Sunday, May 24, 2015

Beginning The Path To Mindfulness

I have started exploring the concept of mindfulness as put forward by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The idea behind this philosophy is that we need to increase awareness of who we are in any given point or moment. We need to expand awareness. It is a Buddhist concept, but it is being used for stress reduction, depression, and pain management. And research has shown the practice of mindfulness can actually bring about changes in the brain.

One concept presented in Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness for Beginners is that "If you are preoccupied with what is already known, you can't make that leap into that other dimension of creativity or imagination." As a writer, that statement gave me pause.

In practicing mindfulness we must work in the here and the now and not allow the past to influence us. We must appreciate who and what we are without judgment. This idea sort of harkens back to one of the basic tenets one finds in the Twelve Step philosophy, mainly that we need to recognize things from the past beyond our control and move on with life. The Serenity Prayer goes: "Help me see the things I can change, accept the things I can't, and grant me the wisdom to know the difference between the two."

As a writer though, I live in the past. When I write, I conjure up experience and transform memory and sensation into something relatable for a reader. I recall being frustrated by the old tenet: "Write what you know." I always felt that so limiting. But what it meant was write based on your transformative experiences, write emotions and ideas familiar to you, and if you tackle new concepts, make sure they are grounded in the foundation of those already laid.

Looking at mindfulness, I ponder that if I live in the here and now, then how will that affect one's writing? It is the opposite of "write what you know." Or is it? Maybe not. Maybe we must first be aware of the present as writers, shedding the stressors and biases outside our work before immersing ourselves in the world created. Maybe our failure to do that is why so often our writing changes through the course of a short story or book. We don't see it in the short term, but how often have we returned to something written and seen passages or ideas that stand out as flawed.?

I have much to learn about mindfulness, and I'm still skeptical of the idea, but maybe I will try practicing meditating before writing this summer. I will try approaching my work by first shedding a skin that might block or affect the process. We'll see how that turns out. I'll report back and let you know.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Look At That!!!

As I watched It Follows, a tense horror film well worth anyone's time, I pointed at the screen and proclaimed, "Hey, that's The Redford Theater. Oh my gosh, that was filmed in Detroit. That was the theater where Evil Dead previewed, although they didn't call it that at the time. I was there. Raimi and Campbell were there. You know they were from Michigan!"

And thankfully the theater was near empty. But nonetheless, I kept looking for and spotting landmarks from around the city and suburbs, delighting in each discovery.

Why? Why do we Midwesterners respond that way? I'm sure Californians don't exclaim.."Look, that's the Hollywood sign!" and people from New York don't point out what route a police chase is taking by noting familiar landmarks flashing on the screen. And surely people about Washington D.C. don't freak out when someone is filming a political thriller.

So what's with us Midwesterns? Why do we take the hokum factor and blow it up times ten? Why do we take such childlike delight in the familiar?

And it's not a new factor. I remember in the seventies going to see The Betsy, a story based on Harold Robbins' potboiler about the auto industry, and Beverly Hills Cop, and in both instances doing the same thing in a theater, along with the rest of the audience. "Hey, did you see that? Eddie Murphy is driving down the John C. Lodge! I know that overpass!!!"

It's the way it is. and it says something about Midwestern culture. We don't expect the extraordinary. We don't think of life as exciting. We work. We go home. We go to work the next day. We delight not in seeing the sensational, but in recognizing the ordinary. It's who we are.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hey, Ma, I'm Graduating!

On June 4th I will stand in front of the 2015 graduating class and for the 21st time hand out diplomas and heartfelt congratulations. But this time it's different, and a little bitter-sweet, but also exciting. This time, I'm saying goodbye. But not retiring. No, I'm graduating. After twenty years, I'm finally matriculating.

And leaving school behind after these many years I'll remember the three things I tell students.

First, that education is an ongoing process, and we are lifelong learners. At sixty, I have a few more years of learning ahead of me. And what is more exciting than the challenge of the unknown? Of seeing an obstacle and meeting it?

Second, that life is fluid and ever-changing. We need to appreciate the here and now. I've said that constantly, and now studying mindfulness, I am reminded of the importance of that philosophy. In the past I've had the graduating class rise and face their parents and family, hoping they'll realize how elusive this experience, and how it is gone before they can appreciate that. My parents are gone. And I wish I had walked in my own graduation those forty-two years ago. Forty-two years. But I didn't. I was a rebel and didn't understand what rite of passage I was forsaking. So this year, I will face my wife and smile, and raise my hand, and acknowledge what I should have those many years ago.

Third, I will embrace the importance of relationships. All are unique and we must accept people as they are and not as something we want them to be.

I'm graduating. I'm painting my car, driving through town and honking my horn, and I'm going to stay up all night and celebrate the passing of one phase of life and the arrival of another. After twenty years, I'm finally getting out of high school.

Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King Remembered

Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King, or Blues Boy King, passed at the age of 89. He helped shape modern music and was an ambassador for the art form of the blues. He was a dynamo, touring up to the last couple months, with dates still planned for late into this year. I had a chance to see him a few years back when he performed on a bill with Etta James and Al Green, although Etta James was a no show due to illness (she would pass in 2012).

Here are three things about B.B. you may not have known:

  • His guitar was named Lucille. He named it one night in Arkansas when a fight broke out in a bar he was playing. In the course of the violence, someone started a fire. B.B. fled the bar, but had to run back into the burning building to retrieve his guitar. He named it Lucille after that night, for the woman who started that fire.                                                                                                  
  • B.B. King couldn't play guitar and sing at the same time. Listen to him or watch him and you'll see this. Or as B.B. tells it: "When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille."                                                                                                                    
  • Frank Sinatra was King's favorite performer, and King credits Sinatra for helping out black performers seeking access to venues at a time when those doors were closed. From B.B.'s autobiography, Blues All Around Me, "I'd started playing all black clubs on the edge of Vegas. That was back in the fifties. By the seventies, Sid was able to slip me into Caesar's Palace, thanks to Frank Sinatra, who was headlining. They asked Sinatra whether it was all right for me to play Nero's Nook, the lounge. 'Hell, Yes!' he said. Not just 'Yes', but 'Hell, Yes!' That meant a lot to me."

B.B. King, we will miss your wit, your easy going manner, and your smooth guitar work. 

The Muted Voice

In 1983 close to 50 companies owned the bulk of media around the world. That meant we had film and book reviews we could trust, and thoroughly researched news stories. It meant that the news departments of different outlets were independent of the advertising departments and took pride in that.

Not so much today. I recently watched my morning news program, an affiliate of ABC, and cringed at three to five minutes spent on an account of the previous evening's Dancing With The Stars, as if it was actually newsworthy. Then my news channel spent the rest of the program featuring stories from outside our state, basically picking up video of car chases and crashes.

Later in the day I read book and movie reviews in Entertainment Weekly, a magazine owned by Time Warner, who owns  Warner Brothers, HBO, Cinemax, Cartoon Network, TBS, CNN, Warner
etc...and wondered how I could trust EW's glossy reporting and reviews. How could I trust the majority of critics when they worked for a magazine owned by the people who made the entertainment product?

Does it matter? Why should we care? Maybe because without an independent voice we lose something as a society. Maybe because I value independent thought and worry that when so much power is concentrated in the hands of so few that abuse of such power is only a matter of time.

Maybe for now it's a starting point spreading the awareness and keeping in mind the chart provided by NPR, although don't blink, because in the business world of mergers and acquisitions ownership can be hard to follow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Teaching To The Pest

I hate movies about teaching. 

Maybe being a teacher sours me to depictions of the profession. I'm not the compassionate John Keating standing on my desk to inspire students into sneaking off for late night poetry readings--as if (and I can't help but wonder if this role didn't in some way contribute to Robin Williams' suicide).

I don't fit the caricature that's been foisted on us. I'm more Professor Snapes from the Harry Potter series than I am Mr. Chips. I'm not that patient, nurturing, enthusiastic soul who sees a flicker within a student and tries coaxing the butterfly from the chrysalis.

I can't live up to an ideal that doesn't really fit the reality of classrooms and socio-economic environments and their accompanying cultures. People don't want teachers, they want unit managers, following a corporate model, treating kids alternately as customers and product. Unless its their own child, and then by all means...

And damned, I missed Teacher Appreciation Week again. 

So fellow teachers, I thought I would provide some quotes about the profession. Here's to the end of the school year.

"I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers."--Woody Allen

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school."--Albert Einstein

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."--Mark Twain

"The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda - a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make 'good' citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens." -- H.L. Menchen

Friday, May 08, 2015

What's Your Source?

A student breathlessly proclaimed, "They are rounding people up and putting them in camps."

"And where did you hear that?"

"On the internet."

We can smile at this student and forgive him his gullibility, but an amazing number of people, many well educated and reasonable, are just as susceptible to gobbling up worthless information and spitting it out as if it were gospel.

Consider a news story from a few years back when Fox News reported that Los Angeles police was spending a billion dollars on jet packs. The source of the story? Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid with such headlines as "Bat Boy: Going Mutant" and "Google Street View of Heaven."

I shudder imagining the havoc P.T. Barnum would have wreaked with access to the media and a gullible public less interested in accuracy of reporting than validating held beliefs, no matter how absurd. It's a tribal mentality, and data challenging the tribe is discounted out of hand.    

I'm not taking a political position here, not a right or left stance. Instead, I'm asking for people to stop and check a source before spreading bad information.

I know, you don't have the time for in-depth research. That's the media's job. But sometimes corporate media doesn't police itself. Ask the editors at Rolling Stone, recently embarrassed by shoddy journalism in covering an alleged rape.

You owe it to yourself to consider the source's credibility, especially when forming opinions that might affect your or your family. The University of Wisconsin has a great page for students engaging in online research, or for anyone looking online for information. Here are the things students are asked to consider:

1) Who authored the piece? Uncredited information is questionable. Credited information gives you the chance to research what that person has done before and to see what sort of background and/or bias they have. Also, what sort of writing is on display? Someone publishing writing with poor grammar and spelling immediately announces itself suspect.

2)When was the research done? Historical context can be critical.

3)What is the domain of the webage? The domain is identified at the end of the web address. A dot com, for instance signifies a company, and we all know companies are motivated by profit, and as such may not present information contrary to its self-interest. Other domains include dot net, dot org, and dot gov. Again, considering the information given these suffixes is a matter of context.

4) Is the reporting citing a source? Had Fox bothered to cite Weekly World News as a source in the above story, people would have been able to immediately head in that direction and discount the information as sensationalist fluff.

5) A site's design can be indicative of its credibility. Of course, some of the worst sites have beautiful and professional layout. Still, if something looks like it was slapped together, then it should immediately be regarded with skepticism. Furthermore, if a site has a ton of advertising promoting a particular point of view, then one knows that the site is biased.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Here's To The Anthologies

I know many people who pass up short story collections. They don't like pouring through the different voices within. Some just don't like the short form. But I can't think of a better way of sampling and discovering new writers than in this format. 

Sure, most anthologies will tend to have several authors of note. I know editors and publishers who will slap in something from a well-known author not because it's a stellar piece, but because they hope the name recognition will help push through a few more sales. I can't blame them. But me? I'm immediately drawn to the new male or female author. Or the unfamiliar name. And if I like the piece, off I go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble to see what else they've got out there.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rethinking Reading

I am currently listening to an audiobook on my drive to and from work. This morning though, a thought occurred to me: when the audiobook is done, can I be said to have "read" the book? What is the depth of comprehension and retention one has in listening to a book being read compared to reading it? I've always my experience in listening has been comparable to the reading experience. However, some researchers would offer argument.

An interesting blog piece on the Fast Company website recounts a study by the University of Waterloo in Ontario. According to the piece, the study was published in Frontiers of Psychology and alleges that people listening to audiobooks may get the gist of what is being read, but tend to be forgetful of the material and easily distracted from the text. Some other pieces I've read contradict this university's study, but my bet is that this issue is one which will be revisited over time in further research.

Some writers I know have pointed to audiobooks and other media as a way of broadening the reading experience. They argue that a book can be an immersive experience combining video, audio,and graphics. They point to the changing ways in which people read due to electronic media and the internet. And the discussion broadens as how a writer should adapt expression to accommodate these diverse elements.

So, what is reading? Can we said we've read a book if we listen to an audio version? Is it enough to receive the intent of the author? Is there a degree of internalization which must be met? If that's the case, what's the criteria?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ideas Be Damned

I recently had a fellow author tell me about a great idea he had for a book. Outstanding! Wonderful! And while he related it to me my mind wandered and suddenly I was blissfully elsewhere. My suspicion is if he approached the book from the same direction then the readers would probably wander off as well, and probably never get past the first couple pages.

We don't read because an author has a great idea. It might be enough to hook us for a page or two, but if the story isn't solid, we're off. And by story, I mean the journey of the character, whether or not that journey is internal or external. Readers want a connection.

I tried relating this concept. He nodded his head. He agreed. And then he went on and on about his idea. And once again I drifted off. The moral? Some writers have to learn the hard way.