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Clio's Temple


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Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Posted on November 10, 2018 at 10:34 AM Comments comments (119)
In the early days when he was managing the "Amazon' Mets," Casey Stengel reportedly said, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Looking at the avoidable problems which have surfaced with the midterm elections, that frustrated outburst makes sense to me.

Take my native state of Florida. In 2000, a poorly designed ballot may have been the straw the broke the electoral camel's back and helped place George W. Bush in the White House. The outcome, you will recall, was decided by the Supreme Court. Even taking that as an acceptable outcome, one would think that the elected leadership in the Sunshine State would have pushed through reforms to ensure that future elections didn't become needless fiascos. Apparently, not so. The ongoing joust over vote counting in the races for Senator and Governor makes it clear that it was a missed opportunity. In effect, the state has allowed each county to run elections in a semi-autonomous fashion. For statewide positions, this may not be a wise policy.

In the wake of 2000, Republican spokesmen reminded us that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, elects the President. Yet in a democratic republic, divergences between the EC and the popular vote should be rare exceptions. Consider 2004: John Kerry failed to carry Ohio by about 115,000 votes (if memory serves). If he had, he would've gotten the Buckeye State's electoral votes and would have become President, despite losing the popular vote by a much larger margin than George W. Bush did in 2000.

I haven't even gotten to Georgia, where five generations of my ancestors are buried. It is unacceptable for an elected official to (as Brian Kemp did) stay in a position where he could directly influence the rigor and honesty with which the election for governor was conducted. I don't know who the people of Georgia picked to lead their state over the next four years. I do know that this is not how it should be done.

In my years at the Savannah River Site, we operated under a management system known as "Conduct of Operations." One of the basic principles of "Conduct" is "Don't accept the unacceptable." In a deeply divided nation, the least we can do is to make certain that our conduct of elections does not accept the unacceptable.

That's my two cents' worth.

For All the Saints

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 1:49 PM Comments comments (6)
This is All Saints' Day, which is the day on which we Episcopalians traditionally sing "For All the Saints" (William W. How & Ralph Vaughn Williams) to commemorate those we love who are now gone from us.

I've loved this hymn since we used to sing it in the CHS Glee Club. It took on special meaning several years ago. In the weeks after a rash of deaths in our family, I sometimes sought out the Kings College Chapel Choir rendition of this hymn as I pondered the lives of my mother, two cousins, and several friends. The rendition to which I refer was on YouTube. The final image of this video, accompanying the words, "Alleluia, alleluia" gave me the words with which I close Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis.

We're now in the final countdown toward launch of my first novel. As I prepare to spring it on an unsuspecting world, I must admit that my expectations have changed. I once hoped Dr. Vangelis would become a great commercial success. For a time, I even had a path to making that happen. The path has changed and so have my hopes. It's now my hope that those who read the story will have the kind of epiphany which I experienced. That is, I hope it will help some people who wrestle with their own issues of loss to make sense of it all.

I will be offering readers a chance to get an early look at the Kindle e-book version of Dr. Vangelis, if they will agree to write a review on or Goodreads. Please e-mail me if you're interested in this opportunity. #drvangelis.

I celebrate those who live on in memory: Curt and Verna Gordy; Lee and Ethel Sheppard; Paul and Ann Gordy; Foncey and Blanche Lea; Leonard Gordy; Greg Booth; Travis Booth.

It isn't even past

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 7:33 AM Comments comments (3)
One of William Faulkner's more famous quotes was, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." This is an underlying theme of Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my first novel, which will be published next winter.

As I've noted in other posts, the protagonist is Dr. Lukas Vangelis, an elderly hospice physician. Weary from the burden of easing the passage of the dying into peaceful death, he begins to get messages that point him toward the approaching end of his mission. This brings no fear; most of the people he's loved in his life have already died.

What it does bring is an unwelcome imperative: dealing with his past. Lukas has never fully rid himself of the hurt he's given others, and which they've caused him. He considers himself a man of generous spirit, but the dark shadows in his past must be dispelled before he can find peace.

We all have similar demons that lurk in the crevices of our memory. I've known a few people in my life whose sunny dispositions seem to deny darkness any foothold. Yet, when I've gotten to know them better, I've usually found that, while they've shut the door on darkness, it's still lurking somewhere, ready to emerge and cause pain.

This isn't a confessional novel. I have no urge to unburden my own soul, except to note that, when I must acknowledge the reality of pain, I try to use such occasions as a way of banishing darkness, not just pushing it somewhere out of sight. I don't know, even today, how successful I've been. I believe that, when you get to know Lukas Vangelis better, you'll seen in him something that resonates in your own life.

Live long and learn to forgive.

Life at the intersections

Posted on September 26, 2018 at 2:19 PM Comments comments (9)
Some of life's most fascinating moments, and also some of its most excruciating dilemmas, are at the intersection of temptation and opportunity. I suspect most of us believe that suddenly obtaining great wealth, power, or fame might change the circumstances of our lives, but wouldn't change our character. I also suspect this may be a form of self-delusion.

Christian tradition lists seven deadly sins: Pride, Lust, Wrath, Envy, Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth. What I find interesting about this list is that, while all these sins are things to avoid, some are self-limiting. Gluttony (whether of food or drink) is limited by the body's ability to process what we eat or drink. Lust is limited by the body's ability to endure the exertion that sexual fulfillment requires. Sloth is limited by the body's inability to tolerate being in a constant state of idleness.

There are three non-natural temptations whose consequences aren't necessarily self-limiting. These are the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. Without being defamatory, I'll just cite one example. My father's family endured poverty in the Great Depression, as did many other American families. One result of this was, that when my parents married and launched their family, Dad drove himself relentlessly to keep the wolf of privation from our doorstep. Even after he was financially secure in retirement, he never stopped worrying about money. It became something of a joke. No matter how many times I told him, "Dad, stop worrying about how much money you're going to leave us. You and Mom need to spend it on yourselves," he refused to believe that he was rich enough.

Many of us, I think, believe that there is a positive correlation between great worldly attainments and strength of character. We profess to be shocked when someone who "has it all" is shown to have feet of clay. We also are certain that it would be different if we were in that person's shoes. But would it be different?

I'm thinking of shelving many novel-writing efforts for a while in favor of writing short stories about some of the conflicts that arise from living at the intersections. What do you think?

Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 10:36 AM Comments comments (0)
The title of this post comes, as many of you will recognize, from "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. I think it encapsulates something unsettling about the world I inhabit as a creative writer wannabe. I've previously posted about where I get my ideas from. What I've lately started thinking about is the dreamscapes that play a major role in my writing.

I will be 69 next week. As is the case with many others of the Baby Boom generation, many of our early perceptions were formed by television and movies. There have been cases in which these memories are so deeply embedded in my subconscious that they give birth to strange, sometimes discordant imagery which some have labeled "dreamscapes." Dreams and dreamscapes play a major role in my forthcoming novel Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis. The two protagonists (man, woman) both find themselves impelled by these visions to do things that wouldn't otherwise occur to them. These actions, in turn, drive the plot forward.

A dreamscape doesn't have to be so all-powerful. I sometimes think about writing about my early life. I grew up in a small town in the Deep South and there are things embedded in my mind that sometimes emerge in strange ways. Case in point: my maternal grandfather was a key figure in my early years. Some of the happiest memories I have are of sitting with him in his den watching television. He loved major league baseball and it was in front of the TV that I first pledged allegiance to the New York Yankees of the 1950s. He also loved "Gunsmoke," watching it faithfully in the fifteen years between its premiere and his death in 1970.

These memories re-emerged a few years ago one night. As my wife and I tossed and turned on our bed, sleeping the uneasy sleep of middle-aged couples, I suddenly found myself in the house where my family lived from 1955 to 1961. My wife (whom I didn't meet until 1978) and I were watching television when a knock came at the screen door on our front porch. I said, "Come in," and Granddaddy walked into the living room. "Granddaddy, this is my wife Ruth. Do you want to watch Gunsmoke with us?" The memory gets blurry after that, but I recall that he sat down and we watched the show together. Then he got up and walked back to his house (three doors down from us).

I keep hoping that someday, I'll get a creative idea that will enable me to turn this memory into an actual story. Do you have your own stories that combine reality and fantasy?

A poem, a song, a life of paradoxes

Posted on September 10, 2018 at 3:18 PM Comments comments (74)
Do you have a hidden desire for your life to be a fairytale? We might not admit it, but we do sometimes yearn for fairytale outcomes in life. We remember those favorite fairytales where all came right in the end, even after heartbreak. By the time we reach middle age, we've learned that fairytales are rare things. Sometimes heartbreak happens and there's no compensation for it and no one to blame. We learn to accept life and go on. In the face of hard realities, how can we explain to others and ourselves the meaning of life?

Every life needs a song or a poem. Songwriters and poets are gifted at making even the deepest hurt seem beautiful. Maybe we think that songs and poems are for the rich and famous, not for the average person. We content ourselves with a slogan or a pithy phrase that expresses what life's about. But it is our very humanity, or mortality that writes the words of our own songs.

My father, a pilot in World War II, always loved the poem "High Flight." In the last twenty years of his life, a framed copy of this poem hung on the wall of his bedroom. He was also a romantic at heart, despite the hard times of his youth and young adulthood. When my mother was no longer able to care for herself, he picked up that burden, often serenading her with, "Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?" The idea that a successful businessman and community leader could be at once a realist and a romantic seems paradoxical. But part of what makes a life successful is the ability to live with paradoxes.

I'm currently doing research for Meredith's Song, the working title of a book about Meredith Legg Stapleton (1987-2014), a young woman whose short life seemed to have elements of poem, song, but also paradox, packed into little more than a quarter-century of walking this earth. A tough competitor in athletics, she was also a loving wife, daughter, sister, and friend. At a moment of triumph, she entered into a battle with cancer. The last five years of her life wrote a tale of faith and courage that still illuminates our world.

I'm targeting release of Meredith's Song for early-to mid-2020.

Light under a Bushel

Posted on August 27, 2018 at 2:52 PM Comments comments (1534)
This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a professional colleague, a man for whom I developed a great personal respect during the years we worked in the same department. After I left the Savannah River Site in 2007, I didn't see him for years afterwards. When I encountered him at a restaurant  in 2013, we chatted as naturally as if we'd encountered each other in the hallway at work.

It was a rude shock to pick up the Sunday newspaper on a recent Sunday morning and see this man's obituary. He was seventy-three, no longer young, but no an old man as we understand that term nowadays.

I already knew that he was trained as a professional soldier, a West Point graduate in the fabled Class of 1966 (h/t: Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line). He did two tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam. Arguably, though, his greatest gifts were as a servant and teacher. Good teachers are, above all else, good servants. My mother was one and I can recognize the characteristics of those who successfully blend both roles.

The associate pastor of the church where the service was held gave a lengthy meditation on how his life embodied the principles of servanthood. But it was the eulogies by his daughter and son that pulled back the curtain on the man's deepest beliefs and actions. The word that kept popping into my mind was "integrity," i.e., wholeness, a personal character in which all the pieces fit together. He was of a piece, whether showing a North Vietnamese prisoner how to eat with a fork, or memorizing a lengthy lecture in Spanish to be delivered to a group of Latin American officers in Panama.

His family hosted a reception at the Rye Patch, one of the historic Winter Colony homes in Aiken. I made my way through a throng of other mourners to speak to his wife and children. When I introduced myself to his daughter, I said, "Your dad was the epitome of 'an officer and a gentleman.' But I can see one fault with him: He hid his light under a bushel.

She smilingly disagreed with me, reminding me that to serve others was her father's way of living up to the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country." He just didn't want to be singled out for praise for living his life in accordancee with his values.

No one could have a better epitaph.

In memoriam, Lt. Col. (Ret.) John M. Jenkins, Sr., 1944-2018

The uses of pain

Posted on July 17, 2018 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (27)
Pain is a bad thing. That's what most of us believe, and most of the time we're right. Whether it's the dull nagging of a chronic ailment or the stab of a sudden shock, pain puts us off our game, becomes the center of attention, and wears out its welcome very quickly.

This is not to say that pain has no uses. Some pains clue us in that something is wrong with our bodies or our minds. That's not the point. I've found that one use of pain is to focus our attentions on things we can't see when all is right with the world.

Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis took shape from such pain. Specifically, from the loss of three much-loved family members in early 2014, all within the space of three weeks. When my mind was clear enough of the immediate distress from those deaths, it began to zero in on the question: How do we handle it when the worst news becomes a reality? How do we handle the betrayal of our hopes? How do we go forward when our emotions tell us to run away, to do something that will make the pain stop?

In 1999, my wife was seriously injured in a head-on collision less than five miles from our house. For a couple of hours, I didn't know whether she was alive or dead. After the relief of knowing that she survived the crash, a new reality hit me in the face: things would never be the same. The consequences for her have been drastic. She lives every day with pain. It will be that way for the rest of her life.

It would, of course, have been much worse if she had died. Death is a condition that permits no improvement. The dead have no pain, if that's any consolation. We often console ourselves with the knowledge that "at least she's not in pain any longer." That is cold comfort for an empty bed where a loved one slept, an empty chair, an empty seat at the table.

The real paradox of pain is that, without it, we would never know the emptiness that would come from a life without it. Like work and love, perhaps pain is the price we pay for being fully functioning human beings. That's the closest thing to an answer I can come up with.

Ready (almost) for launch

Posted on July 7, 2018 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (6)
My long-delayed novel, Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, has now completed a professional edit and is ready to move ahead through the next steps of the publication process. This is my second completed novel, but the first to be at an advanced stage of readiness for publication.

My thanks go out to the members of the Assassins Guild who critiqued the entire manuscript: Mary Beth Gibson, Sasscer Hill, and Bettie Williams. Additional thanks go to Ronald Nelson and Evelyn Beck, who served as beta readers, and Meredith Hawcroft, who did the now-completed edit of the manuscript.

Dr. Vangelis poses the question, "In a world of pain, who heals the healer?" The protagonist is Dr. Lukas Vangelis, a man worn down by the burdens of being a hospice physician. To outward appearances, he's a man of admirable strength and compassion, but one disturbed by memories of his past sins. His niece, Diana Karras, who is his indispensable support in his mission, bears her own burden of pain and hostility toward those who've hurt her over the years.

Lukas, a man of vision, has lately been unsettled by visions of those long dead. When he has a chance encounter with two fellow World War II veterans, he receives a new message: these men will point him to the path that will bring him at last to the rest he so desperately needs. His struggles to find the path, and "the one who is to follow" him, form the skeleton of the story.

I hope to have Dr. Vangelis on the market next spring. Further tantalizing details will soon follow.

"Rainy Day People"

Posted on May 17, 2018 at 3:29 PM Comments comments (7)
Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song some years back called "Rainy Day People." It was about those people who "always seem to know when it's time to call." Perhaps you've been fortunate and you've had one or more of these folks in your life. If you have, you know how they can make a rainy day seem less dreary.

Or perhaps you've never known anyone like this. Currently, our nation seems to be in the grip of raging furies, with charges and counter-charges flying like artillery shells in a World War I barrage. I suspect that many of us who cringe at this state of affairs may have a little Schadenfreude at seeing pompous or pious people laid low by their own failings. I have to confess I'm a bit like this myself. Still, too much excitement is a bad thing.

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Peter Yarrow, for many of us, a bard from our youthful days. He spoke of how he wanted to see a nation where people listened before talking, where citizens resist making unsupported accusations, where we learn to agree or disagree, but always with respect for the other person. I haven't heard any reports from this commendable initiative. I fear it's suffered the fate of many peacemaking ideas, blown away by a blast of high-explosive indignation or self-righteousness.

As I get later and later into my late 60s, I wonder what kind of nation we are leaving to the generations that will succeed us. I'm now a great-uncle (thanks, Casey and Shaunna!) and I don't want little Collins Montgomery Cook to remember me as an angry old fart. I may not be able to get very far, but I want to live out my life as a rainy day person.