Monday, July 29, 2013

Embarrassing Moments

I thought it would be a good idea to give my middle school students a prompt that would force them to use descriptive techniques. 
First, we discussed what devices they might use, and they suggested the usual – the figures of speech often mentioned in their grammar books – simile, metaphor, and personification.  Another group of kids suggested incorporating the senses:  sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. 
We were on a roll. I urged them to think of more ideas that would help them “show not tell,” and after some consideration, one child offered selecting the most appropriate point of view, and we discussed how stories change when told from third person or first person POV. 
It was only then that I gave them their prompt – they were to write about their most embarrassing moment.  We brainstormed a few ideas, and they giggled at some of mine. I gave them a timeline for this writing project and what components they needed to include for grades, and they set off to work.
They prewrote and drafted.  They advised and critiqued each other’s work. They revised and polished into a final draft. I assigned grades throughout each step of the process, but now it was my turn to grade the final product.  
One girl wrote about stepping off the school bus and finding her boyfriend’s legs sticking out from under his car.  Since he was either changing the oil or tightening a bolt and could not defend himself, she thought it funny to unzip his jeans and open his fly before running into the house.  Imagine her embarrassment when she found her boyfriend in the kitchen helping himself to a soda, and his best friend walked in from outside, bewildered and zipping his pants.
Another middle schooler wrote about running to his mother’s rescue when he heard her screaming bloody murder in her bedroom (there had been a lot of break-ins in the neighborhood lately) only to find mom having noisy sex with her new boyfriend.
A third child (remember these were eighth graders) recounted in full descriptive detail the “talk” her mom gave her about puberty. What should have been a memorable mother-daughter moment, ended up sounding like x-rated baby talk since Mom couldn’t bring herself to use the correct anatomical names for the body parts.
I obviously had not explained the prompt correctly. All three of these descriptive papers could get the students expelled from school and me fired from teaching.
I consulted with the principal and we discussed the phenomenon of unintended consequences.  I counseled with the individual students and told them they would get grades according to the rubric for all their work, but their stories were inappropriate for the classroom. I met with the parents and explained what had happened and gave them the students’ papers. They could decide what to do with the stories.
I used the prompt again the following year, but this time I approached it with caution.  I did not tell them about the previous year, but I explained that not all embarrassing moments need to be documented in 8th grade English class.  They were to choose something appropriate that could be read aloud to the class and could be shown to their parents and the principal.
The students wrote about safe subjects – tripping, falling, running into things. The work was a lot tamer.  Some were funny; some were clever, and the prompt achieved what it was supposed to achieve – the children practiced using several descriptive devices
But between you and me, I don’t remember any of them.  I only remember that memorable first crop of uncensored naughty stories.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Death of a Child

I lost a grandson a year ago.  His death was caused by a freak household accident that claimed his life within hours.  No one had time to do more than react and pray for the best.
For once in my life I had no words of wisdom for my daughter, no remedy or solution that would make everything better.  I stood by while she heard the words no parent ever wants to hear – her child, her baby, was not responding to everything the trauma medical team was  frantically trying. 
Her twenty-two-month-old child was dying.
One moment her fearless little boy was bombing around the house playing and climbing on furniture, the next he was injured and quiet. What should have been a boo-boo made better with mommy kisses, ended up a fatality.
I try not to relive the horror of that night, but sometimes I struggle to sleep.  I wait until my eyes close from exhaustion and I wake a few hours later with a start.  Sadness and fear chase me in my dreams.
I do not dare imagine what goes through my daughter and my son-in-law’s dreams.  They were there.  They saw the baby’s injury a second after it happened.
I know that the stages of grief are recursive, that right when you think you are progressing well onto the next stage you fall back onto the first step all over again. There must be a different set of rules of recovery when one loses a child.  Maybe there isn’t any. The universe as you know it has been turned upside down.
Death should come after one has led a long, full life.  Death should be top-down and not robbing us of babies who have yet learned to create full sentences, tie their shoes, or use the potty like a big boy.
I believe in a good God and in an afterlife.  That is some comfort, but it does not assuage the huge loss and the extreme regret we all feel. 
There is one less in our family.
My daughter’s house is full of reminders.  His older brother inherited some of his toys.  His sister and brothers recall funny instances and pranks he used to play, and a day does not go by that his parents do not say his name.  

Our memories are all in past tense but our feelings for that fearless, funny, little boy are still tender and painful to the touch. Our lives were blessed by him but it is little consolation when our arms ache to hold him and we try to make sense of life without him.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Shy, Silent Boy

The principal’s secretary interrupted my class and said she would cover my students, but I was needed immediately at the front desk.  Several folks pretended urgent business in the open foyer and watched while a uniformed officer handed me a court summons.
I was needed to testify as a character witness in a child custody case concerning the little brother of an ex-student. 
I faintly remembered the young man. He had been in my remedial reading class several years previous.  He preferred to read all my Choose Your Own Adventure books than hang out with his friends in the play yard before school.  We talked about the books he liked, and I would purchase as many as I could find of that genre. He would tell me about them and I listened but I never read them myself.  I didn’t find them interesting.
His reading level improved that year and as expected so did his grades and his attitude. His other teachers noticed a positive change in him, but when he graduated to the high school, I forgot about him until I was served the summons.    
*     *     *
I showed up early at the court house because the lawyer wanted to talk to me. The parents divorced while the father served time in prison, but now that the dad had been released early, he wanted visitation rights for the younger brother.  
When the teenager realized this, it forced him to tell his mother something he had never told anyone in his life - his father had sexually abused him for years - ugly, unimaginable things.  It had started when he was a baby until the year his dad went to prison, the year I had the boy in class.
He kept silent as long as his father did it only to him and stayed away from his little brother. Since he would not be able to protect the little brother if his father got visitation rights, he found his courage and told about his painful past.  
Why was I there?  A child psychologist and I were to tell about the year I had him in class.  I was there to tell about the change I saw in the boy, and defend the integrity of the shy teenager who sat silently in my room reading adventure books.
I had to return to school the next day, so I never heard the verdict, but before I left the court house the lawyer told me that the mood in the room changed after I was questioned and the child psychologist explained why the boy chose me, and why he sat quietly in my room instead of being outside with boys his age.
He used the books as an excuse to be near me, since he had nothing in common with the boys his age.  He felt safe in my classroom, reading adventure books, while I piddled around, dusting chalkboard erasers and straightening workbooks, unaware that every time he initiated a conversation, he was trying to find a way to break his silence.
It took the threat of his brother’s safety to force him to tell his mother.
The lawyer said the judge was a child advocate and the father would not get visitation rights; instead he would be charged with sexual abuse of a minor.
The boy’s mother thanked me for helping her son, but all I did was allow a boy to sit in my room and read paperback books. He was the one who deserved our focus.  He not only survived and persevered through one of the ugliest horrors a child could ever face, but he stood up to his father and saved his brother’s life.  

So here I sit thirty years later. I think of that shy, silent boy every time I hear or read of cases like his. I pray his story ended well.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Aging Sucks, Revised

I have removed all reflective surfaces in my house, drawn the shades against the sunlight, and use only low-wattage bulbs. 

I buy skin lotions by the vat and refuse to go outside during peak ultraviolet hours. I wear only loose, dark-colored clothes, long sleeves (even in summer), and high necklines. 

I foster a symbiotic relationship with my internist and dentist, consulting in secret over intimate and, heretofore, chaste body parts that have stopped aging and are starting to erode.

I have a love-hate relationship with elastic. I love how it makes clothes easier to slip on and off, but hate that I no longer have any of my own - everything sags and nothing perks. 
I am a Boomer and I am aging, and like Dylan Thomas once advised, I am not going gently into this phase of my life. 

My lenses are getting thicker along with my waist and behind. My skin is thinning along with my hair and temper. My once sexy voice has slowed to a slower RPM and there is distinct catch in my cadence. 

Instead of “cute,” people dare to call me “spry;" instead of "hot," men call me "cute." 

The worst part of all of this, I have what I call the "Betty White Curse." On any given day and at any given time, I am usually the oldest person in the room. 

I am okay with this for right now. People still notice me and include me in their conversations.  They ask my advice.  The real clincher will be when I am just part of the furniture and everyone talks about me the third person. When that happens, I am going to bat them with my cane. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Learning to Write in Five Easy Steps

1.     Read.  Read something you enjoy, but be aware why you like it and use that to teach yourself.  Never plagiarize, but analyze, study, and try your hand at a mentor sentence. Copy it onto paper, dissect it, and use its structure to form your own creation.

2.    Finish a project all the way through to its finished manuscript form. Have someone read it, but ask them specific things to look for – Where is it difficult to understand? Where was the pacing slow?  What would you edit out?  What would you have added? Listen carefully to their suggestions and consider them while your revise and edit for one last time.

3.    Learn the business.  Unless you are writing to store all your work in the top drawer of your dresser, or to bore relatives with private readings at Thanksgiving, you will need to learn where to market your work.  You will need to learn how to market your work. What editors or agents would represent you the best? Who publishes your genre?  How do you gain a readership?  How do you sell your product, especially in this brave new world of self-publishing and e-books?

4.    Feed your body, mind, and soul. Whether your sit, stand, or lay down while writing make sure you mix it up.  Find time to exercise once a day.  Eat well balanced meals.  Meditate, pray, read uplifting materials. Read something totally opposite from the genre you write.  If you write fiction, try non-fiction.  If you write novels, read poetry. Socialize with others and keep in touch with the outside world.  Do good deeds. Caring for your body and your mind helps to feed your soul.

5.  Never stop learning and creating. Learn a new dance, try a new recipe, take a trip, make a new friend, then grab your laptop or a pen – and write.  There is no substitute for it – to learn to write, you have to actually do it. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Scuttling My Ships

Like Hernán Cortés, the infamous conquistador, I have decided to scuttle my ships and march forward to meet my destiny at all cost. Knowing I would retreat at the first sign of unpleasantness, I ditched all my other options and chose one course – forward. There is no looking back.

Cortés took on the whole Aztec Empire against all odds, and succeeded in defeating two great leaders, Moctezuma and later Cuauhtémoc, thus claiming Tenochtitlán and the whole interior of Mexico in the name of God and king.

Or so he said at his trial.  

In reality, Cortés could care less for either (he was an immoral and greedy man), and his tactics and character left much to be desired, but his determination is admirable.

I love the whole bit about scuttling all the ships so his men had no other option but to go with him into battle (and possibly live), or to stay behind and let the hostile territory or its inhabitants kill them off one by one.  

Now that is what I call guts.

Last January I decided it was time to march forward and meet my own destiny.  No more writing as a hobby; it was now or never to make it my profession.  There will be no massacres (except those done grammatically), no backstabbing (well, maybe just a little envy for those already published), and no plundering (unless we count the millions of hours I could be spending cementing my marriage instead of rewriting Chapter Six).

Like Cortes, I am going for the gold.

Monday, July 8, 2013

An Old Friend

The Jeep Liberty had six miles on the odometer when I drove it out of the car lot. Twelve years, three batteries, and two sets of tires later, it might be time to move on.

I’ve taken good care of her, had her oil changed every three thousand miles, her wiper blades twice a year, but I’ve had to replace all four of the motors on the automatic windows and the back door no longer cooperates like it used to do.  

The radio died last month, and the air conditioner and the heater work only on high.  The inside lights come on when they want to, the air bag light never turns off (one of the many recalls this car has been subjected to that the company no longer bothers to honor), and every once in a while that little Aladdin’s lamp on my dash board turns on, but I’ve had that checked and nothing is wrong.

There are two pronounced chinks on the front windshield that I had fixed, but the red bomber has weathered many hail storms so if you look at the windshield from a certain angle there are many others. It has dings as well, and that is not counting the accident caused by a man without car insurance who rammed into its rear years ago when she was still brand new. The extra tire attached to the back door saved my car from severe damage, and me from certain death since the gas tank is situated back there.  (That’s another recall that the company is hoping people will ignore.) 

The seats are stained and worn, testimony to the thousands of dollars of take out that didn’t get home inside their containers, and the many times it carried grandsons to and fro from school, soccer, or swimming.

Before I trade her in for the new car, I will have to empty the trunk – the road emergency kit I haven’t opened in years, a child’s booster seat, and a forward-facing child seat.  There’s an unfolded aluminum sun shade, a broken umbrella I keep for emergencies, and a dozen recyclable grocery tote bags.

In the storage compartment that separates the two front seats, there’s a lighter, a dozen drive-through napkins, a pair of scissors, and a sock. The glove compartment has the usual stuff – the car manual, proof of insurance for the last twelve years, and the car’s original sales flyer.

I’ve been shopping for the last year for a new ride, and I get lots of advice as to the make and the model, the color and the energy efficiency, but in the end I find it difficult to let go of my old friend.

We’ve been through so much together, both good and bad. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Marine Mom’s Fourth of July

I wrote the following on April 10, 2003.  Back then I used to write a weekly column for a local newspaper. I cut it down a little so I could share it with you for the Fourth of July 2013. The price of freedom is never free.   

After three months of sporadic emails, almost non-existent phone calls, and sparse letters, I came home the other day to find a package in my mailbox from my Marine son fighting in Iraq. 

I was stunned and delighted to find a padded brown envelope addressed to me.  Inside wrapped in a Ziploc freezer bag, I found a foreign-made throwaway camera, dusty with sand.  The bag was opaque and brittle from use.  Everything I send to him I wrap in these bags.  His life is so Spartan that I am glad he finds uses for them.

I sped with the camera to have the photos developed and waited there until the tech handed them to me.  I opened them immediately.

Pictures of helicopters, sand, and Hummers - then I flipped to a picture of my son holding an M-60, and it hit me so hard, I started to cry.

A man looks up at me from these pictures.  He rarely smiles.  He points to things so I can see what he sees. He looks older.  He looks fit.  He has gained weight and muscle.  In every picture there is an M-60 or an M-16, and I realize it is what keeps my young warrior alive. This is what will bring him home.

More pictures – of him, of his friends, some whom I know from backyard picnics and Saturday night’s spent at my house while they watched movies.  Other young men smile at me though we have never been introduced.  A wife, a mother would appreciate a copy of these photos, so I scanned them and sent them to the Marine Key Volunteer so she could identify them and send them to the other families in my son’s unit.

I carry those photos with me from room to room in my house.  I store them in my purse so they can go with me wherever I go. They are reminders that he is alive and well.

I rush home every day and look in the mailbox anticipating another package, but all I find are bills and junk mail.  But what I really want is to rush home and find a six-foot Marine waiting for me in the living room, a smile on his sweet face.

PS:  My son has since served two more times, 2005 in Iraq and 2010 in Afghanistan.

Monday, July 1, 2013

I love You, Nora Roberts!

Years ago (we’re talking early 80’s), a friend of mine handed me a paperback.  It reminded me of you, she said.  I was flattered until I started reading the story.  The main character was a single mom with more children than money.  I had three kids and I was married (though my husband wasn’t, but that’s another story), so I was curious about the connection my friend saw between the book and me.

I returned the book to my friend the following Monday and asked her what she meant. The main character did remind me of you, she said, but you could write like that.  You could be a writer.

I was shocked.  Oh, I dabbled in diaries and journals when I was a preteen.  I wrote a few poems in high school and college – over rhymed diatribes riddled in love-angst melodrama, but no one (including me) had ever "seen" me as a writer.

I decided to study Nora’s budding career. I became her number one fan.  (We’re talking an Annie Wilkes kind of obsession.)  I bought every one of her books.

When I discovered she was presenting at a Romantic Times conference a few years later, I went. I sat at the very front of her session, ready to capture every bit of her wisdom. 

She walked to the microphone when it was time to start the discussion. Let me warn you, she said.  I am here to answer questions about the writing profession. I am not here to entertain fans.  

The way she said fans, made me shift in my chair and wipe off my “I love you, Nora Roberts!” smile. 

She talked about the difficulty of making a career from writing. There was nothing romantic or easy about it, she said.  It was a business. To achieve professionalism and make this a success, one had to work at it on a daily basis.

I was not offended by her no-nonsense approach; I was inspired. 

I love you, Nora Roberts!