Sunday, August 30, 2009


or, "What's in a Name?"

Yesterday the Hendrickson family (including River the Wonder Pit) jumped in the car and headed to the Humane Society for a meet-and-greet with "Crystal," an 8-or-so month old golden female of indeterminate breeding with an "I don't know why I'm here" look on her face.

Cassandra, Isaac (a friend's 6-year old) and I had made the initial foray to the H.S. on Friday after school, where we met Crystal and about 10 other dogs I could have taken home in a heartbeat. She's the one that really clicked, though.

Moments after we met, I was sitting on the floor with all 40 pounds of her in my lap. She never left my side the entire visit.

Her story is an increasingly common one, but that doesn't make it any less sad. Her owner (described by the H.S. people as "a large man, covered in tattoos") couldn't afford to keep her any more. He broke down sobbing at the Humane Society, and Crystal joined him. Many heartwrenching tears later, he finally left her. Of course, she didn't know why. She kept looking for him, expecting him to return and take her home...

She scored the highest possible score on their assessment tests. She loves kids, other dogs, men, women, cats, etc. She has (very) basic obedience, is house trained, isn't yippy, is past the puppy chewing phase...

She'd been there over a week.

I would have taken her home on Friday (softie that I am), but in the interests of keeping my happy home, felt it important that my Wonderful husband have a say in the matter. He didn't mind: he understands the vital importance of my having a dog. Some things in life are essential: Food. Coffee. Horses. Dogs.

At one point at the H.S., I said, "Ok, let's go home!" And the dog perked right up. Made me feel terrible: that word no longer means what she thinks it means.

On the way home, we figured that we should give her a new name to go with her new situation. But she already knew and answered to "Crystal." We tried variations of several similar-sounding names before we hit on "Kestrel." (A small windhovering falcon .)

It fits perfectly. She recognizes it, and I like the imagery.

Some writers (J.K. Rowling springs immediately to mind) are brilliant at naming characters. Others just phone it in, and it shows. I approach naming my animals much like I approach naming my characters. I like names that describe and define, that are unusual and occasionally evocative. The right name can add great depth and weight to a character. In reality, the name must fit the bearer for life...

Kestrel's still a little depressed. That's understandable. I am too, after just losing Sera. We get along great. I have yet to see her tail wag, but know that it will just take time. I've got that. And now that she's in our home, so does she...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Decisions, Decisions...

"If you knew what happened last weekend, you'd jump in a car and come get me."

Less than a month ago a friend made a train wreck of a life decision so she could be with a man instead of having to be on her own. Everyone who knew her told her it was a colossally Bad Idea. She knew it, too. But that didn't stop her from going through with it.

Since then, she has accepted countless abuses of privacy -- any one of which I would consider an outright dealbreaker.

* She gave up a steady job in order to leave, only to have her Significant Other refuse to pay for her acute emergency medical treatment.

* She has had her phone use limited and monitored.

* Her e-mails and correspondence have been censored.

* She discovered that the Dream Job that was the Significant Other's reason for moving does not exist.

And still she stays. Not only that, but she can still find ways to make herself feel responsible for the Other's bad behavior.

"I moved out here to try to work it out," she said after the "My E-Mail Is Not Secure" incident. But I see that I have been in the wrong frame of mind... I have been hoping it would fail so I could come home. If I wasn't going to actually try, then why did I move?!"

Now, any person who is even moderately removed from the situation could tell her that an Epic Fail has already occurred in the relationship. And not only has she stayed with it -- but she has deliberately uprooted herself from friends, family, church, employment, a support system, and all that is familiar to follow that situation and remain in it.

So when she said the "If you knew what happened" line, she made me think... And I'm not sure that she's right.

If I thought for a MOMENT that my jumping in a car and driving several hundred miles to intervene would get her out of that situation, I'd stop typing and start driving. But until she comes to the conviction that being on her own is preferable to being with the Other, it wouldn't do any good. Like a horse that runs back inside a burning barn, she would find a way to rationalize returning to a relationship on life support.

I hold out hope that someday (soon!) she will decide that she's had enough tyranny in her life. If she needs help escaping, she has an entire battalion of friends, family, and supporters just waiting for the word to mobilize. But she has to want to be free as much as we want her to fly...

"What does this have to do with writing?" you may ask.

Nothing. It has to do with life. And it just goes to show that one person's decisions -- both good and bad -- have far reaching repercussions.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Write or Die

My daughter has been visiting Grandma and Grandpa for the past 6 days. I had grand plans of getting tons of writing done. And I have gotten some done. Not tons, mind you. More like... pounds.

Part of me actually feels guilty working on My Own Stuff. And, since all loose ends are currently tied up for my clients, I have no pressing deadlines that must be met. So I find all sorts of ways to productively fritter away my time. (You are reading Exhibit A, for instance.)

I formed the Writing Practicum because sometimes just knowing that others will be waiting to see what you've produced provides the impetus a writer needs to write.

Incidentally, the accountability that accompanies the Writing Practicum seems to be working. It makes me keep picking away at my Pet Project. And I am not alone. One member doesn't even have a computer, but she finds a way to bring material to workshop. Another member hasn't written in years -- but last night, she brought an excellent draft of the hook to her book.

Sometimes writers just need a little extra oomph to kick their butts, make them get off of FarmTown, or stop fighting the Mafia Wars, and get to work. This is where Dr. Wicked shines.

Kelly, a Writing Practicum member, introduced me to Write or Die, a weirdly useful tool for writers.

You literally program the app to a pre-determined level of motivation (from "Gentle" through "Kamikaze" and "Electric Shock" modes), then start writing. If you stop writing, consequences result.

It's a great virtual butt-kicker for writers who thrive on negative reinforcement (you know who you are...). It's also useful for those who realize that to Write is to Live, but who need that added incentive to stop Tweeting and start writing.

Project Updates

Ryan has Good Things to say about his manuscript draft. Additions and corrections should be finished by this time next week. Photos are also on next week's docket -- though I won't be on-site to oversee the shoot.

Work on getting the word out on the Marathon Man screenplay is underway. An official actors' roundtable reading is scheduled in Sonoma on Aug. 16. It will be recorded, and then my co-author and I will analyze how well the words translate from page to performance.

Today, I'm working on outlining and "synopsizing" the chapters of my Pet Project. Or I should be doing that, instead of making blog posts... Hmmm... Perhaps it's time to enlist the help of Dr. Wicked...

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Learned Helplessness

or, Shockingly Sad Situations

Writing must reflect Real Life. And in Real Life, though we may not always have the relationships we want, we always have the relationships we expect. Characters (and Real People) who accept being victims must fundamentally expect to be told what they can and cannot do -- so they're OK with it when it happens. Otherwise, they would end the relationship.

The "why" that drives otherwise rational people to remain in intolerable situations is something that can give family, friends, and writers fits. But every so often, we discover a piece of the puzzle...

While working on the manuscript for Ryan Gingerich's book, I was introduced to the concept of learned helplessness.

In essence, researchers studying the origins of depression discovered that if a lab animal (the original study was conducted with dogs) was placed in a situation from which it could not escape, and repeatedly subjected to a "negative stimulus" (tech-speak for shocking the poor creature until it yelped), eventually the dog would stop trying to escape and would just cower in his cage and endure the pain.

Most interesting, however, was what happened after the restraints were removed. Even if the animal had previously demonstrated the ability to escape the cage, when the shocks were again administered, it would just lie there and take them.

This condition of enduring a torturous situation rather than taking a pro-active approach to saving oneself is termed learned helplessness.

I find this concept fascinating on several levels -- both as a writer and as someone who is always trying to understand the mysteries of Why People Do What They Do.

From a purely objective point of view, it provides insight into the psychology of victimhood:

* Why does a horse not buck an abusive rider off?
* Why does a dog not bite or run away from a violent owner?
* Why does one person allow another to manipulate and control his or her life?

They have all entered the state of "learned helplessness."

Interestingly, some of the subjects of this and related studies resisted just giving up. They were, essentially, the optimists. When given the opportunity and a little encouragement, they would escape their tormentors. Even more interesting, they showed little inclination toward depression.

Those who evidenced learned helplessness, however, quickly exhibited clinical signs of depression even after the shocks were no longer administered.

When I was growing up, a woman who went to our church was a study in learned helplessness. Her husband literally dictated everything she did. She was in her 50's before he allowed her to get a driver's license. THEN he would monitor how much gas she used in the car to keep tabs on whether or not she had actually gone where she'd said.

We've all seen some form of this movie play out in real life:

He: What's your password?

She: None of your business.

He: What are you hiding?

She: Nothing.

He: So, if you're not hiding anything, why can't I know your password? Don't you trust me?

She: Fine! Fine! You want it, here -- (insert password code here)!


There are a thousand variations of this story, but the common thread is that it ALWAYS escalates. Monitoring correspondence like mail, e-mail, and phone calls may morph into dictating what one can wear. And what music one can listen to. And who one can see.

It's only a short jump then, to keeping tabs on how much gas is used in the car. Or hiring friends, family, or private eyes for surveillance. By that time, however, the culture of victimhood is firmly established. And, like the poor zapped dogs in the study, even when the cage is opened and an escape route is clearly visible, it becomes the road not taken.