Sunday, May 4, 2008

I've got my eye on you

I try very hard not to cross my arms when I'm standing and engaged in a conversation with someone. That supposedly sends a defensive message, but I want to reassure you that if I do that with you, it's because my arms hurt from my fibromyalgia and it's more comfortable to cross them gently than let them hang down. Or if I move them around a lot while I'm sitting and talking to you, I'm not rushing or ignoring you; I'm just seeking more comfort so that I can fully concentrate on what you're saying.

But when it comes to eye contact, that's a biggie.

I make eye contact because I want and need to, to make sure I'm connecting with you and your words and unspoken emotions. I'm an observer of human behavior, and that's an important part of my storytelling passion and skills. Recently, I came across someone who drove me utterly mad, because this person wouldn't keep eye contact for more than a few seconds at a time. (However, I didn't comprehend that as the reason for my madness until afterward.) Within minutes, I became frustrated, and then my body language was probably speaking noisy volumes like …

"HELLO!!!! You're not listening to what I'm saying!!!!!! What did I do wrong??????? What are you not saying?????"

Yikes! It was a half-hour after the conversation before my red face finally cooled to a less threatening shade in the crayon box. And I must have come across as over-reacting, which was not the way I had planned to be.

I'd actually been living a much calmer, focused, productive and happier life in recent months, or at least I thought I had, until this.

Nah. I'm going to continue my calmer, focused, productive and happier life and remind myself that no one can make me feel bad unless I give them permission. Sorry, no more permits will be issued for the remainder of this life.

That's I've Got My Eye on You 101.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Remembering Holocaust victims

It may seem strange to some people, but I think about the Holocaust just about every day. Why? Probably because I've got a book coming out soon about the effects of this horrific historic event and how individuals and families still pay a bitter price for it.

May 1 or 2 (depending on your location) is the officially recognized Holocaust Remembrance Day, also called Yom HaShoah. I've been so fortunate to meet a number of Holocaust survivors throughout my travels across the country and those who have been guest speakers at the Yom HaShoah services in Peoria. How do you combine two diverse words like heartbreaking and inspiring in the same sentence? You can when you meet these individuals.

When I observed my first Walk of the Living, which precedes the Yom HaShoah services, I was stunned by the poignancy and message of silent individuals carrying signs bearing names of towns and their Jewish populations … before the Nazis literally wiped them from the map. You see a few hundred and then several thousand, and it's almost impossible to fathom the massacre of so many human beings, 6 million in World War II, just for being born a Jew.

And despite the literally mountains of evidence, there are those who still deny it ever took place. That is why this day of remembrance is necessary and becomes more vital as the number of survivors dwindles as time itself claims more every day. It will be up to the sons and daughters and grandchildren and a society of diligent human beings who must bear with courage the responsibility of teaching new generations the dangers of intolerance and hatred.

Start in your own home and neighborhood. That is how the priceless values of tolerance and compassion can spread faster than any wildfire of evil.

That's Remembering Holocaust Victims 101.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sit down with your dad 2

I hate it when I hit the wrong key too soon before I've finished the post. Read the first one below and then this one.

ANYWAY, my dad and I had a chance to talk while I introduced my new Alzheimer's book to the world. I told him how I've finally started investing in myself in the last year and how much more self-confidence and courage I have to change this world for the better, whether it's ready to be improved or not.

Then he told me a story about himself I had never heard before. He told of how he was class president when he was in the sixth grade and how he wanted to be a leader. However, as his school career progressed, his parents discouraged and didn't allow him to engage socially with his classmates after school, which disappointed him. His parents had no money to send him, the eldest of their four children, to college, where my dad so desperately wanted to go because he knew an education was the path to getting ahead in this world.

After high school graduation, Dad met a man who was building a company and offered my dad a chance to go to college. This guy would pay his way. All the details were arranged, and my dad turned in his notice to quit his job and even had a celebration with his friends as he prepared to embark on this new life adventure.

But then this man's company suddenly had some financial difficulties, and he left town … and my dad's dreams behind.

Dad looked off into the distance while he told this story, and I couldn't miss the sadness in his eyes and the way he sighed. He ended up taking some night classes for a while, but he never got the college degree that he wanted so badly. His attention turned to getting a good job, married and having a child, me. Even though he had a successful career, he wondered how far he would have gone if he had had that degree.

In this moment, I really hated that jerk who let my dad down. Now, I certainly better understand his pride when I graduated from college at age 21. I also realized that the tiniest change in history affects everything that follows. Who would I be if my dad had completed college? Would I even be here? Sorry, but I can't resist one of those philosophical questions that pop into my head every day …

I've talked with many people through the years who have complained about things their parents did or didn't do. I know I've done the same as I looked at everything from MY perspective, not theirs. One of the hardest life lessons we learn is that when we get to know our parents as individuals, as ordinary people, we better understand the decisions they've made, the disappointments they've experienced, the everyday challenges they've faced as human beings, what gave them joy.

Suddenly they're one of "us." While that can be heartbreaking in some instances, it's also very heartwarming and comforting.

Sit down today with your mom, dad, step-mom, step-dad, mom-in-law, dad-in-law and have THE talk about the REAL facts of life. This session is far less technical than that silly story about the birds and the bees.

That's Sit Down With Your Dad 101.

Sit down with your dad

My dad and step-mom came over from Indiana to keep me company while I sat at my booth at the Alzheimer's Association conference Monday evening and all day Tuesday. With gas at $3.60 a gallon, that was definitely a HUGE sacrifice.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Breaking the ice at a funeral

I wish I knew how much I had blushed after providing unexpected comic relief at the recent funeral for my dear friend's father-in-law. What a great endorsement for my web site … "Monica knows how to break the ice at a funeral …"

I volunteered to create a DVD with photos so that family and friends would be reminded more of Bill's life than his death in this time. Genny had given me photos of her dad-in-law to incorporate in the DVD, and it was so beautiful up on this big screen in the room where the service was held. Everybody was raving about how wonderful it was, and how appropriate the music was that I had selected with care, none of that mundane mourning music.

Genny's brother came up and gave me a hug and thanked me for making the DVD and how it had only two small errors. I immediately panicked. He started laughing when he told me that the very first photo of Bill as a boy WASN'T Bill as a boy. It was his brother. A couple of people around us jumped into the laughter and I couldn't resist joining in. Then the second one, the really BIG one was that Bill's boys were quite sure that it wasn't their mother smooching their dad in a 1940s photo. Even mom who was right there wasn't sure either.

The old, quiet, easily embarrassed me would have run away and never been seen again, but Genny's husband and his brother were also chuckling and thanked me for the comic relief when they hugged me. So, the minister from the hospice gave his remarks at the service while the DVD was still running — without the music — and every time these two images came up on the screen as the DVD looped, anyone who knew the truth had to fight to keep from bursting out laughing as word was spreading of the oops. Nobody was looking at the minister. They were all looking at the screen. During a prayer later, I kept my focus on the photos, which chased away most of the tears. And Genny had a great laugh, too.

And I knew Bill was laughing, because that's the kind of man he was. I had rarely seen him without his oxygen in the decade or so that I had known him, but the clear tubing never hid his smile. He made the BEST apple pies ever, and they always filled the dessert table during the holiday dinners my husband, son and I enjoyed with the family because they always made room for us.

Engaging Bill in conversation was a challenge for me in the beginning. He had a soft, low voice, especially with the oxygen, and you had to get near to make sure you could hear. And I loved to hear his stories, though I had not heard as many as the rest of the family. One day, he shared with me a short, though painful and priceless, glimpse of his memories of World War II and the horrors that he had witnessed.

As I scanned in Bill's US Army photos for the memorial DVD, all I could see was the face of a boy … a young, far too young, man forced to travel half-a-world away to save all the world. I could only imagine his fear and shock when he saw how cruel mankind could be.

This past week, I wondered if that influenced his decision to be an avid gardener in his free time, to find beauty beyond the dirt, to appreciate the bounty of food and radiating color the earth provides. How amazing it is that nature remembers the seasons well and gives us reasons to celebrate the annual planting and harvesting that nourishes our bodies and minds. I was always amazed at those huge hands of his. That must have been just another of Bill's gifts.

Yes, as he tends the heavenly rainbow of colorful flowers in God's garden, Bill has to be smiling. Just tell us this: Who's that you're smooching in the photo?

That's Breaking the Ice at a Funeral 101.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I did it my way

I do apologize for taking tooooo long of a break since my last post. However, I had some pressing challenges, of which the primary one was completing my newest book called "Help ME Cope & Survive! Alzheimer's, Dementia & Memory Loss: Straight Talk for Families and Caregivers."

It was just like giving birth for the 12th time … though my son is the only one of the dozen that talks back to me.

I am excited beyond words about this book, this baby, this heartfelt creation of mine. Holding it in my hands as it came off the press binder, still warm from its journey along the conveyer belt, just like the birth canal, was only a lot less messy.

I love this book. I love everything about it. The laughter, the tears, the embraces, the hellos, the farewells, the confidence all these individuals had in me to tell their story with accuracy and empathy. Perhaps what I safeguard most of all is the renewed confidence in myself that I could do this my way … as I heard Elvis and Frank Sinatra singing it in the background the whole time.

This week, I had a "facts of life" talk with several individuals I love. I made it clear that I'm on near-tunnel vision as I was adament about helping pockets of pain in this universe, whether they're ready to be helped or not. In recent months, I've invested in myself for the first time in my life. It ain't cheap, but life's too short to do otherwise.

Everything has been going soooooo well for me, perhaps too well, as I encountered a huge pothole in my everyday work this last week. Maybe it was time for a bump to make sure I'm still on course. My husband and I had technical difficulties in presenting a video I had created. Nothing went right with the sound. Though I was mortified in the dimmed lights until it started working properly, I reminded myself that shit happens. I just didn't believe it until about an hour later while sitting at my desk, I willed myself to agreed that you-know-what happens, so keep moving on because I refuse to be defined by one mishap.

And I have sooooooo much more to share!!

That's how I DId It My Way 101

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A renewed passion for life

Here's a piece I wrote this week about something unusual that my son and I share. It appeared in the Journal Star on February 24.

University tragedies unite a mother and son
By Monica Vest Wheeler

My 25-year-old son Gordo and I have much in common. We're only children. We're Geminis with June birthdays. We try not to hide our green eyes behind glasses. We love history and collect far too many books. We share a quirky sense of humor and pun contests. We drive his dad and my hubby crazy.
Unfortunately, we just added a new commonality.

I graduated from the University of Evansville in Indiana in 1979. On Dec. 13, 1977, the Purple Aces basketball team was killed in an airplane crash.

My son graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2005. On Feb. 14, 2008, five students were massacred and many others wounded.

My son and I share too much now, as our alma maters have senseless, shocking tragedies embedded in their histories.

I spent this past Dec. 13 coping with the 30th anniversary of the basketball team's demise, an event marked by a memorial at the university and a burst of news articles about what had transpired three decades earlier. I was obsessively tied to my computer reading every reference to the tragedy. I pulled out my yearbook to remember the faces of those whose lives had ended so horribly.

They had not changed. Obviously, I had.

Yet in some ways I hadn't, because I'm 19 again every Dec. 13. I remember the rain and "Happy Days" on the black-and-white TV in my dorm room. I remember the voices of passers-by outside my open door, and the odd noise in the distance. Thunder? I hadn't seen any lightning. I glanced from the TV screen to the window in search of the source. Nothing. Only the rain, that damn rain. Would it ever end?

Word spread about a crash at the airport. The noise I'd heard had been the plane hitting the ground after take-off. As a human being, I felt bad for whoever might have been injured or killed. As a journalist, I planned to watch the 10 o'clock news for more details.

And then there was a rumor that our Purple Aces basketball team was on board. And then there was confirmation on the news that it was the team. And then there was a rumor that the entire team had been killed. And then there was a rumor that the entire team had survived. And then, and then, and then. . . .

As we huddled around TVs, the official news came: All 29 individuals on the DC-3 had perished. There were no survivors on the muddy terrain. The rain continued to fall.

Life stopped that day in Evansville, as it did in a number of towns that had sent their talented young men to play on a team that a new coach was molding with great conviction and enthusiasm. Life stopped for all of us amid tears and a single question: "Why?"

This tragedy happened years before fax machines and VCRs. I dictated over the phone a story to my hometown Indiana newspaper about how the campus was coping with the tragedy. I appeared on the news months later when I was one of the students photographed while placing bricks in the campus memorial.

The tragedy also happened years before I fully understood that life isn't fair.

The same glue tied me to my computer on Feb. 14, this time muttering a prayer of thanks that my only child was not at NIU's campus and a prayer of strength for families who wished their children hadn't been there.

Life stopped that day in DeKalb, as it did in a number of towns that had sent their talented young people to the university. Life stopped for all of us amid tears and one question: "Why?"

My son told me he couldn't understand why that guy would murder those innocent kids. What makes someone do that? I still have no answers when airplanes fall out of the sky or when innocent people are murdered. There will never be a satisfactory explanation.

However, I'm somewhat comforted that we'll never stop asking why. That means we're still alive and trying to make sense of this world, that we're still compassionate beings absorbing and sharing. It was a Tuesday in 1977 that I learned more about life than I had in any classroom. It was a Thursday in 2008 that my son did the same.

Whenever people ask us where we earned our college degrees, their response will likely be, "Say, isn't that where . . .?" Yes, but our alma maters survived to teach the world a lesson or two about dignity, perseverance and resilience.

My son and I now have something greater in common: a renewed passion and appreciation for life.

Feels write at midnight

I don't understand why my muse frequently decides to attack me around midnight. Is it because I should reflect on the old day and contemplate the new dawn … and what better time than their rendezvous at the top of the clock in the dark?

And the frustrating thing is that I have to be awake for the meeting of the muse … I can't be watching the news … I can't be singin' the blues … I gladly stay away from the booze … I've spent too many years paying my writing dues … Oh, heavens, what purple pen will I choose!

My favorite T-shirt is one I found in a museum gift shop out East … "The artist formerly known as starving." I vowed this year that I was raising my fees from a nickle to at least 6 cents an hour, a 20 percent increase! Will the market be able to bear it?

Most of us creative folks often have trouble asking for a decent wage. We'll paint, sculpt, perform or write because we HAVE to or we'll crumble into a mess far worse than the housekeeper at the Sistine Chapel ever encountered when cleaning up after Leonardo DaVinci. "That darn Leonardo, he splattered everywhere again!" Even if we never climb the stairs to the big stage, we're still wowing real and imaginary audiences in the corners of our offices and studios out of this intense passion to leave our scribble, our melody, our splash on this world.

I no longer believe in writer's block, artist's block, singer's block. There are always cracks in those blocks that will allow our muse to flitter through and tease and tempt us. Some creative souls bond with their muses over breakfast or even earlier in the pre-dawn darkness. Some choose more sensible liaisons in the bold or subdued light of day.

I had to get the midnight muse, who was probably goofing around all day. Hmm, sounds just like me … Leave me alone! I've got to get back to work!

That's Feels Write at Midnight 101

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Striking when the word is right

I have to admire the writers who have been on strike in the land of entertainment. It's always bugged me that actors and almost everybody else get paid more than the writers who turn disjointed letters and words into comedy and tragedy and everything in-between.

I'm just slightly biased, OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER, but it's the writers who bring everything inspirational and entertaining to life. Lyrics can make or break a song. Dialogue can make or break a TV or movie feature. Yet, they'll never get the same attention or payroll as the singer or actor who becomes the face of the words.

However, I'd rather live my life as a writer, free to create 24/7 anywhere in the world in solitude or amongst a crowd. I guess my performances at the keyboard on center stage wouldn't fill the theater. Then again, during an intense writing stretch, my cats and I do some funny little dances to keep the blood flowing … and my knees' rapid bouncing rhythm would make me the envy of any drummer … and while typing, I tend to rock back and forth at a pace that matches the top-ranked Wimbleton matches.

Nah. I'd better abandon that dream. People would get whiplash trying to keep up with my swift movements and then sue me. And at the nickel an hour this writer makes, I can't afford that. So, excuse me while my cats and I put on our dancing shoes for a private performance.

That's Striking Words 101 for today.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I'm still a Little Woman

After 40 years, the words and drama still create one tear in each eye, just enough to salt my lips and linger on my chin before falling to evaporate in the darkness.

I spent Super Bowl Sunday as far away from the TV and over-hyped sportsdumb as possible by attending a local theatrical production of the Broadway musical "Little Women." Forget the multi-million 30-second spots on SB whatever number. Three hours of my life and $16 were the best investment for my entertainment money. And it was fat-free, sodium-free, sugar-free and calorie-free at the same time.

Timeless, utterly timeless is Louisa May Alcott's classic of the four March sisters and their beloved Marmee. I've read countless times over four decades the copy I've had since I was literally a Little Woman, an author-Jo-in-the-making. Jo was my hero, my inspiration, my silent-though-faithful companion. I had neither sisters nor brothers, and that gave me extra time to submerge myself in a heroic fantasy world like that Jo created for her devoted sisters/actresses.

Jo and I learned the ultimate creative soul's lesson: write what you know and that's when your words truly come to life. And there you will find your greatest emotional and spiritual satisfaction. A passionate desire to dig deeper into one's emotions and make sense of the world at the same time demand that we commit those moments of misery and musing to paper, whether through Jo's quill or my computer screen.

And that's why stories connect us, whether they're written at 1 a.m. this morning or 150 years ago, when they're written about and with real emotions.

That's Little Women 101 for today.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Say cheese or whatever

What did we do before digital cameras? We were a lot stingier with how many times we coaxed everyone to smile with the classic "Say cheese!"

Since I climbed aboard the good ship digital in 2004, I've looked at old photos in a completely different way. In my search for images for my history projects, I have seen every imaginable static pose and blurs of impatience, the highs and lows of exposure, missing heads and torsos, etc.

I love the personal side of history and all the stories behind the snapshots of our lives. The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to go through a friend's old photos to scan in pictures for a family history. After a few minutes of sifting through old black and whites and those early square color shots from the 1960s, I had memorized facial features of 40, 50 or even 60 years ago so that I could easily identify who was who in many of the images. My friend, who's 80 years old, sat next to me, and I'd pass one to him every few seconds and ask if that was so-and-so or who on earth was it.

That became the foundation of our conversation, the sharing of memories as he introduced me to his family via these snapshots. I heard about the relative who drank too much, the over-protective grandma, how he met his wife, how he avoided being sent to fight in the Pacific as World War II ended, how he missed an old fishing buddy who had died tragically just a month ago.

There's not a Pulitzer Prize winner in the bunch or any formal organization, but these images are priceless as they tell the real story of everyday life. As a kid, I remember how exciting it was to take a roll of film from our old Brownie to the camera shop and come back in a week and pick up the pictures. We're spoiled today with modern technology's instant gratification that immediately assures us our photo is perfect. The perfect photo of yesterday is judged not on its print quality but on the quality of the moment preserved and shared.

That's Say Cheese 101 for today.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

It's not easy being purple

I fondly remember Kermit the Frog's signature song, "It's Not Easy Bein' Green," and the way he warbled it with great sincerity and emotion. I love green and Kermit, but I'm a bit fanatical about purple.

Sometimes it's not easy being purple … or blue, red, orange, etc., whatever color floats your lily pad.

I was into purple long before it became fashionable. I gravitated toward most shades of the violet and lavender rainbows at an early age. I really gorged myself on the color when I became an official Purple Ace at the University of Evansville in the fall of 1976. Did I make my college selection entirely based upon its school colors? I don't think so, but who fully comprehends what goes through the mind of an 18-year-young gal when she's preparing to escape home to become short woman on campus.

I still adore the power of purple. I'm a sucker for a purple T-shirt or sweatshirt. Sometimes it's hard to decide … "Should I wear light purple or dark purple?" It decorates my office and colors many of my supplies, namely hundreds of pens and notepads. My husband Roger vows that if I buy one more purple pen, he's going to toss me and my implements of ink out into the street. At least I'll be able to amuse myself on the curb with plenty of writing utensils.

When you say purple, it's one word, but it conjures in our minds a vast rainbow of glittering and subdued hues because we're all blessed to have different definitions. The same goes for any other color to which the folks at Crayola introduce us. In what tint we choose to bathe ourselves is just another way of claiming and announcing our individuality. Purple seems to fit and ignite my creativity. It also symbolizes royalty … and my husband can vouch that I'm a royal pain in the you-know-what at times.

Purple to me is synonymous with passion … the passion I have for life, my loved ones and friends, and the path I've selected to develop and nurture my talents. I write to clear any cobwebs from settling in my brain and entertain, educate and enlighten at the same time. I talk to people to learn, connect and challenge myself to put their life lessons into words to share with others.

It's not easy being purple or fulfilling the aforementioned challenge. Writing, at least for me, is a calling that demands an emotional commitment on my part. That lesson was dramatically reinforced while co-authoring the book on coping with cancer ( I met the most incredible individuals in the process and learned that the majority of we mere mortals just want to be loved, appreciated and called upon to make this world a better place in our own way.

I have accepted a calling to help educate people on how to better communicate their emotions and needs when faced with a devastating disease like cancer (plus some other topics I've got in the works). We humans have the unique power to speak, listen and show that we are compassionate beings.

I just choose to do my work with purple pens.

That's Purple 101 for today.

Friday, January 18, 2008

My new year's solution

Forget the resolutions of a new year. I've opted for a new kind of solution … a lively revolution … a healthier constitution … a lot less pollution … a greater contribution … worldwide distribution … and I won't settle for any substitution.

Yep, the new world, according to Monica Vest Wheeler. There's your attribution.

I have this knack, passion and obsession for connecting us all through human experience and history. I have this inexplicable desire to showcase the power and pleasure of history and to encourage people to ignore all the dull facts they were forced to recite as a student. Instead, they should look a little deeper into the emotion of history because it's all about people.

History is human. History is humanity. History is anything but ho-hum.

No moans or groans allowed! That's an order from this self-proclaimed Queen of History!

We create history every day with every decision we make. Fortunately and sometimes unfortunately, we're judged by our unique human chronicles. Our personal behavior paves or blocks the countless roads that encircle us. It's truly our choice whether we move through this life with the grace of an Olympic athlete — a status earned only through vigorous and exhausting emotional and physical workouts … yeah, that everyday life thing — or with the clumsiness of someone who's trying to run and their shoes are tied or Velcroed together.

This human experience and history mantra of mine is quite simple: Pay close attention to those individuals you love or simply know or encounter briefly along the way. Pay attention to what they're saying and not saying, what they're doing and not doing, what they need and don't need.

That was one of the most valuable life lessons I learned while co-authoring a book on coping with the emotional side of cancer. Cancer patients don't want pity. They want to be treated as the viable, vibrant individuals they've always been, even though they may be sidelined somewhat at this moment in time. Therein lies the history. Therein lies the opportunity to enrich the human experience.

Each of us is a storyteller. Each of us is an audience. Each of us is affected by our personal history, the backstory of everyone we meet, and what we've witnessed on the bigger stage of life.

That's History 101 for today.