who used to be friends, "Why are we at war?"  Her mother's response is simple.  "These are changing times."

These are changing times.  We need to take that into consideration when we wonder about all of the vitriol and hate that is erupting from both sides today.  These are changing times.  There are some who are able to take advantage of the change for their own benefit and there are those who are not yet able to cope with the changes that are have taken place and the changes that are still to come. 

Those who are wise can see the handwriting on the wall.  This technological or digital revolution is  more than  just the difference between those that are able to use a 'smart phone' and those who cannot.  Factory worker positions are becoming a thing of the past.  Who needs a human when a machine is cheaper and more efficient.  Fast food jobs, positions that put millions of students through school, are disappearing just as rapidly, being replaced by self serve kiosks.  Even the supermarket and stores which have occupied a prominent place in our communities for generations  are being replaced by on-line retailers.

Will we survive all of the chaos brought about by our changing times and circumstances?  History says we will, but we may have to hold on tight until the dust settles.  We need to hold on tight to our integrity and our neighbors.  We need to make sure that the weakest are not left behind.  We must ensure that everyone finds a safe place in the new technological landscape that is forming around us.  We must not be at war with each other just because the times are changing.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

What's In a Name?

People are beginning to realize that our electronic devices know a lot more about us than we are aware of.

I have been learning Spanish using the Duolingo app on my iPhone. Recently I started to type in the word ‘knife’ and the autocorrect function came up with the word "Knierim", my mothers maiden name. That is such an uncommon name that I wouldn't expect it to show up for anyone but it did.  The technology obviously knows more about me than I want it to.  I was already beginning to suspect that they were following me when ads for ValueNet began appearing in the same app.  It is obvious that they know me, they know where I live, but I didn’t expect them to know my grandmother’s last name.

The problem is we've invested too much time in technology and neglected those who really know us.  Regardless of how we feel about social media, it can collect all of the information about us that it wants, but it still doesn’t know us.  It doesn’t feel our pain or share our joy.  I doesn’t understand our soul.

When I was growing up, we lived in a neighborhood one would have thought that every house belonged to everyone. You could find any of us children at any given time in someone else's house.  The children all came to our house for my mother’s cookies and the wives came for a cup of coffee.   When I could, I snuck over to Gayle Ann’s house to play cards or hung out at Linda’s to watch television as we didn’t own our own set. We knew everything about each other which in fact was comforting not frightening.

We were meant to share our lives, to spend time with each other face-to-face rather than through some electronic medium. It is an inherent need of the human race.  Throughout the ages mankind has benefited from spending time with each other.  There have always been groups of buddies hanging out in the local pub or elsewhere, swapping stories and arguing politics.

I can still picture the old farmers sitting around the pot belly stove in my uncle’s country store, chewing tobacco and discussing the weather and the crops. They may not have solved the world’s problems, but for them, companionship was a necessity.  It was worth the daily drive in from their respective farms to share a bit of themselves.

 C. S .Lewis and his friend J. R. R.Tolkien along with several others, were members of an informal literary group at Oxford called the Inklings who met either in Lewis’ room or at The Eagle and Child, a local pub.  Several of their works, such as “The Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” were first read to the group.  Who knows how the discussions they must have had contributed to their creativity.  

Even the disciples following Jesus down the dusty roads were in a relationship where their names and everything else about them was familiar to each other.  this is how life was meant to be lived. Not an in solitude, not in front of an electronic screen, but face-to-face.

For the last month, I have been attending cardiac rehab at Newman Hospital.  The first day I walked in, I was greeted by Earll, who was a member off the class that I attended nine years ago when I had my first cardiac stents put in.  “Nancy,’ he said, when I walked in, ‘so you’re a repeat offender also.”  All of a sudden, daunting circumstances became less so.  When I leave cardiac rehab every day, all of my fellow repeat offenders as call out "goodbye, Nancy."  We suffer together, they know me, they know my name.  As the old song from the television show ‘Cheers’ said, 

“Sometimes you want to go 
Where everybody knows your name, 
And they’re always glad you came; 
You want to be where you can see, 
Our troubles are all the same; 
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Can Government Save the Children?

Recently there has been a lot of reporting and opinions in the press about child abuse and how the organizations that are tasked with protecting our children have, in many instances failed those they are supposed to protect.  As a CASA volunteer, it frightens me.  It frightens me that some of the organizations that I deal with may not be doing as good a job as they should.  It frightens me that the children I have been appointed to serve may fall through the cracks in spite of my best efforts.  It frightens me that in many cases, no matter where we place a child, we are potentially putting them in harm’s way as there is no guarantee that placing children in foster care or even placing them with family members will provide a safe haven for these vulnerable ones.  How state agencies handle reports of children being abused in foster care, in a relative’s care or in licensed day care do nothing to allay my fears, but feed it all the more.

Where these vulnerable children are concerned, everybody expects somebody else to take care of the problem.  There is no somebody else so it becomes a government program and the government doesn’t do a very good job. ‘It’s off my conscience,’ we say, ‘that’s what we pay our taxes for.’  But, government programs and their sub-contractors cannot do the job of individuals.  Individuals do it because they care about people as individuals.  Government agencies care about the dollar.  Whether we’re talking about children, the elderly, food programs or health care, caring people will always do a better job than the government. 

We’re falling apart as a country and it is not the government’s fault.  It is our fault.  We expect the government to take care of our every need and the government is more than happy to do so, but they will never solve our societal problems, only we the citizens can do that and we’re doing a very poor job. We’ve washed our hands of the responsibility of taking care of our families.  It’s given us freedom to pursue whatever we want, whatever makes us happy.  It’s not working.  Americans are not the happiest people in the world.  Not by a long shot.  We should be, we have open doors, telling everyone that if they come here they will find themselves in paradise.  Instead many find themselves in the opposite place. 

I place part of the blame on a society that elevates celebrity and recognition above all else.  Everyone wants to be a celebrity.  No one wants to do the ordinary tasks, such as taking care of their family, their neighbors, and the community as a whole.  That’s not important work, it doesn’t get your name in the paper, it doesn’t elevate your status.  It is too ordinary.

No one wants to be ordinary anymore but it was ordinary people who built this country, not a bunch of celebrities.

It was ordinary people who slogged their way across the prairie in covered wagons.  They may have not been the best or the brightest, but they were fearless, deliberate and tireless in their pursuit of an ordinary life.  In later years, there were those who saw the journey westward as something that might pull them out of the ordinary, something that might fulfill their dream of striking it rich in the gold fields of California, but the average pioneer was just looking for his little space somewhere in the promise this vast land affords.

Those who were farmers were looking for a plot of land.  Those who were barbers or blacksmiths were looking for a place to ply their trade.  Butchers and bakers saw the promise of freedom to pursue their craft and the possibilities a community where their abilities would be appreciated and rewarded.  Few were dreaming of fame and none of them were dreaming that someday this land of promise would no longer be able to take care of the most innocent among us, our children and our elderly.  That was inconceivable to those who pioneered this country.  When they went West, they were thinking of their children and their entire family including their elderly parents and those too invalid to make it on their own.  They did not leave the vulnerable behind.  They were family.

We keep expecting politicians and the elite to solve our problems but they are powerless to do so.  The view from their lofty perch is too small, too finite.  It is those of us with our feet planted firmly on the ground who can view the situation for what it is and who, by doing ordinary things like assuming responsibility for the lesser of those around us, will ultimately make a difference.  It’s the ordinary that we should aspire to!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Fear of Flying

The recent spate of incidents with the airlines reminded me of those days when I was afraid to fly.  It’s only within the last third of my life that I have been able to do so without enormous fear and trepidation.  Fear so paralyzing that I would have to get to the airport early so I would have time to be sick before boarding the plane.  I wanted to fly so badly that I finally took a job working for a FBO at the Kansas City downtown airport.  The General Manager thought he would impress me by flying to Topeka for lunch during the interview.  I was scared to death the entire time and that never changed as long as I worked there.  I would go up with the pilots whenever I got a chance, hoping that one day I would enjoy it, but I never did.

I did, however, enjoy working there if for no other reason than the assortment of characters who were frequently in and out. There was the secretary who was quite efficient unless it was one of her off days, when you almost had to hogtie her to get her to calm down.  There was the German speaking gentleman from Austria who always brought Napoleons from Andre’s, the Swiss confectionary on the Plaza. And there was Cecil.

Cecil was the maintenance man.  He was as sweet, and I might add handsome, as an older man could be, but his intellectual abilities barely surpassed that of a five-year-old.  One of his primary jobs was making sure that the boiler was operating in the winter.  It was an older boiler located in the nearby hanger that also furnished heat to our office.  I don’t know what he did to get it going in the morning, but if you were in the office, you would hear what sounded like a small explosion and if you were any distance away you could see the black smoke rising.  I would see it on my drive in from my home in Overland Park and was always reassured that there would be heat for another day.

The boiler, however, was the least of Cecil’s worries.  Our office shared the building with a small regional airline and Cecil was responsible for the maintenance in their area as well.  One day, Cecil suddenly came on the intercom covering both areas.  “Attention”, he announced.  “May I please have your attention.  The urinal in the men’s restroom is now working.”  He repeated the announcement more than once forcing those of us who heard the announcement to rush out of our offices shaking our heads.

Because of its nearness to downtown Kansas City, we would entertain celebrities and their big planes all of the time.  It was not unusual to see a Boing 737 or 747 parked at the end of the tarmac.   I remember the KISS airplane parked overnight and Prince’s plane made an appearance as well. During my tenure, there was at least one presidential visit which Cecil made even more memorable.  We all knew, or at least we thought everyone knew that the president’s plane was going to be landing, but that didn’t faze Cecil.  He decided that it was the best time to sweep off the roof of our building, so he went up there with his push broom.  You have never seen the Secret Service swarm an area so fast.  I don’t know how Cecil got out of that one but we laughed about it for days.

Radio communications between the call tower and nearby airplanes were always playing in our offices.  It was just white noise until the day there was a white-out at the airport.  One of the regional airplanes had taxied out to take off when the whiteout hit.  The snow was so thick you literally could not see past the glass front door but you could hear the frantic calls back and forth between the tower and the pilot trying to guide them to safety.  I don’t know how long the plane was out there blindly wandering around, but when the snow finally let up, it was only a few feet from our door. 

There were other events as well, such as the only accident that took place while I worked there which occurred when the FAA plane failed to brake in time and slid up on the dike holding the Missouri river back from the runway.

It’s surprising that none of these incidents exacerbated my fear of flying.  My fear did not increase because of my experiences there, but It didn’t diminish either.  It wasn’t until I took a position where I had to fly almost weekly that my fear of flying turned into a love affair with travel.  Now I can’t wait for my next flight.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Give Love a Chance

Once again, the world is reeling.  This time over Monday’s events in Manchester, England, that took the lives of innocents, a lot of them little girls doing nothing more provocative than attending a concert by the American pop star Ariana Grande.  We are no longer shocked by these events.  They have become second nature to us, something that can happen at any time, in any city, in any nation, with no warning.

For all of our affluence, all of our advancements, all of our technology, we are no better off than the original cave men.  We still have the barbaric wolves howling at our door and we find ourselves powerless; we have no weapon strong enough to thwart them.
And we wonder why our society is coming apart at the seams, why the politicians hurl insults and accusations at each other, why we cannot get along.  We are surrounded by forces that are beyond our control, but instead of pooling our resources to subdue the enemy, we fight each other.

This is a crisis, the world’s crisis and it can only be solved by the world.  That world must begin with each of us.  For the benefit of our children and the world’s future, we must stop sparring with each other and begin to show some affection for our fellow travelers on this planet.  As long as the current toxic environment exists, we will never stop the terrorists and their immobilizing attacks. 

For once, I agree with President Trump when he said, “So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life.”
We have been spending too much time calling our political opponents evil while ignoring the true evil that exists.  All of us are responsible for this climate.  We can no longer blame it on the politicians or the press.  We are all guilty of perpetuating the society that allows these horrendous events to continue.

It becomes obvious that there is no political solution, that this cannot be fixed by proclamation or law.  We are the only ones who can bring about the solution.  If we look around, each one of us has the tools within our reach.  We have the Billy club that can banish the wolves from our door.   That “Billy club” is love and compassion. 

We alone can create the kind of world where these terrorist acts are unacceptable, where school shootings and random bombings are not tolerated.  I know it sounds simplistic, but what else do we have?  There are not enough metal detectors or bomb sniffing dogs to keep this terror away from our door.  There is no place to run and hide.
Will we appear foolish if we try the living a life that reaches out to each other in love instead of anger and mistrust?  Yes, initially, but love is a force that can spread even more rapidly than the evil of the terrorists or the hatred of politics.
I think the time has come when rather than retaliating, we must give ourselves over to love.  Nothing else has worked so far.  John Lennon’s old song “Give peace a chance” was partially right, but our mantra today needs to become “Give love a chance!”