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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Words Have Power


Writers understand this better than most. The way we describe things shapes what people think about them. We've recently seen a powerful and awful example of this with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture.  We know that enhanced interrogation is the same as torture but somehow describing it as enhanced interrogation makes it sound more palatable than torture. The very word, torture, makes it impossible to pretend you don't know you're approving of something evil.

Politicians often go to great lengths to find names for laws that make them sound necessary and innocuous. Thus we end up with the Patriot Act  (PATRIOT being the acronym for " Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001"). Well, who could be against something like that? Obviously, almost no one but the devil is in the details and some of us are not so thrilled with some of the various tools required to intercept and obstruct.

Kentucky has a healthcare program which is very popular in the state and Tennessee's governor is in favor of passing the same kind of legislation. I say, Kentucky's program is popular and it is - as long as you call it Kynect and not, heaven forbid, Obamacare  - although it is simply Obamacare by another name.

A male character, depending on the words a writer uses to describe him, can be wimpy or he can be sensitive; he can be commanding or he can be a bully. Is our blonde female a brassy blonde or does she have a palomino mane or, perhaps, flaxen locks - change a word or two and we conjure up pictures of three completely different women.

Per our description, the same weather can be a welcome friend or a mortal enemy. Does your character see that snow drifting down, piling softly around the house, as a fire blazes merrily in the fireplace, as cozy or does it seem endless, as she wonders when she'll be able to leave, while she takes a mental inventory of the food she has in the house. Is she enclosed by the quiet beauty of the snow or imprisoned by the harsh isolation of it?

Words are not just words, they are emotions. They are persuaders. They are weapons or they are salvation. They have power - and they confer their power on us. To be writers, word people - sometimes that seems like an awesome honor as well as an awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Words Matter - I Wish I Could Disappear This One

    This is a thug.

    So is this

   And this


    They can sometimes be too.


Words matter. For instance, I have grown to despise the word "thug". The dictionary defines a thug as a "violent person, especially a criminal" but it has become a catch-all phrase to define our biases. Mostly, it is used to describe black males, be they violent or criminal or not, if they simply look that way to a segment of society. If a young man is black and wearing a hoodie, hey, that's enough to tag him as a thug. Follow that thinking a little farther and you can probably get away with shooting him because, you know, you were in fear of your own safety. You don't have to actually BE in danger, you simply have to BELIEVE you were....or say you believed you were.

And never fear that certain parts of the media will jump in and eagerly contribute to their labeling as thugs. The first piece of "evidence" we got in the Michael Brown shooting was a video of Michael stealing cigars from a convenience store, which isn't to say that had Darren Wilson been charged with some damn thing, even involuntary manslaughter, that wouldn't have come out in a trial and influenced a jury. But, as it was, it was a Cover Your Ass move by the police to paint Michael Brown as a thug before any other details of the case were released.

And Trayvon Martin was smeared by social media and professional media alike. He had been "suspected" of theft by his school, we learned. And he was carrying the ingredients, Skittles and some kind of drink, that are supposedly used to make some concoction for getting high.  So, it wasn't that big a deal that he was killed. Society can do without thugs of his kind.

And now the 12-year-old that was shot within 2 seconds of police arriving to see a boy carrying what turned out to be a b-b gun. Tamir Rice had never been in trouble but his mother and her boyfriend were legitimate pieces of crap so, mostly likely, Tamir would have turned out to be a thug with that kind of background. Police probably just saved society some heartache by taking him off the grid.

I debate with a lot of people on Facebook about these issues. As soon as I see the word thug, I know what I'm in for. They can't even begin to put themselves in the shoes of the parents when their child's body is left on the street for 4 1/2 hours after his death (Michael Brown) or they aren't notified that their son is in the morgue (Trayvon Martin) because their kids aren't thugs so it doesn't compute. Raise a thug and that's what you can expect. Shrug.

In raising these questions, I have been called "sewer scum" and nigger-lover (a term I thought had gone out of style now that we're a "post-racial society" - ha!ha!) Some people are verbal thugs.

My opponents on Facebook get angry if I even dare to suggest that there are two sides to all these stories because to them, it is all black and white and, yes, the pun is intended.

Oddly enough, it is the ones who are vociferously supportive of the police in the Michael Brown case and were passionately supportive of the wannabe cop in the Trayvon Martin case who were generally, equally as militantly supportive of the militia in the Cliven Bundy affair....the very militia that threatened to shoot federal agents if they didn't back off and leave poor downtrodden Bundy alone.

So, which is it? Do they make their judgments on the fly based on who is on the other side of the police? Black kid in hoodie versus cops = thug versus cops.  Old white scofflaw versus cops = upstanding citizen versus thugs.

Well, it does shorten the process of deciding the merits of a case. Identify the thug and you automatically know which side you're on.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Grasshopper Without Regrets



There two kinds of people in the world as we all know - ants and grasshoppers. I wonder if it is possible to change from one to the other or if those qualities are so innate as to be immutable?

Of course, all of us have some characteristics of each but most of us lean distinctly one way or the other. I have always listed far to the grasshopper side. Like one of my heroines, Scarlett O'Hara, I've always been able to tell myself, "I'll worry about that tomorrow".

My mother-in-law, whom I loved dearly, was an ant to the nth degree. I can remember sitting on the bank of the creek beside the yard on a lovely sunny summer day when she came out to see me.

"How can you sit here doing nothing when you have dirty dishes in your sink?" she asked disapprovingly.

"I'm not doing nothing....I'm watching the minnows and the crawdads and the dragonflies and enjoying the warmth of the sun.....and I can do it because all those things will be gone soon but the dishes will still be there whenever I go in."

She and my father-in-law denied themselves when they retired...trips and furniture and a new car - because they put everything back for their "old age". And yes, they got old and they ended up in a nursing home because of my father-in-law's illness....and soon, all their savings was gone. They still ended up on Medicaid, only a few month's later, when their own money was used up. I figure when my times comes, I'll just be on Medicaid from the git-go.

When she was in that nursing home, she told me once - "I wish I'd been more like you and worried less and enjoyed life more."

But she couldn't change her nature anymore than I can.

People like me, grasshoppers, shouldn't even be trusted with credit cards. It's too easy for us to convince ourselves that we need that vacation for our peace of mind, whether we can afford it or not. Or that the spare bedroom would be PERFECT if only it had that puffy pink comforter from Ebay on the bed and what I spend on Amazon, I don't even count because, well, books.....

Grasshoppers are self-indulgent. I am addicted to smoking but I never do as one friend does...she buys four cartons every month when she gets paid and she rations herself to make sure they last until she will be able to buy more. Me, I smoke with abandon - "smok'em if you got'em!" I assume if I run out, I'll either think of a way to get more or I'll just do without. Rationing is not in the realm of my possibility.

Both of my husband's were grasshoppers, like me. Because of it, we careened around the country from Indiana to Illinois to South Carolina to Texas and several more points in between. When we had money, we lived high and when we didn't, we pulled in our horns and survived. Our lifestyle was what my father always called - "chicken today and feathers tomorrow". If you ask me now, if I thought the chickens were worth the feathers, I'd say yes.

I never thought about the future in my working life. I can't even remember how many jobs I've ever had - bartender, waitress, secretary, legal assistant, real estate salesperson, insurance underwriter, chicken house mother. I've soldered and punch-pressed and taped and cut hoses and orientated in all kinds of factories. I've worked with cops and robbers and bikers and boozers and druggies and musicians. I worked with deadbeats and devout Christians, rich people and poor people and blacks and whites and latinos and learned from and enjoyed all of them.

When I finally went to work at City Hall and then followed my boss to the Sheriff's Department, I stuck because I loved the work and the people. When I got fired by the new Sheriff, I went to the Prosecutor's office and it turned out that I'd, almost accidentally, worked at enough government jobs to earn a pension from the Public Employee's Retirement Fund. Meanwhile, many of my peers who stayed at positions they hated for "security" found out that security isn't always a dependable thing. I actually ended up better off financially than many of them.

I make just enough money being retired to survive if I'm careful....but I'm not good at being careful. When I first get paid, I'm generous-hearted with what I have. I tear through the aisles of the grocery like I have unlimited funds. A big fat steak? Yes! And chocolate ice cream and Starbucks coffee pods and real butter and cheese and fruit. If I run out of money before I run out of month, oh, well, chicken today and feathers tomorrow!

I write the same way I live. No plan, no outline, no particular genre....just plunge in and see what happens. Sometimes, I'm as excited to find out how it all comes out as any reader could be. I say what I think and I'm not concerned about offending people. I've always been that way about my political writing and now I'm the same with fiction and taking on taboo subjects.

So, here I am at 68 - the ultimate grasshopper - and no regrets.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Flashback - Young Rafe


Rafe was a source of ongoing fascination to his fellow students at Princeton. They envied many things about him. They agreed he was probably a genius, winning awards and carrying an A average, seemingly without even having to try. He was an outstanding athlete, no doubt about that, setting records in both baseball and football. And, handsome? Well, handsome was an understatement. It might describe his lean body and the lazily graceful way he moved. The black hair that curled around his collar, one lock invariably falling onto his forehead. The high cheekbones and unrevealing black eyes and the rare gleaming smile but it didn’t include the air of sensuous magnetism that was an elemental part of his persona.

On the other hand, Rafe didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs He didn’t confide in anyone. He never came to any of their parties and no one was ever invited to his room. Did he ever get lonely, they wondered? They thought there was no one on campus who he considered a friend. He picked up lots of girls in his ice blue Corvette but sex wasn’t the same as fellowship and wasn’t fellowship a big part of what college life was all about?

One evening, one of the Witherspoon residents, Kirk Stephens, came to his room.

“I’m here to ask a favor,” he said nervously when Rafe opened the door. “Can I come in?”

Rafe opened the door wider and motioned for Kirk to enter. He took the chair by the desk, one booted foot casually crossed over his knee, while Kirk sat on the bed.

Kirk noticed there were no posters on the walls, no dirty clothes on the floor, the desk was neat and the bed was made. In other words, it was nothing like a typical dorm room.

“What’s the favor?”

“Well, some of the other guys on the team bet me $50 that I couldn’t get you to answer a personal question about yourself.”

Rafe looked at him curiously. “Like what?”

“Like anything! Have you ever been in love? What makes you anxious?  Do you have a best friend?”

“Why does anyone care?”

“Jesus, Rafe, don’t you realize what a mystery man you are? Even the sportswriters call you “the enigmatic Rafe Vincennes” because you won’t give them interviews even though the rest of us would crawl on our hands and knees to be featured on the sports page. You joke around with us at practice but you never hang out after. You have women falling all over you but you never go out with the same one twice. It drives us all nuts trying to figure you out!”

Rafe’s impassive dark gaze fastened on Kirk, then his white smile drifted across his face.

“I’ve never been in love. I don’t have a best friend. I don’t get anxious.”

He stood up and that was it. The interview was over. All Kirk’s mates agreed: he didn’t earn the $50.