Thousand-Word Themes and Other Middle School Horrors

Regular readers know that I use this space from time to time for youthful reminiscences, which is cheaper than seeing a therapist for my unresolved issues. Apparently I have quite a bit to say about my formative years, and with age comes the courage to finally tell the tales I was reluctant to tell before. The rush of such airings comes from sharing that first anecdote. When the ceiling didn’t fall in, I got brave enough to write another. Five years later, and followers of this blog have learned a great deal, but there are likely more tales to be told. It all has to do with thoughts and memories as they occur. Memories don’t return in chronological order, which accounts for my skipping around in print.

Some recommendations for summer reading!

My previous post came from remembering my earliest experience with arts education, and in that piece having to do with first grade I mentioned in passing that I was a very quiet child in class even though I could have out-talked every other kid in school. Away from home, very few people were aware of my verbosity. Before sixth grade I was never turned around in my seat talking to my neighbor. At least I never got caught. I barely spoke during piano lessons though there was commentary running through my head. People who met me for the first time described me as very quiet, but when they saw me thereafter they wondered if I was the same person as before.

While editing the previous post, I noticed that the piece had surpassed a thousand words. I hadn’t realized that I’d gone on that long about a first-grade art class. The term “thousand-word theme” came to mind as I uploaded the article, and with that thought Mrs. B. from middle school appeared in my head.

As intense as my first grade art teacher, Mrs. B. also used to scare the hell out of me. Several years ago I wrote a piece about her late colleague down the hall, and she surprised me by posting a comment. I had no idea she remembered me or that she had ever read anything I’d written. Her words brought a smile to my face, and if she’s reading this, she should know that in spite of the anxiety she caused me, I learned a great deal from her during our time together. Life in the present-day United States requires a strong civics background, and I think how much better off we’d all be if she’d been able to teach millions of us.

While there were incidents that occasionally elicited her outrage, my class never received either of her two favorite forms of punishment: thousand-word themes on a subject of her choice or outlining the current chapter of our textbook.

Because I rode the bus with kids from other classes and glanced at their punitive assignments, I was constantly worried that I’d be required to rearrange some future evening in order to think up a thousand words for a yet-to-be-named topic.

Even now I can recall the apprehension that in a single night I might have to come up with something meaningful to say about the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Term papers were about 2,000 words and, as the name implies, require time to research, organize thoughts, and complete several drafts before handing in the final. Finishing a thousand-word composition in a single night was impossible!

Decades later, I’ve become extremely comfortable with a blank page, and a thousand words in an evening is one of the easier things I can do. I do not procrastinate with writing unless it’s an act of delayed gratification. In a recent interview I was asked if I ever get writer’s block. It happens to all writers, but I explained that my block is usually a sign that I need to take a break. At other times, I have a difficult time keeping my work concise. I aspire to Hemingway’s economy, but if there are no restraints, grocery lists and birthday cards are about the only things I write that stay under a thousand words. I can do it if I must, but I’m already at this piece’s 700th word and still haven’t reached the end!

Perhaps I require more focus or a heavier editorial hand, but I love words too much to wrap things up in a hurry. I read at a slower pace in order to savor a writer’s style. Writing novels provides me with occasions to take readers on longer journeys, and speaking opportunities provide forums for telling stories faster than I can type. Nevertheless, even with the luxury of space, I’m constantly concerned with word count and timing as though I’m flying a kite in a strong wind. I have to remember that what gets unwound must be rewound at some point lest the line snap and the kite blows away forever.

It was this week’s intention to include a story about a professor from graduate school who shared Mrs. B.’s affinity for outlining chapters, but it would take hundreds more words for her backstory alone. It’s best to conclude with 863 words and fly that kite another day.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two mysteries featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

Being Good at Art is Not Required for Appreciating It

While Maggie Lyon’s upcoming adventure is with the publisher, I’ve taken some time to work on other projects, finish a play, improve my French language skills, and explore new creative avenues while keeping up with all the chores associated with a life in the woods. One of those new paths is endeavoring to create art.

Recent proof that my artistic ability wasn’t permanently squelched in first grade.

Until recently, the only proof of my artistic ability had been lost for decades. Art classes were still part of the curriculum when I was in first grade, but the teacher, who described herself as a “full-blooded Irish woman with a temper to prove it,” scared the bejesus out me. My usual response to teachers’ tirades was to keep my head down and do my best to become invisible. This method apparently worked as borne out by all the times that I was presumed innocent when the class was caught out misbehaving. The teacher would burst into the room and find the most extroverted kids out of their seats making a lot of noise. She would start yelling about all the yelling, and I would hunker down. No teacher would believe that that sweet boy sitting quietly in his seat could outtalk every kid in the room. As you can imagine, I avoided writing a lot of “I will not talk in class” sentences.

Miss Smith didn’t assign sentences. She merely kept a large paddle hanging in full view. I can’t imagine what recalcitrance she anticipated in an art class, but maintaining a tight grip on a subject that succeeds with less restraint didn’t occur to her. The added touch of heavy tape wrapped several times around the short-handled boat oar insinuated that at least once she had angrily hit her target with enough strength to structurally crack the weapon. Needless to say, art class did not get out of hand.

My little elementary school was well funded during my first year. The taxes that supported us didn’t have to be spread across a larger district like the one to which we were soon annexed. Sure, we had old textbooks, but we learned to read and do basic math without any trouble. We had fantastic lunches, new desks, and a nice piano, and there was no scrimping on art supplies. We had all types of paints, tools for any project, and we were able to attempt any manner of media our teacher dreamt of.

We filled old milk cartons with a liquid that hardened so that we could eventually chip away at the synthetic stone as though it were Carrera marble. We layered soggy newspaper strips, dripping with paste, over balloons for papier-mâché. I thought Miss Smith had lost her mind with that project, and remained unconvinced by the time my hollowed monstrosity required painting. I was good at nothing, and I never paid attention when I was told that I must use certain colors for whatever was assigned. I wasn’t intentionally disobedient. It’s just that I have an innate ability for tuning out others’ attempts to restrain me when I have a specific vision.

My greatest art class success, however, was purely accidental. Miss Smith entered the art room one morning and passed out sketch paper. She told us that we’d be drawing “free hand.” Upon reflection, I’m certain she’d not prepared a real lesson, but I took a crayon and let my hand wander. I made a series of arcs that smoothly connected, and then I started filling in. The older boy to my right looked over and declared me a genius. Apparently I’d outlined a toucan that could have passed for the one on the Fruit Loops commercial. He was right!

Confusing toucans with parrots, I decided to add color, but the end result was a beautiful bird. Miss Smith had not noticed. I’m sure she’d assessed my abilities earlier in the year, and since I was mute whenever she drew near, there was no reason for us to interact. I displayed nothing that required cultivation. At the end of the session, we were told to pass everything to the right and the work was taken up.

I never saw my toucan until the last week of school when Miss Smith made her rounds to all of the regular classes. She informed us that she was handing back all of our work because an art exhibition would be held during the eight-graders’ graduation reception. She wanted each student to select his or her best example of the year for the show. She pulled out my beautiful bird and held it up as the quality she hoped the students would select. She wanted the very best and looked in my direction to say that she’d saved me the trouble of going through the rest of my awkward oeuvre.

She slipped my toucan into her folder and left. Since my family didn’t know any of the eight-graders well enough to attend the graduation, and I probably lost any note that was sent home announcing the exhibition (more likely there was no one at home who thought that I might ever have a featured piece in an art show), we didn’t attend the exhibition. I never saw my bird again. Nor did I ever see Miss Smith to collect my art. She didn’t come back, and my bird either ended up in her personal collection or the city dump.

Miss Smith resigned because she was getting married. Several decades ago, most of us assumed that she was quitting because her only life choices were marriage or a career. She couldn’t possibly have both. I’m sure the truth is that she moved away and found another classroom with another nail in the wall on which to hang her menacing oar. I wonder how she reacted after being informed that she could no longer hit students. She must have displayed her famous Irish temper over that!

As some of us rejoiced over corporal punishment leaving the classroom, we mourned when the arts followed. I wonder how Miss Smith reacted when her budget was cut? Had she mellowed with age and experience, or did she shout once more to explain why the arts are a necessary part of education? I’m proof that the purpose of arts education is not to make someone an artist, but that exposure to the arts gives one a sense of appreciation for the world’s evocative pieces. May we find our way and renew our cultural appreciation.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, including the two suspense novels featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

On Domestic Abuse

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All may not appear as it seems.

After realizing that my good intentions had consequences 25 years ago, I have been more cautious when attempting further attempts at heroism. However, I’m concerned about a potentially bad situation and feel the need to write about my suspicions of spousal abuse that affect someone very dear to me.

I’ve known the couple in question for many years. I was around them when they dated, attended their wedding, and have seen them from time to time over the years. If you’re reading this and think you know about whom I’m writing, please don’t attempt to identify them in the comments. For her safety in particular, I’m not trying to expose anyone. Even if you offered a guess you’d likely be wrong, as I have adjusted some of the details to protect privacy.

Through media and film, we’re provided images and profiles of abusive situations. We’re led to believe that an impoverished couple with too many chemicals and too few dollars are the norm. Financial struggles exacerbate relationships, and insobriety can affect normal restraint, but abuse thrives under many circumstances.

We’re further led to believe that abuse is a 24/7 cycle where a woman tiptoes around a hung-over man who flips out before noon and leaves her with a black eye or bruises, crumpled on the floor before he goes out for the day. A person couldn’t withstand physical and emotional abuse on a 24/7 basis without there being signs and likely an early death. I’m writing here about abuse that has gone almost undetected for decades, and abusers who may not be triggered to act out for spans of time.

I vaguely remember something Camille Paglia wrote about abused women back in the 1990s. The gist is that some people stay in toxic relationships because they reap some benefit. The benefit could be shelter, but more likely they are paralyzed by fear. We also can’t forget that people cling to bad jobs, stay in bad living conditions, repeat the same mistakes, and stay with horrible people because the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. We really don’t know why abused spouses stay, and we are in no position to judge them.

We can’t overlook the fact that the abuser possesses some degree of charm, and on his good days he may bring flowers or make public declarations. He may splurge and demonstrate his love in public ways. Social occasions provide opportunities for guests to witness a couple that appears to be so in love, and with social media, those florid anniversary posts about his best friend and great love of his life will convince many that their years together have been blissfully spent.

I suspect that my friend has been suffering from abuse since her engagement, but I never realized the possibility until three years ago. And then I denied it for two more years. I once met another couple at an event, and throughout the evening I saw them interact. I picked up on her nervousness and noticed how she acted when she realized he might be watching her from across the room. She was so like my friend in question, and when the husband was suddenly ready to leave he made a scathing comment and humiliated her to tears. There was an element of familiarity that I tried to put out of my head.

For the next two years I occasionally thought about the couple I know, but I was still allowing the media and entertainment industries to cloud my judgment. My friend and her husband don’t fit the domestic abuse stereotypes. The wife possesses advanced college degrees and was raised by a feminist who would likely have wrecked any man that attempted to hurt her or her children. My friend has made her own money, traveled the world, spoken her mind in public, and has been on her own from time to time because of job assignments. In other words, she has the skills, the earning potential, and the opportunity to break free if her husband had ever laid a hand on her. My logical brain was still dismissing that my friend might be suffering, but when I look at her these days, I can barely see the hopeful young college girl I remember.

Before I came to terms with the possibility of abuse, there was a group of us who were very close back in the day. We’re scattered across the country now, but whenever one of us was in her area, we always got together. More recently, reunion days became evenings, and evenings became lunch or a quick coffee. My friend makes excuses about meeting longer than 45 minutes. “I have to get back.” Get back to what? She runs an online business and can see to any emergency with her smartphone.

I didn’t really notice the progressively short visits until our most recent reunion, and I discussed my feelings with a mutual friend who expressed an equal annoyance. We decided that our friend must’ve decided that our reunions have become an obligation she can’t figure out how to end. A week after our recent visit, I was un-friended on social media. My feelings were hurt, and when I complained to those in our group, we found that all but one of us had been dropped as well.

We racked our brains. Had we done something to offend her? Evidently not. Our last friend to have contact with her related to us that she’d had her feelings hurt because we’d all dropped her! We straightened the situation out and were instantly reconnected, but that lasted for six weeks. I decided to call, but my calls and texts went unanswered. I sent one of my books to her, but it has never been acknowledged. I responded via e-mail to her holiday newsletter, but no reply. The one friend who’s never been dropped reported that our sweet friend’s e-mail is “broken.”

Email doesn’t break down. I don’t know where it goes after the sender sends it and before it’s downloaded at its destination, but email can be retrieved on any device in the modern world. Our friend’s social media kerfuffle has been explained to us as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest have somehow been deleting friends and contacts spontaneously. We’ve all reached out to our friend to encourage her to think about the real reason only a few select old friends keep disappearing from her life. There is no problem with her social media accounts, nor is her e-mail broken. In all likelihood, someone has access to her passwords and tampers with her communications, thereby tampering with her friendships. The obvious suspect is the husband, but evidently she refuses to admit this when put on the spot.

There is disagreement among us. Some of the group is horrified by the mere suggestion that our friend has been abused for decades. They insist that we’d have heard of broken bones, black eyes, and court appearances. Bruises don’t always show, and we are not around her most of the time. Furthermore, emotional scars manifest in different ways. Victims find ingenious ways to cope with the terror, which again doesn’t happen round the clock. There may be long intervals between incidents, and the victim can lie to herself and say, “I’m not a victim of domestic abuse. I’m not like those women on TV. My husband isn’t like that!”

In the end, our only “evidence”consists of behavior, gut feelings, and very few facts. The facts include that two of us once saw him squeeze her too hard, but it was bushed off as exuberant affection. So was the incredibly hard slap to her behind, which we feel certainly left a mark. We know he had a run-in with the law over an issue stemming from his temper, and he is an avid hunter, which means there are firearms in the house. Ingredients that by themselves are not necessarily volatile. That’s why we end up “suspecting” and have not intervened. We also don’t want to drive her into hiding.

I learned my lesson about stepping where I shouldn’t, but I remain concerned. We all remain concerned and hope that our dear friend knows how much we love her as she continues to seemingly march in lock-step with a man who is clearly tyrannical. We are thrown for a loop when the subject comes up because there is every possibility that she is happy and that all might be okay.

Perhaps she has Stockholm Syndrome and now fully identifies with her abuser. Regardless of what we see, what we think, and what is really happening behind the scenes, our friend is obviously coping with the situation as best she can.

If she’s reading this and the facts hit home, we want her to know that we love her and that she has places to go if she needs to get away. Perhaps abuse works itself out without a catastrophe, but news reports and documentaries as well as fiction have led us to believe otherwise.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

On Domestic Tranquility

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A lot of fond memories in this house, but not of the neighbor in the back.

What do you do when you suspect spousal abuse? This isn’t exactly a rhetorical question, but a very real situation. At least I think it’s a real situation. I usually use this space for attempts at humor or to register a complaint, but I’m very serious this time. What does one do when you suspect spousal abuse? I’m going to lay the facts out over the next two blog posts, and perhaps a light will dawn.

In the case of recognizing child abuse, I have some experience, which is the reason I’m unsure how to deal with suspected spousal abuse. About 25 years ago I rented a house with my best friend. One of the house’s several perks was a patio on two levels off the breakfast room. I remember the first night after unpacking. He made a chicken dinner, and I made a pineapple upside down cake. We had a set of double ovens and couldn’t wait to use them both at once.

As we dined on the patio and exclaimed how we couldn’t remember back to a time when we had only one oven to prepare a meal (five days earlier), the peaceful air, perfumed with night-blooming jasmine, was shredded by the rage of a male neighbor over the back fence. My roommate and I were stunned into silence while we exchanged concerned glances. Who was yelling, who was being yelled at, and what could possibly warrant all that vitriol?

As we listened, we were able to determine a few sentences. One that stood out was “How many times have I told you that when the little hand is on the six and the big hand is on the five that it is SIX TWENTY-FIVE?” The question was accompanied by a crash. We sat frozen, hoping that it was an inanimate object being thrown at a wall and not at a tiny child learning to tell time.

The child turned out to be a she, and I saw her a few weeks later when she came roller-blading down the sidewalk and started a conversation with me about my dog. She was missing her front teeth because she was at that age (I hoped), and she was so charming. When I figured out where she lived, I tried to get some information. She spoke of both parents in glowing terms, and she appeared to be a well-adjusted kid with an outgoing personality. She was nothing like the stereotype of a battered child as far as movies and TV had shown me.

Months passed without any further outbursts, and as we settled in and met the neighbors, we came to realize that we were living right next door to the homeowners’ association chairwoman who had proven before we moved in that she knew all the details about anyone and any household that had details to be known. She became close to us by way of proximity, but we enjoyed her company when she dropped by. Soon after the next screaming incident, my roommate took an opportunity to ask her about the family over the back fence.

She reluctantly admitted that she had heard “things.” We barely made any noise by comparison, and she could almost always identify the number and gender of any guests we had who made it into our backyard, but she couldn’t seem to recall hearing anything over the back fence.

She eventually admitted that since she was home during the day, she had been hearing arguments when we had been at work. She didn’t consider them to be fits of rage, but agreed that the man had “something of a temper.” She felt that everything was under control, and there was no need to worry.

My bedroom was at the back of the house, and the Southern California climate allowed us to keep the windows open much earlier in the year. I started to hear more and more coming from the house beyond the fence, and my roommate and I discussed the situation more frequently.

About that time we had new neighbors across the street, and they loved yard work. They were the type of neighbors you really want if you’re concerned about property values, but they weren’t the kind of neighbors you want if you plan to sleep past 8:00 on Sunday morning. Having my room in the back, I missed the heated exchange in the front, but my roommate related everything to me that he could understand. The man over the back fence had become so enraged by the leaf-blower that he had left his house, marched around to our block, and hostilely confronted the leaf-blowing woman who lived across our street.

She was about 6’ tall and flew a helicopter for a living. She drove a giant Ford pickup with a tool chest across the bed. She wore heavy boots most of the time, but the point is that she was having none of this angry man’s tantrum. Avoiding anything physical, she managed to shut down his hate speech and threatened to report him to the police. The scene was most unfortunate for our tidy neighbor, but at least she stood her ground and put him on notice. We assumed that no woman had ever stood up to him.

Regrettably, the consequence of this run-in was that the raging man over the fence began to yell at his kids more and more. Other unseen objects shattered, and there was very little peace. It seemed my roommate and I discussed the situation daily, and we brought the subject of child abuse up with friends and with the next-door neighbor. Everyone except our neighbor insisted that we must get involved because a child needs an advocate. However, we didn’t want to give our names and address after witnessing his reaction to an early morning leaf-blower.

In the end, we placed an anonymous call. In our naivety we foolishly assumed that a professional would show up, find evidence of abuse, and haul the guy away in cuffs. The children in his life would be safe, the spouse would be relieved, and they would say silent prayers of thanks because someone out there had taken pity on their suffering.

In our twenties and unfamiliar with abuse and the systems that deal with it, the thought never occurred to us that children love their parents even when the adults are horrid, that spouses remain in some of the worst circumstances for a variety of reasons, and that an abuser can be as charming as he is violent. Of course he can be charming because he managed to charm someone into his life and keep her under his spell unless his violence had intimidated her into staying. Either way, an abuser possesses charisma.

Proud of ourselves, my roommate and I stood on the patio for several evenings listening for the sounds of joy as the occupants over the fence celebrated their freedom. We never heard celebrating. About two weeks later there came a slam as if a body had been shoved into a wall. “You called them, didn’t you? YOU CALLED!”

We heard a weakened, tearful protest that she didn’t call. He continued to accuse her. There was more noise as he repeatedly demanded to know who’d called. We could imagine him suddenly believing her and realizing that outsiders had gotten involved. We expected him to come storming out his back door and look our way. We scrambled into the house, closed the doors, and drew the floor-length curtains before the angry neighbor over the fence realized that his voice had carried like the leaf-blower, and that we had turned him in.

The nights were eventually peaceful. The family moved, and 25 years later I have no idea what became of them. I’ll explain further in my next post about why I suspect spousal abuse in a particular situation, but you can understand now why I’m uncertain—reluctant—to get involved.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1