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.