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Friday, August 04, 2017

Two Words - Powerful Weapon

                                               
Image result for unit cohesion
                                     Or the Black one or the female one or the transgender one?

Words are the most powerful weapons that human beings have. They can only be seen or heard but they are stronger than physical weapons that can be seen, heard, touched and even smelled. They are more lethal than nuclear weapons which can destroy the earth but will never go off of their own volition. It takes words to motivate someone to press that button.

The words I've been thinking about lately are "Unit Cohesion".

"Unit cohesion is a military concept, defined by one former United States Chief of staff in the early 1980s as "the bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the unit, and mission accomplishment, despite combat or mission stress". (Wikipedia).

In so far as the military is concerned, the term seems to appear most when a new group wants to join but the old group doesn't want them to. It was originally said that African-Americans couldn't be in the same units with whites because it would result in a breakdown of unit cohesion. Harry Truman, who was the president, disagree and ordered units segregated. So far as I can tell the American military didn't disintegrate as a result. My husband's best friend in Vietnam, a man who saved his life was black.

Then the powers-that-be didn't want women in the military. Well, okay, maybe as nurses and such, but not in combat roles. Men and women working together? It would destroy unit cohesion. Except it didn't.

Then it was gay soldiers. There was no way gays and straights could co-exist. Bill Clinton tried to get end the policy of dismissing gays who were outed but the old bulls in the Senate (including Democrats) said absolutely not. That's how we ended up with the abomination - Don't Ask Don't Tell. We finally got rid of that too and the earth didn't move.

And now it is transgenders. What is the first thing I hear coming out of the mouths of those who oppose transgenders serving openly? "They will wreck unit cohesion."

But what is unit cohesion, really? It is a made up term used as a weapon and an excuse for plain old discrimination. It reflects the human tendency to stick together with their own kind. It's a way to get around the discomfort felt by those who are forced to accept unlike others as their equals.

I don't know where the term first came from but of course, this policy has existed as long as mankind itself.

Interestingly, white men seemed to have grasped the concept long before anyone else. They were the presidents, the politicians, the generals, the doctors, the landowners, the supervisors. Women, they said, were weak. We were meant to stay home and let the men take care of us. We would, in effect, not fit in with unit  cohesion.

Blacks were considered inferior. Not as intelligent as whites. Could be that being kept as slaves and not being allowed an education was a big part of that since it doesn't seem to be true now. But back in the day, they were segregated from whites because, you know, they interfered with unit cohesion.

Indians were inferior beings. Kill them and put them on reservations and take their land. Their kind don't mix well with white people.

No matter where the white men went, they became the superior beings. In South Africa, they quickly made blacks second class citizens. In India, they were the sahibs. In Australia, they took over from the native aborigines. In most countries women have not reached equality with men. If you don't believe me, check out our congress or women CEOs.

Even when natives greatly outnumbered the newcomers, the white men prevailed through the process of sticking together through thick and thin.

Women have never stuck together as the 2016 election (and the committee of 13 white men that made health care policy) made obvious. African-Americans have tried but there were never enough of them to do more than tilt the needle slightly in the right direction. Now Latinos are joining the party. If women, blacks an Latinos bonded as a group, they could force the men to give them equality. But I don't expect that to happen. We haven't yet learned that it takes unit cohesion to win.

Two small words that form a powerful weapon.



Saturday, July 22, 2017

No, Vic, Really See

                                                 Image result for cardinal in a pine tree

I remember once, Jim and I were sitting on the front porch, it was a few months before he died. He saw a cardinal in our big pine tree and said, "look, Vic, isn't he beautiful?" I said, "yeah," and I meant it but he wasn't satisfied with what he thought was my lukewarm response.

"No," he said, "I mean really look!"

So I really looked and suddenly the snow seemed purer and the sky seemed bluer, the pine seemed greener and the cardinal seemed more scarlet. I heard my brain go "click", like a mental camera taking a picture I would never forget.

I had another similar experience when Dallas was dying. I went over every Tuesday to visit and take him for a ride. "Take me past the river. Take me past the cornfields," he would say because it's the common, ordinary things that mean the most when you face the reality that you are dying.

That is the difference between someone who knows their time is short and someone who assumes they're going to live for years and years (though, of course, none of us know for sure).

I tried to always remember that lesson. If I caught myself taking my world for granted, I'd stop myself and say, "no, Vic, really see." Whether it was the beloved little cowlick on the top of my son's brown head or the way my black Pekingese, Sebastian, sprawled out with all four legs going different directions and a curly tail wagging furiously.

I remember feeling the silky softness of my mother's cheek when I kissed her and the delightful taste of a sensuous hot fudge sundae on a hot summer day. I sometimes tear up a little when I hear songs that bring back joyful times, even ones I didn't like then, when they screamed down from my teenage son's bedroom.

I am now at the point in my life where Jim was when he saw that cardinal. I don't know if I'll live long enough to see another cardinal in the snow but that picture is forever because Jim made me really see.

Things that irritated me once no longer do. Road rage. How can anyone have road rage? It's such a silly thing to stress about. Who cares what bathrooms people use? Could that possibly be so important in the scheme of things? I've never been very judgmental and I'm even less so now. So much that I see on the news seems so irrelevant when there are roses to be smelled, bird songs to be heard, mushrooms to be eaten, soft beds to be felt and family and friends to be loved.

Don't waste your time on nonsense. You don't know how much you have left.



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Is A Muse?

                                                         Image result for artistic muse

Definition: Muse - a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

When I went to a writer's conference in New York year's ago, I attended a work shop called: "Freeing Your Muse". I don't remember much about the course now. I barely knew what a muse was then and I certainly never thought of myself as having one.

However, it is true that most creative people have something like a muse - call it what you will. It is the spark that is the inspiration for a never before seen way of putting words or musical notes or colors together.

I looked up Muse in Google images and it appears that all Muses are lovely, as in the picture above. I don't know how we know that since no one I'm acquainted with has ever seen one. Maybe we simply believe that any entity caught up in knowledge and beauty and spirit would naturally be beautiful.

I don't know if my muse is attractive....I don't even know if she is a she. My writing is more masculine than feminine and I relate to my male characters much more than my female characters so maybe my muse is a man. We aren't personal friends. The only time he wants to communicate with me is when I am asleep. He can be a little snarky. If I have a column idea but am having trouble fleshing it out, I try to explain it to him, he says, "go take a nap, I've got this without any help from you."

He probably resents being assigned to be my muse instead of say, James Patterson or Diana Gabaldon or John Scalzi. John Scalzi (who has sold millions more books than me and made millions more dollars so you'd probably be wise to try his suggestions before mine) says that when he needs his muse to help him out, he takes a shower. He stands there and thinks about nothing, letting the soothing water massage his skin until his muse (who must be a water sprite) makes her presence felt.

Another writer I knew could not get inspiration indoors. She had to be out in nature. The ideas would come and she'd take notes, then bring them in to transcribe into her computer. (This was several years ago so maybe she takes a laptop outside with her now.

I don't know that I believe in muses. I think it is whatever allows you to ignore the part of your brain that is always busy with everyday concerns in favor of the part that drifts dreamily, opening itself to new thoughts. In other words, I think we are our own muses.

On the other hand, it kind of nice to think of this other entity inside your head ready to take over for you when you don't feel up to the job. I think I'll call mu muse Reno.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What's In A Name?

                                              Image result for group of little girls

There were three of us - cousins, all within a year of one another in age. We grew up in a small town in Indiana. Back then, in that trusting age, our parents turned us loose to do whatever we wanted during the days of summer vacation. We rode our bikes to the park outside of town, played in the river, went to the library, ambled down alleys to gather thrown-away magazines to make scrapbooks and visited the dump to see if we could find a cache of love letters. One of our favorite pastimes was going to the cemetery. One of my cousins would pick out an interesting tombstone and ask me to tell a story about the person who lie under it.

And I always knew exactly who that person was. I never had to stop and think. Once I had the name in my head, the history flowed out behind it.

My cousins would listen enthralled by a world of magical little girls with dogs named Bestus and one-legged soldiers and a beautiful woman who died of a broken heart. To tell you the truth, I was somewhat enthralled by it myself.

My cousin, Shirley, asked me once - "where does it come from?"

"I don't know, it's just....it's just there."

My son always preferred me to tell him a story than to read from a book.

"Yours are better, Mom."

And it has always been there. I didn't begin writing until I was an adult and I didn't write fiction until I was in my 40's. Now I have 14 published novels and they all started with a name, just like those cemetery tales.

Once I had the name, I knew the person intimately - his or her looks and interests and history laid out before me. I never  questioned why Luka was born and raised in Romania or ended up settling in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. That's just the way it was, just as Shea found his dream in New Mexico and Ethan fled to Equador. I didn't know anything about any of those places but they were destiny for my characters.

I'm sure some people don't have the creative bent to do this but I bet there are a lot who could and just don't realize it. I think it would be an excellent practice for budding writers to find a name, any name, and make up a story about the person behind it. If you are curious enough, they will tell you about themselves.

I also think it would be a good lesson for smaller kids. Creativity has to be nurtured and stroked. Make up a name and ask your child to tell you who they think it is. Some, of course, will walk away to go play video games but others, who have that spark, may discover that what inside their head is every bit as interesting as what happens on a computer screen.



Thursday, May 04, 2017

International Women's Writing Guild - Empowering the Dreamers


Image result for skidmore college

The first time I ever went to a writer's workshop, it was to teach one. I'd had been invited by Hannelore Hahn, the visionary who created the International Women's Writing Guild. IWWG's headquarters were in New York City but they had events all over the U.S., the largest and most prestigious being the one at Skidmore College at Saratoga Springs, New York in August. 

So, I drove from Indiana to New York, wondering the entire way what one did in a writer's workshop and wondering if I had enough money to get home. (They didn't pay you as the honor of being there was your reward. I could never have afforded to attend as a paying guest). 

You have to understand that at that time, I'd never attended a writing class, never even took a journalism class in high school. I never wrote for the yearbook. I never went to college. 

I wrote my first short piece for the Harley Davidson Enthusiast in 1973 for $70 (though I'd never owned or ridden a Harley Davidson motorcycle). I continued to write for magazines and newspapers, eventually including higher-paying publications, such as Newsweek, McCalls, Sports Illustrated, USA Today.

An essay I wrote for Newsweek got a lot of attention and as a consequence, I was invited onto several television programs and went to Washington as a guest of Senator Kennedy to attend a public policy forum on unemployment.

That is what brought me to Hannelore's attention. The IWWG describes itself as "a community that provides women a nurturing environment in which to experience rebirth, creativity and personal growth through writing." That was Hannelore's dream and she succeeded in bringing it to life for herself and many others, me included.

When I first arrived at Skidmore, I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Most of the attendees were way more upscale and educated than I was but one of Hannelore's rules was that every type of writer was welcome and all their writing would be respected. At night, people gathered in the auditorium to read their work. You were allowed to offer kindly constructive criticism but never anything harsh enough to wound. We had the editor of a porn magazine once and when she read her work, there were red faces all around as well a compliments for her colorful use of language.

My workshop went fine and in fact, was voted one of the most popular ones but I think I learned more than I taught anyone. I learned about collegiality in that environment and how encouraging your peers could be, especially if you didn't have any back at home.

I learned about different types of writing. I was labeled a "nuts and bolts' writer, practical and down to earth, but we had our other groups as well - the feminists (voluntary lesbians rebelling at the world of misogyny) - the poetesses (I assumed everyone wanted to make money on their writing but the poetesses scorned money, they worked for the love of art) - the earth mothers (at home, they raised goats and made quilts and canned vegetables) -  the spiritualists (who read our palms and taught us to make mandalas and showed us where our chakra centers were).

It was a very heady time for me - sleeping in a dorm room, eating at a cafeteria (I'd never eaten baked squash before). We had our other entertainments as well. The thoroughbred track's season was during our conference and we usually went to the races once or twice. Saratoga Springs is a beautiful and appealing city to shop and eat. When the jockeys appears in the tree lawns in front of the magnificent mansions on the main street appeared, you knew the owners were in residence and receiving guests.

Mostly though Skidmore was about being at a place where ideas and creativity flourished and where everyone felt free to turn their thoughts loose, knowing they'd receive a supportive hearing.

I ended up going to Skidmore to teach three times and to the Chicago conference twice. I remember a woman who had come long before me. The other instructors told me the first year, she read her work, she was awful...but she wanted so badly to write, she kept coming, getting better every year. After seven years, she sold her book to a publisher. I think she was one of Hannelore's proudest accomplishments.

Hannelore told me once that the world was "too cruel to the dreamers". Instead of being told why they could realize their dreams, they were told why they couldn't. Hannelore wanted to empower the dreamers....and she did. I was lucky I got to be a part of it.

Incidentally, the IWWG still exists. You can find it on the internet. It is well worth belonging even if you never attend any conferences.






Sunday, April 23, 2017

Different Strokes for Different Folks


Image result for cocker spaniel         Image result for sheriff deputies     Image result for nascar wrecks  Image result for hillary clinton


Since the advent of computers as an elemental part of my existence, you could track my life through the discussion groups I’ve joined.

First, as a Sheriff’s Department employee, I joined a police group (typical of their caution, you had to send a copy of your badge, your i.d. and a confirmation from your superior to even be approved for membership). A while later, as the new owner of a rescue Cocker Spaniel, I joined a Cocker group. They welcomed anyone who owned a Cocker, might own a Cocker someday, simply liked Cockers or had ever even seen a Cocker).  

Law enforcement officers are hard-nosed and wary. Men (mostly) of few words, and all of them to the point. These are people skilled in the use of weapons and they carry that mentality right into your in-box. Make what they consider an ignorant comment and the verbal equivalent of Glocks and Tasers  are on hair trigger. Flaming is their version of Shock and Awe. Compassion? Forget it! If you have a death wish, try mentioning Hillary Clinton in a favorable light. I sometimes stumbled from their cyber-world bleeding emotionally. If you can’t take the heat, trust me, the cop’s kitchen is one you want to stay out of.  

So it was a relief to don my rose-colored glasses and enter Cockerland, where a constant sun filled the sky. Cocker devotees were so sweet, I could literally feel my blood sugar climbing as I read their posts. Express the tiniest upset to them and be prepared to overdose on tender loving care.  The Cocker aficionados rushed to send one another Frosty Paws, a kind of electronic hug. Pets or people never die, they go “across the Rainbow Bridge”. Cocker lovers always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. They remember one another’s dogs’ birthdays. I never felt like I measured up. Heck, I’m lucky if I remember my best friend’s birthday. I didn’t even admit when Raleigh crossed the Rainbow Bridge because I didn’t want to confess about the funeral service, casket, headstone and cemetery plot I didn’t buy. I thought I would only feel guilty confronting an inbox overflowing with Frosty Paws.

Then I joined a Wesley Clark for President group back when the General was in the running in 2004. We were drawn together by belief in Clark’s resume (first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, wounded in Vietnam, 4 star general, NATO commander, etc). We thought it was a time when America needed a hero. Evidently, America didn’t agree. But we stayed together even after he lost the nomination. As a group, the Wes Clark supporters tended to be cool, calm and analytical. They’d write long, detailed e-mails about esoteric policy issues. They were religious about attributing credit for quotes and posting links to their sources. Our moderator was militant about keeping us on a path of fairness and deliberation. This lasted until the great match-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at which time, we broke into two opposing camps and deteriorated into name-calling and recrimination. We found out first-hand how easy it is for even friendly neighbors to turn on one another.

So I bailed on politics and became a NASCAR fan and, of course, I joined a NASCAR discussion group. In general, NASCAR people tend to be one sentence posters. E-mails will flood into my in-box and I settle happily into what I expect will be a an hour or so of contented reading, only to spend five minutes deleting messages that simply say, “Go, Smoke!” or “Down with Jeff Gordon” or “88!!!!!!!”. You can race through their messages as fast as Carl Edwards makes a lap around Bristol. Their judgments are swift and sure. They hate with great passion. The most devastating epithet they can hurl is to call a driver gay. I don’t know that they necessarily think it is true, it is simply that in NASCAR nation, gayness is the ultimate expression of contempt. NASCAR people worship at the altar of Dale Earnhardt and that adoration flows down to his son, Dale, Junior. It strikes me as odd that although I’d guess NASCAR fans are heavily weighted toward being Republicans, a party that professes its support for the free enterprise system, in choosing drivers they scorn those who fought their way up through the ranks in favor of monarchy.

These days, I’m back in the political ring big-time. I was a dedicated Hillary Clinton supporter and joined several pro-Hillary groups. She lost, of course, and now the Hillary gatherings have tended to slide over to anti-Trump discussions.

I no longer belong to all these groups but I enjoyed all of them even if moving among them made me feel that I was suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder. For amusement, I sometimes imagined how everyone would react if somehow all my various groups, past and present, were merged and had to deal with one another. Would the cops drown in the sea of syrupy optimism from the cocker folks? Would the NASCAR fans be overwhelmed by the blizzard of white papers posted by the Clark devotees? Or would the police pull their weapons and shoot their way free. Would the NASCAR aficionados run down the undoubtedly gay-leaning Hillary fans?  


Or are there more like me than I imagine, showing only one part of their personality to one group at a time but able to appreciate them all and using all of it as fodder for their writing? 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Old Writers - New Tricks



                                                   Image result for photography quotes


      
This happened a few years ago when I was doing more writing for magazines which often offered additional $$ for accompanying photographs. 

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In our bid to join the twenty-first century, my friend Brenda and I took a class on Digital Photography. We both bought new cameras recently. In the past, our photographic expertise had consisted of: a) peering through the viewer to more or less center our subject (with a success rate of about 50 percent); b) clicking the button and 3) hoping for the best. If we had ever learned from past experience, we would have confined ourselves to purchasing simple, throwaway cameras and letting it go at that but, ever on the quest for knowledge, professionalism and technological hipness - and always over-estimating our own abilities, we forged into new photographic territory.
Brenda chose her camera by means of the ever-reliable “it was on sale” method.. I used a somewhat more labor-intensive technique for making my decision.  I went to the camera section of the Amazon.com website and read the reviews for different brands and styles of digitals.  I was particularly on the look-out for comments such as: “this camera is so easy, a two-year-old could take competition-winning photos with it!”  I ignored any mention of pixels and shutter speeds and other mechanical comparisons. By the time I scrolled down through page after page of reviews, often by writers who disagreed (“Brand A is the easiest and most reliable camera I have ever used and I’d never buy anything else!” versus “Brand A is junk and a total waste of money!”), I was no closer to a resolution than before.
When my camera was delivered, it came in a box of a size to suggest that it contained a microwave. The box included three manuals, one so thick, you’d assume it was instructions for building the space shuttle. This particular manual boasted four pages of Table of Contents. It has thousands of depictions of tiny little icon choices that my aging eyes have to struggle to differentiate and a series of complicated schematics that only an engineer would understand.
Of course, you have to consider that the manual would only be half as large if it was not divided in half by language since it has instructions in Spanish as well as English. I am not one of those people who are bothered by having to “press one for English”. In a complicated life of many ups and downs, pressing a single button seems like one of the simpler decisions I have to make. I almost enjoy it because it is something I can do without agonizing about whether I’m doing the right thing. And, in fact, with this manual, it really probably wouldn’t matter much if I flipped to the English section or the Spanish section because I think I would understand either one equally as well.
Along with the camera itself and the manuals were several cords and a cd and a carrying case and a little extra memory thingy that the Amazon people advised me to buy.
It was all so overwhelming that I simply placed everything in a cupboard and never looked at it again.  That was in August.  Brenda got her camera for herself at Christmas and has yet to take a picture.
We both decided we needed professional assistance if we were going to be able to take advantage of our new cameras and that’s why we signed up for the Digital Photography class. The first class was on a Tuesday.  I missed it because that was also Super Tuesday and nothing could have pulled me out from in front of the t.v. when election results were rolling in.


Brenda called me on Wednesday night. She was depressed as she told me about the class.  First, everyone there seemed to have higher end cameras than either of ours and second, all of them seemed to be considerably farther along the road to knowing how to use their cameras. (For instance, they all knew about framing and shading and what Photoshop was.) Bottom line: she felt dumb even though the instructor tried to convince her that neither the quality of her camera nor the depth of her ignorance was a cause for concern.
She told me that she tried to take notes but in looking back at them, they turned out to be gibberish. She told me our homework assignment was to know the speed of our cameras and to take a “raw picture”.
Sadly, she asked me if I knew the speed of my camera (answer: no) or if I knew what a raw picture was (answer: no).  We are supposed to get together this afternoon with our manuals and try to figure these two things out.
At the end of our conversation, she said -  “there’s only one consolation about next week’s class.”
“What’s that,” I asked.
“You’ll be there too and you’ll be just as stupid as me.”

Oh, wow, I could hardly contain my anticipation.

* Incidentally, we only made it through three classes before we ignominiously dropped out. My digital cameras is still in the same cupboard I put it in on the first day I got it. I mostly use my cell phone to take pictures now. I'm not very good at it.