Sunday, February 23, 2014

Not My Story

I want to tell you a story, and I hesitate, because it is not my story. This story was told to me in confidence and I have never questioned it’s validity since it is not flattering to the teller. It is a story that has stayed with me, it haunts me actually. When I meet someone I often wonder, “What would you do in this situation?” Of course no one knows for certain how they would react in this scenario unless they lived it, but it makes for an insightful discussion. And so I will tell it to you now, without naming names, as it was told to me by a man I was intimate with many years ago.

He wanted to explain to me why he awoke at every creek in the house, at every loud car driving by. His light sleeping pattern was the result of an abduction and rape. The victim was his previous girlfriend and she was abducted from in his own bed. The perpetrator was a “Peeping Tom” who watched the two having sex and decided he wanted the girl for himself. He waited until they fell asleep, then he broke in by breaking the glass in the door and unlocking it from the inside.

He entered the bedroom quickly and the two woke but were confused. They hid. The girl shouted “Just leave, we don’t see you.” I find this odd, but this is what she did. She gave the intruder a chance to change his mind without being seen, but he was not leaving without fulfilling his intentions. He held up a shiny object and ordered the girl out of bed and ordered the man not to look. Then he took her. My friend continued to hide until they were gone, then he called the police. Next he called the girls parents. He had to explain to the girl’s father that she had been abducted. Everyone arrived at the apartment and the boyfriend was questioned, but he did not have a good description, it was dark. He thought the man had a gun, but could not describe it. The girl’s parents were obviously distraught, not knowing if they would ever see their daughter alive again.

She returned several hours later. She just walked in the door. The man did not have a gun, but a knife. He took her to a nearby garage and raped her for hours. When he was done with her, he ordered her to walk back home down the middle of the street and not look back. The girl recovered well, but the boyfriend did not.

Many people were sympathetic to my friend and told him they didn’t know what they would do in that situation. Some, including the girlfriend, even told him he did the right thing. He and the girl bonded over both being victims with no outsider able to understand the situation. But the girl’s family never forgave him. They let him know that they believed he was a coward for allowing this to happen and I sincerely think he believed them.

When I was told this story, I could see how damaged he was by this crime and I felt bad for him. I didn’t ask myself what I would do in that situation. I’m not a man, after all. But it left me unsettled.

I told the story to my husband when we first started dating and he reacted very strongly. I knew these two men were polar opposites, but Jack’s response was more extreme than I expected. I tried to stick up for the other man a bit, saying he didn’t know if it was a gun, that perhaps it could have turned very violent, but Jack would not relent. He asked me “Would you let someone take your child?” I had never thought about it like that, but the answer is “Hell no.” If someone wanted to steal my child I believe I would fight until the death. I’m not a tough chick, this is natural instinct. I doubt any mother would say anything different.

I repeated this to one close girlfriend who disagreed. She said stealing a child is not the same as stealing a girlfriend. “What if we were roommates and someone tried to abduct one of us?” We were only theorizing and there were too many variables. What if he was going to rape her but not kill her? Was it worth trying to fight a man with a weapon? I know some women put up a fight over their purse being snatched and I can’t see myself doing that, but a person? I like to believe that if anyone ever tries to mess with one of my girlfriends I’d go “Thelma and Louise” on their ass, but I’ll never know for sure unless it happens.

Jack couldn’t drop the subject. The story disturbed him and he continued to bring it up for days. I’ve never seen Jack get in a fight since I’ve known him, but he told me, “Donna, there are certain times in a man’s life where if he walks away from a fight, he is not a man.” I could tell Jack believed this. He would rather die fighting than have to live with what that other guy lives with. “Why didn’t he just cut off his balls and hand them to the guy on his way out?”

To say Jack is different from this other man is an understatement. Jack is from Texas. I hope you understand the implications. One night as we slept there was a fantastic wind storm that woke me up. I could hear things blowing around like crazy outside and it was almost exciting, but Jack was sleeping soundly through it all. We had a big umbrella on our patio next to the sliding glass door and the wind kept picking it up and slamming it down. Then in one loud crash, the umbrella fell against the door. Within three seconds Jack was up on his knees with a gun cocked and aimed at the door.

“Don’t shoot honey! It’s the umbrella!” I yelled. And then we laughed. We still laugh about it today “Don’t shoot the umbrella!” Is one of our inside jokes. I would be lying if I told you his reaction to a perceived intruder didn’t turn me on. I feel a deep conviction that my husband would be competent protecting his family. The other guy knew how to pick a good restaurant, he knew how to say the right thing, and he was interesting enough, but I had a deep desire to find a partner I could count on in a post apocalyptic situation. I don’t know if this desire was already in me or if his story changed me. Even though it is not my story, it has become integrated into my mind and I would say it has influenced me deeply.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Feeding on Feedback

I love criticism. Okay, I hate it. Actually, I love / hate it. It definitely depends on who it is coming from and what their motive is. If they are trying to make themselves look clever, it doesn’t come off well at all. If they are sincerely trying to be helpful, then they are taking a risk and I appreciate it more than praise. I am lucky to have a few friends who kiss my ass and few willing to kick it. I like a bit of both.

I took a creative writing class at LBCC about ten years ago where I expected to get assignments and learn from a teacher, but the class was run as a group. Most students were older writers looking for feedback rather than kids working on a college degree. They knew the value of conversing with other writers, something I was just learning. I naively submitted my first piece and got raked over the coals and I loved it. Not because I am a masochist, but because every thing they said was true. I learned from it and applied it. I wanted to get better and their input was golden.

But not always. I once submitted a piece and this hostile fat guy tried to correct me by pointing out that a person who runs marathons would not get winded hiking up Mt. Whitney. I have actually done both so I knew what I was talking about, but I did not need to say anything. Other people in the class set him straight about altitude while I sat back and bat my eyes at fatty. What I’m saying is you have to consider the source. Criticism is not always valid, but this is why the group thing works really well. It also brings up a good point. I have always heard to write what you know, but I will add “Question what you don’t know.” This guy could have saved face by asking, “Would a runner really get winded on Mt. Whitney?” Yes, I benefited greatly by listening to my work getting critiqued, but equally enlightening was reading the work of others and really hearing what everyone else had to say.

I have a few of what I call “red pen friends.” Surprisingly, they are not my friends that teach English, but two women from my book club who go through my writing and notice everything spell check neglects, as well as pointing out things like “word choice?” Everyone needs a red pen friend, although it is humbling. I am not a good red pen friend. I read for content and don’t even look for mistakes unless I am asked. I naturally notice flow, but I really enjoy funky writing styles, like Annie Proulx.

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my English teaching pals, Rebecca. She has three kids under five years old, so it feels really selfish to say “Hey, you spend all week reading student writing, now read some of my stuff!” But she does. I think she likes the process too and enjoys the adult content. But Rebecca won’t answer an email about writing. Her editing process occurs on my couch, usually while she is nursing a baby and being interrupted by “Mommy, I need to go poo poo.” She doesn't write her feedback, she verbalizes as she reads and she is very good. She is a priceless friend. I’ll gladly take the toddler poo poo and even wipe booty while she keeps reading. She graciously talked me through some writer’s constipation yesterday. Uh-oh, sorry. Once poop comes into the conversation it tends to linger.

Writing can be damn lonely. What is the point if no one reads it? And what is the point if someone is touched but doesn’t tell you? Isn’t that why we do it? Expose a bit of your soul, lay it out on the table and have people say, “Yes, I relate.” This type of response is precious, but mostly I write for myself. It is great if someone reads my work and gets something out of it, but even if they didn’t I would continue writing. It is oozing out of me and I can’t stop it. Writers will get this.

Yes, I really am fortunate to have friends who read and offer feedback, but the sweetest thing to hear of all is the simple request “More please.” Nothing is more satisfying than leaving them wanting.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fan Mail

Sometimes when I am driving around in the car with my son, I like to tune into a classic rock station and give him lessons on the history of Rock-n-Roll. I tell him it is important that he is able to recognize certain bands and that he understand their unique contribution to the evolution of rock. I have taught him to identify the sound of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepelin, and The Ramones to name a few, but his favorite is Queen. It is pretty obvious why a little kid would like Queen. I like Queen. But I think I might have influenced his taste by letting him watch a YouTube video of “Fat Bottom Girls.” It was just a photo of a bunch of nude women on bikes viewed from the backside, but someone made it so their butt muscles alternately clenched to the beat of the music. It really is entertaining if you wish to check it out, but I digress.

We were listening to Queen in the car one day when my son was about five years old. He started asking me about the singer and asked if he wrote the music. Then he asked with complete sincerity, “Mom, when we get home, will you help me write a letter to Freddie Mercury? I want to thank him for writing these songs. I want to tell him how much I like his music.”

It broke my heart to have to tell him that Freddie Mercury was dead, but I was really touched by the sincerity of his request. This was an organic fan letter from someone who has never heard the term “fan.” It came from love and appreciation and it got me thinking about that type of gratitude.

I thought about a song by The Descendants called “Thank You” where they sing, “I won’t say your name, but you know who you are, I’ll never be the same again, thank you for playing the way you play.” I thought about certain authors like Keroac and Bukowski who wrote about friends reading their writing and saying “Man, that makes me want to write.” I thought about several artists, musicians, writers, architects, and even teachers that have inspired me. And I felt inspired to thank them.

I have been the recipient of such letters, but they need to ring true to have any impact. During “Teacher Appreciation Week” I received stacks of letters from students who were told by their Language Arts teachers to pick a favorite and write one. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being picked and recognize that letter writing is not everyone’s forte, but they mostly sounded like they followed a format “I really like the way you blah, blah blah,” or “You are my favorite teacher because blah, blah, blah.” If I ran across one that was unique I never forgot it. Case in point from a girl named Danielle Wong. She wasn’t one of my favorite students, I didn’t even know I had a strong rapport with her, but she wrote “You made me appreciate the desert. I always thought the desert was just an ugly, dry place, void of life. But you helped me see the life that is adapted to live there and now I see the desert as a beautiful place.” Yep. Nailed it. And I love the desert too, in case that isn’t obvious.

I feel inspired to write some fan mail. I’m going to send Konrad Wert a letter telling him how much I love his fiddle playing. I’m going to be specific enough to stand out in case he gets a lot of fan mail, but I suspect he is too obscure. I’m going to private message my friend David that he is the wittiest guy on Facebook even though the competition is fierce. I’m going to reiterate to my mom that she did some things right before her dementia gets worse. I’m going to tell my son he inspires me and he has one of the kindest hearts I have ever known, just because it is true.