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.