“Tree Roots/Life Water”

Hello again! I seem to have taken my usual summer sabbatical. Today’s “fall weather” has me back in the swing of things, I guess. Here’s something I wrote yesterday. We’ll see if “Indian Summer” keeps me from doing more!

“Tree Roots/Life Water”

A tree grows

In the middle of

the stream

 

The rushing waters ebb

and flow

around it

 

Sometimes threatening to tear it

from its precarious hold

on the earth

and its life

 

Sometimes retreating

leaving it stranded and

 

Alone

 

The tree lives

for the waters

 

and fights

 

against them

 

The struggle

deepens the roots

and the branches

 

Grow

Daniel J. Cox

08-28-2018

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“Lest We Forget” (05/23/2010)

I wrote the first version of this essay a few years before it became the memoir I have for you here. Although it is embellished a bit—literary license—it’s essentially all true.  Since 2010 more names have been added.  Some should be that have been denied because they died “outside the combat zone” during training.  Many are still fighting the Agent Orange fiasco.  I’ve posted it before, but on Memorial Day, it’s still fitting, I think. Please, feel free to share.  They died for us all, like thousands of others have done and, unfortunately, are still…usually senselessly.

The black wall draws me each time.  Despite the fullness of emotion that inevitably brings tears to my eyes, I cannot stay away.  Too much of me—my generation, my country, and its future—carved in the growing rows of names demands the same silent recognition, pride, and frustration that I see in those, like me, who come to stand and weep.  I have tried to honor those who served and died and not be overcome, but I always fail.  The depth of that scar in the earth and the nation’s soul is too much for me; I shiver in despair at the loss it represents.  Whether late at night, in the brightest summer afternoon, or in cold rain or snow, the shining glory of unselfish sacrifices listed there demand of me a pride and strength of will that keep me coming back.

I first visited the Vietnam Memorial one sunny spring morning.  Cherry blossoms bloomed; the city showed off its best look.  The country was in the midst of economic boom, and everyone enjoyed life. I had taken the afternoon off from meetings to do some sight seeing.  After a quick look at the Lincoln Memorial, I started down the walk, following a crowd of other noisy tourists.  We jostled and joked and enjoyed ourselves.

The closer we drew to the edge of that ebony stone, the quieter we became.  Soon voices were nothing more than part of the quiet murmurs of the wind in nearby trees and the background noise of city traffic.  I walked farther, watching different people gather there under the spell of reverence for the growing expanse of the Wall.

A wide-eyed little girl in cornrows and pigtails held her mother’s hand. “Nanna, is that Grandpa’s name?”  The sobbing woman knelt before the Wall.  Three grieving women, young and old, offered sorrow and a handful of flowers.  The air was heavy with the scent of lilies, roses, lilac, and cherry blossoms already placed against the Wall that morning.

Nearby, a graying veteran in old fatigues wept audibly.  From his wheelchair, he drew himself erect to salute his fallen comrades.  A silent file of onlookers passed, their sympathy a physical presence.

School-uniformed teenagers under the sad, watchful eyes of their teacher, made pencil rubbings of names.  One boy whispered to a nearby friend, “Dad says I’m just like Uncle Mike.  I never knew him, but he was only three years older than I am when he died . . . his second tour.”

I gazed at the countless tributes.  Families, small groups of friends, individuals—hundreds passed by the Wall and left behind flowers, Teddy bears, notes, cards, letters, photographs, medals, rings . . . memories . . . innocence, and, most of all, tears.  The Wall is a place for personal grief.

Black granite panels rise out of the ground on the east and west and meet in the center at a height of more than ten feet: an alphabetical listing of 58,235 fathers and sons and brothers, and eight mothers and daughters and sisters—an entire generation—lost.  The first names in the center honor Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand, U.S. servicemen killed in the 1959 attack at Bienhoa.  They were originally recognized as the first to die.  Then in 1983, a year after the Wall was dedicated, Army Captain Harry C. Cramer was added.  Captain Cramer died on October 21, 1957, in a training action.  Also in the center is the last panel, where the list of names continues to grow.  Veterans succumb thirty and forty years later to the war’s silent killers.

The long list from 1968 includes those who graduated from high school when I did, and in the last years of the war, those who might have been my friends from college.  PFC Douglas Beckman, my sister-in-law’s cousin, was turning around a troubled life, but stepped on a mine in Quang Tri and lost his chance.  Captain Wayne McConkey, a reservist from Shenandoah, Iowa, where we raised our sons, died when his helicopter was shot down and didn’t get to see his daughter become a person who would make him proud.  Captain Mary Klinker enlisted to help the children and died when her transport plane went down while evacuating orphans from Saigon following the truce.

I’ve been back to the Wall many times since then.  I can’t stay away when I’m in the capital.  If I don’t have time to visit anywhere else, I make time to go there.  I feel as if I’m living their lives as well as mine, and do the best I can to remember the debt I owe.  Each time I visit, each step of that 493-foot long headstone is painful.  When I see the names and think of the loss, when I see the others who come, I remember . . . and let the tears fall.

DrDan 05-27-2018

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“Fallen Angels”

Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with new ideas for writing.  One of the “exercises” I have found interesting and often fruitful is to write the “story” behind a visual or musical inspiration.  What work of art strikes your fancy because of the scene that is presented by the artist?  What does the music tell you?  I have been enthralled by several musical works, usually classical, almost always instrumental since songwriter’s are telling a story anyway.

Go to a museum or look through a book of photographs of paintings.  Put yourself into the scene.  Where is it?  What’s going on?  When is it happening?  Are there people in the frame?  What are they doing?  Why?

Listen to a piece of music, even one with a title that “gives away” some of the story—like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazadeor Rossini’s William Tell Overture(no, it’s not the story of The Lone Ranger!)—and write your own take on the tale.  Even better, make up your own story to a piece before you do any research.  Ever wonder about the story behind The Allman Brothers’ terrific “Little Martha”?

One of my favorite paintings for its inherent story is actually one the artist painted to depict a scene from a work of literature.  Francois Cibot’s Fallen Angels(Joslyn Art Museum) is the artist’s depiction of the defeated angels after their battle with God has cast them out as described in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The expressions on the faces of the two central figures is a study in diabolical planning.  The setting is desolation.  But what are they plotting?  What have they said to one another?  Who are they? Why did they rebel?  What do they think of the outcome?  Study the painting, too, and feel the artist’s emotion—note the spotlighted elements and the details in the background.  In addition, think about the artist!  What was going on in France in 1883 that prompted this work other than his reading?  Or was there other event specific to the artist’s life?

Actually, you can do the same thing just sitting on a bench at the mall.  Who is that woman coming out of the shoe store?  Who is the man who greets her?  Note their body language.  Eavesdrop (creatively) on their conversation.  Why was she shopping for shoes?  Are they getting married, going to a party, headed for a cruise?  Did he surprise her or has he been patiently/impatiently waiting?

Ideas for writing are all around.  If you believe “there’s nothing new under the sun,” look in the dark….

Write on!

DrDan 05-16-2018

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“Compose Yourself”

My life’s calendar has been that of schools since I was five years old.  Even in retirement it hasn’t changed much.  As a former teacher, this is still an important time of the year for me. I have former students graduating—from college or grad school—or the children (and grandchildren!) of former students achieving their own milestones of commencement.

Teaching writing was integral to my curriculum even when I was teaching teachers and not students of English.  I believe written communication to be essential to our discourse, and all too often it is not done very well, especially now that it has become more acceptable to write in abbreviations or hieroglyphics and convey entire ideas in 144 words or fewer.

I was asked many decades ago to give the graduation address to a group of high school seniors for whom I had been their only English teacher their entire four years.  It was an honor, naturally, and I wanted to try to provide them with some “words of wisdom” that they might not forget before they received their diplomas.

That captive audience got another lesson in composition.  I used the jargon with which they were quite familiar from class to try and give them some last few bits of advice before they set out on their new adventures.  I never write down speeches, however.  Typically I just use a few notes to keep my thoughts focused and organized.  No one was using video equipment way back when, either, so my pearls of wisdom are either imprinted in their minds or vague phantoms reminding them more of long hours of writing than graduating.

Despite the lack of evidence, my main points are quite easily recreated.  Whether you’re about to cross the stage and receive a diploma or simply embarking on another stage of your life, I offer you these thoughts.

Live your life as if you were composing the story of your life—you are doing just that, of course. Writing, like living, is a process. I’ve never agreed with the idea that “The Writing Process” is a linear thing, but the elements are clear: Developing an Idea/Theme/Purpose, Pre-writing, Organizing, Writing, Proofreading & Editing, and Publishing.

It’s always easier to write something when you have a clear idea about what you’re trying to communicate. Have a purpose, a goal.  In my own life—and your goals are apt to be much like mine—I can categorize my goals:  the Idea of my life.  The big one is just to live a good life (always an interesting task to define that!) and try to make a difference in the world.  If a student had brought that to me as the theme for an essay or short story, I would have spent a good deal of time helping him/her to narrow it down or break it down into smaller steps, milestones along the way to that Main Idea. What needs to be done to get to your ultimate goal?  Do you need new skills, new knowledge, help from others?  Where will you get it?  Do your research!

Those life conversations with high school seniors included trying to help them decide which college or trade school to attend or sometimes just how to earn that high school diploma. Few graduates really know “what they want to be when they grow up.”  Choosing a college major or deciding on a career at that point can be scary. Usually my advice was, “Go exploring!” Sometimes you just have to do some looking around in order to know which direction to take.

In writing, this kind of exploration and idea generation is part of pre-writing.  Sit down with your doubts and indecisions and just write for a few minutes as the thoughts come to you.  Most of the time they will begin to take a direction if you’re really looking for one.  It can help you get a handle on what you don’t know, as well.  Where do you need to do some more research?  What questions do you have about your idea?  Who can help you?  Where can you look?  What do you already know?

When the next step is understood, that point in your writing/creating the story of your life when you know where you’re going, take the time to do some organizing.  Make a plan.  Have you ever made an outline for your life?  Again, it doesn’t have to be all-inclusive and end with your eulogy. What’s your next goal in your life story?  Organize it and write it a chapter at a time!  Sometimes you don’t even know what the next chapter is going to be until you have written the previous one.  You’ll learn new things, meet new people, acquire new skills, achieve new highs, and survive new lows.  If you have a clear destination, it’s easier to plan the best route to get there.

The fun part is the writing/living!  When you’ve done the prep work and organized/planned how to reach the next goal along the way, start writing.  A few years ago, Nike branded the world with its “Just Do It!” slogan.  When I retired, I rewrote that for myself.  My slogan is, “Do It NOW!”  Write your story as it is now.  Live the life you have now.  Make the choice(s) to be the best you can be at this moment and take advantage of whatever skill set you’ve gained or new insights you’re finding, and take advantage of the people around you now!  Learn from them.  Help them and let them help you.  Your stories are intertwined a little or a lot.  You may even decide that you should be braided together and continue writing your separate stories together for a while.  It can be an advantage if you see it that way.

Have you come to the end of another episode?  Are you “graduating” again…commencing?  Well, then it’s time to start the process over.  Back to thinking about your Goal, your Main Idea, your Purpose.  Is it closer (or maybe even farther away!)?  Has it changed?  What’s next?  Time to prewrite again.  More thinking and planning and researching….  Then re-organize and start writing again.  Over and over and over.

The proofreading and editing parts are always there.  It’s an ongoing process.  You should always take the time to look over what you’ve written and make the necessary edits to keep things clear.  One of the mistakes that many writers make, I think, is doing it all themselves.  I don’t know how many times I’ve written something and read and reread it again and again only to have the first person to read it point out an error of some kind.  It’s nice to have friends and people you admire and whose advice you value. Get their input.  Ask for advice.  We are all writing our singular life stories.  If you’re as sharp as I think you are, you’re aware that all those separate stories are really just one.  We just have different versions.  It’s sort of like having the same story as a novel, a poem, a short story collection, a movie, a play….  You get the idea.  So if we’re all in this together, why not help one another?

The final stage in that linear writing process is publication.  The writer is finished with the work; it has been to the editor; it’s in print.  Now the public gets a look at it.  Your life story isn’t like that, of course.  Every rough draft is out there for the world to see.  Even when it isn’t your best work and you know it, some will criticize your style or argue that you’re writing in the wrong genre or maybe even that you shouldn’t be writing at all!  Now and then you’ll find someone who thinks every word is amazing; you’re the next Shakespeare!  Every day of your life story is precious.  It has the potential to be life-altering not only for you but for everyone around you and, maybe, even some who are unknown to you…or maybe not even born yet!  Just do your best and put it out there.  Keep revising.  Keep polishing.

One day you’ll write the last word to your story.  The final draft will be published.  Maybe it will be the end of an immense tome, thousands of pages of wisdom and insight and joy and laughter and success after success despite the setbacks.  Then again, it might be a short story. Remember that some of the world’s best-known writers are revered for just a few things they managed to create in a very short time before their careers ended.

I hope you’re famous whatever your story.  Write on!

DrDan  05-09-2018

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“My Shadow”

I was very young when I first saw my shadow, a new plaything, a new friend like in Peter Pan, but it would be several more years before I knew Peter and his fantasy. I knew Peter’s shadow was there even when he couldn’t see it.  I learned early that the shadow is always near.

The older I became, the less I thought about my shadow.  I knew it was present, but it was just a shadow.  I wasn’t afraid of it.  I played with it still some times, making shapes, watching it stretch out before me or draw near, seeming to crowd into my shoes before stretching out again behind me as I looked to the setting sun.  The light was there, the shadow merely where I stood soaking up the life.

Other people’s shadows startled me now and then.  I’d take umbrage at the shadow’s impertinence at assuming so much with people I knew and some I loved.  I still don’t know if it is better for the darkness to come all at once, like switching off a light, or to watch the slow eclipse to nothingness.  For those who succumb to their shadows, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.  Now that I think of it more, though, I believe I want the sudden powerlessness, the short circuit, the blackout.

As I walk in the valley of the shadow, I try to keep it before me, sun at my back, headed for sunset. Late in my afternoon I’d like to turn and go back to daybreak.  Maybe I’ll just walk on into the sun instead.

DrDan

04-30-2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Am Here to Pump You Up!

Since I left high school (50 years ago!) I have been up and down with my physical exercising.  I’ve had periods where I’ve been waaaay too sedate and gluttonous and ballooned drastically.  I’ve been a tri-athlete, running ten miles a day in an hour, biking long distances, swimming back-and-forth and back-and-forth, lifting, stretching, and over-doing, but, boy, did I look good!

Retirement has been good for me in that I have become an habitué of my local fitness center.  I’m probably there six days a week for at least an hour and usually two.  Although I can’t run anymore (no cartilage in my right knee), I am a fast walker on the treadmill and I have always loved lifting weights. I prefer free weights, but the machines are kinder to my back.  My wife and I like to walk and hike, and I ski any time I can find snow.

So…what has this to do with writing?

It doesn’t take too much of your own research to find the vast amounts of scientific/medical research that support physical health as a boon to mental health.  The best drug in the world is endorphins!  We just finished a Great Courses class on “The Aging Brain.”  Exercise not only keeps the body together longer but it helps prevent mental deterioration.  Some research exists that even shows that a healthy brain grows new brain cells.  I don’t know about you, but I can use all the new grey matter I can get!

The one thing I’ve noticed from my own experience is that I write better and write more when I’m getting some exercise–even a good walk around the neighborhood helps, and I’ve written “drafts” while mowing the lawn.  I do lots of planning and contemplating ideas while on the treadmill.  I can do the same when I’m swimming.  Weightlifting requires more concentration on form for me to think much about my writing then, but the recovery periods, especially after a good long workout, seem to be quite productively creative for me.  Many times I’ve jotted down ideas in my phone while I’m catching my breath or relaxing in the sauna.

The “runner’s high” is not a myth, and I can have the same heightened consciousness after any kind of workout.  I can find solutions to all sorts of problems with the sweat streaming and my heart pounding.  It’s rewarding to take that effort and put it into my writing.  I just have to remember to not sweat too much on my keyboard!

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“Take My Advice”

I’ve had a “forced” hiatus from my writing the last week or so.  Chronic sinusitis now and then sidelines me to the point that I can’t think past changing the channel.  After a couple of doses of my favorite antibiotic, I was actually thinking about my storyline again today. Instead of writing, however, I took a little time to visit some of the tips for writing I’ve gathered in the last few years.  I should have done it sooner.

Even though I taught Creative Writing several times, I’m a relative newbie at prose fiction, especially novel-length prose.  I’m a bit of an introvert, too, so I’m more of an observer than participant in life.  Because of that, writing dialog is my nemesis.  I harped at my students to “Show; don’t tell.”  Dialog, I told them, is the story ALIVE.  I can preach.  I’m still learning to follow through myself.  Twenty minutes this afternoon with some of the tip sheets I have collected the last few years has me a bit inspired to get back to it.

I had forgotten some of the tricks/tips I read again today.  My collection is mostly some short tidbits gleaned from Writer’s Digest, but there are a few others mixed in.  It really doesn’t make any difference what the source might be, my advice for you (and myself) is to now and then go back to class…read some of the advice that is abundant and mostly free.  We’re a good bunch, writers.  We don’t mind helping one another.  It’s out there.  You don’t even have to ask for it.

Just go look for it once in a while.

DrDan 04-17-2018

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