Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sherwood Wirt, R.I.P.

“If you have been ordained to write, woe to you if you put everything else first.” ~ Sherwood Wirt

I was reading the Passages section of Christianity Today last night and came across the following notation:

Died >> Sherwood Eliot Wirt, Christian journalist and author, on November 8 in Seattle. ‘Woody Wirt’ was a longtime associate of Billy Graham and founding editor of Decision magazine.

He was also an author of 28 books, including one that in 1983 pretty much changed my life. That book was You Can Tell the World, subtitled New Directions for Christian Writers.

Wirt had been, among other things, a journalist. One great feature of being a journalist is getting the opportunity to throw a lot of questions at some fairly significant people. Wirt, for example, had encounters with heavies such as H. G. Wells and Albert Einstein. He also did C. S. Lewis’ last interview.

In the interview with Lewis he asked, "Will you tell young writers something about style?" Lewis said, "Style? Say exactly what you mean, and when you have said it, be sure you have said exactly that. That is style."

Wirt’s style was direct. His hefty serving of advice for young writers, with no mincing, had me hooked from the first punch. My frame of mind was such that Wirt's advice had the authority of the word of God. This was not just another book for me. At that time I truly felt writing to be a calling. I had "failed" as a missionary and my interpersonal skills and circumstances did not suit me for pastoral work. During a weeklong vacation at a private cabin in Portage, Wisconsin, I had an epiphanal moment in which, for me, writing became a calling.

My first published article six years earlier resulted in letters from three continents thanking me for what I had written. Only five hundred words, but these letters claimed their lives were changed. I experienced first hand the power of the written word.

I was only too aware of my limitations and lack of experience. Thus, when I picked up Wirt's book, I knew he was dead on. His message resonated because he passionately believed that what he was saying needed to be said. If we're to produce great work, we must know what great work looks like. The only way is to be a reader of great works.

“Darwin’s Origin of Species, Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Kierkegaard’s attacks on Hegel, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Kafka’s The Trial, Camus’ The Plague and others.

“These books, the most influential of our time, deal primarily with the scientific challenge and loss of meaning in a mechanistic society. There has been no Christian work written since the novels of Dostoevsky that can honestly be said to match them in boldness, in documentation, in breadth and scope, in vision, in appeal to the human spirit, or in grasp of truth. C.S. Lewis is the only Christian entry in the field. The opportunities are wide open, and there is plenty of room at the top.”

A little further along, Wirt again urged serious young writers to read the classics. “The author of the 70’s who will really influence his day will be a person who knows the English language and the writers who have mastered it. Journalism courses are no substitute for a grasp of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, or even Ernest Hemingway. To live in the twentieth century and to understand it, one must also know Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. There is no easy way to master such men; if we haven’t read them, sooner or later our bluff will be called. And may I add that there is very little God can do with a lazy Christian writer.”

I'd been given my marching orders. With this admonition I was pushed into the literature, listening to classics while painting apartments, while commuting, whenever I was not able to sit at a typewriter and pour myself out. I considered myself a serious young writer, and took these admonitions to heart. For better or for worse, though I may not have significantly changed the world, the skills I developed help me provide for my family. And the rest of my story is as yet unwritten...

One takeaway from Wirt's book bears repeating: If you want to change the world, and I earnestly desired it, you begin by changing yourself.

As for Mr. Wirt, thank you for helping light my torch that I might in some small way give light to another generation of young writers seeking to hold back tomorrow's darkness with courage and truth.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Did you poop today?

This picture was taken in a stairwell at a college student’s home off campus in Morris, MN. I took the photo because it is undeniably funny.

I didn’t know what I’d say about it until yesterday when I learned that the recession is having a negative impact on toilet paper sales. In point of fact, Tom Falk the Chairman-CEO of Kimberly-Clark stated that their toilet paper sales were down 5.5% since last quarter. Nationally, the hard times have reduced toilet paper sales by more than 8%.

So, it begs the question… what are people doing in there? I don’t mean to be nosy, but…

In truth, toilet paper is something Americans pretty much take for granted. We like it soft and we like plenty of it, an estimated 1.5 miles of it a year. But have you ever considered that toilet paper is really a fairly modern luxury? Or wondered what they do in the rest of the world? Most of us probably give it very little thought.

I remember a story about a new hospital that was built by the Red Cross in the Middle East, perhaps Jordan or somewhere near Yemen. A week after the hospital was built, all the toilets were inoperable. They were all filled with smooth stones. Dirty ones, if you know what I mean. This is how people clean themselves in many places.

If you are a missionary to or traveler in Islamic countries you might be instructed, as part of your training, to not hand something to Muslim with your left hand because that is the hand you use for this very personal business. Just a little travel tip here in case you’re eating veal in Turkey and someone asks you to pass the pilaf.

When I lived in Mexico, we visited Mexico City and stayed with a couple poor families in that overpopulated village of 20-some million. No one had toilet paper in many of these places. In point of fact, no one has running water in most of Mexico City. The water is in short supply, so they turn it on for 90 minutes every other day. During that ninety minutes you are to fill your 55 gallon drums for the next two days’ supply. Using this water, you can flush toilets, wash dishes, make orange juice, bathe, or whatever your heart desires. I took a bath with about one pint of boiled water in an outdoor stall while it was approximately 40 degrees.

Well, needless to say, no one had toilet paper. Rather, they stacked newspapers in the corner of the outdoor bath room which after reading they used for that more intimate purpose. Mexico City news is printed on surprisingly thin paper and not entirely uncomfortable, if you catch my drift.

While thinking about these things, and looking for an additional anecdote to go with it I discovered that there are a number of books written on the topic for those who might be discreetly interested. Frankly, I find it amusing how little we talk about this delicate topic, or others pertaining to normal body functions such as passing gas or sweating.

Of the books I found, the most interesting dealing with “Number 2” seems to be Dave Praeger’s Poop Culture: How America is Shaped by its Grossest National Product. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Praeger “meticulously excavates the politics of poop, societal attitudes toward it and how both affect our culture and everyday lives. Propelled by a keen nose for trivia, Praeger chronicles everything from the rise in epidemics that led to better sanitation practices, culminating in the widespread adoption of the toilet, to the use of feces in art.” In short, it appears to be a serious, well-researched work of history and not simply cheap potty humor.

But if you really want to dive into this subject and you’re hungry for more, Praeger also has a website called PoopReport.com, though in many circles this kind of thing is in bad taste.

This is a topic about which much more could be written, but I think we've had enough for one sitting.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

5 Minutes with Jon Thralow: Internet Entrepreneur

Despite the turbulence of the economy these past dozen years, Jon Thralow has had a remarkable run of good fortune. In 1996 Thralow’s older brother Dan, founder of a Midwest sunglasses business called Peepers, took his first baby steps in eCommerce. In less than three years, with the company listed as one of the fastest growing Internet retailers in the country, they sold out to a New York City firm at the height of the tech bubble. When the bubble burst, the Thralows were able to re-obtain the domain names they’d sold… for a song.

The lessons learned only made them hardier. Instead of developing a mall that batched all their product lines under one domain, the Thralows embraced a specialized market niche concept, recognizing the power of defined domain names. Before long the new company, Thralow Inc., was rolling out niche eCommerce businesses with remarkable effectiveness so that they were once more catching the attention of major magazines like Inc. and Internet Retailer. At the end of 2006 Thralow Inc. sold its 30-plus domains and eCommerce sites to Netshops of Omaha, Nebraska.

Though not the founder of these ventures, Jon has played an integral role in their success. His specialized knowledge in Internet marketing has given him keen insights in how to take advantage of the efficiencies and opportunities offered by today’s cyber-arena.

ennyman: When did you join your brother’s first company and what role did you initially play?
Jon T: I joined Peepers in 1997 as an Intern. My job was to add products to the site and find ways to get us listed on the search engines. At the time Alta Vista, Web Crawler, and Excite had a lot of market share. I also taught myself two tools - Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Front page.

ennyman: What lessons did you learn from the collapse of the Internet bubble that might have value in today’s challenged economy?
Jon T: I went through a year of depression. Everything that I had worked to build was being destroyed before my eyes. I had a hard time sleeping at night. I went from having a million dollars in the stock of Eyecity to having the company become de-listed. Extreme high to extreme low. Looking back on it, I learned that if you keep plugging away things will work out, just never give up. I could not have seen the huge turnaround that was about to come, but if you focus on the core business rules and keep pounding away on it eventually you’ll gain traction which will give you something to build on.

ennyman: You mentioned that you have taken an interest in a company called Mozenda in Salt Lake City. What is it that so captivated you there?
Jon T: Over the years I’ve found that gold lives in the data and the trick has always been learning how to mine the data. In the early days the log files were mined to give a picture of our website's performance. Then I found that by mining our customer database and writing scripts around that you can market to people with the exact products they were interested in. Gathering and manipulating data became one of the biggest factors in growing our company. After the sale of the company I found Mozenda, a company that took this philosophy and applied it to the entire Internet. Mozenda gives people the tool to gather all of the Internet data they could want and store it in a usable method. This company gives its users real value.

ennyman: What is screen scraper software and how is it different from simply gathering information from search engines?
Jon T: Screen Scraping Software allows the user to predefine the exact data on a page that he or she would like to harvest. Most importantly a person can harvest certain patterns of data that repeat themselves on pages. In a way this is very similar to how a search engine works. So there’s a sense in which Mozenda gives you the power of your own personal search engine. You can train the Mozenda spider to follow links and grab the wanted data that you are looking for.

ennyman: What are the two or three most important things internet entrepreneurs need to understand in order to have the greatest probability of success?
Jon T: First, set up tracking mechanisms to measure every marketing penny that you spend. Second, find your niche and don't deviate; stay focused. Third, use the scientific method so that you can test for the outcome. This ensures that you do not make the same mistake twice. For example if you want to test a new layout for your home page make sure you A/B test. This is the only way to know if you are headed down the wrong path.

ennyman: Thanks, Jon. Good luck in all your new ventures.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Interpretations

In 1980-81, when Susie and I were working at an orphanage in Mexico, a missionary organization called Youth With A Mission (YWAM) had organized an outreach South 'o the border in the vicinity of where we were, Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leone. Due to "bad luck" with regards to timing, the semi loaded with Bibles was held up at the border due to an unannounced meeting between the newly elected President Reagan and Lopez Portilla, president of Mexico. The presidential summit took place in the border town where the semi had spent the night, so all traffic going north or south was held in limbo for a day. The problem is, there are two checkpoints to pass, the first when you enter Mexico, the second twenty miles in. This allows people to cross into the border towns for shopping, putting fuel in their diesel trucks etc. If you are going deeper into the interior you had to cross the second checkpoint within the same 24 hours as the first.

When the YWAM teams arrived in Monterrey from all over North America the Bibles they were planning to disperse did not. You can imagine how this might have been interpreted. The devil did not want those Bibles to get into Mexico.

When we learned of the assembly of 600 young people in Monterrey looking for something to do, we set about to meet with them and invite them to the orphanage where we were working. There were plenty of needs. We had approximately 120 children between the ages of three and fifteen and a whole lot of run down buildings badly in need of repairs, chiefly due to the belief that saving souls was more important than upkeep of facilities.

Our cordial invitations succeeded. Many of the YWAM teams did indeed come out to the children's home and heartily pitched in to paint the buildings, repair screens on the cafeteria where disease-laden flies were landing on children's meals, to repair the roof of the chapel and carry out other practical tasks. I especially remember the team from California who said that on the way to the YWAM outreach here they had seventeen flat tires or blowouts on the trailer that hauled their supplies.

What struck me about this was the interpretation of the cause of the blowouts. They said it was the devil. Clearly, by grit and determination they had come all that way, despite delays, and made it by God's grace to Monterrey. The Lord clearly had them there for a purpose, because the devil was unable to stop them.

I mean no disrespect to the faith in this matter, but I have to stop here and ask one question. Why did it never enter anyone's minds that the reason they kept blowing tires, seventeen in all, was not a spiritual warfare issue but a physics issue? They had too much weight in the trailer and the tires were not designed for the use to which they were put.

Events happen. How we interpret those events will result in our being able to bring resolution to the problems we encounter in life, in our relationships, in the workplace. By interpreting every little thing as a matter of spiritual warfare, we never come to grips with the real problems we're dealing with, or recognizer the simple solutions to the issues we face.

Many religions profess that the mind is the enemy of enlightenment. "Kill the snake," said Guru Majaraji, the snake "deceiver" being our minds. Similar sentiments are expressed in other Eastern religions. For me, Christianity's appeal is built on a foundation that corresponds with sense and a certain intellectual satisfaction. Knowledge and understanding should not be entirely at odds with common sense. Nor does Christian meditation mean emptying the mind, rather it means filling the mind with truth and contemplating the richness of this good content, the bread of life.

That's my interpretation on these things. But as Paul states at the end of I Corinthians 13, "We see through a glass darkly." I am willing to be proven wrong.

What's your take on these things?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

32 Random Phrases from Popular Mechanics August 2008

"Randomness is too important to be left to chance." ~ Robert R. Corveyou

Whose Machine Reigns Supreme?
Taking the Scream Test
The Science of Fear
An American Passion
I’ll Try Anything
Drill It and Shoot It
The more you ask, the more we’re different.
Man, I wish I were anyplace but here.
Guys, want to take fewer trips to the bathroom at night?
Not all fishing buddies have facial hair.
Nematode Nation: Tiny worms reveal large secrets.
Use them as a concert hall – or a sanctuary.
Still haven’t rolled over your old 401(k)?
All along you told them they could change the world.
Turns out you were right.
Progress is easy to take for granted.
If you want to do great things in your world, spend some time in ours.
Unrespected Aerospace
“We look at this place as the best-kept secret in the business. We can see the future from here.”
Look First
Why is Michael Phelps the ultimate athlete?
Ditto
The King Is Back
Hands-Free Can Shaker
Fire When Ready
Primal Screamer
A Fast Bot Finds Work
The Ultimate Paint Job
Mutually Assured Saturation
Why do they make it so complicated?
Fight Back
That’s Ice Cold Common Sense

“The man who said ‘I'd rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control.” ~ Chris Wilton in Woody Allen's Match Point

Of this last quote and observation, it really is humbling when one considers it... beginning with your birth. Which genetic imprint you received from your father when millions were competing in the initial conception. The nation you were born into. The nurses who handled you, or mishandled. Astrologers would add at this point... which sign of the zodiac you were born under, and the time of day. The circumstances of your early years, how many siblings you shared a home with, or a room. The teachers who formed your ideas about learning, creativity, personal worth. Likes, dislikes; active, inactive. How we got our first job, and the complex factors that in subtle yet imponderable ways determine our careers, our friends and lovers, our miscellaneous adventures through space and time.

How about you? How did you become who you are? How much is choice and how much chance? Tell me what you think.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Episode on South Street

SHORT STORY MONDAY

One of the wonders of the Internet Is that it has enabled writers to share their work even if they can not find a publication to put it in print. In 1994-95 I learned just enough html to launch a website (now located at http://www.enewman.biz/) where I deposited my favorite unpublished stories, a much better solution than having them sit in a drawer. Three have now been translated into foreign languages, and this one made into a short film.

In early October 2004 the film adaptation of this story "Episode on South Street" premiered in Erie, PA during the Great Lakes Horror/Suspense Film Festival. Co-producers Adam Fish and Matthew W. Detisch of DF Productions were thrilled about the project. The film was well received as best of show.

The story is about a somewhat disturbed young artist with obsessive compulsive disorder, and an incident that occurs one evening while working in his Philadelphia studio just off South Street.

Episode on South Street

It was close to ten o'clock when the thought first struck me: Something terrible is going to happen tonight, and the dread surged through me. I was painting in my studio late that night with two deadlines to meet and I didn't have time to work myself through another episode. No doubt the deadlines set it off.

"This is ridiculous," I told myself. "Nothing is going to happen; think about something else." But the muscles in my face were taut and my ears were hot and I couldn't think of anything else. As if a cloud suddenly hid the face of the sun, the room seemed sunk in shadow and with it, my mood darkened as well and though my movements were now lethargic and leaden, my mind raced wildly to catch hold of the terror producing thought as if it were some kind of secret knowledge.

I wonder what terrible thing is going to happen? was my next thought and in seeing the red paint on my paintbrush I knew intuitively. Something dreadful and bloody was going to happen. I took a deep breath, counted to ten slowly and tried to relax.

My mind raced on. Why are you just sitting here when someone could be out there being killed?

I'm standing in the middle of the room now, trying to decide whether I need a jacket or not. After checking the clock, I grab my leather and head out the hall to the fire escape, the quickest way down to the alley to South Street, the main strip.

It was a Friday night and a full moon; South Street is jammed with people and I'm scared.

I look at the crowds - punks, yuppies, jocks, freaks, Philly rednecks - and flee back down the alley. As I walk between the buildings a young fat teen, who is being chased by several leaner and tougher looking boys, runs smack into me. As he does so, he looks straight up into my eyes and I see down inside his soul, and I see his terror. At the same moment, he sees into my own soul, and sees a terror more terrible still... the terror of nightmares come alive, of irrational demons that compel a man to madness, to participate in terror, to be an agent of terror.

As this young kid falls backwards away from me, I wish that it were only a beating by thugs that I needed to be afraid of. I would welcome such a beating.

Instead, I am driven forward on my mission of rescue. Something dreadful is going to happen and it may be that only I can stop it.

I remember that I had forgotten to wash out my paint brush and try to return to my loft, but when I reach the staircase, I am urged to hurry back to the street. Someone is being killed. Are you going to waste time washing out brushes while someone is dying? And with the thought comes pain. It's more than I can bear. I must do something. I must act. I must save. And I am running back to South Street.

As I round the corner I am immersed in the great swarm of people flooding the sidewalks and I am fighting my way through it.

You are really acting crazy tonight I think to myself and I feel comforted by the kernel of truth in this observation. Using all my will power I manage to halt my progress through the stream of humanity and lean back against the front wall of a restaurant.

Across the street two mounted policemen are looking in my direction and all kinds of feelings erupt. First, I feel beside myself with a need to run and tell them that there is going to be a murder if something isn't done to stop it. At the same time, I fear that in my distress--along with my knowledge of this terrible thing I am trying to prevent--I will become a suspect in the crime. Next I fear that I am already acting suspicious and that the police have noticed me, that I can't give a rational account of my behavior and I have no alibi, having been alone in my studio. Most of all, I am scared.

I step away from the building and turn to my left, to return to my studio, but then the fearful thought comes again: I am abandoning a fellow human, leaving him to die. Only this time, I see an image with the thought, a large, wide knife, flashing through the air in a dark, crowded room - a bar? where? - and my fear begins to make sense. But it's such a horrible thing, worse than a murder... a madman with a knife in a crowded room.

Now I am walking up the sidewalk again trying to see more clearly this glimpse of vision, to replay it in my head. The knife: it's a deli knife. The deli! Something terrible is going to happen there. I don't know if I can handle it.

I'm running now, pushing people out of my way. It's only two, maybe three blocks up the street, and I am running hard.I can hear people shouting at me, "Hey, watch it!" and "Are you crazy, man!" as I push past them, though some people move out of my way, clearing a path for me. My heart is beating wild and my breathing is labored when I get to the front of the deli.

CONTINUED

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Augustine's Influence

"Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee." ~ St. Augustine

Our philosophy club has been listening to a series of lectures called The Great Ideas of Philosophy by Professor Daniel N. Robinson. A little over a year ago we discussed a lecture titled "Augustine and the Light Within." Augustine's influence on the development of Western Christianity was significant.

One of the most influential writers of the first millennium A.D., his significance comes from taking an intellectual approach to the sacred texts which had become the canon of Christian faith, the Old & New Testaments. He was fluent in the ideas of Greek philosophy and brought together this foundation of Greek thought and spiritual insight to produce two significant written works, his Confessions and The City of God.

His first encounter with the Bible did not, however, impress him. It was a bad translation, and failed to convey the literary beauty and ideas contained in this profound book. The writings of Cicero, on the other hand, startled and captivated him with the fluid wonder contained in both the writing and ideas. It would be another ten years before he discovered the power of the Bible.

After leaving North Africa Augustine was offered a professorship in Milan where he came under the influence of Neoplatonism as well as the preaching of St. Ambrose. Inwardly he was in a great turmoil, which he relates in his vivid and introspective Confessions. Robinson refers to him as a bon vivant, a rascal and debauch. Until he met his Savior and embraced the faith he had earlier rejected.

After Rome was pillaged by the Visigoths in 410 he returned to North Africa where he spent fourteen years on the twenty-two books which comprise The City of God. This latter work contrasted two cities, God's city where the saints abide in joyful submission to God's will, and the earthly city where worldly selfishness reigns.

Augustine's primary positive influence was to show that being a Christian and an intellectual was not a contradiction. The predominant attitude up till Augustine's time was that you only need to know the Bible and that's all. Every other book is irrelevant. God's Word is all that matters.

St. Augustine recognized that truth is truth wherever it is found and there was much good in the works of Greek thinkers like Aristotle and those who followed up on those foundations. This was not an easy position to adopt and he wrestled with it until he saw what he believed was God's perspective on the matter. He used the example of Moses and the Israelites taking the gold from Egyptians when the left Egypt after Passover. "Gold is gold wherever it comes from," Augustine said, and in the realm of ideas the same holds true.

Likewise, how can Christians challenge ideas like Epicureanism, Stoicism and Hedonism if they have never read or tried to understand what the writers who proposed these views meant by them?

For what it's worth Augustine was, like ourselves, a man of imperfect understanding and some of what he wrote had negative consequences later. Like many writers, context can have an impact on the message. Augustine wrote during the period of Rome's decline and fall. In one section of his epic The City of God he thus argued in favor of using force to preserve the truth against the dark hordes. Unfortunately, a thousand years later these passages were used to justify the Spanish Inquisition.

Nevertheless, he is recognized as an important writer and thinker in the history of ideas, and in cultural history as reflected in Bob Dylan's tribute which can be heard on his John Wesley Harding album.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive as you or me,
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery,
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.

"Arise, arise," he cried so loud,
In a voice without restraint,
"Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint.
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own,
So go on your way accordingly
But know you're not alone."

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,
So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Narcissus

License to Kill
by Bob Dylan

Man thinks 'cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
and if things don't change soon, he will.
For a man has invented his doom,
first step was touching the moon.
Now there's a woman on my block,
she just sits there as the night grows still,
and says, "Who is gonna take away his license to kill?"

Now they take him, and they teach him, and they groom him for life,
and they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
and they bury him with stars, sell his body like they do used cars,
and there's a woman on my block,
she just sits there facin' the hill,
and she says, "Who is gonna take away his license to kill?"

Now he's heading for destruction, he's afraid and confused
and his brain has been mismanaged with great skill,
now all he believes are his eyes and his eyes they just tell him lies.
And there's a woman on my block,
sitting there in a cold chill,
she says, "Who is gonna take away his license to kill?"

Now he worships at an altar with a stagnant pool
and when he sees his reflection he's fulfilled;
for a man is opposed to fair play,
he wants it all and he wants it his way.
Now there's a woman on my block,
she just sits there as the night grows still,
she says, "Who is gonna take away his license to kill?"

****

License to Kill appeared on Dylan's Infidels album, side one. The image in the last stanza is ever so poignant, a portrait of Narcissus, the self-admiring Greek hero re-knowned for his beauty. Dylan takes it further. The vain, self-possessed portrait here is a symbol for elite, self-worshipping humanity, who "wants it all and he wants it his way."


I can't help think of Oscar Wilde's twist on this self-same story, titled The Disciple which appeared in his collection of short stories called Fairy Tales. It is interesting to compare and contrast the ways in which the two artists, Dylan and Wilde, create new images from the classic myth.

The Disciple

When Narcissus died, the pool of his pleasure changed from a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears, and the Oreads came weeping through the woodland that they might sing to the pool and give it comfort.

And when they saw that the pool had changed from a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears, they loosened the green tresses of their hair, and cried to the pool, and said: "We do not wonder that you should mourn in this manner for Narcissus, so beautiful was he."

"But was Narcissus beautiful?" said the pool

"Who should know better than you?" answered the Oreads. "Us did he ever pass by, but you he sought for, and would lie on your banks and look down at you, and in the mirror of your waters he would mirror his own beauty."

And the pool answered: "But I loved Narcissus because, as he lay on my banks and looked down at me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored."

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Magazine Scene

I just spent the week at the MPMC, a media conference in L.A. designed to bring together companies in the performance aftermarket with editors in the media. The meetings allow companies to tell their stories, show what's new and forge relationships with editors and writers for publications.

As an advertising and PR professional, as well as long time writer, I keep a firm grip on the pulse of the publishing industry. Since Gutenberg, the written word has probably been the most influential force in history. Communists relied deliberately and heavily on the written word to make in-roads in Latin America. Christianity has similarly relied on the written word, and for this reason was a major for in literacy from Reformation days onward.

Despite the pervasiveness of television and radio, magazines have remained strong as a valued resource for both information and diversion. But there are challenges for the magazines now. The cost of distribution is increasingly hefty, as well as the rising printing costs for staff, paper and ink.

This past year the housing crisis and banking crisis intersected the auto industry, with subsequent reverberations leaving many damaged companies all the down the line. As a result, advertising dollars have been in decline, resulting in a crisis for magazine publishers.

Editors today face many challenges, not least of which is the need to produce the same high quality content with reduced staff. Furthermore, the content has to be as such that it is less timely and more useful. Less timely because breaking news is already old news by the time it is in print. Most readers now tap Google News or other favorite portals to follow these more urgent topics. In short, magazine editorial must be deeper and compelling for reasons other than timeliness.

Of course, without readers you won't attract advertisers. And without advertisers you can't pay salaries, so then it is still more work for the last staff standing, and the quality must not suffer. Publishers are feeling the pinch because even with readers, many companies have closed their wallets in an effort to remain solvent during these tough times. I know of one company that sells larger ticket items which has not had a sale since August. It's hard to keep your doors open when no one is buying.

If you Twitter, and you wish to follow the shakedown of the publishing scene, be sure to follow TheMediaIsDying, who has a firm hand on the pulse of this market sector. (You can also follow me on Twitter as ennyman3)

ednote:
Not every mag publisher is a-tremblin',
Some rags are even thrivin'
But one thing's certain
at the end of the day
the Times they are a-changin'.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Layoffs Continue

The layoffs continue as economic realities take the wind out of a lot of companies’ sails. Or should I say sales?

Microsoft announced they will be laying off 5,000 over the next eighteen months. IBM announced layoffs. Warner Studios yesterday said they were releasing 800 this year and Clear Channel Communications put the word out that 1800 were on the chopping block.

According to government statisticians who track all these things the third quarter of 2008 was pretty serious with 1,330 extended mass layoff events resulting in 218,158 jobs lost. That was nothing compared to fourth quarter, which saw 2,328 mass layoff events impacting 224,079 workers in November alone.

No one likes to see lives disrupted, but at the end of the day some layoffs have been a long time coming. For years the Internet has been making inroads into the magazine and newspaper industries, chewing up subscriber renewals as info-consumers adopt new ways of following events, gathering info or finding distraction. The same applies to radio. In our town there just seems to be too many radio stations to be supported by so few advertisers. Sooner or later, and it is usually during hard times, the weak become the prey of the strong.

In radio, for example, the efficiencies of a large distribution network like Clear Channel can become its Achilles heel. They produce a programming that has all the excitement of beige house paint, because what’s created in St. Louis (or wherever) is used across the country. It is a mass media mindset that doesn’t feel connected to the communities it serves. That’s my opinion only, mind you. I like more control over the sounds I surround myself with as I commute, whether audio books, lectures or music.

Microsoft’s woes may well be their own making as well. I know no one who “loves” Microsoft other than the many employees who have worked for the company and become millionaires thereby. This “Comment” at the end of a ZD Net news story on the layoffs pretty much sums up a lot of peoples’ sentiments.

I'm sad for the employees but I can't hide my Schadenfreude concerning the misery of low quality software we are all subjected to. Every day I lose time because my Windows and Vista computers in the office take so long to start up and so many times they crash. In 20 years Microsoft has not managed to get a DOS operating system that is beyond beta level. The only thing Microsoft got right is building a monopoly for it's shoddy disk operations systems. There are 2 things I ask a DOS to be perfect at: 1) access data on disk/storage 2) find data rapidly. MS fails at both. Consistently. Since about 20 years, since DOS 3.2 the last stable version.... Fortunately at home I have Macs and don't have to work on computers with Windows/Vista-impediments as I do in the office..... I hope the fired employees will find jobs in companies making reliable products that are beneficial to users AND stockholders... sorry guys...
~ Vivifiant, Ohio

In other news, Britney Spears landed a 13 or 14 million dollar book contract this week to write her story. I guess her publisher knows what’s important. Good luck. In two years you’ll probably be able to buy them on Amazon.com for a quarter and use them as doorstops. Or buy four to prop up a claw foot bathtub with a missing leg.

Am I mistaken or is something wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dangerous Places

"Do you feel lucky, punk?" ~ Dirty Harry

Feeling safe is a blessing. Yet sometimes that feeling of safety is an illusion, as is the feeling of insecurity one has in some situations that are unfamiliar. In general, however, we can not assume every place is safe. And even some places that seem safe may be unsafe.

For example, you would think that having an office in the World Trade Center would be safe. You go to work, fire up your workstation, do your thing, have lunch on the 110th floor. Go home. One day, this seemingly safe job routine costs you your life.

Likewise, in Mumbai this past November, you would not have expected a night on the town in this busy upscale commerce center to end in a bloodbath.

Last year the Coen brothers won an academy award for their film interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. When I read the book and later saw the film, it seemed to me that the violence was overblown. Like many Hollywood films, blood and violence goes beyond what anyone imagines would be “real” and serves to create a measure of emotional distance between us and the events happening onscreen.

Yesterday I came across an article about the escalating violence in the Mexico drug trade. Upon further investigation I learned that gangs are killing government agents, that kidnappings are now routine and that there are daily beheadings. The violence has reached epidemic proportions.

President Obama has already met with Mexican president Felipe Calderón to discuss these issues in an effort to restrain the lawlessness. It’s a multi-sided conflict that pits rival drug traffickers (cartels) against each. The result is pitched battles with massive amounts of killing. Many of these gang killings are excessively brutal with the aim of sending a message to their enemies. It’s the kind of mass slaughter we saw in No Country For Old Men, which upon first reading and viewing seemed like a well written, satisfying and compelling work of fiction. It's disturbing to learn that this fiction is really not a work of fiction to some extent. More that 8000 have been killed this past two years in the drug wars.

The multi-sided conflict pits rival trafficking groups -- the so-called cartels -- against each and the Mexican state, but has also seen pitched battles between rival law enforcement units where one group or the other is in the pay of the traffickers.

To my surprise I've now learned that some people suspect the Mumbai massacre was not an act of political terrorists, but rather the work of an Asian mafia involved in international drug trade. Tons of opium is still being grown in Afghanistan for export, even after decades of war. Do government leaders really want to eliminate this black market activity? I don't understand why they're unable to do so. I thought we had the most powerful military in the world? Modern technology and surveillance is such that they claim to be able to read the letters on a golf ball from a satellite in outer space. Why can't they eliminate these Afghan poppy fields?

As is often the case, I really don't know the truth. I only know that there are some dangerous people out there, and some dangerous places. And No Country For Old Men wasn't dreamed up out of thin air. There's some scary stuff goin' down.

And it's at this point where I identify with Larry Norman as he laments, "This world is not my home."


Footnote:
Speculations on Afghan drug trade / Mumbai connections here

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Party Time

A New York Times headline caught my eye this morning: "Europe Set to Party for Inauguration." The Alan Cowell story notes that this is not only an American event. It is a global event.
Former Vice Presidents and Presidents, and dignitaries from the four corners of the world are present. Movie stars and other luminaries are likewise present. And an amazing mob of well wishers and seekers desiring to be part of the celebration.

I'm on the West Coast at the moment. Having just finished breakfast I'm able to watch the unfolding drama on a large screen TV. It's amazing.

The last commercial that played before CNN went uninterrupted was a Pepsi spot featuring the Who's "My Generation." The commercial is superb, positioning Pepsi as the choice for every generation.

I have no idea how many people are gathered on the lawn that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, but it is quite a contrast from May Day 1971 when I stood in that same crowd as part of an anti-war statement many made in my generation. This crowd is waving American flags like crazy. I don't see anyone today throwing rocks at the police.
Perhaps the numbers are a positive, too. There may be millions here today. I stood in the midst of several hundreds of thousands.

Today, seven of the Supreme Court justices are present to participate in this extraordinary experience. In contrast, it was rumored that President Nixon had set up machine guns at the top of the steps in front of the Supreme Court Building lest the building be assaulted by the demonstrators.

I know that a lot of people have seen the Bush presidency as highly divisive, but my sense is that the past eight years was only the culmination of a polarization that began during the Viet Nam era.

Barack Obama's presidency may be a defining moment in American history. Based on the Times story cited above, and because our nation has such influence today, my prayer is that President Obama's reign will be a defining moment in the future history of the world.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Unremembered History of the World, part four-B

SHORT STORY MONDAY

If you have not been following along, que lastima. A prophetic utterance three centuries ago has led to an altered history, a world without war, where humankind is a human family. This segment brings us within ear shot of the story's conclusion.


Unremembered History of the World, part four-B

Judith Remington-Olney stretched out on her back beneath an enormous oak tree. She studied its wrinkled hide and asked it questions. Her eyes traced the knots and gnarls that make an old tree fascinating. She pondered the questions she might ask the tree, and it was then it happened. A reverberation in the earth had begun, so subtle that had she not been attuned to it, she would never have felt it. But there it was, and it made her fearful with excitement.

She, too, trembled and, standing, went near to the tree to feel its fractured and furrowed bark. As she put her arms around the trunk, her fingertips discovered and caressed the scarred X which had been carved into the tree's side twenty-five decades ago and she remembered a story which had been told to her in childhood about an Indian that had been turned into a tree. It was a fable, a tall tale, she had been led to believe. Her parents always said it was something like the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill and all the rest of those early American mythologies that evolve with the frontier.

Now she wondered. These were the blue hills. Could this be the place?

She tried to remember how she had gotten here. One day she would return to this tree and unfold its power.

For two years she gathered together all the family stories, trying to understand her roots. She read with great interest the many books about Olneys in history. She was especially interested in their motivations. Why had her family gone so far in making a mark on the world? What event could have transformed a frontier family into one of the leading families of their time, in every time in which Olney were found?

Judith Remington-Olney re-read the old diaries, and weighed the words carefully.

For another five years she researched the rituals and myths of every culture seeking any and all tales of transformation, and especially transformations pertaining to trees. And as she uncovered the buried histories of our earliest ancestors she found echoes in each of the tale of trees. Even the Holy of Holies in Yahweh's Temple was engraved with cherubim and trees. "I am like a green palm tree," the Psalmist wrote.

Like the story of the flood, which is repeated in a hundred different traditions, so she found the image of the tree as a core image in nearly every culture.

But even still she was not satisfied. She must release the man in the tree. And for this, a deeper ritual would be needed. And so it was that she beneath a stack of books at a library sale she unearthed that rare volume of prophecies called Flight of Gypsies.

Judith became dizzy and lightheaded when she found it. Though she opened it with care, the binding broke when she opened the book. The page before her was titled, "Spell For Turning Trees Into Men". The book nearly dropped from her hand.

In very large letters there had been printed a warning:

"History will revert
to the moment
the man became a tree.
Beware:
This is a Fifth Circle event."

The story concludes here
NOTE: If you have not been following along and wish to begin at the beginning, you may wish to start here and when you catch up to this section, you will either be stoked to continue to the end, or wish you'd experienced a different history.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Turtle at Red Mug

"Art enable us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." ~ Thomas Merton

There's something to be said about restoring old buildings to new uses once they have been abandoned. I have no problem with new buildings that have been designed with style, and with the cost to build them why not spend an extra buck to make it attractive aesthetically as well? Well, there are some very cool old ones out there with character and it's nice to see them re-cycled for good use.

In Superior, WI, where I work, the old Trade and Commerce building at the corner of Hammond and Broadway has become a rather artsy place these days. I vaguely recall going to a book reading there (it might have been one of Mike Savage's Dave Davecki novels) back in the nineties, but it's really come along and filled out well. I'm not sure how many artists are utilizing the building, but there's a bunch of them right now.

In 2004 the Red Mug coffeehouse opened in the basement of the building, serving coffee, wine and beer for anyone wishing an artsy and comfortable atmosphere for getting away from it all. Oh, and they make good soups and sandwiches as well. Mix in a little live music, wireless Internet, friendly staff and a very cool decor, and you have a keen little getaway going.

Last Tuesday I had a meeting there after hours. I saw paintings on the walls by someone who signed his or her name "Turtle." I asked the server for more info and learned Turtle was a waitress there, and that she was having an art opening Thursday. Well, I had to go back and snap a few pictures so I could share them here.

The Twin Ports, Duluth-Superior, has been gaining a reputation as an artsy place to live in recent years. You can't really compare a city like Duluth to cities like New York or Chicago in terms of quantity, but there is a lot happening here in the arts. Visual arts, musicians, theater... it's actually quite impressive. Memo to Richard Florida: The Creative Class is a-risin' right here.
Even the New York Times is jumping on the bandwagon and recognizing what we've got going, having recently referred to our home town as "an artsy shipping city." They could have called us a lot worse. We're happy to receive any tip o' the hat from the Times.

Abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell once said, "Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it." Turtle is a young woman who is seriously enriching others through her art. She's got a good eye for design and color, and a deft hand with a brush. Whatever the future holds for her, I get the impression it will be thoughtfully reflected in her work for as long as she lives.

Now, if only I'd gotten her phone number so I could tell her I've shared her work with you here today.
"There's no retirement for an artist, it's your way of living so there's no end to it." ~ Henry Moore

ALL IMAGES ON TODAY'S BLOG ENTRY by Turtle. Click to Enlarge.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Quo Vadis

"I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." ~ Socrates

This week I've been listening to a lecture series by Peter Kreeft on Ethics. The man is incredibly lucid and I recommend this audio series to anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of oneself, as well as the times we live in. On my way to the recycle center this a.m. I was listening to lecture three on Socrates. Fascinating.

Other than Jesus, no human has more profoundly influenced our world. Nietzsche himself cited Jesus and Socrates as the most significant men and minds of history.

How did Socrates become such a wise man? Here's the story. Socrates had a friend who was granted the opportunity to ask a question of the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle always answered accurately though also with an abstruse ambiguity. When you have only one question to ask of the god, you don't want to be frivolous about the matter. Socrates' friend thus asked, "Who is the wisest man in the world?" The Oracle replied that it was his friend Socrates.

Socrates was astonished to say the least, for he did not consider himself a wise man at all. Therefore, he set about to find just one wiser man than himself to prove the Oracle wrong. Each time he met someone who claimed to be wise or was purported to be wise, he'd needle him or her with questions. Was this person really wise? Socrates sincerely wanted to know. The questions dismantled the facade of wisdom and revealed its lack.

Thus began the Socratic method which ultimately became Socrates' claim to fame. Ask questions. Ask good questions. Ask thoughtful and probing questions. In the process, Socrates indeed became the wise man that the Oracle had prophesied.

Philosophy can be incredibly rewarding, and fun, too. The study of philosophy sweeps us into what is known as "the Great Conversation." By studying the history of philosophy we have an opportunity to dialogue with the great minds of history as they grapple with the three great questions.
1. Who am I?
2. Where did I come from?
3. Where am I going?

These are not religious questions per se. They are heart and soul and mind questions that help us get a handle on what we're about. Part of growing up involves the self-awareness that results from allowing these questions to probe us. How can we choose careers or a life path without knowing, or at least having an inkling of who we are, where we came from and what we're about?

The Latin expression "Quo Vadis" means just this: Where are you going? Are you moving toward illumination, or avoiding the facts of your life? Are you striving to gain understanding and seeking answers to the deep questions of your heart? Or is it only diversion you seek as you move away from the firelight into the desert darkness beyond?

I strongly recommend Peter Kreeft's writings, and especially his Modern Scholar Lecture Series on Ethics. But it doesn't matter to me where you start really. Philosophy is a wonderful and worthy pursuit. And any thread on the garment will lead you to other threads of thought that lead you to yet still more in the great tapestry of life and thought. Carpe diem!

NOTE: The clay figures 'round the campfire were created by my son Micah when he was young and at home.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration Trivia

It's official. At noon on Tuesday, January 20, we'll have a new president. Numero 44. Our first person of color to be officially seated in the Oval Office. Here are a few slices of inauguration trivia to help you get in the mood for this historic event.

Inaugurations used to take place in March. After Obama was elected in November, some people hoped that could be moved up to Thanksgiving, but alas... January it continues to be.

March 4, 1793. At his second inauguration, George Washington delivered the shortest inauguration speech on record. The speech totaled 135 words. There is but a single copy of this analog recording which is played once a year in the national archive to help us remember the father of our country. Inauguration speeches since the First Bush administration have been digital. All speeches since Lincoln, who incidentally was the first to have people of color in his parade, have been digitally re-mastered.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was the first to have a parade afterwards down Pennsylvania Avenue.

James Madison was the first President to take the oath of office outdoors. March 4, 1817. The day has been described as warm and sunny with a temperature at noon estimated to be 50 degrees which allowed more Americans to enjoy and appreciate this grand event.

An unfortunate consequence was that it is seldom fifty degrees in Washington this time of year, especially now that inaugurations are in January.

In 1841 William Henry Harrison decided to brave the elements and deliver the longest inauguration speech ever, an oration lasting an hour, 40 minutes. His bluster was matched by equally blustery weather and Harrison, wearing neither coat nor hat, caught a cold which developed into pneumonia. A month later he died.

Not to be outdone, in 1853, President Franklin Pierce was also sworn into office on a cold and snowy day. The heavy snows continued from morn till just before the ceremony. But, events had been set in motion and the inauguration took place as scheduled. Unfortunately, Abigail Fillmore, First Lady to the outgoing President Millard Fillmore, caught a cold as she sat in the cold and damp during Franklin's swearing-in ceremony. The cold developed into pneumonia and she died by the end of the month.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inauguration was the first to be held on January 20, in 1937. Evidently he was eager to put his first term behind him and get on with the second. Some 200,000 visitors came to Washington for the event. Because of the cold, rainy weather -- nearly 2 inches of the wet stuff -- 3,214 people caught colds which developed into pneumonia. All but three died within a month.

The coldest inauguration came in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was greeted by an arctic blast that included extreme cold and wind. That morning it was 4 degrees below zero with the temperature reaching only 7 degrees by noon. The daytime high reached 17 degrees, but wind chill temps in the afternoon were well below zero. The swearing-in ceremony had to be held indoors and the parade was canceled when half the population of Northern Minnesota caught pneumonia and died. That evening President Reagan conceived of a satellite network which could alter the future of the world and bring an end to the Cold War. By the end of the decade the Berlin Wall fell.... and we've lived happily ever after.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Billy Collins, Poet Laureate

I enjoy reading poetry. I also enjoy listening to audio books when I’m in the car. So what a treat last night when I found an audio presentation of U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading some of his work.

Actually, it is a recording of a live reading, apparently sponsored by National Public Radio because the speaker introducing him begins by saying that before they can begin he will be doing a pledge drive. The audience laughs heartily at the inside joke because it does seem whenever NPR has something especially good for its listeners, it's Pledge Drive season.

Anyways, William “Billy” Collins is an American poet who served two terms as the U. S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 as well as New York State Poet for 2004. I try to picture why he goes by Billy and not William or Bill. I would imagine his mom calling him William when he didn't eat his peas.

Billy Collins is the name and it fits because, like his poetry, it's unpretentious. There's a down-to-earth whimsical quality to a lot of his work. And though I don't much read what poetry critics say because I read to enjoy it, not to write a paper, I'm guessing that some critics might say he's too accessible to be considered "great." My opinion is that his work is a rich mother lode of entertainment and content, word play and imagery, and worth whatever time you invest to sit with him a spell. Especially when it's absolutely frigid cold like as it has been this week in Northern MN. Sit by a fireplace, curl up with Billy, and enjoy his company.

This one is from his book Sailing Alone Around the Room

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun In The House

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
hat he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,
and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.


For a few other comments along this line, read my blog entry The Love of Poetry & Other Surprises. And if you want to take a chance on a handful of poems that I've penned, here are a few early favorites.


And, finally, here is a link to a whole lot of other poems by Mr. Collins, who really is a national treasure.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Simplify

This month's Reason magazine features a cover story titled, in bold yellow letters, THE NEXT CATASTROPHE. Subhead reads: "Think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were a politicized financial disaster? Just wait until pension funds implode."

Truth be told, every Boomer has heard for decades that by the time we're finally eligible for retirement, the cupboards will be bare. The question is, what are we doing about it?

Yesterday I heard a speaker state that the net assets of Americans declined over five trillion dollars last year. Now, unless my math is off, that is a very large number.

For years I have heard other people say that due to the global economy there will be a leveling out in our future. The earth would not be sustainable by raising all peoples to the living standard of (wasteful, debt driven, consumer) Americans. Yet many of us laughed this off. We prefer to listen to protectionist legislators who would help us keep our heads our heads held high, even if they were simultaneously buried in the sand, in denial regarding realities ahead.

I guess at the end of the day, what does this all really mean regarding how you face tomorrow? I would suggest the following.

1. Simplify your lifestyle.
Duane Elgin said, "Live in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich." I don’t think this means we have to become like Gandhi and sit at a spinning wheel making cloth all day. I do think it means we slow down a bit, decide what is important and separate the wheat (things that nourish us) from the chaff (things that do not.)

2. Make a commitment to avoid, reduce or eliminate debt.
The average American family is drowning in debt, which incidentally (as if we need to be reminded) creates stress. Debt is a chain that restricts one’s freedom to come and go as one pleases. Learning to live more frugally now will help you later. Acquisition, the habit of collecting more and more material goods, can be as much of an addiction as meth or gambling, and not so easy to break as we imagine.

3. Increase your value as a person.
I would suggest this on two levels. In your career, commit to be a lifelong learner. Be someone willing to develop new skills and your value will increase steadily. Keep adding new tools to your toolkit and you will be an asset wherever you go. On a second level, become the kind of person others enjoy having around. If worst comes to worst, it’s better to have a network of family and friends who are there to take you in rather than to be the kind of person no one likes having around because you’re a cantankerous, self-centered beast.

4. Decide what is important to you and shuck the rest.
Probably a lifelong commitment as well.

5. Learn to notice and appreciate the good things happening in your life.
For some of us it's a little too easy to have our buttons pushed. For others, we're just moody puddleglums. In either case, we can often become oblivious to the wonder that ever surrounds us. The way the light reflects off a leaf. Or the shimmer of a butterfly wing. The turn of a phrase and multi-layered images in a sprig of keen writing. Or the wonder of music, its rhythms, melodies and harmonies massaging our souls and lifting our spirits to the seventh heaven.

One of the good things happening in my life are the various friends, acquaintances and special persons who have crossed my path over the years. Too numerous to list here, I hope that you know you're one of them. Thanks for checking in from time to time... and for your occasional word of encouragement.

At the end of the day, remember this: hold on to your dreams. Life is for living.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Of Beets and Other Listening Devices

"It has never been my object to record my dreams, just to realize them." ~ Man Ray

This morning when I woke, the dream I'd been dreaming was fresh in my mind. Some of the dreams I have are complete stories, others are fragments, scenes or simply images. Unlike artist Man Ray, it was indeed my object to record my dreams. To realize them, I am not so sure.

I'd developed the habit of keeping a dream journal when I was in junior high school. For six years I wrote hundreds of pages of detail. When it started I felt my night life, or subconscious imagination, was far more interesting than my mundane suburban existence.

The habit eventually dissipated when I went to college. Occasionally, however, as a young artist I would paint a scene from a dream. I remember one painting I'd done, maybe four by six feet, of two boys in swimsuits looking at a floating mattress. An image from a dream.

This morning I woke with a dream scene involving president elect Obama. The image was of a steak being served in the White House. On the plate was what appeared to be a slice of beet. In actuality, it was a listening device developed by the CIA or some other organization that deals with secret things like listening devices, etc. They were especially proud of this one, because it was so real that if you ate it, it could be chewed and eaten just like a beet. No evidence left behind.

They had several other such devices they were working on, all of them food items. A slice of cucumber, a slice of tomato. The tomato slice was totally juicy looking.

Honestly, I don't know what any of it means, but upon waking it was fun to ponder. What are you pondering today? Does it have anything to do with eating your vegetables?

Have a great day. And keep dreaming. It's one of the most original things any of us can do.

PHOTO CAPTION: A plate of eggs, bread and jalapeno is actually more than it appears. Which is the listening device? (click images to enlarge)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Unremembered History, part 4

SHORT STORY MONDAY

Last week, the prophecy was fulfilled that had been given by gypsies upon his birth in England. After marking the tree where an Indian became a man, the Olneys move back East to carve out a different sort of future for themselves... and future history.

Unremembered History of the World, part 4

It happened that back east in Philadelphia young Charles made the acquaintance of a certain Mr. Trent who introduced him to a Mr. Benjamin Franklin. As apprentice and protege to Mr. Franklin, his linguistic fluency and marked self-assurance enabled Olney to obtain entrance to the most influential persons of the age.

His unique ideas about Destiny resulted in a series of debates in Parliament with regard to the future of the Colonies. The combined effect of his writings and the distribution of his ideas via the presses of Franklin led to a Declaration of Freedom in 1775. Without the shedding of blood a Nation of Colonies was born called the United States of America.

Olney became an Ambassador to Europe and travelled extensively. His ideas regarding freedom, trust and Destiny had a broad impact there as well. On his second journey he brought with him sister Elizabeth who remained there and became a Countess in the region now called Austria. Her influence among the Courts of Europe inspired Napoleon to dismantle his armies and ushered in the first Hundred Years Peace.

Meanwhile, in the United States a certain Rogers Olney, first born son of Charles, after touring the Southwest Territories determined that a Fairness Doctrine should be developed with regards to the treatment of lands yet divided. Rogers' vision for a Fruitful Self-Determination became the underpinning of a Mutual Respect Policy between the United States and Santa Ana, then reigning in Mexico. In one of the most remarkable agreements in history, a settlement was reached whereby the Southwest was provided the opportunity to freely determine its future direction. Ultimately, a half century later, this became the Open Border Policy, with a free exchange of wealth and cultural enrichment flowing in both directions. The resultant stability south of the border provided a foundation for peaceful development in all of Latin America. From 1820 onward there were no more revolutions in Mexico and widespread freedom and advancement for all nations to our south.

In the late 1840's Harrison Olney had begun to see the importance of resolving the slavery issue in this country and undertook it as his life work. His cousin, the late Marshall Fleming, as an aide to Disraeli had successfully ushered England to an emancipation for its slaves, without rancor, without cost of life.

Harrison, grandson of Charles, thrice brought his eloquent tongue to the Supreme Court, and to the United States Congress on several occasions. Due to his influence, an equitable emancipation was achieved in 1855, without bloodshed. The country continued to prosper.

With the rich natural resources of its land and an abundance of ingenuity, America rose swiftly to new heights in the world older, respected for its ethics, industriousness and compassion. Descendants of Charles and Elizabeth Olney became leaders in industrial, academic and political life. It came as no surprise that in 1880 an Olney became 18th president of the United States.

The influence of Olneys in Europe was equally remarkable. More than a century had passed without a significant armed conflict. When factions threatened the stability of Europe in the early Twentieth Century, it was Sir William "Sparky" Donovan, great grandson of Countess Elizabeth, who calmed the waters and provided a safe passage for future generations.

In 1920's Germany, because of the economic boom and the lack of a catalyst, a young malcontent named Hitler failed to gain popular support for his strange notions of a Master Race. His fiery rhetoric found no home in the hearts of his hearers, and he resigned himself to operating a pub in Munich where he spent his years developing novel and pointless theories of world conquest.

In Russia, Communism likewise failed to take hold. Affectionately known to the Royal Court as Sir Sparky, Donovan persuaded the Tsar to distance himself from the power-mad Rasputin. Once free of Rasputin's influence, a change came over the royal family and generosity became the ruling ethic of the new era. With its own vast natural resources and an open society, Russia likewise experienced economic growth that invited the united participation of its several regions.

In short, the achievements of the descendants of this one man, Thomas Olney, reverberated throughout the world. In fact, descendants of Olney gained distinction in every field of endeavor, from anthropology to zoology, linguistics to physics, literature and the arts to economics and finance.

In the late twentieth century, Judith Remington-Olney, a biologist and high ranking official in the Red Leaf Foundation (an organization devoted to studying the relationship between trees and humans) developed the notion that it is possible to communicate with trees, that every tree has a story and if one were properly attuned, these stories could contribute in some way to human understanding. (The impetus for her ideas came from a fragment of a dream in which a tree became a man and she heard a voice saying, "I see men as trees walking.")

Remington-Olney enjoyed hiking through the forests of Pennsylvania where she lived and especially in the Blue Mountains. Her father told her stories about the Olneys who settled in Pennsylvania a long time ago, and she often wondered what it must have been like so deep in the wilderness, so far from civilization. She wondered, too, if some of the trees in these old hills once knew her great great great great grandparents. And she often wondered what tales they would tell if they could speak. It was during these hikes that she cultivated her theories of Biological Communication.

What if trees really were the souls of men? What if the spirits of the dead were the Life Force that germinated the seeds of trees in the forest? What if Heaven was nothing more than becoming a tree, arms outstretched, in perfect harmony with the world, ever worshiping the life-giving sun?

These were strange thoughts, but stranger still was her conviction that she could, by some deep magic of the forest, turn a tree into a man. Where this notion came from, from God or the devil, she knew not. It was a powerful idea and it gripped her like nothing ever had before.

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