Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Really CAN Be Fun - Honest

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 1, 2011]  © 2011

Sometimes people ask me to help their kids with their college application essays under the assumption that I actually have any expertise.  I’m happy to help but first feel compelled to issue the disclaimer that my sum total writing training has been comprised of wantonly publishing often-ill-considered personal stories in my local paper.  In fact, I explain, I was turned down as an English/creative writing major on the basis that my writing was way too low-brow for the literary standards to which the institution aspired. 

In spite of it, I’ve had some literary successes over the years and at one point was tempted to send them to the head of the English Department at my alma mater.  But then I realized that this would only have vindicated her position.  (“Thank GOD we didn’t let that woman be an English major here!”) 

Fortunately for me, I had a mother who instilled in me a love of writing from an early age.  The rules were pretty simple, she said: Write from heart, write what you know, Show rather than Tell. Sadly, she lamented, most people have had the joy of writing sucked out of them.

My mother intentionally never critiqued what I wrote but would buy the stories and poems she liked best for a nickel.  Looking at the folder of her purchases that I found after her death, I couldn’t decide whether this was to gently reinforce better writing, or simply to get the stuff out of circulation.   For example:

When I wake up
By Inga (age 9)

The morning dawns bright and soggy
And the sound of the flushing toilet
Wakes me from dreamland
I hear the sound of soft clodhoppers lumbering down the stairs.
I then hear a strange sound like an elephant being wounded by a hunter.
It is only my mother blowing her nose. 

It may be coincidental, but her frequent suggestion to “write what you know” wasn’t as much emphasized after that. 

When my son, Henri, was eight, his teacher had the kids do short daily writing assignments. Diorama-challenged, I hoped I could at least impart my mother’s lesson that writing should be fun, but Henri was unconvinced - definitely his father’s child in this regard.  (I think I wrote every one of my writing-averse ex’s professional journal articles.  At one point, my then-husband said to me, “I really should give you a credit in the foot notes.”  I said, “How about ‘I would like to thank my wife for writing this paper in its entirety.’”) 

Anyway, one day Henri had to write a story about what you’d say to your younger sibling if he wanted to go to the park alone.  Bad assignment for my house; they’d be only too happy to get rid of the sibling.  Anyway, Henri predictably wrote, “Little brother, it is not safe to go to the park, etc. etc”.  “Henri,” I said, “would you talk like that?  Particularly to a brother?  No way!  You’d say, ‘Forget it, butthead!  There’s weirdoes in the park.  You wanna end up on a milk carton?’”  Henri brightened.  This had possibilities.  I don’t recall the final product but I do recall the inscription on top:  “Excellent – rare flash of brilliance!”

Like writing what you know, writing from the heart has liabilities.  My kids tended to write thank you notes waaaay too much from the heart.  We worked on Writing From the Heart – But Correcting For Tact.

Of course, in college essays, Showing rather than Telling is one of the hardest concepts to master.  I was recently helping a friend’s son with his essay about what he learned from foreign travel in the Far East which he described, typically, as “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”  (Yawn.)  As luck would have it, my former co-worker, Dave, had recently been in Indonesia and had had a close encounter of the scary kind with a Komodo dragon. 

Now Dave could have just said it was “scary” (Telling).  But what he wrote, I said to my teenage essay writer, was:  Of course I couldn't help but think of how they are dangerous not because they attack viciously enough to kill you, but rather because their mouths are such a foul breeding ground of intractable diseases that if they ever did bite you, the wound would fester agonizingly until your entire body rotted and slid off your skeleton in great wet chunks."   That, I said, is Showing.

OK, so neither of my sons is as much a fan of writing as I am but when motivated, both have a good time with it, often at my expense.  But then, looking back at Waking Up by Inga, Age 9, I guess that’s the family tradition. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

**Sorry, Cymbalta, You Can't Help

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Nov. 17, 2011]  © 2011

It has not escaped my attention that all of my favorite TV shows are sponsored by antidepressants.    Except, of course, for the ones advertising clinical trials for antidepressants.  I find this very depressing.

You’ll  recognize the tag line (or then, maybe you won’t) for the most popular ad:  Cymbalta Can Help.  I am not in any way attempting to minimize the seriousness of depression as I come from a long line of OCD packrats and chronic anxious wrecks.  I’ve personally tended to embrace the chronic anxious wreck side of the family (there’s only so much mental illness one person can accommodate at a time) for which it is entirely possible that Cymbalta could help.  But I can never get past that chirpy little aside at the end:  “Liver problems, some fatal, have occurred.”  I just think they say that waaaay too casually.

I’m spent considerable time trying to decide what all this Cymbalta advertising means and am down to three conclusions:

(1) People who watch this show are depressed and need Cymbalta.
(2) People who watch this show should be depressed and start taking Cymbalta.
(3) People who watch this show will become depressed simply from watching it, and should take Cymbalta  before they harm someone.

Seriously, is the mere preference for the shows that I watch diagnostic?  If so, I’m going to be not only depressed but peevish.  

Abilify, another mega-advertiser whose ad I’ve seen more times than I will ever admit, is not even an antidepressant but a booster to your already-not-working antidepressant.  Now is that depressing or what?  But there is one promising part of their ad:  “Elderly dementia patients taking Abilify have an increased risk of death.”  Without sounding like Dr. Kevorkian, my kids know I have a profound fear of ending up a dementia patient.  So maybe I need to add this to my health directive.  Kids:  Stock up on Abilify for off-label use! 

My husband, Olof, likes to give the illusion of interest in my TV-watching habits with the collective query, “So is Desperate Anatomy on tonight?”  Or alternatively, “So what’s Dr. Yummy up to?”

“McDreamy, dear,” I say.  I really don’t think he’s trying to keep up at all.  But he does point out that there are no antidepressant commercials on Junk Yard Wars, Myth Busters, or Monday Night Football. 

It’s only getting worse.  Now the antidepressant ads are interspersed with Lyrica ads for fibromyalgia.  Like I don’t have enough problems with my WE-TV-induced depression?  I also have to confess that the Lyrica ads annoy me to death (a serious side effect), particularly the lead line where the happy Lyrica patient says, “I found out that connected to our muscles are nerves.”  Was the fibromyalgia caused by her lobotomy?

What’s starting to really worry me is that these commercials have now insidiously seeped down from women-oriented cable channels and wantonly infiltrated major networks where one used to be able to watch free of antidepressant assault.  Surely, I think to myself, there must be a less risky cure for TV-induced depression than Cymbalta?  Like watch PBS? 

I won’t say that I wouldn’t like to be less anxious.   (I can assure you my husband wouldn’t mind my being less anxious.)  To worry less, to not always feel that catastrophe is just around the corner.  To be able crank down my over-amped system a new notches.   But then, at this stage of my life, I think it’s so much part of me that it would make me nervous not to be anxious.  Alternatively, I can maybe find out where the Lyrica lady got her lobotomy.

Sorry, Cymbalta.  I don’t think you can help.  So leave me alone already and let me watch my shows in peace. Or else.  Because I’m your demographic and you should know better than to mess with me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

**Single Mom And Seedy Boyfriend

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published Nov. 3, 2011] © 2011

I can say with some authority after twelve years of having been a single mother that there is no lower form of life that ever crawled from the primordial ooze. Well, maybe one:  single mom’s Seedy Boyfriend.  Fungi have better press. 

Mom’s Boyfriend is without saying a child molester.  That Mom has a boyfriend instead of a husband implies that she had three kids out of wedlock with three different fathers.  She has little education, no job, and low self esteem.  She most likely collects welfare which the boyfriend, the miserable sponge, spends on booze and dope.  He probably beats her.  She probably likes it.

During the eight years that Olof commuted down from the Bay area to La Jolla before he was able to relocate here and we married, he quickly discovered that being Mom’s Boyfriend was not exactly a high class gig.  A friend since high school, Olof is a former Air Force pilot, a Cal Tech-educated engineer, and at the time, a corporate vice president.  He loved going to my seven-year-old son Henri’s games.    So being accosted at the baseball fields and having his presence questioned by an overzealous mom hell bent on protecting the bleachers from T-ball player-stalking pedophiles kind of hurt his feelings. 

Ironically, if there were an Olympic medal for number of sporting events watched of a child to whom one is not biologically related, Olof would have the gold. Conservatively, he cheered Henri through some 800 baseball, soccer, and basketball games, and arose at 3 a.m. on untold occasions to transport a carload of the collectively comatose to out-of-town crew races.  Pressed for his relationship to us, he often introduced himself, quite justifiably, as Henri’s driver.

For my side, it was never more clear to me that any residual status I had from fourteen years as a doctor’s wife was DOA when the mother of a friend of Henri’s said she wasn’t comfortable having her son sleep over at our house due to my new “circumstances” (presumably un-wed weekend cohabitation and by association, acts of wanton depravity).

I was seriously tempted to reply, “In retrospect, having the Cub Scout den satisfy their science badge in our meth lab was probably a mistake.  But that stuff isn’t as easy to make as you think.”

Henri, who had frequently played at this child’s tightly-run home, observed at the time, “I think they have dead people under their house.”   The overnight embargo officially marked the beginning of Olof’s and my eight year career as Seedy Boyfriend and Low-life Slut, as we affectionately dubbed each other in honor of the occasion.

The kids, I have to say, did nothing to improve my press.  When Henri was in kindergarten, he had been playing on the floor with a guy I briefly dated before Olof when his hair got caught in the guy’s metal flex watch band.  Much wailing ensued until he was extricated.  But imagine my dismay to go to kindergarten parents’ night some months later where the kids’ Feelings Books were displayed only to see Henri’s “I feel angry…” page, unfortuitously filled out the day after the incident, completed with  “when my Mom’s boyfriend pulls my hair.”

Rory didn’t exactly help me out either when his 5th grade classroom did “Aunt Amelias” – alliterative phrases which they then illustrated and which were posted in the main office.  His contribution?  “Paco the Pimp Pestered the Pregnant Prostitutes.”  The art work we won’t go into.

After eight long years in the sewer of social strata, I was overjoyed to finally make an honest man out of Olof at our wedding. We almost didn’t know what to do with our newfound status as people who were no longer a threat to the moral integrity of local youth.  Step-father, despite some negative connotations, was a huge promotion over Bottom-Dwelling Boyfriend, Wife a profound upgrade from Sordid Single Mom.  But to this day, Henri still feels those people have bodies under their house.