LIBERTINE

My aunt does not care for libertines. “Feckless ne’er-do-wells,” she calls them. She insists that things be done a certain way. She is a traditionalist.

My mom and my aunt are at loggerheads. I wouldn’t exactly call my mom a “free spirit” but in some areas, she is highly unconventional.

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NO MALARKEY

BY: SARANYA MURTHY © 2020

‘Twas the night before Election,

And in the White House,

Melania was wondering,

Who would be First Spouse.

The masks were all hung,

By the front door with care,

In the hopes that a new president would soon be there.

And that these masks he might actually wear,

Thereby preventing a massive health scare,

Because he might, you know, actually care.

From within the West Wing comes a relentless thrumming,

The Bidens are coming! The Bidens are coming!’

The incumbent candidate tweets from his lair,

While Mike Pence does not turn a hair,

And Steve Bannon doesn’t seem to care,

And Mitch McConnell simply sits and stares,

Under Rudy Giuliani’s watchful glare.

In the wee hours of Election Night,

The spread of blue is a welcome sight.

Americans entreat the powers that be,

That the departing president leaves peacefully,

That to contest the results he does not dare,

That his new campaign slogan is not ‘Bidens Beware!’

That on Inauguration Day, he does not scream ‘Au contraire!’

And does not take with him the Oval’s spare key.

‘A peaceful transition of power to all!

And no malarkey.’

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LET ‘ER RIP

This story was inspired by Inktober 2020 word #23 – RIP.

I am sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s car. It is a unique experience. Usually, one of my sisters gets this seat. I didn’t want it. I was scared of my dad when I was younger. Fact is, I still kind of am. But … it’s just the two of us and it would be dumb if I sat in the back, especially when we aren’t fighting.

He sticks the key in the ignition and the engine roars to life. I stare, fascinated. To him, it’s nothing. I don’t usually sit in the front seat so I’m not usually this up close and personal.

It’s funny – when I’m with Stevie, I’m never this entranced by the engine. Alison isn’t old enough to drive without an adult in the car so when she does, the adult usually sits in the front. My memories of driving with Mom aren’t that pleasant. I block them out.

But driving with Dad … is a reminder of just how cool driving is. He makes it seem so effortless. It’s like the car’s an extension of him. He drives without even thinking about it. Effortless, casual turns while idly chatting or listening to the radio or thinking deep thoughts … Like everything else, it comes so easily to him. His parallel parking is ‘a thing of beauty and a joy forever.’

Stevie is a relatively calm driver although she occasionally gets frazzled. She doesn’t make you want to drive or love to drive. To her, it’s just an unpleasant and unnecessary chore. She’d be glad to leave it to the bus drivers, even if they are rude sometimes. She’s glad when it’s over. She’s more interested in the destination than the journey.

Alison freaks out whenever there’s a truck, a pedestrian or a bird. She’s easily rattled. Driving with her is never a pleasant experience. She usually screams when something unexpected (like a lane change) happens. When she hears a siren, she instantly assumes that it must be her fault. (“Oh my God, what did I do?!!!”) Dad yells at her for screaming, which leads to more screaming, which eventually leads to temper, tantrums and tears … on both sides. All of which are extremely uncomfortable for the helpless hostage in the backseat.

Mom doesn’t drive anymore.

But driving with my dad is fun. He makes you want to drive so that you can be, I don’t know. Like him. All James Bond-ish and stuff. Calm and cool and focused and unflappable and just plain awesome.

This is weird because I don’t usually rhapsodize about my dad the way he rhapsodizes about his Volkswagen.

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FANCY’S FOOL

This piece was inspired by Inktober 2020 Word #7 ‘Fancy’.

“So, what’d you fancy?”

The bartender smiled at me. I felt myself getting lost in his eyes. They were dreamy … green with flecks of gold. And his smile … He had a nice smile, one that made the skin around his lips and eyes crinkle.

He wasn’t even rushing me. I hate it when people rush me. Any American would have demanded an answer by now. But he was just grinning at me, caressing my wrist in a way that felt ticklish and was making me light-headed.

I had on a real nice dress. ‘A fancy frock,’ he called it …

Ian came in, took one look at us, strode over and placed a protective arm around me. The bartender quickly withdrew his hand, coughed and wiped out a glass with all his might and maim.

“I see you’ve met my sister,” Ian stated.

The bartender nodded.

“Stay away from her.”

The bartender nodded again. He wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.

Ian, powerful and assertive as ever, ushered me out. He didn’t have to use words or force. He’s never had to. He’s always been more father than brother to me. He indicates what he wants me to do and I obey. I’ve always obeyed him. It’s not that I’m scared of him or anything. I’m not. I just think it would be better to obey him than disobey him. I suspect most of the world thinks that too.

But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. He’s never hurt me. Sometimes he’s been angry over bad reports or chores I forgot to do or when I got into trouble at school. It wasn’t anything serious, like maybe whispering to a friend when we weren’t supposed to be talking or daydreaming in class and not knowing the question, let alone the answer.

But Ian’s always been really strict about school. I used to feel downright nauseated when it came time to go home and I had a note from the teacher. Or worse, a detention. The other girls thought I was lucky because I didn’t have any parents, just Ian. They thought he was dreamy and handsome. They didn’t know how scary he could be. Especially when he was angry. Disappointed was one thing. “I am so disappointed in you, Allison,” he would say sadly, shaking his head. “How could you have done something like this? I can’t even look at you right now. I’m so ashamed, of you and of myself. I feel like I’ve failed. Not just you, myself. Mom. Dad. The family line. Allison, I swear to you, I try so hard but I’m not a parent. How can I replace two of them? What more can I do? I wish you’d understand. Maybe someday, when you’re a parent, you will.”

He’d press his fist against the wall, his forehead pressed against it. As if he were willing himself, summoning up allt he years of self-restraint that had been his legacy from our father, not to cry with frustration at the pain I was causing him. I had no such problems. I cried far too easily. And frequently. When I was little, I saw that it was how I could get my way with Ian. I employed this tool far too mercilessly. He wised up pretty quickly, perhaps with some help from our maid. After that, whenver I cried, unless it was from a physical wound, I was sent to my room. It got pretty lonely in there so I eventually stopped and Ian was satisfied. Rich houses are empty houses. You longe for companionship and don’t relinquish it once you’ve secured it.

Ian’s disappointment was hard to bear but his anger was harder. He was angry now.

“What were you doing?”

We were outside the bar. It was cold but he didn’t offer me his coat. That’ was an indication of how angry he was. Ian is a perfect gentleman. Breeding tells. My girlfriends tell me that when the men in their life are upset, they swear.

Ian wouldn’t even say, “What the hell were you doing?”

I mumbled something.

“What was that?”

I looked up. His eyes were as cold as his words. They looked like frozen spheres of black ice.

I was a little frightened.

“Allison?” He raised an eyebrow.

From an instinct born out of the need for self-preservation, I spoke. That raised eyebrow has always been a strong indication that he wasn’t prepared to tolerate silence much longer.

“I wanted to see what it was like,” I mumbled into my neck.

“What what was like? His index finger reached out and lifted up my chin so that I had to look at him. I was prepared for what I would see there but I still didn’t relish confronting it. Disappointment … combined with a black rage. This was one of the very worst things I could have done.

You see, Ian … is a recovering alcoholic. He says the day he sobered up was the day he became my legal guardian.

“I looked at you, this tiny little pink baby girl bundle in my … hands, not even my arms. You were so little I could fit you in both my hands.” I had been a premature baby, born at six months. I was seven years old when he told me this story.

“And I knew I had to get my shit together.” It was the only time I’ve ever heard him swear. I mean, it, seriously. In twenty years, that’s the only time I’ve ever heard him swear. And we’ve spent a lot of time together.

You saved me, Allison.” He looked at me, eyes big and black and beautiful and trusting, so full of love back then, as they were hard and black and icy now. It had been my seventh birthday.

“Allie.” His voice was hard.

“How could you?” It cracked slightly, under the pain of my betrayal. A supreme effort and he was master of himself again.

I’ve never seen a bottle in the house. My friends would ask where the liquor cabinet was when they came over, even before they would ask for the WiFi password. There was no liquor cabinet. In a rich man’s house, there was no liquor cabinet. People found that hard to believe. Sometimes, there was no WiFi password either. When I brought home a bad report from school, it was one of the first privileges Ian revoked. I would sulk – it was really boring at home without WiFi – but he remained immovable. One time, I tried to get it out of our maid … and found out the hard way that she was loyal to Ian and not me.

Ian did himself well in terms of landscaping, yachts, tennis courts. He’d wanted me to have every advantage, every privilege. And here I was, throwing it all away for a drink.

“Did you … taste anything?”

“No.”

“Allie!”

“I promise, no.”

“I know what your promises are worth.” He turned away.

I felt as if I’d been slapped.

“Ian, wait …” I reached out for his arm. He shook me off as thought my touch were that of a snake.

“Don’t talk to me.” I withdrew.

He snapped his fingers. Gerry, our chauffer, materialized out of th efog.

“Gerry, take Miss Callahan home.”

I started to cry. Not loudly, silently. Ian didn’t react. I was still crying, even as Gerry helped me into the car.

Miss Callahan! Like I was a total stranger instead of the baby sister he’d nurtured from the maternity ward!

I wept all the way home. Gerry was kind and didn’t say anything.

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The Highly Sensitive Personality Type (HSP)

HSPs and introverts are easily mistaken for each other. However, the terms are not interchangeable. An HSP’s nervous differs significantly from that of a non-HSP. We perceive and take in more stimuli than our non-HSP counterparts. For this reason, we are more easily overwhelmed than non-HSPs. HSPs are often unfairly perceived as ‘slow’ or ‘weak.’ The volume of information being processed is larger and therefore takes more time.

I remember once feeling deeply hurt by a cavalier comment from an adult who hardly knew me. “Oh, she needs to increase her stamina,” in response to a statement that I had felt cold at night. What did she know? It was a new place, the temperature setting was different from what I was had been used to and the sleepwear I had brought was woefully inadequate. At the time, I will confess to feeling deeply offended and insulted. Being ‘hardy’ or ‘rough-and-tumble’ is so easily perceived as a virtue to which everyone must aspire. Not so.

Being able to think deeply about complex concepts, to see an issue from multiple angles, to listen intently and pick up on non-verbal cues in a conversation instead of simply responding to the words being said, to perceive and detect subtle nuances in works of art, literature, and music, to see both the forest and the trees, i.e. to perceive the bigger picture and the smaller details – these are gifts! Having an exquisitely heightened sense of perception also means being more susceptible and reactive to negative stimuli, such as prolonged exposure to loud noises, extreme temperatures, unpleasant odors, large crowds, violence, gore and conflict (even if is fictional).

An acquaintance once commented in response to my penchant for avoiding violent movies that she ‘didn’t feel sorry for those people. They were just actors who made a lot of money.’ It hurt when my significant other supported her view while looking askance at mine. Because my extraordinary capacity for empathy (which enables me to feel others’ pain even when I know it isn’t real) was a gift I brought to the relationship and not something to be derided.

Sometimes , parents hurt us without meaning to. Food was a major bone of contention (no pun intended!) in my early years and continues to be a thorn in my side today. I could never consume it at a speed and amount to satisfy anybody (by which I mean, my mom). Mealtimes became experiences to be dreaded. It was nightmarish to be confronted by a vast plate of food, knowing full well that you could only tolerate a few bites or spoonfuls before it became overwhelming. Wondering when the adults would finally tire of waiting and allow you to leave. Because the only alternative was throwing up. To this day, even the memory of certain foods (such as garlic) automatically activate my gag reflex, even though the dreaded item is nowhere to be found! The HSP palate has a lower tolerance threshold than a non-HSP’s. This is not right or wrong. It just is.

Compelling one to be like the other doesn’t do either person any favors and frequently destroys the relationship. I remember one “fr-enemy” (portmanteau of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy,’ first heard via Charlotte on “Sex and the City”) attempting to educate me on the virtues of consuming leftover pizza. Suffice to say, there is nothing left over from that so-called ‘friendship.’ I also recall a colleague talking to me about food power struggles with her young daughter. “Eat it anyway,” she would say when her daughter complained that she didn’t like something. “Because you’re not always going to get your way,” she explained to me. No, but one would hope that as an adult, you would have enough personal autonomy, disposable income and culinary skills (particularly essential now!) to plan your own meals and select your own portion choices.

The biological need for food also interrupts the writing process, the morning burst of energy and the delicious crackling interplay of ideas. I am never at my best after lunch and it takes a while for inspiration to strike again. I love writing at night as I am doing now. I am far less likely to be interrupted by biological and social needs. As Kate Reddy stated in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson, “I like the night. More time in it than day. Why waste it asleep?”

So, what am I? An extroverted HSP? An ambivert (equally introverted and extroverted) HSP? I continue to figure it out. Like all of us, I am a work in progress.

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Triple Threat | Introvert

I learned from Susan Cain that not all shy people are introverts and not all introverts are shy. This explained why some quiet people with whom I initially felt kinship turned out to be totally unlike me. I felt no resonance or connection with them. They were quite (!) happy in their own worlds and did not need me or anyone else at all. They were completely confident in themselves (a quality I envied) and the world’s validation (or lack thereof) was a matter of complete indifference to them. I meet many people like this in software development and also in other fields such as music, where these individuals are ‘wedded to their art,’ and thus feel little or no need for interpersonal connection. They don’t smile or engage in the small talk that buffers society and breaks the ice when two or more strangers share space.

Perhaps I used to be like this when I was younger. Perhaps I came across this way without realizing it. I don’t know. I only know that I am not like this now. Experiencing this reaction from others makes me feel lonely. I yearn for a friendly work environment and playful atmosphere.

My sudden need for connection makes me wonder whether I am truly an introvert. There is a third, less-explored aspect of my personality: the Highly Sensitive Personality type (HSPs). Dr. Elaine Alron explores this in her book of the same name (recommended to me by the lovely Kathryn Nielsen.

More on HSPs tomorrow.

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Triple Threat | Shyness

Until recently, I had viewed myself as a triple threat. Shy girl. Introvert. Highly Sensitive Personality. And lesser known … the Chatterbox.

When I was very young, perhaps around five, I was a full-fledged legitimate chatterbox. My parents could not get a word in edgewise. I would read house numbers, street names and make up stories about things we saw on our walks. They listened patiently, bless their hearts.

As I aged, I became very quiet. It was almost as if I had retreated into myself. This was around the time I developed myopia, which I now see as my way of retreating from an over-whelming world. It was hereditary in my case. When the diagnosis was confirmed, my parents were very disappointed. They gave vent to their dismay. When you are very young, you think the world revolves around you. This was more pronounced in my case because I was an only child. The flip side of this self-focus is that you tend to personalize things and make every negative occurrence your fault. At the time, it felt like my parents were disappointed in me. I had let them down by having myopia. Despite eye exercises and similar methods of arresting this development, we could never get rid of it. It continued to grow. As did my negativity and self-judgment.

It wasn’t until I attended Susan Cain’s GHC 16 lecture on “Quiet” (faithfully recapped in Parts 1-7 of my blog) that I understood the difference between shyness and introversion. Shyness is the fear of social judgment. I certainly had that. Introversion is the preference for spending time alone over spending time with others. I remember trying to convince my mom about my need for “uninterrupted time,” which she laughed off as an impossible luxury. I am glad to have it now so that I can compose these blog posts. I find that I am more composed after I have composed (and no, I don’t mean music).

As someone who was (and is) naturally soft-spoken, I was continually exhorted to “Sing louder!” (in music class) and “Speak up! We can’t hear you!” in school and social settings. Apart from this aspect, I liked school because it was not considered a sin to be quiet. On the contrary, it was laudable.

Being quiet became my second cross to bear, the first being myopia. Well-meaning adults and the peers who imitated them unwittingly brought about a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I was earnestly encouraged and vocally commanded to speak up or sing louder, the more I retreated inward and the more frightened, silent and stubborn I became. This strengthened my resolve to avoid ‘putting myself out there.’ People eventually gave up. Parents did not have that option and continued to alternately coax and scold.

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Solitude vs. Loneliness

Oh, I’m so lonely. I feel like I have no friends.” These two thoughts have recently been permeating my mental consciousness. The second one is not literally true. I do have friends. In fact, I am blessed with a rare number of kindred spirits in my life – Mary Jane, Joyce, Martha, Barbara, Kathryn, Sri, Suzanne and Fran. They have all become very dear to my heart. Yet, I feel empty sometimes.

Is it due to the global pandemic, Coronavirus? I’ve been keeping my movements restricted in ways that just make sense. I drive to work and avoid the cafeteria. This would seem to be the obvious answer. Yet, it is not.

I am lonely, not for people, but for purpose. I yearn for that purpose which will enrich my soul and bring meaning, not just to my existence but also to that of others’. We are all connected. It is when we deny this connection and try to pretend it doesn’t exist that we feel lonely.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is in solitude where we are least alone.” I find that solitude quenches my longing. When I am in that quiet place where I can hear the sound of my own thoughts, my inner voice, the deeper, restless yearnings of my heart … I am no longer lonely. When I transfer this understanding to pen and paper, I feel blissfully content. In case I haven’t figured it out yet, I like to write. Words are the friends I’m missing.

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Windowless Room

I’m trapped in a windowless room,

So trapped in a windowless room,

I scream and I shout,

Can’t find my way out.

I’m trapped in a windowless room.

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One Year Anniversary

Today is a special day.  It is one year since the day I first shared my story in the Cy-Fair Writers’ Meetup.  I remember entering the room hesitantly but also feeling a sense of eagerness to share my work for the first time.  It was a case of happy serendipity that I saw this meetup on the bulletin board of library events.

Barbara was the first person I met.  She was warm and welcoming.  I am happy to say that we continue to encourage each other’s creativity.  The key takeaway from my first meeting with Barbara was that when you enter a new place and are feeling timid or hesitant about sharing your work (as many fledgling authors are), a warm and welcoming individual can make all the difference and help you feel like you made the right decision.  I try to do that for new writers who arrive now, as a manner of “paying it forward.”

Writers’ pieces were read in the order of arrival.  I had arrived early in order to go first and get the spotlight off me because I am shy!  But I wanted to share my work. 

Audrey was sitting across from me.  I asked her if she would do the honors of reading aloud.  My entry was a YA piece and her tone and manner fit the bill perfectly.  When we went around the table, people were respectful and dispensed positive feedback first, which made me feel good.  I was also more open and receptive to their constructive criticism as a result.  Martha, who is my good friend now, suggested that for one sentence, I need not list all the different types of genre.  My initial reaction was, “Oh no!  I can’t take those words out!  They are so dear to my heart.”  But when I got home and was in front of my computer, I thought, “Well, maybe I can give her suggestion a try.  I mean, I can always put the words back.”  When I attempted her recommendation, I was surprised to discover that “it sounds better this way.”  This experience has had a lasting impact on the way I edit my prose and review the prose of others.

I still have the original copies with written feedback from my first and subsequent meetings.  It is a good reminder of the creative process to review those early attempts and witness how far my work and I have come.

When I read the guidelines for Cy-Fair Writers – 7 pages, double-spaced, with line numbering.  Bring copies for everybody so that you can get their feedback in writing – I was intrigued and considered sharing my work, just to see how people reacted.  One item in the description that was especially helpful was the following:

HELPFUL TIP:  To do line numbering in Microsoft Word, go to Format > Document > Layout > Line Numbers.  Click “Add line numbering” and “Continuous”.

It may sound like a trivial item but the clearly laid out instructions resonated with the Software Quality Professional part of me!  I have written many a defect report with similar instructions.  Developers like it when issues are clearly explained, minimizing the need for back-and-forth clarification.   

Fledgling authors and artists will actively look for reasons (even minor ones) to avoid sharing their work.  In this case, if I hadn’t been able to figure out the line numbering in the space of a few minutes (and then proceeded to worry about whether this was, in fact, what the group was expecting), I might have succumbed to stage fright and skipped the meeting.  I would have missed out on several positive outcomes as a result:

  • I’ve developed close friendships with three attendees from the first meeting
  • Through these friendships, I’ve nurtured the inner strength to continue writing, even in the face of abrasive criticism
  • I’ve attended a second writers’ meetup and discovered friends with whom I now exchange letters
    One of these pen pals is a former French teacher and our correspondence has helped me keep the French portion of my Canadian education and upbringing alive
  • I’ve founded my own Writers’ Group
  • I release a weekly podcast
  • I feel happier and more fulfilled.  My work now brings me joy.
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