Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Game Is On ...

Is there a literary character better renowned than Sherlock Holmes? Is there one who has been captured more distinctly and diversely on screens large and small? Is there a crime-solver with statements quoted more often than those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective? 

Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr, Basil Rathbone, Jonny Lee Miller, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, James D'Arcy and even John Barrymore have added their signature and breathed life into this enigmatic, brilliant detective. In fact, while Downey's films retain their DVD-rental popularity and Cumberbatch and Miller create the character on the small screen, Sir Ian McKellen (popularly known for his work in X-Men and the Tolkein films) will appear in the soon-to-be released 2015 film Mr. Holmes

Therefore, as I was challenged this month to read a book of short stories as part of the Ron's Bookshelf Classic Challenge 2015, what could be more natural than I select Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as my read of choice. And what an intriguing read it was.

Watson describes Holmes as "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen." That observation was made early in Holmes "career" when he initiated his first case -- my first Short Story called Study in Scarlet,  which debuted in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. The Sherlock Holmes mystery series, written over a 40-year span from 1887-1927, explored the good, the bad and the ugly of Victorian England's society, its ideals, its accomplishments and its deepest fears.

Sherlock Holmes was -- and still is -- a character very much of his own time and place. But not limited to one. His time and place can be classic adaptations, futurized Steampunk variations, or even modern day England or America. He appeals to readers -- and viewers -- in the unique way he confronts the messy, changeable world we all live in. 

For Sherlock Holmes -- classic or modern -- "the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes" (Hound of the Baskervilles). Holmes is continually stating that people are flawed since they "see but do not observe." (A Scandal in Bohemia). He studies human behavior and cracks the case in the most uncanny of ways, devoid of emotional pitfalls since 
"sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side." Well, that's BBC and not Conan Doyle. But the tone is consistent. Sherlock's methods in 2015 fascinate as much as they did in 1887. 

The words written in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes might be the same phrases spoken by Jonny Lee Miller or Benedict Cumberbatch today. They have a timeless fluidity that allows them to resonate in any mystery-lovers mind. How often have we heard Sherlock's most famous phrase, Elementary, my dear Watson? How often have we used it ourselves? Perhaps that's why the stories captivated me as I read them.

What good mystery does not imply, state or suggest that quintessential foundation of solving crime -- the one Holmes stated in the 1890 publication Sign of the Four: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth..." 

Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is like watching a marathon of BBC's Sherlock. Okay, perhaps Sherlock of old doesn't say "I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high-functioning sociopath" as Cumberbatch eloquently proclaims. But in Conan Doyle's crafty prose, you hear that statement bubbling under the surface. When it comes to his emotions, you hear a modern Sherlock stating in simple terms that "Sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side."  The classic Holmes' view was the same, though. In A Scandal in Bohemia, he is described as believing that "All emotions, and love in particular, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind."

I like that despite his decision to distance emotion from reasoning, Sherlock doesn't go it alone. The literary Sherlock valued Watson as the film and television counterparts do equally well -- heck, Jonny Lee Miller's Watson is a woman and she holds her own in the crime-solving duo. In 1890, Sherlock indicated his appreciation of Watson by saying "You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion" (The Man with the Twisted Lip.)  Cumberbatch echoes that idea saying "Listen, what I've said before, John. I meant it. I don't have Friends. I have one."  Of course moments later he explodes in a slightly more dramatic and modern ... "Shut up everybody, shut up! Don't move, don't speak, don't breath. I'm trying to think!"  

There are challenges with reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, though. While it's Sherlock's business to know what other people don't know, it's sometimes daunting to find my way with the plot. And the typeface in these short story collections is tiny ... heck, I think it's the original four column type-setting from The Strand magazines. Overall the layout is a bit taxing on today's eyes.

In addition -- and I'm reluctant to admit this -- sometimes Sherlock's intellect works so rapidly that my brain can't keep up. I get fuzzy. I fall asleep. I'm serious. There is a section of the original Robert Downey Jr. film where I always nod off. I have even nodded off during the BBC program and had to rewind or rewatch. So the fact that I nodded off reading the book is only natural. It's almost like my brain is over loaded with ideas and imagery and defends itself the best way it can ... by shutting down.

I'm not saying the stories are boring ... just heavy with thoughts and words and ideas. A bit too heavy for me at times.

I did enjoy experiencing Sherlock from a literary perspective. Reading about him and his original adventures made my creative mind work. Oddly,  my mind still cast Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. But no matter which image of Sherlock you prefer, the written words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle come alive in whatever time they are set. After all, as was written in A Case of Identity over 150 years ago, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence."

True that!

Sherlock Holmes transcends efforts to bind him to one era in time, making his tales terrific to read. And though Doyle himself had mixed feelings about his creation -- a love-hate relationship with a character whose name had eclipsed his own -- who would have guessed his 60 short tales would continue to captivate 200 years later!

                                                                                                                                  -- Jenni

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Sharpened Pencil

Last Christmas, my sister gave me a Vera Bradley box set of Pencils and two matching journals. That, along with another Journal and a photo my son took of "Wilson's Garage,"  (a special Great Gatsby-ism we share) were two of the best gifts ever. 

Simple there were. But they gave full inspiration for my very creative mind and voice.  

I use the Vera Bradley Pencils selectively. I use them to write in my journals. I chose one to write down notes and blocking for the recent play I was in. I keep one with my knitting bag for notes and comments. They are mine and those not in use yet are kept in the box. I also use them to write blogs and ideas and copy down quotes that inspire or touch me somehow. A good sharp pencil unlocks my imagination like nothing else.

And I like a very sharp pencil. I have a sharpener (it's Pink - surprise!) and find a sense of calm as I sharpen these #2 pencils to a "you can poke your eye out" tip. Pencil sharpening is truly therapeutic. But it isn't some electric sharpener I use. Not a chance. I have an old fashioned one. Did you realize that if you listen closely you can actually hear the moment that perfect point is achieved. And you can feel it in the crank. The resistance disappaits. It is a spiritual and tactile experience. And seriously, who wants to write with a dull pencil? Dull pencil ... dull mind ... dull ideas.

So my super sharp pencils and I unlock images in the depth of my mind. Then I type them into "the Corner" blog. 

What is it about a pencil and a clean piece of paper that opens my mind to crafting thoughts and words? 

First, it's real. It's not virtual. Once I write something it stays written. It doesn't disappear when my computer hard drive decides for no good reason to delete the operating system and erase everything stored inside. (Personally experienced that one a week ago.) I have various completed journals and numerous started ones in my desk and near my chair. Once something is written there, the thought, concern, stress, issue, idea, image and concept is neatly removed from my mind and logged permanently between the lines.

For those of you Harry Potter fans, it's my version of Dumbledore's Pensieve. Once something goes there, I can revisit it if I choose or be rid of it. In the cases of some personal drama or perceived crisis, it's very nice to divest myself of something. Freeing. And in those cases, once written I don't look back or read. No judgement. Just letting go of something that disrupts my spirit, mind, soul, heart, life, growth ... well, whatever.

Secondly, I can choose to review it. There are time when I feel more drama in my life. At those times, I write A LOT in my journals. When I review them, they read like a teenager's diary. I find humor at myself. I learn from my observations but am a step away from the "stuff." But at the time, writing my ideas with that pokey pencil was therapeutic.  And it got me through the challenging times and back into the light.

Thirdly, my mind works in images. I see pictures. I see words. I see thoughts. Where else do I write these? Sometimes words dance around in my mind -- insistent little things or giant things. If I put them on paper, they stop distracting me. It may not be a completed thought yet. But I might find a day where a turn of a phrase actually leads into a full story or book. A poem. A play. A pokey pencil is the best tool ever to transcribing the movies in my mind in a logical way. 

Fourthly, not everyone appreciates the joy a pokey pencil can give since not everyone enjoys writing. For some, status updates or diatribes on Facebook/Twitter are sufficient. Their phone or computer expresses their thoughts. I find that way of communicating my ideas too limiting. That venue lacks the control of the eraser found on good #2 pencils. Sometimes, I need the option of destroying an idea or a thought. I've actually torn pages out of journals and ripped them to shreds.  Get a thought out of my mind then get it gone. Can't do that with Facebook posts. Whether you delete your account or not, that "stuff" is still out there in the Cloud. (Whatever the heck and wherever the heck that is.)

Fifth, I need paper and pencil. I like the control it gives me and the option I have to read what I've written and decide where it goes. Sometimes I write for me. Sometimes I write to be written and get feedback. I like to write something that touches people or reaches someone. I like to know people read my stuff and like it. Yeah, sometimes I do it for the accolades. But most of the time, I write because I have something to say and I feel it needs to be said ... that others might just get a glimmer of something from the words and images I select.

Finally, a sharpened pencil is unlike that flashing cursor that awaits my words. Antagonizing me until I make it go away. A sharpened pencil is forgiving, erases, and creates words that stay exactly where I put them. They aren't read by prying eyes who access the Cloud or read stupid messages I might have texted or typed under an alcohol-induced or emotional haze. No, when I select that blank page in my journal, it has an option of being closed and put away and hidden from prying eyes. It's private until I decided whether or not to share it with a reader.

A sharpened pencil ... a journal ... a notebook. Simple they are. Mighty too. And two of my favorite things. 

By the way, I write actual letters too. But, for those I use with a .5 micro point blue uniball pen. Yeah, I'm a bit selective with what I use to express my words. Gotta have the right tools when I have something to say ...

It may touch you or roll on by you. And that's fine. Sometimes what I write is just for me. But if it touches you, that's cool too.
                                                                                                      -- Jenni

Friday, March 13, 2015

30 Minutes With My Cat ...

Last fall, we welcomed a sweet torty kitten into our home. My daughter had wanted a pet for quite a while. And after many years of asking -- well pleading -- the decision was made to look for a cat for her birthday.

As fate would have it, the timing was advanced. A friend of mine was fostering some kittens. We paid a visit and were selected by this lovely little face ... My daughter named her Elena Marie -- Ellie for short. And she proceeded to capture the hearts of all who met her. 

She's seven months now and quite a personality. She loves to have her belly scratched and greets me at the door. She wraps her paws around my hand. She's playful and independent too. Ellie is fascinated by the sound of the water hose in the refrigerator. She's snuggly and allows us all to pick her up, giving out sweet kisses. She likes to stalk her "prey" and leaps about. Oh, and she loves knitting and selected a lovely ball of yarn as hers :) There are so many little things about her ... She is also quite vocal about her wishes, needs and wants. 

In the morning, she wakes me with a gentle sound ... a sweet little purr (well, it's sweet except for those days when I'd really rather sleep that extra hour or so.) She's more consistent than an alarm clock, telling me it's time to get up. That it is time for her.

You would think that means she wants food, right? Nope. She wants me ... she wants time with me. We go downstairs, I fill her food bowl, provide fresh water and only then make my coffee. All the while, she continues to purr and indicate the importance that I speed things up. As I grab that important first cup of caffeine, she scampers beside me till  I sit down in my chair in the sunroom and she climbs on my lap. It's our time. It happens every day this way. This routine ... 30 minutes for her alone. 30 minutes with my cat.

Ellie likes attention. But after her time -- her 30 minutes -- she wanders off to climb under or on top of the couch. She eats. She plays with toys. She does her thing. She's had her time. All is well with the world.

It's funny ... how a pet can change your life. Teach you things. See, I'm like Ellie. There are special people in my life -- they know who they are because I tell them regularly. I don't always get hours and hours or even a full day with them. I get time here or there based on our schedules ... life is busy for me and those dearest to me. But the time we share -- be it moments or hours -- is meaningful. And it grounds me or gives me energy or revs me up or calms me down like a walk on the beach. Depends on the person, the timing and what I need at that time. 

I like to think I give them that as well -- these people who surround me and complete me -- who live close by or across the miles. I hope I give them something they need ... and that helps us remain connected when life can create barriers and the potential for drama and distance so easily. It's just like my 30 minutes with my cat ... I give Ellie what she needs and Ellie responds with her unconditional love -- though when I'm out at the theatre a lot, she does let me know she's displeased by my absence. She's like a parent waiting up for me! Sheesh. Can't sneak in without her knowing.

It's simple, really. Sometimes it's locking eyes with someone special and feeling a flow of energy. Sometimes it's a hug or a smile or a light caress on my arm. Sometimes it's a hand that holds mine or a companionable drink or a day at the spa. At yoga, it can be a gentle touch to relax a pose and remind me someone is looking out for me. Sometimes it's a night out or shared french fries. Sometimes it's loud. Sometimes it can be found in companionable silence. Sometimes it's a circle of knitters giggling together. Sometimes it's crazy and wild. Sometimes it's laughter or tears. Sometimes it comes as a phone call or text. Sometimes it's a chance to vent. Sometimes it's quiet ... words unnecessary ... just mutual understanding of shared feelings and experiences. 

Bottom line, it's simple ... It's making time for the people ... and pets ... who give our lives meaning, joy, and love. No matter if it's 30 minutes, a vacation to a far off place or a full day playing hooky, it speaks to the importance of those dear to us. 

30 minutes may be all I have to give. It may be all you can give. But you know what ... that 30 minutes may make all the difference in my day. It may just be enough ....
                                                                                                                -- Jenni 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Long Cold Winter ...

On Anna Karenina ... 

I have wanted to read Anna Karenina for some time.  In fact, a few years ago a friend gave me a beautiful classic hardcover edition of the Tolstoy novel, complete with its own slide in case. It was truly lovely. This great long novel sat on my desk, intriguing me. Vivien Leigh -- my favorite actress of all time -- had played the title role. So had Keira Knightly. There must be something beautiful to this tale ...

As I've mentioned before, my friend Ron had invited me to participate in his 2015 Classic Challenge. One of the steps of this challenge included reading a book written by a Russian author. Ah-ha I thought ... here is my chance to finally read Anna Karenina

I began the book in earnest, with such energy and enthusiasm. Cup of tea, cozy blanket, perfect reading chair. A quiet Sunday afternoon. And, I made it 163 pages through part one before my attention began to waver. William Faulkner had declared the novel "the best ever written." I wanted to be drawn in ... I wanted to be mesmerized and captivated. 

It's not that I didn't enjoy it. It was just the tedium of the tale that got to me after a while. Levin's humdrum life on the farm was not interesting to me at all. Give me Anna and Vronsky. Make me like Vronsky (sorry, I just didn't.) I found the drama of Kitty amusing -- true love "sickness." Perhaps if the dramatic romance between Anna and Vronsky had actually begun by page 163, I might have found something that enticed me to read on. I mean, it was all talk and speculation. Too much exposition and too little action.

Honestly, though, the worst part for me is that I already knew the ending. I knew where it was going before I opened to page one. I find myself holding a character I might become drawn in by at arms length when I know exactly what will befall her on page 972. There is the rub. And there is the biggest problem I experienced with this great Russian Classic ... I knew what was going to happen in the end and I didn't want it to so I didn't want to read on and watch the destruction in Anna's ultimately unfortunate existence.

So, I stopped. I picked up a couple other quicker reads, fully intending to get back to Tolstoy until I finally admitted that right now I just didn't want to suffer another long cold winter. The one I just went through in Michigan was enough. I'd had enough of this book ... for now.

I still want to read it. I do. I still hope to read it. One day. Perhaps I might better understand it with a commentary -- something that explained to me the undercurrent of Tolstoy's politics and what he was stating about the aristocracy and peasant life. Yes, that might help. Perhaps if it wasn't 972 pages and I felt with each sitting I was actually making progress ... Not sure. Honestly. 

It just didn't captivate me and I grew restless with the Russian way of using every single name every single time and the tedium Tolstoy felt necessary to present. (Why does it seem that everyone is a Prince or Princess?)

I am still curious about what actually transpires in the pages from Anna's shining beginning to her dramatic end. If I can find it in me to be more patient, I may consider trying again. But, sitting on a beach where it's warm and sunny instead of surrounded by frigid temperatures and snow.

There was one "Ah-ha" moment though. Something I will take away from Part One of Anna Karenina. Words that just might draw me back to the tale at some point since they were brilliant.  It was the observation made by Anna's brother Stepan Arkadyevitch:

"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow."

Perhaps that sums up the story for me. Not the "Vengeance is mine, I will repay" Romans 12:9 Biblical epigraph. That just doesn't capture the essence of what I believe Tolstoy ultimately conveyed. No ... it was Stepan who truly understood the reality of human existence. Life IS made up of light and shadow. Those that crave too much light never learn to cope with the inevitable moments of shadow and darkness. It's the Blend we must learn to accept ...

Only then can we avoid the Train Tracks ...
                                                                                                          -- Jenni