Posts tagged “life lessons

Getting Naked in Public

This weekend I went to a release party held at the Hoffman Center for the Arts for the North Coast Squid, a literary magazine. I was honored that Sacred, one of my short stories, had been accepted for publication, and I was excited to read it to an audience. I was a little nervous too, if I’m honest. I don’t have much fear about speaking in public, but reading from my own work is different. It’s more intimate.

It’s like I told my writing class: sharing your writing with another human being is like getting naked in public. Not that I’m in the habit of actually exposing myself—trust me, nobody wants to see that—but when you write, you bare your soul. When you show your work to another person, you leave yourself vulnerable—not just to criticism, but to being seen. You can hide behind a nom de plume, but you are still the force behind the words, giving them life.

Even if your work isn’t autobiographical, there is some part of you that goes into it. We write what we know, how we think, how we see the world. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to share something that intimate. “It takes guts,” I told my class.

“Guts with a Z,” one of my students replied.

“Guts with a Z,” I agreed. It takes gutz, and I applaud anyone who shares their creative work, even if it’s only with one other person. Not just the writers, but the artists, singers, musicians, dancers, designers. Anyone who creates, taking what’s in their heads and sharing it with others, making the world a better place.

It takes courage to give and receive feedback too, and that’s what we’re doing in class. Helping each other strengthen our work, so when we send it out into the world, it’s practically bulletproof. We’re helping each other become better writers by encouraging each other and learning from each other.

20161008_192451My reading of my short story went well. People laughed in the right places, my voice held out, and I didn’t trip over my feet when I left the stage. I got lots of compliments on my work afterwards. The best one was from a man who said he appreciated how my characters changed from the start of the story to the end. “Thanks,” I said, pleased that he understood the point I’d been trying to convey about the conflict in the story. “I wanted to show that even though people can be unpleasant, there’s always a reason, something in their history that has led up to that point.”

It made me feel good that there was so much warmth and support at this event for fellow writers and artists. I loved listening to the other pieces, fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry. It’s good to get out of my writing space and hear what other people are doing, to see their courage as they share their work. It takes gutz to do what we do, and that inspires me.

 

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Majority Rules

In high school, I took a class in civics. There I learned a number of life lessons—some intended, some not so much. For one of our class projects, our teacher told us we were forming a new country on an island. As a class, we would have to decide which laws would govern us.

He split us into small groups, instructing us to brainstorm rules for our new society. Then we’d share our ideas with the entire class and vote on which ones would become law. My group came up with some basics—sensible ground rules common to most civilizations: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect other people’s property. When we were asked to report back to the class, most of the rules discussed were meant to protect the island’s citizens and mirrored the types of laws we have in the United States.

One group of boys came up with a different rule, however. They decided that whenever a girl was on her period, she would be banished to a hut on the far side of the island so no one would have to deal with her being “on the rag.” (I am not making this up.)

As you might imagine, the girls in the class had a problem with this. Not only was the notion crass, it was blatantly sexist and demeaning, which we quickly pointed out. Although we were vocal about our objection to this proposed law, the other boys in class laughed and joined in, agreeing that the rule was a good idea. (Apparently it never occurred to them that offending every girl in the room might mean they’d never get a date for prom. I can’t speak for my female classmates, but it occurred to me, and I vowed I’d never date any of those guys. Life lesson number one: life is too short to date jerks.)

There was only one boy in class who treated us with respect and was brave enough to stand up for us. He said the rule was unfair and tried to get the other guys to stop being sexist. I can only imagine the grief he got later for his troubles, but I felt gratitude for his courage and disgust that no other guy in the room stood with him.

I thought our instructor would come to our defense, turning a negative situation into a teachable moment by speaking about equality. He didn’t. Instead, he put the matter to a vote. “Majority rules,” he said.

This only exacerbated the situation because there were more boys than girls in the class. Even with our one male ally, the motion passed easily and became law.

While I understand that the teacher was trying to provide a lesson on democracy, I learned something different. I learned that a majority vote can create both good laws and unjust laws. A majority vote doesn’t mean all citizens are treated equally. Laws can be used to discriminate against vulnerable populations. I also learned that you can’t always count on adults to do the right thing. Sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. Sometimes you have to gain allies to support your cause and then fight to make better laws.

 

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Urine Sample

I need to preface this post by saying the universe has a twisted sense of humor.

First, my dog got a bladder infection. I took Gryphon to the vet, and we came home with a pricey bag full of goodies to patch her up, including a vial of antibiotics. You know how people and their dogs start to resemble each other after a while? Well, the next week I had a bladder infection too. We must be twins. We were even on the same meds, though mine were cheaper than the ones I got for the dog. Thanks, universe?

Anyway, three days after Gryphon was done with her pills, the vet wanted me to obtain a urine sample from the dog and bring it in so she could test the sample and make sure the infection was gone. I’m not in the habit of collecting urine, so I had no idea how I was supposed to do this. I have a friend who recently had to do this for her dog though, and she advised me to use a pie pan or some other container with low sides so it would easily slide under the dog while she was doing her business.

Here was the plan. First thing in the morning, I’d put on rubber gloves, grab a disposable container with a lid, and follow the dog out into the yard to get the sample. Simple enough.

I got up, still in my pj shorts, top, and socks, and slipped my feet into flip-flops before following the dog outside. (Yes, socks and flip-flops. What?) Meanwhile, back in the house, my husband turned to my son and said, “This is not going to go well for your mother.”

gryphon-on-the-sandThe first part of the plan went okay. I had the gloves on and the container in hand. Things went awry when the dog spotted the plastic dish and thought I had food for her. She got excited and started jumping around. Then she landed on one of my flip-flops while I was trying to dodge her. The thong pulled loose from the shoe, rendering it useless.

That, of course, was the moment Gryphon decided she needed to pee. Urgently. She trotted off to a corner of the yard, which meant I had to limp after her wearing only one flip-flop. My shoeless foot grew damp on grass wet with what I hoped was only dew.

I caught up to Gryphon and shoved the container under her butt. She looked up at me, aghast. Could the dog speak, she would have said, “What the heck, lady? Personal space.” Then she scurried off to the opposite corner of the yard, pee still dripping from the spout.

I lurched after her, muttering things that shouldn’t be spoken in polite company. Again, I tried to obtain a sample. I caught a few drops in the container before the dog gave me another dirty look and scampered off. Strike two.

I tried a third time, and got about a teaspoon of pee. Despite the gloves, I also managed to get pee on my hands. I believe there was more urine on my hands than in the dish.

I gave up and called the vet. “So, um, how much urine do you need in the sample to do the test?” I crossed my fingers, hoping the answer was a drop or two. It wasn’t. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

In hindsight, I see my error. I should have put a leash on the dog so I wouldn’t have to chase her around the yard. Common sense, I know—now. I probably should have worn sensible shoes as well.

I wised up for day two.

First, I put the dog on the leash. Then, I took myself out of the equation entirely, and made my husband do the deed. Voilà! It worked like magic. An acceptable sample and zero pee on my hands.

The husband doubled bagged the urine sample and passed it on to me for delivery.

When I dropped off the sample, the vet’s assistant gave me a smile and said, “Thank you.”

“That’s the first time anyone’s thanked me for handing them a container full of pee,” I told her. “But you’re welcome.”

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Rejection

Rejection sucks. We all face it at one point or another, and if you’re a writer, you might encounter it more than other people because you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable, whether you’re submitting your work to agents, publishers, or book reviewers. You can’t make people fall in love with you; you can only submit your best work and hope that someone will like it enough to give you a chance.

Even though I’ve had some of my work published, I’m still pitching projects, and even though I get more positive feedback than I used to, I still get rejections. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with rejection. These days when I get a rejection letter, I don’t even flinch. I can’t afford to waste energy feeling bad about another failed attempt. I’d rather spend that energy creating. I tell myself, “Okay, now move on.” I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track of queries sent to agents and publishers, so I make a note under the appropriate entry, recording the outcome of the query. Then I move on to focus on something productive.

That’s how it works most days, at least. Other days, I feel like the universe’s punching bag.

closed-doorsYou’ve probably heard that quaint little phrase people use at such times: when one door closes another door opens. It was Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and he was a man who knew a thing or two about failure and rejection. Here’s the full quote:

“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

A worthwhile notion, but some days, I feel like I’m trapped in a room full of doors that have all slammed shut. I’d love to try another door, but there are none to be found. I’ve exhausted my options, and I’m stuck.

Some days I feel like I’m sailing a tiny boat through a storm, helpless to watch as it is thrashed against rocks by angry waves. My sails have wilted, my mast is cracked, and it’s all I can do to hold on and bail water. Overly dramatic? Probably. But don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Star-crossed heroes fighting against the odds, even if it’s only in our own story? Surely I’m not the only one who has days like this.

There’s another saying: when it rains, it pours. I don’t know who said that, but it’s a good way of conveying the idea of a number of difficult things happening at the same time. On those days, it feels like the universe is cruel, taking pleasure in raining misfortune on your head.

I had one of those days recently—four rejections in a single day. Two of those were hard to shake off. One was for a job I would have been thrilled to have because it seemed like a great opportunity to use my writing skills. That one stung, because I felt like I’d done well in the interview and thought I might receive an offer. The other hurt worse. It was from a publisher I’d wanted to work with, who had been talking with me about the possibility of writing a sequel to the book I was pitching. Hearing no, after a series of conversations that felt like they could be a yes, wasn’t easy.

It’s hard to stay focused on those days, to see the big picture. It’s easy to question why I keep making myself vulnerable to rejection, why I’m even trying. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop, to be content with all the good things I have in my life? It would, but then I’d always long for more. I didn’t have the heart to write anything that day. I wanted to take a vacation from my own thoughts for a while, to escape those feelings of failure and disappointment.

I told one of my sons I was having a rough day, and he gave me a hug, which is one of the best things in the world. I prayed—for wisdom, for strength, for direction.* Then I went and volunteered at my other son’s swim meet. Focusing on other people was a good antidote for a bruised ego. After that, we went out for pizza and bowling. Spending time with my favorite people was good medicine too.

The next day I woke up, took inventory of what I could do better, and got back to work. I’m battered, but not beaten. I still have hope.

*P.S. During my talk with God asking for direction, I asked for a sign that I’m on the right path, something positive to show me I should keep writing. Five days later, I got a message saying one of my short stories had been accepted in a literary journal. I take that as a sign and a victory. This week, I feel like doors could open, walls could get knocked down. I’m grateful.

P.P.S. Maybe you believe in that kind of thing, maybe you don’t. My point is this—don’t give up just yet. We all face rejection as we work toward our goals, but you never know what’s coming next. Maybe it’s better than you imagine.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Waterbug

I didn’t want to go in, to be honest with you. Every cell in my body knew it would be bad. And it was—the lake water was just as frigid as I thought it would be, in spite of the day being warm and sunny. When the weather on the Oregon coast is that gorgeous, it’s kind of a sin not to go outside and enjoy it. But still, I could enjoy beautiful Coffenbury Lake without actually swimming, right?

IMG_9110

Wrong. My thirteen-year-old son had already leapt from the dock five times, and was treading water, begging me to jump in. He’s not going to be thirteen forever, and it probably won’t be long before he prefers someone else’s company over mine. So, I stood on the edge of the dock, braced myself for the shock of cold, and jumped. As I plunged down eight feet, I held in a squeal when my foot brushed the slimy weeds at the bottom of the lake, and then launched myself toward the surface. At the top, my son was laughing, enjoying the look of misery on my face. That made me laugh too.

My other son wanted to snorkel, so we got out, grabbed our snorkels and fins, and jumped back in to join him. Visibility was limited to about five feet—deeper than that, everything was masked in dark green. We decided to leave the dock for shallow water where the visibility was better and the water was slightly warmer. There, we saw tiny fish and shells.

My waterbug son, the one who likes to jump off the dock, practiced diving below the surface to retrieve rocks and sticks. He has a mischievous sense of humor, and kept trying to grab my ankles from below to startle me. It didn’t work, but we played a fun game of underwater tag.

He’s a great swimmer. He’s been on a swim team for almost a year now, and has become much more skilled. He has always loved the water, however. When he was little, we had to watch him carefully around pools, because he had no fear about jumping in. He loves the ocean too. As frigid as it is (even colder than the lake), he never seems to feel the cold as he boogie boards or body surfs. He never seems to tire either, fighting the waves.

I love the water too, and I’d much rather swim in a cold lake with my son than sit on shore watching him have fun without me. Even if doing that means executing an undignified cannonball from the dock. Who cares if I don’t act my age? Dignity is overrated, and there was a bowl of soup waiting for me at home to help me warm up.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Stuff, Part II

Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.

IMG_8623I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.

Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.

A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.

While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.

They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.

I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.

When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.

Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.

The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.

I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.

I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


Harassed

This week Donald Trump made a comment to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in the workplace, he hoped she would find a different company or career. The problem with this, as victim advocates quickly asserted, is many workers can’t just quit their jobs if they are harassed at work. They don’t have the financial resources to be without work, and it takes time to find a new position. Having a gap between jobs or a history of changing jobs can penalize job seekers. In addition, finding a new career can be expensive if you have to get more training or certifications. Most of us don’t have a wealthy father who can simply carve out a position for us in the family business, should we decide to leave our current positions.

And here’s the other thing: why should a victim of sexual harassment have to leave their job? Companies have a responsibility to protect workers and take action when employees encounter a hostile workplace.

Trump’s son, Eric, came to his father’s defense, stating that his sister is a “strong, powerful woman” who wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to harassment. This is a disservice to anyone who has experienced harassment because it places blame on victims, suggesting they “allowed” themselves to be harassed. Sexual harassment is not the victim’s fault. It’s about a predator feeling entitled to another person’s time, space, and body. Harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not. It doesn’t matter what you wear to work. It doesn’t even matter what gender you are, because yes, males can also be victims of sexual harassment. Because men are “supposed” to be physically stronger than the person who harassed them, they may be more hesitant to come forward.

I know both men and women who have been harassed, and it has not been easy for any of them to speak about their experiences. There’s a great deal of shame. Victims tend to blame themselves, wondering what they could have done differently. They worry that reporting will get them fired, and sometimes it does. It’s not legal to fire somebody for reporting harassment, but it happens. You could take your employer to court over it…if you had the money for legal fees.

Even if you do everything you’re “supposed” to do—even if you dress professionally and set boundaries—you can still receive unwanted comments or touching, and employers don’t always do what they’re required to do to help you. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. Here’s my story.

The summer after my first year of college, I took a retail job in a shoe store. I was nineteen.

I knew not to hitchhike or get in a car with a stranger, and I knew the best way to deal with catcalling was to ignore it and keep walking. I knew to check my backseat before driving at night, to make sure nobody was hiding there. I knew not to stay out too late, and to lock the door to my apartment when I got home. I knew that if I followed all these rules, I’d be okay.

I was utterly unequipped to deal with harassment at work.

Work is supposed to be safe. You do your job and you get paid. You dress modestly. You don’t cause waves with your co-workers and you show your boss respect. You are polite to everyone, especially customers. Because the customer is always right.

Except sometimes the customer is wrong.

My duties in the store were to unpack shipments of new shoes, place them on shelves and in displays, assist customers, ring up purchases, and, at closing time, straighten shelves and then mop and vacuum the store. The store was located at the end of a strip mall, with windows across the front and one of the sides of the store. As a joke, I called it the fishbowl, because it felt like anyone in the parking lot could see everything going on in the store.

I felt safe there at first, even when we experienced a series of shoplifting incidents. Nobody was threatened or hurt—the thieves would simply grab a pair of shoes and take off. The boss instructed us not to run after shoplifters, but to report the incident to her.

Then a man started coming to the store. He wasn’t much older than me. The first time he came, he asked for my assistance as he chose a pair of shoes from the shelf. As I helped him, he asked me out. Flustered, I told him, “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.”

He started coming in more frequently. He would buy shoes and come in the next day to return them. After a while, he didn’t even buy shoes in his size. Once he bought a pair of children’s shoes. I knew he wasn’t going to wear those, and I seriously doubted he bought them for someone else. He returned that pair as well.

Each time he came in, he asked me out. Even though I told him no repeatedly, he persisted. He would follow me around the store, trying to touch my arms, my shoulders, whatever he could get away with. I stopped being polite. When I saw him coming, I would immediately make myself busy, talking with other customers, surrounding myself with people so he couldn’t corner me at the back of the store. He’d try talking to me and I’d walk away, quick to engage with the next customer. Sometimes I couldn’t walk away, because I was working the register. He’d stand there staring as I rang up other people’s purchases.

I told my boyfriend about the man harassing me, and I told my parents. But what could they do? They suggested I quit, but I needed the money for college, and there wasn’t time to get another job before school started. They told me to report the guy to my boss. I did. It didn’t help.

When I told my boss about the man, she brushed off my concerns. She said, “Well, I guess you can work in the back when he comes in.” That was it. So, the next time the man came to the store, I identified him to my boss and went to work in the back, unpacking a shipment. As I stood there, taking shoes out of boxes, I realized I couldn’t hide in the back of the store each time the guy came in. If I did, I’d lose my job. More than that, I felt shame for hiding. I felt like a coward.

Truth is, I was frightened. Each night I closed up shop, I had a co-worker watch as I got into my car. I’d quickly run across the parking lot, check the back seat, jump inside, and lock my doors. Then, as I’d drove home, I’d watch to make sure no one was following me. I’d hurry into my studio apartment where I lived alone, lock my door, and set up an electric alarm my boyfriend bought for the door. Anybody who tried to come in while it was armed would be treated to a blaring earful. I slept with a can of pepper spray on my nightstand, a baseball bat beside my bed, and a carving knife between the mattress and box springs—all within reach if I woke to find him breaking in and didn’t have time to call the police. I didn’t sleep much, but I was ready to defend myself. Terrified and paranoid, but ready.

The harassment finally stopped, but not because anything I did made it stop. It didn’t stop because my company stepped up to protect me, because they didn’t. I don’t know why I never called the cops. The person I am now would have, but at the time I was just a scared kid. I guess I was afraid of going over my boss’s head. Since she hadn’t helped me, maybe the police wouldn’t either.

The last night I saw this man at the store, he came in to ask me out once again, and as always, I told him no and walked away to help other customers. He left, only to return after we’d closed down the register and locked the doors.

I was mopping the front of the store when he walked up to the glass in front of me. He knocked on the window, trying to get my attention. I saw him and immediately looked away, pretending I didn’t see him. I mopped the floor, refusing to look at him even though I could feel him staring at me.

He stayed there the entire time I mopped. I finished the job and took the mop and bucket to the back of the store to empty it. When I came back out to vacuum, he was gone.

I was frightened he’d come back when I tried to leave the store, that maybe he was waiting for me in his car. With the lights on in the store, I couldn’t see much of the dark parking lot. I felt more vulnerable than ever in the fishbowl, knowing he could see me, but I couldn’t see him.

Thankfully, I only saw him one other time. He was hanging out with a group of guys in front of the student union at my college. School had started and I quit my job at the shoe store to focus on academics. When I spotted him, I walked away as quickly as I could so he didn’t see me. The realization that he attended the same university filled me with dread, but our paths never crossed again. The next summer, I took a different job.

It’s not easy for me to share this with you. I still wonder what I should have done differently. But I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because the more we share about our experiences, the more empowered other people will feel to speak up. And I do want people to feel empowered. I never want anyone to feel as scared, vulnerable, and helpless as I felt. I never want anyone to feel like they weren’t “strong enough” or they “allowed” themselves to be harmed. Maybe if we keep speaking about these experiences, we can change perceptions about what it means to be victimized and how we can hold employers and aggressors accountable.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016