Try New Things As A Family

It’s easy to sit and do nothing with the family this holiday. Making memories takes effort. You are busy. You have a long to-do list. Most people only have Thursday and Friday off. I’m not being pejorative, either. These things are all true. And sure, there is the Thanksgiving event, and that is a thing, but what about the rest of the days when everyone is home?

Trying new things doesn’t have to be epic. It doesn’t even have to cost money (well, maybe a little). All you need is something out of the ordinary to create a memory. Here are some ideas: 

1. Ride bikes or walk to the nearest grocery store only to purchase a four-pack of Dove ice-cream bars. Eat them immediately. 

2. Go to Target or Walmart and purchase Monopoly Deal. Play it. 

3. Go for a walk in inclement weather. Dress appropriately. 

4. Get vanilla cones from McDonalds. Since most fast-food dining is closed, eat them sitting on the curb. 

5.  Create a media event, with popcorn and candy, and watch the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (or maybe just Infinity War and Endgame). 

You can come up with a dozen other things. Better things. Easy things. Don’t play on your phone all break. Don’t let your kids languish on the iPad the entire time. A lot of iPad or Xbox time is fine and realistic. Set aside an hour or two for something different. 

Flash Fiction Friday- Land Survey

Two neighbors Saul and Dennis, live side by side in a residential area. Saul is built like a refrigerator and lives in a colonial style home. Dennis is very tall and has a habit of hitting his head against things. His is a Spanish style home with vaulted ceilings. Established oak trees line the streets. Heat radiates off the pavement.

Saul pulls into his driveway one evening and crosses the lawn to Dennis’s front door.

“This tree is causing damage to my property,” says Saul, “Come, let me show you.”

“But I’m having dinner. Can I come after?” Says Dennis, a fork in his hand.

“Please come now.”

Dennis follows Saul to the invisible line that separates his lot from Saul’s. On top of that invisible line sits an oak tree. It’s roots jut out from the ground like city walls. Saul’s driveway has started to split and buckle.

“I have a land survey,” says Dennis, “that we can review, but in case this tree does sit on the property line, I’ll go 50/50 in getting the tree removed.”

“But I don’t want the tree removed,” says Saul. “I want a smooth driveway and a better house and a better car and a better life. But this tree is the start of it. It’s all because of this tree.”

Dennis stares at his neighbor. “I can’t help you with any of that,” he says, “except the tree. We can remove the tree.”

“But I don’t want to remove the tree. I want a front yard that doesn’t look like shit. And a better house, and a better job, and a better wife. It comes back to this tree.”

“Well, listen, I can’t help you with your driveway. Or your car or your house or your life. But I can help you with the tree. But you can keep the tree and still fix your driveway. Then you can have the oak tree and a nice driveway.”

Saul glares at Dennis. “Screw you, Dennis. Screw you and your Pollyanna advice! I’m not a child!”

Saul rages off across his lawn and into his front door. Dennis is left standing by the oak tree. It’s a good looking tree, Dennis thinks. It provides a lot of shade. It helps keep his house cool in the summertime and helps keep the electricity bills low.

Dennis returns to his house to eat his dinner, which is now room-temperature. As he’s loading the dishwasher, he thinks about the tree. He doesn’t want to remove the tree. What a pain in the ass it is to have a tree sitting on a property line.

Shattered glass jolts his attention to the front room. One of the arched windows facing the street is broken. There’s a brick on the floor wrapped in copy paper, attached with a rubber band. Dennis opens the note and reads.

You deserve this brick through your window for your stupid advice.

Dennis sweeps up the glass from the floor. A piece scratches the hardwood. He remembers the cardboard box from his new picture frames and covers the window with the cardboard. He searches the city website for tree ordinances.

My #NaNoWriMo

Woman sweeping, with cat. 2020 (photocredit: Steve)

It’s well past the kids’ bedtime at this point, and I’m parked at the kitchen counter waiting for P to do her math homework. Soccer days are usually like this when we arrive home late, thanks to our regular ritual of stopping for vanilla cones at McDonald’s. Still, I have been happy with our soccer league. Very happy. This evening the league did a special team recognition and Pink presentation in honor of breast cancer awareness month. At the start of the presentation, the marketing director, a fit-looking mom wearing a pony-tail, shared with the league the story of her dear sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, fight, and succumbing to cancer a few years later. Since then, the marketing director has made it her life’s mission to honor her sister by raising awareness about breast cancer. The soccer league’s founder has supported her mission with corporate sponsors, pink training jerseys for every kid, and this evening’s presentation. I admit it was moving—breast cancer awareness, complete.

I am somehow just learning about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which is according to Wikipedia an annual Internet-based creative writing project when writers attempt to complete a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1 and November 30. It’s fortunate for me that I happened upon this information a week or so ago, when I participated in the annual Gotham Writers Conferenece. See, they had a writing competition, and although my manuscript did not win, I was offered free participation in their Zoom conference, which was a good primer for me to get back into writing now that my kids are back in brick and mortar school.

One resource that I have found incredibly helpful has been Abbie Emmons’ YouTube channel. Though there are a gazillion writer channels and blogs on the web, Abbie has managed to compile well produced, well organized, and handy video logs that are easy to digest and cut to the core of my writerly problems. So, with a manuscript that needs a total overhaul, at 50,000 words and 21 workdays in November, that’s 2,380 words a day. I think I can do it. If I can prove that I can re-write this sucker in a month, I would dig that.

My Thoughts on Netflix Movie, “Hostiles”

I haven’t watched many movies lately. I’m still happily slogging away through the Breaking Bad Universe (I’m on Season 2 of Better Call Saul) and pretty content about it. There’s a theory floating around that people are more interested in long-form narratives than stand-alone movies these days, hence the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the like. Recently I watched The Greatest Showman and came away disappointed because I thought it felt rushed. Perhaps it’s also my expectation that stories are better when writers build characters and narratives throughout several movies or seasons. Maybe movies just won’t cut it for me anymore? Google tells me the Marvel Cinematic Universe run time is 23 hours and 48 minutes. With that kind of mileage, how can I possibly care about P.T. Barnum like I did Tony Stark?

But Hostiles blew me away. The creators made the most of their two hours and 13 minutes to make me care about the story and the characters in a well-trodden genre (Western), and in a way that I hadn’t seen before. In short, Hostiles is a story about traumatized people and how some people overcome their trauma, and others don’t. It’s a tough theme, but the writers do it with subtlety, even tenderness, despite its superbly tragic scenes (like the one in the opening).

Here is the Netflix synopsis: After a long career battling the Cheyenne, a U.S. Army captain is ordered to safely escort the tribe’s most influential chief to his Montana homeland. The movie starts with a tormented Christian Bale playing captain Joseph Blocker who, after years of violent fighting, hates the Cheyenne. Yet throughout his duty escorting the tribe’s leader and his family he finds humanity with his former enemy, and is ultimately willing to give his life for the tribe leader and his family. I want to point out a two scenes where I think the writers were especially novel in telling this story.

Early in the movie, there’s the obligatory scene in which Captain Blocker is brought before his commanding officer to receive his orders. It smacks as familiar, almost cliche, when Captain Blocker begins his diatribe against the Cheyenne leader and why he refuses to take the order, that is until his commanding officer interrupts Captain Blocker. “I don’t give a damn how you feel personally,” he says to Blocker. The commanding officer (and the writers) short circuit our expectations about how this interaction is going to happen, and rather than convey Captain Blocker’s disdain for the “savage” Cheyenne leader, we learn that Captain Blocker is “no angel” himself when it comes to violence against Native Americans. Captain Blocker has no audience for his reasons and grievances against the Cheyenne leader. He leaves in turmoil, speechlessly contemplates suicide, and returns the following morning to execute his orders.

The next scene that comes to mind is the one between Captain Blocker and one of his men, who is in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound. It’s a quiet scene, just Captain Blocker and his sergeant, and its reminiscent of other familiar scenes featuring an emotional goodbye between soldiers, with the minor character offering his dying words of gratitude or contemplation before passing on. Think Forest Gump and Bubba (a great scene, by the way). But this is not what we get. Henry (the sergeant) is not dying, and has survived the fighting when others on the detail did not. Still, he expresses disappointment in himself for being unable to “finish what we’ve started.” To this, Captain Blocker responds, “you never let me down…you’re always centered. Focused. Without you on my flank, I likely would have met my end a long time ago.” The two exchange words of affection and sob quietly. Captain Blocker leaves saying, “with any luck we’ll meet down the road.” It’s not a scene about dying or saying goodbye forever. Instead it’s a scene about loyalty, and parting ways. It’s a scene about recognizing that being part of a unit is special, and they each mourn the loss of their dissolved partnership.

Other narrative decisions make Hostiles refreshing and moving, which you’ll have to see for yourself. While the outcome is mostly tragic for many of the characters, Captain Blocker’s end feels so satisfying, so redemptive, that it seems to make up for all the pain and bloodshed along the way. At the VERY end, the writers make Captain Blocker whole when he chooses joy over pain. We don’t know what happens next, but it doesn’t matter. Two hours and 13 minutes are all the writers needed to show us that Captain Blocker is going to make it, and going to be okay.

Quiet Persistence and Force in Leadership

I’ve been reading this book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, so that I can once and for all address what to do about this problem I have of, well, being quiet. Fortunately, this problem is common, if not weird, and in Quiet, Susan Cain is on a mission to prove that being introverted is not inherently weak or odd but instead can wield power.

I’ve arrived at the part in the book where she introduces the idea of Quiet Persistence, which she describes as a soft power that involves day-to-day, person-to-person persistence in interactions that eventually builds up a team. For example, she sites Mother Teresa, the Buddha, and Gandhi. I thought about this the other day as I watched Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. During the cross-examination, Judge Barrett came across as extremely competent and composed, as you would expect of anyone nominated to the Supreme Court. Of particular interest to me were her feminine characteristics—her dress, her looks, her facial expressions, her soft-spoken manner—none of which undermined or distracted from her position or message at all. And at that point, I thought, here is a great role model for women on how to be in a position of influence.

Except for one problem. In certain lines of work, like the military or law enforcement, it’s not about the quality of your ideas, presentation skills, or brainpower. Instead there’s an added criteria on which leaders are based which I will loosely describe as Force. This makes sense since the nature of military or law enforcement work is conflict based. As a result, the team-sport jock archetype and the military leader mold often appear to be the one and the same. For example, when I used to sit on a service academy nomination board, we’d pour over applications and student essays while evaluating candidates. If you were captain of the football offensive line, great! If you were first chair clarinet in the orchestra, hmm. Our reluctance had nothing to do with an inherent bias for football over band, but I realize now that it had everything to do with accounting for Force. Orchestra and other soft extracurriculars told board members little about whether a candidate had it in him or her to exert and withstand Force.

In the military, at least, this has left us non-jocks, and non-jock women and minorities, with few role models on how to be. And in such a situation, there’s only one place I can think to turn to: Game of Thrones, and I’m lookin’ at the likes of Yara Greyjoy and Brianne of Tarth, for a little inspiration. I only wish they were real people.