It was a typical mid-August day in southern Illinois: 95 degrees, a heat index of 104, and an apple pie was in the oven. Two of our granddaughters, ages seven and nine, were
staying over on a summer day. My wife, two granddaughters, and my dog — a mostly white golden-doodle with golden ears — alternated our play between outside and inside. Sweat covered bodies and my dog’s rapid-fire panting dictated our activities.
My seven-year-old granddaughter asked my wife what was in one of our trees. There, hanging within reach, was a hornet’s nest as big as a basketball with hundreds of hornets flying in and out, doing whatever hornets do. (I later learned that a mature hornets nest in late summer can have as many as seven hundred hornets.) We quickly retreated to the inside of our house where I instructed the girls to stay away from the tree, and what could happen if the hornets came after them — multiple butt stings that would penetrate their skin like nails in a pine board. My granddaughters, with their saucer-sized eyes, took in everything that I said. They would stay away for now, and most likely would need psychotherapy in later years.
Being a seventy-two-year-old man, I had been taught that it was the man’s responsibility to protect his family. It wouldn’t have been right for me to insist that my wife take care of the hornet’s nest. So, I did what all old, educated men do. I went to my office, turned on the computer, and began to google — how to destroy a hornet’s nest before they destroy you. Okay, what kind of hornet are we dealing with, I thought. Ah, there it is: a vespa crabro, a european hornet originally introduced into the United States, one of twenty hornet species found in the US. My backyard hornets, as I call them, are one to one-and-a-half inches long strapped with two pairs of wings, six legs, and boast a reddish brown color.
The hornet’s lightweight nest, an engineering feat by any definition, is constructed by a mixture of the hornet’s salvia and pieces of wood fiber. Granted my backyard hornets are quite impressive, but their stings are something to behold. Unlike the ordinary bee that is limited to a single sting, this baby can sting you multiple times, leaving a nasty venom behind. The symptoms can leave the victim with a fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, convulsions, and possibly death if you have an allergic reaction. Holy shit, that’s what I thought. There was a mixture of testosterone and fear racing through my brain. Oh, and forgive me. There was a sentence or two about the hornet’s attributes to humanity — they eat insects that can become pests to your habitat, contributing to a healthy ecosystem. And I’m suppose to worry about these flying varmints that might drill holes into my exterior?
If I am to destroy the nest, which most articles advise against, I should follow a recommended procedure: approach the nest in darkness while the worker hornets sleep; use a flashlight with a red lens; wear quite shoes, boots would be best; thick rubber gloves; long sleeves and long pants made with thick material; and above all, don’t wake up the hornets. Oh, by the way, each year forty people in Illinois die from hornet stings. But that most likely happens to allergic people or old people like myself.
There is a time when a man has to check his bravery, or admit he is a “chicken shit.” I knew this was my moment. Still, I decided that I should approach this from a more intellectual standpoint. Facts: I’m seventy-two-year-old, two back surgeries within the past eighteen months, three face cancers surgically removed two weeks ago. Okay, candy-ass Franklin, go hire someone. But then, almost miraculously, the next morning changed everything. There, lying under the tree was the nest, possibly knocked down by one sick or dead raccoon. I shared the news with my wife, making us feel content in the fact that the hornet problem was gone.
Later in the day my wife told me that half of the hornet’s nest was still hanging from the tree. I ran outside and took a look. Dammit, I whispered. I didn’t want to disturb the hundreds of hornets working on the nest. Something came over me, like a wave of bravery or possibility a big bunch of stupidity. Whatever, I was pissed. “Go into the house,” I told my wife. “I’m going to take care of this fucking nest. “Be careful,” she said, as she ran into the house to see if my life insurance policy was still in effect.
I went into the garage and grabbed two cans of wasp/hornet spray guaranteed to shoot twenty-seven feet into the air. I disregarded all of the advice that I had obtained from my google search. Here I was dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt, possibly confronting one of life’s biggest challenges. I approached the nest with determination and a good deal of bravery. The hornets were buzzing in and around the nest. I didn’t flench as I held a can of spray in each hand. I pointed the cans, stood in a crouched position, pulled the triggers as a heavy fog filled the nest which began raining hornets. Bunches of them fell to the ground taking their last gulp of air as they died. A few strays headed for my face. I bopped and weaved to the left and then to the right. The fog continued to fill the sky as they dropped dead before landing a single sting. They were dead. They were all dead. My wife opened the front door and began clapping as I ran circles in the front yard spiking the cans to the ground like a Green Bay Packer wide receiver after hauling in a thirty yard pass. Even my golden-doodle joined in the fun. The two of them were mighty proud of me — the old fart turned hero. Once again, man prevailed over the insect world. Damn, life is good.
A few months ago I lost one, and now I’m about to lose another; an empty feeling, but not like losing a family member, one of my closest friends, or God forbid, my dog. I’ve never shook their hand, exchanged hugs, or offered to be their facebook friend. I suppose I consider them my imaginary television friends: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I’m quite fond of Jon and Stephen, and if given the chance I would love to have a cup of coffee with them, maybe a couple glasses of wine, discuss some serious topics, and then just laugh our ass off. Now I’m left to watch recorded copies of their shows, and savior the memories of days gone by.
I either watched the Daily Show and Colbert Nation in real time, or on one of my many recordings; four days a week, year after year. I loved watching the two of them discuss the day to day political happenings. Although they were loaded with satire, they were damn dead serious. If you can’t laugh about the political ongoings, how can you get through the day?
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: ridicule, sarcasm, truth, comedic satire, and many laugh like hell moments are reflections of my buddies, Stephen and Jon. Oh how I loved the Colbert Nation when Stephen came flying through the air like a superhero all wrapped in an American flag with an eagle by his side. I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of disbelief and a feeling that this guy was in love with himself; not the type of person that I generally like. But it soon became obvious that Stephen was a made-up character who crossed his fingers while he worshiped Bill O’Reilly, Fox news, and every right-wing politician who unloads verbal poop. A story teller, a songster who could sing in tune, an intellect, and a brain that popped and crackled like a pan of popcorn on a red-hot stove. A real thinker, that’s what I call him, able to explain complex issues in a humorous way. Even when he was in character, you knew there was both a madness and seriousness living together like a hand in a glove; a feat very few performers can obtain. Yes, I know, Stephen Colbert is taking over the David Lettermen show. But what will happen to the character I loved on Colbert Nation. What will Stephen have in store for his new audience? Hopefully he will give us a moment with the character that I love so much. Thanks for everything, Stephen.
And then there’s my other imaginary friend, Jon Stewart. Sixteen years, that’s how long Jon has hosted the Daily Show. So many memories of days gone by. Not unlike Stephen, Jon holds many of the same qualities: ridicule, sarcasm, truth, comedic satire, and many laugh like hell moments. But Jon brought his own outwardly intellectual side to his show. There was no doubt when Jon was disappointed, upset, or downright pissed off with the day to day politics. When congress has a 19% positive rating, there’s reason to be mad. And then Jon would add a humorous bend to his presentation, showing the stupidity of the situation. After all, if we can’t laugh we’re left to cry. Thanks for everything, Jon.
Stephen and Jon are both young men and have lots more to offer. But please don’t wait too long. There’s a void in my psyche.
Holiday season, new year, time to reflect on my past and ponder what lies ahead. I’ve had good years, and some that would make your skin curl. Many years of therapy, that’s what I’ve had. Some painful, as I struggled with days gone by, but the effort led to the enjoyment of being alive. Learning to love, to feel, and accept what is hurled my way offers life without limitations.
I’ve had lots of fun alone the way — many fine beers and wine, laughter with momentary friends, and perhaps a ton of party mix. But most of all, I’ve been blessed with life’s greatest gifts — a lovely wife, two fine daughters, four granddaughters, and several dogs that showed me the way. Still, I’m struck by the madness outside of my small cocoon that’s reported by the media each day. How could someone decapitate another human being and convince others to follow their ways; murder, physical and sexual abuse, racial injustice, evil without remorse, downright stupidity. I’m reminded of an interview between author Maya Angelou and television personality and professor Melissa Harris Perry. Basically, Perry asks Angelou why our world is so fucked up. “What breaks my heart, Ms Perry, Dr. Perry, what breaks my heart is to think what would our nation be like if we dared to be intelligent, if we dared to allow our intelligence to dictate our movements, our actions? What would — can you imagine?” While not granted at birth, intelligence is earned through hard work, self exploration, and the cleansing of our soul from years of uncaring ways. Detox our soul, that’s what we must do.
At birth — the initial creation of an unflawed human being — we are given a clean slate to begin life’s journey. Mother’s milk, a favorite rattle held by the strength of tiny hands, and the special blanket that hides a thumb stuck in our mouth — pure as a mountain stream untouched by mankind. Evolutionary biologist tell us that we are a product of our biological makeup and our environment. Our genes plus our daily experiences define what we do, say, and think until we die. Maybe this is our challenge, to replace our troubled ways through intelligence. We have to learn to care, if we only dare.
I’ve spent years of therapy and self exploration trying to figure it out. It’s not been easy, and I continually remind myself of lessons learned and not forgotten. My granddaughters are very precious to me, and I’ve wanted to spare them from the struggles that I’ve incurred why trying to find my way. I decided to write a book, maybe I should say a short story, where I reveal the lessons that I have learned. These are the secrets of life as I see it. Maybe you will find this of interest, and more likely, you will not. I have to admit that my book, “Love, Dry Creek, & a dog named Max,” is not on my granddaughter’s list of favorite books. Maybe when I’m dead they’ll ask their mother, “Where is Pop’s book that he wrote for me? Hey, granddaughters, read slowly and take it in. Life is all about being kind, if you only dare.
to The Women’s Center It could be in the middle of the night when a woman knocks at our door, shaking as she nervously asks for help. Makeup could not hide the blows to her face. She is without money, a safe place to stay, accompanied by the belief that she had done something wrong. She brings her daughter, as well, who wonders why the Daddy she loves always hits and swears. Perhaps there’s a telephone call to the hotline, where a volunteer hopes to convince a desperate woman that tonight is not the time to die. Or possibly someone calls from the hospital emergency room reporting a rape. Women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.
The Women’s Center, established in 1972, continues to provide services to the surrounding counties. In 2013, we assisted 141 children and 862 adults with 11,715 hours of domestic violence services; 6,713 nights of domestic violence and 5,413 nights of transitional housing; and 16,429 meals to residents in shelter. Public education, professional training, orders of protection, and hotline calls are provided as well.
Thanks to you, we have expanded and updated our facilities. We have little debt and manage to show a respectable balance sheet. But where we struggle is raising enough money to maintain a $1.3 million dollar budget. We receive our financial support from various federal, state, and private grants, and donations from you. Government budget cuts continue while we deal with increased services. I wish you could come to ground zero and watch the dedicated work of our staff. You would soon learn that they are underpaid angels, doing God’s work.
Whether you are a first-time donor, or one that continues to offer us a lifeline, we need your help. This can be done as annual contributions, or through planned giving, a means of providing future financial support. For now, we ask you to forget the tax benefits in giving. Just think about the abused woman knocking at our door, the child who still loves her Daddy, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die. There are so many of them.
A large number of our donors come from people of limited means, while a smaller number come from sizable estates. Contributions, whether large or small, reward the donor with the emotional satisfaction of helping someone in need. “How do I make a gift to The Women’s Center,” you might ask. Giving can be as simple as tying your shoe, or more complicated, requiring the advice from your tax consultant. Let’s say that you want to donate $25 dollars per month to The Women’s Center. Mail a check to the Center each month, or setup a monthly deduction from your local bank or credit card. Change or terminate your contribution at your discretion. Maybe you prefer to make a lump sum donation of $5,000 to the Center. Now that was easy, and yes, you are helping the abused woman knocking at the Center’s door, the child who still loves her Daddy, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die.
Suppose you want to do more long term giving, commonly called planned giving — any major gift made during lifetime or at death as part of a donor’s overall financial and/or estate plan. Planned gifts are comprised of the following:
1) Gifts of appreciated assets
Appreciated assets are stocks, bonds, mutual fund shares, real estate, personal tangible assets, and almost anything of value. Giving appreciated gifts can financially benefit the donor as well as the Center. Maybe you have stocks that are valued at $10,000 with a cost basis of $2,500. If you sell the stock and then give the proceeds to the Center you will have paid income tax on the profit ($7,500). Transfer ownership directly to the Center and you eliminate any personal income tax while the Center is free to sell the stock without any tax liability. Everyone benefits from such a transaction. Buy low and give high is an exciting option.
2) Gifts that return income or other financial benefit to the donor
A Pooled Income Fund is established in the Center’s name that pays a life income to you, the donor. At the donor’s death, the balance of the investment can be held or liquidated by the Center. A Life-Income gift can be any investment that allows the donor to increase their income, an immediate tax deduction, and the elimination of any capital gains tax due at the transfer of appreciated assets to the Center.
3) Gifts payable upon donor’s death
Assets that are payable as a beneficiary designation, part of a will, or living trust. Such a gift helps ensure The Women’s Center’s future viability and strength, without costing you anything during your life. Think about this, you are helping abuse victims without changing your cash flow or the balance of your net worth. Just when the Center’s cash flow seems bleak, we often receive notice that a donor chose to include the Center in their will. It feels magical, as we continue to provide our services to the community. When you make a bequest, you can modify or terminate the gift at your discretion. Target your gift to a specific need, or allow The Women’s Center to determine how best to utilize your donation. Your attorney can provide you with the appropriate language to include in your will.
Your bequest can be a stated dollar amount, or specific property to The Women’s Center. Some of our friends prefer to give a certain percentage of the remainder of their estate — the amount that remains after paying all debts, costs, and other prior legacies. Whatever your objectives, the Center will be happy to work with you in planning a gift that will be satisfying, economical, and effective in carrying our mission.
You can name The Women’s Center as a beneficiary of your IRA, 401(k), 403(c), or other qualified plan. Simply designate The Women’s Center to receive all or a portion of your plan after your death. By doing so, you avoid the potential double taxation your retirement savings would face if you had designated the qualified plans to your heirs. You can continue to take regular lifetime withdrawals, while maintaining the flexibility to change beneficiaries if your family’s needs change during your lifetime.
Name The Women’s Center as the complete or partial beneficiary on your life insurance policy. The death benefit payable to the Center would not be subject to income or estate taxes. You have the option of transferring ownership of your life insurance policy. In doing so, you would receive an income tax deduction for the cash value of the policy. Simply contact your life insurance company and request a Change of Beneficiary/Ownership Form and designate The Women’s Center as the new owner and/or beneficiary of your policy.
There are many financial tools used when making a gift to The Women’s Center. Some donors might choose the Deferred Gift Annuity – provides lifetime annuity payments commencing at a future date.
Perhaps the Retained Life Estate might be more to your liking. You transfer the title to your residence, farm, or vacation home to The Women’s Center, and live there for the rest of your life. Continue to live in the property for life or a specified term of years while being responsible for the property taxes and upkeep. The property passes to The Women’s Center when your life estate ends.
With the Charitable Bargain Sale, you sell your residence or other property to The Women’s Center for a price below the appraised market value – a transaction that is part charitable gift and part sale. In return you receive a tax deduction for the amount of the gift, and cash for the payment made by the Center.
With thoughtful planning, The Women’s Center, you, and your loved ones, all benefit from planned giving. The donor states their financial goal for the Center, and through the assistance of the Center, your financial planner or tax consultant, a planned gift is formed.
You make it possible for us to help the abused woman knocking at our door, the child who wonders why the Daddy she loves always hits and swears, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die.
We are happy to discuss your charitable plans and goals. We will see that your gift is used as you wish, to help us carry on the work of The Women’s Center.
The Women’s Center, Inc.
610 S. Thompson Street
Carbondale, IL 62901
Phone: (618) 549-4807
An NFL player hurls his fist into the side of his finance’s face. Down to the floor, that’s where she fell – out cold, like a dead fish on a frozen shore.
Man wanted sex, wife refused. Man head butts wife, broke her nose, punched her in the face, and threw a shoe at his eighteen-month-old child.
Two Madison twelve-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a twelve-year-old girl, and left her for dead. The victim has since recovered physically.
Man physically and sexually abused a young woman held hostage for nearly ten years.
Teenage male forced a five-year-old boy to perform oral sex. After ejaculation, the teenager urinates in the little boy’s mouth. Two people stood by and watched.
Each day thousands of people are sexually and physically abused; women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.
Recently we have been inundated with stories of physical and sexual abuse in the National Football League. The video of a football player hitting his finance and knocking her out is dramatic, especially when played continuously over the national airwaves. People are alarmed, shocked, hoping for justice, but as several moons pass, the outrage will pass as well. Abuse is not a new phenomenon. You see, this is not about the NFL, this is about our nation, and how we deal with the epidemic – physical and sexual abuse.
In the heart of darkness, that’s where victims reside, possibly for the rest of their lives. It’s not that they don’t recover, they often do, but the memories can surface at the hint of days gone by. In quiet moments, I sometimes recall memories of abuse that make me angry, followed by a tear or two.
Behavior is controlled by an individual’s concept of reality, and when viewed collectively, define who we are as a nation. Reality is built on our genetic makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nurture. Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two. Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup – DNA – while nurture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death.
You can’t know what you don’t know, that’s what my therapist said one day. She continually challenges me to be more insightful rather than riding the waves on my imaginary surfboard. I now understand that when we reach adulthood, we are programmed to function within our perceived reality. What we perceive as right and wrong, is not necessarily right and wrong.
Science tells us the same. The brain has over one-hundred-billion nerve cells called neurons. When information is transferred from one neuron to another, the gap between neurons are filled by chemical substances called neurotransmitters, which fire across the space, sending signals to other neurons. At times, brain activity might resemble a well-lit midway at a county fair with hundreds of rides and booths operating simultaneously. Trauma alters the neurons in our brain, affecting our behavior, our reality.
A child’s reality is like putty and can be reshaped by exposure to good role models and positive experiences. But repeated abuse turns their reality into hardened putty found in a winter storm; more difficult to mold, but still possible. Daily contact with compassionate teachers who provide attention, supervised interaction between children, role models of appropriate behavior, consistent rules and discipline offer hope for the damage child. How many of us can recall a teacher or two who changed their life? There is a national movement to reach younger children through pre-kindergarten, head start, and the like. Although the teacher’s plate is full, I would like to see citizenship, character building classes, and logic to taught as children move through elementary and secondary education.
For adult victims who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol, there is hope. Community and county mental health organizations, private therapists and psychiatrists offer therapy and medication that, in time, can alter the wiring in our damaged minds. My favorite organization, The Women’s Center, located in Carbondale, Illinois, and established in 1972, continues to offer food, shelter, and counseling for children, women, and men whose lives have been shattered by violence. Through my years as a member of the Board of Directors, I have witnessed the work that goes on at ground zero. Since their beginning, the Center, has saved thousands of abuse victims.
In the Heart of Darkness, the place where victims reside, light is as rare as the eye of a tornado. But doors are there waiting to be opened. A better tomorrow is there for the taking.
Please checkout The Women’s Center. If you are so moved, we welcome financial support and those who choose to donate their time.
It’s always there to some degree, mocking my every move. A jig, a waltz, maybe Chubby Checker’s famous twist, or a seductive embrace as we move across the floor — my dancing partner, my pain. Maybe it’s sharp, a get your attention pain; a boxer’s jab; possibly an unrelenting tooth acne; or a sustained, never-ending pain.
Pain can be physical, psychological, or both, and when latched onto an individual, becomes unique. Physical pain can be tested and more easily diagnosed than the illusive psychological pain that sometimes plays hide-and-seek with the mental health specialist. Treatments for back pain are many — injections, physical therapy, spinal adjustments, medication, meditation, acupuncture, and when all fail, the surgeon sharpens his scalpel.
Two weeks ago I had a bone fusion performed in my lower back. A herniated disk and the movement of two vertebra called for a bone fusion to eliminate the pain. A back brace for support and oxycodone for pain are being used during the healing process. I have become friends with oxycodone and refer to her affectionately as “oxy.” When in my medicated buzz, I sometimes call her “foxy.”
As a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, I have experienced psychological pain as well. Memories of the abuse left me wrapped around a porcelain stool while I vomited poison into the mucus-colored water. It was an emotional pain like I had never felt before. Scared, lost, and without direction I turned to a therapist and have been treated with medication and talk therapy. Life is good. I have moved beyond surface emotions, and now experience the depth of feelings that life has to offer.
Whether physical or psychological pain, we must always be aware of the monster in the closet, better known as depression. Pain breeds depression. While my depression pales in comparison to someone with a severe mental illness, it can be debilitating. Depression is waking up in the middle of the night covered with leeches that suck the spirit from my soul. But now, after years of therapy, I can spot them from a distance as they slither over a hilltop and crawl my way. I refuse to allow a single leech to take residence in my soul.
While a “bring-you-to-your knees” pain has many negative side effects, it can be a blessing, and serve as a reminder of how good life can be. Imagine a musical phrase of dissonance and intensity that drives towards the final cadence and then, with true beauty, resolves into a morning spring. Tension followed by release brings joy to one’s life. I will dance a jig without pain as my partner.
You might recall that I’ve written about my back problems before: two herniated disks in my lower back, successful surgery, months later I have pain in another location of my back, yada, yada, yada. (In case you don’t know, yada is code for “more bullshit”) After having an MRI on my back, I met with my surgeon to discuss the findings. It was a 7:40 a.m. appointment. He must be working me in, I thought. The man loves my back — a guaranteed annuity for a surgeon. My spine looks a bit like a shiska-bob, chunks of meat and bone ready to place on a hot grill. Ten minutes on each side, a heavy coat of bar-b-q sauce, and you have some mighty fine eating. I know, you prefer ribs and I’m getting a little weird, yada, yada, yada.
Okay, back to the meeting with my surgeon. For privacy purposes, we’ll call him Dr. Belly Button. Dressed in his hospital blue scrubs and uncombed hair, Belly Button greets me and my wife as I shake his hand. He is a reasonably handsome young man with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face; all traits that I once held but have come and gone. You see, I’m a 71 year old man with uncombed gray hair, and shuffle my feet because the pain in my back hurts like hell. It feels like, oh you know, yada, yada, yada. Belly Button had a smile on his face, much like the last time he diagnosed my back problems when he recommended surgery. There’s that smile again. “I know what the problem is,” he said. “And I can fix it. You have another herniated disk in your lower back,” he said with a slight chuckle. “We don’t know how it happened, but it’s there.”
I was relieved that all of the pain was not in my imagination, and that he located the problem. But OMG, I have to go through more surgery? Belly Button fires up the computer and the three of us hover around the computer screen. He begins pointing out all of the bones and disks in my spin. Oh look at this disk. It looks pretty good, but now look at this one, all flattened out with goo seeping out. Looked like a stepped-on jelly donut to me. You have bone on bone. And look where the nerve is located. Just looking at it made my back hurt.
We could do the same procedure as last time when I cleaned the area, removed some bone fragments. You know the routine, yada, yada, yada. But this time the situation demands another technique, I would insert some metal hardware. You know — plates, rods, and screws. That’s the most secure way of fixing your problem. The recovery time will double but you can be back to normal — my mind began to drift, pain free, rough housing with my dog, messing around with my wife, yada, yada, yada. We can use either procedure, Belly Button said, the simple but uncertain one with a shorter recovery, or the more complicated one with a longer recovery which provides for a better outcome. We can schedule the operation in a few weeks. Let me know which technique you would like to use.
Belly Button told me that he understood how debilitating nerve pain can be. “It can cause depression,” he said. Oh really, I thought. That’s quite an understatement. Your fucking A it causes depression. It’s a “can’t move” depression. Lets open my back up right now, I thought. Here, hand me the knife and I’ll do the slicing myself. Look, there’s that stepped-on jelly roll. Hand me a stapler and a couple of rubber bands. There, it feels better already. Ooops, I’m losing a ton of blood. Looks like I’m a quart low. Give me a can of 10-40. That takes care of anything. Pains gone. Time to go home. Thank you God for my imagination. It always makes me feel better.
This is the big time — Mother’s Day — when I step forward and prepare the meal. My wife, daughter, her two daughters, husband, and a dog named Bailey, will be joining hands around the table, anxiously waiting to see what I have prepared. Our other daughter, husband, and two daughters live in Madison, WI and will have their own meal. I can only imagine their Mother’s Day meal. Since they are into the Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin sports, I imagine that they will have cheese, grilled badger meat, and lots of wine. Well the girls will drink something a bit lighter.
Grilled Chicken Kabobs, properly seasoned
Grilled green, red, and yellow peppers,
onions, and zucchini.
(for a bit of color, melted butter and kitchen bouquet)
Baked Beans — the granddaughters can make a meal out of beans
Baked Potato & Sweet Potato — Potato of your choice
Dessert — store bought Velvet Creme cake with Mother’s Day written on top.
I also have some mini cones with sprinkles if the girls don’t like the cake.
The activities before the meal are very important — crucial. Always serve plenty of dry & semi-sweet wine, beer should be available, non-alcoholic drink for the girls. The purpose of the wine is three fold — mellow everybody out so we will like each other, makes the food taste better, and is used for toasting the mothers. The toast must be prepared — no slurring the words or mental gaps. Something like — “I would like to make a toast to the most important people sitting at our table. The mothers. In truth, we should celebrate Mother’s Day every day of the year. That’s how important they are.” Not only does it make the mothers feel good, it teaches a lesson to the young daughters that men can be cool on one day of the year. And if everything is successful, and I mean everything, the men might get lucky.
FYI — Thank God Mother’s Day is one day of the year, and Father’s Day is 364 days, except for leap year and then it is 365.
It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor. I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase. I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession. My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key. The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws. A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.
Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection. I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio: two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase. Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool. Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase. It had to be perfect.
In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer. I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin. Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician: how to perform the perfect phrase.
Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place? A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense. But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time. What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece? Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work. (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.) The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier. I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head. Writers constantly think about their work.
I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence. “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.” Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence. Oh, if I could write like that, I thought. I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence. Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can. I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA. While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.
What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath? She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” Oh my God that was so good. Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time. This is what makes a great writer.
Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand. I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit. He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.”
With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs. It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones. If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else. Life is too short.
For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft. Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers. Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.