Building Good Rubble

GNMN04QYZ4 (1)Yesterday at 10:14 am I pronounced my novel DOA. The story had flawed, interesting characters, some humor, and a little bounce. I had spent a year thinking about the novel and six months in the writing. Starting out, I had wanted to explore themes of justice, mercy, and forgiveness. The work in progress was meandering along other byways.

The issue of what to keep and what to leave behind is key for any writer. The Writer’s Digest Platform Challenge asked us to think about and list our writing goals. Putting my goals on paper clarified my thinking. I’m not a fan of pulling the plug on any undertaking. I have completed the other novels I set out to write.

At a Writing Day conference, Chuck Sambuchino counseled us to steal from ourselves. He told us to keep the writing we abandon to use later. When writing a novel, I keep a separate file called detritus or effluvia for any bits which have been ejected but could be used somewhere else. Sometimes I throw away pages, even a whole manuscript.

In a recent interview on the PBS News Hour, Patti Smith said she experimented in many art forms before identifying as a writer. She learned to write by writing. She calls it “doing her work.” Much of her work she has not shared. It was a good reminder that writing is a practice.

In 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Midway Garden with sculptor Alfonso Iannelli. According to “Midway Gardens’ Sprites,” (http://www.anguish.org/~greyson/flw/index.shtml), Wright and Ianelli built a beautiful piece of art which they covered with difficult and gorgeous trinkets.” When the project lost funding, some of the sculpture was saved. The rest of the former Gardens were reduced to rubble and put into Lake Michigan as a break wall. One historian summarized the history, “The Midway Gardens project began in exuberance and ended ingloriously some 16 years later.”

The novel I had begun in exuberance was becoming a class clown, content to sit in the back of the room and mock everyone around him. Yet in the abandoned rubble there can be seeds of a future project. I remember sharing the end of a novel I had written with my writer’s group. A fellow writer suggested I turn it into a blog post. The idea seemed outrageous at the time, but that kernel of advice popped into my mind when contemplating whether to continue my present project. When I realized the project did not represent my interest in the theme I wanted to explore, I saw the wisdom of consigning it to rubble. I had to send the clown home and wait for the real story to present itself. In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggested a period of no writing and no reading while the creative well refills itself.

The period of listening extended most of the year. At another writer’s group session, a comment by a fellow writer showed me the way into the story I wanted to write.

Every writer has to make their own decision of what to save and what to throw out. We have to know when we are taking an exploratory walk in the woods, and when we are lost. I know a writer who saves her work in plastic sleeves and another who burns what no longer serves. The goal in the end will be to create beautiful rubble, not a wall we can’t see over.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: , ,

Expert Tips and Free Consult from a Public Speaking Pro

Public speaking is an essential plank of a writer’s platform. It is also a scary proposition to get up in front of any audience. Today’s interview is with Lynne Magnavite, a professional trainer, consultant, and coach. Lynne is offering the readers of this blog a free consultation via phone, Facetime or Skype. Please contact Lynne via e-mail: Lynnemagnavite@gmail.com or phone: 773-655-2534.4N4OPR89TM

Lynne Magnavite Bio:  As a consultant and coach, Lynne helps professionals alleviate public speaking anxiety and hone their presentation skills. Serving over 3,000 people across the U.S., Lynne uses her background in theatre to share tips and techniques to build a confident and inspiring presenter! Past roles include; an executive meeting planner for high level clients such as Kemper, Navistar International, Arthur Andersen and Accenture, the director of education for a real estate management association and an adjunct professor teaching public speaking and critical thinking at Loyola University, Chicago. Lynne is also a voiceover talent, recording radio and television commercials, corporate videos and podcasts. Summer 2015 100

1. Please tell us about your background. How did you get interested in public speaking?

When I was in my 20s-30s, I was an actor. I was an actor with horrible stage fright. No matter how much training I had or how many shows I did, an irrational fear plagued me: I would forget my lines, I wasn’t good enough, if I stepped on stage the audience would boo. It was debilitating and I spent much of my career working to alleviate the fear. When I was in my early 30s I made the decision to quit theatre and explore a new career. It wasn’t due to my anxiety – I still do commercial voiceovers – it was about wanting a more balanced and secure life. So, I found my way into corporate meeting planning. I worked with many high level clients and while I was managing logistics, I had the opportunity to watch keynote speakers and meeting presenters. While observing, I always had the urge to coach them. Serendipitously, a friend referred me to the chair of the communications department at Loyola and I became an adjunct professor teaching Public Speaking and Critical thinking for 2 years. I had the pleasure of working with students helping them communicate effectively and I was hooked! After my teaching experience, I knew I had to work with trainers and adult learning, so I changed careers again. Over the last 11 years, I served as the director of education for an association of real estate managers. I worked with association Members who served as volunteer leaders for their chapters or the national organization. I watched as some struggled with the public speaking duties. I was asked to share my public speaking tips with staff and members of my association, so I traveled to our chapters sharing tips and techniques to over 3,000 people during my tenure.

2. They say people are more afraid if public speaking than almost anything? How do you train people so they can be successful?

Public speaking anxiety is debilitating. The fear seems irrational – but you are opening yourself up to critique and giving the audience a glimpse of your true self. That is very daunting. If you show weakness, the audience can turn on you. Back in the days of yore, audience members threw rotten produce at actors if they didn’t like the performance. (Fun article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bon-appetit/the-pop-culture-history-o_b_3727033.html) In modern society, television is riddled with shows gleefully eliminating contestants who don’t make the cut – “You’re fired!”, “Please pack your knives and go.” “And that means you’re out. Auf Wiedersehen.” Or my favorite, “Now, sashay away.” Humiliation is palpable. Who wouldn’t be crazy nervous before speaking in public? As Jerry Seinfeld says, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

What’s a speaker to do? Trust yourself. This is the first step. If you are asked to speak in public, it means you have the desired knowledge to share with a group of people. This knowledge is yours. Others may know about it or have opinions about the topic, but this is your version, your interpretation. The audience has never heard it your way. This is the key to building confidence.

The second step is recognizing you are human. Being open, showing your vulnerability is actually an excellent way to connect to an audience. Audiences recognize themselves in the speaker if the speaker is honest and authentic. Being human may mean forgetting your lines. It may mean, you have to take a drink of water during your speech. It may mean you cough or laugh or cry during your presentation. Perfection isn’t something to strive for in a presentation – connection is. If you successfully connect and show the audience you are still in control, you still have a place on the island.

3. How much preparation goes into a good speech?

Preparation is vital. My suggestion is to be 90% prepared before you deliver your speech and allow the other 10% for “in the moment engagement.” I’ve heard this so many times before, “I will be fine – I can wing it. It’s just my work team. I work better under pressure; I can do it the night before.” Leaving something so important to the last minute is detrimental to a successful outcome. Your credibility as a professional is at stake.

Nancy Duarte one of my favorite leaders in presentation development says, “The amount of time required to develop a presentation is directly proportional to how high the stakes are.”

My suggestion for being 90% prepared includes:

Research and development (6-10 hours)

Researching the topic will take as long as you need – 2 hours or 10 hours depending on the program. Part of the research should include looking at who your audience is. Knowing your audience is essential to ensuring your message is delivered effectively.

Brainstorming and organizing the data (4-6 hours)

The rule of thumb I use is approximately 4-6 hours of development/writing per 1 hour of speech.

Putting together the audio visual e.g. power point slides (5-20 hours)

If you choose to use Power Point as your audio visual support, know that it takes time to develop the concepts and themes for the slides. A shoddy or slap dash PPT presentation reflects poorly on the overall presentation. So if you aren’t fully confident in your design or you don’t have enough time – go without.

Rehearse! (1-3 hours)

Rehearsal is very important before a presentation. If you have the opportunity to see the space before your presentation – map out the “stage” in your office or house – and block your movement. Rehearse in front of an audience of peers or family, BUT, don’t change your entire presentation if a friend doesn’t like it. Remember your actual audience – not your rehearsal audience. A section may fall flat with your friends, but resonate with your actual audience. Also, make sure you practice any tricky technology transitions – using a video or animation needs to be timed. Also, have a back-up plan in case the technology doesn’t work during your speech. Back-up plans show the audience that you are a professional.

So putting it all together the 90% of prep time could take between 16-40 hours. Some coaches suggest more time on research and audio visual development. Again, it’s truly up to you.

The 10% of “in the moment” time during your presentation is more about responding to the audience and the environment in real time. If the audience reacts a certain way to your presentation, you can adjust. If the room is hot, you can get your audience on their feet for a quick poll or Q&A. The 10% in the moment time is an opportunity for you to improvise and improve your presentation based on audience needs.

4. Is it easier to work from a script or from bullet points?

Because of my ongoing battle with stage fright, I always use a script. I mark my script using highlighters; post it notes and colored markers. I know when I need to pause – because I write, “pause” or I know when I need to slow down because I use a post-it note to slow down. All of these personal notes are just that – personal. No one sees them but you. You have to do what’s best for you and rehearse with that method. Bullet points work for some, but the entire speech written out marked up helps others. Test a few methods to see what works best for you. But remember – if you use note cards to number them – you may drop them during your speech and without a numbering system, you will be on your own!

5. Tell us about your greatest challenge in preparing a speaker for a large audience?

A successful presentation means the audience walks away with an understanding of the subject matter and can actually put it into practice or share the knowledge. The challenge with a large audience is that the speaker feels they won’t connect with each person – so they just talk to the collective. The presentation becomes general and unfortunately the audience’s attention may be lost and so is the message.

Engagement is crucial to learning – so using an activity, breaking up the speech with quizzes or polls is a way for the audience to walk away with a better understanding of the topic. If the audience is made up of 50 people, activities are easy. Break the group up by tables or sections or have them count off 1,2,3 to form individual groups. But with a large audience (over 200), the speaker may leave out activities and just talk. According to adult learning theory, if a speaker just talks, the audience will only recall about 20% of the information. However, if the speaker engages the audience, makes them do something – answer a question, participate, simulate a task, then they will recall 70-90% of the information.

Ok, if you have an audience of 500- 1000 people how do you do that? I’ve seen speakers with large audiences parcel out the audience by groups and have them repeat a phrase or song which is a very energizing activity. You can get the audience on their feet, have them raise their hands when you ask specific questions, have them turn to their neighbor to ask a question or discuss. You can use Poll Everywhere https://www.polleverywhere.com/ for live SMS text polling. There are many things you can do to keep the large group engaged. Find out first how large your audience is and design your presentation engagement activities accordingly.

6. What was your greatest success?

Encouraging people to take the first step is what I consider my greatest success. The first step is recognizing you have a fear or want to improve a skill. During my presentation or workshop, I always encourage audience members to come on stage and help me demo an exercise or do a live coaching session. Sometimes I search out that one person in advance and start to build trust before the presentation and 9 times out 10, they come up to the front of the group. That’s huge! That’s so courageous. I admire everyone over the years that came up on stage to beat their fears into submission!

I remember a woman so filled with fear she shook and cried when I asked her in advance if she would be willing to assist me on stage during an exercise. At first she backed away and said absolutely not. But as the presentation went on, she found some inner strength. She took a breath and then joined me on stage to help capture activity answers on a flip chart. She stood with me and then continued to stand with me throughout the rest of the section. Then I asked her if she would be willing to introduce herself to the group and she did. No shaking, no crying. She confidently said her name and where she worked and actually smiled. The audience applause was deafening. After the presentation, she came up to me sharing that she believed she could do it again. I heard from the chapter later that year that this lovely woman agreed to serve on the executive board which means she would most likely have to get up in front of groups and speak. I’m still so proud to this day.

7. How does the ability to get up in front of a group enhance one’s career?

Even though my Myers Briggs shows that I’m an extrovert, I’m really shy. Being an extrovert doesn’t necessarily mean outgoing – it means getting energy from other people. By nature, I’m shy and in my head until I determine the environment is safe to unleash the real me. Public speaking gives me that safe environment. It sounds counterintuitive, but being in front of a group of people is exhilarating once you jump over the anxiety hurdle. I get most of my energy from the audience. The audience provides feedback, allows you to grow, and gives you an opportunity to test unproven theories or ideas. If you trust your audience you can explore, discover and create. The connection between you and the audience is almost transcendent.

It’s not just about building confidence – which is a natural byproduct of speaking in public; it’s a way to build community and spur creativity. And by doing that, you organically enhance your skill set. Connecting with other people is essential for anyone in a creative field.

8. Could you give us some tips on what to do the day before a speech, an hour before a speech, etc.?

I have a ritual I do before each speech. Because I’m normally all in my head – I have to wake up my body and voice before a speech. I’m a huge yoga fan and in addition to using exercises from my acting experience, I use yoga theories of breath and body. “Where the mind goes, energy flows.”

The morning or several hours before the speech:

First, I center myself the morning of my presentation. I sit on the floor or in a chair and breathe. I use the 777 practice – breathe in slowly for 7 counts. Hold 7 counts and slowly breathe out 7 counts. I do this for about 5-10 minutes. It’s meditative and calming. Remember to use your diaphragm (the sheet of muscle under your rib cage which pushes your breath up and out of your lungs), not your chest or you will hyperventilate. Using a deep belly breathe calms the reptilian flight instinct brain.

Then I stretch my body and anchor my legs and arms. Centering my breath and “feeling” my legs, feet, arms, hands. “Feeling” your extremities ensures that you jolt yourself out of your brain into the present. Move your hands in circles, same with your arms and feet. Then close your eyes and visualize this movement. This anchoring and centering of your body helps you stay “in the moment”. In the moment is an actor phrase about being present, and mindful.

Then the vocal exercises! Mouth and vocal exercises are very important – and also fun to do!

Open your mouth side. Close. Repeat. Stretch your mouth and tongue.

Then stick your tongue out (good for diction):

Move your tongue to the right 2X

Move your tongue to the left 2X

Move your tongue to the center 2X

Move your tongue around your mouth in circles 3X

Yawn on an “ahhhhhhh” spanning high/low octaves to wake up your voice and clear the cobwebs.

Then I use a wine cork or you can use a pen or pencil and work on your diction. Put the cork in your mouth and say short phrases or tongue twisters. Then take the cork out and say the phrase or tongue twister again. This exercise over emphasizes the mouth and tongue so when you take the cork out, the phrase or tongue twister is easy to say and your diction is clear. I use this technique a lot when I have difficult names I need to pronounce correctly or a tough sentence – nothing diminishes your credibility like mispronouncing an important title, name or company.

No caffeine, chocolate, dairy, lemon, ice water, spicy food or alcoholic beverages before you speak.

Caffeine and lemon dry your mouth

Dairy and chocolate add phlegm

Ice water constricts your throat

Spicy food causes stomach gas

Alcohol is not only drying to your mouth, but gives you a false sense of security

What can you eat or drink? A glass or room temperature water works wonders! Also, should your mouth become dry while speaking, take a bite out of a Granny Smith green apple – the malic acid in the Granny Smith apple cuts the dryness and stops any mouth noise. I always have apple slices in my purse before I speak – this method is used a lot for voiceover actors. In the studio, the microphone picks up all mouth noises and biting into an apple alleviates the noise!

Right before you start:

The moment right before you speak may be riddled with anxiety. As I’m sitting or standing back stage, I breathe 777, anchor myself by “feeling my hands and feet” and take a sip of water. As I walk on stage, I take a breath, find my spot, take a moment, lock my eyes on someone in the audience, smile and begin to speak. This brief moment is called “taking the stage”. You set the tone and take control of your presentation. The audience knows you are in charge and have something important to say.

9. Is there any special training you would recommend for would-be public speakers?

My background is in theatre and I strongly encourage anyone who wants to enhance their presentation skills to try an acting class or an improv class. A basic acting class will show you how to connect with another person and then connect with an audience. You will discover your authentic self.

Improv isn’t all about being funny. It’s really about being in the moment, supporting your team mates, and reacting to what you are given. It’s an excellent playground to explore and learn to trust your audience.

I also recommend a yoga or meditation class to learn more about breathing and movement. As I mentioned, I’m normally all in my head and sometimes forget I have a body! Walking and standing seem like second nature – but sometimes you forget. I had a client who had to walk across a very large stage to get to her podium. We practiced walking for most of a session. Look at awards shows – presenters have to walk up or down stairs in professional attire which may seem unnatural. Confidence in movement brings confidence to the audience.

Start small. Just stand up and talk. Volunteer in your local communities. Ask to speak at a school board, village or town board. Introduce colleagues at a dinner or event. Volunteer to give the toast at a special occasion. Participate in training sessions or conferences. If you are someone who never answers questions or shares a story during a workshop or conference, stand up and participate.

If you want more training, seek out a coach or go to your local Toastmasters or National Speakers Association chapter. Attend a luncheon or breakfast event and see what they have to offer.

Read. There are so many articles and books out there on public speaking. My favorite books are the following:

Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Nancy Duarte

Present Like a Pro, Cyndi Maxey, CSP and Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP

Improv Yourself, Joseph A. Keefe Founder Second City Communications

Bio: As a consultant and coach, Lynne helps professionals alleviate public speaking anxiety and hone their presentation skills. Serving over 3,000 people across the U.S., Lynne uses her background in theatre to share tips and techniques to build a confident and inspiring presenter! Past roles include; an executive meeting planner for high level clients such as Kemper, Navistar International, Arthur Andersen and Accenture, the director of education for a real estate management association and an adjunct professor teaching public speaking and critical thinking at Loyola University, Chicago. Lynne is also a voiceover talent, recording radio and television commercials, corporate videos and podcasts.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: , , ,

Building a Sturdy Platform

Platform

When I started the Writer’s Digest October Platform Challenge, I had stepped out, albeit timidly, into social media. My platform was a little wobbly, perhaps not sturdy enough to support Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine. Did I mention I was scared? It is one thing to observe life through fictional characters, quite another to step out on that platform to say hello to the world.

A fellow writer commented she would rather spend her time writing, which was my attitude when I joined Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. Isn’t a writer by nature quiet and observant, the person at the periphery taking it all in? When would I have time to write if I have to constantly monitor social media?

In April 2015 I attended a Writer’s Day workshop taught by Chuck Sambuchino. He told the story of how he met the woman who designed the workshop on Facebook. The woman had reached out for help. Chuck and other members of the FB community responded. An offshoot of the communication which started between a writer in Greece and another in Ohio was the April workshop in the Chicago suburbs.

What struck me about the story was that writers could be part of a mutually supportive community. Face it, publishing is an awfully competitive business, which can engender less than attractive emotions toward our cohort. Reading the comments from other writers attempting the October challenge introduced me to helpful ideas and some cool people. I also learned the community is not all about self promotion and selling your own books. So I jumped in and have completed each day’s task, with gratitude to WD and Robert Lee Brewer.

In my next blog post, I will interview an expert in public speaking, as it is sure to be a plank in our platform. I would love to hear how you feel about balancing your more private creative side with your public persona.

 

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

Symbolism in the Novel, or What Would Cecil Say?

C95F9FB66FHow do writers find the symbols they use? Every high school student remembers the A emblazoned on Hester Prynne’s bosom in the Scarlet Letter. Poets look out the window. Shakespeare compared his love to a summer’s day, while Robert Burns’ luve was like a red, red rose. Nature yields symbols like a flower unfurling.

After the murder of Cecil, the beloved lion of Zimbabwe, I marveled at the outpouring of love for this animal. A musician friend used to take a walk as way to move an idea along, so I drove to the forest preserve. As I walked, I thought of Cecil, realizing I would probably never see a lion in the wild.

A tree struck by lightning in the previous night’s storm blocked the path. As I stopped to consider my options, a buck appeared at the rise of the trail. We contemplated each other in silence. Living in northern Illinois, deer sightings are common. Farm fields and woods have given way to subdivisions. As their habitat diminishes, deer appear in the woods and also in our yards. Last spring I put out a basket of impatiens on Saturday afternoon only to see it had been eaten like a snack by Sunday morning. Local nurseries sell deer repellent and gardeners sprinkle red pepper on their flower beds.

Several years ago, two deer walked into a bar in the small town where I live. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. These deer found nothing to eat and walked out of the bar without saying anything. If animals could talk, what would they say? Cecil might point out that the average eight-year-old spends eight hours a day in front of a screen. Parents and educators now have to come up with creative ways to get kids outside. Just stepping outside, or looking out the window, yields a local safari of birds, squirrels, foxes, and raccoons.

I started seeing deer whenever I walked. One afternoon at Vet’s Acres, I passed a faun quietly munching in the tall grass. A group of hikers behind me on the trail never sighted the animal, enmeshed as they were in conversation. One of the women said a deer had attacked her neighbor’s dog. Alarmed, I consulted a park ranger who said deer see us coming and run away. The ranger added kids missed seeing animals in their immediate vicinity as they were busy with their phones.

Once I tuned into the wildlife sharing my habitat, deer became a leitmotif in my writing as well as my life. The main character in my WIP is so out of touch with his wild animal side that it takes a head-on encounter with a family of deer to force him to see the world outside his computer screen.

The novelist E.L. Doctorow said, “”Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” As I drove home through a wooded area in the dark last night, a doe sprinted (safely) across the road several yards in front of me. As I said, I don’t like to put words in an animal’s mouth, but somehow the sight made me think I was on the right track.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Novel Ideas

A beta reader of my novels asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” To answer her question, I thought of how each novel grew. Distracted Living came from seeing a woman running along the lakefront in Chicago while talking on the phone. “What is her story?” I asked myself and filed the idea. At the time, I was commuting 3 hours a day by train, bus and on foot. At first, I was excited by the prospect of capturing great dialogue from overheard conversations. Unfortunately, I heard a lot of,” I’m on the train,” and never, “the body is in the trunk.” The running and talking lady became Cilla Perkins, protagonist and civility activist.

For another project I wanted to describe a Chicago neighborhood in the 1970’s from an outsider’s POV. I finally entered the novel through the mind of a storekeeper who watched the main characters before becoming part of the action. Was George a creep or a concerned citizen? I had to write the book to find out.

A recent novel was ripped from the headlines, as they used to say on Law and Order. Sandy Hook happened while I was contemplating what the world would be like for my youngest family member and Angels in Play was born.

Most of my novel ideas start as questions I want to answer. Some of the characters, like Cilla Perkins, step right up and introduce themselves. Others, like George, refuse to go away until I put them on paper.

An interesting article on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/o6p5kz7. I’d love to hear how others get their ideas. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Posted in Uncategorized

Writing Jazz

I write because I can’t be a jazz pianist. My grandfather, Jerry, who I never met, played piano in a band on the south side of Chicago in the 1920’s. To find him, I went to lunchtime jazz concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center. While modern musicians played midnight music for noontime crowds, I wrote a piece about Jerry, hoping he would appear in the pages and introduce himself. After months of writing and listening, he showed up with his band. The South Side Rhythm Boys were a drummer, a bassist and a man playing some kind of horn that looked like a backwards “J.” In the story I wrote, they played in a lilting, jaunty style. Sometimes Jerry would solo while the others kept time by shaking their heads or snapping their fingers.

If I could play jazz piano, or better yet, compose music, I would not have spent years trying to make words sound like music. In addition to Tuesday jazz, the Cultural Center hosted classical concerts on Wednesday and world music on Fridays. While many fine musicians played, I wrote on paper and in my head.

Writing led me to Writer’s Digest workshops in New York and Chicago and introduced me to a community of writers meeting their own challenges. Good luck to everyone writing on their own and participating in the October Platform Challenge.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Post Jon Stewart World

Two months until Jon Stewart signs off the Daily Show forever and we feel a song going out of our heart, or at least the goofy theme music that cheered us for 17 years. Your show was our ace in the hole, our sunshine on a cloudy day, our moment of Zen. Yes, you are a comedian, but one who appealed to reason and logic and our hope that something better was just around the bend. You were there for us like a favorite cocktail or a bottomless bowl of ice cream to comfort and soothe our national angst.

We wish you well, Jon Stewart, but wonder how we’ll live without you. You brought us laughter even when the world was going to hell in a handbasket. You brought us through the George Bush years. We watched with a clutch in our throats as the Iraq war started, our brave soldiers on their way and the rest of us staring at the TV. You brought us through the economic downturn, that funhouse ride when the bottom fell out and we never recovered our balance.

You walked with us into the hope and change of the Obama election. As time went by and the congress became a deadlocked mess, we wondered if you weren’t getting discouraged, too. But you continued to show up, screaming and cajoling when the political theater turned into a goddamned shame.

You were there for us before the recession, when we still had livable salaries and benefits. You were also there afterwards, when we had to work harder for less money, sometimes more than one job and sometimes just sitting on the couch unemployed. You made us laugh. You were the guy in the back of the room hollering insults at the stuffed shirts. You were the one who told us the emperor had no clothes.

In the end, the responsibility for safeguarding our sanity was probably too much to ask of one person. Bob Dylan couldn’t save us with his songs in the sixties, and you can’t save our political process with your savvy commentary. We can’t blame you for being tired of watching Fox news. We acknowledge you probably want to try something new. Just remember, we watched Rosewater, and will watch anything new you would like to share. When we are done grieving, we will have to follow the 2016 election, and go out and vote.

And yes, we know the Daily Show is a fake news show on basic cable. It’s just that you had to raise it to an art form.

We’re trying to be brave, but it’s hard to imagine our post-August 6 life. It’s good to have Larry Wilmore, and Trevor Noah, and John Oliver holding down the fort at HBO. We’ll continue to rant with Lewis Black into a stroke of glorious rage.

But no one can make us feel like you did, Jon Stewart.

Posted in Uncategorized

Take a Terrorist to Lunch

During the middle of a heated debate with a childhood friend who grew up to be a criminal lawyer, he threw up his hands and said, “Do you have an opinion on everything, Eileen?” His playful question stopped our argument It also stuck in my mind for years.

Growing up in a verbal and highly opinionated family who debated everything at the dinner table, it was vital to have an opinion on everything and be ready to defend it. My youngest brother developed a stutter as he tried to join the blood sport we called conversation.
As I grew up, I realized having an opinion on everything can also be called “know-it-all-ism.” It is an unattractive trait which doesn’t aid in making friends. To counteract this social sin, I cultivated looking at both sides of a story.

The debate over free speech after the Charlie Hebdo murders tested my ability to form an opinion. On one side were the marchers in Paris and around the world, affirming, “Je Suis Charlie.” I majored in French literature and read their great writers. Seeing the carnage in Paris and the militarization of la belle France set me to marching in my mind.

A few days after the world wide demonstrations, the Pope said, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.” Some objected to the Pope’s remarks on the grounds he favored censorship. Social media makes it easy to declare one’s thoughts, beliefs, and passions in a microsecond. Would I side with the protestors, or with the Pope’s admonishment to not cause harm with provocative comments? I recalled my friend’s remark. Do you have an opinion on everything?

My reading of Buddhism suggested approaching life with curiosity. Perhaps I needed to ask more questions:
• Does freedom of expression preclude respect for the belief of others?
• Can I be curious about the economic or emotional happenstance which leads a human soul to take a life, whether in a Paris newsroom or a U.S. classroom?

The Sandyhook Promise is a nonprofit which looks to the local community, technology, and innovation to develop a national movement for preventing gun violence. They are promoting No One Eats Alone Day on February 13, in an effort to stave off the social isolation which breeds acts of terror.

I thought of my nephew, who invited a second grade classmate and trouble-maker to eat lunch with him in the cafeteria. When I asked him why, he said he wanted to ask his friend, “What’s up? Why do you keep getting in trouble? What can I do to help?” My nephew’s actions sprang from that strange brew of nature and nurture that form us all as human. I wondered if we could step back from the ramparts, whether they be combat lines, lines in the sand, or Twitter handles, to look at the world and say, “I’m here. I’m human. I want to help.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Whether you live in a red state, blue state, favor the tea party, or a rainbow coalition, there is a label for every opinion on the spectrum. Labels are a convenient shorthand to separate your views from those who are wrong. We watch the news providers who agree with our views.

Growing up, we all watched Walter Cronkite. As I skipped to school during the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, I heard some boys chanting, “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man. Kennedy belongs in the garbage can.” I asked Dad who he was voting for and he replied, “In this house we vote by Australian secret ballot.”

When Kennedy won the election, I knew Dad had voted for him. He smiled when he told me that Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president. I knew we were Irish because Mother played Clancy Brothers records way before St. Patrick’s day every year. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dad cried, one of the few times I saw him do that. I was watching TV with Dad when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. The same TV which amused us after school with the Three Stooges, delivered violent images of a war in Vietnam.

When Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater, neighbors sported Goldwater bumper stickers on their American-made cars. They had parties which my parents did not attend. When Mother cleaned the house every Saturday morning, the music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez boomed from the stereo console in our living room. Dad called it protest music and spent the day outside cutting the grass and cleaning the garage. On Sunday after Mass, he played Ramsey Lewis, Thelonius Monk and other jazz masters.

My parents read the Chicago Tribune and the Daily News every day. They continued to vote by Australian secret ballot, discussing issues of the day, but never revealing their choices. As I got older, I realized their votes might be canceling each other out. I identify myself as an independent, which means I usually vote Democratic. I get my news from Brian Williams and Jon Stewart. Friends and family are proud Republicans who express strong opinions about the president. Why don’t they respect the office? I mentally criticize them and then remember my thoughts during the “W” presidency.

I tend to avoid discussing current events with people who might disagree. I know this is wrong. While it is fine to hold allegiances to different political parties, when I stand behind my labels, I lose the ability to hear another point of view. Being on the “right” side of an issue feels good. Sometimes I am the only pacifist in a roomful of people who want to bomb our enemies into the stone age. Instead of saying it, I think, “they are already in the stone age. If we helped them prosper, they might feel differently about us.”

Righteous anger feels good. The only problem is, when we are sure our opinions are the only right ones, we stop debate. We start hating people instead of their politics.  In the run-up to the 2016 election, I will listen to the loyal opposition. I vow not to leave the room when people oppose my viewpoint. I vow it now, but cannot promise. I will certainly vote by Australian secret ballot.

Posted in Uncategorized