Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Flash Fiction: Beloved Sister

I read "Going Long. Going Short," from the Opinion section of the New York Times about flash fiction (read it here). The last couple weeks I've attempted to write flash fiction in response to Chuck Wendig's challenges. Those have been fun. In the NYT's piece, Grant Faulkner mentions writing fiction of a 100 words or less. I liked this idea, so i thought'd I give it a try today as my sort of writing exercise. 

Beloved Sister

Morning covers the wooded backyard in soft simplicity. It's like daddy's serious whispers. We never tuned in to those very often. 

Not much gets seen around here, neither. 

Usually, it’s stampede out the door.  Honk my way to work. Velcro myself in for ten hours. Push my exhausted ass home. Nibble at a Lean Cuisine. Look at a few glowing screens. Snore through the nightly news. 

It’s funny that I’m still sitting here looking at it. The phone just rang a moment ago. Maggie’s gone. She’s really gone. 

You know, everything looks more real in the morning time. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: Breaking on the Track

This flash-fiction piece represents my response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge from August 22. 

The rules were to create a story that was all action. No more than 1,000 words. Well, I'm kinda in the penalty box on both accounts. But, here's my try. (Warning: this is a violent story). 


Breaking on the Track

Del Small entered the crime seen. The area under the overpass was swarming with police and crime scene investigators.

Though short and skinny, Del pushed bruisers twice her size out of the way as she waded through the mess. Her presence loomed large.

She reached the center of the all the commotion: the corpse. Bruised and naked, the woman was hanging, arms outstretched, from the overpass. Del held her breath and pushed back a knot moving upstream toward the bone above her heart.

"Like the fucking crucifixion," Landon said as Del stepped into the  huddle of detectives.

"Get her down, for Christ's sake,” she said, her pony tail flapping at each word. That little bone she felt in her chest started to buckle.  “She's been up there long enough.”

Landon gestured to the Sergeant. Officers snapped the last photos of the slain prostitute and took her down. 

"Another kilt hooker, and I gotta blow my Sunday morning," one of the young cops said, walking by.

Del grabbed his arm, spun him around, and smacked his face. His eyes bulged as though he’d been bitten by a snake.

"You talk like that again about one of these women, and I'll have your balls. And your badge. You got it?"

"Yes m-ma'am," he stuttered, pulling away. 

She shook her head. 

“Her name’s Bette,” she said, turning back to the huddle. 

Fucking pricks. These women had bad enough lives. She pushed back through the throng of investigators, got in her truck, and sped off. 

“Jumping Jesus!” she cursed while driving around the slow-ass drivers on the expressway.

It was then that the little heart bone snapped. Something she’d been holding down flowed up into her neck and head.  

She decided to dig up Jasmine Grimm. She needed the backup. 

The truck’s tires squalled as Del turned the corner and stopped at her house. She hopped down from the truck and walked quick, determined steps into her house. In the closet, Jasmine hung on a styrofoam head. 


Six inch heels, a flashy dress, a colorful face, crinkled chestnut locks, and hoop earrings. It had been years since she’d been undercover on the track. 

She boarded a bus headed toward Route 6.  She plopped down next to a lady with cotton ball hair. The lady snatched her purse away and held it tight with her curled arthritic hands. 

She didn’t have enough proof, but she knew it was Chainsaw Greene, a gangster working for Johnny Ford. She’d gotten an eye-witness report. Sort of.  You could see a yes in someone’s eyes even when they said something else. 

The image of the Bette dangling like a fish from the overpass kept swirling around in Del’s brain. She saw the dirt and grass burns  on the body. 

When the last victim, Alicia McGregor,  got murdered, Bette had called the cops. She was working on the track nearby when Chainsaw started gutting Alicia.  

Bette had moved toward the electrifying scream like a bug to a zapper.

Afterward, Del sat with Bette in the police station, comforting her and trying to get answers.  

Bette sat before a few rows of pictures. Del, on a hunch, pushed one out. Bette said, “I told you. I couldn’t see who it was.” 

But the real answer was in her eyes. 

Del got off the bus at the Stagnet Motel and walked around the corner. A car pulled up. A red cherry poked through the slit in the window, and smoke curly-cued out. 

"Get in," said a greasy voice. This was just another sleezer. Not Chainsaw.

Her heals slapped the pavement, defiant, and dismissive. 

“Come on, honey. I got lots of cash.”

The car lurched ahead of her and popped up on the curb. Undaunted, she kept walking. The driver door opened. A large man with a round belly and a pumpkin head hoisted himself up from the seat. 

“Yo, bitch, you heard me. I know you did. I got somethin’ for you to work on,” he grabbed under his hanging gut and lifted his tiny twiddler up and down. 

The chomping heels stopped right in front of him. Del looked him up and down and laughed. Then sighed. 

“Can’t you talk bitch? I got three hundred. And maybe if your good, some blow.”

She walloped his crotch. He doubled over. She put a knee right in the middle of his pumpkin head. There was a crack. 

“You broke my nose, you cunt,” he yelled behind her as she walked on. 

Her knee throbbed. His tooth had cut into her flesh. 

A HumV pulled into the motel lot. Del had a little tickle in her gut; this was the one. A blue glow came from inside the Hummer. The window rolled down.  A face turned toward her at the sound of her incoming claps on the pavement. 

When she saw the face, the tickle turned into a clawing. His face was a prickly white cactus. It was Chainsaw alright. Only the momentum of the heels kept Del clicking toward the HumV.

“You looking for some fun?” she smiled at the face. 

He looked at her with a sneer. His stout frame heaved in a drag from an electric cigarette. 

“How’s your snatch. It clean?”

“Well, honey, it can smell like roses for the right price.”

His gaze bore into her brain. “What’s your price?”

“Fifty for yank, a hundred for a suck, and two-fifty for a fuck.”

“Get in,” he said.

They sped down the turnpike into the factory district, which was vacant except for a couple cars bouncing up and down to a vibrating beat. The ass end of a girl was sticking out of a Charger. A hand grabbed the girl’s hair and pulled her down. 

“Fucker,” Del mumbled under he breath. 


“Fuck it,” she said. “I forgot to pay my light bill.” She feared she was losing her touch.  

He pulled into an alley and turned off the Hummer. 

“This way,” he said, leading her to a hidden door. They went down a dark hall and turned into an office. It was long and wide with a bed at the far end. 

“Let’s have a drink,” he said, pouring two bourbons. 

She drank a swig, and sat on the bed.

“We gonna get down to business, or ain’t we?” she said.

“Looks like you had a bad customer earlier,” he pointed to her knee. 

“Occupational hazard.”

He took off his shirt and pants and pulled her against him and held her face into his fat chest. She couldn’t draw a breath. She slapped against his arms, but he held on. Her lungs began to burn.

He pushed her down on the bed and cackled at her. She bounced up and slipped past him. 

“I know who you are and you won’t be raping any more women, asshole,” she said. 

“Oh, is that so?” He laughed. 

Del swung a leg toward his face, but he caught it and brought her down. He pulled her toward him and slammed her against the wall.

She began to roll herself up, but he got on top of her. She reached under her skirt and pulled out a knife. The blade sank into his belly. 

Before he could yell, she sliced through his throat, which gurgled as air and blood bubbled through the hole. 

Chainsaw sat up on his knees and reached out for her, but she back away and stood against the wall. She side-kicked his head; it fell back, revealing a soft fold of windpipe gasping for life. 

She looked down it to see if he had a heart bone. Nothing. Just like she thought. 

She pushed him over,  and grabbed up his nuts and bolt. His little eggs looked like they’d pop out from her grip. 

“No more rapes for you fucker,” Del said sawing away. 

Blood splattered her face. The throat gurgled hard and the body jerked. Then all went quiet. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Baby Blue - Flash Fiction Challenge

This is my story for Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge this week. The directions were to write a story using a color in its title. 1000 words is the limit.

Baby Blue

by Chuck Knight

Zan and Mary were expecting a little boy. In a month, he’d enter the world, wide eyed, all the world a blur. 

This was their first baby. Things were looking good, right from the start. The genetic counselling suggested the future was bright.

Today Mary would have another check up. “There’s no need to worry. Really,” Dr. Hinkle said. But they did worry. 

“Even if the baby came out--” Mary said.

“Different-” Zan inserted.

“Yeah, different. I’d love him, of course. I feel him more everyday,” Mary said, her eyes searching Zan’s.

“Me too,” he said, nodding.  “I’d love him no matter what.”

In secret, Zan crossed his fingers and said a little prayer, before going to work. During the entire walk to work, Zan tucked his head.  

At work, he replenished the produce department, said hi to customers, but kept his head tucked. 

At lunch, he sat staring at his PB&J sandwich.

“Can I join you?” Jenny said. 

Not looking away from his food, Zan grunted consent. 

“So, it’s a month now, right?” Jenny said. 

“What?” Zan looked up. “Yes, yes! A month now.”

“You and Mary must be excited,” Jenny said, unzipping her lunch.

“Oh, yes. Yes, we are,” Zan smiled. The smile faded. 

“Jenny,” he said. “What was it like when you found out that Daniella was--”

“Autistic. I was relieved.”


“Yep. Relieved. It explained a lot of things and helped us take care of her better.  At first, I thought it was just her personality to not smile every time I smiled at her or to follow things. I figured she didn’t care, but then I knew something was a little off.”

Zan bit into his sandwich and nodded.

“Listen, I know what it’s like to worry about your baby turning out OK,” Jenny said. “It’s normal to worry.”

Zan choked down the rest of his PB&J and went back to work. 

When Zan got home, Mary was still gone. He flipped on the TV, and surfed through a barrage of nothing, finally stopping on Rosemary’s Baby. 

It was on the part where Rosemary goes into labor and gets sedated by Dr. Sapirstein. Zan watched as Rosemary’s discovers that she’s just become the portal of Satan’s spawn. 

“She just rocks him and smiles?” Zan said out loud. 

He heard the door. 


No reply.  He heard steps go down the hall to the bedroom. He rose and walked down to the bedroom.  The door was pushed to.

“Mary?” He called, entering the room. 

She lay on her side, away from him.

“Mary, you OK?”

He wrapped his arms around her. “What did Dr. Hinkle say?”

She wiped a tear from her eyes. 

“Is the baby OK?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well, what did he say?”

“When our baby comes out, he’s going to be a little different,” she said.

“Like what?”

“Blue,” she said turning toward him.

“Blue? What does that mean?”

“Blue! It means blue!” she shouted at him. She rose and went into the bathroom.

Zan went back to the den and sat in front of a blackened TV screen. He rocked, gentle and serene.

Mary emerged from the bedroom, and began making dinner. 

They ate in silence. 

At the end of the meal, Zan reached for Mary’s hand.

“He’ll be the most loved blue baby in all of history, Mary,” he said. “I don’t care.”

She released a breath that she’d held onto all evening. She nodded her head. 

“I can’t imagine not loving this baby for something stupid like color,” she said. 

That night they began to plan for having a blue baby. The nursery, which had been green, was to be repainted blue. They’d get blue curtains and blue blinds, and blue lamps and lampshades. They’d get blue sheets, and a blue baby comforter. Hell, they’d even buy Smurfs to hang above the baby. 

They were going to let the baby know, as soon as he could begin to know blue, that he was fine. 

They worked all day Saturday overhauling the baby’s room. 

She and Zan were having a baby shower on Sunday. Holding out till the shower, they hadn’t announced the sex of the baby yet.

They decided to tell all at the shower. They ordered a blue cake, blue plates, blue napkins, blue utensils, and blue balloons.

The baker said, “So it’s a boy, yes?”

“Oh yes, a blue boy,” Mary said when she picked up the cake. The baker smiled and nodded but, when she’d left, he chuckled, a little uncomfortable. 

Everyone at the shower, seeing all the blue, looked knowingly at Mary and Zan. Zan’s friends patted him on the back. 

“Boys have much energy,” Mary’s mother said to her. 

“Mother we’ve not said anything about the sex,” Mary said.

“But, all this blue?” her mother replied.

Mary laughed. She flattened her blue napkin on her lap and looked at it. 

“There’s more to the blue than just the sex,” Mary said smiling. 

Her mother searched Mary’s face for signs of stress or fever.

“I’m OK, Mom, really,” Mary rose and pulled Zan away from his friends. They whispered back and forth. 

Zan quieted everyone down and said, “Yes, as you have gathered, we’re having a boy.”

Everyone clapped.

“That’s not all,” Mary said. “He will be blue.”

The claps slowed and stopped. Zan and Mary explained and answered questions. From this point on, people smiled at them in a different way than before. 

Angered, Zan was determined to shelter their baby from such palpable pity. 

The day of labor came. Baby “Blue” (as they decided to name him) entered our world at 11:58 pm on an April night. 

The doctor looked surprised.

“What is it? Is Blue ok?”

Zan held Mary’s hand as the doctor presented a bright (normal) pink baby boy.

“But, we expected a blue-” Zan said.

Mary squeezed Zan’s hand, a signal between them that he’d best be quiet. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Util-i-not, or How to Live Life (StoredStory#22)

One summer afternoon, I lay on a wooden A-frame swing, pushed myself back and forth, a looked into the canopy of the elm tree, not really seeing leaves, but seeing a thousand thoughts and embracing them as best I could.
I sometimes sit and stare into space sometimes, imagining things, pondering things, asking questions, reflecting on life, and communing with myself. On this particular summer afternoon, my partner poked his head outside and asked, "What are you doing?"

 "Enjoying nature," I replied. He shook his head, ducked back inside, and slid the glass door closed.

I wonder how many people find sitting with yourself (minus a TV) to be odd. I find it enjoyable. Sitting with no added stimulation other than the natural environment or reclining in the peacefulness of your own home, devoid of much noise is one of the sanest things I think we can do. Some might find these moments to be without much use. To that, I would reply we can't measure everything by use. We can't measure much of life by its use. Life is an experience, with no purpose other than being a human being, not a human doing.

Most of my life I've been a dreamer. As such, I see life as an experience, as a journey, even; this is perhaps why I don't fit in so well with the values of world of business. It's not that I haven't tried to fit in with the culture of utility, measurement, success, achievement, productivity, etc. I have tried. It drives me crazy. It's like putting a bag over a cat's head. Cats will back up till they are out of the bag. I've wanted to back up out of my bag, but it's a pretty big bag, this thing called American culture.

I once tried to explain the my experience of getting lost in my writing. I related how I got so immersed in a writing session that I failed to notice the darkness of night envelope me. The listener said, "It's a way to pass the time." His remark startled me to my bones. Is life only a series of events where we search for things to pass the time? And pass the time till when? What are we waiting on? Something magical to happen? A great epiphany? Death?

Life is not about utility or passing the time. Life is about experience. Life cannot be measured by how usefully we use our time. Life's value comes in the experiences we have and share with others. We can only savour the moment.
I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.- Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman writes about sitting with oneself and experiencing what it means to be alive. For him, we touch real life by loafing. Even though sitting with "nothing to do" is frowned upon, we need to loaf more often. Even if we can't do it for long periods, I think having fifteen to thirty minutes every day to just sit and be would make life feel better.

 So, to make a "useful" list for how to live life, I sum up my thoughts with the following:

1. Sit, lie, float (loaf) all by your lonesome every day for a few minutes. Dream, meditate, pray. Whatever it is that works for communing with the self.
2. Try to see life not as a series of to-do's or filled with activities to merely pass the time, but as an experience.
3. Find something you enjoy just for the sake of doing it. Get lost in it. Lose yourself like a kid at play. 4. Do number one with another person from time to time.
5. Remember life is short. What are you waiting on? Oh wait, stop waiting and LIVE!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dad (StoredStory #21)

Taken by Dad June 2013

It has been a while since I wrote a StoredStory. A little over a month ago, my dad passed away. Since that time, I've been trying to work through the grieving process--it truly is a process.

I began writing this not too long after he died, but I stopped because I felt I needed more time before sending it into the world.  I wanted to write a sort of memorial story about him. This is dedicated to him.

The sky was a dullish gray, stormy, and the florescent lights above me glowed like white light sabers. In the garage, I had jacked up my 1983 Pontiac 2000, had gotten the wheels off, and began the removal of the brake pads. With a Reader's Digest car maintenance book beside me, I worked as far as I could go, but I had questions that the book could not answer, questions that only someone with experience and know-how could answer. I was just a seventeen-year-old kid.

I am not a natural at mechanics; being too skittish I'll break something, I never push myself far enough. On this particular occasion, I was in a real need for a brake repair, and  I had adopted my dad's do-it-yourself mentality. Yet, I was inexperienced. Unfortunately, my dad was sick with a stomach bug and was in bed. Ordinarily, he would have done the job, but I decided to do it.

Despite feeling really sick, Dad worked as my consultant. I would go inside with a question, he would describe what I needed to do, then I would return to the garage. Then another question, another patient instruction, and my return the garage. This went on a few times.

With his help, I was able to successfully replace my brake pads; that day, my dad was a patient teacher even though he felt like crap and couldn't get out of bed.

Even in moments where he wasn't patient with my willfulness, we could always laugh about it later. One time I was being obstinate over learning multiplication. He got a little flustered and asked me, "What's two times three, six?" We all burst into laughs and would chuckle anytime we recounted this story.

Yet, I finally learned to listen when I needed help with the brakes. He had a great deal of mechanical knowledge, accumulated over a lifetime of living and working on a family farm, working as a mechanic, studying electricity, working at Pan American Airlines, owning an RCA TV repair shop, supervising maintenance teams at Armstrong Rubber Company. The list goes on.

On Friday, May 9, 2014, Dad passed away. This has been a difficult loss. Yet, I am happy to think on the life my dad led, to think about the many facets of his personality, and the many interests he had. As all humans are, he was a multi-sided man. That's the beauty of human life--we are often many things, often seemingly contradictory, but these are parts of a whole. My dad's life exemplifies this mystery of being human.

He was practical and pragmatic. He often said things like: "Your home is where you hang your hat" and "Make it a good day!" He saw a job as a means to survive, not as a career that offered a fulfilling pathway. Yet, he was creative. He played the guitar, which he taught himself to play when he was a young man still at home with his parents. He enjoyed playing in an instrumental band for a while.

When I was a kid, he signed up for a correspondence course in photography. Mom and I were sometimes models for his homework, but we also shared the spotlight with Shirley-- a Styrofoam head with a brunette wig. Dad continued to take hundreds of photos for the rest of his life. He loved taking pictures of nature and wildlife. I have the last pictures he ever made on my phone; he had taken some beautiful shots of some flowers and a sunset and had texted them to me.
Taken by Dad June 2013

Dad also painted in the style of Bob Ross; he put happy little trees all over canvasses, framing mountain scenes with coniferous branches. For a few years, each elementary school teacher I had received a painting for Christmas, which often earned me jeers and taunts from my fellow classmates, who felt sure I was getting a bump in grades. He was asked to do a painting of our church upon its 100th anniversary. He had been provided an early photo of a clapboard building nestled against the trees and large hill. The painting still hangs in the church to this day, I believe.

For a while, he and our neighbor made wooden crafts. The most memorable of these crafts are a jackass with overalls, the rooster from Looney Tunes, and bikini-wearing geese.

He also wrote sermons that he often delivered on Wednesday nights at our church. He would type them out on a manual Royal typewriter, which I would sometimes bang on while he tended to bills or other items in his office.

Dad was strong willed, determined, not afraid to stand up to people. Yet, he was tender-hearted, friendly, and a jokester. He kept his word, even when it was difficult. He cried when he prayed. He would cry when he told me he loved me. He always greeted people with a cheerful smile. And, he loved humor and would often find some way to laugh. He would joke even when he was ill.

He loved to tell stories from his life; I would hear the same tales many times over the course of my childhood. Many involved his years of growing up, of playing high school football, of serving in the army, and the rough work of policing, the problems encountered supervising at a tire factory, and the woes and joys of life. Yet, perhaps the best thing I heard was how proud he was of me; he felt it was an important message children need to hear.

For the many wonderful memories and moments, I am grateful and will hold them close to my heart forever.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dressed for a Tornado (StoredStory #20)

My grandmother wore slippers and scooted around her house. She wore plain solid dresses during the week--her work attire. For some reason,  a pale lime dress with a rugged texture lingers in my mind as her characteristic wardrobe. She wears that dress in one of the few pictures I have of her.

Children often emulate those they see. Interestingly, I was happy to emulate members from both genders of my family. I tried to walk like an uncle, cross my legs like my dad, cook like my mother, and dress like my grandmother.

As a child, I had a thing for women's clothing of all varieties. I would try to take steps in high heels too large for my boyish feet, I would spin in gowns and sit upon a seat, and I would shuffle in my grandmother's slippers wearing plain dresses. I don't know if this happened often, but the still-frame shots from my childhood slide show suggest this happening on a stormy day. (And there is also that actual photo of me a pink tutu).

One by one the shots go like this: it's dark in my grandparents' kitchen, adults head to the root cellar, I see my slipper feet and a dress that skirts round my leg, I step down onto the first step leading to the cellar, we wait for a tornado to pass.

I suppose I would like to have felt stylish for the storm, or maybe I was just caught by surprise in my grandmother's dress.

I'm not nearly as stylishly brave today, though I long to be sometimes. Perhaps I would care to be dandyish once in a while, but I have no bravery to make the change. Yet, I love the feel of freedom in a t-shirt and jeans; that has been me for years. And then there are those times when I have slipped on women's attire for the masquerade of Halloween. I was Wynonna Judd, which was fun, that one year.

Maybe how we dress shows what roles we have and wish to have. Maybe I'm a nurturing soul with a huge need to relax in comfy cottony t-shirts but with a bigger need to show the world, on occasion, a wildly colorful and vibrant inner life. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Brought Up by Tanglefoot Weed (StoredStory #19)

Tanglefoot weed - (n). a shrub/tree native to South Carolina that my mother often referred to in telling stories of her childhood. Used for spanking naughty children, who are commanded to break the branch with which they are to be whipped. (I think it's mythical, maybe. Or a colloquialism that is specific to South Carolina).*

If Pip in Great Expectations can be said to be brought up by hand, my mother can be said to be brought up by tanglefoot weed.

Often my mom would tell and re-tell stories of being disciplined by tanglefoot weeds. When hearing these stories, I always wondered what they were. (I've never seen one in Tennessee).

Though mom would regale me with stories of whippings with tree branches, she never brought me up by hand or tanglefoot weed. I can count on one hand how many times she actually spanked me. For the most part, discipline from her was verbal. Spanking was the exception, not the norm.

But, when I did cross the threshold into unacceptable behavior, then I would get it. I don't remember the first time my mom spanked me, but I have heard the story. Apparently, we had gone to the grocery store, and I, wearing cowboy boots, decided to kick my mother. I'm not sure why I did it, but it got me into trouble.

Apparently, this spanking caused an exchange. Another customer who had seen the event threatened to call DHS.

"You go right ahead, lady!" my mom challenged.

Mom spanked me the second time because I had wondered off with my father up our mountain. We had twenty-two acres of wooded property in the hills of East Tennessee, and there had been a dirt road cut so we could go up one of the ridges in the truck. A friend was visiting Dad, and I went along with them up the mountain for a fun adventure.

However, the descent landed me in a seething pool of a mother's anger. She had not been informed about me going, so she'd probably imagined I'd been eaten by that panther she said lurked in the yard. Before there could be any explaining about where I'd been, she spanked me because I had wandered off.

The last time Mom spanked me was while we were on vacation in Cataloochee, a pioneer settlement that is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. We had ridden over to the Caldwell House, a beautiful two-story house in blue trim built at the turn of the twentieth century. To get to the house, you have to cross a gully by walking on a log foot bridge. While making my way across, I was "sassing" my mother, a crime I'd been accused of before but one which had no harsh penalty.

I think this time the sassing had pushed her too far, and there was an opportunity to connect me with the mythos of her past. The grounds around the Caldwell house had sprouted the mythical tanglefoot weed I'd heard so much about. Mom broke off a foot-long switch of tanglefoot and introduced me to it.

I recall nothing about the plant: its leaves, its shape, its color are all submerged somewhere in my past. But, its story lives on, and in an odd way, the tanglefoot makes me feel closer to my mom's childhood, though mine was not as harsh or severe as hers.

*I can find no definition or reference through Google or in a dictionary to an actual tanglefoot plant. There is a product called Tanglefoot used to protect trees from insects. There is also a musical reference to a tanglewood tree, but I can find no plant by that name.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Killer Criticism (StoredStory #18)

We stood outside a gas station, just around the corner from my friend Shay's* house. The evening had painted the air a smoky gray. Shay had wanted to get a pack of smokes and a case of Bud Lights.

As we chatted, smoke billowing up from our faces, Shay took note of my two front teeth.

"You know, you could get those sanded down, level," she offered. I imagined some industrial sander held over my mouth as my teeth were rubbed down to the gums.

"It would look better."

At first, I figured it was the L.A. in her that made her think about the aesthetics of my upper, central incisors. It's not like I have vegetable peeling, bunny chompers. They are a little longer than the adjacent teeth. So what? And who was she to give unsolicited cosmetic advice? "Kiss my ass," I said on the inside. I'm sure I flashed a smile in an effort to gracefully take the insult. This unsolicited advice has been filed away, internalized for years now.

I'm not sure that criticism of your physical features (something you obviously didn't choose) counts as advice.

But, I have had advice and constructive criticism on the brain lately, and this story came to mind.

Criticism of any kind is like a killer in a horror movie. It comes in all shapes and sizes.  We run from it, we hate it, we get angry at it, we shield ourselves as it jabs at our egos, and we want to kill it before it kills us. But, if it is constructive (you know the kind--where we are given specific and helpful feedback on some endeavor or behavior of ours) then we can learn from it.

This doesn't mean the criticism is always kindly delivered. And, it doesn't mean that the person is truly motivated by helping you; the advice giving could just be a tool used to inflate the advice-giver's ego. However, (this is worth repeating) if it is constructive, we can learn from it.

I recently read a couple of articles that offer some perspective on giving and taking advice. I think there are some good points in Leo Babauta's thoughts on taking advice. It really helped me dismantle the wall in which I'd trapped one my recent killers.  Leo also offers his wisdom for anyone who does the criticizing.

Matt Walsh has a good point in his article about internalizing criticism that is constructive.

"I ask that you try an experiment. Just do this for a day. Just one day. Try to go about your day under the following four pretenses: 1) You are not perfect. 2) You could stand to improve in every single facet of your life. 3) People who point out your flaws or critique your actions aren't necessarily motivated by cruelty, hatred, and animosity. 4) Some people know how to do certain things better than you know how to do them, and you should be grateful if they take the time to offer you guidance and insight into their areas of expertise.

Try to navigate one 24 hour span like the sort of person who believes these four things."

I felt wounded last week when I got some feedback that was unsolicited. It's not that I don't take criticism, but I felt angry at the delivery. Yet, even in the minutes after the conversation, I alternated between, "Oh, this is helpful and raises a good thought" and "I didn't ask for advice; you shoved it in my face. How dare you!"

Sometimes it takes a while to de-killerize killer criticisms, especially when someone set them loose on you without you asking. But, if it is about something you care about doing to the best of your ability, then it helps to face the killer.

*Name changed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bursting Into Life (StoredStory #17)

There was a season in my younger life where I ran like freaked animal. Apparently I could run pretty fast for a three year old. Fast enough that my aunt had to scoop me up into the safety of her arms before I reached the highway in front of the Dollar Store one afternoon.

This early propensity to run probably has something to do with those moments of hyper-active bursts that I've had all my life. Imagine the spring-loaded tension in the thighs of a cat ready to pounce. The eyes grow dark and zero in on a target as the feline creature hunkers, barely able to keep from running. The urge is so compelling, the cat does everything to hold her hind legs in place; you've seen it--the back end does this swerving, rocking dance thing and then BLAST OFF. The whole cat-pounce, spring loaded, dancy thing happens in my chest. It's a buildup that needs to be relieved.

As a child, my cata-bursts would manifest in sundry ways. The first time I can recall the cata-burst happened when I saw the excitement of firecrackers on the Fourth of July from the neighbors (who knows, it might have just been a boring Tuesday on a fall afternoon). So, with bombs ka-powing overhead, the cat crawled into my chest and readied itself for its own fireworks. There were arrow shaped ply boards lying around over the yard. I grabbed up one and began flinging in through the air making my own explosives sounds. 

One day the inner cat accomplished a pretty daring feat. My dad had installed a screen in our storm door of our 1940s farmhouse. In fact, my parents had been doing a lot of fixing up for many days. As Dad had worked on things throughout this particular day, I ran around out the yard, hardly able to slow down. 

For some reason, I must have had to go indoors, but I was turning and turning like a caged animal. The wild creature needs wide open space, and in this moment, I was no different. I began running around the house, which unfortunately was not conducive to running; I would have to turn around in a room and zip back through to the other rooms. I kept doing this, but after a while, I saw where there was a weakness in my cage. 

The storm door lay ahead of me. Its window was still raised and the only thing between me and the outdoors was the new screen. Scratching my feet on the carpet like an angered bull, I began my gallop toward the door. Head down, arms tightly pulled against my body, I felt the screen give way to the hardness of my skull. I knocked the screen out. I'm sure about a thousand flies buzzed their wings in rapturous praise and swarmed through the grand reopening of the house's protective barriers. 

Newly freed from my dwellings, I probably couldn't have run fast enough from the fury of a papa bear who'd worked all day, only to have one of his projects destroyed in less than one second. 

These bursts still come and go, but luckily I'm not jumping through windows. Now, my cata-bursts are sublimated into furious romps toward tasks, some of which are probably less meaningful than a storm door screen.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Warping through Childhood (StoredStory#16)

When I was a kid, I had a friend from church who would come over on Sunday afternoons. Usually we reenacted scenes from movies, especially light saber fights between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Matt, smaller, skinnier, and suppler than I, would always be Luke Skywalker. As a fatter kid, I would get winded easily, so I didn't run or do any acrobatic stunts. But, I sure could walk. The important thing about Darth Vader is that he walks menacingly; I could do that walk.

We found sticks just about the right size for light sabers and would whack at each other pretty unmercifully. Apparently this got a little worrisome for my dad, who decided to show us how to play nicer. As soon as he left, we went right back to the way we had been doing it.

Oftentimes, Matt and I would watch movies and then begin to work through parts of the movie, sometimes creating our own versions of the scenes. I especially loved when we did Star Trek, which quickly became my favorite Sci-Fi during my most formative years. After watching Star Trek III, Matt might be Captain Kirk, and I would be Scotty or Sulu. I had a small rocker from my baby years that I could still fit in. I'd stretch Monopoly over my lap as the console to punch in commands. Imagination is such a wonderful part of being human.

Matt is two years older than I, so we reached an awkward phase where I was still a child and he was, well, transitioning. In the bowels of his grandparents' basement, Matt and I began to Star Trek our way through encounter with the Klingons. He was several feet behind me, and I was using a record player for my console this time.

"Direct hit, captain!" I began falling over as the torpedoes hit our ship. All the while, explosives sounds came out of my mouth along with a lot of spit.

We had been doing this for a few minutes--both of us full throttle with our Start Trek speak, our falling over, our sound effects--but then I felt a chilling moment of utter silence behind me.

In mid-spit-explosion, I turned and saw Matt's cousin Angie standing there. Matt was shrugging as though he had no idea what was going on.

That might have been the last time I Star-Trekked with another person. Luckily, I still had my wonderfully vivid imagination. During the height of The Next Generation (TNG), a slew of great toys came out, including a replica USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D with sound effects. There were four buttons on the neck of the ship: warp speed, torpedoes, phasers, and I think phaser/torpedoes with explosions.

I driveled all over this ship in the store. We couldn't afford it; we often couldn't afford things, and I learned early on that its ok to want things, and it might hurt a little when you can't get it, but some things are worth waiting for.

While I didn't have the Enterprise, I did have buckets of Legos. I found a way to construct NCC 1701-D. Though it had a square saucer section, my mind rounded the hard edges, and it flew proudly whenever TNG came on TV. Where we lived, the Fox affiliate signal was often distorted, snowy even. Roof antennas could only do so much in the mountains. This didn't deter me from watching. What couldn't be seen clearly was cleared up in the my own internal filter. (Maybe this is how I learned to be an optimist). Watching through snowy pictures, I went on many adventures with my Lego ship in hand.

One day I had the amazingly remarkable surprise to get the actual Enterprise toy I had salivated over. I can't remember what the occasion was, but I loved that ship so much. It replaced my Lego Enterprise, which sat lonely and dusty like the Velveteen Rabbit. I kept it for posterity sake for a long while and sometimes would take it out for a spin up to warp 9 just like you do with any classic.

On one rather cold, gray day at the new house we'd moved into, I took my Enterprise out and began to orbit the house in a standard pattern. This didn't last long. Somehow I couldn't smooth the house's corners into planetary roundness. There were no Cardassians or Romulans in the space of my yard. Whole Star systems died out and there were only trees, and bushes, and a concrete bird bath.

I had reached my transition where the reality of the world presses itself into your consciousness. My imagination didn't die, but it took new forms. I was sad to put down my toys. Toys. I was sad to see them as such. But, this is what happens, I suppose. Yet, those early years stay with us and are held deeply inside. I still have the Enterprise, which now hangs happily from the ceiling in my Star Trek corner. Sadly, I have not found the Lego Enterprise, though I hope it didn't get sent to the shipyard for dismantling. May NCC 1701-D, Lego and true replica, always proudly serve the fleet of my imagination.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writing For Advice (StoredStory #15)

When I was a child, I often thought I would end up being a writer. As children often do, I idealized what the writing life could be, but I always was attracted to creating a story. My active imagination worked wildly. Even if I wasn't writing a traditional story on paper, I was still imagining it or making up something.

My earliest memory of having a pen in hand is making lines on blank sheets of typing paper. My dad had a manual Royal typewriter, and I borrowed his sheets to try my hand at writing. This was before I could write actual words, so I did the next best thing. Doing what I saw on cartoons, I scribbled wavy lines (I believe the Smurfs scribbled their letters). My dad wanted to teach me how to actually write real words, but I willfully refused. He was trying to help me, but I wouldn't have it.

I think refusing his instruction might have bothered my dad at the time, but I see my refusal as something good. I was happy doing what I had learned thus far. Yes, I was making nonsensical signs on a page, but at the tender age of two or three, that's all I had interest in. I was playing at being a writer. Emulation is where anything useful begins. Playing plants a seed of learning. (And, I don't mean playing in any pejorative way. I see playing as an important art that adults sadly lose).

Years later, after I had learned to write real words and form sentences, I wrote stories sporadically, and then in fifth grade I wrote my first poem, a dreadful first attempt. Still, my parents were always celebratory over my creative endeavors.

At  ten to twelve years of age, I was curious how one actually went about the writing process. What do authors do to write novels? How do they plan out the plot? How are characters developed?

Around that time, I somehow had gotten a copy of Danielle Steel's No Greater Love. While she might be dismissed by some as a genre writer, she has a professional career as a paid writer. Of course, as a pre-adolescent, I was not aware of the literary versus genre fiction distinction that is often made. (I have my thoughts about this and might share them elsewhere, but I generally think that the distinction leads to a dangerously dismissive attitude).

In any case, I loved the novel as it was a historical romance that begins on the Titanic. After reading it, I decided to write Ms. Steel a letter of praise. Yet, I loaded the letter with many questions about the writing process. There was an address in one of the last pages before the back cover.

Weeks went by. I probably forgot about the letter, but isn't the season of forgetting the best time for things to appear? One day, after getting home for school, I had a letter from Danielle Steel. She had typed the letter (she uses manual typewriters to this day, I think) thanking me for my "kind words for No Greater Love." She then went on to answer my questions about the writing process. She said she usually does take notes as she is thinking of plot and does plan out her novels. But, perhaps the most useful piece of advice she gave was this: that a writer needs to get in the habit of writing every day, "even if you end up throwing out most of what you write."

Her letter is stored away in some of my old writing folders. I run across it occasionally, and I re-read it every time. I smile and am grateful for this letter.

I still play at writing. For years, I dismissed myself as a creative writer. Some alien value system took over my brain for a while, for I quit thinking that I could ever write fiction. During my twenties, I occasionally wrote fiction or poems, but that dismissive voice persisted.

Now that I'm in my thirties, I have slowly picked fiction writing back up, and it is enjoyable, freeing, and seems right. Yet, it is difficult, scary, and quite ego-smashing. I am glad that I scribbled as a child, had supportive parents, and got that letter from Ms. Steel. These early memories helped me take my creative impulse more seriously today. Even if I never have any success at publishing, I feel that I need to give room to writing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Chickinsurance (StoredStory #14)

The man was wearing a slate blue suit and a wide navy blue tie with red diagonal lines. We all sat in the living room as the man opened his briefcase, pulled out papers, and began asking my parents questions.

I usually hated sitting through family business transactions, but for some reason I was glued to the seat for this one.

Our life insurance agent used to make house calls to renew insurance policies. I don't know if this still happens, but in the late 80's when it was time to re-up, this man appeared, ugly suit and all.

Perhaps what drew me to the scene was the man's name. He was called Delmice, a name I've never heard since, but one that struck my fancy. (There should be some fictional Delmice living in some gothic southern tale).

Delmice also drew me in because he seemed rather flirtatious, yet mysteriously held back. There was something up his sleeve. I must have sensed his flirtation with my mom because when he asked my mom her age and she jokingly said she was thirty-seven, I intervened.

"Ma, you are not! You're forty-four!"

Seven-year-old children are still quite honest. I don't remember how the rest of the interview process went, except that Delmice got really hungry during his visit. Mom had made fried chicken earlier, and there was still some chicken legs sitting out on the dining room table.

Delmice somehow weaseled his way from our living room to the dining room where he noted how good that chicken looked.

Obligingly, Mom offered a leg. He began eating it and remarking how good it was. Then, like a gremlin, he took another leg, and another, and another. I watched as a pile of bones began to stack up on the plate. He sure liked my mom's cooking.

Delmice finally left, but his visit was now forever inked onto my brain. He returned years later when I was older, sassier, and had my own jocular repartee with my mom over his impending visit.

"Delmice is coming, Ma! You gonna make him some chicken?"

At thirteen, I reveled in rubbing my mom the wrong way through jest. So, she heard about Delmice all damn day long.

"Your boyfriend is coming!" I would cackle.

Unfortunately, Delmice was just not as entertaining as I had remembered him. He was a diminutive man suited in some unremarkable color. His thin mustache remained in a straight line during his visit. This time he seemed serious, cautious, maybe even a little sad.

There was no chicken that day.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Creative Seeds (StoredStory #13 )

I feel lucky that I can think of some wonderfully nurturing moments from my days as a kid in school. Especially if you are a creative type,  nurturing teachers leave lasting impressions. A nurturing moment plants a seed that becomes rooted as a fond memory that will sustain you even in dark times.

When I was in second grade, I had visited my aunt and uncle who own a farm. We lived four hours away from the rest of our family, but we made several visits throughout each year. However, this visit to agrarian living must have sparked something inside; I ended up writing a story. Not only did I write the story, I made it into a picture book that I bound with glue. Having learned from my wonderful school librarian about the anatomy of books, I even created a book spine out of a strip of paper.

I took this book into class one day and showed it to Mrs. Ryan. Mrs. Ryan had a smile as wide as a white-kernel ear of corn. She used to let me help "grade" by checking answers in the teacher's book against what other students had put on their papers. This was probably during times when I was too sick to go outside during recess. I felt special during "grading" and wanted to become a teacher.

When I brought my book in, Mrs. Ryan took time out of our class day to let me stand in front of the class and read my story. As I read, I turned my book toward the class to show the pictures just as my teachers always did when they read to us. The book was peopled with stick figured farmers and stick cows. There was probably a barn. Maybe a house too.

Mrs. Ryan's thoughtful, kind act left such an impression in my young mind. She let me have space to share my creativity with my fellow classmates. What took less than five minutes of class time communicated a lasting message that remains with me to this day.

When I taught English at a technical college, I once asked my students to write a journal entry about a teacher or mentor who had influenced them in some way while they were growing up. Sadly, there were some who could think of no one. (Or, maybe they refused to). I can think of many adults who gave me more than they might have realized by just letting me be me. For that, I am forever thankful.

Children  need moments where mentoring adults plant seeds that will last a lifetime. This is the way the world gets freshly created over and over through the generations from age to age.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Touch Test (StoredStory #12)

I am one of those people who have to feel the texture of objects. Whenever I am in a store with fabrics, I touch many of the ones I pass. I am tactile, perhaps a kinesthetic learner and sensor of the world around me.

This propensity started at a young age, probably way before I ever remember. But, the earliest memory of my kinesthetic longings, if recounted with my mom, would send her blood pressure soaring even to this day.

We were enjoying a cool, early summer day in Cades Cove, part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We lived close, so Cades Cove was often a weekend retreat.

As often happens at Cades Cove, whenever there is wildlife spotted, everyone stops. Time sort of slows down into this sorghum stream, and people take notice of their surroundings. To get around the main points of Cades Cove, you have to drive an eleven-mile, one-way loop. There are many stop offs, but whenever there is a sighting of some sort, there is usually a traffic backup.

On this particular day, a throng of nature-lovers had all joined the sorghum stream and took notice of something in one of the meadows. A fence sliced us off from the meadow. Against the fence tall grasses had grown up just enough where I could not see what was going on because of my five-year-old height.

I was in the middle of the road, among the gawkers with their cameras. I've always kind of had a dreamer quality where I just stand in my surroundings and don't notice the immediate activity around me. I had sunk into one of these musing moments and failed to see that the people had parted as though Moses had struck his rod against the pavement.

I was on one side of the parting, and my parents were on the other. Then, the thing that people had gathered to see emerged from the tall grasses and went under the barb wire. He had a dead fawn in his mouth. The fawn's white speckles of youth sagged on the limp body. The brown fur of the grizzly bear holding the fawn poked out in places. I stood right at the edge of the part in the road as the bear made his way across.

I joined the sorghum time and watched the bear walk as though he were in slow motion. His body was within a foot of mine, and so I did what any curious child might do. I stuck out my hand and felt the fur on the back of the bear.

Now, I'm sure my mom 'had a duck' (what she sometimes likes to call a fit). But, in that brief moment, I learned what a bear felt like. And, the bear didn't seem to mind.