Thankful Thursday XLI – Thanksgiving

Well, I missed Thankful Thursday last week, not because I lacked things to be thankful for but rather because as with many of you, its been a very busy time for me lately, with the holidays coming besides other things. So this week seems a good time to come back and be thankful for … Thanksgiving.

As a Canadian, it still seems a bit strange to me to be celebrating Thanksgiving so late in the season, so close to Christmas. But it’s a moot point, and the important thing is whether Thanksgiving for you falls in October or the end of November, the sentiment is the same. A time to hopefully slow down a bit, get together with family and take note of all the good things we have in life.

For me, it will be one of the rare days when everyone in the house and the family has a day off. I’ll be going with my sweetie and the kiddo to my step-son and his wife’s place for a turkey dinner; a bit of a collaborative affair with us doing some side-dishes, my mother-in-law adding some more and a variety of desserts from all of us. I’m not a huge fan of turkey, but I was still delighted to be able to buy one last month and freeze it; we’d heard reports they might be rare or hard to find this season. Of course, two weeks after that the store coolers were laden with them for about half what I’d paid, but we had the peace of mind of not having to go out and fret at the grocery store this week, so it was a price worth paying. Of the holiday foods here, green bean casserole is probably my favorite, and a fine southern specialty. Or so it seems to me. We ate green beans up north, and mushrooms and mushroom soup, and onions… but not all in a single tasty dish! But I’d be fine with a meal of sandwiches or pizza. It’s the feel of the day and the togetherness which makes it special, and above all the realization of all the things we have to be thankful for in our lives.

For nearly a year, I’ve been writing a bit about some of the things that make me thankful, from the big – like being in pretty good health, something we all have come to see the value of in this past year or two – to the trivial, like watching a flock of songbirds or a well-written novel to read. I could go on similarly for years, but with other projects always present and popping up, both here and in “real” life, I’m going to take this point to wrap up the project. However, I will still be posting columns here, book, movie reviews and who knows what else, plus things on my mind, whether it’s something I’m thankful for or not … and I fully encourage you to start your own list of “thankfuls”. After awhile, it becomes a lot easier to let the problems and annoyances of life wash over you when you know how much good is overshadowing them. Or at least so I find.

So, wishing all of you a very happy Thanksgiving, a good dinner, good company and a day where you become aware of at least one more thing to give thanks for.

Thankful Thursday XXVII – Health

A few days ago, I threw my back out. I think a 12-pack of pop was the culprit. Of course, it’s not the weight, it was some tiny mistake I made in moving to pick it up, twisting in just the right way to make standing back up difficult and ouch-filled. By now, it’s just a dull ache as I sit here typing and sniffling a bit from allergies. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I don’t mean to be. Actually it just leads me to my topic – this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for good health.

Literally. I mean, I count myself lucky. As someone now over half a century old, if occasional back pains and sneezing bouts are all I really have to be bothered by, I am entirely lucky. By now, I’m at the age where I’ve had friends I went to school with pass away from horrible ailments. I see people who look somewhere around my age hobbling through stores lugging oxygen tanks they need to breathe. Each week now, I’m driving an older brother-in-law to doctor’s appointments to try and remedy some weird illness that caused him to basically lose the ability to stand or walk for a year or more. (Now he can do both, but is needing a walker to go more than a few feet.) Some people in my household have diabetes; others, chronic knee pain. Not to mention my dear dad who passed away this year from a heart attack, months after his wife died from a myriad of problems tied to diabetes but best described as “old age.” And of course, the elephant in the room, this awful new disease inflicted upon the world last year that’s killed more people in this country than the entire population of Memphis or Miami. I’ll take an occasional feeling of a jolt of electricity when I pick up a package wrong or a bit of a runny nose until the allergy pill kicks in any day. With good grace.

I try to make a point to walk; I could still do more. I try to eat fairly healthy foods; I could eat more fruit and a sandwich or two less. But I never take being healthy for granted. Money, toys, respect… all fine things. But they don’t mean much at all if you don’t have your health. If you’re feeling good today, say ‘thank you’ to God, Mother Nature, karma or whomever you choose and keep a bounce in your step.

Thankful Thursday XXVI – Parks

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for city parks.

I’ve often said that the single greatest thing about New York City isn’t the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Broadway plays nor the shopping experiences. It’s Central Park. We should all give kudos to the city fathers who had the incredible foresight years ago to set aside 843 acres of parkland in the middle of the city for the residents to enjoy in so many ways. It’s probably the chief reason the downtown of a crowded city of over 8 million people is quite livable.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, in a house which backed onto a large park. It was great, even if in summer the powerful lights on the tennis courts (about 40 feet behind our fence) did make sleeping before 11PM a bit of a challenge at times. It had a wooden fort for us kids to play on, tennis courts for the adults (which were commandeered for ‘street hockey’ in winter) , swings, and acres of grassy field sloping down from a public school at the end of the street. Tobogganing in winter? Check? Soccer games in summer? Check. Flying a kite in windy weather? Check. Old Scotsman practicing bagpipes at sunset? Check, much to my (and some other nearby residents) chagrin. No matter what the season, the park was in use by people from blocks around. No wonder a study in Boulder, Colorado showed that house prices increase by over $4 per foot the closer they are to a park. Put another way, a house beside a city park is worth about $20 000 more than the identical one a mile away.

Parks provide actual physical benefits to the cities they’re in. They filter out rainwater and can reduce flooding. The grassy, or especially treed ones actually cool down summer heat. A large park can reduce the temperature by up to five degrees in summer compared to nearby areas. (Urban “heat islands” tend to cause cities to be much hotter than nearby rural areas because of the amount of pavement radiating heat back up from the ground.) They add oxygen, so, if extensive enough, they can reduce air pollution. And often times, they’re homes to wildlife. But even those things are really just side-effects. The real glory of parks is the psychological and social.

Parks offer residents places to congregate and to exercise safely. I would guess many of the joggers in Central Park would be much more sedentary if they were having to job between couriers and taxis down 42nd Street. Playing hockey on a snowy tennis court? Fine. Playing hockey on a busy city street? Not looked at as fondly by drivers or even police. They keep us in shape. But the real thing… they calm us down. They make us happy. A Finnish study showed even 10 minutes in a city park “tangibly reduces stress” in most people. Imagine what a “Saturday in the Park” would do for our mental state.

So here’s to parks…and the cities smart enough to maintain and promote them.

Thankful Thursday XIV – The Wizard Of Oz…?

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for The Wizard of Oz. Well, not exactly the movie with Judy Garland nor the Frank Baum book, although both have their merits. And they also inspired some great music that I love, like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the Scissor Sisters’ “Return to Oz”. Rather I’m thankful for it, and many others like it because it’s an example of a well-told story. And where would we be without those, be they in film, in print, or handed down orally generation to generation?

What’s more, it’s a prime example of one of the Seven Basic Plots…and where would aspiring writers like myself be without those role models to guide us?

As an aside, my early memories of the Wizard of Oz weren’t all that great. I was very little – maybe three years old – and in hospital, and they somehow got the local theatre company to perform the play (likely in quite scaled down form) in some sort of auditorium at the hospital. Those who were well enough to be transported out of their room to see it were. I vaguely remember it being a bit disturbing. I clearly remember being very disturbed and frightened when they sent the actors around the hospital. The witch came to my room…not a comfort for an ill three year old!

Some years later I overcame my Witch trauma and watched the movie, and quite liked it although agreeing with my mother that Judy Garland was probably too big and old to be a believable Dorothy. Regardless of that, it was an interesting film and doubtless ahead of its time in production values.

I likely didn’t give it any more thought until I hit my twenties. I picked up the then-trendy novel Bright Lights, Big City and loved its style, I was fast in line to see the movie adapatation. I read through reviews of it and was surprised that several made reference to it being a retelling of the Wizard, give or take. Seemed a bit of a stretch, but when one boiled it down, both were stories of someone being transported from somewhere simple (in fact, Kansas in both) to somewhere shinier and glossier (Oz for Dorothy, the Big Apple and its nightclubs for Bright Lights…), looking for excitement and new meaning, only to be put in harm’s way, ultimately disappointed and going home, more appreciative and wiser. Okay…maybe they had something there.

Years later, I would come across a fiction writing principal known as The Seven Basic Plots. The appropriately-named Christopher Booker had the idea that there were really only seven plots in all of the world’s great stories. There’s Overcoming the Monster (from Dracula to Star Wars), Tragedy , where the “protagonist is a hero with a character flaw or great mistake” (MacBeth, Bonnie and Clyde) , Comedy, which he suggests also needs conflict resolved in the end (Midsummer’s Night Dream, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Quests, something bigger than the person (think of the similarities in the wildly disparate Raiders of the Lost Ark and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) , Rags to Riches, which if successful should also include growth of the character (Cinderella, Great Expectations), Rebirths, where the flawed character grows and becomes anew (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Elizabeth & Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) and Voyages. Oz. Bright Lights, Big City. Alice In Wonderland. A fantastic journey leading the subject back home, a better person.

Now, it’s entirely possible that if you really think about it at length, you might be able to come up with a popular story, either book or film, that doesn’t fit any of those categories. Hats off to their creator if so… especially if it ended up being a story that resonated. But it’s remarkable how many great stories do fall into one of the seven categories. That’s handy for me, as a writer, to remember. And it’s handy for us all to remember by extrapolation – no matter how different our own stories seem from other people’s, chances are they’re not all that terribly different. There aren’t too many different life stories… the way that we choose to react to them, the tiny details are what make them memorable and separate the good from the bad… the Scrooges from the Darth Vaders.

The witch in the room or the likable Toto. Ultimately, we all decide how our story will be told.

Thankful Thursday V – Spring Is In The Air

I just got in after running any number of errands and getting the groceries done. I’m sweating. But that’s ok, because this Thursday I’m thankful for spring arriving.

Now if you want to get technical, spring doesn’t “arrive” until some time next week, based on the earth’s tilt and so on. But I’m a weather buff and a naturalist and meteorologists and ornothologists alike consider March 1 through May 31 “spring.” Enough for me to go with, even if it wasn’t 80 and tropically humid outside with the threat of tornadoes penciled in for the weekend. Which it is.

Spring was always a joy for me when I lived in Canada. Arguably summer was my favorite season but spring had a whole lot going for it, enough for it to create the weather equivalent of a “two-sided hit single” to me. Now, spring in Ontario can be a bit of a tease… I’ve seen snowstorms at Easter and fruit trees blossom before one last blast of Old Man Winter and his sub-zero temperatures blew back in. Not to mention that early spring can often be dreary, rainy and cool. Still, to me that beat drearier, snowy and colder. Spring always had its appeal because quite frankly, I don’t like winter. I don’t like being cold, I like lots of daylight and the emotional boost (not to mention Vitamin D) it gives me, I don’t like having to wear heavy coats and gloves. I don’t like seeing young women bundled like penguins in heavy coats and gloves…err, when I was single that is! What I do like is being comfortable outside and seeing the landscape awaken day by day…the grass getting greener, the trees leafing out, new birds arriving by the day, people crowding into garden centers with happy plans. And of course, baseball being back, which I looked at a few weeks ago.

Here in Texas, spring often creeps in almost unnoticed, mainly because winters often dress up like it. This year is a bit different of course, after the state saw record cold temperatures, eight to ten days straight sub-freezing temperatures and an ice storm that shut down stores and electric plants alike. Texans can welcome spring with the gusto of Canadians this year. I am!

Spring! Co-recipient of Dave’s “Best Season of the Year” award. How about you, friends? What’s your favorite season?

Thankful Thursday III – A Waxwing Moment

It’s Thankful Thursday again, and today like others is a good day to be thankful. I actually had a draft of today’s ready to go yesterday – and it may see the light of day later – but I had a nice little moment earlier today that I to replace it with.

While out running many errands – many boring errands – grocery shopping, filling up the car, driving a relative to work – I needed to drop off a package at a courier drop-off center in a big box store. I pulled into the parking lot, got a spot at the edge of the lot and found a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings flitting about in the trees right in front of my car. Waxwings are a bird that perhaps could earn the designation “charming”. Small, elegant looking little sparrow-sized birds with a crest like a cardinal and a mask like a Raccoon, and when you see them in the right light and angle, little bright patches of yellow and red. Little birds that have human-like traits of being highly gregarious (you seldom see one waxwing) and a slight tendency towards drunkenness. You see, waxwings like berries more than anything else, and if they’ve fermented on the tree… well, you get tipsy birds. Unlike humans though, the tipsy birds don’t seem to fly at each other or shoot one another.

Anyway, I opened the door of the car and expected them to take off, but instead, a few flew and others kept on looking for berries in the tree and hopping around not far from my feet. I snapped a few photos with my phone which is most definitely not high-def but captures the moment at least. As I did, with the birds flying around me, a car pulled over to the side of the road, window rolled down and a lady yelled out at me “what kind of birds are they?” I called back that they were called waxwings. “They’re adorable” she answered before driving on her way.

It was not a dazzling event, and I was walking into the building three or four minutes later to do the task I had come for. But it was a nice little moment. For a couple of minutes I was not thinking about the best route to avoid traffic to the next stop, money, or anything else other than enjoying the outdoors and the active little birds which were going on about their business of the day. The passerby who noticed and appreciated it encouraged me more.

And that is often the key to being in a good mindset. You don’t win the lottery, get promoted from sweeper to CEO or get to be on the cover of ‘Great People Of The World” magazine everyday. But if you look around you, you probably do get the special little fleeting moments no matter where you are. Learn to enjoy them and you’ll find the mundane becomes a lot more magical.

May Hooray 5

Rock musicians get a bad rap at times. Of course some are dumb as posts, but that could be said of many professions from truck drivers to store clerks to senior politicians as well. Many however have a lot going on. There are ones who’ve worked as teachers (Sheryl Crow, Bryan Ferry and Sting to name just three), ones who’ve written books, ones who are pilots (Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden has worked as a commercial jet pilot in his down time from the band), others that have turned successfully into other arts like painting (John Mellencamp, Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs) or photography (Michael Stipe, Chris Stein of Blondie).

One of the quirkier characters in the field is David Byrne, the former singer of Talking Heads. He formed the band while studying art and design at university in Rhode Island and put together some of the most unusual and ground-breaking rock of the late-’70s and early-’80s. He wrote a movie (True Stories) and as eclectic as the band was, found them too confining. He quit and has worked on other movie soundtracks, (one of which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score), several Broadway plays, formed his own record company to promote obscure World Music largely from Africa and published a book of botanical sketches he drew. And he’s an avid cyclist and has worked extensively to make New York City more bike-friendly. Whew! Writing it makes me feel a bit lazy for sitting around at night saying “OK, one more re-run of That 70s Show before cleaning the dishes.

Anyhow, he comes to mind because I was writing about him a few days back on my music blog. Another blogger there, Msjadeli brought another project of Byrne’s to my attention. A website, designed to help us feel a bit more optimistic in these trying times. The name says it all – Reasons to be Cheerful.  Subtitled “News for when you’ve had too much news”, it’s an interesting site. There’s a a hodgepodge of stories that do indeed lend one to seeing more light at the end of the tunnel; stories of smart urban planning, good health news, social good and a whole lot more. Give it a look!

Creative thinkers like Byrne – one more reason to be cheerful!

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