Normal is just a setting on the washing machine


My journalism students start their staff meetings with a staff “check up” to see how everybody is doing. The emotion meter runs the spectrum. High. Low. Explosive. You name it. Typically, one wants to punch something, another is holding back tears, somebody is always hungry. The lone freshman enters the room in shock. Her innocence has once again put through the test. One week she witnessed the first kid her age sporting a beard. Another week she saw a kid her age who’s pregnant– not the same kid, by the way. She was dismayed.

We may be an odd bunch, but we’re TRYING to work together as a team. We’re not perfect. We’re small in number and big on learning respect and tolerance–at least that’s the goal. And not one of us is “right.” (You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard from them–and they’re heard from me.) We are so DIFFERENT!

One of my guys summed up our cozy little staff by quoting one of his mom’s favorite sayings: Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.

Ya know, wouldn’t that make a cool title for a book?

And so apropros. I’m sure if you’ve been to this blog at all you’re sick of hearing about my writing whoas, but I am on a quest for publication. I have been for years. I was sidetracked after the death of both of my parents, and I haven’t been able to get rolling again, but I will. My published writer friends tell me to be patient. I’m trying.

Maybe I’ll run into Little Richard. I have a character based on him in one of my books. Maybe he’ll read it. Maybe he’ll like it. Maybe he’ll like it a lot. Maybe he’ll introduce me to an editor who can’t wait to publish it. And my chances of that happening? Ummm hmmmm. Again, I’m not what you’d call “right.”

I’m doing a bit of “remodeling” at my home. While moving things around, I discovered a Beth Moore book I bought quite some time ago, but the timing of me finding it was perfect, serendipitous, if you will. It’s all about insecurity.

I snuggled under a blanket and read, read, read, soaking up all of her wisdom. Wow. Beth Moore feels insecure too? Maybe I’m not so different after all. (And, hey, Friend Who Sent Me a Message Last Night Confessing Your Bout with Insecurity, again the timing is right. I will let you read the book. But you aren’t so different. If fact, you’re pretty normal. We all feel like a fish out of water sometimes.)

I think a lot of us feel insecure with our appearance, our social status, our job performance, our relationships, etc. The list goes on and on.

I love, love, love people, but they terrify me. I’ve interviewed a terrorist, a child prodigy, and millionaires and celebrities. No problem. I feel 85% comfortable doing what I do. I get a tad bit nervous before we talk, but once I get caught up in the conversation, I’m relaxed. I figure it’s a gift to be able to hear another person’s story firsthand.

But when I have to interact with people I know, I come unglued, adults particularly. I’m more relaxed around my students–if I think they like me. But if I think they don’t, I walk on eggshells. Bad.

Adults are scary people. That’s why I think I’ll just stay a kid for the rest of my life.

When I’m in charge (i.e. in teacher mode). I’m a great observer. Like the Crocodile Hunter, I can read the signs of the child creatures. I know when they’re slipping into fight or flight mode. I can USUALLY tell if they like me or don’t.

Not so much with adults. Adult beasts have learned the fine art of wearing a façade. They schmooze, butter up, slap on sarcasm, tell inside jokes, manipulate, seduce, etc. Thank goodness, most of my young students have little experience with these techniques. As a result, we get along pretty well. I am not very good at those “techniques,” so in the great card game of adult human interaction, I never know what card to play with the hand I’ve been dealt.

Nevertheless, I’m still intrigued by people. I watched Midnight in Paris for the 20th time last week, and once again I made a new revelation. The lead character Gil steps back in time to mingle with his literary and art heroes–the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Picasso. Quite interestingly, the movie depicts all of these greats as having their own vulnerabilities, well protected, but present nevertheless. We ALL have them.

I wish I could sit down with a few of these famous faces and just talk–minus the facades, minus the manipulation, minus the arrogance and haughty presentation. I want to understand the real THEM.

If you could pick TEN people to TALK to, who would they be? Why?

I have my ten. Some people might criticize me for not choosing all the great theologians, but you won’t find many “religious” people on this list. I can predict standard religious answers from people who appear perfect but who  hide their flaws, and the most genuine of saints, in my opinion, people like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham, are crystal clear.

My list includes people who are like muddy water. It’s hard to see through these people. My list includes some spiritual people, some eccentrics, and a few prodigals. People like you. People like me. People with flaws. People with potential. People with epiphanies. People with pain.

People are people. Everybody has a story.

Here we go:

Zelda Fitzgerald — She was such a free spirit, but F. Scott kept her roped in (at least that’s what the biographies say). She spent her the last years of her life in an asylum. Why? What drove her to such anguish?

Edgar Allan Poe — Never has a man ever seen so much misery. I want to know about the last days leading up to his death. Did he really have a relationship with God as I’ve read, or did he abandon the faith?

C.S. Lewis — I’d like to know what he thinks about J.K. Rowling, whom so many Christians deem devil-inspired.

Marilyn Monroe — I want to know whom she really loved, if she really loved, and who was responsible for her death.

Little Richard — It seems everyone in my town has met him but me. He seems to have such a kind heart. I want to see if it’s true. I want to tell him about my book!

Steven Tyler — He is maximum drive creativity wrapped in the appearance of  new-found sober sincerity, hopefully not faux. I want to know why he does what he does and what he really believes.

Benjamin Franklin — I could spend weeks talking to him about his rock star life during the colonial period. How did he invent? And where did he get those ideas? I think I know. Did he really lead a dark life in various secret societies?

Stevie Ray Vaughan — I hope to talk to him in heaven. Otherwise, I have a dozen questions about Jimi Hendrix, his guitar heroes, his guitars, and the helicopter crash.

Elvis Presley — I want to ask him about Memphis and his mama.

Rick Bragg — I’ve heard him speak, read all of his books. Maybe he could give me some real advice.

There she is. Now it’s your turn.

It’s wonderful when you can bring sparkle into people’s lives without fading away from your own true color. Keep the hue in you. ~ Dodinsky

The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere.  ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Never apologize for showing feeling.  When you do so, you apologize for the truth.  ~ Benjamin Disraeli

You with the sad eyes / Don’t be discouraged / Oh I realize / Its hard to take courage / In a world full of people / You can lose sight of it all / And the darkness inside you / Can make you feel so small / But I see your true colors / Shining through / I see your true colors / And that’s why I love you / So don’t be afraid to let them show / Your true colors / True colors are beautiful, / Like a rainbow




Cat Whisperer

Stevie Ray

“Mom, if you keep talking like that, people will start calling you the Cat Lady.”

Brandishing his infinite wisdom, my college-age son once again offered his advice. And called me the Cat Lady!

Cat Lady? Visions of a deranged, lonely woman surrounded by hundreds of hungry, yowling felines invaded my imagination. Okay, the scenario is technically possible, but what my son doesn’t know is that I AM The Cat Lady, better known as The Cat Whisperer. I talk to my cat, and he talks back.

He doesn’t speak English. If he could, I think he’d prefer to talk like an Egyptian due to his breeding, but, nevertheless, he speaks. He just doesn’t use words.

He shows rather than tells.

Stevie Ray, named after the legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, is a highly intelligent tabby who communicates with subtle and not-so-subtle cues.

Stevie Ray is a free spirit. He comes and goes as he pleases. I don’t force him to stay. He’s a back-door man who taps on my sunroom’s glass door with his velvet paw when he wants to enter.

Stevie Ray is refined. He requires no litter box. He sits by the door and meows when he needs to excuse himself. If I don’t respond soon enough, he sharpens his claws on my potted plant and shakes the leaves until he has my attention. If necessary, he topples the plant, which is nearly five feet tall.

Other than the occasional tree toppling, Stevie Ray, never, ever, violates my home–which is a whole lot more than I can say for the Scottish terror who invades our  living room and kitchen. She, with her vindictive attitude and predisposition for stealing quesadillas on take-home Mexican Monday, is jealous of Stevie Ray. Given the opportunity, she sneaks into the sunroom where Stevie Ray and I hang out, and leaves a nasty “gift” on the carpet by my computer.

By nature, I’m a dog lover. In addition to Maggie, the Scottie, I am also the proud owner of a yellow lab and a Hellhound. I’m sorry. This IS a rated-G blog. But it’s true. The same college-aged son who accused me
of being the future Cat Lady once brought home a sweet little black puppy we named Scooby Dee. I relented and let her stay, never imagining what she would turn out to be.

Little did I know that this black puppy with the big paws would grow into a shiny ebony monster with a Cheshire cat grin that resembles a Capuchin monkey. She has a body that’s a cross between a black lab and a Great Dane and the face of a Pit Bull or some other flesh-gouging canine straight from the depths of ….

But she’s a sweetheart, despite her looks. Scooby talks too. Literally. She tries to mimic our speech. But I don’t understand her words. I have to watch her actions. When Scooby wags her lethal tail, she’s happy, so happy, she knocks me off my feet.

Lacy, her yellow sister, is the runt of a litter of 13, the baby. And you know what they say about the baby. She always wants attention. I enrolled her in obedience school, and the leaders almost kicked us out because Lacy was too social. She barked constantly and wanted to rub noses with ever pup in the place.

Nevertheless, Lacy SHOWS her affection by trying to snuggle in my lap. Nevermind she’s at least 50 or 60 pounds. She flops at our feel for belly rubs and shakes hands over and over again because she knows it makes me happy.

My pets don’t tell; they show. And that’s what effective writers do.

My juniors are preparing for the TCAP Writing Assessment Test. My goal is for them to show vivid examples, not just tell about them. We’ve been practicing this objective all week. I usually throw in a personal example like the one below to make a point.

As a naïve, young teacher I agreed to sponsor a band concert for Homecoming, not realizing that five-foot little old me would be the ONLY chaperone of 500 hormonal teens. And because it was a concert, the only lights available were on the stage.

I could tell you I was terrified. Better yet, let me paint you a verbal picture and show you.

Being the naïve young teacher, I feared two things: procreation and illegal drug use. I was moderately worried about the mosh pit, forming at the front of the stage.

I watched with hawk eyes, and then I saw saw it. The glow of a red light. My imagination soared. I had to save my students. I assumed some shady perpetrator had sneaked a funny cigarette into the theater. I flew into combat mode and attacked the unknown suspect, yanking him over the back of the theater chairs.

Can you say overzealous?

Ironically, the red light on the alleged smoke was actually a laser that beamed from a Rebel Canon EOS camera. I had just wrestled my newspaper cameraman to the ground. I didn’t recognize him in the dark. I think I scarred him for life.

Can you say embarrassed?

A picture is worth a thousand words.

The greatest piece of advice my mother ever gave me was, “Actions speak louder than words.” You can only truly judge a person’s heart by examining his actions. Some people are takers. They depend on other people to make them happy. They always want something and possess a “What’s in it for me”attitude. Other people are givers. They find their happiness in doing something to make others happy, even if it means sacrificing something for themselves.

When it comes to writing, readers want to get to know their characters. They want  to fall in love with the characters in our books just as we want to fall in love with the characters in our lives. Actions speak louder than words.

Being the hopeless romantic, my heart melts in the presence of a giver. And that’s what I want my readers’ hearts to do when they meet my characters. I can’t just tell my readers the protagonist in my book is wonderful. I have to show them. I have to make the character do something that makes the readers’ hearts melt. Actions speak louder than words.

Just ask Stevie Ray. If he flips his tail, he’s telling you to back off, but if he purrs, he invites you to enjoy his presence. Right now he’s sleeping at my feet—he wants to be near me. That’s how I know he loves me.

At least that’s what his actions say.