Tag Archive | culture

The Day the Lights Went Out

unhappy faceMother Nature has provided a “January thaw” today. The day I’ve been waiting for since the beginning of December. Temps near forty. No rain. No snow. A perfect day to dismantle the outdoor lights and put away the Christmas decorations. So why am I feeling so down?

My melancholy mood is due to the fact that I know this “warm” day is a fluke. Soon the winds will howl again, and the white snow and slush will cover the landscape like it did before the thaw. I’ve lived here all of my life. I know winter is far from over.

If you’ve followed me for awhile, you know I love outdoor lights. I think my fascination with them is because winters in the North are so darn dark and long. The lights take my mind off of wishing I had been born a bear so I could sleep through the whole season.

I’ve gotten to the age where playing in the snow is not an option. Nowadays I’m more afraid of falling and breaking something to venture out into the fluffy stuff. I’ve never been a skier. I gave up tobogganing years ago after I broke my tibia in an accident when I was fourteen. Long story short, winter’s fun alludes me.

After the holiday decorations come down, my world is barren. There’s little fun to anticipate. Everything ends by the end of January. Holiday celebrations are replaced with mundane routines. Decorations are packed away. The exorbitant electric bill from December comes. Football is over. Days still end at five in the afternoon. Temperatures are still frigid, and we have three more months to go before things will drastically change for the better. I just want to sit and veg.

I think that’s why we’ve invented short holidays like Valentine’s Day and St. Patty’s Day to break the winter monotony. Maybe that’s why the Super Bowl has been pushed into February, too. We must do something to keep the parties coming. We must gather with friends to console each other that in spite of bulky coats and heavy boots, spring will emerge, and we will once again enjoy the sun. Yeah. Right. It will only take ninety plus days to get that done.

If you’re having the Wintertime Blues like me, you have my sympathy. The only medicine I’ve found to combat the funk (besides sleeping in)  is to call a friend and commiserate over  a hot cup of coffee. Believe me, it helps.

Success or Failure – You Choose!



Failing. We talk about it often. We think about it even more. But what is failing?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as:

A usually slight or insignificant defect in character, conduct, or ability

Really. That’s all? Then why are we so fearful of failing? Everybody has a chink in their armor, we all mess up in our conduct at one point or another, and not having the ability to write really doesn’t exist. You pick up a pen or tap a keyboard and put one word after another. And then, if you are a true writer, you go back and rewrite, and rewrite again until the end product is something you can live with. So there must be more to it than what Merriam-Webster has to say.

What this is rare quality that so many people fear? Someone very close to me has a terrible fear of failing, which paralyzed her to not succeed in school. She thought: If I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Is that it?

Is trying, failing? I think so. You see, when we “try” something, we are allowing ourselves to fail. Whereas, if we DOING something, the project or attempt may not turn out the way we want it to be the first time, but we can say, “That was okay for the first attempt. Let me do it again. (Notice I didn’t say: Let me try again?)

Not getting up after you’ve fallen down is failing. Giving up because you’ve been rejected or criticized is failing. Not trying because you have deemed yourself unworthy is failing.

Even quitting isn’t always failing. Consider a guy who goes to a job day in and day out that is completely wrong for him. He hates it so much, but he trudges, collects his weekly paycheck, and goes back for more on Monday. He sees no way out because of pressures that he puts on himself–like providing for his family the only way he knows how. Living such a life of drudgery is so sad. Wouldn’t it be better for him to do something he loves, even though he might not be paid as well? Wouldn’t it be better if he could look forward to his work day on Monday? I think so.

Failure is not to take a chance. Success is a willingness to do so. And guess what? Success breeds success because on the next attempt, a person will always do better.And doing something more than once builds confidence. When we feel confident, people perceive us as successful. See how that works?

Don’t make yourself feel bad–there are plenty of others who will do that for you. The face of failing is in the mirror, but so is the face of success. You get to choose.

My advice (for what’s it’s worth) is this: Be yourself. Write what you want to write. Sing the songs you want to sing. Dance your own dance. Be strong in your own skin. If you love what you are DOING, the world will eventually come around. Let the world have its own opinion. Don’t get sucked in by the naysayers. Find friends who love to laugh.  Be happy DOING what you were intended to do.

Most importantly, remember, there is only one of you — you are unique. Don’t try so hard to be different– you already are.

Understanding the Chinese New Year

chinese dragon animatedLiving in Wisconsin, the Chinese New Year comes and goes with little fanfare. But across the world, it’s a really big deal. I got to wondering about this two-week celebration and went out into the Internet-land for a little research. I’m sure all of you are teeming with curiosity, too, right?

This year, the Year of the Water Dragon is celebrated from January 23, 2012 – February 09, 2013. The Water Dragon is a symbol of good fortune and a sign of intense personal power. In my book, it should be a great year.

In my research, I found a wonderful website called, “Mirth and Motivation,” and found a wonderful article about the yearly celebration. Here’s an article that Elizabeth Obih-Frank posted: http://eof737.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/happy-chinese-new-year-ten-blessings-ten-things-to-know/. I thought it to be most interesting.

If you don’t have time to read the article, here’s the “Cliff Notes.”

  • The tradition of the holiday is to forget and forgive old grudges you’ve been lugging around for the past year. Then you SINCERELY wish peace and happiness to EVERYONE. How cool is that if everyone could do it? After all, there would be no more war if there were no grudges, right?
  • The color RED is very important in Chinese culture. Is it a symbol for prosperity. (Makes me want to go out and buy a completely red wardrobe. Maybe that will bring some prosperity into my life instead of his ugly brother poverty.)
  • One of the most important tradition of the holiday is to have a special meal with friends and family. I find this very interesting that throughout human history, sitting down and sharing a meal is an integral part of our holidays. Just try to think of one where eating together is not important. Even Jesus had a “Last Supper.”
  • Finally, firecrackers are lit to drive away the evil spirits because the bad guys don’t like loud noises. I think firecrackers would also drive away pesky, bothersome critters. (Perhaps I should pass this tip along to my friend, Bob, who is battling neighborhood squirrels because the little varmints are eating his gourmet bird seed.)

So to all, I wish you peace and happiness for the Chinese New Year–but I don’t need a holiday to do that. I do that everyday.


Technology, Students, and Their Teacher

School tools have really changed. When I went to college, desktop computers were just emerging. The PC used two 5-1/2″ floppy disks–one for the program and one for storage. There was no such thing as a hard drive, unless it was a peripheral outside of the machine. Apple Computers just came out with their Macintosh with a 6-” screen and a funny thing called a “mouse”. We thought it was a brave new world then, but that was nothing compared to today.

Today, some students have more technology on their phones than I ever had in a big, clumsy PC back in the day.

Recently I had to go to a class to learn how to use technology to “communicate” with my students. The software is called Blackboard 9.1, and it’s a terrific tool–IF a student has a computer. The people I teach are lucky if they’ve had the experience of turning on a computer.Furthermore, I think if the college expects my students to use computers, there should be a prerequisite for them to learn how the machine works.

Nevertheless, this semester I’m going encourage them to put their toe into the digital communication tool by introducing good ol’ Blackboard in my class. Of course, I can only do this with the aid of more technology–an overhead projector connected to the classroom computer. (Too bad the classroom doesn’t come with an audio/visual guru.  Invariably, I look stupid in front of my class trying to get the damn thing to work!)

In order to help them, I had to take a training class to learn how to use a the software. The tool is really pretty amazing. It’s designed for instructors  to “communicate” with students, give tests and post grades with a few keystrokes. A few key strokes? Huh!

I’ve taking HOURS to set up my “Blackboard Classroom”, but my instructor assures me all my hard work will save me lots of time. So far, I’m not a believer.

But, I’ll tell you what would be a real time saver — a software that could grade papers! Now that would be a great tool!

Sunday Morning — Good News

Sunday morning is here again. I look forward to this day because it’s the day of the week I watch my favorite television program. Yes, I watch television. I am not ashamed to admit it. Other writing snobs brag they don’t have time for the “lost wasteland,” but television has brought me many hours of information and enjoyment. Besides, just because some people choose to not indulge in “the tube”, it doesn’t mean I have to be one of them.  I’ve never belonged to any group or clique, so let’s get that out of the way right now.

Anyway, getting  back to why I look forward to Sunday. It’s the one day that CBS presents positive news. I see stories about the best of humanity–art, music, theatre, movies, new books and special events. Some stories even include the obscure–Bill Geist usually finds those.  One of my favorites was about a retirement community in Florida where the residents get around in custom-designed go-carts. The community has everything the retirees need–grocery store, barbershops, a bank, restaurants, etc. Although, I don’t remember there being a hospital there, but everything else in this community is within go-cart reach. When I saw that piece, I wanted to move the next day. I dreamed of  ordering my own ’56 Thunderbird complete with pink, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror and “dragging” down the main street with another resident in his ’57 Chevy!

This one weekly program presents stories I would not see anywhere else. Today they did a piece on a Japanese woman artist who has risen to fame by painting polka-dots. She suffered a horrific childhood and paints pictures using polka-dots because this simple dot helped her maintain control of her sanity. Now, she is world renown and have been hired by a famous designer for a new line. Isn’t it amazing what the human spirit can do?

Charles Osgood is a perfect  host of this program. He’s a middle-aged man who wears a bow-tie and stands alone to present the stories in his smooth, double-malt scotch voice. On top of his suave appeal,  he is extremely talented on the piano. I feel cheated when someone else fills in for him.

When I started watching this program about 20 years ago, I always thought when I made it BIG, I would watch Sunday Morning , but I would have the means to go and see the ballet, concert or the play in person. I would pick up the phone and have my personal secretary make the arrangements for me to fly to the destination, see the production, stay a night in a 5-star hotel and then fly back home the next day.

So far, I’m still working on that.


Being New Isn’t Easy

When I start writing a new book, I become immersed in the subject. I get to the point where I live the story with the characters, and I’m merely the scribe who writes down their thoughts, feelings and conversations. So, as you might imagine, with my latest book being about Italian immigrants living in New York in the 1900s, I’m focused on the immigrant experience. . .going through Ellis Island, living in a large city after coming from farm areas, constantly hearing the sound of a language different from their language, having to live in tenements, being paid less than other workers doing the same work. It must have been hell.

When a friend of my made a not-so-nice joke about people from India or Pakistan owning/running gas stations in the area, it wasn’t funny to me. My retort was, “No matter where immigrants come from, they work damn hard for very little.” My friend stayed silent until she finally agreed with me several minutes later.

I’ve often thought about what my Italian grandfather went through as a young man of 16. I don’t think I have the courage to face the hardships he must have faced. Once I was in Germany for only a few days and after hearing a different language that I didn’t understand all that time, I couldn’t wait until I landed back at O’Hare Field. I remember the flight attendant saying, “auf Wiedersehen” and I turned around and looked at her with a stern face and said, “It’s goodbye, here!” I think of myself as a very tolerant person, but I proved I wasn’t as tolerant as I thought as my cheeky comment left my lips.

Immigrants can’t hide their accents any more than a Midwestern can hide her accent in Brooklyn. The instant someone different speaks, the outsider is recognized. Believe me, there’s nothing more isolating than not being able to understand the people around you. No wonder “Little Italy” communities grew up in cities. These places were safe and friendly because the immigrants didn’t have to work so hard to be understood by someone else.

And think about how different we live in America compared to much of the world. Social rules aren’t written down, but the minute a new person makes a mistake, they are either shunned or laughed at. I remember going to New York a number of years ago and being overwhelmed by the culture shock. People who live in there do everything FASTER than people from the Midwest. It’s noisy there and the streets are jammed with SO MANY people. Can you imagine trying to build a new life in New York after traveling 20 days in steerage and coming from a place where farming was all you knew? Throughout our history, many millions of people have done just that. It’s amazing they survived!

The challenges that all new immigrants face are tremendous, even if they come from countries that speak English. I admire their courage to put up with the selfish, uncaring, and impatient side of Americans. Let’s face it, everyone in this country (with the exception of Native Americans) has descended from people who came from somewhere else with the courage to want a better life for themselves and their families. We’ve all benefited from their sacrifices and fortitude.  So the next time you meet an immigrant, for goodness sake, welcome them.

A Word is More Than Just a Word

This morning when I was driving down the highway through the orange construction barrels, I had to turn up the radio. The morning commentator was reading a story about the new words Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary added this year. Usually new words have something to do with the latest technologies, but I was flabbergasted when  F-bomb and sexting were included in the mix. Another big dictionary we turn to for information about words, Oxford University Press, passed on those two new words, but they did add mash-up and cloud computing. I don’t want to appear ignorant, but what does “mash-up” actually mean? Does  it have something to do with cooked potatoes. (I guess I’ll have to buy a new Oxford dictionary!)

The reason I bring this topic up is because it has to do with words. Adding new words to a dictionary is really quite a special event. The reason? It’s a big deal because it shows language is dynamic and HOW we use words is different as time goes on. That’s because there’s a dynamic connection between the culture we live in and words we use to communicate with one another in our social circles. (If you’ve raised a teenager, haven’t you thought at times they speak a foreign language?) If we didn’t put new words into our lives, our culture would be stagnant and dying because one can’t separate language and culture; they have a symbiotic relationship.

Is it likely that I’ll put F-bomb and Sexting into my vernacular? Probably not. But I am aware of what the words mean–with the exception of “mash-up,” of course.

So students if you are struggling as you read Shakespeare, the Romantic Poets like Shelley and Keats, or heaven forbid Beowulf, go easy on yourself. The difficulty you experience in such required reading is because language has changed so much since the texts were written  several hundred years ago–it’s not that your teachers are trying to  make your life a living hell.

After all, I’m old enough to remember when “gay” meant happy, but I’m young enough to know when something is “cool.”