This is a simple column by a complex
“The rain hit the bedroom window in rhythmic drops, which woke him up. ...”
With this opening line, I completed my first assigned short story, earned an A+, as well as a promising note from Ms. Feutchwanger in 7th grade Honors English to “keep up this talent, and you’ll go far,” and entered the wonderful, escapist, voyeuristic world of writing.
Before, I did what any ‘70s-raised kid did, watched too much TV, ate too much junk food, a little kickball and roller-skating, a lotta boy-watching, pretty much wasting space. My parents were completely useless, too busy engaging in violent arguments—bust out the kitchen cleaver and the Band-AIDs for the gaping puss wounds they inflicted on each other every past-midnight when my mom would stumble through the front door cursing in Korean, drunk from her bartending job, fending off the accusatory advances of my jealous dad, who’d insist she did more than imbibe booze.
Now there’s a script in the making.
Besides, parents back then didn’t believe in nurturing and developing their children with creative outlets, least mine didn’t. They did believe in beating the shit out of me and my idiot savant brother—the boy could sit alone in his room with nothing but a piece of paper to entertain him, no wonder he became a drug dealer in high school before dropping out—whenever we got in the way of their abandoned daydreaming, and constantly reminding us of what utter failures we were and would always be.
Somehow, James escaped with a higher-than-average IQ and a penchant for brutal stand-up, the kind that would’ve made Sam Kinison weep with fear and loathing, Mr. Life-of-the-Party with his Miss as post-hippies in San Francisco, refusing to give in to the establishment or close down on last call.
And me? I could turn a phrase or two when the mood hit, which usually happened when a friend betrayed me, a crush rejected me, a life overwhelmed me. Up until I was recognized by my favorite teacher in 7th grade at Newcomb Middle School in Pemberton Township, N.J., I had no skill, no interest, no natural ability, and no idea.
I figured, I’ll cop out to an easy day job shuffling papers or opt myself out to the nunnery doing menial labor and praying to God, to hurry up. Yeah, you’ve learned my secret: I never really felt as if I belonged here, that maybe my mom should’ve listened to her friends and her adoptive mother all along and aborted. If she had, well, dad salved the cuts to prove it. Most of my growing years were spent either bullying those weaker than me, hiding from bigger bullies or just waiting to die, fast. My only source of comfort, a round, red Panasonic radio tuned into a N.Y.-based AM Top 40s station, every night, right ear pressed close, singing along to ABBA, the Bay City Rollers, Fleetwood Mac and Donna Summer in my mind, pretending I was tall, blonde, slim and beautiful, Malibu Barbie, planned parenthood personified.
Classmates, especially in middle school, would sign up for extracurricular activities, the Lapidary Club (for years I remained clueless until, in college, between semesters, I looked the word up in the dictionary, gee, I could’ve used my rock collection for jewelry), the Stamp Club, the Band... I remember in between kindergarten and second grade, somewhere in Louisville, KY, when I bothered attending class, feeling such immobilizing frustration at not being able to weave colored paper, that I wound up ripping, tearing and destroying my failed art project with my teeth.
I gave up before I began. A trick pinky left me out of piano or anything controlled by my fingers. An ill-advised attempt to turn alto from soprano left me out of chorus after just one year. All the drawings of all the pretty ballerinas I made from scratch resembled stick men on acid.
Science grossed me out. Math baffled me. History bored me. Blah de blah de blah.
It figures I’d come into my own as an aspiring writer by accident and by force—as homework. That’s the way I’ve always come into anything, shoved from behind. Go make friends! Stop moping around and do something with your life! No man will love you if you keep stuffing your face like that! Get a job or do the yard this summer, your choice. If you don’t get an A in Algebra, you’re grounded for life.
With such a lack of mentors in my family and a lack of trustworthy friends – as a military brat, I moved around so much I forgot how to socialize by age 13, when my dad retired from the Army from the first of three heart attacks, and by then, it was too late for me – it’s a wonder I didn’t end up begging or blowing on the streets.
On Oprah type feel-good shows, which usually do the complete opposite of inspire me, everybody’s bragging about their best friend Ya-Ya Sisters, their Brady Bunch extended families and their everyday, all-American heroes.
What the hell are they talking about?!
Mine numbered in the single digits, and Bruce Lee doesn’t count. Ms. Feutchwanger turned out to be the only person who noticed any kind of potential and sought to help sculpt it, if by giving me As and encouraging notes is considered any kind of sculpting.
She also instilled a love of reading, which follows me to this day. Starting with the (only) Western novel, “Shane,” which I read cover to cover in one day, up through non-fictional accounts of WWII. She gave me an appreciation for the short story genre and its rare breed of writers who exercised brevity with mystery and a mischievous cliffhanger that turned the entire misleading plot around at the end, a precursor to my “Mystery Theater” radio craze in high school.
When she re-told the true story about the Invasion of Normandy, I got chills; it was far better than any “Saving Private Ryan” bird’s eye cinematic. Because it was verbal, a far glorious use of imagination, dream and acuity than mere visuals.
Entire worlds opened up to me, some I could create with my own fingers on paper.
And for several more years since, I did, portraits dedicated to passing acquaintances, poetry as lonely refuge, short stories as flattering imitations.
In Aiea High School, as thoughts of college and a career loomed, I decided my preference for non-fiction and short story brevity fit journalist better than novelist. So, I enrolled in the Newswriting class as a sophomore, became the newspaper’s first underclassman editor-in-chief, and somehow led the high school to its first state-wide recognition as “Most Improved.” From there, I took on the role of staff writer, with the teachers’ union as my regular beat, at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. Not out of a natural progression of ambitious planning, but because a high school nemesis transferred over from an Oregon university to become the copy editor then features editor. I couldn’t let her beat me like she beat me in everything, and I felt I had to prove to her that I still had the editor-in-chief goods, this ability to use other people’s voices to turn an informational phrase, on deadline.
By force, as usual.
From time to time, people would suggest I parlay my gift into commercial gain. They actually believe a publisher would want a novel out of me, a magazine or newspaper editor a regular column, an anybody in power would want to pay me for doing my prolific thing, as simple to me as breathing.
They tell me I made them cry, think, reevaluate, amazed at my brilliance, wit, outrageousness, debating prowess. I fight the urge to fend off my interpretation of their praise as false, to question their motives, and to just accept that somehow, my words meant something to someone else besides me.
Nevertheless, I keep writing.
Because it’s fun, it’s cathartic, it’s ... something to do.
And, Ms. Feutchwanger would approve.
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