Heart of Darkness: physical & sexual abuse

 

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News release:

     An NFL player hurls his fist into the side of his finance’s face. Down to the floor, that’s where she fell – out cold, like a dead fish on a frozen shore.
Man wanted sex, wife refused. Man head butts wife, broke her nose, punched her in the face, and threw a shoe at his eighteen-month-old child.
Two Madison twelve-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a twelve-year-old girl, and left her for dead. The victim has since recovered physically.
Man physically and sexually abused a young woman held hostage for nearly ten years.
Teenage male forced a five-year-old boy to perform oral sex. After ejaculation, the teenager urinates in the little boy’s mouth. Two people stood by and watched.
Each day thousands of people are sexually and physically abused; women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.
***
Recently we have been inundated with stories of physical and sexual abuse in the National Football League. The video of a football player hitting his finance and knocking her out is dramatic, especially when played continuously over the national airwaves. People are alarmed, shocked, hoping for justice, but as several moons pass, the outrage will pass as well. Abuse is not a new phenomenon. You see, this is not about the NFL, this is about our nation, and how we deal with the epidemic – physical and sexual abuse.
In the heart of darkness, that’s where victims reside, possibly for the rest of their lives. It’s not that they don’t recover, they often do, but the memories can surface at the hint of days gone by. In quiet moments, I sometimes recall memories of abuse that make me angry, followed by a tear or two.
Behavior is controlled by an individual’s concept of reality, and when viewed collectively, define who we are as a nation. Reality is built on our genetic makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nurture. Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two. Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup – DNA – while nurture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death.
You can’t know what you don’t know, that’s what my therapist said one day. She continually challenges me to be more insightful rather than riding the waves on my imaginary surfboard. I now understand that when we reach adulthood, we are programmed to function within our perceived reality. What we perceive as right and wrong, is not necessarily right and wrong.
Science tells us the same. The brain has over one-hundred-billion nerve cells called neurons. When information is transferred from one neuron to another, the gap between neurons are filled by chemical substances called neurotransmitters, which fire across the space, sending signals to other neurons. At times, brain activity might resemble a well-lit midway at a county fair with hundreds of rides and booths operating simultaneously. Trauma alters the neurons in our brain, affecting our behavior, our reality.
A child’s reality is like putty and can be reshaped by exposure to good role models and positive experiences. But repeated abuse turns their reality into hardened putty found in a winter storm; more difficult to mold, but still possible. Daily contact with compassionate teachers who provide attention, supervised interaction between children, role models of appropriate behavior, consistent rules and discipline offer hope for the damage child. How many of us can recall a teacher or two who changed their life? There is a national movement to reach younger children through pre-kindergarten, head start, and the like. Although the teacher’s plate is full, I would like to see citizenship, character building classes, and logic to taught as children move through elementary and secondary education.
For adult victims who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol, there is hope. Community and county mental health organizations, private therapists and psychiatrists offer therapy and medication that, in time, can alter the wiring in our damaged minds. My favorite organization, The Women’s Center, located in Carbondale, Illinois, and established in 1972, continues to offer food, shelter, and counseling for children, women, and men whose lives have been shattered by violence. Through my years as a member of the Board of Directors, I have witnessed the work that goes on at ground zero. Since their beginning, the Center, has saved thousands of abuse victims.
In the Heart of Darkness, the place where victims reside, light is as rare as the eye of a tornado. But doors are there waiting to be opened. A better tomorrow is there for the taking.
***
Please checkout The Women’s Center. If you are so moved, we welcome financial support and those who choose to donate their time.

http://www.thewomensctr.org/

 

A voice for victims of domestic violence

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With domestic violence in the news, I decided to post a fundraising letter I had written for “The Women’s Center.”

                                               

 

 

Imagine what it’s like to be a bird without wings,                                                            Who’s fallen into a hole and not allowed to sing.                                                            Imagine what it’s like to be a beautiful whale,                                                                  With no place to swim but a five-gallon pale.                                                                                        …male survivor of childhood sexual abuse

It could be in the middle of the night when a woman knocks at our door, shaking as she nervously asks for help. The makeup could not hide the blows to her face. She is without money, a safe place to stay, accompanied by the belief that she had done something wrong. She brings her daughter, as well, who wonders why the Daddy she loves always hits and swears. Perhaps there’s a telephone call to the hotline, where a volunteer hopes to convince a desperate woman that tonight is not the time to die. Or possibly someone calls from the hospital emergency room reporting a rape. Women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.

The Women’s Center, established in 1972, continues to provide services to the surrounding counties. In 2013, we assisted 141 children and 862 adults with 11,715 hours of domestic violence services; 6,713 nights of domestic violence and 5,413 nights of transitional housing; and 16,429 meals to residents in shelter. Public education, professional training, orders of protection, and hotline calls are provided as well.

Thanks to you, we have expanded and updated our facilities. We have little debt and manage to show a respectable balance sheet. But where we struggle is raising enough money to maintain a $1.3 million dollar budget. We receive our financial support from various federal, state, and private grants, and donations from you. We face an annual increase in services while governmental budget cuts leave us with less. I wish you could come to ground zero and watch the dedicated work of our staff. You would soon learn that they are underpaid angels, doing God’s work.

Whether you are a first-time donor, or one that continues to offer us a lifeline, we need your help. This can be done as annual contributions, or through planned giving, a means of providing future financial support with no upfront cost. For now, we ask you to forget the tax benefits in giving. Just think about the abused woman knocking at our door, the child who still loves her Daddy, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die. There are so many of them.

Sincerely,

Larry L Franklin
Board Member
Development Committee Chair

***

If you feel moved to support our organization, send contributions to The Women’s Center, 610 South Thompson St., Carbondale, Il 62901
http://www.thewomensctr.org

 

Come dance with me.

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nIt’s always there to some degree, mocking my every move.  A jig, a waltz, maybe Chubby Checker’s famous twist, or a seductive embrace as we move across the floor — my dancing partner, my pain.  Maybe it’s sharp, a get your attention pain; a boxer’s jab; possibly an unrelenting tooth acne; or a sustained, never-ending pain.  

Pain can be physical, psychological, or both, and when latched onto an individual, becomes unique.  Physical pain can be tested and more easily diagnosed than the illusive psychological pain that sometimes plays hide-and-seek with the mental health specialist.  Treatments for back pain are many — injections, physical therapy, spinal adjustments, medication, meditation, acupuncture, and when all fail, the surgeon sharpens his scalpel.

Two weeks ago I had a bone fusion performed in my lower back.  A herniated disk and the movement of two vertebra called for a bone fusion to eliminate the pain.  A back brace for support and oxycodone for pain are being used during the healing process.  I have become friends with oxycodone and refer to her affectionately as “oxy.”  When in my medicated buzz, I sometimes call her “foxy.”

As a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, I have experienced psychological pain as well.  Memories of the abuse left me wrapped around a porcelain stool while I vomited poison into the mucus-colored water.  It was an emotional pain like I had never felt before.  Scared, lost, and without direction I turned to a therapist and have been treated with medication and talk therapy.  Life is good.  I have moved beyond surface emotions, and now experience the depth of feelings that life has to offer.

Whether physical or psychological pain, we must always be aware of the monster in the closet, better known as depression.  Pain breeds depression.  While my depression pales in comparison to someone with a severe mental illness, it can be debilitating.  Depression is waking up in the middle of the night covered with leeches that suck the spirit from my soul.  But now, after years of therapy, I can spot them from a distance as they slither over a hilltop and crawl my way.  I refuse to allow a single leech to take residence in my soul.

While a “bring-you-to-your knees” pain has many negative side effects, it can be a blessing, and serve as a reminder of how good life can be.  Imagine a musical phrase of dissonance and intensity that drives towards the final cadence and then, with true beauty, resolves into a morning spring.  Tension followed by release brings joy to one’s life.  I will dance a jig without pain as my partner.

 

 

On Thursday I met with my surgeon — yada, yada, yada

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nYou might recall that I’ve written about my back problems before:  two herniated disks in my lower back, successful surgery, months later I have pain in another location of my back, yada, yada, yada.  (In case you don’t know, yada is code for “more bullshit”) After having an MRI on my back, I met with my surgeon to discuss the findings.  It was a 7:40 a.m. appointment.  He must be working me in, I thought.  The man loves my back — a guaranteed annuity for a surgeon.  My spine looks a bit like a shiska-bob, chunks of meat and bone ready to place on a hot grill.  Ten minutes on each side, a heavy coat of bar-b-q sauce, and you have some mighty fine eating.  I know, you prefer ribs and I’m getting a little weird, yada, yada, yada.

Okay, back to the meeting with my surgeon.  For privacy purposes, we’ll call him Dr. Belly Button.  Dressed in his hospital blue scrubs and uncombed hair, Belly Button greets me and my wife as I shake his hand.  He is a reasonably handsome young man with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face; all traits that I once held but have come and gone.  You see, I’m a 71 year old man with uncombed gray hair, and shuffle my feet because the pain in my back hurts like hell.  It feels like, oh you know, yada, yada, yada.  Belly Button had a smile on his face, much like the last time he diagnosed my back problems when he recommended surgery.  There’s that smile again.  “I know what the problem is,” he said.  “And I can fix it.  You have another herniated disk in your lower back,” he said with a slight chuckle.  “We don’t know how it happened, but it’s there.”

I was relieved that all of the pain was not in my imagination, and that he located the problem.  But OMG, I have to go through more surgery?  Belly Button fires up the computer and the three of us hover around the computer screen.  He begins pointing out all of the bones and disks in my spin.  Oh look at this disk.  It looks pretty good, but now look at this one, all flattened out with goo seeping out.  Looked like a stepped-on jelly donut to me.  You have bone on bone.  And look where the nerve is located.  Just looking at it made my back hurt.

We could do the same procedure as last time when I cleaned the area, removed some bone fragments.  You know the routine, yada, yada, yada.  But this time the situation demands another technique,  I would insert some metal hardware.  You know — plates, rods, and screws.  That’s the most secure way of fixing your problem.  The recovery time will double but you can be back to normal — my mind began to drift, pain free, rough housing with my dog, messing around with my wife, yada, yada, yada.  We can use either procedure, Belly Button said, the simple but uncertain one with a shorter recovery, or the more complicated one with a longer recovery which provides for a better outcome.  We can schedule the operation in a few weeks.  Let me know which technique you would like to use.

Belly Button told me that he understood how debilitating nerve pain can be.  “It can cause depression,”  he said.  Oh really, I thought.  That’s quite an understatement. Your fucking A it causes depression.  It’s a “can’t move” depression.  Lets open my back up right now, I thought.  Here, hand me the knife and I’ll do the slicing myself.  Look, there’s that stepped-on jelly roll.  Hand me a stapler and a couple of rubber bands.  There, it feels better already.  Ooops, I’m losing a ton of blood.  Looks like I’m a quart low.  Give me a can of 10-40.  That takes care of anything.  Pains gone.  Time to go home.  Thank you God for my imagination.  It always makes me feel better.

 

 

God told me that I needed a “buzz.”

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nIt’s been a long time since my last blog, maybe two weeks or perhaps a month.  As most of you know, I’ve been struggling with back pain.  In January 2014 I had surgery for two herniated disks in my lower back.  Surgery was successful, pain disappeared.  I probably should add that the pain leading to the surgery was extreme, ungodly, pain-in-the-back, fucking low-life bad.  But it was over, until a few weeks later when the pain appeared in another spot in my spine: not as bad as before, but it sucked.  I’ve been trying several modes of treatment with limited results  — I still have back pain.  I take two Excedrine every four hours for pain.  It doesn’t leave, it just moves into the back seat of the car while I try to watch the drive-in movie from the front seat.  I find myself sleeping a lot during the day.  I mow, take some pills, pass out on the sofa, followed by the same routine, day after day.  It’s beginning to suck.

This brings me to my latest experience.  It happened this afternoon as I was mowing the grass.  I had this conversation with God, or maybe an imaginary talk with God.  I really don’t know, but it was satisfying.  I must have said something like, “Hey God, things are not going well.  I hurt, I take pills, and I sleep.  Doesn’t say much for the “golden years.'”

“Maybe the answer is in front of your eyes,” he must have said.  “You know how they said in your church that the streets of heaven are paved with gold.  Maybe there’s another way of looking at this.  Maybe heaven isn a continuous ‘buzz.’  Think about it.  That’s not so bad.  Maybe you can gain a temporary reprieve from your pain.  Drink a bottle of wine and eat some “cheddar fish crackers.”

“I think that I understand,” I said.  I opened a bottle of wine and poured myself a bowl of those “cheddar fish crackers” that my granddaughters like.  Wine and “fish crackers” can be mighty fine.  It was overcast tonight, nice cool breeze outside.  I invited my wife and dog to join me outside.  “Tonight,” I said, “I am going to get a nice buzz.”  And oh Lordy, I have a nice one going on.  My wife had one glass and several fish crackers.  My dog, Bailey, had numerous fish crackers, and I had a bottle of wine.

So, here I am.  The buzz is still real and fine.  Had dinner, maybe one of the best I’ve ever had.  My wife still loves me, even though I sometimes act like a fool.  And Bailey, she always loves me.  You know, dogs can sense the really good things of life — that’s me.

I don’t know how often I’m going to repeat this, but it was wonderful tonight.  Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow, the next night, and so on.  Thursday I meet with my surgeon to discuss my latest MRI.  To be cut open or not, that will be the question.

Now I arrive at the moment when I hit the “return” button on my computer.  No more thought, no proof-reading.  Shit in, shit out, that’s tonight’s offering.  Tomorrow morning I won’t believe that I sent this out.  But it is what it is.

 

 

Count to ten before you speak — please.

city museum 2006085It was the fall of 2002, the exact date I cannot recall, when I arrived at the Dwight Correctional Center for women.  I had spent months interviewing Rita Nitz, an inmate convicted of first degree murder for her alleged participation in the shooting and decapitation of Michael Miley, a young gay man.  I was never convinced that Rita played any role in the death of Miley.  My book, “Rita Nitz:  A Life without Parole,” was published by the Southern Illinois University Press in 2005. I interviewed numerous people who knew Rita, her husband, Richard, also serving life in prison, and the victim, Michael Miley.  To understand this newly discovered world required some behavior modifications of my own — things are not always as they seem, no two realities are the same, and learn to breathe as I became immersed in my new journey.

You might say that Rita’s emotions were activated by the pull of a “hair trigger.”  The slightest provocation could upset her and put an end to our three-hour meetings — the allotted time in the prison’s visit room.  Each interview required a gentle stride as I walked through an imaginary bed of hot coals.  Any misstep could burn my ass. I suppose that it was inevitable:  Rita felt that I was too aggressive when I questioned her possible involvement in the murder.  She stood, turned, and quick-stepped her way to another room where she was strip searched before rejoining the general prison population.  Six months passed before she spoke to me again. So much to learn.  Life changed in so many ways; my horse blinders were removed, a broader, crystal clear vision came forth, and spiritual seeds seemingly sprouted from my soul.

In Rita’s world, many of the people — good and bad — had a “hair trigger” of their own, ready to fight at the slightest provocation.  We are the product of our genetic makeup and our life experiences.  This much I know.  Change is difficult, but possible.  Of course there are individuals who have been so emotionally damaged that they are beyond repair.  That is the unfairness of it all.  Most of us have heard the expression count to ten before answering what you perceive as a provocation.  This simple rule can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings, “The Canons of Conduct.” http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/canons-conduct  For Jefferson it was common sense, but for many of us it is a lesson unlearned.  Hair trigger, count to ten, knee-jerk reaction share the same message — think before you speak.  Today it seems more difficult than years past.  There is a segment of the population that is aware of America’s short fuse, and use it to their advantage.  Its called politics.

Politics is a cesspool that can be found around the dinning room table when certain relatives come to visit, the local coffee shop, and any place where two or more people engage in conversation.  The cesspool is filled with the daily shit dumped on the national airwaves.  The garbage, that sounds better than shit, is peddled as truth and is designed to activate the hair trigger, knee-jerk reaction, inability to count to ten, and in general terms, reach people unable to think.

We, as individuals, tend to withdraw “talking points” from the cesspool that has grown to the size of an ocean, and hurl them at people who seemingly challenged our integrity.  And if you think that we are bad, just take a look at Congress — a collection of people unable to work together, controlled by the most evil thing of all, a wad of cash.  (Check out one of my past blogs about truth.)  http://authorllfranklin.com/2014/03/13/truth-you-have-to-work-at-it/

Is there hope?  I’m uncertain.  Maybe it is somehow connected to our inability to think in long-term goals rather than engage in short-term gratification.  Several years ago a couple of us met at a local coffee shop located in a university community.  It began as a joke that we would watch the students who came to the coffee shop to eat a muffin and drink a cop of coffee.  It was our conclusion that the top of a muffin was the best part.  So, we decided to see how many students ate the top of the muffin first, and how many ate the bottom half first.  The two of us always ate the bottom half first and saved the best part, the top half for last.  Being from an earlier generation, we were into long term goals and not instant gratification.  We were not surprised at our findings.  Nearly all of the students ate the top half first, and were motivated by instant gratification.  So sad, so sad.

Oh Thomas Jefferson, where are you when we need you — “count to ten before you speak.”

 

 

Facebook World — Heroin in a Mousetrap

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

It was another session with Olivia, the therapist who brought me back from the dark side of childhood sexual abuse.  Although I am in a relatively good place, a little tuneup is needed now and then.

“I noticed a significant decrease in the number of blogs that you have written,” Olivia said.  “How do you feel about that?”  Olivia knows that without writing I tend to lose my way, allowing depression to slide under my door.

My eyes stared at the floor.  “I don’t feel good about it.  With my back pain and a bit of depression, I am not motivated to write.  But I need to write.  I can’t imagine my life without it.”

“So what have you been doing?” Olivia asked.
“I’ve been spending some time on facebook,” I answered.  “But that’s not without its problems.”
“Tell me about it,” Olivia said.
“Sometimes I get sucked into a pointless political discussion.  Reading some far, right wing post pushes my hot button and I feel compelled to respond.  Its always a pointless discussion with no resolution.  A total waste of my time.  Stupid stuff.  A real downer.”

My remarks were followed by silence.  There’s always the quite moments when Olivia leaves me to think about what I just said.  (Its like she is saying, hey buddy, you need to figure out some of this shit yourself.)

“Okay, ” I said.  “Let me use a metaphor to explain what is gong on.”  I feel like I’m a mouse stranded in a large maze with multiple hallways and individual rooms.  Each room houses a friend who shares emotional contact with me, but no physical interaction.  It’s an attractive way to spend idle time away from the stresses of life and, oh yes, my nagging back pain.  But there is a down side to the pleasantries — the mouse trap, a dark seductive device.  I take a stroll down the hallway to visit a friend, and “lo” without warning is a mousetrap topped with a chunk of blue cheese emitting a fragrance that I cannot resist.  I know, as certain as I know my name, Mickey, this is a trap that will kill me, slow or fast, my certain death.  So far I have pulled away at the last moment, but I don’t know how long I can resist?  If I put heroin in the mousetrap I have my story.

“Well, this is certainly about facebook,” Olivia said.  “Sounds like you are bored. Although you find the political discussions pointless, your curiosity is challenged.  Maybe it is trying to take the place of your writing.”

“Wow,” I said.  “You cut to the point, hard and fast, like a box cutter slicing through a cardboard box.  You’re right.  I’d better be careful or I will become a political pundit instead of a writer.”  The two of us laughed followed by silence.
“So, what can you write about?”  Olivia asked.
Silence again.  “I know what I’ll write,” I said.  “I’ll write about facebook and how I feel like I’m being stalked by a mousetrap.”

Hence,  Facebook World — Heroin in the Mousetrap

 

Mother’s Day meal created by Larry, the man with a crack in his back who happens to like green eggs and ham.

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nThis is the big time — Mother’s Day — when I step forward and prepare the meal.  My wife, daughter, her two daughters, husband, and a dog named Bailey, will be joining hands around the table, anxiously waiting to see what I have prepared.  Our other daughter, husband, and two daughters live in Madison, WI and will have their own meal.  I can only imagine their Mother’s Day meal.  Since they are into the Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin sports, I imagine that they will have cheese, grilled badger meat, and lots of wine.  Well the girls will drink something a bit lighter.

My menu:

Grilled Chicken Kabobs, properly seasoned
Grilled green, red, and yellow peppers,
onions, and zucchini.
(for a bit of color, melted butter and kitchen bouquet)
Baked Beans — the granddaughters can make a meal out of beans
Baked Potato & Sweet Potato — Potato of your choice
Salad
French Bread
Dessert — store bought Velvet Creme cake with Mother’s Day written on top.
I also have some mini cones with sprinkles if the girls don’t like the cake.

The activities before the meal are very important — crucial.  Always serve plenty of dry & semi-sweet wine, beer should be available, non-alcoholic drink for  the girls.  The purpose of the wine is three fold — mellow everybody out so we will like each other, makes the food taste better, and is used for toasting the mothers.  The toast must be prepared — no slurring the words or mental gaps.  Something like — “I would like to make a toast to the most important people sitting at our table.  The mothers.  In truth, we should celebrate Mother’s Day every day of the year.  That’s how important they are.”  Not only does it make the mothers feel good, it teaches a lesson to the young daughters that men can be cool on one day of the year. And if everything is successful, and I mean everything, the men might get lucky.

FYI — Thank God Mother’s Day is one day of the year, and Father’s Day is 364 days, except for leap year and then it is 365.

 

I’m having an affair with a “sweetie.”

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nI’m 71 years old and I’m having an affair with a “sweetie.”  To be more accurate, I’m hooking up with more than one.  It probably sounds crazy, perhaps a little sick.  But I can’t help myself.  And I like them all — the tall slim ones, the fuller body types, and the color makes no difference.  Do I have an over active libido?  Perhaps.

I’ve always been attracted to the “sweeties.”  Even as a boy the temptation was strong, so strong that someone in my church told me that if I masturbated I would go blind.  Needless to say that scared the hell out of me.  Still, I began wearing glasses when I was five years old.  Go figure.  But my current urges are stronger that ever.

It all began a little over a week ago.  I found this place, club, or whatever.  I can’t be specific because I don’t think that this is legal.  Anyway, I walked in and there were several sweeties on display.  A woman asked me what I wanted.  “Well, I’m not sure.  What do you have and what is the cost?”  There were lots of choices, but let me just say that they were attractive and the price was reasonable.  I left with a tall, slim, dark one and a cup of coffee.  Years ago I might have had a cigarette.  But now I prefer a cup of coffee after and sometimes during. You might think that we went to a hotel.  No, there wasn’t a need for that.  My car worked just fine.  I moved the seat back and the two of us listened to the radio, a little conversation, and then — delicious.  Of course I have not told my wife about that experience.  In fact, I’ve been going to the establishment two or three times a week.

My story began when my wife decided to lose 10 pounds and went on a diet.  She really didn’t need to lose weight, but that was her decision.  As part of her diet, no carbs or sugar — the two things that I crave.  In case you’re interested, I’ll give you the name of the establishment where I make my purchases.  It’s called “Larry’s House of Cakes.”  (Larry’s my name but this is just a coincidence.)  Two days ago I had a chocolate long john and a cup of coffee in my car.  Yesterday I ate one candy bar and hide another one in the refrigerator in the garage.  Today I had a donut and coffee in my car.  I’ve hidden all kinds of sweets throughout our house.  This has added a new level of excitement to my life.  Even after my wife ends her diet, I’ll probably continue my trips to “Larry’s House of Cakes” and take a sweetie and a cup of coffee to my car. I know, I’m such a rascal.

How to write a “kick-ass” sentence

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor.  I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase.  I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession.  My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key.  The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws.  A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.

Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection.  I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio:  two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase.  Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool.  Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase.  It had to be perfect.

In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer.  I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin.  Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician:  how to perform the perfect phrase.

Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place?  A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense.  But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time.  What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece?  Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work.  (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.)  The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier.  I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head.  Writers constantly think about their work.

I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence.  “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.”  Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence.  Oh, if I could write like that, I thought.  I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence.  Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can.  I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA.  While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.

What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath?  She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.  I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”  Oh my God that was so good.  Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time.  This is what makes a great writer.

Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit:  An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand.  I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit.  He was fifty-six but he looked much older.  His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn.  He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.” 

With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs.  It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones.  If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else.  Life is too short.

For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft.  Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers.  Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.