Story Wonders: Finding the Courage to March and Write

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I didn’t want to write about this because I am afraid. I am afraid that people I know and care about will think less of me because I went to the Women’s March last Saturday. I’m afraid they’ll be angry or disapprove.

But every time I started to think about what to write this week, the march is the only thing that wanted to be written.

I posted before about how crushed I felt after the election. It is beyond my understanding that a man so clearly abusive to women could defeat the first woman candidate for president.

I know. These are fighting words.

As Brene Brown said: “I don’t know Donald Trump so the most respectful thing I can do is take him at his word. And, when it comes to women, immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, and our Muslim sisters and brothers, his words have been threatening and dehumanizing. I march to say that’s not acceptable or American. That is not the heart of the country I love.”

While this, honestly, got me moving that morning, something about marching against someone doesn’t sit well for me. My friend Diane helped with this.

First, she listened as I tried to tell my six year old why we were marching. I started by saying that we were not happy with the man who had won the election has said and done. My friend reframed it for both my little guy and me.

She said, “I like to think of it more as standing up for what we do want.”

Another woman had this to say:

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I agree with Diane, Mother Theresa, and so many others. My best self did not go to protest Trump. I went to say what matters to me most. That was the spirit I felt in Olympia, Washington, and what I saw in the crowds of pink hats from around the world.

The feeling of being there at my smaller 10,000 person march full of peaceful men, women, and children reminded me of a step back into time. I saw folks I am sure were there in the sixties. I saw young people. I saw people in crazy outfits. I saw angry signs and ones fun of humor.

When I think on what I experienced there and what I saw in the pictures around the world, I couldn’t help but remember the Whos chanting with every once of sound they had to be heard so Sour Kangaroo would not throw them in a boiling vat.

We know the election is finished, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still here and paying attention. It doesn’t mean we don’t need each other more than ever.

Of course, I loved the marching band’s way of putting music to the words. (Didn’t the Whos have a tuba?) I would love to know who they are, so I could play next time!

Of everything I saw that day, I think my favorite was the Diane’s daughter Rena in her Captain America outfit with a a sign that said ‘Be a hero. Stand up for ALL Americans.” She even had a shield. Cars stopped to honk, smile and wave for her several times. (I wish you could see her better in my photo!)

Something about Captain America and what we tried to do with the march expressed that need to say what we meant.

I’m still scared to publish this, by the way, but maybe, Mr. Gaiman has a sliver of good news for me.

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Maybe, I’m stating to get it right because writing this sure feels more like ‘walking down the street naked, exposing too much.’ More exposing than even marching on a clear cold day for something I believe.

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Wednesday Wonders: Finding Story in Dory

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Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen Finding Dory and still want to be surprised, don’t read this. 

I recently told my English class that I have two sons. One is 17 and the other is 6. This means, I told them, that I have been watching kid movies since 1999.

Many of the films numbed my senses. All the the Buddies flicks, for example, and most of the sweet Little Foot movies delighted my sons.

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While I see their value in cuteness and love to see my kids smile, the story lines make me want to bang my head against a sharp object, especially after the boys have seen them 20 or 30 times.

Sequels, I find, cause more trouble than most when it comes to head banging.

So the other night, when I was at my mother’s and we rented Finding Dory I expected to sit it out until about 7:00 pm and then tell my son we really needed to go.

An hour later, I still sat on the big blue couch, not wanting to move. The story had me completely hooked. I liked it even better than the original Finding Nemo. (I suppose I never got over the death of the poor mother at the beginning, and Marlin irritated me with his fussiness.)

We’ve since bought the Finding Dory DVD (because we have an outdated system), and I noticed a few things about the story as a writer.

I adored the main character.

I connected with Degeneres as Dory in the first movie, but this version opened with Dory as an adorable baby fish wandering the ocean looking for her parents. Her ‘short term memory loss’ kept her from even remembering Jenny and Charlie.

My sympathy for those great big eyes stabbed me clear through and made me root for that fish from the opening scenes.

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The story ties into the original movie

It felt as if the story writers had PLANNED a sequel. Maybe they did. Although the hero’s journey of Dory held up all on it’s own, learning why Dory could speak whale and why she sang ‘just keep swimming’ added bonus layers of complexity.

The old characters shifted position in importance

The movie successfully shifted from a story about Marlin and Nemo to the story of Dory with the clown fish as supporting characters.

The new characters made the movie fabulous

Hank the Septopus, Dory’s parents, Becky the loon, the two recuperating whales, and the rock possessive sea lions pulled me into the action even more.

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Finally, I noticed a technique that works with any good story. All the details moved the story forward. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t give much thought to the adorable otters. The second time through  I saw that they came on scene just before Kid Zone and Poker’s Cove. This set them up to later stop traffic for Dory when she rescued Marlin and Nemo from the transport truck.

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The writer Andrew Stanton, also known as the voice of Crush the turtle, engaged a mom with over 17 years worth of kid movie experience. I liked it so much I even saw his name in the credits after Sia sings a gorgeous rendition of ‘Unforgettable.’

Not bad, Mr. Stanton and crew. Not bad at all.

Wednesday Wonders: Stretching Some Sentence Skills

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Not too long ago, I was correcting papers and wishing the writers would not be so inventive with their sentence structures and vocabulary.

I would see something with a phrase, a comma, or an unfamiliar word like ‘thalassemia’ and sigh.

I had an prickly sense that something was off but wasn’t strong enough on the structure to make the fix without some checking. Only after looking up the words and the grammatical structures, could I make the right corrections.

I thought to myself: “If I were writing, I would never have tried it this way.”

Then it occurred to me.

If I stick to only what I know, I won’t grow in style or ability. The writers making those mistakes did me a favor by making me stretch.

Pricilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor also pushed me with the suggestion that I take a sentence from another writer and make it my own. To do this, I must carefully examine how the writer creates the sentence and then craft my own sentence in the same form.

I chose two lines from ‘Welding with Children’ by Tim Gautreaux.

“Tuesday was about typical. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over their kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again.”

The first structure is something I might write on any given day. It’s simple with a subject, verb, and adjective phrase.

The second sentence structure never would have come to me with its interruptions and commas sprinkled all over the place. It’s the kind of thing that gives a grammar teacher headaches, and, yet, it works so well to give voice to Gautreaux’s character and set the stage for his conflict.

Here is my version, using that same foundation, worked through with the meaning of another story:

Football night was the usual. My new friend Susie, never one to worry about style, you know, fiddled with her neon spirit hats, two of course, and listened while Josie the cheerleader was babbling at me once more.

It’s turtle-slow work, this sort of sentence skill building. I know, for example, that the last verb form I used is not quite the same as the original version, but I couldn’t quite make it work. And I sure wouldn’t want to craft like this while trying to make a word count.

Still, I do like it. I like the stretch from both proofing those papers and the sentence work. Language  holds more twists and blind corners than I figure I’ll ever have time to explore.

That’s just the way I like it.

May you stretch in words and other ways-

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The Lesser Holidays Part One: International Women’s Day

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Recently, I looked up International Women’s Day while drafting my next column for The News Tribune. I had never heard of the holiday until my immigrant students brought me flowers, so I was quite surprised to learn that the celebration began in the United States.

Perhaps we dropped it in the U.S. because it was started by socialists and the holiday played a role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. This would also explain why so many of my Russian speaking students always remembered the date.

Or perhaps Mother’s Day took it over. Not all women are mothers, though, so I’m rather in favor of Women’s Day as we look at ways to improve our world. I sincerely believe that gender equality is in the best interest of my two sons as well as a benefit to my nieces. 

The personal essay I wrote for the Tribune speaks to one way we can move in this direction. It runs on Monday, March 9th, the day after International Women’s Day. The editor and I finally agreed on a title: Listen to What Women Say, Not How We Sound. (Titles are such a challenge for me!)

I’ll link to it here on Monday and then move on this March to holidays that usually don’t involve long vacations or fireworks. I write this wishing you all a fabulous Women’s Day this Sunday, March 8th. May we all hear each others’ voices. Beauty with Brown Eyes

Funky Family Phrases

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The Sick Canary Theory and The Volkswagen Theory

At one point in my life I heard these phrases everyday and thought everyone knew them.

When my mother was young, her parents told her she could get a bird. In the store, she picked out the sickest of the lot because she felt sorry for it and wanted to help it. The thing promptly died after she got it home, leaving my mom bird-less.

The Sick Canary Theory described any situation where we bought or otherwise got attached to something or someone broken, thinking we could fix or save it (like a slacker boyfriend). Pain resulted for both the sucker who chose the bird and the sick canary the sucker wasn’t equipped to help.

We also had The Volkswagen Theory. In this my mother said she would never own one of those goofy beetle bug cars with the engine in the back (Apologies to bug owners everywhere. I happen to like those round rumbling cars).

Of course, one day we got a Volkswagen that ran so well even Mom admitted it was a fine vehicle. So if we ever said we would never do or have something (like in an anti-bucket list) we’d always say, “Ah-ah-ah! Remember The Volkswagen Theory!”

When I studied linguistics in school, I discovered that within languages there are many variations. A popular quiz like this one in the New York Times fairly accurately pinpoints the region you are from based on the words you use and how you pronounce them.

I remember in those classes the professors and studies I read said that people even develop speech styles within their own families. You might notice this when meeting a brother or sister of someone you’ve known for a long time. I was thinking of this scholarly reason when I came up with the idea for this post on my own family’s funky phrases.

Aside from our phrases, we had crazy fun names of cars: Creepy Cream for the Chevy Nova, Blue Beast for the Ford Grenada,Blueberry for the Honda CRX my dad drove all over the state, and Buttercup for the Volkswagen dasher that broke mom’s anti-VW will.

How about you? What things do you say in your family that only your family ‘gets?’ Maybe we were alone in our idiosyncratic speech. Somehow I’d doubt that, and  I’d love to know your family’s word stories.

Voiceless

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“Hello,” I croaked. I knew that the person on the other line could barely hear me, and I wondered why I’d bothered to answer the phone at all. Too late now.

“Uh…is Philip Myton there?” said the receptionist from the clinic my husband uses.

“No, he’s not.” I breathed more than spoke those words.

I then explained that I had laryngitis in as few words as possible. The lady seemed relieved to know, and I tried to imagine what she had thought when she first heard me. From her reaction, I thought I must have sounded like a phone call from a dead relative I remember in the spooky stories my friends told at sleep overs.

Laryngitis came on this week in the middle of my morning class on Tuesday. I croaked when I could make a noise at all. The phone call came at a time when I had rested my voice for many hours so the receptionist could hear me.

Watching people react to me reminded me of staying in Germany for a time. I looked like the Germans all around me so no one treated me differently until I opened my mouth and they heard my accented German. One man on the street asked me directions and his face changed completely when I told him I was new to town.

But at least in Germany they knew I was only foreign. When I used my froggy voice this week,  everyone stepped back a few paces, not wanting to catch whatever it was I had. I don’t really blame them, but it felt strange.

Trying not to talk while communicating with my family also proved a major challenge even though they were used to my call from the dead sound.

When I was younger, I thought about what it would be like to lose my hearing or my sight and asked myself which would be worse. But I never considered how vital my voice is.

As I thought about my froggy voice this week, I remembered my writing. When the words work, it feels like a have a voice. Like what I am trying to say moves across the page and into the minds of my readers. When those words don’t work, I am croaking and people look at me (in my mind’s eye) like I have laryngitis.

I got over the physical laryngitis this week. I’m hoping to kick my writing voice laryngitis to the curb, too.

On Barking and Passing the Action

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When my family and I moved into a new home, many of our neighbors greeted us. The two families on either side of us welcomed us, told us all about the neighborhood watch and made sure we had the phone numbers of the neighborhood on a gridded map.  One neighbor noticed our dog Remington and introduced us to his. He said to be sure to let us know if Moose’s barking bothered us. We agreed and asked him to do the same if our dog bothered him. We kept our dog inside when we went to work. We didn’t think Remi would be a problem, but were happy to be in such a friendly place.

About a month later, I opened a letter from the Humane Society. A neighbor had called to complain. The letter stated that our dog was a problem. If we didn’t stop his barking, the authorities would issue us a $100 dollar ticket. It went on to explain that dog barking could be corrected, and it was important we keep our neighbors happy. My heart beat up into my throat. My face, I’m sure, flushed the bright red that lets everyone know when I’m upset. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors report us instead of just telling me. I couldn’t understand when my dog was barking when he was inside all day.  How could he be bothering anyone?

After asking around, I found out that it was a neighbor in the far corner. They had told someone else that our dog barked at 5:30 when I let him out each morning. This woke them up since it was next to their bedroom at the corner of our yard. Of course, I stopped letting him stay out until he barked and made sure he came in. But I never much liked those neighbors who tattled on me instead of asking me directly. They didn’t speak to me themselves. They had someone else do it for them. Because they told me indirectly, I had to work to know when exactly my dog was bothering them. They were ‘passive.’ As it turns out, no one much likes passivity in writing, either.

The Passive Voice in Grammar

Much like my neighbors passed the action on to the animal shelter, the passive voice in grammar hides the ‘agent’ of the sentence. The object of a sentence becomes the subject. This sounds crazy but here is an example to help explain:

The Ridgeback dog caught the ball.

Subject = The Ridgeback

Verb = caught

Object = the ball

The ball was caught by the Ridgeback dog.

Subject = The ball

Verb = was caught

Object (agent) = by the Ridgeback dog

The passive voice always has a form of ‘to be’ together with the past participle (3rd form of the verb).  Be careful not to think of passive as any construction with the verb ‘to be.’ The continuous tenses also have ‘to be’ but are not always passive. Next week I’ll come up with another fascinating grammar tale to explain the continuous.

I like to think of politicians and executives who have done wrong when I think about the passive voice. “The bill was passed,” said Mr. Schmo the politico. “The money was stolen by someone,” said the executive in the congressional hearing. People often use the passive voice to cover up who did something other people may not like.

Sometimes the purpose is less nefarious. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter who did something. For example: “The building was built in 1972.” It wouldn’t help anyone to know the names of all the construction workers involved in the project.

If you’d like to know more and practice in order to wrap your neurons around the idea, here are a few sites with more examples and exercises:

Basic Description

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/1/

Examples with all the English Tenses

http://www.englishpage.com/verbpage/activepassive.html

Easy Exercise to Explain the Idea to Your Brain

http://esl.about.com/library/quiz/blgrquiz_passive1.htm

More Difficult Exercise to Practice Writing Skills

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/quizzes/passive_quiz.htm

The last exercise is especially helpful because many of the sentences are not passive and some work well in the passive voice. Sometimes passive works in writing and in the rest of life. The practice of writing and rewriting gives you choices when you understand how to use the language.

Like the neighbors who didn’t deal with me directly, passive often leaves a reader feeling like the writer should have told you something she didn’t. Understanding what it looks like by breaking it down can help you give your readers more clarity. And clarity pulls a reader into the writing more completely. Test a few sentences and see whether you feel more like you’ve gotten a letter from the humane society or if you feel like your neighbor let you know what was happening with your dog.