Saturday, December 01, 2007

In passing

Yesterday, I received an email from someone I didn't know and almost deleted it, but something told me to read it -- probably the subject: Benson Wolman. The email was from one of Benson's colleagues at the ACLU in Columbus, Ohio. He died yesterday. I was contacted because I interviewed Benson for an article about a case he had coming up before the U. S. Supreme Court. He was defending the Ku Klux Klan. What was most surprising to me is that Benson was Jewish. The time I spent interviewing him was delightful and we ran well over the 30 minutes he originally offered, neither of us willing to end things. He was my first professional interview, but not my last, and the newspaper ran the picture I took of him in the conference room at the Columbus ACLU in front of a poster of the American flag.

Benson was in his late fifties at that time and had decided to go back to college to get his law degree. He retired and wanted to do more with his life, so he studied law. He made Law Review and was hired by the ACLU, making his dream come true. I asked him why a Jew would consider defending the Ku Klux Klan, especially considering the Klan's stand on where Jews fit in the scheme of things, and he told me what his rabbi told him.

The thing about democracy and freedom is that it entitles everyone to their own opinions and politics. It is the most aggravating thing about democracy and freedom of speech, but it's also the most wonderful thing. Freedom of speech means everyone is allowed to say what they want, whether you agree with them or not, and only in a country like ours will you find people at opposite ends of the political spectrum defending each other's right to speak.

Benson Wolman was a remarkable man and a champion for freedom and justice. I am proud to have known him and to have interviewed him.

I had no idea Benson Wolman had kept up with my writing or that his colleagues at the Columbus ACLU read my articles, stories and books. Now I know.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Nothing matters

Everybody gets angry but it's what you do with your anger that makes a difference in how it affects you and the people around you. It's all right to get angry. It's just an emotion after all, like love, fear, excitement, lust, etc. It's no worse or no better than any other emotion; it's just another emotion, and emotions are like power, neither positive or negative, neutral until you use them. Like everyone else, sometimes my emotions control me -- and then I get smart. Reading Ayn Rand reminds me of what is and isn't important. In this case, it's emotions.

Whether or not I publish another story or book or even get paid for my writing, I am first and foremost (and will always be) a writer because I write. I was a writer when I was eight years old creating stories and writing books based on the world around me and on the authors I read. I was a writer when I wrote essays and won prizes in my pre- and adolescence. I was a writer when I kept a diary and wrote in it every day. I was a writer when I stopped putting my thoughts on paper and kept them in my head like screenplays of dreams. I am still a writer and I will always be a writer as long as I continue to write. Nothing and no one can change that, not even being a successful writer whose stories and books are bought and published. Everything I do that pertains to writing makes me a writer -- even my dreams where characters use my unconscious state to their advantage and tell me where I'm wrong and right and where I need to go to make their stories real. Sometimes I forget and lose sight of these facts, allowing others to determine how I view myself when they attack out of anger and I become angry in turn.

Anger, like fear, comes from a feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and not wanting to be discovered as a fraud. Anger is a protection mechanism, a drive to fight or flee in order to maintain the status quo. In a metabolic and physiological sense, anger and fear serve important functions. They accelerate heart rate, fuel adrenalin secretion and provide the energy necessary to fuel the actions of fighting or running away. When anger and fear are turned inward they poison the waters like the seeping gases of a volcano unable to erupt and vent heat and gas to avoid total destruction. It's like putting a cork in an anus when you have explosive diarrhea; the result is never good and inevitably damages more than if it had been allowed to run -- metaphorically and actually. Pent up emotions, even love and lust, always create more problems when they're unleashed, especially for the one who's holding them in. Look around and you will see daily examples in every walk of life, and even in your own household. Controlling emotions instead of feeling them is never a good idea, which is not to say that dumping your feelings on whomever happens by is a good idea either. Emotions are meant to be felt and used in constructive ways, but they are meant to be felt and used.

In the past, I've allowed other people's opinions matter to me. They don't. The only things that matter are what I think of myself and what I achieve with my talents and skills as I learn and grow. It's hard not to allow negative opinions and the slings and arrows of jealous and angry people bent on protecting themselves to affect your life, but it can be done. And it should be what everyone does. It takes courage and turning a blind eye to ill-wishers, and that's not always easy. It gets easier with time and practice, like anything else worth doing and learning. In the end, nothing else matters.

It's nice to get a pat on the back from people who admire what you do and it can hurt -- if you allow it -- when others criticize and demean your work and you. Opinions are strictly subjective and are personal, but they don't have to be taken personally.

For instance, I read and review a lot of books. Some of them I don't like and feel are poorly written and I say so, but it is ultimately only my opinion. Others will disagree, including some of the authors. That's not the purpose of a review. A review is like sticking your toe in the water to check the temperature. If you have a fever, even warm water will feel cold. If you're freezing, cold water will feel warm. A review is one person's opinion and the fact that I get paid for my opinion doesn't change the fact that it's still just one opinion and is related wholly to my own experience, education and expertise. I don't understand some kinds of art, but that doesn't change their value or their intrinsic worth. The same is true for my detractors. Their opinion is completely subjective and based entirely on their own views and personality. In the end, the only thing that matters is the work, my work, and my vision and how I express that vision.

Roark tells Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead that he doesn't think of him even though Toohey has gone out of his way to destroy Roark's work in the public's eyes. Roark can't get work and no one in New York City will hire him even though he is undeniably a genius and the most talented and innovative architect around. Toohey revels in his power to destroy Roark's professional life, but Toohey only has the power Roar is willing to give him, and Roark doesn't give Toohey any power. Men and women who can think for themselves and are not slaves to Toohey and his kind go out of their way to find and employ Roark to build for them and eventually Roark is back in New York City with a thriving business at the top of his profession. He never gave in to Toohey and narrow-minded people who follow him in worshiping mediocrity.

Professionally or personally, genius and talent and ability will, like cream, rise to the top as long as fear and anger aren't allowed to gain a foothold. The person may not be liked or even accepted, but they do not exist for the masses or with the rest of those wallowing in mediocrity. Genius and talent, real talent, will not be denied.

Being liked is nice. Staying true to who and what you are is better. Using your gifts without regard to public or private opinion is all that matters.

I keep The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged on the shelf and I reread them every couple of years to remind myself that no one and nothing matters except the work -- for me, that's writing. What I have accomplished and continue to accomplish is out there for anyone with eyes and a mind to see and my work will stand the test of time. Fame and fortune are nice and bring with them comfort, but the real power comes from the work, the writing, and being who and what I am. As long as I keep that in mind, nothing anyone says or does can touch me or destroy me. Nothing else matters as long as I can write -- on paper, on a computer or even in my head. I write, therefore I am.

That is all. Disperse.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Do you really know me?

Uncle Bob called again yesterday and we talked. He wanted to thank me for the stories I sent him and to let me know what he thought of them. "This one story sounds a lot like your mom with the migraines."

I knew which one he meant. "It is Mom."

"Sounds just like her. I was just rereading the story about Brandon. I didn't cry when Mom and Dad died because they were old; they had lived their lives. When your mom called and told me about Brandon I broke down and cried. Reading your story took me back there."

He meant, The Phone Call. I wrote the story about Beanie's first child Brandon who died of SIDS. It's a story I haven't sent my mother because she still can't handle talking about Brandon let alone reading about him.

Uncle Bob and I talked about Dad and he said he wouldn't have stayed with Mom fifteen minutes and that Dad was a special man. "There will never be another Jim Cornwell," he said. He's right. Uncle Bob told me about how he never changed a diaper or bathed any of his kids. "I babysat but I told Lois I wasn't changing any diapers." And he didn't. He's not that way with his grandchildren and he's changed a few diapers since then. He has mellowed with the years. "Jim bathed you kids and washed and curled your hair. Virginia called and said she hadn't bathed any of you."

Knowing my grandmother as I did, I wonder how both of her children could have failed to learn how to or want to care for a child since she was so nurturing and loving. Then again, Gram did everything for her children and didn't make them learn what she knew. That is a shame.

I didn't know Mom didn't bathe us or shampoo and curl our hair. I did know Dad did all those things because I remember sitting still while he curled my hair around his thick, work roughened hands making banana curls like Shirley Temple. I can still see him changing Jimmy's and Tracy's diapers and walking the floor singing and talking to them when they were teething or colicky or just plain fussy. I knew Mom burned water when she boiled it because both my parents told me about it -- so did Grandma -- and that still surprises me because Grandma was an excellent cook.

We talked about Grandma's cooking and Uncle Bob told me how he called her one day to get her recipe for beef and noodles and asked how she made the noodles, which she always made from scratch. When his kids got home from school and found dinner on the table they asked if Grandma had been out. "No. I made dinner." His kids didn't believe him so they called Grandma and asked. "No," she said, "your dad made dinner. I wasn't there."

"I never saw Mom look up a recipe. She kept them all in her head," Uncle Bob said as we talked about our favorite recipes and finding we had several in common: lemon meringue pie with golden peaks piled high over a sweet-tart lemon filling, creamed chipped beef on toast and her pies. "Mom used lard in her pie crust. Said it made them flakier," he said. Gram's cooking wasn't heart healthy but it was filling and better than ambrosia of the gods, which she made.

By today's standards, Gram's cooking was pedestrian fare but when I think of holidays and crave comfort food, it's Gram's food I want. One of these days I'll perfect her peach cobbler and I think I can do it now. What's missing is lard for the double crust and it's something I never considered before. My brother Jimmy bakes a good peach cobbler and even makes it in a cast iron skillet, but it's not the same. The crust isn't right. Now I know why.

I remember Gram picking green beans and tomatoes from the little garden plot she had in the back yard wherever she lived. She grew beans and corn and tomatoes, radishes, green onions, and peas in the early spring, planting them as soon as she could push a seed into the frozen ground. We strung beans with newspapers on our laps sitting on the porch and we talked. She taught me to pit cherries with a bobby pin and how to make grape jelly from the grapes that grew on the arbor in the back yard when we lived on Terrace Avenue in Columbus. I learned to strip corn off the cob, can tomatoes and preserve the harvest in freezer and jar and I learned to love simple food that lingers in the memory long after I can no longer taste it on my tongue, food that takes me back to the warmth of Gram's kitchen and the joy that comes from making jelly rolls with leftover pie crust she gave me to practice on.

At times like this, I long to return to familiar places and times, but most surprising is what my uncle said before we said goodbye last night. "You should move home and be close to family. If something happened to you who would take care of you?" After losing so much of our family, I understand his concern, but there is no going back for me or for any of us. The people who held our family together -- Grandma May and Dad -- are gone. They were the homemakers, the nurturing warmth that welcomed and cheered us and we miss them. I miss them. I miss talking to my uncle, too, but we are no longer the close-knit family we once were. We have grown up and moved on and out and we miss those familiar golden times when we gathered together at holidays or for a Sunday dinner and shared our lives and our food. I am blessed because I can remember those times and keep them alive in the stories I write and the food my grandmother taught me to make. I have surpassed her in some ways and fearlessly tried new foods and recipes, but I always return to what she taught me for comfort and to honor her memory, but most of all to bring back those times with the scent and taste of home.

There is much about my family I don't know and much they don't know about me, but at least they are willing to read my words and get a little closer, sharing their memories of the people and places I write about and teaching me what matters to them and what they keep close to their hearts.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The count is in...

I still have a few more thousand (or so) words to write, but it is official. As of 9:42 a.m., Sunday, November 25, 2007, my count on
NaNoWriMo 2007
was validated as 92,453 and I am a ...

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I feel so good about getting so much done in spite of a harrowing work schedule and writing articles, reviews and editing a much, much meatier newsletter that I am going to start on another book for December, one I will finish during my holiday retreat. Who knows? I may do what a friend once told me I could do -- write a book a month. Anything is possible right now.

That is all. Disperse.