Taming the Beast

Doris in a rumble seatAt the time I began to learn how to drive, I must admit, I knew nothing about cars. All I knew was what I had learned in the portable classroom at Petaluma High School.

The thin newsprint pages of the California Department of Motor Vehicles Handbook offered plenty of theoretical information, what-ifs and wherefores, but nothing in the way of practical how-tos. In that classroom, awash with fluorescent light, crowded with graffiti-emblazoned student desks, I took my turn at the faux driving console to test my reflexes. When the light changed from green to red, “Hit the brakes,” we were told. I did, though how fast my reflexes were, I can’t say; still, I was certainly acquiring a valuable skill.

I was learning how to drive, how to get from A to B in a new kind of vehicle. At home on the backroads of Sonoma County, in 12 acres of empty fields and fallen-down chicken barns, I had learned to ride a horse and drive a pony cart. I could rollerskate and ride a bicycle; I could even ice skate backwards.

But I knew nothing of cars. In my mind, they were like wayward horses that had to be held to a tight rein, else they’d veer from the trail. As with a pony cart, one would have to be careful not to turn too quickly or the whole thing would tip over. A sense of balance surely helped. On roller skates or a bicycle, one didn’t go far without a little effort, and I knew I would have to push hard on a gas or brake pedal to make the car respond. On the other hand, like ice-skating backwards, the whole thing looked deceptively easy, but with a little practice I could soon show off my graces.

After months of waiting, I got my chance. Mr. Donovan, the Driver’s Ed teacher, finally said it was my turn to drive. Raymond T., another student, was my driving partner. We showed up at the abandoned high school at 9 a.m. on an overcast Saturday, ready to take a spin behind the wheel. My boyfriend, Devin, had found great humor at the thought of me driving. He found it so funny that he’d invited a group of his friends to come and watch. The teenaged boys, members of the cross-country running team, stood around in running shorts and ratty tee shirts, all elbows and long legs and acne, waiting to laugh at the dumb blonde.

When Mr. Donovan came out of the building and unlocked the car, he nodded at me, “You first.”  I exchanged glances with Raymond, who, cool and self-assured, shrugged and got into the back seat. I got into the front seat and closed the door, the vinyl chilly against the back of my legs. Devin and his friends jostled together and waited for the fun to begin.

Mr. Donovan handed me the key and I pushed it into the ignition. I had never done this thing before. I didn’t even know which way to turn it. Guessing, I got it the first time, and the engine started with a satisfying roar. I waited for Mr. Donovan to tell me what to do next, to teach me how to drive.

“Well?” he urged. “Drive it out of the lot.”

I took the wheel tightly in my hands, knowing that if I didn’t hold on, it would jerk away and we’d all die a grisly death. Gingerly, I eased one hand down to the automatic gearshift on the steering column. Gotta shift it into Drive, I thought. I knew that much. I pushed my foot down onto the gas as hard as I could, determined to control the beast, and shifted.

The stick popped into Reverse and we shot backward a good 10 feet before Donovan’s foot stomped the teacher’s emergency brake. All of us lurched forward as we stopped, my forehead bouncing off the steering wheel. Devin and his friends howled with laughter outside, some of them actually falling and rolling on the lawn. Cool Raymond adjusted his sunglasses and looked out the side window, doubtless imagining himself elsewhere. Mr. Donovan reached over and pushed the stick back into Park, keeping his foot hard on the teacher’s brake.

“I can see,” he said, “that we’re going to have to start at the beginning.”

This story was previously published in Tattoo Highway. Need driving lessons? Go ask your Pop.

Writing What Scares You

-MAM33typinghandI have written a few essays lately, inspired by the lovely and talented writers Jordan Rosenfeld, Rachel Thompson and Lillian Ann Slugocki, that scared the bejeebers out of me. Actually, the work scared me even more than that, but I’m trying to be polite. And what I’ve discovered is that it’s harder than I ever thought to put certain words and experiences down on paper. But it also feels better than I expected to have done so.

I’ve had a couple of stories in my mind for many years that I thought, “Someday I will write that down. Someday, I’ll put that on paper and everyone will read it and know how I feel.”

Truth of the matter is, “someday” took a very long time to get here – decades. Twenty, thirty years, even. Why did it take so long? What held me back? Fear, of course – and not just nerves: “I wonder if I can do justice to this topic?” Not just, “Am I the best writer for this, or who wants to hear my story anyway?” I’m talking post-traumatic stress disorder-level fear. Terror. Panic attacks. Insomnia.

Gut-spilling is utterly demoralizing. When you, as a writer, make yourself vulnerable by writing something dear to your heart, you take a chance that people will read it with respect, and not brutalize you or shun you. You hope people will like it (and I don’t mean just your mom or your spouse).

Should I paint myself neon green, set my hair on fire, and walk down the street naked? Feels like it today, when the comments are racking up, the Facebook shares, comments, likes are ticking away, and I can see it being retweeted. A story I’ve written is birthed into the world, and the trolls are out with pitchforks and clubs, flaming while they sip their coffee and sport with a topic that for them is a moment’s entertainment, but for me, is the result of years of pent-up angst, fear, and shame. A story that haunts me still.

Here’s the link to one of these pieces: http://www.spj.org/quill_issue.asp?ref=2174

Others are still waiting to see the light, to get the editor’s go-ahead. I wrote it, I revised it, I took the plunge and sent it out, an editor snapped it up and has it in the queue. Isn’t that what we are dying for? Waiting all out writerly lives for? Of course. But birth pangs are hard, and even afterbirth pains hurt.

Lessons learned?

  • Don’t read the comments.
  • Don’t feed the trolls.
  • It’s not about me, it’s about the commenter.
  • If I have helped one person, it’s been worth it.
  • My friends love and support me.
  • Not everyone deserves to read my stories.
  • You can’t stop the Internet.
  • Telling is freeing. Telling is healing.

It’s scary as heck to tell your secrets. Find a buddy, and tell them anyway. It’s terrifying. But I did it. Can you?

What I’ve learned: Publishing and the march of times

When I was in my twenties and reading voraciously and spewing poetry on the page like a hydrant hit by a drunk driver, I wanted to get published more than I wanted a happy marriage, a suburban house and 2.5 children. In fact, I didn’t have a happy marriage, although we did get that house, and three whole children; my desire to be published outlasted everything but the children, who are grown up and doing very well on their own now; thanks for asking.

I subscribed to Writers Digest and Byline Magazine, and kept a journal and wrote every single day, if I could, if I didn’t have sick babies or sleepless nights, or, you know, life in general, which means I wrote a couple of times a week. Mostly about how tired I was. But I wanted, oh, how I wanted to be a writer. It was the being, not the doing, that I wanted, more than anything. This was before the Internet, and email, and the writing I did consisted of me with a notebook, scrawling verses, and me, with stationery, sending letters. I wanted to be a published writer now, today, not tomorrow, and not, by all that is holy, when I was forty, or fifty, or sixty, with Birkenstocks and a gray ponytail, just getting my first book of crappy poetry published. I wanted precocity. And I wanted it yesterday.

Then we got a computer and a modem, and email.
And we got the Internet.

I made a few email pals via chatrooms and I joined some listserves, and about that time I went into college classes and started working on my Masters’ degree. There were no MFA programs yet. And then, almost overnight, there were MFA programs everywhere. My university switched over from the MA in English with a creative writing concentration to the MFA in (whatever) the semester before I graduated, so I could have paid for another three terms, or just finished up and been done. I finished.

I submitted work, and it was rejected. I went to open mics, where I sat through the horrors of other people’s work, and the horrors of reading my own. I went to writers’ conferences, those soul-sucking, money-sucking ventures where sci-fi poetry dudes in tweed with elbow patches flirted awkwardly, and my goody satchel contained a copy of Writers Digest, an emery board, a couple of free pens and a Visa application (kind of like the first day of college, minus the condom). I sent out work, and some of it was accepted. More and more, as I went on. My rejections were better, and then my acceptances were easier, and then I learned to target my subs, and my ratio increased.

So I was published.

Then I wrote a novel. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. I sent it out. And I sent it out. I gave up. I got a call, I got some letters, and I sent it out some more, and then I shelved it. I got divorced. I went back to newspaper work to earn a living, and then had the opportunity to start an indie newspaper with some smart people. Within two years, they wanted to expand the publishing business, and to print a novel. I showed mine, and they agreed it was a good start for the company. It was published.

You’ve never heard of it, so you know how that went.

But I was published. Right? And I was working as a writer, and I was writing, so I was being a writer. Right?

Guess how old I was? 40.

And over the next few years, I pushed that novel around, I taught some classes, I found a new project, I spewed out a couple more projects, including indie publishing my women’s history project, and working in a women’s publishing consortium. And this thing called social media popped up on the screen, and indie publishing was no longer a filthy abomination, and I’m still writing every day, and I don’t wear Birkenstocks and my hair is not quite gray yet.

On my self-made book tour for the Doris Diaries last fall, one of the book stores dismissed me, saying, “She’s not Stephen King.” A reviewer dissed the books and the project, because “It’s not like Anne Frank’s diary.” I had readings that went awry and events where the mic or the computer or the slide show didn’t work. I tore out the entire back of my vintage dress just getting out of my chair at a reading in my hometown.

Still no red carpet. I rode in the 4th of July parade last year dressed as Doris. Dorky? Yes. My idea of fame and fortune? Not exactly. But what the hell?

At some point along the way, I realized that I couldn’t be precocious because although back then I had the will, and a lot of the skill, I didn’t have the experiences, the treasure trove of life to explore. I hadn’t have the goods. No material. Somewhere, later, I realized that all of those struggling months and years were my apprenticeship. And I mine that shit on an almost-daily basis now.

About three years ago I stopped using the words “submit,” “acceptance” and “rejection” with regard to my writing work. I stopped giving the power of my worth as a writer to people who might or might not like it. Now I send out my work, and they like it or they don’t. It serves their needs or it does not. My work is good. I wouldn’t have lasted this long in newspaper, which is about as fiery a crucible as you’ll find for a young writer, with deadlines and editors who won’t worry about crushing your little feelings to get the story right. Editors who kicked my ass about word choice, grammar, punctuation and spelling eons ago. Before Spellcheck. Before Autocorrect was a thing.

So here I am. Not as successful as you, and way more successful than you’ll ever be. I’m somewhere in the middle, making a living at it. I’m writing what I want, sending it to people who will probably like it, helping others who ask for advice or “new eyes” on their work. I mentor those who ask for it. I share resources. I support my sister and brother writers. I keep working at it. I might get “there,” wherever the hell that mystical place is, someday. I might even have a gray fricking ponytail.

It doesn’t matter as much, knowing, as I do, that at least I’m on my way.

the Ayatollah of plastic

Do you think I’m judging you? By the looks on people’s faces these days, they do. Since I started the Plastic Purge, just about everyone who talks to me says, “Well, it was plastic, but…” or, “You would have hated it, there was so much plastic…” and, “I know it’s plastic, but…”.  There are the more aggressive folks who kind of snarl at me, “Is that plastic? Are you drinking out of a plastic cup? Is your Bandaid plastic?”
It’s kind of funny. I suppose I’m making them think about their own choices, and that might make them a little uncomfortable. I’m not really the Ayatollah of plastic, though. I’m just a poor slob dragging along and trying to make plastic-free choices. If I were the Ayatollah of plastic, I’d start chopping off fingers for every infraction. You’d have 10 chances to mend your ways, and then you’d pretty much be hosed and have to live in my Plastic-Free World, under my rules. On your knees, heathens!

I’d much rather be the Green Queen (as opposed to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland). I wouldn’t say “Off with her head.” (Much.) I’ll say, “Off with your plastic!” and trade you a real silver fork for your plastic one, offer you a waxed paper bag for your sandwich, a ceramic mug for your beverage, a reusable canvas bag for your vegetables, and perhaps some wooden chopsticks or hair ornaments instead of plastic ones. Then we’d scamper naked with whales and butterflies and eat homemade tofu together happily under Mother Redwood Tree while fairies sang.

So back to reality. I spent some time Friday shopping for some necessary household items, and took a turn around the local mall just to see what kind of plastics were for sale, and what alternatives. In the clothing department store (Kohl’s), all that clothing has the stupid little piece of plastic with price tag, and their bags are plastic. I recommend that you take your own large bags when clothes shopping, and try to recycle those little plastic scraps in your weekly bin. The cosmetics counter is redolent with perfume and with plastic — hard to escape the cases and compacts. I was able to purchase a pretty, vintage compact the other day at Thrift Town for about $3, and that is refillable with powder. I notice that if you spend more, you can often avoid plastic — true in cosmetics as well as in food. Glass bottles of perfume and boxes of talcum powder are two pricey examples.

Bed, Bath & Beyond had many plastic and silicone choices for use in the kitchen. I don’t own any silicone products, and frankly am skeptical as to its safety with food use. We thought plastics and non-stick pans were fine until recently, when their toxicity was reported. So I plan to continue avoiding silicone bakeware for the foreseeable future. Call me suspicious, but I just don’t trust manmade materials, based on past performance (silicone breast implants, anyone?) However, there were many bamboo implements, cutting boards and practical items like towel bars. Bamboo is very sustainable since it regrows so quickly. Lots of glass and plain metal pots and pans, tools and gadgets, too. I also saw the eco-non-stick pans, but I think I’ll just leave these be for now.

Alameda Beauty Center has a very nice selection of sustainable and vegan hairbrushes and combs (vegan means no boar bristles). There is also a nice variety of Burt’s Bees cosmetics and soaps. Surprise! Burt’s Bees makes a spray deodorant in an aluminum bottle. It has a recyclable plastic cap and inner tube, but this is the first packaging I’ve seen that is not entirely plastic. I (heart) Burt’s Bees. We have often purchased large bottles of shampoo from the beauty supply store, because we figure that one large bottle is the same as three individual bottles, and less packaging is better than more. I don’t have a way to actually measure this belief — it would be a complicated algebraic formula.

“If gasoline costs X and the shampoo is shipped from State Y to State Z, and if the plastic is made in State F and shipped to State G for packaging, and if the shampoo is made from baby squirrels which are not endangered but the exhaust from the shipping kills X many squirrels on the road, then buying one large bottle of shampoo at Store Q is/is not a better eco choice.” (falls down in mathematical coma…)

If anyone can actually work out a formula like this so that we all have a simple rubric at hand, with a tap on the screen of our favorite pocket devices, please let me know. Is there an app for that? Until then, I’m going to continue to try and avoid plastic, excessive driving, imported items in general, and toxic substances.

By the way, Alameda Beauty Center has a nice punch card and takes off $5 when your card is full. I take my own bag because they offer plastic bags. As far as the mall, it’s also nice to note that See’s Candy is almost next door (at our mall), offers delicious free samples, packages mostly in paper and foil, and adds sunshine to my day. Plastic-free chocolate…mmm.

My last stop was at Beverly’s, where I fondled the yarns and stroked the fabrics and flipped through crafty books. Lots of plastic here, for sure — but also many paper-wrapped or unwrapped items, if you want to get your craft on. The bead aisle, scrapbooking and the fake floral departments scare me, with whatever mountains of plastic-making fumes spewed into whatever Third World country in order for us to make necklaces, memory books and floral centerpieces for our hapless friends and families. (This is as good a time as any to mention “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute short film by Berkeley gal Annie Leonard, which shows you the consequences of our cheap stuff and where it comes from and where it goes after we’re done. It’s online and it’s free. Be brave and watch it, and then tell me if it doesn’t affect what you plan to buy next.)

I didn’t go into Radio Shack, Anna’s Linens, Old Navy or Big 5 Sporting Goods — I was already exhausted from touching and looking and the smell of all that new stuff was actually beginning to nauseate me (really). But I imagine those stores, as in any store in any mall in America and beyond, that there is plastic aplenty, and that you can easily take your own bag, and that if you choose to avoid buying plastic, you probably can.

Caveat emptor, as always.

just one word

Sorry I missed yesterday — family comes before work (otherwise, what’s the point of work?)
Friday I spent most of my day at home, working on various projects, and did not come across much plastic just drifting across my path. I was sewing, and reached for a new spool of thread. That’s when I saw that it was sheathed in plastic, I guess to keep it clean or from unspooling. Funny, the more expensive brands of thread don’t use plastic; just the cheap thread, those that I grabbed 5 for $1. And guess what? Made in China.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that it’s difficult or impossible to find made-in-America thread anymore. Most of our textiles have been shipped from elsewhere. It’s possible to find clothing that’s made in America (American Apparel is one such brand), but the sources or the products to make that clothing seems to come from elsewhere. “Elsewhere” usually means China. China is, unfortunately, not exactly synonymous with high quality or concern for the planet. (Hey, with lead in their baby formula, candy and toys, doesn’t seem like China is all that concerned about her own people.) The “made in China” issue is a huge one that affects everyone in the USA — you can’t get a light bulb or a battery or a kajillion other things anymore unless it’s been shipped from afar. To read more on this, visit some of the blogs of folks who are trying to live without “made in China” — they are living with a lot less than I am without plastic. (I’d post a link here, but there are too many — do a little surfing and see what you find.)

So: plastic. The three plastics that crossed my path yesterday were: the spool of thread, the plastic film on a pack of cigarettes (not mine; I’ve never smoked), and the ubiquitous plastic milk jug. It’s not my smoking habit and I don’t buy them, but I notice that almost all packs have the plastic film (not sure about American Spirits or the roll-your-own kind). This is one of the ambient plastics that I see all the time in gutters, blowing around at parks and beaches. The little plastic rip cord, the rest of the wrap — it doesn’t go away when you finish your cigarette. It’s here for a thousand years. Please find a place to recycle it.

Then the milk jug. This was where I paused to consider my commitment to purging plastic. We’re running out of milk. I didn’t want to make a special trip out to get milk today, Saturday. I was at Walgreen’s. I went to the refrigerator aisle and there was all this milk, Berkeley Farms, local to our area. All in jugs. Not a single carton to be had. And I almost bought it. The pain-in-the-ass quotient was that high. How important is this? my little naughty voice said. (The problem with the little naughty voice is that it often sounds so reasonable. You have to really listen to hear the wickedness.) What’s the big deal? The jug is recyclable. You won’t have to drive in the evil car, spewing terrible fumes and carbon monoxide, wheedled the voice.

Well, I didn’t do it. I walked away. I was annoyed, and rightly so, because why should we have to make such ethical choices? Why aren’t plastic-free options more readily available? Why should we have to choose between feeding our families at the expense of the planet, or doing without? It’s a small suicide some days, when you have to choose to wait or do without because the best or better option isn’t there.

Is plastic such a big deal? It is, actually. It’s tied up in the production of cheap food and goods, which is tied to farm subsidies for the big growers and tax breaks for large corporations like Chevron and Dow and Monsanto and Procter & Gamble, corporations that don’t pay taxes and don’t give a flying hoot about our health, much less Planet Earth. They push their products on us, preying on our insecurities (do I smell? am I fat? am I old?) and our primal weaknesses (mmm, fat and sugar! easy calories! me sleep now, no make fire!). They cost us millions and billions in health dollars, as we deal with the effects of fat bodies, high blood sugar, cancer and heart disease. National economics and politics are at play: Who’s lining whose pocket, who has the dough, where can we get more and still not be held accountable?

Do you really think we’re at war in Iraq and elsewhere because of democracy? How about petroleum –the nipple for our driving fetish, our addiction to electricity, and the source of plastics? If I’ve hit a nerve, good. Think about the ripple-effect of your plastics consumption: one plastic bottle, one plastic sandwich bag, one ambient rip cord or shrink wrap. Particularly think about it when you’re filling up you gas tank and whining about the cost.

Here’s a link to an article about how some manufacturers are actually reducing their plastic packaging, especially the ubiquitous and hateful “clamshell” packaging — why? Because the cost of oil to make the plastic is so high that it’s cutting into their profits. We who share the planet are the lucky beneficiaries of such a move, but don’t be fooled. It’s not just cuz they’re nice people. And that’s why I didn’t take the plastic milk jug and am going to ride my bike to buy a wax carton of milk today.


What plastic thing will you say no to today?