Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prescribing Metaphor--For What Ails Our Culture

This spring I have been attending a rather large number of lectures, reading, and classes given by some diverse and entertaining storytellers and poets. It wasn't intentional on my part. Some seasons I hang around art galleries and artists. This seemed an unusually high concentration of poets and storytellers--even for me. Some came in a spiritual bent, from church or meditative groups. Others I saw through schools or the Lancaster Literary Guild. Add into that the fact that I travelled abroad this spring and heard many stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years told through tour guides. These experiences have made for a rich stew in my mind.
I have started to contemplate the importance of story in our lives, what it gives us, what our minds do with it. As a culture, so much of our story life comes through television and the movies. A former soap opera junkie (serious addiction--years of my life, gone), I am not immune to the television. I have to be careful with my time in front of it, and its competitor the computer. I wonder what all of this media is doing to my brain, the brains of my kids. Searching around the Internet, I found some articles on TV and brain development. What I found was the left-side of the brain which houses our language centers is under-stimulated. Combine that with the attention deficit problems that television causes, and we have children who are not reading or reading below grade level. We are losing our power of language, not just in reading, but in the way we orally communicate with one another. A child who is used to visual flashes and constant change of "scenery" is not going to be able to listen and absorb the nuances of language in a story. Kids also have difficulty making pictures in their mind for the stories they are told. The inability to create our own images is a poverty of imagination. Time spent in front of a television is a poverty of play. And that equals a deficit of creativity among our youth.
So what happens to a society that loses imagination and the nuances of verbal communication? I am talking about the loss of metaphor, simile, parable, and allegory. We become literal. We become fundamentalists. (So many of the world's religions hail from story-telling cultures that it is a little hard for me to figure out religious fundamentalists. What do these people do when they encounter parable? But that is another story.) The point is, that without creativity, imagination, and nuanced language, we get rid of the gray shades and need everything spelled out for us in black and white. We become a group of people who can follow only simple straight-forward directions but cannot create new directions and forward thinking.
Our society isn't going to get rid of television. We've just now started carrying them in our pockets. But we can supplement our TV habits and make our left-brain language centers happy. This is especially important for children. Make summer reading a priority. Take them to story hour at the library. Borrow some audio books--for yourself and any children you know. And here is a good one--I challenge you to read one new poem, something you have never read before and figure out what the poet is trying to say. It is better for your brain than Sodoku.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day is a special one this year. Not only am I celebrating my book's release through Nook First, but it is also my husband's birthday. We have had quite a weekend, so the idea of just relaxing on this momentous occasion is first on our minds.

At the same time, I am reminded of why we are celebrating this holiday. In the past 18 months I have attended two funerals of WW2 soldiers, one of whom was my grandfather. Both were given full military rights, and I was surprised at my own deep reaction to the ceremonies where one's country pays homage back to its soldiers and thanks them one last time for their service.
War? What do i know if that? I have a hard time watching war movies because I just can't handle gore. But I do watch them and read the books, because the stories of bravery, fear, and love are so moving. Things happen in war that don't happen at any other time. The human condition seems magnified and open for inspection in a way that it doesn't during times of peace. I suppose that is why I included a bit of a war story in the novel SUMMERS AT BLUE LAKE. I wanted the prayers and betrayals to be bigger than life.
Even with the imagination of a writer, it is still hard to fully grasp all that soldiers have endured so that we may enjoy the freedoms which, without knowing anything but these freedoms, are also hard to fully grasp.
Right now I am reading a newly published book written by a friend, Charlie Schroeder, who happened to grow up in the same town I did. I am not very far into MAN OF WAR, which is a book about Charlie's experience of reenacting 2,000 years of history with various reenactment groups. Right now I am reading about his participation in in the reenactment of the Nazi/Russian Siege at Stalingrad. Who would want to reenact anything as a Nazi soldier? But that was exactly Charlie's question going onto the stage. I am taken with the hardships of these men as they replay the battle over the weekend. Part of this is because I know Charlie and the high school history classes from which he hails. I know of the NPR shows to which he listens, and just this weekend, I was on the grounds of the Renaissance Fair where he spent a summer as Romeo. So I guess I just started to think about war and ordinary people, and how you end up in a situation where you can't sleep for days, food is scarce. You know the enemy is right up the road. For Charlie and his fellow players in this charade, a bed and home-cooked meal was only hours away. The bullets were blank. Death was a nap. But something about his telling of the tale made the real suffering more real for me. Maybe that is why people reenact the great moments of history, to sink into them and live inside of them.
I'll never be a reenactor, but I am a museum goer. This past year, I saw Churchill's War Rooms where he lived and worked while London was being bombed. I like to examine the stories of service.
I will never be able to fully understand the life of a soldier. I don't understand war and why we have to have it. But burying a grandpa, who was a vet, last year and having a son who will register for the draft later this year has given me a chance for pause and reflection. I am thinking about it. Thinking about what freedoms are so important to die for. Thinking about what life would be like without those freedoms. Thinking about what it takes to be willing to suffer and if necessary, risk everything. Thinking about who those people are who are taking those risks. Thinking about the families of those people. Thinking about what happens when soldiers return after living inside a war. Maybe this year, I am thinking more than thanking, because I'm not sure that thanking is quite enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Grandma Lena's Grilled Pittsburgh Steak Salad

The following recipe is our family's all-time favorite recipe. I am sharing it now in honor of the character of Grandma Lena, who hailed from Pittsburgh and had a great command of the grill. It is the perfect recipe for Memorial day celebrations. Enjoy.

Grilled Pittsburgh Steak Salads

serves 4

1-1.5 lb flat iron steak
Your favorite steak seasoning (we use salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika)
Ore Ida Crispers (4 servings cooked according to instructions in oven while your steak is grilling)
Torn lettuce, either a mix from a bag or we use leaf and/or romaine
One large red pepper, halved with stem and seeds removed
One bunch green onions, cut off white and skewer them, chop the green parts
Chopped tomato
Your favorite shredded cheese. We like cheddar jack.
Your favorite dressing. We like Southwest ranch

-Heat grill to medium high and season steak
-Put red peppers on grill, skin side up. Grill for a few minutes and then flip (skin side down) and grill until skin is charred, about ten minutes.
-Put onion whites on grill with peppers. These will cook faster and will have to be removed after only a couple of minutes.
-When red peppers are done, put them in a plastic container and let them steam a bit.
-Put steak on the grill and grill to liking. We grill by temperature, so we take it off when it registers 135 degrees for medium rare. Remove from grill and tent with foil for ten minutes.
-Rub blackened skin off peppers and slice.
-Slice steak into thin slices across the grain
-Build your salad: lettuce, onion greens, sliced peppers and white onions, chopped tomatoes, steak slices, Ore Ida Crispers, cheese, dressing

Enjoy with a nice California Cabernet Sauvignon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Summer's call

Since I have become a substitute teacher, my summers have become oh so sweet. They are tiny scoops of gelato, and I try to savor everything about them. My first summer off, I concentrated on reading. My goal was to read a book a week, which I did and then some. Last summer, I was on a mission to show my son, who was preparing for cross-country, that it was possible to get your 300 training miles in, even if you had to walk most of them. I armed myself with Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series on audiobook. If you saw me panting, all hot and bothered, on the side of the road last summer, I assure you it was only partially due to physical strain. That Diana can write a love scene! By the end of summer, I had proven to my son that 300 miles was possible-- a feat he did not reach, though my feet grew a size in the exertion.
So, this summer, outfitted in all new sandals as necessitated by last summer's miles, I have come up with some new goals for myself. I have four, but only one I'll talk about today. Spurred on by my ability to succeed in the summer and by the recent resurgence in my writing career with the publication of my ebook, I am making writing a priority. I have three projects which are in various places in the process: a youth novel, an adult novel, and a memoir dealing with the change in my mother status as my kids get ready to fly the nest.
With three projects going, it is my aim to be organized. I hope that juggling these three projects will stave off boredom, help me to keep working if one project encounters roadblocks, and help me to stay in the flow of writing.

Traditionally, I start my summer brain over Memorial Day weekend. Substitute teachers don't get much work after the holiday anyway. I am using this week to prepare myself. In some ways it is the opposite of the normal flow of life. I am contemplating notebooks, notecards, planners, pens that write smoothly--all the back-to-school practicalities. Of course, this is all compounded because I am geeking out on my iPad. The apps for novel writers are amazing: Manuscript, iBookwriter, Evernote, Notebooks. The choices are dizzying! I am also looking at accessories like keyboards for my iPad. Here is where I will admit that I already have an external keyboard for my iPad; I am not crazy about it. What fun it is to check out alternative options and imagine myself typing away. I am only giving myself this week to contemplate such fancies. (Come next week, it will be all about the writing.) But it is still today, and I can't help but wonder if Staples has a Memorial Day sale.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My website--on life support

My last website overhaul came when I redesigned it in early 2009. I created it on my ancient laptop using Dreamweaver which was another example of antiquity. But I had worked with it in years past and would only have to review procedures instead of learning all new ones. It is not perfect but it is serviceable. To be honest, I have not been putting much effort into my website lately. With Facebook, Twitter and other modes of communication, it seemed unnecessary. And, too, I wasn't sure where I was headed artistically, so it would have been the case of putting the cart before the horse if I were to revamp it again. This March, I was interviewed by a college student for a Sociology of Art class. I was not surprised when she sheepishly told me that my website wasn't coming up. I looked into the matter and discovered that due to a credit card change, I had missed payments and the site had not been online for 4 months. Low priority.

I got it back online. Just in time, it seems, because my agent called me with an opportunity to convert my book into an ebook. The ebook process was fast, taking us about two months to nail it down and send it out, but it did mean a lot of work for me. I did not have time to create a whole new website. Today I am in the process of updating my site to prepare for the ebook launch which happens on May 28. Here is the thing. I am working on a slow and heavy Dell laptop. I say prayers every time I turn it on. (Is there a goddess of technology?) The only reason I even keep this beast is because of the website design program and content I have stored on there. It would not be easy to move it to another computer because the design program is dependent upon pathways that exist to the multitude of files I am using for the site. I have said it before about the fast pace of technology and what it means for me as a writer/artist. I keep moving forward, though I do feel as though I am only keeping my head above water (and it is hard to write novels and paint masterpieces when one is under water).

My son has taken some web design classes in school. I do believe I will employ him to rework my site and make it very simple and pared down. I do want to keep it, but it is only one fraction of my e-presence these days. And after recently teaching some classes on green art, I have some lovely ideas for turning my old laptop into a piece of sculpture!