Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Good Old Days?

Today I welcome my friend and fellow author, J. L. Greger to tell you about her inspiration for her new book, The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories. I had the privilege of editing this one, and I loved her tales.

Intertwining Facts, Memories, and Imagination to Create Fiction

After I read several nauseatingly glowing accounts of the “good old days,” I asked friends about their memories of their childhoods and teen years. Then I began to write short stories and published fourteen of them in The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories.

Memories need to be supplemented with facts. Although I took copious notes as friends spoke of their past, key details, necessary to make the tales believable, were missing or garbled. I found these details were “hooks” to readers. For example, in the story, “Dirty Dave,” I mentioned the nested Pyrex mixing bowls in yellow, green, red, and blue. Several readers noted I’d gotten the sizes right. The yellow bowl was the largest; the green was the next size. I was glad I had researched the subject. (By the way, these vintage sets often sell for over $100 on eBay. I’ve seen them sell for more at antique shows in New England.)

Memoires help to create a mood. I wrote my stories in the idiosyncratic way of memoirs. Although my vignettes are fiction, the auras of my friends, but not their physical characteristics, are infused into my characters. Thus, some of the characters are playful, and others are cynical or grouchy. I modified the tenor of the stories by telling some of them from the point of view of a child and others from the perspective of an adult. A five-year-old’s view of department stores in the 1950s (e.g. The elevator operator wore gloves. Everything was fastidiously arranged by color in the Notions Department.) in “Questions” is funnier than an adult’s observations.

Memories are snapshots of history. My stories are snapshots of major historical events and societal problems during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Nostalgia is fine, but honesty about the past is important. One aspect of several of these vignettes—child abuse in so-called “nice” homes—is not funny. I hope these tales will encourage older readers to remember the past honestly and will let younger readers realize most social problems aren’t new.

Here’s the start of one tale. “How Old Is the Earth?” in The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories.

This story is based on reminiscences of a friend. He mentioned the Golden Book Encyclopedia, but couldn’t remember any particulars, as he told me about the limitations of his grade-school education. My research supplied all the details about this hot promotional item for A&P Stores in 1959 and 1960. The geological facts are also correct. However, the George in the story is fictional. My friend doesn’t look like George, isn’t a professor, and has never enjoyed a Friday afternoon on the patio of the Wisconsin Student Union. He does like a beer occasionally.

I hope you enjoy this intertwining of facts and memories in fiction.

How Old Is the Earth?

“You’re a scientist. How old is the earth?” My friend, an art professor, looked around the rather raucous crowd on the patio at the University of Wisconsin Student Union on a late summer afternoon. When he waved his tanned arm, I noticed thin, white scars crossed the back of his hand. “What do you think these students would say?”

“First off, I’m no geologist. I don’t know the current scientific estimate, probably several billion years.” I nodded at the students as I sipped my beer. “I doubt any of them could give you a better answer, even if they were sober.”

George pulled his hands through his longish gray hair and then stroked his much darker short beard. “Four and a half-billion years. The most painful and maybe most important fact I ever learned.”

I blinked. “Really? Somewhere in grade school, I accepted the earth had a long history, but I was never fascinated by paleontology or geology.”

“You’re not from a religious home.”

I frowned. “We went to church most Sundays.”

“I mean a home steeped in strict interpretations of the Bible.” He leaned back in his yellow, sunburst metal chair and chewed a handful of popcorn. “Did you know church leaders calculated the earth to be six thousand years old on the basis of the book of Genesis?”

I threw a couple of kernels to nearby birds. “You must really like the Discovery Channel and PBS nature specials. What got us on this line of conversation? I expected you to be reliving your years as a professor of photography this afternoon, one week before your official retirement.”

George took a long swig of his beer. “Today would have been Mum’s birthday. Made me think of the day I was most proud of her. She was your typical stay-at-home mother of the fifties. Well, except Pop was afraid other men would notice her. So, she wore her long dishwater blonde hair in braids wrapped around her head. She looked like a Norwegian immigrant just off the boat in the old daguerreotypes. Didn’t matter to us boys. We thought Mum was pretty.”

He gazed out over the lake for so long I interrupted his thoughts. “What did your mother do on this special day?”

“Be patient. I was remembering how it all began. Do you remember when A&P offered the Golden Book Encyclopedias as a sales incentive in fifty-nine and maybe sixty?”

I pushed my green starburst metal chair back. “Vaguely. I can’t remember the deal exactly. Let’s see...if you bought twenty dollars of groceries, you could purchase one of the volumes in the Golden Book Encyclopedia for an additional dollar or two. Every month, they offered another volume. I think there were…fifteen or sixteen volumes all together.”

George smiled. “Yeah, they had shiny covers in bright colors, not like the standard encyclopedias, World Book and Britannica, with their fake leather covers and gilt-edged pages. Okay, I’m ready to tell my story.”

For the rest of the story, read The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories. Available at Amazon (paperback and Kindle): http://amzn.com/1537743813

J. L. Greger usually writes mysteries and thrillers with "sound bites" of science and travel: Murder… A Way to Lose Weight (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers Assoc. [PSWA] annual contest and finalist for New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards) I Saw You in Beirut, Malignancy (winner of 2015 PSWA contest) Coming Flu, and Ignore the Pain.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Happiness Essentials

I just watched Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture video again, for at least the twentieth time. And I laughed—and cried—again. (It is the very best video I have ever seen, and if you haven’t watched it, do so now.)

Randy was a forty-seven-year-old professor at Carnegie Mellon University when he received the diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. The college had a tradition of inviting professors to give the lecture they would deliver if they knew it was the very last one they would ever give. In Randy’s case, it was in fact, his last lecture.

I was struck, once again, about the joy he exuded, even as he knew he was dying.
I’m a happy person. I grew up in a family of dour Scots, and I never felt I fit in. So I decided to share what I know about happiness.

Before we were married, my mother-in-love said something I’ve never forgotten. “No one else can make you happy. You have to decide to be happy.”

It is a personal decision. If you aren’t happy where you are, you can’t be happy anywhere. As Randy said, “I’m dying, and I’m happy.”

I begin each day with gratitude. After all, I woke up. Then I give thanks for my husband and family and friends. Then I sit up, stand up, and walk to the bathroom. And I give thanks because I slept without pain after months of constant pain from my knee. I can walk, and some of my friends can’t.

Throughout the day, I find small miracles to give thanks for. It makes a huge difference.

It is nearly impossible to feel sorry for myself if I’m helping others.

Years ago, a trend began based on this statement: Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty. I had it on a sweatshirt and on the mug I kept on my desk at work. I still believe in making sneak attacks of kindness—especially when the recipient isn’t aware of the source. These acts bless the person receiving them, but provide far more blessings to the giver.

I have worked for a couple of companies, which closed. Everyone was to be laid off. But each morning, I smiled at everyone I greeted. After all, I cared for them and wanted to savor every minute we still had together. (This was in the days before Facebook, and when the doors closed, I feared we’d lose each other.)

One day I met one of our hardware engineers coming down the hall. I smiled and said, “Good morning.”

He stopped. “I look forward to seeing you every day because no matter how sad I am about what’s about to happen, your smile makes me feel better.”

He made my day.

We are now friends on Facebook—along with many others I worked with there. We still repeat the same old jokes, and I haven’t lost the friendship.

Remember to smile. It can make someone’s day.

Anger takes energy. Life is short. The best way to defeat your ‘enemies’ is to make them your friends.

One of the takeaways from the video is this: Never give up on people. Just be patient, and they will surprise you. It’s something I sometimes have to remind myself. But I rarely give up on people. I sometimes have to distance myself from them if they are toxic, but I stay in touch. I keep waiting for them to change. Sometimes I’m the one who needed to change. And there’s another lesson.

You, too can be happy. Make up your mind to be thankful today, and tomorrow, and the next day. See if it doesn’t make a difference.

Don’t wait to be asked for help. See the need, and respond.


And watch the video again.

What are your secrets to happiness?