March 5

A Poetry Moment – IV

While I adore poetry and enjoy writing verse, I don’t fancy myself a poet. However, there are moments when I feel I’ve actually written something worthwhile, or at least good enough to share.

One of my favorite short story writers is Ernest Hemingway. He’s probably more famous for his novels, but I’ve found that his short stories are more to my liking. Oftentimes, I sit quietly after finishing one of them so I can let it sink in, contemplate the theme, explore the nuance. There aren’t many writers who affect me that way.

Hemingway Writing
‘Papa’ Hemingway working on a story.

Despite his fame and fortune, Hemingway had issues. Alcoholism, a temper, and later in life, severe depression. All that, in turn, took a toll on his writing and led to the end of his career, and his life.

About twenty years ago I was on a Hemingway kick, reading just about everything he wrote and everything that had been written about him. I tend to do that with writers that I admire or who inspire me. After immersing myself in his work, I found I was inspired to write something. Here’s what I ended up with…

Ketchum, Idaho

Papa said goodbye there, 

in the hallway, near the front door.

His body prone on the floor like a discarded book,

the pages now blank.  The words

splattered against the wall with all the viscosity of gray matter.

He probably felt like a book of blank pages,

basically useless.

The words were no longer there, either

Deadened by pills,

Or drown in alcohol,

Or burned out by the electro shock.

So instead of dwelling on once was, he decided to bring

the story to a close

On a fine summer day, on the outskirts of Ketchum.

And standing in that doorway, if only in a dream, I can hear

a church bell ringing in the distance.

 

Not necessarily the happiest of poems, but it encapsulates what I imagine he was feeling when the words wouldn’t come. And in a way, this is my tribute to a writer who, despite his faults, wrote amazing, timeless stories and inspired generations of writers.

RB

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

February 22

A Favorite Painter

One form of art that’s always inspired me, and one I haven’t yet attempted, is painting. It intimates me, to be honest. When I look closely at the brushstrokes, the finesse, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe. It’s a subtle art form, where the hand and the eye work in concert to create a thing of beauty.

Of course, I love most of the famous painters, and even a few of the lesser known. However, one of my favorite painters is my mother. She’s not the woman who gave birth to me, but she’s the one who raised me, who inspired me to be creative, and who encourages me even when she doesn’t quite understand some of the things I create. Encouragement without judgement. I’m lucky to have that.

Her primary medium has been painting, and I’m lucky enough to have a couple of her unframed canvases in my home. And because her art inspires me, I thought it would be nice to share it with others in the hope that the inspiration carries forward. I wish I had more of her work, but there are other siblings in the family. But if she reads this and feels so inclined, I’m happy to take more (wink, wink).

Flower painting.
Painting by Joni Bist

My mom isn’t professionally trained, although she took a few classes many years ago. Her painting is nature-based and it probably the reason why I like to take photos in nature (since I’m still unsure about trying my hand at painting).

Painting of river running through a forest.
Painting by Joni Bist

Unfortunately, she hasn’t picked up a brush in years. It happens. Life can get complicated, we get older, our priorities change. She now has grandchildren and great-grandchildren to occupy her time. However, a few years ago I bought her a painting kit in the hopes it would inspire her to pick up the brush again. Maybe once she gets settled in a new home and new surroundings she’ll find the time to return to the medium that brought so much joy to her friends and family.

RB

February 18

Capturing Moments

I’ve previously posted about photography, mostly regarding how I find inspiration in old photos, but I’ve also enjoyed taking photos. It started when I was a teenager in high school. I got my hands on a Canon AE1 35mm and fell in love with it. At one point, a friend and I set up our own darkroom in a shed behind his parent’s house. We’d spend hours taking photos around town and then spend several more hours developing the negatives. We mostly worked in black and white because it was easier to process. Occasionally, we’d try our hand at color, but it wasn’t much fun shaking those tubes of paper and chemicals for what seemed like hours. And while I’d love to have another professional camera, I’m content with my iPhone.

Bottles in sunny window.
Bottles in sunny window.

My personal preferences are portrait and nature photos. In fact, I take photos whenever I’m out and about, walking in the park with my partner and our dogs, or motoring down the St. Marks River and out into the Gulf of Mexico on a friend’s boat. I see little moments of beauty that I want to capture and keep with me, and occasionally I’m successful.

Mushrooms in the grass.
Mushrooms in the grass.

The thing about photography is that it’s not just pointing the lens at something and pushing a button. There’s framing, lighting, the Rule of Thirds, shutter speed, formatting, and so many other things to consider. I’m by no means a professional, but I do try to take all the particulars into account when capturing an image.

I also find inspiration in photos. As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy looking through old photos, even when I don’t know anyone in the images. Looking at those captured moments, my mind wanders as I wonder about who these people are, what they were thinking, what were they like, and what happened to them. 

When it comes to photos of relatives, many of the same questions come up, especially with the ones I never had the chance to meet. Great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, distant cousins…they all become characters in my imagination. I don’t concern myself with how close to the truth I may get with my daydreams. It’s all make-believe. 

Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been cooperative lately. Almost constant rain temperatures ranging from the low 30s to the mid 70s have not been conducive to spending quality time outdoors. That hasn’t stopped me from taking photos, however, it’s just limited my roaming.

Autumn Leaves.
Autumn leaves on a tree in my backyard.

In fact, my backyard is a great place to take photos, and not just of my dogs. I’ve let a bit of it grow wild to attract birds, and a few years ago I spread mushroom compost (from a local mushroom farm) and now we have all sorts of interesting fungi sprouting up. It’s really a nice mini-nature retreat within the city limits. 

And most of the photos I take are spur of the moment, like when something catches my eye. It might be the way the sunlight is illuminating a batch of flowers, or the way some mushrooms are growing on a rotting log, or maybe the way a bird is perched on a branch. I don’t necessarily look for the shots, I stumble upon them.

Moss on a rotting log.
Moss on a rotting log in my backyard.

Photography, to me, is a unique art form in that it’s used to capture a moment in time, something that would otherwise be lost with the blink of an eye. That’s both special and inspiring. 

RB

February 8

Creative Storytelling on Television

I’m not much of a television-watcher. Sure, there are certain programs I’ve enjoyed and will rewatch, like Firefly, Babylon 5, Deep Space 9, Doctor Who, and the original Twilight Zone. Most of it I find less than compelling. My partner watches a wide variety of programming, sitcoms, rom-coms, dramas, sci-fi…if it catches her attention, she’ll watch it right until the last episode. Me? Not so much.

The thing is, I don’t find much that interests me. I get frustrated by poor writing in shows that are supposed to be dramatic or realistic. One that comes to mind is The Walking Dead. The first season was fantastic, spot-on writing, great acting, wonderful production. The following seasons kept the acting and production, but the writing got sloppier and sloppier, with gaping plot holes, inconsistent character actions, and too much redundancy. I found myself talking back to the screen and wondering what the hell the writers were thinking.

But every once in a while there’s something new, something original, that rekindles my interest in television. The latest show to do that for me is WandaVision on Disney+. And no, this isn’t a plug. I sincerely love this show and the way Marvel Studios is integrating streaming programs with their cinematic universe.

WandaVision Logo

I’m won’t go into any plot details in order to avoid spoiling the show for anyone who hasn’t tuned in yet. Instead, I want to focus on the way the show is being presented and how they are telling the story.

Basically, Wanda (aka the Scarlet Witch) has the power to mold reality, and in this show she has created her own reality where she and her lover, Vision, live as a happily married couple. The show utilizes the sitcom format, filming some scenes in front of a live studio audience and using laugh tracks for other scenes, but it’s definitely not your standard sitcom.

What I think I like most about the show is how it plays on the sitcom tropes and play homage to classic shows. For example, each episode of WandaVision focuses on an era of television and incorporate elements from popular shows of that time period. The first episode was a homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (which is still one of the funniest shows to ever air on television), even presenting it in black and white. The second episode was a tribute to Bewitched, the third was The Brady Bunch, and the fourth episode was Family Ties. For those outside the US, these were all shows that were popular in their respective times and are icons of television that are still referenced today.

Black and white photo of Wanda and Vision

The writers on the show are also doing an amazing job. They do a fantastic job of capturing the essence and quirkiness of each show from each era. For example, in the first episode the neighbor comments about Wanda not having a wedding ring and that she’s surprised an attractive eligible woman isn’t married yet. So very 1960s. In the fourth episode – the Family Ties one – the writing slips effortlessly between 1980s humor and drama, incorporating the ‘teaching moments’ that were popular in sitcoms at that time.

Scene from WandaVision

The thing is, there is so much to unpack with this show, but in doing so I’d be revealing spoilers. Maybe once the show ends (it’s only a nine-episode run), I can really dissect it for you and write about all the amazing nuances. Just to give you a bit of a teaser, there’s much more going on than just these old sitcoms. There are weird asides, odd occurrences, and things that just don’t seem to fit quite right into Wanda’s reality. Each episode reveals a little bit more of the overall story.

Wanda with toy helicopter

It also goes to show that television programming can be original, creative, and challenge viewers to think outside the box. Too much of the stuff currently available simply isn’t well written and isn’t thought out. Looking back at some of the shows I listed at the top of this post makes me realize that I like tend to have overarching story lines. You know, where episodes can stand alone, but when put together provide a long-form story.

If you haven’t watched WandaVision yet, I have one word of warning: It’s helps to have some knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You don’t have to go back and watch every film from the first three phases, but it would be useful to at least watch the last two, Infinity War and Endgame. Those will provide enough backstory to get you into the wonderful weirdness that is WandaVision. Check out the trailer below for a little taste.

RB

 

 

January 26

My Evolving Taste in Music

I’ll admit it – when I was a teenager I was a snob when it came to music. Not that I had any reason to be. I was into a mix of classic rock, psychedelic, progressive, and heavy metal. I listened to The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and Iron Maiden, to name just a few. Not necessarily a bad or strange mix, but it was purposely limited. I think it was some strange sort of teenage rebellion. And if it annoyed my father, all the better.

Man covering ears
My father’s reaction to my musical tastes.

I didn’t understand jazz, and although I didn’t listen to the blues, I assumed all the songs were depressing. Classical was for old people, as was big band music and the crooners from the 1940s and 50s. Country was too…well, country, and I don’t think I even knew that bluegrass, Americana, and folk even existed.

But over time I began to branch out. A lot of this was due to meeting new people and discovering the local college radio station when I moved to Tallahassee. The station, V89, played (and still plays) an incredible variety of music and soundscapes. Additionally, they have weekly shows that focus on specific genres and eras of music. Saturday mornings are set aside for classic rock and in the afternoon you can catch the reggae show. Sunday mornings are blues, the afternoon is singer/songwriter, and in the evening, jazz.

They also have a world music show that caught my attention, and that’s really when things started to change for me. I mean, I’m familiar with music from other cultures, but only peripherally and usually as background or incidental music in movies and television programs. It’s music you hear, but don’t really pay attention to.

Recently, my eyes have been opened even wider by listening to a playlist on Apple Music titled “World Groove”. It’s an amazing mix of music from all over the globe – Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and South America – and it pulls from different time periods, as well. I’ll hear a 1960s pop song from Japan, followed by a modern dance song from Jamaica, which is then followed by a funky song from Turkey in the 1980s. It’s amazing.

This playlist has turned me on to so many amazing musicians, like Congolese artist Lumingu Puati.

And the Swedish/Turkish band Cafe Turk.

And Brazilian singer Ceu.

I hope you take a few minutes to check out these artists. I’ve found that broadening my musical horizons has been inspiring. These are musicians that I probably never would have heard if it weren’t for these radio programs and streaming playlists. Artists who have worked in relative obscurity – maybe known in their home countries, but unknown to the rest of the world – and it makes me smile to think they probably have no idea that some middle-aged guy in North Florida is dancing in his living room while listening to their music.

Do yourself a favor and push the boundaries on your usual musical choices. Like fiction, I don’t think it’s fair to limit ourselves to specific genres. Read everything, listen to everything, explore the world. You never know what you may find out there, what may inspire you, what may change your life. And be sure to dance.

RB

January 21

Hoarding or Collecting?

Okay, so I have a problem. I love books. All books. But I have a special affinity for physical books, hardbound, paper, and ink books. I love to be surrounded by them, to hold them, feel the texture of the covers and the pages under my fingertips, smelling the unique scent of paper and ink in new books, and that particular smell of old volumes. I’ll admit it…I’m addicted.

A clutter of books
A so-called “cluttered” bookshelf.

I think my problem began when I was young. After school I would walk a few blocks to my grandparent’s house, and just around the corner from them was a small, public library nestled in the middle of a neighborhood. I would spend hours wandering those dimly-lit aisles, the only person in attendance (other than the ancient librarian). I still remember that smell, sort of mildewy, dusty, and strangely comforting.

Of course, my early addiction was fed by the annual Scholastic Book Fairs at my school. Most anyone who went to public schools in the US remembers those events. My dad would give me ten or fifteen dollars and I’d buy all the books I could. I ended up with armfuls of Hardy Boys mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown, Shel Silverstein, and whatever else I could get my hands on. It was the highlight of every year throughout elementary school.

The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s time to do something about my books. I have them stacked two rows deeps on a few shelves, and those shelves are beginning to sag from the weight. I did go on a purge a few years ago and got rid of most of my paperbacks, but I’m loathe to let go of any of my hardbound books. Having to choose which to keep and which to set free would be like Sophie’s Choice. Makes me shudder.

A bunch of books
One of my “cluttered” bookshelves.

The solution, I believe, is more bookcases. A simple and elegant answer to my problem. I’ve been eyeing some in the IKEA catalog. They’d fit quite nicely in my office, once I remove one of the old bookcases, and I could fit two of them side by side. More shelving, the books would be nicely displayed, and my partner would hopefully get off my back about my so-called “cluttered office”.

You know, I could say the same thing about her shoe collection. Although, her shoe collection doesn’t contain a few signed first-editions and my books have a longer shelf life. 

Pun intended.

RB

 

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