Saturday, June 24, 2017

A LOSS FOR WORDS – The Long and Short of Writing

As a writer—and an incurable noticer of all things small and wonderful—I’m fascinated by anyone’s ability to convey a lot of meaning in just a few well-considered words.

Now, I love to spin a yarn as much as anyone, but a few exercises in my life have challenged that indulgence. First, I attended a college (Amherst) where, at that time, the purpose of English One was nothing less than to destroy any illusions we freshmen might have held about already being competent writers. While the prof’s critiques of our feeble attempts at brevity were more scathing than encouraging, they evidently did make an impression.

The second phase of my terseness training was my professional career as a commercial copy writer. I was the guy some of my less-marketing-savvy clients relied on to take their exhaustive list of must-have content and somehow get the key messages across in a trifold brochure.

Perhaps most challenging was writing copy for posters and billboards, which, at a glance, have to catch both the eye and the imagination. This is an area for which the expression less is more must surely have been conceived.

When I wrote my first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, it started out as a series of essays in which I thoroughly embraced the freedom to write as much as I thought necessary to paint colorful, detailed images for a reader.

Enter the dog-eat-dog realities of the independent publishing world. A small New Hampshire publisher, based more on my concept and title than my manuscript, took a leap and signed me on. But, as specialists in gift books—the kind sold in museum shops—they felt their market expected something much more, shall we say, distilled.

So I took each of those rambling, undisciplined stories, dredged out the essence of its wisdom, and crafted it into a precious 40- to 60-word, poem-like nugget. The rest is history—literally, I’m afraid. (My book, despite its beautiful design and production, and reasonably good sales for the first few months, has, alas, become yesterday’s news.)

The last of my inducements to brevity falls closer to home. I’m blessed to have a life-partner who, as a gifted teacher, has learned to communicate effectively with students who have short attention spans. Sally suffers only one thing less gladly than fools: fools who go on and on.*  Whenever I ask her to look at a draft I’ve written, her first instinct is not to catch the typos or smooth out the flow; it’s to scrap the flowery stuff and get right to the point.

* Which reminds me, have you heard about the new 12-step program for the overly talkative? Yeah, it’s called On-and-On...Anon.

      These well-chosen words have sharpened 
      my distaste for those who equate unfounded 
      certainty with success.

So, besides my ongoing internal battle between artistic license and self-indulgence, I’m always on the lookout for examples of the judiciously-written word. I see and hear them every so often in newspaper headlines, in ads, as opening lines in novels, as jokes, and occasionally—far too rarely, I’m afraid—in political speeches.**

** A notable exception is the short-and-conceit tweets of the current president of the United States. Indeed, they are by necessity short in length…but they are also dumbfoundingly short on substance—to anyone, that is, but the most avid of his followers, who literally do not care what he's really saying.

Here then are a few of my favorite brief-but-spectacular compositions:

Often wrong; never in doubt.
As someone who values questions far above answers, these well-chosen words have sharpened both my awareness of and my distaste for those who seem to equate that kind of unfounded certainty with success.
Attributed to Ivy Baker Priest, former Treasurer of the United States, 1905-1975, this clever adage was borrowed by media mogul Donny Deutsch for the title of his 2005 book about business “attitude.”

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
These six precious, poignant words are attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who penned them as his own entry in a challenge to fellow authors to write the world’s shortest novel.

Think outside the box.
This one's thought to have originated as a clue to the now-classic nine-dots, four-lines puzzle devised by British academic John Adair in 1969. The now-ubiquitous saw has clearly replaced "Grow or die" and "The customer is always right" as the most-frequently-used business mantra of all time.
Check it out

Just do it!
Coined at a Nike Inc. meeting with its advertising agency in 1988, this gem has become one of the most effective advertising slogans—not to mention additions to the popular vernacular—in history.

It was 346 BC. Philip II, king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, had just conquered all of Northern Greece when he turned his armies south to Sparta. In a message to the city elders, the king warned: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans replied with a single word: “if.” Just the Spartans being, well, spartan.
Check it out

You are not alone.
A phrase so common and scarcely capitalized upon that it defies attribution. But imagine the hopes lifted, the souls salved, the lives saved by these four amazing, compassionate words.
The expression was commercialized in Michael Jackson’s so-titled 1995 platinum single—the first song in the 37-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 to debut at number one.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
First lines in novels are a case study in pithiness; the should set the stage for every word that follows. This is one of the best—from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

     There is so much in these four words about 
     faith, acceptance, wonder and hope.

Life’s too short…
Another ubiquitous expression, but what's fascinating is its twist—its usage seldom referring to life itself, but usually some other trivial thing we want to put into perspective.

If not us, who? If not now, when?
I love the sheer challenge posed by this one. It’s likely been used for ages in board rooms and church basements around the world, but is better known for its appropriation by a number of notables, from Hillel the Elder at the time of Christ, to Barack Obama in 2010.
Check it out

Clocks slay time.
As a man who plies his trade promoting awareness and presence, this one—just three jewel-like words—conveys a meaning that seems more apropos with every sped-up, dumbed-down passing day.
It comes from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

“…but enough about me….What do you think about me?” 
Wouldn't you love to spring this beauty on one of those folks—they should know better—who just prattle on, never caring to ask a thing about you?
It was spoken by Bette Midler’s character in the 1988 film, Beaches, but has also been attributed to former New York City mayor, Ed Koch.

In everything its opposite.
There is so much in these four words about faith, acceptance, wonder and hope. It also implies one of the fundamental truths of human existence: that we, our fellow human beings, other living organisms and this amazing planet we share are all connected.
Attribution? This one, I must say, is one of my own. (I'm sure the concept is far from original, but perhaps the wording is.)

I love you.
Quite possibly the most consequential words ever written or spoken. This one I sincerely hope you have heard—and said—often.

I'll close with couple of my favorite jests that do not mince words:
You've got to hand it to blind prostitutes.

Pretentious? Moi?

Is there a better two-word joke than this last one? If you know of one, I hope you'll share it here by way of Post a Comment.


Monday, June 19, 2017

A FEW TRUTHS I KNOW – To My Beloved Grandchildren

Here are some things I’ve found to be true. You will not be able to wrap these words in your own truth until you are old enough to have seen their meaning for yourself, perhaps many times. But I hope that even a cursory look at them now might help open your heart and mind to them then.

Just because I—or you—know these truths, doesn’t mean they will be easy to live by; for some you will be trying your whole life. Merely caring enough to do so will make you a better person.

                                       ~  //  ~        ~  //  ~        ~  //  ~

  • What you see has more to do with what’s inside you than with what’s right in front of your eyes. People see what they expect to see. Expect beauty and goodness.
  • What you think or say is not who you are. What you do is who       you are.
  • You are not always in control. Sometimes other people get a turn. Often Nature will be in charge. And once in a while there's no choice but leaving it to pure dumb luck.
  • There are some outcomes whose realization depends not on trying harder to make them happen, but on having the patience and faith to LET them happen. You turn them over to a wisdom that’s greater than yours, and you’ll be surprised at how often things turn out for the best.

  • No matter what anyone may say, no matter what the daily news appears to show, the world and our fellow human beings are essentially kind and beautiful. Others have their own reasons for wanting you to doubt this. Don’t listen to them; keep expecting only the best of life.
  • In those rare instances where someone abuses that faith and threatens your health, freedom or peace, fight back as hard as you can. But do so not in fear, but as a wise parent disciplines a child—with calm, confident authority.
  • Attention is a zero-sum game: however many tasks you juggle, the sum total of your focus can never exceed 100 percent. Whenever possible, do one thing at a time and do it all the way.
  • There are many challenges whose solutions may prove to lie just beyond—perhaps even opposite—what you’ve been taught all your life. Welcome those chances to learn new ways; listen to your inborn curiosity, creativity and good instincts.
  • Whatever your spiritual beliefs, a fundamental truth that encompasses nearly all faiths is that none of us is alone. We are as one with every other living creature and with the earth. There is a constant, immutable love in this reality. You are loved by Creation—no matter what.

  • Pain, loss and sadness, like lousy weather, are parts of life. They’re given to us as opportunities to grow and to help. Storms remind us how wonderful the clear, sunny days are.
  • Take care of your body; it’s the only one you’ll ever have. Other people—or even your own emotions—may tempt you to abuse it, but choose instead to listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs.
  • People will have all kinds of opinions and warnings about what’s best for you—always do this; never eat that—but often the best advise is: everything in moderation.
  • Live in the moment as much as possible. Acknowledge the past for its lessons, but do not regret it. Prepare for the future, but do not fear it. The only time that’s real is now.
  • No matter how unsure and self-conscious you may feel, no matter how much you might envy others for being more attractive, accomplished or confident, know that many of them see you in that same way. Few will ever tell you this, but it is the truth.


         Seek a point of view—and a mindset— 

         from which you can see things as if for 
         the first time.
  • Many people tout their “resume” virtues, the strengths they recognize—or would like to recognize—in themselves. And then there are one’s “eulogy” virtues—the strengths others have seen. They are not always the same. Decide by which you want to live.
  • If you’re taught, as I was, to be modest and unassuming you may tend to avoid the limelight, deflect praise, minimize your own accomplishments. But remember, shining your own light—demonstrating your competence, confidence and faith—not only helps others, it just might show them how to do the same.
  • You may well aspire to do amazing things and change the world. But don’t let visions of the great keep you from doing good. To the world, you might be just one person, but to one person you might just be the world.
  • Two things you might think would fall at opposite ends of a scale—of time, size, space or value—might actually lie right next to each other…or even coincide. Large encompasses small; bad includes good; beauty has its ugly side. In every problem lie the seeds of a solution.

  • Honor your parents and grandparents. At times, they may seem to have nothing to do with your life. But, like Nature, they are part of you. Recognize their gifts and pass them on, and know that, no matter how unworthy of it you may feel, their love is unshakable.
  • Part of any child’s job in growing up is to question—and sometimes challenge—their parents’ authority. But your parents are amazing, loving, very smart people who do only what they feel best protects you and keeps you healthy and happy. It is only when you become an adult with children of your own that will you truly understand that.
  • No matter what your age, never let go of your childlike curiosity and wonder. Seek a point of view—and a mindset—from which you can see things as if for the first time.
  • Never stop learning. You may go through a stage in which your education seems like something not of your choosing; you do it simply because it’s expected. But there will come a day when the stakes in learning become yours alone. You choose it because of the places it can take you, or simply because you’d love to know. The sooner, the better. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Slew of Subarus? Who Knew?

The very first new car I ever bought—In Brattleboro, Vermont, back in 1973—was a wimpy little yellow Subaru DL sedan. I paid $2459 for it. I remember lamenting that its engine was the same size as that of a large-ish motorcycle.

Subarus have come a long ways. Now every time I visit Vermont, I’m struck by the staggering number of them—old and new—I see on the roads and streets.

I’m guessing Subarus, with their relatively small models and across-the-line four-wheel drive, resonate with not just practical needs—the snow, the mud, the rugged landscapes, the small-town and rural digs of many Vermonters—but also their values—love of the outdoors, respect for the environment, an appreciation of scale, responsible consumerism—and perhaps even, as touted in Subaru’s marketing, LOVE.

       The choice of a car is a statement, part 
       of the uniform we wear to show the world 
       our stripes.

Lately, I’ve been noticing a tremendous surge in the number of Subarus plying the streets of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis / St. Paul MN). I wondered if it was just my imagination—or perhaps a self-reinforcing result of my leaning toward a Subaru for my own next car.

So yesterday, while out walking, I conducted my own little survey. I postulated that, if my theory bore out, I’d spot—among the 45 or so vehicle brands sold in
the U.S.—at least four Subarus in the time it took me to walk the eight blocks
back home.

I saw seventeen. And this morning, of the 30 or so cars parked in my office building’s west lot, seven are Subarus.

I decided to check out my theory, and I find—at, of all places,—a
list of the ten states where Subarus are most popular. No surprise to me: Vermont is number one. But among the other nine, Minnesota is nowhere to be seen.
           Might folks be at least trying to make 

           a modest, sensible choice?

So what’s going on? Are Subarus even more popular than I thought in the rest of the country? Has the apparent Subaru boom here in the Twin Cities happened so recently that it simply hasn’t yet made the iSeeCars list?

Perhaps it’s just my neighborhood; like maybe we’re sort of the Vermont of Twin Cities communities. I’ll keep my eyes open as I wander around the rest of the metro, but I suspect the phenomenon is widespread.

My reasoning might best be explained in its own post here, but I’ll bet it has something to do not just with consumers’ needs and the effectiveness of Subaru’s marketing, but with the mood of the nation in this bizarre, post-reason period in
our history.

Given how difficult it is to function in this culture without a car, might more
and more folks, given the paucity of practical alternatives, be at least trying to
make a modest, sensible choice—one that lays claim, symbolically as much as functionally, to their values in the face of the most sweeping attack by an administration on wise environmental stewardship seen in our lifetime?

After all, the choice of a car says a lot about a person. It involves much more than
a practical convergence of needs and features. It’s a statement of personality and beliefs, part of the uniform we wear to show the world our stripes.

The hopeful yet misguided Trump base can have their rattletraps and pickups. And the new oligarchy they’ve chosen to lead them—the only true beneficiaries of this regime’s largesse—can have their Range Rovers, Escalades and stretch limos.

Me? I have more concern and more hope for my grandchildren's future than that...and I’m secure with my masculinity; I’ll take that wimpy little Subaru.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

MY AMAZON ADVENTURE – The Nature of It All

Check out Part IV – Nature – of my series about a recent cruise on the upper reaches of the Amazon River in Peru. It's on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.