Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is "Change?"

I was reading this month's edition of The Reader's Digest just a few moments ago. I love that magazine because it allows me to read without thinking. There's nothing wrong with saying that. Their articles are short and very much to the point, and I like the diversion of being able to read something that doesn't force too much contemplation. And since I'm not a huge fan of popular fiction, it fits in very nicely with my reading schedule.

Anyway, one of my favorite categories is their "Quotes" section. Usually, they are very witty and funny, and they dig up quotes from some of the most unlikely sources. I didn't know that George Carlin, Conway Twitty, and Yoda could be so philosophical about today's issues! I guess it proves that there is a spark of intelligence everywhere you look -- you just have to look for it sometimes.

In this issue, there were quotes of all sorts about "change." Since this is the January issue, I suppose that the focus is on the new year, and the topic of change is appropriate since we all have our New Year's resolutions to make (see the last post for my exhortation of what should be everyone's first resolution this year).

Change is a funny thing, you know. And that's what we're really vowing to do when we make a New Year's resolution. We are implying that we are going to stop doing one thing and start doing another. That is change. For this post, I would simply like to look at change for what it really is.

We all fail with the majority of our resolutions because we fail to change. Most of the time, our resolutions are based upon what we hear other people say about us, and that makes us want to stand up and state to the world that change is going to happen. Rhetorically speaking, it is natural to want to do this, especially when we hear it preached from others. We want change, right?

Well, no. The truth is, when we make resolutions, and if those resolutions are based upon a want that we create from someone else's exclamations, we are put into a position where we cannot change, and we are destined to fail. That is why the overweight can never change their habits, even after making the claim that they are going to lose weight year after year. They fail because, most of the time, they want to lose weight because they hear it from others that they need to lose weight.

You can make the case for all kinds of resolutions, not just the tried and true weight-loss resolution: saving money, being industrious, being better to our spouse, giving more to the poor, etc. These are all good resolutions, but if they are based upon something from the outside that motivates us, then more than likely we are not going to follow through with that resolution.

Let me tell you where real change takes place, and where the real resolution is kept. It must come from within. I know this for fact. If it does not come from deep inside your heart and soul, then you will not change. Let me explain with a true story:

For years, I've been overweight. I could justify it for a long time because I was a competitive weightlifter, and I enjoyed being big. However, as with all good things, the weightlifting career came to an end, and I was left as a big and bulky fellow. Sherry, my wife of almost ten years, met me at the height of my weightlifting career, and she accepted the fact that I was big. However, my weight did concern her, and when I stopped lifting, she asked me to consider my health and lose the weight. I still remember that very night (in a steakhouse, of all places) when I told her that I would lose a ton of weight before we got married. Do you know what happened? Not only did I never lose the weight, I got bigger before the wedding, and, over the next nine years, I continued to get bigger and fatter.

Year after year, Sherry would get upset that I would not lose weight, and for a long time, it caused a lot of strife in our relationship. The pattern was the same: "Mark, you're too big. Lose the weight," she would say. "You know what, I'm going to lose the weight, and I'm going to look good by Christmas," I would retort. Then, I'd try to lose the weight, and for whatever reason, I'd quit, and then I would start eating like a horse again, gaining more weight than I'd lost in the first place.

Over time, I'd get more and more irritated by her demands that I lose the weight, and the more tricks she tried to use to get me to lose weight, the more I would fight back. It was just not meant to me. Until....

Last year, I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. I couldn't breathe. My heart was fluttering like never before, and I was scared. I thought that I was having a heart attack. I finally fell back to sleep, but the next morning, I woke up, and I told her that it was time -- I was going to lose the weight. I'm sure that she did not believe me. She'd heard it a hundred times before, but I was serious that time. The "resolution" became truth because it came from within. After that, I joined Weight Watchers, and I started a workout regimen that was unbelievable, and I lost a lot of weight during a four-month period.

Unfortunately, there have been some real medical issues that came up during that time that caused me to interrupt my weight loss. However, the battle of the bulge was only delayed, not lost. I never lost my belief in losing weight, and now that my doctor's have told me to start going after it again, I am, and I am losing weight again. Not because Sherry bugged me about it, not because my family was concerned, not because of anyone making fun of me, but because I wanted to. I had a deep-seated belief in my heart and soul that I needed to lose the weight, and that is what has proven the difference.

You see, change is not a normal thing for us. It requires breaking old habits and starting new habits. It's difficult, it's hard, and it's abnormal to change. We are programmed to stay the course, as our current President likes to say, and we do not want to change. Unfortunately, many of us need to change our ways, and we have all stated that our country needs to change its ways through this past election. But will we actually change?

Over the next few days, you will be forced to question changes that you want to make. Over the next four years, our country is going to be forced to question changes that it wants to make. The real issue is, are these changes going to last, or are they going to be something that we begin and quit just as quickly?

Whatever changes you want to make in your life, take time to think about them carefully. Don't just blurt out changes so your wife, mother, or neighbor will hear them. That's for their sake, not yours. Challenge yourself to make changes that you believe in -- those that you know affect you and others. Make those changes that only come from deep inside, and leave the pundits' exhortations for themselves. If you do so, you will be happier next year than this year because you will have changed yourself for the better because it did spring from internal desire. And isn't that where true happiness originates anyway? Inside? It does, and we need to be happy with who we are and the things that we do. If we are not happy, or if we are scared (like in my case), then we can change.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Year of the Family

If you've ever been to a Chinese restaurant, you've undoubtedly read the placemat that describes Chinese mythology. Every year is a year of the tiger, snake, monkey, etc. It's a fun tradition, and I can only think that it's a symbolic gesture at ushering in new hope for each new year. It does make sense. The ebb and flow of all things do exist, and if we think upon it enough, we can all relate to our "year" and symbol in one way or another.

In the United States, and throughout most of the Western world, we celebrate this attitude with our symbolic New Year's resolutions. In a way, when we make our resolutions, we're predicting the upcoming year, and we're hoping for change. Usually, it's optimistic change, and it's personal. How many times have we opted for the "losing weight" resolution? Perhaps this year, there will be other resolutions based upon the way 2008 left us. I'm sure there will be resolutions to pay down debt, recycle more, and be more careful with our investments.

I've been reflecting upon my own wishes for 2009. Of course, there's the tried and true resolutions that I am going to make. You know them as well as I do: I'm going to lose weight, get in shape, save money, pay off debts, be more industrious, etc. It's all part and parcel of everyone's wishes, I'm sure. But, it has to be done, and so I comply as usual.

However, in thinking about it more deeply, as I tend to do during times of reflection, I believe there is another resolution that needs to be at center-stage for all Americans during 2009. It concerns the family. I think that we need to make it our first resolution to put our family first at all times during this upcoming year.

It's easy to get lost in the fog of work, duties, and hobbies. We have so many distractions, and they all get in the way of family. TV, games, work, exercise, golf, reading, writing, etc. -- whatever your passion, it's very easy to let them overtake you. And when that happens, suddenly, and without knowing it, those who suffer are your family. What makes it so doggone difficult is that it affects everyone in the family because everyone in the family has their own interests and activities, so it's like pulling on a rope in four different directions (if there are four members of the family, that is).

When you think about it, the most important social unit of our culture is the family. I believe that many of the problems we face in our world are due to the breakdown of the familial unit. Crime, drug abuse, stress... they are all due, in part or whole, to the lack of strength of the family.

If I were to make one wish for the United States, and if that wish could come true, it would be that we would make the family-unit stronger. Our new President preaches unification, but you cannot have unification of the whole unless the family unifies first since the family is the basic unit of the whole.

We need a society that places strong emphasis on family values. Parents must stay together, children must stop having children, parents must stay involved and must start putting their children first. I know that these are not popular statements, but they are true, and if you compare the decline of our social values to the decline in family values, you will see the decline in many other areas such as the economy, crime, etc. You see, it all boils down to the family.

We can only do our own part. For me, that means strengthening my own family. This year, I'm going to be putting God back into our family in full-force. I want my children exposed to the teachings of the Bible. In addition, I'm going to put myself in the rightful position as head of the family by being, not the head, but the tail. Yes, you read that correctly. As head of my family, I should be the last in all things. My children should come first. Their needs must be met first. I must endeavor to lead them to life's lessons, correct their mistakes, encourage their exploration, and give them every opportunity available. For my wife, I must make it a point to encourage her interests, accept her role as a partner in raising our children, let her have her freedoms to enjoy life beyond the children, and give her all opportunities to have freedom beyond the confines of our home's walls.

Of course, with all things family, there are problems that will arise. Many times in the United States, families fall apart due to problems. Divorce is much too high, and that just leads us down the path of social instability. Too many children are being raised without both parent's leadership, and that only leads to problems. Although not on shaky ground, my family is not void of its own problems, but I endeavor to pursue a path that is correct by creating an atmosphere of respect and reconciliation rather than an atmosphere of right and wrong.

Our priest said it best when he said that, to keep the family together, we must treat the family as a confessional rather than a dictatorship. In a dictatorship, someone wins, and someone loses, and the family falls apart under that scenario. As a confessional, reconciliation is the key component. Each member of the family is called into reflection as to their role, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and the family is strengthened because it works as a whole to heal itself through tough times.

As the father and husband, I see this as most pertinent. It is very easy to become confrontational with my wife and my children. It is very easy to fight to win the battle. We all know, though, that winning the battle can lose the war. Instead of waging war, isn't it much better to seek peace? Isn't it much better to work for unity? None of us are perfect in our family roles. Children will be children, I will be me, and Sherry will be her. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, and the best way to resolve any conflict is to understand our strengths and weaknesses, working towards intensifying the strengths and correcting the weaknesses.

If every family in America would do this, we would have a much stronger nation. We would be much happier, more prosperous, and more prone to negotiate peace among each other, and maybe even peace throughout the world. Who knows? But I do know it all begins with the family. There is a reason why God extols the virtues of the family in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The wisdom of the ages tell us that all things good and evil originate within the family.

I've done a pretty lousy job of mixing my personal reflections with universal hopes, but my hope is that you'll see that my goal of strengthening my family is part of my hope for our civilization. Let's make 2009 "The Year of the Family," and let's not falter on making it work. Losing the "battle of the bulge" is one thing, but losing the family is never an option.

For the most part, my family is already strong. There are no fears of loss, but my goal is to continue to make it stronger and to make each year a better one than the last. I hope you are in that position as well. We all know those, however, who are in desperate situations with their family. It is broken, and it is about to fall apart. However we can help, we should, because, with each family lost, more of the next generation is lost, and that is what we need to stop.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Circle of Giving

You know, God works in mysterious ways. That's about all I can say right now. It's been a tough year for several reasons, but through it all, we've managed to get by just fine. As I've been exhorting over the past few posts, Christmas is a time for giving, and my family lived that motto by going the extra mile and giving to someone who we knew needed extra help this year. Instead of giving to us or getting extra gifts for the children, we thought that it would be best to spend whatever extra we could afford to give someone something a little special, especially when that person needed it.

The truth is, when you give, God, I believe, takes care of you. Today, when I went to our mailbox (I forgot to get the mail on Christmas Eve), there was a letter simply addressed "Mark & Sherry" with a bow on it. Someone had put it in our box. Inside that envelope was a very touching letter with gift cards in it for groceries, gas, and a restaurant. No name other than Santa Claus, no address, no idea who gave it to us. It was a gift from an angel though, and, for us, it came at the right time.

The only reason I'm writing about this is that we almost over-extended ourselves on giving to the person who we gave to, plus what we gave at Church on Christmas Eve for the poor. I'm not saying that at all to make us look good. We did what was right to do. The point is, though, that God, in His infinite wisdom, took care of us too. Those gift cards provided us what we needed during these times, and it was a great gift for us to get.

The whole message that I'm trying to convey here is that giving is a circle. When you give, you receive. When you give from the heart, that is. I do believe that God will take care of those who truly give from the heart, and He proved it in our case. All of those things that I exhorted prior to Christmas came true from the giving and receiving side. To me, and I believe that I speak for Sherry too, that is what God is all about. Taking care of each other.

We are truly blessed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Exhausted Thinker

Christmas is over. Well, almost. There's an hour left in the day, but it will remain a private hour devoted to thought, contemplation, and silence.

I'm exhausted. At 38, I shouldn't be this tired, but the day has worn me slam out! What in the world am I going to do in ten years?! I'm going to be a mess.

The problem is, holidays are for being social and for getting together with family. Playing games, eating together, talking, etc. All of these things I love to do, but, at heart, I'm a thinker. I'm really a solitary type of fellow, and the social stuff, while enjoyable and very much a requirement per Sherry, is enjoyable, but it wears me out.

If it were left up to me, I'd be a hermit. But, that is not the lot I cast in my life. I mean, I have children, and they are very much like their mother. Even Aidan, my 15-month old, has a favorite saying. It's, "Go, go, go." He, like his mother and brother, want to get out and socialize. I, on the other hand, would rather huddle in the back room and read a good book or write.

Is there a problem with me? I mean, is this abnormal? I almost think it is. We have a lot of friends, and they seem to be the social type. All of my college friends were socialites. Not me. Therefore, I wonder deep down inside if I'm the problem.

I'm not a nerd by any means. I love sports. I love to workout (or at least I used to when my bones were in good health). I enjoy talking to people. But the longevity of the gathering is what gets to me. After an hour or so, I'm done. I'm mentally done.

I think my parents understand me. They have to after all of those years raising me. My in-laws, though, who are of the social mentality must think that I'm an outcast. I really don't mean to be. My heart is there. My mind is there. But, then, caput... I'm gone and done.

For Sherry, I'm really trying to do my best to fit in better and act like a socialite. But, it just isn't me. I'm another actor on a stage. However, as a good husband, I need to be there for her doing the things she likes. And she does give me my space to be a hermit, so I can't complain.

I guess I am on a road of discovery. One in which I'm trying to find out if I'm normal. I doubt that I'm like everyone else in this regard. If I decide that I'm abnormal, I'm not going to share it with you. I prefer to leave my flaws out of the public eye! But, if I decide that I'm part of a large population of hermit-wanna-be's, then I'll fill you in with that. After all, there's safety in numbers then!

Well, goodnight. I'm tired, and I'm going to bed to hopefully have some peaceful reflection before the sandman fills my eyelids.

The hermit....

Merry Christmas!

Merry CHRISTmas everyone! It is such a beautiful day here in Maryland. Not too cold, but cold enough to feel like Christmas. It would have been nice to have another white Christmas like we did a few years ago, but that's OK. Sherry's grandpa is flying back from Florida today, so it's nice to have a good day so he can spend Christmas with his family without being delayed at the airport! I feel for all of the holiday travellers around the country still snowed in.

It was such a joy watching Ian and Aidan open up their gifts. Ian was excited, and Aidan is not quite there yet as far as understanding everything that's going on. Last night, though, was the best. Ian carefully laid out cookies and milk for Santa, carrots for the reindeer, and he even spread reindeer food (and about a pound of dog food) on the front lawn -- guaranteed to get Santa to our house first when he passed over Mount Airy! Ian even had mommy take down the fireplace screen for Santa and clean the fireplace so he wouldn't get so sooty! Thank goodness that we don't use the fireplace upstairs, or that would have been a chore!

I think the real joy, for me, though, was watching Ian put his coins in the Poor Box last night. He did understand what he was doing, and he told me, as he was putting the coins in, that he hoped that it would give some boy or girl something they wanted this year. In fact, he got into the spirit of it so much that he asked me to give him more money because he didn't feel that he put in enough! That is the best present ever, and I'm thankful that he wanted to do it. Throughout Mass, he kept playing with his money, making all kinds of racket. He was doing it, though, because he was really excited about being able to put the money in the Poor Box. I wanted to put it in before Mass, but there was so many people at church that we had to find a pew quickly when we got there.

Right now, Ian is engrossed in his LeapFrog learning game that Santa brought him. He played with his train for a little while, and then he went right to the LeapFrog. Aidan has been riding the horsey that grandmother and granddaddy got him a month or so ago that I just put together last night. I still forgot the batteries and had to add them this morning.

It's going to be a busy day. Mostly opening the packages which seem to be designed to not allow you to open them. Ian is calling now.... probably wants to get into another toy, so I am going to go now. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and hope that your day is fun and full of family and laughter!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best Lesson

What is the greatest gift that I can give my family? Is it the toy train that Ian has been asking from Santa, is it books, is it other toys? No, none of those gifts are more than what they are --- toys. Sure, they will light up Ian's day, and I can't wait to see the look on his face. As a father, I'm so excited that this is the first Christmas where Ian really understands Santa Claus, and he is excited about tonight.

We have it all ready. Cookies for Santa, carrots for the reindeer, and even reindeer food to sprinkle outside tonight. Ian is ready for Santa, and his joy is worth it all.

But even through all of that, I still don't think those are the things that are going to make a life-long difference in him. Isn't it my responsibility as a parent to impart him lifelong lessons? I think it is. Over the years, the toys will break and will eventually be forgotten, but I want to give him something more precious and more lasting than anything else.

That's why, tonight, we are going to raid his piggy bank. Not that there's a lot in there. He's used some of his money already for trains throughout the year (and I have to admit, I've snuck a few coins out of there when I needed some change -- what parent hasn't done that upon occasion?). But tonight, before we go to Mass, we are going to teach him how to share. How to give to the poor. The amount doesn't matter. After all, a penny is worth everything to him now. And when we get to Mass, the first thing we're going to do is let him put some of his savings into the Poor Box. That will be the real message of Christmas for him, I hope, and I pray that it will be a message he'll remember for a long time. Knowing how caring a boy he is, I believe it will be.

Merry Christmas to All!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas is About Giving

I know that all of the merchants out there are frothing at the mouth after reading the title of this post. "Christmas is for Giving." Forgive me, though, but I am not talking about the kind of giving that will stimulate the economy, or at least the kind that will brand me a capitalist pig.

I do, however, want to take a moment to elaborate on this season and what it means. I've been reading my newest favorite book, The 33 Doctors of the Church, and I'm really in love with one Saint Robert Bellarmine. I'd like to share a little more about him than I did in the last post. Remember that post? He was the one who reminded us to stop seeking out each other's faults.

Saint Bellarmine was a Cardinal of the Catholic Church and was (and still is) considered one of the foremost theologians, scholars, and writers of Church doctrine. By all means, this man could have lived a very comfortable life. Cardinals of the Church were some of the wealthiest men in Rome and were privy to all of the comforts that life could give.

Saint Bellarmine was a different soul, however, and he really embodied something quite different. He was bothered and hurt by the sins of the Church, especially as it related to the excesses of the Church leadership. There is no doubt that he was an ardent Papist, but he was one of the first to write that the Pope should have no influence in the affairs of the states except that which involved the plight of humanity. In this regard, he was influential in turning the Church into what it is today instead of an Empire.

But what I see as most powerful about this man was the way he lived his life. Again, as a Cardinal, he was given anything and everything a man could want. Instead of living the lush lifestyle, and instead of being holed up at the Vatican (he was the chief Theologian for three Popes), he lived as simply as a parish priest. He loved people, and he treated the beggar with the same respect that he treated other Cardinals.

Everything that he had, he gave to the poor. In fact, because he was so busy writing volume after volume of books, he had an almoner (someone who was responsible for giving alms to the poor) who worked for him full-time. Many times, he ran out of money and pawned his own rings and plates to give to those who needed food and money. He even gave his mattress out twice to elderly people who were sick and in need of comfort.

In addition, even though he was sickly himself and very much affected by the cold, he gave away his cloaks to those in need and his coal/wood for his own fireplace to those affected by the cold. He always gave his gloves away, and it was only until his last years that he kept his gloves for himself because his hands bled due to a disease. And instead of buying new clothes when his legs swelled, he opted to have his existing clothes altered so he could give the money to needy families.

He indeed felt the pain of those in need, and he was known to weep when hearing of some peasant who died from starvation or exposure to the cold. He was a man who put God first in his life, a man who let the warmth of God warm his body while his own clothes and wood warmed the poor. He was a man who worked tirelessly to change the Church to have this mentality, and he was gentle and loving to all.

But in all of this, he was a genius. He wrote constantly, and his doctrines guided the Church for hundreds of years. But with all of his respect and his position in the Church, he still put the poor first throughout his life.

When I read about him, I can only wonder what I can do to help those in need. I believe, of all times of the year, this is the most important time to give. I know that the economy is tough, but look around and see your blessings. More than likely, you have a loving family, you can pay your bills, you have cars, you have nice clothes, and your children and grand-children have everything they could possibly want.

If you're like my family, we are cutting back on Christmas gifts this year. But what does that mean? For my family, it means that we're giving less to each other, but it doesn't mean that we're going without. My children will still get gifts, and Sherry and I will have each other and our families. We have everything that we need, and I am sure that most of you do to.

Think about those out there, though, who cannot feed their family a decent meal this Christmas. Think of how many children cannot get one simple gift. Get beyond the mentality that it's their fault. For many, it's not their fault. It's tough to live these days. It's tough to get by, and just putting a roof over their heads is about as much as some people can do. And in none of those cases is it the children's fault.

I listen to the letters that come in to WBAL Campaign for Kids, and I hear the horror stories. The mothers who work three jobs because their husbands abandoned them and their children. I hear about their not being able to afford clothes for their children or good food for the table for one day of the year.

Don't be fooled that the government is going to do anything. Sure, there are programs out there, but during this special time of year, these kids deserve something just a little special. Even the hardest of hearts can understand that.

In addition, there are people out there who are homeless, and I know that we've all looked at them and thought, "Get a job." Saint Bellarmine would never have done that, and now that I've seen the light, I'm going to change my ways in that regard too.

To exemplify that point, I'm going to tell a little story that's going to make my family mad, and I am sorry in advance for doing so, but I feel that this story needs to be told. I had an uncle who was an alcoholic. He couldn't hold a job down, and he was always ending up in some kind of need. Were it not for an uncle of mine, he would have lived on the street just like any homeless person you see today. In fact, many times, he was homeless.

I grew up listening about this uncle, hearing how he was no good and how lazy he was. But, you know what? If he had been born twenty years later, it would have been realized that he wasn't lazy. He had a disease, and he had a disease that could have been treated were he living it today. The problem wasn't alcohol -- alcohol was the ends, not the means.

I grew up disliking him because of the thing I heard about him, and now that he's dead, I feel closer to him than ever because I now understand. I understand that he had issues that needed attention, and I understand that he needed love. It makes me sad to know that the only true love he had on a daily basis, the only true affectionate contact he had, was with his dog. It makes me sad to know that on a day-to-day basis, he was abandoned and forgotten. I'm not blaming my family. Times were different then, and these things were viewed differently then, but I hate it nonetheless. But it does serve as a reminder, knowing those things that we know today, that many of the homeless need our love and help. And now is the time for giving. Now is the time to put others first and ourselves last. Now is the time to quit making judgments. After all, isn't that for God to do? Have we exalted ourselves as the judge? I believe Christ told us to take care of each other; I believe Paul wrote to the Church to take care of its members; and I believe John wrote that God would be the ultimate Judge.

So, I know that I've rambled. My only exhortation during this time of year is for you to do one special thing for someone to make this season a little brighter. I don't care how you do it. Put extra money in the Poor Box, donate to the food bank, give to Toys for Tots, or, better yet, find a family that you know is poor and stop by Christmas morning with some toys and a turkey. Whatever, do something in the name of Christ and do what Christ and Saint Bellarmine would have done. It's only one day out of 365, and it's only a few dollars out of thousands. And with that, we can make a huge difference in someone's life.

And if you listened to the story of my uncle, I also exhort to you to be there for loved ones who are struggling. Be there for them every day. Love them and help them every day. Their blood runs through your veins -- don't forget that. Yes, I know that many of these people make it difficult to love, and I know it is not as easy as I make it out to be. However, as Saint Bellarmine would probably say, it is better to work through that than it is to leave it alone. They are Christ's children too. Get beyond the feelings that "they did it to themselves," and just be there for them. I wish I could have been for my uncle, and I regret that his memory serves a powerful lesson in that regard. Let's not have any more memories of regret. That is not Christ's way.

Merry Christmas.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Little Thought to Remember

I am reading a wonderful book called The 33 Doctors of the Church. It's a compilation of biographies of the 33 greatest scholars of the Church, and it's a wonderful read. I read an excerpt from Saint Robert Bellarmine who lived between 1542 and 1621, which was a critical time for the Catholic Church. He was a champion writer for the Church during this time, and he was very hurt by the sins committed within the Church itself. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about him right now, but there is a unique passage that he wrote that really speaks to me as I see society today -- for Christians and non-Christians. I think it's something that we can all learn from. Here goes:

"When two pieces of wood are placed together in the shape of an inverted 'V,' if each supports the other, both will stand; but if they do not, both fall to the ground. As this matter is one of such great consequence, try to look upon the defects of your companions as a kind of special medicine and a cross prepared for you by God. There are many people who willingly practice penances which they have chosen for themselves, but who refuse to put up with their neighbor's faults, though that is the penance which God wants them to bear..."

Let me try to break this down into today's words. Basically, he's saying that the only way that we can succeed as a neighbor, society, country.... whatever you want to make of it, is to accept each other for who we are and stop all the bickering and fighting. We all have our faults. None of us are exempt. None of us are perfect. The point where we think that our faults are better than our neighbor's faults is the point where we "fall" like the two pieces of wood that are not supporting each other.

Reading into what he's saying (only because I've read more of his work), he accepts that we are all faulty, and that is part of the human experience. He accepts that we all sin. That is part of the human experience. But for us to survive (he was actually referring to the Church as a whole, but it can be applied to society), we need to stop putting ourselves above our neighbor and start working together to support each other.

I find this especially true in our relationships. Bickering and fighting is nothing more than acknowledging a fault of your spouse while ignoring your own faults. The only way to come together is to recognize that it is each party's responsibility to bear the burden of the other's faults as that is the only way we can support each other. In other words, to accept each other for who we are.

If we look at the world today, what we see are all kinds of bickering, especially here in the United States between one special interest group and the other. All preach tolerance, but none have tolerance for each other. What they are doing is recognizing their own attributes but failing to accept the other party for their own attributes. This lack of tolerance for each other is what will ultimately destroy us.

Our true "penance" in humanity, whether you apply it to our personal relationships with friends or spouses, or you apply it between groups of people with opposing views, is that we need to accept each other for what we are instead of fighting each other for what we want to win. That is the ultimate goal of humanity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Keep the Arts in Our Classrooms

We are facing difficult economic times. There is no doubt about that. And I believe that it is going to get worse before it gets better. I'm not here to write about the recession or any proposed plans to correct our problems. These are not local issues, they are national issues, and some would argue, international issues. Just like every other time we have faced a financial crisis, it will work itself out, and we will have better times. In the meantime, though, it will be difficult.

These times make me think about those programs that are eliminated first, however, and that is what bothers me. In our schools, the very first programs that get eliminated are art and music. In fact, many of those programs have been eliminated long ago. I remember when I first started teaching in the early 1990's, art and music programs were already being cut to nothing. Within a five year time-frame, schools that had those programs were forced to modify those classes to the point where one teacher had to travel to several schools to teach classes. Many of those teachers had to teach both art and music in the same class although they were not qualified to teach both subjects. At some schools, there were no art or music classes being offered.

I know that many people consider art and music as non-essential to education, and that they should be the first things cut. I disagree. I think that these are the most useful and influential classes in our curriculum. I don't say this just because I'm a writer. I say this because, having some business experience, I know the usefulness of people who are creative thinkers.

America was built upon creativity. Call it what you may. Some people say it's "thinking outside of the box," while others say it's having "an open mind to all things." Whatever it is, it's creativity. Many of the problems adults are asked to solve require creativity, and creativity isn't a natural instinct for most people. It has to be taught. If we eliminate those courses that introduce creativity, we take away most people's ability to solve problems in a unique way. And that takes away an advantage that we've always had in America.

We're seeing the effects of reduced creative curriculum in the United States already. We've all heard the jokes of the engineers who can't write or the techies who only think in code. Take away the joke, and you really do have a problem. The problem is, there are good ideas hiding in those people's heads that cannot come out. They can't express them, and if they can't express them, they can't be visualized. And if they can't be visualized, they can't become reality.

The countries that have established themselves as technology and science-driven over the past twenty years are in decline. Japan and the United States are leaders in this category. Countries that put a lot of emphasis in creative thought are on the rise and are now becoming world leaders because they can take their ideas and make them happen.

And let's look at it from a cultural perspective. Art, music, and poetry are the epitome of culture. Where those things thrive, you have a vibrant society, full of life, and full of hope. Europe is still the harbinger of much of this mentality, and regardless of what you think of some of their politics, you only have to visit places such as Austria, France, and Germany to see the positive affects that the arts have upon society as a whole. Those people are happier than we are, more relaxed, and more appreciative of beauty. They have a sense of national pride that is unparalleled to ours. It's not from military might nor from having a better economy. It's a heritage that is rich in history, architecture, and art.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending a week in Vienna. This is a city with a rich musical history, and to this day, the city is full of music. They are still art-centered, and it shows in the day-to-day lives of its citizenry. They were a warm, inviting people, and it was evident that they were happy. Music performances were nightly, art exhibits abounded, and even their newest architecture was full of beauty.

I know there are pockets of art in the United States, and there are many people who keep it first in their lives. But it is not state-supported for the most part. If our non-profits and charitable individuals stopped funding arts, there would be little left. Perhaps I am too sensitive to this, but I see the affects of the loss of art here. I feel the coldness of our society as we become the embodiment of an industrial capitalist country. There is nothing wrong with capitalism, but capitalism without creative thought initiates a dying economy. Trust me. If we lose our creativity, then we will become the makers of other people's inventions. We will be the printers of other people's ideas. We will become the attorney's for other people's patents.

And what I fear the most is that we will lose sight of what is beautiful. We will forget that joy and satisfaction and fulfillment can come from reading a good poem or looking at a beautiful painting or listening to moving music. Instead, we will achieve happiness through buying things. Isn't that where we are at right now? Hollywood and the record labels don't qualify in this world. They will always exist. They are the capitalization of popular art, but are not part of the true creativity that builds nations.

I think what bothers me the most is the loss of the arts at our "liberal arts" universities. When I was teaching at a college, I witnessed the elimination of an entire art and theater program while, at the same time, the re-building of a football stadium and a multi-million dollar biology building. The English Department also received major cuts and lost all of its creative writing courses. A tasteless cartoon was posted on my door one morning which showed a man crowned with a "Science" cap with a long, flowing robe walking down a hall. Hanging on the tails of his robe were small people with tattered clothes who were labeled "art," "poetry," and "music." Some Biology professor must have been proud of himself. Perhaps this was the same professor who later came to my Writing Center to have his grant proposal written because he could not write a complete sentence himself.

I'll leave you with this. It is a proven historical fact that those societies that put the arts first survive. Those that don't, fall into obscurity. Where is the United States heading?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

From the Heart First

Over the past few weeks, I have had a couple of people write me to request that I edit their poetry for them. Both people who contacted me were students who were getting their Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at very well-respected universities. Needless to say, I was shocked at their request. In essence, what they wanted me to do was re-write their poetry for them, and one of the students even gave me a list of parameters that her professor was looking for in her poetry.

I did not look upon these requests as coming from students who were lazy. After all, they had already written the poems. What I saw in these requests, however, was the failure of academia to teach poetry as an art.

I took many poetry workshops when I was pursuing my MFA, and I understand where these students are coming from, and I sympathise with them. Because academia has taken poetry away from art and has broken it down into a series of steps that should include this or that, the creativity was taken out of the poem.

To boot, one of the students told me that he was required to write about a particular subject that was assigned by the professor. Needless to say, the subject was very political and fit right in with academia's definition of what poetry should be. I could tell that this student's heart was not in the project at all, and for him, it was more or less a task that he had to accomplish.

As a former writing instructor, I could not move myself to editing these poems because that would be a form of plagiarism, and I do not think that would do anyone any good. I did, however, share my thoughts about poetry with these students. I told them that poetry is an art, and doing it well means that it has to come from the heart. It cannot be forced, and it must flow willingly from their pen.

I'm sure that I did not give them the answers they were looking for, and I do feel sorry for them that their hopes and dreams of taking a good poetry workshop was let down by academic poets. I hope they learn that this is not what poetry is all about, and they continue to practice the art from their own eyes and heart.

My friend who I mentioned in the last post is an academic himself, but he has rebelled against the academic mentality in regards to poetry. He said it best when he told me that he has reviewed six poetry books in the past year, all from first-time poets, and all from academic authors. He said these poems lacked depth and had no soul. I imagine, just like everything else coming out of our universities, that they were political and social as well. This is why we need to give poetry back to the general reader, and this is why we need to let poetry become the art that it is. There is nothing wrong with making a statement in poetry. Don't get me wrong about that. But it cannot be the only purpose of the poem or a collection of poems. Poetry, on that level, become hateful and angry, and, to me, poetry should embody much more.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reinventing Poetry for the General Audience

I have had the fortune of reconnecting with a dear friend over this past week. He was my thesis director in graduate school, and he and I were very close while I was there. I always looked up to him as a writer, and now, fifteen years later, I am looking forward to collaborating with him on some projects. We've had some stimulating conversations about poetry, and I thought that I would share some of those thoughts with you.

Like I've said in past posts, I used to be a poet first and a writer second. Over time, however, I became reticent about writing poetry because of the general lack of interest in it, and the fact that poetry presses were so limiting in what they would accept. Without putting much thought into it, I began to focus my attention elsewhere, and it has not been until these past few weeks that I have started to think more about the genre seriously again. This is mainly due to the fact that I was hired to write a collection of poems for a coffee table book to be published in Europe. The project went very well, and I've received accolades from both the artist who hired me and his publisher. The biggest compliment was the statement that he made: "I can no longer separate the photograph from the poem." The pride I felt when I read his commentary was unbelievable, and it re-ignited that spark inside of me.

Now, I'm looking at publishing a new collection of poetry in my own name. But, like all things I write, I also want to make money with this endeavor. I don't want to just break even. My friend and I discussed this, and we have determined what the current problem is with poetry today.

The simple perspective would place the downward spiral of poetry on the audience. I used to feel this way too. I thought that the average American would not want to purchase a chap book of poetry. However, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that this is not the case. There is a large reading population, and a poetry collection done in the right way would sell. I think you have to be creative. Perhaps sell it as a coffee table book or even make it a collection of short stories and poetry, but there are ways of making it work.

The problem that we see with poetry is that the audience has been taken out of the equation. Since the 1960s, for whatever reason, poetry has gone astray in two ways. First, it has been taken hostage by the academia. Secondly, it has been used as a sounding board for controversial ideas.

Academia has a belief that poetry is an art that only the few can appreciate. And when that really took root, many of the smaller poetry presses either went out of business or focused their printing towards the university setting. Poets published were either MFAs, students in creative writing programs, or PhDs. They wrote in a very high language that took the average reader out of the mix, and they kept it to themselves. Indeed, most poetry journals today are supported by members of these elite organizations; therefore, few poems have made it to the popular readership.

In addition, many of the poems out there were written with a very specific in-your-face message. Politics became the poet's message, and everything from feminist philosophy to socialism to anything in between has become the overriding purpose for the poem. Not only does this turn off many readers, but it also goes over the head of many readers who are not privy to the subject material being written about. It is no wonder that the average reader shuns poetry.

To me, poetry is an art that should be enjoyed by all. I don't think that it should be void of a message, but I think its main purpose should be rhetorical, meaning that it should take something of everyday value and shed light on a deeper meaning that everyone can appreciate. It should make you think. Poetry should be beautiful, descriptive, and it should create an emotion. Moreover, it should be a snapshot into the mind of the poet as a reaction to things seen and experienced.

Robert Frost is the person who comes to mind. He took everyday life observances and wrote about them. Each poem had a deeper meaning, but it was a meaning that everyone could understand and interpret. He wrote for the masses, and he was one of the last poets to do just that. He despised elitist mentality, and he often wrote against it. Oddly enough, he was one of the last poets who truly had success with the popular press. And he was successful, not because he was a rhymer with no content. He wrote deep poetry -- beautiful poetry -- and that is what we need once again on the shelves of our favorite bookstores.

I look towards Frost as the answer to today's poetry problem. I think that it can be brought back to success in the public's mind, and I think that taking his model would work. You see, there is a much larger audience for poetry out there, but the problem is reaching them with the product that they want to read. It is my goal to try to make that happen, and I am happy to find someone whom I respect with a like-mind in this matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Not Forgotten

I have not forgotten to write. I just have not been able to write. This week has been very busy and very taxing. I spent the beginning of the week out of town in meetings about a book that I am going to write, and I am leaving for a short but much-needed rest tomorrow so that I can refresh myself before starting this next book.

I will begin to post entries to this blog on Monday unless the spirit moves me while on vacation (yes, my faithful laptop follows me wherever I go).

Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetic Journey

I just finished a book that I've been working on. It's a good feeling, but I'm a little sad too. It always seems to be that way. When I write, I put so much of my heart and soul in it, and when I'm done, I can't help but feel that I'm sending one of my children away to camp. It's even worse being a ghostwriter. The work doesn't stay with me. It's gone, and I can never re-claim it. Although I love the plethora of opportunities of ghostwriting, I hate not being able to take the credit. My biggest fear is that I'm going to leave some of my most inspired work, that which only comes on occasion to every writer and poet, for someone else to take and call their own.

This latest work was a collection of poems that I wrote for a Belgian photographer for a coffee-table book that he is publishing. It was a wonderful project, and I loved the experience. I am not allowed to go into any detail about the work, but I can say that the experience was a journey of reflection on the misery that some people deal with in their lives. It was emotionally draining, but rewarding at the same time.

I had not reflected on poetry as a pure art since I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing. Back then, I was a poet at heart, and I lived that art. I loved that art. It embodied everything that I did, and it affected how I viewed the world. But then life happened. The real world has a way of deadening our senses, causing us to miss the little things. Those little things are really the narrator of life, and I've missed them. I'm so happy that, now, I have reinvented myself, and I proudly don poet's eyes once again.

Poetry, to me, is the noblest art. It's an outlet to reflect and to describe, and it captures the essence of our existence, both physical, emotional, and mental. Over the years, poetry has meant many things. It has gone through many transformations, and it has experienced the ebbs and flows of public appreciation. Unfortunately, we live in a time where the public has turned a deaf ear to poetry. Computers, television, and automation have taken their toll on poetry. Hallmark too. Now, anyone who can rhyme calls themselves a poet, and that is a shame. Poetry is so much more.

When I worked for Tar River Poetry, I had an opportunity to review thousands of poems each year, critiquing them for their quality as it related to our vision of what poetry should be. It was a wonderful experience, but an unfortunate one because I became a critic more than a poet. But it did teach me what I considered to be MY definition of poetry. And that is what guides me to this day in regards to what style or "school" I claim.

Poetry is not about rhyming. Meter was once in vogue, but the actual rhyme itself is not poetry. It's musical, and it provides cadence, but not all things are musical in life. In fact, in our very fragmented world, very few things are musical anymore. In fact, industrialization, at the turn of the 20th century, propagated a new style of poetry that represented fragmentation, machination, and social unrest. That doesn't mean that all poetry shouldn't rhyme. No, some should. But it's more about capturing a moment, an event, an emotion. In that way, a poet should be free to examine the best way to create an emotional response to that which he is writing about, and there are many ways to do that.

As I was writing these last poems, I found myself expressing my emotions in so many different ways. I let the photographs lead me to the style, and I did my best to capture a moment, bring it to life, and create, not only an emotional response, but also a call for action. A statement. That is the poet's responsibility. I loved it, and it made me want to go out on my own and write my own poetry for me.

The process made me realize that I am still caught between the harsh realities of this world and the poet's eye. I am disappointed that, when I became inspired to write my own poetry to be published, I paused and thought about the economic realities. No one makes money writing poetry, I told myself. I failed at that very moment. I failed for myself and my art. There is still a lot of growth that I have to go through before I can truly embody the spirit of the poet.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Red Ink and Manuscripts Don't Mix

A friend of mine was looking at my website the other day, and he asked me how I could stand to spend my days editing manuscripts. I asked him what made him think that, and he told me that it seems rather redundant and boring. I can only imagine that he pictured me with red ink pen in hand making copious notes on some poor author's book, tearing it to pieces, and then handing the garbled mess back with an "F" scratched at the top. Once I explained my role in the publishing process, he looked at me and said, "Oh." Just "oh." I was hoping for more, but c'est la vie, eh?

I find editing rather enjoyable. It's my way of fine-tuning a manuscript and making a good story great. By and large, I think editors live behind the scenes too much. Very little recognition for the work that's being done. Sure, authors get all of the credit, but without an editor's touch, believe me, very little that's being published would get published.

Editing, for sure, is much more than punctuation and sentence structure. I mean, that's part of it, but only part of it. Usually, the last part of it. A good editor, and there are a few out there who I would consider good, will take a book and make it work from cover to cover. I will be the first to admit, however, that there are a lot of "editors" out there who do nothing but make simple corrections at the sentence level. These folks aren't really editors -- they're proofreaders, and that's OK as long as they don't give a false sense of security to a writer who's needing much more.

Manuscripts come in many forms. Some are logical, full of detail, have a storyline, and are organized. Others are written in stream of consciousness, go here, go there, expound on this, barely touch that, and seem to have no direction. An editor's task is to take each and make them readable. A good editor will make them enjoyable. A great editor will make them saleable. The very best of the best will make them award-winning.

That's my goal. Being the very best at what I do is all I have ever wanted. When I take a manuscript as an editor, I TAKE it, own it, make it. Sure, the author will get the credit for the work, and deservedly so, but when it's all said and done, my paw prints will be all over it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Taking the Wind Out of Your Opponent's Sail

As I was reading my Alexander Hamilton biography, I came across a section that was very enlightening in regards to debating and speechmaking in general, and I thought it would be a good lesson on how to win arguments through civilized discourse. I know that attorneys use this one particular method on occasion, but I think that most people forget it when they're arguing for something they want.

Hamilton was part of the Federalist contingent in the New York State debate regarding the ratification of the Constitution. In fact, he was the main speaker, and he would speak many times during that two-week session. His back was against the wall, and he was definitely in the minority with the anti-Federalists Clintonians destined to win. Were it not for Hamilton's brilliance as an orator, New York would have been one of three states that would not join the new Republic. And as one of the largest states in the colonies at the time, it would have caused a major problem for the new federal government.

Knowing this, Hamilton's first speech was going to have to be his best. He knew the anti-Federalists had powerful arguments against him and the proposed Constitution, and he wanted to make sure that he took all of their authority and power away on his own terms rather than let the undecided delegates hear it from the Clintonian speakers. So, in a moment of brilliance, instead of speaking about his position and the Federalist cause up front, he dedicated his speech to outlining his opponent's arguments and criticisms, one by one, and explaining them in detail. He gave them credit where credit was due, and he refrained from attacking any of their points. He spoke as if he were on their side, and he brought out their most potent defense for their position. In doing so, he took the wind out of their sail. When they came to the podium, they would not be able to offer anything new to the discussion. He had done it for them. On the other hand, when Hamilton returned to speak during the course of the two-week debate, he would, point-by-point, examine their positions, compare them to the proposed Constitution and tear their arguments down. In essence, he put them in a very awkward position and rendered them ineffective for 13 of the 14 days of debate.

His plan was successful, and the New York delegates voted for ratification of the Constitution. People at that convention noted that it was Hamilton and his oratorical skills that won them over. It was an amazing rhetorical feat. Unfortunately, this moment has been left out of most history books.

What we can do, though, is take this example and apply it to our lives. We seem to have lost the ability to make these kinds of arguments. I believe it's because we are in such a hurry to tell our point of view and talk about ourselves that we do not want to take time to lay out our opponent's argument first. In addition, for some reason, we fear telling the other side's story thinking that it will circumvent our own argument. This is simply not true. If we take the time to analyze our opponent before we speak and understand their story, we can disarm them before they have a chance to speak. It really is genius. And it is necessary. We must realize that our opponents do have valid points that they believe in, and dismissing those arguments while focusing on our own leaves half of our ammunition unused. More detrimentally to our cause, waiting to address their arguments after they make them puts us on the defensive, and a response to a statement is never better than making an argument on our own terms. Never!

So, where can we use this? Anywhere! Attorneys can use this when speaking to a jury. Salespeople can use this technique when presenting their product to a customer. Politicians can use this when debating their opponents. Business leaders can use this when trying to propose an idea. And, yes, married couples can use this when making decisions. It can be used anytime you are trying to get your ideas accepted when opposing another set of core values.

The key to disarming your opponent is the balanced use of tact and diplomacy. Like Hamilton, you don't want to start off by bad-mouthing your opponent or your opponent's ideas. For example, in a sales presentation, if you do that, you will lose the sale because customers do not like you bad-mouthing the competition. It's much easier to do in a speech because you have your audience's undivided attention. In a sales presentation, it's more about weaving your opponent's argument softly into your presentation. However, it must be there nonetheless. In the future, I will present this rhetorical method dedicated for sales presentations. It is potent and will set you apart from the competition.

Try it the next time you have to win over support for something. Do the research on your opponent and then spend the first few minutes of your speech listing their arguments first. Then, spend the rest of your speech taking a comparison-contrast between your ideas and those of your opponent. I guarantee, if you do that, you have increased your odds of winning by at least 50% because your opponent will have to resort to answering your intellectual argument rather than giving his argument.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hitting Below the Belt

You wake up, put on your bunny slippers and walk out to the end of the driveway to get your morning paper. After getting back to the kitchen, you pour yourself a cup of coffee, take a bite out of a blueberry danish, and open the paper. You're hoping for a good read as the following headline catches your attention: "Sen. Johnson Tied to Think Tank."

You continue to read because, you think, if it made the front-page, it must be important. However, you soon realize that the most interesting thing about the story is the glob of blueberry filling that dripped on the page. It's just another baseless attack below the belt from those who oppose the belabored Senator.

Of course, I've made up this scenario. There is no Sen. Johnson, and you never would have retrieved your newspaper in those old bunny slippers. You also wouldn't have let blueberry goop drip onto your paper, especially when the comics were on the next page. That would be sacrilegious! However, the point is well-taken. Every day, we are bombarded with "news," and it turns out to be nothing more than another personal shot aimed at someone who is in the limelight.

This is a time-honored tradition. In fact, in 18th Century America, it was much worse. Nothing was sacred, and no one, including President Washington, was immune to some pretty scathing attacks from the opposing party. At that time, editors of newspapers did not pretend to be non-partisan. They made it abundantly clear what they stood for and were very proud of it. One might wish our current newspapers would follow that lead instead of pretending to be different. We do kind of live with this open secret today, don't we?

Perhaps the most notorious exchange of attacks came between Alexander Hamilton and Gov. George Clinton of New York. Hamilton and Clinton had been at each other's throats for a long time, mostly due to differences of opinion regarding the Constitution. Their dispute was carried out mostly through New York newspapers with Hamilton's brilliance as a writer usually making Clinton look like a fool. Clinton, unable to match wits with Hamilton on an intellectual level, did what any good politician would do under the same circumstances -- hit Hamilton below the belt by personally attacking him.

Prior to Hamilton's writing The Federalist Papers, Clinton wrote a series of articles calling him a "Tom Shit," a then popular caricature of someone who is uppity without "proper breeding." He assailed Hamilton for being a bastard by birth and accused him of being a "mustee" which was someone of mixed racial ancestry. Clinton went on to accuse Hamilton of being a supporter of the Crown who worked for the King. According to Clinton, Hamilton was in progress of returning America to England.

Hmmm... attacking your opponent by questioning his allegiance to country, his birth, and his race. Aside from bringing up his religion, this all sounds pretty familiar. One need not look any further than the last presidential election to see all of this playing out in front of us. We had the Republicans questioning Obama's birth, nationality, allegiance to country, and religion. We had the Democrats knocking McCain by making fun of his age, and they pounced on Palin with ferocity. We even had poor "Joe the Plumber" get raked over the coals by the Democratic machine.

Even though people on both sides of the aisle were screaming protests, this was nothing new to our political and editorial heritage. People have and always will hit below the waist.

Why? Well, this is a practice that goes back to the beginning of history. If you are in a debate, and you fail to win over the audience with your intelligence, discourse, and research, you do the only thing you can do to win -- punch your opponent in the groin and walk away the victor. They don't teach this in school, but we learned how to do it as children on the playground. Somehow, though, we never did quite learn how to stick to the issues. Although cheap shots are not official rhetorical devices, we innately know that they are equally effective at winning over the audience.

This bring me to my point. The problem isn't with the politicians who engage in such behavior. The problem is with the audience. You see, if Clinton weren't able to get positive feedback from New Yorkers from his lambasting of Hamilton's race and allegiance, he wouldn't have stooped to that level. But, he knew he would win over supporters, so he did it. And, hey, call it what it is -- if the Democrats knew that making fun of Palin's wardrobe shopping spree wouldn't work, they wouldn't have gone there either.

To be good at hitting below the belt, you have to know the political landscape and the way your audience thinks. If you guess wrong and hit hard, it can come back to bite you. Case in point, the Republican's focus on Obama's associations with some not-so-patriotic folks back in the '70s. Perhaps that shot would have done well eight years ago, but it actually backfired on them this go-round.

So, the lesson to our children will once again be, if you want to be powerful, you've got to walk tall and carry a big stick (that you use to knock your opponent to the ground by hitting him hard in the kneecaps).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving and a Joyous Black Friday!

Well, it's the official start to the holiday season today as millions of people are on their way to see family and engage in a month-long tradition of gluttonous behavior. I am going to break that tradition this year, however, by reinvigorating my passion for losing weight beginning on Friday. Those of you who know me know that I lost an enormous amount of weight earlier this year, only to see some of it return. Well, I want to stop the madness by returning to common sense eating practices. Hopefully, my surgeon will allow me to do some exercise again too, like riding on a stationary bicycle to get my heart rate up. I'll find out on December 3rd. But enough of that...

Does it seem like the holidays started a month ago? The day after Halloween, Christmas was in full bloom at every department store here in Maryland. I'm sure it was the same where you are too. I'm not sure if this is a sign of the times, or if it's always been this way. I don't remember it being so early in the past. It almost seems that merchants started early in order to make their Christmas numbers look so good. I guess if you have to post holiday numbers, the best way to make them look better is to increase the length of the holiday season. Don't you think the shareholders will figure that out?

Merchants are dropping prices faster than Madonna drops a husband, and that's going to cut into their profits. But I see they've countered that by doing the one thing that never fails to increase profits -- cut labor costs. Every store I go into seems way under-staffed. No wonder jobless claims are up.

OK, so this isn't an economic blog, but those are my thoughts on this day before Thanksgiving. I plan to take it easy this weekend and will use this time to read The Federalist Papers. I'm very serious about my plans to write a collection of essays about our government, along with my opinion as to how to best solve our problems. A lot of people believe you have to be an attorney or politician to engage in this kind of thought, but I disagree. That is not the principle this country was founded upon, and one need not have argued in court to be able to dissect governmental philosophy. Our forefathers were not all lawyers, and even if they were, they could have become a lawyer at 19 years of age with six months of training. Elitism proposes this mentality, and it does so in order to prevent anyone from having a say in government. In that way, I am attacking the status quo.

Fortunately, I have found some gentlemen on the west coast who are of like mind. We are engaging in a very stimulating conversation about this very issue, and it has continued to peak my interest in this project. Hamilton, too, was a prolific writer, and his words shaped the Constitution. I look forward to reading his essays and discovering how we have moved from the core principles this country was founded upon. I believe it will be a significant departure.

Anyway, enough of that. Have a happy Thanksgiving, a joyous Black Friday, and a safe trip home. I'll return on Monday with more literary musings!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

We Need a Revival of the Literary Sort!

It's time for a revival, folks. No, not a revival that you'd go to in a church, although we could all probably use a little of that, but a literary revival. I know what you're thinking: "Literary revival?! Why, America is at its pinnacle of literary achievement. You must have heard about the greats like Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, Harlequin, and even that Brit who writes about sorcerers. We don't need a revival!" Well, if that's what you're thinking, then you just made my point!

We've fallen into a rut. It's been a long time since we've had a great writer who's a star at the same time. I mean, take an American Literature course and see what decade the last writer on the list comes from. It's probably going to be the 1960s, and I personally don't think there was much great literature then. I'm looking for the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Frost. These men were not only great writers, but they were stars! That's what I'm craving.

I suppose it happens from time to time. It seems that the greats come and go every fifty years or so, and they all seem to get lumped together. But, boy, when they come, they are a splash! We need them right now, that's for sure. I believe that our writers are the catalysts of culture and stimulation of thought. And at this point and time, we desperately need a return of literature so that we can recover from an imposing intellectual famine.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing bad about pop-fiction. We need stories that are easy and fun to read too. They all have their place. I've heard some teachers say that they don't care what you read as long as you read. That's all and good up to a point, but there needs to be some occasional thought in there as well. I'd also like to add that there needs to be some beauty too. Great writers write with a richness and descriptiveness that takes us to other places, makes us feel other emotions, and forces us to react to other causes. That kind of literature promotes change and stimulates art. That's the revival I'm talking about.

I try to find the lemonade stand when there seems to be a bumper crop of lemons, and boy do we have a cash crop this year! Well, the lemonade of financial downswings seems to be great literature. We'll see if this is the case this time. I know the Great Depression brought out the creative juices in our last batch of great writers, so I'm hoping that this crisis we're facing now will do the same. I don't know why it's like that. Perhaps fear brings some to places they've never been, or perhaps they see the extremes that really move them to find beauty in the bleak.

Poetry, in particular, is suffering great damage, and has been suffering for many years. Not that we don't have some outstanding poets right now, but none of them are known except for those who are in academia. Most Americans only know poetry through that great poet, Hallmark, and that's just not acceptable. It is time for our own version of Robert Frost to capture the general population -- a poet who opens the hearts of the people; a poet who opens the eyes of readers.

I'm praying for revival, and I challenge you to look for that next great writer or poet. When that person breaks through, we need to support his/her work and make sure that we spread the word so that others may benefit as well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Emotion v. Logic v. Both

I received a very nice email this week from a gentleman who stopped by The Speechwriter. He said that he appreciated my commentary about persuasion and emotion. He went on to say that he typically rejects his emotional responses to most things, and he tends to be more logical in his decision-making process.

The email brought up a point that is important to those who engage in persuasive activities (salesmen, marketing personnel, politicians, etc.). There are two types of people in this world: those who react to emotion-based arguments and those who have to think things through while looking for a logical conclusion. To be effective at speech and writing, you have to take both personalities into consideration.

Gorgias taught that most people respond to emotions. His use of poetics and his penchant for drama was based upon that premise. However, he also included logic-based argumentation for those who needed that approach. His speeches were organized in logical form, and he used a Socratic-method of reasoning to present his case. Both, he thought, were necessary.

Today's audiences are no different. The key, however, is to know your audience. For example, if you are a salesperson, you should take time to talk to your customer before you start making a pitch. This conversation is more than just casual talk. During this time, you are assessing that person and figuring out how to present your product to him. Seven out of ten times, you'll discover that the customer is emotion-based, and you will get more opportunity to sell by being creative, using descriptive language, telling stories, and visualizing the product more. However, you will find that about three out of ten people will require a technical, logical approach. They want to hear the statistics, test the product, and talk about numbers. The emotional methods will not work on them.

So, if you are making a presentation to anyone, your first objective should be to find out who your audience is so that you can make your presentation fit their needs. If you don't do this, you will rarely be successful at persuading people to follow your lead. As a speechwriter, the very first question I ask a client is, "who is the audience?" In fact, I need to know more about the audience, many times, than I do about the person delivering the speech.

The same is true for the writer. In fact, the first lecture I give my composition students specifically regards audience. You cannot put pen to paper before knowing your reader. I am surprised, however, at how many "professional" writers do not take audience into consideration. Many have the opinion that they are going to write however they want to write no matter who the readers are. I think this is ludicrous. Certainly, there are elements of your style that will remain constant -- those things that define you as a writer. However, there are many more elements that you can change to meet your audience's needs. Many times, that is the difference between being a good writer and a great writer.

Test this principle out for yourself. If you are in a position where you have to persuade someone to a course of action, think about that person's personality before you start to make your case. Fitting your argument to their personality gives you an advantage and greatly increases your chance to succeed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tonight, an Invite, and Opening Discussion

Tonight, I will be posting my final commentary about the Constitution in The Speechwriter. I understand that the topics of government, the Constitution, and our future has little to do with Speech, Rhetoric, and Persuasion, and I will be shifting the focus of this blog back to those topics next week.

This evening, though, I hope to lend credence to my concerns by discussing "change." Yesterday, I made a point that our country was no longer recognizable as the country that Hamilton wrote about in The Federalist Papers. Obviously, I was speaking more to the philosophy of government than actual progress we've made as a society. But, in that essay, there remains a vagueness which I must address. It will conclude a "trilogy of thought" and will bring the discussion to a logical ending by looking deeper at the problem.

For me, however, the thought-process is never-ending regarding this issue. I've spent three sleepless nights mulling over the issues that our country faces. And, like Hamilton, I find no greater satisfaction than thinking and writing about my cause.

As a result, I am going to be creating a new blog that will tackle a project that I believe is worthwhile. I will elaborate more upon my intentions in the new blog itself. It will be a private blog, and the only people who will be able to read and participate are those who have been invited. Everyone who is a follower of The Speechwriter at this time has an open invitation to join my new blog if you are interested in being a part of it.

Please email me at mark@markhoneycutt.com if you wish to be invited. I have to send an invitation request to you in order to make this happen.

In that blog, I will open up discussion so that you can give me feedback on what I write. Your feedback is important to me because the essays I will be writing are hopefully going to be published as a collection. What greater way to approach a publisher than with the statement that the essays have been peer-reviewed. This is why I do not wish to make it a public document.

There is never any guarantee that a publisher will accept a project. However, what motivates me is the relevancy of the issues I will be discussing. Listening to the radio and news, you will see that the topic is at the heart of debate among many people. As a citizen of the United States, I believe it is well within my right to make my case. And as an educated person who understands the issues we face, I believe it is my responsibility.

I hope to hear back from some of you regarding your desire to participate.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

For the Few, By the People

On Thursday, I wrote what I consider to be the most important essay of my life. I was listening to the news while driving to my health club, and the three stories I discussed made the headlines. It took a while for it all to sink in, but as I was soaking in the jacuzzi, I felt my blood pressure go up, and I became slightly nauseous. Those stories haunted me, and I could not shake them loose from my head. I had to do something -- anything. Instead of keeping it inside, I got out of the hot tub, dried off, and marched to my car where I wrote on my laptop. I know it was not an award-winning essay. I wrote in stream-of-consciousness, and I hacked it out in less than twenty minutes before posting it to The Speechwriter.

Its importance lay not in the writing itself, but of its ideas. For me, it was therapeutic. For Sherry, it was a surprise. Like her, most people who know me never knew that I cared about Government. The truth is, for years, I have bottled up so many concerns and emotions about the state of our country. And being in a writing slump for over ten years, I have not put forth any effort to communicate those feelings to any audience. Neither, I might add, have I talked about them beyond vague conversations around an election. On Thursday, though, I found myself willing to let it go. Some of the pressure that has welled inside over the years was released, and for a few hours, I felt great.

I am deeply troubled by the direction our leaders have taken us over the past fifty years. In particular, the past twenty years seem to show that the United States of America is in a tail spin. And over the past eight years, it even feels like we may have even crashed. To me, the future looks bleak unless something changes, and I do not feel comfortable with Obama's direction. This is not simply a political-reaction. I do not feel secure that either party is prepared to lead us toward a better future.

My fears are also not a result of a troubled economy, a two-front war, or a change of leadership. Those recurrences are part of the ebb and flow of all nations. While times are tough, they do not lend themselves to my bleak outlook. The problem as I see it is much more difficult to define, but it speaks to the heart of the identity of our country. In many ways, I believe we are facing some of the very issues that Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and Jay faced in the 1780's. But this time, instead of seeking to unify a nation of states under one government and people, we are moving in the opposite direction towards separatism for the benefit of a few.

In doing so, our Constitution, the central group of ideas that shape our country, is under attack. Our form of government, a Republican Government, is under attack. And our economic philosophy, Capitalism, is under attack. The difficulty of seeing these assaults is due to the fact that they have been carried out over a fifty-year time span. And the enemy is us, not an outside threat. What were once small changes to our government have now evolved into a shift of identity. We have moved, slowly but surely, so far away from the original intentions of our founding fathers that I would dare say they would not recognize that which they created.

We are not a true Democracy. We are a Republic, and the Republic is bound to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, giving us a workable democratic system. The intentions of the founding fathers were written in those documents as a reaction to an overbearing monarchical rule. But they were also reacting to corruption, special interest groups, and to overwhelming foreign interference in the affairs of the young government. Instead of a continual improvement within this framework, though, we find ourselves, 200 years later, moving towards an acceptance of that which they fought against. We have an elite who rule with the bullying attitudes of monarchs, we have a Congress that is corrupt to the core, taking money from special-interest groups without remorse, and we have joined to the hip, if not mortgaged ourselves to, foreign nations. The result is a leadership who make decisions, not for the betterment of the people as a whole, but for the benefit of the few.

It would be impossible to dive into the details of our backward spin in one essay. It took eighty plus essays for Hamilton and others to outline their new philosophy of government in The Federalist Papers. It will take many more essays and discussions to make an impact today. The problem is, however, that no one wants to take up the fight. Or, if they do, they know the ramifications of fighting the status quo. This corruption goes far beyond the walls of Congress. It carries over to the media who give Congress this power and who protect its members by silencing dissension and propagating its ideas. The only people who can force a change are The People, and I find it sad to say that The People have become so lazy, so complacent, and so ignorant that they have lost the power that they once held at the founding of this country.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Propaganda Against the Constitution

I am going to do something different today than I had planned to do. I need to get something off of my chest. It is something that I think is important, and it does relate to propaganda. In fact, it is my fight against an effective propaganda campaign that has been on-going for the past twenty years. I've noticed a trend that has magnified itself over the past few weeks, and frankly, it angers me.

We all know that Californians voted against gay marriage earlier this month when they struck down Proposition 8. Now, and I want to be abundantly clear here, I am not making a statement of whether or not I'm for or against this right. That is not the point of my rant, so I want to make sure that you understand this. However, what bothers me is that the people voted, and at least for another year or two, this law should stand. Over the past few weeks, though, politicians and gay rights advocates have fought back and are taking this into the court system. The mayor of San Francisco has basically said the public should not be making these decisions -- that laws should be decided by those who are more capable of making them. And they are going to get the law overturned. Since when did this become a country of the elite? Since when was the law of the land not the law of the people? Californians, as citizens of their state, spoke up and declared that they did not see this as a right California should grant. And whether or not you or I agree with this vote, it should stand because it was a statement of that citizenry. But that doesn't matter anymore, does it? We live in a time when the minority of the land wields more power than the majority. We live in a time where the public has to bow down to the whims of some social elite who oversees the "best interest" of the "ignorant" public. We live in a time when minority opinions trump the majority.

Perhaps this violation of our system wouldn't have bothered me as much if it had not been coupled with the E-Harmony lawsuit that was just settled. E-Harmony, a private company, has just been forced to include match-making services for gay couples. The owners of E-Harmony, who are Christian couple, had to face closure of their business or violate their belief-system and settle on a losing case. How is it that a private company can be forced by the court system to offer any service? I do not, for the life of me, understand how this can be legal. At no point did E-Harmony discriminate against gay people. They just did not offer a dedicated service for them. No equal rights laws were violated. I would understand it so much more if this was a service offered by the government. But a private company? Come on! What's next? Are we going to force WalMart to have a Big and Tall department in every store just because bigger people want to buy their clothes there? No! You need Big and Tall, you go to another store! That is what capitalism is all about. Do you believe that gay match-making companies will now be forced to offer straight-people match-making? Government has no right dictating this, and I want everyone to think of the ramifications. If you own a business, beware.

Add to this the fact that the Fairness Doctrine is about to be reinstated, and you have a mini-coup. The Fairness Doctrine is the government's way of denying free speech, and it is targeted at dissenting opinion. There is not an expert of free speech in this country who doesn't admit that it is targeting conservative radio. And the fact of the matter is, they are going to shut down conservative talk shows without doing a single thing to equalize opinions on the major networks and print media. That's not my opinion; it is the opinion of most authorities on this subject. So, what we are going to end up with is a press that has no checks and balances. We will hear one side of the story, and only one side of the story. There will be no dissenting opinion.

If I am neither conservative nor liberal, why do these things make me angry? Because, no matter what you believe, you should all stand up for the Constitution. We should be given the right to say whatever we want to say and in any venue. No one has to agree with us, but it is our right to voice our opinions. If we have an ignorant opinion, then let the people judge us and not listen anymore. The people of the land should be given the right to decide which laws they want to abide by without having an elite intelligentsia tell them how to live. That is the philosophy that this country was founded upon. Private companies should be able to offer the services that they want to offer without being forced to meet every demand they are confronted with. That is their right as a merchant.

Disregarding political views, because both Republican and Democratic parties are part of this problem, and disregarding lean, because both conservatives and liberals are part of this problem, it is evident that we are seeing a change in this country for the worst. I am not here to make a moral statement about gay rights or conservative radio. I am not here to give opinion as to whether or not companies should do one thing or another. It doesn't matter if I believed gays should have the right to marry. And it doesn't matter if I think E-Harmony really should offer services it doesn't offer. And it doesn't matter if I do not like Rush Limbaugh. What matters, though, is the Constitution, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom to run your business your own way. If Californians made a mistake, let it be overturned during the next election. If E-Harmony made a mistake, let their business fail. If conservative talk shows say extreme things, let their ratings shut them down, but don't ever let government violate the most sacred institution we have, our constitution.

We are at a delicate point in this country. We have turned full-circle from the basic elements that drove our ancestors to rebel against monarchy. These rights, these freedoms, the Constitution, were created because our founding fathers could no longer tolerate suppression and elite rule. The very things that they defined as important to a Republic are now being overturned. Call it what you may, but there is no doubt in my mind that we are, right now, nothing more than a puppet democracy -- a democracy on paper, but not in practice. And as a student of propaganda for a long time, I will tell you that I see the wave of Socialism approaching, and it is coming in the form of a Tsunami.

Do you want direct comparisons? Educate yourself by looking at how the Nazis took power in Germany. They were not the conservative party, mind you. They were the liberal party. Take a look at the French and Spanish Socialist parties. Take a look at Marxism. We are much closer to any of these in practice than we are with the principles this country was founded upon.

Again, this is not a commentary about specific issues, but it is a warning about implementation of these issues and bullying. I would be saying the same thing if these issues revolved around gun-rights and liquor laws. The fact is, we cannot allow decisions to be made that violate the very thing that makes America great!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Effective Propaganda: Rallies, Speeches, Fireworks

Today, I would like to talk about the Obama campaign and how it used effective propaganda to effectively win the hearts of millions of Americans. Note that I did not include "minds" in that sentence. Certainly, a few documentaries have proven that his spell on the American public was not about issues but about perceptions, and Obama supporters were woefully behind McCain supporters in terms of knowledge of the issues. The fact, however, is that effective propaganda isn't about educating the masses. It is about exciting the emotions. And that is exactly what his campaign did.

Before I dive into my take on the "Obama Nation," let me state that what I say has nothing to do with politics or political lean. Whether you are so far to the left that you are about to fall into the pit of Hell, or that you are so far to the right that you, too, are about to fall into the pit of Hell, makes no difference. This is simply a look at the campaign, the speaker, and the propaganda. Please keep that in mind as you read.

Obama ran the perfect campaign. True to the ideals of effective propaganda, his campaign did everything correctly. We have not seen this kind of campaign in a long time. In fact, I'm not sure that we have ever seen this kind of politicking in the United States. The fact that he used every rhetorical tool in the bag, and his campaign was managed like an infantry corps, has brought both applause and criticism. His supporters claim that he was brilliant, and detractors hearkened back to similarities with the Nazi revolution. Either way, no matter what you think about him or his policies, it must be recognized that he mastered the art of propaganda.

I want to take a look at the elements of his campaign that created the reaction that it did. None of this happened by accident, and he led a well-planned effort that was choreographed like a Broadway musical. It was a marvelous site to see from those who are interested in such things.

To begin with, the Obama camp controlled the media. I know that this sounds like the whining of the Republican party, but let's face it, the media is liberal, and it was obvious that they wanted Obama to win. On the surface, it doesn't matter who the Democratic candidate is. If someone is running against a Republican, the media is going to support that person; however, with the Obama campaign, there was a different energy than just blind support. He had the media eating out of his hand. Stories that he wanted told were told. Issues that he wanted covered were covered. Pictures that he wanted taken were taken. There was no question that he managed the press like a CEO of ABC. He owned them, and they loved every minute of it. On any given day, it was difficult to find the least amount of criticism of Obama, but it was easy to find dirt on McCain or Palin. Again, I'm not griping about this at all. It's a testament to the fact that he was able to control his message which is what great propagandists do.

Secondly, he was a master of setting the stage. Take a look at famous political rallies, and they all have common attributes: large crowds, unified chanting, colorful backdrops, image worship, music, and theatrics. Obama's first decision when he won the Democratic nomination was perhaps his most important. Instead of electing to hold town hall meetings throughout the United States, he chose to hold mass rallies in stadiums. McCain did the opposite. Who stood out as being fresher and more interesting? Certainly, Obama did. His rallies were a mixture of rock star concert and Nuremberg. I'm sorry to make that allusion, but I cannot help it. Again, I am not talking about the man or the message. I'm talking about the show. It is a fair comparison, and there is nothing wrong with what he did in this regard. In fact, I view it as good because it was effective.

How did his rallies go? To begin with, one or two speakers introduced him. Their speeches were short and very emotional. Their job was to warm the crowd up and get the emotional energy moving upward. They used key words that were followed by shouts and chants. He had key supporters mixed in with the crowd whose job it was to encourage those mass shouts as well. That made for good television, and it brought the crowd to a frenzy. Just before he was brought on stage, the lighting would be dimmed, and music with rhythmic drum beats would proceed. And when he walked on stage, fireworks would go off behind him. By the time he got to the podium, everyone in that stadium was a fever-pitch. This is, my friends, effective propaganda.

His speeches were another part of the whole puzzle. He delivered speeches that were full of rhetorical devices. He spoke like a minister in a pulpit. His voice carried high and low, and his words were full of imagery. He repeated himself over and over, trying to get key slogans to resonate in the minds of the audience. His words were more than words. They were word pictures, and people could visualize what he was saying which is very important in an emotionally excited environment. At any point in his speech, the adrenaline was so high in the auditorium that it mattered not what he said. And those who were a part of the experience likened it to an orgy of ideas and emotions that will leave a mark on them forever.

On the campaign trail, his message was simplified into simple slogans that were repeated over and over. He propagated them, and the media and his organization continued to force-feed it to America. His name was synonymous with change. His rallying cry was "Yes, we can." His enemy was all things Bush. These three things drove the arrow through McCain's heart. He could not overcome the onslaught. Americans, over time, began to believe one thing: the Republicans have led us badly, we need change, and Obama can turn us around if we support him.

This support system, too, was "propagandistic." He had two types of people following him. Those recruited as supporters, and those who were followers. The followers were a subset of people whose job it was to recruit supporters. Indoctrination, therefore, was grassroots, and a system of indoctrination spread from town to town, person to person. The emotion of the rally fueled the tenacity of the followers who worked the communities for him spreading his message.

There is no doubt as to the effectiveness of his propaganda. He had youth choirs singing his praises, movie makers were filming documentaries about him, musicians were writing songs about him, and teachers were lecturing about him.

With all of this said, the most important aspect that proves the effect of his propaganda is not what was preached in his name, but what was left out. His efficiency at hiding his past, his clever dodging of questionable associations, his turning the tables against those who opposed him -- these are all the hallmarks of effective propaganda. It is true that he had the largest number of supporters who did not even know the issues. A study was conducted which stated that over 40% of those who voted for him did not even know which party controlled the House or Senate. 95% of them, however, did know which party had an official who spent $150,000 on clothing.

I want to end this by, once again, reaffirming my neutrality. I am neither for nor against him. I really enjoy, though, breaking down his very effective propaganda. I think it was a two-year work of art on his part, and it will be admired for years to come.