Archive for February, 2013

INVENTION

Monday, February 25th, 2013

ONE OF THE most interesting people at our neighborhood gatherings is Jim Lea. He’s in his 90s now and sits in a wheel chair and he’s great to talk to. He is an inventor – his most famous invention being the Therm-a-rest mattress, beloved by backpackers everywhere.

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Jim started out as a Boeing engineer, one of 50,000 employees laid off in a scary downturn in 1971. Being out of work gave him more time for backpacking. But he was tired of waking up in the woods on a cold, flat air mattress. His inspiration came when he was kneeling on a gardening cushion. He realized the open-cell foam had a memory. He and fellow out-of-work engineer Neil Anderson rigged a sandwich maker to melt airtight fabric to the foam. They added a valve, and the prototype that birthed a multi-million dollar business was created.

jimlea

I asked Jim how he decides what to invent. He answered, “What do you need?”

SINCE THEN, my friends and I have come up with a few needs:

• A website called “MeetYouHalfway.com” into which you enter two locations and find the best meeting place and activities between you and your friend. I googled this idea. Someone is already working on it.

• A slimline Kleenex box with opening on the side for easy dispensing from the car sidepocket.

• A Lift Chair that not only lifts a sitter to standing but pinches her toosh and says, “You’re still hot.” I would hire Denzel Washington to do the voiceover.

I THINK ABOUT INVENTION in terms of writing, too, of course. Jim’s question, “What do you need?” can be a challenging one to answer.

Is there a story I need to tell? All these years of composting life into story have established my writing habit as a way of thinking. I write to find out what I think, thereby identifying need?

Perhaps it’s easier to consider what any particular story needs. What combination of character, voice, emotion, tension, pacing, metaphor, revelation, etc. are necessary to invent a story? I scratch around, trying one thing or another. Maybe for me, like Jim, some time in the garden will lead to inspiration.

Want to get inventive? Ask yourself: What do I need? Then share here your ideas for inventions — as well as the stories that are evoked by how you answer this question.

The Kindness of Children

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Last week when I visited the fifth grade where I volunteer, the kids were deep into a math/art project. They were each making a mobile that demonstrated something about fractions. It involved tying tiny knots and balancing cards hung from strings along a dowel. Soon it was evident that some kids were better at the knot tying and others at the balancing. Small groups gathered as they helped each other. Along with fractions came this other, more important lesson. A spirit of cooperation prevailed.

It’s just one reason I love hanging out with kids. That kindness thing.

I have benefited greatly from the kindness of children. Like the letter from a second grader who wrote: “Here’s an idea. Zelda and Ivy go to the movies. You take it from there.”

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Perhaps you are flailing around for a character. Here are some extra characters offered to me by a student at Sharpstein Elementary in Walla Walla, which I, in turn, offer to you:

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I have been listening to Martin Seligman’s book on the psychology of happiness, Flourish. One of his ideas for increasing your happiness is to plan and carry out an act of kindness. Research shows that such actions boost your sense of well-being. I think the fifth graders whose nimble fingers tied knots and balanced mobiles experienced that.

I know that children also have a great capacity for cruelty. But today I am thinking about kindness and wondering if you have any thoughts or stories to add to mine.


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