(A lengthy, but necessarily so, kind of post)
“So, what do you do?”
I can’t recall ever asking anyone that question, but it’s definitely on the top of the list for mainstream conversation, because people have asked me that a lot, especially lately, due to my socializing surge…And I haven’t a clue how to answer properly. I mean, my initial response would be to say something snarky like ‘well, I’m a chronic hand washer. I’m a terrible germaphobe. And if I give into the temptation of a burger, there’s a good chance I’ll cry myself to sleep, as in ugly-cry about the fact that I consumed something that used to be alive, probably felt love, might have had dreams-even nightmares and died just for selfish people and their primitive desire to eat other living things.‘ Don’t roll your eyes, I promise I’m not going all PETA on you-its just something that bothers me to the core whenever I give in, and eat meat…what other people do or eat is none of my business. I don’t judge you. Bacon smells good and I crave it at times. Sometimes, I could kill for some steak. I also bite my nails. These are all things that I do
Anyway, the ‘do’ question makes my head tingle and my scalp feel tight…Obviously, I know what they actually mean, but what am I supposed to say? Am I really supposed to tell them about the mind-numbing things I do for money? Am I suppose to explain my entire situation, condensed into some impossibly small 2 or 3 sentences? Should I mention that it’s an entirely a free-lance gig and that I have the advantage of earning money whenever I feel like doing it, day or night? Or what about the fact that sometimes, it comes down to the cold hard fact that there are days that if I want to eat during the following week, I need to invest 10 hours per day into telling fibs to companies? Singing the praises of their ads or products, when in fact I would probably never waste my money on them in real life? Should I tell them that I usually don’t even get paid anywhere near the minimum wage for all of the time and effort I invest into what I ‘do’?
I usually simply say ‘Well, I’m a writer by nature, but to keep the lights and AC on, its Market Research’. Then I do what I can to move past that statement as quickly as possible by turning the tables and asking them about what they ‘do’. But for the sake of hopefully explaining my day to day responsibilities to you once and for all, let me tell you a bit about it, and then move on to the main reason for this post: story-telling.
Day to day, I comb the internet looking for companies that want my ‘opinion’ on things-anything, from judging their ads to actually testing their products. Sometimes, I even waste days in focus groups with other people, all probably also wearing their comfy, worn-out PJS, and no doubt wondering what else they could possibly be doing to get out of their rotten financial predicament.
But in order to successfully pull the whole thing off, I have to tell some pretty tall tales sometimes, since companies rarely want to hear the truth. I suppose in a sense, I actually am being paid to create some convincing fictional tales, although the pay is next to nothing, but that’s beside the point. In order to appease the stingy mainstream companies, I have to become a very mainstream kind of woman. The character I usually portray is probably the most difficult character I could possibly portray because she is so unlike me. In this alternate world, I live in the suburbs. I sometimes drive an SUV, but I am also a faithful Toyota Camry lover, so its tough to choose which of those I drive to my boring little office job. I have two children that have never aged for the past few years-ever since I began doing this miserable gig (because 17 and 11 seem like the perfect ages for the kids that companies want to know more about.) I have considered adding a third child, a baby-but then I would be bombarded with an endless supply of diapers and baby formula to test, and I have no one to give these things to, so I would end up throwing them away, and I can’t bring myself to do that when so many people struggle to afford those things, and of course, there’s nowhere here to donate things to. Also, in the fictional world, I hang with my group of boring suburbanite girlfriends and we see mainstream movies during the first week of their release, and sometimes even vacation with one another. We go to the gym together, and I shop at places like Old Navy and Macy’s. I have a juicer that I use nearly every day and my friends and I love swapping recipes and making smoothies. I wear clothing with sports logos plastered everywhere-mainly Nike and Under Armour. I like sit-coms and I watch the Lifetime and WE channels, and I’m not much of a reader-except for the Bible, of course.
Umm…so, what do you think? Having just read the paragraph describing that empty slice of white bread woman, do you have the same bitter taste in the back of your mouth that I do? Because people love to search out things that offend them, maybe this is where I should insert a statement that I am in no way insulting people in their Nike clothing that live in cardboard-walled, cookie-cutter homes, but I can’t really say something like that without fibbing. I don’t understand that kind of life. Believe me, I’ve been around it often-I was 17 when I first moved into a friend’s family home in the suburbs. I was often peered at through people’s blinds when I walked down the street to catch the bus…I was the strange girl in black with the massive amount of black hair. I was really, really into Tama Janowitz then-so I wanted big ‘Tama‘ hair, and I wasn’t apologetic for that in the very least. I’m still not, actually. And I still love Tama, by the way. The houses on the street all looked the same. The people all wore pastel clothing and drove large, ugly vehicles. The women had orange, leathery skin and frosted hair. When they came home at 5 p.m., they were usually blasting some top 40 music. They were everything that I wasn’t, and to me, these people and that life was as alien as trying to fit into a tribe of headhunters or being a wife in a harem. I didn’t understand it, and being around it made me feel sick to the core. I’m still fairly certain that if Hell is real, the demons all have fake tans, wearing old navy pullover sweatshirts, and humming Taylor Swift songs.
Again, if you are one of these people, it isn’t my intention to offend you, but you and I are two of the most extremes that anyone can be, and I’m quite sure that my life is probably as undesirable to you as your life is to me. I’m only discussing this because I want people to understand the tall tale I have created…The story I tell every day…the song I have been singing for my supper, so to speak. If you know me, you know why this is such a large feat to pull off.
But pull it off, I do. Every time I begin to doubt my storytelling capabilities, I look at this other world I have created, and as simple and sad as it is to me, it seems to fool enough corporate shit-wits into paying me to tell them this boring story. Of course, the pay I receive is the equivalent of what graverobbers were probably paid for their dirty job…but it pays for food and it keeps the lights on. That being said, its far too time consuming, and definitely the most mind-numbing job I can think of doing. But because I am seriously stuck in one of America’s typical dead little towns, with one factory, a handful of fast food places, and countless abandoned storefronts, and completely carless, it’s the only choice I have at the moment.
Of course, if you happen to have a job proposal, by all means, send me an email and let’s talk business.
BUT at last, something has happened to me! It appears that the fight or flight response has FINALLY kicked in for me, and finally, the times, they are a’changin‘. You see, the past few months have been especially rough…and for a girl with a history of a lot of rough months the especially rough months are pretty serious events, that even run the risk of becoming fatal– if not tended to properly. These past few months have found me really soul searching, waking up in the middle of the night midway through a panic attack, so there’s a new, harder drive in me to claw my way out of the place, both metaphysically and physically that I have been steeping in for quite a while now. I have finally settled on the first attempt at changing things, because I have finally convinced myself that even if it means skimping on making some money sometimes, I need to pull away from the mind-numbing work for a few hours here and seriously focus on the idea of creating something worthwhile, and hopefully even a tad bit profitable. I nearly said ‘lucrative’, but I’m a realist, (or maybe I’m just being too cynical?) I don’t think lucrative is as easy as it used to be, so I will accept a ‘tad bit profitable’ instead. I’m not tackling this with a single ounce of naivete…I will never appear on Oprah’s top book-list, nor do I desire to. Writers rarely become wealthy these days…But I’ll tell you about my new venture in the next post. This post is more about the art of storytelling.
I’ve never claimed to be good at anything, really. Actually, in retrospect, I think I’ve been a pretty decent (and most definitely interesting) mother. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post or two, I wasn’t and am still not a conventional mother. I raised my child in a completely different world than most children are raised. I focused on allowing him to explore and experience the world while developing his personality to the full extent, all while keeping him wrapped in the most secure bubble tape possible, figuratively speaking, (for the most part). Just yesterday, we were discussing the fact that throughout his entire childhood, he had less than a handful of scraped knees, and this wasn’t because he did nothing but sit on his ‘Golden Child’ throne all day, but because I was basically holding his hand the entire time…while he grew. He was always free to speak his mind, always free to tell me when he disagreed with me, and even when he was 3 feet tall, I never towered above him and talked down to him like I’ve seen so many parents do. When he was scolded, it was always at eye level, me on my knees in the middle of a toy store, explaining why he wasn’t allowed to spend the next few hours reorganizing the shelves of Star Wars toys in a ‘cooler way‘. You might think this ‘over-mothering’ that I was accused of throughout his entire childhood would have made him into a fragile, helpless, needy adult. It hasn’t. Quite the opposite actually. As an adult, he is one of the most stable, well-rounded people that I have ever known. It makes me happy to think that I helped make him that way.
But, my days of making sure that my little boy was happy, entertained and healthy 24/7 are finished. And its been the hardest thing I have ever done…letting him go off into the world to live his own life. It hurts every single day. Even as I type this, tears are starting. My first priority is that he is happy, and that will always be my main priority, but I miss looking after him every minute of every day, and though people told me it would become easier, it hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will. I cry every time I watch him drive away, but the fact that he is happy and the fact that perhaps my mothering abilities helped him become who he is – is an amazing comfort to me.
Now it’s time to focus on myself a bit more and to do all of the things that I had planned on doing before I found myself pregnant at age 20. I was a kid carrying around Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac library books in a plastic store-bag along with my rough looking notebooks, thinking that one day, people might want to read or hear what I had to say….the stories I wanted to tell.
I’m hoping that people still might want to read and hear them.
I grew up in a family of storytellers. My grandmother kept me entertained throughout my entire childhood with stories; everything from real-life ghost stories to the fact that ‘the president could push the button’ and then we would all become skeletons (at least that’s how my 8-year-old brain envisioned it) My mother has the same storytelling ability, so I was taught from a very early age how to create and tell my own stories. For me, storytelling is the only thing, besides being a mom that I really know how to do….except maybe use a bit of charm, but charm will only buy you so much before it wears thin, so storytelling it is!
Once, during the first week that I was living on my own (in the great big dingy wonderful city after escaping the terrible suburban life of my friend’s family paper-made house), I was invited to go for a drive with a pizza delivery guy that worked with my best friend. He spoke too loud, looked just like Izzy Stradlin and smelled strange. (I later discovered that was due to an easily treatable foot condition, but that’s not really the point.) Though he was socially awkward (and if I refer to someone other than myself as socially awkward, then you know they must be especially awkward!) It was my first week of being a grown-up, living on my own in the ‘real world’, so I accepted his invite to go for a drive.
Luckily, Mr. Smelly Feet was in some ways, the same kind of geeky as me…he mentioned his comic books and his music collection once we were in the car, and like the naive teenager I was, I agreed to go to his place.
I know what you’re probably thinking by now…that I may or nearly may have been physically assaulted, but that’s not where this is heading, I promise. He lived in an empty apartment with only stacks and stacks of books and albums and piles of clothing. His apartment smelled like a stronger version of his strange odor, but the stacks of albums made me forget the offensive odor and within seconds I was combing through his collection. I was so engrossed in his impressive collection of The Cure extended remixes, that I hadn’t noticed he had crept into his bedroom to retrieve a purple binder, until he and his unique waft was sitting beside of me, the purple binder in hand.
Before I had the chance to scoot away just a little, (since he was most definitely encroaching upon my personal space), he opened the binder and began reading-in a theatrical ‘how do I love thee?’ fashion. I tried not to laugh aloud once I realized that his performance was actually a sincere attempt to impress me. The words described a girl with long black hair and how he sometimes watched her ‘gaze from her second-floor window out at the busy (and often times dangerous, thanks to the crummy location of the apartment) night’. How he often parked his car beneath her window and fell asleep in the driver’s seat, happy to be near her, to feel his ‘wide-eyed angel’ breathing through the bricks of the wall. Yeah, I know…a bit over the top, but also quite charming to my younger self, especially when he stopped long enough to tell me that he had written this himself….and that I was that wide-eyed angel! And that he often braved the hookers, pimps and occasional knife-fights to actually sleep beneath my window.
I was flattered, and a little creeped out… I was barely 18 and had no clue what to do or say. A stack of Dungeons & Dragons books caught my eye, so I immediately began asking him questions about the world of D&D and hastily created some completely fabricated story about a D & D session that I once tried to participate in. Funny that I would remember the gist of his heartsick prose and the story that managed to steer him away from his attempt to woo me. I also remember that it was the first time that someone had written about being smitten with me. Smitten is still a good word, by the way.
The completed fictitious D&D story I told him actually made him sit his folder aside and after a lengthy gaming explanation about what the game master had obviously been doing wrong with me, he began showing me some of his most treasured comics, all in the protective cases, all untouched and unread because ‘they would one day become priceless’. I had managed to escape the awkward purple binder. Eventually, I made an excuse for why I needed to go home, but of course, remembered to thank him for a ‘nice time’. I had no clue what to say about the words he had written for me or his dramatic performance, so I didn’t say anything.
This wasn’t the first and only encounter with him. I actually ran into him several times for the next few years. I even slept at his place when I had nowhere else to sleep, and I must give him credit-he always behaved like a true gentleman, and other than occasionally slipping something he had written for me under my apartment doors for a few years, he never pushed himself on me in any way.
However, years later he somehow managed to find me, and showed up unexpectedly at my door one day. I was somewhat more mature, so I managed to find the words to thank him for not only allowing me to stay at his place on a bitterly cold night but to also tell him that the things he had written for me throughout the years had not gone unappreciated- but due to the fact that I was a socially awkward, painfully shy person, I had not known what to say or how to handle it. The conversation ended with him telling me that ‘my aura was the purest white he had ever known’ and also, that I was in extreme danger because I was living with what he described as an actual demon. The ‘actual demon‘ he was referring to had just come home from work and had heard this last bit of the conversation, so a surpisingly angry male hormone-driven argument ensued and unfortunately, poor Shaggy Smelly-Feet was kicked and punched all the way to his car. I did try to intervene initially, and I remember screaming Stop! over and over but the whole scene was so shocking and so violent, I didn’t know what to do…so I stood there in tears, contemplating his white aura and demon statement, which had really, really affected me for some reason. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stopped the fight by inserting myself between the two of them, but I was a scared, clueless kid then. Anyway, the poor guy recovered both from his physical attack and also apparently from his heartsick feelings for me. Last time I saw him, he was wearing an oversized cowboy hat, Texan-style belt buckle, and a very thick mustache. He told me proudly that he had taken up line-dancing and was quite good at it. Perhaps I should have asked him about his Cure albums since he probably no longer had any use for them- in light of his new found passion for country music and all.
Another example of beneficial storytelling came years and years later…actually, it didn’t benefit me personally, but I was pleased with what I believe might have been directly attributed to my storytelling, (and perhaps a bit of my charm 😉 ).
I think I may have mentioned before that I basically lived a double life for years. No, I wasn’t a spy or something…nothing that interesting, but besides being the very attentive mother, I had a side-life. If you’ve read my blog, you might have read the post about my late night drive by the river, with a friend, after days of virtually no sleep. My secret side-life was that I actually managed to have a social life of some kind-sometimes, (as much as someone like me could comfortably manage a social-life). And I managed to keep it from everyone for several years. Of course, I didn’t want my social-life shared with my family…besides never really being understood or fitting in with my siblings or mother, I was never one that needed to draw attention to myself and I knew they would judge me for keeping company with what would be referred to as potentially dangerous strangers (which would have been an over-exaggeration by the way).
I’ve never been a bragger…I’ve never needed anyone to know of my successes or failures…I have never bragged about how much money I had in my pocket or handbag. I never understood my family’s need to excessively sing their own praises. Sure, I understand sharing good news with your family, but it was always more than that with them…they seemed to want to impress me(?) or make me feel they were superior to me in some sense. In truth, it did neither. I was happy that good things had happened to them, but I was never really impressed and I certainly never felt ‘outdone’, which I’m sure probably perplexed them, especially my brother, who was forever trying to appear as something or someone who’s success (aka surburban life) was surely unattainable to a weirdo like me. I simply smiled and said ‘great job’ or ‘looks good’. I never really needed to tell him that the life he was trying to desperately create was basically my idea of a domestic nightmare. He probably wouldn’t have understood or believed me, but then again, he was one of the harsher critics of my nonconventional kind of mothering, so it was useless to explain anything to him.
Anyway, the decade-long friend and confidante that was also my roommate wasn’t really a friend at all..as a matter of fact, she was one of the most deadly types of backstabbers. I would sometimes test her by telling her things and watching how fast those things would trickle in some distorted way to my mother and then through to my siblings. It almost became a game for me…to confide or share something trivial or completely untrue with her and watch as the story changed and often became something altogether different by the time it reached my family and they found a way to smugly tell me that they knew all about whatever it was they thought they knew about me. But I found that when I really needed to share something important with her for whatever reason, making her swear on the life of the person she loved more than anything, actually forced her to keep her lips zipped-even though I’m sure she was often nearly bursting at the seams with the desire to share gossip with my family. They could all have whispered their criticisms of me and my pal, Judas, would have agreed with them that I was indeed a shameful woman. In truth, I sometimes went out with people, sometimes romantically, but usually just for some time on my own at the end of the day or night. I never wanted to introduce men into my son’s life. I firmly believed back then that I could somehow manage a social life while protecting him from the fact that sometimes mom went out to dinner with friends or a coffee shop with someone. Or even a fundraising event (gasp!). I know, I was indeed a wild, wild woman, right?
One of the most trusted friends I have ever had was someone I mentioned in the late night drive that I referred to a few paragraphs ago. He was and is a good person. He was older and much wiser than I was…and he lived such a different life than I had lived. He somehow managed to fit somewhere between the world I lived in and my perception of the real world. He was a counselor for the city’s Catholic charity services, and initially, I believed his aim was to eventually become a priest. Early on in our friendship, I spent a lot of time making colorful jokes about being a fallen woman and needing the help of such a Godly man to help me find salvation, while dancing around the empty cathedral where he counseled people that needed help. I was an immature brat…I still am, but I’m harmless as well (for the most part, at least). I was thrilled to know someone that had lived such a vast range of lives in his nearly 50 years by the time I had met him, yet still found me interesting enough to befriend. He was the first person that dared to eventually mention the word bipolar to me, and he never once criticized me or tried to stop me during one of my manic rants. Instead he would sit quietly and watch as I tried to manage the words to form the sentences for the racing thoughts that I was having… for all of the speedy ideas and words I needed to say…for the times when my words couldn’t come out fast enough so I would eventually begin crying, because my brain was moving too fast and I was embarrassed and clueless about why any of this happened to me. He was also there at times when I spent all of my money in a manic shopping spree and needed financial help. He became a stand-in for the father that I never had. Even when I used to get angry that he remained ‘too calm’ while I was having one of my infamous bipolar extreme outbursts, ‘so he must surely be judging me as if I were one of his charity cases’, and I would tell him to fuck off, while vowing to never speak to him again. I was a different person then. I had no clue what was wrong with me and I certainly had no one in my life that cared (or maybe was just brave enough?) to tell me that I needed help getting things under control because in many ways I was spiraling…terribly so.
One day, he asked me if I would be interested in attending an event to raise money for some inner city wildlife sanctuary…My initial thought was about the art event I had stumbled into as a teenager for an art club exhibit that hadn’t gone well due to the fact that my Judas friend and I had shown up in teenage metal babe denim skirts and crop tops, clueless about anything art club-related. So, I wasn’t sure about attending something so formal, but he enticed me with the promise of really good cheeses ( one of my weaknesses) and wine (which is not a weakness at all), and made an attempt to joke about needing interesting arm candy. I accepted the offer-mainly because it was funny to hear his attempt at an almost off-colored joke, as well as the offer to purchase for me whatever I wanted to wear to the event. I knew my usual Bohemian-Goth-Hippie mash-up wouldn’t work…Tall fringy suede boots and a black velvet cape would not be adequate. I had the money to buy a nice dress for myself, but if someone wanted to buy me a dress, I was certainly not going to turn them down. Besides, despite all of his charitable efforts, he was after all, living in a newly built highrise overlooking the riverfront, so I took the money and ran, so to speak. Being frugal, I ended up buying a surprisingly inexpensive black velvet dress and pocketing the rest for shoes, music, and books. After all, it was no one else’s business that I’d managed to find a twenty-five dollar dress that I could pass of as something much more expensive, right?
So, even though I felt stomach sick at the idea of being around stuffy, wealthy people, I attended the event. I kept my head down for the most part, and immediately searched out an empty table to help me hide from the plastic, well-dressed people. Luckily, most of the people were actually quite elderly, (I suppose that older rich people care much more for inner city wildlife than younger rich people do?) So I was really relieved, but still a bit overwhelmed in twenty-five dollar dress and fifteen dollar shoes. While my charitable friend was making his rounds, schmoozing in honor of the inner city critters, I was sipping some cranberry drink and pretending that I actually didn’t hate cranberries. I felt out of place and self-conscious. I belonged in a dark club full of pale faces, black hair and heavy velvet clothing with mopey loud music blasting through my head, not here in a room full of wealthy people that surely recognized that I wasn’t one of their kind. I was staring at the glass of bitter juice when an older man asked if I was already bored so soon. I wanted to believe- like I usually want to believe when a stranger speaks- that he was talking to someone else. Reluctantly, I raised my head and found a tiny, much older man with cloudy, but kind eyes staring at me. He was smiling with what seemed like a genuine smile, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was laughing at my general freakiness or maybe he had been asked by the other attendees to kindly but firmly see me out. I felt panicked and and wanted to crawl beneath the table. As he pulled the chair out, he asked if he could join me. Of course, I nodded and smiled as politely as I could, hoping more than anything that my charitable pal would save me ASAP. He didn’t. It was nearly an hour before I saw him again. In hindsight, I wonder if he deliberately left me on my own to ‘teach me’ about my ability to handle situations outside of my comfort zone.
Turns out, I didn’t need to be saved at all. As it happened, my table companion, Arnold (he preferred”Arnie”) hated soirees like this with a passion because it meant he “had to dust off his old monkey suit, which meant chasing away his moths for a while”. But because it was a good cause, he figured he should check it out. Then he asked me about my own passion for animals. What could I possibly say? I grew up in the country…when I was 4, I had a brilliant idea that I would explore the woods alone and find a bear cub to take home with me. I spent months searching for a bear cub to befriend, but sadly, never found one. I told him about how my parents used to run three small country grocery stores and that I used to trade small paper bags full of candy, I would sneak from the store, for pony rides. I felt silly telling him my stories, but he asked a lot of questions and listened intently, and often laughed at my young self’s ability to master fair trades for pony rides, and my attempt to entice bear cubs out of the woods with my half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches.
By the time my friend had returned to the table, Arnie had asked me if I wanted to dance, but because I am 5’9 and he was 5’1 in tall shoes (his word), I made a colorful joke about the height difference and the awkward situation we might find ourselves in. I still can’t believe I had the nerve to make a joke in such a setting, but he obviously enjoyed it thoroughly, because he laughed until he began coughing hard and for a few seconds, I was afraid he might fall out of his chair and land on the floor dead, like in a dark comedic movie or something. Later that evening, I ended up not only shaking his hand and giving him some sort of quick, formal hug, but he also managed to plant a kiss on both my hand and my cheek, as he said that it had been a pleasure to spend the evening in my company, so I assume Arnie actually enjoyed his time with me.
On the way home, I learned that Arnie’s family had been in the headstone and memorial business for over a century. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t find it difficult to strike up a conversation with someone who spent a great deal of her time reading, playing and even napping (true story) in cemeteries. A few days later, I also discovered that Arnie had donated more than any other individual had for the inner city wildlife preservation. Perhaps it was my colorful joke about the dangers of dancing with Arnie due to the risk of a cleavage-induced concussion (only made after he laughed about his own slight stature), Or maybe it was the stories of my pony rides/candy trading business or my attempt to befriend a bear cub with my peanut butter sandwiches that won him over.
Regardless of the real reason, the inner city wildlife sanctuary benefitted and I’ve never again felt under-dressed or intimidated by rich, plastic people.
Perhaps putting my storytelling to use now will benefit me too, and maybe…just maybe I will no longer need to waste so much time singing for my supper.
I’m working on my next post about my new project, so I promise it won’t be long.
Hugs & Colorful Jokes,