Common knowledge? Not so much.

A post called ‘A Bite-Sized Memoir’ by the talented blogger Noelle Granger over at SaylingAway talks about her mother being good with her hands. That got me to thinking, which can be a dangerous thing (‘step awayyyy from the brain, step awayyyy from the brain’) but stick with me for a minute.

‘Common knowledge’ tells us that men are the ones who are handy. My own experience has shown me that this is not fair to the fairer sex. My own mother was good with her hands, did all kinds of sewing, made toys for us, and when she was cutting the kernels off the cob of sweet corn to make creamed corn it was like watching a machine. I tried to imitate her and came close to slicing my fingers off. This is not to take anything away from my dad, who was a minor genius at building stuff, but women too are good at using their hands.

Example 1: I worked at a shipyard, in years past, as a mechanical engineer. The yard built Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) carriers, which is a very particular type of ship. LNG is shipped cryogenically; the gas is cooled until it is a liquid. To contain this, the ship is made into a giant Styrofoam cooler. Ok, they don’t use Styrofoam, they use balsa wood and task specific insulation products, but basically that’s what it is. To seal the cryogenic liquid in place there is a corrugated stainless steel liner installed inside the insulated box. This liner is thin and welding the sections together must be done by hand and is a very delicate task. The yard had to establish a specific welding school to do this type of welding and guess what they found? In general, women were better at this type of welding than men. It was delicate, fine motor skill work and overall the gals just left the guys in the dust.

Example 2: Rosie the Riveter. Both in WWI and WWII, women were called upon to fill the trades in industry because the men were being called upon to fight. In both conflicts women performed admirably, doing all the jobs that the men did from welding to plumbing to running metal lathes. And while we’re talking about contributions to war efforts, women also performed well as delivery pilots for aircraft; they flew them from the factories to the airfields and sometimes even overseas. Consider that usually pilots must be certified to fly individual types of aircraft before they are allowed to solo on their own. These women pilots were flying everything from observation aircraft to fighters to four engine bombers day after day. Exceptional people all.

Example 3: Mama Wright. Not widely known is that fact that the Wright brothers got their mechanical expertise from their mother. Their father was an Anglican bishop, a scholar, knew several languages, but was a complete dud when it came to using his hands. She was the one that taught them how to use tools and encouraged them to experiment and design things for themselves.

I’m sure everyone can think of their own examples, these are the ones that just came easily to mind for me. Pardon me please for getting up on my soapbox, but I just see ‘common knowledge’ as giving short shrift to gals in this. So the next time someone spouts off ‘common knowledge’, remember the song from Porgy and Bess, ‘It ‘taint necessarily so.’

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Confidence, or how much gumption do you have in your tank?

Let me begin by saying I am a deeply flawed individual and I carry a rock.

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It is a sedimentary rock, solid gray except for a slash through the center, a layer of white separating one side from the other, plucked from the shore of Lac Leman in Switzerland.

I carry it as a metaphor, to remind me that I am separated from an essential part of myself, the part that should be propelling me to achieve. That part is self-confidence, self-value, the knowledge that one is worthy. I carry the rock as reminder I must work to bridge that divide.

Self-confidence or lack thereof determines to a great extent whether our visions of accomplishment are realized. We must protect our dreams, we must have faith in ourselves if we are to accomplish anything. Faith in oneself and confidence go hand in hand, if not indeed they are the same thing, wrapped up in a bag called gumption. But that gumption bag has holes in it, making it a variable quantity. Sun Tzu in his classic ‘The Art of War’ called it ‘momentum’ and also said that without momentum even the brave become timid and with momentum even the timid become brave.

One side note: Remember this is within the realm of reality and outside that realm is delusion. On either end of the reality scale, some think they can fly without benefit of aircraft, others think they will die if they set one foot outside the house. Both are delusional. What is the difference between dream and delusion? Dreams are actually achievable. Delusions are not. If a guy four feet tall proclaims he will be a professional basketball player, he is clearly delusional. Custer thought he could take on all the Native Americans in the world. He was delusional. He was also an idiot.

Please pardon these absurd broad-brush stroke examples to illustrate the point, but within the bounds of reality the gumption level is often not so clear, and whether we have sufficient gas in our tank to carry us through often determines whether our dreams are realized.

I habitually drift toward the lower end of the scale, my tank no more than a quarter full. I’ve made too many mistakes. The thing is that faith in yourself is a difficult quantity to acquire if you don’t already have it. In order to have faith in yourself you must trust yourself. And trust is the ability to predict behavior based on experience. Let me repeat that. Trust is the ability to predict behavior based on experience. You do not trust the used-car salesperson you’ve never met because you have no experience with them, but you do trust the family member (blood relative or not) who has proven time and again they’ve got your back.

So how to acquire faith in yourself, how to trust yourself?

I’ll tell you what’s worked for me.  

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Begin by doing things you know you can do. If you dream of building a large sailboat but do not have the confidence, build a little dinghy first. If you don’t have the confidence to do that, build a model. That’s how I began my boat, with a model. The material for a model doesn’t cost much and if it doesn’t turn out you can always consign it to the flames and no one will ever know, but I knew if I could build the model, then I could build the real thing if I did it the same way.

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It doesn’t matter the field of endeavor – cooking, writing, painting, sculpture, woodworking, music, photography, whatever you choose – start at the point where you can say to yourself ‘I can do that.’ Start there. Do that. Then do that again, with something a little more complicated. Bear in mind that all great tasks are made up of lots of little tasks. Eat that apple one bite at a time.

To go back to the boatbuilding analogy, you don’t build a boat all in one go, it’s a bunch of small tasks, of drilling a hole, then driving a screw into it, sawing a board. Small tasks, which when you look at them individually you can say ‘I can do that.’ Then after you’ve done that task, admire yourself for a moment. Say to yourself, ‘I did that.’ Enjoy it. Enjoy each small accomplishment. Then move on to the next slightly more complex ‘I can do that.’ Accomplish that. Enjoy it. Admire self. Repeat. Keep repeating until you have the experience to trust yourself and go forward.

Bear in mind that not all will be success. This is normal. MIT professor Harold Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe flash maintained that most of his experiments did not work, but he was unconcerned because it didn’t matter. Those experiments were the ones he learned from. So when some task doesn’t turn out, don’t worry because progress is not always smooth. Drop back to the simpler ‘I can do that’ and start again. That is one way to silence the internal critic. To borrow from Theodore Roosevelt, it is not the critic that counts, it is the person in the arena who counts. That goes double for the critic inside. Whether the inside voice is old parental tapes saying you’re delusional for wanting to pursue your art or memories of the infinite cruelty of children on the playground, the critic does not count. The person who counts is you, the person in the arena, tired, sweaty and bloody, striving for something greater.

So make a start. Write that sentence one word at a time, write the paragraph one sentence at a time, the chapter one paragraph at a time, your book one chapter at a time, each step building a section of bridge between your self-confidence and yourself, across that white band in your own rock that keeps you from accomplishment. Then smile, admire yourself, enjoy, and sail on.

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Blog Hop, this is new to me too

Though my blog here has been online for a while now, I’m still relatively new at the idea of blogging with any regularity. This I am attempting to remedy. Initially I began my blog just to fling my scribblings out into the infinite void in the hopes that somewhere reader’s eyes would pass over them. Little did I know that there is a world of friends and potential friends out there in the blogsphere (is that a word?). To that end, to lead this sometimes social inept to dip a toe into this wide blog world, a dear friend of mine Noelle Granger at Saylingaway (http://saylingaway.wordpress.com) sent me these blog hop questions. Silly me, I didn’t know what a blog hop was, and quickly learned that it is a short list of questions you answer and then send on to other bloggers as well. Sort of a truth and dare game, as in ‘I dare you to tell the truth about yourself.’ My initial thought was that of Mark Twain, i.e. that ‘Truth is the most precious thing we have so let us economize it.’ But in respect to Noelle, I hereby ignore Twain and answer the questions with truth … mainly.

1. What am I working on at the moment?

I am working on a number of things (my brain being one of the more chaotic places in the universe crammed full of more things than I can keep up with) but the primary project is a new book. This is not a follow up of The Fir Fish Flea and Beagle Club, though I am playing with the idea of a couple of prequel novellas based upon both Cyrus Connor and Sabastian. The present work is a romantic comedic mystery set in a coastal town of North Carolina involving a veteran assault correspondent returned from WWII, a delightful gal he’s desperately trying to avoid falling in love with (to no avail) and her magical Great Dane. I do plan for this work to be somewhat shorter than Beagle Club and hence more marketable, but also lighter in tone and more of a spirit of fun. Stay tuned for possible postings here to test the waters.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Beagle Club is multi-genre, both adult and young adult literary period fiction and addresses something I believe not specifically addressed before, that of young men going from the world of their mothers into the world of their fathers. It is coming of age, of finding out not only just how strong you are, but of what you will do or not do, of knowing where your internal boundaries are, what your values are and why and what love means. This is not to say it’s a heavy tome filled with philosophy, for it is told in accessible language, it’s a quick read and has light-hearted moments, but it is a serious work.

3. Why do I write what I do?

There is no easy answer to that. The characters appear in my head and move around and talk of their own volition. I find that when I try to move the chess pieces around my characters rebel by not talking to me. I have to let them walk and talk the way they want to or they don’t come out and play. My short stories have gone all over the place, from literary flash fiction published in Litsnack to The Fur, Fish, Flea and Beagle Club, to LBGT fiction published in literary collections of the Geneva Writers’ Group and The Main Street Rag. My mind is a mystery even to me, hell, especially to me.

4. How does my writing process work?

There’s no easy answer to this one either, other than to say I have to strike a balance between outlining and letting the characters do what they want. There was an old writing buddy of mine who wrote so clean he had trouble filling in any details at all; he’d come up with all sorts of plot structure but needed help filling in characters so they wouldn’t be cardboard stick figures. I’m exactly the opposite. I have a tangled garden that is just filled to the brim with details, characters, situations galore. My process is to lean back with a legal pad and fountain pen, watch the movie in my head and just write everything I see and hear. The hard part comes when I have to prune away what is unnecessary. Do I really need to tell the reader that Little Jonnie’s shoelaces are bright orange? Only if it’s germaine to the story and illustrates his relationship with his girlfriend who insists that something that they wear must match and that is the least obvious thing he can do so his friends don’t make fun of him. There must be a reason a detail is left in and in the process of sifting is where you decide what story it is you want to tell. The old adage says that the devil is in the details, but so are the angels of magic.

 

I’m sending this blog hop to a couple of wonderful folks whose writing I admire:

Elizabeth Hein, at scribblinginthestorageroom.wordpress.com

Marcus Ferrar, at mferrar.wordpress.com

Please check them out, they are well worth it.

70th anniversary of June 6th, 1944, D-day

I know this sounds lazy, and it may very well be, but the post I did last year for the anniversary of D-Day still sounds right to me. So here it is again:

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“… I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” Ernie Pyle, June 12, 1944

On June 6th, 1944, Operation Overlord, the start of the invasion of German-occupied France, began. In one night and a day, 175,000 fighting men traversed the one hundred nautical miles of the English Channel and landed upon the beaches of Normandy. Transported with them were 50,000 vehicles on 5,333 ships supported by 11,000 airplanes. Stephen Ambrose states that it was as if the entire cities of Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin were picked up and moved, every man, woman, child and automobile, to the east side of Lake Michigan, in one night. Most were not professional soldiers, they were kids that had signed up after Pearl Harbor or were drafted. They were citizen soldiers, folks like us, personally unacquainted with violent death. That did not last. Company A of the 116th Regiment, the first ashore at Omaha, suffered over 90 percent casualties.

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The beaches bristled with obstacles, mines, mortars, machine guns and artillery like the dreaded 88mm cannon that had been adapted to almost every conceivable use from shelling infantry positions to antiaircraft fire. Rommel had  designed the defenses and he did his job well.

I have stood on Omaha beach. It is broad and flat and the idea of stumbling ashore weighted down with gear, bullets whizzing by like bumblebees, blood splattering the air and soaking the water, and people screaming all around is beyond me and I have a pretty good imagination. I have stood at Pointe du Hoc and wondered just how in the world the Rangers climbed that vertical cliff face under fire. I have stood in front of the monument to the missing at Omaha, seen my own name carved in the stone and wondered what happened to my namesake.

It is beyond imagining.

So as the 6th passes by, please take a moment to remember. Remember the terrible sacrifices of very brave men for the simple principle of freedom, the ability to speak your mind and go where you choose. It is good that we are reminded from time to time of just how important that is.