Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Musing on My Muse

Often on a Thursday afternoon as I leave the writing class, my muse is waiting. She will be sitting in the car; her eyes beguiling; her smile alluring; her attire revealing. I slide in behind the steering wheel, and she leans toward me and nibbles on my ear.

"How's that big stud writer of mine?" she says.

"Come on," I say. "I'm not much of a writer."

"But you are a stud."

Modesty, one of my many, many admirable qualities, prevents me from saying, "Well, that's true." But as an honest man, I cannot deny it, and so remain silent.

"What's your assignment this week?"

I tell her. She moves closer to me; she's almost sitting on my lap as she fills my mind with ideas. The excitement is unbearable. I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road as she seduces me with inspiration.

Once I get home, I rush to the computer, and within an hour the completed assignment appears before me. I spend the rest of the week culling excess words, comma faults and lapses into the passive voice, without ever getting them all.

When my muse doesn't me meet in the car, she slinks into my writing room in the morning. She stands in the corner and watches as I struggle to make a sentence into a scene, a paragraph into a story, or a silly rhyme into doggerel.

Eventually, she comes and sits by me. She is more sensuous, less hurried when we are home. She doesn't smother me in ideas; there is none of the torrid frenzy we experience in the car. My muse looks at the few words I've written. She lightly runs her fingers over my neck, kisses the age spot on my cheek and tells me how macho I look. Then she whispers a word or a sentence or suggests a way to rework the little I've written. She nuzzles my cheek again and musses my hair before offering another well-chosen word or wise observation. And so it goes, hour after hour, a crescendo of creative ecstasy.

My muse wasn't in the car last Thursday. So I sat at my computer Friday and waited for her; she didn't show up. And she didn't drop by Saturday or Sunday. By Monday afternoon, my concern had turned to despair. That night, I saw her in the bar where I had gone to find an idea in a bottle. She was sitting on the lap of a well-tanned fellow, who was half my age and looked like he had spent the afternoon surfing.

Occasionally, my muse would take her lusting eyes off Mr. Laguna Beach, or whatever his name was, and look around the room. I waved a couple times, but she didn't acknowledge me. I phoned my muse Tuesday morning. She didn't answer - she was probably slinking around Mr. Chiseled Features' writing room - but I left a message. I told her I needed her and that I would forgive her if she would only dump Mr. Wide Toothy Grin and slink back into my life. She never called.

Sad, dispirited and desperate, I registered with an on-line muse-matching service and I think I found the perfect muse. I'm sure we are soul mates. Unfortunately, we met too late to work on this week's assignments.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mornings in Retirement

Wonderword, a word search puzzle, is a daily feature in the Plain Dealer that I got hooked on after I stopped working. The theme of Monday's puzzle was "waste time." Now, I waste time, way too much time, each day on the puzzle pages of the Plain Dealer and the Star Beacon, but the most thoroughly wasted of all that wasted time is the half hour wasted on Wonderword.

In a shamefully self-serving oversight, David Ouellet, the puzzle's constructor, failed to include "word search" and "wonderword" among the three dozen or so time-wasting words solvers were expected to find, Monday. To make matters worse, he listed "read" and "write" among the horde of bona fide life-squandering activities.

Well, let me tell you Mr. "The left over letters spell the Wonderword" Ouellet, the constructive hours of my day, if there are any, are spent reading and writing. And about a year ago I used a couple of those hours to construct a sestina lambasting word searches and other newspaper diversions, but mostly word searches.

Mornings in Retirement

The old routine took but minutes of my morning.
The papers were there, and I turned to the crossword
to get my puzzle fix. But then came Sudoku;
it had my number, and I found time for Jumble,
and then it was on to Celebrity Cipher,
which lead to a stubborn addiction to Word Search.

I'm pretty sure it's not a good sign, doing Word Search.
Better I should read and write more in the morning;
instead, I decipher Celebrity Cipher.
But first I finish the crossword,
and have more coffee, causing my nerves to jumble,
distorting the logic I need for Sudoku.

I get so perplexed as I work on Sudoku
and get stymied and give up and flee to Word Search,
which I can always solve. It's easier the Jumble,
not a challenge, even early in the morning,
unlike the ever so tough Saturday crossword,
and never witty like Celebrity Cipher.

It can be baffling, that Celebrity Cipher,
although it's never as humbling as Sudoku
and isn't nearly as much fun as the crossword.
But it takes a dull sort to do Word Search.
Yes, I'm a dull sort and not sharp in the morning,
which also explains why you'll find me doing Jumble,

those weird anagrams of words all in a jumble
and decoding words in Celebrity Cipher.
And so I use the precious moments of morning
finagling numbers to finish Sudoku
before I throw it aside and go to Word Search.
I really should stop when I'm done with the crossword,

but I go on without uttering a cross word,
and don't even think as I go and do Jumble
and let some power drag me into Word Search.
Are my wits sharpened by Celebrity Cipher?
Does my thinking improve when I do Sudoku?
Do these exercise my brain or waste my morning?

I do the crossword and Celebrity Cipher,
fumble with Jumble and fight too with Sudoku,
and finish my morning in a mindless word search.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What's in a Name?

My mother's maiden name was Ziegenhein. It is a good name, but one I never learned to spell, which wasn't entirely the result of my innate laziness. I didn't learn to spell it because I didn't need to. All the Ziegenheins in my life were former Ziegenhiens. Mom's father, Edwin Ziegenhien, died while Mom was still in high school. Grandma remarried around the time I was born, and her name became the orthographically less challenging Krahl. Aunt Jean, Mom's older sister and only sibling, married Mr. Turner.

If I met any Ziegenheins along the way it was when I was quite young. I can remember a few visits with Mom's aunts and uncles. They all looked to be older than Methuselah, and they occasionally conversed in German. But I think they were Bieswingers. Bieswinger was Grandma's maiden name, and she took great delight in telling people her full name was Hildegard Caroline Bieswinger Ziegenhein Krahl.

Whether or not I've spelled Bieswinger correctly is another question. Grandma surely turned over in her grave when I did a computer search of the name. Google found 333 matches, but at the top of the page it asked, "Did you mean to search for bi swinger?"

Until the other day, my inability to spell Ziegenhein had not been a problem. If for some reason I was asked on a form for my mother's maiden name, I spelled Ziegenhein according to my whim at the moment and figured that was good enough. But in cyberspace there are websites that require a password to get on and often ask for your mother's maiden name in order to occasionally quiz you to see if someone else is trying to log on to your account. That creates two problems for me. First, I have to remember the password. But, frequently I don't and have to jump through security hoops in order to get another password to forget. Usually that process begins with the computer asking me for my mother's maiden name. Because I never spell Ziegenhein the same way twice, and the computer expects me to spell it the same way every time, I cheat. Besides Harris, I have two other perfectly good last names in my name: Thomas and Russell. I use them as my mother's maiden name sometimes. And there are such easy-to-spell names as Casey, Jones, Black, Smith, Stone, Mason and Dixon I've used them all and a half dozen others. Of course, being able to spell a name and remembering which name I should be spelling are two different things. The Internet is brimming with websites I can no longer access because I've forgotten my password and my mother's maiden name on the day I first logged on.

But the real trouble came Friday when I decided to find out about my Social Security account. It was so easy: a click of the mouse here, a click there and I got on the Social Security website and was presented with a form to complete. "Where's the challenge?" I thought. I know my name, my address, my birthday, my place of birth and my Social Security number. Why I even took a minute to double check everything on the form. Then, poised to go on, I scrolled down to find the button marked "Continue." A split second before I got there, however, a box saying "Mother's maiden name" appeared. I was tempted to type in "Jennings." But, would the government ask for my mother's maiden name if it didn't already know it? And what if in trying to be honest I mangled the spelling of Ziegenhein? Would the government conclude I was a dangerous international terrorist?

Opting to be safe rather than sorry, I e-mailed my siblings, explaining the situation and asking for assistance. None of them was certain about the spelling, but Barbara was pretty sure "Ziegenhein" was correct - unless it wasn't. Not willing to take a chance with the government, I googled "Edwin Earl Ziegenhein." That led me to, where I learned that Edwin E. and Hilda C. Ziegenhein of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, had been counted in the 1930 census. Now confident that I had all the necessary information, I logged on to the Social Security site and went looking for my account. And I found it.

Learning to spell Ziegenhein turned out to be the easy part. The real challenge is trying to decipher the bureaucratic prose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sunday Evening

Like a dusty, ill-lit room, Sunday was drab. The sky wasn't dark, angry and ominous; it was merely gray, dull and lifeless. Mother Nature at her most uninspiring.

But late in the afternoon, the clouds moved on and sunshine filled the void. The subdued tones of the overcast day turned dazzling and bright. Cuddles, our cat, awoke from her daylong nap and gave herself over to her predatory instincts. Crouched on the floor she stared, waiting for a circle of reflected sunlight to dance across the wall. When one did, she gave chase, sometimes pouncing on it but never capturing it.

Across the street, Patty came out to protect her sidewalk from the encroaching lawn. She sat on the ground and used a small spade to remove the offending vegetation, which she then dropped into a large paper sack. Finished one spot, she got up, took a few steps down the walk, sat down again and trimmed some more.

A young family walked by. The father, in a gray sweatshirt, denim shorts and a baseball cap, pushed their child in a stroller. The mother's black exercise outfit matched the frames of her glasses, and her blond hair was in a bun; a cool librarian about to set out on a five-mile run, except she was tethered to a fluffy, dainty, white-and-brown, dog with lots of swank.

A boy, a second-grader maybe, went down the street on his bicycle. He wore a T-shirt. Even with the sun, the air was cool, but the boy had his youth to keep him warm. And he was so very careful on his bike. Perhaps he sensed his parents were watching.

John and Sandy, our next-door neighbors, took their nightly walk around the block. And a few minutes later, a well-preserved forty-five-year-old convertible cruised the street. The engine was loud, the music was louder and the sun reflecting off the waxed hood was blinding.

The shadows lengthened and daylight faded, but not before a glorious golden glow filled the sky.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Start the Music

Whatever happened to elevator music? It seems to have become extinct, at least in public places, which is where elevator music performed its greatest service.

Sure, the music was as bland as warmed over Cream of Wheat, as insipid as a Nicholas Sparks’ novel, but that was its great strength. Elevator music could be ignored. It was easy to ignore. Like one of those nettlesome tasks that you really ought to do, but which no one will notice if you don’t, it begged to be ignored.

Elevator music was the accompaniment to the unpleasant but necessary. Exposure usually came when you were somewhere you didn’t want to be – a waiting room, for example, biding your time until the nurse announced that the proctologist would see you.

Hugo Winterhalter, Andre Kostelanetz, Lawrence Welk, Enoch Light, Nelson Riddle and the rest were ideal waiting-room companions. If you wanted to read, or solve a crossword puzzle or share your medical history and all its nauseating details with the stranger next to you, they didn’t interfere. And if you wanted to sleep, elevator music was a terrific soporific.

If there was a problem with elevator music, it was possibility that you might be vaguely familiar with the lyrics to one of those meandering melodies. Then those few words, that phrase, that snippet of schmaltz would linger in your head. The mind wanted to sing, but the only words it knew were “baubles and bangles and beads,” or “shall we dance, bum ba bum,” or “across a crowded room,” or “I’m crossing you in…a boat?” or “mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy…whatever.”

It was frustrating. The words refused to leave and all the things you were supposed to remember disappeared in the confusion. Still, a dose of something stronger, say, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” was usually sufficient to send the bothersome lyrics packing.

Sadly, elevator music has been banished from most waiting rooms and replaced with televisions permanently tuned to one or the other 24-hour news stations. Regardless of their politics, all news networks have one thing in common: announcers with loud, screeching, grating, nasally unpleasant voices. And to add to the dissonance, the announcers are apparently required to talk fast; perhaps they’re paid by the word.

It’s nigh on impossible to read, or carry on a conversation or nod off for a moment when the waiting room is filled with the frenzied, jarring, ear-piercing yammering of people whose job it is to convince us that the end is near – right after this commercial break. Stay tuned or miss the apocalypse.

To make matters worse, all these news people, with their degrees in English or journalism or communications from America’s great universities, are incapable of asking a simple question. Five minutes of dissonant speed talking produces a disjointed and convoluted query that might have a point to it – somewhere.

Then the guest says, “Well, Sharon, I think…”

Only to have the newscaster interrupt: “I’m sorry, Senator, but we’re out of time. Thank you for dropping by.”

Then the nurse calls you, and the doctor takes your blood pressure.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Letter, Heaven Sent

Dear Russ and Beth, my dear children,

The trouble with Heaven, it turns out, is that the place is so darn heavenly. I'm not sure what I expected, besides not expecting to be here. That's not to say I was disappointed when Saint Peter shook my hand and welcomed me to eternity. And I certainly wasn't going to ask how he and the admissions committee arrived at their decision, lest a second look result in Pete taking a cue from NFL officials and announcing, "Upon further review..."

But now that I'm here, I'm beginning to wonder why anyone would want to come here for an extended stay, let alone forever. The truth is, as a place to spend eternity, Heaven ain't so hot - no pun intended. Perfection is overrated. I'm OK with being perfect. But what good is perfection when everyone around you is perfect? When I walked among the mortals, if a man casually mentioned that he had correctly answered every question on the SAT, I would be grudgingly impressed and, at the same time, tremendously proud of myself, knowing that if I had accomplished the same thing, which I didn't, I would not brag and go about feeling superior. OK, I'd feel superior, but I'd keep it to myself as long as the person I was talking with wasn't getting snooty. Well, maybe I would have bragged. But not that much, hardly more than just a little, I'm sure.

There are no SATs in Heaven, but if there were, everyone would get a perfect score. What fun is that? Pretend you're at a bar up here and after a few drinks you say, "Hey, did I ever tell you guys I got a perfect score on the SATs?" Nobody would say, "Wow!' or "Yeah right," or "No kidding," or You're full of it." All you would hear is a chorus of "Me too," "Welcome to the club," "Big deal," and "Doesn't everyone?" This isn't a place where you can feel good about yourself by reminding others that you are better than they are at this or that. And what's the advantage of being great at something if everyone else is great at it?

And nobody plays games here. That's not a figure of speech; it's the truth (I was going to say "literal truth," but Heaven is a redundancy-free zone, so, on the plus side, there are very few sportscasters and even fewer TV news reporters here.) No one has to fret about going to work, or paying the bills, or his spouse cheating on him, or his teenage son impregnating the girl next door. The people here have very little to do and forever to do it. You would think they'd spent their idle hours playing cards, or Monopoly, or shooting hoops, or racing cars or something. But they don't. I guess it makes sense. Take baseball: How can you have a baseball game when the pitcher always pitches a perfect game and every batter bats 1.000? It's impossible.

Heaven is full of beautiful parks where people stroll or sit on benches, and there are many, many little cafes where people go and have coffee or tea. Strangely, you seldom hear people conversing in those places, or anywhere else, for that matter. Please don't think that the garrulous are barred from Heaven. I've run into a few old acquaintances who were regular Chatty Cathys on Earth. The trouble is, in Heaven there isn't much to talk about. You can't talk about your misfortunes, because you don't have any. And you can't talk about other people's misfortunes for the same reason. And, as I mentioned before, there is no joy in bragging about your accomplishments, because anything you can do everybody else can do just as well.

And that isn't the worst of it. In Heaven you never have those wonderful conversations where you sit around with friends and talk about someone who isn't there in a delightfully mean-spirited, condescending, gossipy sort of way. Nothing in the Rules of Conduct prohibits those conversations, but no one here ever does anything gossip worthy. And even if they did, the people here are so damned understanding and forgiving that they would never be snide, spiteful or malicious. On Earth, a person who never has an unkind word to say about anyone is a pleasant but boring anomaly. Up here, the catty remark does not exist, and conversations quickly become sleep inducing and tedious. Boring as hell, so to speak.

Well, that's it for now. Perhaps by next time I'll have stopped whining about having nothing to whine about.

All my love,

Friday, June 3, 2011

In Politics

We must remember, with innuendo
the speaker is apt to be indiscreet,
while being boring, dull and incessant.
That is so true. With his thoughts still inchoate,
the politician spews inconclusive
facts, and his lying is inveterate.

The world's best liars are inveterate
ones, and they rely on innuendo
to appear wise, sage - not inconclusive.
The real secret is to be indiscreet,
leaving the truth temptingly inchoate
in a haze of chatter quite incessant.

Politicians are great at incessant
yammering, and they are inveterate
promoters of slick ideas, inchoate
policies, and fans of innuendo
that makes their opponents look indiscreet.
They don't want to appear inconclusive

while all the while being inconclusive,
just firing away with an incessant
attack, and denying they've been indiscreet,
which they have been more than once; inveterate
philanderers hawking innuendo,
pretending their ideas aren't inchoate.

But all their ideas must be inchoate,
so they seem frank while being inconclusive.
Why talk ideas? Isn't innuendo
more effective? And a long, incessant
speech about that evil, inveterate
crook - the opponent - is quite indiscreet.

You ask: What's wrong with being indiscreet?
It beats rambling on about inchoate
ideas. And the old pol's inveterate
lying disguises his inconclusive
conclusions in a rant of incessant
charges, half truths, lies and innuendo.

The lies, inveterate and indiscreet,
all the innuendo and inchoate
sham - too inconclusive, too incessant.

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

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