Thursday, March 29, 2012

Writing Prompt from One of My Students (My Story is Here ... Want to Give it a Go?)

"She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights..."

One of my students is a passionate writer; in fact, she sees it as her future career, which I think is amazing :-) She gave me the above sentence as a writing prompt, so I told her I'd give it a go.

If you want to try, leave a link in the comments ...
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She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights.

It had happened before, and a montage played quickly in her head.

*

She was seventeen, and nine months pregnant.  She'd worked open to close at the restaurant, a sixteen-hour shift, and she was exhausted.  As she merged onto the highway and started over the bridge, the breeze from the open window increased.  It buffeted her waist-length hair around her face, so she quickly grabbed a hair tie and pulled it back.

And swerved slightly in the process.

She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights.  She'd never been pulled over before, but she knew what to do.

The police officer approaching her car was middle-aged and overweight.  "Have you been drinking?" he asked without preamble.

"I'm pregnant," she replied.

"I repeat, have you been drinking?  You were all over the road back there."

"I was putting my hair up.  It started blowing all over the place when I got onto the highway."

"Where are you coming from?"

"Work.  I'm a waitress at Mollie's."  In point of fact, her work shirt, extended over her swollen belly as it was, clearly stated 'Mollie's Waitstaff'.

"And where are you heading?"

"Um ... home."

"License and registration," he grunted.

She bent forward to get the car registration from the glove compartment, and her stomach knocked into the car's horn.

"Get out of the car!" the officer ordered.

"But you said to get my--"

"I have reason to believe that you've been drinking."

"I told you, I'm pregnant."

"Yeah, and you look about twelve, too."

Tears welled in her eyes.  She had always cried easily.  "Do you want my license and registration?  I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

"Get them for me--without honking the horn--then step out of the car."

She nodded, sniffling.  After locating her license and registration without further incident, she stepped out of the car--her mother's Jeep Wrangler--and stood uncertainly next to it.

"Um ... what do I do now?" she finally asked as he scrutinized her license.  The picture on it was shockingly flattering for a DMV shot; her friends teased her that it should have been her senior picture.  She knew that the beautiful, carefree girl in the picture bore little resemblance to the exhausted mess in front of him.

"Put your hands on the hood of the car while I run this through."

She had to bend at an awkward angle to accomplish this, and it seemed to take him an awfully long time.  She knew that her mother would be worried about her, and the tears poured freely down her face.

When he returned, he directed her to the white line delineating the breakdown lane.  "Walk that line for fifteen steps."

"Um ... why?"

"I'm giving you a field sobriety test.  I have reason to believe that you've been drinking."

"But I ..."

"Go over to the line, and walk."

She did as she was told; she feared loud, bullying men above all else, and fate seemed to have sent her a police officer who fit the bill.

It was worse than she'd feared.  He screamed at her when she couldn't line her feet up on the line (the fact that she couldn't see her feet was clearly irrelevant to him), and she cried loud and hard.

He finally pulled out the big guns and gave her a breathalyzer test.  The result was 0.0.

He mumbled an apology which might have been a verbal warning and sent her on her way.

*

She was eighteen and late for work at her third job balanced with single motherhood and full-time college student status.  Although working mornings at her daughter's day care cut down on that particular bill and working third shift at Cumberland Farms made finding a nighttime babysitter easy, this was the job where the money came in--the fact that she hated it, that putting piecework together in a factory was boring at best, was irrelevant; her factory paycheck was pretty much what she lived on.

If she left directly from class, she could make it to the factory with five minutes to spare.  Today, though, the babysitter was late, and one-year-old Nancy was clingy, not wanting her to leave.

As a result, she'd driven the back roads of small New Hampshire towns like a bat out of Hades, and actually harbored some degree of hope that she was going to actually punch the timeclock on time, when a rust-freckled white sedan jerked out in front of her ... and started to move along at speeds topping out at fifteen miles per hour.

Alanis Morrissette was on her CD player, and she sang along angrily, doing her best not to tailgate the guy as the minutes ticked by.  There was no way she'd be getting to work on time.

As she entered the town limits, within sight of the factory, the car put on its blinker to make a right turn.

Holding back the urge to honk, show the driver an extended view of a certain finger, or otherwise act like an annoyed and immature teenager, she merely checked to make sure that nothing was coming from the other direction before she veered around the hated car that'd held her up, crossed the double line into the other lane for a car's width of time, then pulled back into her own lane.

She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights.

Muttering expletives under her breath as she saw that she had four minutes to get to work, she pulled out her license and registration so that she'd be ready when the trooper reached her open window.

"Do you know why I pulled you over?" he asked.

"Look, I'm late for work.  Can you just give me a ticket?  I have three minutes to get there.  Three."

"Late for work, huh?  Well, let me take this to my cruiser and run it."

Fifteen minutes later, he returned to her car.  His walk was so slow it was very nearly a swagger.  "Just giving you a verbal warning," he said, smiling although there was a nasty glint in his eye.

*

She was nineteen years old and heading toward her family's beach house.  She'd driven the road a hundred times, so she was in comfortable glory.  Sunglasses were on, she wore shorts and a bikini top that set off the tan she'd gotten lifeguarding, and Tupac was pounding loudly from her car's speakers.

She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights. 

The cop approaching her car was middle-aged and overweight.

"License and registration, please?"

She handed them over, then asked, "Do you mind if I asked why you pulled me over?  Do I have a tail light out or something?"

He peered down at her from above his sunglasses.  His eyes were muddy and brown.  "You were speeding, little lady."

"Um ... no, I wasn't."

"I clocked you going 37," he said triumphantly.  "Got documentation right in my car."

She readjusted her bikini top to improve the view.  "You're going to give me a ticket for going two miles per hour over the speed limit?"

"Two miles?  No, honey, you were going seventeen miles over the speed limit."

"Like hell I was!  I drive on this road all the time.  The speed limit here is 35.  I know this road like the back of my hand!"

"Maybe you do and maybe you don't, sweetie, but you musta missed the sign where it said 'school zone', which means the speed limit is twenty."

"There's no school on Saturday, stupid!" she retorted.

The officer's face flushed an ugly red, but he didn't say a word.

Instead of a ticket, she received a citation for insubordination toward an officer of the law.  The fine was $300.  She had to go to court.

*

She was thirty years old and on her way home from work.  Even though it was not yet five, night had fallen, and she watched the stars through the windshield as she progressed along her monster commute.  She recognized Orion's belt and found the little dipper.  Life was good.

She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights. 

As she pulled her car onto the shoulder of the road, she took her license from her wallet and the car registration from the glove compartment.

The officer approaching her car was middle-aged and overweight.

"Good evening, sir," she said, handing him her license and registration before he asked.

"Do you know why I pulled you over, ma'am?" he asked.

"No, sir, but I'd appreciate it if you would."

"You have a front headlight out."

"Oh, no!  Are you serious?"

"I'm afraid so.  Not to worry, it's an easy enough fix to just replace the bulb.  I wanted to bring it to your attention so you can get it fixed as soon as possible, though."

"Thank you so much, officer."

He reached in the open window and put the paperwork back into her hand.  "Just get that headlight fixed as soon as possible."

"Oh, I will, sir.  Thank you so much.  I really appreciate your understanding."

He smiled slightly and shrugged.  "Even police cruisers loose a headlight once in awhile."

"Thank you again, officer.  Have a wonderful night."

"Same to you, ma'am."

*

She started to slow as she looked up and saw blue flashing lights.  She remembered in the blur of seconds her history with getting pulled over, and the one car accident she'd been in at the age of twenty-one when she fell asleep driving at three in the morning and accidentally went into a ditch.

She nudged her decelerating car onto the road's shoulder and was reaching into the glove compartment for her registration as the police car swerved around her, sped past her, and disappeared into the night, lights still pulsating like alien bubbles.

Clearly it was her lucky night.

The Two Hardest Words in the English Language: "I'm Sorry"

I'm definitely on a kindness kick at the moment.  

I got talking to some of my students today, and several opined that "the world would be boring" if everyone treated each other with kindness and respect.  It really got me thinking about how old I'm getting.

No, I'm serious ... 

There are people that I don't like.  Quite a few, actually.  There's even one that I hate.  I still try to treat them well.  I really and truly do (well, not the one I hate ... he should be castrated with a rusty spoon).

But I didn't always.

And now that I find myself in kind of a zen place, I am almost manic about wanting to apologize for past events.  The problem is, I can't.  I mean, a lot of these transgressions are years old, and if I contacted someone and said, "Yeah, I'm sorry for ....", I'm afraid it might reopen cans of worms better left alone.

Part of it might be that I'm realizing that there are people out there that probably, on some level, owe me an apology or two.  I do not expect them, I do not even really want them as everything that has happened to me--the good, the bad, and the ugly--has shaped the person I am today.

So I am going to be completely selfish and post some apologies here, so that I know, even if the other party doesn't (they are very general and very anonymous), that I am truly and deeply sorry.

Please feel free to add any of your own "anonymous apologies" in the comments better.  It definitely made me feel better ...

In no particular order, especially not chronological:

*  I'm sorry that I judged you based on what others said and consequently blew you off and spoke ill of you until it led to something of an infamous feud between us that should never have happened.

*  I'm sorry I used you as a chauffeur to drive me and my boyfriend around so we could make out in the back.

*  I'm sorry I didn't realize how serious your problems were until it was too late.  I would have helped you if I could have.

*  I'm sorry that I am not good at sharing when I am going through a rough patch and start dropping balls that impact other.

*  I'm sorry I threw a breast pump at you.

*  I'm sorry I am disorganized and forgetful.

*  I'm sorry that I am not good about staying in touch ... I miss our epic e-mail friendship.

*  I'm sorry that I gave you the wrong impression, with words and deeds.

*  I'm sorry that I didn't handle 12/30 well ... I think about that terrible loss every day and will for the rest of my life.

*  I'm sorry that I stopped visiting with you because my feelings for him got in the way.

*  I'm sorry that I don't play with you all the time and sometimes let you watch too much TV.

*  I'm sorry that you don't know me at all ... I wish things were different.

*  I'm sorry that I saw you in downtown Portsmouth and I'm pretty sure you were homeless.  I own some of that, and it eats me up inside.

*  I'm sorry that I caused you so much worry and pain throughout my life.  I love you and am so grateful that we've managed to develop a close and loving relationship.

*  I'm sorry that I don't visit you like I should because I can't get over my fear of flying.

*  I'm sorry that I judged you on appearances.

*  I'm sorry, forever and always.

*  I'm sorry that I can't seem to express to you how incredibly proud I am of you without embarrassing you.

*  I'm sorry that my past actions, failures, nasty comments, bitchiness, and general bad behavior have negatively impacted you in any way.

That was incredibly cathartic :-)  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Is Simple Human Kindness Possible in 2012?

**This is an exemplar paper I wrote for an argumentative essay assignment.  I really liked the way it turned out, so I figured I'd share it here and hopefully get some conversation going ... it's a subject I feel incredibly strongly about.

How many people have felt hurt, embarrassed, or even bullied by others?  The number is incredibly high.  Think about how truly sad it is that so many people are mistreated—whether it be at school, at work, or even at home—every day.  Perhaps the most tragic part is evidence shows that those who are treated poorly are far more likely to be cruel to other people, creating a vicious cycle that just makes the problem that much bigger.  There is absolutely no doubt that far too many people are mean to (or, at the very least, insensitive to the feelings of) other people every day.

Feeling helpless at times is part of being human; it is an emotion that we can all relate to, whether we’re talking about driving a car sliding out of control on an icy road or the time we are unable to keep from passing gas in the classroom.  Let’s face it, helplessness goes hand in hand with fear, and there is not much worse in the world than being afraid.  There is an old saying that misery loves company, and this is unquestionably a reason that people mistreat others.  Say you’re having the kind of morning where the jelly squirts all over your shirt when you take a bite of your doughnut, then you spill chocolate milk onto your pants (and somehow onto your hair as well, where it quickly gets crusty and foul-smelling) while reaching for the Tide-to-Go Stick.  When you get to your first period class, Susy Sunshine looks perfect in her
new outfit, wearing just a hint of lovely perfume instead processed strawberries and rotten milk.  There are some people that might feel the urge to “accidentally” spill Susy’s orange juice all over her, just to make themselves feel a little less helpless over their own stinky situation, or even make a cruel comment, something like, “Wow, Susy, you just wore that shirt yesterday, and something smells funny in here.  Didn’t you know you’re supposed to wash your clothes and not wear shirts two days in a row?”  After all, it’s entirely possible that it might take away that horrible feeling of helplessness.

A lot of the time, people that are cruel to others are doing so to deflect negative attention from themselves.  If, for example, you drive a Ford 500 sedan that looks like the kind of car your grandmother would pick out and it embarrasses you, you might make fun of cars that other people are driving so no one will think to make fun of your old lady mobile.  This sort of preemptive strike is very effective; once a few people are making fun of somebody else, a lot of people will jump on the bandwagon and join in just because they are afraid that, if they don’t, they’ll be getting made fun of, too, sooner or later.  Gossip is a cruel sword, and nobody wants to be the subject of nasty conversations, to be the person written about on Facebook, to have their actions exaggerated until the stories that are spreading like wildfire have pretty much no basis in reality.  How to make sure that doesn’t happen?  Pretty simple, really … keep the rumors flying to be sure that everyone is talking about somebody else; that way, you can keep people from getting the chance to even start spreading gossip about you.  This is very sad but, unfortunately, also very effective.
                                                                                                                                               
So where do people get the idea that it’s okay to treat people this way?  There’s no question that movies and television have played a role in this for quite some time, with thousands of Americans getting subtle lessons on how to treat each other from Jersey Shore and movies like Mean Girls.  It is impossible to ignore, though, the level of cruelty that became more acceptable through videos on YouTube.  Perhaps the most telling example is the story of Jessi Slaughter, a young middle schooler from Florida who spent a lot of time making YouTube videos talking about how wonderful she was … until she started hearing from followers and comments that she was nowhere near as cool as she thought.  Instead of walking away from the increasingly ugly situation and just letting it go, Jessi posted a video arguing back, basically saying that people were hating on her because they were jealous of her for being so amazing.  To say the least, people weren’t impressed, and her real name, address, and phone number were posted, leading to some potentially dangerous situations.  What ended up happening was that Jessi’s father appeared in a response YouTube video, totally freaking out and saying ridiculous things such as threatening to call “the cyberpolice”, stating that he knew who was harassing Jessi because he “backtraced” the comments, and most infamously yelling, “You done goofed!” at a webcam.  I’ve seen the video, and listening to a southern farmer screaming, “I’m gonna report you to the cyber police!” is really quite funny … until you stop and think about the fact that there are real people involved.  YouTube and reality television have narrowed the gap between real life and entertainment to the point where it is probably difficult for some to make the distinction.  It’s easy to forget that there are real people getting hurt when you’re watching Parkour fail videos or something.  The little screen that we watch has become all too real, and forgetting that is both increasingly common and a little dangerous.  It’s hard enough sometimes to take the thoughts and feelings of other people into consideration; when we see what is often downright cruelty right in front of our eyes, marketed as entertainment, it just reinforces the idea that being mean to others is okay.

But are the people that make a big thing about this overreacting?  After all, there is growing agreement that YouTube videos where people get hurt and reality TV shows, where gossip and backstabbing are par for the course are simply entertainment.  Most people know right from wrong and are not going to change the nature of who they are because they watch The Hills or enjoy watching things get blown up on YouTube.  Furthermore, the world is not always a kind place; unfortunately, there are a lot of adults that never seemed to outgrow the middle school gossipy, backstabbing mentality.  To pretend that most people are good and nice is just not realistic; is there anything wrong with watching TV shows, movies, and internet that reflect the way that life really is in 2012 America? 

The increasing acceptance of cruelty and unkindness in the media is a result of too many people using the pain of others to push away their own feelings of helplessness, of far too many members of society making fun of other people so that maybe, just maybe, nobody will take the time to notice—and start making fun of—them.  I know that it sounds simple, perhaps overly so, but life is much happier for all concerned when we extend a warm smile rather than a sneering smirk.  It’s easy to make fun of those that stand out as different—perhaps they’re too tall, too short, overweight, underweight, owner of an annoying cackling laugh, have clothes exclusively from American Eagle, have close exclusively from Wal-Mart, come to school covered in dog hair, and so on and so forth—because it seems better than looking at the mirror and trying to figure out what about you people could focus in on to make fun of.  If for one day, everyone could make an effort to extend a hand in kindness instead of to tape on a “kick me” sign, if an effort could be made to say something nice about everyone, think about the good things that you would get back in return.  And if nobody was gossiping, nobody would have to worry about who was spreading rumors about them and what was being said and so on.  It’s a leap of faith that is more than likely impossible, but, until we are willing to walk toward that sort of “treat others the way you want to be treated” mentality, people are going to be unkind to each other.  I have faith that this can change, but it would require a huge effort from the entire population; and that’s where, unfortunately, I think the sticking point would be.  I’ll keep hoping, though; if enough of us are thinking this way, perhaps someday kindness can be the reality and norm instead of something unusual and strange.           

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Bone to Pick with "The Lorax" Movie


So I saw The Lorax today (with Belle and my ex-husband).

Okay, it goes without saying that I'm going to be all over any movie adaptation of a book.  It's just my nature (no pun intended, heehee).

That's not my biggest problem with the new adaptation of The Lorax, though.  Well, not directly anyway.

Here's the thing ...

The bottom line of what I got from the movie is that allowing technological advances can lead to some dark, dreary, downright desolate places.  What appears to be shiny, flashy, and new is almost always merely a surface thing.

(MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW, ALTHOUGH YOU'LL STILL BE ABLE TO SEE AND ENJOY THE MOVIE)

The fictional city of Thneedsville is perceived as a paradise; its citizens, after all, don't know any better.  Their opinions are shaped on the unscrupulous, money-obsessed O'Hare, who's made a fortune selling air (said fortune, of course, would be threatened by trees, which make air for free).

It takes a boy named Ted, whose noble quest for returning trees to the world is initiated at first by his shallow crush on a girl obsessed with nature, to get to the root of the matter (sorry, the puns just keep writing themselves).  He gets the dirt from the Onceler (who is, annoyingly, human ... what exactly he was actually happened to be an open-ended question of my youth), who of course destroyed all the truffula trees and deeply regrets it.

So Ted convinces the good citizens of Thneedsville how valuable a tree is, how what's shiny and new and seemingly better than the original ... well, just isn't.

Is the irony of this movie, cute as it may be (and, to be fair, it is cute ... Belle adored it, and I was pretty entertained myself), basically serving as a new, flashy, graphically ingenious "new and improved" version of a classic, timeless book lost on anyone else, or am I just overly critical?

Sometimes my inherent need to hate movies based on books gets in the way ...