Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lighting My World and Dimming My Patience

After a lengthy conversation about paring down the decorations for the holidays, my husband and I decided we’d only use five strings of miniature lights this year on our outside bushes. After all, what did we care that most of the houses on our block looked like a remake of National Lampon’s Christmas Vacation? We were going to be different. We were going to be minimalists this year.

For those who have a burning desire to test their patience during the Christmas season, I would recommend miniature (micro) lights be put on your list. Be sure to get those tiny, eco-friendly LED ones that cost an arm and leg at your nearest hardware store. And, be certain you purchase the ones that are advertised as the easy, low maintenance ones that are guaranteed to stay lit even through hundred-mile-an-hour winter winds.

We decided the easiest and most practical way to go about our task was to arrange some greens with white lights in our upright flower box that stands on the stoop, then drop two strands of colored lights on each of the two rhododendron bushes beside the door. What could be more simple and hassle-free? Five strands of lights total. Ten minutes flat to deck the bushes in magical colors. Fa la la la la! All done.

I should mention that my husband is the eternal optimist with a merry and bright sort of attitude during the Christmas season. His minimal holiday lighting effort looked terrific, understated and festive . . . for one night. Then a ten-light section on two of the colored strands, one on each bush for matching frustration, went out.

According to the package directions, this was not supposed to happen. However, I knew it was futile, on short notice, to try to locate the Chinese factory worker, Inspector-Packer Number RJ12, who was responsible for assuring eager buyers that the lights were in perfect working order. The toll-free number on the box was answered by a recording that put me on hold, playing Christmas music in my ear and finally winning the battle on who could be really be more tenacious and patient this holiday season. I caved and hung up.

However, the longer Scott and I pondered our lighting dilemma, the more plausible our conclusions became about why only ten consecutive lights on a parallel string no longer worked. I have to admit, I thought it was a result of the excessive rains we’d been having. My husband surmised some fuses in the two strands were blown.

So off came all the lights from the bushes. Minutes later, when Scott plugged them into the garage socket, he watched in amazement as all the strands lit up. “Ho, Ho, Ho!” he said cheerfully, “Christmas wishes do come true!” (Did I tell you he’s an eternal optimist?)

Actually, there was no logical explanation to this Christmas miracle except that taking them off had shaken the bulbs in their sockets. Thus, Scott made sure all bulbs were tightened and, with a jolly, “Let’s try it again,” he plodded off to the front of the house to return the lights to the bushes.

He had no soon arranged everything back on the rhododendrons, connected them to power, when all the strands magically lit up. . .then one dimmed and a ten-light section flickered and died. Again.

It safe to say that the particular string of lights is now residing in the depths of our  garbage can, replaced by a new one. After all, even the rhododendron bush was getting weary of being manhandled.

But I ask a favor of you. On your forays into the world of outdoor decorating, if you happen to run across the Inspector-Packer Number RJ12 of Brighter than Bright Lights, would you please let him know that I’d like a word with him?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bring Back Old B&W Television

There was a time when television gave the public innumerable hours of enjoyment even though every show was broadcast in black and white.

It was the Fifties, a time when children sat patiently in front of the t.v., watched a snowy test pattern, and anxiously waited for their favorite show on Saturday mornings to magically appear.

Early black and white television was a testament to the good old days, a unique time in history that will never be repeated, but always longed for. It was a simpler time where there was a right and a wrong, and there were no shady gray areas to confuse everyone. It was a time where the bad guys were caught and the good guys were the role models for children and adults alike. Marshall Dillon and Wyatt Earp never had to worry about a lawsuit if they pulled a gun to protect the innocent and apprehend the bad guys. 

I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners allowed people to laugh at themselves and learn that everyone’s family life wasn’t perfect. Bob Hope and Red Shelton believed that a joke could be hilarious. . .and clean enough to be told in front of children.  

Okay, so Timmy and Lassie were always in trouble, as was little Beaver Cleaver, but more often than not, it was while they were helping their friends or neighbors. Rin Tin Tin and Bullet had important jobs to do, and those jobs didn’t involve sniffing out drugs and contraband in schools, cars and airports. 

Finally, it was Chet Huntley and David Brinkley with the Huntley-Brinkley Report who brought news from around the world into American homes every evening. This was real news, not their opinions of the news. It was truly the “who, what, when, where and why” of television news broadcasting. Audiences watched and listened to them as they admitted that they might not have all of the story because it was still unfolding, but they’d get back with additional details. As anchormen, Chet and David kept their viewers up-to-date with only facts, and never insulted their audiences to interpret what had occurred in a newscast. People were allowed to reach their own conclusions.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to go back to relive those good old days when television was colorless and life was simple? When truth and honesty prevailed in black and white? When trust and honesty ruled the air waves? And where everything didn’t have to have a spin on it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why I Like Books: Paper and Hardback

You can be a Nook or Kindle fan, and tell me that the portability of having an e-reader while you travel is absolutely superb. You can tell me that Tom Clancey’s books are too bulky to tote around. You can tell me that printed books will become dinosaurs of the reading world. And I’ll believe you.

But I will also be the first one to admit that I love printed books. I love to feel a book, to open it, to browse through its pages. I like to flip it and read the back cover blurb. I like the smell of paper. I enjoy the touch of a slick, smooth-bound book and the texture of a cloth-bound one. I like to hear the thump of a book as it closes.

During the summer when I was a child, I couldn’t wait for the local Book Mobile to wind its way through the back country roads and deliver books for farm kids to enjoy. It was a treat. There was nothing better than reading a good book outdoors surrounded by sweet-smelling clover and cool breezes.

As an adult, it was fun to watch my two sons learn the pleasures of reading. They shuttled Judy Blume books, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Encyclopedia Brown books to restaurants, on trips, and in book bags back and forth to school. They passed them to friends and reread them when they made their journey back to our bookshelves. I hope that we never quit printing children’s and young adult books. It’s a sheer joy to sees a child’s face hidden between the pages of paper, instead of pressed to an electronic screen where a touch of a button can erase the image and words in a split second.

I have a friend who says the one disadvantage of e-readers is that you no longer can see what other people are reading—at the beach, the pool, in airports and other public places. She told me she used to enjoy checking out what strangers had selected, comparing it to her reading list, and many times, striking up a mutual conversation.

Why do I like paper and hardbacks? You can leave these books anywhere you please—beside your bed or near your favorite chair. When you’re finished reading them, you can abandon them for others to enjoy in airports, doctor’s offices and places where people gather. You can give them to organizations for resale, put them in reading rooms of condo units or hospitals, or store them on a shelf at a camp or cottage for a rainy day.

You can pass that exceptional book on to a friend, neighbor, or a disgruntled traveler sitting beside you. Ask anyone in the military, serving in remote areas, how much a book can help to relieve boredom and offer comfort. My neighbor and I swap books on a regular basis. It gives us time to chat with each other, and both of us pre-screen the “good reads” for each other, not wasting time on those we know the other person won’t enjoy.   

Someday, many years from now when everything is in cyberspace, I hope there are a few favorite books, gems of the printing press, lying in dusty attics for our great grandchildren to open and say, “Oh my goodness! Here’s an original. . .[add you favorite author’s name here.]”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Autumn in Pennsylvania

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came -
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.
~George Cooper, "October's Party"

The PA Central Mountain woodlands are adorned in exquisite finery for autumn's extravaganza this year. Like eager debutantes, the maples have donned gowns of crimson, gold and orange while the birch trees have stepped out in shades of yellows and light browns. As they stand beside their partners, the pine, hemlock, and spruce—proud protective escorts in shades of green—accentuate the flaming colors of the gowns.

Shhh! There is music in the woodlands. Listen to a band of bugling elk, the chatter of squirrels, the trilling of song sparrows in the bushes, and the rowdy cries of the crows. Watch as a warm autumn breeze ruffles the couples’ clothing and they bow and sway, dancing to these forest tunes. If you pause and wait patiently, the dancers will throw handfuls of leaves skyward like rainbow confetti, and they’ll swirl upward into the air and flutter softly earthward.

The magical extravaganza will continue for the next few weeks. Then like tired attendees of any event, the couples will end the occasion with a toast to the passing season. Everyone will head home to rest. The kaleidoscope of colors will dull and fade as the weary debutantes shed their apparel and toss them onto the forest floor in brittle heaps, which rustle under the feet of curious passersby.

But rest, even beneath white blankets of winter, is not endless. April has a duty to dress the woodlands again in delicate shades of lime green, just in time for the annual spring festival to begin.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why I Like Short Stories

Why do I like the short story? Even though it’s one of the most demanding writing forms because of its concentrated plot and characterization, it’s also one of the most personal and fun forms of writing.

Short stories allow the reader to meet a new character or characters, experience a situation, setting and conflict in a limited amount of words and reading time. Short stories allow the reader to get a glimpse into someone else’s world and often finish the entire encounter in one sitting. And if the story is an emotional, humorous or suspenseful one, the reader gets to cry, chuckle or cringe as an added bonus. What can be more fun than that?
Our lives are filled with short stories. Everyday we tell or hear a short story.  It can be a long harrowing story steeped with conflict or a short slice of life that depicts the everyday life of ordinary people. There’s the caring next -door neighbor who goes to the aid of a sick friend across town and gets a speeding ticket on the way home. Or the irksome elderly man in the check-out aisle (ahead of you, of course) who argues with the weary cashier over his expired coupons--and who finally decides to abandon half his items while the line grows longer and longer. . .and longer.

The difference between being a short story teller and a short story writer is just simply having the ability to put your story into a permanent written format that has a beginning, middle and end.

Many ideas for writing a short story start with an incident. It can be something you read, something you heard, something you’ve seen or something you’ve experienced. It can be a “What if” moment when you’re daydreaming. Obviously, every incident must be expanded into a story idea and encompass a few basic fundamentals of short story writing like plot and problem, setting, characters, time and theme. And like any fiction, characters and conflict drive the story in the short story.  

Unlike novels, short stories can be created in reasonable time frames that range from short shorts of 500 words to novelettes of 10,000. If I had to make a list of my favorite short story writers, the Grimm Brothers, Alice Munro, Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London would be on it. Who are your favorites?