January 15

A Different Perspective

Most of us look at the world from our singular point of view. We have our preconceptions, our opinions, our way of doing things, and all that shapes the way we see and interpret the world around us. This is the sum of who we are, how we were raised, the things we’ve been exposed to (opinions, education, etc.) over the years. 

Obviously, there are both good and bad aspects to having this singular point of view of the world. It often makes us see the world with blinders on so we don’t see the whole picture. It limits us by keeping us in a box. It’s like looking through a cardboard tube. You can see straight ahead, but you can’t see anything on either side. And depending on the circumstance, this can be incredibly dangerous.

As a writer, I feel that a limited perspective can hamper creativity. What I mean is, if I’m only exposing myself to a certain amount of outside input, then I’m not giving myself an opportunity to learn, to grow as an artist.

But it also goes deeper than that. Outside of art, in the real world, forcing oneself to see things from other perspectives is healthy. It challenges us to side other sides of issues, to consider other options and opinions, and it helps us to grow as individuals. Living in a bubble may be comforting, but it’s not realistic. 

Of course, I’m not claiming that every side and every opinion deserves equal consideration. For example, if someone wants to believe the world is flat, that’s their choice and they are welcome to their viewpoint. However, I also know this is bullshit and I won’t waste my time going down that path to explore all their claims. The science is sound and there’s no disputing it, so why give this opinion equal weight? 

I guess there’s a weird gray area when it comes to other viewpoints. What I mean is, we have to use good judgement, reason, and common sense when it comes to exploring other perspectives. And really, even when we consider the facts from all sides, we still have to incorporate our own perspectives and opinions. 

Take exercise. There are facts that support daily, intense cardio for a long and healthy life. But there are other facts that support lower-impact exercise achieving the same goal. In this case, I look at the facts on both sides and determine what’s best for me and my situation. The same applies to economics, politics, even relationships. You may have two people vying for your romantic attention (because you’re a player) so you have to look at both of these suitors, weigh the pros and cons, listen to their arguments as to why each one is the better mate, then make a decision based on your own perspective, feelings, experiences.

Looking at things from different perspectives is healthy, but as I mentioned above, we have to also use common sense and reason. Just because someone has another opinion doesn’t make the right or wrong, they just see things differently than we do. There’s nothing wrong with that, barring they aren’t using their opinion to justify hatred, violence, or being an asshole to other people. 

The point, I think, is to simply keep an open mind and be willing and capable of changing your opinions on occasion. It’ll make you a better person and open you up to all sorts of new ideas. And for creative individuals, this will feed your imagination. 

RB

January 13

Old Photos

Is it weird that I like to look through old photos? Not just family pictures, but also those of strangers. I find it fascinating to look at these moments captured in time, frozen for eternity, and wonder what became of the people.

With family photos, it’s interesting to see the faces, the expressions, and know that I share DNA with these people. Occasionally, I can see how certain facial features or physicality carried on through the generations. The way the eyes are set in a face, or the shape of a nose, maybe a hairline. 

Old photo of two young women.

And with family, I generally know something about the unfamiliar – yet familiar – faces set in black and white or faded color. I know that they had children, where they lived, maybe even when and how they died. There isn’t much mystery there, but it’s still interesting to see them there in my hand and to wonder about their lives. Were they happy? Content? Did they love? Hate? Feel regret? Were they content with their lives or did they long for something more?

Recently, I’ve been helping my partner clean out some clutter at her parent’s house and I’ve stumbled upon several photo albums and boxes filled with old photos. It’s like discovering hidden pirate treasure. Most of the photos are older ones, black and white, sepia-toned, color-tinted. All the faces are strangers to me, people I’ve never met, know nothing about, and I’ve spent far too much time the past few days sifting through these pictures and wondering.

That’s where my weird obsession comes into play. I like to look at these old photos, these strangers, and wonder about their lives. I have no direct relation to these people, no idea what they were like, where they lived, what they might have felt. A few photos may have names, a date, maybe a location scribbled on the back with a pencil, but most are unblemished, leaving me to use my imagination to fill in the blanks.

I  guess it’s the writer in me that enjoys this activity. I get to make up stories about complete strangers, create personalities, wants, needs, desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. That’s an amazing feeling, the creative process. By using the photos as prompts, I also feel like I’m exercising my imagination, giving it a workout, like a light cardio session. I can stare at the faces of strangers and just…well, just make things up. 

For fun, I included a few of the photos in this post so you can have a better idea of what I’m looking at, what I’m actually seeing. Out of curiosity, what is it that you see when you look at these photos? Does your imagination kick into gear and begin to wonder about the possibilities? Do you feel any connection to these strangers from the past? Do you think you may have had anything in common with them? 

I think that old photos are some of the best ways to give my creativity a jump-start. I still have a few hundred photos to browse, but I plan on setting aside some of the more intriguing ones. Maybe there are a few stories hidden in those boxes and photo albums. I’m looking forward to finding them.

RB

January 5

Mile Marker 2021

I used to think of years as compartmentalized and isolated blocks of time. Each year stood alone, separate from the rest like rooms in a house. Each one is unique, set apart, with its own look and feel. I would set goals for myself when the new year began and, in my head, I’d see that I would have 365 days to meet them.

But over the past few years I’ve begun to think of years as mile markers, like the ones you see on the highways here in the US. Traveling down Interstate 10 (which runs through Tallahassee) you see these small green signs every few minutes that noted when you crossed another mile. Just another way to track your pace and how far you’ve gone.

Seeing years like this has been helpful. What I mean is, I no longer look at years as these independent entities. Time flows like a river – or a highway – and it’s useful to have these signposts that remind us how far we’ve come. When I looked at them as stand-alone blocks, I think I was limiting my view of life. When I was imagining years as those aforementioned rooms, it was like I was isolating my time periods. Each year was for a stage of my life, the next one was for another stage, and so on.

In a way, it was like I was sitting in one room for 365 days, then when the calendar flipped I got up and moved into another room. Now, however, I feel like I’m free to move around the house, find a room that fits my mood for the day and settle in. Plus, it’s a good way to assess my progress, both professionally and personally.

The reason I changed my view was because of frustration. This year is a perfect example. For pretty much everyone, 2020 was a shit year. A global pandemic, lock downs, isolation, loneliness, job loss, deaths, and unprecedented politics. We lost family, friends, loved ones. But one thing I kept hearing from people was that they were ready for the year to end, for 2021 to begin, and for a return to some sense of normalcy.

But the thing is, the slate isn’t erased when the calendar flips. There’s no fresh start, no sudden clearing of the air, no get out of jail free card. Everything that we’ve been dealing with in 2020 is simply rolling over into 2021. And personally, I think that’s a detrimental mindset. We get it in our minds that everything will be fine once we see the clock strike midnight on December 31st, but it doesn’t work that way. So when it doesn’t happen, when the crappiness continues, then we get depressed, anxious, annoyed. It’s like thinking that when you hit that next mile marker everything will change, the landscape, the weather, the way you feel. But it won’t. The highway continues into the distance.

I’m finding that the highway and mile marker metaphor eases my mind. I’m not setting myself up for disappointment. I’m being realistic, rational, and accepting that things don’t change just because we made another circuit around the sun. But at the same time, a new year does hold promise, much like traveling on a new, unexplored stretch of highway. There are new possibilities, new options, new challenges. And there’s hope.

Speaking of which, I hope you have a wonderful start to your new year, that your engine runs cool, that your tires maintain their tread, and that the wind is always at your back, helping to push you onward to better days.

RB

December 31

Still Alive!

Yeah, I’m still among the living and finally getting the opportunity to get back to my creative life. Not yet full time, but I’ll now have a little more time to spend on it. 

The past month and a half has been rough. A couple of elderly family members have been declining health-wise and my partner and I are the only ones around to take care of them. That turned out to basically be a full-time job for both of us. We took a couple of weeks off from work in order to have the time and energy to do all the things that needed to be done. And we’re still mentally, physically, and emotionally drained.

But I think we’ve gotten past the worst of it. In the beginning we didn’t know what to do, what decisions to make, where to find answers. We were running in circles, barely getting any sleep, and incredibly frustrated and anxious. In situations like this, there’s no way to prepare and it’s not easy to find answers when you don’t know where to look. 

We got lucky, however, when Big Bend Hospice entered the picture. One of the family members was deemed ready for hospice care, and so they’ve come into the home to help us with medical stuff, bathing this individual, getting us the necessary medical equipment, and most of all, allaying our fears and pointing us in the right direction so we can access the information we need to make decisions. It’s an amazing non-profit organization and I can’t thank them enough.

Additionally, we were able to find a memory-care facility for the other family member. It’s just barely affordable, but we’re working on that. Again, we’ve gotten lucky and found a place that had an available bed, wasn’t ridiculously expensive, and hasn’t had a single instance of COVID since the lockdown began. The staff has been amazing – reassuring, polite, professional, and I’ve been impressed by how well they handle the residents. 

The thing is, both my partner and I still feel on-edge. I think it’s PTSD. For a couple of weeks there we are pushed to our limits. Dealing with someone with dementia isn’t easy, especially when they get themselves worked up about odd things. Like, fixated on taking care of some babies (no babies in the house – haven’t been for decades), looking everywhere for them, and panicking when they can’t find them. It was trying.

If nothing else, this chapter of our lives (my partner and mine) shows that we have a good relationship and a strong bond. Despite all we’ve gone through, we’ve stayed side-by-side, supported one another, tag-teamed responsibilities, and kept each other sane. Mostly. It goes to show that as long as we sincerely care and respect one another, we can accomplish anything. We’re a good team, she and I. I’m proud of that.

So yeah, I’m slipping back into the shallow end of the creative pool, dipping my toes in before I fully immerse myself. I have a lot of creative energy and ideas that have been shelved for far too long. Time to pull them out of storage, dust them off, and have a little bit of fun. 

RB

December 9

Review – The Name of the Rose

Back in the late 1980s, I saw a film titled, The Name of the Rose, and thought it was fantastic. It starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater, and told the story of murder, intrigue, and forbidden books in a medieval monastery. Connery’s character, William of Baskerville, was a sort of a Sherlock Holmes in that he paid attention to little details to discover clues. Slater played his apprentice, Adso, who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on an exciting part of his young life. Sadly, the film didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s always been one of my favorites. The movie, like so many, was based on a novel by the same name and written by first-time novelist Umberto Eco, an Italian medievalist and philosopher.

Now obviously, I was interested in reading the novel, but I hesitated. This was in part due to the fact that the book was daunting. Over five-hundred pages and filled with philosophy, theology, social and political commentary, and peppered with all sorts of references to other sources – books, art, historical events, biblical prophecy – and was apparently a difficult read. In fact, someone who had attempted to read it warned me that in order to truly understand the novel, a reader needed to be well-versed in medieval architecture, monastic life, philosophy, and fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin. I decided to pass.

But earlier this year I finally found the courage to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. Of course, I had two choices – a physical copy or an e-book. I went with the physical copy, hardbound, because I knew that if I made it through this beast, I wanted to have a trophy for my bookcase. And yes, if I chose the e-version I would have all the translations at my fingertips. But I felt that was cheating. I wanted the full experience as Eco intended.

Was it a difficult read? Yes and no. The story itself is wonderful. William and Adso arrive at the monestary to prepare for an important theological debate between religious orders. But they arrive just as a murder is discovered, and from there the story turns into a murder mystery that rivals anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. William’s character is definitely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, seeing the minute details of different situations and amazing the other monks with his discoveries.

The mystery – and additional murders – all seem to center on the monastery library, a collection said to rival and possibly surpass the great Library of Alexandria. Books from all over the known world, in all known languages, and many of them forbidden and kept hidden from all but the Abbot and head librarian. William and Adso are told at the very beginning that they are not permitted to enter the library, but they both know that’s where they will find the answers they seek.

The narrative, however, can run into dry spots. Eco was an incredibly intelligent man and the writing shows this. There are pages and pages of theological discussions about the nature of Christ, his poverty, the place of the Church in a changing society. While interesting, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. And no, it’s not necessarily pertinent to the story itself, but it does help to give perspective and background to the many characters. Additionally, with careful reading you can find little clues as to their motivations and possibly the part they may – or may not have – played in the murders.

There is also quite a bit of untranslated Greek and Latin. I did okay with the Latin. Well, I was able to discern small bits. I grew up Catholic, attended mass on a regular basis, and my great-aunt was a nun, so when the Latin was religious text, I was able to make some sense out of it. The Greek was, well, Greek to me and I ended up going online to translate it. There are also a lot of references to ancient texts and religious dogma that I wasn’t familiar with, so I kept my pad nearby for a quick Google search every few pages. I’ll admit, it definitely slowed my reading speed to a crawl, but that was okay. The book – the story – was immersive and having to do this research made the experience interactive. It’s like I was participating in the story to some degree.

I’m glad I finally found the courage to read this novel, and now that I’ve finished it, I plan to re-read it in the near future. The next time, however, I plan to do some research ahead of time to find out what tidbits I missed on my first pass. As I mentioned above, Eco peppered the novel with all sorts of meta-references, so I want to make sure I catch them all. It’s sort of like watching a well-written movie. You watch it the first time for entertainment, but then you go back and rewatch it to catch all the little things you may have missed the first time. To me, that’s good art because it warrants additional viewing, or reading.

If you enjoy murder mysteries, medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a story that blends fact with fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. But be warned, it’s an undertaking and you may want to go with the e-version to make it easier on yourself. It might also help to watch the movie, first. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Plus, Sean Connery is perfect in the role.

RB

December 7

Knuckleball

It’s been said that life occasional throws us a curveball. You know, things go sideways, our plans go awry, and we have to adjust and adapt. However, it’s not just curveballs that life tosses at us. On occasion it’s a knuckleball.

For those unfamiliar with the baseball terminology, a curveball is basically a ‘breaking ball’, meaning, instead of it coming straight at you, the pitcher makes the ball curve (up, down, this way or that way) and that, in turn, makes it difficult to hit. But they tend to fly on a consistent trajectory, an arc. A knuckleball is an entirely different beast of a pitch, and it’s rare that you can find a pitcher who can throw one. The way the ball is held on release causes it to wobble wildly on the way to the catcher (who has to wear an oversized mitt in order to have a chance of catching the ball). A knuckleball is almost impossible to hit.

And that’s where I am at the moment. I’m at the plate watching these knuckleballs coming at me and I’m trying my best not to strike out.

Not to get into too much personal detail, but my partner and I are dealing with ailing family members and it’s extremely difficult, especially with the ongoing pandemic. Assisted living is out because those are hotbeds for the virus. Home health care is a possibility, but it’s also ridiculously expensive. And it’s just the two of us trying to maintain two homes, tend to two elderly people, and at the same time work our jobs and keep our relationship intact.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not looking for help or handouts. At the moment we have things under control. Mostly. But I wanted to write this post to let readers know why I haven’t been as active online as I usually am. My blog posts dried up, my social media accounts are sprouting cobwebs, and my creative output has come to a screeching halt. I’ve been prioritizing family, first, and everything else comes after.

The selfish part of me is frustrated because I love to be creative, to write, record my podcast and cooking videos, to interact with all the amazing people in my social media feeds, but at the moment it all seems so far away, so insignificant when it comes to quality of life and doing the right thing. I miss it dearly and I’m trying to make the time to be creative, even for just a few minutes every day, but in the current situation things seem to change hour by hour: The pharmacy called and meds are ready for pickup; this doctor called to reschedule an appointment; another doctor called because they want bloodwork done; we’re running low on food or other needs; and my dogs need to be fed and exercised; my fish need to be fed; yard work; house work; nine-to-five job…

I think another apt analogy would be comparing our situation to those amazing Chinese acrobats that keep plates spinning on top of those long sticks. Can’t take your eyes off them for a moment or else one will drop and shatter. And if one goes down, others will follow.

Anyway, I’m doing my best to keep things going, to swing at those knuckleballs and avoid getting hit by a wild pitch. I’ll be working on getting back into some sort of creative routine and hopefully you’ll hear more from me soon.

Wish me luck!

RB

November 23

Banned Books in California

I’m a proponent of freedom of expression, that authors should be able to write about any topic they please. Partly because I believe in self-expression, but also because I feel that writing about all topics – especially sensitive ones – is a good way to explore them and see them from different angles. I’ll admit, not every controversial book is well-written and I can’t state that all authors have the best intentions. However, at the very least, the controversies spark conversations, and the conversations can lead to education and understanding.

So I was annoyed to see that schools in Burbank, California have decided to ban five books due to concerns over racism. The titles in question are:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Cay
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

The problem, from what I understand, stems from several white students making racists remarks to their black classmates, and when confronted about it claimed they said these things because they’d read them in these books. Understandably, the parents of the black children were upset about this and appealed to the school board to pull these titles from the required reading list.

Okay, I completely get where the parents are coming from on this. They want to protect their children. However, I feel that the problem here doesn’t lie with the content of the books, but in how the books are being taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a story about how a town deals with racism. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it works as a teachable moment. Not all innocent men go free, and the guilty aren’t always punished. In this case, an innocent young black man is convicted of a horrible crime by an all-white jury in a small southern town. It’s not encouraging racism, it’s showing the terrible results of it. Huckleberry Finn is similar in that it shows a period of history where racism was normal and accepted, and how a young man experiences it while having adventures with his friend Jim, a slave. If nothing else, this story is a satire of the attitudes of the time period and a interesting piece of history.

With this situation in the Burbank school district, it appears these messages were lost on the students or possibly not conveyed in a meaningful way. This isn’t the fault of the stories. The anti-racism messages are there. I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first three books on the list, but I did look up the other two in order to have some perspective. To me, it seems like the schools need to reassess how these books are taught. It’s obvious that the students – or at least some of them – came away from these stories with the completely wrong idea.

But even so, instead of banning the books, the schools and parents need to use this as a tool to help their children understand racism, the root causes of it, the history of it, and how we can move beyond it. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I believe that racism stems from fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different. Exposure to different ideas, different cultures, different ideas, and the ability to think critically, are some of the remedies. I know that there are other causes, but I feel these stories can be used as windows to the past, so show children how things used to be and how we can be better than we were.

I’m always anti-censorship, especially when it comes to fiction. I hope the schools in Burbank can reconsider their decision, reinstate these books, and teach them properly. Our future depends on it.

RB

 

 

 

November 20

A Dream to the Rescue

There’s a story idea I’ve been brooding over for quite some time. It’s a science-fiction piece, set on a colony world that’s not terribly dissimilar to the early settlers in the American Old West. Not the cowboy era, but more like the homesteaders, eking out a living from the land around them.

But I’ve been stuck on it. I’ve made four solid attempts to write the story, but each time I end up dissatisfied by the first draft. And each successive draft has been very different from the previous one. So I filed it away out of frustration, but every so often it would pop into my head and I’ll think about it for a while…then move on to something else.

The thing is, the premise of the story is good, solid. I’m good with it. Where I’m running into problems is with the narrative. I can see the basic arc in my head, but I haven’t been able to find the right narrative to fit it, if that makes sense.

However, the other night I was laying in bed, drifting off to sleep, and I started thinking about the story again. I love that half-awake/half-asleep time, where reality and dream mingle and my mind drifts back and forth across the divide. That’s when I have some of my best story ideas, work out problems, inhabit my characters and see through their eyes. And once again, it came through for me. I could see my protagonist working in a  tilled field, planting seeds and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bandanna. He hears the clang of the church bell in town, about a quarter of a mile away, and he sees a young boy running down the dirt road next to the field. The boy stops, breathless, and says, “Did you hear? The angel is coming back! Reverend Kyle saw it in the sky last night!” And something in my imagination clicked. I had it.

It turns out I’ve been overcomplicating the damn thing, overthinking it. That’s one of the curses of being a writer. Ray Bradbury, one of my writing idols, used to keep a note tacked over his typewriter that read, “Don’t Think!”. That’s good advice. Overthinking it instead of letting the story tell itself is usually what trips me up. And again, Bradbury was right. I miss that man.

Now I have a plan, I can see the story more clearly now what I need to do. It’s a weird feeling – part excitement to finally have a clear path; part anxiety from so many failed attempts. But I feel more confident, ready to tackle this little monster and get it all down on paper. Or on my hard drive. This is one of the last couple of stories I’m working on for my next collection. The end is in sight. Way in the distance, but  I now know I can make it.

My take away from this is to constantly remind myself: Don’t Think. I need to follow Bradbury’s lead and get that printed up in big, bold letters and tack it to the wall over my writing space. And maybe get it tattooed on my forehead. Backward, of course, so I can read it in a mirror.

Now..gotta get back to it. I have a story to write. Thanks, Mr. Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury

RB

November 18

Songwriting

Music has always been a big part of my life. In fact, I’d much rather listen to music than watch television or a movie. It’s background noise when I’m doing chores around the house or writing, it motivates me when I get up in the morning, and it lulls me to sleep at night. I don’t know what I’d do without it.

Recently, I decided to pick up the guitar again after far too many years away from it. Partly because I’ve missed it, but also because I’ve felt this urge to play and to create music. Back when I used to play fairly regularly, I was always learning songs that other people wrote. It was fun to learn something familiar that I could play to keep myself entertained, or to play for a couple of friends while we had drinks and conversation.

But lately I’ve had this urge to try my hand at writing my own song. I was sitting in the living room the last week with my guitar in my lap, mindlessly picking notes while something forgettable was on the television, when I realized I was playing something nice, fingerpicking a soft, melodic handful of notes. I grabbed my phone and recorded it so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve had that issue with writing where I’m laying in bed at night and have a great idea but don’t write it down, then by morning it’s forgotten.

So now I have this bit of music and I want to do something with it. A couple of months back I recorded a podcast episode about making music and I had decided then that I wanted to explore this part of my creativity, but of course, other projects and responsibilities got in the way. But now, right now, seems like a good time to wander down that path. I plan for it to be instrumental – no lyrics – but I’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure if I want to add too many ingredients to the mix. I’m likening it to writing a story. It’s going to need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m going into this as a complete amateur and I’m sure I’m going to bumble and stumble about trying to understand the nuances of the craft, but I’m excited to try it. I’m not expecting to write a hit, or anything very memorable, but that’s not the point. All I want to do is see if I can do it. It’s all about the creativity, right? And for what it’s worth, I’m not as concerned about the music I play as much as I am the editing portion. It looks like I’ll be getting a crash-course in splicing and editing and mixing over the next few weeks. And yes, I’ll share the final product regardless of how it turns out.

If anyone has any suggestions or advice, I’m open to all input.

RB