A blizzard of words in January

Some days the writing comes quick and easy. The words fall out of the sky like manna from heaven or the flurry of snow that blanketed the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast in January and ranks as the fourth largest nor’easter since 1950.

snowThey come fast and furious in a blizzard of thoughts and I try my best to keep up. And then on other days, the words and images in my head are packed together tight like thick molasses. They ooze in one direction, then another, but refuse to come out of the bottle.

On those days, it’s best to remember the good times — the snow days so-to-speak — and pray they come again. In any event, I’ve been fortunate so far this year. Here’s a recap of some of what I’ve written over the past four weeks:

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When all else fails . . . believe

A long-time friend called me last week, upset that she had been passed over for a new role at her small company. She had put in extra time at the office, made a number of improvements, but felt she had been cheated out of the opportunity.

I could tell she was disappointed and I felt bad for her. I offered a few words of advice and tried to pick-up her spirits. We agreed to get together for lunch the next time she’s in the area.

Driving home later in the day, I thought about some of my own disappointments over the years both large and small. I’m not sure where it came from, but I thought right away about the time I had been “robbed” of winning an elementary school spelling bee.

I had made it a goal of mine to win the contest. I paid extra special attention in class and practiced hours on end until the big day. I wanted to do especially well because earlier in the year I felt my teacher had been tough on me in pointing out a word I had misspelled. She had used me as an example to the rest of the class and I wanted to show her that I really was a good speller.

When the big day came, I watched as other students in my class got their words. Many answered correctly, a few got eliminated right away with a misspelling here or there. Finally it was my turn. The teacher asked me to spell: “repeated.”

I panicked at first, took a deep breath, and then realized that I knew exactly how to spell it. I spelled the word correctly and moved onto the second round. I let out a deep breath and mopped my brow.

I felt more confident and aced and the next two rounds. I was gaining confidence with each new question. Before I knew it, I had made it four more rounds. I was doing well. I made it into the final group of three. Another couple rounds and it was down to me and another girl. My nerves seemed to have disappeared. I started to believe that I was going to win the competition.

The only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t hear the teacher. A fan in one corner of the room created a low buzz that made it difficult to hear. Despite the annoyance, I felt good about my chances.

My teacher asked if we were ready for the final round and announced my word: “bureaucratic.” I jumped for joy. I knew this word. I started to spell the word back to the teacher, but she stopped me mid-sentence.

Instead of b-u-r-e-a-u-c-r-a-t-i-c with one ‘e,’  she thought she heard me say two. I tried to protest. I suggested that she might have misheard over the buzz of the fan, but the teacher gave me one of those looks that said I wasn’t going to get too far with my plea.

She told me that I should be glad that I got as far as I had and be a good sport. I appealed to the other teacher in the room, but she had been correcting an unruly student who been kicked out in one of the earlier rounds and could offer no help. Several other students stood up for me too, stating that they heard only one ‘e,’ but my teacher stated that the contest was over and we had a winner.

I fought to keep my composure.

If I had gotten the word wrong, I would have freely admitted it. I didn’t want to win dishonestly, but it felt wrong to lose simply because my teacher couldn’t hear what I had said and wanted to get the contest over so that we could move onto the next subject.

I felt horrible over losing for months after the competition. I had wanted to prove to the teacher that I was a good student. When the time came, I felt like she had cheated me out of the opportunity. I didn’t start to get over the spelling bee until I finally realized that I didn’t have to prove anything to her.

I had already proved everything to myself.

The loss of a school spelling bee is trivial compared to the loss of a promotion, especially one that feels well-deserved. However, as I pulled up to my driveway, it hit me that my friend needed to be reminded of the same message I learned losing the spelling bee.

She needed reminded that her boss may control who gets promoted and even her role within the company … but no one, not the company president, her boss or even her coworkers, can take away everything that she has already accomplished and the strong belief that she has in herself.

Of course, I made a note to remind her to brush up on her spelling too. You never know when it will come in handy.

 

 

 

The lost art of letter writing

I like to think that I’m technologically savvy. I love how technology connects us and makes our lives simpler. I’ve even become an Apple geek (even if the stock has tanked the past several months, after producing results for so many years.)

But I also see how technology has changed us for the worst.

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In particular, technology has made us reliant on short bursts of text. We’re limited in our tweets to no more than 140 characters. Facebook posts max out at 60,000 plus characters, but most consist of no more than a couple sentences. If you write more than that, your friends are likely to comment that you’ve written a book. We text on our smartphones, but most times we send messages of just a few words strung together to create one shorter word. OMG for example. Some of us still rely heavily on email, but it lacks panache. Most messages are here today, gone tomorrow.

In short, no one writes handwritten personal notes anymore. You still have a few holdovers, the occasional family member who will send you a birthday or Christmas card, but letters, for the most part, have gone the way of the landline phone, CDs, or dvds.

I suggested to someone recently that they might want to send a thank you card to a friend who had helped them in a time of need. You might have thought that I had suggested they prepare to cross the Mojave Desert without food or water. Even with my suggestion, it’s easy to see why personal letters and notes have become outdated. It costs 49 cents to mail a letter nowadays and it’s a major annoyance to sit down and write one. You have to think about what you want to say and there’s quicker, more efficient ways to communicate. Letters take time and who has time?

Despite all that, I still think it’s a shame that a part of our culture has died. People used to communicate some of our deepest, most heart-felt emotions via letter: anger, sadness, love, happiness, and everything in between. Now we’re more likely to pull out our smartphones, make a YouTube video and post it on social media.

But where does that get us?

I still have the letter that my mother wrote to me my freshman year of college. My mother didn’t say much in the letter — just a few run of the mill things — but it touched me that she would take the time to write when it wasn’t something she felt comfortable doing. I pulled the short letter out recently from the bottom of a desk drawer and I could hear my mother’s voice in her scratchy handwriting. The letter instantly took me back to my dorm room and the feeling of happiness I got when I opened the envelope to find the letter and the $20 bill she had hid inside, encouraging me to take care of myself and use the money to get a pizza.

When I send my daughter, a college freshman now like I once was, a text that says GL2U (Good luck to you) or WTG (way to go), will the message still mean as much to her? Will it touch her the same way my mom’s letter meant to me? Will it let her know that we’re thinking of her and that we miss her? Will she save it on her phone for years to come?

Maybe, but I think not.

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I love texting as much as anyone. It’s quick and means I don’t have to talk to someone on the phone or face-to-face and God knows the part of me that is an introvert loves that, but handwritten notes have a lasting touch, a permanence, and commitment that emails or text messages can never have.

Yes, I’m old school, but sometimes going old school and emphasizing the personal touch is just what the doctor ordered.

My life as a famous author

Patricia Cornwell’s books take-up two rows in my local library. Danielle Steele, now 68, has slowed in recent years, but she’s holding strong with two shelves of her own. James Patterson — the master — leads with four.

They churn out books faster than you can finish your coffee browsing online to see what e-book you’re going to buy next.

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For example, Patterson has written 147 novels since 1976 (selling more than 300 million copies worldwide, more than Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stephen King combined.) And he’s not done. Patterson’s  website states that he’s got three books (with cowriters) coming out in hardcover in the next 60 days. And more coming the rest of the year.

He’ll come out with new entries for the NYPD Red series; the 15th book in the Women’s Murder Club series; and a young reader follow-up called Jacky Ha-ha about a girl who makes people laugh.

And I can’t even finish one book.

But, it doesn’t stop me from thinking about how I would spend my time if I were in Patterson’s shoes and a famous author. I know exactly how I’d spend my time:

–I’d go to the library. Everyone would see me in the library and assume that I was performing research for my next book. They wouldn’t dare interrupt me. Oh they would want to get my autograph, but they wouldn’t want to bother me as I work on the next Great American Novel. No one would be wiser to me playing Angry Birds, Words with Friends, or Draw Something on my smartphone.

–Run. A writer has to keep up good impressions. However, I would probably run indoors. I wouldn’t want to risk running outside and getting run over. Stephen King went running one early afternoon along Route 5 in Lovell, Maine, was struck by a distracted minivan driver and nearly died. In addition, I wouldn’t want people to see me with a tan and get the wrong impression. Need to keep up the charade that I spend my days indoors slaving away at the keyboard.

–Sleep until noon.

–Read the newspaper. And another. And another. I don’t care what you see and hear, writers like to read their own reviews. They may not like them, but they love to see their names in print. I’m no different.

–Lunch in New York and Philly.  Again, I would need to “see and be seen.”

–Read the classics. When a fan calls me the greatest thing since Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Salinger, I need to know who these writers are so that I can add to the conversation and modestly wave off their praise. “Oh, you’re too kind,” I would say.

–Watch a lot of bad TV. Anyone up for binge watching “Law & Order”?

pen–Hire an intern to write my next book. Make a few edits. Make a few more minor edits. Slap my name on the book, the interns name in 8-point font, preferably on the back cover, and voila present my new book to my publisher. Got to keep the new books and the money coming in the door.

–Repeat the last step, two or three times a year. If I want to catch up to Patterson, maybe ramp it up a bit more, publishing four or five books a year.

Oh, sure my plan would be a huge lie . . . but how is that different from what the big time authors do today and we still line up every few months to buy their latest books.

Of course, I’m forgetting about another minor, but very important detail: My conscience would get in the way. Damn morals. Back to being a small-town blogger. Ugh.

How Glenn Frey helped me survive Calculus

When I read yesterday that Glenn Frey from the band the Eagles had passed away, I was instantly taken back to my room in high school, trying to figure out 12th grade calculus. My oldest brother had gotten me hooked on the Eagles Live album years earlier and I would play the cassette tape over and over while I tried to figure out why the answer I came up with to a particular question didn’t line up with the one listed in the answer key.

The homework was pure hell for me, I always seemed to lag behind everyone else, but I was determined to keep up in class. I rushed home from cross country practice and stayed up well into the night, hunched over the little desk in my room, going over problem after problem.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey kept me company those long nights, warning me to watch out for the Queen of Diamonds and how “she’ll beat you if she’s able” and how the “Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.”

I never really got the handle on calculus, but came away with Henley’s and Frey’s haunting lyrics and melodies deep inside my heart and soul. I learned that when problems came up I needed to “take it easy” and “don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.”

I learned too what a difference great music can have on your life.

Thank you Glenn Frey. Rest in peace.

Great food and conversation: dinner with my crazy family

Sean is deep in mid story. He’s on a roll. One hand is extended up in the air, the other, holding a fork, is flying in a different direction. Nothing is stopping him now. Erin’s got a hand over her mouth and Stephen’s laughing so hard I worry he might fall off his chair.

In the deepest voice Sean can muster, he tries to imitate me: “Let’s go Sean, we need to get going. I have to go to work.” He uses mini air quotes as if the others didn’t already know that he was quoting me. “And then dad goes and makes his coffee and spends the next five minutes in the bathroom.”

And the others all break out in an even bigger laugh. “He’s yelling at me about being late and he’s the one who’s making us late. Can you believe it?”

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Kathy looks at me lovingly, but lets out a little laugh. Sean takes the laugh as a sign to keep going on his mini stand-up comedy routine: “He takes all that time in the bathroom getting ready. What’s he doing in there? I guess he’s combing his hair or something. ”

He pauses for effect and then says, “And he has no hair.”

The table breaks out in a roar. I simply shake my head. In a mock threat, I warn him that he better watch it, because Karma can be . . . well difficult. I remind him that my mom’s father had a full head of hair and I have still lost most of mine.

Sean doesn’t care; he’s not hearing any of this. He’s laughing even more now. Sean has adlibbed in spots and is having fun at my expense, but I also know that I wouldn’t change our family dinner for anything in the world. It’s been a long, challenging week and we all need the laugh.

Kathy and I have made our share of parental mistakes over the years, but one of the best decisions we’ve ever made was making family dinners a priority. We try to eat as a family as many days a week as we can. We’re nowhere near perfect and we miss plenty of meals, but it’s a priority that’s pretty important to us.

I thought that’s the way it was for most families until I read the other day that barely 50 percent of families today regularly eat together each evening. The story went onto highlight a number of studies showing that children fare better emotionally, academically, and health-wise when they have frequent family dinners.

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I can’t speak to the benefits the researchers studied, but I know what the dinners have meant for us. Our dinners are stuff of family lore. We’ve solved the national debt crisis and the cost of paying for college; cracked the Middle East crisis; brought about world peace; ended poverty and homelessness in the U.S. and world and figured out a host of other problems — all over dinner.

The simple act of sitting down together has brought us together as a family, forced the kids to put down their smartphones and electronic games, and talk about their concerns and day. We’ve been able to track their classes and to remind them about future tests and papers. In the same vein, Kathy and I have been able to wipe off the dust of our day and remember why we work so hard in the first place.

More often than not the dinners have been a chance for us to come together and laugh. We’ve laughed at funny things each of the kids have said. And I’ve been the brunt of more than a few jokes. (No respect for dad.)

When the kids were little, I fought for everyone to eat together, mainly because I was the last one home and hated eating by myself. (Yes, poor, poor me.) As the kids got older and more involved in after school activities, it’s been Kathy and me waiting on them. I’ve probably gained an extra pound or two, eating junk food to hold me over until dinner, but I’ll certainly pay that price for everything else we’ve gained.

I’m not really sure what the kids think about our dinners. I’m sure they’ll mock this column and I know family dinners are a bit old school . . . but, that’s okay, I can live with that, just remember to pass the salt and pepper.

A hero taken too soon

When you’re five-years-old, you don’t have whole lot of worries. Your biggest concern is whether Superman or Batman would win in a winner-takes-all battle; whether to eat the inside of the Oreo cookie first or save it to the end; and when it’s going to snow so that you can try out your new sled on the long hill by your house.

Pretty simple life, at least that’s the way it was for me until New Year’s Eve 1972.

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On that day, I lost a hero. My very first hero. I don’t have a lot of early memories from that time — I was too young — but I vaguely remember watching a TV news announcer stating that Roberto Clemente had died on New Year’s Eve in a country and continent I had never heard of before in my short life. Roberto Clemente was my favorite baseball player on my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He died when the plane he chartered crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

I forget if I cried or if I even understand what it meant. I just remember feeling fine one day, still on a Christmas high, and then waking up another and feeling sad, like I had lost something important to me.

Clemente was one of family’s favorite players and my hero. I had a Pirates batting helmet that I had stolen from one of my brothers. It bobbled from side to side on my head, but I didn’t care, because I wanted to be just like Clemente. He had helped the Pirates win the World Series the previous year and had just finished the 1972 season with his 3000th career hit.

As I got older and read more about Clemente’s life, he became an even bigger hero for me. I could recite his batting statistics and his many different contributions verbatim. He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage and stood up for minority rights. He contributed to a myriad of different causes, most involving children. He helped build parks and fields throughout Pittsburgh and Central America and was renowned for his humanitarian work.

When I played baseball years later, I tried to mimic Clemente’s unorthodox batting swing, chaotic running style and cannon of an arm. I would frequently take big sweeping slides into second base just so I could get dirty my uniform and look like one my favorite pictures of Clemente. Unfortunately, I lacked Clemente’s speed, power, and swing, but that didn’t stop me.

Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, I didn’t come across many other kids of Latino heritage, but as I read everything I could about Clemente’s life, I saw that even someone who didn’t necessarily look or act like me, in fact had much in common with me. He simply wanted a better life and to play the game that he loved. He showed me that in the end we really are more alike than we think.

He showed me too what a true hero really could be. I’ve always found it funny that many of the people society calls or flaunts as “heroes” eventually show their true colors. Their picture gets plastered across a police blotter somewhere or they sell out, looking for more fame or money. Clemente’s star though over the years has never dimmed, but gotten brighter. He’s respected for what he did off the field as much today as he was in the 60s and 70s.

I’m not sure what made me think of Clemente this year on New Year’s Eve, but it amazed me even more to think that on that day 43 years ago he was trying to help others. If he had lived, he would have been 81 this year. Thank you Roberto!

One picture is worth a thousand words

I love photography and how a picture can create an instant connection or feeling. One simple image can carry you thousands of miles away to places you’ve never seen or imagined or across the street to the neighbor’s house. It can lift you up, making you smile or laugh, or rip out your heart, bringing on a rush of sadness and tears — all with the flip of a switch or a snap of the fingers.

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While I love great photography, I’m not a great photographer myself. I can see wonderful, bright, colorful images in my head, but I’ve never been able to replicate them completely as I would like into my camera and onto the web or printed page. I understand the importance of terms like aperture, exposure, and shutter speed to list a few, but it’s still all very foreign to me.

I suspect a small part of me loves photography so much because I’m envious of how long it takes great writing to create the same feeling. Writing has to build up. You need to catch the reader’s attention right from the start, pulling them away from their smartphone or everything around them and into your piece. It doesn’t end there. You need to keep the reader following the story, nugget by nugget, to the climax. You run the risk of boring or losing the reader at any point in time.

One wrong move here or there and they’re gone. One false word choice . . . phewf, and they’re gone, moving onto a thousand different distractions. You need to find the right balance. You can’t be too simple or too flowery with the language, too vague or detailed. And God forbid, you have a grammar mistake, you’ll lose them forever.

As someone reads your work, you can try to read their face, but you may never get the reaction you’re looking for from the reader. With a photograph, you get your answer right away. Yes, it worked, they’re smiling, or no, they moved onto another picture. Yes or no, there’s very little in between, you get your reaction instantly.

While I love the immediacy and the end result of photography, I suspect I would be a horrible professional photographer. I came across a site recently that posted wedding photographer’s most memorable pictures. I think these are pure magic: a bride-to-be getting ready for her big day by reading a letter from her deceased mother who wrote to her years earlier; another bride reading a letter from her sobbing father in the back of a limousine; a simple photo of a groom kissing his elderly grandmother. These photos tell a thousand stories and leave the viewer wanting more.

My gut tells me that the couples never expected the pictures they got back in return. The photographer though looked through his or her lens and saw another altogether different image: raw emotion bubbling to the surface. The photographers came back with a story that needed to be told.

And that’s what I love about photography.

 

Remembering Christmas every day of the year

With another Christmas coming to a close, we packed up our decorations the other day, including taking down our tree. At one point, I stopped to take one last look at the tree. I’ve long preferred a simple tree with red and silvers balls, bright colored lights and garland. I love the simplicity and long-lasting style.

Over the years, however, Kathy has helped change my mind. She has long preferred trees full of ornaments, trees that she calls “memory trees.”

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Our tree this year was certainly one of those memory trees. Every ornament or ball carried a special significance or a memory. For example, I start by taking down the delicate, glass-blown ball that I bought for Kathy several years ago at a fine glass shop in a small town square in Gibraltar overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, and the northern coastal areas of Africa. Erin and I were on school trip visiting Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco. I hold the glass ball in my hand and think back to the hug that Kathy gave me when we landed in Philadelphia and the contented smile that crept across her face later when I surprised her with the ornament.

I wrap it carefully and put in our ornament box, right next to an overly large safety pin with Erin’s baby picture and the word’s Baby’s First Christmas. There’s a baby’s first Christmas ornament for each of the kids.

I look back up at the tree see a number of other pictures, mostly family pictures. There are some craft ornaments that the kids have made over the years. We have three green Christmas balls that a friend gave us years ago with each of the kid’s names spelled out.

IMG_7924We have a few oddities too unless you know our family: a little grill to represent the year that Sean got into grilling, a guitar to represent Stephen’s love of music, a ballerina that Erin got the year she took a dance class and the crest for the Ravenclaw House from Harry Potter to represent her favorite book one Christmas.

The tree has a little bit of everything and is far from the simple trees that I tend to prefer . . . but as I work faster now to carefully wrap and put the ornaments away for another year, I couldn’t imagine us putting up any other type of tree.

IMG_7918We celebrate Christmas to remember the first family and the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. What better way for my family to celebrate Christmas than to celebrate our unique family and all the little things that we love about each other.

So another Christmas is over, but our little tree reminds me to hold my family special in my heart each and every day of the year.

May the Force be with you!

Like much of the world, I stood in line in between Christmas and New Year’s Day to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Without giving away the plot, the movie was quite good.)

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In the middle of the movie, right after Chewbacca nailed a storm trooper with his blaster, I started to feel sorry for Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. Yes, I know the two have nothing in common and my mind rambles off in crazy directions, but bear with me.

In any event, I started feeling sorry for Millennials.

They’re smart and full of big ideas and potential. They’re also tech savvy. They continue to push the limits and force big business to find new ways for our phones and tablets to bring about increased efficiency and productivity to our lives. Millennials and the technology they’ve espoused have brought far more positives than negatives. I’ve seen it in my own life.

However, somewhere along the line, we, as a society, forget how to relax and Millennials seem to be taking the brunt of the pain. The consulting firm Deloitte released its annual Global Mobile Consumer Survey recently and found that nearly half of U.S. consumers check their phones up to 25 times per day. And sadly we never power down anymore.

The survey found that 72 percent of 18-24 year-olds and 76 percent of 25-34 year-olds report using their mobile devices when they’re watching television or movies. The numbers drop significantly for the other age ranges.

The survey includes a number of other telling figures and, yes, I know that statistics lie, but this particular one stood out for me since I can relate so well to it. I kept reaching for my cellphone throughout the Star Wars movie to Google an actor’s name or look up where they filmed the movie. It didn’t matter if Han Solo or Chewie or the cast of new characters in the film were in trouble, I was still pulling out my cellphone. Fortunately, I was reminded each time that I was in a theater and put my phone back in my pocket. In my case, the “Force” won in the end.

However, I’m just like the Millennials. I don’t watch a lot of television anymore, but, when I do, I rarely just watch TV. I’m always multi-tasking. Even with the year’s biggest grossing movie playing in front of me, I had to make myself relax and just watch it. If a technology novice like me feels this way, I can’t imagine how someone much more used to mobile technology might feel. They’re doomed to a lifetime of fighting the dark forces of stress.

Okay, okay, maybe not, but Millennials do have another ominous force working against them, one that even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda couldn’t help them to overcome.

They missed out on the first Star Wars phenomenon in the late 1970s and, until they create a time machine, they’ll never be able to go back and experience the hype and craze that took over the country for themselves.

May the Force be with you.