Friday, August 31, 2018

Flavors

I drifted away from our writers group discussion about people hearing things differently. Not physically, of course, but I may as well have been on Mars. Memory rudely inserted anxiety I felt when I impulsively spent eight hundred dollars on stereo equipment. Some oral trigger I heard failed to clear my translation registers connected to my ears and I was suddenly in my own world, my mind vividly filled with apprehension. Memory has a way of being kind and the excitement of having two close friends stop by after work to listen to my new, expensive, pride and joy speakers slipped in to displace the anxiety. Our stereos were the pinnacle of home entertainment back when direct-drive turntables, cobra-style tonearms and Shure V-15 type 3 cartridges were the mark of excellence in personal taste and audiophile distinction.


The unexpected financial windfall was the benefit from a brutal stretch of overtime work that upset our family routine and even affected our relationship. I was rarely home during that miserable period, working sixteen hour days and even once spent twenty-four hours, without interruption – not even for foodon one service call. With the cash in hand, I splurged on a set of stereo components I had dreamed of for years; JBL Century 100 speakers! My wife supported my desire to buy the speakers as a just reward for both of us enduring the tumultuous time.

I carefully “balanced” the new speakers per the instructions I saved from Stereo Magazine, measuring the distance between the speakers, taking into consideration the drapes and carpet, and listening to professionally mastered records that carefully reproduced the exotic sounds required to adjust my Marantz 200 watt stereo receiver to the new, space dominating speakers.

Paul stopped by first, parking his custom-turbocharged Datsun 280Z in the driveway. Money was no object to Paul in his quest for perfection, and his taste in stereo sound was impeccable.

Hmm,” he said, standing dead center between the speakers. “Try Allan Parson’s Pyramid. That’s a great one to test with.”

I carefully played the first cut on the “A” side, then waited for Paul’s profound analysis.
They sound really, really good, George, but you need to crank up the bass a little. The sound just isn’t full enough.”

After Paul left, my wife – who thought the settings were perfect – asked if I was going to change the bass settings.

No,” I replied. “I think it sounds great the way it is.”

Not twenty minutes after Paul left, Bob pulled up. Bob was another single friend who was also a renowned audiophile. His LP collection was stunning in its own right. I respected Bob’s opinion as highly as I regarded Paul’s.

Standing in the very same spot Paul had stood an hour earlier, listening to the same Alan Parson’s album, at exactly the same volume and adjustment, Bob quietly pondered the music.
Well, George, they really, really sound great, but there’s way too much bass. They sound ‘boomy’.”

I carefully glanced around the room once again. The subject of critiquing someone’s writing was still being discussed. The moderator was telling a new group member to take critiques with a grain of salt as everyone hears things differently.

I couldn’t help think how true. And not with just writing.

George







Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Dirty Secrets of a Writers Group

I posted a blog for the Sarasota Writers Group back in 2014 that I recently updated and "tuned."  I hadn't posted it on my own blog before, so I decided to post the updated version here.

George



Dirty Secrets of a Writers Group



As George Collias reminds us from Earnest Hemingway: "Write drunk, edit sober,"
Or was it Dylan Thomas? I don't remember.


Thinking of writing that book that has been buzzing in your head, but don't know where to start? Google "Writing your first book" and you'll find around 690,000,000 hits, some of which may even be useful. Helping new writers is big, big business.

You may come across the suggestion to join a writers group. Helping writers of all ages and genres is a basic premise of most writer's groups, many of which are listed in the Arts and Entertainment section of your Sunday newspaper. Internet searches show local writers groups and most public libraries can usually point you to a writers group in your area as well. Writers groups usually welcome new writers with enthusiasm and understanding, they are glad to see you taking that first step.

While you will welcomed by the members of a writers group, do not expect them – almost all of whom have other day jobs – to dedicate their priceless time at a writers group meeting just for you, at least not more than once. Almost everyone in a writers group will help a new writer as best they can, from writing and editing, to proofreading and suggestions about publication. A new member may even find a mentor who will take them under their wing. However, if you are looking for free editing for your book or novel, you're wasting their time and yours as well.

Writers groups vary in their format, with some groups welcoming all writing while others are designed for a specific genre such as poetry or novels or non-fiction narrative. Don't expect in-depth discussion of your historical fiction novel at a poetry writers group. A good writers group will help define the writing process and help develop the mechanical and technical skills that allows new writers express themselves while understanding most writers do not have a bachelor's degree in English or a Masters in Fine Arts.

Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For English Class


I was once told a writer who doesn't have a grasp of grammar is like a color-blind person trying to paint a portrait. If you are offended when someone points out spelling errors in your manuscript, or your grammar is horrendous, you might want to try something besides writing, Unless, of course, you have a really great friend who likes to edit. A good dictionary will do wonders for your acceptance in a writers group. If you don't bother with spell checking, you're off to a bad start unless you are a really gifted story-teller. You don't have to be a great typist to be a writer. A few writers I know still write in longhand and have someone else transcribe their work. Often that typist is also an editor of some sort.

I’ve found several writers groups that minutely dissect pre-submitted writings. Each group member gives his or her critique, allowing the writer the final few minutes to defend or explain their writing. I’ve found the defense is usually embarrassing or frustrating for the writer, who almost always thanks the group for their honest opinions, then never show up again. I find these meetings offer little in the way of inspiration or encouragement. William K. Zinsser, in the introduction to the 7th edition of his revised and updated "On Writing Well" writes: "My concerns as a teacher have also shifted. I'm more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing – confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity – and I've written new chapters on those values."

Writers Groups Are Not A Substitute For Professional Counseling


There isn't much sympathy in most writer's groups for personal or political vendettas, e.g., it was all his/her fault and the world needs to know what a bad person he/she really is and you all are going to sit here while I read chapter after chapter of this agonizing diatribe. Many writers get that personal story off their chests and find they don't have a second book in them, which leads to the question; Why do you want to write? Are you telling a story? A personal memoir or an autobiography? Are you planning on making a fortune writing? Well, good luck, I know hundreds of writers but only a few who call it a profession. So, whom are you writing for? Who is your target audience?

If you are writing an autobiography, which is the usual genre for new writers, there are only two scenarios for your looming masterpiece: A; You are already famous and people may actually buy the autobiography, or, B; You are just like the rest of us and nobody cares. If you fall into the first category, you probably don't need a writers group, your book will probably grabbed by a publishing house. If you fall into the second category, however, the writers group probably doesn't want to read it. They’ll help you write it, and they’ll do their best to encourage you, but don’t expect to impress a seasoned group of writers enough to make them want to hear all your details. You may find even your relatives won't read your manuscript. They will tell you they will read it when they get a chance, but they won't, although they may skim through it to see what you wrote about them.

The best advice for new writers is to finish your autobiography and put it on a thumb-drive. Put it away until you're famous and can update it. Now sit down and write for fun, write because you enjoy writing. Write because you have a story to tell, you know, the one you have been thinking about for years. Then bring it to a writers group and read it out loud in front of people you don't know. New writers are often cloaked by intimidation or insecurities as they venture into an unfamiliar world that glaringly exposes their shortcomings and lack of experience. That bravado usually crumbles quickly in front of a writers group. You may want at least a warm, comfortable feeling with the group before exposing your soul, but when you do read in front of a writer’s group read only enough to make them want to hear more.

Many writers will at one time or another inadvertently revert to writing about personal experiences. The memories are often painful and unexpectedly personal. Writing is often cathartic, especially for new writers. While an insensitive writer's group might dampen a new writer's candid honesty, most members understand the self-discovery process. Shared experiences can become part of the camaraderie of a writers group, but don't overdo it. Constant repetition of personal problems is a sure way to shut off a receptive group of listeners anywhere, much less a writers group.

Make Them Beg For More, Not Mercy


I had the pleasure of watching members develop and grow into marvelously entertaining writers during the several years I was the Sarasota Writers Group Leader for the Florida Writers Association. However, I've also watched people attend several meetings, then drop off, either discouraged or disappointed in what they found, or in some cases, what they didn't find.

I have been asked what the difference is between a writer and an author. I've been told that authors have published books. I argue many books by celebrity authors are actually written by ghost writers. To me, an author is the visionary or creator of an idea to be conveyed, while the writer is the conveyor of that vision or concept to print. It follows that most authors are writers. A writer may do journals, blogs, newspaper columns, or magazine articles or any other form of written communication. A writer to me is someone who puts words into print to convey thought.

­You are displaying your descriptive powers, or your wit, to a group of like minded individuals asking for their response. There isn't enough time at any meeting to listen to more than five hundred words or several pages of material from any one writer unless it is a special writing. It only takes several hundred words to appreciate a writing style or the dialog between characters. Listening to someone read page after page of their own work can be like listening to a children’s violin recital.

I have watched people join our writer's group and grow beyond their expectations, and conversely, I've seen talented writers drop by the wayside, discouraged or disappointed with their work. Many new writers take critique of their writing as criticism, and unfortunately, depending on the critiquer, sometimes it is. A new writer must be thick-skinned when submitting work for critiquing, but at the same time be open to change if the criticism is valid. Being poorly critiqued has probably discouraged more aspiring authors than any other single factor. Most critiques I've read are given in good faith, meant to improve the caliber of the work under review. Unfortunately, critiques are a direct reflection of the talents and skills of the critiquer. I've seen great writing attacked because the critiquer was simply repulsed by the subject. It is often hard for those who aren't professional editors to separate the stimulus to an emotional response from the writing that triggered it.

Often religious or political viewpoints become the focus of the critique instead of the writing itself. Novels in the sexual realms tend to be fire-starters. I can only imagine what kind of responses E L James would have gotten with her Fifty Shades of Grey from most writers groups I’m familiar with. The book, in my opinion, could have used the help of a good writers group. Sir Salman Rushdie said about the book: "I've never read anything so badly written that got published." I doubt James would have abandoned her book because of a bad writers group critique, but good critique could have definitely have helped the quality of her writing. The fine line is critiquing the quality of the writing itself as opposed reacting to the emotionally charged nature of the subject.

Critiques are often ego based, or subconsciously prejudiced, and those are deadly to a new writer. I can read anonymous critiques from members of our group and tell who wrote it by the style of the critique. Alan Sherman wrote a parody of Peter and the Wolf, performed by the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, and one line from the work has stuck with me since I heard it almost fifty years ago: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." That's exactly what happens when several critiques vary in their assessment of a given work. The writer being critiqued doesn't know which way to go or which path to follow to improve their writing. I was once critiqued for using too many adjectives in a manuscript while another critiquer in the same group said the writing was bland and needed better descriptions. One friend attends several writers groups, and much to his dismay, can't satisfy any two of them with any one piece of writing. One group felt a narrative he wrote was flippant, distasteful, childish, while the other group thoroughly enjoyed the same piece of work.

Writers Groups Are Basically Mutual Admiration Societies


If you read in front of the group, be polite enough to listen to others who read their material. After all, they were polite enough to listen to you. If you head for the door as soon as you're finished reading, don't expect the welcome mat to be out when you return.

Don't let your speaking style detract from your writing. If you sound like you're reading the telephone book when you are reading Steinbeck out loud, have someone else to read your material to the group. We have a regular member who is in demand to read other people's work. Her interpretation and inflection when reading makes even the aforementioned telephone book a pleasure to listen to. I recently read a member's final proof and was astounded to find I was intrigued by the book as I had a hard time following it during the readings. Every reader embeds their own images and emotions on the material they read, which may be quite different from someone else’s interpretation, even the author’s intent. Don't expect an audience to cheer your first attempt at explaining how you developed nuclear fission if you, like me, read out loud like Elmer Fudd. Get a good speaker, or hand out enough printed copies so your audience can read for themselves.

I've attended writers groups that follow a specific reading and critiquing format almost religiously, often intent on developing writers in a competitive environment such as winning awards for the group members. Other groups tend to mix up the readings with presentations from outside guests, from published authors to publishers and editors while critiquing is done separately from the meetings. Comments are almost always called for after a reading so a writer has immediate feedback on their work. Every group is different in its makeup and purpose and rarely are there any fees associated with writers groups. If the group you visit doesn't offer the education or experiences you are looking for, try another group.

You Can't Please All Readers


I have one piece of advice for new writers: It is your story and you are the one telling it! Write it your way and let your writing reflect your heart and your soul. You are the artist and this is your medium. I like my own writing, I can read it for hours and I'm sure you can read your own writing for hours as well. Bring it to the next writer's group meeting, well, five hundred words of it at least, and see if others hear it as you meant it. Don't be discouraged if the group you meet doesn't like your writing. Take the criticism and find another group and see if they accept your style and content. Arthur Godfrey once famously said, "Some people just don't like ice cream." As long as you please those you are writing for, you are by my standards a successful writer.

My favorite group likes vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, and just about every other flavor of ice cream, but every once in a while, someone brings in a delicious upside-down cake instead.

George

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wingtips


“Hon, do you have good black dress shoes?” my wife asked as we packed for our trip north for our granddaughter’s chain of May social events. 

May has become more than just the climax of the academic season, wrapping up not only the scholastic year, but dance classes, chorus, music lessons, and just about every other after school activity a student can be enrolled in. This year was even more special with our granddaughter’s communion, so it was time to dry-clean suits and dig out the old shoes I haven’t worn in years.

“Sure,” I replied, “I still have my old wingtips from when I left IBM. Let me dig them out, they're in a closet somewhere.” I tossed out my last pair of black loafers, my semi-official footwear for formal events here in Florida, a couple of months ago.

As I pulled out my comfortable old friends from the back of my closet where they had resided under assorted bags and boxes, I suddenly faced my own mortality. No longer the spit-shined, combat boots of corporate America, they were now sadly distressed, forlorn, shockingly aged almost beyond recognition. They were far removed from being the forefront of the uniform of confidence and determination I remembered when I placed them there over twenty years ago. I naively thought they could be pulled out at any time and once again be worn with the distinction and authority they once held in the arena of interpersonal combat in the world of corporate America.

I stared at the faded, cracked shoe leather. Pieces of the polished leather had peeled off, exposing the vulnerable, soft under-skin of the shoes I had worn so many times. I turned the shoes over, the soles were as good as new. I had replaced the soles twice in the wingtip’s lifetime and the soles were still ready. Ready to stride confidently into a customer’s meeting or a region seminar. The uppers however, were like me; no longer ready to stand in front of a crowd from behind a podium or stand toe to toe with a competitor.



I had placed them in the back of my closet, complete with wooden shoe trees in them to keep their shape back when I retired. They were highly polished the last time I saw them, ready to be put into service at a moment’s notice. They had spent the last quarter century in retirement, but they were no longer serviceable. My old standbys, my stalwart support in the face of perils that could not intimidate them, unfortunately could not answer the call to duty. 

I couldn’t help but be nostalgic as I stood there looking at my past, the memories of a quarter of a century ago. I carefully carried them out into the garage and as one last gesture, photographed them. Then they went into the trash.

I walked back into the house. “Hey, Hon, we’ve got to go shopping. I need new black shoes.”

But the new ones won’t be wingtips. They may not even have laces. A pair of nice slip-ons will do nicely.




Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Light is Better



A young boy carrying a fishing rod walked past me as I was photographing a serene lake-shore not far from my campsite on Lake Lanier. He was looking for an open spot to fish. He stood among the weeds for a moment, looking at the deep, clear water. He turned and spotted a sandy beach area, free of weeds, at the far end of the cove where the edge of the lake narrowed and merged with the landscape.

He dutifully carried his rod and tackle box through the several hundred yards of underbrush to the clear spot. The water was so shallow there he could have waded out into the lake for twenty feet or so if he had just rolled up his pant legs. He carefully prepared his tackle and cast into the lake with all his might. The bobber splashed into the quiet surface only ten or so feet from where he was standing, his bait immediately sinking to the sandy bottom just below the red and white plastic bobber that rocked only twice, ever so slightly. He was fishing in mere inches of water. There was no room for any fish.

An old joke flashed through my memory:

A drunk, on his hands and knees, is looking for something under a city street light when a good Samaritan walks up and asks if he can help.
Yeah,” replied the drunk slowly,”I dropped my car keys and I can’t find them.”
The good Samaritan gets on his hands and knees and begins searching for the lost car keys. After a few minutes, the good Samaritan asks “We’ve looked everywhere, are you sure you lost your keys here? “
The drunk tries to focus his gaze on the good Samaritan. “Nah,” he says, “I dropped them over there somewhere...”
The good Samaritan sat up. “Then why are we looking for your keys over here?”
Because,”” said the drunk, “The light over here is better.”

The young fisherman had selected a spot that had no weeds to stand in, undeterred by the fact he could see it was far too shallow for any fish. I looked back at him as I turned to leave. He was still standing at the water’s edge, holding his fishing rod with both hands, intently watching his bobber that was magically suspended on the crystal clear surface, just inches over his bait. I couldn’t help but hope he never loses his keys.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Earth is Not Round


The world is not round. It isn’t flat, either, but it definitely isn’t round. To state it is round would mean there is a symmetry, a total balance of our beloved planet, peacefully and methodically plodding through time and space. There would be no tides, no ebb and flow, and certainly a lack of subtle contradictions. I know the world is out of balance because the film “The Shape of Water” has been nominated for 13 – let me spell that – thirteen – Academy Awards. There is definitely something wrong with our slowly spinning, normally predictable planet.

I understand that I may be the one who is out of balance here, but I just spent nine dollars and ninety-five cents – senior discount – to sit through what I consider to be the most ludicrous, offensive, and downright stupid films I have ever seen. Seriously, I put “Mars Attacks” on a pedestal compared to this film that has been elevated to God-like cult status. Mars Attacks was at least fun to watch. Even the dance scene with the creature from the black lagoon - seriously. I’m not joking - doing a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers Felliniesque dream sequence, failed to elevate the film above the murky, tannin-colored realm of despair. 

The standard Hollywood formula of oil company bad, government agent bad, everybody bad except the maligned hero/heroine and his/her mentor, was spiced with a dash of, believe it or not, a Soviet spy with a heart. The pathetic mentor, according to formula, has to be convinced the hero/heroine can save humanity and together, along with a co-worker – black, of course – and the good Soviet agent – he’s really a doctor – defeat the forces of evil wearing the red, white, and blue.

It wears thin in less time than it takes to get the lid off the popcorn bucket. The acting is well done, as if they know they won’t get paid if the audience laughs out loud during the scenes where the creature plays with the owner’s remaining cats just after it’s eaten the head off one of them. Funny stuff, but Mars Attacks did it better.

Like sex scenes? There are several solo episodes by the heroine to establish the fact she’s in dire need of fulfillment, and surprise, surprise, our finned creature rises to the occasion. I can imagine the excitement when they discovered they could wire the old lagoon creature’s costume with LEDs to glow with the enthusiasm required for such an event.

And healing powers? Wow! Another opportunity to fire up the power pack! For a primordial omnivore, even the convoluted Soviet agent bad guy/good guy could have used the “asset” if only his timing had been better. I have a problem with films that portray the old Soviets as the good guys and the Americans as mean-spirited evil doers, regardless of whose aquarium they’re trying to drain.

Time to dig out the old Slim Whitman soundtrack. Indian Love Song never sounded better.





Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New Kids In Town - February, 1962

Saturday morning dawned cold and overcast, just like most early February mornings in the Eifel Mountains. Gino Davis had joined the group and was happily leading the way down the hill and past the Air Police guardhouse as we walked along the two lane access road toward the German Bus Stop out on highway B-51. Leonard, who organized the trip along with Mike Ammon, slipped to the rear of the group and let Gino lead the way. Gino was wearing white socks with black pants and a day-glow green sweater. He proudly announced to the world the Americans were coming.

The bus stop was almost half a mile walk from the gate at Bitburg Air Base and by the time we got there I was almost cold enough to abandon the trip. No, not really, I was excited about what lay ahead. Soon one of the big, lumbering yellow Mercedes diesel buses from the Deutsche Bundespost pulled off the busy highway into our bus stop. After someone, I don't know who, communicated to the driver we wanted to go to the Trier train station, we all dug out the right combination of Deutschmarks, and deposited them in the coin box.

"Almost like home" I thought as I fingered the Marks, about the same size and weight as a quarter. Then I looked up at the passengers, most of the men wearing fedora hats, and many of the older women with "babushka" type scarves, all staring at our group boarding the bus and thought, "Oh, no, no it isn't!"

It was apparent we were as much a novelty to curious passengers as they were to us. They saw Americans all the time, some of them even worked on base or in the housing area, but usually only one or two "Amis" would get on the bus at once, and not all carrying duffel bags. We were being whispered about as we lurched toward the rear of the bus, looking for empty seats. There were eight of us, including Hank, one of my friends from the guidance shop, and some others I didn't really know. We ended up scattered around the bus, somehow concerned we would get separated and not make the journey to Luxembourg, wherever that was.

The bus stopped at several more villages on the sixteen-mile trip through the wooded countryside, picking up occasional riders. The ride down the hill overlooking the Mosel Valley and the city of Trier was one I'll always remember. The beauty of the German countryside never fails to impress me. We crossed over the Mosel River and soon swung into the open-air bus station, filled with buses and people. When the bus came to a halt in the busy bus terminal in Trier, everyone else got off, so we did, too.

Someone had a city map of Trier, I think it was Leonard's, and we made a command decision to walk through the Markt Platz and head toward Germany's oldest building, the Roman "Black Gate," the Porta Nigra. We stood at the Porta Nigra and several of us took photos like any tourist. I didn't have a camera, and most of the others couldn't afford color film. A lot of GI photos of Europe back then were shot in black and white. 

Porta Nigra, Trier, Germany

We referred to the priceless map and struck off in what we thought was the direction of the train station. At first it was fun, goofing along and making mental notes about all of our observations of German civilization. It was apparent we weren't going to find any train station when we were almost out of town. Leonard stopped a passerby, who didn't speak English, but by pointing at the map and making simple hand gestures we gathered we had gone the wrong way from the Porta Nigra. We trudged the long walk back to the massive stonework and turned left, walking down a beautiful, tree lined boulevard. By the time we got to another bus station located just this side of the train station, we were no longer kidding around about being lost. One of the buses coming out of the train station had Bitburg lit up as a destination. It may have been the same bus we had ridden into town.

We stood in the huge, tile-floor train station entrance and tried to figure out where to get train information and buy tickets. Leonard and Mike were the ones who knew what they wanted, so while we waited alongside the ticket window, the young clerk, who spoke broken English, collected money from an assortment of hands and passed back eight, small train tickets. We looked at the tickets as if they were a joke. The train tickets were about the size of an American movie ticket, but made out of thick cardboard, like being cut out of a cardboard box. It was green with a red strip through it. I thought it would make a great souvenir someday.

"I'm famished!", exclaimed Gino, "Let's get something to eat before we go out to the platform. We have twenty minutes before the train comes."

We followed Gino into the train station's tile-walled restaurant and ended up all at the same table, pulling empty chairs from nearby tables. We got some strange looks, apparently we were out of order. Everything on the menu looked expensive. My first lesson in not eating at train stations.

Gino said to the standoffish waiter, "I'll have the Tagesuppe" 

The rest of us ordered open face sandwiches, and of course, draught beer. When we asked Gino what "Tagesuppe" was, he informed us he had a bowl of it before and thought it was delicious. When the waiter brought Gino a soup bowl with what appeared to be broth with a raw egg floating in it, we thought his eyes were stuck open.

"Entshuldigung…," Gino said to the waiter, "What is this?"

The waiter never blinked as he turned and said, "That is the “soup of the day,” just as you ordered."

No one said a word as Gino stared at soup bowl, then slowly picked up his spoon, then repeatedly bashed the hell out of the egg.

Our open-faced sandwiches and beer were served and we were getting back into the spirit of our adventure when, needless to say, someone noticed we had a minute to catch the train. We rushed en masse to the pedestrian tunnel that led to the platform to catch our train. It took two minutes to get to the loading platform, and we watched as our train slowly pulled out of the station in front of us.

"Now what?," I asked, "Should we go back to the ticket seller or can we just get on the next train?"

"Let's make sure," said Leonard, "Let's go back and check to be safe."

The ticket agent was less than pleased with us. We were taking up space in his line and he really didn't like the extra aggravation we were causing. He had to go and find the Bahnhof Meister, a figure who turned out to be as imposing as his title.

The Bahnhof Meister was a big, barrel chested man in his early fifties. He wore a full, dark blue dress uniform, complete with a red leather belt across his tunic and an imposing, official looking hat that might have been worn by an old Field Marshall. He was an imposing figure with absolutely no sense of humor.

He had to sign each one of our tickets on the back to show they were still valid. There wasn't enough room on the tickets to write with much flair. He gruffly spoke to us, without a single indication we were all from the same planet. He turned and pointed at the train board, showing us when and where the next train to Luxembourg would arrive. We had about twenty minutes and decided not to screw up again. We walked up to the platform and plopped our bags down and waited.

In exactly nineteen and a half minutes, a passenger train quietly pulled in on the track behind us. We turned around and watched as people boarded, and within a minute it was underway, heading out of the station. There were no indications of any train any where near our track.

The Bahnhof Meister soon strode out to the platform outside his office and bellowed in German loud enough to be heard all the way back in Bitburg. His face was as red as his belt. We knew what he was saying even though we didn't speak a word of German. We had missed the train yet again! We were waiting by the wrong track and we hadn't understood the blaring loudspeaker. We had just stood there like fence posts while the loudspeakers tried to tell us the train was behind us! 

We were marched once again into his tiny office. He made us sit down, not letting any one of us out of his sight. He had finally filled in every open space on the back of the tickets, and he wasn't taking any chances he'd have to issue new tickets. It was like writing your telephone number on a matchbook match after someone else had already written theirs. He was silent as he rocked back and forth in his chair, watching the clock on the wall. It was not a rocking chair. Every once in a while he would scowl at us, then turn back and look at the clock.

Finally, he stood up and said, "Los!" and strode out of the office. We followed along as he marched to the platform. The train pulled in and stopped with a coach door inches from our feet. The Bahnhof Meister stood stiffly and waited while we boarded the train. The train was slowly rolling before he turned on his heel and strode back into his office.

Leonard, leaning back to look out the coach window said, "Want to bet he's headed for a schnapps?"

The train we boarded was headed from Copenhagen to Paris. Like the bus ride earlier, there weren't many empty seats. Most of the sofa-style, leather covered seats had people sprawled out, scattered around the car. The compartments were just like in the movies, except not as plush. These were the "B" coaches and they were mostly filled. Hank and I found a couple of seats together, but I think Leonard was carefully looking for a good-looking seating partner. I decided that was only in the movies, too, looking at the mostly tired, unhappy looking travelers who mostly didn't even bother to look up.

Soon after leaving Trier, the train crossed over the Mosel and headed southwest toward Wasserbillig, just over the Luxembourg border. We stopped not ten minutes out of Trier while the German locomotive dropped off and was replaced by a Luxembourg diesel. After a few moments we were under way again, and before we could really get settled in, we were pulling into the main train station in the city of Luxembourg. The two cities are less than thirty miles apart.

Surprise! You needed your ticket to get off the train! They don't do this in the movies! Luckily we all scrounged up our mutilated tickets and turned them over to the bemused Luxembourg agents who soon start chatting and laughing among themselves. I wondered what the Bahnhof Meister wrote in that small space.









Saturday, July 22, 2017

Nostalgia

Florida Weekly Newspaper runs an annual writing contest based on a random photograph they post as an inspiration.  I had one of my writings published several years ago (See my blog "Stuff") based on a photo of a doll in a basket on a staircase.  This years photo is an open, European window, which immediately flooded me with memories.  This is the result.
* * * * * 
The photograph in the Florida Weekly immediately flooded me with nostalgia. There is no hope a memoir will ever make it through the gauntlet of astute critics who judge the writing contest, but perhaps I will find a glimmer of understanding when I explain why a photograph of an open, European style window, overlooking a courtyard or narrow street, a scene that most of us have only seen in movies, brings tears to my eyes: A friend of mine fell out of one. He did it backwards, and with his pants down around his ankles.

Nostalgia, by Internet definition, is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Aah, the unrecoverable past. That period when you alone remember exactly what happened. Even those with you at the time may not share your nostalgia, such as Tom’s recollection of landing on a stack of trash cans in the alley behind the Flamingo Bar in Luxembourg.

Parlez-vous fran├žais?” asked the gendarme, staring down at the semi-conscious, intoxicated young American tangled up among the trash cans. Tom had no idea which country he was in. After all, he arrived in Germany from the United States only that morning and never before heard of Luxembourg. It was also the first time in his life he was legally old enough to drink.

Frank and I also had a problem. We had driven Tom and five other newly arrived airmen to Luxembourg from nearby Bitburg Air Base in Germany for their introduction to the night clubs which surrounded the main train station in Luxembourg City. They’re all closed now, with the changing times of finance and world respect, but in those days, they were a right of passage for many young American servicemen. Tom’s marvelous adventure started without us, and that was a problem.

We were official sponsors for the new arrivals from stateside, all recent graduates of technical school. Our duties included walking them through the procedures of arriving at their new assignment. After myriad sign-ins and drawing their bedding and equipment, assigning them rooms and bunks, getting their paper work squared away, as soon as Retreat, the bugle call played on the base loudspeakers to signal the end of duty day, blared across the base, we became “unofficial” sponsors, and our duties changed.

Who wants to go to Lux for a drink and a chance to meet a French girl?” was the question. The response that night was unanimous. Back then, before European Union, the border crossing at Echternach was at a two-lane, stone bridge, with an old fashioned red and white cross bar that had to be quaintly raised and lowered for each car. Today, you zip across the autobahn bridge high above the town and the Sauer River and don’t realize you’ve crossed a border. But, in those days we had to stop and show our military identification cards, before we were given the priceless, limp wave of the hand that said, “Oh, you again. Go ahead, go ahead!”

Us old guys would sit and drink the fifteen cent beer while the new guys ran around like, well, kids in a candy store. After half an hour or so, we realized Tom had gone to the toilette and had not returned. It got very serious quickly as we had the owners search for our missing ward to no avail. He had disappeared into thin air! To make matters worse, the bars closed exactly at midnight.

The gendarmes walked in at closing time. “Allez!” they said, and we found ourselves standing in the dimly lit street wondering what to do next. We split into teams, slowly driving around, looking in vain through the oddly yellow-lit streets. Soon, Frank said, “Let me head back to base. I’m almost out of gas.!”

Federal prison crossed my mind as I finally headed across the tranquil Luxembourg countryside headed back to Bitburg. Court martial was obviously unavoidable.

Frank ran toward me as I walked into the four-story barracks. “He’s here! Tom is here!” We ran to the fourth floor, where Tom was snoring in his bunk. We dumped him on the floor and demanded an explanation.

The Luxembourg police drove me to the border crossing, flagged down the first car headed to Bitburg, and put me in it! The driver dropped me off in front of the barracks.”

What were you doing sitting in the window?” We asked.

Well, I wasn’t going to get one of those diseases from the toilet seat!” he said.

Aah, Nostalgia.



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Genius!

I’m a genius! I know because I just took a test on Face Book and they told me so!

The post in my feed said, “Only a genius can see the hidden figure!” then showed a number written in salmon colored, globule style patches on a speckled green background. I saw it immediately, so, to establish my undoubted intellectual superiority over those who couldn’t see the number, I quickly clicked on the link, and lo and behold, the genius that I must be, I got sucked down the rabbit hole of click-bait.

Oh, not the insidious ads that pop up on your screen every search you do, magically presenting your old searches so you can’t possibly continue without some interaction on my part. You know, like clicking on whatever pops up just to see what colors they have. No. I’m talking about click bait. Those are the feeds and sidebars that catch your eye that usually state, “You won’t believe what...” followed by something based on your past searches. Or the other perennial favorite,"Thirty-seven images you won't believe..." 

Trust me, ain’t nothing accidental in the Internet wonderland.

One of the most common bait for clicktraps is the fourth grade English test passed off as “Only one in 100 can pass this test!” then they give you a sentence where their, they’re or there is the proper answer to a meaningless question. I always love to see tests I had to pass to get into Junior High School being passed off as intellectual prowess! Good ol’ Southwest High School. Or was it West Miami Jr High? Maybe it was Olympia Heights elementary! I remember Mr. White in sixth grade explaining gerunds, and Mrs. Saunders in tenth grade trying to unravel the three year reign of confusion with a frustrating but memorable lesson on present participles.

Amazing, I can conjugate a verb – within reason – and always remember loose with two “Ohs” is the opposite of tight! Hey, I nail quite a few of those tests, and even share the results with thousands and thousands of new fans around the world.

According to Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clickbait

  • Clickbait  - is a pejorative term for web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks.[ Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the "curiosity gap", providing just enough information to make readers curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.”

  • "From a historical perspective, the techniques employed by clickbait authors can be considered derivative of yellow journalism, which presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines that include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism”

My very favorite click-bait, though is the first one, where color vision is misrepresented  to represent intelligence instead of visual acuity. Since – or is it sense – I have 100 percent color accuracy, I got to twist wires together for the Air Force and later a computer manufacturing company that no longer needs people like me since they no longer make computers.


Regardless – or is it irregardless, since that strange aberration has now been added to Webster’s Dictionary as a real word – geniuses with my native ability have been relegated to taking meaningless tests on Face book and supplying data mining companies around the world of our likes and dislikes, much less our friend’s lists and all their – or is it they’re? - contact info.

But, hey I’m a genius. Facebook told me so!






George

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cruising - In the Beginning

The unidentified captain of the M/S Sunward
congratulates Mrs Versie Stubblefield Mindling
My mom got me interested in leisure cruising at the beginning of the fledgling industry. Not the port-of-call cruising made famous in the movies of the pre-World War II era, where ships sailed from New York to London or Honolulu to Hong Kong. Those transoceanic cruises may still exist today, but the world of cruising was forever altered by Knut Kloster and Ted Arison in Miami. Their first ship, a converted car ferry, the M/S Sunward, started an entire industry. 

The Port of Miami was a commercial port back then, before the basin cruise industry was created, revolutionizing more than just Miami or a way of vacationing. 

The Dodge Island passenger terminal construction project was well underway when I shipped a Volkswagen from Antwerp to the P&O dock at Pier 2 in 1965, but it would still be a year before Norwegian Caribbean Line initiated their first cruises from the new Port of Miami. There was no terminal dedicated just for passenger ships then, just a working port that butted up against Bayfront Park and shared space with local charter deep-sea fishing boats and freighters of all shapes and sizes headed to and from ports all over the Caribbean. 






With the allure of the exotic, nearby Bahamas - which incidentally supplied almost all of the ships with waiters, maids, cooks and just about every non-officer position - Miami was the perfect place to initiate a three or four day leisure cruise. 

Miami had a huge para-mutual market that enticed tourist dollars during the "season," or winter months, from horse tracks such as Tropical Park, Hialeah, and Gulfstream, and the many dog tracks and Jai Alai frontons that tourists loved. But, while the glamorous hotels on Miami Beach may have had Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr, they didn't have casino gambling.

The new cruise ships supplied the missing piece as soon as they passed outside the twelve-mile U.S. territorial boundary headed on their easy going, laid back trip to Nassau or Freeport. Croupiers pulled the velvet covers off the roulette wheels and dealers broke open new decks of cards in the ship's casinos as the ship cleared the imaginary line. The one-arm bandits, the slot machines, were swarmed as the crowds poured in for Las Vegas style gambling and Miami Beach had new competition for tourist dollars at a level they couldn't handle. 


A Chalks' seaplane takes off in front of the M/S Starward in Government Cut, Miami, 1969

Drinks were cheap - the cruise lines paid no alcohol taxes as they didn't buy it in the U.S. - and the food was outstanding. Word spread quickly and cruising began to find a dedicated following.

My mother was Executive Housekeeper for the Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School hotel, part of the Dade County school system in 1969. The school hotel was nationally renowned for the staff and students it produced, and Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Line approached Dade County Schools to have a hotel housekeeping instructor teach on-board classes to the ship’s staff about hotel housekeeping. 












That instructor on several cruises was my mom, accompanied by my dad, who dutifully inspected the quality of the bar stock. The photos they brought back had always been in the back of my mind, and when my wife and I finally got to take our first cruise some twenty years later, a three day weekend cruise to Nassau, also aboard an NCL ship, the M/S Sunward II, we were hooked. 

I still have the M/S Sunward's original ship's memento plate from my mom's teaching cruise mounted on the wall in my office.










The S/S Norway and us.





©  George Mindling 2017  All Rights Reserved
All photos by George Mindling © 2017

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How Can I Say It on Face-off book?



How innocent we were just a few short years ago when we cautiously signed up for Facebook, and how thrilled we were to see our very own images and comments on the Internet. Photographs of our families and friends were welcomed and enjoyed, so much so that we actually looked forward to logging on every chance we had to see if something new had been posted, or if someone had commented on one of our priceless posts. How proud we were to first endorse our political candidates, naively and blissfully thinking our Facebook friends felt the same way.

Facebook is now an unexpected, and often unwanted, display of the current state of rudeness and ignorance that dominates our popular American culture. In fact, there is no better medium to judge the current state of American callousness than the popular free Internet service used by just about anyone with a Personal Computer or a Smart Phone. If you have ever posted any political viewpoints or supported a political candidate on your Facebook page, you know what I'm writing about. It's rapidly becoming Face-Off book.

Just like the old CB radios, the lowest common denominators quickly rose to the top with personal insults and soon made it impossible to post a political or social view without someone wanting to pee on your pant leg. The first time it happens you can't help but be shocked. “Why am I being insulted, if not actually verbally assaulted by someone I thought was a friend?” The answer is easy: They never had Personal Effectiveness Training.

The company I retired from spent a considerable amount of time and money sending every employee to a PEP, or Personal Effectiveness Program so we would learn not to call our customers stupid. Customers have a nasty habit of throwing your products out in the street after a frustrated employee ignominiously calls them untrained or incompetent or even worse, an idiot. Company revenues always suffer from that response, no matter how accurate it may be.

That's how I ended up in the seventies in the Admiral Bimbo hotel in Atlanta with a roommate who drank a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka in just two days. We were sent to Atlanta from all over our region to attend the mandatory civility class to learn not to tell anyone to go stick it in their ear. I'm not sure how much my roomie absorbed, other than the 90 proof Smirnoff, - yes, in those days it was 90 proof - but I did my best to benefit from the course. I learned to listen carefully when confronted with people who were their own worst enemies, at least technically. I was once coached by a manager who advised me to get my point across without swinging a bat. She actually said a 2x4, but there are many who don't know what that is. 

The training helped me through the years with more than just irate customers who had inadvertently unplugged their own machines or created situations that were occasionally hazardous. I learned to suffer the sting of uninformed Khans who dared not lose face in front of their collective hordes. But I never expected the training to be as important as it is today, thanks mainly to Facebook.

After someone belligerently or insultingly contradicts something I post on Facebook, I go to that person's homepage to see where they stand politically or socially. Not surprisingly, many dumpers don't post their viewpoints on their own pages, but they don't hesitate a second to pollute your page to show you the errors of your ways. I call these types “snipers.” They shoot at you from unseen positions and you have no idea how they picked you as a target. After all, they're on your friends list, aren't they?

If on the other hand, the comment they post on my page is an intelligent, factual comment or viewpoint, I'll leave it up, and comment on their post. All too often though, the comment is at best inaccurate, at times irrelevant, and at worst, slanderous.

So, what's up? You didn't intend your personal beliefs or opinions to be posted in a sports bar full of rowdy customers upset their team just got the devil beat out of them, but face it, these are new times and, unfortunately that's what has happened. Your beliefs and opinions are no longer for just your friends. In reality, Facebook, and just about anything else on the Internet is as impersonal as texting. People who wouldn't insult you to your face have no reservations about discussing the error of your thinking in front of a room full of people they don't know. That “room” is rather big as it encompasses everyone who can see your Facebook account. You know, millions and millions of "friends."

Responding to a contradictory post is balanced on the question of how much you value your friend. If they really can't refrain from attacking you or others who comment on your positions, I simply delete them as friends. It's all self explanatory, isn't it? If they don't care about my feelings, why should I bother about theirs? Their statements show who they really are, not who they think they are. Or, you can indignantly defend yourself and argue your point. If you paid close attention to the PEP training, you can adeptly tell them to stick it in their ear and make them look forward to the experience. Arguing, though, is a waste of time. You aren't going to change anyone's mind. As William McAdoo said, "It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument." Here's where I think back to my PEP and wonder if it's even worth a response.

When someone posts offensive or incorrect responses on my page, I can't help but think they never heard President Abraham Lincoln's quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Sometimes I have to remember that myself.

George