Writing, author, books, editorial, philosophy, kindle

America has lost a hero

Those of you who know me and have followed my writing path know that I have published two books. The first was my memoir and the second was the biography of a World War II and Korean War veteran. It became my honor and privilege to meet, get to know and write the story of this distinguished man.

A phone call I received yesterday disclosed the news of his recent passing. David would have been 94 in September and according to his son, the length and severity of his discomfort for the last several months suggest that his death may have been a sad but timely relief from his misery.

David’s career spanned almost four decades. He entered the Army at age 16 when the US entered the war in Europe. His service was consistent, brave, intentional and characterized by his patriotism and irreverent personality. When he finally retired, he was a Major with numerous awards for service.

We met accidentally, while eating breakfast at adjoining booths. His son said, “Dad, you need to write a book about your life story.” This was said rather loudly, due to David’s hearing loss as a result of combat. Hearing that recommendation, I jumped up and handed him my business card, adding that if he would like to write his memoirs, it would be my pleasure to do so.

Our meetings were frequent, lively and filled with anecdotes and glimpses of his old-fashioned charm. We succeeded in publishing the book within two years and as I reflect on the time that we both spent in achieving that goal, I am more grateful than ever that we did so prior to his death.

Our world is now depleted of a man who gave his career and his heart to his country. He called me friend, confidante and the lady who made his history available for the world to see. From my perspective, having had the opportunity to be a participant in his life’s journey enriched my life beyond my ability to articulate it. May you rest in eternal peace and may your memory be for a blessing. Shalom

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Work

If you are anything like me, you have a difficult time putting aside your busy life to relax. Three or four days per week, I spend some time in a classroom,  a pursuit that requires my full attention and concentration. On an average of two to three days per week, I find myself completing some freelance work or maximizing my opportunities to secure new assignments.

On those days when I have no tasks to complete, I discover that I continue to find efforts to occupy my time. Sometimes that consists of cleaning a closet, regardless of the fact that I’ve cleaned said closet at least three times in the last three months. Sometimes it’s reorganizing my office, a space that consists exclusively of my possessions that were already in logical and accessible places.

What all of this means is that some of us find it difficult to do nothing unless it somehow resembles work. Be certain that I earned a semblance of retirement. My first full-time, permanent position happened in 1969 and except for a few months following my final job, I have worked nonstop since that time.

It appears to me that the problem is not a lack of endeavors on which I can spend my time but that I have spent so long doing work that it’s nearly impossible not to do something productive. Is that my version of the Protestant work ethic – work hard, thrift and efficiency? In other words, you will be doing that which you are “supposed to” do. Or is it the voice of my dad saying, “You’re lazy and always will be,” a voice that should have been silenced long ago.

Happily, I think that I’m just a person who derives satisfaction and gratification from building, creating and completing. So far, I don’t see that this has produced any negative consequences. Life is happy and without significant stress. My family brings me unequalled pleasure and I’m not missing anything that I can identify. Most importantly, I agree with a fifth-grade teacher whom I met recently. He said that he had been teaching for four years but had never had a day of “going to work.”

And so, if I am unable to stare at a wall and watch the world go on without me, so be it. When I am no longer part of that world, I hope that others will remember me as someone who always wanted to contribute more. Shalom.

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Write

What is it about writing assignments that causes otherwise verbal students to freeze? As we all know, some of us have strengths in math, some in art, some in technology and some in to be determined.

It’s always my personal challenge to identify those students who are writers. They express joy at the opportunity to articulate feelings and thoughts. They do whatever is necessary to prepare for the adventure.

Others will do everything imaginable to dodge the activity. I don’t have a pencil. I don’t know what to write about. It’s too noisy in here. It’s too cold. And in a few rare cases, I don’t like to write.

My observations suggest that too many would-be writers are halted because of fears of something. It may be fear of misspelling. Or it may be insecurity about a lack of words to communicate a finely developed thought.

Sometimes, the excuses are more sophisticated. In spite of about 200 books in the classroom, one pair of girls couldn’t find anything worth reading and then reviewing. As a result, there was their “legitimate” reason not to write several sentences.

But it’s not always bad news. Occasionally, I’ll have a student ask if he or she can write more sentences than requested. And sometimes, I’ll have a student say that she or he is writing a book, and can I help publish said book.

It becomes clear that our responsibility as leaders is to promote any and all forms of self-expression, no matter what shape, size or color they take. Needless to say, I’m not likely to include proficiency at video games or social media participation.

Spelling doesn’t matter and neither does having five sentences. (I learned from one class that their teacher said that paragraphs need to contain five sentences – I’ve never heard that before.) What matters is recognizing that you have something to say that is unique, important and exclusively yours. With those conditions met, writing can be sufficient in itself or as a starting point for many great accomplishments. Shalom.

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Never, forever and always

As we grow older and theoretically have fewer anxieties, the additional time provides occasion for various analyses. Such is the case with the words “never,” “forever” and “always,”  words that are so burdened with emotion.

We all use these words. Never lie to your parents. Always pay your taxes. This road goes on forever. Most of that is non-toxic and unemotional. But I’m thinking that in relationships of any significance, using these words must be done with greater care and consideration. Here’s how that looks:

You never listen to me.

You always leave your room a mess.

We never talk about anything important.

We are always doing those things that you want, never what I want.

Can it be that the person whom we accuse of never listening is truly guilty of never listening? Most likely, it’s a case of filtering out certain data and sticking with that which is deemed to be important. Maybe it’s hearing loss.

And when we tell our kids that their rooms are always a mess, we’re ignoring clean moments, serious intent and the desire to please mom and dad. When you put yourself in that child’s place, you can see the toxicity of casually delivered accusations.

The word “forever” is similarly loaded. You are forever talking about past relationships. Your debt goes on forever. We are forever fighting about junk. It’s a nice idea to think about forever love and forever faith but most of the time, we’re not so careful about invoking forever.

With regard to our most important relationships, suggesting that no important conversation ever takes place is a poor commentary on the priorities of both parties. It’s quite possible that a discussion about something truly important had taken place the day, week or month before this allegation. Suggesting that “we never talk about anything important” deletes or minimizes that conversation.

For my part, using these words must be done selectively and discriminately. Because I rarely got angry at either of my kids, I don’t think that I liberally accused them of never doing this and always doing that. If I did, I sincerely apologize for the thoughtlessness. As for the present, for as much as I can stay on top of it, I will choose a higher path than telling my loved ones that they are never, forever or always guilty of something. Shalom.

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Prose photography

It occurred to me recently that although I am occasionally lucky or timely enough to shoot remarkable shots on my phone or camera, I am by no means a photographer. Likewise, I am not an illustrator, gourmet chef, musician or interior designer.

That’s not bad or sad news. Our world is rich with those who can capture fleeting images, unforgettable likenesses, stirring sonatas, delicious meals and inviting living spaces. My role is to select any one of those arts and make it available or enhance it with words.

While mine may seem more limited than other art forms, I will hurriedly disagree. If I am selective, I can aspire to manufacturing images that are visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory. What an amazing challenge and incentive!

Here’s an example. Walk into a Roman cafe and scan your surroundings. As a writer, I perceive and capture the aged decorations and well-trodden wooden floor. At the same time, I am aware of the collection of voices large and small, intrusive and mellow. Through that, I can hear the scurrying back and forth of wait staff. And while my sense of smell is missing, I am advised that the aroma is a cornucopia of oregano, freshly grated parmigiano and bubbling marinara sauce.

You might argue that a photographer of this scene could capture all these nuances and disseminate them in a photo. Likewise, an artist could place you in this setting and faithfully duplicate many of the sensations. My hope is to provide the entire sensory adventure.

All of this is to observe the power of language, mine and others, to expound and elaborate on other forms of expression. To the musician, while I can’t hope to duplicate or improve on powerful symphonic subtleties, I can respond to them through prose.

To all arts and artisans whom I admire and enjoy, thank you for your brilliance. It thrills me to be an associate, joining the ranks of other wordsmiths who have sought to create enduring memories. My words will continue to celebrate and embellish your creations, for as long as I have the ability to assemble them. Shalom.

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Take a drive

Whenever you’re in the mood for some reasonably priced experiences that are enlightening, fulfilling and totally enjoyable, tour this magnificent country by car. Although I’ve been privileged to spend time in forty-eight of our fifty states, driving through them is the paramount experience.

On the most recent motor journey, we began with New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois. Moving east, the personalities of each state vary widely.

An example I appreciate immensely is a road sign I just saw in Missouri. It invited “Explore Uranus – Candy and Sideshow.” The ad had an antique-flavored image consistent with the sideshow attraction. It is a tourist spot consisting of a fudge factory and general store. Next trip, I’ll finesse a stop there to check out their clever marketing methods.

Other signs were a casino’s huge hamburger photo with the word “Yum” and no other information. You can also see a car wash named Mr. Washy, signs at every mile from mile 35 to the World’s Largest Gift Shop and Candy Factory and Okie Annie’s Homemade Hamburgers. Another good one is, “Don’t be an ass – stop at The Mule.”

Attitudes also change from state to state. Clichés and generalizations notwithstanding, I got a chuckle from a Texas “Old Country Store” that was filled with lone star memorabilia and t-shirts proclaiming, “I messed with Texas.” Missouri has a vacuum museum that invites, “Get sucked in.”

The next part of our journey included a bit of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Hoosiers are more sedate about their billboards than the Show-Me personalities of Missouri, Okies or Illini. Illinois is proud of its history, with allusions to Lincoln, Powhatan, Pocahontas and everything else historical. The only other rah-rah environment that compared was in Texas. Due either to space or my own experiences, Indiana always seems like some place to travel in order to arrive somewhere else.

One of the most interesting realities is the quantity of antique shops. Large or small, old or new, it appears that there are at least triple the antique venues east of the Mississippi than west. What’s the reason? Obviously, the eastern portion of the US was settled before the west. But maybe the explanation is more sublime, that easterners have a greater reverence for heritage than their western counterparts.

Along those lines, our country has an unusual affection for Route 66. If you’re on or near 66, you’re always aware of it. There are signs, businesses and endless memorabilia that glorify this old, venerated highway.

Ohio is much more subdued than the other states traveled. No matter where we stopped, we were inundated by products for and about The Ohio State University. Certainly, there are other high caliber institutions of learning in Ohio but apparently, their advertising or marketing people aren’t quite as aggressive.

You can go for miles without seeing any billboards in Ohio. Either there aren’t enough landmarks, the cost of advertising is too high or there’s too much distance between Columbus (The Ohio State University) and everywhere else.

The same will be true of Pennsylvania and western New York. You’ll see the usual road signs but until you get within a mile or so from a city, the only advertising available is for the ubiquitous antique shops.

New York City and western New York have little in common beyond the state designation. It’s amusing or informative that most of the towns and villages tell you when they originated – 1830, 1802, 1766, etc. While there may be similar signs on the outskirts of NYC where history includes Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers, it’s the area outside NYC that boasts long-term existence.

Driving home to New Mexico should prove to be exhausting, entertaining and educational. As long as you keep your eyes and mind open, this country’s wealth of sights and eccentricities is boundless. If we continue to celebrate our country’s beauty and diversity, we have the far beyond the necessary resources to continue blossoming and flourishing. Shalom.

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Hope abounds

It’s almost magic. You tell a group of first graders that you are an author and they look at you in an entirely new, appreciative way. You’re either an oddity from a different planet or you’re a superhero similar to Superman or John Elway.

Somehow, the opinion depends on the writing skills of the admirer. Those who write with agility and confidence want to know the subjects and titles of my books. The writing-impaired would rather ask my favorite color or football team.

Watching me write in my journal will also have two different effects. If they are staring at blank pages, they observe me with a combination of envy and frustration. The writers or writers-in-training offer to share work and sit intently as they craft their masterpieces.

As much as we would like to think that students model (positive) behavior, some of it is simply unattainable or unreachable. This should come as no surprise – many have the stamina and self-discipline to run marathons while others of us huff and puff to finish a 5k.

Happily, kids display a greater understanding of strengths and weaknesses than we might expect. Writers will help the struggling non-verbal. Math whizbangs will patiently assist the math-impaired, simply as a gesture of kindness.

We have much to learn from our kids about acceptance. Most will sympathize about broken bones and boo-boos and  will help a fallen or crying classmate.

Whatever the crisis, those with the biggest hears, drives and skills will surface and throw out all necessary life preservers. Maybe it’s learned behavior, maybe it’s nurtured or maybe it’s simply our inherent kindness that prevails and persists. No matter what factors are involved, there are formidable reasons to believe that our future generations will consist of caring humanitarians. Shalom.

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Remember

Every day that I teach, and many that I don’t, someone is likely to ask me my name. Outside the classroom, I liberally offer my name and that’s often the end of the conversation. Inside the classroom, I will provide an answer according to each location. If that sounds strange, understand that I have devised a strategy that includes allowing my class to choose my name for the day. It causes them to remember me in a unique manner.

Very often, my pronunciation of student names is corrected, often with indignation. When I return to students whom I haven’t seen for some time, they generally ask if I know their names. Most of the time I don’t – too many children to recollect.

During the day, I work hard to call on students by name. They always brighten when I do, telling me that my remembering them was important.

“What’s my name?” is another way of saying, “I am different from everyone else.” It also suggests that I was important enough to make a permanent impact on you.

As kids age, this desire for uniqueness never diminishes. It causes me to believe that we as adults maintain a desire for specific identity or distinction, not necessarily associated with specifics.

When I think about name recognition, any variation of my name or occupation is good. Oh, you’re the writer. You’re the author. Aren’t you the teacher? Because we generally want to make a positive impression on those we meet, we can extend the same courtesy or affirmation.

One possession we have that is unique in most locations we visit is our name. Honor that possession in another and you verify that they and their existences are worth treasuring.

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One word at a time

Watching kids trying to write is almost as much fun as writing. They ponder and scratch, erase and carefully print. Helping them spell “neighborhood” or “principal” is a good indication that they are thinking and processing information. But as was the case with math, the levels of expertise are all over the board.

My greatest frustration is wanting to help all of them reach competence. In math, it’s about adding and subtracting two numbers. In writing, it’s understanding concepts such as paragraphs, punctuation and proper nouns.

Clearly, if I could impart instant wisdom in conjunction with retention, I would do so. But as an advocate and disciple of education, I know that mistakes and victories are as critical to the learning process as memorization. Somewhere between magic and agony is finding the best way to coach and assist with an emphasis on individual styles and perpetual growth.

The best part of being an active observer is that the participants change daily. Some kids bring their best, happiest and most receptive selves to class. Others bring family issues, learning disabilities and self-confidence problems that they simply can’t understand.

One given is always as true as 2 plus 2 or 185 divided by 5. Amid all the confusion and frustrations of being a twenty-first century child, my kids all know that I care. If they hurt themselves, I will always have the pain-eliminating bandaid. If they are bullied, the guilty party will be prosecuted. And if you simply want to talk about anything at all, I will always listen. Shalom.

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Thinking

It’s probably not necessary to empathize every moment of the day with the kids I teach. There are frequent occasions where it’s appropriate, such as when they are sad or hurt. But most of the time, they rely on me for direction and something resembling wisdom.

Looking at them, it is easy to imagine what they’re thinking. When they have Chromebooks, most are following instructions to read. A few will stray but these renegades are easily identified because they will repeatedly glance at me to make certain I haven’t detected what’s on their screens that are thirty feet away. Of course, I can’t tell if they are transgressing but I can confirm by walking the room to see if they change screens.

Sometimes obedience gets too much. One student thinks: I’ll bet I can get some distraction from the classwork if I get up, walk across the room and get two tissues from the box.” There’s another box of tissues about three feet from this student but that wouldn’t require as much time.

This group is a bit too young to sneak over to forbidden sites. We would like to think that the school districts would block explicit content. But last year, a sixth grader delivered a Chromebook displaying porn that, “…someone else had been watching.” By no means would I have argued with him.

The best way to spook kids is to busily write in a journal. Curious ones will wonder what I’m writing and why I’m writing it. Guilty ones will ask if I’m recording notes to their teacher about troublesome kids. And the brave ones will ask to see what I’ve written, although none of them can read cursive.

Happily, this is a well-behaved and courteous group. Third grade is typically too young for cell phone addiction or gang activity.

Although I’m not allowed to have physical contact of any kind, at least ten former students hug me in the hallway. And all students, my class or otherwise, will return my smile. Kids just don’t like change and I represent change. Because I get that I conform to the routine, acknowledge all accomplishments and never ask them to be other than third graders. Shalom.