Sunday, March 30, 2014

Silencing the internal critic

I read somewhere that it's important to listen to the creative muse rather than the internal critic when you are writing stories from your life. Makes sense, doesn't it?

The internal critic sounds very much like the critical parent who reminds you that you are childish instead of childlike, that you're messy when you color outside the lines instead of wildly creative, that you need to tone it down instead of loudly laughing from your belly and shouting from the rooftop.

Yes, we all have strong internal critics who tell us that we have no stories that are worth hearing. That our lives are commonplace. But isn't that often the very reason for sharing them? After all, "American Graffiti" (1973) grossed over $200 million with the coming of age story that my generation shares, no matter what part of the nation we're from. I often wonder where young people gather nowadays. They don't seem to be hanging out at the Dairy Queen or driving in droves up and down Main Street. Someone told me they find a vacant, fallow field in the country and circle their cars and trucks with lights shining on the center where the beer is iced down. I have no idea if this is true or just something they tell curious old women. Guess I'll have to wait until they share their coming of age stories on down the line.

It's important to keep that internal critic from shutting you down and silencing your ability to tell your life story. If your critic is very vocal and very intimidating, you might draw a picture of him or her. I've done that for myself and I've had students do it as well. We spend an hour drawing the critic. Sometimes the result is a picture of two very large eyes watching and criticizing our pen's every move. Sometimes the result is a stern red-haired devil woman ready to smack us for revealing family secrets. Sometimes the result is enormous newspaper headlines to tell the world we're imposters--nobodies trying to be somebodies instead of staying in the shadows where we belong. Just so you know: all of these critics are LIARS. By drawing them, they "come to life" rather than being that unnamed negative force in our heads. We take the time to give them form, and then we turn them to the wall while we write. It's a ritual that seems to work for many of us.

What does your internal critic look like?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rodeo Time

I went to Rodeo Houston at Reliant Center yesterday. The Band Perry, known for merging country with rock & roll, was the headliner.

I felt so strange. While this ain't my first rodeo, as we like to say in Texas, 2014 has such a different vibe to it. Maybe that's because my first rodeo was in 1957. It was called the Houston Fat Stock Show back then, and it was held at the Sam Houston Coliseum on Bagby Street (I think where Hobby Center is today). Roy Rogers, the king of the cowboys, was the headliner, and he brought with him the whole gang:  Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes and the Sons of the Pioneers. The songs were "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Cool Water," and "Ghost Riders in the Sky," rather than "If I Die Young," "Hip to My Heart," and "Independence."

Maybe it's my age, but I don't think I'm going to remember Rodeo Houston with the same awe as I still remember running down to the first row so I could shake hands with Roy and Dale as they rode their horses, Trigger and Buttermilk, around the perimeter of the coliseum arena.

I had such a crush on ol' Roy. In fact, my first career goal was to be a movie star and marry that singing cowboy. Since he was already married to Dale with a passel of children my age and younger, I'm sure I would've been satisfied if we were married in the movies only. Dale could take care of him in real life.

Roy Rogers was a role model to me and other children in my generation. He was a kind man with a song in his heart who loved the land and respected the law. A good role model, don't you think?

When you were growing up, who were your role models? 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Family dogs

My sweetie and I recently moved to Navasota, and with us came three dogs. We're a blended family--Lucy, the oldest, is his; Jazz, the smallest, is mine; and Riley, the fast-growing pup, is ours. Labrador, Shih-Tzu, and Springer.

Riley is rambunctious, rowdy, and the life of the party. He's 11 months old and leaps, like a jack rabbit or antelope, rather than runs. He love-bites Lucy, pounces on her like a kid bushwhacking an older sibling, and chases around the yard like a dust storm. Lucy is subdued and maternal, sort of like a menopausal mom. She's patient and will rough-house with Riley, tugging with a rawhide or squeaky toy, until she gets tired. When that happens, her growl will change from playful to a don't-mess-with-me tone, and Riley backs off.

Jazz, who was an only dog for six years and still hangs onto that notion, is stand-offish with the other dogs. She flops off by herself and watches the frolicking with tepid interest. She's used to being pampered, not pawed, and she sees no logic in pretending to like Riley's attention.

My sweetie fenced in the yard and put a wire kennel on the back porch for the dogs. Lucy and Riley pile together inside the kennel. There's plenty of room for Jazz, too, but she sleeps outside on the porch by the back door. What can I say? She does not share well; she wants her own space. My sweetie, who understands that every dog is as unique as its paw print, is building her something to fit.

When we leave the house for errands, I bribe the dogs with milk bones so they won't whimper and yowl. Lucy gobbles her treat in three bites. Riley takes longer, but he chomps it down pretty fast. Jazz, on the other hand, grabs her treat with her sharp little teeth and retreats under the picnic table. Like a princess having her own private tea party, she mouths the treat and takes tiny bites, making it last. Lucy will eat as many as you give her, but she won't steal from the others. Riley? Well, that's another matter. With his eyes averted, he takes the sand crab approach, walking sideways but moving closer to Jazz. Jazz isn't fooled though, and she growls around the treat that sticks out of her mouth like a slim cigarillo, letting Riley know that she'll take a piece of him before he will get a piece of her treat.

I sit in the backyard with them in the mornings while my sweetie does his man chores. Riley will pounce around the yard with a chewy bone in his mouth as a challenge to Lucy or Jazz. Sometimes Lucy will chase after him. If the chew bone drops and they continue to parry and play, Jazz will walk over, get it, and scoot back where I'm sitting in the shade of a Bartlett pear tree. She'll nestle between my feet and gnaw on the bone, confident that the other two will consider her off limits. Doesn't matter. Riley is more interested in having a good time than in chewing a gnarly old bone crusted with dirt. Lucy tires before Riley and drops in a cool bed of clover. Riley paws at her, trying to get her back in the game, but she ignores him. He gives up and bounces over to the fence to play sentry guard, checking the perimeter. The neighbor's cat, hidden in the monkey grass, is startled to its feet, and Riley howls. All three dogs are suddenly in hot pursuit, but the cat fires through the fence to safety.

My sweetie is a former police officer, so he's adamant about locking the house and securing the gates. He thinks there's an element out there in any community that, given the chance, will rob you blind, so he believes in canceling their chances. I'm more trusting, but my trust is in our dogs. They're sweet and loving and loyal. But I have no doubt, they'd eat you alive before they'd let you burglarize our home. They're territorial and protective. Just ask the cat.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Today is the first Sunday in Lent. When I was growing up, my third generation Irish-American Catholic daddy gave up whiskey and my mother gave up chocolates. They laid their sins of the flesh on the altar and white knuckled it for forty days and forty nights.

I sacrificed, too, whatever I loved best at the time, to show Lord Jesus that a third grader, a fifth grader, a ninth grader could suffer in remembrance of his Great Sacrifice. In the early years of my childhood I gave up dessert or Coca-Cola. One year I gave up bickering with my brothers. I assure you, that was no easy task because they could be such bullies.

Another year I thought about giving up gossiping, but  honestly, I can't remember if I actually went through with it. And I would remember because it would have caused an angst that would have been seared in my memory. I was a freshman in high school, and gossip had enormous social cache.

The hardest was giving up cigarettes my junior year in college. I was a journalism major and we smoked in class, peering through the smoky haze as our fingers pecked out stories on Royal typewriters. Trust me, surrounded by the pungent second hand smoke, it was a sacrifice. But the good news is that I didn't pick them up after church on Easter morning. In fact, I didn't smoke for almost two months. But  then final exam time rolled around, and I bought a pack of Marlborough and blew smoke to fight the stress.

People still "give up" their vices for Lent, but nowadays the idea has expanded to more than giving up shortcomings. The extra step is to replace them with virtues. For example, a friend of mine has decided to curb her self-centeredness by listening to others, without judgment, with her heart's ear. In a city with four million people, it's easy to get lost in the crowd, to be anonymous and heartbreakingly lonely, so I think my friend's Lenten practice is more than selfless--it's truly inspiring. She is a prayer in action.

There are others who are volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, or being their brothers' keeper by helping returning veterans to re-enter society, or advocating for children, the wounded victims in domestic violence.

Lent is more than doing without, more than fighting the pull of carnal hunger, more than 40 days of sobriety.

Growing up as a  child, how did you celebrate the Lenten season? How, now that you are an adult, will you celebrate this season?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Family gatherings

My cousin Mike celebrated his 60th birthday this weekend. All his siblings flew in for the party. So did a slew of friends from his hometown in Baytown, TX, where his dad was a chemist for Exxon and his mother was principal of St. Joseph Catholic School.  The toasts described an adventurous kid.

Mike grew up to attend UT and then headed for Dallas to earn his law degree from SMU. Alumni from both institutions raised their glasses after retelling of high jinks and close calls from his college years and beyond. The remainder of the 95 guests at his party laughed and gasped.

His wife Sandi asked his family to send photos of Mike growing up, and there were framed photos of him at different ages: a tow-headed, skinny kid with a buzzed haircut that was so popular in the 1950s; a strong bodied, tanned youngster with his Sunfish on Black Duck Bay; a laughing, carefree young adult with a black Camero. The more recent photos were of him as an established attorney exchanging marriage vows with Sandi.

There was a deejay at the party as well, spinning a good mix of country & western, R&B, and hard rock. The dance floor attracted all ages, from 18-month-old grandson Julian (he can move his booty!) and the kids who are now in their late 20s and 30s to the older crowd, us.

My head is spinning with the stories we shared last night. A photo of Mike and his brother in pristine white suits had a couple of folks wondering. "Were they extras on Fantasy Island?" someone asked with a laugh. "No," I replied, "they're dressed for their First Communion!" One song and then another would bring back the memories of going to the Elk's Club, or doing the Garner Stomp at a state park pavilion, or singing as we washed dishes (my aunt didn't need a dishwasher with five kids and visiting cousins).

My sides are sore from all the laughing. I will admit, I shed a few tears, too.  Family ties run deeply. We're blood, and on occasions like last night, we feel the bond right to the core of our soul.

Look through your family photos. What memories do they evoke?