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On Writers and Widgets October 30, 2014

Filed under: Reflections,Writing — acgheen @ 12:00 am

It’s a room filled with adults who never grew up. To the casual observer, it looks as if, like four year olds, the class is more interested in the toys scattered randomly across their tables than in the lessons being presented by the speaker. Across the room, plastic, rainbow colored Slinkys tumble from hand to hand. Bobble-headed dogs and cats are flicked by idle fingers. Little balls of cheese wax are being molded into cubes and mushrooms. Pens click and keyboards beat out a rhythm better fit for modern jazz than for an astute note taker. To many, it would appear that the room is in chaos. But those of us in the room know better. It’s our company’s annual writers’ conference and the toy-obsessed four year olds are members of our staff.

It’s a scene that you won’t see played out in many other professional forums. Here, the speakers recognize that the sign of an engaged audience is activity… and that the activity often has little to do with the topic at hand. We are tactile people and our fingers are inexplicably connected to our brains. In fact, for many of us, thoughts flow more freely through our hands than through our mouths. Ask any one of us to answer a question out loud and, at least for a moment or two, you’ll be met with silent stares. Request that we pick up our pens and compose an essay and we’re on it in a heartbeat!

Sadly, what keeps a room full of writer’s focused isn’t always appropriate elsewhere. So I sit in class, doing my best not to distract a professor by the excessive flipping of a pen between my fingers. I strain to keep my note-taking to a minimum. To make no sound. To avoid movement.
As I do, my mind wanders. What does my schedule look like for the rest of the day? How much reading do I need to do when I get home? Should I consider writing a Facebook post about this?

My name is called from the front of the classroom. I can’t recall the answer to the question, so like a Sunday School student who knows that the three acceptable answers to any question are, “God”, “Jesus”, and “The Bible”, I blurt out the business equivalent: “The Dynamic Environment”. Good enough for now, but it won’t be when it comes time for that next test. If I want an “A”, a solution will need to be found – one which releases the inner child who ran so freely at the writer’s conference, but doesn’t distract students and faculty.

I contemplated the issue for some time before settling on what seemed a brilliant idea: therapy putty. Designed to help medical patients improve their grip, it has much the same look and feel as the silly putty I used to play with as a kid. I can feel it mold to the form of my hand, smooth out at the touch of my fingers, and take on the shapes I envision. More importantly, it’s easier to hide the putty (even the rainbow colored variety) under a desk than it is to hide a cell phone. My hand is moving, but no one can tell what’s inside. And with my fingers active, my brain is tuned in.

The plan worked and I was able to pull straight “A’s” through the entire semester. But it didn’t stop me from missing that big conference room with all its sounds and color. Or the presence of others who, like myself, think with their hands. In my mind, there will never be anything quite like the overwhelming cacophony created by writers with widgets.


Nice Ride October 23, 2014

Filed under: Bicycling — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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I confess that, for all intents and purposes, I prefer comfort to speed. While I dream of being a world class cyclist, the realist in me knows that I’m past my prime. I won’t be enjoying the adventure of cyclo-cross with its mud and hills or the exhilarating thrill of the Tour de’ France. (The Tour de’ Across Town can even be a bit much some days!) So when I purchased my bike, I went for convenience – a ride that offered enduring comfort with all the perks necessary to make getting from home to my next meeting a relatively pleasant task.

After trying out several models, I finally settled on a Giant Sedona. White with silver embossing, it came with a broad, cushiony seat complete with that cutout that guarantees bits of your nether regions won’t go numb. The low bar was another perk, ensuring that even when my bad leg goes a bit lame on me, I can still manage to fling it over the bike.

I accessorized the bike with headlights and taillights, a nifty silver bell to alert pedestrians to my presence, a set of chrome pedals (the originals were plastic) with grippy spikes, and a set of straps that perform essentially the same task as clips on the more sophisticated bikes. I tacked on a hand-pump instead of a water bottle, and finished my “custom” machine off with a rack which, to be honest, rarely holds anything.

The result is my ideal ride: fully equipped to handle a leisurely ride in the spring and a ride of necessity when gas prices skyrocket over summer. Like a dream, it’s weathered several thousand miles of use and, much to the surprise of the local bike shop mechanic (who is rather baffled by my unusually shifting technique), has yet to require a replacement chain.

I confess that I don’t spend much time wondering what others think of my beautiful bike. It was selected and outfitted with me and my personal comfort in mind… so the opinions of others don’t really matter. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate them when their offered and I could feel the grin beginning to spread across my face as the secretary admired my freshly washed and waxed frame.

 “That’s a really nice ride,” she observed.

Knowing that she spent a lot of her spare time riding, herself (and on significantly more challenging courses than were provided by our local streets), it was quite a compliment.

“Yeah, I really like it,” I modestly replied. Then, at her obvious visual invitation, began to explain what made my unassuming cycle so wonderful in my eyes – features that made designed for comfort rather than speed.

The conversation evolved and, as it neared its end, she complemented my bike again.

The dialogue followed me all the way home. As I freewheeled into the driveway, I repeated her praise one more time. “This is a really nice ride!”


On the Inability to Vocalize Great Breakthroughs October 16, 2014

Filed under: Greek,Language Learning — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

As I write this, I’m preparing to wander into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It’s been a pleasant day and my writing is now well ahead of schedule. It’s time to sink into the couch and spend some time working on my Greek. And perhaps I’ll even give the task longer than its allotted half-hour!

I confess that I really didn’t enjoy the work at first. Greek is, at its heart, a ridiculously over-complex language. While most tongues utilize context to alert the reader to who did what, Greek uses word endings. Like a matching game, you have to connect the end of the verb with the end of a noun. When you do so, you can state with some confidence that the noun performed the action named in the verb… or had it done to them… or something like that. I really can’t remember.

To make things even more difficult, the ending attached to the noun also indicates the who and the when and, in some cases, the how of the action performed in the verb which shares the ending just in case you missed it the first time. (At least, I think that’s how it works.)

Purchasing a good Greek grammar doesn’t really help. Grammars are written for educated people – for those who instantly understand what is meant by the term “pluperfect”. (FYI, that would be a verb indicating an action that took place prior to the action presently under consideration provided that the action under present consideration actually took place in the past.) I am not that educated. (Even having read the definitions of these impressive terms, I still find myself having to look them up on a regular basis.)

Because of this, I was a bit puzzled when all of a sudden, something clicked and I could look at a sentence and explain who did what to whom and when. In a heartbeat, I went from getting consistently wrong answers to consistently(ish) right ones. And to make things worse, I can’t explain why!

I know that I’ve picked up on a pattern in the word endings. So far, so good. But what is the pattern? Your guess is as good as mine. He, she, it, they – it all seems quite clear when I am translating. Sit me down and ask me to write out the pattern, however, and I am at a complete loss. Does “ein” at the end of a term mean something? What happens if you add the letter “o”? Ask me these questions and I’ll just stare dumbfounded. You might as well be speaking to me in Greek! (Oh, wait, you would be… wouldn’t you.)

Fortunately, my inability to vocalize whatever it was that clicked hasn’t proven a major setback. The “click”, itself, has been sufficient to speed my progress. Instead of making excuses for why I can’t study, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe someday I’ll be able to explain why. For the time being, I’ll satisfy myself with the thought that instead of dreading half an hour’s labor, I’m wondering if I can nurse it and turn it into two. I guess Greek isn’t so bad after all


Greek to Me October 9, 2014

Muscles, when given a good workout, get stiff and sore. If the brain is a muscle, then mine will be unusable come tomorrow morning. In fact, it may cease to function well before bedtime. I have never considered myself linguistically “gifted” and today’s studies were a stretch for a large, disused portion of my gray matter.

I started my day with a Living Language Arabic, Platinum Edition tutoring session. My instructor began the lesson in Arabic and made it clear that she would continue in that mystical tongue for the duration. (This was rather surprising, given that my previous session had been conducted primarily in English.) Having never actually conversed with anyone in Arabic before, I almost instantly felt myself overwhelmed. Her speech was far more rapid than what I had listened to in the curriculum’s practice dialogue and, though I knew the vocabulary, my immediate response was one of panic.

It required several repetitions on her part before I let go of my tension and began attempting to respond to her inquiries. That these replies were not “up to snuff” was immediately obvious. My single word responses were not quite what she was looking for  and “A full reply, please,” became her mantra for the rest of the lesson.

The next half hour went much more quickly than I’d anticipated and, while I felt that I’d learned a great deal, it was almost a relief to be done. There would be another session next week and I would be better prepared, but for now it was on to my Greek.

I confess that I’ve tried to learn the language on several occasions, but with little success. A few vocabulary words and a distinct sense of my inadequacy is all that I carried away from the attempts.

This time, however, I am learning under the skilled tutelage of a friend who is fluent in the tongue… and who has strange ideas that involve ignoring the grammar books. (I confess that I find this method rather appealing. Despite my skill with the English language, I’m wholly incapable of describing any of the sentence parts which I so ably diagram.) It is his belief that inductive learning is best and, for this reason, he has equipped me with a lexicon, a text to be translated, and his phone number in case I happen to get stuck. (I have used this phone number several times, primarily for the purpose of arranging meetings to discuss my ever growing list of questions.)

My assignment is simply to work my way through the text, word by word, looking up any that I don’t know and double checking my verb endings to ensure proper translation. Thanks to an “aha” moment yesterday afternoon, the endings have become significantly less complicated, but this still doesn’t reduce the amount of labor involved with looking up a half-dozen words for every paragraph. (Or negate the need to insert each stem into the fancy verb chart at the back of the book to confirm my interpretation of its meaning.)

The result is that I begin to feel the “brain strain” after just a half an hour of intense work. After an hour and an half of work, my brain was about to explode. The line between translating and simply checking my guesses with the English-language volume was growing thinner. The temptation to cheat was becoming much too strong. It was time to quit.

Tomorrow will be another day in which, I deeply hope, the Greek will seem less Greek to me. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to an evening steeped in my mother tongue!


Reflections on Friendship October 2, 2014

Filed under: Reflections — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

Tomorrow morning, I have an appointment with a friend. I have to confess that I’m looking forward to it. Our last dialogue had a special rambling quality to it. A half-hour chat turned into two hours discussing a selection of topics as varied as socks and Socrates. It was a delightful exchange of thoughts and insights on everything from the trivial to the profound. And I walked away with several dozen fresh ideas with which to occupy my waking hours.

Among these was an unaddressed, but important thought regarding the nature of friendship. As a youth, I was quite confident that a true friend was someone who stuck with you through the hard times. They were someone you could call at 2 AM in full confidence that they’d drive half way across the State to help you out of a pickle. They could be relied upon to protect you when you were unfairly accused and, oft times, even when you weren’t. Like a wall, they stood between you and the world, giving you the chance to rest and recover your senses. They were there when things got rough… not just when it was convenient. And they were the sort of person who would be a part of your life forever.

As I aged, my perspective became more refined. I faced the startling realization that relationships change as we, ourselves change. People move out, move on, and pass away. Sometimes these transitions are gradual – a slow drifting over time. Other times, they are violent, premature terminations which leave us in pain. Those we thought would be there forever often aren’t. Yet even in their physical absence, they and what they have meant to us remain.

For good or for ill, I can still envision the faces of the friends of my youth. I can recall their names and the sound of their voices. I remember what they taught me and how their presence changed who I was an altered who I would become. While I may not have appreciated the parting, I can say earnestly that I do not regret the relationships we had. With Shakespeare, I would argue that it is “better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”

Still, there is another aspect of friendship with which I find myself even more perplexed – that not all “ill weather” friends are truly friends. Those who are with us in times of grief or pain aren’t always available when the sun is shining. Indeed, if I were to be hospitalized this afternoon (my laptop having exploded from overuse), I could immediately count on the care and concern of at least a hundred individuals. (Perhaps more, but I’d hate to overstate my case.) Each would be there with visits, phone calls, and offers of assistance.

What I can’t count on is that any of these individuals would be there when there was no dire need. Grief makes expressions of friendship a necessity. Joy does not. Indeed, I have found very few who make time for relationship when no pressing need exists. Too few seem willing to sit with me in the sunshine simply for the sake of enjoying its warmth. The result is that I have amended my youthful claim that, “a true friend is someone who is there for you when things get rough” with the words “and has time for you when they aren’t.”

Friendship, it seems, is a tricky business. Even the best of my friends won’t be here forever. But the recollection of the time we spent together, enjoying life for its own sake always will be. The warm memories will never fade.



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