Friday, September 19, 2014

Fine Art Friday: Three short poems I love to pieces

I've been waiting excitedly all week to share these poems with you, readers, and tell you just why they mean so much to me.

They were introduced to me in various literature classes in college — the place I learned to truly appreciate poetry. Before that, I'd read bits of poetry here and there, but the discussions on a higher level in college, with professors adept at literary criticism, opened a new world of words to me.

Without further ado, here are the three short poems I love:

Is there anything more melancholy and beautiful than fog? (Photo: Free images)

"Fog," by Carl Sandburg, 1916

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I love the metaphor of fog being like a cat, coming to observe. It's in the city, but not really of the city. It springs up seemingly out of nowhere. It makes no sound and can scarcely be felt. But its presence is by turns eerie, soothing, mysterious, aloof or comforting.

Cats are just like that. They steal your heart and win your cautious respect.

"So sweet and so cold." (Photo: Free images)

"This Is Just To Say," by William Carlos Williams, 1934

I have eaten 
the plums 
that were in 
the icebox 

and which 
you were probably 
for breakfast 

Forgive me 
they were delicious 
so sweet 
and so cold

This poem is written like an apology note on the kitchen counter. It tickles my funny bone. It makes me think of how sometimes, the food being saved for a special occasion — whatever it may be — is more tempting than the food that's freely available. We're all human; we all feel the pull of forbidden fruit.

Reading this poem made you hungry for plums, didn't it? You weren't even thinking about them until I shared this, were you?

The innocence of a child. (Photo: Free images)

My Papa's Waltz, by Theodore Roethke, 1942

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans 
Slid from the kitchen shelf; 
My mother’s countenance 
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist 
Was battered on one knuckle; 
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head 
With a palm caked hard by dirt, 
Then waltzed me off to bed 
Still clinging to your shirt.

This poem, admittedly, is very bittersweet. I remember being disappointed and angry after I first read it — angry that the poet would celebrate drunkenness in verse. Alcoholism isn't something to laud, my college self said. 

But eventually, I peeled back the layers and found beauty underneath. The more I've thought about it over the years, the more I have come to realize Roethke did what artists the world over strive to do: Make something honest and beautiful out of something broken.

The poem illustrates that troubled people show love in troubling ways. It's love that's as imperfect as love always will be this side of heaven.

I haven't read much about Roethke beyond his Wikipedia page, but I'm willing to bet the poem is autobiographical. I'm thankful he took his pain and spun a refrain. (Ha! See, I'm a poet, too. ;)

Share your favorite poem

Can you think of a poem that has affected you deeply? I'd love to hear about it. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Creating themes: New parameters for this blog

It's time to get serious about this blog. (Photo: Free images)

I learned a thing or two about blogging during a workshop at Jot Writers' Conference last weekend. It's time to put those ideas into practice.

My main takeaway from the workshop was that, in order to find success  that is, to gain and retain readers  a blogger should be consistent in how often s/he posts, and should have a clear mission, i.e., a theme, for the blog.

With that in mind, I'd like to articulate my plan for this space going forward. This is my commitment to you, my readers:
  1. I will update the blog three times per week: Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
  2. I will write about what I know and what I like. I've done a thorough content audit of my past posts, and I'm confident the structure I have in mind will work well with my areas of interest and expertise. If you like what I like, then this will be the blog for you.
With those two goals in mind, here are the themes to which I'll stick on each of the three days I'll post:

Groovy Tuesday

Music is one of my top passions in life. (Photo: Free images)

Tuesdays will be devoted to waxing eloquent about music. I'm no expert musician  although I did take piano lessons for 10 years  but I'm very good at appreciating the stuffing out of music. I learned how to critique it intelligently in my college Music Appreciation 101 class. (Thanks, Professor Vandermark!) In that class, I also learned how many types of music I enjoy  which is almost every type I've heard so far.

I love to review concerts, albums and share new music discoveries. I'll make it my goal on Tuesdays to expose you to as wide a variety of tunes as you can possibly handle. 

I will welcome your suggestions and recommendations, too.

Fine Art Friday

The world is a colorful place. (Photo: Free images)

On Fridays, I'll talk about poetry, visual arts, drama, film and sometimes other categories of literature. I might discuss more music on this day, too — most likely classical or sacred music.

With ArtPrize coming up, I'll plan to do a couple of posts about what I see there during the competition.

Storytelling Sunday

Oh, books! I love you so much. (Photo: Free images)

I am a journalist. Storytelling Sunday will offer a chance for me to share tidbits about what I'm learning at work. 

It also will give me a chance to review a book here and there.

But, primarily, Sunday will be the day of the week on which I'll share the tales of what's been happening in my life, from people I've met to places I've been to events in the past to goals for the future. 

I'll tell other people's stories as part of that. If there's one thing I love about being a journalist, it's that I get to share the untold stories. The fact that I and my fellow journalists are entrusted with this responsibility is a delightful miracle. I don't take it for granted.

My first Groovy Tuesday

I'll keep this first one brief.

The song below, "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," is by Cage the Elephant. It was released in 2009 in the U.S. after its 2008 debut in the UK.

The first time I heard it and really listened closely was when it came on my Pandora Black Keys station a few months ago while I was running at the YMCA. [The Black Keys fuel my running playlists many days of the week.]

I find value in this song because it illustrates how no kid dreams of growing up to be a drug dealer or prostitute, but a series of unfortunate events, choices or circumstances certainly can make it seem like the only option. And, once you get in, it's hard to get out.

Listen via the YouTube video below, and try to absorb its emotional impact.

What do you think of the song?

Now that you've had a chance to listen to it, I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What I learned from Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference

(Writers must write. Photo: Free images)

Did you know Grand Rapids has a writers conference that's absolutely free? Welcome to the delight I felt when I learned about Jot: The GR Writers Mini-Conference, a semi-annual one-night event hosted on Friday, Sept. 12, at Baker Book House. 

I felt invigorated and refreshed by what I heard and learned about blogging, editing and the discipline of writing regularly. I'd like to share some of those lessons with you.

'The Gift of Vulnerability' in writing

I found the most to connect with in the talk by Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist who spoke on "The Gift of Vulnerability." Vulnerability in writing is something I strive for, but I often struggle to let myself be open out of fear of what readers will think of me in all my messiness. 

Like cracked pavement, we're all broken. (Photo: Free images)
Stumbo, a pastor's wife as well as a writer, opened her speech with a confession: She wanted her daughter to die. Having hooked me with that opener, she could say anything next, and I'd be along for the ride. 

She described the dark days after her daughter was born with Down syndrome, during which Stumbo often dug her nails into her palms so forcefully that they left marks, just to keep herself from doing something worse.

When she began blogging honestly about her fears and anger, she was set free from the shame. She began to connect with other women, other moms, who had felt the same way but were too scared to say the words out loud. When she said the words, "I wish my daughter away," she released herself -- and countless others she inspired -- from the bondage of fear. She could let it go -- and heal, and offer others hope.

Stumbo's gift to me on Friday night was multi-layered:
  1. She reminded me of what I've been told lately by more than one writing mentor and friend: Share that passion inside you. You've had experiences unique to yourself, and you've responded to them and learned from them in ways that only you can share. 
  2. Stumbo stressed that half-truths are no truths at all. If you share only part of the story, without revealing any of your weaknesses or motivations, you have not served the reader. You have preached a message you believe, but have not explained why you believe it. The reader might end up feeling confused and alienated by your avoidance of the whole truth. The reader might walk away worse off than when s/he came to your blog.
  3. She clarified that vulnerability is not a chance to put someone else down, a chance to be spiteful, a confession without discretion, or a chance to say "it's not fair." It's also not a good idea to offer up the whole hot mess if you're still in the thick of it.
  4. She emphasized that vulnerability is a chance to offer hope, a chance to bring light into darkness and a chance to share your brokenness to bring about redemption. I would certainly say she is flying that flag in her own writing, after having read a few posts from her blog.
I look forward to following the presenters in the future -- especially Ellen Stumbo -- and I'm so thankful to the Jot organizers for their labor of love in putting on the free conference.

I hope to meet some of you, readers, at the next Jot gathering.

About the conference

The event, now in its fourth year, was organized by four local writers: Andrew Rogers, a published nonfiction and short-story author and acquisitions editor at Discovery House Publishers; Josh Mosey, a fiction writer, blogger and Baker Book House employee; Bob Evenhouse, a fiction writer who is in the process of seeking publication for a young adult series; and Matthew Landrum, MFA, poet and poetry editor for Structo Magazine.

The organizers created a four-hour, post workday structure for the event, which I found to be very helpful. Four keynote speakers gave brief talks with five- to 10-minute breaks between each, then at the end of the keynotes, attendees could choose among three simultaneous workshops: one on poetry, one on speculative fiction and one on blogging. I attended the blogging workshop.

The keynote speakers were Alison Hodgson, a writer and humorist; Andrew Rogers, conference co-founder; Ellen Stumbo, a blogger and journalist; and Sam Carbaugh, a cartoonist, illustrator and newly published children's book author. I appreciated the insights shared by these speakers and fellow writers I connected with during the workshop.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The stories that feed my soul

These are thumbnails of pages I recently coordinated/edited for MLive. (Photo: Perception)

I get to read for a living at my job. I'm an editor who does a lot of little things that boil down to one basic responsibility: Aim to leave every story better than you found it.

This fits the meticulous, detail-oriented side of my personality perfectly.

But there's another itch that gets scratched all day long: I get to learn something new about a wide range of topics every day. From the wild and weird to the cool and quirky to the fascinating and moving, my day is one discovery after another.

Wild and weird

Today, for instance, I learned that Paradise Funeral Chapel in Saginaw recently added a drive-thru viewing window for funeral visitations. People drive up to the window, and a motion sensor causes the curtains to draw back for 3 minutes to reveal the casket containing their dear, departed loved one. Visitors then may sign the guest book and send it inside via a Pneumatic tube like the ones used at banks. Or, they can write a check to the memorial fund and drop it into a metal deposit box mounted under the window.

My co-workers and I were all horrified and morbidly amused by this idea. I wondered aloud whether there's a fast-casual ambience to match the concept.

We all agreed it's a bizarre idea. Funerals are for mourning the deceased. They also exist to bring comfort to the family and friends, by the family and friends. You can't do that properly while idling in your car 10 paces outside where the family is gathered.

Cool and quirky

MLive hosts an always enjoyable, frequently thought-provoking guest column called Ethics & Religion Talk that's coordinated by a local rabbi. He forwards readers' questions to a multi-faith panel of experts, who aim to answer each question in about 200 words or less, using evidence from their faith traditions and doctrines to back their answers.

 This week, a reader mailed an anonymous question in an envelope with no return address. And can you blame him? His question was, Is it OK to go to nudist beaches?

The topic, though silly on the surface, gets answered in thoughtful, yet divergent ways by each respective member of the panel. No one treats the reader's question as anything less than a serious one. I'm thankful the rabbi has created a safe space for questions about the nagging things that keep (some of us) up at night.

Fascinating and moving

I always feel lucky when I get to read a story that fully engages my heart and mind. I coordinate the Health section for The Grand Rapids Press print edition, and the content I come across in my "travels" is full of surprises.

I particularly love Sue Schroder's Living with Cancer column. Sue is a retired Press editor who now freelances. About five years ago, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In the years since, she has written weekly from the heart about the travails of cancer. She shares her own quip-laced, whip-smart, funny insights and generously tells the stories of others walking through Cancer Land.

Recently, she featured an oncologist who blogs in his spare time about his discoveries, triumphs and failures while practicing medicine.

The story of "Doctor Blogger," as Sue calls him, taught me the best way to bring humanity into your work is to show yourself human. He doesn't mince words about himself, and his patients find this incredibly compelling and relatable. What if every doctor tried this? What kind of impact would that make on the health care field?

A second moving story I remember reading in the Health section was about couples who find true love while in assisted living facilities. One of our monthly community contributors, JoAnn Abraham, from Porter Hills Retirement Community, wrote the story. I can't share the full story here because it's not available online, but I can tell you about it.

The headline was "It's never too late for love," and the couple pictured were Bob and Lois Hardesty, 95 and 91, who met while at Porter Hills and have now been married 13 years.

Here's an excerpt:
Bob Hardesty, a resident of Porter Hills, was the leader of Magic Carpet, a volunteer service to drive people to their doctor appointments. He had been a widower for two years when Lois, also a widow of two years, showed up to be a driver.
“I knew I was interested right away,” Lois said.

How cool is that? Finding a new flame when your clock is winding down.

This is what keeps me coming back

I never get tired of hearing the types of stories mentioned above. I feel privileged to work in a place that facilitates the thing that nourishes our souls: information, memories, news, heartfelt stories.

Thanks for reading!

Your turn. I love to hear from readers. I welcome your comments on any of the stories above, and I specifically wish to hear your wild and weird, cool and quirky, fascinating and moving tales. Leave a comment below or over on my Facebook page, Perception blogger

Note: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the perspective of MLive.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Grandma Donna's legacy: Listen, learn and respond

My Grandma Donna Marie Watson is shown
in her senior photo. This would have been
about 1948. (Photo: Family archives)

Note: This is a series about hearing my Grandma Donna Marie Watson's voice for the first time. She died before I was born. Part I describes what I felt and thought when I heard the audio recordings. This is Part II.

The setting

Travel with me for a few moments, back in time, to a place that no longer exists.

It's 1979, and we're on the crisp, orderly campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Instead of finding ourselves in a light-filled, modern, spacious, attractive facility, we walk through the doors of a dim, dingy, cinder-block building with flickering fluorescent lights and sparse furnishings. Sounds echo harshly, coldly off the cement walls as people move about and converse.

We've entered a building that houses the School for the Blind, a program that no longer exists. WMU still offers a graduate degree in Blindness and Low Vision Studies, but it's geared toward training professionals to work with the blind; it's not about teaching vision-impaired people new life skills.

 But, in 1979, the school did exist, and my Grandma, who had lost her vision because of complications from diabetes, had enrolled.

As I mentioned in Part I, My Aunt Kathleen and Dad – John – dropped her off on her first day. They were 20 and 21. Grandma was 49.

The sounds

The recordings, which are first and second drafts of an audio "letter" to my Aunt Kathleen, are telling to the observant listener.

In the first take, I hear the instructor's voice, its gentle tone and slight Southern drawl, calmly and patiently explaining directions to Grandma about what she should do for her first try at recording a "letter."

Instructor: "It's what we call a built-in microphone. You don't have to hold a microphone. You can sit there – for this kind of recording – you know, and just talk. You can do it anywhere, really. So what I'm going to have you do is make a recording home to your daughter. Or we're going to make the recording and then send it home. OK?"

Grandma: "All right," she says softly, barely audibly.

Instructor: "I'm going to leave you alone so you can do that. You (should) feel like you can be very relaxed with the recorder. Don't strain yourself for conversation. Pretend that your daughter is across the kitchen table from you, and you're both enjoying a cup of coffee. OK?"

Grandma: "Mm-kay," very softly, very timidly.

Instructor: "That way, it'll help you keep your mind off the machine and on the person you're talking to. I'm going to get up and leave you alone."

Grandma: "This is all ... ready to ... ?"

Instructor: "You're recording, right now."

His chair scrapes the floor harshly and loudly, and the sound echoes as he stands up from the table to leave. He drifts out into the hall without closing the door behind him. We can hear someone playing music in another room.

For draft one, Grandma slowly begins spinning her letter, but she is distracted by scraping/banging sounds in the room as the instructor returns to help her restart the process for draft two.

Draft two is very, very special.

Please, help yourself and listen to both drafts below. They're a couple minutes long apiece.

I hope you'll be as enchanted with her as I have been. She sounds so fragile, so gentle, so lovable. I want to know her, I want to be on the other side of that kitchen table, savoring each sip of our coffee as we delay, delay, delay, beginning the day's work.

I think we would have stood up after our coffee together, and we would have cleaned up the dishes, tidied the house, and started baking cookies, assembling lunches, continuing the sewing projects. We might have gone out to run some errands together and returned just in time to start dinner preparations.

Was that what a day in your life would have been like, Grandma?

Leaving a legacy

When she first learned she would be recording this one-sided conversation to send to my aunt, I wonder if Grandma could have imagined that, 35 years later, her then-unborn granddaughter (me) would be listening and learning to love the grandmother she never knew.

It reminds me none of us know how we'll affect the people we leave behind. As a writer, this moves and challenges me deeply. It means that I must put great care into what I create. I must infuse each line with honesty and love. I must try to think about how what I say can touch the people I love.

I now "remember" that my grandmother was a soft-spoken, kind, gentle woman. To me, these recordings seem to hint that she also was anxious, shy and, at times, lacked confidence in herself. I can learn from the strengths and the flaws she exhibited in these two-minute tapes.

And now, because of what I've heard in her voice, I intend to sit with my aunt(s), her daughters, and learn more about Grandma.

Share your thoughts

We all leave behind a legacy. What do you want your grandchildren to remember about you? 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hearing my grandmother's voice for the first time

I recently "met" someone who died before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Donna Marie Watson.

In this digital age, it's easy to take for granted the comparatively recent luxury of recorded sounds.

The first known voice recording was produced on a phonoautograph in 1857. It was more than another century before audio recording became a practical capability for the average American household.

Now, it's as ubiquitous as the smartphones in our hands. It's a marvel, then, that not all that long ago, hearing your deceased relative's voice would have been impossible.

Donna Marie Watson (then Hammond), center, is shown with
her two younger sisters, Mary and Pat, circa early 1940s.
(Photo from Suzanne Shaw)
My Grandma Donna died in October 1982 of complications from diabetes. In 1979, after she had lost her vision, she enrolled in a School for the Blind at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

My Aunt Kathleen describes it as a "drab place with cinder-block walls," which mattered only to sighted visitors such as my aunt and my dad. They didn't really want to leave her there on the first day; according to my aunt, they wiled away time afterward just sitting by the river, contemplating the sorrow they felt over putting her in a boarding school. They were just 20 and 21. Grandma was 49.

The good news is Grandma learned a lot while she was there. Her instructors showed her how to use tape recorders to "write" letters to family members, which she then mailed in place of written communication.

In the mailers in which the tapes were enclosed, the instructors included directions for family members to record over the cassettes with new messages for the students to listen to in return. Aunt Kathleen said she always hesitated to follow the directions because she didn't want to lose Grandma Donna's original recordings.

So, instead, Aunt Kathleen saved the tapes all those years. She recently had a friend convert a couple of the "letters" from analog to digital so the rest of the family could enjoy listening to Grandma Donna.

I was astonished by how familiar and comforting her voice sounded, and how much her tone and inflection is a perfect mixture of my three aunts', her daughters', voices.

As the tears formed in my eyes over the miracle of "meeting" a woman I've always missed, I thought about how she must have been feeling:

  • Handwritten letters were the norm, so it must have been a big leap of faith for her to switch to a taped-letter format to communicate with her grown children. She is recorded sounding nervous that she must speak to an empty room, taping a one-sided conversation.
  • Did she worry that she wouldn't be able to edit her "first draft" in the same way that you can do when you're using a pen and paper or typing the letter on a typewriter?
  • Did she wonder why the instructors were having her practice this skill instead of phone communication? Was she already contemplating her mortality and hoping to leave part of herself behind?

Donna Marie Watson is shown circa 1950s.
(Photo shared by Kathleen Starkey)

As I said before, I always felt cheated by not having met her. What skills would she have passed on to me and my siblings? How would a relationship with her have shaped me?

These are some things I imagine I would have learned from her had we been able to share a life, face to face:

  • Cooking. She left behind a much-treasured handwritten recipe book that my dad has saved all these years. It has always been the go-to source for our family's no-bake cookie recipe, plus the Christmas treats: sugar cookies, peanut brittle, fudge, you name it.
  • Music. I don't even know what she liked. But from everything I've heard, she was a gentle woman with a soft heart. In my experience, people like that are a conduit for emotion. And music brings out the best in them. I can relate to that feeling myself.
  • Stories. She and her German mother, Hilda Nafziger Hammond, and jolly sisters, Mary and Pat, must have had such good times together. When I picture them, I picture laughter, cooking and story-swapping.

I won't get answers to many of my questions about Grandma Donna's inner life, at least not this side of heaven. But I am thankful that now I have heard her voice.

Share your story

Do you own precious recordings of a long-deceased relative's voice? Or are you creating sound bites for posterity? If so, what are three essential things you want your descendants to remember about you? Leave me a comment below or start a discussion thread over at my Facebook Community page, Perception blogger.

Thank you for reading

This subject matter is close to my heart. I'm honored you took the time to share the experience with me. Come back again, and we'll chat some more.

Note: This blog entry is Part I of a series. Check back here for the concluding chapters.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

10 books I pretend to have read

After I finished the "10 books that have influenced my life" challenge last week, a friend commented he was thinking of starting a "10 books I pretend to have read" meme.

Since I know he's a busy guy, I thought I'd better help him out.

In that spirit, here's the list of books it seems like everyone else read in high school or college, but which I was never required to read and never got around to reading on my own.

I'll share my hunch of what the books are about, then I'll include the Wikipedia synopsis of the book after I've Googled it.

I invite you, readers, to tell me which ones on this list I really ought to read.

1. Fahrenheit 451

Hunch: Based solely on the cover design, since I know literally nothing else about it, I'd say this book has something to do with censorship.
Wikipedia result: "The novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and 'firemen' burn any that are found. The title refers to the temperature that Bradbury understood to be the autoignition point of paper."

2. Animal Farm

Hunch: I think this book is an allegory about the chaos of political ideologies.
Wikipedia result: "Animal Farm is an allegorical and dystopian novel by George Orwell, published in England on August 17, 1945. According to Orwell, the book reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. Orwell, a democratic socialist, was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism, an attitude that was critically shaped by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet Union, he believed, had become a brutal dictatorship, built upon a cult of personality and enforced by a reign of terror. In a letter to Yvonne Davet, Orwell described Animal Farm as a satirical tale against Stalin ('un conte satirique contre Staline'), and in his essay 'Why I Write' (1946), he wrote that Animal Farm was the first book in which he had tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, 'to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.' "

3. 1984

Hunch: It's perhaps a bit unfair to pick this one, because the concept is so culturally pervasive. That said, my hunch is this also is a dystopian novel, and it's about Big Brother taking over all aspects of Western life.
Wikipedia result: "Nineteen Eighty-Four, sometimes published as 1984, is a dystopian novel by George Orwell published in 1949. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation, dictated by a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (or Ingsoc in the government's invented language, Newspeak) under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as 'thoughtcrimes.' The tyranny is epitomized by Big Brother, the quasi-divine party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality, but who may not even exist."

4. The Jungle

Hunch: I do know a little, tiny bit about this book because of a research paper I did on "yellow journalism" during college, but it's really fuzzy in my memory. I am pretty sure it's an expose on the meatpacking industry. 
Wikipedia result: "The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Sinclair wrote the novel to portray the lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. Many readers were most concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, based on an investigation he did for a socialist newspaper."

5. Catch-22

Hunch: Because I know this title is where the saying "catch-22" comes from, I think the book has something to do with an impossible choice. Other than that, I'm clueless.
Wikipedia result: "The novel follows Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. Most of the events in the book occur while the fictional 256th Squadron is based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea, west of Italy. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp. It focuses on their attempts to keep their sanity in order to fulfill their service requirements so that they may return home. The phrase 'Catch-22' has entered the English language, referring to a type of unsolvable logic puzzle."

6. War and Peace

Hunch: I think this one might be set during the Crimean War and follow the lives of soldiers and their romantic partners.
Wikipedia result: "War and Peace is a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1869. The work is epic in scale and is regarded as one of the most important works of world literature. It is considered as Tolstoy's finest literary achievement, along with his other major prose work, Anna Karenina (1873–1877). War and Peace delineates in graphic detail events surrounding the French invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families."

7. Crime and Punishment

Hunch: I think this one is about a couple of criminals who did something very minor but were given harsh sentences over it and then subsequently sought revenge. (I have absolutely no idea.)
Wikipedia result: "Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless vermin. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose."

8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Hunch: I'm pretty sure this is a memoir by Maya Angelou. I don't know any details about it, though.
Wikipedia result: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the 1969 autobiography about the early years of African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou. The first in a seven-volume series, it is a coming-of-age story that illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The book begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their grandmother and ends when Maya becomes a mother at the age of 16. In the course of Caged Bird, Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-possessed, dignified young woman capable of responding to prejudice."

9. Lord of the Flies

Hunch: I'm pretty sure this is about what happens after an airplane full of young boys crashes on a deserted island and leaves behind a bunch of survivors. A social hierarchy develops, and I think there might be some murder or cannibalism involved.
Wikipedia result: "Lord of the Flies is a 1954 dystopian novel by Nobel Prize-winning English author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. ... The book indicates that it takes place in the midst of an unspecified nuclear war. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. Most (with the exception of the choirboys) appear never to have encountered one another before. The book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves in a paradisaical country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state."

10. Slaughterhouse-Five

Hunch: I know this is a work by Kurt Vonnegut. I believe it has something to do with humor and death. It could be anything! 
Wikipedia result: "Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. It is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. Vonnegut's use of the firebombing of Dresden as a central event makes the novel semi-autobiographical, as he was present during the bombing."

School me

Based on what you know of my personality, or what I've written in past blog entries, which of the above books do you think I'd actually like to read? Or, if you don't like that question, which one(s) do you consider essential reading material for a well-rounded person? Leave me a comment here or over at my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

10 influential books for this young writer

"List 10 books that have influenced your life."

I usually ignore list meme challenges on Facebook, but I couldn't resist jumping in on this one today. 

I like that it wasn't phrased, "List your favorite 10 books," because that would be an impossible task. I'm always discovering new books, and I don't really want to be held to a list of all-time favorites.

Without further ado, here's what I wrote -- and an extra step that I didn't add on Facebook: What I learned from each book.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, the quiet but outspoken fighter against injustice in all its forms, has been my hero since I read this book at a (probably too) tender age. His example instilled in me that the pursuit of justice is worth the personal sacrifice it often entails.

2. The Sea Wolf, by Jack London. I'm not sure I've met anyone as sadistic or amoral as this novel's titular antagonist, Captain Wolf Larsen. But he seems as real as any villain I've encountered. London's mesmerizing story follows literary critic Humphrey van Weyden as he is shipwrecked, then "rescued" by Larsen, a hedonistic, materialistic seal hunter-philosopher-captain, who brutalizes young "Hump" while also drawing him into nightly discussions of ideology and morality. Hands down one of the best books I've read exploring the capacity of humanity to exercise great evil while also showing great kindness. I learned from this book that ideology drives behavior.

3. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. This classic illustrates perfectly via the relationship of two very different sisters the tension between feeling and principle. Do I act with my heart, or should I follow my head? Austen's gift to readers is that we are left to conclude which sister ultimately gets it right.

4. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I owe the shape of my writing life to protagonist Jo March -- the playwright, novelist, bookworm, fiery sister and fiercely loyal friend. She showed me how to love what is good, pursue what enriches and value what lasts. (Also: Thank you, Winona Ryder, for portraying Jo so faithfully and giving me such a good visual picture of what she should look like.)

5. The eight-novel Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. I can't narrow it down to just the first book because the series is basically one long book, and I love it all. Anne Shirley inspires me for many of the same reasons Jo March does. She's independent, creative and charts her own path in life. But she stays moored in herself and her roots. (The image below is actually the same set I own.)

6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. This complex, 928-page tome was Dickens' last finished novel, and in my opinion, is his masterpiece. It weaves together the stories of about 20 major and dozens more minor characters as it explores the deceptiveness of wealth and the spectrum of human values and motives. The lead protagonists, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, embody one of the most difficult and rewarding romances I've read in literature.

7. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. This book was my introduction to Bryson, a travel writer, language scholar and humorist who combines all three areas of expertise in all of his works I've read so far. This book explores the history of the English language, with all its influences, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. This book taught me that scholarly work can be fun as well as educational.

8. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This 19th-century novel is about an orphaned waif who grows into womanhood as a governess while falling in love with her employer. Whatever your feelings about Rochester, I love that he loves plain Jane because of her mind, her intellect, her solid character. Jane Eyre challenges me to develop those traits instead of focusing on physical beauty.

9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy + prequel + appendixes, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This one doesn't really need much of an explanation. It's the ultimate adventure/fantasy trilogy, by the master himself. I love being pulled into his world-building. Tolkien inspires me to use writing to create places people want to visit.

10. Americanah, by a new favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since I don't at this point have the means to travel much, I like to hear of the world through the eyes of authors who come from other places. I heard Adichie, a Nigerian, speak a handful of years ago at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, and was blown away by her eloquence and power. I immediately bought three of her novels. I've been keeping up with everything she's written since, and I think this one is her best so far. She tells a tale of a young woman who, much like herself, has a stake in three very different worlds: Black Nigeria, Black America and White America. Places that don't understand each other. Places that need to try.

Share your list 

What 10 books have influenced you? Feel free to share here in the comments or over at my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Up next

I'm planning to steal Kevin Buist's idea and write about the Ten Books I Pretend To Have Read.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Brandi and beer: Drinking it in at the Microbrew & Music Festival

Craft beer and quality songs go together like the yin and the yang.

Brandi Carlile is shown flanked by her friends and bandmates,
Tim and Phil Hanseroth (R-L). (Photo: Meredith Aleccia)
That's part of why I was so thrilled when those two things on my list of "top favorites ever" were paired so perfectly at the Microbrew & Music Festival in Traverse City over the weekend.

On the lush green campus of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, surrounded by food trucks and beer tents, Brandi Carlile and her close-knit, talented band pulled friendly, tipsy fans into a night of joy-filled singalongs.

Her music has inspired me and guided me out of the mud of life on occasions too numerous to count, and the show on Friday -- my fourth time seeing her perform -- was just another example that she's got a song for every emotion I feel.

In that spirit, tonight I want to share a song-and-drink pairing list Brandi's music and the festival setting inspired me to "craft." It combines beer or cider served at the tents with songs played during the concert. I picked the pairings based on how the quality of the songs matches up with the flavor or description of the drinks.

1. "Keep Your Heart Young" + the Sun Cup Lemon Wheat beer from Brewery Terra Firma. I picked this beer to go with this song because they are both light-hearted and whimsical.

2. "Have You Ever" + the 45th Parallale from Brewery Ferment. Brandi opened the concert with this song, and it immediately struck me how apropos to Northern Michigan it was. Woods, starry skies and snow to boot. A day in the 45th Parallel sticks with you.

3. "Pride and Joy" + Cranberry Ginger Cider from Northern Natural Cider House. The baseline of this song is regret, but just like the flavor of a cranberry, it leaves the mind, body and heart feeling cathartically healed.


4. "Dreams" + Screamin' Pumpkin Ale from Griffin Claw Brewing Co. This song is a guilty pleasure. The beer is basically dessert. What more do I need to say?

5. "The Story" + Little Honey Ale from Brewery Terra Firma. This beer "tells you the story" of what I like in a brew. Heavy on the honey and coriander, light on the hops, bright and clean.

Got a pairing suggestion?

If you're a Brandi Carlile fan and a beer fan and you want to give it a shot, I'd love to hear your pairing suggestions. Leave me a comment below or share it on my Facebook page, Perception blogger.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why writing can't make you dumber

I began my 32nd journal the other day. Every time I finish one and begin another, it prompts reflection over what I learned in the past year or so of writing. I've never arrived at the end of a journal and concluded, "I learned nothing this year."

This is Journal No. 32, courtesy of Ultimate Gifter
Nancy Forrest. Love the dog sweaters.
(Photo: Perception)
I don't believe it's possible, when a writer writes regularly, to walk away without learning something.

Here's an excerpt from a paper by Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Southern California. I think it contains nuggets of very-true truth:
We write for at least two reasons. First, and most obvious, we write to communicate with others. But perhaps more important, we write for ourselves, to clarify and stimulate our thinking. Most of our writing, even if we are published authors, is for ourselves. ... When we write our ideas down, the vague and abstract becomes clear and concrete. When thoughts are on paper, we see the relationships between them, and come up with better thoughts. Writing, in other words, can make us smarter. Readers who keep a diary or journal know all about this — you have a problem, you write it down, and at least 10% of the problem disappears. Sometimes, the entire problem goes away. 
This has been so true for me in my years of journal-keeping.

What I've learned

I'd like to share a brief list of the things I've learned via writing at various points in my life. Also, I should note: I am so grateful for all the people who have helped me discover these things. You know who you are.

  1. I remember what first inspired me to start keeping a journal to record my thoughts. I was 12 years old, and I saw Lake Michigan for the first time that I can clearly remember. I remember feeling at one with myself on that beach. I did not possess the eloquence of an adult to express it in writing, but I wanted to try. I'd been given the gift of a journal with a lock and key, and it was something that was truly mine. It enabled me to begin those first few halting, awkward entries with a sense of safety and privacy. It was a place to explore what I could say without having to share it yet.
  2. I've gained so much more confidence over the years. I was greatly helped when my mom enrolled me and my siblings in a curriculum experiment comprised mostly of reading and writing. My imagination gained traction, and my creativity took root.
  3. My friends and family began to respond well to my "story club" concoctions and adventure tales of "CCW and friends" (a series of short stories I wrote based on the lives of my little brother and his kid pals). I began to realize I could entertain people and make them laugh or cry.
  4. I high school, I used my writing to cope with growing pains.
  5. In community college, I began to see that what I can do comes somewhat naturally. I soaked up each new structure, editing and formatting tip from professors, and I began to learn from them the art of critical thinking, discussion and persuasion via the written word.
  6. In university, I studied journalism, harnessing my curiosity to find out "the hook" and to get the real story out of each assignment. It was an overwhelming challenge at times, and one I often overthought. In reflecting now, I realize the lessons drilled into me by a perfectionistic college newspaper adviser and department head have stuck with me.
  7. As I've built my professional life, the pendulum has swung toward editing. But even that has only served to sharpen my sense of what is important in each story and what truly matters to me: the written word.
  8. Now that I am solidly post-undergrad and starting to form deep roots in my work life, I am building this new home-life habit: blogging several times a week. I've decided my writing can't stay "under a bushel," as the children's song goes. I must find what I can say that will resonate with readers and connect people, and I must do it honestly. 

Share your own insights

What about you? If you're a writer or creative type of any kind, I'd love to hear some of the lessons you've learned from the pursuit of your craft. Leave me a comment here or navigate over to the timeline at Perception blogger on Facebook. Let's share our insights and boost our collective wisdom.