Writing Class

An opportunity presented itself to me this winter. I found out about a program at the local university called the “Senior Passport.”

I hate to admit that I celebrated my “Medicare Birthday” this year but being 65 has given me some new opportunities. I signed up to audit a class on writing short stories. It has been a wonderful experience.

Each Monday, we meet and discuss short stories and present short stories we have written since the previous class. The professor packs the classes full of information and activities. Fortunately, we are a small group so there is time to get most of it in.

Each week, one of the students presents a short story to the class. The story I chose was “Train” by Alice Munro. With the stories, we discuss the author’s background, the story plot and twists, the characters and the setting.

Then we critique short stories we have written. This is my favorite part. It is fun to read what other people have written and to offer suggestions to one another. The other students are all fairly young but they offer many good suggestions on how I can improve my stories and in turn, I offer my opinions on their stories.

Writing in a group has a way of bringing people together, of bonding with one another. Being the “old lady” of the class, when we first met, the others were more interested in looking at their i-Phones than chatting during break. But as we began to share our stories, we talked to each other more. We got to know one another through our writing.

When I presented my story about growing up in small town America in the 1950’s, many of the other students came up to me afterwards with comments. One young man asked me about Roger Maris. He lived in Fargo, SD, for awhile and told me about a museum dedicated to Roger Maris in that town. We talked about the excerpt from my story (below) and shared some laughs.

Leaving their dogs to roam the streets, they’d head to the theater four blocks away.  Once inside, they bounced on the padded flip-down seats and waited for the lights to dim. “I hope they show Bugs Bunny today.” Gloria grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bag.

“I like Woody Woodpecker best,” Bob said.  They both made the classic “Hahaha-ha-ha” laugh of the cartoon character.

            The bouncing stopped as they heard the whirl of the reels begin. A black and white circle with a grid appeared on the screen, “Please Stand By.” They clapped their hands. A countdown flashed with numbers and they chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the newsreel announcing “News of the Day.” Black and white pictures appeared on the big screen. Large white letters announced that Queen Elizabeth christened a ship somewhere. Roger Maris hit another home run.

            “I love Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle,” she whispered to Bob.

Another student talked to me about anorexia, a topic I breach in my story.

Flipping to the next page, she found several greeting cards. “Happy 6th Birthday” in big red letters.  A chubby cheeked girl in pink drawn holding a bunny on the front of another said, “You’re Turning Six!” One caught her eyes in particular. It was from her big sister, Barbara. She recognized the exact loops, uniform and clear, marking her signature. Always perfect. Her sister was ten years older than she and the oldest, making her the boss of the family. Whatever Barbara wanted, she got. She was talented, smart and pretty. But she was also a tyrant.

Gloria thought she probably had anorexia. Back in 1957, no one knew about anorexia nervosa. Mental illness was considered a character flaw. Barbara hid her problem from adults, but the siblings knew something was amiss.  She ate a lot of celery.

Others talked to me about my story in general and commented on what they liked about it as well as some pitfalls in my writing. It was interesting to see how the story brought us together.

Writing is a powerful tool. We are reading “Fortune Smiles” a book by Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer prize winner. His short stories are very intriguing. Our professor asked if we thought writing was just for entertainment or was there a deeper purpose? Most of us agreed that writing can change minds and promote social justice. Why else would tyrannical governments burn books if the words inside didn’t offer threat?

Books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the plight of slavery to the forefront. Dozens of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” shed light on the law and people’s prejudices. The short stories in Johnson’s book touch on topics such as cancer/death and dying, living with a disabled wife, pedophilia, and the Cold War attitude of an East German prison warden.

The class has given further proof that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The most exhilarating feeling for me is when my writing touches a soul. I may curse the Muses and wonder why I were given this “need to write” but then, once in a while, something magical happens and people are influenced by something I’ve written.

Have you ever had that happen? Tell me about it.

 

 

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I Saw It with My Own Two Eyes

In our critique group, we often run across areas in our work where we have inserted unnecessary words. “Tautology” is a new word I learned. It means “needless repetition of the same thing using different words.” Examples are “I went there personally.” “He made it with his own two hands.” “Frozen ice covered the road.” “She made predictions of the future.”

Do you see the repetition in each of those sentences? (And in my title?) Obviously, I see with my eyes and I have two of them. So a more correct title would be “I Saw It.” Boring title but at least it’s not redundant.

Crazy sign

I wonder what prompted the need for this sign? Confusion? Was one problem solved but another created?

A sign at a bank ATM reads “Enter your number one digit at a time.” Is there another way? I wonder what would happen if I pushed two buttons at once?

A library in California warns, “Beware silly signof pedestrians on foot.” I suppose pedestrians in cars could pose a different problem.

Some signs may not be tautology but are just plain funny. I saw a sign on a door in an Iowa truck stop that read, “Electrical personnel only.” Every time we stop there on our way to Chicago, I look around for the electrical people.

Once, while driving across Illinois on the toll road (I-88) and dealing with major road construction, a temporary sign sat above the “45 Minimum Speed” sign. The temp sign read “45 Maximum Speed.” My son, the driver, saw it and said, “Cruise control, don’t fail me now.”

No trespassing

Humor is often used in signs. As a teenager, I lived in a small town surrounded by ranches and large spreads. I remember one sign on a fence post read, “No hunting without permission, and DON’T ASK!” Another sign on a very narrow gravel road out in the middle of nowhere warned “No parking.”

One of my favorite signs is the one below. I can relate to it on many different levels, especially as I continue writing my novel with all its twists and turns.

What are some of the funny signs or statements you have seen?

one way

 

 

My Short Story

In the midst of a class at the local university on short story writing, I just finished writing about being a fat person. The story has been brewing in my head for several years.

Several years ago, a national debate began about the rise in obesity in the US. Some fat people were blaming everything from McDonald’s and other fast food places to corn syrup in processed foods to sedentary lifestyle with the onset of personal computers, video games and other devices that kept kids from going outside to play and adults from going on long evening walks.

I pondered this and came up with  list of “excuses” for being fat.

  1. My parents. “When you grow up, when you’re BIG and strong, you can do this, you will know that, you will understand.” Hypothesis: To get big and strong and therefore independent and smart, EAT!
  2. “Clean Plate Club.” As I child I often heard, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in China (Africa, Bangladesh…)” Never did figure out how my eating everything on my plate would help those children.
  3. My paper route. I rode my bicycle all around town, delivering newspapers when I was in 5th grade. You would’ve thought that would enhance muscle strength and normal weight. But two of the places I delivered papers to were the local Dairy Queen and a small cafe along the highway that made the best cinnamon rolls. Any calories burned while circling the town on my bike were more than replenished by dilly bars and warm sticky buns.
  4. The image of a girl in the 1950’s and early ’60’s. Girls didn’t sweat. Girls sat at home and embroidered. Girls didn’t do things that might mess up their dresses. Dresses were not conducive to climbing jungle gyms, running up hills or throwing baseballs. The only place acceptable for sweating was in gym class where we wore ugly one-piece short outfits and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  5. Food supply. In the Midwest, summer was great when we had fresh vegetables and some fresh fruits like cherries and apples from our trees. Otherwise, in the winter, we relied on shipments of oranges and other produce from far off places like California, Arizona and Texas. The fresh foods were expensive and not as tasty as they would be in their native states. Who wants to eat pink bland tomatoes?Much of our diet consisted of meat and potatoes. I never had a green salad until I was in my late teens.
  6. Terminology. Instead of cutting to the chase and calling it “fat,” there was a tendency when I was growing up for people to say things like “pleasingly plumb,”overweight,” and “chunky.” Even children’s clothes were labeled as “hefty.” I remember when I first identified myself as being “fat” it was liberating. People around me were shocked to hear that word, though, and it took awhile before society was ready to “tell it like it is.”
  7. News reels at the movie theater. Before the cartoon and main feature was shown, many cinemas showed MovieTone newsreels. https://youtu.be/FsPKD4tNe-Y  I remember seeing the films of the released Nazi films showing the concentration camps. As a little kid seeing (on the big screen, larger than life) the emaciated people with sunken faces, ribs sticking out, skin and bones. And the stacks of dead bodies piled high like so many haystacks, it had a profound effect on me. I never wanted to be that thin and emaciated. So, I ate more, thinking it was like a “reserve” I could store in my body in case something horrible like that happened to me.

Once I became fat, it was my identity, my defense mechanism. If someone didn’t like me because of my appearance, that was their problem, not mine. I had lots of friends and had lots of fun. My fat didn’t stop me.

As an adult, I decided I needed to lose weight for my health. I had lost two siblings and my father to heart disease. I lost 90 pounds after the birth of my second child. But then people commented on how good I looked and it bothered me. I didn’t want to hear that. My appearance was not who I was. I’m sure they thought they were complimenting me, but I saw it as a devaluation of my previous life. I also started losing friends, normal-weighted friends. One was killed in an earthquake. Another had a heart attack at age 42 while deer hunting. A tiny, active college friend had a stroke just before her 50th birthday. At that point, I decided I really have no control over the length of my life and I gained my weight back.

Now, I realize it’s more about “quality” than “quantity” of life. I have no control over when I will die, but I have control over how I will live.

My short story is called “Adolph Hitler Made Me Fat.” It will be read in class in the next week. I am anxious to hear what the other students think about it.

Pulling the Plug

A recent court case caught my attention. At the sentencing, the mother of the perpetrator said that her son, who beat and shot the girl, wasn’t responsible for her death because the family “pulled the plug.” She claimed it was their fault their daughter died.

I was appalled by her words. Not only was it cruel for her to claim that Mary died because her family “pulled the plug on her” but it was scientifically incorrect. Mary was dead before “life support” was withdrawn. The actions of the criminal and his cohort caused her death.

As a health care professional, I have seen families anguish and suffer over “pulling the plug.” Part of it is the fault of the language we use. I would like to see everyone stop using terms like “withdrawing life support” and “pulling the plug” as the phrases are not accurate. Many families believe they are killing their loved ones when the machines and medications are stopped, but they aren’t because there is no brain activity prior to removing the ventilator.

It is customary to perform tests such as EEGs to check brainwaves and apnea tests to check for breathing before removing any machines. Some of these tests are required to be done more than once before considering removal of the ventilator and other interventions. “Life support” is a misnomer when there is no brain activity. All the machines are doing is circulating blood through the dead body.

It’s confusing because, why would we use a machine to keep a body’s circulation and oxygenation going? Because first we need to verify that the person is truly deceased.

A victim of a gun shot or a head injury or an automobile accident comes into the Emergency Department. At that point, the patient’s status is unclear. They have been resuscitated and tests such as CT scans and MRIs are done to assess the injury. It isn’t until later that a clearer picture becomes apparent and the patient is failing or has never responded. No matter how hard the medical team works, the patient will never recover. The brain damage is too severe. At this point, the machines are keeping the circulation and oxygen going through the body so the heart and other organs are still functional. But the brain is dead. The family may be approached at this time regarding organ donation. The medical team gives the family time to absorb the inevitable. The family starts to grieve and make some decisions.

It’s not the family who killed the patient. It’s the gunshot wound, the head injury, the massive destruction of the car accident, or the criminal behavior of others that killed the patient. Families should not feel guilty about the decision to remove the ventilator and discontinue the high powered IV drugs that are oxygenating the body and maintaining the blood pressure and circulation.

It would save a lot of people, who are already grieving, the added guilt feelings and additional anguish if we changed the terminology to what it actually is–organ support.IMG_0550