Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Inspiration, Hump Day Hmm

Today's Hump Day Hmm asks us to write about another blogger that inspires us. My response might not fit within the expected parameters of this question. but I know immediately who I want to write about when I think of inspiration. My wife inspires me every single day, and since she also blogs at Attached Parent, I will write about her.

My wife and I met six and a half years ago online. Almost from the beginning, I was amazed at her range of abilities and experience. She can play a large variety of instruments - violin, piano, marimba, drums, and almost anything else you can bang, beat, or shake - and teach others to do so as well. She makes beautiful quilts and embroiders neat patterns on clothing with her sewing machine. She takes amazing photographs with our two cameras, many of which adorn the walls of our home as our primary decoration. She worked for several years on a music degree before deciding it was more important to raise our daughter than finish, then she finished her degree online in criminal justice, requiring two years of hard work in addition to the long hours she'd already dedicated. She was involved in more clubs and teams in high school than I was, while taking a very challenging schedule including some independent study. The day we met, I recommended a book to her, and the next day when we talked again she used the word "was" in referennce to it. She had actually gone to the library and read the book I suggested that very day. I have been impressed every day since in new ways. The biggest inspiration to me is her faith and how much she is guided by it. She regularly encourages me to pray about big decisions, but also about small ones. Most of all, she inspires me to believe in myself. She tells me great things about myself and my abilities, but she does it in a way that I know she believes in me. She was a cheerleader in school, and I think it is one of her greatest abilities in life, to cheer on others. She is the leader of my cheering section, and I am so grateful to have her in my corner. I am also thankful that she is my biggest critic. I do not, by nature, lie very often, but there are times when I want to believe something that is not true and I convey that mistruth to her. She won't stand for it, and she won't stand for me tearing myself down, either. She lets me know when I am wrong, and she helps me know when I am right.

In the past two years, she has supported me as I have faced my diabetes. I have improved my diet and increased my exercise, and she has done her best to keep me on track. Right now, as we consider our future, she has stated in no uncertain terms that she wants me to pursue my dream, even if that dream might mean financial struggle for our family. I cannot express how empowering it is to have a wife I can look up to, who I can lean on, and who I can count on for support when times get hard.

If you're reading this post, Ellie, I hope you know I love you, and I am so grateful every day that you are in my life. You inspire me to live up to your expectations, and to set my own higher than I might otherwise. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

-- Robert

Monday, May 26, 2008

Some Gave All

Today we attended a Memorial Day program here in town. One of our friends was giving a tribute and another group of friends was singing, so we decided to go and support them. Our friend who gave the tribute talked about his grandfather, who had retired after twenty years in the Navy, and how much his grandfather had done to shape his life and make him the man he is today. Then he talked about his grandfather's younger brother, who died while serving in the Pacific, and how that brother never got to share such memories because he gave his life in the service of his country and his fellow citizens. I thought it was a wonderful way to acknowledge what his great uncle had given up - in his case, even a chance at a future family and memories that would involve - and why we should honor fallen heroes on Memorial Day.

I also wanted to take a moment to write on this blog about something Todd did at his wedding reception, which I thought was great. He thanked former boss, who had been deployed in Iraq until just before the wedding, for his service to our country and for making it possible for all of us to enjoy celebrations like weddings. That boss then paid tribute to Todd, who had helped his wife secure the loan on their house when the bank had decided originally not to give it to them because he was deployed. Todd helped them do the right thing, and because of that his boss presented him with a flag his unit carried around during their tour of duty, along with something he could hang with it to thank him for his service to a soldier. I thought of that special exchange at the reception today, as we gathered to remember the real purpose of Memorial Day. To all those who have lost loved ones in the military, or those who have been willing to risk their lives themselves, many thanks and much appreciation.

-- Robert

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Split Personality

My last post, which was written late at night in a moment of inspiration (or perhaps insanity), had a lot of comments relating to my being an introvert. I really found that revelation fascinating because it had been so long since I really considered that a possibility. When I first took personality tests, I almost always scored right on the line between introvert and extrovert, and I think I know why. The questions to determine those aspects of personality misled my response. Am I comfortable in a crowd? Yes. But I am more comfortable in a group of people where I know everyone. The thing is, growing up, I knew a lot of my classmates and a lot more people knew me, so I had very little trouble getting to know new people. In simple terms, I could be an introvert with a broader group of people I was comfortable around. I was accepted in many groups, even if I lacked the "qualifications" (I was not in the band, but could hang out with band members), but I was never really a particular part of any group except the nerds (which is often just a group of outcasts from others anyway). I should have taken some of these things as clues to my introversion, but it really did not occur to me in an obvious way. I like to keep details of my life to myself, for the most part, except with people I consider close friends or family. How have I gone so long and not noticed that aspect of my nature as one of my most introverted qualities?

I have always thought of myself as perceptive regarding other people's personalities and talents, and yet I have remained oblivious to my own overarching introversion. As some of my replies to people show, I realize now why I probably thought of myself as an extrovert for so long. My father taught me from a young age that being outgoing plays a big role in being successful. He observed that accountants with less talent often rose faster through the ranks of a firm because they became friendly with the partners. He endeavored to become more outgoing, and I would say he achieved it. Yet, he is still clearly a natural introvert. I appreciated the need to act the part of the extrovert because my father admired or acknowledged the value of being one, but I neglected to remember it was not my nature. Should I suddenly change how I live my life dramatically because of what I have learned? Not really. I think it just helps me appreciate what I want better, and what makes me happy, because I understand myself more. I can't go back and live my life over, but going forward I can live the way that helps me enjoy what I encounter. I will probably make better choices in my career, my friends, and just my social calendar. Maybe I'll even do a better job of raising my kids, knowing how my own father's statements shaped my own worldview.

-- Robert

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Together, Apart, Hump Day Hmm

My entire life, I have felt both a part of the world and apart from it. I have been a member of the group, and a loner. I have felt a strong connection to my family, my hometown, my state, my region, my nation, and my world - and yet I have felt so very different from all of those things as to never feel I fit quite right. I feel like a paradox in so many ways - the guy almost everyone liked in school but few considered a true friend.

I would say tragedy set me apart, but I'm not sure it began there. I'm not sure it didn't. But in a way, it wasn't like I suffered the most unspeakable horror known to man. Many have dealt with worse and been less changed for it. Yet somehow the death of my brother shaped my entire remaining childhood, and perhaps even the years since. I have explained to my parents on many occasions how strongly I felt I had to measure up, to be like him. My brother was a brilliant scholar and writer, yet he felt little need to prove himself to others. He simply knew he would one day join the ranks of the great science fiction writers in history, and he planned his education around that goal. Then his life ended. I felt a need to follow him into science for a long time, but I realized I simply didn't love it the way he did. I enjoy reading about it, and observing it, but I am not one to take something apart just to see how it works. I am satisfied it does and go forward. Instead I felt a calling to the law, but after reading The Firm, I realized I had no desire to spend the kind of hours it would take to be a top attorney. So business seemed a logical course, and my father certainly encouraged me to consider business as a career.

Since I could not follow my brother's career in the realm of science, I attempted to follow his passion for writing. I wrote a novella through high school (truly, though, it was a terrible effort that leaned far too heavily on the vision of others). Then I took up poetry, but most of my poems were quite formulaic and boring. Finally I took up trying to write a few short stories, and I felt much more at home there. Then I put down the proverbial pen, for I had completed my academic studies and needed to focus on my actual job - working in the trucking business my father began while I was in high school. I could not imagine a career less suited to my original plans for myself than the one I chose, and yet it worked well enough for me. I learned a great deal, and even came to appreciate the men and women in the transportation industry. Then I felt led to return to college and complete an MBA. Still unsure of my place or my path - I no longer had my brother to follow, since he died at only eighteen - I was blazing a different trail. To what or where, I knew not. I know not, I might say.

I enjoyed a wonderful time in graduate school. I felt I made some great connections and even a couple of friends. My recent reunion, though, helped me realize that I was still a man apart. My class won the award for most people to return, mainly because a group of friends who became very close decided to meet up there. I was not among those contacted to insure my return. I am not offended, nor should I be. I look back and realize how much I focused on myself that year. By the end, I barely hung out with classmates because I had a fiancee, two promising businesses to choose from, and a future far away from any of my classmates. I was short-sighted, to say the least. I think I always have been. I have formed very few deep and lasting friendships over the years. I can be very enjoyable to be with in the moment, but I am terrible about keeping up with people once they've gone. Sure, I can say that is true of most people, but then I find those people who form bonds whereever they go. Like my wife, who has friends all over the country from high school and college. And my best friend, who had friends from at least five states and several jobs attend his wedding. One of his former bosses even showed up in full military uniform to present him with a flag his fellow troops carried around with them while in Iraq. Here is a man who is loved and appreciated by those around him. As much as I might like to imagine I am loved that way by friends from the past, it simply isn't true. I have spent too much of my life on the fringes. I have kept to myself too much where it mattered to really form deep and lasting frienships in most cases. I am a legend in my own mind.

Why have my thoughts come to this place? Why am I feeling so out of sorts, out of step with the world? I feel like I have come to one of life's great crossroads. I have a wonderful opportunity to change where I live, do something I truly would enjoy doing, give my children a chance for a better education than they could possibly hope for here, and allow my wife to finally return to a place where she feels more at home. Yet I feel torn, because I have a job that pays me well, gives me wonderful chances to be around my family, and where I dictate a lot of what I do day to day. I love knowing my kids know my parents very well because they can go to their house so easily. It's just around the corner. So to get some things I might want, I have to give up some great things I have. I may also give up some things I do not appreciate about this community, but I really don't have a guarantee that where we move will be better. So here I sit, a man apart, as always. I feel I am on the outside of the world looking in. My mind is spinning constantly with thoughts of what to do, what has to dealt with, what different contingencies would entail.... spinning and spinning. No answers come, just more questions. And still I sit, a man a of the world but apart from it.

-- Robert

For the record, this post was a Hump Day Hmm with the topic: Walking out of stride---how do you walk out of stride, or do you? What's it mean to you?

For once, I could not start my post with any reference to it, simply because I needed a proper flow to get this post out. Or at least that's how I felt about it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lost and Found

In reading Orson Scott Card, I have felt a strong urge to look back at a short story collection I finished just after my undergraduate days, not quite a decade ago. At the time, I felt like it was some of my best work, and I even sent it to the same self-publisher that helped Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box, related sequels, among others) get his start, Brown Books. They showed an interest, but self doubt made me think "Why wouldn't they, I'm still footing the bill" so I didn't pursue it. Instead I set it aside, feeling like Card explained he felt about a story he wrote an outline for just before he was about to get married. He was not ready to give it proper treatment. Each of the stories in that collection of mine, I felt, could have been woven into one novel, a novel each in a series, or at least a few novels from certain subsets. I still know I am not yet ready to give those stories proper treatment to flesh them out or even polish out the rough edges of what little is there, but I wanted to at least take some time to examine them.

But I can't find them so far. I think I have the hard-copy at my parents' home, and I may even have the original computer files on some computer there, but for the moment, I am a little saddened. I hope the stories have not truly been lost to the ages, especially now that my desire to write may be "found" again. Maybe, though, this is a sign that I need to start from scratch, revisiting each of the various tales and perhaps the whole collection, with a somewhat more mature perspective.

Then again, those reading this blog may just be chuckling to themselves. And hey, it's not as if they don't have a right to. I need a lot more published work - that people actually pay to read - to have such a discourse on my writing matter.

-- Robert

Friday, May 16, 2008

Great Writing - More Thoughts on Orson Scott Card

As I have read several more stories by Orson Scott Card in his latest collection Keeper of Lost Dreams, I feel as if I'm sitting in a lecture hall as I read his notes. Really, it feels like a conversation between two friends, but one friend is a mute (me), because he's so open and honest about some of what his thoughts are on his work and his process. I want to reply to him, saying things like "No, no, I completely understand where you'r coming from" or "Yes, that story touches me deeply, too - it's not just you." I really appreciate his comments at the end of "Feed the Baby of Love" about how unlikely it would be for him to ever get it published as a "literary" work because the publishers in that genre have long since abandoned writers who want to impress their readers with good stories in favor of authors who impress their readers with how smart they are. That's not a quote, but it speaks to his basic point: literary publishers look down on writers who want to give their readers something they like. They certainly look down on him (in his opinion, though I'm sure he's right) because he is a science fiction writer. He explains how he could throw some magic into the story and publish it as fantasy, but he can't bring himself to do it. Card reminds me a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who seemed to appreciate their characters as something they met more than simply created. He knows that sometimes the story has to be told the way it is - it can't be molded and crafted to fit some niche simply for the sake of convenience. Also like him, I appreciate that a lot of the stories I want to write at this point in my life need to wait until I have enough experience to write them the way they deserve to be written. At this point I can write very one-dimensional stories - flat worlds, flat characters - with the occasional line paragraph, or page that demonstrates something more. I want to write in the way Card does, though, and maybe some day I can. For now, I will continue to sit at the feet of these great writers and learn.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

To Mediocrity Or Not to Mediocrity, There Is No Try

When I look at the world today, I find a lot of people who accept less. They accept that the waiter will regularly mess up their order. They accept that the store clerk will not be able to help them find the product they want (let alone explain the differences between two similar models). I have certainly found myself expecting to be met with mediocre service so often that exemplary service openly surprises me. People who go out of their way to do a great job seem so very rare anymore. I find it all very unfortunate. None of my comments are to suggest that I am not just as guilty of being satisfied with just doing my job in many cases, but I have definitely been known to take pride in surprising people with my work ethic, the speed with which I serve them, or the quality of my work. I prefer to work hard over "punching in" most of the time, but I do not like to put in long hours for the sake of appearances. I want my time spent at the office to have meaning, otherwise I would just rather spend that time with my family and friends in personal pursuits.

I felt compelled to write this post after Julie's post on "walking out of stride" and Melissa's post about teachers who don't measure up. I am sure the thoughts from the funeral mentioned in my Home Again post also have a bearing on where this post is headed. Simply put, I am tired of hearing the words "that will never happen" or "that's just the way of things" in reference to how far the world has gone into accepting inadequacies and mediocrity from leaders, from governments, from businesses, and from individuals. Why can't things get better? Why can't I expect my order at a fast food restaurant to be timely and accurate? Why can't I expect tech support that is actually helpful? Why can't I expect Hollywood to come up with an original movie that is both entertaining and family friendly? Why can't I expect the government to start managing spending wisely instead of simply bleeding more and more Americans dry? That list can go on forever, and that's exactly my point. We have grown accustomed to mistreatment from, or at least inadequacies of those who we come in contact with.

Where do I believe a lot of these concessions originate? I think a lot of them come right out of the feel-good movement in education and government. Students are all supposed to feel good about themselves and their work because we don't want bad grades to cause them stress or embarassment. We don't want people to feel like America has left them out, so we make sure they get a lot of the benefits they want, regardless of whether they're contributing to society. Our culture is built on mitigating suffering and struggle. Sometimes struggling can be the very best thing for a person. I can't count the number of millionaires (or even billionaires) whose life stories point out how important a failing grade or a failed venture was to their eventual success. By realizing they needed to step up their effort to measure up in the world, they began to adapt and grow. If we spend so much time trying to pad the landing of a student while they're coming up, then that child will be shocked when the world slaps him in the face.

As I explain to people when they observe me ignoring (or responding without providing any benefits) a tantrum from my children, I would rather they learn now that they can't have everything they want just because they want it so I'm not standing at a car dealership listening to a whining sixteen year-old saying "But Dad, why can't I have the BMW?" Likewise, I don't automatically accept that my children's success in a small measure is the end of their effort. What if they did the first problems on all their tests in school really well and turned them in? I know what happened to me when I didn't notice the backside of my first quiz on a college campus. I got a failing grade. That grade helped me focus my attention, and I still made an A in the class. If the teacher had said, "That's okay, don't worry about it." and then let me slide by, I might not have worked as hard to assure my success in that class. I want to raise my children to understand they can be whatever they want, but their efforts have to follow those desires or those wants are simply pipe dreams.

As they said in Remember the Titans, "Attitude reflects leadership." I for one want to lead my children by showing them they should work hard, do their best, and seek out opportunities to learn. I also expect them to learn that going beyond the classroom assignment, beyond the job description, and beyond the call of duty will get them a lot farther in life than simply towing the line ever will. If more people would get back to expecting more from each other, maybe this country and this world would begin to repair a lot of its own problems.

-- Robert

Title explanation: For anyone who thinks the title is silly, well, at least you're not accepting mediocrity from me. I mixed a little Shakespeare (To be or not to be) with a touch of Yoda (Do or do not, there is no try) to come up with my ridiculous title for this post.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Writing - Studying at the Feet of Two Wordsmiths

On my vacation, I have lately taken up the habit of reading a novel (or two, if I can manage it) over the course of the trip. I had planned to take along some I already owned but had not read, but decided late in the packing stages to just buy something on the road if I felt I had the time. So I looked for two of my favorite authors: Jeffrey Archer and Orson Scott Card. Fortunately for my pleasure (though perhaps unfortunate for my wallet) they both had out something new. Archer's newest novel, A Prisoner of Birth, was out in hardback (I had read the first chapter at the tail end of his last short story collection). Card had just published another collection of short stories, several of which form the basis for novels he later published. My wife had already given me a Father's Day present (a Garmin Nuvi GPS) early so we could use it on our trip, but she suggested we buy Archer's book as an audiobook and then I could read the short stories as I had time but we could listen to Archer together. Archer was on top of his game, and I recommend the book to anyone not offended by the use of vulgar language (since part of the book is set in prison). He openly admits throughout the book by reference and at the end through an interview that he was paralleling or updating The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was still a great read (listen). I really appreciated his discussion of just how many hours he puts into each of his novels, and how many drafts he produces (his published book came from the seventeenth). He described professional writing as hard work, and I must agree that to produce something half as good as he does it takes a lot of effort.

Finishing Archer's book, though, set the stage to read Card's short stories. I am not yet done, but I have truly loved the book so far. Each story has notes at the end where Card shares his thoughts on why he wrote the story, why he published it where he did, whether he plans to use it again or whether he has already, and so many other tidbits. He has also broken the book into subsections based on the genre of the short stories conained as well.

I felt like I was taking my own independent study on two of the great writers of today. They both talk of writing as work, and as an evolving process more so than a race to a completed product. Card, who has complained about how "hacks" hide in his primary genre (science fiction), wrote about the dangers of becoming lazy and allowing himself to submit mediocre work just to get a paycheck. He also noted that many publishers would accept such work from an established author just so they could include his name on the book jacket. So many authors today are completely happy with mass-producing formulaic nonsense because they have found a willing victim - er, consumer. The same goes for numerous artists in various fields.

In the end, I took away some great advice that helps me remember why I don't write for a living. I am not dedicated enough, probably not talented enough, and certainly not as good of a researcher as I need to be if I want my stories to come to life the way the works of these two literary giants do. That was something my brother understood, I must say. When he died, he was working on a degree in mechanical engineering, primarily because he wanted to write quality science fiction that was believable because it had a basis in real knowledge. If I ever do attempt a career as a writer, I will most definitely honor the memory of my brother - who would have been forty this past Saturday - by doing it the right way. Until then, I'll have to stick to blogging and the occasional simplistic poem or short story.

-- Robert

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Home Again

Our trip to California became our trip to California and Utah about halfway through the trip. My wife's niece, who had suffered severe brain damage at birth and spent over thirteen years as an invalid, passed away while we were there, so we diverted our trip to be with the family. It was a wonderful opportunity to see family and friends in the Salt Lake area (all of my wife's siblings but one made it, and he sent his wife and son).

Most people, in my experience, are pretty depressing to be around at funerals. I am generally not the sort of person who attends to darken the mood. I don't like to remind those closest to the deceased of how sad they ought to be. I point that out because those are the people who have most annoyed me when I was among those receiving condolences at funerals. No, I am the sort of person who would rather celebrate the life of the person who has passed, and enjoy the time with those left behind. I joke and laugh. I tell stories - sometimes about the deceased, sometimes about other people - that bring to mind good times. I do my best to put the fun in funeral. I realize that aspect of my personality sounds weird to a lot of people. It is also one reason I rarely attend funerals unless I know the deceased (or at least the survivors) very well.

I have to say this funeral was among the sweetest I have ever attended. My wife intends to write what one of her brothers said in the funeral, which really struck me. All of those who shared their thoughts at the funeral had beautiful things to say, of course, but his probably made me think the most about what it means to be considered "lucky" and "unlucky". When she's had time to write his comments, I'll probably write a piece here that explains what I mean more clearly. Until then, we were glad we got to see those we did while we were out west, and I will endeavor to return to regular blogging in the next several days.

-- Robert

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Best Man Speech

I have known Todd for over half my lifetime, and I have counted it a privilege to know him for really all of that time. He cares deeply for his friends, he gives so much of himself to them. He's been like a brother to me, and I thank him for it. He has a work ethic I can only begin to fathom and wouldn’t dare emulate. One of these days I really will get him something with 24-7-365 inscribed on it because it fits his work pattern all too well. That’s just part of what makes Todd so great. When he commits to do something, he really goes for it all out. He dedicates himself to improving in the ways he needs to so he can truly be the best. That’s one reason I am confident he will make a great husband, and I hope a great father one day, because he has committed himself to a great lady, and I wish them both the very best on this, their special day. To Todd and Claudia.

Friday, May 2, 2008


My family is enjoying Los Angeles so far. We went to Disneyland, and we've been to a great outdoor mall, and attended to some of the duting involved in being a best man in a wedding. Tomorrow is the big day, and I've set up the speech I hope to give to post after the reception is over. Sunday we go to Oceanside to enjoy the rest of our family vacation in this interesting state. I look forward to the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, the Pacific beaches, and just generally enjoying family and the fun of vacation.

-- Robert