When Is a Story a Story?

When an audience of some form says yes.

That’s an obvious answer, but not always embraced for its veracity. Let’s extend this line of thinking: when is a writer a writer? When he writes; or when an audience of some form says yes? This leads me to a perplexing commentary written in a post by David Wong and forwarded to me by my son. The content was both troubling and humbling.

In summary, Wong’s post suggests that the world responds to us based upon what we have to offer; the world is only interested in what we have to offer. David Wong writes “Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold. Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.”

David uses the analogy of the troubled young man who does not understand why the good looking girls never give him a passing glance, and they are dating these jerks. Why? Because that Jerk apparently has something to offer the song lady needs. He calls our attention to an Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar, despite this being the only scene he appears in throughout the movie.

Call it an uncomfortable truth. The scene can be viewed on two levels. Most will see Baldwin as evil, and representing all that is materialistic and insensitive in this culture. Some will applaud his uncompromising, unvarnished, and tell-it-like-it-is style as motivational!

There is no apparent need for my writing at this moment, so I am being less than honest if I say I’m a writer. Let me quote Wong again: “the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world.” A marketing guru once called it finding the need that hurts. I prefer the more insightful phrase “A crack in the narrative.” Truth and need – especially one that hurts – are very closely related.

The crack in a narrative was a comment I heard on a Tim Ferriss podcast. It refers to an interviewing technique where the questioning technique reveals a break in the narrative because truth comes popping through, unexpectedly, unabashed, honest, and that truth will invariably reveal a human need.

One of my writing interests is Donald Ross, and that interest actually extends to appearing as Donald Ross – he died in 1948! He was a humble incomer from Dornoch Scotland who was persuaded to come to America and teach golf, maintain courses, make clubs, etc. When he got here, he began designing courses and some four hundred courses later, he had created Pinehurst, North Carolina as the cradle of American Golf, and given the golf world the famous No. 2 course, one that did not have grass greens until 1935! Prior to coming to this country, Ross had never designed a course in his life. He witnessed Old Tom Morris design Dornoch and St. Andrews, and was apprenticed to both him and Robert Forgan – the golf club maker. He was given the job of renovating Oakley in Boton because he was Scottish, and of course golf was born in Scotland, so the Scotsmen must know what there is to know about golf. Right? Ross created it from memory and his own singular passion for the game he grew up with in Scotland. At the turn of the Twentieth Century America was just embracing golf, Donald used his particular imagination and skill to run the table, so to speak, during Golf’s golden years.

If you’re not producing something of value that is needed, you’re not producing. You can be bitter about that and make excuses to the effect that you don’t have the time or the money… neither did Donald Ross, he had seven dollars in his pocket when he arrived in Boston. He produced what people needed in an imaginative and stirring fashion, revered to this day. Produce or you have no value. Don’t make excuses. “Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick,” -David Wong.

There is a counter-point to this article’s content, and I must mention this argument.

To say that this is all about making money is to miss the point. Some products produced are subtle, ardently needed, but often fly beneath the radar because we’re more interested in “flash.” Circumstances have put me in contact with amazingly compassionate individuals who work for Hospice, and whose talents enable them to care for the terminally ill. There will always be a job for them, because our world desperately needs a better way to handle the end of life scenario. This is a basic need, a crack in the narrative of life that needs attention, but gets little. These dedicated workers often fly beneath the radar, much like the truly talented teachers in our public schools. These workers don’t earn much money, but they are in demand and often used to the point of burn out. You see, the world is only interested in what we bring to the party. We have needs and assign value based on who services those needs. And really, the point is not really money, its producing a product based upon your special talents that have a place in this world.

It does give me pause that we need to see such violence on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the form of football. Look at the value we assign to that need when people sign contracts for 80 or 120 million dollars! Who is worth 120 million dollars? Really?

My troubling and humbling experience then is finding the value in what I write that people might use what I write, and use it often. It’s a journey, I suspect. I may never find that voice, or even if I do, the world might not find me. I suspect there is some luck involved. I had some very good luck in my lifetime; I just hope it hasn’t been used! It scares me when I think that I might not have that unique talent… When is my story a story? When an audience says yes. That is the sign of a journey, not an end product. It is a quest.

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When is a Story a Story?

When an audience of some form says yes.

Austin James Photography
Austin James Photography

That’s an obvious answer, but not always embraced for its veracity. Let’s extend this line of thinking: when is a writer a writer? When he writes; or when an audience of some form says yes? This leads me to a perplexing commentary written in a post by David Wong and forwarded to me by my son. The content was both troubling and humbling.

In summary, Wong’s post suggests that the world responds to us based upon what we have to offer. David Wong writes “Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold. Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.”

THE WORLD IS ONLY INTERESTED IN WHAT WE OFFER

David uses the analogy of the troubled young man who does not understand why the good looking girls never give him a passing glance, and they are dating these jerks. Why? Because that Jerk apparently has something to offer the young lady needs. He calls our attention to an Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar, despite this being the only scene in which he appears.

Call it an uncomfortable truth. The scene can be viewed on two levels. Most will see Baldwin as evil, and representing all that is materialistic and insensitive in this culture. Some will applaud his uncompromising, unvarnished, and tell-it-like-it-is style as motivational! Inspiring!

AN UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH

There is no apparent need for my writing at this moment, so I am being less than honest if I say I’m a writer. Let me quote Wong again: “the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world.” A marketing guru once called it finding the need that hurts. I prefer the more insightful phrase “A crack in the narrative.” Truth and need – especially one that hurts – are very closely related.

The crack in a narrative was a comment I heard on a Tim Ferriss podcast. It refers to an interviewing technique where the questioning reveals a break in the narrative because truth comes popping through, unexpectedly, unabashed, honest, and that truth will invariably reveal a human need.

The Actor
Austin James Photography

DONALD ROSS

One of my writing interests is Donald Ross, and that interest actually extends to appearing as Donald Ross – he died in 1948! He was a humble incomer from Dornoch Scotland who was persuaded to come to America and teach golf, maintain courses, make clubs, etc. When he got here, he began designing courses and some four hundred courses later, he had created Pinehurst, North Carolina as the cradle of American Golf, and given the golf world the famous No. 2 course, one that did not have grass greens until 1935! Prior to coming to this country, Ross had never designed a course in his life. He witnessed Old Tom Morris design work at Dornoch and St. Andrews, and was apprenticed to both him and Robert Forgan – the golf club maker. He was given the job of renovating Oakley in Boton because he was Scottish, and since golf was born in Scotland, the Scotsmen must know what there is to know about golf. Right? Ross created it from memory and his own singular passion and imagination for the game he grew up with in Scotland. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, America was just embracing golf, and Donald used his particular imagination and skill to run the table, so to speak, during Golf’s golden years.

If you’re not producing something of value that is needed, you’re not producing. You can be bitter about that and make excuses whereby you don’t have the time or the money… neither did Donald Ross, he had seven dollars in his pocket when he arrived in Boston. He produced what people needed in an imaginative and stirring fashion, revered to this day. Produce or you have no value. Don’t make excuses. “Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick,” -David Wong.

WAIT! THIS IS NOT THE WHOLE STORY

There is a counter-point to this article’s content, and I must mention this point of view, too.

The Writer...
Austin James Photography

To say that this is all about making money is to miss the point. Some products are subtle, ardently needed, but often fly beneath the radar because we’re more interested in “flash.” Circumstances have put me in contact with amazingly compassionate individuals who work for Hospice, and whose talents enable them to care for the terminally ill with extraordinary compassion and patience. There will always be a job for them, because our world desperately needs a better way to handle the end of life scenario. This is a basic need, a crack in the narrative of life that needs attention, but gets little. These dedicated workers often fly beneath the radar, much like the truly talented teachers in our public schools. These workers don’t earn much money, but they are in demand and often used to the point of burn out. You see, the world is only interested in what we bring to the party. We have needs and assign value based on who services those needs. And really, the point is not money, its producing a product based upon your special talents that have a place in this world.

It does give me pause that we need to see such violence on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the form of football. Look at the value we assign to that need when people sign contracts for 80 or 120 million dollars! Who is worth 120 million dollars? Really?

Man in stormMy troubling and humbling experience then is finding the value in what I write that people might use what I write, and use it often. It’s a journey, I suspect. I may never find that voice, or even if I do, the world might not find me. I suspect there is some luck involved. I had some very good luck in my lifetime; I just hope it hasn’t been exhausted! It scares me when I think that I might not have that unique talent… When is my story a story? When an audience says yes. That is the sign of a journey, not an end product. It is a quest. Calling oneself a writer becomes a destination, and as with all destinations, the story is really in the journey. When is my story a story? Perhaps, today.

Your thoughts?

Getting Off the Proverbial Duff!

_DSF2208
Photo by Austin James Photography

I AM NOT BY NATURE LAZY

As remarkable as this may seem, Yogi Berra is a writing guru who has helped me solve a thorny problem of perspective.

I’m not by nature lazy; although, I can fall prey to bouts of procrastination. The former is a potentially serious behavioral issue, the latter symptomatic of a fear or problem not yet faced. There is a difference. I think I recognize the difference between the two attitudes, and feel safe in my assertion that I am not lazy. I have been forced on occasion to do some heavy lifting on my own, and was more than capable of carrying the load, one foot in front of the other, gutting it out, doing what was necessary. Based upon these experiences I allow myself to assert that I am not lazy.

A recent change in tack, and I’m here referring to the sailing vernacular, is one in which I have endeavored to reinvent myself as a writer, a course that has produced a different kind of procrastination, a different specie of sitting on my duff, and until recently, I have not found a solution for this brand of sitting on one’s duff. I don’t mind saying I feel rather like a “duffus” – a term we used to describe ineptitude when I was young – and for falling prey to this malady.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. WRITE FOR YOURSELF.

Stories are about problem solving. Stories tell us how to live our lives. Show don’t tell. Conflict – a world turned upside down. A Heroes Quest. Story arc. Character arc. Three act. Four act. The terminology is dizzying. Through it all it seems to me that what makes a story is a crack in the narrative, story plus emotion, a moment of realization, internal and external conflict. We are hardwired for rising expectations and questions. The unsolved, the unanswerable is intriguing to us. We need to know more.

Consider this: I recently watched a documentary on the Kamikaze pilots of Japan. The entire undertaking was a terrible waste of men and machine, but it did give the Alies pause, and perhaps more than anything else convinced military leadership that the atomic bomb would really save lives. It was fairly interesting, as documentaries go, until the very end, when something irresistibly powerful grabbed my imagination. Can you possibly imagine what could be that powerful…?

I suspect I have your attention!

_DSF2222Near the end of the documentary, when Japan is about to capitulate, the commander of the Kamikaze squadrons is devastated by his failure to cripple the allied aircraft carriers and thereby crack the air-superiority of the Allies, and perhaps forestalling an invasion of the homeland. The Kamikaze flights are cancelled. There is a side bar on one young pilot who was in his plane, having made his final goodbyes to wife and family night before, was sitting in his plane waiting for takeoff when the flight was cancelled. Ho-hum.

The commander of the Kamikaze’s – whose name I do not remember – asks for volunteers to accompany him on one last attack on Allied ships at Okinawa. There are approximately twenty-four volunteers. The next morning they take off for one last historic face-saving, ancestor-honoring attack on Allied ships; but, they never arrive, never attack the ships, and are never heard from again!

Wow!

I SAT STRAIGHT UP IN MY CHAIR.

 There’s a story! I watched almost ninety-minutes of this video without being really moved until this moment – a crack in the narrative – that raises more questions than were answered in the previous sixty-minutes. This is very much akin to seeing a multiple car wreck on the highway and trying to resist the need to look, to see, to know, to discover what rising action is unfolding. You can’t. That was it. That was story telling hook writ large. The only interesting narrative in the whole piece and it’s abandoned for final credits!

What does this have to do with getting off my proverbial duff?

First, I have heard the adage “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It is a most alluring trap, this need to get it exactly right, to be perfect in your telling of the most  important story ever – the one you’re writing at the moment. I have spent years, literally, working on a story that is more than a good idea, but finding the right way to tell the story has given me fits of frustration. It had to be perfect in its shape. The more perfect I attempted to shape its contours the more vapid it became – vapid is probably too harsh; but, I can say that of my work. I have put that project on the shelf on two occasions, and its not yet finished. Sometimes, an idea is just that – an idea, even a powerful idea. An idea does not a story make.

THE INTERNET IS OVERRUN WITH SELF-HELP GURUS of all stripes, some are incredibly perceptive and inspiring, others are somewhat jaundiced  in their perspective. I have watched seminars, read papers and newsletters of all brands that claim to have the silver bullet for crafting and selling your book. The DIY phenomenon is a remarkable development.

One recent seminar I listened to claimed to have the formula for writing and publishing a book in one week. This I had to hear. It’s true that one could achieve the publication of a book in that amount of time; the likelihood of creating a profitable book is something else. Still I listened to the process. His first step was to find a need that hurts, or scratch your own itch. I have been well-schooled in the philosophy of write what you know, and write for yourself. 

I DISCOVERED AN IMMEDIATE CONTRADICTION for me, one which I had not given time to consider at all. His starting point was writing for profit, that is, his principal goal is to sell books, in which case writing what you know may not be shared by a lot of people – maybe no more than 10 or 20! There’s not much profit there. Therefore, finding a need that hurts, or an itch that itches makes brilliant sense. It’s also well expressed metaphorically as a need that hurts. The remaining steps to publication were fairly standard and not especially remarkable save for the mentioned resources needed to handle this lightening speed.

I soon discovered that finding the need that hurts was also a charming trap, much like the perfect anything. Laziness is one thing; but, procrastination is quite another. Laziness might well be damning, and for many people irreversible; but, procrastination, I have learned, is symptomatic of a deeper issue, a deeper fear. There is a cure, however, and I will share that cure with you today. The cure is curtesy Yogi Berra!

That’s right. The New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher… and sometime humorist.

THERE ARE TWO BERRA-ISMS THAT ARE PARTICULARLY TELLING.

The first is “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” It is the somewhere else that we should remain open to and receptive to in our journey. Once again, holding on to the perfect when discovered alternatives might be light years ahead in relevance, interest, and marketability are trumpeting a sea-nymph’s call to adventure, if however slight and distant. We have to listen as writers. Or, as Yogie would say, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

The second writing tip from Yogi is this: “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”

I have laughed at his remark on many occasions, but Yogi will have the last laugh because it’s basically very true. Think too much and you will end up in trouble. Think too much before the pitch and you’ll be frozen when it happens. Think too much after the pitch and the next will catch you off guard. Hitting is instinctual. Writing is our life turned instinctual, where connections are born on the fly and incubated over time. The impulse to create is born of a moment with attendant references and connections that are produced only by an emotional and internal confict.

MY SOLUTION TO MY MALAISE IS NOT TO THINK.

 My job is not to create a need that hurts, but to discover the need that hurts, and who am I to say what needs have a threshold of pain that reverberates across the greatest numbers of people. It’s a road trip. You have a destination in mind, but along the way you will discover the need that hurts among the greatest number of people and then mastering that discovered need after mastering who you are, connections are made across many ideas that just might develop into one remarkable story.

THAT’S WHERE I AM

I must no longer worry about that need that hurts, I’ll find it if I dig. Ben Hogan was fond of saying that he dug his game out of the ground. His practice ethic was legendary, as was the flight of his ball, the movement of his shot. I’ve read that one can not understand unless you saw it. Dig your story out of the ground. Don’t look for a specific story with laser focus, be ready to find a crack in the narrative that grabs and continues to raise questions that demand answers.

I’ve discovered this today while writing and reading. This post has been dug from the ground, and it’s only fitting that we close with another writing tip from the narrative master, Yogi Berra: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary.” — On Yogi Berra Appreciation Day in St. Louis in 1947. 

Harter here!

A Troubling Exercise In Justice For Brady

football stadium
digidream grafix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Justice is an exercise we sometimes avoid for fear of opening a can of worms. Our rationalization is maybe no one will notice- as in a troubling exercise in justice for Brady.

I have a pet peeve: it’s called cheating. Most of us I suspect feel the  same way. Sometimes cheating is a blatant disregard for the rules, and that is not hard to miss. The NBA calls it a flagrant foul. But there aren’t just flagrant fouls, there are degrees of flagrant. There are flagrant fouls 1 and 2, the second could well earn you a one game suspension. We have degrees of cheating… that is a mistake.

It happens all the time, athletes bend the rules for the purpose of an advantage. It seems to me that if you need to bend the rules, it’s because you basically don’t believe you can win fairly, or that in some way you as an athlete are being left behind. Your talent and skill are no longer enough; you need an edge, an equalizer. The more edge we need the more likely we are to cheat. If our livelihood is involved, the temptation maybe irrepressible- witness sports and steroids.

Courtesy Bigjom at Freedigitalphoto.com

Since the beginning of baseball, pitchers have sometimes doubted their ability to throw an assortment of pitches whose trajectories or movement are unpredictable enough to result in either strikeouts, easy fly-outs, or weak groundouts. The various legal choices of pitches are never quite enough, and pitchers may resort to putting something on the ball that will change its trajectory or behavior. The rules prohibit such practices. Does it stop them. No.

We understand there are rules regarding “carrying” the basketball, or the number of steps one can take without dribbling. When I was a youthful player, “traveling” was a frequent call, as was “carry.” The game has evolved from a strategy of spacing and finding the open man to “Stop this freight train if you dare.” The logic, I imagine, is that I’ll move so fast the refs won’t have time to notice and the defense will be too intimidated by the speed and size of me to stop it – nobody wants to get hurt!

We all understand that football is a violent game and because it involves tackling and blocking the likelihood of injury is high. That likelihood escalates when the mindset of assassin creeps however clandestinely into the players head. Recently, a host of players, coaches, and one team were penalized for the purposeful use of bounties on specific players. If the targeted player left the game because of injury, the perpetrator was rewarded with a bounty payment. The players and coaches were soundly disciplined with fines, suspensions, and much talk about the integrity of the game.

I don’t believe it. One way to win today is to knock out your opponent. Don’t bother with beating him, send him home for a vacation. Grown men, most of whom are theoretically college educated – yes, I’m writing that with a straight face; that’s another post – are willing to risk the increased likelihood that too many head injuries will render you incapable of enjoying your signing bonus, may render you incapable of knowing who you are or where you are. The money invites a win at all costs mentality. The games are slowly eroded in spirit until they become gladiatorial and ultimately a war – take no prisoners. We like to identify with our sports heroes, and that was easier in the days of knuckleheads, rogues, and rascals. Our heroes were flawed like us, and not otherworldly or superhuman. Arnold Palmer had a swing that defied his greatness – “That was a remarkable shot, for that swing”. I remember my father practicing that swing, trying to look like Arnie. Never did, but that didn’t keep him from going to the course every weekend with aspirations that this weekend wil be the break through, it all come together.

Frankly, I think baseball needs Pete Rose – the rogue, rascal, and knucklehead. He bet on baseball and its prohibited. He never bet against himself, and I cannot imagine Pete Rose losing a game on purpose. Charlie Hustle is not wired for that state of mind.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Speith are too nice, too cool, too methodical. They are gentlemen in a gentleman’s game, but they’re almost unregcognizable, despit hitting the ball a ton of yards.They are machine like and that does not inspire identification, awe maybe of the power… but, how do we identify with that?

Our professional sports have crossed a line brought on by everyone being bigger, faster, stronger, and the insidious growth of a win at all cost focus. You’ll notice that no one ever says, “It’s only a game,” when they are winning. Philosophy seems to be a refuge for the loser!

imgres-1The use of steroids in sports has been a most troubling scenario. Sports leaders have cracked down on the use of performance enhancing drugs, but there are always new ways to outwit the “sheriff.” There is a new game on the horizon, however, that is troubling. I refer to Tom Brady and the overturning of his suspension. The problem for me is that there has been no judgement of guilt or innocence. The punishment has been thrown out based upon a technicality, not a judgement. No where in the arbiters decision does he address guilt or innocence. So we duck the win at all cost question, yet again. Some argue that the deflated balls had no impact. Players do; and if they think it does and attempt to circumvent the rules, it’s still a problem. What other rules will they duck under or around. Win at all costs distorts the value of sports and the ethics of all games.

Someone needs to take a stand. Like fossil fuel, too many people make huge amounts of money for needed change to occur.

I’m just sayin’…

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Writing Is Thinking?

gallery-thumbnails-4Someone who thinks logically makes a nice contrast to the real world. And you needn’t worry about what people think because they don’t do it very often. Thinking. Two Scotch witticisms that are especially useful today when I discover yet again that writing is actually thinking.

You might say it’s writer’s block in disguise. It’s not that there is some obstacle confronting our writer’s brain that makes us unable to write. It’s not a block at all; it’s simply the absence of thinking.

I must admit that writing, or the process of writing, which exists somewhere in the recesses of my brain has this finite coat of armor that seems to suggest it springs full-born when the writer takes a pen in hand or fingers to a keyboard, and rejects any notion that it could be otherwise. I allow this silly thought to permeate my brain, inculcating it with a poisonous mask guaranteed to stall whatever juices are moved by the muse. Surely, I am well aware that writing is rewriting, and all that attendant author baggage. We are a mass of contradictions, every one of us; it should not surprise me.

gallery-thumbnails-3If I think that writing is thinking – which is surely true – then there is no pressure to write because I’m thinking – thinking on paper, on screen, on point, target, whatever the on might be. The point is it’s an action that takes place in this moment and is something upon which I can build. No writing; no thinking. There’s your writer’s block! It’s a failure to generate thinking, not writing. The writing is a handy tool for making these thoughts visible and tangible for consideration and refinement. Unspecified thoughts floating about the brain fall into the category of dreams; you know, the stuff of filmy, gauzy, transparencies that evaporate with the slightest distraction.

Think out loud. Think on paper, on screen, on paper bags if necessary, and writing has the potential to materializes; not full-blown but begging for refinement, shaping, and pleading for us to enter the realm of thought to leave our unique imprint. After much thinking, and only after much thinking, does writing truly spring full-blown upon the page. It’s the ubiquitous over-night success on Broadway!

gallery-thumbnails-1I know that writer’s block is a crutch, it’s a warning sign in the Writer’s Storm, a none too subtle hint that thinking has left the building. If we simply think about what we are writing and not create by magical conjuring, our hearts will be rewarded.

It is amazing how transparent these ideas are when finally grasped. I know Writer’s Block is a crutch, an easement, a stalling tactic, a mental illness needed to justify our unwillingness to think. I’ve known it but never admitted it!

Till now.

Happy thinking! And let me know about the full-blown ideas that emerge…

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Immutable Is What We Are

images-2The sea seems immutable, as does this land, these longleaf pines that surround me, this continent, this blue marble in the void. Immutable is what we are; or, so it would seem.

NOTHING CHANGES?

I know better than to suggest the world has not changed, because I know that it has, many times over, and will change yet again. I know for fact that the sun rose in the west and set in the east at one point in earth’s history. The world is far from immutable.

That’s why it is so frustrating to see minds that are immutable, and I mean really immutable. Anything that challenges some perspectives on the world is not be met with curiosity, or with a need to understand, rather it is met with the stiff-arm of fear and lack of vision. images-6

Of all the immutable questions of love, happiness, justice, equality, liberty, and meaning,  “What do we owe each other?” seems the most perplexing, and least considered. I personally cannot give other people love. happiness, equality, liberty and meaning; but, I can give them the opportunity to discover those experiences for themselves.

THOSE ESSENTIAL HUMAN QUESTIONS ARE DOABLE

Providing the opportunity is a doable goal, but as a goal it becomes more complicated when the people we serve expand in numbers. images-5The sandbox gets crowded, and intra-personal difficulties arise. Symbiosis is defined as a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups. This is a concept that is easy to understand at its basic level in the animal or plant world, more problematic for humans in the real world. The larger our groups grow, the relationships become increasingly fuzzy, though of even greater significance.

Fear often results in the stiffening of resolve, the stiffening of defenses, and unfortunately a stiffening of the mind. Flexibility and rational thought often leave the building. Irrational fear causes us to stiffen our thinking to the exclusion of the long or rational view. We shut out reason and fact and respond to primal fears with a fight or flee instinctual response. Some fight, demonizing their foes to justify their anger or irresponsible behavior. Others through up a shield to flee the consequences of their personal fears. Some of my fundamentalist Christian friends use their religion to mask real issues. Turn it over to God and all will be well. They won’t deal with the problems. I don’t think God believes in serendipity. I think God intends us to resolve these differences. We are supposed to exert some influence on our world.

images-10

IMMUTABLE MINDS ARE OUR GREATEST ISSUE

One friend told me that only God could change the climate. Rush Limbaugh actually asserted that we cannot destroy what God has created- this in reference to man-induced climate change.

I suspect he will have a hard time explaining murder, or the deaths of so many soldiers in so many wars.

The biggest issue we face then is our immutable minds… We can comprehend anything: voyages to distant planets or solar systems, plummeting to the depths of our smallest molecular structures, we can invent anything when fear is not a limiting influence, or maximum profit for ourselves.

images-11There are those too, who believe we owe each other nothing. When your neighbor lived 20 miles away, that was possible.

Not any longer.

We are at a crossroads. Knee-jerk reaction from fear or anger is not prudent. We must face the differences.

Chapter Two – Devil’s Gut

[The chapter that follows is number two from my historical novel, Devil’s Gut. Set in North Carolina just after the Second World War, the book traces the struggles, challenges, and dilemmas of two young men trying to escape their personal histories following WWII. Looking to recapture something lost, they find a very different world emerging from within their experiences. Observations are welcome.Umbrella]

My first encounter with Dak was mostly awkward, humorous in some respects, and offered no clue to just how connected Dak and I would become. I am now married to the love of his life. There are no apologies, and I suspect he expected none to be forthcoming. We make choices, and live by those choices.

I boarded a crowded train in Raleigh in ’45, heading south for Pineland. There were only a few seats remaining, and I selected the nearest vacant seat next to an engaging fellow with reddish blond hair. The fellow attempted to write as we rode, his elbow frequently bumped my arm – he was left-handed – and the seats were not all that wide. He apologized repeatedly, and explained that he had to get this letter finished to his girlfriend, and he always found riding on the train to be conducive to his best writing.

“So you take a train ride when you need to write?”

He smiled.

It struck me as odd, but as I learned, Dak was perpetually on the move. I never quite determined if this state of unrest were because he had so much to do, or simply because he was afraid to stop – owing to his state of unrest. I think he felt safer as a moving target.

I looked at him as hard as he looked at me, both of us assuming a narrative for the other that would prove both accurate and inaccurate. I still wore my dress uniform from the mustering out. Dak frequently looked at my stubbed right arm, and at the medals on my chest. The cut of his clothes, bearing, and the unmistakable soft hands told me he was probably one of those college boys, reading and partying while I slogged through severe weather, and carnage. I doubted he ever broke a sweat over anything, excepting for frat-boy promiscuity. The distinctive fraternity boy appearance oozed from his body: unworried, entitled, and completely comfortable.

“Douglas Alan Kean. My friends call me Dak.” A toothy grin spread across his face as he offered his right hand in friendship. I saw his eyes glance down at my missing right hand, causing him to pause.
I reached across with my left and grabbed his before he could succumb to the embarrassing lack of a hand, and pull back.

“Francis Cummings, sir. No middle handle, just Francis Cummings. How do you do?”

“Pleasure to meet you Francis. I’m sorry- I a, -“ and he waved his right hand to cover his loss for words – not something I would come to expect from Douglas Alan Kean.

“Don’t be. Look at all the hardware decorating my chest, and it’s a good excuse for not tying my shoes.”

“You don’t?”

search-1I laughed, and he did too. The naivete was endearing. We continued to talk and discovered we both had the same terminus: Pineland. Dak began to launch into his family history when the train stopped to take on a few passengers. One passenger, of Japanese heritage, came through the foreword door of our car, hauling a large duffle, and ambled back to the one remaining seat.

A loud husky voice barked from the front of the car.

“Keep moving! No Japs allowed in this car.”

The older Japanese man paused, his duffle in mid air, resting on the overhead rack. His eyes blinked in uncertainty.

“Did you hear me, Nip? We blasted the Japs clean off the map-“

Another voice stopped the Burley Voiced passenger in mid phrase.

“The war’s over, mister; don’t show your ignorance!”

The air in the car was immediately sucked out of the cabin. Small beads of sweat broke out on the older man’s forehead as he attempted to balance the duffle on the rack.

The burley voice stood up in the aisle, just as the conductor came through the rear door. The conductor grabbed the duffle and pushed it into the rack.

“Take your seats, please. We’re about to roll.”

“The hell we are! There will be no nasty Japs on this God-Fearing Christian car -“

I looked to Dak. He had been the one who spoke and piped up yet again.

“Let it go, mister. Sit down; and shut up!”

“Who the heck said that?”

The burley voice began walking down the aisle searching out the author of what sounded to him like a hateful response.

“Afraid to stand up and face me? Where are you; you miserable coward?”

Apparently Dak’s bravado had run its course; he sank further into his seat and starred straight ahead.
The Burley Man continued down the aisle searching for his adversary, despite the protests of the Conductor. I looked at Dak, but he never returned my gaze, and just before Burley Man reached our seats, I stood up.

“I said it, mister. Do you have a problem with that?”

“You said that? Naw, I don’t think so, pal. Unless-“

The man stopped and gave me a curious look, and then looked to Dak who did not return his gaze. The rest of the car held its collective breath. Burley reached past me to Dak as I planted my stump in his chest. He stared at the medals and my stumped right arm.

“I don’t expect this crap from a soldier – Airborne at that! Jesus, pal, you of all people should understand what I mean. What gives you the right-“

Impulse can be lightening quick and my left arm did not disappoint.

Without warning, Burley Man wobbled under the effect of my clenched fist and fell over backwards into the aisle.

“What gives me the right?” I bellowed.

I thrust the stub of my right arm in his face.

“This does!”

I turned around to face the older gentleman, telling him he should sit down now. He put his hands together and bowed his head before sitting.

The clicking of the train wheels on tracks, tracked the silence in the car, and Dak’s gaze never crossed the space between our seats. Discomfort in the train car was palpable. More than an hour later he turned to me.

“I never fought in the war. The Army rejected me, twice; so, I’ve been in school.”

“You were right to challenge him, pardner. Honestly, I might not have become involved if you didn’t object.”

I’m not sure what I saw in his eyes: relief, or surprise. My war-tested instincts failed me. That was more than two years ago.

Connections to other humans, even strangers, can be surprising. Dak was a total stranger to me; still, some spark of chemistry assured me immediately this man was likable, honest, and moral. Such projections are both remarkable, and dangerous, if inaccurate. Dak challenged the boorish bullying behavior of a thug, motivated by a higher impulse to defend, or protect. Lacking the physical confidence to backup that impulse, he retreated, backed off. I understood that feeling too. I knew all too well where such feelings begin. It is in this contradiction of honest emotion that my bond was forged.

Funny how those things happen.

Devil’s Gut – Chapter One

[What follows is chapter one of my novel, Devil’s Gut. Please read and I would appreciate any comments about the characters, the writing, or the story as you understand it from this one chapter. Are the characters interesting and compelling for you? Do the characters and story appear to be worth your time?]

 

I married the love of his life, a strange disclosure, admittedly. Therein lies a story of what we owe each other.

The first time I encountered Douglas Kean, Douglas Alan Kean – or Dak as his friends called him – was on a train out of Raleigh, North Carolina, in May of 1945. I had separated from the Army only weeks before and found myself heading back to Pineland for reasons only my subconscious understood. Most men in my platoon bolted for their respective home towns and waiting girlfriends. A few decided to make the Army a career: “Make sure the world remains safe for Democracy!” they boasted. Others, I learned, knocked about home for some time, members of the 52-20 Club, unsure of what they wanted to do, and finding nothing that generated the adrenaline rush of combat, or the camaraderie of the armed forces, they returned to the fold; they returned to where personal alliances or relationships had been the strongest. They returned to where they belonged, or were whole.

I couldn’t stay, even if I wanted. A staff sergeant with one hand is of little value in this man’s Army; and, home, for some reason, was not a choice. I was drawn by some unexplainable need to return to Pineland, North Carolina, instead of home in Plano, Texas.

Relationships, especially the personal kind, haunted me; and, recent military partnerships proved to be painful. I grew up with Robert Brody in Plano, where his fiddle and my guitar seemed connected, not only musically but spiritually. We both enlisted a week after Pearl Harbor, and eventually found ourselves in airborne training at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Why airborne? At the time, it seemed liked an adventure; and Robert and I were no strangers to adventure. Our roadhouse touring youth attested to that thirst for the unknown.

Brody jumped into the predawn blackness over Normandy, and I followed right behind. I never saw him again. We had created our own rhythmic melody with the clickers issued in England. I spent the next week crawling hedgerows and searching medical tents clicking out the melody. There was no response; no answering rhythm-click coming back. I hooked up with another company, since most of mine was lost or missing. I have no idea how much time elapsed or where I had been; but, Corporal Francis Cummings, or Cowboy as I was labeled, rose to a staff sergeant amid furious battles and an incessant push deeper into France, Northern Europe, and then into Germany. My honorable discharge says I survived.

I firmly believe my survival was the product of no relationships. That might have been somewhat delusional because my eventual role as a platoon leader was simply a mask for another form of relationship: the whole. This necessary distancing enabled me to function: a sleight of hand really, because relationships are unavoidable; they are there if we but look for them.

Can’t deny them, pardner.

What we do with them tells everyone who we are. They are our humanity writ large.

My run as a platoon sergeant ended near the Rhine while dragging a wounded soldier to safety. An enemy round freed him from my grasp, shattering my right hand as I stood in shock, motionless and staring at the shredded remains of my life, and soul. A grenade exploded nearby plunging me into a still deeper darkness. When I woke weeks later, my nose itched. Impulsively, I attempted to scratch it with my right hand.

A gauze wrapped stump was hardly an affective tool. The nose continued to itch unabated. A part of me wanted to laugh; but, my tortured brain numbed whatever physical pain my body was experiencing, also short-circuiting any impulse for levity. Apparently, my little episode did not allow me to see Patton pissing in the Rhine a few days later. I would have laughed at that. Instead, my life is now forever defined by dragging another man to safety and losing my soul.

Maybe that is why I headed for Pineland: for closure.

When Robert Brody and I were shipped out from Mackall, we travelled by troop train north to New York City and finally to a troop ship bound for the European Theater. Trains were a vital form of shipping for both goods and people, connecting towns with tracks that ran directly through the center of a community. The tracks, often two tracks, were a lifeline to the rest of the world. Such was the case with Pineland, where a double set of tracks ran through the center of town. Our train stopped for some unknown reason in the middle of Pineland, only a short time away from Mackall. We sat there for no apparent reason, and some men became restless and impatient. Robert turned to me.

“Cowboy! There’s a drugstore and look at those dolls going in!”

Brody had a nose for women; and, they were stunning. The auburn and red hair immediately caught my eye, and something about the luxuriant flow of the hair as they disappeared into the store triggered a tingling in my mind and body. Brody jumped to his feet.

“Come on Cowboy, let’s get us some Cokes! I ain’t had a Coke… well, since yesterday!”

A red flag waved impatiently before my eyes! But, Brody was halfway out of the car, and somebody needed to pull the kid back before the train left: that would be I, Cowboy.

The pharmacy owner gave us free Cokes and Brody regaled the entire store with our “exploits” in training, and how we were going to win this war in six months! What a performer! He held the bewitched patrons with a magical grip, except for the auburn-red haired young lady who gently tugged at my elbow and suggested we might want to leave, since the train seems to be rolling. She was damn right! I grabbed my story-telling friend and pushed him out the door, Cokes in hand.

I sprinted across the road and up the hill to the tracks as the train gained momentum, and when reaching for the rail my cap blew off. Once I had pulled myself onto the train, I turned to see a lurching Brody struggling to keep up with the train. He was blowing viciously out his mouth attempting to summon from within the necessary speed to catch hold of the train. His mouth was a feverish bellow, almost comical to behold. Holding onto the rail, I hung out and grabbed his extended hand hauling him onto the car. Glancing back, I saw the auburn-red haired young lady as she picked up my cap and extended her arm with my cap, as if to say “Wait-.”

Brody and I stood on the train running board between the cars laughing at how close we had come to missing the train. Would Brody be alive today if we had missed the train? Dismissing the consequences of our adventure, we talked instead about the two girls – as if they were ours.

“Hey, Cowboy! Yours was sporting some set of knockers, a real comfy lover’s pillow.”

“Yours was pretty well proportioned, too, pardner-“

“Yeah boy! Those hips are meant to bear kings. And I’m just the monarch to climb aboard.”

I laughed, enjoying this levity with my childhood friend.

“Actually, I think that refers to birthing kings-“

“Either way, you gotta take’m before you can birth’m, and I’m just the one… What happened to your hat?”

When we arrived in New York, we were mustered out of the train and formed a rank and file array while our officers called roll.

“All present and accounted for, sir,” was the happy result. There was the little matter of my hat. When the Captain walked among our ranks, Brody slipped his hat on my head just as the Captain approached.

“Corporal Brody,” he said. “You are out of uniform.”

“Me, sir?”

“Yes you, Brody. Where is your government issued hat, Corporal?”

“I didn’t realize I was-“

“Sir, it’s on my head.”

The Captain shifted his focus instantly to me.

“It is not, sir. I must have left it on the train, you know. I’ve never seen New York City before-“

I pulled off the hat and held it up for the Captain to see. Inside the head band, printed in large black letters the name “Brody” was clearly visible.

The back and forth went back and forth a little longer before the Captain threatened us both with article 15s. He relented with a smile and some stern comments. Before leaving he privately complimented us for covering for each other.

“You would be wise to remember this, soldier.”

When Robert obviously needed me, and my instincts for danger, I was not there; my clicker’s message lost in the darkness of Normandy. I had failed; my instincts said there would be problems, but I didn’t listen.

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Need (Gumption)

I have recently discovered Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards, and found myself watching two to three episodes at a time before bed. Quite a different approach to TV.

It occurred to me this morning what this series uses as a structural source, and I should not be amazed given Spacey’s history. It’s really quite a fun ride, and the fact it focuses on Washington politics with nodding winks to every social issue in the news, clearly puts it in the same realm as any of William Shakespeare’s tragedies involving kings and power.

At first, Spacey addressing the camera was of-putting and troubling. Some of the earliest camera speeches made him feel too Snidely-Whiplash evil, sneeringly evil for evil’s sake. But in the back of my mind, I liked it. images-2Then, it suddenly hit me, these are stage monologues! The main character speaks to us disarmingly, sometimes confirming his disingenuous actions, and highlighting his unreliability, or his truth. It’s as topical as Hamlet or Macbeth!

Spacey is a talented man of the theater who has worked for the British National Theater and has brought that live theater experience to film, and television. I enjoy and look forward to those monologues now, especially the set up of each, for they are all different!

The Writer...
The Writer…

My second reason for discussing House of Cards has to do with the writer’s plight, a topic of some importance for any unpublished writer – and that would be yours truly. Ideas and experience are never enough. We hear so many self-help writing gurus speak of needing to start at an early age and write continuously about what you know. We also hear or read of the advice that the successful writer must read constantly. One piece of advice many do not offer as loudly as the aforementioned is grammar. Without a fundamentally sound understanding and practice of English grammar, writing will always be a dream, and never a reality- the gatekeepers demand it, and so do you! (how many rambling Facebook posts have you thought interesting only to find the writing disintegrate into babble?) I know also that without a voice one shall have a hard time presenting something different to the potential readers. Voice is a matter between you and yourself, there are no special deals on voice anywhere on the internet or in a bookstore. I understand these other points entirely and agree with most in principle.

imagesHouse of Cards has opened my eyes to yet another oft mentioned but little appreciated skill or talent required for the successful writer, and that is: Need, or  I like the sound of Gumption. It starts in the gut!

You have to want it – writing that is. But, what does that mean exactly? There are a lot of things I really want; I mean, really, really, really want, and I can profess those wants eloquently and at great length. Not all wants are created equal. That became abundantly clear for me while watching Spacey – who is unrelenting in his pursuit of power.

The behind the scenes peak into the world of Washington government and politics reveals a world where wants never sleep. How many scenes are there suggesting that people go for days without sleep because things need to happen. Sure, there are scenes where Frank Underwood delegates work to underlings, who work all night, while he runs off for bed time with Zoe. Still there are plenty of scenes where he works all night, or the President works all night with staff because they need to do so. Work and responsibility demand their continuous work.

weightIf I’m being honest, I must say writing has never demanded that level of attention from me. True for you also? I have friends who like my ideas and thoughts, but I am as yet an unpublished author and quite likely to remain so unless I change my… gumption.

That is not to say my work has not demanded similar commitment from me, to which I enthusiastically responded. I have been paid to do a job and I have responded with a what-ever-it-takes approach to the work. I cannot accuse myself of being lazy, since my work has demonstrated quite the opposite.

Unless you are being paid to write and have that tangible responsibility to motivate your actions, its easy to demur, it’s easy for life to get in the way, it’s easy for the tomorrow’s-another-day sentiment to get a death grip. Tomorrow is not another day, if you have wasted today! Success builds upon success, when you understand failure (experiencing failure is underrated unless you understand failure – Aye, there’s the rub!)

You may have the want to write. The better question is do you have the the right want? Gumption? Going without sleep until your project and work are done is not a recommended health practice. We can learn, however, our level of want. If that want does not approach the inescapable, obsessive, compulsive, drive, or gumption – like the word because it appeals to the gut sound – you will never write professionally. I am now convinced.

Nobody will pay you to write until you prove you can write. Writing is not a job with a training period, or a draw against commission. The time of advances for promising writers has long since evaporated. One must spring full-bodied upon the stage with a stunning entrance and voice. The din of writing wannabes is enormous.

All the other admonitions about a writing career are just as true; but, gumption is the intangible element that can make up for lack of depth in experience, reading, or writing: It’s that 10,000 hours to mastery concept in fine print!

I would appreciate any comments about this post and need or gumption as a primal mover in the writing world…

And on to another installment of House of Cards for inspiration – tireless dedication to a purpose.

Harter here! Enjoy!

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God Is Unassailable

This past week has been an eventful week, not necessarily for me; but, I have witnessed meaningful events and consequences that any would be writer should file away for reference. There are stories in this week.

One such event waimages-6s the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage. I am not gay; but, I have spent a significant portion of my life working with associates who were gay. I’m neither a doctor nor psychologist, and cannot therefore lend factual researched underpinning to my ideas on this decades old social hot button. My experience tells me that homosexuality is not a matter of choice, it’s simply how some people are wired. I can also tell you that homosexuality is not contagious, nor are those who’s taste run in that direction predators – anymore than some heterosexuals are predatory.

It is with dismay that I observe the over the top reactions to the SCOTUS decision by the extreme right, and/or Evangelical Christians. The dismay is actually more closely identified as embarrassment, which extends also to the unChristian-like attitude and rhetoric on display.

images-4I simply cannot see Jesus Christ responding to this situation with calls of revolt and disregard for the law of the land, not to mention the near hysterical cry of religious persecution.

Justice Roberts suggested this was a popular decision that had nothing to do with the Constitution. In reality, this has everything to do with the Constitution and human rights. I am chagrined that the same Chief Justice who chose to consider the intent of the Affordable Health Care Law rather than a poorly expressed three word phrase, would then claim that the human rights of the gay population have no standing among human rights expressed in the Constitution. This is giving with one hand and taking with the other! The comments of Justice Scalia have nothing to do with jurisprudence and everything to do with a narrow prejudicial mind, unfit for the highest court in the land. His strict interpretation posture wanted to hang the AHC over three words, yet he chooses to ignore the words “maintain a militia” in article two. Convenience is thy middle name, Justice Scalia.

The writer in me, however, sees a greater danger in this “convenience,” a struggle between fear and intelligence. There are meaningful stories to be told on this issue that can put some human perspective on the issue. Stories instruct by example, not by preaching. I shall file this week’s events.

images-5Mike Huckabee is a Republican Presidential candidate who was nearly apoplectic over the ruling. He claimed it was tyranny, and as such, we are not compelled to accept the ruling or abide by its results: very Presidential. He has alluded to religious persecution over gay-rights and abortion on a multitude of occasions.  It’s simply not true. What is remarkable is a failure to understand the founding principles of this country, and an awareness of just who these founding fathers were as men. Many of them were Deists or atheists. Religious freedom was the motivation, not a Christian nation. They did not want the government telling them how to worship. The re-writing of historic fact is breathtaking.

To my knowledge, there are no Christian churches closed because they refuse to recognize gay marriages or perform them. There are no Christians forced to use birth control, or have an abortion. No one is forcing anyone to marry a person of the same sex. Yet for someone to claim the beliefs of the Christian right are being persecuted because someone believes otherwise, points to the essence of religious freedom and an affirmation that we have separation of church and state. Mike Huckabee’s religious beliefs are not the policies this government.

Holding up God as a defense for a position is an ancient practice. It’s convenient! God is unassailable, and no more justification is necessary. Wrapping oneself in religious certainty eliminates the need for thinking or considering. It is then a short step to demonizing and scapegoating someone or something because you’re exempted from proof, logic, merit, or understanding. If that does not work sufficiently well, then declare yourself persecuted! And that’s where we are today. There is no rational discussion of issues because the participants are all cloaked in rigid moral certainty. They have protective shields that exempt them from consideration, thought, evaluation, or understanding of any idea outside their experience.

I find it hard to accept a belief in a Divine Spirit who would not be encouraged by an intelligent thought process in which we consider and evaluate positions openly. We can only understand what we understand, and the intelligent approach would be to consider what we don’t understand in an effort to find an understanding that leads to intelligent social behavior. This is not happening today. The cloak of God has been hoisted because it’s too hard to meet a multi-cultured world and live responsibly.

God is unassailable. This perspective is dangerous when it shuts down thought processes and discussion. It becomes a rush to judgement.