Monthly Archives: April 2014

What Happened When I Got Really Mad at A Big Bully

Yesterday I read a post by my buddy Jaye at Jaye’s Brain that made a connection between adoption and bullying.

In a book review of an anthology by adoptees, Perpetual Child, that I’ve been reading, she wrote:

An essay by Matthew Salesses stood out for me not only by what it said regarding adoption but what it said about bullying/adoption. I started out blogging, unintentionally, by writing about the bullies on the bus. Again, I thought it was my over-sensitivity and my desire to prevent anyone from having negative feelings (or perhaps, any feelings at all) that made me a (bullied) target.

Salesses, in his essay, wrote about being bullied because he was a transracial adoptee. Jaye was adopted, and she writes about the power of the essays and other pieces in Perpetual Child. She shares her very first blog post–which, guess what, just happens to be about being bullied. Go read it (link is in her quote above)!!! And the topic is bus bullying, a subject that I wrote about here.

In 2012, I started my first blog, Don’t We Look Alike?, writing it with my daughter. The subject of DWLA is adoption, and over the past almost two years, I’ve learned a lot about the subject–and revised some of my viewpoints. I want to share with you the first post I wrote. I’m not sure that today I could write my story with the same tone I do here, but this is how the experience seemed to me for most of my life.

The post didn’t have too many readers, but a couple of the “likes” were by bloggers who I still read and who occasionally read this blog.

It’s interesting to me how different my response was to this bullying than to the subsequent bullying I myself was subjected to at my new school in 3rd grade. At the time of the following story, I was in 2nd grade, and at my familiar “old” school.

Here’s my story:

I’m the mother of two young adults, both adopted from Korea when they were babies. But my relationship with adoption began much earlier. I’m the sister of an adoptee, too. Back in the early sixties, it was still a new idea that adoption wasn’t a secret to be kept and that an adopted child could grow up knowing he was adopted and still feel loved and accepted by others. My parents embraced this idea. When they started the adoption process for a boy, they explained all this to me and I thought I understood. Yet it wasn’t quite that simple.


It was a March day, when my parents and I drove downtown to pick up my brother Teddy from Catholic Family Services. We weren’t Catholic, but Mom explained that their agency was the one with the babies and we were in need of a baby. We pulled up in front of an old house on South Street and went in. Teddy lay in a white bassinette in a small room. My parents and I encircled him, looking down at our new baby. Our case worker said, “He’s just six weeks old. Isn’t he a darling?”

Though shocked to see his face covered with a red rash, I quickly decided not to be picky since I had been waiting all seven years of my life for a brother.

A few months before, when the case worker was going to visit us for the first time, Mom and Dad had warned me that she would ask questions, and I sensed that our family getting the stamp of approval rested on me and my answers.

I kept things businesslike, asking for a brother since our family needed a boy more than another girl. Since it was 1963 and I’d never met anyone who was adopted, I assumed that kids, adopted or not, would automatically look like their parents. I had my mother’s brown hair and blue eyes, so I put in an order for brown eyes to match Dad’s.

Now I peered closer at the baby with his frill of reddish-brown hair. “He’s got blue eyes like mine!” I’m sure I sounded accusatory. The case worker explained they were fresh out of baby boys with brown eyes, so they had chosen Teddy because he looked like Mom and me. I considered the logic and figured he would do.

When we got him home, all the relatives started coming over to meet him. For two weeks, we had somebody at our house almost every day. They liked to have me sit on the couch and hold Teddy while they took our picture. Teddy felt like one of my dolls, but warm and heavier, and yet I was conscious of how fragile he was and how careful I had to be with him. Every day I rushed home from school so I could see him. Day by day, I learned to be more comfortable with him, and how to hold the Playtex bottle with its plastic bag insert so he could get formula without swallowing too much air. I learned how to burp him, patting his back which seemed barely bigger than my hand. He relaxed and smiled at me when I picked him up, and he wrinkled his forehead when I lay him back in the crib.

I’d been in the choir at the Methodist church all school year. A group of us would walk from school to the church [once a week]. We were six kids, all ages, from an afternoon kindergartener to a tall fifth grader, a girl I’ll call Jane. Her size and confident demeanor gave her a lot of authority.

That day we decided to cut through the backfields to the church, although we usually just marched down the side of Gull Road. Jane said it would save us a lot of time to cut through, and nobody wanted to argue with her, although the snow was melting in the field, leaving ruts filled with mud.

Since having a baby brother was a new phenomenon in my life, I liked to bring up the subject–a lot. After having been an only child, I loved the sound of the words my brother. As we walked, I chimed in with something about my brother Teddy.

Suddenly Jane, who was leading, turned around and said, “He’s not your REAL brother. Don’t lie about it.”

My skin seemed to peel back from my limbs, and my stomach got a sick flipfloppy feeling. “What do you mean he’s not my real brother?”

“He’s ADOPTED. That’s not REAL.” A sea of bloody red anger splashed across my eyes. Jane had no siblings and, since she was eleven, probably thought she’d never get any. But I wasn’t thinking from her perspective. To me, her words were an act of violence against Teddy.

That’s the first memory I have of being angry. I lowered my head, aiming straight for her stomach. Eventually Jane and I got back on friendly terms, but I never forgot that some people don’t really understand what adoption means for those of us whose lives are changed by it. My parents’ philosophy had become my philosophy, but I now knew it wasn’t shared by everyone.

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When I was in 7th grade, a very large girl sat on me and started to beat me up, but I was rescued by my friend’s father who jumped out of his car when he saw what was happening. Other than those scary few moments, the only time I was ever in a physical fight was when I head-butted Jane. In case you’re wondering, not much happened after that point because Jane apparently was shocked somebody stood up to her and not inclined to fight.

Have you been in a physical fight with a bully?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction

A Butterfly Net, Not a Story

I had a nightmarish image come to mind today. My gravestone popped up right in front of me. On it was carved:

She never met a memoir she didn’t like.

Although I’ve been selecting memoirs to review by pulling books haphazardly off my shelf, maybe I’ve been drawn to choose my favorites. To keep that gravestone from being carved (in the far distant future) with those words, I’m going to share a book I have mixed feelings about.

June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood certainly has the subject matter for an enthralling tale. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Jordan (1936-2002) learned to love literature from her loving and abusive father. She grew up in New York at a time when her life experience covered some dramatic changes in the lives of African- and Caribbean Americans.  The book was “A Best Book of 2000” by both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

The details of her memories are those of a poet, and therefore rich and evocative. Her story is personal and specific, but also important as an addition to the voices of People of Color in this country.

But the book has no real sense of being a memoir. The very difficult work of memoir is forging all those bits of one’s life into a compelling narrative.  Instead, Jordan catches them like butterflies in a net and lets them flit off each other from one fragment to the next.  While I found her life fascinating, I had to struggle to keep the momentum because there was no urgency or tension or cohesion to the story. Maybe that is an overstatement.  At least, there wasn’t enough of those elements to satisfy this reader.

I did learn from reading this book. It showed me just how much I want to create a thickly textured and urgent story in my own memoir.

The book would be a wonderful source of material for a biographer of Jordan–or for a literary critic who is writing about the poet. But for an engaging nonfiction read, I would choose a different book.

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Phone Rage

Here’s a story of something that happened to me a couple of years ago. I posted it on the site “Cowbird” at the time, but I’ve taken my stories off that site now. The style of this post might seem out of the norm for me, but the subject matter is a typical part of my daily life ;).

Here ’tis:

When I answer the phone, she says, “Is this Luanne? Your credit card was declined. I couldn’t get your order of 24 jockstraps out today. Do you want to give me another card?”

“There’s nothing wrong with my card! I’m not even near my credit limit. Let me call the bank and get back to you.”

I scrounge around inside my big shoulder bag, looking for my wallet and the offending plastic, and then I call the number on the back of the card. I get looped around and around, passing go—the original menu—several times. I hang up. Neither the front nor the back of the card reveals another likely telephone number, so I go upstairs to the files and bring down a statement with a phone number.

After passing through several more departments, I finally reach a person. At first I can’t understand her quick robotic cadence. Within a few seconds, I decide she has said, “What may I help you with?”

I tell her my problem, and she researches while I sit on hold. Meanwhile, I file my nails, take off my too-tight bra, and check my Facebook. I can’t wait to call my husband and yell at him for expecting me to order all those jockstraps. 

She finally comes back on the phone, and I have to shake my head to wake myself up. “I am very sorry, but there isn’t any problem with your account.”

I explain the phone call I got from the sporting goods company and how I need to use this credit card.

“Yes, there is not any problem with your account.” Again, I have to pause to figure out what she’s just said.

“Well, obviously there IS a problem or I wouldn’t be calling you. What is the available credit on this card?”

“Okay, let me check that information for you. Would you mind waiting just a moment?”

“I’ve already waited! I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this problem for,” and here I glance at the clock on my computer, “forty-five minutes!!” My foot taps wildly.

“Yes, I see. I am very sorry that you are having this problem. If you will let me check that information for you . . . .”

“Go ahead!”

After finding out my balance, I ask her how we can solve the problem when there isn’t a problem and how I can get my jockstraps.

“Yes, you want to know what the problem is. There is not any problem. Is there anything else I can help you with? I am glad to have been of service to you.”

I call my husband on his cell. “You won’t be getting your freaking jockstraps, and if you still want them, you can just order them yourself.” I hang up before he can respond. That’s the benefit of being married a really long time.

 

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What a Memoir Writer Can Learn From a Novel

Today’s memoir review focuses on a novel. Huh? I’ll explain.

I’ve been wanting to read a novel by WordPress blogger Anneli Purchase for some time now, and the other day I had a long car trip so I settled into my seat with a copy of Orion’s Gift, Anneli’s 2012 novel.

Before I knew it we had arrived at our destination, and I didn’t want to put the book down. The story is part romance and part adventure, and I became caught up in the budding love story, as well as the dangerous escapades.

In the midst of all that, my memoir-writing brain started clicking away when I read what Anneli does with setting. I realized that I could learn from her about writing setting in memoir.

The story takes place, for the most part, in Baja California. Anneli has traveled and camped that area herself, and her own experiences inform the book with multi-dimensional descriptions of the area. Sometimes the reader is plunged into the natural beauty. Other times, the setting reflects the interior landscape of the characters. Kevin, one of the lovers who is beset with worries, sees the landscape this way:

Rocks, sand, cholla, ocotillo, and cardón cacti, and palo verde trees. Beautiful, yet unending and without distinguishing landmarks, and no ocean in sight. I didn’t like it. Oh, it was scenic enough, but heading out into the unknown, so late in the day, putting all my trust in people I had just met–it didn’t sit right with me.

In addition to using setting as an exterior marker for what is going on with her characters’ thoughts and emotions, Anneli uses setting as a way for her characters to interact.  Kevin has helped Sylvia in several ways, including escaping from a bandido and getting her damaged van back on the road again, but Sylvia can teach him a few things, too. When they enter the water, she advises him what to do if he runs into a stingray. Kevin says he will fight back if he has to, but then he realizes that he never fought back in his marriage that just ended–he had let his wife walk all over him.

The setting is integrated as part of the story; it’s not a bonus or addition, but an essential part of what occurs in the book. It has an effect on the plot and on the actions of the characters. The campgrounds and wilderness areas provide a backdrop for the dangers of Mexico, but the towns bring the couple in closer touch with their dangerous pasts. When Sylvia has to learn how to dress properly for the town, there is more at stake than just fitting in.

Orion’s Gift was a relaxing and engaging break from reading memoirs. I’ve already loaned it to my daughter to read.

It’s a perfect addition to your summer reading list.

Anneli writes two WordPress blogs. You can find her at Anneli’s Place and at wordfromanneli.

To find out more about Anneli and her books, click on the links below:

http://www.anneli-purchase.com

Links for Orion’s Gift:

Amazon.com http://amzn.to/TSNU8v

Amazon.co.uk http://amzn.to/13bba5z

Amazon.ca http://amzn.to/Zr8K3U

Smashwords.com http://bit.ly/VsEj7S

 

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir writing theory, Research and prep for writing, WordPress, Writing

Who Came Calling?

I’m not writing an autobiography or my “life story,” but the memoir story I am telling about our family does criss-cross my entire life.

It’s a different mindset to write about more recent times than it is to write about my childhood. For childhood scenes it helps to get myself back in that time by looking at artifacts from the period.

Occasionally, I brainstorm about objects and odd unimportant memories just for this purpose.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the men and women who came to our houses with the purpose of delivering or selling.

When I was in junior high my grandmother was still getting deliveries from Lockshore Dairy. The milk man would drive up very early in the morning and put the milk and cottage cheese and butter in a silver box on Grandma’s porch. Eventually, the company stopped making deliveries as home delivery and home sales were beginning to become old-fashioned.

In the way that sometimes old becomes new again, when my kids were little and we were living in California, I was able to order dairy delivery from Alta Dena!

When I was younger than nine, we were visited regularly by the Fuller Brush Man. If you click on the photo, you will find an article that describes how the company, after being in business for over 100 years, went Chapter 11 last summer. We bought cleaning supplies, as well as brushes from him. He didn’t look handsome and spiffy like the man in the poster; he was more sad and harried looking. Maybe if he had been younger he would have been more eager, but I can’t say he didn’t try to be enthusiastic about the products in the gigantic suitcase he hauled around with him.

Fuller Brush Man

Our Rexair vacuum was purchased from a man who came selling them. He spread his products out in our small living room and showed my mother how to vacuum up dirt without a bag in the vacuum. The dirt went into a pot of water at the base of the vacuum. Although we barely had any furniture and we didn’t have wall-to-wall carpet, she bought it! 

The Avon Lady still visited when I was in high school, but soon after that, Avon began to be sold through other methods than door to door sales.

There were various other people who came to the door, such as men offering to sharpen our knives and scissors.

Now when somebody rings my doorbell unannounced, I try to peek and see who it is or I just ignore them. What if they are coming to tell me my house is on fire? Or that there has been a disaster and we must evacuate? It might be nice to be able to open the door to a stranger and invite him in so I can look at his wares. Or am I just being nostalgic?

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On another note, I’ve written before about the angst I have over reading my poetry aloud. A new issue of TAB: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics is out. You can read my poem “Vagrant.” Or listen to me read it ;).  Click the link if you’re willing.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

Dead People and Mysteries

I just finished reading Monica Holloway’s first memoir, Driving with Dead Peopleand I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to write about the book without including any spoilers.

Not an easy task with this book since the last chapters hit me hard.

Near the end of the book, I wondered how I missed it all. On reflection, I guess it’s because the book is that well-written.

You’re going to love this one as the narrator’s voice is engaging, but if you don’t like to read dark memoirs, then it might take a frightening turn for you. If you venture on, you find that your journey has value, and that Holloway is courageous.

Holloway tells the story of her childhood, growing up in the midwest. Her father is cruel, and at first her mother seems as much a victim as the four children. Then Holloway’s mother goes to college and gets the courage to leave her husband. Emotionally, she turns her back on her children as surely as if she had completely abandoned them.

Her obsession with death and dead people keeps Holloway going throughout these years. Her best friend’s father owns a funeral parlor, and she gets a job driving dead bodies for him. She haunts the graveyard.

Additionally, the passion (different from obsession) that gets Holloway through it all is her love of and talent for acting. She eventually earns an MFA in theatre from the University of California, San Diego. She builds a life far from her Ohio roots.

But the path is not without great difficulty. The family has been destroyed by the behavior of the parents. Her closest sibling, the oldest sister, has been particularly damaged. But so has Holloway herself, and it’s only at the very end of the book that she discovers just how much.

From this memoir I learned that writing a memoir can be like writing a mystery. In this type of memoir, the writer can’t give away all the critical information up front as the story needs to develop in its own time. But clues need to be embedded throughout the narrative so that when all is revealed, even if the reader is shocked, she will see how inevitable the events were. She won’t feel that the writer was playing games, withholding just for the sake of sensation. Holloway creates a suspenseful, seamless story using this technique.

Holloway has published a second memoir, about the relationship between her son, who is autistic, and a dog.  Here is a book trailer for this book:

Cowboy and Wills looks charming, and I am putting on my to-be-read list.

If you want to find out more about Holloway or about the third memoir she is currently writing, check out her website.

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Writing Sometimes Means Getting Up Off the Chair

Spring in Arizona is glorious. We never did have winter this year, but I can tell it’s spring because there is a nest of baby quail behind the house. All but two of them hatched yesterday. A large and messy nest weighs down a flimsy Palo Verde branch overhanging the wash. I watched the bird fly back and forth to the nest, but the bird was so small and my vision so limited that I couldn’t make out the type of bird.

We also have lots of blossoming shrubs and trees and vines. Bougainvilleas are one of the more distinctive blossoms.

Living in the southwestern United States, I expect to see Bougainvilleas as backdrop to certain settings, especially around the walls of Spanish and Italian style stucco houses.

Bougainvilleas are apparently native to South America, but they have made their way to Arizona and California–and to the Philippines and southern European countries.

They are well-known for their distinctive reddish (but not red) color. The shade differs a bit, according to the sunlight and the soil. They come in both vine and bush varieties.

My husband and I decided we wanted to buy a few new bougainvillea vines, and the company delivered them to us. The place we wanted to put them is not only across the driveway from our other bougainvilleas, but on the same wall as our neighbor’s plants.

So it was important to match the color. Not a problem, I figured. To my knowledge, all Bougainvillea plants were the same color. (I always envision how gorgeous they are against white stucco near the beach in San Diego).

The plants that were dropped off at my house, though, were an orangey shade. They completely clashed.

The company exchanged them. For a hot pink color. I couldn’t figure out how it could be so hard to select the right color when all the Bougainvillea between the Pacific Ocean and New Mexico were the same color.

I checked the internet. Apparently there are over 80 different Bougainvillea plants

So I got off my writer roots (that’s the body part you use to plant yourself on the chair at the computer) and hauled myself to the nursery–armed with a twig from ours, a twig from my neighbor’s, and a twig from the hot pink so-not-right plants.

The man who helped me at first showed me to a section of Bougainvillea. I matched my “swatches” the best I could, but nothing seemed quite right. I said, “I want the color of San Diego Bougainvillea.” He just gaped at me.

I felt as if I were in that scene from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream HouseI was Myrna Loy describing paint color to her gape-mouthed painters:

I want it to be a soft green, not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow, but don’t let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow-green. Now, the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow; a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshine-y. I tell you, Mr. PeDelford, if you’ll send one of your men to the grocer for a pound of their best butter, and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong!

When Myrna Loy is done with the full description, the painters say:

Mr. PeDelford: You got that, Charlie?

Charlie: Red, green, blue, yellow, white.

Mr. PeDelford: Check.

That was how much my flower man cared about the color I needed. I hemmed and hawed and sent him on another errand.

In a few minutes, Ryan (an everyday hero) stopped by to help me. He brought me to another section of the nursery. All the Bougainvillea, vines and bushes, were the right color. And they were 1/3 the price of the other colors. Go figure.

What I learned is that when you want the correct San Diego color Bougainvillea you want to buy “Barbara Karst Bougainvillea.” That’s all you need to know. Those will be the perfect ones.

My new vine matches my neighbor's boughs.

My new vine matches my neighbor’s boughs.

Now I want to know how one goes about getting one’s name on such a well-known flower. And who is/was Barbara Karst?

Do you have a gardening tip to share?

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Filed under Arizona, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing

Reading Politics in Literature

I actually took notes when I read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book contains so much information and so many thought-provoking quotes, I had to make it easy for me to find them later on. For what, I had no idea. but it seemed important. In reading this book, I felt as though I had entered a world foreign to me, but met a character in the form of the narrator who is someone familiar–a voracious reader and a teacher.

Nafisi’s memoir takes place when she, an Iranian moves back to Iran from the United States, where she attends grad school . She decides to go home at what turns out to be a time of change and danger–during the Revolution.

What starts out as a hopeful movement, becomes an authoritarian anti-Western repressive government. Nafisi witnesses the controls tightening as the abuse of power becomes more chaotic. She writes of men and women being tortured and killed, of women sexually abused and raped and blamed. The powerless are doomed.

Although she starts out teaching in the university, soon Nafisi is expelled for refusing to wear a veil. She comes back for a time, but ultimately, she resigns and takes her teaching underground. She teaches literature in her living room to female students. It’s very hush-hush as they are all in danger if discovered.

What did I learn from this book?

  1. The structure of Nafisi’s memoir is very unique. Because the book is about teaching literature, she gives the book shape by forming sections around the books they read:  “Lolita”; “Gatsby”; “James”; and “Austen.” She makes connections between the literature studied during the section and what is happening to the characters in the book and to Iran. Her clever structure is a good example of  a memoir structured thematically.
  2. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how little I knew about Iranian culture and about the Revolution. I’d seen Ayatollah Khomeini on TV often in the early 80s, and it was if a dark spirit entered the room each time he filled the screen. But this made me turn from Iran and not seek to learn more.
  3. Most importantly, Nafisi shows how naive and idealistic she and her fellow Iranian students were when the Shah was in power. They believed that revolution was necessary and would help Iran and its people. But their dream turned into a nightmare. The book shows how we have to be careful what we wish for. A promising course might not lead to freedom and happiness, but to a dangerous theocracy.

Although I ended up with  5 typed pages of valuable notes from this book, I remember one passage by rote. In the Gatsby section, a character says:

[The Great Gatsby] is an amazing book . . . . It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. “

I’ve taken on this quote as a personal mantra.

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I’m looking forward to reading Nafisi’s recent book Things I’ve Been Silent About. She lives and teaches in the United States, and this book sounds like a memoir about her childhood, growing up with parents who told her romantic stories.  This is her website.

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