Monthly Archives: April 2017


Nary A Cross Word

I never took a course in time management when I was in school. It’s a good thing, too, because I would have failed.

When I was teaching, my time was planned for me. The life of a public school teacher is fraught with bells and calendars and deadlines and due dates. You have to account for every minute if you’re ever going to fit everything into a school day—and that includes grabbing a snack, returning that urgent phone call from your lawyer or opting out of both so that you can steal five minutes to go to the bathroom. When I got a little time off, I’d spend the first half of it sitting and staring and the other half catching up on the laundry.

Now that my time is my own, I find I have no talent for managing it. I stare less and my clothes are always clean, but I have discovered that I am more prone to distraction when left on my own than I ever knew. There’s just so much out there and, unless I am deeply involved in something, I tend to lose focus and flit from thing to thing. Yes, I’m a flitterer. For a writer without a deadline, this is lethal.

The first stop on my daily flit is the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. When I was working, doing crosswords was one of those activities that was restricted to summer vacation (along with drinking gin and tonics and staying up late to watch David Letterman). But now that my mornings are mine, that crossword is a temptation I cannot resist.

Every morning I wake up, grab my phone, read my email, scroll through Facebook, get out of bed and tell myself that TODAY, right after a healthful breakfast, I will head DIRECTLY BACK UP to my desk to work on the writing project of the day. Then, I tell myself, once that is done, I can sit down at the kitchen table with my favorite blue ball-point and tackle the day’s crossword. It will be a reward for all my focus and discipline.

But then, I think, why not kill two birds with one utensil by starting in on the crossword while I’m eating?  You know where this leads, right? Exactly. Through the crossword and down to the Jumble. And before I can stop myself, my breakfast is cold, my writing focus is fuzzy and another day of flittering is in full swing.

I don’t know what it is about crossword puzzles that I find so addictive. But when I see the newspaper on the kitchen table, my resolve dissolves. I grab a pen and find the page, fold it back and get to work as if it were my job. Monday is my favorite day because it is the easiest. Puzzles get incrementally harder as the week progresses. It’s not generally the solutions themselves that are more difficult, but rather the clues that get craftier, punnier and less direct. I do appreciate the challenge of the late-week puzzles, but they take me longer and then I feel guilty for giving them all that time.

Since I work in ink, my personal goal is to finish a puzzle without a crossout. This means that I have to strategize a little differently than people who puzzle in pencil. I only write down answers that I am damned well sure of, so I look for the easiest answers first. This is not fool-proof but you have to start somewhere. Then as I fill in, I try to hold possible harder answers in my head as I check to see if any intersecting words might have the same letters. Sometimes I can fill in three or four words in a single swoop this way, certain that they are all correct because they share key letters. The satisfaction that I get from this reinforces the fact that I am really just a nerd—and an old one at that.

Why ink? Not to show off, believe me. I just love the feel of a ball-point pen on newsprint. The paper cradles the tip of the pen in a way that I find comforting. At first I only inked on Mondays, but then it was hard to revert to pencil unless I could find one with exactly the right lead softness and a tolerable eraser. Also, the crazy risks you can take puzzling with a pencil began to seem frivolous and undisciplined to me and so now I do all but the hardest puzzles in blue. Inky crossouts are infuriating and can really mess up the grid, but they are part of the game. A perfect blue ball-point puzzle, when it happens, is an accomplishment—and a sight to behold.

Does this make me a better writer? No. Does it get the laundry done? No. Does it exercise my brain to keep it sharp? Not really, no. Is it a major life distractor that helps me to justify procrastination? Bingo. It is pure pleasure, baby. And I think I’ve earned it.

And now it’s time to get to my desk and start writing.

But first, let’s see how fast I can do that Jumble.

 

 

 

 

 


The Road Taken

Nothing interesting ever happens around here

Well, if we sit on our butts in front of the TV, then we are right. We get to watch interesting things happen, perhaps, but to other people in other places. Never to us. Never here.

Well, interesting things, as it turns out, are not so very far away. We just have to find them. Wherever we live, we are surrounded by things that are worthy of our interest, our curiosity and our attention—things that will make us better, more thoughtful and—dare I say it?—more interesting ourselves.

And if we are more interesting, then our world becomes more interesting, too. Automatically. It’s kind of a miracle.

I have had a very interesting week. So interesting, in fact, and so worth saving that what started out as a blog entry expanded into a full-fledged essay and completely outgrew this space. So, while my most interesting week will be revealed one of these days in its entirety in Volume Three, this blog post will focus on two entertaining, enlightening and most interesting evenings. And they both happened very near here, where I live, practically in my backyard. I just had to get off my butt and find them.

*****

Saturday Evening—I saw a play. It was a local theater company’s production of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a one-man play written by and starring James Lecesne. Having read the novel (also by James Lecesne—the man totally owns this project), I couldn’t imagine how one person could possibly populate the stage with enough power to do the story justice. But Lecesne shifted from character to character with little more than a turn, a prop, a lighting cue, a video projection, a voice shift or a gesture. Understanding these shifts was like watching a movie with subtitles—a little weird at first and then, because it was so well done, effortless and natural. Not only was it enough—it was perfect.

This story of Leonard Pelkey, a 14-year-old gay boy, is a sort of an It’s a Wonderful Life with a dark twist. We learn early in the play (so this is not a spoiler) that Leonard Pelkey, crazy dresser, beauty salon receptionist and fashion consultant to older women who have lost the confidence to be different, was murdered. He was found at the bottom of a lake, bound with rope and tied to a boat anchor, so they know it was not an accident. The play then proceeds to do two things. It sorts out the details of the murder and it develops the character and personality of Leonard through the eyes of the people who were affected by his presence. Leonard’s life, they discover, made a difference in theirs. And though this may sound like a cliché, Lecesne’s performance makes it anything but. We laughed a lot, unusual in stories about murdered children, and left the theater thinking about what the world does to free spirits and what we can do to encourage kids to be true to themselves without getting killed.

This play and others like it exist, even in places where, it would seem, nothing interesting ever happens. They are being performed everywhere that there are people. Need something interesting do? Go to a play. I would highly recommend this one.

Monday Evening—I joined a discussion about a book. The same theater company that produced The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelky also sponsors a fabulous book club that gathers once every show to discuss a book that sheds light on the performance. Highlights of the current season were discussions of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in tandem with a production of  August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground paired with Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9. Discussions are intelligent and spirited and generally include the director of the current production (who gets to choose the book).

Well, on this evening, the director did not join us. Instead, we got to spend our time with James Lecesne himself as we discussed his book, Absolute Brightness, the novel from which the play was derived. So there he was—novelist, playwright, screenwriter, actor, activist—totally intimidating, right? On the contrary. Lecesne, despite all his accomplishments, is one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth men I have ever met. He joined our discussion not as a leader but as a participant and he was as interested in our thoughts as we were in his. The evening flew by as we nibbled on cheese, drank wine (so civilized) and talked about Leonard’s plight and how it reflects the situations of other kids who don’t fit the mold of the communities they live in. Absolute Brightness shows that kids like Leonard who live innocently and honestly are the ones who open eyes and hearts and minds. But the question remains—at what cost?

So, here’s a question for you. Should we encourage innocence? It is an endearing quality, for sure, but is it safe? In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Brutus says, “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking.” In other words, danger lurks where you might least expect it, so know that and beware. But that kind of awareness comes from experience. And experience is the enemy, indeed the murderer, of innocence. Once we know, we cannot unknow. Once we have seen, we cannot unsee. We cannot go backwards. For most of us, innocence cannot survive. It is a physical, emotional impossibility. The world will beat it out of us if it has to.

This is John Knowles’s point in A Separate Peace, J.D. Salinger’s theme in The Catcher in the Rye and even Mark Twain’s message in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The older we get the more experiences we have. The more experiences we have, the more we learn about things as they are instead of just as they seem. The more we know about the way things are, the more we know we must protect ourselves from the crap with which we share the world. The more we know the more guarded we become. The more guarded we become, the less innocence we possess until one day, it is gone altogether. In literature, characters who can’t or won’t or shouldn’t let go of their innocence either go crazy or die young.

So what hope is there for kids like Leonard? And without kids like Leonard, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Whew! That’s a lot to think about. Pretty interesting, huh?

These are the kinds of questions that we grappled with at Book Club on Monday night with James, our new BFF. After the session, he chatted with us informally, signed our books and was in no hurry to leave. He seemed to like us and we certainly liked him. By the end of the evening, he was one of the gang—the one who just happened to have written the book.

What could possibly make life more interesting than having read and discussed a good book? Book clubs are about as ubiquitous these days as plays, but they are not going to come looking for you. I’ll bet your local library already has one that you can join. If they don’t and they know that you’re interested, if they’re any kind of library at all, they’ll start one. Or, you can start your own. And maybe, one day, the author will show up.

*****

I sometimes complain that I live in a dull, dumb, boring town–mostly when I’m feeling like a dull, dumb, boring person. I hate this feeling–mostly because neither thing is true. The solution is to get up off my butt, go out and find the places where interesting things are happening—a play, a book club, a concert, a museum, a lecture, a nature walk, a movie, a class, etc., etc., etc.

And that makes all the difference.