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.