Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Road trips steer us down memory lane

     “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” Those words were sung by bubbly Dinah Shore on her TV show in the late 50s and prompted folks to take her advice. 
     They hit the road in Desoto Fireflite station wagons – “There’s room for the whole tribe”- Ford Fairlanes and Airstream campers like never before.

     The war was over (World War II), prosperity abounded and there was a housing boom across the country. Life was looking bright for the average young American family, and they took advantage of a two-week paid vacation.
     The 50s, 60s and 70s were the decades of the great American driving vacations with two-lane highways, local diners, shameless billboard advertising, along with amusement parks and national parks as destinations. 
     Cruise back with me in time and connect the dots to your own personal memories.
     Haul out the photo album and browse through all those faded snapshots and share the stories with your grandkids about their parents when they were young, those snippets which can come only from you.
     Imagine a trip in a nutshell, and depending upon your age, you were either in the front seat, back seat or in the third seat way to the rear of the wood paneled wagon.

     After months of pouring over maps free for the asking at the neighborhood gas station, the decision was made now that junior was out of diapers and the big kids were self-sufficient. The final stop might be bunking in with rarely seen cousins living in a faraway state. Perhaps, it was the vacation crossing the country out to the Pacific coast, or to the national capitol in Washington for a glimpse into how our government runs.
     Dad did most of the driving in the four-door sedan – if you were in luck as a kid, it was a station wagon – and he was in charge of timeouts for bathroom breaks and ice cream at Dairy Queen. Kids were often at dad’s mercy, and with his permission, rolling down the back windows brought breezes like natural air-conditioning.
     In fact, watch an early TV show, “Father’s Knows Best,” about a family in the Midwest, and you’ll see who’s in charge in a civilized way, too, not at all like Archie Bunker.
     Mom planned the food and snack menu along with making sure the kids were kept entertained in the car. She appeased dad when he got lost and got him turned around on the right road. The family budget was strict and each child was allotted a small amount of money to spend on souvenirs. Felt pennants, miniature statues and wooden boxes were carried home to become dust collectors.
     Leave it to Beaver’s mom, June Cleaver, made terrific sandwiches while the car was in motion with slices of white bread, peanut butter and jelly slapped on with a knife. A thermos of iced tea or chilled milk in a bottle stored in the Scotch plaid cooler would wash the crumbs down.

     Back then there was a whole different purpose to the slow drive and family togetherness that was a natural occurrence like Sunday dinners after church. Gas prices were so low you could “fill er up” for a five- dollar bill, and you would expect to get change back, too. Imagine having an attendant come smiling out of the station, clean your windshield and check your oil, too, all for the single price of a tank of gas.
     Brothers and sisters were annoying creatures, but kids learned to tolerate each other in tight quarters.  Coloring books, novels and road games were the staples for entertainment. Everyone participated together spotting license plates from other states, and one of the older kids would mark the results on paper. Counting cows, blue cars and the alphabet game were hours of amusement.  
      After a few hours of driving mom and dad might relax enough to begin singing some of their favorite songs from when they first met and fell in love. Parents became real people, too, in the eyes of their children.

     The car was loaded with suitcases, and often they were strapped to the rooftop, too. There was that sense of curiosity out beyond the tree lined streets of home in anticipation of viewing the ocean or the red rocks for the first time.
     A Kodak camera recorded the trip for posterity. After returning home safely, rolls of film were sent to Rochester be processed and the family waited for the envelope or two to arrive in the mail with the photos. Mom would organize them in the album using gummed black stickers at the edges.
    Part of the travel highlights would be roadside picnic meals, and a stop at a campsite for the night, or perhaps, a Howard Johnson motel –the chain with the green weathervane on top of the orange roof and fried clams on the restaurant menu. Ah, the kids could stretch their legs if there was an outdoor swimming pool and get rid of excess energy.        
     Except for the brother or sister who insisted on getting carsick every half hour or so, the car kept rolling. A flat tire or the engine heating up required a stop along the edge of the highway, and they always managed to happen in scorching late afternoon temperatures. Those were the few discomforts that became the stories to laugh over months later.
     There are plenty of people that continue the driving vacation of days gone by, and it suits them well.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Lower the bar

Certain advice on how to become a better writer is nonsense in my opinion. I will go to the opposite extreme and tell you to lower the bar on your personal expectations, and wisely not let anyone else dictate what is best for you. 

 You don't have to tie yourself to the computer or your journal every single day for a set number of minutes. That's torture in my estimation. Remember that professional writers are editing, marketing and promoting their materials, which is a form of on-going writing in itself. 

Writing doesn't happen just because you decide to dedicate early mornings to the craft. It could come at any hour of the day or night, or maybe not at all, for several empty days- hopefully not weeks- in a row. When your mind is ready to release the words, they will appear effortlessly and in beautiful sentences. Otherwise, be out in the world enjoying what life has to offer you. 

Writing doesn't need to planned carefully either. If you permit the muse within to take control, you will find how exciting the creative process takes care of you all on its own.
Practice. Play with words. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Life lesson: How to get yourself back on track

Rain and dampness are descending upon the area outside, so perhaps, it is the perfect day to evaluate what you should do after you have fallen into the pit so to speak and need to get yourself going once again.

1.         You have to realize that you are stuck.

2.      You have to start questioning yourself.

3.   You have to come up with an action plan.

4.   You have to take it a little at a time.

5.   Thank all who helped you, and include a pat on the back for yourself.

6.   Move forward.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Colleagues ponder the creative life


     “You hide things within your writing, don’t you?”
     A colleague raised that question during a conversation between two other creative people.
     That’s a deep thought. I am still wondering about it hours later considering the nature of my latest non-fiction work.
     I had a reply at the moment.
     “Often I do to be truthful. If you know me, you might pick up on it – my belief system, for example, frames my work. Then again, my thoughts could be buried so deeply I have a hard time finding them myself.”

     Well-crafted writing can be read at different levels like peeling away the skin of an apple, and also, from totally different perspectives. There is the surface understanding, or skin, that can fool you with its simplicity. Deeply rooted are the juicy gems of wisdom at the core waiting for a reader to capture and ponder if they so desire. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

No paper and pencil required


     Scrap paper has little important in my life.
     It’s about as useless as carrying extra dimes in my purse for calling from a phone booth, or going through the card catalog in the library to locate a book.
     I go along with a changed world and consider I am benefitting from newer and faster technology.
     Never one to lag behind, I lead a different lifestyle today. I use my notes app on my phone or computer a great majority of the time, and often while I am talking on the phone, too.
     Sometimes I email notes to Kay to remind her to check a website or product, and that’s very noble of me. When I look back at the seemingly related words a day later, chances are that I wonder what the note was all about in the first place, and where I was when I wrote it.
     When I travel I create a blog – I alert people a head of time to subscribe - to share comments and pictures that I glean from the notes I have been keeping on my computer. It does the trick for me in the evenings during my down time, and saves my general Facebook friends from suffering through my pictures.
     I often see other travelers with their heads buried writing in notebooks when they should be absorbing their surroundings getting a whole sensual experience. I am not much for that, and I collect thoughts like a rain barrel throughout the day. They will come pouring out on paper, and in the case of a trip to Ireland, it took two or three months after returning home for the adventure to make sense and “A Smidgen of Irish Luck” to be written.
     My cell phone takes pictures of book covers in stores I want to borrow from the library, or products I want to check on the Internet for more details.
     My pocket calendar went in the trash along with my shoulder pads and cinch waist belts years ago.
     I used to be a connoisseur of nifty note pads in all sizes, shapes and colors, and I would line them up in all the usual places - on my desk, bedside, purse and in the kitchen ready for action.

     Then like everyone else, I could never find something to write on when the phone rang. I raced from room to room in the house trying to maintain a level, professional voice searching for paper and pencil frantically.
     It is a good thing the other person couldn’t see me running, or stumbling, with one shoe on and the other off. Only my heavy breathing would give me away if I were careful not to remain a semblance of calmness.
     Or, worse yet, a week later I couldn’t find the slip of paper that had an important phone number that I needed instantly.
     Now it’s the White Pages, or “ask Siri” to get the information. No sweat. Our phonebook is hidden somewhere on the bottom shelf about as worthless as the deep fryer and bread maker I gave away in the last century.
     I noticed yesterday that the young person on the phone from my travel company talked slowly and loudly — I dislike that, and consider it an insult — and said that he would wait while I found a piece of paper and wrote the instructions down. Yikes. I was ten steps ahead of him already and on the company’s website filling in the information required about my passport. I am sure that he had been trained to deal with all types of older clients, and I don’t fault him. He did start moving along at my faster pace once he caught on to me.
     To this day when I get ready to throw a piece of paper in the trash, I think fondly of my former teaching colleague. She made a fetish over cutting up larger lined composition paper into quarters and cutting them down to size with the paper cutter. She used the backs of papers, too. Her trashcan was down to the bare minimum most of the time.  Even her students went along and helped out. She was living green and I applaud her earnest endeavor.
    She had me so well trained that every time I was about to toss a sheet of paper into the trash, I would make a slow arc in my pitch and often stop in midair to retrieve the paper before it went to its demise in the circular bin.
     I use less paper taking notes when I am writing a feature story, and I tape record it for better accuracy. The trusty notebook remains for capturing impressions about the interviewee or the location, body language clues and highlighting quotes that might work in the body of the story.
     My grocery list is on my cell phone, and I like that I can add to it when I am away from the kitchen when a thought comes into my head. My daily to-do-list is on my computer synced to my cell phone for easy checking throughout the day. With Wiki, Google and YouTube at my fingertips, it saves hours of time and less endless copying.
     Don’t think I am bragging, or can explain how going into the Cloud works by a long stretch. I just go into thin air, and leave it to the techies to figure it out.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fall is slipping in

Crisp air awakens autumn’s arrival with nippy morning starts and warm rays of sunshine in the afternoon sky. Sweaters and light jackets in the morning are cast off by noon and underneath are the remnants of summer clothes fighting not to be put away just quite yet. Falling leaves haven't accumulated enough to require raking, and in the meantime, apples and pumpkins are making their presence known as a perk.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Truth, or not?

At the very last minute…It is one of the better story starters I’ve run across and it has me baffled.

I start writing a few words, and in order to keep at it, the piece would turn into an untruth about me. That’s not non-fiction at all. You can’t make things up and get away with it for long before the reader catches on to your unsavory ways. Trust is lost and the reader returns to more reliable authors.

Perhaps, on the other hand, I have recalled a slice of my life that I don’t wish to share with anyone. The thought is hovering beneath the surface and is fighting to stay hidden. My books to date have been quite personal, yet there comes a point when privacy prevails.

At the very last minute I decide it is best to save that idea and use it in a fictional piece of writing. I will have the perfect story to tell you someday.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A few thoughts on chain restaurants

     The waiting line at The Olive Garden wraps around the corner, and it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon. No matter what the hour of the day, a customer can never find a table, whether they are in Dallas or Rochester.
     Someone wrote an observation on Facebook about not “getting it” and went on to say that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed on a rainy day visit with friends to The Olive Garden for the very first time.
     Perhaps, folks feel comfort going to a chain restaurant where they know what to expect without much thinking on their part like repeating a habit. It fits in with their overall personality.
     Branding has succeeded and consumers living at a frantic pace can be served a decent meal for a nominal price every single visit. The place bustles with an atmosphere and d├ęcor that looks identical everywhere, too, which reassures people that in some things nothing changes, which is so rare in the world today.
     Going to The Olive Garden, or any other chain restaurant for that matter, is a simplistic approach to dining. It's not what I would consider adventuresome eating at all, but who am I to say what others should do? (My personal likes vary from ethnic meals to gourmet farm-to-table).

     Certainly I am not giving The Olive Garden a negative review here either. They have done their research well and attract the clientele suitable for their purposes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

New learning curve for the 21st century

Note to readers: No matter how old I am, September transports me back to the classroom - even if it is in my mind. New books. New outfits. New teachers. Best of all, it signals a fresh start.

     Don’t skip to another article. This is not your traditional column hailing September’s arrival with a pep talk on looking forward to a new school year. Keep reading.
     Youngsters are not the only ones on a learning curve. Improving yourself is a lifelong vocation.
     Learning doesn’t stop when high school Algebra and history books have been tossed into the corner shelf, or stored in mom’s attic never to be retrieved until a major ultimatum comes down on your head.
     What’s great about the electronic age is that you don’t have to wait for an instructor or step into a classroom. Talk about instant gratification. Try instant learning.
     Hello, YouTube.
     When in doubt about “how to,” go to YouTube. The short video explanations are so specific you can solve almost any snafu from a clogged sink to avoiding a kayak spill.
     Suppose your new goal is to learn how to use chopsticks sufficiently in preparation for daily meals on a trip to Japan, or even for an authentic experience in a local restaurant. You don’t want to starve, or be the lone duck rudely pulling out a plastic fork from your pocket expecting everything to be on your terms.
      I searched for a video – I got several – on eating with chopsticks, and best of all, I found two for lefties, too. That’s a win-win personally.
     I take to visual learning slowly, and I do blame it on the fact that most instructors have never been able to successfully reverse movements to teach me and I used to become frustrated as a kid. I would shut down and quit trying.
     With YouTube, I repeat the video over and over until I get it figured out. All my sloppy attempts and false starts can be done in the privacy of my own home, and I don’t have to move on until I am ready. It sure takes the pressure off keeping up with everyone else in class who are going forward, and here I am still stuck poking at my slippery noodles ungracefully.
     Since I have more than one video to watch, I can pick and choose until I find an instructor that explains and demonstrates well for me.
     The going is slow and practice makes perfect with chopsticks. I watched a woman at a Wegmans’ restaurant doing a beautiful job of coordinating her chopsticks like her fingers were bonded with them comfortably, and it gave me hope that I will be like her some day soon.
     TED Talks can be listened to around the clock, and most fascinating. You might work your way through a series of 11 lectures on what’s really going on in the world. One that is particularly interesting is what to do when antibiotics don’t work anymore. Another is the surprising way that groups like ISIS stay in power.
     We all laugh and “google” without stopping to think about what we did without it at our fingertips. Considering how much research you do on a daily basis using Google, it shouldn’t surprise you it has become an extension of your arm.
     I have a habit of watching TV with my iPad nearby to “google” more background information – place of birth, for example – for a guest personality on a late night talk show. Why I need such trivia filling my mind, and of what use it will be in the future, I cannot explain since I seriously doubt I will go on Jeopardy any time soon. 
      Great Courses is a source of audio and video lectures on every possible academic subject taught by college professors including retired SUNY Geneseo Professor and LCN columnist, Bill Cook. If you want to know more about opera, Mark Twain or world politics, you’ve found the right venue. Better yet, there are no tests or term papers required.
      Perhaps, the Osher Lifelong Learning institute at RIT suits the bill for learning in a group setting. If you missed out on a college education earlier in life, or you are simply inquisitive and want to keep your mind sharp, at Osher you can invest your time with other likeminded souls.
     Online courses ranging in cost from free to several hundred dollars are options, too. I’ve tried them and discovered by trial and error how to chat with virtual classmates and professors.
      In this day and age, many adults of all ages line the halls for college courses part time to advance both professionally and personally.
     I applaud all of you for your efforts and commitment. It is no easy task balancing work and home life with coursework. I’ve been there and done that stint twice. It is so worth it in the end, though.
     My niece received her nursing degree while managing a medical office thanks to the caring doctor who saw more potential in her and suggested she return to college. Her husband would grunt and groan over the two and a half years it took for “both” of them to get the degree. Now she is a happy emergency department nurse in a city hospital and continues advancing in her field.
     Community colleges are beneficial in that respect. We are fortunate in this area to have Genesee Community College, Monroe Community College and Alfred State nearby with faculty attuned to providing personalized attention.  
      Visual learner. Auditory learner. Hands-on learner. You’re one of them, or perhaps, a combination. 

     Happy learning this fall to one and all. There’s a lot for you to discover.  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Show me the proof

 September 3, 2015 and nothing new has changed in the appeal process. It’s frustrating. Very frustrating. The robbery occurred over four years ago to the month, although the lawyers have warned over and over that it would take time to settle up.

From my point of view – I am telling you that I am innocent of all charges – the whole situation has ruined my life. I can’t keep a steady job- not that I had the greatest job in the first place. My emotions are too raw and I can’t deal with the public. All it takes is one uppity customer, and I loose it. I don’t even want to tell you how my girlfriends have given up on me, and it feels overwhelming when I hear their reasons, which I probably shouldn’t blame them. Who wants to be connected up with a loser like me when I could end up in jail – I am innocent of all charges like I said before – and have to deal with all that mess.

It’s time to tell you what happened that fall and you can decide for yourself to stand with me, or not. Two masked men robbed the Super Convenient Store on Park Place on a Saturday night a little past eleven. I was working behind the counter. It had been a busy night and there was a lot of cash in the drawer, which is not unusual for a weekend. The boss would be coming in by around twelve-thirty to check on things and put the money in the safe in his office. The robbers were quick – “Give the cash and be quiet, Maury” – and held out a canvas bag for me to put it in. I couldn’t tell much about them, if they had guns or not, except they knew my first name. One wore a faded Carhartt jacket with frayed cuffs and the other a black sweatshirt with a Metallica picture on the front. They appeared to be in their twenties, if that, and not nervous or jerky. That’s all I told the policeman later.

There was only one witness, a guy in a Harley jacket, who hid behind the cooler during the robbery. I didn’t even remember him coming into the store, but apparently he was there observing it all. He’s my problem. He recalled to the investigators that I was too friendly to the robbers and since they called me by name, I must be part of their scheme to have given over the money so easily. The prosecuting attorney took it one step further and concluded that I had told them when the best time of week for a robbery for the optimal haul. Someone I hardly know – I think we went to high school together - stood up in court as a witness saying he had seen me hanging out with these robbers in a karaoke bar outside town a month earlier. So, I am now an accomplice to a crime I know nothing about.

You need to know something else about me that I have been holding back. I didn’t want to loose your sympathy for my plight so early on in the story. I have an armed robbery arrest in my background and served jail time as a teen offender, and that crime I will admit I did commit. The one other guy with me when we robbed the hardware store has not fared so well, and he has been in and out of jail.  I paid my dues, cleaned up my act and now a paying job in a small store is where I was on that dreaded night when my life unraveled.

I will wait it out. I have the truth on my side this time. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An early morning people-watcher

A dirty blond-haired woman in a tan raincoat buttoned up to her neck strolls past the diner where I am seated by the window. Normally, I don’t give passersby a second look at this time of the morning. Everyone is walking briskly on his or her daily routes heading to work or school. This woman stands out way too much to be part of the mass commute. No one these days wears a three-quarter-length trench coat with shoulder pads from the 80s. Instead, they are uniformly outfitted with backpacks or oversized shiny totes and short jackets busy texting or listening to their iTunes.

When the woman comes back into my sight a second time as if retracing her steps, I realize she has another purpose being on 23rd street so early. Seconds later, she and a guy in a worn jeans jacket and patchy pants young enough to be her son, enter the front door and take a corner booth out of my sight. I get back to my toast and bacon with a glance at my watch realizing I would need to be on my way to the office shortly. Before I leave my tip, I glance over my shoulder and see that the two are huddled together and their hands are gesturing back and forth while they engage in a lively conversation, or argument. As I go up to the counter to pay my bill, the young guy brushes past me and disappears out the swinging door. When I leave, the woman is sitting there like a statue with her coat still buttoned up to her neck holding her coffee mug as if she is caressing it for comfort.

I make a choice not to think about that scene anymore during the day and leave it there at the diner. It’s fun to watch people until heavy emotions set in which might require something more of me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Hold off a little longer, fall

Fall is hesitant to enter the scene. It is being pushed behind the curtains and it will remain there in the understudy role. On cue, autumn’s time is coming to shine brilliantly on stage and receive well-deserving applause. The play will be magnificent.