Friday, March 30, 2012

Words, Words, Words about Fiction

These two pins from Pinterest made their way onto my boards in the past few weeks.

I have always been drawn to stories that present the universality of human nature in different cultural settings. As a teenager who felt lonely and out of place, reading stories helped me connect, to know that I wasn't the only person who felt so odd. The characters were real to me, and I felt a genuine connection to them.

I connected to characters in medieval and renaissance literature, historical novels, science fiction, poetry, and fantasy. In my forties, I've rediscovered young adult literature and have voraciously read Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Egyptian series, not to mention J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, all of which take readers to wonderfully odd places.

Who wouldn't like owl post? Seriously.

But despite the strangeness of the settings, what appeals in all these stories is the human story. Harry, for instance, isn't particularly special in the magical world. In fact, he's rather ordinary except on the Quidditch field. He has some talents, of course, but his real strength is his capacity to care for others, and that leads him to extraordinary deeds of sacrifice to stop the evil that threatens those he loves. He struggles, fails, has help, makes mistakes, misjudges, and hurts, but he doesn't stop loving.

I love this.

So imagine my delight when I read a wonderful article from the New York Times titled "Your Brain on Fiction."  Now there is a dawning scientific understanding of why we connect so well with narrative fiction or poetry.

We readers were right all along. The characters are real to us, and we are not alone.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Speaking Truth to the Man...or Woman

When I took Jack to our friendly neighborhood Kroger Marketplace last weekend, we pulled into a parking spot next to a family--father, mother, daughter--unloading a cart into their trunk. Both the mother and father were smoking.

Let's digress. I grew up in North Carolina, where tobacco is king. I went to high school with a great-granddaughter of RJ Reynolds. I attended Duke University, part of the proverbial Tobacco Road and built with tobacco money.

Cigarettes were everywhere, and I never liked them. The smell of tobacco smoke irritated my sinuses and made me feel sick. My grandfather smoked, and I remember my cousins, sister, and I hiding his cigarettes and begging him to quit. He didn't.

In 1977, while a friend and I waited in line (for three hours) to see the first Star Wars movie at Park Road Theater in Charlotte, a man behind us lit up. The breeze blew his smoke directly toward us, so we launched into a loud discussion about how bad cigarettes were, including a rather vivid and gruesome description of a pair of preserved smoke-damaged lungs we'd seen at an anti-smoking assembly at school. He put out his cigarette and didn't light up again. We felt victorious, powerful.

In fact, we were immature, mouthy tweens who would have been better served by politely and directly asking the man to put out his cigarette.

Ten years later, I caught an emergency flight from Washington DC to Charlotte, where my grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed. He'd been suffering from congestive heart failure, but early that morning, he'd had what was probably a heart attack. Lab results came back from fluid drained off his lungs. He had lung cancer. The doctor told him he could be kept alive in intensive care or die that day.

What a choice to make on a sunny August morning.

I made it to the hospital in time and was with him when he died. A person can develop a rather intense hatred of that which kills a loved one. All of us resented that cigarettes took Papa too soon, a man who had cheated death so many times as a barnstorming pilot, as a B-24 pilot flying the Hump in WWII, and a cargo pilot during the Berlin Airlift.

But that mouthy tween was in her twenties and no longer spouted off about cigarettes, despite her rage at them. To my knowledge, only my cousin Kathy had the courage to walk up to strangers and tell them about Papa and ask them to quit smoking. The rest of us admired Kathy but felt hobbled by adult societal pressure not to make trouble. After all, no one likes to be told what to do. We're in America, for heaven's sake, where people are perfectly free to do as they wish as long as it's legal without being harrassed for it.

Many years have passed and my anger at tobacco has shifted. The sight of people smoking just makes me sad now because I know that they are addicted, trapped in a habit that is really, really hard to break and may one day kill them. I also know that we all develop bad habits that might one day kill us, from eating too much red meat to driving too fast to living like couch potatoes.

For Jack, however, the story of his great grandfather's death from smoking is fresh and a lesson I hope he will not forget if he experiences peer pressure to smoke.  He noticed the cigarette smokers in the parking lot at Kroger right away. As we got out of the car, the mom and daughter started to push their cart to the return, and I offered to take it. They thanked me, and then Jack piped up, loud and clear.

"You shouldn't be smoking," he said to the mom. "It's bad for you and can kill you!"

The mom laughed nervously and turned away with a vague sort of "okaaayyy." She'd just been called out by a nine-year-old in front of her daughter, and I suppose Jack is lucky she didn't turn nasty on him.

My response was to tell Jack that he shouldn't tell grown-ups that smoking is bad for them.

"Why not?" he asked, all reason and logic. "It's true!"

"Yes, I know, honey. But people don't like others to tell them what to do. It can make them mad."

Inside, however, a part of me--the part that stood by my grandfather's hospital bed and watched him die--was saying, "Way to go, Jack! Speak the truth to that woman in front of you! Maybe this time she'll listen!"

And that's how parenthood takes us to some rather morally ambiguous places.

When have you found yourself teaching your children to be well-behaved and quiet rather than courageous and truthful? When should we shut up and when should we stand up, and how do we teach the difference to our children?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Gratitude Journal #131

Today, I am grateful for having my honey home from overseas.

Today, I am grateful for alarm clocks, washing machines, and gas fireplaces.

Today, I am grateful for sunshine and tulips and daffodils.

Today, I am grateful for movement, for the doing of things.

Today, I am grateful for volunteers who keep our church's meal ministry running.

Today, I am grateful for my King of the Rock. We should all face Monday with Jack's confidence, pride, strength, and smile.

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Words, Words, Words about Comparison

"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." Steven Furtick

I love this quotation because it's so true. At least for me. I see my friend's perfectly clean and tidy house and think, "Dang, I don't want her to see MY house! She'll think we're slobs!"

My sister and I once discussed how upsetting it was when someone dropped by and saw our messes. We decided it was our mother's fault because we always did serious cleaning before company came. Serious cleaning. When company comes and the serious cleaning hasn't been done, it freaks us out.

Over the years, I've learned the price paid for perfection in house-keeping, and Erma Bombeck was right. No woman ever had wanted written on her tombstone "She kept a perfectly clean home." That's not what I want to be remembered for, and since I had kids, there's absolutely NO danger of that sentence appearing on my tombstone. Besides, people with perfectly clean homes are, and I'm not joking, either living by themselves or mentally ill.

But I think we need to let others into our behind-the-scenes, to be more real and less self-conscious. And not just when it comes to housekeeping. We put up a front, pretending to be more with it, smarter, more competent, more religious, more worldly, more experienced than we really are. We don't want to show weakness, and we worry that someone might see the real us or, even worse, take advantage.

A few years ago, a friend told me she was still waiting to feel like a grown-up. She's a mother of four, works two jobs, and volunteers all over the place. She's the most competent grown-up I know, yet she doesn't feel that way.

That's the reality. That's the truth.

We're all real. Our highlight reels are simply edited for appearances.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Things on Thursday: Socks

Socks cause all sorts of problems, don't they? Or is it just in our house? Can't be, because Rich Hall had a sniglet for socks:

Hozone: (hō'zōn') noun, That mysterious place where one sock always seems to end up after doing laundry.

Remember sniglets? The 1980s seriously rocked.

But back to socks. I have accummulated a pile of 18 individual socks whose mates are on vacation in the Hozone.

Socks don't just get lost; they get dirty, worn out, mismatched, holey, and eaten. Yes, eaten. Daisy suffers from sockphagia, or an uncontrollable desire to shred and consume socks until the loony sufferer is taken to the veterinarian to have an upper-GI charcoal enema that costs hundreds of dollars. 

Perhaps those 18 missing socks aren't in the Hozone after all.

The sock is such a simple thing, woven threads with a toe and a turned heel, easily and cheaply mass produced by oppressed people in China. Yet a lack of socks almost caused my 12-year-old to miss the bus this morning, with all the attendant drama only a sleep-deprived 12-year-old can generate.

You should know that two days ago, I handed him a brand new bag containing six pairs of ankle socks I found when unpacking a box of clothes. He put the whole bag either in the Hozone or the dog's food dish. Whatever. It's gone now, and he had to wear a pair of my Lady Hanes ankle socks with the pink toe.

This weekend, we're buying the boy some flip flops for those Hozone emergencies. Thank goodness for global warming.

What thing can you, your spouse, or your children never find when it's needed?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Thank you, Kevin Kling

Sunday evening, Nick, Jack, Daisy, and I went to the baseball fields in a nearby park. While Nick had practice, Jack played in a mound of dirt in the parking lot, and Daisy sat in the front seat next to me, gently woofing at passing dogs.

I tried to listen to Krista Tippett interview Kevin Kling on NPR's On Being, but the experience reminded me exactly how motherhood interferes with intellectual pursuits. Children do, after all, demand our attention, even when we're passively watching them play.

Why did Nick walk around the fence, away from his coach? Oh, another player's doing the same thing...must be expected. Good question, Krista. Woohoo! Nick pitched that ball perfectly! I've thought the exact same thing, Mr. Kling! Jack, don't throw dirt in the air. It will get in your eye. Brilliant observation of the human condition. I want to read this man's book. "Woof," says Daisy to the German shepherd. "Mom, I have dirt in my eye," says Jack. Oh, wow! Kling is connecting his experience to Dante's Inferno; I think I'm in love. How many water breaks does Nick need during an hour-and-a-half practice?

After the twentieth or thirtieth attention deficit attack, I consoled myself that this week while the kids are at school, after I take the dog to the vet, go to Bible study, and run a few errands, I can listen to the show on my computer...really listen, like I listened to professors lecture in college and graduate school.

If, indeed, I am still capable of that sort of listening.

As Kling spoke to me through the radio at the ball fields, I jotted sound bites in my lime green Moleskine notebook.

"By telling a story, things don't control me anymore.... The idea of comfort in the mystery.... You can survive anything with a sense of humor and a sense of self.... Connection of myth and reality.... Rejoice, recreating the joy.... Disability broken down to Dis (chaos, hell) and ability.... Being recognized for what we bring, not what we're not."

In an instant, I wrote whole volumes in my head using these notes as springboards. So much of our understanding comes from how we organize words, how we communicate our story, and Kling communicated in a way that drew me in, made me think, engaged my own thoughts and words. Stephen King once said, "I write so I know what I think." I relate to that so well. Listening to Kling's interview made me want to write to know what I think, to break out of my slump, to focus on words again, to tell stories.

He made me want to rejoice, to recreate the joy, and share it with someone.

That's why people who don't share their stories, who keep their thoughts private, even with close friends or family, make me so sad. There can be a terrible loneliness in silence, especially the silence that comes from fear, from feeling vulnerable, from embarrassment.

For others, silence comes like a thief, stealing their words. I remember how my grandmother loved to talk, to tell stories and sing songs and share jokes. I remember how well she could communicate her feelings, in joy and in tragedy, so perfectly. I also remember visiting her in the nursing home, watching her try to form words and fail. When her brain failed her in these moments, she would close her eyes and wince as if in pain. One day, we were alone when she couldn't get the words out. I took her good hand and told her it was okay and asked if she wanted me to comb her hair. She nodded. Touch filled the silence.

But the words were lost.

The writer in me connects with Kling's words. He makes me remember my own stories, the stories of my family and trauma and healing. He makes me want to share them. He makes me want to write while I can, while the words still come because one day, they won't.

I pray I can hold onto the gift of Kling's inspiration.

Between my Moleskine notes and the recorded podcast, perhaps I can.

What or who inspires you to tell stories? Who told you stories that shaped your own telling?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gratitude Journal #130

Today, I am grateful for my family's visit last week, full of smiles, laughter, and Bang Bang Shrimp. They weren't here long enough.

My younger nephew, the comedian

Today, I am grateful for unseasonably warm weather that is making baseball practice particularly undreadful.

Today, I am grateful for piles of dirt and boys who play in them.

Today, I am grateful for email.

Today, I am grateful for God's grace and mercy.

What are you grateful for today?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sports? I Know Not of What You Speak

You know the old saying/joke, "If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter"? Well, let's say that I never climbed onto that polarized cultural paradigm. I'm the only graduate of Charlotte Latin School who completed her physical education requirement assisting the Lady Hawks' coaches doing the following entirely sweat-free activities:

--posting notes on lockers for the cheerleaders

--bringing out equipment so P.E. students could sweat

--posting notes on lockers for the field hockey team

--grading eighth-grade health tests

--posting notes on lockers for the swim team

--filing the scores of health tests

--posting notes on lockers for the volleyball team

Hey, it took a lot of walking around to post all those notes!

While attending Duke University, I cheered on Coach K and the basketball team, but I quickly learned that if I watched a game, they lost. I was some sort of freakish bad luck charm. Duke would have won the 1986 championship game against Louisville if I hadn't watched the last twenty minutes of the game.




I wept for Coach K and the team when they returned to campus to a bittersweet hero's welcome and vowed never to watch them again.

I felt fairly safe attending a Duke football game with George at Carolina since, well, Duke football was (and still is) rather a sad endeavor. We stayed until the last three minutes of the game, and since Carolina was dominating the field so completely, George and I decided to leave before the crowds. That night, at an Air Force ROTC formal, we found out that Duke beat Carolina with a last-minute touchdown because I left the stadium!

So much for being an athletic supporter. Every year, I watch the Superbowl (for the commercials), the Tour de France (to listen to Phil Liggett say, "He's opening his suitcase of courage!"), and nothing else sports-related.

Imagine my lack of surprise when my firstborn proved ambivalent about team sports. We signed Nick up for soccer at our local YMCA when he was four. As soon as he realized he wouldn't score a goal every game (the coaches of four-year-olds are just happy when the team plays the ball toward the correct goal), he lost interest and refused to play. Instead, he sat on the sidelines picking handfuls of grass and tossing them into the wind.

That's my boy.

A few weeks ago, at the ripe age of 12 (and I do mean ripe...have you smelled a 12-year-old boy lately?)Nick said, "I want to play baseball!" At first, I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. He wants to play baseball.

Go figure.

We signed him up for a non-select league where the emphasis is on having fun as a team and not spending every blessed day practicing as if he were preparing to play for the Redskins. Or is it the Reds? Whatever. His coach is a cheerful man who didn't bat an eye at the fact Nick has never played before. The first practice was last Sunday, and Nick had fun. His skills as a sprinter might come in handy stealing bases. The boy is fast.

I'm happy he's found an interest other than nerf battles and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, but baseball? Really? I might possibly know the difference between an out and a home run, but beyond that, well, let's just say that I'm a grasshopper who has much to learn.

So my love of my son is forcing me to do what graduation requirements at Charlotte Latin could not: I'm joining the cultural paradigm and becoming an athletic supporter.

Motherhood sure takes a woman places she thought she'd never go.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gratitude Journal #129

Today, I am grateful for Friday night's bread pudding. Yum.

Today, I am grateful for family and their willingness to drive nine hours to visit me in a new house with little furniture and sheets on the windows.

Today, I am grateful for sheets that cover curtainless windows.

Today, I am grateful for baseball and how my firstborn is stepping up to the plate, as it were. He's fast.*

Today, I am grateful for sunbeams and sleepy golden dogs.*

Today, I am grateful for Scripture, for the comfort and challenge and community and peace it brings.

What are you grateful for today?

*Photos for today's post were taken by George!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Words, Words, Words that Made Me Drool

The server said, "Our bread pudding this week is made with Bill's Doughnuts."

Bread pudding made from doughnuts? Oh. My. Gosh.

It was totally worth all the pain.

Gratuitous father-son-bear picture

For what it's worth, we didn't share with the bear.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gratitude Journal #128

Today, I am grateful for honey and herb tea and throat spray and lozenges. My boy has a sore throat.

Today, I am grateful that George made something relatively light for dinner last night because, you know, it IS possible to use too much bacon in a recipe.

Today, I am grateful for neighbors who stop by and introduce themselves.

Today, I am grateful for clean wood floors.

Today, I am grateful for rest.

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Words, Words, Words about Spelling

Yesterday, I listened to a debate on spelling standards on NPR. One debater argued that language is an evolving thing and texting-based spellings are an inevitable evolutionary next step. The other debater argued that the standards make communication easier and preserve the language's history and beauty.

I love that the debate was extremely respectful, polite, and civilized (unlike, say, political debates or anything involving Rush Limbaugh). The two participants were not terribly far apart in their positions, and while both are passionate about spelling, both realize that it's nothing to get all hot and bothered about.

I fell in love with them both.

Not romantic love, of course. That would be weird. Just geeky intellectual love dressed in a tweed jacket and meeting in a college library to share a passion for the nuance and intertextuality of library graffiti. That kind of love.

The pro-texting woman absolutely concedes that standards are necessary but should evolve with the language, and the standards man absolutely concedes that languages do evolve and standards do, too. Both are perfectly reasonable. The main difference in their positions appears to be that one embraces change and hopes to speed it along, and the other resists change that happens too quickly.

I'm a standards gal who appreciates how the English language has evolved and who knows dictionaries are a comparatively recent invention. For instance, the great William Shakespeare rarely spelled his name the same way twice, but I became extremely offended when my paternal grandmother misspelled my name on a birthday card.

The spelling generated by texting sacrifices beauty and clarity for speed, but now that I've started texting, I appreciate the need for speed in that medium. I still, however, can't bring myself to type b4 or 2. (And on a side note, please don't text me if you don't have mobile plan doesn't include unlimited texting.)

Let's see what a few others have to say on the subject.

"When our spelling is perfect, it's invisible. But when it's flawed, it prompts strong negative associations." Marilyn vos Savant

"A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of." Burt Bacharach

"The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen." George Bernard Shaw (an Irishman)

"Every English poet should master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them." Robert Graves

“If you can spell 'Nietzsche' without Google, you deserve a cookie.” Lauren Leto

What are your thoughts about spelling?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Things on Thursday: Our Sense of Smell

Early last week, Nick and I took a meal to a family in our church. The mom in the family is a friend and Nick's Sunday school teacher. Her family is going through so much hard stuff right now. They just moved my friend's father, who suffers from Alzheimers, from another state into a care facility nearby. This move comes because my friend's mother recently received a terminal cancer diagnosis and will soon move in with my friend so she can care for her as she dies.

My friend is about to become the filling in a generational sandwich, caring for her two small children on one side and a dying mother and a father who doesn't recognize her on the other.

I'd never been to her house before I delivered the meal. It's a lovely home, warm and welcoming. Her husband apologized for the sock on the kitchen island, and I replied I had two on my kitchen island that were covered in dog spit.

I wasn't just being nice. That was the truth. He looked relieved and said, "Oh, you do understand."

Nick and I delivered the meal, offered more meals as needed in the future, and left. As we drove away, Nick said, "Her house smelled like Grandma Dianne's old house. I loved the way Grandma Dianne's house smelled. It smelled good."

I think what Nick smelled in my mom's house and in his Sunday school teacher's house was a combination of aged wood and love in action.

Lots and lots of love.

What smells do you associate with love? An old home in which you felt blessed and carefree? Apple pie? Chocolate cake? A rib roast roasting on Christmas day? Fresh desert air and sage? A pine forest? A public garden? Tilled earth? Jergens lotion? A library full of dusty old books? The halls of an elementary school? Puppy breath and frito paws? Baby powder? Fresh-picked tomatoes? Tobacco smoke? A wood fire?

What smells take you someplace safe and warm and wonderful?