Elements of Memoir

Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? And what is memoir anyway? In this blog I explore the concept of memoir as well as offer some possible ideas you might consider in writing your own memoir story. I'd also like to hear some of your ideas about memoir in the comment section. Let's talk about memoir.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Life According to my Books

The forty five cent paperback version published in 1967.
I still have it intact!

         Earlier this week on my blog Tossing It Out I mentioned about how I had pulled an old paperback book off of one of my bookshelves in order to read at the auto dealership as I waited for some work to be done on my van.  This copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder was one that I had purchased in 1967 for forty five cents.  It had been required reading for my junior year of English and rather than borrow a copy from the library I chose to purchase a copy of my own.

       Coincidentally as well as ironically I had read a Los Angeles Times review of a book called Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson the day previous to having pulled my old high school paperback off the shelf to read at the car dealer.  Monson's  book consists of essays regarding the things found tucked away in and written on the pages of library books.

A corner torn from an English class vocabulary quiz.
I doodled my strange little drawing after the
 paper had been returned to me

       Opening my book I discovered that the bookmark that still remained hidden within was a bit of paper torn from a vocabulary quiz.  In my own cursive handwriting (which was not too bad I think) I had written my name, the class, and the date of December 20th of 1967.  On the outer margins of the book pages I had drawn in pencil sequences that when the pages were flipped through depicted animated scenes of cars and a person running.  Throughout the pages I had circled (or more accurately "rectangled") vocabulary words selected by Mrs. Vincent, my English teacher.

One of over 100 tiny drawings on the outer margin of the
book.  When the pages are flipped animated sequences
are depicted.  As you might see, art was never my forte.

        I was never one to mark up my textbooks for fear of being charged for the damage at the end of the school year, however I did occasionally deface my own books.  Thankfully I did not treat too many of my books with disrespect so most that I still own are in decent condition despite their age.  In fact, I have rarely marked books with notes, underlining, or highlighting.  Most of the time I considered my books my treasures unless I happened to be using them at school where boredom frequently set in.  Mindless scribbling was often my act of defying the tedium of school.

        Looking through my current personal library I would undoubtedly find odd scraps of paper--receipts, religious tracts, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, and any other number of bits that would have served as the makeshift bookmark for the moment.  If there are books with penciled in marginalia, those written words or drawings were probably because the book had belonged to someone else and the markings were not done by me.

         All of the doodlings, notes, and detritus to be found within the pages of books are artifacts of history in a sense.   Those that are mine represent some part of my past that I might immediately recognize while other findings might be more puzzling and require some deciphering of my past.  When such ephemera comes from a book that has been acquired from a friend, a family member, a spouse, or even a second hand acquisition from some unknown past book owner then the artifacts become more of a mystery that might be solved or more often might remain something upon which to speculate.

         My rereading of The Bridge of San Luis Rey was worth the time spent though no specific memories were roused from the book itself.  However it was interesting to see the tiny drawings and the writings done by my own hand.   Some memories were revived.   I don't plan to be riffling through the pages of all the books in my home library, but I will now have a heightened awareness when I do happen to look within one on those old books.

        Our books are often a storehouse of small hidden treasures that can stir up the dusty hallways tucked away in the recesses of our minds.  A note scrawled on the page of a book can revive a forgotten memory as well as present a puzzler on which to ponder.   That odd scrap grabbed in haste for a bookmark might be a relic that awakens the past.  If you have old books from high school or college or just from a younger day, flip through a few.  You might be surprised by what you might find.

         Do you write on the pages on the books you own?    Have you ever made an exciting discovery within the pages of an older book?    What is the oddest thing you've ever used for a bookmark?


Saturday, October 3, 2015

My Life in Entomology

English: Unidentified insects. Part of Don Ehl...
Unidentified insects. Part of Don Ehlen's Insect Safari collection on display at the Hiawatha Artists Lofts, Seattle, Washington, during a "Bugs and Beer" night. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

       Like many young kids I had a fascination with insects.  This is not to say I didn't experience a certain yuck factor in regard to insects.  I didn't particularly want the little critters crawling on me or getting into my food, but I did enjoy looking at bugs and observing them in action.

        Bug curiosity probably comes with childhood, but perhaps my parents egged my curiosity onward when they gave me a book about insects at Easter when I was about six years old.  This Easter gift came as a bit of surprise to me since previous Easters had only found me with baskets filled with sugary eggs and chocolate bunnies.   Receiving something other than candy for Easter brought the springtime holiday to a level more like Christmas and I had no problem with that.

         My sister and I each received a similar looking book that year.  I can't recall what book she received, but only remember my book about insects.  Actually the book had few pictures other than some line drawings and a lot of text that I couldn't read all that well.  I don't think the book was intended for someone my age, but that was fine with me.  I loved books.   The fact that this particular book was a bit advanced for my age made it all the more intriguing to me.  I'm not sure whatever happened to this book as the memory of its presence exists for only a brief period of my childhood.  Besides, it was a rather cheap looking book that might have been some kind of educational workbook that my parents found on sale somewhere.  I never bothered to ask them about it and now that my parents are gone I can't ask.   I doubt whether they'd remember anyway.

        Throughout my elementary school years I developed a greater interest in insects.  We lived in San Diego by this time.  The area where we moved was near undeveloped canyons where we spent much of our play time when we weren't in school.  That canyon had plenty of wildlife such as reptiles, birds, rabbits, and insects.   Often I would include red ants in my play since they were abundant and somewhat large.   As long as I avoided getting bitten by one of these ants--their bites could be furiously painful, raising a sore swelling--they provided a great deal of entertainment for me.

       Also during that time I often watched the sci-fi movies of the 50's where some event such as nuclear testing caused insects to grow to monstrous proportions.   These were some of my favorite films back then.  During my playtime I would fantasize my own monster bug movies using my plastic toy soldiers as the players and an ant cast of thousands that were never willing participants in my imaginary movies.   Other times I would collect ants, beetles, or other insects in jars just to observe them as though they were specimens in my own personal insect zoo.

        In my sophomore year of high school I had a more serious revival of interest in insects.  By this time we had moved to East Tennessee where there was a wide assortment of insects.  During that school year I took biology and the study of insects was part of the program at the first of the school year during late summer and early fall when insects were in great abundance.  Our first biology project of the school year was to assemble an insect collection.   Once I'd gotten past the idea of impaling dead bugs with large pins onto a styrofoam board,  the endeavor took on a fascination for me.  My collection wasn't huge, but it scored me an A grade.

        As an offshoot of my school insect collection project, I took a special interest in grasshoppers.  By the end of summer grasshoppers seemed to be everywhere and they were reasonably large.  They were also very easy to catch.   I gathered a few of these grasshoppers and put them in a jar filled with grass and plant material.  Keeping the jars outside by day and in our basement in the evening, I spent uncounted amounts of time watching the grasshoppers and studying their structure.   With their armored bodies and rigid jointed legs they looked as much like small machines as they did living things.  I fancied myself as becoming a grasshopper breeder raising a herd of my own trained critters.

        My breeder dreams were dashed however when I looked in on my "pets" one morning to discover that there were only hollowed out grasshopper shells in the jar.  All of my grasshoppers were dead and in their place was a small spider that had apparently gotten into the jar through the air holes that I had punched in the lid.  That was the end of my dream of starting a grasshopper ranch.  It was just as well since winter was around the corner and bugs would be doing whatever they do during the winter.

         I suppose I could have become an entomologist (a bug scientist), but that was not to be.  Just as well I think.  I've had a good life as things turned out.   I'm not bugged about not becoming an entomologist.   That might have been a very strange life.

          Did you ever assemble an insect collection?   Are you afraid of bugs?   What are your favorite insects?   Which ones do you dislike the most?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Happy Birthday, Ada!

Arlee Bird and daughter Ada circa 1985.

       For some reason I always remembered that I was in Colorado when I first received the phone call.   Maybe it had been Fort Morgan or Sterling or even some other town in Colorado.   But I was looking over some old records that I had kept during that time and now it appears I may have actually been in Texas.

        In my mind I still have a fairly good picture of the school we were playing that night.  It was a modern high school with shiny wide halls.  The auditorium was a topnotch facility with a big clean stage, new looking curtains, and excellent lighting that could be adjusted for color and intensity.  This was the kind of a stage that made the show look good and the backstage operate with efficiency.

        The date was September 26th.  We were on the 1982 World of Fantasy tour of "The Magic of Cinderella".   My wife Susan had left the show in August in order to go back to Tennessee to have our first child.  As the day of delivery grew nearer I began to keep Susan informed of the phone numbers of the motels where we'd be staying and the auditoriums where we'd be playing.   This was before cell phones and on-the-spot easy access at any time.

        When the phone call came I was in the back of the auditorium operating the spotlight.  There was no doubt that a phone call at this time meant something was happening as far as the arrival of our new child.  Testing early on let us know that a girl was on the way so we had picked the name ahead of time--Ada Rachel.

        I'm guessing now that I was in Texas that night when Ada was born.  Where I was is incidental I suppose, but what I know is that on this date in 1982 I was blessed with a wonderful daughter who has given me much happiness in the time she's been on this Earth.  And now she's given me three beautiful grandchildren.

        Thank you, Ada, for many years of happiness.   I'm very proud of you!

Arlee Bird escorts daughter Ada on her wedding day.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cherish the Love (Soundtrack of my Life)

        Several years ago a very dear friend of mine lost his wife.  She passed away during the night as they were sleeping.  They had been married for about 25 years.  It was a while after the event that I got a chance to talk with him.  He had overcome his grief for the most part--at least from the outside--but still I imagine that his wife's passing weighed heavily on his mind.

         Losing a spouse no matter what the circumstance must be a very difficult experience.  To go to bed one night and wake up during the night to discover your spouse has died would be especially traumatic to me.  My wife and I don't dwell upon the topic of death, but it does come up now and then.  I don't like thinking about it much, but the idea does cross my thoughts on occasion.

        Our own death and the losing of loved ones is one of those great what-if contemplations that hovers over all of us.  We probably should think more seriously about the subject if we haven't done so already.  Making decisions such as those related to death should not be undertaken in times of grief.

         Kool and the Gang's beautiful love song "Cherish" has crept into my awareness over the years and tends to be increasingly meaningful as the years pass.  As I grow older and see people I know losing their partners, the sadness of the situation becomes closer to home.   When my father died at age 67 in 1990, the loss to me was a strange one unlike anything I had before experienced.   Somehow I didn't fully absorb the impact it must have been on my mother to lose her partner of forty years.

         The realization of the loss of a partner had more impact on my thinking nearly twenty-five years after my father's passing.  My sister lost her husband who was 67--the same age as my father when he died--and then about a year later my step-father died after having been a wonderful partner to my mother for about sixteen years.   The fact that I was nearing the age of 67 and that death sometimes arrives unexpectedly at ones door created that deeper awareness that my days were counting down and each day has great value.

          Now I cherish my wife, my family, and my life more than ever before.   Each hearing of the song "Cherish" is that reminder to me to "cherish the love, cherish the life".    My days should be respected and treated as an investment in my happiness as well as the memories that come with the accumulation of a life history.  Our futures are mostly uncertain while our past should not be a collection of regrets and unfulfilled dreams.  What we know is the present and we should make the most of each day.   We should, but I know we don't always.  We can try though.

The song "Cherish" with lyrics:  

      Robin has been doing the Soundtrack of my Life posts on her blog Your Daily Dose.   I had done a few of my own "life soundtracks" on my Tossing It Out blog as well as the song series (starting at this post) I did for my 2014 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge on Wrote By Rote.  Be sure to visit and follow Your Daily Dose for more Life Soundtrack info.  

      Do you attach specific songs to certain times and aspects of your life?   How has your life been impacted by the loss of someone important in your life?   Are there any suggestions that you can offer as to the ways we can cherish our loves and lives in better ways?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Lifetime of Working

Female workers in an H. J. Heinz can factory s...
Female workers in an H. J. Heinz can factory stamping out end discs (the discs that fit on either end of each can). From the materials for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, held in Seattle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

       A recent post at my blog Tossing It Out asked the question:  "What's the best job you ever had?".   As you might expect, a question of that nature can give rise to a great deal of reminiscing and remembering.  After all, work life and career is a major component of most of our lives.  In my post The Working Years I suggested that our time of working might be considered a specific stage of most of our lives.  Many of us spend so much time working or doing things related to work that I think the concept of a "stage of life" makes sense.

        When you examine the typical person with an extensive work history you can see how life in many ways is a build up to work, a stretch of time actually working, and hopefully some good years of retirement when what we've done in our work lives becomes a major part of who we are and what our interests continue to be.  Work and career often appear in a memoir or even becomes the focal point of a life story.

         Our childhood years are taken up with school years that prepare our minds and our sense of socialization to one day become good workers.  As children we dream of things we'd like to be one day and occupations that we might pursue.  This can change of course--and usually does--but still the dreams and the education are all part of the preliminary steps we take until we've made an actual job decision.

         Sometimes the job decisions are what is right for us while some are lessons in what we thought we might like and didn't.   A good many of our jobs are a matter of the necessity of making a paycheck to pay the bills.   How we approach these jobs makes the big difference in what we can get out of those jobs even if they are not part of the career path we are pursuing.   "Attitude is everything" is a philosophy that makes a lot of sense and is important to our sense of happiness and what we take away as gain from a job.

         Some of us start working when we're still kids--newspaper delivery, lawn mowing, babysitting, and so on.  This is great for having spending money early on, but more importantly the instilling of good work ethic and positive social interaction will usually have a big influence on the kind of workers we are throughout our lives.

        The very acts of looking for jobs, exploring career opportunities, and gaining necessary education can be the basis of many interesting memoir stories that can entertain as well as be helpful to others who might be facing similar circumstances as described in a story they are reading.

         If we consider that every job has value, our outlook towards work begins to change.  We might envy some workers without knowing that they hate their jobs.  Perception can play tricks on us that create misunderstandings about things we don't know enough about.  Unless we investigate a career thoroughly, we might step into what we consider a dream job only to discover that it's really a nightmare.   If nothing else, that's another good story as well as a learning experience.

        We might as well give opportunities a chance when they afford themselves to us.  Job-hopping has become the norm for most of us in the modern age.  With instability in the economy and job market, a working lifetime with the same company has become much less common than it once was.  Likewise, call it a restless spirit or short attention span or whatever else you like, many of us are ready to move on to a new job after a period of time.

           Jobs are as vital as they ever were, but the nature of work and the attitudes of workers have changed.  People want money and security, but they also want freedom and a certain degree of say so in their own lives.   I've spent a good part of my life working for others, but I was fortunate to have several jobs that I really liked.   I was also fortunate to have had a realistic and positive attitude toward most of my jobs.   When I didn't have that then I got out of what I was doing and found something else that suited me better.

           There is no such thing as the perfect job.  However there are some jobs to which we are very well suited and that makes a huge difference in how we look back upon those jobs when we no longer work at them.   Money is nice and even essential from a practical standpoint.  Great money is desirable.  In the end though, job satisfaction probably is the most important thing of all.  The way we feel about what we do has a strong bearing on the over all quality of our lives.

          Have you appreciated the jobs that you have had in your life?   What do you think are the qualities of an ideal job?   What would cause you to quit a job?


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Post-High Blahs

My granddaughters taking a break at Arlee's Raw Blends in Princeton, NJ

          Oh, hello--remember me.  I'm the guy who used to write and post at this blog.  Did anyone notice that I had disappeared for a while?

         I really hadn't intended on taking such a long break, but vacation and then getting back home got me kind of side tracked.   Looking back I realize that I only missed three weeks worth of posting.  But in blog years three weeks is like three months.   Well, maybe that's not a scientific or realistic assessment, but missing three weeks on this blog seems like a long time to me. Since I started this blog I don't recall ever having missed a scheduled Saturday posting, but then again who's keeping score?

        Truth be told, I've fallen into a bit of a blogging slump.  Vacation can do that sometimes.  To me at least this happens.  For that matter, many of the highs in my life have been followed by a plunge into a sort of depth of not anything that I'd classify as clinical depression, but a sort of down feeling nevertheless.  This is probably a natural reaction for most if not all of us and that depressed state of mind makes sense--one day life is filled with excitement and happy times and then suddenly it's all over.  You're left with a sort of emptiness that memories can't quite fill.

        As the saying goes, "All good things must come to and end."   Fortunately that is the case for bad things too.  All things come to an end, or perhaps a transition point might be a more apt way to view the sequence of the ups and downs of life.  "Life goes on" to use another cliche, but it's also a truism because life just keeps going without regard to our feelings.

        As I reflect on my life in general, I think back to the most fun times of my life.   I remember much about the good times, but only a vague memory of how I felt after those good times had ended.  I recall feeling down, but not many details about what that down feeling encompassed in its totality.

        There were the times after Christmas, Halloween, or other special events.  Or a visit by favorite relatives or someone else who was special.  The build-up of the anticipation of a big event instilled a sense of optimism and excitement.  When the event arrived the excitement peaked.  And then it was all over with little to do but carry out the trash and clean the house.   Maybe there'd be some photos or videos that had captured the happy time, but often these mementos of the past are memories more melancholy than uplifting in any immediate tangible way.  I'd never want to give up the those memories that I can look at, but they make a rather weak substitute for being able to exist in that actual moment in time.

         After our vacation trip I spent a couple days unloading the van and even longer actually unpacking suitcases and putting things away.  Some of the boxes and a couple of the empty suitcases still remain where we left them.  My wife started back to work while I'm trying to get back into some sort of normal routine here at home.

       The miles of driving are behind us and those we visited are back to doing the things they normally do.  In a way it all seems like a dream to me.   There are memories of the things I did, but they almost don't even seem real.   What am I going to do now?   Things just seem kind of blasé now. I know it will all be normal soon, but this time around the normalcy is coming around slower. Of course, the vacation was much longer than any I'd taken before. I guess that counts for something.

      When I was in sixth grade living in San Diego, the kids in our grade took a week long trip to camp. It was the first time I'd ever been away from home without my parents being with me. Distanced from the normalcy of my family, on this school excursion I was now in the constant company of school mates, our chaperones, and the camp staff. This was a new and exciting adventure for me.

        That week was one of the most fun of my childhood. The activities kept us occupied throughout the day right up to the time we went to bed in our dormitories. I'd never been in a situation of that nature in my life and I didn't want it to end. I didn't even miss home. Then it did end and we went home. Riding home on the bus I sadly gazed out the window as the previous week paraded by in my mind.

         For days afterward I glumly wandered about the house thinking back on the camp experience. I made up sentimental songs about being at camp and sang them to myself. I was very sad for awhile. And then I was kind of sad for a few more days and then life just took over again and kept on going and was the same as it ever was. And that was okay because that's the way life is.

       Do you fall into a low state after the highs of life have passed by?   For you, what is the worst part about ending a vacation?    Can you recall a time in the past when you felt especially down after something fun had ended?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

What's Up with the Phobia about Clowns?

A Capodimonte clown from Italy from
The Juggling Jacksons collection

       My most recent Battle of the Bands post on my blog Tossing It Out makes me wonder about the aversion to clowns that is so rampant with many people these days.  There are so many adverse reactions to clowns or the notion of clowns that I find it somewhat puzzling why so many people feel this way.

        Being around show folks and circuses as I was growing up, I was frequently around clowns and comical performers who portrayed clown-like personas.  Clowns often played starring roles in television shows that I enjoyed watching.  There was Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Dowdy Show and even Bozo who starred in his own regional children's TV shows and a cartoon series.  Clowns were never fearful images to me when I was a kid.  On the contrary a clown sighting would cause me to light up with happy feelings.

       The business world has capitalized often on clowns as spokespersons and advertising draws.  Many a grand opening or special sales event has included a clown as part of the festivities to pull in families.   Then there is the most famous clown spokesman of all, Ronald McDonald of the McDonald's fast food chain.

       Clowns have a history that goes back to ancient times.  In the 20th century clowns were perceived to have a strong function of marketability to family audiences and have been popular icons in film and children's entertainment.  Though a natural inclination toward shyness in young children probably caused some apprehension when initially confronted by clowns, the realization of the sense of fun and silliness typically caused them to warm up to clown characters.  What happened to turn these positive feelings into ones of fear?

        Starting in the 70's the media began to present clowns as villains and horror figures.  This more than anything else probably had a bearing regarding to the public reaction to clowns.  Also, the entertainment mediums such as circus in which clowns played a major role have somewhat fallen out of favor with the general public.  Clowns continue to be hired as birthday party entertainment, but probably more out of tradition known to the parents rather than anything the kids want to experience.

         In the early 50's my parents attempted to use the clown gimmick to expand their booking potential with their juggling act.  They had high quality beautiful clown costumes made that never got used many times in performances, but served us for years as Halloween costumes.  The booking agents apparently didn't seem to want a clown juggling duo or perhaps my father's work schedule didn't coincide with the show opportunities.  I don't recall ever hearing why the clown gimmick didn't work for them.

        During the 70's there were a few rock acts who used the clown persona or similarly made up characters with varying degrees of success.  One of my favorites was The Hello People, an act that performed as mimes interjecting humorous mime routines with some very fine music.  The Scottish band The Sensational Alex Harvey Band had a somewhat sinister, but funny clown on lead guitar.  Then of course there was the most famous make-up band Kiss who took the scary clown persona to a new fright level if indeed they can be even be considered as clown performers.

        Sometime in 1977 I encountered a clown troupe from Bowling Green, Kentucky who not only were the centerpiece of a stage show that performed in their region, but also performed as a rock and roll band while in their clown outfits.  They were a credible performance band that focused on the old rock standards such as Chuck Berry tunes.  I enjoyed them but their musical talents seemed to be lost upon the mostly children's audiences to which they were performing.  The front man for that clown band was one Broadway the Clown who continues to perform his clowning to this day though I'm not sure if he still performs as a musician.  At the time I met him I bought a couple of art prints that featured him in clown character.   Over the years those have left my possession as they ended up with my first wife.  

A Ron Lee clown figurine from the collection of
The Juggling Jacksons

         Personally I think clowns have gotten a bad rap in more recent decades.  My parents had a nice collection of clown figurines and pictures.  My siblings and I added to their collection each Christmas and on other occasions.  Ironically, years later after my father had passed, my mother admitted that she didn't like clowns and wasn't particularly enthralled with the collection even though she continued to display them around her house up to the time of her death.

        Now my brothers and sisters and I are dividing the clown collection among us.  A few of my favorites will now reside in my home office.  I still like clowns and these mementos from my parents collection will provide some happy memories for me.

         If you don't like clowns, why do you think that is?   What has been your favorite clown character?    Is there any type of theme for which you collect figurines or other items?