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THIS TOO SHALL PASS …

My mother said it all the time. It was a favorite expressions. I never thought much about it. It was meant to comfort me when I was unhappy, when something had gone badly. It never occurred to me the expression was more than what a mother says when consoling a child.

It turns out the expression has a long and ancient history.

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This too shall pass” (Persianاین نیز بگذرد‎, Arabicلا شيء يدوم‎, Hebrewגם זה יעבור‎) is an adage indicating that all material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.

The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of the medieval Persian Sufi poets, and is often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by the simple words. Some versions of the fable, beginning with that of Attar of Nishapur, add the detail that the phrase is inscribed on a ring, which has the ability to make the happy man sad and the sad man happy. 

Jewish folklore often describes Solomon as giving or receiving the phrase. The adage and associated fable were popular in the first half of the 19th century, appearing in a collection of tales by the English poet Edward Fitzgerald and also used by Abraham Lincoln in a speech before he became President.

ALL THE ANSWERS YOU’LL EVER NEED

We spend too much time trying to figure out what life means. Why bad stuff happens. Whether or not a malevolent deity has it in for us. It’s normal to wonder if the reason you are sick, broke or miserable is the result of something you did or failed to do. To accept the total randomness of events is rough.

Like you, I’ve put a good bit of thought into how come my life keeps falling apart. I know I’m not perfect, but come on! It’s not like I ripped off everyone’s retirement money or slaughtered thousands of people because I think they are ethnically inferior. Whatever I’ve done wrong, it’s pretty small potatoes in the scheme of things.

I was pondering this stuff when I was a teenager, which is why I studied it in college and kept exploring it through the decades since. One day, I woke up and realized I knew the Truth. All had been revealed.

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I Don’t Know Anything. Neither Do You.

Suddenly random happenstance is as meaningful as anything else. What a relief to realize I don’t need an explanation. Stuff happens. I spent years — decades — thinking in circles, but now I am perfectly content displaying my lack of knowledge for all the world to see (and admire).

Just like when I was 12. I’ve been considering founding a church. I could enlist a lot of followers. My church  would require no beliefs. It would need no contributions of time or money. It wouldn’t even require that you show up, unless you happened to feel like it. There would be no rules to follow, no standards to live up to. No angry deity to get pissed off if you behave badly. It would ideally suit the modern lifestyle, don’t you think?

Faith and Proof

Faith is not proof. Faith is opinion in fancy clothing.

You can believe what you want, but you can’t know any more than I do. You take the same leap of faith believing in God or declaring yourself an atheist. Both positions require you take as absolute something for which you have no proof and for which you can never have proof.

If believing in a loving God makes your world feel rational, that’s good. It could be true. If it turns out you’re right, you’ll have backed a winner. If believing there is no God, and science is the path to Truth, go with that. Regardless, you’re  making a faith-based choice because there’s no proof God exists or doesn’t exist.

As for me, I don’t know. Really. I don’t know and what makes me smarter than you is I know I don’t know.

Tempus Fugit is a frog.

Tempus Fugit is a frog.

Accepting that one knows nothing is a big step, so the next issue to tackle is how can you can cash in on your new understanding. What’s the point in knowing the meaning of life unless you can awe people with your brilliance?

No one will be dazzled unless you know the right words. Terminology is important.

Big words (4 or more syllables) when used in an appropriate setting, can showcase your education and intelligence. People will make little cooing sounds indicating their admiration.

Employing big words enhances your likelihood of getting a management position.

You can write important books.Have a blog like me. Big words can take you a long way if you are skilled at deploying them.

Note: Make sure you know how to pronounce them. Mispronouncing big words will cause unexpected laughter … not good unless you are aiming for a stand-up comedy career.

Epistemology

Let’s start with epistemology. This is an excellent catch-all word you can drop into any conversation. Most people will have no idea what you are talking about but will be too embarrassed to admit it. On the off-chance you encounter someone who actually recognizes the word, you can use this handy-dandy definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the philosopher’s convenient source for everything:

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? 

I bet you still have no idea what it means. The awesome truth is that epistemology doesn’t mean anything because it means everything. Anything that means everything means nothing. Equally, when something claims to do everything, it has no actual use. This applies to people, concepts, and appliances. In practical terms, everything and nothing are identical. (Remember infinite sets from college math? It’s like that.)

Phenomenology

On to phenomenology. When I was studying religion in college, phenomenology was a way to prove the existence of God. Phenomenologically speaking, all human experience is proof of God. Except the same reasoning can prove there is no God. This is the joy of phenomenology.

Phenomenology can help you prove all things are one thing, all things are God. You are God. I am God. I am a warm cup of tea and you are a daffodil. If this doesn’t clarify it for you, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers further elucidation:

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object.

In other words, you can use any and all human experience, your experience and anyone else’s, to prove whatever you want. Phenomenology is fundamental to all belief systems: religion, politics, and Fox News. Lots of people believe in religion, politics and Fox News, so maybe they will believe in you too.

Becoming a Fount of Wisdom

You can now explain anything. Everything. You can prove things based on something a couple of friends said years ago while under the influence of powerful hallucinogenic drugs. Although others may fault your logic, in the world of academics, everyone disbelieves everyone else unless they are citing them as a source, so you might as well stick your oar in the water.

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There are people who will attack you using faith. Faith is based on itself making it hard to dispute. Not to worry. The only one who is ever fully convinced by faith is the one who holds it. Nor does it really matter how many people believe or disbelieve it.

Having more believers or followers doesn’t transform faith into fact.

If it did, we could achieve some really nifty things. Like, say we all believe in magic and therefore, it exists. Cool.

Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve clarified everything. If not, feel free to have your people call my people. We’ll talk.

SEARCHING FOR A GOOD BOOK

Royalties?

Every once in a while, to my shock and amazement, Amazon informs me I’ve sold a book or three. Wow! Any personal friends who were going to buy or read my book have long since done so. Therefore whoever bought it is not someone I guilted into buying it and is a genuine reader. Cause for celebration. Woo hoo.

Don’t think I’m going to make any significant money from this. Hell no. The Kindle version of my book yields a whopping dollar something per sale (or loan) (I’m actually not sure the precise amount). Amazon has changed the rules, so almost every month I get 20 announcements of an impending direct deposit into my bank account. Then I get another set from my bank. So far, my biggest month yielded almost $12. This month, it was $3.70.

I have no idea how they calculate amounts and have stopped trying to figure it out. Overall, I figure a year of book sales might just take Garry and I to a big night at McDonald’s — if we order from the dollar menu.

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I still get buzzed when anyone buys or reads my book and delighted when they let me know they enjoyed it, but next time, I think I’ll write about dogs.

Doing PR

I wrote it in 2007, though it didn’t “hit the market” until 2008. I did author things — television interviews on local cable, radio interviews. I got some nice local press. I arranged some book signings. None of them amounted to much, but they were fun and I met other local authors, some of whom have become friends.

75-Books and stuffNK-1

In total, I sold a few hundred books which isn’t bad for a self-published book. For a while, I got royalty checks large enough for a cheap dinner at a local fast food joint. I briefly thought Teepee would be a very minor straight to DVD movie, but financing failed to materialize. So much for Hollywood.

It’s hard to market a self-published book. When it first came out, I admit I had dreams of glory. My husband had (still has) some good media connections, though as time passes, colleagues retire and there are fewer … but 5 years ago, many more of Garry’s colleagues were working.

When you write a book largely based on your own life experiences, you know it’s not going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. Not unless you are already a celebrity and even then, memoirs are not usually big sellers. Books like this become popular only if they reveal scandalous details of things done with other celebrities, usually of a perversely sexual nature, or if someone pumps it up on national television — which didn’t happen to me and doesn’t happen for most authors.

Unless you have a recognizable, salable name, there’s no market for this genre. The ones that get published because they were written by celebrities go from a display in front of the store to the discount bargain bin faster than you can say “I didn’t know he/she wrote a book …” It’s unlikely me or you, unknowns that we are, could convince a publisher we’re worth the ink and paper for so much as a trade paperback. And don’t bother to dream of getting an advance.

Books so bad they should have a warning label

A while back, I had the honor of reading (and to some degree, judging) a bunch of fiction deemed among “the best of 2013.” I have no idea on what basis these books were determined to be the best of that year’s offering, but I’d like to meet the judges and ask “What were you thinking?” There are okay books amongst the dross, a couple of good ones plus a few that make it all the way to “better than mediocre.”

Unfortunately, there are many dreadful ones, books so bad it’s hard to imagine how they could be regarded by anybody as worth publishing at all in any form. Who did the authors have to sleep with to get that contract? There had to be sexual favors involved. Nothing else could explain it.

Most of these books are — at best — okay. Maybe someone might like them, but I find it hard to imagine who it might be. Maybe under the influence of heavy drugs? Some may simply be an acquired taste I haven’t acquired. A couple had redeeming qualities, but not enough to get me from cover to cover.

Which brings me back to my book

I will say, in advance, that it is not deathless literature, but it’s not bad — a whole lot better than most of the books deemed the best of 2013.

And my book has features that used to be traditional features in books like characters, humor, a semblance of a plot, a good-faith attempt to make a point. At the very least, you could learn how to build a tepee (perhaps more of how not to build a teepee), should you care to have one of your own … something I recommend. Tepees are strangely wonderful. You might not love my book, but I’m pretty sure whoever and wherever you are, you’d enjoy having a teepee.

These days, books that sell are mostly cops and courtrooms, whodunits, thrillers, terrorists, vampires and other creatures out of myth and fable, many things magical and mystical. Novels about people who live in the real world and do real things … work at jobs, raise children who don’t have magical powers or access to time travel and are unlikely to pop off into space to explore other universes, are becoming rare.

Do we no longer find the real world sufficiently interesting to write books about it?

How boring are we?

So here’s my question: are we really that boring? All of us? Is the reason so few good books are set in the real world because we find our lives uninteresting? Are the day-to-day battles regular people go through so dreary we can’t bear to write about them?

It is obviously more entertaining to read about things that don’t exist … things that may have happened long in the past … or about events that have or might happen in our real world, but are so far out of the ordinary experiences of regular folks that they might as well happen in an alternate universe.

Having someone buy a copy of my book today was a big deal. If thousands of people bought and presumably read “A Casual Vacancy” or “The Middlesteins,” maybe a half-dozen or so people will buy or borrow an electronic copy or a trade paperback of my book. Although unlikely, it’s possible. And the book might even resonate with some of you.

It’s about the baggage we haul through life, the baggage load on our backs when we are too young to choose … plus the rest of the boulders we pick up along the way and keep hauling until one day — with a little luck — we realize it’s okay to dump them.

So, in case you’re of a mind to buy a book … which maybe you’ll enjoy and then again, maybe you won’t … the book is about child abuse and getting over it as well as the strange ways it warps you as you plod through life . How building a tepee helped me dump the bullshit from childhood and other stuff added along the way. In advance, I ask your forbearance about typos. Without a proper proofreader and editor, I was left to my own devices. If you read me regularly, you know I’m a terrible proofreader and the queen of typos.

Being a writer and a proofreader have nothing to do with each other. Different skill sets. It is also hard to proofread your own manuscript: you tend to see what you meant to write and not what is there.

If you have any interest in acquiring the book in whatever form:

12-foot teepee Amazon

You can buy the paperback here and the Kindle edition here. If you belong to Amazon Prime, you can read it for free. I get the same royalties whether you buy it or borrow it. Go figure.

I have serious concerns about the state of publishing. I am convinced there are more good writers who can’t find a publisher than good writers who get published. With the opportunities offered by electronic publishing, I would think the potential profit has increased exponentially.

Why not publish more? E-books cost nothing but a little electronic storage space … and books like mine that are published as “print to order” cost nothing until it has already been bought and paid for. It’s risk free. It would be good for everyone.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we published more good books?

Perhaps publishers should consider taking a chance on more newcomers who don’t write in trendy genres. I love science fiction and fantasy more than most people, but I also enjoy books about the real world and people to whom I can relate in an earthly way.

I fear the best of America’s writers are being lost in the scramble to publish only best-sellers. It doesn’t work anyhow. Most books flop, just like they always have. From what I’m seeing, most acquisitions editors wouldn’t know a great book if it bit them on the nose. Or care.

It’s not that I’m such a fantastic author and couldn’t get a reading, publisher or agent. It’s that the stuff that does get published is so awful. It’s not a healthy sign for literature or the publishing industry.

THE 12-FOOT TEEPEE – AN AMAZON REVIEW

Obviously I didn’t write this.I would be embarrassed to say this much nice stuff about me, but I have to admit I’m delighted. In the midst of the craziness of my life, all of a sudden I’m getting wonderful reviews of the book I’d pretty much given up on. It never went anywhere. I’m not even sure I know how to find my publication website … or have any idea what my password is. Or anything.

If nothing else, it’s humbling that there can be such a huge disparity between my perception of the book I wrote and other people’s view of it. That I might not be the best judge of my work goes without saying … but to be 180 degrees out of alignment forces me to wonder what else I’m completely wrong about.

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In any case, I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting the review here because I have no idea how one reblogs a review that isn’t on a blog. And this is on the Canadian Amazon site, making it even more inaccessible. The title of the book is also a live link to the source, so please visit that site too. The author deserves your support.

I’m beyond grateful for this review. I’m touched and encouraged. This is a difficult time for me, for obvious reasons. Having something so nice happen right now makes me feel (sorry about the pun) heartened.

THE 12-FOOT TEEPEE

5.0 out of 5 stars

The fascinating construction of a life Jan. 30 2014

By Jiibo Dyallo

Format: Kindle Edition | Amazon Verified Purchase

Marilyn Armstrong is a widely read blogger on WordPress, and that’s how I became aware of her. I thought, ‘anyone who writes this well must have written at least one book.’ The 12-foot Teepee, in fact, is the name of the book and the basis of the blog’s URL, teepee12 dot com.

Tempus fugit, especially for daily bloggers. Marilyn tells me, in correspondence, that she’s no longer quite the same person as the one who wrote the book. As a former resident of Jerusalem, though, she says she once lived near a place where archaeologists found “a Canaanite temple, on top of which (pillar on pillar) stood a Greek temple. On top of which (pillar on pillar) was a Roman temple. On top of which was – you guessed it, pillar on pillar – a synagogue.” No doubt today’s Marilyn stands pillar on pillar on the one who wrote this book, and I think that that keeps the book current. A life contains its own archaeology, and what is an autobiography (as I assume this is, in essence) if not a tell?

Protagonist ‘Maggie,’ as a child, was sexually abused by her father. That revelation is how the book begins. I worked for an LGBT newspaper in the 1980s and kept current on feminist and lesbian literature during the period when the magnitude of familial incest was first being disclosed to the world. I’ve read many dozens of accounts – brief, elongated, literary, plain, agonized, detached – by people who endured this experience. Also, I’ve read numerous complex bestsellers embedding the theme, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I noticed right away that Marilyn was somehow overcoming the saturation factor and writing highly readable text. Perhaps it was her style of writing – plainspoken enough to be nodded at by Hemingway, yet subtly full of craft. Her approach was fresh, and witty at appropriate moments. Perhaps there was some engaging mystery, too, in the enigma of her father as an inconspicuously, but almost incomprehensibly, evil man. I’m not sure if I would even have credited Marilyn with restraining herself from exaggeration if I hadn’t read M. Scott Peck’s monograph on such folk, People of the Lie. I knew that such individuals really do exist. In any case, Marilyn’s way of telling the tale with judicious truth but without a show of anguish, and without the jargon that is now often used in such accounts, made the difficult events completely readable.

The book then progressed through subtly interwoven anecdotes to the unveiling of related tales: the construction of a knock-off Sioux-style teepee as a project for self-healing and for spending quality time with a lively granddaughter; the concurrent battle with spinal problems and surgeons of greater and lesser competence; and the challenges of new-found poverty for Massachusetts people caught up in the tech bust of the 1990s. This all sounds daunting, not to mention rather random and terribly personal, but Marilyn makes it as vivid and coherent a piece of writing as you will find anywhere. She wins your heart. The feeling that you want things to go well for her (I don’t know her personally at all apart from a couple of emails back and forth among fellow bloggers) turns out to be a waterslide of suspense that runs you right through the book from beginning to end. She also integrates a spiritual journey from secular Judaism into Christianity that is neither dwelt upon nor glossed over – it has its time and place in the story – and it also arouses interest – regardless, I should think, of the personal persuasion of the reader. The bottom line, though, is that Marilyn is a writer who can captivate you with a tale of how her son pieced together PVC pipe sections to make wobbly teepee poles. I can’t imagine what topic she couldn’t make interesting.

I think that this book deserves more attention than it’s had. Marilyn is not sure that it does – she says in her email that she has, to some extent, returned to religious skepticism in recent years. Life has gone on. The tell has mounded up further. Where a church once stood in her psyche, a big community teepee for comparative religion and degrees of religious belief now stands, pole on pillar. Its architecture is newer than the book.

If you have a sense of discovery, though, you still need to know how it got there, and this book is the only dig that’s been done.

The 12-Foot Teepee by Marilyn Armstrong

Once upon a time, I built a teepee. I painted the door and filled it with things I loved. I made the poles, sanded each by hand, peeling the bark from each 16-foot sapling we had cut in our own woods.

Then I wrote a book about building it, and about life, transformation, and other things, some funny, some sad, some just whatever.

The manuscript for The 12-Foot Teepee took me about 7 months to write, almost as much time to edit, then a few more months to design the cover and the book. Getting it published, well … that’s a whole other story.

In winter.

This was my teepee.

It stood, through all seasons for five years. This summer, the poles could no longer support the canvas, and the canvas itself was mildewed. Its time was over and it came down.

I don’t think there will ever be another. Building it was a rebirth. A physical teepee is nothing but a bit of canvas and sticks, the rest is spirit, love, and hope. I knew it could not last forever, and it lasted as long as any teepee could in this climate … especially since I left it up through the winter … but I miss it and always will. I had some of my best hours in my teepee … the only place in my world where I could always sleep.

My favorite time in the teepee was when the snow was falling and I was cozy by my fire. It was the most peaceful place in my world.

You can find the book on Amazon, both as a paperback and in Kindle format. It is “The 12-Foot Teepee,”  by Marilyn Armstrong. You can read excerpts from it online. Eventually I’ll post some pieces of the book here. Just not tonight.

My life has moved on considerably since then but writing it was a turning point in my life.

Ouch … and goodbye. Heading north again – Marilyn Armstrong

Starting the trek back home this morning. I logged  a fair bit of jacuzzi time yesterday and now I can stand up without help.

Yesterday we did NOTHING except a trip to the pharmacy, a simple dinner of pasta and sauce, finishing off leftovers since we can’t take them with us.

More from the historic Williamsburg.

Although I’m still hurting a bit from jouncing, bouncing, spinning, dipping, flipping and general mayhem, if I could, I’d probably do it again. I’m that crazy. Sometimes I worry me.

But I’m safe. Garry would NOT go. Unlike me, he prefers to not be crippled for love of roller coasters. He has a firmer sense of self-preservation than I do, obviously.

English: The Loch Ness Monster loops.

It was a good vacation. Friends, fun. Okay, old Williamsburg was a bit of a disappointment, but we ate great food, had some good laughs, I got a few nice pictures and we rode a couple of killer coasters … so we leave satisfied, if a trifle bruised.

We indulged in a pair of electric scooters for Garry and I. Pricey, but I am SO glad we did. It was hot, there’s a huge amount of walking and aside from feeling a little like the road-runner yelling “Beep beep” as we navigated the park, we actually came out of the experience feeling reasonably good.

What did we do?

Not as much as I intended, but for two senior citizens, probably more than enough. First of all, even if you aren’t walking, it’s still a lot of distance to cover from one ride to another, from one exhibit to another. That eats up a lot of time, so if you intend to try to do it all, plan on being there a long day. Or two.

From Colonial Williamsburg.

We got there by noon and left around 5:30 and we only went on 5 rides, grabbed some lunch, and spent a little time looking at eagles and wolves. The eagles and wolves looked about as hot and sweaty as we felt. There was no wasted time. Except for the 45 minute lunch break, we were on the move the entire time.

Old tree in an old town. Taken by an old person, namely me.

We rode two roller coasters: Apollo’s Chariot and Loch Ness. We never made it to the “baddest” of the coasters, the Verbolten and Griffon. But I think we did enough.

Busch Gardens Europe, Williamsburg Roller coas...

Busch Gardens Europe, Williamsburg Roller coasters Amusement rides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apollo’s Chariot has a first drop that’s pretty heart stopping, some twists, turns, and barrel rolls that do a pretty good job tossing you around. It is also a very short ride … maybe 3 or 4 minutes. Which is quite enough, thank you.

Loch Ness is another story. It is a long coaster, possibly the longest I’ve ever ridden. Lots of upside down barrel rolling loop-the-loops and nobody mentioned the long dark tunnel part. As we went around, tightly locked in, yet I somehow was able to emerge with what I think is a separated shoulder, a bruised patella, and possibly a permanently damaged left hip. Garry probably should be in a neck brace.

Interlocking loops of the Loch Ness Monster.

The train reaches the 130-foot (40 m) lift hill with a small and tight turn … bringing it to a 114-foot (35 m) drop towards the park’s Rhine River. A large upward hill crosses over the park’s ‘Land of the Dragons’ and trim brakes bring riders to the first of the two interlocking loops. After the loop, the train makes a turn and to a block brake, which then leads into a covered tunnel/helix.

Inside the tunnel, the train makes 2.75 circular turns before coming to the end of the tunnel.  As the train exits the tunnel at the end of the helix a small brake run slows the train to ascend a smaller second lift hill.

The train makes a wide turn after the lift and drops downward into the second loop. It then goes uphill again before being brought to a stop by the final brake.”  From Wikipedia.

I want to mention that the video on the Loch Ness coaster does not do it justice. It’s a lot more intense than the video would indicate. And longer.

We passed on the other four big bad roller coasters and though I feel I have somehow failed to meet my obligation to ride the most evil coasters available, I think that it may finally be time to accept that I am not a kid anymore. These coasters make the Cyclone seem rather tame. Except for the actual danger factor and that’s where the Cyclone takes the big prize because there’s always a real possibility that it’s going to kill you dead for real and all.

Summer in Williamsburg. Butterflies were everywhere and bluebirds. I’ve never seen them up north, but they abound down here.

When you ride the Cyclone, it’s hard to not notice that it IS very old. It shakes. It’s rickety. In addition to whatever fear is generated by speed and dips and getting flung around, there’s the possibility that the thing’s going to just collapse with you on it.

An accidental shot of shadows on the brick path in historic Williamsburg.

Busch Gardens inspects each ride, each coaster, every 4 hours. If there is anything that doesn’t seem perfect, they walk the track, foot by foot, checking to make sure that everything is as it should be. This means that there are a lot of time outs for maintenance and you just wait while they double and triple check everything.

And that’s just fine. It makes the rides less scary in a real life way, but not less fun … or less painful. I’m pretty sure that the Cyclone wouldn’t make the cut. I think they inspect it at the beginning of the season and if a piece falls off (it happens, really, I’ve seen it) they check to see if it’s a critical piece or not. Otherwise? Roll on, roll on.

So here’s how it goes. Having survived the “easiest” coaster, Apollo’s Chariot with a nearly vertical drop, we proceeded to the Loch Ness Monster. Second coaster. Up, up, up, up. Boy, we sure are going up a long way. Golly. Then, pause. Look down.

Holy……AHHHHHHHHHH…..oooh …. ouch, there goes my right knee. Ow, ooh, damn, I think I just dislocated my left shoulder. Upside dooooown … holy sh*t … yikes. Hey, why is it so dark … what’s this tunnel? Nobody told me about a tunnel. Where the hell are we? Yeow, oh my GOD … upside down and twist and ahhhhhhhh…. ouch, ooh, other knee … did I just break that patella?

Let’s get some lunch, okay? Let’s visit some animals. Buy a tee-shirt.

After that, we went on a nice virtual airplane trip through Europe, and spooky Dark Kastle in Germany, something that spun around and was, for us, a kiddy ride, but people were actually screaming (wimps). And then, on our little electric scooters, we headed for the gate and back to the hotel. The old people have their feet up, reruns of NCIS on television.

Alive to tell our tale.

So if you are over 65, but nonetheless will be damned rather than not do that cool stuff, just be aware that there’ll be a few bruised parts and maybe a few missing pieces at the end of your day. Glad I did it. Not sure I’ll do it again.

Getting There Is Not Always Enough … Marilyn Armstrong

We didn’t get to ride this one.

Yesterday, we went to Busch Gardens. We did nothing, got wet, walked too much, came back exhausted, soggy and poorer. We seem to have absolutely impeccable timing for getting places at exactly the wrong time!

We didn’t get to ride this either.

We planned carefully and sensibly. We figured that if we went late in the day, it would be cooler and probably less crowded too. Logical right? I mean, the park‘s open until 10 at night, so getting there at 3:30 should leave us more than ample time to whatever we wanted and ride whatever we wanted.

After we finally got through the long walk to the park from the very closest parking lot, we decided to take the train ride that loops around the park. It would give us something of an orientation, an overview.

After that we were nearly slavering with anticipation, we headed down the long road to Apollo’s Chariot, the first of the 6 big, bigger and biggest, baddest roller coasters we intended to ride.

We were at the front of the line on the platform, ready to board the ride. Which is when the announcement came that the ride was closing due to weather issues.

Not this one either.

Weather. Mainly, lightning. Not to mention wind and rain. So we stood around a bit, milled around in confusion, then eventually headed back the long road to the rest of the park.

With great anticipation, we waited for a weather update. We were in a code orange, which is bad, but the next announcement was “Code Red,” which was much worse and actually closed everything, except shops.

Shortly thereafter, the sky opened up and a sheet of water fell out. We stood under an awning speculating — along with everyone else — whether or not there was any chance the park would reopen.

Also, didn’t ride this one.

It did not reopen.

We hauled ass back to Guest Relations, where they were very gracious about the whole thing and seemed genuinely sorry that we come from so far away, didn’t get to do anything except eat a pretzel and get soaked. They refunded half the money because our friends had to leave today and we took rain checks and will make another stab at it tomorrow. We would have gone today, but the weather report doesn’t look promising and I couldn’t deal with the same scenario two days running.

The best experience of the day? The electric scooter that you can rent and drive around the park. I loved it! It was way zippier than I thought it would be and fun, too. Unfortunately, by the time I got it, I was already over-tired and when we finally got back to the hotel, having stopped at the grocery store in between and then cooking dinner … we had barely enough strength to climb into bed and pass out.

Today, the humidity is 99% and thunder storms are likely in the afternoon, so we  are going to go tomorrow morning when hopefully, it won’t be raining because that really IS our last chance.

Talk about disappointing! Nice that Garry and I get another shot at it, but I so wanted to go with my friend too … but … well … it didn’t happen and if there’s one thing you cannot count on, it’s usually the weather.

They’ve left now and it’s very quiet and feels kind of empty. I’m trying not to be a bit down-hearted, but it’s difficult.

Tomorrow is another day, I hope.

Mending Wall, Robert Frost

Wall by the paddock

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors‘.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

A stone fence along a country road.

A stone fence along a country road.

Editor’s note: Above was originally posted by Marilyn Armstrong

Stay In The Car and Other Classic Lines – Marilyn Armstrong

In the spirit of clichés that pop out of the mouths of Our Heroes with alarming frequency, despite the fact that they have become standing jokes for the audience (apparently nobody mentioned this to the script writers), our personal favorite in this house is “Stay in the car.”

On the NBC TV series “Chuck.” it’s a gag line. Unfortunately, on most shows it is supposed to be real dialogue  and not cause hilarity … but it does. Every time.

I checked on Subzin, a movie database that lets you enter a piece of dialogue, then reports in how many and in the specific movies where you’ll find it. According to Subzin, “Stay in the car”  can be found in 356 phrases from 296 movies and series. Yet, they continue to use it.

Lethal Weapon 2: (1989)

uses the line a lot.

Then, there’s  Last Action Hero (1993), my favorite Arnold Schwarznegger movie in which the line is understood to be a cliché , which is more than you can say for most of the places you will hear it:

But don’t feel that this is confined to modern movies. High Sierra, with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, 1941 used the line too.
Speaking of Humph, there’s one great line in Treasure of the Sierra Madres that has become, by its utter perfection, a cliché or maybe … a laugh line?
And again, from Blazing Saddles (1974), a movie so quotable that we can recite the entire dialogue as we watch:
And then there is:
Ah, so many clichés. So little time. And then … they all walk away …

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation! – Marilyn Armstrong

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

Combing the Archives

Some updates from a pinch-hitter, by Rich Paschall

While Marilyn is “out of office,” I have the opportunity to go back through the archives to repost some of Marilyn’s earliest works here on Serendipity.  Like the name of the blog suggests, you should find these to be a “pleasant surprise.”  If you have followed along from the very beginning, you will delight in seeing these posts again.  If you are a more recent follower, you will get to see some gems you have missed.

logitech sealed keyboardAs I am posting these with my login, there could have been some confusion with my name appearing at the bottom as “author.”  That seems to be part of the software and something I could not edit.  Therefore, I did something Marilyn would not do.  I added her name to the title.  She would naturally feel that you would know whose blog you are reading.  This is the only edit I have made in the reposts.  Marilyn will be back at her keyboard soon.

In the meantime, Garry will appropriately be playing the role of “reporter” to bring us updates on Marilyn’s progress at Beth Israel’s Cardiac Care Unit.  Although it is taking longer than had been hoped, Marilyn has finally been up and walking.  This certainly means I will be bumped soon from my temporary role as editor and back to Sunday contributor.  I will be pleased to be knocked off this chair by its owner.

I have added tags and categories to Garry’s posts when he is not looking.  Each of his posts carries the tag “Marilyn update.”  I have also tagged the reposts as “Best of Marilyn Armstrong,” but since it is all good, the tag seems a little strange to me.  I have already started using it, however, so I will keep right on with that plan.

There is no way I could explain how grateful I am that Marilyn has given me space here on Sundays for some short stories and totally random articles. She has been advisor, editor and illustrator of the writing I have submitted.  It provides me with an audience that I have not found on my own space.  So I am pleased to sit in the editor’s chair for a few days so that you may continue to have the work of Marilyn Armstrong each day.

VISITING MOCKINGBIRD’S WORLD WHILE WAITING FOR A FEW GREAT BOOKS

Recently, we watched To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) on Blu-ray. I bought it months ago and planned to watch it, but hadn’t gotten to it. After we settled in, we remembered why we love it.

It’s a great movie, a wonderful story. Brilliant acting. Gregory Peck in the defining role he chose for himself. In many way, he was Atticus Finch.

A rare movie in which all pieces fit. It never hits a false note. It takes its time. It’s about justice and injustice, racism, the legal system. It’s also about family and love, relationships, coming of age and learning the world is a bigger, better and worse place than you imagined.

Front CoverCoincidentally, my granddaughter was assigned to read the book. She thinks it’s boring, and though I don’t agree with her, I understand her world is far removed from the world of Mockingbird … so far she can’t relate to it. She’s coming into adulthood in a world where the President is Black, where her white grandma is married to a brown man and no one finds anything odd about this.

She’s part of the generation in which everything has been instant. You don’t have to read books to do research. You just Google it. There’s no time for books that move slowly in an unhurried world. Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more often than they drove. Food grew in gardens.

The world was segregated and separated by class, religion, ethnicity. Compared to the world in Mockingbird, our sleepy little town is a metropolitan hub. Kaity cannot relate to that other world and has no patience for it. I understand why she feels the way she does, but I wish it were different.

I’ve read dozens or books during the past year, probably three-quarters of them for review … and the majority were awful.

These books would be considered “serious literature.” Serious seems to have become synonymous with boring, which is totally wrong.These books don’t seem to contain special meaning or lessons. Nothing happens except everyone is unhappy and as the books go on, they become unhappier.

Most are written well, if by “well” you mean good grammar and properly constructed sentences. They offer slices of lives we are glad we don’t live. Missing are plots, action, or any reason I — or you — would want to read them. The authors appear to be trying to do what Harper Lee did … recreate a world, a time, a place. But Harper Lee also had a story to tell. Things happened, events occurred. There were bad people, but good people, too. The story includes ugliness, but also characters worthy of admiration. Atticus Finch is a great man, a fighter for truth and justice. The world is a better place because he is in it.to-kill-a-mockingbird2_9855

The new authors don’t get it. They have forgotten a book is more than description. It needs to tell a story, to involve readers, to draw them in. If my granddaughter is finding To Kill A Mockingbird dull, it’s hard to imagine her enjoying any of these new books. They may describe a world she recognizes, but they are unlikely to lure her into wanting to partake of them.

It’s no wonder that the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and so on. We have lost touch with the entertainment function of serious literature. If a book makes us think, teaches us, provides moral guidance, delves into serious issues, it should also make us laugh and cry, take us out of our ordinary lives. The magic of any good book is that it lets us become part of other lives and see the world through their eyes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have my standards. I don’t read books that don’t meet them.

First and foremost, I want a story. I want a plot and I want something to happen. I don’t want to just hear what people are thinking. I want them to also do something. I want to meet characters who develop and grow. I can cope with bad guys, but I need heroes too. I am glad to learn, I’m glad to be enlightened, but I want to be absorbed and entertained. Otherwise, it isn’t a novel: it’s a textbook or maybe a sermon.

I bet there are great authors out there writing terrific books who can’t get them published. For anyone who has tried to get a book published, you know what a battle it is. Manuscripts are submitted electronically and screened  by software looking for keywords. If you can’t write a proposal containing the right buzzwords, your manuscript will never be read by a human being. Using software to judge literature is probably why so many of these books are so dreadful. Human beings should judge literature, not computers. Computers don’t read. People read. More people should read than do.

75-BookStory HPCR-1

Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee … none of them would get their books read much less published today. Unless we want all our literature to consist of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and mysteries — if we want any other kind of literature worth reading — it’s time to take a few chances and publish books that people will enjoy. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I grew up reading all kinds of books.

I miss books that take place on this planet, in this world, in my lifetime and don’t necessarily involve magic, time travel, cops, serial killers, courts, vampires, or terrorists. Surely there are stories about our world worth publishing.

Publish more interesting books and I bet there will be more interested readers.

ADVICE FOR BABY BLOGGERS

I’ve gained a slew of new followers recently. If I can, I check out all the my followers. I go look at their websites, if there is one … or even a profile. It’s because I’m trying to get a handle on who’s who, figure out what made them click the “Follow” button.

Sometimes it’s easy. It’s a fellow photographer or writer. Maybe we’ve had a passing encounter via his or her website. Or they have an interest in what I write about, are my generation, love the same movies or share a passion for history. Or the same taste in books.

Quite a few are probably spammers hoping to gain entry to my site. I can block them from commenting, but I can’t block them from following. Anyone can follow whoever they want. I wish it were otherwise.

96-KKCheer-3a

A bunch of them are from countries whose language I don’t speak, often whose alphabet I can’t read. I think some of them are photographers and come for the pictures, but I can’t always tell for sure.

And then there are the baby bloggers. Not merely new to blogging, but … well … children. Teenagers as young as 12 or 13 years old. Girls who aspire to a career in fashion (why in the world do they follow me? I’m the most unfashionable person I know!) and some who want to be writers or photographers. Many who aren’t sure what they want, but have discovered blogging. They follow me, hoping I’ll follow in return and help them build a following of their own. I get that.

If blogging had been an option when I was that age, I’d have been doing it. For a creative kid, blogging is a godsend. So much better than a diary, which was my best option.

It’s hard to get a blog off the ground. There are weeks, months — even years — before it begins to come together. So when these kids ask me if I’ll follow them or imply as much, I’ll at least give their site a read, a “like,” a comment and maybe some encouragement. I’m already following more blogs than I have time to read. I’m loathe to add more, though now and then I do add one anyway.

Some of these baby bloggers are surprisingly good. Their observations are astute and sensitive, their photographs show a fine eye for composition. Others — not so much. Some need to learn the rudiments of composition and basics like focusing, cropping. Many more need to learn the difference between writing and texting.

young shooter

For all you youngsters who want to be writers, I would like to offer you some unsolicited advice:

  • Use real words, not internet abbreviations or hacker slang
  • Check your spelling
  • Write sentences and paragraphs
  • Leave some white space on the page. All text and graphics makes me claustrophobic
  • Punctuation is not optional. Discover how exciting commas and periods can be
  • Do not end every sentence with one or more exclamation points!!! Really, just don’t!!! If you do that all the time, it makes you sound hysterical!!!
  • Use emoticons sparingly :-)
  • Contractions require apostrophes. It’s don’t, not dont, can’t, not cant.

If you want adults to read your posts — anyone older than your texting pals — you will have to write in a way older folks can understand. It’s not just the words you use.

It’s also subject matter. I’m mildly interested in what’s going on with your generation,  but makeup and gossip don’t hold much appeal for me. If you are going to write about things that only interest your high school friends, your only followers will be the kids who attend your school. Maybe that’s enough for you. But if you want a wider audience, find topics that interest a broader audience.

Most importantly, make sure that you write in a real language, not text-speak. Please.

POLITICS AND CORRUPTION IN ROME — IMPERIUM, ROBERT HARRIS

Cover of "Imperium"

Imperium, by Robert Harris

Random House

Sep 7, 2010

Fiction – 496 pages

It’s déjà vu all over again as we travel back with author Robert Harris to Republican Rome just before it became Imperial Rome. In America, in 2013, we complain about corruption. We wonder about conspiracies. We brood darkly on the failure of government to address issues of inequality. We deplore the bribery of officials. The world, we say, is going to Hell.

Except that government went to Hell a long time ago and you could easily argue that government — all government — was always hellish. Compared to Rome, our government is a clean machine, as clean as a fresh snowfall. It’s all a matter of perspective.

English: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rom...

Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Roma Italiano: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (Photo: Wikipedia)

Reading history puts the world in which I live into perspective. Whatever problems we face, we — the human family — have faced them before. We survived. It’s important to remember our ability to survive is greater (for the most part) than our ability to screw up.

Imperium, by Robert Harris, is about a guy named Cicero. You’ve undoubtedly heard of him. Famed as a lawyer, even more famed as an orator, Cicero rose to fame and power during a critical cusp in history as Rome was about to change from republican to imperial. Julius Caesar had just stepped onto the stage of history. It was the beginning of the greatest imperial power the earth had ever seen … and the end of the greatest republic the world would ever know. Perspective.

Marcus Cicero started his journey to power as an outsider from the provinces. His first significant legal case put him head-to-head with the dangerous, cruel and utterly corrupt Gaius Verres, governor of provincial Sicily. Using his stunning oratorical abilities and displaying a dogged determination and persistence in the face of impossible odds, Cicero beats Verres in court. He then goes on to triumph over many powerful opponents, making friends — but far more enemies — along the way.

Cicero seeks ultimate power — imperium. His allegiance is to the Republic. Cicero’s secretary and slave, Tiro, is the inventor of shorthand and has become the author of this biography of his master. Tiro was at Cicero’s right hand throughout his career, by his side, through triumph and catastrophe. Through his voice the world of ancient Rome is brought to life.

It’s a fascinating story. Pompey and Julius Caesar stride across the stage of this deeply corrupt, depraved, dangerous and strangely familiar society.

imperium audibleRobert Harris is a brilliant story-teller and author of historical fiction. He lures us into a violent, treacherous world of Roman politics simultaneously exotically different from and startlingly similar to our own. I read it on Kindle, then listened to the very fine version available from Audible.com. I recommend both most highly.

This is part one of a duology.  The second volume in the American printing is titled Conspirata. In Great Britain the same book is titled Lustrum.

Both books are available on Kindle from Amazon and as a paperback from other sellers.

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BERT LAHR – NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why?

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve travelled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

OVER AND OUT

A short story by Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog

It was not like Billy’s dad to just walk into his room. At 17 years old he really expected his parents to knock first. He quickly closed out of his chat and turned around to see what his father wanted.  “What’s up, dad?” Billy began.

“Son, I think there is something you should tell me.” Billy’s father paused and waited for a response. Billy was clueless. He could not think of a thing he should say so there was this long awkward silence as the two of them shot puzzled looks at one another.

Billy’s father had noticed over the last two month’s the nature of his son’s friendship with a handsome young classmate named Josh. They went everywhere together. They studied together and they spent hours on the phone together. Going to the movies on a Saturday night was just like the dates Billy’s dad had with his wife when they were teenagers. Billy would spend a lot of time getting ready. He picked out his best date-night type clothes and he absolutely lit up when Josh appeared at the door. Dad felt he could not be mistaken.

empty chairs

“No, dad, I can’t think of anything,” Billy finally said in his best “I’m innocent” voice. “Are you gay?” his father shot back. All of a sudden something heavy fell on Billy’s chest. It must have been the weight of reality hitting him. He was unprepared.

“Yes dad,” Billy responded as boldly as he could after the truth was already out there anyway.

“And this Josh fellow, is he your boyfriend?” Billy did not want to out Josh to his father but he figured that he somehow knew so he gave up that truth too.

“Yes, dad.” Once again they stared at one another until Billy could finally throw that weight off himself and speak up.

“So, it’s OK then?” Billy asked. His dad did not want to say “yes” because it was not alright with him, but he did not want to say “no” because he recalled how difficult teenage love could be and just figured that gay teenage love was even harder. After a few moments deep in thought, Billy’s dad had a course of action in mind.

“Son, I want you to tell your mother this week. Am I clear about that?”

“No dad, please,” the boy replied in horror. “Can’t you tell her?” If his dad was not all “open-arms” about this he could not imagine his mother’s reaction. She was far more right of center than dad.

“Billy, if you think you are old enough to be making out with another boy, you are certainly old enough to man-up and tell your mother exactly who you are.” At that, Billy’s dad left the room and quietly closed the door on the way out.

For the rest of the week, Billy was a nervous wreck. Every time he saw his mother he could feel a knot in his stomach. His father started shooting him angry glances for failing to tell his story. Billy did tell two people though, Josh and his sister, Mary. The latter was a tactical error, to be sure.

One night when they all happened to be at the dinner table at once, a rare occurrence for two busy parents and two teenagers, Mary could not hold her brother’s secret any longer.  “So, little Billy, did you tell mom yet that you’ve been kissing boys?”

Billy’s mom immediately looked like she had seen the ghost of her dear departed mother glaring at her. “Robert, did you know about this?” Billy’s mom shouted across the room at her husband. He did not respond but she could tell after twenty-three years of marriage what the response would be. “How dare you!” she screamed at either Billy or her husband, neither was quite sure, and then she stormed out of the room.

Over the next few weeks Billy parents argued often about why the boy was gay. Each thought the other had a hand in it, but only mom was mortified and angry beyond reason.

“If you had been a stronger father,” she took to telling him almost daily, “this would not have happened.”

To which he frequently responded, “I tried to discipline the boy but every time I did he would run to you and get off the hook. I would say you are the reason he’s a mamma’s boy.” From there it only got worse.

After one particularly stormy session, Billy’s mom finally declared she was through. “I want a divorce.  We can not continue these fights in front of the children.” Robert agreed and went to their room. A stunned Billy, eavesdropping in the next room, began to cry.

Robert called his brother and asked to stay a few days. He packed a bag and prepared to leave when Billy ran into his room. “No dad, please don’t leave. I am sorry, it’s all my fault.  I’ll change, I promise. I won’t be gay any more. Please.” Billy buckled at the knees and went down to the floor. His dad helped him up and sat him on the edge of the bed.

“Look son, my marriage was over years ago. It took something like this to point that out.  You can not change this anymore than I can change who you are.” At that he reached over to hug the boy. He planted a kiss on his forehead, got up, grabbed his bag and walked out the door.