Since we’ve been in what I like to call, Consideration-for-others-because-I’m-not-an-asshole Lockdown, few of us have bothered much to get out of pajamas, much less dress up. That’s fine by me! I’m a writer so comfy jeans and a sweater are my go-to grabs in the morning. Even when we go out in this casual part of the world, slacks and a little bit nicer sweater are all that’s required. Couture? I might as well dress up and put on a fashion show for the local cows.
It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere like Venice, Italy, where I generally make an effort to dress well out of respect for the locals there who always look fabulous. I also have a horror of being one of those Americans in their Disneyland T-shirts, runners, and yoga pants or shorts that really set off their cellulite. Nothing against having a little mottled fat, we all do, but do we really need to parade that stuff around 16th century palazzos and cathedrals? It’s just a bit…uh…tacky, but mostly it’s disrespectful. If you threw a elegant cocktail party and people showed up in flip-flops and tank tops would you be happy? With any luck, I’ll be back in Italy in December, but luck is wavering like a heat haze in the distance right now and what looks like my jewelled city waiting for me could be a sloppy mud hut of a mirage.
It’s also been a while since I’ve had to dress up all the time, for a living. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to wear makeup or get my hair done again. Honestly. Once you’ve spent two to four hours everyday in a makeup chair listening to not always so benign gossip you get realllllly tired of it. Especially when special effects are involved. I don’t even want to go into spending hours waiting for a plaster mold to dry on your face with straws stuck in your nostrils so you can breathe.
Then there are the clothes. The ones you have to get into every day in your dressing room after hours of fittings. Sometimes, like in “On Deadly Ground” I wore the same suit for at least two months. On the soap it was a constant fashion show. Once they left a price tag on a white turtle neck for me to put on under a sweater, and it was Armani, $900. Then of course, there are appearances, openings, galas, award shows and charity benefits where you cannot wear the same thing twice. I spent so many of those events just wanting to get home, throw on my cozies, and wash my face.
When I moved from my home in LA, I left almost all the glam there. I sold tons of jewelry, most of my designer formal wear went to resale shops, and tons of it went to local thrift stores. I was moving into a simpler life as a writer in rural beauty.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
But then Covid-19 happened and we were stuck at home without the option. I, as well as 83.9 percent of the world, got depressed. I was sad and lacking in energy, which, for someone nicknamed Action, is not acceptable.
I needed to buck up and to make other people smile. The grumpy ol’ man inside my head shook his gnarled fist at me and said, “Get off your ass and quit your damn moping, loser. And keep your bad attitude off my lawn!!”
Long ago my voice coach told me that when you feel lost and defeated you just have to do something, anything, just get started. So I decided to dress up and go take pics doing normal stuff. The photos were silly and fun, and harder than it looked. But it worked. I got a great reaction, and the responses were filled with smiles.So I did it a few more times and I will again.
My coach was right. Every time I get off my butt and do something; hike, cook, write, take pictures of nature, whatever, it revs me up, and I can do more.
So do something creative.
Then share it.
And just maybe,
It’ll get a smile.
I hadn’t planned to go to Prescott Arizona, but when one of my husband’s few remaining relatives took a fall and relapsed from her brain surgery, I grabbed a carryon, threw in a few sweaters and headed for the airport.
I didn’t want to go to the deep red state, carpeted with sage brush and gun stores in seemingly equal proportion, where the air is so dry and the people are so conservative it makes my nose bleed, but someone needed me—so I zipped up my suitcase and my mouth and went to help. It’s what you do.
I have lots of family, and sadly, as with every family, I have lost quite a few of my very favorite relatives, I’ve sat bed-side at home hospice through the end, cleaned houses turned to hoarders’ caves by senility, and spent endless hours dealing with lawyers, hospitals, insurance companies, and hysterical loved ones who selfishly tried to make it all about them. I’ve shopped for caskets, planned memorials, and visited gravesides and hospitals enough for a lifetime. I have comforted, fought, stepped up, and wept, I have wept as I thought I would never weep again.
Until I did.
Luckily, overall my side of the family is a healthy, long-living bunch. My mom is one of seven sisters and I have a large family on my dad’s side too, so there are plenty of aunts, uncles, first, second and third cousins to keep those photo Christmas cards rolling in. I look forward to seeing how everyone has grown, where they’ve gone on vacation or to school, who’s starting college, graduated, gotten married, pregnant, addicted, arrested, the whole sordid, magnificent, ongoing, family saga.
But my husband is an only child with no offspring of his own. He has only one first cousin who also has no children, so his generation is functionally the last. He wanted children of his own very badly, but instead opted to care for my girls and raise them with me. It wasn’t always a job filled with gratitude or promotion, but ultimately they came to love and treasure him because he adores them, takes care of them, always puts them ahead of himself, but mostly because he treats me like a treasure and they like to see me happy.
But it’s not the same, I know it’s not. I know that he gave up the dream of marrying a younger woman than me (I’m four years older than he and didn’t meet him until I was 40) who could give him children and the subsequent family that flows ever outwards in the form of in-laws, grandchildren, future wives’ second families, ad infinitum.
Okay, maybe only one wife, but you get my drift. Some families seem to keep expanding like yeast when you soak it in water, and some families sort of slowly empty like a cookie jar that no one refills. Once, shiny and new, it was stuffed with multiple generations, group gatherings, weddings, and birth announcements, but now it sits, chipped and gathering dust on the countertop, and all that is left inside are the funerals and a fading family album.
But that doesn’t mean the cookies weren’t delicious.
It’s odd to say, but I think being part of a large, extended family is both an advantage and a drawback when it comes to hardships and death. I suppose the fact that I have been through much loss makes me better prepared to handle the tragedies when they come, on the other hand—they come more often.
I’ve learned things. I know who to speak to if you want to get the right care, I know not to harass nurses for doctors’ information, or challenge the insurance company without a lawyer, I know what details should not be allowed to fall through the cracks, I know people will lose it sometimes, that they will laugh inappropriately to keep from going insane, I know how much work it is to clean up after a life and dismantle a home, I know that relatives will fight over things they never cared for in life, I know that this too shall pass, and I understand that I will now have a new indelible date on my calendar—a death date.
Stepping back into caregiver role is familiar for me as it is for many people my age, especially women. It so often falls to us to care for the infirm or hold a hand as a spirit slips quietly over. I know what it is to have someone in room with you one second, and then they just aren’t there anymore. I truly believe that in general women have more strength for suffering of all kinds. Throughout our lives we have dealt with blood and pain on a monthly basis, seemingly irrational emotional upheaval has been a frequent visitor, and cleaning unthinkable messes is all too familiar to us. I don’t mean to discount the strength that men have, it can be profound, but it is seldom sublime.
The times in my life when I have forced myself to function while tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and my voice broke from the strain of debilitating emotion are too many to count. Inevitably when this happens to me whoever I am dealing with, confronting, or comforting, will tell me to calm down or try to sooth me. Mostly because an honest display of feeling makes them uncomfortable. To this I always say, “I am fine. My emotion is not a weakness, it is a strength. I can, and will, go on. I can feel all of this and remain standing”
So when people start to lose it around me, I double up on grit. I get so full of grit I might as well be made of sand, and sand, as we all know, melts into glass. I have never been through the fragility of a severe illness or a death and not come out of it feeling more beautiful and enriched than I was before. The hue of sand may be bland, but after it passes through the fire, it turns into colors that deepen and strike back at the sunlight that strives to pass through them.
But not everyone has that sense of recovery or the experience to know that they will. Some people have bad things happen and say, ‘why me?’ rather than, ‘my turn.’ So when I was talking with my Aunt-in-law, who has no children and made most of her life choices around herself all her life, my perspective was somewhat different than hers.
In the last ten years this aunt has lost her parents, in their eighties, her brother, in his sixties, and her much older husband. This is nature, this is the circle. Family members grow old and they die, and if there are no children, the family line eventually ends. This is a fact, not a punishment. So when she looked at me with tears in her eyes and bleated, “What is happening to this family?” I was able to look back at her with a smile as sure as dawn and say, “Every family goes through these things.” Then I told her that because of my charity I have often dealt with families losing a young child and pointed out the difference between losing a three year old and a husband in his eighties. I know it’s not any easier to lose a husband than a child, but I never met a parent who wouldn’t change places with their child, if only they had been given the choice. I told her that my great-grandmother buried all five of her children before her own death at 104. That shocked her into a different, much needed, perspective.
Then I sat down and took her hand. I told her the Buddhist story of a woman who lost her child and was so distraught that she went to the monk in her village and asked him what to do, she wanted nothing but to die.
He gave her an empty jar and told her, “Take this jar around the countryside, and every time you find someone who has not lost a loved one, ask them to put one pebble in the jar. When the jar is full, return to me and I will tell you what to do.” So the woman took the jar and went from village to village, from house to house, but she never did get even one pebble, for every family had lost someone beloved. What she did find were others who had suffered as she was suffering and and they comforted her, they understood and shared her loss. What she found was that she was not alone, that death and loss were an integral part of being human. At long last, she returned to the monk, gave him the empty jar, and thanked him before going on with her life, always taking time to help others through their losses and their own unique, but familiar, unfathomable pain.
The time came for me to return home for other family responsibilities and my husband stayed on, he’s still with his aunt. At the departure gate, I received a phone call that another family member (mine this time) has just been diagnosed with cancer, and so that journey begins. Already filled with leaden sadness, my trip home was one misadventure after another, nasty airline personnel, bad directions, a bumpy flight through storm clouds, lost parking ticket, and on and on until it cumulated in me leaning against a trash can in front of terminal two at San Jose International and crying from my gut just long enough to bleed that poison out before bucking up and getting on with it. If anyone bothered to notice, they may have thought I was weak or broken, but it was exactly the opposite.
Somebody needs me, and I need to be there.
We all get a turn. We all hold a hand, feel the desperation of not being able to make it better, we all wake up at night and dread the coming dawn, we all think we will not be able to take one more step. But we are not alone. Each of us knows devastation to our souls at some point. Though we may feel that no one suffers as we do, if we search for them, the jar stays empty, at least until we fill it with compassion and memories.
Recently, one of my most talented and positive friends asked on Facebook, “How do you reset when you are blue and stressed?” Wow, great question and there were many wise and humorous suggestions posted, most of them featured nature, music, or watching other people make fools of themselves, but I couldn’t help wondering if the better question would be “How do I keep myself from becoming blue and stressed?”
Which shows both my naiveté and a severe drop of IQ, probably due to early drug abuse combined with late menopausal symptoms, because the glaring truth of course is that you can’t. Anxiety, sadness, stress and frustration are all quite normal parts of being human and alive both at once.
You can try a few things; blunting, transference, isolation and alienation, but that doesn’t feel like much fun either, and ultimately, all of those things will only make you feel worse not to mention pretty much universally despised, which will make you angrier and more afraid which will make you stressed and anxious and well, we’re right back where we started, only deeper. That hasn’t stopped me from trying them all!
It’s the carnival ride of the insane. Climbing on the dark carousel of avoidance is a morose and discordant experience where the only appropriate exclamation is a wheezing gasp of despair. Nobody, and I mean nobody shouts, “Wheee!” when that funride gets up to speed. But we all seem incapable of avoiding being sucked into the line along with the rest of the crowd every once in a while.
In fact, the only people who don’t have a ticket to that not-so-merry-go-round is a true psychopath, and frankly a life without compassion, empathy and remorse is not a life worth living, so be grateful when you can recognize that the ticket in your hand was paid for by the yearning for unconsciousness and go get it punched in another part of the park. Oh look, over there, I can crawl into a cage and be the attraction for a bit, or see the circus freaks by entering the house of mirrors. It might be hard to keep your eyes open but at least you got the hell off the round-about and are moving in some direction, it might be down, but eventually it will lead to up.
So now that we’ve established that shit happens, we have to face it. And that’s where falling comes in, and here’s my advice.
Tuck and roll.
You might not spring back to your feet, you might lay on the ground moaning for a while— a lateral move to self-pity can be quite liberating actually, I personally recommend blaming everyone else from a hot bath from a view through amber whiskey in cut crystal—you might scream for mercy or smash crockery in a rage, you may stare at a blank wall and confess that you are nothing, less than worthless and there’s no hope for a bit, but believe it or not, those are all good. Well…better than pretending that life is a fairyland of sprouting wildflowers and gentle summer days. Because baby, I’m here to tell you, rain will fall and your best option is to dance in it, cry in it, rail at it, but damn it, get soaking wet. It’s the only way back out.
Now, wallowing is fine for a while, still you wouldn’t want to live there.
I was a competitive ice skater and falling was something I did several hundred times a day. You can actually get good at it, and you’ll never improve if you don’t do it, so suck it up and get bruised every once in a while.
It’s fascinating to me that science and experience are now showing me that we learn our responses to stimuli, like, say…your mom’s disappointed face, or your classmates mocking you, or a scary man yelling at you. Our brain actually memorises a chemical pattern that cannot be broken with logic, reason, or even intense self-examination and realisation. When the lady at the store twists up her little puckered mouth in judgement, those chemicals remember your mom’s criticism and start an instant chain of chemicals firing that affect a physical sensation your body and brain have diligently rehearsed. There is a perfectly good physiological reason for this: self-protection. When we are in fear or danger, we have responses that are necessary to our survival, but the odds are that someone attacking your political views on facebook don’t immediately threaten your life. (Okay, idiots who defend automatic guns and greed-fueled health care systems actually do endanger us all in the long run, but I’m talking about right now.) None-the-less, the reaction is the same in us. Trouble is, we don’t have any use for all that adrenaline and fear response so we can’t express or expel it.
And so, our hands shake, our head hurts, our hearts race, our stomachs churn with acid, and we generally feel like crap.
Which is not fun but it is unavoidable. We can’t help it, it’s what our amazing bodies learned to do to protect us. And those things are there to help us when we really need them. We can’t stop them from happening, nor would we really want to if you think about it. Should you stick your hand in a fire? Probably not, your brain tells you. When a car swerves into you lane, your adrenaline fires, time slows down, and you respond without even thinking to brake and avoid a collision. These responses are good and they are our friends.
But what about when they aren’t wanted or necessary?
Tuck and roll baby, tuck and roll. The chemical hit (anxiety, palpitation, increased blood pressure and the inevitable come down, i.e. sadness and depression) will still come, and all we can do it take the punch, lick the wounds and learn to let it go more quickly.
Best thing you can do, I think, is recognize that it’s happening. Identify where in your body it’s affecting you, and then change it up when you can.
That’s why nature helps so much, why the calming energy soothes us, especially water for most people, because the brain releases serotonin when your eyes gaze out over the ripples of a lake. That’s why music switches on a different reaction the strain cause oxytocin levels to surge. That’s why dancing and laughing stir a healthy dose of dopamine into the mix, exercise releases endorphins and that counteracts the overdose of other nasty chemical excretions that we unwittingly shot up with when we were triggered by the fear of loss of even very real exposure.
Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I so very capable of understanding and dealing with all of life and it’s many challenges? Aren’t I a ball of calm and light?
Oh HELL no! (Just ask hubby, he’ll be glad to tell you when he stops laughing.) What I have gotten better at is explaining it all to myself, that doesn’t mean I don’t weep in the back of the closet or wrap myself in a shell of bitterness or occasionally declare that I need nobody and nothing and I’ll show them…!
Oh yeah, living hurts sometimes like going over the handlebars a mountain bike downhill in rough gravel, which, I have done, recently.
But it’s nice to know that no matter how depressed I get, if I put a stupid, forced smile on my face and march around like an idiot clown on bungy cord springs singing “La la la la” in a ridiculously high voice I can actually change my chemistry! Works every time, at least a little bit, and sometimes when I’m desperate and beat all to hell I’ll take whatever I can get.
Tuck and roll baby.
The best thing I’ve found to make a permanent change is tapping, a process that can actually break and retrain those memorised chemical pathways and thought patterns but that’s for another day. I do recommend you look it up. Go on youtube and try a led session. It works. They use it for PTSD patients.
Meanwhile, drag your falling ass up off the carpet and look out the window at anything green. Smell some lavender, listen to Mozart or rap or whatever lifts your heart, and for Goddess’ sake laugh. Even if it’s not funny, even if there’s nothing to laugh at, even if it’s more-fake-than-bad-acting laughing, laugh. It will change the lethal mix of excretions and thought patterns that bludgeon you into an emotional pulp on a daily basis. It will smooth the ride through the Waring blender of life.
Ah travel, the thrill of new places and faces, the strange twang of English words twisted with accents that render them unrecognizable to the American ear, the savory surprises of foreign food, the heart-lifting vistas new to these old eyes, and, of course, the stress of constant twenty-four hour, unrelenting contact with your beloved companion.
That much togetherness puts a strain on even the most tolerant and loving of relationships. No matter where you go, there you are, and oh look, honey, we brought all our emotional baggage along. All our pesky husband and wife trigger buttons were dragged across the ocean and landmass so we wouldn’t feel lost in an alien land. Yet, with so much that is unfamiliar, it’s good to know that no matter where you go, some things stay the same, it’s having them amplified that’s difficult. Even if hubby and I were mild-mannered personalities, our emotional triggers can be consistently relied upon (and after twenty five years doing dramatic theatre, we do not qualify as drama free). We may be in Ireland among a green landscape so rich and lush that it brings tears to our eyes, but it still takes only a fraction of a second for him to piss me off royally.
And the feeling is mutual, apparently. (How dare he think me less than perfect!) Let me give you a for instance. My husband loves to announce to total strangers that I am a nervous traveler. This while I’m reading calmly at the airport gate while he rails and sweats over some half-imagined slight from the car rental company. Why he thinks that these exhausted fellow travelers, who no doubt lead full and diverting lives of their own, would find this information pertinent or even interesting is a mystery to me. He goes on to enlighten them that this is because I’m a control freak. Then I go back to my Rex Stout novel and he taps madly at his phone where he is mapping landmarks such as large rocks or random graffiti that will help our cab driver locate our apartment in a Dublin neighborhood that has been familiar to locals for over six centuries.
But never mind, we both love a new adventure, the two of us have traveled extensively, both alone in our pre-each-other lives and with each other during our sixteen years of together-bliss. It seems to escape him that I have lived in exotic locals for months on end while shooting some movie or show, or just off to experience the big ol’ world without any one to tell me what to do or where to go. Say what you will about having a partner in life—which, don’t get me wrong, I prefer because it is him—it can be truly fabulous to answer to no one and do exactly what you want to do all damn day long.
Of course, come evening, nothing compares to having someone to share your discoveries with, especially if you don’t have internet, which we don’t here. Social media is the modern equivalent of telling stories and passing packs of pictures fresh from the Fotomat around the dinner table. Ah, the smell of chemical developer wafting from the paper envelopes when you unfold the flap, the way the prints stuck together, the fun of trying to remember, two weeks after the flight home, where in hell that pile of ancient rocks was exactly. Good times.
Togetherness is a beautiful thing. Until it’s time to drive on the left. We always make sure both of us are covered to drive the rental car, and after my husband manspains the difficulties and I remind him that I grew up with a house on St. Croix, where we drove on the left, and a month in Scotland where I had the most fun parallel parking on a steep hillside that I’ve ever had, (they brought their pints out of the pub to watch me, that’s how entertaining I was) we set out, with him driving and me navigating. This being our first sojourn out of Dublin, I had to allow that even on the generously wide motorway, switching from having the steering wheel on the left to having it on the right, combined with unfamiliar traffic signs while driving a strange rental car, takes a good bit of getting used to. But after a while I had to keep pointing out that hubby was pretty much keeping the left wheels of the car on the yellow lane line, though you would have thought that the rhythmic thump thump thump of the warning bumps would have offered some clue. About the forth time, his nerves snapped and he called me a control freak. So I tried to sit on my hands and shut the f up. It kind of worked…for a few minutes at a time. I do hate to be controlled.
Then we hit the country roads where the roads are as narrow as the leg room in economy class, the hedges rise like the walls of a prison yard on both sides of the lanes, the speed limits are only safe for the delusional, and the possibility of rounding a blind curve only to be confronted with some form of gigantic farm machinery moving at a whopping 15 kilometers are 100 percent. It’s tight here, I mean, inches on either side of the car for both lanes, and that’s when there are two lanes. For some reason, even when we were the only vehicle on the road, hubby felt the need to keep the left rear view window (inches off my left shoulder where I sat in the passenger seat) in the hedges and I constantly flinched as blackberry vines and holly bushes smacked against my window. Once or twice I actually cried out when the tire almost went off the asphalt into a narrow drainage ditch, and while I did not blame him at all for getting nervous when a car, or far worse a lorry, would appear in the oncoming lane, I thought that slamming on the breaks was a bit of an overreaction. Tempted as I was to ask if he thought stopping the car would actually make it narrower, I resisted, but I couldn’t help the involuntary ‘ooof’ noise that escaped me as the seatbelt caught and forced the air from my body. At this point I was accused of ‘freaking out’ and he snapped out “Do you want to drive?”
Now, those of you who have remained married more than a year will know that to answer ‘yes’ at this point would have been the equivalent of contacting a divorce lawyer. Insulting your husband’s driving or letting him know you feel endangered is an absolute no-no. So I said, no, but maybe you are a bit close on the left, and possibly, being mostly human, it was impossible to not react at all when I feel that bodily danger is imminent, to which he answered with a rising hysteria that he was kind of busy trying not to get into a head on collision, which was hard to argue. But he followed that with the accusation that I was over-reacting, which I could have argued all damn day as soon as the seat belt unlocked and I could inhale enough to form words.
We arrived at our destination and were delighted charmed and enthralled. This, the first of three rental houses on this trip of six weeks is placed in a nature reserve with sweeping views of sheep covered hills, deep, verdant forests and skies that Gainsborough might have painted. Inside there is a plethora of beautiful art, first edition books, enamel stoves in every room, and outside are gardens designed to delight and discover. We were so pleased that all the stress fell away and the joy of our destination threw a blanket of forgetfulness over the stress of the journey. Husband took me in his arms and we uttered little spontaneous exclamations of awe at every new discovery.
And it was all worth it. I love my husband, our relationship, our life, our adventures, and the promise of more joy together. Sure, there will always be those rough spots, some friction, and the thoughtless word or twelve, but overall, I’m glad to be where I am.
With both girls off to college, my husband and I decided it was time to live a simpler life with less to worry about and take care of. It came to this. We had too much stuff and it was weighing us down, anchoring us to one place and we wanted to lift off, fly, to travel and soar. So we started the process. We sold or gave away everything we thought we could part with, including our home of 14 years. Even with the cleansing, we had quite a bit left, so we piled almost all of that stuff into two storage pods the size of semis, and bought a 38 ft trailer. For the trailer adventure, we took very little stuff, a half-dozen of our favorite small works of art, a handful of rare books, some kitchen basics, a silver champagne bucket and candelabra, (just the bare necessities) a scrabble set, and roughly enough winter clothes to fill a medium-sized suitcase. Then we hooked the camper onto the back of his truck, and headed north. The only thing I was afraid I would really miss living in a camper were our fireplaces, so hubby installed a tiny wood stove.
After the months of stress involved with selling a house, packing up a life, and getting a house, guest house, pool and ten acres perfect for the new owner, on January 8, 2017, we finally pulled away from Angeles National Forest, drove up above Ojai, pulled into our first campsite and hunkered down. I woke up the next morning to the sound of a babbling stream and rain on the roof and knew we had made the right choice. We spent a couple of weeks there then moved on to another stunning location. We let the wind take us and wherever we landed, every night we would make a fire in our tiny wood stove, and listen to the rain or the ocean, or the wind in the trees. Everyday we would explore, delighting in beauty and learning a little more about our new way of life—including the fact that very few RV parks take 38 ft campers. At every campsite the kids would gather around our fluffy dog Thor, and the women would knock tentatively on our door after spotting the smoke rising from the stovepipe chimney, asking if they could see the wood stove, they would exclaim in delight at the one foot-square, glass-fronted stove with it’s tiny blaze, and then return to their own trailers and sulk, glaring at their husbands who hadn’t gotten them a tiny fireplace of their own. So…that was fun.
After a few months, we made it to Santa Cruz, parked under towering redwoods overlooking a river, survived a flood, and started looking for houses. We found one that was listed as a tear down, bought it for an unbelievable low price, (thanks hubby!) and he went to work. In the meantime summer was almost here and campsites get crowded and surprisingly expensive in this gorgeous part of the world, so we rented an apartment on the ocean and even though it was only a small one bedroom I had to buy some furniture basics and expand my wardrobe from four sweaters and jeans to include more seasonally appropriate clothes. We acquired almost all of our new belongings from re-use places or thrift stores. It’s more fun to find treasures, or rentals, as I thought of it, because all of these new things are temporary. Remember now, we have two semi’s packed with our real stuff somewhere in the nether-regions of the greater Los Angeles area. We don’t actually know exactly where of course, but they (the people who cash our monthly checks) assure us that it’s somewhere out there. I have this mental image of a place not unlike the last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Arc” filled with people’s stuff that they will pay more to store than it’s worth by the time they retrieve it.
Then, since she finished college, our daughter and her four roommates moved out of the house they had rented, and since she didn’t have a new place and was traveling for the summer, she needed a place to keep her stuff, which was mostly stuff she had taken from our house. So now we had her stuff, most of which went into the trailer to be stored, which was now in its own storage. (another monthly check, but at least I know where it is.) Joseph is amazingly gifted with both vision and endurance when it comes to building pretty much anything, so within a few months we were able to leave the one bedroom apartment and move into the two bedroom, two bath house on the San Lorenzo river that he had taken from crumbling to dust to jewel box, (thanks honey!) so of course I had to buy more stuff. At first I only gathered what we needed to make ourselves and our girls comfortable, but when we decided to sell some coherent style was required. So my intrepid friend Michelle—she of impeccable taste—showed up to help us ‘stage’ the house.
Boom. Those guys in the cute brown shorts started delivering more stuff. Matching armchairs, rugs, lamps, side-tables, throw pillows, coffee table books, vases, candle holders, dining room table, chairs, all chosen and purchased late at night after a bottle of wine or on furious shopping sprees. Michelle and I whipped through Ross’s, Marshall’s, Home Depot, and every antique shop in Santa Cruz county. In three days, she had that place thrown together and I had a house full of new stuff.
The house sold, we did very well, (thanks honey!) quadrupling our money, (quadruple is a verb, right?)and we decided to rent for a while so as not to be rushed into buying something we didn’t love. I chose a three bedroom home with a huge living area, two fireplaces, two big decks on a creek, and a large yard.
Initially the plan was to have those storage pods we’d left in Los Angeles limbo delivered and unloaded so we could use our old stuff, but very quickly we realized that this leased home didn’t have room for that much stuff on top of the stuff we just bought for the river house, so we’d have to get more stuff to have enough stuff for this house. Trouper that I am, I headed out and bought home more stuff. Now I have a house full of stuff here, and two gigantic storage pods holding another entire house full of stuff, and a trailer in storage stuffed with more stuff.
For someone who was eager to live a much less material life, I sure do have a lot of stuff. Now, I have a year to stay put. I’m so excited to have the time and peace to write again, I hope I remember how. Before that year is up, we’ll be looking for other houses, one to flip over and one to flop into. After having done it four times within a year and a half, I can tell you with great confidence that moving is a crapload of work, especially if you have a lot of stuff.
Which I did.
Then I didn’t.
And now I do.
More than ever.
I’m not sure where we’ll land but I’ll tell you this,
There is a moment in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” where Holly Go Lightly says she gets the reds and is corrected, “I think you mean the blues.” But she knows very well that she means the ‘reds’. I do too. It’s that muddy anxiety that starts with nervous prickling and grows until it’s as though sharp metal shavings and shards of glass are being power-blasted in your chest and stomach. The reds suck.
It happens to me more often that I would expect for someone who, let’s be honest, is having a pretty damn amazing life. I’m happy, strong, positive and lucky, yet it happens anyway. I can feel it creeping up on me, slithering into my body, my brain and my attitude, an actual chemical cocktail that I can now identify as surely as the flu. I know it is coming, and I know it will last a day, or two, or a week, or two. It sucks.
It is beyond my magic powers to just make it go away. I cannot reason with myself that it’s not real or worth the trouble, the shitty feeling is indifferent to debate. Like anyone experiencing ugliness and discomfort I’d love to simply make a different choice, but it isn’t simple. You can’t just shrug off the reds anymore than a virus or chronic depression. Talking about it incessantly or passing it on to others who are unfortunate enough to incur my wrath only exacerbates the situation. (Just ask the guy who tried to cut the line at the grocery store in front of me. He’s probably still muttering ‘bitch’ under his fetid breath. Oh how I hated him!) I feel as though I’ve been thrown from a car and then run over—scratched, bruised and bleeding, and even the mildest of irritants hit me like a switch on an open sore. Which sucks.
What does help is realizing what’s going on, naming it, and acknowledging its presence in the room. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay in the room while I sneak out and shut the door behind me. The reds are parasitic, they only exist because I do and the effects linger, mocking any attempt to shake them off. My efforts to muster a positive attitude are met with evil laughter like sniggers from a cruel sibling. So…that sucks.
There are some things I can do to lessen or even sometimes alleviate the worst of it. Exercise helps a lot, but getting motivated takes a herculean effort. Spending quiet time in nature, meditating, hot baths, massages, and comfort food can help, (though you have to watch out for overdoing alcohol and sugar which can both make it worse), and one of the best remedies is laughter. Which doesn’t suck.
On the worst days I cocoon. I lock the door, turn off my phone, and climb into bed with a good book, something that won’t hurt me like P.G. Wodehouse or Rex Stout. On these days I don’t read stories where children die or woman are abused. I don’t watch dramatic movies or violent TV shows, that would be like shopping for shock therapy.
It’s not that I’m weak or afraid. I am a strong woman, make no mistake. Once, at the funeral of a child I loved very much, my thankfully now ex-husband wanted to leave and when I refused he asked me, “How much of this can you take?” With a surge of fury, I looked through him and answered, “A lot. I can take a lot.” It wasn’t about him being comfortable, the son of a bitch, it was about the reality of pain and confusion and a horrible, sudden, gaping void for people whose loss was greater than mine. I was there to offer what small support or comfort I could. I was there to bear to witness. These are the things for which I save my strength, and I’ve come to learn that excess strength is finite, so I try to use it well.
Still, even with all the determination and will in the world, the reds come. Still, I have days where I find myself sitting in my car, slumped in my seat, feeling too vulnerable to face some random asshole cutting the line at the grocery store. (Oh how I hated him!) It’s not that I won’t stand up to someone, as that guy would probably love to tell you, it’s that to do so today will cost me far more any normal day. I am heavy, exhausted, sad and I do not know when my back will straighten and heart lift, I cannot see an end.
And then, miracle of miracles, a child laughs on the sidewalk and I find the strength to turn my head and watch his dancing eyes. The corners of my mouth twitch upwards. Right behind that beautiful boy two young women are walking hand in hand, clearly in love, and my heart soars with the realization that I have lived to see this freedom to love, it’s a gift for me. My forehead softens, the creases easing. A grey haired man walks up to a homeless family and offers them his lunch and couple of bucks, smiles and handshakes are exchanged and my heart flops like a fish in the mud, showing signs of life. Sounds dramatic, I know, but what do you expect from an author-slash-writer-slash-fully-alive-woman? I see the world in extremes sometimes. I did not choose a soft, easy, suburban life where the hard things are easily dismissed or wilfully ignored. I see it, I feel it, I know that I am a part of it. A part of what you ask?
All of it. Yep, even the reds. It may be hormonal, it may be a by-product of the evil that men project, I feel such things, I’m sure of it. I believe we all do, but very much like hearing or smell or vision, some of us have one sense that is sharper than others. When the reds sap my life force and defenses, the hits go un-deflected. Some days the reds leave me trembling and gasping for happiness, not for any reason that I can see, but oh boy, I can feel whirlpool sucking at my soul. Which…well, sucks.
Today is a red day. So I will look closely at flowers by the side of the road instead of the line of traffic in front of me, I will be still and listen to the river beneath my deck rather than the acidic news, I will go stand in the sunshine when my husband stresses over the real estate agent’s last text, and I will watch or read a comedy. I will laugh, I will heal, I will feel stronger tomorrow.
And slowly, the reds will fade, they will soften to vibrant orange, then pink, and finally blend into the myriad of colors that offer so much variety and vibrancy to my days, my months, my life. Until at last, I realize that I wouldn’t trade this experience, I wouldn’t choose to feel less. There is only so much of life and I will not live it numb.
I hope that when the reds get you, you remember that it will pass.
We were in Hawaii when my sister’s first husband proposed to her. She didn’t know it was coming, but I did, so I took my four year daughter and followed them out to the beach where we could watch from a discrete distance. Creason was so amped up with keeping a secret that once he dropped to one knee she took off running toward them before I could stop her. After a quick glance at her aunt’s hand she turned and came running back. As soon as she was within shouting distance, she yelled, “He gave her a ring with three sparkles!!”
Sparkles. Call it like it is kid, three sparkles.
My first two husbands didn’t bother to get me a ring. The first marriage was over in a year or so, and I was glad to be clear of it. An expensive ring wasn’t that important to me as a ‘thing’ to own, but as time went on with husband number two and I gave up career opportunities to grow, deliver, and raise two beautiful girls, I realized that it would have been nice for their father to have taken the trouble to maybe make me feel like he noticed the imbalance of that equation with an effort at making me feel appreciated. It didn’t have to be anything expensive, even though he could easily have afforded it, just having him put the thought into trying to make me happy would have been nice.
So for twenty something years I bought my own diamonds while I was working and attending events where I could justify wearing such a thing, even if that justification is as weak, lopsided and pathetic as a two-legged table. Come on, nobody needs a diamond, the money would be far better spent feeding hungry children or a college education. (He didn’t pay for the college either it turned out, if only there had been some clue!)
Yet most women—well, privileged American women—expect a diamond as an engagement present. Out of three marriages, only my third, current, and final husband bothered to observe the tradition, and he, in classic Joseph style, did it right. Popped that little black velvet box open in front of my eyes while we were making love, thank you very much. My ring is a very special piece, and it only matters that I know that. I do not wear it to impress anyone else. He could not have found anything to make me feel more like his treasure.
See, there are big-but-flawed diamonds, there are the ‘we got money very recently so I have this impressive looking but lower quality yellow’ diamonds, mostly favored by women who bling their cell phones and carry tiny trembling canines, and then there are the only thing I wanted. A pre-blood-diamond, brilliant color, flawless quality, uniquely framed by a magnificent filigree nineteen-twenties Cartier setting. It brings me joy every time I look down at my hand, because of what it represents, love, romance, commitment, and most importantly, that I am a precious to a gem among men.
So, when I recently left a rope of diamonds necklace in a hotel in San Francisco and realized it wasn’t coming back, it was a twinge, but not worth hysterics. It’s just a sparkly thing after all. Okay, about fifty sparkly things, but nobody’s ill or dying, I won’t go homeless or not eat, and the looser my neck skin becomes the more I wonder about the wisdom of accenting it anyway.
Then, in the same week, I went to pick up a prescription and was told that my health insurance had been cancelled. Surprise! The promise of medical care is a much scarier thing to lose than diamonds, trust me, just ask the millions of Americans who will be joining that group soon. Phone calls to find out what had gone wrong and why I hadn’t been notified were fruitless, or went unanswered after holds exceeding an hour, so I set out to find the physical office and people whom I hoped could explain.
Three locations, two building complexes and several waiting rooms later, I was told that my insurance should actually be valid, the only problem was that no one had finished the paperwork transferring it from southern California to Central California, though it had been ordered over a month before and was ‘on someone’s desk.’ So, I was currently uninsured due to a clerical error. If I had come down with a staff infection, been shot by some NRA sponsored mental patient, or been hit by a drunk driver, I would have been shit out of luck and financially ruined. Ah, America is number one, I do NOT think. ‘Oh well,’ seemed to be the general attitude of those allowed to screw us for profit. I was informed that I could call tomorrow and try to get someone to fix the situation, (remember I was already on hold for over an hour more than once with that very same number before finally giving up) or I could wait among the several dozen people in the waiting room for someone who could finalize it today.
Feeling strangely untrusting, call me crazy, I opted to wait so I could vent at someone’s face. The building also housed a clinic and the large waiting room in which everyone had been given a number that came up on a screen when the powers that be deigned to see you—much like the DMV, was filled with melting down children, parents clinging to their last nerve, hacking coughs, angry and frightened citizens with issues like mine, and a sprinkling of the homeless who were there for some agency of some sort.
It was this last category that fascinated me. I watched as one man, probably in his early seventies, carrying a huge, dirty backpack, greeted several other of this forgotten tribe. Without exception hugs were given, concern was expressed, help was offered if possible, but more often it was condolence or sympathy. Things are tough out there on the street and, no matter how much people like us pretend not to see the suffering, it doesn’t make it any less brutal for them.
The elderly homeless man started a conversation with a nice family sitting near him. They looked a little uncomfortable but were very polite to this cheerful, well-spoken elder who primarily addressed the son, a young man of maybe 14. I truly wished I could remember all that was said. He talked about how lucky the boy was to have a family who loved him. I started to listen when I heard him ask the kid if he knew he was loved. When the boy said yes, the older gentleman said, “That makes me so happy. That makes me all waggily in the tail.”
The phrase caught my attention and I started to pay closer attention. Here was this man with nothing, literally, but the clothes and the pack on his back but I’ve seldom seen a more positive person. I wish I had written down all he said, but it went something like this.
“I know I’ll find love today and everyday, and when you know that, it gets easier and easier. When I get something to eat, you know what I do? I go out and find someone to share it with. It might be cold by the time I find someone but that’s what makes my day, I know I will find love.”
After a few minutes he was called in and stood up, bracing himself to shoulder that heavy pack. I stood up as well.
“Sir?” I called. He stopped and turned. I opened my wallet, pulled out a twenty and said, “Please get yourself something to eat and find someone to share it with.”
I was so moved by his grace and plight, that I had to turn away quickly to hide my tears. But he followed me and when I sat down, he bowed graciously. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, with a huge grin. He turned to the family and bowed slightly to them as well. “Wonderful to speak with you,” he told them, “You are a beautiful family.” Then he turned back to me. “Bless you,” he said, but before he could say anything else, my number was called and I escaped before openly weeping with shame that in this country of obscene wealth, so many people sleep on the concrete in the rain.
The administrator who helped me was wonderful, kind, patient and we shared some amazing stories while she completed the paperwork, I thanked her for the help and the conversation and went on my way.
As I climbed into my car I thought again about the diamonds that I lost, and felt nothing. Yes, they cost money, yes they are gone, but I would not waste life looking for them or regretting their loss.
So this week I lost some diamonds permanently, my health insurance temporarily, and I found someone who lives with the conviction that he will find love if he looks for it. I found someone who believes that love is ever-present, even in the darkest of situations.
A man who will never have diamonds or gold.
Or even a warm, safe place to call his own.
His smile and his clear-eyed kindness woke something in me.
It gave me a gift, a treasure, a memory.
Of this amazing human who spends everyday looking for love.
For many years I have been one of the directors of a charity that assists pediatric cancer patients and their families. In that time I have learned so much about myself, suffering, kindness, courage, life, and most importantly death. I cannot now look at a child and not imagine the possibility that they might not make it to adulthood, or even their teens. It infuses every experience with the radiant reminder of true importance, a glowing reminder of the moment most precious, this moment.
There are so many memories that stand out. The director of the charity had already lost her own child, and yet she had the courage to face this unthinkable journey with others, again and again. But then came the call, she needed to talk, to weep, another of our kids was dying, and she just couldn’t fathom it. She wept, and then went on to hold other mothers’ hands and help them through the journey. Again and again. I stand in awe.
I remember walking down the halls of City of Hope and hearing screaming, I remember one of the nurses, while we were there decorating the ward for the holidays, exclaim, “I hate Christmas! So many kids die.” Because, she went on to explain, the terminally ill have a tendency to hold out for a special date, maybe a birthday, maybe Christmas, but then they let go. The nurses can do nothing but try to comfort, ease pain, hug family that are enduring the unthinkable in a constant state of shock. And when it’s over, they get back to work, clearing away the evidence of a loved patient who they may have known for years, and the room their lives once occupied returns to empty, until the next child comes to fill it. They return to work and start all over again. I stand in awe.
The Pajama Party, which we hold every year, patients, current and alumni, are invited. Each patient and their siblings receive pajamas, slippers, and many other fun gifts. Hundreds of people attend. We have a dinner, a raffle, games for the kids, and then Santa! My favorite doctor greets and embraces family after family with a huge smile and genuine joy, often remembering a child who is no longer with us by sharing a moment with the parents who lost them. I stand in awe.
When it became clear that a 12 year old who loved photography that we worked with was not going to make it, the doctors and nurses organized an art show for him. His lovely photos were displayed and sold to help his family with the horrific bills that would be all they were left with after they buried their child. My favorite photo was a shot down a city street with the sunset in the distance, he called it, “A Door to Heaven.” I remember standing next to the doctor as he talked to the young artist, who had received a huge platelet donation that day so that he could get out of bed and attend this event. They joked about him enjoying his cocktails. I stand in awe.
I remember one funeral, for a boy of eighteen, who we had been assisting since he was nine. He had lost an arm in the long hard process but he was the best hugger I ever met. He also had an amazing voice and he sang Wind Beneath my Wings at one of our fundraisers when he was only 11, not a dry eye. I remember his friends carrying his casket, the stunned loss on their still too young faces. When they sealed the casket at the gravesite, his mother, whose entire life for nine years had been caring for her gravely ill son, kept on straightening the drape on the casket as gently as if it had been a blanket she was tucking around him to keep him warm. The gesture was so intimate and it was so strange to me that such a large crowd of mourners were watching, that I turned away and looked to the sky to give her a sliver of privacy, though I doubt she even knew or cared for anything in that moment. That last, horrible, powerless moment when she could do no more. I will never forget the sound that she made, it wasn’t a cry, or a sob, it was from her very soul. It was a long, drawn out sound that rose and fell and vibrated the air around her. Keening. That sound is part of who I am now, I hear it when I think of these families and what they have endured. I stand it awe.
And then there are the children themselves, to a one they were the bravest, most accepting souls I have ever met. It’s as though they were finished with being mortal, they didn’t ‘need’ to be here any more, it was time for them to move on to the next stage. To a one they taught everyone around them what was true and important. To a one they offered a sense of perspective. I stand in awe.
Which brings me to the reason we began the charity. Desi. This girl, who at nine was diagnosed with a cancer so severe that the doctors gave her a five percent chance of surviving a couple of months, lived two years. In those two years, she got well enough to do many things, including going horse back riding with me, something I had promised her when she was very ill. This child, this exceptional human being, never lost her faith or her courage. Multiple times when we thought it was the end, she fought her way back, and she never missed a chance for a laugh. When a child is at the end, they are attached to machinery that counts their breaths per minute, and when it goes to zero and stays there, that’s pretty much it. So there she was, with her loved ones around her, watching the monitor, praying, comforting each other, when the monitor went from 5 to 2 to 0. They all leaned in, watching to see if this was it, after so much suffering if it was time for her to go home. No one breathed, everyone was drawn toward the bed, curling physically downward to be close to her, waiting, when suddenly, Desi’s eyes flickered, and she very weakly, but distinctly, formed an o with her mouth, and said, “Boo!” Everyone straightened up, laughing and relieved, she actually pulled through that time. I stand in awe.
But it was a short reprieve, and she was back in the hospital a few weeks later. When she finally, quietly, slipped away, only her mother was in the room with her. She told me that she knew that her daughter had died, but she didn’t call the nurses, she didn’t leave or reach out, she just sat quietly beside her daughter’s body and waited, thankful for the time she had with her, she told me that the thing she felt the most, was honor. She said she was honored to have been Desi’s mother. I stand in awe.
I still am a part of this charity, though now that I am not living in Los Angeles, I cannot take part in the active service as often as I would like, though every time I return to LA, I make it a point to go to City of Hope and donate blood and platelets, and visit with some of my friends there. I hope to find another place to fill where there is need when I settle wherever I may land, but my life is irrevocably changed already, my sense of perspective has forever changed. Things I once thought important are now laughable to me. My own children, who often accompanied me to events and the hospital to visit with the kids or help decorate for holidays, are markedly better people because of their experiences there. We are endlessly grateful to those children and those families, they have given us the gift of perspective that softens life somehow, makes the little things easier to bear, to release, to set free. I am not afraid to die, what better gift could I ever receive?
And sometimes I weep, just to think of them. Sometimes I smile when I recall their courage, and always I respect and admire the people who lost and lived to love and give back, almost every one of them turn to helping others in some form. I think of the remarkable human beings who care for these children every day, again and again, and never lose their ability to grieve each devastating death. Doctors and nurses who weep for the loss of every child they have cared about, and for, sometimes for years. I stand in awe.
Mostly, I remember the things I’ve learned so completely, that they are a part of who I am now.
That beauty can be found in a ravaged face. That love never dies. That your heart can be torn from your body and you can be glad to have had the capacity to feel that much, because the choice to not would have meant that you would never have have had that someone in your life at all.
Whenever someone finds out I’m a writer, (because I tell them) their first question is always, “What do you write?” by which they mean, ‘what genre?’
How do I sum up my work in a word? I wish someone would tell me. If you’ve read “Invisible Ellen” you’ll know why. It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s fable, it’s reality, it’s socially conscious, it has story and it’s character driven, and while it’s primarily about two women, it’s not ‘women’s fiction’ perish the narrow-minded dismissal! I understand why people ask, they may prefer cozy mysteries or violent thrillers and are jonesing for their next hit, but I can’ t help them there.
Well, I could. it might be much easier for me to stick to a genre, write the same kind of book again and again. For publishers, it’s easier for them to button hole a writer into a small, easily promotable group. But the entire idea that anyone’s entire body of work can be filed under one word is lamentable. Not to say that writers like Rex Stout aren’t masters of their genre, practically creators of their own library sections, but that is because their work is so complex and compelling to start with, they are anything but simple.
Full disclosure, I have written books based on a label by contractual agreement. In fact after my first book “Loaded” was purchased, the publisher ordered two more books described thus: “Mystery thriller with a romantic entanglement.” So…at least that was two labels in one. I always bucked the identity of ‘romance writer’ not because I don’t love a good romance as much as the next red-blooded, sex-crazed female with a penchant for tactile mental imagery and the well-described monkey noises that accompany them, but because I know so many writers who write romance so much more deliberately and, frankly, so much better than I do. Romance is just not my passion, if you’ll forgive the awkward juxtaposition of nouns.
Which sends me spinning off on one of my tangents; I do this a lot. I’m just cruising along on a big merry-go-round of topical reasoning when something suddenly snags my mind’s eye, I lose my grip on the painted pony of focus, and the centrifugal force slings my thought process into free flight, tumbling my head over my ass off into another part of the zoo. I might return to my original point but I might also spend the rest of the essay admiring the zebras, sorry.
Anywho…speaking of herd animals, isn’t it a relief to sometimes be one? I mean, to just say, “Yeah, I’m not even going to try to lead the pack in this field, So-and-so is so brilliant at it that I might as well not bother.” Giving up on the aspiration to do something or be something you respect and admire is sort of life’s version of screaming “Uncle!” while simultaneously enjoying the experience of having your arm folded up your back like a dislocated chicken wing. There are so many amazing vocations that I would love to conquer, like painting, or astrophysics, but—even making the wild assumption that I had the talent and propensity—without at least one more lifetime of devotion to the cause, I’m not likely to give Monet or Neil deGrasse Tyson a run for their money. Therefore, I content myself with gazing covetously at the transformation of pigment into emotional impact, and listen with rapt reverence to the simplified explanations of a superior intellect.
Not everything. Never give up on everything. Keep something, I say. Find a couple of things you love and even if you stink, you will find fulfillment in the doing if not the adulation that may never come. There’s a lesson in that, is it the proficiency or the laurels you crave? Do you want to act or do you want to be famous? Those are two very different goals, and it is the latter inclination that makes an artist. But then, you never know, maybe your first novel will be ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ I mean, hey, you never know until you try.
Meanwhile, let me climb back onto the carousel of my original thought process here. Why do we feel the need to pigeon-hole everyone and every thing? Okay, maybe it works for some things, like B movies and restaurant types, if I feel like pasta I won’t go to a BBQ pit, but people and creativity? That’s just nuts.
Because I don’t want to be chained to any one thing. If I do something for a while and it works for me but I weary of it, I’ll move on. I’ll write books on topics and characters that interest me, I just don’t have the time and energy for a project that isn’t worth six months to a year of my life.
And here’s something I’ve found out not from writing, but from reading. The books I love the most, the ‘break-out’ books, are almost always true originals, impossible to stuff into a cubby-hole with a computer-printed genre-label gorilla glued on the cover.
Screw that. There are true examples that fit any given description, but there is no description that is true about every example. White people aren’t all racist. Politicians aren’t all crooked, (well, a few aren’t!) Blonde women aren’t all vapid. Not every athlete is a bad student. Some mysteries are magical. Some dancers are clumsy. Good people die. Bad people do kind things sometimes.
Life, like literature, is a whirlwind of variety, constructs that grow or crumble, even things we build on foundations that can be washed away in the worst of a storm. If you look at the sum of someone’s work like a house they are putting on the market, before you buy, you need to see more than the real estate agent’s brochure. And while it takes extra time and energy to walk all the way around and through a house, judging the structure by the curb appeal alone leaves you ignorant of the floor plan and no understanding at all of the possible lives and loves that would be constantly changing inside. And don’t forget that everyone has the potential, at any time, to redecorate and redefine.
So…if anyone can help me with a quick phrase to sum up ‘what I write’ please, I’m begging you, I’m down on my scrubby knees chanting for clarity. Share it! As far as summing up my life and divergent personality in a simple adjective, give it up. It can’t be done. Not by me, or you, or anyone. Not about me, and not about anyone else. There is always more, layers on layers, basements and attics and add-ons, carpeting over hardwood floors, recessed lighting with a couple of bulbs burned out, a backyard filled with weeds on one side and a garden on the other. You can choose to live in a mid-century modern, mission style, or Victorian. You can occupy living rooms, bedrooms, tiled kitchens, and even spend time completely away from that home, possibly in the occasional muddy camp-site. Hey, I’ve done a bit of wallowing, every one occasionally makes a lateral move to our lower selves, so wipe that gunk out of your eyes and follow me to the showers.
But for heaven’s sake, stop limiting your vision, there is so much more to see.
If you want to change, do it! But be ready for resistance.
For the last couple years, every time I visited a certain area of my daughter’s campus, my car was attacked by a turkey. He was an angry, brave little dude, darting fearlessly into the street and pecking ruthlessly at the tires on a mysterious mission that we may never fully understand.
This local wild turkey had for some reason decided that he had had enough of these fools overwhelming his homeland. The many students hurrying to class or studying on the lawns of the nearby library had grown accustomed to the aggressive fowl, barely taking notice as cars seeking shelter in the nearby parking lot were forced into gridlock when confronted by the university’s very own, and very real, angry bird. He comes out charging, head down, feathers slightly ruffled so that his stunted wings looked more like spoilers on a coupe, as he fearlessly holds his own against two ton hunks of motorized metal. He was almost as persistent as the metered-parking enforcers that lurk amongst the trees wielding citation pads. Almost.
And now, after a good year or two of breeding and gene transference there are no less than eight attack turkeys. General T has taught his family well. An avian army is mustering. One has to wonder what’s in store for these rebels as they continue to reproduce, passing on the DNA of aggression to the next year’s generation. What will it be like over at the Engineering department next year, or even a decade from now? I envision students and faculty in shin guards, riding in armored campus buses, or hurrying fearfully between buildings and lecture halls while turkeys with bandana covered faces chant, “Humans will not replace us!” while brandishing pine cones and twigs in a menacing manner.
Hey, I don’t blame the birds for their random acts of violence. They live all summer, as they have for thousands of years, in this pristine forest filled with redwoods and ferns, and all of a sudden here come seventeen thousand humans in the fall, reeking of tea tree oil shampoo and melon scented deodorant, their limbs are stained with ink pictographs, they carry noise makers and are draped in brightly colored costumes that clash mightily with the environment. Come on, you can almost hear General T saying, get it together dude, unless it’s mating season your plumage is supposed to blend in! Camouflage, hello? Stealth? And what right do they have to bring these nasty, greedy, black-smoke-belching predators right though our ancient breeding ground! They don’t even eat what they kill. Forest Justice for all poultry!
It is, after all, an institute of learning known for activism. Just ask my Republican family, they’ll snort derisively and snidely imply with a condescending tone of voice that it’s a hippy school. Never mind that this University produces more top scientists, biologists, astrophysicists, and business leaders than Harvard, nevermind that it’s an academic education that far exceeds their own, it’s in Northern California, and to my republican siblings and parents that means the dirtiest of dirty words. Liberal. It’s the one word with no S’s that they can still hiss. Three syllables that make their ears bleed, not unlike what they think of my heart. The very idea of learning to evolve as a species seems to scare the hell out of them. So those turkeys would feature in their worst conservative nightmares, no doubt causing them to wake up sweating, trembling and gobbling, “Fowl!” Before they turn on their Tiffany’s bedside light and start muttering, “Why can’t those damn turkeys go to their own segregated college like God intended. Next thing you know, women will be allowed to play professional golf with men! This country is going to hell. God Damn liberalsssssss.”
What would they think of that one damn indigenous bird fighting for his turkey rights? “Who the hell does he think he is objecting to having his world paved over? Damn turkeys should be grateful to be smushed into American pavement! It would be an honor for him to be eviscerated and stuffed full of stale bread in our country!” Friggen’ wild turkeys stealing jobs from our factory farms!”
Okay, my family isn’t quite that bad, but it’s fun to poke back at them when they laugh at me for not believing I’m as entitled as they are, and I can’t really think of a nicer way to put that. I deleted quite a few other versions of that sentence.
When you send your kids to college, you never know what added benefits will come from that higher education. This is one time that trickle down is actually a factor. I consider my new knowledge of Meleagrididae, of the genus Meagridea, (aka common wild turkey) worth the tuition. I was also horrified to discover, while doing research for this very scientific blog, that the third most asked question about this bird is sadly this, “Is the country of Turkey named after the bird?” Yep, higher education is pretty desperately needed right here, right now, in this country. “We’re number one because one is higher than two!” I can just imagine these uneducated citizens chanting. I’m guessing those same people think the Ottoman Empire is the name of a furniture factory. The Ottoman Empire, by the way, is also commonly known as the Turkish Empire and they invaded Europe around 1354. Maybe this current day college turkey has transcontinental empires on his tiny brain too. It would explain the antagonistic tendencies and the increase in his military.
A few other fun facts; Did you know a very young turkey is called a poult? I guess the birds who live on this campus earn their ‘RY’ when they complete their degree, or reach eating age. It’s a title they are granted at commencement. Theresa Poult, RY. Major in delicious with a minor in entomology. Or did you know that turkeys eat small animals? Who knew your holiday bird could be fattened up with slugs and rats? The knowledge you can acquire at a top-rated University for half a million dollars is really pretty amazing.
So moving on; since we have now learned that turkeys will eat meat, do you think those turkeys will attack a vegan on campus as decisively as a meat eater? Do they discriminate? Do they prefer the taste of cannabis-smoked freshmen to beer-poached sophemores? Does wild muscadine grape pair well with organic graduate students?
I’m being silly, I know, but evolution is a funny thing. And there is a strange parallel here. Creatures learn to adapt in order to survive, our kids learn for pretty much the same reason. I wonder if those turkey chicks pulled-all nighters memorizing the strike zone on Volvo tires. I imagine the extra credit question on their finals; “Which area is most likely to puncture through the inner tube? Draw a diagram of the layers of steel belted radials and a short essay explaining the pros and cons of attacking a whitewall.”
That first attack turkey, General T, sent his chicks off to scratch out a living and fight the man in spite of all the scary changes to his world. We send our kids off to college to learn to deal with authority, scary real life, and apparently, uh…turkeys?
You never know what you’ll have to deal with in life, but one thing I think I can promise you is that if you educate yourself about it, you’ll do much better—and be far more entertained—than if you remain ignorant. So let me close with some fun facts to know and share.
The country of Turkey was not named after the bird.
Ottoman is not the name of a low, upholstered stool.